The Bhāgavatam is a long and comprehensive work which has 17000 verses. It is studied by Vaiṣṇavas and Advaita Vedāntins alike. These two groups differ in their interpretation of what the core subject of the Bhāgavatam is. The Advaitins claim it is Brahman. The Caitanya Vaiṣṇavas propose that the subject is Kṛṣṇa Himself. Here we examine Śri Jīva Goswami’s analysis in Anuccheda 105 of the Paramatma Sandarbha to ascertain the subject of the Bhāgavatam.
The criteria for establishing the meaning of a text
In determining the subject of a text, there are six criteria that are to be examined. These criteria are typically used in Pūrva Mimāṁsic texts, and are also accepted by Vedāntins.
अर्थवादोपपत्ती च लिङ्गं तात्पर्यनिर्णये।।
The sixfold criteria by which one can establish the meaning [of a text] are (1) the introductory and concluding statements, (2) repetition, (3) originality, (4) result, (5) glorification, and (6) logical confirmation.
Commentators who wish to prove a specific subject as the core of a text are supposed to prove that it meets these six criteria. The introductory and concluding statements of the book typically should agree on the subject and reveal it. The subject should be the emphasis in the intervening parts of the book. The result to be obtained by putting into practice the core teachings of the book, and the praise for the result, should both indicate the subject. Finally logical analysis of the book’s thought process should also lead to the subject.
The introductory statement of the Bhāgavatam establishes the subject as paraṁ satyaṁ or Supreme Truth
The first verse of the Bhāgavatam introduces the subject of the book. This verse is long and difficult and several commentators have written pages explaining the meaning of each of the words. Regardless of the orientation of the commentator, the main subject of this verse is accepted as ‘satyaṁ paraṁ’ or Supreme Truth. Here is the verse and its translation which is based on Śri Jīva Goswami’s gloss of the words (see Annucheda 105 of the Paramātmā Sandarbha translated by Śri Babaji):
janmādy asya yato ’nvayād itarataś cārtheṣv abhijñaḥ svarāṭ
tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi-kavaye muhyanti yat sūrayaḥ
tejo-vāri-mṛdāṁ yathā vinimayo yatra tri-sargo ’mṛṣā
dhāmnā svena sadā nirasta-kuhakaṁ satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi
Let us meditate on that Supreme Truth from whom this cosmos emanates, in whom it exists, and into whom it will be dissolved; who is concluded to be the foundational source through the import (artheṣu) of all the various types of Vedic statements, be they affirmative (anvayāt) or disaffirmative (itaratah); who is fully cognizant of everything and self-resplendent (svarāṭ); who revealed the Veda, about which even great sages are perplexed, to the first seer [Brahma] by way of the heart; in whom the threefold creation is a real emergence, just as fire, water, and earth intermix with each other to produce material objects; and by whose own effulgence, all deception is utterly dispelled. SB 1.1.1
The verse does not make it clear what the satyaṁ paraṁ precisely is. Some commentators say it refers to unqualified Brahman while others claim it is Bhagavān.
The concluding statement of the Bhāgavatam establishes that paraṁ satyaṁ is a person
Now a verse in the final chapter of the Bhāgavatam again uses the words satyaṁ paraṁ dhimahī – we meditate on the Supreme Truth – which are exactly the words used in the opening verse above. We can safely conclude that the author Vyāsa is revisiting the first verse and helping his audience understand the subject beyond any doubt. The verse says that paraṁ satyaṁ spoke the four-versed Bhāgavatam to Brahmā (kasmai yena vibhāsito ’yam). It is accepted by all that these four verses constitute the essence of the Bhāgavatam. The verse is below:
kasmai yena vibhāsito ’yam atulo jñāna-pradīpaḥ purā
tad-rūpeṇa ca nāradāya munaye kṛṣṇāya tad-rūpiṇā
yogīndrāya tad-ātmanātha bhagavad-rātāya kāruṇyatas
tac chuddhaṁ vimalaṁ viśokam amṛtaṁ satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi
Let us meditate on the Supreme Truth, who is pure, spotless, devoid of sorrow, and immortal, who in the distant past graciously revealed this peerless lamp of knowledge unto Brahmā, and then in the form of Brahmā [disclosed it] to Nārada, and as Nārada to Kṛṣṇa [Vyāsa], and again as Vyāsa to the chief of yogīs [Śuka], and then as Śuka to Bhagavad-rāta [King Parīkṣit]. (SB 12.13.19)
As Brahman is devoid of any attributes – that is, it cannot possess any knowledge, nor any senses to speak, it cannot be satyaṁ paraṁ. Satyaṁ paraṁ of the Bhāgavatam is definitely not Brahman.
Who is the speaker referred to in the above verse? We have examined this question elsewhere in detail. There we showed that the speaker of the Bhāgavatam is Śrī Kṛṣṇa, and not Śrī Nārayāṇa (see SB 2.7.5 and SB 12.13.10). It is therefore proven that the subject of the opening verse, satyaṁ paraṁ, is Kṛṣṇa Himself, and not Brahman or anyone else.
The other four criteria also lead to the same conclusion (see Anuccheda 105).
By examining the first verse and a verse from the concluding chapter of the Bhāgavatam, one can see that satyaṁ paraṁ is a person and not Brahman. Further analysis identifies this person to be Kṛṣṇa.