Dhanurdhara Swami October 17th, 2016
Scholarship is underrated. Scholarship is overrated. I just can’t make up my mind. When I see conscious choices in behavior and policy based on whim rather than the rule of śāstra and witness the lack of depth in spiritual discourse in the general devotee community, I bemoan the lack of qualified Vaiṣṇava scholars to guide us and I become convinced we underrate the value of study. But when I see learned so-called scholars miss the most rudimentary truths of Vaiṣṇava behavior, I bemoan their learning as useless and I become convinced that scholarship is overrated. Just how important is the role of scholarship in the practice of devotional service?
Scholarship is underrated
Śrīla Prabhupāda was a Sanskrit scholar, at least enough of one to be prolific in quality translations of standard bhakti texts, such as the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Bhagavad-gītā, and the books of Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī. In many ways the basis of his mission was to distribute knowledge in the form of those books. He also implored his devotees to read his books from different angles and chastised his disciples that “we are not just an export business,” warning his disciples that they must not only distribute his books, but also vigorously study them. Although the conclusion of those books is simple, that Kṛṣṇa is God and that we must fully surrender to Him, it is a conclusion that is realized only after years of sincere study. Otherwise why would the Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu proclaim that the topmost devotee is one who has both strong faith and is well versed in śāstra (sacred texts). They are obviously not unrelated. We thus need learned devotees to give integrity to the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement both by their spiritual attainment and their ability to enliven others and move them towards such attainment. Our need for scholarship is thus definitely underrated.
Scholarship is overrated
What is the purpose of scholarship or knowledge on the path of bhakti? Like any path, you can’t begin to understand and have faith in what to do without knowledge. Knowledge is thus also the basis of moving forward with confidence and determination in bhakti. Knowledge is also required not only to know what to do, but also how to do it, to know the exact method of our practice (bhakti sādhana). But knowledge also has its limits, especially when you consider the nature of the object to be known or attained, which is Kṛṣṇa. God is personal and like any person is only superficially known by analysis. That Kṛṣṇa, like any person, reveals Himself fully only in love or relationship is affirmed by Kṛṣṇa Himself:
“That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend and can therefore understand the transcendental mystery of this science. (Bhagavad-gītā 4.3)
The limits of scholarship in gaining full knowledge is directly and powerfully espoused in the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad:
“Only unto those great souls who have implicit faith in both the Lord and the spiritual master are all the imports of Vedic knowledge automatically revealed.” (Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 6.23) *
The import of Vedic knowledge is to free oneself from false ego. Here it explains that unless one is actually attempting to do that by surrendering to guru and Kṛṣṇa, one will just not have the frame of reference to recognize that same core principle when studying the vast and complex Vedas, just like a woman who is a PhD in child pedagogy will not be gifted with a deep understanding of motherhood despite her study unless she is first a responsible mother. The above text also informs us that deep insight into the infinitely deep Vedas are only possible when gifted with such insight by the mercy of God who sees in one a sincere desire to be transformed by such knowledge, and not by one who is just interested in the ego gratification of being learned.
Scholarship is thus vastly overrated as a barometer of spiritual attainment because one who is not surrendered to guru and Kṛṣṇa and thus approaches the sacred texts only for mastery and influence misses its true import and simply becomes proud. Unfortunately, this has too often been the history of scholarship in modern day Vaiṣṇavism where people who study often lack the upbringing of service and humility to inoculate themselves from such motive and misconception.
In conclusion, I would like to offer my profound respect to the late Vaiṣṇava scholar Gopīparāṇadhana Prabhu who showed us the proper use of scholarship. He was vastly learned, and had a natural propensity and love for learning. In fact, I first met him in the early 1970s after he joined the Brooklyn temple as a graduate in linguistics from Colombia University, but history has shown that he took up the service of scholarship not to become a respected linguist, but only as service to his spiritual master Śrīla Prabhupāda. He was thus a devotee first and a scholar second, which is actually the message of Vedic knowledge. In that sense the result of his study gave him the greatest insight into its true meaning, which he not only imbibed personally as a humble Vaiṣṇava dedicated to service, but as teacher who effectively inspired others to become Vaiṣṇava scholars as well. His life thus teaches us not only the importance of scholarship, but it limits as well, that it shouldn’t overshadow the import of its message, to become a humble servant to guru and Kṛṣṇa.
* yasya deve parā bhaktir
yathā deve tathā gurau
tasyaite kathitā hy arthāḥ