“My dear father, O great sage, I know that your feet are very soft, like a lotus flower, and that My chest is as hard as a thunderbolt. I am therefore afraid that you may have felt some pain by touching My chest with your feet. Let Me therefore touch your feet to relieve the pain you have suffered.” (Lord Vishnu speaking to Bhrigu Muni, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 34)
It’s natural to view religion as having a serious aura, a protective shield that requires visitors to check their jokes and kidding at the door. Spirituality is the real deal after all, as it touches on issues of life, death and the temporary nature of happiness and distress. But as the opening verse of the Shrimad Bhagavatam so nicely reveals, God is the source of everything in this world, janmady asya yatah, so even humor comes from Him. Therefore, in stories that describe Krishna’s activities and pastimes, along with teachings carrying tremendous import, there is also great humor to be found. And since everything related to the Supreme Personality of Godhead is in pure goodness, even the humorous stories can teach us valuable lessons.
Tucked away in the sacred verses of the Brahma-samhita, Brahmavaivarta Purana and Shrimad Bhagavatam is authoritative information declaring Shri Krishna to be the original form of Godhead. Indeed, His status as the supreme and original person is further supported by His all-attractiveness. Man can travel far and wide, even at the speed of light through space, and never find any entity who is more beautiful, attractive and ever-youthful than Krishna. Surely, Krishna doesn’t limit Himself to one form, just as we don’t limit our behavior to one activity or interest. Every individual, being a spirit soul, is unique in their tendencies, likes and dislikes. As the well-wishing friend of every form of life - each of which descends from the original, inconceivably brilliant and large transcendental body of the Supreme Person - Krishna makes sure to have enough forms to match the innumerable varieties of penchants for worship. Heck, there is even a formless aspect of the Absolute Truth tailored to those transcendentalists who feel they are too good to lower themselves to the level of the plebs and commoners who take to outward worship through visiting temples and performing religious functions.
While Shri Krishna is the most attractive form of pure spirit because He appeals to the most individuals, His expansion of Lord Vishnu is equally as potent, though He takes on a different form. Vishnu-worship, prayers and chants offered to Krishna or one of His non-different expansions, is the most unique system of spirituality in the world, one reserved exclusively for those who are interested in bhakti, or transcendental love. Bhakti is the pinnacle of religious practice, as all other systems of worship are ideally meant to lead to the stage where all actions are performed in concert with the Lord’s desires, where the sincere servants take direction from the kindest and sweetest of puppet masters, the Supreme Lord. Bhakti, or pure love, is meant only for Vishnu and His different forms and no other spiritual entity. All other forms of worship, including one where allegiance is professed to a generic individual referred to as “God”, are on the lower stages because the pure bliss evoked through bhakti is absent. Krishna has many forms, but only His Vishnu expansions are personal and thus capable of providing direct interaction to the jiva soul, which is naturally geared towards expressing individuality and free activity.
That Vishnu-worship is unique and supreme is not merely the opinion of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, but rather a fact substantiated by the methods of worship commonly employed and their inferior results. In poll after poll of public opinion, the number of believers in God outweighs the non-believers by a large margin. Yet in order to be considered a worshiper of something, one must make the satisfaction of their object of interest paramount in importance. For example, if we say that we love our spouse, we’ll make their interests more important than our own. Hence we move to different locations if the spouse gets shifted in their job, we go on vacation in areas that we may not like, and we pretend to get along with the in-laws during Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is all done to prove our love, to show that our words of affection aren’t empty.
Yet in the arena of spirituality, the resulting behavioral patterns don’t always match up with the original professions of faith. Worshiping God for any other purpose than love cannot be classified as pure; hence the distinction between Vishnu-worship, or bhakti, and any other style of spirituality. The most common form of religious practice is the asking for benedictions. “God, please help me out. I’m in trouble. I’m suffering so much; I really need You to come through for me.” An individual certainly shouldn’t be criticized for such behavior. At least they have the knowledge to understand that things are out of their control. Yet, we offer similar types of service to other entities. We pay the utility companies so that we have electricity and water. We pay the cable provider so that our favorite channels come on television. We pay the grocer so that we can put food on the table. Worshiping God for the express purpose of receiving benefits, be they material objects or the alleviation of distress, is really no different than offering service to other entities. The method of paying tribute may be different, i.e. instead of writing a check we kneel down in a house of worship, but the end-result, the goal in mind, is the same.
