by Ravindra-svarupa Dasa
All over the world we find the kind of literature we call scripture. These works tell us a particular kind of tale. They report those extraordinary occasions on which the divine penetrated into our world, and our tiny space and time housed for a while the eternal and infinite. Witnesses to these incursions, utterly changed by what they had seen, found themselves compelled to pour into the world’s indifferent and disbelieving ear their strange and powerful tales. And just because these witnesses were so changed, others listened, and they were changed in turn.
From these scriptural accounts we see that the divine descends in various ways. In the Pentateuch, for example, God intrudes into our world mainly through marvelous acts of divine power: He plagues the Egyptians with frogs and flies, lice and locusts, turns their river to blood, and snuffs the lives of their first-born. He delivers His people by parting the Red Sea, and He sets before them a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night as beacons to guide them through the wilderness.
On occasion God draws especially near, yet remains even then an awesome, elusive presence just beyond the phenomenal veil. His proximity causes nature to boil and erupt; it seems at any moment He might burst through the flimsy screen of nature and emerge fully on stage—but He never does. When God first comes before Moses, a bush burns fiercely and is not consumed, while Moses fearfully averts his gaze. When the Lord descends upon the top of Mount Sinai, the slopes quake, and a dense cloud, shot through with fire, roils and thunders about the hidden peak. Moses vanishes into that cloud to parley at length with God. Afterwards he reports catching only the most fleeting glimpse of the back of the departing Lord, never once seeing His face.
Another celebrated entry of the divine into our world is even more severely restrained: Muhammad, son of Abdullah, meditating during the heat of Ramadan on Mount Hira outside of Mecca, hears the command of an awesome voice: “Read!” “I cannot read,” comes his terrified reply. Again: “Read!” Again the same reply. The voice, grown more terrible, commands a third time: “Read!” Muhammad answers: “What can I read?” The voice says:
Read: In the name of thy Lord who createth.
Createth man from a clot.
Read: And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful,
Who Teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
In this way the first of many such “readings” becomes manifest on earth. Together they constitute the Qur’an (Koran), delivered to Muhammad, the messenger of God, by Gabriel, the emissary of God, “who stood poised between heaven and earth, who approached and came as near or nearer than two bows’ length.” Their meetings form the conduit through which the uncreated Qur’an, “preserved forever on the tablet of heaven,” descends to earth. In this case, God does not enter our mundane realm in person, but He comes in the form of His transcendent word that makes manifest His will.
Here the word of God descends as word. The New Testament, however, tells of a descent in which “the Word was made flesh.” The divine nature becomes embodied in the human person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus declares, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me,” and confesses, “I can of my own self do nothing.” In this way Jesus reveals himself as an eternal servant of God, saying “my Father is greater than I.” But because he is surrendered to God without reservation, God becomes manifest to us in him: “The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” Therefore the person of Jesus is itself the revelation of God: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” for “I and my Father are one.”
Because different scriptures report such vastly different divine descents and direct us toward surrender to God under different names—Jahweh, Allah, Jesus, and so on-and because the followers of one scripture tend to condemn the followers of all others as infidels or heathens or heretics, many people become perplexed or disgusted. And religion acquires a bad name. One wonders, “If there is one God, why should He manifest Himself in different ways and give different instructions?”
There is an answer to this question in yet another scripture, the Bhagavad-gita. This song (gita) was sung by God (bhagavan) during His descent on earth five millennia ago. The Lord—known as Krishna, “the all-attractive”—addresses His friend and disciple Arjuna: “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Pritha” (Bg. 4.11).
Considered as an answer to the problem of religious diversity, this statement judiciously directs us between extremes. It avoids, on the one hand, those forms of sectarianism which grant some particular religious tradition exclusive franchise on God: “Everyone follows My path in all respects.” On the other hand, it rejects that sentimentality which uncritically endorses any and all forms of spirituality. Rather, Krishna offers a principle by which we can discriminate among them: “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly.”
The Sanskrit word translated here as “I reward”—bhajami—ispregnant with meaning. Itis formed from a word which fundamentally means “to distribute” or “to share with.” Most frequently, however, it means “to serve in love,” or, loosely, “to worship.” Thus we see that Krishna is stating a principle of reciprocation. God reciprocates with us justly by distributing Himself—revealing Himself—to us exactly in proportion to the degree that we have surrendered ourselves to Him.
