How do we understand when different Vaishnava acharyas give different meanings of the same scriptural verse?

By Chaitanya Charan - 15.9 2023

From Revati Vallabh Pr:

Sometimes different Vaishnava acharays give different meanings of the same scriptural verse. Which is the original, actual meaning of the verse? If the same verse can have multiple interpretations, then how can some interpretations – like those given by Mayavadis – be considered wrong?

Question: While Srila Vishwanath  Chakravarti Thakura had already written a commentary on Bhagavad-gita, why did Srila Baladeva  Vidyabhushan write another commentary? And how is it that sometimes he differs substantially on technical and philosophical points from Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura?

 Answer: Both of them had different focuses when they wrote. Srila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura was living in Vrindavana and his commentaries were more rasika in nature with philosophical insights, whereas Srila Baladeva Vidyabhushana had to respond to the challenges of the Ramanandis, who were saying that the Brahma Gaudiya sampradaya was not a bona fide sampradaya.

In traditional Vedantic circles, for any sampradaya to be considered bona fide, it has to have commentaries on prasthan-traya. Prasthan-traya refers to the three-way foundation of the Vedantic philosophy: 1. The Bhagavad-gita, 2. The 10 principal Upanishads and 3. The Vedanta-sutras.

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu had said that there is no need to write a commentary on Vedanta-sutra as the Srimad Bhagavatam is the natural commentary on Vedanta-sutra. That’s why the acharyas up till Baladeva Vidyabhushana did not write any commentary on the Vedanta-sutra. But during the time of Baladeva Vidyabhushana, the Ramanandis challenged the authenticity of the Gaudiya sampradaya; and to establish the authenticity back Baladeva Vidyabhushana wrote Govinda Bhashya, a commentary on Vedanta-sutra. After he wrote this commentary, he felt a need to complete his service and establish the Gaudiya sampradaya on a solid intellectual and philosophical foundation. So he wrote commentaries on the remaining two books of the prasthan-traya as well: the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-gita. Thus he is focusing more on the tattva aspect. He does not go deep into the matters of how Krishna and Arjuna were feeling. He may mention that occasionally, but his main focus is on the philosophical aspects of Bhagavad-gita.

Thus both of these acharyas were motivated by different historical purposes when they wrote these commentaries.

Now, due to apparent technical differences in the commentaries on the verses, we may wonder what their absolute meaning is. We see that the scriptures are meant to be relished, and our acharyas derived newer and newer tastes. Srila Prabhupada would often quote this verse of Yamunacharya, who relishes ever-new pleasures in Krishna:

yadāvadhi mama cetaḥ kṛṣṇa-padāravinde

nava-nava-rasa-dhāmanudyata rantum āsīt

tadāvadhi bata nārī-sańgame smaryamāne

                                          bhavati mukha-vikāraḥ suṣṭu niṣṭhīvanaḿ ca

“Since I have been engaged in the transcendental loving service of Krishna, realizing ever-new pleasure in Him, whenever I think of sex pleasure, I spit at the thought, and my lips curl with distaste.” We see that Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gave multiple meanings of the atmaram verse (SB 1.7.10) while speaking to both Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and later Sanatana Gosvami. He gave almost 61 different meanings. And Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami considered this so important that he wrote an entire chapter on this topic in Chaitanya Charitamrita (Madhya Lila chapter24).

So naturally the question would arise: If the same verse can be given multiple interpretations, then how can we understand what the actual, final meaning is and how do we differentiate these multiple interpretations from the interpretations of the Mayavadis?

The first point to understand is that the interpretations have to be in harmony with the overall siddhanta. Let us consider an example. In the 1st canto of Srimad Bhagavatam, we see that Bhima and Yuddhishthira, though both being devotees, have a difference of opinion on how to deal with Ashwatthama. Now, Bhima and Duryodhana  may also have  a difference of opinion. But there is a fundamental difference between these two differences of opinion. Both Bhima and Yuddhishthira are agreeing to serve Krishna and the only difference is how to serve Krishna; whereas between Bhima and Duryodhana there is a foundational difference- one wants to serve while the other does not want to serve. The difference between the commentaries of two Vaishnavas on a book and that of a Vaishnava and Mayavadi are like that. The Mayavadis are directly against the purpose of Krishna. Krishna says vedaiś ca sarvair aham eva vedyo: “All the Vedas are meant to know Me”; and the Mayavadis say that we have to go beyond Krishna, to something else. So in that sense if we look at the overall siddhanta of the Vedic literature, the interpretations of the Mayavadis go against that.

