Episodes in Srimad-Bhagavatam
A Vedantic Interpretation
By S. N. Sastri
2. Visit of Sanaka and other sages to Vaikuntha
3. Varaha Incarnation
4. Vamana Incarnation
5. Liberation of Gajendra
6. Churning of the Ocean of Milk
7. Slaying of Pralambasura
8. Rescue of cows and cowherds from forest fire
9. Slaying of Narakasura
10. Redemption of Sudarsana
The ultimate goal of human life is Moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Liberation is nothing but the realization of one's real nature. Srimad Bhagavatam defines Moksha succinctly as "the establishment of the individual in his essence as the Self freed from all wrong identifications" (Bh.II.10.6). Every individual identifies himself with the physical body, the sense organs and the mind. When a person describes himself as stout or lean or fair-complexioned or dark, he is looking upon himself as the physical body to which these characteristics belong. When he says 'I see', 'I hear', 'I smell' and so on, he is identifying himself with the organs of sense which perform these functions. When he says 'I am happy' or 'I am unhappy', he is identifying himself with his mind. The Upanishads declare that all these identifications are wrong and that the human being is in reality not the body or the sense-organs or the mind, but something beyond all these, known as the Atman or Self, which is eternal, changeless and not affected by anything that happens to the body-mind complex. This wrong identification is due to our ignorance of our real nature. This ignorance is what is called avidya or nescience. When this ignorance is eradicated, the person remains established in his essence as the Self or Brahman-Atman. The Upanishads lay down the means by which this wrong identification can be brought to an end and the goal of Moksha attained.
Contrary to popular conception, the objectives of the Upanishads and the Puranas are not different, but they are essentially the same, namely, to expound the means of attaining liberation. This is made very clear in Srimad-Bhagavatam, Skandha12, ch.13, verse18, which says: "Srimad-Bhagavatam, the flawless Purana, dear to the devotees of Lord Vishnu, extols the One Pure Supreme Consciousness, which is the goal of the Paramahamsas. It describes Naishkarmya (the state of being firmly established in the realization that one is the actionless Brahman-Atman), along with spiritual knowledge, detachment and devotion. The man who hears it read or reads it himself with devotion and meditates (on its teachings) attains liberation".
Passages bringing out the gist of the Upanishads are found in almost every chapter in this Purana and particularly in the hymns of praise (stutis) addressed by various devotees to the Lord. Apart from such direct teaching of Vedanta, many of the episodes lend themselves to interpretation as allegorical stories which expound Vedanta. Srimad-Bhagavatam itself shows the way in this direction through the allegorical interpretation given by sage Narada to a story narrated by him to king Prachinabarhis (Sk.IV, ch 25 to 29). This Purana can thus be studied and appreciated at two different levels - one, as describing the glorious deeds of the Lord by which He protects the virtuous and establishes Dharma on this earth, and two, as expounding Vedanta through allegory. An attempt has been made in the following chapters to give an allegorical interpretation of a number of episodes.
2. Visit of Sanaka and other sages to Vaikuntha
(Bhagavata, Sk.III, ch.15)
The four sages, Sanaka, Sanatana, Sanandana and Sanatkumara, who are known as the mind-born sons (Manasa-putras) of Brahma, the Creator, set out for Vaikuntha to do obeisance to Lord Mahavishnu (III. 15.13). On the way they passed through a divine orchard named 'Naissreyasa' which was 'Kaivalya incarnate', as it were, which was resplendent with trees that yield all that is desired and are laden with flowers and fruits in all seasons (III.15.16):
The abode of the Lord was surrounded by seven ramparts which had to be crossed before one could reach the presence of the Lord. The four sages crossed the first six ramparts without any obstruction and without being attracted in the least by the beautiful scenery all around, by the delightful singing of divine birds, by the fragrance of the divine flowers and by the delicious fruits hanging on the trees, their minds fixed on their goal, namely, seeing the Lord (III.15. 27).
At the entrance to the seventh rampart, these sages, who looked like boys of five and wore no clothes, were rudely stopped by the two gate-keepers named Jaya and Vijaya and were not allowed to proceed further (verse 30). Annoyed at being thus stopped, they pronounced a curse that since Jaya and Vijaya still entertained the sense of difference and were therefore unfit to remain in Vaikuntha, they would be born as Asuras on the earth (verse 34). That very moment the Lord, who knew what had happened, Himself came to the spot where the sages were standing (verse 37). The sages, in ecstasy, worshipped the Lord, singing His praises (verse 45). As cursed by the sages, Jaya and Vijaya took three successive births as Asuras, first as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakasipu, next as Ravana and Kumbhakarna and finally as Sisupala and Dantavaktra and ultimately attained salvation by the path of confrontation.
In this episode, the following features are of great significance for the spiritual seeker:--
(1) the orchard on the way is named 'Naissreyasa',
(2) seven ramparts have to be crossed before one can reach the presence of the Lord,
(3) the sages crossed the first six ramparts without their mind being distracted by the beautiful sights, sounds and smells on the way, with total concentration on their goal,
(4) at the entrance to the seventh rampart they were obstructed by Jaya and Vijaya and
(5) as soon as the sages pushed Jaya and Vijaya away with a curse, the Lord Himself appeared before them, without their having to go further.
The word 'Naissreyasa' means 'liberation' or 'the total cessation of transmigratory existence'. It is significant that this is the name of the divine orchard through which the sages had to pass. This orchard is further described as 'Kaivalya incarnate', which again means 'liberation'. It is therefore quite logical to conclude that, allegorically, the journey of the sages to Vaikuntha stands for the progress of the spiritual aspirant towards Self-realization. The seven ramparts to be crossed represent the five organs of perception, the mind and the intellect; crossing these ramparts means achieving complete control over the five sense-organs and the mind and ultimately transcending the intellect also. This is indicated by saying that the sages were not at all distracted from their aim by the delightful things on the way. The idea is that, in the same way, the seeker after liberation should not allow himself to be attracted by sense-objects, but should concentrate his mind on the Self alone.
