HUMAN or DIVINE?
Conventional and Confidential Perspectives of Scriptural Episodes
by Gauranga Darshan Das
“The spectrum of scriptural messages is broad and is not limited to one purpose or a specific audience.”
Do the scriptures have multiple meanings?
Imagine a prism held in sunlight. As the rays of the sun touch the prism it reflects multiple attractive colors. While various people are fascinated with different colors, some like to see all the colors. Similarly the verses and pastimes of the Holy Scriptures also manifest various meanings. These prismatic perspectives of the scriptures reveal messages at different levels relevant for multiple audiences. Srila Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami, the author of Sri Caitanya Caritamrta, writes
krsna-tulya bhagavata – vibhu, sarvasraya
prati-sloke prati-aksare nana artha kaya
“Srimad-Bhagavatam is as great as Krsna, the Supreme Lord and shelter of everything. In each and every verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam and in each and every syllable, there are various meanings.” (CC Madhya 24.318)
For instance the very first verse of the Bhagavatam is explained in five wonderful ways by a great Vaisnava commentator named Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu explained a vital verse of the Bhagavatam, popularly known as the atmarama verse (1.7.10), in 61 different ways to a devotee named Sanatana Gosvami. Similarly, the activities of the Supreme Lord, His incarnations and His devotees are performed for various reasons, some confidential and some general.
Are all meanings relevant?
An object seen from different angles appears differently and the same object is utilized for various needs. All these different visions of the object may not reveal its complete form and the different uses may not manifest its full potential, but some of them are relevant for various purposes – big and small, and some may be irrelevant and misleading too.
Similarly, the pastimes of the Supreme Lord and His exalted devotees are enacted for various divine and human purposes and they are often not limited for one particular reason. The multiple purposes behind a scriptural episode are explained by enlightened Vaisnava commentators. But some unscrupulous commentators screw out various irrelevant meanings from them to suit their own purposes. A bona fide meaning is the one that aligns with the conclusions of the Vaisnava philosophy, while others do not.
The multiple explanations or perspectives of the same scriptural statement or episode, when given by the Vaisnava acaryas, should not be seen as contradiction but to be seen as variety. That indicates the richness of the literature and the Sanskrit language. By carefully and faithfully studying the scriptures with the help of bona fide commentaries, one finds that these meanings actually often complement each other.
Thus from the scriptural pastimes, externally one may learn some conventional principles for the smooth functioning of human society and even practice of spiritual life. Simultaneously, often times, there are some internal and confidential purposes for which the pastimes are enacted and these reasons and perspectives are understood by and relevant for more advanced souls.
The meanings of scriptures that describe the Personality of Godhead are actually revealed to a sincere reader by the grace of the Supreme Lord who is the source and objective of the scriptures. Perspectives derived from intellectual gymnastics and mental speculations are deceptive as described below.
athapi te deva padambuja-dvaya-
prasada-lesanugrhita eva hi
janati tattvam bhagavan-mahimno
na canya eko ‘pi ciram vicinvan
“My Lord, if one is favored by even a slight trace of the mercy of Your lotus feet, he can understand the greatness of Your personality. But those who speculate to understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead are unable to know You, even though they continue to study the Vedas for many years.” (10.14.29)
Multiple Perspectives of the Bhagavata Purana
Srimad-Bhagavatam is the book form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Krsna and is non different from Him. It is considered the foremost of all the works of Srila Vyasadeva, who was satisfied only after compiling the Bhagavatam and was despondent before he wrote it. Srila Narada Muni instructed Vyasadeva to write Srimad-Bhagavatam in such a way that both learned people and common people could relate with it.
Narada Muni told Vyasadeva,
tvam apy adabhra-sruta visrutam vibhoh
samapyate yena vidam bubhutsitam
prakhyahi duhkhair muhur arditatmanam
sanklesa-nirvanam usanti nanyatha
“Please, therefore, describe the Almighty Lord’s activities which you have learned by your vast knowledge of the Vedas, for that will satisfy the hankerings of great learned men and at the same time mitigate the miseries of the masses of common people who are always suffering from material pangs. Indeed, there is no other way to get out of such miseries.” (1.5.40)
Thus the Bhagavatam caters to the needs of multiple audiences and also helps one particular reader in manifold ways. Srila Jiva Gosvami quotes the following verse in his magnum opus work called Tattva Sandarbha, while explaining the broader application of Srimad Bhagavatam:
vedah puranam kavyam ca
prabhur mitram priyeva ca
bodhayantiti hi prahus
trivrd bhagavatam punah
“It is said that the Vedas instruct like a master, the Puranas instruct like a friend, and poetic works instruct like a lover, but Srimad Bhagavatam does all the three.”
