A review of Vaisnava literature turns up five instances of Lord Krishna’s showing His form as the universe and everything in it.
Rajiv and I have been friends for several years, and our exchanges often beckon the comedian in him. We relish a certain light-hearted banter that seems to always bring us closer. Sometimes, his sense of humor incorporates spiritual ideas. For example, he recently told me his life was absolutely perfect. In almost every area of endeavor, he said, the fates conspire for his pleasure. I asked why he thought this was so.
“Well, it’s because I’m God, don’t you know?”
Although provoking laughter, his comment sparked a serious discussion, and we noted that in India, where Rajiv was born, one finds numerous “godmen” claiming to be some sort of manifestation of divinity.
The problem might be subtler in the West, but we have it here too. Many of us know egotists. Taken to an extreme, their thinking reveals itself as what I would call a severe “divinity issue,” thinking oneself the ultimate enjoyer, the central purpose of the universe. If they don’t say it directly, it is often an undercurrent or a subliminal attitude. Somehow the notion of being the Supreme looms large.
For this reason the great teachers of India have deemed it necessary to establish qualifying factors to determine who might legitimately be a manifestation of God and who might not. I mentioned one approach in my conversation with Rajiv: Incarnations of God are predicted in the scriptures, I told him, often with specific details. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, for example, is prophesied in the Vayu Purana, among other places, where we find that His mother, Saci, is mentioned by name. This same text tells us the town in which He appeared, Navadwip, and His mission as well: to inaugurate the sankirtana movement, or the movement centered on chanting the holy name. And when the scriptures aren’t forthcoming with details, they describe bodily characteristics and personal attributes by which one can recognize an incarnation.
Introducing the Universal Form
But what interested my friend most was my description of Lord Krishna’s universal form (virat-rupa). Rajiv had read the Bhagavad-gita, and he knew that Chapter Eleven focuses on Krishna’s revelation of His Godhood. Krishna shows Arjuna an overwhelming mystical manifestation that includes creation and annihilation, multifarious living beings, all-devouring time, and the manifold material elements all together in one place. What Rajiv had never thought about is this: The universal form is a good test to determine who is an incarnation and who isn’t.
When I got home I emailed him a passage from Prabhupada’s commentary on the Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.1.24): “This virat-rupa of the Lord was especially manifested, not for the benefit of Arjuna, but for that unintelligent class of men who accept anyone and everyone as an incarnation of the Lord and so mislead the general mass of people. For them, the indication is that one should ask the cheap incarnation to exhibit his virat-rupa and thus be established as an incarnation.”
Rajiv and I agreed that this would stop most people in their tracks. Asked if they could manifest something even remotely resembling the universal form as described in the Gita, they would realize the silliness of their claim to divinity and accept their subservience to God, at least in theory if not in practice.
Rajiv wondered aloud: “Could Arjuna have imagined it? Is it possible that Krishna had somehow managed to deceive him?”
This is not what the tradition teaches, and if one studies the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna as expressed in the Mahabharata, it becomes clear that there was deep love between them. Krishna sought not to deceive Arjuna but to edify him, to enlighten him.
In addition, tricking someone like Arjuna, I told Rajiv, was unlikely. He was a highly posted government officer and widely respected, not only for his military abilities but also for his sober judgment and sound leadership. He could not easily be deceived or tricked into seeing a form that, ostensibly, included all aspects of existence, including things he couldn’t possibly know, like the beginning of creation and the outcome of dissolution and even the particulars of the war about to rage before him. Rajiv nodded in agreement.
The Five Revelations
I further pointed out that Krishna had shown the universal form to others, making it clear that this particular instance was not an aberration. Krishna’s manifest pastimes include five examples of this particular revelation.
Krishna first revealed this form twice to His mother, Yashoda. We read in the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s Tenth Canto (10.7.35–37) that when the child Krishna once yawned happily, His mother saw in His mouth heaven and earth, stars, oceans, continents, and all moving and non moving things. A similar incident occurred soon thereafter, when her divine son happened to eat mud (10.8.37–39):
When Krishna opened His mouth wide by the order of mother Yashoda, she saw within His mouth all moving and non moving entities, outer space, and all directions, along with mountains, islands, oceans, the surface of the earth, the blowing wind, fire, the moon, and the stars. She saw the planetary systems, water, light, air, sky, and creation by transformation of ahankara.
She also saw the senses, the mind, sense perception, and the three qualities goodness, passion, and ignorance. She saw the time allotted for the living entities, she saw natural instinct and the reactions of karma, and she saw desires and different varieties of bodies, moving and no nmoving. Seeing all these aspects of the cosmic manifestation, along with herself and Vrindavana-dhama, she became doubtful and fearful of her son’s nature.
