"Krsna is God," I explained. "No He's not," she shot back aggressively.
Uh, oh, I thought, a fundamentalist.
The seven fifty-five Greyhound out of Baltimore was almost full when I boarded. I made my way to the only vacant seat on the side of the bus that would be out of the morning sun as we traveled north. The window seat was occupied by a well-dressed, middle-aged woman. When she saw me with my shaven head and tilaka and wearing a dhoti, she immediately averted her eyes, and a disapproving look came over her face. Maybe I should sit somewhere else, I thought. Then, What does it matter? I'm just going to sit here and read. I sat down.
The bus left the station and slowly made its way across town in the morning rush-hour traffic to Interstate 83. The stop-and-go motion caused the bus to pitch and toss like a dinghy at sea. I eased my seat back to make myself comfortable for the two-hour ride to Harrisburg.
Before I had left the Baltimore temple, a devotee had given me a copy of the latest Back to Godhead, which I planned to read during the trip if the drive didn't lull me to sleep. I took the magazine from my bag, and, as was my habit, I flipped through the pages to see what the articles were about and to see the pictures. I turned to the front cover and spent some time admiring the art. It was a picture of Radha and Krsna, one I had never seen before.
"Who is that?" The question, a mixture of curiosity and challenge in the voice, broke my reverie. I turned to face the woman seated next to me: late forties, auburn hair, stern face in a frown. She had been looking over my shoulder.
"That's Krsna and His eternal consort, Radharani," I said.
"Who is Krsna?" More curiosity than challenge this time.
I looked at her. "He's the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
A long silence ensued.
"Krsna is God," I explained, seeing that she didn't seem to make sense of "the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
"No, He's not," she shot back. Aggressive. Sure of herself.
Uh, oh! A fundamentalist, I thought. I would have left it at that, except her tone was not so forbidding as to completely discourage me. I also remembered how Srila Prabhupada had said, "They say Krsna is not God, but when you ask, 'Who is God?' they cannot say." I decided to pursue his line of reasoning with her. "Okay." I said. "Who is God?"
"I don't know. But it's not Krsna."
"If you don't know who God is, how can you be so sure Krsna isn't God?"
"Because God doesn't look like that."
I sat up from my reclining position feigning surprise. "Am I to understand that you don't know who God is but you do know what He looks like? That doesn't "
"I don't know what He looks like, but I'm sure He's not a blue Indian god with flowers and a flute."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Look," a hint of annoyance in her voice, "I'm old enough to be your mother, and if God was named Krsna and was blue, I'm sure I would have known that by now."
"But if you'd heard about Krsna long ago, when you were ten years old, say, would it have been easier to accept Him?"
"No, it wouldn't."
"So your age has nothing to do with it, then."
'Then what is it? You have a predisposed conviction, a sort of prejudice, that Krsna just can't be God, no matter what?"
"You have an alternative idea of God?"
Our bus was now cruising on Interstate 83, and conversation was easier without the pitching and rolling of city driving. I'd been traveling back and forth between our farm community in central Pennsylvania and our temple in Baltimore fairly often in the past six months sometimes to run errands, but mostly to help cover some of the temple services from time to time. The regular Baltimore devotees were on the road often, and the temple was sometimes short-handed.
On my previous trips, because I'd not been very successful in stimulating interest in Krsna consciousness among my fellow travelers, I had developed a routine of reading or chanting silently during the ride. Today, when I least expected it, here was someone taking an interest in Krsna.
I broke the silence. "You don't know what God looks like, and yet you're certain He's not Krsna, right?"
I decided to take a different tack. "Let me ask you this, then. Do you agree that God is inconceivable?"
"Yes, He's inconceivable," she said with a nod.
"What do you understand by 'inconceivable'?"
She took some time figuring out her answer. "He's beyond imagination," she said finally.
"That's why you can't have a picture of God."
"True. But it's also true that if He's inconceivable and you don't know what He looks like, by the same token you can't say what He doesn't look like either. In which case, you really have to allow that He could be Krsna. At least it's a possibility. No?"
"No. If He's inconceivable," she pointed to the magazine, "I don't think you can have any picture or conception of Him at all."
I turned the magazine face down on my lap. "Okay, but let's forget about Krsna for now," I said. "Let's talk about 'God.' You believe in God, right?"
"If the creator of this universe is beyond our conception, how can we know Him?"
"Maybe we can't know Him," she replied.
"But suppose we could, how would it be possible?"
She shifted position in the seat, thinking. I fingered my beads, chanting quietly. Leaning back in her seat, she gazed out the window at the Maryland countryside rushing by at fifty-five miles an hour. "Why don't you tell me?" she said, finally, giving me a look that said, "This better be good."
"When He reveals Himself," I said. "We can know Him when He chooses to reveal Himself. Otherwise, by definition, He remains always inconceivable to our mundane mind and senses."
"So you're saying God revealed Himself as Krsna?"
"No, no, we're not back to Krsna yet. All I'm saying so far is that if there is a remote possibility for us to know inconceivable God, it's by His revealing Himself to us. Short of that, we can't really be sure. We can't know Him by our speculation and conjecture, no matter how interesting our ideas may be. Does that make sense?"
"It does, philosophically, but how does He reveal Himself?"
"Through the scriptures."
Her face lit up. She pounced. "Yes," she said emphatically. "And in the Bible the Lord tells us not to worship any graven image."
"That's true, but you agree that our knowledge of God must have a scriptural basis?"
"Okay. Now, getting back to Krsna, our scriptures the Bhagavad-gita, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and other Vedic literature give us clear information of the name, identity, and form of God, His kingdom, His qualities. His activities, and His entourage. So this picture is based on those descriptions. The Vedic scriptures also advise us to worship the form of the Lord and tell how such worship should "
"But the Bible says. Thou shalt not worship a graven image; Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.' "
"Yes, but the form of Krsna is not a graven image concocted in someone's fertile imagination; it's the actual form, based on scriptural descriptions "
"It's not mentioned in the Bible."
