From Back to Godhead
By Satyaraja Dasa
A section of the Padma Purana glorifying the Bhagavatam presents an allegorical account of bhakti’s travels.
In India’s traditional wisdom texts, bhakti, or devotion, is sometimes presented as a person. This is especially so in Gaudiya Vaishnava literature. In Kavi Karnapura’s Chaitanya-candrodaya-natakam, for example, we see bhakti personified as a character in a play. In the modern era, Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Bhakti-tattva-viveka describes her as an embodiment of the svarupa-shakti, the internal energy of the Lord, and thus a manifestation of Sri Radha, Krishna’s ultimate spiritual potency. In the Thakura’s other writings and in those of his son, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, among other spiritual masters in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s line, Bhakti Devi is alternately considered a manifestation of Vrinda Devi (a primary gopi associate of Sri Radha) and an unidentified personality simply known as Bhakti Devi.
Her most significant appearance is arguably in the Padma Purana’s Bhagavata Mahatmya,1 a short text of six chapters glorifying the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam), known as the ripened fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge. This mahatmya (“glorification”) is sometimes positioned as a preface to contemporary Sanskrit and Hindi editions of the Bhagavatam itself or published as a separate booklet.
The Padma Purana’s Bhagavata Mahatmya begins with Bhakti telling the history of her manifestation in the age of Kali, our current epoch of quarrel and hypocrisy. She was born in Dravidadesha, she says, which refers to the southern portion of the Indian subcontinent, and soon began her journey north. Traditionally, her “birth” in the south is seen as a reference to the Vaishnavism of the Alvars, the twelve famous poet-saints of South India. Although bhakti is of course an eternal principle, Bhakti Devi makes her manifest appearance in Kali-yuga with the spirituality of the Alvars.
Bhakti Devi continues north to Karnataka, and this is taken as a reference to Madhvacharya’s development of the bhakti tradition, which occurred on India’s southwest coast in the thirteenth century. With the establishment of his teachings, bhakti was firmly rooted in Indian soil, and Bhakti Devi’s devotees thrived in various ways. She says she reached a high point in Karnataka. Indeed, the various sampradayas, traditional lineages, were systematized during this general period – notably those of Ramanuja, Nimbarka, and Vishnu Swami – and other devotees also nurtured the bhakti tradition for all who were fortunate enough to embrace her teachings.
But something strange happened as she made her way farther north to Maharashtra and then Gujarat. Bhakti Devi tells us that she was weakened in that part of India – a premature aging process was set in place – and she became almost unrecognizable due to illness. Her two “sons,” Jñana (knowledge) and Vairagya (renunciation), she asserts, fell sick as well.
Bhakti historians, such as Shrivatsa Goswami and Krishna Sharma, have explored just why Bhakti experienced difficulty during her Maharashtra/Gujarat sojourn, but answers are not forthcoming. Some say that the great wealth associated with Gujarat could have led to distraction from devotional principles, and there is certainly an element of truth in that perspective.
From the Gaudiya Vaishnava point of view, however, Bhakti Devi’s premature aging would have more to do with speculative elements that arose among bhakti practitioners in that time and place. While there are great Vaishnavas associated with those regions, a new perspective engulfed the tradition that temporarily compromised Bhakti’s virtues: nirguna-bhakti, or a devotional perspective where God’s form is deemphasized in favor of an impersonal force, had all but supplanted the more traditional saguna-bhakti, which emphasizes the worship of Krishna or one of His manifestations, i.e., a personal absolute. In other words, while renowned Maharashtrian poet-saints such as Kabir, Jnanadev, and Namadev carried the tradition forward, their poetry highlighted a formless divinity, an emphasis not endorsed by the standard lineages.
Nonetheless, as Bhakti Devi journeyed farther north to Vrindavan, she was rejuvenated, reinstated in her original blissful form. The Bhagavata Mahatmya carefully mentions her renewal, especially noting that she began to dance: dhanya vrindavanam tena bhaktir nrityati yatra, “Praise to Vrindavan, where bhakti is always dancing.” (1.61) Professor John Stratton Hawley comments on this reference to dance, which he says clearly associates Bhakti Devi’s resurgence in Vrindavan with the golden avatara, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, known for His ecstatic chanting and dancing.
Shrivatsa Goswami, too, in recounting Bhakti’s journey to the north, highlights the Chaitanya component of the story:
So this gives, beautifully, the historical development of the medieval bhakti tradition. The bhakti movement took birth in South India with the Dravidian saints, the Alvars, and so on. Then, a little later, Ramanuja, the first systematic philosopher of bhakti, appeared in the Tamil country. . . . After Ramanuja, the next great devotional thinker was Madhva, who was born in Karnataka at the end of the twelfth century. After that, the movement got a big boost from different saints who appeared throughout India, including Maharashtra, during the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. These centuries were very crucial for the growth of the bhakti movement. But the bhakti movement did not attain its highest development, as the passage implies, until it reached Vrindavan. [Bhakti reached Vrindavan], of course, in the form of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu because it was Chaitanya who, along with his followers the Six Goswamis, was the founder of Vrindavan in the early part of the sixteenth century. So the whole history of the bhakti movement is summarized here quite beautifully.2
But the Bhagavata Mahatmya narrative develops from there: Whereas Bhakti Devi is reanimated in Vrindavan, her two sons only get worse. Their condition seems irreparable, and she worries for their welfare, asking the saint Narada to advise her on an appropriate course of action.
