Chapter 6 of the Bhagavata Purana has the story of Puranjana (meaning city dweller). The story is narrated by Narada to a king who was focused on only performing Vedic rituals, including animal sacrifice with a view to getting Moksha. The story is symbolic of humans and their living, and suggests that one can become spiritual only by transcending the usual living.
Puranjana was always looking for pleasure. He was always travelling to different places with a mysterious and invisible friend seeking new and more intense pleasures. But he was always unhappy as he found deficiencies in everything. One day he met a beautiful lady called Pramada who was accompanied by 10 servants with hundreds of wives. Pramada was protected by a five hooded serpent. She was the queen of a city that had nine gates and was filled with everything that was pleasurable. She offered to marry Puranjana so that they could live in the city for 100 years. Puranjana gladly married her and went to her city.
There he made friends with various men and was very happy enjoying his life. Once Puranjana went on his chariot to hunt in the forest outside the city and killed many animals in a ruthless fashion. This annoyed Pramada who forbade him from leaving the city. As Puranjana wanted to be with Pramada, he gave up his love for hunting.
Puranjana had many children and grandchildren who were unscrupulous and looted the kingdom. This weakened his kingdom. Another king and his allies used this opportunity to attack Puranjana. Puranjana was defeated and his kingdom was burnt down. Puranjana was banished to the forest. In the forest Puranjana was killed by the descendents of the animals he had slaughtered. Even when he was being killed, Puranjana was thinking of his wife, Pramada, and their life of pleasure together.
Puranjana was reborn as Vaidharbi and married a great king. Towards the end of his reign, the great king, gave up this throne and went to the forest. Vaidharbi accompanied him and helped him in his spiritual journey. When the king died, Vaidharbi was about to join him by jumping into the funeral pyre. A sage suddenly emerged and stopped her from doing this. He explained that Vaidharbi was Puranjana in her previous life. Jumping into the funeral pyre will not save her from Samsara.
The different items from the story and their symbolic representation are explained below.
The invisible friend accompanying Puranjana represents all the subtle pressures imposed by one’s mind to seek only pleasure. Pramada represents illusion and signifies the transient nature of everything in the material world. Pramada’s servants and their wives represent instruments of sensory perception and actions along with all the different activities initiated by these instruments. The five hooded snake protecting Pramada represents Prana (breath) in its five forms, namely, Prana, Apana, Udana, Vyana, and Samana.
The role of these forms is explained in the Prashna Upanishad and reiterated in the Nirvana Shatkam. The nine gates to the city are mapped to the two eyes, two nostrils, one mouth, two ears, anus, and genital opening. Thus the city symbolises the body and Puranjana was focused purely on his body (and hence called the city dweller). The fact Pramada says that they can enjoy life for 100 years denotes that everything, however long lasting, will come to an end. Puranjana, like most of us, got fascinated by the long duration and accepted Pramada’s conditions.
Puranjana’s various friends represent light, air, etc. which enable one to see, breathe, smell and talk. But these friends steer Puranjana towards enjoying only physical pleasures. There is also a person who can lead one to spiritual wisdom but Puranjana does not listen to him.
Puranjana going for hunting using a chariot characterises unbridled passion and the ability to overcome obstacles at speed to achieve one’s goals. The slaughtering of the animals represent the impropriety of his actions. Pramada asking Puranjana to give up hunting signifies how Puranjana did not want to disobey Pramada as he was bound to her for all his pleasure. It is such a bondage that brings long-term pain.
The kings and supporters who attack Puranjana are called Chandavega (time), Jara or Kalaya Kanya (old age), Durbhaga (misfortune), Bhaya (fear), and Prajvara (fever). These represent afflictions that one will face in old age. Puranjana losing his kingdom signifies how the bodily instruments of pleasure cease to work after sometime. The burning down of his kingdom signifies the death of the body.
Puranjana being killed by the animals relates to Karma. He, needlessly killed various animals. In the end he paid the price with his life. Similarly, Puranjana was born as Vaidharbi because he was thinking of Pramada while being killed. It illustrates the grip of attachment and its consequences.
The sage instructs Vaidharbi about Samsara (cycle of life and death) and the difference between the Jivatma (the soul that is associated with the different bodies during Samsara) and Paramatma (or the ultimate soul). He also explains how dispassion is the only way to get released from Samsara.
Narada uses the above story to suggest that Vedic rituals should not be used for selfish reasons. Furthermore, they should not cause pain to others. Pain is caused because one has Ahamkara (notion of ‘I’also called ego). The Ahamkara controls Buddhi (the ability to discriminate) to focus on things that do not bring eternal joy. This is the difference between Shreyas (which is good for one in the long run) and Preyas (pleasure that is short-lived).
In summary, the story of Puranjana is, on the surface, easy to understand. The aim is to go beyond the story to really understand aspects of Hindu philosophy and spirituality. This is very much in keeping with the style of presentation in the Puranas, including the Bhagavata Purana.