Bhakti and Vedanta

One of the many attractive features of Krishna consciousness is how well it satisfies us both intellectually and emotionally. The Vaishnava scriptures at its foundation contain rigorous philosophical presentations as well as deeply moving narrations of exchanges between Krishna and His devotees. I often reflect on the aptness of Srila Prabhupada’s name in this regard: Bhaktivedanta. Bhakti means devotional service to the Lord. It concerns the heart. Vedanta refers to the Upanishads, the most directly philosophical part of the Vedas. Vedanta is also shorthand for the Vedanta-sutras, Srila Vyasadeva’s concise commentary on the Upanishads, in which he authoritatively resolves difficult questions about the Absolute Truth. Anyone who has tackled the Vedanta-sutras can testify to the intellectual challenge they provide.

Srila Vyasadeva shows himself to be a philosopher of the highest order. He is in fact an incarnation of Krishna who appeared in this world to organize the vast Vedic literature to make it more accessible in the current age. Besides performing that task, Vyasadeva composed books and thus added to the Vedic canon. Included in those is the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a striking example of the blend of “head” and “heart” found in the Vedic literature. Srila Prabhupada, when confronting the claim that the stories about Krishna in the Bhagavatam are mythological, would point out that they were narrated by Srila Vyasadeva, a renowned and respected philosopher. Would a serious thinker of his caliber waste his time telling ordinary stories? No, Prabhupada would argue, these are factual descriptions of Lord Krishna’s eternal, transcendental exchanges with His devotees.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam is a rich source of material to satisfy the intellect and the heart, and therefore both Srila Jiva Goswami and Srila Rupa Goswami used it as their main reference when explaining and validating Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s teachings on Krishna consciousness. Jiva Goswami is known as the greatest philosopher among the Six Goswamis, and in his Shad-sandarbha (“Six Treatises”) he relies primarily on the Bhagavatam to put forward powerful arguments in support of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness. Rupa Goswami wrote the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, an elaborate exposition of the diverse flavors of love tasted by Krishna and His devotees. It too relies heavily on evidence from the Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Two words that capture the two aspects of Krishna consciousness I’ve been discussing are tattva and rasa. Tattva (literally “that-ness”) refers to the various aspects of reality. Discussions of tattva are philosophical in the traditional sense. Discussions of rasa, on the other hand, are about life in the realm of spirit. Srila Prabhupada translates the word rasa variously as taste, juice, humor (meaning “temperament”), and mellow (as a noun; thus a coinage).

Srila Prabhupada would routinely characterize philosophical speculation as “dry.” That’s because armchair guesswork, even when touching on the metaphysical, must fail to satisfy our innermost longings because it can never reveal Krishna and His intimate dealings with His devotees. And that’s where the juice of rasa is to be found.

Srila Vyasadeva begins the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.1.1) with an allusion to the Vedanta-sutras, thus implying that the Bhagavatam is a commentary on his previous composition, and implying the serious philosophical nature of the Bhagavatam. Then, in text three, Vyasadeva requests his audience to relish the “nectarean juice” of the Bhagavatam. If we accept his invitation, we’ll not only learn what ultimate reality is but taste it to our full satisfaction.

– Nagaraja Dasa