Desperately trying to revive them, Narada chants Vedic mantras, the Upanishads, and even the Bhagavad-gita, but nothing works. Finally, the four Kumaras arrive and strongly recommend recitation of the Bhagavatam – surely this will be the cure, for only the Bhagavatam has the requisite purity to get the best out of jñana and vairagya. The sages chant the Bhagavatam, and the task is done – her sons are healed.
Thus the Bhagavata Mahatmya does what it sets out to do: glorify the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The culminating teaching of this scene comes from the mouth of Sanat Kumara: “Bhakti yields the nectar of divine love only when one chants the spiritual sound of Srimad-Bhagavatam. And at that time, such love is accompanied by perfect jñana and vairagya, which as a result will dance in every heart and every home.” (Bhagavata Mahatmya 63)
The narrative moves on, saying that Bhakti Devi inundates all of India, moving farther north to Hardwar and elsewhere, including “other countries.” Given the accomplishments of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, especially in bringing the bhakti movement to the West in 1965, this is a significant statement.
The text is clear: idam sthanam parityajya videsham gamyate maya, “Leaving this place, I go abroad.” (Bhagavata Mahatmya 1.50) According to both Shrivatsa Goswami3 and Satyanarayana Baba, in his commentary on the Bhagavata Mahatmya,4 this statement could easily point to Srila Prabhupada’s journey to the western world. It is interesting, too, notes Satyanarayana (p. 244), that the Sanskrit verb used in this sentence is in the passive (gamyate), perhaps indicating that she (Bhakti) will be carried by someone, not that she travels on her own.
Likewise, if there is any question that Bhakti Devi’s journey included going abroad, as opposed to just elsewhere in India, let it be noted that the Bhagavata Mahatmya specifically uses the Sanskrit word videsham, which, according to the authoritative Monier-Williams (A Sanskrit-English Dictionary) translates as, “another country, foreign country, abroad.” These are primary definitions.5
Gaura Govinda Maharaja (1929–1996), an ISKCON guru, while lecturing on this Bhagavata Mahatmya (https://tvpbooks.com/2012/04/the-story-of-bhakti-devi/), quoted Narada Muni speaking to Bhakti Devi: “It is your good fortune that you have come to Vrindavan Dhama and have become youthful again. Bhakti Devi is always dancing in Vrindavan. There are no customers for jñana and vairagya in Vrindavan, because everyone wants bhakti.”
According to the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.7), jñana and vairagya arise naturally as a result of devotion to the Lord. Transcendental knowledge and detachment from sense gratification naturally follow bhakti. (11.2.43) This is why they are presented as Bhakti Devi’s sons in the Bhagavata Mahatmya. That being said, it is further taught that without bhakti, knowledge and dispassion are inadequate. They may serve a preliminary purpose, but without bhakti they fall short. Gaudiya Vaishnava teachers throughout history have emphasized this point. As Srila Prabhupada writes in The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 14): “Actually, the cultivation of knowledge or renunciation, which are favorable for achieving a footing in Krishna consciousness, may be accepted in the beginning, but ultimately they may also come to be rejected, for devotional service is dependent on nothing other than the sentiment or desire for such service.”
Once informed by devotion, however, knowledge and detachment hit their stride: “In that position of self-realization, by practice of knowledge and renunciation in devotional service, one sees everything in the right perspective; he becomes indifferent to material existence, and the material influence acts less powerfully upon him.” (Bhagavatam 3.25.18) Further, “Jñana and vairagya can be achieved simply by becoming a devotee of Vasudeva [Krishna]. That is the verdict of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Vasudeve bhagavati bhakti-yoga? prayojita?, janayaty ashu vairagyam [Bhagavatam 1.2.7]. Ashu . . . very soon. Just like these boys, these American, these European boys, they are young men. Now they have taken sannyasa and dedicated their life for service of Krishna. They are vairagya.” (Prabhupada lecture, Calcutta, June 30, 1973)
In other words, all spiritual ends are achieved by taking to bhakti, and a primary practice of bhakti is reciting Srimad-Bhagavatam, for it is identical to the spiritual realm. This is the teaching of the Bhagavata Mahatmya. In all instances, bhakti is to be embraced as the very source of all other spiritual assets. Indeed, these assets do not show their true face until bhakti is fully embraced.
