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Skype class from the USA.

(Kindly transcribed by bhaktin Lara and edited by Pracarananda Dasa.)

The link of the recording [SB Class Teleconference]

Hare Kṛṣṇa! I am happy to be with you all this morning. We also have few devotees here from Oyster Bay Co Long Island.

I have chosen a verse from first canto, which comes at the end of chapter seven.  It is the conclusion of the discussion about what Arjuna should do about Aśvatthāmā.

sūta uvāca

arjunaḥ sahasājñāya

harer hārdam athāsinā

maṇiṁ jahāra mūrdhanyaṁ

dvijasya saha-mūrdhajam

Translation and purport by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Śrila Prabhupāda.

Translation: Just then Arjuna could understand the motive of the Lord by His equivocal orders, and thus with his sword he severed both hair and jewel from the head of Aśvatthāmā.

Purport: Contradictory orders of different persons are impossible to carry out. Therefore a compromise was selected by Arjuna by his sharp intelligence, and he separated the jewel from the head of Aśvatthāmā. This was as good as cutting off his head, and yet his life was saved for all practical purposes. Here Aśvatthāmā is indicated as twice-born. Certainly he was twice-born, but he fell down from his position, and therefore he was properly punished.

Kṛṣṇa Kṣetra Dāsa: The title of this talk is “Divine equivocation and devotional resolve.” As we go along, we will get some idea why this title might be appropriate. Essentially, what I would like to do with this discussion is to share with all of you something that I have put together for some devotees in Europe. It is a kind of practice for studying Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, and it consists of what I call eight bells. We have the expression in English “that rings a bell,” i.e. the idea that something reminds us of something else, or it provokes some kind of thought in us. What I thought I would do is take this particular verse and go through it as an example of what I do, or what I encourage others to do with the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam in order to get more out of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam— in order to appreciate it more and relish it more. As we go through my eight so-called “bells,” I will explain what I mean by that. We have this verse as a specific example of this practice. In general, we can say that the verse has to do with a special kind of reciprocation with the Lord. In the translation, Śrila Prabhupāda uses the word “equivocal.”  The Lord has spoken equivocally. Equivocal means saying one thing and saying something else. Kṛṣṇa has made orders. He has told Arjuna, “You have to kill Aśvatthāmā.” But He has also said, “and you have to please Draupadī.” And what has Draupadī said? “Do not kill Aśvatthāmā.” So, what should Arjuna do in this situation? That is being identified in this verse. And what Arjuna does I would describe as devotional resolve. He makes the decision and the decision is a devotional one in more than one aspect. He’s acting in the way that what he does is his way of reciprocating with the Lord in this particular, very difficult, awkward situation.

The first bell I call “the big picture bell.” What is the big picture? Any individual, any single verse of Bhāgavatam is within a context of the particular chapter and within the section of that chapter. It is also within a larger series of chapters, and it is within the Bhāgavatam as the whole. In this case, I would say that the bigger picture of relevance to the verse is the Mahābhārata, because, of course, what is being described is something of what could be called the aftermath of Kurukṣetra war. And what I have discovered, very broadly speaking, about the Bhāgavatam in relation to the Mahābhārata is that the Bhāgavatam – especially the first canto, but also sections of later cantos as well – can be read as a Mahābhārata commentary, just as we have Śrila Prabhupāda’s commentary to individual verses and just as we have commentary by previous Acaryas (most famously Śridhar Svāmī, also Viśvanath Cakravarti Thakur and so many others). This is what is called running commentary, where they take single verses and give commentary to those verses. The Bhāgavatam as a whole can be seen as commentary on the Mahābhārata, giving the bhakti perspective. The account in chapters four, five and six of Śrila Vyāsadeva’s disturbance and frustration and advice from Nārada Muni are all within that context. Now he has come to understand what is the real purpose of what he was writing in the Mahābhārata. So that is all coming unfolded in the Bhāgavatam. The focus of course is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa is something of a side character, certainly an important side character, but nevertheless it is really the Pāṇḍavas who are at the center stage, and Kṛṣṇa is to the side. In the Bhāgavatam, of course, Kṛṣṇa comes to the center stage. With regard to the big picture, we may ask why it is that in this chapter (the seventh chapter of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam) suddenly we are hearing about Aśvatthāmā having murdered the sons of Draupadī. It seems to come a little bit out of the blue, until we look further in later chapters (of the first canto) and see that it is all in preparation for the confrontation with Mahārāja Parīkṣit.  Aśvatthāmā wants to annihilate any remaining members of the Pāṇḍava dynasty so that they would no longer make any claims to the kingdom. This is going to run parallel to some things that are happening in Mahārāja Parīkṣit’s life. He is encountering the personality of Kali and, just as Arjuna was going to banish Aśvatthāmā, Mahārāja Parīkṣit is going to banish Kali from his kingdom. So, we get a kind of anticipation of what is to come. That is a little about the big picture. Of course, we could say more.

