Harinama Dasi narrates specific pastimes of Lord Krishna playing in the village of Vrindavan.
Harinam Cintamani dasi narrates several of Lord Krishna's pastimes.
He appears here once in a day of Brahma, which means once every thousand Kali-yugas. Sometimes there are differences in His pastimes, but they're generally the same. There are unlimited pastimes going on, even now, on other planets within this universe and in unlimited other universes. The Srimad-Bhagavatam gives us a sample of Krishna's many incarnations and avatars, but it would be impossible to recount them all.
The version of the Srimad-Bhagavatam that's available to human society on this earth contains only eighteen thousand verses. On higher planets, where the lifespan and mental capacity of the inhabitants is far superior to ours, the Bhagavatam has many more verses.
by Ekendra dasa
"Important" activities of "important" people on this "important" planet get big media coverage. Fifty-foot high video billboards in the center of the city, full-page ads in major papers, and TV commercials are all designed to help us all appreciate the importance of such people and their "important" activities, and sell product.
But because nothing happens on this tiny, temporary planet that's really that important, we surround our human events with hype to trick ourselves into thinking that they are. Big light shows, huge, elevated stages, booming sound effects, pyrotechnics, advertisements ad nauseam, and miles of magazine covers are essential components of the show business of the material world.
So, when contemplating the idea of the appearance of God Himself, those of us steeped in the contemporary culture of hype might naturally expect a grandiose production, reminiscent of the best that Hollywood has to offer, calculated to inspire awe and fear.
Considering Krishna's extremely high-profile position—the omnipotent, omnipresent, ultimate source of all energies—His appearance in this world is remarkably low-key. He doesn't draw attention to himself. He has nothing to prove. His "publicist"—yogamaya, His energy for engaging in transcendental pastimes—arranged His entrance to be subtle, classy, and mysterious. Here's how the moment of His appearance on earth is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam:
"Thereafter, at the auspicious time for the appearance of the Lord, the entire universe was surcharged with all the qualities of goodness, beauty and peace. The constellation Rohini appeared, as did stars like Asvini. . ."
This might be very useful and interesting information for you Vedic astrologers.
"The sun, the moon and the other stars and planets were very peaceful. All directions appeared extremely pleasing, and the beautiful stars twinkled in the cloudless sky.
Decorated with towns, villages, mines and pasturing grounds, the earth seemed all-auspicious. The rivers flowed with clear water, and the lakes and vast reservoirs, full of lilies and lotuses, were extraordinarily beautiful. In the trees and green plants, full of flowers and leaves, pleasing to the eyes, birds like cuckoos and swarms of bees began chanting with sweet voices for the sake of the demigods."
If you pause to imagine this scene, you may notice that this description is very rich in detail, and calls to mind the most attractive circumstances possible. It goes on:
"A pure breeze began to blow, pleasing the sense of touch and bearing the aroma of flowers, and when the brahmanas engaging in ritualistic ceremonies ignited their fires according to Vedic principles, the fires burned steadily, undisturbed by the breeze. Thus when the birthless (italics added) Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, was about to appear, the saints and brahmanas, who had always been disturbed by demons like Kamsa and his men, felt peace within the core of their hearts, and kettledrums simultaneously vibrated from the upper planetary system." (Srimad Bhagavatam 10.3.1)
The narrator makes a point of describing Krishna as "birthless," because that is the fact. He has no "birth" the way we do. We're born into the bodies we're born into because of our karma, our destiny. But Krishna is the supreme controller. He appears and disappears from our sight whenever and wherever He likes.
He chose to make His appearance in a prison, in the middle of the night. The only human witnesses were Devaki and Vasudeva--the extraordinarily devoted husband and wife who had prayed for many lifetimes to have Krishna as their son:
"Then the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, who is situated in the core of everyone's heart, appeared from the heart of Devaki in the dense darkness of night, like the full moon rising on the eastern horizon, because Devaki was of the same category as Sri Krishna." (Srimad Bhagavatam,10.3.8)
Almost immediately then, under cover of night, Krishna was mystically whisked away to the remote cowherd village of Gokula, Vrindavan, so that no one but Devaki and Vasudeva would know that He had appeared.
Krishna's appearance was as undercover as could be.
"The Lord is one, but He can appear in everyone's heart by His inconceivable potency. Thus although the Lord was within the heart of Devaki, He appeared as her child. . . the Lord appeared like the sun . . . the Lord is situated even within the atom . . .He is situated in Mathura, in Vaikuntha and in the core of the heart. Therefore one should clearly understand that He did not live like an ordinary child in the heart or the womb of Devaki. Nor did He appear like an ordinary human child, although He seemed to do so in order to bewilder asuras [atheistic persons] like Kamsa."
In other words, Krishna appears to take birth—and even "die"—here, just like us, so that determined atheists can tell themselves and others, "Look! Krishna is just an ordinary guy!" Krishna doesn't mess with their view of reality.
"The asuras wrongly think that Krishna took birth like an ordinary child and passed away from this world like an ordinary man. Such asuric [demonic] conceptions are rejected by persons in knowledge of the Supreme Personality of Godhead . . .The Lord is aja, unborn, and He is the supreme controller of everything. Nonetheless, He appeared as the child of Devaki.
