The Supreme Being comes to earth many times and in many forms. India’s ancient scriptures bring us startling news about these momentous events.
by Ravindra-Svarupa Dasa
All over the world we find the kind of literature we call scripture. These works tell us a particular kind of tale. They report those extraordinary occasions on which the divine penetrated into our world, and our tiny space and time housed for a while the eternal and infinite. Witnesses to these incursions, utterly changed by what they had seen, found themselves compelled to pour into the world’s indifferent and disbelieving ear their strange and powerful tales. And just because these witnesses were so changed, others listened, and they were changed in turn.
From these scriptural accounts we see that the divine descends in various ways. In the Pentateuch, for example, God intrudes into our world mainly through marvelous acts of divine power: He plagues the Egyptians with frogs and flies, lice and locusts, turns their river to blood, and snuffs the lives of their first-born. He delivers His people by parting the Red Sea, and He sets before them a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night as beacons to guide them through the wilderness.
On occasion God draws especially near, yet remains even then an awesome, elusive presence just beyond the phenomenal veil. His proximity causes nature to boil and erupt; it seems at any moment He might burst through the flimsy screen of nature and emerge fully on stage—but He never does. When God first comes before Moses, a bush burns fiercely and is not consumed, while Moses fearfully averts his gaze. When the Lord descends upon the top of Mount Sinai, the slopes quake, and a dense cloud, shot through with fire, roils and thunders about the hidden peak. Moses vanishes into that cloud to parley at length with God. Afterwards he reports catching only the most fleeting glimpse of the back of the departing Lord, never once seeing His face.
Another celebrated entry of the divine into our world is even more severely restrained: Muhammad, son of Abdullah, meditating during the heat of Ramadan on Mount Hira outside of Mecca, hears the command of an awesome voice: “Read!” “I cannot read,” comes his terrified reply. Again: “Read!” Again the same reply. The voice, grown more terrible, commands a third time: “Read!” Muhammad answers: “What can I read?” The voice says:
Read: In the name of thy Lord who createth.
Createth man from a clot.
Read: And it is thy Lord the Most Bountiful,
Who Teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.
In this way the first of many such “readings” becomes manifest on earth. Together they constitute the Qur’an (Koran), delivered to Muhammad, the messenger of God, by Gabriel, the emissary of God, “who stood poised between heaven and earth, who approached and came as near or nearer than two bows’ length.” Their meetings form the conduit through which the uncreated Qur’an, “preserved forever on the tablet of heaven,” descends to earth. In this case, God does not enter our mundane realm in person, but He comes in the form of His transcendent word that makes manifest His will.
Here the word of God descends as word. The New Testament, however, tells of a descent in which “the Word was made flesh.” The divine nature becomes embodied in the human person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus declares, “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of Him that sent me,” and confesses, “I can of my own self do nothing.” In this way Jesus reveals himself as an eternal servant of God, saying “my Father is greater than I.” But because he is surrendered to God without reservation, God becomes manifest to us in him: “The words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, He doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.” Therefore the person of Jesus is itself the revelation of God: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” for “I and my Father are one.”
Because different scriptures report such vastly different divine descents and direct us toward surrender to God under different names—Jahweh, Allah, Jesus, and so on—and because the followers of one scripture tend to condemn the followers of all others as infidels or heathens or heretics, many people become perplexed or disgusted. And religion acquires a bad name. One wonders, “If there is one God, why should He manifest Himself in different ways and give different instructions?”
There is an answer to this question in yet another scripture, the Bhagavad-gita. This song (gita) was sung by God (bhagavan) during His descent on earth five millennia ago. The Lord—known as Krsna, “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 Prtha” (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, Krsna 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—is pregnant with meaning. It is 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 Krsna 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, Krsna 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 Krsna 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, Krsna 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 saksad 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. Krsna 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 Krsna’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—“the postgraduate 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—God Himself—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—as the 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 Krsna 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 Parasurama, 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 Krsna 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, Krsna is the topmost. Suta Gosvami, after concluding his survey of incarnations, declares. etc camsa-kalah pumsah krsnas 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 Krsna is the original Personality of Godhead.”
For this reason, the centerpiece of the Srimad-Bhagavatam is an extensive narration of Lord Krsna’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 Krsna’s pastimes of childhood and youth in the cowherd village of Vrndavana. 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 Krsna descends, all descend with Him. Separate from these there is no manifest Krsna, and to reveal Himself, Krsna 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, Krsna, who in Vrndavana 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 Krsna 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 Vrndavana 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 Krsna never dies; His ever-new beauty and His eternal reciprocation draw out that love endlessly; its intensity increases without limit. All these immortal Vrndavana 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.
Krsna 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 Krsna 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 Krsna. 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 Krsna as He is. Although Krsna descended five thousand years ago, He remains fully accessible to us in Srimad-Bhagavatam. The revelation awaits only us.