From Back to Godhead
Fifty centuries ago, during a fierce war, Lord Krishna and one of His pure devotees achieved a unique intimacy…
In the midst of the great battle, surrounded by the clash of arms, the pounding of hooves, the rattle of trappings, the shouts of warriors, and the screams of wounded men and beasts, where the dust churned up by the horses dimmed the sun and blood turned the earth to mud, Krishna suddenly stopped the chariot and sprang to the ground. Raising the wheel of a disabled chariot over His head, the Lord raced toward the great general Bhishmadeva like a lion charging an elephant. Just moments before, wave after wave of lethal arrows from Bhishmadeva’s bow had crashed relentlessly down upon Arjuna’s chariot. In amazement, the other warriors had seen the figures of Arjuna and his driver Sri Krishna completely disappear behind the curtains of the general’s arrows. It had been certain that Arjuna was about to fall before the fury of the attack.
And then Bhishmadeva’s bow was still. It dropped to the ground, and the invincible general stood unarmed and stared with widening eyes at the Lord charging furiously toward him. In intense concentration he noted every detail of Krishna’s appearance: He saw how the beautiful flowing black hair of the Lord had turned ashen from the dust of battle; he saw how beads of sweat adorned His face like dew on a blue lotus flower; he saw how red smears of blood from wounds made by his own arrows enhanced the beauty of the transcendental body of the Lord. Bhishmadeva watched the Lord rushing toward him, preparing to kill him with a hurl of the wheel, and he was filled with ecstasy.
This encounter on the battlefield between Lord Krishna and Bhishmadeva was not the hostile clash of enemies that it appears to be. On the contrary, it was the reciprocation of deepest love between the Supreme Personality of Godhead and one of His great devotees, and from it both derived the highest transcendental bliss. Srila Prabhupada explains this encounter at Kurukshetra in Chapter Nine of the First Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, and if we study the incident under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, who can take us to the reality that lies beyond appearance, we can begin to enter into the profound mysteries of the relations between the Lord and His pure devotees.
The battle at Kurukshetra was a civil war within the Kuru dynasty between the sons of Dhritarashtra (called the Kauravas) and the sons of Pandu (called the Pandavas) for rulership of the kingdom. Dhritarashtra and Pandu were brothers, and in the normal course of events Dhritarashtra, as the elder of the two, would have been king. But because Dhritarashtra was blind from birth, Pandu ascended to the throne.
Then Pandu died untimely. His five orphaned sons—one of whom was Arjuna—came under the care of their uncle Dhritarashtra, who raised them and trained them in the military arts along with his own sons. The eldest son of Dhritarashtra, the evil-minded Duryodhana, became increasingly envious of his cousins, and he resented any share they would have in the kingdom, which, had his father been ruler, would have fallen entirely to him. Dhritarashtra was not a bad man, but he was weak-willed and excessively fond of his eldest son, and gradually he fell in with Duryodhana’s vicious schemes to kill the Pandavas.
All these plots failed, but Duryodhana did manage to cheat the Pandavas of their share in the kingdom and have them banished for fourteen years. When the Pandavas returned from exile to reclaim their rightful share of rulership, it was refused them. They then requested five villages to rule, but even that was asking too much: they were denied even as much land as you could drive a pin into.
To appreciate how important rulership was to the Pandavas, we need to understand an important Sanskrit word: dharma. Sometimes translated as “duty,” sometimes as “religion,” dharma contains both meanings but has really no exact equivalent. Formed from the Sanskrit root dhri, meaning “to support or sustain,” dharma denotes the fundamental basis of a thing, that by which something is what it is, its inalienable nature or character. Thus the dharma of fire is to burn, and the dharma of sugar is to be sweet.
We learn from the Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic texts that every human has a two-fold dharma, one permanent and one temporary. Since all living entities are eternal, subordinate particles of God, our essential and unalterable nature, our permanent, eternal dharma, is to serve God. Now one may object that since many people quite plainly don’t serve God, that cannot be everyone’s unavoidable dharma.
People who appear not to be serving God, however, really are serving Him, although they do so unwillingly. To serve someone means to be controlled by the other person’s order, and since everyone is necessarily controlled by God, everyone serves Him. Those who serve God willingly, in love and devotion, are controlled directly and favorably by God, and they enter into eternal life. But those who rebel against God, seeking independence, serve Him unwillingly, being controlled by Him indirectly and unfavorably, through material nature; therefore, they must suffer repeated birth and death. Because service to God is our dharma, serve we must. Nevertheless, we have this much freedom: How to serve God is up to us.
