Today’s New Atheists, who decry the very idea of God, are unlikely to get the same results as the enemies fortunate enough to challenge Krishna face to face.


Sometimes, when things aren’t going my way, or if I feel generally unenthused in my spiritual pursuits, I can become somewhat antagonistic toward God. “Why bother?” I wonder. “Why be devoted? What has God ever done for me?” I suspect that most people have periods of such spiritual sluggishness, or even come to resent God, especially when the fates seem to work against them. And if this mindset goes too far, it can feel like one is at war with the Supreme: “Okay, let Him be that way. He’ll see – I just won’t worship Him. Let’s see how He likes that!” As if we can threaten God.

In my life these moments are thankfully few and far between, and I don’t want to make too much of them. But I was recently reminded of such feelings when I came across the word misotheism. (No, it’s not God’s preferred soup recipe.) It originates in ancient Greek culture, articulating the notion of wanting to “punish God or gods by ceasing to worship them.” Overall, it indicates an adversarial mood toward the Supreme, or literally a hatred of God.

Today, we find a similar phenomenon in the New Atheism, an informal movement of scientists and intellectuals on a mission, of sorts, to disprove the existence of God, or at least express their disapproval of Him. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and Robert L. Park, prominent spokespeople for this new movement, claim that religion “is dangerous” or “poisons everyday life.” They embrace their war against the Supreme with the passion of religious revivalists, becoming obsessed and ready to set almost all else aside. Indeed, their consuming battle with God becomes a sort of inverse religion itself, as they worship at the altar of hate.

In this sense, God’s modern “enemies” are reminiscent of the demons in krishna-lila, Krishna’s pastimes. These were fortunate beings who incarnated to serve God in an adversarial role when He descended to earth five thousand years ago. Such demons, the scriptures tell us, come from one of two categories: they are either eternal associates of the Lord, or ordinary souls who manage, through special mercy, to interact with Him for a specific purpose. Thus they stand a long way from the flawed proponents of the New Atheism. The demons in krishna-lila actually saw the Personality of Godhead – He was standing right in front of them – whereas the new brand of demon is merely shooting in the dark, trying to assess an entity he has absolutely no familiarity with.

The Demons in Krishna-lila

Just as we have various kinds of relationships in the material world, enjoying every nuance of diversity and the excitement of unexpected exchanges that come from interacting with numerous people, so too does God relish interpersonal exchanges in the spiritual world. In fact, the loving kinship that exists in God’s realm is the prototype of the many exchanges we have here. As it is said, we are made in the image of God. Where do demons fit in? God is complete, and so every kind of relationship must exist in Him, but in its purest form. Why should God be denied the excitement of competition or the thrill of battle, for example, even if in the end no one can defeat Him?

As Srila Prabhupada writes in his commentary to the Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 5.36):

The Supreme Personality of Godhead has all the tendencies that may be found in the living entity, for He is the chief living entity. Therefore it is natural that sometimes Lord Vishnu wants to fight. Just as He has the tendencies to create, to enjoy, to be a friend, to accept a mother and father, and so on, He also has the tendency to fight. Sometimes important landlords and kings keep wrestlers with whom they practice mock fighting, and Vishnu makes similar arrangements. The demons who fight with the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the material world are sometimes His associates. When there is a scarcity of demons and the Lord wants to fight, He instigates some of His associates of Vaikuntha to come and play as demons.

Among the many kinds of relationships one can have with God, certain souls serve to engage His aggressive, combative side. These are the entities known as demons (asuras) in krishna-lila. Although demonic entities exist only in suggestion in the spiritual world, they tangibly appear when Krishna incarnates in the material realm, as He does repeatedly throughout time.

Whether one interacts with God as His dearest friend or as His enemy, the interaction is purifying because God is absolute. For His enemies, intense absorption in thought of Him helps awaken remembrance of their eternal relationship with Him.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.1.26) tells us: “Therefore, by enmity [vaira-anubandha] or by devotional service [nirvaira], by fear [bhaya], by affection [sneha], or by lusty desire [kama] – by all of these or any one of them – if a conditioned soul somehow or other concentrates his mind upon the Lord, the result is the same, for the Lord, because of His blissful position, is never affected by enmity or friendship.” And further (7.1.29): “If the conditioned souls somehow or other think of Krishna, who is sac-cid-ananda-vigraha [a form full of eternity, knowledge, and bliss], they will become free from their sins.” Therefore, the essence of sadhana-bhakti, devotional service in practice, is to center the mind on Krishna.

