The Literalist

H6CH7GPC1otherservicesBy Sri Narasingha Dev-Gosai

A literal understanding of sastra, as it seems to be regarded in some sections of the greater Vaishnava community, is looked down upon as being neophyte or simply not intellectually satisfying. Some even consider the literal understanding of sastra to be the great enemy of progressive Krishna consciousness—thus we sometimes read statements like the following:

“… after the damage devotees have done by literal use of scripture”

or

“… now devotees are blocking the sukrti of many people in the name of following Srila Prabhupada literally.”

I have not combed the internet or surveyed multitudes of devotees to discover exactly if many feel this way—I have simply come across the above quotes in recent readings and they have sparked a particular thinking in me and the impetus to write this short essay.

Obviously, even the critic of the ‘literalist’ must indeed accept some literal meanings in the sastra such as in dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre, meaning the place of pilgrimage known as Kuruksetra (Gita 1.1). Here a literal reading will take you to a place in North India that many great acaryas have accepted as the place of the Kuruksetra War, where Bhagavad-gita was spoken etc. However, a non-literal reading of the text takes one to the realm of no-Krishna and no-Pandavas, the non-literal interpretation being that Kuruksetra is the body and the Pandavas are the senses, etc.

When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada wrote his Gita translation and commentary he chose Bhagavad-gita As It Is for the title. As It Is meaning the literal understanding. He wrote, warning against misinterpretations, “Read Bhagavad-gita as it is. Then you will be benefited.”

However, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in their Gita commentaries, transcend the literal meaning of Bhagavad-gita and take their reader to a substratum to discover hidden truths. In kind, Srila Sridhara Maharaja followed the line of Visvanatha and Bhaktivinoda and his Gita commentary is entitled The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute.

The revelation of the substratum does not always change the meaning of the literal reading. Indeed, the revelation of the substratum often increases the beauty and charm of the devotee’s experience. It does not necessarily contradict it.

Take the following verse:

sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah

The literal reading is as follows:

Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 18.66) Thus the Lord takes all responsibility for one who surrenders unto him, and he indemnifies such a person against all reactions of sins.

Revelation of the substratum, however, reads differently:

Give up all engagements and come to Me. You won’t have to repent, Arjuna, because I am everything to you, and You are everything to Me. This is the most hidden of all hidden truths. What more can I say? And you will find this in Vraja [Goloka Vrindavana]. (The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute, 18.66)

The two readings of Gita 18.66 are not actually different, but the later gives the devotee a certain solace that a life of surrender leads one to Krishna in his supreme abode of Goloka Vrindavana.

The substratum or hidden truth of sastra is sometimes hidden for a purpose, at least one would think so. One thing is said and on occasion a deeper truth is to be understood. It seems to me that the truth is sometimes hidden to keep it out of reach for those who are unqualified; first deserve, then desire.

But herein lies a problem: who is actually qualified to interpret sastra? Who is actually qualified to understand and enter the substratum? We have often seen how interpretation leads to misinterpretation, especially in the case of the impersonalists and the imitationists. With this consideration in mind one could conclude that the literalist, although meager in his/her depth of understanding is safe, or at least for the time being.

To suggest that the literalist is somehow in a safer position as opposed to the interpreter of sastra is not to say that ignorance is bliss, but such may have its merits. If a great Vaishnava personality such as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was indeed a literalist, as has been suggested, then surely the literal interpretation of sastra must have some intrinsic value in the ultimate search for truth.

My perception is that when one makes a literal reading of sastra one is often faced with the unbelievable, the fantastical—that which mind, intelligence, logic, and reason struggle to accept or even totally reject. Is the literal interpretation of sastra actually blocking or damaging to our progress as some have suggested, or does the literal interpretation call upon something that is greatly beneficial to us? I believe it does. The literal reading of sastra calls upon our faith, however meager (even blind faith), as the basis of our understanding. The literalist has faith in sastra and so he/she takes sastra at face value. Is that a bad thing?

After all, faith is the only sure way to know Krishna, the unknown and unknowable. Knowledge, reason, logic, and even our deepest intelligence are unable to capture Krishna. Only our deep faith and surrender can do so.

Srila Sridhara Maharaja used to tell the story of a dream that he once had wherein he saw that all his knowledge of sastra had abandoned him. In his dream he was alone and only his faith remained—that which takes us to the lotus feet of Krishna, beyond the coverings of the material world.

Those who knew Sridhara Maharaja certainly know that he had a vast knowledge of sastra. He had deep realizations, such that would make many of us faint. Yet he knew and preached that faith alone was our guide in the infinite.

Some may condemn the literalist as a neophyte, but I personally question such condemnation. Rather than condemn the literal interpretation of sastra, I tend to lean towards a deeper understanding—perceiving it as a building block of faith in the progressive path of Krishna consciousness. Those who condemn the literalists may do better to first learn to believe in the “As It Is” stratum, first acquiring a deeper faith in guru, the Vaishnavas, and the sastra before they venture to explore the substratum. Explorer beware! There are tigers in those forests!

When dealing with the higher plane or the deeper substratum, even a little inaccuracy can create great havoc. In such areas the devotee must be very careful not to misinterpret or to offend because this can completely eliminate one’s progress.

At the end of the day we are not interpreters of sastra nor are we literalists—we are harmonists. The harmonist sometimes takes the sastra literally and sometimes not so, endeavoring to penetrate deeper into the world that is Krishna’s inner domain.

