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World religion(s)

Religion Versus Faith

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine, #35-02, 2001

In 1969, just a few years after Srila Prabhupada started his movement in the West, he prepared a test for his disciples. Those who passed the test would receive a Bhakti Sastri degree, signifying their understanding of the basic philosophy of Krishna consciousness.

I came across the test recently and was surprised to find that eight of its fifteen questions deal with the same point: How to distinguish between religion and faith. Srila Prabhupada obviously felt this was an extremely important point.

Prabhupada taught that Krishna consciousness—God consciousness—is different from what is generally called "religion." Taking up the practices of Krishna consciousness is not the same as converting from one religion to another. Hare Krishna devotees never say they converted from Christianity, Judaism, or some other faith. Prabhupada came not to make converts to Hinduism, he would say, but to give genuine spiritual knowledge.

Because Krishna consciousness is the eternal function of the soul, it can’t be changed, as we might change our beliefs from one religion to another. We are all spiritual beings, by nature servants of God. To be Krishna consciousness is to understand our true nature and act accordingly. It’s that simple.

Our Krishna consciousness is already there; we simply have to awaken it. We can’t remove Krishna consciousness from our very being any more than we can stop breathing, or any more than we can remove sweetness from sugar or liquidity from water.

The Sanskrit word dharma is sometimes translated as “religion,” but dharma actually means “essential characteristic.” The dharma of fire is heat; the dharma of the soul is service to God.

Service is inescapable because it’s intrinsic to the soul. We try to avoid service to God, but we’re forced to serve Him indirectly through our subordination to His material energy. We might declare that we can live without serving others, but we must at least admit that we’re unwilling servants of time, moving us unimpeded toward death.

Krishna consciousness can rightly be called a science. Students of Krishna consciousness are studying truth, or the nature of reality. The soul’s eternal function of service is a reality that shines forth whether we call ourselves Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or atheist.

Religious traditions are meant to awaken us to the one true religion: service to God. Srimad-Bhagavatam says that the best religion brings us to pure, uninterrupted, unmotivated loving service to God. It doesn’t say that the best religion is Hinduism, a word absent from the Vedic scriptures. The religion promoted by the Vedas is called sanatana-dharma, the eternal occupation of the soul.

The strife between adherents of various religions will end when everyone understands this non-sectarian, scientific definition of religion. Srila Prabhupada wrote dozens of books to enlighten people about this principle. Those books are available all over the world to anyone eager to rise above temporary religious designations and move on to eternal, universal truths.

The Strategy of Atheism

Complexity: 
Easy


A Vedic perspective on the popular allure of Buddhism.

Buddhism has at times attracted a measure of interest from a small number of Americans. In the last century Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Some will have bad thoughts of me, when they hear their Christ named beside my Buddha.” And in the middle of this century, writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Alan Watts showed a regard for Buddhism that made it part of the sixties counterculture.

But scroll to the 1990s and forget the counterculture. Buddhism is riding a wave in the American mainstream. Two recent Hollywood movies recount the story of the Dalai Lama; Buddhist motifs and Buddhist-inspired rock lyrics appear in television sitcoms; Buddhist musings grace the labels of bottled fruit-teas. Nor is this merely a pop culture craze. There are nearly 100,000 American-born Buddhists, and the number of English-language Buddhist teaching centers has doubled in the past ten years to over a thousand. On the Internet you can browse thousands of pages of Tibetan Buddhist writings.

Some attribute this expanded interest to Buddhism’s emphasis on qualities like nonviolence, humility, and simplicity in a world growing daily more violent and complex. Others say the nontheistic approach to religion is also key, as the Buddha said there was no Creator, no Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu. The Vedic literature confirms that both these features of Buddhism are important aspects of its allure, and they say more as well, providing a confidential account of the Buddha’s identity and of the rationale behind Buddhism’s singular teachings.

The Vedas explain that Buddha is an incarnation of God who appears in the Age of Kali, or Kali-yuga, the most materialistic of the four earthly ages that rotate like the four seasons. We are now five thousand years into the current Kali-yuga, which lasts another 427,000 years, and Lord Buddha appeared about 2,500 years ago. He has appeared in other Kali- yugas also, His mission always the enlightenment of especially materialistic and atheistic people.

In one Kali-yuga, in an appearance, or incarnation, recorded in the second canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7.37), Lord Buddha countered atheistic scientists who had taken advantage of technical portions of the vast Vedic scriptures to construct weapons of mass destruction, a situation with striking parallels to our own Kali-yuga arms race. Lord Buddha captured the attention of that atheistic culture by speaking extensively on upadharma, or subreligious principles.

In fact, the teachings of Lord Buddha, commonly known as the Buddhist Dharma, are more exactly the Buddhist Upadharma. Lord Buddha avoids speaking of dharma in the sense of primary religious principles, since those principles are meant for directly understanding and surrendering to the Supreme Lord. Atheists or materialists cannot by their nature understand or surrender to God directly, but they can sometimes appreciate godly qualities like humility, pridelessness, nonviolence, tolerance, and simplicity, important qualities for religious persons. Lord Buddha, concealing His identity as God, focuses on these godly qualities, or principles of upadharma, to bring people gradually closer to qualifying for direct knowledge of the Supreme Person.

God’s Freedom

Although appearing within the material universes as Lord Buddha and innumerable other incarnations, the Supreme Person is not bound by material laws. Just as a governor visits the state prison, coming and going as he likes, God comes and goes within the material world, where we, His eternal individual parts, suffer in the prison of samsara,the cycle of repeated birth and death. Prisoners who take advantage of the Lord’s appearance to reawaken their relationship with Him in loving service become free of samsara,like state prisoners who by proper behavior are released by the governor.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says that He appears in the samsara prison to deliver His devotees and annihilate nonbelievers who harass the world with their mischief. In the Kali-yuga, however, when mischief-makers are in the majority, Lord Buddha devises a way to deliver them too.

When Lord Buddha appeared 2,500 years ago, atheists were again causing trouble, again by misusing the Vedic literature, this time to legitimize indiscriminate slaughter of animals. Animal slaughter is the way of subhumans and is almost completely forbidden in Vedic culture. The Vedic scriptures make very limited exceptions for those materialists who absolutely cannot resist eating flesh. But in Lord Buddha’s time those narrow exceptions were taken as the rule, as authorization for widespread animal killing. The poet Jayadeva Gosvami explains in his Dasha Avatara verses describing ten principal incarnations of God that Lord Buddha, feeling compassion for the poor animals, rejected the Vedic literature. By defying all the Vedic texts and advocating ahimsa, or nonviolence, He pulled the rug on scripture-thumping meat-eaters.

