Rāmānuja Biography | Part 17

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LORD RANGANĀTHA'S PROCESSION

On the day of the Festival of Garuda, thousands of people gathered in Śrī Rangam to see the Deity.

At the temple gate a huge crowd had assembled, for on this day Lord Ranganātha comes out of the temple and rides around the city on a palanquin in the form of His carrier, Garuda.

Drums were resounding and flags were flying, as rows of brāhmaṇas chanted hymns from the Vedas to make the occasion doubly auspicious.

Suddenly the looks on the faces of the waiting crowd became even more expectant, as the chanters of the Vedas began to move forward and a procession emerged from the inner courtyard.

First came a brilliant red banner, held aloft on two long bamboo poles and emblazoned with the marks of the conch, disc, and Vaiṣṇava tilakā.

Behind the brāhmaṇas came several decorated elephants, all wearing tilakā on their foreheads, moving forward with a majestic gait, and waving their trunks from side to side.

Behind the elephants came a procession of bullocks and horses, all gaily decorated and carrying large drums across their backs.

Then all the people felt a thrill of delight as a party of devotees emerged, chanting the holy name of Lord Hari and accompanying the chanting with various drums and cymbals.

Immediately behind the kīrtana party came Lord Ranganātha Himself, riding on the back of Garuda with His eternal consort, Lakṣmīdevi.

The palanquin was held aloft by hundreds of devotees, while priests fanned the Lord with many camara whisks and expert singers sang bhajans praising His glorious pastimes.

On seeing the emergence of the Lord from His temple, the throng of people gathered around the gateway let forth a great shout of joy. In front of the gate a pavilion had been constructed, and the Lord rested there a while before continuing on His journey.

At this time hundreds of devotees took the opportunity to present their offerings to Him - coconuts, bananas, plantains, and sweet-smelling camphor lamps.

After some time the procession moved on once more, and the sound of the brāhmaṇas chanting the Vedic hymns could be heard in all directions.

As the Lord moved through the streets, housewives appeared at the doors and windows along the way to give fruits, flowers, and betel nuts to the priests for offering to His lotus feet.

When the offerings had been made the prasāda was returned to the women, and they were blessed by having their heads touched by one of the Lord's helmets.

As the procession moved on and on, everyone's eyes were fixed on Lord Nārāyaṇa and Lakṣmīdevi, their hearts filled with devotion.

DHANURDASA'S MEETING WITH RĀMĀNUJA

However, walking amongst the crowd was one man who was behaving in a completely different manner.

He was tall and handsome with broad shoulders and seemed to be walking without any particular purpose, just being swept along by the crowd.

With his left hand he held aloft a decorated umbrella with which he was shielding a most beautiful young woman from the sun's rays.

In his right hand he carried a fan, which he continually flicked back and forth to remove any discomfort she might be feeling from the sun's heat.

It seemed that the young man's attention was so completely absorbed in the beauty of his lady friend that he was oblivious to everything else that was going on around him.

Though many people whispered and some made joking comments on seeing such a public display of affection, the young man did not notice this at all, so great was his attraction to the lady's good looks.

After bathing in the Kāverī and worshipping Lord Ranganātha, Yatiraja was returning to his āśrama with his disciples when he noticed the young man walking with his companion on the other side of the road.

"Dāsarathī," he said to his disciple, "go and ask that man, who is devoid of both shame and hatred, to come to me."

Quickly Dāsarathī crossed the street and spoke to the man, who was so engrossed in the beauty of the lady that he had to be addressed several times before he became aware of the other's presence.

Slightly disturbed, like a man who has just been roused from deep slumber, he then gave his attention to the brāhmaṇa who had accosted him, joining his palms as a mark of respect and saying, "Sir, how may I serve you?"

"Over there," replied Dāsarathī, "is Yatiraja, the great devotee of Lord Nārāyaṇa, and he wishes to speak with you. Please come with me for a few moments."

On hearing the name of the famous ācārya, the young man took his leave of the lady and went with Dāsarathī across the street to where the devotees were standing.

Having bowed down at Yatiraja's feet, he stood in silence before him, wondering why it was that this famous sādhu should want to talk with him.

At last Rāmānuja said, "What nectar have you found in that young lady that - giving up all hatred, shame, and fear - you think nothing of making yourself a laughingstock throughout the whole city of Śrī Rangam by acting in such a way?"

"O Mahātma," the young man replied, "I have seen many beautiful sights on this earth, but nothing which came even close to matching the entrancing beauty of the bright eyes of that young lady. When I see them, I become so captivated that I cannot look away."

"Is she your wife?" Yatiraja inquired.

"No, she is not married to me," the man replied, "but I am certain that, even though she is not my wife, I will never love any other woman."

"What is your name," asked Yatiraja.

"I am known as Dhanurdasa," came the response, "and I come from the town of Nichulanagara, where I am famous for my ability in wrestling. The lady's name is Hemamba."

"Dhanurdasa," said Yatiraja, "if I can show you a pair of eyes even more beautiful than those of your beloved, will you give up this lady and love the other?"

