by Mandaleshwara dasa
Penetrating the clouds of mystery surrounding the personhood of God.
Is God a person who lives far away in His own spiritual land? Or is He very near, residing in the hearts of everyone? Or is He just plain everything?
What would you say to these questions? Or, to put it another way, what do you think of when you think of God?
You’re not alone if you find these questions hard to answer. Most people have only vague notions of what God might be like. People I’ve asked often say that while they think of God as having certain personal characteristics, such as beauty, power, and wisdom, they also think He must be everything or be within everything, like an all-pervasive energy—“The Force.” This is a revealing disparity, because it indicates that while many people believe God is a person, they realize that thinking of Him as a person in the strictest and most literal sense would limit Him. They’re afraid they might end up with an anthropomorphic conception of God, a “God” who is subject to all (or at least some of) the limitations and imperfections of ordinary persons.
In Christianity, for example, we have descriptions of God as Father—certainly a personal epithet. But what does our father who art in heaven look like? On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there’s Michelangelo’s painting of God as an old man creating Adam, who, by the way, looks healthier and more handsome than God.
So as I was saying, most educated people don’t like to think too strictly of God as a person. Unintelligent, simple folk may do that, or an artist, in his fertile imagination, may fancy some personal form of God. But sophisticated worshipers, priests, and theologians don’t like to take that phrase “God the father” too literally; they’d like to avoid the stigma of being considered aboriginal.
There was a time in my own life also when my conceptions of God as a person proved inadequate. Back in 1966, during my sophomore year of college, I took my first philosophy course, Introduction tot Philosophy. From that point I began to reexamine all I had been taught, and my ideas of God and religion quickly began to change. I wanted like anything for God to be everywhere, in everything and every situation, because at every turn I was beset with ugly reality. Time was a relentless destroyer—seasons changed, leaves fell, a flowers faded, memory failed, dust accumulated, and true love proved false. The rust of time showed on every building, on every creature, and corroded every philosophy and art. It hung in the air and entered the blood through the lungs. Nothing endured, except . . , I endured. I had to. How could I be destroyed? I wanted to live, to exist through the fall, through the winter, and to again behold the spring, on and on eternally. The earth would die, the sun would burn out, certainly my body would disintegrate, but I would endure. I was eternal.
And the spiritual essence I intuited within all transient phenomena was also eternal. And that essence was also I. The sense of “I,” however, was illusory, I concluded, a temporary phenomenon of the temporary, ever-fluctuating, rusting world around me, a world I had come to regard as illusion. From my readings and speculations I concluded that I existed, but not as a unique, individual entity. In reading Sankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination, I came across the Sanskrit phrase tat tvam asi: “You are that.” My reading convinced me that by meditation and study “I” was to break out of the subject-object dichotomy, out of the illusion of self-hood and ego, and merge into the all- pervading, eternal, spiritual reality that was the only true existence and the only true identity. All else was illusion.
My situation wasn’t unusual—to realize that the casual understanding of God that I’d grown up with was superficial, sentimental, and philosophically weak. I was trying to increase my awareness of God. I wanted a Theology, a Metaphysics, a Weltanschauung that I could believe in, not just a religious sentiment that would crumble in the crucible of academic scrutiny.
So in my own informal way I came up with a layman’s version of what the Vedic literature refers to as Brahman realization. This is the first of three classically discussed levels of God realization, each level more clear and accurate than the former. Perhaps I can best explain this with an analogy.
I used to live in Los Angeles, and on a clear day, usually just after a heavy rain, I could see in the distance, just beyond the city, the San Gabriel Mountains. But usually they looked hazy and nondescript, appearing more like clouds or aberrations in the atmosphere. Then one Sunday I took my wife and three-year-old son on a picnic to Mt. Wilson. We got into the car and started driving, and soon we could see the mountains quite clearly. Within another fifteen minutes or so, we were actually driving along the Angeles Crest Highway, seeing the homes, ranches, and little crossroad villages. The San Gabriel Mountains were no longer a distant, nondescript presence on the horizon but a tangible reality, full of life and activity. People lived there and worked there. We hiked along a footpath, climbing over boulders, discovering pockets of snow, and experiencing the unusual vegetation. We even visited the Mt. Wilson Observatory. Things we had previously only been able to speculate about we were now able to see firsthand.
