Through the lives of exemplary personalities, the Bhagavatam teaches us how to live in this world and how to depart from it.

By Gauranga Darshana Dasa

We can learn from the examples of great souls who lived by upholding virtuous principles and left behind extraordinary teachings, legacies, and accomplishments.

“Life is a preparation, and death is an examination” is an often-heard saying, at least in spiritual circles. A fact of life is that everyone who has entered a body has to leave it one day. The time between birth and death is what we call life. Lord Krishna says that the consciousness with which one leaves the body decides his or her next destination. Living a principle-centered life leads one to leave this world to enter a better world. Apart from attaining a wonderful destination, one leaves behind a legacy and a good example for many others to follow. Through various exemplary personalities, Srimad-Bhagavatam teaches us how to live in this world and how to leave this world.

The Art of Living

The knowledge we attain from various sources strongly influences how we live. Our family, upbringing, association, and surroundings shape our thoughts, values, and aspirations. The rare human life is specially endowed with higher intelligence and discriminatory power. Thus scriptures advise human beings to live according to noble values, with God consciousness, while doing the needful to survive through honest means. Such living sets a right example and inspires others.

ahimsaya paramahamsya-charyaya
smritya mukundacaritagrya-sidhuna
yamair akamair niyamaih chapy anindaya
nirihaya dvandva-titikshaya cha

“A candidate for spiritual advancement must be nonviolent, must follow in the footsteps of great acharyas, must always remember the nectar pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, must follow regulative principles without material desire and, while following the regulative principles, should not blaspheme others. A devotee should lead a very simple life and not be disturbed by the duality of opposing elements. He should learn to tolerate them.” (Bhagavatam 4.22.24)

The Art of Inquiring

Relevant inquiries make one’s life fruitful when one gets fitting answers on how to mold one’s life in the appropriate way. King Parikshit ruled his citizens by following the footsteps of his glorious grandfathers, the Pandavas. He even challenged Kali, the personification of the current spiritually debilitated age, and established a Krishna conscious kingdom. A brahmana boy’s curse, ordained by the supreme will, sentenced him to die in seven days. Seeing the curse as a blessing in disguise, King Parikshit retired from political responsibilities and sat on the bank of the Ganges to fast until death. He inquired from the great sages who assembled there, “What is the duty of a person in all circumstances? And what is the duty of a person about to die?” Shukadeva Goswami arrived there as if called for and enlightened Parikshit Maharaja on this topic by speaking the magnum opus Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Practically the whole Bhagavatam deals with these two inquiries by Parikshit: “How to live? How to leave?” Every human being should ask such relevant questions. In essence, Shukadeva Goswami replied that one should hear about Krishna, chant His glories, and remember Him in all circumstances, for such devotional service is the topmost beneficial activity for every human being. Lord Krishna, after His departure from this world, descended in the form of the Bhagavatam through the discussion between Parikshit and Shukadeva Goswami. The Bhagavatam acts as a transcendental torchlight to give light to the misdirected civilization of the Kali-yuga. After hearing the Bhagavatam for seven days, Parikshit left this world and went back to Godhead.

Leaving Behind Attachments

Responsibility shouldn’t lead to undue attachment, and detachment doesn’t mean irresponsibility. The Bhagavatam narrates stories of saintly kings known as rajarshis who ruled the earth religiously, taking care of the citizens’ physical and spiritual needs. And when an able successor was ready to take charge of the political responsibilities, these kings, despite their great influence, followers, accomplishments, and unexcelled facilities, were detached and mature enough to leave behind everything for a higher purpose. Thus they promptly retired at the right time to dedicate the rest of their lives in devotional service unto the Supreme Lord Krishna.

For instance, King Yudhishthira ruled the kingdom religiously and responsibly in line with the knowledge he had received from Lord Krishna and Bhishmadeva, the illustrious grandsire of the Kuru dynasty. Yudhishthira raised his grandson Parikshit with suitable training and before retiring entrusted the kingdom to him. Several other saintly kings, like Priyavrata, Uttanapada, Dhruva, Prithu, the Pracetas, Bharata, and Parikshit himself, also represent similar examples of leaving behind one’s material attachments at the right time. They had glorious departures from this world to enter the spiritual world.

