The Start of an Exploration of Meaning

This paper, originally presented to the Committee on the Study of Religion, at the University of California at Los Angeles, examines five topics in the Bhagavad-gita. The first four of these topics appeared in parts one and two. Now the paper concludes with the fifth topic.


5. Krsna Has Spiritual Form

IN THE Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna stresses the personality of the Godhead as the highest feature of the Absolute Truth and therefore the goal of the yoga process. For example, at 8.8-10, Krsna states:

"One who is engaged in the practice of yoga, meditating with undeviating consciousness on the Supreme Divine Person, goes to that Supreme Person. One who constantly remembers Him as the primeval scholar, the steady ruler, smaller than the smallest, the creator of everything, as He whose inconceivable form is luminous like the sun and beyond darkness … one who remembers Him thus attains to that Supreme Divine Person." ** (abhyasa-yoga-yuktena cetasa nanya-gamina paramam purusam divyam yati parthanucintayan (Bg 8.8) kavim puranam anusasitaram anor aniyamsam anusmared yah sarvasya dhataram acintya-rupam aditya-varnam tamasah parastat (Bg 8.9) prayana-kale manasacalena bhaktya yukto yoga-balena caiva bhruvor madhye pranam avesya samyak sa tam param purusam upaiti divyam (Bg. 8.8-10)) (1)

Similarly, Arjuna declares Krsna to be the "eternal divine person," ** (purusam sasvatam divyam (Bg. 10.12)) (2) and later Arjuna says, "I consider You the eternal Person." ** (sanatanas tvam puruso mato me (Bg. 11.18)) (3) At this point it is good to recall the strict ontological rule that Krsna enunciated at the very beginning of His teaching: "Of the temporary there is no real existence, and of the eternal there is no cessation." ** (nasato vidyate bhavo nabhavo vidyate satah (Bg. 2.16)) (4) Thus when Arjuna declares Krsna the eternal person, it is understood that Krsna's personality has no beginning or end. Indeed Arjuna states that Krsna is ajam, "unborn" (Bg. 10.12). It is significant that Krsna states that not only He Himself but in fact individual souls in general are beginningless: "Know that both material nature and the individual person [purusa] are beginningless. It is the accidental qualities and transformations of prakrti that come into being." ** (prakrtim purusam caiva viddhy anadi ubhav api vikarams ca gunams caiva viddhi prakrti-sambhavan (Bg. 13.20)) (5) So the sanatana-purusa, the "eternal person," cannot refer to a material form.

Since Krsna is an eternal, supreme, divine person, it is natural that He has an abode, and that is also described within the Gita: "The sun does not brighten it, nor the moon, nor fire. Having gone to it, they never return that is My supreme abode." ** (karna tad bhasayate suryo na sasanko na pavakah yad gatva na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama (Bg. 15.6)) (6) Similarly: "It is said to be unmanifest and indestructible, and they call it the supreme destination. Having achieved it, they never return from My supreme abode." ** (avyakto 'ksara ity uktas tam ahuh paramam gatim yam prapya na nivartante tad dhama paramam mama (Bg. 8.21)) (7)

According to the Bhagavad-gita, the supreme personality of the Godhead is not merely myth, poetry, or symbol, but rather spiritually tangible form and being, which is avyakta, unmanifest, only to the materially conditioned soul. Thus in the seventh chapter of the Gita, Lord Krsna says, "The unintelligent think that I am unmanifest, but that I have become a manifest, visible person, for they do not know My supreme nature, which is inexhaustible and of incomparable excellence." ** (avyaktam vyaktim apannam manyante mam abuddhayah param bhavam ajananto mamavyayam anuttamam (Bg. 7.24) ) (8)

So important is this verse that we shall examine its key terms in detail. Lord Krsna says that "the unintelligent [abuddhayah, plural of abuddhi, literally "those without intelligence"] think [manyante] that I am avyaktam, unmanifest, but that I have becomevyaktim, a manifest person." The term avyaktam contrasts with the term vyaktim not only in the sense of the invisible versus the visible, but also in contrasting a type of impersonal existence with a personal, individual reality. This sense of avyakta as impersonal, in contrast to the personal, is clearly evident at Bg. 12.1 and Bg. 12.3, and is also strengthened by the fact that here at Bg. 7.24 Lord Krsna contrasts avyaktam not with its immediate antonym vyaktam, "the manifest," but with the cognatevyaktim, which more specifically indicates a manifest, individual person.