The wrestler replied, "O great soul, if it were possible to discover a pair of eyes filled with a more haunting beauty than those of my Hemamba, then surely I would leave her and worship instead that lady who possessed them."

"Then come to me this evening at my āśrama," concluded Yatiraja, "and perhaps we can resolve this matter."

"At your command," was Dhanurdasa's respectful response.

He then returned to where the lady was waiting for him and continued walking with her, still holding the umbrella over her head.

DELIVERANCE OF DHANURDASA

That evening Rāmānuja left the āśrama accompanied only by Dhanurdasa and walked with him the short distance to the outer gate of Lord Ranganātha's temple.

Having passed through all of the outer gates, the two of them stood at last before the Deity of the Lord. At that time the āratī had just begun, and the priest was offering a fragrant camphor lamp to the Lord and His consort Lakṣmīdevi.

Although the inner room of the temple was dark, being enclosed by walls on all sides, as the lamp was presented before Śrī Ranganātha, its flaming effulgence lit up his transcendental features and shimmered on His beautiful, golden, lotus-like eyes.

When he saw this revelation of the divine form of the Lord, Dhanurdasa stood as though transfixed, looking without blinking at the eyes of Śrī Viṣṇu, who is known as Aravindaksa.

All at once tears of love began to roll down his cheeks as he experienced a taste of the real enjoyment that is found only in the spiritual world. In an instant all his attraction to the pale pleasures of this mundane existence began to fade, like the stars at sunrise.

After some time Dhanurdasa regained his composure and turned towards Rāmānuja, falling at his feet saying:

"By your causeless mercy, you have given to this most lusty of men pleasures that are sought after even by the demigods in heaven. I am your servant forever.

Like an owl of the night, I had turned away from the sun and had become infatuated with a glowworm. Now you have opened my eyes, and thus you alone are my master"

Rāmānujācārya then raised Dhanurdasa from the ground and firmly embraced him. From that moment, the young wrestler from Nichulanagara gave up his entanglement in material affairs and became a pure-hearted devotee of Lord Nārāyaṇa.

Hemamba, although a courtesan by profession, had long regarded Dhanurdasa as her husband.

Despite her sinful engagement, she was at heart a devotee of the Lord. Therefore, upon hearing of the great transformation that Dhanurdasa had undergone, she was filled with happiness and came also to surrender her life at the feet of the merciful ācārya.

Yatiraja arranged for them to be properly married as man and wife, and by his pure instructions he removed the contamination of lust from their hearts.

They left Nichulanagara and moved to Rangaksetra, where they rented a house close by Rāmānuja's āśrama. In this way they were able to associate with their spiritual master and hear the nectarean Vaiṣṇava teachings from his lips.

THE ENVY OF THE BRAHMIN DISCIPLES

Because of his devotion to his guru, his humility, honesty, and gentle speech, all people came to respect Dhanurdasa.

In order to show that it is a person's behaviour that should be considered and not his birth, Rāmānuja would hold Dhanurdasa's arm while returning from the Kāverī, although he would hold the arm of Dāsarathī, a brāhmaṇa by birth, while walking to the river.

When Yatiraja's young brāhmaṇa disciples observed their gurus intimate dealings with a person of lower birth, some of them were disturbed and even dared to say that his behaviour was not befitting.

Understanding the misconceptions in the hearts of his disciples, Rāmānuja decided to teach them a lesson that would bring them to a proper understanding of the character of a Vaiṣṇava.

One night while all the others were sleeping, Rāmānuja arose and tore a strip off all the dhotis that were hanging up to dry.

The next morning when the brāhmaṇas discovered what had happened, a great quarrel arose amongst them with accusations and harsh words flying back and forth.

Eventually, Yatiraja himself had to intervene to calm the situation down.

THE BRAHMINS LEARN A LESSON

That evening Rāmānuja called several of his disciples to him and said:

"I am sure all of you have observed how my disciple Dhanurdasa is leading the life of an attached householder, while posing as a great devotee.

This evening, as usual, he will come to talk with me. While I detain him here, discussing the scriptures, you should go to his house and steal the ornaments with which he is so fond of decorating his wife. Then we will see the extent of his attachments fully manifested"

The disciples happily agreed to this proposal and set off to do their gurus bidding as soon as Dhanurdasa arrived at the āśrama.

When they reached his house, they saw Hemamba sleeping within. As the door was not locked, they were able to gain entrance without difficulty. Then very quietly and as gently as possible, they began to remove the golden ornaments from the wife of Dhanurdasa.

In fact Hemamba was not sleeping and was fully aware of everything that was happening, but she pretended to be in deep slumber, so as not to cause any disturbance to the brāhmaṇas.

When all the ornaments had been removed from one side of her body, Hemamba pretended to turn in her sleep so that the brāhmaṇas could take those from the other side as well.

However, at that moment the brāhmaṇas became alarmed, fearing that she was about to wake up.

They left the house immediately and returned to the āśrama. There they reported everything that had happened to Rāmānuja, who then called for Dhanurdasa and told him that he should return home now as it was growing late.

When the wrestler had departed, Rāmānuja instructed his disciples:

"Go now and follow Dhanurdasa back to his house so that you may observe his reaction to the great loss he and his wife have suffered."

