The Bhagavata Leans Left

This article is adapted from Advaita dasa’s (Edwin Bryant Ph.D) Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana Book X), London: Penguin Books, 2003.

The Sociology of Bhakti in the Bhagavata

The tenth book of the Bhagavata, like the Gita (4.13), does not question the validity of the varna social system in terms of its everyday functional value (10.24.20; 10.80.33). However, although accepting the divisions of labor expressed by the classical varna social system, the Bhagavata does not accept that one is bound to the occupation of the caste into which one happens to be born; it explicitly undermines caste by birthright by noting that caste should be determined according to one’s innate nature, even if this nature involves performing the function of a caste other than the one in which one happens to find oneself by birth (7.2.31 and 35). This notion of a caste system determined by quality rather than birth can be read as implied in the Gita, but it is explicit in the Bhagavata. The Bhagavata thus radically goes against the dominant current of the times, which restricted individuals to activities prescribed for the caste into which they were born, irrespective of personal innate nature, propensities, or inclination. The enormous significance of this should not be underestimated, given the context of the day.

Also of great significance is the fact that even while the Bhagavata accepts the basic social order, albeit specifying that the division of labor should be determined by natural quality rather than birth, it elevates bhakti, or devotion to God, above it. This, of course, is a conspicuous feature of Hindu bhakti in general, but the Bhagavata goes to some lengths to underscore this. The text considers a candala, outcaste, who is dedicated to Krishna, to be superior to a brahmana who is not, even if the latter is endowed with all the ideal brahmanical qualities (7.9.10). No one is exempt from attaining the highest destination of life, devotion to God: the outcastes who live on the outskirts of town are also purified by hearing, glorifying, and meditating on Krishna (10.70.43). Krishna specifically instructs Uddhava to speak of his teachings to all those who are devoted, even if they be from the sudra caste (11.29.31). To appreciate the universality of the Bhagavata one need only compare this to statements in the dharma texts that the Veda should not even be recited in the presence of a sudra (Manu Dharmasastra, 4.99) or, worse still, that if a sudra intentionally listens to the Veda, his ears should be filled with molten lead; if he recites it, his tongue should be severed; and if he has mastered it, his body should be hacked to pieces (Gautama Dharmasastra, 12.4).

Elsewhere in the Purana (2.4.18), it is stated that even foreign tribes such as the Hunas, Yavanas and other non-Aryan people are all purified if they take refuge with Krishna. This is not mere rhetoric: we should recall, here, that one of the earliest pieces of archaeological evidence for the worship of Krishna was the column erected by Heliodorus, a Greek devotee of Bhagavan. The Bhagavata is quite serious about promoting the transcendence of bhakti to the social order: Suta, the narrator of the entire Purana, is born of a lowly mixed caste; Prahlada, one of the foremost exemplars of bhakti, is the son of a demon and describes himself as of despicable birth (7.9.12); and Narada, the most distinguished of saintly devotee sages, is the son of a sudra woman. One need only consider that Krishna himself chose to share his most intimate lilas with a lowly cowherding community to realize how far the Bhagavata tradition has gone in this direction.

The treatment of women follows similar lines. On the one hand, the secular expectations of women revealed in the text do not depart from those in the conventional texts dealing with dharma, or religious and social duties, such as the orthodox social codes given by Manu, the principal lawgiver in classical Hinduism. When Krsna attempts to send the gopis back to their husbands after they had abandoned everything to be with him in the forest, for example, he points out that:

The highest dharma [duty] of a woman is to serve her husband faithfully, to ensure the well-being of her relatives, and to nourish her children. A husband who is not a sinner, even though he be of bad character, ill-fated, old, dull-headed, sick or poor, should not be abandoned by women who desire to attain heaven. Without exception, the adultery of a woman of good birth does not lead to heaven. It is scandalous, fear-laden, worthless, fraught with difficulty and abhorrent.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.29.24-6

Similarly, when the brahmana women likewise abandon their duties to be with him, Krishna, after assuring them that they could still be united with him in thought, sends them back to their husbands on the grounds that their presence at home is required in order for their husbands to complete their sacrifices (10.23.19-34). Here, too, the Bhagavata does not challenge the norms of its day in terms of the conventional expectations of gender roles.

