On page 135 of the Śāstric Advisory Council’s ISKCON Hermeneutics Supplementary Material manual, the SAC gives the following hierarchy of the śāstras and their commentators.
In the six Sandarbhas, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī employs Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as the main pramāṇa and all other scriptures, including Vedas, are employed to justify the conclusions given by the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam. Therefore, for the Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇavas, the gradation of authority among the Vedic scriptures (śruti) is as follows:
(1) Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, book incarnation of Kṛṣṇa, and its interpretations as done by Śrīla Śrīdhara Svāmī, Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava ācāryas and other Vaiṣṇava ācāryas. This also includes the six Sandarbhas, since they are mostly elaborate commentaries on various verses of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
(2) Other Purāṇas/Itihāsas/Vedas/Vedānta-sūtra/Bhagavad-gītā/Pañcarātra as well the six Vedāṅgas or limbs of the Vedas (vyākaraṇa: grammar, chanda: prosody, śikṣā: phonology, nirukta: etymology, kalpa: ritual instruction, jyotiṣa: timekeeping) and the entire umbrella of Vedic literature (brāhmaṇa–grantha: commentaries on Vedic hymns, sarvānukramaṇī–grantha: index of Vedic hymns, bṛhad–devatā: theogony of Vedic hymns, etc.).
The SAC’s statement that “Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī employs Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam as the main pramāṇa” and uses all other scriptures to support the conclusions given by the Bhagavatam is correct. But the hierarchy of Vedic scriptures they give is not, because the SAC has included in its first category the commentaries of ācāryas. This puts their commentaries on a higher level than even the Vedas, and no bona fide sampradāya will accept that conclusion.
The commentaries of ācāryas are always considered smṛti, not śruti, because their commentaries are recollections (smṛti, from smaraṇam, or memory) from what they have heard from śruti (bhaktyā śruta-gṛhītayā – SB 1.2.12). And because their commentaries are smṛti, their authority is necessarily at or beneath that of the literature in the SAC’s category 2 above. But the SAC has nevertheless made the mistake of making the authority of the commentaries of the ācāryas equal to or greater than that of the Vedas.
Of greater concern is that this error is not an ordinary mistake but instead derives from a misguided conception of pramāṇa-śāstra on the part of the SAC. The specific character of their misconception is discussed at length in the following essays by Dāmodara Dāsa (“Gauḍīyas do not have their own system of interpretation”), by Kṛṣṇa-kīrti Dāsa (“Is the SAC’s overarching principle supported by śāstra?”), and by Śrīdhara Śrīnivāsa Dāsa (“Do the SAC’s hermeneutical tools pass ‘the grain of rice test’?”).
Such misconceptions as being propagated by the SAC will result in grave misunderstandings, which must be corrected in order to prevent members of our own society, ISKCON, from falling away from the path of bhakti.
Oṁ tat sat,
July 4, 2021
Gauḍīyas do not have their own system of interpretation
1. The SAC says that “The Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas have their own system of interpreting Uttara-mīmāṁsā, i.e. Vedānta-sūtras.” (Supplementary Materials handbook, p.109)
· This claim is unfounded. If we have our own system of interpreting Vedānta then why should any other sampradāya accept it? Lord Caitanya challenged Māyāvādīs who accepted His arguments (see Cc. 1.7 and 2.6). Baladeva Vidyabhūṣaṇa wrote Govinda Bhasya and was accepted by all sampradāyas.
· Neither Śrīla Prabhupāda nor any other ācārya ever asked us to have our own system of interpretation of śāstras. We do find abundant evidence to the contrary.
His work, the Vedānta-sūtra, is as dazzling as the midday sun, and when someone tries to give his own interpretations on the self-effulgent sunlike Vedānta-sūtra, he attempts to cover this sun with the cloud of his imagination. (SB 1, intro)
· This is the SAC version of jato mata tato patha. It means that Gaudiya-vaisnavism is just one of the many ways in which Vedanta can be interpreted.
· Based on this faulty view, the SAC comes to believe that our ācāryas had their own system of śāstrārtha nirṇaya and used the old system only where it supported their conclusions.
2. The SAC continues: “whatever parts of Pūrva-mīmāṁsā are unopposed to Vedānta are acceptable to Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas” and that “Mīmāṁsā techniques can be engaged with if they are helpful in establishing the glory of Kṛṣṇa-bhakti. They are not to be engaged with in case they go against the conclusions of bhakti.”