This verse describes the inconceivable potency of the Lord, who appeared like the full moon. Understanding the special significance of the appearance of the Supreme Godhead, one should never regard Him as having taken birth like an ordinary child.(Srimad Bhagavatam 10.3.7-8, Purport)
Krishna is very kind to come see us. He doesn't have to. We may try our best to maintain the illusion that people, places, and events in this world are so important, but once we begin to understand the significance of Krishna's appearance, it's possible to see everything here in its proper perspective. It's not that big of a deal. But Krishna coming—that's a big deal.
Vrindavan is a town in north central India, about ninety miles southeast of Delhi. Traditionally acknowledged as the place of Krishna’s childhood pastimes, it is known as one of the holy dhamas—residences of the Supreme Being—and is one of the most frequented pilgrimage sites on the subcontinent.
Srimad-Bhagavatam describes the extraordinary pastimes Krishna performed in Vrindavan during His childhood. The Introduction to the Bhagavad-gita As It Is explains that the Vrindavan on earth is a replica of Krishna's eternal residence in the spiritual world. And the Brahma-samhita says Krishna, the Supreme Person, is simultaneously all-pervading and eternally living in that eternal, spiritual Vrindavan.
Even today, residents of Vrindavan commonly greet each other with shouts of, "Jaya Radhe!" meaning, "all glories to Krishna's beloved companion Srimati Radharani!"
Photo shows the front gate of the Krishna-Balarama Temple in Vrindavan, India
Janmashtami is the yearly observance of Krishna's appearance on earth. It is one of the world's most widely observed spiritual festivals. Krishna's "birth," janma, occurred at midnight on ashtami, the eighth day after the full moon in the Vedic calendar.
Krishna's appearance is significant on many levels, and is something of a paradox. He's the beginningless Supreme Person, eternally existing everywhere at all times. He isn't "born" like we're are—forced by karma into a succession of material bodies. Krishna appears in His same permanent, spiritual form whenever and wherever He likes.
When He does appear, He chooses His devotees to play the roles of His father and mother. He Himself plays the role of their child, and acts like a human being, while also performing superhuman activities that are impossible for anyone else to imitate.
Some of Lord Krishna’s transcendental pastimes may seem hard to swallow. But there’s a sound explanation.
If I were to tell you I knew a story about a boy who swallowed a raging forest fire to save his friends and relatives, you’d probably think it was a fairy tale. Boys don’t swallow forest fires.
If I were to tell you the story was about how God swallowed a raging forest fire, you might consider more seriously the possibility of the story’s being true. God has been known to part seas, hold forth from clouds, and demolish mighty empires. So why not inhale a forest fire?
The fact is, the short story I am going to tell is about an attractive young boy who inhaled a raging forest fire to save His friends and relatives. But it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a true story. You see, that young boy is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. Let me explain.
The Vedic literatures describe three levels of God realization. On the first level, the transcendentalist realizes God as Brahman, the effulgent, all-pervading spirit, and he realizes that he too is eternal spirit, different from the temporary, physical body. This is not to say, as many transcendentalists mistakenly conclude, that we are God, but that we have the same eternal, spiritual nature as God.
On the second level, God is realized as Paramatma, the Supersoul, who is within the hearts of all living creatures and within every atom. The Supersoul witnesses our activities, awards us our karma, hears and answers our prayers, and directs the movements of material nature, from the orbits of the greatest planets down to the stirring of the smallest particles of dust. “Not a blade of grass moves” say the Upanishads, “without the will of the Lord.”
Most currently popular conceptions of God fall within the categories of Brahman and Paramatma realization: God is understood to be the omnipresent and omniscient Supreme Being, the almighty creator and ruler of the universe, the provider of our daily necessities, the overseer and stem judge of our deeds; He is the Great Cosmic Scorekeeper, fully absorbed in His unlimited administrative duties.
These conceptions of God, while correct, are incomplete. There is a third and higher level of God realization, known as Bhagavan realization, in which we understand that God is neither first and foremost the controller of this material world nor the servant of our desires. God is the Supreme, the one master of all. How could He be obliged to act as our servant or simply as a cosmic administrator? The Vedic literatures inform us that God, in His topmost feature as Bhagavan, resides in His eternal abode, beyond the material world, where He enjoys blissful pastimes with His pure devotees. In that transcendental abode He is known as Krishna, the all-attractive Personality of Godhead, and although He is the oldest of all, He appears eternally as a fresh youth.
Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan are progressive realizations of the same Supreme Person. Brahman is the effulgence of Krishna’s transcendental body. Paramatma is Krishna’s personal expansion through which He creates and maintains the material universe. And Bhagavan is Krishna’s original form as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the source of all other features of God.
People sometimes argue that God cannot be a person. If He were, they say. He would be limited and imperfect like us. But the Vedic literature answers that although God is an individual person; we cannot compare our personalities to His in every respect. He is the greatest person and has no limitations or faults. Because He is the origin of everything, He necessarily possesses everything. If He were merely an impersonal being, He would be lacking the most valued of all assets: personality, or individuality. And how can the Supreme lack anything?
Bhagavan Sri Krishna occasionally appears in human society to display His intimate pastimes. To play the part of a human being, He descended five thousand years ago as the son of one of His devotees. He grew from childhood to boyhood to youth—but no further. When He spoke the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra, He had been on earth for 125 years and had many children and grandchildren. Yet He looked no older than twenty or twenty-five.
So what about that boy in the painting inhaling all those flames? As I was saying, that’s Krishna, the Supreme Person, and He’s swallowing a forest fire to save His friends and relatives. Once, while Krishna and all the residents of Vrindavana, India (Krishna’s home town), were in the forest on the bank of the river Yamuna, a fire broke out, surrounding them all. Krishna was only seven years old at the time, and yet all the inhabitants of Vrindavana, feeling the heat of the fire closing in on them, turned to Him with full faith and cried out, “Our dear Krishna! O Supreme Personality of Godhead! Please try to save us from this devastating fire. We have no other shelter than You.”
