Tag Archives: Srimad Bhagavatam

Stories in Srimad Bhagavata: literal or allegorical?

Question: Apart from the known allegorical stories in the Bhāgavata, can we take the rest of the pastimes as literal? I ask because the cosmology in the Fifth Canto is different from modern astronomy. Even cosmology according to Sūrya Siddhānta is quite different from the Bhāgavata. Are the cosmology and other pastimes in the Bhāgavata then metaphorical?Her

Answer: It is difficult to answer your question because you give me only two choices—allegorical or literal. But this may not be always the case; sometimes it is a mixture. It is not simply black and white. The explanation of Sūrya Siddhānta is of the ādhibhautika universe and the Bhāgavata explanation is a mixture of ādhibhautika and ādhidaivika. There may not be any correlation between the two.

Question: The pastimes and facts from the Bhāgavata, which is smṛti śāstra, have to be in line with śruti śāstra to be considered valid. This is why other sampradāyas do not put much emphasis on the Purāṇas or the Bhāgavata, as there can be interpolation. Therefore, other sampradāyas prove their tattva through prasthāna-trayī. But as Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavas, our main śāstra is the Bhāgavata.

Answer: But in the explanation of prasthana-trayi, everyone uses the Purāṇas, even Śaṅkarācārya. So this claim does not have much value. This claim would be proper if they did not use the Purāṇas at all. Moreover, prasthāna-trayī includes the Gītā, which is not śruti but smṛti. 

Question: As Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, the Bhāgavata is our main scripture even though it is a Purāṇa. How can I accept it as the main scripture when it is a Purāṇa? 

Answer: Explain why a Purāṇa is not a scripture or a main scripture. Do you have trouble accepting Bhagavad Gītā as a scripture? The Gītā is part of Mahābhārata, which is an Itihāsa and on par with the Purāṇas. What do you think should be the main scriptural authority? Please read the first 29 sections of Tattva Sandarbha to understand why we Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas accept the Bhāgavata as the main authority.

Question: Apart from known allegorical stories, are all the stories in the Bhāgavata and other Purāṇas real life incidents that happened in previous yugas or kalpas?

Answer: Most of the stories are real but some, like the story of Purañjana, are allegorical. 

Question: The stories of Ajāmila and Gajendra are amazing. Can we factually believe that these pastimes took place? 

Answer: Yes 

Question: We have been taught that all Purāṇic stories are real; however, other schools of thought tend to disagree. Hence, other Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas, in order to establish their tattva, never refer to the Purāṇas as there may be interpolation.

Answer: Which sampradāya are you referring to? I do not know any Vaiṣṇava sampradāya which does not rely on the Purāṇas and Āgamas. It will be very difficult to deduce the Vaiṣnava siddhāntas merely on the basis of śruti. Even if one does this, it will be done by first studying the Itihāsas and Purāṇas. Therefore, all Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas rely on Itihāsa and Purāṇa.

Question: The reason why I was questioning the Purāṇas is because other sampradāyas, such as Śrī-sampradāya, do accept the Purāṇas. However, they give more emphasis to śruti śāstra as it’s not subject to interpolation, according to them.

Answer: It is true that the śrutis are not interpolated. This, however, does not mean that everything else is interpolated. Unless you have a proof of interpolation in the Bhāgavata, there is no reason not to trust it as pramāṇa. Moreover, from śruti alone no Vaiṣṇava sampradāya can prove its siddhānta. The concepts of Vaikuṇṭha, prapatti, bhakti, arcana, etc. are all derived from the Purāṇas and Āgamas. No one can prove them from śruti alone. For example, there is no mention of the word “Vaikuṇṭha” in the available śruti.

Question: The below verse from Nārāyaṇa Upaniṣad mentions Vaikuṇṭha: 

om namo nārāyaṇāyeti mantropasako vaikuṇṭha bhuvanam gamiśyati

“That yogi who meditates on “Oṁ Namo Nārāyaṇāya” reaches Vaikuṇṭha, the abode of Lord Viṣṇu.” 

Why then is Goloka Vṛndāvana, which is the destination of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, not mentioned anywhere in śāstra apart from Brahma-saṃhitā, which was rediscovered by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu? Moreover, the Ādikeśava temple in South India has no record of this event nor of the text, and the original text that Mahāprabhu copied is not available. Does Brahma-saṃhitā really exist?

Answer: There is a contention about the validity of some of the Upaniṣads. There are about eleven Upaniṣads that are accepted by all. As for the rest, some sampradāyas give more weight and neglect others. For example, Gaudīyas may value Rādhā Upaniṣad but not so much say Rudra Upaniṣad.  The same is true for Brahma-saṁhitā. It is an authority for Gauḍīyas but not for others. It surely existed but if a book is not studied and memorized, then it gets lost. Even Aiśvarya Kādambinī by Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī is lost. We know thatbecause Śrī Viśvanātha himself mentions it. If he had not mentioned it, we would never have known. So many books mentioned in the works of the Gosvāmīs are not to be found anymore. Modern people may say that such books never existed and we have no way to refute them except to allude to their reference, which they may not accept. It is only due to our faith in the Gosvāmīs that we believe that, at one point in time, these books existed. It is believed that Baladeva Vidyābhūṣana wrote commentaries on all principal Upaniṣads but we only have the one on the Iśa Upaniṣad. Similarly, we only find his commentary on  Tattva Sandarbha.

Goloka Vṛndāvana is described in the Harivaṁśa Purāṇa (2.19.29-35) as well as in some other books like Nārada Pañcarātra, Mahābhārata (Śānti Parva 342.138), Bṛhad-gautamiya Tantra, etc.


