Used with permission of the author: Originally published on April 1, 2014, this article was written by Willem Vandenberg (Varnadi das), who joined ISKCON in Amsterdam in 1990. He served in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust in Sweden as a translator and editor and as a manager of one of its sub-complexes. After officially leaving ISKCON in 2010 he went on to further his career as a computer programmer in higher education. He now lives in Texas and enjoys life reading, writing, and traveling the world.

 

 

On the Border of Fantasy and Ignorance

 

Bhaktivedanta Swami, the founder of the modern Hare Krishna cult, compiled many volumes of what he termed “Vedic literature”, which were then presented to the world as scholarly works on ancient Indian scriptures. Many were touted as accurate translations of authentic scriptures, illuminated by the Swami’s own insights, originating from a life’s worth of study and practice by a master in a tradition spanning millenniums. Throughout, he redefined history, philosophy, religion, culture, and science. The cult built upon these definitions prides itself on knowing more than anyone and knowing better than anyone what the world is all about.

There exists, however, an overarching framework that has been wholly ignored by the cult (actually by most of the various flavors of vaishnavism for that matter) and to a large degree by those who are on the so-called fringe. Even many that have broken free from the cult aren’t aware of its impact.

It is where history helps us understand the present, even if that present is already part of history itself. Within this framework it is not about what the Swami said or did, or whether his intentions were good and for how long. It is not about whether his “disciplic succession” is valid or not, or what the motivations may have been of select prominent teachers within it. It is not about teachings vs. example, doctrines vs. the person, or rules vs. exceptions. It is ultimately not even about the racism, elitism, misogyny, and other aberrations the cult is rife with.

It all boils down to a simple progression of events in time, where human nature plays its dominant part of using adaptation to get ahead in the game of life. It is where we all come from, tempered throughout eons of ever-changing survival strategies.

There were no advanced civilizations millions of years ago, Vedic or otherwise. The genetic progression of humanity as it moved over the planet[1] clearly shows that the well-known cradles of civilization sprang up around more or less the same time, between 10,000 and 7,000 B.C.E.[2] — give or take a couple of millenniums. Before that time, most of what is found worldwide indicates a fairly homogeneous development of the various human branches, including those on the Indian subcontinent and its northern neighborhoods.

There were no “flower airplanes” flying around while inhabitants from the Sun and Moon walked the Earth and “demons” smote their adversaries with incantations and charged atomic “arrows”.[3] Poppycock… Prior to 10,000 B.C.E. so-called Vedic India shows the same kind of stone tools, rock paintings, and cave dwellings as found in the rest of the world of that time,[4] followed by a telling development of various earthenware styles since the post-Vedic period as groups of nomads made their way into the sub-continent from the North-West, moving further East and South.[5]

And that’s where it all starts then.

The Rig-veda tells us something of these cattle-herding nomads, their culture and social structure, their philosophy and history. Wandering tribes in which the family unit played an extremely important role. Clan elders ruled, disputes were settled by cattle raids, and rituals followed both the seasons and succession of generations. Their gods were all representations of the elements and events of daily life — water, fire, wind, death, Sun, Moon, etc. — all of virtually equal importance, augmented by many powerful goddesses now long forgotten. Existence was simple and raw; give me cows, give me wives, give me children, vanquish my enemies.

All that follows in ancient Indian literature draws from these early hymns distilled from already fading memories; repeatedly sub-divided, elaborated upon, commented, and manipulated by a plethora of players century after century to establish supremacy as they adapted to the changing times. Yet, so did humans everywhere else on the planet, and so do humans to this day.

As the Vedic newcomers made their way into the sub-continent, they both vanquished and assimilated the established cultures they met (mostly the latter). They, in turn, were also slowly assimilated. A very similar thing happened to the Celts and Romans. Most of India in the first millennium B.C.E. consisted of small, warring kingdoms. Even the earliest known dynasties were still very small. The first identifiable large dynasty was the Nanda dynasty of Magadha, which was overthrown by Chandragupta, who later founded the Maurya dynasty, to which the famous king Ashok belonged.

The important thing to understand here is that, much like elsewhere in the world, in those days scriptures were the domain of a very small and select level of the higher society. For the most part the population was illiterate. Since scripture also dealt with law and morals, they were extensively used by monarchs to enforce their rule and/or influence the population to control them – again, not much unlike other world scriptures. To that end, there were constant amendments to fit the socioeconomic situation of a particular era. Additions, interpolations, expansions, omissions, and obfuscations were all fair game in the highly political atmosphere of the divided India of yore, especially within the Brahmin caste, which stood to lose a lot if side-lined.

On at least two occasions, scriptures were whole-sale translated from Sanskrit to Prakrit and Pali, and back.[6] And when we say scriptures, you need to understand that by the time of the Gupta Dynasty, around 500 C.E. this already means a hodgepodge of manuscripts in various languages and styles, all tampered with to various degrees, and many of which were additions to older versions.

Amendments of all kinds continued even into the early days of the Moghul conquests and really only stopped with the invasion of India by the British, who had little need for it and actually started collecting various manuscripts. Thus, you will find no accurate “predictions” that go beyond the Greek (yavana) incursions in Northern India and only extremely vague predictions thereafter. There was no longer a government with clerics to update the predictions to match up with history.

It is here that this historic framework starts hitting home hard for many of the much later religious doctrines, including that of (Gaudiya) vaishnavism and its derivatives. This is where it all falls apart on whatever you want or need to believe.

