“The Supreme Personality of Godhead will appear on the earth very soon along with His supreme powerful potencies, and as long as He remains on the earth planet to execute His mission of annihilating the demons and establishing the devotees, the demigods should also remain there to assist Him.” (Message of Lord Vishnu to Lord Brahma and the demigods, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 1)
Question: “Why is Krishna's incarnation considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu when Vishnu is an expansion of the Supreme Personality of Godhead that is Krishna?”
Answer: In the Vedic tradition, the Supreme Divine Being is known as Krishna. He is described as the Supreme Personality of Godhead since there are multitudes of non-different forms of the Divine which can also be worshiped with love and devotion, with the devotee of each particular form reaping the same benefits. This isn’t to say that there are many Gods, but rather that the Supreme Lord isn’t so stingy to limit Himself to only one form. Just as there are different inherent qualities possessed by different individuals, there are different ways to offer love and devotion to the Supreme Divine Entity. Therefore this original Personality, who is known as Krishna, takes to various forms to allow the devotees to worship Him in their preferred transcendental mellow, or rasa. Ironically enough, one of Krishna’s primary expansions is so much loved and respected that He is often taken as the original form of Godhead instead of Krishna. This person is Lord Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana, the source of all men. For millions of years, only Vishnu was known as the original Personality of Godhead. In many sacred texts, Krishna is listed as one of Narayana’s primary incarnations. While there appears to be a contradiction on this issue, there actually isn’t one.
“All these incarnations of Godhead are either plenary portions or parts of the plenary portions of the purusha-avataras. But Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself [krishnas tu bhagavan svayam]. In every age He protects the world through His different features when the world is disturbed by the enemies of Indra.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.3.28)
First let’s cover the basis for Krishna being taken as the original form of Godhead. The Vedas are the ancient scriptures of India, and they literally mean “knowledge”. Originally, such transcendental information was passed through an oral tradition, with hymns and prayers memorized and verbalized in the Sanskrit language. Later on, this same information was put into written form. Since the attributes and features of the Supreme Personality of Godhead are unlimited, many books were written, with each one focusing on a particular aspect of the Divine. Of all the texts that were compiled, authorities consider the Shrimad Bhagavatam, or Bhagavata Purana, to be the most important. This text stands apart from other major Vedic works since it focuses almost entirely on Vishnu worship and the life and pastimes of Krishna. Other Vedic texts often deal with the four rewards of life: dharma [religiosity], artha [economic development], kama [sense gratification], and moksha [release from the cycle of birth and death], and how one can go about achieving them. While the alleviation of pains and discomforts are certainly legitimate areas of interest in spirituality, the highest truth is that the individual spirit souls are part and parcel of God. “Eternally separate and almost equal” is the concise definition. God is the Supreme Soul, and we are minute fragments emanating from Him. Due to our constitutional makeup, our natural disposition, or dharma, is to always be engaged in His service, tied to His hip through the bonds of love and devotion.
The Shrimad Bhagavatam states that Lord Vishnu, the four-armed form of the original Personality of Godhead residing in the Vaikuntha spiritual realm, is certainly God. For the benefit of mankind, He kindly descends to earth in various guises from time to time. Though these expansions, known as avataras, appear to be just like ordinary living entities, they are non-different from the original Lord. Therefore they are always completely spiritual, not tinged by the effects of material nature governed by the energy of maya. While the Bhagavatam deals extensively with Lord Vishnu, His pastimes, His attributes, and His features, Lord Krishna, who possesses two arms and an all-attractive transcendental body, is also taken to be the original form of Godhead. His home is in a spiritual land known as Goloka Vrindavana, which is similar in nature to Vaikuntha. Both Vaikuntha and Vrindavana are places where birth and death do not occur, therefore whoever lives there remains liberated from conditioned life.
Lord Chaitanya, who is taken by great authorities to be an incarnation of Krishna, appeared on earth around five hundred years ago and preached worship of Krishna to be the topmost spiritual practice. He was especially fond of the Shrimad Bhagavatam and another Vedic text known as the Brahma-samhita. This treatise was compiled by Lord Brahma, the first created being who lives for billions and billions of years. Brahma is considered a demigod, or an elevated living entity. Since he too must go through birth and death, he is not considered to be on an equal footing with Vishnu. Lord Brahma once compiled a great set of prayers in praise of Govinda, which is another name for Krishna. So simply based off the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Brahma-samhita, we can understand that Krishna is the origin of all forms of Godhead. Lord Chaitanya also discussed in great detail the differences between Krishna, Vishnu, and other avataras. These discussions are found in the Teachings of Lord Chaitanya, and anyone who is further interested in this subject matter is advised to consult this wonderful text.