The Importance of Hearing Śrīmad Bhāgavata

Hearing about Kṛṣṇa is the first step in bhakti. There are various scriptures that describe stories about Kṛṣṇa. Among them, Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇam is the supreme. Therefore, hearing it is the supreme. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī states this in the following two short anucchedas of Bhakti Sandarbha.

Anuccheda 260

The Preeminence of the Words of Bhāgavata Purāṇa

Even among the complete range of bhagavat-kathā that is available to be heard, hearing Śrīmad Bhāgavata is supremely preeminent. This is because it consists of extraordinarily powerful words of the nature described below (tādṛśa-prabhāvamaya-śabda) and also because it abounds with supreme aesthetic relish (parama-rasamaya).

The first of these two characteristics is indicated in the following verse of Śrīmad Bhāgavata: 

dharmaḥ projjhita-kaitavo ‘tra paramo nirmatsarāṇāṁ satāṁ
vedyaṁ vāstavam atra vastu śivadaṁ tāpa-trayonmūlanam
śrīmad-bhāgavate mahāmuni-kṛte kiṁ vā parair īśvaraḥ
sadyo hṛdy avarudhyate’tra kṛtibhiḥ śuśrūṣubhis tat-kṣaṇāt

In this Śrīmad Bhāgavata, which has been revealed by the great sage [Vyāsa], the supreme mystical path of those who are free from envy and established in the state of authentic being is disclosed, utterly devoid of all deception. Herein, the [one and only] ontologically real existent, which grants auspiciousness and uproots the threefold miseries, is the subject to be known and immediately realized. Is it the case that by [hearing] other scriptures, the Supreme Omnipotent Īśvara can be at once captured within the heart? [No, indeed.] Yet He is so captured by the virtuous in the precise moment that they become desirous to hear the Bhāgavata. (SB 1.1.2)

The word mahā-muniḥ, “the great sage,” here refers to Śrī Bhagavān, whose lotus feet are worthy of being honored by all greatly realized beings (mahat). The question, kiṁ vā paraiḥ, “What need is there of any other literature?” or “Is it the case that by [hearing] other scriptures [Īśvara can be at once captured within the heart]?” demonstrates the natural exalted status (svābhāvika-māhātmyam) of the words of Śrīmad Bhāgavata.

Anuccheda 261

Śrīmad Bhāgavata Abounds with Rasa

The fact that Śrīmad Bhāgavata abounds with supreme rasa, the second characteristic mentioned in the previous anuccheda, is expressed in the following verse:

sarva-vedānta-sāraṁ hi śrī-bhāgavatam iṣyate
tad-rasāmṛta-tṛptasya nānyatra syād ratiḥ kvacit

This beautiful Bhāgavata is indeed celebrated as the essence of all Vedānta [i.e., the Upaniṣads]. One who is enraptured by the immortal nectar of its aesthetic relish (rasa) will not experience attraction (rati) for any other scripture. (SB 12.13.15)

The rasa, or aesthetic relish, of Śrīmad Bhāgavata is immortal nectar (amṛta). The verse refers to one who is enraptured by the nectar of this rasa.


In Tattva Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī established that the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is the most authoritative scripture in the matter of the self-disclosure of the complete Absolute Truth, para-tattva. But this is not its only greatness (māhātmyam). It is also the preeminent means to experience the Truth directly. Moreover, it is glorious by virtue of its divine author, its quintessential message, and even the very nature of its words. This is to say, that even if a listener or a reader does not understand the meaning of the Bhāgavata’s words, they still exert a powerful influence, like a potent medicine ingested unknowingly. Furthermore, the glory of Bhāgavata Purāṇa is because of its original speaker, Śukadeva, who is celebrated as nitya-viṣṇujana-priya, “the ever-beloved of Bhagavān’s devotees.”

An example of the transformative power of the Bhāgavata’s words is evidenced in the case of Śukadeva himself. From his very birth, his consciousness was completely absorbed in the bliss of Brahman, sva-sukha-nibhṛta-cetāḥ (SB 12.12.68). He left home immediately after his birth, without undergoing any education (anupetam, SB 1.2.2). Yet, when he inadvertently heard a few verses depicting the enchanting līlās of Kṛṣṇa, his essential being was irresistibly drawn to them (ajita-rucira-līlākṛṣṭa-sāraḥ, SB 12.12.68). Upon this internal transformation, initiated simply by hearing a few of the Bhāgavata’s words, He returned to his father Vyāsa and studied the Bhāgavata Purāṇa from him in full (SB 2.1.8). Therefore, Śrī Vyāsa questions, “What need is there for any other scripture?” (SB 1.1.2). This is a rhetorical question to stress the greatness of Śrīmad Bhāgavata. According to Śrīdhara Svāmī, the question kiṁ vā paraiḥ is syntactically connected to the words īśvaraḥ sadyo hṛdy avarudhyate. He interprets it as follows: “Is it the case that by hearing other scriptures (paraiḥ śāstraiḥ) or by undertaking other methods advocated in those scriptures (tad-uktaṁ-sādhanair vā), Īśvara can be at once captured within the heart?” He adds that the word vā in the question implies “derision” or “critical insinuation” (kaṭākṣa), meaning that such is certainly not the case.

Anyone who has developed a taste for Śrīmad Bhāgavata would not relish any other scripture, because nothing else compares to it. A person who has enjoyed a delicious freshly cooked meal will not be interested in some stale and rotten food. Consequently, Vyāsa exhorts all rasikas to drink the rasa of the Bhāgavata up to liberation and beyond (pibata bhāgavataṁ rasam ālayam, SB 1.1.3).

