“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.9)
Question: “There are several prevailing opinions regarding Krishna’s departure from the material world. Can you shed light on the issue?”
Answer: Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, periodically appears and disappears on this earth. This isn’t to say that He is a magician performing illusory acts to entertain the individual souls, but rather, He is never capable of taking birth or dying. The same actually holds true with the individual spirit souls as well, as the concepts of birth and death are created from the conditioned angle of vision. When one’s mindset is purified, i.e. when they regain their natural consciousness, they see things as they are instead of as they are not. In the conditioned state, the individual is clouded by ignorance borne of the illusory energy known as maya. We have no control over the circumstances of our birth, yet we somehow lament over death. If we’re going to feel sad, why not lament over birth, something just as uncontrollable as our death? Krishna’s appearances on earth, both in the personal form and those of His various avataras, are certainly well celebrated and marveled over. Yet the same is not true for His disappearances, His subsequent departures to the spiritual world. Shri Krishna’s return to the spiritual world is especially a topic of controversy, for the non-devotees and gross materialists love to use this event as proof that Krishna is not a divine figure and certainly not the original form of Godhead. From basic analysis of the descriptions of this event, we can see that the Lord’s ascension to the spiritual sky certainly wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Him, nor was it an indication of any sign of fallibility. Rather, Krishna’s ascension to the spiritual sky was just another sign of His causeless mercy shown towards every living entity.
God is one; He cannot be the exclusive property of any set of individuals. The concept of a Supreme Lord implies that no one can be above Him. Since it is impossible for anyone to successfully challenge the Lord’s supremacy, it means that God is the fountainhead, the original source of everything. Therefore, all forms of life, regardless of their outward dress, can trace their lineage back to the original Divine Being. In the Vedic tradition, details pertaining to the Lord’s appearances, activities, and transcendental forms are provided. Since there are innumerable forms, there is often confusion as to which is the original and which isn’t. The sacred and flawless Vedic texts declare the fountainhead to be an entity who has a transcendental, eternal, and blissful body. Since this entity is all-attractive, He is known as Krishna, whose immediate expansion, or other non-different form, of Lord Narayana is also often taken as the original. Even the Ramayana, the epic poem detailing the transcendental activities of Lord Rama, doesn’t contradict this fact. Rama is no different from Narayana, so the ultimate conclusion of who is the original form of Godhead remains the same. Since there is no difference between Narayana and Krishna, we can use the two names interchangeably and thus consider the two forms to be the same.
Around five thousand years ago, Narayana came to earth as Krishna. This is the information given to us by the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata. In other texts, Krishna is taken as the original form who personally descended to earth. In either case, the original Lord of mankind made a divine appearance for the sake of annihilating miscreants and pleasing the purified souls, the devotees who have no other business than serving the Supreme Loveable Object in thoughts, words, and deeds, at all times. Krishna’s visible form was first seen in the town of Mathura. Immediately after appearing from the womb of Mother Devaki, the Lord was transferred to the neighboring town of Vrindavana, where He grew up as a child and tended to cows. In His adult years, Krishna returned to Mathura and then subsequently formed His own kingdom of Dvaraka. The most notable incident of Krishna’s adult life was His role in the Bharata War, a massive fight that saw the death of millions of valiant soldiers. Not surprisingly, the side that Krishna was on, the Pandavas, won.
Devotees usually discuss and relish the pastimes performed by Krishna in Vrindavana. From His adult years, the famous discourse given on the battlefield to Arjuna, the lead Pandava warrior, is similarly a topic of great interest. This sublime set of instructions, which was personally delivered by Krishna, forms the basis of the illustrious Bhagavad-gita, the most concise and complete exposition on Vedic philosophy. While devotees focus on Krishna’s activities and His teachings, the non-devotees and atheists like to discuss the Lord’s activities that made Him appear to be human. After all, Krishna did roam this earth in the guise of an ordinary living entity, so naturally He would perform some activities that didn’t seem to be of the divine nature. The key point to understand is that these activities gave the appearance of fallibility. The Supreme Lord is Achyuta, which means one who is infallible. Fallibility is the quality of the conditioned soul who lives under the dictates of nature. God is the creator of nature, so He is incapable of being controlled by it.
These facts are difficult to understand for the gross materialists. They live strictly off true and false concepts, wherein all conclusions are derived off of personal experience. Since the scientific community has never seen a person appear out of the womb of a mother without the prior act of conception, they take the descriptions of Krishna’s appearance found in the Shrimad Bhagavatam to be mythology, some ordinary event which was later hyped up into something it wasn’t. To substantiate their claims, the atheists will point to Krishna’s activities with the young cowherd girls of Vrindavana and His ultimate disappearance from the earth, which saw Him being shot in the foot by a hunter named Jara.
