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Notes On The Bhagavata
By Bhaktivinoda Thakura
PART I - Introducing The Subject:
The Fruitless Reader & The Shallow Critic
1. We love to read a book which we never read before. We are anxious to gather whatever information is contained in it and with such acquirement our curiosity stops. This mode of study prevails amongst a great number of readers, who are great men in their own estimation as well as in the estimation of those who are of their own stamp. In fact, most readers are mere repositories of facts and statements made by other people. But this is not study. The student is to read the facts with a view to create, and not with the object of fruitless retention.
2. Students like satellites should reflect whatever light they they receive from authors and not imprison the facts and thoughts.... Thought is progressive. The author's thought must have progress in the reader in the shape of correction or development. He is the best critic who can show the further development of an old thought; but a mere denouncer is the enemy of progress and consequently of Nature.
3. "Begin anew," says the critic, because the old masonry does not answer at present. Let the old author be buried because his time is gone. These are shallow expressions. Progress is certainly the law of nature and there must be corrections and developments with the progress of time. But progress means going further or rising higher.
4. Now, if we are to follow our foolish critic, we are to go back to our former terminus and make a new race, and when we have run half the race, another critic of his stamp will cry out: "Begin anew because the wrong road has been taken. In this way our stupid critics will never allow us to go over the whole road and see what is in the other terminus. Thus the shallow critic and the fruitless reader are the two great enemies of progress. We must shun them.
The True Critic & The Useful Reader
1. The true critic, on the other hand, advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress. He will never advise us to go back to the point whence we started as he fully knows that in that case there will be a fruitless loss of our valuable time and labor. He will direct the adjustment of the angle of the race at the point where we are.
2. This is also the characteristic of the useful student. He will read an old author and will find out his exact position in the progress of thought. He will never propose to burn the book on the ground that it contains thoughts which are useless. No thought is useless. Thoughts are means by which we attain our objects. The reader who denounces a bad thought does not know that a bad road is even capable of improvement and conversion into a good one.
3. Thoughts will necessarily continue to be an endless series of means and objects in the progress of humanity. The great reformers will always assert that they have come out not to destroy the old law, but to fulfill it. Valmiki, Vyasa, Plato, Jesus, Mohamed, Confucius and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu assert the fact either expressly or by their conduct.
The Bhagavata Misunderstood:
1. The Bhagavata like all religious works and philosophical performances and writings of great men has suffered from the imprudent conduct of useless readers and stupid critics.... Men of brilliant thoughts have passed by the work in quest of truth and philosophy, but the prejudice which they imbibed from its useless readers and their conduct (i.e., sahajiyas), prevented them from making a candid investigation.
2. Truth does not belong exclusively to any individual man or to any nation or particular race. It belongs to God, and man whether in the Poles or on the Equator, has a right to claim it as the property of his Father.]
3. The Bhagavata has suffered alike from shallow critics both Indian and foreign. That book has been accursed and denounced by a great number of our young countrymen who have scarcely read its contents and pondered over the philosophy on which it is founded. It is owing mostly to their imbibing an unfounded prejudice against it when they were in school [under the British]. The Bhagavata, as a matter of course, has been held in derision by those teachers who are generally of an inferior mind and intellect.... Oh! What a trouble to get rid of prejudices gathered in unripe years!
5. As far as we can understand, no enemy of Vaishnavism will find any beauty in the Bhagavat. The true critic is a generous judge, devoid of prejudices and party-spirit.... The critic, in other words, should be of the same disposition of mind as that of the author whose merits he is required to judge. Thoughts have different ways.... Both the Christian and the Vaishnava [may for instance] utter the same sentiment, but they will never stop fighting with each other [simply] because they have arrived at their common conclusion by different ways of thought.
6. Subjects of philosophy and theology are like the peaks of large towering and inaccessible mountains standing in the midst of our planet inviting attention and investigation. Thinkers and men of deep speculation take their observations through the instruments of reason and consciousness. But they take different points when they carry on their work. These points are positions chalked out by the circumstances of their social and philosophical life, different as they are in different parts of the world.
7. Plato looked at the peak of the spiritual question from the West and Vyasa made the observation from the East; so Confucius did it from further East, and Schlegel, Spinoza, Kant and Goethe from further West. These observations were made at different times and by different means, but the conclusion is all the same in as much as the object of observation was one and the same. They all hunted after the Great Spirit, the unconditioned Soul of the Universe..., the absolute religion....
8. It requires a candid, generous, pious and holy heart to feel the beauties of their conclusions. Party-spirit, that great enemy of truth, will always baffle the attempt of the inquirer who tries to gather truth from religious works of other nations, and will make him believe that absolute truth is nowhere except in his own religious book.... The critic, therefore, should have a comprehensive, good, generous, candid, impartial and sympathetic soul.
What Is the Bhagavat?:
1. [The traveling companion of a European Gentleman newly arrived in India] will tell him with a serene look, that the Bhagavat is a book which his Oriya bearer daily reads in the evening to a number of hearers. It contains a jargon of unintelligible and savage literature of those men who paint their noses with some sort of earth or sandal, and wear beads all over their bodies in order to procure salvation for themselves.
2. Another of his companions, who has travelled a little in the interior, would immediately contradict him and say that the Bhagavat is a Sanskrit work claimed by a sect of men, the Gosvamis, who give Mantras, like the Popes of Italy, to the common people of Bengal, and pardon their sins on payment of gold enough to defray their social expenses.
3. A young Bengali, chained up in English thoughts and ideas, and wholly ignorant of the Pre-Mohammedan history of his own country, will add one more explanation by saying that the Bhagavat is a book containing an account of the life of Krishna, who was an ambitious and immoral man! This is all that he could gather from his grandmother while yet he did not go to school!
4. Thus the great Bhagavat ever remains unknown to the foreigners like the elephant of the six blind who caught hold of the several parts of the body of the beast! But truth is eternal and is never injured but for a while by ignorance.
The Bhagavat Explains Itself:
1. It is the fruit of the tree of thought (Vedas) mixed with the nectar of the speech of Shukadeva. It is the temple of spiritual love.... [It is] composed of 18,000 Shlokas. It contains the best part of the Vedas and Vedanta.
2. The Bhagavata is pre-eminently "the Book" in India. Once enter into it, and you are transplanted, as it were, into the spiritual world where gross matter has no existence. The true follower of the Bhagavat is a spiritual man who has already cut his temporary connection with phenomenal nature, and has made himself the inhabitant of that region where God eternally exists and loves. This mighty work is founded upon inspiration and its superstructure is upon reflection. To the common reader it has no charms and is full of difficulty. We are, therefore, obliged to study it deeply through the assistance of such great commentators as Shridhara Svami and Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His contemporary followers.
3. Now Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great preacher of Nadia, who has been Deified by His talented followers, tells us that the Bhagavat is founded upon the four verses which Vyasa received from Narada, the most learned of the created beings. He tells us further that Brahma pierced through the whole universe of matter for years and years in quest of the final cause of the world, but when he failed to find it abroad, he looked into the construction of his own spiritual nature, and there he heard the Universal Spirit speaking unto him:
4. "...I was in the beginning before all spiritual and temporal things were created, and after they have been created I am in them all in the shape of their existence and truthfulness, and when they will be all gone I shall remain full as I was and as I am. Whatever appears to be true without being a real fact itself, and whatever is not perceived though it is true in itself are subjects of my illusory energy of creation, such as light and darkness in the material world."
5. [Like Brahma, Vyasa also] fell back into his own self and searched his own spiritual nature and then it was that the above truth was communicated to him for his own good and the good of the world. The sage immediately perceived that his former works required supercession in as much as they did not contain the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In his new idea he obtained the development of his former idea of religion. He commenced the Bhagavat in pursuance of this change.
Sambandha, Abhidheya, Prayojana:
1. The whole of this incomparable work teaches us, according to our Great Chaitanya, the three great truths which compose the absolute religion of man. Our Nadia preacher calls them Sambandha, Abhidheya and Prayojana, i.e., the relation between the creator and the created, the duty of man to God, and the prospects of humanity.
2. In these three words is summed up the whole ocean of human knowledge as far as it has been explored up to this era of human progress. These are the cardinal points of religion and the whole Bhagavat is, as we are taught by Shri Chaitanya, an explanation, both by precepts and examples, of these three great points.
1. [Throughout] the Bhagavat teaches us that there is only one God without a second, Who is full in Himself and is and will remain the same. Time and space, which prescribe conditions to created objects are much below His supreme spiritual nature, which is unconditioned and absolute....
2. Maya intervenes between us and God as long as we are not spiritual, and when we are able to break off her bonds, we, even in this mortal frame, learn to commune in our spiritual nature with the unconditioned and absolute. No, Maya does not mean a false thing only, but it means concealment of eternal truth as well.
3. The creation is not Maya itself but is subject to that principle.... The true idealist must be a dualist also. He must believe all that he perceives as nature created by God full of spiritual essence and relations, but he must not believe that the outward appearance is the truth. The Bhagavat teaches that all that we healthily perceive is true, but its material appearance is transient and illusory....
4. Nature is eternally spiritual but the intervention of Maya makes her gross and material. Man, in his progress, attempts to shake off this gross idea, childish and foolish in its nature, and by subduing the intervening principle of Maya, lives in continual union with God in his spiritual nature.... The Bhagavat teaches us this relation between man and God.... This is called Sambandha-jnana of the Bhagavat, or in other words, the knowledge of the relations between the conditioned and the Absolute.
1. ...[T]he second great principle inculcated by the Bhagavat [is] the principle of duty. Man must spiritually worship his God. There are three ways in which the Creator is worshiped by the created... according to the constitution of their mind: [As brahman, paramatma, and bhagavan.].
2. Those who worship God as infinitely great in the principle of admiration call Him by the name of Brahman. This mode is called jnana or knowledge. Those who worship God as the Universal Soul in the principle of spiritual union with him give Him the name of Paramatma. This is yoga. And those who worship God as all in all with all their heart, body and strength style Him as Bhagavan. This last principle is bhakti. The book that prescribes the relation and worship of Bhagavan, procures for itself the name Bhagavat and the worshiper is also called by the same name.
3. The superiority of the Bhagavat consists in the uniting of all sorts of theistic worship into one excellent principle in human nature, which passes by the name of Bhakti. This word has no equivalent in the English language. Piety, devotion, resignation and spiritual love unalloyed with any sort of petition except in the way of repentance, compose the highest principle of Bhakti. The Bhagavat tells us to worship God in that great and invaluable principle, which is infinitely superior to human knowledge and the principle of yoga.
4. ...[T]he principle of Bhakti passes [through] five distinct stages in the course of its development into its highest and purest form. Then again when it reaches the last form, it is susceptible of further progress from the stage of prema (love) to that of Mahabhava which is in fact a complete transition into the spiritual universe where God alone is the bride-groom of our soul. The voluminous Bhagavat is nothing more than a full illustration of this principle of continual development and progress of the soul from gross matter to the All-Perfect Universal Spirit who is distinguished as personal, eternal, absolutely free, all powerful and all intelligent.
(Matter As a Dictionary of Spirit):
5. [In the Bhagavat] comparisons have been made with the material world, which cannot help but convince the ignorant and the impractical. Material examples are absolutely necessary for the explanation of spiritual ideas. The Bhagavat believes that the spirit of nature is the truth in nature and is the only practical part of it.
6. The phenomenal appearance of nature is truly theoretical, although it has had the greatest claim upon our belief from the days of infancy. The outward appearance of nature is nothing more than a sure index of its spiritual face. Comparisons are therefore necessary. Nature, as it is before our eyes, must explain the spirit, or else the truth will ever remain concealed, and man will never rise from his boyhood though his wiskers and beard grow white as the snows of the Himalayas.
7. The whole intellectual and moral philosophy is explained by matter itself.... All spiritual ideas are... pictures from the material world, because matter is a dictionary of spirit, and material pictures are but the shadows of the spiritual affairs which our material eye carries back to our spiritual perception.
8. God in His infinite goodness and kindness has established this unfailing connection between the truth and the shadow in order to impress upon us the eternal truth which he has reserved for us. The clock explains the time, the alphabet points to the gathered store of knowledge, the beautiful song of a harmonium gives the idea of eternal harmony in the spirit world, today and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, [and thus] thrust[s] into us the ungrasped idea of eternity. ...[S]imilarly, material pictures impress upon our spiritual nature the truly spiritual idea of religion.
9. It is on these reasonable grounds that Vyasa adopted the mode of explaining our spiritual worship with some sorts of material phenomena, which correspond with the spiritual truth.
10. In the Bhagavat we have been advised first of all, to convert ourselves into most grateful servants of God as regards our relation to our fellow brethren. Our nature has been described as bearing three different phases: goodness, passion and ignorance. Goodness is that property in our nature which is purely good as far as it can be pure in our present state. Passion is neither good nor bad. Ignorance is evil. ...[I]t is our object to train up [our] affections and tendencies to the standard of Goodness....
11. ...[W]e are [then] to look to all living beings in the same light in which we look to ourselves, i.e., we must convert our selfishness into all possible disinterested activity towards all around us. Love, charity, good deeds and devotion to God will be our only aim. We then become the servants of God by obeying His high and holy wishes. Here we begin to be Bhaktas.... All this is covered by the term Abhidheya, the second cardinal point in the supreme religion.
1. What is the object of our spiritual development, our prayer, our devotion and our union with God? The Bhagavat tells us that the object is not enjoyment or sorrow, but continual progress in spiritual holiness and harmony.
2. In the common-place books of the Hindu religion.... we have descriptions of a local heaven and a local hell; the Heaven as beautiful as anything on earth and the Hell a ghastly as any picture of evil. Besides this Heaven we have many more places where good souls are sent up in the way of promotion! There are 84 divisions of the Hell itself, some more dreadful than the one Milton has described in his "Paradise Lost."
(Controversial Passages Concerning Descriptions of Hell, etc.):
3. These are certainly poetical and were originally created by the rulers of the country in order to check evil deed of the ignorant people, who are not able to understand the conclusions of philosophy. The religion of the Bhagavat is free from such a poetry. Indeed, in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and the ignorant.
4. The Bhagavat certainly tells us of a state of reward and punishment in the future according to deeds [performed] in our present situation. All poetic inventions, besides this spiritual fact, have been described as statements borrowed from other works in thhe way of preservation of old traditions in the book which superseded them and put an end to the necessity of their storage.
5. If the whole stock of Hindu Theological works which preceded the Bhagavat were burnt like the Alexandrian Library and the sacred Bhagavat [alone was] preserved as it is, not a part of the philosophy of the Hindus, except that of the atheistic sects, would be lost. The Bhagavat therefore may be styled both as a religious work and [as] a compendium of all Hindu history and philosophy.
6. The Bhagavat does not allow its followers to ask anything from God except eternal love towards Him. The kingdom of the world, the beauties of the local Heavens, and the sovereignty over the material world are never the subjects of Vaishnava prayer.
7. The Vaishnava meekly and humbly says, "Father, Master, God, Friend and Husband of my soul! Hallowed by thy name! I do not approach You for anything which You have already given me. I have sinned against You and I now repent and solicit Your pardon. Let thy holiness touch my soul and make me free from grossness. Let my spirit be devoted meekly to Your Holy service in absolute love towards Thee."
8. "I have called You my God, and let my soul be wrapped up in admiration at Your greatness! I have addressed You as my Master and let my soul be strongly devoted to Your service. I have called You my Friend, and let my soul be in reverential love towards You and not in dread or fear! I have called you my Husband and let my spiritual nature be in eternal union with You, forever loving and never dreading, or feeling disgust. Father, let me have strength enough to go up to You as the consort of my soul, so that we may be one in eternal love! Peace to the world."
9. [The Vaishnava] does not expect to be the king of a certain part of the universe after his death, nor does he dread a local fiery and turbulent hell.... [Nor is] his idea of salvation [the] total annihilation of personal existence.... The Vaishnava is the meekest of all creatures, devoid of all ambition. He wants to serve God spiritually after death, as he has served Him both in spirit and matter while here. His constitution is [spiritual] and his highest object of life is divine and holy love.
10. The Bhagavat... affirms that the Vaishnava soul when freed from gross matter will distinctly exist not in time and space but spiritually in the eternal kingdom of God where love is life, and hope and charity and continual ecstacy without change are its various manifestations.
11. [In considering the essence of God], two great errors stare before us and frighten us back to ignorance and its satisfaction. One of them is the idea that God is above all attributes both material and spiritual and is consequently above all conception. This is a noble idea but useless. If God is above conception and without any sympathy with the world, how [explain] this creation, this universe composed of properties, the distinctions and phases of existence, the differences of value, etc.
12. The other error is that God is all attribute, i.e., intelligence, truth, goodness and power. This is also a ludicrious idea. Scattered properties can never constitute a Being. It is more impossible in the case of [opposing] principles such as Justice and Mercy and Fulness and Creative Power.
13. The truth, as stated in the Bhagavat, is that properties, though many [may be] beligerent, are united in a Spiritual Being where they have full sympathy and harmony. Certainly this is beyond our comprehension. It is so owing to our nature being finite and God being infinite.... This is a glimpse of truth and we must regard it as Truth itself. Often, says Emmerson, a glimpse of truth is better than an arranged system and he is right.
14. The Bhagavat has, therefore, a personal, all-intelligent, active, absolutely free, holy, good, all-powerful, omnipresent, just and merciful and supremely Spiritual Deity without a second--creating [and] preserving all that is in the Universe. The highest object of the Vaishnava is to serve that Infinite Being for ever spiritually in the activity of Absolute Love.
Criticisms of the Shallow Critic Regarding the Deity:
1. The shallow critic summarily rejects [Vyasa] as a man-worshiper. He would go so far as to scandalize him as a teacher of material love and lust and the injurious principles of exclusive asceticism.
2. [Such a] shallow critics mind will undoubtedly be changed if he but reflects upon one great point, i.e., how is it possible that a spiritualist of the School of Vyasa, teaching the best principles of Theism [throughout] the Bhagavata, and making the four texts quoted in the beginning the foundation of his mighty work, could have forced upon the belief of men [the notion] that the sensual connection between a man with certain females is the highest object of worship?
3. This is impossible dear critic! Vyasa could not have taught the common Vairagi to set up a place of worship with a number of females! Vyasa, who could teach us repeatedly in the whole of Bhagavata that sensual pleasures are momentary like the pleasures of rubbing the itching hand, and that man's highest duty is to have spiritual love with God, could never have prescribed the worship of sensual pleasures. His descriptions are spiritual and you must not connect matter with [them].
4. Yes [dear critic], you nobly point to the immoral deeds of the common Vyragis, who call themselves the followers of the Bhagavata and the great Chaitanya. You nobly tell us that Vyasa, unless purely explained, may lead thousands of men into great trouble in time to come. But dear critic! Study the history of ages and countries! Where have you found the philosopher and the reformer fully understood by the people?
5. Whether you give the Absolute Religion in figures, or simple expressions, or teach it by means of books or oral speeches, the ignorant and the thoughtless must degrade it.... "Truth is good," is an elemental truth which is easily grasped by the common people. But if you tell a common patient that God is infinitely intelligent and powerful in His spiritual nature, he will conceive a different idea from what you entertain of the expression. All higher truths, though intuitive, require previous education in the simpler ones....