"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world". -- Joseph Campbell













PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | August 2005  





              The Leaf and the Leaping Fire



                         N. Hariharan




     The Genealogy of Desire




     There is a certain notorious lineage down which the vice of wickedness runs, like a strand with unbroken continuity. The progenitress of the lineage is, of course, Avidya (primal nescience). She is a past-master in the art of obfuscation. She delights in eclipsing the non-dual Spirit, effectively camouflages the Truth of the oneness of existence and dopes beings by throwing on them a thick shroud of non-apprehension of the spiritual Truth.


     Like mother, like son. The offspring of Avidya is Ahankara (ego). He is a chip off the old block and, in doing mischief, not a whit inferior to his ruthless mother. Causing distortion of the spiritual Truth and projecting fantasies are childs play for him. Causing a spell of universal misapprehension is his forte. He is an adept in causing finitude, individuation, and cleavage in the Spirit, which is really infinite, unitary, undifferentiated, and impartite. He creates an illusion of multiplicity on the non-dual Spirit. Under his potent illusion-causing power, the oneness and unity of the Spirit get splintered into a breath-taking diversity of nama-rupa (names and forms). He is, in fact, the axle on which the wheel of empirical delusion revolves.


     Once the non-dual Spirit is camouflaged and a staggering skein of nama-rupa takes over, the birth of Kama (desire) from Ahankara is logical and inevitable. Kama wilts and withers on the terrain of non-dualism but thrives in the soil of pluralism. He flourishes in an ambience where a plethora of sense delights presents itself and does its job of enticement. Kama seduces and enthralls the whole world with his blandishments. The atrocities he perpetrates are quite serious and an offence against spiritual verity. The more one comes under the dominion of Kama, the farther one moves away from the Divine. The Lord is so appalled by his capacity for mischief that He uses a couple of choice - but significant - epithets for him: mahashanah (mighty devourer) and mahapapma (worst sinner). (1) Desire is a mighty devourer as his appetite is unappeasable and grows with whatever he feeds on. His sin is horrifying too, as he is guilty of the heinous crime of spiritual decimation of his victims. Scriptures are never tired of characterizing him as the villain in the drama of the souls spiritual evolution.




     The Dissolute Son




     Desires are of various sorts. There is, first of all, the all-too-common desire for sense enjoyments. Weakness for sense pleasures is the Achilles heel of human beings. Kama brings the vast majority of humanity under his thumb by dangling before them the bait of varied sense delights here and now on the terrestrial plane. Second, there is, for a small minority, the thirst for post-mortem felicities in heaven. Kama does not spare them. He catches and entangles them in his dragnet by pandering to their craving for celestial pleasures. He generates in their minds an insidious addiction to Vedic ritualism, which is believed to be the passport to the post-mortem joys of heaven.



Thirst for terrestrial sense pleasures is bad enough but yearning for post-mortem felicities is worse. The former is a drag on spiritual progress, as it deflects ones orientation away from the Divine. The seekers of sense pleasures are conscious of their foibles and, in their inner minds, rue their fate in having fallen into their stranglehold. They know for certain that in the spiritual realm they are outcasts because of their addiction to earthly sense delights. The lovers of post-mortem bliss in the hereafter are, on the other hand, guilty of a double crime. They are guilty of both turpitude and hypocrisy - turpitude because of their relish for heavenly delights, albeit post-mortem, and hypocrisy because of their pretensions to spiritual impeccability. By choosing to chase the impermanent raptures of heaven, they jettison the spiritual goal of God-love and God-vision. They miss the spiritual goal no less than the unabashed devotees of the sublunary sense delights.


     The tragedy is that they mistakenly consider heavenly bliss as the apex of the spiritual pyramid. They refuse to acknowledge that what they are pursuing is not the immortal bliss of God-experience but only evanescent thrills of a higher order in the celestial regions. Again, they refuse to accept that in the purely spiritual realm where God-vision is the desideratum they are persona non grata. They pose as genuine spiritualists and entertain a sense of superiority and condescension which they hardly have the right to. Their obsession with ritualism and the benefits it is supposed to confer on them clouds their spiritual vision and erects an impenetrable barrier to God-vision. They are so puffed up with pseudo-spiritual pride that even when God, in His flesh and blood, appears before them, they fail to recognize Him. Their blind addiction to ritualism is so shocking that the Lord inveighs against them in strong terms:



