"Vedic" in the Terminology

of Prabhupada and His Followers

Rahul Peter Das

Part One
NB. The footnotes for this article are linked to a separate footnote page.

In this article Rahul Peter Das offers food for thought to devotees by his astute examination of their usage of the term "Vedic". Interestingly he follows his initial analysis of Prabhupada's usage by a comparative study of how Prabhupada's followers use the term. His analysis is also a useful gauge of the 'South Asian Studies' perspective on the use of the term "Vedic" in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition in general. While showing that Prabhupada, previous acaryas and contemporary Vaishnava scholars show a diverse usage of the term. Das concludes his paper with interesting observations on our lineage based on our perception of Vedic authority.

The term "Vedic" has many connotations - cultural, religious, linguistic, literary and so forth. What this study is concerned with is the use of the word to refer to certain texts regarded as sacred and authoritative in a certain South Asian religious tradition which has been successfully transplanted into the West. To this end, we shall also have to consider the usage pertaining not only to the term "Vedic", but also to the term "Veda".

For an indologist of the nineteenth-century, matters were relatively simple: before the period of what is generally called "classical Hinduism" or the like, Indian culture was Indo-Aryan and at the same time Vedic. This culture - simultaneously ancient Indian, Vedic and Indo-Aryan - was that described by the class of texts known as Vedic texts, that is, the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads, forming the Rigvedic, Samavedic, Yajurvedic and Atharvavedic collections, along with (according to some scholars) on historical grounds a few of the accompanying Sutras, even though traditionally these latter are all regarded not as sruti-, but as smriti-.

For us today, things are unfortunately not that easy. "Indo-Aryan" and "Vedic" are no more regarded as synonyms; ancient Indian culture is no more automatically taken to be the same as Vedic or Indo-Aryan culture; the texts mentioned are no longer taken to be more or less comprehensive chronicles of the culture or cultures of those times.1 Among Vedic scholars it is now generally accepted that there were in most probability various groups of Indo-Aryans that did not necessarily speak the language of, and/or did not necessarily adhere to the religion or culture portrayed in, the texts mentioned above. Also, scholars generally do not any more silently assume that the Indo-Aryans entering South Asia came into a cultural, religious or linguistic vacuum. This being so, one tends to be more careful in the use of the terms "Indo-Aryan", "Vedic" or "ancient Indian" when referring to religion or culture.

On the other hand, to the Western classical indologist, "Vedic" in the sphere of linguistics and literature still has a fixed connotation-namely as referring to the corpus of texts already mentioned and to the language found in this. Of course, even this creates some difficulties, particularly with regard to many later texts in a language clearly not Vedic calling themselves Upanishads; but on the whole, the difficulties in this sphere are not all that great.

There is a difference, though, between what the classical indologist understands under the term "Veda" and the corresponding adjective "Vedic", and what many South Asians (and many Westerners following them) have during the course of centuries understood, or today understand, under this term. In the oldest Vedic period that we know of, veda- seems to have been used to denote any sacred utterance. Since the late Vedic age, however, it denoted the three collections of the Ric, Saman and Yajus. But throughout history there have been other definitions, to the Western classical indologist redefinitions of the term, allowing individual texts which are not Vedic by the definition mentioned above to be subsumed by, or appended to, the traditions of hallowed ancient texts, thus letting them partake of the sacrality and authoritativeness attributed to the Vedas. The oldest example of this is the controversy regarding the Atharvavedasamhita and the Vedic texts associated with it, and the process has encompassed various texts such as the epics, Puranas, and also individual traditional scholarly texts and traditions. It is needless to go into details here, as the matter has already been chronicled by others.2 Such claims have been, and continue to be, controversial in South Asia itself. This means that what we are dealing with is a problem that cannot simply be attributed to the incomprehension of supercilious Westerners.