Where the Bhagavata dramatically departs from such roles is, again, in the context of bhakti, and this is best illustrated in the narrative above concerning the gopis. Although Krsna attempts to send the gopis back to their husbands and domestic duties, they will hear nothing of it (unlike the brahmana wives, who return once Krishna assures them that their families will not be angry with them). The gopis call his bluff:

You, the knower of dharma, have declared that the occupational dharma of women consists of attending to friends, husbands and children. Then let this be our dharma when it comes to you, the source of this advice, O Lord  after all, you are the soul within all.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.29.32

Here and elsewhere the Bhagavata gives a novel meaning to the traditional concept of dharma, normally understood as social and familial duty, by constructing it in the context of bhakti as denoting unalloyed devotion and service to Krishna:

Whatever activity is dedicated to me, the supreme, without self-interest, even if it be useless and performed out of fear or other such things, is dharma, O best of saintly persons’.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 11.29.21

In his famous concluding words in the Gita (18.66), Krishna instructs Arjuna to abandon all conventional dharma, and simply surrender exclusively to him. He assures Arjuna that he will free him from any sinful reaction incurred from doing this, and thus he need not fear any consequences. The Bhagavata chooses to illustrate this principle dramatically by having the gopis abandon their husbands and even their children to be with him. (10.29.4-11)

The theological message here is clear: the text portrays the gopis as prepared to surrender everything in order to attain Krishna, and as such they are exemplars of the highest possible achievement of the human soul. Since, in the mundane world, the love of the paramour is forbidden, ostracized, and dangerous, the gopis exemplify the highest attainable intensity of love for God, a love that totally disregards all repercussions; that cannot be bound by any material ethical convention; that transcends regulatory institutions such as that of matrimony; that pays no heed to social criticism; that is oblivious to personal danger, risk, and censure; and that is prepared to sacrifice everything for the ultimate beloved, God. Just as in the Abrahamic tradition, Abraham was expected to be prepared to commit an immoral deed  the sacrifice of his own son Isaac  in order to demonstrate his total commitment to God, so the gopis illustrate that the soul must be prepared to renounce conventional notions of duty and morality for the same end. They have thereby attained the highest goal of life, complete surrender to God.

Thus, while the conventional roles of women in everyday society are not challenged by the Bhagavata, the text allows them to discard these roles in the context of bhakti-yoga and, having done so, is ground-breaking in the Puranic genre by its promotion of women as not just eligible devotees, but the highest of all yogis. Uddhava, Krishna’s personal messenger, is so awed by the intensity and absoluteness of the gopis surrender to Krishna that he wishes to become a shrub so that he might come in contact with even the dust from their feet (10.47.58-63).

The gopis are certainly more elevated than dutiful brahmanas: the wives of the brahmanas, who had risked everything by turning their backs on their husbands in order to be with Krishna, are presented as being far more spiritually advanced than their ritualistically meticulous brahmana husbands (10.23.38-49).

The Bhagavata thus both dismisses the myopic pettiness of ritualistic brahmanism devoid of devotion, and clearly prioritizes the spiritual qualification of devotee women over the activities of the male twice-born brahmanas. But more than this, in accepting women as the highest of all yogis, including even all other bhakti yogis, the Bhagavata significantly surpasses the Gita’s mere acceptance of women devotees as qualified for liberation (9.32), a statement which itself was radical for the times. And its teachings certainly contrast with the view expressed in dharma texts such as that of Manu, the principal Hindu law-giver, that it is a firmly established point of law that there is no ritual with Vedic verses for women’ (Manusmrti, 9.18).

In conclusion, then, the Bhagavata is radical in its validation of female spirituality, its undermining of caste by birthright, the extent of its elevation of low-caste devotees, and its implicit criticism of brahmanical orthopraxy. The foregoing discussion has focused on the devotional implications of this stance for a present-day audience, since a deconstructive reading envisaging the text’s own contemporary audience is beyond the scope of this introduction, but the historical milieu of the times must be kept in mind. It is only by envisaging the extent of brahmanical hegemony, the actual day-to-day lot of low castes and outcastes, and the nature of the power imbalance in the conventional gender dynamics of orthodox Hinduism of the period, that the extent to which the Bhagavata adjusted and redefined the socio-political order of its day can be appreciated. By claiming to be a literary substitute for the supreme Godhead, Krishna, for all time subsequent to his incarnation, the author of the text is appropriating the spiritual cachet of a highly revered figure to gather the strength and authority realistically to challenge aspects of the social and cultural milieu of the day. Thus, irrespective of its theological, philosophical, or literary features, the Bhagavata provided and still provides significant resources for potentially revolutionary social change.

