Śrī-Śuka is the peerless seer who epitomizes the guru, glorified in the Bhāratīya tradition as the beacon of light that illuminates the path to liberation.
यं प्रव्रजन्तमनुपेतमपेतकृत्यं द्वैपायनो विरहकातर आजुहाव।
पुत्रेति तन्मयतया तरवोऽभिनेदुस्तं सर्वभूतहृदयं मुनिमानतोऽस्मि॥
yaṁ pravrajantamanupetamapetakṛtyaṁ dvaipāyano virahakātara ājuhāva|
putreti tanmayatayā taravo’bhinedustaṁ sarvabhūtahṛdayaṁ munimānato’smi||
To him (Śuka) who was bereft of (the pulls) of karmic deeds and relationships, and who roamed about oblivious; to him on behalf of whom the call of an aching father (the great Dvaipāyana) – ‘my dear son’ – was responded to by the trees of the forest; to that great seer, the very soul of creation, I bow.
Parīkṣit, the grandson of the Pāṇḍava, Arjuna, is saddled with death. He is given seven days to identify how best to spend the remaining days of his mortal sojourn. Births of yearning for a higher consciousness resonates within Parīkṣit in the dreadful wake of death1. It dawns on him that the sins of the shameful act of humiliating a pious soul as he had done, was far worse than the death he now faced. He decided to undertake a fast upon the sacred banks of the Gaṅgā, surrendering himself to the will of the Supreme. He sat facing the north, upon a seat woven from sacred kuśa grass, his senses reined in, awaiting the call of death. To a soul who was thus resigned to the will of the Supreme, and fully accepting of the consequences of his deeds, appeared the guru who would cut asunder the shackles of samsāra2 – Śuka.
1Parīkṣit is cursed by a young ascetic to meet his end within a week, from a snake bite. The curse is brought upon by Parīkṣit’s disregard towards the ascetic’s father, a pious sage.
2 The unending cycle of materialism, that binds souls to birth and death.
Śukabrahmarṣi was the son of the great Vyāsa, who is celebrated as none other than lord Viṣṇu himself. Śuka was a realized soul whose sole purpose upon earth seems to have been the propagation of the matchless treatise, Śrīmadbhāgavata. Sage Śuka was ever lost in contemplative bliss, roaming around the forests nude, oblivious to creation. His absorption in the self was so profound, that his naked presence did little to either offend or threaten onlookers. It so happened that one day, Śuka who appeared to be sixteen years of age, wandered into the territory where celestial nymphs sported in water. His naked person that brimmed with the exquisiteness of youth excited no emotions in them. They continued to sport in water. However, when sage Vyāsa appeared soon after, in search of Śuka, the damsels hastened to cover themselves. On being asked why they were unaffected by the youthful Śuka but were driven to bashfulness by the presence of an old man such as himself, the damsels, responded, ‘your son is oblivious to everything in creation, and is ever absorbed in the bliss of the Supreme. You however, still see us and recognize us to be women who are unclothed.’
This seer is described in the Śrīmadbhāgavata as the parrot that pecks at the nectarine fruit of the Vedic tree, namely the Bhāgavata, thereby himself relishing its inexplicable sweetness and affording the rest of the world a taste of it.
निगमकल्पतरोर्गलितं फलं शुकमुखादमृतद्रवसंयुतम्।
पिबत भागवतं रसमालयं मुहुरहो रसिका भुवि भावुकाः॥
nigamakalpatarorgalitaṁ phalaṁ śukamukhādamṛtadravasaṁyutam|
pibata bhāgavatṁ rasamālayaṁ muhuraho rasikā bhuvi bhāvukāḥ||
Connoisseurs, hasten to partake of the repository of sweetness, the Śrīmadbhāgavata, verily the nectarine fruit of the Vedas, which is now enriched by the sweet lips of Śuka.
