Paramparā: Knowledge Through Disciplic Succession
imaṁ vivasvate yogaṁ
proktavān aham avyayam
vivasvān manave prāha
manur ikṣvākave ’bravīt
“The Personality of Godhead, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, said: I instructed this imperishable science of yoga to the sun god, Vivasvān, and Vivasvān instructed it to Manu, the father of mankind, and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikṣvāku.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.1)
Many ages ago Kṛṣṇa imparted the divine knowledge of the Bhagavad-gītā to Vivasvān, the god of the sun. To the best of our knowledge, the sun is a very hot place, and we do not consider it possible for anyone to live there. It is not even possible to approach the sun very closely with these bodies. However, from the Vedic literatures we can understand that the sun is a planet just like this one, except everything there is composed of fire. Just as this planet is predominately composed of earth, there are other planets which are predominately composed of fire, water, or air.
The living entities on these various planets acquire bodies composed of elements in accordance with the predominating element on the planet; therefore those beings who live on the sun have bodies composed of fire. Of all beings on the sun, the principal personality is a god by the name of Vivasvān. He is known as the sun god (sūrya-nārāyaṇa). On all planets there are principal personalities, just as in the United States the chief person is the President. From the history called the Mahābhārata we understand that formerly, there was only one king on this planet, by the name of Mahārāja Bharata. He ruled some 5,000 years ago, and the planet was named after him. Subsequently, the earth has become divided into so many different countries. In this way there is usually one and sometimes many controllers of the various planets in the universe.
From this first verse of the fourth chapter we learn that millions of years ago Śrī Kṛṣṇa imparted the knowledge of karma-yoga to the sun god Vivasvān. Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who imparts the teachings of the Bhagavad-gītā to Arjuna, here indicates that these teachings are not at all new but were enunciated many ages ago on a different planet. Vivasvān, in his turn, repeated these teachings to his son, Manu. In turn, Manu imparted the knowledge to his disciple Ikṣvāku. Mahārāja Ikṣvāku was a great king and a forefather of Lord Rāmacandra. The point being made here is that if one wants to learn the Bhagavad-gītā and profit by it, there is a process for understanding it, and that process is described here. It is not that Kṛṣṇa is speaking the Bhagavad-gītā for the first time to Arjuna. It is estimated by Vedic authorities that the Lord imparted these divine instructions to Vivasvān some 400 million years ago. From the Mahābhārata we understand that the Bhagavad-gītā was spoken to Arjuna some 5,000 years ago. Before Arjuna, the teachings were handed down by disciplic succession, but over such a long period of time, the teachings became lost.
imaṁ rājarṣayo viduḥ
sa kāleneha mahatā
yogo naṣṭaḥ paran-tapa
yogaḥ proktaḥ purātanaḥ
bhakto ’si me sakhā ceti
rahasyaṁ hy etad uttamam
“This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it is appears to be lost. That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend and can therefore understand the transcendental mystery of this science.” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.2–3)
In the Bhagavad-gītā a number of yoga systems are delineated – bhakti-yoga, karma-yoga, jñāna-yoga, haṭha-yoga – and therefore it is here called yoga. The word yoga means “to link up,” and the idea is that in yoga we link our con-sciousness to God. It is a means for reuniting with God or reestablishing our relationship with Him. In the course of time, this yoga imparted by Śrī Kṛṣṇa was lost. Why is this? Were there no learned sages at the time Śrī Kṛṣṇa was speaking to Arjuna? No, there were many sages present at the time. By “lost” it is meant that the purport of the Bhagavad-gītā was lost. Scholars may give their own interpretation of the Bhagavad-gītā, analyzing it according to their own whims, but that is not the Bhagavad-gītā. This is the point that Śrī Kṛṣṇa is stressing, and a student of the Bhagavad-gītā should note it. A person may be a very good scholar from the material point of view, but that does not qualify him to comment on the Bhagavad-gītā. In order to understand the Bhagavad-gītā, we have to accept the principle of disciplic succession (paramparā). We must enter into the spirit of the Bhagavad-gītā and not approach it simply from the viewpoint of erudition.