The residents of Vrindavana were on the topmost level of Bhagavan realization. They knew and loved Krishna as their dearmost Friend and as their affectionate child. Although they were sometimes aware that He was the Supreme Personality of Godhead, that fact was not important to them.
Attracted by His beauty and by His loving dealings, they lived only to serve Him and to please Him. “Krishna may or may not be God” they would think, “but we want to serve Him just because He is such a wonderful boy.” Even when they called out to Him in fear of the fire, addressing Him as the Supreme Personality of Godhead and asking Him to save them, they were thinking of Him primarily as their intimate friend.
Hearing the distressed cry of His own townspeople, and understanding that they were depending completely upon Him, Krishna felt compassionate and immediately swallowed the forest fire. Although He was playing the part of a human being, whenever He desired He would display the opulences and power that proved He was God.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains that He rewards us according to our degree of surrender. To the atheist, who denies the very existence of God, Krishna remains obligingly invisible. To those persons who approach Lord Krishna to request that He fulfill their material desires, He reveals Himself as the Almighty Father. But to those who worship Him only to please Him, without any desire for their own gratification, He is eternally the most loving friend. He displays His earthly pastimes, such as swallowing the forest fire, to awaken in all of us an ambition to attain this transcendental friendship.
What follows is a transcription of a talk given by Srila Prabhupada in Montreal in observance of Janmashtami in 1968.
A transcription of this lecture is also available on the Bhaktivedanta Vedabase.
Note: The Vedabase transcription includes bonus material which the recording omits. As Prabhupada is ending his lecture, he asks all the devotees present to stand, one after another, and share their own realizations of Krishna consciousness.
Montreal 1968: Prabhupada on Janmashtami
So, today is the birth—appearance ceremony—of Lord Krishna.
In the Bhagavad-gita, the Lord says,
janma karma ca me divyam
yo janati tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma
naiti mam eti kaunteya
"My dear Arjuna, any person who simply tries to understand about My transcendental birth or appearance and disappearance and activities, janma karma..."
The Personality of Godhead is not niskriya, without activities. So anyone who can understand what kind of activities the Lord has and what kind of birth He accepts; simply by understanding these two things one gets wonderful result.
What is that? Tyaktva deham. By quitting this body—tyaktva deha punar janma naiti [Bg. 4.9]—he does not take any more birth in this material world.
Tyaktva deham punar janma naiti. Some of us may think that “punar janma naiti” means he becomes vanquished. No. Punar janma naiti, but mam eti, "He does not come to this material world, but he comes to Me." Mam eti.
Mam eti means, then...the supreme personality of Godhead has His place, the...abode where we can go, simply by understanding the nature of His appearance and activities.
So today is that auspicious day, Janmashtami, when Lord Krishna appeared—five thousand years ago—in India, Mathura. Those who are Indian ladies and gentlemen present, they know very well where is Mathura. It is about ninety miles south of New Delhi. Mathura is still existing, and it is eternally existing. . .
Krishna appeared in Mathura in His maternal uncle's house in a very precarious condition.
That birthplace, Lord Krishna's birthplace, is now maintained very nicely. One who goes to India, they see.
So anyway, Lord Krishna appeared on this planet five thousand years ago. Now Krishna says, janma karma me divyam [Bg. 4.9]. Divyam means "not ordinary." It should not be understood just like we take our birth.
Krishna does not take his birth like us.
That is also explained in the Bhagavad-gita: when Arjuna inquired from Krishna, "My dear Krishna, You are speaking that formerly You spoke this yoga system of Bhagavad-gita to the sun-god. That means it is millions and trillions years ago You spoke. How can I believe it?" Because Krishna was contemporary to Arjuna, so he was thinking that "Krishna is my friend, is my cousin brother. How it is possible that He spoke this Bhagavad-gita yoga to sun-god?"
So what was the reply? The reply was this, that "You also appear many, many times; I also appear many, many times. The difference is that I can remember. You cannot remember."
That is the difference between God and ordinary living creature—that we are also taking birth after birth. . .
There are 8,400,000 species of life, and, so long we are in this material world, we are cycling ‘round this birth after birth. So Krishna's birth is not like that. Therefore Krishna says,
janma karma me divyam yo janati tattvatah
Tattvatah means “in truth.” Not superficially. Scientifically, one who knows, he can get— immediately—liberation. And how one can understand the same truths? That is also explained in the Bhagavad-gita:
Bhaktya mam abhijanati yavan yas casmi tattvatah [Bg. 18.55].
Again the same thing, tattvatah, “in truth.” If anyone wants to know God, or Krishna, in truth—not superficially—then he has to undertake the process of devotional service; Bhaktya.
In another place Krishna says,
patram pushpam phalam toyam yo me bhaktya prayacchati [Bg. 9.26]
"Any person who gives Me a little fruit, little flower, little water, but with devotion, bhaktya..." That is the only qualification. So Krishna says, taya bhaktya upahrtam asnami. "Because he brings it with devotion and faith and love, I eat."
We are offering, in the temple, prasadam. So He eats because He says "I eat." How you can say that He does not eat?
