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The Vedas

The Vedas are the original Sanskrit texts of India's ancient spiritual culture. The Vedas include knowledge on every facet of human endeavor, material and spiritual, like a set of reference manuals for achieving ultimate success in this life and the next. "Veda" literally means "knowledge," and "Vedic," in its extended meaning, refers to works that extend or follow the Vedas, including the Puranas, Vedanta-sutra, and Upanishads.

The Puranas, or "ancient histories," are meant to make the Vedas more accessible for the people in the present age. And the Bhagavat Purana, or Srimad-Bhagavatam, is called the essence, or the "cream" of all Vedic literature.

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The Vedas contain codes of behavior for the welfare of all socioeconomic classes, guides for observing rituals for elevating one's consciousness and social status, laws for maintaining order within the state, and, ultimately, directions on how to awaken spiritual consciousness.

According to the tradition, the Vedas have existed for as long as there have been conscious beings to hear them. But only since the thirtieth century BCE were they edited and put into written form. The original Veda became divided into four - Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva Vedas - along with the Puranas (histories), the eighteen Upanishads, and finally the Vedanta-sutra, which contains highly condensed codes summarizing the final conclusion of all knowledge. Some scholars accept only the four Vedas as truly "Vedic," but we use the term to refer to the whole body of literature which extends or follows the Vedas' teachings.

The editor and compiler of the Vedas, Vyasadeva, also compiled the Mahabharata, or "great history of the Earth," which contains Krishna's instructions to Arjuna in the famous Bhagavad-gita. Vyasadeva's commentary on the Vedanta-sutra - Srimad-Bhagavatam - is considered the cream of all Vedic literature. It has detailed information on how to develop love of God by hearing about Him, His many avatars, and His empowered representatives.

Image of an 18th century manuscript of the Bhagavad-gita courtesy of the Schoyen Collection

Evidence for Krishna

People who doubt there’s life after death sometimes say, “No one has ever come back to tell us about it.”

But what if someone claimed to have come back? Would we believe him? What kind of proof would we want?

Trying to prove that Krishna is God presents a similar challenge.

Someone might ask, “If Krishna is God, why doesn’t He come and prove it?”

Well, there’s evidence that He does come. For example, when He came five thousand years ago, millions of eyewitnesses saw Him, He did things only God can do, and Vyasadeva, a reporter with impeccable credentials, kept track of it all.

Vyasadeva recorded not only Krishna’s matchless deeds but also the testimonials of the greatest spiritual authorities of the time, a time when large numbers of people pursued spiritual realization with every ounce of their being. The consensus of these saints and sages—masters of spiritual learning and discipline—was that Krishna is God.

People today tend to doubt the credibility of Vyasadeva’s writings, thanks in large part to a smear campaign started by the British during their takeover of India. Yet despite their efforts, the light of the Srimad- Bhagavatam and other books from Vyasadeva’s prolific pen keeps shining. Great Western thinkers who received the Vedas without prejudice were astounded. Vyasadeva’s writings were superior to anything they had ever come across.

But what about the “stories” Vyasadeva wrote? Was there really a boy named Krishna who lifted mountains and killed monsters? Scholars for whom Vyasadeva’s “mythology” seems incompatible with his erudite philosophical works might propose that Vyasadeva didn’t write both things. But that argument fails if we look at just one example of his work: Srimad-Bhagavatam. There Vyasadeva has written both profound philosophy and—as the climax, no less—charming stories about Krishna.

The great leaders of India’s spiritual lineages since Krishna’s time have concluded that a great philosopher like Vyasadeva wouldn’t frivolously insert fanciful stories into his treatise on the Absolute Truth. Vyasadeva’s gravity alone is solid evidence that his stories of Krishna’s exploits tell of actual events.

Like many nineteenth-century scholars, anyone who reads the Vedic literature with an open mind is sure to be awed. But readers need help, too. Traditionally, a student of the Vedas gets guidance from a self-realized person coming in a line of authorized teachers. Four main lines have directed India’s spiritual culture for hundreds of years, and each of them asserts that Krishna, or His expansion Vishnu, is God.

I find it disturbing to read media coverage of Krishna conscious events that refers to devotees as worshipers of “the god Krishna.” For the average person in the West, the writer might as well be saying we worship “the god Zeus.” Why would anyone take seriously a group of people who have arbitrarily chosen to worship one god out of a whole stable of contenders?

But our choice is far from arbitrary. It’s founded in the Vedic scriptures, the credibility of saints of respected spiritual lines, and the realized conviction, persuasive writings, and pure character of Krishna’s emissary His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

A Meeting in Varanasi, Part 1

One of the greatest scholars of his day is about to meet the source of all knowledge.
The city of Varanasi lies four hundred miles northwest of Calcutta on the northern bank of the Ganges River. Terraced stone landings, or ghats, leading down to water’s edge extend for four miles along the riverbank. Throngs of pilgrims descend to bathe in the sacred water or climb to explore narrow, winding streets and visit the city’s more than 1,500 temples. While there are historical records of pilgrimages to Varanasi dating back to the seventh century, to the faithful this most sacred of destinations has existed as a bustling holy city for much longer. Many of Varanasi’s temples were destroyed in the seventeenth century during the reign of Emperor Aurangzeb, yet today the view from across the Ganges at Ramnagar suggests timeless splendor.

