Aitihya—Tradition as Authority (part 1)

Mukunda Datta dasa is a disciple of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada since 1976. He holds a graduate degree in South Asian Languages and Literature from the University of Washington, in Sanskrit and Braja-bhasa. He was made a charter member of the Sastric Advisory Council to the GBC (SAC). Based in Vrndavana (India) since 2003, he currently serves there as a translator for Giriraja Publications (a new division of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust).

Aitihya—Tradition as Authority (part 1)

tarko ’pratisthah srutayo vibhinna
nasav rsir yasya matam na bhinnam
dharmasya tattvam nihitam guhayam
mahajano yena gatah sa panthah


“‘Dry arguments are inconclusive. A great personality whose opinion does not differ from others is not considered a great sage. Simply by studying the Vedas, which are variegated, one cannot come to the right path by which religious principles are understood. The solid truth of religious principles is hidden in the heart of an unadulterated, self-realized person. Consequently, as the sastras confirm, one should accept whatever progressive path the mahajanas advocate.’”

In Krsna consciousness (as in any philosophy), a major concern is how to know or ascertain truth. This necessarily involves pramana (i.e., epistemological evidence, authentic assertion), which itself includes an important epistemological tool Lord Krsna calls “aitihya” (historical tradition), as explained below.

To better understand how aitihya practically means “traditional evidence,” it is first helpful to consider some historical and conceptual foundations related to this word, which is very closely related to the idea of guru-parampara, authentic disciplic succession (Bhagavad-gita, 4.2):

evam parampara-praptam
imam rajarsayo viduh
sa kaleneha mahata
yogo nasöah parantapa

“This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it is appears to be lost.”

Although considered indispensable in the diverse schools of thought allegiant to the Vedas, the ideal of scrupulously following an ancient tradition endorsed by respected predecessors has been widely esteemed in Indian culture since time immemorial. One can argue that this notion is so deeply ingrained in every facet of the society that its preservation in diverse fields has led to the excellence and refined attainment that can only result from thousands of years of cumulative discipline. In classical Indian music, for example, a given line of musical tutelage is also known as guru-parampara even today. However, aitihya is more than merely disciplic succession.

      Naturally, deference to what is received from august predecessors has also been a major theme throughout the long history of traditional Indian law (although the practice was eventually destroyed around the time of Indian independence). At times, this deference has also been blind, or nearly so. That may be partly because until roughly two centuries ago, authentic tradition itself was explicitly asserted (and accepted in legal and socio-religious policy) as being not different from the authority of scripture. Such a strong claim demands scrutiny. Lord Krsna instructs in Bhagavad-gita, 4.15: kuru karmaiva . . . purvaih purvataram krtam (i.e., “Perform only your duty, following in the footsteps of liberated souls”). Manu-smrti (4.178)—respected even by the ancient authors of over 2,000 extant dharma-sastras—suggests much the same, when it advises: 

yenasya pitaro yata
yena yatah pitamahah
tena yayat satam margam
tena gacchan na risyati

“Going the way of the wise and upright—by which one’s forefathers and grandfathers went—one comes to no harm.”

The foremost scholar of Dharma-sastra, P. V. Kane, considers this reference to be, “the general prescription for all men.” Such scriptural references certainly help to explain the extreme conservatism that is often noted as a chief characteristic of Vedic culture.

      For the purpose of spiritual realization, Srila Prabhupada generally emphasized sabda-pramana as a threefold set of authorities—the spiritual master, the saints or acaryas, and the scriptures (guru-sadhu-sastra). Likewise, more directly acknowledging his disciples’ immediate social, familial, civic, legal, political, and other affairs,[1] Srila Prabhupada urged his disciples to actually follow the traditional social models depicted and endorsed throughout his books, implementing these within his International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). In fact, as ISKCON gradually became more firmly established, Srila Prabhupada commensurately increased his emphasis on the traditional rules and regulations essential both for a civilized human life, and for vaidhi-sadhana-bhakti (regulated devotional service). For example, he gave roughly 80% of his instructions on the topic of daiva-varnasrama-dharma to his disciples during the last three years of his physical presence, even calling it the remaining 50% of his mission. Perhaps this was because it offers the authentic and time-honored means of fulfilling another final order he gave: that ISKCON members should cooperatively maintain his mission.[2] This is where a deeper understanding aitihya can be very helpful.

Indologists have observed that despite linguistic, ethnic, racial, religious, and political diversity comparable to that of Europe, Indian culture was remarkably more stable, harmonious, and recognizably consistent for over 2,000 years—unlike Europe. Dr. Arvind Sharma attributes this to its pervasive sense of dharma, arguably traditional India’s primary characteristic. In Bhagavad-gita (3.20), Lord Krsna calls this harmony “loka-sangraha” (i.e., social solidarity). Authors of the ancient dharma-sastras were quite aware of how changing circumstances affect social customs that are nonetheless considered eternal (we might call this an “acintya-bhedabheda-tattva”). As India’s Mughal empire gradually declined and disintegrated into various independent fiefdoms (later annexed by the British), this notion became increasingly relevant for its traditional courts (sabhas), which were heavily impacted through foreign influences such as Dutch East India Company and later the British Raj. Nonetheless, J. Duncan M. Derrett (1978: 46-55) can write that the old Manava legal system remained workable until the British increasingly tried (inadvertently or not) introducing into it fundamentally alien concepts—such as the primacy of individuals over their social groups, Western ideas of human rights, majority rule, and other essentially incompatible or irrelevant assumptions. That “new world order” must have bewildered the traditional pundits employed by the British—at least as much as appeals to dharma today discomfit even some of ISKCON’s best intellectuals.

