How should we counter when a respected ex-SC judge says that scripture contains poetic exaggerations?
He said that there is no scientific evidence of any of the astras described in scripture.
Transcription by– Keshavgopal Das & Ambuj Gupta
Question: How do we respond when respected leaders of society like a supreme court judge says that the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are poetic works and have exaggerations and so shouldn’t be taken seriously?
Answer: Firstly, we as devotees living in a largely non-devotional environment should learn to choose our battles carefully. If we start taking offence every time someone gives an understanding of scripture that is different from ours then most of our energy will just get lost in feeling offended. Now we may say that it’s not our understanding, it is scriptural understanding coming from tradition, coming from guru-sadhu-shastra, yes all that is correct. But the point is that we live as of now we in kaliyuga are very much in a minority. Of course there are large number of people who are relatively having some piety and some faith in scripture but they don’t have clear understanding of scripture and then there is broader society which doesn’t care much about scripture. Suppose some soldiers are a small body in a hostile territory and they cannot just fight every war. They have to choose their battles. Like that we as devotees also have to choose the battles carefully.
Specifically to the statement which this particular judge had made, he said different things. First in the Mahabharata and Ramayana there are values which should be learned and that is what we should focus on. The point was one shouldn’t take the ideas of the various astras with all there powers very seriously because they are poetic exaggerations. The question raised was that actually if there had been such technology available where did it go, how did it get lost. Why is there no historical record of that in recent history? Now to mind that has been educated in today’s world, this is a natural question. How do we communicate when we have a particular understanding got from guru-sadhu-shastra and the world has a different understanding? Either we have to get people to the understanding of guru-sadhu-shastra or we have to explain guru-sadhu-shastra according to their current level of understanding.
According to their current level of understanding, most people believe in pratyaksha and anumana. They don’t accept shabda as an authority. From the point of pratyaksha and anumana historical research in India has been quite limited. It is always been under funded and it is always been biased by either the foreign powers or foreign influenced powers who did not really want to uncover ancient India’s glory. There are eminent historians who do admit that Indian history has been biased. For example, when some research was done in Dwarka, off the coast of Dwarka, many significant finds which were made which strongly demonstrated the historicity of Krishna. Historicity means historical authenticity of Krishna. The Mahabharata, Bhagavatam descriptions of Dwarka present it as an opulent magnificent city which was often considered mythological exaggeration based on the smallness of the current Dwarka. But it was found that beyond the current Dwarka, below the ocean through marine archeology it is found that there are remnants of a very advance city and there were seals and pottery and especially the seals with the name of Krishna, they did strongly prove that this came from a city where Krishna was the ruler. So the historicity of Krishna is now more or less accepted by most historians. Unfortunately that project was shelved because of change in the central government about a decade ago and now slowly it may be taken up again if there is power with parties that are more sympathetic towards the ancient Indian culture. But either way when serious research has been done there have been paradigm altering discoveries that have been made.
Similarly with respect to river Saraswati, the idea there is a vast river which was vast not just in length but also in breadth, as described in Rig Veda, often made people consider it to be a mythological river. But it was found that, especially using underground space censor which were used by the US agencies, they found that in the Thar desert, below that desert there are remnants of a massive river bed. That river bed was so big that as the river started drying there were not only signs of houses on the two sides of the river bed but there were also signs of houses on the river bed. That means as the river started becoming narrow-narrow-narrower, people started living on what was earlier on the river bed but now had become the river bank. Something which was earlier considered as mythological has now been demonstrated as historical. So this is with respect to historical statements which have been mentioned in the scripture.
Now with respect to super natural statements, for example with respect to the astras, to demonstrate their existence will require much more research. Off course even for proving the historicity itself much more research was required. There are two different issues over here- one is the existence of the ancient things and second is the existence of paranormal (in today’s terminology) happening within these things. For example, was there agni astra which could illumine the whole sky with a blazing light. The possibility of this being there is being increasing opened by the field of ESP and paranormal phenomena. Princeton University even had a special department dedicated to these kind of studies and increasingly the evidence for paranormal phenomena is becoming more and more clear. Basically that is a whole different subject and I have answered elaborately on this, but there are many evidences which indicate that there is a much more to the universe then what modern science has understood till now.
His Holiness Devamrita Swami Maharaja in his book “Searching for Vedic India” gives a wide variety of reports from reputed scientific journals and publications of researchers having found strong evidence for the existence of what we could call as paranormal phenomena. In that sense there is more to the universe in what we having let to believe by naturalistic science. Based on that understanding, people can become open minded to the possibility of such phenomena being behind the massively powerful astras described in the scriptures.
