Not Your Everyday God

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Krishna is far more colorful and captivating than what most people expect of God.

God. Perhaps no word in the English language is laden with more emotional baggage. For some it conjures reveries of gratitude and adoration. For many others it evokes anger, fear, or doubt. In either case, the conceptions that flood the mind of the average person – at least in the Judeo-Christian West – are almost all mistaken. People envision a God who has no definite or permanent form and whose primary business is to run this world and, in the process, satisfy the physical and mental desires of its inhabitants. Arising from common biblical interpretations, these notions of divinity have permeated Western society to the point that mainstream motion pictures invariably portray just such a God. But the devotional scriptures of ancient India present a strikingly different reality. Intended for those rare souls who are eagerly seeking to know God in truth, they reveal that, in His original form, He is the Supreme Person, Krishna, who inhabits His own spiritual realm and spends His time accepting and enjoying the service of His devotees. In this way, though He is indeed the ultimate cause of all creation and the primordial father of all living beings, Krishna is not the God that most people imagine.

God’s Form

Because the idea of God having a body is seen as limiting, He is generally reduced to little more than a diffuse radiant gas. Even though the Old Testament refers to various parts of God’s body – such as His face, His hands, and His back – most readers, following in the footsteps of the prominent Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, take these descriptions to be allegorical. And the New Testament focuses on the personhood of Jesus, the Son, leaving it unclear how personal God, the Father, is. The result is that most people cling to an impersonal conception of divinity. In a conversation with Srila Prabhupada in Iran in 1975, for example, one guest urged that God “need not have a definite form.” Another guest explained that “the energy of light does take the form of everything which exists. It is the creator of worlds.” Indeed, people who describe the amorphous “white light” of divinity are legion all the time.

In line with this belief, the trend in modern cinema is to depict God as ultimately formless and devoid of personality. For instance, although God appears in the final scene of the 1999 fantasy comedy Dogma, the script betrays an underlying impersonal conception. Despite appearing in the form of a healthy young woman and encountering fallen angels and foul-mouthed prophets, God does not speak a single word. Moreover, as She reenters the New Jersey church from which She emerged, a purported apostle explains to the protagonist that God “is not really a woman. She’s not really anything.” Thus, even when God is ostensibly portrayed as a person, He (or She) is not permitted the traits of personhood as we know it.

But Krishna is nothing so nebulous. The Brahma-samhita describes Him as having “blooming eyes like lotus petals," a head "decked with peacock’s feather,” and a body “tinged with the hue of blue clouds.” Hanging from His neck is “a garland of flowers beautified with the moon-locket.” In His hands He holds a flute. The Srimad-Bhagavatam describes even more features: the curl of white hair known as Srivatsa on His chest (3.19.15), the yellow silk garment He wears (3.4.7), the shark-shaped ornaments dangling from His ears (8.18.2), the Kaustubha gem adorning His neck (4.8.48), and the special marks distinguishing His feet, such as the lotus, barleycorn, and elephant goad (10.38.25). In the Iran conversation cited above, Srila Prabhupada teaches his skeptical audience that Krishna’s form does not limit Him, because, being spiritual rather than material, it is not subject to the physical laws that restrict our own bodies. He also advises that we should not expect to be able to see this sublime form with our blunt material senses, but must instead wait for Krishna to reveal Himself in response to our loving mood.

God’s Realm

Another stereotype of God concerns His area of primary activity. Whatever He may look like, the practical consensus is that God’s place is here, at the helm of planet Earth. Though the Bible frequently alludes to a heavenly afterlife, little to nothing is said about what that life consists of. As a result, the Kingdom of God exists in the background of most people’s consciousness as a sort of perpetual retirement community, not particularly exciting, but warm and safe, and a nice place to go after our “real” life here is over. As for the other planets in this universe, the Bible is more or less silent, and modern science has deemed them lifeless, so there is little reason to expect God to care much about them. Thus, it is assumed that God’s attention must be focused predominantly, if not exclusively, on our one planet, the only place where anything truly interesting happens.

Contemporary movies echo this divine geocentrism. In the 2011 romantic sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau, for example, a politician’s attempts to reunite with a woman he met once by chance are repeatedly foiled by members of the otherworldly “Adjustment Bureau,” who tell him that the relationship is not sanctioned by “the Plan.” When he asks who sent the officials, he is told they work for “the Chairman.” The movie climaxes with the politician and the woman on a building top, surrounded by officials and facing imminent resetting of their memories. At the last minute, the Chairman sends a revised Plan, and the officials permit the couple to be together.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam shows that there is much more to God’s domain than this one planet, and that He is therefore much more than merely earth’s “Chairman.” The Fifth Canto describes how our universe comprises fourteen planetary systems, each made up of numerous regions that are home to diverse living beings. And this “universe” is merely one among countless millions of similar – or even larger – cosmic eggs. Thus, even God’s secular kingdom extends far beyond what most people can fathom. But altogether beyond the created world lies the spiritual world. In the Bhagavad-gita (8.20–21) Krishna describes that world – which is “eternal and transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter” – as His supreme abode. Leaving the governance of the myriad mundane universes to His various alter egos, it is there that Krishna, the primeval Lord, spends His leisure time. (Indeed, far from exalting earth as the center of existence, the Srimad- Bhagavatam presents the entire material creation as merely Krishna's dream.)