The Intimate Dealings of Vaiṣṇavas

By Satyanarayana Dasa

In the Sixth Canto, 17th Chapter, there is a description of King Citraketu who was travelling in space in his airship, surrounded by hundreds of beautiful celestial women, called Vidyādharīs, who are famous for their melodious singing. Citraketu engaged in the kīrtana of Bhagavān, accompanied by these beautiful lady singers. One day, from his airship, he looked down and saw Lord Śiva surrounded by various sages, Siddhas and Cāraṇas. The thing that amused him was that, even while sittingin the midst of this august assembly, Śiva was embracing his wife Pārvatī. King Citraketu could not stop himself from commenting, and ridiculed Śiva in front of everyone. “Just see,” he exclaimed, “He is the teacher of the world and speaks on the principles of dharma. He wears the matted hair of a renunciate, and yet he sits in the assembly like a shameless lusty person, with his wife on his lap. Indeed, even a common materialistic person does not behave like this openly.”

Pārvatī’s Curse

Shiva and Parvati
Lord Śiva and Pārvatī

Lord Śiva laughed in a grave voice, and then remained silent. Everyone in the assembly was also silent, but goddess Pārvatī could not tolerate an insult to her husband. She spoke up, praising the greatness of Lord Śiva, questioned the impudence of Citraketu, and angrily cursed him to become an asura.

Citraketu got down from his airship to pay humble respects to Mother Pārvatī, touching his head to her feet. “Please do not be upset with me,” he said. “Forgive me for my sharp words. I do not ask you to free me from your curse, but I just want you to give up your anger at me.”

Having pleased Śiva and Pārvatī with his humility and prayers, Citraketu left in his airship. Then Lord Śiva explained the greatness of Vaiṣṇavas who are not afraid of anything and consider happiness and distress, birth and death, curse and blessings as same.

This incident is very puzzling. Citraketu knew that Śiva was Kandarpa, the “Killer of Cupid,” and beyond any taint of lust, so why did he criticize or taunt him so impudently?

Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī answers by explaining that there are several reasons. Citraketu and Lord Śiva both are devotees of Bhagavān Saṅkarṣaṇa and thus they are like godbrothers. Citraketu did not want his senior godbrother to be criticized by ignorant people, so he tried to curb Śiva’s behavior that foolish people would misunderstand.

Hidden Glorification

This is why he addressed Śiva as “loka-guru” (teacher of the world). He knows that Śiva is beyond lust, and therefore it does not make any difference where or when he embraces his wife, but he did not want people who are not free from sexual desire to cite his behavior as justification for their own licentiousness. Citraketu’s comment was not made as a mundane critic. It was spoken out of love with the intention to safeguard Lord Śiva’s reputation and also to restrain the general populace from justifying their improper behavior. Because Citraketu and Śiva were intimate friends and because Citraketu had spoken out of love, his harsh words only brought pleasure to Śiva and therefore Śiva’s reaction was that he laughed and kept silence.

Later on, when Citraketu was cursed by Pārvatī, Lord Śiva spoke about the glories of Vaiṣṇavas. The hidden meaning of Lord Śiva’s instruction was, “O my dear Pārvatī, why are you losing your temper unnecessarily?”

He told her, “Look, I laughed and kept silent. By this I conveyed the following reply to Citraketu: O friend, I agree. I am exactly as you have portrayed me. But at least I am not a hypocrite like you, who portray yourself as a devout follower of Saṅkarṣaṇa, but secretly you enjoy with hundreds of Vidyādharīs. I am just the opposite. I portray myself as a lusty being, sitting with my wife in my arms, but in truth I am a renounced person. We are opposites: You advertise yourself as a bhakta and hide your sense enjoyment; I display myself as an enjoyer and hide my bhakti. This is the difference between you and me.”

This was the internal rasa that Lord Śiva relished with Citraketu, but Pārvatī could not understand it and therefore lost her temper, creating a disturbance. Lord Śiva was actually disturbed by Pārvatī’s interruption and not by the harsh words of Citraketu. The 36th text of this chapter implies that Pārvatī was extremely surprised when she understood this internal dealing of rasa between Śiva and Citraketu. “Citraketu is just a kṣatriya and became a devotee only recently,” she thought. “How strange that he could have such an intimate, sweet exchange with my husband, who is an eternal and unparalleled devotee of Śrī Bhagavān!”

The Glory of Bhakti

Another meaning behind this episode is that Śrī Kṛṣṇa wanted Citraketu to return to Him, but Citraketu was preoccupied in singing and wandering with the Vidyādharīs. Therefore, he got Citraketu cursed so he would more quickly reach his abode and be his associate.

As a result of Pārvatī’s curse, Citraketu became Vṛtrasura. While living as Vṛtrasura, Citraketu’s eagerness to be with Kṛṣṇa increased dramatically. Indeed, when he finally gained the audience of Śrī Bhagavān, Vṛtrasura spoke some of the most beautiful prayers of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.

This story of Vṛtrasura brings out the glory of bhakti, which is not dependent on anything material, such as birth, character, or even the acquired material body. It is to establish this fact that goddess Pārvatī cursed Citraketu.

The prayers of Vṛtrasura will be the subject of the next article.

Bhāgavatam Pedagogy – Part 2

The Purpose of Story-Telling

The intention of Śrī Vyāsa is not to give us historical information, but to impart transcendental knowledge. Still there may be historical facts articulated to convey the intended meaning. Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī makes this clear in the verse:

kathā imās te kathitā mahīyasāṁ
vitāya lokeṣu yaśaḥ pareyuṣām
vijñāna-vairāgya-vivakṣayā vibhovaco-vibhūtīr na tu pāramārthyam 
“O King, I have narrated to you these stories of glorious kings, who achieved great fame in this world and then met their demise, in order to impart to you knowledge of the insubstantiality of sense enjoyment, and thereby to evoke in you a spirit of detachment from the same. These stories are merely a display of eloquence and have no bearing on the Absolute Truth.” (SB 12.3.14)

The last sentence in the verse says that “the stories are merely a display of eloquence,” vaco-vibhūtī, which implies that not everything is to be taken literally. Sometimes facts are exaggerated to make the description appear very attractive, extraordinary, and wonderful.