· There is big logical fallacy here:
– A purva-mimamsaka will come and say that they accept only those parts of Vedanta that are unopposed to Purva-mimamsa. Sankara follower will say “mimamsa technique can be engaged with if they are helpful in establishing impersonal brahman as supereme and not in case they go against it.” Sai-baba’s followers will say “mimamsa technique can be engaged with if they are helpful in establishing Sai-baba as supreme and not in the case they go against it.” And so on…
– What if someone would say “mimamsas technique can be engaged with only if they are helpful in defeating the SAC’s Vaisnava Hermeneutics methodology?”
· The SAC’s above claim means that our acaryas followed the half-hen-logic, or selective quoting. Such purpose-targeted methodology is known as Jalpa in Vedic terms (or wrangling) and is akin to Mayavada which uses a similar methodology in interpreting sastras.
· Consequence: ISKCON preachers will have their different understandings about the conclusions of śāstras and Śrīla Prabhupāda, and they will want to accept some instructions from them wherever it supports them and not others.
3. The SAC continues: For example, (in Cc. Adi 4.35) Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu is making use of a mīmāṁsā linguistic technique named “śābdī bhāvanā” which says that an instruction in the imperative mood (vidhiliṅ) given in śāstra must be followed. However, if an ISKCON devotee takes this as a general rule and tries to apply it to all Vedic statements, then there are also Vedic statements such as śyenenābhicaran yajeta: “A person desirous of killing his enemy should perform Śyena-yāga sacrifice.” The term yajeta here is also in the same imperative mood named vidhiliṅ. Yet Vaiṣṇavas will not take it as an order from the Veda and perform this sacrifice.
· Krishnadas Kaviraja Gosvami uses the “vidhilin” principle and establishes that after hearing about the mercy of the Lord one must engage in His service. Then mīmāṁsākas will say that he should also accept the “vidhilin” principle everywhere else in understanding the śāstras.
· According to the SAC Hermeneutics, in response to the mīmāṁsākas, he will say, “I used this principle only because it supports my conclusion at this place, and I will reject this principle wherever it doesn’t support.”
· Such an answer marks the defeat of our sampradāya, just as the below statement marked the defeat of Prakāśānanda Sarasvatī in discussing with Lord Caitanya: “because we belong to his sect, we accept it although it does not satisfy us” (Ādi 7.136). Also see CC 2.9.274-75 which marked the defeat of the Tattvavādīs of Udupi. Similarly, SAC’s Hermeneutics defeats our sampradaya right from its beginning.
4. Then why do the Gaudiya Vaisnava Acaryas not accept syena-yajna as imperative action?
· There are three types of vidhi : Apurva-vidhi (usually called vidhi), Niyama-vidhi, and Parisankhya-vidhi. The vidhilin form of statement can be used in mentioning any of the above vidhis, but only the apurva-vidhi is meant for imperative action, not the other two.
· Knowing that the syena-yajna injunction is parisankhya-vidhi, our acaryas (and even mimamsakas and advaitins) do not accept the syena-yajna as imperative action.
· In parisankhya-vidhi the intended meaning is opposite to the one stated in the injunction. For instance, the sastras gives the order “you should have sex with your wife every month at sastrically appropriate time.” But it actually means “don’t have sex with anyone other than your wife, and that too only at times specified in sastras.”
5. The SAC quotes a verse in Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī’s Padyāvalī that criticizes those mīmāṁsā philosophers who are not interested in bhakti, to establish that purva-mimamsa is opposed to bhakti
· The Karma-mimasa interpretation of purva-mimasa is what our acaryas are against and not purva-mimamsa itself. Just as our acaryas are not against uttara-mimamsa (vedanta) but are against its interpretation by Sankaracarya. This is so for all vaisnava acaryas
· The renowned ācārya Vedānta Deśikan of the Rāmānuja sampradāya has written a commentary on Pūrva-mīmāṁsā named “Seśvara-mīmāṁsā,” that refutes the karma-mīmāṁsā philosophy by establishing that Pūrva-mīmāṁsā opines the existence of the absolute Godhead.
· Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (11.5.11) itself uses parisankhya-vidhi etc. from Pūrva-mīmāṁsā to refute the karma-mīmāṁsā philosophy.