Krsna says, then, "The unintelligent think that I am impersonal and unmanifest but that I have become a distinct, visible, individual person. They think this because they do not know my supreme, transcendental nature [param bhavam] …" The param bhavam, or "supreme nature," mentioned here is clearly the transcendental nature of the vyakti, or visible personal identity of Krsna. It is difficult to find another straightforward reading of this simple Sanskrit sentence.

Lord Krsna's statement at Bg. 7.24 contrasts in a curious way with another use of the terms avyakta and vyakti at Bg. 8.18. There the Lord says, "On the coming of the day [of Brahma] all the individual beings come forth from the unmanifest, and on the coming of the night [of Brahma] they are merged into the very place called the avyakta." ** (avyaktad vyaktayah sarvah prabhavanty ahar-agame ratry-agame praliyante tatraivavyakta-samjnake (Bg. 8.18)) (9)

There are several significant features of this statement. Krsna uses the term vyaktayah, the plural nominative form of vyaktih, and He says that all these vyaktis (my translation: all the individual beings) come forth from the unmanifest, avyakta, during the day of Brahma. Since there is clearly a plurality of living beings mentioned here (and everywhere else in the Gita), and since the term vyakti is here used to describe the beings at their specific stage of manifestation, coming forth with Brahma's day, it is clear in this context also that the term vyakti refers to an individual, manifest person, active within the world.

Because one might tend to associate the term vyakti with the conditioned souls visible in this world, Krsna takes care to emphasize, when using the word to refer to Himself, that He does not, as do the conditioned souls, acquire a visible form upon coming to this world. Indeed the entire argument at Bg. 7.24 is that Lord Krsna does not assume His visible, personal form at all, but that His personal form is His superior nature, param bhavam. In fact, Krsna explains almost immediately after this, at Bg.8.20, that the param bhavam (inflected here as paro bhavah since it shifts to the nominative from the accusative) is beyond the avyakta, the unmanifest from which the ordinary souls come forth on the coming of Brahma's day.

Although Lord Krsna describes that paro bhavah as being a superior avyakta or unmanifest realm, we find at Bg. 8.21 that here the paro bhavah actually refers to the Lord's supreme abode. In other words, although to ordinary persons His supreme abode is not manifest, Krsna descends from His abode so that we can see Him as He is. This is the highest sense of avatara.

The same term paro bhavah has been used at Bg. 7.24 to indicate the spiritual nature of Krsna's personality, and at Bg. 8.20 the term is used specifically to describe the spiritual quality of the Lord's abode, but in either case it is clear that the paro bhavah at Bg. 8.20, or indeed the param bhavam mentioned at Bg. 7.24, is beyond the avyakta mentioned at Bg. 8.18 as the status from which conditioned souls, also called vyaktis, come forth to manifest in this world.

The conclusion is that the Gita affirms the spiritual personality of the Lord, which is not a mere symbol of, incarnation of, or way of getting at, etc., an unmanifest impersonal Absolute Truth. Rather Krsna is a person. Indeed He is the supreme, eternal, and divine person to whom we are to surrender. And this, in a nutshell, is what the Bhagavad-gita is essentially teaching. But the personal form of the Lord is not to be known by mental speculation. Thus the term vyaktim is used also at Bg. 10.14 when Arjuna says to Krsna, "Neither the gods nor the demons, O blessed Lord, know Thy personality [vyaktim]." ** (na hi te bhagavan vyaktim vidur deva na danavah (Bg. 10.14)) (10) Rather, "It is by devotion that one knows Me in truth, as I actually am." ** (bhaktya mam abhijanati yavan yas casmi tattvatah (Bg. 18.55)) (11)