King Citraketu and his Wives

A Vidyadhara couple
A Vidyadhara couple

For example, the fourteenth chapter of the Sixth Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, describes the story of Citraketu, the great king King of the Vidyādharas who was without a son. In the varṇāśrama system, it was obligatory for a married person to have a son so that he could continue the lineage, which was necessary for the performance of the śraddhā ceremony. Therefore, in a bid to have a son, Citraketu married ten million wives, one after another, as stated in the verse:

tasya bhāryā-sahasrāṇāṁ
sahasrāṇi daśābhavan
sāntānikaś cāpi nṛpo
na lebhe tāsu santatim

“He married, had ten million wives, one after another, yet O King, he could not beget any progeny in them.” (SB 6.14.11)

The text says that the king had ten million [sahasrāṇāṁ sahasrāṇi daśa, lit., ten thousand thousand] wives, which were all barren and therefore didn’t give him a child. If this figure were literal, it would take him 27,397 years if he married a wife a day. Given such an impossibility, we must understand this to be a poetic description. It is called atiśayokti- alaṅkāra, hyperbole or an expression involving exaggeration. Sahitya-darpaṇa, which was referred to above, gives definitions of various alaṅkāras, including atiśayokti, which are divided into five types (10.46).

The famous poet Daṇḍin gives the following example of atiśayokti:

“Wearing garlands of white jasmine and cloths of linen, their limbs moist with sandal paste, the trysting ladies are hidden in the moonlight.” (Agni Purāṇa, 3.44.26)

Here the whiteness of the girls’ dresses is exaggerated to the point of making them invisible in the moonlight. Similarly, the intention of the statement about Citraketu’s ten million wives is to show the intensity of the king’s desire to have a son. As stated above, the purpose of the story is to instill renunciation in the mind of the reader. The human mind is full of desires, and, according to Vedic scripture, there are three chief desires: desire for pleasure, desire for a good future life, and desire to have good progeny. None of them can be completely satisfied, as we see in the present story where the king is unable to fulfill his desire for good progeny.

Sage Aṅgirā blessed King Citraketu that he would be able to beget a son whose name will be harṣa- śoka prada (lit., the giver of pleasure and grief). The king was overjoyed when his son was finally begotten, but his joy plunged into grief when the co-wives of the child’s mother poisoned the son out of envy. Thus he remained dissatisfied.

Lessons from the Suggested Meaning

The suggested meaning this story is that if he was not able to fulfill his desires with ten million wives and thus remained dissatisfied, how can an ordinary person be satisfied in material life, who has only one wife? Citraketu was a king and despite having millions of wives, he was frustrated even after his desire was fulfilled. Therefore, how can an ordinary person, who has only one wife and many desires, be satisfied?

The wife in this tale signifies the means to satisfy desire. Therefore it is understood that this statement was made to instill detachment in the listeners and readers of the Bhāgavatam, as explained above by Śukadeva Gosvāmī (SB 12.3.14).

Taking the expression “ten million wives” as alaṅkāra, however, doesn’t mean that there are no real wives – for the king obviously had many wives. The number of ten million wives can also denote mental states (vṛttis). There are similar instances where the Bhāgavatam compares the mind and its movements, the vṛttis, to wives, as in SB 4.29.5. In this chapter, Nārada speaks to King Prācīnabarhi, telling him the allegorical story about King Purañjana who is completely infatuated with his queen Purañjanī. Purañjanī can be understood as the intelligence of King Purañjana, but is, at the same time, his wife in the literal sense. That there are millions of vṛttis is stated by Jaḍa Bharata in his instructions to Rahūgaṇa. He says that there are eleven original vṛttis which transform into thousands and then millions of vṛttis (SB 5.11.11). The name Citraketu itself suggests a mind full of various desires (citra). Thus the conclusion of the Citraketu story is that one cannot become materially satisfied trying to fulfill one’s unlimited desires; satisfaction or fulfillment can be experienced only if these vṛttis are surrendered to God or used in His service. This is exactly what Citraketu did later on.

Thus not every detail in the Bhāgavatam is meant to be taken literally, and we must carefully use intelligence to discern direct from implied and associated meanings.

Bhāgavatam Pedagogy – Part 1

Bhagavat Purana

Chapters four through seven of the First Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavat Purāṇa relays the story of how Śrī Vyāsadeva composed the present version of this tremendous work. After arranging the One Veda into four, he wrote eighteen Purāṇas, including the original version of Bhagavat Purāṇa, the Mahābhārata and the Vedānta Sūtra.

Even after such prolific writing, Śrī Vyāsadeva felt dissatisfied. In response to this and at the behest of his teacher, Śrī Nārada Muni, he composed Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, or Bhagavat Purāṇa, his ultimate literary achievement. This revised version of the original Bhagavat Purāṇa was the outcome of his experience gained in samādhi (SB 1.7.4-6).

The purpose of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is to glorify the Supreme Absolute Truth, known as Śrī Kṛṣṇa, for the benefit of the suffering humanity. Śrī Vyāsa himself calls this Purāṇa the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree and compares it to the personification of rasa, or devotional relish. It is to be tasted by the rasikas, the connoisseurs of rasa, and relished by the sahṛdayas, the sober-hearted people or those whose hearts are imbued with sattva (SB 1.1.3).

Thus we can say that the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is one of the eighteen Purāṇas with the additional characteristic of rasa, placing it in the category of kāvya (lit., poetry) as well. Kāvya is described in Sāhitya-darpaṇa, an authoritative book on poetics by Viśvanātha Kavirāja as vakyam rasatmakam kāvyam: that whose very essence is rasa is called kāvya. Without rasa, a poetic work cannot be called kāvya.

