Shrimad Bhagavatam and Advaita Bhakti – 9
Prahlada-Charitam: Part I
The seventh book of Bhagavatam is the story of Prahlada . It is the most fascinating account of how one who is devoted to the Lord in toto is never let down by Him and how the recitation of God’s names as the only and final resort is the gateway to reach the Lotus Feet of God. Prahlada was the divine son of the undivine Hiranya-kashipu whom the devas and asuras dreaded alike. Prahlada’s unshakeable faith in the omnipresence of the Lord resulted in the Lord appearing to him from within a pillar, but appearing in such an unusual form of half-man-half-lion that it proved to be the end of Hiranyakashipu. The story is so exemplary for the elaboration of Bhakti that Kamban the Tamil poet chooses to build into his Ramayana epic, through the mouth of the character Vibhishana, the entire story of Prahlada, in order to tell Ravana that even such a person as Hiranyakashipu finally had to collapse before the power and goodness of the Lord. The faith of Prahlada is Faith par excellence.
It was a faith that he inherited, not from his genes, but from the time he was in the womb of his mother. By a fortuitous circumstance as a child in the womb he was listening to the stories of great devotees recited by Sage Narada to his pregnant mother, but actually directed at the unborn child! By this miraculous turn of events Prahlada was a convinced and confirmed devotee right from his birth; not a devotee of any ordinary kind, but one who could lead the rest of the world in the exemplary devotion of the Supreme Lord – Shriman Narayana or Vishnu residing, with his consort Goddess Lakshmi, in Vaikuntha for all practical purposes, but really residing everywhere and, in particular, in the hearts of all living beings as the Transcendental Absolute.
The undivine nature of Hiranyakashipu and of his younger brother HiranyAksha was itself due to a curse which they both received from the team of the four most ancient sons of Brahma, namely, Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatana and Santkumara. These four were created by sheer mental sankalpa of Brahma. When the latter wanted them to go and contribute to the creation by populating the world with their offsprings, they refused to abide by the suggestion. They were already enlightened when they were born and so, not being enamoured of any of the worldly distractions, they became renunciates right then and there. In fact these four are the earliest sages of earth and heaven.
The Lord declares in the Gita ( X – 6 ):
“maharshayas-sapta pUrve catvAro manavas-tathA”
The four rishis mentioned here are these four
who were not interested in progeny.
The story is told in the third skanda of Bhagavatam how Jaya and Vijaya, the keepers of the final doors of the abode of Lord Shri Vishnu, were cursed by these four boy-sages, who looked only five years old, even though they were the oldest of all living creatures and had realized the truth of the self. They had open doors everywhere. They had no idea of "ours" and "theirs." With open minds, after crossing six doors (of the Lord’s mansion in Vaikuntha) freely out of their own will, they entered the seventh door, but were stopped there by Jaya and Vijaya, who were unaware of their greatness. The sages declared that these two door-keepers had no right to be in Vaikuntha and so they cursed them accordingly. Their declaration in this context is worth study:
(III – 15 – 33, 34, ): In this Vaikuṇṭha world there ought to be complete harmony between the residents and the Supreme Lord, just as there is complete harmony within space between the big and the small skies. For, the Lord contains everybody in Himself. Why then is there a seed of fear in this field of harmony? These two persons are dressed like inhabitants of Vaikuṇṭha, but wherefrom can their disharmony come into existence?
Therefore let us consider
how these two contaminated persons should be punished. The punishment should be
apt, for thus benefit can eventually be bestowed upon them. Since they find
duality (in the form of friends and foes) in the existence of this Vaikuṇṭha
life, they should be removed from this place to the material world, where the
living entities have three kinds of enemies in the form of krodha (anger),
By this time the Lord rushed outside to receive the sages Himself. He said that all these events had been willed by Him and He pleaded with the sages to offer a way out for His sincere devotees Jaya and Vijaya to get off the curse as early as possible. The sages offered them the choice between being born as devotees of God or being born as enemies of the Lord to be finally killed by the Lord Himself. The divine devotees chose the latter option.
