By Satyaraja Dasa
Vaisnava acaryas have given us a key to remember our plight in the material world and inspire us to move beyond it.
The world is a mixed bag; we know that. Good and bad permeate our lives. Sometimes we are happy, and other times we are sad. Even though our hardships begin with birth itself and then progress to various forms of disease, leading to old age and inevitable death, we manage to find moments of respite, even relish, as we make our way through life. If we are fortunate enough to find spiritual awakening, we can even move beyond the dualities of material existence and taste the sweet nectar of the Absolute, eternally.
The Sanskrit texts of India inform us that the general goals of life – religiosity (dharma), economic development (artha), and sense gratification (kama) – known as trivarga, or the “three categories” of human endeavor, are fraught with problems from birth to death. Beyond these three is the pursuit of liberation (moksha), which is rarely achieved.
Trivarga is meant to lead to moksha, also known as apavarga, a word formed by combining the prefix apa, “away, off, back,” and varga (from the root vrij), meaning “completion or end.” Varga can also mean “group, class, or set.” So apavarga refers to “going out or away from an established class or group.” Thus, when souls move beyond the common goals of material existence, they embrace apavarga. As Srila Sridhara Svami, the original commentator on the Srimad-Bhagavatam, writes, harim vina naiva mritim taranti: “Without Hari [Krishna], no one will ever cross beyond death.” Therefore, to bid adieu to the path of material tribulation, everyone must surrender unto Krishna, develop love for Him, and thus find eternal happiness.
Great Vaishnava acharyas in the past have explained these philosophical truths by employing a Sanskrit pun based on breaking the wordapavarga into the prefix a, or “not,” and pa-varga, the name of one of the five consonant groups (vargas) in Sanskrit: ka-varga (guttural, articulated in the throat), ca-varga (palatal, articulated with the body of the tongue on the hard palate),ta-varga (cerebral, tongue between the gum ridge and the hard palate), ta-varga (dental, tongue against the upper teeth), and pa-varga (labial, with the lips).
The names refer to the first member of each group. In this case we are interested in the pa group, the consonants pa, pha, ba, bha, and ma. When apavarga is divided as a-pa-varga (or a-pavarga), it can be taken to mean “not the pa-varga consonants.” The word play comes about when Vaishnava acharyas interpret each pa-varga consonant as a word that represents one of five misery-laden characteristics of worldly existence.
For example, the prolific sixteenth-century spiritual master Srila Rupa Goswami highlights this play on words in his Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu (2.1.205):
“O Krishna, whose head is decorated with a peacock feather, although You impose pavarga on Your enemies – i.e., defeat, foaming mouth, bondage, fear, and death – You give them apavarga (liberation) as well.”
Here Rupa Goswami uses the pa-varga consonants poetically to list miseries of material existence: pa (parabhavam: defeat),pha (phenila-vaktratam: foaming mouth), ba (bandham: bondage), bha (bhitim: fear), and ma (mritim: death). So Rupa Goswami is saying that apavarga, or liberation, is the absence of these five miseries.
Srila Prabhupada gives the essential meaning of the pun in The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 22), his summary study of Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu:
Another name for salvation is apavarga. Apavarga is the opposite of pavarga, or the various miserable conditions of material existence. The word pa-varga indicates the combination of five Sanskrit letters: pa, pha, ba, bha, and ma. These letters are the first letters of the words for five different conditions as described below. The first letter, pa, comes from the word parabhava, which means “defeat.” In this material struggle for existence, we are simply meeting defeat. Actually, we have to conquer birth, death, disease, and old age, and because there is no possibility of overcoming all these miserable conditions, due to the illusion of maya we are simply meeting with parabhava, or defeat. The next letter, pha, is taken from the word phena. Phena is the foam that is found on the mouth when one is very tired (as is commonly observed with horses). The letter ba comes from the word bandha, or bondage. Bha is taken from the word bhiti, or fearfulness. Ma is taken from the word mriti, or death. So the word pavarga signifies our struggle for existence and our meeting with defeat, exhaustion, bondage, fearfulness, and, at last, death. Apavarga means that which can nullify all of these material conditions. Krishna is said to be the giver of apavarga, the path of liberation.
Elsewhere in his books Prabhupada varies the Sanskrit words used in this connection. For example, in his Srimad-Bhagavatam commentary (7.13.25) he writes, “Pa means parishrama, very hard labor.” In Teachings of Queen Kunti (Chapter 26) he adds “frustration” (vyartha, for ba)* and “fear” (bhaya, for bha). But despite these and other minor variations, the result is always the same: pavarga, the miseries of material existence, are only counteracted by apavarga, or Krishna, the source of both matter and spirit.
Srila Prabhupada’s disciple Gour Govinda Maharaja elaborates on the journey from pavarga to apavarga:
Pa is taken to stand for parishrama, hard labor – gardabhera mata ami kari parishrama – those on the path of pa-varga toil like an ass. Then pha. From such hard toil, phena, foam, will come out from your mouth. Then comes ba, which stands for bishada, lamentation, disappointment, and pessimism. Following that is bha, which stands for bhaya, fear. In this world there is fear at every moment. “Oh, there is war declared now! What shall we do? Now we’ll die! Everything will be destroyed.” The last letter, ma, stands for mrityu, death. These five alphabets are pa-varga. Those who do not tread the path of hard labor, foam coming from the mouth, lamentation, fear, leading ultimately only to death, are said to be treading the path of a-pa-varga. Kapila Muni [Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.25.25] says, ashv apavarga-vartmani – you should tread the path of a-pa-varga, the path of liberation, the path of devotional service. Then, shraddha ratir bhaktir anukramishyati – gradually you’ll develop shraddha, faith; rati, taste; and ultimately pure bhakti.
(Lecture, Bhubaneswar, India, January 15, 1991)
So the term pa-varga can be a mnemonic that uses letters of the Sanskrit alphabet to remind us of specific aspects of misery in the material world. It affords devotees an outline of the life of embodied beings. The most common listing would be as follows:
pa – parabhava, “defeat” (sometimes also parishrama, “hard labor”)
pha: phena, “foam”
ba – bandha, “bondage” (sometimes vyartha – “frustration”)
bha – bhaya or bhiti, “fear”
ma – mrityu, “death”
Because pavarga can be overcome only by surrendering to Krishna, He is known as Anapavarga-virya (ana, “without”; pavarga, “the materialistic way of life”; virya, “prowess”). Following the commentator Sridhara Svami, Srila Prabhupada translates this name as “one whose prowess is never defeated.” (See Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.30.43.) Indeed, for us mortals, material tribulation seems insurmountable, attacking us from every angle, but if we take shelter of Krishna, who is more powerful than anyone or anything in existence, our liberation from misery is guaranteed.
Here’s one more take on the word apavarga. Extrapolating freely by taking the pa group as representative of all the others, one could interpret apavarga (a-pavarga) as meaning “without consonants.” If we chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – we approach liberation by engaging spiritual sound vibration, forgoing material consonants (which make up material words) in favor of spiritual ones. Indeed, if we wish to overcome material miseries as understood by the word pavarga, as elucidated in this article, we must enter the world of spiritual sound vibration, where Krishna beckons us with the mellifluous tones of His alluring flute.
*In Bengali, v is pronounced as b, and so this alternative is often found in Bengali texts.