God’s “reward,” then, can be any of a hierarchy of responses along the progressive path of divine service. On the lower end of that path, for example, a person may faithfully serve God for the sake of material benediction. God reciprocates by awarding his desire. Although the worshiper enjoys only a temporary, material benefit (not an eternal, spiritual one), he accepts his reward as divine reciprocation—for him it is a revelation of God—and his reinforced faith keeps him on the path of devotion. As for those advanced devotees who desire nothing material or spiritual in return for their wholehearted service, Krishna rewards them differently: He discloses Himself fully, and in a sweet and intimate exchange He serves the devotee just as the devotee serves Him.
God declares, “Everyone follows My path.” For as there is one God, there is one religion: devotional service to God in full surrender. We should not be misled by sectarian designations. Although “Islam,” for example, is used to denote a sectarian community or its faith, the term al islam itself is not thus exclusive and particular, but means simply “the submission,” or “the surrender.” This one true, essential, and universal religion is also unerringly indicated by Jesus. When asked to cite the greatest commandment in the law, he replies, quoting the Pentateuch, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”
Lord Krishna likewise points to this essential religion at the end of the Bhagavad-gita. Having surveyed many spiritual processes—pious work, religious rituals, yoga meditation, worship of demigods, philosophical discrimination between matter and spirit—and having shown that they are but various steps on the path toward full devotion to God, Krishna invites us conclusively to come directly to that point. “Abandon all varieties of religion,” He urges Arjuna, “and just surrender to Me” (Bg. 18.66).
But because we are to various degrees resistant to the divine call for full surrender, God allows for our gradual advancement, instructing us and revealing Himself to the extent our service disposition or—the same thing—our spiritual purity allows. In this way the element of relativity enters the divine-human interaction to give rise to varieties of religion. But in every case the founder of religion is God and no one else. As Srimad- Bhagavatam (a scripture we’ll consider later) tells us, dharmam tu sakshad bhagavat-pranitam (Bhag. 6.3.19): “The path of religion is established directly by the Supreme Lord Himself.”
For this purpose God descends many times. Krishna announces the general principle governing His entry into this world: “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend. To deliver the pious and to annihilate the miscreants, as well as to reestablish the principles of religion, I Myself appear, millennium after millennium” (Bg. 4.7-8).
No time and no place has a monopoly on God’s self- revelation. God comes as He is needed, with always the same mission: to repair and restore the time-ravaged path of religion, overgrown and eroded by neglect and abuse. Thus the Lord not only establishes religion on earth, but return again and again as its ceaseless maintainer.
So we need not be alarmed by the number and variety of God’s appearances as recounted in the world’s revealed scriptures. Responding gratefully to the divine bounty, we should aspire to an inclusive, broadminded perspective, understanding each particular descent of God according to the principle by which revelation is reciprocated for surrender.
We can turn for aid in this endeavor to the Srimad- Bhagavatam. Both the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam were revealed on earth at the time of Krishna’s descent five thousand years ago, and together they hold a distinguished place in India’s vast library of spiritual knowledge, the Vedic literature. Srimad Bhagavatam—“thepostgraduate scripture”—conveys the last word in Vedic knowledge, and the Bhagavad-gita specifically delivers the instructions qualifying one for Srimad- Bhagavatam.
The Vedic literature, in its catholicity, provides something for everyone’s advancement on the spiritual path. The Srimad-Bhagavatam compares the Vedas to a “desire tree”—the heavenly tree whose branches yield all varieties of fruit. When, in time, the followers of the Vedas became bewildered by this diversity and lost sight of the true purport of the Vedic teaching, the author of the Vedas—GodHimself—descended and delivered His Gita.There (as mentioned), He reviews all Vedic practices and authoritatively reestablishes the final Vedic conclusion: “Abandon all varieties of ‘religion’ and just surrender to Me.”
Having accepted that instruction, we are eligible for Srimad-Bhagavatam—asthe prelude to that work indicates: “Completely rejecting all religious activities motivated by material desires, this Srimad- Bhagavatam propounds the highest truth, which is understandable by those devotees who are fully pure in heart” (1.1.2). Srimad-Bhagavatam is, therefore, “the mature fruit of the desire tree of the Vedas” (1.1.3).
