By Yudhisthira Dasa
Looking for relevance in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad-gita.
The Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, is the unlimited source of all that be. Throughout the Srimad-Bhagavad-gita the Lord Himself confirms this fact. As one proceeds through the Gita, the mystery of the Lord’s opulence unfolds. Sri Krishna, presenting His universal form on the request of His pure devotee Arjuna, has the demigods trembling in fear and bewilderment. Arjuna finally submits a plea for the Lord to return to His original, attractive form – saumya-vapuh (Gita 11.50) – with two hands holding the reins of the horses, and His smiling face charming all the worlds.
At this point, I, as a tiny reader and student, am baffled by the mystery of it all. What does the display of the universal form really point to? Although not desirable for meditation, how can devotees use the Lord’s unique display of opulence and power? How can I, as an aspiring devotee in our modern day and age, turn this revelation in the pages of the Bhagavad-gita into something perceivable and useful for my everyday life as a Hare Krishna bhakta?
In my attempt here, I will first make a simple distinction between the two forms displayed by the Lord. Then I will look at the two separately to investigate what relevance they have for my daily life.
The two forms of the Lord, as described in the Bhagavad-gita, invoke distinctly different emotions in Arjuna, the viewer of the Lord’s display. First the Lord shows His vishva-rupa, or universal form: sarvashcharya-mayam devam anantam vishvato-mukham: “All was wondrous, brilliant, unlimited, all-expanding”(11.11). The gigantic faces and weapons were countless and wonderful to behold. Scents and sights of unimaginable beauty and splendor were all-pervading. Arjuna, baffled and amazed, showing symptoms of ecstasy, offered respects and prayers in awe and reverence. Although a close, friendly associate of Krishna, his mood shifts because of the overwhelming opulence shown, and he struggles to believe his own eyes.
Then the vision changes. He sees faces twisted with terrible teeth, helpless living beings crushed between them, as the world burns in forceful destruction and doom, unavoidable and merciless. Arjuna, the heroic warrior, now cowers in fear at this sight, staring death in the face.
“O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.” (11.25)
Being a devotee of the Lord, the prince submits himself before this disturbing form, offering prayers and worship, in the end asking the Lord to return to His form as the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna.
A Lingering Vision
The wondrous and horrible vision subsides, and the dialog between the two friends continues in the subsequent chapters. For me, the display of universal opulence lingers. I feel a need for a deeper understanding of the application of this description in my own life. Arjuna was initiated into a never-before-revealed secret. Tvad anyena na drishta-purvam: “No one before you has ever seen this.” (11.47) As an insignificant follower of the great Arjuna, as a descendant in devotion, I have been granted access to this same mystery by the grace of Srila Prabhupada. I consider myself blessed.
But how does this miracle of the ancient world relate to my day-to-day experience in the present? I am certainly baffled by the incredible complexity and vastness of the universe. Following in Arjuna’s lotus footsteps, I wonder at the marvel of divine reality – how Krishna has His hands and eyes everywhere, how as a universal principle everyone and everything originates in Him. One is simply humbled at the incredible opulence of the Supreme Lord. My crude written endeavor here cannot justly describe a true devotee’s heart in this matter. Although I do not perceive the dazzling effulgence of thousands of suns rising at once (surya-sahasrasya bhaved yugapad utthita, 11.12), I clearly see the one sun rising every day. This is my revelation. I smell the scents of a meadow of daisies, a pinewood forest, the great ocean. These are my revelations. This is my level of understanding. At such times I may remember Arjuna stunned in wondrous awe at the immense opulence of the Lord.
But there is another side to the world, a dark and somber reality, easily forgotten in daily affairs or a moment of enjoyment steeped in impressions of natural beauty. Time is always there, that all-devouring entity (loka-kshaya-krit pravriddhah, 11.32), annihilating even as seconds pass. Oblivious in their ignorance, people hanker for enjoyment of sensual pleasures, all the while running headfirst into the blazing razor-lined, escapeless mouth of universal time, doomed and utterly helpless. This is a sobering warning displayed by the Lord for any aspiring devotee. This world, with all its variety and scenery, is limited and never permanent. This includes our bodies, subtle and gross. At birth, the end is near.
Action from Reflection
In my life such reflections instigate actions linked with eternity. The temporary charade of material life is unveiled, and the emergency of devotional service becomes vividly apparent. And as a natural consequence, I feel greatly fortunate to have come in contact with the devotees of Krishna, primarily through Srila Prabhupada’s books, having been granted access to a process of liberation from mortal incarceration, and destined to reach realms of eternity and bliss as the ultimate goal.
Although the Lord’s forms as the universe and time certainly have their instructive value for devotees, they originate from the all-attractive form of two-handed Sri Krishna. They are a display of opulence to prove a point about supreme divinity: Everything is connected to Krishna; He is the source of everything. Therefore, in devotional service all focus is one-pointedly directed toward the person Krishna. What a great relief!
The vision of the universal form was in some way an intimate moment, in that it was a favor granted by the Lord to His great devotee. And it was a favor for future generations as well, crushing the conceits of so-called incarnations and people who believe in nothingness as the ultimate reality. As the Lord showed, a Supreme Person stands behind the variety displayed in nature and universal phenomena.
To move past the wonder of appreciation and rise above the utter fear at the prospect of death and destruction, devotion is required. The Lord gives it poetic expression, as if in response to my longing to uncover this transcendental enigma:
“My dear Arjuna, only by undivided devotional service can I be understood as I am, standing before you, and can thus be seen directly. Only in this way can you enter into the mystery of My understanding.” (11.54)
With such eloquent expression, the Lord beckons us into His loving companionship. This is the real-life adventure of our spiritual rediscovery.