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.