— Swami Vireshananda —
Sri Ramakrishna once remarked about Srimad Bhagavata: ‘Bhagavata is fried in the butter of knowledge and steeped in the honey of love [for the Divine].’1 The scholars echo this sentiment. They say that this great devotional work is a beautiful blending of jnana and bhakti; while karma yoga and yoga of meditation act like catalysts to prepare the human mind to experience the exalted spiritual bliss the former two bring about. While there are several distinctions in their initial stages—jnana and bhakti, according to Bhagavata, take the same nature and form to lead one to the experience of a non-differentiated union with the Divine. In the scheme of Bhagavata, bhakti, instead of being an obstacle to the path of jnana, purifies the mind of a spiritual aspirant and facilitates in achieving advaita bhāva, the non-dual experience of Supreme Consciousness. Thus, bhakti, raising itself from its preliminary state of being mere sentimentalism, will evolve into non-dual knowledge with an emphasis on the ānanda or the blissful aspect of Brahman, the ultimate Reality. This unique feature of the teaching of Bhagavata is what makes it an outstanding sacred book among the literary works of various religious traditions all over the world.
The four verses of the second skanda, chapter 9 (32–35) are commonly known as Chaturshloki Bhagavatam or Bhagavata condensed into four verses. The transcendent and immanent aspects of the Supreme Reality are unambiguously expressed in these four verses, which the tradition says, contain the essence of the whole text of Bhagavata. Here, the Supreme Lord teaches Brahmā, the creator, the Knowledge of Reality which is none other than Himself, inherent in His manifestations, forms, attributes, and activities (2.9.31). The Lord says that before creation He alone was, there being no other existence of the nature of cause and effect different from Him. Even after the end of a creative cycle, He alone will remain. It is because this universe, which seems to have a separate existence apart from Him, is also Himself. And when everything dissolves into the cause (pralaya), what remains is Himself. This universe is projected on the Atman without any substantial reality apart from It. When this apparent world ceases to exist, it leaves no residue apart from the Atman. It is all due to the divine power called Maya. Such a presentation of an illusory world is like a reflected image, which is dependent on the original object; and is also like darkness which leaves no residue when it dissolves.
The basic elements of prakriti or Nature combine to form different objects of the world and they are found even outside those objects. In the same way, the Supreme Lord constitutes all beings in the universe, and in that sense, it seems He has entered into them. However, in the absolute sense, He has not entered in them since His pristine nature is not at all affected by the combinations that make up the bodies of beings due to the working of prakriti. The seeker of the Truth has to grasp that substance which persists through all its transformations in various forms and effects; but suffers no diminution even after all these forms and effects enter into their cause. The Supreme Consciousness is that great substance (2.9.32–35).
The Nature of Reality
Bhagavata says that the Supreme Truth is described by enlightened ones as non-dual Consciousness. It is variously called Brahman by the Vedantins, Paramātman by the votaries of Hiranyagarbha, and Bhagavān by the devotees (1.2.11). Free from ego-centred desires, an enlightened one is always immersed in the bliss of the Atman. In that state, one does not know whether one has a body even while one is engaged in natural activities. Even if one perceives the unreal sense-objects, one is convinced of their falsity.
The qualities of prakriti and karma are superimposed on the Atman. Jnana destroys this ignorance along with the identification with the body. The Atman, on the other hand, remains the same in all states, whether it is liberation or bondage, and shines as it always has been shining, being self-luminous consciousness, unoriginated, unfathomable, and absolute one without a second (11.28.31–34). This teaching reverberates the message of the Upanishads which explicitly say: ‘Neha nānāsti kincana; there is nothing else other than Brahman or Atman.’2 This aspect of God, which the Bhagavata enumerates, is analogous to the idea of Reality found in the Upanishads.
The distinction between individuals and the Supreme Reality is felt only in the realm of duality, which, Bhagavata says, is due to ‘māyābalam bhagavath; the power of the Maya of Bhagavān, the Supreme Lord’, another aspect of Reality. It is the power of Maya that manifests itself as the sense organs and the objects of their comprehension (3.9.9). Bhagavān is commonly known as Īśvara, the ruler of this whole universe, and Karmādhyaksha, the dispenser of the fruits of karma of the ordinary jīvas.