The obstruction caused by Jaya and Vijaya at the last rampart represents the last traces of raga (attachment) and dvesha (aversion) which, as the Bhagavad-gita says, are the enemies of the spiritual aspirant. The Gita compares them to two highway robbers who will rob us of our spiritual wealth and warns us to be careful not to fall into their clutches (Gita 3.34).
Just as the sages pushed away Jaya and Vijaya from their path, the aspirant should push out even the last traces of attachment and aversion from his mind and make his mind pure.
It is significant that as soon as the sages pushed away Jaya and Vijaya by a curse, the Lord appeared before them. This indicates that, once the aspirant has become completely free from attachment and aversion, Self-realization will dawn immediately.
Thus, through this episode, the path to Self-realization is brought out, step by step. Control the senses and the mind, concentrate the mind on the Self, do not be attracted by worldly pleasures and root out attachment and aversion. This is the path to Self-realization.
The Kathopanishad says (2.1.1) that the nature of the sense-organs is to proceed outward, to enjoy sense-objects, such as sound, etc.
They are therefore not capable of knowing the indwelling Self. But a rare 'Dhira', desiring immortality, withdraws his sense-organs from external objects and sees the indwelling Self. Kalidasa defines 'Dhira' as one whose mind is not distracted even in the presence of the most desirable objects (Kumarasambhava, I.59).
The four sages are the best examples of such a Dhira. This episode thus illustrates the teaching contained in the Kathopanishad mantra referred to above.
3. Varaha Incarnation
The incarnation of the Lord as Varaha (the Divine Boar) and the slaying of the demon Hiranyaksha are described in chapters 13, 17, 18 and 19 of Skandha III of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Svayambhuva Manu, the first of the fourteen Manus, was engaged in the task of creation at the command of his father, Brahma. He suddenly noticed that the earth, the dwelling place for all creatures, had been submerged in the waters. Manu approached Brahma and prayed to him to lift the earth out of the waters. Knowing that he was helpless and that only the Supreme Lord, Narayana, could come to his help, Brahma meditated on the Lord. While he was thus meditating, a tiny boar cub of the size of a thumb emerged from his nostril. The boar immediately grew to the size of an elephant and then to the size of a mountain, all in a trice. Brahma was very much amazed and guessed that the boar could be none other than Narayana Himself. The sages in the jana, tapa and satya lokas began to sing hymns extolling the Lord. The Lord in the form of the huge boar suddenly plunged into the waters. Lifting up with His tusk the earth that had been submerged in the waters by the Asura Hiranyaksha, the Lord placed the earth on the surface of the water. He then turned towards the Asura who was rushing towards Him in uncontrollable anger. A fierce fight ensued, during which the Asura employed many magical tricks, all of which proved to be of no avail against the Lord, who is Himself the wielder of Maya. The Lord despatched His beloved weapon, the Discus, known as Sudarsana and destroyed the phantoms conjured up by the Asura with his magical powers. The Lord then dealt the Asura a severe blow, without any effort, as if it was mere play. The Asura dropped dead. The earth was thus saved by the Lord from the clutches of the Asura.
Now let us try to find out the allegorical meaning of this story. The earth is proverbially considered to be synonymous with forbearance. In the Valmiki Ramayana, Sri Rama is described by sage Narada as 'equal to the earth in forbearance' (kshamayaa prithiveesamah- Bala Kanda, Ch.1, verse18). Forbearance is one of the hallmarks of Sattvaguna. The earth therefore stands for Sattvaguna in this episode.
The Lord says in the Bhagavadgita that everything in this universe is made up of the three gunas-- Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva stands for knowledge, calmness, serenity and similar virtues. Rajas stands for ego-centred activity and Tamas for sleep, indolence and similar qualities. In the majority of human beings Rajas predominates, making their minds ever go outward in search of happiness. Spiritual evolution requires the withdrawal of the mind from external objects and directing it towards the Self (Atma) within, which is Bliss itself and therefore the source of all happiness. This can be achieved only by reducing the Rajoguna in the mind and increasing the Sattvaguna correspondingly. Karmayoga and devotional practices help to achieve this. It is said by the Lord in the Bhagavadgita that Sattva increases when Rajas and Tamas are subdued. (Ch.14, verse10). This process of conquering our Rajasic tendencies and bringing up the Sattvaguna which is lying suppressed within is what is allegorically brought out by this story.
Hiranyaksha, being an Asura possessing all the Asuric qualities spoken of in Chapter 16 of the Gita, represents Rajoguna. When Rajoguna predominates, Sattvaguna is suppressed. This suppression of Sattvaguna, represented here by the earth, by Rajoguna, represented by Hiranyaksha is the significance of Hiranyaksha keeping the earth immersed in water. Brahma sought the help of the Lord to save the earth from the Asura. So also, we have to pray for divine help to conquer our Rajoguna and bring up the suppressed Sattvaguna. When Brahma meditated on the Lord, the boar came out of his nostril, that is to say, the power which crushed the Asura came from within himself. This is very significant. This indicates that when we resort to meditation on the Lord, the strength to conquer our Rajoguna will come from within ourselves and not from outside. This strength, which, like the boar, is small initially, grows with our devotion and meditation, as the boar did. Ultimately we acquire sufficient spiritual strength within ourselves to conquer our Rajasic tendencies and make our mind predominantly Sattvic. This is symbolized by the slaying of Hiranyaksha and the rescue of the earth.
Thus the import of this story, if looked at allegorically, is that by devotion to God and meditation the seeker can generate within himself the power to get rid of the Rajasic (and Tamasic) tendencies which stand in the way of spiritual evolution and make his mind predominantly Sattvic. Such a mind alone can be completely withdrawn from external objects and concentrated on the Self. This is the way to Self-realization.
4. Vamana Incarnation
The incarnation of the Lord as Vamana forms the subject-matter of Chapters 15 to 23 of the eighth Skandha of Srimad Bhagavatam.
