Web         Gaudiya Discussions
Gaudiya Discussions Archive » EDITORIALS
Relevant editorials from various news-sites.

Shri Krishna Samhita and ISKCON's Future - Krishna Kirti Das

Jagat - Sat, 11 Sep 2004 01:26:36 +0530

Shri Krishna Samhita and ISKCON's Future

Krishna Kirti Das

There is a book written by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura titled Shri Krishna Samhita, and over time devotees within ISKCON are going to hear more about this book and its precepts. Shri Krishna Samhita is a critical historical analysis of Vedic literature, including the Srimad-Bhagavatam, using the academic techniques prevalent in the latter part of the 19th century. Devotees are going to hear more about it because it is being acclaimed by scholars on ISKCON's periphery and within ISKCON itself as providing an academic basis for strengthening the faith of its own members by reconciling Vedic texts with modern thought. As Tamal Krishna Goswami and Krishna Kshetra Prabhu in their essay "Re-Visioning ISKCON" declare, ". . . following the lead of nineteenth-century theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838 - 1914),9 ISKCON can reexamine its traditional texts and reappropriate them in ways consistent with modernity, discerning the symbolic through critical scholarship."[1]. This is overtly a reference to Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's work in Shri Krishna Samhita, which the footnote in the quoted declaration (the "9") confirms: "For the most authoritative work on Bhaktivinoda, see Shukavak 1999 [Hindu Encounter with Modernity: Kedaranath Datta Bhaktivinoda, Vaisnava Theologian.]

In the same book (The Hare Krishna Movement), Shukavak N. Das has contributed a short essay, "Bhaktivinoda and Scriptural Literalism," that concisely explains this position. Before examining in more detail Shukavak's thesis, it might be helpful to start off with his own experience in explaining to devotees the adhunika vada, or "modern approach" to understanding shastra (scepter).

I once presented a summary of Bhaktivinoda's analysis of Vedic history from his Upakramanika to an audience of Chaitanya Vaishnavas. I stated Bhaktivinoda's view that the Bhagavata Purana might not be a work compiled by the Vedavyasa 5,000 years ago, as orthodox Vaishnava tradition teaches, but may be a work not older than 1,000 years, compiled by a southerner writing in the name of Vedavyasa. Bhaktivinoda had reached this conclusion by analyzing certain geographic and cultural aspects of the Bhagavata. He was voicing an opinion arrived at through the use of the techniques of the adhunika vada.

A suggestion such as this coming from a secular scholar steeped in western criticism would not be unusual and could be easily deflected, but coming from Bhaktivinoda, a teacher from within the tradition, it cast a spell of disbelief over my audience. Many doubts arose: perhaps Bhaktivinoda did not actually believe these things but used them as a "preaching tactic"; perhaps he wrote his work when he was young and still learning but later came to reject these views; or perhaps my understanding of his perceptive was incorrect.

I was approached by one respected participant who was greatly perplexed by the mere suggestion that Bhaktivinoda may have said that the Bhagavata was only 1,000 years old or that it was not written by the Vedavyasa. I realized that this individual was upset because I had challenged one of his most sacred beliefs concerning certain historical details about that work, I had challenged his basic faith as a whole. The internal and subjective perspective of the traditionalist will not give credence to material facts that do not support and nurture religious faith.[2]

Evident here is the challenge to the faith of those devotees who always understood the Srimad Bhagavatam to be written by the Srila Vyasadeva and 5,000 years old. ISKCON's founder Srila Prabhupada quite explicitly affirms this age and authenticity of Srimad-Bhagavatam in his commentary on the same,

Some Mayavadi scholars argue that Srimad-Bhagavatam was not compiled by Sri Vyasadeva. And some of them suggest that this book is a modern creation written by someone named Vopadeva. In order to refute such meaningless arguments, Sri Sridhara Svami points out that there is reference to the Bhagavatam in many of the oldest Puranas.[3]

The big problem, of course, is the claim that the Bhagavatam is no more than 1,000 years and not written by Vyasadeva has its origin in Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Now we have a real crisis of authority on our hands: on the one hand, if we accept the authority of Srila Prabhupada's commentary (and for that matter Sridhara Swami's commentary which Lord Chaitanya also accepted), then we face the possibility that one of our stalwart acharyas (in this case Bhaktivinoda Thakura) has spoken something gravely wrong and offensive, and on the other hand if we are to accept the authority of Bhaktivinoda Thakura as quoted from Shri Krishna Samhita, then that significantly weakens our faith in the authority of Srila Prabhupada and other recognized acharyas. The fact that acharyas who are recognized as beyond fault can so contradict each other on points that are so critical to Gaudiya Vaishnava theology stands to permanently wreck faith in the whole enterprise of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology and practice. If no one can be accepted as an authority in Gaudiya Vaishnavism on account of such egregious contradiction, then loss of faith is a logical consequence.

