Vedic Knowledge and Attitude in Krishna Consciousness
Posted by: Krishna-kirti das HDG
Topic Srila Prabhupada's Books
Dear Vaisnavas and Vaisnavis, please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada!
I wish to address a topic which by this time has been covered but which I feel needs to be further highlighted: What is the basis of Srila Prabhupada's remarks about the material world but which are not in line with the views of material scientists? Also, I wish to deal with the phenomenon of why in our vaisnava society there is so much doubt about the Vedic description of material nature.
This doubt is not something new and was present even during the time of Srila Prabhupada. One devotee who was initiated by Srila Prabhupada told me that he remembered when the 5th Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam was published, many devotees left our society because they could not accept the planetary distances as described in Srimad Bhagavatam.
This article attempts to demonstrate the validity of Vedic knowledge regarding material phenomena in the face of contradictory evidence from empiric science as well as demonstrate that attitude, or conviction, plays an essential role in the conclusions we arrive at. This attitude with regard to knowledge can be applied to all other attempts to understanding the various aspects of the mundane world.
Before we go further into the issues, we need to define some key terms. When we say "Vedic Authority", what do we mean? Whenever we use the word "vedic", as in "vedic culture" or "vedic knowledge", we inevitably refer to that culture or knowledge that derives in part or wholly from Vedic literature. The word "veda" itself means "knowledge", and according to the Vedas themselves and other great acaryas, the Vedas (Srutis, Smrtis, Puranas, Itihasas, and other Vedangas) are accepted as apurusaya, or not manufactured by any man but by God Himself: dharmam tu saksad-bhagavat pranitam, "Real religious principles are enacted by the Supreme Personality of Godhead." (Srimad Bhagavatam 6.3.19)
So in order to receive perfect knowledge, or knowledge that is not subject to the four defects of a conditioned being (makes mistakes, prone to illusion, imperfect senses, and the propensity to cheat), it would seem that all we have to do is just accept whatever we read in the Vedas. We can do this, but for those who are not yet liberated, how we understand the world, including Vedic knowledge, is itself tainted by the four defects of a conditioned soul. How can we be certain that we are correctly understanding that which we are reading, even if it is from the Vedas?
This problem is not something new in the world, and even in the West it has been acknowledged as a formidable stumbling block on the path to objective knowledge-so much so that in the West to this day that there can be such a thing as objective knowledge is commonly doubted. One of the first philosophers in the West to address this issue was Socrates. Plato relates a discussion between Socrates and Phaedrus on the matter of the written word versus the spoken word with regard to being able to ascertain the true meaning they represent:
Socrates. Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.
Phaedrus. You are quite right about that, too.
Notice here that Socrates has described something that all of us have intimate experience of: that which is written is often misinterpreted or malinterpreted by those who have ulterior ambitions to fulfill. And the fact is that anyone who is not liberated still has some ulterior ambition to fulfill, however small it may be; that tinge of material desire may still be enough, however, to spoil the whole of the intended meaning of the written word. But then Socrates recommends a solution:
Socrates. Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?
Phaedrus. What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?
Socrates. The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.
Phaedrus. You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.
[. . .]
Socrates. Yes, Phaedrus, so it is; but, in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them, which are not fruitless, but yield seed from which there spring up in other minds other words capable of continuing the process for ever, and which make their possessor happy, to the farthest possible limit of human happiness.
(Translation by Harold North Fowler)
It is Socrates conclusion that real knowledge resides within the heart, or consciousness, of a person, not within the written word. For this reason Socrates never wrote anything, preferring discussion and dialectic. Of course, Plato, his disciple, wrote profusely, as even in the above dialogue, Socrates considers that written words have one use, and that is to remind one who knows of their true import:
Socrates. He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.
