In our tradition we have a strange and potentially explosive relationships with our books. They are considered sacred, of course, and thus infallible. We must accept them as they are and never ever, under any circumstances, question their accuracy. This applies to everything from Ṛg Veda down to books by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Books by his followers, however, do not enjoy the same status, but that is a different matter. Today I want to talk about our relationships with our authoritative literature.
I said strange and potentially explosive because it’s hard for us to literally believe in all that is said there, and yet we consciously purge all critical thoughts from our minds. Having doubts in accuracy of the scriptures is not only blasphemous but also a failure in our devotion. Full, unflinching faith in guru and śāstra is the pre-condition for discovering the full import of the Vedic knowledge, we can’t get around that dictum. We don’t want to have doubts in our books, we are ashamed of them and dare not to speak of them in public.
What does it do to our faith? I’m not sure, but all this suppression might blow up in our faces one day, hence “potentially explosive”.
Take the Moon landings, for example. Śrīla Prabhupāda talked about it quite a lot but one particular moment I remember reading about was when he once snapped and said “You might not believe me but how you can not believe the śāstra?” I’m not sure it was a very strong argument because our relationship to śāstra appears to be very different from his.
Śrīla Prabhupāda accepted śāstra as the Absolute Truth without any possibility of any faults and inaccuracies. We, OTOH, accept śāstra only as much as Prabhupāda told us to, otherwise they are just books about Hindu mythology. We would never ever consider the situation where Śrīla Prabhupāda could be wrong but śāstra was right because for us śāstra has no legitimacy outside of Śrīla Prabhupāda. He endorses it and we accept it. He doesn’t endorse it and we dismiss it.
We don’t care much for the original four Vedas, for example. In principle, they are infallible, in practice we don’t have neither brains nor purity to realize, understand, and appreciate this infallibility. Besides, Kṛṣṇa Himself says that Vedas deal with the material nature and we should rise above such concerns (BG 2.45).
We often mention quotes from various Purāṇas and sometime lift up whole stories from them but most of what is contained outside of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is of no use to us whatsoever. We suspect a lot of it is very contradictory and we are not interested in reconciling the differences. If we have differences between Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and any other book describing the same story we take Śrīmad Bhāgavatam over any other evidence without a blink. Does it mean those other versions are unauthorized and erroneous? We’d rather not say this out loud and talk about different audience and different goals instead. Isn’t it strange?
In effect, we deny objectivity to Vedic knowledge. We accept it as a breath of Lord Nārāyaṇa and therefore as Absolute Truth but we don’t treat Vedas as absolute, maybe only in the broadest sense possible. We rather see all instances of Vedic knowledge as tailor made for particular purposes. If a particular passage serves the goal of purification of a particular set of individuals we consider it a success. If while doing so the passage contradicts Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and our ācāryas we just shrug it off.
Maybe that’s how Prabhupāda saw it, too – Śrīmad Bhāgavatam above everything else, even above one’s guru, and all other Vedic literature as subservient to the goal of developing bhakti. If it prescribes eating meat or beating your wife then we see in the context of gradual elevation of extremely sinful persons, elevation that would eventually lead to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam where such practices will be rejected.
I don’t think any Vedic scripture prescribes corporal punishment for women but if it did, that’s how we would explain it.
And then there are contradictions between what we consider as authoritative sources. We take Bhagavad Gīta as undisputed authority, for example, but not the rest of Mahābhārata. There are sections in Mahabhārata that are rendered very differently in different versions. In South India, for example, Vyāsadeva was born out of marriage of Parāśara and a daughter of a fisherman. Elsewhere Parāśara simply took the girl and impregnated her, out of wedlock, under the cover of fog he created so that people wouldn’t see him doing it. Which version describes what really happened and which version doesn’t? Did South Indian storytellers add the marriage part because of the sensitivity of their audience? South Indians are sticklers for the rules, can’t have sex outside of wedlock there.
Once the possibility of sacred text being adjusted to the taste of the audience is there we wouldn’t know where to stop and what to trust, and why can’t we make changes to suit our times? After all, if it leads to developing bhakti it should still be considered faultless, as I argued above. You see the problem here?
Or take example of Prabhupāda’s translation in SB 1.7.23:
You are the original Personality of Godhead who expands Himself all over the creations and is transcendental to material energy. You have cast away the effects of the material energy by dint of Your spiritual potency. You are always situated in eternal bliss and transcendental knowledge.
“Have cast away” implies that material energy once had power over the Lord (this is Arjuna speaking to Kṛṣṇa) but not anymore, Kṛṣṇa has cast it away. How could it possibly be? In the purport Śrīla Prabhupāda doesn’t address this point directly but he nevertheless states that “He has nothing to do with the actions and reactions of the material manifestation because He is far above the material creation.” This means material nature cannot affect the Lord, not now, not in the past, not ever, and yet straightforward reading of the translation gives the impression that it has happened sometimes before.
Checking with another English translation available online as well as translations of the word in question, vyudasya, shows that it does not have to be in present perfect tense (has + past participle). Here, for example, it’s translated as “wards off”. Most likely it’s simply an error in the translation.
What should be done about it? Nothing. It’s one of the very first books translated by Śrīla Prabhupāda and both the verse and word-for-word was done by him personally, and he used present perfect tense there. BBT can’t just change it after fifty years. It’s one of the idiosyncrasies of the text that should stay there for the history. In the current version original “thrown away” has already been changed to “cast away” and that should be the end of it.
“Throw away effects” is not correct English and so “cast away” is a legitimate substitution by the editors, I fully agree with BBT here. Changing the tense, however, affects the meaning of the translation and Śrīla Prabhupāda wanted it to be in present perfect, editors have no right to change that.
So now I have to learn how to live with an error in the translation that no one is going to change, it’s part of our tradition now, showing a little inconsistency with the siddhānta. Would it ruin anything? No, I don’t think so. On the contrary, it kind of stresses the inviolable principle of Kṛṣṇa being unaffected by the material nature. The apparent error impresses this point even stronger.
Whatever leads to better understanding is legitimate, right?
Sometimes I think Kṛṣṇa drops these things on purpose, like the pastime of Him leaving the planet. From siddhānta POV it can’t be true and yet it was, and it even makes Kṛṣṇa look stronger – He doesn’t have to follow even his own rules. If someone catches us on this we can only laugh in response and appreciate the Lord and our ācāryas even more. It’s like a variation of “can Kṛṣṇa create a rock He can’t lift?” paradox, except this time it’s about creating rules. Yes, He establishes siddhānta, and then He breaks it.