Part of the problem is with how Shukavak (and others) present Bhaktivinoda Thakura's writings to Vaishnava audiences. Shukavak is convinced that the fact that Bhaktivinoda Thakura was a stalwart Vaishnava with great faith in Lord Chaitanya and Krishna and also wrote such things is self-evident proof that one can view the scriptures through the lens of adhunika vada (modern criticism of scripture) and yet maintain even a superlative faith in Vaishnavaism. Shukavak implicitly assumes that Bhaktivinoda Thakura actually held the views he penned in Shri Krishna Samhita. Is this assumption reasonable?

We can test this assumption with a counterfactual example. Let us say that Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura somehow reappeared in the 21st century and found out that, as Shukavak himself points out, that "his historiography is completely out of date."[4] If his faith and devotion were to some extent a function of adhunika vada, then to the extent that current critical methods differed from the earlier methods on which his faith was in part based on could possibly result in some loss of faith. Since the underlying philosophical presumptions of modern historical criticism is not so much different than that of their 19th century predecessors, the differences arrived at by the older methods of historical criticism versus the newer methods probably would not be so different as to precipitate a crisis of faith. Nonetheless, fundamentally such methods rely on sense perception and inference, and the nature of conclusions solely based on these methods of understanding are thus subject to error--specifically the four defects of a conditioned soul. Today's trends in thinking and research over time often become discredited and quaint. An important philosophical point regarding adhunika vada, then, is that through adhunika vada one can never come to a correct, objective conclusion that is not subject to future revision; objective knowledge through this process is in theory unattainable. Adhunika vada thus cannot lead to higher knowledge about things which depend upon authority for understanding. (For that matter, there is plenty in the material world itself which defies the limited understanding of the human.) Bhaktivinoda Thakura's superlative faith in Krishna, therefore, cannot be a product of adhunika vada because adhunika vada is subject to change, refutation and self-contradiction in the course of time.

Since Bhaktivinoda Thakura's faith cannot be dependent on adhunika vada, then we might well ask why he spoke it at all. Although Shukavak seems to hold a different view, the view that seems compatible with Bhaktivinoda's high faith can be found in his declared audience:

With folded hands I humbly submit to my respected readers who hold traditional views, that where my analysis opposes their long held beliefs, they should understand that my conclusions have been made for persons possessing appropriate qualifications. What I have said about dharma applies to everyone, but with regard to matters that are secondary to dharma, my conclusions are meant to produce benefits in the form of intellectual clarification only for qualified specialists. All the subjects I have outlined in the Introduction concerning time and history are based on the logical analysis of Shastra. Whether one accepts them or not, does not affect the final spiritual conclusions. History and time are phenomenal subject matters (artha-shastra) and when they are analyzed according to sound reasoning much good can be done for India. (22) [5]

So Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura's intended audience, as he himself explains, are those who have certain "qualification" (western educated people) and who also do not accept the traditional means of understanding shastra. Preaching through adhunika vada, then, is to bring the faithless to the point of developing some respect for the authority of the shastras. Srila Prabhupada himself often did this, sometimes he would refer to the dictionary for the definition of a word when preaching to westerners, sometimes he would quote current events and refer to scientific discoveries as he did in Easy Journey to Other Planets. The point of using examples and evidence in the course of preaching is to guide people in the direction of accepting Vedic authority. For example, when telling someone where the Sun is, we may refer them to a tree saying something like, "The Sun is in that tree over to your left." Now, the sun is not really in the tree, but if you look in the direction of the tree you are also looking in the direction of the Sun. If in a few years time the tree is cut down, then some other point of reference, perhaps a house, needs to be used to point someone in the direction of the Sun. The tree or the house is to the Sun what adhunika vada is to Vedic authority. Just as these local and temporary points of reference such as the tree or the house appear for some time and then disappear, so also do materialistic theories about reality appear and disappear. However, their utility lies in their potential to bring us to the threshold of devotion. Bahunam janmanam ante jnanavan mam prapadyante vasudevam sarvam iti.... Bhaktivinoda Thakura's intent in presenting Shri Krishna Samhita, then, is to bring the faithless to the point of accepting some faith in shastra, for which he hopes that ". . . much good can be done for India." Accepting something from shastra as true and good is better than accepting nothing at all.

Something needs to be said, however, about who might benefit from and who might be harmed by adhunika vada. After all, one mans food is another man's poison. The Puranas, for example, are categorized according to each of the three modes of nature. Some Puranas, such as the Bhagavata and Vishnu Puranas, are meant especially for those in the mode of goodness whereas other Puranas, such as the Shiva Purana, are meant for those predominated more by the modes of ignorance. A Vaishnava partaking of religious rituals mentioned in some parts of Vedic literature can result in that Vaishnava's progressive degradation, whereas those same rituals may gradually elevate someone who is to begin with very fallen. In the case of utilizing adhunika vada as a means to understand shastra, for someone without any faith in shastra at all this could be of great help.