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26 Responses to The Bhagavata Leans Left

  1. Syama Gopala dasa

    A side note:
    The title of this post made me curious, but revealed a subtle difference in perhaps American and European labeling. In the whole of the article, it’s a mere detail, but I would personally have dubbed this post “The Bhagavata leans Progressive”. As in europe there is conservative leftwing and progressive rightwing thought.

    • At the loss of alliteration.

      • I really like the headline. The monosyllabic alliteration shows one of the English language’s great strengths. And that word, “left,” will definitely catch many readers’ attention.

        • Syama Gopala dasa

          I surely agree with the style of the headline. And in that sense it caught my attention. It’s just my problem with the word “left” 😉

        • Shyama–I’d say that the Bhagavatam leans “crunchy-con” myself.

  2. Ironically the spirit of the text all too often gets overlooked in favor of peripheral issues like varnasrama by Gaudiyas whose involvement with bhakti would not have been possible except by the grace of devotees more concerned with the essence than with varnasrama.

  3. Wonderful article! I really enjoyed the historical perspective and how the Bhagavata was shown to be radical in its time. Brian Magee makes the point in The Story of Philosophy that “since the religions [in the East] are more philosophical, philosophy has been able to develop more freely in the East than it was able to do in the West during the period when it was treated as little more than a handmaiden to religion: it was allowed to have more independently interesting philosophical content.” The development of thought in the Bhagavata over earlier works nicely demonstrates this living philosophical tradition in India. Srimad-Bhagavatam ki jaya!

  4. I was happy to see this article. In this part of his introduction, Advaita shows clearly one of the ways the Bhagavatam accomplishes the objective it claims at the outset: showing the essence of all dharma, completely rejecting anything less than unalloyed Krishna bhakti.

    We also see, as we do in the Gita, how not every utterance of Krishna’s can be read the same. In the Gita Krishna argues from several different angles; however, not everything he says is to be accepted equally. His real point–the essetial point of the Gita–is utter surrender, accepting him as our exclusive shelter. And in the Bhagavatam, he appears to be preaching “dharma” to the gopis, but it’s really a sort of devil’s advocacy, a way of setting them up to present essential dharma, the real dharma of the Bhagavatam. Whatever other conceptions of dharma anyone may have are acceptable only to the extent they support that absolute surrender.

  5. Dear Vrndaranya,

    Just looked at the website for the first time. Much interesting content. This is my first comment.

    I would have to respectfully disagree with the statement of Brian Magee.Generally, such sweeping “East vs. West” generalizations lend themselves to easy counterexamples. Aquinas, was no less philosophical, and his thought no less rich than Jiva or Ramanuja. If anything, he is more concerned with purely philosophical issues, as seen as his development of an entire ethical tradition which does not require appeal to scripture (Natural Law Theory), and metaphysical innovations concerning certain issues which Vedantins, for example, tend to neglect.

    Devotees tend to cite some secular authority who agrees with them without doing much background research, and it makes us look fanatical and biased. While I don’t think you are necessarily doing that, it is helpful to be sensitive of such dangers.

    Second, I would think that if alliteration were of prime importance, then one can, with admittedly a little cheekineess propose other articles:

    “The Bhagavatam Bashes Bisexuality” or

    “The Aryans Abhor Abortion”.

    My point with these is to suggest that the notions of “Left” or “Right” as given in modern western political discourse are not so amenable to Vedic and puranic society.

    Despite the recognition of the transformative power of bhakti, it is unlikely that the sages of the bhagavatam would have approved of modern liberal culture’s tendency to extol personal choice and autonomy above all else, and for that matter, the notion of complete independence in decisions about sexuality as a lynchpin concern of enlightened society.

    Aside from this, cherishing the transcendent feminine has not, as far as I know, led to increased concern for human women and their needs as a matter of historical fact. I don’t see this in Indian tantric developments or for that matter, the Catholic Church and its devotion to Mary.

    Anyway, take care. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement with shastra.

