On the one hand, how could anyone
be so stupid as to fall for such crass hucksterism.
On the other hand, they sure could.
by Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
One fall day in 1972, the part of Philadelphia called University City was overrun by bright yellow posters. A rapid metastasis followed. The next day the posters had taken over Center City, and yellow tendrils were reaching delicately along main avenues toward the outlying districts. The following morning all the telephone poles on the street before our Krsna temple were infested with shining yellow squares.
Early that morning a zealous young devotee barged into my office. (I was then the temple president.) Fired with outrage, he shoved a poster before me. “Now they’re right out front!” he moaned. “We have to put a stop to this! There’s no way we can let this go on!”
He was very young, and his obvious innocence fortunately made tolerable his headstrong and dogmatic ways. What’s more, the poster justified his anger.
In bold black letters the poster said:
KRISHNA MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE LOVE DIVINE.
BUDDHA MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE KNOWLEDGE DIVINE.
JESUS MEDITATED: HE BECAME GOD, THE FORGIVENESS DIVINE.
NOW GOD WANTS YOU TO MEDITATE, SO YOU CAN BECOME GOD…
In smaller type it announced that members of a New York yoga group were coming down in a week to offer an introductory presentation at the University of Pennsylvania Christian Association.
“Well?” demanded the ardent devotee, an edge of challenge in his voice. “What are we going to do about it?” He meant, of course, what was I going to do.
“What we’re already doing,” I said. “Chant Hare Krsna. Distribute more and more Gitas and Back to Godheads. What else?”
This was not acceptable. He demanded action. The atheistic poster was everywhere. Now, he said, all a person had to do was walk down the street to be told that Krsna began as an ordinary guy, and that any ordinary guy could likewise become God. It loudly proclaimed there was no difference between man and God. It blasphemed the Supreme Lord. If I tolerated that blasphemy, my friend warned, I would lose all my “pious credit,” become devoid of the results of my devotional service. He showed me my duty; he quoted verses; he demanded action.
“The posters are already there,” I protested. “It’s too late.”
“Well then!” he exclaimed triumphantly, “when they come to town you could go and challenge them! You could smash the rascals!” He snatched up the bright poster and thumped the bottom, the invitation for all ambitious souls to begin becoming God.
“See! Don’t you see what they’re up to! It’s a mystic yoga factory! They’re going to set up a mystic yoga factory right here in this city! You’ve got to stop them! You’ve got to!”
“Yeah!” said voices together. During the devotee’s tirade several others had gathered in the room. The poster went back for their inspection.
I was thinking. On the one hand, how many could be so stupid as to fall for the crass hucksterism of the poster? “First Krishna; then Buddha; then Jesus; and NOW—YOU! Yes, you too . . .” Could anyone take that seriously? On the other hand, they sure could. We had them come often enough into our temple to announce their divinity. Once one of them had taken me aside after a Sunday feast to confide solemnly, “I am very pleased by the way you are worshiping Me here.”
God had become dirt-cheap. It was common to meet these do-it-yourself Gods, made right in their own homes with medicine mixed in basements. It was already a cottage industry. So why not mass-produce them in a mystic factory? It was a sure thing.
The group with the poster was deeply impressed.
“Wow! Is this ever impersonal philosophy!”
Mincingly, someone said, “So you become God, the jerk divine . . .”
I cleared my office, and began thinking of what could be done . . .
Here was an egregious instance of what we recognized as the ultimate spiritual disease, the philosophy of impersonal oneness that proclaims man to be God. The speculative doctrines of impersonalism had been propounded in India for thousands of years, and for thousands of years our own tradition of bhakti, devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, had opposed them. And now the battle had spread to Western soil.
According to impersonalists, the absolute truth (“Brahman” in Sanskrit, but you could call it “God”) is a completely undifferentiated spiritual unity; it has no variety in it, no form, no qualities, no relations. Moreover, it is the only reality. The existence of any other entity, they claim, would limit it. Thus the world we see about us, in all its profusion of shapes, smells, sounds, colors, and tastes, is an illusion, maya. There is only one homogeneous spiritual entity, and that alone is real. All else is false. You and I, as particular individuals, are in truth non-existent. When Brahman is covered by maya, the illusion of individual existence arises.
What is inexplicable in this philosophy is the existence of illusion itself. How did that illusion arise? How could it cover Brahman? Impersonalists try to make illusion more powerful than the Supreme. For them, illusion in its individual aspect is a finite person; illusion in its collective aspect is given the name “God.” Thus, the one Supreme Person is an illusion, the infinitely many subordinate persons are illusions, and bhakti, the devotional service of the many to the One, is also an illusion. So although impersonalists may make free use of the word God, in fact they are rigorously atheistic.
