“Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one's best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service…” (Prahlada Maharaja, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.23-24)
Question: “Does it matter whether you are a servant of Bhagavan Shri Rama or Bhagavan Shri Krishna or any other avatara of Vishnu?”
Answer: Most of us understand the concept of God, how He is the creator and the Supreme Lord, and that He has dominion over all that be. But what exactly is the difference between human beings and God? What about the animal kingdom? What is their relationship to the Supreme Lord and to human beings? To answer these questions, the Vedas go into great detail about the constitutional position of spirit and its relationship to the Supreme. In summary, the Vedas tell us that we living entities are all spirit souls at the core, jivatmas. Jiva refers to a living entity – a human being, aquatic, plant, mammal, reptile, etc. Anything with a soul in it, i.e. any form of life, can be thought of as a jiva. The soul is represented by the atma, so when we combine the two terms together, we get jivatma. God, on the other hand, has a soul which is much more powerful than ours. Therefore His soul is referred to as Paramatma. Moreover, our souls are merely expansions of God. The original form of God is Lord Krishna, though He takes innumerable personal expansions which are equal in potency to the original. We living entities are also expansions, but separated, hence we are known as jiva-tattva, while God’s personal expansions are known as vishnu-tattva. By worshiping any of the vishnu-tattva forms such as Lord Vishnu, Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, we will be worshiping the original Supreme Being.
“In the category of vishnu-tattva there is no loss of power from one expansion to the next, any more than there is a loss of illumination as one candle kindles another. Thousands may be kindled by an original candle, and all will have the same candle power. In this way it is to be understood that although all the vishnu-tattvas, from Krishna and Lord Chaitanya to Rama, Narasimha, Varaha and so on, appear with different features in different ages, all are equally invested with supreme potency.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 3.71 Purport)
So which form should we worship? Is there a difference between the different forms? Technically, there is, though it is only a subtle difference. To help us understand the difference, let us first analyze the issue of devotion to God. On the highest level of understanding, every single person is a devotee of Krishna; everyone is religious. This certainly doesn’t seem believable, but if we dig deeper into the matter, we’ll see that it is true. As stated before, Lord Krishna is the original form of God, more technically known as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the original candle from which all other candles are lit. This means that Krishna is the source of all spirit and matter. This universe that we live in is enormous; it is so big that we have no idea how far outer space actually extends out. From Vedic information, we understand that not only is our universe enormous, but there are countless other universes similar in size. All the universes combined make up the total material creation. On a more granular level, material creation consists of the five gross elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and the three subtle elements: mind, intelligence, and false ego, combined into various shapes and forms.
Every living entity is engaged in some type of worship, which manifests through service. No one is independent, regardless of what they tell you or what they think. Even the richest person in the world, the CEO of the most successful company, is a servant of the customers who buy their products or the shareholders who own the company. So is a wealthy businessman a devotee of Krishna? What if they openly don’t believe in God? What if they are avowed atheists? Well, when we say that Krishna is the source of everything, we mean everything. Wealth, beauty, fame, strength, etc. are all just products of matter when you break them down. Thus we see that atheists are nothing more than worshipers of matter. Since matter is created by Krishna, it is non-different from Him, just as there is no difference between the sun and the sunshine. At the same time, matter is a manifestation of Krishna’s external energy, so in that sense there is a difference, a separation so to speak.
“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)
Let us review some of the other kinds of worship. There are those who don’t believe in God, but they love to acquire knowledge. They read as much as they can; philosophy, theosophy, politics, science, etc. These people, known as jnanis, are also worshiping Krishna, for all knowledge emanates from Him. God is Absolute, which means that everything spiritual and material is simply an expansion of one of His energies.
When the jnanis become a little advanced, they may delve into the differences between matter and spirit, trying to understand the ins and outs of all things material and spiritual. As a result of their study, they take to worshiping an energy. They can’t fathom the idea of a personal God or the fact that the divine has an eternally existing form. For such people, the highest truth is an impersonal energy. The Vedas give us a name for this energy: Brahman. Since they can’t come to the platform of devotional service to Krishna, these worshipers, known as jnana-yogis, remain stuck on the impersonal energy. Though they worship Brahman and fail to recognize the supremacy of Krishna, the jnana-yogis are nevertheless indirectly God’s devotees because they are worshiping one of His features.
