“The deep vibration of Krishna's flute surpasses the thundering of new clouds and attracts the aural reception of the entire world. Thus the inhabitants of Vrindavana rise and pursue that sound, drinking the showering nectar of Krishna's bodily luster like thirsty Chatak birds.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 19.42)
Question: “Krishna is often depicted holding and playing a flute. Is there any special significance to this flute?”
Answer: There are certainly different forms of the original Personality of Godhead, the almighty entity that we know as God. The varieties in appearance speak to the different natures of man. Not only are there varieties in the human species, but in fact there are up to 8,400,000 different forms of life, each of which has its own tendencies, desires, and activities that bring it pleasure. Only one person is the father of every species, and hence only one person knows how to please everyone. This entity is so potent that by taking to self-pleasing activities, He can attract the hearts and minds of those who are dying to offer their service in a pure and loving way. As the ultimate reservoir of pleasure, the Supreme Lord simply has to engage in one of His innumerable sports to give pleasure to those who are intimately associated with Him, the devotees. Of all the forms of Godhead, only the original, Lord Krishna, is capable of instigating the highest transcendental mellow, or rasa, from the purified soul. Not surprisingly, Krishna’s flute plays an integral role in this divine enchantment.
Why are there different forms of Godhead if Krishna can just play His flute and attract everyone? Depending on the time and circumstance, mankind will not be so willing to bring forth his natural loving propensity. The loving propensity is a quality derived from the natural properties of the spirit soul. This shouldn’t surprise us, for though it manifests in different ways, love is all around. Love in the mundane sense is directed towards one’s neighbor, friend, countrymen, government leaders, parents, or paramour. Even hate is a product of the loving propensity, a total inversion of the emotion. When intense love gets reversed, it turns into hatred. As individual autonomous units of energy, we have free will in our actions. But this doesn’t mean that we have independence as far as results go, for every other individual has their own free will to act upon their desires.
The power of the individual comes from the soul, which is an expansion of the Supreme Spirit. Not surprisingly, this most powerful spiritual entity is the Supreme Lord. Depending on the time, circumstance, and understanding of the members of society, the Divine Entity is addressed by different names. In the Vedic tradition, the name Krishna is considered the best because it speaks to the Divine’s most important feature: attractiveness. Only God can attract everyone; hence the name Krishna, which means all-attractive, becomes most appropriate. Nevertheless, Lord Krishna, in His original all-attractive form, doesn’t necessarily remain in the material world at all times. His presence is certainly felt everywhere, as not a blade of grass can move without His sanction, but this influence is of the secondary variety. Krishna is in everything, but not everything is in Krishna.
“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.4)
How is God’s influence felt on earth? As mentioned before, the individual spirit soul, which is part and parcel of Krishna, forms the basis of identity and action. Yet the results of action are distributed by the Supersoul, a non-different expansion of Krishna which resides within the heart, next to the individual soul. They say that the size of the individual soul, or jivatma, is akin to a tiny fragment of the tip of a human hair, and that the size of the Supersoul is akin to the size of a thumb. Both of these measurements are relative to the particular body, for every living entity, even a tiny ant, has the Supersoul residing within. The size of the Supersoul is proportionate to the size of the individual.
“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bg. 4.5)
Irrespective of size, both souls are very powerful; yet the Supersoul has greater capabilities. The Supersoul is responsible for the memory of previous experiences and the awakening of divine consciousness. Since the soul is similar in makeup to God, it is ever-existing; it cannot be destroyed in any way. The outer covering of the soul, the body, is temporary; thus the soul can travel from different body types, one after another, life after life. Once a new body is assumed, i.e. when the event known as birth takes place, experiences from previous lives are forgotten. Moreover, when entrapped in a particular outer covering, the individual only remains conscious of its own activities. An individual might become aware of what others are thinking and feeling, but this is only accomplished through external interaction. The soul never travels into another person’s body. Even in the case of powerful yogis who can travel through space with their souls, there is no way to become conscious of what every single person is thinking.