Leaving Without Bewilderment

Death is inevitable for anyone who is born. Just as a student who won’t study well throughout the academic year cannot expect good results on the final exam or a good career, a person who lives whimsically throughout life cannot expect a good destination in the next life. Thus how one leaves this world depends on how one lives in this world. At the time of death one’s power of remembrance is slackened due to derangement of bodily functions. For a common man it is very difficult to remember things clearly at the time of death, but by the grace of the Supreme Lord and His bona fide representatives, the spiritual masters, a sincere practitioner of bhakti-yoga can remember Krishna without difficulty and thus attain His lotus feet.

jushatam tat-kathamritam
syat sambhramo ‘nta-kale ‘pi
smaratam tat-padambujam

“This was so because those who have dedicated their lives to the transcendental topics of the Personality of Godhead, of whom the Vedic hymns sing, and who are constantly engaged in remembering His lotus feet, do not run the risk of having misconceptions even at the last moment of their lives.” (Bhagavatam 1.18.4)

Once there was a great fight between the demigods and the demons. Vritrasura terrified the demigods with his unparalleled power, and they anxiously approached Lord Vishnu for a solution. Vishnu told them that Vritrasura could be killed by a thunderbolt weapon (vajra) made from the bones of the great sage Dadhici.

When requested by the demigods, selfless Dadhici understood their predicament and the order of Vishnu and prepared himself to give up his body to restore balance in the universal administrative system. Without bewilderment, he entered into deep meditation on the Supreme Lord’s lotus feet and left his body without even perceiving that his body was being separated from himself.

In his previous life Vritrasura had been King Citraketu, a great devotee of the form of the Lord known as Sankarshana. Once, by speaking some ill-chosen words, Citraketu offended Parvati Devi, the wife of Lord Shiva, and she cursed him to become a demon. But even in that demonic body, as Vritrasura, his devotion only increased.

Being aware that Lord Vishnu had ordained his death, Vritrasura prepared himself without bewilderment and fought dutifully with Indra in battle. In fact, his only purpose in life ? indeed his ecstasy ? was to be killed by the thunderbolt in the hands of Indra. Vritrasura rebuked Indra and inspired him to fight and to keep faith in Lord Vishnu’s promise of his victory. Vritrasura then offered heartfelt prayers to the Supreme Lord, even while on the battlefield. When Indra cut off his arms, Vritrasura swallowed Indra. Considering the fight over, Vritrasura entered into deep meditation on Lord Sankarshana. But Indra came out of Vritrasura’s body and, working for a full year, cut off the head of Vritrasura, who was absorbed in devotional trance.

Both Dadhici and Vritrasura were great devotees of the Lord, who had ordained their death. Knowing this didn’t bewilder them, but they gratefully accepted the Lord’s decision and left their bodies in deep devotion and in meditation on the Lord, only to reach His lotus feet. For great devotees, leaving the body is no reason for bewilderment, as they are always sure that the Supreme Lord is their ultimate well-wisher and destination.

Leaving Behind a Spiritual Path

A gentleman makes his own life successful by following a genuine path and leaves his path of success for many others to follow. Many saints and devotees of the Lord have performed unalloyed devotional service throughout their lives and have prescribed methods of training people in general in the spiritual path. The duty of an acharya, or spiritual master, is to find the means by which devotees may render service to the Supreme Lord Krishna and thus go back to Godhead. For example, Rupa Goswami, one of Lord Chaitanya’s leading disciples, wrote many wonderful books, including the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, which explains the science of bhakti-yoga (and which Srila Prabhupada presented as The Nectar of Devotion). An acharya gives the suitable method for his followers to cross the ocean of nescience. This method entails accepting the boat of the Lord’s lotus feet. If this method is strictly adhered to, the followers will ultimately reach the spiritual destination by the grace of the Lord. This method is called acharya-sampradaya.

svayam samuttirya sudustaram dyuman
bhavarnavam bhumam adabhra-sauhridah
bhavat-padambhoruha-navam atra te
nidhaya yatah sad-anugraho bhavan

“O Lord, who resemble the shining sun, Your are always ready to fulfill the desire of Your devotee, and therefore You are known as a desire tree [vancha-kalpataru]. When acharyas completely take shelter under Your lotus feet in order to cross the fierce ocean of nescience, they leave behind on earth the method by which they cross, and because You are very merciful to Your other devotees, You accept this method to help them.” (Bhagavatam 10.2.31)

Leaving Behind Life Teachings

Sometimes a glorious person may not be recognized by the people and may even be misunderstood during his lifetime. But the world often will realize his brilliance towards the end of his life or after his departure. Such a person who sticks to his spiritual values despite the odds is acknowledged and exalted by God Himself for his unshakable sincerity. His life and realizations serve as great teachings.

