Tag Archives: Vedic Culture; Bhagavat Purana

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)

The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 3

 Verse Six

evaṁ parābhidhyānena
ṛtvaṁ prakṛteḥ pumān
karmasu kriyam
ṇair ātmāni manyate

Prakṛti is the entity that carries out material activities, but the ātmā thinks that the deeds done by prakṛti’s guṇas are his own deeds, because he completely absorbs his self identification in her.

Evam (“in this way”) refers to ātmā’s condition, described in previous verses, of having forgotten his true nature due to infatuation with prakṛti. Parābhidhyānena (completely absorbing his concentration in another being) indicates that the self (pumān) completely identifies with a being other than himself, prakṛti. This is why he thinks (manyate) that the deeds carried out by her qualities (guṇas) are actually his own deeds (ātmāni).

The conclusion is that the position of being an agent of material actions is not within the inherent nature of the self, ātmā-svarūpa. Rather it is merely a conception arising from his identification with prakṛti’s guṇa (sattva, rajas and tamas). The meaning is that all actions happen in the mind-body complex made of material nature but the self identifies with them as his own.

Verse Seven

tad asya saṁsṛtir bandha
āra-tantryaṁ ca tat-kṛtam
bhavaty akartur
ākṣiṇo nirvṛtātmāna

Because of this misconception, the jīva falls into the cycle of birth and death called samsara, and becomes bound. Even though the jīva is not the doer – he is the master, the witness, and blissful by nature – he thus becomes dependent.

As described in the previous verses, ātmā attains the association of prakṛti’s guṇas and becomes bound within them due to his extreme identification with them. The current verse adds that this leads the ātmā into birth and death, which makes him dependent on prakṛti and controlled by karma. This shows that the ātmā in this world is not constitutionally or intrinsically bound to prakṛti. The ātmā’s bondage is an acquired condition, not an inherent one.

To make this very clear, Lord Kapila also describes the constitutional nature of ātmā when not bound by prakṛti: The ātmā is inherently uninvolved with selfish material deeds (akartu), is an independent master (īśasya), is clear-sighted and unbewildered (sākṣiṇa), and exists blissfully without needs (nirvṛtātmāna).

 The word akartu (lit. non-doer) does not imply that ātmā is not the shelter of will or efforts, for there can be no action by the mind-body complex without the presence of ātmā. It means that ātmā is devoid of common material deeds, such as walking, etc. This is made clear by the next word, īśasya (lit. of the controller), which stipulates that ātmā is not inherently controlled by karma. The next word, sākṣiṇah (lit. of the witness) also makes this clear by stipulating that ātmā “has eyes” (sa-akṣi) and thus clear vision, and thus knowledge (which shows that ātmā possesses knowledge as an attribute, jñāna-gunaka). Indeed, the meaning of being a witness is to experience something directly. Thus the natural state of the ātmā is to directly witness reality. Knowledge of reality is therefore his inherent attribute (thus he can be described as jñāna-guṇaka).

The final word describing the inherent nature of ātmā is nirvṛtātmāna. This word stipulates that ātmā is intrinsically conscious by nature (thus he is described as jñāna svarüpa). This word is a compound of nirvṛta and ātmā. Examining the word nirvṛta will be helpful. This word is based on the root vṛ, joined to the prefix nir- and the suffix -kta.  The root vr means to cover, but when used with prefix nir it means to be happy, unobstructed. The suffix kta (which is usually applied in the sense of past perfect) has been applied on nirvr to convey the sense of “nature.”  Thus the word means, “One whose nature is ānanda, blissful.”

There is a statement from Śruti to support that ātmā is inherently blissful and free of worries by nature: nirvana māyā eva ayam ātmā (“This self is verily blissful”). Bliss is a sense of comfortable feeling. Naturally, if ātmā is independent and uncontrolled by karma (as stipulated by the term īśaya) then it has no worries and is blissful – for it has no contact with beginningless good and bad karma and instead has the eight natural qualities such as apahata pāpma, as described in Cāndogya Upanishad: ya ātmā apahatapapma vijaro vimrtyur visoko avijighatso apipasah  satyakamah  satyasankalpah (8.7.1) which says that the pure self is free from sin, old age, death, grief, hunger, thirst; and his desire and will are fulfilled.

