Do the Scriptures Have Multiple Meanings?

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The spectrum of scriptural messages is broad and is not limited to one purpose or audience.

Imagine a prism held in sunlight. The rays of the sun pass through the prism, which separates the rays into the attractive colors of the rainbow. Some people are fascinated by one of the colors produced, while other people are attracted to a different color or even all the colors. Similarly, the verses and pastimes presented in the scriptures manifest various meanings, and in a particular instance some people may see or favor one meaning while others see various meanings. The prismatic perspectives of the scriptures reveal messages at different levels relevant for multiple audiences. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami writes in Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 24.318), krishna-tulya bhagavata—vibhu, sarvashraya / prati-shloke prati-akshare nana artha kaya: “Srimad-Bhagavatam is as great as Krishna, the Supreme Lord and shelter of everything. In each and every verse of Srimad-Bhagavatam and in each and every syllable, there are various meanings.” For instance, the great Vaishnava commentator Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura explains the first verse of the Bhagavatam in five wonderful ways. And Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explained to Sanatana Goswami a vital verse of the Bhagavatam (1.7.10), popularly known as the atmarama verse, in sixty-one ways. Similarly, the scriptures reveal various reasons, some confidential and some general, for the activities of the Supreme Lord, His incarnations, and His devotees.

Are All Meanings Relevant?

One object looks different when seen from different angles or when considered in terms of its various uses. All the different visions of the object's form may not reveal its complete form, consideration of its different uses may not manifest its full potential, certain uses are relevant only for certain purposes, and some visions may be misleading, some uses irrelevant.

Similarly, the pastimes of the Supreme Lord and His exalted devotees are enacted for various divine and human purposes, and they are often not limited to one particular reason. Enlightened Vaishnava commentators often explain multiple purposes behind a scriptural episode involving the Lord or His devotee. But unscrupulous commentators screw out various irrelevant meanings to suit their own purposes. A meaning that aligns with the conclusions of enlightened Vaishnava philosophers is bona fide, while contrary interpretations are not.

When given by the Vaishnava acharyas, the multiple explanations of, or perspectives on, the same scriptural statement or episode should not be seen as contradiction, but as variety indicating the richness of the literature and the Sanskrit language. By carefully and faithfully studying the scriptures with the help of bona fide commentaries, one finds that the commentaries complement each other.

Thus, scriptural pastimes may teach conventional principles for the smooth functioning of human society or basic principles for the practice of spiritual life. Simultaneously, pastimes are often enacted for internal and confidential purposes understood by more advanced souls and especially relevant for them.

The meanings of scriptures that describe the Personality of Godhead are revealed to a sincere reader by His grace; He is the source and objective of the scriptures. Perspectives derived from intellectual gymnastics and mental speculations are deceptive, as described by Lord Brahma in Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.14.29):

athapi te deva padambuja-dvaya-
prasada-leshanugrihita eva hi
janati tattvam bhagavan-mahimno
na chanya eko ’pi chiram vichinvan

“My Lord, if one is favored by even a slight trace of the mercy of Your lotus feet, he can understand the greatness of Your personality. But those who speculate to understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead are unable to know You, even though they continue to study the Vedas for many years.”

The Bhagavatam's Diverse Audience

Srimad-Bhagavatam is the book form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, and is therefore identical to Him. It is the foremost of all the works of Srila Vyasadeva, who was satisfied only after writing it, even though he had already edited the Vedas and written many works of his own. Srila Narada Muni instructed Vyasadeva to write Srimad-Bhagavatam in such a way that it would be of relevance to both learned and common people.

Narada Muni told Vyasadeva,

tvam apy adabhra-shruta vishrutah vibhoh
samipyate yena vidam bubhutsitam<
prakhyahi duhkhair muhur arditatmanam
sanklesha-nirvanam ushanti nanyatha

“Please, therefore, describe the Almighty Lord's activities which you have learned by your vast knowledge of the Vedas, for that will satisfy the hankerings of great learned men and at the same time mitigate the miseries of the masses of common people who are always suffering from material pangs. Indeed, there is no other way to get out of such miseries.” (1.5.40) Thus the Bhagavatam caters to the needs of multiple audiences and also helps each reader in manifold ways. Srila Jiva Goswami quotes the following verse in his Tattva-sandarbha while explaining the extensive application of Srimad-Bhagavatam:

vedah puranam kavyam cha
prabhur mitram priyeva cha
bodhayantiti hi prahus
trivrid bhagavatam punah

“It is said that the Vedas instruct like a master, the Puranas instruct like a friend, and poetic works instruct like a lover, but Srimad-Bhagavatam does all the three.” Srila Sanatana Goswami expresses his admiration of Srimad-Bhagavatam thus: 

mad-eka-bandho mat-sangin
mad-guro man-maha-dhana
man-nistaraka mad-bhagya
mad-ananda namo’stu te

"O Srimad-Bhagavatam, O my only friend, O my companion, O my teacher, O my great wealth, O my deliverer, O my good fortune, O my bliss, I offer respectful obeisances unto you." (Krishna-lila-stava 415) In these ways the Bhagavatam plays multiple roles in a person’s life, with its variegated messages and lessons. The following are a few glimpses to illustrate this.

