Vanity thought #1379. Books

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.

So what?

Vanity thought #1101. Timeless guidance

Putting us into the material world creates a fundamental problem for Kṛṣṇa – He can’t reach us! We are His counterparts as eternal spirit souls but when we accept temporary material identities He can’t relate to us in the natural way, He has to devise new methods to send us His messages.

It’s not only His problem, of course, we can’t reach Him, too. Even when we ostensibly decide to enlist into His service once again we can’t reach Him right away. The moment of surrender should be the moment our eternal relationship is promptly re-established but it proved to be practically impossible. We need to shake off the illusion first and until that happens we can’t reach Him. Liberation takes a lot longer than we estimate in the beginning, certainly not within this one lifetime, hopefully after death, but we can’t be totally sure either.

It’s not some design fault, of course, and it’s not a problem per se – it’s a process. We need to do our part and Kṛṣṇa does His, eventually the twain shall meet, we gradually cleanse our hearts and convert ourselves back to our true spiritual selves and Kṛṣṇa never runs out of options to contact us either, but He does that indirectly, via the medium of His external energy.

This method of reaching us might not be as fool proof as speaking to us personally but it does the job, and it also continuously tests our commitment as we have to make conscious, voluntary choices to accept His materially manifested messages. If we deal with them inappropriately and disrespectfully it shows to Kṛṣṇa that we are not ready for His own grand entrance yet. “Love me, ḷove my dog” kinda test.

For us it means that there’s persistent mismatch between Kṛṣṇa’s eternal nature and His external manifestations. Deities are not eternal, for example. We haven’t seen much of Deity disappearances yet but we all can observe the process of Deity creation. Hopefully, our Deities will last for our lifetime and so the question of losing the Deity will never arise but we can easily get separated from them – we need to live in close proximity to the temple to have a meaningful relationships with our Deity.

Sometimes temples relocate, sometimes we move to a new house, things happen. We can’t also rule out the possibility of a Aurangazeb like crackdown when our temples get outlawed and destroyed. Russians should always watch out for this, or Ukrainians who had to move our of the war zone. Sometimes there are earthquakes, like in New Zealand a few days ago.

The point is – we can always lose our Deity because we both operate in the material world where nothing is solid and everything is impermanent. We should value the fleeting moments of our association with our Deity, they are irreplaceable.

Another way for the Lord to reach us is śāstra. Traditionally, knowledge has always been the best way to realize God. Even deities are just dolls if we don’t have enough knowledge to treat them as direct manifestation of Godhead. Knowledge, Veda, is what always sets people free.

Knowledge, however, needs material carriers. Only very few realized souls can receive it through their hearts in meditation, the rest of us need to access it with our material senses. This means that knowledge need to be manifested through temporary, material forms. This means that sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not, and it can disappear at any moment.

This happens all the time, albeit mostly on the cosmic scale. Within our limited lifespans nothing major happens to the existing fund of knowledge, it’s not a big deal – we have libraries, we buy our own books, we have digital copies – once it’s there it’s going to be preserved one way or another. If we take a longer view, however, knowledge comes and goes all the time.

I remember some estimate that we have access to only 20% of all revealed scriptures. Maybe this number is wrong but it illustrates the point all the same. On the other hand, we also have a plethora of spurious texts purporting to be this and that and it’s hard to decide which of those we can trust, like Bhaviṣya Purāṇa. We love to quote from it but it was unknown to Six Gosvāmīs, they never referenced it in their writings, I guess it was considered extant at the time.

If we zoom out a little more we can see how Vedic knowledge came under serious threat in the beginning of the Kali yuga and Śrīla Vyāsadeva had to write it all down. It’s easy to imagine entire generations of people not having access to important portions of Vedas until Vyāsadeva’s work was complete.

And Śrīmad Bhāgavatam didn’t come out until the very end, and we know that all Vedic literature before that was dealing with a happy material life, traigunya viśaya veda, as Kṛṣṇa told Arjuna (BG 2.45). What was the point of learning all that if it didn’t lead to devotional service to the Lord? What was the fate of people living in pre-Bhāgavatam time?

We always make a point about Christians who claim there’s no salvation outside of Christ – why would God abandon billions of people who have never had an opportunity to meet a Christian? Not just abandon but condemn to eternity in hell. It just doesn’t make sense.

We, ourselves, have the same problem, however – what was people’s chance before Bhāgavatam was propagated?