Of all people, why did Śrī Kṛṣṇa select Arjuna as a recipient of this knowledge? Arjuna was not a great scholar at all, nor was he a yogi, a meditator, or a holy man. He was a warrior about to engage in battle. There were many great sages living at the time, and Śrī Kṛṣṇa could have given the Bhagavad-gītā to them. The answer is that despite being an ordinary man, Arjuna had one great qualification, bhakto ’si me sakhā ceti: “You are My devotee and My friend.” This was Arjuna’s exceptional qualification, a qualification the sages did not have. Arjuna knew that Kṛṣṇa was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and therefore he surrendered himself to Him, accepting Him as his spiritual master. Unless one is a devotee of Lord Kṛṣṇa, he cannot possibly understand the Bhagavad-gītā. If one wants to understand the Bhagavad-gītā, he cannot take help from other methods. He must understand it as it is prescribed in the Bhagavad-gītā itself: by understanding it as Arjuna understood it. If we wish to understand the Bhagavad-gītā in a different way, or give an individual interpretation of it, that may be an exhibition of our scholarship, but it is not the Bhagavad-gītā.
By scholarship we may be able to manufacture some theory of Bhagavad-gītā, just as Mahatma Gandhi did when he interpreted the Bhagavad-gītā in an effort to support his theory of nonviolence. How is it possible to prove nonviolence from the Bhagavad-gītā? The very theme of the Bhagavad-gītā involves Arjuna’s reluctance to fight and Kṛṣṇa’s inducing him to kill his opponents. In fact, Kṛṣṇa tells Arjuna that the battle had already been decided by the Supreme, and that the people who were assembled on the battlefield were predestined never to return. It was Kṛṣṇa’s program that the warriors were all destined to die, and Kṛṣṇa gave Arjuna the opportunity of taking the credit of conquering them. If fighting is proclaimed a necessity in the Bhagavad-gītā, how is it possible to prove nonviolence from it? Such interpretations are attempts to distort the Bhagavad-gītā. As soon as the Gītā is interpreted according to the motive of an individual, the purpose is lost. It is stated that we cannot attain the conclusion of the Vedic literature by the force of our own logic or argument. There are many things that do not come within the jurisdiction of our sense of logic. As far as scriptures are concerned, we find different scriptures describing the Absolute Truth in different ways. If we analyze all of them, there will be bewilderment. There are also many philosophers, with many different opinions, and they’re always contradicting one another. If the truth cannot be understood by reading various scriptures, by logical argument, or by philosophical theories, then how can it be attained? The fact is that the wisdom of the Absolute Truth is very confidential, but if we follow the authorities, it can be understood.
In India, there are disciplic successions coming from Rāmānujācārya, Madhvācārya, Nimbārka, Viṣṇu Svāmī, and other great sages. The Vedic literatures are understood through the superior spiritual masters. Arjuna understood the Bhagavad-gītā from Kṛṣṇa, and if we wish to understand it, we have to understand it from Arjuna, not from any other source. If we have any knowledge of the Bhagavad-gītā, we have to see how it tallies with the understanding of Arjuna. If we understand the Bhagavad-gītā in the same way that Arjuna did, we should know that our understanding is correct. This should be the criterion for our studying of the Bhagavad-gītā. If we actually want to receive benefit from the Bhagavad-gītā, we have to follow this principle. The Bhagavad-gītā is not an ordinary book of knowledge that we can purchase from the marketplace, read, and merely consult a dictionary to understand. This is not possible. If it were, Kṛṣṇa would never have told Arjuna that the science was lost.
It is not difficult to understand the necessity of going through the disciplic succession to understand the Bhagavad-gītā. If we wish to be a lawyer, an engineer, or a doctor, we have to receive knowledge from the authoritative lawyers, engineers, and doctors. A new lawyer has to become an apprentice of an experienced lawyer, or a young man studying to be a doctor has to become an intern and work with those who are already licensed practitioners. Our knowledge of a subject cannot be perfected unless we receive it through authoritative sources.
