Does the Rantideva pastime exemplify social service?
From Manoj P
Edited By: Shyam Venkateswaran P
Question: The Rantideva pastime in Srimad Bhagavatam seems to be just of material welfare. What is the actual meaning of this pastime?
Answer: Material welfare is not necessarily condemned and actually it is the responsibility of the Kshatriyas to take care of the material welfare of the citizens. So we see the same thing in Prthu Maharaja’s pastimes also, where he takes care of the material needs of the citizens. So, in the division of labour that is there in the Vedic society, the Brahmans must take care of spiritual welfare, and Kshatriyas of the material welfare. So, of course, the pastimes of Rantideva come in the Bhagavatam not just because it is material welfare, but because it demonstrates the principle of sacrifice, and that sacrifice is motivated by a spirit of devotion to the Supreme Lord. So Rantideva, when he is asked for everything that he has, he has fasted for a long time and after that time when he is about to take food, at that time, various guests come to him and ask for things; they ask for food, the water and everything that he has and he accepts and gives it all to them. Through that, what is demonstrated is how selfless the king is. He gives it even to those people who are low caste, and he gives it to even those people who are animals. So this is a very Universalist vision, where one sees all living beings and all life as precious and is ready to sacrifice for that. If we see at that time, what is his consciousness, he is offering a prayer to the Lord that my dear Lord, thank you for allowing me to sacrifice for your sake. So here, this is an example of a devotee in a responsible position in the world, using that responsible position for the sake of doing good to others and seeing the sacrifices as acquired opportunity for passing the tests given by the Lord. What is condemned by our Acaryas is the exaltation of social service humanitarian work as equivalent to or above devotional service. When we look at other Puranas, there is also description how Rantideva was a devotee, how he practised devotional service and along with that he was doing his royal duties. So the idea over here is that a Kshatriya should have this spirit of sacrifice for taking care of all his citizens, even the non-human citizens, and even those who are outside the Varnashrama fold and that is glorious; that sort of selfless sacrifice comes at the deepest level, when one sees all the living beings as part of one family, and that vision comes when one is God Conscious.
So, rather than seeing this Rantideva humanitarian work as a deviation from devotional principles, we see it as a fruit of devotional principle. It is not that devotees are unconcerned about sufferings at any level, they want to help others at all levels including at the material level, if they have the resources to do that. So, it is an example of sacrifice that is desirable and is glorious because it is the sacrifice resulting from the fruit of devotion.