This is Lord Kapila’s description of the nature of the pure living being free from any contact with prakṛti, having the nature of consciousness and having consciousness as his attribute, while endowed with the above stated eight qualities as part of his svarūpa. So, it is understood that the very nature of ātmā is unlimited, uncontracted, pure consciousness. But this consciousness can be covered by ignorance and become subject to karma. Karma forces consciousness to contract into various types of bodies, from Brahma to grass. When ātmā enters these various bodies, his consciousness becomes limited accordingly. Ignorantly identifying with that particular body, the conditioned ātmā instigates activities related to it. As a result, he becomes subject to karma and must experience pleasure and suffering, and continue to be implicated in the flow of the material world.

A doubt may arise:

“Ātmā is said to be conscious by nature and self-luminous (jñāna svarūpa and svayam prakasa). But when he identifies with a particular body, he is darkened by ignorance. What happens to his quality of self-luminosity? It appears to be lost. If the self-luminosity still existed, it would seem impossible for ātmā to be in darkness regarding his true self-identity. Thus it would not be possible for him to identify with any material form. If the self-luminosity is lost, his very nature of an eternal entity is destroyed.”

We reply:

That is not true. Ātmā has two types of jñāna, namely svarūpa-bhūta and dharma-bhūta. The first is the intrinsic nature, i.e. the nature of being consciousness, the second is the quality of possessing awareness and knowledge. The first one has no content in it except the sense of “I”. It is subjective consciousness. The second one is related to objects outside the self. It is objective awareness. The conscious, self-illuminating nature of the ātmā (jñāna-svarūpa) is not lost. The nature of the ātmā is eternally to be full of brilliant consciousness. But the attribute of being able to use that luminous consciousness to illuminate objects (dharma-bhūta-jñāna) is covered. The attribute is covered and contracted, not the intrinsic nature which sprouts the attribute.

A further doubt arises:

“OK, so you accept the loss of the attribute of knowledge, dharma-bhūta-jñāna. The question we ask is: How does ātmā lose this attribute? There seem to be only two possible implications. Either the illuminating power is obstructed by ignorance, or it is extinguished altogether. In either case the attribute of being self-illuminating is destroyed. Since this attribute is accepted as eternal, this raises a logical fallacy because something eternal cannot be destroyed.”

We reply:

Consciousness (jñāna) as an attribute of ātmā is intrinsic and therefore eternal, but we accept that it can expand or contract in a real sense. The sentient knowledge of the self is not “destroyed,” it merely undergoes change in the form of expansion and contraction, by the influence of karma. The illusion of identifying oneself with a body needs a conscious base. Therefore, we see that self-illumination still exists in the ignorant ātmā – but to a contracted extent – as the basis for the experience of illusion. The ātmā illuminates himself, there is no need of any other consciousness to reveal him. Only inert objects need another agent to illuminate them. So, even in ignorance the ātmā retains his nature of self-illumination. But his knowledge about being eternal (etc.) is lost, and thus illusion is produced. Loss here means the illumination or light is removed. Such illumination or light is not exactly within the nature of ātmā. It is more precisely a quality of dharma-bhūta-jñāna called prasara (lit. expansion). In other words, dharma-bhūta-jñāna possesses light which naturally spreads all around. This spreading is called prasara or expansion. The prasara can become contracted (saṅkoca) by karma. That is called conditioning or limitation. Thus ātmā never loses the attribute of dharma-bhūta-jñāna.  Expansion is not the same as lack of contraction. It is a positive entity itself which removes the contracting covering on the ātmā’s light, thus destroying illusion.

In summary, the ātmā inherently and eternally possesses the attribute of sentience, jñāna, and eternally possesses the constitution of consciousness. But the ability for these to shine can be expanded or contracted by the function of dharma-bhūta-jñāna.

Advaita-vāda, however, cannot answer this question about the loss of ātmā’s illuminating power. It says that ātmā is consciousness itself, without qualities. Thus it says that the illumination of consciousness cannot be a quality of the ātmā, it must be intrinsic to the ātmā himself. Therefore the loss of illuminating power and subsequent illusion of the jīva is an unsolvable conundrum for them. In their paradigm, it amounts to the destruction of an eternal entity – a logical impossibility.


The Essence of Philosophy

Question:  I heard that Sukadeva Gosvami was in his last life the parrot of Krishna, and in this life first he was a Brahman-realized person. How to understand this, if he’s an eternal associate of the Lord? Is this lila?

Answer: Try to understand the essence of the philosophy. These stories are there to explain the philosophy, but by themselves they have no meaning. Whether Sukadeva Gosvami  really existed or not, that itself has no meaning. The point is what is being explained, e.g. dharmah projjhita-kaitavah (to reject all materially motivated or cheating religion).