Srimad means “beautiful,” “splendid,” or “illustrious,” and Bhagavatam means “coming from or relating to God.” This “Beautiful Book of God” is an encyclopedic compilation of the wondrous acts of God as He disported Himself on earth in multitudes of descents. Here God is revealed as a many-faceted hero without peer or rival, embarking again and again on astounding adventures. His pastimes—fully attesting to His inexhaustible inventiveness, His sheer exuberance—unfold before our wondering eyes breathtaking vistas of divinity at play. Having relished this ripe fruit of the Vedic tree of knowledge, one contracts the urge to fall before those barren-souled people who, in the aridity of their understanding, have lost all taste for God, and plead: “Read this beautiful book!
Please, read this beautiful, beautiful book!” Those comfortable with a more constricted idea of God might be startled by the sheer number and variety of God’s appearances. In an early chapter of the Bhagavatam, the saint Suta Gosvami, speaking before an audience of sages, lists twenty-two incarnations (both past and future) and remarks: “O brahmanas, the incarnations of the Lord are innumerable, like rivulets flowing from inexhaustible sources of water” (1.3.26). A later chapter (2.7), “Scheduled Incarnations with Specific Functions,” contains an even more exhaustive compendium. Srimad- Bhagavatam is largely devoted to detailed expositions of these incarnations, one after another, leading up to and preparing the reader for the ultimate narration, that of the pastimes of Krishna Himself.
So we encounter God in many forms. He descends, for example, as Matsya, the leviathan who saved the Vedas from the deluge even as He sported in the vast waters; as Varaha, the boar who lifted the fallen earth from the abyss and vanquished her violator in single combat; as the sage Narada, the eternally wandering space traveler who migrates from planet to planet throughout the universe preaching and singing the glories of the Lord; as Nrsimha, the prodigious man-lion who in an awesome epiphany of power succored His devotee, a boy of six, by slaying—spectacularly—his torturer, a God-hating interplanetary tyrant who was the boy’s own father; as Vamana, the beautiful dwarf who traversed the whole universe in three strides; as Parashurama, the axe-wielding scourge of kings who punished twenty-one generations of royalty for deviating from the principles of godly rule; as Lord Ramacandra, the exemplar of godly rule, perfect king and personification of morality in office; and as many other awesome and unforgettable personalities who appeared to teach, shelter, lead, and inspire humanity.
All this may be so amazing it commands incredulity. Yet consider: Isn’t God. by definition, the most amazing being of all? If so, our principle should be: the more amazing the report, the more open we should be to it. Why demand that God reduce Himself to fit the range of our pedestrian understanding? The more amazing He is, the more Godlike He is.
One can detect an unmistakable element of playfulness in many divine descents. and that may also cause misgivings. But that would be another case of unreasonably imposing restrictions on God. For God is playful: the Sanskrit term for divine activity is, in fact, lila—play. By His inconceivable power God seamlessly unites in His descents very serious purpose (to save humanity) with sheer sport. Thus, as Matsya, He frolics in the waves of the deluge; as Varaha He enjoys a good fight. In all de scents we see Him delighting in drawing out the possibilities of a particular role, a player in a play.
The idea of lila captures a defining element of divine activity: it is unmotivated. All human acts spring from motives, desire for what we lack or fear we will lack. But God already has everything. He has nothing to gain or anything to lose. What is there, then, to impel Him into action?
“Nothing,” say many speculators. And they conclude that God is static, inert. If this were true, God would indeed be impoverished! On the contrary, God is complete, and He acts precisely out of His completeness: He plays. Our notion of play partly conveys the right spirit: doing something for no reason other than the pure sport of it, for the joy of action for its own sake. So the divine lila: God acts out of sheer, unmotivated exuberance; His divine fullness continually overflows in spontaneous creative expression, the ceaseless transcendental play of the spirit.
Frederick Nietzsche, the philosopher who brought Christendom the news that “God is dead,” once remarked: “I would believe in a God who could dance.” If so, his atheism might be the understandable reaction to some crabbed Teutonic image of divinity—modeled, perhaps, on some dour bourgeoisie patriarch whose solemnity excludes dance. Had Nietzsche known Srimad-Bhagavatam, he might have spared himself and others much grief: for its pages wonderfully describe the transcendental dancing of God, the most beautiful and graceful of all dancers.
