“The Explanation Gap” (SB 3.8.28-33)
This series of Bhagavatam verses describe numerous extraordinary features of Lord Vishnu's transcendental form. Thompson considers how contemporary intellectual norms could present a challenge for those attempting to rationalize extraordinary events without a willingness to consider a proverbial leap of faith across the “explanation gap” separating the familiar from the unknown.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 8, Text 28-33. “The Explanation Gap.” San Diego – 1991 / (018)
...the Lord's waist was covered with yellow cloth resembling the saffron dust of the kadamba flower, and it was encircled by a well-decorated belt. His chest was decorated with the srivatsa marking and a necklace of unlimited value. As a sandalwood tree is decorated with fragrant flowers and branches, the Lord's body was decorated with valuable jewels and pearls. He was the self-situated tree, the Lord of all others in the universe. And as a sandalwood tree is covered with many snakes, so the Lord's body was also covered by the hoods of Ananta.
Purport by Srila Prabhupada:
The word avyakta-mulan is significant here. Generally, no one can see the roots of a tree. But as far as the Lord is concerned, He is the root of Himself because there is no other separate cause of His standing but He Himself. In the Vedas it is said that the Lord is svasrayasraya; He is His own support, and the result, no other support for Him. Therefore, avyakta means the Supreme Lord Himself and no one else.
Like a great mountain, the Lord stands as the abode for all moving and non-moving living entities. He is the friend of the snakes because Lord Ananta is his friend. As a mountain has thousands of golden peaks, so the Lord was seen with thousands of golden-helmeted hoods of Ananta-naga; and as a mountain is sometimes filled with jewels, so also His transcendental body was fully decorated with valuable jewels. As a mountain is sometimes submerged in the ocean water, so the Lord is sometimes submerged in the water of devastation.
Lord Brahma, thus looking upon the Lord in the shape of a mountain, concluded that He was Hari, the Personality of Godhead. He saw that the garland of flowers on His chest glorified Him with Vedic wisdom in sweet songs and looked very beautiful. He was protected by the Sudarshana wheel for fighting, and even the sun, moon, air, fire, etc. could not have access to Him.
When Lord Brahma, the maker of the universal destination thus saw the Lord, he simultaneously glanced over creation. Lord Brahma saw the lake in Lord Visnu's navel, and the lotus flower, as well as the devastating water, the drying air and the sky. All became visible to him. Lord Brahma, thus being surcharged with the mode of passion, became inclined to create and after seeing the five causes of creation indicated by the Personality of Godhead, he began to offer his respectful prayers on the path of the creative mentality.
Purport by Srila Prabhupada:
Even if one is in the material mode of passion, to create something in the world he has to take shelter of the Supreme for the necessary energy. That is the path of the successful termination of any attempt.
So, this series of verses is completing the description of Lord Visnu as he was seen by Brahma after the completion of his meditation at the beginning of the lifetime of Lord Brahma. So, the… Srila Prabhupada makes this point in this one purport, that the Lord is called avyakta-mulan, which means that he is the unmanifested root of everything else. So, Krsna is the cause of all causes, sarva-kāraṇa-kāraṇam, and He has no prior cause, so therefore He's the root of all creation. And Lord Brahma of course, as it turned out, had a desire to create the universe. This was his karma actually; his birth was arranged so that he could carry out the activity of creating the universe. So, he had that desire, but in order to carry out this task of creation, he required the mercy of Lord Visnu.
So, initially, when he first awoke to consciousness within the universe, he was bewildered by what he saw – he couldn't understand it – but as a result of this meditation that he carried out on the basis of his intuitive understanding of what he should do and that word tapa, which he also understood, he was able to have the darsana of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. And as a result of that, he acquired the potency to carry out this task of creation. So, I wanted to discuss in this connection the nature of explanation. Actually, there's a parallel between explanation and causation.
This was actually developed at some length by the philosopher Spinoza, who wanted to identify explanation and causation. The idea is that if A causes B and you can explain B in terms of A, so there's a natural correspondence between explaining something and noting causes of things. So, if the ultimate cause of all causes is Krsna, then the ultimate explanation of everything must involve Krsna. So, there are some problems however with this: if you look at the word ‘explain,’ you consider the etymology of that, ‘ex’ really means to bring out and so to explain something means to bring out the plainness in it, or to bring out the ordinariness. In other words, if something doesn't seem ordinary or comprehensible, then if you can bring out what is ordinary about it or what is familiar, then you've explained it; so that's what explaining normally means. So, the idea is that you take something that you really don't understand and you show how really that corresponds to something you do understand, then everything becomes clear. So, that's the idea.