The preeminent scholar in Varanasi at the beginning of the sixteenth century was Prakashananda Saraswati, a renounced priest, or sannyasi, in the line of Sripada Sankaracharya. Prakashananda and his colleagues were masters of the Vedas, the Sanskrit literature that includes extensive writings in every basic field of knowledge. There are Vedic texts on law, art, medicine, mathematics, and other worldly sciences, as well as on yoga, religion, philosophy, and mysticism. Veda means “knowledge,” and in the broadest sense all knowledge is part of the Vedas.

Prakashananda Saraswati was particularly adept at analyzing the codes of the highly philosophical Vedanta-sutra. The Vedic texts, divided by Srila Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of God, culminate in the Vedanta-sutra, in which Vyasadeva expounds upon the eternal nature, origin, and purpose of existence. Anta means “end,” so the Vedanta-sutra establishes that all fields of knowledge are meant to reach the end, or goal, of knowledge by understanding the meaning of life.

During a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968 Srila Prabhupada challenged his audience to explain why, with all the fields of knowledge at their university, they didn’t have a department to study the difference between a living body and a dead body. We study medicine to keep our bodies healthy, politics and sociology to keep them organized, psychology to manage our minds. All these departments benefit living bodies and minds, but what is that life, that living energy we so attentively serve? Where is that knowledge? Or in other words, where is Vedanta? Lacking a Vedanta department, the other departments are incomplete.

There was no such lack at Varanasi. As a peerless commentator on the Vedanta-sutra, Prakashananda Saraswati was dean of the Varanasi scholars, who as professors of the Vedas were not mere dogmatists spouting creeds but genuine researchers, writers, and teachers drawn to essential truth. The city of Varanasi had long been a great center of learning and culture. With students arriving from all over India to obtain a comprehensive education in the Vedic wisdom, Varanasi was a hotbed of enlightenment. Prakashananda and his associates presided, enjoying their intellectual pursuits, their followings, and their tenure as leaders of an academic and cultural mecca.

The only disturbance to the peaceful academic atmosphere—a disturbance that has also surfaced today in modern college towns and other centers of enlightenment—was a noisy, enthusiastic band of Hare Krishnas chanting and dancing through the streets. With no apparent respect for even minimal academic decorum, these apparent fanatics, beating on drums and clashing hand cymbals, were gathering a following, Prakashananda noticed, among some of the simpler students and townspeople. Their twenty-eight- year-old leader, Sri Krishna Chaitanya, who lived in Bengal, had a golden complexion and a thundering voice. Like Prakashananda and his colleagues, He was a sannyasi in the disciplic line of Sripada Sankaracharya. But Sankaracharya had taught his followers to give up worldly pleasures like singing and dancing and to instead always study the Vedanta- sutra. So who did this Krishna Chaitanya think He was, and what did He think He was doing?

Prakashananda began to openly criticize: “Krishna Chaitanya, although a sannyasi, does not take interest in the study of Vedanta but instead always engages in congregational chanting and dancing. He is illiterate and therefore does not know his real function. Guided only by his sentiments, he wanders about in the company of other sentimentalists.” (Sri Chaitanya-caritamrita, Adi- lila 7.41-42)

It may have disturbed Prakashananda more to know that Krishna Chaitanya was far from illiterate. Before accepting the sannyasa order at the age of twenty-four, He had been known as Nimai Pandita and had run a popular Sanskrit academy of His own at Navadvipa, in what is now West Bengal. Navadvipa was an even more important center of learning than Varanasi. At this time in India, as in previous ages, scholarship had some of the flavor of modern sports events, with learned panditas challenging each other to compete in displays of erudition. While still a schoolboy, Nimai Pandita defeated many champion scholars, including Keshava Kashmiri, a brahmana from Kashmir who had won titles all over India. When Keshava Kashmiri came to Navadvipa looking for some action, the local scholars hid in fear, leaving the contest to Nimai.

Nonviolent Protest

After several years of showing His intellectual prowess, Nimai Pandita focused His energies on promoting sankirtana, public congregational chanting and dancing in glorification of God. In Navadvipa the loud chanting of Krishna’s names had provoked the local Muslims to complain to Navadvipa’s magistrate, or Kazi. The Kazi descended upon a chanting party one evening, broke a sankirtana drum, and forbid further chanting on the streets of the city. In response Nimai Pandita organized a nonviolent protest, surrounding the Kazi’s house with thousands of chanting, dancing demonstrators. The Kazi was intimidated by the crowd, but Nimai’s demeanor was peaceful. In a friendly exchange He convinced the Kazi of the importance of chanting the Lord’s names.

Like Prakashananda Saraswati, Nimai Pandita was highly learned in the Vedanta-sutra, but not for scholarship’s sake. He knew well the many statements in the Vedas declaring that in the Kali-yuga, this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the means of self-realization (the goal of Vedanta) is to chant the names of God. A verse in the Brihan-naradiya Purana emphasizes this point by repetition: “Chant the holy names, chant the holy names, chant the holy names. In this age of quarrel there is no other way, no other way, no other way to achieve the goal of human life.”

