Why does Lord Krishna sometimes speak of Himself as “He” rather than “I”?

By Satyaraja Dasa

Curiously, when Krishna speaks to Arjuna about God, He sometimes seem to be speaking of someone other than Himself.

Throughout the text of the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna refers to Himself with the appropriate pronouns: “I,” “Me,” “My,” and “Mine.” But periodically He advises Arjuna to “surrender to the Lord,” as if the Lord were someone else. That is to say, He refers to Himself in the third person. This begins as early as 2.44 and can be found again in 2.49, 2.51, and 2.64. Additionally, He sometimes talks about “the Supreme” and uses other terms to indicate the Supreme Godhead in a way that seems somewhat removed, but He is clearly talking about Himself. (Such verses are found at 5.6, 5.10, 5.15, 5.17, 5.21, 5.24, 5.25, 5.26, 6.7, 6.10, 6.27, 6.28, 8.9, 8.10, 8.13, 8.24, 9.15, 14.19, 15.3–4, 15.5, 15.17, 16.18, 17.14, 17.26–27, 18.46, 18.61, 18.62, and others.)

Although many of these third-person references can be understood in terms of context, others are not so easily explainable. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these is 8.22, where Krishna says, “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is greater than all, is attainable by unalloyed devotion. Although He is present in His abode, He is all-pervading, and everything is situated within Him.” This is Krishna speaking. Isn’t He talking about Himself here? Why use the third person? And in 18.62, near the Gita’s end: “O scion of Bharata [Arjuna], surrender unto Him utterly. By His grace you will attain transcendental peace and the supreme and eternal abode.” A little confusing. “Him” and “His” – isn’t Krishna referring to Himself?

In Gita 3.9–10 Krishna talks about doing work as a sacrifice for Vishnu. Is sacrifice only valuable when offered to Krishna in His form as Vishnu and not when directed to Krishna Himself, the original Personality of Godhead? Of course, referring to Vishnu here makes sense because in the Vedas sacrifice is mentioned specifically in terms of Vishnu. So Krishna is merely going along with an already established convention. Still, text 15 carries us further down the road of potential confusion, for there Krishna says that the Vedas come from “the Supreme Brahman,” or, in Prabhupada’s translation, “the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” Why doesn’t Krishna just say, “The Vedas come from Me”?

Chapter 13 seems to present a similar problem. In the beginning of that chapter, Arjuna asks Krishna about matter and spirit, particularly in terms of prakriti (nature) and purusha (the enjoyer, the soul). Thus, when Krishna explains Brahman (all-pervasive spirit), which He says is subordinate to Him, He defines it and its various permutations as separate categories of divinity. Consequently, in verse 14, for example, we find, “Everywhere are His hands and legs, His eyes, heads and faces, and He has ears everywhere. In this way the Supersoul exists, pervading everything.” And in the next verse Krishna speaks in the third person as well: “The Supersoul is the original source of all senses, yet He is without senses. He is unattached, although He is the maintainer of all living beings. He transcends the modes of nature, and at the same time He is the master of all the modes of material nature.” And the chapter continues on like that. But here context seems to legitimate Krishna’s grammatical choices.

Paramatma: The Third Person

A key verse in understanding all of this occurs much earlier, in 6.31, where Krishna says, “Such a yogi, who engages in the worshipful service of the Supersoul, knowing that I and the Supersoul are one, remains always in Me in all circumstances.” He and the Supersoul are one, He says, and yet they are obviously different as well. This gives us a hint as to why He occasionally uses third-person pronouns at various points in the text. Although it may not be true across the board, He does tend to use them when referring to His expanded Self.

In fact, this very point was highlighted for me by scholar Graham M. Schweig (Garuda Dasa), whose translation of the Bhagavad-gita is titled Bhagavad Gita: The Beloved Lord’s Secret Love Song:

It is unambiguously clear to me. And very simple. When He uses the first-person pronoun, He is referring to His very self, His intimate and ultimate identity as Bhagavan Sri Krishna, the Purushottama. But when referring to the divine as the Purusha (paramatman), He employs the third person. This is seen even in the 18th and final chapter, tam eva sharanam gacccha, sarva-bhavena bharata! “In that one take shelter with your whole being, O son of Bharata!”  

