Shri Datta Swami

Posted on: 07 Jul 2021


Why Is Every Soul Not God? Part-6

Note: This article is meant for intellectuals only

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Part 6: Interpreting Scripture

Interpret words in the Veda to retain the true concept

Swami continued: Some people have criticized Śaṅkara saying that He presents His own concept first and then quotes the scripture. Thus, He makes the scripture follow His concept by the force of His scholastic ability. This criticism is not justified. Generally, people expect that the scripture should be quoted first and that the concept should be drawn from it through analysis. But Śaṅkara’s path is correct in this matter. This is because, one should not seek to merely interpret the scripture. Instead, one should seek to correctly interpret the scripture. We must believe that the scripture is written by God and that God always gives true knowledge. Śaṅkara was an Incarnation of God Śiva. Hence, the commentary of Śaṅkara on the Vedic statements means that the author of the Veda Himself is explaining and interpreting the book written by Him. The author of the Veda need not always follow the Veda written by Him earlier. His writing should follow His interpretation. Suppose an author writes a book, but some bad people misinterpret it. So, the author comes and gives his own correct interpretation. In that case, which is the authoritative interpretation? Is it the interpretation of the author of the book or is it the interpretation of somebody else, who has not written the book? The book should follow the author because the book is written by the author. The Vedas became dogs and followed God Datta, who is one with Śiva. God did not follow the dogs! The conclusion is that one must protect the true concept, even by giving some modified interpretations of the scripture. One should never modify the true concept, following some wrong interpretation as the standard.

The meanings of words are determined by two factors namely yoga and rūḍhi. Yoga means the meaning of the word based on the meaning of the root of that word (etymological meaning). Rūḍhi means the meaning of a word fixed by convention. A word whose meaning is fixed by convention (rūḍhi), might sometimes also justify its root-meaning (yoga). In that case, the word is a yoga-rūdha word. There may be many words that are derived from a certain root. The meanings of all these words are based on the meaning of their root. But the meaning of a certain word among them might be fixed by convention to mean something specific (rūḍhi), which is consistent with its root meaning (yoga). It is possible that such a specific meaning of the word might have been accepted by scholars for a very long time. While interpreting the scripture, sometimes, it becomes necessary to interpret such a word in a manner that is different from its specific conventional sense (rūḍhi), but without violating its root meaning (yoga). Such interpretations done to protect the true concept, as per the context (prākaraṇikārtha) are desirable. Let us understand this with an example.

Labhate’ in Sanskrit means ‘to attain’. The prefix ‘āṅg’ means ‘complete’. This prefix, before attaching it to a word, gets modified to simply ‘ā’. Prefixing the verb ‘labhate’ with ‘ā’, thus yields the verb ‘ālabhate’. Based on yoga, the verb ālabhate should mean to attain completely. But over several generations, this word has been used in a specific sense by convention (rūḍhi). It is used in the sense of killing in a sacrifice. This meaning does not violate its root meaning (yoga) or any other grammatical rules. But this word has acquired that special meaning by convention (rūḍhi). It is as if the root-meaning of the word has been driven by force in a special direction (Balādanyatra nīyate). We need not oppose such conventional special meanings of words in all contexts. But we can disregard such special meanings of words and stick only to their basic root meaning, in some particular contexts to protect the true concept. Scholars cannot oppose us for doing so because we are not violating the basic root meaning (yoga). We are not going against the rules of grammar in all contexts. We are only going against the convention of scholars, in some particular contexts, in order to protect the true concept. The specific conventional sense (rūḍhi) of the verb ālabhate, that also follows its root meaning is killing. Such a meaning is thus a yoga-rūḍha meaning. But this sense of killing can be ignored in a particular context. Based on the root meaning (yoga), we can interpret the word in the sense of attaining completely. An example of when such an unconventional interpretation becomes necessary is the Vedic statement, “Brahmaṇe Brāhmaṇamālabhate”. Its true meaning is that in order to get spiritual knowledge, one must ‘completely attain’ (ālabhate) a spiritual preacher (Brāhmaṇa). If we take the usual yoga-rūdha meaning of the verb ālabhate, it would mean that one must kill a Brāhmaṇa in order to get spiritual knowledge!

