Published on September 12th, 2019 | by Harmonist staff36
Myth and Math
By Robert Bringhurst
Myth. From the Greek mythos, “story, tale; report, explanation; speech.” Possibly related to mathema, “lesson; knowledge; mathematics,” from proto-Indo-European mendh-, “to learn.”
A mythology is an ecosystem of myths. It is in other words a functioning community of stories, striving to maintain its own coherence though its membership is constantly subject to change. So a mythology is similar to a literature, which is a constantly evolving intellectual ecology of works made out of words. Mythology and literature would, in fact, be synonyms if myth were just another name for a literary work. But a myth is not exactly a work of literature; it is instead a kind of story which a literary work can only partially embody or contain. A myth is a theorem about the nature of reality expressed not in algebraic symbols or inanimate abstractions but in animate narrative form.
A mythology normally permeates a culture and its literature, in much the way the circulatory and nervous systems permeate the body. These systems can be diagrammed or sketched, but they cannot be transplanted intact, nor can they be extracted for inspection and display and still be expected to function. In order to watch a mythology work, we have to study it in situ, in the flesh of its own literature and culture. You cannot summarize or analyze or count all the myths in a mythology any more than you can list all the sentences in a language or tag all the corpuscles in the body.
Myth is often misconstrued as something threatened by or threatening to science, or as a kind of misinformation for which science is the cure. Myth is actually, however, an alternative kind of science; that is, an alternative kind of investigation. It is a means of understanding and elucidating the nature of the world. It aims, like science, at perceiving and expressing ultimate truths. But the hypotheses of myth are framed as stories, not as equations, technical descriptions, or taxonomic rules. A myth, nonetheless, is a story so perceptive of reality that it might be rediscovered, like any law of nature, in almost any culture at almost any time. Such stories deal more often with the gods or other elemental powers than they do with human beings. Yet as soon as they are heard, they are seen to enrich human experience. That is why they are incessantly retold.
The scientist may begin an investigation by quantifying reality. The myth teller personifies it instead, and then proceeds by narrative interaction instead of computation. A myth begins with the assumption that all existents are alive: they have identities and appetites and wills, which necessarily reveal themselves in stories rather than equations. Experimental science very often gives the opposite impression, that all existents might as well be dead.
It would indeed appear that the language of myth builds on the very early linguistic practice of naming and identifying independent entities—wild animals and plants first of all, and then such things as storms and currents, winds and places. And it would appear that the language of science builds on the equally early practice of naming and identifying parts—the bark and leaves and buds and heart and bones and hide and teeth of dismembered plants and animals, and then such segregated elements as water, rock, air, and wood.
Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops. A mythology that has suffered such a fate is often known as a religion. Where they are healthy, both mythology and science are as faithful to the real as their practitioners can make them, though evidently neither ever perfectly succeeds.
Myth, to repeat, is an alternative kind of science. Equally, of course, the sciences are alternative kinds of mythology. The eagerness with which nonscientists often insist that science is true and mythology false—despite the fact that the findings of science change much more quickly than the findings of mythology—is proof of how successful mythologies the sciences now are—and what successful religions they are too.
This article is part of a longer article (The Meaning of Mythology) from Robert Bringhurst’s Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking. He is famous for his manual Elements of Typographic Style that has been translated into ten languages and is one of the world’s most influential texts on typographic design.
This is quite brilliant.
Perhaps an additional visual with a word ‘myth’ written in different typefaces and / or alphabets would accompany this article nicely, to reflect on Mr Bringhurst’s vast influence through words and novel ideas into the science of written communication.
Thank you for posting such a fine article.
Yes, quite a few very intriguing points here. I like the statement, “Because mythologies and sciences alike aspire to be true, they are perpetually under revision. Both lapse into dogma when this revision stops.”