For the harmonist, faith (sraddha) is the greatest asset—knowledge and the intellect are but bystanders in the endeavor. Saints are the beacons that guide the faith of the harmonist to the land ruled completely by faith.

So let us give the literalists their due credit for taking their stand on faith and not relying on the intellect. And while being taken into confidence by the saints and shown the beautiful world of Krishna’s inner domain, let us not become proud of our small brains and finite knowledge, lest we become harmonists in name only. While endeavoring to see the deeper meaning of sastra, are we not to go deeper into the meaning of being a literalist also?


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54 Responses to The Literalist

  1. You have a good point, Maharaja. But we have seen the danger of literalism in fanatical religious expressions like terrorism and burning of non-Christians. What motivates people to commit such acts that belie reason? The answer is faith in the literal truth of the scripture. I do not see any difference between evangelist Christians and Islamic people and literalists in GV, at least in their external behavior. We cannot praise the terrorists and people who killed others in the name of upholding their religious scripture.

    I do not have problem with literalists, but they should not impose their understanding on others who do not follow their line of thinking.

    • I agree and would like to hear Maharaja’s response in this regard. Was he perhaps referring to a different type of literalist?

  2. There are two things which resonate with me in this article and I believe they are important considerations in approaching sastra. The first one is the idea that A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami was a literalist in his approach to sastra. I don’t personally think he was a literalist, but his presentation could certainly be viewed that way. For those who have faith in him as a greatly advanced devotee capable of guiding others and leading them to similar advanced stages of devotion, it is important to consider his presentation deeply and not simply dismiss it as ‘literalist’ or ‘fundamentalist’.

    The other point that resonated with me is that a neophyte can be either a literalist or a non-literalist. It is not that by ‘transcending’ the literal approach to sastra one automatically becomes advanced. Any person who thinks this way is obviously missing the point since it is faith that we seek and through that faith deep engagement in seva.

    Even though I think these are valid points and should be considered deeply, I do personally think that the two statements that prompted the writing of this article have their own merit and truth to them.

    There are some vociferous devotees who say (according to a literal reading of scripture of course) that the Guru is non-different from Krsna and everything he/she says is scripture. His/her words are absolute. They then use such words spoken in private, in personal corrspondences, in lectures or in books to beat people over the head with. This leads to all sorts of foolish ideas and faith in that which are clearly relative truths based on time, place and circumstance as being absolute.

    What we seek is deep faith in truth, reality the beautiful. Just as there are ‘tigers in the forest’ of venturing forward to find deeper meaning, or hidden meaning in sastra, there clearly are sharks in the waters of literalist/fundamentalist faith.

    Understanding that Sri Guru is dear to Krsna but also human and not only capable of, but certain to make mistakes might be a hard pill to swallow for the literalist – but without understanding Sri Guru’s humanity progress will be halted. How can we see our prospect in Sri Guru if he/she is devoid of all that it means to be human? Worse still, when a clear misunderstanding or false statement with regard to the relative world of duality is spoken by Sri Guru and recorded, what will the literalist do? To what ends with the literalist go to try to show the ‘truth’ of such a faulty statement?

    We have seen the results of this literalism personally and it is this very type of fanaticism that does indeed push people away from devotees and devotional service. This is a fact and should not be brushed aside as inconsequential because, afterall, those doing the pushing have ‘faith’.

  3. It seems to me it takes more faith to accept scriptures non literally than literally. It requires seeing sastric events and personalitites as symbols for a reality that would be farther removed from reason and probability. A world of feeling and trust. We know Krishna is blue because we like him that way.

  4. I just read the article, “The Literalist”, by Sri Narasingha Deva-Gosai and I have to say [sisya-bhava aside], it was so powerful, inspiring and amazing! I am so grateful to have just read it. What an amazing article!!! It was excellent. I think the article is brilliant, succinct and to the point and naturally, it will generate some ‘intellectual’ responses.

    It is a beautiful and honest realization of a topic so vital and close to the heart of devotees. I feel like Maharaja has given us such a wholesome and deep perspective where it was so greatly needed.

    If my appreciation for Maharaja’s a article troubles someone then possibly they should try to understand the deeper meaning of what Maharaja is saying and not take his article so literally. After all, as Maharaja says, faith and surrender alone can capture Lord Krishna, not our tinny brain, especially my 32 ounces:-)

  5. Take it with a grain of salt.

    “But we have seen the danger of literalism in fanatical religious expressions like terrorism and burning of non-Christians. What motivates people to commit such acts that belie reason? The answer is faith in the literal truth of the scripture.”

    One could also then say, But we have seen the danger of ‘interpretation’ in deviant religious expressions like sahajiyas and mayavadis. What motivates people to commit such acts that belie sastra? The answer is over intelligence, lack of faith and lack of surrender to a bona fide representative of sastra.

    It could also be argued that; One, the people that you speak of above do not actually have real scripture other than that which is fit for Yavanas and Molecchas. Second, the Yavana and Mollecha scriptures do recommend violence and killing infidels, etc. The writers of the Yavana and Molleccha scriptures were not “Tree Huggers”!

    “I do not have problem with literalists, but they should not impose their understanding on others who do not follow their line of thinking.”

    Similarly, I do not have a problem with the interpretationists, but they should not impose their understanding on others who do not follow their line of thinking.

    “The other point that resonated with me is that a neophyte can be either a literalist or a non-literalist. It is not that by ‘transcending’ the literal approach to sastra one automatically becomes advanced.”