    • But Aquinas marks the period in Western philosophy when it began to shake free from and become more than a handmaiden to religion. Magnus and his prize pupil Aquinas could not turn their heads away from the newly unearthed secular writings—the human reasoning—of “the Philospher,” Aristotle as he became known. Previous to this period reason had been no more than a handmaiden to religion. And it is this earlier period Magee refers to as a time during which the West was philosophically bogged down by religion in comparison to the East.

      This Western beginning of intellectual independence was perhaps as good as it was bad, leading as it did to the scientific revolution with all of its progress as well as the very myth of progress itself and the modern predicament.

      In India, on the other hand, religious truths and truths of the natural world were never seen as entirely distinct from one another, nor did the greater freedom to reason that its religious texts afforded and expected of their readers lead to the divide between humanity and nature that reason’s break from religion in Europe contributed to.

      • Thanks for the comment, Swamiji.

        You mentioned: “But Aquinas marks the period in Western philosophy when it began to shake free from and become more than a handmaiden to religion.”

        Well, I would deny that. Before the Christian period, in the ancient and Hellenic periods we find the original period of philosophy without much subordination to religion. Even that idea is somewhat misleading, since Plato was clearly deeply influenced by the Eleusinian Mysteries and religious Pythagoreanism. In fact, his famous cave metaphor likely describes a Eleusinean initiation rite.

        What that author is calling the “subordination” phase would likely have begun with Agustine, and lasted till far later than Aquinas. It certainly did not end with him or with the discovery of Aristotle. In fact,his major work was the attempt to subordinate and integrate Aristotelian thought with Christian revelation. And after he did so, many, many generations of thinkers developed his work, leading to a great flowering of original developments in broadly Aristotelian thought (which, to this day, metaphysicians take very seriously, and has no analogue in India save the work of a few Naiyayikas).

        Another good example of profound philosophical insight entirely subordinate to religion is found in the much earlier Anselm of Canturbury, who, to my knowledge knew nothing of resurrected Aristotelian. His religious epistemology, that faith must precede knowledge is completely led by his religious commitments, and is profoundly influential, anticipating the work of J.H. Newman and William James, among others. His discovery (at least in the west) of the ontological argument was one of the great discoveries of philosophy and logic.

        As a final example, note that the Gospel of John is already rife with Greek philosophy, much as the Gita appropriates Samkhya thought in it’s spiritual message. As such, there were already many strands of thought there which later thinkers teased out. So some philosophy is intermixed from the beginning.

        The contention that philosophy died or was weakened under religious influence thus seems patently false.

        Besides this, there has been very little developments in Indian ethical/political theory by philosophers, ever. There is no Nichomachean Ethics, no Natural Law, as given by Aquinas, no Second Treatise, as given by Locke. It seems that the very reason for this is that thinkers were content to allow the dharma-shastras and epics provide such moral theory, and again seems to weaken the original claim.

        This was a long post. I hope not to repeat it. But frankly, I think it important to resist these kinds of cheap statements.These East vs. West claims tend to sound like “devotee patriotism” and don’t help us look objective. They are also generally false, and tend to lead to the kind of overinflated claims and general lack of clear thinking that has so ruined discourse in the modern Gaudiya community.

  6. I find it hard to be bracketed with left-liberal people who are mostly atheists. In fact left-liberal secular humanism is what Dawkins bats for.

    • So true. But this does not change the fact that the Bhagavata for its time was progressive. Had the article been titled “The Progressive Agenda of Bhagavata,” this would not have helped.

      The fact remains that whatever the label of the time the phenomenon of left and right exists cross culturally throughout time in human civilization. And for its time the Bhagavata, according to the article, appears to have been on the left, to have been radical.

      But times have changed, and what it means to be squarely on the let is something quite different from what it meant at the time the Bhagavata was written. “Left leaning,” however, does not mean the same thing as being a radical liberal secular humanist. America leaned left to elect its current president, but the majority of Americans are not atheists and neither is he. Thus the title read carefully does not imply that the Bhagavata advocates everything championed by today’s liberal secular humanists.

      The spirt of the Bhagavatam is one that is not particularly tied to social conventions. It looks beyond them to the core of the human plight with a remedy that transcends anything that can be accomplished by social convention.

      • Dear Maharaja,

        To my mind, to be “left” generally means a kind of liberalism which is primarily characterized by distrust for tradition. As you likely know, this thought was fomented by early modern thinkers and found political expression in the French Revolution and, to some degree, the American Revolution.