This would appear to be true with respect to Gaudiya Vaisnavism. For example, emphasis on certain details in the book bhagavat (say, those related to cosmology) can lead to a kind of fanaticism that quickly obscures or draws attention away from the text’s essential philosophy and theology. Fortunately, the tradition recognizes the person bhagavat as the active agent of ongoing revelation. Thus, hardwired into the “mythology” of the bhagavat is scope for the kind of constant revision of which Bringhurst speaks. In fact, it is only through the later – the active agent embodying and perpetuating the “myth’s” ideal over time – that the sadhaka can truly access the prior.
Robert Bringhurst: “The eagerness with which nonscientists often insist that science is true and mythology false—despite the fact that the findings of science change much more quickly than the findings of mythology—is proof of how successful mythologies the sciences now are—and what successful religions they are too.”
The main differerence between flying a mythological airplaine and one built by modern science is that TODAY the first one is only a dream, and the second one is a very common reality. The rapid changes in the science of aviation are a good thing and they most certainly do not invalidate the value of this science. Yes, science can be turned into both mythology and religion, but for the lovers of mythology and religion that should not be a bad thing.
Dreams can be pleasant and useful but they will not get us very far unless we learn to apply them in real life. Dreamers ungrounded in the realities of life can be useless to both themselves and to others. And at times some religious dreamers have also been known to turn the reality into rather nasty nightmares for others.
Comparing myths and science is like comparing apples and… birds.
Comparing myths to technology is problematic but not myths to science in the broadest sense of each terms, for both are ways of knowing and describing the nature of the world. Regarding airplanes, a mythological plane may lead to greater understanding of reality than a “real” one. It may take you a longer distance than a jumbo jet, but it is true that it won’t take you from Warsaw to Chicago for whatever reason you might want to make such a journey.
Personally I am not comfortable with applying the words “myth” and “mythology” to religious deities and their pastimes. While I understand the original Greek meaning was more embracing, in today’s vernacular these words generally indicate something that is false or imagined. Furthermore, only the world’s ancient, indigenous faiths are referred to as “myths” whereas personalities and stories from the Bible or Koran are rarely addressed as such, since that would be considered objectionable.
Amara, I would agree with your point in general, but add that the word “myth” has been substantially rehabilitated in the past century. Although the common usage of the term still implies a kind of falsehood, a diverse group of intellectuals has spoken to the “really real” quality of myth. Reinhold Niebhur described myths as “truer than history,” and in some ways Joseph Campbell goes further by arguing that descriptions of transcendence imbue myth with a power unseen (and un-experienced) elsewhere in human life.
However in my initial comment above I put the word in quotation marks, as I am not wholly comfortable describing the Bhagavatam as myth – given as you point out, the more pejorative connotations.
Of course, what is actually “mythic” in the sense of falsehood is the world of matter and appearances. Engaging with myth in its truer sense, however, can take one beyond this.
Amara dasa, I agree that the words “myth” and “mythology” are often misunderstood and even denigrated in most 21st century arenas. However, with regard to your comment about “myths” not being used to describe personalities and stories from the Bible, thoughtful Christians understand the Bible to be a collection of different types of literature, of which myth is one type. For example, the creation myths in the book of Genesis.
I think one of the most important ideas in the article is the differentiation between the quantification of science and the personification of myth-tellers. The former objectifies (and so denies any inherent life within) phenomena, while the latter acknowledges and seeks to express the inherent life (and the consciousness implied behind it) in phenomena.
Hmmmm. I must agree with Syamasundara Dasa: this is a brilliant reflection. Gopala dasa also adds an informed perspective. As a student of religion, I can say the term myth has been, for the most part, ‘rehabilitated,’ at least in academic circles. The term is frequently used to describe the life and resurrection of Jesus, even in courses training Christian ministers. I have rarely been as inspired about my own faith than while listening to Diana Eck, a scholar of Hinduism, speak on the ‘truth of myth.’
