Sunday, July 22, 2018

Bh.P. 1.1.1. Deliberations – At the 17th World Sanskrit Conference,

Bh.P. 1.1.1. Deliberations on the First Shloka of Shrimad Bhagavatham
– At the 17th World Sanskrit Conference, University of British Columbia,
Vancouver, Canada. 9-13 July 2018

When I heard that the 17th World Sanskrit Conference (2018) is coming to Vancouver, I was excited. This world-wide event is the premier conference in Sanskrit that occurs only every three years. Major universities and organizations take turns in conducting this and there is a stiff competition of sort in getting the conference venue approved for a city, quite like the selection for the Olympics venue. Last year’s conference was in Bangkok and the one previous to that was in New Delhi.  The next conference is scheduled to be in Canberra, Australia, in 2021. I didn’t register for it as I thought that the conference would be academic in nature with a lot of ‘dry’ discussions on grammar, usages, and ancient textbooks in Sanskrit which may not have any relevance to our day to day life or would be of my taste. I couldn’t attend the conference in full but I was privileged to attend a few paper sessions and a wonderful theatre performance of Koodiyaattam – the longest surviving Sanskrit drama form preserved mainly in Kerala. The performance and lecture demonstrations given by the Nepathya troupe was really wonderful. They demonstrated how an unbroken artistic tradition of more than one thousand years of the classical culture of India has been kept alive for centuries. The conference was inaugurated by the Indian Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javedkar and attended by many eminent personalities including the famed ‘slumdog millionaire’ author Vikas Swarup who is the High Commissioner of India to Canada. Some six hundred scholars attended the conference where more than five hundred papers were presented on various themes. Bhagavatham was one of the streams where scholars presented their views and postulated their theories.

In the Bhagavatham session, I was captivated by the fact that the academicians – two professors from Japan and two from the United States of America took the first shloka of Bhagavatham and went into the minute details and purport of the shloka corresponding to various schools of spirituality – namely advaita, vishshta-advaita, and dvaita with a number of variations attributed to each of them.
The first shloka of Bhagavatha Puranam (Bh.P. 1.1.1) is as follows:

janmādy asya yato ’nvayād itarataś cārtheṣv abhijñaḥ svarāṭ
 tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi-kavaye muhyanti yat sūrayaḥ
tejo-vāri-mṛdāṁ yathā vinimayo yatra tri-sargo ’mṛṣā
 dhāmnā svena sadā nirasta-kuhakaṁ satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi

One meaning of this shloka can be summarized as follows: In this world, the creation, maintenance, and destruction are occurring due to a complex, but well-ordained integration and disintegration of matter. The power that makes these three folded activities possible is indeed the consciousness that is pervading each and every living being. It is the same force that gave the creator Brahma the knowledge of Vedas which in turn imparted the ability in him to create the world. Even great scholars retreat from defining or explaining this baffling phenomenon, as words fail in doing so.  In a desert, we see water in a mirage. Although it is merely an illusion, we feel that it is for real. Likewise, the five basic elements- the space, air, fire, water and earth – interchange, combine and conglomerate with each other mysteriously to project various scenarios and images in front of us that look and feel very much real to us. In the same way, the world made up of three basic qualities – the sattva, rajas , and tamas also appear before us as real.  Let us meditate upon this power, the eternal self-effulgent ultimate truth, untainted by illusions.

Professor Tomohiro Manabe (Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) presented a paper on Bh.P 1.1.1. with the various interpretations of dhimahi. He used Madhusudana Saraswati’s commentary for this and explained the importance of the term dhimahi in the Advaita, Satvata and Bhakthi schools of philosophy.  The shloka inspires the reader to meditate upon the ultimate truth and he postulates that the process of meditation differs in accordance with the three points of view. Also, the three schools have different takes on the meaning of ‘highest truth’. Dhimahi is contemplation (nidhidhyasana) as per advaita philosophy and it is veneration (upasana) in Satvata tradition and meditation (dhyana) according to Bhakthi school. There is also a fourth meaning of dhimahi brought up by Madhusudana i.e., comprehension (pratipatti). The professor postulates that this interpretation of dhimahi as comprehension makes more sense as the ‘highest truth’ is understood differently by different schools. He goes on to argue that meaning and essence of the whole 12 books of Bhagavatham are summarized in the word Dhimahi.  Listening, thinking, and contemplating on Brahman = atman is the essence of the advaita tradition and the highest truth is “That Thou Art” (tat tvam asi).