The Supersoul, on the other hand, resides within every individual, and since it is non-different from God, the Supreme Lord automatically becomes the most knowledgeable entity. He is conscious of the thoughts, activities, and desires of every single viable living entity past, present, and future. When the individual soul takes to connecting with the Supersoul, the activity is known as yoga. When yoga is achieved in a perfect state, the individual is taken back to the spiritual realm, their original home. Once having returned, the purified spiritual sparks remain forever in Krishna’s association, enjoying His company by playing an active role in the Lord’s sportive exploits.
Achieving perfect yoga is not easy, so for the benefit of the conditioned souls illusioned by their contact with material nature, the original personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna Himself, descends to earth in various visible forms. Generally the difference between the Supersoul and the incarnations is described in terms of nirguna and saguna. Nirguna means without material qualities and saguna means with material qualities. The Supreme Lord, as the creator of matter, can never become subject to its influence; hence He is never saguna. Nirguna and saguna are from the perspective of the conditioned entity, who is unable to properly conceive of the Lord’s immensely powerful and gigantic transcendental form. The avataras, or saguna forms, are representations of the same Supreme Lord residing within the heart as the Supersoul.
So what functions do these avataras perform? Depending on time and circumstance, specific activities are taken to. Sometimes there is a particular devilish character running around causing havoc, so the Lord takes to diminishing the effect of this cancer on society. Sometimes there are issues pertaining to evil kings who are enslaving innocent people. The Lord then personally appears, or sends one of His authorized representatives, to free the oppressed people and provide them a roadmap for spiritual enlightenment. Sometimes there is a particularly demoniac king disturbing the activities of the saintly people. Depending on the capabilities of the king and the boons previously given to Him, the Lord will take on a form that meets the criteria necessary for eradicating such a miscreant.
Lord Krishna Himself, the original Personality of Godhead, appeared on this earth some five thousand years ago. On the surface, there seemed to be an outward cause, that of the influences of a monarch named Kamsa. According to a prophecy told to him, Kamsa was to be killed by the eighth son of his sister Devaki. After killing her first seven children, Kamsa eagerly anticipated the birth of the eighth. To fulfill the prophecy and to rid the world of the harmful effects of Kamsa, Shri Krishna, in a diminutive form, appeared from the womb of Mother Devaki as her eighth child. Through a series of interconnected events, Krishna made His way to Vrindavana in His youth, where He would remain for some years until the time was right for Kamsa’s demise. Eventually Kamsa would be killed directly by Krishna in a fight, and the primary purpose for the Lord’s advent would be fulfilled.
What’s unique about Krishna’s personal appearance on earth is that although there were outward purposes, the primary driving force of the Lord’s activities was pleasure. In previous incarnations, the Lord was duty-bound to specific forms, rules, and regulations. This isn’t to say that the Supreme Lord can ever be compelled to do anything, but in order to pay respect to the wishes of close associates, the Lord voluntarily abided by certain codes of conduct. In His incarnation as the warrior prince Rama, God adhered to the rules of chivalry and honor assigned to the kshatriya, or warrior, caste. In His incarnation as the half-man/half-lion, Narasimhadeva, the Lord killed the demoniac king Hiranyakashipu in a way specific enough to not break any of the boons previously given to the king by the demigod Lord Brahma. In His incarnation as Lord Buddha, Krishna purposefully spoke against the authority of the Vedas in order to stop the degraded practice of animal sacrifice. As Parashurama, Krishna took to extreme violence, killing the entire kshatriya race many times over.