However, I think an important question needs to be asked: How would His Divine Grace view this article? Clearly, he is a thoughtful person, who would be able to understand it and would perhaps even agree with the premises as they appear here. Yet, his own presentations seem poised to completely discredit such dialectical thinking. Over the past several years, I have begun to view Srila Prabhupada’s attempts to discredit evolutionary theory, certain aspects of which are now proven fact, as unfortunate folly.
The ability of scientists to engineer micro-organisms to do things such as consume toxic substances and expel less harmful biproducts is based on the idea that organisms can ‘evolve’ in a manner similar to the ideas advanced by Darwin. Stem cell research is another area where these ideas are beginning to bare tangible fruit. If the material realm is a place where souls are granted an opportunity to ‘forget’ Radha-Krsna, or at least ignore Them, then there will never be a materially scientific method to prove or disprove Their reality. What exactly was the point of repeatedly and publicly calling people, namely intellectuals, rascals, demons, fools, and asses? My early appreciation of the simhaa spirit exhibited in those statements eventually led to my own embarrassment as I realized they did little more than feed my neophyte ego, which wanted to be ‘right,’ somehow better or wiser than the status quo.
Undoubtedly, Krsna consciousness is a science that exceeds other forms of science in producing healthy ‘technologies’ for humanity, but as far as I can tell, the placement of the moon in relation to other stellar bodies or whether grey squirrels and red squirrels share common ancestry has absolutely no bearing on my spiritual practice. Srila Prabhupada’s presentations on science have done nothing but disturb my mind and weaken my faith. It is only ideas similar to those presented in this article that have allowed me to continue my attempt to rectify my relationship with the Lord. Any thoughts in this regard will be most appreciated.
The basic problem for many devotees is to understand what is essential, revelatory truth and what is relative truth or even falsity spoken in pursuit of truth. The strong preaching against science or scientists was based around a basic claim of having truth or the means of revealing truth and thereby dismantling the need for faith in God. The idea behind scientism was that it was childish or primitive to continue to ‘believe in that which is unseen’ because through the power of the scientific method all that is currently ‘mysterious’ can be revealed through proper investigation. In other words – now you can simply believe in that which is seen and the method of revelation – science – because it will eventually unravel all that is mysterious or miraculous.
Another big stumbling block as devotees move from a neophyte orientation to bhakti to a more nuanced and thoughtful approach requiring reconcilliation of ideas and seeing things in shades of grey rather than simply black and white is understanding the person and the book Bhagavata. Our entry into the tradition may be facilitated by thinking in terms of black and white, truth and falsity – but as we progress, if we are to deepen our faith and make tangible progress, we will have to dismantle many misconeptions based on our overly simplistic starting point. This is not an easy task. Becoming more thoughtful and not merely accepting things because they were said by a pure devotee or because they are written in a book we call scripture can lead to genuine growth or it can also lead to loss of faith if a good guide isn’t there to help us as.
The very idea that the Guru is as good as God is problematic for many because it leaves them believing that either the Guru is infallible and incapable of making a mistake or that if a mistake is made then the person isn’t ‘pure’ and isn’t really a Guru. The Catholic church has the same issue btw and has tried to solve it with the doctrine of papal infallibility which basically states that the vicar of Christ is infallible when it comes to church doctrine, or matters of faith, but not otherwise. For the vaishnava who has heard about the four defects of humanity – imperfect senses, cheating propensity, making mistakes and being illusioned – the question begs to be answered – how can any human be beyond such defects? Will being a pure devotee who is free from selfish desire improve the sensual condition such that such a perfected person now has perfect senses? Will such a person no longer make a mistake? I think the answer is obvious, but apparently not so for many people who believe that having reached the ‘stage of perfection’ means no longer being subject to the defects of humanity. In other words, now such a person is fully God but no longer fully human. There are obvious flaws in this type of thinking and faith based on such a misconception is misinformed faith at best.
