If you have been attending extensive hari-kathā in recent years then you may have heard or read the story of Rādhā’s parrot generally known as Śrīyā Śuka. The story is paraphrased as follows:
One day, Lord Śiva was speaking the Bhāgavatam for his wife Pārvatī to hear. As Śiva spoke in deep rapture, Pārvatī herself was not so attentive and began to slumber. A parrot however was sitting nearby and he appeared to be listening to Lord Śiva as he spoke. Suddenly Śiva could see that Pārvatī had not been listening. Then he understood that the parrot had seemed to have taken it all in. Śiva began to reflect that this ignorant bird had heard the Bhāgavatam but would simply repeat it, as parrots are prone to do and thus make a mockery of the great message of Bhāgavatam. Śiva thus decided to terminate the parrot, at which time the bird took flight in great fear with Śiva in hasty pursuit. The chase was on and the parrot soon reached the āśrama of Vyāsadeva where he flew into the mouth of Vatikā, Vyāsadeva’s wife, entering her womb. The parrot was now safe. For sixteen years the parrot stayed within the womb of Vatikā before taking birth, becoming known as Śukadeva, the son of Vyāsa, and eventually as the speaker of the Bhāgavatam to Mahārāja Pariksit.
Yet we are told that the original identity of Śukadeva was that of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī’s pet parrot. The story goes thus:
“Rādhā’s pet parrot (Śuka) used to sit on Her left hand while She would affectionately feed him the seeds from pomegranate fruit. She would pet him affectionately telling him “Bolo Kṛṣṇa! Bolo Kṛṣṇa!” This parrot would then sweetly utter the Names of Kṛṣṇa. One day that Śuka flew away to Nandagrāma to Kṛṣṇa who was sitting within a kuñja (Garden) with His friend Madhumaṅgala and others. The Śuka sat on a branch of a pomegranate tree and very sweetly began to utter Kṛṣṇa’s Name, “Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa.” Kṛṣṇa looked toward the Śuka and was moved. The parrot spoke again, “Oh, I am very wretched and unfortunate. I am kṛtaghna, ungrateful, and don’t recognize the good qualities of anyone. For I have left my mistress and have come here.” He uttered this in such a pitiable manner that Kṛṣṇa was both astonished and impressed. He at once took the parrot, who was Śrīmatī Radhika’s own, in His hand and began to fondle him.
“After Kṛṣṇa’s manifest līlā ended, by the order of Kṛṣṇa, the parrot, to manifest Bhāgavatam, remained in this world. Later, he entered into the mouth of Vyāsadeva’s wife and remained for 16 years. This Śukadeva is ‘Śrīyā Śuka,’ the Śuka of Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī.”
The first part of this story involving the parrot flying into the mouth of Vatikā and taking shelter in her womb is confirmed in the Mokṣa-dharma Parva of Mahābhārata, Brahma-vaivarta Purāṇa and the Skanda Purāṇa. Once Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura was asked by a noted paṇḍita from Assam as to what was the origin of Śukadeva Gosvāmī. Sarasvatī Ṭhākura replied as follows:
“In the Purāṇas we find two conclusions regarding the appearance of Śukadeva. One story says that he took the form of Śuka from the araṇi wood after Vyāsa saw the naked apsāra, Ghṛtacī. The other story says that he was born from the womb of the wife of Vyāsa.” (Conversation with Śrī Ātmārāma Śāstri, Assam, October 25th 1928, The Gauḍīya)
These two very different accounts for an origin of Śukadeva can be understood according to different kalpas (kalpa-bheda). In one kalpa Śukadeva appeared from the araṇi wood and from another kalpa (our kalpa) he appeared from the womb of Vatikā. This has also been collaborated by Śrīla B.R. Śrīdhara Mahārāja as follows:
“When Mahādeva was talking about Kṛṣṇa to his wife Durgā (Pārvatī), then Durgā Devi slept while attending the talk of Mahādeva. And one bird, śuka-pakṣi (parrot), he was hearing also, listening. And Mahādeva was regularly, now and then, asking Pārvatī, ‘Do you hear?’
‘Yes!’ And the bird was continuing the answer, ‘Yes!’
Though Durgā slept, Mahādeva was continuing. But at last Śiva found out that Durgā was sleeping and the bird was answering – then he chased the bird and the bird went. Suddenly somehow he managed to enter within the womb of a woman (Vatikā). And then, by any function (vidhāta), he came out as a man. Śuka was his name.” (Conversation, July 10th, 1982)
Part two of the story, wherein the pet parrot of Rādhārāṇī flew to Nandagrama and entered the kuñja where Kṛṣṇa was seated, is cited in the eighth stavaka of Ānanda Vṛndāvana Campu by Śrī Kavi Karṇapura – a very sweet and charming narration.