So Socrates here is giving a partial description of how our Vaisnava tradition ascertains the objective meaning of Vedic literature: we do this by referring to the words of guru, the words of sadhus, and the words of sastra:
Srila Narottama dasa Thakura says, sadhu-sastra-guru-vakya, cittete kariya aikya. One should accept a thing as genuine by studying the words of saintly people, the spiritual master and the sastra. The actual center is the sastra, the revealed scripture. If a spiritual master does not speak according to the revealed scripture, he is not to be accepted. Similarly, if a saintly person does not speak according to the sastra, he is not a saintly person. The sastra is the center for all. (Caitanya Caritamrita 20.352 purport)
In this regard, it is very interesting to note that the verse dharmam tu saksad-bhagavata pranitam was spoken by Yamajara to the Yamadutas, after they inquired from him about their failed attempt to arrest Ajamila. The Yamadutas in their debate with the Visnudutas actually defended their actions by citing Vedic literature, but the Visnudutas established a superior conclusion based on the same Vedic literature. So then Yamaraja recommends to the Yamadutas that to understand Vedic knowledge, they must accept the parampara system. Srila Prabhupada explains thus:
Krishna says to Arjuna, "Because you are My very dear friend, I am explaining to you the most confidential religion." Sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: [bg. 18.66] "Give up all other duties and surrender unto Me." One may ask, "If this principle is very rarely understood, what is the use of it?" In answer, Yamaraja states herein that this religious principle is understandable if one follows the parampara system of Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, the four Kumaras and the other standard authorities. (Srimad Bhagavatam 6.3.20 - 21 purport)
So this is the parampara system: what guru says must be supported by sastra, and must be supported by the words of the recognized acaryas in the disciplic succession. Therefore, "Vedic Authority," which can be called sabda (literally means "word" or "words") specifically refers to three sources of information: the words of guru, the words of saintly persons and the words of sastra.
Samsaya - Doubt
There are two other broad categories regarding the acquirement of knowledge, and they are pratyaksa (sense perception) and anuman (inference). However, as these two methods are based exclusively on the material energy, they are considered inferior to sabda (Vedic authority) because sabda ultimately is not a product of the material energy.
Even if a soul is not conditioned, exclusive reliance on pratyaksa and anuman is insufficient to obtain perfect information even about material phenomenon. It is this lack of information, or the perception of at least two or more seemingly mutually incompatible perceptions in the same object, that causes samshaya, or doubt.
For example, if one sees his own image in a mirror, information obtained from the sense of sight would inform one that there is another person within the object perceived, perhaps with qualities identical to ones own self. But if one tries to touch the mirror, expecting to apprehend the same tactile qualities one might expect an object with the qualities ascribed by our sense of sight, then, if we do not have prior knowledge as to what a mirror is, we may be put into doubt as to what a mirror actually is: the image looks identical to ourself but the touch is like that of flat glass.
So this is how doubts arise: there may be conflicting perceptions between pratyaksa and pratyaksa (as in the example of the mirror), between pratyaksa and anuman (a conflict between a sensory perception and an inference which we know is correct about the same object), between anuman and anuman (two inferences in the same object which may seem incompatible), between pratyaksa and sabda (e.g. empirically ascertained distances of the planets versus distances given in scripture), and between anuman and sabda. For example, since women can and do most worldly occupations with felicity equal to that of men, we can infer that the intelligence of women, as a class, is equal to that of men as a class. However, Vedic authority says women as a class are less intelligent than men. This is an example of a doubt which arises from conflict between evidence derived from anuman and evidence derived from sadbda. One last kind of doubt is a doubt between sabda and sabda. Arjuna, for example, was overcome by a doubt regarding his duty. On the one hand, his prescribed duty was to kill the enemy, and on the other hand, it is sinful to kill one's family members. Therefore, Arjuna was put into doubt.
Resolving Doubts and the Nature of Vedic Literature
As doubts represent an absence of knowledge at some level, resolving doubts must then require additional information that transforms what we may perceive as seemingly mutually incompatible attributes in the same object into a sufficient understanding of their paradoxical nature. When we come to know of the reflective qualities of a mirror, then we dispel our doubts about the image we perceive but feel as flat glass.
