The Bhagavata and Bhaktivinoda

The following is adapted from Reform in Tradition: Bhaktivinoda’s apologetic for the Bhagavat Purana, originally published in Iskcon Communications Journal.

By Krsna Ksetra dasa

As a family man employed in a variety of responsible civil service posts, Kedarnatha Datta Bhaktivinoda was professionally and educationally well acquainted with the intellectual currents swirling through India, and especially through Bengal. In later years, Bhaktivinoda, a prolific writer, would expound extensively on Gaudiya Vaishnava theology and culture, basing his own work on earlier writings of the same school, centering on its late fifteenth and early sixteenth century founder, Sri Caitanya. But these writings came after a sea-change in his thinking, marked by a public speech (in English) in 1869 later published as a pamphlet, The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology. Bhaktivinoda was thirty-one years old at the time and had recently secured a position as Deputy Magistrate in the Bengal district of Dinajpur, north of Calcutta.

In his speech at Dinajpur (the one which later became the Bhagavata pamphlet), Bhaktivinoda gives an assessment of the learning he had gathered in earlier years, and the sense of distaste he had developed for the Bhagavatam, having recently rediscovered it:

When we were in college, reading the philosophical works of the West and exchanging thoughts with the thinkers of the day, we had contracted a hatred towards the Bhagavat. That great work seemed like a repository of ideas, scarcely adapted to the nineteenth century, and we hated to hear any argument in its favor. To us then, a volume of Channing, Parker, Emerson, or Newman had more weight than the whole lots of Vaishnava works. Greedily we poured over the various commentations of the Holy Bible and of the labors of the Tattva-Bodhini Sabha, containing extracts from the Upanisads and the Vedanta, but no work of the Vaishnavas had any favor with us.

Bhaktivinoda’s lecture made his position in relation to contending parties clear: What reformers were seeking to imbibe from Western culture could be had in full from the pages of the Bhagavatam for the careful and open-minded reader.

Bhaktivinoda’s The Bhagavata

The Bhagavata is essentially an apologetic work addressed to educated Hindus, but also to sympathizers of Brahmoism, as well as to European Christians who might have sympathies for Hindu reform movements. Originally a public speech, it contains eloquent and sometimes charming rhetoric, appealing to members of his audience to approach the Bhagavatam as a “true critic,” defined as “a generous judge, void of prejudices and party spirit,’ who is ‘of the same disposition of mind as that of the author whose merits he is required to judge.” Such a thoughtful reader or true critic “advises us to preserve what we have already obtained, and to adjust our race from that point where we have arrived in the heat of our progress.” He is not a destroyer of bad ideas, but rather one able to improve bad or old ideas for present purposes.

One thought is a road leading to another. Thus the reader will find that one thought which is the object today will be the means of a further object tomorrow. Thoughts will necessarily continue to be an endless series of means and objects in the progress of humanity.

Opposed to the “true critic” is the “foolish critic,” or the shallow reader, a person who continually urges to “begin anew … because the old masonry does not answer at present” and who thinks, “Let the old author be buried because his time is gone.” It is the foolish critics and superficial readers who fail to bridge the chasms between the various religious persuasions and perpetuate misunderstanding among them. Thus a foolish critic may be either Hindu or Christian and either progressive or orthodox:

One who is trained up in the thoughts of the Unitarian Society or of the Vedanta of the Benares school will scarcely find piety in the faith of Vaishnavas. An ignorant Vaishnava, on the other hand, whose business it is to beg from door to door in the name of Nityananda, will find no piety in the Christians. This is because the Vaishnava does not think in the way in which the Christian thinks of his own religion. It may be that both the Christian and the Vaishnava will utter the same sentiment, but they will never stop their fight with each other only because they have arrived at their common conclusion by different ways of thought.

Although for Bhaktivinoda all parties are guilty of sectarianism, he most keenly felt the unjustified critique of Christians against the Vaishnava tradition: “Thus it is that a great deal of ungenerousness enters into the arguments of the pious Christians when they pass their imperfect opinion on the religion of the Vaishnavas.”

Bhaktivinoda was convinced that the Bhagavatam was a wellspring of higher spirituality which had great promise as the ideal universal scripture. But the Bhagavatam resists easy access and ready appreciation. In his Dinajpur speech, Bhaktivinoda addressed these issues. First, Bhaktivinoda acknowledges the book’s incomprehensibility. Bhaktivinoda writes:

The Bhagavata is undoubtedly a difficult work, and where it does not relate to a picturesque description of traditional and poetical life, its literature is stiff and its branches are covered in the garb of an unusual form of Sanskrit poetry.

In defense of the Bhagavatam, Bhaktivinoda reminds his audience that such is to be expected of a philosophical work, and therefore one must be prepared to take the help of learned commentators to properly understand it: ‘The best commentator is Sridhara Swami and the truest interpreter is our great and noble Caitanyadeva. God bless the spirit of our noble guides.”

The Bhagavatam is not a work for common or “thoughtless” persons. Throughout his talk, Bhaktivinoda urges his Hindu listeners and possible Brahmo sympathizers to rise above mediocrity: the spirit of reform requires first the effort of individuals to comprehend the transcendent nature of reality, and this spirit demands conscious effort:

‘No exertion is necessary to teach the precepts of true religion.’ This is a deceptive idea. It may be true of ethics and the alphabet of religion, but not of the highest form of faith which requires an exalted soul to understand. It certainly requires previous training of the soul in the elements of religion, just as the student of the fractions must have a previous attainment in the elemental numbers and figures in Arithmetic and Geometry. ‘Truth is good’ is an elemental truth which is easily grasped by the common people. But if you tell a common patient that God is infinitely intelligent and powerful in his spiritual nature, he will conceive a different idea from what you entertain of the expression. All higher Truths, although intuitive, require previous education in the simpler ones.

Whereas the thoughtless manage to degrade great ideas of reformers into something they were never meant to be, the great reformers, such as the “Savior of Jerusalem” or the “Savior of Nadia” are not to be scandalized “for these subsequent evils.” Bhaktivinoda concludes his point with a reference to the European Christian reformer: “Luthers, instead of critics, are what we want for the correction of those evils by the true interpretation of the original precepts.”

A second obstacle was the presence of apparent elements of non-rationality: readers of the Bhagavatam schooled in the modern mode of rational thinking might become dismayed by the presence of apparently irrational descriptions therein. Graphic descriptions of heavens and hells meant to “check the evil deeds of ignorant people who are not able to understand the conclusions of philosophy” are found both in “commonplace books of the Hindu religion” as well as in the Bhagavatam. However, Bhaktivinoda warns his readers elsewhere in the work “not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and improve the simple and ignorant.” He assures his audience that the philosophical principle behind these descriptions holds true—that reward and punishment in the future follow present deeds, and that otherwise all poetic inventions besides this spiritual fact have been described as statements borrowed from other works in the way of preservation of old traditions in the book which superseded them and put an end to the necessity of their storage.

Such a distinction is not without controversial implications, even (or especially) for present-day Vaishnavas. Suffice to say here that Bhaktivinoda recognized a potential difficulty for his educated contemporaries to appreciate the Bhagavatam and attempted to resolve it while acknowledging a place for both modern rational thought and traditional culture. For the young Bhaktivinoda of 1869, rationality, following standard Enlightenment thinking, seems to be the gateway to true liberty; but such liberty is not to be had without grappling with the truths of revealed scripture, albeit as an open, not a closed canon:

Our sastras [revealed scriptures], or in other words, books of thought, do not contain all that we could get from the infinite Father. No book is without its errors … . New revelations, therefore, are continually necessary in order to keep truth in its original purity. … (The Bhagavata, 28). We must think for ourselves and try to get further truths which are still undiscovered. In the Bhagavata we have been advised to take the spirit of the sastras and not the words. The Bhagavata is therefore a religion of liberty, unmixed truth, and absolute love.

Bhaktivinoda’s example for such a spirit of truth-seeking is the sage Vyasa, whom he compares to Plato, Jesus, and Caitanya. Having gone “up to the fountainhead of truth, where no pilgrim meets with disappointment of any kind,” Vyasa descended as a transcendental conqueror over the old order. Bhaktivinoda invokes martial imagery to strengthen his point:

Like the great Napoleon in the political world, he knocked down empires and kingdoms of old, as well as bygone philosophies, by the mighty stroke of his transcendental thoughts! This is real power. Atheists, Sankhya philosophers, the followers of Carvaka, the Jains, and the Buddhists shuddered with fear at the approach of the spiritual sentiments and creations of the Bhagavat philosopher!

Thus while there may seem to be elements of non-rationality in the Bhagavatam, the salient feature of the work is the towering theistic message common to all genuine divine revelation.