Schweig echoes the great teachers of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. Srila Jiva Goswami (sixteenth century), for example, briefly mentions why the Lord sometimes refers to Himself in the third person: It is to distinguish between His primary form, as the original Godhead Himself, and His secondary form, as the all-pervading Paramatma. While commenting on Bhagavad-gita 7.30, Sri Jiva writes in his Krishna-sandarbha (Anuccheda 82, Texts 8 and 19; translation by Kushakratha Dasa):

(8) That the form of Sri Krishna supersedes the form of the Supersoul is implied in the following verse of Bhagavad-gita (7.30), where Lord Krishna says:

“Those in full consciousness of Me, who know Me, the Supreme Lord, to be the governing principle of the material manifestation, of the demigods, and of all methods of sacrifice, can understand and know Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even at the time of death.”

We may note the use of the word “sa” [with] in the words “sadhibhutadhidaivam” [the governing principle of the material cosmos] and “sadhiyajam” [the governing principle of all sacrifices] in this verse. The word “sa” in these compound words indicates that the word understood to be in the instrumental case in these compounds is considered secondary, and the word expressed by the whole compound is considered primary. This is confirmed in the following sutra of Panini (Ashtadhyayi 2.3.19): “saha-yukte ’pradhane.” From this we may understand that the form of Sri Krishna is most important, and the form of the Supersoul is only secondary.

(19) . . . Very eager to explain this supreme secret of the Bhagavad-gita, His eyes full of tears of love for His devotee, Lord Krishna, with folded hands, instructed Arjuna (18.65):

“Always think of Me and become My devotee. Worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.”

By repeatedly using the word “mam” [unto Me], Lord Krishna has emphasized that we should not just worship the Supreme Lord in a general way, but specifically the Original Form of Krishna should be worshiped. The result of worshiping Sri Krishna is also explained by the Lord: “Thus you will come to Me without fail.” By following this instruction one becomes an eternal associate of the Lord, never to be separated from Him.

In this way Sri Jiva indicates that the Paramatma feature of the Lord is Krishna’s indirect expansion and, as such, is considered secondary. Apropos of this, Krishna uses first-person pronouns, such as mam, only when referring to Himself in His original form and not when referring to the Paramatma.

In a similar vein, Vaishnava theologian Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakura (seventeenth century) writes in his commentary on 8.22, paraphrasing Krishna’s words: “That Supreme Person, who is just my amsha [expansion, limb], cannot be known by other means, which have in them desires for karma or jnana-yoga.” In other words, the Supreme Person referred to in this verse is Krishna’s expansion, i.e., Vishnu, Paramatma (the Lord in the heart), and not Krishna in His original form. Accordingly, He does not use first-person pronouns in this case.

That He is here referring to His Paramatma feature is indicated by the word “all-pervading,” which is more characteristic of the Supersoul than of the Lord in His original form. Thus Vishvanatha Chakravarti indirectly tells us that in addition to the main point of the verse – that only by devotion unmixed with karma (work) or jnana (knowledge) can one attain the Lord – Krishna speaks in the third person when He refers to His amsha, or expansions.

Krishna and Paramatma: One and Different

With this as a backdrop, Krishna’s occasional use of third-person grammar becomes more understandable. Vishvanatha Chakravarti indirectly mentions this again in his commentary to the seventeenth and eighteenth verses of the Gita’s fifteenth chapter, which he says refer to Paramatma and Bhagavan, respectively. Significant to our discussion, and noted by Srila Vishvanatha, Krishna refers to Himself in the third person in verse seventeen and in the first person in verse eighteen. Similarly, Krishna refers to Himself in the third person in 18.62 and in the first person in 18.66. Verse 18.62 refers to God as the “controller of material nature,” which more directly harkens to the Paramatma feature of the Lord, and 18.66, according to the commentators, refers to God in His highest feature.