Elaborating on the essence of pure bhakti, the scholar-devotee O. B. L. Kapoor notes:
Prahlada is said to have practiced bhakti in his mother’s womb, Dhruva in childhood, Ambarisha in youth, Yayati in old age, Ajamila at the time of death, and Citraketu in heaven, after death. Even those consigned to hell or those who have attained liberation after bondage have practiced devotion and attained the supreme end. Bhakti is meant alike for those who desire liberation and those who have attained it. . . . The superiority of bhakti over the other paths of realization is thus apparent. Those who prefer jñana to bhakti are therefore likened to people who run after the chaff and disregard the grain. The Gita (6.46–47) states unequivocally that yoga is superior to jñana and karma, and that bhakti is superior to them all.6
It should be noted that while pure bhakti transcends ordinary jñana, karma, and vairagya, they remain a part of bhakti in their purified forms. Pure bhakti as directed to Lord Krishna presupposes a certain knowledge of the object of devotion, His form, His attributes, and the relationship between Him and the rest of the world, as well the concomitant detachment that arises as a result of this knowledge. Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 2.117) warns against any indifference toward this kind of knowledge, which is necessary for firm faith in Krishna and exclusive devotion to Him: “A sincere student should not neglect the discussion of such conclusions, considering them controversial, for such discussions strengthen the mind. Thus one’s mind becomes attached to Sri Krishna.”
This is why the Bhagavata Mahatmya depicts Bhakti Devi as beseeching the sages for the welfare of her sons, and the sages in turn rightly recite the Bhagavatam as the prescribed remedy. For, as stated, only the Bhagavatam can bring jñana and vairagya to the level necessary for the practice of pure bhakti. Apropos of this, we may contemplate the Bhagavata Mahatmya’s final words:
Sri Shukadeva Goswami spoke the Bhagavatam while in ecstasy. Anyone who recites or hears the Bhagavatam is qualified to go to the spiritual world. . . . After studying various scriptures, I [one of the four Kumaras] have revealed this secret to you, which is the essence of all scriptures. There is nothing superior to this Bhagavatam as spoken by Shukadeva Goswami. For the attainment of transcendental bliss, you should always drink the Bhagavatam, which is composed of twelve cantos. Anyone who hears the Bhagavatam from the lips of a pure devotee, with faith and a pure heart, or recites it to the devotees, will attain the supreme goal. In the three worlds there is nothing unattainable for such a person.
Therefore, at the very heart of the Bhagavata Mahatmya’s exaltation is Krishna’s quintessential assertion: “Whatever appears to be of any value [up to and including jñana and vairagya], if it is without relation to Me, has no reality.” (Bhagavatam 2.9.34)
In other words, to be viable, jñana and vairagya must cling to Krishna bhakti. Otherwise, in the final analysis, they are simply contingencies of illusion, counterfeit currency subject to confiscation. Misfortunate persons who falsely believe they possess something of value are sadly disabused of the error when the fraudulence is discovered. They are left to lament. The Bhagavata Mahatmya, by glorifying bhakti as the indispensable element in spiritual life, thus protects against this sad turn of events.
This conclusion should be seen as uplifting, for it makes clear the singular spiritual balm known as Srimad-Bhagavatam. The Bhagavata Mahatmya gives readers inspiration to read this best of all Puranas. “After the Bhagavatam’s recitation,” the Bhagavata Mahatmya tells us, “Jñana, Vairagya, and Bhakti were at their best. Being young and enthusiastic, they attracted the hearts of all living entities. . . . In the midst of everyone, Bhakti, Jñana, and Vairagya danced like expert performers.” Indeed, with the kind of prodding we receive from texts like the Bhagavata Mahatmya of the Padma Purana, we might one day follow their example.
1 .Mahatmyas make up a genre (Gita Mahatmya, Mathura Mahatmya, etc.), and there are other Bhagavata Mahatmyas besides the one referred to in this article.
2 Steven J. Gelberg, ed., “Interview with Shrivatsa Goswami” in Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna: Five Distinguished Scholars on the Krishna Movement in the West (new York: Grove Press, 1983), p. 212.
3 Ibid, page 244.
4 Sri Satyanarayana Dasa, trans., Srimad Bhagavata Mahatmya: The Glories of Srimad Bhagavatam (Vrindavan: BSI Gurukula, n.d.), p. 10.
5 When Gelberg questions Shrivatsa Goswami about the word videsham, asking how we know it’s not just referring to another province in India, as opposed to “abroad,” Shrivatsa argues that all of the other places are mentioned by name, a common device in mahatmya literature, but somehow, mysteriously, this videsham is left vague, indicating that it is some unknown place. That little fact, in conjunction with how the word is defined by Sanskrit experts, points to “another country.” As Shrivatsa Goswami notes: In this context, desha means “country” and vi means “another.”
6 O. B. L. Kapoor, “The Path of Bhakti,” Back to Godhead, Vol. 65, May 1974.