This is the way to some extent we can explain to people about the possibility of those astras being real. First explain the inadequacy of historical research until now and the significance of research and the results that have come from that research. Then talk about the increasing evidence for paranormal phenomena and then talk about how there are evidences based on the Vedic understanding of the mind as the source of various powers in the paranormal phenomena- those sort of astras are evoked that way.
Beyond all this, the more important thing is to help people see things from the scriptural point of view. That require not just some argument but it requires actually a complete renovation of one’s mental apparatus. It requires radical shift in one’s thinking and that largely takes place not just by intellectual study but by personal application and transformation.
If we consider the totality of scriptural knowledge as one circle we can divide it into three sectors. One sector is that which is confirmed by science, that which agrees with science. Second is that which is contradicted by science. Third is that which transcends science. I got a full lecture on this topic called “Science and Spirituality- Are They At War”.
There are certain things which are in agreement with science. For example, Vedic mathematics, it does give the same results which we get from modern mathematics but they get them faster and much easier ways. There are many things which are advance scientific findings which are there in Vedic literature. That is something which agrees with science but it has come before science. For example, the Pythagoras theorem has been proposed by Baudhayan in Shulba Surtras long before Pythagoras.
The second category, the problematic one, is that which is contradicted by science. For example, the scientific method when used in the field of history claims that there was no advance technology thousands of years ago (when the Mahabharata or Ramayana occurred) for the supernatural astras. This is what contradicts science. Now when something that contradicts, there are three possibilities- science is incorrect, science is incomplete or science and scripture talk at different levels of reality.
In this case science is incomplete in understanding of what existed in the past history. But more importantly the third sector that which transcends science is the section that most people turn to scripture for. Most people turn to scripture to learn timeless values of living to improve themselves, to become better human beings, to find inner spiritual satisfaction in life and to transform their lives that way.
Science improves things, spirituality improves people; that knowledge which transcends science that is the primary gift of scripture. For example, scripture tells us that by mantra meditation, by devotional service, we connect with Krishna and we experience higher happiness, it purifies and uplifts us. This is something which we can all experience by our practice of bhakti yoga. This is what the primary promise of scripture that will lead to susukham kartumavyayam, experience higher happiness. That is what people experience and that is what transforms people primarily.
If we want to share scriptural wisdom effectively to people then we need to focus on this sector of personal application and transformation. In one sense it doesn’t transcends science in the sense that this is also a science. It is a higher dimensional science which is experiential. There is a process and there is a theory and there is the experiment. Theory is that we are not the body, we are the soul and real happiness is in loving Krishna. The experiment is we practice devotional service and chant Hare Krishna. The confirmation is that we experience higher happiness. My point is that when we use science in a broader sense then this knowledge which transcends science is also a science in its own right. But when we talk about science as a kind of knowledge that is accepted as a mainstream in today as science, then this transcends science, this is something beyond science.
We don’t have to put scripture and science in competition. Often by putting scripture and science in conflict we devalue scripture. Scripture is not primarily meant to give us material knowledge. That may be there in scripture as an additional fringe benefit of scripture. But especially when we are talking about devotional books like Bhagavad Gita or Srimad Bhagavatam, there primary purpose is guidance in the art of living. That is something which transcends science. We focus on sharing that wisdom, emphasizing that wisdom. When we ourselves become purified by this then we will be able to understand the contradiction between science and scripture, what is wrong and where it is wrong. But more importantly for most people what will attract them is not proving science wrong or proving scripture right, it is in terms of the factuality of the knowledge of this world. What will attract people truly and transformationally is if scriptural wisdom transforms them.
If someone is saying that yes scripture does contain values which are important and we should focus on those values then that is a positive thing. We should focus on that positive and as people apply the scriptural values and experience the benefit then their faith in scripture will increase, their consciousness will rise and then they will be able to see things from the scriptural point of view according to the authority of guru-sadhu-shastra.
Off course at a broader level if devotees are interested then they can network with devotee scientists or they can themselves become a pioneer devotee scientists and do research to prove the historicity, the authenticity of many of the statements of scripture which today seem to be exaggerations. So that is also one field. That means there are two ways- scriptural world view and contemporary world view, either we explain scriptural truth from the contemporary world view, that will require dong scientific research and presenting things in an intelligible way for the people with current mind set. That is to explain the material information in scripture in a materially intelligible way to people today. But more important is that we enable people to focus on the transcendental value system, the art of living that is taught in scripture and help them to experience the transformation that comes thereof. Then they will actually learn to see things from the scriptural point of view.
Over all our purpose should be clear. Prabhupada would say success of our movement is that we should get people to chant Hare Krishna. Off course Prabhupada gave many different-different definition of success but important point is we are here to enable people to love Krishna, to ourselves love Krishna and help others to love Krishna and that focus needs to be kept in mind. We present scripture and fine tune our presentation of scripture to guide people towards that understanding primarily. Thank you.