Thus was born Hiranya-kashipu and Hiranyaksha as enemies of the Lord. Jaya and Vijaya were born three times. First as the anger-dominated Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu in the Asuric world, second as the lust-dominated Ravana and Kumbhakarna in the Rakshasa world and third as the greed-dominated Sishupala and Dantavaktra in the human world.
Hiranyaksha was powerful and tyrannical enough to roll away the Earth itself and take it to the depths of distant waters in the nether worlds. Lord Vishnu took the incarnation of a giant Boar – this was His VarAha-avatAra – went into the waters, fought with Hiranyaksha, killed him and retrieved the Earth. Enraged by the killing of his brother, Hiranyakashipu ordered his men to go on rampage wherever there was worship of Vishnu as the Lord. Thus began a whole long era of atheism, cruelty, terror and aggression. It spread to the three worlds, because Hiranyakashipu, by a series of austerities, had invoked the blessing of Lord BrahmA on himself and had Him grant his request. The historic boon thus enunciated by Hiranyakashipu and granted by the Creator was that he would not meet his death at the hands of any creation of BrahmA, he would not meet his death by any weapon, either inside or outside his house, day or night, either on earth or above in the sky, either by human beings or animals, either by the living or non-living or by the demi-gods. Thus he protected himself from all sorts of possible death and this made him conquer the three worlds and declare himself the unchallenged Lord of the World, in fact, God Himself!
He went to Vaikuntha, the highest abode of Vishnu, the abode where His devotees live in the eternal bliss of companionship with Him and service to Him. Hiranya-kashipu wanted to challenge God Vishnu in his own home, but the Lord was not visible to Him for He went and resided in Hiranya-kashipu’s heart! The demon searched for Him in all the three worlds and naturally could not find his enemy! Thereafter he proclaimed that no more propitiation of Vishnu as the Supreme Lord of the world is allowed anywhere. They should all propitiate him instead. He was the Lord, God and Saviour, ever! Several thousands of years passed in this manner. The Gods of the heavens went and prostrated before Lord Vishnu. The Lord assured them that in due time a noble son would be born to Hiranya-kashipu and when his atrocities reach the stage of even killing his own son for the perpetuation of his own egoism, then would be the time for his own end. The Devas went reassured and abided their time.
Then was born the divine son, Prahlada. He was one of the four sons born to Hiranyakashipu but he was the noblest of them all and the most unique. The epithets that Kamban uses for him are inspiring: Scholarly among the scholars; purer than the scriptures; and the purest among the pure.
(In Tamil: aRijnarin aRijnan
tUyar enbavar yArinuM maRaiyinuM tUyan)
(Kamba Ramayanam : Iraniyan Vadaipppadalam: Verse 148)
His affection to the Lord was a natural one. Even as a child he would not play with his mates in the usual frivalous way. His mind was full of the Lord Govinda, whether he was sitting, walking, eating, sleeping, or talking. Sometimes he would be seen laughing and some other times he would be seen crying. His hairs would stand on end at the thought or mention of God. His was a possessed behaviour, possessed by God. It was with such a noble soul that Hiranyakashipu chose to cross swords.
As the King of the land, the father entrusted the education of the five-year old boy to the care of the two sons of his Guru, Shukra-acharya. These two preceptors Sanda and Amarka by name, started the education of Prahlada in the conventional way earmarked for them as the way, by the King. It was to begin with the declaration that Hiranyakashipu was the Lord-God of the world and everything should be begun only after making the first prostration to him as the Supreme Lord. But Prahlada would not do any such thing. He would bow only to Lord Narayana, the Lord of Vaikuntha and of all the worlds. In the beginning the teachers thought it was only due to childish pranks and they ignored these protests of Prahlada for some time. But the matter came to light when the King called his son to his lap and began enquiring what he had learnt at the feet of the preceptors. Specifically, he asked the question: ‘What do you consider, my son, as a good thing’?
