“Since it was almost night, and all the inhabitants of Vrindavana, including the cows and calves, were very tired, they decided to take their rest on the river bank. In the middle of the night, while they were taking rest, there was suddenly a great forest fire, and it quickly appeared that the fire would soon devour all the inhabitants of Vrindavana. As soon as they felt the warmth of the fire, they immediately took shelter of Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, although He was playing just like their child.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 17)
After the initial acknowledgment, attesting to the fact that there is life after death, that everything in this world didn’t suddenly emerge from nothing, that there is a purpose to our existence, it is natural for a person to be inquisitive into the nature of the person they are worshiping.
“Just who exactly is God? What does it mean to be God? I get it that we should be devoted to Him, developing a relationship, but what conception of Him do we have? Any substantive and authoritative information would go a long way towards developing a lasting bond.”
The Vedas fill the gap. If another tradition or spiritual lineage has such a glaring omission, a person can take solace in consulting the original set of knowledge, Veda, passed down in a chain of teachers. Known as the descending process of knowledge transfer, parampara is the only way to know God in truth, tattva.
तद् विद्धि प्रणिपातेन
उपदेक्ष्यन्ति ते ज्ञानं
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)
The person described as adi-purusha is the same God from other traditions. To consult the Vedas is not to violate any principle prohibiting worship of other “gods.” There is no competition implied, as there is simply additional information and clarity provided on the same person that everyone inherently understands to exist.
It would be like seeing a large mass of land from afar. In the distance, it looks like a mountain. One or two colors appear prominent, but unless one gets closer they can’t really know for sure what is on the mountain. When they do get closer, they have a much better idea, along with confirmation of various beautiful aspects to that collection of earth.
One way the Vedas enhance the understanding of God is through the attempt to enumerate some of His attributes. This is only a best-effort at qualifying someone who is without qualities, nirguna. It is not that He lacks a form or identity, but the nature of His features is transcendental. For instance, we do not know what it means to have eyes everywhere and to also have no eyes. In this sense, nirguna is the fitting description for God.
He has eyes, and therefore He is also saguna. This is to describe those features which are somewhat distinguishable. God is both nirguna and saguna, and the latter is more relatable. We can understand the Almighty more easily through worshiping the manifest form.
क्लेशो ऽधिकतरस् तेषाम्
अव्यक्ता हि गतिर् दुःखं
kleśo ‘dhikataras teṣām
avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5)
The Vedas give better names to describe the person to worship. One of them is Bhagavan, and this says that He particularly displays six opulences: beauty, wealth, strength, fame, wisdom and renunciation. He has these attributes simultaneously and to the fullest degree.
In addition to the philosophical side, proof through logic and reasoning, there is the physical evidence in terms of world history. God the person, who is both nirguna and saguna, sometimes descends to within our presence. The living entities travelling through the evolutionary cycle driven by karma sometimes have the fortune of witnessing the Supreme Lord’s greatness in person.
In the lila of Krishna swallowing a potentially devastating fire, we see how God has a mouth. Otherwise, the fire could not have entered His transcendental body. There was directional travel, attested to by eyewitnesses. The events memorialized in Sanskrit verses carry forward the pastime to the modern day.
While He has a mouth, the guna, or attribute, on Krishna is different. It could be described as nirguna in the sense that your typical mouth would not be able to devour a fire to rescue others from danger. Fire is such a powerful element of nature that it can destroy large tracts of land in a matter of days. It devours everything in its wake, such as homes and buildings.
Not only did the same powerful element enter into Krishna’s mouth, but it was also stopped in its tracks. The fire was extinguished, through little effort displayed by Nanda and Yashoda’s son. Such feats bear resemblance to exhibitions put on my expert magicians, but this was no illusion. The fire was real and so was its disappearance into Krishna’s mouth.
The historical incident is also symbolic of the directional interference of the Supreme Lord. He is typically neutral with the affairs of the material world, which bring up and down like the waves of the ocean hitting the sand. Birth and death, victory and defeat, happiness and sadness occur as if on regular intervals, like the changing of seasons.
मात्रा-स्पर्शास् तु कौन्तेय
तांस् तितिक्षस्व भारत
mātrā-sparśās tu kaunteya
tāṁs titikṣasva bhārata
“O son of Kunti, the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.14)
Bhagavan makes an exception for those devoted to Him. He breaks from the position of neutrality and offers direct assistance. For the residents of Vrindavana He devoured the forest fire and protected against devastatingly evil asuras infiltrating from Mathura. For me, He can make the dreaded experience with maya much easier, assuring safe travel to the spiritual world in the afterlife.
Events quickly to transpire,
Threatened by devastating fire.
But not atheists to presume,
Prayed and Krishna quickly consumed.
For Him not amazing at all,
Since as Bhagavan to call.
So that features transcendental and great,
Giving glimpses so we can relate.