     O Arjuna! There are people who delight in the eulogistic statements of the Vedas and argue that the purport of the Vedas consists in these and nothing else. They are full of worldly desires; paradise is their highest goal; and they are totally blind in a spiritual sense. They expatiate upon those florid Vedic texts which describe the means for the attainment of pleasure and power, which provide attractive embodiments as the fruits of actions, and which are full of descriptions of rites and rituals (through which these fulfilments are obtained). In the minds of these votaries of pleasure and power, addicted to enjoyments of the above description, steadfast wisdom (capable of revealing the Truth) is never generated. (2)




     Love without Formalism




     Dry ritualism, bereft of an iota of Godlove, is a spiritual liability. The sorry plight of confirmed ritualists is graphically portrayed by the Bhagavata through a concise tale of surpassing charm.3 The story depicts one of the less known sports of the Lord. It is in fact a vivid portrayal of the sharp contrast between self-centered ritualism and self-giving devotion and demonstrates the fact that while the frenzy of ritualism blocks spiritual vision, the upsurge of unmotivated love of God identifies the Divine, though appearing in a human garb, with a sure eye.




     Brewing a Plan




     Vrindavana, a jewel of a place on earth, is glowing with ravishing beauty that morning. The golden orb of the rising sun with its lambent rays, the warbling notes of the cuckoo, the hum of buzzing bees, the soft, gurgling sound of a nearby rivulet, the frolicking fawn, the dancing peacock - all make the place a veritable paradise on earth. No wonder the innate wanderlust in Krishna is tickled. A strong urge to go out on a merry jaunt with his cowherd companions sweeps over Krishna, who has a robust zest for life. Next moment, he is out on the lush meadows of sprawling Vrindavana with his elder brother Balarama and his retinue of cowherd friends.


     Normally Krishna, a great lover of good food, made it a point to carry with him a variety of items consisting of rich delicacies, including milk and butter. Today, however, he sallies forth without carrying any victuals, apparently in a fit of forgetfulness. But whatever Krishna does or does not do has a certain purpose. His act of not carrying anything to eat is no exception. Even as he sprints spiritedly with his friends on the verdant landscape of the wooded groves, he waxes eloquent over the selfless service-mindedness of the large trees, which live for others (parartthaikantajivitan) and, themselves enduring the cruel vagaries of the shifting seasons, shield others from the fury of wind, rain, heat and cold (vatavarshatapahiman sahanto varayanti nah). This praise is not an empty tribute uttered casually on the spur of the moment. It acquires, as we shall see, a special significance when related to the later happenings in the unfolding drama.


     As the day advances, Krishnas cowherd friends become weary and feel the pinch of hunger. As was their wont, they report their gnawing hunger to Krishna and Balarama, begging them to get them something to eat. They say in piteous tones, O Rama! O Krishna! We are distraught with hunger. Please do something to assuage it. The psychological moment for Krishna to stage His sport has arrived. He already has a fascinating plan up his sleeve which he orchestrates in order to convey a couple of spiritual messages.


     Now, with a view to blessing the pious wives of a group of brahmanas (bhaktaya viprabharyayah prasidan), Krishna says, Friends! Certain brahmanas who are well versed in scriptural lore are performing a sacrifice with the desire of attaining heaven (svargakamyaya). Hasten to them and beg food of them. Do not forget to mention that you have been sent by Krishna and Balarama. As instructed, the cowherd boys rush to the brahmana sacrificers and petition them for food. They prostrate themselves before the brahmanas and with folded hands say, O Bhumidevas (gods on earth)! We have arrived here as commanded by Krishna and Balarama to beg food from you. They are tending the cattle not far from here. They are as hungry as we are. Please give us some food. The brahmanas pretend not to hear the appeals of the cowherd boys. They give no reply at all, either positive or negative. They maintain a wilful silence that speaks volumes for their ritualist arrogance.




     Vain Ritualism




     The Bhagavata gives a graphic picture of the brahmanas when it says, (They are) confirmed ritualists aspiring for short-lived heavenly enjoyments and childishly silly in outlook though considering themselves to be wise elders (kshudrasha bhurikarmano balisha vriddhamaninah). To cold-shoulder an atithi with a piercing verbal shaft and turn him away is bad enough as it violates the basic norms of hospitality. But to maintain a disdainful silence in the face of appeals by the atithi is the height of discourtesy. The negative reception has, at least, the merit of extending the basic courtesy of acknowledging the presence of the atithi. But wilful silence is an inexcusable insult as it ignores the atithi as a non-entity.


