Professor Alton L. Becker is Associate Professor of Linguistics and Director of the Center for South and Southeastern Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He recently invited His Holiness Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami, the Editor of Back to Godhead, to address a meeting of the faculty and. students of the Center. This is a record of that event.
Professor Becker: When I first informed members of the faculty that I was inviting a Hare Krishna devotee to speak at our meeting, the response was negative. I think that often our view of the Krishna consciousness movement is one bordering perhaps on annoyance, or a feeling that these people are interlopers in a field that we properly academically control. And I think it’s a loss, a tremendous loss, for our university and ourselves that the devotional side, the bhakti side, of knowledge or wisdom is something we have rejected in our university traditions for thousands of years. That we should be dispassionate, detached and sort of impersonal about learning, particularly learning of the eastern religions, has been almost a presupposition of every course and every class in college.
Many of us feel that this divorcing of the personal or devotional from learning, from wisdom, is a bad thing. And so I think we have a great deal to learn about the religions of India from people who have taken a direct, more involved and, I think, more complete and total approach to the things we read about in books.
We have with us today Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami and two other devotees who have come from Madison, Wisconsin, at my invitation to speak to us about the Krishna consciousness movement. I thought what we would do today is to let them give an introduction to what they are doing and then open up the meeting to questions. And so without taking any more time, let me turn the hour over to Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Thank you very much, Professor Becker.
Our movement stands on the authority of the Vedic literature, which of course is studied in universities throughout the world. I am going from university to university, talking to professors and showing them our books, so I am also learning about the academic approach Professor Becker described. But we understand that the real scholars of Vedic literature are its original compiler and the acaryas [teachers] who come in what is called the disciplic succession. These Vedic scriptures, like the Vedas, Upanisads, Vedanta-sutra, Bhagavad-gita and Bhagavata Purana, were enunciated, according to the evidence we get from the books themselves, by God, or the Absolute Truth. They are not ordinary literature. Of course, they can be studied for language, history, philosophy or religion-but what do they actually mean, aside from different interpretations?
Our approach is to give great respect to the acaryas themselves, the compilers of the Vedic literature, for being very clear-headed and complete in their presentation. We want to know what they have to say. We want to appreciate it without making our own interpretation.
This position actually has the greatest integrity. As Professor Becker was saying, bhakti is sometimes accused of not having integrity. This is what I meet when I show people Bhagavad-gita. They say, “I can’t use that Bhagavad-gita because it says that Krishna is God and that one should approach Him as the supreme authority. Now, there are many other interpretations, and if I present this one to my students, I may be accused of some kind of religious sectarianism.”
Some professors, however, are more academically astute. I have been inspired to talk with Professor Dimock of the University of Chicago, who has written the introduction to Swami Bhaktivedanta’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. He says that our approach, which is a forceful presentation of bhakti, is perfectly legitimate. Not only is it perfectly legitimate-it is the purport of the Vedic literature. An actual scholar of the Vedic literature must know how to understand these books from the original scholars. In Bhagavad-gita [4.2] Krishna says:
He gives the key to understanding this book. “The science of yoga,” the Lord says, “was taught and passed down in a disciplic succession of teachers, and the saintly kings understood it in that way.” In other words, the teachings are meant for society’s leaders, so that they may train themselves in spiritual life and pass this knowledge down for the benefit of everyone. “But in the course of time,” Krishna continues, “the succession was broken, and now I am passing this knowledge on to you.” Thus in Bhagavad-gita Arjuna, the disciple, becomes another recipient of this knowledge, and in the next verse Krishna states why: “Because you are My devotee and friend.” It is this devotion to Krishna that makes one a Scholar of the Vedic literature.
So who are these original scholars? I am talking about liberated souls such as Vyasadeva, the compiler of almost all the Sanskrit scriptures, and Narada Muni, and great sages (rsis) like Lord Brahma and Lord Siva. We may consider all these people mythological, but why not simply try to see what they are presenting?
Because people are suffering in material life, limited by birth, death, disease and old age, great sages, out of compassion, have presented this literature whereby one can understand himself as eternal and free himself of all the inebrieties connected with the material body. This is the purpose of the Vedic literature. So we want to Study the language, grammar and history minutely, but to this end: to appreciate how this literature can solve the problems of life.
