Demons in Krishna-lila 6 – Bakasura – From Appearance to Substance to Transcendence
[Bhagavatam class at ISKCON, Washington DC, USA]
Transcribed by: Sadananda Prabhu
Demons in Krishna-lila 6 – Bakasura – From Appearance to Substance to Transcendence
When Krishna was just a small child, he slowly started going out to the forest to herd the calves, and there were some demons like Putana who came into the home of Krishna. Some demons like Trinavarta and Saktasur came to the courtyard of Krishna. Most of the other demons tried to attack Krishna when he was in the forest. Bakasur was one such demon. Bhaktivinod Thakur explains that Bakasur represents duplicity and deceptiveness. Bakasur was in the form of a duck. He was sitting in the forest waiting, and as the gopa’s and Krishna were observing, they found something unusual about this. Though a duck is relatively seen to be not such a dangerous creature, but this duck suddenly charged towards Krishna and opened its beak in order to swallow him completely. Though Bakasur thought that he was faster, but Krishna was faster. As he opened his mouth to swallow Krishna – krishnam maha bako; this was a great duck, but Krishna is the father of Brahma and he is the Lord of everyone. This duck was fast enough to catch Krishna in his throat, but before he could swallow him – Aghasura was another demon who actually swallowed Krishna, and Krishna went to his belly. But in the case of Bakasura, he couldn’t even swallow Krishna. He just came in his mouth, and at that time Krishna suddenly increased his temperature and became very hot bodily. Even yogi’s have this tapa shakti by which not only can they increase their bodily temperatures, but they can also emit fire. It is said that Lord Kapil, the son of Sagar tried to attack him. At that time, he just emanated fire from his body and they all got burned. It is also said that Sati produced fire from fire and burned her body to immolate herself. The idea is that there is heat in the body which is normally called as Jataragni or the digestive fire, and that heat can be accessed and increased by mystic powers. So, Krishna is not just a yogi, but he is Yogeshwara. He suddenly increased the temperature. For example, if something is delicious and we eat it, and we find suddenly that it is extremely hot, and we can’t take it; then we want to spit it out. Like that Aghasura thought that he will swallow Krishna and will spit him out. When he spit Krishna out, Krishna landed on his feet. Immediately, before this demon could recover from the burning sensation in his mouth, Krishna caught his beak and pulled them apart, and bifurcated the demon. Just as later, Bhima would do something similar with a demon named Jarasandha. He would rip his body apart into two. Krishna similarly bifurcated the demon. In that way he freed Vrindavan from the danger of this demon. Significantly, this Bakasura is another demon in Mahabharat also. He was also a man- eating demon, and he was near the village of Ekachakra which is considered as the place where Lord Nityananda appeared. That demon was a person who would want that the villagers would every day bring the cart full of food to him, and the person driving the cart would also come and be consumed by the demon. That Bakasura is very different from this Bakasura. Bhaktivinod Thakura explains that Bakasura is the mentality to deceive others. It is interesting that ducks and swans can sometimes look similar because both are white in color and both live near water, but by nature they are different. Swans are considered to be very pure. They are often used to signify saintliness. The great saintly people are called as paramahamsas or the great swans. The swans are said to have the property of separating milk from water. Similarly, the saintly people can see the spiritual even within the material. Bhaktivinod Thakur points that this demon represents duplicity, and it indicates that somebody can have a particular appearance but their substance maybe something entirely different. For example, some people are smooth talkers. They talk very sweetly and smoothly, but they will deceive people and swindle them of their money or make them sign off their property. So, if we see the demons who come in Krishna lila, none of them come in a demoniac form. Initially, at least none of the demons looked scary, ghastly or brutal. We may have a stereotype of how a demon looks as someone who has a horn coming out of his head or tooth coming of the mouth. But none of the demons in Krishna lila are literally like that. They all come either as beautiful people like Putana or they may come as animals in nature. Especially, here, though a duck is not said to be harmful, but there is a very harmful intension over there. So, there is a demoniac form and there is a demoniac intent. The Bhagavat Gita in its sixteenth chapter classifies the divine and the demoniac nature. We see that there are two kinds of