Q. I have found that many devotees are fixated on saying that the moon missions were a hoax. They maintain this is so partly because Srila Prabhupada expressed doubts about the moon landings ever occurring. What is your opinion about the moon missions? Do all devotees fall in the “conspiracy theory” category?
A. Srila Prabhupada expressed doubts about the moon mission in the spirit of doubting science in general in terms of its being a comprehensive means of knowing. He was concerned with breaking our faith in imperfect means of arriving at conclusive truth as to the nature of reality. To this end he often engaged in science-bashing and encouraged his disciples to question authority. After all, in the modern era beginning with the industrial and scientific revolutions science was thought to be a metanarrative competent to answer all the questions of life. Understandably, Prabhupada strongly disagreed with this premise.
One of his repeated arguments against the idea that man had indeed gone to the moon underscores his underlying purpose in making his argument against the moon landing:
“You materialistic people say that ‘We have not seen God, therefore we don’t believe.’ Therefore I say, ‘I have not gone with you to the moon, I don’t believe.’ That’s all. Finished. How can I believe? You say that you have gone. But I have not gone with you. So how can I believe? That’s all. That is my argument. You did not take me with you. How can I believe? When you take then I shall believe.”
Prabhupada wanted to undermine faith in the religion of modern science and to that end he ridiculed science and sought to expose the shallowness of the scientific community’s own arguments against the existence of God. Just as God hovers above all, shining brightly on his devotees while agnostics deny his existence altogether, Prabhupada denied that which was obvious to the scientific community—the moon landing appearing in the sky for all to see (on television).
Prabhupada cited other arguments as well. He suggested that perhaps the mission landed in the Arizona desert or the Vedic planet Rahu, indicating both his lack of faith in the integrity of the government and his own uncertainty as to where the space shuttle did land. Overall, it seems that he personally did not believe that man landed on the moon for a number of different reasons. However, neither was he presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is also clear from the written record that had Prabhupada been presented with such evidence, he would have simply argued further as to the value of such a mission in the first place—an argument that many are making after the recent shuttle disaster. For example, he once said, “They have gone to the moon, but for all their labor they have simply taken away some dust and rocks.”
While Prabhupada often stated that man did not go to the moon, he also indicated that he was not entirely sure about the whole affair. In spite of writing that man did not go to the moon, he later said, “Those who have claimed to have gone to the moon have not gone there or else their imperfect vision cannot actually perceive the particular type of living entities there.” On another occasion he said, “First of all, find out whether they have gone to the moon. I am not so sure.” Later still when he heard from his disciples that astronaut Edgar Mitchell of the Apollo moon landing stated that upon setting foot upon the moon he had a religious experience, Prabhupada replied, “That’s nice. He is good,” indicating that had this been the unanimous experience of the astronauts, he might not have questioned the landing to the same extent, after all the moon is considered heavenly in the Vedic literature.
Aside from Prabhupada’s statements, in my opinion the various conspiracy theories that question the moon landing do not hold up under scrutiny against the evidence that supports the landing. Furthermore, it is not necessary to believe that man never landed on the moon in order to advance in spiritual life or to be a faithful follower of Srila Prabhupada and the Gaudiya tradition. Overall, it is better to believe in the message of Srila Prabhupada—the gift of Sri Caitanya—in spite of the fact that he sometimes said things in the context of preaching that defied scientific evidence to the contrary. This is more important than to burden our faith in his divinity with the necessity of believing such statements at face value.
Q. Devotees sometimes cite the Bhagavatam version that the moon is farther away from the earth than the sun (contradicting a fact known to the Greeks almost 2,500 years ago). I have found that this unscientific nonsense turns away many people and have warned devotees without a thorough scientific background not to embarrass us with such irrational statements. What is your opinion on this issue, and is there an allegorical way to view the descriptions of the universe presented in Srimad-Bhagavatam and other Vedic literatures?
A. The Srimad-Bhagavatam’s description of cosmology is according to the vision of Sukadeva. It may be taken either that the world was shown to Sukadeva to be as it is described in the Bhagavatam—a particular angle of vision, a subjective reality—or that he is merely recounting what the prominent understanding of the time was.
With regard to the latter opinion, the text of the Bhagavatam itself lends credence to this outlook. When asked by Pariksit about the nature of the material world—the glory of Visnu maya—Sukadeva replied that essentially this world is a transformation of the three gunas, nothing more—bhagavato maya-guna-vibhuteh. He goes on to say that no one can describe this world perfectly, vacasa vadhigantum alam vibhudhayusapi purusas. As the sage continues his explanation, he describes it as being based on the estimations of learned persons of that period, pramana-laksanato vyakhyatah.
Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja suggested the following way of relating to the Bhagavatam’s description of the sun being closer to the earth than the moon. He said, “Politically speaking, Russia is closer to India than America or Pakistan. Its nearness is calculated in terms of the friendly relations, or influence. So I like to say we may take in that way. Not in physical distance. Sun’s influence over the earth is first, next that of moon, next that of Mars. In this way perhaps we may proceed. I got some hint in that direction. If we are challenged we may take this course. But my ultimate basis of argument is that it is subjective. It is like a hypnotizer … what the Lord showed Sukadeva at that time, it is described like that. It is in his hands, subjective control. Not that the objective will control us to see a thing. But the subject as he likes can make a show like a hypnotizer. That is my view. So everything can be explained. The higher seer is controlling our capacity to see anything. What one man sees another man won’t see. Subjective control. The Visvarupa darsana in Bhagavad-gita, what is it? Krishna says, ‘Arjuna, you see this. I am so and so.’ And Arjuna is seeing that. It’s not that the object is controlling the experience of the subject. But the super-subject (Krishna) is controlling the experience of the lower subject (the jiva soul). That is my understanding. Everything is controlled by the higher. The root (consciousness) is above, not the fossil (matter). ‘The fossil (matter) will control my vision,’ no such mean law I am ready to accept.”
I also discussed this issue in a previous Sanga called The Relativity of Scripture.
Therein I wrote:
“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 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)
Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Sri Krishna-samhita explains the relativity of scripture, the difference between scriptural topics that are subject to human logic and those that are not. Psychology and astronomy fall into the former category.
Krishna dasa once asked Prabhupada why there is a 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.