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Historicity of Puraanic stories (was re: Vedic evolution)

From: Krishna Susarla (krishna_at_tumora.swmed.edu)
Date: Wed May 19 1999 - 17:04:03 PDT

>Where does this leave Rama, Krishna, etc.? I have expressed my ideas
>on this subject, and the unimportance of the exact dating of the
>avatAras in a previous article (see
> http://www.ramanuja.org/sv/bhakti/archives/jan98/0098.html ).
>I agree with Sri Venkat Nagarajan's statement that trying to prove the
>dating, the exact historicity, etc., simply misses the point of the
>avatAras. Rama and Krishna are meant to be *enjoyed* -- this is the
>verdict of our Alvars and acharyas.  Their lives are entirely TRUE. We
>may differ on the details, but this should not of any significant
>concern to us. Much is symbolic, much factual, but nothing should stop
>us from enjoying Rama, Krishna, et al irrespective of any of this.

When you say that "much is symbolic" regarding the avataaras, I think it
only reasonable to ask if you are strictly speaking according to the Sri
Vaishnava view as explained by the acharyas, or perhaps making compromises
with what is empirically known to us at this time. I don't mean to assail
you, but it appears from the article above that you take issue with many
details from our scriptures. Quoting from your article:

"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."

and

"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."

Now, I don't mean to condemn those devotees who cannot literally accept
everything that is described in shaastra regarding the Lord's descent.
Certainly, some belief is better than no belief. However, I can't help but
notice a trend: it's hard to believe that Raama could have appeared in the
beginning of Treta Yuga, because that was too long ago to be supported by
archaeologic or historic evidence. It is hard to believe that Sagara's wife
could have 60,000 sons, because no one in our experience could have so many
children. It's hard to believe that there could be a ten-headed demon named
Raavana because this does not seem possible according to our experience.
It's hard to believe that the Lord could descend on Earth with four arms,
etc. You get the idea. The message you seem to be endorsing is that whenever
scripture tells us something that does not agree with what we think is
possible, belief is optional. This has two problems as I see it.

1) It lends more credibility to our direct perception and deductive
capacities independent of shaastra than is warranted. There is no reason for
us to believe that our expectations of what is and is not possible today
would hold true always, especially when in regards to the Lord's descent.
*He* certainly need not act according to our limited ideas of what is and is
not correct. Furthermore, we can't always assume that we know everything
about what is possible based on what we have observed, since our senses are
limited. Even a scientist is bound by his ideals to consider possibilities
outside his experience, even though many scientists sadly do not.

2) It calls into question the validity of the sources which tell us of the
Lord's descents. Imagine a sage so advanced in vision that he could actually
see the Lord's divine forms and write thousands of shlokas describing His
activities.... yet he couldn't even get the dates right!? If sage Vaalmiiki
said that Raama appeared in Treta Yuga, and that Treta Yuga began 2 million
years ago, then either that is correct or it is false. There is no reason to
give an incorrect date in the name of figurative expression, because such
incorrect information does nothing to enhance the Lord's glories. And if we
start taking issue with details like dates, places, appearances, etc, then
why shouldn't we also take issue with other episodes like Hanumaan flying
over the ocean to Lanka, Raama killing 14,000 demons single-handedly, etc?
If there are some points in these scriptures which are not true, and
historicity is not important, then what is to stop us from interpreting the
rest of it as one big allegory (as some people do)? Nothing is sacred in
that case, belief being optional and dependent on what one is prepared to
accept on empirical grounds.

Let me bring up a relevant point for the sake of this discussion. If I argue
on the basis of say, the Kuurma Puraana, that Siitaa was never abducted by
Raavana, but rather it was an illusory representation or some other being,
how can you object? I'm not trying to resuscitate that thread; just bear
with me for the sake of this argument. The objection that Vaalmiiki never
spoke of a maayaa-Siitaa and thus we are required not to believe that, loses
force. Since we have already accepted that some of the details in
Vaalmiiki's writing are untrue or only figuratively true, it's easy to
believe that there are some things which he would not have written about (or
else he did not have the yogic vision/realization to perceive). Or maybe the
kidnapping of Siitaa was only figuratively true, and in reality only an
illusion was kidnapped. The objection that Siitaa was already touched and
abducted by another demon in the forest similarly loses force; that could
also be interpreted figuratively. Maybe she was not really abducted, but
rather the episode symbolizes Her fear of being abducted. Or maybe she was
just imagining that part.

I don't meant to sound facetious. I do acknowledge that there are some
puraanic narratives that are meant to be taken as allegories. I can name at
least one or two from the Bhaagavatam itself; but the crucial point is that
in those cases it is *obvious* from context that the narratives are
allegories. In other cases, such as the Raamaayanam, when we assume
something is allegory without explicit context clues to guide us, are we not
making a tremendous compromise? IMHO, it really cheapens the value of the
Hari-katha (and, by extension, our very concept of God) to say that the
stories are not historically true. If they are not historically true, then
in what sense are they true? If only some of it is true, why should I
believe the rest of it is? If you say the stories are only true because of
the deep, moral lessons they impart to us, then you tacitly acknowledge that
the events probably did not occur. Raama and Krishna and all other avataaras
and the liilas They displayed do not even enjoy as much objective reality as
the people I perceive around me!

If we start deciding for ourselves what is and is not real from the
shaastras, then we elevate ourselves to a higher position than the shaastras
themselves. In that case, why even bother consulting the shaastras in the
first place? Note that I am not accusing you specifically of endorsing such
resultant moral relativism. But I would like to point out that this kind of
degeneration is the end result of such logic, as I have observed time and
again among many Hindu youths. And I don't think that difficulty accepting
such stories is grounds for teaching them as allegorical; if the stories are
true, then they must be true regardless of what disbelieving Hindu youths
say.

Finally, if you say that the stories are true because the acharyas have
endorsed them, then that elevates the acharyas above the scriptures in which
those stories are told, does it not? In that case, we are brought down to
the logic of "my acharya is realized, and I accept this simply because he
said so." Again, one can only wonder why it is necessary to go to the
scriptures at all in that case.

I apologize if any of this came across as strongly-worded or offensive; such
was not my intent. But I think this is a very important and interesting
discussion, and I am interested in hearing your thoughts on all this. I
believe that when one begins making subtle compromises with his faith, the
sanctity of shaastra and Hari-katha loses much of its value. There are
plenty of references in scripture to the purifying influence of Hari-katha;
are we to believe it is fiction that purifies us?

Finally, I would like to see explicit references to writings of Sri
Vaishnava acharyas in regards to our being allowed to believe that specific
stories can be considered allegorical or somehow not historical. I am
interested in specific references, not in generalizations based on
principles stated in a different context. For example, something like "Here
it says Raavana was ten-headed, but this is not actually so. It really
symbolizes...."

namo naaraayaNaaya,

--K