Book Review: Bhagwata Purana, Skandha Two, Part One
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
You know my great idea about writing one essay on each Skandha? Well, I am afraid that it became impossible for me to stick to my original plan in the second Skandha itself, as there are far too many concepts and ideas that I want to try and do justice to. The Skandha starts with the story of how Vyasa Muni first composed the Bhagwata Purana (BP).
You might already know that Vyasa Muni was the original compositor of the Vedas, but the Purana is silent on when exactly he wrote it in Hindu cosmological terms, although we know it was written after Krishna’s death, which is tentatively given as 3228 BCE (according to the wiki entry). The Purana, on the other hand, says that Vyasa was born in the Dwapara Yuga. Take a look at this calculation which talks about some seriously huge time frames. Time is defined in the top level as Brahma Years. We are in the first day of the 51st year of Brahma (he is a middle aged God right now). Each day and night in an year comprises of a Kalpa, which is further divided into 28 manvantaras and we are in the 7th day manvantara. Each Manvantara is made up of 71 mahayuga’s and we are in the 28th mahayuga. Each Mahayuga comprises of four yugas namely Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dwapara Yuga and Kali Yuga. We are currently in Kali Yuga. The time in human Christian Gregorian Years is roughly 432,000 solar years.
So extrapolating from this (and bear with me, I have no way of confirming this), Vyasa was born before 3228 BCE. Given that the average human life span in the Dwapara Yuga was considered to be approximately 1,000 years, he could have been born and actually composed the BP any time between 3228 BCE to 4228 BCE, but the actual book took shape in the 3rd millennium BCE. For the longest time, this kind of thinking about time blows my mind, but I have that down as a potential research project to think about. Take a look at this article by Ramesh Rao for an interesting perspective on time.
But let’s get back to the BP and its origins. The above is from a mythological perspective that is; the real truth is much more complicated. As of the current state of historiographical research, there is simply no evidence of when it was originally written and by whom. The wiki entry for the Vedas is a good example of the confusion about the dates on the origins of the Vedas, but it’s aimed at a date of 1,000 BCE. This sort of conflicts with the reputed death of Krishna around 3228 BCE, so what happened in the middle 2 millennia?
However, I am not writing an analytical paper here, I am talking philosophy and mythology. Hindu philosophy (if this kind of a formulation can even be said) simply has too many strands to worry about exact timing or authenticity of the author, unlike say the fact that Gabriel taught Mohammad the Quran or there is a gospel by Mark. How about the philosophy that time is essentially an illusion (maya)? If it’s maya, then is it really important to know the author or the time? We also need to know that if we start ascribing the authorship to a particular person and time, we run the risk of it sounding fallible, which really cannot be done now, can it? The other way of looking at this is that there is simply no origin or that the Vedas and the Puranas were and are: unauthored, unreal and eternal at the same time. When the (atma) soul can be pure consciousness without content, then extending that analysis to the Vedas and Purana can mean content without consciousness relating to temporal aspects such as authors or time.
The BP talks about how Vyasa Muni divided the original single Veda into the four Vedas that we know now, mainly because he realised that in the Kali Yuga, mankind cannot handle the full weight of God’s word, so had to be fed in small broken down chunks. He then gave each Veda to one of his disciples and asked them to further teach humans. As women, sudras and other impure members of the Brahman class were not eligible to read and hear the Vedas (don’t go there yet, I will return to this topic sometime in the future), he also wrote the Mahabharata so that even the women, sudras and impure people could attain moksha. But Vyasa Muni was not happy and less than satisfied with his work on the Vedas and Mahabharata. Narada Muni came around and identified his cause of dissatisfaction. Narada Muni said that he has not described the Lord Vishnu in detail and that is the reason why his work does not satisfy him. Narada Muni then proceeds to tell Vyasa his own life story and how he became a Vishnu devotee. In one of his past lives in another Kalpa, he wandered the earth in search of God and finally he sat to meditate for eons. Finally, Vishnu manifested himself to him and Narada was enlightened. Vishnu said that Narada will find the Lord when all desires have been quelled, but he will be with Narada all the time. Saying this, Narada departed leaving behind Vyasa full of determination to explore and compose the story of Lord Vishnu. Upon completion of the BP, Vyasa Muni taught the secret Purana to his son, Suka.