The "Human" Behavior of God

The purposes of the descents of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in this world are manifold, as Lord Krishna Himself says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.8):

paritranaya sadhunam&
vinashaya cha dushkritam
dharma-samsthapanarthaya
sambhavami yuge yuge

“To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium.” Apart from these reasons, more importantly Krishna descends to perform loving pastimes with His devotees and thus attract the hearts of the people in this world and inspire them to come to His eternal abode. Thus one activity of Krishna's has multiple purposes.

When the Supreme Lord incarnates as a human being and performs His pastimes (martya-lila, "pastimes in the mortal world"), He imitates the behavior of humans. Seeing His human behavior, people tend to consider Him an ordinary mortal. However, the Supreme Lord is always transcendental and in any condition is endowed with all divine opulences. Srimad-Bhagavatam (5.19.5) therefore states, martyavataras tv iha martya-shikshanam: "Through His pastimes as a human, He intends to teach humans how to conduct themselves."

"Sufferings" of the Supreme

Lord Ramachandra acted as an ideal son by sacrificing His rightful claim to the throne and going to the forest to fulfill the promise of His father, Dasharatha. As an ideal disciple, He followed the instructions of His guru Vishvamitra and killed a female demon named Tataka. Thus, to exhibit in His various roles the ideal dutiful character of a human being, Lord Rama underwent inconveniences and tribulations.

By His personal example Lord Rama instructed human beings not to give up one’s principles despite difficulties. However, if one considers only the human side of Rama’s behavior, one might underestimate His transcendental nature and Godhood. For instance, as an ideal husband Lord Rama put great effort into protecting His chaste wife, Sita Devi, from the evil demon Ravana, who had kidnapped her. Thus He gave a lesson to religious human beings that a dutiful husband has to give complete protection to a chaste wife and if required has to endure all types of suffering in doing so.

The suffering undergone by Lord Rama in separation from Sitadevi might seem material, but it is not so. From a divine perspective, we can understand that it was the bliss of vipralambha rasa, or the spiritual feelings of the Supreme Lord and His eternal consort in separation from each other. Their separation intensifies Their spiritual happiness. This is the confidential aspect of Lord Rama’s lamentation for Sita. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The emotions a lover and beloved feel when separated from one another are actually very blissful, although apparently painful. Therefore the separation of Lord Ramachandra from Sitadevi, as well as the consequent tribulation they suffered, is but another display of transcendental bliss.” (Bhagavatam 5.19.5, Purport)

The "Embarrassment" of Exalted Personalities

The scriptures sometimes present the mistakes committed by great personalities. Circumstantially, even great souls may be bewildered and become victims of lower tendencies, as the ruler Bhadrashvava mentions in the following verse:

vadanti vishvam kavayah sma nashvaram
pashyanti chadhyatmavido vipashchitah
tathapi muhyanti tavaja mayaya
suvismitam krityam ajam nato ’smi tam

“O unborn one, learned Vedic scholars who are advanced in spiritual knowledge certainly know that this material world is perishable, as do other logicians and philosophers. In trance they realize the factual position of this world, and they preach the truth as well. Yet even they are sometimes bewildered by Your illusory energy. This is Your own wonderful pastime. Therefore, I can understand that Your illusory energy is very wonderful, and I offer my respectful obeisances unto You.” (Bhagavatam 5.18.4)

From a human perspective, one needs to learn from the bewilderment of great souls what not to do and safeguard oneself. At the same time, one must be careful not to offend the great souls involved in the mistake. From a divine perspective, one needs to understand that such events are often orchestrated by the Supreme Lord to teach common people through great people. Seemingly wrong acts committed by great souls don’t affect them, but their critics become victims of their own offense and reap the consequences. One should not minimize the position of a great person for an apparently wrong act, but should learn the intended lesson for oneself.

For instance, to favor the demigods the Supreme Lord Vishnu once took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini-murti, and bewildered the demons. Out of curiosity, Lord Shiva, along with his wife, Um?, went to Lord Vishnu and requested Him to show His feminine form as Mohini-murti. Because of confidence or pride, Shiva didn’t expect to be captivated by seeing Her, since even the demigods had not been captivated. However, when Vishnu appeared as Mohini-murti, Lord Shiva fell into a whirlpool of lust and ran after Her, even in front of his own wife and associates. Mohini-murti’s captivating Lord Shiva gives the grave message to practitioners on the spiritual path that lust is a difficult temptation to overcome and one has to carefully safeguard oneself from the allurements of the opposite sex. Spiritual seekers shouldn’t be overly confident or proud and think that they cannot be victimized by lust.

