Uddhava Gita Overview
By Isvara Dasa
Uddhava Gita: The Song Goes Ever On
A Glimpse into the Uddhava Gita
by Steven Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa)
(Recently published by Touchstone Media)
At a recent academic conference, I found myself engulfed in a discussion about the Bhagavad-gita, the battlefield dialogue between Krsna, or God, and his dedicated devotee Arjuna, the heroic warrior.
“The Gita gives us the most profound philosophy,” I said to one of the scholars. “It shows us how Krsna interacts with His loving devotees.”
A nearby eavesdropper, hearing only the barest details of my discussion, queried, “Oh, are you talking about Gita-govinda, where Krsna shows His love for Radha?”
“Well, no, I . . . ”
Another scholar, standing only a few feet away, chimed in: “I think he was talking about the Anugita, a summary of the Bhagavad-gita found later in the Mahabharata.”
At an academic conference of scholars who specialize in India’s religious texts, my reference to “the Gita” turned out to be a careless one—India is full of Gitas, the Bhagavad-gita being one among many.
When I returned home, I decided to look at Srila Prabhupada’s books to see which Gitas he considered important. To my surprise, in the Third Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.4.32, purport), Prabhupada says something interesting about the Uddhava Gita: “Undoubtedly, the Bhagavad-gita was spoken by the Lord on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra just to encourage Arjuna to fight, and yet to complete the transcendental knowledge of Bhagavad-gita, the Lord instructed Uddhava. The Lord wanted Uddhava to fulfill His mission and disseminate knowledge which He had not spoken even in Bhagavad-gita.”
It is not that Srila Prabhupada is here minimizing the importance of the Bhagavad-gita, which elsewhere he praises as the most profound philosophy known to man. But he is saying something about the unique importance of the Uddhava Gita.
Krsna’s Other Gita
The Uddhava Gita is found in the Eleventh Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Chapters 7-29. It is one of many Gitas associated with the worship of Krsna. Though the Bhagavad-gita is arguably the most famous of these Gitas, the tradition offers us Gita-govinda, Gopi Gita, Venu Gita, Bhramara Gita, and several others. Gita means “song,” and within the context of sacred literature, it refers to particularly mellifluous and blessed songs of divine truth, uttered by great devotees or by the Lord himself. The songs include both philosophical and devotional outpourings.
Uddhava Gita is among the most important of the genre, for it focuses on Krsna’s final instructions before leaving the earthly plane. More, these instructions are delivered to Uddhava, recognized by the tradition as a maha-bhagavata, or “greatest among the devotees,” and as mukhyam krsna-parigrahe, “foremost of those who are intimate with Krsna.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.4.24) He is also Krsna’s cousin, and practically His twin in appearance.
For these reasons and others, it is curious that the Uddhava Gita has never enjoyed the fame of its sister text, the Bhagavad-gita, with which it shares several verses in common. In certain ways, the Uddhava Gita goes further than the Bhagavad-gita, as Prabhupada tells us, illuminating the Bhagavad-gitas central teaching of devotion to Krsna and emphasizing the importance of seeing Krsna everywhere, in everyone, and at all times.
Who Is Uddhava?
The Srimad-Bhagavatam introduces Uddhava in the Third Canto. Uddhava meets the Pandavas’ uncle Vidura, who asks Uddhava about his conversation with Krsna (Uddhava Gita) and about Krsna’s associates and family members. The Bhagavatam (3.2.2) informs us at this point of Uddhava’s single-minded devotion—from the age of five he was absorbed in Krsna and nothing more. It also reveals the depth of Uddhava’s love for Krsna. On remembering Him, “Uddhava had all the transcendental bodily changes due to total ecstasy, and he was trying to wipe away tears of separation from his eyes.” (3.2.5) Clearly, Uddhava is no ordinary player, even in this most transcendental of plays.
Uddhava begins to answer Vidura’s questions by poetically telling him, “The sun of the world, Lord Krsna, has set, and our house [the Kuru dynasty] has now been swallowed by the great snake of time.” (3.2.7) He recounts Krsna’s pastimes in Vrndavana, many of which took place near the Yamuna River, where Vidura and Uddhava now sit. He then describes the many events that took place in Mathura and in Dwarka, in the latter part of Krsna’s manifest pastimes.
Though Vidura, at this point, wants Uddhava to be his spiritual master, Uddhava is concerned about etiquette. Vidura is senior to him, and so, ultimately, he sends him to Maitreya, a sage in whom Uddhava has great confidence. Maitreya was present while Uddhava received instructions from Krsna, and so Maitreya, too, heard truth directly from the lips of the Lord. Hence Uddhava’s certainty that Maitreya could ably guide Vidura.
