As is so often the case, Carol Horton wrote a wonderfully thought-provoking article recently. You can find it on her blog, Think Body Electric. The post was an appreciation of ‘American Yoga’ and, as the long parade of comments that her post generated rolled on, the topic of the Bhagavad Gita’s relevance to contemporary yoga came up. Within the sub-discussion that nested inside the larger conversation, one participant suggested that a definition of “Krishna”, the speaker of the Gita, was required in order to ascertain how one should try to understand the Gita and apply its teachings.
I couldn’t agree more.
One edition of the Gita that was cited among examples of how different translators arrive at different philosophical conclusions was A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. In his translation, Prabhupada coined a vivid descriptive for Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead.
This is a very dramatic definition that, if taken literally, flies in the face of the more generally accepted view that Krishna is an extended metaphor for the Universe or for an inconceivable Oneness or a featureless void or our collective Self or something, anything, other than a person who, like us, enjoys the status of actual existence as a unique individual.
The designation “Supreme Personality of Godhead” clearly indicates that, as far as Prabhupada is concerned, Krishna is, first and foremost, a person, not a metaphor, extended or otherwise, and that, as a categorically different kind of person from you and me, Krishna is the one person who is uniquely qualified to occupy the position of “Supreme Person”.
One may argue that, as a man of faith, Prabhupada’s interpretation of the Gita offers a predictably a religious conclusion: that God exists and our position in relationship to God is one of subordinate service. But Prabhupada references numerous ancient texts that are universally recognized by scholars of traditional yoga to indicate that his Gita commentaries are not just the opinion of one believer. Prabhupada’s references include the Katha Upanisad (“There is one eternal conscious being who is the shelter of all other eternal conscious beings”) and the Brahma Samhita (“Krishna is the Supreme Person who is the self-causing cause of all other causes”), among others.
Even if we step outside of the specific bhakti tradition that Prabhupada represents, we find that Patanjali describes Isvara – the Lord – in his Yoga Sutras as ‘purusa visesa’: a categorically different kind of person from all other persons. Patanjali’s characterization of Isvara is consistent with Prabhupada’s commentary and references concerning Krishna. In his translation of the Yoga Sutras and other related essays, Edwin Bryant illustrates an explicit connection between Isvara in the Yoga Sutras and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita.
And here’s the really mind-blowing part: in using the phrase “Supreme Personality of Godhead”, Prabhupada is indicating that a real person, named Krishna, is the Absolute Truth or, to put it another way, Ultimate Reality itself is a person! Using this definition of Krishna as synonymous with Absolute Reality, we would understand Krishna to be a person who is both the source of all existence and all existence itself; a self-generated ultra-cosmic person who is uniquely endowed with unlimited energies and innumerable qualities in unending quantity and absolute perfection; a person who is complete in every respect, to whom nothing can be added and from whom nothing can be taken away.
Makes your head explode just thinking about it, right?
But what does it mean to be a person and why should we accept the idea that the Absolute Reality is a person? … stay tuned.