Shrimad Bhagavatam and Advaita Bhakti – 1
The first Canto of the Bhagavatam is an account of how the
work came to be composed. The Rishis that go by the name of Saunaka and others
request the famous sage Suta Pauranika to tell them what he heard at the seven-day
recital of Maharishi Shuka to King Parikshit and to a large audience on the
banks of the
The very first shloka propitiates the Absolute Truth on the lines of the Gayatri. It is from That Absolute that everything in the universe gets born, sustained and finally absorbed in. It is both the material and instrumental cause of the universe as inferred by anvaya and by vyatireka from what we see before us. It is That which is immanent in everything. It is the Conscious entity that is conscious of ev erything everywhere. It is Self-illuminating. Even great sages fail to see it in its Fullness. That is what is in the Vedas, revealed, just by Will, by The Very Absolute to the Creator Brahma. All this universe that appears as earth, water and fire is only the appearance of The Absolute. It is That which by its own Effulgence shines without blemish in everything and everywhere. Let us meditate on that Absolute Truth – ‘satyaM paraM dhImahi’. (I – 1 – 1)
‘vinimayaH’ = ‘anyasmin anyAvabhAsaH’ : the appearance of a thing as another.
‘trisargaH’ : creation of the the three-fold guNas.
‘mRRiShA’ : wrongly, falsely
Keep this shloka in your mind, get it by heart and keep reciting it all the time, slowly and gradually trying to understand what it means. That is itself a great nidhidhyasana exercise, for it contains all the Vedanta that the Upanishads want to convey to you. For more on this.
The next two shlokas are also so full of transcendent content that all these three are always recited at the beginning of every bhagavatam recitation or exposition.
In this Bhagavatam composed by the great sage noble souls who have no envy or jealousy will find the supreme dharma that is rid of all negatives. What is known here is the immutable and most auspicious entity that uproots all three kinds of sorrows. When meritorious people are eager to listen to this Bhagavatam the Lord Himself immediately comes and seats Himself in their hearts. What else is the need? (I–1–2).
The significance of the word ‘shushrUshhibhiH’ in this shloka should be noted here. It means ‘eager to listen’, ‘willing to listen’, ‘wanting to listen’. In other words, unlike many other purANas where it would say that if you read or listen to this, you would get spiritual merit, here it says ‘even if you just decide to listen, or take the first step to listen’ – already your spiritual merit is assured!
On behalf of the Rishis assembled, Saunaka asks Suta Pauranika to tell them the stories about Lord Krishna and other avatars of the Lord as he heard from Shuka Maharishi. And the story of the Bhagavatam begins here. Before beginning the story he recites a few shlokas in praise of Lord Krishna and the merits that accrue by recitation of His names and listening to stories of His exploits. One of them is: (I – 2 – 17)
Listening to stories of
After having finished the seventeen purANas and also the Mahabharata, Vyasa still is not happy within himself. The divine sage, Narada, comes over and asks him what it is that is bothering him. Very soon Narada himself divines the problem of Vyasa. And he puts it in very powerful words. The eloquence with which this point is emphasized by Narada should be enjoyed in the original words themselves. There is an implicit exhortation here to avoid reading books containing stories of sex, violence, hatred, murder, etc., and to read only those things that extol the glories of the Lord and contain His names.
Only that literature is worthwhile, says Narada, which is replete with the transcendental glories of the name, fame and miracles of the Infinite Supreme Lord. Only such a literature will bring about a revolution in the impious ways of our misdirected civilization. Even if that literature is imperfectly composed, goes on Narada, it will be heard, sung and accepted by honest people all over the world (I – 5 – 11).
According to Narada, Vyasa, in his several PurANas, did not emphasize this aspect sufficiently and that was why Vyasa, even after writing so many scriptural texts, felt dissatisfied, unfulfilled, almost desolate. And Narada gives his own story. It was at the end of the previous kalpa (that is, the previous day of brahma – it was called the PAdma kalpa) that Narada was the son of a maid-servant who, as a widow had to eke out her livelihood by doing menial services. It was during one of those days when his mother was working, he came into contact with a group of devotees of the Lord who had congregated for some religious celebration for several days. He as a boy served them well by doing errands for them. They were so satisfied with him that when they left, they blessed him with the supreme knowledge about the Lord. Soon after, his mother died by a snake bite. The boy had no aims in life except to keep thinking about what the devotees had told him and taught him. So he kept repeating the name of God, that they had taught him, for the rest of his life. He just went wherever his feet would take him, ate whatever anybody offered him. Once while sitting at the foot of a tree in a lonely forest on the banks of a river he had the vision of God. The Lord told him ‘I have shown you my Form just to sustain your interest. In your next Janma you will remember all this and you would be always able to see Me’. He thereafter just awaited the fall of his body at its death. And when it finally came, that was the pralaya (deluge) of the last kalpa. When he emerged out of the Lord at the beginning of this kalpa, it was as the mAnasika-putra (son born of the mind) of Creator Brahma. By a little but dedicated service to the devotees of God he has reached this eminent status of being always in proximity to the Lord.