We might glimpse how Buddhist ahimsa appealed to people 2,500 years ago by weighing its appeal in our own violent times. Helen Tworkov, editor of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, points out that people coming of age during the Vietnam war explored Buddhism in response to the war’s savagery and to the calm protests of Vietnamese Buddhist priests. Nonviolence also plays a role in the popularity of the two recent films about the Dalai Lama. In one, Seven Years in Tibet, workers refuse to dig a foundation because they don’t want to kill any worms. Martin Scorsese, director of Kundun, the second film, says, “Anything infused in our world today about nonviolence can only help.”

Amid the violent animal slaughter of Lord Buddha’s time ahimsa must have attracted many people in a similar way, since animal slaughter has never been the norm on the Indian subcontinent. The current interest in Buddhist ahimsa would be true to Lord Buddha’s desire if it spurred refusal to take part in the culture of meat-eating. That might require our own rejection of scriptural license, or at least a radical sacrifice of almost sacred personal habits.

In rejecting the Vedas, Lord Buddha Himself adopted an apparently radical strategy for an incarnation of God, since God is the author of the Vedic literature, and either the author or the immediate inspiration for all world scriptures. The Upanishads say that the Vedas come from the breathing of the Personality of Godhead, and here was Lord Buddha using His breath to negate them. Of course, even an ordinary author can do as he likes with his own books, and the tactic served to remove the Vedas from the arsenal of destructive, materialistic people. As Lord Krishna says in the fifteenth chapter of the Bhagavad- gita, the purpose of the Vedas is to know Him.

The Vedas, in other words, are the source of the highest dharma, and yet in both the Buddha incarnations of which we have information, the Vedas were in the hands of people completely ignorant not only of dharma but of upadharma as well. Both times the Lord preached to people who did not understand the value even of nonviolence, what to speak of service to the Supreme Person, but who nevertheless used the Lord’s books to promote subhuman behavior.

Lord Buddha’s strategy is like that of a parent coaxing a toddler to give up a hundred-dollar bill the child has found. “That’s just a dirty old scrap of paper,” the parent tells the child. “Here, this candy bar is more valuable.” It’s a boldfaced lie, but any parent might tell it, because it’s for the benefit of the child, who can later learn to use money intelligently.

Denying God

In addition to defying the Vedas, Lord Buddha denied the existence of God, another radical move calculated to secure Him the devotion of His atheistic audiences. With their minds emptied of scriptural misconceptions and fear of a supreme authority, Lord Buddha’s followers were ready to give their full attention to His teachings, summed up in the Four Noble Truths: existence is full of suffering; suffering is traceable to desire; desire can be transcended, leading to nirvana, or cessation of material existence; and the means to transcendence is the Eightfold Path of proper views, action, resolve, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. These truths, though spoken by the Supreme Himself as Lord Buddha and though clearly derived from His Vedic literature, were expertly presented without citing scripture or mentioning God.

Absence of a supreme authority figure is another current selling point for Buddhism. Writer Alan Watts once stated rather harshly that Buddhism helped him “get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father.” Other believers also maintain that Buddhism enables them to follow a spiritual path without the hellfire and brimstone or the guilt for alleged sins judged by an Almighty. Lord Buddha’s expertise, however, was that while denying God, the lawmaker, He inculcated within his followers a respect for His laws of karma and reincarnation. In the book Buddhism Without Beliefs, former Buddhist monk Stephen Batchelor recommends that Buddhism throw out karma and reincarnation to produce a “liberating agnosticism.” This may seem like a logical progression: throw out scripture, throw out God, then throw out karma and reincarnation. But that isn’t what Lord Buddha taught, nor is it liberating.

Lord Buddha gave his followers knowledge of samsara,the cycle of birth and death, and of karma, the universal law of action and reaction, because those ignorant of these features of material nature have no context in which to grasp the Four Truths and no impetus to follow the Eightfold Path. The First Noble Truth is that our suffering occurs within the painful cycle of repeated birth, death, old age, and disease; the Second Noble Truth is that as long as we have desires to gratify our material bodies we do things that get us a reaction in this cycle. If we kill or eat innocent animals, then by our individual karma we take birth as animals and are killed, and by our collective karma we are forced to herd our innocent children off to war every few years. If we employ weapons of mass destruction on civilians, we suffer massively, life after life. When Lord Buddha stops animal killing or an arms race, He therefore liberates from slaughter not only the victims of those crimes but their perpetrators as well.

With an enlightened perspective on his current and impending suffering, the atheist has impetus to advance to the third and fourth Noble Truths, transcending the desires at the root of his entanglement in samsara by attention to the Eightfold Path of proper views, speech, action, livelihood, and so on. This is commendable for atheists, who are not normally concerned with proper anything. The Gita explains: “Neither cleanliness nor proper behavior nor truth is found in them. They say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is produced of sex desire and has no cause other than lust.” People without God and scripture are prone to see life solely as an opportunity for sex enjoyment without reference to religious or moral codes. If everything is a phantasmagoria of matter, why restrict the targets of my lust? This is your standard liberating agnosticism.

“Following such conclusions,” the Gita continues, “the atheists, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.” Unbeneficial works like butchering animals and nuking civilians.

It is a testimony to Lord Buddha’s supreme intelligence and mercy that He created in such persons a mindfulness of propriety. When people behave properly by following principles of the Buddhist Upadharma, they produce a peaceful atmosphere in human society and earn for themselves happy and prosperous future births in the cycle of samsara.The Gita states that good, moral behavior elevates one to positions of heavenly opulence (urdhvam gacchanti sattva- stha) or to birth in wealthy and pious families (prapya punya-kritam lokan), quite a step up from births as animals bound for the slaughterhouse or births in other, even less appealing locales.

While proper behavior does not alone lead to freedom from desire or to nirvana, the end of material existence, it does place the individual soul imprisoned in samsara on a platform with opportunities for further advancement in spiritual life. In an ordinary prison good behavior might win us parole. In the prison of samsara it earns the individual soul a very nice cell.

The Soul’s Desire

The Vedas say that the individual soul is eternal and cannot be desireless in either the imprisoned or liberated condition. As individual parts of God, we either desire power, up to the level of nuclear power, for our own sense gratification, or we desire to serve the transcendental senses of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As the governor of the material prison, God appears in unending incarnations to accept our service and take us back to the deathless spiritual world, back to Godhead. Persons who desire only to please the Supreme Person are actually desireless because they have given up the material desires and the concomitant behavior, either “proper” or “unbeneficial,” which keeps them in the prison of repeated birth and death. Nirvana, the cessation of material existence, is a by-product of the desire to please the Supreme.