To support their impersonalism, they appeal to the idea that the Supreme must be unlimited and unconditioned. And all name and form, they say, are limitations. Individuality is a limitation. The Supreme, then, can properly be understood only through the complete elimination of all such limiting ideas, by the denial of all names, forms, actions, and attributes. “Neti, neti,” they say: “Not this, not that.” This procedure alone secures the transcendence of the Supreme, they say, and keeps it from coming under the confinement of our materially entrenched conceptions.
They do not recognize, however, that definition by negation has its own inherent limitation. We may negate conceptions of material qualities, relations, and forms, but the corresponding negations are themselves material ideas. If “form,” for instance, is a material concept, then “formless” is also material. This is because the idea of “formless” depends for its meaning upon the idea of “form.” “Formless” requires “form” if it is to have any sense at all. Thus “nameless,” “formless,” “qualityless,” and so on are only relative material conceptions of the Supreme; they cannot precisely describe the Supreme. Definition by negation, then, is incomplete.
Can we complete the process of definition? We start with “form,” then by negation go to “formless.” Where can we go from there? “Form” and “formless” seem to exhaust the alternatives. We can’t go back to material form; nor do we want to get hung up in some interminable blow-your-own-mind effort to realize the “unity” of “form” and “formless.” (Many impersonalists do this.) But let us examine the starting point again, this time more carefully. We start not with “form” but more precisely with “material form.” And our negation, “formless,” means “no material form.” Now we can see our way through the barrier, to the affirmation that is finally called for: “spiritual form.” Here we have the factual unity or synthesis of “form” and “formless”: there is form, but no (material) form. Thus we must conclude that the Supreme Absolute Truth has spiritual or transcendental form and, by the same token, transcendental names, qualities, activities, and relations.
And it makes good sense. We can agree that the Supreme must be unlimited, but isn’t it paradoxical that the impersonal conception of the Supreme, arrived at by relentless denial, is of an entity so systematically stripped of everything -form, attributes, and relations-that it is cognitively no different from the idea of nothing at all? (Indeed, some impersonalists like to speak of the “Divine Nothingness” or “Nonbeing.”) But nullity, nothingness, is the ultimate in limitation. On the other hand, the personal conception of God as a being full of transcendental or spiritual forms, qualities, activities, and relationships without limit really does indicate one who is the greatest of all.
Our reasoning can show that the Supreme has transcendental variegatedness, but it cannot tell us the specific, concrete facts about that variegatedness. At this point we have to drop our efforts to understand God by our own mental prowess, and we have to hear, submissively, from the Vedas, from the transcendental sound that comes from the Supreme Himself. That sound discloses in full the specific name, form, opulences, and activities of the Supreme, which are beyond the effulgence of impersonal Brahman: It is Krsna, the all-attractive, whose transcendental bluish-black form glows like a new raincloud illuminated by lightning within, whose jewel-bedecked hands lift a silver flute to His lips, whose eyes, beautiful like lotus petals, roam restless with love over His devotees in the eternal kingdom of God.
The impersonalists hanker to merge into the effulgence of the Supreme. But when they hear about the form beyond that effulgence, the transcendental form of Krsna, the embodiment of all beauty, they think of it as material, as maya. This is because their own mentality is so rigidly materialistic. They are unable to accept the notion of “transcendental form” because as far as they are concerned all form is material. This keeps them stuck in their negations. But why should we impose our material ideas of name, form, qualities, and actions on God? Who says that all form has to be material form?
It is true that mundane mind and senses cannot conceive of the Supreme, but there is no reason why we have to be limited to mundane mind and senses. We can, in fact, directly experience the transcendental nature of the form, qualities, and activities of Krsna when our own mind and senses have been completely purified and spiritualized by total absorption in devotional service to God (bhakti), which begins with the chanting of Hare Krsna. We can then personally enter into the endless pastimes of Krsna.
To understand God you must become a servant of God. But an impersonalist is unwilling to do that. He is ambitious. He wants to become God Himself. Therefore he is hostile toward the actual Personality of Godhead, and because of that hostility he persists in a perverse logic that tries to make the Supreme a nonentity. The impersonalist’s “neti. neti. neti” is a sword with which he attacks the transcendental Supreme Person, trying to mince Him down to nothing. He tries to kill Krsna in order to take His place.