Part three of the story, however, wherein Kṛṣṇa orders the parrot to remain in this world and manifest the Bhāgavatam is not cited in any śāstra or by any previous ācārya. Part three, it seems, is a conjecture. In other words, there is no evidence in literature or in the commentaries of previous ācāryas that Śukadeva Gosvāmī in kṛṣṇa-līlā was the pet parrot of Rādhārāṇī. In this regard we find a very interesting statement by Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja:
“Vyāso vetti na vetti vā – whatever Kṛṣṇa wants to do, that is done. Śukadeva was the great exponent of Bhāgavatam, but it is not found that he is in the highest position of kṛṣṇa-līlā. What he is delivering through his mouth, through tongue – so many high things have been transmitted through his tongue, but he may not have his stand in that plane. We don’t find that Śukadeva has got his permanent position in Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa’s līlā, or in the mādhurya–rasa as a particular sakhī also.
But that what Śukadeva has given to us through his mouth, that is unfathomable…he is delivering – akuṇṭha-medhasā. He is going on. These things were coming through him flowing in a natural way. What he has delivered through his nectarine tongue has no comparison in the world ever, anywhere. But still he is considered in that way – from the general position of his previous consideration (a brahmavādī). Jagāma bhikṣubhiḥ sākaṁ – after giving delivery to all these things, he went away along with the beggars to nowhere. He did not care to meet Vyāsadeva, his father and guru, nor his father’s guru Nārada, there in the meeting. He did not care for that. He chose to be unseen. He came from the unseen and entered into it again…an untraceable, solitary life. But there was his guru, param-guru – he did not care. Hare Kṛṣṇa!
So he was selected as some machine, loudspeaker…something like that. The inspiration came only to help – that Bhāgavata is above Vedānta, above jñāna. The jñānīs and yogīs formed the major portion of the audience, so Śukadeva was necessary. Śuka-mukhād amṛta-drava-saṁyutam. To the audience at large, it was proved that Bhāgavata is more than this non-differentiatedness – the nirviśeṣavāda. Śukadeva was necessary. That must come from him, Then those fellows will have some regard. At least they won’t say, “Oh, we know all these things, from Padma Purāṇa, from Brahma–vaivarta Purāṇa, we have seen all those things – what is there more?” But when coloured by the brahma-jñāna of Śukadeva Gosvāmī it was received with rapt attention…he gave to their ears Bhāgavata.” (Conversation, August 20th 1982)
Śrīdhara Mahārāja says above that:
1) Śukadeva Gosvāmī is not found to be in the highest position of kṛṣṇa-līlā.
2) That Śukadeva may not have his stand in that plane.
3) That we don’t find that Śukadeva has got his permanent position in Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa’s līlā.
4) That Śukadeva came from the unseen and entered into it again.
5) That his delivery of Bhāgavatam was as some machine, “a loudspeaker…something like that.”
What Śrīdhara Mahārāja has said about Śukadeva is so much deeper than what the shallow thinkers are able to appreciate.
In other words, Śukadeva Gosvāmī did not come down from kṛṣṇa-līlā from a previous position as a parrot to speak Bhāgavatam as some persons have suggested. Rather, Śukadeva’s previous position was that of Brahman realisation and his ability to speak Bhāgavatam was due to the causeless mercy of Kṛṣṇa and nothing else.
In Chapter 22 of Jaiva Dharma, Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda confirms that Śukadeva was the recipient of the causeless mercy of Kṛṣṇa:
“The mercy of Kṛṣṇa is of three types – vācika, āloka-dāna and hārda. Instances where Kṛṣṇa rewards all three types of mercy are found in the scriptures. In vācika, Kṛṣṇa simply promises His devotee by word of mouth, and immediately that all-benedicting crest-jewel embodiment of divine bliss and transcendentally wilful bhakti that seeks only Kṛṣṇa to serve, awakens as bhāva within his heart. An example of āloka-dāna-kṛpā are the sages of Daṇḍakāraṇya forest, who had never directly seen the Supreme Lord. But as soon as they beheld the Lord, their hearts were flooded with bhāva and bhakti, simply by the mercy of the Lord. Bhāva which spontaneously sprouts within the heart, as in the case of Śrīla Śukadeva Gosvāmī, is due only to the causeless mercy of the Lord, or hārda-kṛpā.”
So the story of Śrīyā Śuka seems to be a compendium of the actual story of the birth of Śukadeva, having first entered the womb of Vatikā as a parrot, from the Purāṇas; then combined with a completely different story of Rādhā’s pet parrot from Ānanda Vṛndāvana Campu and concluded with a ‘rasika’ style twist.
