Contemproary view

It is fashionable in modern secular societies to regard sacred literature as the mythological musings of undeveloped people. Schools teach that with our current understanding of physics, medicine, psychology, democracy, and so on, we have little use for such writings except as literary art. Those who take scripture literally are pegged with pejorative terms such as fundamentalists.” It may be stylish to borrow ideas from the Vedic scriptures—yoga, meditation, mantra chanting. But living by the laws of scripture is seen as outmoded and simplistic.

To get the spiritual benefit of chanting Krishna’s names, however, requires a reverence for Krishna in all His forms, including His scriptures. Krishna appeared on earth in His original form about five thousand years ago. After He departed to His eternal abode, His “literary incarnation,” Vyasadeva, compiled the cream of Vedic scripture, Srimad-Bhagavatam. Srila Prabhupada wrote that reading this scripture is identical to seeing Krishna in person. Because the words of the Bhagavatam describe Krishna, they are spiritually identical to Him. If we blaspheme the Bhagavatam, other Vedic books, or literature in pursuance of the Vedic version, we offend the holy name, greatly impeding our progress in chanting.

What do we mean by “Vedic literature”? Unlike modern scholars, Srila Prabhupada did not use the term Vedic to denote only a particular period in the history of India. Following the previous spiritual masters in his line, he justifiably used the term to apply to all the traditional sacred books of India. And “literature in pursuance of the Vedic version” refers to any books that, like the Vedas, direct us toward a proper understanding of our relationship with God.

We avoid this offense against Krishna’s holy name if we accept the concept of scripture in general, revere authentic scriptures of traditions other than our own, respect but avoid scriptures that teach valid yet lesser religious practice, and reject pseudo scripture that opposes love of God.

We also avoid this offense by worshiping Krishna with our intelligence through careful study and application of sacred literature. Such study infuses us with both eagerness and direction for attaining devotional service to the Lord. We take our happiness from exploring each aspect of the Vedic scriptures we read. And we scrupulously adhere to the obvious meanings and applications consistent with both the texts as a whole and the examples of liberated souls.

A Culture of Enlightenment

One reason people reject the very concept of sacred writing is that the word scripture to them conjures up the ghosts of societies that forbade smiling on the Sabbath, or declared that the way to perfection was a system of intricate ritualistic procedures that few could perform and even fewer understand. Besides, scriptures contain fantastic stories of miracles and supernatural happenings that modern science claims it discredited long ago. And aren’t scriptures the product of imperfect persons?

The reality is that when correctly understood and applied, genuine scripture acts like a guidebook and instruction manual for human life and the cosmos. It is the procedure brochure for the enterprise of the material creation. From scripture, coupled with oral tradition, we learn of methods of spiritual elevation, including the chanting of the holy name. From scripture we learn of the lives of past saints, sages, and incarnations of Krishna. In fact, the stories of scripture, whether in written or oral form, are the basis for the transmission and foundation of a culture of enlightenment.

Making Sense of the Fantastic

Certainly it is true that many stories in sacred writings seem fantastic to our scientific world. But many current technological wonders seemed fictional and implausible only a few decades ago. It is not, therefore, implausible that former societies could have had abilities and expertise unavailable today. For example, ancient architecture in Peru is virtually impossible to re-create using modern methods. The view that technology has always progressed and could never have been greater than it is today may be inaccurate. Indeed, even recent history indicates that much knowledge existed in ancient Greece, was lost to Europe in the Middle Ages, and then gradually resurfaced. It is reasonable and logical, then, to assume that what is commonplace today, such as television and the Internet, may be lost and forgotten in the future, only to resurface later.

Additionally, even today there is much strong empirical evidence for the existence of the supernatural. But because current science can’t explain the evidence, it is usually suppressed.

Also, the Vedas—with their information about spirit and subtle matter—provide a world view that makes the seemingly impossible easy to accept. For example, once you understand that spirit, or life, is independent of matter, it’s easy to believe that living beings can live anywhere in the universe and do all kinds of amazing things.

Levels of Instruction

A valid complaint about scripture for the spiritually minded is that much of it focuses on ritual and material gain. Krishna validates that sentiment when He tells His friend Arjuna that those who have practiced yoga in previous lives are above most scriptural rituals. The sad truth, however, is that few people are interested in genuine spiritual realization. Therefore, Krishna and His great devotees give instructions and examples in scripture for all types of people. There are different scriptures for various classes of people with diverse inclinations and desires. And there may be various levels and kinds of instruction in the same scriptural canon.

