16 11 2020

A first reading of the Srimad Bhagavatam

You could say that the purpose of the 18,000 verse Bhagavata Purana or Srimad Bhagavatam is to tell you what it means to be a person. Or rather, it’s to introduce you to the first or Supreme Person, the one you have been looking for, the one you always knew existed, or at least wish you did. In Vaishnava thought, reality has three levels or manifestations: Brahman, Paramahtma, and Bhagavan. Perhaps I will oversimplify these and say that they are the answers to three separate questions: What, Why, and Who. Brahman is a question of “what”: that there is existence, but not particularly why it is. It’s the truth barren of any qualities or distinctions. Many people seek this, they seek stillness and a peaceful void. This is often the subject of cheap mysticism. Paramahtma is the truth as it works within us and all over: it’s the reason why philosophers ask questions and it’s the voice that provides them with answers, often wildly divergent from each other. Those who seek it still don’t really know the origin of the truth. In a manner of speaking, it is the logos (λόγος) of the Stoics and St. John’s Gospel. But the ground of both of these, the ultimate reality if you will, is not a question of “what”, or even “why”, but of “Who?”

A totally unrelated question that I heard two Hare Krishna devotees discuss is whether love actually exists in the world. Srila Prabhupada, the pure devotee who sacrificed everything to bring Krishna consciousness to the West in his seventies, stated on more than one occasion that all relations in the world are manifestations of lust, not love. These two devotees stated that, of course, Srila Prabhupada was exaggerating when he stated that only lusts exists in this material reality, and not love. A mother loves her child, sometimes spouses may sacrifice their lives for each other, etc. So of course, love exists down here in the material world. But I feel that they’re protesting too much and missing the point. The reason that love can’t exist in the material world is because things down here are temporary and actual love is eternal. One can only really love the eternal and not the perishing. What one loves in anyone here, be it in the child, the friend, or the lover, is really the Eternal, or the Original Person. What we really love is Krishna, even if in a distorted reflection. And it’s the Srimad Bhagavatam that tells you who Krishna is.

I am a neophyte. I have precious little knowledge of Sanskrit. My intellectual formation up to a couple of years ago has equipped me poorly to address Vedic philosophy. In essence, coming into Krishna consciousness has been humbling in that I have had to strip bare my thinking and approach to the world and rebuild my mind from the ground up. It’s obviously a work in progress. What follows is not a systematic approach to this ancient text, as I am in no position to present one. I just finished reading the Srimad Bhagavatam after a year and a half of reading it on and off. Understanding it will be a work of a lifetime, or perhaps several. This is just a sketch, so take it for what it’s worth.

The plot of the Srimad Bhagvatam is one man’s facing down the urgency of death. Maharaja Pariksit, the emperor of the world, is cursed with death by a brahmin child for the mild infraction of having disrespected his father. Rather than protest, the king decides to renounce the trappings of royalty and sit by the Ganges to prepare to die in exactly one week. All the great sages of the world assemble, but no one can really tell him the purpose of life. Only when a naked sixteen year old young saddhu, Sukadeva Goswami, walks into the assembly can the real narration begin and the true purpose of life is thus revealed: the remembrance of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

What is the main problem of material life? It is, in a word, forgetfulness. When one of Krishna’s many incarnations, Kapiladeva, speaks to His mother Devahuti, He explains the plight of the child about to be born once again into the material world. The child remembers that he is about to emerge again into a world of death, decay, and sorrow, and he begs the Lord that, this time, he might not forget his real purpose in life:

Therefore, my Lord, although I am living in a terrible condition, I do not wish to depart from my mother’s abdomen to fall again into the blind well of materialistic life. Your external energy, called deva-māyā, at once captures the newly born child, and immediately false identification, which is the beginning of the cycle of continual birth and death, begins.

