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An essay by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, printed in the January 1932 edition of The Harmonist.
The first act of infant Krsna that the Bhdgavatam records is the slaying of the Putana demon. The divine sage Narada Muni had just informed King Karhsa that his would-be slayer, Krsna, had recently been born, so Karhsa deputed Putana to kill all the newborn babies in Vraja. In the meantime, Sri Krsna had been born in Kamsa's prison, and on the night of His advent, conveyed by His father Vasudeva to the house of His foster parents, Nanda and Yasoda in Vraja. The iron chains, bolts, and locks of the barred prison gates had opened of their own accord when Vasudeva took Krsna in his arms, and the prison guards failed to detect Vasudeva's movements. On his way to Vraja, Vasudeva had carried Krsna across the flooded Yamuna River, the waters of which had been lashed into a fury by the tempestuous weather of that moonless night. Still, Vasudeva waded through the deepest waters even though they had become yawning whirlpools at the tempest's fury. Vasudeva was then able to return to his cell with Yasoda's newborn daughter. He had exchanged the babies without Yasoda realizing.
Upon his return, however, the presence of Yasoda's daughter was duly reported to King Karhsa as Devakl's dreaded eighth issue. The king rushed to the prison cell upon receipt of this long-awaited news, the anticipation of which had caused him many sleepless nights. At first he was willing to spare the baby's life, because the prophecy had definitely specified that DevakT's eighth child—the child who would kill him—would be male. But then he decided to relieve himself of all possible doubt by putting the newborn girl to death. However, as King Karhsa was about to dash the baby on a rock, she slipped from his grip and disclosed that she was the Godhead's deluding energy. She remained visible for a short time mid-sky, assured the king that his future slayer had indeed been born, and dissuaded him from thinking that his fruitless attempts to avoid his fate by cruelly murdering innocent infants would be effective. After saying this, Mahamaya disappeared from the astounded king's vision.
Narada subsequently informed Karhsa that his future slayer must have been born among the denizens of Vraja, and that if he was mindful of his safety, he would lose no time in nipping the danger in the bud. The bloodthirsty coward relished this advice, and he accordingly deputed Putana to stealthily kill all the newborn infants in the surrounding countryside. Accordingly, the Putana demon appeared in Vraja, presenting herself at Yasoda's home during Nanda's absence. (Nanda was in Mathura paying his required tribute to King Karhsa.) Putana had assumed the form of a most beautiful mother with a most benign aspect. She approached the couch where Yasoda had put infant Krsna to sleep. Yasoda noticed the unknown woman as she entered the house, but did not suspect foul play. Instead, she watched the newcomer without anxiety as she made her way to the baby's couch, took Him in her arms, and offered Him her breast to suck. Putana's nipples had been tipped with the deadliest poison. Infant Krsna was aware of the demon's intention and took hold of the monster's breast with His supple arms. The infant's grip was so severe that it drove Putana to despair for her life. She convulsed with the mortal agony of the pressure of Krsna's little hands. Krsna then applied His lips to Putana's breast and in an instant, sucked out her life. The terrible monster, bellowing with pain, was compelled to disclose her huge, loathsome demoniac form as she fell lifeless to the ground, covering a long distance of it with her hideous carcass, infant Krsna still clinging to her poisoned nipple.