Another example of where careful interpretation of a Vedic statement is required, is in the context of Vedic statements related to killing an animal in a holy sacrifice. Here, the word ‘animal’ is to be interpreted differently. It should not be interpreted in its usual sense of an animal such as a goat or cow. Instead, it should be interpreted in the sense of the ignorant animal-nature of the person performing the sacrifice. This interpretation of the word ‘animal’ also has Vedic authority (Manyuḥ paśuḥ). The verb ‘ālabhate’ (killing) can then be used in its usual yoga-rūdha sense. Thus, the overall statement means that the ignorant animal-nature of the performer of the sacrifice should be killed.

Yet another example is the Vedic statement that ghee that should be burnt. But it also says that ghee is the desire for receiving good fruits from God (kāma ājyam). Similarly, burning cooked food in the fire (caru or puroḍāśa) in a ritual-sacrifice (yajña) means that cooked food should be burnt in the divine fire called vaiśvānara agni. This divine fire is the hunger-fire in the stomach of the divine preacher. It is not the physical fire lit by burning sticks (laukika agni). Burning food in a physical fire is not the correct interpretation of the Vedic statement because another Vedic statement contradicts such an interpretation. The other Vedic statement says that food should not destroyed or wasted (Annaṃ na paricakṣīta). So, the physical fire (laukika agni) lit in a ritual-sacrifice (yajña) by burning firewood is only meant for cooking the food. The physical fire is only instrumental in carrying out the sacrifice (yajña sādhanam). The actual sacrifice (yajñā) involves offering the cooked food to the divine preacher to feed His hunger-fire. That divine hunger-fire (devatāgni or vaiśvānara agni) is the fire to be worshiped as God (yajña upāsyaḥ). Burning ghee and food in the physical fire is a wrong and bad interpretation of the Vedic ritual. Such wrong action is called vikarma. Burning the ghee-fried food in the hunger-fire of the divine preacher is karma or satkarma, which means correctly-interpreted action. Maṇḍana Miśra and other Pūrva Mīmāṃsakas burnt precious ghee and other types of food in the physical fire in the name of sacrifice. They were thus, actually doing wrong action (vikarma), even though they had labelled it as right action (karma or satkarma). So, when Śaṅkara condemned their wrong actions (vikarma), they cried that Śaṅkara was condemning karma (right action). When He asked them to avoid doing that wrong action, they blamed Him saying that He was propagating inaction (akarma). They labelled Śaṅkara as a supporter of inaction and a person who sticks to mere theoretical knowledge (jñāna-mārga). The jñāna mārga or the path of knowledge means having the correct understanding of karma, vikarma and akarma.

The karma mārga or the path of action followed by the Pūrva Mīmāṃsakas means doing vikarma in the name of karma. The jñāna-mārga of Śaṅkara was not the mere theoretical knowledge of right action (karma), wrong action (vikarma) and inaction (akarma). It also included practicing right action (karma or satkarma) and rejecting wrong action (vikarma). Jñāna-mārga should not be misunderstood to be the path of inaction (akarma), in which one only avoids wrong action (vikarma). It should be understood to include the doing of right action (karma or satkarma), after giving up wrong action (vikarma). Hence, when Śaṅkara condemned the wrong action (vikarma) of the Pūrva Mīmāṃsakas, He was not recommending inaction (akarma), but He was recommending the performance of right action (satkarma) after giving up the wrong action. Hence, the path of Śaṅkara includes three steps. (1) The first step is leaving wrong action (vikarma). It means not burning food and ghee in the physical fire and not killing animals in the name of sacrifice. (2) The second step is not ending up in inaction (akarma). It means not remaining inactive after giving up wrong action. (3) The third step is practicing right action (karma, satkarma or karma yoga). This includes cooking food containing plenty of ghee and sacrificing it to the divine preacher and devotees. This is the burning of the ghee and the food in the divine fire called vaiśvānarāgni. It is the correct way of performing the Vedic ritual-sacrifice called the yajña. The Gītā says that right action (karma or satkarma) should be done after analysis (Jñātvā kurvīta karmāṇi). It does not mean that one should remain in inaction (akarma) after merely avoiding the wrong action based on misinterpretations. Thus, jñāna-mārga or the path of knowledge means both realization (jñāna) and practice (karma), as per the correct interpretation. It is really a mixture of knowledge and action, which was also the philosophy of Kumarila Bhaṭṭa (Jñāna-Karma-Samucchaya Vāda). Kumarila Bhaṭṭa appreciated the commentary of Śaṅkara. On the other hand, Maṇḍana Miśra, who was Bhaṭṭa’s disciple before meeting Śaṅkara, opposed Śaṅkara. Maṇḍana Miśra used to follow the karma mārga, which is the path of action alone. Actually, it was nothing but following the path of wrong action (vikarma) in the name of right action (karma or satkarma).

