It might be a worrying phenomenon for me, but every time I hear what I think less than adequate responses to devotees’ questions I think I need to raise my voice and “correct” the answers. The answers are not wrong per se but appear to me as too incomplete to satisfy the questioners. In many situations I can’t just offer my opinion because that would be out of line, so I take this one recent example to vent out here.
It was a regular class and the speaker was a disciple of Śrīla Prabhupāda, so it would have been clearly impossible for me to speak over him there. The questions were translated and I heard them in English but I think, in the heat of the moment, the speaker misunderstood what was being asked exactly.
The first one was about how to stay faithful to Śrīla Prabhupāda. The answer was to read his books. The nuance that was missed was how to avoid deviations in our understanding of Prabhupāda’s teachings. Simply reading books is clearly not enough as we have plenty of disagreements over what Prabhupāda meant to say.
In light of my newly planted understanding of how the universe works, I’d like to propose a different answer here.
When the three guṇas manifest material objects one always takes the predominant role and the other two step into the background. I’m not sure I remember all the details correctly but one guṇa expresses the intention, another guṇa means of achieving it, and the third guṇa gives the actual result. We can also see it in terms of sambandha, abhidheya, and prayojana – because material world is only a reflection of how things work on the spiritual level.
The important point here is to distinguish between the predominant aspect and two subservient ones. If we don’t do that then all that is contained in Prabhupada’s words becomes seen as of being of equal value so one becomes free to pick one over another and make a whole philosophy out of it. If we see that some ideas and thoughts are more important then others then we’ll never elevate minor details to the status of absolute truth never to be contradicted.
First, we should see Prabhupāda’s intention in writing this or that purport, for example. That would be the predominant thought and everything else must be seen in relation to it, not as standing on its own. Next we should see how Prabhupāda decided to express this intention, what line of arguing he chose, what quotes he brought to support it and so on. It’s only after that has been ascertained that we should look at his actual words.
If we go about it the wrong way then we start by picking familiar words, then see how they form sentences, then construct our meanings from them. Just yesterday I described this process as the materialistic one and it causes all sorts of trouble. Just consider this often quoted letter to Hamsaduta. I don’t want to post it here in full, take you time to read it if you want.
The context is replying to what Hamsaduta (I’m using Prabhupāda’s own transliteration of the name here) had written before. That’s the context and that’s the intention. Prabhupāda goes there point by point, talking about buildings and rents. Then he thanks Hamsaduta for appreciating newly published Bhagavad Gītā and expands on his plans to start examinations testing his disciples on how well they understood the philosophy because solid understanding of the Gītā guarantees that one becomes a strong preacher. This sets the context for the next paragraph:
Next January there will be an examination on this Bhagavad-gita. Papers will be sent by me to all centers, and those securing the minimum passing grade will be given the title as Bhakti-sastri. Similarly, another examination will be held on Lord Caitanya’s Appearance Day in February, 1970 and it will be upon Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita. Those passing will get the title of Bhakti-vaibhava. Another examination will be held sometimes in 1971 on the four books, Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam, Teachings of Lord Caitanya, and Nectar of Devotion. One who will pass this examination will be awarded with the title of Bhaktivedanta. I want that all of my spiritual sons and daughters will inherit this title of Bhaktivedanta, so that the family transcendental diploma will continue through the generations. Those possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples. Maybe by 1975, all of my disciples will be allowed to initiate and increase the numbers of the generations. That is my program. So we should not simply publish these books for reading by outsiders, but our students must be well versed in all of our books so that we can be prepared to defeat all opposing parties in the matter of self-realization.
See how he concludes it – he wants his disciples to be prepared to philosophically defeat all opposing parties. That confirms his purpose in writing that paragraph. The method he applies here is holding examinations, which means people will prepare for them and study the books very seriously. He talks about different level of examinations based on different books, too, because some books are considered more philosophically advanced than others and so there should be a progression.
It all makes perfect sense.
If we go about it the wrong way, however, say by searching Folio or Vanisource for key words, then these words will immediately stand out and probably be highlighted for us, too. Then we start by reading the sentences these words appear in and we construct the meaning from that. This approach then would give us a shorter version:
… all of my spiritual sons and daughters … possessing the title of Bhaktivedanta will be allowed to initiate disciples.”
BOOM! Prabhupada wanted both men and women to become dīkṣā gurus!
Technically, it’s the correct reading and the ellipses in the middle do not alter it, but because we gave these key words the same value as to Prabhupāda’s intent and the way he decided to express it, there arises a serious contradiction and an ongoing problem for the whole society.
That was not the only question after that class I thought I should comment on so I’ll address the rest tomorrow. For today, however, I must stress the importance of a “holistic” approach to reading Prabhupāda if one wants to stay faithful and not deviate from our siddhānta. One must know what Prabhupāda wanted to say, how he chose to say it, and only then look at the actual words. To know what Prabhupāda wanted to say we might read the whole thing over first and put it in the context, or we can learn of Prabhupāda’s intention from our guru and his godbrothers. His overarching intention is to spread the glory of pure devotional service, we don’t even need books to know that, and all his books, conversations, and letters, must be seen in relation to that one big objective. How well and how deep we understand it depends on our service and the mercy of the guru, not so much on reading itself.
In any case, just as with creation of the universe, we should go from big to small, from more abstract to more detailed, not like materialists who build the big picture by combining minute details and unifying disjointed theories.
Oh, and one more thing – when guṇas create something the actual material manifestation is always carried out by tama, and I just said that one guṇa, possibly tama, can take the predominant role. That’s something I don’t really understand yet, but it will come up in my review of the book on cosmology again and I hope I’ll get it then.