The Devas and the Asuras jointly churned the Milk Ocean for amrita (the nectar that confers freedom from death). When the Lord emerged from the ocean in the form of Dhanvantari carrying a pot containing amrita, the Asuras snatched the pot. The Lord then appeared in the form of Mohini and distributed all the amrita to the Devas. The Asuras who were deprived of the nectar began to fight against the Devas. In the fight Bali, one of the Asuras, was killed by Indra, the king of the Devas. Bali was later brought back to life by Sukracharya, the Guru of the Asuras. Under the guidance of Sukracharya Bali performed a Visvajit sacrifice and acquired extraordinary powers. He then attacked the capital of Indra in heaven. Brihaspati, the Guru of the Devas, told Indra that Bali was very strong at that time and that it would be futile for the Devas to resist his attack. He advised the Devas to go into hiding and bide their time for a counter-attack. Accordingly the Devas left heaven and Bali occupied it as the ruler of all the three worlds.
Sorely grieved at the plight of her sons, Aditi, the mother of the Devas, requested her husband, the great sage Kasyapa, to devise some means by which the Devas could get back their kingdom and their previous glory. The sage advised her to worship Lord Vishnu by observing a vow known as 'payovrata'. This consists of worship for a period of twelve days during the bright fortnight of the month of phalguna, observing strictly certain disciplines and living on milk alone. Aditi observed the vow, following all the instructions strictly. At the conclusion of the vow the Lord appeared before her and told her that He would soon be born as her son. He asked her to keep the fact of His having appeared before her a total secret.
The Lord was then born as Aditi's son on Sravana Dvadasi, the twelfth day of the bright fortnight of the month of Bhadrapada. This day is celebrated even now as Vijaya Dvadasi. At birth the child was in the resplendent form of Vishnu, clad in yellow silks, with four arms bearing the conch, the mace, the lotus and the discus, but he changed immediately into the form of a dwarfish human child. The delighted sages present, including Kasyapa, conducted the appropriate sacraments and invested him with the sacred thread. The sacred Gayatri mantra was imparted by the sun-god, Savita himself. Brihaspati gave him the sacred thread and Kasyapa the grass girdle. Goddess Earth gave him the skin of the black antelope, the moon-god gave him his staff; his mother gave him a cod-piece and a loin-cloth, while the goddess of the sky gave an umbrella. Brahma gave him a water pot and the seven sages kusa grass, while Goddess Sarasvati gave him a garland of beads. The sovereign of the Yakshas gave him the begging bowl, and Goddess Uma Herself, the Mother of the universe, gave him his first alms. Thus honoured, Vamana outshone by his Brahmic splendour every one in that assembly of Brahmarshis. Then, hearing that Bali was performing horse sacrifices, Vamana set out for the Yagasala. Dazzled by the splendour of Vamana even when he was at a distance, Bali and the priests who were conducting the sacrifices wondered whether it was the sun-god himself, or god Agni or the sage Sanatkumara who was coming towards them. They received Vamana with great respect. Bali washed Vamana's feet and sprinkled the water purified by the touch of those feet on his own head. He then asked Vamana what gift he wanted, saying in all arrogance that he could give anything Vamana wanted-- food, house, land or a bride or anything else, or all of them. Vamana replied that all that he wanted was just a small strip of land, three paces in length as measured by his own feet. On hearing this Bali laughed and said, "O boy! You are a simpleton. Having approached me, the undisputed ruler of all the three worlds, and so capable of gifting a whole continent, you are asking for such a petty gift. My generosity is such that any one who has obtained a favour from me will not thereafter find it necessary to go to any one else for anything". Vamana replied that he would be contented with just what he had asked for, because a person who is not contented with three paces of land would not be satisfied even if he gets an entire continent. Bali then said, "Let it be as you wish", and was about to give the gift asked for.
Bali's Guru Sukracharya then recognised Vamana as Lord Vishnu Himself and asked Bali not to give the gift, because the intention of Vamana was to take away everything belonging to Bali and give it to Indra. Bali told Sukracharya, "Having made a promise, I will not go back on it, whatever may be the consequences. I am not afraid so much of the tortures of hell, poverty, loss of position or even death as I am of breaking my pledged word. If indeed Lord Vishnu Himself has come to beg of me, there can be no greater blessing for me. I will therefore honour my word and give the gift". Annoyed that Bali did not heed his advice, Sukracharya cursed him, saying, "You have grown so arrogant as to reject my advice. A highly conceited fool that you are, you will soon fall from you high position".
Undaunted by the curse, Bali insisted on honouring his word and proceeded to give the gift of three paces of land to Vamana. Vamana immediately grew in size to such an extent that with the first stride he covered the earth, the sky and the four quarters. With his second stride he covered heaven and all the worlds up to Satyaloka, the world of Brahma. He then asked Bali to show him the place for his third stride. Without flinching in the least, Bali said. "Pray place your third step on my head". The Lord did so and sent Bali to one of the nether regions named Sutala, as the ruler thereof, promising that He Himself would permanently stand guard there. The Lord further said that Bali would become Indra in the next Manvantara and would thereafter go to the Lord's own realm, Vaikuntha.
We see from this story that Bali possessed many great virtues. He had great respect for holy men, which is evident from the way he received and honoured the Brahmachari boy, Vamana (whom he did not know to be Lord Vishnu). He was extremely generous. Above all, he kept his word and refused to go back on it even after his Guru pronounced a terrible curse on him. Why was such a person punished by the Lord? This is the question that comes up in everyone's mind. This very question was put by Brahma to Lord Vishnu. Brahma asked, "This Asura gifted away the entire earth and all the other worlds he had won by good works to Thee; and even his body has been offered without the slightest hesitation. A man who is free from guile obtains the highest of goals by merely offering arghya at Thy feet and worshipping them with just a blade of grass. That being so, how can he who gave away the three worlds with a serene mind be subjected to such a punishment?" (Bh.VIII. 22.23).
To this the Lord replied: "O Brahma! I take away the wealth of those on whom I shower My grace. For, it is because of being intoxicated with wealth that a person becomes arrogant and despises the whole world and even Me" (Bh.VIII.22.24). He further adds, "If, in spite of high birth, great deeds, youth, beauty, learning, power, affluence and the like, a person remains free from pride, it is due only to My grace" (Bh.VIII.22.26).