    Hmmm, should we take you literally on this point or not? If transcending literally means going beyond the three modes of material nature and entering brahman or suddha-sattva-guna, then certainly one who transcends the literal meaning of sastra must be advanced. But if transcending is taken as simply an intellectual exercise then, yes, simply “transcending” the literal approach to sastra one does not become advance. But what would be the use in that?

    “What we seek is deep faith in truth, reality the beautiful. Just as there are ‘tigers in the forest’ of venturing forward to find deeper meaning, or hidden meaning in sastra, there clearly are sharks in the waters of literalist/fundamentalist faith.”

    YES indeed, “Sri Krishna, Reality the Beautiful.” According to that book’s author, sraddha is our only guide in the infinite, not our puny intellect.

    Rightly put, ‘there are ‘tigers in the forest’ of venturing forward to find deeper meaning or hidden meaning in sastra. And there are clearly ‘sharks’ in the waters of literalists/fundmentalist faith (of aquatics Krishna is the shark).

    How true both these pitfalls are. I’m glad, then, to be a harmonist.

    • “Similarly, I do not have a problem with the interpretationists, but they should not impose their understanding on others who do not follow their line of thinking.”
      In general the non-literalists in GV do not impose their views on other, but the literalist camp is so dominant in GV that some one has to speak up for the other side. There has to be an antithesis for the thesis, so that it forces a synthesis. Moderate elements everywhere are reticent to speak up, and hence fanatics are emboldened by lack of opposition.

  6. It seems to me it takes more faith to accept scriptures non literally than literally.

    In general it also seems that way to me but I also think the opposite can be true. For some it may be easier to accept the descriptions found in sastra as allegorical or symbolic representations of principles and not literal stories per se; it could be a lack of faith that prevents one from accepting the literal version.

    • Indeed it can be said that faith or lack thereof is negotiated in both instances. So then what seems to be the case is that for some people the literal is the truth and yet to others the non literal is true. Whatever floats one’s boat, the saying goes. So long one arrives at prema, however one gets there should be equally relevant. Apparent contradictions not withstanding, acintya-bedha-abheda is the all inclusive resolution.

  7. Here is just a quick selection of quotes from Prabhupada and Bhagavatam. There are hundreds of such statements in Prabhupada’s books. My question is that if our intellect continuously finds a need to balance such statements, as there are a very many, then what was the use in Prabhupada and Bhagavatam speaking these things in the first place? Why not just say it the way it should have been said without putting everyone thru the mill? Or is the literal meaning the simple truth? Emphasis on ‘simple’.

    “It is understood herein that Adharma, Irreligion, was also a son of Brahmä, and he married his sister Måñä. This is the beginning of sex life between brother and sister. This unnatural combination of sex life can be possible in human society only where there is Adharma, or Irreligion.” (Bhag 4.8.2 Purport:)

    “Lust and desire became manifested from the heart of Brahmä, anger from between his eyebrows, greed from between his lips, the power of speaking from his mouth, the ocean from his penis, and low and abominable activities from his anus, the source of all sins.” (3.12.26 Verse)

    “It is understood herewith that the faculty to discharge semen is the cause of death. Therefore, yogés and transcendentalists who want to live for greater spans of life voluntarily restrain themselves from discharging semen. The more one can restrain the discharge of semen, the more one can be aloof from the problem of death. There are many yogés living up to three hundred or seven hundred years by this process, and in the Bhägavatam it is clearly stated that discharging semen is the cause of horrible death. The more one is addicted to sexual enjoyment, the more susceptible he is to a quick death.” (3,26.57 Purport)

    Taken literally one might get the impression that if male female sex is sometimes condemnable as in the case of between brother and sister, then certainly the act of sodomy or oral copulation between men is condemnable. Would that be a correct interpretation?

    If the anus is literally to be thought of as the “source of all sins”, then sodomy is even further condemned. And when the discharge of semen is “the cause of death”, then where does this leave the gay movement? Condemned to sinful reactions and a quick death?

    How are we to interpret these things? Or are such statements simply true?

    • I suppose one might look at other commentaries as well. Preaching is relative to time and circumstance for good reasons. With the change of time and circumstances new insights also come to light. This is the approach of Thakura Bhaktivinoda. The reason the intellect needs to balance such statements is that they themselves are often relative to time and circumstance. Not only that, if irrefutable evidence to the contrary arises, then what? Prabhupada said man did not go to the moon. Prabhupada wrote that that anyone living outside of Iskcon is living in illusion. Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja reasoned that the idea that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon should be understood in terms of its power to affect the earth. Why would anyone feel the need to balance these statements out? You tell me.

      Often those insisting on a literal embrace of revelation in reality pick and choose what they will take literally and what they will not without even realizing that they do this. So there is a place for it. Find your place under the guidance of your guru.

      • About your moon comment. The moon is not said to be further away from us than the sun in the Bhagavatam, the sun is closer to Bhu-mandala than the moon, but further from us than the moon. The moon is “higher” from us than the sun, but much closer to us than the sun because the sun is horizontally much further away from us. In the Bhagavatam it says we live on a flat round world with both the sun and moon above us, with the moon 800,000 yojanas higher above us than the sun. We live at the center of the world of Bhu-mandala, the moon is horizontally a bit away from us, but the sun is horizontally far far away from us. In the Bhagavatam the sun is a bit over 15 million yojanas horizontally away from us. It doesn’t say how far away the moon is, but it says the distance in the orbit of the sun covered in one year is covered by the moon in two fortnights — meaning the moon is roughly 1/27th horizontally as far from us as the sun. Here is a picture showing this in 3d http://img513.imageshack.us/img513/4196/bhumandala.jpg

        This data is from the work of Sadaputa aka Dr. Richard Thompson

        • Thank you for your comment. Yes, I am aware of that and have written about it elsewhere. It was Prabhupada who interpreted the text to imply that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon and Pujyapada Sridhara Maharaja was commenting on that interpretation and finding a way to honor it.