In addition to sages like Vyasa and Narada Muni, we consult more recent sages like Madhva Acarya, Ramanuja Acarya and Lord Caitanya, who have transmitted the meaning of the Vedic literature through an authorized disciplic succession. But people who know next to nothing about the disciplic succession more or less irreverently poke into the Vedic literatures, especially Bhagavad-gita. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi made a commentary on Bhagavad-gita to put forward his philosophy of ahimsa, nonviolence. But to do that is rather difficult because Bhagavad-gita is taught on a battlefield, with Krishna urging Arjuna to tight. The first verse begins, dharma-ksetre kuru-ksetre. Kuruksetra is the place where the battle occurred. It’s a place in India, and you can go there even today. But Gandhi says that kuru-ksetra means “the body.” Then the five Pandava brothers are mentioned. Gandhi says they represent the five senses. His idea, of course, is that the battle did not actually happen. But we take it from Krishna Himself that Kuruksetra is an actual place where a real battle was fought. This is called the direct meaning, in contrast to the indirect meanings like Gandhi’s.
Of course, the bhakta (devotee), the impersonalist and the so-called objective grammarian and historian all have in common the quest for knowledge. I spoke with one graduate student majoring in East Asian studies at the University of Minneapolis. I asked him, “Why are you studying this? What are you preparing for by studying?” He answered that he was not studying to make money or prepare for an occupation; the main reason was to get knowledge. Simply because the knowledge is worthwhile, it should be studied.
This pure attitude is very nice. The objective is not grossly materialistic-not to study so that in ten years one will be making so much money. The study itself is worthwhile.
So what is that knowledge? The Vedas teach us that a person is not the material body. We have to enter this area of Absolute Truth if we are actually to talk about knowledge.
In Bhagavad-gita [7.19], real knowledge is described:
bahunam janmanam ante
jnanavan mam prapadyate
vasudevah sarvam iti
sa mahatma su-durlabhah
Real knowledge is knowledge of the Absolute Truth, the transcendental source of everything, which is beyond all speculation. The Vedanta-sutra begins this inquiry. Athato brahma-jijnasa: “What is the Absolute Truth?” The next code states, janmady asya yatah: “The Absolute Truth is that from which everything is coming.” Outside the university or inside, if you can find that Absolute Truth—whether by research, by chanting or by reading books-if you can understand where everything is coming from, who you are, and how you are different from the material world, then your knowledge is perfect.
We should not study Vedic culture as if it were a collection of quaint tribal customs, thinking, “They perform their death-rites like this, and they have this strange belief about God and the supernatural.” Rather, each of us requires knowledge of his own position. I who am studying this book—what is my solution to death? The Vedic literature teaches us how to be free of death. The Vedas actually give us information, as human beings, how to realize our blissful transcendental nature.
In stressing this aspect, the translations and commentaries of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada have been appreciated by such an esteemed scholar as Professor Dimock to be actually hitting the nail on the head. We want to cooperate with scholars and educators in distributing some of these books to serious students. This spring, the University of Minnesota is offering a course called “Krishna Through the Ages.” Of course, the professor, Dr. Tapp, takes the approach that Krishna is someone mythical, but at least the man appreciates that our Krishna Book is a very strong presentation of Krishna as someone real. And students will see that this is a dynamic presentation, not another dead study. Therefore Professor Tapp is using this book as required reading, and he also wants to include The Nectar of Devotion, a summary study of a famous book by Rupa Gosvami, a disciple of Lord Caitanya, about the science of bhakti.
I spoke to another professor at the University of Minnesota, Professor Kopf, who is studying Vedic literature from a historical point of view. He is very perplexed because according to archaeological records there was no society further back than three thousand years ago; yet Bhagavad-gita, according to Lord Krishna, dates back much further. So he took other books, but he was doubtful about Bhagavad-gita. But when I got to Chicago and met Professor Dimock, he said that this professor had called him up and asked, “What about this Bhagavad-gita by Swami Bhaktivedanta?” And he said, “Yes, it’s excellent. You should take it.”
We are not money-making book publishers, nor are we sectarian religionists trying to bring prayer books to people. That may have some value, but we are teaching knowledge of a higher value than the sentimental or sectarian. We are therefore presenting a humble plea for scholars and educators to examine our books seriously and try to use them to promote a proper understanding of what Vedic literature actually is.