Thus the great defect in Bali's character was the arrogance of wealth and power. This overshadowed all his innumerable virtues. The lesson we learn from this episode is that as long as there is arrogance spiritual progress is not possible, even though the person may possess many virtues. When the Lord says that he takes away the wealth of the person he wishes to bless, what is meant is that the conceit that one is affluent and powerful, which is the cause of arrogance, is removed by the Lord, so that spiritual progress becomes possible. By surrendering all his possessions to the Lord Bali became free from the notion of 'mine-ness' (mamakara). Then, by asking the Lord to place His feet on his own head, he gave up his ego or 'I-ness' (ahamkara). With these two removed, he became fit for the Lord's grace. Thus an attitude of detachment towards all possessions and total surrender to the Lord are the virtues to be cultivated by every spiritual aspirant.
In fact, the Lord has not punished Bali, but has really blessed him, as may be seen from the following words of the Lord Himself:--"You have been granted by Me a place unattainable even by the gods. In the Meru-Savarni Manvantara you will be the Indra with my full support. Till then you will live in Sutala; those who live there shall be vouchsafed My gracious glance and will ever be unaffected by physical and mental ailments. You will always have My presence there. Constantly witnessing My greatness there, you will become absolutely free from even the slightest trace of asuric tendencies (Bh.VIII.22. 31 to 36).
Bali (or Mahabali) is believed to visit his land Kerala every year on Onam day; the day is therefore celebrated as a great festival.
5. Liberation of Gajendra
The episode known as liberation of the lordly elephant Gajendra is narrated in chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the eighth skandha of Srimad-Bhagavatam.
There was a Pandya king by name Indradyumna who was a great devotee of the Lord. Towards the end of his life he had retired to a hermitage in a forest and used to spend all his time in worship of the Lord. One day he was performing worship as usual and observing a vow of silence. Sage Agastya then happened to come there along with his disciples. Being engrossed in worship, the King did not notice the presence of the sage and so failed to offer him the customary honours. The sage took offence at this apparent indifference and pronounced the following curse--"This king has insulted me. Let him therefore be steeped in blinding ignorance. Since he is haughty like an elephant, let him be born as an elephant". Before proceeding further with the story it would be worthwhile to examine what is the underlying idea behind such curses by great sages who are expected to have conquered anger and to remain unaffected by either praise or insult. Such curses are really blessings. In the present instance, though the king was a sincere devotee of the Lord, he had not yet realized the truth that the same God or Self dwells in all beings. Liberation is possible only with such a realization. In the normal course he would probably have to go through many more births before attaining this state. The curse inflicted on him and the consequent suffering he undergoes as an elephant make him surrender totally to the Lord and become liberated immediately. Thus the curse was intended to hasten his liberation and was really a blessing.
One point which puzzles us here is -- why does the sage curse the king whose failure to recognize him is due only to his being absorbed in the highly laudable object of worship of the Lord? There is a parallel to this in the Ramayanamahatmya in the Skanda Purana. There was a very righteous person named Somadatta who was a disciple of the sage Gautama. One day, when Somadatta was engaged in the worship of Lord Siva, sage Gautama happened to come there. Somadatta did not notice his presence. The sage did not however find fault with him, considering that he was absorbed in worship, and went away. But Lord Siva became angry at this insult to the Guru and cursed that he would become a Rakshasa. On Somatta's pleading for forgiveness the Lord said that he would be relieved of the effect of the curse if he heard the entire Ramayana with devotion over a period of nine days. The main object of this episode is to bring out the greatness of Ramayana, but incidentally it also points out that even inadvertent indifference to the Guru is a transgression.
As a result of the curse, king Indradyumna was born as a lordly elephant. The elephant used to roam about in the forest accompanied by a herd of female elephants. One day he entered a lake to bathe and drink water. Suddenly a very strong crocodile seized him by the leg and tried to drag him into the water. The elephant tried his best to extricate himself from the hold of the crocodile, but all his efforts proved to be in vain. The female elephants tried to pull him out, but finding that the crocodile was too strong and that their efforts would only result in themselves also being dragged into the water, they left him to his fate and went away.
After a long struggle the elephant realized that he could not save himself from the jaws of the crocodile by his own efforts. The suffering which he underwent brought back to him the memory of the devotion he had practised and the knowledge he had acquired in his previous birth as King Indradyumna. He then surrendered himself totally to the Lord, chanting hymns of praise addressed to the supreme unconditioned Brahman. Since the hymns were addressed to the supreme formless Brahman, Brahma and the other gods did not go to his help, because they egoistically identified themselves with their own forms. The supreme Lord, who is the soul of the whole universe, appeared immediately and rescued him by severing the jaw of the crocodile with his discus. The crocodile was none other than a Gandharva by name Hoohoo, who was now freed from the curse of sage Devala and regained his original marvellous form.
The story ends thus - "Freed for ever from the bondage of ignorance through the touch of the Lord, the leader of the elephants attained a form similar to the Lord's; he was clad in yellow silks and endowed with four arms (Saroopya)" - (Bh. VIII.4.6.)
Looking at this episode allegorically, it can be said that the elephant stands for the 'ego' which is the result of the bondage of ignorance. This ignorance and its result, the ego, disappear by the grace of the Lord and the individual realizes his identity with the supreme Self, here described as attaining the same form as the Lord. The crocodile represents this transmigratory existence, or samsaara, which is often compared to a crocodile in Vedantic texts such as Vivekachudamani. The individual, because of his ego, i.e. identification with his body due to ignorance of his real nature, is caught in the jaws of the crocodile, the samsaara. He can get release from this only by the Lord's grace. Neither his own efforts nor the help of others will save him from his false identification.
The elephant's prayer is addressed to the Nirguna Brahman and contains the quintessence of all the Upanishads. What is the idea in putting all this wisdom in the mouth of an animal? The object is to bring out an important teaching of the Upanishads and the Gita. The elephant was, in his previous life as King Indradyumna, a great devotee and had mastered the Upanishads. The knowledge acquired in that life came back to him in his next life as an elephant, at the proper time. The Bhagavadgita says in verse 43 of chapter 6 that the knowledge acquired in the previous body continues in the next birth and enables the person to evolve further. In the Brihadaranyaka upanishad it is said that at the time of death the departing self carries with it the knowledge acquired, the fruits of actions performed (karma) and past experience (IV.iv.2).