The Bhagavatam (7.1.32) highlights this point through the words of the great sage Narada: “My dear king, one has to fix his mind on Krishna by any means.” Narada then explains how Sishupala and Kamsa – two primary demons from krishna-lila – became liberated by focusing on the Lord, even though they did so out of hatred and fear, respectively. This is the supreme efficacy of remembering Krishna. Anyone who concentrates the mind on Him, for any reason, will be purified and attain liberation.

Varieties of Liberation

According to the tenets of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, devotees in the line of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu identify five kinds of liberation (mukti): salokya (being promoted to God’s realm), samipya (becoming His intimate associate), sarupya (attaining a form like His), sarshti (attaining divine opulences), and sayujya (merging into His body or effulgence). Although liberation from material existence is generally considered a lofty goal, Vaishnavas focus squarely on developing love of God (prema), with liberation being a mere afterthought. In fact, for those who reach perfection on the path of devotion, mukti is considered anathema. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.29.13) confirms, “My devotees do not accept salokyasarshtisarupyasamipya, or oneness with Me – even if I offer these liberations – in preference to serving Me.” (As quoted in Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 19.173)

As already stated, the demons in krishna-lila have diverse ontological status: Some are eternally liberated, and some attain liberation by dint of Krishna’s holy association. As an example of the former, Jaya and Vijaya were the gatekeepers of the spiritual realm, but they came to the world of matter – ostensibly as the result of a curse – to assist in the Lord’s pastimes. In a succession of births, they appeared first as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, then as Ravana and Kumbhakarna; after that they came as Sishupala and Dantavakra, and finally as Jagai and Madhai. Prabhupada writes, “Sishupala and Dantavakra were not ordinary demons, but were formerly personal associates of Lord Vishnu. They apparently fell to this material world, but actually they came to assist the Supreme Personality of Godhead by nourishing His pastimes within this world.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.1.33, Purport)

Of those enemies of Krishna who get liberation (not the eternally liberated souls), the Bhagavatam reveals that most of them merely attain sayujya-mukti, merging into the Lord’s essence, whereas others, such as Kamsa, Aghasura, and Paundraka, attain sarupya-mukti, adopting a form similar to Vishnu’s. Unique among the demons in krishna-lila is Putana, who suckled baby Krishna as a ruse to kill Him – with poison smeared on her breasts. Because she approached Him in a maternal way – although with a demoniac ulterior motive – He mercifully accepted her as a motherly devotee, and consequently she attained a position among His nurturers in the kingdom of God.

Bhakti As Positive Devotion

Contemplation of Krishna as an enemy should not be mistaken for a form of bhakti, or devotional service to the Lord, even though medieval Sanskrit literature sometimes mentions a phenomenon known as dvesha-bhakti, devotion based on hatred. The phrase is never used as an established theological category but rather only in a nontechnical sense, indicating the very devoted nature of God’s adversaries. Such beings have intense dedication to their cause, misguided though it is. Consequently, they have a kind of devotion (bhakti) for their project of hatred (dvesha). That being said, Jiva Goswami refutes the idea in his Bhakti-sandarbha (Anuccheda 324): “Some regard hatred and so on as bhakti, too, but this is not true.” (atra dveshadav api kechid bhaktitvam manyante tad asat)

In fact, the odd compound dvesha-bhakti is composed of antonyms (“hate-love”), thus making it a contradiction in terms. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a prominent acharya in our Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, points out, “Dvesha, enmity, is a particular attitude which is also known as matsarata, envy. . . . The attitude a person bears toward the Lord which is in direct opposition to love is known as dvesha.” (Jaiva Dharma, Chapter Eight)

Bhakti must be enacted with a favorable attitude, not with enmity or envy. As Vaishnava theologian Rupa Goswami writes,


anukulyena krishnanu-
shilanam bhaktir uttama


“When first-class devotional service develops, one must be devoid of all material desires, knowledge obtained by monistic philosophy, and fruitive action. The devotee must constantly serve Krishna favorably, as Krishna desires.” (Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu 1.1.11)

Srila Prabhupada comments on this verse:

