By Sri Nandanandana das (Stephen Knapp)
More devotees should know about the holy town of Shukratal. Shukratal is the place where Shukadeva Goswami spoke the sacred Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana) to Maharaja Pariksit 5000 years ago. It is located about half way between Delhi and Haridwar, a four to five hour drive, and about 86 kilometers before you get to Haridwar. The little town sits on the banks of the holy Ganga River, where it has cut a swathe through the rocky region. Pilgrims come to visit this holy town, but it is still gaining recognition though it plays a serious role in our tradition of the Bhagavatam.
GETTING TO SHUKRATAL
First of all, the village and the road to get to it are so small that they do not show up on most maps, so it is not easy to find unless you know how to get to it. But it is about an hour east of the city of Muzaffarnagar. There you can get a bus from the local bus stand that will take you there. One goes about every hour. Or hire a car to drive you. It rides over a bumpy and narrow road where traffic can come to a halt in the three small villages that you go through along the way. The first village along the road is Morna, which is a part of the legend of Pariksit that we will describe shortly. Then after some time there is a fork in the road and an arch over the way on the left that leads to Shukratal. A short drive later you enter the town itself. The bus will take you to the local bus stand or drop off point. But as you enter the town, the first place you reach is Shukteerth and the Bhagavata Peeth Shukdev Ashrama. If you stop here, you walk or drive up the hill to the ashrama’s parking area and see the 5100 year old Akshay Vriksha tree. This is the exact place where Sukadeva Goswami spoke the Srimad-Bhagavatam to Maharaja Pariksit. The ashrama is built around the tree.
THE HISTORY OF SHUKRATAL
To comprehend the importance of this place, you must understand the history. The Srimad-Bhagavatam is considered the most important literary work of Srila Vyasadeva, who was the author and compiler of most of the important Vedic texts, such as the Vedas, Upanisads, and Mahabharata. The Bhagavatam is said to be Vyasadeva’s own commentary on all of his own writings. At one point, Mahamuni Ved Vyasa was dissatisfied with all of his writings. At that time the great sage Narada Muni arrived and encouraged him to explain the Vedic truths by elaborating on the pastimes, character, qualities, and names of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. Thus, Vyasadeva accepted this instruction and composed the 18,000 verses of the Bhagavatam, which included all of the wonderful pastimes of the Supreme Being.
This supreme truth of the Bhagavatam was first revealed by the Supreme Lord to Brahma. Brahma passed it along to the great sage Narada Muni, who then gave it to Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa (Vyasadeva). And Vyasa wrote the Srimad-Bhagavatam and also passed it along to Shukadeva Goswami, who also spoke it to Maharaja Pariksit.
How the narration between Shukadeva Goswami and King Pariksit happened is a story in itself, which shows the importance of not only the Bhagavatam but of the holy place of Shukratal. King Pariksit is the son of Abhimanyu and the grandson of the great warrior Arjuna. One day while King Pariksit was hunting, which many kshatriya kings did in that era, he became thirsty and tired. He was about 60 years old at the time and while looking for water came across the hermitage of the sage Shamik. However, the sage was in deep meditation and was completely unaware of the King’s presence. When the sage did not respond to the King, the King did not know the reason for the sage’s silence and felt insulted. The King, feeling his importance was being neglected, responded by taking a dead snake with the end of his bow and garlanding the sage with it. This was certainly a sinful act by the King toward the sage. At that time, the corruption and confusion of the age of Kali-yuga was beginning, and the effect was felt by the actions of all involved. What happened next indicated all the more that the influence of Kali-yuga was spreading. Shringi, the young son of the sage Shamik, was playing with his friends, the children of other sages. But when he heard about the incident with his father, he became angry at King Pariksit. Shringi then took some holy water from the Kaushaki in his hands and cursed the King, saying that within seven days the poisonous snake Takshaka would bite the man who had insulted his father, thus killing him. When Shringi returned to his father’s hermitage and saw the dead snake on his father’s shoulders, he began to weep loudly. On hearing the sobbing of his son, Shamik finally came out of his trance. He opened his eyes and saw the dead snake around his shoulders, but like an elevated sage, he did not consider it important and merely threw it away. He then asked his son why he was crying. However, on hearing the entire story, the sage Shamik felt remorse at what his son had done. He knew that the King had done a shameful act, but in a moment of weakness. Then he chastised his son, telling him that he had committed a great sin, giving such a grave punishment for a small mistake, and that he was very immature to consider the King an ordinary person. At that time the King returned to his palace. Putting his crown aside, he realized his mistake and felt saddened by treating the innocent sage like a wicked person. He wondered how he could be absolved of this sin. As he thought in this manner, a disciple of the sage Shamik came to Maharaja Pariksit to warn him of the curse that was put on him by the sage’s son. The King, accepting his fate as a blessing, handed over his kingdom to his son, Janmejaya and went to the banks of the Ganga to fast for the seven days before he was to be bitten by the snake. The news of this traveled rapidly and brought many sages along with their disciples to where he was fasting. On the pretext of making a pilgrimage to a holy place, these saintly men actually purify the places they visit. The King was glad to see all the holy men assemble near him and worshiped them by bowing his head as they arrived. Then the King asked them, ‘O great sages, what is the most important duty of one who is about to die? Please consider this.’ All the sages who had gathered around King Pariksit deliberated on this question and also decided to remain there until he left this world. The great sage Shukadeva, the 16 year old son of Vyasadeva, was wandering nearby, free from all cares and completely content within himself. Wearing the garb of an avadhuta, as though others had neglected him, he was followed by children. At that time he appeared on the scene in the presence of the sages and King Pariksit. Even though Vyasadeva and Narada Muni, Shukadeva’s guru and grand guru, were also present in the assembly of brahmarsis, rajarsis and sadhus, they all rose from their seats to pay their respects to him. King Pariksit also addressed Shukadeva: ‘You are the supreme among saints, therefore I would like to ask what should a man do who is about to die? What should he hear, chant, remember and worship?’ Shukadeva at first responded, ‘The question you have asked is glorious because it is beneficial to everyone. The answer to this question is the prime subject for life and is approved by all transcendentalists. At the last stage of life, one should be bold enough to not be afraid of death. But one must cut off all attachment to the material body and everything pertaining to it and all such desires.’ In this way, to answer the request of Maharaja Pariksit, the nectar of the Bhagavata flowed from the lips of Shukadeva Goswami in a way that it seemed to them that they had never heard it before. This question and answer format, the discussion of all of the most important of spiritual topics, became the Srimad-Bhagavatam as we know it today. After the whole Bhagavatam had been discussed, Shukadeva concluded that for a person who is suffering in the fire of countless miseries and who desires to cross the insurmountable ocean of material existence, there is no vehicle more suitable than cultivating a transcendental taste for the narrations of the pastimes of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. After the recitation of the Bhagavatam, King Pariksit thanked Shukadeva Goswami for his merciful instructions, and said: ‘Now I have achieved the purpose of life. You have personally related to me the narration of the Supreme Lord and have revealed to me what is most auspicious’the knowledge of the supreme personal feature of God. I am now full of transcendental knowledge and self-realization, and my ignorance has been eradicated. I no longer have any fear of Takshaka or any other living being, because I have absorbed myself in the purely spiritual Absolute Truth. Kindly allow me to absorb my mind, purified of all lusty desires, within Him and to thus give up my life.’
Then Shukadeva, along with the other sages, departed after blessing the King. Pariksit then laid the darbha grass on the bank of the Ganga so that the tip of its stalks faced east and he turned himself toward the north. The King settled his mind within his spiritual Self, and he became as stationary as a tree. As the time came when the curse was to take effect, the snake bird Takshaka , who could shift into any shape he wanted, approached Shukratal in the guise of a brahmana to bite the King.
As Takshaka went, he met the brahmana Kashyapa Muni who was traveling in a hurry. Takshaka asked where he was going. Kashyapa Muni, who knew the science of counteracting poisons, said he was going to meet King Pariksit because he could neutralize the affect of the snake bite. To test the sage, Takshaka exposed his fangs and bit a green tree which turned to ashes in seconds. Then Kashyapa chanted some mantras and the tree was restored and as green as before. So Takshaka asked whether the sage was going in order to receive rewards for his knowledge, and the sage replied to the affirmative. Takshaka said that he could reward Kashyapa more then the King, if he would only go back home. So the brahmana Kashyapa took much wealth from Takshaka and returned home.
The place where this incident occurred is known as Bheraheri, which is five miles away from Shukratal. The place where Takshaka asked Kashyapa to return home is called Modna which later became known as Morna, the village on the road four miles from Shukratal coming from Muzaffarnagar.
Legend continues to explain that when Takshaka got to the area of King Pariksit, he was not allowed to enter. So he changed himself into a caterpillar and entered one of the fruit baskets being taken to the King’s area. On reaching the King, Takshaka came out of the fruit, and assumed the form of a brahmana and easily approached the King, and while the King was in meditation, bit him. As everyone looked on in horror, the King’s body was immediately turned to ashes by the fire of the snake’s poison. Thus, Maharaja Pariksit left his body and, immersed in the Absolute Truth of the Supreme Being, felt no pain as he entered the spiritual world. This is why the whole area of Shukratal is full with the sweetness of bhakti or devotion for Lord Sri Krishna. This is also the importance of hearing the powerful and fully transcendental literature of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. It can deliver one from the pangs of material existence and into the absorption of the spiritual pastimes of the Lord.