In His original form, Krishna is only interested in pleasurable activities. Therefore, the pastimes and actions most remembered by devotees, those events that evoke the strongest transcendental loving feelings, are the ones enacted in Vrindavana during Krishna’s youth. Though Krishna appeared from the womb of a woman married to a member of the warrior caste, Krishna’s foster parents were of the mercantile order, vaishyas. Thus Krishna grew up on a farm, tending cows with His fellow friends and neighbors. It is seen that since in the country children have much more room to play, they will spend a large portion of the day running around on various fields and enjoying playful activities. Krishna was no different in this regard; the only difference was the effect of His activities. Krishna was no ordinary boy, and neither were His friends any ordinary children. Krishna’s associates were of the highest consciousness, yogis practicing the ancient art of bhakti. Their level of devotion was so great that they didn’t even know what bhakti was. Oftentimes there are debates as to which type of yoga is superior. Some take to yoga through intense meditation, while others take to the analytical study of the differences between matter and spirit. Bhakti, however, is always superior because it is the only form of yoga that never stops and never diminishes. Bhakti is the essence of spiritual life, the natural disposition of the soul. Only in bhakti does the yogi forget even what yoga is. When in the presence of superior company, all mundane rules, regulations, and distinctions are immediately forgotten.
“My dear sir, Krishna's form was most wonderful when He appeared on this planet and exhibited the potency of His internal energy. His wonderfully attractive form was present during His pastimes on this planet, and by His internal potency He exhibited His opulences, which are striking to everyone. His personal beauty was so great that there was no necessity for His wearing ornaments on His body. In fact, instead of the ornaments' beautifying Krishna, Krishna's beauty enhanced the ornaments.” (Uddhava speaking to Vidura, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.2.12)
Krishna’s beautiful form is enough to bring supreme pleasure to the eyes. In fact, they say that Krishna’s body is so beautiful that the ornaments He wears actually become enhanced in appearance because they are placed on the Lord’s exquisite body. Normally ornaments work the other way around; they enhance the beauty of the objects they are placed onto. Goswami Tulsidas, our favorite Vaishnava poet, makes a similar observation in his Gitavali, a devotional poem which includes descriptions of the childhood activities of Shri Rama, Krishna’s incarnation in the Treta Yuga as a handsome prince. Lord Rama, whose body is similar in complexion to Krishna’s, was also nicely decorated with ornaments and jewelry in His childhood, as is the custom for mothers of the Vedic tradition to do. Rama’s ornaments were slightly different, as He wore a necklace with a lion’s toenail on it for protection. Nevertheless, the effects were still the same, as the jewelry and accessories took on their true value once they dangled from the transcendental body of the Lord.
There is a common saying that men fall in love with their eyes and women fall in love with their ears. Though the validity of such a statement can be debated, the effect that Krishna had on the ears of His transcendental associates cannot. Through the sweet, melodious sounds emanating from His flute, Krishna enraptured the hearts and minds of His gopa friends, the cowherd boys of the neighborhood. But the reach of sound is far greater than the reach of sight, so the playing of the Lord’s flute would touch all the residents of Vrindavana, including the cowherd women, the gopis. Though most of these women were married, they fell completely in love with Krishna simply by seeing Him and hearing the sound of His flute. In fact, the gopis represent the upper limit of devotion, the highest perfectional stage that anyone - be they a yogi, karmi, or jnani - can ascend to. The gopis’ minds are always fixed on Krishna, irrespective of the task they are engaged in.
“My dear gopis, what auspicious activities must the flute have performed to enjoy the nectar of Krishna's lips independently and leave only a taste for the gopis for whom that nectar is actually meant. The forefathers of the flute, the bamboo trees, shed tears of pleasure. His mother, the river, on whose bank the bamboo was born, feels jubilation, and therefore her blooming lotus flowers are standing like hair on her body.” (Gopis glorifying the song of Krishna’s flute, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.21.9)
Even when taking part in household chores, the gopis could meditate on Krishna by remembering His form and hearing the sound of His flute. Their level of devotion was so high that simply by hearing the music produced by Krishna’s flute, they could perfectly understand the intricate workings of economics. The gopis would think that the flute itself was extremely benefitted by being able to touch Krishna’s lips. Even the tree that created the flute was benefitted. Keeping the chain of causation going, the ground that held the tree that created the flute that touched Krishna’s lips was also spiritually uplifted due to the role it played in the final outcome. Going even further, the flowers that surrounded the tree that created the flute that touched the lips of the wielder of the flute, Muralidhara, who gave transcendental pleasure to the residents of Vrajabhumi, were also forever spiritually benefitted. Our everyday material products are created through a similar chain of action; with numerous unrelated individuals performing independent actions driven by self-interest that eventually lead to the benefit of the end-user of the product. The gopis took this simple, yet often overlooked, reality of economics and went one step further. They not only understood how the flute was made, but they realized how the resultant object could be used to bring spiritual merit to the actors and activities responsible for its creation.
