Discourse 1: King Parikshit’s Question to Suka Maharishi
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 a question: “What is good for man, especially at this hour when my life is about to end?”
How are we to answer this question? 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.
These descriptions in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the Bhagavadgita point out that we belong to all levels of existence. It is, therefore, not to be considered as something unwarranted that a time comes when we have to shed this body, because every day we are shedding the earlier components of our body in the process of rising into a more healthy condition. Cells of the body decompose every moment of time, and it is believed that every seven years all the cells are changed; we become new persons altogether. But we do not know that this is happening because of the identification of consciousness with every process that is taking place. Otherwise, if this linkage of development is not filled in by consciousness, we would feel jerks every time we jump or move from one level to another level. Such jerks are not experienced on account of a rapid action of consciousness, just as the rapid flashing of many still pictures on a screen makes us feel that it is a continuous movement although they are all small pictures, one independent of the other. The rapidity of the action of consciousness makes us feel that we are continuously one whole human being.
But, at death, the consciousness withdraws itself. That is why we feel such a fear; some tremendous upheaval takes place when we leave this body. The fear of death that was hovering on the mind of Parikshit had to be removed by this kind of great admonition by Sukadeva Maharishi, which is the highlighting feature of the beginning of the second chapter of Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana.
It is believed that this great scripture, the Srimad Bhagavata, is like a delicious nectar. It is as sweet as kheer because, as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa Deva used to say, it is a combination of the sugar of devotion, the energy of the ghee of vairagya, and the milk of knowledge. Jnana, vairagya, and bhakti – all the three are combined in a wonderful manner in the narration of the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana. Sri Krishna Himself is supposed to be indwelling this wonderful scripture. We do not physically see the personality of Bhagavan Sri Krishna now, but we see Him as the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana. Whoever studies the Bhagavata is supposed to be reading the life of Bhagavan Sri Krishna Himself in all its cosmic manifested forms. Whoever gives dana or a charity of one copy of the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana is actually giving Lord Krishna Himself to the devotees.
It is an incomparable scripture. Its eighteen skandhas represent the eighteen processes of the evolution of the cosmos. In Indian culture, the word ‘eighteen’ has been regarded as very sacred. The Bhagavata contains eighteen skandhas, the Mahabharata contains eighteen parvas, the war took place for eighteen days, the Bhagavadgita has eighteen chapters; it is a great mystery. According to the traditional belief in the computational meaning of numbers, eighteen represents victory. According to a traditional calculation in India especially, the word ‘eight’ is represented by the word ‘ja’, and the word ‘ya’ is represented by the number ‘one’. In the the old system, letters are read from right to left, not from left to right as we do in the modern system. So ‘ja’ and ‘ya’ mean ‘jaya’ or victory. The Mahabharata book also is called Jaya by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa.
The same question that was raised by Parikshit was also raised by Narada Maharishi to Brahma, the supreme Creator – to which, in the form of a reply, Brahma, the Creator, narrates the whole process of creation. The Bhagavata’s description is that Narayana sleeps on the cosmic waters at the end of creation. And these cosmic waters are actually, philosophically speaking, the potential prakriti known in the philosophical circles of Vedanta and Sankhya, and the consciousness that is immanently present in this potential condition is Narayana, even as our Atman is alive even in the state of deep sleep. The evolution from sleep to waking is like creation that is taking place. The whole system of creation described in the Bhagavata Mahapurana is comparable to the precise description of the involvement in creation as we have it in the beginning of the eighth chapter of the Bhagavadgita.
Thus, as we are ready to bestow thought on what is really good for us, that alone can be considered as ‘good’ which will be valid when we enter the different levels of creation. That which is good is a single visa that is given to us for entry into all the levels of creation. Since what is good in this world may not be good in other worlds, if we regard whatever goodness we manifest in our life in this world as the total reality, it may not carry us further to the other worlds, as they may require another qualification from us. Unless we belong to the other world in some way or the other, we cannot be received in that world. If we are citizens located only in one world, how would we enter into other worlds? That is why there is a visa system, which is the permission given by one country to an individual from another country to enter. That is to say, when we enter from one world to another, one country to another, we have to acclimatise ourselves to the laws prevailing in the new country. So is the case with the permission that is required to go to another world. We cannot go freely like that. We have been sticking only to this world, and had no idea that we belong to another world also.