A third obstacle to be encountered in the Bhagavatam is a further result of improper reading by “shallow critics.” Bhaktivinoda is defending the Bhagavatam against the criticism that it is a justification for lascivious lifestyles, as exhibited by various groups claiming to be followers of Sri Caitanya. Bhaktivinoda refutes this misconception vehemently, concluding that,

Vyasa, who could teach us repeatedly in the whole of the Bhagavata that sensual pleasures are momentary like the pleasures of rubbing the itching hand, and that man’s highest duty is to have spiritual love with God, could never have prescribed the worship of sensual pleasures.

By reading with the proper understanding, Bhaktivinoda promises, a transformation of heart will quickly take place to dispel such misconceptions:

With this advice, dear critic, go through the Bhagavata and I doubt not you will, in three months, weep and repent to God for despising this revelation through the heart and brain of the great Badarayana.

Indeed, this was Bhaktivinoda’s experience not long before delivering this speech. Having thought on first reading in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta that Caitanya recommends the worship of “the improper character of Krishna,” Bhaktivinoda recalls that he prayed, “O God! please give me the understanding by which I may know the secret of this matter.” Shortly thereafter his prayer was answered: ‘The mercy of God is without limit. Seeing my eagerness and humility He showed mercy to me within a few days, and I received the intelligence by which I could understand.

Thus Bhaktivinoda does not deny the existence of obstacles in approaching the Bhagavatam, but they are not insurmountable obstacles, and the reward for the effort is such as to secure for its reader the possibility of becoming a saragrahi, a “seizer of the essence.” To do so requires a process of selective thought:

That fruit of the tree of thought is a composition, as a matter of course, of the sweet and the opposite principles. O men of piety! Like the bee taking honey from the flower, drink the sweet principle and reject that which is not so.

From such statements it might seem that Bhaktivinoda is proposing a new, modern way of reading scripture. Whereas the traditional prescription has always been to read (or, more often, to hear) scripture in an attitude of unquestioning submission, such an attitude does not preclude the necessity to read critically while taking guidance from previous commentators to the work. For such critical reflection Bhaktivinoda presents Vyasa as the prime example. His mature realisation consists of the Bhagavatam, composed after distancing himself from works he had himself previously compiled. Hence, for Bhaktivinoda, Vyasa is proof that the modernway of reading sastra is in fact not new at all, and the fact that Sri Caitanya, the ‘Eastern Saviour,’ exemplified and taught that the Bhagavatam is proof that Indians need not resort to scriptures from outside India as sources of revealed knowledge.

In Bhaktivinoda’s time, in the height of British hegemony in India, he saw in the tradition of Caitanya not a sectarian Hindu solution to modernity, but a tradition of reform which could be built upon to match the challenge of the West with a theologically sound, if misunderstood and neglected, text from the Indian scriptural corpus of revelatory truth. Bhaktivinoda sought to revive and continue that tradition of enlightened reform exemplified by Caitanya, whose message of bhakti to Krishna challenged caste barriers and brought the Bhagavatam forward as the “ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge.”

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87 Responses to The Bhagavata and Bhaktivinoda

  1. A very good article indeed. I reckon that the original ICJ entry is itself an adapted extract from Krsna Ksetra dasa’s doctoral dissertation.

  2. The only issue I have with the modern presentation of Bhaktivinode’s lecture manuscript being promoted today is that it was first of all a “lecture” which was specifically targeted to a specific audience in Bengal during the era of Bhaktivinode which has now become a text in the Hare Krishna canon of scripture.
    Bhaktivinode wrote the piece as a lecture to be delivered to a particular audience of his time in Bengal.
    The problem with promoting the little book in today’s western world post-Prabhupada is that it was written long before the Bhagavatam had been rendered into English and popularized all over the world.

    In the Bhagavatam translation of Swami Prabhupada he speaks of the Hells as literal places as planets just above the Garbha ocean.
    In the Bhagavat pamphlet by Bhaktivinode he refers to these descriptions as something added later to the Bhagavat by some King or whoever as scare tactics to awe simple people into not being wicked.

    Well, that is hardly the way these verses are presented by Srila Prabhupada and a potential blemish on the “spotless purana”. So, that is why the Bhagavat lecture of Bhaktivinode might be in question by certain followers of Swami Prabhupada as not being appropriate for the 21st Century western audience post-Prabhupada and the Bhagavatam translation of those verses in the 5th Canto as literal and factual by Srila Prabhupada.

    • KB,

      The point you have raised is worth discussing (with detachment). Personally I think there is a third position that one can take on the issue, but I will hold off from putting that forward for the moment. Other than the question of whether or not the hells of the Bhagavata are literally real, another point to raise about BVT’s position in The Bhagavata, as opposed to a literal interpretation, is that either of the two positions may be useful to take in terms of encouraging others to embrace the essence of the Srimad Bhagavatam. Indeed, even as SP is presented in KB’s point as being in opposition to an allegorical interpretation (and in many respects that is accurate), at least in one instance he told one of his students that such topics could be taken allegorically if it helped one to enter the spirit of the text:

      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 (allegorically) . . . 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 aside from which position is correct, it seems that either position my be correct to take for the sake of helping others embrace the spirit of the Srimad Bhagavatam, and that spirit—its essential message—is satyam param dhimahi. If it is true that BVT took his position in The Bhagavata for the sake of speaking to a particular audience (a point I do not entirely agree with), that does not mean that his approach therein must now be retired. No, it seems to me that it may have application in similar circumstances today. In other words, it is not that a Western educated and spiritually inclined audience like that of BVT no longer exists.

      • it is not that a Western educated and spiritually inclined audience like that of BVT no longer exists.

        Indeed. One may even say that BVT’s style of presentation is just as relevant (maybe even more so!) now as it was in his time.

      • I think the kind of audience BVT presented to is more and more present in modern world and the kind of audience SP preaching style caters to is available only in India and Eastern Europe.

        • If at all; most educated modern Indians tend to view the Puranic stories as little more than myth. This applies even to those who ultimately accept the truth of a particular brand of theistic Vedanta. For instance, I’ve myself witnessed contemporary younger adherents of Visistadvaita and Dvaita state on several internet public forums that they do not accept the Bhagavata’s Fifth-Canto-cosmology as literal fact, to name just one example. Yet, these are more or less committed Vaisnavas we are talking about.

          For my part, I’d thus endorse the positions here expressed of Tripurari Maharaja and Citta Hari and Gaura Vijaya Prabhus. There is room to accommodate the presentation styles of both Bhaktivinoda and Prabhupada, and the two methods have arguably each borne sufficient results as testament to that.

        • I agree that even in India, you will find people who will be more comfortable with BVT’s style. I was just saying because of the strong cultural ethos in the Indian upbringing, it is easier to accept a lot of stories for some Indian people without questioning.

      • Time and again I have seen that even so called literal interpreters of the scriptures do not follow everything literally and adjust the scriptures when things don’t completely suit them.

    • Bhaktivinoda’s take on the Bhagavata in this lecture cannot be considered a blemish on the spotless Purana because it is not the Bhagavatam’s potentially flawless cosmology that makes it spotless. The verse that you mention as being called into question speaks about the Bhagavatam’s spotless nature in relation to its ability deliver one beyond samsara, and further, to bhakti.

      The entire chapter where this verse appears speaks about the Bhagavatam in terms of spiritual advancement. Verse 12.13.12 ends with “The goal of this literature is exclusive devotional service unto that Supreme Truth.” It is because the Bhagavatam deals only with transcendence that it is spotless, being beyond the gunas.

      When Narada is speaking to Vyasa in the 1st Canto he acknowledges that Vyasa had previously discussed the purusarthas and was still dissatisfied. But, the Bhagavatam says, the Bhagavatam is another creation altogether. Cosmology and hells fall within the scope of the former discussion, but because the goal of the Bhagavata is pure devotion, we can conclude that its discussion of cosmology is not a goal in and of itself.

      In the same chapter the Bhagavatam acknowledges that it could have some technical flaws but such things do not compromise its spotless nature.

      • I agree with you Nitaisundara. To say that the descriptions of the hells and heavens that are the primary subjects of other texts have been brought into Sukadeva and Suta Goswami’s presentation of the essential message of the Bhagavata is not to say it is thereby no longer spotless. It is how those very subjects are dealt with that makes the Bhagavata Purana the spotless purana, srimad bhagavatam amalam puranam.

        When asked by Pariksit about the nature of the material world—the glory of Visnu maya—Sukadeva replied that essentially this world is a transformation of the three gunas, nothing more—bhagavato maya-guna-vibhuteh. He goes on to say that no one can describe this world perfectly, vacasa vadhigantum alam vibhudhayusapi purusas. As the sage continues his explanation, he describes it as being based on the estimations of learned persons of that period, pramana-laksanato vyakhyatah.

