A reader suggested that the dharma taught in the Bhāgavatam cannot be isolated from varṇāśrama dharma, as the word ‘dharma’, as used in the Bhāgavatam, carries the same meaning and connotation as in any other śruti [i.e. the Vedas]. But does Śrī Jīva Goswami agree with such a view? The answer is ‘no’. So strongly is Śrī Jīva Goswami opposed to conflating bhakti, the dharma of the Bhāgavatam, with varṇāśrama dharma, that he explicitly raises such conflation as a pūrva-pakṣa, and then refutes it as we shall see below.
Bhāgavata dharma – bhakti – is distinct from varṇāśrama dharma
In Anuchheda 58 of the Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami cites the following verse as indicating the distinction of bhakti from varṇāśrama dharma — bhakter dharmātiriktatva —
tyaktvā sva-dharmaṁ caraṇāmbujaṁ harer bhajann apakvo ’tha patet tato yadi
yatra kva vābhadram abhūd amuṣya kiṁ ko vārtha āpto ’bhajatāṁ sva-dharmataḥ
Has inauspiciousness (abhadram) ever befallen a person, whatever his circumstances might be (yatra kva vā), who, having abandoned his prescribed duty (sva-dharma), takes to the sacred service (bhajana) of the lotus feet of Bhagavān Hari, even if he falls away from such bhajana while still in an immature condition? On the other hand, what value (artha) is gained through adherence to prescribed duty by those who fail to worship Bhagavān? (sb 1.5.17)
In this verse, the word sva-dharma refers to varṇāśrama dharma, and the word ‘bhajana’ refers to bhakti. Śrī Jīva Goswami, anticipating opposition to his thesis, raises the question of why bhakti is categorized as ‘dharma’, in the same category as varṇāśrama dharma, in verses such as this one from the seventh canto of the Bhāgavatam —
satyaṁ dayā tapaḥ śaucaṁ titikṣekṣā śamo damaḥ
ahiṁsā brahmacaryaṁ ca tyāgaḥ svādhyāya ārjavam …
śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ cāsya smaraṇaṁ mahatāṁ gateḥ ..
…nṛṇām ayaṁ paro dharmaḥ sarveṣāṁ samudāhṛtaḥ
triṁśal-lakṣaṇavān rājan sarvātmā yena tuṣyati
This supreme duty (para-dharma), which is incumbent upon all human beings, has been proclaimed as consisting of thirty principles, including [truthfulness, compassion, austerity …], as well as hearing about, chanting the glories of, and remembering Bhagavān, who is the destination and refuge of the most highly evolved beings (mahatām). (sb 7.11.8-7.11.12)
Here, we see that a number of items that form part of varṇāśrama dharma, and bhakti, have all been categorized as dharma. Śrī Jīva Goswami writes (I underline the refutation):
ity-ādinottara-granthe dharmatva-vidhānaṁ sarveṣv api prāṇiṣv āvaśyakatvāpekṣayā parama-śreyo-rūpatvāpekṣayā ca lākṣaṇikam eva
Here the categorization of bhakti as dharma [by its inclusion with the moral principles of truthfulness and so on] is merely figurative (lākṣaṇika), because its intent is to make evident bhakti’s necessity for all living beings and its being directly the ultimate good (parama-śreya).
All instances where bhakti is apparently conflated with varṇāśrama dharma must be understood as figurative. Śrī Jīva again emphasizes that bhakti is entirely distinct from ‘dharma’ as commonly understood from the Vedas:
vastutas tu pañcame … dharmātiriktatvaṁ para-vidyātvaṁ ca bodhitam
– In reality, however, in the Fifth Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavata, bhakti has been proclaimed as distinct from dharma and as para-vidyā, or transcendental knowledge.