     From far above our shared eating, sleeping, mating, and fearing tendencies, Srila Prabhupada constantly paraphrases Hitopadesa (prastavika 25), that only a sense of dharma actually makes us human—not just our biology: “dharmena hinah pasubhih samanah.” Since we are also taught that only human beings can become Krsna conscious, this reference provides a salient example of one of the core tenets of ISKCON teaching coming from what some might dismiss as mere folklore, quasi-mundane ethics, fables, or other corollary sources presumably meant for others. It fairly proves that such literatures are not only consonant with, but in many cases indispensable for, the achievement of pure devotional service.[3]

 Although scholars identify the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and other smrtis as the best textual resources on traditional Vedic culture, “culture shock” often troubles those who have not spent enough time in India (nor closely associated with tradition-minded Indians) to imbibe its remaining sense of dharma, socially.[4] A noted Western scholar wrote (Dumont 1980: 3-4):

“If one is prepared to devote all the time necessary to studying all aspects of Indian culture, one has a chance, under certain conditions, of transcending it, and of one day finding in it, some truth for one’s own use.”[5]

Such osmotic experience can effect a degree of relative assimilation of a socio-religious phenomenon that is at once elusive and yet definitely perceptible, even if it can only be vaguely articulated as “something Indian.” The process is quite natural, and seems implicitly embedded within the term aitihya, which subsumes the many subtle and yet visceral processes that accompany what the acaryas have more simply labeled, “association” (sanga). 

Whether they are perceptible or not, Lord Krsna confirms that all desires arise from our various associations: sangat sanjayate kamah (Bhagavad-gita, 2.62). Perhaps due to the numerous subtleties inherent in association, it is usually left unstated that a profound appreciation of this principle serves as a metaphysical basis underlying the various injunctions and prohibitions of the sastras, which shape Vedic culture (samskrti). The word samskrti, like the common name of the godly language “Sanskrit,” indicates a deliberately directed refinement; both words are closely related to a third, “samskara,” which Srila Prabhupada often translates as “reformatory process.”[6] The alternative is something instead “prakrta,” which means wild, natural, uncultivated, and so on.[7] ISKCON devotees are familiar with the phrase “prakrta-sahajiya” used by Srila Prabhupada to denote anatomically correct human beings who embrace devotional service in theory and sentiment, but remain too conditioned by impious samskaras to adopt all its regulative principles in practice—as Krsna also hints in Bhagavad-gita (7.28).

Thus, traditional Vedic culture is itself the locus of dharma, and perhaps the best exemplar of its own traditions, values, and norms—more even than any individuals within it. We are told that example is better than precept, and that is why this continually preserved and refined culture must be continually preserved and refined, through orthopraxis. Such is the path of elevation. Assimilation and experience are in essence one. If a preaching mission aims to communicate personal experience (cf., Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.2.3), its efforts involve a symbiotic synergy of both preservation and propagation; jeopardizing either one of these two, damages both. Each generation is responsible for replicating the entire Vedic tradition, socially and spiritually. Only one generation of neglect is enough to erase thousands of years of cumulative purification, wisdom, and human attainment in every field. One then has to try to “re-invent wheels,” as many ISKCON members evidently assume, or attempt, hopelessly.[8] I and others (such as the late Gopiparanadhana prabhu) would instead urge deeper inquiry into the necessary education one can find if one truly seeks it.[9]

[1] For example, in order to protect children from pedophiles in ISKCON, its Child Protection Office currently receives more GBC funding than any ISKCON project other than the GBC Strategic Planning Team. This information is from 2013 GBC resolutions, available at:

[2] Maintenance and cooperation have certainly proven to be among ISKCON’s major challenges since 1977.

[3] Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.8.3-4) references the sage Aurva Muni in connection with Lord Ramacandra’s forefather Sagara Maharaja. It is described in Visnu Purana that Sagara Maharaja once asked Aurva Muni about how to bring ordinary people to the platform of pure Krsna consciousness (this also being the core concern of all ISKCON members). In replying over the course several chapters, Aurva Muni gave us his clear opinion—which Srila Prabhupada his predecessors (especially within the last century) quite often repeat (Visnu Purana, 3.8.9): “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Visnu, is worshiped by the proper execution of prescribed duties in the system of varna and asrama. There is no other way to satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. One must be situated in the institution of the four varnas and asramas.”

[4] Even a cursory reading of chapter 19 of Srimad-Bhagavatam, canto 5, reveal many ways in which India can hardly be considered an ordinary place (although modern Indians try very hard to make it so), and that those socialized in its traditional culture have a very fortunate advantage and special opportunity of sustaining the mature commitment to pure devotional service that Krsna indicates in bhagavad-gita, 7.28.

[5] Writing in the early 20th century, he even claimed (1980: 1): “It is a remarkable fact that, quite apart from the Indians, no Westerner who has lived in India . . . attempted or recommended the abolition pure and simple of the caste system, either because of an acute consciousness of the positive functions fulfilled by the system . . . or simply because such a thing appeared to impracticable.”

[6] The term has deep significance; it further means the psychological disposition or mindset that results from one’s regular activities, be they pious or not.

[7] Similarly, the vernaculars are classed as “Prakrta” languages.

[8] Srila Prabhupada explains this modern problem at length, in his purports to Srimad-bhagavatam, 4.18.2-5.

[9] Certainly anyone can begin in this way, since sambandha-jnana (awareness of relationships) necessarily precedes efforts at abhidheya (application). To illustrate the relevance of this principle, most of ISKCON’s efforts at daiva-varnasrama-dharma have failed through partial assimilation of its basic concepts—if not mere neglect.

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