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Hermeneutics 108
Part 2 – Well… Is all this true?

Hermeneutics 108
Part 2 – Well… Is all this true?

So, having spoken briefly about the hermeneutics of consent, now we are going to the opposite approach, which is the hermeneutics of suspicion, and for illustration I am tieing this, not with the Bhagavata,  but with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I am doing this because we are trying to understand how Jambu-fruit is turning to gold. And we don’t get any more explicit information in the Bhagavatam than what I have already read. So, maybe the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali will help. And there we have three sutras dealing with samyama.

Samyama means strong focus, concentration, or meditation on some specific object. And there is a list of many samyamas, and each one describes how to practise it. So, if you perfect the practice of samyama you will get a certain siddhi, a certain mystical power.

Bhuvana-jñānaṃ sūrye saṃyamāt: By doing samyama on sūrya, the sun, what can you gain? You can attain bhuvana-jñāna, the knowledge of different realms in the universe. That suggests that unless one does that one may not get that knowledge. Or, by a meditation on the moon, one can get knowledge of the solar system; by meditation on the Pole Star, Dhruva-loka, one can get knowledge of the stars. Well… Is all this true? Can one really get such powers by practising such meditations? That is the question that is raised in the hermeneutics of suspicion. If the map is not the territory, what then can we say about these claims from the Yoga Sutras?

First, a little explanation of the German and French ideas about the hermeneutics of suspicion. This term was identified as such by French philosopher Paul Receaur. The three German ‘masters of the hermeneutics of suspicion’ were Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Prabhupada spoke of these three in a not very complimentary way generally, as founders of modern materialism, and he even applied the hermeneutics of suspicion against materialism in all its forms. You could say that he used the hermeneutics of suspicion against the ideas of these three masters of suspicion, but this is another topic.

These three thinkers argued that the direct meaning of the texts is deceptive or self-deceptive, as explicit text hides deeper meanings and implications. Why? “Because the purpose of the text is to establish power and oppression of others.” Marx, for example, dismissed religion altogether, by saying that religion is the ‘opiate of the masses’. Opium is a drug that makes you very dull, which makes it possible to control you. That was his judgement of religion. “Texts always simultaneously reveal and conceal.” What does it mean? In Vedic texts, there are passages—called brahmodyas—that are used in some contexts.  Some riddles are pronounced in order to guess what the meaning of it is. A famous example is how in the Mahabharata Yudhisthira was challenged effectively in the spirit of brahmodyas in the form of riddles which he answered all correctly.

In the 11th Canto of the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna says to Uddhava: “The Vedas, divided into three divisions, ultimately reveal the living entity as pure spirit soul. The Vedic seers and mantras, however, deal in esoteric terms, and I also am pleased by such confidential descriptions.” In other words, Krishna is saying that He likes mystical or mystifying language.

An example of how the Yoga Sutras can be understood suspiciously: There is so much literature where all kinds of claims are made of magical powers and in the West there is a lot of fantasy literature and it is very much possible that some of this is influenced by a kind of cultural analysis of the Yoga Sutras and its reference to various mystical powers. There are many different sorts of doubts. 

(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