Stage is set, lights are glaring and the audience are holding breaths for the show to begin. Vyasadeva, the writer of the grand spectacle – Srimad Bhagvatam, enters the stage to show the curtain-raiser. The first three verses of Srimad Bhagvatam are like a curtain-raiser to it; they will put in the picture for readers what Srimad Bhagvatam brings forth for them. The first canto, especially the first three verses of Srimad Bhagavatam act as a prelude for the rest of the cantos. Srila Vyasadev begins this great work by offering obeisance to Lord Vasudeva ‘oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya’. In the first verse itself Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasadeva emphatically brings out the difference between the conception of God and Absolute truth. In the second verse he immediately glories Srimad Bhagavatam as completely pure and devoid of material motivations. So one gets a clear idea what one will get by reading this timeless purana and what one will not get. In the third verse he invites everyone to come forward and taste this mature fruit of Vedic knowledge. Its sweetness is due to the fact that it has come from the spiritual world through Vyasadev’s realizations and later emanated from the mouth of Srila Sukadev Goswami.
Appearance of Srimad Bhagvatam followed by the appearance of the cosmic traveller Narada, Birth of Emperor Parikshit, retirement of Pandavas, advent of Kaliyuga, appearance of Shukadeva Goswami-the enchanting speaker of Srimad Bhagavatam, are some important pastimes in the first Canto. The canto contains the proud emperor Verse, “ete camsa kala pumsa krishnas tu bhagvana svayam…” and two beautiful set of prayers by Srimati Kunti Maharani and Bheeshma Deva in eighth and ninth chapter respectively.
Curtains-up and the show begins
Thousand of sages headed by Saunak Rishi, have gathered at the holy place of Naimisaranya to perform a sacrifice for the welfare of mankind. They have invited Suta Goswami, glorified him and started asking questions that led to the unveiling of great epic. This act of questioning by qualified listeners and hearing answers from qualified speakers is the trend that can be observed throughout the Bhagavatam. Saunakadi rishis begin this trend by asking their first set of six questions to Suta Goswami. Their intention is very magnanimous which is to benefit the people in Kali yuga who don’t have good qualities.
Questions and answers – an approach to Bhagavatam
One way of looking at first canto in a summary form is by remembering the questions and tracing the answers for them. Using this approach, let us look at the first set of questions posed by the Saunakadi rishis. They asked Suta Goswami – Q1. What is the absolute and ultimate good for people in general? (1.1.9) For this question Suta Goswami gives the answer in 1.2.6, 7 by stating how one has to develop pure devotional service towards the Supreme Lord and how through bhakti one gets knowledge and detachment. Keeping in mind the nature of people in Kali Yuga, as a second question Saunakadi rishis asked – Q2. What is the essence of all the scriptures for the welfare of all living beings? (1.1.11). Suta Goswami dedicates the entire second chapter for answering this question. This chapter describes devotional service to Lord in detail. As their third question Saunakadi rishis asked – Q3. Please tell us about the purpose of Krsna’s appearance (1.1.12). Suta Goswami answers by saying that Krsna appears to reclaim souls in the mode of pure goodness and to protect the theists (1.2.34 and 1.3.38). Pious people are curious about the adventures of Krsna in His various incarnations. Saunakadi rishis are no exception. They expressed their curiosity in their next two questions. As fourth question they enquire about the (Q4.) Purusha avataras and in their fifth question they enquired about the (Q5.) Lila avataras of the Supreme Lord. Suta Goswami briefly describes Purusha avataras in 1.2.30 to 33. He dedicates the entire third chapter to describe different Lila avataras and brings out how Krsna is the fountainhead of all the incarnations –kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam. As a last question in their first set, Saunakadi rishis asked a crucial question – Q6. Where are the religious principles taking shelter after the departure of Krsna? Suta Goswami answers by saying that religious principles have now taken shelter of Srimad Bhagavatam which has arisen as a sun to dispel the darkness of Kali Yuga purāṇārko ‘dhunoditaḥ (1.3.43). He further elaborates by saying how Vyasadev taught Bhagavatam to Sukadeva Goswami and he himself heard it when Sukadeva Goswami spoke it to Maharaja Pariksit.
Second set of questions and answers
After hearing the glories of Srimad Bhagavatam, the eager Saunakadi rishis glorified Suta Goswami and asked their next set of questions. Their eagerness is very evident in their first question. They combined four closely related questions and asked as their first question – What period and what place was Bhagavatam spoken? Why was it spoken? What inspired Vyasadev to compile this literature? (1.4.3). In their next question Saunakadi rishis asked about how Sukadeva Goswami was received in the city of Hastinapur. Then they asked how Sukadeva Goswami and Maharaja Pariksit met (1.4.6, 7, 8). They went on to ask about birth and activities of Maharaja Pariksit (1.4.9) and why he decided to give up his life (1.4.10).