Lord Buddha said none of this to His atheistic followers. He had already indulged them by denying the existence of God, so He taught them that the object of meditation was not service to the Lord but shunyata, emptiness. Sunya means “zero” or “void.” Like atheism, voidism is a predisposition of grossly materialistic people, people like the scientists in the Kali- yugas of our two Buddha incarnations. Science in the current Kali-yuga teaches that life comes from a combination of material elements within the body and that when the body falls apart we cease to exist; we are void. With the Buddhist knowledge of karma andsamsara,the concept goes a step further: we continue to exist as individuals within the cycle of birth and death until we overcome material desire. Then void.

It is true that everything material comes to nothing and that meditation on the impermanence of the material world may help us quell our desires for the fleeting manifestations of home, family, country, fame, and fortune. In the Kundun movie a character muses: “My enemies will be nothing. My friends will be nothing. All will be nothing.” In the material world what we hate and what we love will disappear in due course. But since we are eternal, the question that remains is what to do with our meditation once we have withdrawn it from the objects of our material desire and loathing. For those who have followed the Eightfold Path of proper action Krishna answers: “Persons who have acted piously in previous lives and in this life and whose unbeneficial works are completely eradicated are freed from the duality of desire and hate, and they engage themselves in My service with determination.” (Bg. 7.28) “For those whose minds are fixed upon Me, O son of Pritha, I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.” (Bg. 12.7)

Void meditation may suffice while we practice the Eightfold Path of proper behavior and rid ourselves of the horrible works that drown us in the darker regions of samsara.After that, from a position of detachment and relative freedom from suffering we are set to make further advancement. “At the ultimate stage,” Srila Prabhupada says of the Buddhist path, “one has to accept the Lord and become His devotee; otherwise there is no religion. In religious principles there must be God in the center; otherwise simple moral instructions are merely subreligious principles, generally known as upadharma, or nearness to religious principles.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.7.37, purport)

Proper behavior short of loving devotion to God keeps us in the cycle of birth and death. But faithful practitioners of the Eightfold Path are in a fortunate position. For deliverance from the ocean of birth and death they have only to turn their meditation from the void to the astounding humility, nonviolence, and mercy of their teacher, Lord Buddha, the Supreme Person and well-wisher of the atheists.

The “Secular State”

Complexity: 
Easy

This conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and India’s ambassador to Sweden took place in Stockholm, in the fall of 1973.

Srila Prabhupada: In America and India and so many countries all over the world, they have a “secular state.” The government leaders say they don’t want to favor any particular religion, but actually they are favoring irreligion.

Ambassador: Well, we have a problem, We have a multi-religious society, so we people in government have to be careful . We can’t take too strong a position on religion.

Srila Prabhupada: No, no. The government must take a strong position. Of course, the government should be neutral to all forms of bona fide religion. But it also has a duty to see that the people are genuinely religious. Not that in the name of a “secular state,” the government should let the people go to hell.

Ambassador: Well, that’s true.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, if you are a Muslim, then it is the duty of the government to see that you are really acting as a Muslim. If you are a Hindu, it is the government’s duty to see that you are acting as a Hindu. If you are Christian, it is the government’s duty to see that you are acting as a Christian. The government cannot give up religion. Dharmena hina pashubhih saman: if people become irreligious, then they are simply animals. So it is the government’s duty to see that the citizens are not becoming animals. The people may profess different forms of religion. That doesn’t matter. But they must be religious. “Secular state” doesn’t mean that the government should be callous—“Let the people become cats and dogs, without religion.” If the government doesn’t care, then it isn’t a good government.

Ambassador: I think there’s a lot in what you say. But, you know, politics is the art of the possible.

Srila Prabhupada: No. Politics means seeing that the people become advanced, that the citizens become spiritually advanced. Not that they become degraded.

Ambassador: Yes, I agree. But I think the primary duty of the government is to provide the conditions in which gifted people, spiritual leaders like you, can function. If the government does any more than that, it might even corrupt the various religious groups. I think government should be like an umpire in a game—provide the conditions, provide the conditions for free speech.

Srila Prabhupada: No. Government must do more than that. For instance, you have a commerce department—the government sees that the trade and industrial enterprises are doing nicely, properly. The government issues licenses. They have supervisors and inspectors. Or, for instance, you have an educational department—educational inspectors who see that the students are being properly educated. Similarly, the government should have expert men who can check to see that the Hindus are really acting like Hindus, the Muslims are acting like Muslims, and the Christians are acting like Christians. The government should not be callous about religion. They may be neutral. “Whatever religion you profess, we have nothing to do with that.” But it is the government’s duty to see that you are doing nicely—that you are not bluffing.

Ambassador: Surely … as far as moral conduct is concerned. But more than that, how is it possible, you know?

Srila Prabhupada: The thing is, unless you are actually following religious principles, you cannot possibly have good moral conduct.

yasyasti bhaktir bhagavaty akincana
sarvair gunais tatra samasate surah
harav abhaktasya kuto mahad-guna
manorathenasati dhavato bahih

“One who has unflinching devotion to God consistently manifests all godly qualities. But one who has no such devotion always must be concocting schemes for exploiting the Lord’s material, external energy—and so he can have no good moral qualities whatsoever.” [Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.18.12]

As long as you have faith in God, devotion to God, everything is all right. After all, God is one. God is neither Hindu nor Christian nor Muslim. God is one. And that is why the Vedic literatures tell us,

sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokshaje
ahaituky apratihata
yayatma suprasidati

“The supreme duty for all humanity is to achieve loving devotional service to the Supreme Lord. Only such devotional service—unmotivated and uninterrupted—can completely satisfy the self.” [Bhag. 1.2.6]So one must be religious. Without being religious, no one can be satisfied. Why is there so much confusion and dissatisfaction all over the world? Because people have become irreligious.

Ambassador: In Moscow, so many people are hostile to religion, completely against it.

Srila Prabhupada: Why do you say Moscow? Everywhere. At least in Moscow they are honest. They honestly say, “We don’t believe in God.”

Ambassador: That’s true. That’s true.

Srila Prabhupada: But in other places they say, “I am Hindu,” “I am Muslim,” “I am Christian … .. I believe in God.” And still they don’t know anything about religion. They don’t follow God’s laws.

Ambassador: I’m afraid most of us are like that. That’s true.

Srila Prabhupada: [Laughs.] I should say that in Moscow at least they are gentlemen. They cannot understand religion, so they say, “We don’t believe.” But these other rascals say, “Yes, we’re religious. In God we trust.” And yet they are committing the most irreligious acts. Many times I have asked Christians, “Your Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Why are you killing” They cannot give any satisfactory answer. It is clearly said, “Thou shalt not kill”—and they are maintaining slaughterhouses. What is this?

