Aitihya—Tradition as Authority (part 2)

Aitihya—Tradition as Authority (part 2)


    The word “aitihya” is eternal; it is found in the Veda-sruti (Taittiriya Aranyaka). The Amara-kosa (1.6.4) defines it as a “prior occurance” (pura-vrttam), explained by commentators as the instructions of tradition (iti-ha iti paramparyopadese ’vyayam). Thus, modern lexicographers tell us it derives from “iti-ha,” an indeclinable literally translating as “thus indeed,” “according to tradition,” and so on. Perhaps its best known form is, “iti-hasa” (“It occurred thus”), the name given by Srimad-Bhagavatam and other sastras for the gamut of ancient historical accounts, legends, traditions, and cultural lore. The Itihasas are generally deemed to consist of the Puranas and especially both epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Speculative historian Romila Thapar explains (1978: 256), “The Itihasa–purana tradition had three main constituents—myth, geneology, and historical narrative.”

     Taken in the sense of “authoritative tradition,”[10] aitihya is verisimilar to the modern notion of legal precedent, itself similar to its usage in Manava law. John Grimes’  Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy (1996: 20), defines aitihya as “tradition, historical evidence, rumor,” in two chief ways—either as: “a traditional belief or beliefs which have been handed down from generation to generation,” or: “one of the means of valid knowledge (pramana) according to the Pauranikas.” Thus the Encyclopedia of the Hindu World (Garg 1992: 260) also defines aitihya as: “tradition, which is defined as an assertion that has come down from the past without any indication of the source from which it first originated. According to Nyaya (logic), it is simply verbal testimony or sabda.” The same encyclopedia also reiterates that the Pauranikas (those well-versed in Puranas, or their teachings) regard it as a valid source of knowledge.

     Two important verses from the spotless Purana, Srimad-Bhagavatam, indicate the tremendous interpretive value of aitihya in Krsna consciousness.

One is Srimad-Bhagavatam, 11.19.17:

 srutih pratyaksam aitihyam
  anumanam catustayam
pramanesv anavasthanad
  vikalpat sa virajyate

  “From the four types of evidence—Vedic knowledge, direct experience, traditional wisdom and logical induction—one can understand the temporary, insubstantial situation of the material world, by which one becomes detached from the duality of this world.”[11]

Here, Lord Krsna describes aitihya as a valid proof, an authoritative evidence (pramana), like the other three pramanas Srila Prabhupada more often mentions (pratyaksa, anumana, and sabda). In other words, Krsna clearly affirms that tradition itself is a fourth pramana

The other verse is Srimad-Bhagavatam, 11.28.18:

jnanam viveko nigamas tapas ca
  pratyaksam aitihyam athanumanam
ady-antayor asya yad eva kevalam
  kalas ca hetus ca tad eva madhye

  “Real spiritual knowledge is based on the discrimination of spirit from matter, and it is cultivated by scriptural evidence, austerity, direct perception, reception of the Puranas’ historical narrations, and logical inference. The Absolute Truth, which alone was present before the creation of the universe and which alone will remain after its destruction, is also the time factor and the ultimate cause. Even in the middle stage of this creation’s existence, the Absolute Truth alone is the actual reality.”

This is an even stronger reference. By using the word “aitihya” (instead of sabda) in apposition with the other two pramanas (viz., pratyaksa and anumana), it further and more clearly shows that aitihya is not only an acceptable evidence, but that it has authority equal to that of sabda specifically—as indeed was recognized by the Indian legal tradition.