The first act of the milkmaids who, with Yasoda, rushed to the spot was to snatch Krsna from the terrible demon's breast. Then they marveled at how the baby had escaped unhurt from such a demon's clutches. They attributed His safety to the gods' mercy, because the gods are especially kind to the helpless. The frightened milkmaids then invoked the help of all the gods and goddesses, begging them to continue to protect infant Krsna. Meanwhile, Putana was saved by her service to Krsna— for having offered Him her poisoned breast to suck. The author of the Bhdgavatam is careful to mention that the demon's good fortune equaled Yasoda's in that Krsna had suckled from her breast. Putana, therefore, attained to the eternal status of the Supreme Lord's foster mothers in the absolute realm. The above Bhdgavatam narrative embodies a most important moral for those seeking the Absolute, but before offering the textual interpretation favored by the previous acaryas, I would like to draw the reader's attention to certain possible misconceptions regarding the nature of the interpretation about to be offered. There is a class of persons who insist on the texts being taken in their literal, worldly sense. Interpreters have used much ingenuity to extract meanings that satisfy the empiric judgment of those working by the literal method. Their arguments are not unintelligible. As revealed literature is to be regarded as containing information of the Absolute, the language used to express it should be regarded as part and parcel of the text's meaning. From this conclusion, literal interpreters make a wrong inference: they think it should be possible for the conditioned soul to ascertain the real meaning of scripture by sticking to the lexicographical sense of its wording. However, the lexicographical sense is inapplicable to the subject, which is transcendental. Rather, the words possess a double meaning. The lexicographic meaning refers to this world's entities and is therefore inapplicable to the case. The conditioned souls' gross senses and mind cannot access the esoteric meaning. This is a great and insuperable difficulty. The literal interpreters who follow the lexicographical meaning err grievously when they overlook this all-important consideration.
The transcendental meaning of the words cannot be conveyed to the conditioned soul's senses as long as the conditioned soul does not agree to listen submissively to the transcendental sound spoken by a pure devotee. There is a definite line of succession of bona fide teachers of the truth. Hypocrites and atheists, who do not want to serve Godhead, cannot recognize bona fide acaryas. Sooner or later, though, a real spiritual seeker will find and recognize a bona fide teacher. Before finding such a teacher to enlighten him, however, a spiritual candidate should concentrate on self-examination. In this way he will not harbor any lurking traces of insincerity. The sddhu's words are also available, by his causeless mercy, to help such candidates discover their own insincerity. It is by overlooking or deliberately neglecting this preliminary training to understand transcendental meaning that the literal interpreters fail to understand the need to never deviate from the explanations offered by self-realized souls. It is only to such souls that the transcendental meanings are available. Some empiricists, while following the lexicographical and syntactical method of literal interpretation, do not hesitate to read their own meanings into the texts, imagining that the scriptures are the product of human reason and therefore subject to error. They see the scriptures as fit to be corrected by the equally erring caprices of other hypothetical thinkers. On what do they base this view? They say that allegations of error can neither be proven nor disproven. They are thus disposed to think that the acaryas' interpretations are not scrupulously faithful to the text; then offer allegorical explanations to support their own sectarian views. I list these possible misunderstandings in order to attract the reader's attention to the importance of the following interpretation of the Putana narrative. It is based on the exposition of previous acaryas and was originally spoken by a bona fide teacher of the Absolute. I do not offer this interpretation as a literal, lexicographical explanation nor as an allegory created to satisfy what people feel they know about the race's history.
Sri Krsna manifests His eternal birth in the pure cognitive essence of the serving soul, who is located above all mundane limitations. King Karhsa is the typical aggressive empiricist. He is ever on the lookout for the Truth's appearance, because he wishes to suppress the Truth before He has time to grow up. I am not exaggerating the real purpose and understanding of the usual empiricist's position. The materialist has a natural repugnance for the transcendental. He is disposed to think that faith in the incomprehensible is the parent of dogmatism and hypocrisy in the guise of religion. He is also equally under the delusion that there is and can be no real dividing line between matter and spirit. His delusions are strengthened by reading scriptural interpretations presented by those who are of like-minded with himself. This includes all lexicographic interpreters. Karhsa upholds the lexicographical interpretation as the real scientific explanation of scripture and one that is perfectly in keeping with his dread of and aversion for the transcendental. Karhsa employs these lexicographical interpreters in suppressing the first suspected appearance of any genuine faith in the transcendental.
