Advaita Vedanta in Srimad Bhagavatam
By S. N. Sastri
It is well known that Srimad Bhagavatam, considered to be the greatest among the eighteen Puranas attributed to Sage Veda Vyasa, is devoted to the exposition of the path of Bhakti and that the various episodes described therein are intended to strengthen devotion in the minds of people. It is however not so well known that it also expounds the path of Jnana or knowledge by conveying the essence of the Upanishads in a very lucid and attractive manner. Such expositions of the path of Jnana are found in almost every chapter. Here a few verses from the tenth Skandha are taken and explained to illustrate this.
The tenth Skandha of Srimad Bhagavatam describes Krishna Avatara in detail. In chapter 14 of this Skandha it is said that once Brahma, the Creator, wanted to know the extent of Krishna's power. He therefore took away the cowherd boys and calves who were with Krishna in the forest and hid them. Krishna, who knew what Brahma had done, took the form of all the cowherd boys and calves as well as of all the things which the boys carried such as slings, staff etc. In the evening Krishna, in the form of all these, went back to Gokula. There each boy went to his own house and each calf went to its mother. The mothers and fathers of the boys did not see any difference between their own sons and these boys. The cows also accepted the calves as their own. The next morning Krishna and all these boys went to the forest along with the calves as usual and returned in the evening. This went on for a year. Then Brahma came to the forest to find out what was happening. He was astonished to see all the boys and calves there, though the boys and calves he had taken away were still in the place where he had hidden them. As he was looking on in utter amazement, he saw each one of the boys assuming the form of the Lord Himself, with four arms bearing a conch, discus, mace and lotus, adorned with a diadem and a necklace of pearls and clad in yellow silk. Then all of them became cowherd boys again and Krishna was standing in their midst, holding a morsel of cooked rice in his hand, exactly as he was at the instant when Brahma took away the calves and the boys. Realising that Krishna was the Supreme Brahman Himself, Brahma prostrated before him in great humility and began to extol him with hymns. The gist of the Upanishads is brought out in these hymns. Some of these verses are taken and explained below.
"The universe appears by Maya in you, the Infinite, the eternal Bliss-consciousness. Though the universe is only like things seen in a dream (and so unreal), and is devoid of consciousness and ever full of misery, it appears as real (and also conscious and blissful)".
In Vedanta Reality is defined as that which does not undergo any change whatsoever in all the three periods of time, i.e., past, present and future. Brahman is the only Reality. Because of Maya, Brahman appears to us as the universe of names and forms. Maya conceals Brahman and projects the universe. Just as everything seen in dream ceases to exist as soon as the dreamer wakes up, the universe ceases to be real when Brahman is realized. The universe appears to be real only as long as we are under the spell of Maya (or Avidya or ignorance). The fundamental principles of Advaita Vedanta are brought out in this verse, namely, that the universe has no absolute reality, it is only a superimposition on Brahman and appears to be real only because of our ignorance of the substratum, Brahman, just as a rope appears as a snake in dim light when its real nature is not known.
You (Krishna, the supreme Brahman), are the non-dual Self, the primordial Person, the Reality, self-luminous, infinite, the first Cause, eternal, imperishable, ever Bliss itself, taintless, perfect without a second, devoid of all adjuncts (Nirguna) and immortal.
This is exactly the description of the supreme Brahman as contained in the Upanishads. The expression "devoid of all adjuncts" indicates Nirguna Brahman or Brahman without attributes. The concept of Nirguna Brahman is peculiar to Advaita Vedanta.
Bh.X.14.25 to 28:
Those who do not know the Atman as their own Self, look upon the entire phenomenal universe as real because of ignorance, but the universe disappears when Self-knowledge dawns, just as a snake seen on a rope disappears when the rope is known. Bondage and liberation, which are both products of ignorance, have no existence apart from the Atman whose nature is Truth and Consciousness. For, rightly considered, there can be neither ignorance nor bondage, and neither knowledge nor freedom from bondage for the supreme Self that is eternal and absolute Consciousness, anymore than there can be night and day for the sun. Taking the Atman for something else, and something else for the Atman, the Atman is sought for outside oneself; how marvelous is the folly of the ignorant! Men of discrimination seek the Infinite within the body itself, negating the unreal; without negating the unreal snake first, how can one know the rope, though it is very close?
There are many such instances in Srimad Bhagavatam where Advaita Vedanta is expounded.