Nature Deadly and Nature Divine: The Bhagavata Purana’s Lessons on Human Relationships to the Environment
Kenneth R. Valpey (Krishna Ksetra Swami)
In recent decades we witness increasing public awareness about the profoundly damaging effects of accellerating human production, consumption, and mobility on ecosystems of the world; and this awareness is accompanied by a deepening sense of urgency that “something” must be done to stop the current trends of environmental destruction. Environmental activism is now a mainstream activity for all sorts of individuals and groups, not least persons and organizations whose motivations may be termed “religious.” Religious traditions are being seen as potential resources of wisdom, providing both theological vision and spiritual conviction for fostering responsible and reformative attitudes and action to favor the environment. In view of this journal’s present theme, Vaishnavism and the Environment, here I will explore representations of “nature” within the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (BhP, or Bhāgavata)—a text revered as canonical for followers of several Vaiṣṇava traditions—with the aim of considering how this text might serve as a resource not only for Vaiṣṇavas, but also for other seekers and implementers of deep ecological thought and practice.
In much contemporary environmental protection discourse, the word “holism” and its derivatives are typically employed. We are urged to “think holistically,” to seek “holistic solutions” to problems, and conversely to “avoid reductionism” in dealing with the subject. Yet the means to profoundly change our ways of individually and collectively thinking and acting with respect to our environment seem to elude us, and this sense of failure and ineptitude is aggravated by the suspicion that as human beings we are in a profound if not essential way different and separate from nature, or that we have become alienated from nature. Accounts, or stories, about how this state of affairs has come about are typically central to religious worldviews. And conversely, or as a cure for the condition of alienation, accounts or stories are also typically offered by religious traditions. More broadly, it has been argued that one way our difference and separateness from nature is mitigated is by the telling and hearing of stories. “Stories unite us in a holistic way to nature, our common stuff of existence,” writes William Bausch, and the Bhāgavata might be seen as an affirmation of this understanding, with its predominantly narrative approach to its didactic purposes, in which nature frequently plays significant roles.1 My attention here will therefore be on nature as represented in the BhP’s narratives. To be sure, the Bhāgavata has much to say about nature (especially as prakṛti) in its propositional, philosophically analytical passages, but here I restrict this survey to narrative representations as equally important to the text’s bhakti message.
While the question about the Bhāgavata’s possible contribution to broader (and deeper) contemporary environmental discourse gives impetus to this exploration, the more immediate matter I wish to explore has to do with the text’s representation of the relationship between two emic terms, namely dharma and bhakti, and how various elements, aspects, or representations of “nature” come into play—through narratives—in the dialectic between these two themes that are so central to the text and its didactic purposes. What I hope to show, in a necessarily brief sketch, is how the text offers an integrated, or “holistic,” view of nature by presenting what we might call a “realm of eternal possibility” in the land of VrajaVrindavan which, as Kṛṣṇa’s divine “playground,” challenges and invites us to conceive a proper human relationship to nature as being realizeable when a devotional (bhakti) relationship to a divine proprietor of nature, however one might designate such divinity, is established.
Such relationships are portrayed narratively in the Bhāgavata, especially in its charming Book Ten sacred biography of Kṛṣṇa, of which especially the chapters dealing with his birth and childhood, up to and including his killing of Kaṁsa (chs. 1-44) are most celebrated. There is however, in the remaining eleven books, a treasure of narrative and teachings relevant to our topic. Here I will therefore begin with a sketch of some narrative representations of nature outside Book Ten, especially as these relate to the paradoxical desirability and impossibility of sustaining dharma and dharmic activity. I will then consider selected episodes from Book Ten in terms of some of the ways it represents nature in relation to Kṛṣṇa’s interactions with his devotees. Finally I will offer brief reflections on the Bhāgavata’s lessons about nature as potential contributions to current environmental discourse.
Nature as object of desire, source of danger
There are several ways nature is represented throughout the Bhāgavata’s narratives outside Book Ten, all serving in varied ways the text’s didactic purpose of challenging the human assumption that nature is to be, or can be, dominated for selfish purposes. Natural “elements” such as water and earth, certain types or classes of flora and fauna, and land features such as mountains—all can be found present and relevant in this discourse. And generally there is an implicit dividing line of classification to be discerned in these narratives, namely, between wild nature and tame nature. Human beings, in their efforts to follow dharma and thus to tame (or domesticate) nature, may sometimes succeed—for some time—but wild nature is ever threatening. With a few examples, let us see how this happens.