King Karhsa knows that if faith in the transcendental were allowed to grow, it would upset his empiric prospects. There are historical grounds for such a misgiving. If the empiric domination is to be preserved intact, it is necessary to immediately put down the transcendental heresy the moment it threatens to appear. Acting on this traditional fear, King Karhsa is quick to take the scientific precaution of deputing empiric scriptural teachers, backed by dictionary, grammar, and all their empiric subtleties, to put down, by specious arguments based on hypotheses, the true interpretation of eternal religion revealed by the scriptures. Karhsa strongly believes that empiricism can effectively defeat faith in the transcendental if prompt and decisive measures are adopted at the outset. He attributes the past failures of atheism to the neglect of such measures before the theistic fallacy had time to spread among the fanatical masses. But Karhsa counts without his host. When Krsna is born, He is able to upset all sinister designs against those whom He has apprised of His advent. The apparently causeless faith displayed by persons irrespective of age, sex, or condition may confound all rabid empiricists who are on principle averse to the Absolute Truth. Why are they so averse? Because His appearance is utterly incompatible with the domination of empiricism. But no adverse attempt of the empiricists, whose rule seems till then perfectly well-established over the minds of the world's deluded souls, can dissuade anyone from exclusively following the Truth when the Truth appears to take birth in the pure cognitive essence of his soul.
Putana is the slayer of infants. When a baby emerges from its mother's womb, it at once falls into the clutches of pseudo religious teachers. These teachers are successful in forestalling the good preceptor's attempts, whose help atheists never seek when they baptize their children. All the world's established churches ensure this by the arrangements they make. They have been successful only in supplying watchful Putanas to effect the spiritual destruction of persons from the moment of birth, with the cooperation of their worldly parents. No human contrivance can prevent these Putanas from possessing the pulpits. This is because most people in this world are disposed toward atheism. The church with the best chance to survive in this damned world is the atheistic church that functions under the convenient guise of theism. The churches have always proven the staunchest upholders of the grossest forms of worldliness, from which even the worst of non-ecclesiastical criminals are found to recoil.
It is not from any deliberate opposition to the ordained clergy that I make these observations. The original purpose of the world's established churches may not have always been objectionable, but no stable religious arrangement for instructing the masses has yet been successful. The Supreme Lord Sri Krsna Caitanya, in pursuance of scriptural teachings, enjoins the absence of conventionalism among teachers of the eternal religion. It does not follow that mechanically adopting an unconventional life will make one a fit religious teacher. Regulation is necessary if one wishes to control the conditioned souls' inherent worldliness, but no mechanical regulation has ever succeeded for such a purpose. The mere pursuit of fixed doctrines and liturgies cannot hold a person to the true spirit of doctrine or liturgy. The bona fide religious teacher, however, is neither a product nor the proponent of any mechanical system. In his hands, no system can degenerate into a lifeless arrangement.
The idea of an intelligibly organized church indeed marks the close of the living spiritual movement. The great ecclesiastical establishments are the dykes and dams to retain a current that cannot be held by such contrivances. They indeed indicate the masses' desire to exploit a spiritual movement for their own purpose. They also unmistakably indicate the end of the absolute and unconventional guidance of the bona fide spiritual teacher. The world's people understand preventive systems, but they have no idea of the unprevented positive eternal life. Neither can there be any earthly contrivance among the people to permanently preserve life on this mundane plane.
Those who are disposed, therefore, to look forward to improvement of the worldly state in a mundane sense from the worldly success of any really spiritual movement are greatly mistaken. It is these worldly aspirants who become the patrons of the mischievous race of pseudo religious teachers, the Putanas, whose congenial function is to stifle the theistic disposition the moment they suspect its appearance. But the real theistic disposition can never be stifled even by the Putanas' efforts. The Putanas have power only over atheists, and it is for these willing victims that they perform their salutary task.
As soon as the theistic disposition makes its appearance in the pure cognitive essence of the awakened soul, the Putanas are decisively silenced at the earliest stage of their encounter with newborn Krsna. The would-be slayer is herself slain. This is how the negative service the Putanas unwittingly render to theists is rewarded: all their hypocritical demonstrations are strangled. But Putana does not like to receive her reward, because it involves the total destruction of her wrong personality. Neither does King Karhsa like to lose the service of his most trusted agents. The effective silencing of the whole race of pseudo religious teachers is the first clear indication of the appearance of the Absolute on the mundane plane. The bona fide teacher of the Absolute heralds Krsna's advent by his uncompromising campaign against pseudo teachers of religion.