Dear Sriman Vrndavan,
Please accept my humble obeisances.
You Wrote: “I will be grateful to you if you could dispel some doubts that local devotees have in comments by your Gurudev (Swami Maharaj) where he says that the diameter of the moon is bigger than that of the sun.”
The first thing to know is that Srila Prabhupada has perfect faith in the authority of our scriptures. If anyone says “Swami Maharaja said… “, one thing or another, it is a challenge to his own position, which is this, “I am simply repeating what Krishna says.” Then, if Krishna, Vyasa, Shukadeva, Mahaprabhu, the goswamis, etc. said something and Srila Prabhupada is repeating it, the real challenge is not to Srila Prabhupada, but to the Vedic authority and disciplic succession he represents.
If anyone does not accept the authority of Veda then that is the first problem that needs correcting.
If we are perfect entities, with perfect sense perception, free from the influence of illusion, the cheating propensity and the tendency to make mistakes, then we do not need to accept any authority other than ourselves. If that were our condition, we would be the highest authority. But we are not like that.
Instead, we are infinitesimals living in an infinite universe. That universe must have a cause and that cause must be causeless. The causeless cause must be a person and that person must be Krishna. This we can understand as students of the Vedas and by the grace of Sri Guru, Vaishnava and Krishna. These things cannot be understood by any other means.
Because we are infinitesimal, we can only know that which the Infinite, Himself, wants us to know, or reveals to us. Only He can know fully the reason for His behavior.
Because of this, we can only understand Him philosophically (by reason) by accepting Sriman Mahaprabhu’s doctrine of achintya-bhedabheda, inconceivably, simultaneous oneness and distinction or sameness and difference. The characteristic of achintya-bhedabheda can be found everywhere in both the material and spiritual worlds.
Our “puppy brains” cannot accommodate very well the doctrine of achintya-bhedabheda. I was just listening to a recording of Srila Prabhupada wherein he was discussing a contradiction in the Vedas, which is, “The stool of an animal is unclean. Cow stool is pure.” He went on to say that because both things are stated in the Vedas, we accept them as true.
Now, where do the Vedas come from? They originate with Krishna’s instructions to Lord Brahma and from other authoritative sources. The principal source is the Divine revelations of the sages, sadhus and devotees, or their direct participation in Krishna’s pastimes with Krishna and His devotees. Of course, these two things are non-different, they are both in the category of direct experience of the Lord and His pastimes.
So, the contradictory statements of the Vedas, their corollaries and branches, if we examine them closely, are actually contradictory statements of the sadhus who, sometimes, even contradict themselves. Further on I will attempt to resolve these apparent conflicts.
Then, should we mistrust the sadhus or the Vedas? I do not advise it. Because we are imperfect infinitesimals, living in an infinite universe and inevitably subject to the whims of the Sweet Absolute, we should try our utmost to find those connected with Him, through perfect faith in His infinite goodwill, and trust their representation of the infinite to be perfect; representing His true nature as inconceivably and simultaneously both Absolute Truth and Absolute Whimsy.
And what of the Bhagavatam itself? How is it to be understood? Is it a book given to us with the purpose of verifying the observations, calculations, research and experiments of those under the spell of illusion? Or, more directly to your point, shall we depend upon such empirical knowledge, which is specifically designed (by maha maya) to carry us further and further away from Absolute knowledge, to verify the accuracy and authenticity of the Bhagavatam? No. The Srimad Bhagavatam is particularly presented to us to dispel illusion by guiding us to understand the difference between reality and illusion, for the welfare of all:
dharmaḥ projjhita-kaitavo ’tra paramo nirmatsarāṇāṁ satāṁ
vedyaṁ vāstavam atra vastu śivadaṁ tāpa-trayonmūlanam
śrīmad-bhāgavate mahā-muni-kṛte kiṁ vā parair īśvaraḥ
sadyo hṛdy avarudhyate ’tra kṛtibhiḥ śuśrūṣubhis tat-kṣaṇāt
Completely rejecting all religious activities which are materially motivated, this Bhāgavata Purāṇa propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart. The highest truth is reality distinguished from illusion for the welfare of all. Such truth uproots the threefold miseries. This beautiful Bhāgavatam, compiled by the great sage Vyāsadeva [in his maturity], is sufficient in itself for God realization. What is the need of any other scripture? As soon as one attentively and submissively hears the message of Bhāgavatam, by this culture of knowledge the Supreme Lord is established within his heart.