In its opening lines, the Bhāgavata states its subject and identifies its audience, simultaneously defining its scope by exclusion, namely, to reject “deceitful dharma” (BhP 1.1.2). A dramatic high-point of Book One is a highly allegorical confrontation between Parīkṣit, the emblem of dharmic kingship, and Kali, the emblem of adharma—personified opposition to and destruction of dharma. Their face-off takes place over Kali’s mistreatment of a cow (the personified earth) and a bull (personified dharma), which throughout the BhP are both emblems of human culture in harmony with nature. Parīkṣit succeeds in protecting them, restoring the three destroyed legs of the bull (representing three of four portions of dharma) and the nourishing function of the cow-earth. But Kali is not killed, having begged Parīkṣit for his life; rather, he is subdued and contained by being given five places to reside (BhP 1.17.1-39).
Parīkṣit is thus portrayed as a powerful ruler who, ever conscious of his duties as sovereign, displays mercy even upon Kali because of the latter’s show of submission. Yet one knows that all is not well: The five places apportioned for Kali’s residence are wherever there is prostitution, gambling, drinking, and animal butchery, and wherever there is gold—places emblematic of moral turpitude and disregard for dharma. And such places, in the current age (Kali-yuga) abound. Further, Parīkṣit himself proves to be less than perfect, for in the next episode (1.18) he loses control of himself in a fit of anger, with dire, though ultimately glorious, consequences:
Parīkṣit, a king (master of humans), is out hunting in a forest (in much Sanskrit literature, a sure signal that trouble brews). His intention to subdue nature in the form of wild animals is subverted by his own bodily thirst (a physical, biological, hence “natural” need) getting the better of him. Upon not receiving welcome by the meditating sage Śamīka (an ascetic, hence detached from the natural demands of the body, and a mediator between wild nature and the human world) King Parīkṣit vents his anger by draping a dead snake (nature’s most dangerous wild animal, often representing the finality of fate) around the unresponsive sage’s neck. Seeing this, the sage’s young son angrily curses the king to die after seven days, to be bitten by a “snake-bird”—a supernatural animal that (as the story later unfolds) has magical transformative powers to appear (and speak) as a human being.
Before proceeding to the next example of nature within narrative, we may note the “chain-reaction” quality of the above episodes, whereby important representatives of nature (a cow, a bull; then water, and a snake) play passive but essential roles in the progression of the story as they become objects of contention. And contention is based on differing perceptions of nature’s representatives. For Kali, the cow and bull, as recipients of his abuse, are objects of desire, whereas for Parīkṣit they are (talking!) subjects needing protection. Water similarly becomes an object of desire for Parīkṣit, whereas for the sage it is an object of indifference (as is the worldly status of the king). Finally, the dead snake, placed as an “ornament” on the sage’s neck with the intention of retaliating a perceived breech of etiquette, becomes, ironically, a symbol of Parīkṣit’s death. As such the snake functions as a marker of fate’s unrelenting movement underlying the particulars of natural and human interaction.
But the snake also marks the end to Parīkṣit’s worldly existence as a king and the beginning of his progress toward liberation, under the tutelage of another sage, Śuka: The Bhāgavata will be recited by one who is veritably immersed in nature, having earlier been identified with the trees of the forest (1.2.2) and who comes naked before the assembly to recite the text (1.19.27). Wise and renounced sages are generally the Bhāgavata’s counterpart to kings, who generally show worldly ways and a domineering approach to nature. But whereas Parīkṣit is forced to immediately give up kingdom and comforts to seek his salvation, other of the Bhāgavata’s kings turn to asceticism graciously in old age, retreating invariably to the forest to practice austerities in preparation for death.