Is the SAC’s Overarching Principle Supported by Śāstra (by Kṛṣṇa-kīrti Dāsa)
1) The SAC has not justified their choice of basis for their overarching principle. The SAC’s overarching principle makes Śrīla Prabhupāda out to be ISKCON members’ primary pramāṇa (“Śrīla Prabhupāda first”), and the SAC tries to support this with statements about guru from the śrutis and other śāstras. But a different overarching principle should have been based on statements from scripture that affirm that scripture (śāstra) is the primary pramāṇa and that also mention ācāryas as pramāṇa (e.g. Āpastamba-dharmasūtra (2-3): dharmajñasamayaḥ vedāśca, “The authority for prescribed duties is those who know the law, and their authority is the Vedas alone,” and also Manu-saṁhitā 2.6 and Yājñavalkya-smṛti 1.7, etc. also affirm). The SAC does not justify their own choice of starting point, and a wrong starting point will have devastating consequences, such as in Śrīpāda Śaṅkarācārya’s choice to make tat tvam asi as his mahā-vākya, which resulted in a wide-ranging misinterpretation of Vedānta-sūtra and śāstra generally (see CC Adi 7.128 purport).
2) None of the evidences the SAC puts forward in support of their overarching principle supports it. But their evidence supports all bona fide gurus generally as being “the representative and conveyer of the essence of the tradition and paramparā” for their disciples’ understanding and application—this is true even for Śrīla Prabhupāda’s successors. As quoted by the SAC, Śrīla Prabhupāda says, “You cannot imagine what my spiritual master said. Or even if you read some books, you cannot understand unless you understand it from me.” Why would this apply only to Śrīla Prabhupāda and no one else? It doesn’t. Hence, none of the evidence the SAC cites supports their overarching principle.
3) The SAC’s overarching principle contradicts the Vedic principle of the revealed scriptures as primary evidence. Śrīla Prabhupāda is the most important source of Vedic knowledge for modern audiences similar to how a doctor is the most important source of medical knowledge and its application for a patient. But when doubts arise about the meaning of anything Śrīla Prabhupāda said or did, or what any śāstra or ācārya has said, then the SAC’s overarching principle does not necessarily apply. This is because the śāstras consider the works of ācāryas as having the authority of smṛtis, which are not the primary evidence in the Vedic system. Only the śrutis and other literature like the Bhāgavatam are considered the highest evidence. An example of the words of a great ācārya (Madhvācārya) being subordinate to śāstra is found in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s purport to SB 6.19.13. The SAC’s overarching principle is therefore not generalizable to other ācāryas and therefore cannot be a principle.
4) The SAC’s overarching principle makes Śrīla Prabhupāda subordinate to the preferences of the person who has to decide which of his statements best apply. Making Śrīla Prabhupāda our primary pramāṇa has several adverse consequences: a) evidence from śāstra and other ācāryas is easily dismissed as “jumping over the ācārya”; b) because one can produce a statement from Śrīla Prabhupāda that supports almost any idea, that also makes other sources superfluous; and consequently c) decisions as to which of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statements or some other statement from śāstra or ācāryas is applicable will be decided mainly by the personal preferences of the decision-maker. The SAC’s overarching hermeneutical principle is therefore a formal declaration of a long-standing tradition that regards Śrīla Prabhupāda as ISKCON’s only source of spiritual knowledge, not unlike how Buddhists consider Buddha their only source of knowledge. This guarantees no resolution of important conflicts over Śrīla Prabhupāda’s various statements. And this further perpetuates the gradual disintegration of ISKCON, not unlike how, after the disappearance of Lord Buddha, the Buddhists quickly fragmented into many sects with major doctrinal disagreements.
Do the SAC’s hermeneutical tools pass “the grain of rice test”? (by Śrīdhara Śrīnivāsa Dāsa)
In this essay, we examine SAC’s recently developed course on hermeneutic principles and their associated hermeneutical tools for their fidelity and integrity against the Vedic standards as well as against the standards given to us by Śrīla Prabhupāda from his teachings (written and spoken). The famous saying “a grain of rice indicates the quality of the pot of rice it was cooked in” holds good for this exercise as well. We examined the SAC’s Tool 3, Principle 21, and also Tool 36, and the following is a short summary of our analysis:
1. As part of Tool 3, the SAC hermeneutic course imposes upon its students an artificial ascending process (āroha pantha) of learning, which is an antithesis of the Vedic standard process of distinguishing and harmonization.
2. As part of SAC principle 21, the SAC course speculates that Nārada Muni employed “reverse psychology” to encourage Dhruva Mahārāja to adopt the spiritual path. We establish with evidence that Śrīla Nārada Muni did not employ the SAC’s purported trick of “reverse psychology”, and Dhruva Mahārāja was not an ordinary child of mundane character.
3. As part of principle 21, the SAC course perpetuates misguided principles in the name of understanding the mood and mission of Śrīla Prabhupāda, resulting in a hermeneutic tool (tool 36) that propagates ideas such as books are not the basis, propounds anti-Vedic cultural ideas such as women can be independent, varṇāśrama is not important,” and other feminist narratives, all of which are against the core teachings of Śrīla Prabhupāda.