        The bold text above speaks to us of the Srimad Bhagavatam’s (from the mouth of Suka) borrowing from elsewhere with regard to descriptions of the universe. Again, this does not blemish it because its point in giving this description is ultimately to describe the form of the universe in relation to the Godhead. In other words, to describe the world such that by contemplating that description one can be become absorbed in thoughts of God, to see the world as an external form (sthula vapuh) of Bhagavan. So the point here is not as much the details of the description as it is to see the world in relation to God. This should be done. This is what Sukadeva is saying and this is what Pariksit asked him to talk about—the world in relation to the Godhead. Relative to this discussion, the world does have heavenly and hellish conditions, no doubt, and seeing them in relation to God is to see that the paths leading to them are not worth pursuing. One should rise above piety and impiety.

  3. In my thinking I lean towards an understanding that both the approach BVT takes here and the approach taken by Srila Prabhupada are compromises. BVT is openly compromising with the modern thinking of his times and SP is compromising between his very literal take on the scriptures, and the ability of his audience to take such things purely on faith. And in doing so both acharyas can be seen as making certain mis-steps. There is very little doubt that some Bhagavatam stories are allegorical. The problem is: where do we draw the line between allegory, inspirational writing, and literal meaning? IMO BVT goes too far to the left, while SP goes too far to the right, which is rather obvious in his take on Bhagavatam cosmology.

    I do not think either of them really knows for sure what parts of Bhagavatam are fictional and which are factual. And for me the best approach would be to clearly say so. Otherwise as followers and disciples we feel obligated to do all kinds of mental gymnastics trying to reconcile their divergent views with themselves, and with the facts presented to us very convincingly by modern science and our direct perception. I have seen devotees inventing most bizzare theories and interpretations simply to avoid admitting that their guru was flat out wrong on some minor point. Other people look at such mental gymnastics and dismiss our movement as dogmatic and dishonest. Quite a few devotees left, because their faith was shaken by that approach.

    All becuse somebody would not simply say: “Actually, I do not know for sure, but I think it is like that…”

  4. Here is what BVT actually said in his speech “The Bhagavata.”

    In the common-place books of the Hindu religion in which the rajo and tamo-gu∫a have been described as the ways of religion, we have descriptions of a local heaven and a local hell; the Heaven as beautiful as anything on earth and the Hell as ghastly as any picture of evil. Besides this Heaven we have many more places, where good souls are sent up in the way of promotion! There are 84 divisions of the hell itself, some more dreadful than the one which Milton has described in his “Paradise Lost.” These are certainly poetical and were originally created by the rulers of the country in order to check evil deeds of the ignorant people, who are not able to understand the conclusions of philosophy. The religion of the Bhågavata is free from such a poetry. Indeed, in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book, not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and the ignorant. The Bhågavata, certainly tells us a state of reward and punishment in the future according to the deeds in our present situation. All poetic inventions, besides this spiritual fact, have been described as statements borrowed from other works in the way of preservation of old traditions in the book which superseded them and put an end to the necessity of their storage.

  5. ” Indeed, in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book, not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and the ignorant.”

    I think Maharaja you had mentioned a verse in 11th Canto of the S.B, which BVT used to support his point. I think it says that masses of people need to given sugar candies to follow rules etc.

    • Yes, this is the verse that I think BVT is referring to (SB 11.3.44)

      paroksa-vado vedo ‘yam
      balanam anusasanam
      karma-moksaya karmani
      vidhatte hy agadam yatha

      Childish and foolish people are attached to materialistic, fruitive activities, although the actual goal of life is to become free from such activities. Therefore, the Vedic injunctions indirectly lead one to the path of ultimate liberation by first prescribing fruitive religious activities, just as a father promises his child candy so that the child will take his medicine.

      In the Bhagavata the path to heaven (and hell) is discussed and dismissed as being guidance for the less intelligent (balanam anusasanam). In contrast the Bhagavata teaches the path to prema, and in doing so it emphasizes that hell for all intents and purposes does not exist for those engaged in nama-dharma (6th canto).

  6. Regarding this conclusion,

    The Bhagavata, certainly tells us a state of reward and punishment in the future according to the deeds in our present situation. All poetic inventions, besides this spiritual fact, have been described as statements borrowed from other works in the way of preservation of old traditions in the book which superseded them and put an end to the necessity of their storage.

    Sri Jiva Goswami acknowledges that part of the Bhagavata as we know it (18,000 or so verses) involves the adoption of five elements that constitute a Purana. These elements then are part of the packaging of the essential message of the text that is considered complete in four essential verses. Although a description of cosmogony is no one of the five elements, BVT here suggests that other elements are also part of that packaging: details about heavens and hell, etc. But it is important to note that he merely dismisses the “details,” while acknowledging that there are consequences for our actions, both hellish and heavenly, consequences he describes as “spiritual fact.” One could therefore argue that BVT is not dismissing heaven and hell altogether, but merely stating that the descriptions of them in the Bhagavatam are poetic rather than literal.

    • As Krishna Ksetra das pointed out in the beginning of his review, the “Bhagavat” lecture of Bhaktivinode was an “apologetic” work that was aimed at disarming those who were of the same mentality that he was not too long before as a hater of the Bhagavat himself.

      I think Krishna Ksetra prabhu put his finger on it when he said that this lecture by Bhaktivinode was an apologetic work aimed for a narrow audience of those Bengalis that were still stuck on Brahmoism, Christianity or whatever that Bhaktivinode had been there and done that and moved on.

      Unlike Srila Prabhupada, Bhaktivinode was not raised as Krishna bhakta and he passed through several changes of thought before arriving at the feet of Mahaprabhu, so his apologetic “Bhagavat” lecture is a landmark in his thinking and preaching but maybe not his final thought on the matter.

      • Personally I think BVT was speaking from his own conviction at the time. As you infer, he himself was half Western and a convert. But I am not sure that this alleged conviction changed at any point in his life. An apologetic is a defense of a religious doctrine. So BVT is defending the spirituality of the Bhagavatam.

        • Yes, but the dialogue about the hells is rather extensive and even Vishvanatha Cakravarti commented that the Hells are situated just above the Garbha ocean.
          The dialogue about the hells takes up several verses and is supposed to be Sukadeva Goswami speaking.
          So, the “hell is allegorical” school will have a little trouble discrediting a whole section of the Bhagavat that describes the Hells that are explicitly verified by Vishvanatha Chakravarti.

          That is the can of worms that gets opened up when we dabble in Bhaktivinode’s “Bhagavat” lecture which contains the only known accusations made by any acharya that these hells are allegorical places of suffering.

          No other acharya prior to that made such comment.
          I don’t think the idea of taking the “Bhagavat” lecture of Bhaktivinode and decrying all the hells in the 5th canto as allegorical is at all a very proper understanding.

          Ultimately, I am of the opinion that the hells are BOTH literal and allegorical at the same time and that is why so many people get confused about it.

          It’s not one or the other.
          It is both.

        • Again, I don’t think BVT is denying that there is a hell and heaven, and Indra and a Yama—personifications of material enjoyment and law with respective realms. Elsewhere he acknowledges their existence.

          However, Sridhara Maharaja told us that BVT was of the opinion that the Goswami commentaries on the Bhagavatam were written for kanistha adhikaris. Thus he wrote Krsna-samhita for madhyamas, or those concerned with spiritual advancement and the task of harmonizing one’s heart of faith with one’s head of reason. That’s pretty radical.

          But he seemed to be saying that the Goswami commentaries did not endeavor to reason much about their expressed bhava–their commentaries. Of course their audience did not require this.

          We also found in Sridhara Maharaja a willingness to speak and think non literally about things like the Bhagavatam’s cosmogony. For example, he said that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon in that its influence can be felt more. Presumably this truth is then explained as if a literal fact in the Bhagavatam. As BVT has said, it’s not an easy book to understand!

          However, its essence is easy enough to grasp with good association. Again, satyam param dhimahi.

      • He republished Krsna-Samhita in 1896 when he was in a “mature” phase of bhakti.Sri Chaitanya and his precepts was also sent in 1896 to the Western world and it had similar style of presentation.

        • Yes, I personally believe that BVT maintained the position he took in the The Bhagavata throughout his life. What we see in him is a modern, progressive mind capturing the essence of a timeless truth and speaking about it in light of the time he lived.

  7. My Question is : What would the benefit be of someone accepting the cosmology of Srimad Bhagavatam as literal fact in this day and age? I do, but in a very peculiar(maybe even wrong?) way. I know it is not important as a true devotee to be able to explain this, but the people who strongly defend it – Are they able to defend its position with regards to “modern science” and language/perception?

