By Akshay Gupta
Lessons from the history of a fierce being created to challenge Indra, the ruler of the heavenly planets.
The Vedic literature contains many histories meant to enlighten us with transcendental knowledge and teach us valuable lessons so that we can progress on the spiritual path. The Srimad-Bhagavatam in particular is filled with such stories.
One deals with a demon named Vritrasura. Despite playing the role of a demon, Vritrasura was actually a very elevated bhakti-yogi. He was created in a sacrificial fire to fight Indra, the king of heaven. Vritrasura was so powerful that he struck fear everywhere and was able to fight an army of demigods by himself. What makes Vritrasura so glorious, however, is not his immense strength as a fighter, but rather his level of spiritual elevation.
During their battle, Vritrasura strikes Indra with an iron mace and disarms him, and Indra loses the courage to fight. Vritrasura then begins a philosophical discourse with Indra and encourages him to keep fighting. During their discussion, Vritrasura reveals his status as an advanced bhakti-yogi:
Just as a person not inclined to die must nonetheless give up his longevity, opulence, fame, and everything else at the time of death, so, at the appointed time of victory, one can gain all these when the Supreme Lord awards them by His mercy. Since everything is dependent on the supreme will of the Personality of Godhead, one should be equipoised in fame and defamation, victory and defeat, life and death. In their effects, represented as happiness and distress, one should maintain oneself in equilibrium, without anxiety. One who knows that the three qualities – goodness, passion, and ignorance – are not qualities of the soul but qualities of material nature, and who knows that the pure soul is simply an observer of the actions and reactions of these qualities, should be understood to be a liberated person. He is not bound by these qualities.” (Bhag. 6.12.13–15)
Vritrasura has deep insight for a demon. Despite fighting for his life, he speaks on various principles of bhakti-yoga. The first is to recognize the fleeting nature of all opulence, fame, relative longevity, and everything else in this world. Understanding the transient nature of such things serves as an impetus for one to search for higher meaning and eternal life. The soul is eternal, and thus it needs greater fulfillment than basic bodily pleasures.
Admitting Our Dependence
Vritrasura also recognizes that everything depends on the will of God. Acknowledging one’s dependence on God is a crucial element of bhakti-yoga. For some, the idea of being dependent on God is frightening. After all, being dependent on others means you are at their mercy and they are free to do whatever they want with you. God, however, is very kind and merciful to us, and He will ensure that those who surrender to Him face no difficulties. Krishna, or God, says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.22),
“But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” Thus Krishna encourages us to depend on Him, worship Him, and meditate on Him. When we rely on our own strength or abilities, we are held back by our shortcomings. When we depend on God, however, He enables us to overcome any obstacles we may face in our life and to retain whatever we have.
Moreover, Krishna assures us that He is our friend. He states,
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Gita 9.29) When we depend on God and worship Him, He becomes our friend and always looks after us. Therefore, Vritrasura also says that when the time comes for victory, God can bestow upon us longevity, fame, and opulence.
Moreover, Vritrasura also understands the need to tolerate life’s onslaughts with equanimity. As he mentions, we should be equally poised in happiness and distress, since they are both temporary conditions ultimately orchestrated by God. As Krishna states in the Gita (2.14–15),
“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed. O best among men [Arjuna], the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation.” Since happiness and distress come and go like winter and summer, we should respond to them with equanimity. Such composure enables us to carry out our duties and break free from material bondage.
Controlled by the Modes
Vritrasura also mentions the three modes of nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. As he says, these are not the qualities of the soul, but of material nature. The modes are elaborately described in the fourteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-gita. Essentially, these three modes condition us to act in certain ways.
The mode of goodness is illuminating and frees one from sinful actions. Someone in the mode of goodness experiences a sense of happiness and knowledge. An example might be a scientist or a poet, someone concerned with acquiring knowledge. Unfortunately, the problem with the mode of goodness is that one can get attached to the sense of happiness and become proud, thinking oneself more advanced in knowledge than others.
Unlimited desires and longings characterize the mode of passion. Someone in this mode always hankers for more and more material wealth and opulence. A person heavily influenced by the mode of passion won’t be satisfied with a nice house and two cars, but will want a bigger house and a nicer car. If he gets them, he still won’t be satisfied and will want an even bigger house and an even nicer car. Essentially, one in the mode of passion becomes greedy. An example would be an overzealous businessman working intense hours just to accumulate more and more wealth, far beyond what he requires for his maintenance.
Lastly, the mode of ignorance is characterized by madness, laziness, and sleep. A prime example is the drunkard.
As Vritrasura mentions, we can avoid being bound by these qualities. Srila Prabhupada explains, “The living being, the pure soul, has nothing to do with these modes. In the midst of the hurricane of the material world, everything changes very quickly, but if one remains silent and simply observes the actions and reactions of the hurricane, he is understood to be liberated.” (Bhag. 6.12.15) One who understands that the modes of nature are acting and the self does nothing directly is considered liberated. In such a liberated state, one can remain jubilant even in the midst of difficulty, seeing everything as God’s mercy.
The Back Story
One might question how Vritrasura, despite being a demon, was able to attain the status of an elevated bhakti-yogi. The Srimad-Bhagavatam explains that Vritrasura was a king named Chitraketu in his previous life. After his infant son died, King Chitraketu, in extreme despair, was enlightened with spiritual knowledge by the two sages Narada and Angira. Chitraketu then took to the process of bhakti-yoga. Shortly afterwards, he became overwhelmed with spiritual ecstasy and saw God face to face. Awarded the power to travel throughout the universe, he once spoke about Lord Shiva in a way that Parvati, Shiva’s wife, considered offensive. She cursed Chitraketu to become a demon in his next life. But even though born a demon, he did not lose any of his spiritual knowledge or progress.
The Need to Look Below the Surface
We can learn many lessons from the story of Vritrasura. There’s the old saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” From Vritrasura’s story we can learn not to judge a person by his or her external features. Even though Vritrasura was a demon, he was still an exalted bhakti-yogi able to propound deep transcendental knowledge even in the midst of a fight for his life. A person born in a low family may be spiritually advanced, and someone born in a respectable family may be spiritually blind.
Another lesson is that spiritual progress carries on from life to life. Though King Chitraketu became the demon Vritrasura in his next life, he carried his spiritual advancement with him. Krishna states in the Gita (2.40) that our progress on the path of bhakti-yoga is never lost or diminished and even a little progress can save us from the greatest danger, securing for us a greater opportunity for spiritual advancement in our next life.
Lastly, Vritrasura’s story illustrates how anyone is eligible to take up bhakti-yoga. It doesn’t matter whether one is born in a demonic family or a saintly one; anyone can practice bhakti-yoga. One famous bhakti-yogi was Haridasa Thakura, a close associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Though born in a Muslim family, he was promoted to the status of namacharya, “the spiritual teacher of the holy name.” Practitioners of bhakti-yoga commonly chant the holy names of God in the maha-mantra, or the great chant for deliverance: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This mantra purifies the heart and removes distress from the chanter’s life. In fact, one can achieve perfection in God realization simply by chanting this mantra. The perfectly God-realized soul feels great ecstasy when chanting the maha-mantra. Moreover, by becoming fully God-realized, one is eligible to enter the spiritual world and thereby attain freedom from all material miseries.