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Re: Fact or fiction?

From: Krishna Susarla (krishna_at_ticnet.com)
Date: Tue Apr 28 1998 - 13:16:56 PDT

From: Nachu Anbil <Nutech@ix.netcom.com>


>Dear friends,
>As I was browsing the postings during my absence, I came across an
>interesting discussion on whether the episodes occuring in our Itihasas
>and Puranas could be fact or mere fiction.
>
>It was precisely on this subject that I wrote a book entitled "Myths,
>Miracles and Mysticism in Hinduism". Based on a rave review  by
>independent readers, the material was accepted for publication
>simultaneously in USA, UK and Scotland by one of the leading publishers.


Hare Krishna!

I believe it was Parthasarathi Dileepan who brought up this very important
subject so long ago. I remember wanting to say something about it at that
time, but school-related duties got in the way (as they often do), and I let
it be at the time.

But since the subject has come up again, I thought I might offer a few
words, for whatever they are worth. Basically, Sri Partha's concern was that
it is already difficult enough to teach Vaishnava principles to the younger
generation, many of whom were raised in an environment centered around
secular ideals and the scientific method. To such people, it is often
difficult to accept the many fantastic stories which are found in the
puraaNa-s and itihaasa-s because many of these stories cannot be reconciled
with what we know from our experience is possible. Is it therefore easier to
teach them these stories as if they were mythologies constructed to
illustrate some philosophical point? Indeed, is there really any other way
to pass on these stories?

First of all, regardless of our concerns about how to pass on these stories
to skeptics, we should realize that the itihaasa-s and puraaNa-s are in fact
compilations of actual, historical events. Regardless of what me must or
must not do to teach them to others, this is still the fact. Orthodox
Vaishnavas (by which I refer to those who take diksha from a qualified guru,
who practice the principles, etc) generally accept them as such. And the
itihaasa/puraaNa present these stories as factual. Some might argue that
they are mythologies and that in spite of this, we can still accept them as
scripture. But if any scripture were to mislead us in such a blatant
fashion, then it would seem obvious to me that it certainly isn't a
scripture worth following.

Then the concern might be centered around how best to accept puraaNic
stories, many of which teach us about things which are beyond the realm of
our experience. But our experience is based on what we observe through our
limited, material senses. Even the gross materialist will acknowledge that
the senses are limited, faulty, and easily fooled. The whole point of
accepting shaastra as authority is to learn about those things which are
beyond the realm of material sense perception. If one objects to puraaNa as
an authority based on the supramundane events described therein, one would
have to object to the shrutis on the same basis, since they too speak of
things which are not always reconciled with our limited mundane senses.

Finally, one might question how it is possible to teach these histories to a
class of people who will reject them based on their Westernized upbringing.
How can the younger generation take these stories seriously unless we teach
them as if they are mythologies constructed to illustrate some profound
spiritual point? I was born and raised in the USA, and so I think in many
ways I know how members of this "younger generation" think and feel. In
spite of being brought up in this secular society, I eventually rejected the
"allegorical-interpretation" view, or in other words the speculation that
puraaNic stories are simply fabrications by various great sages. There were
numerous reasons for this. First of all, I became aware of the fact that
many of the Hindu swamis who promoted this view were of highly dubious
character (such as meat-eating and so on). Secondly, I came to realize that
I had no real scientific basis for rejecting them as historical events. To
be perfectly honest, my initial assumption that they were mythological
stories was simply based on a bias which held that only those things which
could be reproduced and observed by the material senses could be true. Now
any intelligent person can see that such a perspective makes any concept of
truth extremely transitory, as our ability to observe things with the senses
changes based on the availability of technology. So holding everything to a
strictly empirical standard makes for a very dull, myopic, and constantly
changing view of reality.

When all is said and done, I think that you can't really force youngsters to
accept the validity of the itihaasa/puraaNa (especially since young people
tend to do the exact opposite of what they are expected to do). The only
thing you can do is to get them to examine their own biases and make them
realize that they are by no means scientific. If you can get them to this
point, I think that they will come around when they meet Vaishnavas who are
relishing these stories and living a very pious and honorable life.

At least for me, I certainly felt that when I abandoned the "mythology"
speculation and began to accept these scriptures as they are, it renewed my
interest in learning them and taking very seriously the messages they were
meant to impart to us.

your servant,

-- H. Krishna Susarla