However, there are problems with that idea, in the course of... well, of course, one natural consequence of this approach to explaining things is the concept of progress in knowledge. The idea is that if certain things are ordinary and understandable, then you might explain something that’s not ordinary in terms of them. So, now something else becomes understandable; and then you might explain something further in terms of that; and then explain yet another thing in terms of that; and so, you have a chain of explanations and this way you can build yourself up to greater and greater understanding. So, there's... the problem, though, is what if the explanation of a given thing is less familiar to you than the thing itself? And what do you do if the explanation of that is something even less familiar, and so on going back? This creates a real problem when it comes to explaining things.
So, the actual situation is that the world is to a large extent arranged in that way. If you trace events back from an event to its cause, to the cause of that, to the cause of that, and so on, going back, instead of finding that these successive causes are more and more familiar and understandable, what you'll actually find in many significant situations is that the successive causes as you work your way backwards become less and less understandable, until the ultimate cause is actually the most mysterious thing of all. So, this creates a problem when it comes to explaining things.
Now, if... now this brings up the whole idea of the descending process of obtaining knowledge versus the descending process. If somehow or other you are able to start out with some understanding of the original cause and of the successive effects, or successive steps of cause and effect coming down from the original cause, then the process of explaining things becomes much simpler. So, if the original cause is familiar to you, then you can proceed to explain things without difficulty. Now, one problem with explanations is that people generally can only relate to things that are familiar to them. If you bring up something completely unprecedented or extraordinary, then people will tend to balk at that. So, an explanation that brings up something like that tends to be unacceptable as an explanation. So, there are practical problems there.
What we want to do is present Krsna consciousness to human society in general. So the idea there is that at the root of all different manifestations, there's the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and everything is emanating from the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So, actually, even in modern society many people are familiar with the idea of God, but between God and the different manifestations we see, there's a chain of developments that occur by cause and effect; and practically all steps of that chain are unfamiliar to people in modern society. So, this creates an explanation gap. If you try to work your way backwards from the things that one actually experiences in the ordinary course of events within the world, there's a huge gap before you get all the way back to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This is sometimes referred to as the ’leap of faith,’ namely that if you try to explain things in terms of the idea that God did it, then you're making it a leap, which is unjustifiable. So, in modern academic circles, that's especially disapproved of. So, this leads to many different compromised or watered-down attempts to present some idea of theology. For example, one way of grafting God onto one's picture of the world is to, say, take the modern scientific picture as it exists now and at some point, bring in the idea that God was the cause of the world as described in the modern scientific picture.
For example, the Catholic Church has adopted that approach. I guess Pope Pius the 12th must have been a scientist, so, at one point, he officially promulgated the idea that the Big Bang is the original ‘let there be light’ as described in the Bible. Of course, the idea of the Big Bang Theory is that you start off the universe with a lot of light, which is coming out of nowhere, or out of a mathematical point actually, and then everything evolves from that phase. So, from the light and different subatomic particles you have finally stars and galaxies condensing out and then planets and then on these planets, the primordial soup develops and gradually life evolves starting from single cells and building itself up until you get human beings. And then finally, God takes the form of Jesus Christ in order to save the human beings.
This is the picture. Of course this doesn't work out as a very consistent picture. You might ask, “Well, if you're going to evolve these things gradually, in accordance with different physical laws, then why not just leave it at that, and what is the question of saving them?” Actually, the whole idea of saving relates to a completely different system of concepts based on the idea that there's some kind of soul that can go to hell, and so on and so forth, and which belongs to a completely different framework of thought. So there's an attempt to graft together two sets of ideas: the idea of God and different traditional concepts associated with that, that people are somewhat familiar with; and then the scientific ideas that they've become accustomed to. And you have a gap, which is hard to fill in.
The same thing can also happen in the case of Krsna consciousness, the exact same problem can come up there. One can take one's familiar picture of the world and try and add basic elements of Krsna consciousness, and in the course of that leave a very large gap. For example, just yesterday evening, one devotee from New York was speaking to me on the telephone. He's going to Columbia University and studying in Indology; he has an idea of showing that Krsna consciousness is actually correct, of preaching to people in a scholarly level. And in fact, Srila Prabhupada said that our men should become the heads of the Departments of Religion in different Universities and so forth.
