The Literalist

By Sri Narasingha Dev-GosaiA literal understanding of sastra, as it seems to be regarded in some sectionsof the greater Vaishnava community, is looked down upon as being neophyte orsimply not intellectually satisfying. Some even consider the literalunderstanding of sastra to be the great enemy of progressive Krsna consciousness- thus we sometimes read such statements as:"... after the damage devotees have done by literal use of scripture"or"... now devotees are blocking the sukrti of many people in the name offollowing Srila Prabhupada literally."I have not combed the internet or surveyed multitudes of devotees to discoverexactly if many feel this way - I have simply come across the above quotes inrecent readings and it has sparked a particular thinking in me and the impetusto write this short essay.Obviously, even the critic of the 'literalist' must indeed accept some literalmeanings in the sastra such as in dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre - meaning the placeof pilgrimage known as Kuruksetra (Gita 1.1). Here a literal reading will takeyou to a place in North India that many great acaryas have accepted as the placeof the Kuruksetra War, where Bhagavad-gita was spoken etc. However, anon-literal reading of the text takes one to the realm of no-Krsna andno-Pandavas. The non-literal interpretation being that Kuruksetra is the bodyand the Pandavas are the senses, etc.When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada wrote his Gita translation andcommentary he chose Bhagavad-gita As It Is, for the title - As It Is meaning theliteral understanding. He wrote, warning against misinterpretations, "ReadBhagavad-gita as it is. Then you will be benefited."However, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in their Gitacommentaries, transcend the literal meaning of Bhagavad-gita and take theirreader to a substratum to discover hidden truths. In kind, Srila SridharaMaharaja followed the line of Visvanatha and Bhaktivinoda and his Gitacommentary is entitled The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute.The revelation of the substratum does not always change the meaning of theliteral reading. Indeed, the revelation of the substratum often increases thebeauty and charm of the devotee's experience. It does not necessarily contradictit.Take the following verse:sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vrajaaham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucahThe literal reading is:"Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliveryou from all sinful reactions. Do not fear." Thus the Lord takes allresponsibility for one who surrenders unto Him, and He indemnifies such a personagainst all reactions of sins. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 18.66)Revelation of the substratum, however, reads differently:"Give up all engagements and come to Me. You won't have to repent, Arjuna,because I am everything to you, and You are everything to Me. This is the mosthidden of all hidden truths. What more can I say? And you will find this inVraja [Goloka Vrndavana]." (The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute, 18.66)The two readings of Gita 18.66 are not actually different, but the later givesthe devotee a certain solace that a life of surrender leads one to Krsna in Hissupreme abode of Goloka Vrndavana.The substratum or hidden truth of sastra is sometimes hidden for a purpose - atleast one would think so. One thing is said and on occasion a deeper truth is tobe understood. It seems to me that the truth is sometimes hidden to keep it outof reach for those who are unqualified - first deserve, then desire.But herein lies a problem - who is actually qualified to interpret sastra? Whois actually qualified to understand and enter the substratum? We have often seenhow interpretation leads to misinterpretation, especially in the case of theimpersonalists and the imitationists. With this consideration in mind one couldconclude that the literalist, although meager in his/her depth of understandingis safe, or at least for the time being.To suggest that the literalist is somehow in a safer position as opposed to theinterpreter of sastra is not to say that ignorance is bliss, but such may haveits merits. If a great Vaisnava personality such as A.C. Bhaktivedanta SwamiPrabhupada was indeed a literalist, as has been suggested, then surely theliteral interpretation of sastra must have some intrinsic value in the ultimatesearch for truth.My perception is that when one makes a literal reading of sastra one is oftenfaced with the unbelievable, the fantastic - that which mind, intelligence,logic and reason struggles to accept or even totally rejects. Is the literalinterpretation of sastra actually blocking or damaging to our progress as somehave suggested, or does the literal interpretation call upon something that isgreatly beneficial to us? I believe it does. The literal reading of the sastracalls upon our faith, however meager (even blind faith), as the basis of ourunderstanding. The literalist has faith in the sastra and so he/she takes thesastra at face value. Is that a bad thing?After all, faith is the only sure way to know Krsna, the unknown andunknowable. Knowledge, reason, logic and even our deepest intelligence areunable to capture Krsna. Only our deep faith and surrender can do so.Srila Sridhara Maharaja used to tell the story of a dream that he once hadwherein he saw that all his knowledge of sastra had abandoned him. In his dreamhe was alone and only his faith remained - that which takes us to the lotus feetof Krsna, beyond the coverings of the material world.Those who knew Sridhara Maharaja certainly know that he had a vast knowledge ofsastra. He had deep realizations, that would make many of us faint. Yet he knewand preached that faith alone was our guide in the infinite.Some may condemn the literalist as a neophyte, but I personally question suchcondemnation. Rather than condemn the literal interpretation of sastra, I tendto lean towards a deeper understanding - perceiving it as a building block offaith in the progressive path of Krsna consciousness. Those who condemn theliteralists may do better to first learn to believe in the "As It Is" stratum -first acquiring a deeper faith in guru, the Vaisnavas and the sastra before theyventure to explore the substratum. Explorer beware! There are tigers in thoseforests!When dealing with the higher plane or the deeper substratum, even a littleinaccuracy can create great havoc. In such areas the devotee must be verycareful not to misinterpret or to offend, because this can completely eliminateone's progress.At the end of the day we are not interpreters of sastra nor are we literalists- we are harmonists. The harmonist sometimes takes the sastra literally andsometimes not so - endeavoring to penetrate deeper into the world that isKrsna's inner domain.For the harmonist - faith (sraddha) is his greatest asset - knowledge and theintellect are but bystanders in the endeavor. Saints are the beacons that guidethe faith of the harmonist to the land ruled completely by faith.So let us give the literalists their due credit for taking their stand on faithand not relying on the intellect. And while being taken into confidence by thesaints and shown the beautiful world of Krsna's inner domain, let us not becomeproud of our small brains and finite knowledge, lest we become harmonists inname only. While endeavoring to see the deeper meaning of sastra, are we not togo deeper into the meaning of being a literalist also?View online as html:[ ]
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