Q. The Hindu sect known as Arya Samaj makes the most compelling case against the Puranas I have ever encountered. They say the Puranas could not have been written by Vyasa but rather were the devious concoction of the popes of various sects to keep people under control. And they take particular disgust in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, saying that the amorous pastimes of Krishna presented there are more evidence of the corruption of the pure monotheistic Vedic religion.
A. The Arya Samaj was one of the movements founded during the late 1800s that attempted to modernize Hinduism. The Samaj attempted to answer the Orientalists (Christian missionary scholars) who had trashed Hinduism and its scripture in India. Ironically, in attempting to defend Hinduism, the Samaj compromised and presented a Christianized form of Hinduism. While accepting the statesman and preacher Krishna of the Gita, they rejected the playboy Krishna of Vraja, whom they could not understand themselves, much less explain to Christian missionaries. Thus they utterly hated the Bhagavatam. Even Bhaktivinoda Thakura said that he was initially prejudiced by a negative impression of the Bhagavatam, but upon his own investigation this negative impression was transformed into love for the text. It is his love for the Bhagavatam that has prevailed to this day an—through his successors—given literary and spiritual credence to the text in both religious and academic quarters of the 21st century.
Q. Arya Samaj scholars demonstrate how each Purana is propaganda for a particular deity and how in each a different deity is declared supreme.
They also show how the stories of creation found in various Puranas thoroughly contradict each other. They say that the Puranas were written by unscrupulous people whose aim was to suppress people. They claim that only the Vedas and Upanishads are of Vyasa and all the rest is mumbo-jumbo. They also declare all avataras as concoctions and say that the Vedas mention nothing of avataras or that God has or ever takes form.
A. The arguments of the Arya Samaj against the Puranas are more or less academic. All the great acharyas—Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Sri Caitanya, etc. have accepted the Puranas. The Sruti itself embraces the Puranas, calling them the fifth Veda. So to deny the spirituality of the Puranas is to deny the Upanisads which endorse them.
If we take an academic approach to analyzing the Puranas, we must do the same in relation to the Upanisads. One could easily make an academic case against the idea that Vyasa authored all of the Upanisads. These kinds of arguments, while worth considering on some level, are divorced from the spirit that the Upanisads and Puranas convey to sympathetic readers.
For example, the followers of Sri Caitanya consider the Srimad-Bhagavatam to be the most perfect scriptural text. While one can argue over the date of its authorship and where it was written, all of this does not add up to much when millions of devotees continue to draw spiritual inspiration from it century after century. These devotees have in the past and continue today to exemplify transcendent consciousness as a result of embracing the Bhagavatam’s precepts. Devotee scholars have offered us a literary legacy in support of the Bhagavatam, and in doing so they have demonstrated its relationship with the Upanisads. Even academia, while questioning the notion that one person named Vyasa wrote the Bhagavata, acknowledges its greatness in terms of literature and spiritual import.
A word about Vyasa may be in order. Vyasa did not write all of the scripture. He compiled and edited it, as the title Vyasa suggests, and there may be more than one Vyasa. Parasara was also known as Vyasa. It is conceivable that others over time have written “scripture” and attributed their work to Vyasa. This might not always be a questionable act, but rather one of integrity. Why? Because such authors would have felt that they themselves did not write the book, but that Bhagavan Vyasa inspired them to write what they did, that it was Vyasa who actually wrote the book through them. It is possible.
The apparent contradictions found in the Puranas do not prove that they are the work of different authors, or that unscrupulous persons whose aim was to suppress people wrote them. Is that what happens when people read the Puranas? This is not my experience. Different Puranas glorify different deities because they were written for persons who were primarily influenced by different gunas. This and much of the above is explained in great detail by our Gaudiya acarya Sri Jiva Goswami in his Tattva-sandarbha (read the Pramana-khanda of my edition).
(Tattva-sandarbha can be found here.)
Different creation stories are merely different ways of explaining esoteric truths through analogy. Indeed we find at least two such stories in the Bhagavad-gita: at the beginning of chapters 14 and 15—the glance of God and the Banyan tree, respectively.
The Upanishads are full of descriptions of the beautiful, transcendental form of God:
Chandogya Upanisad 8.12.3 states, svena rupenabhinispadyate sa uttamah purusah: “In his own form he remains as the supreme person.”
Katha Upanisad 1.3.11 states, purusan na param kincit sa kastha parama gatih: “There is nothing superior to the supreme person, who is the ultimate destination.”
