The heart of the idea that "all the gods are one" 
is impersonalism, not what Krsna teaches.

In 1995, Back to Godhead published a series of articles on the demigods. Last year, in our January/February issue, we printed an objection to those articles, along with our reply, under the title "Is Back to Godhead an Offender?" We publish here a letter received in response to that article, and our reply.

Lord Krsna Is Above All Others

THIS LETTER is in response to your article "Is Back to Godhead an Offender?" As a young Hindu living in Britain, where the media consistently portrays the religion as fanatical, it is upsetting when it seems that Hindu sects, such as ISKCON, for whom I have great regard and respect, do propound such rigid views which are in direct opposition to the universal tolerance of Sanatana-dharma. When these intolerant views are propagated within the body of this eternal faith, it is even more distressing and worrying.

I myself am a Krsna bhakta, and believe that Krsna is the Supreme Godhead who takes on different manifestations, is called by different names, but is essentially the one, true Brahman. However, I also truly believe that those devotees who call Him Allah, Jesus, Jehovah, etc., and certainly those who call Him Siva or Brahma worship one and the same God.

Thus, in quoting Gita 9.23:

ye 'py anya-devata-bhakta
yajante sraddhayanvitah
te 'pi mam eva kaunteya
yajanty avidhi-purvakam

in support of your argument, I believe you are grossly misinterpreting what the Lord says here. (I hasten to stress that I myself am in my third year of a Sanskrit degree, and so am not talking without foundation.) I give here another translation of the verse:

"Kaunteya, even those devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods (with some interested motive), worship Me alone, though with a mistaken approach."

Now, I, upon reading this, came to an entirely different conclusion to yours. To me, when Krsna says the approach is mistaken, He means it is wrong to consider your chosen deity as the only Supreme and theothers as inferior; i.e., if the devotee worships Siva and does not accept Krsna as one and the same (when they are one in reality) then they are mistaken. I disagree vehemently with, for example, those Christians who believe "Jesus is the Son of God and the only Way and worshippers of other faiths are misled, ignorant, and damned." God is one and He is not so petty, as you seem to imply, that if you called Him Siva, with full faith and devotion (while at the same time accepting that others call him Krsna, etc.) He would be displeased. Indeed, in the Ramcaritamanas, Rama says:

sivapada kamala jinihin rati nahin
ramahi te sapanehun na sohahin

"(He who) has no devotion for the lotus feet of Lord Siva, even in his dreams will not be tolerated by Lord Rama."

When Krsna talks of "ME" He is speaking of the Supreme Consciousness, not limited by name or form. Krsna even states in the Gita, not that Siva is inferior but in fact rudranam sankaras casmi "Of all the Rudras, I am Siva."

What sets Sanatana-dharma apart from other world religions is that it truly believes that they are all equal. The Vedas, whilst referring to 300 million Gods, are inferring the infinitude of the Divine and his forms, not that they really are separate, individual devas. The same Veda states, ekam sat viprah bahuda vadanti: "Truth is One, but learned men express it in different ways."

Secondly, it is mistaken (not wrong, which is too strong a word) to worship deities such as Laksmi only in their limited forms (in the latter case as the Bestower of Wealth), thinking that that is the ultimate reality/true spirituality. That devotee, looking at God in a limited form, will only experience God in a limited way, e.g. as wealth and prosperity, and not attain oneness with Him:

yo yo yam yam tanum bhaktah
sraddhayarcitum icchati
tasya tasyacalam sraddham
tam eva vidadhamy aham

"Whatever celestial form a devotee (craving for some worldly object) chooses to worship with reverence, I stabilise the faith of that particular devotee in that very form."

But that must be the individual's choice, and I believe it is a much graver sin to proclaim him a sinner or offender.

