In Vivekananda Svami's famous lecture on
Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, he began by outlining
some of the salient features of traditional Hinduism. He mentioned
reincarnation, karma and the problem of evil in the material world.
He went on to explain that the solution to this problem depends
on seeking refuge in God. God is that one 'by whose command the
wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain, and death stalks upon
the earth.' He is source of strength and the support of the
universe. He is everywhere, pure, almighty, and all-merciful. We
are related to God as a child to a father or mother and as a friend
to a beloved friend.
Vivekananda said that we should worship
God through unselfish love and pointed out that the way to achieving
love of God was, 'fully developed and taught by Krsna, whom the
Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth. Through love we are to perfect ourselves,
reach God, see God, and enjoy bliss with God and that on this all
Hindus are agreed.' However, he went on to say that in the
final stage of realisation, God is seen to be impersonal Brahman
and the individual terminates its separate existence by realising
its identity with Brahman. Making an analogy with physical science
he commented, 'Physics would stop when it would be able to fulfil
its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are
but manifestations, and the science of religion (would) become perfect
when it would discover . One who is the only Soul of which all souls
are but delusive manifestations.'
The advantages and disadvantages of pure monism
Vivekananda's strictly monistic concept of God has a long history
and it has always been associated with the rational, speculative approach
to reality. For example, in the fifth century BC
the Greek philosopher Parmenides concluded by speculative arguments
that 'only One Thing can possibly exist and that this One Thing is
uncreated, unchangeable, indestructible, and immovable. Plurality,
creation, change, destruction, and motion are mere appearances.' Parmenides argued that the
One must have no parts distinct from one another, otherwise it would
be not One but many. He concluded that the One must be a sphere of
perfectly uniform substance. But even a sphere has an inside and an
outside, and so it is characterised by duality, not oneness. The idea
of absolute oneness, or pure monism, may seem alluring but it requires
us to give up all conceivable attributes and finally give up thought
and conceptualisation itself.
Vivekananda recognised this problem and he argued
that in Hindu philosophy specific forms of gods and goddesses serve
as symbols to help us visualise the inconceivable. Thus he said,
"The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realised,
or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images,
crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols, so many pegs
to hang the spiritual ideas on.'
The idea of religious imagery as a symbol
for the inconceivable absolute has some useful applications in the
modern age. Vivekananda was born in Calcutta in 1863 as Narendranath
Datta, and he grew up during the high noon of British dominance
in India. During this period European rationalism, based on the
famous French Enlightenment, made a strong impact on India. Reformers
like Rammohan Roy and Devendranath Tagore founded the Brahma Samaj
in an effort to revise Hinduism and make it compatible with modern
Western thinking. This effort required solving two problems:
(1) religious plurality, (2) the incompatibility between modern
science and old religious beliefs.
The old philosophy of pure monism, or advaita, is well
suited to solve these problems. First of all, if religious imagery
has only a symbolical meaning that refers to something inconceivable
then many different systems of symbols should work equally well for
this purpose. In this way, all major religious systems can be reconciled
with one another. This was Vivekananda's idea, and he greatly stressed
the equality of all religions. Likewise, if religious imagery is simply
symbolical then there is no question of a conflict between religion
and science. A religious story that seems to conflict with established
scientific facts can simply be interpreted as a symbolic representation
of the One lying beyond the grasp of the finite scientific mind. In
addition, Vivekananda pointed out that the stark simplicity of the
impersonal Brahman is compatible with the simplicity that physicists
seek in their hoped-for Grand Unified Theory of nature. But in pure
monism what becomes of love of God, or indeed, love of anyone? If
the ultimate reality is undifferentiated oneness, and personal existence
is illusory, then love is also illusory. Love requires two, and not
just two of anything. Two persons are required for a relationship
of love. If such relationships actually have spiritual reality then
there must exist at least two eternally existing spiritual personalities.
In traditional Hindu thought there are, in fact, two categories of
eternal persons: (1) the jiva souls that inhabit individual
material bodies, (2) the original Supreme Personality of Godhead and
His innumerable spiritual expansions. As Vivekananda pointed out,
Hindus believe that the Supreme Being incarnated on earth as Krsna,
Who expounded the principles of loving devotional reciprocation between
Himself and individual jiva souls. Unfortunately, after making
this point, Vivekananda rejected both Krsna and the individual soul
as illusion. According to his monistic approach to religion, all conceivable
features of the Absolute are ruled out. Beingness, knowledge and bliss
are three, and they must be discarded from the One as earthbound misconceptions.