papraccha kathyathAm vatsa manyate sAdhu yad-bhavAn
That brought forth a shockingly grand reply from the child prodigy:
tat-sAdhu manye asura-varya dehinAM sadA samudvigna-dhiyAm-asadgrahAt /
hitvA AtmapAtaM gRRiham-andha-kUpaM vanaM gato yad-harim-Ashrayeta // (VII – 5 – 5)
I consider that as great, which, leaving aside this attachment to the body as ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ renouncing this bondage which takes one lower in evolution, takes one to the forest where one can propitiate the Lord Vishnu, the destroyer of all ills.
Hiranya-kashipu was taken aback. But he was too convinced of his way of doing things to face reality. He just warned the preceptors that they should teach him ‘the right thing’ and sent them away. The preceptors did their best to teach the boy ‘the right thing’. Instead they were obliged with a lecture from the child Prahlada as to what is right knowledge and what is not! They told him not to take the name of Narayana, the enemy of his father. And Prahlada naively replied: (Kamba Ramayanam, in Tamil: Iraniyan Vadaip-paDalaM, Verse 154)
Ennai uyvitten entaiyai uyvitten inaiya
Unnai uyvittu ivvulagaiyum uyvippAn amain du
Munnai vedattin mudar-peyar mozhivathu mozhinden
Ennai kutram nAn iyambiyathu iyambudi endrAn
Meaning, Tell me what crime have I done. By taking the name that even the vedas use as the First Name I have redeemed not only myself, but my father, you and this entire world.
The preceptors tried several means to convince him. The four means of sAma, dAna, bheda and daNDa all were tried by them – all to no avail. Finally they took him to the king and expected the King himself to discover the problem. Again King Hiranyakashipu asked the child to tell him what he had learnt. Back came a spirited reply, which has since been quoted across the world millions of times. It is one of the grandest pronouncements of Hindu religion:
shravaNaM kIrtanaM vishNoH smaraNaM pAdasevanaM /
archanaM vandanaM dAsyaM sakhyaM Atma-nivedanaM //
iti pumsArpitA vishNau bhaktiscen-nava-lakshhaNA /
kriyate bhagavad-yad-vA tan manye adhItaM uttamaM // VII – 5 – 23, 24
That action is the greatest lesson one learns which expresses itself in terms of the nine manifestations of devotion to Lord Vishnu, namely,
Listening to the recitals of the names and glories of God - shravaNaM,
Reciting the names of God - kIrtanaM,
Recalling Him and His deeds - smaraNaM,
Waiting on Him – pAda-sevanaM,
Worshipping Him - archanaM,
Saluting Him - vandanaM,
Serving Him - dAsyaM,
Befriending Him - sakhyaM, and
Dedicating oneself to Him – Atma-nivedanaM.
Hiranya-kashipu was naturally furious on hearing this. He questioned the preceptors as to who taught Prahlada and where he got all this ‘old-fashioned stuff’. The preceptors washed their hands off the whole business and told the truth that this boy had somehow got it into his head and they were not able to change it. It was then the father asked the child: Tell me, my son, who taught you all this? Prahlada gives a profound talk on Vishnu Bhakti. ‘Bhakti towards Vishnu’, says Prahlada ‘does not come from any external source; nor is it achievable by those who revolve around mundane attractions all the time. They are only blind leading the blind. Without satsangh one cannot hope to reach Vishnu’s lotus feet. And unless one resorts to those feet one can never hope to get out of this samsara’.
The King could not stand this any longer. He was furious. ‘Go and have this boy killed, at any cost’, ordered the King. They tried to kill him in several ways. He was pierced by spears; he was crushed by elephants; snakes were set upon him to bite him to death; he was administered poison; and he was thrown from the top of the mountain. Nothing could kill him. The saintly child came out of everything totally unscathed. All the time he was chanting the name of Narayana.