By clearing misunderstood statements within Vedic literature from the path of understanding--statements modern people may find exceedingly quaint or superstitious--our faithless but nonetheless educated gentleman through adhunika-vada could come to appreciate some highly elevated precept such as rasa as being superior to other concepts of love as found in other religions. This is the beginning of faith, because if someone actually comes to respect and factually understand something proffered by Vedic authority (whether it is the guru or shastra), then that opens the door to accepting as true other things found in the Vedas which before would have been dismissed as rubbish. This is something like following a map on a journey. As we progress on our journey and encounter landmarks predicted by the map, our faith grows in the authority of the map. In the same way, as people discover things in Vedic literature that are true, their faith grows to encompass more things from the Vedas as true that, before, would have been dismissed as fantasy. The distinctive characteristic of this person is that he or she is gradually rising from a position of ignorance and disbelief to a position of knowledge and faith.

Besides the faithless becoming faithful through the agency of adhunika vada is the person who already has faith but who wishes to enhance or strengthen his faith through the agency of adhunika vada. Like the faithless but educated gentleman, our devotee seeker also has doubts but unlike those who are gradually rising from a faithless condition, the devotee already has some developed faith in shastra (otherwise, why else is he a devotee?) but is turning to worldly means (adhunika vada) to try to understand shastra. Using our map analogy to describe this, we can say that the devotee has lost some faith in his map and is turning to other means to find his way. Some things can shake our faith. Perhaps he has been chanting Hare Krishna for years yet does not perceive any tangible reduction in his material desires. Perhaps he had a fall down. We start to doubt, "The map no longer works...." So instead our doubtful devotee gradually begins to replace Vedic authority with adhunika vada as an authority and comes to rely on it more and more. For this devotee there may be some satisfaction in the conclusions derived from adhunika vada, and because our devotee believes himself to be advancing in spiritual knowledge as a result of cultivating an understanding of shastra from a worldly standpoint, he gradually (and happily) looses access to the absolute and objective knowledge that was once available to him. It should be remembered that one of the defining characteristics of adhunika vada is that it can never produce an objective fact that can finally be accepted as it is and without possibility of future discredit. Devotees who use adhunika vada to enhance their own understanding of shastra, rather than simply as a means to enlighten the ignorant, will most likely see their faith and knowledge brought to the level of the audience Bhaktivinoda Thakura set out to enlighten.

Adhunika vada, then, is suitable only for people who are to begin with faithless and well steeped in a non-theistic world view. For devotees who try to improve their spiritual knowledge through adhunika vada, adhunika vada is just like poison. Devotees using academic methods such as historical criticism to evaluate facts and precepts of scripture will necessarily come to see their scriptures in a different way. In the west, this happened with Christianity:

If Christianity was supported and confirmed by objective science, then the Bible should be able to be subjected to the same historical analysis as the documents of any other religion. Scientific naturalism thus became the starting point for historical inquiry into the Bible. From that point of view, of course, the Scriptures looked very different than they did if viewed with the premise that they were revealed by God. The miracle stories, for instance, became embarrassments, rather than evidences. By modern critical standards historical reporting in Scripture looked inaccurate and fabricated. Particularly the Old Testament narratives, as well as many of the claims to authorship and dating, appeared implausible if the writings were viewed as simple products of the evolving faith of an ancient primitive people. [6]

What these [historical] methods meant for the Bible was that it would be treated, as was often said, just "like any other book." Once this initial move was made, of course, one was on a scholarly track that would yield conclusions consistent with the premise, namely, that the Bible was a cultural product just like any other book. [7]

Substitute the term "Gaudiya Vaishnavism" for "Christianity" and "Srimad-Bhagavatam" for "Bible," and you have a pretty good description of the philosophical direction ISKCON is heading in, considering that, as mentioned in the beginning of this essay, some of ISKCON's leaders advocate turning such academic methodologies on shastra for the sake of "re-visioning" ISKCON.

End Notes

[1]Tamal Krishna Goswami, Krishna Kshetra Das, "Re-Visioning ISKCON", as printed in The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. Page 418 - 419

[2]Shukavak N. Das "Bhaktivinoda and Scriptural Literalism", as printed in The Hare Krishna Movement, The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant, Columbia University Press, New York, 2004. Page 104 - 105

[3]Srila Prabhupada. Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.1.1 purport

[4]Shukavak N. Das 2004. Page 104

[5]Ibid. Page 106

[6]George M. Marsden. The Soul of the American University, From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. Oxford University Press, New York, 1994. Page 174)

[7]Ibid. Page 207
Jagat - Sat, 11 Sep 2004 01:34:58 +0530
Discuss this article HERE..