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Saturday, November 19, 2022

Same Passages and Different Interpretations

 In his book on Srimad BhagavadGita Rahasya, Bal Gangadhar Tilak refers to Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dvaita philosophies as cults! I looked up the meaning of the word “cult” and found that its dictionary meaning is: “a system of spiritual beliefs and ritual”. When I tried to define it further, I found that a cult has some specific components. They are core beliefs, a charismatic leader who often demands loyalty, and a group of followers who have undue respect for that figure. Using these criteria, I do not think it is fair to call Adi Shankara, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya as cult leaders.

Leaving that aside, the three of them wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutra, Bhagavad Gita and a few Upanishads. In these commentaries, each one of them interpreted a few passages from the same three sources in different ways. Variations in interpretation of a very small part of the foundational texts led to profound divisions within the Vedantic tradition.

There are several examples. Here are two:

The first is a concept in Bhagavad Gita which was interpreted differently by Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanaujacharya and Sri Madhvacharya. They are in Slokas 12 and 13 in Chapter 2. 

In 2:12, Lord Krishna says: “It is not indeed that I did not exist at any time, nor you, nor these kings….”. Sri Ramanujacharya took it to mean that “I” (the Lord) and “You” (Arjuna, the human) are separate. Sat and asat are separate. This interpretation led to duality and to Visishtadvaitam. In this system, you and the Lord are separate, but you are enjoying the bliss of His presence all the time. You do not wish to let go of that bliss. When you and the Lord are separate, the only way to experience Him is through devotion, Bhakthi.

If I understand correctly, the example used to describe the relation between a bhakta and the Lord in this system is that between a baby-monkey and its mother. The baby has to make some effort to cling to its mother, if it wants to be with its mother.

Sri Madhvacharya took this one step further by interpreting sloka 2:13 to mean that this separation between sat and asat is permanent. That is pure duality, Dvaitam. In this method, you just surrender. The example used in this situation is the relationship between a kitten and its mother. The kitten does not have to make any effort. The mother will pick it up by its neck, ever so gently and take her wherever she goes.

There are many other variations of dvaitam. There are also variations of advaitam, the most notable being Zen Buddhism.

One other example is from Bhagavat Gita. The words are: परमात्मा समाहितः. This can be parsed into परम् आत्मा समाहितः or आत्मा परम् समाहितः. The meaning changes depending on the way the words are sequenced. One says that the enlightened person merges with the paramatman. The other says that the atman joins something other than oneself.

Similar origins of sub-groups within every religion based on interpretations are well-known. The followers of different interpretations of the same texts fight based on what they were taught as children and their loyalty to the interpreter whom they and their families venerate. In my childhood days, I have witnessed such feud between followers of Shiva and of Vishnu played out on my street! It is so silly and childish.

This is one reason I believe that each one of us should go to the source and read for ourselves. And think on our own as part of our spiritual journey and more important expose our children to these nuances and variations.

I like the following quote whose author is not known to me but have seen attributed to Goethe: “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings”.



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