In addition to this eternal and universal dharma pertaining to the soul, there is a supplementary dharma pertaining to the body; it is temporary and particular, applying only to civilized human beings. The Vedic literature tell us that four groups of people naturally compose human society: brahmanas, or intellectuals, who guide society according to their knowledge of the highest truth; kshatriyas, or executives, who manage society under brahminical direction and protect the citizens from external and internal disturbances; vaishyas, or producers, who create the wealth of society by agriculture and trade; and shudras, or laborers, who assist the other three groups.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that these four kinds of people, endowed with the appropriate qualities and aptitudes, are His creation; thus they are as natural to human society as head, arms, belly, and legs to the human body. Vedic society had the advantage over ours in recognizing this; following the directions of the Vedic literature, it determined to which group a child belonged on the basis of his inherent tendencies and then educated him intensively to assume a social role in fulfillment of his own nature. Each group had its particular constellation of duties, obligations, injunctions, prohibitions, and moral and ethical values, which together constituted the dharma of that group. Although dharma in this sense is usually translated as “duty,” it is not like some externally imposed fiat followed merely out of a sense of obligation; rather, by virtue of nature and education, it is constitutive of one’s own self. To go against one’s dharma, therefore, is not just to do wrong; it is to violate one’s very nature.
Because Vedic society was God-centered, the permanent and the temporary dharma were in harmony; the members of each group executed their particular duties as service to God. As Krishna instructs Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita [3.9]: “Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.”
Now we can understand why it was so important for the Pandavas to rule: they were kshatriyas, and rulership was their dharma. Krishna states conclusively that it is far better to execute one’s own dharma imperfectly than that of another perfectly [Bg. 3.35].
Moreover, in pursuing their dharma in relation to society, the Pandavas would also fulfill their dharma in relation to God. The Pandavas were great devotees of Krishna—so great that Krishna Himself, having descended into this world, played the part of their friend and kinsman. And Krishna wanted the pious and devoted Pandavas, rather than the impious and ungodly Kauravas, to rule. When the Kauravas remained obstinate in opposing the rights of the Pandavas, war became inevitable. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad- gita [4.8] that He descends to earth to reestablish dharma. And in the great battle at Kurukshetra, which took place by Krishna’s will for that very purpose, the Pandavas were His chosen instruments.
Krishna Himself did not fight. The Kauravas objected that the Pandavas would have an unfair advantage if the all-powerful Lord fought on their side. Krishna therefore vowed that He would not personally take up arms and would participate strictly as a noncombatant, as the driver of Arjuna’s chariot.
Bhishmadeva was also a great devotee of Lord Krishna’s. a devotee of the same stature as the Pandavas. But Bhishmadeva, strange to say, was on the wrong side, the side of the impious Kauravas. Bhishmadeva was the aged and revered grandsire of the Kuru dynasty, a valiant warrior, a brilliant general, and a great authority on religious principles. He was extremely affectionate toward the Pandavas, and he had repeatedly warned the Kauravas in the strongest terms of the wickedness and folly of their course. But when that course had led to war, Bhishmadeva had been obliged to fight for Duryodhana against his own beloved grandchildren, the Pandavas, because he was maintained at Duryodhana’s expense.
It appears in Bhishmadeva’s case that his temporary dharma as a kshatriya, which bound him in honor to his patron, was in conflict with his eternal dharma as a devotee, which bound him in love to his Lord. And it seems he erred in choosing to follow the former rather than the latter.
In fact, however, there was no disparity in dharma for Bhishmadeva. A pure devotee acts only in obedience to the Lord, and the real reason Bhishmadeva fought for the Kauravas was that Krishna wanted him to. Krishna had two purposes to fulfill by this. First. He wanted the Kauravas to have every possible advantage—and a fighter and leader like Bhishmadeva was a huge advantage—so that when the Kauravas went down in ignoble defeat, the whole world would see that, however well-favored the side of vice may be, it can never conquer virtue.
Krishna’s second purpose was more confidential. In the kind of relationship Krishna and Bhishmadeva enjoyed, their love for one another was intensely aroused by fighting. Krishna therefore placed Bhishmadeva in the opposing ranks to set the stage for a mutually satisfying encounter at arms.
To understand the relationship between the Lord and His warrior-devotee, we need to know something about the idea of rasa in the Vedic analysis of love. The flavor or taste of love varies according to the kind of relationship. A fan loves a celebrity, a loyal retainer loves his employer, a young man loves his brother, a mother loves her child, a husband loves his wife—these are all relations of love, but in each the quality of love, the emotional coloring, is distinct. That distinctive emotional coloring, that characteristic, affective flavor, is called rasa.
