Q. Someone cited two verses from Srimad-Bhagavatam as evidence that nothing written in the Bhagavatam is nonessential, such as its statements concerning women’s psychology and its description of the structure of material universe. The verses in Srila Prabhupada’s translation are as follows.
“Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhagavata Purana propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all.” (SB 1.1.2)
“Whatever you desire to describe that is separate in vision from the Lord simply reacts, with different forms, names, and results, to agitate the mind as the wind agitates a boat which has no resting place.” (SB 1.5.14)
Do these verses really support the idea that everything written in the Bhagavatam is to be taken literally including descriptions of the material universe and the nature of women?
A.This argument is not well thought out, and it brings into question the understanding of the Bhagavatam on the part of the person who raised it.
The first verse cited (SB 1.1.2) states that the Bhagavatam propounds the highest truth. Distinguishing reality from illusion, the Bhagavatam is said to dispense with religious ideas that are materially motivated: the karma-marga. This verse also implies through the word projitah that the text is not concerned with jnana-marga. It is concerned with unalloyed bhakti.
In the course of stressing this, many subjects are discussed throughout the Bhagavatam that shed light on its principal topic (satyam param) either directly or indirectly (anvayad itaratah). Topics such as psychology and astronomy, while discussed in the Bhagavatam, are not the primary focus of the text. These topics are introduced for reasons other than making definitive statements on the topics themselves. The Bhagavata discusses the nature of women for the purpose of stressing that the attraction between the sexes is formidable and thus a concern for the spiritual practitioner. It also stresses that despite social conditions, such as those forbidding women from reading scripture, women can nonetheless attain the ideal of the Bhagavatam—unalloyed devotion. It discusses the structure of the universe for the purpose of stressing that the material manifestation is a fathomless, endless transformation of the gunas (maya-guna-vibhuteh) and thus glorious as the sakti of God appearing as his mystical, venerable Visvarupa. Sukadeva Goswami does not make the claim that his description of the universe is definitive. Indeed, he says the opposite: kastham manasa vacasa vadhigantum alam vibudhayusapi purusa, “No one can possibly explain or perfectly conceive of the nature of the material universe even in a lifetime of Lord Brahma.” (SB. 5.16.4)
The second verse cited (SB 1.5.14) tells us that the paths of karma and jnana that were stressed in the earlier writings of Vyasa were detrimental to the public because he had not sufficiently stressed bhakti. The idea is that once bhakti is appropriately stressed, the writings on karma and jnana can be understood in context and thus have value. The verse does not support the idea that the Bhagavatam’s statements on the nature of women and the structure of the universe are definitive for all time.
Although Prabhupada often spoke about the Bhagavatam such that one might conclude that its statements are all absolute, and the Bhagavatam itself does this, careful study of the text reveals that this kind of preaching has a purpose of its own. Its purpose is to awaken faith in the Bhagavatam so that devotees will take it seriously and study it very deeply, applying all of their intelligence. Such study brings one to the stage of nistha (bhaktir bhavati naistiki), and when one’s bhajana is nistha, one can develop ruci and thus feel one’s way home.
This progression involves extracting the essence of the Bhagavatam and eliminating all that is nonessential. There are nonessential elements in the Bhagavatam due to its being couched in a Puranic setting. Caitanya-caritamrita is the distilled essence of the Bhagavatam, and we do not find any verses from the Bhagavatam cited in this book that deal with the psychology of women or the distance of the sun and moon from the earth. Nor do the original four verses spoken by Sri Krishna to Brahmaji that are considered the essence of the Bhagavatam contain information on these topics. Therefore it is plausible to suggest that the Bhagavatam’s details on psychology and astronomy are not entirely essential to one’s spiritual progress.
Not to speak of psychology and astronomy, essence seeking may also include not being concerned with sections of the text that are not relevant to one’s ruci. For example, in advanced stages its study may involve passing over discussions of sentiments in Krishna lila that do not correspond with one’s own awakened bhava. In Jaiva Dharma we find that Vrajanatha, who was cultivating the bhava of a priya narma sakha, stopped attending discussions on manjari bhava because they did not pertain to him.
Progress involves elimination and new acceptance. At one point we will be taught that scripture is absolute, and if we truly grasp the import of this emphasis, we will discover the provisional nature of scripture couched between the lines. Spiritual life is not for the fainthearted or those who are afraid to use their intelligence in the name of following authority. Be prepared to change and know that the study of scripture requires the full application of one’s intellect. We must strengthen the tender heart with our head and—with a strong heart that transcends reason—go the distance.
Prabhupada taught us that his movement was the movement of Thakura Bhaktivinoda: Bhaktivinoda parivara. He also instructed us to take siksa from B. R. Sridhara Maharaja should we feel the need after his departure. Some may not have felt the need, and this in itself could be a serious problem. Sridhara Maharaja told us that we should read Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Sri Krishna-samhita. In this book the Thakura explains the relativity of scripture, the difference between scriptural topics that are subject to human logic and those which are not. Psychology and astronomy fall into the former category.
Krishna dasa once asked Prabhupada why there is discrepancy between the views of Bhagavatam and modern scientists regarding the moon and other planets. To this Srila Prabhupada replied, “These things are not very important, we may not waste our time with these insignificant questions. There are sometimes allegorical explanations [in the Bhagavatam]. So there are many things which do not corroborate with the so-called modern science, because they are explained in that way. But where is the guarantee that modern science is also correct? So we are concerned with Krishna Consciousness, and even though there is some difference of opinion between modern science and allegorical explanation in the Bhagavata, we have to take the essence of Srimad-Bhagavatam and utilize it for our higher benefit, without bothering about the correctness of the modern science or the allegorical explanation sometimes made in Srimad-Bhagavatam.” (Letter 72-11-07)
Here Prabhupada explains that literally accepting the explanation of the material universe found in the Bhagavatam is not essential to one’s spiritual life. Indeed, the entire explanation is nonessential.