“Shrimad Bhagavatam has listed the avataras, the plenary expansions of the purusha, and Lord Krishna appears among them. But the Bhagavatam further explains Lord Krishna's specific position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Since Lord Krishna is the original Personality of Godhead, reason and argument establish that His position is always supreme.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 2.86 Purport)
Lord Chaitanya inaugurated the chanting of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as the topmost religious practice for all the people of this age. Rama refers to Lord Rama, one of Vishnu’s most celebrated incarnations who appeared on earth many thousands of years ago in the guise of a warrior prince. Though He stressed worship of Krishna, Lord Chaitanya never stopped people from worshiping Lord Rama, for in many instances He even helped devotees of Lord Rama increase their level of attachment to the jewel of the Raghu dynasty.
There are many who take Krishna to be an incarnation of Vishnu, for this is actually mentioned in many texts, including in portions of the Shrimad Bhagavatam. In addition, probably the oldest book in the world is the Ramayana, which is a Vedic text which deals primarily with the life and pastimes of Lord Rama. In chronological terms, Rama and other incarnations of Vishnu appeared on earth prior to Krishna. While the Vedic evidence presented by devotees of Krishna is certainly flawless and completely accurate, the claims of Vishnu being the original and Krishna being an expansion can also be justified by referencing several incidents from Vedic history.
For the Vishnu devotees, the circumstances surrounding Krishna’s advent on earth described in the Shrimad Bhagavatam point to the fact that Vishnu descended to earth as Krishna. Bhumi Devi, the presiding deity of the earth, was feeling a great burden, so she kindly approached Lord Brahma to help her. Brahma then went to visit Lord Vishnu and asked Him to appear on earth. Lord Vishnu then kindly obliged and also arranged to have Ananta Shesha Naga, the eternal servant of Vishnu, come to earth in the form of Lord Balarama. Thus Vishnu and Ananta Shesha Naga appeared on earth as Krishna and Balarama.
When Lord Krishna appeared from the womb of Mother Devaki in the prison cell of King Kamsa, He displayed His four-handed Vishnu form. This was to let His parents know that He was the Supreme Personality of Godhead appearing as their son. At the time, simply showing His Krishna form wasn’t enough to convey the idea of divinity. This actually points to another area of importance which we will discuss later on.
When Krishna grew up to be an adult, while ruling as a king in Dvaraka, He spent much time with His cousins, the Pandavas. On one occasion, the Pandavas and Krishna met up with Markandeya Rishi, who was originally a great devotee of Lord Shiva, another powerful divine figure and devotee of Lord Vishnu. Markandeya Rishi explained to the Pandavas that during one particular kalpa, he had the benefit of remaining alive during the destruction of the earth. After everything was destroyed, only one person remained: Lord Narayana in the form of a young boy. Inside Narayana’s stomach, Markandeya saw the universal form consisting of all the universes, planets, stars, and living entities. After finishing his description, Markandeya told the Pandavas that the same Narayana was sitting in front of them as Krishna.
“O universal Lord, I wish to see You in Your four-armed form, with helmeted head and with club, wheel, conch and lotus flower in Your hands. I long to see You in that form.” (Arjuna speaking to Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 11.46)
On the battlefield of Kurukshetra, just prior to one of the greatest wars in history, Krishna took to instructing the leading warrior of the Pandava side, Arjuna. In this discussion, which is chronicled in the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna repeatedly refers to Himself as God and as the divine entity. Yet Krishna at one point shows both the universal form and His four-armed form of Lord Narayana to Arjuna. Again, this speaks to the notion that followers of the Vedic tradition for thousands of years looked to Lord Vishnu as the original personality of Godhead. Since Krishna is non-different from Vishnu, whether one takes Him as the original in lieu of Vishnu is not really important.
This fact is reinforced by the dealings of the other primary avataras of Lord Vishnu. Lord Rama is worshiped as the Supreme Personality of Godhead by millions, and during His time on earth, He too often referred to Himself as God to His confidential associates. In the original Ramayana, the poem compiled by Maharishi Valmiki, Rama mentions that in a future Yuga He will appear on earth as Govinda, which is another name for Krishna. In this way, we see that Rama is non-different from Krishna. Additionally, many sages desired to have intimate relations with Lord Rama, but since the Lord vowed to only have one wife, Sita Devi, He agreed to meet their requests in the future when He would come to earth as Lord Krishna. Similarly, there are devotees who worship other Vishnu forms such as Lord Narasimhadeva. In fact, in the Narasimha Purana, Narasimhadeva is addressed as adim, which means that He is the original Personality of Godhead.