Methods of Teaching

The fact that Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is a kāvya is expressed in the following verse cited by Śrī Jiva Gosvami in Tattva Sandarbha (Anuccheda 26, quoted from Harī Līlāmṛta 1.9), which also establishes Śrīmad Bhagavatam as the highest authority in disseminating knowledge of the Absolute:

vedāḥ purānaṁ kāvyam ca prabhur mitraṁ priyeva ca
bodhayantīti hi prābhus tri-vṛd bhāgavataṁ punaḥ

“The Vedas, Purāṇas and poetic works (kāvya) instruct one like a master, friend, or beloved, respectively, but Śrīmad Bhagavatam instructs like all three.”

This statement reflects the traditional Indian understanding that one can be instructed as if by a ruler, a friend, or a lover. The Vedas utilize an imperative voice, resembling an overlord: satyaṁ vāda dharma cara. “Speak the truth and be religious” (Taittirīya Upaniṣad 1.11). The Vedas do not need to offer logical reasons for following their instructions, because one is expected to obey without question. The Purāṇas instruct like a friend, narrating stories with moral conclusion and providing reasoned explanations when required. Kāvya, or poetic literature, gives counsel like a beloved woman, who uses sweet words while sharing indirectly. Such instructions are expressed in an aesthetically pleasing way to attract the reader or hearer. Śrīmad Bhagavatam uses all three of these methods to convey its teachings.

Kāvya makes use of lakṣaṇā-vṛtti, or indicated meaning, and vyañjana vṛtti or suggested meaning, to convey its intent. In poetics, vyañjana vṛtti is considered the essential beauty of a piece of poetry. If something is stated directly, the kavis, or learned poets, consider it rather cheap and gross. In kāvya, rasa is predominantly based on vyañjana vṛtti –-especially the mādhurya rasa. Therefore, Indian plays and poetic works are full of such vyañjana, or expressions with suggested meaning. As indicated in the very beginning of the Bhāgavatam (SB 1.1.2), this work is a rasa śāstra, and thus makes use of lakṣaṇā and vyañjana vṛtti profusely – especially in the Tenth Canto.

The Ten Topics of the Bhāgavatam

Upon listing the ten topics of Bhagavat Purāṇa, Sukadeva Gosvami mentions that the Bhāgavatam uses indirect statements to explain these topics.

atra sargo visargaś ca
   sthānaṁ poṣaṇam ūtayaḥ
   nirodho muktir āśrayaḥ

“In this book, the following ten topics are described: sarga [the original setting in motion of primordial nature by the Lord, i.e., primary creation], visarga [the secondary creation of the primal cosmic being, Brahmā], sthāna [the sustenance of living beings], poṣaṇa [the mercy displayed by the Lord in nurturing His devotees], ūti [the subconscious imprints and desires that promote engagement in goal-oriented action], manv-antara [the religious path enacted by the Manus], īśānukathā [narrations of the Lord and His devotees], nirodha [dissolution of the creation], mukti [liberation] and āśraya [the substratum or ultimate shelter of individual and collective being].” (SB 2.10.1)

The following verse of the Bhāgavatam provides further description:

daśamasya viśuddhy-arthaṁ
   navānām iha lakṣaṇam
varṇayanti mahātmānaḥ
   śrutenārthena cāñjasā

“The first nine topics are described to make the tenth subject explicit. The great scholars describe sometimes directly or by literal meaning and sometimes indirectly or by suggested meaning.” (SB 2.10.2)

Śrī Jīva Gosvamī comments in Tattva Sandarbha (56):

“To clarify the meaning of the tenth subject depicted here, the highly elevated ātmās [mentioned in this book, such as Vidura and Maitreya] describe the characteristics of the first nine subjects, sometimes directly, by offering prayers of glorification using words that graphically depict their intended object, and sometimes indirectly, by pointing out the intended meaning (artha) [i.e., tātparyam] implicit in various narrations.”

The Śrīmad Bhagavatam discusses ten topics, beginning with primary creation, but the sages’ real purpose in describing the characteristics of the first nine is to provide us systematic, lucid knowledge of the tenth item, the ultimate shelter of all being, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. One might object here that it is not apparent exactly how the discussion of the other nine topics elucidates the tenth. To this we reply that in the Bhāgavatam the sages describe the tenth topic both directly (śrutena), by the explicit utterance of prayers and other statements, and indirectly (arthena), through the implied purport (tātparya) of various historical accounts.

(to be continued)

Are Women Duplicitous and Selfish According to Bhāgavatam? (Part 2)

Mohinī’s Criticism of Herself

As similar example can be found in the story of the churning of the milk-ocean by the devas and asuras. (Devas are those who live responsibly, looking after the condition of nature and the world. Asuras are materialistic people whose prime interest is sense gratification, regardless of its effect on nature and the world).

When the ocean was churned by these two parties, various items appeared from it. At last  Dhanvantari, an avatāra of Viṣṇu and presiding deity of Āyurveda (Vedic medical science)  appeared with a pot of nectar (amṛtam) in His hand. By drinking this nectar, one would attain a long life and immunity from any weapons. Immediately there was a big commotion to grab the pot. Being more powerful, the asuras succeeded in snatching it. Frustrated, the devas took shelter of Śrī Viṣṇu, who assured them He would help.

