What an extremely interesting śloka I had the good fortune to study this morning! Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Canto 2, Chapter 8, text 25. King Parīkṣit just finished presenting an exhaustive list of detailed questions to Śukadeva. Śuka’s initial reply (revealed by Śrīla Viśvanātha’s commentary):
These are excellent questions, but you know that they have already been asked and answered many times by many people. Why ask me to answer them again?
The King replies:
In these matters, you are as authoritative as the supreme, self-born divinity. You have the deepest comprehension because you personally understand the answers. Others merely repeat what they have learned from those who have come before them.
Do you see how interesting this is!?
The general theme usually presented is that the best way to answer a question is to repeat the answer you have heard previously given by someone who has deeply realized the subject. But this śloka goes a little bit further and adds something a bit revolutionary and awfully interesting.
First let me explain the value of repeating.
I don’t know anything special about motorcycles, but my uncle is an expert – he takes them apart, puts them back together and build custom bikes. If you ask me some question about a spark plug or whatever, there is no way I can answer – because I don’t personally know anything about the subject. But I have two options, (1) I can remember if I ever heard my uncle say anything that would pertain to your question, (2) I can refer you to my uncle.
This is honest and provides sound knowledge. The knowledge will come only from people who actually know – by personal experience – what they are talking about.
Similarly, if you ask me about something that is beyond the grasp of empirically based logic, I can only answer in so far as I have personal, direct experience of the supra-empirical reality. If that is not a whole not, then I have two options (1) I can remember if I every heard “my uncle” (sages with lots of supra-empirical experience) say anything that relates to your question. And for this, I would need to regularly study the recorded material of what those sages have related (sacred texts, for example); or (2) I can refer you to a person with more supra-empirical experience.
This great system is called paramparā (successive) – the information comes from a valid source with actual personal experience of the answer. Even if the questioner cannot directly ask the valid source other agents (people without as much actual personal experience) can hand the answer over to the questioner.
The problem is in the act of handing it over. Invariably our fingerprints get onto the message we transmit – we shape it.
So there are two remedies, (1) wash your hands – get as few fingerprints as possible on the package you are transmitting, (2) become self-realized yourself – so that you have direct personal experience of the answer, and your fingerprints won’t smear the original ink, thy will decorate and enhance it instead.
Of the two, the first is somewhat hopeless. If the second is not implemented at least every few generations, dharmasya-glanir results – the original transmission gets too distorted by being transmitted through greasy hands.
Śuka was a person who put in the effort to become directly, personally self-realized. So King Parīkṣit had heard many other sages answer his questions before – and these were not just run of the mill Joe Shmoes. He had heard from the likes of Vyāsa and so on. But Śuka’s realization of reality was so special and sweet that he wanted to hear his answers to the questions.