Thus Srila Sanatana Gosvami adores Srimad Bhagavatam to be his only friend, companion, wealth, saviour, good fortune and happiness, in the following prayer:
mad-eka-bandho mat- sangin
mad-ananda namo’stu te
In this way, the Bhagavatam plays multiple roles in a person’s life, with its variegated messages and lessons. The following are a few glimpses to illustrate this.
‘Human’ Behavior of God
The purposes of the descents of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in this world are manifold as Lord Krsna Himself says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.8):
paritranaya sadhunam vinasaya ca duskrtam
dharma-samsthapanarthaya sambhavami yuge yuge
“To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.”
Apart from the above reasons, more importantly, Krsna performs loving pastimes with His devotees and thus attract the hearts of the people in this world and inspire them to come to His eternal abode. Thus one pastime of Krsna has multiple purposes.
When the Supreme Lord incarnates in this world as a human being and performs His pastimes (martya-lila), He imitates the behavior of the humans. Seeing His human behavior, sometimes people in general might tend to consider Him an ordinary mortal. However, the Supreme Lord is always transcendental and is endowed with all divine opulences in any condition. Through His pastimes as a human, He intends to teach the humans in this world how to conduct themselves: “martyavataras tv iha martya-siksanam” (SB 5.19.5).
‘Embarrassment’ of Exalted Personalities
The scriptures sometimes present the mistakes committed by great personalities. Circumstantially, even great souls are also bewildered in illusion and become victims of lower tendencies as mentioned in the following verse:
vadanti visvam kavayah sma nasvaram
pasyanti cadhyatmavido vipascitah
tathapi muhyanti tavaja mayaya
suvismitam krtyam ajam nato ‘smi tam
“O unborn one, learned Vedic scholars who are advanced in spiritual knowledge certainly know that this material world is perishable, as do other logicians and philosophers. In trance they realize the factual position of this world, and they preach the truth as well. Yet even they are sometimes bewildered by Your illusory energy. This is Your own wonderful pastime. Therefore, I can understand that Your illusory energy is very wonderful, and I offer my respectful obeisances unto You.” (SB 5.18.4)
From a human perspective, one needs to learn what not to do from such examples and safeguard oneself. At the same time, one must be careful not offend the great personality involved in the mistake. From divine perspective, such pastimes are often orchestrated by the Supreme Lord to give a message to the common people through great men. The apparent wrong act committed by a great soul doesn’t affect him, but if someone criticizes him, one becomes a victim of the offense and reaps the consequences. One should not minimize the position of a great personality for his apparent wrong act, but should just learn the intended lesson for oneself.
For instance, once the Supreme Lord Visnu took the form of a beautiful lady called Mohini-murti and bewildered the demons, to act in favor of the demigods. Lord Siva, along with his wife Uma, went to Lord Visnu and curiously requested Him to show His feminine form as Mohini-murti. There was a certain confidence or pride in Siva that he didn’t expect that he would be captivated by seeing Her, as even the demigods were not captivated. However, when Visnu appeared as Mohini-murti, Lord Siva fell into a whirlpool of lust and ran behind Her even in front of his own associates and wife Uma. Mohini-murti’s captivating Lord Siva actually gives a grave message to the practitioners on the spiritual path that lust is a great temptation to control and one has to be extremely safeguard oneself from the allurements of the opposite sex. A spiritual seeker shouldn’t be over confident or proud and think that he cannot be victimized by lust.
However, from a divine perspective, Srila Prabhupada explains that this was actually a joking affair between Lord Visnu and His dear devotee Siva. Siva is an extremely self controlled person and a great Vaisnava, devotee of Lord Visnu. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Cupid himself tried to invoke Lord Siva’s lusty desires in the presence of Parvati, but Lord Siva was never agitated. Rather, the blazing fire from Lord Siva’s eyes turned Cupid to ashes.” (8.12.15 P). Further, the illusory, material energy represented by Durgadevi is directly the wife of Lord Siva, but she could not captivate his mind. Therefore, Lord Visnu had to think twice about how to captivate Siva.
Thus what seemed to be an embarrassing and humiliating experience for Lord Siva when he lustily ran behind Mohini is actually Visnu’s plan to glorify Lord Siva. While a mild glance of Visnu’s external potency could thoroughly bewilder the conditioned souls in this world, that external potency could not move Siva, and Visnu had to manifest His internal potency to captivate Siva. Such is the greatness of Siva. Lord Siva later felt proud to have such an exalted master as Visnu and he wasn’t ashamed. Rather, he was proud to be defeated by his Lord Visnu and resumed his normal, unagitated condition. This spiritual pride is the real pridelessness of a devotee.
