For our benefit, Arjuna asks Lord Krishna to show His form that pervades and encompasses the universe.
By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
“The Bhagavad-gita’s revelation of the universal form is arguably among the greatest mystical or supernatural visions in world theology.”
The term universal form essentially refers to a form that shows Krishna’s presence, power, and purpose spread across the entire universe. The universal form pervades the universe from within or encompasses it from without, or both. Krishna doesn’t have any such form that exists eternally in the spiritual world; He sometimes reveals it in this world as a temporary vision to some special souls.
In the Bhagavad-gita Arjuna asks Krishna to show him His universal form. Why does Arjuna want to see it? Because he desires to have visual confirmation of Krishna’s previous verbal declaration “I sustain the whole universe with just a fragment of Myself” (10.42). Why does Arjuna desire this visual confirmation? For his benefit – and for ours. In the Gita Arjuna represents Everyman (and Everywoman). Most of us understand something better when in addition to hearing about it, we also see it. Therefore, for our benefit Arjuna requests Krishna to show His glories through His universal form.
The universal form in the Gita is a revelation, meaning that it is a top-down vision – the topmost divinity, Krishna, makes it visible to humanity through humanity’s representative, Arjuna. Krishna also offered similar revelations to a few others: His mother Yashoda, the Kuru prince Duryodhana, and the sage Uttanka.
What about the rest of us, who are not fortunate enough to behold such a revelation? Can we see God’s might spread throughout the universe? Yes, by treating the universal form as a bottom-up meditative tool for conceptualization, as described in Srimad-Bhagavatam. We can envision various objects within nature and even various celestial bodies in the universe as different parts of the body of the universal form (2.5.36). Because that form is a conceptualization, it may be conceived slightly differently by different seekers, hence some minor differences in the descriptions of the universal form in different sections of the Bhagavatam.
The Special Vision
The universal form is a revelation, which essentially means it is something not normally accessible to us humans, but made accessible by divine intervention. How might that intervention happen? In many ways, all of which involve Krishna using His omnipotence to temporarily suspend the normal ways in which material nature functions. Let’s consider some possible ways.
First, Krishna may make Himself visible in a form that our normal eyes can see. Second, He may empower our eyes to see something they can’t normally see. Third, by suspending our normal vision of things around us, He may empower us to see something we can’t normally see. That could be figuratively called “giving a different set of eyes” (Gita 11.8). Krishna’s revelation of the universal form to Arjuna does seem to fall in this third category. While Arjuna was beholding the universal form, he couldn’t see any of the normal things present on the battlefield; he just saw the universal form everywhere (11.16).
In contrast, Krishna’s revelation of the universal form in the Kuru assembly seems to fall in the first category. That revelation was seen not just by Duryodhana but also by everyone in the Kuru assembly.
Why this difference in ways of revealing? Possibly because those revelations were meant for different purposes.
In the Kuru assembly, Krishna’s purpose was to avoid war. Through His fearsome revelation of the universal form, He wanted to warn not just Duryodhana but also His supporters; if they saw the might of who would be on the opposite side, maybe they would stop Duryodhana. Hence, Krishna’s revelation to everyone.
At Kurukshetra, Krishna had a specific purpose in revealing His universal form: to persuade Arjuna to fight. Hence, His revelation only to Arjuna.
The Triple-narrative Structure
The Bhagavad-gita uses a distinctive structure for introducing the universal form. First Krishna explains to Arjuna what He will be showing; then Sanjaya explains to Dhritarashtra what is being shown by Krishna; finally Arjuna describes what he is seeing. While Krishna and Sanjaya describe the vision in four verses each, Arjuna describes it much more elaborately, in sixteen verses.
Why does the Gita use this triple descriptive framework? To help us gain a sense of a vision that is otherwise incomprehensible. When something is difficult to understand, it’s helpful to have that thing described or explained from different perspectives. In general, if someone claims to have seen something supernatural, it’s natural that most people will be suspicious. But if multiple people see the same thing, that increases the credibility of the vision. Beyond that, if we want to know more about what was actually seen, then we can try to integrate the details of the sight as described by different people.