It was after this prompting that Vyasa wrote the Bhagavatam. After the compilation he taught it to his son Shuka. But Shuka himself was already a realized sage. In fact there is a beautiful shloka which compares the enlightened youth Shuka with the not-yet enlightened old man Vyasa. (I-2-2):
‘yam pravrajantaM ...’. Shuka was not interested in any mundane pursuit. So he started to leave for sannyasa. And when he was going thus, the father Vyasa, in passionate affection, cries out Oh Son Shuka! And, lo and behold, all the trees in the neighbourhood responded to the call with a ‘What’ and ‘Why’, as if they had been called. The boy sage Shuka had that pervasion of the entire universe in him and he had himself permeated the entire universe, so that the trees themselves felt they were being called! It is because of this ‘brahma-bhAva’ of Shuka, that advaitins usually refer to Shuka as Shuka-brahmam. He was in brahman, and of brahman all the time. ‘brahmavit brahmaiva bhavati’. – The knower of brahman becomes brahman.
This greatness of Shuka as a realized sage was known to all and particularly to Suta Pauranika and Saunaka and the other Rishis listening to Suta’s recital. So when Suta said that Bhagavatam was compiled by Vyasa and then Shuka learnt it from his father, Saunaka asks the natural question: The realized sage that Shuka was, what need was there for him to learn this work which talks about the exploits of the Lord? And Suta replies, in words that should be engraved in gold (I-7-10):
*AtmA-rAmAshca munayaH nirgranthA apyurukrame /
kurvanty-ahaitukIM bhaktiM itthaM-bhUta-guNo hariH //*
The sages who revel in Enlightenment of the Self, though they are devoid of all attachments, display an unexplainable bhakti towards Lord Hari, for that is the nature of the qualities of Hari.
The two significant words here are:
‘nirgranthAH’: Those who are beyond all that is written or regulated. They have no attachment to anything. Yet they are attached to Hari, for the love of it – not in expectation of anything.
‘ahaitukIM’: without reason. Their devotion cannot be explained, because there is no reason why they should have to pray, worship or propitiate the Lord.
Well, we shall come back to Suta’s narration. He begins
with the events that followed the finish of the Mahabharata War. Ashvattama,
the son of Dronacharya, was one of the few who was
still alive on Duryodhana’s side. Without any respect for law or dharma, he
killed the five sons of Draupadi while they were asleep on the night of the
last day of war, thereby hoping to wipe out all male heirs of the Pandava
dynasty. Not only that. He released an
astra which was programmed by his mantras to kill the child of Abhimanyu
growing in the womb of UttarA, the wife of Abhimanyu. Lord Krishna was on the
point of departing for his home in Dwaraka. Uttara came running in desperation,
because the astra of Abhimanyu was following her with the deadly threat
of destroying the life in her womb. And
of course the Lord gave her refuge and miraculously saved the child in the womb
by causing his Sudarsana chakra to intervene. In fact by his mAya-shakti He
protected the child in the womb by forming a cordon round the womb, thus also causing
a vision for the child to see His Divine Form. The child was saved and the
entire Pandava camp was naturally greatly relieved. Incidentally it is this child which is going
to be born as Parikshit. And it is to the great King Parikshit that Shuka-brahmam
is later going to relate the Bhagavatam in seven days on the banks of the
More than anybody else it was Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, who was most affected by the impending danger of the Pandava vamsa being extinguished and who was most pleased that the danger has been averted by the Compassionate Lord. She could not contain herself. She pours out a moving prayer of thankfulness to the Lord. This is known as Kunti-stuti. It has 25 shlokas. Here is a sample:
The significant message here is that
every calamity or tragedy visited on a devotee
is a shock-treatment by the ever-compassionate Lord
to awaken him from the stupor of ignorance –
a sure sign
that the Lord's full attention is on the devotee
and that He tries to turn the aspirant's mind
more towards the spiritual path for a quicker progress, away from the frustrations and shocks
in the worldly life.
My dear Krishna, Your mother took up a rope to bind You when You committed an offense as a child, and Your perturbed eyes overflooded with tears, which washed the anjana from Your eyes. And You showed an appearance as if you were afraid, though fear itself is afraid of You. This sight is bewildering to me. (I-8-31).
‘bhIr-api yad-bibheti’ : which is feared even by Fear!