Some gentleman asked me that "Swamiji, you offer prasadam in the temple, but do you think Krishna or God eats?" I answered, "Yes, why not? He says, 'I eat.' How you can say He does not eat? But you do not know how He eats."
Due to poor fund of knowledge, you think that God does not eat. But eat..., His eating process is different. That is answered in the Brahma-samhita, it is said
angani yasya sakalendriya-vritti-manti [Bs. 5.32].
God's senses—Krishna's senses—are as powerful as other senses; just like I can see with my eyes, but Krishna can eat also with His eyes. That is angani yasya sakalendriya-vritti-manti.
Just like, there are many examples. Krishna or Vishnu—the first creation is that Garbhosayi (Garbhodakashayi) Vishnu lying on the ocean and Brahma was created from His navel. There was a lotus stem grown from the abdomen of the Lord, and Brahma was born.
Now Laksmi, the goddess of fortune, was just sitting. But as we understand that if we beget child, we require the cooperation of wife, but here we see that wife was sitting, but He begot Brahma from the navel.
This is called sarva-shaktiman. He does not require anyone's help. He can beget child—not exactly as we beget child—therefore, janma karma me divyam [Bg. 4.9]. He is within your heart, He is everywhere, so He can appear from everywhere.
Just like sun rises from the eastern side. It does not mean that eastern side is the “mother” of sun; we simply see that sun is rising from the eastern side. In this way, if we try to understand in truth, then we can understand what is God.
Superficially, if we try to understand by our experimental knowledge, then it is not possible to understand God.
panthas tu ko?i-sata-vatsara-sampragamyo
vayor athapi manaso muni-pungavanam
so 'py asti yat-prapada-simny avicintya-tattve
govindam adi-puru?a? tam aha? bhajami
The Brahma-samhita says that if one starts on the chariot of air and makes progress at the speed of mind, still one cannot understand what is God.
Vedeshu durlabham adurlabham atma-bhaktau [Bs. 5.33].
He cannot be understood simply by studying Vedas.
Traigunya visaya veda nistraigunyo bhavarjuna.
One has to transcend the position of Vedas also. Then one can understand what is God or what is Krishna.
That process is explained in the Bhagavad-gita,
bhaktya mam abhijanati
yavan yas casmi tattvata?
So this bhakti—devotional service of Krishna—is so nice.
And under that bhakti category, this Janmashtami... Of course, this Janmashtami ceremony is observed by all Hindus—irrespective of becoming Vaishnava or not, this ceremony is observed in India every home.
Just like in your Western countries the Christmas is observed in every home, similarly Janmashtami is observed in every home.
Today is a great ceremonial day.
So our program is; at twelve o'clock night the Lord will take birth and we shall receive Him. And just now it is ten o'clock. For two hours our program will continue in kirtan.
Kirtan means sometimes chanting with music, and sometimes speaking. Both of them are kirtan. Kirtayati iti kirtanam. Whenever we glorify the Lord, that is called kirtan. The Srimad-Bhagavatam reading is also kirtan.
Abhavad Vaiyasaki kirtane. . .
Vaiyasaki, Sukadeva Gosvami, he achieved the highest perfection, liberation, simply by reciting Srimad-Bhagavatam;
Pariksit Maharaja, he simply heard.
There are nine processes of devotional service;
srava?a? kirtana? vi??o?
Chanting, hearing—first hearing, then chanting. Without hearing, nobody can chant.
And what sort of srava?a? kirtana?? Vishnoh, of Vishnu. Not anything else.
srava?a? kirtana? vi??o?
arcana? vandana? dasya?
These are nine processes of devotional service, of which sravanam, hearing, is most important. Without hearing, nobody can understand the science of God.
Therefore the Vedic mantras are called shruti. Shruti means it is to be heard. It is not to be experimented in the laboratory. It is simply to be heard. Therefore it is called shruti.
srava?a? kirtana? vi??o?
arcana? vandana? dasya?
Vandanam, “offering prayer.”
We also offer prayer. The other religious sects—just like the Christians—they offer prayer. The Muhammadans, they offer prayer. So prayer—offering prayer—is also one of the items of bhakti; chanting, hearing, meditating, offering prayers, arcanam (worshiping the Deity in the temple), all of them are together devotional service.
So out of the nine, if you can execute all the nine, it is very good. But it is not possible. So even if you can execute one item, you become perfect. It is so nice.
sri-vishnoh sravane parikshid
Just like Maharaja Pariksit, he simply executed the function of hearing. He got perfection.
abhavad vaiyasakih kirtane. . .
Vaiyasaki means Sukadeva Gosvami. He simply glorified the Lord.
prahladah smarane. . .
Prahlada Maharaja, he was simply meditating.
There are many examples; simply by following one principle of this devotional service, they got the highest perfectional life— liberation, back to home, back to Godhead.
So we shall invite today to speak about Krishna from our students, as well as all the members who are present here. So I shall request Janardana to speak something about his realization of Krishna.
Harinama Dasi narrates Krishna's pastimes of stealing butter.
Harinam Cintamani dasi narrates several of Lord Krishna's pastimes.
- Advent of Lord Krishna
- How Krishna came to wear peacock feathers upon His head
- The Qualities of Lord Krishna
- Lord Krishnas' pastimes of stealing butter
- Krishna plays in the village
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One fall day in 1972, the part of Philadelphia called University City was overrun by bright yellow posters. A rapid metastasis followed. The next day the posters had taken over Center City, and yellow tendrils were reaching delicately along main avenues toward the outlying districts. The following morning all the telephone poles on the street before our Krishna temple were infested with shining yellow squares.
