What does God’s abode look like? What does God Himself look like? “I have yet many things to say unto you,” Christ told a world, filled with crudeness and ignorance, “but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). The son of a Baptist minister now looks to ancient India’s Vedic literature—for the facts about God that Christ left unsaid.
An Interview with Kirtanananda Swami
Christ taught everybody to love his father, Krishna. Why didn’t he give more details about Lord Krishna? “We have to consider the circumstances and the culture at the time Christ taught,” says Kirtanananda Swami. “After all, one can only speak according to the understanding of the audience. In the beginning arithmetic class we cannot mention the principles of higher mathematics like calculus and trigonometry. We have to teach according to time and place. So Christ taught only the basics.”
Back toGodhead: Can you say a little bit about your background? I understand you were raised a Christian and that your father was a Baptist minister.
Kirtanananda Swami on Christ and Krishna — Not a difference in kind but in quantity.
Kirtanananda Swami: Yes. I was a very devout child, and I used to gather my friends together and preach to them. My father was such a conservative minister that he considered all other Christian denominations to be somewhat pagan. In any case, as a child I used to try to convert my friends to the Baptist church.
BTG: So you were very much convinced at that time?
Kirtanananda Swami: Oh, yes.
BTG: Why did you give up that faith?
Kirtanananda Swami: In our American culture, when you become a teenager it is fashionable to reject everything. So as I grew up I gradually began to question my religion, and I was unable to get satisfactory answers. I wanted to know who I was and why I was here. I wanted to know why I should believe in God. I began asking questions like “What is God?” and “What is the relevance of God to modern man?” When I didn’t get satisfactory answers, I rejected my religion. But when I met Srila Prabhupada some years later, he did give me satisfactory answers to these questions and I accepted him as my spiritual master.
I’m not condemning any bona fide religion, because the principles of bona fide religion are the same everywhere. When we speak of religion, we speak of the law of God, and anyone who abides by the law of God is religious. The law of God is stated in all scriptures, and it demands that the soul surrender to God. This surrender was taught by Lord Jesus Christ when the Pharisees asked him, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” Christ answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). In other words, the first religious principle is to surrender to God. Sri Krishna imparted the same message in the Bhagavad-gita: sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me” (Bg. 18.66).
BTG: Has your understanding of Jesus Christ changed since you came to Krishna consciousness?
Kirtanananda Swami: Yes. For the first time I feel that I have a real understanding of Jesus Christ. Previously I had been taught that Jesus Christ was competing with all other religious teachers and that if I wanted to be a Christian, I would have to condemn all others. Krishna consciousness, on the other hand, condemns only those who deny God. In Krishna consciousness we consider Jesus Christ to be the perfect son of God. And as God’s perfect son, he is doing the work of his father. Since this is the case, it is not surprising to see a similarity between the New Testament of Jesus Christ and the Bhagavad-gita of Lord Krishna. Indeed, we often hear the Bhagavad-gita being called “the New Testament of India.” Also, there is an obvious similarity between the Greek word Christos and the Sanskrit word Krishna.
BTG: Then you don’t find any basic difference between the teachings of Christ and the teachings of Krishna?
Kirtanananda Swami: No, not at all. Jesus Christ says to love God, and Krishna says the same. What is the difference? Jesus Christ says to love the father, and Krishna says,
“O son of Kunti, it should be understood that all species of life are made possible by birth in this material world, and that I am the seed-giving father” (Bg. 14.4). So there is no contradiction when Jesus Christ says, “Love the father,” and Krishna says, “Love Me.”
BTG: What of Christ’s contention that no one can come to the father except through him?
Kirtanananda Swami: We say something similar—that we have to approach the Supreme Lord through the pure devotee, who is known as the jagad-guru, the “universal teacher.” It is the jagad-guru who speaks the Word that Saint John referred to at the beginning of his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus Christ himself claimed to be this very Word, and this Word is one. Christ said that no one can approach God directly; one must approach Him through the Word. We also say that no one can approach God directly, but that one must approach Him through the Word—the spiritual master, or jagad-guru.