Our answer is that we don’t know how exactly but Kṛṣṇa always provides necessary guidance to those who search for Him. Now it might come through Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books bought so many years ago and collecting dust on a bookshelf, we are sure there was a way for Him to reach people back then, too.

OTOH, both Advaita Ācārya and Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura lamented the degraded state of human knowledge in their times. Advaita Ācārya tackled the problem in a God-like way – by summoning Kṛṣṇa Himself while Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura translated, wrote and published thousands and thousands of books for the benefit of the general public. Śrīla Prabhupāda did the same for the western audience, too. It’s all very nice, but what about people who died just before Prabhupāda came to America? What about those who died just before Lord Caitanya’s appearance? What about those who died before Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura? What was their chance?

We could say that those ready for spiritual knowledge were born in the appropriate places at appropriate times and those who didn’t have any access were not interested anyway, but that doesn’t quite fit with our narrative about people being saved from ignorance. It means people were destined to be saved the moment they were born, taking away credits from Śrīla Prabhupāda and his followers.

This is where it gets confusing – were we saved by luck or by design? Were we saved by mercy or we earned our right in our previous lives? Our teachings support both premises at the same time, which is fine, I guess, the only danger is minimizing our respect for the efforts of Śrīla Prabhupāda and our gurus.

Perhaps we have to learn to appreciate their mercy regardless of whether we were put in the position to receive it by chance or by lifetimes of accumulating ajñāta sukṛti. I think it would be worth the effort to see and appreciate the glorious spiritual component of our guru instead of tying him up to material circumstances.

Guru and time, btw, is still the subject I haven’t tackled yet even though I meant to a few days ago. Coming soon, I hope.

Vanity thought #1092. Of mice and rice

It turns out that I’ve touched on some very big topics in the past couple of days and so there are some loose ends left.

Rice, for example, is a kind of mystery – when did Indians start to cultivate it? Was there a time when it wasn’t grown? What do Vedas say?

Official version by modern science is that rice was first domesticated in China long before Kṛṣṇa’s appearance, ie long before Kali Yuga started. What can we say about it? That we don’t trust this kind of “scientific” information? Okay, but then we should justify our rejection, we can’t just say that science uses imperfect methods, this argument only opens the door for the possibility of science being wrong, we need to demonstrate how exactly it could have gone wrong in each particular case.

Science might reject authority of the Vedas but when it predicts precipitation and then it rains, it apparently works, so there must be something going for it, too. Sometimes it obviously doesn’t work but usually we can easily find faulty links in the chain – not enough data, not enough processing power, limits of the currently held theory, perfectly acceptable margins of error etc.

What can we say about rice?

I can think of two-three approaches here – we don’t know how reliable samples used in genetic studies that put birth of rice in China are. Do we have enough of them? Is it possible that one random discovery can overturn this theory completely? What are the chances of discovering strains of rice grown many thousand years ago? Or rather – what are the chances of these strains being preserved when we don’t have enough evidence for much large events, like the battle of Kurukṣetra?

Another line of questioning is that rice alternatives, wheat and barley, are believed to be first cultivated much later than rice and in areas that are traditionally believed to be cradles of western civilization – between Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Generally, we argue that those ancient civilizations were offshoots of Vedic culture. We do not accept that Vedic culture started after Indus Valley civilization was overrun by Aryans. If we can defend that proposition we can dismiss wheat and barley as original “Vedic” food and claim that it has always been rice.

Koreans have done their own research in rice origins and, surprise surprise, discovered that it was their ancestors who first cultivated rice, long before the Chinese. Well, it wasn’t much of a research, they simply found very old grains of rice, genetics be damned. Scientific world reaction was predictable and these findings were dismissed and written off as nationalistic propaganda.

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the oldest rice was found in Korea, maybe Koreans were wrong. Who knows? Once there is evidence that doesn’t fit into the prevailing theory the issue becomes political, not scientific. If North Koreans find even older rice no one would even listen to them, scientific method doesn’t do well when politics are involved.

Current, genetics based dating of rice is also very very vogue – domestication happened between 8,200 and 13,500 years ago. That is a very big range, bigger than the number of years passed since Kṛṣṇa’s appearance. A lot of stuff can happen in 5,300 years, it’s enough time for our modern world to evolve practically from nothing. What were Aryans eating before then?

This goes so far back in time that we can afford to be very skeptical about any claims made by science there. They can say there were no Aryans yet, for example. We can say that there were so few of them and they were so advanced that they didn’t leave enough evidence. We just need to remember that “advanced” means different things for us and for scientists.