Srila Prabhupada explains that from a divine perspective we can understand that this was a joking affair between Lord Vishnu and His dear devotee Shiva. Shiva is an extremely self-controlled person and a great Vaishnava, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Cupid himself tried to invoke Lord Shiva's lusty desires in the presence of Parvati [Uma], but Lord Shiva was never agitated. Rather, the blazing fire from Lord Shiva's eyes turned Cupid to ashes.” (Bhagavatam 8.12.15, Purport) Further, even the full illusory material energy, represented by Uma, or Durga Devi, could not captivate his mind.

What seemed to be an embarrassing and humiliating experience for Lord Shiva was actually Vishnu’s plan to glorify him. While even a mild glimpse of the personification of Vishnu’s external potency would thoroughly bewilder the conditioned souls in this world, that external potency could not move Shiva, and Vishnu had to manifest His internal potency to captivate Shiva. Such is the greatness of Shiva, who later felt proud to have such an exalted master as Vishnu. He wasn’t ashamed. Rather, he was proud to be defeated by his Lord and resumed his normal, unagitated condition. This spiritual pride is the real pridelessness of a devotee.

The Departure of the Lord and His Associates 

The way Lord Krishna and His Yadu dynasty left this world can be seen from multiple valid perspectives as presented by the Vaishnava acharyas. By Krishna's desire, in a playful mood the young boys of the Yadu family once dressed Krishna's son Samba as a pregnant woman and inquired from great sages about the fruit of Samba's so-called pregnancy. The sages cursed the mocking boys. “She will give birth to a club that will destroy your family.” The Yadu boys immediately lifted the garment covering Samba's abdomen and, to their astonishment, found a club. On the king’s order, the club was ground to powder, which was thrown into the ocean. The waves carried all the bits of powder to the shore, where they were absorbed into reeds. A hunter named Jara found a lump of iron that hadn't been powdered and fashioned it into an arrowhead. Later, the Yadus became intoxicated, quarreled among themselves, and killed each other with the ironlike reeds. Jara mistook the sole of Krishna's left foot for a deer and pierced it with his arrow, thus "killing" Krishna. The Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, sanctioned all these events.

This seemingly ghastly departure of the Yadu dynasty, Lord Krishna's family, was enacted for various reasons. From an external point of view, this happened because of the curse of the sages. And some say that it occurred because Gandhari, the mother of one hundred sons who had died in the Kurukshetra battle, had cursed Krishna’s dynasty because Krishna was instrumental in her son's death.

There are deeper reasons for the event, however. One is that Krishna had fulfilled the purposes for which He descended, and He desired to wind up His pastimes. These curses were a part of His plan for departure. Also, some of the Yadus, due to their intimate connection with Krishna, were behaving whimsically, against the Lord’s will. So Krishna felt the need to annihilate the indifferent, contemptuous members of the Yadu family. Further, the Lord gave a grave message of detachment to the people in this world, that our opulence and power are temporary and someday we will have to leave all our earthly possessions and even our life. Krishna also demonstrated that He won’t spare even His own family members if they offend the brahmanas and sages. Also, the glorious Yadus are eternal associates of the Lord, and they would not be able to bear separation from Krishna after His disappearance. In their agitation of separation, they would trample and destroy the earth. Therefore Krishna arranged their departure prior to His own. Further, some of the Yadus were demigods who had descended to assist Lord Krishna in His mission. So, through this pastime, Krishna reestablished them in the heavenly planets to resume their services in the universal management. Thus, when Kali-yuga was beginning, Krishna removed Himself and His associates from the vision of the material world. Apart from these perspectives, the Vaishnava acharyas, for our understanding, give other confidential and conventional reasons of the pastime of Krishna’s departure.

A Balanced Understanding

Many episodes in the scriptures present us understandings at various levels. If we see only the divinity or Godhood in them, we may fail to learn the intended message relevant for human life. And if we see them purely from a human perspective, we may underestimate their transcendental nature or minimize the position of the persons involved. So, while reading the scriptures, we need to patiently and faithfully depend on the explanations of bona fide Vaishnava acharyas who give us a balanced understanding from both perspectives.

About the Author: 

Gauranga Darshana Dasa

Gauranga Darshana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has written study guides, including, Bhagavata Subodhini, and Chaitanya Subodhini, and teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India. He also oversees the deity worship at GEV.