people in the world. Some people are wise and some people are otherwise. In other word’s some people are divine and some are demoniac. Krishna doesn’t describe anywhere in the sixteenth chapter anything about the form of the people. All that he describes is the disposition and their actions, their qualities and their activities. And we can see that though he was not a rakshasa or a man-eater, but he was a demoniac person. Similarly, demons can be in any form. In the Upanishadic tradition or the Vedic body of knowledge, we could say that there are three levels of knowledge: there is the Vedas, the Upanishads, and then the Puranas. The Vedas talk about pious materialism; that we can do religion and have a good life in this world, that we can do dharma and we can get artha and kama. The Vedas often talk about the residents of the heavens, and the delicious soma juice or the nectar that they drink over there. It talks about the beautiful forests where angelic beauties can be enjoyed. The whole idea is that by living piously one can enjoy material life better. In the Vedas themselves material life is not condemned; it is irreligious or impious material life that is condemned, which will lead one to hell and suffering – that was the idea. But if we live good, we will get good results. The Upanishads take one step forward. It explains that those who philosophically understand that even the heavens are temporary and not eternal are intelligent. It is said that the word “amara” is used to describe the residents of the heavenly planets. But the Upanishads say that even that is misleading because immortal simply means that they live a very long time as compared to us. But they don’t lead eternally. In fact, there are four grades of living beings: the martya – those who are destined to live a very long time as compared to us, the heavenly residents, there are the chiranjiva’s who live as long as the universe exists, and then there are the nitya’s who are eternal. Only those who live in the spiritual world are eternal. The Upanishads tells us that the heavenly promises of pleasures are also deceptive, and therefore “down with the form.” And “down with the name” are all illusions. We have to go beyond all this to the eternal which is beyond all form and name. Now, the Upanishads are in a progression. The idea is that, if somebody is in the negative axis we bring them to zero, and then to positive access. Negative access is impious material life. The Y axis which is relatively closer to the origin or zero is like the pious material life. The Vedas get those who are living in an impious material life to pious material life; or from the very negative part of the negative axis to the less negative part of the negative axis. Then the Upanishads get us to the zero point when we understand that it is all negative or illusion. In general, people who are philosophical want to go to abstract principles. They often want to look for oneness. I was invited to speak on science and spirituality in Cambridge. While I was driving, we passed by the tree where Newton is said to have seen the fruit falling. Some people say that the fruit fell in front of him and some say that it fell on his head. Either way that tree is somehow still existing, and it is like a pilgrimage place for scientists, where they go and think, “How brilliant was Newton that he was inspired by this?” From a very mundane observation like a fruit falling, Newton came up with the principle of gravity. It is certainly his brilliance, but there is something more going on over there. Fruit falling is a specific phenomenon, but from that phenomena we try to come to something universal. What is the universal principle that account for this specific phenomenon? That is the principle of gravity. So, if we look at science, it makes specific observations, but from there it goes towards universal principles. The people who can understand universal principles are quite intelligent. Similarly, what Bhaktivinod thakur is doing is, there are specific incidents like one demon coming and attacking another demon. Some people think that it is so simplistic, and this story is for kids. What Bhaktivinod thakur is doing is, he is taking us from specific incidents to universal principle of what this demon actually represents; and that is a universal teaching that we all can apply in our lives. In that way the intelligent people can appreciate Krishna lila, otherwise they are just stories. So, Bhakti Vinod Thakur gives a symbolic meaning of Krishna lila to attract people who think that they are very intelligent; and they will not be attracted to this simply seeming stories. At the same time there is something more over there. Just like if we move from the Y-axis to zero, that is good because we are going from a material vision of life to at least not being entangled in materialism. But beyond the zero is the positive axis, and that positive axis is spiritual life.
