Contradictions: Real and Apparent

trio1973By Swami Tripurari

Sometimes we find what appear to be contradictions between the lives and writings of one acarya and another. This can be confusing for the neophyte. A closer look, however, reveals that these contradictions are only apparent contradictions. They exist only within the limits of our finite minds. One who has firm standing in divine faith will welcome these apparent contradictions when they arise, seeing them as opportunities to make progress in the direction of the infinite.

Apparent contradictions are resolved in one of two ways, based on the nature of the contradiction. One kind of apparent contradiction is eventually undrstood to be a difference based on rasa, which when properly understood serves to further charm the sadhaka as the spice of variety that makes Vaishnavism the sweet life that it is. An example of this is the disagreement that eternally exists between vatsalya and madhurya rasas.  Simply put, Yashodamayi very much wants her son Krishna to have a good night’s sleep, while the gopis headed by Sri Radha want him to leave the house and dance with them in the Vrindavana night.

Differences, however, exist not only between different rasas, but within the same as well. There are left-wing gopis and right-wing gopis. The gopis headed by Chandravali always take the side of Krishna, while those who are in Radha’s group always take her side to the extreme. Some devotees hold that the Yamuna is the topmost place of worship, while our group headed by Sri Rupa places greater emphasis on Radha-kunda.

Once when Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura was conducting the circumambulation of the greater Vrindavana area (braja mandala parikrama), one of his disciples pointed out that the Diwan of Bharatpura had great respect for Srimati Radharani. At that time, the Diwan was circumambulating Radha-kunda by prostrating himself, rising, and placing his feet at the point where his fingertips had reached while bowing down. Then he would prostrate himself again and in this way circle the entire Radha-kunda. Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati replied to his disciple, however, “Their angle of vision is different from ours. They recognize and revere Krishna, and because Radharani is Krishna’s favorite, they also have some reverence for Radha-kunda. But our vision is just the opposite. Our concern is with Radharani. And only because she wants Krishna do we have any connection with him.”

We aspire for the service of Srimati Radharani and her kunda. Others may emphasize the Yamuna or the importance of Krishna, like the followers of Chandravali gopi. Who is right? Radha-kunda may be the most sacred place where the most intimate pastimes of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna are enacted, yet reality is ultimately a feeling. We may give someone knowledge and they agree that we are right, yet they will continue to act otherwise because reality is ultimately a feeling, this is absolutely so. Therefore, even though Radha-kunda is the highest abode of love, some feel otherwise, and they are not entirely wrong in that. Differences must be there. To find the higher harmony is the beauty of Vaishnavism. Chandravali is, after all, an expansion of Radharani.

A second kind of apparent contradiction arises in the preaching field where the intermediate class of devotees are active. Madhyama means middle. Madhyama-adhikari Vaishnavas are in the middle of controversy. Their lives are characterized by discrimination. They are surrounded by contradictions—preaching and siddhanta may not always be the same. The missionary servitors are moved from within to respond to the diverse circumstances that they are confronted with. They may say different things at different times to awaken divine faith in the hearts of the jivas. Thus, preaching and siddhanta are apparently not always in concert. Because the siddhanta in one sense is to awaken faith, sometimes the missionaries may say whatever they are moved to say out of their infinite wisdom to awaken that faith—“By hook or by crook, sell the book.”

The highest truth is to give Krishna consciousness. In the field of outreach, at one time one instruction may be given and at a later stage we may be told the opposite. Yet, to follow both instructions at the time they were given is to follow the same truth. We may join our guru’s formal mission on the strength of Krishna’s flute call, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja. “Surrender everything and come to me.” Later, as in the case of Srila Prabhupada, who left the Gaudiya Math, we may, in the spirit of Krishna’s flute call, have to leave the formal mission, if in our guru’s absence it has become devoid of his spirit. One who cannot resolve this type of apparent contradiction is suffering from anarthas (material considerations).

