This Siksashtaka verse shows a little inconsistency in translation. Srila Prabhupada twice, in introduction to Srimad Bhagavatam and in Chaitanya Charitamrita, translated sundarim as “beautiful women”. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati are talking about sundarim kavitam instead, Bhaktivinoda Thakur translated it as “beautiful verses” and Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati translated it as “religious principles of the Vedas”.
What to make of it? Shouldn’t we worry about Prabhupada deviating from the previous acharyas? Well, those of us with an inclination to do so can’t be stopped.
My first thought about it was hundreds of ways Lord Chaitanya used to explain shlokas from shastras, sometimes he would convince everyone of one particular explanation and then turn it around and argue against His previous position and conclusively prove that it was wrong. I guess that is the freedom of Sanskrit.
If one translation is slightly different form the other it’s not necessarily a sign of deviation, as long as both versions support the single conclusion the variety only adds richness and texture. Meaning those who want to see glorification of the Lord and devotional service will see that, those who want to see mistakes will see mistakes.
Let’s look at the list itself – dhanam, janam, sundarim kavitam. Dhanam is wealth, everyone knows it’s extremely attractive, money can buy everything, no wonder it’s first on the list. Then comes janam, which Prabhupada translated as followers. Bhaktivinoda Thakura translated as followers, too, but then explained that it includes the family – wife, children, servants etc. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati skips the “followers” and just talks about family.
Now, followers and family are two different things in modern language. When we talk about followers we imagine disciples, we also keep in mind that wife and children hardly ever join their husbands if they suddenly decide to take to Krishna consciousness. Pop stars have followers and these fans are very different group of people from stars’ families and are usually envious of any boyfriends or girlfriends. Pop stars do not have wives or husbands as a rule.
Things have clearly changed, not only from the times of Lord Chaitanya but even from a hundred years ago. Prabhupada was talking to more or less modern people, still cavemen by twenty fist century standards but the distinction between followers and families was already there, and families were not as popular anymore. That could be the reason that Prabhupada translated that part of the verse as followers *and* beautiful women, sundarim, he knew it would have made more sense to us.
I believe that is the meaning of acharya, btw, acharyas not only lead by their own example, they also set new paths that work – meaning new examples to follow.
Now we get to sundarim part. I’m not a sanskrit scholar but I wouldn’t argue if sundarim kavitam are presented as one idea, after dhanam and janam. Five hundred years ago it probably made perfect sense to Indians – wealth, family, vedic activities.
Sundarim kavitam for them probably meant beautiful vedic verses and vedic knowledge. All your life you were supposed to perform samskaras and yajnas and you were supposed to pontificate on beauty of the Sanskrit all the time.
Those following impersanalist understanding were especially fond of commenting on Vedanta and could explain away any notion of God’s personality aspect with most beautiful and convincing arguments.
This is not attractive to a devotee, perhaps that’s why Bhaktivinoda Thakura calls it “dry philosophical and esoteric technical subjects”, it wasn’t sundarim enough for him.
Now consider the priorities of a modern person. Dhanam – check, still need it more than ever. Janam – check, but maybe more of a fanclub variety, people you can milk for money and fame for the rest of you life, people you would hang out your boobs for, they are life and soul of any modern celebrity.
Is family still important? Yes and no. Parents are waiting to send their kids to college so they could finally have time for themselves, and kids can’t wait to leave their small towns or suburbs and partake in the excitement of a city or university life. Three out of four marriages end in divorce, is family still priority number two? I don’t thinks so.
You want money first, and what do you want to do with it? Get beautiful women, lots and lots of them, and the last thing on your mind would be to actually marrying any one them or even taking them seriously as human beings. Their beauty is meant to be enjoyed and discarded, erased like an old song from your mp3 player .
Forget the celebrities, these days any “normal” man or a woman would freak out if someone even mentions marriage on the first date. Dating is not for marriages, it’s for fun. It might end up in marriage if the girl gets knocked up or something but, generally speaking, it’s a modern way of avoiding commitment.
Prabhupada arrived in the West smack in the middle of a hippy movement and free love culture. Perhaps he had one good look at them and thought to himself “For these people Lord Chaitanya surely meant sundarim as beautiful women, not as religious psalms they hear in churches, that wouldn’t make any sense for them.”
It’s not that Prabhupada was not aware of the possible sundarim kavitam compound, in the translation of Bengali version of this Siksashtaka verse that follows Sanskrit in Chaitanya Charitamrita, in the word for word translation, he used “kavitā sundarī — a beautiful wife or fruitive activities”, whereas in the Sanskrit verse he translated them as two separate words – “sundarīm — a very beautiful woman; kavitām — fruitive activities described in flowery language”.
It appears that translating sundarim as beautifil women and thus separating wives from the janam category where they belong in Bhaktivinoda Thakura and Bhakstisiddhanta Saraswati classification was a conscious decision by Srila Prabhupada and not a mistake or an oversight.
Well, with that out of the way there’s precious little space left for the importance of the verse itself.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura says that this verse indicates secondary symptoms of bhakti – detachment from material things, the primary symptoms – attachment to the Lord and consequent four qualities that arise from it are supposed to have been achieved on the previous stage, or that’s how it is implied.
This verse is supposed to help the devotee to overcome the stage of bhakti-abhasa, the shadow of bhakti, the devotion tinted with material aspirations. The previous verse was about dissipating nama-abhasa, the shadow of the pure name – chanting tinted with nama-aparadhas.
It kind of make sense that way but I assume here that verses follow stages in development of one’s devotion and that might not be true at all. That would mean, among other things, that unless one starts chanting the pure name he shouldn’t worry about severing his material attachments.
Maybe I’m not doing it in the right order, and actually a lot of ISKCON devotees do so, too, come to think of it, because we tend to sacrifice all we can first, hoping that Lord will give us a taste of his pure Name in exchange.
Or maybe this verse talks about basic, fundamental drivers of our beings, the motivations we initially simply overlooked, blinded by our enthusiasm and totally forgot about until they claim their share many years later. Now it’s the time to look at them again and ponder on the deeper meaning of the fourth Siksashtaka verse.
That sounds reasonable if one looks at the history of our movement but it doesn’t fit with the recent wave of the second generation devotees who take sannyasa and initiate disciples and, at the same time, are fully aware of the potential pitfalls and not so exemplary experiences of the first generation.
They seem to know exactly what they are giving up and they undergo very long periods of observation that rule out any effect of false enthusiasm.
Either way, I don’t think it would hurt anyone to tell the Lord that we at least desire not to desire wealth and women and want causeless devotion instead. So what if we don’t know what unalloyed devotion actually is? We heard it is the best thing ever and we wants it.
We want only the best for ourselves, don’t we?