Learning about Krishna solves problems created by both polytheism and a vague monotheism.
My Friend Jyoti told me that when she was a child growing up in Mumbai she went to temples with her parents to worship a variety of gods.
"I did not know which one to worship most. I remember my childhood anxiety. I worshiped them all to avoid making insult."
I laughed to hear her say this. Yet my own experience of religion was no less perplexing. i Every Wednesday morning in our school chapel we sang in loud chorus is:
"Sinner, do you love my Jesus? Sinner do you love my Jesus? Sinner do you love my Jesus? .. We're soldiers of the Lord! If you love Him why not serve Him? … Soldiers of the Lord!"
At Light and Life Christian Day School there was no concept of gods in the plural sense except for "Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me" in the Ten Commandments. We knew nothing but exclusive monotheism.
Meanwhile Jyoti was a product of a broad polytheism.
She told me that one day she found the words to ask her Mom, "Couldn't one of the gods be the best?"
"Yes, Jyoti, ultimately one of them must be the best."
"Then which one?"
"That I am not sure of," her mother replied.
Jyoti was looking for one personal God who would be most worthy of her trust and affection. Worshiping the gods to get blessings did not appeal to her.
While Jyoti in her childhood became interested to find out who was God, I was hurting for answers to different questions: Would the God described by my Christian teachers ever forgive my parents and nearly everyone I knew who drank alcohol, used swearwords, or smoked cigarettes? Would my family ever surrender to God before it was time for them to go to hell? Was it my duty to convince them about God?
I guess Jyoti and I had similar problems. I had the God problem, and she had the gods problem.
Search for the Supreme
Jyoti began to read many stories about the different demigods. Indra is celebrated as the king of heaven, so she thought he might be supreme. But he was always in trouble, making mistakes or fighting horrible battles. And there was no Indra deity on any altar in the temples.
"I very much liked Shiva and Ganesha," Jyoti told me. "In my mind I saw them as always meditating, so serious in their spiritual practice. And I liked Krishna because He seemed to be always enjoying His pastimes and was a good dancer. But I did not take Him so seriously. He was just the friendly god."
One day when she was in college, Jyoti's professors quickly went home and the whole school closed down because everyone wanted to witness a reported miracle. A deity of Ganesha in a Mumbai temple was apparently drinking milk. When offered to him on a spoon, it vanished.
She recalls, "My friends and I went to all the temples to try to witness a similar event, more out of curiosity than worship. We were not especially looking for God. Around then my family began to frequent a large temple in Mumbai with multiple altars and dozens of gods in all directions. I was overwhelmed. Then my family told me this was not even all of them. There are thirty-three million demigods in control of all of our affairs."
"Why must there be so many of them?" I asked my family.
"They told me each one is necessary to manage the many departments-the sun, the moon, the water we drink, the air we breathe, our savings, our health. By then I was a college student. I began to think, 'There has to be a controller of all of that. In any grand organization there is a leader who is leading the team, the head person.'"
Jyoti Finds Krishna
Jyoti was on to something. Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.87.28) states: "The demigods and material nature herself offer the Lord tribute, while also enjoying the tribute offered them by their worshipers, just as subordinate rulers of various districts in a kingdom offer tribute to their lord, the ultimate proprietor of the land, while enjoying the tribute paid them by their own subjects. In this way the universal creators faithfully execute their assigned services out of fear of the Supreme."
Jyoti saw some Mahabharata movies and started to notice Krishna.
"He was very cleverly controlling everything to bring about success for His friend Arjuna. At first I thought He was tricky-I did not trust Him-but I noticed He would never do anything to interfere with His devotees' vows and oaths.
"I met Krishna devotees and started to read Bhagavad-gita As It Is, with srna Prabhupada's commentaries. Eventually I came to realize that Krishna may seem tricky but He is like that to uphold dharma and to respect the free will and desires of every living being. He does not need to barter with us to give us some material reward, because our relationship with Him is never material. He is only looking toward our spiritual progress. Only God is like that. That is the God I love."
Jyoti soon married, moved to the U.S., and began worshiping and serving Krishna at the Hare Krishna temple in Los Angeles.
"Hearing and chanting about Krishna and His pastimes is very satisfying to me," Jyoti said. "Srila Prabhupada explains that you can judge a thing by its result. Just as a hungry person knows after eating that his stomach is now full and feels satisfaction, when we hear about the pastimes of Krishna-s-the most amazing, merciful Lord-our need for a relationship with God is fully satisfied."
Jyoti's problem was solved. The Bhagavad-gita, a perfect, complete guide for the Vedic system of worship, described for her one God, Krishna, as the ultimate beneficiary of the worship of the various demigods.