On each of the infinite spiritual planets, or Vaikunthas, Krishna as Narayana takes a unique form and engages in loving exchanges with entities specifically attracted to that form. On the chief planet, Goloka Vrindavana, Krishna lives in His original form with His most intimate devotees, basking eternally in their love and affection. In Goloka Vrindavana, lakes filled with ambrosial water lap shores made of gems, the trees produce whatever one may desire, walking is dance, speech is song, and Krishna exhibits His primary nature. Rather than occupying Himself with the operation of our home world, He prefers to remain enthralled by loving relationships in His own home world. Hence, the God most people think of is a “Chairman,” utterly engrossed in managing our mortal realm, but Krishna has better things to do . . . and a more sublime place in which to do them.

God’s Role

Among the most pernicious of the common misconceptions of God is that His main business is to satisfy our longings for things in this world. By and large, the Bible casts God in the role of father. And so, just as we look to our biological father to maintain us and acquire goods for our enjoyment, we tend to turn to our heavenly father only to request the fulfillment of our material desires. At its worst, what Santa Claus is to American children at Christmastime, God becomes to their parents year-round: a benevolent and bearded elderly fellow who’s expected to process their shopping lists and then promptly make his way back up North.

God in modern films has very much the same role. In the 2003 comedy Bruce Almighty, a television news reporter who has just been fired complains that God has let him down. Apparently indignant at the accusation of incompetence, God visits Bruce, gives him divine powers, and asks him to see if he can do a better job than God. After Bruce spends some time selfishly abusing his powers, God returns and scolds him for ignoring the “voices in his head,” which are all actually the prayers of humankind (or, at least, of those in the Buffalo, New York area). Bruce responds by setting up a computerized e-mail system to receive and respond to the prayers, but he is quickly overwhelmed. Frustrated, he sets the system to automatically grant all prayers. Predictably, chaos ensues, and Bruce eventually asks God to take back His powers, having by then appreciated the challenges God faces.

Krishna, in contrast, is not the chief order-supplier, but rather the supreme enjoyer. In His feature as Paramatma, the Supersoul residing in the heart of every living entity, He does sanction the pain and pleasure we receive. But in His original feature as Bhagavan, He concentrates on sporting amusement with His eternal friends and relatives in the spiritual world, as described above. When He does venture into the material world, it is likewise in pursuit of pleasure, as the dalliances of His various incarnations demonstrate. When He wants to enjoy a good fight, He comes as Narasimha (half man, half lion). When He wants to enjoy a good back scratch, He comes as Kurma (a tortoise). When He wants to enjoy playing in the mud, He comes as Varaha (a boar). And when He wants to pull a practical joke on His devotees (and show off a bit at the same time), He comes as Matsya (a fish) or Vamana (a dwarf).

One should not think, however, that Krishna enjoys in place of, or at the cost of, the happiness of other living entities. (Indeed, in one verse in the Bhagavad-gita [5.29] He declares Himself both the ultimate enjoyer and everyone’s best friend.) On the contrary, His enjoyment is necessary for the genuine happiness of others. Krishna is the Supreme Whole, so there can be nothing truly separate from Him. (Ishopanishad, Invocation) Consequently, whatever there may be, no matter how apparently independent, is in truth connected to Him in a dependent – and therefore subordinate – relationship. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 5.142) That is to say, the circle of existence can have only one center, and everything else must revolve around it. Thus situated, all other living entities are secondary enjoyers, with Krishna the only direct enjoyer. Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.31.14) analogizes to how food given to the stomach nourishes the entire body, or how water given to the root nourishes the entire tree. Srila Prabhupada similarly explained that when one places ornaments on a person standing before a mirror, that person’s reflection also becomes decorated.

When we accept this reality and “orbit” the Lord in conformity with our intrinsic nature, we are properly situated and feel naturally happy. But when we ignore our dependent condition, and act in defiance of Krishna’s position, we find ourselves in artificial misery. Having voluntarily disconnected ourselves from the only source of true pleasure, we doom ourselves to partake of only its pale reflection, sense indulgence, which is temporary and inevitably leads to greater suffering. (Gita 5.22) The great saint Narada Muni therefore recommends that we take up the process of bhakti-yoga and engage our senses in the service of their Lord. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 19.170) For the same reasons, Krishna, rather than wasting His time trying to grant our evanescent and whimsical material desires, much prefers to reawaken our spirit of loving service to His lotuslike feet. (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 22.39)

As we can see, Sri Krishna, as He is described in the Vedic literature, is nothing like the God most people think of. From the Bible to contemporary movies, God is portrayed as an abstract entity whose job is to run this world and keep its inhabitants happy in the here and now. But Krishna is a charming young boy who frolics in His own pastoral paradise. And He invites those disaffected by common notions of the divinity and frustrated with the vain quest for worldly happiness to forget religion, forgo their worldly ambitions, and simply divert their energy and attention to Him. In return, He promises to bring us back to Godhead, back to where we belong, to rejoin His loving circle and experience a joy beyond all bounds. (Gita 18.65–66, 9.2, 5.21)

About the Author: 

Navina-Syama Dasa

Navina-Syama Dasa (Navin Shyam Jani) grew up going to ISKCON temples, first in Cleveland, Ohio, and later in Laguna Beach, California. He became serious about spiritual life while studying at Stanford University, and after graduation he spent time in several North American temples and farm communities. Later, he traveled to India with his wife, Krishna Priya Devi Dasi, where he earned a Bhakti Shastri degree with High Honors from the Mayapur Institute of Higher Education.