Four special verses in the Bhagavad-gita and four in the Srimad-Bhagavatam lay out the fundamental teachings of Krishna consciousness.
My mom always keeps peanuts around the house. Crack the shells open, and you find two peanuts inside. So much goodness in one little package: beneficial nutrients, plant proteins, fats, fiber, and plenty of vitamins, minerals, and bioactives. As I looked at the broken shells in front of me one day, my mind was drawn to four special verses of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and four of the Bhagavad-gita, each set often referred to simply as chatuh-shloki: “the four verses.” Srila Prabhupada was the first to refer to them as “nutshell verses.”
Generally, scholars say that nutshells were first used as a metaphor in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (in 1602), although some opine that such usage goes back much further, to the time of Pliny (23–79 CE). Whatever the case, the point is this: Anything that could fit in a nutshell would have to be very small—i.e., a few words or a very brief explanation.
In Vaishnava scriptures, particularly the Bhagavatam and the Gita, we find nutshell verses that summarize the essential message. Famed scriptural commentator Sridhara Swami (circa thirteenth century) begins his gloss on Gita 10.8, the first of its chatuh-shloki, by mentioning the four-verse schema; Jiva Goswami (1513–1608) gives an elaborate analysis of the Bhagavatam’s chatuh-shloki in his Krama-sandarbha and Bhagavat-sandarbha; Srinivasa Acarya (sixteenth century) wrote a commentary specifically on the four verses of the Bhagavatam; Vishvanatha Chakravarti (1708–1754) and others, too, draw on this idea of four central verses in both the Bhagavatam and the Gita. Following in this tradition, Srila Prabhupada often groups them as “four nutshell verses” in his writings. (See especially his commentaries on Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.36 and 2.9.44.)
A Look Inside
Let’s now look at the nutshell verses of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Bhagavad-gita. First, the Bhagavatam (2.9.33–36):
[Lord Krishna says:] Brahma, it is I, the Personality of Godhead, who was existing before the creation, when there was nothing but Myself. Nor was there the material nature, the cause of this creation. That which you see now is also I, the Personality of Godhead, and after annihilation what remains will also be I, the Personality of Godhead.
O Brahma, whatever appears to be of any value, if it is without relation to Me, has no reality. Know it as My illusory energy, that reflection which appears to be in darkness.
O Brahma, please know that the universal elements enter into the cosmos and at the same time do not enter into the cosmos; similarly, I Myself also exist within everything created, and at the same time I am outside of everything.
A person who is searching after the Supreme Absolute Truth, the Personality of Godhead, must certainly search for it up to this, in all circumstances, in all space and time, and both directly and indirectly.
And then the Bhagavad-gita (10.8–11):
[Lord Krishna says:] I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.
The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me.
To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.
To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
It should be clear that what these two sets of verses have in common, first and foremost, is that they reveal the identity of God Himself: He is Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. From the Bhagavatam verses we further learn that, in the beginning and in the end, only Krishna exists. All the commentators, especially Jiva Goswami and Srila Prabhupada, offer numerous verses to support this contention, such as this verse from the Maha Upanishad: eko vai narayana asin na brahma na ishano. “Lord Narayana [Krishna] existed before the material world was created, when there was no Brahma and no Shiva.” Jiva Goswami cites this verse in his Bhagavat-sandarbha (96.11).
All other phenomena, whether living or nonliving, spiritual or material, emanate from the Supreme Lord and wind up in Him. He is the source and origin of all, and He is their repose. This is not to say that His emanations are not real—they are real—but it is He who gives them their reality; He is the inner core of their existence. One who knows these truths, the Bhagavatam tells us, will pursue Krishna in earnest, with no other interest.
The first of the four Gita verses reiterates this point: Devotees engage in the Lord’s service, desiring to attain Him and nothing more. But we are told more about these great souls. They think of Krishna constantly and always engage in glorifying Him. Through these unmotivated and uninterrupted actions, they are blessed with knowledge of God, compliments of Krishna Himself.
Prabhupada’s commentaries on these verses clarify their full import, and he elaborates further on the Bhagavatam chatuh-shloki in his commentary on Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami’s Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 1.53–56). In fact, Kaviraja Goswami tells us that “everything”—a far-reaching term, no doubt—is explained in those four nutshell verses: “The essence of Srimad-Bhagavatam—our relationship with the Supreme Lord, our activities in that connection, and the goal of life—is manifest in the four verses of Srimad-Bhagavatam known as the chatuh-shloki. Everything is explained in those verses.” (Madhya 25.102)
The notion of just how these verses explain “everything” might be hinted at in Kaviraja Goswami’s identification of these verses with om, the sound representation of Krishna: “The meaning of the sound vibration omkara is present in the Gayatri mantra. The same is elaborately explained in the four shlokas of Srimad-Bhagavatam known as chatuh-shloki.”(Madhya 25.94)
As Srila Prabhupada writes (Madhya 25.97):
The sound vibration omkara is the root of Vedic knowledge. Omkara is known as the maha-vakya, or supreme sound. Whatever meaning is in the supreme sound omkara is further understood in the Gayatri mantra. Again, this same meaning is explained in Srimad-Bhagavatam in the four shlokas known as the chatuh-shloki, which begin with the words aham evasam evagre. The Lord says, “Only I existed before the creation.” From this statement, four shlokas have been composed, and these are known as thechatuh-shloki. In this way the Supreme Personality of Godhead informed Lord Brahma about the purport of the chatuh-shloki. Again, Lord Brahma explained this to Narada Muni, and Narada Muni explained it to Srila Vyasadeva. This is the parampara system, the disciplic succession. The import of Vedic knowledge, the original word pranava, has been explained in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Succinctly, Jiva Goswami, drawing on the Gopala-tapani Upanishad, informs us how om equals everything: “Om is a combination of the letters AUM. The letter ‘A’ refers to Krishna. The letter ‘U’ refers to Radha, and the letter ‘M’ refers to the jiva, the soul.” Thus, omkara, indeed, refers to everything.