This goes back to the origin of civilization question I mentioned earlier. If we can deal with that, we can deal with rice.

Indian scholars also question the allegation that rice was not mentioned in the earliest Ṛg Veda. Traditionally it’s thought that Ṛg Veda only talks about barley but Sanskrit scholars challenge that view and insist that rice was the staple food then and it was used for sacrifices ahead of barley, which was in the “and other grains” category.

One such article I read argued that rice was called dhana in the Vedas. Usually, it’s translated as wealth (na dhanaṁ na janaṁ na sundarīṁ kavitāṁ) but Sanskrit is a tricky language that way – it does not just label things, it describes their purpose and function so rice could have been a word for wealth in that society just like gold has become a symbol of wealth later or money is a word for wealth now.

Anyway, the point behind this is that rice based agriculture suits varṇāśrama perfectly while growing wheat leads to development of demoniac qualities, as I argued yesterday. Today I just want to say that Vedic culture could have always been rice based. I’m not touching on importance of cows yet, that’s a whole different topic.

Another point that came up yesterday was that we might not have as personal relationships with Kṛṣṇa as we first imagine we would from our books.

Just think of it – there’s one Kṛṣṇa, there’s one Śrīmatī Rādhārāṇī, one Mother Yaśodā, and that’s it. Occasionally Kṛṣṇa invites other girls to join rasa dance but, generally, He doesn’t spend much time with anyone but Śrī Rādhikā. He just doesn’t have time.

Well, this argument assumes that life in the spiritual world has the same limitations as life down here, that Kṛṣṇa does things in sequence there and so if He is with someone He cannot be in at another place at the same time. However, spiritual reality, as we’ve been told, is that rasa dance is a never ending pastime, for example. One does not have to wait to engage in it, it happens as soon as Kṛṣṇa and His devotees want it.

Still, daily life in Vṛndāvana as we saw it does not allow many opportunities for everyone to have Kṛṣṇa’s attention all the time. Same is true for Lord Caitanya’s pastimes, too.

We have writings of the Six Gosvāmīs that might tell us differently but I can raise what I think a very reasonable argument here – Gosvāmīs were describing Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes from the point of view of His most confidential servants. I have no doubt that it looks exactly as they say but only in their small circle but it doesn’t mean our experience would be exactly the same.

Think of any famous person – they always look differently to those who are close to them while outsiders mostly deal with their public persona. Why should it be different with us? We aren’t Kṛṣṇa’s confidantes, we aren’t confidantes of His closest servants either. We are nameless faces in the crowd. We are mice.

It’s not as bad as it sounds, though – we do want to be servants of the servants of the servants, after all. We value this position higher than trying to get closer to Kṛṣṇa than He wants us to be. We know that our masters please Him better than us so we can increase His pleasure much more by serving others. This is our whole Gauḍīyā mentality – we prefer to be mice if that gives Kṛṣṇa more time with those who really matter to Him.

This position isn’t inferior even from the standpoint of rasa – we don’t need to be directly engaged in service to experience it. Think of some male celebrity and thousands if not millions of his female fans. Justin Bieber, perhaps? All those girls long for his association but I’m pretty sure they would loathe him if they actually get to know him up close. For their rasa, it tastes better from a distance. Why can’t it work with us and Kṛṣṇa?

I mean we ARE being prepped for serving Him from relatively far away, it’s the ideal for rūpanugas. Even if we happen to prefer some other rasas the principle still holds.

When it comes to serving Kṛṣṇa – mice is nice.

Vanity thought #339. Science strides

It’s been a long time since I looked at how Wikipedia treats historic origins of Krishna Himself and I was pleased to see that progress has been made.

It will never catch up with writings of Stephen Knapp but they are determined not to fall too far behind. As it stands now, even with atrocious editing, mentions of Krishna are traced as far back as Rig Veda, Chandogya Upanishad and Shatapatha Brahmana which makes Him a genuinely old and ingenious Vedic personality.

Other corroborating references show that stories from His life and His worship was known at least half a thousand years BC. They missed Baudhayana Dharma Sutra that prescribes worship of various demigods every evening, includes Vishnu, of course, and mentions familiar names like Keshava, Govinda and Damodara (BDS 2.5.9.10). That’s part of Yajur Veda.