Strangely enough, no one has been able to put forward any evidence, either śāstrika or from previous ācāryas, to prove that Śukadeva Gosvāmī’s identity in kṛṣṇa-līlā was that of Rādhā’s pet parrot or that Śukadeva has any standing in kṛṣṇa–līlā. To the contrary, we found that in more than 75% of the cases where we approached the heads of various sahajiyās communities in Vṛndāvana for verification of the third part of the story, they replied that it was conjecture by someone trying to stand out as a rasika. This was strange indeed coming from the sahajiyās.
As it turns out, many members of today’s Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya (particularly among western branches) are the most prone to tell the story of ‘Śrīyā Śuka/Rādhā’s Parrot’ in their hari-kathā. This is especially true among those who are sentimentalists and gate-crashers of the highest līlā of Kṛṣṇa. True and sad as it may be, such are the attempts of the ignorant spurred on by ignoble leaders claiming to be Vaiṣṇavas of the highest order. Some persons have deviated even further and gone so far as to conjecture that Śukadeva Gosvāmī was actually a mañjarī in kṛṣṇa–līlā, surpassing even the position of Rādhā’s parrot. But such conjectures are a shabby substitute for śāstrika truth.
Someone may ask, “What difference does it make even if some of the story is conjecture? It is still sweet anyway!” The answer is that such conjectures are bitter and distasteful like nīmboli (the fruit of the nīma tree) to those whose hearts are truly filled with the nectar of kṛṣṇa-prema. Even a little conjecture of the truth spoils the whole thing. It becomes rasābhāsa – rasa with artificial sweetener.
Some contemporary Vaiṣṇavas are so confused regarding higher and lower topics, that they prefer the devotion of Śukadeva over that of great personalities such as Prahlāda Mahārāja and Advaita Ācārya, saying that such personalities cannot give kṛṣṇa-prema. They speak of kṛṣṇa–prema as though it were a handout from the public welfare services and all one need do is just take it (take initiation from the rasika). This understanding is indeed pitiful. Such a mentality springs from the deepest ignorance born of ‘āmāra guru jagat-guru’ and smacks of pigheadedness and false egotism.
Mahāprabhu Himself became very angry when Śrīvāsa Paṇḍita tried to compare Advaita Ācārya with Śukadeva. Mahāprabhu rebuked Śrīvāsa with a slap and told him that Śukadeva was a mere infant compared to Advaita who had the deepest connection with caitanya–līlā. The story appears in Caitanya-bhāgavata, Antya-khaṇḍa 9.282-296 as follows:
The Lord said, “O Śrīvāsa, tell Me what type of Vaiṣṇava do you think Advaita Prabhu is.”
Śrīvāsa Paṇḍita thought for a while and finally said, “I consider Him to be similar to Śukadeva or Prahlāda.”
Upon hearing the comparison of Advaita with Prahlāda and Śukadeva, the Lord became angry and hit Śrīvāsa.
Just as an affectionate father beats his son in order to teach him, similarly the Lord gave a slap to Śrīvāsa.
“What did you say? What did you say, Paṇḍita Śrīvāsa? You are comparing My Nāḍa (Advaita) with Śukadeva or Prahlāda!
“You may claim that Śukadeva is fully liberated, but compared to Nāḍa, he is like a child.
“How dare you say such a thing about My Nāḍa? O Śrīvāsa, today you have put Me in great distress.”
Saying this, the Lord in an angry mood grabbed a stick in His hand and ran after Śrīvāsa to hit him. Śrī Advaita Ācārya then stood up and gently caught hold of the Lord’s hand.
“O Lord, a father teaches his sons out of compassion. So who in the three worlds is a suitable candidate for Your anger?”
“Hearing the words of Advaita Ācārya, the Lord gave up His anger and in ecstasy began to profusely glorify Advaita.
The Lord said, “Since all of you are just like My children, My anger has now dissipated.
“Who can understand the glories of Nāḍa? It was He who awakened Me from sleep and called Me here.
The Lord said, “O Śrīvāsa, is this how you show respect to My Nāḍa?
“Śuka and others are like His children. You should know that they are all junior to Nāḍa.”
Our conclusion is as Śrīla Śrīdhara Mahārāja and others have stated – that Śukadeva Gosvāmī has no permanent position in kṛṣṇa-līlā and that he was empowered by the causeless mercy of Kṛṣṇa to speak Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
I am writing this essay on Śrīyā Śuka to set straight the record because I too have told this conjectured story in the past as though it were true thru and thru. To err is human, but to admit one’s mistakes and to be rectified with the proper understanding is to make real advancement. To remain in ignorance – even if one thinks that such ignorance is bliss – is to continue on the path of doom!