The same is true of the might and mercy of the Lord. Likewise, all
relationships of personal reciprocation admiration, friendship, parental
or conjugal love must be given up as delusions if the real truth is
The Vaisnava alternative given by Bhaktivinode Thakura
It is therefore natural to ask if some other
solution is available to the spiritual problems posed by modern
rational thought and the multiplicity of religious systems. To explore
this possibility, I now turn to the life of BhaktivinodeThakura,
a contemporary of Svami Vivekananda.
Bhaktivinode Thakurawas born in 1838 as Kedaranath
Datta in the Nadia district of West Bengal. As a young man he acquired
an English education, and he often exchanged thoughts on literary
and spiritual topics with Devendranath Tagore, the Brahma Samaj
leader and early teacher of Vivekananda. In due course, he studied
law, and for many years supported his family as a magistrate in
the British court system.
Bhaktivinode Thakura deeply studied the
religious thought of his day. He scrutinised the works of European
philosophers and he was greatly impressed with the devotional teachings
of Jesus Christ. At first, his Western education inclined him to
look down on the Vaisnava literature describing devotional service
to the Supreme Lord, Krsna. Indeed, he wrote that the Bhagavat,
one of the main texts describing Krsna, 'seemed like a repository
of ideas scarcely adopted to the nineteenth century.'
However, at a certain point he read about
the great Vaisnava reformer Lord Caitanya, and he was able to obtain
Lord Caitanya's commentary on the Bhagavat given to the advaita
Vedantists of Benares. This created in him a great love for
the devotional teachings of Krsna as presented by Caitanya. Eventually he achieved an
exalted state of spiritual realisation by following Lord Caitanya's
teachings and wrote many books presenting these teachings to various
classes of people, both in India and abroad.
A historical interlude
Before discussing Bhaktivinode Thakura's spiritual teachings it will
be useful to give an explicit idea of the intellectual climate in
which he was operating in late nineteenth-century Bengal. To do this,
I will quote a passage from the writings of Sir William Jones, a jurist
who worked for the British East India company and was the first president
of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. In an article on Hindu chronology
written in 1788, Jones gave the following account of the close of
Dvapara-yuga, the third age in the chronology of the Puranas
and the Mahabharata: I cannot leave the third Indian
age in which the virtues and vices of mankind are said to have been
equal, without observing, that even the close of it is manifestly
fabulous and poetical, with hardly more appearance of historical truth,
than the tale of Troy, or of the Argonauts; for Yudhisthira,
it seems, was the son of Dherma, the Genius of Justice; Bhima
of Pavan, or the God of Wind; Arjun of Indra, or the Firmament;
Nacul and Sahadeva of the Cumars, the Castor and Pollux of India;
and Bhishma, their reputed great uncle, was the child of Ganga, or
the Ganges, by Santanu, whose brother Devapi is supposed to be still
alive in the city of Calapa; all which fictions may be charming embellishments
of an heroic poem, but are just as absurd in civil history, as the
descent of two royal families from the Sun and the Moon. What Jones is referring to here is the story
in the Mahabharata of the events occurring in India at the
time of Krsna's advent. According to Hindu tradition these events
took place about five thousand years ago, at the time when the Dvapara-yuga
gave way to the present epoch, the Kali-yuga. Yudhisthira,
Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva are the five Pandava brothers
who appeared in many of Krsna's pastimes.
We can see from Jones's comments that he does
not regard the story of the Pandavas as true history. Why not? For
many of us the problem is that the story contains elements that
are simply not credible to a person trained in the modern rational
viewpoint. We know that people don't descend from demigods. All
documents containing such nonsense are rejected by responsible historians
and consequently objective historical accounts do not contain such
absurdities. Such things never happened and our history books abundantly
confirm this. Jones was clearly thinking along these lines but he
was not exactly a modern rationalist. Jones was a Christian who
believed fully in the Mosaic chronology based on the Bible.
Table 1 shows how Jones attempted to reconstruct Hindu chronology
so as to bring it in line with Christian chronology. It appears
that Jones was able to scorn Hindu mythology as palpably absurd,
while at the same time accepting as true the supernatural events
recorded in the Bible.
Table 1. Reconstruction of Hindu chronology
by Sir William Jones
Ages I, II, III, and IV are the Satya-, Treta-, Dvapara-, and Kali-yugas.
