How to Save a Life
Hanuman froze, dug his heels into the rough bark of the Ashoka tree, and clung to a branch with an outstretched arm. He was taken aback by the commotion below him. Hanuman had scoured the entire city of Lanka, and everywhere were signs of, often drunken, revelry and merriment. The scene he gazed upon now was fraught with hostility and an aggression which rose up to meet him like a morbid reflection of the fragrance of the flowers that populated the garden. He peered through the leaves straining to see what was happening and his countenance darkened murderously.
Rakshasi witches encircled one lone figure. She looked like a deer surrounded by jackals and her eyes darted back and forth across the faces of the demonesses. Still, even cornered, her bearing was innately regal. She simply ignored the shouts of the women who crept closer to her.
“There is no one more powerful, or handsome than the great lord of Lanka, and yet, you refuse him!” One witch sneered, baring her sharp teeth. Another rakshasi stood by her side and spat as though she was tainted just by the aura of the woman who sat like a yogi in meditation.
“There’s no use speaking to her. Our King has been trying for so long to turn her affections. We would do better to cook her and eat her ourselves. Her beauty has undoubtedly made her vain. Without a master to serve, her beauty is wasted.”
Their words were harsh, and as Hanuman looked closely he could see the lady flinch. Barely noticeable to the demonesses who mocked her, he could tell that their words deeply affected her. The woman was thin, heartbreakingly so. It was the look of someone who had imposed upon themselves such grave and intense austerity that Hanuman shuddered to even think about it. She clenched her jaw as the witches ventured closer and closer, their weapons at the ready, almost like starving dogs ready to pounce on their prey. To her credit, the woman held her ground, even silently. Her yellow garments were a dusty color bringing no attention to either themselves or her. But there was something about this woman. An inner glow which emerged from her every pore. A radiance that called to Hanuman’s heart and soul. He wanted to, but didn’t dare hope.
Hanuman tightened his grip around the branch that he held. He could feel the wood creaking and straining in his grasp. He had keep his intelligence about him. He couldn’t lose his temper, but those she-demons were getting closer. They waved their sharp weapons in the lady’s face. He wouldn’t stand for much more of this. No matter who she was, she had done nothing to them, and Hanuman couldn’t stand by and watch them torture her. A voice stopped everyone in their tracks. Hanuman relaxed, but only slightly. The lady in the midst of the demons froze, and the demons stilled. Their weapons, still ominously close, but they made no further moves.
“Don’t touch her. Leave her alone.” The voice was calm. Low, yet commanding. It was clear that the demons had expected their captive to quake in fear and attempt to hide herself within the folds of her saffron cloth or the dark tresses of her hair that hung down her shoulders and nearly to the ground where she sat at the base of one beautiful Ashoka tree. The lady did neither. Instead, her eyes spit fire and her chin tipped up with disinterested defiance. These people held no sway over her.
All eyes shifted to the voice who had quietly dominated their gathering. Trijata looked on the entire scene with shame and pity. She had seen this go on for months. She watched as this poor woman had been baited and taunted. Physically, mentally and emotionally challenged. Each day was a test of faith and willpower. And yet, she never faltered. She never surrendered to the wickedness that would undoubtedly be better than what she was forced to endure each day. But this day, they would stop. Trijata would make them stop. She had to somehow. She would finally give voice to the vision she hadn’t dared to tell anyone else.
“I have seen!” Her voice rang out across the garden, clear and strong. “In a vision, I have seen our king.” The word fell from her lips like a curse. She had previously served the King of Lanka, they all had, but seeing his treatment of this woman had been enough to turn Trijata’s heart. Trijata tilted her head as she gave herself up to the power of sight. She knew that once she did, her voice would no longer be her own. She would only be able to speak what the vision compelled her to, but she was confident enough in this vision that she would give up her own willpower to it.
The sounds of the birds, the white noise of shifting demonesses, everything was blocked out and Trijata instead heard a great rushing sound in her ears. She knew the vision was descending upon her once again. Bracing herself for the slide beneath the veil, the one that would give her access to omens and dreamscapes, Trijata trembled with the force of her power. Before she could stop herself, the words tumbled from her lips, brought forth by an unearthly power so much greater than herself.
“The king seemed oblivious to his plight. But then, a woman, wearing black and smeared with mud and blood walked toward him, her gait unsteady, disjointed and full of malice. She placed a noose around his neck!” Trijata’s eyes glazed over and she swayed with the force of her vision. The demonesses were now riveted to her every word. The lady at the base of the tree was completely still. There was still more to be told.
“Stop this torture, all of you, for soon, your king shall fall, and every one of you with him. The city will burn and you will see the end of Lanka.” Like a tornado, the vision swept through Trijata and then was gone. Her focus returned, Trijata snapped back to herself and locked eyes with each of the demonesses until she saw in their glances the cold dread that she felt in her own heart. “Now go,” she commanded gruffly. Trijata waited until all of the rakshasis left before finally turning to the woman sitting at the base of the tree. Trijata spared her a curt nod filled with respect and regret in equal measures, and left before her eyes gave life to all of the emotions brewing inside of her.
Alone, Sita finally looked up from the fountain where she had trained her gaze for so long. Sure that the garden was deserted, she finally allowed her resolve to slip. Her shoulders hunched, her hands came up to her gaunt, drawn, face and sobs racked her small frame. These gardens looked benign, but she had known nothing but sorrow in her charming prison. Trijata was gone. The older woman had saved her. Sita was thankful for her assistance, but she promised herself that this would be the last time that she would require it. She had waited patiently for months for her lord to arrive and save her. She had been sure that he would come, but with each passing day, her faith, like the moon, had begun to wane. Her faith in Rama was absolute. But how could he save her? He didn’t know where she was. He didn’t know who had kidnapped her and it was clear that her attempt to leave him some trace of her, in the form of all of her ornaments that she had dropped as Ravana’s chariot sped through the open skies, had gone in vain. The gods were not on her side. All she wanted was to see her Lord once more.
