The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase:
What to Make of What You Find
by Jayadvaita Swami
The Bhaktivedanta VedaBase published by The Bhaktivedanta Archives is a powerful tool, and like all tools it may be used either well or badly. Used well, it can help us discover, gather, and bring to light many teachings the scriptures and Srila Prabhupada give us. Used badly, it can help in assembling false evidence, fallacious arguments, and wrong conclusions.
Here then is a brief guide to help you use the tool well. It's not a guide to the software; that you'll find elsewhere. Rather, it's a guide to what to make of what the software gives you.
The followers of Srila Prabhupada look to Srila Prabhupada's writings and spoken words as a source of knowledge and authority. As Srila Prabhupada writes in Bhagavad-gita As It Is, "The process of speaking in spiritual circles is to say something upheld by authority. One should at once quote from scriptural authority to back up what he is saying." The scriptures have authority, and so too does the acarya. Therefore what we say gains strength when we can quote scripture or legitimately uphold our statements with the words "Prabhupada said."
But what Prabhupada said sometimes differed. Sometimes he spoke for the benefit of an individual, sometimes for the world. Sometimes what he said was for the moment, sometimes forever. So as well as we can we need to recognize, in what Prabhupada said, not only the content but the intent.
Srila Prabhupada gave a cohesive and practical philosophy, the Vedic philosophy, clear and consistent in its conclusions. Merely searching through a database and collecting one's "hits" cannot substitute for thoroughly and clearly understanding. Through service, inquiry, and a submissive attitude, one should try to understand the Vedic science under the guidance of the scriptures, saintly persons, and the bona fide spiritual master. This is the Vedic way to realize not only what the words of scripture and Srila Prabhupada are but also what they mean.
Levels of Authority
To get the meaning right, it will be useful for us to look at the materials in this VedaBase as having different "levels of authority." Here we are not making absolute divisions, but merely rules of thumb.
Books and Formal Documents
At the highest level of authority we can place Srila Prabhupada's books. These are the works in which Srila Prabhupada formally presented for the world the message of the scriptures and the previous acaryas. It is these books that form the very basis of the Krishna consciousness movement.
There are other documents entitled to similar authority, in a different sort of way. These are legal documents in which Srila Prabhupada gives explicit directions. Examples are trust deeds, incorporation papers, and his last will. Such documents were deliberate, purposeful, and clearly intended to be upheld by the full force of law.
Other documents, though not presented in the context of worldly law, are spiritual or managerial documents in which Srila Prabhupada essentially "lays down the law." An example would be the "Rules for initiated devotees" [get exact title] he put on paper on [date] at 26 Second Avenue. These, clearly, are of a similar authority.
At the next level, we can place Srila Prabhupada's lectures. These too, like his books, are formal public presentations.
Still, these speeches are extemporaneous. Srila Prabhupada often speaks with no reference books before him, and with no chance to review or edit his words. So we may expect minor discrepancies-for example, a Sanskrit verse quoted imprecisely or a verse cited as being from one scripture when in fact it comes from another.
We may also need to take into account, here as in all of Srila Prabhupada's spoken words, that his first language is Bengali. In English, therefore, he sometimes uses one word when the meaning he intends is clearly that of another, or he uses the conventions of what students of language refer to as "Indian English." Though this may take some getting used to, it should cause little confusion.
We may also take into account that each lecture has its own context. Each is spoken at a particular time and place and to a particular audience. In fact, however, we see that wherever Srila Prabhupada spoke, his conclusions were invariably the same; though the audience varied, his philosophy never did.
The question-and-answer portion of his lectures, however, deserves special attention. Here Srila Prabhupada responds to the questions of specific individuals. Though again the philosophy is always the same, we cannot assume that how he speaks it to one person is how he would speak it to all. With one inquirer he might be stern, with another sympathetic, with one subtle, with another deliberately simple. We'd be rash to cite one instance as evidence of how he would respond in all instances.
Finally, we should note that in lectures, again as whenever Srila Prabhupada speaks, there is the possibility of mistaken transcriptions. Though the lectures and conversations in this VedaBase have been carefully transcribed and reviewed, Srila Prabhupada spoke with a strong Bengali accent, and minor errors in transcription are sure to have slipped through. This should be of little substantial consequence.
In the next category of authority, we come to Srila Prabhupada's letters. Here, more variables come into play. Srila Prabhupada is again addressing a particular person, in a particular time and circumstance. And this time his words are sent in a sealed envelope, not spoken in a public assembly. His words, therefore, may be intended for many people or only for one. They may give instructions meant to apply always and to everyone or only to a special circumstance and one recipient.
Clearly, what Srila Prabhupada chose to emphasize as "most important" differed according to the time, place, and person.
This is by no means to say that the instructions in his letters can simply be waved away as "relative." But one must be careful to understand how, when, and to whom he intended them to apply.
A final concern about letters might be that some letters Srila Prabhupada personally wrote or dictated, others he signed after a secretary composed them, and still others a secretary wrote and signed and Srila Prabhupada countersigned as "approved." Such a concern, however, should have little impact. All such letters have authority. Srila Prabhupada's signature shows his clear endorsement of whatever the letter might say.
Now at last we come to Srila Prabhupada's conversations. Here, as in letters, again we have variables of time, place, and circumstance. In one sense, though, the conversations are more public, several devotees (often large groups) being in attendance.
But the full dynamics of a conversation are particularly hard to follow in print. Gone are the smiles, frowns, glances, and hand gestures that often tell more than the words. Gone the surroundings. Gone, most often, whatever was said before and after. What remains may be valuable-but it's far from everything.
We should keep in mind, too, that in conversations with Srila Prabhupada there may often be misunderstanding due to differences in language. Srila Prabhupada may mishear what those he is speaking with have said, or they what he has said. The results are sometimes amusing, often confusing. We must take care, therefore, to make sure we have things right.
Levels of Authority, Summed Up
In summary, a quick chart of the levels of authority we might accord to the materials in this VedaBase, starting with the highest, could look something like this:
Books; Legal documents and similar papers
Again, this is merely a guideline, not a cast-iron standard. Letters and conversations may often give significant, even invaluable, knowledge and guidance not to be found anywhere else. And for the person to whom Srila Prabhupada originally directed his words, they might be the most important words in the world.