    • Dear Steven (I’m not sure if I should take your username literally or not),

      one of your main objections to the non-literal approach to shastra seems to be that people who do that trust more in their intellect and ego than the two Bhagavatas. This to me is a very superficial analysis of what non-literalism means. Why is it so hard to see it more as a search for a higher understanding of the essence of shastra? If you object to this by saying that anybody can imagine their own “higher understandings” then my reply will be that there are person Bhagavatas who have actual feeling for these topics and who exemplify such a character that couldn’t be possible for an “imitationist”. If a person like this gives some room for thinking about the shastra in a broader way, while making sure the student doesn’t go off the deep end, then what’s the harm? Actually I feel that that will only make the student more absorbed in thinking about the scriptures, because the message becomes integrated in a real, concrete way instead of just something that is as it is, period.

  8. Good article. When I first read Srimad Bhagavatam I had some revelations about the human race and the history. The history in Bhagavad Gita seems to extend beyond those of the Abrahamic faiths and adds a new dimension to the contemplation of where exactly humans are in time right now. Now I am realizing I just do not know anything at all or really care wether everything is exactly true or not. I like to think all of these stories are true but I just honestly don’t know but I keep an open mind and no matter what I study in life I still think of it in relation to Krishna. The best concept in Krishna Consciousness is that of the supersoul. That is what keeps me from ever rejecting Krishna Consciousness because I love the concept that all living entities are connected to Krishna through the supersoul.

  9. Vikram Ramsoondur

    Once again, H. H. Sripada B.G. Narasingha Maharaja marvellously lives up to what many of us have come to expect from him. Indeed, in the characteristic spirit of the form of Godhead after Whom he is named, he puts in proper perspective the position of those who would have us take cue from their material, relativistic views rather than follow in the footsteps of the great acharyas.

    Indeed, as Maharaja compellingly illustrates with his arguments and cited examples, it is sraddha which is the prerequisite ingredient capable of leading us to the lotus feet of Lord Hari. For certain, reason does have its place in devotional life, but bhakti-yoga is first and foremost a religion of the heart, and the heart thrives far more on faith and love than it does on knowledge or the intellect.

    Before concluding, I find it necessary to draw attention to something that has struck my mind. A number of aspirant devotees often quote some of Srila Bhakivinoda Thakura’s works such as his Krsna-samhita to try to impress upon other people the point that sastra ought not to be taken at face value, especially with regard to some of the more fantastic-sounding scriptural statements on the nature of the material domain. This definitely appears to be a rather convenient stance to adopt because in several of his writings, particularly the later ones which were authored in the last decade of the 19th century (Jaiva Dharma and Sri Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya, among others, come to mind), the Thakura, in the age-old Vaisnava fashion, implicitly accepted the reality of a great many mythological-sounding concepts forming part of the Vedic worldview that he had marginalised as mere poetry just a few years before. To me at least, the cautioning was in order, bearing in mind the overall status of Vaisnavism in the 1860s through the 1880s, and the audience that Srila Bhaktivinoda was trying to drive to the sublime spiritual philosophy of the Bhagavata. That is not to say that we should not all attempt to capture the essence of Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s siksa in these works as well. Nonetheless, it is quite evident that it was not his final word on the matter. And this becomes readily apparent if one tracks the evolution of the specific slant on a number of sastric pronouncements that he emphasised earlier in his devotional career.

    • You write:

      the Thakura, in the age-old Vaisnava fashion, implicitly accepted the reality of a great many mythological-sounding concepts forming part of the Vedic worldview that he had marginalised as mere poetry just a few years before.

      Can you give us some examples? How do you interpret the Thakura’s “The Bhagavata?”

      Don’t you realize that you are interpreting (“to me at least”) some of the literal words of BVT to mean something other than they literally say in the name of taking the acaryas literally?

      Sraddha may be more important that intellect but the difference between komala sraddha and sraddha that is not weak is sraddha strengthened by the application of one’s intellect in relation to revelation. Sastra-yukti is different from kevala-yukti. The former is futile and the latter is what we call theology.

      As I have already demonstrated, the question is not whether or not to take revelation literally, but rather when to do so and when not. And that requires realization, not “over intelligence.” Short of that, follow your guru. Now, if in doing that you want to assert that your guru is better than another for his or her position on literal vs nonliteral, be ready to have your sraddha shaken and be ready to use your intellect if you want to be credible in the eyes of others.

      • Vikram Ramsoondur

        “Can you give us some examples?”

        The Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya is replete with such examples, as is much of the Jaiva-dharma. The existence of the Prajapatis (progenitors of mankind), Vedic chronology (material time divided in manvantaras and kalpas), sapta-rishis (seven celestial sages) presiding over each manvantara, are a few of these instances that come to mind.

        • The Navadvipa-dhama-mahatmya is replete with such examples, as is much of the Jaiva-dharma. The existence of the Prajapatis (progenitors of mankind), Vedic chronology (material time divided in manvantaras and kalpas), sapta-rishis (seven celestial sages) presiding over each manvantara, are a few of these instances that come to mind.

