Incidentally, in support of the spurious idea that Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura was preaching apa-siddhānta, there’s an example of such preaching in his famous Bhāgavat speech where he says that descriptions of hell in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam are an exaggeration.
Today’s title might give an idea that accusing our ācāryas of lying about jīva’s origin, even though on purpose, might condemn one to hell but that’s not what I mean. I’m pretty sure the devotee in question is no in any danger (so far…). I think he was mislead by that no-leaves book, took the wrong side in the debate, jumping at the opportunity to accuse ISKCON of yet another perversion, and then invested so much in defending his position that now he is forced to propose truly outrageous theories to explain why three generations of our ācāryas said things inconsistent with no-fall “siddhānta”.
We should remember that he was one of the best book distributors in his time, that he received tons of mercy from Śrīla Prabhupāda, that he hasn’t fallen from his sannyāsa vows, that he continues preaching and writing about Kṛṣṇa, that he never descended in open attacks on our ācāryas, never directly accused them of ignorance, and the disagreements are still technical and speculative in nature, not a big deal in the big scheme of things.
This makes me wonder how much value we should put on following proper siddhānta vs following proper rules and regulations. Exemplary sannyāsa should be a sign of genuine advancement, but what would be its value if it comes at the cost of accusing ācāryas of “white lies”?
Or should we see it as “rules can be followed by everybody” while having firm faith in your guru’s words is a privilege afforded to select few, and they are the ones who will eventually attain bhakti?
Or should we see it as transcendental disagreements between liberated souls, or as good as liberated, so they don’t affect their position but serve as a catalyst for generating new flavors in their relationship, and our job here is to make right choices for ourselves, like “stick with your guru” and “do not offend anyone no matter what”.
But back to hell, figuratively speaking. Here’s the entire passage in question, it’s quite long but it includes some other points relevant to the discussion (pdf):
In the common-place books of the Hindu religion in which the rājo and tamo-guṇa have been described as the ways of religion, we have descriptions of a local heaven and a local hell; the Heaven as beautiful as anything on earth and the Hell as ghastly as any picture of evil. Besides this Heaven we have many more places, where good souls are sent up in the way of promotion! There are 84 divisions of the hell itself, some more dreadful than the one which Milton has described in his “Paradise Lost” . These are certainly poetical and were originally created by the rulers of the country in order to check evil deeds of the ignorant people, who are not able to understand the conclusions of philosophy. The religion of the Bhāgavata is free from such a poetry. Indeed, in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book, not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and the ignorant. The Bhāgavata , certainly tells us a state of reward and punishment in future according to deeds in our present situation. All poetic inventions, besides this spiritual fact, have been described as statements borrowed from other works in the way of preservation of old traditions in the book which superseded them and put an end to the necessity of their storage.
First of all, I don’t think we should accept everything that was said in that speech as siddhānta because it’s not quite like Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura real devotional works. This speech was given in 1868, probably published as a book in 1869 (hence the date usually attached to this paper). In Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s autobiography he doesn’t give the exact date, it was sometimes between March 1868 and May 1869.
That was the time when he wasn’t a proper devotee yet, externally speaking. He just came off his meat eating period and associated illnesses, he described his devotion as mixed with jñāna, he described his visit to Vṛndāvana and other holy places as not very fruitful spiritually, he just read Caitanya Caritāmṛta (and possibly Śrīmad Bhāgavatam) for the first time and he admits his first reading wasn’t very convincing, only the second reading of Caitanya Caritāmṛta made his a full convert to His cult. It was before the famous episode in Jagannātha Purī and before becoming initiated, externally he didn’t think of himself as a devotee at that time.
We should also remember that this speech was given in the context of a philosophical battle between Hindus and Brahmos, who at that time publicly divorced themselves from Hinduism. Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura declined to speak before Brahmos and gave this presentation to Hindus instead, but from his autobiography it appears that he really wanted to impress the British, I guess because Hindus didn’t need to be convinced of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam glories.
As it stands, the speech talks about Puraṇas exaggerating conditions in hell for the sake of preaching, and that it all started with local rulers not fully conversant with the truth, and Bhāgavatam included these description as a tribute to tradition.
He mentions a verse in Bhāgavatam itself that warns us not to take some of the descriptions literally but only as preaching tools to “overawe he wicked”. It is probably this one (SB 11.3.44):
Childish and foolish people are attached to materialistic, fruitive activities, although the actual goal of life is to become free from such activities. Therefore, the Vedic injunctions indirectly lead one to the path of ultimate liberation by first prescribing fruitive religious activities, just as a father promises his child candy so that the child will take his medicine.
Could be, but this verse speaks of Vedas, not Bhāgavatam itself – parokṣa-vādo vedo, it’s Vedas that are “describing a situation as something else in order to disguise its real nature”.
Our Śrīla Prabhupāda once wrote about allegories, too, but as far as Bhāgavatam is concerned, he mentions only explicit allegory of the story of King Puraṇjana in that letter, we can’t use this example to doubt reality of any other information in Bhāgavatam.
Just as Śukadeva Gosvāmī starts describing the movement of the Sun, which then leads to descriptions of hellish planets in subsequent chapters, he says the following about his information (SB 5.21.1):
My dear King, I have thus far described the diameter of the universe [fifty crores of yojanas, or four billion miles] and its general characteristics, according to the estimations of learned scholars.
It’s not meant to be allegorical, though we have some leeway regarding these “estimations”.
Once again, at this point in his life Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura valued rationality in search for the truth and he offered diligently studying Śrīmad Bhāgavatam instead (in addition?) to modern science of the day. I don’t think we should take his understanding at the time as eternal truth regarding Bhāgavatam – that it’s meant to be allegorical. Rather we could take Bhaktivinoda’s speech itself as an example of preaching and how he made the subject more palatable to his audience, even if he believed it himself for the moment.
It’s not the same as deliberately twisting the truth when writing about jīva’s falldown in books meant for devotees.
I wanted to say something else about these matters of hell and Bhāgavatam but they now escape me. Perhaps later.