Bhakti can’t be performed unless one becomes free from the cheating propensity. And one of the greatest cheating propensities is the desire for liberation. Unless one becomes free from the desire for liberation completely, one will not perform bhakti. Because mukti and bhakti are completely antagonistic to each other.  One who wants to attain mukti, has no interest in bhakti, because mukti means, „anything else is useless, renounce everything, let the whole world burn to ashes, I don’t care“. One is interested only in one’s own selfishness. So that has to be absolutely removed.

The story of Sukadeva Gosvami is explained for this purpose only. Sukadeva was self-realized from his very birth, nobody can be more realized than him. He was so realized that he didn’t know the difference between male and female. He was completely absorbed in Brahman. But after the same person heard one sloka of Srimad Bhagavatam, he returned to study from his father. He studied the whole Bhagavatam and Vyasadeva taught him.

That means, bhakti is superior to mukti. Sukadeva Gosvami  Mukti  was such a great, highly renounced person, but he renounced even that mukti and became a follower of bhakti-marga, the devotional path. What can be a higher renunciation than that?

Unless it is established that bhakti is superior to mukti, people will not take interest in it. The Bhagavatam main purpose is to establish this fact.

That is the whole story between Narada and Vyasa, because Vyasa has not explained uttama bhakti clearly. This is how Vyasadeva begins to tells the story and explains how his son was born.  Otherwise, there is no historical evidence that Sukadeva Gosvami  stayed in his mother’s womb for 16 years. And as soon as he took birth, he grew up. What is the need of showing all this?

Stories have to be made to create some interest, but the point is not in the story at all. If you try to investigate the story, you’ll end up nowhere. There are so many types of Sukadeva Gosvamis. Just when you read Mahabharata, Sukadeva Gosvami is married and has children there. And there is also Jayasukadeva, another Sukadeva. But that is not the point. The point is the purport behind the story. Bhagavatam wants to establish dharmah projjhita-kaitavah, and it uses different stories for that.

Another example is the story of the four Kumaras. They were also absorbed in Brahman and completely naked because they were so renounced. They were so great that they went even to Vaikuntha.  And then they became angry. That is to show that even such renounced people can’t become free from their material vasanas (subtle impressions and inclinations). Only bhakti makes you completely pure and cleans the heart.  So this story basically defeats all these ideas of mayavada and similarly the path of yoga.

The whole purpose of all these stories is to show how devotion is free from all other motives and selfishness, which is all cheating. Unless one comes to this platform, one remains impure, because he still has some cheating propensity.

(transcription from a conversation)

Adhikara – Eligibility for Understanding Scriptures

By Satyanarayana Dasa

Everybody in this world has certain qualifications to perform specific duties or activities and, in so doing, gains satisfaction, happiness and success. If a person tries to perform duties or activities that he is not qualified to perform, then, in all probability, dissatisfaction, frustration and misery for himself, and possibly others, will result. Therefore, one of the very basic principles taught in Bhagavad Gita, is to work according to one’s qualifications. Krishna Himself says para dharmo bhayavaha— to perform the duty for which one is not qualified is dangerous.

Here’s a story to illustrate this point.

A washer man once owned a donkey and a dog. The washer man took good care of the donkey, because it carried loads of clothes to and from the river, where the washer man washed them. The washer man did not find the dog very useful, so he did not feed him properly. The dog was famished and emaciated.

One night, while the washer man was deep in sleep, a thief entered his house. The dog and the donkey both noticed the thief. The dog did not bark, although that was expected from him. Seeing this, the faithful donkey admonished him for not doing his duty. The dog replied contemptuously that the master did not care for him, and, therefore, he also did not care for the master. Hearing this, the donkey was enraged and decided to wake the master up by braying loudly. The washer man woke up and was confused:  why was the donkey braying? He thought that maybe he had been treating the donkey too nicely and had spoiled him to the extent that he was now unruly.

To teach him a lesson, the washer man got up from his bed and beat the donkey with a stick while abusing him verbally. The washer man then went back to bed. Meanwhile, the thief slinked away.

The dog who had been observing what was happening,  then asked the donkey, “How do you feel, my dear friend? You received a generous reward for your service.” Obviously, the donkey realized his mistake.

Everyone Is Unique

As different people have different qualifications, the Vedic scriptures instruct according to these qualifications.  Everything is not applicable to everyone. This unique characteristic of the Vedic scriptures is often overlooked. There are separate rules for students, married persons, renunciates, unmarried girls, widows, parents, teachers, rulers, and so on. In other words, the duties differ according to the nature and the status of a person.

Similarly,  because  different people having different qualifications, there are a variety of scriptures, deities, schools of philosophy, and various types of practices in India. Everyone has to walk from where they are standing.