If I may recount one of my favourite stories. Tulsi Dasji, that great bhakta of Sri Rama (who you accept, as an incarnation of Visnu, to be equal to Krsna) did not consider Kanha [Krsna] to be of equal prominence to his Rama. He refused even to enter a temple where the idol worshipped was other than Raghava [Rama]. But one day, for one reason or another, he was forced to enter a temple dedicated to Madhava [Krsna]. Lo and behold, what did he see? When he turned his eyes to the murti [Deity] he saw Rama! And thus he understood. "Lord, I perceive you in my narrow fashion as Rama, but you are beyond form, beyond such limitations. You are Rama, You are Krsna, You are Siva, You are All!"

My preferred form of Brahman is Krsna. When I buy pictures, I consistently discard representations of other deities and always choose those that are of my Kanhaiya (as some ISKCON devotee who came to Cambridge witnessed!). When I sing, I sing of Rama and Krsna; when I pray, I pray to Krsna. I believe it is very conducive for imperfect human beings to have an ista devata [chosen deity], whom they see as the Supreme Godhead. But BRAHMAN is not imperfect; Sanatana-dharma must not, cannot be anything but all-encompassing. The various Puranas are written from the point of view of the devotee, but simply because they are not all-encompassing, not universal in outlook, this does not mean that Sanatana-dharma is not. And this is why Krsna also states categorically in the Gita:

ye yatha mam prapadyante
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham
mama vartmanuvartante
manusyah partha sarvasah

"O Partha, howsoever men seek Me, even so do I approach them, for all men follow My path in every way."

Yours sincerely,
Aarti Sethia
President, Cambridge University Hindu Society
Cambridge, UK

OUR REPLY: Thank you for your kind words of respect for ISKCON. And I'm glad to know that you have chosen Krsna as the deity you most prefer.

Sanatana-dharma is indeed all-encompassing, for it offers every human being an opportunity to make further progress and at last attain perfection.

Yet among the followers of Sanatana-dharma there are two schools, with contrasting views. The contrast is not between the inflexibly rigid and the universally tolerant, but rather between the impersonalists and the personalists.

Both schools accept that the Supreme has both a personal and an impersonal aspect. The question to be settled is how best to regard these two different aspects of the Supreme.

The impersonalists agree to the worship of any god because in their view these gods are but steppingstones to a higher reality the impersonal Absolute, or impersonal Brahman. According to this view, only the impersonal Absolute is real, and all else even the gods themselves must ultimately be seen as illusory and therefore given up. According to this view, one may worship Lord Krsna (or any other god), but ultimately one must understand that Krsna (as well as all the other gods) merely represents a higher, impersonal reality; ultimately, the personal identity of Krsna is but an illusion.

The personalists, on the other hand, regard realization of the impersonal Absolute as but a partial, incomplete understanding of the Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krsna. According to this view, one must go still further, beyond the impersonal Absolute, to recognize the eternal nature of Lord Krsna's name, form, qualities, pastimes, and other transcendental personal features.

This difference of opinion between the personalist and impersonalist schools can best be settled by reference to Bhagavad-gita.

In the Bhagavad-gita (14.27) you will find that the impersonal Absolute rests upon the Personality of Godhead. According to the Gita, brahmano hi pratisthaham: It is Lord Sri Krsna, the Personality of Godhead, who is the basis of the impersonal Absolute.

The impersonalists say that the Personality of Godhead is but the formless Absolute represented in a form of material nature (prakrti). But in the Bhagavad-gita (9.10) Lord Krsna instructs us that, on the contrary, He is the controller, the supervisor, of the material nature.

To emphasize the factual superiority of the Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna says in the Gita (9.11), "Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature [param bhavam] as the Supreme Lord of all that be."

The impersonalists insist that the param bhavam, or supreme nature, of the Lord is higher than the Lord Himself. That supreme nature, they say, is the unmanifest, impersonal Absolute, which manifests itself as Lord Krsna.

But elsewhere in the Gita (7.24) we find:

avyaktam vyaktim apannam
manyante mam abuddhayah
param bhavam ajananto
mamavyayam anuttamam

According to this verse, those who subscribe to such an impersonalist view do not know the Lord's param bhavam (param bhavam ajananto). The Lord says that only those still lacking in intellectual development (abuddhayah) think that His manifest feature as the Personality of Godhead is derived from an unmanifest, impersonal feature of the Absolute.

