The Authority of the Puranas
From Back to Godhead
By Srila Jiva Goswami
The preeminent philosopher in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s line explains why, in this age, the Puranas are essential for accessing the Absolute Truth.[Excerpted from Sri Tattva-sandarbha, by Srila Jiva Goswami, translation and commentary by Gopiparanadhana Dasa. Published by Giriraja Publishing, a branch of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust. The book is available from the Krishna.com Store.]
Sri Tattva-sandarbha is the first of Srila Jiva Goswami’s Bhagavata-sandarbha, or Shat-sandarbha, six treatises that firmly establish the philosophy of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. In the texts leading up to this section, the author has discredited direct perception and inference as valid means to acquiring perfect knowledge. He has concluded that only the eternal Vedas can fill that role. Now he argues for the need to turn to the Puranas for understanding the unified message of the Vedas.
To save space, we’ve omitted Sri Jiva’s Sanskrit texts, translated here in bold type.
As the Matsya Purana says, “A historical text is a Purana if it has the five defining characteristics; other histories are known as akhyanas. Puranas that describe days of Brahma in the mode of goodness mostly glorify the Supreme Lord Hari. . . .”1
“Puranas describing days in the mode of passion especially glorify Brahma. Puranas describing days in the mode of ignorance tell the glories of Agni and Shiva. And those describing mixed days discuss the glories of Sarasvati and the Pitas.”2
Here glorification “of Agni [the fire god]” means glorification of Vedic sacrifices made with offerings into various sacred fires. In the phrase “and of Shiva also” the word “also” implies Shiva’s wife. “During mixed days” means during the many days of Brahma in which goodness, passion, and ignorance are all prominent. “Of Sarasvati” indirectly refers to various demigods, since Sarasvati is the presiding deity of various kinds of Vedic language. “Of the Pitas [celestial forefathers]” means of the rituals that lead to attainment of the forefathers, according to the shruti statement “By Vedic rituals one achieves the world of the Pitas.”3
COMMENTARY: In Kali-yuga one cannot possibly understand the Vedas correctly without resort to the authority of the Puranas. Besides the Puranas there are other smriti scriptures, such as the Manu-smriti and other dharma-shastras, meant mostly for brahmana specialists in rituals and varnashrama duties. But only the clear presentation of the Puranas allows the confused people of the modern age definite access to the eternal Vedic wisdom.
Even supposed religious leaders of this age are generally victims of delusion and hypocrisy. We see this tendency throughout the world. Even in India many apparently well educated and strictly religious brahmanas are confused about the purpose of life and the means of achieving it, mainly because they have failed to approach the right sources of knowledge. Although these brahmanas, through the commentaries of their teachers, presume to have direct access to the Vedas, the manifest fruits of their so-called Vedic education seem to be arrogance, atheism, and entanglement in sense gratification.
Some of these brahmanas, claiming to be purely Vedic, deny the authority of the Puranas, which they say teach sentimental and fanatic idolatry. Among these brahmanas are the ritualists of the first millennium AD who followed the Jaimini-mimamsa interpretation of Kumarila and Prabhakara, and the more recent proponents of the Arya Samaj.
Thus the Vedas, as the Skanda Purana tells us, have just cause to fear abuse at the hands of the brahmanas of our age. Hearing the Vedas’ call for help, the Puranas have come to assist. The instructions of the Puranas are as trustworthy as the original words of the Vedas. What need is there for speculative commentaries on the Vedas, then, since the natural commentary on the Vedas is already available in the Puranas?
But we live in corrupt times, when people need more definite guidance to find the correct path of spiritual progress. Even the Puranas, easy to understand in earlier ages, often bewilder disoriented modern readers. Because demigod worship gradually purifies those who are too materialistic to have an interest in pure devotional service, the Puranas, to appeal to people of many different natures, encourage worship of demigods alongside worship of the Supreme Lord.