          And in Sri Krsna-samhita these are dismissed? Regardless and despite various details found in Krsna-samhita, the point of the book is that one can adopt a modern perspective of sorts and proceed down the path of suddha-bhakti without being guilty of “over intelligence” or lack of faith (sraddha). Pujypada Sridhara Maharaja recommended that we study this book. I think the spirit of it is important.

          The argument that the book is some kind of preaching strategy and the objective truth is otherwise may have some merit. However, we might do well to adopt such a style of sorts in seeking to communicate the essence of suddha-bhakti in today’s world. But I think that the spirit of the book is not really about whether, for example, the Bhagavata was written in the 6th century in South India or much earlier by Vyasa, but that it could be looked at either way. The Thakura may have preferred one perspective over another—the ancient over the modern—but he clearly casts a light of relativity on a number of cherished beliefs that one need not be intellectually burdened by should one feel so. Thus the argument that one must be so burdened arguably flies in the face of the spirt of the book, and in the least it ignores a relevant strategy for communicating the gist of suddha-bhakti to an educated Western audience.

          That said, with all due respect you initially wrote

          A number of aspirant devotees often quote some of Srila Bhakivinoda Thakura’s works such as his Krsna-samhita to try to impress upon other people the point that sastra ought not to be taken at face value, especially with regard to some of the more fantastic-sounding scriptural statements on the nature of the material domain. This definitely appears to be a rather convenient stance to adopt

          as a way of distancing yourself from such devotes and cautioning agains it.

          Then in your next post you say that you yourself have adopted non literal approach to what you referred to previously as “the more fantastic-sounding scriptural statements on the nature of the material domain,” the fifth canto of Bhagavata cosmology. This to me seems inconsistent.

          • Vikram Ramsoondur

            I can have no disagreement with your post, Maharaja. The reason why I use harmonist.us and http://www.swami.org to increase my knowledge of Vaisnavism and strengthen whatever little faith I have is because I find your presentation of Krsna Consciousness original and satisfying. There is not a word to which I object in your above response to me.

            What gets my goat is not, however, the essence or spirit of adapting one’s preaching style in concordance with the contemporary intellectual mindset of the society in which one is living. No rational individual can decry such a method.

            However, a tiny proportion of aspiring Vaisnavas take this line of reasoning way too far, as per my own view of course. For instance, there are those who believe that Krsna never really descended on earth some 5,000 years ago, or that the lifting of Govardhana Hill could not have occurred as it is depicted in the Bhagavatam since this would violate the laws of physics etc. Similarly, I once came across a write-up by somebody opining that the story of Lord Narasimha is only to be taken metaphorically, as naturally the happenings therein are plainly impossible in the physical world.

            The moment one begins equating the pastimes of Visnu solely with allegorical truths, the very soul of vaisnava-dharma is lost. I do accept that profound philosophical teachings are hidden in the events that we hear or read about in Hari-katha. However, reducing Hari-lila to mere poetic licence is one thing I can never subscribe to, and this is essentially what I was excepting to. Maybe I should’ve articulated my ideas somewhat more limpidly.

            Lastly, you’re not wrong in your assessment of my position on these matters. There is in fact a sort of doublethink in my take on the subject. But I don’t think that it is too much at variance with that of the majority of Vaisnavas since time immemorial. Basically, this involves a largely direct construing of scriptural texts, with ambiguous or obtuse verses glossed in such a manner as to synthesise the main voice of sastra into one cohesive ensemble.

            My respects to you.

          • And my respects to you. Thank you for clarifying your position.

  10. I will say a literal stance is also convenient for many people. Reality that is black and white with devotees great mahatamas and others as demons, mlecchas and yavanas is so easy to deal with for many people.Then the stance literalists adopt on issues like women and homosexuality is another thing.

    A number of aspirant devotees often quote some of Srila Bhakivinoda Thakura’s works such as his Krsna-samhita to try to

    Thankfully it is extremely few aspirant devotees who do that. Don’t worry most devotees are literalists. GV is not in danger from people like me.

  11. Vikram Ramsoondur

    I should stress the fact that by expressing appreciation for and agreement with Narasingha Maharaja’s article, I am not by any means advocating a 100% literal reading of scripture. As the author himself beautifully concludes, harmonisation is what needs to be the pre-eminent preoccupation. For instance, there are certain verses in the Bhagavatam that seem, on first impression, to lean towards an Advaitic philosophical understanding. However, our Vaisnava commentators have invariably interpreted these slokas in the proper theistic context in which they belong so as to ‘harmonise’ them with the overall theological standpoint of the Bhagavata, which is absolute surrender to Bhagavan Krsna.

    Likewise, I have effusively praised Sadaputa dasa’s books on Vedic astronomy and cosmology on another thread on this website, as I personally consider his thesis to be the most comprehensive, elaborate and thoughtful study conducted on the theme to date. So as to make sense of Puranic cosmogony in light of the prevalent scientific consensus, his approach necessarily entailed resorting to an interpretation of the Fifth Canto. No aspirant Vaisnava in his right mind, having carefully perused the works referred to above, would ever think of condemning Sadaputa for adopting a less-than-literal use of sastra in this particular instance.