"As soon as one desires to worship some demigod, I make his faith steady so that he can devote himself to that particular deity. Endowed with such faith, he endeavors to worship a particular demigod and obtain his desires. But in actuality these benefits are bestowed by Me alone." (Bhagavad-gita 7.21, 22)
How My God Problem Got Worse
There are no demigods in Christianity, although there are plenty of angels, messengers, prophets, and patriarchs. And in the Old Testament we see God interacting with human beings. For example, God loves Abraham, but He chooses to test him by not allowing his wife to conceive a child until they are nearly one hundred years old. Abraham's children lead decadent lives in the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham repeatedly warns the inhabitants of the cities to give up their bad ways. God Himself tells Lot, Abraham's nephew, to leave there and not look back. Lot's wife sentimentally looks back, and God instantly transforms her into a pillar of salt. Later, God communicates with the wise leader Moses through a burning bush. Moses climbs to the top of a mountain and receives a stone tablet with God's commandments on it.
There were plenty of voices from the sky and inflicted hardships such as pestilence and famine. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego nearly burned in God's furnace test for them. Daniel was made to survive the lion's den. Adam and Eve had to fall from paradise. As a kid I sometimes thought God could not be friendly because man was never going to be worthy.
Then there was Jesus-thank God for Jesus! With his beautiful face and flowing hair, his eyes full of compassion for human suffering, he made up for it all. God his father was full of tests for you and a hellsender with no face, a commander in the sky, but Jesus somehow made God seem nice, too. He had a son who wanted to help us and even die for us. Hearing the beautiful stories about Jesus from teachers who adored him made me develop a strong affection for him. I read the passages of his appearance in Matthew and Luke over and over again.
My childhood intelligence began to grow, and my love for Jesus' pastimes remained sweet. But when I entered public school, I took up Darwinian ideas and became agnostic for the sake of fitting in. I put Jesus and God in the background, though I knew I would miss them. I was embarrassed about where to put my love. I stopped singing hymns and going to church.
I believed that God was inseparable from me, but I was trying to see if I could deny that, and I suffered greatly. I had no spiritual guide. Nine years later I ran across devotees with information about Krishna and Lord Caitanya at several ISKCON Rathayatra festivals. I had good friends at the temple who repeatedly invited me to try the delicious vegetarian food offered to Krishna, called prasada.
Slowly I began to see that learning about Krishna and His instructions and associating with devotees would save me from my connection to people with bad habits. By chanting the great mantra for deliverance-Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare- my faith in God revived and I felt protected. I felt like I was recovering from a long illness.
The great saints and spiritual masters described in the pages of the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Caitanya-Caritamrta have Krishna as their friend and associate. They glorify Krishna in rich, fascinating descriptions. He is described as both all-powerful and commanding toward mankind and as soft and sweet as a lotus. He has tender skin with a hue of blue, as fresh as a new rain cloud. His body is composed of full bliss, cognizance, and everlasting existence. Krishna plays the part of a family member or intimate friend for His pure devotees, such as the great warrior Arjuna and the brahmana Sudama. As a boy Krishna explores in the forest near His house with His dear brother Balarama. His friends like to perform a skillful dance just to please their friend, and He claps His hands and praises them: “My dear friends, you are dancing and singing very nicely.”
The descriptions of Krishna are precisely what I was missing in the conception of God I was given in my childhood. I feel very satisfied by knowing about Krishna as God. Whatever we may feel we lack in our relationship with God or our family or friends, we can find in complete perfection in the descriptions of Krishna and His pure devotees.
Srila Prabhupada explains in a lecture in Mumbai in 1973: We are seeking friendship with so many people to get our motive realized. But if we understand “Krishna is my best friend . . .” Or suhrdam sarva-bhutanam: He’s not only my friend, your friend, but He’s a friend of everyone. That friendship is equally distributed. But if one becomes a special devotee, with love and affection, engaged in the service of the Lord, He’s especially inclined to him. That is Krishna’s mercy to the devotee. He takes special care of the devotee, guides him, gives him intelligence. What kind of intelligence? Just to give him the clue how one can go back home, back to Godhead. Krishna does not give intelligence how one can gain some material prosperity. That is entrusted to Maya, or Durgadevi.
With so much that Krishna has to offer, can it be true that Jyoti and I actually had a God (or gods) problem? Certainly Krishna never regarded us as His problem. The only problem is our ignorance of His unlimited, humble, and merciful personality, and that can easily be solved. He wants us to reestablish our long-lost relationship with Him. By studying His teachings and following Srila Prabhupada’s instructions, we can easily do so. Sri Krishna is the friendly God.
Karuna Dharini Devi Dasi, a disciple of His Grace Virabahu Dasa, serves the deities at ISKCON Los Angeles, where she joined ISKCON in 1979. She lives with her husband and daughter.