Q. Considering that Gaudiya Vaisnavas accept Srimad Bhagavatam as perfect scripture, my question is how can we be certain that over the centuries Srimad Bhagavatam has not been altered? If the Bhagavatam has been changed or interpolated what significance would that have?
A. Objective studies of the Bhagavatam show that there are variant editions. In his translation of Sanatana Gosvami’s Sri Brihad Bhagavatamrita, Gopiparanadhana dasa lists a number of variations found in different manuscripts of both the Bhagavatam and the Bhagavatamrta. Therein he writes, “For some verses of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Sanatana Goswami’s commentary gives a text that varies from the one given in the Bhagavatam edition published by the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.” He lists 32 verses that appear differently, explaining that these differences almost never significantly change the meaning of the text.
Variations may be attributed to language, geography, and the influence of time (ancient India had numerous independent kingdoms and hundreds of different languages). However, more importantly the very nature of the Puranic texts such as Srimad Bhagavatam lends itself to variation over time. As opposed to the Vedas (sruti), which are considered to be directly manifest from God without human authorship, the Puranas (smrti) acknowledge human agency.
For example, in the opinion of Jiva Goswami, Vyasa composed the Bhagavatam twice, once in the context of compiling all of the Puranas and a second time after being inspired by Narada to emphasize bhakti, by which Narada rightly concluded Vyasa’s heart would be satisfied. In the present-day edition of the Bhagavata, we find that it was spoken by Sukadeva and at a later date by Suta. The text also reveals that it was spoken at another time by Sankarsana to the Kumaras. Such is the nature of the Puranaic literature. While sacred and authoritative, adjustments that are made in consideration of time and circumstance are not viewed as deviant. The Puranas, after all, are literature that seeks to present the essence of the Veda in an easily understandable format. To accomplish this task, the Puranic literature must be fluid. Such fluidity, however, does not amount to interpolation, but rather attests to the ongoing nature of revelation. This also explains why it is particularly difficult to assign a date to the authorship of the Bhagavatam. When was it written? The correct answer is perhaps that it is not finished yet.
An example of this fluidity is Sri Vrindavana dasa Thakura’s hagiography on Sri Caitanya, heralded by the Gaudiya community as the “Caitanya Bhagavata.” By naming Vrindavana dasa’s work such, the Gaudiyas acknowledged that while the Bhagavata was compiled thousands of years earlier, it was nonetheless an ongoing narrative concerning the esoteric life of Sri Krishna. This narrative had in essence been continued by Vrindavana dasa to describe Sri Krishna’s appearance as Sri Caitanya.
As opposed to ongoing revelation, interpolation refers to deliberately and anonymously inserting text into a book to suit one’s purpose. Some Vaisnava sects believe that chapters 12 through 14 of the 10th canto of the Bhagavatam are examples of interpolation because these chapters do not conform to certain aspects of their understanding of the Bhagavata’s theology. To Gaudiya Vaisnavas these chapters are particularly important as they establish within the context of the narrative of Krishna lila a pivotal point: krishnas tu bhagavan svayam, “Krishna is the origin of the Godhead.” (SB 1.3.28)
Needless to say, we Gaudiyas do not find the arguments of these sects to be convincing. Sri Jiva Goswami refutes them by pointing out that the chapters in question conform to the overall ontology of the Bhagavatam and have already been accepted by ancient renowned Bhagavatam commentator Sridhara Swami, as well as other great acaryas. In his treatise Krishna-sandarbha, Sri Jiva cites over three hundred points, primarily from the Bhagavatam itself, confirming the Gaudiya interpretation of krishnas tu bhagavan svayam.
Near the turn of the previous century, Thakura Bhaktivinoda encountered academic opinions about the Bhagavata that did not conform to the teachings of the tradition. While not dismissing these opinions altogether, he emphasized that regardless of their merit, the essential philosophy and theology of the Bhagavata represented the crown jewel of spiritual insight. Why? Because we see that those who embrace its message wholeheartedly attain the rare jewel of prema , which is the prayojana of the text.
Furthermore, careful study of Bhagavatam commentaries reveals that today’s manuscripts do not differ significantly from the manuscript that Gadadhara Pandit showered with his tears of love as he read and commented on the text for the pleasure of Sri Caitanya. Among the Gaudiya commentaries, the seminal commentary of Sri Sanatana Goswami reveals that the Bhagavata itself acknowledges Sri Caitanya to be Krishna reappearing in the present age. Thus if one studies the manuscript Sri Caitanya himself embraced, one need not be concerned with interpolation.