The Bhagavad-gita’s revelation of the universal form is arguably among the greatest mystical or supernatural visions in world theology. In this vision, the entire universe is shown from one place – it’s as if a glimpse of omniscience is offered to us.
Of course, in the immediate context of the Gita, Krishna’s description to Arjuna of what He is going to reveal is meant to help Arjuna understand the upcoming vision. By preceding revelation with description, Krishna underscores and utilizes a key principle in human cognition. We don’t see things just with our eyes; we see things also with our intelligence, which helps us make sense of what we see with our eyes.
To help us better appreciate the vision of the universal form, the Gita describes it thrice: in Krishna’s words, in Sanjaya’s words, and in Arjuna’s words.
The Thrilling Turns Chilling
What Arjuna says while beholding that cosmic theophany (11.15–31) gives us a sense of his perceptions and concomitant emotions.
Initially, Arjuna observes and marvels at the all-pervasiveness of the universal form, while noting that it is so effulgent as to be difficult to observe. As the majestic sight fills him with awe, suddenly his emotion changes to fear (11.25). Then the fear becomes so overwhelming that he begs to know what he is seeing (11.31). After offering some prayers, he begs that the vision be stopped (11.46).
To better understand what causes Arjuna’s emotional turbulence, consider a metaphor. Suppose we are watching a science-fiction movie in our home theater with some acquaintances. In the movie, a gigantic being suddenly appears and spreads across the entire screen. While we are watching, that being starts emanating fire from its mouth and scorching everything around it. Then it starts drawing things nearby into its fiery mouth. As we are watching, that being suddenly appears in the very place we are in and starts devouring the people around us. Shocked, we try to stop the movie, but the remote doesn’t work. We would be terrified, even petrified.
Arjuna’s perceptions and reactions are similar. What Arjuna sees initially as the majestic universal form soon starts devouring the warriors assembled on the very Kurukshetra battlefield where Arjuna is. This is Krishna’s cosmically destructive form of time, kala-rupa. That the kala-rupa perturbs a valiant warrior of Arjuna’s caliber underscores its unbearable scariness. This vision reveals the all-round nature of God’s omnipotence: no one can inspire devotion like Him (in His form as Krishna), and no one can induce fear like Him (in His form as time).
For Arjuna, the sight of the majestic universal form is thrilling, but the sight of the destructive kala-rupa is chilling.
Arjuna’s Intriguing Question about the Identity of His Vision
While beholding the universal form he has himself requested and already identified, Arjuna suddenly asks a somewhat strange question: “Who am I seeing?” Or put more simply, “Who are You?” (12.31)
Why does Arjuna ask for the identity of a vision he has already identified? Because the vision contains something he hadn’t asked for or expected. He had requested to see the form that pervades all of space, but Krishna also revealed a vision that pervades time; that is, the vision showed what would happen in the future.
What Krishna showed extra was the kala-rupa, the form of God as time. This form displayed the fate of those on the battlefield: everyone except the Pandavas would be destroyed. Because this vision was so ghastly, it unnerved Arjuna. His alarm was all the more so because this destructive vision was utterly unexpected. When he had asked to see the universal form, it was primarily so that Krishna could visually depict His glories, specifically those glories Arjuna had described in the Gita’s previous chapter. Essentially, he wanted aids for increasing his remembrance of Krishna. But the sudden change in the nature of the vision from showing divine majesty to showing massive devastation left him understandably alarmed.
Thus, what he asked to be identified was this unfamiliar feature in the vision before him. And that’s why Krishna answered by identifying that form as time (11.32).
The Only Prayer in the Gita
Prayers are a natural and prominent feature amid human-divine interactions. Yet they don’t occur much in the Bhagavad-gita, even though it is a human-divine interaction. Why this absence? Because the Gita is a conversation centered on a philosophical search for the truth, and Arjuna and Krishna already have an intimate friendly relationship that frequently overshadows the usual prayerful mode of human-divine interaction.
Nonetheless, one section of the Gita features Arjuna’s prayers – and that too in a highly reverential mode. This section of eleven prayers (11.36–46) occurs immediately after Arjuna realizes who his friend is: not just the all-pervading divinity manifest as the universal form but also the all-devouring divinity manifest as omnipotent time.
