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Continuing the explanation of the first chapter of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam with verse four:
satraṁ svargāya lokāya
satraṁ svargāya lokāya
“Once, in a holy place in the forest of Naimiṣāraṇya, great sages headed by the sage Śaunaka assembled to perform a great thousand-year sacrifice for the satisfaction of the Lord and His devotees.”
The main topics of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are the Supreme Lord, His devotees, and the process of devotional exchanges between the Lord and His devotees. The first three verses remembered the Deity to whom the Bhāgavatam is dedicated, and attracted the attention of hearers by indicating the scripture’s special subject matter and purpose and the ease with which it can be studied. Now in this fourth verse, the main topics – Bhagavān, the bhāgavatas, and bhakti – are being introduced. In this greatest of Purāṇas attention will gradually focus on the prime goal, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, by the device of questions and answers. Parīkṣit Mahārāja’s questions were answered by Śrī Śukadeva, and that narration of the Bhāgavatam was retold in the questions and answers spoken a few hundred years later at the Naimiṣa forest.
The history of the universe presented in the twelve cantos of the Bhāgavatam, culminating with the birth and pastimes of Svayaṁ-bhagavān Kṛṣṇa, has as its prelude a history of the Bhāgavatam itself. How Dvaipāyana Vyāsa came to compile the Bhāgavatam five thousand years ago is related in the fourth through sixth chapters of the First Canto, and how King Parīkṣit came to hear it is described in chapters seven through nineteen. The earlier abbreviated speakings by Lord Nārāyaṇa to Brahmā and Brahmā to Nārada are transcribed in the Second Canto.
Naimiṣa forest is located at the exact center of the universe. According to the Vāyu Purāṇa, long ago Lord Brahmā revealed Naimiṣāraṇya to the sages who approached him to ask where was the best place to perform their austerities. He told them that he would throw his disc weapon, and the choice spot would be where its rim (nemi) crashed into the surface of the earth.
The Varāha Purāṇa confirms the value of performing yajñas at this holy place: There, Lord Nārāyaṇa tells sage Gauramukha that because the Lord once destroyed a whole army of demons in a moment (nimiṣa) in this forest, the forest was given the name Naimiṣa and became a holy site especially conducive to the ritual activities of brāhmaṇas.
Commenting on this, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī adds that devotees should like to live in this forest because its influence helps one quickly destroy the enemies headed by lust. And devotees of the Supreme Lord know well that the various forms of yajña, no matter what ritual forms they take and to whom they are ostensibly offered, are all meant, in fact, for the satisfaction of Lord Viṣṇu and the Vaiṣṇavas.
The verse under discussion qualifies Naimiṣa forest as animiṣa-kṣetra, a district sacred by its connection with Lord Viṣṇu, whose eyelids never blink – or in other words, whose perception is never obscured. Thus Śaunaka will refer to Naimiṣāraṇya as kṣetre ’smin vaiṣṇave: “this holy place belonging to Lord Viṣṇu.”
Soon after the beginning of Kali-yuga, many of the greatest sages in the universe gathered at Naimiṣāraṇya to try to do something to mitigate the bad effects of the age. As many of them, including their elected head Śaunaka, were experts in performing fire sacrifices, they decided to help the world by carrying out the most elaborate and potent of all Vedic yajñas. A major yajña that involves the offering of soma is called a satra. Soma sacrifices may last anywhere from a single day to weeks or months, but the ultimate satra, very rarely attempted, has a duration of one thousand years.
The words svar and svarga are normally understood to mean the heavens ruled by Indra and other demigods. Other meanings, however, are possible. Śrīla Śrīdhara Svāmī suggests that the Supreme Lord Hari is called Svarga because His praises are sung (gīyate) in heaven. He is also called Loka because His devotees reside in Him. That is to say, the sages were worshiping with their satra-yajña to achieve the Supreme Lord.
Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura looks at the phrase svargāya lokāya from another angle. At first, he says, the sages headed by Śaunaka were interested in selfish ritualism. After Romaharṣaṇa gave them his good association, guiding them through the hearing and pondering of various Purāṇas and other scriptures, they became seriously inquisitive about spiritual perfection. And when they obtained the even better association of Ugraśravā Sūta, the aspiration for devotional service awakened in them. After that, their original purposes in the sacrifice – the attainment of heaven and mundane benefit for the general populace – slackened to the point that in the end, they continued the ritual performance only as a pretext for hearing hari-kathā. The sages told Sūta, kathāyāṁ sa-kṣaṇā hareḥ: “Now we have free time for hearing about Lord Hari.” During long yajñas, the rituals each day do not take the whole day and night to perform. It is a Vedic injunction that spare time between the rituals of a major sacrifice be best spent hearing auspicious topics from the Purāṇas and epic histories. Thus the sages at Naimiṣāraṇya invited Romaharṣaṇa, the authority on itihāsa-purāṇa appointed by Vyāsadeva, to sit on the speaker’s seat. That seat was then inherited by his son.
Śrīla Prabhupāda in his translation of this verse takes svargāya to refer to the Supreme Lord, and lokāya to refer to His devotees. The best of sages always act for the pleasure of both. In his purport, Śrīla Prabhupāda also interprets lokāya as meaning “for the good of the people in general.” Sacrifice as enjoined in the Vedas is a process by which the performers attach themselves to the root of all existence. By appropriate yajñas, the Supreme is satisfied, His devotees are gratified, and all living beings benefit. Such yajña is also available in our age in the forms of nāma-saṅkīrtana and recitation and study of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.