Every culture has traditional stories that help define its values and beliefs. The best-known stories of this sort in the West come from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the epics and dramas of classical Greece, supplemented by the folk tales and myths of various European, African, Arabian, and Native American peoples. Most of these stories first appeared in specific religious contexts, but they have not been confined to their original setting. Many have been used by several religious traditions, at times to reinforce different doctrines. Stories, it is clear, have the potential to convey different meanings in different contexts, which is why the most powerful stories have been so often borrowed.
If this is true in the West, it is even more true in India, which has, with little doubt, the world's richest story-telling tradition. From this rich tradition came such great epics as the Ramayana and Mahabharata and a number of scriptures called Puranas (ancient historical texts). The climax of this line of development was the Bhagavata Purana, also known as Shrimad Bhagavatam. It was the most influential of all the Puranas in affirming Vishnu (a name and form of God) as the proper focus of faith and worship. The text is famous for the biography of Krishna (another name and form of God) that it presents in the tenth of its twelve books, an account with an element of devotion not found in any previous Sanskrit work.
It is not only Krishna to whom the Bhagavatam advocates devotion, however, but Vishnu in all of His forms, and much attention is given to those many forms throughout the text. Alongside its definitive telling of Krishna's story, the Bhagavatam's major contribution is its detailed accounts of Vishnu's numerous other incarnations and their related exemplary devotees, all within a theological framework that presents an integrated rationale for devotion. And, as with other great scriptures, much of the credit for this achievement lies in its rich collection of stories that present easily understood examples of what devotion should be.
The twenty-six "mystical stories" chosen for the present book are clearly only a very small sampling of the Bhagavatam's total number, and some whole categories of stories are not represented. There are no stories of Krishna in this collection, for example, even though the Bhagavatam's account of Krishna's life in Book X covers some ninety chapters and several hundred pages of text. Rather than give a short and inadequate sample of this justly famous account, the author has wisely left the Krishna story as a whole for the reader's separate enjoyment-to be published in the future. Instead, he has focused the selections here on the kind of stories and vignettes that typify the rest of the Bhagavatam, has chosen his examples well, and has told them in a way that makes them very accessible. Thus, although the stories may be less familiar .than the Krishna story, they effectively convey the same message of devotion to Vishnu as the essential means of salvation-and not just devotion to Krishna, but to all of His manifestations.
This devotional message is, of course, magnified many times over by the Bhagavatam's full array of stories, but the twenty-six stories before us help us understand the influence of this Purana over the centuries. The stories told here are quite representative of the larger array. The subjects and basic plots of many of the stories can be found elsewhere in the Vedas, the epics, and other Puranas, but the Bhagavatam's versions are consistently shaped by the devotional theology that characterizes the scripture as a whole. The stories in many other Puranas often seem out of place, as if they had been assembled by different authors or editors with different agendas. The Bhagavatam, by contrast, presents a consistent message throughout, and the stories it shares with other texts have all been subsumed under a single agenda to illustrate the power of devotion. Whatever these stories meant elsewhere in other forms or contexts, there is never any doubt what they mean here.
Finally, one must say that these are good stories: interesting, well told, and fun LO read or listen to. The Bhagavatam's message may be uniform but it is never bland, and the variety of stories here and in the text as a whole gives its message nuance and broad appeal. It is, of course, the purpose of stories in every scripture to provide an entertaining hook on which to hang a moral, an ethical principle, or a theological doctrine. That is how traditions have always been conveyed, and why the basic stories of a tradition are often called "grandmother stories"-i.e., stories told on a grandmother's knee to successive generations. It takes good stories to serve this purpose, and this collection has some of the Bhagavatam's best.
So read these stories, think about them, learn from them, tell them to others, but first of all, enjoy them as good stories should be enjoyed.
What is the Bhagavatam?
Actually, the book's full name is the Shrimad Bhagavatam, and it literally means the beautiful or glorious activities of God. Known also as the Bhagavat Purana, it was written by Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, an incarnation of God, about 5,000 years ago in India. Consisting of twelve cantos and eighteen thousand verses, it is considered to be a holy scripture or Veda because it contains knowledge that was originally revealed by God. Thus, it is authoritative and transcendental. Although the Bhagavatam includes such subjects as philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, metaphysics, and history, it does so only in connection with spiritual knowledge.