        Conversely, “conservatism” tends to identify with trust in tradition. Liberals look forward and hope that the govt. will free us from the failings of tradition. Conservatives look backward and tend to judge current society according to the venerable virtues and institutions of the past. Edmund Burke may be one of the best historical examples (and William F. Buckley is a very recent one.) On such a score our tradition would best be understood as quite conservative, imho.

        I think that this way of thinking about the two approaches as approaches to history is very basic and more helpful than a checklist about positions on things like abortion, etc.

        While many devotees may share some tatashta-lakshana with modern uber-leftists like Dawkins (distrust of the Religious Right, etc.), my hunch is that they share few first principles with them.

        Anyway, just some thoughts.

  7. Most of the ideas of the left have been inspired by Marx and Engels in the west and they have been critical of religion from beginning. So people follow these thinkers eventually, even though they are not even aware of it. France is supposed to be very left-winged country and I don’t even want to live in that country for its anti-religious stance.

    At the same time, I do acknowledge that left-liberal atheists have done more for the rights of homosexuals and women than religious people.
    Also there are shades of gray as there is a distinction between economically left and socially left. If you are left leaning, you have to be supporting abortion . So it leaves me confused.

    I agree with the point of bhagavata being very progressive.

  8. But in mentioning the ancient Greeks you have drawn back to a period where East and West are not as clearly demarcated—to a period when there is a likelihood or at least suspicion that ancient Greece was in touch with the East, with India, at least more so than Medieval Europe. Pythagorean religion and India’s zero may not be entirely divorced from one another.

    Magee’s point, who incidentally is not a devotee or follower of Eastern philosophy or by any means a naive religious fanatic, is that side-by-side with religion philosophy developed more readily in the East that in the West for a particular and significant period of time. Then things changed as reason gradually detached itself from religion in the West. The beginning of that detachment that saw reason start to flourish independently of religion in a way that constituted a paradigm shift, as I see it, is marked by Aquinas and his time thereabout. This does not mean that Aquinas was not a theologian, but that from his work onward independent of his own intentions reason found a foothold and gradually freed itself from religion, not of course without much enhancement of religious thought. So my point is not that the subordination phase ended with Aquinas and the rediscovery of Aristotle, but that it begins to end however slowly with him and his time. This is the period in Europe when the dominant religion of Christianity began to reconsider the role of human reason, and this in turn lead to an extent to Luther’s protest.

    Anselm used reason to defend faith well enough, but I don’t believe that his contribution denotes anything remarkable when compared with the East, anything that demonstrates that the religious tradition of the West was inherently as philosophical as that of the East.

    Some Greek philosophical influence may be there in John’s Gospel. I am not familiar with that the Bible. But I find myself doubting that it compares with the mix of Samkhya found in the Gita. With this you inadvertently invite the participants in this discussion to compare the measure of philosophy found in the Gita with that found in the Bible.

    Please consider that, as Magee writes, Christianity requires only that one believe in a so-called historical event and in this sense Christianity is a history-based religion, whereas as Hinduism and Buddhism do not share this characteristic to anywhere near the same extent. Their defining characterisitc is believing in the validity of their philosophical or quasi philosophical positions. This gives them a character that is altogether more philosophical and less historical than Christianity. I agree with him on this.

    I also think that in the name of intellectual integrity and sound scholarship young devotee students and scholars tend to give way more to Western academic influence than need be in order to appear sane and balanced. A Western education is often very Western, and the West has been for some time quite dismissive of the East. Thank God that is changing. And thank your for your comments!

    • GV as presented by SP also insisted on historical fact equally like christians. Belief in every incident in puranas was essential to his presentation.

      Kuvogi has missed people like Canakya who have written on political theories and economic theories and have been praised in the West as well. There are about 7 dharma sastras that were developed Manu,Gautam, Atri etc. If you talk about extensive experimentation like done through science west was much ahead than the east. India materially and socially was in dark ages between 13th to 20th century with so much dogma and superstition ruling the roost.

      Nyaya and Vasiseshika have a lot of logic and empiricism thrown it. I agree though that west invested much more time in logical study than the East, especially after Aquinas, but through that logic they eventually killed revelation.

  9. Hi Kuyogi,

    Welcome to the site. Thanks for the stimulating food for thought.

