by Swami Krishnananda
In ancient times, Raja Parikshit raised a detailed question that amounted to asking whether we are living in this world alone, or if it is possible that we may be citizens of some other worlds also.
This question of King Parikshit was connected with the background of his own life, which has the antecedence of the great story of the Mahabharata. When Asvatthama, the son of Acharya Drona, discharged the invincible missile known as Narayana Astra with the hope of ending the Pandavas in a single instant, he felt that his aim of life was complete. As this was an astra which could not be faced by all the forces of the Earth put together, he was under the impression that the Pandavas had been reduced to ashes. As the Pandavas were at a distance, Asvatthama climbed to the top of a tree in order to see the heap of ashes that were their remains, but to his surprise he found the Pandava forces were as jubilant as ever, and it did not seem to have occurred to their minds that anything happened at all.
Asvatthama obtained his astra, which is known as Narayana Astra, as a special gift from his father Drona when he insisted that he should be given something which Arjuna did not know – because, naturally, it should be accepted that a disciple is not as great as one’s own son. Due to this persistence, Drona bestowed an indomitable power known as Narayana Astra upon Asvatthama, knowing well that the boy was mischievous and was likely to use it unwarrantedly. Drona warned him that it should not be used recklessly, yet he knew that he would not listen to his advice. So, as a safeguard, he did not teach him the art of using it a second time or the art of withdrawing it. It could be discharged once only, and then it would extinguish itself.
When, to Asvatthama’s consternation, the attempt to destroy the Pandavas with this missile failed, he ran away from the field cursing everybody and yelling out that even fathers are not to be trusted these days because his father duped him, as it were, by saying that he had initiated him into an invincible astra, which actually amounted to nothing. When Asvatthama was shouting like this while running away, he met Vyasa – the great Krishna Dvaipayana – on the way, who asked him what the matter was. He said, “My father did not tell me the truth. I was initiated into the invincible force called Narayana Astra, being told that no one on Earth can stand before it; but when I used it, nothing actually happened.” The great Vyasa replied, “My dear boy, your father has not made any mistake. He gave you that strength which no one else in the world could wield. But you used this astra of Narayana against Narayana Himself. Therefore, it would not work.”
Disgusted, and with the persistent desire to end the Pandavas, Asvatthama took resort to another astra, called Brahmastra, and let it off with such ferocity that he thought it would end the Pandavas’ progeny so that they would have no descendents and their family would finally be extinguished. What did he do? He directed this Brahmastra to the womb of Uttara – the queen of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu – thinking that her womb would be destroyed. But God’s power has no end. It is limitless, and it can act in the required manner at any moment of time. The Great Master Sri Krishna, with his power of yoga, entered Uttara’s womb and withdrew this invincible Brahmastra into Himself. Here, again, the efforts of Asvatthama failed.
This boy, the child in Uttara’s womb who Asvatthama attempted to destroy, was Parikshit, the only descendent of the Pandava brothers. Due to a tragic historical event that took place, which is told in the beginning of the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Parikshit was to die by a snake bite. Frightened by this possibility, Parikshit wound up his reign of the kingdom and sat in prayopavesa on the bank of Ganga, wishing to end his life, which was to come upon him within seven days, according to the curse of the son of a great Rishi. It was at that time the great Suka Maharishi happened to pass that way, and he was received with great respect by the audience seated around King Parikshit. When everybody paid obeisance, Suka asked them the reason why they were all gathered on the bank of River Ganga.
Parikshit put several questions. “What is good for man, especially at this hour when my life is about to end?” How are we to answer this question about what is good for any person? In the freezing heights of the Himalayas, it is good to have a blanket over oneself. But a blanket is not good in the hot deserts of Africa; we would like to have cold water there. When we are hungry, it is good to have delicious food; when we are vomiting due to illness, it is good not to eat at all. Anyone who desires his or her own good cannot answer this question of what is actually good for oneself, because whatever answer we give, we will find it is connected to some cause thereof, and it is not the final good.
Riches will end, the body will wither, and life is uncertain. None of these things connected with life in this world can be regarded as really good in their ultimate sense. Then, what is really good for the human individual? The difficulty in answering this question arises because we think that we are living only in this world of sensory perception. To this great question, Sri Suka answers in a majestic manner. The ascent through the levels of creation through which one has to pass, and in which one is involved even at the present moment, is not merely a future event; it is only an unfolding of the involvement that is already there even at this present moment. Suka’s answer was that we belong to all the worlds at the same time. We are citizens of every level of existence.