This post is already too long and I am running late so I will end it here. But before signing off I just want to say that the basic thrust of what I want to say is that progress can only be made by deep reflection and by keeping the company of sadhus. We have to make sense of things and understand what a preaching stategy is and what the goal of bhakti sadhana is.
As for the question, “How would His Divine Grace view this article?” referring as you have to Srila Prabhupada, in one sense I think the answer is that we do not have to wonder if we understand guru parampara. Of course questions of faith arise with this answer, but if there is a parampara, then the living tradition is carried on. And how the previous acarya would think about a current issue or Gaudiya response to an ongoing issue in new times is answered by how the present acarya deals with the issue.
Restricting this response for the moment to the article itself, Prabhupada was not one to use the word myth in relation to Krishna lila. But he had a purpose in mind in doing this and during his presence the term itself was for the most part was synonymous with fiction. This definition of myth is now somewhat outdated, and his purpose was to firmly establish in the minds of his students that Krsna lila was not a fiction, not even a saguna manifestation of Brahman, which is no small thing in itself in Sankara’ mind. I think that Prabhupada was quite successful in achieving this purpose. No small task.
Now while Prabhupada spoke of lila in concrete terms for the sake of achieving his goal, the fact is that the lila is flexible, as he was in many respects. It is constituted of bhava, and it is a necessary reality of a world understood as being acintya bhedabheda, as opposed to being advaita in all respects. Descriptions of lila seek to bring out this bhava and thus they may vary as they do in details when presented by different acaryas. These descriptions are tales of their own ecstasy, a story that lies in the core of their hearts, dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhayam mahajano yena gatah sa pantah.
So as time marches on and understanding of Sri Caitanya’s world is further disseminated, naturally there will be room for talking about myth differently (as academia does), just as there is room for talking about math differently than when Prabhupada was talking about them and pioneering Gaudiya Vaisnavsm in the modern world—differently but not altogether differently. Krishna lila is a subjective (myth) objective (math) reality, bhedabheda. Myth here is the varied experience of a singular mathematical equation. Here is the math: krsnas tu bhagavan svayam. The myths are many, dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, madhurya, and mixtures thereof.
Let me try to respond further tomorrow with regard to math in terms of identifying it with science. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these topics.
But any move to move dynamically in the tradition is seen by many as not presenting “as it is” without interpretation. It is pretty hard for me to get it as each Vedanta tradition is a unique “interpretation” of the Vedic body of knowledge.
Don’t be surprised when you experience religious fanaticism. It’s more the norm than it is the exception.
Regarding Prabhupada’s science and intellectual bashing, I do not think that he was really anti intellectual or anti science. He was anti scientism but perhaps failed to articulate that and explain the difference. After all he formed the Bhaktivedanta Institute and encouraged some of his students to get academic degrees in the sciences. He probably wanted it to become something like the Discovery Institute that is part of mainstream society and consists of scientists who are theists committed to a spiritual world view that is not inconsistent with scientific facts. His core arguments are still alive and well: does life come from life or matter?
In my personal experience, Prabhupada would take a strong stance on an issue and make an argument in support of it, but he also changed his views on issues from time to time when supplied new information.
When he heard that one of the later astronauts said that upon landing on the moon he had a religious experience, Prabhupada ceased from expressing his disbelief of the initial moon landing and appreciated this astronaut’s insight. Incidentally this astronaut later formed a spiritual institute. But the point I am making is that Prabhupada was much more flexible than some of his disciples are or make him out to be.
He was not anti intellectual in all respects but rather anti atheistic intellectualism. But he was not very subtle in his intellectual bashing and this did have its downside, both in terms of the false pride is sometimes fostered in the hearts of his neophyte disciples and the way it was sometimes received by intellectuals.
Still I think that his objective was to engage his students in serious spiritual practice and that he was successful in doing this. And in his mind this required making clear the difference between intellectualizing and exercising one’s heart. The latter is transrational, not irrational, whereas the former is not productive of spiritual experience in and of itself and an often takes one in the opposite direction.