Another dimension of the Reality, Bhagavata teaches, is Paramātman, Supreme Self, who is immanent in all entities, animate and inanimate. The Supreme Lord says to creator Brahmā:
यदा तु सर्वभूतेषु दारुष्वग्निमिव स्थितम् ।
प्रतिचक्षीत मां लोको जह्यात्तर्ह्येव कश्मलम् ॥
When aspirants see Me as residing in all beings, like the one fire in all pieces of wood, then only they overcome delusion (3.9.32).
In its elaborate descriptions of the creation of cosmos, Bhagavata makes it a point to emphasise the interference of the Supreme Lord—who is of the nature of pristine consciousness—in every stage of evolution of inert elements of Prakriti, Nature. This proves the fact that it is Paramātman who is the spiritual quintessence of the entire manifested Universe. In other words, the whole existence is but one of the glorious manifestations of the Supreme Lord, who is its inner essence and controller (Antaryāmin).
Outline of Sadhana
Sri Krishna says in Bhagavata that he has spoken about the three paths for the supreme good of a human being—the path of karma, the path of jnana, and the path of bhakti (11.20.6). Bhagavata does not consider the path of action to be independent. It considers this path to be pursued until one develops detachment in the case of jnana or the taste for God in the case of bhakti.
Bhagavata places the paths of jnana and bhakti on equal footing. Lord Kapila says in this context that a person attains the Supreme by resorting to either of the two yogas—jnana or bhakti—taught by him (3.29.35). The path of knowledge advocated by the Upanishads is held equal in status to the path of devotion. The result is, as Dr Siddheshwara Bhattacharya says, the emergence of Bhagavata Dharma or the spiritual path of Bhagavata, beautifully described in the very second verse of this great work.3 It says that the topic discussed in this glorious text, the composition of the great sage Vyasa, is the Dharma (the law of Life) of holy ones who are free from the passions of the heart (like lust, anger, greed, jealousy, and the like). These great ones have abandoned all false values of the mundane world. The teaching of Bhagavata is concerned only with the Supreme Truth that brings about the ultimate good for all (1.1.2).
Bhagavata exhorts one to perform actions enjoined by the Vedas without any selfish motive with the realisation of God as the only primary goal of one’s life. This path is named kriyā-yoga which is of the nature of ritualistic adoration of the Supreme Lord combining in itself the vaidika and tāntrika modes of worship (11.27.49). The actions are classified into nivratta and pravratta, the former indicating actions to be done without selfless motive and the latter indicating the inclination towards worldly pleasures. One who is devoted to the Supreme Lord should perform nivratta karma, the works conducive to renunciation which consists of obligatory duties and those that serve charitable purposes (11.10.4). Narada says in Bhagavata:
A man who performs such works (involving sense indulgence) in this way, that is, with the understanding that they are allowed not for the sake of indulgence in itself, but to restrain and wean him away from them ultimately, such a person never grows addicted to them because of the knowledge generated by such reflection (4.26.7).
Lord Kapila states that such a devotee is superior, who has unconditionally surrendered all his actions and their fruits, together with one’s body and mind, to the Supreme Lord, for he sees Him everywhere and is free from the egoistic tendency (3.29.33).
Yoga of Meditation
Bhagavata emphasises the practice of eightfold limbs of yoga as a facilitator to jnana and bhakti. However, the goal of yoga taught in Bhagavata is to get completely absorbed in God-consciousness. There is a higher spiritual purpose in undergoing each of the eight steps of yoga. Bhagavata enumerates this vividly in the words of Lord Kapila: 1. The performance of meditation purifies the mind and establishes it in the Divine Consciousness. 2. One should perform all duties in a spirit of dedication to the Lord. 3. A spiritual aspirant should shun the worldly ways and should develop a deep interest in the path that leads to spiritual realisation. 4. One should practise the disciplines of yama, niyama, and āsana with a view to steady the body and cleanse the mind so that one is drawn towards the Lord. 5. One should regulate one’s breath (prāṇāyāma) to control and steady the mind, and then direct it towards God. 6. Pratyāhāra, which is ingathering of the mind by withdrawing from sense-objects, should be constantly practised to master the mind. 7. Dhāraṇa or fixing the mind for inward concentration is helpful in overcoming all the sinful tendencies of the mind. 8. Dhyāna or meditation removes one’s doubts, scepticism, and obsession with physical life—the tendencies which are contrary to spiritual pursuit. 9. Through meditation, the devotee obtains absorbing love for the Lord. It is the nature of samadhi. The power of devotion ultimately destroys the bondage with the prakriti (3.28.1–12, 34).