The universe passes through varying cycles, “days of Brahma,” during which the lower material modes, the modes of passion (rajas) and ignorance (tamas), are at times prominent. During those periods the Supreme Lord gracefully allows such servants of His as Lord Shiva to defeat Him in competition and otherwise seem superior. Puranas that describe the events of these rajasic and tamasic kalpas thus superficially seem to elevate demigods to the position of God. It is no wonder that imperfectly informed students of the Puranas cannot discern the unity of the underlying Puranic message: that the powerful controllers and wonderful opulences of this universe are all energies of the supreme energetic, the Personality of Godhead. Such readers are unable to grasp this statement from the Hari-vamsha Purana:
vede ramayane chaiva
purane bharate tatha
adav ante cha madhye cha
harih sarvatra giyate
“Throughout the Vedas and everywhere in the Ramayana, Puranas, and Mahabharata, from the beginning to the middle to the end, the praises of Lord Hari are sung.” (Hari-vamsha 3.132.95)
As a source of further confusion, portions of the Puranas are now missing and in some cases have even been replaced with spurious substitutes. In recent centuries the brahminical community has become less and less familiar with several of the more rarely preserved Puranas.
Thus unscrupulous scribes are now able to distort the texts without being detected. The commentaries of reliable authorities provide the only sure protection against such adulterated texts. More than six hundred years ago, Srila Sridhara Swami commented on both Srimad-Bhagavatam and the Vishnu Purana, taking special care to certify the wording of almost every verse. For the other Puranas, however, there are no such verse-by-verse commentaries by standard acharyas, only citations of isolated passages.
The Matsya Purana verses cited above list the deities typically promoted by each category of Purana. Theoretically, the word kalpa could be translated as “written work,” were it not for the verse in the very same passage clearly showing “days of Brahma” as the intended meaning:
yasmin kalpe tu yat proktam
puranam brahmana pura
tasya tasya tu mahatmyam
“The greatness of each Purana is described in terms of the nature of the kalpa in which Brahma spoke it long ago.” (Matsya Purana 290.15) It is illogical to translate yasmin kalpe as “the text in which,” because the word puranam follows, in the subject case, referring to a specific kind of text. This is also confirmed by the use of the word kalpa in the next anuchcheda (text 18.1).
Suta Goswami spoke all eighteen major Puranas at Naimisharanya, and the sages present accepted them as authentic. Nonetheless, three groups of six Puranas each are meant for three different audiences, depending on which of the three modes of nature predominates each audience. But for each individual Purana the situation is more complex because most Puranas display some mixture of the modes. For example, the pastimes of Lord Krishna and those of Lord Ramachandra, which are in the mode of pure goodness, are described to some extent in most of the Puranas.
In the Padma Purana (Uttara 236.19–21, 18) Lord Shiva describes which Puranas belong to each mode:
vaishnavam naradiyam cha
tatha bhagavatam shubham
garudam cha tatha padmam
vijneyani shubhani vai
“O beautiful one, the Vishnu Purana, the Narada Purana, the auspicious Bhagavata Purana, and the Garuda, Padma, and Varaha Puranas all belong to the mode of goodness. They are all considered auspicious.
markandeyam tathaiva cha
bhavishyam vamanam brahmam
“Know that the Brahmanda, Brahma-vaivarta, Markandeya, Bhavishya, Vamana, and Brahma Puranas belong to the mode of passion.
matsyam kaurmam tatha laingam
shaivam skandam tathaiva cha
agneyam cha shad etani
“And know that these six Puranas belong to the mode of ignorance: the Matsya, Kurma, Linga, Shiva, Skanda, and Agni Puranas.”
The five topics that every Purana should include will be discussed later in Sri Tattva-sandarbha (61.2).