It is said that only after many lifetimes of performing pious acts does one achieve the opportunity of being able to hear the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Also, wherever the Bhagavatam is read, Lord Krishna will manifest. It is also said that all of the holy rivers, kundas or ponds and lakes, all sacrifices, and the seven holy cities of Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kashi (Varanasi), Kanchipuram, Avanti (Ujjain) and Dwaraka, and all the holy mountains are present where Srimad-Bhagavatam is discussed. This is only a small portion of descriptions on the power found within the vibrations of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Thus, the holy place of Shukratal gives importance to the sacred text of the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
WHAT YOU CAN SEE AT SHUKRATAL
What you will find at Shukratal is first the Bhagavata Peeth Shukdev Ashrama. This is built around the 5100 year old Akshay Vriksha tree which sits on top of the hill where 80,000 sages of all ranks gathered to here Shukadeva speak the Bhagavatam to Maharaja Pariksit 5000 years ago. It was under the branches of this tree where Shukadeva and King Pariksit sat. The tree is quite large, towering up to 150 feet, with branches spreading in all directions, even coming out of the sides of the hill just below the tree. One branch has a nub coming out of it that is in the shape similar to Lord Ganesh. The ashrama includes a number of shrines and deities within its complex, including one close to the tree that has the images of Shukadeva sitting and speaking to King Pariksit. Others include those for Hanuman, Shiva, Devi, Rama, along with a yajnashala, a Sanskrit Vidyalaya, a reading room, and a dispensary. The lecture hall, the Srimad Bhagavata Bhavan, is for holding continuous discourses and week-long kathas or recitations on the Bhagavata Purana. Many pilgrims come here from all over India to participate and can also stay the night in the ashrama. Across from the tree is also the Samadhi tomb of Swami Kalyandevji Maharaja, who established the Shukdev Ashrama and worked to bring back the significance of Shukratal. He also helped bring the sacred Akshay Vriksha tree back to good health. Therefore, much of the present day condition and recognition of Shukratal can be credited to him. He entered Mahasamadhi on July 14, 2004, having been born in Kotana village in Uttar Pradesh in 1876. The Bhagavata Peeth Shukdev Ashrama is now under the guidance of Swami Omanand Brahmachari.
From the top of the hill near the tree you can see over the town and the other temples that are here. Going down the hill along the street you can easily find the Hanuman temple, which has the world’s tallest image of Hanuman at 75 feet high standing outdoors over the main shrine, and built in 1687. This is presently managed by Swami Naistika Brahmachari Sri Keshwananda Ji Maharaja. To the right of this temple going down the street are shrines for Lord Rama, and another of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna, plus two more for Shiva and Durga.
If we go back to the street and around the corner in the direction we came from we will see the Ganesh temple which has a tall outdoor image of Ganesh, which stands
35 feet tall.
As we continue to explore the town, there are many more temples and ashramas of various sizes, mostly small but quite devotional. There is the Pracheen Ganga Mandir, a Ram Krishna Mandir, the Gayatri Teerth, and others. As we make our way through the central part of this small town and to the east we come to the Ganga, which is a quiet and peaceful river here compared to the swift and powerful river we find at Haridwar. Many pilgrims take a holy bath here.
As we make our way back, there are other temples we can visit, and you can see the tall outdoor images of the 101 feet tall Shiva in one place and Parvati in another that stands 51 feet tall. In another area is the Maheshwar ashrama, a goshala that takes care of several dozen cows which sells and distributes milk to a number of the temples. Many sannyasis wander the streets here and visit this place in the evening. Farther out of town there are small temples and ashramas where swamis may stay for the peace and quiet that is found here, which is especially nice for meditation and pondering the spiritual significance of this place and the importance of the Srimad-Bhagavatam. There is a long list of other ashramas and dharmshalas, along with a tourist rest house, that are located here. My visit to this sacred village was short, but I could see where a person could easily stay for days and experience the peaceful but spiritually powerful nature of this holy place. In many ways, Shukratal reminded me of Naimisaranya (near Sitapur), another small and quiet place where many temples have sprouted up around a few important central temples. Naimisaranya was where Suta Gosvami spoke the Bhagavatam to the thousands of sages who had gathered there to perform a large ritual for the upliftment of people in Kali-yuga. The Gaudiya Math has a nice, small temple there that was established by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta and which gives out free prasada at lunch time. But Shukratal is smaller and there seems to be no temple there that is in connection with the Gaudiya Math or Iskcon. This place is so important in our tradition that at some time we should establish a temple and ashrama there, especially to emphasize that the real yajna of today is Hari Nama sankirtana, which I’m sure the locals and pilgrims would greatly appreciate since that process is also enunciated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam. The closest Iskcon temple to Shukratal is the small temple in the village of Sisouli near Shamli, about 30 kilometers to the west of Muzaffarnagar. They can also help you facilitateyour visit to Shukratal.
You can call them for more information or to assist them in their mission at: 9259084831, or 9259405251.