The crocodile which caught the elephant was in its previous life a Gandharva by name Hoohoo. This Gandharva used to indulge in various pranks. Once, when the sage Devala was bathing in a river, Hoohoo went under the water and caught the sage by the leg. Since this behaviour was characteristic of a crocodile, the sage cursed him to be born as a crocodile. This story brings out the principle enunciated in the Upanishads that a person's next life will be determined by his actions and thoughts in this life. The Kathopanishad says (II.ii.7): "Some souls enter wombs for acquiring bodies and others are born as motionless beings in accordance with their actions and in conformity with their knowledge" -- i.e. the next birth will be as a human being or an animal or as a plant or tree, depending on his actions and thoughts in this life. The Gandharva Hoohoo was born as a crocodile because his action in catching hold of the feet of sage Devala was characteristic of a crocodile. Thus several teachings of the Upanishads are conveyed through this story.
6. Churning of the Ocean of Milk
The episode of the churning of the Ocean of Milk for getting the Nectar of immortality appears in chapters 5 to 11 of the eighth Skandha of Srimad Bhagavata. The story may first be narrated before going into its inner meaning.
Sage Durvasa had received a divine garland from a celestial damsel. Knowing that the wearer of this garland would be blessed with all prosperity, Durvasa went to Indra and presented the garland to him. Indra, who was then seated on his elephant, received it without caring to get down and make obeisance to the sage, and nonchalantly placed it on the head of the elephant. The elephant shook its head and, when the garland fell down, trampled on it. Sorely annoyed at this blatant display of disrespect, Durvasa left immediately after pronouncing a curse that Indra, as well as the three worlds ruled by him, would soon lose all their splendour. Taking advantage of the situation the Asuras attacked the Devas and killed many of them. Indra and the other gods rushed to Brahma seeking his help. Brahma told them that none but Lord Vishnu would be able to help them out of their predicament. Lord Vishnu, to whom all of them then went, advised them to make peace with the Asuras and seek their co-operation for churning the Ocean of Milk to get the nectar which would make them immortal.
As commanded by Lord Vishnu, the gods got the co-operation of the Asuras and set about the task of churning the ocean, using the Mandara mountain as the churning rod and the serpent Vasuki as the churning rope. While the gods and the Asuras were carrying the mountain to the ocean they became exhausted by the great effort and dropped the mountain. The Lord immediately appeared there on his mount Garuda, placed the mountain on Garuda and carried it to the ocean with ease.
When the churning was to begin, the Lord asked the Asuras to hold the tail-end of Vasuki and the Devas the head. The Asuras objected to this and wanted to be at the head-end. The Lord immediately agreed to this. This was a stratagem adopted by the Lord to make the Asuras suffer when poison would emanate from Vasuki's mouth during the churning. When the churning had gone on for a little while, the mountain sank into the ocean because of its weight. The Lord again came to their rescue by taking the form of a huge tortoise, going deep down into the ocean and lifting up the mountain on His back. The Devas and Asuras then resumed the churning while the Lord Himself kept the mountain in position by pressing it down with one hand so as to prevent it from springing up due to the force of the churning. When Vasuki began to emit poison, the Asuras who were at the head-end were affected most and the Devas at the tail-end to a lesser extent. The Lord then caused cool showers of rain to fall on the Devas, but not on the Asuras.
When nothing emerged from the ocean in spite of long churning, the Lord Himself took up the churning, holding both ends of Vasuki in His hands. The first thing to emerge after the Lord took up the churning was the deadly poison known as Haalaahala. As it spread in all directions, the terrified Devas ran to Lord Siva for refuge. Lord Siva took the poison in the hollow of His palm and put it in His mouth, but did not swallow it, lest the living beings inside His stomach be destroyed. He kept it in His throat and thereby protected all the living beings, both within and outside Him. The poison left a black mark around His throat and that became His special adornment.
Then there emerged from the ocean, one after another, Kamadhenu, whom Lord Vishnu gave to the Rishis, the horse Uchchhaisravas, the elephant Airavata, the Kalpaka tree which grants all wishes, and divine damsels, all of whom were given to the Devas by the Lord. Then Goddess Lakshmi emerged and she chose the Lord Himself as her consort. The next to come up was the intoxicating liquor Varuni, which the Lord permitted the Asuras to take for themselves. Finally emerged Dhanvantari, another form of the Lord Himself, holding in his hands a vessel of nectar. The Asuras immediately snatched the nectar, while the Devas looked on helplessly. The Lord again came to the rescue of the Devas, taking the form of a beautiful young damsel, Mohini. The Asuras, who were intoxicated with the liquor Varuni, became infatuated with Mohini and requested her to distribute the nectar. Mohini asked the Devas and the Asuras to sit in separate rows and distributed all the nectar to the Devas, while the Asuras, who had succumbed to her charms, merely looked on. One Asura, Rahu, had disguised himself as a Deva and sat between the Sun and the Moon and he was also served nectar, but, on being pointed out by a gesture by the Sun and the Moon, the Lord cut him into two with his Discus. His trunk, which had not been touched by the nectar, fell down, but the head having gained immortality because of the contact of nectar, Brahma turned him into a planet. It is that planet which, entertaining animosity against them, swallows the Sun and the Moon, causing the eclipses.
When the Asuras realised that they had been fooled by Mohini, they attacked the Devas, but with the help of the Lord the Devas were able to vanquish them.