So in this analogy, my sophomoric version of God as an all- pervasive, eternal spiritual existence is like my hazy view of the San Gabriel Mountains through twenty miles of smog. The mountains appeared as a nondescript presence on the horizon. The second level of God realization (technically known as Paramatma realization) is like a closer, clearer look at the mountains. But the final level (Bhagavan realization) is like a picnic, a hiking trip, and a tour of the Mt. Wilson Observatory all in one. I’ve already discussed the first level, now to understand the second level consider the following scenario… .
High in the Himalayas a skinny, wizened yogi of indecipherable age sits cross-legged, his eyes half-closed in meditation. His diet is simple, light, and highly regulated. He has long ago given up all touch with civilization, and his mind is peaceful. No hankering to return to the comforts and sensory titillations of the city disturbs him. He is completely free from sexual interests. He has no family affection to distract him, no financial cares or responsibilities. He has no affection for the country of his birth, so he is without patriotic sentiments and obligations. He has no worldly ambition and doesn’t even care to inform others of his mastery of the yoga discipline he has been practicing for so many years. He could, of course, return to civilization and display his prowess. He could become a famous guru, exhibit his mystic powers, attract many followers, and perhaps advertise himself as an incarnation of God. But he knows that such materialistic desires are the downfall of the serious student of yoga.
What’s he doing? He’s trying to go beyond the limitations of the hazy, distant, impersonal Brahman conception of the Absolute Truth. He’s been trained to meditate within. The process is extremely difficult, requiring unswerving determination, perfect health, patience, great mental power and clarity, and a long life. Now, at long last, he has detached himself from all material conditioning and awareness and, in spiritual joy, beholds within his heart the perfect form of eternity, knowledge, and bliss, the four-armed Vishnu-murti, Lord Paramatma.
Our consummate yogi, absorbed in meditation on this feature of the Absolute Truth, is more advanced in his understanding than a transcendentalist fixed only in Brahman realization. Whereas all-pervasive Brahman is the bodily effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Paramatma is His personal expansion. The Supreme Person is inconceivably powerful, and He has expanded Himself in innumerable forms, each one perfect and complete. This is Paramatma, the witness, controller, and friend within the heart of every living being. In our San Gabriel Mountains analogy, our Paramatma-realized yogi is like a person who is near enough to the mountains to clearly see them, though not in detail. He has realized the Absolute Truth, but not in fullness. He has yet to realize the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This final realization is referred to in the Vedic literature as Bhagavan realization.
The Supreme Personality of Godhead (Bhagavan) is Krishna, and one who understands this has surpassed the other, incomplete stages of God realization. Bhagavan realization, however, is not possible by philosophical speculation or yogic meditation. Rather, it is possible only when one receives special favor from the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself, through His representative, the pure devotee.
A pure devotee of God has already attained the stage of Bhagavan realization and has no business within the material world except for executing the mission of the Lord by disseminating the Lord’s special favor to others. The Bhagavan-realized person has entered the absolute, spiritual world, where he eternally engages in the transcendental service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. But he descends to this material world to give others the opportunity to come to the highest level of God realization and thus perfect their lives.
Once a transcendentalist has completed the arduous path of realizing the Absolute Truth as impersonal, all-pervasive Brahman (step one) and as Lord Paramatma in the heart (step two), then he must surrender to a pure devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, to one who has already fully realized Bhagavan and who is at one with the Absolute Truth, being engaged in His absolute devotional service. Thus, by taking guidance from such a Bhagavan-realized person, a transcendentalist can complete his course and come to the third and final level of God realization.
