Srila Prabhupada and the Vaisnava Tradition of Scriptural Commentary

Serving the Words of His Predecessors

Gopiparanadhana Dasa

Gopiparanadhana Dasa, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) Sanskrit editor and translator for more than 25 years, addresses the difference between Western and Eastern approaches to textual authority. By examining texts from Srila Prabhupada's commentaries he highlights the difference between Western ideas of plagiarism, and the primacy of originality, and �Eastern notions of ensuring the safe passage of traditional thought. He also looks at how in Indian traditions the qualification for authorship is based on the ability to faithfully transmit the message of previous teachers, but not necessarily with the same painstaking referencing demanded in modern texts.


Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada was the founder and organiser of a large worldwide religious movement; that he developed it in just twelve years, all after his seventieth birthday, shows that he was not only practical, innovative and determined but also spiritually empowered. Although these are valid reasons to think highly of Srila Prabhupada, he always de-emphasised his own abilities, preferring to be judged on the more objective grounds of his bona fide allegiance to the teachings of the Vaisnava tradition he represented. He did not credit his preaching success to any special abilities of his own. As he once said, 'I don't claim that I am a pure devotee or perfect, but my only qualification is that I am trying to follow the instruction of the perfect.'[1] In any case, spiritual realisation is essentially a private matter, not open to objective evaluation. There are too many false saints who allow their disciples to fanatically advertise them as much greater than they really are. In the opinion of orthodox Vaisnavas, the saintliness of a person can be known only by someone just as saintly. To publicly establish spiritual authority, then, a teacher, rather than making an open spectacle of his intimate ecstasies, should simply speak philosophically on the basis of what previous authorities have said in scripture and on reputable commentaries of scripture. Srila Prabhupada wanted his own authority to be accepted according to how faithfully he lived up to that standard.


The Gaudiya school of Vaisnavism to which Srila Prabhupada belongs was founded by Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal five centuries ago. This Gaudiya sampradaya is officially connected with the Vaisnava school established by Madhva in the thirteenth century and also has strong philosophical and cultural bonds with the even older Srivaisnava school of Ramanuja. Although the founding teachers of other Vaisnava schools each wrote major commentaries on Badarayana Vyasa's Vedanta-sutra and their followers carried on debate with Advaita impersonalists and others on the basis of their theistic interpretation of Vedanta, �Caitanya Mahaprabhu chose not to busy His own followers in the same way. He proposed that the ancient Bhagavata Purana (known also as Srimad-Bhagavatam) served perfectly well as a natural commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, having been written by the same �Veda-vyasa. Lord Caitanya advised His associates that since the Bhagavatam was already available and easily understandable, there was no need for them to compose new commentaries and sub-�commentaries on Vedanta. Another Purana, the Garuda Purana, corroborates Lord Caitanya's reliance on Srimad-Bhagavatam:


purnah so 'yam atisayah
artho 'yam brahma-sutranam / bharatartha-vinirnayah
gayatri-bhasya-rupo 'sau / vedartha-paribrmhitah

purananam sama-rupah / saksad bhagavatoditah
dvadasa-skandha-yukto 'yam / sata-viccheda-samyutah
grantho 'stadasa-sahasram / sri-bhagavatabhidhah

This [Purana] is perfectly complete. It is the purport of the Vedanta-sutra, establishes the meaning of the Mahabharata, is a commentary on Gayatri and completes the message of the Vedas. It is the Sama Veda among the Puranas, spoken directly by an incarnation of God [Vyasa]. This work, consisting of twelve cantos, hundreds of chapters and eighteen thousand verses, is called Srimad-Bhagavatam.


Srila Prabhupada considered Srimad-Bhagavatam, along with Bhagavad-gita, the substantial foundation of his International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He created ISKCON primarily for making the theology of the Gita and Bhagavatam universally accessible, and he directed his disciples to give first priority to the work of publishing and distributing these two scriptures, in English and many other languages. Srila Prabhupada's opus magnum, a multi-volume English translation of and commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam, was unfortunately left incomplete when he passed away in 1977; it was finished, however, ten years later by the collaborative effort of a few of his disciples. Having served as an editor of this entire series of the Bhagavatam and participated in its posthumous completion, I have gathered some insights into Srila Prabhupada's hermeneutic methodology. In this essay, I will examine Srila Prabhupada's translation and commentary on one verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam, with the aim of showing how he based his own presentation largely on the commentaries of previous authorities.


