Darkness not always what it seems:
Bhagavata cosmology as allegory
Posted November 11, 2004
This is a quote from the article by Subhadra-Mayi entitled: Are we in darkness?
I'm asking because I still see devotees believing such things as Rahu eating the moon or sun. Are we really supposed to take that literally or can we see it as a story with a purpose? Telling uneducated people just anything with the purpose of trying to make them see God in everything?
When we swallow such stories blindly, today, are we living in the Dark Ages? Do we twist ourselves to justify it because we are afraid to offend Bhagavatam? Or do we ramble a catchy line about Kali-yuga?
I'd like to know because I find one thing extremely sad: that we have this tradition of repeating the parampara, that new knowledge cannot replace scientific mistakes, that we don't see through the purpose of why certain things are written. Can't we just question those matters and see them for what they are?
This type of questioning shouldn't be scoffed at as if it is indicative of an attempt to undermine the status quo. Rather, these questions are reasonable in light of the reality of modern science. If you take the position of "take it or leave it", or "if you raise these questions you must be silenced", then you fail to make your case in the eyes of those not already sold out to your vision.
What is the purpose of the Bhagavatam? Is it to enforce a cosmological world view on everyone? Or is it meant to educate people on self-realization?
The certainty of the cosmology of the Bhagavatam is relative to the scientific education of the receptor.
As Srila Prabhupada wrote in a letter to Krsna das (Nov. 7, 1972):
These things are not very important; we may not waste our time with these insignificant questions. There are sometimes allegorical explanations [in the Bhagavatam]. So there are many things which do not corroborate with the so-called modern science, because they are explained in that way. . . . So we are concerned with Krsna consciousness, and even though there is some difference of opinion between modern science and allegorical explanation in the Bhagavata, we have to take the essence of Srimad-Bhagavatam and utilize it for our higher benefit, without bothering about the correctness of the modern science or the allegorical explanation sometimes made in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Also in Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur's <>Krsna Samhita it states that the Bhagavata cosmology is allegorical. Sadaputa dasa came up with the theory that he was purposefully lying in order to appeal to materialists. I disagree. I will tell you why.
There are different levels of understanding in the Bhagavatam; it gives both literal and allegorical narratives throughout. They serve a dual purpose for people on different levels of consciousness. In the modern age we face a very different reality than the pre-technological world. Today we can observe the cosmos with help from modern technology; in vedic times this was impossible. So the vedic cosmological conception, on the literal level, is for the audience of the vedic/non-technological world.
The mythological mindset is superior to the "modern" scientific world view because it is designed for the purpose of creating a view of the world that is full of magic and unlimited possibilities. That mindset is full of exotic phenomena where mystical and fantastic possibilites are seen as the norm. That mindset is what the residents of non-technological society can experience. There, there is no modern science, there is no technology to contradict the fantasy realm that is created for their minds. Until modern technology, this was the case for the entire world. All cultures had a mythological, fantasy worldview. They viewed the world around them as a magical realm full of magical creatures and magical possibilites.
That is actually a superior mindset, in terms of enjoyment, than the mundane reality. In the famous Wizard of Oz, we find that the Wizard told Dorothy and her friends to ignore "the man behind the curtain". The façade of the great and terrible wizard was what was being offered to the residents of the magical Emerald City as absolute reality.
The Bhagavatam cosmology and mythology serves the purpose of creating a fantastical worldview for non-technological civilizations. It is superior to the mundane scientific reality; it is specifically designed to create a world of magic for the people in that society, and enhances their lives with an outlook full of magical, fantastical possibilites, created by the Vedic literature.
In the current world situation, the magical worldview is not sustainable for all people. Especially people who are scientifically educated and very rationalistic, rather than romantic and non-questioning when it comes to acceptance of an irrational [scientifically speaking] worldview. This is to be expected and is not a sign of a lack of some kind of humility or overt materialism. It is the nature of the modern age that scientific technological discoveries will naturally overide flat-earth cosmology and mythology.
This is why modernacaryas like Bhaktivinoda Thakur and Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada make statements about the allegorical nature of the Bhagavatam. They understand that the Bhagavatam has a dual role: it teaches self-realization, and it creates a magical worldview. The parts of the Bhagavatam that are incompatible with modern discoveries are written in such a way that they have allegorical meaning besides the literal meanings meant for a non-technological audience.
The Bhagavatam was not written by people who were unaware of the future of scientific advancement. The Bhagavatam is the word of, and designed by, Bhagavan. The Bhagavatam is not limited by time and space. It was written with full knowledge of the technological society that occurs during Kali Yuga, for that is when the Bhagavatam gains the highest readership. So it was not written without us in mind. It is full of allegorical meaning meant just for us.
Non-technological society is able to accept the Bhagavatam at face value; they have no way, and therefore no need, to question the validity of the worldview propounded therein.
We live in a different world. Questioning the validity of the Bhagavatam is not only natural, it is expected; the Bhagavatam was written with us in mind.
Knowing this, we can understand why the Bhagavatam is obviously wrong on many accounts of cosmology. Its purpose was never about being scientifically correct. It was about being creative, about creating a fantastic world for people to believe in. Part of its purpose is to create a world of magic for the people in non-technological society.
For us, the essential value of the Bhagavatam is in the
teachings on self-realization. So when people naturally question the
validity of the Bhagavatam, based on its questionable cosmology and
magical worldview, we need to be able to react in a non-dogmatic,
non-insulting manner. We need to be able to explain the purpose of the
Bhagavatam. It serves different people and different audiences
at different times. We need not throw out the baby with the bathwater.