Early that morning a zealous young devotee barged into my office. (I was then the temple president.) Fired with outrage, he shoved a poster before me. “Now they’re right out front!” he moaned. “We have to put a stop to this! There’s no way we can let this go on!”
He was very young, and his obvious innocence fortunately made tolerable his headstrong and dogmatic ways. What’s more, the poster justified his anger.
In bold black letters the poster said:
KRISHNA MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE LOVE DIVINE.
BUDDHA MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE KNOWLEDGE DIVINE.
JESUS MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE FORGIVENESS DIVINE.
NOW GOD WANTS YOU TO MEDITATE, SO YOU CAN BECOME GOD...
In smaller type it announced that members of a New York yoga group were coming down in a week to offer an introductory presentation at the University of Pennsylvania Christian Association.
“Well?” demanded the ardent devotee, an edge of challenge in his voice. “What are we going to do about it?” He meant, of course, what was I going to do.
“What we’re already doing,” I said. “Chant Hare Krishna. Distribute more and more Gitas and Back to Godheads. What else?”
This was not acceptable. He demanded action. The atheistic poster was everywhere. Now, he said, all a person had to do was walk down the street to be told that Krishna began as an ordinary guy, and that any ordinary guy could likewise become God. It loudly proclaimed there was no difference between man and God. It blasphemed the Supreme Lord. If I tolerated that blasphemy, my friend warned, I would lose all my “pious credit,” become devoid of the results of my devotional service. He showed me my duty; he quoted verses; he demanded action.
“The posters are already there,” I protested. “It’s too late.”
“Well then!” he exclaimed triumphantly, “when they come to town you could go and challenge them! You could smash the rascals!” He snatched up the bright poster and thumped the bottom, the invitation for all ambitious souls to begin becoming God.
“See! Don’t you see what they’re up to! It’s a mystic yoga factory! They’re going to set up a mystic yoga factory right here in this city! You’ve got to stop them! You’ve got to!”
“Yeah!” said voices together. During the devotee’s tirade several others had gathered in the room. The poster went back for their inspection.
I was thinking. On the one hand, how many could be so stupid as to fall for the crass hucksterism of the poster? “First Krishna; then Buddha; then Jesus; and NOW—YOU! Yes, you too …” Could anyone take that seriously? On the other hand, they sure could. We had them come often enough into our temple to announce their divinity. Once one of them had taken me aside after a Sunday feast to confide solemnly, “I am very pleased by the way you are worshiping Me here.”
God had become dirt-cheap. It was common to meet these do- it-yourself Gods, made right in their own homes with medicine mixed in basements. It was already a cottage industry. So why not mass-produce them in a mystic factory? It was a sure thing.
The group with the poster was deeply impressed.
“Wow! Is this ever impersonal philosophy!”
Mincingly, someone said, “So you become God, the jerk divine …”
I cleared my office, and began thinking of what could be done …
Here was an egregious instance of what we recognized as the ultimate spiritual disease, the philosophy of impersonal oneness that proclaims man to be God. The speculative doctrines of impersonalism had been propounded in India for thousands of years, and for thousands of years our own tradition of bhakti,devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, had opposed them. And now the battle had spread to Western soil.
According to impersonalists, the absolute truth (“Brahman” in Sanskrit, but you could call it “God”) is a completely undifferentiated spiritual unity; it has no variety in it, no form, no qualities, no relations. Moreover, it is the only reality. The existence of any other entity, they claim, would limit it. Thus the world we see about us, in all its profusion of shapes, smells, sounds, colors, and tastes, is an illusion, maya.There is only one homogeneous spiritual entity, and that alone is real. All else is false. You and I, as particular individuals, are in truth non-existent. When Brahman is covered by maya,the illusion of individual existence arises.
What is inexplicable in this philosophy is the existence of illusion itself. How did that illusion arise? How could it cover Brahman? Impersonalists try to make illusion more powerful than the Supreme. For them, illusion in its individual aspect is a finite person; illusion in its collective aspect is given the name “God.” Thus, the one Supreme Person is an illusion, the infinitely many subordinate persons are illusions, and bhakti,the devotional service of the many to the One, is also an illusion. So although impersonalists may make free use of the word God, in fact they are rigorously atheistic.
To support their impersonalism, they appeal to the idea that the Supreme must be unlimited and unconditioned. And all name and form, they say, are limitations. Individuality is a limitation. The Supreme, then, can properly be understood only through the complete elimination of all such limiting ideas, by the denial of all names, forms, actions, and attributes. “Neti, neti,” they say: “Not this, not that.” This procedure alone secures the transcendence of the Supreme, they say, and keeps it from coming under the confinement of our materially entrenched conceptions.
They do not recognize, however, that definition by negation has its own inherent limitation. We may negate conceptions of material qualities, relations, and forms, but the corresponding negations are themselves material ideas. If “form,” for instance, is a material concept, then “formless” is also material. This is because the idea of “formless” depends for its meaning upon the idea of “form.” “Formless” requires “form” if it is to have any sense at all. Thus “nameless,” “formless,” “qualityless,” and so on are only relative material conceptions of the Supreme; they cannot precisely describe the Supreme. Definition by negation, then, is incomplete.