In the Satvata school, a variation in the advaitic tradition, the Vyuha theory is considered with four states of supreme atman, with deities Vasudeva, Samkarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. The highest truth is the supreme atman, represented by Vasudeva who is the pure unconditioned consciousness. Here the ‘dhimahi’ of highest truth is in the sense of veneration (upasana). An opposing view for this is presented by posing a question that how can you do upasana of the unconditioned truth? The answer to that is: by meditation on the other three - Samkarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha to get to Vasudeva. In the Bhakthi school, the dhimahi is considered only in terms of dhyana with an implied meaning of the same interpreted as contemplation (pratipatti). Here the highest truth is Krishna. “krishnatu bhagavaan swayam” and he is none other than Vasudeva, the unconditioned supreme atman. The paper concludes with a statement that the dhimahi is different for different schools depending on the definition of the ‘highest truth’ although a lot of similarities can be seen.

Professor Kiyokazu Okita of the Sophia University, Tokyo, presented a paper quoting the commentaries on Bh.P 1.1.1 by Madhva and Vijayadhvaja where they reject the concept of absolute monism. Basically, the school of dualism rejects the advaita school of thoughts. It is stated that Madhva’s commentaries predate advaitic commentaries of Sankara. Madhva’s commentary includes two basic tenets of dualism – absolute independence of Vishnu and the reality of the world, thus rejecting the concepts of absolute monism and the idea that the world is illusory. Here the highest truth is Vishnu, who is supremely independent with the eight-fold powers to create maintain, and destroy the world. Dhimahi here is taken in the sense of ‘I reflect’ (chintaye). In conclusion the professor comments that Madhava’s interpretation didn’t get the attention it deserves among the scholars and he wants this interpretation as an alternative to the often held perception of Bhagavatam as advaitic in general.

The third paper presentation I attended was that of Professor David Bucha of Brown University, USA. He was talking about the 18th-century Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava Vedānta theologian, Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa, who composed a commentary on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa in which the influence of several sources can be demonstrated. Professor Bucha’s paper examines Baladeva’s commentary on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s theologically dense opening verse, Bh.P 1.1.1. identifying sources and highlighting his departures from his predecessors. The paper suggests that Baladeva, who played a central role in defending the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition in Jai Singh’s court sought to engage an audience outside of that tradition.  

The fourth paper is by Arun Brahmbhatt St. Lawrence University (New York, NY, USA) gave an interpretation of Bh.P. 1.1.1 in accordance with the Swami Narayana Tradition. In that tradition, Sanskrit commentators have encoded Sahajānand Svāmī’s unique interpretation of the first verse of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Sahajānand Svāmī’s interpretation is focused on the latter half of the verse, including a reading of the word “dhāmnā” that emphasizes the ever-present manifest form of God on earth. This is critical to the Swami Narayan sampradāya’s teaching that Sahajānand Svāmī himself is the manifestation of parabrahman.

Shrimad 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, dvaitins (the Lord and I are separate), vishishta-advaitins (Lord and I have a special bond) and advaitins (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 advaitin 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 their 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 all 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. It is an encyclopedia of spirituality. Having done this enormous task of writing scripture with 18000 verses in 12 Cantos comprising of 335 Chapters, the Sage was content!.
What we have seen here in the World Sanskrit Conference is just the study of the first shloka of Bhagavatham and the work is still not complete. Within the Bh.P. 1.1.1, we see that the world scholars have brought up various insights and commentaries and I am sure the study is still underway at various parts of the world to come up with more and more insights. However, throughout the conference, I felt that the deliberations of the Bhagavatham session to be purely academic in nature and the presentations were quite ‘dry’ in their deliberations.

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