After many, many births of progress in cultivating knowledge, when one reaches perfection, one surrenders to the Personality of Godhead (Vasudeva). Vasudevah sarvam iti: that Personality of Godhead is everything. It is He who is universal and all-encompassing, and all else including the Vedic pantheon of gods and the impersonal Absolute is but a partial manifestation of Him.

Now, let us look at some other points raised by your letter.

Quoting Gita 9.23, you offer your own translation and interpretation of the verse. You translate it this way:

"Kaunteya, even those devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods (with some interested motive), worship Me alone, though with a mistaken approach."

From this you argue that the problem with these devotees is not that they're approaching other gods but that they're doing it "with some interested motive."

As a third-year Sanskrit student, however, you've been properly scrupulous about putting that phrase "with some interested motive" in parentheses, thereby indicating, quite rightly, that it doesn't appear in the text.

So what you've done, really, is to parenthetically insert your own comment into the verse, and then argue from your comment as though it were evidence from the Gita.

Ms. Sethia, please you simply can't do that.

Drop the parenthetical intrusion, and your rendering of the verse is fine: "Even devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods worship Me alone [Lord Sri Krsna], though with a mistaken approach."

Whether we prefer to say that worshiping other gods is "mistaken," "irregular," "wrong," or whatever, it boils down to pretty much the same thing: it isn't right. What's right is to abandon all other approaches and surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna (sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja).

You suggest that it's wrong to regard Krsna as "the only Supreme" and others as inferior. But the very meaning of Supreme is "highest," "ultimate," "above all others."

Thus we find in Bhagavad-gita 11.43 that Arjuna says to Lord Krsna, na tvat-samo 'sty abhyadhikah kuto 'nyo: "No one is equal to You, so how could anyone be greater?" The same conclusion is confirmed in the Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.8 (na tat-samas cabhyadhikas ca drsyate).

Lord Siva and other gods are exalted servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and therefore it is proper that one have great respect and devotion toward them also. But still one should understand their true exaltedness as servants of the Supreme Lord, not as independent Lords themselves.

From Chapter Ten of Bhagavad-gita (10.23) you quote Lord Krsna's statement rudranam sankaras casmi: "Of all the Rudras, I am Siva." This is fine, but not as evidence that Lord Siva is equal to the Personality of Godhead.

In the same chapter, Lord Krsna says that among beasts He is the lion (10.30), among fishes He is the shark (10.31), among seasons He is spring (10.35), and among cheaters He is gambling (10.36). The point is not that the lion is God, the shark is God, spring is God, or least of all that gambling is God. The point is that each of these, in its category, is superlative and by thinking of what is superlative one can ultimately come to think of the Supreme Lord, Krsna, the Personality of Godhead.

The entire chapter, in fact, is meant to help us understand that all opulences flow from the ultimate source of everything, Lord Krsna. This is clear from the final verses. There Lord Krsna says (10.40), "Know that all beautiful, glorious, and mighty creations spring from but a spark of My splendor." And finally (10.41): "But what need is there, Arjuna, for all this detailed knowledge? With a single fragment of Myself I pervade and support this entire universe."

By the way, in the beginning of the chapter (10.2) Lord Krsna has explicitly stated that none of the gods or sages can know His opulence, because He is the origin of all the gods and sages.

That Krsna is not limited by name or form is also a fact, because Krsna's name and form are identical with Krsna Himself and therefore have unlimited potency. So when Krsna speaks of Himself by saying "Me," we need not impose our own interpretation by saying that Krsna is speaking of an impersonal "Supreme Consciousness." To rightly understand Bhagavad-gita, better to accept Bhagavad-gita as it is. When Krsna says "Me," He means just what He says. "Me" means the person speaking, who here is Lord Sri Krsna, mentioned throughout Bhagavad-gita as "sri bhagavan," the Personality of Godhead.

