Prabhupada on Religion & Philosophy

The following is H.D. Goswami's 3-part response to an ISKCON forum discussion on January 25, 2017.

Question: What qualifications do those who judge our preachers need to properly evaluate what is appropriate preaching and what is not?

When the topic is raised of disciplining and controlling the content of our preaching, we must also consider to what extent the judges precisely understand all aspects of our philosophy.

Prabhupada often stated that religion must not sever its tie with philosophy. A study of Prabhupada’s teaching on “religion and philosophy” shows that by ‘philosophy,’ Prabhupada did not mean, for example, the Western philosophical tradition, nor any Eastern tradition, but rather the ability to think and speak in a logical, rational way, and to put forward cogent arguments based on all relevant evidence.

Some leaders believe that they have combined religion and philosophy simply by memorizing our basic doctrine, and then compiling lists of Prabhupada quotes they believe to be relevant. As I show in my paper on the GBC, Prabhupada had a more serious idea of ‘philosophy.’

Therefore we must ask whether or not the judges of our preaching are themselves competent in philosophy, as Prabhupada defines it. I believe that there are in fact a number of philosophical imprecisions, if not mistakes, that are widespread in our movement, even among our judges.

These problems occur most readily in the case of common ISKCON expressions that are not literally found in Shastra. Here are two examples:

1. Vedic culture
2. Causeless mercy

Another problem involves principles that are balanced and restrained by other Shastra principles, but that are taken by many devotees in an unbalanced, unrestrained sense. Here are two prominent examples:

1. Ajnata-sukrti
2. The guru’s infallibility

It is not at all clear that ISKCON’s judges have a thorough command of these issues and there is thus the danger that the protectors of orthodoxy will in fact impose flawed views and repress precise thinking. Again, Prabhupada makes clear that to combine religion with philosophy is not merely to memorize doctrine and compile lists of quotes. Something more is needed.


Question: By "philosophy," Srila Prabhupada did not mean Gaudiya-siddhanta?

According to Prabhupada, and the dictionary, ‘philosophy’ entails both the process of philosophical reasoning, and the conclusions, siddhantas, thus obtained. So philosophy means not only memorizing a doctrine, but also to having the power to reason logically about it. Prabhupada confirms this in his discussion of the philosopher Hume with Hayagrīva: “religion without philosophy and logic is simply sentiment.”

Similarly, in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 3.3, Prabhupada writes, “Religion without philosophy is sentiment, or sometimes fanaticism.”

A standard dictionary defines fanatic as “a person with extreme, unreasoning enthusiasm,” or “with extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.” (Uncritical here means “forming a judgement without objective analysis and evaluation.”)

Prabhupada confirms this sense of philosophy as the ability to reason, and thus the opposite of fanaticism, in a Bhagavad-gita class [December 20, 1968]:

“You should be religious, but should understand everything philosophically. Otherwise one becomes fanatic, religious fanatic. In the Caitanya-caritamrta it is clearly said that sri-krsna-caitanya daya karaha vicara [CC 1.8.15]...try to understand the gifts of Caitanya Mahaprabhu by your philosophical understanding.”

Thus Prabhupada links the necessity of combining religion and philosophy with the CC’s command karaha vicara. Prabhupada here translates the words karaha vicara as “ understanding.” Let us look at the literal sense of karaha vicara.

The original Sanskrit word vicara means “pondering, deliberation, consideration, reflection, examination, investigation.” The standard Samsad Bengali dictionary gives synonymous or identical meanings for vicara: “consideration, deliberation; argument; discussion; decision; inference.”

Note that inference is “a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning.”

Thus Prabhupada’s famous teaching that one must combine religion with philosophy, and Lord Caitanya’s own words, both indicate that one should not merely memorize a doctrine, but that we should actually be able to reason faithfully and logically about the Absolute Truth. Prabhupada steadily teaches this:

“Science must be based on logic and philosophy. Science means that. And religion means sometimes sentiments. So religion without philosophy is sentiment, and philosophy without religion is mental speculation. Both must be combined. Then it is perfect.

“You cannot have religion without philosophy. That is sentiment, fanaticism. And if you simply take philosophy without religion, without sense of God, this is mental speculation. So religion must be on the basis of science and logic. That is first-class religion.” [September 10, 1973]

Clearly, to circumvent philosophical reasoning, and yet insist on one’s exclusive orthodoxy, fits the classical definition of fanaticism as defined by Prabhupada and standard dictionaries. If the GBC are to fulfill their duty to safeguard Prabhupada’s philosophical teachings, they themselves must be reasonable.