The local devotees you mention must be aware of the warning to not go directly to the tenth canto of the Bhagavatam without first understanding the previous cantos. The reason for this is to avoid misunderstanding the transcendental pastimes of Krishna, confusing them with mundane affairs. The materialistic mind must first be purified. Otherwise, one’s mind is almost sure to be further polluted by presuming Krishna’s pastimes to be nothing more than embellishments of materialistic or mythological characters by giving them the aura of a supreme supernatural being.
In the same way, the fifth canto should not be judged as a standalone volume. We must first understand the very first verse of the Bhagavatam that tells us what it is and what to expect from it:
oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya
janmādy asya yato ’nvayād itarataś cārtheṣv abhijñaḥ svarāṭ
tene brahma hṛdā ya ādi-kavaye muhyanti yat sūrayaḥ
tejo-vāri-mṛdāṁ yathā vinimayo yatra tri-sargo ’mṛṣā
dhāmnā svena sadā nirasta-kuhakaṁ satyaṁ paraṁ dhīmahi
O my Lord, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, son of Vasudeva, O all-pervading Personality of Godhead, I offer my respectful obeisances unto You. I meditate upon Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa because He is the Absolute Truth and the primeval cause of all causes of the creation, sustenance and destruction of the manifested universes. He is directly and indirectly conscious of all manifestations, and He is independent because there is no other cause beyond Him. It is He only who first imparted the Vedic knowledge unto the heart of Brahmājī, the original living being. By Him even the great sages and demigods are placed into illusion, as one is bewildered by the illusory representations of water seen in fire, or land seen on water. Only because of Him do the material universes, temporarily manifested by the reactions of the three modes of nature, appear factual, although they are unreal. I therefore meditate upon Him, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who is eternally existent in the transcendental abode, which is forever free from the illusory representations of the material world. I meditate upon Him, for He is the Absolute Truth.
We must be able to appreciate and accept what is presented in this very first verse with reference to conclusions such as these: “Krishna is the primeval cause of all causes of the creation, sustenance and destruction of the manifested universes.” He is svarat, fully independent, which tells us a very important thing about Him; He is un-understandable. The dependent entities cannot possibly understand the supreme entity who is so dissimilar from them, being fully independent. Then (also vital to your question), muhyanti yat sūrayaḥ, by His will even “great sages and demigods are placed into illusion.”
If even our great grand guru, Lord Brahma, is subject to Krishna’s illusory power, then is there any reason to question the statements of accepted spiritual authorities, such as Srila Prabhupada, without first questioning our own ability to properly grasp what he is saying? We should thus consider the following (with special attention to the text I placed in bold):
tasmad gurum prapadyeta
jijnasuh sreya uttamam
sabde pare ca nisnatam
Maya means misconception. We are living in the midst of misconception. Our understanding of the environment is based on a completely misconceived set of ideas and thoughts. We have no proper conception of anything in the absolute sense. Our ideas are all relative. Provincial selfishness has been imposed on the environment, and we are living under that misconception. When one comes to the conclusion that everything around him is mortal and that everything will vanish, then, with that mood, he will feel the necessity of approaching the guru, the divine guide and preceptor, with the purpose of inquiry. “What is the highest good for me?” With this inquiry, he will approach the spiritual master.