To ward against the danger of an unqualified person receiving knowledge, knowledge was never written in the Vedic culture. It was normally transferred through the oral tradition only. That is why the Vedas are called shruti — that which is to be heard from a teacher. Writing books on leaves came into vogue much later.  The author of a book, who was usually also a teacher, would not share its contents with an unqualified person. Students were  made to take a vow not to further transfer the knowledge to undeserving candidates.

Here are three other examples of situations where everyone cannot be treated the same.

Most universities require students to take an entrance exam.  The university then admits only the qualified students.  A student follows a curriculum that is meant to present information is an order that maps with the student’s development.  The student doesn’t take a physics class that requires math that hasn’t been taught yet, nor does the student take an advanced physics course before taking an introductory physics course. In each course, the professor lectures according to the level of his audience.

A book of medicine may describe various types of remedies, but they are not applicable to each person. The doctor must diagnose the disease and  then find a corresponding medicine to treat it. For a single disease, there may be many medicines available, but each one is not suitable for every patient. For example, in Ayurveda, medicine is not only prescribed according to the disease, but also after due regard has been given to the body type, character, age, immunity, gender, etc. of the patient.

To give another example, in Bhagavat Purana, there are many instructions meant for renunciates. But if a householder tries to apply them to himself, he would be miserable. Similarly, there are separate instructions for the different paths of yoga, karma, jnana and bhakti. One should judiciously discriminate amongst them.

Establishing Eligibility

In Sanskrit literature, it is common for the author in the opening verses, to state four things, as instructed in the following verse:

Adhikari ca sambandho visayasya prayojanam.

Avasyameva vaktavyam sastradau tu catustayam

(Shloka Varttika 1.1.17)

“The person eligible to read the book, the subject of the book, the relation of the book with the subject, and the purpose of the book must be explained in the very beginning.”

The intent is to inform the would-be reader if the book is of interest to him/her (anubandhacastustaya). With books of today, some of these things are explained in an introduction, preface or prologue. Out of these, the adhikari, or the person’s eligibility, is the most important. One of the most basic qualifications to reading scripture is that the person must be interested in attaining the specific purpose described. If the person does not have this qualification, then he/she is not qualified to read it, and would find it almost impossible to comprehend its real meaning.

Today, anyone can acquire any book in print version or even through the electronic media. One can also study the scriptures in universities where the requisite eligibility for studying them is not tested. The peculiarity of the scriptures is that if the person studying them does not have the requisite eligibility, he/she will not understand their essence. The eligibility which one possesses is like a tool to unravel the mystery hidden inside.

Misconceptions May Arise

Unfortunately a number of people who are unqualified to read the scriptures not only study them, but critique them. These critics are, in turn, regarded as authorities by others. This practice has created a lot of negativity about Indian scriptures, philosophies and spiritual practices. One often hears remarks such as  “Hinduism is a big hodge-podge. It is a big mess. It is the religion of a million gods.” But this cannot be further from the truth. Another thing to be considered is that, in a philosophy book, everything that is written may not be the concluding principle, or siddhanta, meant to be established by the author. There is also purvapaksha, or the principle to be refuted, which may not be explicitly identified. Unqualified people or those of unripe discrimination who study such books without proper guidance, may mistake the purvapaksa for the siddhanta. Many misconceptions have arisen because of misinterpretation of scriptures.

To avoid such misconceptions, many times a warning is given against the reading of scripture by unqualified people. For example, Lord Krishna emphatically bars non-devotees from reading Bhagavad Gita:

Idam te natapaskaya nabhaktaya kadacan

Na casusrusave vacyam na ca mam yo’bhyasuyati

(Gita 18.67)

“This  is not to be spoken to a person lacking control of his senses, to a person without true devotion, to a person who is unwilling to hear, or to one who envies me, thinking that I am material.”

The warning is both for the student as well as the teacher. If the teacher tries to teach an unqualified student,  it will be a futile endeavor.

As is stated:

Na’dravye nihita kacit kriya phalavati bhavet

Na vyaparasatena’pi sukavat pathyate bakah

(Hitopadesha 1.42)

“Just as by hundreds of attempts one cannot teach a crane to speak like a parrot, an unfit person can never be trained.”

Qualifications May Change

My humble advice and request to anyone interested in studying any Indian scripture is to first see if one has the necessary qualifications.  One should not feel discouraged or despondent, however, if not yet eligible, but the importance of eligibility must be understood. Human beings have a special ability to change themselves. One’s eligibility is not rigid and can be acquired or improved.