Then there is a bit of a jump and the third section talks about the life history of Pariskshit, son of Abhimanyu, who is the ruler of Hastinapur. Remember the story about how he was saved in his mother Uttara’s womb, by Krishna when Ashwathama tried to kill him using the brahmastra? Anyway, moving on, the BP talks about how righteous he was, how he banished the demon Kali (not the Goddess Kali) and saved one legged Dharma Deva, the God of Truth and Bhumi Devi, Mother Earth from Kali’s depredations. Interestingly enough, the four legs of Dharma Deva, who manifested himself as a Bull, represent austerity, purity, compassion and honesty, but Kali Yuga broke three of them by pride, lasciviousness and inebriation. Only honesty was left and even that was being destroyed by the Demon Kali. So Parikshit banishes the Demon Kali to the gambling dens, whorehouses, and in houses of slaughter. By doing so, Parikshit kept the demons of the Kali yuga at bay, but then disaster befell him.
He was hunting and reached an ashram thirsty and hungry. Looking around, he could only see a rishi deep in meditation and despite Parikshit’s entreaties; the rishi would not wake up to give him water or food. Becoming furious, Parikshit draped a dead snake around the rishi’s neck and rode away angrily. Then the rishi’s son came back, saw the snake, learnt the background and cursed Parikshit with death in seven days from snakebite. On his return to the palace, Parikshit was beset with sorrow and regret at his treatment of the rishi and then learning of the curse, decided to renounce his kingdom, go to the banks of the Ganga river, medicate on Vishnu for the remainder of his days while fasting.
When he sat down, a whole host of other great rishis came to him. Atri, Vasistha, Chyvana, Shardavana, Arishtanemi, Bhrigu, Angirasas, Parasara, Viswamitra, Parasurama, Utathya, Indrapramada, Indhmavaha, Medhatithi, Devala, Arishtisena, Bharadvaja, Gautama, Pippalada, Maitreya, Aurva, Kavasha, Agastya, Dwaipayna Vyasa and Narada all joined him. There is a reason why I am repeating all these names. These names are our greats. They have, in effect, given us our religion. They were the first teachers and telling their names again is a way of worshiping them, paying obeisance to them and recognising our debt to them.
Finally Suka Muni arrives and Parikshit asks him how best to purify himself before death, to which Suka Muni replies referring to the BP as the best way to purify the body and soul. Parikshit asks about the form of Vishnu that he would meditate on and Suka describes the Lord to him. This was a stunning description and I was seriously taken aback. I am not going to give the full description, but it involves patala, the soles of his feet, bhumi his hips, and the sky as his navel. Indra and other Devas are his arms, agni his tongue, the sun and moon are his eyes, Yama is his teeth, his laughter is Maya, modesty is his upper lip, while greed is his lower. Prajapati is his penis, while Mitra Deva and Varuna Deva are his testicles. Vayu is his breath, time is his movement. Twilight is the garment he wears, brahmana his mouth, kshatriya his arms, vaisya his thighs and sudra is his feet. This is whom Parikshit should visualise.
The formulation of the Lord’s description took my breath away. With my puny mind, I simply could not comprehend this vast assemblage at all, which is why I am quite envious of those who can. Can you imagine somebody being able to visualise this wondrous image? What an imagination one would require! What a breadth of vision, what faith! I felt so insignificant at just the description of the Lord Vishnu.
But now I have to draw this exercise to an end. In the next part, I will be talking about how Suka explained the way of the Dhyana, the route to Moksha. This is not an esoteric description, but something with concrete details which man can grasp. This will follow with a description of how Brahma created this universe and a description of the incarnations of Vishnu and ending with the numerous questions that Parikshi asks of Suka.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt
Book Review: Bhagwata Purana, Skandha Two, Part One
- » Published on March 15, 2010
- » Type: Review
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- » This is part of a regular feature, With a Grain of Salt.