Gopala-tapani Upanisad states, narakrti para-brahma karana-manusah: “For his own purpose the supreme truth appears in a humanlike form.”
Mundaka Upanisad 3.2.3 states, yam evaisa vrnute tena labhyas tasyaisa atma vivrnute tanum svam: “He (God) is obtained only by one to whom he himself chooses to reveal himself. To such a person he manifests his own form (tanum svam).”
Dhyana-bindu Upanisad states, nirdosa-purna-guna-vigraha atma-tantro niscetanatmaka-sarira-gunais ca hinah/ ananda-matra-mukha-pada-saroruhadih: “[The Lord’s] personal form possesses complete and faultless transcendental qualities. Indeed, the form of the completely independent Lord is free from all lifeless bodily characteristics. His lotus face and lotus feet consist simply of pure ecstasy.”
The Vasudeva Upanisad states, sad-rupam advayam brahma madhyady-anta-vivarjitam/ sva-prabham sac-cid-anandam bhaktya janati cavyayam: “[The Lord’s] transcendental form is devoid of duality or of middle, beginning, or end. It is self-effulgent, eternal, and full of knowledge and bliss. Only through bhakti can one understand that form to be infallible.”
And Rg Veda 1.22.20 states ,om tad visnoh paramam padam: “The lotus feet of Visnu are the supreme destination.”
What about Gitopanisad? Does it not speak of avataras? Does chapter four not extol the virtues of the form of God and underscore its transcendental nature? I can supply many more citations from the Upanishads and Vedas on this subject. Indeed, we followers of the Bhagavata Purana can support our entire thesis from gayatri mantra alone, what to speak of the Vedas and
Upanisads that are expansions of pranava omkara and gayatri. This in itself should cause one to reconsider the hasty decision to reject the Bhagavatam, considering its precepts to be divorced from those of the Sruti.
The Bhagavatam’s profound and at the same time charming portrayal of God as the transcendental Cupid has been embraced by many modern thinkers far more than the Bhagavatam has been rejected by them and looked at from the Arya Samaj angle of vision. In short, the arguments of Arya Samaj have gone nowhere compared to those of Thakura Bhaktivinoda, which have gained and continue to gain acceptance all over the world.
Q. Don’t scholars accept the Vedas as authoritative over the Puranas and where does it say that the Puranas are the fifth Veda?
A. Scholars hardly accept the Vedas as absolute pramana (evidence) either.
Chandogya Upanishad 7.1.4 states that the Puranas and Mahabharata are to be known as the fifth Veda. And in Brihad Aranyaka Upanisad the Puranas have been equated with the Four Vedas: evam va are sya mahato bhutasya nihsvasitam etad yad rg-veda yajur-veda sama vedo ‘tharvangirasa itihasah puranam, “The four Vedas, Itihasas, and Puranas have been breathed forth by that Great Being.” (Br. Aranyaka Up. 2.4.10)
In our view the Vedas are the tree, the Bhagavata the ripened fruit. Everything is in the Veda in potential. The Puranas bring out the fruit of the scriptural tree. The differences we find in the Puranas are there because of the three gunas (the audience), and, of course, interpolation. What we find in relation to the Bhagavata in particular is significant. It is represented by a living, vital spiritual lineage. Even scholars readily acknowledge the theological superiority of the Bhagavata over the other Puranas. The superiority of the sattvic Puranas over the others is obvious to any objective reader, and the superiority of the Bhagavata over all Puranas is also obvious. It is proclaimed throughout the Puranas themselves as well. Its saintly followers also speak loudly by their example to anyone listening. The sastra is a passive agent and the sadhu an active agent of divinity.
Go from the armchair to reality. What is your own experience? You have some experience from your service and chanting. Indeed, this is what really cements us. When you chant and tears come, these tears are not like those that come from material emotions. When these tears come, they wash away material desire. Is this not spiritual? Is this not what the Veda is talking about? How could we get it by following the Bhagavata if it were not the fifth Veda and more?
Chant and know. Love is no doubt a mystery—one that eludes reason—but in love there are no secrets. Who loves, knows. Know this: the Veda instructs us, nayam atma pravacanena labhyo na medhaya na bahuna srutena: “The truth can only be known by one to whom the truth chooses to reveal itself, not by intellect, nor study of scripture.” Bhakti—love—this is the message of the Bhagavata. Who can deny that by love all is revealed? This conclusion can only be reached by exercising the full measure of one’s intellect, but how difficult it is for the intellect to bow down to the soul and God.