Why should God be limited in any way? It is covert envy of God to forbid Him what we ourselves possess and enjoy. He is our categorical superior and outshines us in every field: that is the very meaning of God. Therefore we should understand that whatever we see here—all activities, all relationships, all enjoyments—have their fulfilled perfection in God.
For God is the Absolute Truth, the one and only source of everything. Everything that exists is, so to speak, cloned from Him. Our fleeting world is a dim, washed-out reflection of His eternal world; our society, of His society; our relations, of His relations. We ourselves, being made in the divine image, are small samples of Him. Consequently, by studying ourselves and our world we can understand something about God and His world. We see, for instance, that people are endowed with the disposition to fight. Therefore, we can understand that the disposition exists in God. Similarly, we see in our world sexual attraction between males and females. That attraction, therefore, must also be resident in God. For God is complete, and, far from being less a person than we are, is vastly more fully personal.
Therefore He fights and He makes love, and the reason speculators want to deny these activities to Him is they think that His fighting and loving would be attended by the hate and lust that accompany ours. This is a mistake. God’s activities, like His name and His form, are not material. They are fully spiritual. Although there may be a family resemblance between God’s form and activities and our own, we should take care not to attribute to Him the defects and debilities of ours; there is a qualitative difference.
We need to understand that difference intelligently. Consider the attribute variety. As we have seen, Srimad-Bhagavatam discloses overwhelming variety in divinity. God exhibits, for example, a multitude of forms. Yet isn’t absolute unity an attribute of spirit? Isn’t God one? That is true, but unity or oneness that merely excludes or negates diversity is material, mundane oneness. We can see that such unity would be unworthy of God, for it would deprive Him of something of value. (And there is variety here; where does it come from if not from God?) Therefore God’s unity must be transcendent: it must include—not exclude—variety. Nor is His variety achieved at the expense of unity. That is the power of transcendence: to reconcile the one and the many in a higher synthesis. Although this spiritual unity may elude the comprehension of mundane intelligence, it is well within the ambit of the inscrutable power of God.
The principle of transcendent diversity-in-unity also helps us grasp the spiritual nature of God’s body. Although God descends in a form resembling ours, that form is eternal and spiritual—nondifferent, in fact, from God Himself. For God, there is no division—as there is for us—of soul and body. And God’s form is so transcendentally unified that each and every organ possesses in itself the functions of all the others. Though Krishna may be limbed, each limb is the whole person. (And because His form is spiritual, it remains eternally at the peak of youth.)
The same principle explains why God can appear in so many diverse forms and yet remain one and absolute. The pure devotee, by spiritual perception, can grasp this wholly, and He appreciates the unfathomable depth of God’s personhood through its multifaceted expression. The various personalities of the one Godhead are manifest in the context of different relationships. We see the same phenomenon at work in human personality. An individual man will show different facets of his personality in different contexts: as, say, a judge in black robes on the bench, as a host at a formal reception, as a husband relaxing alone with his wife, as a father romping with his children, as a son on a visit with his parents, as a teacher instructing his students, as a friend clowning with his companions, and so on.
So it is characteristic of persons to exhibit many facets, and the more “well-integrated” a person is, the greater the variety of roles and relations he can sustain without loss of integrity. The same principle applies, then, to the Supreme Person, but in His case personal integrity and variety of relations are both taken, as it were, to the limit.
For God enters into personal relationships with unlimited souls, all of whom are created and sustained by Him to that very end. To facilitate these relationships, He expands Himself in different forms, showing Himself to His pure devotees in various ways, in response to the ways in which they approach Him. All these transcendent forms are eternally manifest in God’s spiritual abode. And, from time to time, one or another of Them will descend to show Himself in the darkness of the material world, lighting the way back home.
The verdict of Srimad-Bhagavatam is that of all descents of God, Krishna is the topmost. Suta Gosvami, after concluding his survey of incarnations, declares. etc camsha- kalah pumsah krishnas tu bhagavan svayam: “All of the above-mentioned incarnations are either plenary portions or portions of the plenary portions of the Lord, but Lord Sri Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead.”
For this reason, the centerpiece of the Srimad- Bhagavatam is an extensive narration of Lord Krishna’s advent on earth. The whole of the Tenth Canto is devoted to this, and Srimad-Bhagavatam builds up to it by recounting many other divine descents, in this way introducing us further and further to God, and so preparing us for the ultimate disclosure in divinity.
