“Krishna does not change His constitutional position, not even when He appears in this material world. Ordinary living entities have their constitutional spiritual positions covered. They appear in different bodies, and under the different bodily concepts of life they act. But Krishna does not change His body.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 51)
For the conditioned soul, the divine incarnation is very difficult to understand, especially when juxtaposed with nature, matter, and spirit. Though many religious traditions focus exclusively on worship of an exalted personality or divine figure, the Vedas go one step further by carefully analyzing the nature around us and the meaning behind its workings. At the heart of the issue is the difference between matter and spirit, prakriti and purusha. The enjoyer is the spirit and the enjoyed is the matter that the spirit associates with. The most exalted divine figure, the one person who never subjects Himself to the influences of matter, thus becomes the supreme object of worship, the singular entity that the individual souls are meant to be in constant association with. Since the Supreme Entity is the ultimate enjoyer, His pleasure comes from interactions with His subordinate subjects, the individual souls of the material and spiritual worlds. Therefore the aim for any individual unaware of these facts is to shift their mindset from that of enjoyers to that of enjoyed. For this transition to take place, one must have a firm understanding of the differences between matter and spirit and what the living entity’s place in this world is. To help the conditioned soul illusioned by the forces of nature make light of the giant mess which is the material world, the Supreme Entity, the person we all know as God, kindly descends to earth from time to time.
“How can God take birth?” This is an appropriate question put forth by both friend and foe alike, the inquisitive and the challengers of the authenticity and validity of the truths espoused by the Vedas. The birth and death of the individual is not difficult to comprehend. There is a spirit soul that gets placed inside of a very tiny body, which then grows while in the womb of a mother. After exiting the womb, this new body then gradually develops, exists for some time, leaves some byproducts, and then ultimately gets destroyed. Throughout these events, the identity of the individual doesn’t change. Rather, only the outer covering of the soul shifts. At the time of death, the same individual is placed inside of a new body, where they subsequently go through the same cycle of life all over again. If, however, the individual’s consciousness is purified at the time of death, they get to return to the spiritual realm, a land where birth and death do not take place.
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
Birth and death only take place on the material planets because of the individual’s desire to associate with matter. We can think of matter as being dull elements; things which have no life of their own. Spirit is the driving force behind all action, including the development, maintenance, and destruction of matter. This interaction with gross elements takes place due to the individual soul’s misuse of independence. As an autonomous spiritual entity, an individual soul has a choice in its association. When one’s desires are pure, the natural association is with God and His other liberated soul mates. When desire becomes contaminated, a fall down to the material world follows.
The nature of the material realm is very difficult to understand. Therefore the human body is considered the most beneficial due to the heightened potential for intelligence. Only in the human form of life can a spirit soul even understand the nature of matter and the inevitability of death. Simply knowing these facts is difficult enough, for sobriety is required to perceive the subtle changes to the body that occur at every second. Yet actually knowing what to do with this information is even more of a daunting task. Therefore, the Supreme Lord, out of His causeless mercy, instituted the system of dharma, or occupational duty, and passed it down through the great Vedic texts. Yet even understanding these literary works is quite difficult, so the Lord kindly sends exalted personalities known as gurus, or spiritual masters, to teach society at large. Yet sometimes circumstances in society get so out of hand that the direct intervention of the Lord is required. In these instances, the Supreme Lord directly expands Himself into a spiritual body and makes an appearance on earth.
“Unintelligent men, who know Me not, think that I have assumed this form and personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is changeless and supreme.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.24)
Even to the individual who has a basic understanding of the laws of karma and the differences between matter and spirit, it would appear that the incarnation of God would have to assume a material body, one similar to those possessed by the living entities. After all, the laws of nature are absolute, so how could God find a way to bypass them? To understand how the Lord remains completely spiritual, a quick review of the issue of readability can prove helpful. Nowhere is readability more required than in mathematics and computer science. The comma, a grammatical character used to indicate a short pause in a sentence, plays a key role in understanding mathematics. If there is a very large number, say something in the tens of millions, it is very difficult to read, or translate in the mind, when displayed simply as digits. It takes a trained eye to be able to correctly identify a number that large. Therefore commas are used as a way to enhance readability. The comma is inserted inside of the number at intervals of three digits, so as to give the human eye an easier way to correctly identify the number.