She sucked in a shaky breath and gazed for a long moment at her hands. Her eyes then fell to her hair black and thick as ever, which brushed the grass beside her. With her eyes empty and devoid of life, she set about the task of weaving her hair into a thick, long, rope of a braid. When it was done, she tugged on the ends with her small hands. It was strong. It would hold. She raised her gaze to the branches above her. She stood slowly, weakened with hunger, fatigue and a broken heart. With her mind focused on her beloved, she wound her hair around her neck. With his name spilling from her lips as a desperate prayer, she reached up on the tips of her toes to wrap her hair around a thick, low-hanging branch. Soon, this entire nightmare and her months of wishing and dreaming for her freedom would be over.
Hanuman swiped a hand roughly across his face as tears flowed from his soul. His eyes widened as he watched the woman’s slow, methodical movements. She raised herself up on her toes and wrapped her hair around a branch.
“Rama, Rama, Rama, Rama, Sri Rama Saranam Mama” She was constantly uttering His name and Hanuman had no doubts that this was Sita. There was no other reason that she called to his heart in the same way that his Lord Rama did. However, if he didn’t find some way to act soon, his queen might be lost to all of them. Hanuman checked his surging emotions and thought. If he jumped down from the tree, he would startle her. If he startled her, her precarious position might become even more jeopardized. But he had to find some way to stop her from ending her own life. As she closed her eyes and looked a breath away from surrender, Hanuman opened his mouth and allowed the only thing he knew to be true to leave it.
“Sri Rama!” Rather than a shout, a melody formed in that moment. Hanuman began to sing. He sang of Rama’s father Dasarath. He sang of the three queens who prided themselves on being called the mothers of the Raghu Dynasty’s future. He sang of Rama’s kindness, and of how he won Sita herself in the swayamvara, the choosing ceremony where she acknowledged in front of her entire city that this was the man who had captivated her heart. He sang of Rama and Sita’s love for one another. He sang with everything he had. He sang as though his queen’s very life depended on it.
Sita, startled but mystified by the beautiful sound of Hanuman’s voice looked all around her, distracted from her original task. Her hair slipped from her hands, slithered from the tree branch and fell back to it’s resting place, down her back. She rushed and covered her head with her simple, plain veil and looked with eager eyes for the sound that made her heart beat faster. Someone was singing about her beloved.
She circled the perimeter of the tree where she sat moments before, steeped in such crippling despair and finally, Hanuman knew that it was time to show himself. He dropped from the tree, landing effortlessly on his feet, and Sita took a step back in alarm. He pressed his palms together offering her his respects and dropped to his knees. He pressed his head to the grass at her feet before finally lifting his face to meet her merciful glance with his own eyes filled with loving tears. Sita pressed her hands to her heart, hearing the beautiful names of Rama from this creature who had made such a sudden appearance. For the first time in so very long, hope rushed through her like a tidal wave washing out all traces of doubt or despondency. Her Rama would come to save her, and she knew, intuitively, that this one monkey was the key.
In many versions of the Ramayana, it is at an extremely crucial moment, when Sita is so frustrated by the circumstances surrounding her, that she contemplates giving up, and it is in that moment that her greatest hope arrives. Hanuman’s kirtan literally saves her life.
I’ve experienced the transformation that can sweep through a room during kirtan. Emotions swirl and blend, intentions morph and hearts join together through the great equalizer known as prayer. The most important thing for everyone in that room is their shared focus. Their prayer, their call to the soul.
In those moments when I feel too weak to go on, and I am certain that I want to give up this journey, and stop with all the betterment of myself; when I feel like I no longer want to “rise above”, I often turn to kirtan (I have a list of favorites for such occasions), I turn it up as loudly as possible, and I close my eyes and drown out the rest. I try to let the sound of the names of my beloved rescue me from the charming prison of my own despair.
In my personal life, Ravana is not a literal demon, but he has taken up residence in my heart nonetheless. Those attributes that I don’t like, the qualities within me that desperately need work, the selfish, controlling thoughts that draw me further and further away from a connection to my own soul. Ravana may not be physical, but that doesn’t make his presence any less real.
I find myself unable to break free. I need saving. I am very much a damsel in distress, and I am waiting for my beloved to swoop in, just in the nick of time and save me from myself. Only, the more I stand in the way, the less able He is to come and rescue me.
But inside the safe haven of Kirtan, I have hope. I know that tomorrow will be sunnier, brighter, and will bring yet another opportunity for me to simply try again. Each dawn brings with it the promise of growing closer to my love. Simply put: Kirtan reminds me of who I really am. I am a soul, forever in love with its creator.
So the next time you’re in a kirtan, whether you are leading, or part of the response, sing with all your heart, because those names, those prayers reaching from your heart to connect to another’s might just save a life.
Oh my love, use me. Make me Your instrument. Sing through me. Touch the lives of others through me. Show them what You have shown me, show them the way You work. Show them the way You love, and inspire their hearts to burst with the sounds of Your own sweet names. In those names we find ourselves. It is in those names that we are born, and in those name that our souls find their rest. Please show me the way to chant those names and never, ever stop. They are the key to hope, the key to surrender, and the key to life as I know it.
“Oh my Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to the living beings, and thus, You have hundreds and millions of names like Krishna and Govinda. In these transcendental names, You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. Oh my Lord, out of kindness, You enable us to easily approach You by Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.”
—Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Siksastakam Verse 2