A noteworthy example of this pattern is the story of King Bharata in Book Five (ch. 8)—noteworthy because part of the narrative’s didactic aim is to point out the perils of asceticism. As if to say, “Just renouncing the world and the exploitation of nature is not enough,” Bharata’s story illustrates the precariousness of identity as a human being: In the course of his rigorous observances of austerities in the forest, Bharata witnesses the premature birth of a deer-fawn as its mother, frightened by the roar of a lion, scurries for safety but dies in the process. Feeling compassion for the helpless fawn, Bharata “adopts” it, and over time, doting over the charming animal, his growing affection for it leads to distraction from his meditational practices. So caught up in thoughts of the fawn, at his own death he becomes, in the next life, a deer. In that animal form, however, Bharata is able to remember his past life as an ascetic human and therefore resolves to return to the spiritual path by keeping in the proximity of other ascetics for the remainder of its animal life.
In this episode the central “representative” of nature is a wild animal which, like the cow and bull for Kali, becomes an object of desire. Unlike in the latter episode, however, this object is a mṛga—a hunted animal (hence wild)—rather than a paśu—an animal to be tied (hence domestic). The Bharata episode can be read as a story of taming wildness that backfires: Bharata’s attempt to tame the wild fawn, in its initial seeming success, leads to his own becoming a wild animal, albeit one that is not really wild, having “tamed” its passions as the ascetic yogin of the previous life. As the story unfolds in subsequent chapters (9-13), Bharata’s next life after having been a deer is as a brahmin who, in his determination to attain spiritual perfection, acts as a jaḍa, a dull-witted person, to avoid the distractions of social life. As it happens, in that condition he nevertheless becomes a spiritual preceptor for a king, Rahūgaṇa, instructing him on the dangerous character of worldly existence by comparing it, significantly, to a forest.
Whether as a locus of trouble for hunting kings or a place of shelter for sense-taming ascetics, one sees repeatedly in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa that forests are places of danger. Specifically the danger they embody is that of existence outside the reaches of dharmic behavior, by which is meant regulated behavior that essentially controls, restrains, or “contains” sexuality and violence. The forest is ever present as the threatening counterpart to human dharmic order, an order that is exemplified by the brahmin, who embodies, or is supposed to embody, these restraints. But as the Bhāgavata’s story of the brahmin Ajāmila illustrates, brahmins can also be failures in self-restraint (though ultimately, by divine grace, they can attain perfection):
As Śuka relates to Parīkṣit (BhP 6.1-3), Ajāmila had been a young, well-behaved and learned brahmin who displayed all the virtues of the brahminical order. But one day, while returning from the forest (!) where he had been sent by his father to collect some of its products for ritual purposes, Ajāmila espies a śūdra man flirting intimately with an intoxicated servant woman. The sight ignites lustful desire in his own heart, and although he was already married, he takes the servant woman as his concubine. As the story unfolds, Ajāmila abandons all decency in his efforts to please this woman, with whom, over some years, he fathers ten sons. Finally, in his old age, he can only dote on his youngest son “Nārāyaṇa” such that, on his deathbed, it is this son to whom he calls out in desparation. Although the (wild-looking) minions of the lord of death, Yama, arrive at that moment to drag the sinful Ajāmila to his just punishment, because he has pronounced a divine name of Viṣṇu at the critical moment, he is saved by Viṣṇu’s agents.
For our present purposes, we may note in this episode the role of a (nameless) servant woman—an apparently low-class, possibly “outcaste” member of the female sex. In the Bhāgavata’s semeiology, not unlike the forest, women are generally embodiments of danger and wildness—that which dharma attempts but typically fails to restrain and control. For Ajāmila, the (wild) servant woman becomes an object of desire, and as such she represents nature-as-illusion, whereby nature, in the context of human desire, is a manifestation of māyā, the divine power that functions as magic or illusion to perpetuate the bondage of living beings in the endless cycle of death and rebirth.
I have said that women are generally embodiments or representations of māyā because there are important exceptions—for the most part model wives and mothers—who exemplify dharmic behavior or, more importantly for the Bhāgavata’s main didactic purpose, exalted levels of devotion (bhakti) to Bhagavān, especially Kṛṣṇa. Notably in Book Ten, to which we now turn, it is the dairy-maids (gopīs) in the pastoral setting of Vraja who exemplify what later Vaiṣṇava traditions will deem the highest level of devotion to Kṛṣṇa.
