The Progression of Scriptural Understanding

By Swami Tripurari

Despite what some claim, not everything in scripture is to be taken literally. However, Krishna lila is an ontological reality. His complexion is syama and he is the lifter of Govardhana Hill. Still, there are three levels of scriptural understanding and they can be applied to Krishna lila as well as the entirety of scripture: literal (according to the letter), connotative (implied philosophical content), and interpretive (rasik).

There is considerable value in emphasizing a literal approach in the beginning of spiritual practice because this can help give the student something to grab onto, and through corresponding practice, he or she can gain experience. Without this experience, in the name of looking for deeper meaning one may lose sight of the most esoteric reality presented in scripture: the fact that Krishna is the heart of the Absolute, replete with form, qualities, and transcendental pastimes (lila). Reality is a person.

As a person becomes an experienced devotee in terms of inner life, they can draw implied philosophical insight from scriptural narratives of Krishna lila and apply this in his practice. For example, when reading the Damodara lila such a devotee can understand that among other things the philosophical implication of Mother Yasoda’s rope being two inches too short in her effort to bind Krishna is that his form is unlimited, even while appearing to be of a particular size. Thus we learn that the Absolute is everywhere and simultaneously in one place. In other words, this lila demonstrates the metaphysic of acintya-bhedabheda, which in turn, when studied carefully, offers reasonable ground for the necessity of Krishna lila, as opposed to advaitavada which reasons against the eternal reality of Krishna lila.

Through this kind of connotative reading of scripture, drawing philosophical lessons from the lila and learning to apply them in spiritual practice, one begins to find their way onto the canvas on which the art of Krishna lila is drawn. A devotee who can read the scripture in this way realizes that Krishna lila is filled with wisdom that is integral to the experience of entering into the love surrounding Krishna’s pastimes. These pastimes are not merely stories. They are reality, and thus filled with wisdom capable of dismantling the empire of our mind.

These pastimes are not what they seem at first glance, nor even what neophyte devotees think they are as they try to convince others of their factual existence. Such neophytes are not wrong to try to share their understanding, but they are wrong to think that their understanding is complete. They need to associate with advanced devotees who are expert in drawing out the philosophical meanings from the narratives and explaining them such that neophytes can progress under their tutelage.

It is important for neophytes to advance from a literal understanding of Krishna lila to one that acquaints them with its philosophical underpinning and practical insight intended to nourish their practice. This may be disconcerting to them because they must move from black and white to many shades of gray. A black and white understanding is valuable to a point, but one who clings to such an understanding when it is time to move ahead will often become proud, and in that condition, his progress may be hindered or stopped altogether. On the other hand, entering the gray area of a connotative reading of scripture engenders humility in the face of the depth of the subject. Therefore, despite the blurring of black and white, this entrance brings the heart into harmony with the intellect, which in turn fosters another type of inner certainty, one with increasing humility. In this way, one becomes fixed to go the distance and, to some extent, help others.

As one applies the tattva, or metaphysical truth, drawn from Krishna lila into one’s life, one moves in the direction of being able to read the scripture interpretively. When one reaches this stage one’s heart is sympathetic to the lila. Such a devotee can feel the scripture. They can experience the lila. Interpretations of the lila from these devotees are the most valuable jewels of their realization that they share with us—a glimpse into their own heart. Such a devotee is fully qualified to lead others.

Again, the lila of Krishna is an ontological reality, and the Gaudiya Vaishnava acaryas have gone to great lengths to explain the philosophical and theological necessity for its being so. Moreover, they have exhibited wonderful spiritual qualities and led undeniably ecstatic lives as a result of meditating on Syamasundara, the black beauty of Vraja. His black (syama) form is the color of love, and his beauty and that of his lila is the inexplicable experience of absolute self-giving, which is only possible when centered on the perfect object of love–Krishna. Oh! What possibility lies in the properly centered self-giving that leads to the absolute self-forgetfulness we call Krishna lila. Only in this experience can we have acquaintance with satyam and sivadam ruled by sundaramsac-cid-ananda-rupaya.

Indeed, the narrative of Krishna lila is the best possible explanation how the experience of absolute self-giving plays itself out, one that can silence the intellect, especially when it is explained connotatively or by one with a sympathetic heart for it, even if such a devotee explains it literally.

Intellect is a mere reflection of light that has no capacity on its own to shed light on the self-luminous soul, what to speak of Krishna, the very light of lights—purna brahma sanatanam paramanandam— the friend of the cowherds of Vraja headed by Nanda Maharaja.

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5 Responses to The Progression of Scriptural Understanding

  1. Thank you for such a wonderful article!!

  2. Once again, Swami Tripurari captures heart, mind and soul by building on the foundation laid by Srila Prabhupada and unveiling a richer, more evolved understanding for our inspiration. I humbly offer my gratitude.

  3. Really nice article.

    A common argument against a broader understanding of the sastra seems to be that it will make devotees replace faith with their intelligence, but although there’s definitely some truth to it, I think the critics miss an important point: no matter what a neophyte devotee’s approach to sastra is, it’s going to be distorted because of his/her conditioning. The only thing that can save the sadhaka from this is sadhu-sanga. The ironical thing is that literal understanding alone can’t save us from interpretation either. Our conditioning interprets all of our experiences anyway.

  4. As always, I appreciate your articles, they are very enlightening. I’m wondering if you might be able to expand on the last three paragraphs of the article? I probably just don’t have enough experience, but I am unclear how the lila (stories of Krishna’s pastimes, right?) are illustrations of self-giving (meaning the Divine become accessible) that leads to the absolute self-forgetfulness that is Krishna lila (does this mean our (the devotees’) humility through acquaintance with Krishna lila and learning about the forms, qualities and pastimes of the Godhead through the lila allow us to more fully surrender?). Ontological reality means that something that I can conceive of (in this case, the pastimes of Krishna) is (or are) real in that I can’t conceive of something without reality? And you state that our spiritual tradition requires their reality for us to progress in spiritual knowledge? Are you making a case for literalism in lila or not? It seemed at the beginning of the article you were not- by saying literalism is only the first step in unlocking scripture, but as I work through this comment, I seem to be coming up with something different. I’ve always considered the lila stories children’s book fodder with an occasional glimpse into cultural context and spiritual principles, not really the cornerstone of spiritual life, but a fanciful diversion within that same cultural and spiritual context. I am by no means an expert, and I struggle even as a casual observer,it seems like I am going all over the map here, would you be able to clarify this for me?

  5. Anthony,
    It seems Swami reiterates that our spiritual lineage stresses the philosophical need for espousing ontological reality. So within the framework of parampara, so must Swamiji underscore the theological “necessity.” I simply opine that Swami’s spiritual evolution is such that he proffers realizations suggesting we approach shastra in its totality — i.e., considering connotative and interpretive aspects as well.

    Please forgive any offenses if I’ve misinterpreted or “assigned meaning” where it was NOT intended.

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