Problems in the Interpretation of Vedic Literature

The Perennial Battle Between the Scholar and the Devotee

Dr Kim Knott

A paper on the Hare Krsna movement and its understanding of its earliest roots and sources, its debts to and perspectives on the past would, I think, be an interesting one. I also believe that such a paper cannot yet be written or understood - at least not without extensive footnotes. The short discussion which follows, therefore, details the obstacles encountered en route to a descriptive account.

In 1977, a postgraduate in the early stages of conducting a phenomenological study of Indian Hindus in Britain went with a party of Leeds Gujaratis to Bhaktivedanta Manor (a major UK temple community of the International Society for Krsna Consciousness (or the Hare Krsna Movement, as it is better known). With the newly acquired tools of objectivity and empathy the student was making some progress in learning about the practice of Hinduism amongst South Asians recently settled here, ISKCON being just one example of the ways in which Hinduism was expressed in its new context. In the course of the tour of the Manor, the postgraduate met and talked with an eager brahmacari. The substance of the interchange was that he maintained the Bhagavad-gita was five thousand years old while the student was convinced that it was written around 200 BC. The student felt the conversation could not progress beyond this point because it rested on the raison d`etre of both the devotee of Krsna and the scholar involved in the discipline of the history of religions.

I admit that this conclusion is a little exaggerated. Many scholars, before and since, have studied New Religious Movements (NRMs) in general and the Hare Krsna Movement in particular. However, I believed at the time that this conversation marked the end of my relations with the devotees of Krsna Consciousness. Objectivity and empathy thrown out the window I returned home, heatedly proclaiming their ignorance and by extension, the folly of their appearance, behaviour and beliefs. I ignored my own inability to undertake decent phenomenological research in my feelings of righteous indignation. In 1983, however, I was asked to write a book on the Hare Krsna movement. By then I had largely forgotten my prejudices and was able to treat this delicate issue with a little more common sense and sensitivity.

To return to my original conclusion, it is not difficult to see what this argument represents for the two opponents. To the devotee, the Bhagavad-gita is considered to be sruti or revealed scripture. It is part of the Vedic canon written by Vyasadeva from the breath of Lord Brhama five thousand years ago. The Hare Krsna brahmacari, along with many Indian Hindus, believed this with all his heart. For the student or scholar of religion, however, a very different picture emerges. The Bhagavad-gita is considered to be an independent part of the epic poem, the Mahabharata which, while discussing earlier events, was not written until approximately 200 BCE-CE 200. Scholars accept this theory on the strength of the apparently sound research of academics in the fields of linguistic analysis, archaeology and comparative literary and historical studies. Faith in the origins of revealed scripture is important to the majority of devotees whereas dependence on historical facts is vital to most scholars of religion. To some extent this issue, both for devotee and scholar , becomes one of 'authority'.

It should be emphasised, however, that although this constitutes an important subject for both devotee and scholar, it is only one amongst many. Numerous interesting interviews, encounters and dialogues have taken place between researchers and devotees in the UK and, more particularly, in the USA. There are two ways to overcome the debate on dates: either it can just be put to one side or the scholar can follow the example of Judah (1974) and admit the whole area of historical dating in early India is open to serious question.

The debate does raise a number of interesting questions and issues if we are prepared to stand still and examine it rather than battling it out or resorting to the 'safer' option of studying Vedic literature in general rather than the Bhagavad-gita in particular.

Scholarly views of the content and dating of Vedic literature

Such views are many and various, although the general consensus of opinion dates the arrival of the Aryans from Central Europe at approximately 1500 BCE and the Vedas themselves at around 1500-1200 BCE. As Chaudhuri (1979) points out, there is very little evidence to support this particular date for the composition of the Vedas (nor any other date for that matter). Some scholars opt for even earlier dates; for example, Radhakrishnan and Moore (1957) suggest approximate dates of 2500 BCE for the arrival of Aryan culture and 1500 BC E for the composition of the Vedas. Recent discoveries of cities in the Indus Valley have led archaeologists to date Harappan culture at between 3000 and 1500 BCE, and Aryan culture after 1500 BCE (Tharpar, 1966). None of these dates are conclusive, however, and it is well known that the whole process of dating settlements and texts in early India is very difficult. As Tharpar (1966) states, the Painted-Grey Ware found on archaeological sites in the West is still only 'tentatively' associated with the Aryans. In addition, Judah comments:

The dating of all early Hindu literature is subject to considerable controversy and must be considered tentative. For example, the four traditional Vedas ... represent material that was transmitted orally in archaic Sanskrit for centuries ... Since none of these compilations have manuscripts dating close to their time of origin, dating is risky, and one must depend largely on internal criticism such as changes in language, thought and locale.

