Krishna’s Other Song: A New Look at the Uddhava Gita
By Steven J. Rosen
Publisher: Santa Barbara CA: Praeger, 2010.
The Bhagvad Gita, Krishna’s discourse to his disciple Arjuna, is one of the most widely known Hindu sacred texts. Far less well known is the Uddhava Gita, Krishna’s dialogue with another of his disciples, Uddhava. The Uddhava Gita is contained in the eleventh of the twelve books making up the Srimad Bhagvatam (also called the Bhagvata Purana). The Srimad Bhagvatam is often referred to as the fifth Veda, signifying its importance among post-Vedic writings.
Steven Rosen, translator of this volume, is the founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and the author of more than 28 books on Hindu spirituality. He offers a commentary that, while insightful, is also brief, allowing him to present all the 1030 verses of the Uddhava Gita in a single volume of under 300 pages.
Like Arjuna, Uddhava was Krishna’s cousin as well as his disciple. He appears as an important figure in several episodes of the Mahabharata. Readers who are familiar with the Bhagvad Gita may be surprised, however, to find that Krishna’s teachings to Uddhava seem to diverge from his message to Arjuna. Krishna’s famous advice to Arjuna, who wants to quit the battlefield in favour of a more reclusive life of spirituality, is to act out his part in the world, while, as Rosen observes, “Krishna tells Uddhava to renounce the world and accept the life of a mendicant.” Rosen explains:
Is Krishna contradicting Himself by telling Uddhava to become a renunciant, to shy away from worldly activities? Not in the slightest. Arjuna was a warrior, in the middle of a battle, and many were depending on him to do his duty. But Uddhava’s temperament was different.
In other words, Arjuna’s temperament was suited to his role as warrior; renunciation was not the way for him. As Rosen points out, Krishna’s teachings “take each person’s unique psychophysical makeup into account, celebrating the diversity of creation and the special way in which each of us is meant to serve God.”
The setting of the Uddhava Gita is the last night before Krishna leaves the mortal world. Krishna has told Uddhava of his impending departure. Grieving at the thought of separation from his beloved Krishna, Uddhava pleads:
O Lord Keshava [Krishna], my dear Master, I cannot tolerate the thought of Your departure – of giving up the association of Your lotus feet even for a fraction of a moment. I urge You to take me along with You to Your spiritual abode.
Krishna does not grant this request, and instead imparts his teachings to Uddhava, explaining in great detail the philosophy summarized earlier in the Bhagvad Gita. For this reason some say that the Uddhava Gita picks up where the Bhagvad Gita leaves off; at the very least, it augments the teachings of the Bhagvad Gita.
Krishna teaches Uddhava about the three modes (gunas) of material nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance – and how to become free from their influence. He teaches the complexities of karma, or action and reaction. He uses a variety of stories to illustrate his teachings. For example, he tells the story of King Pururava, who was desperately attached to his wife. After she left him, his despair and lamentations are transformed into detachment when he realized that he had wasted his life enamoured by his wife’s external beauty.
Life, Krishna teaches Uddhava, is a precious opportunity, and especially rare is life in the human body: “The created world manifests numerous types of material bodies…. But know for certain, O Uddhava, that the human form is especially dear to Me.” He explains: “Why is human life special? … Human life is like a gateway through which one might understand My essential nature.” The “special benefit” of the human body is “intelligence that prompts living beings to directly search for Me, guiding them to practices that bring them closer to Me.”
The purpose of human life is fulfilled by living under the spiritual instructions of a guru, as Krishna explains with an elaborate metaphor:
The laws of nature automatically award all humans their material bodies – and this particular form is precious and rare. In fact, sages have compared the human body to an expertly constructed boat. The bona fide guru is like a captain, and the instructions of God, as revealed in sacred texts, are comparable to favourable breezes, setting it on its course. With all these assets, a human being is loath to not use his precious human body for crossing the ocean of birth and death. He must even be considered a “killer of his own soul” if he neglects to do so.
Krishna emphasizes the importance of faith in and devotion to the guru:
My dear Uddhava, even if My devotee is not fully in control of his senses, and is burdened by material desires, he will not be defeated by sense gratification. This is because his faith in Me is without question…. In the same way that fire can burn firewood into ashes, devotion directed toward Me totally destroys the sins committed by My devotees.
Krishna uses a strange parable to teach Uddhava that by meditating upon a guru one imbibes his qualities. A large wasp once forced a lesser insect into his hive and kept him trapped there. The smaller insect, with intense fear, naturally kept his attention riveted upon his captor. Gradually the small insect achieved the same state as the wasp, developing similar features.
Explaining the different types of yoga – jnana (knowledge) yoga, karma (action) yoga, and bhakti (devotion) yoga – Krishna makes it clear that bhakti yoga is ultimately most dear to him.
The process of bhakti yoga is actually the most intelligent and clever path of all, for by engaging in its practices one can in this very life use the temporary and unreal accoutrements of the material world to achieve Me, who is eternal and real.
Jnana yoga may serve as preparation for bhakti. But, in the end, love and devotion are most important. Krishna declares,
O Uddhava, utilizing your mature intellect, you should practise unmotivated devotional yoga (bhakti) by attentively seeing to the needs of the spiritual Master, and with the razor sharp axe of transcendental knowledge you should slice to pieces the subtle material covering that engulfs your soul. And when you fully realize Me, the Supreme Person, you should abandon that axe of knowledge in favour of love.
When a devotee surrenders himself through bhakti and “desires to attain Me and nothing else,” Krishna says that such a devotee enjoys a “happiness that cannot be known or achieved in the material world.”
These pure souls, who have concentrated their consciousness on Me, do not desire to be like Brahma or Indra, nor do they aspire to some leadership position on Earth – they desire no sovereign position anywhere, nor do they want the perfections of the eightfold yoga system. Indeed, they do not even aspire after liberation from birth and death. Such a person desires to attain Me and nothing else. Those who do not desire personal gratification, whose minds are always taking shelter of Me, who are peaceful, without misconceptions of the self and merciful to all living entities – and who are not opportunistic when it comes to personal enjoyment – these devotees relish a happiness that cannot be known or achieved in the material world.
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