Baba Rampuri talks about the role and nature of Hindu scripture and sacred text in the Sanatan Dharma and Indian traditions.
One day, out of morbid curiosity, I opened a Hari Krishna newsletter, spam, that was in my email. In it, Lord Krishna, was described in such a pathetic monotheistic manner, that he appeared to me as the plastic Jesus of shopping mall born again Christians. So I dashed them off an email protesting their demeaning and insulting of Lord Krishna. The editor was surprised, as he probably receives reams of mail challenging their claims of the supremacy of Krishna, and here I was saying the opposite. I accused them of being Orientalists, of superimposing Western Culture, in this case Christianity, on the East and its culture. So he sent me three pages of quotes translated into English from the Shrimad Bhagavatam that supported what they wrote. I thanked him for the beautiful verses, and I truly appreciated them, but I wanted to know one thing. I wanted to know where Authority was located. In the ink on the page or from the mouth of the guru? He correctly explained that the guru articulates and interprets what is written in Hindu scripture. But suppose, just SUPPOSE, for a moment, that there was some contradiction between your guru and the Srimad Bhagavatam, that on a particular point guru and Hindu scripture disagree. What do you take to be the ultimate authority? I will admit it was a trap, shamelessly I set him up. Scripture, he answered.
The monotheist religions require a central doctrine, and a central text – the scripture, which is the basis for that doctrine, that’s why they have been called the Religions of the Book. “The Book” was originally manuscripts, and eventually printed texts. Their authority lies within the “book.”
When the colonizers of the 18th-19th centuries and their scribes in the human sciences wanted to map Indian thinking, they had the daunting task of defining indigenous Indian religion in such a way that it could fit in the categories laid out for it and put it on the grid of all things. They had to construct, as it were, an Indian religion, so that it also would have a central definitive doctrine and a central text. A printed text.
The printed text has been indispensable to knowledge in our modern world until the advent of the video screen and internet.
We have critical editions of Indian texts, Hindu scripture, which scholars have created by comparing several different manuscripts of the same text. Scholars then edited out obvious errors, and used their academically honed deductive logic to determine other mistakes, omissions and additions, and determined originality and genesis. And these “original” manuscripts were often commissioned by the aristocracy, so that someone listened to an oral rendition of a text, a Hindu scripture, or its commentary and wrote it down. And of course, when word got out that Europeans were looking for manuscripts, the frauds and forgeries also appeared, by the truckload. One of the most famous being the “Ezourvedam,” a fraudulent text composed by Jesuit missionaries in Pondicherry (French colony in India), to demonstrate the inferiority of the idolatrous Hindus compared to Christianity. Voltaire, God bless his soul, used this text, believing its authenticity, to demonstrate the subtlety and superiority of Indian thought to a decadent Christianity.
You have a yogi in the oral tradition of Sanatan Dharma, who is reading the Book of the World and commenting on it daily, and someone comes along and writes down what he says or sings. And then his words, or at least what are recorded as his words, are removed from his body, from his lips. This is the manuscript. It’s as if a snapshot of a day in the life of the oral tradition.
I’m reminded of Magritte’s painting of a pipe that has the words prominently written across the canvas, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Well, can you smoke it?
The words require a voice, and that particular voice of authority in the oral tradition of Sanatan Dharma provides the context and the exegesis. Once removed from its source the text may now take on a life of its own. Interpretations may be read into it, it may be edited, updated, made more clear, translated. The words may undergo some sort of transformation, according to the needs of the academy, not according to the dynamic of tradition. And, they are forbidden from leaving their pages, imprisoned by the front and end covers of the book.
Guttenberg and his printing press started the modern process of taming the wild profusion of knowledge, “civilizing” vast overgrown tracts of wilderness. Knowledge started migrating into the printed page, where it could be safe, and where it could be safely displayed like the wild animals in the cages of a zoo. The more it migrated, the more it became information and the more it lost its context. But in the process, it gained a much larger audience than that only within the reach of a voice, and as such, usurped the authority of that voice.
Books demand literacy, which was rare when they first started showing their covers. A modern education, culture and discursive reasoning were necessary if they were to be useful, even if one could find access to the product, itself. Amazon was a big woman in those days. But most important of all, the culture of literacy demanded a change in the way language was used.
Language and the World became disconnected. Language began to express man’s ideas about the world rather than being an articulation of the world itself. A new mapping process began. Words got lost, they no longer marked anything and were condemned to live only on the pages of books, from which they were borrowed to colonize people’s speech.
Sanatan Dharma, the oral tradition of Hindu culture, has it that in each day in the life of Brahma resides a full cycle of time for the world, divided into four ages. Everything begins perfect, everyone’s enlightened, and its all downhill from there, until we reach the bottom of the fourth age, the Kali Yuga, in which we are now, and that culminates in a great dissolution, “pralaya.” Then, after a very long timeless moment, a new cycle arise out of the same pralaya. There’s no New Age in the Sanatan Dharma.