The antecedence of Śuka is not delineated in the Śrāmadbhāgavata, but in the Mahābhārata and the Viṣṇu-Purāṇa. Once, Vyāsa lived in a hermitage upon the banks of the sacred river, Sarasvatī. The sage noticed in a nest nearby, the tender care a pair of sparrows extended to their fledglings. Vyasa was astonished. He mused to himself, “birds who have no expectation of a future reward from bearing and raising children, shower such love upon their young ones. What wonder is it then, that man experiences inexplicable love for his children. An issueless man is stricken with worry in his final years”. The sage was suddenly overcome with a deep yearning for a son. He decided to engage in penance in order to beget a son, but could not decide which deity he must focus on in order to be blessed with a son. As the sage was thus plagued by a quandary, the celestial sage Nārada appeared before sage Vyāsa and advised him to resort to the Supreme potency, Devī, in order to realize his dream.
Advised thus, Sage Vyāsa ascended the peaks of the Sumeru and dedicated himself to the contemplation of Devī and her consort, Mahādeva. A thousand years went by in arduous penance. Lord Śiva appeared before the sage and promised him that an unparalleled son would be born to the sage. Supremely pleased and yet exhausted from the effort, sage Vyāsa returned to his hermitage. Desiring to light a sacred fire, he began churning sacred Araṇī twigs, his heart consumed by thoughts of a son, when sparks began to fly. Alongside the emergence of the sacred fire, the celestial nymph, Ghṛitācī too made an appearance in the hermitage. The sage suddenly found himself consumed by desire. However, sage Vyāsa did not lose himself to desire. He deliberated carefully – “What am I to do now? On the one hand, I desire to sire a son. On the other, an association with a celestial nymph after having performed stupendous penance, will earn me eternal ignominy. Every realized soul will look down upon me for the indiscretion.”
Even as the sage contemplated thus, fear gripped the heart of the nymph. Terrified that the sage would pronounce a curse, the nymph assumed the form of a parrot and flew away. The desire she had engendered in the sage, however, did not take flight. The seed of desire that rose in sage Vyāsa, fell upon the sacred fire. From the spilled seed arose a lad, brilliant as the sacred fire wherefrom he had risen. Celestial instruments rent the sky with their ethereal symphony. Celestial bards sang sweetly while divine nymphs began to dance for joy. Vyāsa’s son, had emerged from the sparks of the sacred Araṇi twigs. Deer-hide, a staff and a water-pot fell from the sky, for the sake of this divine ascetic. The knowledge of the Vedas embraced him the moment he assumed form, and even as sage Vyāsa looked on in amazement, the lad grew to youth. The sage named the young ascetic, Śuka, in memory of the parrot that had been instrumental in the advent of the lad, but had fled the hermitage in fear3. Śuka took the great Bṛhaspati, the preceptor of the celestials, for his guru and performed the vows of brahmacarya4. Having completed his education at the gurukula of Bṛhaspati, Śuka returned to Vyāsa’s hermitage5. The sage was delighted to receive his son. Like any father, sage Vyāsa too desired for Śuka to marry a pious girl and to live the life of a householder. On being persuaded to marry, Śuka responded, “there is great misery in the life of a householder. Please instruct me in the path of wisdom. Tell me how I am to cut asunder, the bonds of karmic existence.”
3 The Sanskrit term ‘Śuka’ means parrot.
4 A brahmacārī is typically a lad who has had his threading ceremony performed, and had dedicated himself to the study of the scriptures while remaining celibate.
5 Although the Purāṇa describes Śuka as having gained the knowledge of scriptures at birth, Śuka is still described as resorting to the traditional schooling of a gurukula in order to establish the importance of a guru.
Sage Vyāsa was greatly distressed by the words of Śuka. His face drooping with anxiety, Vyāsa appeared a picture of misery. Moved to compassion, Śuka said to the great Vyāsa, “indeed is the power of māyā inscrutable, if the compiler of the Vedas, the great Vedavyāsa, can fall prey to it. I am your son in this birth; no doubt. However, who was I previously? I feel that this world is a trap and I am unable to shake the feeling off.” Urged thus by Śuka, sage Vyāsa was awakened to truth. He then instructed his peerless son in the Bhāgavata that was the panacea for all materialistic ills. Imbued with the bliss of the transcendental wisdom of the Śrīmadbhāgavata, Śuka roamed about, oblivious to everything else, until Parīkṣit was readied by the hand of fate to receive the wisdom.