Saturday, September 20, 2014

RE: Srila Prabhupada's Book Changes

The Gold Standard


Deconstructionism is a theory of textual interpretation that challenges the belief in ultimate or objective meaning. It rejects claims to objective truth by asserting there is no direct, single interpretation of a literary work, but rather many valid interpretations, as the meaning of literature is dependent on the reader's experiences and the impersonal forces that surround the work's creation. At its core, it is decidedly "anti-metaphysical," and is therefore opposed by anyone who accepts the principle of absolutes, including the belief that bona fide religious texts are dictated by a supernatural being.

In the view of the deconstructionist, the author's intent is not particularly significant, as the work's meaning is defined by the reader's perception. Srila Prabhupada was not on board with this sort of open interpretation, "The author of a book knows very well what is the purpose of (his) book. That is my statement." In a lecture in Vrndavana in 1976, he elaborated on this point by referring to the book Shah Jahan by D.L. Raya. Shah Jahanappears to be the story of the Shah's son, Aurenzab. However, because Raya's intent was to show how all the exploits of Aurenzeb tortured the soul of his father, it is the Shah who is the main character and therefore the book is named Shah Jahan. Prabhupada quotes the author, "Because Shah Jahan was living, sitting in the Agra Fort as a prisoner, and all the reactions of Aurangzeb's activities, the killing of his other sons, usurping the empire, that was beating on his heart; therefore he was suffering. He is the hero."

This endorsement of direct, objective understanding of a text does not mean that there is no scope for new spiritual insights. These insights are invigorating and encouraged by Srila Prabhupada, and as such, he approved philosophical speculation. "Anyone may read Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagawatam repeatedly throughout his whole life and yet find in them new light of information." (SP purport SB 1.1.19) However, he carefully distinguished philosophical speculation from mental speculation by insisting such contemplations never lose their grounding in the clear explanations of the acaryas. The authorized meaning of the text must not be lost in the process. The deconstructionist, however, is really only limited in his interpretation of a book or passage by his own imagination.

The impropriety of relying on a reader's subjective perception to create new and fanciful meanings for a religious text is certainly familiar to all devotees. Nevertheless, over the years I have seen the same mistaken idea promoted (sometimes overtly, sometimes tacitly) in relation to creatively defining a person's spiritual position. As deconstructionism calls for the observer (reader) to be the arbitrator of what a text means, the same flawed practice of "constructing meaning" has been used as a process for determining a person's spiritual qualifications. As a result, devotees who lack the objective qualifications for accepting an exalted spiritual position are nevertheless "awarded" such transcendental status and heedlessly forge ahead on the "strength" of their followers' perceptions. But if anything is to be based on objective standards, would it not be the credentials for assuming the most esteemed spiritual posts? Without objective measures, every devotee swiftly becomes a "law unto himself", with the awesome power to create a spiritual master by his or her individual fiat.

It is essential to maintain unassailable objective standards, based on qualities of consciousness, as the basis for representing the Divine at the highest level. For example, a person must have manifestly transcended the four defects ("without trace of mistake, illusion, cheating, and imperfection" SB 1.3.25). If we abandon these, out of either expediency or vanity, and gauge a person's spiritual status via subjectively constructed measures, we are left with a form of spiritual anarchy. Consider it in this light, if we should take such a notion seriously, it would also necessarily work in the other direction— meaning, the self-realization of exalted souls such as Narada Muni would be somehow dependent on our acknowledgement!

The qualifications of a spiritual master, such as the above mentioned freedom from the four defects, are true and objective standards that require one to possess a state of consciousness untouched by the material energy. Real standards have nothing to do with what a conditioned soul believes or doesn't believe. In this domain, there is no place for the "construction" of anything, specifically none via a perceiver who sees the world through a conditioned mind and imperfect senses.

If I can be allowed to make a poetic leap, the entire enterprise all seems sadly akin to Berkeley's idealism, a philosophy that can be debunked, as they say, with a wooden bat in a dark closet. The point being, there is a world that exists independent of our perceptions. Imagining doesn't make it so. Krishna defines what is real and we are well-served to follow His guiding principles. True knowledge is reality distinct from illusion, and so it is that both the objective standards for understanding sacred texts, as well as the objective standards for recognizing people of super-consciousness, must be eternally preserved and treasured. It is non-negotiable.

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