    If there are any explanations, I’d love to hear it. I am really seeking information on this.

    • Modern science does not accept the concept of subtle matter. Hells and heavens pertain to the this realm—the paranormal.

      • Excellent point Maharaja. You bring us right to the point that I had been led to understand in my early studies of the Bhagavatam. When dealing with cosmology, it is dealing with subtler realms, but talking about them so naturally that the ignorant reader may assume that what is being talked about are gross material locations that we could experience with our gross mundane senses.
        I can’t quote exactly, but for instance, in the description of a soul being dragged to hellish punishment, immense distances are covered in a moment. Like in a dream, we may have impossible experiences, but they do effect our consciousness. I had always heard the concept that hellish punishments described could be seen like that. A subtle dreaming experience
        in which millions of years could pass in a split second and the soul becomes cleared of much karmic garbage to enter back into the human plane cleared of a great burden and perhaps with a chastened conscience.
        What to speak, even our so called solid earthly existence is also considered a dreaming condition of the soul. As Krishna so succinctly states, this material energy of his is endlessly mutable and what to speak that He is the Supreme Magician, opens the possibility that any description in the Bhagavatam could be real or allegory according to the will
        of the Supreme Magician and the status of the individual soul experiencing such.

        • They do not accept subtle matter, because they cannot see it with their material senses. Thus the “shamanic” dimension holds the key to developing an understanding of this (like my epic unpublished reply in “Religion, Science and the Academy 😉 ) In this “dimension”, the whole arrangement of the stars coalesce to form a very clockwork-like pattern, which also opens up a more direct study of Astrology. Together with this, people should seriously study the concept of “Divine Geometry and Shapes”. This will possibly lead to a more Scientific understanding of Vedic Cosmology. Exciting possibilities for fearless explorers!

      • Vijay Venugopal Dasa

        It seems to me that Modern Science has progressed far beyond the Sixties, when it did not accept subtle matter.

        That 90% of the universe is made of ‘dark’ ie invisible matter, is the latest belief. Even the most atheistic of the scientists, Stephen Hawking, says that ther emust be an interface between different dimensions / universes through so called ‘black holes’.

        So, for all we know, the heavens, hells, demigods etc, could be exactly as described in the Srimad Bhagavatam, and accepted by Srila Prabhupada. If it is made of ‘dark matter’ which the scientists are not able to see even with their finest instruments, then how can any modern scientific minded person categorically say these things do not exist?

        In fact, science progressed beyond BVT’s time to accomplish many miracles, which mad the miracles described in the scriptures much more believable, by the 1960’s. With further progress, it is clear that scientists are baffled more and more by facts that their calculations and observations do not tally with earlier simplistic science. Future scientists, may reveal more and more that what is described in SB is, in all likelihood, true.

  8. It is interesting how preoccupied readers of the Bhagavatam can be with the idea of heavens and hells, literal or nonliteral. In one sense BVT is really saying that these are not the concerns of the Bhagavatam, and in this he is 100% correct.

    But again, he does not seem to be saying that they don’t exist at all, but rather that the descriptions of them are poetic and these descriptions (borrowed from texts where they are the main concern) are meant to entice and scare people into being religious. At the same time he acknowledges some form of reward and punishment for actions.

    And to say that heaven and hell are subtle realms, the details about which may be embellished in scripture for specific purposes, is not to say they do not exist by any means—just north of the Gabhodaka or wherever. All of this is in reference to subtle matter. I don’t think anyone is going to find the ocean of milk out there in space with a NASA shuttle.

    • I have come to terms with the 5th Canto cosmology in that I no longer even care if the 5th Canto cosmology is correct or not.
      I don’t believe it is, but that doesn’t shake my faith in the divinity of the book.
      I am of the opinion that the universe and the solar system has undergone some serious changes since the ancient times.
      The Kumaras heard the Bhagavatam from Lord Sankarsana eons ago after the re-creation of the universe .
      So, it’s history is very, very ancient.
      Our universe and our solar system has changed in several ways since the time of Bhagavat cosmology.
      If the Bhagavatam is indeed eternal (they say it is), we have to wonder when the cosmology mentioned in the 5th Canto ever existed within this particular universe or if the Bhagavat cosmology is just a generic, one size fits all description of a common material universe or maybe this universe eons ago before certain changes occurred in the solar system creating the situation we have today.

      • Consider this passage from the Krsna book, Ch. 58, entitled ‘Five Queens Married by Krsna,’ –

        “First of all he gave them 10,000 cows and 3,000 well-dressed young maidservants, ornamented up to their necks. This system of dowry is still current in India especially for ksatriya princes. Also, when a ksatriya prince is married, at least a dozen maidservants of similar age are given along with the bride. After giving the cows and maidservants, the King also enriched the dowry by giving 9,000 elephants and a hundred times more chariots than elephants. This means that he gave 900,000 chariots. And he gave a hundred times more horses than chariots, or 90,000,000 horses, and a hundred times more slaves than horses.”

        Now tell me with a straight face that you really believe King Nagnajit offered 100 x 90,000,000, i.e. 9 billion slaves in dowry, or that Maharaja Ugrasena factually had 30 trillion (yes, it ain’t a typo) guards attending to him! As you see, astronomy and cosmology are not the sole topics discussed on the pages of the Bhagavata Purana that are not quite amenable to a sterile literal gloss.

        • I think this is the same questions that Jamadagnya das and another disciple questioned Srila Prabhupada about.
          This issue along with a couple other issue became such big issues for Jamadagnya and some others that they ended up offending Srila Prabhupada over it and getting a formal rejection of discipleship – according to the story I heard.
          Swami probably knows the details better than i.

          Srila Prabhupada simply stood his ground and said that the numbers you mentioned were real.

          Why should anyone doubt the unlimited potency of Krishna?
          Such numbers are trivial amounts considering the actual powers and potency of Krishna.

        • Once Prabhupada was asked by a disciple how Nada Baba’s 900,000 cows could fit in the geographical area of Vraja, to which he replied, “You read too much.” to another who said he felt the lilas of Krsna were a bit fantastic he replied “You are fantastic.”

          So there is something to be said about trying to completely understand that which is venerable with one’s head. Vraja is described a geographical area made up of a finite number of square kilometers, and at the same time we are told that to think of it as consisting of a finite area is dhama aparadha. So it needs to be a certain area for the sake of lila only. It is a play number. And all numbers are but play for the Infinite. At the same time it can also be said that the use of numbers in the Bhagavatam’s description of lila need not always be taken literally. Large numbers may be used to make the point that there were many of something, a staggering amount. It is poetic language and thus we see varying accounts of the same lila with differing numbers, etc. Also the whole point of the lila is to take one beyond thinking, which is so boring, to the land and language of the heart where all things are possible.

        • The language of the Bhagavatam follows the language of other Puranas and Mahabharata. And that language is very commonly flowery, exagerrating, and at times even contradictory (such as: ‘he was unconquerable, yet he was conquered today’ when describing a warrior) when trying to convey the essence of a situation, not just when it comes to dhama or lila, but in general as well. Very few Hindus take it literally. The common explanation of ‘trying to limit the unlimited’ for me is only valid in the sense that we should be humble when trying to understand Krsna-lila – in other words, it is not an aswer to the question you ARE asking, but it is an answer to the question you SHOULD be asking.

          In the long run, insisting on interpreting the scripture one way only, the way it was explained by your guru, brings serious doctrinal problems to any tradition. And this is what we currently see among the Saraswatas.

        • In the long run, insisting on interpreting the scripture one way only, the way it was explained by your guru, brings serious doctrinal problems to any tradition. And this is what we currently see among the Saraswatas.

          In my experience this tendency is widespread and hardly restricted to the Sarasvatas. 🙂 Then again, of all lineages the Sarasvatas should be beyond this given BVT’s emphasis on nonsectarianism and being up to date so to speak and thereby of wider vision.

        • Unless Saraswatas actually change that approach they will continue to play only a very minor role on the religious scene. I actually appreciate your influence in that area.

  9. The bottom line as far as I can see is that it is more important nowadays for an aspiring Vaishnava to read and learn the Bhagavatam of Srila Prabhupada than the “Bhagavat” lecture of Bhaktivinode.

    I think that the best way to understand the Bhagavatam is by studying the translation and purports of Srila Prabhupada and trying to enter into the spirit of the text in a fluid, submissive attitude.

    I don’t think that reading the “Bhagavat” lecture of Bhaktivinode has much relevance in terms of Srila Prabhupada’s translation so will do little to help a candidate understand the actual Bhagavatam as given by Srila Prabhupada.

