Why do academic scholars of scripture miss its essential message?

by June 2, 2012

Question: Many academic scholars study scripture with impressive rigor. Yet they miss its essential message. Why?

Short answer: Because their essential purpose is radically at odds with that of the scripture.

Detailed Answer: Scriptures are often written in a complex language that is no longer widely used. For example, the Bhagavad-gita is written in Sanskrit. Academic scholars who study Sanskrit rigorously assume that their mastery over the language qualifies them to explain the Gita. However, is this assumption valid? For example, if I acquire a good command over English, does that command make me qualified to explain anything and everything written in the English language? Will mastery over English alone make me qualified to explain a complex book about quantum physics? Obviously not. Then how can mastery over Sanskrit alone make a scholar qualified to explain the Gita?

The problem with Gita interpretation is actually stickier because the Gita is not just an informational book but also a transformational book. It aims to heal humanity of the disease of materialism by redirecting human love from matter to God. In this sense, it is a book of spiritual medicine, somewhat akin to a book of material medicine like, say, the Ayurvedic classic, Sushruta-Samhita. Suppose a traditional Ayurvedic doctor has studied and practiced Ayurvedic therapy for decades, and has cured severe diseases in thousands of patients. He decides to share the Ayurvedic wisdom with the English-speaking world and so renders the Sushruta-Samhita from Sanskrit to English. Suppose a Sanskrit linguist who has no faith in Ayurvedic medicine and has therefore never cured anyone by Ayurvedic treatment renders the same book in English. Whose rendition would be more reliable and beneficial: the doctor’s or the scholar’s? Obviously, the doctor’s, if we are looking for curative potency – even if we grant that the linguistic accuracy might be better in the scholar’s rendition.

The same principle applies to the rendition of the Gita in English. Venerable spiritual masters and Gita practitioners like Srila Prabhupada have devoted their entire life to Krishna and have inspired thousands, even millions, to become similarly devoted. And the Gita explicitly and repeatedly declares that its purpose is to inspire its audience to become devotees of Krishna (for example, Gita 10.12-18 or 18.66-71).

However, most academic scholars, their linguistic credentials notwithstanding, rarely believe in Krishna, leave alone believing in devoting their lives to him. No wonder, then, that their Gita renditions miss its devotionally transformative purpose – and cause their readers to miss that purpose too.

To conclude, if we are looking for personal transformation, spiritual devotion and divine empowerment through our Gita study, then we had best neglect its academic renditions and focus on its devotional renditions.


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