Mohini distributing Nectar

While the devas and asuras continued arguing for a share of nectar, Śrī Viṣṇu appeared as a beautiful young girl named Mohinī. When the asuras saw her, their minds were completely captivated by her beauty. Marveling, they exclaimed in unison, “Oh, what a beauty! Oh what a body! Oh, what a youth!” With throbbing hearts they approached her and uttered with gleeful smiles,

“O beautiful lady, who are you and what brings you here? Indeed, with your beautiful sidelong glances you are churning our hearts. We have never seen a beautiful girl like you before. Surely you have been sent by Brahmā himself to please our minds and senses. O you with beautiful thighs, we plead with you to help us solve our dispute about the distribution of this nectar. We, devas and asuras, are both sons of Kaśyapa, and have acquired this nectar by our joint effort. We want you to divide it among ourselves without any bias.”

When Mohinī was thus beseeched by the asuras, she smiled coyly while looking down and, touching her chin with her right hand and moving her beautiful eye brows, she spoke as follows:

kathaṁ kaśyapa-dāyādāḥ puṁścalyāṁ mayi saṅgatāḥ
viśvāsaṁ paṇḍito jātu kāminīṣu na yāti hi
sālāvṛkāṇāṁ strīṇāṁ ca svairiṇīnāṁ sura-dviṣaḥ
sakhyāny āhur anityāni nūtnaṁ nūtnaṁ vicinvatām

“O sons of sage Kaśyapa, it is foolish to put your trust in me, because you don’t even know who I am. What if I am unchaste and untrustworthy? Wise people never put faith in such frivolous women. O asuras, there is no difference between wolves and women of loose character. Their friendship is never stable, they both hunt for newer and newer prey.” (SB 8.9.9-10)

A Hidden Purpose to Fulfill

These statements are spoken by Śrī Viṣṇu Himself in the form of a woman, yet can be read as quite demeaning towards women if divorced from their context.

Mohinī was not giving a seminar on the nature of women. She actually had a hidden motive to give the nectar to the devas, and was simply being honest about not being a trustworthy friend for the deva’s enemies. To accomplish her goal, she had to win the confidence of the asuras. One way to do that is to show humility, especially in the face of praise. The asuras were already enamored by her beauty and spoke with reverence. Now, when they heard words that sounded like humility, they became completely convinced that she was a good person, the most unbiased person to distribute the nectar. Thus they fell into her trap.

After recounting these words of Mohinī, Śrī Śukadeva states that the asuras developed full trust in her by hearing her words, which he describes as “tricky jugglery” (kṣvelitaiḥ). Thus Śukadeva himself implies that the description of women by Mohinī is not a direct “king-like” proclamation to be taken literally, it is instead, something indirect or deceptive.

Furthermore, even if we insist on direct analysis of her statement, we must note that she does not describe all women as being “wolves,” rather she describes only frivolous woman as untrustworthy. She does not say, “I am a woman, so you shouldn’t trust me.” She says, “You don’t even know who I am. Maybe I am a frivolous and untrustworthy woman.” That she is a woman is obvious, the thing the asuras should beware of is that they don’t yet know if she is a trustworthy or untrustworthy woman.

Urvaśī’s Criticism of Herself

A similar and even more puzzling incidence is seen in the 14th chapter of the Ninth Canto in the description of the story of King Purūravā — a great, powerful and handsome king. Once, sage Nārada was describing the greatness and beauty of Purūravā in Indra’s assembly. When Urvaśī, one of the most beautiful heavenly damsels (apsaras) heard this, she desired to associate with King Purūravā. Since Urvaśī had been cursed to come to earth for some time, she took this as an opportunity to undergo the curse and come down. She met King Purūravā who immediately fell in love with her and proposed that she become his wife. Urvaśī agreed, but only on three conditions:

1.    The king had to protect her two sheep who were dear to her like her own babies.
2.    She should always be given food cooked in ghee
3.    The king should not appear naked in front of her, except when uniting with her.

If he ever violated any of these conditions, she would immediately leave him. Actually, she stipulated these conditions because she wanted an excuse to leave Purūravā and return to heaven eventually. The king readily agreed to all the conditions, his heart being completely captured by her. Thus they lived happily for many years.

Regretting Urvaśī’s absence from his court, Indra in time ordered some Gandharvas to arrange for her return. The Gandharvas came to earth and in the dark night stole her sheep, who started bleating loudly. When Urvaśī heard this, she immediately began lamenting and taunting the king: “Alas, alas, this king is a coward, and foolishly I have entrusted my sheep to him. He boasts about his valor but cannot even fulfill his promise to protect sheep! Certainly I have been cheated!”

Urvashi and King Pururava

These harsh words tormented the King’s heart. He immediately jumped out of bed, took up a sword, and chased the Gandharvas while still naked, just as they had plotted. They left the sheep and created light, causing the king to be naked in front of Urvaśī without the purpose of uniting with her. True to her words, Urvaśī immediately disappeared from his bedroom and went back to heaven to join Indra. When Purūravā returned and could not find Urvaśī, he was heartbroken. He searched for her day and night, feeling intense pangs of separation, and wondered all over the earth like a madman who had lost all his wealth.

Once, while he was in Kurukṣetra, King Purūravā saw Urvaśī on the bank of the river Sarasvatī along with her five female friends. The king cried out piteously, “O my wife, o my beloved, where have you gone? Come back to me, don’t leave me like this! Without you, this beautiful body will fall and will be food for wolves, jackals and vultures.” Hearing the king plead in this manner, Urvaśī spoke some of the most denigrating words ever spoken about the character of women in general:

mā mṛthāḥ puruṣo ‘si tvaṁ mā sma tvādyur vṛkā ime
kvāpi sakhyaṁ na vai strīṇāṁ vṛkāṇāṁ hṛdayaṁ yathā
striyo hy akaruṇāḥ krūrā durmarṣāḥ priya-sāhasāḥ
ghnanty alpārthe ‘pi viśrabdhaṁ patiṁ bhrātaram apy uta

“O King, you are a heroic man. Do not give up your life like this for the benefit of wolves. You should know that women do not have true friendship with anybody. Their heart is just like the heart of wolves, devoid of compassion and are cruel by nature. They are temperamental and will risk anything for their own pleasure. To please themselves they can get their own husbands or brothers killed by tricking them into confidence. Their hard hearts can cheat innocent people after eliciting their trust. Always wanting newer and newer companions, they are unchaste and frivolous.” (SB 9.14.36-37)

Negative Advertising for Detachment

These statements have been misused to insult women by those ignorant of their real import. Every sane person knows that not all women match this description. Women are also mothers of humanity and are the most loving and kind people, especially to their children. If all women were of the nature as described here, humanity would cease to exist because women of such character would never raise babies.