You must have heard that the levels of our own individual psychic being, known as the chakras, represent the levels of cosmic existence. Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janarloka, Tapoloka, Satyaloka are the names given to these possible levels of total creation. These levels are correspondingly represented by the circular fields – or semicircular, as the case may be – of what are called the chakras in one’s own body so that at one moment, at a single stroke of time, a person is in all the levels of creation.
At the very beginning of the second chapter of the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana this question is answered briefly, and reference to this is also made in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the Srimad Bhagavadgita when Bhagavan Sri Krishna says: akṣaraṁ brahma paramaṁ svabhāvodhyātmam ucyate bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṁjñitaḥ (Gita 8.3); adhibhūtaṁ kṣaro bhāvaḥ puruṣaś cādhidaivatam adhiyajñoham evātra dehe dehabhṛtāṁ vara (Gita 8.4). Our involvements in this life are explained in this beautiful contextual answer of Bhagavan Sri Krishna to Arjuna when He says, “That which is the ultimate good is the Supreme Brahman.” A similar question was raised by Yudhishthira at the end of the Mahabharata war when he went to Bhishma, who was lying on a bed of arrows, and Bhishma’s answer was that it is better to remember Vishnu and recite his name one thousand names, not only at the end of time, but at all times, because the end of time is at any time. Even this very moment can be the end of time. So, when we ask the question, “What is good for us at the end of time?” it is implied that it is that which is good for us at all times because, knowing the brittleness of things in the world, all times are the end of time.
The supreme good, therefore, is the Supreme Brahman, the Ultimate Reality – akṣaraṁ brahma paramaṁ – which is intimately, vitally, inextricably connected with svabhavah, which is called the Atman. The internal, essential nature of the human individual, known as the Atman or the Self, is the true nature of a person. That is why it is called svabhava, the true disposition of an individual. Our selfhood is what we are; and how we behave, how we act, and how we think and feel depend upon the true nature which is our own self displayed through the various categories constituting this psychophysical individuality. This is svabhava.
Bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṁjñitaḥ: Action, in the real sense of the term, is the force that ejects this cosmos right from the topmost level of creation – the atomic bindu of creation, prior to the bursting of this total potentiality into the two halves of positive and negative forces. Everything, all action – any impulse whatsoever, down to the movement of an ant – is controlled by this great event that took place at the beginning of creation. The origin of action is the Action of the Cosmos. This concept of Total Action is again portrayed in the Purusha Sukta of the Veda, which compares the whole creation to a cosmic sacrifice performed by God Himself, as it were. The self-alienation of the Supreme Being, Mahapurusha, into this visible cosmos is a surrender of His own true nature of universality into the externality of creation, in which act He has sacrificed Himself, as it were. The greatest yajna is the Purusha Yajna, which is not to be translated as human sacrifice, as Western scholars sometimes translate this great hymn of the Rigveda.
So, the origin of action – everybody’s action, up to the action of the atom – is impelled by this great Action of the Purusha – bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṁjñitaḥ. Really speaking, there are not many actions taking place in the world in terms of various individualities. One Action is taking place, as the rumbling of thousands of waves in the ocean is actually the one action of the ocean itself. Many actions are not taking place in the ocean; it is one impulse of the root and the heart of the bowels of the ocean that rises up as the waves. One action is taking place in the ocean; One Action is taking place in this cosmos also.
Adhibhūtaṁ kṣaro bhāvaḥ. The perishable nature of all things is called adhibhuta prapancha, the externalised projected form of physical nature. The very fact of being external is a tendency to evolution and destruction. Everything in this world evolves from the lower level to the higher level. What is called evolution is nothing but the destruction of the earlier process for the birth of a new process. This takes place in one’s own body in the form of growth and decay, and it also happens in the world outside in a cosmic evolutionary process. No one can live without dying in their earlier condition, and we could not have grown into the adults that we are if the earlier babyhood had not been transcended by the decomposition of those constituents of baby individuality into the adulthood in which we are placed now – bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṁjñitaḥ.
Action is cosmic action, and the characteristic of all visible physical things is its perishable nature – bhūtabhāvodbhavakaro visargaḥ karmasaṁjñitaḥ (Gita 8.3); adhibhūtaṁ kṣaro bhāvaḥ puruṣaś cādhidaivatam (Gita 8.4). The Purusha, who is the principle of cosmic sacrifice as we have it described in the Purusha Sukta, is also the indwelling presence in all our hearts. He is the source of individual sacrifices and right action, virtuous action, etc. He is the impeller from the recesses of our own heart. This is the source of individual impulses. Adhiyajñoham evātra (Gita 8.4) – the field of activity is also God Himself. God is the director of the drama of creation, as also the actor. He does not employ people to act in the theatre. He himself appears as all the actors in all forms of manifestation, and he also directs it from another point of view. He is the performer as well as the witness of all performances.