Found in Sanga, Sanga 2006.

Q. It is said that Sukadeva was born self-realized and immediately left home to live in the forest. Although realized and indifferent to the world, he was still attracted to the pastimes of Krishna when he heard someone singing certain verses from the Bhagavatam. I understand that one of the verses he heard at that time was SB 3.2.23, which describes how merciful Krishna was to deliver Putana. Do you know the others?

A. Vyasa gave a woodcutter some Bhagavata verses to sing in the forest, in the hope that his son Sukadeva would hear them and come home, which he did. Sri Jiva Goswami, who discusses this incident in his Tattva-sandarbha, does not mention the specific verses that Sukadeva heard from the woodcutter. He only says that they were selected sections in which the glory of Sri Krishna is particularly mentioned. Because the section of Brahmavaivarta Purana that described this incident is no longer available, we are left to draw our answer to this question from the oral tradition of acaryas who have suggested different verses. Pujyapada B. R. Sridhara Maharaja suggests that one of the verses was SB 10.1.2, in which the nature of Krishna lila in terms of its power to cure the disease of illusion (maya) is described along with the qualifications of the speaker of the Bhagavata, who ideally should be free from material desire. Others have suggested 10.21.7, which describes the beauty of Krishna entering the Vrindavana forest with his friends, a verse spoken by the young Vraja-sundaris. As you have mentioned, SB 3.2.23 is also sometimes suggested.

The particular verses aside, the significant point here is that Sukadeva heard only these verses. At that time he had no formal education and had not studied Sanskrit grammar, yet simply by hearing the spiritual poetry of the Bhagavatam he became attracted to this transcendental literature. Such is the power of the Bhagavatam, whose mere sound caused Sukadeva to forget about nondifferentiated Brahman. Later Sukadeva underwent a formal study of the literature to further relish that sound he had heard in the forest. If Sukadeva Goswami, the best of the atmaramas (spiritually self-satisfied), was prepared to undergo the rigorous study of Srimad-Bhagavatam, how important must this scripture be? Can we, who are all atmaramas in the lower sense of the term (pursuers of self-pleasure), afford to avoid doing the same in the serious pursuit of our highest potential?

Q. The Bhagavatam discusses ten subject matters, which are divided into asrita (those seeking shelter) and asraya (the ultimate shelter). Will you explain more about this?

A. In the second canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Sukadeva Goswami lists ten subjects that the Bhagavatam discusses. Although ten subjects are mentioned, there is at the same time only one subject about which the Bhagavatam speaks. That subject is nondual consciousness (advaya-jnana). How can this apparent contradiction be resolved? Sukadeva first lists the ten topics of the Bhagavatam in one verse and then in the following verse he explains how all of them are actually only describing advaya-jnana, which is listed in the first verse as the tenth subject, the asraya-tattva (ultimate shelter).

“Sukadeva Goswami said, ‘In the Srimad-Bhagavatam there are ten subjects: creation of the universal constituents, sub-creation of the planetary systems, maintenance, protection by the Lord of his devotees, the creative impetus, the Manus, the Lord’s incarnations, annihilation, liberation, and the shelter of these nine categories, the asraya-tattva, Sri Krishna. Through Vedic reference, great sages describe the first nine subjects both directly and also indirectly through the narration of histories, in an effort to shed light on the tenth category, the asraya-tattva.’ ” (SB 2.10.1-2)

The true nature of the tenth subject will be understood by way of analyzing those aspects that are under its shelter. The tenth subject, being Bhagavan Sri Krishna, is difficult to understand, absorbed as he is in pastimes that resemble in outward appearance the activities of a young boy. The Bhagavatam describes Krishna as dark like the rain cloud, wrapped in glittering golden dress, and crowned with a peacock feather. He carries a flute in his hand, and glances playfully with his lotus-like eyes at the cowherd girls. He is the friend of the cows, and the trees bow their branches in respect as he passes them in the forest. Those trees are like the hair of the earth that stands on end at the thought of being touched by the soles of Krishna’s tender feet. In the land of Vrindavana, the river Yamuna flows only for Krishna’s sake, nourishing the land where animate and inanimate alike live a transcendent life of love, with him alone as their love’s object. Surrounded by friends, lovers, and family members,Krishna brings joy to all. Who is this Krishna? Is he a mere metaphor for divine love or a reality more tangible than the illusory world of our experience? Srimad-Bhagavatam stresses the latter–this ever-youthful boy is no ordinary person, he is the asraya tattva, the ultimate shelter.

To help us understand this boy properly, subjects relevant to our lives, such as creation and so on, are also described in the Bhagavatam. For this reason the Gaudiya sampradaya insists that without understanding its first nine cantos one should not jump to the tenth canto where the lilas of the asraya-tattva are the main subject and Krishna’s dancing with his gopis is center stage. First one should try to understand the ultimate shelter through discussion of that which he oversees within our present world of experience.

Just how these ten topics appear in Srimad-Bhagavatam is a discussion in and of itself. Jiva Goswami takes this discussion up in brief in his Tattva-sandarbha. He says that the ten topics are not found in a sequence from one to ten, beginning with the first canto and ending with the tenth, for the Bhagavatam consists of twelve cantos. Neither are these topics found sequentially from the third canto on. Sri Jiva concludes that all ten topics are discussed throughout all twelve cantos. He sees that this notion is confirmed by Sukadeva’s statement cited earlier, in which he explains that these topics (the first nine) are described either directly or indirectly, since direct and indirect speech is found throughout the Srimad-Bhagavatam. At the same time it is clear that the tenth canto deals primarily with the lila of Sri Krishna and thus its principal subject is the asraya-tattva, whereas the other nine subjects are given stress in the earlier and later cantos.

