We are familiar with the literary devices of similes and metaphors. In a simile, we may say something like, “The summer air was as hot as a furnace”, but in a metaphor we do not simply compare two things but describe one as the other, as in Sandburg’s poem: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches, and then moves on.”
The language of metaphor and poetry is the language of emotion and love. In the Italian film “Il Postino” (The Postman), a simple, poor, shy, love-besotten mailman learns to win the heart of a beautiful girl when the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who is staying on an Italian rustic island in exile from the dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet, teaches him to use metaphor. Similarly, in Rostand’s drama “Cyrano de Bergerac”, an ugly hero helps a handsome soldier win the heart of a beautiful girl through poetry, although in Cyrano the hero-poet actually also loves the girl.
In our modern culture, we think of metaphor as a poetic device, distinct from reality. We have a concept of prosaic reality and of the poet as a creative interpreter or describer of emotional themes that are less real, only “imaginary”. This is part of how modern people have learned to think about reality. Value and quality, personality, emotion and morality, have been bled from the “real”, leaving only mass and force and wavelengths and particles moving in space over time (or in space-time). This aspect of modernism is also at work in the characteristically modern tension between science and religion as rival authorities on knowledge and truth. Religion and superstition are viewed by atheists as persistent errors that may be hardwired into the human psyche but are erroneous nonetheless.
In Srimad-Bhagavatam culture, there is not such a breakdown between prosaic reality and poetic metaphor. Actual reality is far more enchanted and magical and strange than our modern scientific, mechanistic, deracinated conception. Things that we think of as concepts — like fear, love, intelligence, decay and so on — are actually living beings who can interact with other, similar beings. The universe is full of demons, demigods, ghosts, goblins, sages, yogis, siddhas, gandharvas, caranas, apsaras, humans, animals, plants, and all kinds of mystical beings. They are not symbols sprung from the imagination of a human artist, who in turn sprung from unconscious, soul-less chemical interactions. They are actual living beings, souls expressing themselves through different kinds of actual bodies (many of which are imperceptible to the limited vision of humans).
In Greek mythology, originally the poets and composers of hymns and epics were supposed to be like seers or oracles who could explain such other-worldly (or super-earthly) affairs by virtue of their special sensitivity. However, there came a point in Greco-Roman classical culture where secular poets felt free to make creative use of the old stories of the Gods, much in the way that modern novelists manipulate metaphors and allegorical works of art.
European literary culture retained this tradition of mining the symbolism of the Pagan pantheons (not just Greek and Roman, but Norse, Teutonic and so on) for this reason, long after or alongside Christendom, on down to the present day. Nobody thinks that Dante or Shakespeare or Milton or Shelley or Wagner are actual seers describing the sacred reality of gods and demons, but that they are talented artists who manipulate these symbols and metaphors in effective, powerful and aesthetically sophisticated ways, in the imaginative, imaginary world of literature.
(And yet Eurocentric arrogance, mixed with the spirit of colonialism and imperialism, often scoffed at the religious and magical traditions of non-European, supposedly “inferior” cultures. Even when they encountered Vedic India, for the most part they were compelled by nationalistic politics and prejudices to regard this far more ancient and sophisticated culture as inferior, even as they justified their imperialstic enterprises as a philanthropic mission to bring Christianity to benighted, savage idol-worshipers.)
But Srimad-Bhagatavam culture is far more profound and ancient than Classical or modern European culture.* Here, reality and literature, science, history, philosophy and religion intersect. Yes, there are allegorical and metaphorical passages, and there are also metaphorical or allegorical significance to things that actually happened (because life imitates art, or actually is art). But Vyasadeva, as Narada Muni explained in the First Canto, was endowed with the power to describe the lilas of the Personality of Godhead and His material creation in a way that brings reality to life for us, enlightens us, purifies our consciousness and clears away illusions and doubts. He is not merely a gifted artist or seer; he is an incarnation of God creating a literary work which is “God in literary form”, crafted in such a way to show the true face of the Absolute Truth to the sincere devotee-reader.
Whereas our sense of so-called historical or scientific reality is very limited and faulty and imperfect, filtered, as it is, through our conditioned, contaminated consciousness, tainted and stained by our false ego, our misconception of erroneous identification with our material minds, bodies and senses.
*[In Plato’s “Timaeus”, the Greek sage Solon was told by an Egyptian priest that the Greeks were “children”, that all their beliefs and sciences were but fledgling new, immature ideas. Of course, modern humanists will apply their modern techniques to present a picture of Srimad-Bhagavatam as having been composed at a later stage of Indian history, grafting newer, post-Buddhist concepts onto a lost, older Vedic religion and philosophy. But how have such scholars qualified themselves to study and understand the Vedas, let alone the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literature that is Bhagavatam? Their whole approach to history is non-brahminical, non-Aryan. They are not fit to comment on the meanings contained in this vast body of Sanskrt literature, or of how Bhagatvatm truly represents the essence of the essence of that culture, the cream of the cream. Their philosophy of history and conception of reality is part of the very modernist spirit which blinds one from becoming a genuine connoisseur of Bhagavatam or Vaisnava culture. Not that we have to decry or slander them: We need to win them over, as Lord Caitanya won over the Mayavadi authorities of His time. They have to be open-minded enough, to be receptive to different ways of conceiving of history, reality, literature and imagination. Moreover, such tools are available to them even within the European traditions of idealism and phenomenology, as also in their Middle-Eastern religious traditions.]