Later all of them, led by King Yudhishtira, and Lord Krishna, go to see Grandfather Bhishma on his bed of arrows on which he had been lying for the last 58 days. Bhishma is now ready to shed off his mortal coil. He is infinitely happy to have Lord Krishna right at his bedside at the time of his death. Krishna prompts Yudhishtira to ask Bhishma all his questions on Dharma and thus ensues the massive conversation between Yudhishtira and the fallen Veteran about every question on ethics, morals, individual and collective, social and political, of men and women. The Mahabharata goes through all of that in thousands of shlokas. The well-known sahasranAma of Vishnu occurs here.
Incidentally, Vishnu Sahasranamam, Sanatsujatiyam and Bhagavad Gita all three occur in the Mahabharata. Each of them was given by satva-dominated persons. But the person to whom they were addressed was differently oriented in the three cases. The Sahasranamam was given to a satva-dominated person, while the Gita was given to a rajas-dominated kshatriya (that is, Arjuna) while Sanatsujatiyam was given to the tamas-dominated Dhritarashtra. That the Bhagavad Gita is full of Vedanta, everybody knows. But the other two are equally of great Vedantic significance. That is why Sankaracharya chose to write Bhashyas for the other two also, in addition to his Bhashya of the Gita. And these are the only three texts from the Mahabharata to which he has written Bhashyas.
Bhishma tells Yudhishtira: O King, Lord Śiva, Nārada and Kapila, know the truth of this Lord who is standing before us here and who has come to give me darshan at the point of my leaving this world. You have been treating him as your maternal cousin, your very dear friend, well-wisher, counselor, messenger, benefactor. But He is the Supreme Personality Himself. He is present in every one’s heart. He is equanimous in his love of every one. He is a sama-dRRishI, that is, He sees every one and everything in the same way. (I – 9 -19 to 21)
At the end of it all Bhishma takes leave of every one present and then pours out a beautiful prayer of 11 shlokas to the Lord. This Bhishma-stuti is one of several gems from the Bhagavatam. Here is a selection from Bhishma stuti. It refers to a particular scene from the Great War of the Mahabharata.
(I-9-37)*sva-nigamam-apahAya ...* The scene that is referred to here by Bhishma is a dramatic one on the 9th day of the Mahabharata War. The previous day Bhishma had made a promise to Duryodhana when he was in a mood of total depression at the unfavourable turns the war was taking. Duryodhana had been complaining that Bhishma was not doing his best all along. Bhishma promised to him now that the very next day he will fight so ferociously that the whole Pandava army would be in shambles and Krishna Himself would take up arms, in spite of his assurance to both sides earlier that He would never take up arms Himself. And that day the fight that Bhishma put up did shake up the whole Pandava army. And Arjuna himself was at the receiving end. Lord Krishna could no longer bear it. He jumped from the chariot from his seat of the driver, took up His Sudarsana Disc and with the angavastram (upper cloth) falling behind Him, He was attempting to dash towards Bhishma to attack him and kill him. And Bhishma was only too ready to welcome Him so that He could die at the hands of the Divine.
Right now it was that scene Bhishma was recalling. He says: Oh Lord! You were prepared to throw away your own pratijnA (promise) in order to make me carry out my promise. That itself was a great blessing.
Another shloka (I – 9 42) in Bhishma-stuti is in a philosophic mood, befitting the character of Bhishma and the context of his leaving the body. The stotra on the whole is not only famous for its moving sentiments towards the personality of Lord Krishna as we saw above but it is also remarkable for its expressions of some highest truths of Vedanta. This shloka is one such.
tam-imam-aham-ajaM sharIra-bhAjAM hRRidi hRRidi dhiShTitaM Atma-kalpitAnAM /
pratidRRishamiva naikadhArkam-ekaM samadhigato’smi vidhUta-bheda-mohaH //
vidhUta-bheda-mohaH : Having got rid of all delusion as well as of difference,
ahaM samadhigataH asmi : I have well understood
tam imam (ekaM) ajaM :Him as This One Unborn
hRRidi hRRidi dhiShTitaM : who is residing in every heart
sharIra-bhAjAM : of those with a body
Atma-kalpitAnAM : created by Himself,
arkaM ekaM iva : like the one Sun
pratidRRishaM na ekadhA : (who shows Himself) multifold in the different eyes that see.
The analogy of the seeing eyes is perfect. Just as each person has an individualised vision of the Sun in his own eyes, so also in each heart He resides as if He is an individualised person. This individualisation which, though real to us subjectively, is not absolutely real; because He is One and One only. The analogy brings out this subtle, but important, fact that He who resides in me is not different from Him who resides in the other person.
Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy May 13 , 2005 To next page