They mention Panini’s Ashtadhyayi but not Bryant’s footnote in his Krishna Sourcebook, p17, that suggests Vasudeva was to be worshiped in the mood of bhakti.

There’s probably more in various other upanishads but as far as pushing Krishna’s worship back in time it’s already a good job.

On another front Stephen Hawking recently published a new book, boldly entitled “The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life”. I haven’t read it but, perhaps, his new answers are best encapsulated in this quote:

There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality. Instead we will adopt a view that we will call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations.

I don’t know if it answers any of the Ultimate Questions of Life for anybody but the gist of it is that Hawking admits that we know nothing about the world around us and instead of knowledge we promote various theoretical models that describe it.

We just create theories, one after another, some of them fit better, some worse, but they are just our mental constructions.

What he calls models we call illusion. Every time we want to examine something Krishna’s energy presents us with a unique illusion, specifically for our bewilderment, and then we go around telling people that it’s the truth, until the next illusion strikes us (SB 11.14.9).

That’s a big admission on the part of the allegedly smartest man on the planet. This is not all he says in his book but this is his central tenet. The rest are his other illusions.

Of course not everyone would agree with this interpretation of Hawking’s latest mental achievement. Richard Dawkings, the allegedly most famous atheist, happily welcomes it:

Darwinism kicked God out of biology but physics remained more uncertain. Hawking is now administering the coup de grace.

Apparently he said that before the book hit the streets. I wonder what he’s thinking now, though he’d probably twist this “model-dependent realism” to argue that since they don’t include God in their models than He can’t possibly exist or something like that.

All in all – very encouraging developments. There’s bad news, too, but I’ll keep it for another day.

Vanity thought #301. Vedavyasa Press – the beginnings

Srila Vyasadev was left here on Earth after Lord Krishna’s disappearance and he spends his days (actually thousands of years) in meditation in Bhadrinarayan.

Bhadrinarayan is a curious place, Srila Vyasadev is not the only incarnation that lives there – it’s primarily known as an abode of Nara-Narayana avatar. I don’t think Kali Yuga has much influence there, though at the present the place is very inhospitable and probably hasn’t always been like this. Bhadrinarayan was also left from Krishna’s map of distributing His mercy in person and, I guess, devotees there always live their lives in the mood of separation. Krishna eventually sent Uddhava as His representative, just as He did with devotees in Vrindavan.

This is the place where practicing ashtanga yoga is still possible, and that comes with yoga siddhis, years spent without moving a finger and taking a breath and, on the other hand, having no real experience of the outside world.

On top of that, when Kali Yuga arrived, it wasn’t an instantaneous transformation, just like with planets exercising their influence over person’s horoscope it takes time to see the influence manifested in full, so, perhaps for the first thousand years or so things were pretty much as they had been before.

When Srila Vyasadev finally decided to do something about gradual degradation of dharma he probably had no idea where it would take him, he most probably started with trying to fix the problems as they arise. I’m speculating here, but the evidence is clear that he didn’t write one comprehensive guide book on practicing dharma in the age of Kali all at once.

He started with collecting hymns necessary for the performance of soma yajna, and this tells us a few things. Fist, people were still doing that stuff, second, they were failing, third, Vyasadev didn’t try to enforce the “proper” dharma but rather helped people to succeed in their existing endeavors, third, proper recitation of hymns is the most crucial part of a sacrifice, fourth, it was a reference book rather they a manual, fifth, it didn’t have to be written, people were supposed to memorize the verses and sixth – you learn how to perform the yajna from your spiritual master, not from the book, it also tells us that the hymns have already existed but no one remembered them clearly.

I guess that collection of hymns, known as Rig Veda, helped for a while and it could have been used in some other ceremonies as well but as time went by and society degraded a bit more people needed more help. At this point Vyasdeva’s personal input wasn’t necessary and the task was taken by groups of rishis who compiled brahmanas and later aranyakas – ancillary texts explaining how to perform those sacrifices in case one’s spiritual master wasn’t up to the task.

It’s not difficult to imagine that this process took several hundred years, too.

Another aspect of “creation” of Rig Veda is that it must have had a major impact on the practice of dharma, not unlike Harry Potter books or Star Wars films that defined their generations. Practical outcome of this is that as everybody was into doing sacrifices once again and so historians also must have more artifacts and evidence of these endeavors. They, however, think that evidence of the practice means it was just invented rather than re-introduced into the society. Similarly they think that there was no philosophy before Upanishads and no one worshiped Krishna before Srimad Bhagavatam, but that’s a subject for another day.