But what if one is not already advanced in philosophical speculation and yogic meditation? Is he at a disadvantage for realizing the highest truth?
No. The favor of the pure devotee is so powerful that anyone who receives it can enter the spiritual reality of serving the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Bhagavan- realized pure devotee of God serves as a spiritual master, guiding the aspiring transcendentalist toward perfection. He instructs him in the science of the Absolute Truth and acquaints him fully with the transcendental forms, qualities, activities, and names of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, although these are beyond the material world and beyond the purview of the material mind and senses. This is the special power and authority of the pure devotee of the Supreme Person: being of the transcendental world, he can introduce that eternal reality to any sincere, submissive servant, especially by training him in the chanting of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Because the Bhagavan-realized spiritual master perfectly understands his eternal position as the servant of God, he can perfectly impart this understanding to his student, elevating him to the position of transcendental, loving service. Thus the student learns that although he is one with God, that oneness is in quality, not in quantity. The Lord is great, but he is small. The Lord is master, but he is servant.
Now the whole picture of the Absolute Truth comes into focus, and the lower stages of God realization are seen in their proper perspective—in relation to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Take, for example, those impersonalistic views I formulated back in college. I had a conception of God as all-pervasive spiritual reality, and I asserted that I was spiritual and eternal, persisting through all the changes of this material world. This much was right. But on certain key points I was wrong.
And where I was wrong, boy was I wrong! In my eagerness to go beyond the ephemeral, I had rejected not only the false ego that I was this material body—born in south Mississippi, son of Mr. and Mrs. George C. Bosworth—but I had also rejected the prospect of real ego. I see now that the little spiritual learning I had then was a dangerous thing. Although to deny my material identity was good, to disregard the possibility of spiritual identity was like throwing out the baby with the bath water. In seeking an egoless state, I was courting spiritual suicide. I was denying that I had any individual spiritual identity and denying that God could be an individual. Thus, in an attempt to make God unlimited, I had restricted Him: “God can’t have a personality, a form, desires.” And not only was I restricting God, but I was trying to usurp His position.
That’s right. You see, with no distinctions between me as spiritual self and God as an individual spiritual person, then all was one and one was all. In other words, I thought I was God! And believe me, the books I was reading were really feeding me that line. While espousing humility and service, these so-called gurus were flattering me into thinking I was God. (But where’s the possibility of being humble if you’re thinking you’re the Supreme?)
And as for worship, that was all right, but on a higher level it made no sense. After all, the idea that I was a separate identity from God was supposed to be illusory, so why all the hullabaloo over worship? Worship was for the less intelligent, the anthropomorphists, the aborigines. Of course, worship could be helpful—as long as you kept your wits about you and didn’t fall back into the subject-object dichotomy. Thus my new-found sophistry gradually twisted all my praise of God into the devotionless, even disrespectful utterances of a sycophant. Tat tvam asi: “You are that.” Yes, I was it. I was really it.
You might well wonder why the scriptures bother to describe the impersonal feature at all. Why not skip on over to the highest realization, the Supreme Personality of Godhead? Well, there’s a reason. The first lesson in spiritual life is to understand that God and spiritual reality are the exact opposite of material reality. If God is presented to our grossly materialistic mentalities as a person, we’ll think that He’s an ordinary person (anthropomorphism). So the scriptures describe God as being without form and qualities, because He is without material form and qualities. But the natural tendency of the neophyte is to do as I did, and throw the baby out with the bath water.
From Vedic literatures, like Bhagavad-gita, and from the teachings of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I now understand what true spiritual oneness is. You don’t have to subscribe to the philosophy of anthropomorphism to hold a personal conception of God. Anthropomorphism refers to human beings’ theoretically ascribing personal characteristics to the Supreme. This is only speculative imagination, however, and cannot help one realize the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When one attains the highest stage of God realization, Lord Krishna reveals Himself as a person; it is not a question of imagining God as having personal attributes, as in the painting by Michelangelo. God creates man in His own image, not vice versa. God’s image is fully spiritual, transcendental, eternal;man’s image is material and temporary.
