The Ride to Rama Giri

I first saw SAW Rama Giri before you were born,” I say, boasting to my young Sikh friend Anukaran, trying to stir his interest in visiting the hill (giri) of Lord Ramachandra with me.

“I’ve never been there,” he replies, “although I was born just thirty miles away in Nagpur.”

“So why don’t we ride up there tomorrow? We can take the Enfields.”

“Let’s get an early start,” he says, accepting the invitation. “I can leave at nine.”

Anukaran Singh was born in a wealthy Indian family, descendants of proud Punjabi Sikh warriors who generation after generation have laid down their lives against successive waves of tyrannical invaders. Despite his involvement with his family’s business, Anukaran is frank about wanting to reestablish his link with India’s ancient heritage, the birthright of anyone born in this vast and diverse land.

“In the 70s, it was the fashion to be ignorant of our civilization and culture,” Anukaran jokes. “For my present generation, it is the fashion to know more about our actual heritage.”

Anukaran is a founding member of the Nagpur Royal Enfield Club, a group of motorcycle riders dedicated to promoting bike safety in a country largely dependent on two-wheeled transport. Everything has its service, and the real use for everything is service to Krishna. So tomorrow Anukaran and I will use our classic Enfields in the service of tirtha- yatra, traveling to holy places.

It will be our privilege to journey to the sacred hill where the Personality of Godhead Lord Rama, His wife and queen, Sita Devi, and younger brother Lakshmana were received by the great ascetic Agastya Muni. Ever since that memorable hilltop meeting, the Agastya ashram has been honored by pilgrims as Rama Giri.

History Of Rama Giri

Millions of years ago in the age called Treta-yuga, the Supreme Personality of Godhead Lord Sri Krishna descended as a king: Lord Rama, or Ramachandra. Lord Ramachandra’s adventures—His lilas—were written down by the adikavi (“first poet”) Valmiki Muni. Valmiki literally means “he who comes from an anthill.” By meditating on Lord Rama’s transcendental lila, Valmiki became so steadfastly absorbed in the yoga of spiritual trance that huge jungle ants were able to build a hill all about him. After many years he emerged from the anthill to scribe the 24,000-verse Sanskrit scripture Ramayana, the world’s oldest book.

The purpose of Lord Rama’s advent is to attract us conditioned souls to the timeless, transcendental path of bhakti-yoga, devotional service. By reading the Lord’s pastimes in the Srimad-Bhagavatam or Sri Ramayana, and by hearing of His exceptional prowess from the lips of pure devotees like Srila Prabhupada, even the unsophisticated soul becomes drawn to the blissful security of genuine spiritual life. If a pilgrimage is undertaken in a spirit of remembrance of the Lord’s lila, then visiting the holy places connected with His pastimes—places like Vrindavana or Ayodhya, or in this case Rama Giri—can be purifying, uplifting, and helpful in the all-important quest for inner development.

Since time immemorial each of us embodied jiva souls has been revolving through the grim cycle of rebirth—samsara. To deliver His servants trapped in the net of maya, God comes Himself or sends His avatar for our salvation from the delusion of material ignorance. Attraction to the lotus feet of the Lord, acceptance of His divine shelter, and the joyful singing of His name open the door for going back home, back to Godhead.

To this day, millions of years after the advent of Sita- Rama, their followers number in the hundreds of millions. The supreme royal couple is even worshiped outside India. In Thailand, for example, a quarter-mile stretch of the halls of the royal palace is artistically painted with scenes from the Ramayana. In the island of Bali in Indonesia, and also in Cambodia and Nepal, thousands more Rama temples can be found. In every corner of India, from tiny village shrines to fabulous temple palaces like Hare Krishna Land at Juhu Beach, Mumbai, the transcendental form of Lord Rama is worshiped, His all-liberating name sung by His devotees.

According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sri Rama, on the order of His father, King Dasharatha, left His hometown of Ayodhya (in present-day Uttar Pradesh State) and embraced forest life. “As the full moon enters a cloud bank,” Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana wandered south through the woods to the mountain Chitrakuta. From there they wended their way into Madhya Bharata (central India), hiking through the valleys of the holy Vindhya Hills and crossing the sacred Narmada River. Then they came to the vast Dandaka Forest, the abode of hermits. As Lord Sri Rama passed through Dandaka Forest, Srila Prabhupada recalls in TheNectar of Devotion, many sages achieved perfection in yoga just by seeing Him. With their dormant love of Godhead awakened, these fortunate rishis were later (in Dvapara-yuga) reborn as gopis (cowherd girls) in the lila of Lord Sri Krishna, the original Supreme Personality of Godhead. (Srila Prabhupada and Srila Rupa Gosvami have drawn this information from the Padma Purana.)