This ultimate disclosure is conveyed in Krishna’s pastimes of childhood and youth in the cowherd village of Vrindavana. What would be a paradox to mundane eyes is clear to purified vision: that here in this little hamlet had descended to earth not only God in His most exalted manifestation, but the entire of His highest abode as well. For the Lord is inseparable from His devotees and His abode, and when Krishna descends, all descend with Him. Separate from these there is no manifest Krishna, and to reveal Himself, Krishna must necessarily reveal His intimate devotees, His relations with them, and the places of their activities together.
Our idea of the Supreme Godhead is usually bound up with notions of power and might and majesty—“It is He that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain …”—and rightly so. For all scripture calls us to acknowledge our subordination to Him. But when we have fully done so, we become eligible to receive God’s revelation of another, more sublime facet of Himself, in which He sets forth, unimpeded, a lure for feelings. This is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, who in Vrindavana enters intimate relationships of love so as to develop unheard-of intensities of feeling. For the appetite of the Supreme Lord for love is infinite: He is called Rasaraja, the master of feelings of love. In these confidential exchanges of love, some devotees love Him with parental emotions, and the Lord reciprocates by playing as a charming and mischievous child; other devotees adore Him with fraternal feeling, and the Lord sports with them, boy among boys, as their good-hearted companion and witty sidekick; and still others worship Krishna with the fervent ardor of conjugal love, and in response He courts and dailies with them as their enchanting suitor and the breaker of their hearts.
We recognize such feelings in the material world, of course, but in Vrindavana dwell the original and real spiritual emotions, as manifest in the transcendent kingdom of God through exchanges of love in spiritual bodies. Material relations and emotions cannot help us comprehend these transcendent feelings. For material loves are flickering, wavering, and fading; they are vitiated by hesitancy and doubt, and shot through with fear and dread. They are unwholesome, and time and change despoil them all. But the love directed toward Krishna never dies; His ever-new beauty and His eternal reciprocation draw out that love endlessly; its intensity increases without limit. All these immortal Vrindavana feelings, each with its own medley of moods, are varieties of ecstasy. They are transcendent superemotions, rendering our most cherished earthly feelings thin and dry and flat by comparison.
Krishna means “all-attractive,” and in fulfillment of His name He revealed Himself to incite us to revive our lost relation with Him and enter with Him into these eternal pastimes of love. In this way, He shows us what it fully means to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Yet most of us cannot perceive and directly experience the spiritual quality of these transcendent pastimes and feelings. They are revealed, they are made available, yet we do not apprehend them as they are. We might be looking at spirit, but we see only matter.
Here it becomes necessary to touch on a delicate point.
God reveals Himself to us as we surrender to Him. To surrender to God means to withdraw our interest and our desire from everything that is not God. Full surrender means to have God, and God alone, as our end and our means. We must devote to Him all our heart, soul, and mind. Such purity is required.
Of course, God also allows for partial surrender, in hopes of gradual advancement. In every religious tradition there is scripturally sanctioned material enjoyment—that is, involvement in things other than God. Since this materialism is restricted and regulated, it is, in that respect, good. But ultimately, it too must be given up: “Abandon all materially motivated religion and surrender unto Me.” To resist this request on the grounds that our materialism is scripturally sanctioned is to make the good the enemy of the best. We simply retard our progress on the spiritual path and remain more or less unaquainted with the Personality of Godhead.
That purity of heart needed to sec God may seem beyond our reach, but not so. For Krishna did truly reveal Himself: The same scripture that transmits that revelation to the world—Srimad-Bhagavatam—conveys at the same time the process to purify us so we can receive the revelation of Krishna. That process is the practice of devotional service centered on hearing the pure narration of the glorious pastimes of God. In other words, Srimad- Bhagavatam itself, when it is spoken by one who is pure, purifies us—“It cleanses desire for material enjoyment from the heart of the devotee” (1.3.17)—so that we ourselves can come to perceive Krishna as He is. Although Krishna descended five thousand years ago, He remains fully accessible to us in Srimad-Bhagavatam. The revelation awaits only us.
by Subhananda Dasa
An ancient text offers us a vision of the spiritual world--a vibrant, transcendentally variegated world of devotion to Krishna.