Krishna or Christ The Name Is the Same

Complexity: 
Easy

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and several of his disciples were joined by Father Emmanuel Jungclaussen, a Benedictine monk from Niederalteich Monastery. Noticing that Srila Prabhupada was carrying meditation beads similar to the Catholic rosary, Father Emmanuel explained that he also chanted a constant prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, be merciful unto us.” The following conversation ensued.

Srila Prabhupada: What is the meaning of the word Christ?

Father Emmanuel: Christ comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning “the anointed one.”

Srila Prabhupada: Christos is the Greek version of the word Krishna.

Father Emmanuel: This is very interesting.

Srila Prabhupada: When an Indian person calls on Krishna, he often says, “Krsta.” Krsta is a Sanskrit word meaning “attraction.” So when we address God as “Christ,” “Krsta,” or “Krishna,” we indicate the same all-attractive Supreme Personality of Godhead. When Jesus said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, sanctified be Thy name,” that name of God was Krsta or Krishna. Do you agree?

Father Emmanuel: I think Jesus, as the Son of God, has revealed to us the actual name of God: Christ. We can call God “Father,” but if we want to address Him by His actual name, we have to say “Christ.”

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. “Christ” is another way of saying Krishta, and “Krishta” is another way of pronouncing Krishna, the name of God. Jesus said that one should glorify the name of God, but yesterday I heard one theologian say that God has no name—that we can call him only “Father.” A son may call his father “Father,” but the father also has a specific name. Similarly, God is the general name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, whose specific name is Krishna. Therefore whether you call God “Christ,” “Krishta,” or “Krishna,” ultimately you are addressing the same Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Father Emmanuel: Yes, if we speak of God’s actual name, then we must say, “Christos.” In our religion, we have the Trinity: the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. We believe we can know the name of God only by revelation from the Son of God. Jesus Christ revealed the name of the father, and therefore we take the name Christ as the revealed name of God.

Srila Prabhupada: Actually, it doesn’t matter—Krishna or Christ—the name is the same. The main point is to follow the injunctions of the Vedic scriptures that recommend chanting the name of God in this age. The easiest way is to chant the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Rama and Krishna are names of God, and Hare is the energy of God. So when we chant the maha-mantra, we address God together with His energy. This energy is of two kinds, the spiritual and the material. At present we are in the clutches of the material energy. Therefore we pray to Krishna that He may kindly deliver us from the service of the material energy and accept us into the service of the spiritual energy. That is our whole philosophy. Hare Krishna means, “O energy of God, O God (Krishna), please engage me in Your service.” It is our nature to render service. Somehow or other we have come to the service of material things, but when this service is transformed into the service of the spiritual energy, then our life is perfect. To practice bhakti-yoga [loving service to God] means to become free from designations like Hindu, Muslim, Christian, this or that, and simply to serve God. We have created Christian, Hindu, and Mohammedan religions, but when we come to a religion without designations, in which we don’t think we are Hindus or Christians or Mohammedans, then we can speak of pure religion, or bhakti.

Father Emmanuel: Mukti? [liberation from material consciousness]

Srila Prabhupada: No, bhakti. When we speak of bhakti, mukti is included. Without bhakti there is no mukti,but if we act on the platform of bhakti, then mukti is included. We learn this from the Bhagavad-gita (14.26)

mam ca yo ’vyabhicarena
bhakti-yogena sevate
sa gunan samatityaitan
brahma-bhuyaya kalpate

“One who engages in full devotional service, who does not fall down under any circumstance, at once transcends the modes of material nature and thus comes to the level of Brahman.”

Father Emmanuel: Is Brahman Krishna?

Srila Prabhupada: Krishna is Parabrahman. Brahman is realized in three aspects: as impersonal Brahman, as localized Paramatma, and as personal Brahman. Krishna is personal, and He is the Supreme Brahman, for God is ultimately a person. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.11), this is confirmed:

vadanti tat tattva-vidas
tattvam yaj jnanam advayam
brahmeti paramatmeti
bhagavan iti shabdyate

“Learned transcendentalists, who know the Absolute Truth, call this non-dual substance Brahman, Paramatma, or Bhagavan.” The feature of the Supreme Personality is the ultimate realization of God. He has all six opulences in full: He is the strongest, the richest, the most beautiful, the most famous, the wisest, and the most renounced.

Father Emmanuel: Yes, I agree.

Srila Prabhupada: Because God is absolute, His name, His form, and His qualities are also absolute, and they are non-different from Him. Therefore to chant God’s holy name means to associate directly with Him. When one associates with God, one acquires godly qualities, and when one is completely purified, one becomes an associate of the Supreme Lord.

Father Emmanuel: But our understanding of the name of God is limited.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, we are limited, but God is unlimited. And because He is unlimited, or absolute, He has unlimited names, each of which is God. We can understand His names as much as our spiritual understanding is developed.

Father Emmanuel: May I ask a question? We Christians also preach love of God, and we try to realize love of God and render service to Him with all our heart and all our soul. Now, what is the difference between your movement and ours? Why do you send your disciples to the Western countries to preach love of God when the gospel of Jesus Christ is propounding the same message?

Srila Prabhupada: The problem is that the Christians do not follow the commandments of God. Do you agree?

Father Emmanuel: Yes, to a large extent you’re right.

Srila Prabhupada: Then what is the meaning of the Christians’ love for God? If you do not follow the orders of God, then where is your love? Therefore we have come to teach what it means to love God: If you love Him, you cannot be disobedient to His orders. And if you’re disobedient, your love is not true.

All over the world people do not love God, but their dogs. The Krishna consciousness movement is therefore necessary to teach people how to revive their forgotten love for God. Not only the Christians, but also the Hindus, the Mohammedans, and all others are guilty. They have rubber-stamped themselves as Christian, Hindu, or Mohammedan, but they do not obey God. That is the problem.

Visitor: Can you say in what way the Christians are disobedient?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. The first point is that they violate the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” by maintaining slaughterhouses. Do you agree that this commandment is being violated?

Father Emmanuel: Personally, I agree.

Srila Prabhupada: Good. So if the Christians want to love God, they must stop killing animals.

Father Emmanuel: But isn’t the most important point…

Srila Prabhupada: If you miss one point, there is a mistake in your calculation. Regardless of what you add or subtract after that, the mistake is already in the calculation, and everything that follows will also be faulty. We cannot simply accept that part of the scripture we like, and reject what we don’t like, and still expect to get the result. For example, a hen lays eggs with its back part and eats with its beak. A farmer may consider, “The front part of the hen is very expensive because I have to feed it. Better to cut it off.” But if the head is missing there will be no eggs anymore because the body is dead. Similarly, if we reject the difficult part of the scriptures and obey the part we like, such an interpretation will not help us. We have to accept all the injunctions of the scripture as they are given, not only those that suit us. If you do not follow the first order, “Thou shalt not kill,” then where is the question of love of God?