When apparent contradictions are not resolved by the advancing devotee, they give rise to real contradictions. Real contradictions deviate one from the pure devotional conclusions. These real contradictions are based on anarthas and they must be transcended. They are most typically found in the kanistha-adhikari.  They may also be found in the madhyama-adhikari,  yet only as much as the kanishtha-adhikari mentality lingers in his or her developing consciousness. Although the different kinds of Vaishnavas, kanistha, madhyama, and uttama (neophyte, intermediate, and superlative), have been described in the scriptures, there is considerable overlapping between them. As between day and night there is the sandhyam at dawn, midday, and dusk, so these divisions of Vaishavas are not black and white. We must look for the gray in everything. In computer technology, there are 256 shades of gray between black and white. Rasam-anandam is the purest white, and material desire is the darkest black. In the transitions from the dark black of material life to the pure white of our highest spiritual prospect, there are may shades of gray through which we must pass, resolving apparent contradictions along the way.

What follows is an example of an apparent contradiction in the writings of our acaryas. Resolving this is a valuable exercise of our Krishna consciousness. In Srila Prabhupada’s translation of Bhagavad-gita (Bhagavad-gita As It Is), he translates the following verse thus:

aparyaptam tad asmakam
balam bhismabhiraksitam
paryaptam tv idam etesam
balam bhimabhiraksitam

“Our strength is immeasurable, and we are perfectly protected by grandfather Bhishma whereas the strength of the Pandavas, carefully protected by Bhima, is limited.”1

The same verse, however, is translated quite differently by Srila Sridhara Maharaja in his Bhagavad-gita (Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute). Here we find the verse reads as follows:

“Our army, headed by Bhishma, is inadequate, wheras the army of the Pandavas, protected by Bhima, is competent.”

Which translation is correct? Could both of them be correct?

Before we jump to the wrong conclusion, we must catch ourselves and consider the following points. Srila Prabhupada dedicated his Bhagavad-gita to Baladeva Vidyabhusana, the great Gaudiya acarya who gave the world Govinda bhasya. This commentary on the Vedanta-sutra is a most precious treasure trove of Gaudiya siddhanta. Baladeva is said to have been present in Sri Caitanya’s lila  in a previous birth as Gopinatha Acarya. Although a great devotee, Gopinatha was unable to convert his brother-in-law, Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya, to Sri Caitanya’s conception of bhaktivedanta (acintya-bhedabheda tattva). Later, however, as a result of hiding nearby and listening to Sri Caitanya’s discourse on vedanta delivered to Sarvabhauma, he became a scholar himself. Sri Caitanya’s explanation to Sarvabhauma was later distributed by the devoted and learned Baladeva Vidyabhusana as Sri Bhasya.

Why did Srila Prabhupada dedicate his Gita commentary to Baladeva? Because Srila Prabhupada’s concern was to give the overall siddhanta of our sampradaya to the world, rather than focus on a few of the precious jewels of our devotional conclusions in his commentary. After many translations of the Gita had been circulated in the West, not one devotee of Krishna emerged. Yet, Srila Prabhupada’s Gita produced and continues to produce thousands of devotees of Krishna. No doubt he had something specific in mind as he set out to translate and comment on the Gita.

The Gita is a deep book, from which even the highest truth of parakiya-bhava can be drawn directly from the text by those who are themselves deeply immersed in the mellows of pure devotion. Srila Prabhupada relished these finer points of siddhanta with Srila Sridhara Maharaja when they lived together at Sita Kanta Bannerjee Lane in Calcutta. At that time, Srila Prabhupada was working on his Gita translation. Srila Prabhupada appreciated Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s perception of parakiya-bhava in his interpretation of the catur-sloki of the Gita. When it was brought up to Srila Prabhupada for his opinion, he remarked to Srila Sridhara Maharaja, “Yes it must be.” Yet, in his own treatise, Srila Prabhupada had something different in mind. Different, that is, in this sense: he wanted to be instrumental in wide-scale distribution of Krishna consciousness, making it as accessible as possible for all without watering down the teaching.