So are the atheists correct in their assessment? If not, why then would Krishna give this appearance of fallibility? The answer is that every individual soul has independence and free will. This is not something given to us by God, but rather, something we always possess. Just as God is the Supreme Controller who never assumed that title, as individual sparks emanating from the original spiritual fire, we naturally inherit the quality of freedom. The difference between God and ourselves is that the activities we can take up based off our freedom are limited. The root cause of the material creation is the misuse of the free will property. The individual spirit souls, desiring to imitate their loveable master, were given a temporary and miserable playing field. This field is temporary because it has to be created. Since it manifests at the will of the hand of Supreme Spirit, it most certainly must be destroyed at some point as well. Since there is both creation and destruction, the end result of any activity performed on such a turf is misery.
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.5)
If the material world is so miserable, why would Krishna create it? The desires of the individual souls are never denied. The wished-for objects of sense gratification may not always come to fruition, but the desires themselves are not thwarted. Since the individual souls wish to remain apart from Krishna, they are allowed to remain in the material world perpetually. When the Lord makes His divine appearances on earth, His aim is to take back those souls looking for liberation, the jivatmas who have had enough of the pretend life. Krishna is kind enough to enact His sweet pastimes for the satisfaction of such purified souls. By relishing these transcendental activities, one’s consciousness gradually becomes purified to the point where the ultimate enjoyer is seen as Krishna instead of the gross senses. When this purified mindset is maintained up until the time of death, release from the cycle of birth and death is granted.
Even with all of this information available to them – knowledge which mind you costs nothing to acquire – the majority of the conditioned souls will not take to Krishna consciousness. Rather, they remain steadfast in their challenge to the Lord’s authority. Obviously such an effort will be futile, for every conditioned soul is a slave to the forces of nature. Mother Nature’s most powerful agent is all-devouring death, which appears on the scene through the agent of change known as time. No conditioned entity is immune from the effects of time; thus the pursuit to surpass God in strength, stature, and level of enjoyment will eventually fail.
“I have heard Your instruction on confidential spiritual matters which You have so kindly delivered unto me, and my illusion is now dispelled.” (Arjuna speaking to Krishna, Bg. 11.1)
A gross materialist, an asura, or non-devotee, will have trouble convincing others, and even themselves, of the supremacy of their way of life dedicated to sense gratification. The truths found in the Vedas are quite logical and profound, so anyone who honestly and sincerely hears them from the right sources will be firmly convinced of the supremacy of the engagement of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. The quintessential act of bhakti is the chanting of the names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The non-devotees, not wanting to chant or take part in any activity of bhakti, hold steadfast to karma. To support their ingrained attitude, they will look for any piece of information that debunks the notion that Krishna is God. Though the classic Vedic texts such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Shrimad Bhagavatam are filled with hundreds of thousands of profound verses, the asuras will scour these pages for one tiny little quote or incident that, when taken out of context, can allay their fears of God’s existence and supremacy. This behavior is indeed sad but true, as the atheists are afraid that Krishna might actually be God, for if that were the case, it would mean that the sinful way of life is the wrong one.
Due to His kind mercy, the Supreme Lord gives the asuras all the evidence they need. The Lord first exhibits qualities of strength which are impossible for an ordinary person to believe. Not only does He appear on this earth without the act of conception, but He kills powerful demons and lifts gigantic hills with just one finger. Since the asuras can’t imagine a tiny child performing such wondrous feats, they take Krishna to be a myth. Then there are some non-devotees who accept the idea of Krishna’s appearance, but who still don’t want to devote their lives to Him. They will look to Krishna’s intimate activities with the gopis of Vrindavana as evidence of Krishna’s fallibility. “How can God dance around with young girls? This is who we are supposed to worship?” Of course, thought is never given as to why God should forbid Himself from dancing with young girls. The Supreme Lord is self-satisfied, and He is the object of dharma, or religiosity. Piety and virtue only exist to help the individual understand Krishna. The Lord has no need to abide by these rules which are intended for the conditioned souls, those whose flawed desire in life is to challenge God. In addition, the interaction with the gopis actually proves Krishna’s divine nature. As the Supreme Lord, He will grant whatever anyone wants, provided that their hearts are pure and their motives properly situated. The gopis are the greatest lovers of the Supreme Spirit, so if they desire to dance with Krishna, the Lord will most certainly accede to their request.
There is yet another class of asuras who accepts Krishna’s appearance and His activities with the gopis but still doesn’t take Him to be God. They will point to His disappearance, an incident where the Lord was shot in the foot by a hunter. Never mind the fact that the Mahabharata explicitly states that Krishna was willingly ready to return to the spiritual world and that He knew what was going to happen, the asuras will ignore any evidence that goes against their central religious belief, the notion of Krishna being fallible. These are all the workings of Krishna’s divine energy known as maya, an illusory force which clouds the intelligence of the conditioned souls who desire to remain in the material world. The workings of maya prove that the Lord is the most munificent of all devas, or gods.