The next bell is the “connection bell.” When we read Bhāgavatam, we often are reminded as we read one verse of some other verse. Śrila Prabhupāda is doing this very frequently in his purports. Especially, he is calling our attention to particular verses in Bhagavad-gītā. So that is one kind of connection. Indeed, in this case I would say for me there is a connection to the beginning of Bhagavad-gītā with respect to Arjuna and his experiencing a situation of dilemma. On the battlefield, he is faced with a dilemma: if I go forward and fight in this battle, what will be the results? If I do not fight, what will be the results? Nothing seems to be a happy solution. Similarly, here he is confronted with this dilemma: to kill or not to kill Aśvatthāmā. In this case, he comes up with what Śrila Prabhupāda calls a compromise. With this connection there is also a kind of continuity; we learn something more about Arjuna as we read this moment in his life when he is making a decision to satisfy both Kṛṣṇa and Draupadī. So we learn something about Arjuna, which we may not have understood from Bhagavad-gītā, namely that he is really a very intelligent analyzer of difficult situations. In that respect he is certainly a model for us.

My next bell is the “personal memory bell.” You read something and this rings a bell from your personal experience, something that has happened to you, or something that you carry with you. In my case, when I think about the contradictory orders that Arjuna is confronted with, I can identify with that. I am reminded of so many situations in which I see people with very strong opposing opinions, both sides of which want me to join their party, their club, their – whatever it is. But I would feel somewhere in between them. I will feel some sympathy for both sides. I will agree with both sides. Yes, you are right, we should do like this, and what they say over there is wrong. No, yes, you are right, what they say is wrong…

So that is my own experience, not a particular memory that I am having in this case. Sometimes a particular memory may also be there, but this is a general experience that I have had. We all find that we live in a political world, where people take sides on different issues. Sometimes we may feel like “Why? Why do I have to be on this side or that side?  Why can’t I just chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and be happy?”

So, these are the first three bells. The fourth is related to the third. It is what I call the “personal impact bell.” Here, I would just say in my case I find that this particular episode of Arjuna making this decision helps me to remember that decision-making requires very great thoughtfulness. Of course some decisions are small, we have to make decisions constantly, but some decisions are greater. They have more consequences in our lives. It is kind of an obvious point, and I think it is nicely underlined by the example of Arjuna. This would be an example where you find yourself faced with a decision to come. What shall I do? Simply remembering Arjuna and his predicament may help in coming to the right decision. One can pray to Kṛṣṇa, “May I have a similar insight as Arjuna had in order to make the right decision.”

The fifth bell I call the “inspiration to write bell.” Śrila Prabhupāda encouraged devotees to write, and I also encourage devotees to write. In this regard, I will just mention that some years back I wrote an essay, an article, actually it was originally an academic paper, which I presented at one Indological conference. In this paper, I discussed the point that I have already explained: that Bhāgavatam can be read as a Mahābhārata commentary. In that article, I go into specifics about how the Bhāgavatam does this by taking particular examples and making some broader observations about them. That is a very analytical sort of writing, but you might be inspired to do something more creative, something more literary. You may want to write poetry, you may want to write a story, you may want to write just some reflection about your own life, or you may want to write a drama. There are many possibilities. There are all kinds of ways to write. You might want to write a blog where you start out with some elaboration on a particular verse. Another thing you can do with verses of Bhāgavatam and Bhagavad-gītā is to write your own translation of the verse, in your own words, taking what you are appreciating about that verse and putting it in your own words. In this way you imbibe the sense, the meaning and the value of that verse.

