Unlike an image that is the product of our imagination, the form of Krishna is an eternal reality.
By Ikshvaku Dasa
“The Supreme Lord can reveal Himself through the visible elements that emanate from Him and are part of His existence.”
Excerpted from Hare Krishna: An introduction to its philosophy, history and fundamentals, by Ivan M. Llobet. Copyright © 2021 Ivan M. Llobet. All rights reserved. This excerpt, from chapter four of the book, retains the book’s style for Sanskrit and other considerations. The book is available from the Krishna.com Store and Amazon.com.
When we look at the Indo-Vedic religious model, the first thing we notice is the great variety of icons and three-dimensional shapes of different divinities. In contrast, although the use of icons is very common, most of the Judeo-Christian culture is essentially iconoclastic; that is, it condemns the use of icons or images, considering them idolatry. Thou shalt not worship images is a fundamental commandment of the Mosaic Law. The ancient Hebrews made a radical distinction between spirit and matter, between the creator and the creation, with the result that matter, destitute of all grace, is unable to reveal its creator. Any attempt to worship God through His creation is considered a form of idolatry. However, in the eighth century, the Christian theologian John of Damascus suggested that the expression of the divine through matter is possible; therefore, an authentic form of the Divinity that becomes visible in the world for the benefit of the faithful should not be seen as an ordinary image. For John of Damascus, the incarnation of Christ provided a solid foundation for the use of devotional icons, since they act as a window that offers us a clearer and closer view of the divine. According to John, since Christ became visible, it was now possible to make an image of what was seen, since the mystery of his form had been revealed.* This understanding is compatible with the version of the Vedic sages.
The Religious Icon: A Sacred Form or a Pagan Image?
The worship of the forms of Lord Krishna composed of physical elements is far from idolatry, since the similarity that we find between an ordinary image and His visible forms is only apparent. Unlike an image that is the product of our imagination, the form of Krishna is an eternal reality. These visible forms made of physical elements in the Vedas are known as archa-vigraha: the adorable form. These adorable forms are not the result of fertile human imagination, but replicas of the forms in which Lord Krishna has manifested in this world and whose appearance is described in the Vedic texts; therefore, although the archa-vigraha externally may appear to be an ordinary image, in reality it is not.
For example, to ordinary vision a murderer and a surgeon are similar: both have masked faces and their hands are stained with blood; both hold a sharp object and before them lies an unconscious and bloody body. Despite sharing such similarities, there is a fundamental difference: while the murderer takes our life, the surgeon saves it. Thus, appearances may deceive us; often idolatry exists in the eye of the beholder. Iconography is so natural to human beings that even religious societies that condemn the use of icons recognize their emotional value even without realizing it, since in their publications we see colorful illustrations about the life and work of Jesus and other biblical passages. Without a doubt, when the faithful observe the graphic representations of these stories, their feeling of communion deepens; as such, it cannot be denied that the iconography has a positive impact on spiritual awareness. A cross may be an ordinary piece of wood for someone outside of Christianity, but seeing it, a Christian will feel communion with the life and work of Jesus. The truth is that icons, symbols, graphic depictions and three-dimensional representations that we ordinarily call images function as something more than simple didactic mechanisms.
When we say that God is the Absolute Truth, we acknowledge that everything that exists emanates from and depends on Him, that there is no other source of existence outside or independent of Him. According to the Vedas, the Supreme Lord and His energies are simultaneously one and different. They are one with Him because they are the same in quality, being spirit, but they are also different because God is the creator or energetic source and His energies are the emanation of the created. God and His energies are a single unit. For example, the sun and the sun rays form a single unit, but there is also a difference between the two, since the sun is the sun and its rays are its rays. The sun’s rays emanate from the sun; they are its potency, its energy. This means that there is an equality between God and His creation in the sense that there is no other source of existence independent of God; all the creation is an expression of His powers. However, simultaneously, in His personal form God is different from everything created. This constitutes the proper understanding of Vedanta philosophy and it is one of the essential philosophical principles of the Vaishnava religion (Hare Krishna). This concept is known as achintya-bheda-abheda-tattva; that is to say: God is inconceivably equal to and simultaneously categorically different from all His creation: (achintya=inconceivable, bheda=equal, nondifferent, abheda=different, tattva=category of existence). His energies are to Him what light and heat are to fire – an integral part of His own essence, different aspects of the same entity.
Because of this, the Vedas tell us that in one sense, everything that exists is divine in nature because it emanates from the Divine Absolute. In His Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna tells us that material energy is also divine since it is part of His own self, although such divinity is not evident to our eyes because we are souls covered by illusion. The human concept of “material” arises when we see things as separate from God, when we are unable to perceive the connection that everything has with its divine origin. This implies that “material” is not the substance itself but the observer’s conditioned consciousness. Lord Krishna describes His spiritual potency as “superior energy” (para-prakriti) and the one we call material as “inferior energy” (apara-prakriti), and yet He also describes them both as divine (divya). The superior energy (which we call spiritual) is immutable, conscious, and dynamic, while the inferior one (which we call material) is mutable, unconscious, and inert. Although they have different attributes, both are divine since they originate from the Divine. It is like the right and left arms of a person; both may be described in different ways, but they are not different for the person himself, who uses each one as he likes. In fact, the idea of right and left is based on our point of perception. In a similar way, the concept of superior and inferior energies is but a description for our conditioned experience.
