You are here: Sri Vaishnava Home Page : Bhakti List : Archives : January 1998

Re: Fact or fiction?

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_be.com)
Date: Sun Jan 18 1998 - 17:17:58 PST

I think there is a large middle ground between
being an "idiot who engages in materialistic 
activity", to quote a correspondent, and believing
that every aspect of our shastras are literal,
physically accurate truths, that every good
Vaishnava must believe.  

I for one squarely feel that I fall in this
large middle ground, and with reasonable 
justification.  Let me explain my position.

It is naturally difficult for people not attuned
to the Indian cultural background to relate to,
let alone accept, our stories of a woman having
60,000 sons (Sagara's wife), a ten-headed demon
flying around torturing people (Ravana), or God
descending upon this earth with four arms 
(Sri Krishna).  I don't think they should be
condemned for this -- it is obviously hard to
accept without reservation.

It is also hard to accept the opinions of ancient
Puranas and Itihasas which contradict our basic 
experience and undisputable scientific knowledge.
Rama is said to have been born in Treta yuga, which
according to traditional calculations occurred more
than a million years ago.  No archeological evidence
can back such a date up.  There is enough
evidence that a great king named Rama once ruled
from Ayodhya to make that an acceptable fact, but
pushing it back more than 3000 years ago is very
difficult scientifically and historically.

I think Mohan Sagar has partially addressed this
issue by saying that one's beliefs regarding these
things are personal, and that our own tradition 
does not require an absolute literal belief in
all these amazing stories.

However, I wish to go even further.  My opinion is
that while all the stories in our shastras are TRUE, 
they are not all FACT.  This is an important distinction
that prevents us from falling into the camp of 
irrational fundamentalism, such as what plagues 
Christianity today.  I think it is important for us
as Vaishnavas to accept the Truth of the Lord's 
descents as Rama, Krishna, Vamana, etc.; but insisting
on the literal factuality of the details of the 
avatAra is unwarranted, and in fact, our sampradAya
does not demand it.

When I say that these events are "True", I believe
that they contain deep philosophical and emotional
Truths that are very important for us to understand
and enjoy, and that they _may_ be historically true.  
There is always a certain amount of figurative description
in the writing of our rishis; Ramanuja time and time
again talks about this when he comments on the Vedanta.
This, however, in no way detracts from our ability
to appreciate and _enjoy_ Rama, Krishna, and even
Vamana as much as we can.

To explain further -- of what use are the avatAras
to us? What use are Rama, Krishna, Narasimha, or
Trivikrama to us today? If we worry all the time 
about the details of their historicity but don't 
insatiably enjoy their greatness, boy have we missed
the boat.  

Our authority for accepting the Truth of the avatAras 
are that our Alvars and Acharyas were able to enjoy Rama 
and Krishna even as they lived, through their own and 
others poetry, or just by meditating on their wondrous 
nature.  We have evidence that Rama and Krishna can be 
enjoyed; the Alvars have proven that, and the Alvars 
were living, breathing creatures.  Need we worry about
anything more? 

When I read and contemplate upon Valimiki Maharishi's
description of Rama's interlude with Guha just before 
he goes to the forest, I am not at all focussed on whether 
this is even historically true.  I have, in my surreal 
world, accepted Rama as having incarnated to grace all 
his bhaktas, and all I care about is trying to appreciate 
Rama's relationship to Guha, and how more kalyANa-guNas 
(supremely perfect attributes) he so vividly shows.

Does it matter in the end if someone proved to
me that Rama did not live in Ayodhya, but in 
Madras? Absolutely not.  Because my enjoyment
of Rama is based on what Valmiki Maharishi 
experienced, what Kulasekhara Alvar experienced,
what Andal experienced -- not the absolute 
factual details of the avatAra.

I think our faith (maha-viSvAsa) should be in
the Truth of these avatAras.  When Rama extends
his assurance of protection to everyone ("sakRd
eva prapannAya"), our Acharyas are amazed and
overcome with emotion that such a God could 
actually exist, and experienced the utmost bliss
meditating on this.  Does it matter when and where
Rama actually said this? 

Does it matter whether _factually speaking_ the Lord
as Vamana actually became a huge giant and measured
the three worlds? To me, no, because in my own
surreal imagination, it is completely TRUE, and
enjoyable -- and this Truth is further confirmed by 
knowing that the Alvars derived great satisfaction
and blissful peace meditating on Vamana's measuring the
worlds. Their amazement is my amazement; their love 
is my love (though to a far lesser degree, due to my 
own shortcomings!)

Our sampradAya focusses time and time again on this
_experience_ of Divinity, and not mere words.  In other
words, the Ramayana and other shastras do not just
import philosophical truths; they allow us to enjoy
God in so many more ways than if we did not have them.

So my point is, let's not worry, nor insist on the
actual _historicity_ of our fantastic stories that
originated in a period shrouded in the recesses of
time.  Let us enjoy God as the rishis asked us to
through the Truth of these stories.

adiyEn Mani

P.S. Vedanta, particularly as interpreted by Ramanuja,
is explicit that when the sastras contradict our direct
experience (i.e., our senses and scientific data), the
sastras have to be reinterpreted to agree with our
experience (pratyaksha).  In fact, it is Sankaracharya's
advaita philosophy that believes the opposite! We can
discuss this further if anyone wishes.