But how is it spiritual?
The Bhagavatam tells us who we really are, why we're in this world, where we originally came from, and what the true purpose of life is. Moreover, it explains the basic cause of all our suffering-physical, mental, and emotional-and shows us how to prevent or overcome it forever. But most important, the Bhagavatam shows us how to awaken our lost relationship with God and thereby experience continuous peace and joy under all circumstances. It does this by presenting remarkable stories about the Lord and His dealings with powerful gods, terrifying demons, illustrious kings, compassionate saints, and ordinary people.
When we read about God's glorious activities, we, in effect, get a chance to closely associate with Him. This association is highly beneficial, for it enables us to receive His merciful blessings. These help to purify our hearts and minds of painful materialism, destroy our ignorance and illusions with wisdom and truth, and generate within us admiration, attraction, and devotion for the Lord. Thus, to read these divine stories is to engage in a valuable meditation, for not only are the mind and heart affected, but the soul as well. By regularly nourishing the soul with the transcendental food of God's activities, the soul gradually discovers itself and its relationship with the Lord.
But what is self-discovery? And what is its value? To discover our true self means to know and to experience ourselves as eternal souls instead of as temporary material bodies-and to act in this understanding. When we do, we cannot be affected or disturbed by the difficulties and distresses we encounter in the material world. This is because we know, without the slightest doubt, that nothing can threaten or harm our real, immortal existence. Consequently, we become filled with confidence and determination to fulfill our daily duties and are able to perform them well. This, of course, results in a glorious future or destiny.
However, to discover our real self, it is absolutely essential that we develop transcendental qualities. Such qualities help to detach us from our materialistic entanglements--especially our bad habits-and to attach us to the service of God, which frees us from our various distresses. To assist the reader in developing such qualities, twenty-six amazing stories have been selected from the Bhagavatam and included in this book. Each story emphasizes certain ideal qualities and, when we see them in action, we can only become inspired to incorporate them into our lives.
Vyasa narrated the Bhagavatam to his son Shukadeva Goswami, and he revealed it to the saintly King Parikshit, as well as to other sages present with him. But what were the mystical circumstances surrounding its revelation? The answer is given in the first story, "King Parikshit Cursed." Had the king not been cursed to die untimely, the world might not have received this great scripture, nor would we have had a chance to observe how serenely the monarch resigned himself to God's will. He remained fully optimistic, considering his tragedy an excellent opportunity to advance spiritually and enter the eternal world. These qualities are indispensable for discovering our selves.
In the story "Hiranyaksha Challenges God," we learn how a goddess, by inducing her husband to have sex with her at an improper time, caused personal as well as worldwide chaos. We thus discover the value of cultivating self-control. In "Lord Narasingha Saves Prahlada," we see the most horrific case of child abuse in history. But because the five-year-old child Prahlada knew how to depend on God for guidance and security, he was miraculously saved from his terrible ordeal. The fourth story is about a goddess who wanted to kill her innocent nephew but who was artfully dissuaded from doing so by her saintly husband.
The story "Churning for Nectar" teaches us that even though the gods had lost their property and positions to demons, by being deliberately patient and enduring, they recovered all their losses. Also, Lord Shiva shows us the ultimate expression of compassion, performing an astonishing sacrifice that benefited the whole world. However, in "Lord Shiva Beguiled," when he became proud of his power to be unattracted by beautiful women, his pride was embarrassingly smashed by the alluring charms of the Lord's female incarnation. "Lord Vamana's Conquest" shows us how pleased God was when King Bali kept his promise to Him--even at the expense of Bali's losing his vast galactic kingdom.
"King Bharata's Fall and Rise" is a story about an advanced ascetic who became so slavishly attached to his pet deer that he had to helplessly reincarnate as one; this account informs us of the dangers of attachment. In "God's Name Rescues Ajamila," we learn about the amazing power of the Lord's holy name-how it irrevocably changed a man's future. "Dhruva's Incredible Victory" shows us how a five- year-old boy, by his firm, unflinching determination, achieved the ultimate goal of seeing God within and outside his own being. In "Lord Vishnu Tricks Vrika," we see how a demon, by failing to show proper appreciation to the god who gave him a special blessing, met with disaster.