No matter how intense the material rasas we experience in this world seem to us, they are only stale and juiceless copies—reflected into this world like a mirage into a desert—of the real and original spiritual rasas tasted in relation with God. To show us this, Vedic texts recount hundreds of fascinating encounters between the Lord and His devotees—like this one between Krishna and Bhishmadeva—in which different rasas are exhibited. Expert devotees, analyzing these narrations, have discovered twelve distinct rasas, which they divide into two categories, called direct and indirect. A direct rasa is situated permanently in the heart of a devotee, whereas an indirect rasa will suddenly appear under certain conditions. The five direct rasas are called neutrality, servitude, fraternal love, parental love, and conjugal love. The seven indirect rasas are called humor, astonishment, chivalry, compassion, anger, dread, and ghastliness.
In the neutral rasa, a devotee is so overwhelmed by the transcendent greatness of God that he can do no more than passively adore Him. In servitude, the devotee feels subordinate to God, but He also wants to express His love actively by rendering service. A devotee in the more intimate fraternal rasa relates to God informally and as an equal, as one friend to another. In the parental rasa, the Lord takes the subordinate position of a child, and the devotee loves the Lord in the mood of a mother or father. In the most intimate, conjugal rasa, the devotee has the feelings of a wife or a girl friend toward the Lord.
You may see a contradiction between the idea of dharma, which says that the living entity is an eternally subordinate servant of God, and the idea of rasa, which holds that a devotee can act as the Lord’s equal or superior. But there is no contradiction. While the living entity is never equal to or superior to the Lord, when the Lord wants to taste the feelings that arise in intimate relationships, He allows a devotee to become His companion, parent, or lover by causing the devotee to forget the immense differences between them. Ontologically, the devotee remains a subordinate servant; psychologically, by the will of the Lord, he becomes the Lord’s equal or superior. Rasas with Krishna are thus pure service to Him and are the highest expressions of dharma.
Krishna is the supreme enjoyer, the reservoir of all rasas, eternally engaged in pastimes of love with innumerable devotees, relishing infinite varieties of emotions and feelings. Devotees situated in various rasas serve Krishna by satisfying His desire to enjoy in some particular way. The devotee is impelled solely by love, which is an intense desire to satisfy Krishna with no interest at all in one’s own enjoyment. This distinguishes spiritual rasas from material ones, which are based on lust, or a desire to secure one’s own satisfaction. If one wants to appreciate the spiritual quality of the rasas between Krishna and His devotees, one must be free from lust. Otherwise, there is the danger, especially acute with reference to the conjugal rasa, of conceiving the spiritual rasas materially.
Because we are emanations of God, whatever is in us reflects what is originally in Him. Thus we can understand something about God by studying ourselves. For example, we are persons, so we can understand that God must be a person. We have bodily form, and therefore we know that God does also. We enter into various relationships; so does God also. Of course, the personality of God is without the limitations and faults of material personalities, nor can God’s transcendental body be injured by blade or bullet or ravaged by age and disease like our material bodies. Nor do His relationships have any of the well-known shortcomings that make material relationships so problematic. People who speculate about God deny Him personality, body, and relationship, because of the imperfections that attend these things in the material world. This needlessly limits God; all that has to be denied are the imperfections.
Accordingly, there is no need for misgivings when we hear that God likes to fight. The fighting propensity is certainly found in us, and therefore it originally exists in God. A fight offers unique pleasures: an intense concentration of the mind and a heightening of the senses, along with the excitement of contest and adventure, the thrill of being challenged by danger, and an exhilaration in the testing of one’s strength and courage.
Of course, in the material world, fighting is altogether polluted by hate and enmity, and with the advent of modern mechanistic warfare, it has degraded into mere terrorism and indiscriminate butchery. The dharma of kshatriyas is to fight, but when they engage in a trial of arms, such as the one at Kurukshetra, they at least observe the rules of chivalry. No kshatriya would attack an enemy when he was disarmed or asleep. Equals fought only with equals on equal grounds. Battles were conducted in the spirit of sporting contests, and they were waged where civilians would not be in danger. All things deteriorate in time: Chivalry is dead, and the plan for our next big war has the military on both sides bunkered safely in underground Pentagons, while their weapons rain destruction onto each other’s defenseless civilian population. We have reason enough to dislike fighting, but we shouldn’t project all the despicable characteristics of fighting in the material world onto God’s transcendental fighting. The perversions are ours, not God’s.