It is in Vraja that Kṛṣṇa takes center stage to exchange joyful reciprocations with his most intimate devotees. Here, as we will see, nature’s role shifts from being an object of desire and source of danger that foils the human effort to sustain dharmic order to being a subject of devotion and source of devotional moods that sustains human thriving as it fosters integration into a “universe of feeling.”2
Nature as subject of devotion, source of love
As noted earlier, the Bhāgavata’s over-arching didactic aim is to reject what it considers to be “deceitful dharma” and to offer a positive alternative, centered in the cultivation of bhakti in relation to a supreme being, specified as Viṣṇu/Nārāyaṇa more generally and Kṛṣṇa more specifically. It is in the celebrated Book Ten that the “positive alternative” is presented in its most concentrated form through the narrative of Kṛṣṇa’s sacred biography, beginning with his birth in Mathurā. Here, the opposition dharma versus adharma is largely shifted to the opposition of Kṛṣṇa-and-his-devotees versus “demons”—a variety of political and family foes and their (often monster-like) agents. The “stage” for the enactment of this drama of godly and anti-godly struggle is, in the first forty-four of the book’s ninety chapters, the land of Vraja, which is vaguely bordered by the city of Mathurā and has its effective center in Vrindavan, where Kṛṣṇa spends most of his childhood. Refering to Vraja as a “stage” is significant because, as later Vaiṣṇava traditions will elaborate, the dramatic character of these accounts are highly conducive to the evocation of aesthetic relish—rasa. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on this important dimension of the Bhāgavata, we will have occasion to call attention to aspects of this dimension of the text as we proceed.
The land of Vraja may best be portrayed as “super-natural,” in that all natural features and phenomena are represented as functioning under Kṛṣṇa’s direct supervision, even when the connection is not always apparent. General features of Vraja are that it is a place of simple, rustic abundance in which (despite regular “natural oppositions” that Kṛṣṇa invariably suppresses) cosmic functions, flora, and (nonpredatory) fauna exhibit aesthetically pleasing harmony. It is a place that serves as background, playground, and aesthetic enhancement for the enactment of Kṛṣṇa’s sports and for the display of reciprocal devotional sentiments between Kṛṣṇa and his devotees. And because all of Vraja is the place of Kṛṣṇa’s presence, nature’s proximity to him (as the absolute real, as emphasized throughout the Bhāgavata) identifies it as similarly “super-real”: Whereas ordinarily nature is, for bound souls, the jurisdiction of māyā in its illusion-generating and perpetuating feature, in Vraja nature, by virtue of Kṛṣṇa’s direct presence, is under the jurisdiction of yoga-māyā—Kṛṣṇa’s artful and wondrous instrument for securing connections (yoga) between himself and his devotees.
As we are here concerned with nature as portrayed in narratives of the Bhāgavata, and since the narrative episodes of Book Ten’s early chapters are the most well-known and popular passages of the text, we do well to consider briefly some specific ways that nature is portrayed in some of these episodes. I will categorize these in two general groups, namely, (1) supportive nature, and (2) (apparently) oppositional nature.
In the category of supportive nature one may discern at least three themes, namely, (a) cosmos as a whole and totality, (b) nature as supportive background, and (c) nature’s devotionally reciprocal bounty.
Śuka describes natural conditions at the time of Kṛṣṇa’s birth as being those of extraordinary harmony (10.3.1-5). Stars and planets are all favorably situated (that is, astrologically the positions are all favorable, auspicious, and harmonious); waters of the earth are clear, calm, and attractive; the air is clean, fragrant, and pleasant to the touch; and the ritual fires attended by brahmins are undisturbed. In a kind of inversion of relationships between inner and outer dimensions, readers encounter this same harmonious universe within the mouth of child Kṛṣṇa (10.8). The reversal serves to enhance the picture of nature as wondrous (adbhūta in Indian aesthetic theory) in two ways, namely, by identifying all of nature as being naught but Kṛṣṇa’s power, subsumed within his body; and by bringing in an element of humor. Kṛṣṇa as childhood competitor with his older brother Balarāma, “wins” against the latter’s accusations to their foster-mother Yaśodā that Kṛṣṇa had eaten dirt. To prove himself innocent, Kṛṣṇa opens his mouth for Yaśodā’s inspection, and what she sees— the entire cosmos including herself and her husband with baby Kṛṣṇa—temporarily throws her into a state of confused inaction. Here nature is graphically presented as a totality by virtue of its being contained within Kṛṣṇa who, significantly, is a small and therefore innocent (even if also mischievous) child.