Q. I was taught that the sages transmitted spiritual knowledge to the masses by relaying it as historical events while codifying it allegorically for those more qualified to understand it. Therefore the real meaning of the Krishna stories in the Bhagavatam would be available only to those who understand them as allegories. However, followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu insist the opposite, that the best way to understand the Bhagavatam is to take the stories found in it as events that actually took place in time. This baffles me, as I just don’t understand how a literal approach to the Bhagavatam could be superior to the allegorical approach promoted by so many modern spiritual philosophers. Can you explain how this could be so?

A. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught that the pastimes of Krishna as told in the Bhagavatam and other scriptures are not merely stories for the less intelligent or narratives that the scriptures turn to when speaking to the masses to explain an ultimate reality that is abstract and impersonal. All great Vaisnava Vedantists, such as Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya, agree with Caitanya Mahaprabhu on this point, and even celebrated Advaita Vedantins like Sankaracarya and his latter-day follower Madhusudana Saraswati, a contemporary of Mahaprabhu, accepted Krishna lila as historical events occurring within time and space, while not limited by them. Sankaracarya prayed for the opportunity to retire on the banks of the Yamuna and relish visions of Krishna lila, and Madhusudana Saraswati prayed similarly. These great Adwaita Vedantins acknowledged the eternality of Krishna lila but differed with their Vaisnava counterparts in that they taught that contemplation of Krishna lila is partaken of only up to and throughout jivan mukti (liberation within the material body), not in videha mukti (liberation after one leaves the material body). This differs from the opinions of Vaisnava acaryas like Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who taught that after the liberated soul in prema leaves the body, the soul takes an active part in the pastimes of Krishna and remains with him eternally. These differences aside, the point is that the greatest of Advaitins held Krishna lila in the highest regard, and unlike many neo-Advaitin philosophers of today, they never dared to deconstruct Krishna lila into mere mythology. If anything is real within the material world for Sankara, it is Krishna lila.

Also worth noting is that our Gaudiya Vaisnava acaryas, such as Sanatana Goswami and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, were well aware that the seeming impossibility of certain aspects of Krishna lila might lead one to consider them as stories from which to draw lessons and nothing more. According to the Bhagavatam, even the inhabitants of Vrindavana found much of Krishna lila unbelievable, even as it unfolded before their eyes! Prominent Gaudiya commentators on Srimad Bhagavatam address the so-called impossibilities within Krishna lila by referring to Sri Krishna’s acintya-sakti, his inconceivable potency. Through this potency the impossible becomes possible in a realm not limited by time and space. Krishna lila appears within time and space (our material frame of reference) with the express purpose of taking us beyond it. Thus one must be careful not to allow the mind, a material element, to take the life out of Krishna lila in an effort to understand the transcendental on mundane terms. Overcoming this tendency of the mind is called yoga.

Although Krishna lila instructs us on many levels regarding important philosophical truths, this in no way invalidates the lila itself in terms of its being the highest ontological reality. Krishna lila does not end with philosophy; it has a transcendent life of its own, one that saints tell us is more real then the mythic realm of the materially conditioned soul’s world of the mind. Indeed, Krishna lila heard from the lips of realized souls has the power to dethrone the oppressive rule of the mind and to liberate the soul. Spiritually progressive devotees draw important truths from the lila and apply it in their lives such that eventually they come to experience Krishna lila eternally as the emotive spiritual reality that it is. This experience conducted under the influence of Krishna’s internal energy (svarupa-sakti) is heralded in Srimad Bhagavatam as “the highest truth” and “reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all.”

Purity, meditation, and spiritual practice are the only ways to know the reality of Krishna lila, as philosophy alone cannot take one there. Words and thought can never adequately describe that which lies beyond their reach, thus any explanation of ultimate reality will eventually fail to entirely satisfy one’s intelligence. No spiritual tradition that I know of stresses this more than Gaudiya Vaisnavism, thus its emphasis on Sri Harinama, the emotional appeal to the Absolute. Real knowing comes from one’s heart, not one’s head. Far more possibilities lie within the realm of the heart than within the realm of the mind. We must use our intelligence, no doubt, but we should use it to soften our heart.

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu emphasizes that prema is the prayojana (goal), and that it bears fruit in the realization of Krishna lila. If one carefully studies Krishna lila through the teaching of Sri Caitanya, it will become clear that it speaks to us of self-forgetfulness in love. When self-sacrifice turns to self-forgetfulness, as it only can when the perfect object of love is the repose of our love, then Krishna lila is realized. Love without reservation is possible only in relation to the ultimate shelter of love. Thus our acaryas explain their experience of the Absolute as “the supreme enjoyer,” krishnas tu bhagavan svayam. What is the nature of their experience? Through absolute giving and unalloyed love, one gains entrance to Krishna lila, where knowing and loving are synonymous. One who truly embraces self-forgetfulness in love experiences Krishna lila, the poetic love life of the Absolute. In this experience all doubts and contradictions are resolved.

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