Question: How do we understand the story of Pundalika who kept Viṭṭhala waiting until he finished serving his parents? Which was the right dharma? Attending God /atithi or parents?
Also Bhagavad-gītā says that it is better to do one’s own duty even though it appears to have faults than doing others duty perfectly.
We also have stories like King Ambarīṣa where Durvāsā, who holds Ṛṣi status, is shown to be forgetting a simple injunction “apo ’śnāti tan naivāśitaṁ naivānaśitam.” The same Durvāsā is shown as an expansion of Śiva and on par with Śuka, Nārada, Yājñavalkya, and others. Therefore I do not think we can take things literally from these stories.
Viṣṇudharma explains how Dharmavyādha, a butcher, attained Vaikuṇṭha performing his profession of killing. Superficially, these things appear contradictory. However, these stories teach how a devotee adheres to dharma on ALL occasions.
Answer: I understand your question, but you are missing the point. SB 1.1.2 clearly states that there is dharma and there is parama dharma. It also states that it (SB) rejects all other dharma and establishes parama dharma. SB is the last work of Vyāsa. In other works, which you refer to, Vyāsa has glorified dharma. But this did not satisfy him. Thus he revealed SB. SB speaks of something unknown to people. The gopīs gave up their dharma for supreme dharma – ārya-pathaṁ ca hitvā bhejur mukunda-padavīṁ (SB 11.47.61). This state is not available even to Lakṣmī – nāyaṁ śriyo ’ṅga u nitānta-rateḥ prasādaḥ (11.47.60).
The examples that you have cited of people attaining Vaikuṇṭha, etc are of vaidhi-bhakti. SB propagates a superior type of bhakti. What you have referred to is glorious and it is not denied but there is something even superior to it. It is called Vraja-bhakti as depicted by the gopīs.
In SB 11.20.9, Kṛṣṇa himself says that karma (meaning dharma) has its limits. Dharma is not an end in itself. Its purpose is also in bhakti. That is the purpose of all rules and regulations – smartavyaḥ satataṁ viṣṇur vismartavyo na jātucit sarve vidhi-niṣedhāḥ syur etayor eva kiṅkarāḥ
So Pundalika kept Viṭṭhala waiting. Pundalika was a devotee. Otherwise why did Viṭṭhala come to see him? Viṭṭhala knew what was right for Pundalika. Every devotee has his/her bhāva. Maybe the service to parents was urgent and Viṭṭhala could wait. Or the way the story is told may not be exactly how it happened. We do not know what exactly transpired between him and Viṭṭhala. Maybe Viṭṭhala himself told him to attend to the parents and that He would wait.
As far as the Upaniṣadic statement – dharmam na pramāditavyam, one should not neglect dharma, yes that is true. But it is not saying that parama-dharmam pramāditavyam (neglect parama-dharma). There are general instructions and there are exceptions, sāmānya dharma and viśeṣa dharma. Kṛṣṇa himself asked Arjuna to fight with his teacher and grandfather. So what happened to ācārya devo bhava (treat your teacher like God) and pitru devo bhava (treat your parents like God), which are instructions of the Upaniṣads? He made Yuḍhisthīra tell the lie that Aśvatthāmā was dead. So where is the dharma of being truthful?
This is śāstric hermeneutics. You have to do balābalavicāra – deliberation of the strength of contradictory injunctions. It is not a simple matter of just citing an example or a reference. When there are two opposite instructions one has to consider which one is to be followed. This is what Kṛṣṇa taught on the battlefield. Bhiṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa and Duryodhana were all killed in an adhārmika manner under Kṛṣṇa’s instructions.
A cow and a woman should not be killed. Kṛṣṇa killed Pūtanā, a woman, and He killed vatsāsura, a calf. So is it dharma or adharma? He also killed his maternal uncle, who also falls in the category of guru.
Śāstra gives rules for different types of people, adhikārī, and for different situations. Not everything is applicable to everyone under all circumstances. Therefore it is said that the essence of dharma lies in the heart of great personalities, dharmasya tattvaṁ nihitaṁ guhāyāṁ mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ. One has to approach a mahājana to know the secrets of dharma as instructed in śāstra.
It takes guts and humility to admit mistakes. Admitting mistake is not weakness but courage.
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