“As a desire tree, whatever you want you can have from the Vedas. Veda means knowledge; it is so complete that whether you want to enjoy in this material world or you want to enjoy spiritual life, both kinds of knowledge are there. If you follow the Vedic principles, then you will be happy.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna Consciousness The Topmost Yoga System, Ch 8 )
The Vedas should not be misunderstood to be a scriptural tradition following blind allegiance to a particular spiritual personality without any variety or intricacy in teaching. Rather, the Vedas represent complete knowledge, with their many departments likened to branches on a tree. On this tree so many different pieces of information can be plucked, each of which is intended to deliver benefits and happiness to those who follow the prescriptions contained within. Though there are many fruits on this tree, there is one that is the most ripe, that provides the greatest taste. Since this fruit has been already touched by the parrot Shukadeva Goswami, its nectar tastes that much better. This fruit is none other than the Shrimad Bhagavatam, and anyone who is fortunate enough to regularly hear from it, to understand its finer points from someone who appreciates the work for what it is, the crown jewel of Vedic literature, will find the highest taste in life.
Why different branches of Vedic knowledge and their different purposes exist shouldn’t be that difficult to understand. In virtually any field of endeavor there is regulation, a system of maintenance that, when followed, leads to a pleasurable condition. The interested parties may not particularly like the restrictions imposed on them, but they are willing to abide by them to enjoy the happiness that will come later on. For instance, going to school during youth, taking instruction during the daytime from teachers and then going home to finish homework are experiences that children don’t necessarily enjoy. Following this system, however, allows children to mature into educated adults capable of using their knowledge to earn a living.
With the Vedas, which are the ancient scriptures of India, there are so many different departments of knowledge, branches on the tree which further different purposes. For those who are somewhat religious, the benefits of the human form of life can be grouped into four general categories: dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Dharma is the beginning; it is religiosity, following the rules and regulations of spiritual life. Dharma can be something as simple as getting up every morning and praying or something as complicated as observing fasting days and attending religious functions on a regular basis. The ability to abide by a dharma, or prescribed set of law codes, is what sets the human being apart from other species.
Though dharma is really an essential characteristic – and hence the rules and regulations of spiritual life aim to maintain or rekindle that defining feature of the spirit soul, the essence of life – the purpose for adherence to religiosity may not be known in the beginning stages. In conditioned life, where temporary bodies are accepted based on the laws of karma, the initial impulse is to satisfy the demands of the senses. Therefore even something as unrelated to sense gratification as dharma is initially adopted with that view in mind. “Let me be a little religious, for I don’t want to be punished with hellish conditions in the future.”
After dharma comes artha, or economic development. The majority of the world’s governments and newsmakers remain primarily concerned with economics and the plight of the financially distressed. Without adequate food, clothing and shelter, the living entity divorced of God consciousness cannot have any type of enjoyable life. Therefore, after following religious law codes, the hope is to have life’s necessities met to a satisfactory level. In this regard the Vedas provide much knowledge, especially for how to increase food production or the output of business transactions as a whole. The dharma, or abiding principles, for members of the mercantile class, the vaishyas, is nicely provided. The basic principle is that for production to be high, it must be encouraged. The government is allowed to tax, but not to a point that further production is inhibited. The analogy most often cited is the behavior of a cow. If you tie a cow up and force it to produce milk, it will not have much of an output. On the other hand, if you treat the cow well and allow it to freely graze in the field, it will produce heaps and heaps of milk, more than even its calf can handle.
After there is sufficient economic development, the desire shifts towards enjoying the fruits of labor, or kama. The senses need constant satisfaction, so rather than take to the animalistic way of life which seeks sense gratification first, if kama is prioritized after adherence to dharma and artha, the human being feels satisfied enough. The whole aim of procuring wealth and opulence is to enjoy the senses in the end. Having a large bank balance, a palatial mansion and a fancy car is only useful if these items can be enjoyed. Otherwise, what is the point to working so hard?
Finally, after a life full of dharma, artha and kama, the individual spirit soul wants to make sure that they never have to repeat the cycle again. This is where moksha, or release, comes in. Through renunciation following an authorized system of Vedic instruction, the influence of the senses can be mitigated to the point where the desires of the mind shift towards the spiritual realm. If consciousness is focused on the Absolute Truth, or Brahman, which is pure spirit and beyond the dualities found in material existence, the next birth will not be in the material realm. Whatever we think of at the time of death is the state we achieve in the next life. After a lifetime spent enjoying sense gratification earned through economic development and safeguarded through adherence to religious principles, it is advisable to shift the consciousness to pure spirit so that there will be no chance of repeating the cycle of birth and death again.