The next bell we are getting to is number six, which I call the “challenge bell.” The challenge bell means that you read something and you think: What is he saying? How is this possible? Or I don’t get it? What is going on here? There may be something in Prabhupāda’s purport that strikes you as a little odd. In my case, when I read Prabhupāda’s saying “This was as good as cutting off his head,” I wondered why is it as good as cutting off his head. All that he does is cut off his hair, and certainly head and hair are different things. If you cut off the hair, well some of us do it fairly regularly and it doesn’t change our lives too much. If we would cut off our head that would change our lives drastically. It would end our life. So what does Prabhupāda mean by that? He says, “this was as good as cutting off his head and yet his life was saved for all practical purposes.”   This is a very interesting way of putting it. What struck me, or what I came to appreciate, is why is this such a drastic thing? Because when I first read this, so many years ago, I thought, “What’s the big deal? He’s cutting off some hair and some kind of jewel. It seems kind of anticlimactic, and it doesn’t seem as any sort of a punishment. How is this punishment?” It’s a punishment because what’s happening here is that Aśvatthāmā is being outcasted. In India, still to the present day and certainly in earlier times, to be outcasted was indeed to be as good as dead. It was an extremely drastic thing to be thrown out of your caste, especially if it was a higher caste. Aśvatthāmā is therefore referred to here as “dvija.” He is of the twice born but he is being made no longer part of the varṇa system in effect. He is being made into what now might be called an “untouchable.” So, a challenge is when one notices or hears something that is difficult. The challenge may be that you think “Well, here’s something that’s ok for me, I don’t have a problem with this, but how would I explain it to someone outside of our tradition?” There are so many things within the Bhāgavatam that are difficult, or what the BBT calls “tough ones.” And by the way there is a web site, if you search google for “BBT tough ones,” you will find some very interesting articles by devotees to address some of the difficult things that Śrila Prabhupāda has written in his books or otherwise.

I have two more bells to explain, but we can take a break if there is some question.

Two questions. Yes, Hare Kṛṣṇa!

[Question from teleconference group]: (could not be heard from listening the audio file).

Answer: To extract more meaning, to churn the nectar, to also digest and to get more out of it. So to recap what I have given so far, I have the first bell – the big picture bell, then the connection bell, then the personal memory bell, the personal impact bell, the inspiration to write bell and finally the challenge bell. Now obviously all of these are overlapping. Something will relate to something else, and they are just sort of an artificial way of analyzing. Is that all right?

Connection means that as you are reading something you recognize or you remember some other thing.  It may be another verse, or maybe another passage within the same śāstra, such as the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Bhagavad-gītā, or Caitanya-caritāmṛta. It could also be from something else that you read; it might be something from the news. We want to make the Bhāgavatam part of our lives, so we want to connect it to whatever else we are reading. This serves to enhance our appreciation of the text.

Another question. Hare Kṛṣṇa Jaduna prabhu! Thank you, Haribol!

[Question from teleconference group]: (could not be heard from listening the audio file).

Answer: Well, that’s a matter of personal inclination. For my local audience, the question is how to know which of these to apply?

Obviously, it is not that we should go through all of these with every single verse. It might be that we just read as we normally read most of the time, but perhaps particular verses will strike us one way or another. The idea is not that this should be some mechanical exercise. All I am trying to do is encourage devotees to be a little more conscientious and little more active—to be an active reader rather than a passive reader. We get so much more from our reading if we apply our minds to what we read with an inquisitive spirit. I am trying to unpack what sorts of inquisitiveness there could be. It is really a very individual thing, and there are certainly no hard and fast rules about this. This is just my suggestion.

There are two more bells. Number seven is called the “research bell.” The research bell means a question comes up as a result of your reading which you do not have an answer for, but you think maybe somebody else has it, or maybe some other text has it. This may be something you cannot do right away, but you may note it and then later make an effort. For example, in this case, as I was writing this academic paper about the Bhāgavatam as the commentary on the Mahābhārata, I realized I have to go read this same passage, the same episode in the Mahābhārata, to see how is it represented there. And it turns out that it is quite different. In the unabridged Mahābhārata (most of us read the abridged versions of Mahābhārata), what is called the critical edition of the Mahābhārata, it turns out that Kṛṣṇa curses Aśvatthāmā to wander in the wilderness for 3,000 years. There is no mention of Arjuna cutting off his jewel and his hair. So it is actually quite a different take of what happens. Now that is a whole other subject: how is it that we get one version here and another version in the Bhāgavatam? I will not go into that except to say if we look the Bhāgavatam as the commentary of the Mahābhārata, then I think helps. So that was my little bit of research I did related to this particular verse.