So, he was asking me if I had any evidence showing that the whole Aryan invasion theory concerning India is not correct, and any evidence indicating the actual scenario of the ancient Vedic civilization, and so on, really is correct. And so, we were discussing it on a few points. For example, it can be pointed out that according to present-day scholars, the Aryan invasion occurred in about 1500 BC, and the Rig Veda was written in around 1000 BC. So, it turns out that the Rig Veda makes no reference to the Aryans as having come from outside of India or as having had any other homeland anywhere else. And so, one can make the argument that this seems strange if only 500 years ago... 500 years before that, they in fact did come from outside of India. For example, consider the United States: People came over here from Europe, starting... was in the 1600’s or so? ...and it doesn't seem that anyone is very likely to forget that. It's very hard to see how, let us say, in a couple hundred years that will be completely forgotten and people will be thinking that they always lived in... their ancestors always lived in this country, and that maybe English is spoken over in England because people migrated from here over to there. So similarly, you can make that argument concerning the Rig Veda. So, there are arguments like that.
So, in the course of the discussion, I mentioned something about how Parasurama drove the ksatriyas out of India and this occurred in the Treta-yuga. So, at this point the person I was talking to became totally shocked, and saying, “Oh no, no, we can't possibly mention anything like that,” because after all, it's totally unacceptable to the scholars to bring in this idea of Treta-yuga. After all, the Treta-yuga ended about... let's see, 864,000 years ago. That's when it ended, and it lasted for about... well, one and a half times that long, over a million years; and there was supposedly very highly advanced civilization during that time. Lord Ramacandra for example had his pastimes during the Treta-yuga, so to propose that such a thing was going on in the context of modern scholarship is completely out of the question.
So, if you want to say that the Aryan invasion story is wrong, then naturally, one might ask, “Well, what is right, if that's wrong? What is the actual Vedic version?” And if you try to answer that by bringing up what the actual Vedic version is, you run into a problem in explanation, namely, that you are explaining or making plain in terms of something that is completely extraordinary from the modern point of view. Then if you try and explain the yuga cycles and set them in the larger context, in which they are presented in the Vedic literature, you wind up with the... well, stories of demigods and so forth; and then you wind up with the manvantaras, which just from a quantitative point of view are much longer than the yuga cycles. Then you wind up with the days of Brahma, or kalpas, and you get back to Brahma and finally Lord Visnu. So, you have a situation in which each successive step in the explanation involves something that's even further removed from what is presently acceptable. So, that creates a problem.
So, another example of this actually is a... I mentioned to him a little essay that I just wrote about dating of star coordinates in Vedic literature. It seems that in the Surya-siddhanta and in various other literatures, you'll find lists of coordinates of stars. So, it turns out if you look at these coordinates, that if you trace back the, what are called the proper motions of stars, going backwards in time, you find that the positions of the stars as understood at the present time move slowly backwards towards – in many cases – the positions of the stars as given in the Surya-siddhanta and other literatures. So, as you go back further and further into the past, those coordinates become more and more accurate in terms of the positions. So one way to look at that is that... the reason for this is that the stars’ positions were actually recorded very far in the past.
There's precedent for that, for example there was an astronomer named Ptolemy, who lived around 150 AD, so, if you look at – he gives coordinates for different stars – if you look at, say, the star Arcturus, you'll find that it's now about a degree and a half away from the position Ptolemy gave for it; and if you take the speed at which it's moving and divide that into a degree and a half, you find that the time you get is about the time it takes to go back to the time of Ptolemy. So, the thing fits. You can say he measured it more or less correctly and it's been moving since then, so it's the same thing with these Vedic star coordinates.
So, it turns out that the age of the Vedic star coordinates, if you trace the motions backwards in time, comes out to about 50,000 years. And it works out statistically pretty well, if you plot the age estimate for all the different stars, you get what's called a histogram, which comes to a peak – pretty pronounced peak – about 50,000 years ago. So, this is what emerges from that study. Trouble is that 50,000 years ago, that would be earlier than the time of Cro-Magnon man, according to the modern concept of things. And it takes you completely out of the realm of discussions of the Aryan invasion and so forth; those discussions are only academically acceptable if you go back maybe to a couple thousand years BC. So, that's an example of the explanation gap.
It's interesting, in connection with the Indian community, we also run into the problem of the explanation gap. A more or less standard point of view, as far as I can gather in the Indian community, is that there’s sort of a basic acceptance of such things as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and so on, but all the details are regarded as mythological and the modern scientific view is very much stressed as being correct understanding of things. In particular, in the Indian school system, the Aryan invasion story is taught as the actual truth of the history of India.