In this portion of the Bhagavatam are two significant verses about Uddhava from the lips of Lord Krsna himself: “Now I shall leave the vision of this world, and I see that Uddhava, the foremost of My devotees, is the only one who can be directly entrusted with knowledge about Me. Uddhava is not inferior to Me in any way because he is never affected by the modes of material nature. Therefore he may remain in this world to disseminate specific knowledge of the Personality of Godhead.” (3.4.30-31)
A Taste of the Uddhava Gita
The setting of the Uddhava Gita is the last night of Krsna’s manifest pastimes on this planet. He is planning to leave at a predetermined time, and His loving devotee Uddhava, knowing Krsna’s plan, approaches Him: “O Lord Kesava, my dear master, I cannot tolerate giving up Your lotus feet even for a fraction of a moment. I urge You to take me along with You to Your own abode.” (11.6.43)
Krsna, of course, is naturally inclined to comply with His devotees’ wishes. Still, He has a higher mission for Uddhava: to stay and sing His glories again and again. Krsna explains the importance of detachment and tells Uddhava to roam the world as a renunciant, specifically to go to Badarikashram, high in the Himalayas, and to tell the sages there of His life and teachings.
Just to be clear on what these teachings are, Krsna explains in great detail the philosophy summarized in the Bhagavad-gita. He begins by saying that the material world is ephemeral and that God and the soul are eternal. He explains the distinction between the body and the self, the soul, just as He does in the Bhagavad-gita. But here He adds scriptural references and analogies to enhance His argument.
Uddhava asks Krsna how one can realize the truth of the soul, since the material world and its illusions are so immediate, so alluring. How one can relinquish attachments and control the mind?
Krsna explains that the human intellect is capable of cultivating spiritual knowledge. Krsna stresses the importance of approaching a guru, but He also says that one can observe many truths by heeding the “spiritual master” known as nature. He enumerates for Uddhava twenty-four teachers of the true spiritual seeker, including the earth, the air, and the sky. From the air, for example, one can learn to come in touch with sense objects while remaining unaffected by them.
Krsna next explains the complexities of karma, giving vivid examples of just how entangling karma can be. He recommends only pure works, done on His behalf.
Krsna then explains the three modes of material nature—goodness, passion, and ignorance—and how to become free from their influence. He points out the importance of keeping company with devotees, giving elaborate details on how to identify who is truly advanced in spiritual life, and who is not.
Krsna also conveys to Uddhava the art of meditation, explaining that meditation reaches its perfection when one learns how to meditate on Him. He then points out the importance of deity worship and delineates the specifics of formal worship of installed deities. This leads to an elaborate discussion of bhakti-yoga, the science of devoting oneself to God.
Krsna then outlines the yogic siddhis, or the mystic powers one may develop through yoga. He explains that such powers can be an asset but are more often a deficit, distracting practitioners from the path of devotion.
Uddhava asks Krsna to list His divine attributes, so that devotees will have substance for meditation and contemplation. Krsna is pleased by the request, praising Uddhava as expert in asking appropriate questions: “On the Battlefield of Kuruksetra,” Krsna says, “Arjuna . . . asked Me the same question that you are now posing.” After this reference to His conversation with Arjuna, Krsna explains how He can be seen in the world and, nearly echoing His own words in the Bhagavad-gitas Tenth Chapter, enumerates His opulences as the Absolute Truth: “I am the ultimate goal . . . I am the three-lettered omkara . . . I am the Gayatri mantra . . . I am the Himalayas,” and so on. He adds several that are not in the Gita, such as “Among jewels, I am the ruby, and among flowers the lotus.”
The next two chapters of the Uddhava Gita detail the ancient social and spiritual system known as Varnasrama Dharma. Krsna makes it clear, as He does in the Bhagavad-gita, that one fits into this system according to quality and work, not birth (as in the modern-day caste system). The original system is meant to help practitioners use their God-given talents and inclinations to gradually become God conscious.
Different Instructions for Different Students
As the Uddhava Gita comes to a close, Krsna again emphasizes the importance of bhakti-yoga, or devotion to Him, and makes two additional points: (1) He asks Uddhava to try to see the Supreme Soul, Krsna Himself, in all living beings and at all times. There is a spiritual oneness to all things, Krsna tells Uddhava, and yet He—God—remains a distinct and transcendent individual as well. This is the great mystery of spiritual life. (2) Krsna tells Uddhava to renounce the world and accept the life of a mendicant. Students of the Bhagavad-gita will notice that this instruction seems diametrically opposed to that given to Arjuna. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna tells Arjuna to unhesitatingly fight on behalf of the righteous. In other words, Krsna tells him to work in the world for a divine purpose, on God’s behalf, not to renounce all action and sit on his laurels like a would-be yogi.
Is Krsna 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. He was inclined to the mood of the gopis. The teachings of Krsna consciousness, as delivered in both the Bhagavad-gita and the Uddhava Gita, take each person’s unique psychophysical make-up into account, celebrating the diversity of creation and the special way in which each of us is meant to serve God.
In the last verse of Uddhava Gita (11.29.49), Sukadeva Goswami, the narrator of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, feels intense love for the Lord and utters the following words:
I offer my obeisances to that Supreme Personality of Godhead, the original and greatest of all beings, Lord Sri Krsna. He is the author of the Vedas, and just to destroy His devotees’ fear of material existence, like a bee He has collected this nectarean essence of all knowledge and self-realization. Thus He has awarded to His many devotees this nectar from the ocean of bliss, and by His mercy they have drunk it.
The newly published Uddhava Gita is complete with the commentaries of Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhant Sarasvati Thakura.
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