If you were going to a uninhabited island and there was only one book you could take, what would that be?
Gaudiya vaishnavas have three main books – Bhagavad Gita, Srimad Bhagavatam, and Chaitanya Charitamrita, which one would you choose? Srila Prabhupada told us that Bhagavad Gita is an introduction to spiritual science, Srimad Bhagavatam is a graduate course, and Chaitanya Charitamrita is a postgraduate study. Which one to take?
I guess ISCKON devotees would go for Bhagavatam or Chaitanya Charitamrita. Bhagavatam is special for us because we listen to it every morning, it’s what separated temple devotees from the “plebes” who come only in the evenings or for Sunday lectures. With them we discuss Bhagavad Gita. “You are not your body” and all those basics. Bhagavatam is for mature devotees, it’s the real thing.
Another reason is that, unlike Gita, it’s so long, once you start reading it it would go on for years, and if you want to become an expert in quoting Sanskrit Bhagavatam is a real treasure. Chaitanya Charitamrita? Not so much, there are only a few verses “worth remembering” – jivera svarupa haya, kiba vipra kiba nyasi etc.
With Bhagavatam we are never finished – by the time you gone through all twelve cantos you forget what was there in the beginning so you must read it over and over again, and that is not touching tenth canto yet, which is the crown jewel we prepare ourselves for all our lives, and we are never ready. This makes Bhagavatam into a life long project, in fact the tenth canto is probably better left for the next incarnation altogether.
Chaitanya Charitamrita? Not so much. We mostly read it on holidays or other special occasions, and we think it’s full of Lord Chaitanya’s pastimes, ie “easy reading”. There’s also a fact that it’s not as heavily purported as Bhagavatam, sometimes you can go on for ten-twenty verses before you come across a commentary and it might be only a few lines one. In our public classes we tend to skip verses that have no purports so that makes Chaitanya Charitamrita not easy to give lectures from.
So, Bhagavatam it is, then.
Well, there are parts in Chaitanya Charitamrita that are very heavy on philosophy and there are purports there that go on for several pages, it’s called a post-graduate course for a reason, after all. Let me offer two of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s quotes on this:
If somehow all the books in the world were destroyed, leaving only Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, the people of this world could still achieve the ultimate goal of life. Even if Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were lost, leaving only Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, there would be no loss to humanity, for whatever has not been revealed in the Bhāgavatam is found in Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta.
In due course māhā-pralaya (devastating floods) will inundate the entire universe. If you attempt to survive by swimming in that deluge, then do not neglect to take hold of Bhagavad-gītā, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta. Or if you cannot hold all three, then release Bhagavad-gītā. If necessary you may also relinquish Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, but under no circumstances release your hold on Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta, for if this one book remains then the flood can do no actual damage, because after it has subsided, the message of śāstra can be revived from Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta alone, it being the essence of all śāstras.
Pretty clear, huh? The idea is that lots of people had read Srimad Bhagavatam before Lord Chaitanya but without His mercy the meaning was obscured, some even accuse Sridhara Swami of giving impersonal interpretation to it and others valued it only as book of Krishna’s adventures, especially with gopis.
Real message of Bhagavatam can be found only in and through Chaitanya Charitamrita and only through Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. Without Mahaprabhu Bhagavatam would be just another book for us, and we are also first and foremost servants of Lord Gauranga, whether Krishna will or will not accept us is a big question.
From this angle it doesn’t matter whether we understand Bhagavatam or not, we only need to stick to the shelter of Lord Chaitanya and Chaitanya Charitamrita, everything else will be revealed automatically.
Okay, but where does it leave humble Bhagavad Gita?
Is it really only ABC of spiritual knowledge that is not worth taking to the desert island? Not so fast.
All the spiritual knowledge is contained within Gita, it’s like the sound of om from which the entire universe unravels. Srila Prabhupada could easily deduce every complex spiritual problem to one or two Gita verses, we just need to understand them correctly. Everything that is in the Bhagavatam, all the lessons from Bhagavatam, can be found in Bhagavad Gita, we just need to know where and how to look.
Or let me put the original question this way – if you were going to the island but you couldn’t take any book with you at all, which one would you commit to the memory?
Bhagavad Gita, of course. There’s simply no way we can memorize Srimad Bhagavatam or Chaitanya Charitamrita, out of the question. Even memorizing seven hundred verses of Gita is a herculean task, but it’s totally worth it.
There’s an other argument in favor of the Gita – do you really consider yourself a fit student for Srimad Bhagavatam let alone Chaitanya Charitamrita? Remember the tenth canto prohibition? And Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati restricted his disciples from reading certain parts of Chaitanya Charitamrita, too.
Why would you take a book you are not qualified to read, not in full anyway?
No one will ever say you are not qualified to read Bhagavad Gita, you are safe here.
In the same vein – if Bhagavatam starts where Bhagavad Gita ends, which is sarva dharman parityajya, which is a liberated stage – is it really a book for you? Remember the atmarama verse, the one Lord Chaitanya explained in sixty different ways on two occasions, it comes right in the beginning of Bhagavatam and it sets the purpose for the whole book – these stories of Lord’s pastimes attract the liberated souls. It might be in the seventh chapter but it’s in the description of the Bhagavatam’s very creation (SB 1.7).
We are not there yet, we read them as stories, which is a valid reason in itself, but Gita is where we are at spiritually, that’s also a fact. We might take Bhagavatam because of its philosophy AND entertainment value, but for our spiritual progress – Gita is our only suitable shelter. We will never be able to express our debt to it in full, never. In this lifetime, mlecchas that we are, Gita is the book of our lives, we are too contaminated to read anything else.
Maybe that’s not much of a praise on the occasion of Gita Jayanti but that’s all I’ve got today.