I had witnessed the impersonalist’s policy of denigrating God even in their casual, offhand remarks. Once, for instance, at a Sunday feast I was speaking to a guest about Krsna, and she stopped me to say, “Oh, don’t spoil it by giving it a name!” What would she think if someone spoke of her that way?
“Karen’s quite a nice girl.”
“Oh, don’t spoil it by giving it a name!”
And countless times I’ve heard the remark, “Oh, I think God is just energy.” Note the word just. Here we are talking about the Supreme, and we have to say “just.” I am a person with senses and intelligence, but God, who is supposed to be greater, is “just energy.”
The yoga society’s poster revealed the same implicit enmity toward God. No difference between you and Krsna; no need, then, to surrender to Him and serve Him. You be God! The claim that Krsna meditated to become God certainly brought Him down to size. It also arrogantly contradicted Krsna’s own revelation in the Bhagavad-gita, as well as the standard history of Krsna’s appearance in Srimad-Bhagavatam, another Vedic text.
We discussed this point that evening in the Gita class, considering in particular one incident from Krsna’s history, the story of Krsna and the demoness Putana.
Krsna says in the Gita that He comes to the material world with a mission: to establish religious principles, to protect the devotees, and to destroy the atheists. When atheistic and demonic rulers oppressed the earth five thousand years ago, Krsna appeared in the family of the chief of them, a usurper named Kamsa. Prophecy warned Kamsa that one of his nephews was destined to kill him. Kamsa therefore imprisoned his sister and her husband and killed their newborn children one by one. Their eighth child, Krsna, was covertly taken from the capital on the night of His birth and hidden in Gokula, a small village of cowherds, where He was put under the care of Nanda, the chief of the herdsmen, and his wife Yasoda. When Kamsa learned that the eighth child had eluded him, he sent his allies out into the countryside to kill every child born around that time.
One of these allies was Putana, an adept in black arts. She had attained powers through mystic yoga: she could travel swiftly through the sky and alter her bodily form at will. Under the order of Kamsa, Putana roamed the countryside killing babies, a task for which she was especially well qualified, since she drank with relish the warm blood of children.
Alighting on a pasture outside Gokula, Putana assumed the form of a young woman and headed toward the settlement. The villagers all looked up in wonder as a woman of almost supernatural beauty suddenly appeared, alone and announced, on their streets. Her hips were full, and her large and firm breasts seemed more of a burden than her slender waist could bear. Her clothes were gorgeous, and the tresses of glossy black hair that framed her beautiful face were braided with garlands of flowers. Her brilliant earrings flashed. Everyone stopped to watch her, and she glanced upon them enchantingly. They were all disarmed. The women thought she must be the goddess of fortune herself coming to worship Krsna.
No one stopped Putana as she entered Nanda’s house and went directly into the room where baby Krsna lay napping. She sat by the bed, reached in, and took the baby on her lap. Disarmed by her beauty and by the tender way she held the child, Krsna’s mother did nothing to stop her.
Hugging the child to her breast, Putana pushed her nipple into His mouth. She had smeared this nipple with a fast-acting, deadly poison, but it did not have the expected effect. Krsna squeezed her breast with both His hands and began to suck very hard. Putana’s eyes bulged; she broke out in a sweat: she began flailing her arms and legs: her hair loosened. Jumping up, she tried in vain to knock the child away. Shrieking “Stop! Stop! Let me go! Let me go!” she fled blindly from the house and out of the village. Clinging fast to her breast, Krsna sucked out the poison, her milk, and then her very life. Her screams reverberating through the countryside, Putana died, and her body returned to its original form, hideous and gigantic, and fell with a shock that leveled trees for twelve miles around. The villagers, terrified by the ear-splitting screams and the concussion of Putana’s fall, came racing out of the village and in fear and wonder saw the monstrous, repulsive body of Putana lying across the fields. The tiny form of baby Krsna crawled happily over her chest.
Putana was a powerful mystic yogini, while Krsna was only an infant just starting to crawl. Yet as Putana discovered, He had inconceivable power. He never had to “become God,” because He is God eternally. This is the difference between the real Godhead and the would-be Gods turned out in the mystic factory. Krsna did not meditate to become God, nor by meditation can we ever become, God ourselves.