In his commentary on 18.62, Vishvanatha Chakravarti draws a clear distinction between antaryamy-upasakas and bhagavad-upasakas, that is, worshipers of the Lord as the all-pervading Supersoul and as the Lord as the Supreme Person. Again, though these variant features of God ultimately refer to the same Supreme Person, for technical purposes one might acknowledge a distinction between them as well. Krishna certainly does so throughout the Bhagavad-gita.

The Gita includes four “nutshell” verses that elucidate its essential teachings. The last of these (10.11) is pertinent to our discussion: “To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.” Here Krishna speaks in the first person even though He is ostensibly referring to the Supersoul, or the Lord in the heart. According to Graham Schweig, this verse offers readers a special teaching: It is Krishna, Bhagavan Himself, who is saying that He is the Supersoul and therefore highlights this point by using the word aham (“I”). Schweig elaborates:

In this verse, Krishna identifies himself as “The Self” dwelling within all hearts. It’s an absolutely exquisite verse. Aham . . . atma-bhava-sthah, an appositively modifying phrase with the verbal personal pronoun aham. In this way, Krishna can speak about the purusha in the third person and also identify himself as that very same purusha. That is his privilege, of course, as the supreme and all-inclusive person. Bhagavan is present in his emanating sustained manifestations; but these manifestations are not Krishna in totality because there is more to Krishna than the sum total of his manifestations. He is here saying that he is the source of those manifestations.

The eighteenth-century commentator Baladeva Vidyabhushana further tells us that, in this verse, Krishna is specifically referring to the special mercy He shows to His totally dedicated and single-minded devotees (ekanti-bhaktas). Sri Baladeva informs us in other verses that for these ekanti-bhaktas, in particular, the Lord does not appear in their heart of hearts as the Paramatma, as He does in other souls. Rather, for them He appears in His own original form (svayam bhagavan). This is why He uses first-person language in Bhagavad-gita 10.11.

Intimacy and Formality

Although Krishna varies His use of first-person and third-person language, the general rule is that when He is expressing intimacy, He talks in the first person, and when He is speaking in a more formal, Lordly way, He speaks in the third person, accommodating His various incarnations and expansions. Even in ordinary discourse one might sometimes refer to oneself in the third person. For instance, a father might tell his son, “You should obey your father.” Krishna employs a similar strategy, since in His Lordly feature He is the father of all.

Krishna can legitimately refer to Himself in apparently contradictory ways since all of His incarnations and manifestations appear with Him and within Him. Indeed, They are Him. As Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami writes in his Chaitanya-charitamrita (Adi 5.128), “Krishna’s incarnations and His original feature as the source of all incarnations are identical” (avatara-avatari – abheda). Consequently, He may seem to adhere to a certain linguistic pattern at times, and at other times He may not. He is inconceivable and beyond limitation and constriction, and His language will at times reflect that.

It should be noted that when Krishna is present, all His manifestations are present too – all the avataras, expansions, and so on. Consequently, according to His sweet will He can morph from one divine personality to the next – since they are all alternate forms of the same Supreme Person – and also exhibit Himself in His original feature as Krishna. Still, He is the Supersoul or Narayana or Vishnu or whomever He likes. Being omnipotent, He can seamlessly manifest Himself in any of His features at any time, like a kaleidoscope, and in those features He may speak as a lover, a friend, Brahman, the Supersoul, or whatever, without any discrepancy, since these are just various exhibitions of His unlimited, inconceivable Self.

Thus, in various instances He speaks to Arjuna as friend, as God, as guru, as the universal form, or as the original Supreme Lord, flawlessly weaving from one aspect to the next according to what Arjuna needs to hear or experience. In the end, He manifests different aspects of Himself to facilitate the needs of the specific loving exchange in which He is engaged, in this case, with Arjuna. Since He perfectly knows the heart of everyone, He knows exactly what aspects of His Supreme Self need to be exhibited at any given moment: Godhood, majesty, friendship, intimacy, or love.