Srimad-Bhagavatam is presented as literal, albeit very ancient, history. A few narrations in this Purana, however, are intended to be understood as fiction - most of them allegories devised by one of the most frequent speakers in the Bhagavatam, the itinerant preacher Narada. The text we are going to look at belongs to one of these allegorical passages, the story of King Puranjana told by Narada to Maharaja Pracinabarhi in Chapters 25-9 of the Fourth Canto. In brief, the imaginary Puranjana is equivalent to the Everyman figure in medieval European morality plays. He represents the illusioned soul suffering from misidentification with his temporary embodiment in material life. Puranjana tries for years to enjoy with his consort, the female personification of his material intelligence; he finally succumbs to old age, disease and death, and then, because of too much attachment to his wife, takes his next birth as a woman. This female reincarnation of Puranjana marries a pious king who dies young, leaving his wife bewildered in lamentation. Our text occurs at this point in the narration, as the fifty-first verse of Chapter 28. It describes an unexpected visit by an old, forgotten friend. Here are the original Sanskrit text and Srila Prabhupada's translation:


tatra purvatarah kascit
sakha brahmana atmavan
santvayan valguna samna
tam aha rudatim prabho


'My dear King, one brahmana, who was an old friend of King Puranjana, came to that place and began to pacify the Queen with sweet words.'


Srila Prabhupada's explanation of this verse, his 'purport', fills two pages. It is based on the short commentaries, each only a few lines long, by two standard Vaisnava teachers, Sridhara Svami and Visvanatha Cakravarti. We will first describe these commentaries and then analyse how Srila Prabhupada used them.


The oldest extant commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam was written by Sridhara Svami; older commentaries are known only by name or by isolated fragments. No solid evidence supports his exact lifespan; Karl Potter has tentatively assigned his birth to the beginning of the fifteenth century,[2] though Sridhara Svami may have lived earlier than that, since less than a century later Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu described Sridhara as being a venerable authority. In India, more than one century is usually needed for a commentator on traditional literature to become established as an authority.


As far as is known, Sridhara Svami did not belong to any of the major Vaisnava schools, but was probably an initiated member of Sankara's Advaita [3] sampradaya. Nonetheless, the opinions he expressed in his commentaries on Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Visnu Purana were staunchly Vaisnava. Caitanya Mahaprabhu's cutting comments to �Vallabha-acarya, a prominent Vaisnava, testify to the great respect Caitanya had for Sridhara's opinions, as Lord Caitanya's biographer Krsnadasa Kaviraja recounts:

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu smilingly replied, 'One who does not accept the svami [husband] as an authority I consider a prostitute. ... You have dared criticise Sridhara Svami, and you have begun your own commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam, not accepting his authority. That is your false pride. Sridhara Svami is the spiritual master of the entire world because by his mercy we can understand Srimad-Bhagavatam. I therefore accept him as a spiritual master. Whatever you might write due to false pride, trying to surpass Sridhara Svami, would carry a contrary purport. Therefore no one would pay attention to it. One who comments on Srimad-Bhagavatam following in the footsteps of Sridhara Svami will be honored and accepted by everyone.'[4]


The two-sentence commentary of Sridhara Svami on the verse we are considering reads: 'The friend who is "very old" in the sense of being eternal without origin is the Supreme Lord, in accordance with the statement of revealed scripture beginning "Two birds ... " He addressed her with sweet words of consolation.'[5]


In the first sentence, Sridhara Svami identifies old friend of the the queen as every soul's original friend, the supreme controller (isvara). He supports this opinion by proposing that this verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam alludes to one of the oldest Vedic hymns. Although it is well known that the verse beginning dva suparna occurs in both the Mundaka and Svetasvatara Upanisads,[6] less well-known is that the verse is originally found, verbatim, in the First Mandala of the Rg Veda, the most archaic of scriptural sources:


dva suparna sayuja sakhaya
samanam vrksam parisasvajate
tayor anyah pippalam svadv atty
anasnann anyo 'bhicakasiti


Two friendly companion birds together reside on one tree. One of them is eating the tree's fruits while the other does not eat but simply watches His friend.[7]


Vaisnava commentators explain that this verse refers to God in His accompanying of the finite soul in all the soul's incarnations in material existence. In every form of life, the finite soul and Supreme Soul sit together in the heart, one of them trying to enjoy material life and the other simply waiting for His eternal friend to remember Him.


