This is a weird, difficult post to write. But I really need to write it. When I first got introduced to “Hare Krishna” (aka Gaudiya Vaishnavism) via ISKCON back in 1990 – every single book I ever saw, every single thing we ever talked about, all of it was “5000 years old.” One time, the local news even came to do a story on our temple, and my friend Hari Kirtana coached all of us, pointing to the Tulasi plant, “Don’t say anything weird, like, ‘This is a 5,000 year old plant.'”
And, honestly, it was pretty damn important to most of us that our plants (and everything else we did and read) really was “5,000 years old.” For one thing, it meant we beat out Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism in the contest to be the mega-oldest. Somehow that was something that seemed vitally important.
Where does this 5,000 number come from anyway?
Well, Krishna is described throughout any Sanskrit literature that talks about him as having lived on earth right exactly up until the first day of “Kali-Yuga.” So if you can figure out when Kali-Yuga started, you can figure out when Krishna lived. Well, it turns out there is a Sankrit book on astronomy, Surya-Siddhanta, that specifies the positions of the planets at the beginning of Kali-Yuga, and mathematicians have worked it out that a fairly close match to that description occurred around 3,000 BCE – which is, hold your breath, 5,000 years ago!
So the assumption is that since Krishna was on earth 5,000 years ago, everything connected with him must have instantaneously developed at the same time – so any book related to Krishna, or any practice related to him or understanding of him must also be 5,000 years old.
But that’s unreasonable, and untrue.
Heretical Claims of Newness
The first time I heard some professor say that the Srimad Bhagavatam (the primary Sanskrit book about Krishna) was written in the 1300’s – well I thought that dude was on LSD, or a flat-out demon just trying to undermine the awesomeness of my religion. My book was 5,000 years old, mister, not 700!
And, you know, actually, I still don’t believe that it was written in the 1300’s. Nowadays scholars are ready to accept a date for Srimad Bhagavatam closer to 300 or 400 CE. And, the astronomy noted in the book makes it sure that, at least the astronomical sections are not any older than that (due to the descriptions of stellar positions given in the text). So, anyway, breath a sigh of relief, right? My sacred book just got 1,000 years more legit…
But still, thats like 3,000 years short of “5,000”. So what gives?
Same goes for Mahabharata and it’s famous section, Bhagavad-Gita. Scholars tend to say it was written about 2,000 years ago, not 5,000. You can react to this by calling these people stupid. Or, you can be a little less terrified and try to figure out how it all fits together.
How do you date something older than books?
The internet is only like, what, 20 years old? Before the internet it wasn’t so easy to cut-n-paste stuff. Before that we had to print books. But even that is only, what, about 600 years old, at most. Prior to 600 years ago, how did records get kept?
With pens, on stuff like paper.
But how do you publish that kind of stuff? You don’t. You make a few hundred copies of a manuscript at most. And then the few people who know how to read and write, read it to lots of people – that’s how you “sell” copies of your book. And when people make new copies, they have to do it by hand. And they are intellectuals, so they tend to add things, fix things, refine things, explain things, etc. things change a lot more easily when they are not typeset and digitized.
Krishna spoke Bhagavad-Gita to Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra 5,000 years ago. And then Sanjay described it to Dhritarashtra and others. And Vyasa included that description in his composition of the Mahabharata. OK, so the Mahabharata and Gita are 5000 years old!
Yeah, but we don’t have exactly that copy. I am sure we have something reasonably close, that’s not the point. The point is, you can’t date the time that Vyasa, or somebody writing on his behalf, first put pen to paper and wrote Gita – because that paper doesn’t exist anymore, and because the way it would get preserved for thousands of years is in a very fluid, easily changing form. So although I honestly don’t think the essential content and message would change, the specifics of the language certainly would – and that’s how scholars date things, by linguistic analysis.
Simply because something dates to 300 or 400 CE doesn’t mean that its not older than that, it just means that the current standard version originated from that time.
Whats wrong with being new, Anyway?
This is really what I wanted to say!
Recently a friend gave me a copy of Brahma-Samhita that Bhaktivinode Thakur wrote. (Yes, not the one that Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati wrote, the one his father Bhaktivinode wrote!). The Thakur makes such an amazing statement in the introduction. It blew my mind. Because, you might not know this, but there was basically no such thing as the Brahma-Samhita prior to the late 1400s when Caitanya Mahaprabhu suddenly appeared from South India carrying a copy with him. So Bhaktivinode introduces the book by saying something essentially like this:
Maybe this is the oldest book in existence, spoken by Brahma, the creator, at the dawn of creation – hidden for ages in a remote South Indian temple and discovered by Mahaprabhu. How wonderful that would be! Or maybe Mahaprabhu wrote it himself! Now, that would be even more wonderful! Or maybe someone else wrote it, but it is still wonderful because Mahaprabhu accepted it!
Isn’t that amazing? Bhaktivinode doesn’t care at all about the date, or even the author! All he cares about the content.
New is Good
Buddha improved the situation. Sankara improved it further. Ramanujna improved it again. Madhva again. Caitanya Mahaprabhu yet again. My religion didn’t exist, practically speaking, before Mahaprabhu established it about 5 centuries ago. It’s a new religion.
And the way I actually practice and comprehend it is heavily shaped by Bhaktivinode Thakur – for which I am very happy. That means my immediate roots go back to the 1800s. It’s a new religion.
His son, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, continued making important and radical adjustments to make it relevant and viable to a modern global culture. I am very grateful for that. That takes my roots back to the -1920s more or less. It’s a new religion.
And his disciple, Bhaktivedanta Swami, made all-important English translations, explanations and visible examples of the whole thing. If it were not for that I would know nothing about it. That was in the 1960s and 70s. It’s a new religion.
And that’s good, because as each great saint adds their contribution, the path becomes clearer.
Mine is the newest religion. I can say that comfortably now. It is also the oldest religion because its roots are undeniably ancient. It’s the oldest and the newest – but the age of an idea is inconsequential. The idea itself is important! The idea itself is what is “eternal” and “spiritual.”