Saturday, March 24, 2007

Text and Interpretation

Bhakti, coming from the root baj denotes the relationship of a bhakta with
god. This relationship is not one sided, as bhagavan, which means one who
shares, reciprocates this relationship. Therefore, in order to save his
bhakta, god would do anything for him. In the same way, once saved by god,
the bhakta, because of his sakhya (friendship) bhakti, can demand anything
from his god.

There are some stories in our Puranas, which considering other human rights
and values, will question some of the errands which a god has done for his
bhakta in the name of (sakhya) bhakti, however the context is to glorify the
concept of bhakti.

In one regional Purana, as per the request of his bhakta, god arranges a
second marriage with another woman when his bhakta already has a wife. When
this man broke his promise to his second wife that he wouldn't leave her, he
became blind as per the condition set by that woman to god. But, still
because of his friendship, when the bhakta earnestly prays, god restores his
sight. And then when the first estranged wife refuses to take her husband
back due to his marrying another woman, the same god goes to her house, that
too at midnight, to convince her to receive her husband back. When another
bhakta came to know about all this, he become upset with the first bhakta,
who now was a friend to god. So in order to show his friend's bhakti to the
other bhakta, god gave the latter severe stomach pain, which was only cured
by the first bhakta, the friend of god.

I have not mentioned here the name of the bhakta or the Purana, as some may
have hurt feelings even from what I have already shared. My intention is not
to hurt anyone, but we do need to notice that when we use such old stories
among modern young people, they (particularly women) question such acts of
god and bhaktas, who, according to them, violate fundamental human
(particular women's) values. Of course when such stories were told or
recorded in our scriptures, their context and worldview was completely
different. Their aim was not to degrade others or to justify violations of
human rights or moral principles. Every story and illustration has one main
theme which it wants to highlight; if we begin to interpret them based on
our present worldviews and values we will miss the main teaching of the

However, we have to agree with one point; most of the mainline religious
scriptures, however they may glorify woman in theory, yet when it comes to
reality of life are male oriented and male dominated in their nature. So
perhaps present day speakers, instead of using such stories to explain a
concept (in this case sakhhya bhakti), should use some other stories, like
that of Arjuna with Krishna, to communicate their thought. But I know of an
incidence where the above story was told, both to illustrate the sakhya
bhakti and also to explain the structure, content, background etc. of that
Purana. The question raised was why god never thought about the rights and
feelings of the second wife? When the bhakta broke his promise, though he
temporarily lost his eye sight, his second wife was punished permanently, as
she had to live the rest of her life alone. (The story never makes any
mention of any children, either.)

Of course the response to this criticism is that both the bhakta and his two
wives were really celestial beings. One day the "man" fell in love with the
two girls when they came to fetch flowers, and since they fell in love with
each other, they were sent to live on earth to fulfill their desire.
Accordingly they came to earth and got married and after their time on earth
ended they went back to their celestial world. (There is no point in asking
why, if gods were allowed to marry and live happily in their celestial
abode, his assistants were denied such right and had to be sent on earth.
Such criticism is not critical, but what we call vidanta vaad-argument for
the sake of argument itself.)

Yet all questions about the stories in the Puranas and epics cannot be set
aside as mere objections from women. True, in the past most women were
voiceless; now being educated, they challenge certain traditional values
which kept them suppressed. However, for this reason alone we cannot ignore
past stories. But when we interpret a text, we should not merely impose our
own interpretation due to contemporary need. And speakers using such stories
need to honestly acknowledge problems that are present.

One time a scholar on the Ramayana, after listening to arguments from both
sides about Rama's killing of Vali, referring all the text in their proper
context clearly gave his judgment that what Rama did to Vali was wrong. I
had never before heard such a verdict, as most of the speakers keep faith
and bhakti first rather than the context of the text. This does not mean
that the scholar who accused Rama is not a bhakta of Rama. In his analysis,
he remained faith to the text rather than to the traditional view about

We need more such scholars and speakers who will do proper exegesis of texts
and stories rather than speaking with mere sentiment.


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