Our meeting is short, if there are any questions, we would like to discuss them.
Question: There is a part of the mythical body of literature about Krishna in the Mahabharata where He is a ksatriya [warrior] and assists the Pandavas by rather tricky means. People therefore sometimes question Krishna’s character. I was wondering if you thought these things preceded the development of Krishna as a prophet.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Just see. You have one understanding—that Krishna is devious, practically immoral- but I have the understanding that Krishna is all good and that He is actually the God of the Jewish, Christian and Mohammedan religions. Of course, we have different teachers. You have read some books, but I can only tell you the version I have heard from my spiritual master in disciplic succession. That is the version of Krishna Himself and the version of the acaryas within the Vedic culture. According to them, interpretations considering Krishna an ordinary human being or mythical hero have no importance.
When I was in England last summer, a famous professor, Professor Zaehner of Oxford University, gave a talk there in which he said that Krishna is immoral. He cited some murderer, Charles Manson, and said that he was following Krishna’s teachings. This kind of talk is actually very offensive to one who follows Bhagavad-gita. But you are also asking why Krishna was on a battlefield-a scene of violence-and advocating violence.
For the answer, you have to go to Mahabharata. But one should also understand that Krishna is an avatara: He is the Absolute Truth personified, not an ordinary person. When He comes into the material world, He may act as a ksatriya, but He is not within the conditioning of this material world. And when He does something, no one is affected for evil. For instance, when Krishna killed or Arjuna killed under Krishna’s direction, whoever was personally killed in that way gained eternal liberation to the spiritual world. Moreover, the battle was arranged just to annihilate miscreants. Krishna says, “I come in age after age to annihilate the miscreants.” At the time of the Battle of Kuruksetra, the Pandavas had been thrown out of their rightful kingdom by Duryodhana and his brothers, and Krishna wanted Arjuna to fight for the throne and justly rule the people. It was not a political war like those nowadays.
You ask why Krishna was using tricky means. Once Krishna asked His devotee Yudhisthira to lie to Dronacarya by saying that his son was dead because He knew that this would discourage Dronacarya. Yudhisthira at first hesitated. He said, “I can’t tell a lie; I am a moral man.” But actually authorities have analyzed that this somewhat diminished his stature as a truly moral man because he was hesitating to follow instructions from the Personality of Godhead. Krishna is the all-good Personality of Godhead, and whatever He does is for the ultimate liberation of those with whom He comes in contact. If you consider Him an ordinary man, you cannot understand Him. He Himself says this in Bhagavad-gita:
avajananti mam mudha
manusim tanum asritam
param bhavam ajananto
“Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” [Bg. 9.11]
Question: You have quoted repeatedly from Sanskrit. Does Bhagavad-gita translate effectively into English?
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Yes. The Krishna conscious devotees are all learning Bhagavad-gita, and yet we are not Sanskrit scholars. But the teachings have been so effective that we have completely taken to this way of life. I was just talking to a very nice English professor here, Sheridan Baker, who is helping us edit our Back to Godhead magazine. He was talking about Thoreau and Walden. We noted that Thoreau had great appreciation for Bhagavad-gita. Emerson also appreciated it, and so did Einstein. There have also been many others who appreciated it. But no one became a devotee of Krishna until these English translations by Swami Bhaktivedanta and his personal demonstration of devotion to Krishna. So his translations have been very effective. There are now thousands of Krishna conscious devotees.
Question: Do you, in your activities, ever have to face a believing Chirstian?
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: A believing Christian? Very rarely. We very rarely meet any believing Christians. [laughter]
Question: I didn’t mean to be cynical about Christianity. I just meant that you base your religion on the idea that these texts reveal the truth. Now the question has to arise in arguing with a Christian why you believe these texts reveal the truth and not their texts. And my question is how you would answer that.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Well, the explanation our spiritual master has given is that not only the Bible but the Koran and all bona fide scriptures differ according to three different principles-time, place and the persons taught. An expert religionist can make the adjustments. For example, in the Mohammedan religion there is an injunction that no man should sleep with his mother. So we understand that since this was being stressed, the people must have been very degraded; they must have been doing that. Also, “Thou shalt not kill.” Only murderers need to be advised not to do it. So the Absolute Truth is contained in all scriptures, but there are different levels of spiritual culture and information about what God is. The example is given that a small pocket dictionary and an unabridged dictionary are both valid, but the unabridged dictionary has more. So if one wants to know more than “God is great,” he can consult the Vedic literature. But if a student, say a fourth-grade arithmetic student, criticizes, “Oh, in calculus they are learning all sorts of nonsense that we never learned about,” then he is wrong.
