One of the most important but underappreciated topics in the field of scriptural study is the topic of hermeneutics. Whether one is academically oriented or a staunch practitioner of a particular tradition, in order to gain an authentic understanding of the profound and esoteric meanings of ancient scriptural writings, it is essential to understand the hermeneutical style of the original authors and realized teachers. In the absence of such an understanding, one’s reading of the texts is at risk of creating more doubts than clarity. This can then manifest as perceiving the scripture as faulty for the academic, or producing a lack of faith in the practitioner. Below is an amazing analysis by Śrī Jīva Gosvamī of an important section of the Bhāgavata Purāņa from which we can get a glimpse of his hermeneutical style, which reveals both the depth of the scripture and its internal consistency.
In the 31st chapter of the Third Canto of the Bhāgavata Purāņa, there is an interesting description of the conception of a baby and its development until its birth. Especially interesting is the description of the baby’s feelings. Although not verified by modern medical science and perhaps even contradictory to their findings, Śrī Kapila describes that the baby suffers immensely in the womb. Its soft body is bitten by hungry worms so much so that the baby becomes unconscious because its tender body cannot tolerate so much pain.
The baby also suffers intolerable pain all over its body caused by the food consumed by the mother that is excessively bitter or pungent, salty or sour, too hot or too cold. The baby feels like a bird in a cage without freedom of movement. Then it is said that by some good fortune, the baby remembers its previous 100 births and grieves piteously. There is no peace for the baby who is completely locked in the womb. Being in a frightful condition, he prays to Bhagavān for his release. These prayers are described in ten verses beginning from SB 3.31.12.
Destruction of All Sins for Surrendered Devotees
While commenting on verse 11, Śrī Jīva Gosvamī makes a very interesting observation: Earlier it was said by sage Śaunaka that if one renders service to Bhagavān even once, one’s life becomes perfected (SB 2.3.17-25). In the beginning of the Sixth Canto, there is the story of Ajāmila, which depicts that even by a semblance of devotion (bhaktyābhasa), one is completely relieved of all of one’s sins. There are numerous statements in scriptures that even a little effort in the execution of bhakti is instrumental in destroying all one’s past karma and awarding the highest perfection of life. Śrī Jīva Gosvamī cites various verses from different scriptures which convey this idea. The first verse is from Laghu Bhagavatamrita as follows:
vartamāñam ca yat pāpaṁ yad gataṁ yad bhaviṣyati
tat sarvaṁ nirdahatyāśu govinda nāma kīrtanāt
“The chanting of the name of Bhagavān Govinda immediately burns all the sins committed in the past, present, or which may be committed in future. “
Then Śrī Jīva Gosvamī cites various further verses which state that even a little bit of contact with bhakti destroys all sins. It is said in Brahma Vaivartha Purāṇa:
“The Lord, even if worshipped unintentionally, grants liberation, oh dvija, just as fire burns even if touched unwillingly. If people certainly attain liberation by merely being initiated into Kṛṣṇa mantra, then it is definitely true for those who always worship Kṛṣṇa with devotion.”
The Bṛhad Nāradiya Purāṇa says, “Those who have worshipped Viṣṇu just once, even unwillingly, can never have the fear of material bondage”.
In Padma Purāṇa it is said, “One who worships Śrī Hari unwillingly or out of mistake becomes free from all sins and attains the supreme destination.”
In a dialogue between Nārada and Pundarika in Itihāsa Samuccaya it is stated, “Even those who are cruel, ill-behaved, and ever engaged in sinful activity attain to the abode of Bhagavān by taking shelter of Śrī Nārāyaņa. The pure-hearted Vaiṣṇavas can never be touched by any sin. They purify everyone just as darkness is dispelled when the sun rises.”
Thus, Śrī Rāmacandra states in Rāmāyaṇa, “One who even once prays to me, ‘I surrender to You.’ I give him eternal fearlessness. This is my promise.”
It is also stated in Garuḍa Purāṇa, “It is the promise of Śrī Hari that if anyone approaches Him even once and says that he or she is surrendered to Him, He gives fearlessness to such a person.”
The Visnudharmottara Purāṇa says it is better to live even five days as a Vaiṣṇava than to live a life of 1,000 kalpas, or days of Brahmā, being devoid of devotion to Kṛṣṇa.
Therefore, here in Bhāgavatam, the description of the jīva who prays to Bhagavān while in the womb, and then is bound by material nature after taking birth, seems to contradict the verses cited above. This deserves an explanation.
Description of Different Jīvas
The reply is as follows: This description is not of one jīva but of two different jīvas, although described as one, because both belong to the class of jīva. In reality, only some rare, fortunate jīva prays to Bhagavān in the womb and he certainly is liberated. It is not the case that every jīva remembers Bhagavān in the womb. Thus, according to a description in the Vedic dictionary Nirukta, there are three types of fortunate jīvas. One type remembers previous lives, the second category practices Sāṅkhya or Yoga, and the third one prays to Bhagavān. Besides these, there is a forth category which encompasses most of the jīvas, who do not do any of these. The Nirukta first says that the jīva develops all limbs in the ninth month and then continues, “I died and took birth again and after birth, I died again.” After describing the thoughts of such a jīva, Nirukta also states the condition of the other two types of jīvas.