However, we can still question whether or not our perceptions, or even the knowledge about what is a mirror can be questioned. We can question our perceptions, inferences, ad infinitum: "How do I know this is true? How do I know your proof of this is valid? How do I know your proof of your proof is valid?" etc... This would represent an infinite regress of syllogisms that never terminates in a premise that itself needs no further proof. Therefore, Aristotle reasoned that there can be no knowledge without axioms, or self-evident truths that themselves need no proof:
In some cases admission of the fact must be assumed, in others comprehension of the meaning of the term used, and sometimes both assumptions are essential. (Aristotle, "Posterior Analytics")
Vedic Authority, in particular sastra, is such a set of axioms. Of course, Vedic knowledge has three divisions called prasthana-traya: sruti-prasthana, smrti-prasthana and nyaya prasthana:
According to learned scholars, there are three different sources of knowledge, which are called prasthana-traya. According to these scholars, Vedanta is one of such sources, for it presents Vedic knowledge on the basis of logic and sound arguments. In the Bhagavad-gita (13.5) the Lord says, brahma-sutra-padais caiva hetumadbhir viniscitaih: "Understanding of the ultimate goal of life is ascertained in the Brahma-sutra by legitimate logic and argument concerning cause and effect." Therefore the Vedanta-sutra is known as nyaya-prasthana, the Upanisads are known as sruti-prasthana, and the Gita, Mahabharata and Puranas are known as smrti-prasthana. All scientific knowledge of transcendence must be supported by sruti, smrti and a sound logical basis. (Caitanya Caritamrita Adi 7.106 purport)
One may argue that this is only in regard to knowledge of transcendence, not the mundane world. But Vedic literature also gives information about the mundane world because, although on one level we can differentiate between the mundane and the transcendent, the mundane still has its ontological existence based in the transcendent, because everything is an emanation of Krishna. Therefore, Vedic literature covers topics related to the physical world because it is related to the transcendent. There is a good reason for this too. The Vedic literature exists to deliver the conditioned souls from maya:
maya-mugdha jivera nahi svatah krsna-jnana jivere krpaya kaila krsna veda-purana
"The conditioned soul cannot revive his Krishna consciousness by his own effort. But out of causeless mercy, Lord Krishna compiled the Vedic literature and its supplements, the Puranas." (Caitanya Caritamrita 20.122)
And because the conditioned souls are enmeshed in the material world, even (most of) those who join ISKCON, it behooves them to understand how the material world works so as to be able to take advantage of it, or to avoid the pitfalls associated with its various configurations:
sambhutim ca vinasam ca yas tad vedobhayam saha vinasena mrtyum tirtva sambhutyamrtam asnute
"One should know perfectly the Personality of Godhead Sri Krishna and His transcendental name, form, qualities and pastimes, as well as the temporary material creation with its temporary demigods, men and animals. When one knows these, he surpasses death and the ephemeral cosmic manifestation with it, and in the eternal kingdom of God he enjoys his eternal life of bliss and knowledge." (Sri Isopanisad Text 14)
Therefore, Pariksit Maharaja inquired from Sukadeva Goswami about the composition of the universe. This brings us to one of our controversies, the disagreement between planetary distances in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Before we discuss the specifics of this, it should be understood, at least theoretically, that Vedic literature represents a set of axioms, or authoritative information, about the mundane world and transcendental nature. Furthermore, since this information itself is apurusaya, the information presented therein is not subject to fault.
Planetary Distances: Material Science vs. Vedic Authority
Originally, this debate on Vedic knowledge about the material world versus the knowledge of material scientists took on the form, "Did Srila Prabhupada make mistakes"? However, Srila Prabhupada describes himself in the following way:
If personally I have any credit in this matter, it is only that I have tried to present Bhagavad-gita as it is, without any adulteration. (Bhagavad-gita, Preface)
So Srila Prabhupada is simply trying to present Vedic literature "As It Is". Therefore, a doubt as to whether or not Srila Prabhupada was mistaken in his conclusions regarding planetary distances and other aspects of the material world is actually a doubt about the authenticity of Vedic literature itself. It should be remembered that Vedic literature is a set of axioms, or self-evidential truths about our world. At this time in Kali-yuga, the conclusions of the material scientists are similarly accepted as self-evidential truths. As one of the devotees arguing that the authority of Vedic literature does not extend to the material world has said:
"If one wants to find out the distance to the moon, he should ask an astronomer, not the guru." (Trust Him, or Whim?)
