Anonymous artist, Krishna Lifts Mount Govardhan, from a History of the Lord (Bhagavata Purana), c. 1760

by Douglas Penick

In the totality of world/self, as past, present, and future, as visible/invisible, known/ unknown, tangible/intangible, the minute and the immeasurable, as audible and inaudible, visible and invisible, all flow together, swirl, twist, mingle, separate, change one into another, dissolve, flow on. We are engulfed and dismembered and reshaped. There is a sharp cramp in my foot and my leg kicks outward. For a moment, I forget what I am doing here. In total, this may be stillness or ceaseless movement. Our decision or belief that the ultimate is stillness, or silence, or unknowable is simply an arbitrary moment when we seek one kind of continuity or another. Words and images make our ignorance approachable.

In Hindu and Buddhist traditions, it is maintained that time moves in continuous cycles of increase and decrease, expansion and contraction, waxing and waning. These cycles are divided in eras called the four Yugas. The first, the Satya Yuga is the longest and most ideal, a time of inner and outer beauty, purity and perfection. Desires and their fulfillment arise simultaneously. It said to last 1,728,000 years. Next is the Treta Yuga of 1,296,000 years. In this era, perfection begins to wane; its luster begins to tarnish. Longings become goals and paths. In the Dvapara Yuga that lasts 864,000 years and desires, intentions, actions and social classes become ever more distinct and varied. Finally, there is our era, the shortest, the Kali Yuga, the time of destruction lasting 432,000 years.

Now, in the Kali Yuga, desire and the objects of desire are separate. We struggle to join them, but the results are temporary. Time accelerates. What one generation believes, the next rejects. The concept of truth itself dies out. Cravings themselves are momentary, marked by anguish, longing, rage. Spiritual, moral, and ethical life degenerates. Material advantage becomes the only accepted value. Pollution, corruption, disease, degeneration, violence fill our minds and poison the world. The only virtue that still can be practiced is compassion. We are moving into the end of time. All will end before another cycle begins.

And indeed, we do feel some kind of end approaching. The tempo of mass destruction has increased. The last century saw unparalleled slaughter, destruction, dislocation: two world wars, internal slaughters in China, Russia, Cambodia, Uganda, the atom bomb, the holocaust, and innumerable smaller episodes of mass violence. Dread and unreality now pervade the mind stream of the age.[1]

VYASA (1500BC)

Vyasa’s name means ‘compiler’ in Sanskrit He was also known as Krishna Dvaipayana or Vedavyasa, and he lived abound 1500 BC. He was a legendary being, and his life was integral, as both a participant and author, to two of the greatest and most important texts in Indian civilization and world culture. He is the exemplar for all whose old age has opened a bridge to a completely new way of seeing.

Vyasa’s earliest achievement was to have edited the ancient Vedas and divided them into sections so that they would be more accessible for ordinary people. Then he wrote or wrote down that greatest of epics, The Mahabharata. Finally, in his very old age, he composed a very different kind of book, The Bhagavata Purana: a text which opens a kind of living bridge between the worlds of deities and humans.

The Mahabharata is a record of events in the eon that immediately preceded the Age of Destruction in which we now live and recounts the convoluted fatal struggles between two clan branches, both descended from Vyasa’s own grandchildren. Vyasa intervened sometimes unsuccessfully at many points in the action of The Mahabharata and thus was a progenitor of the principal actors, an actor himself. and author of this great collective history of humanity, a vast compilation which marked the very end of the era preceding our own.

When Vyasa completed the Mahabharata, he was exhausted and in despair. The Kali Yuga, the age of darkness and destruction had begun, but Vyasa did not die. With his four disciples and his son, Shuka, he retreated deep into the forest of Dandaka. He realized that the Vedas he had compiled would only benefit the priesthood, and that the Mahabharata might guide people to worldly understanding; neither would lead to liberation. Humanity would soon be lost in the darkness, greed, and confusion of the Kali Yuga. Accordingly. the world needed a kind of teaching never before encountered. So, Vyasa meditated, reflecting on all that had come before and all that would come afterwards. His mind moved between sleep and dream and hovered beyond life and death. He saw the Kali Yuga come to an end.