The article that follows is adapted from the Introduction to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust edition of Sri Brahma-samhita, a celebrated Vaishnava text. This important new publication is an expanded edition of the first English-language version of Brahma- samhita—published in India in 1932—featuring the translation and commentary of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Goswami (1874-1937). Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, a great Vaishnava saint and scholar, was the guru of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder and spiritual master of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.
The origins of the text known as Sri Brahma-samhita are lost in cosmic antiquity. According to Vedic tradition, these “Hymns of Brahma” were recited or sung countless millennia ago by the first created being in the universe, just prior to the act of creation. The text surfaced and entered calculable history early in the sixteenth century, when it was discovered by a pilgrim exploring the manuscript library of an ancient temple in what is now Kerala State in south India. Prior to the introduction of the printing press, texts like Brahma-samhita existed only in manuscript form, painstakingly handwritten by scribes and kept under brahminical custodianship in temples, where often they were worshiped as shastra - Deity, or God incarnate in holy scripture.
The pilgrim who rescued Sri Brahma-samhita from obscurity was no ordinary pilgrim, and His pilgrimage was meant not for self-purification, as is the custom, but for world-purification. He was Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu—saint, mystic, religious reformer, and full incarnation of the Supreme Lord. Sri Krishna, descending into the present epoch for the salvation of all souls.
At the time of His discovery of the text, Sri Chaitanya was touring south India, preaching His message of love of Krishna and promulgating the practice of sankirtana - congregational singing of the holy names of God. Sri Chaitanya commenced this tour shortly after becoming a monk (sannyasi), at age twenty-four, and the tour lasted approximately two years. After a southward journey from Puri (in Orissa State) to holy places such as Sri Ranga-kshetra, Setubandha, Rameshvaram, and finally Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), He turned northward and, traveling along the bank of the Payasvini River in Travancore State, reached the temple of Adi-keshava in Trivandrum District.
Sri Chaitanya’s principal biographer, Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, writes in Chaitanya-charitamrita (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya- lila, Ch. 9) that upon beholding the holy image of Adi-keshava (Krishna) in the temple, Sri Chaitanya swooned in spiritual ecstasy, offered fervent prayers, and chanted and danced in rapture, a wondrous sight that was beheld with astonished appreciation by the devotees present.
After discussing esoteric spiritual matters among some highly advanced devotees, Sri Chaitanya found “one chapter of the Brahma-samhita.” (What we now have as Brahma-samhita is, according to tradition, only one of a hundred chapters composing an epic work lost to humanity.) Upon discovering the manuscript, Sri Chaitanya felt great ecstasy and fell into an intense mystic rapture that overflowed onto the physical realm, producing a profusion of tears, trembling, and perspiration. (We would search the literature of the world in vain to find a case in which the discovery of a lost book inspired such unearthly exhilaration!) Intuiting the Sri Brahma samhita to be “a most valuable jewel,” Sri Chaitanya employed a scribe in hand copying the manuscript and departed with the copy for His return journey north.
Upon His return to Puri ( Madhya-lila, Ch. 11), Sri Chaitanya presented Brahma-samhita to appreciative followers like, Ramananda Raya and Vasudeva Datta, for whom Chaitanya arranged copies to be made. As word of the discovery of the text spread within the Vaishnava community, “each and every Vaishnava” copied it. Gradually, Brahma-samhita was “broadcast everywhere” and became one of the major texts of the Gaudiya-Vaishnava canon. “There is no scripture equal to the Brahma- samhita as far as the final spiritual conclusion is concerned,” exults Krishnadasa Kaviraja. “Indeed, that scripture is the supreme revelation of the glories of Lord Govinda, for it reveals the topmost knowledge about Him. Since all conclusions are briefly presented in Brahma- samhita, it is essential among all the Vaishnava literatures” ( Madhya-lila 9.239-240).
In spite of the seemingly topical complexity of the text, the essential core of the Brahma-samhita consists of a brief description of the enlightenment of Lord Brahma by Lord Sri Krishna followed by Brahma’s extraordinarily beautiful prayers elucidating the content of his revelation: an unearthly, beatific vision of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna, and His eternal, transcendental abode, Goloka Vrindavana, beyond the material cosmos. This core of the text stretches from verse twenty-nine through fifty-six, and a brief, subsequent exposition by Lord Krishna on the path of Krishna-bhakti, love of God, brings the text to a close.