Visitor: Christians take this commandment to be applicable to human beings, not to animals.

Srila Prabhupada: That would mean that Christ was not intelligent enough to use the right word: murder. There is killing, and there is murder. Murder refers to human beings. Do you think Jesus was not intelligent enough to use the right word—murder—instead of the word killing? Killing means any kind of killing, and especially animal killing. If Jesus had meant simply the killing of humans, he would have used the word murder.

Father Emmanuel: But in the Old Testament the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does refer to murder. And when Jesus said, “Thou shalt not kill,” he extended this commandment to mean that a human being should not only refrain from killing another human being, but should also treat him with love. He never spoke about man’s relationship with other living entities but only about his relationship with other human beings. When he said, “Thou shalt not kill,” he also meant in the mental and emotional sense—that you should not insult anyone or hurt him, treat him badly, and so on.

Srila Prabhupada: We are not concerned with this or that testament but only with the words used in the commandments. If you want to interpret these words, that is something else. We understand the direct meaning. “Thou shalt not kill” means, “The Christians should not kill.” You may put forth interpretations in order to continue the present way of action, but we understand very clearly that there is no need for interpretation. Interpretation is necessary if things are not clear. But here the meaning is clear. “Thou shalt not kill” is a clear instruction. Why should we interpret it?

Father Emmanuel: Isn’t the eating of plants also killing?

Srila Prabhupada: The Vaishnava philosophy teaches that we should not even kill plants unnecessarily. In the Bhagavad-gita (9.26) Krishna says:

patram pushpam phalam toyam
yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahritam
ashnami prayatatmanah

“If someone offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or a little water, I will accept it.” We offer Krishna only the kind of food He demands, and then we eat the remnants. If offering vegetarian food to Krishna were sinful, then it would be Krishna’s sin, not ours. But God is apapa-vijna—sinful reactions are not applicable to Him. He is like the sun, which is so powerful that it can purify even urine—something impossible for us to do. Krishna is also like a king, who may order a murderer to be hanged, but who himself is not subjected to punishment because he is very powerful. Eating food first offered to the Lord is also something like a soldier’s killing during wartime. In a war, when the commander orders a man to attack, the obedient soldier who kills the enemy will get a medal. But if the same soldier kills someone on his own, he will be punished. Similarly, when we eat only prasada [the remnants of food offered to Krishna], we do not commit any sin. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita (3.13):

yajna-shishtashinah santo
mucyante sarva-kilbishaih
bhunjate te tv agham papa
ya pacanty atma-karanat

“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food that is first offered for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.”

Father Emmanuel: Krishna cannot give permission to eat animals?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes—in the animal kingdom. But the civilized human being, the religious human being, is not meant to kill and eat animals. If you stop killing animals and chant the holy name Christ, everything will be perfect. I have not come to teach you, but only to request you to please chant the name of God. The Bible also demands this of you. So let’s kindly cooperate and chant, and if you have a prejudice against chanting the name Krishna, then chant “Christo” or “Krishna”—there is no difference. Sri Chaitanya said: namnam akari bahu-dha nija-sarva-shaktis. “God has millions and millions of names, and because there is no difference between God’s name and Himself, each one of these names has the same potency as God.” Therefore, even if you accept designations like Hindu, Christian, or Mohammedan, if you simply chant the name of God found in your own scriptures, you will attain the spiritual platform. Human life is meant for self-realization—to learn how to love God. That is the actual beauty of man. Whether you discharge this duty as a Hindu, a Christian, or a Mohammedan, it doesn’t matter—but discharge it!

Father Emmanuel: I agree.

Srila Prabhupada: [pointing to a string of 108 meditation beads] We always have these beads, just as you have your rosary. You are chanting, but why don’t the other Christians also chant? Why should they miss this opportunity as human beings? Cats and dogs cannot chant, but we can because we have a human tongue. If we chant the holy names of God, we cannot lose anything; on the contrary, we gain greatly. My disciples practice chanting Hare Krishna constantly. They could also go to the cinema, or do so many other things, but they have given everything up. They eat neither fish nor meat nor eggs, they don’t take intoxicants, they don’t drink, they don’t smoke, they don’t partake in gambling, they don’t speculate, and they don’t maintain illicit sexual connections. But they do chant the holy name of God. If you would like to cooperate with us, then go to the churches and chant, “Christ,” “Krishta,” or “Krishna.” What could be the objection?

Father Emmanuel: There is none. For my part, I would be glad to join you.

Srila Prabhupada: No, we are speaking with you as a representative of the Christian church. Instead of keeping the churches closed, why not give them to us? We would chant the holy name of God there twenty-four hours a day. In many places we have bought churches that were practically closed because no one was going there. In London I saw hundreds of churches that were closed or used for mundane purposes. We bought one such church in Los Angeles. It was sold because no one came there, but if you visit this same church today, you will see thousands of people. Any intelligent person can understand what God is in five minutes; it doesn’t require five hours.

Father Emmanuel: I understand.

Srila Prabhupada: But the people do not. Their disease is that they don’t want to understand.

Visitor: I think understanding God is not a question of intelligence, but a question of humility.

Srila Prabhupada: Humility means intelligence. “The humble and meek own the kingdom of God.” This is stated in the Bible, is it not? But the philosophy of the rascals is that everyone is God, and today this idea has become popular. Therefore no one is humble and meek. If everyone thinks that he is God, why should he be humble and meek? Therefore I teach my disciples how to become humble and meek. They always offer their respectful obeisances in the temple and to the spiritual master, and in this way they make advancement. The qualities of humbleness and meekness lead very quickly to spiritual realization. In the Vedic scriptures it is said, “To those who have firm faith in God and the spiritual master, who is His representative, the meaning of the Vedic scriptures is revealed.”

Father Emmanuel: But shouldn’t this humility be offered to everyone else, also?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, but there are two kinds of respect: special and ordinary. Sri Krishna Chaitanya taught that we shouldn’t expect honor for ourselves, but should always respect everyone else, even if he is disrespectful to us. But special respect should be given to God and His pure devotee.

Father Emmanuel: Yes, I agree.

Srila Prabhupada: I think the Christian priests should cooperate with the Krishna consciousness movement. They should chant the name Christ or Christos and should stop condoning the slaughter of animals. This program follows the teachings of the Bible; it is not my philosophy. Please act accordingly and you will see how the world situation will change.

Father Emmanuel: I thank you very much.

Srila Prabhupada: Hare Krishna!