Today we require good intellectualizing about Gaudiya Vaisnavism with a view to explore its depth, universality, and practical implications in today’s world. But this should be engaged in with guidance from those with deep spiritual experience in the tradition. This in my opinion is a needed synthesis to the antithesis that often resulted from Prabhupada’s thesis.
In many instance stories in Puranas can be confusing too about the nature of life. Durvasa muni supposedly creates a live demon to kill Ambarisha maharaja. So my point is who knows in the future when material conditions are ripe, life may come into being. Does that mean that life comes from matter? Scientists may think the materials they used created life and we can say the material conditions were good for the soul to enter matter to give it life. But how will we actually prove either way?
Also many time he wanted his students to prove exactly the statements in the fifth canto through science. That was probably a huge burden.
Unfortunately his students did not explain to him the difficulty of this approach. But there are recorded instances of students explaining to him contradictions between science and things found in the Bhagavatam to which he responded sympathetically and explained that everything in the Bhagavatam need not be taken literally.
Here is one example:
Prabhupada: You’ll find so many demons like Pütanä even at the present moment.
David Lawrence: So one could leap from behind a tree, putting it tritely if you like.
Prabhupada: The, the Bhägavatam, there is nothing… well, there are some figurative use. Just like we speak the story of Aesop’s fables. That is for instruction. Just like jackal is talking with a lion. You see? So, there are stories like that.
David Lawrence: Yes, there are figurative stories.
Here is another example that is conclusive in my opinion:
“Because you have asked me, I am your spiritual master, I must try to answer to your satisfaction. Yes, sometimes in Vedas such things like the asura’s decapitated head chasing after Candraloka, sometimes it is explained allegorically. So there are sometimes allegorical explanations. So there are many things which do not corroborate with the so-called modern science, because they are explained in that way. But where is the guarantee that modern science is also correct? So we are concerned with Krishna Consciousness, and even though there is some difference of opinion between modern science and allegorical explanation in the Bhagavat, we have to take the essence of Srimad-Bhagavatam and utilize it for our higher benefit, without bothering about the correctness of the modern science or the allegorical explanation sometimes made in Srimad-Bhagavatam.”
So if anyone has a mind or intelligence like the student that Prabhupada is writing to above, I think the issue is solved for them. He has given an out. Leave it at that.
I was in the same boat as you but Tripurari Maharaja’s unique dynamic presentation has lot for me to help me continue devotional practices.
Yes certain aspects of SP’s commentaries can be disturbing to a thoughtful person and that particular person will be called offensive in the group who claim to be SP’s loyalists. But the point is that SP’s disciples did not give him input to sufficiently modify his presentation by bringing to him relevant facts and he had to do the thinking all alone practically while writing commentaries.
Being wrong about something is not a great tragedy, especially if it happened during the pursuit of a noble goal. Scientists are often wrong. But it is a tragedy when someone fails to acknowlwdge an error for what it is, an instead invents pseudo-reality in which this error somehow is not an error. At that point the simple error has been turned into a fraud.
When is it permissible for a disciple to admit that his guru made an error? In a society which believes that their guru is always right, that is never permissible. And that is another difference between science and myth. Mythologists will try to twist reality to make it conform to the myth they are propagating. Scientists will admit the errors of their heroes and continue with their pursuit of knowledge unperturbed.
Science is not without it’s myths and scientists are not beyond ‘twisting reality’ to conform to those myths. I work in cancer diagnostics and have worked for years in molecular biology research products. I have my degree in biochemistry. The only reason I mention my profession and education is because I work with scientists and am well read on the history of science and also keep fairly current with at least my own specific area of expertise. Scientists are people who have bias – they are not perfect truth seekers without any agenda other than truth. That is a huge fallacy.
