Sunday, August 3, 2008

Srimad-Bhagavatam— the Natural Commentary on the Vedanta Sutra

Suta Gosvami recites the Srimad-Bhagavatam to the sages at Naimisaranya

    For many centuries, the Sariraka-bhasya of Sankaracarya has been accepted all over India as the topmost commentaries, but its conclusions are quite deviant from the real purpose of the Vedas, for it propounds merging in the impersonal, undifferentiated aspect of the Absolute as the ultimate goal. The Vedic goal pointed out by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita (15.15) is very clear:

sarvasya caham hrdi sannivisto

mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca

vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyo

vedanta-krd veda-vid eva caham


“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”


The ultimate purpose of all Vedic literature is not only to realize the impersonal Brahman or the Paramatma features of the Supreme Absolute Truth, but above all, to understand what and Who the Supreme Personality of Godhead is.


        The first word both in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and in the Vedanta Sutra is ‘Om’, the root of all Vedic knowledge, also known as maha-vakya, the supreme sound. The next step in understanding ‘om’ is the Gayatri mantra, which is also present in the first verse in Bhagavatam: satyam param dhimahi, and is further explained in the catuh-sloki starting with ‘aham evasam evagre.’ In this verse, the word ‘aham’ is used three times, just to stress that the Supreme Absolute Truth is a Supreme Person. Srila Prabhupada used to say that three times means final. He also used to say that there cannot be another meaning for the word ‘aham’ but ‘I’. If I ask for water, nobody will think that ‘I’ means something else but myself.


        In the first aphorism of Vedanta Sutra we find the word atha (now) for the following reason: in all sastras, Srila Vyasadeva elaborated extensively on the karma-kanda portions, emphasizing the performance of fruitive activities to be elevated to the heavenly planets; on the upasana-kanda, emphasizing the worship of different demigods in exchange for all kinds of material rewards; and on the jnana-kanda, instigating the search for the Truth through philosophical speculation. After all these, the author then says: now (atha) let us have brahma-jijnasa, inquire into the Ultimate Absolute Truth. What is that Brahman?  

'brahma'-sabde kahe ‘sad-aisvarya-purna bhagavan'

tanre ‘nirvisesa' sthapi, ‘purnata' haya hana


“The word ‘Brahman' [‘the greatest'] indicates the Supreme Personality of Godhead, full in all six opulences. But if we take the one-sided impersonalist view, His fullness is diminished.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Madhya 25.33


The word ‘brahman’ can be used in a general sense to indicate tattva-jnana, knowledge about the Truth, or in a specific sense to indicate a particular aspect of that Absolute Truth:


vadanti tat tattva-vidas

tattvam yaj jnanam advayam

brahmeti paramatmeti

bhagavan iti sabdyate


“Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.2.11


In other words, if we call the impersonal, all-pervasive aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth ‘brahman’, then we call the personal aspect of the same as ‘para-brahman’, for the latter is the support of the former:


brahmano hi pratisthaham

amrtasyavyayasya ca

sasvatasya ca dharmasya

sukhasyaikantikasya ca


“And I am the basis of the impersonal Brahman, which is immortal, imperishable and eternal and is the constitutional position of ultimate happiness.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 14.27


arjuna uvaca

param brahma param dhama

pavitram paramam bhavan

purusam sasvatam divyam

adi-devam ajam vibhum


“Arjuna said: You are the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ultimate abode, the purest, the Absolute Truth. You are the eternal, transcendental, original person, the unborn, the greatest.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 10.12


Factually, in verse 10.12, the  words ‘param brahma’ in the neuter gender are in apposition to the word ‘bhavan’, in the masculine gender, which means they are His attributes. This is a case of guna-guni-samanadhikarana, or coordinate predication where there is specific mention of a substance along with its attributes.


         That ‘brahma-jijnasa’ was fully manifested in the sages of Naimisaranya, who were all great souls whose intense desire to hear topics about the Supreme Absolute Truth induced Srila Suta Gosvami to recite the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Therefore, they were the best candidates to hear this transcendental commentary on Vedanta Sutra, which starts with the definition of para-brahman.  According to the Mayavadis, Brahman may be nirguna or saguna. When Brahman is in its pure, uncontaminated stage, it is called nirguna, but when it is contaminated by material qualities, it is called saguna. This view just evinces their poor fund of knowledge. If the material qualities are able to affect Brahman, this would imply that the former is superior to the latter in the ontological sense. This bogus philosophy is dismantled by Lord Krishna:


mamaivamso jiva-loke

jiva-bhutah sanatanah


prakrti-sthani karsati


“The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 15.7


dvav imau purusau loke

ksaras caksara eva ca

ksarah sarvani bhutani

kuta-stho 'ksara ucyate


“There are two classes of beings, the fallible and the infallible. In the material world every living entity is fallible, and in the spiritual world every living entity is called infallible.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 15.16


uttamah purusas tv anyah

paramatmety udahrtah

yo loka-trayam avisya

bibharty avyaya isvarah


“Besides these two, there is the greatest living personality, the Supreme Soul, the imperishable Lord Himself, who has entered the three worlds and is maintaining them.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Bg 15.17


From this, we understand that only the finite Brahman called jiva is prone to be covered by material qualities, not the Purusottama, Who is the same as Vasudeva, ‘satyam param’, mentioned in the first verse of Bhagavatam.  


