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Srimad Bhagavatam: At Each Step a Luminous World
About Srimad Bhagavatam: At Each Step a Luminous World
Drawing on Sri Aurobindo's interpretation of the significance of the Puranas, the author wrote a series of articles on the Bhagavata Purana that was originally published serially in the journal Mother India. Taking up the legends in this most popular of the Puranas, she looks at the way they have inspired Indian philosophy, literature, and culture, making the ancient spiritual truths of the rishis appealing to the mind of a whole people. Varaha, Vamana-Trivikrama, Rishabha, and Rama, four incarnations of Vishnu, are studied in separate sections; five chapters are devoted to Krishna. The stories of several devotees (the child Dhruva, the sinner Ajamila, the rakshasa Prahlad, the elephant Gajendra, and King Ambarisha) are included to illustrate how each individual can attain the Divine.
Smt. Prema Nandakumar needs no introduction to the discerning reader. Her prodigious output on various themes spiritual, religious, and literary vouches for her erudition and the monumental research which is at the root of many of her works. She deserves kudos for reigniting the dying embers of Puranic lore and literature in India, and her book Srimad Bhagavatam: At Each Step a Luminous World bears ample testimony to all that I have said about her at the outset. In this work the author has referenced Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the significance of the Puranas—that the Puranic religions are really only a new form, altered in temperament and style and expanded, of the truth of India’s ancient spirituality and philosophy and socio-religious culture. He said that “it is only in an understanding of the turn of the Indian religious imagination and of the place of these writings in the evolution of the culture that we can seize their sense”. [CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 372]
The Bhagavata is a book of religion, it is not history. Even the Mahabharata is not history. It is poetry, legend and tradition all woven into poetry, all arranged round certain facts. [A. B. Purani, Evening Talks, 2007, pp. 381–2]
The Vishnu Purana throws light on the incarnations of Vishnu and the Bhagavata Purana draws its inspiration from the Vishnu Purana. It contains the sagas of great devotees like Prahlada, Ambarisha, and Dhruva and of the avatars or manifestations of Lord Vishnu as Varaha, Vamana, and Krishna, who occupies the most spectacular, central place of all. As for the Vishnu Purana, Sri Aurobindo particularly appreciated its poetic excellence:
In the Vishnu Purana all these aspects are very finely described. The Vishnu Purana is the only Purana I have carefully read through. I wonder how it has escaped general notice that it is also magnificent poetry. [Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 2001, p. 163]
It is India which gave to the world the God-lover, and the renaissance of Hinduism is greatly attributed to the Bhakti movement, spearheaded in the South by the Vaishnavite Alwars (immersed in the Lord) and the Shaivite Nayanmars. Their soulful hymns are sung even today in temples and households. The author has drawn extensively and heavily on the Alwars’ contribution to the proliferation of Bhakti or devotion to the Lord which has echoed in other parts of India, both North and South, giving a cultural, spiritual, and religious solidarity to the Bharatavarsha that is India today. Bhakti is the mainstay of the Bhagavata and is the theme that runs through all the chapters of this eminently readable book. In the scheme of Vaishnavism the Yoga of Divine Love or Bhakti Yoga supersedes the other two yogas, Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga, because of its efficacy and comparative ease, although it is also to be understood that Karma or right action offered to the Lord as an act of love, adoration, and devotion engenders Jnana or Knowledge of the Divine. Bhakti unites Bhagavan, the Lord, and Bhakta, the devotee, and they merge to become one in the supreme integral realization of the Divine.
The question before us is how we should evaluate this book. Is it old wine in a new bottle or does it break completely new ground? There is no gainsaying the fact that ‘Purana’ means old, but though old is not always gold, in this case the Bhagavata Purana has golden nuggets that Smt. Prema Nandakumar ferrets out and presents with such erudition and passion that the details overwhelm us with the nuances of Bhakti Yoga. That, I say, is the welcome ‘new’ in this book. She makes full use of her Vaishnavite background and the spiritual ambience of Srirangam, her hometown which is called ‘Bhooloka Vaikuntam’, Vishnu’s abode on earth, to buttress her exuberant expatiations of the poetic outpourings of the Alwars. Her exposition of the Bhakti cult is punctuated by these soulful hymns and adds a valuable dimension to this book. Bhakti is not old; it is an eternal spring of Divine nectar, a nectar partaken of by devotees of the Lord all over India from the Puranic age to present times. Meera, Tukaram, Surdas, and Purandaradasa are all historical figures, and their musical outpourings have been preserved and propagated by modern classical singers, thus enriching our already rich culture.