Interpretations of important terms in the Gītā

The above concepts can also be correlated with the statements from the Gītā. For this, we should carefully interpret the following terms in different ways, as needed in different contexts:

(1) The first term is saṃnyāsa. It means to place or keep something perfectly. It can mean ‘sacrificing’ or ‘giving up’ something if you place that thing away from you. For instance, you to take something from the house and place it out on the street. In this sense, saṃnyāsa can mean sacrifice or giving up. But it can also mean adopting or practicing something in the sense that you are taking something and keeping it with you. For instance, you could pick up something from the street and keep it with you in your house. This also justifies the basic meaning of saṃnyāsa as keeping or placing something perfectly. Thus, saṃnyāsa can mean giving up something as well as adopting and practicing something. When we combine the word karma with the word saṃnyāsa, we get the word karma saṃnyāsa. Based on the above discussion, karma saṃnyāsa can mean giving up karma in one sense. But, in the other sense, it can also mean practicing karma (Mayi sarvāṇi karmāṇi saṃnyasyā…—Gītā).

(2) The second term to be interpreted carefully is naiṣkarmya. It means leaving karma (action). Here, the karma to be given up is vikarma or wrong action alone. This is because, the word karma means action in general. It is further classified into right action (satkarma), wrong action (vikarma) and inaction (akarma). In the context of practicing or giving up action, the word karma, usually either means vikarma (wrong action) or satkarma (right action). It does not mean akarma (inaction). Giving up wrong action alone is desirable. Giving up right action is undesirable. Giving up all action (right and wrong) and ending up in inaction is also not desirable. So, when one is advised to give up karma (naiṣkarmya), it only means giving up wrong action (vikarma). Performing right action (satkarma) is implied. Thus, naiṣkarmya means giving up wrong action (vikarma) and also performing right action (karma or satkarma).

(3) The third term to be carefully interpreted is karma yoga. It strictly means doing karma or satkarma. It excludes both wrong action (vikarma) and inaction (akarma). Karma yoga has two parts. The first part is offering (sacrificing) one’s work. It means serving the divine preacher and devotees and is called karma saṃnyāsa. The second part is offering (sacrificing) the fruit of one’s work. It means offering one’s hard-earned wealth (fruit of one’s work) to the divine preacher as dakṣinā (respectful donation).

With a good awareness of the meanings of the words as described above, one has to change the sense in which each word of the above words is interpreted in different contexts. Of course, one must not violate the basic root meaning of the words (yoga). The main aim should be to bring out the true concept. Then there will be no confusion.

Resolving contradictory statements in the Gītā

Let us take some statements from the Gītā, which appear to contradict each other if you stick to the conventional special meanings of certain words. These words are yoga rūḍha, which means that the specific sense (rūḍhi) that they are conventionally used to convey, agrees with their root meaning (yoga). But sticking to those specific conventional meanings leads to contradictions. The contradictions are resolved when we interpret the words in appropriately different senses, as per the context, without violating their root meanings.

1. Arjuna said to Krishna that there is a confusion because on the one hand, Krishna was telling Arjuna to give up karma and on the other hand, He was also telling Arjuna to do karma (Saṃnyāsam karmaṇāṃ…). Here, doing karma saṃnyāsa should be interpreted in the two different ways as follows: (a) Karma saṃnyāsa as giving up wrong action: Here, karma only means vikarma or wrong karma. Saṃnyāsa means leaving or sacrificing. So, doing karma saṃnyāsa means giving up wrong action. (b) Karma saṃnyāsa as performing right action: Here, karma means right action or satkarma. Saṃnyāsa, here means adopting or practicing. Thus, doing karma saṃnyāsa means performing right action or satkarma. The true concept is that wrong action should be given up and right action should be performed. This concept should not get damaged or modified. The use of the same word karma to indicate both satkarma and vikarma causes the apparent contradiction. In the context of recommending the doing of karma, the word karma is to be correctly interpreted as satkarma. In the context of giving up karma, the word karma should be interpreted as vikarma. On the same lines, doing karma saṃnyāsa is to be interpreted in two mutually opposite ways such that the real concept is conveyed correctly. It can be interpreted as ‘giving up wrong action’ or as ‘performing right action’.

