Deeply studying our books is a very noble endeavor, there is no doubt about it, and yet something does not sit right with me here. I’ve never taken Bhakti Sastri course myself and will probably never take one. If their course materials were available online I would probably look into them with enthusiasm but so far I’ve seen only videos, about an hour each, which takes too much time, in my opinion. So let’s get to the matter at hand – my impression of Bhakti Sastri course was formed by one mataji who said that during the course she had learned everything there is to know about Bhagavad Gita – all kinds of numbers and slokas, and she could give quick answers in her sleep, but she lost the soul of it in the process. Bhagavad Gita doesn’t speak to her anymore and has been reduced to numbers in her head. She expressed this to her guru, who is one of the most knowledgeable devotees in our society, and he somewhat supported her conclusion.
I would explain it with an analogy of a boy falling in love with a girl and dreaming about her day and night. Imagine that next he is taken to observe her physical exam and sits in with every doctor who looks at her. He examines her stool and urine samples, her blood, looks at her teeth together with the dentist and identifies all kinds of caries, smells her breath, sits with a shrink and learns about all her mental hangups, follows with social worker who examines the state of her house, finds stinky mismatched socks lying in unexpected places, he sits on her school lessons and examines her homework, looks at red ink corrections by her teachers and so on. Unless that girl is a genuine apsara this kind of close up knowledge is sure to kill any sprout of romantic love. It’s money back guarantee. Basically, it’s another version of that famous “liquid beauty” story.
Of course this kind of close up knowledge is useful for spiritualists who need to know what they are getting themselves into when they feel attracted to opposite sex and they need this knowledge to deal with it appropriately, but this method should not be applied to Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures. We all remember “not to read too many books” instruction which concerns the similar risk – by knowing too much we will lose bhakti. How much is too much? I suppose we should establish our own boundaries, like that mataji thought that Bhakti Sastri was too much but there must have been many devotees who were not affected in the same way.
I would also say this depends on the teachers, not on course syllabus per se. A good teacher will not kill devotion in his students no matter what the course requires. However, if the course is structured in such a way that one must memorize a lot of stuff and is explicitly rewarded for quick answers then devotion will dwindle or at least be threatened even if the teacher is perfect.
I would also note that the leader of one Russian renegade group campaigning for purity in ISKCON is a former Bhakti Sastri instructor. Or that there are probably more learned devotees who left ISKCON than those who stayed. Knowing “too much” almost always results in being unable to fit with the rest of ISKCON devotees. Why? Because this “too much” is actually never enough and there is always a perspective where it looks like “not even half way”, but it makes people think they are making rational decisions based on complete knowledge. Complete knowledge (su-medhasam) results in humbly chanting the Holy Name and being eager to serve everyone, starting with fellow devotees. Anything short of that is only half-education. It doesn’t matter how many questions one can answer in his sleep or how many slokas he can recite or how many diplomas one has collected.
My most recent encounter with Bhakti Sastri was a claim sounded out in a class that Arjuna posed four-five questions to Krishna in Chapter 1 and then Krishna replied to them one by one. Exact wording here is very important. Instead of “four questions” one could say “stated four reasons”, for example. It’s a little change but questions need to be answered while “stating reasons” doesn’t require it. My understanding is that after listening to Krishna Arjuna simply dropped his reasons and didn’t bring them up again. Some of them Krishna addressed directly, some were clarified in an implicit way, and some were just forgotten.
Now, if someone makes a claim that there were four questions then he needs to come up with four answers, and goes looking for them in the text, and then the text is interpreted so that it fits. So one speculation leads to another, and to another, and to another and so on. Let’s look at the practical example of this.
One of the questions/reasons was potential destruction of the family, production of varna-sankara and so on. According to this screenshot from BS manual it looks like this:
I don’t need to copy past those 1.37-43 verses, we know what they say. The same manual answers them like this:
Check how to it says “Krishna defeats Arjuna’s Arguments”. Maybe this wasn’t the exact wording when this section was devised initially. When people discuss it they replace it with “answers questions” and nobody objects, but if the original was “addresses this topic” instead then the connection does not sound so explicit, does it?
If we say “answers questions” then there were other questions posed by Arjuna between 1.37-43 and 3.18-26. In fact, 3.18-26 series of verses is part of Krishna’s *direct* answer to Arjuna’s question in 3.1-2:
TEXT 1: Arjuna said: O Janārdana, O Keśava, why do You want to engage me in this ghastly warfare, if You think that intelligence is better than fruitive work?BG 3.1-2
TEXT 2: My intelligence is bewildered by Your equivocal instructions. Therefore, please tell me decisively which will be most beneficial for me.
Arjuna’s previous question was about behavior of a self-realized person and in response Krishna didn’t really talk about how self-realized people sit or walk, but questions in 3.1-2 Krishna answers directly and eventually comes to supposed “defeating” of Arjuna’s argument from the first chapter. Allegedly.