There are two processes for attaining knowledge – one is inductive and the other is deductive. The deductive method is considered to be more perfect. We may take a premise such as “All men are mortal,” and no one need discuss how man is mortal. It is generally accepted that this is the case. The deductive conclusion is “Mr. Johnson is a man; therefore, Mr. Johnson is mortal.” But how is the premise that all men are mortal arrived at? Followers of the inductive method wish to arrive at this premise through experiment and observations. We may thus study that this man died and that man died, etc., and after seeing that so many men have died we may conclude or generalize that all men are mortal, but there is a major defect in this inductive method, and that is that our experience is limited. We may never have seen a man who is not mortal, but we are judging this on our personal experience, which is finite. Our senses have limited power, and there are so many defects in our conditioned state. The inductive process, consequently, is not always perfect, whereas the deductive process from a source of perfect knowledge is perfect. The Vedic process is such a process.
Although the authority is acknowledged, there are many passages in the Bhagavad-gītā that appear to be dogmatic. For instance, in the seventh chapter Śrī Kṛṣṇa says:
kiñcid asti dhanañ-jaya
mayi sarvam idaṁ protaṁ
sūtre maṇi-gaṇā iva
“O conqueror of wealth [Arjuna], there is no Truth superior to Me. Everything rests on Me, as pearls are strung on a thread.” (Bhagavad-gītā 7.7)
Śrī Kṛṣṇa is saying that there is no authority greater than Him, and this appears to be very dogmatic. If I say, “There is no one greater than me,” people would think, “Oh, Swāmījī is very proud.” If a man who is conditioned by so many imperfections says that he is the greatest of all, he blasphemes. But Kṛṣṇa can say this, for we can understand from the histories that even while He was on this earth, He was considered the greatest personality of His time. Indeed, He was the greatest in all fields of activity.
According to the Vedic system, knowledge achieved from the greatest authority is to be considered perfect. According to the Vedas, there are three kinds of proof: pratyakṣa, anumāna, and śabda. One is by direct visual perception. If a person is sitting in front of me, I can see him sitting there, and my knowledge of his sitting there is received through my eyes. The second method, anumāna, is by inference: we may hear children playing outside, and by hearing we can conjecture that they are there. And the third method is the method of taking truths from a higher authority. Such a saying as “Man is mortal” is accepted from higher authorities. Everyone accepts this, but no one has experienced that all men are mortal. By tradition, we have to accept this. If someone asks, “Who found this truth first? Did you discover it?” it is very difficult to say. All we can say is that the knowledge is coming down and we accept it. Out of the three methods of acquiring knowledge, the Vedas say that the third method, that of receiving knowledge from higher authorities, is the most perfect. Direct perception is always imperfect, especially in the conditioned stage of life. By direct perception we can see that the sun is just like a disc no larger than the plate we eat on. From scientists, however, we come to understand that the sun is many thousands of times larger than the earth. So what are we to accept? Are we to accept the scientific proclamation, the proclamation of authorities, or our own experience? Although we cannot ourselves prove how large the sun is, we accept the verdict of astronomers. In this way we are accepting the statements of authorities in every field of our activities. From newspapers and radio we also understand that such and such events are taking place in China and India and other places all around the earth. We’re not experiencing these events directly, and we don’t know that such events are actually taking place, but we accept the authority of the newspapers and radio. We have no choice but to believe authorities in order to get knowledge. And when the authority is perfect, our knowledge is perfect.
According to the Vedic sources, of all authorities Kṛṣṇa is the greatest and most perfect (mattaḥ parataraṁ nān-yat kiñcid asti dhanañ-jaya). Not only does Kṛṣṇa proclaim Himself to be the highest authority, but this is also accepted by great sages and scholars of the Bhagavad-gītā. If we do not accept Kṛṣṇa as the authority and take His words as they are, we cannot derive any benefit from the Bhagavad-gītā. This is not dogmatic; it is a fact. If we scrutinizingly study what Kṛṣṇa says, we will find that it is right. Even scholars like Śaṅkarācārya, who have different opin-ions from the Personality of Godhead, admit that Kṛṣṇa is svayaṁ bhagavān – that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Lord.
