In our tradition we respect Purāṇas even more than Vedas themselves. The reason is simple – we are too stupid and need easy explanations with examples, which Purāṇas provide generously. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is a commentary on Vedānta Sūtra, for example, which is terse and impossible to understand on its own.
Some have tried, of course, and thought they were successful but that is only half of the requirement, actually much less. One is supposed to receive spiritual knowledge from his guru. A guru might give disciple a book to read but this book should still be understood in light of guru’s teachings. Once you take the book your first task would be to read it, right? So you must know the language the book is written in. Once you figured out the ABC and grammar you can make up the general meaning but you still have to check with your guru if you got it right.
That’s where modern scholar of Vedānta are – they’ve learned the language and are able to translate words and sentences, but have absolutely no idea how to understand it properly. Śrīla Vyāsadeva wrote Vedic scriptures down to help our memory but not necessarily our understanding – that still has to come from a guru. Modern scholars lack that completely and so they come up with all kinds of ideas that might initially make sense but in the end always go against the intended meaning of the author. That’s why Lord Caitanya didn’t study Vedānta but always had time to listen to stories from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
So, Purāṇas are important, great, and they contain all kinds of knowledge, so we just have to read them and our knowledge of Kṛṣṇa consciousness would be complete, right? Not so fast.
Purāṇas are divided into several categories meant for people at different stages of self-realization. Should we accept only Purāṇas glorifying Lord Viṣṇu then? Even among those there are discrepancies and inconsistencies, what should we do in such cases? How reliable are these stories, especially when they deal with esoteric subjects like relationships on Goloka Vṛndāvana? Personally, I’m losing my faith in Purāṇas as a source of undisputed knowledge.
Take the case of Tulasī Devī. Her glories are described in many places and you can’t go wrong with Tulasī appreciation but it’s the story of her appearance here, which is linked to the appearance of Śālagrāma Śilā, that looks suspicious.
Generally, though, it is relayed in our community as a given truth, we just take it as it is, mostly retold by devotees according to our understanding. The sources, however, are not so kosher, in my not so humble opinion.
The main source of the story is an upa-purāṇa called Devī Bhāgavata, not a major vaiṣṇava text by any stretch. Śrīla Prabhupāda never quoted from it, never referred to it in any way, never made it sound authorized. Six Gosvāmīs never used it as a material for their works but a quick look reveals that Devī Bhāgavata is mentioned by Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu in his commentary on Sandarbhas as one of those to be rejected, in one place he describes it as one of the sources that is meant to conceal, not reveal the Absolute Truth.
This means, at the very best, that we should take only those statements that are favorable to revealing the Absolute Truth and reject those that do not fit with our siddhānta. We shouldn’t accept everything it says as absolute.
The story about Tulasī appears to be legit but only in devotees interpretation, otherwise it shows examples of very questionable behavior that need to be verified against much better sources.
It starts with Tulasī being enjoyed by Govinda at rasa-maṇḍala and she lost consciousness while unsatiated, whatever that means, Devī Bhāgavata is rather explicit about sex. Śrī Rādha found her in this state and got angry at both Kṛṣṇa and Tulasī, that’s how Tulasī got cursed to be born on Earth, though Kṛṣṇa told her that she would get four-armed get Nārāyaṇa as a husband while down there.
There was a twist, however. Another denizen of Goloka got cursed by Śrī Rādha – Kṛṣṇa’s friend Sudāmā. Once Kṛṣna was enjoying with another gopī and Śrī Rādhā got a wind of it. Here there’s a small diversion that I haven’t been able to trace so far. In Devī Bhāgavata Rādhā goes to Rasa-maṇḍala and finds no one there, as the gopī turned herself into the river (her name was Virajā) while Kṛṣṇa simply disappeared. Kṛṣṇa then returned along with Sudāmā and Rādhā gave him an earful, which Sudāmā couldn’t bear and rebuked her back, for which she cursed him to be born on Earth as a demon. In another version Sudāmā was the one guarding Rasa-maṇḍala and lied to Rādhā, so when she saw Kṛṣṇa wearing another gopī’s shawl she cursed Sudāmā for lying to her. Either way, it was bad.
Before we get to the Earthly part of the story – it appears that Goloka mentioned in Devī Bhāgavata is an ordinary place where people take their ordinary births. Being a gopā or a gopī is nothing special, not a position of infallible eternity. I don’t think we should learn Vṛndāvana’s habits and customs from stories like that. They make it nearly materialistic, appearing as some ordinary dealings between young boys and girls, however powerful.
At least when Sudāmā was cursed everyone, including Śrī Rādhā herself, realized that it was too much and begged Sudāmā not to go. Kṛṣṇa then explained that Sudāmā would be gone only for about half a moment. Unfortunately for us, half a moment on Goloka would last a manvantara in Earth time, which is seventy one of four yuga cycles, an unbelievably long period of time, we can’t think in such terms.
If true, this story would also explain how we might have fallen from Vaikuṇṭha. People there apparently can curse each other for all kinds of transgressions. All their wishes must come true, after all, so offending someone there even with the best of intentions is dangerous and could be punishable by some 300 million years of life on Earth (less if on heavenly planets). Sudāmā didn’t do anything wrong, he simply protected Kṛṣṇa. In one version on Kṛṣṇa’s instructions, in another version he protected Kṛṣṇa’s dignity.
We can also read it as an example of blasphemy in Kṛṣṇa consciousness – it must not be tolerated but, most importantly, one must bravely accept the consequences, too. Sudāmā didn’t complain, he was actually looking forward to being banished to the material world, which is the part better left for another day.
Tulasī herself got cursed for fainting. How fair is that? The way I heard devotees tell it, it happened during rasa dance and interrupted the proceedings, that’s why Rādhā got angry. Otherwise, who would curse a person who loses consciousness? There could be also a question of jealousy, which is understandable but still unthinkable – if it leads to people being thrown down into the material world.
I mean – can we take any of that seriously? Some do, but really? The Earthly part of that pastime, if we can call it that, is no less confusing but I’ll leave it for another time.
All in all, while appearing as a generous source of knowledge on Vṛndāvana news, at least some of the Purāṇas appear to be not so trustworthy. Something happened up there and Tulasī appeared down here on Earth, but it looks as if the story got filtered through not so authoritative sources and therefore shouldn’t be taken neither at a face value nor as a springboard for study of dealings between devotees on Goloka.