There are others who can only understand God’s feature as the Supersoul, or Paramatma, which resides within the heart of every living entity. These people are usually referred to as yogis, and they engage in worship of the Supersoul through the practice of hatha-yoga or ashtanga-yoga, processes which involve meditation, sitting postures, and breathing exercises.
“Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 7.23)
Then there are those who worship various demigods. The demigods are elevated living entities. Just as we see there is a difference between the lifespan of a dog and a human being, there is a difference in the lifespan of a demigod and an ordinary human being. Demigods can live for thousands of years, sometimes millions, and they have extraordinary powers which enable them to control wealth, speech, rain, fire, etc. Many followers of the Vedic tradition worship the demigods in order to procure different material rewards and perfections. Since the demigods are personally deputed by Krishna, they are also non-different from Him. Thus the devotees of the demigods are actually worshiping Krishna indirectly.
Then there are those who take directly to worshiping Krishna or one of His vishnu-tattva expansions such as Lord Rama, Lord Vishnu [Narayana], Narasimhadeva, etc. The term Vaishnava, meaning a devotee of Vishnu, is applied to people who engage in this type of worship. The discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, is aimed at pleasing Lord Krishna or one of His vishnu-tattva expansions.
Thus we have the rundown of the different kinds of worshipers, both theists and atheists. Since they are all worshiping some form of Krishna, is their worship considered to be on the same level? This is where distinctions are made. Every person is engaged in some type of service, even though the object of that service may be different. Every object in this world is but an expansion of the original Krishna, or God, hence each person can be thought of to be serving Krishna. Yet not all objects are the same, so there is a difference in the results of such worship.
Let us analyze the results of the different kinds of worship. Lord Krishna tells us in the Bhagavad-gita that a person’s consciousness at the time of death determines their fate in the afterlife. The soul is eternal, but the body is not. The soul will continue to exist, but its outer covering will always change. When the current body is destroyed, the soul immediately is given a new body. The type of body is determined by the consciousness at the time of death, which is determined by the activities performed during one’s lifetime. For the atheists who are involved in worshiping matter, naturally their consciousness will be fixed on some material object at the time of death. This means that they will be given a material body in the next life. This cycle will continue until their consciousness changes.
The impersonalist philosophers spend all their time contemplating the brahmajyoti, or the Brahman effulgence. Thus their consciousness at the end of life will be fixed on an impersonal energy, which will reward the soul with an impersonal body in the afterlife. What does this mean? The soul of the impersonalist will merge into Brahman, thus eliminating their identity. For the yogis, their fate in the afterlife involves merging into Krishna’s four-handed form of Narayana, or Vishnu. The yogis spend their time contemplating the Supersoul, which is nothing more than a localized form of Vishnu residing within the heart. Thus the yogis will be rewarded by merging into Vishnu’s body at the time of death.
For the devotees of the various vishnu-tattva forms, they will receive personal association with their form of choice in the spiritual world. Lord Krishna resides on the planet of Goloka Vrindavana, which is in the spiritual realm of Krishnaloka, and the various Vishnu forms reside on the Vaikuntha planets. Both Krishnaloka and Vaikunthaloka are part of the highest spiritual planetary systems. These are imperishable universes, so anyone who goes there never has to take birth again. If a person has stopped the cycle of birth and death, it means that they have achieved liberation, or mukti. The impersonalist philosophers and the yogis also achieve a type of mukti, but it is considered a lower form since they have no direct association with a personal form of God.
So now that we know the results of the different types of worship, how do we know which form of Krishna to devote ourselves to? Should we worship Lord Krishna or Lord Rama? What is the difference? In reality, there is no difference; it really just comes down to a matter of taste. If there is any difference at all, it is in the mood of love that is exchanged. From the authorized Vedic texts such as the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Brahma-samhita, we get information that Lord Krishna is the source of all incarnations and expansions. At the same time, His vishnu-tattva expansions are like identical candles which are lit from the original. In this way, there is no difference in any of the forms.
If there is no difference, then why even have so many forms? The reason for this is that the spirit souls are naturally inclined to serve God in different ways. Some like to view God as being very opulent, someone who is all-powerful and exquisitely beautiful. To allow these souls to worship God in a pure way, the Lord expands Himself as Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana. Narayana means the source of all naras, or human beings. The various incarnations can be thought of as coming from Naraynana. Narayana has four arms which hold the conchshell, disc, club, and lotus flower. His beauty and power are both awe-inspiring, for He holds two items of power and two items of beauty in His hands.
