“Dear Lord, if You did not appear in Your eternal transcendental form, full of bliss and knowledge—which can eradicate all kinds of speculative ignorance about Your position—then all people would simply speculate about You according to their respective modes of material nature.” (Prayers of the demigods, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 2)
Due to man’s fallible nature, he will always search after God, even if he has no information about Him. The results of such attempts will always fail unless one is directed to the proper source, an authorized representative of the Lord who can accurately describe His features, names, and occasions for His appearances. Without such a consultation, one will be prone to mentally speculating about God, concocting their own theories about who the Lord is and what He looks like, and worst of all, coming up with the flawed notion that man is God or that man can somehow become God.
According to the authorized representatives of the Supreme Lord, the benevolent and munificent Vaishnavas, God appears on earth from time to time to enact pastimes which include the punishing of miscreants, the protecting of the saintly class, and the granting of spiritual benedictions to those possessing a pure heart. What is a spiritual benediction? Generally we look for benedictions which will improve our material condition. We are either suffering through some financial distress, physical ailment, or mental dissatisfaction. Naturally we will look to a higher power to alleviate such suffering. While benedictions relating to these issues are surely nice, the benefits derived are short-lived, for the root cause of the problem is not addressed.
Vedic information states that all problems and all distresses in life are caused by one’s forgetfulness of the Supreme Lord. One can think of it in these terms: Suppose that we are extremely wealthy and possess millions of dollars in the bank. This wealth was acquired through honest means and is at our disposal. Those who are forgetful of God usually view everything through this prism of material wealth. Those who are wealthy are viewed as being extremely happy and full of greed, while those who are not are viewed as unhappy and always wanting. Continuing with the hypothetical situation, suppose that we were forgetful about our wealth. Suppose that we forgot about all the money that we have in the bank. The resulting situation would be one of distress, involving constant hankering and lamenting. We would constantly worry about what will happen to us in the future, how will we feed our families, how will we meet our obligations, pay off our debts, etc. In addition, there would also be concern over something bad happening to us and how we would meet the basic demands of the body after such an occurrence.
Obviously such worrying is silly if we are actually wealthy. If we simply remembered that we have millions of dollars in the bank, none of these issues would arise. There would be no need to ponder over our material condition and future well-being. Our forgetfulness of God can be thought of in the same light. Every single person descends from God; we are all His children. Though people have varying ideas of what God is and what His qualities are, one would have to assume that wealth would be something He would possess. If the Supreme Lord can create unlimited numbers of universes, surely He is not in need of anything. The Vedas support this opinion by referring to God as Bhagavan, meaning one who is the most fortunate. Fortune refers to positive attributes, of which wealth is one. If our original father is the richest person in the world, what need is there for any distress? What need is there for asking for material benedictions?
Spiritual benedictions are what God grants to the kind-hearted devotees, those who realize that they are descendants of the richest person in all the universes. A spiritual benediction can be thought of as a reward which allows a person to constantly be connected to God. This connection is considered the highest benediction because it completely eradicates all other problems. If one is in constant connection with the Supreme Pure, they are considered to be in yoga, or union. This union allows one to focus on spiritual activities which ensure the sustenance of this wonderful bond. The Supreme Lord, through His appearances on earth, fortifies this holiest of bonds by granting His darshana to His greatest devotees.
How do we know that the Lord has appeared on earth before? Those who saw Him kindly wrote down their experiences in books. Actually these experiences were first described in an oral tradition. Veda means knowledge, and this knowledge was first transmitted through aural reception. For this reason, another name for the Vedas is the shrutis, meaning that which is heard. As time went on, mankind’s mental abilities diminished, thus the written word became necessary. Since this written word was required in order for people to remember Vedic wisdom, the resulting books became known as smritis, or that which is remembered. The Puranas were originally part of the oral tradition, but then later on they were put into book form. Though there are many Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana, or Shrimad Bhagavatam, is considered the foremost because it focuses solely on Lord Krishna and His incarnations.
The ancient seers of India, the great Vaishnavas, tell us that God is one but that He takes unlimited forms for His own pleasure. The original form of God is Lord Krishna, and His direct incarnations are classified as vishnu-tattva. Lord Krishna and the vishnu-tattva incarnations are described in great detail in the Bhagavatam. These descriptions are not based on mental concoction but rather real life events that took place on this earth some five thousand years ago. That was when Lord Krishna personally descended to this planet and enacted wonderful pastimes. The appearances of the other incarnations took place before that, or will take place sometime in the future. Aside from giving pleasure to the devotees, Krishna’s personal appearance five thousand years ago also firmly established who God is, what He looks like, and what His qualities are. These facts needed to be established to allow future generations to decipher who God is and what the meaning of life should be.