Bhagavata reiterates the message of the Upanishads by upholding ‘Brahman-consciousness’ as the highest realisation. Sri Krishna teaches sage Maitreya that one who has achieved purification of mind overcomes the material nature and gains spiritual insight. This can be achieved only through the Brahma-Kaivalya, union with Brahman-Consciousness. He attains the highest good, who realises the changeless and unattached Atman within as the witness of the body and the organs of knowledge and action (4.20.10–11).
Sanatkumara elaborates on this and teaches King Prithu that it is the Supreme Lord, who shines as the Master, a real presence and the Indweller in the cluster of body, mind, senses, and the like. Tam avehi so’smi; one should know oneself to be non-different from Him. It is His Maya that shines in the form of this universe even as a snake appears on a rope in the state of ignorance (4.22.37–38).
It is interesting to note what sage Sanatkumara says in this regard. He says that it is easier for the devotees who love the Lord and are devoted to His services to cut the knot of self-centredness than even for those who are endowed with just renunciation and control of the senses. He commands King Prithu to take Sri Hari’s worshipful feet as the boat to cross the ocean of samsāra or transmigratory existence, which is very difficult to cross (4.22.39–40).
Nature of Bhakti
There is no doubt that the Bhagavata gives prominence to bhakti, loving devotion to the Lord, above all other sadhanas. However, bhakti no longer confines itself to mental emotion but raises to its pinnacle to be an all-integrated one-pointed mental mode directed towards the Supreme Lord. It constitutes the combination of energies of all the faculties of human personality. This exalted state of bhakti is well articulated in the following verse:
When all the energies of the mind, including those of the organs of knowledge and action, becomes concentrated in a unified mental mode directed to the Supreme Being, spontaneous like an instinct and devoid of any extraneous motives, the resulting state of mind is called bhakti. It is superior even to Mukti. Like fire, it burns up the soul’s sheath of ignorance (3.25.32–33).
The bhakti of this nature, which is free from any selfish motives and unshakable by any antagonistic circumstances, purifies one’s mind leading to supreme peace (1.2.6). Also, bhakti yoga or the practice of communion through loving devotion, quickly generates vairagya or dispassion for worldly objects, and culminates in jnana or the knowledge of the Supreme Being (1.2.7).
Nine Modes of Bhakti
The unified mental mode of bhakti, mentioned above, finds expression in the external sense through nine important channels. In the case of one who has attained the superior state of bhakti, they are natural and spontaneous; while for an aspirant, they are to be practised so as to reach the higher stages of bhakti. The idea is that bhakti is not just a sentiment limited to the mind, but should find manifestation in every way in all of the activities in one’s course of life. Bhakti, expressed in such a manner, is more an integrated way of life than an exuberant expression of one’s emotional outburst.
- Śravaṇa (Hearing): Hearing and reading of the extraordinary divine deeds of incarnations have the efficacy of removing all impurities from the minds of people. Śravaṇa itself gives such an immense bliss, which Bhagavata says, even excels the liberation! (3.15.48)
- Kīrtana (Singing Devotional Hymns): The choral singing in praise of the Supreme Lord easily brings about complete absorption in Him and becomes the source of joy and contentment. The chanting of the name of the Lord is a panacea for all sorrows and fears that the human beings are afflicted with, and singing His excellences forms a veritable boat for crossing the ocean of samsāra (2.1.11; 1.6.35).
- Smaraṇa (Remembrance): Constant remembrance of God is the central pivot of all spiritual practices. Sri Krishna says to Uddhava that yoga consists in disciplining the mind in such a way that it is drawn away from all objects and fixed in remembrance of the Lord (11.13.14). Sage Shuka also echoes the same idea when he says: ‘The purpose of practising the paths of jnana, yoga, and karma is to attain the remembrance of Narayana at the time of death. This, indeed, is the highest gain in life’ (2.1.6).