How I Was Saved From Being “Saved”

Complexity: 
Medium


Each of the last few years before he retired, an elderly Professor of Missions used to invite me to address his class at the Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, near Philadelphia. The professor, who had spent a goodly portion of his life seeking converts in Bengal, had the best manners I had ever encountered in another American. He would meet me at my car and escort me through the seminary. In the lobby, we would inevitably pause before a display of artifacts he and others had brought back from India; and with a bemused smile he would draw my attention to the prize exhibit: a worn gray plank, about two feet by five, bristling with rusty iron spikes—your standard Hindu bed of nails. He conveyed by this act a courteous imputation, demurely indicting my religion with this instrument of self-torture. Although he knew after my first visit that the contrivance had as little to do with my devotions as it did with his own, he never failed to linger before it as we went in.

I am sure this little maneuver was intended to divert both of us from the larger irony he and I were conscious of. There was no doubt that the reason he had invited me was to afford his students a firsthand look at what they would be up against in far-off India; odd that such an example should be so easily available locally; strange that these Baptists should discover, looking back at them under a shaven head marked with the twin clay lines of tilaka—the signs of a servant of Vishnu—such a disconcertingly familiar American Protestant face.

The first time I entered his small classroom, I too felt the shock of recognition. There, looking up at me in wonder, in a ring around the table, were those same Sunday-school faces of my childhood, overlaid only slightly with a patina of age.


The professor opened class with a prayer, and hearing the suddenly familiar intonations of Protestant orison rising in that overheated room smelling of chalk and damp wool clothes, surrounded by the benign features of these ministers-to-be, I was transported back to Bible school, and with a pang I felt that old mellow glow of indistinct goodness. But then I was sharply brought back to present reality. As the professor gave a courtly introduction, his students stared up at me; I could see their minds ram into the brick wall of unintelligibility. What ever could have possessed a nice Christian boy to go and put on those robes and shave his head and ... ?

To see yourself being received, by features you recognize so well, with a look of utter incomprehension can give rise to a certain uneasiness. Those faces radiated a wall of misinformation, misunderstanding, cultural conditioning, and sectarian prejudice. For them to hear what I had to say, I would have to find some way to outflank the ideological Maginot Line arrayed against me.

Having spent many years in their spiritual milieu, I had formed my own judgment of them. I felt that their religious practice was severely crippled by a lack of disciplined, progressive cultivation under expert guidance. Spiritual advancement depends upon such cultivation, just as athletic success requires a rigorous program of training under an expert coach. But they had little sense of that. Their belief (correct enough) that salvation comes from God’s grace became transmogrified in practice into a curious sort of spiritual passivity. They depended upon sudden emotional outpourings and flashes of inspiration (whose impact seemed to dissipate swiftly). Thus their spirituality had a haphazard, hit-or-miss character; it suffered from a lack of direction. It was immature.

As a result, they stagnated in a sort of bland, superficial wholesomeness. In the end, their religiosity simply gave a cachet to a kind of constrained, genteel materialism—to prayers in the locker room after football or golf, and to church barbecues where the girls from the choir managed to seem both sexy and pure at the same time. And even all of this was mostly for appearance. Since niceness is not enough, deviance was rampant, if covert. Yet their belief in inherent human sinfulness led to a passive acceptance of that, too.

On the other hand, I knew these Baptists would view me as espousing the error of Pelagius, the heresy that man can save himself by his own efforts. Enough evangelicals had approached me in the streets to announce, “I don’t have to work for my salvation,” to let me know that the party line on us was out. This charge had two sources. First of all, they saw any sort of regimen as smacking of works (although the “work” the evangelicals on the streets referred to was the exuberant dancing and chanting of a group of devotees—who’s working?). Second of all, they believed that every religion but Christianity, no matter what its particular practices, was Pelagian. To be more precise, all religions were Pelagian, but Christianity, strictly speaking, was not a religion. Religion they defined as the vain attempts of man to reach God on his own; all such attempts are tainted by man’s inherent sinfulness and so inevitably fail. Christianity, on the other hand, is God’s own reaching out to man. It is not, of course, tainted by sinfulness.

The bed of nails hanging on the seminary wall epitomized for them the folly of religion, of man’s unaided attempt to reach the divine. I had no doubt that they found my own appearance just as perversely strange, just as much an exemplification of the absurdity that ensues when man tries to save himself.

However, in my talk I was going to use another definition of religion. Religion, I began by telling them, means following the orders of God. According to the Vedas, “The path of religion is enunciated directly by the Lord.” No one else can found a religion. But, I said, a question naturally arises: There are many scriptures, each with different injunctions; how do we judge which is best? This same question, the Vedas report, was asked five thousand years ago of a great authority, and he replied, “The best religion for all people is that which leads one to unconditional love for the Supreme Lord.” The standard for such unconditional love, he went on to say, is that it is not motivated by any desire for personal gain, and it is uninterrupted. He did not mention any particular community. The standard is nonsectarian; wherever it may be realized—among Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, whatever—that must be accepted as true religion.

Other Vedic texts, I continued, elaborate on the nature of unconditional love for God. In Sanskrit, loving devotional service to God is called bhakti, but it can be contaminated in two specific ways—by jnana and by karma.(I wrote the Sanskrit words on the board.) Jnana refers to the process of empirical speculative knowledge, a quest that culminates in self-deification. Karma,“works” in Biblical language, refers to activities aimed at self- aggrandizement—whether in this life or in the next.

What most people have been taught to call “Hinduism,” I explained, is actually bhakti (devotional service to God) corrupted by jnana (the quest for speculative knowledge). Such corrupted religion has created a polymorphous profusion of gods to be worshiped, but with the understanding that ultimately the whole hodgepodge (including the so-called worshiper) paradoxically dissolves into an amorphous, featureless nullity. According to these teachings, although ultimately no individuals exist, in the meantime and for all practical purposes every individual, including oneself, is God. By an overweening negative theology, jnana strips divinity down to nothingness; while professing to preserve the divine transcendence, it is actually a disguised expression of enmity toward God. Although such philosophy is an evil fruit of Indian civilization, it is now even more at home in the West. As an example, I cited the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, who said, among other things, that since the temporal, contingent entities we know all “exist,” it would be blasphemous to say of God that He also “exists.” The “death of God” movement of the sixties was inspired by such theologizing.