These being the facts, we can understand that the Puranas mentioned in the Matsya Purana fall into natural categories according to the nature of the days of Brahma of which each Purana tells. But how can we define a hierarchy of these categories to determine which is superior? One suggestion is to rank them by their modes of nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance. We can then conclude that Puranas and other scriptures in the mode of goodness have the most authority to teach us about transcendental reality. This we may conclude by reasoning from such statements as “From the mode of goodness knowledge develops”4 and “In the mode of goodness one can realize the Absolute Truth.”5
Even so, is there a single standard that can reconcile all these Puranas, which discredit one another with divergent opinions even when speaking of the same Absolute Truth? Someone might suggest that the powerful saint Sri Vyasa wrote the Vedanta-sutras to do just that: determine the purport of the entire Vedas and Puranas. Therefore, that person will say, one should ascertain the meaning of all these scriptures by referring to the Vedanta-sutras. But then the followers of sages who wrote other sutras will not respect our conclusions. Furthermore, some sages may interpret the terse, highly esoteric aphorisms of the Vedanta-sutras in a way that distorts their meaning. What authority, then, can truly reconcile all this?
We would have the basis of such reconciliation, someone might comment, if there were one scripture that were to fit the definition of a Purana, have apaurusheya authority, contain the essential ideas of all the Vedas, Itihasas, and Puranas, be faithful to the Brahmasutras, and be extant on earth in full. Well said, because you have called to mind the authority we most prefer: the emperor of pramanas, Srimad-Bhagavatam.
COMMENTARY: Faced with the bewildering complexity of the Puranas – the nonlinear chronology cutting across millennia and universes, the thousands of prehistoric personalities, and the pantheon of deities – many dismiss the whole body of literature as an incoherent collection of competing sectarian myths. Persons who choose to think in such a way might consider the extent to which material nature controls their supposed freedom of judgment. The way such speculators filter what they see, the way they form opinions, and the influence they have on the public are all in fact part of nature’s arrangement for keeping the secrets of transcendence concealed from the intrusions of mundane intelligence. Only by accepting the means of shabda-pramana on its own terms can anyone begin to penetrate these secrets.
yasya deve para bhaktir
yatha deve tatha gurau
tasyaite kathita hy arthah
“If one has unalloyed devotion for the Supreme Lord and equal devotion for his own spiritual master, his intelligence becomes broad, and to him everything described in these texts reveals itself clearly.” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6.23)
As already discussed, Srila Jiva Goswami, in his Sandarbhas, is not interested in answering the skepticism of critical scholars. He assumes that his readers accept the authority and consistency of the Vedic literature, an attitude more likely to develop from honesty and humility than from scrutinizing analysis of masses of information.
Now, once we assume that the Puranas have a coherent purpose, the practical problem at hand is how to discover that purpose. We need to identify a prime authority that can reconcile all other texts. In the anuchcheda under discussion, Srila Jiva Goswami first limits the candidates for primacy to the sattvic Puranas, which address persons in the mode of goodness. These Puranas glorify the Supreme Lord Vishnu and His incarnations.
But in the material world it is rare to find the mode of goodness unmixed with the lower modes, and this state of affairs is reflected in the Puranas. Several of the sattvic Puranas describe the worship of God in mixed modes, rather than in pure devotional service. After reading all the sattvic Puranas, therefore, one may still be uncertain whether Lord Vishnu is ultimately a person with tangible qualities, an entity impersonal and formless, or a manifestation of the universal mind, or even a product of matter.
Readers who don’t look deeply enough see the Samhitas of the four Vedas as an unorganized assortment of praise and appeals offered to a large number of demigods. Many of these deities seem nothing more than convenient personifications of the forces of nature, with personalities often overlapping to the extent that their separate identities are difficult to distinguish. Each Veda, however, has Upanishads that correct this misunderstanding. In the Upanishads the various deities and the energies of nature honored in the Vedas are shown to be all integrally related to the one Absolute Truth, Brahman, as expansions that simply borrow Brahman’s own names, forms, and functions:
seyam devataikshata hantaham imas tisro devata anena jivenatmananupravishya nama-rupe vyakaravani. tasam tri-vritam tri vritam ekaikam karavaniti.