     The Bhagavata vividly portrays the heights of insolence to which the unabashed vanity of the ritual-mad can soar. The magic name of Krishna, which touches emotional chords universally, fails to have any effect on the brahmana ritualists, obsessed as they are with their selfish ends. Their ritual-ridden minds are the rocky ground on which the tender sapling of devotion to God fails to sprout. Ostrich-like they persist in their ritualistic routine and miss the Divine that walks before their very eyes, as it were. To quote the Bhagavata: These men of perverse intelligence, entrenched in the pride of their brahmanahood arising from their identification with the body, could see nothing but an ordinary man in Krishna, who in reality was the supreme Brahman and the worshipful Mahavishnu incarnate (Tam brahma paramam sakshad bhagavantamadhokshajam; Manushyadrishtya dushprajna martyatmano na menire).




     Overpowering Love




     The cowherd boys, smarting under the slight they suffered at the hands of the proud brahmanas, return to Krishna and report what transpired. Krishna, far from being offended, smiles away the impudence of the brahmanas. He asks the cowherd boys to approach the wives of the brahmanas and beg from them. He says, Announce our arrival (of Balarama and me) to the wives of the sacrificers. They whose minds are ever centred in me will give you food to your hearts content. Accordingly, the cowherd boys go to the brahmanas wives, after paying obeisance to them, inform them of the presence of Krishna and Balarama at a spot close by. They describe how hungry all of them are and beg food of them.


     The moment the brahmana wives hear of the presence of Krishna nearby, they are in a whirl of excitement. They have already heard a lot about the divine exploits of Krishna and their minds have been ravished by the charming stories of his divine sports. Such stories had whetted their eagerness to see the divine boy (Shrutvacyutamupayatam nityam taddarshanotsukah; Tatkathakshiptamanaso babhuvurjatasambhramah). In striking contrast to the shocking callousness of their husbands, who were immured in the smug cocoon of ritualistic ardour, a spirit of love and solicitude for the starving children wells up in the minds of the womenfolk. Hurriedly they repair to the place where Krishna is, carrying with them plenty of delicious foodstuffs of different varieties, just as rivers rush towards the ocean (samudramiva nimnagah).


     Breaking the stiff opposition of their kinsmen, the womenfolk, overpowered by the delirium of their love for Krishna, make haste to the spot where Krishna is. There they see him, the divine boy, and Balarama, his elder brother. They take in his beauty through their eyes to their hearts content and mentally embrace him. Intending to judge, perhaps, the depths of their love for him, Krishna admonishes them for their unseemly haste even as their spouses were in the middle of their sacrificial performance. He urges them to return to their homes and help their husbands complete their sacrifice.




     The One Real Goal




     The brahmana wives humbly submit that they have betaken themselves to Krishnas holy feet with rock-like faith in their power of sanctuary. Their words clearly imply that forsaking their spouses and leaving them in the middle of the sacrifice for any mundane reason would certainly be a grave dereliction of duty and constitute a transgression of dharma, but renouncing all-including the dearest kinsmen - for the sake of achieving the one real goal of life - attaining the Divine - certainly did not amount to faithlessness, much less an offence against dharma. Their forceful arguments and piteous appeals indicate that when one has to choose between the worldly call of mundane duty and the divine call of spiritual redemption, one should unhesitatingly choose the latter. The women argue that their desertion of their spouses and other dear ones is only for the sake of achieving the status of proximity to Krishna (samipya).


     Krishnas answer to their logic is a pithy expression of a pivotal tenet in the doctrine of devotion. He says: Physical contact is not needed for the growth and fulfilment of spiritual love. Keep your mind fixed on Me always and you will attain Me before long (Na pritayenuragaya hyanggasanggo nrinamiha; Tanmano mayi yunjana aciranmamavapsyatha). True spiritual life demands less the snapping of physical ties with the world than a mental frame of detachment and renunciation. Divine life is more a matter of mental attunement to God than of corporeal connection. The physical tenement in which the soul resides should be a tool that aids the minds absorption in God. So when it ceases to serve its spiritual purpose, or even proves a hurdle to spiritual progress, discarding it is the only way out. Underscoring this point, the Bhagavata says: There was, however, one woman who had been sternly debarred from going to Krishna. She, through meditation on Him, clasped the Lord in her heart in the form she had pictured Him therein from what she had heard of Him and, in the process, abandoned her body which was but a product of karma (Tatraika vidhrita bhartra bhagavantam yathashrutam; Hridopaguhya vijahau deham karmanubandhanam).