    Magee considers that Eastern philosophy was in some ways more profound than Western until the Kantian revolution. Therefore, he opines that from the early Christian philosophers (i.e. Aquinas), through the Copernican revolution, the Rationalists, Empiricists, French revolutionary philosophers, and beyond, Eastern philosophy holds its own and more.

    It is not a point of contention that there have been profound philosophical thinkers in Christianity. In the East, Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhava, etc. are all profoundly philosophical; nonetheless, we see a development of thought.

    You say, “The contention that philosophy died or was weakened under religious influence thus seems patently false.” Magee isn’t saying that philosophy can’t flourish in a religious context but that some religious contexts are more conducive than others. He says, “philosophy has developed in a more consistently symbiotic relationship with religion in the East than the West.” He isn’t the only philosopher to say that Western philosophy went through a stage where it was little more than a handmaiden to religion, Richard Tarnas, Harvard graduate and best-selling author, said the same thing.

    About your statement, “But frankly, I think it important to resist these kinds of cheap statements,” you might want to consider Professor Magee’s qualifications before you toss off his opinion as cheap. He received degrees in philosophy, politics, history, and economics at Oxford, did a fellowship in philosophy at Yale, was a Honorary Senior Research Fellow at London University, wrote several popular books on philosophy, and appeared on “Men of Ideas” and “The Great Philosophers.”

    And finally, “These East vs. West claims tend to sound like ‘devotee patriotism’ and don’t help us look objective. They are also generally false, and tend to lead to the kind of overinflated claims and general lack of clear thinking that has so ruined discourse in the modern Gaudiya community.” I generally agree with you, but mostly these claims are very questionable and I don’t find this to be the case with the excerpt from Magee.

    • Swamiji and Vrndaranya,

      Thanks for the thoughtful responses. I can’t really devote that much time to detailed discussions here, frankly (I am already violating my restricted-internet vrata of sorts, which I took up to save time in my life).

      Perhaps we will be stuck at a standstill. No matter: Vaishnavas often live harmoniously in disagreement. “You say Rama, I say Krishna.”

      I will say this–despite Mcgee’s qualifications, it is very common for very respected scholars to make dumb generalizations. Anthony Flew, for example, arguably the most influential philosopher of religion for much of the last century, claimed that philosophy, as concerned with argument, barely exists “east of Suez”. I can quote him, and cite his credentials, but since he was speaking outside of his competence, it would be foolish. And I would look foolish or at least uneducated for thinking he is right.

      I am tempted to get back into your claim, Swamiji about the loose boundary between east and west in the ancient world, since I think it needs severe qualification and does not help your broad position at all. But it would likely generate unneeded verbiage, since I don’t think you are ready to give in on the basic point I am making.

      Yesterday, I brought our discussion up to a friend of mine who is an expert Sanskritist and probably knows more of the history of Sanskritit literature than anyone I know of in the American Vaishnava community. He thought the idea that philosophy was somehow more free in India than the West to be deeply wrong.He said that from the Indian side, even literary theory is developed under the influence and hegemony (to use a tired cliche) of religious thought and thinkers.

      Again, my basic point is that these kind of generalizations, when often used to show how awesome Indian or “Vedic” culture is, are not useful, especially when one can get caught by those who know more than that expected of an intelligent non-specialist. I am really surprised that you wouldn’t see the merit in this, given the attempt of this site to be more progressive than most Gaudiya groups today.

      Your salutatary concern for the dangers of Western education is well noted. For this reason, though in the academy, I have personally stayed out of “Religious Studies” departments and kept away from the pernicious, vapid, post-modern thought which has colonized most “culture studies” depts, and that some people think sexy and useful. (Better to study Nagarjuna. He said it better and at least was concerned with liberation.)

      At the same time, I think a far bigger problem for western Vaishnavas is a kind of inescapable group-think, which makes one think that if something disagrees with my guru, it must be wrong, and then engenders an argumentative strategy of ad-hominem attacks mixed with broad claims about history, etc. (I am not surreptitiously claiming that you are doing that here. But I think you would agree that this is fairly common.) I have only seen this not happen in a few, very rare cases, where the guru is deeply concerned not to let it happen. Otherwise, it seems a common result of mainly young people with little experience or education getting involved in a high-level bhakti culture and guru-centric environment.