Spiritual life also involves specifics. That means that there is Krishna who is this person with a specific form. Krishna wears a peacock feather and plays a flute. One of the themes in theology is that God is impartial; that god doesn’t play favorites. That is true. Krishna says samo ham sarva bhutesu… I am equal to everyone. Neither am I partial towards anyone, nor am I envious towards anyone. But at the same time Krishna’s impartiality is not like a stone-like neutrality because Krishna is a person. Stone like neutrality means not showing emotion at all, and remaining stone-like even if someone approaches one, and is wanting to develop a relationship with them. If they remain stone-like even after we speak strongly to them because they have done some mistake – some people may appreciate their stone-like impassivity, but how much of a relationship can we develop with such a person. So, if God’s impartiality was stone-like neutrality, then that would detract from his lovability; then he would not be a person. A person means that they have emotions, that they have preferences. So, god doesn’t play favorites, but he has his favorites. He loves all devotees, but Radharani is his most special devotee. He loves all animals but he puts a peacock feather though he could have put any other feather. He is good with all musical instruments, but he plays a flute. Why does Krishna play flute or a peacock feather? Because that is his preferences. We may have a story for each of this, but the important thing is that it is Krishna’s personal preference. In general, one of the objections that people who are intelligent have to a personal conception of God is that it is too specific. They say, “This conception has emerged from your Hindu or north Indian tradition. So, why should we believe in it?” They think of specifics as sectarian. As soon as something is specific, they think that it is sectarian. And for something to be universal they feel that it should be non-specific. So, if we use the word god, that is much acceptable to people than if you use the word “Krishna” or “Allah” Nowadays some people even don’t like the word “God” because they feel that it is too Christian a connotation. So, people like to use abstract words. One devotee who speaks to the yoga crowd, when he was to give good wishes to everyone said, “May the source be with you.” People think that if they want to be universal, they have to be non-specific. This is one way of looking at things; that to be universal we have to be non-specific. But then, we can also raise the question, “Where do the specifics of this world comes from?” If form, personality and emotions are illusions, then why are they present in this world? It is present because there must be some origin of which this is a reflection. The Bhagavad-gita uses the metaphor of an upside-down tree. Krishna says that one who understands this upside-down tree, whose branches are going down and its roots are coming up, he knows the Vedas fully. So, this upside-down tree metaphor is used by the impersonalist’s to say that this world is an illusion. There is no tree which is upside-down. We may see the up-side down reflection of a tree in the river. So, there has to be real tree for us to see the reflection. That real tree is the spiritual world. The specifics of the spiritual life are existing on the positive axis; that is the real world where love can be eternal, where personality is not marked by imperfection and where emotions don’t lead one to illusion. The problem in this world is that we are attracted to the forms, but then the most attractive person may not look attractive twenty or thirty years down the line. Then there is frustration. We are attracted to people with personality, and from a distance we see that the person is so wonderful. When we go closer, we see that the person has got so many imperfections, and then our relationship can get frustrated because of that. We have emotions, and these emotions are what brings spice to life. The Ramayana says that the emotions are ornaments of our life, but then our emotions can easily put us in illusion. Maybe we are attracted or angry with someone, or we may have various emotions that may distort our perception of things.