Therefore, without being agitated any more, I shall deliver myself from the darkness of nescience with the help of my friend, clear consciousness. Simply by keeping the lotus feet of Lord Viṣṇu in my mind, I shall be saved from entering into the wombs of many mothers for repeated birth and death. (SB 3:31:20-21)

In spite of his protests, the child is born anyway, and forgets the Supreme Lord entirely. This is similar to the rabbinic idea of birth when a child is touched on the lips by an angel and forgets all that his pre-existent soul knew, or when Origen states that a person entering a church for the first time doesn’t discover God, but rather remembers Him. The newborn, and indeed the person throughout his or her life, is covered by millions of lives worth of desires and traumas, all of which overwhelm them in an ocean of concern and sorrow. The lesson of the Srimad Bhagvatam is that this forgetfulness of God, this false ego, is the only barrier that separates us from who we truly are.

Kapiladeva’s mother, Devahuti, is doubly fortunate in that her beloved son and the Supreme Personality of Godhead are the same person. In deeply contemplating her son, she dissolves back into her first identity: she goes back to the spiritual world from which she had fallen to be with her son forever:

Situated in eternal trance and freed from illusion impelled by the modes of material nature, she forgot her material body, just as one forgets his different bodies in a dream. (SB 3:33:27)

Dear Vidura, the material elements of her body have melted into water and are now a flowing river, which is the most sacred of all rivers. Anyone who bathes in that river also attains perfection, and therefore all persons who desire perfection go bathe there. (SB: 3:33:32)

Srila Prabhupada says that world is neither true nor false, but temporary. The world is given to us because we want to play God, although we are literally made of God, though only a minuscule portion. As we are tossed around by the pleasures and pains of life, the only manner of escape is to remember our source and origin: God or Lord Krishna.

Another aspect of the escape from the material world is that there are those here whose activities are not material at all, but spiritual. One devotee once described this to me when he spoke of seeing his guru Srila Prabhupada for the first time: it was as if only Srila Prabhupada was in color, and the rest of the world was in black and white. That is because actual reality is eternal, whereas matter is not. This is the case even when the spiritual reality appears to our observation to act like material reality. This is very colorfully illustrated in the pastimes of Lord Ṛṣabhadeva, an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead:

Because Lord Ṛṣabhadeva remained in that condition, the public did not disturb Him, but no bad aroma emanated from His stool and urine. Quite the contrary, His stool and urine were so aromatic that they filled eighty miles of the countryside with a pleasant fragrance. (SB 5.5.33)

Here is an appropriate place to discuss and appreciate the contrast between the Western / Advaita Vedanta idea of the formlessness of God and the idea in Vaishnavism that God has an eternal body, full of knowledge and bliss (sac-cid-ananda vigraha). In impersonalist systems of thought, matter is either the product of a fall from the spiritual, or it is absolutely separate from God by its essence. Because our five senses and mortal experience are all we can remember (see the prayer of the child in the womb above), we think that God and His realm must abide by the same laws of our mortal mind and experiences. Therefore, God cannot have a body by definition, multiplicity is always inferior to oneness, and discernible qualities must come by necessity from a primordial simplicity. The contention of the dualist and personalist school of Vaishnavism is that all of these preconceptions are just covered materialism. To paraphrase Ramanujacharya, the Supreme Lord does not lack all qualities because these are somehow beneath Him, but He manifests all qualities at once, in an overabundance of being. It’s not that God doesn’t have a body, it’s that His body is the origin of and beyond all bodies that we can possibly conceive. Indeed, here we see an inversion of the Western metaphysical transcedentals of oneness, truth, goodness (and beauty). Beauty is primary: God is not discerned through a series of dry abstractions that strip things of their individual qualities, nor by the execution of ascetical techniques that purify the mind of its attachments, nor even by good behavior. Deliverance comes through the appreciation of and service to the beauty of the Lord, of the Lord’s very real and luminous body:

The luster of His toenails, which are brilliantly prominent, resembles the light of the moon. If a yogī looks upon the marks of the Lord’s sole and on the blazing brilliance of His nails, then he can be freed from the darkness of ignorance in material existence. This liberation is not achieved by mental speculation, but by seeing the light emanating from the lustrous toenails of the Lord. In other words, one has to fix his mind first on the lotus feet of the Lord if he wants to be freed from the darkness of ignorance in material existence. (SB 3.28.21)