Advertising executives sell products by unrealistically presenting their products accompanied by beautiful girls. Urvaśī is doing the opposite here, painting an unrealistically unpleasant picture of women so that King Purūravā would come to his senses and take care of his severely neglected duties as a king. We become influenced positively or negatively by hearing good or bad about a person or object. Urvaśī is using this human psychology to detach King Purūravā and turn him away from her.

Therefore the real intention of Urvaśī, who is a woman herself, is not in describing the nature of women in general. She knew well that she could not come back to him because she belonged to another world. She had to come and lived on earth as a result of a curse by Mitra and Varuṇa.

Again, she is using the principle that “beloveds instruct indirectly.” She does not directly blame herself, but instead indirectly blames herself by blaming something she is associated with, in this case, her gender. In fact, she is speaking, accurately, about her personal flaws as an individual, but because she is speaking as a beloved (not as a truth-proclaiming king), she does so indirectly.

Men in general have a keen weakness to be easily attracted to the female body. This is the basic principle behind most advertisements. The products and the women in the ad often have nothing in common, but once the woman catches the man’s eye, his rationality drops and he becomes completely susceptible to accept the message of the advertisement without discrimination.

In stories like this one, śāstra tries to do the opposite. Just as the object of advertisement is not to make men attracted to the girl but to sell the product, in the same way, the intention of śāstra is not to denigrate women, but to make men detached so that they can be serious about spiritual life. But just as by seeing a provocative ad, a man feels attracted to the girl, similarly people who do not understand the real import of śāstra nurture their hatred for women by reading such stories. Since hatred is just the back-side of attachment, this is certainly not the intention of śāstra.

An important hermeneutic principle says, na hi ninda nindayitum pravartate api tu vidheya stotum: “The purpose of criticism is not to criticize others but to establish the conclusion about the subject under discussion” – which here is detachment from sense enjoyment.

Ultimate Context: Praise of the Feminine

Krsna and Gopis / JIVA
Krsna with Gopis

Overall, we have to consider that in many stories of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam women have been highly glorified, especially the gopīs. To give an example, when Uddhava came to Vrindavan as a message carrier of Kṛṣṇa and personally witnessed the love of the women of Vraja for Kṛṣṇa, he could not but praise them beyond anyone’s expectation. This is the same Uddhava who is a student of Bṛhaspati, the guru of the devas, and whom Kṛṣṇa Himself describes as no less than Him in any respect. This same Uddhava said,

vande nanda-vraja-strīṇāṁ pāda-reṇum abhīkṣṇaśaḥ
yāsāṁ hari-kathodgītaṁ punāti bhuvana-trayam

“I continuously worship even one dust particle from the feet of the women of Vraja, the glorification of whose character purifies the three worlds.” (SB 10.47.63)

Indeed, Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu said that to get the highest love for Kṛṣṇa, one has to acquire the mood of the women of Vraja.

Śāstra uses many techniques to instruct human beings. Without knowing those techniques, there is a good chance of misunderstanding and misapplying of scriptural instructions. Therefore in future I plan to write a book systematically explaining the traditional authorized methodologies for understanding the statements of śāstra.

Are Women Duplicitous and Selfish According to Bhāgavatam? (Part 1)

By Satyanarayana Dasa

According to Jīva Gosvāmī (in Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 26.2), there are three ways to instruct: like a king, like a friend, or like a beloved. The Vedas instruct like a king, giving direct instructions. The Purāṇas teach like a friend by giving stories which have a moral. And books of Sāhitya (Indian literature) teach indirectly. This is described as “like a lover” because traditionally, a girlfriend or wife, who used to have reverence for her beloved, did not consider it appropriate to give direct instructions. Instead she would speak with indirect innuendo or in an implied manner. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam uses all three techniques.

Criticism of Diti by Kaśyapa

Here is an example pertinent to the topic of Bhāgavatam’s view of women in general. Kaśyapa, a great sage, a grandson of Brahmā, and a venerable progenitor (prajāpati) says:

   śarat-padmotsavaṁ vaktraṁ vacaś ca śravaṇāmṛtam
hṛdayaṁ kṣura-dhārābhaṁ strīṇāṁ ko veda ceṣṭitam
   na hi kaścit priyaḥ strīṇām añjasā svāśiṣātmanām
patiṁ putraṁ bhrātaraṁ vā ghnanty arthe ghātayanti ca

“A woman’s face is as beautiful as a fully blossoming lotus flower in the autumn season and her words are sweet and soothing like ambrosia, but her heart is sharp like the edge of a knife. Who can understand the intentions of women? No one is really dear to them because their real interest is only to fulfill their own desires. For their own sake they might even kill or assassinate their own husbands, sons or brothers.” (SB 6.18.41-42)

Dancing Girl / Evita WorksAnyone, especially a woman, who reads these verses cannot but be baffled how a great sage can speak in such a denigrating manner about women as a class, and furthermore how Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, which is very dear to Vaiṣṇavas and is accepted as spotless literature, can have such a biased view towards half of humanity. Is all the glorification given to scriptures like Śrīmad Bhāgavatam hogwash? Are these scriptures written by male chauvinists who delight in deriding women? Do such scriptures intentionally oppress women and rob them of the equal status they duly deserve? Are these charges true, or is there some other mystery behind these statements that is not evident from a cursory reading?