Anyway, I think it is not that scandalous that science dates Rig Veda a thousand, thousand and half years after Krishna’s disappearance. The dates might be wrong but the overall time frame and sequence of events does not contradict Vedic version of history.

Vanity thought #300. It’s not a coursebook!

Another thing people often assume about Vedas is that they are a course book on Hinduism in the same way Bible or Koran are course books on Christianity and Islam respectively.

Proliferation of protestant churches over the past couple of centuries plus the all pervasive idea that one should question everything lead people to believe that religious scriptures are like course books, you study them hard and you’ll learn everything you need to know about religion.

In Vedic tradition, on the contrary, you learn religion from submissively hearing from a spiritual master and most people are explicitly forbidden to study Vedas on their own.

Sometimes we come across people who believe they don’t need to listen to our preaching, they can pick Bhagavad Gita from a library themselves and understand its meaning far better than we do, due to our brainwashing and unquestionable acceptance of authority.

This makes a mockery of the learning process.

We should watch ourselves, too, and not treat our scriptures as course books either. This kind of punditism was never looked on approvingly among Lord Chaitanya’s followers. Our service is to discuss Krishna’s pastimes, not acquire tons and tons of academic knowledge.

So, if Vedas are not course books, what are they? Well, it appears that in the beginning they were not much more than glorified memory aides. You read the book, memorize the verses, and you never open it again, only, perhaps, to check the spelling.

Thus our library of books doesn’t have any particular order and doesn’t follow any particular structure. The Bible, for example, starts from the creation of the world and progresses from there to the life of Jesus Christ. We start from Bhagavad Gita, which is one of the latest Vedic scriptures, and it doesn’t describe the process of creation at all.

How then do people actually learn anything about the religion? From the acharyas, of course. However big the Vedic library is, it is far surpassed in volume by the works of various acharyas explaining each and every aspect of our shruti and smriti.

When we give people our “Bhagavad Gita As It Is” we don’t give them the text of the Gita, we give the teachings of Srila Prabhupada. People learn about devotional service not from Krishna’s words but from words of Prabhupada. This is the proper, authorized way to acquire transcendental knowledge – not by studying the Vedas but by studying the explanations of spiritual masters.

This might be a bit difficult to accept for the modern people but this is the only way, they have to listen to the preaching, they can’t learn anything on their own, the alternative is to plunge themselves even deeper into ignorance.

Interestingly, that’s exactly what they want. They want to live like animals, they want to flout all the rules, and they don’t want to know the truth because it would destroy their way of life. They will, of course, attract some unfavorable reactions for this but this is their choice and God and His external energy only enable fulfillment of their desires.

They are not being punished, they are being rewarded, it’s just the “rewards” turn out not quite what they had expected.

It’s my 300th post. Sparta!

Vanity thought #299. The world doesn’t need saving

This sounds absurd but it is true. When ordinary people with Western background talk about religion they assume that God needs to save the humanity from going to hell. Jesus will save us, or Allah will save us, or Krishna will save us.

In Vedic tradition, however, it’s only Lord Chaitanya who is concerned with saving humanity and even then His mission has nothing to do with heaven or hell per se. We, as followers of Lord Chaitanya and Srila Prabhupada, are most certainly concerned with saving the world but we should admit that we are an exception rather than the rule.

I don’t want to speculate how the world come to the desperate need to be saved according to Judeo-Christian or Islamic tradition but I think it again puts limitations on God’s role and powers if we talk about our understanding of what the Absolute Truth is.

God doesn’t have to battle Satan for our souls, we can’t talk about God as being only one side in the cosmic struggle, however good He is – we can’t talk about Him in terms of ordinary duality. God is the source of both heaven and hell, of both demigods and demons, of both good and bad, and He doesn’t take sides, and he most certainly doesn’t have to fight anyone because no one can really challenge Him by definition.

God creates the material universe out of His unlimited mercy towards us, His main concern in this regard is our well being and even though He would appreciate if we turn our attention towards Him, as a loving father of all living beings He still looks after us even when we think that the concept of God isn’t “cool” anymore.

He doesn’t trample on our independence and simply teaches us the proper ways of enjoying His external energy which He provides for our satisfaction free of charge. That is basically what Vedic knowledge is – a manual for operating the material world, not for saving us from our own desire to have a good time here (though that’s true in the extremely long term).