‘Departure’ of the Divine
The way Lord Krsna and His Yadu dynasty disappeared from this world can be seen from multiple valid perspectives as presented by the Vaisnava acaryas. By Krsna’s desire, once, the young boys of the Yadu family, in a playful mood, dressed Samba in the guise of a pregnant woman about to give birth and inquired from the great sages, headed by Narada and Visvamitra, about the fruitfulness of Samba’s so-called pregnancy. The sages cursed the mocking boys by saying, “She will give birth to a club that will destroy your family.” Thus a club appeared from Samba’s abdomen. Upon King Ugrasena’s instruction, the Yadus ground the club to powder and threw into the ocean. The waves carried all the bits of powder to the shore, where they were implanted and eventually grew into a grove of canes. The last remaining lump of iron was found by a hunter named Jara who used it to fashion an arrow. Later, the Yadus became intoxicated and took these canes and quarreled amongst themselves killing each other. Hunter Jara, mistook the sole of Krsna’s left foot for a deer and pierced it with an arrow. All these events are sanctioned by the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna.
This ghastly disappearance of the Yadu dynasty, the family of Lord Krsna, was enacted for various reasons. From an external point of view, this happened because of the curse of the sages. And some say that it is because Gandhari cursed Krsna’s dynasty, since Krsna was instrumental in the death of her hundred sons. However, there are deeper reasons for it. Because Krsna fulfilled the purpose for which He descended, He desired to wind up His pastimes. And these curses were a part of His plan for departure.
Some of the Yadus, due to their intimate connection with Krsna were behaving whimsically against the Lord’s will. So, Krsna felt the need to annihilate the indifferent, contemptuous members of the Yadu family. Further, the Lord gave a grave message of detachment to the people in this world, that one’s opulence and power in this material world is temporary and one has to leave all one’s earthly possessions and even their lives one day. Krsna also demonstrated that He wouldn’t spare even His own family members if they are offensive to the brahmanas and sages. Also, the glorious Yadus are eternal associates of the Lord, and they cannot bear separation from Krsna after His disappearance. In their agitation in separation, they would trample and destroy the earth. Therefore, Krsna arranged their disappearance prior to His own disappearance. Further, some of the Yadus were the demigods who descended to assist Lord Krsna in His mission. So, through this pastime, Krsna reestablished them in the heavenly planets to resume their services in the universal management. Thus Krsna removed Himself from the vision of the material world, along with His eternal associates as the Kali-yuga was beginning. Apart from these perspectives, the Vaisnava acaryas give other confidential and conventional reasons for our understanding of this pastime of Krsna’s disappearance.
‘Difficulties’ of Devotees
The scriptures also present episodes of pure devotees who experience undue difficulties that they actually don’t deserve. For instance, the Pandavas and their mother Kunti underwent terrible reversals even when Lord Sri Krsna is present as their direct well-wisher. Their grandson Pariksit Maharaja was cursed by a brahmana to die in seven days for an insignificant offense he committed. Another great devotee Citraketu Maharaja was cursed by mother Parvati, to become a demon for criticizing Lord Siva, although with a genuine concern. Bharata Maharaja, an exalted devotee had to take birth as a deer in his next life for his attachment to a deer. Prahlada Maharaja, a five year old devotee of Lord Visnu, was put into innumerable death threats by his own father.
These difficulties underwent by great devotees actually reveal to the world their exalted devotional consciousness and dependence on Lord Krsna under any circumstances. Without such difficulties, a common man cannot really appreciate their dedication to the Supreme Lord. Further, these difficulties are actually temporary phases in their eternal life of devotion, intending to give us lessons of determination, tolerance, humility and so on. Those difficulties are ultimately ordained by the Supreme Lord to purify those devotees of the minute traces of contamination, if any. One shouldn’t misunderstand the apparent difficulties of devotees as indifference of the Supreme Lord towards them or inefficacy of the process of devotional service unto Him.
Thus there are several such episodes in the scriptures that present us understandings at various levels. If we only see the divinity or Godhood in them, we may fail to learn the intended message in them relevant for human life. And if we see them purely from human perspective, we may underestimate their transcendental nature or minimize the position of the personalities involved. So, while reading the scriptures, we need to patiently and faithfully depend on the explanations of bona fide Vaiṣṇava ācāryas who give us a balanced understanding from both perspectives.
Gauranga Darshan Das, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha (www.vidyapitha.in) at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has written study guides, including Bhagavata Subodhini and Caitanya Subodhini, and teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India. He also oversees the deity worship at GEV.