Though the comma is inserted into the visual form of the number, it has nothing to do with the digits or the value. The comma is a completely independent entity that retains its meaning at all times, regardless of where it is placed. The relationship between the Supreme Lord and the material world can be thought of in the same light. The entire creation, which includes everything matter and spirit, is part of God. The living entity, riddled by the possessive mindsets of “I” and “Mine”, is accustomed to viewing everything from a personal perspective. A wiser person will be able to view groups of individuals at a whole, while an even more intelligent person can see patterns over a large cross-section of groups. The paramahamsa, the spiritualist on the highest level of understanding, sees everything and every person as being equal, or part of God. If their abilities were to be explained in mathematical terms, we’d say that the paramahamsas can correctly identify any number without requiring commas or other tools that enhance readability. This is quite difficult to do, for the gross senses have a debilitating effect on one’s consciousness and mindset. A person who is truly liberated, one who is devoted to God and understanding His true nature, will be able to see everything, including large groups of living entities, in the proper context.
The paramahamsas are a rarity in this world. Therefore the Lord, through His incarnation, descends to earth and acts as a placeholder, a comma if you will. He performs activities, instructs fellow members of society, and displays great feats of strength to show everyone just what God looks like, what His nature is, and where the highest pleasure in life can be found. Though the number of incarnations is too great to count, the Shrimad Bhagavatam and other Vedic texts give us a list of the primary ones. Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is considered the fountainhead of all incarnations, but this doesn’t mean that worship of God is performed exclusively through worship of Krishna. Rather, one can worship Lord Rama, Narasimhadeva, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Balarama, Vishnu, or any other non-different form of the Lord and be equally benefitted.
Though the Lord comes to this earth to give the conditioned souls a clearer understanding of the nature around them, He is not contaminated by matter in any way. He acts just like a comma inside of the digits representing a number, allowing others to correctly identify the different aspects of the world around them. Whether the comma is there or not has no bearing on the comma or the number. In the same way, Krishna’s creation remains the same whether He is personally present or not. After all, God is everything, so His presence is felt inside of every single atom. The incarnation is the more visible form, a way to unmistakably decipher who is God and who isn’t. The material world is full of puffed up living entities who claim to be God, who is the ultimate enjoyer and the greatest order supplier. Through the activities of the incarnations, one can understand that such individuals are simply cheaters who are destined to repeat the cycle of birth and death for many, many lifetimes.
Not only does the Supreme Lord’s presence enhance the readability of the nature of this world, but so does the influence of His exalted devotees. These entities are essentially exceptions to the laws of nature and the rules pertaining to matter and spirit. Hence there is a difference between those who are devoted to God and those who are simply searching after the annihilation of misery. Matter is only detrimental when it is used for the wrong purposes. Again, this points to the misidentification that occurs at the time of birth. When matter is properly identified for what it is, an individual can know how to utilize it for their spiritual benefit. When matter is used for personal sense gratification, it is certainly very dangerous and detrimental to one’s spiritual progress. When it is used properly, it can become the source of liberation, a way to enlighten the conditioned soul.
An example often invoked by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada pertaining to this issue can help us better understand it. Say that someone is walking through a shopping mall and happens to drop some money or other possession of value on the floor. A gross materialist will walk past the money and pick it up. They are looking to enjoy matter, so they look at the money as a potential source of enjoyment, even though they know that the money doesn’t belong to them. The dry renunciate, one who has a loathing for matter, will look at the money as a great cause of pain. They see so much potential discomfort and heartache from picking up the money. In addition, their karma, the future reactions to their work, will be hurt by taking someone else’s property.
Only the devotee, the adherent to the true tenets of the Vedas, will view the money properly. A lover of Krishna will pick up the money and look for the rightful owner. The money is not good or bad, but rather a possession that is not being utilized properly. In a similar manner, the nature around us is simply there for us to use for God’s pleasure. It is all His property to begin with, so we have no rightful claim over it. If we are unable to utilize matter properly, then surely renunciation is a good idea, but renunciation by itself will not bring us the transcendental pleasure that we are looking for. Simple abstention from activity is not a source of happiness; otherwise every one of us would choose to remain in a permanent medically-induced coma. The nature of the spirit soul is to enjoy through activity.
The purification of activity comes through acts of devotion. This discipline is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, and it is the form of religion preached by the incarnations of Godhead and the exalted spiritual masters. The easiest way to practice this yoga today is to regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Though these are sound vibrations heard by the material senses, they come directly from the spiritual world. The sound of this sacred mantra, being non-different from the Person it addresses, acts just like the comma in helping us understand our position as eternal servants of the Supreme Lord. This sound will not only increase our level of intelligence, but it will also transport us back to the spiritual world, a place wherefrom we never have to return.