From the point of view of Vedic tradition the Western concept of “saving” means giving people love of God instead of accommodating their desire to lord over material nature, and that’s a very rare thing in Vedic history.

Krishna gave His instructions on the superiority of devotional service to Arjuna but He didn’t make Ajruna love Him. One could say that Arjuna already loved Krishna as a friend but then there was also Uddhava who clearly desiredto “upgrade” his devotion for Krishna to the level of gopis. Krishna spoke to him for much of the 11th Canto of Bhagavatam and gave him lots of useful instructions but He didn’t grant Uddhava’s desire to love Him more.

In this regard we should really appreciate the gifts of Lord Chaitanya, no other Personality of Godhead distributed love of God, we shouldn’t take it for granted and we shouldn’t imagine that it was nothing special in Vedic history – it was the most special moment ever.

So, when we talk of Vedic knowledge and Vedic point of view in general we should admit that the world doesn’t need saving. Another argument in support of this notion is how the maha bhagavata devotees see the world – they don’t see anyone in need to be saved, they see the Lord personally taking care of the interests of each and every living being already.

We don’t see it that way but that is because of our deficiencies, because we can’t see the Lord in the heart of every living soul. We might say we need to save the humanity from this illusion of being separated but we should remember that the idea of “saving” also presumes that we are situated in a better, superior position, and that goes against “amanina” instruction of Lord Chaitanya – one should always offer respects to everybody, and that includes offering respect to living entities’ desire to enjoy separately from the Lord.

At most we can beg them to reconsider and stress Lord’s attractive qualities but we shouldn’t assume that we are somehow superior to other people. We can’t grant people love of God and so we can’t save them. Lord Chaitanya does that out of His truly causeless mercy.

Still, not counting Lord Chaitanya’s efforts, generally speaking, the world doesn’t need saving and so one shouldn’t be surprised that Vedas don’t stress this point very much. Love of God is simply out of Vedas purview, well, at least outside of most of Vedic scriptures jurisdiction.

Tomorrow I hope to reflect on another aspect of Vedas themselves, on how they differ from other Holy Scriptures of our times.

Vanity thought #298. Vedas vs Bible – some common misonceptions

Yesterday I said that publishing Rig Veda first was a natural choice for Srila Vyasadeva. On the second thought, however, it is anything but natural for people coming from Western, Judeo-Christian background.

I think this is due to a couple of common misconceptions regarding the role of God and Holy Scriptures.

First misconception is that the older the idea the more sacred it is. Western scholars hunt for the earliest possible manuscripts and sources of religious beliefs and they think the further back in time they go the closer they come to authentic God’s Word.

Second misconception is that the world needs saving but more on that later.

We all agree that Holy Scriptures are work of God but the assumption that earlier books are also holier puts limitations on God’s power because it indirectly means that God’s capacity to produce Holy Scriptures diminishes with time. It implies that time is mightier than God and God is some kind of an aging person suffering the onset of Alzheimer.

We do no accept that limitation in principle.

Even if the counter argument is that it’s not God’s capacity that diminishes but our capacity to absorb transcendental knowledge it’s still limits God in another way. It assumes that his power to impart transcendental wisdom is relative to our power to receive it.

God is absolute and His powers are infinite, thus any extra effort required to make us understand His point does not make any difference to Him at all.

Dispelling these misconceptions lead us to two important conclusions – it makes absolutely no difference at what point Krishna has appeared in the Vedic literature, and that people’s understanding of His nature in the past was deeper and better than it is now so we should all concentrate only on our roots and ignore the living, breathing, always changing and always adapting tradition as devoid of any current connection to transcendence.

Sometimes both we and our opponents put more value on what people knew about Krishna hundreds or thousands years ago than on what we are telling them now. This is a wrong approach based on the above mentioned misconceptions about the nature of God and His teachings.

The same goes for people who think that in Prabhupada’s time our movement was far closer to Krishna and Lord Chaitanya than it is now. It is possible but not necessarily true. Our mission develops under direct supervision of Chaitanya Mahaptrabhu and He can impart any extra transcendence whenever He feels like it and thus overcome any of our deficiencies. All we need is to follow to the best of our abilities.

The second assumption, that the world needs saving, is a curious one and I think it deserves a separate entry.

Vanity thought #297. Vedavyasa Press

Generally devotees are told that Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas etc were compiled by Srila Vyasadeva who was born some five thousand years ago. Then the historians tell us that the earliest scripture, Rig Veda, was written about 1,500 BC and our primary texts like Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam were written much much later, less than a thousand years ago.

