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Hermeneutics 108
Part 1 – When the map is the territory

Hermeneutics 108
Part 1 – When the map is the territory

Hermeneutics is a word that has recently come to the ISKCON-vocabulary - for some in a welcomed way - for some others in a highly resistant way, because “Prabhupada never used that word…”

Srila Prabhupada often used the word ‘interpretation’. Mostly negatively, and arguably, when he used it negatively, he actually meant misinterpretation: “Don’t interpret!” But sometimes he also used it positively. For example, in the story of the killing of Putana the subject comes up among the acaryas, “Why did Krishna close his eyes?”—and there are many different explanations given. There, in that purport, Prabhupada used the word ‘interpretation’. There are various interpretations of why Krishna closed his eyes when he killed Putana. The pastime is another subject, but the main point is that generally when Prabhupada would say: “Don’t interpret!”— by that, he would mean, “Don’t misinterpret!”

Recently I was asked to give a presentation at the Vedic Cosmology Conference at the Bhaktivedanta Institute of Higher Studies in Gainesville, Florida, USA. The title of my talk was ‘The Map is Not the Territory: Mapping Hermeneutic Approaches to the Bhagavatam’s Cosmologies.’

I started with this quote from the 5th Canto: “The mud on both banks of the river Jambu-nadi, being moistened by the flowing juice and then dried by the air and the sunshine, produces huge quantities of gold, called Jambu-nada. The denizens of heaven use this gold for various kinds of ornaments. Therefore, all the inhabitants of the heavenly planets and their youthful wives are fully decorated with golden helmets, bangles, and belts, and thus they enjoy life.” (BhP 5.16.20-21)

Srila Prabhupada’s comments in his purport to these verses: “It is understood that in the higher planetary system of this material world, the mud on the banks of Jambu-nadi mixes with Jambu-juice and the sunshine in the air and automatically produces huge quantities of gold.”

I then raised the question, what ‘it is understood’ means. It seems that Prabhupada’s explanation is asking for more explanation. How to understand that? Do I just have to understand that it is understood by someone else like demigods or great acaryas?

“The map is not the territory” is a quite well-known phrase in philosophy that was spoken by the independent scholar Alfred Korzybski several decades ago. The point he was making is that you have two ends of a range of understanding: at the one end (on the left side, graphically expressed) you have some reality, and at the other end (the right side) you have a map of that reality. How do you make the map of reality? It is coming filtered through your perception, which is gained by your senses, and then you understand it through some filters of your own experience (perception, senses, and filters of experience represented graphically between the two end points). In that way, some deletion and distortion, together with some generalisation will be there. Then you may store the result of your filtered perception in some fashion in what we can call a map. There are differences between the map and reality. For example, how, with a geographical map, do we get from point A to point B? Simple! You don’t want and don’t need more information than how simply to get where you want to go from where you are. Interpretation of the map is simple. But in other contexts, the information provided by the map could be difficult to meaningfully interpret it.

There is a tradition of philosophy in the West that goes back to the early 19th century, which discusses what is being called hermeneutics. What is that? Here is one explanation: “Hermeneutics is the art or practice of interpretation. The hermeneutic tradition (sometimes just called ‘hermeneutics’) is a tradition that gives great philosophical weight to an interpretative mode of understanding. Members of this tradition were Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur.” They all wrote very dense difficult books which we are supposed to understand so that we understand how to understand things! This hermeneutics tradition was a response to increasing concern about how to interpret sacred scriptures, as more and more questions arose about how to interpret them, especially in light of developments in modern science.

Hans-Georg Gadamer gave a particularly interesting framework for interpretive practice that “…recognizes the complexity of interpretation and understanding. It invites us to engage in a dialogic and reflexive process, acknowledging the role of our own biases and traditions while seeking to bridge the gap between our horizons and those of others.”

In other words, interpreting is a complicated activity and Gadamer emphasises the idea of dialogue as essential for doing good interpretation. It also emphasises being ‘reflexive’, which means being self-conscious about who I am and what are my qualifications (or lack of qualifications) for interpreting. A process of self-reflection has been integrated into the ISKCON hermeneutics course that was developed by the Śāstra Advisory Council of the GBC. We might summarise it as the notion of adhikara. What is adhikara for interpreting our śāstras? In the ISKCON hermeneutics program, there are six qualities that we want to identify to do good hermeneutics and good interpretation. These are: intellectual humility and service mood, fidelity to text and tradition, discerning search for truth, honest and authentic conversation, openness to change and transformation, and benevolence and generosity.  

But back to Gadamer, who says something interesting: “Things that have otherness or unfamiliarity are of most value.” In other words: things that we don’t know are what we should pay attention to. Why? “They extend our consciousness.” Further, Gadamer speaks about science, and because he is German he is talking about two kinds of science in German tradition: the natural sciences and the ‘science of the mind’—Geisteswissenschaft—or ‘humanities’, as they call it in American universities. But Gadamer is interested in what he wants to establish as the science of interpretation, leaning on the science of the mind, because he sees the natural sciences as limited and not able to give us everything needed for this purpose.

Together with other scholars, Gadamer identifies three types of hermeneutic approaches: the ‘hermeneutics of consent’, the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, and ‘integrative hermeneutics’.

