“…In our childhood, we saw every village, every town, the transcendental knowledge. Any common man could speak about Ramayana, Mahabharata, Lord Krishna. And system was—still there are, but practically closed now—that in the evening, in the village, everyone should assemble in a place to hear messages from Mahabharata, Ramayana…” (Shrila Prabhupada, Lecture, 720531SB.LA)
“The latest on Michael Jackson…What were the celebs wearing for the big red carpet premiere…Are Brad and Angelina still together?” These stories are all part of the news cycle these days. We are all well acquainted with what is shown to us on the nightly television newscasts and twenty-four hour cable networks. It seems that the stories repeat themselves over and over again. The news media becomes obsessed with celebrity figures and their private lives, and we in turn are kept in the loop. We like to watch the news since it makes us feel like we’re keeping up with the times.
The latest news is what’s talked about at the water cooler at work. “Did you hear about so and so? Oh boy, I can’t believe so and so said that?” These are the typical conversations that take place related to the latest happenings. In the long run, the day to day goings on of celebrities is pretty much useless information. They don’t impact our lives in any significant way. If we rewind to one, five, or even ten years ago, we’ll see that the news stories were very similar. Some celebrity was getting divorced, another couple started dating, or an athlete was arrested for some nefarious activity. What was labeled as “breaking news” in the past, turned out not to be very important to us. We easily could have survived without hearing about it.
During the ancient Vedic times in India, the source of news and entertainment was the recitation of the Puranas. Purana is a Sanskrit word that means “of ancient times”, and the Puranas are so named because they are ancient stories relating to God and His associates. The stories deal with the biological ancestry of man, great wars, backbiting, heroism, good, evil, birth, death, etc. Since the stories detail extraordinary events and feats of strength not seen in today’s world, many mistakenly believe the Puranas to be mythology, but they are actual historical incidents that took place on this planet and other planets in the universe during this creation and previous ones as well. The Puranas even deal with events that have yet to take place.
Vyasadeva is considered the author of the Puranas in their written form, but prior to that, they were passed down through an oral tradition. Instead of watching television or reading newspapers, the nighttime entertainment consisted of listening to brahmanas, or priests, give recitations of stories relating to Lord Krishna and His various incarnations. People used to gather round and listen very attentively, similar to way people today enjoy hearing campfire stories. These stories were heard so often, that most in society were well versed in their details.
When reading these Puranas today, one will find that references are made to previous incidents, such as wars between the demigods and the demons. Comparisons are often made to great heroes and warriors of the past. “I will defeat you just as the wielder of the thunderbolt defeated Vritrasura.” This statement is a reference to the incident where Lord Indra, the chief of the demigods, took on and defeated the demon Vritrasura. This battle is documented in detail in the Bhagavata Purana, but references to it are found in many other books, such as the Valmiki Ramayana. Another comparison that is often made is to that of the fire that takes place when the world ends. The Vedas tell us that this world is constantly going through cycles of creation and destruction. Destruction results from a great fire, caused by Lord Shiva, that envelops the entire earth. When reading the Puranas one will find many references to this with statements such as “When he released his weapon, the impact was so strong that it appeared as if the fire of dissolution had come upon them.” These references aren’t usually explained in detail because it is inferred that the reader knows all the details. That shows just how well versed the citizens were in the tenets of the Vedas. The citizens were so well educated on matters of religion, that those reciting the stories didn’t want to waste time rehashing things that the audience already knew.
Unlike the news, the Puranas contain real information that has everlasting relevance. The Vishnu, Brahmavaivarta, and Bhagavata Puranas, along with the Mahabharata and Ramayana, contain details of the life and pastimes of Lord Krishna and His primary incarnations. There is no higher, more important literature in the world than that which describes God and devotion to Him. These books describe the constitutional position of the soul, why it is put into the material world, and how it can get out and return to the spiritual world.
Of all the Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana, or Shrimad Bhagavatam, is considered the highest. Just as the material world is governed by three qualities or modes, so the eighteen major Puranas are divided by these same qualities. There are six Puranas for each the three gunas: goodness, passion, and ignorance. The Shrimad Bhagavatam is one of the sattvic Puranas, being in the mode of goodness. Other Puranas delve into many material subjects, such as sacrifices and penances prescribed for material advancement. For this reason, the Mahabharata is generally considered suitable for women and shudras, or those who are less intelligent. The Shrimad Bhagavatam doesn’t spend much time discussing the four rewards of material life: dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). Bhakti yoga, or devotional service to Krishna is completely spiritual and above any material activity and is the main focus of the Bhagavatam.
The Bhagavatam deals primarily with Lord Krishna and devotion to Him. It describes in detail the Lord’s birth in Mathura and childhood pastimes in Vrindavana. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has translated this voluminous work into English and provided commentary as well. We should take advantage of this wonderful opportunity by reading this book and acquainting ourselves with true Vedic wisdom. We watch the news to increase our knowledge, but one who becomes familiar with the teachings of the Puranas actually becomes the most learned scholar of all.