Posted on: 5/5/2019

An essay by a 6th form student of Sanskrit literature

The Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is arguably the most well known of the Purāṇas, the ancient Vedic teachings, perhaps because it recounts the birth and life of the Lord Śri Kṛṣṇa in its final sections. When I first encountered this question my initial response was to assume that any intellectual would probably be put off by the strong devotional theme in the text.

However having studied it more carefully I discovered the practical and utterly logical system of philosophy that underpins it, and that the devotion described is to the one Self in all, rather than a characterized deity. Because of this I think that the text should in fact appeal to most intellectual people.

Needless to say, there are certain points in the text where pure and often quite extreme devotion, involving no logical thought or consideration is described. An example of this is in the story of Prahlāda.

Prahlāda was the son of Hiraṇyakaśipu, the evil demon king. In his mother’s womb Prahlāda was exposed to the words of a wise sage and as a result worshipped Viṣṇu in place of the demon deities, from a very young age. In Chapter 5 Verses 23-24 he speaks to his father thus:

‘Hearing about Viṣṇu, singing about Him, remembering Him, serving Him, worshipping Him, saluting Him, being His servant, being His comrade, and surrendering oneself and everything that is one’s own to Him – these are the nine aspects of Bhakti or God-love. If man could be trained to practise devotion characterized by these nine features, that indeed would be the highest education he could have.’

This last sentence about devotion being ‘the highest education’ might grate particularly with an intellectual person who may have devoted his or her life to pursuing an academic education.

Another reason why the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam might not appeal to a rational thinker is because of the supernatural events and characters it describes: the lavish flying mansion in the story of Kardama Prajāpati, the fact that Kardama and his wife are said to be locked in an embrace for thousands of years and indeed the idea of Kṛṣṇa being an incarnation of the Lord, born into the world from the womb of Devakī. All these are phenomena that are not practically possible, at least in the current day and age and although they are only stories this aspect of fantasy, even aside from the devotion in the text, may well put off an intellectual person who thinks about things very logically.

One story in particular that has caused a lot of controversy, even in the religious world, due to the lack of logic in its message is the story of Ajāmila. Ajāmila had led a sinful life but because he called out the name of his son Nārāyaṇa, which is also one of the many names for the Lord in the Vedic tradition, just before he died, he was saved from retribution and cleansed of his sins. Following the story is a long discussion concerning the power of chanting the Lord’s name. This story forms part of the basis for a particular group of Hindus called the Hari Krishnas who devote much time to repetition of the Lord’s name. The idea that after death we are held accountable for our actions is in many ways a very reasonable concept which an intellectual may well be comfortable with. However the idea that the Lord’s name holds so much power that simply chanting it once before death frees you of your sins is not a logical one, especially as in Ajāmila’s case he was in fact only referring to his son. For this reason an intellectual person may not appreciate this particular story.

On the other hand beyond the devotional aspect is a very detailed and logical system of philosophy which would be fascinating for an intellectual to study. Within all the stories, but in particular in Chapter 7 of the story of Prahlāda, the very rational idea is expressed that everything in this world including the body is transitory and fleeting and as a result cannot bring ultimate happiness or contentment. The entire universe appears to be real because of Māyā and in order to escape the cycle of birth and death (Saṃsāra) in which we are trapped and reach ultimate happiness one must rise above pleasure and pain and see beyond Māyā through worship of the Lord. This is only a tiny snapshot of the Vedic philosophy which I believe would be of interest to any intellectual person.

In Dhruva’s Hymn to Mahāviṣṇu we learn the nature of the Lord to which one should devote one’s worship. Although he takes many different forms throughout Sanskrit literature to illustrate different points, He is in essence thought of as pure consciousness and infinity. He is simply the consciousness within all that exists. Devotion to such a being is much more logical than devotion to a specific god and would be much more accessible to an intellectual.

Therefore to conclude I would say that the Śrimad Bhāgavatam would appeal to such a person as the devotional aspect is in fact very rational. It is about feeling love for the entire universe, manifest and unmanifest, and clear reasons are set down as to why this will lead to ultimate happiness, which I think is the subconscious goal of all beings, including intellectuals!

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