To answer the first question, Suta Goswami starts off by giving information on Vyasadev’s activities and events leading to his getting instructions from Narada Muni. After editing the Vedic literature and writing Mahabharata for the benefit of Kali yuga people, Vyasadev still felt despondent. At that time his spiritual master Narada Muni arrived and enlightened Vyasadev by bringing out the importance of directly describing Lord Krsna’s glories and pointed out how Vyasadev missed this important aspect in his previous works. He went on to describe how in his own previous life he got the association of bhaktivedantas and how he got transformed into his current position as a travelling spaceman and preacher. Finally he instructed Vyasadev to directly glorify the activities of the Lord in his work and keep this aspect as the core of his work to benefit the humanity (1.5).
Krsna as bhakti-vatsala
Suta Goswami next starts to describe the birth and activities of Maharaja Pariksit. First he begins by describing the events leading to the birth of Maharaja Pariksit. Asvatthama fled after killing the five sons of Pandavas, released Brahmastra to escape from Arjuna, and Arjuna caught him and shaved his head. Just when Krsna prepares to leave for Dvaraka, Uttara, who was carrying Pariksit in her womb, rushes towards Krsna crying for help to protect her womb from another Brahmastra released by Asvatthama. This time Asvatthama being highly resolved to wipe out Pandavas completely released Brahmastras aimed at five Pandavas and also at the womb of Uttara to kill Pariksit. The most endearing quality of Krsna as bhakta-vatsala is brought out in His first appearance in Srimad Bhagavatam. Seeing the impending danger, Krsna at once stepped in and diffused the Brahmastras aimed at five Pandavas. Instantly He covered the womb of Uttara personally and saved Pariksit. While describing this incident, Suta Goswami gets side tracked which gives us a chance to hear Kunti Devi’s prayers to Krsna (1.8), Bhisma Dev’s prayers to Krsna and his glorious passing away (1.9), Krsna’s entrance into Dwaraka (1.10-11).
Birth and activities of Maharaj Pariksit
Saunakadi rishis again ask Suta Goswami about Maharaja Parikshit’s birth. Suta Goswami resumes his narration of Maharaja Parikshit’s birth, how brahmanas describe his glorious qualities and future activities (1.12). Then Suta Goswami describes the activities of Maharaja Pariksit. This he does in two phases. In the first phase he describes the events leading up to the enthroning of Maharaja Pariksit. He describes how Vidura who returned back to Hastinapur, preached to Dhrtarastra and enlightened him. After getting inspiration from Vidura’s preaching, Dhrtarastra quits the place, performs austerity and gets liberated (1.13). Then Suta Goswami describes the disappearance pastime of Krsna. After Krsna disappears, Pandavas also wanted to renounce their royal order. Maharaja Yudhistira happily enthroned Maharaja Pariksit and moved on to renounced order of life (1.14, 15). In the second phase Suta Goswami describes the glorious rule of Maharaja Pariksit, how he received, punished and kept Kali at bay. Maharaja Pariksit ruled so gloriously that he did not give any chance for Kali yuga to progress.
Maharaja Pariksit accepts curse as a boon
After describing the birth and activities of Maharaja Pariksit, Suta Goswami describes how by the will of the Supreme Lord, Maharaja Pariksit being overcome by hunger and thirst behaved inappropriately towards Samika Rishi by putting a dead snake around the rishi’s neck. Maharaja Pariksit repented for his action and was expecting some misfortune. For this insignificant offence he was cursed by the son of the rishi Srngi to die in seven days being bitten by a snake. After being informed about the curse, the same Maharaja Pariksit who couldn’t bear hunger and thirst earlier, decided to fast until death. He took the curse to be a boon in disguise, a chance for him to renounce his royal life and focus on going back to godhead. He sat on the bank of Ganges and started to fast (1.18, 19). We can also see how supreme Lord is acting differently in different situations. Earlier when Brahmastra was rushing to kill child Pariksit He immediately diffused the astra to let Pariksit appear, now He arranges the same Maharaja Pariksit to be killed for Srimad Bhagavatam to appear.
Sukadeva Goswami to instruct Maharaj Pariksit
Hearing the news of Maharaja Pariksit’s decision to fast, several great personalities including Narada Muni, Vyasadev and other great sages assembled on the bank of Ganges. Maharaja Pariksit welcomed all the great sages and enquired from them what was the best course of action for a person who is about to die. He didn’t get a conclusive answer. At that time by the will of the supreme Lord, Sukadeva Goswami arrived there. He was respected and welcomed by the sages. Maharaja Pariksit welcomed Sukadeva Goswami, glorified him and following the trend he also put forward his questions to Sukadeva Goswami. He asked what a man should hear, chant, remember and worship and what he should not (1.19.38). In this way Suta Goswami answered the second set of questions put forward by Saunakadi rishis. The answers given by Sukadeva Goswami in response to Maharaja Pariksit’s questions begin in Canto two.
Significant themes covered in first canto
First canto contains many significant themes- answers to questions of sages in chapter one to three, and answers to next four questions in chapter four to nineteen. These chapters include details about appearance of Srimad Bhagvatam, Birth and activities of Parikshit Maharaja, cursing of Parikshit Maharaja and the meeting of Sukadeva Goswami with Parikshit Maharaja.