We saw in a previous article how Śrī Jīva Gosvāmi motivates the study of the Purāṇas. Now there are eighteen major Purāṇas. Some of them extol Śiva as the supreme, others Viṣṇu, and still others praise Brahmā, Devi, Agni or other devatās. What should an unbiased seeker study? All of them cannot be absolutely correct, unless one accepts the Advaitic view that none of these devatās are the ultimate reality, and that it is ultimately quality-less Brahman which is the one Absolute reality.
Śrī Jīva Gosvāmi’s analysis in the Tattva Sandarbha sheds light on this important question.
The Purāṇas fall into three distinct classes
When trying to discern the absolute truth, an unbiased seeker must do bala-abala vicāra – deliberate on which pramāṇa is stronger. Such vicāra is common to all Indian theological traditions. It is a mistake to consider all Purāṇas equally strong, or identical in their authority. Then one must inevitably gravitate to the Advaitic conclusion mentioned above, which appears non-sectarian and satisfying. But in reality, Purāṇas fall into three distinct classes according to the Purāṇas themselves. Śrī Jīva Gosvāmi quotes the following verse from the Matsya Purāṇa in Anuccheda 17 of the Tattva Sandarbha:
pañcāṅgatvaṁ purāṇaṁ syād ākhyānam itarat smṛtam
sāttvikeṣu ca kalpeṣu māhātmyam adhikaṁ hareḥ
rājaseṣu ca māhātmyam adhikaṁ brahmaṇo viduḥ
tadvad agneś ca māhātmyaṁ tāmaseṣu śivasya ca
saṅkīrṇeṣu sarasvatyāḥ pitṝṇāṁ ca nigadyate
A history is called a Purāṇa if it has the five defining characteristics; otherwise, it is called an ākhyāna . The sāttvika Purāṇas ( kalpas ) primarily glorify Śrī Hari; the rājasika Purāṇas, Lord Brahmā; and the tāmasika Purāṇas, Lord Śiva and Goddess Durgā, along with Agni. The Purāṇas in the mixed guṇas glorify Goddess Sarasvatī and the forefathers ( pitṛs ). ( MP 53.64, 67–68)
Śrī Babaji quotes another verse from the Padma Purāṇa:
vaiṣṇavaṁ nāradīyaṁ ca tathā bhāgavataṁ śubham →
gāruḍaṁ ca tathā pādmaṁ vārāhaṁ śubha-darśane
sāttvikāni purāṇāni vijñeyāni śubhāni vai
brahmāṇḍaṁ brahma-vaivartaṁ mārkaṇḍeyaṁ tathaiva ca
bhaviṣyaṁ vāmanaṁ brāhmaṁ rājasāni nibodha me
matsyaṁ kaurmaṁ tathā laiṅgaṁ śaivaṁ skāndaṁ tathaiva ca
[Lord Śiva said:] O beautiful lady, know that the Viṣṇu , Nārada , Bhāgavata , Garuḍa , Padma , and Varāha Purāṇas embody the perspective born of sattva-guṇa (luminosity and being); the Brahmāṇḍa , Brahma-vaivarta, Mārkaṇḍeya , Bhaviṣya , Vāmana , and Brahma Purāṇas embody the perspective born of rajo-guṇa (dynamism and conditional becoming); and the Matsya , Kūrma , Liṅga , Śiva , Skanda , and Agni Purāṇas embody the perspective born of tamo-guṇa (ignorance and stasis). ( Padma Purāṇa , Uttara-khaṇḍa 236.18–21)
Knowledge is born of sattva guṇa
Sattva gives knowledge, and hence sāttvik Purāṇas are more authentic than the others. That sattva gives authentic knowledge can be easily ascertained from the numerous statements on this topic in the various scriptures including Bhagavad Gītā and the Bhāgavata (which Śrī Jīva cites)
sattvāt sañjāyate jñānam
knowledge is born of sattva-guṇa [14.17]
sattvaṁ yad brahma-darśanam
sattva-guṇa leads to realization of the Absolute Truth [ SB 1.2.24 ]
One should not disrespect other Purāṇas
It does not follow that Purāṇas in the lower guṇas contain no valid knowledge at all. They provide some insight into Absolute Reality, but it is not complete. The bala-abala vicāra must only be done when there is a contradiction. Thus, there is no license given to disrespect other Purāṇas – in fact, such dis-respect counts as śāstra-aparādha, and one will not get the ultimate goal of bhakti.
