Q. You once said that sometimes poetic descriptions are used in the Bhagavatam. For example, a man with a thousand arms may be a poetic way of describing a big person. How then should we approach the sacred literatures: literally or symbolically?
A. How can a book of poetry be without this? We should try to find the philosophical message in each episode of the Bhagavata first. Later we may live in the poetic Bhagavata world. For preaching it is important to focus on the tattva of the treatise. If people are not able to fathom descriptions of persons with ten heads, and so on, we should not be concerned as much about convincing them of this as we are about other philosophical issues like sense control, the primacy of consciousness, etc.
Of course when we stress the imperfection of the senses, this does open the door to many possibilities. As a general rule for ourselves we should follow the same principle. We can take the man with a thousand arms to be very strong and learn the lesson that the episode seeks to convey. At the same time one has to think that the poet sees that which he describes, for he lives in that conceptual world. So there are persons with a thousand arms and there are very strong ones as well.
Republished from Sri Guru: The Country of Love, Sanga, Volume 1, Number 1, 1999