Is there any special significance to the flute? Why the flute over any other type of instrument? The shortest answer is a question: why not the flute? Shri Krishna, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is the only person in the world that doesn’t have to listen to anyone. If He takes pleasure in playing the flute, who are we to say that He should take to any other instrument? The flute is actually always with Krishna, even in the spiritual world. Penetrating the material elements that cover the soul, transcendental sound vibrations serve as the most effective way to liberate one from the clutches of material existence. These sound vibrations can take the form of words of instruction from the devotees and songs of praise directed at the Supreme Lord, but the most potent sound vibration is that emanating from the flute of the Supreme Lord.
Lord Krishna, though growing up in a farm community, later took on the role of a king and married many princesses. Sometimes Krishna was fighting enemies in His adult years, but sometimes He played a more passive role, as He did on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, where He served as His cousin Arjuna’s charioteer. Though Krishna is the worshipable object of the brahmanas, brahmanya-devaya, sometimes He took instruction from spiritual masters to set a good example for the rest of society. Though Krishna was a family man engaged in various daily functions pertaining to home and society, He was the most renounced person, as was exhibited by His separation from His loving associates in Vrindavana. Not only were the gopas and gopis firmly attached to Krishna in an unbreakable bond of transcendental love, but so was Krishna attached to them in the same way. Yet due to the outward cause of having to deal with miscreants, Krishna left Vrindavana behind and spent the rest of His years on earth as a king in Mathura and Dvaraka.
“My dear lotus-eyed Lord, Your statement that we are not a fit combination is completely right. It is not possible for me to come to an equal level with You because You are the reservoir of all qualities, the unlimited Supreme Personality of Godhead. How can I be a fit match for You?” (Rukmini speaking to Krishna, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 5)
Shri Krishna once mentioned many of these apparently contradictory qualities in a conversation with His principal wife, Rukmini. Wanting to play with Rukmini a little bit, Krishna sarcastically asked her why she was attracted to Him, for He was not qualified in any way to have such an exalted princess for a wife. Though Krishna was joking, Rukmini retorted that Krishna was indeed correct in His assertions, for as the Supreme Lord, no material designation could accurately be tagged to Him. No one could figure out what caste He belonged to, for even other kings would ridicule Krishna for having tended to cows in His youth. No one could understand His financial disposition either, for although He was the protector of Dvaraka, He wasn’t necessarily the acknowledged ruler of the community. Lord Krishna did not belong to any of the modes of material nature - goodness, passion, or ignorance - because as the Supreme Lord, He was transcendental to all of them; something understood perfectly by Rukmini Devi.
In this way, Rukmini firmly established Krishna as the most complete manifestation of the eternal Personality of Godhead to ever appear on this earth. Not only is Krishna not beholden to any rules and regulations, but neither are His closest associates. The highest transcendental mellow, that of madhurya-rasa, can only be tasted with Krishna, the wielder of the transcendental flute. In the spiritual sky there is the original realm of Vrindavana, the ever-existing land where the sounds of Krishna’s flute are heard every day. Only those with a pure mind and heart can go there. By always remembering the images of the Lord holding His flute and enjoying with His best friends, one can ensure that the required purification will be achieved, and that at the time of death, the return ticket to Muralidhara’s realm will be kindly given as a reward.