Now let us see what are the lessons conveyed by this story. The Devas and Asuras can be taken as representing the divine and demoniac tendencies in the human mind, which are described in chapter 16 of the Bhagavadgita. This is supported by the explanation given by Sri Sankara in his Bhashya on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 1.iii.1. Sri Sankara says, "The Devas and the Asuras are the organs of speech and the rest. They become Devas when they shine under the influence of thoughts and actions as taught by the scriptures. Those very organs become Asuras when they are under the influence of their natural thoughts and actions, based only on perception and inference, and directed merely towards the attainment of worldly ends". The divine tendencies are fearlessness, purity of mind, control of the senses, straightforwardness, non-covetousness, humility, and the like. The demoniac tendencies are arrogance, anger, harshness, ignorance and the like. Both these types of tendencies are present in every normal human being. The proportion of divine and demoniac tendencies varies from person to person. Even in the same person sometimes the divine tendencies may be dominant and sometimes the demoniac, making the person behave differently at different times. Indra here represents such a human mind. When sage Durvasa came, the demoniac tendencies were dominant in Indra and so he behaved arrogantly. His discrimination was clouded. The curse of Durvasa shows that no one, however high the position he occupies, can escape the consequences of actions performed under the influence of demoniac tendencies.
As soon as the sage uttered the curse, Indra realised the consequences and sought the grace of the Lord which alone can help man. The Lord asked him to make peace with the Asuras temporarily because they were at that time very strong and could not be defeated. This is another way of saying that it is not possible to get rid of the demoniac tendencies by fighting against them and trying to suppress them when they are strong. The divine tendencies must first be made stronger and then only can the demoniac tendencies be countered. The Devas were therefore asked to strengthen themselves by getting the nectar from the ocean.
The figure of 'churning' is one which appears in the Upanishads also. It stands for the extraction of the essence. The Svetasvataropanishad says (1.14): "Making one's own body the lower piece of wood and the pranava the upper piece of wood, and practising churning in the form of meditation, one should realise God as one would find out something hidden". (For lighting the fire for yajnas one piece of wood is placed vertically on another piece of wood placed horizontally and churning is done to produce fire. The two pieces of wood are known as Aranis). The same upanishad also says that the supreme Self can be perceived in the intellect, just as butter can be obtained from curd (1.16). So, just as butter is obtained by churning curd, one can realise the Self by churning one's own intellect.
In Sivanandalahari, verse 37, Sri Sankara says that the wise man should churn the ocean of the Vedas, using his virtuous mind as the rod and firm devotion as the rope, in order to realise God: "Just as the Devas churned the ocean of milk and obtained the moon, the wish-fulfilling tree, the cow Kamadhenu, the gem Chintamani, nectar and Goddess Lakshmi, so the wise churn the ocean of the Vedas, using their virtuous mind as the rod and firm devotion as the rope and attain you (Lord Siva), who confer the nectar of eternal bliss".
This is the significance of this episode of churning the ocean of milk.
It has been repeatedly brought out in this episode that no one can succeed in any action without the grace and help of the Lord. When the Devas and the Asuras were carrying the Mandara mountain it fell down and only the Lord could take it to the ocean. When the mountain went down into the water, the Lord had to take the form of a huge tortoise and lift it up. It was only after the Lord Himself took up the churning that things began to emerge from the ocean.
The first thing to emerge from the ocean was the deadly poison, which was removed by Lord Siva so that it may not do any harm to living beings. The idea brought out here is that when a person progresses sufficiently in meditation, all the impurities in his mind such as desire, anger, greed, and the like, which harm his spiritual progress, are removed by the grace of God. The poison may be taken as standing for such impurities.
While asking the Devas to churn the ocean for nectar, Lord Vishnu warned them not to covet any of the things that might come up during the churning (Bh.VIII.6.25). This is similar to the warning given to the spiritual aspirant not to be tempted by the siddhis which may come to him, but to keep his mind fixed on the ultimate goal, liberation. The Kamadhenu, kalpaka tree, etc, represent the siddhis.
7. Slaying of Pralambasura
The Bhagavata Purana describes how Kamsa sent many Asuras to kill Krishna and how all of them were slain effortlessly by Krishna. One of the Asuras who met with such a fate was Pralamba. The story is narrated in chapter 18 of the tenth skandha.
One day, as usual, Krishna, Balarama and the cowherd boys took their calves to Brindavana for grazing. There they entertained themselves by playing a game in which the boys were divided into two teams, one under the leadership of Krishna and the other under that of Balarama. A boy belonging to one team would wrestle with a boy from the other team. The boy who was defeated had to carry on his shoulders the boy who won up to the foot of a particular banyan tree. Krishna allowed himself to be defeated by his dearest friend Sudama and then carried Sudama up to the tree. This action of the Lord is interpreted as indicating that He is the servant of His devotees.
An Asura named Pralamba, an emissary of Kamsa, came there in the guise of a cowherd boy, with the intention of killing Krishna and Balarama. He requested Krishna to allow him to take part in the game. Though Krishna knew who he was, he pretended ignorance and took Pralamba in his own team. Pralamba wrestled with Balarama and was defeated. He then carried Balarama on his shoulders as required by the rules of the game, but did not stop at the foot of the banyan tree to allow Balarama to get down.
When Balarama found that he was being carried far away he became suspicious and increased his weight in order to force Pralamba to put him down. Pralamba then assumed his real form as an Asura. Seeing the huge form of the Asura and finding that the Asura was carrying him far away from Krishna, Balarama became frightened. He then turned round and because of the great height of the Asura he was able to see the face of Krishna at a distance. It is said in the Vishnupurana (5.9.23) that Krishna then mentally transmitted the following message to Balarama: "O you who are the self of all! Why have you, who are the most mysterious indwelling self, assumed the attitude of an ordinary human being (and become frightened)?". On receiving this message and looking at the face of Krishna, all fear disappeared from Balarama's mind and he got the courage and strength to crush the Asura and extricate himself.
In this story Pralamba represents the evil vasanas (inherent tendencies acquired in past lives) in every human being. These vasanas make the human being engage himself in various worldly activities and carry him away from the Lord as Balarama was carried away from Krishna by Pralamba.