Within each of these areas there is much variety, and there are corresponding religious principles and recommendations aimed at achieving perfection. Even the famous Kamasutra, which elaborates on how to attain the highest sense pleasures, emanates from the Vedas, showing just how intricate and flawless Vedic wisdom is. For achieving material profit one is advised to worship different demigods, who are elevated living beings authorized to distribute rewards to their worshipers. It is for this reason that the Vedic tradition is known to have many gods, or devas. If you want to do well in your studies, you worship Goddess Sarasvati. If you want loads of money and an unending supply of opulence, you worship Lakshmi Devi. If you want obstacles removed from your path towards sense gratification or achieving rewards, you worship Lord Ganesha, the beloved son of Lord Shiva and Mother Parvati.
Each of these different branches and their procedures allows for a specific taste to be enjoyed by the worshiper. Each branch has its own fruit, but in the absence of a relationship to the Supreme Lord, the person from whom the tree of Vedic wisdom emanates, the resulting tastes aren’t much to write home about. With the many branches come many scriptures as well. There are eighteen major Puranas compiled by Vyasadeva, and each is tailored towards meeting specific interests. But only the Bhagavata Purana, or the Shrimad Bhagavatam, is considered the most ripened fruit, the tastiest reward growing on this wonderful tree. Moreover, this fruit has been touched by the sweetest parrot in the world, whose contact has only enhanced the glory of the fruit.
Why is the Bhagavatam so unique? Unlike other branches of Vedic knowledge, bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, has nothing to do with the material world. Bhakti is divine love, and when it is practiced as a form of yoga, its intention is to keep the living entity in constant contact with Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is fully featured with the attributes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge, renunciation and wisdom. Dharma, artha, kama and moksha are reserved for those who have yet to understand Bhagavan or who have not fully realized the benefit of connecting with Him on a regular basis.
To understand more about Bhagavan through the mood of bhakti, one must know what He looks like, what His features are, where He lives and most importantly, how to address Him. These issues are covered in the Bhagavatam, which comes to us in the form of a discourse between a spiritual master and a king who is on the verge of death. Vyasadeva’s son, Shukadeva Goswami, the parrot-like sage, is the speaker of the Bhagavatam, and Maharaja Parikshit is the listener. The king was cursed to die in a very short period of time, so rather than just focus on Brahman, he approached Shukadeva Goswami to understand what the highest taste in life was and whose association would be the most beneficial. Shukadeva replied by describing the details of Shri Hari, the Supreme Lord, and His different features.
To set the table, the Bhagavatam covers the origin of creation and how Lord Brahma emerged from the stem of the lotus like navel of Lord Vishnu, who is Bhagavan Himself. Yet as further information is revealed, the listener comes to know that Lord Krishna, Shyamasundara, the beautiful blackish youth with two hands, is the original form of the Lord, and that Vishnu is His direct expansion. From Vishnu come many incarnations who appear on this planet and others throughout the course of time. The primary incarnations and their activities are then described, for anyone who hears about God and His pastimes tastes the nectar that only springs from Divine association. Only in bhakti is this taste available, as contact with material nature and even Brahman is unable to meet the emotional needs of the soul.
After all the notable incarnations have been described, Shukadeva Goswami reveals the true gem of the Bhagavatam: details of the life and pastimes of Lord Shri Krishna. This information is tucked safely away in the tenth canto, acting as a reward for those who have been patient enough to hear the first nine. Indeed, without properly understanding Krishna’s position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the origin of spirit and matter, and the best friend of the living entities, the sweet nectar emerging from the ripened fruit of the tenth canto will not bring a pleasurable taste. Just as pure milk can be spoiled when touched by a serpent’s lips, if the intimate details of Krishna’s life and pastimes found in the Bhagavatam are heard from a serpent-like fellow, one who is averse to divine love and envious of Bhagavan’s supreme position, the sweet fruit will be bitter to the listener.
The four rewards of life are very difficult to achieve one after another, for they don’t always go together. Too much adherence to religious principles can take away opportunities for economic development and sense gratification. If moksha is sought out too early, the other aspects will be ignored. Indeed, this is at the root of the trepidation felt by parents when their young children take to studying the Vedas. For parents in the Vedic tradition, one of their greatest fears is that their children will take to the renounced order of life, sannyasa, without experiencing material life at all. Taking in too much of the cutting logic and argument found in the Vedas at an early age can be detrimental towards one’s material ambitions.
But bhakti is not like this at all. It is not meant to be practiced before or after anything else. Even a child can learn to love Krishna without reservation. It is revealed in the Bhagavatam that the holy name is the best way to connect with God in a mood of pure love, where there is no interruption in service and no motivation to find an end position. By regularly chanting the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the consciousness can be slowly transfixed into a divine trance that leaves the mind fully relishing the taste of Krishna’s association. Just as Krishna is worshipable, so are His names. Just as the holy name is worthy of honor, so is the book which describes the name and its benefits. In this respect the Bhagavatam is as good as Krishna, so anyone who is fortunate enough to hear from it on a regular basis will enjoy the most ripened fruit coming from the tree of Vedic wisdom. Once this nectar is tasted, all other forms of knowledge and endeavor will never cut it. Nothing short of seeing Krishna’s smiling face and hearing His pastimes, activities and devotees glorified will make the soul happy.