Nature as supportive background is represented in several passages within the Vraja chapters. For example, as introduction to an account of Kṛṣṇa and his cowherd friends’ fighting and killing of the Ass Demon (Dhenukāsura, 10.15), Śuka describes Kṛṣṇa entering a forest and enjoying its charming atmosphere. Significantly, there is mention that Kṛṣṇa and his friends are accompanied by their cows (domestic animals), and that the forest is paśavya—suitable or fit for cattle (in other words, the forest offers nourishing grass). Also significant is that Kṛṣṇa “turned his mind to enjoy” the pleasing atmosphere of the forest, the stately trees of which he amusedly notes have bent down their branches to offer their fruit and flowers to his brother, Balarāma (10.15.4-5). Although Kṛṣṇa’s comment to Balarāma is but a playful offer of praise, it is significant that here nature, as represented by trees, is conceived as having conscious, pious intention, namely to offer service to the divine brothers.
The possibly best-known example of nature as supportive background comes in the five chapters of the Rasa Dance episode (10.29-33). Again, the pleasing atmosphere of the forest serves to inspire Kṛṣṇa to enjoy—this time by dancing with the gopī cowherd girls of Vraja. In this context nature provides enhancement to romantic feelings conducive to the coming together of Kṛṣṇa with the gopīs, and soon thereafter it becomes a locus—even a foreground—for the gopīs suffering feelings of longing in separation from Kṛṣṇa after his sudden disappearance from their midst. What is particularly noteworthy in this connection is that as the gopīs’ longing intensifies, they begin to address the trees and other plants, earth, and animals “as if they were mad” (10.30.4-13). As mentioned earlier, whereas generally the Bhāgavata represents women as embodiments of nature-as-illusion, the gopīs are the exception par excellence, in that they are utterly and selflessly devoted to the highest divinity. And their status as exalted bhaktas is enhanced, rather than reduced, by their worldly status as (apparently) common village women; and it is even further enhanced, rather than reduced, by their “mad” (wild) behavior. Thus flora, fauna, and the gopīs combine in this episode to represent nature in Vraja as the unfolding of the aesthetic rasa of conjugal love (śṛṇgāra, or mādhurya) which, the text would have readers understand, can only exist in such intensity in relation to Kṛṣṇa.
The devotionally reciprocal bounty of Vraja nature, while implied in numerous passages, is exemplified particularly in chapter 21, in which the gopīs describe the rapturous sound of Kṛṣṇa’s flute, upon hearing which all the creatures and plant-life of Vraja rejoice. The peacocks dance madly, other creatures are stunned, cows “drink” the sound with their upraised ears, and birds sit on the branches of trees and listen with eyes closed. Even the flow of rivers’ currents is interrupted as they embrace Kṛṣṇa’s feet while offering lotuses, and clouds form in the midst of summer heat to offer Kṛṣṇa protective shade. And Govardhana hill (featured in the famous episode of its lifting by Kṛṣṇa—see below), in its high regard for Kṛṣṇa and his friends, offers drinking water, soft grass for the cows, edible roots, and caves (10.21.10-19). In short, the natural features of Vraja do not merely form a neutral, passive background for Kṛṣṇa’s childhood and youthful adventures; rather, they are activated and, one might say, “sensitized” by Kṛṣṇa’s presence into affectionate reciprocation, freely and consciously giving the bounty that each form of nature has to offer.
Although nature as represented in Vraja is essentially benign and indeed devotionally supportive of Kṛṣṇa and his friends, at times it also provides agency for apparent opposition and life-threatening danger. The several episodes involving these oppositions all have a common conclusion: Kṛṣṇa effortlessly and playfully prevails over them, confirming his divinity and both astonishing and charming his friends. We can note three types of opposition here, namely (1) opposition of “elements” (in particular wind, fire, and rain); (2) opposition from a variety of wizards and monsters (mainly the agents of Kṛṣṇa’s arch-enemy, his uncle Kaṁsa); and (3) opposition from secondary gods (in particular Indra and Brahmā). Arguably the latter two categories may be included as features of “nature” in that, in the case of monsters and wizards, they represent wildness, and in the case of secondary gods, powers “behind” nature. All three types of oppositional nature can be seen as invasive interruptions to the natural harmony that generally prevails in Vraja. However, they may also be understood as integral to the Bhāgavata’s didactic purpose of establishing Kṛṣṇa’s divinity and supremacy through dramatic narrative. From the perspective of aesthetic relish, nature’s oppositions serve to enhance the emotion of wonder (adbhutatva) and heroism (vīratva).
