brahman brahmany anirdesye
katham caranti srutayah
saksat sad-asatah pare
Sri Pariksit said: O brahmana, how can the Vedas directly describe the Supreme Absolute Truth, who cannot be described in words? The Vedas are limited to describing the qualities of material nature, but the Supreme is devoid of these qualities, being transcendental to all material manifestations and their causes.
Before beginning his commentary on this chapter, Srila Sridhara Svami prays:
vag-isa yasya vadane
laksmir yasya ca vaksasi
yasyaste hrdaye samvit
tam nrsimham aham bhaje
“I worship Lord Nrsimha, within whose mouth reside the great masters of eloquence, upon whose chest resides the goddess of fortune, and within whose heart resides the divine potency of consciousness.”
“Desiring to purify my sampradaya and being bound by duty, I will briefly comment on the prayers of the personified Vedas, to the best of my realization.”
maya tu tad-upasprstam
“In as much as Srimad-Bhagavatam has already been perfectly honored by my predecessors’ explanations, I can only gather together the remnants of what they have honored.”
Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti offers his own invocation:
hasantu santo jihremi
“The saintly devotees may laugh at me for becoming a jewel merchant though I know nothing about precious jewels. But I feel no shame, for at least I may entertain them.”
na me ’sti vaidusy api napi bhaktir
virakti-raktir na tathapi laulyat
su-durgamad eva bhavami veda-
“Though I have no wisdom, devotion or detachment, I am still greedy to take the philosopher’s stone of the Vedas’ prayers from the fortress in which it is being kept.”
mam nicatayam aviveka-vayuh
pravartate patayitum balac cet
likhamy atah svami-sanatana-sri-
“If the wind of indiscretion — my failure to acknowledge my lowly position — threatens to knock me down, then while writing this commentary I must hold on to the effulgent pillars of the feet of Sridhara Svami, Sanatana Gosvami and Lord Sri Krsna.”
pranamya sri-gurum bhuyah
sri-sukam tam upasraye
“Repeatedly bowing down to my divine spiritual master and to Lord Sri Krsna, the ocean of mercy, I take shelter of Sri Sukadeva Gosvami, the protector of the world and its universal eye.”
At the end of the preceding chapter, Sukadeva Gosvami told Pariksit Maharaja:
evam sva-bhaktayo rajan
punar dvaravatim agat
“Thus, O King, the Personality of Godhead, who is the devotee of His own devotees, stayed for some time with His two great devotees, teaching them how perfect saints behave. Then He returned to Dvaraka.” In this verse the word san-margam can be understood in at least three ways. In the first, sat is taken to mean “devotee of the Supreme Lord,” and thus san-margam means “the path of bhakti-yoga, devotional service.” In the second, with sat meaning “a seeker of transcendental knowledge,” san-margam means “the philosophical path of knowledge,” which has impersonal Brahman as its object. And in the third, with sat referring to the transcendental sound of the Vedas, san-margam means “the process of following Vedic injunctions.” Both the second and the third of these interpretations of san-margam lead to the question of how the Vedas can describe the Absolute Truth.
Srila Sridhara Svami elaborately analyzes this problem in terms of the traditional discipline of Sanskrit poetics: We should consider that words have three kinds of expressive capacities, called sabda-vrttis. These are the different ways a word refers to its meaning, distinguished as mukhya-vrtti, laksana-vrtti and gauna-vrtti. The sabda-vrtti termed mukhya is the primary, literal meaning of a word; this is also known as abhidha, a word’s “denotation,” or dictionary meaning. Mukhya-vrtti is further divided into two subcategories, namely rudhi and yoga. A primary meaning is called rudhi when it is based on conventional usage, and yoga when it is derived from another word’s meaning by regular etymological rules.
For example, the word go (“cow”) is an example of rudhi, since its relation with its literal meaning is purely conventional. The denotation of the word pacaka (“chef”), on the other hand, is a yoga-vrtti, through the word’s derivation from the root pac (“to cook”) by addition of the agent suffix ka.
Beside its mukhya-vrtti, or primary meaning, a word can also be used in a secondary, metaphorical sense. This usage is called laksana. The rule is that a word should not be understood metaphorically if its mukhya-vrtti makes sense in the given context; only after the mukhya-vrtti fails to convey a word’s meaning may laksana-vrtti be justifiably presumed. The function of laksana is technically explained in the kavya-sastras as an extended reference, pointing to something in some way related to the object of the literal meaning. Thus, the phrase gangayam ghosah literally means “the cowherd village in the Ganges.” But that idea is absurd, so here gangayam should rather be understood by its laksana to mean “on the bank of the Ganges,” the bank being something related to the river. Gauna-vrtti is a special kind of laksana, where the meaning is extended to some idea of similarity. For example, in the statement simho devadattah (“Devadatta is a lion”), heroic Devadatta is metaphorically called a lion because of his lionlike qualities. In contrast, the example of the general kind of laksana, namely gangayam ghosah, involves a relationship not of similarity but of location.
In this first verse of the Eighty-seventh Chapter, Pariksit Maharaja expresses doubt as to how the words of the Vedas can refer to the Absolute Truth by any of the valid kinds of sabda-vrtti. He asks, katham saksat caranti: How can the Vedas directly describe Brahman by rudha-mukhya-vrtti, literal meaning based on convention? After all, the Absolute is anirdesya, inaccessible to designation. And how can the Vedas even describe Brahman by gauna-vrtti, metaphor based on similar qualities?
The Vedas are guna-vrttayah, full of qualitative descriptions, but Brahman is nirguna, without qualities. Obviously, a metaphor based on similar qualities cannot apply in the case of something that has no qualities. Furthermore, Pariksit Maharaja points out that Brahman is sad-asatah param, beyond all causes and effects. Having no connection with any manifest existence, subtle or gross, the Absolute cannot be expressed by either yoga-vrtti, a meaning derived etymologically, or laksana, metaphor, since both require some relationship of Brahman to other entities.
Thus King Pariksit is puzzled as to how the words of the Vedas can directly describe the Absolute Truth.