And who will he approach? One who is not only well-versed in the precepts of the revealed scriptures, but who has also come in contact with the revealed truth. One who is conversant with the very object of the scriptures, and who has practical experience, who is established in pure consciousness, is a genuine guru. One should approach such a guide for his own relief, to understand what is the highest benefit in the world and how to attain it. This is necessary. It is real. It is not imaginary. At the same time, it is difficult. The Absolute Truth must be sought out through a real process, otherwise we shall go the wrong way and then say, “Oh, there is nothing here; it is not real.” So, only if we follow this real process of understanding the truth will we experience the real nature of divinity. — Srila B.R. Sridhara, Sri Guru and His Grace
Next we may ask this question “Is illusion (misconception) stagnant or dynamic?”
Recently I have been engaged in some provocative correspondence with a highly placed and highly respected scientist. He told me this:
“I have been a practicing scientist who has “discovered” many breakthroughs, presented invited lectures on chemistry in 261 cities in 37 countries and I know for sure that 100% of science is working hypotheses and never an absolute truth.
If anyone has told you otherwise, they are simply wrong.
Nothing in science has ever been proven but we can use science to disprove hypotheses.
Newton’s Second Law (F=ma) was thought to be absolute until it was shown that it doesn’t work at the atomic level. That is what burst my bubble about so-called science in the mid-1970’s.”
In his statements above, my friend has offered an accurate depiction of so-called science (the science of relative truth). I see no reason to disagree with his assessment, which carries with it the implication that the science he is referring to is a study of a dynamic illusion, where the marker of accepted fact or knowledge is one that is continuously moving but never reaches the goal, a final conclusion.
If we have the faith and courage to accept the above, we are immediately relieved of any responsibility to establish like-kind comparisons between what is admittedly a science of relative truth with a science that claims to deal almost exclusively with Absolute Truth.
Moving forward, we can consider a question put to Srila Sridhara Maharaja and his answer (paraphrasing):
Question: Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has written that the descriptions of the hellish planets in the Bhagavatam and some other portions of the Bhagavatam are imaginary, having been put forth by the ruling classes to keep their subjects in line by provoking in them fear of the consequences of their misdeeds.
Srila Sridhara Maharaja: When discussing the world of illusion, the whole thing is illusion, imaginary.
We should not expect the descriptions of the material universe derived through the vision of sages who live in the conscious world of vaikuntha (that which cannot be measured or calculated) to match precisely with the vision of those who see only kuntha (that which is measured, calculated, etc.).
I believe our Srila Prabhupada to be a resident of vaikuntha and accept his statements in that way. Srila Govinda Maharaja and Srila Sridhara Maharaja also subscribed to this belief. Thus, Srila Sridhara Maharaja was able to say “Considering the importance of the literal meaning of scripture, Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaja presented Bhagavad-gita As 1t Is.” Only a pure devotee can present the words of Krishna as they are, without any diminution, obfuscation or opaqueness.
Now, moving back from the position of Srila Swami Maharaja, Prabhupada, what should we think of the position of Sri Shukadeva who, I suspect, was the original speaker of your subject of inquiry? (the following is from the Bhaktivedanta Vedabase):
adhastāt savitur yojanāyute svarbhānur nakṣatravac caratīty eke yo ’sāv amaratvaṁ grahatvaṁ cālabhata bhagavad-anukampayā svayam asurāpasadaḥ saiṁhikeyo hy atad-arhas tasya tāta janma karmāṇi copariṣṭād vakṣyāmaḥ.
Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī said: My dear King, some historians, the speakers of the Purāṇas, say that 10,000 yojanas [80,000 miles] below the sun is the planet known as Rāhu, which moves like one of the stars. The presiding deity of that planet, who is the son of Siṁhikā, is the most abominable of all asuras, but although he is completely unfit to assume the position of a demigod or planetary deity, he has achieved that position by the grace of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Later I shall speak further about him.
yad adas taraṇer maṇḍalaṁ pratapatas tad vistarato yojanāyutam ācakṣate dvādaśa-sahasraṁ somasya trayodaśa-sahasraṁ rāhor yaḥ parvaṇi tad-vyavadhāna-kṛd vairānubandhaḥ sūryā-candramasāv abhidhāvati.
