Stories in Srimad Bhagavata: literal or allegorical?

Question: Apart from the known allegorical stories in the Bhāgavata, can we take the rest of the pastimes as literal? I ask because the cosmology in the Fifth Canto is different from modern astronomy. Even cosmology according to Sūrya Siddhānta is quite different from the Bhāgavata. Are the cosmology and other pastimes in the Bhāgavata then metaphorical?Her

Answer: It is difficult to answer your question because you give me only two choices—allegorical or literal. But this may not be always the case; sometimes it is a mixture. It is not simply black and white. The explanation of Sūrya Siddhānta is of the ādhibhautika universe and the Bhāgavata explanation is a mixture of ādhibhautika and ādhidaivika. There may not be any correlation between the two.

Question: The pastimes and facts from the Bhāgavata, which is smṛti śāstra, have to be in line with śruti śāstra to be considered valid. This is why other sampradāyas do not put much emphasis on the Purāṇas or the Bhāgavata, as there can be interpolation. Therefore, other sampradāyas prove their tattva through prasthāna-trayī. But as Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇavas, our main śāstra is the Bhāgavata.

Answer: But in the explanation of prasthana-trayi, everyone uses the Purāṇas, even Śaṅkarācārya. So this claim does not have much value. This claim would be proper if they did not use the Purāṇas at all. Moreover, prasthāna-trayī includes the Gītā, which is not śruti but smṛti. 

Question: As Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, the Bhāgavata is our main scripture even though it is a Purāṇa. How can I accept it as the main scripture when it is a Purāṇa? 

Answer: Explain why a Purāṇa is not a scripture or a main scripture. Do you have trouble accepting Bhagavad Gītā as a scripture? The Gītā is part of Mahābhārata, which is an Itihāsa and on par with the Purāṇas. What do you think should be the main scriptural authority? Please read the first 29 sections of Tattva Sandarbha to understand why we Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas accept the Bhāgavata as the main authority.

Question: Apart from known allegorical stories, are all the stories in the Bhāgavata and other Purāṇas real life incidents that happened in previous yugas or kalpas?

Answer: Most of the stories are real but some, like the story of Purañjana, are allegorical. 

Question: The stories of Ajāmila and Gajendra are amazing. Can we factually believe that these pastimes took place? 

Answer: Yes 

Question: We have been taught that all Purāṇic stories are real; however, other schools of thought tend to disagree. Hence, other Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas, in order to establish their tattva, never refer to the Purāṇas as there may be interpolation.

Answer: Which sampradāya are you referring to? I do not know any Vaiṣṇava sampradāya which does not rely on the Purāṇas and Āgamas. It will be very difficult to deduce the Vaiṣnava siddhāntas merely on the basis of śruti. Even if one does this, it will be done by first studying the Itihāsas and Purāṇas. Therefore, all Vaiṣṇava sampradāyas rely on Itihāsa and Purāṇa.

Question: The reason why I was questioning the Purāṇas is because other sampradāyas, such as Śrī-sampradāya, do accept the Purāṇas. However, they give more emphasis to śruti śāstra as it’s not subject to interpolation, according to them.

Answer: It is true that the śrutis are not interpolated. This, however, does not mean that everything else is interpolated. Unless you have a proof of interpolation in the Bhāgavata, there is no reason not to trust it as pramāṇa. Moreover, from śruti alone no Vaiṣṇava sampradāya can prove its siddhānta. The concepts of Vaikuṇṭha, prapatti, bhakti, arcana, etc. are all derived from the Purāṇas and Āgamas. No one can prove them from śruti alone. For example, there is no mention of the word “Vaikuṇṭha” in the available śruti.

Question: The below verse from Nārāyaṇa Upaniṣad mentions Vaikuṇṭha: 

om namo nārāyaṇāyeti mantropasako vaikuṇṭha bhuvanam gamiśyati

“That yogi who meditates on “Oṁ Namo Nārāyaṇāya” reaches Vaikuṇṭha, the abode of Lord Viṣṇu.” 

Why then is Goloka Vṛndāvana, which is the destination of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas, not mentioned anywhere in śāstra apart from Brahma-saṃhitā, which was rediscovered by Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu? Moreover, the Ādikeśava temple in South India has no record of this event nor of the text, and the original text that Mahāprabhu copied is not available. Does Brahma-saṃhitā really exist?

Answer: There is a contention about the validity of some of the Upaniṣads. There are about eleven Upaniṣads that are accepted by all. As for the rest, some sampradāyas give more weight and neglect others. For example, Gaudīyas may value Rādhā Upaniṣad but not so much say Rudra Upaniṣad.  The same is true for Brahma-saṁhitā. It is an authority for Gauḍīyas but not for others. It surely existed but if a book is not studied and memorized, then it gets lost. Even Aiśvarya Kādambinī by Śrī Viśvanātha Cakravartī is lost. We know thatbecause Śrī Viśvanātha himself mentions it. If he had not mentioned it, we would never have known. So many books mentioned in the works of the Gosvāmīs are not to be found anymore. Modern people may say that such books never existed and we have no way to refute them except to allude to their reference, which they may not accept. It is only due to our faith in the Gosvāmīs that we believe that, at one point in time, these books existed. It is believed that Baladeva Vidyābhūṣana wrote commentaries on all principal Upaniṣads but we only have the one on the Iśa Upaniṣad. Similarly, we only find his commentary on  Tattva Sandarbha.

Goloka Vṛndāvana is described in the Harivaṁśa Purāṇa (2.19.29-35) as well as in some other books like Nārada Pañcarātra, Mahābhārata (Śānti Parva 342.138), Bṛhad-gautamiya Tantra, etc.

 

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Comments ( 2 )
  1. Vraja

    I really enjoyed the brisk questions and the exact and satisfying answers. This is content that i think about quite often. I will add my two cents, if any Vaishnava likes it, then that will be worth it. If any doesnt like, please kindly tolerate and ignore me.

    What does “literal” mean.

    Well, it (uhm) literally means “as letters,” which means “exactly what the words say.” So the fist question is sloppy, and Babaji, i feel, pointed that out in the first answer.

    In other words, I think the questioner really is asking, “are these things real?” not “is this literal.” And what I take from Babaji pointing out that there are more options than just literal vs. alegorical is “alegory describes real things, so something being allegocial does not mean it is unreal.”

    The two cents I wanted to add…

    I think people often dont realize that reality, although a singluar thing, is percieved in plural ways. (viz. “jñānaṁ advaya” verse). Take astronomy for example. The literal, acurate, real description of the universe for a person who cares about heliocentric observation will appear completely at odds with the literal, accurate, real description for a person who cares about geocentric observation, and both are diffferent for a person who cares about dhruva-centric observation.

    All three observation models are valid and have different purposes.

    Some puranic astronomy is meant for calendrics and astrological purposes – and therefore bears no semblance to modern astronomy. Most of it is not even for that, but is perhaps describable as “dhruva-centric” in that it is meant for explaining and illustrating the relationship between āśraya and sthāna. The siddhantic astronomy not like this, hence it will be different.

    In short… there are many ways to accurately describe a single thing. So do not have a panic attack if the astronomy of a purana does not match Carl Sagan’s astronomy. Both can co-exist.

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