Bhishmadeva, mentioned earlier, was a lifelong celibate and a great devotee of Lord Krishna. He loved the Pandavas, the righteous sons of King Pandu, and as an affectionate family elder he protected them in various ways. Although valiant, vastly learned, and dedicated to devotional service, for various reasons Bhishma had to fight on the opposite side, against the virtuous Pandavas. Lord Krishna wanted to teach the world through Bhishma that vice cannot conquer virtue regardless of who tries to execute it. And Bhishma played his humble part in the Lord’s higher plan.

Krishna, however, wanted to glorify His devotee Bhishma before his departure. When Yudhishthira was overwhelmed with guilt at causing a great massacre to enthrone him as king, no one, including Krishna and Vyasadeva, could pacify him. So Krishna chose Bhishma to counsel Yudhishthira, in the presence of eminent personalities from all over the universe, including Parashurama, Shukadeva Goswami, and others. Bhishma instructed Yudhishthira on the dharmas of charity, liberation, rulers, women, and devotional service.

Having enlightened Yudhishthira, Bhishma withdrew his senses from external objects and focused on the form of Lord Krishna as Partha-sarathi (the charioteer of Arjuna). He praised Krishna in various ways, offered fervent prayers, and, while meditating on the Lord’s form, departed at an auspicious time. Bhishma’s long life of successes and struggles, his teachings to Yudhishthira, and his complete absorption in Krishna before leaving this world constitute great instructions for devotees.

Leaving Behind One’s Example

Determination, dedication, and devotion impress us, as do genuine regret for mistakes and honest gratitude towards well-wishers. These qualities, which are natural for a sincere person, inspire awe when exhibited by a child.

The five-year-old prince Dhruva was tormented by the harsh words of his stepmother, Suruci, who refused to let him sit on the lap of his father, the king. Upon being inspired by his own mother, Suniti, and instructed by the great sage Narada Muni, Dhruva worshiped the Lord with an ambitious desire to attain a position superior to even Brahma. Within six months he attained the audience of Lord Vishnu, who rewarded him beyond his imagination. Dhruva’s heart, however, had been transformed by his sincere practice of bhakti and the Lord’s audience, and he regretted worshiping the Lord with a material desire.

Dhruva set an unparalleled example of determination in devotional service at a young age. His example shows that anyone ? even with material desires, or even a child ? can worship the Supreme Lord and become an object of His mercy. The Lord and devotion to Him will purify one’s selfish, materially motivated intentions.

As ordained by the Lord, Dhruva ruled the earth for thirty-six thousand years and then retired. Eventually a Vaikuntha airplane came to take him to the abode of the Supreme Lord. Although about to go, before boarding the airplane Dhruva humbly offered his respects to the sages present. And he wasn’t willing to go without his mother, Suniti, who first inspired him to worship Krishna. His heart was filled with gratitude towards her. Then he was shown another Vaikuntha airplane, in which his mother was also going back to Godhead. Thus Dhruva went to the Lord’s abode. His example gives us lessons on respect, determination, sincere repentance, and gratitude in bhakti.

Leaving Behind a Legacy

Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, dedicated his life to spreading the message of Lord Chaitanya in English, as ordered by his spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. In his seventieth year, Srila Prabhupada traveled to America and started a worldwide spiritual movement. He circled the globe fourteen times to spread the message of Krishna consciousness, inspiring millions to take up krishna-bhakti. He translated the most important Vaishnava literatures into English and wrote similar books that guide humanity on the spiritual path. The books he left behind, translated into various languages, are distributed all over the world. Even in his last days, lying on a bed and physically inactive, he continued to translate the Srimad-Bhagavatam and give his profound devotional commentaries. He left behind a legacy that is being continued by his sincere followers, whose hearts were touched by his warmth and spiritual depth.

The great souls mentioned in this article lived by upholding virtuous principles, left behind their own extraordinary accomplishments, teachings, legacies, and personal examples, and departed to the spiritual realm to serve the Supreme Lord eternally. Human life is a rare gift. To utilize it effectively, one may derive inspiration from such model personalities and learn the art of living and the art of leaving.