The world and all the forms of consciousness it supported dissolved into a roiling sea of atoms split apart, particles of momentary awareness, light waves without origin or end, flickering thought forms without reference. He saw wave upon wave of transitory shapes, figures, congruences, dissonances, attractions, repulsions, light and dark, vibrant, inert, multi-colored, colorless, warm cold.

Vyasa knew he was dissolving, as human being, as place, as reference point, in the surface of the Pralaya, the Sea of Dreams, dissolving back in the all-pervasive primordial moment before awareness began and after existence ended. He saw the Pralaya rising through the minds of beings in the dark age as forgetting washed away their learning, accomplishments, skills, wisdom, their memories altogether.  Vyasa floated in this luminous, lightless void, this infinite expanse, neither space nor time. Here he saw the last dark age dissolve, and a new cosmos emerge. In this infinite expanse, he entered universe after universe, world after world, being after being, as each dissolved to reemerge in different form.

Over and over, he saw, deep within the Sea of Dreams, a faint form coalesces. Slowly, a dark blue light, glowing softly in the depth of the sea, slowly became the form of a baby, asleep and dreaming, cradled and rocking in the coils of an immense green serpent. And Vyasa saw emerging from this sleeping baby’s navel, emerging as its dream, a long emerald stem that gradually rose to the surface of the Pralaya. From its green calyx, over centuries, unfolded a vast thousand petalled pink lotus of shining light. From its pistil and stamen, a delirious scent of love filled the air. On the golden anthers swaying at the center of this lotus in full bloom, the cosmos, fresh, new, and pure, began again just as it had done thousands of times before and would do thousands of times again. Patterns and chaos alternated on both minute and cosmic scales.  The radiant lotus petals fluttered softly, and music, inseparable from silence, filled the whole of space. Thus, Vyasa experienced primordial mind.

Then he saw radiant goddesses and gods from time immemorial, Vishnu and his avatars first amongst them, riding in their golden chariots across the shining sky; he saw their loves and battles and heard their wisdom, saw their beauty, their caprices, their paradises. He sat with the sages and danced with the devotees.  He heard all the worlds speaking, singing, going to war, doing business, farming, weaving, gambling, drinking, feasting, having sex, giving birth, starving, stealing, dying. He saw how this world too would soon end. As Vyasa aged, all feeling, yearning, understanding, memory, appetites, visions became concentrated in his shrinking body. He was filled with an incommunicable intensity. Thus, the words of the Puranas covered the surface of his mind like the iridescent swirling on a soap-bubble.

Vyasa saw that just as a mayfly’s life is a human day, a human life is an instant in the life of a deity. He saw that all living beings were composed of trillions of other kinds of beings, each with its own lifespan. He saw millions of invisible ghosts and spirits each caught in its own fate. He saw that the living and the dead walked side by side without knowing it, and that ancient civilizations of insects, rodents, reptiles, fish coexisted unsuspected within human the human realm. There were immeasurable kinds of existences moving through life and death, unseen, unheard, unbeknownst to each other.

Vyasa spun together hundreds of thousands of moments in tens of thousands of strands. He wove the Bhagavata Purana so that those in the age of destruction could find their way to a life that was undistorted and uncorrupt. Here, for the first time, were written in one place the lives and deeds of the gods in their celestial domains, the accounts of the sages who bowed down to learn from them, and the history of all humanity’s accomplishments. Thus, these things were not lost. And in these texts, devotion offered paths of liberation. This was Vyasa’s final gift to a cosmos that would soon destroy itself.

