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The Literalist

By Sri Narasingha Dev-Gosai

A literal understanding of sastra, as it seems to be regarded in some sections
of the greater Vaishnava community, is looked down upon as being neophyte or
simply not intellectually satisfying. Some even consider the literal
understanding of sastra to be the great enemy of progressive Krsna consciousness
– thus we sometimes read such statements as:

 "… after the damage devotees have done by literal use of scripture"  

"… now devotees are blocking the sukrti of many people in the name of
following Srila Prabhupada literally."

I have not combed the internet or surveyed multitudes of devotees to discover
exactly if many feel this way – I have simply come across the above quotes in
recent readings and it has sparked a particular thinking in me and the impetus
to write this short essay.

Obviously, even the critic of the 'literalist' must indeed accept some literal
meanings in the sastra such as in dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre – meaning the place
of pilgrimage known as Kuruksetra (Gita 1.1). Here a literal reading will take
you to a place in North India that many great acaryas have accepted as the place
of the Kuruksetra War, where Bhagavad-gita was spoken etc. However, a
non-literal reading of the text takes one to the realm of no-Krsna and
no-Pandavas. The non-literal interpretation being that Kuruksetra is the body
and the Pandavas are the senses, etc.

When A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada wrote his Gita translation and
commentary he chose Bhagavad-gita As It Is, for the title – As It Is meaning the
literal understanding. He wrote, warning against misinterpretations, "Read
Bhagavad-gita as it is. Then you will be benefited."

However, Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, in their Gita
commentaries, transcend the literal meaning of Bhagavad-gita and take their
reader to a substratum to discover hidden truths. In kind, Srila Sridhara
Maharaja followed the line of Visvanatha and Bhaktivinoda and his Gita
commentary is entitled The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute.

The revelation of the substratum does not always change the meaning of the
literal reading. Indeed, the revelation of the substratum often increases the
beauty and charm of the devotee's experience. It does not necessarily contradict

Take the following verse:

sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah

The literal reading is:

"Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver
you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear." Thus the Lord takes all
responsibility for one who surrenders unto Him, and He indemnifies such a person
against all reactions of sins. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 18.66)

Revelation of the substratum, however, reads differently:

"Give up all engagements and come to Me. You won't have to repent, Arjuna,
because I am everything to you, and You are everything to Me. This is the most
hidden of all hidden truths. What more can I say? And you will find this in
Vraja [Goloka Vrndavana]." (The Hidden Treasure of the Sweet Absolute, 18.66)

The two readings of Gita 18.66 are not actually different, but the later gives
the devotee a certain solace that a life of surrender leads one to Krsna in His
supreme abode of Goloka Vrndavana.

The substratum or hidden truth of sastra is sometimes hidden for a purpose – at
least one would think so. One thing is said and on occasion a deeper truth is to
be understood. It seems to me that the truth is sometimes hidden to keep it out
of reach for those who are unqualified – first deserve, then desire.

But herein lies a problem – who is actually qualified to interpret sastra? Who
is actually qualified to understand and enter the substratum? We have often seen
how interpretation leads to misinterpretation, especially in the case of the
impersonalists and the imitationists. With this consideration in mind one could
conclude that the literalist, although meager in his/her depth of understanding
is safe, or at least for the time being.

To suggest that the literalist is somehow in a safer position as opposed to the
interpreter of sastra is not to say that ignorance is bliss, but such may have
its merits. If a great Vaisnava personality such as A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Prabhupada was indeed a literalist, as has been suggested, then surely the
literal interpretation of sastra must have some intrinsic value in the ultimate
search for truth.

My perception is that when one makes a literal reading of sastra one is often
faced with the unbelievable, the fantastic – that which mind, intelligence,
logic and reason struggles to accept or even totally rejects. Is the literal
interpretation of sastra actually blocking or damaging to our progress as some
have suggested, or does the literal interpretation call upon something that is
greatly beneficial to us? I believe it does. The literal reading of the sastra
calls upon our faith, however meager (even blind faith), as the basis of our
understanding. The literalist has faith in the sastra and so he/she takes the
sastra at face value. Is that a bad thing?

After all, faith is the only sure way to know Krsna, the unknown and
unknowable. Knowledge, reason, logic and even our deepest intelligence are
unable to capture Krsna. Only our deep faith and surrender can do so.

Srila Sridhara Maharaja used to tell the story of a dream that he once had
wherein he saw that all his knowledge of sastra had abandoned him. In his dream
he was alone and only his faith remained – that which takes us to the lotus feet
of Krsna, beyond the coverings of the material world.

Those who knew Sridhara Maharaja certainly know that he had a vast knowledge of
sastra. He had deep realizations, that would make many of us faint. Yet he knew
and preached that faith alone was our guide in the infinite.

Some may condemn the literalist as a neophyte, but I personally question such
condemnation. Rather than condemn the literal interpretation of sastra, I tend
to lean towards a deeper understanding – perceiving it as a building block of
faith in the progressive path of Krsna consciousness. Those who condemn the
literalists may do better to first learn to believe in the "As It Is" stratum –
first acquiring a deeper faith in guru, the Vaisnavas and the sastra before they
venture to explore the substratum. Explorer beware! There are tigers in those

When dealing with the higher plane or the deeper substratum, even a little
inaccuracy can create great havoc. In such areas the devotee must be very
careful not to misinterpret or to offend, because this can completely eliminate
one's progress.

At the end of the day we are not interpreters of sastra nor are we literalists
– we are harmonists. The harmonist sometimes takes the sastra literally and
sometimes not so – endeavoring to penetrate deeper into the world that is
Krsna's inner domain.

For the harmonist – faith (sraddha) is his greatest asset – knowledge and the
intellect are but bystanders in the endeavor. Saints are the beacons that guide
the faith of the harmonist to the land ruled completely by faith.

So let us give the literalists their due credit for taking their stand on faith
and not relying on the intellect. And while being taken into confidence by the
saints and shown the beautiful world of Krsna's inner domain, let us not become
proud of our small brains and finite knowledge, lest we become harmonists in
name only. While endeavoring to see the deeper meaning of sastra, are we not to
go deeper into the meaning of being a literalist also?

View online as html:
http://www.gosai.com/krishna-talk/95-literalist.html ]

At the present moment our minds are polluted with the dirt accumulated over millions and millions of lifetimes of sense gratification. Even though our original pure nature is eternal, full of knowledge, and full of bliss, due to our mental contamination we are presently suffering in the realm of temporality, ignorance, and misery. By the purificatory process of chanting the holy names of God we can revive our original, pure nature and thus relish the sweetest happiness at every minute.
Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare

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