And you don’t have to succumb to the vain self-flattery and covered blasphemy of impersonalistic philosophy to achieve liberation from illusion and to affirm that God is unlimited and that there is spiritual oneness. As one in the highest stage of God realization understands. God is a unique, individual person, and at the same time He is everything.
Consider the analogy of fire. Although it’s in one spot, say your fireplace, it permeates and pervades the entire room by its energies: heat and light. Heat and light are simultaneously fire and not fire. Similarly, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, although an individual person in His spiritual abode far beyond the material creation, is present everywhere by His energies: matter and spirit. His energies are simultaneously one with Him and different from Him. There is no meaning to the Supreme without His energies and no meaning to His energies without Him. In fact, nothing exists but the Supreme Personality of Godhead and His energies. A person in the highest stage of God realization, therefore, sees simultaneous spiritual oneness and spiritual diversity.
So, getting back to my original questions, if you said God was everything, you were right—partly. And if you said God was an individual person, you were also partly right. But just how God reconciles these apparent contradictions and manifests Himself everywhere without losing His individual personality is a transcendental mystery that can be understood only by one engaged in the Supreme Lord’s loving service under the guidance of a Bhagavan-realized spiritual master.
Now, if you said that God is living within everyone’s heart, again you were partly right. Lord Krishna expands Himself not only by His energies but by His personal transcendental form of Paramatma as well. Lord Paramatma, in the heart of every living being, is Krishna Himself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but the Paramatma-realized yogi doesn’t fully realize this. Because he doesn’t have the benefit of devotional service, he may consider himself one with Paramatma, much as the Brahman-realized person considers himself one with Brahman. Only by the grace of a pure devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead can the Paramatma-realized yogi (or anyone else) enter into the Lord’s transcendental service and understand Him in full.
The Paramatma, however, is eager to fully reveal Himself—His transcendental names, activities, and forms—to the sincere transcendentalist. Vedic literature, therefore, describes an external manifestation of the Lord in the Heart, and this is the Bhagavan-realized spiritual master. By submissively hearing and serving the spiritual master, one contacts the Paramatma and becomes qualified to receive His directions and enlightenment from within the heart. Thus one engaged in devotional service under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master has already achieved Paramatma realization. But without taking guidance from God’s representative from without, one should not expect to receive direct revelation of God from within.
So if you’re serious about God realization, the key is to seek the shelter of a Bhagavan-realized spiritual master. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (4.34), “Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire submissively and render service unto him. The God-realized souls, having seen the Truth, can impart knowledge unto you.” So don’t expect to understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead without the guidance of the spiritual master. Even if you study the scriptures very carefully, you won’t be able to avoid the pitfalls of impersonalism. And don’t take that just as my advice, thinking that what happened to me years ago can’t happen to you. Take it as the conclusion of the revealed scriptures: Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita that only by devotional service, under the guidance of the spiritual master, can one understand the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Under the spell of material illusion we have forgotten our eternal relationship with Lord Krishna as His servants. Thus we are suffering birth and death repeatedly, life after life, in the material world. Sometimes we try to find happiness in gross sensual activities, as an animal or animalistic human being; sometimes we tire of this futile attempt at imitating God and take to philosophical speculation, culminating in declaring ourselves to be God; and sometimes we seek happiness through yogic asceticism and meditation. But only when we take up the devotional service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead are we able to end our material illusion and suffering for good and achieve the full, intimate understanding of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna.
Absolute Truth refers to a reality which doesn't change over time. Absolute means all other truths are relative to it, or depend on it. When we talk about God, or Krishna, we're talking about the Absolute Truth.
The Absolute Truth is the source of everything, the ultimate cause of all causes. In Sanskrit, it is also called satyam param, the highest truth.