Christ’s claim to be the only son of God is often misunderstood. This claim is meant not quantitatively, but qualitatively. When a devotee reaches the perfect position by rendering complete service to the Lord, the Lord reciprocates in a unique relationship. In this relationship it appears that the pure devotee is the only one in the entire universe. For example, each and every gopi [cowherd girl] who danced with Lord Krishna thought that He was dancing with her alone. Also, when Lord Caitanya [an incarnation of Krishna who appeared five centuries ago] danced before the Ratha-yatra cart. He appeared in each and every chanting party, and the chanters in each party thought that the Lord was dancing exclusively with them. Similarly, two thousand years ago when Jesus Christ taught his doctrine in the Middle East, he appeared to be God’s only son, or pure devotee.
By His inconceivable energy the Supreme Lord can expand Himself into the hearts of His devotees in such a unique way that each one seems to be His only devotee, or “son.” Indeed, St. John instructs us that anyone can become a son of God by “believing in His name” (John 1:12). Why should God have only one son? Even a mere human being can have dozens of sons. Being infinite. God can have billions and trillions of sons, and by His inconceivable energy each and every one can be His “only” son. That is the mystery of the relationship with Krishna, which we can awaken only by pure devotional service.
BTG: The Bible condemns “strange gods and graven images” (Deuteronomy 5:7-8). Don’t the Hare Krishna devotees worship idols of God?
Kirtanananda Swami: If an imperfect human being manufactures an idol of God, that is certainly a “strange” god, or graven image. God certainly cannot be manufactured by a finite creature. Therefore, in Krishna consciousness mental speculation is condemned. We cannot hope to figure out God simply by using our tiny brain power.
However, God can reveal Himself to His pure devotee. If we accept the form of the Lord as it is revealed by the Lord Himself, that form cannot be considered an idol. It is a form given directly by the Lord out of His causeless mercy. No one can say that God cannot appear before man or that God cannot appear in a form made of wood, stone, jewels, or anything else. In the shastras [Vedic scriptures] it is stated that God can incarnate in wood, stone, paint, and so forth, because all these are part of His energy. Since everything comes from God, God can reveal Himself through anything He desires. But the initiative comes from God, not from man. We can’t make some statue and say, “Here is God.” That is called idolatry. Rather, we must worship in the authorized way.
The Krishna consciousness movement is not manufactured by any individual. It is not something that Srila Prabhupada has made up. No. It is an authorized process, enunciated in the Vedic literatures and handed down by all the acaryas [spiritual teachers]. The Vedic literatures were written down by Srila Vyasadeva, “the literary incarnation of God,” and they are older and more detailed than the Bible.
BTG: You say there are no essential differences between Christianity and Krishna consciousness, but obviously there are some differences.
Kirtanananda Swami: There are differences in degree, but the basic principle is the same. Both Christ and Lord Caitanya taught surrender to God, but Lord Caitanya taught surrender up to the very point of conjugal love. This was never taught before. In Christianity we are taught to love God in the father-son relationship. God is worshiped as a father, and the father’s duty is to provide for his children. In this relationship the duty of the children to provide for the father is only secondary. Krishna-conscious philosophy calls this relationship the master-servant relationship, in which God is viewed as the supreme master or father, and all living entities are seen as His servants or sons. It is certainly possible for a loving relationship to develop between a master and his servant, but that love is not as intimate as the love between friends. When two friends love and serve each other, their relationship is very intimate. Krishna consciousness teaches that we can even enter into this intimate friendship with God. And even higher than this fraternal love is the love that parents feel for their child. When Krishna appeared in Vrndavana, Yasoda and Nanda Maharaja took the role of His parents. Mother Yasoda would think, “If I do not feed Krishna, He will die.” Here we find the same principle of love as in the other relationships, but the love is more intense. And even higher than parental love is the love between lovers, which we call conjugal love. Krishna became the lover of Radharani and the other gopis, and this most intimate loving relationship is explained only in Krishna consciousness. It is the unique contribution of Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
BTG: But what is the test for love of God? Many people say, “Well, I love God very much.” How can we tell if their love is genuine?
Kirtanananda Swami: When we speak of love of God, there is no question of “very much.” Divine love means “all.” Bhismadeva, one of the twelve great authorities on Krishna consciousness, defined love of God as “reposing one’s complete affection in the Lord.” As long as our affection is divided between matter and spirit, there is no love of God.
Love is actually impossible in the material world, because no one can “repose his complete affection” in another imperfect soul. Actually, Krishna is the only lovable object in the universe, because He possesses all lovable qualities—beauty, strength, wealth, knowledge, fame, and renunciation. He is the complete reservoir of all attractive, lovable qualities. Only He can accept all of our love, and therefore love of God is the only real love possible. So-called loving feelings in the material world are actually manifestations of lust—the desire for personal sense gratification.
