Hindu scriptures proclaim the necessity of acquiring spiritual knowledge to facilitate one’s spiritual journey.
In Vedic times, such divinely revealed knowledge was imparted orally by the guru to his disciples. Disciples would also ask questions to seek clarification on what the guru had said and on other matters.
These divine revelations and oral interactions were the source material on which the foundational Hindu shastras were compiled. And it is these shastras that have been recited and elaborated upon to provide spiritual guidance to all Hindus over millennia.
The shastras are the basis of Hindu doctrines and recount the stories of God, his avatars and devotees.
Among the more well-known and widely accessed shastras are the Mahabharat (which includes the Bhagavad Gita), Ramayan and Shrimad Bhagvat.
Narration and commentaries on these and other shastras is commonly referred to as katha – spiritual discourses.
Katha takes many forms and lasts for varying durations of time – from a few minutes to many days. However, it is essential for genuine spiritual seekers to listen to katha daily so that constant vigilance and progress on the spiritual path is maintained.
Katha has the capacity to free one from all material bondage and lead one to liberation. This glory of the effect of katha is described in the Shrimad Bhagvat through the true stories of Dhundhukari and King Parikshit.
The Story of Dhundhukari
A pious and wealthy Brahmin named Atmadev lived on the banks of the River Tungabhadra. His wife, Dhundhuli, however, was full of materialistic desires. Yet, Atmadev was happy in all respects, except that he had no children and desperately craved for a son.
One day, in the forest, he met a rishi and expressed to him his desire for a child.
The rishi revealed to Atmadev that he is destined to have no children in his next seven lives. And that not everyone with children is happy. He told Atmadev that he would be subject to immense suffering if he were to have a son. Accepting the rishi’s words, but unable to overcome his deep longing, Atmadev insisted that the rishi bless him.
So, the rishi gave him a special fruit and told him to give it to his wife to eat. Atmadev was delighted and rushed home. However, Dhundhuli was not keen on having children since that would interfere with her carefree enjoyment of life. Pressured by Atmadev, she took the fruit, but did not eat it. She discussed the situation with her sister, who had just become pregnant. Her sister agreed to give her child to Dhundhuli in return for some property. So, Dhundhuli fed the fruit to one of their cows and made a physical show of being pregnant.
In due course, the sister gave birth to a boy, whom she handed over to Dhundhuli, explaining to others that her child had died prematurely. This boy was named Dhundhukari. At the same time, the cow also gave birth to a human with cow-like ears. He was named Gokarna. It was then that Atmadev found out about the plot between the sisters.
Dhundhukari grew up to be ill-natured, indulgent and impetuous, while Gokarna was pious, polite and prudent.
Dhundhukari spent much of his time flirting with women and was constantly under the influence of intoxicants. His behaviour caused Atmadev much despair and distress. And when he scolded him for his indiscipline, Dhundhukari would beat Atmadev. Atamdev pleaded to Gokarna to save him from his son’s beatings. But the enlightened Gokarna asked, “Who is who’s son?” And then he explained the perishable nature of life and that affection for and attachment to worldly relations are futile. He told Atmadev to focus on God, who would fulfil all his wishes. Atmadev realized his ignorance was the cause of his misery and, detaching from worldly life, he retreated to the forest to worship. There, he soon passed away.
In Atmadev’s absence, Dhundhukari killed his mother out of greed to inherit her wealth. He continued his immoral existence and the vulgar women he associated with soon killed him and escaped with all his moveable assets. Due to his sins, Dhundhukari became a ghost.
Prior to his brother’s death, Gokarna had left for a pilgrimage. When he reached Gaya he learnt of Dhundhukari’s demise and performed shraddha rituals on his behalf.
However, that night Dhundhukari, in the form of a ghost, approached Gokarna and pleaded for help to secure his liberation from his sins.
Gokarna arranged for a seven-day recital of the Shrimad Bhagvat and invited many people. Dhundhukari’s soul entered the hollow of a bamboo shoot, from where he listened to the scriptural recital with great attention and affection. At the conclusion of the recital, messengers from Bhagwan Vishnu came in a celestial chariot to take Dhundhukari to Vaikunth. Gokarna and others questioned why they, too, did not attain liberation since they had also listened to the discourses. The messengers revealed that none had listened with the attention and faith that Dhundhukari had and none had introspected on the content of the discourses like him.
