Often we come across stories in the purāṇas, that, on the face of it, do not make any sense. How does one understand them?
Śrī Śukadeva’s stories are not literally true
Take the example of the famous story of Śrī Śukadeva Goswami. He is described as refusing to come out of the womb of his mother for fourteen years because he was afraid of entering the world of māyā. Only when Kṛṣṇa gave assurance that he was safe did he come out. And as soon as he came out, he started walking straight to the forest (without any clothes on) because he did not want to become attached to anything. Of course one will wonder how anyone can stay in the womb for 14 years to the extent that he was able to walk to the forest (a grown person) when he was born. Many people take all these stories literally, but in doing so, miss the main message. The sāra or essence is that he was greatly renounced. That is all. The story is just to help one remember his greatness, and is not literally true. Indeed, Śrī Śukadeva is described as married in other places, and as a parrot in still others!
Another contradiction is the fact that Śrī Śukadeva was already Brahman-realized who did not recognize the distinction between male and female even, but yet he was born. Why? Again, the story is told that way to make us understand the key point of it all- that bhakti is superior to jñāna. It is not literally true- that is, Śrī Śukadeva was not a jñāni but actually a bhakta.
The cosmology of the Bhāgavata is not literally true
Likewise the rather fantastical descriptions of cosmology in the fifth canto of the Bhāgavata are similarly just a story for our purposes to convey a deeper message. Their details are not relevant nor correct as far as perceptible reality is concerned. Before the account of the universe in the Bhāgavatam, Śukadeva Goswami himself mentions how what he is about to narrate is beyond the ability of the mind to grasp, even if one thought about it for the lifetime of Brahmā. Yet some modern Caitanya sects insist that the Bhāgavata’s cosmology is to be taken literally and try to reconcile them with modern astronomy; some dismiss modern astronomy as false altogether. What a waste of misguided energy!
An example where the Bhāgavata itself states how its stories need not be literally true is below:
kathā imās te kathitā mahīyasāṁ
vitāya lokeṣu yaśaḥ pareyuṣām
vaco-vibhūtīr na tu pāramārthyam
“I have described the stories of these great kings, who spread their fame in the world and then died. The purpose of these stories, O King, is to explain transcendental knowledge and instill renunciation. These stories are the power of my speech and do not have Supreme Truth in them.”
Śrī Jīva Goswami comments on this verse:
rāja-vaṁśānukīrtanasya tātparyam āha kathā imā iti | vijñānaṁ viṣayāsāratā-jñānam | tato vairāgyam | tayor vivakṣayā | pareyuṣāṁ mṛtānāṁ vaco-vibhūtīr vāg-vilāsa-mātra-rūpāḥ | pāramārthyaṁ paramārtha-yuktaṁ kathanaṁ na bhavatīty arthaḥ
– The essence of the description of the kingly dynasties is explained. vijñāna means knowledge that material objects are devoid of ultimate essence. This knowledge leads to renunciation. [The stories were told] with a desire to explain these two [vijñāna-vairāgya]. pareyuṣām means of the dead. vaco-vibhūtī means they are the power of speech alone. These stories do not contain absolute truth.
How to find the sāra?
The sāra or essence of any passage or indeed the entire book can be determined using well-established methods from pūrva-mīmāṁsā. I have shown examples of methods of interpretation in many articles on this website. For example, what is the essence of the Bhāgavata? That can be understood from identifying the essence of the Sandarbhas. They are below and discussed in more detail here.
- Teaching who or what param tattva or the Absolute Truth is.
- Teaching the method of sādhana, the means of attainment or abhidheya.
- Teaching the prayojana, or what is to be attained by sādhana.
One has to keep these purposes in mind when trying to understand really anything in the Bhāgavata. How does insisting that the Bhāgavata’s cosmology is literally true, when it demonstrably contradicts visible reality, meet any of the above goals?
Literalists ask for evidence in the writings of the Goswamis for everything. For example, one reader on this site asked for evidence that the cosmology is not literally true from the Goswami’s writings. Opponents claim that other sampradāyas take the cosmology literally.
I have the following responses to this:
- If everything were written in the Goswamis’ writings, there would be no need of a paramparā. One has to learn the sāra from the paramparā.
- That the Bhāgavata’s cosmology does not match with observable reality was known to the Indians long before the time of the Goswamis. If the Goswamis did not attempt a reconciliation, that itself is a jñāpaka of the fact that the Goswamis considered the details of the cosmology not a literal description, nor did they consider it important for sādhanā.