Sridhara Maharaja was clearly of a different mentality. He preferred to keep close company with fewer devotees and examine and relish the finer points of Gaudiya siddhanta. Once he told us that “Swami Maharaja (Srila Prabhupada) and I are not one!” This was in response to our tendency to think that for him to be Krishna conscious he woud have to think about everything exactly as Srila Prabhupada did. Foolish we were, when we stress so much the point of our eternal individuality. Later, Srila Sridhara Maharaja said about his difference from Srila Prabhupada, “Swami Maharaja was a great man. He distributed nectar as if it were water. And I am a small man.” Yet, he was only small in his own estimation, a testimony of his greatness.

Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s translation of the Gita was like many things he wrote or spoke. He tended to discuss the mood of the circumstance rather than relate the circumstance itself, much like Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura, the contemporary of Baladeva Vidyabhushana. Thus, his decision on the text under discussion is both one and different from that of Srila Prabhupada’s. Their differences are only apparent, and they are analogous to the differences in emphasis and style of Baladeva Vidyabhushana, who gave the siddhanta as it is, and Vishvanatha Chakravarti, who consistently presented the hidden treasure  in his commentaries. On this particular text, Baladeva Vidyabhushana translates aparyaptam as immeasurable; thus giving the upper hand to Bhisma, and paryaptam as limited, while Vishvanatha Chakravarti gives the upper hand to Bhima. The Sanskrit dictionary tells us that both these words, aparyaptam and paryaptam, can have opposite meanings, and can therefore be used to support either translation.

Bhisma was the greatest of ksatriyas; thus, he certainly strengthened Duryodhana’s army, in accord with Srila Prabhupada’s translation. Yet, Bhisma also was a weak element in the military arrangement of Duryodhana, for although outwardly the strongest to oppose the Pandavas, he was inwardly the weakest. Bhisma was formally on the side of Duryodhana, while at heart and in spirit he was a member of the Pandava’s army. Bhisma loved the Pandava brothers and Sri Krishna with all of his heart. How could such a person, however strong militarily, be someone Duryodhana could count on?

The straight truth as it is, is that Bhishma was a formidable fighter and an asset to Duryodhana. The hidden treasure is that he was weakened in his support for Duryodhana because of his deep love for the Pandavas. This sweet truth is also alluded to in Srila Prabhupada’s commentary on text eleven of the first chapter of the Gita.  There Srila Prabhupada says, “Although he [Duryodhana] knew that the two generals [Bhisma and Dronacharya] had some  sort of affection for the Pandavas, he hoped that all such affection would now be completely given up by them, as was customary during the gambling performances.”

When discussing the lives and writings of the acaryas, we should enter into such discussion with a feel for what Vaishnavism is all about, otherwise we may  become victims of offenses to Vaishnavas (aparadha). Their lives are all about love, which resolves all contradictions; love harmonizes all things as nothing else can. The lives of Srila Prabhupada and Srila Sridhara Maharaja and their relationship with one another are something from which we can learn about the spirit of love. To date, there has been considerable debate about the nature of their relationship. Be assured it is one of absolute love, which as Ujjvala-nilamani tells us, moves in a croooked way. Thus, it is not understood by all, and certainly not without looking underneath the surface. If the beloved is arguing with her lover, we would be wrong to conclude that the two are not in love. Sri Radha speaks badly of Govindadeva, yet the real devotees of the two know the truth and depth of their love for one another. Aher iva gatih premnah svabhava-kutila bhavet, “Love, like a snake, moves in a crooked way.” (Ujjvala-nilamani)  In love there must be differences, apparent differences. The higher harmony is what we seek, beyond the conceptions of friends and enemies.

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15 Responses to Contradictions: Real and Apparent

  1. What about people in sakhya rasa. Don’t they have more connection with Krsna than Radharani compared to people in madhurya rasa camp?

    • For the most part yes. But we do find the cowherd Sarupa (Gopa Kumara) of Brhat-bhagavatamrta saying that he looks forward to Radha’s direct order more than Krishna’s! That said, in the article BSST is referring to manjari bhava in which extreme alligiance to Radha is involved.

  2. As far as the Gita translation of Srila Prabhupada is concerned, the differences compared against the translation of Srila Sridhar Maharaja are actually the differences between Sridhar Maharaja and Dr. Radhakrishnan, as the verses in the Gita of Srila Prabhupada were, according to Hayagriva, more or less copied from the edition of Dr. Radhakrishnan.
    Srila Prabhupada was of the opinion that the translations can differ somewhat, but that the Vaishnava purport was most important.

    The term “contradiction” is not necessarily the way to look at the differences. Does a Mango contradict an Orange? Does a Cherry contradict a grape?
    They are not really contradictions, but simply different subjective reflections of the One Truth.
    The Absolute can never be pinned down to a specific limited perception.

  3. Worm: “As far as the Gita translation of Srila Prabhupada is concerned, the differences compared against the translation of Srila Sridhar Maharaja are actually the differences between Sridhar Maharaja and Dr. Radhakrishnan, as the verses in the Gita of Srila Prabhupada were, according to Hayagriva, more or less copied from the edition of Dr. Radhakrishnan.”

    I have Dr. Radhakrishnan’s Gita and it seems to me that differences in verse translations between these two books are quite significant. I was quite surprised by that because I have heard this claim as well.

  4. When discussing the lives and writings of the acaryas, we should enter into such discussion with a feel for what Vaishnavism is all about, otherwise we may become victims of offenses to Vaishnavas (aparadha).

    Unfortunately all too often (among newer and even not-so-new practitioners) any feeling for bhakti gets overshadowed by static ideas of what Vaisnavism is. Lacking vijnana neophytes beat others over the head with jnana. Any sense of compassion–the very cornerstone of bhakti–goes out the window, along with the beauty and charm of the path in favor of “siddhanta.” Luckily we have articles like this one to remind us that spiritual life is about being flexible and to remain focused on bhakti’s spirit and not so much the form.

    • A lot of people aren’t going to buy the argument that contradiction amongst the Gaudiya acharyas is simply a chance for us to exercise “flexibility”.

      That is an awfully convenient excuse as to why there are inconsistencies in the Gaudiya siddhanta according to the different acharyas.

      Could it possibly be that in fact the Gaudiyas do not have an absolute lock on the Absolute?

      Flexibility?
      That is not a quality I remember Krishna expounding upon the Bhagavad-gita.

      We don’t need to be flexible.
      We need to be rigid.
      But, first we must find out what the true conclusion is.

      • “Flexibility?
        That is not a quality I remember Krishna expounding upon the Bhagavad-gita.”

        Perhaps Krishna does not expound upon flexibility, but he certainly seems to exercise it: “sarva-dharman parityaja.” Given the supremacy of dharma in the worldview of the MB, it is tough to imagine a more revolutionary or “flexible” statement. In essence Krishna is telling Arjuna not to worry about the entire socio-religious order and the rules and regulations that uphold such order. Instead the instruction is to focus on bhakti’s spirit – mam ekam saranam vraja.

      • Who has said that we have to be rigid? Is it a rigid statement(some laity there)?

      • Aside from Gopala dasa’s excellent reply, flexibility is a quality all the acaryas embodied. Was BSST being flexible when he was prepared to serve meat in his outreach? I’d say so. Was Srila Prabhupada flexible? Extremely so, otherwise he could not have accomplished the amazing things he did. And perhaps you have heard that Krsna lila is a dynamic drama that moves like a snake between vipralambha and sambhoga. No rigidity there. We are to learn something from all this, which means that if we are to cultivate a vital inner life then we must be flexible in how we think about the teachings lest we end up with a static idea of the Absolute. Your objection that flexibility is just an excuse for the inconsistencies in the siddhanta applies only to those who attempt to be so without good guidance. A qualified guru will teach us how to harmonize apparent contradictions, and to do so requires flexibility. Dogmatic practitioners who are attached to their mental ideas of what bhakti is and how it works cannot think dynamically about the teachings and the tradition. Such practitioners need to hear from someone who presents the teachings from different angles and thus shatters our rigid notions for our benefit.

        • Well, said, Citta. Rigidity may be appropriate for the kanishta adhikari, whose faith is very tender. However, our gurus call us to progress beyond the narrow conceptions of the kanistha-adhikari devotee. So rigidity should not be something for which we ought to aspire.

          • So rigidity should not be something for which we ought to aspire.

            Exactly. At a certain stage we may need to be rigid in our thinking because we lack the inner resources to deal with ambiguity, etc., but that’s not the place we want to hang out forever! We should aspire to become madhyama-adhikaris, which of course is all about the gray areas and using one’s discrimination with the help of guru and sastra.

  5. I am not sure that we need to try to resolve all such contradictions between various gurus. Maybe we just need to pick the understanding that matches our own mood of devotion, or convinces (inspires) us better, and build on it.

    Almost in every case of such contradictions one side appeals to us more than the other. Why not follow that inner guidance? Why do some follow Chandravali while others follow Srimati Radhika? Why should we all aspire to think the same way? Bhakti is not a binary system of just zeros and ones – there are multiple ‘correct’ answers to just about any question we can think of.

    Can we have a lock on the Absolute? Somehow I doubt that very much.

  6. A lot of western ISKCON type devotees run into a conundrum when they find that their siksha and diksha gurus sometimes have slight differences on certain issues of the siddhanta or philosophy.
    The conundrum is due to their conception of Srila Prabhupada, Sridhar Maharaja or some other elder Vaishnava as being some divine, perfect, infallible, all-knowing Mahatma beyond any sort of mistaken notion.

    However, the perfection of the acharya is on the spiritual platform, not on this material platform of physical existence.

    If we can appreciate that and not allow obvious material defects in the Vaishnava to erode our faith,respect and veneration, then we can get the blessings of the Vaishnava.

    Srila Prabhupada was obviously venerated on such a level in ISKCON that in the years after his passing there was some reality check for the ISKCON soldiers when they found out about major ISKCON atrocities like the gurukulas,falling sannyasis that were never fit for the job, Moon landing denials, Landing on Rahu and sundry other ISKCON Absolutes that proved to in fact be erroneous notions on the part of Srila Prabhupada.

    However, if we see Srila Prabhupada as a simple, humble Vaishnava and not as some all knowing SUPER-DUPER SHAKTYAVESHA AVATAR incapable of error or mistake, then we are better off.

    The Absolute is so subtle and so sublime that there is no possible way to express it in this world without some form of inebriation.
    Not even for the pure devotee of Krishna.

    Certainly, Srila Prabhupada’s connection through his vani is more important for conditioned souls than is their own conscience. In other words, the Vaishnava guru who actually delivers Krishna to his disciple is much more important to the disciple than is his relationship with God.

    Still, that dispensation of grace from the Lord is delivered to this world by empowered souls who might otherwise have some material defect.

    Their perfection is on the spiritual platform of realizing Krishna.
    Not the material perfection of always being materially correct.

  7. A lot of western ISKCON type devotees run into a conundrum when they find that their siksha and diksha gurus sometimes have slight differences on certain issues of the siddhanta or philosophy.

    This can (and does, and should) happen to anyone who is blessed to have a qualified guru. The guru’s job is to keep us from becoming complacent in our understanding, to help us to grow out of our black-and-white conception of bhakti and become comfortable with the infinite shades of gray that comprise reality. The guru’s presentation will continually evolve due to him or her being in contact with the living current of bhakti. After all, this is why we become inspired to hear from and surrender to a given Vaisnava–they don’t spew out pat answers and thus inspire us, because they themselves are inspired.

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