It is also important to note that Gaudiya Vaisnavas acknowledge two Bhagavatas: the book Bhagavata and the devotee Bhagavata. Sri Krishnadasa Kaviraja describes them as follows, “The two brothers (Sri Caitanya and Prabhu Nityananda) dissipate the darkness of one’s heart by arranging for one to meet two Bhagavatas. One Bhagavata is the Bhagavata sastra (Srimad Bhagavatam) and the other is the devotee absorbed in bhakti-rasa. These two Bhagavatas then open the door of one’s heart to bhakti-rasa, and thus the Lord, in the heart of his devotee, comes under the control of the devotee’s love.”
Pujyapada B. R. Sridhara Maharaja liked to refer to the person Bhagavata as the active agent of divinity and the book Bhagavata as the passive agent of divinity. While the two are invariably intertwined, the person Bhagavata is arguably more important than the book Bhagavata because he or she exemplifies the ideal of the Bhagavatam. Alone, the book Bhagavata is insufficient for the sadhaka, as guidance from the person Bhagavata is essential to fully understand the deep meaning of the text. Thus, even if there is interpolation in the book Bhagavata, one cannot add to or subtract from the devotee Bhagavata, who is the principal agent of divinity in our lives.
It is important to underscore that, like the Goswamis, we are concerned with the essence of the Bhagavatam. This essence is delineated in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta and has little to do with ancient social customs and dated cosmology, but everything to do with the metaphysic of acintya-bhedabheda (inconceivable, simultaneous oneness and difference), the primacy of Krishna among the Visnu avataras, Radha’s love for Krishna, and so on. The Srimad Bhagavatam tells us how to live by way of telling us how to die. It speaks to us with a sense of urgency and demands our complete attention, nityam bhagavata sevaya. Those who truly understand the essence of the Bhagavata will die an ego death to live forever in love.
Arya Samaj and the Bhagavatam
Q. If Krishna is as important as Krishna’s devotees claim, why doesn’t his name appear in the principal Upanisads that Sankara commented on?
A. Krishna is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanisad (3.17.6) as Devaki-putram, the son of Devaki. The Chandogya is one of the ten Upanisads that Sankara commented on. Sankara has also praised Krishna above all other avataras and glorified him in his poetry. In the lineage of Sankara, Krishna is considered to be the purna avatara, the most complete manifestation of the Godhead. In his Abhilasastaka Sankaracarya writes, “I desire to be in Vrindavana so that I may sit on the bank of the Yamuna and pass each long day of my life in the twinkling of an eye, meditating on Lord Krishna.”
A near contemporary of Sri Caitanya in Sankara’s lineage, Madhusudana Saraswati, whose scholarship and spirituality are considerable, writes about Sri Krishna thus in his Gita commentary: “I do not know any other reality than Krishna, whose hands are adorned with a flute, whose luster is like that of a new rain cloud, who wears a yellow cloth, whose lips are reddish like the bimba fruit, whose face is beautiful like the full moon, and whose eyes are like lotuses. . . . Those fools who cannot tolerate the wonderful glory of Krishna are condemned.” It is also important to note that according to the Vedic tradition the Bhagavad-gita, spoken by Sri Krishna, may be appropriately referred to as Gitopanisad. It is not less important than the ten principal Upanisads.
The Upanisads are best understood through the Puranas, which are sometimes referred to as the “fifth Veda.” The Puranas explain the essential meaning of the Upanisads and are thus considered learned and realized reflections on the significance of the Upanisads. It is within the Puranic tradition that the divinity of Krishna is most clearly explained, and again, this explanation is directly related to the Upanisads and should not be thought of as separate or unrelated. Among the Puranas the Srimad Bhagavatam is indisputably in a class of its own in terms of its literary content, theology, philosophy, sociology, and so on. The text itself declares it to be the ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic literature, and its claim is objectively verifiable. It is in Srimad Bhagavatam that the entire significance of Krishna is brought out. This book should be studied under the guidance of a spiritually advanced soul.
Outside of the Bhagavatam, there are numerous indisputable references to the divinity of Krishna found in 5th and 4th century BCE texts, both in India and Greece. The Heliodoros column found in North India stands as significant archeological evidence from the 1st century BCE of how people at that time regarded Krishna as the supreme Deity. The column furthermore attests, as per its inscription, to the conversion to Krishna-bhakti of a significant Greek envoy, Heliodoros.
Thus the apparent lack of evidence in what is sometimes referred to as the ten principal Upanisads concerning the divinity of Krishna must be understood in relation to the entire scriptural tradition. Furthermore, the notion that the ten Upanisads Sankara commented on are the principal Upanisads is debatable. Indeed, from the Puranic record in which Sri Krishna is crowned God of gods, it would seem that those Upanisads in which Krishna’s divinity is emphasized are among the most important of the 108 principal Upanisads. The foremost among them, Gopala-tapani, is available in English with a contemporary commentary.