Dating may be inconclusive but few scholars have felt happy to discuss Vedic literature and culture without it. (Dasgupta [1975] and Chaudhuri [1979] try not to speculate, although the latter certainly has opinions on the matter).

Moving on from the question of composition dates to the scope and content of the Vedas, we find less controversy. Vedic literature is generally considered to include all sruti , that is the four Samhitas, the BrahmanasAranyakas and Upanishads. All other Sanskrit religious texts are smrti (remembered not heard). This category includes the Vedanta Sutra , the 'Epics' (such as the Bhagavad-gita) and the Puranas. Most of the major concepts in Hinduism are detailed in what scholars define 'Vedic literature'- varnaashramakarmasamsaramoksha etc., although most of these appear in later compositions of literature (such as the Upanishads) rather than earlier scriptures. Some aspects of the Aryan culture can also be ascertained from these texts (Kunhan Raja, Altekar [1958], Tharpar [1966]).

This is the popular view of Vedic literature which is put forward in all standard books on India and its religions (for example, Tharpar, Hopkins, Zaehner, Brocklington etc). For students of religious studies, and indeed for most scholars, this view is the accepted authority.

The 'devotional' view of Vedic literature

Two views could hardly be more different than the scholarly and devotional ones on this issue. To devotees of the Hare Krsna Movement, Vedic literature begins with Krsna (God). Through His expansion as Lord Brahma, Krsna revealed vital knowledge to Vyasadeva, including the four Samhitas, the Brahmanas and Vedanta Sutra . In addition, Vyasadeva was requested to compile the 'perfect commentary' on the Vedanta Sutra, and thus on the whole corpus of early Sanskrit literature, in the form of the Bhagavata Purtana (or Srimad Bhagavatam). Devotees believe this exchange took place approximately five thousand years ago before the advent of the present age of Kali yuga.

The timeless wisdom of India is expressed in the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit texts that touch upon all fields of human knowledge. Originally preserved through oral tradition, the Vedas were first put into writing by Srila Vyasadeva, the 'literary incarnation of God'. After compiling the Vedas, Srila Vyasadeva was inspired by his spiritual master to present their profound essence in the form of the Srimad Bhagavatam . Known as 'the ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic literature', Srimad Bhagavatam is the most complete and authoritative exposition of Vedic knowledge. (Prabhupada, Srimad Bhagavatam , cover notes)

Hare Krsna devotees believe there are five, rather than four, Vedas (the fifth being the Bhagavad-gita). The Vedas are sruti but the Srimad Bhagavatam is smrti, albeit the most important part. When the term 'Vedic literature' is used by devotees it does not simply mean sruti but literature from the early period which expresses authoritative 'knowledge' about God. This includes the Bhagavad-gita and the rest of the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Srimad Bhagavatam and the other Puranas. (It is possible that, by extension, some devotees may also include texts such as Krsnadasa Kaviraja`s Sri Caitanya-caritamrta).

It is important to stress several things here. First, the Hare Krsna Movement is not alone in its understanding of Vedic literature:

Like the Pancharatrins, Madhva, Chaitanya and other Vaisnavas, Bhaktivedanta extended the authority of the word 'Vedic' beyond the Upanishads so as to apply to the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the original Ramayana .The influential Vaisnava philosopher, Madhva, taught that the ultimate aim of all revealed and traditional texts was to testify to the super-excellence of Vishnu as the supreme Lord . How natural then for the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, who believe that Krsna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to accept as equally revealed the words of Krsna in the Gita, or of Chaitanya, his avatar. (Judah, 1974)

A number of religious leaders and teachers have held the Puranas to be the successor to the Vedas, even a fifth Veda. Renou (1965) commented: 'It is also stated that these texts are a means of access to the Veda, therefore, they are intermediaries, if not intercessors'. While many of those outside the Vaisnava fold would be unwilling to accept the Puranas in this way, it is likely that even some Advaita Vedantins would see the Bhagavad-gita as sruti. Those who do not, however, would certainly not deny its enormous importance, as illustrated by Sankara and subsequent Vedantin philosophers.