The Brahma-samhita’s account of Lord Brahma’s enlightenment is quite interesting and can be summarized here. When Lord Garbhodakashayi Vishnu desires to recreate the universe, a divine golden lotus flower grows from his navel, and Brahma is born from the lotus. As he is not born from parents, Brahma is known as Svayambhu, “self-existent” or “unoriginated.” Upon his emergence from the lotus, Lord Brahma begins—in preparation for his role as secondary creator—to contemplate the act of cosmic creation but, seeing only darkness about, is bewildered in the performance of his duty. Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, appears before him and instructs him to meditate upon the kama-bija mantra, promising that this mantra “will assuredly fulfill your heart’s desire.”
Lord Brahma thus meditates upon Lord Krishna in His spiritual realm and hears the divine sound of Krishna’s flute. The kama-gayatri mantra, the “mother of the Vedas,” is made manifest from the sound of Krishna’s flute, and Brahma, thus initiated by the supreme primal preceptor Himself, begins to chant the Gayatri. As Srila Prabhupada puts it, “When the sound vibration of Krishna’s flute is expressed through the mouth of Brahma, it becomes gayatri” (Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, p. 322).
Enlightened by his meditation upon the holy Gayatri, Brahma “became acquainted with the expanse of the ocean of truth.” Inspired by his profound and sublime realizations, his heart overflowing with devotion and transcendental insight, Lord Brahma spontaneously begins to offer a series of poem—prayers to the source of his enlightenment and the object of his devotion, Lord Sri Krishna. These exquisite verses form the heart of Brahma- samhita.
There is nothing vague about Brahma’s description of the Lord and His abode. No dim, nihilistic nothingness, no blinding bright light, no wispy, dreamy visions of harps and clouds; rather, a vibrant, luminescent world in transcendental color, form, and sound—a sublimely variegated spiritual landscape populated by innumerable blissful, eternally liberated souls reveling in spiritual cognition, sensation, and emotion, all in relationship with the all-blissful, all- attractive Personality of Godhead. Here is a sample:
"I worship Govinda [Krishna], the primeval Lord, the first progenitor who is tending the cows, yielding all desire, in abodes built with spiritual gems, surrounded by millions of purpose trees, always served with great reverence and affection by hundreds of thousands of lakshmis or gopis.
I Worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept in playing on His flute, with blooming eyes like lotus petals, with head decked with peacock’s feather, with the figure of beauty tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and His unique loveliness charming millions of Cupids… .
I worship [Goloka Vrindavana] … where every tree is a transcendental purpose tree; where the soil is the purpose gem, all water is nectar, every word is a song, every gait is a dance, the flute is the favorite attendant, … where numberless milk cows always emit transcendental oceans of milk."
The commentator [Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati] reminds us that in the transcendental region of Goloka are found the same elements as are found in the mundane worlds, but in their highest purity and beauty: “trees and creepers, mountains, rivers and forests, water, movement, speech, music of the flute, the sun and the moon, tasted and taste …” Krishna’s divine abode, Goloka Vrindavana, is a world in the fullest and most real sense.
There are those who will have difficulty with Brahma’s highly graphic and personalistic depiction of the spiritual world and of the liberated state. Some, for instance, whose conception of transcendence is determined by a certain logical fallacy based on the arbitrary assumption that spirit is the literal opposite of matter (and thus that because matter has form and variety, spirit must necessarily be formless and unvariegated), conceive of ultimate reality as some sort of divine emptiness. However, any conception of transcendence that projects or analogizes from our limited sensory and cognitive experience within the material world is, by its very nature, limited and speculative and thus unreliable. No accumulated quantity of sense data within this world can bring us to knowledge of what lies beyond it. Residents of the material world cannot get even a clue of transcendence, argues our Brahma-samhita commentator, “by moving heaven and earth through their organic senses.”
The Brahma-samhita teaches that transcendence, truth, ultimate reality can be apprehended only by the mercy of the supreme transcendent entity, the Absolute Truth Himself, and that perception of ultimate reality is a function not of speculative reason but of direct spiritual cognition through divine revelation. This revelation is evolved through bhakti, pure, selfless love of God. Only by such spiritual devotion can Krishna be seen: “I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord … whom the pure devotees see in their heart of hearts with the eye of devotion tinged with the salve of love” (Brahma-samhita Bs. 38). Further, as our commentator explains, “the form of Krishna is visible [to the eye of the pure spiritual self] in proportion to its purification by the practice of devotion.”