The second commentary drawn upon by Srila Prabhupada in his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.51 is the one written by Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura in the second half of the seventeenth century. Sri Visvanatha Cakravarti was the most prominent spiritual master of sixth-generation Vaisnavas in Caitanya Mahaprabhu's sampradaya. Srila Visvanatha led the Gaudiya Vaisnava community in Vrndavana during the time of the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb, who persecuted the Vaisnavas. Visvanatha's own predecessor was the celebrated devotional poet Narottama Dasa, and among his disciples was Baladeva Vidyabhusana, author of the Govinda-bhasya commentary on Vedanta-sutra.


Visvanatha Cakravarti's commentary on this verse is four sentences long. The first sentence suggests a deep meaning to the allegory of Queen Puranjani's lamentation:

[This verse] implies that in such a mood of distress as is suffered when one's spiritual master has departed from this world, a disciple can experience the direct presence of God.[8]


In this realisation of Visvanatha Cakravarti, Everyman has been replaced with a rare, special soul - the surrendered disciple of a pure Vaisnava. Without any other qualifications of his own, a sincere disciple earns the right to see God simply by his attachment to his spiritual master. After the guru has passed away, the serious disciple does not lose his spiritual strength but continues to advance by remembering and executing the guru's instructions. The intense devotional mood of separation can develop into direct vision of the Supreme Person.


Visvanatha Cakravarti's second sentence is an almost exact repeat of Sridhara Svami's first sentence:

In this context, the friend who is 'very old' in the sense of being eternal without origin is the Supreme Lord, in accordance with such statements of revealed scripture as the one beginning 'Two birds....'[9]


In the Sanskrit commentary tradition, this sort of 'plagiarism' is considered ethical. It is appropriate to simply repeat the statements of one's predecessors when further explanation for one's own generation was not required. To pretend to be original, furthermore, is frowned upon. Most of Visvanatha Cakravarti's contemporaries who could read Sanskrit were probably acquainted with Sridhara Svami's commentary and would have recognised this citation; for those who were unfamiliar with Sridhara, Visvanatha was being considerate by passing on the past master's words.


The third sentence explains why the old friend in the allegory appears as a brahmana:


He [the Supreme Lord in the heart] is a brahmana, or in other words, he is in the guise of a brahmana; by this [the present verse] means to inform us that without pure love of God one can never have direct realization of God's true, original form.[10]


The sincere disciple represented by Queen Puranjani is not prepared to fully realise God's personality, but even in His disguised form the Lord kindly gives the soul instructions that enable him to gradually achieve perfection.


Visvanatha Cakravarti's fourth sentence explains another word in the verse, the adjective atma-van (literally, 'self-possessed' or 'self-realised'), which further characterises the brahmana: 'Self-possessed' here means also having His original form, which He kept hidden within Himself.[11]


Ordinarily, God, who sits silently within every person's heart, limits His functions to being a witness, sanctioner and facilitator of the living being's endeavours. In the case of the rare soul who has become purified from material desires, God advises the soul directly from within the heart how to progress toward liberation. Besides being the Supersoul, however, He is simultaneously nondifferent from God in His full personal form. Those who progress beyond liberation to pure devotion thus realise their own personal relationship with God.


Now we can look at Srila Prabhupada's purport. He begins by retelling Visvanatha Cakravarti's second sentence, which, as we have seen, is Sridhara Svami's first sentence and refers back to the Upanisads and the Rg Veda. Visvanatha Cakravarti had said:

In this context, the friend who is 'very old' in the sense of being eternal without origin is the Supreme Lord, in accordance with such statements of revealed scripture as the one beginning 'Two birds....'