Can we complete the process of definition? We start with “form,” then by negation go to “formless.” Where can we go from there? “Form” and “formless” seem to exhaust the alternatives. We can’t go back to material form; nor do we want to get hung up in some interminable blow-your-own- mind effort to realize the “unity” of “form” and “formless.” (Many impersonalists do this.) But let us examine the starting point again, this time more carefully. We start not with “form” but more precisely with “material form.” And our negation, “formless,” means “no material form.” Now we can see our way through the barrier, to the affirmation that is finally called for: “spiritual form.” Here we have the factual unity or synthesis of “form” and “formless”: there is form, but no (material) form. Thus we must conclude that the Supreme Absolute Truth has spiritual or transcendental form and, by the same token, transcendental names, qualities, activities, and relations.
And it makes good sense. We can agree that the Supreme must be unlimited, but isn’t it paradoxical that the impersonal conception of the Supreme, arrived at by relentless denial, is of an entity so systematically stripped of everything -form, attributes, and relations-that it is cognitively no different from the idea of nothing at all? (Indeed, some impersonalists like to speak of the “Divine Nothingness” or “Nonbeing.”) But nullity, nothingness, is the ultimate in limitation. On the other hand, the personal conception of God as a being full of transcendental or spiritual forms, qualities, activities, and relationships without limit really does indicate one who is the greatest of all.
Our reasoning can show that the Supreme has transcendental variegatedness, but it cannot tell us the specific, concrete facts about that variegatedness. At this point we have to drop our efforts to understand God by our own mental prowess, and we have to hear, submissively, from the Vedas,from the transcendental sound that comes from the Supreme Himself. That sound discloses in full the specific name, form, opulences, and activities of the Supreme, which are beyond the effulgence of impersonal Brahman: It is Krishna, the all- attractive, whose transcendental bluish-black form glows like a new raincloud illuminated by lightning within, whose jewel- bedecked hands lift a silver flute to His lips, whose eyes, beautiful like lotus petals, roam restless with love over His devotees in the eternal kingdom of God.
The impersonalists hanker to merge into the effulgence of the Supreme. But when they hear about the form beyond that effulgence, the transcendental form of Krishna, the embodiment of all beauty, they think of it as material, as maya.This is because their own mentality is so rigidly materialistic. They are unable to accept the notion of “transcendental form” because as far as they are concerned all form is material. This keeps them stuck in their negations. But why should we impose our material ideas of name, form, qualities, and actions on God? Who says that all form has to be material form?
It is true that mundane mind and senses cannot conceive of the Supreme, but there is no reason why we have to be limited to mundane mind and senses. We can, in fact, directly experience the transcendental nature of the form, qualities, and activities of Krishna when our own mind and senses have been completely purified and spiritualized by total absorption in devotional service to God (bhakti),which begins with the chanting of Hare Krishna. We can then personally enter into the endless pastimes of Krishna.
To understand God you must become a servant of God. But an impersonalist is unwilling to do that. He is ambitious. He wants to become God Himself. Therefore he is hostile toward the actual Personality of Godhead, and because of that hostility he persists in a perverse logic that tries to make the Supreme a nonentity. The impersonalist’s “neti. neti. neti” is a sword with which he attacks the transcendental Supreme Person, trying to mince Him down to nothing. He tries to kill Krishna in order to take His place.
I had witnessed the impersonalist’s policy of denigrating God even in their casual, offhand remarks. Once, for instance, at a Sunday feast I was speaking to a guest about Krishna, and she stopped me to say, “Oh, don’t spoil it by giving it a name!” What would she think if someone spoke of her that way?
“Karen’s quite a nice girl.”
“Oh, don’t spoil it by giving it a name!”
And countless times I’ve heard the remark, “Oh, I think God is just energy.” Note the word just.Here we are talking about the Supreme, and we have to say “just.” I am a person with senses and intelligence, but God, who is supposed to be greater, is “just energy.”
The yoga society’s poster revealed the same implicit enmity toward God. No difference between you and Krishna; no need, then, to surrender to Him and serve Him. You be God! The claim that Krishna meditated to become God certainly brought Him down to size. It also arrogantly contradicted Krishna’s own revelation in the Bhagavad- gita,as well as the standard history of Krishna’s appearance in Srimad-Bhagavatam,another Vedic text.
We discussed this point that evening in the Gita class, considering in particular one incident from Krishna’s history, the story of Krishna and the demoness Putana.
Krishna says in the Gita that He comes to the material world with a mission: to establish religious principles, to protect the devotees, and to destroy the atheists. When atheistic and demonic rulers oppressed the earth five thousand years ago, Krishna appeared in the family of the chief of them, a usurper named Kamsa. Prophecy warned Kamsa that one of his nephews was destined to kill him. Kamsa therefore imprisoned his sister and her husband and killed their newborn children one by one. Their eighth child, Krishna, was covertly taken from the capital on the night of His birth and hidden in Gokula, a small village of cowherds, where He was put under the care of Nanda, the chief of the herdsmen, and his wife Yashoda. When Kamsa learned that the eighth child had eluded him, he sent his allies out into the countryside to kill every child born around that time.
One of these allies was Putana, an adept in black arts. She had attained powers through mystic yoga: she could travel swiftly through the sky and alter her bodily form at will. Under the order of Kamsa, Putana roamed the countryside killing babies, a task for which she was especially well qualified, since she drank with relish the warm blood of children.
Alighting on a pasture outside Gokula, Putana assumed the form of a young woman and headed toward the settlement. The villagers all looked up in wonder as a woman of almost supernatural beauty suddenly appeared, alone and announced, on their streets. Her hips were full, and her large and firm breasts seemed more of a burden than her slender waist could bear. Her clothes were gorgeous, and the tresses of glossy black hair that framed her beautiful face were braided with garlands of flowers. Her brilliant earrings flashed. Everyone stopped to watch her, and she glanced upon them enchantingly. They were all disarmed. The women thought she must be the goddess of fortune herself coming to worship Krishna.
