Naive Literalism

By Visakha Dasi - 12.4 2018

In each of its twelve cantos, Srimad-Bhagavatam, the “flawless ripened fruit of all Vedic scriptures,” tells of miracles and mysticism, of the esoteric and extraterrestrial. We hear a cow, bull, elephant, monkey, and bird speaking deep philosophy. We learn of the four-headed creator who sits atop a lotus flower, of a magnificent aerial mansion, and of a five-year-old who pushes down half the earth with his toe and makes demigods suffocate. We learn of people giving birth to tens of thousands of children, of people with a thousand heads or arms, of an ocean of milk that is churned by demigods and demons using a snake for a rope. We are also given detailed information about this extraordinary universe we live in. For example, from the Fifth Canto (16.16–17):

“On the lower slopes of Mandara Mountain is a mango tree named Devacuta. It is 1,100 yojanas [8,800 feet] high. Mangoes as big as mountain peaks and as sweet as nectar fall from the top of this tree for the enjoyment of the denizens of heaven. When all those solid fruits fall from such a height, they break, and the sweet, fragrant juice within them flows out and becomes increasingly more fragrant as it mixes with other scents. That juice cascades from the mountain in waterfalls and becomes a river called Arunoda, which flows pleasantly through the eastern side of Ilavrta.”

What is a pragmatic, logical, scientific mind to do with such information? Shall we see the whole body of work as mythology? Or glean its essential spiritual truths and leave aside the fantastic aspects as entertainment used to convey those truths? Or shall we suspend our disbelief and accept all the texts of Bhagavatam as they are?

None of these options are in the spirit of the Srimad-Bhagavatam itself—that is, the spirit of unalloyed submission and devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna. This spirit is not the suspension of disbelief but the suspension of pride, for without pridelessness the Srimad-Bhagavatam, as well as all the Vedas, will remain a great mystery. In other words, readers who enter the spirit of the Srimad-Bhagavatam do not suspect any aspect of its message; rather, they question their own qualification and ability to receive that message purely.

Besides being genuinely humble, mature students of the Srimad-Bhagavatam are detached from this alluring material world and know their spiritual identity, their purpose in life, and the limitations the material body and mind may impose on spirit. Rather than “naive,” these saints are highly evolved human beings with unrivaled critical and analytical insights. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The bestial civilization of eating, sleeping, fearing, and sense-gratifying has misled modern man into forgetting how powerful a soul he has. As we have already described, the soul is a spiritual spark many, many times more illuminating, dazzling, and powerful than the sun, moon, or electricity. Human life is spoiled when man does not realize his real identity with his soul.” (Cc., Adi 1.5.22, purport)

But what of the Bhagavatam’s amazing descriptions and pastimes? Continuing the above purport Srila Prabhupada explains: “…Each and every planet has its particular atmosphere, and if one wants to travel to any particular planet within the material universe, one has to adapt his material body to the climatic condition of that planet. For instance, if one wants to go from India to Europe, where the climatic condition is different, one has to change his dress accordingly. Similarly, a complete change of body is necessary if one wants to go to the transcendental planets of Vaikuntha. However, if one wants to go to the higher material planets, he can keep his finer dress of mind, intelligence, and ego, but has to leave his gross dress (body) made of earth, water, fire, etc.”

Devoted readers of the Srimad-Bhagavatam are not literalists in the sense that they expect to taste the mango juice waters of the Arunoda River, at least not in their present state. They take it that this place exists as it is described, but it is on a platform that they cannot directly experience; the text is explicit—not figurative—but it describes a dimension unknown to us.

What we can presently perceive is limited by the nature of our body. Since our body is made of gross material elements (earth, water, air, and so on) we directly perceive only gross material sense objects. However, in other parts of the material creation only subtle energies (mind, intelligence, etc.), which are imperceptible to us, exist. On that plane one could uproot trees and use them to bridge a river or one could leap across an ocean just for fun.

If we allow it, Srimad-Bhagavatam will transport us beyond the limits of the tiny part of the creation we inhabit. It will revive our sense of wonder, of mystery and of discovery because the Supreme Person revealed in its texts is a sportive, imaginative youth who can pulverize preconceptions. Krishna is adhoksaja, beyond the measurement of our senses. He is atarka, beyond the reach of logic and argument. He is avan manasa gocara, beyond the range of the mundane mind, words and imagination. He is acintya, beyond our estimation. In a word, He is inconceivable. And He is inconceivably attractive and funny and adventurous (He says vyavasayo ’smi—“I am adventure,” Bhagavad-gita 10.36). He can do anything—and what He does is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam. For example, “Lord Krishna, who is Vishnu Himself, picked up Govardhana Hill with one hand and held it aloft just as easily as a child holds up a mushroom.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.25.19)

Krishna’s miracles are also all around us, from the precise workings of living cells to the movements of the galaxies. But because in this dark age of quarrel and hypocrisy our strength, duration of life, memory, intelligence, and imagination are as depleted as the earth we inhabit and the food that it produces, we view the descriptions of Srimad-Bhagavatam as “mythology” and those who are devoted to and enlivened by them as “naive literalists.” As a result this unparalleled scripture remains inaccessible.

“Srimad-Bhagavatam is the spotless Purana. It is most dear to the Vaishnavas because it describes the pure and supreme knowledge of the paramahamsas. This Bhagavatam reveals the means for becoming free from all material work, together with the processes of transcendental knowledge, renunciation, and devotion. Anyone who seriously tries to understand Srimad-Bhagavatam, who properly hears and chants it with devotion, becomes completely liberated.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 12.13.18)