This supreme truth can be perceived in three features—as Brahman, all-pervading, impersonal oneness, as Paramatma, the manifestation of God within the heart of every being, and as Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. These three are the same one truth, understood from increasingly advanced levels of realization.
In the beginning the Absolute appears impersonal. With more advancement, the Supreme is perceived within one's own heart and the hearts of others. The highest realization is to see the Supreme Truth as the Supreme Person, who is complete in wealth, power, fame, beauty, knowledge, and renunciation. The Bhagavad-gita, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other Vedic literatures identify this Supreme Personality of Godhead as Krishna.
Courtesy of Back to Godhead Magazine's Yoga Dictionary, #15-12, 1980
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Allen Ginsberg: How far beyond special study centers can a Krishna consciousness movement or any religious movement grow? Because the need is for a large single, unifying religious movement in America.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. So here is Krishna: all-attractive. You now have to find out as much as possible about Him. Of course, you can say, "Why shall I accept Krishna?" You can talk like that. But your first question is about finding the right unifying agent. So I say, "Here is Krishna.” Now we can analyze. You may ask, “Why shall we accept Krishna?” Then I shall reply, “Why shall you not?”
First, what do you expect from the Supreme Being or the perfect unifying agent? Everything is there in Krishna. Wealth—Krishna. Beauty—Krishna. Wisdom—Krishna. Fame—Krishna. Renunciation—Krishna. Strength—Krishna. You’ll find everything in Krishna. Whatever you want you’ll find in Krishna. He is the unifying agent, the center. And of that I will convince you. Krishna is the unifying center, actually.
And in the Bhagavad-gita He says, mama vartmanuvartante manushyah partha sarvashah: “Everyone is trying to come to Me.” Everyone is trying to come to Krishna. Then He adds, ye yatha mam prapadyante: “But some are realizing Me not directly but indirectly, through My various energies. Still, everyone is trying to come to Me.” We are talking about Krishna as the perfect unifying agent. Insofar as His unifying power is concerned, He appeals, in His various manifestations, to all varieties of truth seekers.
Essentially, there are three varieties of truth seekers: mental speculators, meditators or yogis, and devotees. The mental speculators are trying to understand the Absolute Truth in an impersonal way, without a personal form. And the meditators or yogis are trying to find Krishna within their heart, through meditation. Finally, the devotees are trying to find the Absolute Truth through personal activity, through reciprocation of loving service.
Now, all three of these manifestations—impersonal all-pervasiveness, personal presence in the heart, and active personal reciprocation—are in Krishna. And Srimad- Bhagavatam says that it is the only business of the human being to search out this Absolute Truth. Now, in the Bhagavatam’s second chapter, the Absolute Truth is explained, analyzed. Vadanti tat tattva- vidas tattvam yaj jnanam advayam.
First, the Absolute Truth must be one entity. The Absolute Truth cannot be two different entities. Two different entities would mean relative truths. No, the Absolute Truth must be one. Therefore the knowledge of the Absolute Truth is one. Vadanti tat tattva- vidas. Tattva-vidas means “those in knowledge of the Absolute Truth,” and the verse goes on to say that such persons confirm that the Absolute Truth is one. But He’s realized in three phases.
Brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti shabdyate. Brahman means His impersonal all-pervasiveness, through His effulgent energies; Paramatma or Supersoul means His personal presence within the heart; and Bhagavan means His overt personal presence as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. So, these are different stages of realization.
For instance, you go through different stages in realizing the sun. In the first stage, you experience the sun’s impersonal effulgence all over the sky. But that effulgence is not more important than the sun globe—because it is from the sun globe that the effulgence is coming. So anyone will understand, “This sunshine is not as important as the sun globe.” And if you approach the sun globe and penetrate into the sun—if you have really got the scientific power to go within the sun globe—then you’ll find there is a sun-god. That information we get from Bhagavad-gita.