Vyasa recited this text to his son, Shuka, whose name means parrot, and who had the ability to remember and repeat everything he had ever heard. At that time, a messenger came to Vyasa, telling him that King Parikśit, the last of the Pandava kings, the victors in the Mahabharata, was sitting by the River Ganges, waiting for his life to end. Vyasa sent Shuka to recite the Purana to this dying lord. Thus did the one who originated the epic seek to liberate the last of the family whose story it was.  Shuka went to King Parikśit as he sat dying. The king had no more power, no control over anything or anyone anymore. His wishes and desires meant nothing. Now he could only sit, wait, and watch as the Ganges flowed by before him. He listened as Shuka began his recitation with these words:

This Purana, this Sun has risen for those who have been blinded in the age of Kali[2]

For seven days and nights without interruption, Shuka then recited the Bhagavata Purana, and King Parikśit listened without distraction. Others nearby wrote down the words. When the reading neared its end, Shuka sang:

Time, without end, is the destroyer,
Time, without beginning, is the creator.
Creating beings through other beings.
He destroys through death.
He destroys even the Lord of Death.[3]

And he concluded:

O king, now do not fear death.
Just as when a vase shatters,
Space that was within it does not change.
But merges with space

When a log burns,
Heat dissipates in air.
When a river joins the sea,
Water is inseparable from its vast expanse.

Birth, Life, Death are moments, words.
In old age and death, they lose their meaning

When all the Bhagavata Purana had been read to him, King Parikśit, last of his famous lineage, had surrendered completely. The was nothing to perpetuate or to end. He let himself go. His devotion to all appearance his love,  his gratitude was total. Thus, the universe was exhausted. There was nothing left. This king died.

Shuka returned to the forest and lived alone. Vyasa waited for his son, but they never met again. Vyasa, grieved at being parted from the son he loved so dearly, he cried out: “Oh my son.”  The trees, into whose deep shadows his son had vanished, whispered. Vyasa listened to these wordless sounds; he could no longer interpret them.

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.


This essay marks the ending of the lavish and endlessly provocative storehouse of riches known as BERFROIS. Russell Bennetts created and cultivated this journal with such acuity and such an amplitude of taste and spirit that, for 13 years, it has seemed to have a life of its own. It has been a kind of wish-fulfilling tree in the literary landscape and many writers and artists who were otherwise hidden away have found a place in its branches. As one such writer and one of Berfrois’ many many readers, it is somewhat painful to imagine the world in its absence.

Berfrois has only existed because of Russell’s vision and unstinting labor. Now that he turns his attention elsewhere, it will exist as an archive but will grow no further. It is to be hoped that the people who have been part of this splendid and brave venture, in ways large and small, will enjoy an ongoing kinship from their shared collaboration. Perhaps we will all find ways to create something new and unforeseen that will bring as much brilliance, insight and delight as Berfrois has done.  And it is even more to be hoped that we can join Russell in any future enterprise he might devise.

Thus we close, extending to Russell our everlasting gratitude, admiration and enduring friendship.

These do not end now.

Thank you so very much.


[1] Douglas Penick, The Age of Waiting, Arrowsmith Press, 2020, pp. 16-17

[2] Bhagavata Purana tr. Ramesh Menon, Rupa Publications, 2007 .pp.1392-3 ; 1401,2)

[3] BhP. I.2.2- cited in E.H.R. Jarrow- Tales For The Dying, SUNYPress, 2003,,p.47;)BhP/. Jarrow- ibid,,p.58

[4] Adapted from Bhagavana Purnan,, Menon, op cit pp1409-1410; Shrimad Bhagavatam, Gunada Charan Sen, Munshiram Manoharlal1986,pp.190-191

Publication Rights

The essay was adapted from THE WINTER SUN, Douglas Penick pp.136-141.

Post Image

A Master of the First Generation after Manaku and Nainsukh, North India, Punjab Hills, An illustration to a Bhagavata Purana series: The Churning of the Ocean, c. 1790 (detail)

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