BTG: How can Krishna consciousness claim to be nonsectarian? The movement has its own books and spiritual master, which differ from those of other religions.
Kirtanananda Swami: In mathematics two plus two equals four, and this equation is true regardless of which mathematics book it is found in, and regardless of who reads or does not read the mathematics book. So “two plus two equals four” can be called a nonsectarian fact. Similarly, a religion is nonsectarian when it is factual. It is a fact that God is the Supreme Being and that all living entities are His servants. This basic philosophy of the Krishna consciousness movement makes it nonsectarian. We do not propose that people worship a new God. There is only one God, one Supreme Lord, regardless of what we call Him. God has millions of names, which was pointed out by Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu in His Siksastaka [Eight Instructions on the Holy Name of God]: “O My Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to living beings, and thus You have millions of names, such as Krishna, Govinda, and so forth.”
So the Krishna consciousness movement is not restricted to a particular name of God. The main principle is God consciousness, surrender to God. It is not that one simply says, “Oh, I love God,” and then goes on to act as he likes. This type of lip service was condemned by Jesus Christ when he said, “Not everyone that sayeth to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of God, but he that doeth the will of my father” (Matthew 7:21).
BTG: Why not be content to follow Christ? Why introduce something new?
Kirtanananda Swami: We are following the teachings of Christ. Why distinguish between Christ and Krishna?
BTG: Do you mean to say that Christ didn’t say anything different from what Krishna said?
Kirtanananda Swami: As I have explained, it is not a difference in kind but in quantity. Jesus Christ himself told his disciples, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16:12). In the Old Testament God appears as a burning bush, a dove, a pillar of fire by night, a cloud by day, and so forth—but He does not appear as He is. God the father remains a voice on high. Christ himself said, “Ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His shape…. No man hath seen the father save he which is of God; he hath seen the father” (John 5:37, 6:46). In the Bible we find God described as great, angry, terrible, greatly to be feared, almighty, the everlasting father, the alpha and omega, and so forth. But God’s all-attractive personality remains unexplained. What are God’s opulences? His activities? What does His abode look like? What does He Himself look like? What are His various manifestations? Specifically, how does He create? How does He pervade His creation? These and many other questions are neither raised nor answered in the Bible because of the time, culture, and circumstances in which the Bible was recorded.
Nonetheless, the essential meaning in Christianity and Krishna consciousness is the same. The difference is in quantity. Is an abridged dictionary different from an unabridged one? Yes and no. The basic definitions are there in the abridged dictionary, but only one or two definitions may be given, whereas in the unabridged dictionary dozens of definitions and nuances are described. The Vedic literatures contain the most complete information about God available. From Genesis we understand that “in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” and we receive a description of the creation. But exactly how God created is not explained. In the Vedic literature the complete process of creation, maintenance, and annihilation of the cosmos is described. For instance, the Vedic literatures state that in the beginning everything was generated from sound.
BTG: St. John states that in the beginning there was the Word, or Logos. Does this indicate sound?
Kirtanananda Swami: Yes. The Supreme Lord creates everything from sound. And by the transcendental sound of Hare Krishna, we can reverse the process and return to the Supreme Absolute. The Hare Krishna maha-mantra is a transcendental sound because it is composed purely of God’s names. Since God is absolute, everything about Him—His name. His form. His abode—is also absolute. Therefore God and His name are not different. They are both spiritual. This is acknowledged in the Old Testament, where Moses says, “Thou shall fear the Lord thy God; Him shalt thou serve, and to Him shalt thou cleave, and swear by His name” (Deuteronomy 10:20). Also, “I will publish the name of the Lord: ascribe ye greatness unto our God” (Deuteronomy 32:3). There are also many examples in David: “Give thanks unto the Lord, call upon His name, make known His deeds among the people. Sing unto Him, sing ye psalms unto Him, talk ye of all His wondrous works. Glory ye in His holy name” (I. Chronicles 16.8).
We do not say that one has to chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Any bona fide name of God is spiritual, and by chanting it we become spiritualized. When we contact electricity, we become electrified, regardless of the appliance carrying the electricity. Similarly, by associating with God through His bona fide names, we become spiritualized.