Indeed, various similar statements can be found in many Purāṇas, and have become the subject of discussion for modern scholars, Indologists, “outcaste” Dalit thinkers, progressive feminists, etc. Hundreds of books focus on verses like these, criticizing not only the scriptures, but Vedic culture as a whole. I do not deny that women are and have been suppressed and mistreated in Hindu society, but the scriptures are not at fault. The true cause of such mistreatment is ignorance of the true meaning of scriptures. Please consider that mistreatment of women (and other groups) exists in every religion, and among secular societies as well. Therefore, human nature, not scripture, is at the root of the problem — for human nature impels those in power to exploit the weak.

In most cases, verses like this are not an absolute statement and thus cannot be giving as a general principle. They apply to a specific situation and must be studied in the context in which they have been spoken. Otherwise great injustice is done to scripture. One has to consider the speaker of the verse, the circumstances under which it is spoken, and the person it is spoken to. If we do not consider these factors, it is very likely that we will misunderstand the real import of statements in śāstra. Many times people intentionally cite controversial verses out of context. The simple audience, not knowing this, is thus mislead into misgivings about scripture.

The truth is that scriptures have nothing to gain by denigrating women nor did the speakers display biased, malignant behavior in their personal lives. Sage Kaśyapa, for example, had thirteen wives. That alone can demonstrate that he not was a misogynist, for why would a person who hates women keep thirteen of them around him  constantly?

Diti’s Desire for Revenge

Diti and Kashyapa Muni / ISKCON Desire Tree
Diti and Kashyapa Muni

Let us consider the context of Kaśyapa’s statement quoted at the outset. Diti was one of Kaśyapa’s beloved wives. She gave birth to twins, Hiraṇyakaśipu and Hiraṇyākṣa. They were conceived at an inauspicious time against the will of Kaśyapa and predicted to be materialistic by nature. These two brothers terrorized the whole world and disturbed its management by overpowering various devas who look after the managerial affairs. Therefore both of them were killed by Śrī Viṣṇu who is in charge of the maintenance of the universe. First Hiraṇyākṣa was killed because he had made the whole earth uninhabitable. Thereafter, Hiraṇyakaśipu, who dethroned Indra, the chief of the managers, was also killed by Viṣṇu in the form of Nṛsiṁhadeva. When Diti lost both of her sons, she was very angry at heart and wanted to take revenge. She reasoned that it was Indra, the chief manager of the devas, who had plotted against her sons and got them killed by instigating Śrī Viṣṇu. Therefore, to take revenge, she decided to get Indra killed. For this she devised a plan which was to please her husband, sage Kaśyapa, and then receive a boon from him to have a son who would be able to murder Indra.

With this intention, she began serving her husband and doing every action to please him. With much care, attention and devotion, she took care of Kaśyapa. She would speak to him in a very pleasing voice and always smile at him with alluring charm. Eventually Kaśyapa wanted to reciprocate her apparent kindness. So one day, in a happy mood, he asked Diti to take a boon from him. Diti, of course, was just waiting for this opportunity. Therefore she immediately asked her heart’s desire: to get a son who could kill Indra. When Kaśyapa heard these unbelievable words from the beautiful lips of his devoted wife, it was like a dagger in his heart. He almost collapsed in complete confusion and did not know how to respond, because Indra was also his son, the child of his wife Aditi. In fact, Indra is one of his dearest and most famous sons. How could Kaśyapa now grant a boon that would be the murder instrument for his beloved son?

This is the context in which he spoke the verses cited above. Before, criticizing his wife, however, he criticized himself being attached to the pleasure he enjoyed in her charms and thus falling prey to her trap. He admits that he should have been smart enough to perceive her hidden motives, but he failed only because of his weakness towards pleasure.

Kaśyapa’s Failure and Frustation

Then, feeling frustrated, trapped and bound his own words, he vented his anger indirectly at his wife, by criticizing women as a class. Indeed, it is quite common that when we become angry at a particular person who is dear to us, we indirectly express our anger towards their religion, ethnic background, etc. These statements are not literal, “king-like proclamations,” they are indirect expressions towards a beloved. It is insane to accept an indirect expression as a direct proclamation. Any sane person knows that generalized statements do not convey literal truths. No community or class can accurately be generalized, because each contains a wide variety of people. Kaśyapa, for example, would never say these same statements to his other wife Aditi, who gave birth to Indra and Śrī Vāmanadeva, an avatāra of Viṣṇu.

When one studies the character of Diti as individual, one understands that by nature she was self-centered and uncooperative. The very word diti means “one who creates faction or division”. Kaśyapa must have known this, but somehow he succumbed to Diti’s female charm. That was his weakness, which is not uncommon in men. That is why he first condemned himself.

Ego finds pleasure in finding faults in others instead of inspecting itself. It is difficult for one’s own self-esteem to accept defeat. This is why after Kaśyapa had realized his own mistake, his ego took over and he turned his criticism outward towards Diti. He expressed this indirectly as a condemnation of women in general. This same flaw is at the root of many men who try to justify their own weaknesses and vindicate their own failures by using śāstra to support their ego. Thus, the next time you hear a man using śāstra to criticize women, you can be confident that he is just trying to hide his own weaknesses.

We have demonstrated that verses should not be read out of context — although it unfortunately happens quite often, even by those supposed to be spiritual teachers of śāstra. The context here was not a literal discussion of the nature of women in general, so Kaśyapa’s words should not be misinterpreted as such.

(to be continued)