Worship of Supreme Spirit in a personal form, when taken to the highest level, bears no similarity to any other type of service. Therefore, for those who are seriously interested in substantiating their claims of spirituality, ascension to this topmost platform of service is required. Even many followers of the Vedic tradition fail to ascend to the higher standard of Vishnu-bhakti, for it is very difficult to break free of the fears and demands of material life. Who among us wants to live in poverty? Who wants to be in pain all the time? It’s quite understandable then that the distressed and the worried would look to the greatest order supplier, the eternal leader in the sky, to come through. But when armed with real intelligence, information that allows the individual to understand their constitutional position as loving friend of the Supreme Lord who maintains an unbreakable link to Him that is kept in an active state through a mood of transcendental servitude, there is no need to ask for rewards that act as insulation from pain and misery.
Does this mean that Vishnu worshipers don’t ask God for anything? To nicely illustrate the difference between transcendentalists dedicated to bhakti and those hovering below the surface, we can study an analogy described by Goswami Tulsidas, the kind, humble and sweet Vaishnava poet and devotee of Lord Rama. Just as Krishna is considered to be the same as Vishnu, Shri Rama, the warrior prince incarnation of the Lord who appeared on earth during the Treta Yuga, is also the same Lord Vishnu but in a slightly different form. Rama is wholly dedicated to dharma, so He attracts those who take virtue, chivalry, kindness, shyness and other subdued features to be of utmost importance. Tulsidas, in his Dohavali, writes that through his worship of Rama he has essentially turned into a Chatak, a bird which only drinks rainwater. The analogy is very nice because the Chatak is very picky in its style of worship. Not only will it not drink anything except rainwater, but it will never divert its attention from the raincloud, which has the same complexion as Lord Rama, Vishnu and Krishna.
Tulsidas devotes several verses to this analogy with the Chatak, with each one beautifully explaining the difference between loving God in a pure way and worshiping the Lord for some benefit. Tulsidas states that some other birds also only drink rainwater, which comes at the holy time of the year during the monsoon season. Yet the Chatak is always superior because it points its beak at the Lord, represented by the raincloud, even when there is no chance of rain. Such a beautiful comparison can be studied every single day and remembered at every moment and still not properly recognized for its brilliance. The other birds are similarly renounced, for they have decided that they will only eat what the raincloud, or God, gives them. Who can argue with the exalted position of such worshipers? They don’t even ask for benedictions from the Lord, so surely they can’t be grouped in with those who simply look to God as an order supplier.
Yet the Chatak, or pure devotee, is always superior because it devotes itself to the Lord every single day, even though it has no desire for rainwater. This represents pure love, the highest level of devotion. The worship of Vishnu in pure bhakti is done for Vishnu’s benefit, and not for any other reason. Whether the raincloud brings water or not is of no importance to the Chatak. If the pure devotee gets tremendous riches or is constantly thrown into trouble, the dedication to worship doesn’t wane. Because of this unflinching vow, Vishnu Himself becomes wholly endeared to the pure devotees, taking them to be His best friends. One can spend an entire lifetime trying to measure the limits of Vishnu’s mercy reserved for His devotees, but the end would never be reached.
A glimpse of Vishnu’s merciful nature was on full display a long time ago during a funny incident involving Bhrigu Muni. A group of sages had gathered around after the completion of a sacrifice to discuss spiritual matters. According to Vedic information, the three presiding deities of the material world are Lord Brahma, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. There are actually several different Vishnu forms that descend from the original Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, with every form considered as non-different from the Lord and in pure goodness. We can think of goodness, passion and ignorance as different levels of intelligence, or grades of activities and qualities. One in the mode of goodness is always superior, for they know the subtleties of nature and what should be done and what shouldn’t. The other two modes are mixed, so the influence of goodness isn’t always present. Vishnu is the deity of the mode of goodness, but since these sages were discussing amongst each other in a friendly manner, they failed to reach an ultimate conclusion as to which of the three deities possessed the mode of goodness to the fullest degree.