Krsna's Humanlike Body

That Lord Krsna is ultimately to be known as the Supreme Person is made even more explicit at the beginning of the twelfth chapter. Arjuna asks the Lord, "Who are the greatest knowers of yoga those who are Your devotees, always engaged in worshiping You, or those who worship the unperishing unmanifest?" ** (evam satata-yukta ye bhaktas tvam paryupasate ye capy aksaram avyaktam tesam ke yoga-vittamah (Bg. 12.1)) (12) Here Arjuna places personal devotion to Krsna and worship of theavyakta, the unmanifest feature of the Absolute, in direct competition. Krsna at once replies, "Always engaged in fixing their minds on Me, those who worship Me with transcendental faith I consider to be most intimately united with Me in yoga." ** (mayy avesya mano ye mam nitya-yukta upasate sraddhaya parayopetas te me yuktatama matah (Bg. 12.2)) (13) Both in Arjuna's original question (Bg. 12.1) and in Lord Krsna's reply, the personal pronoun indicating Krsna (Arjuna's tvam, "You," and Krsna's mam, "Me") is used to indicate the personal concept of God, in contrast to the impersonal unmanifest.

The artificiality of the impersonal path for the eternal individual soul is made clear at Bg. 12.5, wherein Lord Krsna says that in contrast to the path of bhakti, which is susukham kartum, "very joyful to perform" (Bg. 9.2), the path of meditation on the unmanifest, the ineffable, all-pervading Absolute is just the opposite. It is duhkham, or miserable to perform. Indeed, Krsna calls the impersonal path kleso 'dhikataras, or "exceedingly troublesome." (Bg. 12.5)

Sri Krsna also states: "Because I in here in a humanlike body, foolish people disrespect Me, for they do not understand My transcendental nature." ** (avajananti mam mudha manusim tanum asritam param bhavam ajananto … (Bg. 9.11)) (14) It is certainly noteworthy here that Lord Krsna repeats exactly the same words as in Bg. 7.24 "not knowing My transcendental nature" (param bhavam ajananto … Bg. 7.24, Bg. 9.11). Thus the unintelligent (abuddhayah) who think that Krsna has assumed His personal form are compared to the foolish (mudhah) who disrespect Krsna because He appears in a humanlike body.

Krsna states at Bg. 9.11 that He inheres in a humanlike body. The Sanskrit phrase is manusim (humanlike) tanum (a body) asritam (I have inhered in). That which is inherent is essential and intrinsic, and this notion that the Lord originally manifests in a spiritual form is also indicated elsewhere in the Gita. Let us turn to chapter four, wherein Krsna elaborately describes His descent into this world. Lord Krsna states:

"Although I am unborn and My Self never deteriorates, and although I am the Lord of all beings, utilizing My own energy I appear by My own potency. Whenever there is a decline of dharma, O Bharata, and a prominent rise of adharma [irreligion], at that time I manifest My Self. To deliver the pious, to destroy the evil-doers, and to establish dharma, I appear in every age." ** (ajo 'pi sann avyayatma bhutanam isvaro 'pi san prakrtim svam adhisthaya sambhavamy atma-mayaya (Bg 4.6)) (15)

Indological Problems

Some of the problems infecting Western Indological studies can be seen in how one scholar has paraphrased the above verses, and then translated the last of the three, in a well-known textbook on Hinduism:

In reality he is apart from the world as the Lord of all beings, but whenever worldly righteousness declines he creates a form for himself out of Prakrti by his mysterious power [maya] and manifests himself among men:
For the preservation of the righteous, the destruction of the wicked,
And the establishment of dharma, I come into being from age to age.