The two preceptors suggested to the King that he better lie low until the senior Guru, their father, came back. So the boy was again taken to the guru’s home and education continued, but now on the rules and regulations that apply to a householder. In between whenever the preceptors were not on the scene, the other boys who were studying along with Prahlada wanted to know from him about Narayana who seemed to be protecting him all the time. Here follows one of the most beautiful pieces of the Bhagavatam, namely Prahlada’s sermon to his classmates:
If a man is wise he should start doing dharmic deeds.
Even that should be started while still one is young.
For, the human birth is so rare among all births.
Even in one’s birth, one does not know when death will end that life.
Lord Vishnu is the friend and indwelling AtmA, in all lives.
So what we do should be to please Him.
Those who serve the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu will never perish.
Man loses half of his 100-year life in sleep.
Foolish in childhood and lustful in youth,
He loses another twenty years. And another twenty
Are lost in old age and incapacitation.
Therefore do good while still it is not too late.
Do that which propitiates Achyuta, the Lord Vishnu.
Leave aside your demonish qualities and have
Sympathy and compassion towards all living beings.
Thus goes Prahlada on and on. The sixth chapter of Skanda VII, beginning with
“kaumAra Acharet prAjnaH dharmAn bhAgavatAn iha”
is all Prahlada’s beautiful Vedanta teaching to his classmates. He ends up his sermon with the thrilling statement that he learnt all this from Sage Narada. They immediately ask a most legitimate question: You have been all the time with us all these years. When did you happen to meet the sage and learn all this? That is the time when he tells them that he had learnt all this while still in the womb of his mother and Sage Narada was sermonising apparently to his mother but really to him inside. By the Lord’s Grace he remembers all these! And he continues and repeats the exact words of Narada, in a form which constitutes what we may call Prahlada’s advaita capsule! We shall only quote the following five shlokas from this capsule. ( Shrimad Bhagavatam: VII - 7 - 19, 20, 23, 24 and 25) .
AtmA nityo-vyayaH shuddhaH ekaH kshhetrajna AshrayaH /
avikRRiyaH svadRRig-hetuH vyApako'sangy-anAvRRitaH //
etair-dvAdashabir-vidvAn Atmano lakshhaNaiH paraiH /
ahaM mamety-asad-bhAvaM dehAdau mohajaM tyajet //
The Atman is permanent;
does not undergo any change;
is uncontaminated by mAyA;
has neither internal nor external distinctions;
is the one intelligent being which cognizes everything;
needs no support but supports everything;
neither acts nor is acted upon;
sees everything but is not seen;
is the primal cause but is itself never caused;
is beond space, time and matter;
is unattached to anything; and
can never be negated by anything.
These are the twelve indicative qualities of Atman, by a knowledge of which one should be able to throw away the false identification with the body, mind and intellect.
dehastu sarva-sanghAto jagat tasthuriti dvidhA /
atraiva mRRigyaH purushho neti netIt-yatat tyajan //
anvaya-vyatirekeNa vivekenoshatA''tmanA /
sarga-sthAna-samAmnAyaiH vimRRishadbhir-asatvaraiH //
The body is a conglomeration of all (the effects of PrakRRiti -- referred in shlokas 22,23, not quoted here) and is of two kinds, mobile and immobile. It is here in the body that the Self (Purushha) is to be sought for by discarding every non-Self as 'not this' 'not this', by men coolly reflecting on the creation, continued existence and dissolution of the universe with a mind purified through reasoning on the lines of 'anvaya' (the all-pervasiveness of the Absolute) and 'vyatireka' (the distinctness of the Absolute from everything else).
buddher-jAgaraNaM svapnaH sushhuptiriti vRRittayaH /
tA yenaiv-AnubhUyante so'dhyakshhaH purushhaH paraH //
Wakefulness, dream and deep sleep -- these are the three functions of the inntellect. He alone by whom they are directly cognized is the transcendent purushha, the witness of everything.
Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy Oct 12, 2005 Onward to page 10