Bhrigu Muni, as the son of Lord Brahma, decided to test the three worshipable figures and report back his findings to the sages. He first went to Brahma’s realm and purposely refused to offer obeisances upon meeting his father. Even in the least cultured society, there is some greeting that is offered upon initial contact with a close relative; there is either a hug or at least a handshake. In the Vedic tradition the custom is to offer one’s obeisances in the proper manner, showing the highest level of respect. An elder or a spiritually important figure should be respected by falling at their feet. Even today this tradition is alive amongst Hindus when they meet their parents or elders. The child will touch the parents’ feet at the times of greeting and departing. Since his son refused to offer obeisances, Brahma was quite offended. Being in charge of the mode of passion, he was fortunately able to control his anger. Bhrigu Muni was his son after all, so out of affection Brahma decided not to act on his anger.
Bhrigu next went to visit Lord Shiva. This time, Mahadeva got up to receive the brahmana, but the muni not only refused to embrace Lord Shiva, but he openly insulted him, telling the husband of Mother Parvati not to touch him due to his impure nature. As a recurring humorous theme in Vedic literature, Mahadeva is often made fun of for his unorthodox outward dress. As the presiding deity of the mode of ignorance, Lord Shiva assumes a strange outward appearance, one involving skulls and ashes. He also spends a lot of time around crematoriums and places related to death. Therefore, when someone wants to insult Mahadeva or disrespect him, they immediately point to these uncommon features. Lord Shiva, being the all-powerful destroyer and a great devotee of Lord Vishnu, certainly should never be insulted, but it’s indeed humorous to see the nature of the criticism that others take to. Lord Shiva, being insulted in this way, was ready to punish Bhrigu Muni immediately. Fortunately, Parvatiji was able to pacify his anger and prevent him from harming a brahmana, a member of the priestly class.
Thus far Bhrigu Muni had committed offenses by his mind and speech. Offenses of the body are far worse, so Bhrigu reserved this for Lord Vishnu. Reaching the Lord’s abode, the muni found Lakshmi Devi kindly massaging her husband’s feet. This time, Bhrigu decided to kick Lord Vishnu in the chest. In Lord Brahma’s case, there was anger that resulted from the insult, but there was nothing said or done about it. In Shiva’s case, the anger was also there and it almost manifested in violence. In Vishnu’s case, there wasn’t even the slightest hint of agitation. Lord Vishnu kindly arose and welcomed Bhrigu Muni as His most exalted guest. In fact, Lord Vishnu even apologized for having maybe caused harm to the brahmana’s foot due to His all-powerful chest. Bhrigu was certainly astonished. He had just committed the greatest offense, yet the Lord was treating him like a first-class citizen. Since that time, Vishnu keeps the imprint of Bhrigu’s foot on His chest as a sign of the meeting with His beloved devotee.
It should be noted that Vishnu doesn’t behave this way with just anyone. Many a time a demon has attacked the Lord or one of His associates, and the response was anything but favorable to the culprit. But in Bhrigu’s case, the so-called offense was made by a brahmana, one who was humble and dedicated to virtue. Bhrigu Muni not only had an exalted birth, but he exuded the qualities of a brahmana and took part in the activities belonging to his class. Such individuals are always dear to Vishnu, as the Lord is their only deva, or god. Indeed, Vishnu is referred to as brahmanya-devaya, meaning the chief worshipable object of the brahmanas.
“My Lord, You are the well-wisher of the cows and the brahmanas, and You are the well-wisher of the entire human society and world.” (Vishnu Purana, 1.19.65)
The brahmana’s footprint on His chest proves without a doubt that Vishnu is the most merciful of all the forms of Godhead presiding over this and innumerable other planets. If there is sincerity in the mood of worship, the Lord’s mercy will always be there. Through this humorous incident with Bhrigu Muni, we learn that Vishnu has not a trace of any material mode of nature in Him; He is always in pure goodness. There is no offense that can cause Him agitation or deviation from His vow to always protect the saints. Therefore the path in life becomes quite obvious: become a devotee of the Lord and always enjoy His association and the umbrella of safety that it brings.