Of course, this isn't simply a matter of authority only. Material scientists also are not making everything up that they say. They have their means of measurement and calculations, etc, which may not be accessible to the general public, but it doesn't mean they have no validity. (It also doesn't mean that their conclusions are 100% correct, either.) And because material scientists have introduced technologies that demonstrate the validity of of their theories and which the common man utilizes, the common man views the opinions of the scientists as beyond reproach.
However, the world isn't all that it seems. And if we accept the premise that the mundane senses are imperfect and not fully capable of perceiving the world as it is, then there is scope for a different view or model of the world than what empirical science has given us. The Vedic literature presents such an alternative view. But depending on what you accept as your self-evident truths, you will arrive at various and usually very different conclusions.
Let us start out with two devotees who differ in what they accept as premises:
Devotee A considers that in matters of the material world, material science is superior to Vedic Authority.
Devotee B considers that Vedic Authority is superior to material science in matters pertaining to the material world.
When Devotee A encounters contradictory descriptions of the material universe, she accepts the version of material science over the Vedic version. Consequently, she rejects certain portions of scripture as being valid. Now, this may seem like a benign decision on the surface, but it leads to the quick destruction of faith in even transcendental topics found in scripture.
For example, according to the Vedas there is a Deity of the moon, and it is accepted by Vedic literature that there is life on the moon and that such life is more opulent than life here on this planet. Now, if we accept the version of material scientists that there is no life on the moon (what to speak of a Deity for that planet), then we must discount all the pastimes in Srimad Bhagavatam that include the Deity of the moon. And certainly we must eventually disown any belief in Krishna Himself, as he descended in this world through the Soma-vamsa. If the Vedas are mistaken about the moon, then why not Krishna, as He Himself has a family relationship with the moon.
Since Vedic authority is considered faulty, then there is no reason to believe the rest of it either, independently of material science. That which cannot be confirmed by material science cannot be trusted. In the mind of Devotee A, Krishna becomes a colorful fiction that may have some basis in a mundane historical figure and nothing more.
Devotee B, however, accepts Vedic literature as being apurusaya, being correct and without flaw. What he does is try to understand how Vedic literature practically describes the world he lives in. When he endeavors to do this, the result is something very wonderful, like the book entitled Vedic Cosmography. In the Questions and Answers section of this book, Sadaputa Prabhu very nicely addresses this issue:
Q: The Vedic literature says the moon is higher than the sun. How can this be?
A: In Chapter 22 of the Fifth Canto, the heights of the planets above the earth are given, and it is stated that the moon is 100,000 yojanas above the rays of the sun. In this chapter, the word "above" means "above the plane of Bhu-mandala." It does not refer to distance measured radially from the surface of the earth globe. In Section 4.b we show that if the plane of Bhu-mandala corresponds to the plane of the ecliptic, then it indeed makes sense to say that the moon is higher than the sun relative to Bhu-mandala. This does not mean that the moon is farther from the earth globe than the sun.
For example, if point A is in a plane, B is 1,000 miles above the plane, and C is 2,000 miles above the plane, we cannot necessarily conclude that C is further from A than B is.
Q: In Srimad Bhagavatam 8.10.38p, Srila Prabhupada says, "The sun is supposed to be 93,000,000 miles above the surface of the earth, and from the Srimad Bhagavatam we understand that the moon is 1,600,000 miles above the sun. Therefore the distance between the earth and the moon would be about 95,000,000 miles." Doesn't this plainly say that the moon is farther from the earth than the sun?