Fanatical Gauḍiya preachers tend to commit this śāstra-aparādha by openly or covertly criticizing Śiva worshippers or Devi worshippers for following the other Purāṇas. But such disrespect of others or the devas is very dangerous as Śrī Jīva points out in the Bhakti Sandarbha (to be discussed later).
What to do when there is disagreement amongst the sāttvik Purāṇas?
The Gauḍiyas are famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for considering the Bhagāvata as the supreme pramāṇa. Śrī Jīva provides reasoning for this in Anuccheda 18 of the Tattva Sandarbha. He first considers the Vedānta-sūtra as a possible source of authentic knowledge for the unbiased seeker:
yadi sarvasyāpi vedasya purāṇasya cārtha-nirṇayāya tenaiva śrī-bhagavatā vyāsena brahma-sūtraṁ kṛtaṁ tad-avalokanenaiva sarvo’rtho nirṇaye ity ucyate | [,..] kiṁ ca, atyanta-gūḍhārthānām alpākṣarāṇāṁ tat-sūtrāṇām anyārthatvaṁ kaścid ācakṣīta | tataḥ katarad ivātra samādhānam ? tad eva samādheyaṁ yady ekatamam eva purāṇa-lakṣaṇam apauruṣeyaṁ śāstraṁ sarva-vedetihāsa-purāṇānām artha-sāraṁ brahma-sūtropajīvyaṁ ca bhavad bhuvi sampūrṇaṁ pracarad-rūpaṁ syāt |
Someone may propose study of Vedānta-sūtra as the solution, claiming that Bhagavān Vyāsadeva compiled Vedānta-sūtra to present the decisive conclusion of both the Vedas and the Purāṇas concerning the Absolute Truth. [..] Moreover, since the aphorisms of Vedānta are terse and extremely esoteric, and since they are also subject to varying interpretations, a contrary conclusion of the sūtras is always likely to be expressed. What, then, can resolve disputes concerning the meaning of Vedānta-sūtra?
The solution, according to Śrī Jīva, is to study that Purāṇa which explains the meaning of the Vedānta-sūtra. Of all the Purāṇas, the Bhagāvata alone can be shown to meet this criterion, because only its opening verse starts with the same words as Vedānta-sūtra #2: janmādy asya yato. We have examined the mapping between the Bhagāvata’s opening verse and the first five Vedānta-sūtras in detail elsewhere on this site. So Śrī Jīva writes:
tad eva samādheyaṁ yady ekatamam eva purāṇa-lakṣaṇam apauruṣeyaṁ śāstraṁ sarva-vedetihāsa-purāṇānām artha-sāraṁ brahma-sūtropajīvyaṁ ca bhavad bhuvi sampūrṇaṁ pracarad-rūpaṁ syāt |
[Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī employs a literary device here of introducing an apparent objective witness, who responds to the question as follows.] “This problem could be solved if there were one scripture that had the characteristics of a Purāṇa, that was without human origin, that presented the essence of all the Vedas, Itihāsas, and Purāṇas, that was based on Vedānta-sūtra , and that was available on earth in its complete form.”
satyam uktam, yata eva ca sarva-pramāṇānāṁ cakravarti-bhūtam asmad-abhimataṁ śrīmad-bhāgavatam evodbhāvitaṁ bhavatā
[To this Śrī Jīva responds:] “My dear sir, what you have said is an accurate statement of truth, and the specific criteria mentioned by you particularly brings to mind our revered Śrīmad Bhāgavatam , the emperor of all pramāṇas [because it fulfills the said criteria].”
He goes on to cite several verses from the other Purāṇas like Skanda, Padma and Garuḍa, finally ending in a number of citations from the Bhāgavata itself, to establish its supreme authority over all other Purāṇas.
In this way, Śrī Jīva Gosvām demonstrates that an unbiased study of the Purāṇas must necessarily culminate in a study of the Bhāgavata alone, with the other Purāṇas accepted in those places where they do not contradict the Bhāgavata. This concept is the foundation of Gauḍiya theology. The Bhāgavata serves as the guiding light for the Gauḍiyas in their interpretation of all other texts including the Mahābhārata (whose essential meaning the Bhāgavata reveals according to the Garuḍa Purāṇa), the Vedānta-sūtras and their main topic, the Upaniṣads.