BTG: Why didn’t Jesus Christ mention chanting Hare Krishna? Why didn’t he mention the discipline followed by the Hare Krishna devotees? Why didn’t he specifically condemn meat eating and wine drinking?
Kirtanananda Swami: As I stated before, Christ said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now” (John 16.12). We have to consider the circumstances and the culture at the time Christ taught. After all, one can only speak according to the understanding of the audience. In the beginning arithmetic class we cannot mention the principles of higher mathematics like calculus and trigonometry. We have to teach according to time and place. So Christ taught only the basics. He instructed his disciples to go forth and preach among all men that “the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you” (Luke 10:9). This kind of preaching is also kirtana, God-praise. Therefore, whether one says, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand,” or chants Hare Krishna, the message is basically the same.
The masses of people Christ was speaking to had to be taught very basic principles of morality, such as “Thou shalt not kill.” This means that the people had to be educated from the ground up. On the other hand, the Srimad-Bhagavatam was spoken by the great sage Suta Gosvami to other great sages in the sacred forest of Naimisaranya. So we can be sure that Suta Gosvami would not waste time telling his audience not to kill one another. Nor do we find this type of moral prohibition in the Bhagavad-gita, because mundane morality is taken for granted. Rather, the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam immediately come to the point of love of God.
All living entities are certainly equal in the eyes of God because they are all His sons, but this does not mean that everyone is equal in the sense of being on the same level. There is kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college, and graduate school. Although the soul within all living entities has the same qualities, there are nonetheless 8,400,000 species of life, and each species represents a different level of the soul’s consciousness. Therefore Krishna, or God, is understood differently by different types of men.
In the Vedic literatures it is stated that there are four hundred thousand different types of human beings throughout the universe. In terms of God consciousness, who is the highest? In the Sixth Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna that the yogi is the highest:
“A yogi is greater than the ascetic, greater than the empiricist, and greater than the fruitive worker. Therefore, O Arjuna, in all circumstances be a yogi” (Bg. 6.46). And since there are many different types of yogis, Sri Krishna specifically states in the next verse, “And of all yogis, he who always abides in Me with great faith, worshiping Me in transcendental loving service, is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all” (Bg. 6.47). Thus the topmost teaching of the Bhagavad-gita is surrender to God.
BTG: Around Christmastime people are always curious to know whether Christmas has any particular meaning for people in Krishna consciousness. What is the significance of Christmas for you?
Kirtanananda Swami: Christmas is meant to celebrate the appearance of God’s pure devotee on the earth. Unfortunately, this meaning is almost lost today. Most people will tell you that Christmas means getting too many bills,’ giving too many presents, eating too much turkey, or going on vacation. Hardly anyone thinks about the real meaning of Christmas—how God’s son has descended just to reclaim the fallen, conditioned souls.
BTG: Do the devotees of Krishna celebrate Christmas?
Kirtanananda Swami: Actually we celebrate Christmas every day of the year—because our whole lives are dedicated to glorifying the Lord and His pure devotee Srila Prabhupada. We should not think of Christmas as simply one day when we receive presents. Rather, we should think of it as a time to give presents to the Lord and His pure devotee. After all, the Magi came and gave presents to Christ. It was not the other way around. Christ’s present was his very presence, his appearance in the world. Therefore we should celebrate his appearance in the world every day, and this means giving to God every day. This means giving Him our whole lives and everything we have. If we do this, we will not be losers. This is also Christ’s teaching to the rich young man: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shall have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). When we give up everything for God, we are not the losers. Rather, we become gainers millions of times over.
BTG: Sometimes devotees are criticized for dressing up as Santa Claus. Since this isn’t part of your tradition, isn’t this cheating?
Kirtanananda Swami: No. This isn’t cheating, because the books we are selling are worth millions of times more than what we get for them. Why? Because they contain instructions on how to achieve eternal, blissful life. They are the greatest Christmas presents of all. If necessary, we will wear any kind of suit to distribute this transcendental knowledge. Our business is simply distributing Krishna consciousness. If we were dressing up like Santa Claus to extract money for our own sense gratification, that would certainly be cheating. But we are simply interested in spreading this transcendental information about God and His abode. When a devotee hands someone on the street a book by Srila Prabhupada, the devotee is essentially saying, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” After all, this is the essential message not only of Christmas but of Christianity and every other bona fide religion.