A: In the summary at the end of Chapter 23 of the Fifth Canto Srila Prabhupada says, "The distance from the sun to the earth is 100,000 yojanas." At 8 miles per yojana, this comes to 800,000 miles. We suggest that when Srila Prabhupada cites the modern Western earth-sun distance of 93,000,000 miles, he is simply making the point that if you put together the Bhagavatam and modern astronomy you get a contradictory picture. His conclusion is that one should simply accept the Vedic version, and he was not interested in personally delving into astronomical arguments in detail.
Q: What is your justification for going into these arguments in detail?
A: Srila Prabhupada ordered some of his disciples to do this for the sake of preaching. In a letter to Svarupa Damodara dasa dated April 27, 1976, Srila Prabhupada said, "Now our Ph.D.'s must collaborate and study the 5th Canto to make a model for building the Vedic Planetarium.. So now all you Ph.D.'s must carefully study the details of the 5th Canto and make a working model of the universe. If we can explain the passing seasons, eclipses, phases of the moon, passing of day and night, etc., then it will be very powerful propaganda." In this regard, he specifically mentioned Svarupa Damodara dasa, Sadaputa dasa, and Madhava dasa in a letter to Dr. Wolf-Rottkay dated October 14, 1976.
Q: If the distance from the earth to the sun is 800,000 miles, how can this be reconciled with modern astronomy?
A: This distance is relative to the plane of Bhu-mandala. The distance from the center of Jambudvipa to the orbit of the sun around Manasottara Mountain is 15,750,000 yojanas according to the dimensions given in the Fifth Canto. This distance lies in the plane of Bhu-mandala and comes to 126,000,000 miles at 8 miles per yojana and 78,750,000 miles at 5 miles per yojana. Since values for the yojana ranging from 5 to 8 miles have been used in India, this distance is compatible with the modern earth-sun distance of 93,000,000 miles.
Q: Using radar and lasers, scientists have recently obtained very accurate estimates of the earth-moon distance. This distance is about 238,000 miles. How do you reconcile this with Vedic calculations?
A: According to the Surya-siddhanta, the distance from the earth globe to the moon is about 258,000 miles (see Section 1.e). This is in reasonable agreement with the modern value.
Q: If the moon is 258,000 miles from the earth globe, then how can it be 100,000 yojanas above the sun? This seems hard to understand, even if the latter distance is relative to the plane of Bhu-mandala.
A: This question is answered in detail in Section 4.b, and the reader should specifically study Tables 8 and 9 in that section. Briefly, we propose the following: The heights of the planets from Bhu-mandala correspond to the maximum heights of the planets from the plane of the ecliptic in the visible solar system. This correspondence is approximate because the Fifth Canto gives the viewpoint of the demigods, whereas in modern astronomy and the jyotisa sastra the viewpoint is that of ordinary humans.
In summary, we propose that the Fifth Canto description of the universe is broadly compatible with what we see. The differences are due to the difference in viewpoint between human beings and demigods. Thus, from the higher-dimensional perspective of a demigod, Bhu-mandala should be directly visible, and the relative positions of Bhu-mandala, the sun, and the moon should appear as described in the Fifth Canto.
Since the questions and answers above are so straightforward, I won't comment further on them. But my point here is that because a devotee (Devotee B) accepted as a premise the infallibility of the Vedic literature, a very wonderful and authorized understanding about the material world emerged from his devotional attitude. Devotee A on the other hand not only missed out on a credible explanation that is in line with Vedic knowledge, but she also damaged her spiritual life. Two very different understandings results from attitude alone. Therefore, if we want to factually understand other aspects of material nature, like men's and women's roles in society, different races, etc., we have to first approach our questions with an attitude of faith in guru, sadhu and sastra, even if it seems that they are in error. This is because if there seems to be errors in conclusions based on guru-sadhu-sastra, it is because we are faulty in our perceptions and inferences-Vedic knowledge, by definition, is perfect.