From Back to Godhead
Krishna is always engaged in sport, and when we try to imitate Him, we lose.
When the 2017 Super Bowl game, the summit of American professional football, was held in Houston, a devotee convinced me and a few others to try to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books at a huge pregame event downtown. Venturing into the passionate, teeming crowd, we sold a few books, but not so many. This experience reinforced what was already obvious: mundane sport certainly has a powerful allure. In fact, every year over six hundred billion dollars are spent worldwide on the sports industry, which caters to an ever more fervent fan base.
Why are sports so popular? According to Vaishnava teachings, everything here, including the sporting propensity, is an imperfect or distorted reflection of the original, blissful activities of all-attractive Lord Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Unfortunately, although in this material realm sports may be attractive, their charm is illusory. We can’t enjoy the Real Thing here. At best we can try to squeeze pleasure out of a perverted representation, like a mirage in the desert.
When it comes to genuine, pure fun or sport, Lord Krishna is the unrivaled champion, the unabashed connoisseur, as we see in Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.18.19: “Krishna, who knows all sports and games, then called together the cowherd boys and spoke as follows: ‘Hey cowherd boys! Let’s play now! We’ll divide ourselves into two even teams.'”
Ravindra Svarupa Dasa has explained how the Lord’s pleasure in sport or play, unlike ours, is not materially motivated or contaminated; it is transcendentally ecstatic and pure:
God is playful: the Sanskrit term for divine activity is, in fact, lila – play. By His inconceivable power God seamlessly unites in His descents very serious purpose (to save humanity) with sheer sport. Thus, as Matsya [His incarnation as the divine fish], He frolics in the waves of the deluge; as Varaha [the transcendental boar-avatara] He enjoys a good fight. In all descents we see Him delighting in drawing out the possibilities of a particular role, a player in a play. The idea of lila captures a defining element of divine activity: it is unmotivated. All human acts spring from motives, desire for what we lack or fear we will lack. But God already has everything. He has nothing to gain or lose. (“The Descent of God,” Back to Godhead, May 1985)
The Tenth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.44.29) describes how Krishna and Balarama celebrated Their victory over King Kamsa’s demoniac wrestlers Canura, Mushtika, Kuta, Sala, and Toshala: “Krishna and Balarama then called Their young cowherd boyfriends to join Them, and in their company the Lords danced about and sported, Their ankle bells resounding as musical instruments played.” The purport to this verse, by Srila Prabhupada’s disciples, notes: “Nowadays we see that in championship boxing matches, as soon as there is a victory, all the friends and relatives of the victorious boxer rush into the ring to congratulate him, and often the champion will dance about in great happiness. Exactly in this mood, Krishna and Balarama danced about, celebrating Their victory with Their friends and relatives.”
Scriptures describe how when Krishna dances playfully on the hoods of the poisonous serpent Kaliya, the demoniac snake is humbled and purified. The Bhagavatam (2.7.34–35) says that even when Krishna kills inimical attackers – humans like the evil King Kamsa or animals such as the aggressive bull-demon Arishtasura – “The demons, thus being killed, would attain either the impersonal brahmajyoti or His personal abode in the Vaikuntha planets.”
Indeed, Lord Krishna’s sportive lilas yield only spiritual benefit and bliss for everyone, even “spectators” like you and me when we simply read or hear about them. In the material world, however, anyone who tries to imitate the Lord’s sporting nature becomes implicated in the law of karma. For example, unlike the entirely positive results when Krishna killed the bull-demon, when a bullfighter kills a bull the result is suffering for the bull and the bullfighter. The spectators become implicated in the karma as well.
Another problem is that nearly all the athletes we admire or idolize are not pure devotees of the Lord, and are thus unworthy of the inflated adulation they often receive. For example, even though millions of fans once practically deified the well-known American football player O. J. Simpson for his athletic skill, he was charged with murder and later imprisoned for another crime and is no longer considered a hero. Many professional, amateur, even Olympic athletes – supposed role models or heroes – have been prosecuted for doping, cheating, spousal abuse, and even homicide. Such athletes may entertain us, but they cannot free us from the material world, which, as Krishna explains to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita 8.15, is duhkhalayam ashashvatam, a place of misery and impermanence. Try as we might we can’t really win here, and even if we do, none of us can enjoy our hard-earned victories for long.
As a compassionate Vaishnava, Srila Prabhupada was para-duhkha-duhkhi, unhappy to see others’ suffering. Once, on a morning walk near a golf course in Dallas, he asked, “What are these men doing?”