“The jīva, with his head down and tormented like this, practices Sāṅkhya or Yoga or worships the Supreme Person who is the 25th tattva. Then, in the tenth month, he takes birth.”
In the last verse, the optional indeclinable vā (lit., “or”) indicates that only a particular jīva remembers and prays to Bhagavān. Śrī Jīva Gosvamī has explained in his commentary on the four verses (SB 2.9.33-36) of the Bhāgavatam that bhakti can be performed in all states of life, including in the womb. Thus, the prayers by the baby in the womb are not implausible.
The example of different living beings described as one entity is also found in other places in the Bhāgavatam. On every day of Brahmā, some creations occur, but on the first day, he himself is born, which is unique. This is called Padma Kalpa. In the Third Canto, while describing the creation on the day of Padma Kalpa, there is also a description of the birth the Four Kumāras, which happened later in a different kalpa, and is one of the creations of Brahma. They are being described as if they were one entity. While commenting on this, even Śrīdhara Swami has remarked that this description has been made by taking the creation in Padma Kalpa and the creation by Brahma as one.
Another example of this is the avatāra of Varāha. It is described that in the first manvantara, Svyāmbhuva Manu was born from Brahmā, and when he was asked to procreate, he could not find the earth. Hiraņyākșa had submerged it in water. At that time, Bhagavān Varāha, manifested from the nose of Brahma, uplifted the earth, and fought with and killed Hiraņyākșa.
What is puzzling here is that Hiraņyākșa and Hiraņyakaśipu were born from Diti, who was the daughter of Dakșa, the son of the Pracetās in the sixth manvantara. So how could Varāha, who manifested in the first manvantara, have killed Hiraņyākșa, who appeared in the sixth manvantara? Obviously He did not stay in the universe that long.
Liberation Even Upon Indirect Contact
Thus, it is understood that there are two separate avatāras of Varāha, one in the first and the other in the sixth manvantara, but they have been described as one, considering them as non-different. In the same way, it is understood that the jīva who prays to Bhagavān is different from the one who doesn’t, and the former certainly becomes liberated. The others who do not pray are born as conditioned beings. However, the description appears as if it is only one jīva who prays and remains conditioned. As it has been described above, since one becomes liberated even by a little contact of bhakti, it is understood that liberation is also granted to those who contact bhakti indirectly. This is said in Bṛhad Nāradīya Purāṇa, “Even the most sinful people, even if only glanced at by the devotees of Viṣṇu, who are fully engaged in service, attain the supreme destination.”
In Viṣņu Dharma it is said, “One hundred past and one hundred future generations of a devotee who builds a temple of Śrī Viṣṇu are carried to the abode of the Lord. The past and future generations in one kalpa of a person who establishes a deity of Hari, are liberated.”
Yama, the Lord of death, gives the following instructions to his servants, “Ninety thousand generations of a person who has established the deity of Kṛṣṇa with devotion are outside your jurisdiction.”
In this regard, Śrī Nṛsiṁhadeva told Prahlāda (SB 7.10.18), “O sinless one, your father has been purified along with 21 past generations because, O saintly Prahlāda, you have taken birth in this family. You are the purifier of the whole dynasty.”
In case of Prahlāda, there were only three generations before him, not 21 generations, because he was the son of Hiraņyakaśipu who was Kaśyapa’s son who was the son of Marīci who was Brahmā’s son. So how to account for the other 17 generations? Bhagavān Nṛsiṁhadeva’s statements cannot be false. Jīva Gosvamī says that in this particular case, the remaining number is to be applied to Prahlāda’s birth in the previous kalpa.
Deeper Meaning of Śāstra
Thus, the jīva who prays to the Lord in the womb cannot remain conditioned. For this reason, we have to accept that the jīva who prays to the Lord and the one that takes birth as a conditioned being are two different jīvas. This explanation is further supported by the verb stuvīt (“may pray”, SB 3.13.11). This verb is in the potential case (liṅga lakāra), which signifies a possibility only. That means that not everyone prays to Bhagavān. This explanation is further fortified by the use of the verb uvāca before verse 3.31.12 in jīva uvāca. This verb is in the past tense, which signifies that it is a specific jīva who prays. If every jīva prayed, the text would have used the present tense: “jīva vadati,” because present tense is used for an activity which happens regularly, just as we say, “The sun rises in the East,” or “The Ganga flows to the ocean.”
This commentary of Jīva Gosvamī is a wonderful example of hermeneutics and shows how śāstra also has deeper meanings, which are not always very explicit. Thus, we should not be too quick to find faults in śāstra or lose faith in it.