If we concede that scripture doesn’t contain literal report of conversations then where will the erosion of scriptural authority end?
The Spiritual Scientist Q&A
Author: Chaitanya Charan Das, Celibate Preacher, ISKCON Pune
Format: Transcripted Audio
Date: Jun 14, 2014
My Thanks to Hari Parshad Prabhu for the following references:
From Srila Sridhara Swami’s commentary on introduction to Bhagavad Gita: tam eva bhagavad-upadiṣṭam arthaṁ kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyanaḥ saptabhiḥ śloka-śatair upanibabandha | tatra ca prāyaśaḥ śrī-kṛṣṇa-mukhād viniḥsṛtān eva ślokān alikhat | kāṁścit tat-saṅgataye svayaṁ ca vyaracayat
Translation: Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa composed 700 verses from that purport spoken by the Lord. In that He usually took the verses spoken by Lord Krishna and some of them He composed Himself.
Also from Tattva-sandarbha, Anuccheda 48: kṛtvānukramya ceti prathamataḥ svayaṁ saṅkṣepeṇa kṛtvā paścāt tu śrī-nāradopadeśād anukrameṇa vivṛtyety arthaḥ. ataeva śrīmad-bhāgavataṁ bhāratānantaraṁ yad atra śrūyate, yac cānyatrāṣṭādaśa-purāṇānantaraṁ bhāratam iti tad-dvayam api samāhitaṁ syāt.
Translation: In some places, it is heard that Vyasadeva created the Mahabharata after composing all the eighteen puranas. In other places, it is said that Bhagavatam was the final composition of Vyasadeva. In order to resolve this contradiction, it should be understood that He first composed the Bhagavatam, and then He composed Mahabharata, and then later on the order of Narada Muni, He re-edited and re-arranged the Bhagavatam. Therefore, what is said in some places that Bhagavatam was composed after Mahabharata and in other places that the Mahabharata was composed after the Bhagavatam is reconciled. (End of Translation)
Also, please see Srila Prabhupada’s translation of SB 1.7.8 where he says clearly that the Bhagavatam was revised.
The Chaitanya Charitamrita reports in Bengali the conversations between Lord Chaitanya and Vedantic scholars such as Prakashananda Saraswati or Venkata Bhatta or the Udupi Madhwa Brahmanas. As these people were not from Bengal, those conversations took place in Sanskrit, the standard language for scholarly discourse, but were reported in Bengali.
Transcribed by: Geetanjali Nath Mataji
You mentioned in one of your classes that the scripture does not necessarily contain literal report of conversations because, say the Vanaras could have not known Sanskrit. But we are talking about millions of years ago when the intellectual level of everyone was high and it was a different age, so couldn’t the Vanaras have known Sanskrit? And if we say that scripture does not contain literal words, then one by one, point by point the scriptural authority can become eroded, and then scripture won’t be at all considered authentic.
Firstly the point is that we should not have a very simplistic and naive understanding of scriptural authority that during the replication of scriptures by copying sometimes some changes could happen. So these are called recensions, so the Pathantar Bhedha in Sanskrit, and all serious Sanskrit commentators, when they write a commentary on a book, in the initial part of the book, or somewhere during the book, they talk about different recensions of the verses. Now in most cases they are variations that happen while writing because in replicating scripture, the human element of error can always come up. So they are minor and they get corrected because people can easily make out what is correct Sanskrit and what is incorrect Sanskrit. So there are errors like these which are universally acknowledged and also corrected. Now going forward, does scripture contain literal accounts always? Now within the Gaudiya Sampradaya we consider the writings of our Gaudiya Acharayas also as scripture. Chaitanya Charitamrita is in Bengali and obviously when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had conversations with scholars in various parts of India who knew Sanskrit, Prakashananda Saraswati in Varanasi, Venkata Bhatta in south India, or at Udupi with the Madhwa scholars, He would have had talks with them in Sanskrit, which was the standard language of intellectual discourse. But because the CC is in Bengali and the book is written in Bengali and the conversations are also written in Bengali, so obviously these are translations, these are not accurate renditions, in terms of exactly the same words, they are from a different language. Now going to the original scripture, we see that Sridhara Swami also mentions this point,
tam eva bhagavad-upadiṣṭam arthaṁ kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyanaḥ saptabhiḥ śloka-śatair upanibandhana |
tatra ca prāyaśaḥ śrī-kṛṣṇa-mukhād viniḥsṛtān eva ślokān alikhat |
kāṁścit tat-saṅgataye svayaṁ ca vyaracayat
