On Hearing and Reflection
By Bhakti Promode Puri Goswami
Even after an aspirant to spiritual life has attained the company of devotees and hears the Bhagavatam in their association, he must still be careful to hear it in the proper manner. Otherwise he will not get the full result of this powerful devotional activity.
The instructive tale of Gokarna is found in the section of Padma Purana known as the Bhagavata-mahatmya. Gokarna was the adopted son of the brahmana Atmadeva and his wife, who also raised her sister’s child, who unfortunately was very wicked. Because of his sinful life, when Dhundukari died he became a ghost and haunted his family’s village. Out of compassion for his stepbrother, Gokarna recited the entire 12 cantos of the Bhagavatam over a period of seven days and, when it was over, his stepbrother was liberated from his ghostly body. Where he had previously been invisible, he suddenly appeared before the entire assembly of devotees in a wonderful form, described in the Bhagavata-mahatmya as follows:
Dhundhukari manifested before them in a marvellous, beautiful deep blue-colored form, garlanded with tulasi leaves and wearing a yellow cloth, a jeweled crown, and earrings.1
Dhundhukari prostrated himself before his stepbrother and thanked him sincerely for having recited the entire Bhagavatam for his benefit. As he was himself energetically glorifying the seven-day recital of the Bhagavatam, a marvelous celestial carriage, attended by residents of the Vaikuntha world, descended into the midst of the assembly, brightening the surroundings with their effulgence. Before the eyes of the amazed spectators, Dhundhukari boarded the lustrous carriage. Before leaving, however, Gokarna asked the denizens of Vaikuntha the following important question:
There were many people in the audience who were purified by listening to the Bhagavatam recital. Why then were celestial carriages not brought for all of them? I observed them all participating equally in the act of hearing. Please explain, O beloved of Hari, why there is a difference in the results they have gotten?2
The associates of the Lord answered by speaking the following verses:
The difference in results comes of the differences in the quality of their hearing. Everyone present, it is true, listened to the Bhagavatam, but not everyone reflected on what they had heard. The difference in results came from this, as well as from the quality of their worship, O respectful one.3
The ghost listened for seven days, but each night he worshiped the Lord, during which time he reflected with concentration on what he had heard. Knowledge which is unstable is lost, as is the learning of someone who has been inattentive. Japa done without concentration or hearing advice that comes from a doubtful source are both wasted. A land without Vaishnavas is worthless, as is the offering of oblations by a person without qualifications, charity given to an unlearned person, and a family which has no ethical principles. In order to obtain the fruits of hearing the Bhagavatam, one should have faith in the words of the spiritual master and an attitude of humility about his own worth; he should be victorious over the flaws of the mind and have unswerving concentration on the topics he is hearing.
When all these people hear the Bhagavatam a second time, they too will gain eternal residence in Vaikuntha, of this there is no doubt. As for you, Gokarna, Govinda will personally take you to Goloka, the abode of the cows.4
After thus speaking to Gokarna, the associates of Hari began to loudly sing the Lord’s names, ascending to Vaikuntha with the transformed Dhundhukari.
In the following month of Sravana, Gokarna undertook a second Bhagavatam-saptaha. The same audience was again present, but this time they listened more carefully than they had previously. At the end of the week, there was the most wonderful epiphany. Sri Hari himself descended into the assembly, surrounded by innumerable associates in innumerable celestial carriages. The sounds of prayer and glorification resounded in every direction. Even Hari himself added to the auspicious cacophony by blowing the conch Pancajanya, which he always holds in his hand. Hari then embraced Gokarna tightly, transforming the devotee, who took the dark form of a Vaikuntha resident with four arms, yellow silk dress, and jeweled crown and earrings. Instantly, everyone in the assembly was similarly transformed. Even other creatures, and lower-caste residents of the village were also transformed into divine beings and, as a result of Gokarna’s mercy, were given places in the celestial carriages and taken to the transcendental abode sought after by the great yogis. The lord of the cows, Gopala, took Gokarna, his dearest devotee, with him to his own abode of Goloka.
One may perform penances for many lifetimes and not obtain residence in Goloka-Vaikuntha—the fruit of listening to the Bhagavatam for a single week. Just as all the citizens of Ayodhya were taken by Ramacandra to Vaikuntha, by his mercy, anyone who listens to the Bhagavatam will be taken to his transcendental abode, for the mercy of Sri Krishna is present in the account of his pastimes found therein. One who recites the Bhagavatam as well as those who listen to it will have the great fortune of obtaining this divine reward.
The second verse of the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s auspicious invocation serves as the indication (vastu-nirdesa) of the book’s subject matter. There it is said, “The Godhead described in the Bhagavatam appears in the pure heart of the pious listener and remains there from the moment he or she starts to listen to its recital.” On the other hand, as commentators have explained, the impious may listen to the Bhagavatam for a long time without ever obtaining this result.
Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita:
Just fix your mind upon me alone; engage all your intelligence in me. Thus, without a doubt you will reside in me forever, even after death.5
In his comments on this verse Visvanatha Cakravarti writes:
Just fix your mind by always remembering and meditating on me, the black and beautiful cowherd boy dressed in yellow silks and garlanded with forest flowers. Engage your intelligence, your power of discrimination, in me; in other words, reflect on me. By reflection (manana), I mean, study the various words of the scripture which encourage and induce you to meditate on me. Then you will reside in me, by which I mean that you will dwell with me in my abode.
The word manana means to reflect on the subjects which one has heard or read about, along with their meaning. Without this kind of reflection, hearing alone is incomplete and ineffective.
Those who are expert cut through the binding knots of reactionary work with the sword of constant meditation on the Lord. Who then will not adore the discussion of his topics?6
The above verse from the Bhagavatam compares the constant meditation on the Godhead to a sword with which one can cut through the entanglement of activities arising out of false ego, and their results. This means that such constant remembrance destroys one’s tendency to egocentric sense enjoyment. Constant remembrance means reflecting on the topics after one has heard them from the mouths of the guru and the Vaishnavas. This again confirms that simply hearing or studying scriptures without reflecting on what one has read cannot possibly bring the desired results.