           The ‘Brahman’ mentioned in the first sutra of Vedanta is further described in the second one: ‘janmady asya yatah’, once again coinciding with the Bhagavatam. Here is the first attribute of that Brahman: birth (jamna), and everything that succeeds it starts from the same Brahman.  This is the conclusion of the very initial sutras of Vedanta. Yet in the Srimad-Bhagavatam it is not said ‘from it’, but ‘from Him’,  as Srila Vyasadeva begins offering obeisances to Vasudeva, making clear that He is that Brahman from Whom (yatah) everything emanates. Vedavyasa is the original compiler of both the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Vedanta Sutra. Having summarized all the essence of the four Vedas and hundred-eight Upanisads in the Vedanta Sutra, Vyasa knew that it could be easily misunderstood. Therefore, he decided to write a commentary on it, leaving out any chance of doubtful meanings. However, even after writing the Vedanta Sutra, he was not all satisfied, and the cause of that was pointed out by his guru, Narada Muni: In all the books he had written, the ultimate aspect of the Supreme Absolute Truth as Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was not clearly and directly indicated. Therefore, he starts saluting the Absolute Truth as Vasudeva in order to establish His supremacy from the very beginning.  Srila Prabhupada used to tell an incident about an Indian writer, the author of a book named “Shah Jahan,” who was once asked about the reason of such a title, since the book describes the life and activities of  his son, Aurangzeb, and thus it would have been more reasonable if the book were called “Aurangzeb.” To that, the author replied that the hero of the story is actually Shah Jahan, for he had to tolerate all kinds of tribulations while his son was in power. Prabhupada would explain how this episode illustrates that if you want to know the meaning of a book, you should ask its author. And the author of Srimad-Bhagavatam is Vyasadeva, who wrote it as the natural commentary on Vedanta Sutra, as confirmed by the Garuda Purana:


artho ‘yam brahma-sutranam


gayatri-bhasya-rupo ‘sau


purananam sama-rupah


dvadasa-skandha-yukto ‘yam


grantho ‘stadasa-sahasrah



“The meaning of the Vedanta-sutra is present in Srimad-Bhagavatam. The full purport of the Mahabharata is also there. The commentary of the Brahma-gayatri is also there and fully expanded with all Vedic knowledge. Srimad-Bhagavatam is the supreme Purana, and it was compiled by the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His incarnation as Vyasadeva. There are twelve cantos, 335 chapters and eighteen thousand verses.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => Madhya 25.142


This is also corroborated by the Bhagavatam itself:  

sarva-vedanta-saram hi

sri-bhagavatam isyate


nanyatra syad ratih kvacit


“Srimad-Bhagavatam is declared to be the essence of all Vedanta philosophy. One who has felt satisfaction from its nectarean mellow will never be attracted to any other literature.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 12.13.15


It is also stated that as a fruit reaches its perfection in its ripen stage, the Vedic literature reached its acme in the Srimad-Bhagavatam:


nigama-kalpa-taror galitam phalam

suka-mukhad amrta-drava-samyutam

pibata bhagavatam rasam alayam

muhur aho rasika bhuvi bhavukah


 “O expert and thoughtful men, relish Srimad-Bhagavatam, the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literature. It emanated from the lips of Sri Sukadeva Gosvami. Therefore this fruit has become even more tasteful, although its nectarean juice was already relishable for all, including liberated souls.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.1.3


         Having identified Brahman as Vasudeva, the next step is to describe the qualities of this Supreme Person: He is fully cognizant (abhijnah) and fully independent (svarat). Although He is the source of everything, He does not come from any other source, nor does He receive knowledge from anyone else, being exclusive among many beings:


nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam

eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman

tam atmastham ye 'nupasyanti dhiras

tesam santih sasvati netaresam


The Katha Upanisad (2.2.13) explains: "Of all eternals, there is one who is the chief eternal. Of all conscious living entities, there is one who is the chief conscious entity. That supreme living entity, the Personality of Godhead, maintains the others and fulfils their desires according to their merits. Only saintly persons, who can see, within and without, the same Supreme Lord, can actually attain to perfect and eternal peace."


          According to the Vedanta Sutra, Brahman is ‘ananda-mayo’ bhyasat’— blissful by nature. Here the masculine ending ‘-mayah’ is used, revealing that Brahman must be a purusa, a supreme male. This conclusion is factually confirmed in Srimad-Bhagavatam, particularly in the tenth canto, where we find the full meaning of the word ‘ananda’ vividly expressed by Lord Krishna as the Supreme Enjoyer.


          In all Vedic literature, all the different aspects of the Supreme Absolute Truth are some way or other described. Everything that is implicitly indicated in the Vedanta Sutra is explicitly described in Srimad-Bhagavatam. Due to its conciseness and very esoteric meaning, the Vedanta Sutra is hardly ever properly understood in Kali-yuga, when most people are dull-headed:


prayenalpayusah sabhya

kalav asmin yuge janah

mandah sumanda-matayo

manda-bhagya hy upadrutah


“O learned one, in this iron age of Kali, men have but short lives. They are quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky and, above all, always disturbed.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.1.10


On the other hand, the Srimad-Bhagavatam is written in a straightforward way, explaining the deepest philosophical points through historical episodes, making it possible even for common people to take benefit of its contents. Indeed, bhagavata-dharma as propagated by Lord Caitanya, consisting of hearing the Srimad-Bhagavatam, chanting and dancing is the only feasible way to attain the supreme goal in this age— ‘harer namaiva kevalam’ (Kali-santarana Upanisad)— and  fully satisfy everyone’s heart:


sa vai pumsam paro dharmo

yato bhaktir adhoksaje

ahaituky apratihata

yayatma suprasidati


“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”


>>> Ref. VedaBase => SB 1.2.6

This essay was originally submitted for assessment during the first year of the Bhakti Vaibhava course at VIHE, first canto of Bhagavatam, on 27/07/02

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