As an example of the hermeneutics of consent, I express concern about Jambu-fruit juice becoming gold. How is that possible? For help, I turn to one of the acaryas of our tradition, Vijayadhvaja Tirtha (15th century, Madhava sampradaya). In his commentary to Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.16.7 he says: “The words of Vyasa, an ocean of infinite wisdom, cannot be doubted”,—and according to him, “Details regarding the world (earth’s sheaths) should be taken as per Bhagavata. Any other text, in case of contradiction, should be reconciled as required.” In other words, he is saying here that you will find various descriptions of cosmology and cosmography in different Puranas. There are many variations. What to do about these differences? Vijayadhvaja Tirtha declares: “The Bhagavatam is the final word!” The same as our Srila Jiva Goswami who in his whole Tattva Sandarbha is arguing that Bhagavatam is the final word. This is the hermeneutics of consent: “The Bhagavatam is the final word.” Whatever Bhagavata Purana says, we accept. This is Bhagavatam-hermeneutics. Vijayadhvaja Tirtha continues about Jambu-fruits being the size of elephants. What to do with that? He says: “The size of an elephant is meant to perceive the fullness and not actual dimension.” The actual size is also mentioned in Vayu Purana as: “Sages who directly and truly perceive entities (tattva-darsini) have told the fruit to be 861 aratnis (distance from elbow to finger-tip in size).” Multiply that aratni by 861… About 4 football fields?! Vijayadhvaja Tirtha is just reporting what Vayu Purana narrates, and what says Vayu Purana? “Sages say: 861…” Hare Krishna! That sounds like literalism in the Bhagavatam.

Sometimes Srila Prabhupada is accused of being a literalist, and that is great! It occurs to me that in this understanding the map in some sense is the territory. When it comes to sacred texts, we enter into the Bhagavatam, which is a map describing this universe. We enter into it. This is the intention of devotional reading. But let’s not oversimplify. We find examples in the Bhagavatam of multiple interpretations, and you will find in Srila Sanatana Goswami’s commentary on Brhad-Vaisnava-Tosani how he loves to interpret words and verses in many ways: “This means this, or it can also mean that, or it could be taken like that, or…, or…, or…” Sometimes you can have so many ways to understand things.

Our Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur does something similar in his allegorical interpretations of the killing of several demons by Krishna in the 10th Canto. We must remember that he is not denying the literal meaning. He is not saying that Krishna did not really kill Putana, or that there was no Putana, or that there was no Krishna. No! There is Krishna, there is Putana, Krishna kills her, and that can also be allegorically interpreted as the killing of an anartha which is there in our heart. The point made here is that there can be multiple interpretations.

In my presentation at the Vedic Cosmology conference, I mentioned Richard Thompson, better known amongst devotees as Sadaputa Prabhu. In his book The Mysteries of the Sacred Universe he acknowledges: “There are multiple versions and variations of cosmology or cosmography in the various Puranas, Mahabharata, and Jain and Buddhist texts.”

One may ask: Is there a system? Yes, there is. And that is what our Sastric Advisory Council hermeneutics program tries to explain with a handbook of 284 pages. One of the twenty-four principles that we found essential to hermeneutics is: Scriptures are consistent and coherent, enabling meaningful dialogue between part and whole.

As previously mentioned, Professor Gadamer said: Dialogue is essential in interpretation or hermeneutics. What sort of dialogue do we have here? A dialogue between a part of the text and the whole of the text. In this case, these two verses from the 5th Canto, Chapter 16, about fruits having the size of elephants, and turning into gold - we can expand to other chapters describing the cosmology or cosmography of the 5th Canto, and we can continue expanding the ‘dialogue’ to the entire Bhagavatam and further to the entire Vedic corpus.

There is one sutra in the Vedanta Sutras, a nice, pithy statement, that can be translated as: “Lord Krishna is the conclusion because of the totality of all scriptural statements.” The word ‘Krishna’ is not there, but there is a way of understanding why it is translated like that. There is a system, and within which there is a part-whole-analysis-way of doing this and that can be understood as what scholars call the ‘hermeneutic circle’ or ‘hermeneutic cycle’. Essentially what happens is that you look at the text, or you hear or read it, and immediately you interpret it, which is to say, it has some meaning for you. Prabhupada often said: “Don’t interpret!”—meaning “Don’t misinterpret!” We, however, have to interpret, because if we don’t, we don’t even understand the words, we don’t understand the language, and we have no clue what is being said. However, we hear, read and interpret. But we do it with the help of the acaryas!

And then, when we go back to the text and hear or read and interpret it again, after having heard the acaryas’ instruction, we have a deeper understanding than we initially had. And we keep going back, and that is why we keep going to Bhagavatam class. We have heard it all before, but we are hearing and reading it again, and it is ‘in-reaching’ further and further each time. And that is an ongoing, never-ending process.

The Bhagavatam’s cosmology is embedded in a worldview centred on divinity. And the term divinity is thoroughly embedded in the Bhagavatam’s cosmology. The hermeneutics of consent seems to constitute the Bhagavatam, and this hermeneutic practice prioritises bhakti at every turn, locating bhakti at the centre of the hermeneutic circle. Mundane scholars talk only about the process while speaking of the hermeneutic circle—the circumference; they never talk about what is at the centre of the circle. We have bhakti at the centre holding the process together. I venture to say, arguably dharma is also closely bound with bhakti in this central hermeneutical location, but that is another discussion...

(To be continued.)

—From the lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.3.21-22 and the presentation: "The Map is Not the Territory: Mapping Hermeneutic Approaches to the Bhāgavatam’s Cosmologies” by Krishna Kshetra Swami, ISKCON Alachua, Florida, USA, November 22, 2023