Our response to this is simple – historians are just wrong and should be ignored. I’m not sure this is the right approach because by this denial we are simply pushing our doubts deeper into our brains and one day they might come out and pose a serious challenge to our nascent faith.

I think there are three main approaches to the truth here. First is what really happened – how, when and in what sequence. I don’t think anyone but God knows all of that in full. Then there’s what the scriptures choose to tell us themselves, and then there’s scientific process of figuring it out.

Neither of the last two versions is complete as they are meant for conditioned living entities with our limited understanding, not to mention the influence of Kali Yuga.

What Vyasadeva choose to tell us through the scriptures and subsequently our acharyas is enough for our spiritual progress. I don’t think we really need anything else but sometimes we need to reconcile this with what is discovered by the science.

Let’s look at the situation with sober minds. The fact that Srila Vyasadeva is an empowered incarnation of God does not mean that he can just snap his fingers and all the Vedas and Vedic scriptures would suddenly appear out of thin air, this is not how it happened.

Given that Vyasadeva is one of the seven chiranjivas who are going to live here for hundreds of thousands of years we should assume that his time scale is probably very different from ours, a hundred or even a thousand years for him is nothing and even snapping of fingers might take several years of our time. Not that he is slow, but he takes time to think about it in his meditation, choose an appropriate moment and so on.

So, when the historians tell us that it was about a thousand and a half years between Krishna’s disappearance and the earliest, Rig Veda, it’s not that big of a gap in Vyasadeva’s terms. He could have taken sweet five hundred years simply to observe the decline of knowledge and degradation of human race before he decided to compile the Vedas to help our memories.

What he did next sounds completely reasonable. Naturally he had to prioritize what knowledge should be given to the people immediately and what knowledge can be left for later. Not surprisingly he chose to compile series of hymns used for performing yajnas first. After all correct pronunciation of those hymns is absolutely necessary for success of any sacrifice.

Now what do you had happen next? He passed this first, Rig Veda to his disciples to take it to the masses and for further development. They learned the hymns, committed them to memory, put them on paper, copied them and taken them down to the rivers and valleys where people lived. Thus Vedavyasa Press was born.

It could have easily taken another five hundred years for the hymns to propagate throughout India and get registered in the media that modern science can extract and put a date on.

But, in fact, they don’t even have that, they mostly approximate the rate of language change in observable history and then extrapolate it back. I’m not sure they are doing it right, though. Imagine the evolution of the Internet, for example, and try to extrapolate its rate of development two-three hundred years back. You see how totally inadequate this method could be.

So there’s absolutely nothing in the findings of modern history that could completely rule out Vedic version of events and the appearance of the Vedas.

Will continue tomorrow.

Vanity thought #71. The Source of Divinity.

Actually I’m talking about the Vedas, in a roundabout way it’s the Vedas that tell us who is and who isn’t God. All the acharyas in our sampradaya beginning with Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu Himself made sure that our doctrine is proven by the shastras.

It doesn’t matter to me at all – I grew up in a different society, Vedas do not carry any particular importance to me, only because Srila Prabhupada told people they were important, so they must be. Intrinsically, without the value given to them by Prabhupada, they don’t mean much to a western person.

But rules are rules, we need to know that our teaching follows the Vedas strictly, because of our parampara and “as it is” philosophy.

So, where does the source of all divine knowledge lie?

In the Vedas, right, but what exactly does it mean? Vedas were written by people, people tend to make mistakes. People disagree with each other, too, and so there’s inevitable inconsistency as far as the entire collection is concerned. Even within our tradition we separate Vedas into shruti and smriti, we don’t say one is less important than the other but it’s exactly what we mean – shruti is “truer” than smriti. Maybe not for us, not for devotees, but if we want to present our case to a wider world we need some shruti references, like Upanishads.

That’s where I don’t think we realize the nature of the thing.

Veda is knowledge, vedas, as in four vedas, are books. They are not one and the same. Books present only some aspects of the knowledge, and it is a hard job figuring out exactly at what point books are considered divine and at what point they cease to be divine and become human.

We used to tell people that vedas is the manual that came with the universe and it’s very nice, but there’s a lot of gadgets and software out there that doesn’t come with manuals. People just never get round to writing them, men never bother to read them, they still work. It’s especially true of the Open Source community, they might right a short FAQ saying some obvious things but never find time to describe all the internal intricacies for the average Joe, they’d rather spend time on advancing their projects forward.