Thanks to Hari Parshad Prabhu for these references. So Sridhara Swami in his Gita commentary is saying that Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa composed 700 verses from the purports spoken by the Lord, so “artham Krsna-dvaipayanah saptabhih sloka-satair”, “eva bhagavad-upadiṣṭam”. Now in that He usually took the verses spoken by the Lord “tatra ca prāyaśaḥ śrī-kṛṣṇa-mukhād viniḥsṛtān eva ślokān alikhat”. “kāṁścit tat-saṅgataye svayaṁ ca vyaracayat”, so some are composed by Him only. So for e.g. “dharma kshetre kuru kshetre”, this is not spoken by Krishna, this is spoken by Sanjaya. So some verses are composed, in the sense that they are spoken to give context and they will not be literal. So similar points from Tattva-Sandarbha, Anuccheda 48:” kṛtvānukramya ceti prathamataḥ svayaṁ saṅkṣepeṇa kṛtvā paścāt tu śrī-nāradopadeśād anukrameṇa vivṛtyety arthaḥ. ataeva śrīmad-bhāgavataṁ bhāratānantaraṁ yad atra śrūyate, yac cānyatrāṣṭādaśa-purāṇānantaraṁ bhāratam iti tad-dvayam api samāhitaṁ syāt”. Actually it is described in a sequence over here, that in some places it is heard that Vyasadeva created the Mahabharata at the end of His literary composition, means after writing all the different Puranas, and in other places it is said that Bhagavatam was His final compilation. So what is the understanding? He composed the Bhagavatam and then He composed Mahabharata. So Bhagavatam was the last of the 18 Puranas that He composed, then He wrote the Mahabharata and then on the order of Narada Muni He re-edited and rearranged the Bhagavatam again. So basically, in depending on what point we are talking about, we can say the Bhagavatam was composed last or the Mahabharata was composed last. That means in the sequence of His own self-initiated composition, Mahabharata was the last, but eventually on the instruction of Narada Muni, thereafter He composed Bhagavatam, so Bhagavatam was the last. This is how these are to be reconciled. Now Prabhupada also mentioned that Bhagavatam was revised in SB 1.7.8. Now we don’t have to necessarily say that everybody in the past was knowing Sanskrit, it may be possibility, but is it a probability? Sanskrit was always the language for the educated people, for the scripturally literate people. And I am not denying the possibility that even the Vanaras, even Jatayu, Rakshasas , they all could have known Sanskrit. But it is not necessary that they all know Sanskrit, for the simple reason that not everyone was from the Sanskrit civilization. Now for e.g. there are Mlecchas and Yavanas, coming from different parts, Kalayavana is a Rakshasa and he is coming from a different part of the world, do we have to Sanskritize him also? We should not have to labor under such naive conceptions of what scripture is and what scriptural authority is. Scriptural authority comes from their essential meaning and message, not from the literal accuracy of the word. Literal accuracy of the word is also there in many cases, but that is the primary difference between the Shruti and the Smriti. The Shruti is what is revealed and Smriti is what is recollected. So in recollection, there is elaboration, there is clarification, and Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura used an example that just like a person can change clothes according to seasons and appear different in different clothes, similarly Smriti can appear in different linguistic forms. So that it is contemporaneous with the people at the times, so that it can be easily accessible. So that’s why we say pursuance of Vedic literature is also part of the Vedic literature; literature which is in pursuance of the Vedic literature is also Vedic literature. So scriptures contain an account of the events that happened and the conversations are presented in an appropriate way, as I said most of the books like Mahabharata and Ramayana are in poetic form. Now is it that all the people in the past were poets? And everybody, say Ravana, or Ravana is ordering his Rakshasas, or Ravana is grief-struck at the death of Indrajit, is he at that time also going to compose poetry? No, we don’t have to stretch credibility like that in order to maintain some naive belief in what the preservation of scriptural authority requires. The Parampara is not a link of verbatim repeaters; the Parampara is a link of devoted hearts. It’s not that Prabhupada repeated every single word that Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati thakura said, he understood the essential meaning and repeated the essential meaning, and that is what the tradition of the scripture is, to repeat the essential meaning. Of course we are talking not about conversation, we are talking about scripture, we are talking of conversation in written form, but scripture existed before it was written, also for a long time. And that time, there was replication by strong memorization and repetition. So now Sukadeva Goswami and Parikshit Maharaja are in conversation, which begins in the second canto, or the last few verses of the first canto; in addition to that, there is Suta Goswami’s conversation with the sages, so that was not there with Sukadeva Goswami, that is also added because that is a framing conversation, which came in Suta Goswami’s talks with Naimisaranya sages, so like that there is always contextualization and in this contextualization, there will be variation in the way things are spoken and how they are reported . So we understand that the scriptures are not changed, in the sense that their essential import has not been changed, that has not been changed because there have been faithful followers, faithful teachers, faithful seers in the tradition, in the Parampara, who have preserved the essential meaning of the scriptures .