When told that they were playing golf, with a tear in his eye Prabhupada declared, “See how they are wasting their time, hitting this little ball.”
The Christian evangelist Billy Graham once implied that sports are ultimately less important: “God answers my prayers everywhere except on the golf course,” he joked.
For any soul fortunate enough to have attained a human birth, Prabhupada regarded mundane sports as simply a waste of time, one among many futile attempts at happiness through sense gratification.
“In this age,” he wrote, “men are victims not only of different political creeds and parties, but also of many different types of sense-gratificatory diversions, such as cinemas, sports, gambling, clubs, mundane libraries, bad association, smoking, drinking, cheating, pilfering, bickerings, and so on.” (Bhagavatam1.1.10, Purport)
Of course, participatory sports do provide exercise and recreation, but serious devotees understand that mundane sport – including watching spectator sports – can be subtly or grossly polluting. Although often touted as good clean fun, major spectator sports are often connected with vikarma, or sinful, prohibited activities, through the products sold by their sponsors. Because sport in this world originates in Krishna, who is all-attractive, it can attract us. But we should be aware that it can serve as one of the many weapons of mass distraction of Mayadevi, a dear servant of the Lord whose task is to test our priorities by offering illusory allurements.
If we see in mundane sports occasional flashes of beauty, exuberance, heroism, excitement, drama, spontaneity, creativity, determination, great teamwork, and brilliant tactics – the skill, artistry, or prowess of a Pele, Muhammad Ali, Michael Phelps, Martina Navratilova, or Usain Bolt – we can remember that Krishna tells us, “Know that all opulent, beautiful, and glorious creations spring from but a spark of My splendor” and “I am the ability in man.” (Gita 10.41, 7.8)
Lord Krishna, however, does not want us to loiter in the material world trying to extract a mere spark of His splendor through perverted reflections in materialistic stadiums or on dazzling television screens. He beseeches us to attain His padam avyayam, or eternal spiritual realm, as Srila Prabhupada explains:
That padam avyayam, or eternal kingdom, can be reached by one who is nirmana-moha. What does this mean? We are after designations. Someone wants to become “sir,” someone wants to become “lord,” someone wants to become the president or a rich man or a king or something else.… Designations and attachments are due to our lust and desire, our wanting to lord it over the material nature. As long as we do not give up this propensity of lording it over material nature, there is no possibility of returning to the kingdom of the Supreme, the sanatana-dhama. That eternal kingdom, which is never destroyed, can be approached by one who is not bewildered by the attractions of false material enjoyments, who is situated in the service of the Supreme Lord. One so situated can easily approach that supreme abode. (Gita 15.5, Purport)
We already have plenty of material designations: man or woman, American or Russian, black or white, Hindu, Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Do we really need to create more for ourselves? These superficial, material self-conceptions simply divide and bewilder us, causing us to forget our real spiritual identity. To get out of this dangerous material world, we must be free of all such false designations, or upadhis. Clearly, if we really want to enjoy transcendental sports with Lord Krishna and His friends in the spiritual world, we have to “give up this propensity of lording it over material nature” – and the attempt to enjoy mundane sports is rooted in just that propensity.
When we identify with worldly sports, we are simply concocting more unnecessary, artificial material designations for ourselves. We proudly wear T-shirts glorifying our favorite sports team. Although these teams carry imaginary names, many are fittingly named after animals or various creatures, and we often consider the players our heroes.
In his purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.25.25, Srila Prabhupada notes, “Material activities are false heroic activities, whereas restraining the senses from material engagement is great heroism.” In a letter in 1975 to a devotee who was distributing his books, Prabhupada suggested that even greater heroism than controlling one’s own senses is giving others transcendental knowledge. “During war time, a farm boy or ordinary clerk who goes to fight for his country on the front immediately becomes a national hero for his sincere effort. So Krishna immediately recognizes a preacher of Krishna consciousness who takes all risks to deliver His message.”
In his book Our Family Business, Vaisheshika Dasa explains that a true hero – a genuine champion – is “an ambassador of goodwill,” a sincere servant of the Lord who helps countless losers rise above the illusory game of material life altogether by introducing them to Krishna consciousness, especially through Srila Prabhupada’s books. The miracle of this transcendental literature is that if even convicted athletes, or you and I, are somehow blessed to read and follow it – in a dingy jail cell, a temple ashram, or a fancy penthouse – any of us can become actual winners. Our petty infatuation with illusion’s endless games, lifetime after lifetime, can come to an end, and one day we can participate in the real thing: we can sport face-to-face with Sri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the ultimate sportsman.