The message which Krishna gave to Balarama is applicable not only to Balarama but to every human being. The meaning of the message is-- "You are really the Atman, but you are wrongly identifying yourself with your body-mind complex and looking upon yourself as a limited being. It is this wrong identification that makes you a slave to your vasanas and results in your being carried away hither and thither by them. Once you realise your real identity, namely that you are the indwelling self which is none other than the supreme Brahman itself, you will be able to extricate yourself from the hold of your vasanas". The destruction of Pralamba signifies the elimination of vasanas, which is the same as liberation. Sri Sankara says in Vivekachudamani that the elimination of vasanas is itself liberation and it is what is called 'jivanmukti' (verse 318). Sri Narayana Bhattatiri says in his Narayaneeyam (which is a condensed version of Srimad Bhagavatam) that when Balarama came back to Krishna after killing Pralamba, Krishna embraced Balarama and the gods showered flowers on both of them (Dasaka 57, verse 10). Krishna's embrace represents union with the Lord or the realisation of the identity of the individual self and Brahman. Even the gods worship such a human being because by realising his real identity as Brahman he has become the self of the gods too.
8. Rescue of cows and cowherds from forest fire
In chapter 19 of the tenth Skandha of Srimad Bhagavatam is described how Lord Krishna rescued a group of cowherd boys and their cows from a raging forest fire.
One day, as usual, Krishna and Balarama, along with a large number of cowherd boys, led their cows to the forest for grazing. While the boys were engrossed in play, the cows went forward in search of tender grass. As they moved on, they advanced beyond the limits of Vrindavana which was the abode of Krishna and entered a forest called 'Aishikam'. This forest was full of a particular variety of grass which had the tendency to catch fire easily. The forest was unbearably hot and the cows became totally exhausted because of hunger and thirst. The tender grass which they hoped to find was nowhere to be seen.
The cowherd boys, who were absorbed in play, did not notice for a long time that the cows had gone far away from them. When they did not find the cows at the place where they had left them, they became worried and went in search of them and found them in the Aishika forest. When they were about to bring the cows back, a forest fire broke out. The boys found themselves and their cows surrounded by the fire. In desperation they cried out to Krishna for help. Krishna came and asked them not to be afraid but to close their eyes for a few moments. They did so, and when they opened their eyes again they found themselves back in Vrindavana with no trace whatsoever of the fire. They were thus saved by Krishna from the fire.
The story looks very simple, but every statement in it has profound philosophical significance. The cows, which moved away from Krishna in search of tender grass represent human beings who forget the Lord and seek happiness in the world outside. As happened to the cows, the search for happiness in the world proves futile and results only in disappointment and suffering. The heat of the Aishika forest and the forest fire represent the sufferings of man in this transmigratory existence. Krishna asked the boys and the cows to close their eyes for a while and immediately all their sufferings vanished. 'Closing the eyes' stands for withdrawal of all the organs of sense from their objects. A very similar expression is used in the Kathopanishad, II.i.1 which says: "The Lord made the senses outgoing. Therefore one can see only external objects and not the inner Self. A rare discriminating individual, desiring immortality, turns his eyes away and then sees the indwelling Self". In this mantra the term 'eyes' stands for all the organs of sense. The meaning of this mantra is: Our sense-organs have been endowed by God with the power to experience only sense-objects in the external world. They are not capable of knowing the indwelling Self. A rare person, who has acquired total purity of mind, withdraws all his sense-organs from their objects and concentrates his mind on the Self. He then realises the self and becomes free from all the sufferings of this world. The boys and the cows found that the fire which was tormenting them had disappeared without a trace when they closed their eyes for a moment. This episode thus brings out allegorically the meaning of the mantra of the Kathopanishad quoted above.
9. Slaying of Narakasura
The slaying of Narakasura is described in chapter 59 of Skandha X of Srimad Bhagavatam.
Narakasura, described as a son of Bhumidevi, was a very wicked Asura who terrorised the whole earth. He conquered many kings and carried away 16,100 young women from their families and kept them in captivity. On coming to know of this, Krishna marched against him. Krishna was first opposed by Mura, an Asura with five faces, who was an associate of Narakasura. After killing Mura, Krishna killed Narakasura also and released all the women. He then married all of them.
A careful study will show that the entire teachings of Vedanta are conveyed through this simple story. The first significant fact is the description of Narakasura as the son of Bhumi, the Earth. Bhumi or earth is one of the five elements, the other four being water, fire, air and space. In Vedanta there is a figure of speech called 'upalakshana' by which, when one item of a group is specifically mentioned, all the other items of the group are also to be taken as implied. Thus the mention of 'earth' here is to be taken as implying all the five elements. This conclusion is further supported by the following statements in the Bhashya of Sri Sankara on Brahmasutra. 3.1.2:--"Water consists of three components, according to the Upanishadic text about the elements becoming tripartite (Ch. Up. VI. iii). So when water is admitted as the constituent, the other two elements must also be admitted. Moreover, the body is the product of the three elements since all three, fire, water and earth, are seen to be its constituents". Only three elements are mentioned here because the discussion is about a statement in the Chandogya Upanishad which mentions only the triplication of these three elements. When quintuplication of the five elements is considered, it follows that all the five elements should be considered as represented by the term 'earth'.
Narakasura is said to be the son of the earth, which means allegorically that he is the product of the five elements. Vedanta says that the body (both physical and subtle) is made up of, or is the product of, the five elements. That is to say, Narakasura stands for the body.
All living beings are kept in bondage by the body. This is what is implied by the statement that Narakasura had kept the women in captivity. The women are the jivas who are imprisoned in the body. The name 'Narakasura' is also significant. Being a slave to the body is itself Naraka or hell. Liberation is freedom from the bondage or limitation of the body. By slaying Narakasura the Lord, in His infinite compassion for His devotees, liberated them from bondage. The story also brings out the fact that God's grace is essential for getting liberation.
There is another very significant point in this story. Mura, the associate of Narakasura, is said to have five faces. These five faces stand for the five organs of sense which have first to be conquered and this is what the Lord did. The name 'Mura' is itself significant. The verb 'mura' means 'envelope'. (mura samveshtane -- Panini's Dhatupatha, No. 1287). Mura therefore stands for ignorance or 'nescience' which envelopes the jiva.
On attaining liberation the jiva becomes one with Brahman. This is the real import of the statement that the Lord married all the women who were released. 'Marriage' means becoming one with the Lord.