    Chronologically, the Bhagavat lecture of Bhaktivinode is outdated by the worldwide distribution of the Bhagavatam by Srila Prabhupada. As far as I know was never recommended by Srila Prabhupada to any of his disciples. It was brought forth and popularized after the passing of Srila Prabhupada. It was not standard ISKCON reading material at any time of the Prabhupada era.

    I personally don’t accept the “Bhagavat” pamphlet of Bhaktivinode to be shastra proper or a divine book of the Gaudiya canon.
    It was a lecture engineered for the local Bengalis of Bhaktivinode’s era, not the disciples of Srila Prabhupada or readers of his books.
    It’s not the Bhagavatam or even a commentary on it.
    It’s just a speech for a small crowd of Bengal’s that Bhaktivinode wanted to preach and reach out to locally.

    I was in SCSM San Jose when the first English edition was published and I have read it many times since 1981 and these are my thoughts on the pamphlet.

    • My experience has been that most devotees are electrified by it. Basically it says that the essential message of the Bhagavatam can compete with any thought in the marketplace of ideas East or West. There is much more to it than a paragraph about hell.

      • Me too. I love the little book and have gone through it and quoted it many times in my writing.
        However, after much thoughtful consideration I have come to think that the portion which rejects literal hells goes so much against the actual text of the Bhagavatam that it renders the entire manuscript as outdated and not really applicable to the modern 21st Century situation of having millions of Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam’s in hands all over the world.

        The rejection of literal hells goes against the spirit and letter of Srila Prabhupada’s translation.

        How any disciple of Srila Prabhupada can abandon that conclusion on the basis of that little lecture manuscript of Bhaktivinode is a question that must thereby arise in the mind of anyone whose brain is not on stand-by.

        Is Bhaktivinode the end of all thought on the issue?
        I hope not.
        Eternity is a long time.

        • Perhaps the point is that there is no end of thought on spiritual matters. Hopefully readers of The Bhagavata will grasp that point and not get stuck on something in the text used to make it.

        • I hope we are not stuck with SP’s interpretation for eternity and reject BVT’s interpretation. Is SP the end of thought? Who knows what SP would have done in today’s time? After all why do devotees ridicule statements in the bible that say earth is 6000 years old and life was created in 7 days when they do the same while using Vedic scripture when it contradicts strong empirical evidence. Unfortunately, BVT style, which is more suited to the current times than ever, has been relegated to be applicable to only local Bengalis. Isn’t that offensive to BVT? Can I say SP’s style was applicable only to hippies who could not question anything? I think that would be offensive to SP. Nobody thinks about saying anything about BVT, but everybody is sensitive about SP’s writing. Why this double standard.

    • For the record there was no SCSM-San Jose in 1981. The organization that Philip Murphy and I co-founded in San Jose in 1981 (he was president and I was vice-president) was named “The Krsna Consciousness Movement Incorporated”. While its members all in one way or another accepted Sridhara Maharaja as their siksa guru, the organization they served in (KCM Inc.) had no legal or managerial connection to SCSM whatsoever. Throughout its approx. 10 year existence, KCM Inc. remained by design independent of SCSM.

      • Actually, the temple was called Sri Caitanya Saraswata Mandira.
        That was the spiritual name of the temple.(SCSM)
        It’s quite funny that the great Brahma das would be forgetful of that.(teehee)
        Do you remember the “Sri Caitanya Saraswata Krishna-kirtan Maha-mandala” and the “Mandalesvara”?

        I still have two letters from Sridhar Maharaja (typed by secretary) I got when I was there (March of 82). They were addressed to me c/o Caitanya Saraswat Mandir, San Jose. So, at the Math the temple in San Jose was spiritually named SCSMandir and referred to as such.

        The legal entity was KCM, but the temple of the deities was Caitanya Saraswata Mandira.

        As pujari who started the deity worship program there I never considered their temple as the corporate KCM but as the spiritual Sri Caitanya Saraswata Mandir.

    • KB: Chronologically, the Bhagavat lecture of Bhaktivinode is outdated by the worldwide distribution of the Bhagavatam by Srila Prabhupada. As far as I know was never recommended by Srila Prabhupada to any of his disciples. It was brought forth and popularized after the passing of Srila Prabhupada.

      I disagree. I think it may be more accurate to say that this lecture was brought to fruition by Srila Prabhupada’s presentation. Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s talk was the Bhagavatam’s introduction to the world beyond the villages of Bengal, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh. His Sri Krishna Samhita went further, and his English introduction to the biography of Mahaprabhu further still.

      It’s also inaccurate to say that this lecture was introduced and popularized only after Srila Prabhupada’s departure. I obtained a copy in the spring of 1973, in California. This has been familiar to Srila Prabhupada’s disciples for about 38 years.

      • It’s also inaccurate to say that this lecture was introduced and popularized only after Srila Prabhupada’s departure. I obtained a copy in the spring of 1973, in California. This has been familiar to Srila Prabhupada’s disciples for about 38 years.

        Yes, it was well known and widely read by Prabhupada’s disciples long before published in the US. It was not discovered by some of them in San Jose in 1982 or so.

        • I still have a copy of that original printing from San Jose. It’s worn out and falling apart and I have read it many times.
          Before that there was no real published edition that I know of. It would have probably been on photocopy paper at that time and few would have had access to it.
          If anybody can show an earlier printing than that then I would like to know who published it and how many copies.
          I have never seen any such book.

        • Gaudiya Matha (Yoga Pitha) has kept the book in print for decades before and after KCM. I used to sell it along with other books form their math in New Dvaraka at the Sunday feast book table as early as 1972. Prabhupada arranged to have these books shipped from India.

        • In fact, my copy was from Gaudiya Math, and I probably bought my copy from Swami, or from a devotee named Dinesvara. There may well have been photocopies circulating, but I had several GM books I purchased in LA in 1973.

      • I personally have seen a number of devotees read that little book and become offensive towards Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavatam thinking 5th canto hells are just make-believe.

        Sorry, that little book has done more to cause bad attitudes towards the Bhagavatam and Srila Prabhupada’s literal style than anything else I have ever seen.

        Even today I see so many neo-Gaudiyas with an absolutely horribly offensive attitude towards the 5th Canto of Bhagavat because of the influence of the little “Bhagavat” pamphlet.

        I can’t figure how it is that all these neo-Vaishnava’s and some of their older mentors have such a bad attitude towards the 5th Canto cosmology due to one paragraph in the “Bhagavat” pamphlet. Why is Bhaktivinode’s version held up as so much higher than Prabhupada’s? I don’t see it that way.

        I have all the evidence I need to prove that the book is not healthy for many devotees to read if they come out of it thinking that Srila Prabhuapada was a story teller writing fiction about Hell and that the 5th canto was made-up mythology to scare ignorant people into behaving.

        I find that claim preposterous and outlandish in comparison to Srila Prabhupada’s life’s work of Srimad Bhagavatam.

        Unproven claims of historical events are not sufficient evidence to support any claim that Prabhupada approved and endorsed the book. We can’t establish history on unsubstantiated accounts without any verification.

        I see a whole section of devotee nowadays who are offensive to Prabhupada and his Bhagavat translation because of one paragraph in that little book.
        The proof is all around in the bad attitudes towards Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavat translation.

        • KB,

          Here is what you wrote earlier on this thread:

          I have come to terms with the 5th Canto cosmology in that I no longer even care if the 5th Canto cosmology is correct or not.
          I don’t believe it is.

          But other than that you pit BVT against SP. And that is a mistake. Reading and appreciating BVT can only make one offense to SP if one does not understand either of them correctly. You seem to miss much to the substance of this discussion. To question the literal presentation of the 5th Canto is not offensive to SP. Even Sataputa came to a non literal understanding of it and he disagreed with BVT’s position on hell, as far as he understood it. You cite the previous acaryas, but all of them concur that the cosmogony of the Bhagavatam speaks of a subtle material reality and not a literal physical one that is more correct than the empirically proven one that meets the naked eye. .

        • You are comparing apples and oranges Maharaja.
          I defended the Bhagavatam by saying that the solar system has changed since the time of Bhagavatm cosmology.
          That is not the same as saying that the 5th Canto cosmology of Hells is a make-believe story made up long ago and inserted into the Bhagavatam by some King who thought it would keep people from wickedness.
          Surely, you can see the difference.

          For example your disciple wrote on this topic earlier –

          “I hope we are not stuck with SP’s interpretation for eternity and reject BVT’s interpretation.”

          Case and point. Bad attitude. Unhealthy and offensive to Srila Prabhupada.
          Bhaktivinode didn’t give an interpretation. He made a judgement and made a statement that no other Bhagavat writer has ever made about 5th Canto hells.