Although Nimai chanted the Hare Krishna mantra in particular, He taught that this “no other way” applies to any place and time, and to any recognized name of the Lord. A verse in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Srila Vyasadeva’s own commentary on his Vedanta- sutra, states that in previous ages meditation, religious rituals, or worshiping in the temple may have sufficed, but in this age these methods are effective only in conjunction with regular chanting. And again in the Bhagavatam, Vyasadeva writes that Kali-yuga is an ocean of faults with one saving quality: simply by chanting the glories of the Lord we can free ourselves of the material miseries and attain the highest perfection of spiritual life.

The Kali-santarana Upanishad is even more specific, citing the full Hare Krishna mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—and then asserting, “These sixteen words destroy the faults of the Age of Kali. After searching through all the Vedas, you will not find a better means of self-realization for this age.”

With these and other verses on His lips and with the assistance of His many associates, Nimai spread his sankirtana movement throughout Navadvipa and into East Bengal. He married at an early age, but as a householder traveled frequently, leaving His young wife and elderly mother at home. Sankirtana so absorbed him that He introduced a system of Sanskrit grammar based on Krishna’s names. Every word from His mouth was either chanting or glorification of the chanting.

On a pilgrimage to Gaya, Nimai became a disciple of Ishvara Puri, a great devotee of Krishna in the line of Srila Vyasadeva, and when Nimai returned to Navadvipa, his enthusiasm for the holy names grew ecstatic. It appears that Nimai had a familiar youthful bent for loudness and all-nighters, so much so that this time it was the Hindus who complained to the Kazi:

Nimai Pandita was previously a very good boy, but since He has returned from Gaya He conducts Himself differently. Now He loudly sings all kinds of Krishna songs, clapping, playing drums and hand bells, and making a tumultuous sound that deafens our ears. We do not know what He eats that makes him so crazy. He has made all the people practically mad by always performing congregational chanting. At night we cannot get any sleep; we are always kept awake. (Adi 17.206-9)

Even Nimai Pandita’s students began to criticize what they considered His excessive absorption in the holy names. Although not personally bothered by the criticism, Nimai took seriously His sankirtana movement. He ambitiously desired to spread sankirtana to every town and village of the world, giving everyone, whether educated or illiterate, access to Vedanta and to the perfection of life through the chanting of the holy names. If even His own students took Him lightly, how could He expand His mission?

Nimai’s Sannyas

So in the year 1510, at the age of twenty-four, leaving home for good, Nimai traveled to the village of Katwa and accepted the sannyasa order from Keshava Bharati, a sannyasi of the Sankarite school. It is still the custom in India to offer respect to a sannyasi, and this was even more the case five hundred years ago. Nimai wanted that public respect and attention for the benefit of the sankirtana movement, which was, in turn, for the public’s highest benefit. Although Nimai abhorred Sankaracharya’s quasi-Buddhist philosophy, Sankaracharya’s influence was so strong that people thought one could accept sannyasa only in the Sankarite disciplic succession. So in pursuance of His mission, Nimai took sannyasa from Keshava Bharati, receiving the name Sri Krishna Chaitanya.

Prakashananda Saraswati might have collected some of these details about the tall, golden sannyasi now dancing and chanting through Varanasi’s narrow streets had he asked around town. As dean of Varanasi’s scholars he might have thus avoided his criticism of Krishna Chaitanya.

The Identity of Sri Krishna Chaitanya

The fuller answer to “Who is Krishna Chaitanya, and what is He doing here in this center of quiet scholarship?” lay right under Prakashananda’s nose in his rightly esteemed Vedic literature. In the Mahabharata, the Vishnu-sahasra-nama-stotra (“The Thousand Names of Vishnu”) describes the Supreme Lord appearing as a householder with a golden complexion and an attitude of peaceful devotion and later accepting the sannyasa order. The Bhagavatam confirms that the Lord appears in different ages in different colors—white, red, black, and yellow. White, red, and black having been accounted for in previous ages, the incarnation for the Age of Kali is yellow, or golden. The Bhagavatam also states that in Kali- yuga the incarnation of God inaugurates the sankirtana movement, always chants the name of Krishna, and is in fact Krishna Himself with a golden complexion:

krishna-varnam tvishakrishnam
yajnaih sankirtana-prayair
yajanti hi su-medhasah

“In the Age of Kali, intelligent persons perform congregational chanting to worship the incarnation of Godhead who constantly sings the name of Krishna. Although His complexion is not blackish, He is Krishna Himself. He is accompanied by His associates, servants, and confidential companions.”

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya is known as the channa avatara, or “hidden incarnation,” because He never presented Himself as God or allowed anyone to call Him God. He always acted as God’s servant and as the servant of the Lord’s devotees. This age is so full of incarnation wannabes, so ridden with philosophies asserting that in the end we are all God, that God Himself demonstrates and relishes devotional service to Himself through the chanting of His names. As a grade-school teacher, to teach her students how to learn, sometimes pretends to be learning her ABC’s, so in the form of Sri Krishna Chaitanya the Lord takes the role of His own devotee and demonstrates the art of His own devotional service.