Manu I is Svayambhuva Manu. Manu II is Vaivasvata Manu.
|| Manu I, Age I
|| Manu II
|| Hiranyakasipu, Age II
|| Age III
| Noah's death
| Buddha, Age IV
It is perhaps poetic justice that the same
scornful treatment that Jones applied to the Mahabharata was
soon applied to the Bible. During Jones's lifetime, the 'higher'
scientific criticism of the Bible was being developed in
Germany and it was unleashed in England in the mid-nineteenth century.
In 1860, the Anglican theologians Benjamin Jowett and Baden Powell
stole attention from Darwin's newly published book On the Origin
of Species by a controversial essay that rejected miracles on
scientific grounds.  The Darwinists and the
higher Biblical critics quickly joined forces, and Darwin's supporter
Thomas Huxley began quoting German Biblical scholars in his essays
on the interpretation of Genesis. As the nineteenth century drew to a close rational,
scientific scepticism became the only acceptable path for a scholar
or intellectual in any respectable field of study.
Bhaktivinode Thakura was confronted with this
hostile intellectual climate in his efforts to present spiritual
knowledge to the young Bengali intellectuals of his day. After imbibing
the ideas of William Jones and other Western orientalists from their
British teachers, these young people were not at all inclined to
give credence to old mythology. How then could the teachings of
Krsna on love of God be presented? Bhaktivinode Thakura judiciously
chose to give a partial presentation of the truth which would introduce
important spiritual ideas without invoking rejection due to deep-seated
In a lecture delivered in Dinajpur, West
Bengal in 1869, he strongly stressed the Bhagavat,
or Bhagavata Purana, as the pre-eminent text describing
the nature of the Supreme and the means of realising our relation
with the Supreme. Rejecting pure monism as a useless idea, he pointed
out that God is an eternal person: 'The Bhagavat has
... a Transcendental, Personal, All-intelligent, Active, absolutely
Free, Holy, Good, All-powerful, Omnipresent, Just and Merciful and
supremely Spiritual Deity without a second, creating, preserving
all that is in the universe.' He believed the highest object of the soul was
to 'serve that Infinite Being for ever spiritually in the activity
of Absolute Love.'
Bhaktivinode described the material world as the product of maya
(the eternal energy of the Supreme which He uses to bewilder those
souls who do not desire to live in harmony with Him). The creation
of the material world through maya is actually an aspect of
the Lord's mercy since He thereby allows independent-minded souls
to carry out their activities in a world from which God is apparently
absent. All these ideas are taken from the Bhagavat without
modification. However, in describing what the Bhagavat says
about the details of the material universe, Bhaktivinode Thakura adopted
an indirect approach:
In the common-place books of the Hindu
religion in which the Raja and Tama Gunas have been described as
the ways of religion, we find description of a local heaven and
a local hell; the heaven is as beautiful as anything on earth and
the Hell as ghastly as any picture of evil ... The religion of the
Bhagavat is free from such a poetic imagination. Indeed,
in some of the chapters we meet with descriptions of these hells
and heavens, and accounts of curious tales, but we have been warned
in some place in the book not to accept them as real facts but to
treat them as inventions to overawe the wicked and to improve the
simple and the ignorant.
In fact, the Bhagavat does ascribe reality to hells and heavens
and their inhabitants. It describes in great detail the higher planetary
systems and the various demigods who live there including Brahma,
Siva, and Indra. Not only does the Bhagavat say that these
beings are real, but it gives them an important role in the creation
and maintenance of the universe as well as appearing in many of Krsna's
manifest pastimes (lilas) within the material world. For example,
in the story of the lifting of Govardhana Hill, it is Indra who creates
a devastating storm when Krsna insults him by interfering with a sacrifice
in his honour.
