Found in Sanga, Sanga 2007.

Krishna’s Humanlike Form

September 8th, 2007 | No Comments

Q. Some of the most beautiful passages of Bhagavad-gita are those in which Krishna shows his true nature by exhibiting his universal form (visvarupa) to his friend and chariot driver Arjuna. Aside from the beauty of the poetry, are there ideas about the nature of God that one can take from these passages? Can you explain why Arjuna eventually is unable to view the visvarupa any longer and asks Krishna to stop exhibiting it and return to his more conventional and limited two-armed human form?

A. Krishna is God in all respects, so one should not misunderstand his two-armed humanlike form as being conventional or limited in any way. The universal form that Krishna revealed to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kuruksetra manifested from his sweet and charming two-armed form, as did his four-armed form, not the other way around. Careful reading of the text bears this out. To better understand these points regarding Krishna’s humanlike form, it would be helpful for you to look at the verses you refer to in light of Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy. In my book Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy, I discuss these verses from the 11th chapter of the Gita as follows:

[To download Swami Tripurari’s edition of Bhagavad-gita, visit here.]

Text 48

Other than you, no one in human society can see me in this form, not through performing Vedic sacrifice, nor through studying the Vedas, charity, ritualistic acts, or severe austerities.

Arjuna was able to see the majestic form of Krishna because of Krishna’s special grace. In fact, it is grace that makes it possible to see any of Krishna’s forms (divyam dadami te caksuh). Devotion is a separate goal from the achievement of mystical visions, but both mystical visions and devotion are the result of grace. However, the experience of the mysterium tremendum is more of a disruption than a desired ideal to the devotee. The end of devotion is the deepening of devotion. The mystical experience of God’s omnipresence is a gift that serves that end. Indeed, all of God’s actions serve that end in one way or another.

Text 49

Be free from fear and the bewilderment that came upon you as a result of seeing this awesome form of mine. With a joyful heart once again behold my human form.

Text 50

Sanjaya said: Having spoken thus to Arjuna, Vasudeva Krishna gave Arjuna darsana of his own four-armed form again. Then once again he of compassionate heart resumed his gentle, wonderful, two-armed, humanlike form, pacifying the frightened Arjuna.

In the Mahabharata, it is mentioned that some persons saw Krishna appear in a four-armed form on the battlefield of Kuruksetra. However, because of Arjuna’s relationship with him as a friend (sakhya-rasa), Krishna always appeared to him in a two-armed form. Friendship is exchanged between equals. Had Arjuna been accustomed to associating with Krishna in his four-armed form, he would never have sat with him on the same bed, and he would never have joked with him and addressed him, “O Yadava, O Krishna, O Sakha.” It was Krishna in his two-armed form who showed Arjuna the visvarupa (majestic form) and this same two-armed Krishna in verse 50 showed Arjuna the four-armed form at his request. This verse states that after so doing, Krishna resumed his saumya-vapu, a reference to his two-armed, humanlike form. Sanjaya, the Gita’s narrator, does not say that Krishna then manifested his two-armed form, because it is Krishna in this form who has been revealing other aspects of himself in the visvarupa and the catur-bhuja (four armed form).

In the second line of verse 50, Sanjaya says that Krishna again (bhuyah) showed (darsayam asa) Arjuna his own form (svakam rupam). This refers to his four-armed form. In the third and fourth lines, Sanjaya says that Krishna again (punah) assumed his two-armed form and thus pacified (asvasayam asa) Arjuna. If Krishna’s pacifying Arjuna did not involve resuming this form, this verse would suffer from repetition. This understanding is further supported by verse 51. It is made even more clear in verse 52, where the two-armed humanlike form of Krishna is glorified as the most rare and difficult to see, more so than either the visvarupa or the four-armed form of Krishna.

Text 52

The Lord of Sri said: This form of mine you are beholding is very difficult to see. Even the gods constantly long to see it.

In this verse, the word drstavan is a perfect participle that can be rendered either in reference to the present form that Arjuna is seeing or in reference to the visvarupa that Arjuna has seen. In either case the significance is the same: Krishna’s two-armed form is more complete than his visvarupa.

If we take drstavan to be speaking in the present in reference to the form that Arjuna is now seeing, this rendering is further supported grammatically by the word idam (this), which is used in reference to things that are nearby, as opposed to tat, which is used to refer to things at a distance. Krishna is standing before Arjuna in his humanlike form, whereas his visvarupa is now at a distance, an event gone by. Had Krishna been referring to his visvarupa, he would have used the word tat rather than idam.

Here Krishna’s two-armed form is either being extolled directly as very difficult to see (su-durdarsam) or indirectly as even more glorious than the visvarupa, because Arjuna cares more for it, even after seeing the visvarupa that is so difficult to see. If we take a more literal approach to the language of the verse and render drstavan in reference to the visvarupa, as some commentators have, we cannot ignore the feeling of this section. Arjuna lost interest in the visvarupa and not the beatific vision of Krishna’s humanlike form.

Furthermore, Krishna has also mentioned that the gods constantly desire to see this two-armed humanlike form. While there are no scriptural references supporting the idea that the gods always desire to see the visvarupa, there are many prayers in the Srimad-Bhagavatam in which the gods pray to see the form of Krishna. Finally text 53 also confirms that in this verse Krishna is speaking of his humanlike form, inasmuch as it would have been repetitive if he had been referring to the visvarupa, for in text 48 Krishna has already said that it is not possible to see the visvarupa through study of the Vedas, etc.

Text 53

Not by study of the Vedas, not by austerity, not by giving in charity, not even by sacrifice can I be seen in this form as you have seen me.

In his introductory notes to chapter twelve, Madhusudana Saraswati, the highly renowned scholar and guru of the Adwaitin lineage, says that after revelation of the cosmic form (visvarupa), the entity with form (two-armed Krishna) has been referred to in this verse.

Visvanatha Cakravarti comments that if anyone wants to see Krishna in his eternal two-armed humanlike form as Arjuna did, he cannot do so by any of the practices mentioned in this verse, even if they consider the vision of this form to be the perfection of human endeavor.

Text 54

Only by unalloyed devotion can one actually see and understand this form and attain me, O Parantapa.

If verses 52 through 54 are taken to be in reference to the visvarupa, they are indirectly not only glorifying Krishna’s humanlike form but devotion to Krishna as well. The word pravestum in the verse can also be rendered “entered into.” Should one desire to enter into the visvarupa without concern for attaining a transcendental relationship with Krishna, here Krishna emphatically declares that this can only be accomplished by devotion.

Text 55

A person who acts for me, considers me the highest object of attainment, devotes himself to me, abandons all attachment, and frees himself from enmity toward any living being comes to me, O son of Pandu.

As this chapter ends Krishna glorifies unalloyed bhakti. He stressed this at the beginning of chapter 7 and again in chapter 8. In chapter 9 he personally become overwhelmed while speaking about his devotees and devotion. His emotional state overflowed into chapter 10. Following this, Arjuna brought him back to practical reality by asking him about his majesty—his Godhood. Krishna theorized about this for the balance of chapter 10, and then, at Arjuna’s request, he translated theory into experience—jnana into vijnana. Properly understood, the overwhelming revelation of his Godhood in this chapter has indirectly served to underscore the charm and beauty of unalloyed devotion.

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