Consider this passage, and many many more like this:
“A human being is inclined to hear good narrations and stories, and therefore there are so many books, magazines and newspapers on the market to satisfy the interests of the developed soul. But the pleasure in such literature, after it is read once, becomes stale, and people do not take any interest in reading such literature repeatedly. In fact, newspapers are read for less than an hour and then thrown in the dustbins as rubbish. The case is similar with all other mundane literatures. But the beauty of transcendental literatures like Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is that they never become old. They have been read in the world by civilized man for the last five thousand years, and they have never become old. They are ever fresh to the learned scholars and devotees, and even by daily repetition of the verses of Bhagavad-gītā and Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, there is no satiation for devotees…”SB 3.5.7p
Who will disagree? And yet there are great many devotees whose experience is vastly different. Many haven’t bothered reading Bhagavatam even once, having heard most of the stories in the lectures already.
Typical explanation is that this passage is true for pure devotees. In fact, ellipses at the end stand for “like Vidura”. We are not like Vidura yet, the explanation goes, but one day we will become like him and then our taste for Bhagavatam will awaken.
I reject this explanation, however. We don’t need to become “like Vidura” and Prabhupada’s statement is true for everybody, we just have to learn to read right.
First, however – “mundane literatures are stale”. This should be expanded to all other forms of mundane art and entertainment, but we obviously do not feel like that. We are irresistibly attracted to movies and computer games and such. Every new one feels fresh, not stale. And yet they are stale. Why? Because they are limited in the rasa they can provide.
Devotional progress is progress, meaning we start at some point and then we go up, up, and up, passing many stages in between. Bhagavatam is the ripe fruit of the Vedic literature, we hear from day one. This means that we have to get to the very top of the tree, rising past all the branches on the way.
Lord Caitanya gives His mercy to everyone regardless of our situation and this means that we can be at the very bottom and have a thousand more branches distracting us. Naturally, as part of our evolution, we want to explore what is offered there, but Lord Caitanya’s mercy is a vector pulling us up, so every time we step off the “straight and narrow” we feel guilty because we clearly feel the attraction of whatever is in on offer but we also know we should dismiss it. Dealing with this guilt is not the subject of this post, however.
The point is that every branch between ourselves and the ultimate goal WILL feel fresh and exciting once we get there – this is how we feel when a new movie comes out, but at the same time exploring this branch for however long we want will keep us restricted to this branch and when we come back we will be exactly where we were before. It’s for this reason that mundane literatures are stale – they will not get you beyond their own location and cannot offer anything higher than that.
Tree branches usually grow towards the sky, too, so we will feel some elevation while traveling there, but they never actually reach the sky and for that you have to come back to the trunk and continue your climb. Next time you will see such a branch you will know what’s there, what’s attractive about it, and the limits of its offerings.
Let’s take an average human and look at the tree of Vedic literature he has to digest before his consciousness becomes ready for Bhagavatam. Ramayana and Mahabharata would be his starting points and nobody can count the number of moral lessons just in these two books. After they have been learned one would discover the beauty of Bhagavad Gita, and then Bhagavatam continues where Gita leaves off, as we usually say.
What if our average human is a westerner and never reads any of these books? Doesn’t matter – one’s consciousness still has to go through all the same steps and learn the same moral lessons on human behavior, human values, interactions, the role of the state, the role of the opposite sex etc etc. They just have to be learned from western literature. We have two and half thousand year old library for that, there is everything there, too.
The earlier description still applies – each of these lessons, however valuable, is limited to its location on the tree of progress. From below it looks fresh, from above it looks boring, and because it’s static it can be called “stale”.
At the first look Bhagavatam also looks stale – same stories being repeated in class after class, sometimes with more embellishments and sometimes with less, but it’s all the same. How many times we are going to hear about Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada? It’s not going to end in any other way. Stale, right? Wrong.
Bhagavatam is fundamentally different because it’s “spiritual”, means it’s ever fresh and dynamic. What does it mean? Does it mean there must be a different ending? No. It means that on every read there will be some changes in ourselves which will change our perceptions of the text, change what we see in it. All the Ramayana and Mahabharata lessons are in there, too, just in a more condensed form, and so on every new reading one is supposed to discover them opening up in his consciousness. The text is the same but “OH! That’s what it means!” perception will be different.
One doesn’t have to be Vidura to learn these lessons, one only has to be attentive and introspective and reflect on the same stories from all possible angles. Hiranyakasipu’s story won’t change, but how many devotees remember his instructions to his family after the death of his brother? How may of us remember how he combined true spiritual knowledge with disdain for brahminical culture? How many of us reflected on how one person can be both spiritually aware, I mean know about soul, samsara, karma etc, and yet be allergic to varnasrama? How many of us look at the world and at ISKCON devotees with this possibility in mind – they can know Bhagavad Gita AND be anti-varnasrama at the same time? Most of us want just one easy label to be put on everybody.
How about Ravana being a brahmana, having implemented varnasrama, and still getting in trouble with God? When we compare someone else to Ravana, do we allow for that person to be properly initiated and follow proper sadhana?
We don’t need to be “like Vidura” to start seeing all that, start seeing Bhagavatam characters as three-dimensional personalities with faults, virtues, aspirations, obligations, relationships, all honestly trying to make the best of their lives. We just need to be attentive and reflect on what we read, not try to finish the chapter as fast as possible so that we can turn on the computer. It doesn’t mean we need to see Radha and Krishna for real to appreciate Bhagavatam, appreciate “rasa” – it’s full of rasa for each and every one of us already, it’s just that rasa we can extract from Bhagavatam is not as exalted as that experienced by Sukadeva Goswami.
When we see what Bhagavatam can give us we will also see that its offers are superior to “mundane literature” and that, indeed, we can find something new on every new reading – not new in the text, but something new within us, add something new to our consciousness. When we read enough of it we will look at a new movie trailer and immediately see that we already know what’s going to be there and the limits of where it can go. New trailers will become stale for us, too, and not because we see Radha-Krishna but because Bhagavatam tells it better.
So “no taste” is not an excuse. Rather we should admit that our taste already exists but it’s relatively low. We should stop pretending that we expect something higher, and we should find what is suitable for us in Bhagavatam. And we should know that we need to discover something new inside us, not that the text on the page should change.