- To those in other sampradāyas that insist that the cosmology is literally true, I say good luck to you! It is upto them to explain why the cosmology is so completely incorrect as far as observable reality is concerned.
And now to my personal view- I think that the Caitanya tradition and also other Hindu traditions engaged with opponents as opposition arose. If they had to engage with modern scientists today, I think they would have been more explicit in how they viewed many things in the scriptures, without compromising on the sāra. That is precisely what Śrī Babaji is doing.
Andha-bhakti or blind bhakti and fanaticism is not a viable long-term alternative for the Caitanya tradition.
Can we take the story of Krishna in the Bhagavatam literally? And if not how to decide what portion is metaphor and what is “real”?
The stories in the Bhagavatam show that Krsna has infinite prakasas who are Krsna Himself, but do different things at different times with different ahankaras. This is beyond our experience and is only to be expected for something beyond this world. That is all true. When Krsna acts in this world, He is limited by the world’s laws but at the same time, He can work outside the material world – say for example by being in 16000 places at once. Even so, the story of His Lila is to again teach prema for Him, which means we must still search for the essence. Sri Jiva has done this search for us in the Krsna Sandarbha.
Would it be fair to say that we can learn a great deal from the way the Bhagavatam discusses Caitanya Mahaprabhu and Radha? If the Bhagavatam were an encyclopedia of Goloka, or a schematic or a user’s manual, it’s hard to conceive of Vyasa hiding these two figures so expertly that the vast majority of readers don’t find them indicated even in the slightest in the text. But we classify the Bhagavatam as a Purana, not an itihasa, so we shouldn’t expect it to give us the kind of historical accuracy an archaeologist or biographer would desire. In a sense, readers get out of the Bhagavatam what they bring to it, whether they are advaita-vadis or devotees seeking prema. A debate about literalism and historicity — of storytelling and moral-imparting vs. historical accuracy — is far more appropriately held regarding Mahabharata or Ramayana. Does that sound about right?
I agree with what you wrote. Except the Mahabharata or Ramayana is not a literal historical account either. The purpose of these books is not to teach history.
Can we consider three perspectives of shashtras that is – adibhautika,adhyatmika,adidaivik and try to reconcile pratyaksha and shabda through it. cosmology of Bhagavatam can be considered as adidaivik explanation of the universe.
We can say it is perception of the sages in some way, sure. but I dont see how that is a reconciliation of pratyaksa and sabda. There is no reconciliation.
‘Yet some modern Caitanya sects insist that the Bhāgavata’s cosmology is to be taken literally and try to reconcile them with modern astronomy; some dismiss modern astronomy as false altogether.’
As someone who is very new to Gaudiya Vaishnava thought, the above was truly a stumbling block in my earlier years when I was exploring the sampradāya. It was a major impediment when trying to reconcile my intuition and attraction towards Kṛṣṇa bhakti and my scientific academic training (of course, this is not to champion a sort of scientism). This lead to a sort of compartmentalization that was not intellectually consistent at all.
Thank you for this article.
A refusal to deny what is in front of one’s eyes is not scientism. I also compartmentalized things; but it did not work and was ultimately not satisfying.
pāramārthyam = parama + arthyam
Looks like arthyam is translated here to truth. Arthyam would mean essence. Satyam would mean truth as in ‘satyam param demahi’
Clearly, Sri Sukadeva was telling King Pariksit not to focus on his narrations of the kings because the ultimate goal or essence of Srimad Bhagavatam is not that.
In the previous verses to this Mother Earth tells that all those kings who tried to conquer earth were reduced to historical accounts with the passage of time.
The word artha has many meanings. Truth is one of them.
Are the stories about leelas of Krsna true or allegorical? If we consider them to be allegorical it destroys the taste of Bhakti? And also there are many Advaitins who say that Krsna Himself in Bhagavatam is just an allegorical entity and the essence of Bhagavatam is IMPERSONAL BRAHMAN?
Whether Bhagavata describes impersonal Brahman or not, is discussed in this article: https://bhaktitattva.com/2022/05/14/the-meaning-of-sb-12-13-12/ and several others on this site. Feel free to browse around.
As I mentioned in one of the replies above, Krsna’s leela is not allegorical. The reason is that He is Svayam Bhagavan and the means to achieve Him is hearing His Leelas- which is the essence of the Bhagavatam. The essence of shastra cannot be allegorical. To establish Krsna as the essence, the machinery of purva mimamsa was applied by Sri Jiva Goswami, which is again explained on this site in many articles.