          Why is Bhaktivinode flawless to your disciples and Srila Prabhupada and his Bhagavatam full of faults and myths?
          I don’t consider as such.

        • The point is that spiritual life is not black and white. My disciples may have any number of opinions, as long as they can support them reasonably with sastra or the writings of previous and present acaryas. None of them disrespect SP. That is your imagination or interpretation only. SP’s own disciples have many different opinions on the 5th canto, and despite what he has written, I believe he himself has a number of opinions on it. To be sure, SP had the highest respect for BVT and his writings, The Bhagavata included. And your respect and appreciation for the Srimad Bhagavtam pails in comparison to of that of BVT. That is my opinion. So you have a different opinion and think that either SP’s presentation or BVT’s must be thrown in the waste bin. You are entitled to that opinion, but can’t you see some grey in all of this?

        • I wrote that in response to your comments above. Try to see the context in which I respond.

          How any disciple of Srila Prabhupada can abandon that conclusion on the basis of that little lecture manuscript of Bhaktivinode is a question that must thereby arise in the mind of anyone whose brain is not on stand-by.

          Is Bhaktivinode the end of all thought on the issue?
          I hope not.
          Eternity is a long time.

          Similarly I said:

          Unfortunately, BVT style, which is more suited to the current times than ever, has been relegated to be applicable to only local Bengalis. Isn’t that offensive to BVT? Can I say SP’s style was applicable only to hippies who could not question anything? I think that would be offensive to SP. Nobody thinks about saying anything about BVT, but everybody is sensitive about SP’s writing. Why this double standard.

          If you don’t understand what I am trying to convey and attack me for what I have not said then nothing can be done.
          It is difficult to argue with you because you have direct revelations and anybody who has or at least believes that he is having direct revelations from Brahma/Jesus obviously won’t listen to mortals like me.

        • But of course there is a subtle energy level of material energy, our Earthly level of energy and higher forms of energy in the heavens and getting higher and higher all the way up through the Universal system.
          But, on that energy level of the hells they are just as real to the souls suffering there as are the heavens of the celestial personalities or Earth to humans.
          Of course those hells are not solid matter like Earth.
          They are made up of the dream thought of universal mind substance.
          The literal presentation as Srila Prabhupada has given portrays these hells as real planets because for the souls suffering on those levels of material illusion those hellish worlds are as real as Earth is to us.

        • In this comment you are trying to say that you follow Prabhupada by way of interpreting what he actually meant. That’s fine, but you should afford others the right to do the same. Basically Prabhupada presented the Bhagavatam cosmogony as literal and physical reality that was more empirically correct that the view of modern science. Why he did that and whether or not he believed that or if he did would have stuck to such a belief in light of hard evidence tot he contrary is anyone’s guess. You have given your guess that he spoke about it as if a literal physical reality because although it is not so and rather a subtle material reality, the pains of hell are really suffered. Earlier you have also guessed that the cosmogony of the world was at one time literally as the Bhagavatam describes it (with rivers of mango juice, etc.), but that it has changed over time to what (I presume) modern science says it is liked based on empirical evidence. This is another conjecture (a wild one) on your part in an effort to say that the cosmogony presented in the Bhagavatam is/was literally accurate.

          BVT, on the other hand, writes that the details of the heavens and hells are poetic descriptions of a principle: there is a system of reactions accrued for actions performed. Understandably some devotees like this way looking at the issue. I do not think you can fault them for being disrespectful of SP when at the same time you expect them to consider your views respectful to SP’s written word. Why? If we take the yardstick by which you measure others’ views and hold it to bear against yours, by your own standard of evaluation your views could be considered offensive to SP. Prabhupada described the hells as physical. You describe them as subtle. Prabhupada described them as being physically accurate in today’s world. You describe them as being physically accurate in the past but not so today. Never mind that your two views contradict one another.

          Finally with any position taken by BVT that contradicts one taken by SP, we have been taught to respect both, even when we might favor one over the other. Which one we will favor depends on which one helps us to embrace and pursue our sadhana. Conclusive answers are found therein, one of which may at times be “It does not matter.”

  10. Here is an interesting article in which a Christian does something with Biblical hell that is similar to BVT’s treatment of it in The Bahgavata.

    One thing I like about BVT’s position is that it fosters a kind of healthy intellectual uncertainty about the issue. It was Bertrand Russell who said that the problem with the world is that “The stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

    • Intellectual uncertainty can lead to genuine humility or honesty, which comes out of knowing one’s limitations in knowing any topic.
      Russel did say that and he further said that majority of people are in the former category. I personally think that most people pick on what the leaders say and generally spiritual or material leaders who are not cocksure generally don’t have large following because people look upto a person who takes decisions with confidence, even when he/she is wrong.

    • Honest Christians have had to deal with 6000 year earth and 7 day creations story by focusing on the essence of their scripture. Is it bad for some GV to stand up for a change also much in the spirit of BVT who is said to be just a local Bengali preacher.

  11. In the Bhagavatam translation of Swami Prabhupada he speaks of the Hells as literal places as planets just above the Garbha ocean.
    In the Bhagavat pamphlet by Bhaktivinode he refers to these descriptions as something added later to the Bhagavat by some King or whoever as scare tactics to awe simple people into not being wicked.

    Well, that is hardly the way these verses are presented by Srila Prabhupada and a potential blemish on the “spotless purana”. So, that is why the Bhagavat lecture of Bhaktivinode might be in question by certain followers of Swami Prabhupada as not being appropriate for the 21st Century western audience post-Prabhupada and the Bhagavatam translation of those verses in the 5th Canto as literal and factual by Srila Prabhupada.

    I agree with the above quote.

    The simplifications spoken by BVT do not distract from that which HAS NOT BEEN FULLY READ AS AN EPIC TEXT.

    All sorts of alluremnets may be spoken of to un-read audiences.
    Leed them to read for them selves in any way one can.

    The Bhagavatam is 18,000 verses long . . . how thick are most readers personal notebooks? There is much to be ORGANISED in one’s intelligence from the Bhagavatam’s Contents.

    The Hells are literal for they can be manifest in a variety of ways in various life forms as an ‘extention’ of the written word —so it can be simultaneously the literal and ‘by extension’ real to forms of life besides the terrestrial Human. Just as fire and brimstone is mentioned in the Bible: so life-forms living in molten rock may stay accustomed for Kalpas to their wretched panaramas/stratums of life.

    Physical ailments or, repeated occurences of Bad-Karma —during repeated & incaluable lifetimes is loathsome and enough to state the SB’s text to be quite literal and specific and also, exclusively viewed by only those that dare to cross the words of such wellwishing revelations.

    It could very well be said that BVT’s comments were hinting that the SB’s descriptions of Hell & Punishment was tame & dignified in comparison to what Humans were destined to engineer . . .

    At the time of BVT’s lecture (cir 1890’s ~??) . . . that all new born children, the world over, would be entering world conflagrations in 20 years time [WWI] . . . and 20 years after that [WWII] . . . and here I speak affectionately to those that wore Uniforms-in-Arms; what to speak of collateral damage?

    Kali-yuga is in your face. The SB’s texts are written for the elevated & polished thinkers.

    Regarding, the cosmology:
    I recommend that everyone do the advanced homework . . . even if it takes one 20 years and “connect the dots” as described in the SB, before pontificating on any inaccuratsies:

    How many commentators here stating doubt of the SB’s 5th Canto’s descriptions of the cosmos own a powerfull telescope that they have personally used to personally varify anything?

    Those outside-the-loop of being-in-the-know as to what the bhagavatam says —should be content as to where & how their nearest “protector” can be notified in case of emergency. These outside-the-loop of being-in-the-know as to what the bhagavatam says are all subjects to the whims of chronic criminal elements roving all around and advertised between the engrossing television serial into the bargain.

    Let’s Clean-up our own hells, so then later, we can worry about what authentic scripture’s purports war us against.

    IMO, BVT was talking down to & buttering-up potential readers at a time that preceeded even darker human pastimes.

    BTW, during WWII in 1943 Hollywood produced the Musical, “Cabin in the Sky” with an all Black Cast that featured Yamadhutas arriving to escort a sinfull man –and yes, they are stopped by White Clad counter-comrades etc etc etc —it would seem that Art had reflected Life of the times with unknowing percision.

    FYI: I had posted about this in the past —here are some Still Photos of this at this forum:

    • Sometimes, traditional people (for eg in Madhava tradition and maybe some gaudiyas) also believe that. In fact SP also mentioned it and one reporter questioned him. One reporter said, “Your Grace, I understand you say the earth is flat.” Srila Prabhupada replied, “Everywhere I walk it is.”