The divine threesome camped here and there, bearing bravely the hardships of jungle life and finally arriving at the ashram of Agastya Muni, atop what is now called Rama Giri. As a king, a member of the kshatriya class, Lord Rama offered His respects to the brahmana Agastya Muni with sweet words. The Lord feels so grateful to His devotees that He bows before them, just as Lord Sri Krishna once bowed down to wash the feet of the poor brahmana Sudama.

The incomparable Agastya Muni was tri-kala-jna: He could see the three features of time—past, present, and future. Hence he was well aware that Sri Rama was none other than the almighty Vishnu Himself and that in the very near future He would fight a great war with the enemies of dharma, the demons (asuras).

Many sages of the Dandaka Forest had already suffered grievous harassment at the hands of atheistic asuras, and many had fallen victim to their evil schemes. Yet try as they might, none of these asuras could trap the wily Agastya. Through his unbreakable penance and high intelligence, the sage had even outwitted the evil duo Ilvala and Vatapi. Ilvala, taking the form of a Sanskrit-speaking brahmana, would invite different sages to share a meal. Then Vatapi would assume the form of the meal. After dinner Ilvala would smile and say, “Come out, Vatapi,” and Vatapi would suddenly burst forth, splitting the poor rishi’s belly.

Once Agastya, requested by the devas (demigods), accepted Ilvala’s invitation to dine with him. After the meal, the grinning Ilvala called for his wicked brother to exit the sage’s body.

But Agastya smiled and declared, “Your brother cannot come out now because he has already been sent to the abode of Yamaraja [the Lord of death] by the fire of my digestion.”

The infuriated Ilvala sprang forward, rushing at Agastya, but one stern and fiery look from the powerful sage reduced him to ashes in an instant.

Agastya once requested the Vindhya Mountains to bow low, because their towering peaks were blocking the sun. Agastya promised the lord of the Vindhyas that his rolling hills could rise up and become mountains again after Agastya returned from the south. To keep the Vindhyas humble, Agastya never went north again. Instead he made his hermitage at Rama Giri, in the Deccan, south of the Vindhyas. That is how the Vindhya Mountains became the Vindhya Hills, India’s traditional line of North-South division.

Saint Agastya received Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana with customary offerings of fruit and flowers. Then he presented Lord Rama with the Brahma-datta bow, which Lord Indra had earlier entrusted to his care. The bow had been inset with diamonds by its creator, Vishvakarma, the engineer of the universe. Along with the bow, Agastya handed over to Sri Rama a quiver of arrows that included the undefeatable brahmastra weapon. Lord Ramachandra was also given a sword in a bejeweled scabbard.

In His talks with the sages of Dandaka Forest near and about Agastya’s hilltop hermitage, Rama took a vow to vanquish the trouble-making demons. When the Lord took His vow, Rama Giri shook.

By accepting the weapons from Agastya, the Lord displayed His intention of protecting His devotees. Today the village at the foot of Rama Giri is called Rama Tek, literally “Rama’s vow.” In Bhagavad-gita (4.7- 8) Lord Krishna explains His vow to shelter His devotees: “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself. To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.”

Much later at Sri Lanka, during the battle with Ravana and his demonic horde, Sri Rama’s charioteer, Matali, was to remind Rama of the weapons presented by Agastya Muni. True to Agastya’s vision and Rama’s promise, Rama fired the arrow imbued with brahmastra mantras into the heart of Ravana, where the demon had stored amrita, nectar of deathlessness. [See the sidebar “Champion of the True and Righteous.”]

Whether protecting Prahlada as Nrisimha, the sages of Dandaka Forest as Rama, Arjuna as Krishna, or the Hare Krishna sankirtana party as Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Lord defends His devotee in every age. That is His promise.

The Trip

At 9:00 the next morning, Anukaran pulled up and revved his engine in front of the house of Baba, my brother-in-law, where I was staying as a guest. I rushed out and kick-started my Enfield Bullet.

“Let’s get going,” I advised him. “The auspicious timefor departure lasts for only another fifteen minutes.” Within seconds we were headed north to Rama Giri.

After an hour of country riding, sunburned and smiling, we saw the hill of Lord Rama off to our right. Leaning east, we rode through Ram Tek village, with its unusual collection of shops, ashrams, dharmshalas (pilgrim’s rest houses), and Buddhist Ayurvedic ashrams.

Riding through the narrow lanes of merchants and farm animals, we at last found ourselves on the twisting road up the hill to the peak of Rama Giri. About half way to the top, we slowed down to pass a group of several dozen pada- yatris, “pilgrims who go by foot.” Judging by the dhoti-like way the women tied their saris, I guessed they were a group of Maharastrian villagers. Some walked barefoot, not for want of shoes, but for the higher merit accrued for the austerity.