Hearing of Prakashananda’s criticism, Lord Chaitanya demonstrated how members of the sankirtana movement should be unconcerned with their own prestige. To further sankirtana the Lord had planned a trip to the holy city of Vrindavana, just south of present-day Delhi, and didn’t see any reason to alter His itinerary to defend His reputation by crossing swords with Varanasi’s elite. Intellectual tournaments were a thing of His past, of His heady school days. There was no need to interrupt His preaching for a debate. Better to push on the chanting of the holy names. There were plenty of receptive ears and many followers who needed His personal attention and instructions.

But Lord Chaitanya’s followers in Varanasi were upset by Prakashananda’s remarks. It broke their hearts to hear their beloved Lord labeled an illiterate fool. At the same time they weren’t confident enough to confront Prakashananda themselves. What were they in comparison to this celebrated leader of Varanasi’s many faculties and academic departments? How could they present their case for the divinity of Sri Krishna Chaitanya and for the transcendental stature of sankirtana to a critic who could so expertly quote the Vedic scriptures, brandishing his learning and credentials?

When Lord Chaitanya returned to Varanasi from Vrindavana, He stayed at the house of Chandrashekhara, took His meals at the home of Tapana Mishra, and spent two months instructing Sanatana Gosvami, the former prime minister of Bengal’s ruler, Nawab Hussein Shah, on the science of devotional service.

While Lord Chaitanya in this way remained peacefully absorbed in building His sankirtana movement, His two hosts grew increasingly unhappy, until one day both Chandrashekhara and Tapana Mishra appealed to Him: “How long can we tolerate the blasphemy of Your critics against Your conduct? We should give up our lives rather than hear such blasphemy. The local sannyasis are all criticizing Your Holiness. We cannot tolerate hearing such criticism, for this blasphemy breaks our hearts.”

Hearing this plea, Lord Chaitanya remained indifferent to the criticism of Himself, but felt compassion for His hosts and other followers, understanding their distress. At that moment a brahmana came to the Lord with another appeal, this one an invitation.

“My dear Lord,” the brahmana said, “I have invited all the sannyasis of Varanasi to my home for lunch. My desires will be fulfilled if You also accept my invitation. My dear Lord, I know that You never mix with other sannyasis, but please be merciful unto me and accept my invitation.”

It was a long-standing custom for the brahmanas of Varanasi to take turns inviting the local sannyasis to their homes. In this way there was a daily gathering of sannyasis, a moveable faculty lunch. Lord Chaitanya had always been absent, declining all invitations until this one, which He gracefully accepted to please Chandrashekhara, Tapana Mishra, and the brahmana. Here was a timely opportunity, made possible by His own omnipotent arrangement, to meet Prakashananda Saraswati in a congenial setting as fellow guests at a brahmana’s home.

Tapana Mishra and Chandrashekhara were overjoyed. They didn’t know how to answer Prakashananda themselves. They didn’t yet have confidence in their own learning or debating skills. But they had firm faith that their spiritual master, Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya, was the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He was Krishna Himself, the author and final authority on Vedanta-sutra, acting as His own devotee. In Bhagavad-gita (15.15) Krishna declares, “I am seated in everyone’s heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas, I am to be known. Indeed, I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.”

As faithful servants of Lord Chaitanya, Chandrashekhara and Tapana Mishra aspired to become expert preachers of His mission who knew perfectly and could teach that Vedanta, the end of knowledge, is loving service to Krishna, the supreme person, through the chanting of His names. For now, however, what they knew, giving them joy and relief in anticipation, was that Lord Chaitanya, their own teacher, had agreed to meet Prakashananda Saraswati, head of Varanasi’s intellectual elite, for lunch.

A Meeting in Varanasi, Part 3

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu points out Sankaracharya’s error in contradicting Vyasadeva.

Early in the year 1514, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was staying at the home of Chandrashekara Vaidya in Varanasi, India, then a great center of learning. Lord Chaitanya’s associates heard that one of the chief scholars of Varanasi, a sannyasi named Prakashananda Saraswati, was complaining to his followers that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a sentimenalist who engaged in chanting the names of the Lord rather than in studying Vedanta, the proper duty of a sannyasi. Greatly disturbed by Prakashananda Saraswati’s criticism, Sri Chaitanya’s associates were pleased when the Lord accepted an invitation for lunch at the home of the brahmana. Prakashananda Saraswati and his followers would also be there, so Prakashananda Saraswati could see for himself the ideal character of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Lord Chaitanya’s meeting with Prakashananda began with Prakashananda’s asking the Lord why He chanted Hare Krishna. Lord Chaitanya replied that He was doing so on the order of His spiritual master.

Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu stressed to Prakashananda the importance of chanting the holy names under the guidance of a qualified spiritual master. The chanting of Hare Krishna cleanses Mayavada (impersonalist) pollution from the heart and mind and gives the chanter a taste of the nectar of devotional service to Krishna. Lord Chaitanya’s process of sankirtana, the chanting of the Lord’s names, is thus the most direct method for understanding Vedanta and the only method recommended for the present age, known as the Age of Quarrel. A disciple who hears the transcendental vibration of Hare Krishna from a spiritual master in disciplic succession and tries to chant with sincerity achieves the goal of Vedanta study: service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Perceiving the eternal happiness of love of God through devotional service, the disciple is naturally inclined to chant and dance, not caring for public opinion.