Being a gentle devotee who relishes an intimate relation with the Supreme, Yashoda, like Arjuna, preferred to see Him in His adorable (and original) two-armed form as Krishna, her loving son. The universal form establishes Lord Krishna’s Godhood for those on a rudimentary level of spirituality. The philosophical underpinnings of this truth are found sporadically in the first five cantos of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, where it is revealed that the universal form is a temporary manifestation of the Lord that embodies all created things. This is especially noted in Srimad-Bhagavatam 220.127.116.11
Why would the Lord show this form to superior devotees like Yashoda and Arjuna? The answer is simple, as Prabhupada stated earlier: Through them Krishna would reveal the fact of His Godhood to future generations of nonbelievers and skeptics (people like me), hoping to give them faith.
After showing the form to mother Yashoda on these two occasions, many years passed before Lord Krishna would show it again. The third instance was in the assembly hall of the Kurus, as depicted in the Mahabharata’s fifth book. There, in the Udyoga-parva, we read that Krishna arrived at the Kaurava court on a peace mission and tried to end the devastating Kurukshetra war before it could begin. Not only would Duryodhana not hear His words of reconciliation, but he ordered that Krishna be arrested and tied with ropes. In reaction, the Lord laughed heartily and displayed a portion of the heart-stirring form He would later show to Arjuna.
Here it is described that Krishna manifested innumerable arms, each with weapons that glowed with blinding light. In fact, His entire form looked like an erupting volcano, and from his lightning like body a vast array of demigods issued forth, including Brahma on His brow and Siva on His breast. Indeed, His form displayed the essence of all entities, both great and small. Fire emanated from His mouth and from the pores of His skin, so He appeared like the rays of the sun.
Duryodhana, for one, could not look upon this devastatingly effulgent form, and the other Kaurava kings, too, closed their eyes in fear. Only Bhisma, Drona, Karna, Vidura, Sanjaya, and the sages present were able to behold this divine manifestation. The denizens of heaven showered flowers, and the sounds of kettledrums and conches vibrated in all directions.
The blind king Dhrtarastra, father of Duryodhana, heard the commotion and prayed that Krishna allow him, too, the vision bequeathed to the Kauravas. Krishna granted him momentary eyesight, giving him the divine ability to see the unseeable.
After bewildering the Kauravas, Lord Krishna withdrew His universal form and, accompanied by Satyaki and Krtavarma, left the palace, knowing that war was inevitable.
It was soon after this, just before the Battle of Kurukshetra, that Krishna revealed the universal form in all its fullness to Arjuna. This was the fourth time He revealed it. I said earlier that the revelation in the Kaurava assembly hall was a partial manifestation. I now say “in all its fullness” because Prabhupada indicates that the particular version displayed before the divine archer was unique:
No one had seen this universal form of the Lord before Arjuna, but because the form was shown to Arjuna, other devotees in the heavenly planets and in other planets in outer space could also see it. They did not see it before, but because of Arjuna they were able to see it. In other words, all the disciplic devotees of the Lord could see the universal form which was shown to Arjuna by the mercy of Krishna. Someone commented that this form was shown to Duryodhana also when Krishna went to Duryodhana to negotiate for peace. Unfortunately, Duryodhana did not accept the peace offer, but at that time Krishna manifested some of His universal form. But those forms are different from this one shown to Arjuna. It is clearly said that no one has ever seen this form before. (Bhagavad-gita As It Is, 11.47, Purport)2
In fact, many saw the universal form at the time of the battle, not just Arjuna. In famed commentator Baladeva Vidyabhusana’s gloss on Bhagavad-gita 11.20, he says:
It is understood that now, for seeing the war, the devas, asuras, Gandharvas, Kinnaras, and others who were friendly or neutral had gathered. Not only Arjuna was given celestial eyes. They also were given celestial eyes by the Lord to see this form. If only Arjuna could see that form, it would have been like a sleeping person seeing chariots or other objects in a dream, while others could not see them. The Lord made this display so that many others could bear witness to His powers.
The Lord manifested His universal form to Uttanka in the Mahabharata’s fourteenth book (Asvamedhaparva 52–54). There we read that just after the war at Kurukshetra, Krishna journeyed to Dwarka and on the way met an old friend, the sage Uttanka. They stopped to talk and Krishna apprised him of the details of the war. Uttanka found it disconcerting that Krishna did not stop the proceedings, since He certainly had the power to do so. As their conversation grew more heated, Uttanka threatened to curse the Lord with his yogic powers. But Krishna told him that such a curse would be ineffectual, since, as God, He was the source of all mystic powers.
