The Mythology Discussion

One of the modest contributions I tried to make during my time as an academic was the systematic discussion of the use by ISKCON and its founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, of the mythological content of the Vedic tradition (in a broad sense), which I initiated in 2005 in an ISKCON-related, moderated internet forum for scholarly discussion of Vaishnavism and its representation in the West.

The discussion continued for years, with many hundreds of important contributions from various members, and as a result, I was kindly invited to present my analyses and arguments at two academic conferences at the major European ISKCON centre Radhadesh in Belgium in the second half of the 00s. The theme of the discussion was also present as a background to some parts of my paper on the Hare Krishna movement and Western culture at a conference at Villa Vrindavan outside Florence in 2010, which was subsequently published in ISKCON Studies Journal, although the theme was there broadened and included primarily other aspects of the general question of cultural integration.

It was suggested by at least two leading ISKCON scholars that the mythology discussion be published in book form; one of them is reported to have said that the book would “fly off the shelves”. An editor even offered to go through it all for the purpose of publication – a considerable task. Since one of the main participants would not agree to have it published, however, this has not yet happened, and the awareness of the full, specific formulations of the issues, and of the analyses and perspectives I sought to introduce, therefore seems to remain largely confined to the comparatively small number of members of the mentioned forum.

Although that number includes many of the leading scholars in ISKCON, it is not clear what significance they, more precisely, attributed to them, or to what extent they have been transmitted to broader academic – and other – ISKCON circles. In their general substance, I have since continued to raise all of the issues and repeated all of my points on many occasions among ISKCON scholars in other connections, and in this sense they are not exclusive to the mentioned academic forum. Indeed, they were not all first introduced there: I had already, for a long time and on many occasions, set forth in piecemeal fashion and in less elaborate and systematic form parts of my intuitions in this area for ISKCON members. But seeing how the Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings are still presented also by academic ISKCON leaders in the West, it seems to me highly desirable that the points I tried to make be better understood and more widely appreciated in ISKCON. In fact, I find it very surprising that, as far as I can see, other scholars, from inside or outside ISKCON, do not bring up in my terms these obvious things, do not experience them as decisive concerns. Indeed, this fact in itself, and the question of its causes and explanation, became a separate theme in the discussion.

What I did was to raise what from my perspective are fundamental issues regarding the nature of Western non-mythological consciousness, the historical developments – not just in Western modernity but in Western pre-modernity, and not least in antiquity – that account for the historically particular, cumulative constitution of this consciousness, and its effects for the reception of Prabhupada’s presentation of the Gaudiya-Vaishnava mission and tradition in the West.

I suggested that the unmediated transmission and communication of the un- or pre-differentiational, traditional culture of India in its more complete or unabridged form that we find in ISKCON in comparison with other and earlier Western transmissions of Vedic spirituality, caused certain problems for its reception because of the fact of the result of the differentiational development of consciousness in the West, in particular with regard to the understanding of what, as a result of this very process, is seen precisely as mythology. Or, vice versa, that the non-mythological consciousness raises distinct obstacles for that reception – obstacles which need to be better understood even by Western-born representatives of ISKCON. Most of them seem (although to some extent I questioned even this, or at least the real depth of this appropriation) for particular, context-specific reasons, on my analysis primarily the influence of the counter-culture of the 1960s and its continued, indirect effects in later generations schooled within ISKCON, somehow to have absorbed as entirely natural the traditional Indian transplant of mythological consciousness, in a certain sense, as it exists in ISKCON in the West – to the point of becoming blind to the specific difficulties that arise in relation to this transmission in the West and for Westerners in general.

I think it is fair to say that, over the years, the discussion covered almost all of the essential aspects – historical, philosophical, religious, phenomenological – of this question, and that it did so in considerable detail. Among the more specific things that came to be dealt with at some length were the questions of the conditions of possibility of the relative success of ISKCON’s mission in the 1960s and 1970s, given, or despite, the existence and reality of the “mythology problem” as I defined it; of the extent to which Prabhupada had considered different possible strategies for presenting and interpreting the mythological content before embarking on his mission to the West; the precise nature, means, and chronology of the development of non-mythological consciousness in the West, and not least the relative importance in this process of the differentiation in relation to surrounding cultures in antiquity effected primarily by Greek philosophy and Abrahamism, and of modern science and the Enlightenment; whether or not fundamentalist literalism, or some equivalent of it, as applied to the scriptures of the Vedic tradition in the broad sense (including the Puranas etc.) was a properly traditionalist brahminical position or was rather, as in some respects in Christianity and Islam, a late and partly modern phenomenon; and of possible similarities between historically existing “Hindu” culture and the premodern West, including both its Abrahamitic religions and its Greek legacy of philosophy.

As had been the case also in my effort to raise these issues before and after this more focused and systematic discussion, it became immediately clear, from the very outset, that I took positions on them that differed more considerably from the other major contributors than I thought it should have been reasonable to expect. It was, again, a little difficult for me, to whom those positions seemed fairly obvious and irrefutable, to understand the extent to which ISKCON scholars, by which I mean here practicing ISKCON members who are also active as scholars in Western academia, could in fact disagree and fail to understand and accept the perspectives I tried to introduce, or, indeed, what I considered to be the plain facts of the mythology problem. But by saying this, I am not in the least suggesting that their various responses were unimportant. Quite the contrary, most of them were interesting and highly significant as expressions of spontaneous, creative exegesis by mostly Western-born Gaudiya-Vaishnavas of much of the content of their adopted tradition when confronted by my account of what I claimed was a distinct, general and in many respects inevitable Western point of view.

Perhaps there is still hope that the old discussion can after all be published one day, that by allowing all participants to edit their own contributions publication can be agreed to by all, and that something new can thereby emerge, an in some cases modified and improved restatement of the basic content of the old discussion. Yet since little or nothing has happened on this front after, and beyond, the discussion in the closed scholarly forum, I have long been tempted to set forth again my basic analyses and arguments, here and/or in other publications.

2 Responses to “The Mythology Discussion”

  1. 1 Krishna Kshetra Swami June 26, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    Thank you, Jan Olof, for reminding us of the indeed engaging discussion that was conducted on this subject, impelled mainly by your own interesting and provocative posts. I wasn’t directly involved in those discussions, but did read them with interest, and I agree that it would be very valuable to bring together in readable form the “mythology issue” for a wider audience and further discussion.

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson June 29, 2017 at 6:32 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment. I feel I must make something more of what I wrote in that discussion. Since it has not been possible to publish the whole discussion in book form, I have been thinking I should perhaps simply republish the fist post – entitled simply ‘Mythology’, with which the discussion started and which contained my basic analysis at least in seed form – here in this modest blog, and see if some ISKCON scholars will perhaps respond here too. But of course it would not reach many readers.

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Ramana Maharshi