BG 3.18-26 goes like this:
TEXT 18: A self-realized man has no purpose to fulfill in the discharge of his prescribed duties, nor has he any reason not to perform such work. Nor has he any need to depend on any other living being.BG 3.18-26
TEXT 19: Therefore, without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.
TEXT 20: Kings such as Janaka attained perfection solely by performance of prescribed duties. Therefore, just for the sake of educating the people in general, you should perform your work.
TEXT 21: Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.
TEXT 22: O son of Pṛthā, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I a need to obtain anything – and yet I am engaged in prescribed duties.
TEXT 23: For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Pārtha, certainly all men would follow My path.
TEXT 24: If I did not perform prescribed duties, all these worlds would be put to ruination. I would be the cause of creating unwanted population, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all living beings.
TEXT 25: As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, the learned may similarly act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path.
TEXT 26: So as not to disrupt the minds of ignorant men attached to the fruitive results of prescribed duties, a learned person should not induce them to stop work. Rather, by working in the spirit of devotion, he should engage them in all sorts of activities [for the gradual development of Kṛṣṇa consciousness].
Right off the bat Krishna talks about self-realized persons here but when Arjuna presented his argument in 1.37-43 he didn’t consider himself self-realized and he thought even less of the opposing side:
TEXTS 37-38: O Janārdana, although these men, their hearts overtaken by greed, see no fault in killing one’s family or quarreling with friends, why should we, who can see the crime in destroying a family, engage in these acts of sin?BG 1.37-38
This might not matter much but the rest of Krishna’s alleged answer actually repeats Arjuna’s argument, not defeats it. Arjuna, too, says that we should know better than those ignorant people and we should show a better example. It’s not right for us to behave in such a way. “For the sake of educating people in general”, as Krishna says in 3.20.
In fact, if Arjuna went back to his argument from chapter 1 he could have felt vindicated by Krishna’s words – family dharma should be protected and society leaders should set a perfect example in this regard, or others will screw up everything. How’s that a defeat?
Srila Prabhupada in his purports on 3.18-26 series of verses does not refer back to chapter one and neither do any of our acaryas. Baladeva Vidyabhusana (Srila Prabhupada dedicated his Bhagavad Gita to Sri Baladeva) begins his commentary on 3.24 like this (after translation):
Text 24: If I did not perform prescribed duties, all these worlds would be put to ruination. I would be the cause of creating unwanted population, and I would thereby destroy the peace of all living beings.
“Then what would happen? If I, the supreme among all, were not to perform actions according to scripture, the people would break the laws (utsīdeyuḥ—be destroyed). I would be responsible for producing mixed castes resulting from the destruction of law. I, the protector of the populace, Prajāpati, would cause contamination of the populace (upahanyām), by the mixture of castes…”
Again, as I said – this repeats Arjuna’s line of reasoning, not defeats it.
I don’t see how to look at Bhakti Sastri’s idea of varna-sankara argument being refuted in 3.18-26 and not see it as speculative and unsupported. Maybe they have other reasons but I’ve just listened to an hour long video on 1.37-43 provided by Bhakti Sastri course itself and there is no mention there of Arjuna’s argument being refuted later in chapter 3.
There are other reasons why it’s wrong, best of them probably being Arjuna saying “kula-dharma sanatanah” in 1.39 and then “kula dharmas ca sasvatah” in 1.42 – family dharma is not sanatana and neither it is sasvata. That’s probably how Krishna meant to defeat it, too – if He ever got around to actually addressing it directly. There are dharmas higher than kula dharma. Ksatriya dharma is higher so Arjuna should fight first, think of family traditions later. Bhagavata dharma is even higher still. Later, in the eleventh chapter Arjuna sees Kauravas’ heads being crashed between the teeth of the universal form and Krishna informs him that their destiny is sealed and Arjuna can only become an instrument in fulfilling it. At this point Arjuna was convinced that Krishna’s decisions are superior and shouldn’t be argued against, that they should be accepted, not questioned, and so presenting his earlier argument about families from chapter one would not be appropriate anymore. To me, this is what answers it – Arjuna was worrying about small things without seeing the big picture. All these Kauravas and must of Arjuna’s own army had to be killed. This comes first and is inviolable, and family stuff can be dealt with later. Not a big problem.
Once again – I don’t know how this is presented in the actual Bhakti Sastri course and maybe teachers are instructed not to stress it too much, but I have heart how it is related in general ISKCON classes by people who studied it. Maybe they do not represent it faithfully, maybe there are other supporting reasons I’m not aware off, but this interpretation is not found in Srila Prabhupada’s purports and that alone should be suspicious. Maybe he talked about this in the lectures – I can’t check all the recordings on a short notice. So far it looks speculative.
It does sound nice and scholarly, but, returning to my earlier argument – what is the actual value of this scholarship? Only to impress students? Or only to make Bhagavad Gita look more organized than it really is, so that everything can be easily presented and tested afterwards?
I’m afraid it leads us away from learning the actual Gita, where we’d be successful if only one sloka went deep into our hearts and changed our lives forever. Getting a bunch of multiple choice answers correctly is not the same thing.