Nonetheless, Bhaktivinode Thakura chose
to side-step these 'mythological' aspects of the Bhagavat in
an effort to reach an audience of intellectuals whose mundane education
ruled out such mythology as absurd fantasy. Indeed, he went even
further than this. In 1880 he published a treatise entitled Sri
Krsna Samhita in which he elaborately explained the philosophy
of Krsna consciousness. In this book
he also presented a reconstruction of Indian history similar to
the one introduced by Sir William Jones to bring Hindu chronology
into line with the Mosaic timetable of the Bible (see Table
1). This involved converting demigods and Manus into human kings
and reducing their total span of history to a few thousand earthly
I should clearly point out that Bhaktivinode Thakura did not personally
accept the modified version of the Bhagavat presented to the
Bengali intellectuals, but rather accepted the so-called mythology
of the Bhagavat as true. He presented it as such in many of
his writings, for example Jaiva Dharma:
I have said that the Vaisnava religion came
into being as soon as the creatures came into existence. Brahma
was the first Vaisnava. Sriman Mahadeva is also a Vaisnava. The
ancient Prajapaties are all Vaisnavas. Sri Narada Goswami who is
the fancy-born child of Brahma, is a Vaisnava ... You have seen
the Vaisnava religion of the beginning of the creation. Then again
when Gods, men, demons, etc., have been separately described, we
get Prahlada and Dhruva from the very start ... Manu's sons and
Prahlada are all grandsons of Prajapati, Kashyapa ... There is no
doubt about it ... that the pure Vaisnava religion began with the
beginning of history. Then the kings of the solar and lunar dynasties
and all great and famous sages and hermits became devotees of Vishnu.
This passage was written in response to challengers who argue that
Vaisnava dharma is a recent development. The passage presumes that
beings such as Brahma, Mahadeva, Narada and Prahlada literally exist
as described in the sastras. Many similar examples of this
can be found in Bhaktivinode Thakura's writings.
If Bhaktivinode Thakura accepted the literal
truth of the sastras, how could he justify making
presentations in which he denied it? His grand-disciple Srila A.
C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has pointed out that there is
a precedent for making such indirect presentations of sastra.
An interpretation of a text which adheres directly to the dictionary
definitions of its words is called mukhya-vrtti, whereas
an imaginary or indirect interpretation is known as laksana-vrtti
or gauna-vrtti. Srila Prabhupada pointed out: 'Sometimes
. as a matter of necessity, Vedic literature is described in terms
of the laksana-vrtti or gauna-vrtti, but one should
not accept such explanations as permanent truths.' In general, therefore,
one should understand sastra in terms of mukhya-vrtti.
The theology of visions
One might accept that Bhaktivinode Thakura was justified in modifying
the sastras in an effort to reach intellectuals trained to
scorn old mythology, but serious questions still need to be raised:
what is the scope for making such a presentation of religion today
and to what extent can such a presentation be regarded as true? Could
it be that the mythological material in the Hindu sastras is
unimportant, so that one might present it as true to people who believe
in it and as false to people who don't? Or should we accept, on the
basis of modern knowledge, that Hindu mythology really is false and
try to formulate a philosophy that preserves the essential idea of
love of God while dispensing with superannuated ideas?
To answer these questions,
let us see how we would have reformulate Vaisnava philosophy so
as to make it readily acceptable to intellectuals today in late
twentieth-century America. To do this we must deviate to some extent
from the prevailing materialistic framework of modern science. Physical
scientists tell us that the mind, with all its conscious experiences,
is simply a product of the brain. If we accept this, then all religious
experience, whether it be the bliss of Brahman or prema bhakti,
is simply hallucination. If this is true we can forget about religion
unless, of course, we like hallucinations. For an alternative viewpoint,
I will turn to the psychologist William James, a nineteenth century
scientist who applied the methods of empirical scientific research
to the phenomena of religion. Thus his observations are still of
relevance today. As a result of his studies, James reached the following
The further limits of our being plunge,
it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence
from the sensible and merely 'understandable' world. Name it the
mystical region, or the supernatural region, whichever you choose
... Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal, for it
produces effects in this world. When we commune with it, work is
actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into
new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural
world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects
within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel
as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical
One could take this idea of a mystical or transcendental dimension
and arrive at the following version of Vaisnava philosophy: such a
transcendental region does exist and it is the eternal abode of Krsna.
Advanced souls can perceive this realm in meditation by the grace
of Krsna and so they are able to enter into Krsna's eternal loving
pastimes. However, all Puranic descriptions of events within the material
world have to be understood rationally on the basis of modern scientific
knowledge. On the whole, the mythological stories in the Puranas
are not literally true. But the stories pertaining to Krsna's pastimes
are not simply fantasy. Rather they are spiritual transmissions into
the meditative minds of great souls and they refer not to this world,
but to the purely transcendental domain.
This is a philosophy that might appeal
to many persons and I will refer to it as the theology of visions.
