“The universal form of the Lord is the cosmic manifestation, which is an exhibition of the external energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.1.56 Purport)
Arjuna had seen Him his whole life. He had spent plenty of time with Him as an adult. Sometimes they would joke together. Sometimes they would sit around and do nothing. They enjoyed in the way that friends did. Arjuna knew that He was special, something out of the ordinary. He knew that this friend was always there for him, ready to bail him out of any trouble. When the most difficult situation arose, the relationship changed dramatically.
Arjuna became the disciple and his friend the teacher. Just a moment prior Arjuna was giving the orders on the chariot, with his friend simply steering. Now it was the other way around. Arjuna listened submissively, asking appropriate questions. He didn’t hold anything back. This was not a session with a therapist where there was payment exchanged. The friend did not charge an hourly rate, either. Arjuna felt completely free to open up his mind.
The advice the friend gave was not typical. Arjuna was doubtful about going to war. His side was counting on him to fight valiantly against a party that had taken their family’s land. Arjuna’s side was justified, since they were not the aggressors. Still, the leading fighter did not want to see bloodshed. He put his doubts to his friend, and the friend surprisingly told him to fight on. Work with detachment. Do your duty. You have a right to do your work, but you don’t have a right to enjoy the fruits.
There was much more to the advice, as there was much more to the friend. Named Krishna, He is the origin of the material and spiritual worlds. All truths rest in Him, like pearls on a string. Nothing is above Him. Though He controls everything and is a witness in all circumstances, He does not compel anyone to do anything. He allows for free will, even if its exercise carries the individual further away from Him.
At one point during their conversation, Krishna showed something known as the universal form. When a person asks to see God, they are essentially desiring to have a vision of this form. It is more of a concept than a person, however. Think of everything that exists. It’s impossible to conceive of everything, but if hypothetically you could, then put that sum total into a single image. That is one way to understand the universal form.
manyase yadi tac chakyaṁ
mayā draṣṭum iti prabho
yogeśvara tato me tvaṁ
“If You think that I am able to behold Your cosmic form, O my Lord, O master of all mystic power, then kindly show me that universal self.” (Arjuna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.4)
Arjuna saw this amazing vision, and he needed special eyes first. Krishna gave Arjuna those eyes. Still, the universal form wasn’t everything for Arjuna. Soon after Krishna removed the vision. Arjuna took the instruction from a person, after all. A voice from the sky didn’t come and give him sound words of advice. Krishna did not advise Arjuna to listen to the “God within.” He never claimed that God was an abstract, impersonal force.
The universal form is nothing but an exhibition of energy. Everything contained within it is the energy of God. The celestial bodies are large collections of the material elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. The living beings have these gross elements along with the subtle ones: mind, intelligence and ego. Every living thing is a spirit soul at the core, so the universal form is a giant gathering of combinations of matter and spirit.
There is still something beyond the whole. The Supreme Lord is the source of everything, and the laws of math do not apply with Him. If I have a whole cheesecake and then divide it up amongst guests in the home, eventually the pie turns into nothing. If you take the universal form, you seemingly have everything, but actually there is something beyond it. There is the spiritual energy to consider, which exists in a pure form in the Vaikuntha planets.
This is the realm where Krishna and His incarnations perpetually reside. Even while He is standing on Arjuna’s chariot and delivering timeless wisdom, Krishna is in Vrindavana playing with the cows. He is in the spiritual sky as Vishnu lying down and getting massaged by Goddess Lakshmi. He is somewhere defeating the evil Rakshasa Ravana. He is simultaneously within every living creature’s heart as the Supersoul.
The vision of the universal form shown to Arjuna was proof for future generations. People are generally skeptical of claims of divinity, and justifiably so. How can an attractive youth who plays a flute be the origin of everything? Shouldn’t He be an old man with a white beard, who waits for the sinners to do wrong so He can punish them?
The exhibition of energy that is the universal form gives proof to the claim of Divinity in Krishna. But it is not everything. To Arjuna and others that form is not very important. Seeing a spectacular vision is neat, but it is not the end. What people do after they see God is important. Arjuna continued to fight, following Krishna’s orders. He essentially continued his life of devotion. That is the secret to living, to always being happy. Birth and death and everything in between will come, but the devotee will not be phased. They will not be bewildered, since they know that God is a person, a compassionate one who acts in different roles. To Arjuna He can play the friend and cousin, the wise speaker, and also the well-wishing guide. He is everything to those who want to know what is needed to be known.
Universal form to Arjuna shown,
Krishna’s divinity from it known.
Only exhibition of material energy shown,
To Supreme Lord much more to be known.
Something more there beyond,
Wise souls on vision not to dwell upon.
God the person, of complexion blue,
Playing flute, beautiful and enchanting too.