      Now I use airplanes, cell phones etc for which distance calculations are based on a spherical earth model, do I still believe that earth is flat while I use all modern facilities? Is not hypocrisy? I agree there maybe a deeper meaning to the SB cosmology, which I don’t understand, but literal understanding does not work many times. KB dasa himself believes in some other interpretation of 5th canto (earth has changed since the time SB was written etc etc)
      How is it different from Christians insisting on 6000 year old earth and seven day creation? They use the same premise as us: senses are defective and their revelation is perfect. While I don’t think mistakes in assessing what is correct here will impact one’s
      bhakti, people interpreting everything literally ( though I don’t believe anyone has interpreting everything literally) show be tolerant of others who have different views and they want to deal with modern findings and still maintain their faith. It is not necessary for everybody to do that, but some people need to do that. So for people with weak faith like us BVT comes to rescue and people with stronger faith (nistha) SP is already there and your literal faith is ok. Be merciful to guys like us with weak faith and let us continue in bhakti! I hope someday, I will have literal faith like you in the scriptures and advance, but till then let BVT help us, the people who are like bhadraloka crowd (intelligent people who are actually foolish). We will eventually become polished and elevated thinkers gradually by your mercy.

  12. What the objective facts about the Puranic hells and heavens actually are, nobody can feign to positively know, at least at this juncture, Bhaktajan. I’d go with Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s stance for a very specific reason, namely that those who endorse his position generally are, in my evaluation anyway, far more intellectually honest, and personally humble, that those who espouse the more literalist understanding. I have at my disposal neither the time nor the energy to satisfactorily expatiate on this, although a book of sizeable volume would probably the result of an extensive researching of this basic idea. Yet, those who have troubled themselves to actively observe the phenomenon I’m only tangentially scraping here will probably recognise what I’m alluding to and perhaps empathise with it even.

    As Gaura-Vijaya had it, humility and earnest reflectiveness on one’s undoubtedly ineluctable shortcomings usually flow from a genuine appreciation of the fundamental import of The Bhagavata: Its Philosophy, Its Ethics, and Its Theology. On this basis alone, I’d subscribe to the Thakura’s reflections on this and other comparable issues.

    Besides, in a broader civilisational context, it does appear evident that at a time when human society is nothing short of flooded, day in and day out, with the technological fruits of scientific research, all of it stemming from empirically-founded rationalism and materialism, abiding by a strict scriptural literalism, especially in regard to such not-so-essential elements in our theology, simply doesn’t strike one as a particularly thoughtful and compelling standpoint to moor oneself to.

  13. “that those who endorse his position generally are”

    Ma priya bhart,

    The Provenance of this english rendering of this “long-lost” Bengali provincial lecture has not yet been made known to me at the present time except for this Internet Site.

    Soo after my own readings sinse 1977 of ACBSP’s renderings —I base my opinion on the fine-tooth comb method of diconstructing scritural writ the old-fashion way:
    Folio cross-references,
    The Purana Encyclopedia,
    Outline graphing,
    Drafting grafix presentations of all sequential scriptural dictums and charting all proceedural delineations.

    Please make it clear to me that this Internet presentation is without fault and is bonefide.

    It has been my observation that the multitudes of descriptions of every nuance of the Cosmos, as described in the Bhagavatam, are debated by those who allocate only a minimum of their life time to simply gleening or glossing the text.

    What is so interesting or dis-heartening to THINK THAT HELL AIN’T SO BAD? It’s far worse then any sadhu would care to relate.

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      There are several senior Vaisnava sadhus (I sure have a few in mind), Caitanyite and otherwise, who do not advocate a simplistic, direct reading of the Puranas on a number of matters. Some even go further and aver that the descriptions of Krsna-lila given by the Gosvamis in their treatises are also in some parts symbolic, not to be swallowed as literally true in all respects. If we want Mahaprabhu’s movement to be taken seriously in educated circles, and if the intention is to try bringing intelligent people to the fold, the essence of the message found in works such as The Bhagavata and Sri Krsna-samhita is the sole way forward. The truth is, there are few hippies left around anymore, and we have come a long, long way since the 60s and 70s.

      • I agree Vik. Very nice comments. Perhaps if there is a major natural calamity etc, people will be able to accept more of a literal understanding because material impoverishment makes it easier to accept many things.

      • What parts of Krsna lila do you consider symbolic?

  14. I find that claim preposterous and outlandish in comparison to Srila Prabhupada’s life’s work of Srimad Bhagavatam.

    Unproven claims of historical events are not sufficient evidence to support any claim that Prabhupada approved and endorsed the book. We can’t establish history on unsubstantiated accounts without any verification.

    I see a whole section of devotee nowadays who are offensive to Prabhupada and his Bhagavat


    Any one that says:
    “I have come to terms with the 5th Canto cosmology in that I no longer even care if the 5th Canto cosmology is correct or not.
    I don’t believe it is.”

    IMO, should reveal the copious notes that they have drafted and where all the incongregous points of scripture that so-far alludes their calculus. Where’s the homework? Where’s the calculations?

    Start with drawing a picture replete with sloka text numbers . . . and keep the outside world abreast of design development phases.

    My doubt arises from “Hell’s Descriptions” —that are tame in comparison to what was destined for the next two generations of humans, WWI, WWII, Communist & Cambodia & African & Armenian genocides, Nagasaki/Hiroshima’s fate, Anne Frank’s story too . . . and other Yamaduta-like in-training terrors.

    It should simply suffice to say:

    The Hells of the 5th Canto manifest amongst:
    a] the yamadutas (on a case-by-case basis),
    b] In all stratums of life in “corresponding/parallel descriptions” which are true to the letter of the law . . . but karmically distributed by the spirit of the law [hence the varigated hellish conditions of seperation from the Lord are allowed to manifest in myrids of ways].

    The Hells of the Material World are phantasmagoric & thus far far worse than what is written in the 5th Canto!

    It is because of this overwhelming historical record that: “The Hells of the 5th Canto are far far worse than what is written!” —That I question the veracity of this Lecture that surely was translated (by whom? When?) from Bengali into English.


    • Bhaktajan,

      The Bhagavata is a speech written and delivered by Thakura Bhaktivinoda in his own English. It acknowledges a universal system of reward and punishment, while identifying literal descriptions of hells and heavens found in the Srimad Bhagavatam as material borrowed from other source books. By this, in one sense, he seeks to remind us that the Bhagavatam’s essential message is not about avoiding hell or attaining heaven.

    • Vikram Ramsoondur

      Offensive according to your self-serving, twisted definition maybe! I have Prabhupada’s entire Bhagavatam set and consider it the best available English version for devotees. The fact that I don’t accept every single jot and tittle of it as literal fact doesn’t, in my books at any rate, signify any disrespect on my part with regard to HDG. Spirituality cannot be legislated, regulated or forced – it can only flow naturally from the call of one’s soul. I accept Radha-Krishna as THE topmost and foremost manifestation of divinity, and owe this intimate conviction to SP more than to anybody else; I consider him one of my instructing gurus and that suffices to me. Bhaktivinoda Thakura demanded of us that we become, in effect, essence-seekers, and if in the quest for that ideal, I have to, if only temporarily, suspend belief in certain scriptural accounts that do not quite square with the mode of thinking a modern education has bestowed upon me, I don’t see where the problem is. Frankly, nor should you.

  15. Bhaktivinode says in The Bhagavat:

    Indeed, in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned somewhere in the book, not to accept them as real facts, but as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the simple and the ignorant.

    Has anybody found this reference in the Bhagavatam?
    I would like to know the particular reference Bhaktivinode is citing here. That is a mighty powerful statement against the Bhagavatam that has yet to be substantiated or cited properly.

    Still my view is that since the rendering of Bhagavatam into English by Srila Prabupada, this little booklet by Bhaktivinode is totally outdated.

    Despite Bhaktivinode’s claims in “The Bhagavat”, I have yet to see that particular reference in the Bhagavat itself. As far as I know nobody else has been able to find it either.

    Unless and until we can locate, cite and verify the reference Bhaktivinode is referring to in the Bhagavatam about the hells being imaginary, we cannot give much credibility to his claim of the hells being imaginary only.

    Srila Prabhupada gave us the Bhagavatam already, I don’t see any value in his followers reading Bhaktivinode’s “Bhagavat” pamphlet that launches some really radical accusations against the Bhagavatam.

    If Prabhupada wanted everyone to understand the 5th canto hells as imaginary he would have written it in the books at the appropriate time. He never offered that explanation and I think that using Bhaktivinode’s “Bhagavat” to minimize Srila Prabhupada’s version is simply stupidity on the part of devotees.