The sun globe, which is a source of heat, extends for 10,000 yojanas [80,000 miles]. The moon extends for 20,000 yojanas [160,000 miles], and Rāhu extends for 30,000 yojanas [240,000 miles]. Formerly, when nectar was being distributed, Rāhu tried to create dissension between the sun and moon by interposing himself between them. Rāhu is inimical toward both the sun and the moon, and therefore he always tries to cover the sunshine and moonshine on the dark-moon day and full-moon night.
Perhaps these are among the verses that sparked the doubt. If so, it is clear, Srila Prabhupada is not the author of these statements, Srila Shukadeva Goswami is their author. Srila Prabhupada is merely repeating them for our benefit.
Before looking further at Sri Shukadeva, lets consider for a moment the doubter.
“And what is the doubter? Is he an atom? A particle of dust? Is he without knowledge? And if so, then how has he come to assert doubt? This question should be examined. Whenever one may doubt, the question must be asked, “Who is the doubter? Is he conscious? Does he have reason? Has he any existence at all? Or is he imaginary? Is it matter that is submitting the question? Or is a unit of consciousness asking the question? What is the origin of this question? Who is asking the question? Has it come from the conscious region? If it has, then what shall we consider as the basis of existence? Consciousness or matter? A fossil or God?” — Srila B.R. Sridhara, Subjective Evolution of Consciousness
I must believe, as implied above, that the doubter is a conscious unit, not an atom. I also assume the doubter accepts this point about himself. As such, the only answer that could reasonably be expected to satisfy the conscious unit’s doubt is one that comes from the plane of consciousness, not the plane of the atom. Only consciousness can satisfy consciousness.
As illusion is dynamic, so also is the plane of reality, the plane from which Sri Shukadeva is speaking, as would be accepted by those who have properly understood the four cantos of the Bhagavatam that precede the fifth one.
Srila Sridhara Maharaja once offered an explanation that describes that plane of vision (paraphrasing) “What was revealed to Shukadeva at the time he spoke to Maharaja Pariksit was reality (Divine revelation) as it existed at that time. Later it may have changed.”
The attempt to quantify, measure and make calculations from the position of subjects (ourselves) of a closed system (the material world) can never be relied upon to a certainty. I explained that position thusly in a recent email to my scientist friend:
All of the sciences developed from the thoughts of man, regardless of their hierarchy, are subject to mistake, cheating, illusion and imperfect sense perception, all of which make them unreliable. They all suffer the same ontological defect, they attempt to analyze and understand a system which they are a part of and, therefore, subject to, the conditions imposed by it.
The observations and conclusions of an object contained within a closed system cannot possibly offer reliable predictions of future events within the system which are always subject to the influence of stimuli introduced from a position outside (transcendent to) the closed system. These stimuli, when introduced, cause perturbations to the system that can never be fully explained by those subject to their influence.
There is, however, a science that stands above philosophy. It is a science that gives us access to knowledge existing outside the closed system of the material realm and explains the creation, function, reason for and controller of, the closed system within which we currently live. I will introduce this science with a quotation from the Upanishads with an explanation from one of my spiritual masters:
yasmin vijnate sarvam evam vijnatam bhavati
yasmin prapte sarvam idam praptam bhavati
“By knowing Him, everything is known – by getting Him, everything is gained.” We have come to inquire about Brahman, the biggest, the all-accommodating principle by knowing which we can know anything and everything. And it is possible; it is not impossible. The Upanisads say, “If you want to know anything, then know the whole. And what is the nature of the whole? Everything is coming from Him, everything is being maintained by Him, and again everything enters into Him. That is Brahman; so try to know that. If you can know that, everything will be known to you.”— Search for Sri Krishna, Swami B.R. Sridhara
When I examine any object or concept, I try to see it from an ontological perspective, the whole. What is on the surface and obvious to the senses does not interest me as much as the nature of its being, what it really is. No material science is capable of such a complete evaluation.
