Excerpt from “Rational ‘Mythology’”*

*Can a rational person accept the stories of the Puranas as literally true?
Presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chicago, 1993.

   In Vivekananda Swami’s famous lecture on Hinduism at the Parliament of Religions in 1893, he began by outlining some of the salient features of traditional Hinduism. He mentioned karma, reincarnation, and the problem of evil in the material world. He went on to explain that the solution to this problem depends on seeking refuge in God. God is that one “by whose command the wind blows, the fire burns, the clouds rain, and death stalks upon the earth.”1 He is the source of strength and the support of the universe. He is everywhere, pure, almighty, and all-merciful. And we are related to God as a child to a father or mother and as a friend to a beloved friend.
   Vivekananda said that we are to worship God through unselfish love, and he pointed out that the way to achieving love of God was “fully developed and taught by Krishna, whom the Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth.”2 Through love we are to perfect ourselves, reach God, see God, and enjoy bliss with God. On this, he said, all Hindus are agreed.3
   But he went on to say that in the final stage of realization, God is seen to be impersonal Brahman. The individual then ends separate existence by realizing his identity with Brahman. Making an analogy with physical science, he said, “Physics would stop when it would be able to fulfill its services in discovering one energy of which all the others are but manifestations, and the science of religion [would] become perfect when it would discover. . . . One who is the only Soul of which all souls are but delusive manifestations.”4

The Pros and Cons of Pure Monism

   Vivekananda’s strictly monistic concept of God has a long history. The idea has always been linked with the rational, speculative approach to reality. For example, in the fifth century B.C., the Greek philosopher Parmenides concluded by speculative arguments that “only One Thing can possibly exist and that this One Thing is uncreated, unchangeable, indestructible, and immovable. Plurality, creation, change, destruction, and motion are mere appearances.”5
   Parmenides argued that the One must have no parts distinct from one another, for otherwise it would be not One but many. Thus he concluded that the One must be a sphere of perfectly uniform substance. But even a sphere has an inside and an outside, and so it is marked by duality, not oneness. The idea of absolute oneness, or pure monism, may seem alluring, but it requires us to give up all conceivable attributes and finally give up thought itself.
   Vivekananda recognized this problem, and he argued that in the Hindu religion specific forms of gods and goddesses serve as symbols to help us visualize the inconceivable. Thus he said, “The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols, so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on.”6
   The idea of religious imagery as a symbol for the unthinkable Absolute sometimes turns out useful in the modern age. Vivekananda was born in Calcutta in 1863 as Narendranath Datta, and he grew up during the high noon of British dominance in India. During this period, European rationalism, based on the famous French Enlightenment, made a strong impact on India. Reformers like Rammohan Roy and Devendranath Tagore founded the Brahmo Samaj in an effort to revise Hinduism and make it compatible with modern Western thinking.7 This effort required the solving of two problems: (1) the problem of religious plurality and (2) the problem of the clash between modern science and old religious beliefs.
   The old philosophy of pure monism, or advaita, is well suited to solve these problems. First of all, if religious imagery has only a symbolic meaning that refers to something inconceivable, then many different systems of symbols should work equally well. In this way, all major religious systems can be reconciled. This was Vivekananda’s idea, and he greatly stressed the equality of all religions.
   Likewise, if religious imagery is simply symbolic, then there is no question of a conflict between religion and science. A religious story that seems to conflict with established scientific facts can simply be interpreted as a symbolic clue pointing to the One beyond the grasp of the finite scientific mind. Vivekananda also mentioned that the stark simplicity of the impersonal Brahman fits with the simplicity sought by physicists in their hopedfor Grand Unified Theory of nature.
   But in pure monism, what becomes of love of God, or indeed, love of anyone? If the ultimate reality is pure oneness, and personal existence is illusory, then love is also illusory. Love requires two, and not just two of anything. Two persons are needed for a relationship of love. If such relationships do have spiritual reality, then at least two spiritual persons must eternally exist. In traditional Hindu thought, there are, in fact, two categories of eternal persons: (1) the jiva souls that live in individual material bodies and (2) the original Supreme Personality of Godhead and His countless spiritual expansions. As Vivekananda pointed out, Hindus believe that the Supreme Being incarnated on earth as Krishna, who expounded on the ways of loving devotional reciprocation between Himself and individual jiva souls.
   Unfortunately, after making this point, Vivekananda rejected both Krishna and the individual soul as illusory. In his monistic approach to religion, all conceivable features of the Absolute are ruled out. Beingness, knowledge, and bliss are three, and they must be discarded from the One as earthbound misconceptions. The same is true of the might and mercy of the Lord. Likewise, if the real truth is absolute oneness, all personal relationships of admiration, friendship, parental love, or conjugal love must be given up as delusions.