“I never chanted and danced to make an artificial show,” Lord Chaitanya explained to Prakashananda. “I dance and chant because I firmly believe in the words of my spiritual master. Compared to the ocean of transcendental bliss tasted by chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, the pleasure derived from the impersonal Brahman realization touted by Sankaracarya is like the shallow water in a canal.”

Seated around Lord Chaitanya at the brahmana’s house, the Mayavadis were moved by His words. Their minds changed and they spoke pleasingly.

“Dear Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu,” they began, “what You have said is true. Only a fortunate person attains love of Godhead. We have no objection to Your being a great devotee of Lord Krishna. But why do You avoid discussion of the Vedanta-sutra? What is the fault in it?”

While the Mayavadis appreciated Lord Chaitanya’s description of Krishna sankirtana as superior to the pleasure of impersonal Brahman realization, they were still under the impression that Vedanta-sutra was synonymous with Sankaracarya’s commentary on Vedanta- sutra, known as Sariraka-bhashya. There are in fact many definitive commentaries on the Vedanta- sutra written by great devotional scholars. The original commentary is Srimad-Bhagavatam, written by Srila Vyasadeva Himself, the author of Vedanta-sutra. Foreseeing the havoc created by perverted Mayavada commentaries, Vyasadeva compiled His own commentary. The Mayavadis recognize none of the devotional commentaries, and Sankaracarya even faulted Vyasadeva’s compilation of the Vedanta-sutra itself. So although Lord Chaitanya had been commenting on Vedanta all along, the assembled sannyasis requested Him to comment specifically on the verses of the Vedanta-sutra in relation to the Sariraka-bhashya.

“To tell You the truth,” the Mayavadi sannyasis continued, “we are greatly pleased to hear Your words and behold Your extraordinary beauty. We see that You are just like Narayana, God Himself. Whatever You say, we shall be very glad to hear patiently.”

Contradicting Vyasadeva

With the Mayavadis eager to listen, the Lord began by indicating that Sankaracarya had no business correcting Srila Vyasadeva.

“Vedanta philosophy,” He said, “consists of words spoken by the Supreme Personality of Godhead in His literary incarnation as Srila Vyasadeva. The four material defects do not exist in the words of the Supreme Lord.”

The four defects of an ordinary person are (1) he must make mistakes, (2) he must fall into illusion, (3) he must have a tendency to cheat, and (4) his senses must be imperfect. These defects make our own knowledge unreliable, and their absence makes the Vedas authoritative. If we cannot accept, at least theoretically, that as an incarnation of God Vyasadeva is above the four defects, then there is no reason to give special attention to His Vedanta-sutra or any of the Vedic books. Certainly Sankaracarya, whose very mission was to reestablish the Vedic authority, weakened his position by correcting Vyasadeva. It is the Buddhists he was working to reform who believe that the Vedas were compiled by ordinary defective beings. Sankaracarya contradicted Vyasadeva only because the Vedas are clearly theistic and personal, something Sankaracarya’s Buddhist audiences would not have been able to swallow.

“Sankaracarya has misled the world,” Lord Chaitanya explained, “by commenting that Vyasadeva was mistaken. Thus he has raised great opposition to theism throughout the world.”

What, according to Sankaracarya, was Vyasadeva’s big mistake? The Vedanta-sutra begins by defining God or the Absolute Truth as the changeless origin of everything, the cause of all causes. Janmady asya yatah. That’s fine, the Mayavadis think. The Absolute is the origin of consciousness, of life, of spirit, the origin of everything eternal and real. But the Mayavadis balk at Vyasadeva’s assertion that the material creation also emanates from God. The material creation, with all its oceans, mountains, creatures, planets, and atomic and subatomic particles, is infinite, varied, and complete. If all this stuff is the energy of God, they reason, then He has either greatly depleted Himself in its creation, or has transformed Himself into the creation. In either case the changeless Absolute would have changed, making it a relative, illusory thing, like the material world itself. Vyasadeva, the literary incarnation of God, was therefore obviously mistaken, the Mayavadis contend, in saying that the universe is composed of the energies of the Supreme.

To rectify God’s mistake, the Mayavadis say that the material world is false. Brahma satyam jagan mithya. Brahman, or eternal spirit, is truth, while the temporary material world is untruth. It is an unreal dream. It does not exist and so does not need to be accounted for. We ignorantly mistake the material universe as real just as in the dark we might mistake a rope for a snake. Absolutely everything here is illusion, the Mayavadis believe, with the one tiny exception of their own words.

Cut off from authorized disciplic succession, the Mayavadis are victims of their defective material reasoning. Material things change or dissipate as they give off energy. Your gas tank and your bank balance reduce to nothing as you spend money and drive your car. The original tree disappears as it is sawed into lumber and further transformed into furniture and houses. But the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, is not material. The Upanishads describe Him as a transcendental person with unlimited, inexhaustible energies. Because He is infinite and complete, His creations, such as the phenomenal material world, are also infinite and complete.

om purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adaya
purnam evavashishyate

“The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal material world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance.”