Bhaktivedanta Swami based his compilations of the Bhagavata Purana (Bhagavatam), Bhagavad-gita, and other books (which he branded the canonical works for the ISKCON, the Hare Krishna cult) on readily available older translations and commentaries, none of which were critical editions themselves and none of which indicate anything about their own source manuscripts. His foundation consisted of layers of interpretations (no one knows how many) of various manuscripts of unknown origin that had already been changed over centuries. In addition, he was neither scholar, nor indologist, and although schooled in Sanskrit, wasn’t an expert in the language either. Furthermore, he limited himself to only few later scriptures and interpretations, without ever having studied the very scriptures fundamental to what he himself termed “vedic culture” — such as the four Vedas, Puranas other than the Bhagavata, or Upanisads other than the Isa.[7] There are no indications that he had any interest in text-critical research, cross-referencing, or any other truly scholarly approach. His faith and philosophical understanding relied solely on the very, very narrow scope of Gaudiya vaishnavism coming through his own guru.

In addition, all of this was colored by his own upbringing and education, his cultural background, and personal experiences, likes and dislikes.[8]

This is then the end result; that a large group of people chose to replace their own version of the truth, their own understanding of reality and existence, with one propagated by a man who himself had chosen to do so, and they, in turn, do the same to others. Needless to say, the issue can only be solved by breaking the vicious cycle of the blind leading the blind.

Don’t be blind. Don’t ever just accept what you’re told.

Semper questio!

 

– Willem

 

 


References

SB stands for Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.

BG stands for Bhagavad-Gita, the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.

CC stands for Caitanya-Caritamrta, the compilation with translation and commentary by Bhaktivedanta Swami.

[1] Human Y Chromosome DNA Haplogroups at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_Y-chromosome_DNA_haplogroup
Human Mitochondrial DNA Haplogroups at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_mitochondrial_DNA_haplogroup
Genetics and Archaeogenetics of South Asia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetics_and_archaeogenetics_of_South_Asia

[2] See Cradles of Civilization at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cradle_of_civilization.

[3] Flower airplanes (pushpaka-vimana) are space ship like aerial vehicles used by demigods for questionable reasons (most famously by Ravana to kidnap Sita) and by the messengers of Visnu to transport pious souls to heaven.

Throughout the antique Indian literature it is explained that the most powerful dynasties on Earth are descendants of the demigod dynasties that live on the Sun (Surya Vamsa) and the Moon (Chandra Vamsa).

The Drona Parva section of the Mahabharata holds a long description of a weapon known as Brahmastra (the weapon of Brahma), the effect and consequences of which Bhaktivedanta Swami directly likened to those of modern nuclear weapons. Some examples:

SB 1.7.19, Translation: “When the son of the brahmaṇa (Asvatthama) saw that his horses were tired, he considered that there was no alternative for protection outside of his using the ultimate weapon, the brahmastra (nuclear weapon).”

SB 1.7.19, Purport: In the ultimate issue only, when there is no alternative, the nuclear weapon called the brahmastra is applied.

SB 1.7.27, Translation: The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Know from Me that this is the act of the son of Drona. He has thrown the hymns of nuclear energy (brahmastra), and he does not know how to retract the glare. He has helplessly done this, being afraid of imminent death.

SB 1.7.27, Purport: The brahmastra is similar to the modern nuclear weapon manipulated by atomic energy. The atomic energy works wholly on total combustibility, and so the brahmastra also acts. It creates an intolerable heat similar to atomic radiation, but the difference is that the atomic bomb is a gross type of nuclear weapon, whereas the brahmastra is a subtle type of weapon produced by chanting hymns.

SB 1.7.30, Purport: The radiation of atomic energy is very insignificant in comparison to the heat produced by a brahmastra.

SB 1.7.30, Purport: The atomic bomb explosion can at utmost blow up one globe, but the heat produced by the brahmastra can destroy the whole cosmic situation. The comparison is therefore made to the heat at the time of annihilation.

SB 1.8.12, Purport: The brahmastras are finer than the nuclear weapons.

SB 4.22.57, Purport: In this age modern scientists have been experimenting with nuclear weapons, and in a former age they used to release brahmastras, but all these brahmastras and nuclear weapons are insignificant compared to the thunderbolt of the King of heaven.

[4] An excellent example of this are the Bhimbetka Rock Shelters (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhimbetka_rock_shelters) and the stone tools found at Mehtakheri in the Madhya Pradesh province of central India (http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/june-2013/article/stone-tools-in-india-have-implications-for-early-dispersal-of-modern-humans-out-of-africa-say-researchers) in 2007 and 2009.

[5] Black and Red Ware Culture at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_red_ware_culture
Painted Grey Ware Culture at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Painted_Grey_Ware_culture
Northern Black Polished Ware at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Black_Polished_Ware
Re-evaluation of the Pottery Sequence in North India at http://www.academia.edu/692881/Re-evaluation_of_the_pottery_sequence_in_north_India_during_the_first_millennium_BC

[6] This occurred during the reign of Ashok Maurya, when Pali was the lingua franca, and in reverse during the brahmanistic revival under the reign of the Gupta dynasty. For an example of its consequences, see The Purana Text of the Dynasties of the Kali Age, by F.E. Pargiter, 1913.

[7] Tamal Krishna Goswami’s Diary, June 30: “I have not studied all the Vedas and Upanishads. I have read only Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam.” Prabhupada quoted Bhagavad-gita 15.15. “Throughout the whole world, amongst all the yogis, swamis, bogis, I am successful. That is a fact. Who can be compared with me? I am giving Bhagavad-gita As It Is, no interpretation, no adulteration. Mahajano yena gatah sa panthah. Otherwise, there are so many big intellectuals, mayavadis present so many arguments. So do not fight amongst yourselves for sentiment and prestige. Present our infallible books.”

[8] Misogyny and Hypocrisy by Example, by Willem Vandenberg, 2010