Without hearing from self-realized souls, we can easily misunderstand
the transcendental significance of Krsna's "immoral" acts.
Last spring I lectured in a philosophy class at the University of Maryland. Baltimore County. The topic was India's Vedic culture. I argued that to understand the Vedic culture, in which Krsna consciousness has its roots, we in the West must resist the urge to weigh it against our values and traditions; we must let the tradition speak for itself.
Afterwards I answered questions and distributed Srila Prabhupada's books and Back to Godhead magazines. The students seemed appreciative of the opportunity to find out all they ever wanted to know about Hare Krsna.
When the class period ended, ten or twelve students approached me. Among them was a slim, keen-eyed Indian youth, whom I'd noticed frowning and shaking his head during my talk. I'd expected to hear from him when I took questions, but he hadn't said a word, except to whisper to two classmates on either side of him.
Now, accompanied by his two friends, both Indians, he spoke up.
"I'm a Hindu," he said pointedly, "but I don't follow my religion. Some things I just can't accept."
A hush came over the knot of people around me. My dilemma was obvious. If born Hindus doubted their tradition, that could cast a shadow over me and all I'd said. Still, I was confident that whatever his problem, we could resolve it with Krsna consciousness.
"What can't you accept?" I asked.
"Krsna's immorality. Why should we be moral when He did so many immoral things? From His very childhood He used to steal and cheat. Why is that?"
Krsna's so-called immorality was a familiar charge. Some people question His moral character out of genuine confusion. Others do so because they resent their obligation to observe moral law. They think, "If I have to toe the line, so must God; otherwise, I want to transgress moral codes, too."
Those who have trouble with Krsna's "immorality" usually prefer to speculate about Him rather than understand Him as He explains Himself in the Bhagavad-gita. The young man before me was a speculator.
"In the Kuruksetra war," he continued, "Krsna made Yudhisthira tell a lie, and He broke His word and attacked Bhisma after He had promised not to fight in the battle. All through His life Krsna bent the rules to suit Himself.
"When Arjuna and Duryodhana went to see Krsna to get His help in the battle, Krsna tricked Duryodhana. He said Arjuna had first choice because he sat at Krsna's feet, while Duryodhana sat at His head. But Krsna made that up on the spot, just to give Arjuna first choice, because Arjuna was His friend."
"What did they have to choose between?" I asked.
"Between having either Krsna or Krsna's armies on their side in the battle."
"Right. So do you think it mattered who chose first? Duryodhana would never have chosen Krsna. He was a materialist: he was only interested in Krsna's army. He had no faith in Krsna. When Arjuna chose Krsna, Duryodhana's only choice was Krsna's armies. Krsna let Arjuna choose first to make it easy for Duryodhana to get what he wanted. What's so bad about that?"
No reply. I turned to the other students, smiled apologetically, and explained that for obvious reasons they might not be able to follow our conversation.
"That's okay," one student said gamely. "You go ahead; we're listening." That drew a few chuckles. They were enjoying the fun.
Turning to the Indian youths, I said, "For a minute there I thought you were going to bring up the whole thing about Krsna and the gopis and His queens-"
"Oh, yes, His sixteen thousand wives. You really believe that? How could God have sixteen thousand wives?" he asked earnestly.
"Sixteen thousand one hundred eight," I corrected.
"Sixteen thousand one hundred eight-how could He be God? How could God have one standard for Himself and a different one for us?"
"That's not difficult to understand," I replied. "God is the supreme independent person. He can do whatever He likes, whenever He likes, wherever He likes. He's free to decide whether He wants one wife, a hundred thousand, or no wife. Otherwise, what do you think it means to be God? What do you think it means to be omnipotent?"
"I'm not questioning whether He is able to do it. I'm only questioning the morality of it. If He is not moral, how can He expect us to be moral?"
"Because we're under the law and He's above the law. He's above all laws- moral, natural, or otherwise. He doesn't have to be moral just to satisfy us.
"Actually, morality exists in this world because of the retributive law of karma, which gives us a choice between pious and impious activities. But it's not absolute; it only applies to mundane reality. There's no morality on the absolute, spiritual plane, where the only law is the law of love. Everything there is governed by love. That is higher than morality.
"Out of love, Krsna does many things that may seem immoral in our estimation, but they aren't. They are loving exchanges between the Lord and His pure devotees. His motives have no tinge of lust or self-gratification. He does many things for the pleasure and satisfaction of His devotees. Such pure love is beyond all morality and only exists on the spiritual plane.
"The proof is that neither the liberated souls nor the Lord suffers karmic reactions for their so-called immoral behavior; but if we imitate them, we suffer."
My questioner offered no response, but it was obvious he still couldn't accept that Krsna is transcendental to mundane morality. He was too attached to his idea of how God should be.
"Let me ask you something," I said, still trying to help him understand. "In your house, your parents make up the rules, and they expect you to follow, right?"
"Not any more. They used to, but I'm too old for that now."