Prayer is a spontaneous human response on encountering the awe-inspiring splendor of God. Naturally, Arjuna exhibits this response to the theophany of the universal form. He wants to offer his obeisance to this form as we might do on beholding the deity in a temple. But he perceives that the universal form is present everywhere, on all sides; therefore he offers hundreds of obeisances in all directions (11.40). He also fervently apologizes for his previous overfamiliar way of dealing while interacting with Krishna as a friend (11.41–44).
Do Arjuna’s prayers alter the Gita’s mood? Contextually, yes; overall, no. Yes because these prayers are an integral part of the revelation of the universal form, which largely features the mood of awe and reverence. No because that mood doesn’t go beyond this chapter. Arjuna’s newfound reverence for Krishna doesn’t prevent him from continuing to ask pertinent questions, and Krishna doesn’t use His awe-inspiring revelation to force Arjuna to submit to His will. The philosophical discussion continues over the next seven chapters and culminates in Arjuna’s freely chosen resolve to harmonize with Krishna’s will (18.73).
Arjuna’s Request to Stop the Vision
Toward the end of the Bhagavad-gita’s eleventh chapter, when Krishna’s revelation of His universal form turns too fearsome for Arjuna to bear, Arjuna requests Krishna to stop that vision. Though this request of Arjuna’s might have been initially triggered by fear, it is fueled primarily by a far higher motive: love. His fear had been allayed when Krishna had assured Arjuna (11.33) that the kala-rupa would not destroy him (or his brothers).
It was love that had motivated Arjuna to ask Krishna to show His universal form. To more fully manifest Krishna’s glory for the world to know, Arjuna wanted Krishna to demonstrate His verbal declaration that He sustains the entire universe (10.42). And Krishna had shown His expanse across cosmic space and His dominance over cosmic time. Once Arjuna’s purpose had been thus served, he no longer had any interest in that universal form; he loved Krishna and naturally wanted Krishna to manifest Himself in a personable form he could lovingly relate with (11.45), not in a blazing form he could barely see.
Arjuna’s mood is echoed in Srila Prabhupada’s alluding to the universal form as “a godless display of opulences” (11.8, Purport). When God Himself is displaying His opulence, how can that display be considered godless? Because devotees like Arjuna and Prabhupada are attracted to the opulences of Krishna that stimulate and facilitate personal interactions with Him. Devotees can’t see in the opulences of the universal form the God they love, because opulences that feature only might and light are not conducive to such reciprocation. Hence, Prabhupada deems such opulence godless, and Arjuna desires to see that form no more.
The Most Special Form
The universal form revealed by Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita’s eleventh chapter is a stunning sight. Yet Krishna declares that His two-handed form is so rare and elusive that even the gods (devatas) long to see it (11.52).
Can’t the gods see Krishna’s form when He descends to the world? Not exactly, because they don’t always see (understand) Krishna; they sometimes mistake Him to be an ordinary human being.
Interestingly, Krishna reveals His four-handed Vishnu form briefly while returning from His universal form to His two-handed form (11.50). The gods know that Vishnu form as the supreme divinity who maintains the universe. They petition Vishnu whenever confronted with an unmanageable cosmic disturbance. But even when He responds, they don’t always get to see Him; they merely get to know His plan through their leader, Brahma. Thus even the Vishnu form is rarely seen by the gods. And the Krishna form is declared to be so rarely seen as to evoke longing among them.
Why is that? Vishnu is like God in the office, and Krishna is like God at home: same person, different personalities. And because God is omnipresent, He can be present both in the office and at home simultaneously. On the few occasions when the gods, as cosmic administrators, get to see God, they see His office form, practically never His home form. Hence their longing, especially when they understand what is special about Krishna’s form: Krishna as God manifests a personability, reciprocity, and intimacy that no other manifestation of God does.
While reverting to His two-handed form from His universal form, Krishna reminds Arjuna of his special fortune to be able to relate regularly with such a rarely seen form. More appealing than God’s omnipresent form, which evokes awed submission, is His humanlike form, which inspires loving reciprocation.
Chaitanya Charana Dasa serves full time at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai. He is a BTG associate editor and the author of more than twenty-five books. He has two websites: gitadaily.com and thespiritualscientist.com (the source for BTG’s “Q&A”).