The author has highlighted the story of Parikshit to whom we owe the Bhagavata Purana. Parikshit was the lone survivor of the vengeful Ashwatthama’s massacre of the Pandava scions during one fatal night. Cursed by the son of Sage Shamika for insulting his father, Parikshit is given only seven more days of earthly life at the end of which the great serpent king Taksha will kill him. Sage Shuka, who is the narrator of the Bhagavata, then expounds the glory of the Lord, his incarnations, his ananta lila and his vouchsafing of the divine bliss of the divine union to his devotees like Prahlada and Dhruva. Parikshit, thus illumined by Sage Shuka’s discourse, attains the Brahmic state of bliss and, fully resigned to his fate, succumbs to Taksha’s fatal bite.
There is a great tradition in India of the repetition of the Lord’s name, nama japa, and the singing of the Lord’s name, nama sankeertanam. Thyagaraja, one of the renowned trinity of Carnatic music, talks in his compositions about the taraka nama as a saviour name (for him it is Rama Nama). There has even been a dispute as to whether nama is greater than nami (bearer of the nama) or vice versa. The name of the Lord is the Lord himself and all the power of the Lord resides in it; hence the nama japa, which leads to Moksha or Mukti, is itself japa yoga. The author has devoted one chapter to this subject, in which she weaves a wonderful tapestry of Nama, the eternal Name. Purandaradasa, in one of his Kannada compositions, urges man to constantly utter the name of the Lord (Nama mantrava japiso, manuja). The Bhagavata, while taking up a variety of incidents to show us the potent efficacy of devotion, uses the story of Ajamila to exemplify the redeeming power of the Lord that saves even sinners from perdition.
Ajamila, despite his high born Brahmin birth, fell into bad ways and became corrupted. He doted on his last son, Narayana, and on his deathbed called out to him even as the messengers of Death, Yama, came to take his life. But the mere utterance of the word ‘Narayana’ was enough to summon the emissaries of Lord Vishnu, and the arguments and counter-arguments about who should have the custody of Ajamila were settled when Vishnu’s emissaries proclaimed that a sinner who utters the name of Narayana is absolved of all his sins and earns temporary relief from death. All these exchanges between the two camps serve to open Ajamila’s eyes. Shunning his wasteful life of sin and atoning for his past misdeeds, the penitent Ajamila meditates on the Lord, gives up his body, and attains Mukti. The main point to be noted is the superiority of Bhakti over Mukti. While Mukti erases sins Bhakti not only erases sin but effectively destroys the very sinful tendencies.
The author has dwelt beautifully on the birth of Krishna, his divine life and his divine lilas in Brindavan, his passage from Brajkishore, “beloved of Vraja”, to his ascendency as King of Dwaraka, and his elimination of Jarasandha, Shisupala, and other evil forces ranged against him to prevent the establishment of Dharma. We can remember with hope and joy his assurance in the Gita:
The Bhagavata is essentially devotional literature whose protagonist is Lord Vishnu with his avatars. I will wind up the review with some observations on Krishna in Brindavan. Krishna’s life and exploits in Brindavan have seeped into the Indian consciousness, giving birth to wonderful poetic literature in Sanskrit and other languages of India. Shri Krishna is the eternal Nayaka, the Lord, the manamohana and the jaganmohana whose dance of bliss with all the souls as gopis is the Divine Rasa Lila, eternally taking place in the eternal Brindavan. All the souls as the eternal portions, amsha sanatanah, of the Lord, are the gopis and consorts of the Lord, and Radha of Brindavan is “the personification of the absolute love for the Divine, total and integral in all parts of the being from the highest spiritual to the physical, bringing the absolute self-giving and total consecration of all the being and calling down into the body and the most material Nature the supreme Ananda”. [CWSA, Vol. 29, p. 494]
Every page of this book is flavoured with Bhakti and takes one to a meditative poise away from the unholy chatter of the monkey mind.*