The Vaishnava Alternative Given by Bhaktivinoda Thakura

It is natural then to ask if some other solution is available to the problems posed when modern rational thought meets the multiplicity of religious systems. To explore this, I now turn to the life of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a contemporary of Swami Vivekananda.
   Bhaktivinoda Thakura was born in 1838 as Kedaranath Datta in the Nadia district of West Bengal. As a young man he acquired an English education, and he used to exchange thoughts on literary and spiritual topics with Devendranath Tagore, the Brahmo Samaj leader and Vivekananda’s early teacher. In due course he studied law, and for many years he supported his family as a magistrate in the British court system.
   Bhaktivinoda deeply studied the religious thought of his day. He scrutinized the works of European philosophers, and he was greatly impressed with the devotional teachings of Jesus Christ. At first, his Western education inclined him to look down on the Vaishnava literature of devotional service to Krishna. Indeed, he wrote that the Bhagavata, one of the main texts describing Krishna, “seemed like a repository of ideas scarcely adopted to the nineteenth century.”8
   But at a certain point he ran across a work about the great Vaishnava reformer Lord Caitanya, and he was able to obtain the commentary Caitanya had given on the Bhagavata to the advaita Vedantists of Benares. This created in him a great love for the devotional teachings of Krishna as presented by Caitanya.9 In due course he achieved an exalted state of spiritual realization by following Caitanya’s teachings, and he wrote many books presenting those teachings to people both in India and abroad.

[A Historical Interlude, The Bhagavata, The Theology of Visions, and Shifting the Boundary Between Myth and Science sections omitted from excerpt]

The Direct Presentation of Vaishnava Teachings

   We have discussed how Bhaktivinoda Thakura found it necessary to present a modified version of the Vaishnava teachings to young Bengali intellectuals at the high noon of British political and ideological imperialism. But as the sun began to set on the British empire, his son and successor Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati began a vigorous program of directly presenting the Vaishnava conclusions throughout India. This program was taken abroad by his disciple Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who boldly celebrated the ancient Rathayatra festival of Jagannatha Puri in London’s Trafalgar Square.
   In the changing climate of scientific opinion in the late twentieth century, the time may have come to openly introduce the traditional teachings of bhakti to the world’s intellectual communities. The once jarring conflicts between rationalism and traditional religion may progressively fade as science matures and becomes open to the study of mystical phenomena. This opens up the possibility of an approach to religion that is intellectually acceptable and at the same time satisfies the soul’s inner desire for love in a transcendental relationship.
   This leaves us with one possible objection. Could it be that the Vaishnava teachings, with their specific emphasis on Krishna as the Supreme, are guilty of sectarian disregard for other religious traditions? The answer is that, of course, any doctrine can be put forward in a narrow, sectarian way. But as Bhaktivinoda Thakura pointed out in his essay on the Bhagavata, the Vaishnava teachings are inherently broad-minded and acknowledge the value of all religious systems. The following prayer shows the approach to other religions taken in the Bhagavata:

   This verse states that God appears to His devoted worshipers in many different forms, depending on their desires. These forms include the avataras of Krishna described in traditional Vaishnava texts, but are not limited to those forms. Indeed, it is said that the expansions of the Supreme Personality of Godhead are uncountable, and they cannot be fully described in the finite scriptures of any one religious community. The following verse gives some idea of the different religious communities in the universe, as described by the Bhagavata:

   This statement is explicitly “mythological,” and one can well imagine how Sir William Jones might have reacted to it. But it offers a grand picture of countless races and societies within the universe, all given religious methods suitable for their particular natures. Here the word “Vedic” cannot be limited to particular Sanskrit texts that now exist in India. Rather, it refers to the sum total of religious systems revealed by the infinite Supreme God for the sake of elevating countless societies of divinely created beings.
   As always, the distinguishing feature of the Vaishnava teachings is that God is a real person and His variegated creation is also real. Thus the Vaishnava approach to religious liberality is to regard all genuine religions as real divine revelations. Likewise, the Vaishnava teachings of love of God aim to set in place a relationship of loving service between the real individual soul and the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the performer of real transcendental pastimes.

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1. Vivekananda, 1963, pp. 10–11.
2. Vivekananda, 1963, p. 11.
3. Vivekananda, 1963, p. 13
4. Vivekananda, 1963, p. 14
5. Jordan, 1987, p. 27
6. Vivekananda, 1963, p. 17.
7. Majumdar, 1965.
8. Thakur Bhaktivinod, 1986, p. 5
9. Thakur Bhaktivinod, 1986, p. 6
35. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1987, text 3.9.11.
36. Hridayananda dasa Goswami, 1982, text 11.14.5–7.


Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, A. C., 1987, Srimad Bhagavatam,
Third Canto - Part One, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Hridayananda dasa Goswami, 1982, Srimad Bhagavatam, Eleventh
   Canto - Part Three, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Jordan, James N., 1987, Western Philosophy: From Antiquity to the
   Middle Ages,
New York: Macmillan.

Majumdar, R. C., 1965, Svami Vivekananda: A Historical Review,
   Calcutta: General Printers and Publishers, Ltd.

Thakur, Shrila Bhaktivinod, 1986, The Bhagavat: Its Philosophy,
   Its Ethics & Its Theology,
Nabadwip: Shri Goudiya Samiti.

Copyright © 2004 by Richard L. Thompson