New Commentaries Protect Srila Prabhupada’s Legacy
By Arcana-siddhi dasi
The Srimad Bhagavatam is a perfected spiritual literature. Each verse of this work can be viewed from many different angles of vision and, depending on the commentator’s purpose, different points will be drawn out.
Since each verse could potentially be explained in various ways, commentators are keen to choose a particular angle of vision that will be most helpful to their audience. The main goal of presenting this literature is to inspire others to take up the process of bhakti.
When Sukadeva Goswami spoke the Bhagavatam to Paraksit Maharaja 5,000 years ago, the audience was all male. Shortly thereafter, Suta Goswami narrated the Bhagavatam at a thousand-year sacrifice predominated by male transcendentalists. The needs and biases of the audience influenced the speaker to emphasize certain points that would help his audience come to a higher level of spiritual understanding and attachment.
Subsequent commentaries on this great literature were written for a predominately male audience until the commentary of my spiritual teacher, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Srila Prabhupada, in the 1970s. Srila Prabhupada’s outreach efforts and commentaries on the Bhagavatam came at a junction between the beginning of the breakdown of traditional family roles and values and social reform movements. Srila Prabhupada’s main objective, like his predecessors, was to encourage his audience to take up a God-conscious life.
From his own life, Srila Prabhupada had experienced the trials of being a married man with children and pursuing his spiritual ideals. His wife was not particularly supportive of his involvement in the spiritual mission of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. After leaving his family encumbrances, he began writing his commentaries on Srimad Bhagavatam. No doubt his family experiences and growing up in Bengal during Victorian British rule played into his particular portrayal of both women and family life. His particular angle of vision was to try and avoid the entanglement of family life.
Despite Srila Prabhupada’s less than ideal marriage, he treated his women disciples with great love and respect. Unfortunately, some of his immature men disciples experiencing attraction and aversion for women found statements in Srila Prabhupada’s commentaries to support their disrespect of women and the grhastha ashram.
Srila Prabhupada saw many advantages to maintaining the traditional roles of men and women. However, the powerful influences of change, like a tsunami, hit the globe and have created unprecedented anomalies in the gender roles and family values. Foremost is the economic necessity for most families to have two wage earners. With both spouses in the workforce, couples have to re-negotiate traditional expectations in the home, i.e., child care, cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc.
Now, in this country, there are more women than men going to college and women scores have surpassed men on many standardized academic tests. In many areas internationally, women’s voices and opinions are no longer regarded as inferior and women occupy leadership positions in universities, health care, corporations, and government. To base preaching strategies around the subordination of women will not attract intelligent, thoughtful women or men to take up bhakti.
The purpose of the parampara is to keep the force of bhakti alive in the world and to find ways to attract people to the practices and ideals of true spirituality. If strategies from the past are getting in the way of this objective, they need to be renovated or disbanded to increase the receptivity of the public.
I have been a practitioner of bhakti for over forty years and for the past thirty years I have been counseling devotees as a professional psychotherapist. I have witnessed misunderstandings and misapplication of verses and purports in our sacred literature. Grhasthas, both men and women, when falsely practicing renunciation within their marriage deprive their spouse and children of proper affection and nurturing. Misogynist and or immature men extract verses from the Bhagavatam as a way to justify disrespecting and mistreating their spouse and children.
We must consider the mental and emotional fragility of today’s population having grown up with unprecedented violence, fear, and trauma. Bhagavatam offers refuge to these souls, but we must be able to present it in a way that will help them heal from their material conditioning rather than give them a way to perpetuate lies and falsity under the banner of scripture. Devotees need emotionally and spiritually mature guidance more than ever.
A person who understands the meaning of this scripture can properly present the teachings in a meaningful and compelling manner to the current audience on the planet. This punctuates the need for ongoing commentaries. The deep realizations and insights from the commentaries of our previous teachers will assist the current representatives of the Bhagavatam to expand on and synthesize those teachings with their own unique flavor and realizations. Srila Prabhupada’s books would remain available for serious students who have the qualification to understand them.
I am eternally grateful to my spiritual master, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Srila Prabhupada, for giving me shelter at his lotus feet. I not only read his books but also distributed them to the public for many years. We need to protect Srila Prabhupada’s reputation and books from the sound bite culture we are currently living in. Even some devotees have come to the conclusion that Srila Prabhupada is a misogynist and bigoted from hearing a few extracted quotes from his commentaries.
Without a comprehensive understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s mood, mission, and teachings, such assumptions are being made. It is heartbreaking to hear such miscalculations of Srila Prabhupada’s magnanimous character. Srila Prabhupada saw beyond the male and female dress and gave the opportunity of bhakti to everyone he met. Some devotees support editing his commentaries and removing inflammatory statements from his books. Others propose footnoting the controversial statements.
It is not proper to edit the content of past commentaries. Srila Prabhupada’s books need to be left as they were written, for the times they were written in. New commentaries need to be written to speak to today’s world as the best way to bring new people to Krishna and to protect the integrity of Srila Prabhupada’s immense writing contribution. Then the current readers will be sheltered from misunderstandings which could lead to committing Vaisnava aparadha and spoiling their precious opportunity for spiritual connection in their human form of life.