"Ahh, but it is 'God made man in His own image and likeness.' "
"But it doesn't say we should paint a picture. It doesn't say God is blue and has a flute. I've never heard of any scripture that does."
"You've never heard of the Bhagavad-gita! India's bible?"
"No, and I'm not sure I accept any other scripture either."
She had raised her voice as she became more assertive, and I was aware that other passengers were trying to follow our conversation. A man and a woman in front of us, presumably husband and wife, were visibly interested in what was going on. Their seats were all the way back, their heads cocked to one side, listening. I heard the man say, "There ain't no scripture 'cept the Baable, the holy word of God." I thought he wanted to get drawn into our conversation, but my companion seemed unaffected by his statement, so I ignored him.
"Why not?" I asked. "The Bible recognizes that other scriptures are valid. And, as anyone can see, there are religious traditions besides the biblical tradition that have many saintly men and women who display the same godly characteristics as Christian saints. The Vedic tradition is full of such examples, so I don't think it's fair to reject all scriptures but the Bible."
"Then why haven't I heard about them?"
"Maybe you haven't looked into the matter deeply enough. You must have heard of the Koran, the scripture of the Muslims?"
"Yes, I've heard of the Koran, but I can't say I've researched the various scriptures." She shifted again, making herself comfortable. She seemed more at ease with me. "But still, if, as you say, Krsna is God and He is described in your scriptures, I think I would have heard about it before now. Why didn't Jesus mention Him? Jesus never said anything about God being blue or carrying a flute."
The couple in front of me started muttering to each other. I couldn't make out what they were saying, but they seemed to be disturbed by my religious views.
"I can't exactly say why the Bible doesn't mention Krsna," I said, "but I do know that it quotes Jesus as saying, 'I have much to tell you, but you are not ready for it.' Jesus never gave much detailed information about the soul or about God and His kingdom. In fact, for the little bit of spiritual teachings he did try to impart, the people had him killed. But at least we know he had more to reveal. Should we assume that knowledge was not revealed anywhere else in the world? Is God so limited that the people in the Middle East were the only ones to whom He gave some revelation or the highest revelation?" I paused, to let her consider.
"The answer is, 'no,' " she said. "He could have given knowledge elsewhere, but if you were brought up a Christian, it takes awhile to see beyond the outlook you've been trained in."
"Certainly, but let's be honest. Considering his audience and his main followers, who were not highly educated in philosophy and theology, how much could Christ actually teach? A teacher can only teach to the degree that his students "
"I'm a teacher."
I laughed. "So you appreciate my point, then: A teacher can only teach to the degree that his students are able to assimilate his message. Christ had more to teach. If in another part of the world the audience was more qualified, it makes sense that the Lord would reveal more about Himself there."
"I can see your point, but I have a hard time accepting Krsna. If everything makes as much sense as you make it sound, it seems I would have heard of Him before."
This time the man in front of me clearly intended us to hear him. "They know how to make it soun' like it makes sense. But if it ain't in the Baable, it's the Devil's own work." His companion made sounds of agreement while nodding slowly.
Again my questioner ignored them, and I did likewise. I responded to her. "I can understand your feelings. I felt the same way when I first heard about Krsna:
'If this is so right, how come I never heard about it before?' But then I had to admit that this question can be raised whenever you first hear about anything new. It misses the point entirely. It has no bearing on whether or not Krsna is indeed God.
"Suppose you first heard about Krsna's being God when you were ten. You could say, 'Hey, how come I didn't hear about Krsna when I was nine or eight or three or two? How come it's only now? How come nobody in America heard about Krsna in 1780? Or in Europe in 1212, for that matter?'
"The real thing is that we are wandering in the material world, which is like an ocean of birth and death. If someone throws a rope to help us get out of that ocean, it's really of no value to ask, 'Why weren't you here sooner?' Better to take full advantage of the opportunity the rope provides and get out of the ocean. It's not 'Where has Krsna been all this time?' It's whether or not Krsna is in fact the Supreme Personality of Godhead."
"So you're saying we should just accept Krsna as God and we'll be in the real religion?"
"Not exactly, although that might be the conclusion. I'm saying, first you study Krsna as He explains Himself in the Bhagavad-gita. Become satisfied that Krsna is God. Then you'll easily appreciate that this is a picture of God."
For no reason I could discern, our eavesdroppers up front were now silent. I was thankful. I preferred that they would not disrupt our discussion of transcendental knowledge.
My companion asked to see the magazine, and I gave it to her, then dug into my bag for the back issues I had there. I offered them to her and introduced myself. She told me her name, Jean Mitchell. Jean and her husband were high school teachers near Harrisburg. Both were Episcopalians. For the remainder of the trip we talked intermittently about different points of Krsna consciousness while she browsed through the magazines. Jean told me she had never met a Hare Krsna person before, although she'd read about us in the news. All in all, she was very appreciative of the encounter. So was I.
Later, standing in the Harrisburg bus station, she wished me success on the path of Krsna consciousness. I thanked her and invited her to visit our local farm community, Gita-nagari.
'The trip went quickly because of our talk," she said. "I have a confession to make. I was a little annoyed when you came and sat next to me, but something made me talk to you in spite of myself. And I'm glad I did."
"I have something to confess too," I said, laughing. "I thought you looked unfriendly, and I considered moving to another seat. But since I was already sitting, I decided not to bother. I enjoyed the trip too. You never know, do you?"
We said good-bye. The next leg of my trip was uneventful, so I read the new magazine.