    • I suggest you stop trying to make BVT wrong and SP right or the other way around. There is room for nuance and shades of grey on this issue, and this is the main points of BVT’s speech. He is trying to help readers get beyond absolute literalism and the religious fanaticism it corresponds with.

      • Maharaja, I am looking for the reference that Bhaktivinode uses to justify his outrageous claim against the Bhagavat.
        Obviously, you cannot provide the reference either. I haven’t seen anyone do it yet. Until we find it, how can we accept the assertion of Bhaktivinode?
        I am not trying to make Bhaktivinode wrong.
        You are the first one to claim that he used preaching tactics and strategies.
        Maybe his accusations against the Bhagavat are actually not verifiable and such accusations were a device he engineered to try and remove some of the prejudices against the Bhagavatam in the minds of that crowd he was delivering his lecture too.

        The book was a lecture for a specific crowd.
        It has no place in the canon of Srila Prabhupada’s ISKCON and you know that good and well.
        Srila Prabhupada never cited or quoted from the book one time that I know of.
        The book is causing a nuisance now by casting doubt on Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavat translation.
        I don’t think the book is very useful for the followers of Srila Prabhupada. I have seen the book create doubt and suspicion in the style of Srila Prabhupada in the minds of some rather senior devotees.
        After I saw that, I realized the book was not meant for a post-Prabhupada era.
        It might take time but sooner or later that should be obvious to others beside myself.

        • We have already gone over all of these points, not everyone agrees with you and they have explained why. I believe suggestions as to what verse BVT was referring to have also been made here. However, he is not necessarily referring to a particular verse, but the spirit of the text that implores us to be motivated in our spiritual pursuit by love of God and not fear of hell or prospect of heaven. The Bhagavatam dismisses such motives, calling them kaitava dharma, whereas other texts stress them to control the wicked, etc. Bhagavatam speaks to a more noble audience, nirmatsaranam satam. We have no interest in heaven or hell. This is the teaching of the Bhagavatam. The are not on the radar of the nirmatsantam satam.

        • I would put a verse again for you KB. Anyway I am not advanced enough to understand the SB in SP’s words so for fools like me, BVT has come to the rescue? Can you allow us fallen souls some space. I mean there are lots of advanced devotees elsewhere who are more receptive to your message.

          SB 11.21.23- Those statements of scripture promising fruitive rewards do not prescribe the ultimate good for men hut are merely enticements for executing beneficial religious duties, like promises of candy spoken to induce a child to take beneficial medicine.

  16. Perhaps the word “preaching” could be replaced with “marketing”.

    • Marketing is what capitalists do. The acharyas preach.
      Prabhupada uses “preach” “preacher” and “preaching” hundreds of times in his books.
      So, preaching is an OK term.
      Srila Prabhupada used it many, many, many times to refer to the work of Mahaprabhu and all his followers.

      • You obviously don’t understand what marketing is, because its not a capitalist activity. Marketing is about putting the consumer in the center and focusing all our efforts on satisfying the needs of the consumer of our product. It applies to all organisations, not just money making making ones.

        Marketing can be used by any organisation to help them achieve their goals. It may be true that marketing is generally used to make money, but that is only because that happens to be the goal of most people.

        If we are preaching, then our aim is to distribute this knowledge to others. Therefore, why shouldn’t we use the knowledge of marketing to help us?

        Why is preaching ok but marketing not ok? Can’t everything be used in the service of Krishna?

      • I disagree. Preaching unfortunately has negative connotations in the minds of many Westerners; “being preachy” is never seen as a good thing. Prabhupada used the term in a different time and just because it was okay back then does not mean that it’s the wisest term to use now. My Guru Maharaja uses the term “outreach” which is a very accurate term to describe what Gaudiya acaryas do: they go so deeply within that they are compelled to share their faith with those who are suffering in the coils of the gunas.

    • Yes preaching is marketing for Krsna.

    • Swami Tripurari uses the word “outreach” which I think conveys a sense of sharing the experience that overflows from sadhana.

      • Thanks. I think it is a better word.
        Citta Hari- Thanks for your insight. In the 70s though, preaching was used as a mechanism to eventually go in and not the other way round (people going inside and then reaching out). People used to preach as soon as they join.

        • I think you bring up an important point. Outreach, as conceived of by BSST, is meant to help us go in. The important thing is that it actually does that and thereby advances our ability and level of outreach. SP wanted everyone to “read the books, also.”

          As with anything, though, outreach can come under the sway of the ego and be used to serve it, rather than spiritual progress. Solitary bhajan of course can also do this, which is largely what BSST was reacting to.

          So outreach is certainly still used to do what you mentioned, but perhaps the balance (between overt outreach and overt personal development) has or needs to be shifted.

        • People used to preach as soon as they join.

          This is true, but I see it as a provisional thing that was required at the time. Is it the best strategy for, say, the next 10,000 years? I don’t think so. After all, having people who barely know the siddhanta tell the public about the path they just got involved with can create rather unfavorable perceptions of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. I would argue that while such an approach is in some cases effective in the short term it ultimately works against the long term propagation of Mahaprabhu’s nama-dharma.

        • But whether people like it or not, this is the way causeless mercy wanted to descend itself under SP’s guidance and many disciples will continue to preach like that. We cannot control the descent of causeless mercy. Causeless mercy descends onto people with different modes and they just bombard others with the mercy. In SB, all the speakers are very qualified and no preacher there is a person with no deep experience. However, in modern times, extensive preaching was devised as a way to save the fallen souls of this age.

  17. The “Big Thing” is – Realizing the condition of the soul as being trapped in a meat body in this world. This ultimately stimulates compassion towards the actual situation – the billions of souls who are conditioned by the various material elements into Ignorance of True Reality. They are living in a world that is going to end.

    The people are in severe ignorance. It causes spiritual sadness to those who aspire to higher reality and association with the True God. It comes with a recognition that every soul deserves the attainment of Sat-Cid-Ananda

    This stimulates a desire for certain persons to alleviate this condition. I thank Krsna everyday for stimulating this desire in me, because beyond the spiritual quest – this is a mental/intellectual/ego quest as well – I have no choice.

    For the next 10 000 years ? I suggest creating/building a “Maya” that is conducive to transferring the souls from birth directly into a spiritual worldview. And I mean utilizing technology as it is and implementing it in constructing this destination where Sankirtan is as regular as a traffic jam is in the current situation. Believe me, I live in Africa – I know how easy it is to get things done quickly through the right connections. In any case -I refuse to be a “realist”(in the mundane sense).

    This is something I’m working on at the moment. It is called the “Grid of Nature” and it is a “ratings system” based on Spiritual Qualities. I plan to implement this in the “entertainment” system of this society…..

    Deity Worship is the future – like we know – impersonalism is dried out and atheists are desperate…..

  18. Gaura-vijaya:

    I’m not saying that the way SP did it was wrong–as you mentioned that is how the causeless mercy came down. I am saying that some of the details of his approach may not be completely appropriate for today’s society. If that were not the case then the next generation of acaryas (our Guru Maharaja being a prominent example) would have changed nothing. The principle remains the same: the extension of Mahaprabhu’s mercy, and in pursuit of that as time progresses a refinement is required. This will ultimately bear fruit in the form of not alienating people due to using language people can’t relate to.

  19. Agustín Chávez Cruz


  20. To help us understand what a “literal” reading of the Fifth Canto must look like, let’s consider 5.26.11:

    In this life, an envious person commits violent acts against many living entities. Therefore after his death, when he is taken to hell by Yamaraja, those living entities who were hurt by him appear as animals called rurus to inflict very severe pain upon him. Learned scholars call this hell Raurava. Not generally seen in this world, the ruru is more envious than a snake.

    Literally, doesn’t this mean that if someone hurts me, I must appear as a ruru to hurt that person? Does it make sense that my own progression must be checked so that I can be born as a ruru to perform this function again and again? No! The key seems to be in the word “appears.” Maya is sufficiently powerful that she can arrange appearances that violate what we in our ordinary four-dimensional lives think of as the space-time continuum. My “next” birth can occur in the “past” just as readily as in the “future” — and this birth can occur across universes (especially my final birth in a manifest Gokula before entering the heavenly Goloka Vrindavana). For that matter, people may have nightmarish dreams even while living in our present reality, which itself — although real — is a nightmarish dream when compared to the reality of existence in the divine eternal realm from which one never falls. So, just as we assign an ambiguous “nightmare, but real, but not really real in the sense of eternal reality” status to our present life, how difficult can it be to acknowledge that the Fifth Canto is accurately describing the subjective experience of the sinner, but is not doing so in the literal geographic manner in which you or I might say “there’s a prison island in the ocean near San Francisco.”

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