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Re: Fact or fiction?

From: Ramaswami Vasudevan (
Date: Mon Jan 19 1998 - 11:26:41 PST

-----Original Message-----
From: Mani Varadarajan <>
To: <>
Date: Sunday, January 18, 1998 7:23 PM
Subject: Re: Fact or fiction?

>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.