Despite the vastness of His creations, Lord Krishna remains complete and unchanged. As a businessman spreads his limited financial and managerial assets to run a corporation, so the Supreme expands His unlimited potencies to create the material and spiritual worlds. That is what it means to say that God is omnipotent. The unlimited and inconceivable potencies of the Supreme is the central point of the Vaishnava, or personalist, philosophy taught by Lord Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.

Like spirit, the material universe is also true, because it is composed of the energies of the Supreme Truth. This world is not false, as the Mayavadis say. Although temporary and in flux, the universe is real. We are eternal spiritual individuals, distinct from our temporary bodies, and part of Krishna’s superior spiritual energy. The material elements that make up our bodies and the rest of the universe are part of Krishna’s material energy. Nothing but these two categories of Krishna’s energy, spiritual and material, make up the universe. Both energies, both the rope and the snake, to use the Mayavadi example, are real. It is mistaking one for the other that is false. It is false to mistake our selves for our bodies, as the gross materialists do, because the bodies are temporary vehicles for our eternal selves. And it is false to think of our individuality as a product of the soul’s contact with the body, as the Mayavadis do, because we are eternally individual parts of the supreme individual, the Supreme Brahman, Krishna.

The Psychology of the Mayavadi

“In all the Vedic sutras [codes] and books, Lord Krishna is to be understood,” Lord Chaitanya explained to the assembled Mayavadis. “To prove their philosophy, the followers of Sankaracarya have covered the real meaning of the Vedas with indirect explanations based on their imaginative powers.”

Mayavadis, or materialists trying to imagine an eternal blissful life, have had a tough time in the material world. Things here are temporary and full of misery. Suffering comes from our own bodies and minds, from the forces of nature, and especially from other people, including loved ones. People here are full of faults and even the most picture-perfect storybook love affair must realistically end in old age, disease, and death. All the endless varieties of personalities and situations produce tiny bits of pleasure on a background of pain. So when we turn our imaginative powers to spiritual life, we imagine that it must be a life without people and without variety. We find comfort in the idea of losing our individuality and merging with an eternal impersonal spirit. No personality. No variety. No suffering.

A patient long suffering from a painful physical disease sometimes asks a doctor to end his life. He wants to destroy the disease, but out of hopelessness he thinks killing the body is the only solution. In the same way, because our material personalities give us pain, we want to commit spiritual suicide by ending our personalities, and the Mayavadis, the Dr. Kevorkians of spiritual life, are here to help with their imaginative impersonal interpretations of Vedanta.

Lord Chaitanya admonished the Kevorkian Vedantists of Varanasi.

“Brahman,” He said, “is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the reservoir of ultimate truth and absolute knowledge.”

Won Over by the Lord

Prakashananda and the other Mayavadis had always vigorously rejected such an explanation of Vedanta, but here was the Personality of Godhead Himself sitting before them and directly exhibiting His unlimited potencies, in particular His humility, His extraordinary beauty, His truthfulness, and His transcendental knowledge. Lord Chaitanya explained each sutra of the Vedanta-sutra in terms of devotion to Krishna, with the former Mayavadis pleased to hear everything He said. Before lunch they happily joined the Lord in the formerly scandalous activity of chanting Hare Krishna. Then, seating the Lord in their midst, they took their meal together.

After this incident, word spread that Prakashananda Saraswati and the other Mayavadis of Varanasi had embraced Lord Chaitanya’s path of chanting the holy names. Many scholars and curious people would come to see the Lord where He was staying. As all of them could not crowd into Chandrashekhara’s house, they used to line the streets as Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu daily made His way to the temples of Vishvanatha and Bindhu Madhava.

One day shortly after the luncheon meeting, Prakashananda and his disciples joined a tumultuous crowd chanting and dancing with Lord Chaitanya in the courtyard of the Bindhu Madhava temple. Noticing Prakashananda, the Lord stopped the chanting to greet him affectionately, and at Prakashananda’s request they had further talks on the Vedanta-sutra. Not long after that, Lord Chaitanya returned to His headquarters in Jagannatha Puri, where He remained from then on.

Today in Varanasi there is a big banyan tree near the temple of Bindhu Madhava, the same tree in whose shade Lord Chaitanya used to rest after lunch. The old temple of Bindhu Madhava was dismantled by Emperor Aurangzeb and replaced by a mosque, but a new temple was built nearby. There is no sign of the houses of Chandrashekhara or Tapana Mishra, where Lord Chaitanya stayed, nor any sign of the fortunate and humble sannyasi Prakashananda Saraswati, who discussed Vedanta with the Supreme Brahman over lunch.