      Anyway, thanks for responding thoughtfully even though I disagree. I really can’t devote much energy to a new website, and don’t intend to check in for a while. So, if you want to continue the discussion, I likely will not respond. Take care.

      • I think that east was more free in philosophical development than the west in the period between Augustine and Aquinas and that is easy to acknowledge for most scholars. If we talk about Ancient Greeks and Renaissance, I think it is hard to say where there was more freedom. There are scholars on both sides.

        One can argue that west was more free because of being free from revelation but that was a problem in itself.

        One can say that the time period encompassing Sankara, Ramanuja and then Sri Chaitanya led to strict and tight compartmentalization into sects in India and every sect was very insulated to the extent that even exchange of food between members from one sect and other( saivite and vaisnavite) became impossible. In fact, it is still the case.

        I think earlier Vedic times had more freedom with people with different traditions not so averse to dialogues with each other. And caste system, social norms became more and more constrained during the post-Buddhist period.

        In logical analysis which is independent of revelation west has surpassed the east, only to realize that logical statements are tautologies and only when they are connected to empirical facts they are of value. V.S meanwhile had already stated that logic is inconclusive to establish the truth and saved a lot of energy for us!!

  10. Regarding liberal and conservative and those terms’ place in this discussion, I think this video offers some interesting thoughts. It is a great watch regardless:

    At around 5.30 the basic premise of the speaker is outlined, what he calls the “five foundations of morality.” At 8.30 he begins to show the worldwide results of his study. Speaking from the theoretical angle that Advaita’s article does, the Bhagavata does seem to fall mostly in line with the liberals. The most disparate category, as kuyogi has pointed out, is likely to be the fourth: Authority/respect, (which he had called “tradition”) Nonetheless, I find support here of the Bhagavata “leaning left.”

    Briefly, although Advaita’s article does not deal with it overtly, the very point of the article—that the Bhagavata extends the highest prospect without discrimination—could be seen as liberal-leaning in the first category, “Harm/cure,” in terms of being compassionate.

    The second category, “Fairness/reciprocity” is the main point at hand. Again, the article is highlighting that the Bhagavata extends the highest prospect of spiritual attainment to everyone, regardless of material circumstance (gender, class, and nation are the examples given in the article). This “equal-opportunity” element is certainly more akin to the left than the right.

    The third category, “ingroup/loyalty” is shown to be relatively unimportant in the aspects of the Bhagavata discussed in the article (as it is to liberals as well). Advaita writes that the Bhagavata “allows them [women] to discard these roles in the context of bhakti-yoga.”

    The last category (the 4th having been mentioned earlier) is “Purity/sanctity.” While in the context of day-to-day bhakti sadhana this would be a prominent category, it is completely marginalized in relation to the over-arching theory and ultimate goal of Gaudiya Vedanta. Therefore, as the article points out, candalas are not barred from the heights of transcendence.

    Within any extremely broad label such as liberal or conservative there is bound to be variety and simplification, but as a whole it seems to me that considering the Bhagavata as left-leaning in the context of the points raised in this article is quite appropriate.

  11. kuyogiji,

    I think you misrepresented the argument to your Sanskritist friend. Your point about scholars saying things out of their element is good but unfortunately it does not apply in this case with Magee. This is his field.

    You write:

    “Again, my basic point is that these kind of generalizations, when often used to show how awesome Indian or “Vedic” culture is, are not useful, especially when one can get caught by those who know more than that expected of an intelligent non-specialist. I am really surprised that you wouldn’t see the merit in this, given the attempt of this site to be more progressive than most Gaudiya groups today.”

    I do see the merit in this and have championed this point for decades. I just don’t think the specific point raised here is an example of the generalizations you are concerned with.

    Aside from this I think that the video posted by Nitaisundara on the “left and right” is worth your time in terms of helping to form a well informed opinion on where the Bhagavata and essential Bhagavata’s stand. I found it quite interesting.

    I appreciate the time you have taken in our discussion and the points you have raised.

  12. Kula-pavana dasa

    In general, religious texts are seldom (if ever) used to inspire left-leaning social movements. But perhaps when religious texts are compared to one another, some can be said to be more left-leaning than others.

  13. Sri Caitanya is a prime example of using a religious text for the left leaning social reform that was a byproduct of his ecstasy. He broke away from traditional caste boundaries embracing untouchables, etc. all on the basis of an essential understanding of Srimad Bhagavatam. Of course what was left then may be right now.