What sets Sanatana-dharma apart is not that it would have us believe that all gods are equal, but rather that it explains the Supreme Personality of Godhead in detail, with all His diverse opulences and potencies, as mentioned in the Svetasvatara Upanisad (parasya saktir vividhaiva sruyate). In this way, with broad, deep understanding, one can realize the all-encompassing presence of Lord Krsna, the Personality of Godhead, and avoid the fanaticism sometimes seen among the narrow-minded and less well informed.

That learned men express the truth in many different ways does not mean that everything is the truth. Otherwise, what would be the need of learned men or Vedic scriptures?

Rather, in various ways all the Vedic scriptures glorify the Personality of Godhead. Therefore Sripada Madhvacarya has quoted:

vede ramayane caiva
purane bharate tatha
adav ante ca madhye ca
harih sarvatra giyate

"From the very beginning [adau] to the end [ante ca], as well as within the middle [madhye ca], all the Vedic literature, including the Ramayana, Puranas, and Mahabharata, glorifies Hari [Lord Krsna], the Supreme Personality of Godhead."

You mention Bhagavad-gita 7.21 (yo yo yam yam tanum bhaktah), and again the meaning of the verse is clear:

"Whatever celestial form a devotee [craving for some worldly object] chooses to worship with reverence, I [Lord Krsna] stabilize the faith of that particular devotee in that very form."

So even if for worldly gain one chooses to devote oneself to one of the 330 million subordinate gods, one can do so only by the grace of the Supreme God, Lord Krsna. On the other hand, when one recognizes Lord Krsna to be the ultimate source of everything and therefore surrenders to Him in love and devotional service, it is Krsna Himself who gives one the power to do so and thus attain Him (dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te).

That the separate, individual devas merely serve as symbols of the Divine, that they don't really exist, and that therefore all paths are equal is not supported in Bhagavad-gita.

In Bhagavad-gita (9.25) we find:

yanti deva-vrata devan
pitrn yanti pitr-vratah
bhutani yanti bhutejya
yanti mad-yajino 'pi mam

Here it is stated that those who worship various devas (Lord Siva, Ganesaji, goddess Durga, and so on) reach the abodes of the devas. Those who worship the ancestors reach the abodes where the ancestors reside. Those who worship ghosts go to live among the ghosts. And only those who worship Lord Krsna go to Krsna's supreme abode (tad dhama paramam mama).

If you buy a ticket from London to Glasgow, it will not take you to Paris. So too, it's not that whatever spiritual ticket one chooses will bring one to the same destination.

Were all paths and all choices equal, there would have been no need for Lord Krsna to speak Bhagavad-gita. He could have simply let Arjuna slink from the battlefield in disgrace and illusion. "Well," the Lord could have said, "that's your path, and all paths are one." Instead, He enlightens Arjuna so that Arjuna becomes Lord Krsna's surrendered devotee. And anyone can attain perfection by following the path of Sri Arjuna.

As you say, Brahman cannot be imperfect, because Brahman is all-encompassing, all-inclusive. But the impersonal aspect of Brahman, though transcendental, is not all-inclusive, because it excludes the eternal existence of spiritual form, name, qualities, pastimes, and individuality.

But the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, includes all these and also includes the impersonal Brahman as one aspect of His transcendental existence (brahmano hi pratisthaham).

Therefore, when one has gone even beyond the impersonal Brahman realization to realize Brahman in the highest aspect, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna, one surrenders to Him in pure devotional service (mad bhaktim labhate param).

As I can understand from your letter, you are already naturally attracted to Krsna and devoted to Krsna, so much so that you have even written the holy name "Krsna" in devanagari on the top of every page.

So I hope you will forgive me if I have unintentionally said anything insolent, unmannerly, or discourteous.

As devotion to Lord Krsna is already your chosen path, I am not trying to divert you. I simply hope you will follow that path further and further. And at the end of the path, may you ultimately meet your Lord Kaniya face to face and become one of His eternally joyful companions in the spiritual world.

Hare Krsna.

Jayadvaita Swami, Editor