Imam vivasvate yogam proktavan aham avyayam.
Krishna says, “I first taught this science of God realization to Vivasvan, the sun-god.” So, therefore, behind the sunshine and the sun globe there is a person. And why not a person? Our imagination is not the ultimate truth. We have to get information from Krishna, and He explains that behind these other manifestations there is a person, the sun-god. So, as far as sun realization is concerned, there is a person—he’s sitting there. Now, if we consider these different stages one passes through in realizing the sun—sunshine, sun globe, and sun-god—which is the most important? Which is the most important?
Allen Ginsberg: The person, the globe, or the sunshine?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Allen Ginsberg (laughing): I don’t know.
Srila Prabhupada: Why don’t you know? You cannot say which of these three manifestations is the most important? The sunshine, the sun globe, and within the sun globe, the sun-god. Now, which is the most important?
Allen Ginsberg: If we could apprehend it in terms of person, the person.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes.
Allen Ginsberg: But if we could apprehend it only in terms of the globe, then the globe.
Srila Prabhupada: So that means your own realization may extend only up to the globe, but that realization is not complete.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes.
Srila Prabhupada: That realization is not complete. You have to go further. As we learn in the Upanishads, we should pray, “O Lord, please withdraw Your effulgence, so that I can see Your true face.” Sri Ishopanishad says this. You will see it in Sri Ishopanishad. The author, Srila Vyasadeva, is praying, “Please wind up this glaring effulgence of Yours, so that I can see Your real face.” So the Lord’s real face is there. And in Bhagavad- gita Krishna says, brahmano hi pratishthaham: “This impersonal Brahman effulgence is resting on My personal existence.”
And Brahma- samhita says,
yasya prabha prabhavato jagad-anda-koti- kotishv ashesha-vasudhadi vibhuti- bhinnam tad brahma nishkalam anantam ashesha-bhutam govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who has great power. The impersonal Brahman is simply the glowing effulgence of His transcendental form.” And so forth. So this Brahman effulgence is nothing but the effulgence emanating from Krishna’s body.
You see, Krishna has a very powerful bodily effulgence. And within that bodily effulgence, all creation has manifested. Just as within the sun’s effulgence all these planets are moving and all this vegetation is growing—everything is existing within the sunshine—so, similarly, sarvam khalv idam brahma: Everything is existing within the brahmajyoti, Krishna’s effulgence. And in the Bhagavad-gita Krishna says, maya tatam idam sarvam jagadavyakta-murtina: “This impersonal exhibition of this whole manifestation—it is I.” Mat- sthani sarva-bhutani: “Everything existing is within Me.” But na caham teshv avasthitah: “And yet I am not directly there.”
So we have to study everything intelligently. I want some intelligent persons from America to study this great science and share it with the whole world. Then it will be nicely done.
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.
by Ekendra dasa
To anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it may be difficult to grasp how a single person can contain or "be" all of reality: this world is full of relative truths, and Krishna is a different kind of person than we may be used to thinking about.
Here’s an example of a "non-absolute," or relative truth: "The sky is blue."
That may be true—if it’s daytime and there aren’t any clouds—but the sky won’t be the same color tonight and may not be the same color tomorrow. And even if it’s blue here, it’s not blue everywhere. That statement is true, then, in a relative way—relative to time and space. There are unlimited relative truths, but there is only one Absolute Truth. That’s why we capitalize the "A" and the "T."
Also, it isn’t possible to meditate on relative truths forever. The most pleasant "truths"—if they’re not absolute—either stop being true, or you get sick of them after a while. But meditating on the Absolute Truth can make anyone fearless, ecstatic, and always eager for more. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita:
"The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss from always enlightening one another and conversing about Me."
Here's one way Srila Prabhupada deals with this topic, from his commentary on Srimad-Bhagavatam:
"Everyone is searching after the truth. That is the philosophical way of life. The demigods give information that the Supreme Absolute Truth is Krishna. One who becomes fully Krishna conscious can attain the Absolute Truth. Krishna is the Absolute Truth.