     Several Vaisnava commentaries on the abovementioned two Bhagavatam verses (11.19.17 and 11.28.18) confirm that this very sense was also the usage of Srila Prabhupada’s predecessors:

     On 11.19.17, the Bhavartha-dipika commentary by Sridhara Svami, says “Aitihya means the established conventions of great souls” (aitihyam mahajana-prasiddhih). In Krama-sandarbha, Srila Jiva Gosvami slightly elaborates, “Aitihya means the established tradition from great souls who promulgated the various scriptures” (aitihyam—tat-tac-chastra-pravartaka-mahajana-sampradaya-prasiddhih). Srila Viraraghavacarya puts it as simply as possible: “Aitihya is sabda” (aitihya-sabdah). Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Öhakura repeats Sridhara Svami and adds the illustrative example mentioned in the verse ((aitihyam mahajana-prasiddhih; na kadacid anidrsam jagad ity adikam vadatam tu na mahajanatvam jneyam); as translated by Bhumipati dasa):

  “The evidence presented by historical or traditional wisdom is that those who declare that this material world is false did not exist previously, and thus are unauthorized and ignorant.”[12]

The same verse explained by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Öhakura elaborates (ibidem—the italics below are mine):

“Unless one accepts direct perception, Vedic knowledge, traditional wisdom, and logical induction in relation to the Supreme Lord, one will simply engage in mental speculation while trying to understand the Absolute Truth. When any of these four kinds of evidence are used to enhance one’s spiritual cultivation, they are accepted as being worthy. Simply by utilizing any of these forms of evidence for one’s personal sense gratification, one cannot gain any auspiciousness.”

While similarly denigrating its abuse in selfish pursuits, the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT) purport internationalizes this principle, adding: “Furthermore, we find all around the world traditional wisdom warning people that things in this world cannot last.”   

     On Srimad-Bhagavatam,11.28.18, Sridhara Svami and Viraraghavacarya put it most simply: “Aitihya means instruction” (aitihyam upadesah).[13] Srila Vijayadhvaja Tirtha writes: “Aitihya is established through tradition and acaryas,” or, alternatively: “Aitihya is established through tradition consisting of acaryas” ( acarya-sampradaya-siddhatvad aitihyam). Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Öhakura repeats Sridhara Svami verbatim, in full. Bhumipati dasa translates, “the instructions of great sages of the past;” likewise, citing Srila  Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Öhakura’s definition, he then translates aitihya as “historical evidence.” The BBT edition summarizes in its purport by Hrdayananda Gosvami:

“The method for acquiring knowledge is scientifically described here, and those who are serious, reasonable scholars will take advantage of the transcendental epistemology revealed here by the Lord.”

     Finally, Srila Prabhupada himself also directly confirms this traditional understanding that aitihya-pramana and sabda-pramana are equivalent, when he likewise explains (in a lecture on Bhagavad-gita 2.13, in New York City, on 3/11/66):

“There are three kinds of evidences, pratyaksa, anumana, and aitihya. Pratyaksa means that you can directly perceive. That is called pratyaksa. And anumana. Anumana means you can conjecture, make an…, “It may be like this. It may be like this. Perhaps it is like this.” This is called anumana. And the other evidence is aitihya. Aitihya means to take evidences from the authority. So according… Out of these three evidences, this aitihya evidence, just like we are taking instruction of Bhagavad-gita, sound, sound vibrated by the greatest personality, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, that sort of pramana is acceptable. That is the best. This is the best way of acquiring knowledge.”

Srila Prabhupada explained aitihya similarly on several other occasions.[14]

     Considering the above usage of sisöacara (i.e., the ancient conventions of recognized spiritual authorities in matters of dharma), which equates traditional convention with sabda, this principle has been applied to a wide variety of social, religious, civic, and legal affairs for thousands of years. It is also clear that, as in other schools of Vedic thought, Gauòiya Vaisnava acaryas also accept aitihya as sabda-pramana.