While karma denotes those religious and charitable activities one performs in expectation of a reward, bhakti is service rendered to God simply out of love, with no desire for gain. Just as the Vedas distinguish between karma and bhakti, I explained, they also distinguish between heaven and the kingdom of God. The Vedas identify heaven as a group of higher planets within the material world where enjoyment is extended and intense; nevertheless, one’s stay in heaven is circumscribed. Good deeds secure pious credit, but when that credit is exhausted, the heavenly sojourn ends. The kingdom of God, however, is beyond the material world, and there life is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. The activities there are not those of sense gratification but rather of loving exchanges with the Supreme Lord Himself, in varieties of relationships and degrees of intimacy. This is the supreme abode, the destination of the pure devotees, although they do not even aspire after it. Rather, they ask only to engage in divine service under any condition, in heaven or in hell.

The kingdom of God is our home, I said, our native country. All of us once resided there, engaging in the activity of our essential nature, our eternal religion: devotional service to God. But some of us perversely sought to deny our own nature and aspired not to be enjoyed by God but to enjoy as He does, not to serve Him but to be served, not to be controlled but to be the controller. In short, the original sin of the minute particle of God’s energy is the desire to become God. Therefore we are exiled to the material world, where we can play out our masquerade and finally, by the mercy of the Lord, be rectified.

For this purpose God Himself establishes the path of pure religion, but under the impetus of our sinful will, even that religion becomes twisted. The Vedas call it kaitava- dharma—materially motivated, cheating religion, religion deformed by karma and jnana. Desiring to become the enjoyer and controller, the fallen soul performs religious duties for the sake of material advancement, which he needs to enjoy the senses; when he finally becomes disgusted, having met repeated defeat in the struggle for supremacy, he rejects the material world and aspires for liberation, for becoming one with God.

Although God establishes true religion, in the course of time it inevitably becomes corrupted by karma and jnana. Therefore, whenever bhakti is in danger of disappearing, God Himself descends to the material world, or He sends His son, prophet, or pure representative to restore true religion. Real religion is always in danger of being corrupted, and most religion—most of the time—is karmic, with varying degrees of jnana added. Bhakti is very rare.

Then I reminded them that the other symptom of pure religion is that it is uninterrupted. A pure devotee makes no distinction between his religion and his life; he does not separate the activities he does for God from those he does for himself. I could make this point clear only by giving them some concrete examples. So I explained how, in the Krishna consciousness movement, even eating and sex are transformed from material activities into divine service.

To live we must eat, and to eat we must kill. But killing is a sin; therefore it seems that sin is unavoidable. However, in the Bhagavad-gita God informs us that if we lovingly offer Him a leaf, a fruit, a flower, or water, He will accept it. Of course, killing animals is never allowed; but if we collect vegetarian food and prepare it for God’s enjoyment and then eat, then there is no sin. Rather, God accepts the offering of love, and in reciprocation He allows the devotees to eat the remnants of such sacrifice, which are called prasada, or the mercy of God. It is karma-less food. Thus, even eating need not interrupt devotional service.

Similarly, marriage can also be part of devotional service. Marriage does not confer a license for sexual indulgence. It does not sanction a holiday from religious principles. Rather, according to religious principles sex is meant only for begetting God conscious children. Thus there is no need for indulging more than once in a month, when the woman is fertile. Children born of parents who are free from lust will be exceptionally pure and naturally inclined toward devotional service. So not even biological necessities like mating and eating need divert us from our religion.

Here I would usually end my talk and ask for questions. There would be a smattering of inquiries about specific practices, and then someone would finally voice what was on all their minds. “What religion were you raised in?”

“I was nominally a Methodist,” I would answer. “But the Baptists had a strong influence on me.”

Then they would get down to it. “Why did you change to this?”

I wanted to be both truthful and tactful, a rather difficult task under the circumstances. I would say something like, “In my childhood I was rather heavily evangelized. But I never made a full commitment. And I think it was because, well, I just never met anyone who sufficiently inspired me by his personal example to make that commitment.”

But of course there was more to it than that. And as I stood there before these future ministers, the memory that had been nibbling at my consciousness all morning finally struck. The formidable machinations of their predecessors’ evangelical assaults rose before me—that amazing dramatic contrivance which, if anything, must be deemed the homegrown, all-American counterpart of a bed of nails.

During vacation Bible school, all of us would be led each morning into the cool and dark interior of the Baptist church. Rank after rank of pews would fill with the small forms of children. We sang hymns, and then a well-spoken minister would begin talking to us. Although he seemed friendly, he did not let that stop him from telling us the truth about ourselves. And the truth was that even though we were only little kids and were supposed to be innocent, we were very sinful. He told us how we despised our brothers and sisters, hated our parents, envied our friends. Skillfully, he drew out all the evil of our small lives—until it was all there before us. It crushed down on us like an unbearable weight. He described how abominable, how foul our sinfulness appeared in the eyes of God, so great, so holy and pure. Such an affront were we to Him that it was only fitting and proper that we should suffer endlessly in hell for our sins. He evoked hell for us. We were going there directly, and that was only right.

But, he would say, God was not happy with mere justice. He loved us more than we could ever imagine; so much that he gave His only begotten Son, His own Son, who had never sinned, who was as pure as we were dirty, to suffer for our sins and die in our place. Eloquently, he would explain how Jesus had, in advance, without our even asking, undergone all the sufferings due us, and had already paid the price for us. The sins, which were like a huge weight about to shove us down to hell, were already atoned for by Jesus. And all we had to do to be saved was just accept Jesus in our heart as our personal savior.

Now his voice would drop and seem to speak to us right near our ears. He would tell us to bow our heads and shut our eyes. And then he said that anyone who had not yet accepted Jesus in his heart as his personal savior should raise his hand. A hush would fall over the church. With a pounding heart (for you could not lie now), I would raise my arm. The seconds crawled by as I would sit there, nakedly exposed, my arm as heavy as lead. Finally, we could lower our hands (but had to keep our eyes shut). Then he would say that all we had to do to accept Jesus as our savior was to get up right now and walk up to the communion rail. Then the organ would start to play soft, yearning music. With compelling hypnotic tones the minister would urge us forward, and then under the swelling surges of the organ you would hear the rustling sounds of children edging out of the pews.

Day after day I would sit in anguish, and then, when I was on the verge of bolting from my seat, I would suddenly seem to be high in the church vaults, looking down. From that distance everything would become clear, and I could see with a wonderful lucidity just what was going on, and their whole contrivance became transparent. When, so many years later, I was to hear the Krishna consciousness movement charged with being a new “cult” that converted through brainwashing, coercive persuasion, emotional manipulation, and the evocation of guilt, I was astounded; it was an eerily accurate description of just what I had experienced as a child in this most indigenous of American religions. Yet even as a child I could recognize that I was being played upon by some craftiness or artifice. It reeked of fraudulence; how could I trust them?