Yet it seemed that every telephone pole in Philadelphia proclaimed otherwise. Every day the devotees returned from preaching, chanting, and book distribution more antagonized by the ubiquitous poster. Impersonal philosophy weighed on all minds, and in our classes I was inevitably called upon to produce further and further arguments against it. And this I did with increasing vigor and enthusiasm. I couldn’t help that, yet I knew it made the notion that I would go and “smash the rascals” more and more fixed in the devotees’ minds.
I had serious misgivings about going. The circumstances would not be favorable. It was the yogis meeting, after all, and I would come as an intruder. The whole audience would be on their side. If I observed the etiquette proper for a guest, I could hardly challenge them effectively, yet if I violated that etiquette I would appear rude and belligerent. The impersonalists were already hostile, and I would simply increase their enmity.
But the devotees wanted a confrontation. As the day of the meeting drew nearer and nearer and the preaching increased in vigor, it became clear to me that the situation had developed a dramatic momentum that required a denouncement. Without some resolution, a sense of incompleteness and dissatisfaction would interminably linger; morale would suffer. Whatever my misgivings, I had to go, just to lay the business to rest. If only for its symbolic value, it had to be done. So I selected two devotees who could be counted on to stay calm, and let the word out that we would go to the meeting.
It is already dark as we walk through the ivied campus and into the Christian Association. Passing under high ceilings and along heavy walnut wainscoting, we find the room. It is dimly lit, perhaps thirty feet wide and twenty feet deep, and crowded. The audience sits on the floor. Mostly male, blue jeans, flannel shirts, hair below the shoulders. Up front is a table where candles burn and thin plumes of incense curl toward the ceiling. We make our way through the crowd, the faint odor of marijuana and patchouli rising to meet us. We create a quiet sensation: dhotis and kurtas, shaven heads, twin lines of clay on our foreheads. We sit in the first circle, at the left of the table, and observe the mystic yogis themselves. They are a surprise. Standing at the table are three young men identically dressed in grey, flannel trousers, white knit turtleneck sweaters, and what looks like white buck shoes. Their hair is short and neatly combed. They all look like Pat Boone in April Love.
The room is deadly silent—no whispering, no coughing. A very solemn audience. Many sit with rigid backs, straight arms resting on knees, eyes closed. The quiet continues; a few more fill in the back.
Then with folded hands one of the welcomes them in a soft, almost languid voice and says that we will begin by chanting “om.” The members of the audience work themselves into versions of a yogic posture. Everyone breathes out “Om” We chant “Hare Krsna” softly on beads. “Om” means Krsna, but the impersonalists have ruined it for us. Bad usage drives out the good. On the table between the candles is a black-and-white front-face photograph of an Indian in yogic posture, their leader; his eyes are open wide, but you can see nothing but the whites.
The vibes are all quiet now, soft, mellow, and om-y. The three whisper among themselves, sending glances periodically our way. Two of them walk noiselessly to the side and sit. The other addresses us in soft and well-modulated tones. This is an exploratory meeting. If there is sufficient interest, members will come down to open a permanent branch.
Then he talks about Love. We must open our hearts to the divine. He talks about Surrender and Service. He talks about Humility. As he talks, his shoulders take on a slight hunch, he bends forward slightly from the waist, a posture he retains throughout his talk. Now and then he presses the palms of his hands together before him. Devotion, he says. Now and then he sends a quick look our way. Love, he says. Serve. Surrender.
It is quite a disarming performance. These are the same people who put up the poster, but we are not going to be able to get a handle on that. No, they believe in Love, Service, and Surrender. They are Devotees.
Now we are to have some Devotional Poetry, written by their leader. A girl in a shirtwaist dress goes to the front. “My Krishna is not black,” she reads. “My Krishna is gold. I have painted Him black with the ink of my mind.”
There it is. The devotee next to me groans. In context, “gold” means the impersonal effulgence of light, and “black” stands for Krsna’s name, form, qualities—everything.
A hand. “You speak a lot about worship. But isn’t there something higher?” It’s the first question, so they immediately realize that in slanting their presentation to us they have not satisfied the others. Now they are caught uncomfortably in between.
His answer, as you might expect, is convoluted, taking away with one hand what it gives with the other. It takes several other questions and answers to get his position out. It is this: Actually bhakti, the path of devotion, is the best because it is the easiest. Whatever path you take, it leads to the same place. On the path of devotion we choose some particular idea of God to worship, to concentrate our mind on. But when we reach the goal, we realize that the Supreme is beyond all thought and ideas and that the particular form we have been worshiping is a material conception. We also realize that our own individuality is an illusion. Thus we become one with the object of worship. So philosophically we understand that there is no difference between us and God. But when we practice bhakti we don’t think like that. For the purposes of bhakti, we must think of God as great and of ourselves as very small. We must become very humble and surrender to and serve our chosen ideal. The higher realization of oneness will come automatically, in time.
