In Pursuit of the Highest Truth
by Mandaleshvara dasa
When you reach it, will you see a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or a person with unlimited, all-attractive qualities?
My first encounters with concepts about God came during my strong Protestant upbringing, as I grew up in a southern Mississippi family of faithful church-goers. Later, in the sixties, I met up with a lot of ideas about God while studying and questioning life and religious philosophies as a ministerial student at Oklahoma Baptist University.
I could tell you about the ideas I sampled and savored in reading Aquinas, Buber, Altizer, Tillich, and so on, but in those days, truths for me weren’t so much in the books I read as in the flow of life around me. As much as anybody else trying to make it through the sixties, I was affected and molded by what I saw going on all around me. Books were only part of the milieu.
Ideas of God bombarded me: from the folk philosophy of the Flower People, the lyrics of certain popular songs, my readings in Eastern literature, and my daily interactions with people trying to realize God and the Divine. In the myriad of seemingly ordinary events and situations I would find spiritual significance. I didn’t need a church or a sermon to think and speculate about the nature and existence of God. In fact, I came to find the traditional religious setting uninspiring.
My exposure to the popular voidistic, impersonalistic, and psychedelic philosophies led me to believe that God was perhaps a clear light or an unending emptiness, or that I was God. Persons I knew claimed to have seen God during their yogic meditations or psychedelic experiences. Meanwhile, religious leaders I had grown up revering—Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and others—were also allegedly seeing and conversing with God. I found little agreement, however, as to who God was, what He looked like, or what His plan for His creatures was—if in fact He was even alive (the God-is- dead philosophy was rampant) or in any way connected with all of us down here.
My philosophical odyssey went on for the four years of college, until one day I saw my first picture of Lord Krishna. “This is God,” the Hare Krishna devotee told me. You can just imagine my surprise. In that picture (similar to the one at left) Lord Krishna was running in fear from someone the devotee told me was His mother.
The mother of God? “But God is the father of everyone,” I reasoned. “How can He have a mother? And how is it that He’s afraid? ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,’ the Psalmist says. How can God be afraid? How can the ‘Rock of Ages’ be running in fear from His mother?”
I was bewildered. You may remember that to Moses God appeared in a burning bush: “I am that I am!” And to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, God appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. You may also remember the Cecil B. De Mille version of all this in The Ten Commandments: When God summoned Moses up onto Mt. Sinai, Moses was in terror of the awesome might of Yaweh, who spoke in a rumbling voice out of the smoke and flames: “Thou shall not kill!” That had been my favorite part. God was great and had nearly scared the pants off Charlton Heston.
More than twelve years have passed now since I saw my first picture of Lord Krishna running from Mother Yashoda, and my questions have been satisfactorily answered. I know now that although God is one. He reveals Himself variously according to His own purposes—sometimes as the most attractive child, sometimes as the most terrifying destroyer.
Ultimately, God is a person—Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead—who eternally engages in pleasure pastimes with His most intimate devotees in the spiritual realm. So intimate are those ecstatic exchanges between the Lord and His eternal servitors that He even plays as the perfect son of one of His devotees who desires to relate with Him as a mother. And as the ideal child. He sometimes steals the heart of His mother by His naughty behavior and then runs in fear of her, charming her and the entire universe with His captivating beauty. These dealings are the quintessence of love of God, which is the perfection of all religion and the culmination of wisdom.
Now, if we accept that fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, we should also accept that a fearsome, wrathful God is only the beginning of God-realization. Every authorized scripture in the world describes the unlimited might of the Supreme, teaches humanity to obey His laws and commandments, and warns against disobedience. So, fear can be a handy impetus for obeying God—when one has not yet awakened his love for God.
Of course, all religions teach us to love God also, and that is the essence of religion. But from the beginning of God realization—fear of God—to the perfection—pure love of God—is a long path of increasing obedience. Therefore, when God instructs Moses on Mt. Sinai that the first commandment is to love God, that commandment is set amid threats and warnings: “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children into the third and fourth generation of them that hate me” (Deut. 5:9). In other words, “You should love Me. But if you can’t, then at least fear Me and obey Me. Through obedience you will eventually develop love for Me.”
This is God’s kindness, for only by obeying His commandments can we learn to love Him and become happy. God in His highest, most attractive and lovable form is not a burning bush, a pillar of fire, or a pillar of cloud—you can’t love those things—and He doesn’t speak in menacing tones, such as at Sinai, when the Israelites exclaimed, “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God anymore, then we shall die” (Deut. 5:22).
It’s only when men are very sinful that this show of force is necessary to keep them in line. But there is no scope for loving God out of fear. Love of God is natural and spontaneous, and it begins to awaken only when one has become practiced at obeying Him. The more we develop obedience to God, the more we will develop our love and devotion for Him—and the more personal and intimate will His revelation to us become. As Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita, “As they surrender unto Me, I reciprocate with them accordingly.”
For the perfect devotees, those whose hearts are free of all desire save to satisfy the desires of their beloved Lord—for them the Lord becomes the constant friend, the darling child, or the dearest lover. He takes more pleasure in His devotee’s chastizing Him for being naughty than He does in chastizing sinful people for their naughtiness. In fact. He doesn’t personally involve Himself with anyone but His pure devotees; punishing the sinful is deputed to His representatives.
So, by Krishna’s mystical power of yogamaya, a pure devotee like Mother Yashoda forgets that He is Almighty God. This is hardly the forgetfulness of the errant soul, who denies the existence of God and must be frightened into accepting His authority. Rather, this forgetfulness is a blessing, for it lets the pure devotee serve God in the way most pleasing to them both.