However, when we individual souls (jiva or atma), being extremely tiny, come into contact with what we call inferior spiritual energy (which we call material), there is a condition of incompatibility that makes us forget our superior spiritual nature and, consequently, our relationship with God. The condition is just like that of water: despite having the potential to extinguish the fire, when a small drop is thrown into the flames, instead of extinguishing it, it evaporates. As a result of this “extinguished consciousness” or state of forgetfulness, the soul identifies with the temporary physical body composed of qualitatively inferior spiritual substance and calls it material. However, for the Supreme Lord there is no such difference between His “superior spiritual” and “inferior spiritual” energy, just as for an electric generator there is no difference between the negative and positive current, since both emanate from itself. As the master and source of His energies, the Supreme Lord has the sovereign potential to manifest in His entirety through any of His potencies. An example of this is the revelation that Moses received in the form of a fire burning in a bush. If the Lord can manifest Himself through fire, what makes us think that He cannot do so through some other element of nature? That is why the archa-vigraha, or the adorable forms of Lord Krishna, although made of physical elements, do not lose their divine nature, since the Supreme Lord can reveal Himself through the visible elements that emanate from Him and are part of His existence.
We should not assume that the acceptance of the visible form of the Lord implies imposing limitations on Him, but quite the opposite. If, despite being endowed with inconceivable potencies, the personality of Godhead could not manifest His form for the well-being of conditioned souls through the physical elements that are aspects of Himself, this would really impose limitations on His person. Since in the conditioned state our spiritual vision is null, it is natural that the archa-vigraha appears to be devoid of life, for only the highest mystics can appreciate its spiritual nature, since the Lord reciprocates our vision of His manifested form in the way we approach it. For those who see Him as a pagan image, the Lord reciprocates with them in the same way within their heart. If we consider that there is an irreconcilable and incompatible difference between God and His energies (or spirit and matter), forgetting the absolute nature of God, we will naturally be carried away by the iconoclastic feeling, so we will conclude that devotion to the archa-vigraha is nothing more than idolatry to a pagan idol and that no visible form is worthy of veneration since it limits and offends the divine nature. The fact that the personal concept of God does not constitute a limitation in the divine nature will be a topic that we will deal with later in this work.
Absolute means not only that the Lord is not different from His energies, but also that He is not different from His form, His name, His activities, etc., and that therefore, each one of them can be present within the material universe without diminishing their power. Being the Absolute Truth, Lord Krishna is not different from His creative energy (which we ordinarily call material) or His name or His form; so the archa-vigraha, or the visible form made of physical elements, is not different from Krishna Himself. The archa-vigraha is carved following the specific instructions given to us by the Vedic texts and sages of yore who eye-witnessed Krishna’s personal appearance. Therefore, when His own form is carved out of His own energy, by virtue of His absolute nature there is full equality between the Lord and His adorable form. The archa-vigraha, or the adorable form of Krishna composed of physical elements, is only material to our eyes and conditioned consciousness. Its purpose is to give the fallen souls devoid of spiritual vision the opportunity to see, appreciate, and meditate on the eternal form of Lord Krishna manifested through the elements that we can perceive with the physical eyes. The conclusion is that the worship of the archa-vigraha, rather than an idolatry to a pagan image, is an authentic means of devotion to His most merciful form.
Anthropomorphic or Theomorphic?
Anthropomorphism (anthropo=human, morphe=form) is the projection of human qualities and emotions onto the divine plane – in other words, to conceive the Divine based on our human experience. For example, if in our experience corpulence denotes strength and power, then God, who is the strongest and most powerful being, must be corpulent. If a long life results in old age, then God, who is the oldest being, must be an old man. Perhaps the most universal artistic expression of anthropomorphic thought is found in the Sistine Chapel, where God is represented by Michelangelo as a corpulent old man. Anthropomorphism is a primitive form of thinking that reduces God into an amplified reflection of the human. The natural outcome when we reject this crude vision of the Divine is God as the opposite of everything we perceive in the world – that is to say, the impersonal concept of God: an amorphous, ineffable, inexpressible, unknowable, intangible being, without its own identity and which cannot be defined or represented.
However, the Vedic texts transcend this impersonal idea by presenting a theomorphic ideal (theos=God, morphe=form). Vedic theomorphism is not limited to stating that man is created in the likeness of God, but that even human society is a replica (although distorted) of His transcendental kingdom. Unlike the anthropomorphism that makes God a reflection of the human, the theomorphic version makes the human a reflection of God. In other words, because God possesses personal attributes, such as form and individuality (etc.), it follows that these attributes are also visible in His creation, and therefore, in all living beings. However, since both primitive anthropomorphism and Vedic theomorphism pay tribute to a visible physical form, the casual observer will make no difference between the two and considers them to be the same despite being the opposite. It is like the two ends of a line that are hard to distinguish when joined by making a circumference with it, or like the surgeon and the murderer, which at first glance appear to be the same. It is for this reason that the archa-vigraha, or the adorable form of the avataras of Krishna, is far removed from primitive anthropomorphic idolatry.
*The Christian Theology Reader, Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell Publishers, 1995, p. 150.
Ikshvaku Dasa (Ivan M. Llobet), born in Havana, Cuba, has been practicing Krishna consciousness since 1986. He holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Florida International University and is a disciple of His Holiness Hridayananda Dasa Goswami.