As the last curve of the road widened to the top, we found ourselves before the steep rock wall of Rama Giri fort. I was to learn that the fort was built several centuries ago by kings of the Bhonsle clan. Rama Giri was chosen as the fort’s site for two reasons: (1) strategically, the hill offers a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, which it was the kings’ duty to protect, and (2) Vedic kings, even as late as the eighteenth century, were impelled by their burning religious convictions to guard holy areas.

In 1827, however, after the Bhonsle warriors suffered defeat at the hands of British invaders at the Battle of Sitalbuldi, their reign over the area rapidly deteriorated. Today the fort with its old tanks and temples is a protected monument, a historical oddity frozen in time.

After parking the Enfields, we paid our obeisances to the huge, rare deity of Lord Vishnu-Varaha who overlooks the valley and the fort. This is one of two giant Varaha deities weighing several tons that I know of. There are two Varaha temples in Mathura, ancient ones visited by Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as documented by “the king of poets” Krishnadasa Kaviraja in his most inspiring Sri Caitanya- caritamrita. There is also a beautiful white marble deity of Lord Varaha worshiped in a fine temple along the shores of Pushkar Lake in Rajasthan. But the only other deity of Lord Varaha of this immense size is the svayam-bhu (“self-manifested”) Sri Vishnu-Varahaji of Majholi, Madhya Pradesh. I was unable to ascertain the ancient history of the Ram Giri Varahaji, probably one of the two largest in all of India. After garlanding Lord Varaha and receiving prasadam from the priest, Anukaran and I entered the ashram of Agastya Muni.

Lavishly preserved in marble and carefully maintained by a group of devoted sadhus, the hermitage has been developed as a pilgrims’ destination of much importance. Even the yajna-shala, the holy place of fire sacrifice where the rishi received Lord Rama, has been continuously maintained since Treta-yuga. An iron door has been installed over Agastya’s deep cave of meditation; only select yogis are allowed entrance into the chamber, called Hatiphor. The ashram’s astute crew of ascetics display extreme care in the upkeep and worship of Saint Agastya’s shrine. Their devotion reveals that they have correctly understood the place’s Puranic significance.

Beyond Agastya Muni’s peaceful cave is a large group of temples, the first of which is dedicated to Lakshmana, who led the way to Rama Giri, announcing to the sages the arrival of his brother and sister-in-law. This explains why the Lakshmana Mandir is first. The other temples are separately dedicated to Lord Rama, Goddess Sita, and Bhakta Hanuman.

The local history of the deities is noteworthy. In 1736 King Raghu Bhonsle visited Rama Giri only to discover that just the padukas—or wooden sandals—of Lord Rama were being worshiped. The deities were no longer present. The king vowed to commission Jaipur deities for the temple. But once the sacred murtis were prepared for temple installation—prana-pratishtha—the king had a dream in which Lord Rama told him to search under the waters of the River Sur a few miles north. Finally, in 1753, the original deities were discovered and re-installed atop Rama Giri amidst much festivity and celebration. The Jaipur deities are privately cared for in a reserved area.

Anukaran and I lingered at each temple, offering whatever rupees we had to spare. After darshana, we climbed up the steps to the top of the fortress wall to view the vast valley of farmland, lakes, and tiny villages encircling Rama Giri. Gently at first, the sound of kirtana, the yuga-dharma of chanting of the Lord’s holy name, wafted up from the temple room, accompanied by the ringing of karatalas (hand cymbals). The pada- yatri pilgrims we had passed on the road were now sitting peacefully before Lord Rama’s deity, singing His holy names. Now every face within earshot reflected blissful meditation upon God. [See the sidebar “The Power of Rama’s Name.”]

More Enfields To Rama Giri

We fell into silence as our attention now drifted to the pristine beauty of the sacred lake below, Ambala Kund. Around the still waters of the lake, temples and shade trees dot the shore. The lake is said to have been named for King Amba, who was cured of a terrible disease after his bath in these waters, which originate from an underground river called Patala Ganga.

In the eighteenth century King Raghu Bhonsle had the lake and many of the shore temples renovated with fine stone work. These temples include those of Jagannatha, Pancamukhi Mahadeva (“five-faced Siva”), and Surya Narayana (the Sun incarnation of Vishnu).

Carried more by spiritual energy than reason at this point, Anukaran and I found ourselves in the saddles of the Enfields, riding downhill toward Ambala Kund. Finding a shady spot, we pulled over. The noonday sun overhead told me it was time for my Gayatri meditation. After a dip and prayers, the silence was broken when Anukaran mused, “I’ve ridden by Rama Giri many times with the Enfield Club, but somehow the beauty and meaning of the place were never before revealed to me.”