2. In another statement, Krishna says that both saṃnyāsa and karma yoga are good. In this context, saṃnyāsa means leaving vikarma while karma yoga means practicing satkarma.

3. Krishna says that karma yoga is better than karma saṃnyāsa. Here, karma yoga means doing satkarma, which includes both the sacrifice of work (offering service) as well as the sacrifice of the fruit of work (offering wealth). In this context, karma saṃnyāsa only means leaving wrong action (vikarma). Of course, leaving vikarma is also good. But the intention of Krishna here is that you should not stop at leaving vikarma. You should also practice satkarma after leaving vikarma. This means that one should not merely leave wrong action (vikarma) and remain in inaction (akarma). Leaving wrong action, one must practice right action (satkarma, karma yoga). So here, Krishna stressed that akarma is not good at all (Mā te sangostvakarmaṇi)

4. Krishna says that the state of naiṣkarmya will come through saṃnyāsa. Here, naiṣkarmya is the state of not doing wrong action (vikarma). This state of not doing wrong action (vikarma) comes through saṃnyāsa, which is leaving vikarma, as per the verse “Naiṣkarmya siddhim…”.

5. Krishna says that the ultimate result (siddhi) will not be achieved through mere saṃnyāsa (Na ca saṃnyasanādeva…). Here saṃnyāsa refers to leaving wrong action (vikarma). This statement seems to be the exact opposite of the above statement, if the words are not properly interpreted and especially if you take the word siddhi in the sense of naiṣkarmya siddhi. Here, the word siddhi means the ultimate result, whereas, naiṣkarmya siddhi only means attaining the state of leaving vikarma. This means that the ultimate result is not obtained by merely leaving vikarma (naiṣkarmya siddhi). Thus, by saṃnyāsa, which is leaving vikarma, you may attain the state of naiṣkarmya siddhi, but that naiṣkarmya siddhi is not the ultimate attainment (siddhi).

6. Krishna says that by merely stopping action (akarma), one does not attain the state of naiṣkarmya (Na karmaṇā-manārambhāt naiṣkarmyaṃ puruṣo’śnute). In the above verse, we have said that naiṣkarmya means the state of giving up vikarma. But here, naiṣkarmya cannot be taken to be the state of leaving vikarma alone. Here, naiṣkarmya means leaving the all karma. The word naiṣkarmya means not being bound by the bond of karma, even though, one continues to perform karma or satkarma. One’s attachment or bond with karma is the reason why one receives the fruit of the action. If one does vikarma, one obtains a bad fruit. Hence, leaving vikarma is desired. If satkarma or karma is done, one obtains good fruit and hence, doing satkarma is desired. In that case, how can we say that naiṣkarmya means not doing any type of karma. Here, even if you do satkarma without aspiring for its good fruit from God, that satkarma does not bind you. This means you can and should continue performing satkarma, but without aspiring for its good fruit in return from God and you will not be bound by its good fruit. Finally, this means that naiṣkarmya is the state in which you give up vikarma and continue to do satkarma, but without any aspiration for its good fruit. Thus, you remain unbound by the bad fruits of vikarma as well as the good fruits of satkarma. This bondage-free state cannot be attained by mere inaction (akarma).

Opponent: If we are in a state of total inaction (akarma), we will neither receive the good fruits of satkarma nor the bad fruit of vikarma. Is this not the state of being totally free of the bondage of karma?

Swami: You are correct in this direction. But there is an extra point. Not doing right action (satkarma) itself is a type of wrong action (vikarma). Hence, you will indeed receive the bad fruit or punishment for that wrong action of not doing satkarma. So, you will remain bound by karma. Even the Gītā says that you should perform satkarma, which is karma yoga involving sacrifice because it purifies the mind (Niyatasyatu…, Niyatam kuru…, Yajño dānaṃ tapaḥ…—Gītā). Yajña becomes satkarma, if you sacrifice (offer) ghee and food to a hungry person. It becomes vikarma, if you burn the same in the physical fire. Śaṅkara not only preached, but also practiced complete jñāna yoga, which includes satkarma or karma yoga. He travelled all over the country for the propagation of the true spiritual knowledge. This action was His service to God (karma saṃnyāsa). He sacrificed all the golden fruits rained by Goddess Lakṣmī, who was pleased with His prayer, to a poor lady devoted to Him. This action was the sacrifice (offering) of wealth (karma phala tyaga).