Sometimes the Lord, His agent, or His son may teach eternal truths at a lower level or in an obscured way according to time, place, or circumstance. Scriptures that arise from such teachings may teach less than pure, unmotivated devotion to the Lord, but they serve the function of gradually bringing people to the pinnacle of realization. Knowing that perfection is generally achieved over many lifetimes, one absorbed in chanting the mantra of the ultimate truth supports and encourages those at various levels.

Bona fide scripture, by definition, comes directly from God or from souls liberated from the imperfections and cheating of common persons. The unadulterated truth can flow through a person free from selfish desires and linked with God, just as the view of the world outside can pass through a clear window.

A Role for Discrimination

Still, one shouldn’t accept just any writing as sacred simply because it claims to be so. Part of the offense of blaspheming scripture is to accept a philosophy contrary to serving the personal form of the Lord with devotion. Also, if a “religious” system claims that other genuine methods and scriptures are sinful, it should be abandoned as small-minded sectarianism. In addition, we should reject any system or philosophy that denies the soul, the Personality of Godhead, the process of developing love for God, or the goal of individual loving union with Him. Therefore, chanting Hare Krishna while holding a monistic attitude—thinking that the ultimate reality is simply energy and light—is part of this offense to the holy name.

A devotee of Krishna should depend only on traditions that expound bhakti—loving devotion to the person Krishna. Offering respect from a distance, one should avoid scripture that promotes yogic powers, good works for heavenly rewards, or salvation devoid of bhakti, what to speak of lower forms of worship aimed at power gained through propitiating ghostly or demonic beings.

Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s Harinama Cintamani lists nine essential principles of krishna-bhakti. We can identify bhakti scriptures as those that promote these nine principles:

(1) There is one Supreme Lord, Krishna. (2) He is the possessor of all energies. (3) Krishna is the fountainhead of transcendental relationships and is situated in His own spiritual world, where He eternally gives joy to all living beings. (4) Living beings are particles of the Lord, unlimited in number, infinitesimal in size, and conscious. (5) Some living beings have been bound in material universes from time beyond memory, attracted by illusory pleasure. (6) Some living beings are eternally liberated and engaged in worshiping Krishna; they reside with Him as associates in the spiritual sky and experience love for Him. (7) Krishna exists with His energies—material, spiritual, and the living beings—in a state of simultaneous identity and differentiation, permeating all yet remaining aloof. (8) The process for the living being to realize Krishna is nine-fold: hearing about Krishna, chanting, remembering, serving, worshiping, praying, acting as a servant, being the Lord’s friend, and surrendering everything. (9) The ultimate goal of a living being is pure bhakti—unmotivated love for Krishna, which Krishna awakens in a soul out of His mercy.

If one follows the most pure scriptures, rejects assorted worldly traditions masquerading as sacred, and respects genuine scripture that’s at a lower level, there still must be care in scriptural study. Even an eternal tradition of untainted written or oral revelation can become skewed through imaginative interpretation and usage. To respect scripture, we understand it using the most clear and direct meaning possible, studying the practical precedents of past and present pure devotees of Krishna. We also approach scripture through the direction of a guru, who gives specific guidance for what is relevant to our present circumstance. Misinterpretation or misapplication of scripture can be more dangerous than denying it altogether. A wolf disguised as a sheep is far more dangerous than an obvious wolf.

We Need Scripture

With so many considerations and confusions about scripture, wouldn’t it be better to simply chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, and forget scripture completely? It is true that chanting alone can bring us to perfection. But it must be offenseless chanting, which requires a reverential attitude toward genuine sacred writings.

Oh, but how much pleasure and solace there is in scripture! We can gain much joy and confidence from reading the Bhagavad-gita, the words of Krishna Himself. And we can find similar succor in works of contemporary writers—devotees who take the principles Krishna elucidated and apply them to familiar situations.

Of course, relish and delight are not our only motives for reading sacred writings. We need scripture. To ascertain truth without scripture, we have little choice but to rely on our own sensual and mental faculties and those of others. These alone can give us only partial, relative knowledge. Our senses are imperfect, even when enhanced with sophisticated instruments. We make mistakes from habit, carelessness, or unconscious bias. We tend to cheat—even to cheat ourselves. And when we identify the body as the self, we are living in a general illusion. Therefore, axiomatic truths—the starting point for logical and sensory conclusions—must come from a source free of defects if we want to base our actions on perfect knowledge.

When our foundational knowledge comes from the Absolute Truth, then chanting Krishna’s holy name will quickly propel us on the path to Him. Hearing from scripture about the beauty of Krishna’s form and the superb activities of the spiritual world will inspire us to chant with intense desire for His loving service. Pleased with our desire, Krishna will cleanse us with a downpour of His mercy, and our progress will be swift indeed.

By Urmila Devi Dasi

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|| Satyam eva jayate || Truth alone Triumphs.

by Upanishads

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