There is, however, another South Asian tradition which more or less accepts the Vedic texts as being what the Western classical indologist understands the term to be, but which sees historically later texts as being part of the same stream as these Vedic texts, or else as subsuming the matter contained in them and in some cases thus even being superior to them.3 The culmination of this tradition - we might even call it the most radical application - is found in the school of Gaudiya Vaishnavism attributing itself to Chaitanya, especially in the Tattvasandarbha of Jiva Goswamin.4 Though great emphasis is also placed upon the Bhagavadgita in this regard, it is in particular the Bhagavatapurana for which the claim of containing the teachings and precepts of the Vedas in their purest and most comprehensive form is made.5 This is a claim often challenged, the most famous of such challenges being probably that by Rammohun Roy in 1818 in his reply to a Goswamin's letter.6 Rammohun even accused the Gaudiya Vaishnavas of falsifying evidence by passing off verses composed by themselves as Puranic so as to make their point. Of special interest in this context is the statement of Elkman (op.cit. in note 4), p.41 on the views of Baladeva, whose commentary (Govindabhasya) on the Tattvasandarbha is generally regarded as the most authoritative in Gaudiya Vaishnava circles:

Baladeva argues for the supremacy of sabda pramana, as does Jiva, but restricts his definition of sabda to the Vedas and Upanishads, thus contradicting the important Gaudiya Vaishnava belief in the authoritative nature of Puranas, particulary the Bhagavata Purana.

Be that as it may, since it is this very Gaudiya Vaishnavism to which Abhay Caran Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada7, the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), claimed affiliation, an examination of what Prabhupada understood under the term "Vedic" is clearly of relevance, not only for our understanding of his personal system of beliefs, but also of the tradition from which he came. I have therefore gone through his writings with this question in mind.

Not all of Prabhupada's various published works contain relevant statements in this regard. As a case in point, I may cite the only reference to Vedic I could find in his work on the Mukundamalastotra8, namely the non-committal: "The Vedic literature, prepared by Shrila Vyasadeva and filled with narrations of the Lord and His devotees...", which does not tell us what this Vedic literature actually is. I am therefore confining myself here to a discussion of only those works in which I found information pertinent to our particular query. Of course, I cannot claim to have gone through each and every one of the countless words to be found in the many writings of Prabhupada, and thus I have surely missed some information I should have included in my study. But I believe that on the whole I was able to gather enough material of relevance, and doubt that what statements I may have missed will deviate in any substantial manner from this. Also, it should be pointed out that I have based my deliberations only on those statements which in my opinion are absolutely clear: Prabhupada has of course made innumerable remarks which tend in the same direction or can easily be interpreted similarly, but which either do not expressly mention the terms "Veda" or "Vedic", or else do not contain information characterising them clearly.

A word of caution with regard to the purpose of my examination would not be out of place here. I have merely tried to collect Prabhupada's own words on the subject, without any attempt at evaluating or interpreting them with regard to their theological significance or their historical evolution. Also, my examination does not attempt in any way to determine whether his interpretations of texts such as the Bhagavadgita and the Bhagavatapurana, on which he relied heavily in his writings, are in any way "right" or "wrong". The Bhagavadgita, especially, would represent a great problem for any such attempt anyway, as has already been pointed out by others.9 The question of any theological implication of my examination may best be left to Prabhupada's followers themselves.

There are many statements in the writings of Prabhupada that differentiate between the Vedas on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Puranas, particularly the Bhagavatapurana, as well as the Bhagavadgita and the Mahabharata (both often mentioned separately, even though Prabhupada takes pains to point out again and again that the former is a part of the latter)10, the Ramayana, the Pancaratra and the Vedantasutra (or Brahmasutra). 11 He also differentiates between the Bhagavadgita and the Vedas by writing that in the former Krishna personally states that "the Vedas are different laws given by the Lord"12 - laws thus obviously different from those in the Bhagavadgita. The latter is also characterised as clarifying the Vedas, and thus different from them.13

At times, the differentiation is not with the Vedas, but with "Vedic literature".14 The Puranas and "Vedic literature" are also termed "sister literatures".15 The Vedas are often described as four or enumerated by name, namely as the Vedas of Rg, Yajus, S�man and Atharvan.16 They are called sruti-, and are differentiated from other texts characterised as smriti-. But sruti- and smriti- are also differentiated from the Puranas and Pancaratra.17 The Bhagavadgita is called smriti-.18

All this seems to show that Prabhupada is squarely in accord with Western classical indologists in regard to what he understands under the term "Veda". But actually things are not that clear, for there are other statements which create difficulties for this deduction, statements which are, however, in accord with well-known beliefs of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. Thus, in spite of his differentiating between Vedic and non-Vedic literature, Prabhupada nevertheless regards some texts which are non-Vedic by this definition - particularly the Bhagavadgita and the Bh�gavatapurana - as being the essence of Vedic thought.19