"Relative truth is not truth in all the three phases of eternal time. Time is divided into past, present and future. Krishna is Truth always, past, present and future. In the material world, everything is being controlled by supreme time, in the course of past, present and future. But before the creation, Krishna was existing, and when there is creation, everything is resting in Krishna, and when this creation is finished, Krishna will remain. Therefore, He is Absolute Truth in all circumstances.
"If there is any truth within this material world, it emanates from the Supreme Truth, Krishna. If there is any opulence within this material world, the cause of the opulence is Krishna. If there is any reputation within this material world, the cause of the reputation is Krishna. If there is any strength within this material world, the cause of such strength is Krishna. If there is any wisdom and education within this material world, the cause of such wisdom and education is Krishna. Therefore Krishna is the source of all relative truths."
by Jayadvaita Swami
According to an Indian proverb, there’s nothing that a goat won’t eat and nothing that a madman won’t say. Madmen? Sometimes it seems like we’re living in a world of them, or at least a world of fools. The human impulse is to say something—anything. Something stupid, something contentious, something sweet, deceitful, smart, ridiculous, or empty. Big strings of words, amounting to nothing. It’s astonishing.
Nearly as surprising: You can speak the most outrageous foolishness, and someone out there—most likely many someones—will for sure take it as sensible, even as urgently important.
People babble on like sea waves, other people babble back. And soon you’ve got a tumultuous roar, of no significance at all. Babble on, Babylon.
Behind those babbling tongues churn babbling minds, full of everything, empty of substance.
For which the Vedic remedy is the chanting of the maha- mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The purpose of the chanting is to pull the mind out of the din and fix it on one point: Krishna.
That point—Krishna—is not merely a point, but the ultimate substance. The word Krishna indicates the supreme reality, the Absolute, the original source of everything.
More precisely, the word Krishna is Krishna. On the material platform, a word and what it stands for are different. On the spiritual platform, Krishna and Krishna’s name are the same.
So by chanting Hare Krishna, we leave behind the clatter of illusion and come in touch with Krishna, the Absolute Truth.
In the early stages of spiritual understanding, one realizes that Absolute Truth as an impersonal, all-pervading oneness. Further along, one perceives that Absolute Truth as the Supersoul, the source of all intelligence, the unseen guide within the heart. And when that unseen guide fully reveals Himself, one can see the Absolute Truth as the transcendent Personality of Godhead, free from all the grossness of matter yet tangibly real and specific in His unlimited names, forms, qualities, and pastimes.
It is when we come to Krishna that real talking begins. That talking is done by the greatest self-realized souls. And by those who accept, repeat, and relish the words of those realized souls and thus become realized themselves.
Of course, those who babble on about nothing will think that whatever they’re buzzing about is of great consequence and that Hare Krishna is for fools.
Following in the footsteps of the Vedic sages, we’ll go on talking about Krishna and chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
a conversation in State College, Pennsylvania, USA
with Stambha dasa
Student: I don't think that someone else, a book or some person, can tell me what is reality for me, because I am an individual, with my own experiences and existence. I think each individual is his own truth and he is the only one who knows what's best for him.
Stambha dasa: Do you mean that truth is mere subjective opinion? In other words, do you really mean that my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion and that your opinion is true by virtue of its being your opinion?
Stambha dasa: Are you sure? Are you sure that my opinion is true, just by virtue of its being my opinion?
Stambha dasa: Well, my opinion, then, is that truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you are absolutely wrong in saying that truth is subjective. And since this is my opinion, you have to grant that it's true, according to your philosophy.
Student: Well . . . that may be true for you, but not for me.
Stambha dasa: No, no. That's not logical. If you allow that for me truth is absolute, then you have allowed that there is an Absolute Truth. And absolute means "complete." Therefore, if you allow that a truth is absolute, that truth must be “complete," or containing all other truths. There cannot be a truth which is not contained in that complete truth, if it is indeed complete or absolute. Therefore, since my truth is absolute, it is superior to your so-called truth.