Bhakti as a state of consciousness, then, is attained through bhakti as a practice, a discipline. For this reason, Lord Krishna, in His response to Brahma at the end of the text, summarizes the path of bhakti in five aphorisms. This devotional discipline goes beyond conventional piety. It necessitates “constant endeavor for self-realization” ( Bs. 59), involving both a turning from worldliness and sense gratification and an adherence to spiritual practices and behavior, under the guidance of authorized scripture. Through such practice, then, the materialist is soon purified of his tendency toward philosophical negation and comes to understand the nature of positive transcendence.
Others will find Lord Brahma’s vision of the spiritual realm problematic for a related, but perhaps more subjective, emotional reason that goes to the heart of the human condition. There is a kind of ontological anxiety, a conscious or subconscious apprehension about being-ness or existence itself, that goes along with embodied life in-the- world—that accompanies the soul’s descent into the temporal, endlessly changing world of matter. Material bodies and minds are subjected to a huge variety of objective and subjective discomfitures, unpleasantries, and abject sufferings. Viewed philosophically, embodied personhood, false- self (ahankara), is, to a greater or lesser degree, innately a condition of suffering.
Because personal existence has been experienced by materialists as essentially painful, writes Srila Prabhupada in his Bhagavad-gita commentary, “the conception of retaining the personality after liberation from matter frightens them. When they are informed that spiritual life is also individual and personal, they become afraid of becoming persons again, and so they naturally prefer a kind of merging into the impersonal void” ( Bg. 4.10, purport). Entering the path of bhakti, however, such persons can gradually begin to experience their real, spiritual selves and a release from egoistic anxiety. In that purified state, they become able to relish Brahma’s vision of blissful, personal spiritual existence in Goloka.
Still others, however, might criticize Brahma- samhita on the grounds that the text, being quite specific and concrete in its depiction, merely offers another limited, sectarian view of God and His abode—a view in conflict with other, similarly limited views. Such persons prefer a kind of genericized Deity who doesn’t offend variant theological views with definable, personal attributes. Brahma-samhita, however, is not a polemic against “competing” conceptions of the Deity (except those, of course, which would deny His transcendental personhood). Vaishnava tradition does not dismiss images of the Divine derived from authoritative scripture from beyond its own cultural and conceptual borders. It respects any sincere effort at serving the Supreme Person, although it holds its own texts as most comprehensive and authoritative. It promotes neither an arrogant sectarianism that would constrain transcendence to exclusive cultural, ideational, or linguistic forms (while burning a few heretics), nor a syncretistic ecumenism that would try to pacify all claimants on the truth by departicularizing it into bland vagary. Let the syncretists and the sectarians come together to appreciate, at least, the aesthetic magnificence of Lord Brahma’s theistic epiphany.
What we are experiencing through Lord Brahma in his samhita is not mystic hallucination or quaint mythologizing or an exercise in pious wishful thinking. We are getting a glimpse, however dimmed by our own insensitivities, into the spiritual world as seen by one whose eyes are “tinged with the salve of love.” We are seeing, through Brahma, an eternal, transcendental world, of which the present world is a mere reflection. Goloka is infinitely more real than the shadowy world we perceive daily through our narrow senses. Brahma’s vision of the spiritual realm is not his alone. It is shared by all those who give themselves fully unto the loving service of Lord Krishna—though Brahma admits that Goloka is known “only to a very few self-realized souls in this world” ( Bs. 56). We are asked not to accept Brahma’s account of transcendence uncritically and dogmatically but to avail ourselves of the spiritual discipline, bhakti-yoga, that will gradually lead us to our own experiential understanding of this highest truth.
In his commentary to the twenty-eighth verse of the Brahma-samhita Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati writes that Lord Chaitanya “taught this hymn to His favorite disciples inasmuch as it fully contains all the transcendental truths regarding Vaishnava philosophy,” and he asks his readers to “study and try to enter into the spirit of this hymn with great care and attention, as a regular daily function.” Srila Bhaktisiddhanta’s disciple Srila Prabhupada was very fond of Brahma’s prayers to Lord Krishna, and there are several recordings of Srila Prabhupada singing these prayers with intense devotion. We therefore invite readers to dive deeply into the sweet, transcendental ocean of Brahma’s hymns as a daily meditation.