Srila Prabhupada writes:


The appearance of an old friend in the form of a brahmana is very significant. In His �Paramatma feature, Krsna is the old friend of everyone. According to Vedic injunction, Krsna is sitting with the living entity side by side. According to the sruti-mantra (dva suparna sayuja sakhayah), the Lord is sitting within the heart of every living entity as suhrt, the best friend. The Lord is always eager to have the living entity come home, back to Godhead. Sitting with the living entity as witness, the Lord gives him all chances to enjoy himself materially, but whenever there is an opportunity, the Lord gives good counsel and advises the living entity to abandon trying to become happy through material adjustment and instead turn his face toward the Supreme Personality of Godhead and surrender unto Him.


Srila Prabhupada next presents the idea of Visvanatha Cakravarti's first sentence, which reads:


[This verse] implies that in such a mood of distress as is suffered when one's spiritual master has departed from this world, a disciple can experience the direct presence of God.


From this, Srila Prabhupada's derives the following:


When one becomes serious to follow the mission of the spiritual master, his resolution is tantamount to seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As explained before, this means meeting the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the instruction of the spiritual master. This is technically called vani-seva.


In Sanskrit the word vani means 'the faculty of speech', 'words', and 'instructions'. Seva means 'service'. A disciple can serve his spiritual master's body (vapuh) whenever opportunities arise, but more important is serving his vaniVani-seva is not limited by the absence of the person being served. Srila Prabhupada continues in his purport:

Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura states in his Bhagavad-gita commentary on the verse vyavasayatmika buddhir ekeha kuru-nandana (Bg. 2.41) that one should serve the words of the spiritual master. The disciple must stick to whatever the spiritual master orders. Simply by following on that line, one sees the Supreme Personality of Godhead.


Then Srila Prabhupada renders the third sentence of Visvanatha Cakravarti:


He [the Supreme Lord in the heart] is a brahmana, or in other words, he is in the guise of a brahmana; by this [the present verse] means to inform us that without pure love of God one can never have direct realization of God's true, original form.


Srila Prabhupada writes,


The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Paramatma, appeared before the Queen as a brahmana, but why didn't He appear in His original form as Sri Krsna? Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura remarks that unless one is very highly elevated in loving the Supreme Personality of Godhead, one cannot see Him as He is.


Visvanatha Cakravarti's fourth sentence was:


'Self-possessed' here means also having His original form, which He kept hidden within Himself.


Srila Prabhupada's version of this is:


Nonetheless, if one sticks to the principles enunciated by the spiritual master, somehow or other he is in association with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since the Lord is in the heart, He can advise a sincere disciple from within. This is also confirmed in Bhagavad-gita (10.10):


tesam satata-yuktanam
bhajatam priti-purvakam
dadami buddhi-yogam tam
yena mam upayanti te


'To those who are constantly devoted and worship Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.'


Srila Prabhupada finishes his purport with a citation from another Vaisnava authority:


In conclusion, if a disciple is very serious to execute the mission of the spiritual master, he immediately associates with the Supreme Personality of Godhead by vani or vapuh. This is the only secret of success in seeing the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Instead of being eager to see the Lord in some bush of Vrndavana while at the same time engaging in sense gratification, if one instead sticks to the principle of following the words of the spiritual master, he will see the Supreme Lord without difficulty. Srila Bilvamangala Thakura has therefore said:


bhaktis tvayi sthiratara bhagavan yadi syad
daivena nah phalati divya-kisora-murtih
muktih svayam mukulitanjali sevate 'sman
dharmartha-kama-gatayah samaya-pratiksah


'If I am engaged in devotional service unto You, my dear Lord, then very easily can I perceive Your presence everywhere. And as far as liberation is concerned, I think that liberation stands at my door with folded hands, waiting to serve me - and all material conveniences of dharma [religiosity], artha [economic development] and kama [sense gratification] stand with her.' (Krsna-karnamrta 107) If one is very highly advanced in devotional service, he will have no difficulty in seeing the Supreme Personality of �Godhead. If one engages in the service of the spiritual master, he not only sees the Supreme Personality of Godhead but attains liberation. As far as material conveniences are concerned, they automatically come, just as the maidservants of a queen follow the queen wherever she goes. Liberation is no problem for the pure devotee, and all material conveniences are simply awaiting him at all stages of life.