The problem in this world is that form, personality and emotions, all of these often lead us to distress. There in the Upanishads it has been advised that we should go beyond all this. But the Bhagavad-purana tells especially the tenth canto that there is a higher realm; that Krishna’s all attractive form is spiritual and eternal. The devotees also have an all-attractive form that is eternal. Krishna’s personality is rich with all wonderful qualities because he is the source of everything attractive, and the emotions in the spiritual world actually deepen our devotion and the absorption in the supreme reality. Yasoda Mayi doesn’t simply think of Krishna as the absolute truth. She thinks of Krishna as her loving child, and that intensifies her remembrance of Krishna. Actually speaking, Krishna lila is eternal reality, and for those who can relish Krishna lila at the level of eternal reality, they are at the highest level. They don’t need any kind of symbolic explanations. They just relish Krishna’s sweet pastimes. However, for those who are not at that level, Bhaktivinod Thakur also offers them a way to understand and appreciate Krishna lila. Rupa Goswami talks about three levels of people: Kanistha, Madhyama and Uttama. He talks about it in a different context. He says that those who just see Krishna in the Deity are the Kanistha, those who see that their relationship with Krishna depends on how we relate with other living beings also are the madhyama or the middle level devotees. Kanistha is a very preliminary level devotee. The Uttama or the best devotees are always absorbed in the remembrance of Krishna. Bhaktivinod Thakur talks about the demons in Krishna lila, and what they signify in Caitanya Siksamrita and Krishna Samhita. Now, Krishna Samhita is considered to be somewhat of a controversial book, because Bhaktivinod Thakur there is trying to accommodate intellectuals, and some of the explanations that he gives may seem a little objectionable to those who have a traditional understanding of the scripture. But in the beginning of the book he says, different people are for different mindsets. I am presenting things for a particular audience. I offer my obeisance’s to those who are traditional Vaisnavas and I request them not be offended. What he does there is that he redefines Kanistha, Madhyama and Uttama, and he says that there are those who get caught in the specifics; intellectual people think that they are superficial. Yes, specifics can lead to sectarianism. For example, in the Christian tradition some people are baptized by having water sprinkled on them, and some are baptized by being dunk in water. One group may say that if only water is sprinkled one cannot be delivered. So, sometimes external people can have huge conflicts on externals. In the Shree Vaisnava tradition they had an elephant which would go to the one of the most prominent Shree Vaisnava temples, and that elephant would actually carry the Lord and go in the procession with the Lord. But the Shri Vaisnivism spread into two groups, and those two groups had two different kinds of tilaks. One tilak was spread out and one had a line in between. Then they had a big debate on which tilak this elephant should have. Though it may seem ridiculous, but then they put a court case, and that went up to the Supreme Court in India. And finally, before the court gave a verdict the elephant died. So, sometimes people who get too caught in specifics can become sectarian. Thus, the objection has validity. Bhakti Vinod Thakura says that those people who are caught with the specifics and externals are kanistha, but they need those externals to have a sense of structure for their spiritual life. If there is no external, people think, “What am I doing, how am I practicing spirituality?” They are attached to externals and that is also helpful for them. But then he says, those who are intellectuals do not need such externals. They can go towards some universal’s. And thus, he refers to these intellectuals who go beyond the externals as madhyama. He defines madhyamas as those who go beyond the external to the universal principles. He is like patting them on their back saying “You are good, you are sharp and intelligent.” But then he says that the madhyama is not the highest. There is also an Uttama level, and in that level, devotees are completely absorbed in love for Krishna, and they are just filled with love, and they don’t need external literal things. But nor do they know symbolic abstract things because they have got the absolute spiritual substance; and that is Krishna himself. So, Bhaktivinod Thakur doesn’t deny the positive access. He appreciates that the zero point is higher than the negative access, and he appreciates those who have come to zero. But those who are at zero also often think the positive axis to be the negative axis. They think that Krishna is also like an ordinary human being. Prabhupada says that there are two kinds of misconceptions: to consider man to be God and to consider God to be man. Sarva artham viparitamshya – everything is as it is; but they make it opposite. People may think those who are in the positive Y-axis are on the negative axis. Bhaktivinod Thakur says that there is negative Y-axis, and there is zero which is higher, and it is good to be there. But there is a positive Y-axis also and we need to go there. In this way Bhakti Vinod Thakur does not deny that Krishna’s pastimes are real; that actually Krishna existed and he killed demons, and he is a real loving person. But he helps people to go beyond the notion that Krishna is a specific Deity imagined by a group of people because Krishna has specific form. That is a sectarian view. Yes, there is the specifics, there is the universal, and beyond the universal there is also some specifics.
