By Satyaraja Dasa
The Srimad-Bhagavatam begins by answering questions which would benefit a sincere seeker of any religious tradition
Last spring I attended my family’s Seder, the ceremonial meal on the first two nights of Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. As usual, I enjoyed the symbolism and the stories, since I find much in them that parallels my own Vaishnava tradition.
Children play an important role in the Seder. Traditionally, the youngest child is prompted to ask four questions, called the Mah Nishtana. The ritual is meant to stimulate discussion of the meal and its symbols. Here are the questions (usually spoken in Yiddish):
(1) Why is this night different from all other nights?
(2) On all other nights, we eat either unleavened or leavened bread, but tonight we eat only unleavened bread. Why?
(3) On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but tonight, we eat only bitter herbs. Why?
(4) On all other nights, we do not dip [our food] even once, but tonight we dip twice. Why? Or, alternately: On all other nights, we eat either sitting or reclining, but tonight we only recline. Why?
The questions originate in the Mishna, part of the Jewish Talmud. The leader of the Seder and other adults will often use these questions as a starting point to discuss the Haggadah (also part of the Talmud), allowing all involved to look at these questions more philosophically. This leads to readings, prayers, and stories that elucidate the biblical Exodus.
Drifting from Judaism to Vaishnavism
I tend to drift off at religious rituals, and on this day, I drifted off to the land of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a work of eighteen thousand verses divided into many volumes. I had one volume in my briefcase, and had been reading it just before I arrived.
My drifting must have been obvious, since the person next to me-the host and a close friend-asked what I was thinking about.
“Are you contemplating the meaning of these four questions?”
“Not exactly,” I answered, trying to be polite. “To be truthful, I find these questions, which pertain to the Jewish people, their religious and political plight, somewhat limited.”
“Well, the questions are specifically about an event in Jewish history. I know there are more deeply spiritual interpretations of these questions, and even esoteric understandings, as revealed in the Kabala. But I have yet to hear them. Every Passover I’ve ever attended seems to offer only the same external explanation, something in the context of Jewish history.”
“So what were you thinking about?”
“The six questions that start off a sacred text in India known as the Srimad-Bhagavatam.”
He smiled, and after an uncomfortable laugh asked me to elaborate. The people around me were moving away from the ritual of articulation and toward the more familiar ritual of eating. Before us was a delightful feast (all vegetarian, out of consideration for me). Now was a good time to chat, and I decided to do just that.
The Sages’ Six Question
What attracts me most about the Bhagavatam, I began, is its nonsectarian character. That is to say, it lauds pure devotion to God, love of God, as the essence of the spiritual quest, and it honors such devotion and love regardless of its source. The Bhagavatam does not try to push forward a particular religious tradition.
For example, toward the beginning of this massive text, we find verses such as this one (1.2.6): “The supreme spiritual activity for all humanity is that by which one can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”
In other words, the Bhagavatam doesn’t favor some sectarian tradition or some small group of people and their history. Rather, it focuses on humanity in general, and on how everyone can most effectively approach the Supreme. It tells us that true happiness comes from loving God.
This is not an isolated verse, either. The Bhagavatam states its purity of purpose and unique spirituality from the beginning (1.1.2): “Completely rejecting all religious activities that are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all.” Its focus is universal, not provincial. The Bhagavatam is for those who want to transcend materialistic motivation in religion, for those who want purity, love of God. It’s for those who want the real deal and nothing else.
With that as a backdrop, I proceeded to discuss the six initial questions the sages asked the venerable Suta Goswami in the Bhagavatam’s first chapter. Even a brief look at these questions shows the high quality of spirituality the Bhagavatam offers its readers. The questions deal with the highest concerns of a true seeker.
1. What is the ultimate good for all people? (1.1.9)
2. What is the essence of religious scriptures, by which the actual self becomes satisfied? (1.1.11)
3. Why did the Lord take birth from Devaki? (1.1.12)
4. What acts does He perform? (1.1.17)
5. Who are His avatars? (1.1.18)
6. Where has dharma gone now that Krishna has left the earth? (1.1.23)
One might question the specificity of the Bhagavatam in mentioning “Devaki,” for example, or in calling to mind the very notion of avatars, a concept usually associated with Hinduism or India. After all, if this is supposed to be a nonsectarian, universal scripture, why refer to people, ideas, and concepts identifiable with a particular part of the world? But a closer look reveals that the Bhagavatam is merely citing specifics about the nature of God. Reference to Devaki, for example, simply tells us that the text is aware of a living being who serves God in the form of a mother figure. This has more to do with the complex theology of the Bhagavatam than with any specific culture or sectarian concern. The Bhagavatam is privy to such esoteric information, even if no other tradition in the world is. It is such esoterica, in fact, that makes the text special and valuable among all religious literature. And the word avatar merely indicates an “incarnation” of the Supreme, or His descent into the world of three dimensions. The Bhagavatam’s use of Sanskrit to express complex theological notions can hardly be considered an instance of sectarianism.