It allows one to retain the idea of love of God, while at the same
time avoiding disturbing conflicts between mythological tales and
modern knowledge. It also appears implicitly in the work of some
modern scholars of religion who study the bhakti tradition.
By way of illustration I will briefly consider an article, Shrines
of the Mind, by David Haberman Assistant Professor of
Religion at Williams College, which argues that Vraja,
the traditional place of Krsna's manifest lilas, is
first and foremost a mental shrine, a realm that can be entered
and experienced in meditation. According to Haberman, the physical
Vraja, a tract of land in the vicinity of the North Indian city
of Mathura, has only been a major centre for the worship of Krsna
since the sixteenth century when the followers of Caitanya Mahaprabhu
and other Vaisnavas 'rediscovered' the lost sites of Krsna's pastimes.
Haberman states that these sites never really existed before the
sixteenth century and weren't 'rediscovered' but 'projected' onto
the physical landscape of Vraja from the transcendental landscape
perceived in meditation.
Haberman gives a number of interpretations
of what happens when a person meditates on a mental shrine. These
range from the contemplation of imaginary scenes in the ordinary
sense to entry into 'an eternal transcendent world which is perceptible
only to the mind's eye and is reached through meditative technique.'
Since Haberman seems to lean somewhat towards the latter, it could
be said that he is hinting at a version of the theology of visions:
one can enter into Krsna's transcendental world by meditation, but
Krsna never had any actual pastimes in the physical world. Physical,
worldly history followed the lines revealed by modern scholarship.
This means that many centuries ago in Vraja there may have been
various primitive tribes following animistic cults, but there was
no Krsna literally lifting Govardhana Hill.
Although it allows one to avoid certain conflicts between religion
and modern scholarship, this theory has a number of drawbacks:1. It
is contrary to Vaisnava tradition, and thus it challenges the thinking
of the many great souls who have fully supported the tradition. Since
these great souls are the very meditators who have seen transcendental
visions of Krsna, the reality of such visions is called into question.
In other words, why should persons who see the Absolute realm believe
in the truth of myths which even worldly scholars deem to be false?
2. It doesn't explain why the worship of Krsna should be a recent
affair, as scholars claim. If there is an eternal realm of Krsna that
can be accessed by meditation, why did people begin to access it only
3. What does it say about the multiplicity of
religions? Are the visions reported in other religious traditions
real? If not, then why is it that Vaisnava visions alone are real?
If so, are there many transcendental realms, one for each religion?
Or is it that people see in one transcendental realm whatever they
are looking for?
4. It greatly limits the power of God. If God
only appears in visions, what becomes of His role as the creator
and controller of the universe, which is reduced to practically
nothing if we let modern science explain the material world.
5. The theology of visions can easily be transformed into a purely
psychological theory of religious experience. After all, this is the
view that will be overwhelmingly favoured by psychologists, neuroscientists
and physical scientists.
In view of the statements contained in
the first four points, the conclusion drawn in the final one is
almost unavoidable: we are left with a totally mundane theory that
explains away religion. In the case of Krsna's lilas, this
line of thinking leads us to particularly unpleasant conclusions.
Thus Haberman characterises meditation on Krsna lila as follows:
'The desired end is a religious voyeurism and vicarious enjoyment
said to produce infinite bliss.' Such sad conclusions
are avoided in the more balanced approach taken by traditional Vaisavas,
who stress Krsna's roles as the Supreme Creator and the performer
of humanly impossible pastimes on earth.
Shifting the boundary between myth and science
Yet if we start from the theology of visions
and proceed in the inductive manner of scholars, we can see how
it could serve as a stepping stone for the development of a more
satisfactory theory. The starting point for this development is
a story that Haberman related about the Vaisnava saint Narottama
dasa Thakura.  It seems that Narottama
was once meditating on boiling milk for Radha and Krsna. When the
milk boiled over in his meditation, he took the vessel off the fire
with his bare hands and was burned in the process. When Narottama
awoke from his meditation, he discovered that his hands were actually
There are many stories like this, and I
will briefly relate two others. In the second story, Srinivasa Acarya,
a contemporary of Narottama dasa Thakura, was meditating on fanning
Lord Caitanya. In his meditation, Lord Caitanya placed His garland
around Srinivasa's neck. When he awoke from meditation, the unusually
fragrant garland was actually around his neck. In the third story a Vaisnava saint
named Duhkhi Krsna Dasa was sweeping the site of Krsna's rasa
dance in Vraja. He found a remarkable golden anklet and hid
it, thinking it very important. An old lady subsequently came to
him and asked for the anklet. It turned out that the old lady was
really Lalita, one of the transcendental maidservants of Radha and
Krsna. The lady finally revealed that the anklet belonged to Radha
Herself, and then she manifested her true form as Lalita.
