By Satyanarayana Dasa
Avatāra is a popular concept in Hinduism. It means that the Supreme Divinity descends into the cosmos and becomes visible to people in general. Viṣṇu is accepted as the Supreme God among the trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Usually, it is Viṣnu who manifests as an avatāra. There are various forms of avatāras. Among them, Rāma and Kṛṣṇa are the most popular. The general belief held by Hindus of all schools of thought (sampradāyas) is that Śrī Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra of Viṣṇu. The school of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism, however, is an exception to this. This school propounds that far from being an avatāra, Kṛṣṇa is actually the source of the source of all avatāras. This conclusion is based on Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which the school accepts as the highest scriptural authority. In Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī, one of the foremost scholars of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism, makes an extensive analysis of the third chapter of the first book of Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa. This chapter deals with the topic of avatārato establish Kṛṣṇa as the original form of Supreme Reality, Svayaṁ Bhagavān. No other scholar has done such an investigation. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s analysis is unique, original and has not been refuted by anyone.
The present article is based upon part of Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s analysis from text 28 and 29 of Kṛṣṇa Sandarbha, which will be published this autumn.
In the opening chapter of Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, Śaunaka Ṛsi asks six questions to Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī. The fifth question is about the various avatāras of the Supreme Person. Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī gives a brief reply to these six questions in the next two chapters and expands on them in the rest of the book. The specific question about the avatāra is answered in the third chapter. He says that the Supreme Person, generically called Bhagavān, does not play a direct role in the creation, sustenance, and dissolution of the cosmic world. Rather, for this purpose Bhagavān manifests a specific form, called the first Puruṣa, or Paramātmā. He is also known as Mahā-viṣṇu or Kāraṇodakaśāyī Viṣṇu and is the source and support of the totality of material energy, called prakṛti. It is from the pores of His body that unlimited cosmic worlds manifest. This first Puruṣa has two further expansions. The first one is called Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, also called the second Puruṣa, and enters into each of the cosmic worlds. This second Puruṣa further expands as the third Puruṣa, or Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, and enters into every living being as a companion of the individual self. It is the second Puruṣa who is the source of all the avatāras, called avatārī, in a particular cosmic world. Sūta Gosvāmi gives a list of 22 prominent avatāras, including, both past and future ones, which manifest in a day of Brahmā, called a kalpa. Kṛṣṇa is counted as the 20th among the list of avatāras.
After giving the list of these 22 avatāras, Śrī Sūta comments that there is no limit to the avatāras:
“O dvijas, just as thousands of streams flow from an inexhaustible lake, so also there are countless avatāras of Hari, who is the repository of sattva.” (SB 1.3.26)
Next, Śrī Sūta makes a reference to the lesser manifestations of Viṣṇu, which are called kalāsor vibhūtis:
“The sages, the Manus, the devas, the sons of Manu, the powerful beings, and the Prajāpatis are all kalās (minute portions) of Śrī Hari.” (SB 1.3.27)
After giving a summary of various avatāras and kalās, Śrī Sūta Gosvāmī finally identifies the original form of the Supreme Person, who is the source of the Puruṣa, from whom come the various avatāras:
ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ
kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayaṁ
mṛḍayanti yuge yuge
“All these are either portions (aṁśas) or minute portions (kalās) of the Puruṣa, but Kṛṣṇa alone is Bhagavān Himself. All these avatārasand kalāsappear in every yuga to give protection to the world troubled by the enemies of Indra.” (SB 1.3.28)
In the first quarter of this verse, Śrī Sūta summarizes all the avatārasand manifestations of the Purusa and then identifies Śrī Kṛṣṇa as Bhagavān Himself (Svayaṁ Bhagavān).
This verse forms the foundation of the theology of the Caitanya School. Therefore, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī minutely analyzes it in a very systematic fashion in his Krsna Sandarbha.
The pronoun ete (“these”) here refers to the nouns, the names of various avatāras, from the preceding verses. It includes all the avatārasand vibhūtis listed in verses 1.3.6–27. The word ca (“and”) refers to the avatārasand vibhūtis not mentioned in these verses. Thus, these two words together encompass all types of avatāras and vibhūtis of the Purusa. The next compound is aṁśa-kalāḥ, meaning portions (aṁśa, or avatāra) and displays of lesser power (kalā, or vibhūti). Puṁsaḥhere means “of the Supreme Person.” It is the genitive singular of the word pumān. Pumānand puruṣaare synonyms. Hence, the comprehensive meaning of the first quarter of the verse can be stated as follows: “These avatāras and vibhūtis, listed in verses 1.3.6–27, as well as all those that are unmentioned, are either aṁśas or kalās of the Puruṣa.” This is a complete sentence that doesn’t depend on any part of the remaining verse to convey its meaning.