No one stopped Putana as she entered Nanda’s house and went directly into the room where baby Krishna lay napping. She sat by the bed, reached in, and took the baby on her lap. Disarmed by her beauty and by the tender way she held the child, Krishna’s mother did nothing to stop her.
Hugging the child to her breast, Putana pushed her nipple into His mouth. She had smeared this nipple with a fast- acting, deadly poison, but it did not have the expected effect. Krishna squeezed her breast with both His hands and began to suck very hard. Putana’s eyes bulged; she broke out in a sweat: she began flailing her arms and legs: her hair loosened. Jumping up, she tried in vain to knock the child away. Shrieking “Stop! Stop! Let me go! Let me go!” she fled blindly from the house and out of the village. Clinging fast to her breast, Krishna sucked out the poison, her milk, and then her very life. Her screams reverberating through the countryside, Putana died, and her body returned to its original form, hideous and gigantic, and fell with a shock that leveled trees for twelve miles around. The villagers, terrified by the ear-splitting screams and the concussion of Putana’s fall, came racing out of the village and in fear and wonder saw the monstrous, repulsive body of Putana lying across the fields. The tiny form of baby Krishna crawled happily over her chest.
Putana was a powerful mystic yogini,while Krishna was only an infant just starting to crawl. Yet as Putana discovered, He had inconceivable power. He never had to “become God,” because He is God eternally. This is the difference between the real Godhead and the would-be Gods turned out in the mystic factory. Krishna did not meditate to become God, nor by meditation can we ever become, God ourselves.
Yet it seemed that every telephone pole in Philadelphia proclaimed otherwise. Every day the devotees returned from preaching, chanting, and book distribution more antagonized by the ubiquitous poster. Impersonal philosophy weighed on all minds, and in our classes I was inevitably called upon to produce further and further arguments against it. And this I did with increasing vigor and enthusiasm. I couldn’t help that, yet I knew it made the notion that I would go and “smash the rascals” more and more fixed in the devotees’ minds.
I had serious misgivings about going. The circumstances would not be favorable. It was the yogis meeting, after all, and I would come as an intruder. The whole audience would be on their side. If I observed the etiquette proper for a guest, I could hardly challenge them effectively, yet if I violated that etiquette I would appear rude and belligerent. The impersonalists were already hostile, and I would simply increase their enmity.
But the devotees wanted a confrontation. As the day of the meeting drew nearer and nearer and the preaching increased in vigor, it became clear to me that the situation had developed a dramatic momentum that required a denouncement. Without some resolution, a sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction would interminably linger; morale would suffer. Whatever my misgivings, I had to go, just to lay the business to rest. If only for its symbolic value, it had to be done. So I selected two devotees who could be counted on to stay calm, and let the word out that we would go to the meeting.
It is already dark as we walk through the ivied campus and into the Christian Association. Passing under high ceilings and along heavy walnut wainscoting, we find the room. It is dimly lit, perhaps thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep, and crowded. The audience sits on the floor. Mostly male, blue jeans, flannel shirts, hair below the shoulders. Up front is a table where candles burn and thin plumes of incense curl toward the ceiling. We make our way through the crowd, the faint odor of marijuana and patchouli rising to meet us. We create a quiet sensation: dhotis and kurtas,shaven heads, twin lines of clay on our foreheads. We sit in the first circle, at the left of the table, and observe the mystic yogis themselves. They are a surprise. Standing at the table are three young men identically dressed in grey, flannel trousers, white knit turtleneck sweaters, and what looks like white buck shoes. Their hair is short and neatly combed. They all look like Pat Boone in April Love.
The room is deadly silent—no whispering, no coughing. A very solemn audience. Many sit with rigid backs, straight arms resting on knees, eyes closed. The quiet continues; a few more fill in the back.
Then with folded hands one of the welcomes them in a soft, almost languid voice and says that we will begin by chanting “om.” The members of the audience work themselves into versions of a yogic posture. Everyone breathes out “Om” We chant “Hare Krishna” softly on beads. “Om” means Krishna, but the impersonalists have ruined it for us. Bad usage drives out the good. On the table between the candles is a black-and-white front-face photograph of an Indian in yogic posture, their leader; his eyes are open wide, but you can see nothing but the whites.
The vibes are all quiet now, soft, mellow, and om- y. The three whisper among themselves, sending glances periodically our way. Two of them walk noiselessly to the side and sit. The other addresses us in soft and well-modulated tones. This is an exploratory meeting. If there is sufficient interest, members will come down to open a permanent branch.
Then he talks about Love. We must open our hearts to the divine. He talks about Surrender and Service. He talks about Humility. As he talks, his shoulders take on a slight hunch, he bends forward slightly from the waist, a posture he retains throughout his talk. Now and then he presses the palms of his hands together before him. Devotion, he says. Now and then he sends a quick look our way. Love, he says. Serve. Surrender.
It is quite a disarming performance. These are the same people who put up the poster, but we are not going to be able to get a handle on that. No, they believe in Love, Service, and Surrender. They are Devotees.
Now we are to have some Devotional Poetry, written by their leader. A girl in a shirtwaist dress goes to the front. “My Krishna is not black,” she reads. “My Krishna is gold. I have painted Him black with the ink of my mind.”
