In May 1975, Srila Prabhupada requested the editors of Back to Godhead to run a serialized excerpt from the Srimad-Bhagavatam in each issue. Two years later, when some disciples expressed concern about the editorial direction of the magazine, he reiterated that request. Also, when encouraging his disciples to write for BTG, he told them to read the Bhagavatam and express in their own words what they understood.
We’ve published a summary of the Bhagavatam in this issue to encourage you to take the time to read this “ripened fruit of the Vedic literature.” This phrase appears in the third of Srila Vyasadeva’s three invocation verses to the Bhagavatam. The first line of the verse reads, nigama-kalpa-taror galitam phalam: [“This Srimad-Bhagavatam is] the fully matured fruit of the desire tree of the Vedic literature.”
The voluminous Vedic literature contains books dealing with all the categories of knowledge required for progressive human life. It is compared to a tree, a coherent organism with a purpose (and not, as the less informed might conclude, an aimless, motely collection of books). From this “desire tree” one can pick various kinds of fruit according to one’s wishes.
All the parts of the Vedic tree serve to produce the prized fruit high at the top. While other parts of the Vedic literature serve their purpose by emphasizing karma (good works for material rewards) and jnana (higher knowledge), the Bhagavatam regards these as subordinate pursuits and focuses on prema: pure love of God.
Verse three describes the Bhagavatam fruit as drava, “semisolid and soft and therefore easy to swallow,” Vyasadeva tells us to drink its nectar, and Vaishnava commentators say that this fruit is unique in that it has no skin or seed.
The main narrator of the Bhagavatam is Vyasadeva’s son Shukadeva Goswami. After hearing the Bhagavatam from his father, Shukadeva repeated it without change to Maharaja Parikshit. And just as some fruits ripen better when a bird breaks the skin with its beak, causing oxidation, the Bhagavatam became even sweeter when spoken through the lips of the aptly named Shukadeva (shuka meaning “parrot”).
Shukadeva’s Bhagavatam is available to us today in English – and many other languages – only because of Srila Prabhupada’s compassion and dedication. He arrived in America with three-volume sets of the First Canto and continued working on his translation and commentary until his passing in 1977. In a poem addressed to Lord Krishna on arriving in America, Prabhupada wrote: “The words of Srimad-Bhagavatam are Your incarnation, and if a sober person repeatedly receives it with submissive aural reception, then he will be able to understand Your message.”
Lord Krishna’s central message in the Bhagavatam is the revelation of the soul’s intimate relationship with Him. The rasa (juice) of the fruit of the Bhagavatam is the various flavors of krishna-bhakti tasted by devotees in Lord Krishna’s pastimes.
While this succulent fruit is available to all, it has to be received in the right way. A person standing on the ground receives a prized fruit from the top of a tree after it is passed down carefully from one person to another. Similarly, to access the sweet taste of the Bhagavatam, one must receive it in parampara – that is, from the authorized lineage of Krishna’s devotees.
The name Bhagavatam means that it is about Bhagavan Sri Krishna and His devotees (bhagavatas). Also, it’s a gift from Krishna to His pure devotees, so only they can legitimately deliver it to others. Srila Prabhupada was perfectly qualified to relish it and pass it on to us, and we can gratefully accept it to our eternal good fortune.
– Nagaraja Dasa