Though the rise from one level to another level is usually gradual, as is described to us in the Srimad Bhagavata and the Puranas, it is also said that a sudden rise is possible. It is something like this. Suppose one thousand rose petals are kept one over the other and a needle is passed through them, we may say that the needle pierced all these petals at one stroke; whereas, in fact, the needle passed gradually through one petal to the other in spite of the impression that it was an instantaneous action. Similarly, by the force of the power of yoga and meditation, we may compress the total process of the ascent through all the levels of creation into a so-called instantaneous action, though we cannot escape the law of any level of creation.
We may travel quickly by airplane, trudge by foot, or sit in a bullock cart. If we travel by airplane it takes no time at all to reach our destination, but we have covered the same distance. Hence, we may accede that both answers to this question are valid. Instantaneous evolution is possible, as reaching a place quickly is possible by airplane; yet, we have to remember that we have passed through all the stages abruptly due to the speed with which we have moved. Progressing quickly is possible only if our yoga is intense. Tīvrasaṁvegānām āsannaḥ (Yoga Sutras 1.21): Nearness to Reality is provided by one’s intensity of feeling for it. The feeling is the touchstone of our ability to reach the levels of creation. If we can feel all things at the same time, all things will come to us at the same time.
But the individual, mortal as he is, is unable to deepen the feeling to such an extent, and he is unable to pass through these levels of creation as a needle passes through the thousand rose petals, because the intensity of his feeling is not sufficient. That is to say, our longing for freedom is not adequately accentuated. There is a temptation in this world which tells us that there is something here which is good enough, and we need not seek another good in some other realm of creation. This interpretation of there being something permanently good in this world is provided to us by the wrong activity of the sense organs. We are caught in the web of sensory activity, which tells us that this world is all.
But the senses also tell us that this world is not all by the dissatisfaction that follows from every kind of so-called satisfaction provided to us by the sense organs. Because the contact of the senses with objects gives satisfaction, it may bring us to the conclusion that this world is wonderful and it is good in itself, but the bitter consequence that follows from this so-called ‘goodness’ of the satisfaction gained through these sense organs, is also indicative of the fact that this is not really good. So the senses are our teachers in a way, apart from their being what people generally call deceivers. They are pointers to two levels of reality at the same time. If we want to dub them as evil because they do not give us permanent satisfaction, well, we are free to do that. But they also tell us through their subtle dual action that this world is not a total satisfaction, though when the senses contact the objects there seems to be a temporary sensation which looks like joy. That no joy in the world can be complete, that everything has an ending – one day we will die, with all our joys – is also an indication by the senses that this world is not all.
So, what is good for us is a question that arose in the beginning itself. The good is not merely the good of this world, which is only a relative good because that which appears to be good now may not be good tomorrow. Also, even now, the idea that something is good is not complete, because the relativity of the character of the apparent goodness of a thing is due to the cause that is behind the appearance of this goodness, and that cause is completely out of our reasoning. The reason why we feel satisfaction through contact of the senses with objects is not known to us. We know only the result, but the cause of it is not known. Some mysterious action takes place, like the operation of a person controlling puppets in a puppet show. We see only puppets moving and enjoy the play, not knowing that somebody is manipulating strings to control their activity. Likewise, we are not aware of what takes place when we contact things in the world that give us joy, because these are puppet shows. Maybe they look beautiful and we can go on enjoying them every day, but we do not know why they are moving. They are moving due to the action of somebody else. In a similar manner, the apparent goodness and joy of the contact of the senses with objects is due to the operation of a cause of which we are totally oblivious.
So, ignorance is at the back of the so-called joys of life. If we know the cause, we will be disappointed in one second. There is a thief behind this joy that we appear to have in this world. That thief is trying to rob us of whatever energy we have. Sankaracharya, in one of his verses, tells us that there are many thieves in this world, and they are ready to rob us of all the treasures that we have in the form of energy. Our energy becomes depleted through every form of sense contact, and we become old and weak, and then perish due to a total exhaustion of the energy quantum of our personality.
We may say in this sense that the senses are deceivers, but philosophically there is another aspect which makes us give them some credit also when they tell us that all things are not well. That all things that glitter are not gold is seen by the dissatisfaction that follows. Whatever be the position that we hold in this world, whatever be our wealth and property, we will feel the sting of the fear of losing it one day or the other, so even when we possess it we are aggrieved by the possibility of being robbed of it by the time process. Therefore, sorrow is the beginning, sorrow is the middle, and sorrow is the end, say the sense organs, together with the so-called poisoned nectar that they feed us in the form of sense contacts.
So goes the great lecture of Suka Maharishi to the varied questions of Raja Parikshit, which is the introduction to the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, a wondrous scripture which every one of us should read.