"Bhrigu Discovers Who God Is" reveals how the Lord expressed the highest level of tolerance and humility even when He was strongly offended by His devotee. In "Narada Sees God Everywhere," we observe how a child, out of helplessness, cultivated the habit of always remembering God and thus became one of the greatest saints in existence. The story "Ashvatthama Punished" shows the folly of vengeance and the necessity of forgiveness and kindness. "King Yudhishthira Sees Evil Omens" instructs us in how to overcome the pangs of separation from a loved one and become peaceful again. In "Kali's Evil Challenged," we see how King Parikshit fearlessly stops Kali from infecting his kingdom with immoral and unethical ideas and practices. "King Chitraketu's Awakening" shows us how possessiveness makes our lives extremely miserable.
We learn how important it is to not belittle saintly persons in "Lord Indra Fights Vritra," and how we should rather honor them to gain their blessings. "Pingala the Prostitute" shows us the futility of living only for money and sex and how we can become detached from them. In the account, "King Ambarisha Protected," we observe how the Lord shielded His fully surrendered devotee from an angry yogi who, by his mystic powers, tried to kill him. "Yogi Saubhari's Downfall" reveals how a powerful mystic fell from his spiritual path when he failed to repent for offending one of the Lord's greatest devotees.
In "King Sudyumna's Sex Change," we note how a king learned to tolerate an undesirable change in his life and still live productively. "Urvashi Enchants Pururava" betrays the abysmal misery associated with becoming addicted to sex. In "Daksha Offends Lord Shiva," a falsely proud king learns, at great expense, the importance of modesty and simplicity. "King Rantideva's Mercy" teaches us, by an extreme example, the value of giving up our personal comfort to relieve others of suffering. And in "Gajendra Fights the Crocodile," we observe how an elephant was freed from his terrifying ordeal by praying unceasingly to the Lord.
These stories, originally written in Sanskrit, are not literal translations. Rather, they are dramatic adaptations, so the author has taken the liberty of trying to make them as entertaining, instructive, and enlivening as possible-without changing any of the stories' facts. In a few cases, to better complete the accounts, the author has added material from other scriptures written by Vyasa. The stories are based on actual historical events that occurred over an extremely long period-most of them on Earth and some on other planets. They have not been arranged in any particular order-variety and novelty dictate their overall sequence-although in several instances certain stories have been intentionally placed after others because they naturally follow or result from them.
Many prayers and explanations of the original text have been either omitted or abridged, not because they are unimportant, but only because their length and complexity make them unsuitable for this introductory presentation. In certain cases, only the names Vishnu and Krishna have been used in place of the epithets in the original text; this was done to prevent the confusion that often arises in readers who may be unfamiliar with the epithets. A glossary has been provided in the Appendix that clearly defines and explains the various Vedic names and terms used in this book.
For whom have these fascinating Bhagavatam stories been written? For anyone sincerely interested in advancing in spiritual life- especially persons who are new to it and who are searching for absolute answers to life's unfathomable mysteries. These stories may also be useful to persons who teach or lecture on spiritual subjects, as they can be used to clearly and colorfully illustrate certain philosophical or psychological points. This book can also be used by persons who have in the past read the Shrimad Bhagavatam but who stopped reading it due to no longer having enough time; however, each of the stories contained herein takes only several minutes to read and can thus assist the reader in resuming his or her spiritual progress.
At the end of many of the stories, various spiritual and material benefits are promised to the reader. The author can personally attest to having obtained many of them, and in due course of time-if the reader hasn't already acquired them-he or she also will. If, after reading this volume, the reader's interest and curiosity about its underlying philosophy have been strongly provoked, the author urges the reader to peruse the complete, unabridged Shrimad Bhagavatam. The version recommended is the one on which this book was almost exclusively based, namely, the eighteen-volume edition clearly translated and elaborately commented on by His Divine Grace A. C. 'Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his disciples (published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, USA/India). Any questions the reader may have about improving his or her spiritual life will surely be answered in that definitive, invaluable masterpiece. It is a veritable cornucopia-if not an encyclopedia- of transcendental knowledge!
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