Otherwise, as Prabhupada states, this movement will be unable to attract, or retain, intelligent people:

“Religion should be combined with philosophy; then intelligent persons will stay with it.” [August 13, 1971]


Prabhupada stated that atheists, agnostics and so-called philosophers don’t understand real philosophy. And Prabhupada wanted as many disciples as possible to understand real philosophy, as I pointed out in my last letter. So what is real philosophy, apart from just listing quotes or true conclusions? What does it mean to reason in Krishna consciousness, as Prabhupada said we should?

Lord Caitanya Himself gives us an excellent example of this in His debates with two learned impersonalists, Prakasananda Sarasvati and Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya, in His logical reliance on the notion of a self-evident foundational truth. Not only Lord Caitanya, but also Aristotle, Thomas Jefferson, and many modern philosophers agree that a system of thought must begin with the earnest, plausible claim of a foundational self-evident truth. I will explain.

Whatever one claims to be true, another person may demand proof. When proof is offered, one may demand proof of the proof, thus initiating an infinite regress of proofs, endlessly going backwards with no proof. I will give a mundane and a spiritual example:

1. Mundane: one claims that water boils at 100 C. Someone demands proof, so the claimer puts a thermometer in a pot of water and places it on the stove, showing that it boils at 100 C. However the skeptic demands proof that the water in the pot and the mercury in the thermometer are genuine. When that is proved, the water- and mercury-testing chemicals must be tested, and so on, ad infinitum.

2. Spiritual: one claims that Krishna is God. A skeptic demands proof. One cites the Gita, which of course incites another demand for proof. One cites one’s personal experience with the same reaction. One cites the Acaryas, and proof of their authority is demanded, ad infinitum.

For thousands of years, many philosophers have accepted that a self-evident truth can break the infinite, since that which proves itself requires no extrinsic proof. Aristotle discusses this in his Posterior Analytics 1.3, and Thomas Jefferson states justifies American independence from Britain by saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Let us see how Lord Caitanya engages this same principle of self-evident truth in his learned debates with two great contemporary scholars.

At CC 1.7.132 Lord Caitanya tells Prakasananada and the Mayavadi sannyasis: “Veda is self-evident [literally, ‘evidence from itself’]. It is the crown jewel of evidence. By making an indirect/figurative meaning [of Veda], the quality of self-evidence is lost.”  [svatah-pramana veda—pramana-siromani/ laksana karile svatah-pramanata-hani.]

At CC 2.6.137 Lord Caitanya made virtually the same statement to Sarvabhauma: “Veda is self-evident. What it says is true. By making an indirect/figurative meaning [of Veda], the quality of self-evidence is lost.”  [svatah-pramana veda satya yei kaya/ laksana karile svatah-pramanya-hani haya.]

Later in the same chapter (CC 2.6.178-179), Lord Caitanya explains to Sarvabhauma the specific content of Veda’s self-evident truth: “Relationship [is with] Bhagavan; activity [therein] is bhakti; love [is] the ultimate goal. In Veda, [these] three realities are taught.” [178 bhagavan—sambandha, bhakti—abhidheya haya prema—prayojana, vede tina-vastu kaya]

“Whatever else at all one states [as Veda’s meaning] is all imagination. In the self-evident Veda statements, [indirect] interpretation is imagination.” [179 ara ye ye kichu kahe, sakala-i kalpana/ svatah-pramana veda-vakye kalpena laksana]

Thus devotees stop an infinite regress of proofs by correctly stating that the process of Krishna consciousness reveals the self-evident truth of Krishna. Just as on waking from a dream, one knows at once that the waking state is more real than the dream state, though one cannot empirically “prove” it, so one knows that Krishna consciousness is more real than material consciousness. One also thus knows that Krishna’s words in the Gita are true.

We should draw two important lessons from Lord Caitanya’s discussion of self-evident Vedic truth:

1. There is a crucial difference between philosophy based on the self-evidence of relevant Shastra, and philosophy that does not. Clearly Prabhupada criticized atheist, agnostic, and other “so-called” philosophers precisely because they did not see the need to begin real philosophy from the self-evident foundation of “Veda,” whose essence is Bhagavad-gita, as stated in Bg 15.15.

2. Therefore in a debate among faithful Vaishnavas, one cannot cite Prabhupada’s criticism of mundane philosophy as a way to impose one’s personal interpretations of Krishna consciousness. Religion requires philosophy, competent reasoning and logic based on the self-evident foundation of authoritative Shastra.

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