The passage in question in the fifth Canto shows how Jaḍa Bharata’s brothers were preoccupied with varṇāśrama dharma, while Jaḍa Bharata himself only engaged in the pure limbs of bhakti and in fact, did not even undergo upanayana. I did not include a translation of those verses here for brevity. Next, Śrī Jīva Goswami cites yet another verse which explicitly positions bhakti as distinct from varṇāśrama dharma:
sanakādyā nivṛttākhye tena dharme niyojitāḥ | pravṛttākhye marīcādyā muktvaikaṁ nāradaṁ munim ||
Sanaka and other sages were engaged by him [Brahmā] in the dharma of nivṛtti, whereas those like Marīci were engaged in the dharma of pravṛtti. But Nārada Muni alone was engaged in bhakti. (Nṛsiṁha Purāṇa 4.4)
The first two dharmas in this verse are part of varṇāśrama dharma. Clearly, bhakti is distinct from them!
Bhāgavata dharma – bhakti – is independent of varṇāśrama dharma
In Anuchheda 75, Śrī Jīva Goswami dismantles the idea that bhakti is dependent on the varṇāśrama system. He first notes that bhakti precedes all other dharmas, and that all other dharmas have been conceived by sages according to their mental make-ups, while bhakti alone is free from the defects present in other dharmas, because bhakti is by its very nature, transcendental. He writes:
agre ca bhakti-yogasyaiva prāk-siddhatā, sākṣāt śrī-bhagavat-pravartitatā, svayam eva mukhyatā | pareṣām arvācīnatā, yathā-ruci-nānā-jana-pravartitatā, tucchatā ceti |
Later on, the fact that bhakti existed prior to any other process (prāk-siddhatā), that it was set forth directly by Śrī Bhagavān Himself, that its preeminence is by virtue of its own constitutional nature, and that all other processes, by contrast, are recent and insignificant (tuccha), having been introduced by various sages each according to their own predilection (ruci), are all made evident by Śrī Kṛṣṇa, as will be illustrated [in His response] to the following question of Śrī Uddhava:
vadanti kṛṣṇa śreyāṁsi bahūni brahma-vādinaḥ
teṣāṁ vikalpa-prādhānyam utāho eka-mukhyatā
O Kṛṣṇa, exponents of the Vedas promote many different methods as the means to the ultimate good. Are these all optionally primary or is one of them preeminent among them?
In fact, the second part of Uddhava’s question contains the answer to his own question:
bhavatodāhṛtaḥ svāmin bhakti-yogo ’napekṣitaḥ
nirasya sarvataḥ saṅgaṁ yena tvayy āviśen manaḥ
O Master, bhakti-yoga has been determined by You as independent of all other paths. By following the path of bhakti, the mind becomes immersed in You, casting off all other attachments. (sb 11.14.1–2)
Note the word used for bhakti – anapekṣitaḥ or independent. Instead, it is the other dharmas that are dependent on bhakti. Bhakti is the only independent dharma, and it alone bestows the supreme goal. Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s answer to the question above confirms this, but I will skip that here.
varṇāśrama dharma by itself is powerless to bestow the parama-puruṣārtha
Success that may accrue in any other dharma, including varṇāśrama dharma, critically depends on whether bhakti is present in some form in the practice of these dharmas. One reader suggested that only those in the varṇāśrama system have the right to brahma-vidyā. Śrī Jīva explains that even the study of the Vedas themselves, brahma-vidyā, is utterly useless in the absence of bhakti. In contrast, Hari-kathā, which is a primary limb of the Bhāgavata dharma of bhakti, bestows the parama-puruṣārtha of prema for Bhagavān. In Anuccheda 88 of the Bhakti Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva quotes the following verse:
yaśaḥ-śriyām eva pariśramaḥ paro varṇāśramācāra-tapaḥ-śrutādiṣu
avismṛtiḥ śrīdhara-pāda-padmayor guṇānuvāda-śravaṇādarādibhiḥ
The immense labor expended in discharging prescribed duties pertaining to one’s varṇa and āśrama, and in undergoing penance, study of the Vedas, and other similar practices, culminates only in wealth accompanied by fame. But by hearing and repeating the glories of Śrī Hari, one attains unbroken remembrance of the lotus feet of Bhagavān, who is the support of the Goddess of Fortune. (sb 12.12.53)
He quotes Śrīdhar swami’s commentary as support —
kiṁ ca,varṇāśramācārādiṣu yaḥ paro mahān pariśramaḥ, sa yaśo-yuktāyāṁ śriyām eva kīrtau sampadi vā kevalaṁ, na parama-puruṣārtha ity arthaḥ | guṇānuvādādibhis tu śrīdhara-pāda-padmayor avismṛtir bhavati
Moreover, the immense labor expended in executing one’s prescribed duties in varṇāśrama and in other practices culminates only in wealth accompanied by fame, or in one of these two alone, but not in the supreme object of attainment (parama-puruṣārtha). This is the intended sense. But by devotional acts, such as repeating the glories of Śrī Hari, one attains continuous remembrance of the lotus feet of Bhagavān Śrīdhara, the husband of the Goddess of Fortune.