After church, we would be led to our separate classes, and on some days a face or two would be missing: they had gone up to the communion rail. They would come in later, looking a bit dazed. I would watch them carefully. For a few days they would be different—a bit remote, extremely peaceful, and very, very nice—but then their old selves would creep back in.

And that was the real problem. For all the anguish invoked, for all the high redemptive drama with its incredible emotional impact, there was a curiously meager result. As I grew older, I still looked for something more, something deeper than that benign wholesomeness, that always-smiling friendliness and relentless cheerfulness. It all seemed so superficial, and so many of them were, as my father put it, “on the quietus,” doing in secret what the unsaved did in the open.

The spirit of American Protestant Christianity became epitomized for me by a frequently replayed cultural scenario. Reporters crowd around the winner of the Miss North or South Carolina beauty contest, glowing with her victory in that competition which has degraded her personhood to the level of a commodity, in which the air of lubricity is all the more cloying for being disguised as a celebration of the value of wholesome, upright American womanhood. The winner flashes that wide smile, the same smile that daily arouses our desire for toothpaste and shampoo on the TV, and then she announces, with not even the slightest sense of incongruity, that the most important thing in her life is that she has accepted Jesus Christ in her heart as her personal savior. And, as I experienced, Christians—laity and ministers alike—all thought that was just wonderful! I would feel, with some relief, that I had been saved.

And now, looking down at these missionary faces, suffused with that expression of mild goodness, I understood clearly what I had discovered in Krishna consciousness that their religion did not provide me. It was integrity; it was religion without compromise. At first, I had sought integrity in uncompromising materialism. That failed, but when I was offered the integrity of Krishna consciousness, I accepted it without misgivings. To be sure, it was sometimes difficult. But it was the genuine article.

Yet, I realized suddenly, I was indebted to these Christians. For they had started me on the search for the divine, even though they could not provide the solution with the same efficacy with which they could expose the problem. It was unlikely that they could see the continuity between us that I saw, while I was standing so strangely before them in that different garb, a missionary to the missionaries.

On Absolute Authority

Complexity: 
Medium


The following conversation between His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and one of his disciples took place in Bhuvaneshvara, India.

Devotee: Srila Prabhupada, one criticism against our Krishna consciousness movement is that we are following absolute authority. People are critical because we rigidly adhere to your authority and to the authority of the scriptures. They say this is not a healthy psychology.

Srila Prabhupada: Their criticism is a contradiction. If they say authority is not good, then why are they criticizing us? They are trying to impose their own authority on us.

Devotee [in the role of an antagonist]: I don’t say you have to accept me as an authority.

Srila Prabhupada: Then you are talking nonsense. You are like a merchant selling his wares, but telling the customer, “You don’t have to buy from me.” What is the use of his selling? And what is the use of your instruction, if I don’t have to accept you as an authority?

Devotee: Well, everyone has his own life to live, so each person should take the best from many authorities. I might accept some ideas from your philosophy and some from various other philosophies as well. I can take whatever I think is best for me.

Srila Prabhupada: But if you find the best of everything all in one place, then why should you run here and there?

Devotee: Well, history teaches us that whenever there is absolute authority, it isn’t healthy—like Hitler’s Germany, for example.

Srila Prabhupada: Absolute authority is bad when the authority is wrong. But if the authority is right, then it is good—because you can submit to one authority and receive all knowledge. It’s like going to a supermarket; we can get everything there in one place.

Devotee: But people often confuse our allegiance to scriptural authority with totalitarianism. One professor told me that if the Krishna consciousness movement ever became powerful, we would probably be intolerant towards all other religions.

Srila Prabhupada: That means he does not understand us.

Devotee: Suppose someone didn’t want to be a devotee in a society with a Krishna-conscious king or president. What would happen to him?

Srila Prabhupada: The king must chastise him—he has that power. For example, if a child says, “Father, I don’t believe in education; let me play,” the father will never allow it. The king’s duty is to guide the citizens like that.

Devotee: But if someone wanted to be a Christian in a society governed by a Krishna-conscious leader, would that person be chastised?

Srila Prabhupada: The father does not chastise always, but only when his son does something wrong. To practice the Christian religion means to believe in God and abide by His orders. A faithful Christian would not be persecuted in a society with Krishna-conscious leadership.

Devotee: So the Christians would be allowed to follow the Bible?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. To follow the Bible is certainly religion. But the Christians today do not follow their scripture. The Bible says, “Thou shall not kill,” but they are killing millions of cows and eating their flesh. What kind of Christianity is that?

Devotee: So they should be chastised.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes, they should be punished. That is the duty of the king. You may follow any bona fide religion and receive all protection by the Krishna- conscious government. But if you don’t follow your own religion faithfully, then you must be corrected. That is the king’s duty. A king cannot dictate that you must follow one particular religious faith, but he can order that you follow some religion. If you have no religion, then you’re an animal, and you must be chastised. Religion means the instruction given by God (dharmam tu sakshad bhagavat-pranitam). And to be religious means to obey God and to love Him. So it doesn’t matter through what religious process you have understood God. The important thing is that you love God and abide by His orders. Then you are religious. But if you do not know God—or if you have some imaginary god-then you must learn who God actually is. And if you refuse to learn, then you must be punished.

Devotee: If someone says, “I know God,” what is the test to see if he really does?

Srila Prabhupada: The test is that he must be able to explain about God to others. Ask him, “Can you say what God is?”

Devotee: “God is the force moving the universe.”

Srila Prabhupada: So that means you do not know God. Who is behind the force? Whenever there is force, there must be a person who is forceful—who is forcing. Who is that?

Devotee: I don’t have such vision.

Srila Prabhupada: Then learn about God from me. And if you refuse, then you must be punished. You see, the king has to see that the citizens are God conscious. That is his duty.

Devotee: Then a Krishna-conscious leader has to be like a father.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That quality was personally exhibited by Lord Ramacandra. He treated His subjects like His own sons, and they treated Lord Rama as their father. The relationship between the king and the citizens should be like that between a father and his sons.

Devotee: The chastisement that the king gives...

Srila Prabhupada: That is out of love, not enviousness. Chastisement means correction. If a citizen is acting wrongly, he has to be corrected. This is actually Krishna’s business in human society: to chastise the miscreants, to give protection to the godly persons, and to establish the true principles of religion. This is the mission of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the world, and we have to execute His mission. Gradually Krishna-conscious devotees have to take the posts of leadership and correct the whole human society.

The Descent of God

Complexity: 
Medium

The Supreme Being comes to earth many times and in many forms. India’s ancient scriptures bring us startling news about these momentous events.

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.

When God Descends

Complexity: 
Medium

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.

Bhagavad-gita courseOn 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.

Bhagavad-gita courseIn 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?”

Bhagavad-gita courseThere 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.