The Absolute Truth, Sri Krishna, is not a thing, like a sweet-ball, that we can capture, hold and then devour, incorporating it fully and completely within ourselves. He is not our object to be dealt with in that way. Rather, He is the Super-subjective Entity and we are his objects, the toys for His Divine Play. He is the Supreme Hypnotist and we are His subjects. We see what He wants us to see. His pure devotees like Sri Shukadeva and Srila Prabhupada describe reality as He presents Himself to them at a particular moment. And, that which appears within the mind of the pure devotee is reality. It cannot be anything less than that.
We may, or may not, be able to see reality in the same way they do, but we shall certainly see Him, if we can accept their vision of Sri Krishna as being “Reality the Beautiful.” Srila Sridhara Maharaja alludes to this point:
“What came within the mind of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, what he may have described in an apparently fictional way, must exist somewhere in the plane of reality, in the past or in the future. It is reality, not imagination.
Everything is real. It is not imagination. What I see in my dreams is now false. But in some former lifetime, in my past I experienced that reality. I had that sort of vision, and that has come to me now as a dream. It was a fact, and only now is it a dream.
What is in the mind may be abstract to us, but in the Universal Mind, everything is concrete. Whatever exists within the plane of imagination must be, and can be traced somewhere.” — Srila B.R. Sridhara, Subjective Evolution of Consciousness
Finally, specifically addressing the cosmological descriptions of Sri Shukadeva as found in the Bhagavatam, Srila Sridhara Maharaja said:
…Once, I considered from this point of view the question of the planets in Vedic cosmology. We see that by the movement of the different planets, a solar eclipse is caused by the moon’s shadow falling upon the Earth. And yet in the scriptures it has been described that during an eclipse, the planet Rahu is devouring the sun or the moon. When Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura was in Puri during his last days and an eclipse came, one devotee [Prabhu Ananta Vasudeva] who was supposed to know siddhanta, the conclusions of scripture, was sitting next to Prabhupada. He suddenly ridiculed the idea given in the Bhagavatam that during a solar or lunar eclipse Rahu devours the sun or moon.
I could not tolerate that such a remark should be passed in regard to the Bhagavatam and argued that what Srimad-Bhagavatam has stated is not to be taken lightly. I offered what seemed like some farfetched support. I said that in his Jaiva Dharma, Bhaktivinoda Thakura has created so many characters, but I think that they are not imaginary. What he has written might have occurred during some other millennium (kalpa), or day of Brahma, and that has now come to the surface. In this way I went on to support the cosmological position of the Bhagavatam by arguing that what is necessary to prove reality must also have some real position. It cannot but be. In this way my argument went and Prabhupada supported me.
In understanding the position of the planet Rahu, what Sukadeva and Vyasadeva have said is geographically impossible, but their statements are there in Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the literal meaning of the scriptures is not to be taken lightly. Considering the importance of the literal meaning of scripture, Bhaktivedanta Swami Maharaja presented Bhagavad-gita As 1t Is. I thought, “How am I to prove what the Bhagavatam says? I don’t know. But what is said in Srimad Bhagavatam must be true. I have faith in that.” — Srila B.R. Sridhara, Subjective Evolution of Consciousness
If we put our faith in the atom, in the material mind, intellect and senses, we shall live in their world, martya loka, the ugly plane of birth and death. If we place our faith in the devotees of Krishna, we shall live in their world of beauty, ecstasy and harmony, the world known as Goloka Vrndavan.
If we can understand all these things I’ve explained above, I expect all questions such as the one’s you posed in your email will answer themselves. If, however, there is anything further to discuss, I will try my best, time permitting, to answer any further questions.
I pray this finds you well in health and spirits.
Swami B.K. Giri