     The brahmana wives of the story are justly considered true models of real devotion. Their yearning for the Divine is too intense to be described in words.




      and the Way to It




     It is significant that the episode of the supercilious brahmanas is preceded by Krishnas praise of the inert trees for their spontaneous benevolence and followed by his bestowal of grace on the brahmana womenfolk for their motiveless devotion to Him. The shocking self-conceit of their husbands with all its luridness repels one when it is juxtaposed between the selfless altruism of the subhuman trees and the self-giving devotion of the unlettered women. The ugliness of self-serving ritualism becomes all too obvious when it is sandwiched between self-abnegating altruism and self-effacing devotion.


     Now it is the turn of the brahmanas to repent and utter abject words of self-reproach. Obsessed with the outer shell of dry ritualism, they have missed the inner kernel of true devotion. When they contrast their own penchant for punctilious ritualism with the unearthly devotion (bhaktimalaukikim) of their wives, they are filled with shame. They lament their utter bankruptcy of God-love in spite of their high birth, profound scholarship, rigorous austerity, encyclopaedic knowledge and dexterity in action. In their inner minds they are even envious of their wives! They exclaim, Look at the boundless devotion of our womenfolk to Krishna, the World Teacher, by virtue of which they have been able to cut asunder Deaths stranglehold called attachment to home! (Aho pashyata narinamapi krishne jagadgurau; Durantabhavam yovidhyanmrityupashan grihabhidhan). A sense of guilt and shame rankles in their hearts when they realize that for all their imperfections such as lack of formal purity, education, austerity and knowledge, their wives are actually far ahead of them in spiritual evolution purely by dint of their motiveless devotion. They realize that begging food from them was purely a piece of play-acting by Krishna, the Ever-fulfilled, and himself the bestower of moksha. They realize their blunder in getting entangled in the wheel of incessant karma when they offer their obeisance to Krishna, by whose maya, we are caught up in and overpowered by adherence to ritualistic disciplines (yanmayamohitadhiyo bhramamah karmavartmasu).


One would be tempted to jump to the conclusion that the dyed-in-the-wool ritualists are finally reformed and have turned into consummate bhaktas. But then, are such remorseful admissions proof enough? The Bhagavata suggests that their conversion is superficial. True devotion knows no fear. But these brahmanas, though repentant of their disrespectful conduct towards Krishna and though anxious to meet him, did not do so out of fear of Kamsa (Iti svaghamanusmritya krishne te kritahelanah; Didrikshavopyacyutayoh kamsad bhita na cacalan). The proof of true bhakti is in its total freedom from all limitations of fear and shame. Sentimental tears of remorse cannot substitute for upswelling tides of devotion. True devotion is not a mushroom that pops up on the morrow of a rainy day anywhere and everywhere; it is the rarest kalpa vriksha that grows only on the well-prepared mental soil watered with Divine grace.




     The True Sacrifice




     It might sound far-fetched, but a verse from Shankaracharyas Vivekachudamani employs the imagery of sacrifice so adthat it serves to tellingly illustrate the plight of the desire-ridden devotees of karma: The mental sheath is the sacrificial fire. The five sense organs are the priests. They pour into the fire the oblations of the sense objects. The various desires are the fuel. With these the mental sheath brings about this world (Pancendriyaih pancabhireva hotribhih praciyamano vishayajyadharaya; Jajvalyamano bahuvasanendhanairmanomayagnirvahati prapancam). (4)


     By engaging in sacrificial rites, which involve the pouring of oblations into the fire, the brahmanas of the Bhagavata, it would appear, orchestrate their own predicament. Being sense-bound, they pour the oblations of sense stimuli into their restless minds. The leaping fire of mental agitation rages with redoubled fury luring them deeper into the meshes of desire-prompted karma. The leaping fire can be regarded as the emblem of self-centered ritualism. If that is so, what can truly symbolize self-giving devotion? The Lord has indicated in the Gita that He is pleased with even a leaf offered with sincere love. Whoever makes an offering to Me with devotion, be it a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water - that devout offering made by a pure-hearted man I accept with joy (Patram pushpam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati; Tadaham bhaktyupahritamashnami prayatatmanah). (5) The Lord has proved this by gladly accepting a particle of a leaf that lay stuck inside the akshaya patra of Draupadi, His staunch devotee, when the Pandavas were living in the forest. The leaf, then, can be the symbol of true devotion. The contrast between self-giving devotion and self-centred ritualism can be figuratively spoken of as the contrast between the leaf and the leaping fire. And the moral of the Bhagavata story is that in the contest between the two, the humble leaf wins.









     1. Bhagavadgita, 3.37.

     2. Shrimad-Bhagavad-Gita, trans. Swami Tapasyananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1992), 59.

     3. Bhagavata, 10.22-3.

     4. Shankaracharya, Vivekachudamani, 168.

     5. Bhagavadgita, 9.26.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







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