World Views: Vedic vs. Western

In The Late Eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European scholars and scientists began to come in contact with the culture of India. Many were impressed by the antiquity of Vedic civilization and the deep spiritual and material knowledge contained in the Vedic literature. But other European intellectuals were dismayed by these developments. For example, in 1825 the British scholar John Bentley wrote of his conflict with the scientist John Playfair, who was an admirer of Indian culture:

By his [Playfair’s] attempt to uphold the antiquity of Hindu books against absolute facts, he thereby supports all those horrid abuses and impositions found in them, under the pretended sanction of antiquity.… Nay, his aim goes still deeper; for by the same means he endeavors to overturn the Mosaic account, and sap the very foundation of our religion: for if we are to believe in the antiquity of Hindu books, as he would wish us, then the Mosaic account is all a fable, or a fiction.1

For Bentley, a devout Christian, the matter was simple. The Mosaic account in the Bible says that the earth was created in about 4004 B.C., and it completely contradicts the Vedic scriptures. Therefore, either the Bible or the Vedic scriptures must be false.

Bentley and pioneer Indologists such as Sir William Jones and Max Muller worked hard, and quite successfully, to convince people that the Vedic scriptures are nothing but fables and fiction. They started a school of thought that is solidly established in modern universities, both in Western countries and in India itself. One of the teachings of this school is that all Vedic literature, from the Rig Veda to the Puranas, is essentially a fraudulent concoction written in recent times.

In the early days of Indology, writers such as Bentley openly expressed the opinion that the authors of the Vedic scriptures were impostors, cheaters, and superstitious fools. Today scholars customarily express these conclusions in moderate language, which often gives the impression that they are favorably disposed toward Vedic culture. But the conclusions are the same. For example, Clifford Hospital teaches at Queen’s University at Kingston in Canada, and he has been principal of the Theological College since 1983. In a recent interview conducted by the Vaishnava scholar Steven Rosen, he discusses the date of the Srimad- Bhagavatam:

Steven Rosen: And it [the Bhagavatam] predates Vopadeva?
Dr. Hospital: Oh yes. Absolutely. On a separate note, though, what’s interesting about their [J. A. B. van Buitenen’s and Friedholm Hardy’s] work is that they do a detailed analysis about the relation between certain parts of the Bhagavata and the South Indian Alvar tradition. I think they make a very good case for what people have long suspected: that many of the ideas of the Bhagavata are coming out of the South Indian tradition.

The point here is that if many of the ideas of the Bhagavatam come from the medieval Alvar tradition of South India, then the Bhagavatam was not composed five thousand years ago by Vyasadeva. Since the text of the Bhagavatam says that it was composed by Vyasadeva, Dr. Hospital’s comment is tantamount to saying that the real author of the Bhagavatam was a fraud. But Dr. Hospital says it nicely, without using harsh language.

All Indologists, historians, and archaeologists in modern universities agree that there was no civilization in the Ganges basin of India five thousand years ago. To say that there was such a civilization is considered utterly indefensible. This means that no modern-day scholar can say that the pastimes of Krishna recounted in the Bhagavatam and the Mahabharata really happened. According to accepted scholarly conclusions, the civilization in which those pastimes are said to have occurred simply did not exist. The stories of that civilization are mythological and were gradually invented over the centuries, beginning with early versions of the Mahabharata in the third century B.C. and culminating in the Bhagavatam in perhaps the ninth century A.D.

Indologists often say that ancient Indians were content with fables and had no interest in recording history. Yet some traditional Vedic scholars strongly disagree with this. For example, Pandit Kota Vankatachela has written a book giving an unbroken sequence of kings of Magadha from the time of the Mahabharata up to the invasion of India by Muhammad Ghori in 1193 A.D. He uses the Puranas and related Sanskrit texts to give dates for the reigns of these kings. The table on page 18 lists the kings and the dates of their reigns, from Jarasandha to the dynasty of Candragupta Maurya.

According to Vankatachela’s presentation, recorded history in India extends all the way back from the Middle Ages to the time of the battle of Kurukshetra. But his dates disagree with accepted scholarly conclusions. For example, note that the dates for the reign of Candragupta Maurya are 1534-1500 B.C. According to the Indologists, Candragupta Maurya was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in 326 B.C. They would reject Vankatachela’s list of kings as largely fictitious.

What is the truth? To find out with reasonable certainty requires extensive research. Indologists have written hundreds of books and scholarly articles expounding their views, and these need to be carefully studied. Historical information is found in many Sanskrit texts, including major and minor Puranas, commentaries on Puranas, and related works. Other sources should also be researched—temple records, jyotishashastras, calendrical records, the works of traditional panditas such as Vankatachela, and finally, archaeological evidence and records from other ancient civilizations.

One of the key stratagems of the early Indologists was to use science as a weapon to show the absurdity of Vedic scriptures. They observed that to break people’s faith in the philosophical and metaphysical teachings of the scriptures is difficult, since these involve subjects beyond the reach of our senses. But by showing that the scriptures give an unscientific account of observable natural phenomena, Indologists could make people lose faith in all scriptural teachings. Bentley made this point in connection with the science of astronomy:

It is by the investigation of truth, and the exposure of Brahminical impositions, which can only be done through the means of astronomy, that the labours of those who are laudably endeavoring to introduce true religion and morality [i.e. Christianity] among the Hindus can have their true and beneficial effect. So long as the impositions and falsehoods contained in the Hindu books, which the common people are made to believe are the productions of their ancient sages, are suffered to remain unexposed, little progress can be expected to be made: but let the veil be withdrawn, uncover the impositions by true and rational investigation, and the cloud of error will of itself disappear; and then they will be not only more ready, but willing to adopt and receive the word of truth.4

Since Bentley’s time, Indologists have tried hard to show that Indian astronomy consists of unscientific ideas originating in India, and misrepresented scientific ideas borrowed from the Greeks and the Babylonians.

