How do we understand contradictions in scriptures?
From Goutam Paul P
Sometimes the same story has different endings in different Sastras. For example, in Siva-puran, there are stories where Siva defeats Vishnu and in the description of the same story in Visnu-purana, Vishnu
defeats Siva. Some scholars interpret this as deliberate injections of devotees of Siva and Visnu, so as to protray one’s beloved form of God to be superior than others. But how should we interpret it? Sastra should not be contradictory.
Transcribed by: Nikhil Fernandes
How do we understand contradictions in scriptures? Sometimes in scripture the same story is told differently in different books. For example, in Shiva Purana it is depicted that Shiva defeated Vishnu and in Vishnu Purana it is depicted that Vishnu defeated Shiva. Some sceptics say that this indicates that the devotees of that particular devata inserted the story into scripture to try and prove the superiority of their ishta-deva. How do we understand this? Scripture should not be contradictory.
Scripture is not contradictory. It is paradoxical. Paradox refers to a surface contradiction that points to a deeper reality that reconciles those contradictions. For example, a famous paradox is that the least corrected examination papers are the most correct. By least corrected papers we mean that after a teacher has checked the paper, there are very few red marks on the paper. How can the least corrected be the most correct? It is because corrections were not required that these papers are the most correct. At the first glance, we would think that a correction makes things correct so how could the ‘least corrected’ be the ‘most correct’? It may seem contradictory but at a deeper level, when we understand the point being made there is reconciliation.
Madhavacharya talks about this in the Vishnutattva Nirnaya – he says that there is a fundamental principle in understanding the scriptures and that is – veda eka vakyata, the Vedas give one conclusion. This is what all the acharyas talk about also that there is one conclusion of the scriptures. But at the same time the scriptures talk about multiple levels of seekers and accordingly give messages according to the level of seekers at different levels. There is sattva guna, rajo guna and tamo guna. People who are in different modes have different dispositions. According to their dispositions they have different inclinations. According to their inclinations they are more attracted to certain things. To attract them to those things, things are presented in a particular way. In fact, Krishna Himself says:
yo yo yāṁ yāṁ tanuṁ bhaktaḥ
tasya tasyācalāṁ śraddhāṁ
tām eva vidadhāmy aham
Bhagavad Gita 7.21
yo yo yāṁ yāṁ tanuṁ bhaktaḥ – whichever form a person desires to worship, śraddhayārcitum icchati – with faith one desires to worship, tasya tasyācalāṁ śraddhāṁ – for him unshakable faith, tasya tasyācalāṁ śraddhāṁ – I provide that faith to him. The point Krishna makes is that if a person wants to worship a particular devata, He gives faith to that person. How does He give that faith? There are many ways. Prabhupada mentions that Krishna as the supersoul present in the heart guides the person. If the person is attracted to Lord Shiva, Krishna directs the person to worship Lord Shiva.
Another way that Krishna gives guidance, is by providing scripture which is at their level of reality – which depicts things in a way that they can understand. If we want to look at contradictions which are not contradictory, for example we have many English words which have multiple meanings. Often when giving a comparison of scriptures we might say that the scriptures of the non-Vedic religions are like pocket dictionaries and the Vedic scriptures are like the unabridged dictionary. We may often use this comparison in a self-congratulatory way – “our scriptures are so big, they are like a big unabridged dictionary, whereas the pocket dictionary is just a small dictionary”. But we must understand that it is not a self-congratulatory comparison – if we use an unabridged dictionary we can become confused. If I want to understand the meaning of one word and I look at the dictionary and find 55 different meanings for the same word, then I might get lost for which meaning is applicable in the sentence I am using. An expert person is required to figure out how best to use an unabridged dictionary. Similarly, the scriptures give different levels of instructions for different levels of people. Just as an unabridged dictionary will give a large number of meanings which might be contradictory, they may even be opposite. For example, the word ‘epithet’ generally used to mean a title that is given in praise. But epithet now also means insult. The word ‘wicked’ earlier used to mean cruel, now wicked also means delightful. There are many such words with contradictory meanings. The word ‘lusty’ generally has negative connotations as it means sexually licentious, but the word lusty nowadays now also is used to mean energetic. Just as in an unabridged dictionary we may find contradictory meanings of words and we must have intelligence which meaning is applicable in which context, similarly scripture gives multiple views and these are for people at different levels. The point is to talk about things which are at the highest level – that is the conclusion. People who are fortunate can come to the highest conclusion directly otherwise they come to it gradually. This is not necessarily a bad thing, they are progressing at their level. Krishna says:
bahūnāṁ janmanām ante
jñānavān māṁ prapadyate
Bhagavad Gita 7.19
Krishna accommodates those people and also calls them jñānavān – indicating they have surrender to Him. They may take many lifetimes but Krishna tells Arjuna:
mām ekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja
Bhagavad Gita 18.66
Surrender to me right now and give up other things. The other things are not necessarily wrong.
When we talk about a war where Shiva was defeated or Vishnu was defeated, we have to understand that these are both great personalities. Vishnu is the Supreme Lord and Shiva is also a manifestation of the Supreme Lord. Just as milk is converted into curd, similarly Vishnu manifests as Shiva. We shouldn’t think that this is some competition between Them about Who is supreme. For depicting certain lessons, in certain stories, things are depicted in certain ways. For example, it is said that Lord Ram worshipped Lord Shiva – that is because He is appreciating His devotee. The Lord loves His devotee and He worships His devotee, especially because He is doing nara lila, he takes the blessings of the demi-gods. It isn’t just Lord Shiva that He worships, He even worships Sagar the ocean deity. When we look at the broader context, Lord Ram worship of Lord Shiva does not necessarily prove His subordination to Lord Shiva, it proves His bhaktavaatsalya – it demonstrates how in a lila He becomes subordinate to the supreme and in this way the lessons taught here are what we need to focus on. There is an inner hermeneutic within scripture itself on how scripture is to be interpreted. They are puranas for tamasic people, for rajasic people and for sattvic people. In one of the tamasic puranas, the Skanda Purana, Lord Shiva tells Karthikeya – actually if there is a contradiction between the Vishnu Shastra and the Shiv Shastra, then it is the Vishnu Purana which is to be considered higher. There are explicit verses in the tamasic puranas which talk about the superiority of the conclusions given in the Vaishnavaite puranas.
In this way when we look at scripture with their in-built hermeneutic, then we will not get confused but we will understand the scriptural conclusion properly, seeing not contradiction but the harmonisation of paradoxes. We focus not on looking at contradictions but on understanding the unifying purpose and seeing the multiple levels that are there and thereby reconciling whatever contradictions that are there.