Why is this information required? As mentioned before, if mankind doesn’t know about God, they are likely to speculate on the nature of the divine. This speculation will always have disastrous results because the human mind is incapable of conceiving of its creator. Anyone who conjures up a notion of God in this way will certainly be doomed, and moreover, they will doom whoever follows them. In order to protect the innocent from being fooled in this way, the Supreme Lord descends to earth from time to time to establish the real principles of religion. An example of the attempts at trickery of the mental speculators was seen during the nineteenth century in India. One of the most famous Vaishnavas in recent times was alive during that time period in India. His name was Shrila Bhaktivinoda Thakura. Though he was a householder and worked as a magistrate, he was an authority on religion and especially devotion to Krishna. He authored many wonderful books which described Krishna’s glories and also compared and contrasted almost every religious system that has ever existed.
During Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s time as a magistrate in Orissa, there was a yogi who was claiming to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Taking advantage of this claim, this yogi was engaged in dancing with young girls, thus trying to imitate one of Krishna’s most intimate and wonderful pastimes. This yogi was a charlatan who certainly wasn’t God or even a devotee. People in the community started worrying since this man was acting this way with young girls, but they were afraid to take him on. “What if he is actually Vishnu? If I offend him, certainly I will have to suffer.” Bhaktivinoda Thakura went to investigate the situation. He asked the yogi why he was residing in the jungle and not at the temple of Lord Jagannatha in Puri. The yogi replied that the deity residing in the temple was only wood, while the yogi himself was the real God. Based on this reply, Bhaktivinoda Thakura could immediately recognize that the person was a charlatan. Deity worship is one of the most authorized forms of devotional service, something instituted by Krishna Himself. Though the deity may be made of wood or stone, the devotees never look at it as being different from Krishna. This is how the Supreme Lord has taught us to view the deity, for it is the mercy of the Lord to appear in such a manner.
Bhaktivinoda Thakura ordered the yogi to be locked up. Ironically, shortly after this, Bhaktivinoda Thakura and his family members all contracted a fever. People started worrying that the yogi was maybe applying a curse to everyone, and that if he was able to do this, maybe he really was Vishnu. Bhaktivinoda Thakura held firm in his belief and ordered that the yogi’s hair be cut off, for maybe that was the source of his mystic power. A short while after being put in jail and having his hair cut, the yogi eventually killed himself, thus settling the affair. Because he was an expert on Vaishnavism as expounded in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Bhaktivinoda Thakura knew all along of the yogi’s trickery . In that wonderful book, all of the primary incarnations of Godhead are listed as well as their features and attributes.
The lesson here is that we should not be misled by the latest incarnations that appear and tell us to worship them. Even when Lord Krishna personally came to earth, He didn’t announce His divinity to everyone. What would be the purpose? If we knew someone was God, it would make it more difficult to offer our service to them in a pure way. Some of the Lord’s most exalted associates such as Mother Yashoda, Arjuna, Uddhava, and the cowherd friends in Vrindavana never looked at Krishna as being God. Instead, they viewed Him as their dearmost friend, someone they were completely devoted to. Surely Krishna revealed His true nature when the time was right, but again this wasn’t broadcast to everyone.
Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth was Lord Chaitanya some five hundred years ago. On the surface, this may seem like another instance of creating an incarnation of Lord Vishnu where there isn’t one. However, based on Lord Chaitanya’s actions, we can see that He could be none other than Krishna Himself. Lord Chaitanya played the part of the most exalted brahmana, a pure devotee of Krishna who spread love for God throughout India. His closest associates knew He was God, but the Lord never wanted to be praised in this way. He would pretend to be greatly offended whenever anyone would address Him in such a manner. This behavior is in stark contrast to the other cheaters who claim to be God, all the while espousing their own made up method of self-realization. Lord Chaitanya’s formula of bhakti-yoga, pure love for God, is the only worthwhile religious system because it speaks to the natural desire of the soul to offer service to its creator.
It is not unnatural to have a desire to see God. As George Harrison famously wrote in his introduction to Shrila Prabhupada’s, Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, “If there’s a God, I want to see Him”, it is the natural desire of the living entity to want to associate with the Supreme Spirit. To keep from being duped by false-incarnations and also by our own minds, we should try to regularly hear from the authorized Vedic texts such as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Ramayana, and Bhagavad-gita. Moreover, we should hear about these works through the medium of the devotees, those who aren’t God’s competitors. This will help us advance in spiritual life and also give us great transcendental pleasure at the same time.