Vedic knowledge is not a recent discovery. It is all old revealed knowledge. Kṛṣṇa refers to it as purātanaḥ, which means ancient. Kṛṣṇa says that millions of years before, He spoke this yoga to the sun god, and we do not know how many millions of years before that He spoke it to someone else. This knowledge is always being repeated, just as summer, autumn, winter, and spring are repeated every year. Our fund of knowledge is very poor; we do not even know the history of this planet more than 5,000 years back, but the Vedic literatures give us histories extending to millions of years ago. Just because we have no knowledge of what happened 3,000 years ago on this planet, we cannot conclude that there was no history then. Of course, one can disclaim the historical validity of Kṛṣṇa. One may say that Kṛṣṇa, according to the Mahābhārata, lived 5,000 years ago, and this being the case, there is no possibility of His having spoken the Bhagavad-gītā to the sun god so many millions of years before that. If I said that I gave a speech on the sun to the sun god some millions of years ago, people would say, “Swāmījī is speaking some nonsense.” But this is not the case with Kṛṣṇa, for He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Whether we believe that Kṛṣṇa spoke the Bhagavad-gītā to the sun god or not, this fact is being accepted by Arjuna. Arjuna accepted Kṛṣṇa as the Supreme Lord, and therefore he knew that it was quite possible for Kṛṣṇa to have spoken to someone millions of years before. Although Arjuna personally accepts the statements of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, in order to clarify the situation for people who would come after him, he asks:
paraṁ janma vivasvataḥ
katham etad vijānīyāṁ
tvam ādau proktavān iti
“The sun god Vivasvān is senior by birth to You. How am I to understand that in the beginning You instructed this science to him?” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.4)
Actually this is a very intelligent question, and Kṛṣṇa answers it in this way:
janmāni tava cārjuna
tāny ahaṁ veda sarvāṇi
na tvaṁ vettha paran-tapa
“Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bhagavad-gītā 4.5)
Although Kṛṣṇa is God, He incarnates many, many times. Arjuna, being a living entity, also takes his birth many, many times. The difference between the Supreme Personality of Godhead and a living entity is tāny ahaṁ veda sarvāṇi – Kṛṣṇa remembers the events of His past incarnations, whereas the living entity cannot remember. That is one of the differences between God and man. God is eternal, and we are also eternal, but the difference is that we are always changing our bodies. At death we forget the events of our lifetime; death means forgetfulness, that’s all. At night, when we go to sleep, we forget that we are the husband of such and such a wife and the father of such and such children. We forget ourselves in sleep, but when we wake up we remember, “Oh, I am so and so, and I must do such and such.” It is a fact that in our previous lives we had other bodies with other families, fathers, mothers, and so on in other countries, but we have forgotten all of these. We might have been dogs or cats or men or gods, but whatever we were we have now forgotten it.
Despite all these changes, as living entities, we are eternal. Just as in previous lives we have prepared for this body, in this lifetime we are preparing for another body. We get our bodies according to our karma, or activities. Those who are in the mode of goodness are promoted to higher planets, to a higher status of life (Bhagavad-gītā 14.14). Those who die in the mode of passion remain on earth, and those who die in the mode of ignorance may fall into the animal species of life or be transferred to a lower planet (Bhagavad-gītā 14.15). This is the process that has been going on, but we forget it.
At one time, Indra, the king of heaven, committed an offense at the feet of his spiritual master, and his spiritual master cursed him to take the birth of a hog. Thus the throne of the heavenly kingdom became empty as Indra went to earth to become a hog. Seeing the situation, Brahmā came to earth and addressed the hog: “My dear sir, you have become a hog on this planet earth. I have come to deliver you. Come with me at once.” But the hog replied: “Oh, I cannot go with you. I have so many responsibilities – my children, wife, and this nice hog society.” Even though Brahmā promised to take him back to heaven, Indra, in the form of a hog, refused. This is called forgetfulness. Similarly, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa comes and says to us, “What are you doing in this material world? Sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja. Come to Me, and I’ll give you all protection.” But we say, “I don’t believe You, Sir. I have more important business here.” This is the position of the conditioned soul – forgetfulness. This forgetfulness is quickly dissipated by following in the path of the disciplic succession.