History loves to repeat itself. In spite of that, would you say that if someone offered a different but possible and provable perspective on certain matters would be welcomed among guru’s followers even today? The very idea of ‘guru and disciple’ denies that possibility, no matter what the subject matter is. Unfortunately, that idea in GV — the way how it’s generally viewed and understood — is not open for negotiation.
For example, everyone can see persons like Jamadagni wanted to point out certain big problems to SP, but their questions, no matter how carefully and thoughtfully presented, were never comprehensively answered. In fact, questions were obviously avoided, some irrelevant remarks infused into discussion and they were treated like dissidents even by him.
We cannot go around and justify our existence forever by saying that our guru wasn’t told about certain matters. Of course he was. Of course he is. Of course he will be. But all of those who dare to ask troubling questions, or (God forbid!) suggest something else, will be dispelled, one way or another. At least the doors will be shut behind them silently.
What can be questioned and what cannot, or when and if a suggestion is greeted? To stay on the ‘safe side of affairs’ many people never cross that line and never challenge anything. As a consequence they never challenge their faith. If you don’t constantly challenge your faith then it stagnates, becomes weak and eventually it dies. And that’s a tragedy that happened to thousands.
Accepting no real challenges is what kept this vedanta from evolving for centuries already. At least I’m glad modern times do challenge everything and everyone, including GV. Many will probably object this, but the state of affairs shows that GV as we know today is not progressive or dynamic by its internal design and the will to be as such, but it’s driven to change rather by necessity.
Do you have any specifics on this? I remember that Jamadagni, Siddhasvarupa, Burijana and a number of other disciples more or less challenged Prabhupada on the effects that book distribution was having on public relations, but I don’t remember Jamadagni challenging him regarding the books contents.
There is a conversation between Prabhupada and Jamadagni and I believe Kanupriya. Jayatirtha was also there. The two primarily questioned why they had to follow the authorities that Prabhupada had appointed when some of them were not entirely representative of him in terms of what he taught. To me it sounded quite challenging, while presenting some factual information. They went on to question other aspects of the teaching with regard to how literal it should be taken. Their doubts were, in my mind, far from “carefully and thoughtfully presented” and were mostly dismissed, I believe, on the basis of their presentation, not the facts or larger issues of genuine concern.
Look at Prabhupada’s reply above to similar concerns, a reply to a disciple who “carefully and thoughtfully presented” his (Krsnadas) doubts in the hope that they could be dispelled.
I never saw Krsnadasa’s letter to Prabhupada, I only the saw the excerpt from SP that you posted here. When I posted that excerpt in a conversation on dandavats I was accused of taking it out of context.
Here is part of what the devotee said to me:
“The letter to Krishnadas you have quoted is very nice. Srila Prabhupada seems to be disturbed by his persistent faith in the modern scientists. The letter should not be understood as advising Krishnadasa to accept the explanations of Vedic cosmology as allegorical. He goes on to say that in each and every planet there is a predominating deity, and that whereas modern science takes everything as dead stone, we devotees take it for granted that everything is being controlled by persons (and ultimately by Krishna). He ends the letter by saying that Krishna has declared that whoever knows Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, *without doubting* [emphasis in original], is understood as the knower of everything and therefore engages in His devotional service. (B.G. 15.19). Srila Prabhupada writes, “This is the understanding of advanced devotee, so my best advice to you is to come to this understanding.”
I think the letter quoted needs to be read more in its entirety. We should bear in mind that this is a localized form of preaching to a doubting disciple. We will not find this message of Srila Prabhupada replicated on the pages of the Srimad Bhagavatam.”