Overall, the SAC process of gathering knowledge (āroha pantha) is a modern egalitarian method based on western concepts in the guise of Vedic hermeneutics.
But in bhaktyā śruta-gṛhītayā, śruta refers to “what is heard”. It does not distinguish between śruti and smṛti… this is following the commentaries of Śrīdhara Svāmī, Jīva Gosvāmī and Viśvanātha Cakravartī.
Śrīdhara Svāmī: | śrutena vedāntādi-śravaṇena
Jīva Gosvāmī: | sad-guroḥ sakāśād vedāntādy-akhila-śāstrārtha-vicāra-śravaṇa-dvārā
Viśvanātha Cakravartī : bhaktyeti | ādau guru-mukhāc chruto paścād gṛhītā tayā
I would recommend opening the full paper because it has some real gems in it, like Krishna Kirti’s discussion of what SAC in one place calls “bedrock foundation” of this handbook which is supposed to resolve all ambiguities, but their “overarching principle” is ambiguous itself:
“Understanding tradition through Śrīla Prabhupāda, accepting Śrīla Prabhupāda as the representative and conveyer of the essence of the tradition and paramparā, ***in*** the most appropriate way for our
understanding and application.”
Isn’t it supposed to “is” in the middle of it, or is it really “in”? If “in” is correct then this “bedrock principle” relies on “the most appropriate way for our understanding” but doesn’t tell us what this way is and where to find it. One would need to know what other ways can be there and how to select the most appropriate among them. If the correct word is meant to be “is” it raises other questions, starting with “how did no one notice the error despite this foundational statement appearing half a dozen times in various papers included in this SAC bundle of documents?”
I could also draw one’s attention to Sridhara Srinivasa Prabhu’s example of dealing with Narada Muni’s instructions to Dhruva Maharaja where the paper asserts as a self-evident fact that Narada Muni applied “reverse psychology”. It appears contrary to how Srila Prabhupada explained it in the purport to SB 4.8.27, and he never used the term “reverse psychology” himself. Where does this come from? Is it inadvertently an example of those mysterious “most appropriate” ways? It’s also notable that this section was contributed by one of our FDG candidates, which begs the question – are female devotees really as solidly representing Srila Prabhupada as expected? It’s not just a random lecture – this is in the paper that is supposed to be our manual for understanding everything. Over a dozen of SAC devotees worked on it for many years, checking, double-checking, and revising the document.
Speaking of manuals – they are supposed to help one to solve problems but this one is almost 300 pages long, has 24 principles, 6 qualities, and 40 tools – where do you even start your troubleshooting? In Vedabase Folio, in the beginning, there is an article called “The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase: What to Make of What You Find
I also observed and noted in my essay that giving precedence to private letters over that of standard instructions in Srila Prabhupada’s books, especially on topics that are against and controversial in nature (women can be independent, women are not less intelligent), is extremely dangerous. I did not want to pinpoint any particular episode from devotee’ life but cannot avoid observing that in that letter to Malati Mataji, Srila Prabhupada issues a general caution that Women are less intelligent and also in other letters that women cannot be independent and divorce is not a question. If some are arguing that these are only for ordinary women and not applicable to ISKCON devotees, I am hard pressed to ask why some of glaring fall downs even in the life of Malati Mataji happened that is publicly well known? So the principle 21 and tool 36 is certainly misleading and biased against the general instructions contained in Srila Prabhupada’s books.
Your example of a quote from a letter to Hansadutta is also telling. On its own the quote appears to be conclusive – Srila Prabhupada, in practical application of his teachings, demonstrated that varnasrama was not very important, but this was said in a complex situation where Hansadutta was collecting tons of money for feeding children in Mayapur but then wanted to spend it on starting a farm in Germany because he genuinely thought there would be a world war and economic collapse. Srila Prabhupada insisted that money were to be sent to Mayapur, which, incidentally, he wanted to develop into an example of varnasrama for the whole world.
That quote in the SAC manual is longer and has this part, too: “For example, all my Europeans and American disciples have no varṇāśrama position, but spiritually because they have followed the rules and regulations and also my instructions, their advancement spiritually is being appreciated by everyone.” Considering how Hansadutta himself and many many others failed to maintain this standard over the time this letter leaves more questions than answers about value of varnasrama, but in the manual it’s presented one-sidedly and so is a far from perfect example of applying whatever that “tool 36” is. It is an example, however, of how in practice we are advised take letters more seriously than books without giving it due consideration. The tool itself asks for research, however, but the example does not demonstrate it.