The body of the Lord, as well as His name, abode, entourage, and paraphernalia, are the supreme reality. They are the actual origin of all that we perceive down here below in the material world. The idea that our present reality of birth and death is the actual reality is false ego. For the Westerner, it is hard to extricate ourselves from the idea that this temporary existence is fundamentally an illusion. This hits hardest when we suffer setbacks, yet these have the same characteristics of experiencing horrible things in dreams. This fact is most starkly illustrated in the story of the loss of the child of King Citraketu, when the child himself is temporarily resurrected to lecture the parents about the transitory nature of family relations (SB 6.16.8-9):

The living being actually has no relationship with so-called fathers and mothers. As long as he appears as the son of a certain father and mother as a result of his past fruitive activities, he has a connection with the body given by that father and mother. Thus he falsely accepts himself as their son and acts affectionately. After he dies, however, the relationship is finished. Under these circumstances, one should not be falsely involved with jubilation and lamentation.

The living entity is eternal and imperishable because he actually has no beginning and no end. He never takes birth or dies. He is the basic principle of all types of bodies, yet he does not belong to the bodily category. The living being is so sublime that he is equal in quality to the Supreme Lord. Nonetheless, because he is extremely small, he is prone to be illusioned by the external energy, and thus he creates various bodies for himself according to his different desires.

We find echoes of this truth in the Gospel, when Jesus appears to renounce His own family and relations for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 12: 48-50). While saying this appears callous, it is a supreme work of mercy. Joy in the material world is transitory and fruitless. Srila Prabhupada characterizes the attempt to try to bring forth truth and happiness from the material world as akin to trying to milk the nipples on the neck of a goat (cf. SB 3.26.17 purport). As much as it pains us to hear it, our struggles and even our loved ones in the material world cannot bring us happiness. Yet we are made of joy, or more precisely, we are small flakes fallen from the Lord’s pleasure potency (hladini shakti). We know what happiness is and we seek it because we are made of joy, specifically God’s eternal joy, but we are His marginal potency: we are minuscule pieces of God’s pleasure. We are not the Enjoyer (Purusha), but rather the enjoyed (prakriti). We are like tiny limbs of God detached from His body, flailing. All of our schemes to fix this primordial pain, from intense meditation on the impersonal One to our clinging to family relations, are futile attempts to assuage it.

The good news is that we can enter into a relationship with God again. We stand always in relation to God in our first and primordial body. We can know God as a servant, a friend, a parent, or a lover. This relationship has little to do with abstract theological knowledge, and it is intimate beyond all fathomings. When Lord Krishna’s friend, Uddhava, visits His home in Vrindavan, he tries to speak to the cowherd women (gopis) of lofty concepts of Krishna being with them still as God who is present everywhere by His potency. Yet the gopis could only sadly ask if Krishna would ever come back to be with them. The pure devotee is not satisfied with abstract ideas of God’s presence; her love is far from sober. All of the nights that the gopis spent with Krishna in the rasa dance seemed to pass for them in a matter of moments, yet a single moment apart from Krishna seemed like a day of Brahma (almost endless aeons) (SB 11.12.11). The gopis cursed Lord Brahma for having made them with eye lids, for this subtracted valuable seconds from their vision of Krishna (SB 10.31.15). Because of these sentiments, Uddhava states (SB 11.12.11):

The gopīs of Vṛndāvana have given up the association of their husbands, sons and other family members, who are very difficult to give up, and they have forsaken the path of chastity to take shelter of the lotus feet of Mukunda, Kṛṣṇa, which one should search for by Vedic knowledge. Oh, let me be fortunate enough to be one of the bushes, creepers or herbs in Vṛndāvana, because the gopīs trample them and bless them with the dust of their lotus feet.