Siddhanta is the foundation. In the Vedic tradition there are systems of logic and logical analysis by which we can understand the sidhanta. upakram upasamharav abhyasapurvata phalam: Upakram– what is said in the beginning, Upasamhar– what is said in the end, Abhayas– what is being said repeatedly again and again, and Apurvata– what is being uniquely said in the particular book. All this is called tatparya linga, characteristics of the new. From these, one can understand what the actual import of the book is, and any interpretation has to be in harmony with that import. So this is the founding difference between the Mayavadi and Vaishnava interpretations.

Now, can we conclude on any absolute or final interpretation within the various interpretations given by the Vaishnava acharyas? We certainly consider Srila Prabhupada’s verdict as it is, as a very important authority. But Srila Prabhupada was once mentioning the list of books which he wanted to print in the future. He said that he wanted to print another commentary on the Bhagavad-gita. The devotees were surprised, because he had already written a commentary on Gita. Prabhupada said that there are so many acharyas and we can write one more entire commentary on it because many acharyas have commented on Gita.

So what does this mean? Did Srila Prabhupada consider his earlier commentary on Gita to be incomplete? No, it is not like that. Because scriptures like Bhagavad-gita are the words of Krishna; and as Krishna is unlimited, He can invest multiple meanings even in the one sentence that He has spoken. This is so because Krishna has the ashwarya of  jñāna, the opulence of knowledge, in supreme measure. Even in modern language, sometimes a man uses a word that has double meaning. That is considered cleverness. That is one of the ornaments of language, called ’pun’ figure of speech in English. Krishna can exhibit this cleverness to the supreme degree. He can invest not just multiple but infinite meanings in the one sentence He speaks and then through the hearts of different acharyas at different times in the history He may reveal different meanings.

Thus it is not that the acharyas are speculating, but they are revealing to us the meanings that Krishna has invested in those words. And this is how these acharyas give different meanings, but at the same time they remain united in their purpose of glorifying Krishna.

A simple example of this would be the verse Bg. 1.10, where Srila Baladeva Vidyabhushana and Srila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura give different meanings:

aparyāptaḿ tad asmākaḿ

balaḿ bhīṣmābhirakṣitam

paryāptaḿ tv idam eteṣāḿ

                                                       balaḿ bhīmābhirakṣitam

Here the words aparyāptaḿ and paryāptaḿ and can have different meanings. Duryodhana is speaking this verse. Srila Prabhupada translates aparyāptaḿ as immeasurable and paryāptaḿ as limited. Duryodhana is bragging:”O grandsire, as you are protecting us, our strength is immeasurable, and Bhima, who is protecting the Pandavas, has limited or finite strength.” Srila Prabhupada is following Baladeva Vidyabhushana here.  But Srila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura interprets this in a different way. aparyāptaḿ can mean inadequate and  paryāptaḿ can mean adequate. So Duryodhana is saying, “Our strength is inadequate, whereas Bhima’s strength is adequate.” What is happening here?

From the literal point of view of war experience and war competence, Bhima is of no match to Bhishma. Bhima is quite young, brash and hot blooded, whereas Bhishma is very experienced and competent in war. So in that sense Bhishma is far greater than Bhima. This is the sense that Prabhupada is taking. But if we look in the previous and next verses, Duryodhana is also a little doubtful whether Bhishma will fight whole heartedly or not as he loved the Pandavas. So when we think of a war to be more than just the competence and the experience, an important aspect is the will to fight. If we look from that (rasika) point of view, Bhima’s will to fight is far greater than that of Bhishma. Thus this makes Bhima’s strength adequate and Bhishma’s strength inadequate. This is what Vishwanath Thakura is telling.

In this way they are not contradicting but complimenting. They are giving us a complete picture, which we might not get if we stick to one translation. So we can take the other translations in such a way. But the underlining principle is that Krishna can invest multiple levels of meanings in one word and He reveals those meanings to different acharyas at different times.

 Thank You