10. Redemption of Sudarsana
The Upanishads declare that every living being will continue to be born again and again until liberation from the state of transmigration is attained by the realisation of the Self. This realisation is possible only in a human birth. In Mundakopanishad I.ii.10 it is said that even a human being who has performed meritorious deeds and earned a sojourn in heaven will not necessarily be born as a human being when he has to leave heaven on the exhaustion of the merit which took him there. He may be born as an animal or a bird or any other creature, or even as a plant, depending upon the nature of his residual karma. The Kathopanishad says (II.ii.7):--
One will be reborn from a womb (i.e. as a human being or as any other creature born from a womb) or even as a plant, according to his actions and the nature and extent of the knowledge acquired by him in the present birth.
There is a short story in chapter 34 of Skandha X of Srimad Bhagavatam which beautifully illustrates the declarations of the upanishads mentioned above. It is the story of a Vidyadhara (a semi-divine being) who became a python due to the curse of some sages and was subsequently restored to a form even more resplendent than his original one by the touch of Sri Krishna's foot. This story has a wealth of Vedantic implications.
On a certain day the cowherds of Gokula went, along with Krishna, to a place known as 'Ambikavanam'. Having bathed in the river Saraswati there, they worshipped Lord Siva and His consort Goddess Ambika. They spent that night on the bank of the river, in prayer and fasting. Suddenly a huge python appeared and began to devour Nandagopa. Hearing Nandagopa's cries the cowherds rushed to his rescue and belaboured the python with firebrands. In spite of severe beating the python did not release Nandagopa from its hold. Krishna then went there and touched the python with his foot. At once the python disappeared and there stood in its place a most resplendent Vidyadhara. When asked by Krishna who he was, he said, "I am a Vidyadhara named Sudarsana. I was endowed with great wealth and beauty and used to fly in my aerial car all over the world. Being very proud of my exceptional beauty, I was very haughty. One day I ridiculed some sages of the Angirasa family for their ugly looks. For this sin those sages made me take this birth. The curse that those compassionate souls pronounced on me has become a blessing to me; because of it I have been blessed with the touch of the foot of the Lord of the universe, and have been cleansed of my sin". So saying, he prostrated before Krishna and ascended to heaven.
What are the lessons that this story has for us? In the first place, what are called curses in the Puranas are really blessings when they come from great sages who are full of compassion and do not even wish ill of anyone, let alone inflicting punishment. They are beyond praise and ridicule and are not in the least influenced or affected by them. Whatever they do is always for the good of others. If we analyse the curses appearing in the Puranas, we will find that they fall into two broad categories-- 1) those which, though outwardly appearing to be curses, really bless the person concerned by placing him in circumstances in which he is able to free himself of the defects in his character which stand as obstacles in the way of his spiritual advancement; (this can be compared to the action of a surgeon who uses his scalpel on the patient with the noble intention of curing him of an ailment which prevents him from leading a normal happy life) and 2) those which merely emphasize the fact that the next birth of a person will be in accordance with his thoughts and actions in this birth. Examples of the first category are the curses on Jaya and Vijaya by Sanatkumara and the other sages, the curse on King Indradyumna who became Gajendra, and the curse on Nalakubara and Manigriva by sage Narada. The curse laid on Sudarsana by the sages contains aspects which make it fit into both the categories, as will be clear from the sequel.
It will first be explained how the present curse falls under the first category. The Vidyadhara named Sudarsana had become very haughty because of his beauty. Haughtiness is the greatest of all obstacles to spiritual progress. The sages therefore temporarily deprived him of the cause of his haughtiness, namely his good looks and made him take the very repulsive form of a python. This turned out to be a blessing because he got the touch of the Lord's foot. Not only did he then get a form which was even more resplendent than his original form, but he also realized that what he had done in his haughtiness was a great sin. He thus became free from pride and so fit for spiritual progress.
The curse pronounced by the sages on Sudarsana can be brought under the second category also. Since the Vidyadhara was so proud of his beauty that he was contemptuous of others who were not so endowed, he would, on that count itself, be deprived of beauty in his next birth. This is what happened to him when he was born as a python. The curse only reiterated what would have happened even without it. The offence committed need not necessarily be against sages who have the power to curse. Such an offence even against ordinary persons would have led to the same result of depriving him of whatever he was proud of, in his next birth. The lesson conveyed by this story is that one should never be proud of one's wealth, pedigree, good looks, learning or any other accomplishment and look down on others not so fortunate. Every one should remember that this is not the only birth and what one has in this birth may not necessarily be his in a subsequent birth. It is the thoughts and actions in this birth that will determine what the next birth will be. If a person who is rich becomes arrogant and treats the poor with contempt or uses his wealth for doing harm to others, he will be born as a beggar in his next birth. There is no guarantee that a person who is rich in this birth will remain so in future births also. If he uses his wealth for good purposes he may have the good fortune of being rich in the next birth also. This is the real meaning of the well known saying that no one can carry his wealth with him when he dies. The same logic applies to all natural talents and gifts that one is born with. One should be humble about them and use them for good purposes. Leave alone losing in the next birth; one may lose his or her beauty or wealth or other accomplishments even during this birth itself because of illness and various other causes. We have to remember that everything in this world is transient. If this thought is always kept in mind, one will never swerve from the right path. These are the lessons that we can draw from this story.
A former Pontiff of the Sringeri Mutt explained in a discourse the reason for persons being born blind, dumb, etc. If a person does not make use of his faculties of speech, etc., to help another person in a situation in which such help is crucial, he will be born without that faculty in his next birth. To illustrate, supposing two boys are playing in a village. One of them suddenly falls into a well. If the other boy immediately shouts for help, neighbours would rush to the place and would probably be able to rescue the boy from the well. If, instead, the other boy just walks away, fearing that he may be blamed for his friend falling into the well, with the result that the boy who fell into the well loses his life, the boy who did not use his faculty of speech at the proper time will be born dumb in his next birth. In a Puranic story such an episode would be put this way. The boy did not try to save his friend by using his voice and so he was cursed by the dead boy's parents or by some sage to become dumb.
It will be interesting to examine the various curses in the Puranas keeping the above views in mind.