The Vedic mantras are said to be explicated and supplemented by the Puranas and the Mahabharata. 20 In this regard Prabhupada is clearly echoing Bhaktibinod Thakur21, who regarded the Puranas as "explanatory notes" of the Vedas.22 "Veda" is moreover defined as "the aggregate of knowledge", and it is held that "whatever knowledge is required for human society is perfectly presented in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam."23 This is so because, according to Prabhupada, Vy�sa wrote the Bhagavatapurana as an explanation of the Vedantasutra (or Brahmasutra), which itself contains the essence of the Upanishads.24 The Bhagavatapurana explains not only the Brahmasutra, but also the Mahabharata.25 Indeed, the Vedantasutra and Bhagavatapurana are regarded as being superior to the Vedas, viz. the four Samhitas and "their corollaries known as s iksha, kalpa, vyakarana, nirukta, chanda and jyotisha" by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasbati Thakur;26 Prabhupada obviously approves of this opinion.27

Vy�sa also divided the Veda(s)28 into four divisions (namely the four known divisions of Rig, Saman, Yajus and Atharvan), or else compiled them. After that he authored the Puranas, or expanded the Vedas into these. Vy�sa is also called the author, not only of the Brahmasutra29 together with its commentary, the Bh�gavatapurana, but also of the Mahabharata (containing the Bhagavadgita).30 Indeed, before Vyasa, the Vedas were "simply heard", and it was he who wrote them down: "he left all the Vedic knowledge in book form, such as the Puranas, Vedanta, Mahabharata and Shrimad-Bhagavatam."31 Elsewhere, Prabhupada says:

The less intelligent classes of men, namely women, ��dras and unqualified sons of the higher castes, are devoid of necessary qualifications to understand the purpose of the transcendental Vedas. For them the Mahabharata was prepared.

The text goes on to say that the Mahabharata contains the summary of the Vedas called the Bhagavadgita, which is thus "the essence of all Vedic knowledge".32

All these texts are also called Vedic,33 and they all go back to Vyasa, who is the author of all Vedic literature, and an incarnation of Narayana.34 Thus it is actually Krishna who divided the Vedas into four, and explained these in the Puranas: "for less capable people He wrote the Mahabharata" (of which the Bhagavadgita is a part), at the same time summarising all Vedic literature in the Vedantasutra, and commenting on this in the Bhagavatapurana.35

Echoing an old, though not universally accepted opinion in South Asia, Prabhupada also says that the Mahabharata is regarded as the fifth Veda, and that this therefore also applies to the Bhagavadgita contained within it.36 This, we are told, "is also Vedic literature (smriti). Some of the Vedic literatures are called srutis, and some are called smritis."37

This statement, which echoes older notions such as, for instance, those of the Sarvamatasangraha,38 is very interesting. That the Bhagavadgita is expressly called smriti- shows that it is not part of the Vedic literature in the sense we have discussed first, and which Prabhupada himself calls srruti. Yet it is nevertheless called Vedic. And Prabhupada also expressly says that both smriti and sruti are Vedic, which tallies with what we have just seen on other texts such as the epics, Puranas, and others also being called "Vedic".

These two definitions of "Vedic" are irreconcilable semantically; and so it is clear that what we have here are actually two different meanings of the word "Vedic". I propose to designate them as "Vedic1" and "Vedic2" respectively. "Vedic1 " is used in the sense in which Western classical indologists also generally use the term; whereas "Vedic2" has a much wider application and may subsume "Vedic1." "Vedic1" obviously is more a linguistic and historical term, whereas "Vedic2" derives more from the contents of the works so labelled. It is consistent with this latter meaning that Prabhupada also says that "Vedic knowledge is called sruti", 39 a mode of expression which allows a very wide interpretation.

That this use of the same word to designate two different things may cause confusion is clear. Prabhupada too seems to have been aware of this, for every so often we find that he uses "Vedic literatures" when he refers to what I have called "Vedic2",40 although he is following no rule with this inasmuch as the terms "Vedic" and "Vedic literature" too are used in this same context. However, as far as I can see, "Vedic1" seems to be associated mostly with these latter terms, not with "Vedic literatures". I did, however, also find a reference to "Vedic literatures" with only the Upanishads mentioned as examples,41 as well as a differentiation between "all the Vedic literatures" and the Puranas. 42 On the other hand, I found, too, a definition of the expression "Vedic literatures" that substantiates the deduction that as a rule this term refers to "Vedic":

The Vedas - Sama, Yajur, Rig and Atharva - and any books deriving knowledge from these Vedas are considered Vedic literatures.43


Part Two

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