The question may be raised as to why Krishna would leave the earth in such a manner, especially since it runs the risk of deluding the minds of the pure-hearted devotees. The answer is that even devotees sometimes fall victim to the influences of power, greed, resentment, and anger. But since they are pure at heart, the Lord doesn’t hold such actions against them. Rather, He takes the necessary steps to ensure that the powers they believe they possess remain intact. As an example, Narada Muni, the great saint and devotee of Narayana, once cursed the Lord to take birth on earth and become separated from His beloved wife. Narada had prayed to Vishnu to allow a beautiful princess to choose him for marriage. Narada is a sannyasi, so he has no business intimately associating with women. Bhagavan always protects His devotees, so He most certainly wasn’t going to allow Narada to fall down from his exalted position. Therefore the Lord, in a very slick way, appeared to grant Narada’s request, but in reality didn’t. When the princess chose another man for marriage, Narada realized that it was Vishnu’s fault and then subsequently cursed Him.
Of course God can never be cursed. No one is capable of telling Him what to do. But the Lord, as a great father is apt to do, plays along since the person doing the cursing doesn’t know any better. It is similar to how a parent will make wagers with their children while playing certain games. If the parent loses, they agree to the terms of the wager, even though the young child has no say so in the matter. The adult remains superior regardless of whatever action is taken. Since Narada is so kind and pure, Vishnu decided to wholeheartedly abide by his curse. Vishnu agreed to appear on earth as Lord Rama, the beloved prince of Ayodhya. He would most certainly be separated from His innocent wife Sita for an extended period of time, but the goals set out prior to His appearance were still met.
When Krishna roamed the earth, similar behavior towards the Lord was exhibited by other exalted figures. When Krishna was residing in Dvaraka, His chief queen was Rukmini Devi. The divine couple was once visited by the brahmana Durvasa Muni. The brahmanas, or priestly class, are loved by Krishna very much. In the Vedic tradition, a guest is to be received very hospitably, especially if he is a brahmana. Durvasa decided to test Krishna’s level of dedication to the brahmanas and the etiquette of hospitality by making one outrageous request after another during his visit. Yet every outlandish request he made was met by both Rukmini and Krishna. One of the requests involved spreading frumenty, or payasa paste, all over their bodies. Krishna and Rukmini agreed to do this, but the Lord neglected to spread the paste on the sole of one of His feet. Durvasa, after admitting that he was just testing the couple, granted them the boon that whichever part of the body they spread the paste on would be immune from the attacks of others. Noticing that Krishna had missed the spot on the sole of His foot, Durvasa remarked that he was disappointed in Krishna.
“There is no one in the world, except for Myself, who is capable of ridding the world of the Vrishnis. I am very well aware of this, as I am trying to bring this destruction about. By cursing Me and the Vrishnis in this way, O you of excellent vows, you have helped Me in accomplishing My task. The Vrishnis are incapable of being slain by any other entities, including human beings, devas, and Danavas. Therefore, the Yadavas will end up destroying each other.” (Krishna responding to Gandhari after she had cursed the Vrishnis, Mahabharata, Stri-parva)
After the Pandavas won the bloody Bharata War, the mother of the leading fighters for the defeated party, Gandhari, began to bewail her plight. Saddened by the death of her hundred sons, she immediately blamed Krishna. As a result of her anger, she cursed the Lord and His Vrishni dynasty to be destroyed after thirty-six years. The Lord, instead of yelling at her or laughing at her gall in imprecating this curse, kindly accepted it. He told Gandhari that He was looking for an excuse to leave this earth and put an end to the Vrishnis and that the curse had now given Him one. Sure enough, when the time came, all the Vrishnis would be destroyed due to a terrible internal quarrel. Krishna and His brother Balarama left the scene and retired to the forest. Balarama, after entering a deep meditational trance, assumed His form of Ananta Shesha Naga and returned to the spiritual sky. Krishna similarly laid down for meditation after remembering the words of Durvasa and Gandhari. At this time, a hunter named Jara came and accidentally shot Krishna in the foot. Touching the Lord’s feet, the hunter felt remorseful. Immediately after this, Krishna ascended to the spiritual world, where He was greeted by all His divine associates.
“Bewildered by false ego, strength, pride, lust and anger, the demon becomes envious of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is situated in his own body and in the bodies of others, and blasphemes against the real religion.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 16.18)
The Mahabharata really doesn’t leave much room for doubt as it pertains to Krishna’s return to the spiritual world. Nowhere does it say that the Lord was taken by surprise or that He died like an ordinary man. He returned to the spiritual world in His transcendental body, the way that He always returns after appearing in the material world. As mentioned before, the controversy is only from the side of the asuras and gross materialists. But this disagreement will always be there. Even during Krishna’s time, there were many demons who refused to acknowledge His supremacy. Enemies such as Shishupala would make fun of the Lord for associating with the cowherd community during His childhood. These enemies thought Krishna was not fit to be a king, for it was beneath the royal order to engage in agriculture. The Shishupalas of the world will always be around, for that is the root cause of this material existence. For the devotees, Krishna’s appearances and disappearances are easy to understand. Armed with this proper understanding, the purified souls liberate themselves from the cycle of birth and death.