Finally, we have what I call the “action bell.” The action bell is the sense that I am reading something. I am not just going to shrug my shoulders and say, “well that’s all very nice” and go on with my life as before. Rather, something has to change, or I have to do something in response to what I am reading. In my own case, and this is not so much a response to the particular verse but more to the Bhāgavatam as the whole, I have found in recent years that I like to help devotees appreciate the Bhāgavatam by doing lectures, classes and seminars which are overviewing the Bhāgavatam. Some time ago in Sydney, Australia, we did an overview of the 12 cantos of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam in 12 days. We took one canto each day. Not the whole day, just two or three hours a day—more like two hours in the evenings. And it became a very nice way to hear the Bhāgavatam. I think devotees found it useful for getting a fresh appreciation of the Bhāgavatam. Sometimes one may tend to get a little bogged down in it because there is so much detailed information. It is quite long, and who has time for really studying the Bhāgavatam the way we would like to, ideally? Prabhupāda said 30 days for one verse. Somebody calculated that would be something over 50 years to read the whole thing. So for me the action, sort of an imperative I feel as a result of my reading, is to do some summarizing in various ways. And I hope in course of time to put together a book which will be my own take, my own overview of the Bhāgavatam to make available for devotees.

That’s my list of eight bells. One might come up with some other bells, but this is what I’ve come up with. I think you may find them useful in your own reading.

Now I want to go back to the verse. Arjuna is making a decision, and he is being put in a situation where he has to make a decision. I think what’s particularly interesting is that Kṛṣṇa is not spelling it out for him. We often feel like we are uncertain how to move forward and our prayer to Kṛṣṇa might be something like, “Kṛṣṇa will you please just tell me what to do. Will you please just spell it out? I’m a little dull, and can you please just put it in plain English for me.” But we experience that he does not do that. And I think this verse is a nice example of how Kṛṣṇa is putting the onus on us to work out what is best.

In the verse it says

arjunaḥ sahasājñāya

harer hārdam athāsinā

The word “hārdam” Prabhupāda translates as the motive of Hari, of the Lord. Of course the word “hārdam” is derivative from “hṛd,” or heart. It is the heart of the Lord. What does the Lord really want? This is Arjuna’s question. He is telling me “kill this guy, this rascal”. All right. What does he really mean? Arjuna is a wonderful example of taking responsibility in our decision making and first of all recognizing that it is us who have the responsibility to act in this world, in general, and specifically to act in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

Incidentally, for someone who would be interested in how this might relate to Western thought, Western philosophy, which is something I’m interested in, it turns out that this is a major theme in what is called existentialist philosophy. Existentialism became very popular in the 1960s. It’s kind of faded out since, but it actually reaches back much earlier. We usually associate existentialism with atheism, because some of the most outspoken modern existentialists were atheist like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, the movement is very broad. It includes, for example, Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, who was Christian. He is often said to be the founder of modern existentialism. This theme of taking personal responsibility is a major theme in existentialism. For us, the point we all need to appreciate is that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is not formulaic. There are so many rules and regulations that it may sometimes seem like a forest of rules and regulations, but at the end of the day, it is our individual selves who have to make choices based on our own realization that we have drawn from śāstra, from Guru and from sādhu.

Another theme that one could draw from this particular verse is the theme of punishment, or even more broadly, correction. As soon as you have a community, a society, there will be occasions when members of that community will be perceived as deviating, or in some way disrupting the community, acting in some way which is not appropriate. Then the question always comes: how do you deal with that in a devotional Kṛṣṇa conscious way? Therefore, I think of this verse as a kind of model of compassionate punishment. Draupadī says, “Don’t make Aśvatthāmā’s mother weep as I have had to weep.” This shows her incredible compassion. She says, “therefore don’t kill him.” Arjuna respects that and at the same time he sees something has to be done. He cannot just shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, it’s a terrible thing. Oh, well, let’s chant Hare Kṛṣṇa”. No! He acts. He acts very decisively, and he acts in such a way that real punishment is meted out.  A correction is made, a decision, which defines that community of devotees. In this way, we can see that the Bhāgavatam is relevant for us, even though the particulars that we see in the Bhāgavatam may seem a bit remote.

I have pretty much come to the end of my comments. In case anyone has a further comment, either from our local group or from our teleconference group, we can discuss.

Hare Kṛṣṇa!

[Question from teleconference group]:(could not be heard from listening the audio tape).