My hand is up. Reluctantly, “Yes?”
“Your poster says that Krsna meditated in order to become God?”
“Could you tell me how it is that God has to meditate in order to become God?”
He walks a few steps over toward me. “Well, we were just trying to express in words what is beyond words.”
“But it’s not so hard to understand. God means omnipotent, unlimited. If I am God, then why should I have to meditate? What kind of God is that?”
He looks at me with a hurt expression, and raising his hands at me palms out, he begins slowly to back away.
“Words . . .” he says in a pained voice. “Words …”
“Words . . .” plaintively echoes the other fellow, also backing away.
“Words . . .” they both say, looking around the audience in appeal, as if words were the most distressful things in the world to contemplate.
This is an amazing performance. “Wait a minute,” I protest. “You just spent an hour speaking all sorts of words, most of which sounded like nonsense to me. Now why—”
But they are past hearing, past words.
The doctrine that words are meaningless is so nonsensical it can’t even be spoken. In fact, it can’t even be thought!
They back away as if before a plague victim.
The audience is in turmoil. The vibes are gone. Several speak at once. Someone begins lecturing me from the other side of the room on the meaninglessness of words. Someone else flips rapidly through the Upanisads in paperback, apparently searching for confirmation of the same doctrine.
A heavy hand falls on my shoulder. I turn to confront a thin face fringed with a wispy beard. Baleful, solemn eyes peer into mine. “Hey, man,” he says, “you’re creatin’ duality.”
The mystic yogis turn to other questions, and the meeting quickly breaks up. We approach them afterwards, but they refuse discussion. I tell them that as devotees of Krsna we cannot tolerate blasphemy of Him, and that I hope we will not see any more of such posters.
The cold autumn night air cleared my head, but the meeting had left me despondent. My misgivings had been sound. All we had done was create antagonisms. I hadn’t been able even to confront their philosophy, let alone defeat it. It had been like putting your hands through mush. There was nothing to get a hold of.
Back at the temple we found a few devotees waiting up for us with cups of steaming hot milk. As we recounted what had happened, my mood began to improve.
“They can talk nonsense for hours,” I said, “and then when you challenge them, all of a sudden words are meaningless!” The fathomless stupidity of their position struck me with wonder. The doctrine that words are meaningless is so nonsensical that it can’t even be spoken. In fact, it can’t even be thought! Why couldn’t they at least be consistent and be silent? If they were true to themselves they couldn’t spread this nonsense.
If words are meaningless, then thinking is meaningless too. They are actually trying to become mindless. They say that bhakti is for the emotional sort and that their speculative process is for the intellectual, but they revealed that night how profoundly anti-intellectual and antirational they are. For them, all rational thinking is maya. And if they try to base their position on scripture (like the boy flipping through the Upanisads)—well, that is maya too.
I was feeling ebullient. And then another realization came to me. It made everything worthwhile. I understood their philosophy of devotion.
“It’s Putana-bhakti!” I exclaimed. “That’s what it is, Putana-bhakti” Everything fell into place. Their devotional service, like Putana’s, was a disguise, a sham. Putana wanted to kill Krsna, and to get close to Him she disguised herself as a devotee, as the goddess of fortune. Pretending she was going to serve Krsna the way His mother Yasoda serves Him. She took Him tenderly upon her lap. Even the devotees were fooled. But at the last minute, her purpose was revealed. It is the same with the impersonalists. They adopt bhakti for spiritual advancement and try to act like devotees; they talk about humility, and service, and surrender, but, as the yogi said in his talk, they have another idea in the back of their minds: “I’m God.” They try to approach God through their duplicitous devotion, and their plan is that at the last moment they’re going to whip off the disguise, attack Krsna with their “neti, neti. neti,” kill Him, and take His place. Putana-bhakti!
I was exhilarated. They had challenged Krsna, but in doing so they had merely brought out in the open their own mindlessness and their own petty envy of God. How ridiculous the tiny creature becomes when he aspires to be the Supreme. They had challenged Krsna, but there was no doubt that it was—as it had to be—a clear victory for Krsna.
In a short time & yellow posters all disappeared from the city. And the mystic yogis, for whatever reason, did not come back.
RAVINDRA SVARUPA DASA holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University, Philadelphia. He has been a devotee of Krsna for nine Years.