So, since that is taught as the actual truth, that means that the stories in the Puranas and in Srimad-Bhagavatam must not be the truth – so, those are myths. At the same time there's a certain desire to accept and glorify Vedic culture and so forth. So, this leads to... once again an explanation gap. So I was just discussing, for example, with one Indian man to whom I showed this paper on the star coordinates, the whole question of Vedic astronomy and cosmology. He thought that paper was quite interesting and he had raised the question with me initially of whether or not one could make a presentation concerning Vedic ideas about the stars and constellations. There's a lot of material on that in Vedic literature also.
In fact, it used to be that the calendar in Vedic times was entirely determined on the basis of the movement of different planets and so forth and especially the moon in relation to these different constellations of stars. So, he had the idea that one could show something of the sophistication of ancient Hindu culture by presenting this to people. So, we were discussing that and I pointed out a few things about Vedic cosmology as described in the Bhagavatam. However, here again, you run into the explanation gap and you find that these presentations of Vedic cosmology are too far out. They must fall in the category of mythology, in other words, between reasonably acceptable things that are of a familiar nature and the very basic acceptable feature that you have Krsna and so forth as the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In between those two levels, there is a whole hierarchy of topics which are very difficult to appreciate and you have this explanation gap. So, it can be pointed out though... of course, Srila Prabhapada, realizing the kind of problem that exists here, very much stressed the actual reality of all the different aspects of the universe that are described within the Bhagavatam. So, if you start from Krsna and work downward through the successive stages of cause and effect, there's no explanation gap, everything is properly explainable in terms of the thing that comes before it. You can understand Rama in terms of Krsna, and you can understand the demigods in terms of Brahma, and you can understand the different species on earth in terms of the activity of the demigods in creating those and so forth. So, everything is comprehensible. But if you try to work your way up, starting with the familiar, then the exclamation gap is there.
Of course, one aspect of explanation, if you go back to the original definition I gave, means to bring out the familiar in something. So if people become more familiar with certain ideas, then the ideas become more plain to them. So, the ideas in the Vedic literatures are basically not very familiar to people. I think this is even true in places like India, where it's part of the actual culture. Of course, Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his Light of the Bhagavata pointed this out. He pointed out that the Bhagavatam is... by many educated people in Bengal in his day was regarded as being a sort of concatenation of weird superstitious nonsense. This is the way they were taught based on the British education. So, even there that problem is present because of the educational system that's been propagated. So, by making people familiar with the ideas in the Bhagavatam, one can overcome this gradually. If a person grows up with a certain idea, then that's something that you can bring up in the course of explaining things. But if a person is brought up with an... according to an educational process that makes that idea completely foreign, then, when you bring up that idea, the person will tend to reject it.
So, of course the present educational system is actually designed to make the ideas in the Bhagavatam completely foreign and unacceptable. In fact, the history of it is that that educational system has been very much consciously designed that way if you trace things back for a couple of centuries. So one aspect is to make things familiar to people; so Sila Prabhupada proposed very bold methods of presentation, for example, this Vedic planetarium idea. Srila Prabhupada said that in Mayapur there should be a planetarium showing the universe according to the 5th Canto. Now, the key thing to recognize here is that Mayapur is supposed to be the center of focus for all of ISKCON and all of the preaching of ISKCON. At least, if that project could actually be carried out, that's what it would be – it would be one of the modern wonders of the world basically. At the very least, National Geographic would have to do an article on it.
So, right in the center of the Mayapur project, Srila Prabhupada wanted a huge temple; and in the center of that, as the main object of attention, was going to be a model of the universe according to the 5th Canto. And it's to be noted that the 5th Canto is something that many devotees would more or less prefer not to think about too much. But Srila Prabhupada wanted to put it right in the middle of everything. So I think this is a significant strategy, namely that the basic point is that all these things are real according to the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and the chain of explanation has to be unbroken if it's actually correct. In other words, there's an explanation gap between Krsna at the top of the causal scale and the things we actually see. So if that gap is something that actually can't be filled, then that means the whole thing is wrong – you may as well forget about it. But Srila Prabhupada’s point was the whole thing is right in every different step. Filling that gap is actually reality, it's actually something that's there. So therefore, that has to be boldly presented. And when it is boldly presented, in due course of time the whole thing will become familiar and people will notice many different things that fit into that picture, so that the whole thing is sensible and they can see that it actually is a description of reality – and that indeed is a subject of other classes.