  14. I think people who are on the brahma-bhuta platform or in post-liberated state of GV will be liberal atleast in their heart. Otherwise how will panditah sama-darsinah verse apply to one even practicing jnana marga if they behave in restricted,rigid manner.

  15. Sastra-Vani Dasa

    Two considerations here:
    The translation of SB 11.29.21 is misleading. The commentary of Vishvanath Chakravarti on it really brings out the real meaning. Even Shridhara Svami’s commentary on this verse is misleading.

    Secondly, to connect the greatness of the gopis’ bhakti for Krishna to raising the social situation of women is not without its own issues. The Bhagavata does not advocate the gender of the gopis and nor do the followers of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the line of the six Goswamis. The gender of the gopis is immaterial in the level of bhakti they possess. They don’t possess that kind of bhakti because they are gopis (females) in the lila, they are gopis in the lila because they possess that kind of bhakti. I clarify that this is not temporal causation but logical causation.

    The article says:
    “But more than this, in accepting women as the highest of all yogis, including even all other bhakti yogis, the Bhagavata significantly surpasses the Gita’s mere acceptance of women devotees as qualified for liberation (9.32)”

    I find it problematic. Although the Bhagavata accepts the gopis as the highest of all yogis, this does not imply that women can or cannot attain that stage. That the gopis are given that status is in no way connected with the social acceptance or non-acceptance of women. Gopis are participants in the lila of Krishna which is completely transcendental to material gender issues.

    If one wants to look at social issues and reformations in the scriptures, one better look at the Mahabharata or Niti-shastras, etc. which deal with social life, its issues, etc. The Bhagavata is totally transcendental, it is called as the paramahamsa-samhita, the text meant for paramahamsas.

    Also, the Bhagavata does not advocate giving up one’s worldly responsibilities for engaging in Krishna-bhakti. It, however, advocates taking up Krishna-bhakti in whatever situation one is in. It advocates the superiority of bhakti to any dharmic varnashrama responsibilities. But this does not mean that one needs to abandon one’s worldly duties for engaging in bhakti. For the gopis, it was compromising their bhakti to follow Krishna’s advice and go back to their homes. That was just the nature of their bhakti in the form of parakiya-bhava.

    The Bhagavata proclaims that the devotee who after understanding the good and bad of dharmic duties gives up one’s dharmic activities and surrenders to Krishna completely is the best of all. (SB 11.11.37)
    This refers to the dharmic duties mentioned in the Vedas which are spoken by Bhagavan. This does not mean that one needs to abandon one’s family (as the gopis did).

    SB 11.20.9, tavat karmani kurvita…., does not mean that one should abandon all one’s material duties when one has shraddha in Krishna-katha. It means that one should abandon one’s regular and occassional karmas (activities) that pertain to varnashrama. It does not mean that one should abandon one’s family (or act immorally) (as the gopis did) when one has attained shraddha in Krishna-katha.

    I find the following section in the article highly dangerous:
    “Since, in the mundane world, the love of the paramour is forbidden, ostracized, and dangerous, the gopis exemplify the highest attainable intensity of love for God, a love that totally disregards all repercussions; that cannot be bound by any material ethical convention; that transcends regulatory institutions such as that of matrimony; that pays no heed to social criticism; that is oblivious to personal danger, risk, and censure; and that is prepared to sacrifice everything for the ultimate beloved, God.”

    It follows from this that it is appropriate to act materially immorally in order to please God. Thus, anything can potentially be justified as an act to please God. That is how terrorists justify killing heathens in the name of God. Killing others is dharma for them.

    We have to be extremely careful in understanding such things in the Bhagavatam and other scriptures.

    Also, the verse sarva-dharman parityajya… (Gita 18.66) is often interpreted incorrectly. It means giving up the dharmas of karma-yoga, jnana, demigod worship, etc. and exclusively surrendering to Krishna. It does not mean giving up one’s family and taking sannyasa. Vishvanath Chakravarti is very clear in his commentary on this verse that Krishna did not use the word “sannyasya (give up your family and all activities per se)” but used “parityajya”. He told Arjuna to give up dharmic concerns and surrender to Him.

    I hope what I have written makes sense.
    Thank you.

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