The young men followed their gurus order, and when Dhanurdasa entered his house, they were all watching and listening from a secluded place nearby.

On entering the house Dhanurdasa at once noticed his wife's unusual appearance and inquired, "How is it that you are wearing jewels only on one side? Where are the others?"

"Some brāhmaṇas came here while you were gone," Hemamba replied. "Due, no doubt, to their extreme poverty, they have been forced to take up the ways of thieves.

At that time I was lying awake, repeating the names of the Lord in my mind, but they must have thought that I was sleeping, for they entered the room and took all the ornaments from one side.

When they had done this, I turned over so that they could take the rest of my jewels, but unfortunately they were frightened by my movement and fled from the house."

"This was your mistake," exclaimed Dhanurdasa. "You are still not completely free from illusion, for you were thinking, 'These are my ornaments. I will give them away.'

When will you give up this idea and realize that everything is the property of Lord Nārāyaṇa. If you had remained still then you would have been able to give everything to the brāhmaṇas."

Hemamba recognized her fault and begged her husband, "Please bless me, so that one day I may become free from this illusion."

Having witnessed everything, the young brāhmaṇas returned to the āśrama and told Rāmānuja all about the behaviour of that devoted couple.

As it was by that time late at night, he told them to go and rest, but the next day he discussed the matter fully when they assembled before him to study the scriptures:

"You are all learned scholars," he said, "and very proud of your position -as brāhmaṇas.

So tell me, whose behaviour was more befitting a brāhmaṇa - yours, yesterday morning when you found your cloth a little shorter, or that of Dhanurdasa and his wife when the jewels were stolen?"

The disciples could do nothing but hang their heads in shame and say:

"Master, it was Dhanurdasa whose behaviour was worthy of a brāhmaṇa; ours was abominable."

"Therefore," Yatiraja continued, "you must understand that birth and caste are unimportant. It is a man's qualities and actions that show who is fallen, regardless of social position.

Now, giving up all pride in your birth as brāhmaṇas, endeavour to serve Lord Nārāyaṇa with a pure heart. That alone is the way of perfection."

CRITICISM OF MAHĀPŪRṆA

A short time after the incident involving Dhanurdasa and the brāhmaṇa disciples, word came to Rāmānuja that his own guru, Mahāpūrṇa, had performed the cremation ceremony for a śūdra and that as a result of this many people were criticizing him for transgressing the rules which govern a brāhmaṇas conduct.

On hearing this news, Rāmānuja went at once to Mahāpūrṇa's house to hear from him the truth behind these allegations.

When he arrived at his gurus house, he learned that all of Mahāpūrṇa's relatives had abandoned him, considering him fallen, and that he was served now only by his daughter, Attulai, who had come from her father-in-law's house.

When Yatiraja inquired from him about his actions, Mahāpūrṇa replied:

"Yes, it is true that my behaviour was improper according to the Dharma Śastras. But what is real dharma?

The Mahabharata states, mahajano yena gatah sa panthah - true dharma is to follow the example set for us by great personalities.

Now consider the example of Śrī Rāmachandra, for he performed the funeral ceremony of Jatayu, who was just a bird. Then again we have King Yudhisthira, who worshipped Vidura, who was considered a śūdra by birth.

Why would they act in such a way?

The answer is that a devotee of the Lord, being liberated while still in this world, is transcendental to all consideration of family or caste. For Śrī Rāma or King Yudhisṭhīra no irreligious act is possible.

That devotee, whose body I cremated was a pure-hearted servant of the Lord and I consider myself fortunate to have been able to render that service to him."

Very pleased at Mahāpūrṇa's words, Yatiraja bowed down at his feet and begged forgiveness for his impudence in questioning his gurus activities.

MAHĀPŪRṆA AND RĀMĀNUJA

Once Mahāpūrṇa came before Yatiraja and bowed at his feet.

Seeing Rāmānuja still sitting without embarrassment at his guru's behaviour, some of the other devotees questioned him in surprise:

"Yatiraja, how could you allow your guru to bow down before you without making any protest?"

"My spiritual master acted in that way," replied Rāmānuja, "to show how a true disciple should behave before his guru. If Mahāpūrṇa has a purpose to fulfil through these activities, it is not my position to interfere with his desires."

Later the devotees inquired from Mahāpūrṇa about his offering obeisances to a disciple and he explained to them:

"In Yatiraja I see constantly the embodiment of my own guru, Śrī Yamunacharya, and therefore it is impossible for me not to bow down before him"

On hearing this all of them realized even more profoundly the greatness of Rāmānujācārya.

GOSTHIPURNA'S INSTRUCTION

On another occasion Rāmānuja observed Śrī Gosthipurna meditating for many hours in a room with closed doors. At the end of the day he inquired:

"O master, on which form of the Lord have you been fixing your mind and what is the mantra by which you worship Him?"

"I worship only the lotus feet of Śrī Yamunacharya, my guru-maharaja," replied Gosthipurna, "and his holy name is the only mantra I chant, for it brings relief from all suffering"

From this statement Rāmānuja could understand the importance of worshipping the devotees of the Lord.