Reflections on the Bhagavatam- Part one: Vyasa -
(Originally published in a local congregational magazine)
Since some time back, I have again taken up reading the Srimad-bhagavatam. It is a couple of years since I read this book the last time, and even then I didn’t get further than the second canto. It seems like ages since I read all of it. Now I am at the beginning of the fourth canto, and my enthusiasm hasn’t waned yet.
I was inspired to read the Bhagavatam by a sannyasi who recently visited Finland. He did not directly tell me or anyone else to read it, but seeing his enthusiasm for the book, I was somehow affected. I know that Jiva Goswami and all other great acharyas [preceptors] of our Gaudiya Vaishnava school praise this text highly, indeed basing the whole theology of Gaudiya Vaishnavism on it, but I would find it somewhat dull. I used to think of it as the Old Testament of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, considering the books about the life of Sri Caitanya as the New. I found it much easier to identify with the devotees depicted in the Caitanya-bhagavata than with for example Svayambhuva Manu in the Bhagavatam. Also in terms of rituals and practices, it is easier to find inspiration in the later texts. While Haridasa Thakura’s chanting 196 rounds of mantra-japa is incredible to us, the python-yoga of the Bhagavatam is a completely different universe!
Technically, the Srimad-bhagavatam or the Bhagavata Purana is one of the 18 maha- or great puranas, generally sectarian texts dealing with a myriad of religious subjects. In addition to myths, religious speculation and prescriptions, these books describe cosmology, holy places, creation, duties for different classes of humans and so on, so much so that a reader looking for general spiritual advice is likely to be drowned in an ocean of details. The Bhagavatam also speaks about these topics, but in a completely different way than the other Puranas. In fact, it stands out in a number of ways: structurally, poetically, philosophically, and so on.
One can approach the text in many ways. Let your minds follow me along this! Vyasadeva, the venerable old sage, is sitting outside his ashrama in Shamyaprasa in the Himalayas, feeling all of his work to be incomplete. He has lived for a whole yuga, hundreds of thousands of years, seen great emperors and kings come and go, performed great austerities and penances, personally witnessed the deeds of Sri Krishna, and so much more. Seeing the diminishing memory of men, he has divided the original Veda into four, teaching the new branches to his most qualified disciples. With Ganesha as his scribe, he composed the Mahabharata, the epic history of India, spanning more than a hundred thousand verses. Still, he feels his body and mind to be heavy. Weary with age and despondency, he feels that his life has been in vain.
Then suddenly, literally out of the blue, appears Narada, the wise seer and messenger of the gods. Vyasa receives him with respect and asks for his help. “Where have I gone wrong? I am called ‘Vyasa’ since I am the compiler of the Vedas and their ancillary texts, but why am I so depressed? I have kept to my duties and always worked with the best interest of humanity at hand.”
Narada smiles and proceeds to gently chide Vyasa. “What you have done is relatively speaking wonderful. You have described the worldly duties of different kinds of men, you have written about yoga and Brahman, the impersonal divine effulgence. Still, in the absolute sense, your work is worthless, since you haven’t adequately written about the glory of Bhagavan, the personality of Godhead. Such a literature, even if imperfectly composed, is able to provoke a revolution in the consciousness of men!”
Narada then proceeds to illustrate what he has said by narrating his own story, his past life. This is the way the Bhagavatam works, it teaches through narrative. Again and again in the text, questions about the most abstruse philosophy are answered through stories. But the stories are not only good reading or vehicles for presenting theology or philosophy. They are all concerned with the activities of Krishna and his avataras. This makes them supremely valuable in themselves: by becoming engrossed in such stories, our minds become attracted to Krishna, and gradually our attraction for mundane matters will decrease.
After Narada has left, Vyasa touches water and sits down to meditate. Deep in trance, he sees the Highest Person, together with Maya, his power, dependent on him, through the influence of which the jivas or individual souls are bewildered by three-fold matter and put into suffering. However, he also sees that relief from this suffering can be had through bhakti-yoga, devotional service, and for that reason, he composes the Srimad Bhagavatam.
The trance of Vyasa has been painstakingly analyzed by Srila Jiva Goswami in the first part of his magnum opus, Bhagavata-sandarbha (Tattva-sandarbha 30-48). He uses it as a hermeneutical tool: by understanding so to speak the heart of Vyasa, his motivation for writing the Bhagavatam, one can also understand obscure details of the text. When reading, I also try to follow the twists and turns of the narrative with this in mind. How does this particular detail reflect more light on the glory of the Lord, and how does it help the suffering living entities? For example, the second and third cantos contain several descriptions of creation, some – at least to my limited understanding – contradictory. Many of these descriptions (such as the atomic theory of the third canto) are also long since disproved by science. However, the motive of Vyasa in including such material is not to give a primer in physics, it is to help the suffering living entities. These paragraphs describe how matter appears and becomes variegated, and thus – if one works backward from the end – how to end involvement in matter. Not only that, they also show how Krishna is involved in every step of the creation, maintenance and destruction of this world, while all the time remaining separate from it.
After finishing the Bhagavatam, Vyasa teaches it to his son Shuka. Shuka is not the easiest of students. He is an atmarama, a self-satisfied sage. Since he was afraid of becoming entangled in material affairs, the Puranas tell us that he stayed in the womb of his mother for sixteen years! When he finally was born, he immediately left home for the forest. His father called out after him, but as the text dramatically states, only the trees answered. Vyasa then sent out disciples in the forest to recite key verses of the Bhagavatam, and only after hearing them, Shuka returned to his father for more. This demonstrates one of the key teachings of the text: that the narrations of the Lord not only help those suffering in this world, they also attract the minds of the self-realized souls. When he has learnt the Bhagavatam, Shuka again leaves home. In time, he will meet the saintly king Parikshit, and narrate his own version of the Bhagavatam to him. In this way, the text will grow and grow with each retelling, eventually coming down to us.
Shuka is a good example of the ideal devotee of the Bhagavatam, a person who has given up all worldly responsibilities, who sees happiness and suffering as equally illusory, who has no friends or enemies, and whose mind is constantly fixed upon the Lord. He wanders naked through the world, completely oblivious to the opinions of others, and keeping his true spiritual nature covered. His father Vyasa, on the other hand, is still part of the socio-religious establishment. He is a brahmana and a householder, anxious to uphold his reputation and the norms of society. For me, it is easier to identify with Vyasa than with the extreme and frightening other-worldliness of Shuka, but his example is somehow strangely attractive. While it is not immediately practicable to us, it does tell us something about the radical nature of bhakti. The idealization of asceticism and the constant deprecation of worldly family life in the Bhagavatam is a bitter pill for me to swallow, but one whose truth I do not doubt.
After the departure of his son, Vyasa remains in his ashrama in the Himalayas. He sees the arrival of the dark age of Kali, the last, valiant efforts of keeping dharma in the world by emperor Parikshit and his son Janamejaya, and then the slow descent into the barbarity of today. There he remains today, the Puranas affirm, content in his meditation, but also keeping a watching eye open for the unfolding spiritual history of the world. In time, he will add to his great Bhagavatam, and in that edition, our story will be found.