Answer: The question has to do with how am I linking existentialism with this verse. I am linking it through the principle of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions. Kṛṣṇa does not spell out what Arjuna is supposed to do. He forces Arjuna to work out for himself what has to be done, and this is what spiritual life is about. We get instructions from Guru: “Surrender to Kṛṣṇa!” All right. How to do that? We get some details: chant Hare Kṛṣṇa, associate with devotees, take prasadam (All right!) and so on; lots of details are there. But when it comes down to the details of the details – how do I work it out for myself, how do I negotiate the material energy – that is left for us. Taking responsibility means when we make a decision we accept whatever the consequences are. Some devotees, we do not maybe hear it so much these days, but in the past we heard devotees who were living for some time in the temple community and then left the temple. They kind of turned around and blamed the temple for so many things they apparently suffered in their lives. In other words, they do not take responsibility that they themselves decided, “I am going to now live in this temple community. I am going to participate in the way that it is done in the temple.” This is just one of various themes in existentialism. Existentialism means first and foremost to start with your real situation in the world and work with that reality, not appealing to something outside of yourself first, but to begin with yourself and your own decision making power, your own ability to make choices. Just in this regard, I was not saying that this verse is an illustration of everything within existential philosophy, but just on this particular point.

Any questions among our … yes?

Divyambara Dāsī: Isn’t it that the part of the decision making process is to foresee the consequences and to be aware of the consequences of each option?

Answer: Yes, Divyambara mataji is pointing out that taking responsibility and making decisions has also to do with anticipating consequences before one makes a decision.

Yes, that is the case certainly, that is part of being responsible. At the same time, ultimately, we never quite know what the consequences are going to be, and therefore making a decision and taking responsibility for it means also saying “Whatever the consequence is, even if it is not what I was bargaining for, I will accept it because I made that decision.”

Yes, now we have Atmanivedana.

Atmanivedana Dāsā: This is the doubt on this point. I fully accept philosophically your statement that we should take responsibility for our decisions — when someone lives in the temple and then they blame the temple for the things that happened that should not have happened. What about the fact that the majority people who join the temple, are very young? Our Vedic culture, as well as non-Vedic culture, accepts the premise that a young person is unqualified to make decisions without guidance from others. For example a young person moves in the temple and he is doing so with a guidance from someone senior in the group who lets him know that we are …

Kṛṣṇa Kṣetra Dāsa: Keep it short …

Atmanivedana Dāsa: Ok, that’s it.

Kṛṣṇa Kṣetra Dāsa: Ok, yes. An issue now is being raised. He gave the example of someone in the temple who, after some years, leaves the temple and then blames the temple for everything. The point is being made if somebody is joining the temple when they are young, they may not really be mature enough to take that responsibility. Therefore I would say when we invite someone to join the temple we make it very clear to them what they are doing, what they are getting into, and that they have an option to leave when it gets too difficult. I think it is also very good to have trial periods. Yes, that is my short answer.

Ok, so, I guess in this way we have it. Gail?

[Question]: (could not be heard from listening the audio file).

Answer: Well, my purpose was not to make a whole discussion about existentialism, which would be a different seminar. All I wanted to do is point to something that one could pursue, if one wanted. This is something we do when writing academic papers. In a conclusion, one points to potential further things that one could explore in relation to what one is saying. That is all I was doing, and I think there is not much value in trying to do more than that right now. I just wanted to call that a little attention.

[Question]: (could not be heard from listening the audio file).

Answer: Between personal impact and personal memory there may not be so much difference, but I would say one of them is more focused on the past, and one is more focused on the present and the future. With the personal memory, it is just remembering something. Sometimes it is a good thing to remember something of our past and to kind of rework or re-explore an experience of the past in light of something we read in Bhāgavatam. That may sometimes help us to work through some problem that was there and maybe we suppressed it. That then may indeed bring you into the realm of personal impact, which is more emphasizing the present. This is something that is affecting me or changing me or somehow impacting me at the present time. Or I want this to impact me. How can I make it more affective? That would be the distinction I would make. Is that all right? Ok.

[Question from teleconference group]: (the question could not be heard from listening the audio file, but from the answer it is clear that it was a question about the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam seminar held in Sydney in 2012).

Answer: Well we didn’t really make slides for that. There are some recordings, I don’t have them myself, but we are in the process of transforming all that into a book. It’s going to take some time. Ok, well, thank you for encouragement.

Ok, all right, Hare Kṛṣṇa. Grantharaj Śrīmad Bhāgavatam Ki Jay! Śrila Prabhupāda Ki Jay! Haribol!