This level of devotion is inconceivable: it’s crazy and almost foolish love. We cannot get to this level on our own, especially in this age of hypocrisy and quarrel (Kali Yuga). Even for standards of the material world, our current situation is particularly degraded. The Srimad Bhagavatam is full of fanciful stories, of oceans of liquor and cities that float in the sky, yet dreams are dreams, no matter how fabulous. The spotless Purana isn’t trying to tell us how to understand and dominate this world, but how to get out of it. In our age, Lord Krishna makes it rather simple (though admittedly not easy). Specifically, one must call upon the name of the Lord constantly, and He will deliver us:

If when falling, slipping, feeling pain or sneezing one involuntarily cries out in a loud voice, “Obeisances to Lord Hari!” one will be automatically freed from all his sinful reactions. (SB 12.12.47)

The point again here is simple: remembrance of the Lord, and Lord Krishna is making it exceptionally easy, at least technically. But we are so bound to our own petty attachments and desires that, of course, this deliverance seems nearly impossible. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada’s guru, stated that every morning, he beat his mind with a stick, and every night, he beat it with a shoe. You beat your mind with the Holy Names of the Lord until you can make it to your last moment when you can remember the Lord, and thus make it back home, back to Godhead.

Before I close out this reflection, I have to speak a bit about my own journey. Impersonalism has been a major struggle in my own life, especially in the form of atheism. It has been hard for me to believe. Especially among believers, it seems at every turn that I have found good intentions but bad conceptions of God, the world, the soul, and so on. I have often doubled down on these bad concepts, and went down some unfortunate paths. It was only in discovering Srila Prabhupada’s books that I felt that I got put back on track. Namely, I have come to the conclusion that the truth is personal. Though I may have believed this in my youth in the incarnational theology of the Eastern Church, false conceptions of the nature of the body, time, and the material world were a hindrance to my understanding of what personhood actually means.

What does it mean to be a person? I suppose one could speak of emptying oneself into the Other, communion, and a lot of other lofty concepts. But persons aren’t concepts, they aren’t inputs and outputs, and they’re not abstractions. They have preferences, they have moments of awkwardness, and they have fears. In Krishna’s pastimes throughout the Srimad Bhagavatam, He demonstrates all of these qualities, even if not in the manner we experience them. At the very least, He seems to have the same emotions that we do. As I stated above, He has a body: He has characteristics that make Him a particular Person. And He has a proper name: Krishna. For me, coming from a Catholic background, this is a better explanation of our reality. The material world isn’t simply some side project of God, even if it contains His energies indirectly (though not too much lest we wander into the realm of pantheism). The material world is a distorted image of the Lord’s supreme abode. Heaven, whether it is Vrindavan, Dwarka, or Vaikuntha, is an expansion of God: it is God. Our reality is a dream-like projection that hearkens to a pristine original. It is full of clues to get us home, if only we look for them humbly, in the spirit of devotion and service.

The very last chapter of the Srimad Bhagvatam mentions a delightful and moving image of one of the Supreme Lord’s seemingly less intimate pastimes. We speak here of Kurmadeva, the Lord’s tortoise incarnation. For Lord Krishna even descends as animals such as fish, swans, horses, and tortoises. In this pastime described in the Eighth Canto, the Lord appears as a giant tortoise to assist in the churning of the Ocean of Milk to create a nectar of immortality. Specifically, the demigods and demons were using a mountain as a churning rod, but the mountain kept sinking into the ocean. Lord Kurma thus swam under the mountain and sustained it above the water on His back. In this pastime, He says nothing, He’s as silent as an ordinary tortoise. In return for His efforts, the mountain scratched the Lord’s itchy back (SB 12.13.2):

When the Supreme Personality of Godhead appeared as Lord Kūrma, a tortoise, His back was scratched by the sharp-edged stones lying on massive, whirling Mount Mandara, and this scratching made the Lord sleepy. May you all be protected by the winds caused by the Lord’s breathing in this sleepy condition. Ever since that time, even up to the present day, the ocean tides have imitated the Lord’s inhalation and exhalation by piously coming in and going out.

Who would have thought that one’s relationship with God could be as simple as scratching His back and hearing Him breath as He sleeps?



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