“Lord Narasimhadeva is here, and He is also there on the opposite side. Wherever I go, there I see Lord Narasimhadeva. He is outside and within my heart. Therefore I take shelter of Lord Narasimhadeva, the original Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Narasimha Purana)
So how do we reconcile these differences? Is Krishna the original or is Vishnu? Lord Krishna is certainly the original Personality of Godhead simply based off the teachings of Lord Chaitanya and the statements of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, Brahma-samhita, Garga-samhita, and Brahmavaivarta Purana. Yet those who take Vishnu or any of His other non-different expansions as original are not wrong. This is because the differences of opinion only represent different angles of vision. The end-result is still the same. If there is a difference at all between Krishna and Vishnu, it lies in the sweetness of appearance. Vishnu is viewed as more opulent and thus appealing to those who wish to worship the Lord in reverence. Krishna, on the other hand, is supremely attractive, so He generally appeals to those who wish to worship the Lord more intimately. God is everything, but everything is not God. This means that we can worship anything we want, but the results of such worship will vary. Only by worshiping non-different forms of the original form of Godhead, vishnu-tattva, can we receive the benediction of eternal association with Supreme Spirit. Worship of any other entity or object will not secure such a reward. This means that only by worshiping Krishna, Vishnu, or another non-different form such as Rama, Narasimha, Chaitanya, etc., can we be released from the cycle of birth and death.
If a person takes Krishna as the original form, and neglects Vishnu worship, their spiritual progress is not hindered. In the same way, devotees of Vishnu who neglect Krishna worship also aren’t deficient in their spiritual practice. Let’s think of it this way: Say we have a person who only reads the Ramayana and nothing else. They take Shri Rama to be the only form of Godhead and no one else. They dedicate themselves to performing devotional service, chanting the Lord’s names, and viewing His deity form in the temple. Such a person will surely receive liberation in the afterlife and be spiritually fulfilled in every way. Devotees of Krishna sometimes say that Rama’s name isn’t as powerful as Krishna’s and that Shri Rama can only grant spiritual benedictions up to the point of impersonal liberation, while Lord Krishna can engage in loving association with the devotees in the mood of separation. While this sentiment surely is indicative of the great love and devotion of Krishna bhaktas, there are a few examples which speak to Rama’s complete abilities to provide any and all spiritual benedictions.
Lord Hanuman, the celebrated divine figure of the Vedic tradition, personally offered his services to Rama during the Lord’s time on earth. Hanuman actually doesn’t see God in any other form except Rama. Moreover, Hanuman worships Rama completely in separation. Sita, Rama, and Lakshmana love Hanuman so much that he could receive anything he asks for. Yet prior to Rama’s return to the spiritual world, Hanuman only asked that he be allowed to remain alive on earth for as long as Rama’ story was still being told. In this way, Hanuman is the perfect example of a devotee who worships the Lord through separation. Similarly, Goswami Tulsidas, a saint who took direct instruction from Shri Hanuman, also worshiped Rama in separation. Tulsidas often pointed to the devotion practiced by the Chatak bird towards its beloved raincloud as being the ideal example of how one should go about loving and serving God.
Krishna’s closest associates, including His foster parents, had no clue that He was the original form of Godhead. At best, they thought that maybe He was a demigod appearing in human form. Yet their devotion to Him was fruitful nonetheless. This proves that one doesn’t necessarily have to know all about the different incarnations and expansions to achieve perfection in consciousness. There is no difference between Krishna’s body and spirit, so if we are attached to Him in thoughts, words, and deeds, even if we don’t know that He’s God, the benefit will still be the same. The issue of importance is that we worship and devote ourselves to Krishna, Vishnu, or a non-different expansion. Whether we view Krishna as the original or Vishnu doesn’t matter at the end of the day. The ultimate objective is to be God conscious at the time of death. The residents of Ayodhya all returned to the spiritual world with Lord Rama, for they would follow Him to the ends of the earth. They weren’t concerned with whether or not He was God; they simply loved Him with all their hearts. If we exhibit the same level of devotion to our specific authorized divine object of worship, we too will reap the same reward.