“My Dear Krsnadasa,
Please accept my blessings. I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated October 30, 1972, and I have noted the contents. It appears that you are again constantly disturbed by the same nonsense doubts. These things are not very important, we may not waste our time with these insignificant questions. If we are seeking to find out some fault, maya will give us all facility to find any small thing and make it very big, that is maya. But such questions as yours: why there is so-called discrepancy between the views of Bhagavat and modern scientists regarding the moon and other planets, and whether Hitler is good or bad man, these are most insignificant matters, and for anyone who is sincerely convinced that Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, for him these questions do not arise.
vedaham samatitani vartamanani carjuna bhavisyani ca bhutani mam tu veda na kascana [Bg. 7.26]
Our information comes from Vedas, and if we believe Krishna, that He knows everything, and “vedais ca sarvair aham eva vedyo vedanta-krd veda-vid eva caham [Bg. 15.15],’’ that Krishna is non-different from Vedas, then these questions do not arise.
But because you have asked me, I am your spiritual master, I must try to answer to your satisfaction. Yes, sometimes in Vedas such things like the asura’s decapitated head chasing after Candraloka, sometimes it is explained allegorically. Just like now we are explaining in 4th Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam the story of King Puranjana. Just like the living entity is living within this body, and the body is described there as city with nine gates, the intelligence as the Queen. So there are sometimes allegorical explanations. So there are many things which do not corroborate with the so-called modern science, because they are explained in that way. But where is the guarantee that modern science is also correct?
So we are concerned with Krishna Consciousness, and even though there is some difference of opinion between modern science and allegorical explanation in the Bhagavat, we have to take the essence of Srimad-Bhagavatam and utilize it for our higher benefit, without bothering about the correctness of the modern science or the allegorical explanation sometimes made in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
But this is a fact that in each and every planet there is a predominant deity, as we have got experience in this planet there is a president, so it is not wonderful when the predominating deity fights with another predominating deity of another planet. The modern science takes everything as dead stone. We take it for granted that everything is being manipulated by a person in each and every affair of the cosmology. The modern scientists however could not make any progress in the understanding of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, therefore we do not acceptmodern science as very perfect. We take Krishna’s version:
gam avisya ca bhutani dharayamy aham ojasa pusnami causadhih sarvah somo bhutvah rasatmakah [Bg. 15.13]
“I become the moon,’’ and “yac chandramasi yac cagnau,’’ (ibid, 12) “I am the splendor of the moon,’’ and “jyotisam api taj jyotis,’’ [Bg. 13.18] “I am the source of light in all luminous objects,’’ so no one is able to give us the correct information than Krishna, that you should know…”
The devotee continued:
“By emphasizing the direct meanings of the statements of Sukadeva, Srila Prabhupada was more radical in his dismantling of the mundane construct of reality. He challenged the very core of our concepts of distance and time, by declaring his implicit faith in the superiority of the Goswami’s transcendental vision, crushing the pride of scientists who believe material objects more real than conscious spirit. The high understanding presented by Srila Prabhupada might easily be mistaken for superstitious fundamentalism or fanaticism, but it is completely different from that. It is actually the profound cure for fundamentalism and fanaticism.”
It is not out of context at all. It is Prabhupada’s answer on this very issue demonstrating his flexibility, making the essential points, and encouraging his disciple to practice. But it is different from his usual stance.
The conversation between Srila Prabhupada, Kanupriya and Jamadagni is quite interesting from several angles. Recently I read a rather illuminating (and fairly recent – from a few years ago) commentary to this conversation written by Kanupriya on Gaudiya Discussions. His main point was that SP actually respected those among his disciples who could hold his ground in a discussion with their guru, even as he expected them to still follow his line of reasoning after the discussion was over. There was very little room for doctrine-related independent thinking in those days and those who did not like it either left or pretended that everything was fine. Because he truly intimidated his disciples, Srila Prabhupada was often not told the truth about the extent of problems facing his movement. This is evident also in the above mentioned conversation, when open homosexuality of one of his ‘sannyasis’ (Subala) is raised. Prabhupada insisted that rank and file devotees fully submit to the leaders he chose, and accept their words as good as their guru’s. To that devotees brought up the issue that some of his leaders are simply crooks.