When Krishna wants to enjoy the pleasure of fighting, He calls upon an appropriate devotee to be His opponent. When Krishna fights with His devotee, He enjoys feelings of love enhanced by the sharp emotions of combat, and Bhishmadeva yearned to serve Krishna in this way. In Bhishmadeva the direct rasa of servitude was combined with the more prominent indirect rasa of chivalry. Fighting with Krishna is a natural expression of that special valorous enthusiasm which characterizes the chivalrous rasa.
Krishna was eager to be attacked by His beloved Bhishmadeva, and so, as the supreme controller in everyone’s heart, He caused Duryodhana, after a disastrous day of battle, to approach Bhishmadeva with an insulting accusation: The Pandavas were winning only because Bhishmadeva, out of affection for them, was reluctant to attack them with his full prowess; if Bhishmadeva was unwilling to fight the Pandavas, he should have said so in the beginning. A kshatriya cannot tolerate any insult to his honor, and Bhishmadeva responded with a vow: He would slay all five Pandavas the next day with five arrows especially made for that purpose. These he handed over to Duryodhana for safekeeping. But Arjuna, by a clever strategem, got the arrows away from Duryodhana. Bhishmadeva understood that Krishna was behind the ploy, and so he swore that the next day Krishna would have to take up weapons Himself (breaking His own vow), otherwise His friend Arjuna would die.
And so it came about on the battlefield that Krishna charged toward Bhishmadeva with upraised wheel to save Arjuna from certain death at the general’s hand. Bhishmadeva had kept his promise and forced Krishna to break His own. Arjuna, acting in the fraternal rasa, grabbed Krishna around the waist to check His assault on Bhishmadeva, pleading with Him not to break His promise and be known as a liar. Krishna could appreciate Arjuna’s friendly concern, but he had deliberately gone back on His word to show that He protects His devotee unconditionally, at whatever cost to Himself. Nothing supersedes His love for His devotees.
Krishna was magnificent—in protecting Arjuna and in breaking His promise. And Bhishmadeva relished this in deep ecstasy, just as he relished the stern military features of Krishna as He adroitly maneuvered Arjuna’s chariot in battle, a whip in His right hand and a bridle rope in His left. He relished seeing Krishna’s hair made ashen and disheveled by battle, and His face beaded with perspiration from the effort of guiding the chariot. And he relished seeing the wounds inflicted by his own arrows on Krishna’s body.
Krishna displayed these features in battle to satisfy the chivalrous love of His servant, just as Bhishmadeva pressed his furious attack against Krishna to satisfy the fighting spirit of the Lord. Because the arrows falling upon Krishna were shot in chivalrous worship by His beloved Bhishmadeva, the Lord accepted them as He would a shower of soft roses offered by another devotee. The Lord enjoyed the wounds inflicted upon Him by Bhishmadeva, although in truth, there is no possibility of wounds on the spiritual body of Krishna. Just as intense love can cause goosebumps to be raised on the skin or a flush to appear on the face, so Krishna responded in love to Bhishmadeva with the appearance of wounds on His inviolable transcendental body.
Thus Krishna graciously accepted the love offered to Him by Bhishmadeva. It was the general’s most wonderful hour. After the battle was over, when he lay with his body so riddled with arrows that it did not touch the ground, and great sages had gathered with the Pandavas to witness the passing of the mighty warrior-devotee, Bhishmadeva fixed his mind with intense concentration on the image, driven indelibly into his heart, of Krishna, angry and disheveled, with the wheel lifted high, rushing at him as a lover runs to meet his beloved.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam relates many pastimes between Lord Krishna and pure devotees like Bhishmadeva. Hearing these narrations will certainly act as an antidote to the prevalent poisonous stereotype of a remote, static, and entirely unsociable God, a God too grandly aloof to enter fully into mutual relationships: a God you wouldn’t really care to know. This pernicious idea of God has led many people to think that relations with Him must be vacuous and one-sided, and spiritual life deadly dull; godless relationships seem far more interesting. Mark Twain spoke for these people when he quipped: “Heaven for climate, hell for society.”
But Krishna shows us that relationships with Him are endlessly rich and attractive, filled with powerful and exalted emotions, replete with fascinating interchanges, utterly absorbing in interest, and charged through and through with ecstasy. Each of us possesses a rasa with Krishna as part of our eternal makeup, but as long as we remain turned away from Him to seek happiness in material relationships, our rasa lies undeveloped and dormant within our heart. To encourage us to revive our sleeping love for Him, Krishna has graciously revealed some of His unlimited pastimes, so that we can see there is no society like Krishna’s society, nor any love like Krishna’s love.