Don’t debate. ACCEPT there can be different valid understandings.
There can be many different legitimate meanings of each text. Lord Chaitanya illustrated this by giving sixty one different meanings to the atmarama verse of the Srimad Bhagavatam 1.7.10. He then instructed that every verse of the Bhagavatam can similarly be legitimately understood in many different ways:
“Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is as great as Kṛṣṇa, the Supreme Lord and shelter of everything. In each and every verse of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and in each and every syllable, there are various meanings.” CC M 24.318
Following in the footsteps of Lord Chaitanya, Srila Prabhupada instructed that we should also practice understanding his books from different angles of vision:
“I am very much stressing nowadays that my students shall increase their reading of my books and try to understand them from different angles of vision. Each sloka can be seen from many, many angles of vision, so become practiced in seeing things like this.” letter to: Tribhuvanatha — Los Angeles 16 June, 1972
If we do not accept there can be more than one legitimate understanding of a text, we will be prone to debate with devotees who see things differently from ourselves. Such argumentative discussions can become very unpalatable for all concerned. However, according to Srimad Bhagavatam 3.25.25 discussions of Krishna katha should be very palatable, hṛt-karṇa-rasāyanāḥ kathāḥ. Such palatable discussions help us to both unlock the truths of bhakti and experience a higher taste:
“Actually Vedic scripture is krishna-katha, topics about Krishna, and krishna-katha is not a subject matter for a debate club. It is meant for the devotees. Nondevotees simply waste their time reading Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, and we have often mentioned that so-called scholars, politicians and philosophers simply give misleading commentaries when they try to interpret Bhagavad-gita. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura used to say that they are like people trying to lick at a bottle of honey that is sealed closed. If one does not know how to taste honey, one begins licking at the bottle, but for one to actually taste the honey, the bottle must be opened, and the key to its opening is the devotee. Therefore it is said:
satam prasangan mama virya-samvido
bhavanti hrt-karna-rasayanah kathah
taj josanad asv apavarga-vartmani
sraddha ratir bhaktir anukramisyati
“In the association of pure devotees, discussion of the pastimes and activities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is very pleasing and satisfying to the ear and the heart. By cultivating such knowledge one gradually becomes advanced on the path of liberation, and thereafter he is freed, and his attraction becomes fixed. Then real devotion and devotional service begin.” (SB 3.25.25)” TLK Vs 34
Maybe you have personally experienced how unpleasant our discussions of Srila Prabhupada’s teachings can be when we adopt the debate mentality. Even comments such as ‘I don’t agree with that’ or ‘that’s wrong’ may hurt the person we are discussing with and make it difficult for them to share openly and honestly with us. All too often our hurtful comments are much more strident and can result in unveiled insults and accusations about each other’s sincerity and motives for holding a specific view. Such harsh exchanges are not conducive to giving us a higher taste for Krishna katha. Worse still, we could do ourselves more spiritual harm than good by offending devotees and thereby displeasing the Lord. Here is a very sobering reminder from Chaitanya Bhagavat about the danger of offending the Lord’s devotees:
Mahāprabhu said, “The forms of Jagāi’s and Mādhāi’s sinful reactions are black. All of you perform kīrtana, then these black sinful reactions will take shelter in those who blaspheme the devotees, and Jagāi and Mādhāi will be delivered from their sins.” From Śrī Chaitanya-bhāgavata – Śrīla Vṛndāvana dāsa Ṭhākura / Madhya-khaṇḍa / CBP 13: The Deliverance of Jagāi and Mādhāi / CB Madhya-khaṇḍa 13.302
Questions / My lights:
Question 1: What’s wrong with saying ‘I don’t agree with that’ or ‘that’s wrong’?