Now let’s move into the realm of the Bhagavatam’s six essential questions.
Bhagavatam <\em>commentator Srila Jiva Goswami explains that of these six questions, four are answered in Chapter Two (of the First Canto) and two are answered in Chapter Three, among other places. In line with his thinking, here is a brief look at how the Bhagavatam’s questions are answered, at least initially.
Question One (1.1.9): What is the ultimate (shreyah, “long-term”) good for people in general?
After briefly mentioning that devotional service to Sri Krishna is the essence of scriptural knowledge, Suta Goswami explains that the ultimate benefit for people is to become free from material entanglement and to develop love of God through devotional service, i.e., through service to Krishna or His incarnations. (See 1.2.6-7)
Question Two (1.1.11): What is the essence of all scriptures, the following of which will necessarily lead to full satisfaction?
The Second Chapter of the Bhagavatam, especially from verse 6 to verse 28, tells us that Sri Krishna and His service are the essential messages of scripture. He is the only true object of worship, and religion in its purest form means reestablishing one’s lost relationship with Him. That is the ultimate conclusion of all scriptures, even if some sacred texts reveal this truth in a covered or indirect way.
Question Three (1.1.12): Why did Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, appear as the divine son of Devaki?
An answer appears in 1.2.34: “to reclaim those in the mode of pure goodness.” (See also 1.8.32-35.)
Question Four (1.1.17): What are the acts of the Lord, especially in relation to creation?
Because the question refers specifically to acts of creation, commentators cite 1.2.30-33 as the answer. There, the Bhagavatam explains how Vasudeva (Krishna) creates the material world and then enters into it as expansions known as purusha-avataras.
Cantos Three and Four also detail the creation of the universe and explain how Krishna acts in the capacity of an “ultimate creator,” deputing Lord Brahma to bring forth countless worlds on Krishna’s behalf.
The inner reading of this question is that the “acts” of the Lord refer to His confidential pastimes in the spiritual world, alluding to information found mainly in the Tenth Canto.
Question Five (1.1.18): Who are Krishna’s avatars?
Chapter Three of the First Canto describes the incarnations of Lord Krishna. We learn that of the many manifestations and incarnations of God, Krishna is Supreme. Verse 1.3.28 states, ete camsha-kalah pumsah krishnas tu bhagavan satyam: “All of the above-mentioned incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Lord Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead.”
Question Six (1.1.23): Where have religious principles gone now that Krishna has disappeared from this planet?
Suta Goswami answers this question in 1.3.43 by uttering one of the most famous verses in all of the Bhagavatam, “This Bhagavata Purana is as brilliant as the sun, and it has arisen just after the departure of Lord Krishna for His own abode, accompanied by religion, knowledge, etc. Persons who have lost their vision due to the dense darkness of ignorance in the age of Kali shall get light from this Purana.”
Vaishnava tradition teaches that the essence of spirituality can be found in the Bhagavatam. As stated earlier, it is unlike other religious scriptures, since it focuses only on the essence of the spiritual pursuit, and on the Supreme Personality of Godhead as He exists in the spiritual world. The Bhagavatam is Krishna in literary form.
Eager for More
Our attention returned to the feast in front of us, and we started to discuss Jewish tradition. My friend, I could see, was enamored by the Bhagavatam’s considerable detail and profundity. He kept trying to return to the themes of our discussion. Trying to be gracious, however, I insisted that we discuss the Ma Nishtana, since that was why we were there.
Well, truth be told, it wasn’t just a matter of being gracious. It was a strategy: I knew that the more I resisted, the more he would want to discuss the Bhagavatam. And so, after a few minutes of Jewish history and philosophy, we returned the Bhagavatam’s six initial questions. We agreed that while both Judaism and Vaishnavism had much to offer, it was Vaishnavism, at least in terms of these initial questions, that held our interest. This was, no doubt, because of the theological depth of the Bhagavatam’s questions.
“Is the rest of Bhagavatam that deep?” my friend just had to ask. “Does it always deal with such spiritually rich and philosophically penetrating questions? Where does the Bhagavatam go from these initial queries, and is the balance of the text equally profound? How much detail is revealed about Krishna and His incarnations?”
After a barrage of questions, I wanted to continue the discussion, but it was time for dessert, and, soon after, time to leave.
I had wanted to assure him that the Bhagavatam is as deep as deep can be, and that it supplies a plethora of questions and answers that take one to the pinnacle of spiritual realization.
As a parting gesture, I gave him the copy of the First Canto, Volume One, I was carrying with me. I wished him a happy Passover and offered a few final words.
“The book can say more than I ever could.”
He seemed to like that. Thanking me with a broad smile, he shook my hand with great enthusiasm. I’ll never forget his last remark as I walked out the door.
“Passover will never be the same.”