For our purposes it will suffice to illustrate these three types of opposition in the briefest manner to show this twofold feature of nature in its oppositional mode in Vraja. In the case of oppositional “elements,” the Bhāgavata describes two occasions when forest fires suddenly break out and threaten the lives of Kṛṣṇa’s cowherd friends. In both cases, to the amazement of the Vraja residents, Kṛṣṇa extinguishes the fires by effortlessly swallowing them (10.17 and 10.19), thus not only preserving their lives but also preserving the threatened forests and animals.3 In a similar act of “environmental protection,” when the noxious fumes from the breath of the monster-snake Kalīya threaten to destroy the river Yamunā and its environs, Kṛṣṇa takes the opportunity to perform an artful dance upon the beast’s multiple hoods, simultaneously stamping it into humbly submissive agreement to depart from Vraja (10.16). Unlike Kalīya, several more or less monstrous (often shapeshifting) beings sent by Kaṁsa appear in the Bhāgavata’s Vraja section to interrupt the harmony of Kṛṣṇa’s pastoral pastimes and to give Kṛṣṇa opportunity to show his wondrous prowess. Tṛṇāvarta, the “whirlwind demon,” Pūtanā, a monstrous witch, and Pralambha, appearing as a cowherd boy, are all shape-shifters who reveal their “true” forms upon or after showing their intentions to kill Kṛṣṇa (10.7; 10.6; 10.18). Or, there are Baka, Agha, and Ariṣṭa, appearing as animals (a crane, snake, and a bull, respectively), albeit in giant-sized versions of these forms (10.11; 10.12; 10.36). Typically—for example in the case Agha—the threat to Kṛṣṇa and his friends is to become devoured; or, in an inverse way in the case of Pūtanā, the threat is that baby Kṛṣṇa will be poisoned by sucking the witch’s breast. In these, as in all cases, Kṛṣṇa’s playfully effortless retaliations immediately kill each demon. In the case of Pūtanā, having had her life-air sucked out by Kṛṣṇa’s seemingly innocent breastsuckling, her corpse expands to a massive size, her various bodily features “resembling” natural features of the landscape, and thus becomes a playground for Kṛṣṇa (10.6.14-18).
Finally, there are two episodes in the early portion of Book Ten in which secondary gods offer opposition to Kṛṣṇa, the most well-known of these being Indra’s sending destructive rains in retaliation for having been denied his usual worship rites by the Vraja residents on the advice of Kṛṣṇa.4 With respect to narrative representations of nature, we may note three aspects of this episode. First, prior to Indra’s attempted deluge, in a move to undermine the locally traditional annual worship of Indra, Kṛṣṇa organizes a grand feast, to be prepared by the Vraja residents and offered to Govardhana Hill. As the offering is being conducted Kṛṣṇa assumes a giant form (bṛhad-vapuḥ—10.24.35) and declares “I am the mountain (Govardhana)” and proceeds to eat the entire food offering in that form. By identifying himself with Govardhana, Kṛṣṇa identifies himself with the bountiful embodiment of nature, and vice-versa: Bountiful nature becomes a form of the divinity, in which form it becomes the recipient of human sacrificial offerings.
Second, when Indra’s deluge begins, Kṛṣṇa acts the super-human hero by detaching Govardhana from the earth and lifting the hill up over his head, balancing it on the little finger of his left hand for a period of seven days to serve as a shelter for all of Vraja’s residents. By placing himself and Govardhana between the destructive natural forces of rain sent by Indra and the Vraja residents, Kṛṣṇa positions himself as the protector of his devotees against the onslaughts of any adversarial forces manifest in nature. In doing so, he both separates and joins together two aspects of earth—its sustaining, supportive feature (the earth as a whole), and its protective feature (the hill, made to function as an umbrella).