     This recognition that established tradition is sabda-pramana more practically suggests that in serious disputes about the intention of one’s guru, sadhu, and scripture regarding dharma—the established tradition received from realized predecessors provides equally authoritative directions for distinguishing the right and wrong path of action in a given time, place, and circumstance. In other words, the fourth pramana Krsna offered Uddhava (aitihya) should swing most arguments to a clear conclusion—as has always been its purpose. Of course, one must be open to hearing submissively (exegetically)—rather than hearing only enough to serve one’s own intentions (eisegetically). With the passing of generations, the profound importance of this fact will be seen—in how well each generation assimilates and transmits what it has heard submissively, in its orthopraxis. The tremendous importance of this principle must never be underestimated.

     If even this much about aitihya is made known, it is possible to consider and appreciate its potentially massive benefit for important discussions or disputes regarding the intentions of guru, sadhu, and sastra. As such, learned, saintly, and senior devotees in ISKCON advise that nonpartisan experts should dispassionately research and take such things into account. The pivotal function of aitihya recognized by acaryas must not be overlooked, ignored, dismissed, or distorted. This authoritative epistemological tool is best used as intended, per its historical norm, even in thorny issues and seemingly irresolvable controversies. In its brief history, ISKCON has seen many such crucial issues that a more mature appreciation of aitihya could have better resolved—or even prevented. Such controversies remain before us even now. In fact, many such conflicts arise only through ignorance of relevant aitihya conventions. In conclusion, this time-honored epistemological category may at least illuminate the difficult discussions ISKCON must face—but only if this resource is honestly explored, rather than suppressed.


Derrett, J. Duncan M. 1978.  “The Concept of Duty in Ancient Indian Jurisprudence: the Problem of Ascertainment.” in The Concept of Duty in South Asia. Eds. Wendy Doniger O “Flaherty and J.Duncan M. Derrett. New Delhi: Vikas. 18-65.

Dumont, Louis. 1979. Homo Hierarchicus: the Caste System and Its Implications. Chicago: University of Chicago  (rev. ed.).

Garg, Ganga Ram. 1992. Encyclopedia of the Hindu World. Delhi: Concept. “Aitihya,” pg.260.

Grimes, John. 1996.  A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy.  Albany: SUNY.

Isvara dasa,  2009. The Uddhava-gita: Krsna speaks His sequel to Bhagavad-gita. Kolkata: Touchstone Media.

Kane, P.V.  1977. History of Dharmasastra (Volume V, part II). Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental research Institute. 2nd edition.

Puridasa, ed. 1952. Sri-Sri-Krama-sandarbhah. Vrndavana: Sri Haridasa Sarma.

Sharma, Arvind. 1997.  “Contemporary Hinduism.” in Ananya: A Portrait of India.  Eds. S.N. Sridhar and Nirmal Mattoo.  New York: Association of Indians in America. 279-293.

Sastri, Sri Krsna-sankara, ed. 1965–1997. Srimad-Bhagavatam (includes major commentaries). Ahmedabad, Gujarat: Sri-Bhagavata-Vidyapitha.

Thapar, Romila.  1978.  Ancient Indian History: Some Interpretations. Delhi: Orient-Longman.

[10]The word aitihya is still used in this sense in South India.

[11]These four were also listed in Chapter 24 of the 1975 version of Teachings of Lord Caitanya.

[12] In other words, Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura writes, those who say things like ‘The world isn’t so,’ should never be considered mahajanas.

[13] Incidentally, the former also defines the word “tapah” in that verse as “sva-dharmah” (observance of one’s individual nature and its corresponding prescribed duty).

[14]These include lectures New York City on 7/18/66 and 11/22/66, in Seattle on 10/14/68, in a New Vrndavana class on 6/18/69, a Srimad-Bhagavatam lecture in Vrndavana on 8/16/74, and in a Nairobi Bhagavd-gita lecture on 10/31/75. In his Jaiva-dharma (Chapter 13), Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura enumerates eight pramanas including aitihya, but these are usually considered as subsets of the main three Srila Prabhupada that mentioned most often: sabda, anumana, and pratyaksa. Most generally, sruti, sabda, and aitihya are more or less synonyms, so they are used interchangeably. 

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