So, this story of the wayward Dhundhukari reveals that listening intently and sincerely to katha can relieve one of all sins and lead to liberation.
The Story of King Parikshit
King Parikshit was the grandson of Arjun. He was a devout and just king. Once, Parikshit was travelling through the jungle when he became separated from his entourage. Tired and thirsty, he entered the ashram of Shamik Rishi. Parikshit bowed respectfully to the sage several times and requested for water, but the rishi was so engrossed in meditation that he was oblivious of his surroundings. Piqued by the rishi’s indifference, Parikshit thought that he should be taught a lesson. So, Parikshit picked up a dead snake and placed it around the rishi’s neck. Still, the rishi was unmoved and Parikshit departed.
Later, the rishi’s son, Shringi, returned to the ashram and saw the snake around his father’s neck. He learnt that King Parikshit had insulted his father in this way. So, Shringi cursed that the king would die of a snake bite in seven days.
King Parikshit heard of the curse and accepted it as his fate. He instated his son, Janmajeya, as the king and spent the next seven days listening to the glory of God in the form of the Shrimad Bhagvat from Shukdev. Through these discourses, King Parikshit overcame the fear of death and became enlightened with spiritual wisdom. On the seventh day Takshaka, the snake, bit the king and caused his demise. The king had attained spiritual wisdom and was liberated.
So, listening to katha removes all fears and grants enlightenment.
The Effect of Katha
Spiritual discourses provide sublime wisdom which help individuals to understand that mundane life is perishable and the body is a medium for the soul to attain God.
When such knowledge is fully understood and applied in daily life, it is a source of inner peace and joy.
King Janak ruled the kingdom of Mithila with great skill and sincerity. Yet, he personally performed daily worship rituals and was always present for the daily katha by his guru, Ashtavakra.
Once, the king had to attend to some urgent duties and was delayed in reaching the katha. Everyone else was present on time, yet the guru waited for the king and did not start the katha. This ruffled the other sages and mahatmas and they protested to the rishi to begin. But, he refused to start until Janak arrived. When, finally, Janak did arrive, Ashtavakra Rishi began by questioning all to recount the previous kathas. Nobody except King Janak could do so. It was then that the complaining mahatmas realized that out of them all, King Janak was the true listener of the katha and waiting for him to arrive was justified.
Not only did King Janak listen attentively, but he imbibed the teachings in his life. He ruled with efficiency, integrity and commitment for the good of his people, but he remained detached from all his possessions.
This is the supreme effect that katha can have if one listens with the right intention.
It was for this purpose that King Pruthu asked God to bless him with 10,000 ears! By this, he wished for the ability to tirelessly listen to katha and grasp the true meanings of what he hears.
Often, people say that they do not sit to listen to katha since they do not understand much and are able to remember even less. Yet, the following story illustrates the indispensable need to listen to katha.
Once, a devotee complained to his guru that he was unable to remember any of his discourses and stated that he saw no benefit in listening to them.
The guru did not counter his words, but merely gave him a straw basket and told the devotee to fill it with water from the nearby well and bring it to him.
The devotee enthusiastically leapt to his feet and rushed to fetch the water. However, by the time he returned, all the water would drain away from the straw basket. After several futile trips to fetch water, the devotee complained that it was of no use to bring water in such a leaky vessel. Then, the guru told him, “I knew that you would not be able to bring any water to me in this basket, but do you notice any change in it?” The devotee said, “Only that at the start it was coated with cow dung and now it is clean.” The guru explained, “This is exactly what katha does. Just like the basket is unable to hold water, even if you are unable to remember discourses, the mere act of listening will cleanse you like the contact with water cleansed the basket.”
Bhagwan Swaminarayan in Vachanamrut Gadhada III 24 says, “One develops an aversion for the world in proportion to the attachment one has for listening to the talks and discourses related to God; moreover, vicious natures such as lust, anger, avarice, etc. are also destroyed to that extent. Conversely, if someone is lazy in listening to those talks and discourses, then one should infer that he will not imbibe noble virtues. In fact, out of the nine types of bhakti mentioned in the shastras, the bhakti of listening to spiritual discourses is considered to be the best.”
So, the key to attaining true spiritual enlightenment is by listening to katha, contemplating on the talks and adjusting one’s endeavours accordingly.