Third, when Indra sees his mistake and humbles himself before Kṛṣṇa, with the help of the celestial cow Surabhi he offers a royal consecratory bath to Kṛṣṇa, in effect installing him as the actual Indra or celestial sovereign (10.27). The mood of this installation is celebratory, in which (reminiscent of the occasion of Kṛṣṇa’s birth) the entire cosmos participates by showing boundless generosity and harmony. Rivers flow with a variety of pleasing liquids (nānā-rasa); trees flow with honey; plants become ripe without cultivation (akṛṣṭa-pacyauṣadhayaḥ); mountains bear jewels forth to their surfaces (girayo ‘bhibran un maṇīn, 10.27.26); and all animals—including predators (krūrāṇi api, 10.27.27)—become non-inimical. Indeed, the “three worlds” attain thereby “ultimate satisfaction” (parāṁ nivṛtim) and cows saturate the earth with their milk (gām . . . payo-drutām, 10.27.25). This is the “realm of eternal possibility” that the Bhāgavata presents its readers—a place of harmony that becomes immediately possible to experience for persons who would participate in Kṛṣṇa’s līlā—devotional interactions.
Aside from the Govardhana-līlā’s obvious “statement” about the superiority of Kṛṣṇaworship over Indra-worship, it can be seen that the episode contributes substantially to the Bhāgavata’s over-all picture of nature in relation to bhakti and in relation to dharma. In the Vraja setting, Indra’s challenged authority over nature becomes for Kṛṣṇa an opportunity to display superior prowess in such a way that all Vraja residents—all beings in this realm of Kṛṣṇa’s childhood and youth—become charmed into deepened affection for Kṛṣṇa and thus for each other, within a supernatural space (under Govardhana) that is formed of nature’s otherwise familiar features.
I have opened this survey of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa’s narrative representations of nature with a question about the text’s possible contribution to environmental protection discourse, suggesting that the vague term “holism” may receive some degree of specificity by considering the Bhāgavata’s narrative approach to nature. I have further suggested that the Bhāgavata’s approach to nature must be understood within its larger discourse of the relationship between dharma and bhakti, whereby the essential message is that dharma— whether construed as individual or as cosmic regulation and order—can be effectively pursued only in light of the deeper principle of bhakti, which for the Bhāgavata is experienced most fully in relation with Kṛṣṇa. Not yet mentioned, but surely important to be at least aware of, is that the Bhāgavata places considerable demand on what we might call its “serious” readers or hearers. As with perhaps any major religious text, the Bhāgavata urges its readers to practice what Paul Griffiths calls “religious reading,”—the regular and repeated devotional reading that is in contradistinction to “consumer reading.”5 While this might be viewed as adequate reason to reject the Bhāgavata as inaccessible to a wider audience, alternatively such demand may be taken as a challenge to seriously explore, for example, the text’s apparent “mythic” dimension, for possible illuminations of our current environmental predicament. And whether or not one may find enriching the Bhāgavata’s portrayal of a supreme divinity as it presents Kṛṣṇa (or Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa), the text’s location of divinity within the world as an active and beloved personage who is able, by virtue of his omnipotence, to effect protecting, saving, and regenerating actions offers an arguably panentheistic perspective that reaches beyond abstract theologizing to concrete instance.
Beyond its broader project of establishing such a theistic worldview in which, by the practice of bhakti, some form of harmony between human beings and nature may be realized, the Bhāgavata can be read as a text that sharply challenges current human practices with respect to engagement with the natural environment. Among the several challenges offered by the Bhāgavata that we might consider, I will mention only two—one that may be seen as directed toward human society as a whole, and one that may be seen as directed toward the community of Vaiṣṇavas.