Uttanka doubted that Krishna was powerful enough to avert the curse, and so he challenged Him:
“Is it so? Are You the universal Lord Himself? If so, please prove it to me.”
Krishna then manifested His virat- rupa. Uttanka was particularly blessed, for the Mahabharata (14.54.4) tells us that he saw the same vision that Krishna had previously shown Arjuna.
Awestruck, Uttanka glorified Krishna’s many superlative attributes and, as in the instances of Yashoda and Arjuna, beseeched Him to withdraw His overwhelming manifestation. Krishna did so, and then offered Uttanka a boon: He assured him that he would have water whenever he needed it and would never go thirsty.
The odd boon made sense when some years later Uttanka found himself in the desert. Almost dying of thirst, he was relieved when rain clouds mysteriously appeared, supplying water in his moment of need. Today in India, when clouds appear in the desert or during drought like conditions, they are referred to as “Uttanka’s clouds” (uttanka-megha).
Rajiv reminded me that Vamanadeva, another incarnation of Krishna, once displayed the universal form before a great king (see Prabhupada’s commentary to Srimad-Bhagavatam 8.21.5).
This brought to mind yet another instance of the revelation: Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu showed the universal form to His intimate devotees. Caitanya-caritamrta (adi 17.10) briefly mentions that Advaita acarya had a vision of the virat-rupa. Caitanya-bhagavata (Madhya 14) elaborates, saying that both Sri Advaita and Nityananda Prabhu were privy to this confidential manifestation of the Supreme and upon seeing it danced like jubilant peacocks. They felt that because of this form the world would now become aware of Sri Caitanya’s divinity.
At the end of our discussion, I told Rajiv, “In the United States, Chapter Eleven refers to bankruptcy. And in the Gita, Chapter Eleven implies a kind of bankruptcy, too the spiritual bankruptcy of those who would claim to be God.”
Satyaraja Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, is a BTG associate editor and founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies. He has written over thirty books on Krishna consciousness and lives near New York City.
Notes: 1 The early cantos of the Srimad-Bhagavatam describe the virat-rupa in a more abstract way, though with vivid detail, revealing elaborate ways in which one might see God in nature. From this perspective, the virat-rupa constitutes a form of pantheism. But this is an additional aspect of the universal form and does not fully articulate the mystical vision revealed to Krishna’s great devotees. Still, according to Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.2.1, Lord Brahma, the first created being, meditated on this form before our current cosmic era came into existence. So, too, did Markandeya Rishi, as retold in both the Mahabharata’s aranyaka-parva (Chapters 187 and 188) and the Bhagavatam’s 12th Canto (Chapter Nine). 2 To recap: We know from the Srimad- Bhagavatam that mother Yashoda saw the universal form, and the Mahabharata tells us that when Krishna went to the Kaurava assembly hall to negotiate for peace, He showed the universal form to Bhisma, Vidura, Drona, Karna, Sanjaya, and others. They all saw the form before Arjuna saw it. So can Krishna really say to Arjuna, as He does in both 47 and 48 of the Gita’s Eleventh Chapter, that “no one before you has seen this”? (tvad anyena, “besides you”; na drsta-purvam, “no one has previously seen”) What could Krishna possibly mean by this?
The commentator Sridhara Swami attempts to reconcile the issue by interpreting tvad anyena in 47 as tvadrsad bhaktad anyena (“by someone other than a devotee like you”), meaning that only great devotees have seen it. This, of course, would allow for Yashoda and others to have witnessed the form before Arjuna did.
Moreover, Sridhara Swami’s comment correlates with the Sanskrit in Bhagavad-gita 11.48, which indicates that no one before Arjuna “amongst those who exist in the world of men [nar-loke]” had seen the universal form.
Another component of resolution comes from Prabhupada, who, as already quoted, writes in his commentary to text 47: “at that time Krishna manifested some of His universal forms. But those forms are different from this one shown to Arjuna. It is clearly said that no one has ever seen this form before.” So there are variations in universal forms, and this, too, can resolve the dilemma, i.e., no one has seen the exact universal form that Krishna was showing to Arjuna at that time.
What was unique in Arjuna’s version is that the Kurukshetra battlefield was all laid out for him, with Krishna specifically mentioning the Kaurava generals by name and indicating that they were “already destroyed” (11.34). That is to say, the outcome of the battle was revealed to Arjuna to reassure him that he should fight. (More important, the specific vision was supposed to show Arjuna that Krishna was the actual “doer,” i.e., the killer of the specified warriors on the battlefield.) In Yashoda’s case, we find in the Tenth Canto’s Eighth Chapter that in addition to the standard aspects of the universal form, she “saw Vraja in His mouth as well as herself peering into it.” In other words, the universal form seems tailor-made for the person to whom Krishna shows it.