    • Great, so what are we talking about then in terms of literal vs nonliteral? You find room to interpret the Bhagavata cosmology in relation to the hard sciences of today. Do you refuse to take a similar stance in relation to the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology? Is the issue really literal vs nonliteral, faith (spiritually correct) verses uncontrolled intellect (spiritually corrupt)? I don’t think so.

  12. Like Tripurari Maharaja, I have repeatedly stated that even literalists pick and choose what to interpret literally. Whatever is convenient to them. BVT’s non-literal writings should not be taken literally!! How is that? It was just BVT’s bait for intellectuals. When SP makes different statements from previous acaryas, what do you do? Take one literally and other non-literally. In this case SP literally and see BVT in light of that interpretation.

    I don’t want to get into too much word jugglery.

  13. Steven (Satyaraja dasa)

    “Do you refuse to take a similar stance in relation to the soft sciences such as sociology and psychology?”

    Well, I for one (I don’t know about Vikram) would take any prohibition against bestiality, pedophilia or homosexuality found in the soft sciences of sastra to be expressly literal. In my world view somethings never change with the passing of time and I firmly believe that God/Krsna is appalled by such things, both in the ancient past as well as the present.

    Someone may argue that Krishna Bhakti must adopt to the cultural context of the times but where do you draw the line? If the culture of the times kills cows, eats flesh and tolerates homosexuality, do you then beg the issue that these “cultural” practices become the accepted norm in Vaishnavism? If so then be prepared to accept the norm of bestiality and pedophilia in the not so distant future because these are next on the gay agenda.

    In the sastra, cow killing is an act of violence and sexual disorders such as homo sexuality, pedophilia and bestiality are sub-human/demoniac practices. These are however accepted among the demons.

    Of course, one might not literally believe in demoniac natures as described in sastra and if so then why should one literally believe in divine natures either?

    • Steven,
      why are you trying to push the gay issue on this thread? You’re just trying to pick a fight because you know we completely disagree with your opinion on it? Stick to the topic, will you.

    • So you are espousing literalism with “hard” and “soft” sciences of the Bhagavata? If that is your position I recommend you offer your commentary where your faith will be shared – Fox news, Bill O’Reiley, Rush Limbaugh and the like. There is a place for everyone there, as long as you fear god, hate gays and love guns.

      Where do you get off (actually please don’t tell me) grouping homosexuality, bestiality and pedophilia together? Do you have some type of research demonstrating this link that after homosexuality the next on your imagined “gay agenda” will be to convert all the innocent heterosexuals of the world to sex with children and animals? If that is your version of “gut-feeling”, no-fact literalism, do the world a favor and don’t preach! The facts are that there is no link between homosexuality (which is not immoral, it is just different than your sexuality) and pedophilia or bestiality.

      Yes, I do believe that divine and demoniac natures and not literal – in the sense that sastra only gives a simplistic understanding. Most, if not all of the inhabitants of Kali-yuga possess a mix of divine and demoniac nature.
      Subtlety prabhu, subtlety. But then again, subtlety is a realm that a madhyama would feel comfortable in.

    • If the culture of the times kills cows, eats flesh and tolerates homosexuality, do you then beg the issue that these “cultural” practices become the accepted norm in Vaishnavism?

      I could take your same argument back a century and argue that if the culture of the time frees slaves, what happens when such human rights take place in vaisnava culture? The answer is progress!!! No non-Indian gaudiya vaisnava can argue against the cultural benefits we have received because of a “culturally” progressive view held by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Heck, he left Bharata-bhumi and preached to mlecchas! What is next?
      The line for cultural competency stops when you truly possess the equal vision to be able to recognize potential for bhakti in any souls’ heart. Until you get there, interpretation and making exceptions in order to offer bhakti will only help you become more merciful. I say push the line further.

    • In the Kama-Sutra homosexual sexuality is approved of. Is it bona fide sastra? Vaisnava acaryas like Visvanath Cakravarti Thakura and Krsnadas Kaviraja had referenced the Kama-sutra in their writings having Krishna revere it in his conversations with Radha.

      I’ve never understood why some people view homosexuality with such abhorrence. Why the big deal? Just some skin touching. Yet some people make it out to be equal to killing and rape. That is much more of a disorder in my view.

      • Vaisnava acaryas like Visvanath Cakravarti Thakura and Krsnadas Kaviraja had referenced the Kama-sutra in their writings having Krishna revere it in his conversations with Radha.

        Krishna “reveres” the Kama-sutra?! I like to see that quoted, if you would be so kind to oblige. Thanks.

        • Srila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakur

          Surata-kathamritam (7)

          smara-narapati-vara-rAjye dharmaH zarma-prado’yam AdiSTaH
          vatsyAyana-muni-nirmita-paddhaty-uktAnusAreNa hi

          “This is the most beneficial dharma that rules in this, the great kingdom of Cupid, the god of love. It has been ordained in accordance with the rules of the rulebook composed by Vatsyayana Muni.”

          Sri Surata-kathamrta

          Radharani: “My Lord, You are fond of tasting the nectar of these transcendental mellows by speaking in this way. These pastimes of Yours exactly follow the descriptions of the kama-sastra. You are the original author of the kama-sastra. I therefore offer My respectful obeisances unto You.”

          Krishnadas Kaviraja

          Govinda-lilamritam:

          tAruNya-bhaTTa-gurutaH samadhIta-kAma-
          nyAyAdi-zAstra-cayayA sa sa-tIrthayApi |
          citraM na tan-nija-jayAya tayodagRhnAn
          naiyAyiko hi guruNApi vivAdam icchet || 9.21 ||

          “Radha and Krsna went to consult Tarunya Bhatta, the professor of kama sastra, eager to study under Him. Although They were classmates, they still wanted to argue with each other. There is no fault in this, nor is this astonishing, for students of logic want to argue even with their own teacher!”