The second quarter of the verse forms a separate sentence: “Kṛṣṇa, however, is Bhagavān Himself” (kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayaṁ). The indeclinable tu (“but” or “however”) is used to indicate a change in topic or contrast with what was stated immediately before. Previously the discussion was about the avatārasand vibhūtis. Now in this sentence, the topic shifts to the identification of Śrī Bhagavān, who accepted the form of the Puruṣa for the sake of evolving the cosmos, as stated in the first verse of this chapter (SB 1.3.1):
“In the beginning [prior to the cosmic manifestation], the Supreme Personal Absolute, Bhagavān, intending to evolve the cosmos, manifested the form of the Puruṣa, who was enfolded within (sambhūtam) Him along with the tattvas beginning with mahat, and endowed with the sixteen evolutionary principles [necessary for creation].”
The very same Kṛṣṇa who is counted as the 20th avatāra in verse 1.3.23 is Bhagavān Himself. This Bhagavān is the original source (avatārī) of the Puruṣa, who is in turn the repository of all the other avatāras.
One may raise a doubt in this regard: If Kṛṣṇa is Svayaṁ Bhagavān, then why is He counted among the avatāras? This is due to the fact that when He appears on earth, He too enacts the function of an avatāra. This situation is comparable to that of the president of a country, who may take the portfolio of a ministry and be counted as one among the ministers, yet remains the president all the while.
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī specifies that the statement kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam is to be translated as, “Kṛṣṇa, however, is Svayaṁ Bhagavān” and not, “Svayaṁ Bhagavān, however, is Kṛṣṇa.” The reason for this is that according to Sanskrit grammatical theory, a nominal sentence contains two parts, namely the subject and the predicate. The subject (anuvāda, lit., “the repetition of an idea or notion previously laid down”) is something that is already known, stated, or given, whereas the predicate (vidheya, lit., “that which is to be established”) provides additional information about the subject. For example, in the sentence, “Rāma is beautiful,” Rāma is known to the reader as a given fact, but that He is beautiful is not yet ascertained. If, however, the reader is unacquainted with Rāma, then the sentence, being devoid of the knowledge of a referent, will fail to convey its meaning. The reader will be unable to connect the quality of beauty with its intended subject. Therefore, the rule is not to state the predicate (vidheya) without its known subject (anuvāda). In Sanskrit sentences where the word order is reversed, one can still distinguish the subject from the predicate by recognizing which part of the sentence is known and which contains new information.
When it is said, “Kṛṣṇa is Svayaṁ Bhagavān,” the known subject is Kṛṣṇa, because He was already mentioned as the 20th avatāra. His being Svayaṁ Bhagavān, however, was not known. This additional information is now being provided in the verse 1.3.28. If the sentence is interpreted in reverse order, i.e., “Svayaṁ Bhagavān is Kṛṣṇa,” then we have a case where the subject is unknown, because no earlier reference was made to any Svayam Bhagavān. Moreover, if such a phrasing were posited, Kṛṣṇa, being the predicate, might be only one of a multitude of possible predications for the universalized subject, Svayam Bhagavān, who could also be some other form of Bhagavān in addition to Kṛṣṇa. If Sūta Gosvāmī’s intention were to convey the latter meaning (“Svayaṁ Bhagavān is Kṛṣṇa”), then he would have had to construct the second quarter of the verse in reverse order, as svayaṁ bhagavāṁs tu kṛṣṇaḥ.
By establishing the meaning as, “Kṛṣṇa is Svayaṁ Bhagavān,” it is concluded that only Kṛṣṇa is Svayaṁ Bhagavān and no one else. Kṛṣṇa alone has the intrinsic nature and qualification by which He is Svayaṁ Bhagavān. The word svayaṁ, “in and of Himself,” signifies that Kṛṣṇa is not an avatāraof some other Bhagavān, but is Bhagavān Himself. Furthermore, He is not Bhagavān because of the superimposition of an upādhi (conditioning) of māyā, as proposed by the school of Advaitavāda. This school claims that Brahman delimited by the sāttvika portion of māyābecomes Bhagavān. If this were true, then the word svayam in the verse would become redundant. Svayam means “by His very own Self” and not because of any other medium or upādhi.