The first challenge contained in the Bhāgavata is addressed to the vast majority of the human population, for which the regular consumption of animal flesh—especially beef—is a matter of unquestioned habit. There is well-founded recognition that animal food industries, especially of meat from cattle, account for the most significant environmental problems throughout our planet.6 Although this is known and recognized, meat industries thrive with the incessant demand of populations for whom little or no thought is given to the consequences. The Bhāgavata presents a case for the protection of animals rather than their unrestricted production and slaughter, based on its theistic bhakti perspective wherein the supreme divinity takes personal charge for the protection of cattle as the basis of a peaceful and stable human society and economy. As we have seen, the dharmic king Parīkṣit does his best to protect a cow and a bull from the wicked Kali, but it is in the description of Vraja, where Kṛṣṇa wins the affection of all residents, that cow protection is fully sustained. In other words, within a worldview that sees animals as the subjects of a supreme, sensate being, rather than as objects to be consumed for one’s own pleasure, an ethos of environmental wellbeing can be conceived and, the Bhāgavata suggests, realized.
The second challenge contained in the Bhāgavata is, I would suggest, directed more specifically toward Vaiṣṇavas, especially those for whom Kṛṣṇa is most worshipable and for whom the land of Vraja that is located in present-day northern India is sacred. As industrialization and globalization impose themselves with ever-increasing rapidity in India, environmental degradation follows apace, not least in the land of Vraja. Considering the Bhāgavata’s descriptions of Vraja as a lush, verdant landscape that is most dear to Kṛṣṇa, the relative lack of active concern by the Vaiṣṇava community about the ongoing degradation of Vraja is disturbing if not appalling. While some noble efforts are being made to protect and preserve the land of Kṛṣṇa, certainly much more effort, by greater and more organized numbers, is needed if its sacredness in its present manifest form is to be retained for future generations.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa offers many lessons about nature and environmental protection for discerning readers. Here we have considered these only in outline, necessarily bypassing numerous relevant passages that would more richly fill the picture of nature as related to bhāgavata-bhakti. Finally we may simply note that the Bhāgavata’s picture of nature is a beautiful one: Nature has intrinsic value because it is created by a beautiful Lord, whose beauty is reflected in nature, which therefore serves as an important means for perceiving the beauty of the divine. And such perception, the Bhāgavata argues, is what makes human life distinct, even as human life is meant to be in harmony with all of life in the shelter of its allloving creator.
1 Bausch, p. 32. Bausch discusses twelve characteristics of story in relation to faith, of which this is the second.
2 I am borrowing Klaus Klostermaier’s phrase—Klostermaier, 1988. For a useful brief overview of traditional Hindu views of nature, see Klostermaier, 2004, ch. 11, “Hindu Views of Nature”.
3 In these episodes, fire is represented as a destructive force out of control. Elsewhere the BhP has much to say about controlled fire—that which is the basis of sacrificial ritual and the energy of creative, especially sexual, activity. For an interesting exploration of classical Indian cultural representations of fire and water that is quite relevant to the study of the BhP, see Siegel, passim .
4 The other incident of “secondary god opposition” is known as brahmā – vimohana – līlā — the pastime of Brahmā’s bewilderment—in which Brahmā “tests” Kṛṣṇa’s divinity by stealing away his friends, the cowherd boys, and their calves (10.13).
5 Griffiths. See especially the Introduction.
6 See, for example, Horrigan et al.
Bausch, William J. Storytelling: Imagination and Faith. Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1984
Bhāgavata-Purāṇa, trans. Dr. G.V. Tagare. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 2007.
Griffiths, Paul J. Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Horrigan, Leo, R. S. Lawrence, and Polly Walker. “How Sustainable Agriculture Can Address the Environmental and Human Health Harms of Industrial Agriculture.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 110, no. 5, May 2002.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. “A Universe of Feelings,” in Shri Krishna Caitanya and the Bhakti Religion, Studia Irenica 33, Edmund Weber and Tilak Raj Chopra, eds. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1988.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. The Nature of Nature: Explorations in Science, Philosophy and Religion. Adyar, Chennai: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2004.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, trans. A.C. Bhaktivedānta Swami. Singapore: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987.
Siegel, Lee. Fires of Love, Waters of Peace: Passion and Renunciation in Indian Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.
Bio for Kenneth R. Valpey:
Kenneth R. Valpey, after receiving his D.Phil. from Oxford University for his study of Caitanya Vaiṣṇava mūrti – sevā, has since then been a research fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, and during the last three years he has been a Visiting Scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Together with Dr. Ravi M. Gupta he is presently preparing two volumes on the Bhāgavata Purā ṇ a, to be published by Columbia University Press.[published in Journal of Vaishnava Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 67-82]