    • If so then be prepared to accept the norm of bestiality and pedophilia in the not so distant future because these are next on the gay agenda.

      Pedophilia is on the gay agenda,really?
      Any references you have?
      Like I said before don’t worry about us non-literalists. There are so few of us and even among them very few are willing to confront the literalists. The dandavats forum on moon landing shows who is the dominant party in GV.

  14. I think in this discussion and also in relation to the article it is important to consider the wisdom of BVT in how people of different levels of faith interact:
    “…Bhaktivinoda warns that it is not always appropriate for komala-sraddhas to hear what is written for madhyamadhikaris as it may confuse and damage their tender faith as much as madhyamadhikaris feel alienated when subjected to the literal perspective of komala-sraddhas.”
    – Shukavak N. Dasa referencing Krsna Samhita in his “Hindu Encounter with Modernity”

    It seems to me that the root of the problem is in mixing differing levels of faith. Yes there is purpose and place for kanistha faith, but it just won’t work for the madhyama. Yes there is place for the intellectual reasoning, doubt and interpretation of the madhyama, but that confuses the kanistha. Best thing to do is know your own faith and associate with like-minded souls. As we progress and get the mercy of those more advanced than ourselves, our faith will be shaken. That is progress. To have the sadhu shake you up, out of your comfortable faith.

  15. Steven Rosen, Satyaraj das disapproves of homosexualism because its demoniac?! Wow, how surprising. Then again, why not? Forward thinking does not mean that orthodoxy is necessarily always rejected. Anyway, personally I understand the need for a solution to the fact of homesexualism. Tolerance and restraint in the matter is what most people argue for, but what I wonder is this: would most parents who take a tolerant stance on homosexuality welcome the trait itself for their own offspring? Its a delicate matter indeed, and no offense is intended to anyone in particular but when it comes to treating the issue independent of individuals (and that is where it becomes really a matter of individuals), most parents indeed see homesexuality as something undesirable. There is a difference between celebrating a very desirable trait graced upon ourselves or our loved ones, and simply accepting what cannot be remedied otherwise. In any case, I think Satyaraj das should be allowed to use the issue of homesexualism as an illustration to his point on literalism. If that is indeed his point. And if that is indeed his point, the question for him is this: that same soft literalism which he invokes promotes rape as normal and actually even desirable. Prabhupada said women like to be raped. What say the literalists to that? Do we go literal regarding that statement? Or we go ever so softly non literal?

    • I almost posted this earlier and it appears I should have:

      Please note that the Satyaraja dasa commenting on this thread is NOT the well-known author and editor of The Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Steven J. Rosen. I am not sure if the author of these comments was intending to confuse readers or not.

      • Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention. I was not confused but I’m sure readers who don’t know Satyaraja Prabhu (ACBSP) might have been. Satyaraja has been very understanding of gay Vaishnavas, accurately covered their exchanges with Bhakti Tirtha Swami in his book, “Black Lotus,” and ordered several copies of the GALVA book for distribution in his field of preaching.

  16. Steven (Satyaraja dasa)

    “I’ve never understood why some people view homosexuality with such abhorrence. Why the big deal? Just some skin touching. Yet some people make it out to be equal to killing and rape. That is much more of a disorder in my view.”

    First of all I am Steven Miller from Miami, NOT Steve Rosen.

    Certainly killing and rape are disorders. Sex is a good thing in as far as it promotes progeny. Anal sex or oral sex between two men doesn’t promote anything except AIDS. Or were some of us actually born out of an anal union? I think not.

    Suddenly some of the intellectuals here seem to have become fanatics like the ones they criticize in the name of not being introspective. Well my intelligence and my introspection tell me that rape, murder, cow killing, pedophilia, bestiality and all types of homosexuality are appalling. My wife also shares my sentiments in such matters and so does my 20 year old son. But some suggest that I surrender my intelligence and look at pedophilia, bestiality and homosexuality as “just some skin touching”. I suppose then that I should just think about those things like a Shiatsu massage. I think not once again.

    However, I must apologize for having ruffled any feathers here on this forum. I didn’t know this sanga had an official pro-gay agenda. Sorry if I have offended any of the galls, guys or gays here.

    But now that I think about it, gay Vaishnavas, that’s amazing. Vaishnavism really has then spread to every corner of the planet. Amazing indeed! Bye-bye.

  17. ATTENTION PLEASE:

    As the author of “The Literalist” article, I humbly request that everyone take their beastly comments and their preferred sexuality to some other thread. The comments developing here would be more befitting for an article called “Sexuality”. Perhaps Steven or Madan Gopal would like to write that article then the sex commentators could take their comments to that thread.

    Being a sannyasi, sex of any kind does not appeal me. Eating, sleeping, mating and defending are indeed animal tendencies which the human being must transcend if he/she/other wants to go Back to Home, Back to Godhead. And you can kindly take my humble request literally. Thank you.

    • Dandavats, Maharaja! I think the reason these comments came up is because women, gays, Blacks, sudras, etc. are often the victims of literalism and fundamentalist interpretations of scripture. While this is an important aspect to discuss, it must nevertheless be conducted with sensitivity and respect for everyone involved, including our sannyasi members. But I don’t think we should avoid discussing the ugly side effects of literalism under the plea that we are renounced from them.