Question: What the Christian claims precisely is that his Bible is above your scripture, and my question is how you argue with him about the idea that yours is above his.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: We don’t get much description of the Personality of Godhead from the Bible. The Christian does not know much about the nature of the spiritual world or the activities there or how to engage in bhakti-yoga. But that is elaborately described in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Question: I have read that in fact the Krishna conscious movement has cornered the incense market and is starting real estate speculation in New York. Now do those profits go down to the members, or where is the profit going? You said you weren’t money-making and you weren’t book publishing, but you seem to be in book publishing, and I have read that in fact there is a lot of money-making going on. I was just interested in who handles that.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Where is all the money going? We are spending it all. We just put in a printing order for over $500,000 worth of books; we are always printing books. Our members don’t receive any salaries. There is not someone off in India or Monte Carlo who has all the Krishna money and is living it up. The money is being spent for our projects—for buildings, for our active food distribution program in India in our Mayapur, Bombay and Calcutta centers, and mainly for printing books. We distribute our books practically at what they cost us, and whatever profit we make goes back into producing more books.
We are a very book conscious society. We feel that the most effective way to spread this truth is to present it in literature. In New York we are trying to buy a building to use as a headquarters. We are not speculating, looking for land to make money. But, nevertheless, money-making is all right, provided it is in Krishna’s service. There is one impersonalist philosopher who is said to have been so detached from material life that if anyone offered him money, as an automatic reflex his hand would turn away from it. But if you offer a Vaisnava (devotee) money, he will at once take it; and if you give him a million dollars, he will come back the next day to ask for more. Because he sees that everything is Krishna’s energy and should be engaged in Krishna’s service.
Question: Do you have some distinction between laymen and non-laymen?
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: Yes. To become a formal disciple, one must follow four rules: no meat eating, no illicit sex, no gambling and no intoxication. If one does that, and if he also chants the Hare Krishna maha-mantra a certain minimum number of times daily, he is considered a “Hare Krishna person.”
Question: I am not very concerned about the money aspect of it. You were speaking before about a humble plea for knowledge, and I feel very good about that. But the aspect of your group that most of us see on the street is considerably more pushy and considerably more offensive to me, and I would consider that a betrayal of what you are doing. Yet that is presumably done within the same organization.
Satsvarupa dasa Gosvami: We support those boys and girls who are out all day distributing books. They are very great workers. You are appreciating our humble presentation, but our presentation is inferior to theirs. Theirs will have more effect. They distribute so many books, and they are so selfless—they don’t keep any profit.
This is a Vedic tradition. Formerly a disciple spent from morning to night collecting something for the spiritual master, and at night he would just lie down on the floor and take a little rice and think that austerity was nice. Now, of course, the public is not interested in giving alms for a spiritual cause. But even though society is so materialistic, the devotees are out there, and all I can ask is that you forgive these disciples if you are offended by them, because actually they have no intent other than to give you this knowledge and call attention to it. Humanity is generally asleep, and they are trying to distribute this knowledge. It’s their only desire. And if you can take a book or talk with them, you will see they are not actually offensive people; they are very nice. They are more humble than our formal presentation because they are doing more to spread actual spiritual culture than you in your classroom or me talking here. They have dedicated themselves to spreading Krishna consciousness in the American culture. That’s very brave of them. One can go door to door in India, and just by seeing a devotee in saffron, people will offer respect. But we wear saffron and-just the opposite. Yet rather than be frustrated and retire, the devotees have persisted. And many people, when they stop and understand what’s happening, like seeing devotees in the street persistently chanting and trying to distribute these books. If it were a bogus movement, if it were something harmful, then it would be offensive. But they are not cheating anyone. Their understanding is that everything belongs to Krishna, and they are trying to get something or someone into the service of Krishna again.