Srila Rupa Goswami clearly states that if anyone wants to execute unalloyed devotional service, he must be freed from all kinds of material contamination. He must be freed from the association of persons who are addicted to fruitive activities and mental speculation. When, freed from such unwanted association and from the contamination of material desires, one favorably cultivates knowledge of Krishna, that is called pure devotional service. Anukulyasya sankalpah pratikulyasya varjanam (Hari-bhakti-vilasa 11.676). One should think of Krishna and act for Krishna favorably, not unfavorably. Kamsa was an enemy of Krishna’s. From the very beginning of Krishna’s birth, Kamsa planned in so many ways to kill Him, and because he was always unsuccessful, he was always thinking of Krishna. Thus while working, while eating, and while sleeping, he was always Krishna conscious in every respect, but that Krishna consciousness was not favorable, and therefore in spite of his always thinking of Krishna twenty-four hours a day, he was considered a demon, and Krishna at last killed him. Of course anyone who is killed by Krishna attains salvation immediately, but that is not the aim of the pure devotee. The pure devotee does not even want salvation. He does not want to be transferred even to the highest planet, Goloka Vrindavana. His only objective is to serve Krishna wherever he may be. (Bhagavad-gita 11.55, Purport)

In the present context, the key word here is anukulyena (“favorable intention”). In other words, only devotees can experience authentic bhakti-rasa (the “taste” of bhakti) because only they want to serve the Lord favorably, with a mood of love and devotion. While demons in krishna-lila may focus exclusively on Krishna, they do not serve Him agreeably or amiably and thus fall short of true bhakti. Nonetheless, as a result of His causeless mercy and the demons’ proximity to the purest of the pure, they attain Him in much the same way that a devotee does.

True, they ultimately please Him by responding to His desire for opposition, engaging His spirit of transcendental rivalry, but they don’t intend to please Him, and herein lies the real distinction between devotee and demon. The demons sometimes help fulfill Krishna’s desire by giving Him an opportunity to fight with them, thus allowing Him to protect His devotees from them. This certainly pleases Krishna (krishna-anu-shilanam). But their intent is otherwise, making it obvious why Rupa Goswami explicitly includes the word anukulyena in his definition of bhakti. Srila Prabhupada sums up, “Great demons like Ravana, Kamsa, and Hiranyakashipu were always thinking of Krishna, but they were thinking of Him as their enemy. This sort of thinking cannot be accepted as bhakti, or Krishna consciousness.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Introduction). And further, “There is always a difference between the life of a devotee and the life of a demon, and their realizations are as different as heaven and hell.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 5.36, Purport)

All demons in krishna-lila are extraordinary, as shown in these two verses from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.7.34-35): “All demonic personalities like Pralamba, Dhenuka, Baka, Keshi, Arishta, Chanura, Mushtika, Kuvalayapida elephant, Kamsa, Yavana, Narakasura, and Paundraka, great marshals like Shalva, Dvivida monkey, and Balvala, Dantavakra, the seven bulls, Shambara, Viduratha, and Rukmi, as also great warriors like Kamboja, Matsya, Kuru, Shrinjaya, and Kekaya, would all fight vigorously, either with the Lord Hari directly or with Him under His names of Baladeva, Arjuna, Bhima, etc. And the demons, thus being killed, would attain either the impersonal brahmajyoti or His personal abode in the Vaikuntha planets.”

The list doesn’t mention the names of any New Atheists or any of the unlimited number of other ordinary souls who – either in isolated moments or in day-to-day life – somehow rebel against the Lord. This is because, it is safe to say, we are not among those blessed souls who associate with God directly, with mind totally fixed on Him. At least not yet. And if we ever are, we would hope to serve Him favorably, with a heart full of love.

It seems unlikely that any of the New Atheists would walk down that more positive path, and so if they were to enter krishna-lila at all, it would likely be as a demon. But even then, the New Atheists and their ilk would have to perfect their meditation on the Supreme before their hatred would work in their favor.

Either way, Krishna’s association is beneficial, and should be sought after by those who know the progressive values of life. As Prabhupada writes: “Kamsa, Sishupala, Dantavakra, and other demons . . . were related to Krishna as enemies. But whether they associated with Krishna as enemies or for sense gratification, out of fear or as pure devotees, they all got liberation. That is the result of association with the Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.23.55, Purport)