- Pādaseva (Divine Service): It is the service rendered to the icons of the Supreme Lord in one’s personal shrine room or in a temple. It also signifies the personal service to one’s Guru or revered elder. Prahlada says that all beings attain peace and happiness through the service of the feet of the Lord. The Lord’s feet are the shelter for saving oneself from repeated births and deaths, passions, attachments, sorrow, anger, pride, fear, misery, worry, and the like (5.18.14).
- Arcanam (Worship): It is popularly known as Pūja. But, arcanam transcends ordinary ritualism. Narada takes the idea of arcanam to the highest pedestal when he says that the adoration of the Supreme Lord is the adoration of all deities, nay the whole world (4.31.14). Also, creator Brahmā says that arcanam is not confined to the images but is the worship of the Supreme Lord residing in all beings, including the worshipper himself (8.5.49).
- Vandanam (Salutation): It means bowing down to the Supreme Lord in the devotional attitude. Akrura, a great devotee, says about the value of salutation: ‘Today all evil in my life has been overcome; today my life in the world has become fruitful. For I have been able to actually prostrate at the feet of the Lord, which even Yogis could do only in their imagination at the time of contemplation (10.38.6). Bhagavata also gives a comprehensive meaning of vandanam. It says that the whole universe constitutes the body of the Supreme Lord and hence, one should adore the Lord as the All-Inclusive Absolute by saluting sky, air, fire, and the like that constitute the universe.
- Dāsya (Servantship): Dāsya means cultivating the attitude of a servant to the Lord. Durvasa says that if one becomes the servant of the Lord then what else remains to be achieved! (9.5.16). Brahma states that the passions confront a person as long as one has not dedicated oneself to the Supreme Lord (10.14.36). Hence, Uddhava remarks that there is no wonder that the devotees of the Supreme Lord who look upon Him as their own Self, have none else but Him as their only refuge! (11.29.4).
- Sakhya (Friendliness): It means companionship, which is a very close relationship among humans. Brahma praises the inhabitants of Vraja (the land where Sri Krishna exhibited His divine sports) thus: ‘How fortunate are Nanda and other inhabitants of Vraja! For they have got Sri Krishna—the eternal and undecaying Brahman, the embodiment of Supreme Bliss—as their companion!’ (10.14.32).
- Ātmanivedanam (Self-Dedication): It means dedication of oneself to the Supreme Lord. Such a devotee abandons everything that is of worldly value for the sake of God and finds fulfilment in contemplation on Him. Sri Krishna extols ātmanivedanam as the crown of spiritual life: ‘When one has abandoned all self-centred efforts and has dedicated oneself entirely to Me, then one becomes the special object of My grace’ (11.29.34).
Sri Ramakrishna’s life is the perfect validation of the wonderful teachings of Bhagavata. In this modern age, he embodies the ideal of a highest karma yogi, an adept in meditation, a perfect jnani, and also of a great bhakta, as illustrated in varied contexts in this great book of spiritual illumination. Sri Ramakrishna had a high regard for Bhagavata and would advise his devotees to study it as a part of their sadhana. He would say: ‘Do your duties in the world, and also fix your mind on the Lotus Feet of the Lord. Read books of devotion like the Bhagavata or the life of Chaitanya when you are alone and have nothing else to do.’4 Moreover, in the contemporary world, the life and teachings of the Master themselves have been reinvented into a great scripture like Bhagavata. The reason for it is simple. Sri Ramakrishna has shown to the world how to lead a life on the edifice of spiritual values advocated by Bhagavata, a great scripture of immaculate divine love and ultimate knowledge of Brahman.
(All the references given in brackets in the text belongs to Bhagavata (skanda, chapter, verse number).
1 Swami Gitananda, Srimad Bhagavata: The Book of Divine Love (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 2014), 4.
2 Katha Upanishad, 2.1.1.
3 See Siddheswara Bhattacharya, The Philosophy of Bhagavata, vol. 2 (Santiniketan: Visva Bharati, 1962), 14.
4 M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2004), 281.