What are we to make of such stories? The
story of the burnt hands might be accepted by many scholars. After
all, it is well known that Catholics meditating on the crucifixion
of Christ sometimes develop stigmata, in which the wounds of Christ
appear on their hands and feet. If meditation can somehow cause
bleeding wounds, then perhaps it can also cause burns. The story
of the miraculous garland goes one step further: here a tangible
object is said to materialise. This may seem fantastic, but it turns
out that there is an extensive literature on materialisation. For
example Stephen Braude, Professor of Philosophy at the University
of Maryland, has argued that many cases of alleged materialisations
produced by spirit mediums are backed up by solid empirical evidence
which deserves serious study.
If materialisations by spiritualists could be factual, why not materialistions
by saintly persons?
This brings us to the third story. Although
this story seems 'far out', there are many similar stories in which
a transcendental personality appears to step into our material continuum,
perform some action and then disappear. Another example would be
the story from Caitanya-caritamrta in which Krsna, as a small
boy, approached the saint Madhavendra Puri, gave him a pot of milk
and then mysteriously disappeared. Madhavendra Puri drank the milk,
thus showing that it was tangible. Later that night he had a dream
in which Krsna revealed the location of the Gopala Deity which had
been originally installed by Krsna's grandson Vajra and had been
hidden during a Mohammedan attack. 
The stories of the burnt hand, the miraculous garland and the transcendental
visits are progressively harder to accept from a conventional scientific
standpoint. But it is hard to see how to draw a line between stories
of this kind that might possibly be true and ones that definitely
cannot be. In addition, all the stories seem to hint at energetic
exchanges between spiritual and material energy that might add an
important new chapter to our scientific knowledge, if only they could
be properly studied.
In studying a body of empirical evidence, we
always evaluate that evidence on the basis of our limiting assumptions.
In the end, the conclusions we derive from the evidence may reflect
our limiting assumptions as much as they reflect the evidence itself.
If the limiting assumptions change, then the conclusions will also
change, even though the body of evidence remains the same.
Consider what might happen if all the available
evidence regarding the history of human experience were to be studied,
not on the basis of nineteenth-century rationalism but of a new
science in which spiritual transformations of matter were considered
to be a real possibility. The result might be a completely different
picture of the past than the one now accepted by scholars. For one
thing, the objections that William Jones expressed about the story
of the Pandava brothers might not seem so weighty as they do from
a conventional scholarly viewpoint. If higher beings can step into
our continuum from another realm, then humans might well be descended
from such beings. This new picture of the past might prove to be
much more compatible with traditional spiritual teachings than the
one that now prevails.
However, there are some indications that a broader
approach to science may be developing. In the days of Vivekananda
and Bhaktivinode Thakura, it appeared that mechanistic, reductionistic
science was marching unimpeded from triumph to triumph, and many
people believed it would soon find explanations for everything.
But here in the late twentieth century, this triumphant march has
been checked on many different fronts by apparently insuperable
For example, physics looked like a closed
subject in the 1890s, but in the early decades of the twentieth
century it entered a phase of paradox and mystery with the development
of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. The mysteries of quantum
mechanics continue to inspire scientists to contemplate ideas that
would have seemed outrageously mystical at the turn of the century. Physics has now encountered
an even more serious obstacle: the bold architects of universal
physical theories are beginning to realise that these theories can
never be adequately tested by experiment. Thus the Harvard physicist Howard
Georgi characterised modern theoretical physics as 'recreational
mathematical theology'. 
In the mid-twentieth century, computer scientists believed they were
on the verge of proving that thought is mechanical, thereby fulfilling
La Mettrie's eighteenth century dream of man as machine. However,
in more recent years, even though computers have become more and more
powerful, the dream of simulating human intelligence seems to recede
further and further into the future.
With the discovery of the DNA spiral helix
by Watson and Crick in 1953, many scientists thought that the ultimate
secret of life had been revealed. Since then, molecular biologists
have had tremendous success in elucidating the molecular mechanisms
of living cells. But as molecular biology unveils the incredible
complexity of these high-precision mechanisms, the goal of explaining
the origin of life seems progressively more difficult to attain.