"Okay, but in the days when they made the rules, what time did they have you come in at night when you were, say, eleven or twelve?"
"Did they observe that curfew as well?"
"Because," I said, "our parents are the supreme persons in our households. If they make rules for us, you don't expect, realistically, that they would be obliged to follow the same rules, do you? They might follow, of course, but it's understood that they are free to transcend them at anytime, right?"
A murmur of assent went through the group.
"That's an example of a lawmaker who is above the law," I said.
"Well … I see what you're saying . . . But it still makes sense to me that God should be more moral than anybody."
"Okay. Suppose we all agree with you, and all the theologians in the world also agree with you, but who will enforce it? Who will make God abide by moral laws?"
"No, nobody would have to enforce it. God has to be moral-period."
"You mean by definition He would be incapable of being immoral?"
"Exactly," he said triumphantly, pleased that I had understood.
Our observers thought he'd made a good point.
"So," I asked, "you're saying Krsna can't be God, because He's immoral: He had Yudhisthira tell a lie, and He had so many wives?"
"Well, I'm not saying exactly that. I just find the whole idea of Krsna being God too fantastic, too hard to accept, that's all."
"That's because you're trying to understand God by speculating, comparing Him to yourself. But you can't understand something beyond the reach of your senses and mind by speculating. You have to try to understand God on His terms, not yours. Doesn't that make sense?"
Again no response. I took it to mean he couldn't disagree, but he wasn't ready to agree either.
I continued. "Srila Prabhupada cautioned us about the futility and danger of speculating about the Absolute Truth, who is beyond our sense perceptions and speculations. He said our free thinking is futile when it comes to God, because no amount of conjecture, even if based on the best available logic or reason, can lead to any conclusive realizations, simply because our opinions about God are all unverifiable.
"But even worse than that, speculation is dangerous because if you become too enticed by your own little gems of conjecture and fail to recognize and accept transcendental knowledge as it is, that can wreak havoc with your spiritual life."
I paused to let him respond, but again he said nothing. I couldn't tell what was going on in his mind, but he was listening, and so were the others.
"By the way," I said, "do you realize that Krsna's marrying sixteen thousand one hundred eight wives is a good argument for His being God?"
Interest perked up all around.
"How is that?" he asked, squinting, trying to determine if I was serious.
"Well," I said, "do any of you know an ordinary man who could marry and maintain that many wives?"
This drew some smiles and laughs.
"But seriously," I continued, "it's a fact, isn't it? No ordinary man could do that. We may say Krsna is immoral, but nevertheless, like so many of His other feats, marrying and maintaining so many wives is far beyond anything we could do, though we might like to imitate Him. Even if we say Krsna is immoral, still. His so-called immorality is beyond our scope to imitate. So even His 'immoral' pastimes stand as proof of His supreme position.
"Furthermore, an analysis of Krsna's so-called immoral behavior shows that many persons, especially His devotees, benefit from His activities. That's why when Krsna lies or pulls a prank, devotees glorify it on stage and in art, music, and literature for generations, because by spiritual realization they fully appreciate that everything about Krsna is transcendental, supramundane. He has no tinge of selfish motive or whimsy. His devotees benefit from His actions because everything about Him is divine."
Someone then asked a question related to my talk earlier, putting an end to our discussion of Krsna's morality. Others wanted a chance to ask their questions. The three friends stayed a few moments longer, then left. As they went out the door, Srila Prabhupada's books and Back to Godheads in hand, I caught their eyes, and their spokesman gave me a polite nod, but I could see he wasn't completely satisfied.
I could empathize with him, for he had made a fairly common mistake. In my trying to understand Krsna consciousness, I had also sometimes made the mistake of not letting go of my private notions of what God can and cannot do, trying to make the Unlimited and Inconceivable compatible with my own ideas. In the face of Srila Prabhupada's invincible arguments, however, I had no choice but to give up my foolishness-or be a hypocrite.
Later on, thinking over our discussion, I remembered some examples Srila Prabhupada gave to help us appreciate the limitations of our intellect and the futility of speculating about the inconceivable.
Our speculating about the Absolute Truth, he said, is like trying to illuminate the sun with a candle.
One other example he gave was that speculating about Krsna is as futile as a five-year-old girl's attempt to understand how babies are made. In terms of her knowledge and experience, such a thing is completely inconceivable. As she grows intellectually and physically, however, she is able to understand what was inconceivable to her before.
Similarly, trying to understand the Absolute Truth by speculation is futile, because in the realm of transcendental knowledge we are as inexperienced as five-year-olds. We have to hear about transcendence from revealed scriptures and self-realized souls, and gradually, as we grow spiritually, the knowledge will germinate, grow, and ripen into full God realization.
The process of spiritual growth includes detecting and discarding one after another our many layers of speculative conceptions of God. The person who's unwilling to make that sacrifice cannot understand the unlimited and sublime transcendental autocrat-Lord Sri Krsna-as He is, no matter how much he or she tries.