Same principle should apply to the Veda as well – some people know all about it but when it comes down to writing it down they consider the demand first, they’ve got better things to do with their lives. Thank God He sent us Srila Vyasadev to organize all the documentation, but it was a process, with priorities and deadlines and staff and teamwork etc etc.

So Vyasadev decided to write down the hymns first – you can’t make any mistakes chanting them, if people’s memories are getting weak that’s what should be written down first, for posterity.

Then there need to be a detailed explanation how to conduct the sacrifices, also important but you don’t really need precise language for that, do you?

You still need the language though, you need precise grammar to describe things and procedures, for example. Grammar needs to be organized and taught, too. Here comes Panini.

As work multiplies Vyasadeva delegated it to different disciples who set up their own schools working on their branches, and it goes on for ages, centuries, maybe thousands of years.

Then there’s a need for an explanation of what all these sacrifices mean, and here come the Upanishads, which translates as “sit down and listen”. We still accept them as shruti but I can’t get used to the idea that every time over hundreds and hundreds of years thousand of different gurus gave exactly the same explanations word for word, ie they came out at once, absolutely complete and without any need for later changes. Despite this doubt they are still eternal, though.

The meanings of the Upanishads have existed forever, but that is not the same thing as a collection of several hundred verses on several dozens of subjects. The Upanishads, the “books”, have been created at some point in time, just like software manuals. It doesn’t mean that before the manual there was no knowledge, it just wasn’t organized in a format of a generic manual.

When you create some piece of writing there always is a first draft, then it gets passed around, it gets edited, some ideas area added, others deleted entirely or transferred to new books. It’s the nature of the process. And when you write about the meaning of the entire universe some points need to be covered first, some explained later, some new points might come up as history progresses and you need replies to new questions. This is all completely natural, consider it as teaching – the knowledge exists, it’s kind of “eternal”, the lessons and lesson plans, however are not.

Still, as far as the authenticity of the teaching materials is concerned, Upanishads are kosher.

And then there’s history. Things that happened, lives that were lived, stories that have been told – they are all knowledge, they need to be learned, too, and that is our “smriti”. In retelling the stories there’s no way you get it exactly the same every time. It’s just impossible, and great stories like Mahabharata are so long that it took generations to compile them.

Yes, we believe that they have been retold exactly word for word but surely there must be a limit to this belief. The need to write them down appeared precisely because it was not possible to repeat them exactly, but, more importantly, it’s the meaning of the story that is important to us, not the exact wording.

Srimad Bhagavatam, for example, was not retold word for word before it got written down. It doesn’t even claim to be that. It’s a story withing a story within a story. The sages of Naimisharanya forest had their own questions, for example, they were not part of the original conversation and Suta Gosvami answered them considering the time, circumstances, background knowledge and personalities of the people asking those questions.

That doesn’t stop Bhagavatam from being the incarnation of the Lord Himself and we don’t go separating its verses into “divine – not divine”. That’s absurd.

And that finally brings me to the thought of the day – I grew up in a culture where we clearly separate man’s and God’s creations. Bible might have been initially inspired by God but men added a lot of their own stuff. Jesus was pure, but then people put their own agendas into gospels, and so we must discover the original, divine meanings and messages.

This approach cannot be applied to studying vedas. There’s no “original” message, there’s no divine “spark” from which they developed and there’s not God written vs men written parts there. There are no God written parts at all, apart of few recorded speeches here and there, like Bhagavad Gita. There are no man made additions that need to be stripped to show the divinity either, Vedas are all man made in that sense.

Bhagavatam becomes divine when topics of the Lord are discussed among the devotees. That is all that is needed. If there are no devotees, there’s no divinity, just a book. If there’s no book but there are devotees telling stories from memories, divinity is already present.

There is no magical, divine substance that can prove to anyone the existence of God. There were people who saw Krishna Himself and still had no idea. The perception, the proof of divinity comes from our own hearts, not from our eyes. It’s not in the books, it’s not in ancient manuscripts, it’s not buried in prehistoric caves, there are no crystal skulls, and even if there are – if our hearts are not pure we won’t see them as divine anyway.

And, of course, let’s not forget that Divinity is provided for our hearts’ pleasure by the Supreme Lord Himself, particularly by Lord Balarama and his expansions like Lord Nityananda and their external manifestations like our gurus and our books.

Books????

Full circle.