These are just a few of the many areas in which
the programme of mechanistic reductionism seems to be reaching ultimate
limits as the twentieth century draws to a close. Perhaps as a result
of these developments, many scientists are now showing a willingness
to consider theoretical ideas and areas of research that have been
traditionally taboo in the scientific community. For example, we
now find organisations of professional scientists openly studying
phenomena lying on the interface between physical science and the
realms of mysticism and the paranormal. Examples are the International
Association for New Science (IANS), the Society for Scientific Exploration
(SSE), the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and the International
Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM).
These organisations all sponsor regular scientific conferences.
Some of the phenomena studied by these groups seem very similar
to 'mythical' phenomena so often reported in old religious texts
and in recent accounts of religious experiences. A synergistic interaction
between scholars of religion and these new scientific organisations
might prove to be a valuable source of new insights for both groups
The direct presentation of Vaisnava teachings
We have discussed how Bhaktivinode Thakura found
it necessary to present a modified version of the Vaisnava teachings
to young Bengali intellectuals at the height of British political
and ideological imperialism. However, as the sun began to set on
the British empire his son and successor, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta
Sarasvati, began a vigorous programme of directly presenting the
Vaisnava conclusions throughout India. This programme was taken
abroad by his disciple, Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,
who boldly celebrated the ancient Ratha Yatra festival of Jagannatha
Puri in London's Trafalgar Square.
With the changing climate of scientific opinion, the time may have
come to openly introduce the traditional teachings of bhakti
to the world's intellectual communities. The once jarring conflicts
between rationalism and traditional religion may be progressively
reduced as science matures and becomes open to the study of mystical
phenomena. There may even exist the possibility of establishing an
approach to religion that is intellectually acceptable and at the
same time satisfies the soul's inner desire for love in a transcendental
relationship.This leaves us with one possible objection. Could it
be that the Vaisnava teachings, with their specific emphasis on Krsna
as the Supreme, are guilty of sectarian disregard for other religious
traditions? The answer is that, of course, any doctrine can be presented
in a narrow, sectarian way. However, as Bhaktivinode Thakura pointed
out in his essay on the Bhagavat, the Vaisnava teachings
are inherently broad-minded and acknowledge the value of all religious
systems, as illustrated in the following prayer from the Bhagavat:
O my Lord, Your devotees can see You through
the ears by the process of bona fide hearing, and thus their hearts
become cleansed, and You take Your seat there. You are so merciful
to Your devotees that You manifest Yourself in the particular eternal
form of transcendence in which they always think of You.
God appears to His devoted worshippers in many different forms, depending
on their particular desires. These forms include the different avataras
of Krsna described in traditional Vaisnava texts, but they are not
limited to these. Indeed, it is said that the different expansions
of the Supreme Personality of Godhead are uncountable and they cannot
be fully described in the finite scriptures of any one religious community.The
following verse gives some idea of the different religious communities
in the universe, as described by the Bhagavat:
From the forefathers headed by Bhrgu Muni
and other sons of Brahma appeared many children and descendants,
who assumed different forms as demigods, demons, human beings, Guhyakas,
Siddhas, Gandharvas, Vidyadharas, Caranas, Kindevas, Kinnaras, Nagas,
Kimpuru\sas, and so on. All of the many universal species, along
with their respective leaders, appeared with different natures and
desires generated from the three modes of material nature. Therefore,
because of the different characteristics of the living entities
within the universe, there are a great many Vedic rituals, mantras,
This statement is explicitly 'mythological',
and one can well imagine how Sir William Jones might have reacted
to it. However, it presents a grand picture of innumerable races
and societies within the universe, all of whom are given different
religious dispensations suitable for their particular situations
and natures. Here the word 'Vedic' cannot be limited to particular
Sanskrit texts that may be existing in India at the present time.
Rather, it refers to the sum total of religious systems revealed
by the infinite Supreme God for the sake of elevating innumerable
societies of divinely created beings.
As always, the distinguishing feature of the Vaisnava teachings is
that God is a real person and His variegated creation is also real.
Thus the Vaisnava approach to religious liberality is to regard all
genuine religions as real divine revelations. Likewise, the Vaisnava
teachings of love of God aim to establish a relationship of loving
service between the real individual soul and the Supreme Personality
of Godhead, the performer of real transcendental pastimes.
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