History is Bunk
Rishikesh is dressed up for Diwali. All the shops in the downtown area have brightly colored awnings and tables of goods spread out in front. Especially popular are firecrackers, which every other shop is selling. Puja paraphernalia, muri and pera, and of course sweets are piled on high like harbingers of the Anna-kuta festival, which follows on the next day.
Some of the side streets are cordoned off to car traffic, though a few scooters and motorcycles are still aggressively honking their way through the crowds. The mood is festive and Indian Christmassy. Colored and twinkling light garlands are draped on many houses, very elaborately in some cases.
Unexpectedly quiet, too, with the exception of firecrackers. I would barely have registered that it was Diwali if I hadn't had to go to Madhuban on Sunday. And it turns out I did not really have to. Rupa Goswami Das text messaged to say that the devotees would all be busy preparing Govardhan Puja so the class was cancelled. I didn't get the message on time, however, and since five or six people still showed up, I gave the class anyway.
The subject was Gita 4.1. As you probably know, this verse states the parampara of the Gita: Krishna spoke to Vivaswan in a previous incarnation, Vivaswan spoke to Manu and Manu to Ikshvaku. After reading Srila Prabhupada's lengthy purport, I realized that this is one of those points of irreparable difference I have from the current version of popular Vaishnavism that was started up by Srila Prabhupada.
That did not stop me from embarking on what I consider to be an essential bit of knowledge that will take the devotee out of the kaniṣṭha stage and into a higher realm of understanding of spiritual life and the nature of the Divine Truth.
To be honest, I quite recognize that bhakti is independent of jnana and that perhaps such things as relative truth of history in this world, i.e., what believes happened or did not happen in the past, are fairly irrelevant when it comes to practicing pure bhakti. However, when attempting to make bhakti cogent to people in the world today, we have to come to grips with the concepts of history and myth.
Basically, when a text tells us, "This really happened," its purpose is to strengthen our faith in some message. If such assertions end up weakening that faith, then we have to deal with it as myth. In order to do that, we need to deal with the concept of myth intelligently.
I started my class by quoting Henry Ford, "History is bunk." I know I have said this before, and believe me, from what I know of Henry Ford, who was something of a committed Fascist, racist, Anti-semite and what-have-you, it takes a little audacity on my part to quote him. And I probably don't even mean it in the same way he did. So let's just take the words and interpret them in our own fashion.
Since I am a little bit of a historian myself, I have come to recognize the sheer foolishness of trying to adequately interpret the historical record or to reshape it when it has become distorted, even when evidence seems to point us clearly in the right direction.
The historical controversies in Gaudiya Vaishnavism--the identity and career of Prabodhananda, the history of the first post-Chaitanya generation, the connection to the Madhva sampradaya, the character of the disciplic succession, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati's own relation to his father and his father's guru, etc.--all these things and more are areas in which one can bring down evidence galore to little avail, for people believe what they want to, and those who are in a position to present their particular propaganda to a large enough group generally create "the official version of history," which then becomes unquestioned and unquestionable. Saying or thinking anything different becomes an act of treason, a breaking of faith.
Needless to say, any faith that breaks so easily is what Bhaktivinoda Thakur called komala-śraddhā and is the characteristic of the kaniṣṭha adhikārī. Unfortunately, when people criticize religion in general, it is these kaniṣṭha adhikārīs who give a bad name to the rest of spiritual practitioners in general.
On the whole, they fight a permanent rearguard action to protect their fledgling faith behind walls of ignorance, condemned to either lose their faith or to become totally obnoxious in its defense. So let us just say that too much coddling of kaniṣṭhas with absolute assurances of the truthfulness of particular versions of history, i.e., myths in the name of history, is ultimately counterproductive. Such addictions to "truthiness" keep one boxed in on the kaniṣṭha stage.
As far as I am concerned, however, no matter how well documented it may be, history has the inevitable tendency to become transmogrified into myth. That is due to the very nature of time itself. We live in the present--to say someone lives in the past or the future is to say that they live in the mind. The mind is the only locus of the past. And the mind shapes data in ways that suit the individual psychology, the individual and collective unconscious. We are selective in what we choose to know and what we choose to know about it.
In my class, I started giving many examples of how history fails us--Ashoka was all but forgotten in India until the Ashoka stambhas were discovered and deciphered. What great civilizations of the past have disappeared under the sands of time like the empire of Ozymandias? And what will remain of our own vain epoch in another millennium?
There is no better proof of this than our memories of our own lives. Anyone who thinks that his own life story, as he himself tells it, is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is simply lying to himself.