My light: Please take a moment to introspect. Imagine that you share your understanding on the meaning of a passage in Srila Prabhupada’s books with someone whom you have not accepted as your spiritual teacher. Imagine how you would feel if when you express your understanding of that passage, your companion blurts out, “You are wrong.” Or “Well I don’t agree with you.” Please introspect. How does it make you feel? If you are anything like me, then immediately your mind goes into self-defence mode, and the ability to continue deeply deliberating on the subject becomes aborted. Furthermore, you may also be left with an unpleasant feeling of rejection. Considering that Krishna katha is meant to be a pleasurable experience, such comments are very counterproductive. I doubt that the person will even have convinced you that you are wrong. Depending on your personality type, you may start arguing back, or just stop sharing. It’s different if you have already accepted the person as your spiritual teacher.
Question 2: What if the other person is wrong? If I don’t tell them that, how will they know any better?
My light: The other principles of good sadhu sanga are more effective in ironing out misconceptions because they foster a safe and harmonious emotional atmosphere between us in which people do not feel the need to become defensive. If I empathically reflect back their understanding (principle 8) that may be enough to help them improve their initial understanding. We will talk more about this when explaining principle 8. If they are still of the same view (and you are convinced they are wrong), you can share your understanding in a respectful manner (principle 9). For example, you could say about their understanding, “That’s an interesting light. I see it differently.” And then share your understanding. There is also principle 10, ask questions which help clarify the meaning, and principle 14, making sure our lights are supported by sastric evidence. When all these principles are applied we may find that our own understanding also matures and that we are able to encompass other lights.
Question 3: Lord Chaitanya often debated. For example, he debated with Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya and with the Mayavadi sannyasis. So why does Srila Prabhupada say Krishna katha is not the subject of a debate club?
My light: It depends how we interpret the word ‘debate’. One synonym for ‘debate’ is ‘deliberation’. This type of debate is acceptable and in Sanskrit it is called vada. Other meanings of ‘debate’ are ‘altercation’, ‘rebutting’, ‘refuting’. When we debate in this manner it is called in Sanskrit either jalpa or vitanda. When Srila Prabhupada says Krishna katha is not the subject matter of a debate club, I understand he means it cannot be understood or relished by these two latter types of debate.
Question 4: What is vada, jalpa and vitanda?
My light: The following is from Srila Baladeva Vidyabhusana’s commentary to Gita Bhusana 10.32: “When both parties desire to win by establishing their own opinion with proofs and arguments, and by refuting the opponent’s view with circumvention…false generalization…and syllogistic fault…it is called jalpa. When one party refutes the opponent’s view (by the above means), without establishing his own opinion, it is called vitanda. These two types of debate, with a desire to win, simply display skill in debating and bear no result. That discussion having a desire for truth is called vada. Being outstanding for being fruitful in determining truth, vada is My vibhuti.”
Question 5: What do the following words mean: ‘circumvention’, ‘false generalization’, and ‘syllogistic fault’?
My light: Circumvention is defined as going around or bypassing the real issue.
Syllogistic Fault: A syllogy is ” an argument the conclusion of which is supported by two premises, of which one (major premise) contains the term (major term) that is the predicate of the conclusion, and the other (minor premise) contains the term (minor term) that is the subject of the conclusion; common to both premises is a term (middle term) that is excluded from the conclusion. A typical form is “All A is C; all B is A; therefore all B is C.”
An example of a syllogistic fault is the following argument:
All men are mortal.
My dog is mortal.
Therefore my dog is a man.
False generalization: the root word is the verb to generalize which is defined as to infer (a general principle, trend, etc.) from particular facts, statistics, or the like. An example of a false generalization is: ‘you misunderstood this, so it’s obvious you always misunderstand.’
Question 6: What if I can’t recognize when my arguments are subject to these faults?
My light: In Bg 1.1 purport, Srila Prabhupada also writes:
“There it says that one should read Bhagavad-gita very scrutinizingly with the help of a person who is a devotee of Sri Krishna and try to understand it without personally motivated interpretations.”
Personal motivations could include the desire to be seen as being right all the time, and also the desire to discredit someone else. If we enter a discussion with either of these motivations we will be prone to resort to the faults which characterise jalpa and vitanda. We need to set aside these two material motivations and acknowledge that I don’t know everything, and that Krishna may reveal something to me via another devotee. Then it will be easier to hear each other respectfully, and thereby actually derive some spiritual benefit from our discussions.