The worthlessness of Vedic dharma is made even more explicit and pointed in Anuccheda 101 of the Bhakti Sandarbha with the following verses
kiṁ janmabhis tribhir veha śaukra-sāvitra-yājñikaiḥ karmabhir vā trayī-proktaiḥ puṁso ’pi vibudhāyuṣā
śrutena tapasā vā kiṁ vacobhiś citta-vṛttibhiḥ buddhyā vā kiṁ nipuṇayā balenendriya-rādhasā
kiṁ vā yogena sāṅkhyena nyāsa-svādhyāyayor api kiṁ vā śreyobhir anyaiś ca na yatrātma-prado hariḥ
What is the value of a human being’s three births in this world —śaukra (seminal), sāvitra (initiation into the chanting of the sāvitrī-mantra and being invested with the sacred thread), and yājñika (initiation into the performance of Vedic sacrifice)? What is the use of the ritual acts prescribed by the three Vedas? Of what value even is a lifespan as long as that of the gods? What is the point of hearing the Vedas, of asceticism, eloquence of speech, focused mental attention, acute intelligence, power, sensual dexterity, yoga, sāṅkhya, mendicancy, study of the Vedas, and other auspicious practices, if by these Bhagavān Hari is not self-disclosed as the revealer of the Self (ātma-pradaḥ)? (sb 4.31.10–12)²
Indeed, even study of the Upaniṣads, or the path of jñāna, is of no interest to Caitanya bhaktas. Consider the following verse that Śrī Jīva cites from Śrī Kṛṣṇa-Caitanya Mahāprabhu in Anuccheda 69 (one of only two verses he cites from him in the entire Sandarbhas) –
ata eva gītaṁ kali-yuga-pāvanāvatāreṇa śrī-bhagavatā —
śrutam apy aupaniṣadaṁ dūre hari-kathāmṛtam | yan na santi dravac-citta-kampāśru-pulakādayaḥ
Accordingly, Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa-Caitanya Mahāprabhu, who advented to purify the populace in the age of Kali, made the following statement —
Attentive hearing even of the truth disclosed in the Upaniṣads [i.e., Brahman], is a far cry from the nectar of the stories of Bhagavān Hari, because hearing of Brahman does not induce symptoms such as melting of the heart, trembling of the body, tears, and horripilation. (Padyāvalī 39)
Readers who feel that Caitanya bhaktas should not study the Upaniṣads unless they are born in the three upper classes of the varṇāśrama system need not worry! Caitanya bhaktas are only interested in hearing the Bhāgavata, which is replete with Hari-kathā!
I could have gone on and on citing Śrī Jīva’s writings, but I did not want to make this article too long. The following points must be clearly understood as being foundational in the Caitanya tradition —
- Bhakti is totally different from varṇāśrama dharma in its very svarūpa.
- Bhakti is totally independent of all other paths, including varṇāśrama dharma.
- All other dharmas, including varṇāśrama dharma, study of the Vedas, upanayana, rituals etc. are utterly worthless without bhakti to Bhagavān Hari.
- When any other dharma bears any fruit, it is only because some bhakti was present in the practice of that dharma.
- Birth and social status play absolutely no role in bhakti. [I will write a separate article on this]