The second consideration , which is a reiteration of an earlier point, is the concept of 'knowledge'. Veda means 'knowledge' and thus Vedic literature is the source of knowledge about God, the soul and spiritual life. For this reason, it is important that the scriptures present a coherent picture. Commentators such as Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vishnuswami, Nimbarka and Chaitanya have seen this picture in different ways, but as far as the Hare Krsna devotees are concerned, Chaitanya's interpretation is the true one. Chaitanya`s view was authoritative because of his incarnational status and spiritual link in a chain of disciplic succession with Vyasadeva and Krsna Himself (parampara). In addition. Chaitanya and his followers present an interpretation which seeks to combine all earlier positions (acintya bhedabhedab - identity-in-difference).

The Hare Krsna Movement, which traces its ancestry back through A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada to Chaitanya, sees this all-embracing account of Vedic literature (and the culture and lifestyle described therein) as authoritative. The Vedas contain knowledge of God and spiritual life, and knowledge has been passed down from God through a succession of like-minded spiritual masters.

Having characterised the view of Vedic literature held by both camps (in particular the less well-known one of the Hare Krsna devotees), I shall briefly discuss the two broad issues which arise when these views come together in encounter. These issues relate not only to the scholarly encounter with Krsna Consciousness but also with other Hindu groups. They also help to bring into focus the way in which traditions operate, albeit devotional or scholarly.

Vedic literature: hermeneutical considerations

Chaudhuri (1979) suggests that the tradition of dating the Vedas at 1500-1200 BC stems from the likelihood that even Western scholars were unconsciously swayed by the fantastic chronology of the Hindus but 'being incapable of swallowing that camel, selected instead a smaller animal which would more easily go down their throats'.

In understanding the two traditions of dating - scholarly and devotional - we have to bear in mind the history of debate on this and other related issues. Traditionally, Indians had a different understanding of the operation of history. The events of the recent past were seen as less important than that which could be learned from stories about past yugas. European scholars, from a religious and intellectual tradition with a deep and abiding concern for linear history, took a different view. They were interested in the content and teachings of the texts but were equally fascinated by what the texts suggested about a people. Inevitably they wanted to discover more about when this people lived, where they came from, when the texts themselves were composed, etc.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the first encounter of these two groups, the Indians and the Europeans (particularly the British) with their differing orientations, which led to the development of further perspectives on this issue. As is well known, the British were unhappy about many 'Hindoo' practices and their attitude led to a concern for social and religious reform amongst Indians themselves. This concern, coupled with the European scholarly interest in the Vedic age and its texts (perceived to be the earliest known to man), led many religious leaders to look back to this early period as a source of great spiritual teaching (for example, Ram Mohan Roy's interest in the Upanishads and, particularly, Dayananda Saraswati`s focus on the Vedic 'Golden Age'). Contemporaneous with this Indian desire to 'look back' was the European scholarly (particularly German idealist) reverence for the Vedas which, in its own way, also glorified this early period.

These complex attitudes and interests have been responsible for encouraging and supporting different accounts of the dating of Vedic literature and its contents. If we add to these the late nineteenth century Bengali renaissance of Hindu devotionalism (exemplified by Ramakrishna and the Gaudiya Vaisnava Mission [the parent of Krsna Consciousness]), and the twentieth century scholarly interest in texts and archaeology, we have a more complete picture of the sources for understanding both views.

The Vedic age and its literature: a nineteenth century invention?

It is tempting to assume, on the basis of the nineteenth century encounter between India and the West and its subsequent products, that the whole debate and the independent views its comprises, has its source there. Furthermore, it is assumed that Indian interest in the Vedas and other scriptures, and its reverence for the Vedic way of life only developed as a result of this coming together of East and West, as did that of scholars.

While the latter point is clearly true, the former is more complex. It is not simply the case that the Hare Krsna Movement's interest in Vedic literature and culture, and its perception of the origins of the texts themselves, are a function of nineteenth century developments. As we have seen, within the Hare Krsna movement there is a concern with authority and, it could even be said, with a linear understanding of spiritual succession from Chaitanya and Krsna Himself. Like the Arya Samaj, the nineteenth Gaudiya Vaisnava Mission saw the Vedic period as ideal and viewed certain scriptures as important for spiritual guidance. Contrary to the Arya Samaj, however, this movement did not seek to legitimise itself solely in terms of the authority it gave to Vedic literature, but was also concerned to stress its own historical continuity with the period of those texts. Furthermore, while the Arya Samaj revered the Vedas and dismissed lattr literature as idolatrous, the Gaudiya Vaisnava Mission (and, in its wake, the Hare Krsna Movement) was more interested in texts which stressed bhakti , which it saw as Vedic in type.