There it is. The devotee next to me groans. In context, “gold” means the impersonal effulgence of light, and “black” stands for Krishna’s name, form, qualities—everything.
A hand. “You speak a lot about worship. But isn’t there something higher?” It’s the first question, so they immediately realize that in slanting their presentation to us they have not satisfied the others. Now they are caught uncomfortably in between.
His answer, as you might expect, is convoluted, taking away with one hand what it gives with the other. It takes several other questions and answers to get his position out. It is this: Actually bhakti, the path of devotion, is the best because it is the easiest. Whatever path you take, it leads to the same place. On the path of devotion we choose some particular idea of God to worship, to concentrate our mind on. But when we reach the goal, we realize that the Supreme is beyond all thought and ideas and that the particular form we have been worshiping is a material conception. We also realize that our own individuality is an illusion. Thus we become one with the object of worship. So philosophically we understand that there is no difference between us and God. But when we practice bhakti we don’t think like that. For the purposes of bhakti,we must think of God as great and of ourselves as very small. We must become very humble and surrender to and serve our chosen ideal. The higher realization of oneness will come automatically, in time.
My hand is up. Reluctantly, “Yes?”
“Your poster says that Krishna meditated in order to become God?”
“Could you tell me how it is that God has to meditate in order to become God?”
He walks a few steps over toward me. “Well, we were just trying to express in words what is beyond words.”
“But it’s not so hard to understand. God means omnipotent, unlimited. If I am God, then why should I have to meditate? What kind of God is that?”
He looks at me with a hurt expression, and raising his hands at me palms out, he begins slowly to back away.
“Words …” he says in a pained voice. “Words ...”
“Words …” plaintively echoes the other fellow, also backing away.
“Words …” they both say, looking around the audience in appeal, as if words were the most distressful things in the world to contemplate.
This is an amazing performance. “Wait a minute,” I protest. “You just spent an hour speaking all sorts of words, most of which sounded like nonsense to me. Now why—“
But they are past hearing, past words.
The doctrine that words are meaningless is so nonsensical it can’t even be spoken. In fact, it can’t even be thought!
They back away as if before a plague victim.
The audience is in turmoil. The vibes are gone. Several speak at once. Someone begins lecturing me from the other side of the room on the meaninglessness of words. Someone else flips rapidly through the Upanishads in paperback, apparently searching for confirmation of the same doctrine.
A heavy hand falls on my shoulder. I turn to confront a thin face fringed with a wispy beard. Baleful, solemn eyes peer into mine. “Hey, man,” he says, “you’re creatin’ duality.”
The mystic yogis turn to other questions, and the meeting quickly breaks up. We approach them afterwards, but they refuse discussion. I tell them that as devotees of Krishna we cannot tolerate blasphemy of Him, and that I hope we will not see any more of such posters.
The cold autumn night air cleared my head, but the meeting had left me despondent. My misgivings had been sound. All we had done was create antagonisms. I hadn’t been able even to confront their philosophy, let alone defeat it. It had been like putting your hands through mush. There was nothing to get a hold of.
Back at the temple we found a few devotees waiting up for us with cups of steaming hot milk. As we recounted what had happened, my mood began to improve.
“They can talk nonsense for hours,” I said, “and then when you challenge them, all of a sudden words are meaningless!” The fathomless stupidity of their position struck me with wonder. The doctrine that words are meaningless is so nonsensical that it can’t even be spoken. In fact, it can’t even be thought! Why couldn’t they at least be consistent and be silent? If they were true to themselves they couldn’t spread this nonsense.
If words are meaningless, then thinking is meaningless too. They are actually trying to become mindless. They say that bhakti is for the emotional sort and that their speculative process is for the intellectual, but they revealed that night how profoundly anti-intellectual and antirational they are. For them, all rational thinking is maya.And if they try to base their position on scripture (like the boy flipping through the Upanishads)—well, that is maya too.
I was feeling ebullient. And then another realization came to me. It made everything worthwhile. I understood their philosophy of devotion.
“It’s Putana-bhakti!” I exclaimed. “That’s what it is, Putana- bhakti” Everything fell into place. Their devotional service, like Putana’s, was a disguise, a sham. Putana wanted to kill Krishna, and to get close to Him she disguised herself as a devotee, as the goddess of fortune. Pretending she was going to serve Krishna the way His mother Yashoda serves Him. She took Him tenderly upon her lap. Even the devotees were fooled. But at the last minute, her purpose was revealed. It is the same with the impersonalists. They adopt bhakti for spiritual advancement and try to act like devotees; they talk about humility, and service, and surrender, but, as the yogi said in his talk, they have another idea in the back of their minds: “I’m God.” They try to approach God through their duplicitous devotion, and their plan is that at the last moment they’re going to whip off the disguise, attack Krishna with their “neti, neti. neti,” kill Him, and take His place. Putana-bhakti!
I was exhilarated. They had challenged Krishna, but in doing so they had merely brought out in the open their own mindlessness and their own petty envy of God. How ridiculous the tiny creature becomes when he aspires to be the Supreme. They had challenged Krishna, but there was no doubt that it was—as it had to be—a clear victory for Krishna.
In a short time yellow posters all disappeared from the city. And the mystic yogis, for whatever reason, did not come back.
Harinama Dasi narrates how Krishna came to wear a peacock feather upon His head. In case you've ever wondered.
Listen to other narrations of Krishna's pastimes by Harinama Dasi: