Srimad Bhagavatham – An Encyclopaedia of Spirituality!
Srimad Bhagavatham is a unique scripture as it satisfies the needs of anyone who ponders over life– whether he is a theist or atheist. It is not just a scriptural text- it is the Lord Himself! Among the spiritually inclined - all the three categories of them, dwaithins (the Lord and I are separate), vishishta-adwaithins (Lord and I have a special bond), and adwaithins (there are no two- Lord and I are one) – use Bhagavatham to explain and promote their positions as they all take Bhagavatham as their authentic text. If you ask a Krishna-devotee, he sees the Bhagavatham as “Krishnastu bhagavan swayam” (Krishna is God, present in/as Bhagavatham). For an advaithin the holy book is full of metaphors that take him to the deeper realms of contemplation and meditation to seek and reach the ultimate divine, the Brahman. In essence, Bhagavatham is the scripture extraordinaire in that it contains references to everything that one can imagine. Geography (details of Jambudweepa for example) to astronomy, astrology, and physics to metaphysics, human psychology, and its divine interventions are all subject matter of Bhagavatham.
Being a scripture written by the Master Sage Vyasa, there is no wonder that the literal and poetic quality of the book is awe-inspiring and incomparable. Having composed the Vedas and Puranas, Sage Vyasa was apparently not content with his contributions!. He felt that he still lacks something that is hard to describe in words. The story goes that the celestial Sage Narada came to his counsel and asked him to write yet another book extolling the virtues of ‘knowledge’ that is full of glories (Bhagas) of the Lord. Yes, the Bhagavatham is a book that is full of eternal glories of the Divine-Ultimate or God. It is also known as the 5th Veda- the first four being Rig, Yajus, Sama & Atharva Vedas. Having done this enormous task of writing scripture with 18000 verses in 12 Cantos comprising of 335 Chapters, the Sage was content.
The Bhagavatha starts with an ideal setting for storytelling in the first Canto. The story must be uplifting, useful, and completed in seven days, as King Parikshit has been cursed to death at the end of the seventh day. The king, having heard the story divine and gained the wisdom it imparts, accepts his death as the god-given gift without any fear. The essence of Bhagavatham is the sense of fearlessness – abhayam – it gives. Fear is generated when there is separation and ‘otherness’. Bhagavatham is the ways and means by which one can get rid of the ego and accept the oneness of the whole universe. The annihilation of egoistic individuality gives rise to the realization of God. Bhagavatham gives us stories of devotees who have achieved this liberation from ego, not just by the path devotion alone. They resorted to paths of love for the Lord, incessant fear of God, hatred towards the Lord, and the path of pure knowledge. Bhagavtham also reveals the secret that the easiest of these paths is the path of devotion and love.
The second Canto gives us a glimpse of the Lord’s glory and the methods of meditation and yoga. The story of Sage Kapila and his mother Devahuti along with the Samkhya philosophy (Kapila Gita) is the subject matter of the third Canto and Daksha-yaga episode is covered in the next Canto. The fifth Canto gives us a great geographical description of the world and the Bharathavarsha in particular. It also elucidates the various levels of heavens, hells, and everything in between- stars, moons, and other celestial objects. The story of Ajamila and the nobility of Narayana Nama (name of Lord Narayana) are extolled in the sixth Canto. Lord’s incarnations as Narasimha and Vamana are covered in the 7th and 8th Cantos respectively. The ninth Canto is a preparatory chapter to introduce Sri Krishna in the 10th Canto.
The Tenth Canto (Dasamam) is considered to be the heart of Bhagavatham as it is in this we find Sri Krishna as the ultimate and complete incarnation of the Lord that all can relate to. The tenth Canto is the largest of the chapters- about one-fourth of the entire Bhagavatham. In Dasamam we can find Sri Krishna as we seek. He is there as an adorable baby for mother Yasoda, a mischievous boy for the entire Yadva clan, a handsome young man for the youth of Vrindavan, a friend, philosopher, and guide for the warrior-prince Arjuna, as a cunning negotiator, a forceful fighter and as the object of worship and reverence for the entire universe. Sri Krishna didn’t ask us to renounce anything- He showed by example how we can assimilate all in life and still lead a perfect life of ‘detachment’. Through Karma Yoga, he extolled the virtue of work and the need to work as a community to ensure prosperity- spiritual and material. The concept ‘Leela’ and the associated imagery of the Lord in Bhagavatham is the most profound as it reveals His relationship with devotees as a teacher, lover, friend, and whatever they want him to be.
In the 11th Canto, we see the decline of dynasties and the demise of Sri Krishna himself exemplifying that the inevitable (anything that is born must die and anything that is created must perish) is applicable to all, including the Lord himself! In this Canto we also find a philosophical gem- Uddhava Gita, as the Lord imparted to his friend-disciple Uddhava - the highest spiritual knowledge, before leaving his mortal body. The final – 12th- Canto concludes the story of King Parikshit as he embraces the death fearlessly. Kali Yuga- the present eon- is being introduced here indicating the importance of Namam – the Lord’s name- as the only refuge for the mortal human beings.
It is customary to read the Bhagavatham in seven days and the tradition is called Sapathaham*. All over India, Sapathahams are held to mark special occasions in a village, city, or even in a house hold. Bhagavatha-sathrams are also popular these days. They are large conferences where scholars present ‘new’ theories, findings, and explanations of what has been written in Bhagavatham thousands of years ago. There have been a number of translations of the Bhagavatam made into various languages – Indian and international- from the original Sanskrit version. Translated versions are also used to conduct Sapthahams. The latest translation of Bhagavatham was done by the famous Malayalam poet Akkittham this year.
Although the Bhagavatham presents devotion as the premier method of inquiring into the Divine, it provides wonderful opportunities for the student to pursue the path of knowledge and devotion integrated well into his life. Bhagavatam is indeed a spiritual encyclopedia.
• First Bhagavatha Sapthaham (in Malayalam) in North America was held in July 2008. This year also a Sapthaham is being held in Washington, DC in July. Link……
• Bhagavatham- Nityaparayanam a book for the daily reading is available for free downloading at www.guruvayoor.com
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