The departure of Bhakti Saints

I met an acquaintance last week who discussed when selected Bhakti Saints were born in North India. At one point, he informed me that some academics have a hard time believing that Sant Ravidas was the guru of Mirabai or that Sri Ramananda was the guru of Ravidas. Such a disagreement with popular notions may arise when the dates of a saint’s presence on earth do not overlap with that of his or her guru (assuming an average life span) in the sources that the historian has preferred to use. The thought did not leave me for a while. Can academics choose not to accept poems and books written by Bhakti Saints as trustworthy evidence and maintain their search for alternate sources?

While historians can spend their lifetime in comparing varied timelines, supporting their own hypotheses, and writing balanced arguments to demonstrate rationality, the viewpoint of the devotional and spiritually experienced is very different. They believe in the eternity of the soul and readily appreciate the power of yoga. Their greatest saints, out of their grace, can even provide a darshan and guidance to a disciple years after renouncing their own physical body. For the realized who have gained resemblance to Brahman, transcendence of time and material nature is never a big deal. They have more choices in the universe than we do. For this reason, while we can record when a Bhakti Saint was born on Earth, we can never specify when he or she departed.

Shukadeva: Shiva’s grace on Vyasa

The Mahabharata tells us that Sage Veda Vyasa had meditated on Bhagwan Shiva for a hundred years to obtain a great child. Pleased by Vyasa’s devotion, Shiva blessed him with a son who was as pious as agni (fire), vayu (air), bhumi (earth), jala (water), and akaash (space) and who was fully immersed in Brahman. Right after his birth, Shukadeva knew everything that his father had learned over the ages. And he became revered among the gods and rishis for his understanding.

Because of Shukadeva’s higher awareness, worldly responsibilities could not impress him. And he started his search for liberation early in life. After training with gurus like Janak and Narada, Shukadeva finally decided that he would forever enter the brilliance of Surya (the sun god), the Self of everyone in the solar system. Shukadeva announced, “I need permission from all — snakes, mountains, land, space, gods, and demons. Through the power of my yoga, I will be entering all the souls of the world today.”

When Vyasa heard that his son was no longer alive, he was shocked. Shiva appeared again and said, “There is no need to feel sad. Your son was exactly like what you had expected him to be. As long as mountains and rivers exist, you and your son will be remembered. And by my grace, you will see your son’s shadow everywhere in this world.” When Vyasa looked around, he saw his son in all. And he started smiling.

Brahman-rishi Vasistha as Lord Rama’s guru

On seeing his beings suffer on earth, Lord Brahma creates Rishi Vasistha from his thought with an intention to provide everyone with a path through which sorrow can be entirely eliminated.1 As soon as Vasistha, endowed with a kamandal 2 and a rudraksha necklace, is born from Brahma’s “inexpressible maya” just like a “wave is created from a wave,” Brahma curses his son with momentary ajnana (ignorance) so that he can experience what sorrow in worldly beings is like and ask Brahma for its remedy out of curiosity. Unsurprisingly, Vasistha inquires how he got entrapped in a sorrowful world and how he could get himself released from it. Lord Brahma responds to Vasistha’s inquiry through lectures on spiritual knowledge, and Vasistha again becomes a knower of the Self. He is then instructed to transfer this knowledge about advaita to individual souls on earth.

What does Vasistha gain by liberating numerous beings from darkness? A Brahman-rishi, who experiences oneness with Brahman, never attains anything. Still, he is later blessed with the best disciple a guru can meet — Lord Rama, lectures to whom have been documented for us as the Yogavasistha.

In the Ramacharitamanasa, where love of God outshines knowledge, when Vasistha is offered the position as the family priest of the solar dynasty, he refuses at once for he is overqualified and considers family priesthood a lowly job. But when Lord Brahma informs him that the Supreme Soul will eventually incarnate in this family as a human, he gladly accepts the job, for it promises him the ultimate result of spiritual living: a darshan of Sri Rama. And during the Lord’s divine play on earth, Vasistha, in spite of being fully realized and Rama’s guru, requests Sri Rama to bless him with his never-ending bhakti.

[1] source: the Yogavasistha
[2] kamandal is a pot filled with holy water

Do we have to renounce wealth to enroll in spirituality?

I once heard a countryside story wherein a follower visited a saint to beg for money. Finding his monetary needs genuine, the saint filled the follower’s jholi (shirt) with a handful of soil. The follower, disappointed with the gift, left most of the clay at the temple premises except for the few particles of soil that caught his dress as he rushed back home. On reaching home, the devotee saw the particles of clay on his cloth turn into gold and gems. He was spellbound at the mystic’s blessing but then grieved over his foolishness of having discarded most of the “jewels” at the mystic’s site.

The tale left me thinking, “If such alchemy were possible, what saintly qualities would it need?” My foremost guess was that such a miracle would require mental impartiality between gold and clay. One may turn clay into gold and vice-versa only when one’s mind finds them identical. When one has access to the core unity in material nature, one may learn to interchange its manifestations. Obviously, a saint at such an advanced spiritual level would never store money merrily. After all, why would anyone store “clay” in his or her wallet?

As for the contemporary situation, we rarely see saints like Tulasidasa, who threw out even his kitchen utensils for Lord Rama,* or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, who could not touch metal.** Instead, we see individuals wearing religious robes who guide others towards non-possessiveness while amassing wealth themselves. Isn’t it better to admit that renouncing wealth is very difficult and we are all spiritual beginners? By being true to the self and by estimating our spiritual level clearly, we can allow our inner inspirations to guide us to the stage where money is not significant any more.

* It is said that the Bhakti Saint Tulasidasa threw out his kitchen accessories as soon as he realized that the Lord was protecting his limited possessions because of his devotion.

** Ramakrishna Paramhansa used to experience arthritis-like pain on touching metal (coins; money). Probably, this was the Mother’s way of ensuring that her devotee stayed away from the perishable.