Ultimately this conversation did not make a dent in the corrupt authoritarian management system that evolved in ISKCON. Myths were being sold to the new devotees in the name of preaching. Myths became the norm in our society, and those who knew (or suspected) that there was little truth to them kept quiet in the name of ‘greater good’. Truth became a servant of the preaching machine. And that is the fundamental difference between mythology and science. Science is seeking the objective truth while mythology is seeking to establish its ideology AS the truth.
Not Subala, Sudama. But your characterization of Iskcon during the presence of Srila Prabhupada strikes me as inaccurate. There was some corruption in the leadership from time to time and it usually came out and leadership was changed. The conversation under discussion reveals as much about the unwillingness of some to follow sincerely as it does any corruption in the leadership. Both were there but they were exceptions. I know Jamadagni, Kanupriya, and Sudama. Despite his shortcomings, I would have preferred Sudama’s association in those days. But on the whole the movement was filled with extreme sincerity, love, and trust. I believe you joined some time after all of this had broken down.
You seem to want to equate myth with fiction and science with fact. This is an extreme position to take. Myth as a way of describing the nature of being may do so more accurately than science does. Poetry seeks to explain and know through participation, whereas math seeks to do the same through control. Reality can be fully participated in but not entirely controlled.
Jaya Maharaja and everyone who has spoken to some the points I raised!! For several years I have been in desperate need of a community where I can really push difficult questions. While I am somewhat disappointed that this, for me, is likely to remain an online forum rather than a temple room environment, it is great solace to know that an intellectually rigorous discussion can take place among devotees and I can participate.
Obeisances and All Glories to Vaisnavas and Srila Prabhupada!
I think only through devotees like Tripurari Swami I get the idea that SP was flexible. Through his videos or many of his disciples or his conversations with journalists, he seems to extremely heavy and intimidating. So a person who asks a critical question once would feel awkward asking it again as he would have been ridiculed by all other devotees as an offender.
In general, leaders who have good mass following are generally very opinionated and decisive. For the masses, a person who adapts his opinion is seen as weak and not capable of infusing confidence. SP had extreme confidence in him and he tried to defeat and smash any opposition in the strongest of language. This was certainly helpful for devotees under him as they felt he had the answer to everything but unfortunately they could not even dare to tell him that his criticism is unjustified sometimes . The same charges he leveled against other people’s writings could be used against his writings as well because GV is after all an “interpretation” of Vedic literature and many can argue it is not “as it is”. But his purity made everybody overlook these things. In fact, some of SP’s disciples used SP’s statements to inflate their own ego.
All this is easy to say in hindsight, but probably without the kind of preaching style SP had we won’t have so many devotees.
To see him was the prefection of my eyes; to touch him the perfection of my touch; to glorify him the perfection of my tongue. Such souls are very rarely encountered in this world
I am able to know something about SP only through your grace.
Maharaja, thank you for the clarification and the points you raised. For me, science is a search for facts, from which the meaning is deducted. And mythology is a search for meaning in which facts are not always relevant. Those who prefer mythology will sometimes invent ‘facts’ or change them in order to support the meaning they seek. And this is the part I object to. It is important to seek the meaning, but it is even more important to be honest with the facts.
[*please note: This comment comes nearly 8 years after the publication of this article and the initial discussion that followed.]
I have been reflecting on the topics that have been discussed here and fear that in some of my comments I committed vaisnava and guru aparadha. In my attempt to justify my lack of faith and attachment to selfish sense gratification, I began to find fault with Srila Prabhupada.
Swami Tripurari and the other devotees tempered my comments and helped me find the proper understanding; but I needed time to truly see the error of my ways and become fully convinced of Srila Prabhupada’s perfection.
I humbly beg for the forgiveness of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, his senapati bhakta His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, and all the devotees. Please have mercy on my soul.
Goodness. I feel humbled by your comment. Other than time, I believe it is also a matter of determining just what perfection means within Gaudiya Vaisnavism.