Valmiki is the author of the epic story, The Ramayana. But before he was a best selling author, he was a thief and, as legend has it, a very good one. Once, as he was about to steal a gold pot from the home of a yogi, the yogi appeared. The yogi did not stop Valmiki from taking the gold pot, but instead asked him why he was a thief. When Valmiki explained that stealing was his profession and that his family depended on him to bring home something that could be sold to provide for them, the yogi observed that Valmiki’s family must love and appreciate him for what he does for them. Valmiki proudly agreed and bragged about how risky and difficult his work was. But on his way home, Valmiki pondered the conversation with the yogi, perplexed that the yogi allowed him to take the gold pot without any apparent distress. By the time he got home and his wife and children asked what he had brought them, he was unable to give them the gold pot and instead lied, saying he was empty-handed. His wife berated him, complaining bitterly that now they would have nothing to eat. Hearing the yogi’s words in his head, Valmiki asked his wife if she loved him. When she mocked the idea of love and called him worthless for not providing for her and the children, Valmiki sadly left his home, walked back to the yogi and asked the yogi to teach him detachment.
The yogi taught him to meditate and told him to practice until he came to the supreme realization where all questions and answers would dissolve. With faith in his teacher, Valmiki sat down. He sat for hours, then days, which evolved into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Ants came and built their home over his sitting body, hence his name Valmiki, which means “anthill.” During the many years that he sat, much went on in the world outside him, including the entire story of Ram, Sita, Lakshman, Ravana and Hanuman. At the end of the story, after the hero Ram, with the help of Hanuman, defeated the demon Ravana and regained his beloved Sita, Ram’s subjects, suspicious of Sita’s faithfulness, forced him to banish Sita to the forest. Unbeknownst to Ram, Sita was pregnant. Overcome by grief, loneliness and despair, she knelt by a river next to an anthill, crying and distraught, intending to kill herself. From deep inside the anthill, Valmiki heard the tears of Sita and was touched. He was unable to remain stoic in his meditation and ignore her suffering. The walls of the large ant hill began to crumble and fall away, revealing the sage Valmiki, who asked Sita why she was so distraught and offered to be of service to her. Sita found a friend and confidant in Valmiki and recounted to him her story. Valmiki wrote it all down, and this became known as The Ramayana. Valmiki did not return to his sadhana, but instead found a new life looking after the pregnant Sita, and after she gave birth to twins boys, caring for them all. He carefully taught the boys to recite the Ramayana so they would know of their royal lineage and the epic adventures of their parents.
When the suffering of another is made known to a yogi, he or she cannot ignore it. Even the determination to practice until the goal of enlightenment is reached is interrupted by compassion. The yogi lives a life of service in order to liberate all from suffering. This is a noble sadhana. This is karma yoga. The best way to uplift our own lives is to do all we can to uplift the lives of others.
We might ask after hearing this story why Valmiki could be moved by compassion for Sita’s suffering, but run away from the suffering of his wife and family. Why couldn’t Valmiki stay and serve his family who needed him? The answer lies in the fact that it was only through sadhana-consistent, steady practice-that Valmiki’s mind and heart were purified and brought to a crystal-clear state of unwavering steadiness (sthira) through which he was able to perceive the suffering of Sita and respond to it. When he was still living with his wife, he had not yet developed the skills to overcome his ignorance.
True service can only be performed when the mind is free from the expectation of reward. This perfection of action arises over time after our karmas are resolved. Until then, we act out of unconscious habit according to past conditioning. When our actions are motivated from a place of calmness and equanimity, when we remember to offer all actions up to the Divine, then we remember that God is the ultimate doer working through us and that we are no different than that ultimate doer. Atmajnana, knowledge of the indwelling Self, is revealed as the Divine.
The story of Valmiki is a classic story similar to the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. The hero starts out as a “normal individual” bound by his past karmas-like us all, a victim of the five kleshas (afflictions) of avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego attachment), raga (hankering after enjoyment), dvesha (aversion to pain and discomfort) and abhinivesha (fear of death). He experiences a calamity, which causes him to introspect; he seeks advice from a competent guru, who gives him teachings and a practice; he practices; and through his sadhana, his past karmas are purified, and wisdom arises-the hero is transformed into a jivanmukta – an enlightened being able to be of service to others.