We can argue that this is not correct, but much research is needed. A beginning has been made with the publication of our book Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy.

As it turned out, the strategy of using science to discredit the Vedic scriptures backfired. Science was also used to discredit Christianity. As a result, many of today’s Indologists tend to take a secular stance, and reject the Vedic literature as false, not because it disagrees with Christianity, but because it disagrees with fundamental tenets of modern science. Likewise, instead of becoming ready to receive the Christian “word of truth,” college- educated people in India now accept the mechanistic world view of modern science. The impact of modern scientific thinking on people’s understanding of Vedic literature is shown by the following remarks by Dr. H. Daniel Smith, a professor of religion at Syracuse University. He comments on the Ramayana:

Dr. Smith: Well, to get right down to basics, it has to do with how one understands the word avatara, more specifically, in what sense, if any, the avatara of Rama was historical. If so, when? If so, where?
Steven Rosen: They say Treta-yuga.
Dr. Smith: That’s the answer given. And the literalists can even give a date, in July or something of such-and-such a year. And that’s fine for the believer—but it’s only one of several possible perspectives. You see, it’s that literalist commitment to the historicity of it—just as Christians are absolutely committed to the historicity of Jesus—that is at the crux of the matter.
Steven Rosen: Right.
Dr. Smith: Just as many Christians affirm that Jesus really did exist in Jerusalem in the year One, also many Hindus say with the Ramayana: Rama really did exist, and he lived in Ayodhya, and when he went, he went out to Lanka, and there he fought and defeated Ravana and laid low all the Rakshasa hosts. Now that’s a real tight bind that people put themselves in. Whereas on the other hand, another way of dealing with it is to say that it is all a myth. Now please don’t misunderstand me: this view doesn’t necessarily hold that the story is fictional; what it says is that the Ramayana is telling a story that doesn’t have to be taken literally on all counts, and that it is basically a story, if nothing else, that tells us quite a bit about human nature.
Steven Rosen: And some believers take it like that?
Dr. Smith: Oh, indeed. Quite a few Hindus share that perspective—not many but there are definitely those who do. For example, how do college educated Hindus deal with it? Well some, to be sure, just go back to their childhoods, saying, ‘Oh Rama. Bless Rama.’ Others, however, do try to think in terms of mythic meaning, and try to probe for deep, psychological references in their own experiences.

Note the attempt to soften the blow: A myth is not necessarily fictional; it’s just a story that doesn’t have to be taken literally and that tells us something about human nature. The reasons Smith gives for calling the Ramayana a myth are significant. First, there is the problem of saying that Lord Ramacandra lived in Ayodhya in the Treta-yuga. This is ruled out by the Darwinian theory of evolution, which says that in that time period, more than 864,000 years ago, there were no humans of the modern type.

Careful research, however, can reveal evidence contrary to the accepted scientific view and in agreement with the Vedic picture. Drutakarma Dasa and I wrote a 900-page book, Forbidden Archeology, which gives extensive evidence showing that human beings of the modern type have been living on the earth for many millions of years.

Another problem raised by Smith is that if we take the Ramayana literally, then we are obliged to accept the existence of beings such as Rakshasas, endowed with remarkable mystical powers. Smith refers to the world of the Ramayana as a “Walt Disney world” of fantasy—a world that scientifically educated people can hardly take seriously. This problem applies to all the Vedic literature, which presents a view of reality that assumes the existence of mystic powers, beings with subtle bodies, transmigration of souls, and avataras of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

This too is an area where the findings of careful research support the Vedic world view. A great deal of evidence in the domain of the paranormal supports the reality of subtly embodied beings and mystic powers. Official science tends to reject this evidence because it violates accepted theories. Theoretical frameworks can change, however, and many eminent scientists have seriously studied paranormal phenomena. Research findings in the domain of the paranormal fit consistently into the Vedic world view. They give empirical support to the reality of the Vedic picture, and the Vedic literature provides a rational, scientific framework for understanding paranormal phenomena.


  1. Bentley, John, 1825, Historical View of the Hindu Astronomy, Osnabruck: Biblio Verlag, reprinted in 1970, p. xxvii.
  2. Rosen, Steven, 1992, Vaishnavism: Contemporary Scholars Discuss the Gaudiya Tradition, New York: Folk Books, p. 71.
  3. Vankatachela, Kota, 1957, Chronology of Ancient Hindu History, Arya Vijnana Grandhamala.
  4. Bentley, p. 213.
  5. Pingree, David, 1976, “The Recovery of Early Greek Astronomy from India,” Journal of the History of Astronomy, pp. 109-23.
  6. Thompson, Richard, 1989, Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
  7. Rosen, p. 42.
  8. Cremo, Michael, and Thompson, Richard, 1992, Forbidden Archeology, San Diego: Bhaktivedanta Institute.
  9. Drake, Stillman, 1978, Galileo at Work, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.