Student: But I think that truth is what each individual believes it to be.
Stambha dasa: Do you mean that if you believe that two plus two equals five, it must equal five just because you believe that it does?
Student: If that's what I believe, then it's true for me.
Stambha dasa: All right. Someone please go get me a whole stack of one-dollar bills. Now, according to you, since this is your truth and since we want you to be able to dwell in truth and not live a lie, I'll hand you two one-dollar bills and then two more, and you can give me a five-dollar bill in return. And then again I'll give you two more plus two more, and you can give me another five-dollar bill, and in this way we will pass the entire night very happily. Okay?
Stambha dasa: You see, this is the difficulty. This is the practical difference: these relative truths cannot be satisfactorily practiced. They're just so much talk. Everyone is talking. But philosophy is not just mental speculation and mental gymnastics. Philosophy is meant to guide the activities of one's life. So much armchair philosophy, so many parlor-room truths. But then when it comes time to practice these so-called truths, no one can do it. Therefore, you can only speak your truth, whereas we are able to live our truth, and very happily. So who is living reality and who is living a lie or some mental dream?
We hear so many people talk so much, yet in their lives they can't stick to their philosophy. For example, there are some scientists who are always saying that life is nothing but a combination of chemicals. But when we say, "All right, so if we give you the chemicals can you produce life?" they can't do it.
Because these philosophies are imperfect, relative truths, they don't bring satisfaction to the self, which is hankering for absolute, eternal truth. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that that which is true now but is not true tomorrow is not actually truth. Truth is eternal. It's true for all people in all times and all places. Only this will actually satisfy us.
Our subjective truths are simply sources of uncertainty, because with subjective truth we actually don't know. We have to admit to ourselves that we don't know anything for certain, and this uncertainty causes continuous anxiety, anxiety rooted in ignorance.
We're thinking, "Should I go to this college? Should I take this job? Should I rent this apartment?" We want to know what will make us happy, but practically every one of us has found that we have made so many wrong decisions in the past. So we should admit, therefore, that what we're presently considering by this subjective process is not at all certain to bring us happiness.
But even though we've made so many mistakes and gone through so much frustration and anxiety, we are so egotistical that we can't admit that we really don't know what is in our best interest. We can't just be humble and agree to hear from Krishna, from God Himself, the one who is in full knowledge of past, present, and future, who is fully conscious of everything, and who has been followed to success by great sages since time immemorial.
As long as we don't have atma-jnana, knowledge of the self, as long as we don't know what this material world is, who God is, where we have come from, what the goal of our lives is, and what will happen to us at the time of death—as long as we're uncertain about these matters, there can only be anxiety in our lives, no matter what pleasant distractions we may arrange for our senses, no matter what so-called philosophies or subjective truths we may try to pacify ourselves with.
We take advice from so many friends, counselors, and teachers. "What do you think I ought to do?" So if we just hear from the supreme friend, the supreme teacher, Krishna, then we can be situated in real truth and happiness. Krishna says, "This knowledge is joyful." But how can someone be joyful if he doesn't know if he's going in the right direction?
Sometimes when you're driving you're not sure whether you turned in the right direction, and you suspect that you may in fact be going the wrong way. Then every mile you travel is simply anxiety. You don't know whether to go sixty miles an hour or twenty miles an hour, because if you're going in the wrong direction you don't want to go too far too fast. On the other hand, if you're going in the right direction you want to get to your destination as soon as possible. So a life without spiritual knowledge is full of a similar anxiety. We see so many people with motivational problems in their lives.
We're in so much anxiety until we get some assurance, some highway marker that shows we're going in the right direction. Guidance from the bona fide scriptures and spiritual master is essential, so that we can be free from anxiety and work confidently toward the goal of life.