      • “But I don’t think we should avoid discussing the ugly side effects of literalism under the plea that we are renounced from them.”

        Well young man… I disagree and probably in the same way that some of your members obviously do not like to discuss the ‘ugly’ side of homo sex, sex with animals and molesting children. These things belong in their own space and not in just any space.You obviously do not understand that some humans greatly distaiin such topics. I can think of three of my gurus that did and a host of other Vaishnavas also. What to speak of distain those topics, some of them could not even conveive of such animal behavior among humans, what to speak of discuss such topics in public. Such was their purity and their aloofness.

        It seems some people on your forum cannot discuss philosophy without involving the anal-chakra — possibly they are covered tantrics and not really Vaishnavas? In any case, I will take my essays elsewhere in future. When there is no proper understanding of time, place and circumstance then there is little or no progress in any subject. And when culture degrades to the point that we can no longer respect the simple request of a particular sannyasi then where do we go from there?

        Opinions are like noses… everyone has one. But the secret is that the longer your nose is around the better it gets and therefore Vaishnava culture does not fly opinions in the face of older Vaishnavas when they have specifically requested not to do so.

        So, have it your way and I’ll continue on mine. All for the good.

        • That is very unfortunate Maharaja. This really took away the real discussion with you. I had raised points with you above that were not connected to the anal chakra. I apologize for having offended a sanayasi of your stature. I hope you forgive us and continue to participate in the discussion.

        • From what I can see, the remark of Gaura-vijaya you (Maharaja) cited in your last post was made before you asked that we stay on topic, etc. So it seems that he has abided by your sensible request. Nonetheless he has apologized. So I do hope you will forgive him. I am sure that he and many others here value your input. These forums and internet discourse can be misleading, especially when English is not the first language of everyone participating. The spirit and intent of many replies does not always come through.

        • It seems that this remark

          “But I don’t think we should avoid discussing the ugly side effects of literalism under the plea that we are renounced from them.”

          Was made by Amara das not Goura-vijaya das. My mistake.

        • Dearest Maharaja…I think you are misunderstanding me. My point was we should not avoid discussing the ugly side or by-products of literalism (i.e., prejudice, intolerance, homophobia, mysogeny, etc.)–not the ugly side of conditioned sexualities. I agree there is no need or desire to discuss the rude subject matters raised by Steven.

          Also, I am not a young man but your old Godbrother. I remember you fondly when you used to preach here in Hawaii. Please do not leave this forum on account of me or this apparent misunderstanding!

        • Please don’t leave Swami Narasingha, that would be a great loss for this website. I am very glad you stopped the conversation from degenerating any further and for pointing out that these subjects are just disturbing.

          Maybe only the outspoken people are commenting in such a way on your articles. There are probably alot of silent and thoughtful people who are reticent to say anything in the public forum, but they are listening and benefiting from your opinions and wisdom. Hari Krishna

  18. I agree that there is great value in the literal approach to shastra, as it had been pointed out in this article and discussion. At the same time however there is risk in it as well.

    As the moon/sun/earth distance issue clearly shows, it is possible to misunderstand the literal meaning of shastra even for otherwise very advanced devotees. If we insist on the literal interpretation we better be sure we are correct in every way. Otherwise the first casualty of our error is the faith of people who look up to us for guidance.

    If we promote ouselves as infallible we should not be surprised when people expect from us exactly that. Unless of course we are not literal in that claim.

    So many people who joined our movement left because they felt cheated – they were promised one thing, but what they got was something very different. The literalists need to understand that they have the obligation to deliver exactly what they promised, otherwise their credibility is very much in question.

    Less than literal interpretation of the shastra thus seems a lot safer.

  19. The first verse is spoken by Krsna, clearly he is revering the kama-sutra, so is Radha who says Krsna is the actual author. Revere means to regard with reverence. How else would you interpret what is said there? At least according to those two authors the kama-sutra is bona-fide, that is the point.

  20. I am just wondering if someone can tell me where I can find out more about Srila Sridhara Maharaja’s dream concerning the loss of knowledge of sastra… and taking refuge at the lotus feel of Krishna. Was this something mentioned in a passing personal association, or is it recorded somewhere?

  21. Vikram Ramsoondur

    http://caitanyacaritamrta.com/madhya/24/318/en

    Śrī Caitanya Caritāmṛta Madhya 24.318

    kṛṣṇa-tulya bhāgavata — vibhu, sarvāśraya
    prati-śloke prati-akṣare nānā artha kaya

    SYNONYMS

    kṛṣṇa-tulya bhāgavata — Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is identical with Kṛṣṇa; vibhu — the supreme; sarva-āśraya — the origin of everything, or that which controls everything; prati-śloke — in every verse; prati-akṣare — in every syllable; nānā artha kaya — there are varieties of imports.

    TRANSLATION

    “Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is as great as Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord and shelter of everything. In each and every verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and in each and every syllable, there are various meanings.”

    Perhaps this particular sentence uttered by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, the Supreme Lord Himself, whilst instructing Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmīpāda, may cast a fresh light on this debate, and hopefully resolve it to the satisfaction of all concerned. Indeed, when God Himself states that the actual meaning of each sloka is basically multi-layered, this kind of validates Narasingha Maharaja’s position, in the wide spectrum of opinions, as well as affords legitimacy to the methodology propounded by Bhaktivinoda Thakura in a couple of his works.

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