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī gives further reasoning for countering the argument that Kṛṣṇa is an avatāra. To this end, he points to a sūtrafrom Pūrva-mīmāṁsā, which states:
“When direct statement (śruti), inferential mark or word meaning (liṅga), sentence or syntactical connection (vākya), context or interdependence (prakaraṇa), position or order of words (sthāna), and name (samākhyā) are present simultaneously, each member is progressively weaker in interpretive force, because of increasing remoteness from the meaning.” (Jaimini-sūtra 3.3.14)
In this list, each preceding term is stronger than the one following it, i.e., śrutiis stronger than the following five, liṅga is stronger than the following four, and so on. The strength of a particular pramāṇa (source of valid cognition) is determined by its proximity to the meaning. For example, śruti is a direct statement or a self-sufficient word or sound. This signifies that such words express their sense without any of the intermediate steps that are required in the case of liṅgaand the other interpretive factors. Consequently, śruti provides the strongest evidence in regard to the determination of meaning.
Liṅga (inferential mark) refers to the power of a word to denote an object or idea. This power is the word’s conventional meaning. A vākya(sentence) is a connected utterance. It is the pronouncing together of two or more words expressing principal and subsidiary meaning. Prakaraṇam (context) entails interdependence, expectancy, or the mutual need for complementarity. Sthāna (position) is proximity of location. Samākhyā (name) is a word understood in its derivative, or etymological sense, which can be of two types, either based on the Veda or colloquial. The difference between śruti and samākhyā is that śruti supplies the conventional meaning (rūḍhi) while samākhyā is based on the word’s etymology. This is similar to the distinction between rūḍhi (conventional) and yaugika (etymological) meanings described in Sanskrit linguistics. This sūtra, thus, provides a hierarchical order for hermeneutics in determining the relation of subordinate procedures to principal ones in the application of an injunction (viniyoga-vidhi).
As with much of Mīmāṁsā, the object of all of these six pramāṇas is to convey viniyoga, or application. Mīmāṁsā is preoccupied with the accurate execution of Vedic sacrifices and interprets the Vedic texts in that context. Śruti conveys this application directly and independently, without the help of any other pramāṇa. The other pramāṇas, on the other hand, require the help of the preceding pramāṇa or pramāṇas to clearly denote their application. Therefore, liṅga denotes the application through śruti; vākya, through liṅga and śruti, and so on. The need to evaluate the comparative strength of the pramāṇas arises when two or more of them are present together (samavāye) in any particular case. The strength of a particular pramāṇais decided by the distance that separates it from its final goal, i.e., the application. The greater the distance, the weaker it is.
In the present context, Kṛṣṇa is listed among the avatāras, which forms part of the avatāra–prakaraṇa. But the affirmation kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam is a direct statement (śruti), which overrides the context (prakaraṇa). Hence, Kṛṣṇa is not an avatārabut Bhagavān Himself.
As an example of the application of this rule, Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī refers to Śaṅkarācārya’s commentary on Vedānta Sūtra3.3.50: “Because a direct statement (śruti) carries greater authority [than the context (prakaraṇa)], it is not possible to override [the independent nature of fires, such as manaścit, on the strength of the context, classifying them instead as subsidiary parts of ritual action (kriyā)].”
This sūtra is part of the liṅga-bhūyastva-adhikaraṇa, which begins from sūtra 3.3.44 and discusses the status of the fires described in the Agni-rahasyapart of Vājasaneyī-saṁhitā. In this part of the book, there is mention of the seven agnis: manaścit, vākcit, prāṇacit, cakṣuścit, śrotracit, karmacit, and agnicit. A doubt is raised as to whether these agnis are a part of the sacrificial process (kriyā) or independent of it. From the prakaraṇa, it appears that they are part of the sacrificial process. But there is a śruti statement proclaiming that all these agnis are vidyācit, meaning that they are built up or “ignited” through knowledge (vidyā) alone. This signifies that they are independent and, hence, do not belong to ritual action (kriyā). The sūtra in question (VS 3.3.50) provides the conclusion on the basis of Pūrva-mīmāṁsā, sūtra 3.3.14. This example is employed to confirm that śruti overrides prakaraṇa.
The same principle is applicable in this context, where Kṛṣṇa is first counted as an avatāra within the avatāra-prakaraṇa. This, however, appears to be contradicted later in SB 1.3.28 by the direct statement that He is Svayaṁ Bhagavān. The direct or self-sufficient statement overrides the one identifying Him as an avatāra. Keeping this conclusion in mind, Sūta Gosvāmī uses the word bhagavān only for Kṛṣṇa (in verse 1.3.23), even after having named Him as the 20th avatāra.
(end of the first part, continued next week)
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