Much has been said of the need for mindful living, and for the need for detachment from materialism. In today’s world that is suffused with both unimaginable pleasures and unthinkable pressures, how feasible is it to lead a life of detachment and mindfulness? Are we all capable of realizing who we truly are, and of what truly comprise the essentials of life? In this fast paced world where every noble act is impeded by a lack of deeper faith or by a lack of true dedication, can man escape the clutches of materialism? Is modern man capable of dedicating himself to a higher cause, or is he capable of sustaining such a monumental effort as seeking liberation? Is he capable of withdrawing from this world into a forest as is described in ancient texts, and is that the only way to attain liberation?
The answer to that quandary lies in persistence, and in recognizing what true Yoga (union with a higher force) is. Great achievements, even that of true wisdom, does not fructify overnight. Sustained effort and the desire to see the task through, are the two pillars upon which triumph sits. The Yogasūtras of the great Patañjali state that triumph (in liberation) rests on practice and the yearning to achieve the desired end.
Retiring from day to day life and seeking the tranquility of forests in order to seek union with a higher self is not the only way to achieve liberation. The Śrīmadbhāgavata-purāna speaks of a character called Jaḍa-Bharata, who is a classic example of what sustained effort can achieve, and of the fact that retirement into the forest alone does not guarantee liberation.
Bharata was born the son of a great Yogī and king, Ṛṣabhadeva. The great yogī retired from worldly living, to the forest, in order to dedicate himself to penance. As he took leave, he instructed his sons in divine wisdom, and anointed Bharata the king of the land. He instructed them, ‘If one gives up the mortal coils with dedication to the omniscient, all pervading Ātma; the guru; me, your father; with tolerance of the twins of opposing experiences such as sorrow and happiness; with control over the senses; and with the deepest longing for the highest truth, He attains to that truth.’ Bharata treated these words as gospel truth. He led a life of purity and righteousness. He ruled over his land with kindness, fairness and dedication. He treated his duties as service to the Almighty and carried them out like they were a form of worship. In other words, he was a true karmayogi, to whom work was worship. This attitude cleansed him of all dross and made him an ideal seeker of true wisdom.
When it was time for him to step down as king, he left the burden of the kingdom to his son and retired to the forest, in order to spend the remainder of his days in contemplation of the Supreme. One fine day, Bharata was seated upon the banks of a river, engrossed in worshipping the sun when the most piteous cries reached his ears. Across the river, on the opposite bank, was a pregnant deer terrified by the majestic roars of an approaching lion. The helpless deer, too exhausted to dart away from the preying lion, fell into the waters, crying out piteously. The terror she experienced from the roars of the lion caused her to deliver the fawn in the river. Bharata was moved by the helpless fawn, who struggled to survive besides the dead mother. He dove into the water to rescue the fawn, and brought the young one to his hermitage. He tended to the motherless fawn and raised it with great care. Slowly, compassion turned to attachment, and attachment to obsession. As his end drew near, Bharata could scarcely think of anything other than the deer. He shed his mortal coils contemplating the deer, and was hence born a deer in his next birth.
This deer however, was unique for its samskāra (roots). It did not mingle with the other deer, nor did it hanker for food like a normal animal. The yogic practices he had indulged in, in his previous birth as Bharata, was not futile. Even though a deer, he lived with the realization that obsession over anything is detrimental. The maturity of his consciousness grew with every passing day, for he reminded himself every day of the essential truth of creation – that there is nothing other the Supreme that is eternal. He shed his mortal coils in the sacred river Gaṇḍakī, when it was time. Even through his birth as a deer, his desire for liberation was strong. This deep yearning led him to a new birth that would help him realize his goal of liberation.
He was now born the son of Aṅgira, a devout man. The small steps he had taken over the past two births had made him a perfectly realized soul. His identification with the Supreme was so perfect, he could not differentiate between people, between the good and the bad, or between pain and pleasure. He readily agreed to undertake any task he was entrusted with, for he did not find anything demeaning. He was given to silence, was pleasant, serene, and so untouched by the world around, he was referred to as ‘jaḍa’ – the inanimate! He was so engrossed in experiencing the divine in everything, He did not bother to defend himself when a band of dacoits carried him away to offer as human sacrifice. He wore the same calm as he did upon the breezy fields, when a man drew his sword to chop off Bharata’s head as an offering to Kālī. He was perfectly realized owing to the small steps he had taken consistently, and owing to lifetimes of yearning for realization. Goddess Kālī could not stand by and watch as the dacoits offered a realized soul as human sacrifice. She burst out of the image to slay all the dacoits and preserved Bharata so he would enlighten men who approached him.
Even in today’s fast-paced and ruthless world, man still has hope for realization and bliss. All he needs to do is persevere in his chosen path, with the deepest longing for wisdom.
नेहाभिक्रमनाशोऽस्ति प्रत्यवायो न विद्यते।
स्वल्पमप्यस्य धर्मस्य त्रायते महतो भयात्॥
nehābhikramanāśo’sti pratyavāyo na vidyate|
svalpamapyasya dharmasya trāyate mahato bhayāt||
There is no destruction to even an iota of effort made (towards realization), nor is there any impediment to such an effort. The smallest of advancement along the path (of self-knowledge) can deliver man from great calamity.