Typical of most Vaisnava sects, the Gaudiya Vaisnava Mission and the Hare Krsna Movement have both made a point of stressing Vedic links. They do not accept the scholarly view that the Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavata Purana were composed significantly later than the Vedas. Instead, the Bhagavad-gita is seen as broadly contemporaneous with the Vedic Samhitas and Upanisads but of greater significance in terms of its contribution to spiritual knowledge (as opposed to ritual practice or philosophical speculation), the Bhagavad Purana being the original commentary explaining and building on these sruti texts.

The Gaudiya Vaisnava Mission and the Hare Krsna Movement are not simply being perverse in this matter - there is a long history of this view. As we have already seen, Madhava and Chaitanya saw the Bhagavad-gita and the Bhagavata Purana as part of the original teachings of Krsna. Furthermore, as representatives of the Vaisnava sampradaya, they are part of a tradition (vedanta) which also stresses its links with the Vedas. Scholars always cite Ramanuja as having legitimised early Vaishnavism, referring not only to the Bhagavad-gita but also to the Upanisads and Vedanta Sutra. Madhava, Visnusvami and Nimbarka carried on this tradition. As Renou (1965) comments in his account of the Vedas in India's past:

Like the Shaivities, the Vaisnavities of Vedantin obedience remain attached to theVeda, even when they are influenced by bhakti (an a-Vedic phenomenon, if ever there was one). Vedanta is the rallying point of Vedic tendencies, and one is faithful to the Veda to the extent that one is Vedantin.

The important point here is that these Vaisnava movements are not simply legitimising their own texts on the strength of the fame of the earlier texts, they believe that these texts are one, that they all incorporate to a greater or lesser extent the same basic teachings. The Indian scholar Srivatsa Goswami, himself a Vaisnava in the Chaitanya tradition, says:

The earliest written documents of Indian religious history are the Vedas, which may be the earliest religious writings in the entire world. It is said, 'Veda-mula jagad sarvam - Veda is the root of the whole universe. That means that all concepts are present, at least in seed form, in the Vedas. We don't claim that there is a well-defined Vaisnava system in the Veda, but the root is there. In the Vedas we find gods and people devoted to gods, and that is bhakti ... .

The concept of bhakti has taken shape in the Vedas. There are numerous textual evidences for this. This means that even before the time of the Vedas, some form of bhakti was present, of which the Vedas are a document ...

Furthermore, in Hare Krsna and the Counterculture, Steven Gelberg noted:

The point is that bhakti is an eternal human tendency; it is not merely some kind of historical movement arising out of peculiar social and cultural circumstances ...

The Vedas themselves are therefore seen as containing the same teaching as the more obvious Vaisnava texts, although the teachings are more thoroughly expounded in the Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavata Purana. It seems probable, and this is illustrated by the 'commentary tradition', that this view was shared by Vaisnava philosophers and teachers in the medieval period and nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

From a Western scholarly point of view, there is a tendency to feel (as Renou revealed in his comments on bhakti) that the teachings expounded in these texts are far from compatible, and an equally strong tendency to see those who feel differently as unorthodox - 'swimming against the tide'. In part, this may be because from the standpoint of our own intellectual and cultural tradition, the seemingly a-historical and inclusivist (or syncretist) interpretation put forward by Vaisnavas, is unusual, foreign and, undoubtedly, wrong. For most scholars - and this is only my opinion - the question of the Vaisnava view of the dating and parameters of Vedic literature requires a phenomenological leap which is almost impossible to take. We have come to believe, almost as firmly as most Vaisnavas, in the accuracy of a particular view of both the approximate dating of Sanskrit texts and in the reference and use of terms such as Vedic and sruti. Behind both the devotional and scholarly views, are intellectual and cultural traditions: the problem is that one, the scholarly, aims to understand and present the other, the devotional., objectively and empathically simultaneously. This is difficult when that which is to be understood and presented rests on ways of thinking about things which differ radically from those underpinning the scholarly tradition itself. For example, the contemporary Western study of history, the concept of evolutionary intellectual development, etc.


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Kunhan, Raja C., in The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. 1. Calcutta, Ramakrishna Mission, 1958.

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