This single text, of course, is only a tiny sample of Srila Prabhupada's purports. A much broader survey needs to be taken before a fair appraisal can be made of how he used his predecessor's commentaries. The project of researching the sources of Srila Prabhupada's purports in Srimad-Bhagavatam and Bhagavad-gita As It Is is only beginning, and requires the ongoing diligence of any number of disciples and scholars.


Srila Prabhupada was firmly convinced of the relevance of Srimad-Bhagavatam. In his view, the Bhagavatam's teachings were timeless, the perennial science of God consciousness. His own responsibility was simply to translate them without distortion. If the instructions of his authoritative predecessors were properly served, the whole world would surely benefit.


Admittedly, the ideas and images Srila Prabhupada strove to convey in his purports are sometimes difficult for modern readers to comprehend, what to speak of assimilate. The original texts he translated are messages from a different world, ancient and foreign. But �Prabhupada felt the urgent need to deliver these messages as best he could. He was thus always concerned with how to make the Bhagavatam's enlightening instructions comprehensible to the average, contemporary public. Certainly not everyone would understand, but even if only a few readers received benefit from this transcendental knowledge, the endeavour could be counted as a great success. Before Srila Prabhupada came to America in 1965 with his first English volumes of Srimad-Bhagavatam, a well-intentioned person could have questioned him, 'Why present this work, which has a very small audience? Why not something else, easier and more popular?' Prabhupada, however, did not think in such a way. To him it did not matter that there were no readers for Srimad-Bhagavatam; he created his own readership. In a few years, thousands of disciples became serious students of the �Bhagavatam, and millions of other people around the world brought the book into their homes. This is the sign of a great author - that he creates an audience where there was none.

1 Lecture on Bhagavad-gita 2.1-10, 25 November 1968, Los Angeles.


2 Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 1, Bibliography, p. 328.


3 Sri Jiva Goswami (Tattva-sandarbha 27) writes about Sridhara Svami's association with the Advaita school: samprati madhya-desadau vyaptan advaita-vadino nunam bhagavan-mahimanam avagahayitum tad-vadena karvurita-lipinam parama-vaisnavanam sridhara-svami-carananami suddha-vaisnava-siddhantanugata cet tarhi yathavad eva vilikhyate. 'Srila Sridhara Svami is a perfect Vaisnava. But to entice the Advaita-vadis - nowadays prominent all over Madhya-desa and other parts of the country - to become absorbed in the glories of the Supreme Lord, he mixed some traces of their theories into his writings.'


4 Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Antya-lila 7.115 and 132-136, translation by Srila Prabhupada. Following is the original Bengali text:


prabhu hasi' kahe,--'svami na mane yei jana / vesyara bhitare tare kariye ganana'"..."sridhara-svami nindi' nija-tika kara! / sridhara-svami nahi mana',--eta 'garva' dhara!"sridhara-svami-prasade 'bhagavata' jani / jagad-guru sridhara-svami 'guru' kari' mani"sridhara-upare garve ye kichu likhibe / 'artha-vyasta' likhana sei, loke na manibe"sridharera anugata ye kare likhana / saba loka manya kari' karibe grahana


5 purvataro 'nadir isvarah sakha 'dva suparna' iti sruteh. samna priya-vakyena sambodhayan.


6 Mundaka Upanisad 3.1.1, Svetasvatara Upanisad 4.6.


7 Rg Veda Samhita 1.164.20.


8 sva-guru-viraha-vyakuli-bhava-dasayam iva sisyasya bhagavad-darsanam syad iti dyotayati.


9 tatreti purvataro 'nadir isvarah sakha 'dva suparna' ity-adi sruteh.


10 brahmano brahmana-vesa-dhariti saksat sviya-svarupa-darsanam premna vina na bhavatiti jnapayatiti smeti bhavah.


11 atma-van antar-acchani-krta-sva-svarupa-yuktah.