Emphasis on the Person Krishna
There are other important points to be found in the chatuh-shloki. The commentators, whether focusing on the Bhagavatam or the Gita, seem to first of all emphasize that it is Krishna “the person” who existed before creation—it was not, as some Mayavadi commentators would have it, an impersonal force. Jiva Goswami is adamant about this. In his Bhagavat-sandarbha (96.10) he writes: “Here [referring to the first verse of the Bhagavatam chatuh-shloki] the word aham [“I”] refers to the form of the Lord, not the featureless Brahman.” Other great acharyas, from Vishvanatha Chakravarti to Srila Prabhupada, develop this theme as one of the most important teachings of the chatuh-shloki. God in His original form is a person, and it is He who exists before creation.
In addition, the acharyas are quick to mention the related point: When everything comes to an end, it is Krishna—the person—who remains. Again, Jiva Goswami is clear in the Bhagavat-sandarbha (96.18): “At this point, someone may object: ‘O Supreme Lord, is it not so that when the material universe is no longer manifest You also no longer exist?’ The Lord answers, ‘After annihilation what remains will also be I, the Personality of Godhead.’”
Thus, it is clear that both before and after creation—what to speak of during it—Krishna is the center of all that exists. He is the real existence upon which all other existences depend.
Is Krishna Alone?
After researching this subject at some length, for me one question remained: If only Krishna exists both before and after creation, is He alone? The tradition teaches that Krishna is never alone. He is always rejoicing in the company of His eternal associates, with whom He enjoys an exchange of love. The entire process of bhakti-yoga focuses on returning to Him in our original home, where we can resume our service in earnest. And yet, these chatuh-shloki verses seemed to suggest that He alone exists. I needed to know what this meant.
Sure enough, I found that Jiva Goswami addresses this point in his Bhagavat-sandarbha (96.12): “As in the sentence ‘The king goes’ the word ‘king’ may also mean ‘the king’s messenger’ or ‘the king’s soldiers,’ so the word aham [‘I’] here does not only mean the Lord but also means the Lord’s abode of Vaikuntha, the Lord’s associates, and everything else in direct relation with Him. In this way, the meaning should be understood.” This is consistent with the teaching of the larger tradition, which states that Krishna is always in the company of His divine associates.
Sri Jiva’s perspective here is interesting. He says that, in this case, the singular—i.e., that “Krishna alone exists before and after the creation”— implies the existence of others. He writes that aham eva asam [“I certainly existed”] is similar to raja asau prayati [“The king heads out”]. In the latter, one can assume that if the king is heading out, his entourage is heading out with him. Similarly, if Krishna existed before creation, His entourage must have existed with Him. Jiva’s use of the king analogy is brilliant. To clarify: When one says, “The king is passing by” (as in a procession), the clear implication is that he is passing by with his entourage. Jiva further says that when one says, “The king is not working,” it means he is not engaged in his royal duties. It does not mean that he is inactive. During his “inactive” time, he might be with his family members, enjoying in their inner chambers. In the same way, says Jiva, before creation and after dissolution the Lord is engaged in spiritually playful pastimes (lila) with His eternal associates. Sri Jiva justifies this by writing that Vaikuntha, the Lord’s companions, and so forth, are sub-limbs (upanga) of Krishna. They are parts of Him, and so they are naturally included in the word aham. Thus they exist before and after creation, too, along with Him.
These are subtle points, and Vaishnava teachings gradually unfold for those who follow the path of bhakti-yoga. Closely studying verses like the chatuh-shloki can help on the path. Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1834–1914), a great teacher in our line, eloquently expresses this as follows:
Vaishnava-dharma is like a lotus flower which gradually comes into bloom when the time is ripe. First it appears as a bud, and then it slowly begins to blossom. In its maturity, it is fully blossomed and attracts all jivas by diffusing its sweet fragrance in every direction. At the beginning of creation, four aspects of knowledge were expressed to Brahma through the medium of the chatuh-shloki Bhagavatam. These were bhagavat-jnana, transcendental knowledge of the Absolute as Bhagavan; maya-vijnana, analytical knowledge of the Lord’s external potency; sadhana-bhakti, the means of attaining the goal; and prema, which is the object of attainment. These four elements were manifested in the jivas’ hearts as the sprout of the lotus flower of Vaishnava-dharma. (Jaiva Dharma, Chapter 10)