“That Lord looked and said, ‘Indeed, along with the jiva soul let Me enter these three elements of creation and expand names and forms. I shall bring forth each element’s threefold nature.'” (Chandogya Upanishad 6.3.2–3) The three elements (devatas) indicated here are the basic elements of creation – earth, water, and fire. Entering into the primordial substance of these elements of creation, the Supreme distributed His own names and forms. Sri-narayanadini namanivinanyani rudradibhyo harir dattavan: “Lord Hari gave away His own names to Rudra and others, with the exception of certain names like Sri Narayana.” (Madhvacharya, Brahma-sutra-bhashya 1.3.3) In a later phase of creation, the demigod Brahma periodically uses the eternal Vedas as a blueprint to complete this work on behalf of his creator:
nama-rupam cha bhutanam
krityanam cha prapanchanam
devadinam chakara sah
“In the beginning, from the words of the Vedas Brahma expanded the names, forms, and activities of all creatures.” (Vishnu Purana 1.5.63)
Because the Upanishads provide such insight into the essential meaning of the Vedas, they are called Vedanta, the culmination of the Vedas. Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa commented on the major Upanishads, reconciling their apparent contradictions, in his Vedanta-sutras, which establish the Vedanta school of Vedic theology for our age. The founders of orthodox brahminical philosophies wrote in concise sutras, intending that their disciples would explain the sutras for future generations. Still, compared to the relatively mundane level of discourse found in other sutras, like Gautama Rishi’s Nyaya-sutras on epistemology and logic, the contents of Vyasadeva’s Vedanta-sutras are particularly difficult to explain. His aphorisms are virtually impossible to decipher without a commentary and therefore also easy to misinterpret. Earlier in Kali-yuga there was a strong tradition of Vaishnava theistic interpretation of the Vedanta-sutras, led by several prominent teachers like Bodhayana, who are now known only from fragments quoted by Ramanuja Acharya and others in their Vedanta commentaries. The prime reason why the earlier commentaries were forgotten is that they were completely eclipsed by the popularity of Shankaracharya’s Shariraka-bhashya.
Written around AD 700, Shankara’s Shariraka-bhashya, his commentary on the Vedanta-sutras, speaks from the monistic Adwaita point of view, which relativizes the personal concept of Godhead, regarding it as an inferior aspect of an ultimate Supreme beyond name and form. Shankara’s commentary monopolized the school of Vedanta for some centuries, until the great Vaishnava acharyas Ramanuja and Madhva responded with their own commentaries in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. They and other Vaishnavas like Nimbarka vigorously criticized Shankara’s interpretation as being unfaithful to the intention of the Upanishads. Among the followers of Shankara and all four Vaishnava sampradayas, even up to modern times, the main philosophic activity of both explanatory and polemic authors has been to present updated sub-commentaries on the Vedanta-sutras. In this way the debate between the Adwaita and Vaishnava camps has been going on for over a thousand years.
When Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu established the Gaudiya branch of the Madhva sampradaya, however, He chose to forgo having a Vedanta commentary written as the keystone of His new theistic school. He preferred to concentrate on Srimad-Bhagavatam, which He considered the natural commentary by the author of the Vedanta-sutras. Not until the early eighteenth century was Baladeva Vidyabhushana commissioned by Srila Vishvanatha Chakravarti to compose a Vedanta commentary to answer the complaints of critics who demanded that the Gaudiya Vaishnavas defend themselves on the evidence of the Vedanta-sutras.
Srila Jiva Goswami proposes that Srimad-Bhagavatam is the one Purana that reconciles all scriptures and perfectly represents the philosophy of Vedanta. He will now proceed to reveal the glories of the Bhagavatam in the rest of this Sandarbha and the others.
1. Matsya Purana 53.65
2. Matsya Purana 53.68–69
3. Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad 1.5.16
4. Bhagavad-gita 14.17
5. Bhagavatam 1.2.24