Some people really think that Barack Obama is the Antichrist spoken of in the Book of Revelations. Others have a more benign mythological view of history as it develops, and whatever this understanding is, it guides their personality development and their actions, private or public.
And if we have a heightened sense of "scientific historicity" in the post-Enlightenment Age, has not Marxist critique, what to speak of Modernism and Post-Modernism, disabused us of any dogmatic approach to historical truth? And if that can said of us with our huge presidential libraries and libraries of Congress, what does it say for the Puranic and Epic material of India, which at best provides us with vague laundry lists of names from kingly dynasties descended from the Sun or Moon, with the occasional anecdote, and wild numbers like the magical "5000 years ago."
Or, as Prabhupada has it in his purport, stated with unambiguous certitude, "[A] rough estimate is that the Gita was spoken at least 120,400,000 years ago; and in human society it has been extant for two million years.... The mundane wranglers may speculate on the Gita in their own ways, but that is not Bhagavad-gita as it is. Therefore, Bhagavad-gita has to be accepted as it is, from the disciplic succession..." (page 193, Indian edition, 2007 printing).
The point is this: Did it really happen or not? And did it happen in the way the story is told? Almost certainly not. Then if it is not historically true, if it never happened, then what value does it have? What meaning does it have for us?
The fact is that everything that is in the past exists only in the mind, either individual or collective, and that this memory is selective and unreliable. But the next question is: We pride ourselves on being realists; isn't it said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it? And if our perception of the past is clouded by mythologies, then won't we become rudderless in our dealings with the future? Isn't this itself the lesson, for example, of the last eight years of American history?
Well, for the past eight years of American history, we could just as easily look to the tragedies of ancient Greece and the downfall produced by hubris. Indeed, the novel could be seen to be just as insightful into understanding human experience as any historical account. The two genres almost blend seamlessly into various mythical accounts of reality. We perceive reality through myth, whether we decorate that myth with attempts at accurate portrayal of fact or through prejudice, or through rasa, i.e., just plain good human stories.
So let us return to faith. If the Bhagavad Gita is not a true story of an avatar of God who comes in every age to save the innocent and punish the guilty, to establish the principles of religion, speaking to his friend and disciple Arjuna, then what is left? Anything at all?
Let us start by understanding the Gita as an elaborate allegory based on the Upanishadic metaphor:
buddhiṁ tu sārathiṁ viddhi manaḥ pragraham eva ca
indriyāṇi hayāny āhur viṣayāṁs teṣu gocarān
ātmendriya-mano-yuktaṁ bhoktety āhur manīṣiṇaḥ ||4||
Know that the self is the warrior in the chariot, the body is the chariot. The intelligence is the chariot driver and the mind his rein. The senses are the horses, and the path they travel is made of the sense objects. The enjoyer [of the fruits of action] is the soul, equipped with mind and senses. (Katha Upanishad 1.3.3-4)Arjuna is everyman, and Krishna is the divine intelligence and inner guide. The dharma-kṣetra is the field of duty, the kuru-kṣetra the field of "DO IT." Read the Gita in this way, and every time you hear the word buddhi, may a light go on in your head. And when you hear the words sarva-dharmān parityajya, hear, "Think for yourself!! Listen to the revelation of God from within. Then decide what to do."
The Gita is partly in time, partly outside. If we have a general idea of history, we can contextualize some of it--to critiques of Buddhism, Sankhya, Yoga; we can think of the Gita as a synthesis of all the above. But essential it is about the goal of liberation, which is to become a true individual, a unique servant of God.
The truth of the Gita's message, its staying power, is NOT a result of its historical truth, or the historical truth as given in the Gita itself. Its power stands on its ability to enlighten people through the ages on the nature of the human condition and the purpose of human life and how to attain it. Turning it into an idol by venerating it as an object dilutes and distorts its message.
What is interesting here, however, is that when we parse the symbols or the allegory and reduce it to concrete meanings, does the text lose its numinosity, its sacred power? The answer is a resounding no. As long as the text is alive, invested with the power to create saints (as well as fanatic zealots), as long as it is a locus for studying and appreciating the questions of Divine Truth, a center for the evolution of Humankind's understanding of itself, it remains a throbbing heart of revelation--even if we may bracket portions here and there as irrelevant (which is what people have done since time immemorial anyway!).
In the same way, we must become sāragrāhīs on every aspect of Vaishnavism. We should not be afraid of the word myth. Myth does not mean a lie. There are truer and falser myths. Find the myth that speaks to you, and you will find that truth is its core. Finding out that it is a myth will simply be one of the steps to learning that truth.
God does not cease being true because a myth failed the test of historicity. Nor does God cease having a form, attributes, līlā or dhāma. But that is a discussion for another day.