According to the authority of the great saints, Lord Krishna is considered to be more attractive than any other form of God. For those who want to enjoy conjugal love with the Lord or pure love of some other variety, Krishna is the person to worship. The authorities even say that Lord Rama is not as attractive as Krishna. Does this mean that worship of Lord Rama is second class? Rama’s greatest devotee is Hanuman, the monkey king and authority on devotional service. No one in this world is more pure, kind, knowledgeable, and pious than Hanuman. Hanuman cannot worship any other form of God; he refuses to see anyone as God except Rama. During Rama’s time on earth, Hanuman personally offered service to the Lord, and so he has no desire to serve anyone else. Before Lord Rama returned to the spiritual world, Hanuman asked for the benediction to be able to remain in his body for as long as the story of Lord Rama’s life was still being told on earth. Hanuman also asked that he be allowed to hear Rama’s glories whenever he was feeling down or unhappy. This is the mood of a pure devotee. They have a particular form of Krishna that they love and they never want to worship any other form.
“It is impossible for me to give up the lotus feet of Lord Raghunatha [Rama]. When I even think of giving them up, my heart breaks.” (Vallabha speaking to his brothers, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 4.42)
Lord Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, Lord Chaitanya, especially stressed devotion to Lord Krishna. In fact, He expounded on the differences between the various Vishnu forms in great detail in discussions He had with His associates. These teachings can be found in the book, Teachings of Lord Chaitanya. Though He played the role of a devotee of Krishna, Lord Chaitanya never made people switch from worshiping one Vishnu form to another, provided that their devotion was pure. For example, He had an associate named Murari Gupta who was a great devotee of Lord Rama. Lord Chaitanya once asked him to switch to worshiping Krishna, but Murari Gupta couldn’t do it. He said he would rather die than abandon Lord Rama. Lord Chaitanya was very pleased by this level of devotion. The Lord also once met a brahmana named Ramadasa Vipra, who was so engrossed in worshiping Sita and Rama that he was distraught over Sita’s kidnapping, an event which took place thousands of years before. Again, Lord Chaitanya didn’t try to change the brahmana’s object of worship, but rather He took the necessary steps to only increase the brahmana’s devotion to Sita and Rama. Similarly, Lord Chaitanya’s two most famous disciples, the brothers Rupa and Sanatana Gosvami, had a younger brother named Vallabha [Anupama], who was a great devotee of Lord Rama. Vallabha couldn’t join Lord Chaitanya’s movement because he felt he couldn’t properly worship Radha-Krishna. Nevertheless, we know from the Chaitanya Charitamrita that Vallabha ascended to the spiritual planets where Lord Rama resides, thus achieving liberation.
Prahlada Maharaja, the five year old saint and son of a demon, personally offered prayers to Krishna’s half-man/half-lion form of Narasimhadeva. Prahlada was so attached to Narasimhadeva that he authored a wonderful set of prayers known as the Narasimha-kavacha-stotram. These prayers are dedicated to Narasimhadeva and are recited by devotees around the world daily. Was Prahlada’s form of worship second class? Obviously it wasn’t, for Prahlada is considered one of the great authorities on Vishnu worship, or devotional service.
Sometimes there will be friendly arguments between devotees as to who is greater: Vishnu or Krishna, Krishna or Rama, Narasimha or Krishna, Krishna or Chaitanya, etc. The great saint Vrindavana Dasa Thakura tells us that such arguments between devotees should never be taken seriously, for they are all done out of pure love. Devotees love their specific form of Krishna so much that they’ll even take to criticizing other forms just as a way to praise their specific object of worship.
The lesson here is that we should find a specific form of Krishna that we are naturally drawn to and worship that form purely and with great love. God is everything, but everything is not God. We can’t just imagine some form and take it to be God. Lord Krishna and His various incarnations are eternally existing, thus they are not concoctions of the mind. The avataras, or incarnations, are Krishna’s mercy to us, allowing us to offer service in the mood that best suits us. If we worship vishnu-tattva, we can be guaranteed of personal association with the Lord in the afterlife, thus achieving the highest form of liberation there is.