I’m back in San Francisco now, catching up on bills and household concerns. The trip to India, like so many I’ve taken there, now seems almost like a dream. Yesterday I checked my email and got this message: “The other members of the Enfield Club are eager to visit Rama Giri on our next ride. Hare Krishna. Anukaran.”

NOTE: Devotee-pilgrims who would like to visit Ram Tek and Rama Giri may make arrangements with the devotees at ISKCON Nagpur’s Sri Sri Radha-Madhava Temple.

The Power of Rama’s Name

Struck By The serenity of Lord Rama’s temple on Rama Giri, I took advantage of the uplifted mood to hazard a few words.

“Anukaran,” I began, “the worship of Lord Rama or Lord Sri Krishna is universal and is not intended only for some particular sect or religion. Their names are imbued with the potency to deliver anyone, any living entity, from every misery into the unlimited world of transcendental bliss. The name of the Lord is nondifferent from the person of the Lord Himself. Although He is the master of the personal spiritual worlds, inhabited by liberated souls absorbed in His loving service, He descends to our world for our deliverance. His worship is performed best in the Kali-yuga by the chanting of His name, a means open to members of all races and religions. The sankirtana movement Srila Prabhupada introduced to the entire world is essentially the same as the melodic vibrations which we are savoring even now.

“Lord Rama never fancied Himself to be some Hindu God. His is none other than the all-pervasive Vishnu, the Lord of the universe, and is accepted as such by sages like Agastya. See how Hanuman and his army of vanaras (monkeys), as well as jungle bears and even a squirrel, were impelled to offer their service unto Sri Rama, never considering any selfish rewards. You must be aware your fourth Sikh guru was named Guru Ramadas, ‘servant of Rama.’

“Just as worship of Lord Rama or Vishnu is uplifting and spiritually invigorating, so is the chanting of Their holy names. Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu often quoted the Brihan- naradiya Purana verse harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kevalam/ kalau nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyatha: ‘The holy name! The holy name! The holy name! In this iron age called Kali-yuga there is no other way, no other way, no other way to reach the goal!’

“In fact, quite along these lines your Guru Granth Sahib, which I spent a week at Amritsar studying, plainly advises: ‘The name of the Lord Hari destroys all miseries and purifies sinners, O beloved. … Through service to Sri Hari is the highest platform achieved. … The name of Sri Hari is the highest benediction in Kali- yuga.’ (Raga Asa, Mahala IV, Ghar II.1-2)

“In Kali-yuga the name of Rama is the boat that ferries the disciple. In this world and in the next the disciple of the guru lives in bliss by the grace of the name of Rama.

“Guru Nanak advises, ‘Having heard the name of Lord Rama, we have become absorbed with love of God. … The name of Rama pleases the chanter’s mind, and he achieves supreme happiness. He for whom the chanting of the name of Rama is a constant companion, even when leaving this world he never goes to the world of Yamaraja. O brother, I meditate on Lord Rama.’ ” (Raga Asa IV, Ghar I, Chant II, IX. 1, 2.3)

Champion of the True and Righteous

In a poetic translation of Ramayana, Sri Ramesh Chandra Dutta, a nineteenth-century Vaishnava poet from Bengal, described Ravana’s last moments and the joy of victory of Lord Rama’s troops:

Pike and club and mace and trident
scaped from Ravan’s vengeful hand,
Spear and arrows Rama wielded,
and his bright and flaming brand!
Long and dubious battle lasted,
shook the ocean, hill and dale,
Winds were hushed in voiceless terror
and the livid sun was pale,
Still the dubious battle lasted,
until Rama in his ire
Wielded Brahma’s deathful weapon
flaming with celestial fire!
Weapon which the Saint Agastya
had unto the hero given,
Winged as lightning dart of Indra,
fatal as the bolt of heaven,
Wrapped in smoke and flaming flashes,
speeding from the circled bow,
Pierced the iron heart of Ravan,
lain the lifeless hero low,
And a cry of pain and terror
from the Raksha ranks arose,
And a shout from joying Vanars
as they smote their fleeing foes!
Heavenly flowers in rain descended
on the red and gory plain,
And from unseen harps and timbrels
rose a soft celestial strain,
And the ocean heaved in gladness,
brighter shone the sunlit sky,
Soft and cool the gentle zephyrs
through the forest murmured by,
Sweetest scent and fragrant odours
wafted from celestial trees,
Fell upon the earth and ocean, rode
upon the laden breeze!
Voice of blessing from the bright sky
fell on Raghu’s valiant son,
“Champion of the true and righteous!
Now thy noble task is done!”