Nowadays people talk about unity in diversity. There is so much diversity, but in a multicultural environment we want unity within diversity. That is true, but the Bhakti revelation is also about diversity within university. That means that in the spiritual world everything is eternal or sat-cid-ananda, but within that there are different devotees, and each of them have their own personality. Krishna has his own personality. There is unity in the sense that everything is eternal, but there is diversity. The point here is that external appearance sometimes doesn’t reveal the inner substance. So, just as there can be Bakasura who was a harmful demon who looked like a harmless duck, like that there maybe people who are attractive in the world, and they may even look saintly, but they may have very ulterior motives because they want to exploit their followers. So, we have to be cautious to go beyond the appearance to the substance. But when there is a substance, at a transcendental level there is also the appearance. That means that Krishna is the supreme spiritual reality, but he is also all-attractive. So, we look for the substance, but at the spiritual level the substance and the appearance both go together; there is form and there is beauty.
Prabhupada wrote a famous essay called “Truth and Beauty.” In this world truth and beauty don’t go together. Beauty often puts us in illusion. But in Krishna-lila truth and beauty are both united. So, the Upanishads take us to the Bhagavat puranas, where ultimately truth, beauty, substance and appearance are united in the supreme transcendence, Krishna. The Bhagavatam also uses the word “Paratpara” which means transcendental to the transcendental. That means from Y-axis zero is transcendental. But from zero the positive axis is further transcendental. The Brahman is transcendental, but Krishna is transcendental to the Brahman because Krishna is Bhagavan. And it is that Krishna who is revealed in the tenth canto of the Bhagavatam, and that Krishna is the eternal object of love. He is the akhila rasamrita murti. He is embodiment of all rasas, and by learning to love him our longing for love will eternally and perfectly fulfilled.
I will summarize:
I spoke on the theme of Demons in Krishna lila, and how Bakasura looked like a harmless duck which can resemble a swan from a distance. It was a very saintly and sweet bird, but he had a malevolent intension. Similarly, Bhaktivinod Thakur says that in this world there is duplicity and deceptiveness. People may look very attractive and pleasant, but they may have a very nasty and unpleasant attitude or intentions. So, we need to look beyond the appearance to the substance. And then I talked about Bhaktivinod Thakur’s strategy in Krishna lila, and what is he doing when he is giving the symbolic explanations of the Krishna lila.
Intelligent people want to go beyond the specifics to the universal; like science goes from objects falling to the principle of gravity. People on the spiritual path feel that the specifics lead to sectarianism, and that is why we want to go from the specifics to the universals. But often in going from specifics to the universal they end up depersonalizing spiritual reality. It is true that form, personality and emotions can be just illusion. The Vedas have a program by which we get from the lower negative axis to the higher negative axis, or from impious to pious materialism, and then from there to the Upanishads, where we go beyond the appearance to the substance; that even pious materialism is not good enough because this is also temporary. There we have to go to the eternal. So, just as there is progression from the Vedas to the Upanishads, similarly, Bhaktivinod Thakur takes our progression from kanishtha or the first level, to Madhyama or the second level. We don’t see it as stories for children, but we see that there is something symbolized over here. But then Upanishads take us to the Bhakti literature; that from the zero point there is the positive axis. Similarly, Bhaktivinod Thakur says that in the Uttama level people are not caught in sectarianism. They are not even caught in abstraction, but they are absorbed in love for the ultimate substance which is Krishna. In this way Bhaktivinod Thakur takes people to a higher level of understanding. He appreciates those who are intellectuals, but also points them the transcendental which is higher still.
God doesn’t play favorites but he is a person. That means that he is impartial, but that is not stone like neutrality. It is personal reciprocity. Thus, those who love him more, he loves them more. He has his favorites, and this do not detract from his impartiality; but this simply enhances his personality. So, when we see Krishna as an all-attractive and all-loving person, then his specificity enhances our devotion. Understanding more and more specifics about how Krishna looks, how he dresses, what he does, what his qualities are, actually enhance our devotion. The tenth canto also reveals those specifics of Krishna so that we can fulfil our longing for love, by directing it towards the supreme Lord of love, Krishna.
Thank you very much.
End of transcription.