(Bhagavad Gita 4.8)

There are two grave problems with this translation:

First, the scholar inserts the foreign notion that Krsna "creates a form for himself out of Prakrti by his mysterious power." The view that Krsna is different from His personal form, a form presumed here to be made of matter, is not in accord with what Krsna says. Indeed He says the opposite.

At Bg. 4.6 the Lord says that He is "unborn" and that His self "never deteriorates." The word for self is the standard term atma, and avyaya means "unperishing, undecaying." The term avyaya-atma is hard to construe as designating anything different from the personal form of Krsna, because in the very next verse Krsna states that when He descends He does so by manifesting that same atma (tada atmanam srjamy aham Bg. 4.7). In other words, the form Krsna sends forth to this world is eternal.

In English syntax, Krsna simply says, tada aham srjami atmanam: "Then I manifest [My] Self." The verb here is srj: to let go, release, discharge, send forth; also: to create, beget, procreate. We cannot apply here the latter sense creating, begetting, etc. After all, Lord Krsna has just stated that His atma is avyaya, imperishable, and the Gita has clearly said from the outset that things which arise in time also end in time: "For that which is born, death is certain." (jatasya hi dhruvo mrtyur Bg. 2.27) Thus within the clear ontology of the Gita there is no way in which anything, much less a divine "self," can come into being and then last forever. There is no such entity in the Bhagavad-gita.

If we then accept the verb srj in the alternative sense to release, discharge, send forth we still have nothing like the scholar's "he creates a form for himself." Krsna appears to be saying something quite different, and quite simple and straightforward: "I send Myself forth to this world." After all, who else but Krsna could order the descent of Krsna, the supreme authority by whose order (Bg. 9.10) all the universe turns?

The other problem with the scholar's translation is that the phrase "I come into being" makes no sense. Lord Krsna has explained that He has always existed (na tv evaham jatu nasam Bg. 2.12); in fact (Bg. 2.12, 13.20), not only Krsna but all living entities are beginningless.

The verb the scholar has translated as "I come into being" is sambhavami, the present tense, first person singular, of sam-bhu, which means, first, "to be or come together." Thus we should understand that Lord Krsna is simply stating that by His descent (avatara) He comes together with the souls of this world for their eternal benefit. As Krsna has stated twice in the Gita (Bg. 9.17, 14.4), He is the father of all living beings, and thus (Bg. 5.29) He is the well-wishing friend of all.

An additional sense of sam-bhu is "to be born or produced from." But this sense normally requires an ablative noun the subject of the verb must be born or produced from something. In the verse the scholar is translating, such an ablative word is conspicuously absent, and, as explained above, that meaning is anyway theologically impossible.

A third sense of the verb is "to arise, spring up, develop." This inapplicable sense may be the one the scholar has in mind. But in that case, we may say that Krsna arises in this world as the sun rises in the eastern horizon. Surely we would not say that the sun "comes into being" daily.

A fourth sense of the verb, which like the first clearly does apply, is "to prevail, be effective." The verb has yet other senses, but the first and fourth, for various contextual and grammatical reasons, are the likely candidates.

Lord Krsna concludes the topic of His descent into this world at 4.9, where He states: "One who thus understands, in truth, My divine birth and activities does not, upon leaving the body, go to another birth. He goes to Me, O Arjuna."

Krsna says that His birth and activities are divine, divya, and of course this is the same adjective we have seen used many times to describe Krsna as the supreme divine person. Krsna stresses that one must understand His birth in truth (tattvatah). But if, as some scholars claim, Krsna's birth was merely the assuming of an ordinary material form, why would this word of caution be used? And how would mere understanding of His birth be enough to guarantee liberation? The text forces us to look at the position of Krsna more seriously.

There is much more to say about the position of Krsna in Bhagavad-gita. The topics we have covered, though important, are but a few. One may or may not choose to believe what Krsna is saying, but before examining whether it is true one should first understand Krsna as He is. And this can be done by reading Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.