Sunday, May 18, 2014

Different Versions

[Parashurama]“On the way they met Parashurama. Holding a weapon in his hand, he yelled at them and showed his angry eyes.” (Janaki Mangala, 177)

pantha mile bhṛgunātha hātha pharasā liye |
ḍāṭahiṃ ānkhi dekhāi kopa dārūna kie ||

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You’ve heard of the “telephone game?” In some regions it goes by a different name, but the rules are pretty much the same. You start with a point of fact. It can be something very simple, like say that I had the flu last year. I then whisper that fact into the ear of another person. They have one responsibility: relay that fact to one other person. They don’t have to do anything else. The chain continues until you reach a person who is many times removed from me. Then you ask them what was the fact that they learned, and it is almost never the same. They might think that I had a much more serious illness or that I am dead altogether.

[Hanuman]As Vedic literature has accounts of talking monkeys, flying monkeys, sages drinking entire oceans, women giving birth to one hundred children, half-men/half-lion appearing out of pillars, and one man destroying an entire society many times over, it is natural to assign “myth” status to these works. The thinking goes like this:

“There was some original event that happened, and then the tale got passed on. Each person in the link wanted to outdo the predecessor in terms of poetic ability. If it was a boring event, no one will be interested in hearing about that. So they decided to exaggerate a little. They bent the truth, and then with each person in the chain following suit, you ended up with the descriptions that were not believable. It’s like the telephone game but spanning hundreds of years.”

This viewpoint seems to be validated by the contradicting stories of the same event found in Vedic literature. For instance, in the famous Ramayana, the central character, Lord Rama, breaks the bow of Lord Shiva to marry the daughter of King Janaka. On His way back home, Rama encounters Parashurama, an angry warrior turned sage, who is upset that Rama broke the bow of Shiva. He challenges Rama to string another bow, to which Rama happily accepts. Rama then crushes the pride of Parashurama. This is the sequence of events described above in the verse from the Janaki Mangala, which is a wonderful poem authored by the saint Tulsidas, who lived in India during medieval times.

[Parashurama]In a more famous work by the same Tulsidas, the meeting with Parashurama takes place earlier. It occurs while everyone is still in Janaka’s kingdom. There is some back and forth between Parashurama and Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother. That dialogue is missing in the original telling of the Ramayana. The telling of Rama’s life with the meeting with Parashurama occurring earlier is found in other works of Vedic literature as well. So how do we reconcile these differences? Tulsidas himself has authored two different versions. Did he make one of them up? Was he a chain in the telephone game and then got the actual telling wrong?

[Bhagavad-gita, 2.12]“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.12)

[Arjuna and Krishna]The nature of the material world sheds some light on the issue. This isn’t our first go around in a body. We have lived before. Never was there a time that I did not exist. That is a factual statement. It is told by Shri Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Krishna can utter the statement and have it be accurate. So can Arjuna, so can I, and so can you. We may not have existed with the same height and hair color. We may not have even been in the same species. But we still existed. The distant past is really no different than the immediate past. I existed five minutes ago. I know this for a fact. Just extrapolate out and take it as fact that you existed at any point in the past.

This eternal existence is made possible by the properties of the soul. The soul is spirit, which is immutable, unchangeable and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain. Since I am spirit soul, I will exist perpetually into the future. There are changes, though. These occur to the things which are not spirit, i.e. matter. So the natural conclusion is that the universe goes through cycles of creation and destruction, just as the bodies of the individual living entities do. With cycles in the creation, you get repeat births and deaths. Within these cycles, the Supreme Lord Himself appears and disappears, maintaining His nature, which is changeless.

[Bhagavad-gita, 7.24]“Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.24)

So in some cycles of the creation, Parashurama meets Rama earlier, and in some cycles the meeting takes place later. In some cycles, there is an argument with Lakshmana, and in some cycles there isn’t. In either case, the meetings are factual. The descriptions found in Vedic literature are also accurate; though they seemingly contradict. Something that takes place in a different era, and maybe in a different universe of planets, is still relevant to our understanding. And so wise saints like Tulsidas, who are fully aware of the nature of the material and spiritual worlds, have no problem passing on different accounts in different works.

[Lord Rama]The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and so the authenticity of a Vedic work which seems to contradict a previous work in minor details can be determined by the presence of God Himself. Is His name prominent? Are His activities in accord with His stature as the Supreme Personality of Godhead? Is the message the same, that devotional service is the highest engagement for humankind? So whether Parashurama was pacified in Janakpur or along the route back home to Ayodhya, the glory of Rama still shines. He is the superior incarnation of the Supreme Lord, and in either telling His victory is prominent, leaving no room for doubt that He is indeed Vishnu Himself, the chief of the gods.

In Closing:

In one version presented one way,

Then another telling a book to say.


Seems as if something telephone game-like,

Where to original no resemblance in sight.


But of the cycles of the creation know,

So that different accounts resolved so.


Rama met Parashurama after breaking bow,

And in another as towards Ayodhya to go.


In either case the lesson the same,

Superior is Dasharatha’s son of Rama the name.