One of the most obvious questions about stories in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is “How is it even possible?” We don’t normally asks it ourselves and we reserve it for total neophytes and we give the answer only once. I’m not sure it’s a consciously thought out strategy, however.
When we discuss Bhāgavatam topics with devotees we don’t raise doubts like that anymore. A devotee by definition should accept Bhāgavatam as self-evident truth which should not be subjected to critical questioning and this principle provides us with a safe environment. It doesn’t mean we actually know the answer, though, it means we protect ourselves from ever being asked and it’s not the same thing.
Typical answer in devotional circles is that these stories are incomprehensible in our conditioned state. With our current vision we can’t even see the universe for what it is, with Mount Meru, flat Bhū-maṇḍala and possibly round Earth globe floating near the shore. We also say that due to Kali yuga we lost purity necessary for controlling the matter through mantras and so can’t direct thousands of arrows to invisible targets or trigger ancient nuclear bombs or build Vedic airplanes. It’s only a matter of contamination, we say, otherwise Bhāgavatam stories would make perfect sense.
On the subject of the battle of Kurukṣetra we say that it was quite possible to have millions and millions of soldiers, elephants, and horses to be there and fight on a relatively small piece of land. It was all magically stretchable just like the land of Vṛndāvana where Kṛṣṇa could easily go from one place to another and come back in a matter of minutes whereas it takes us half a day on a motoriksha to reach there. It’s just a matter of our personal limited perspective, we say, when we develop proper spiritual visions these things will be easily reconciled.
That might be true and it is certainly a good explanation for fellow devotees but we haven’t seriously tried it on atheists yet, afaik. Atheists are a different bunch and they are by nature very skeptical of such claims. In fact, they cannot possibly take them at the face value and therefore treat our scriptures as mythology. If they ever discuss scriptures with us they grant us temporary right to delude ourselves and approach us with “let’s not raise that ridiculous aspect of your books for a moment and indulge in philosophy, maybe there’s something valuable in that” attitude. This means that they never take our books seriously and discuss them with us like adults discuss fairy tales with kids.
I’m not sure how much benefit they can extract from these conversations even if they otherwise go smoothly. Are we hoping to impress them with philosophy to such a degree that they forget the ridiculous part of our books? Forget doesn’t mean accept as true, however, and without this acceptance they’ll never become devotees, only mildly curious well-wishers.
It isn’t such a bad outcome but why should we settle on it? Is it only because we can’t explain the stories in a way that makes them believable? Would it be much better if we were able to dispel all their doubts? I think the obvious answer is yes. We don’t need to take Śrīmad Bhāgavatam on faith, we KNOW that it’s true in every aspect, we just don’t know how it is so and we don’t know how to explain it properly. There are plenty of devotees who try but we still haven’t got one consistent and widely accepted theory. The argument about Flat Earth perfectly demonstrates our confusion here and the fact is that it’s not going to be solved any time soon.
One approach could be to suggest the possibility how Bhāgavatam might be true even if we can’t explain every detail of it. Nor do we need to explain every detail because figuring out how the universe works is not our goal but rather a waste of time. Another fact is that even Lord Brahmā doesn’t know the universe in full and to every being between us and him it looks slightly different. There can’t be full consensus on this issue by definition – we are all conditioned and we are all in illusion, and those who are free from illusion do not waste time on documenting the universe in full either. This desire to know and understand the universe is caused by illusion and once the illusion is withdrawn it goes away and gets replaced by spiritual knowledge, but still in doses carefully measured by Kṛṣṇa, or rather by His yoga-māyā potency that provides us only with what is necessary for our service.
So, the answer to “how does it work” is that it’s “on the need to know basis”. Okay, but how much to we need to know right now and, especially, how much do we need to know for preaching? Not much. Whatever concerns I raised in the beginning haven’t stopped Śrīla Prabhupāda, for example. He didn’t give detailed answers to many of the questions raised by skeptics and devotees didn’t push him for it. This kind of questioning does not suit the relationship between a guru and his disciples so we didn’t indulge. If it didn’t stop Prabhupāda why should it stop us?
We just have to demonstrate that human form of life begins with athāto brahma jijñāsa¸ that it’s time to inquire about spirit, not matter. Even if we talk to atheists we should still press this point – learn about the soul first, learn that it’s different from the body and it doesn’t die. Learn what is mind, learn how it works, learn how to control it and learn how to engage it in the service of the Supreme. Knowledge of the universe is irrelevant to the spiritual inquiry and the moment it becomes relevant it reveals itself to the necessary degree, no more and no less, we shouldn’t worry about it.
We do not avoid difficult questions about Bhāgavatam because we don’t know the answers, we avoid them because they hijack the spiritual inquiry – an entirely different reason. Will we ever be caught having to actually produce the answers instead of admitting we don’t know anything and our books might be factually wrong? I seriously doubt it. Kṛṣṇa would never put us in such a situation just as He’d never make us starve and force us to subside on meat. Questions like these should not rise in the company of devotees and so we should not be forced to avoid them at all. It’s just not a problem.
There are, however, some ideas on how to reply to these questions on scientific terms but I’ll leave them for another day.