“Lord Shri Krishna is sometimes described as a thief. He is very famous amongst His pure devotees as the Makhana-chora. He used to steal butter from the houses of neighbors at Vrindavana in His early age. Since then He is famous as a thief. But in spite of His being famous as a thief, He is worshiped as a thief, whereas in the mundane world a thief is punished and is never praised. Since He is the Absolute Personality of Godhead, everything is applicable to Him, and still in spite of all contradictions He is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.10.19 Purport)
If someone were to celebrate God as being the kindest person in the world, the recognition is nice, but at the same time there is a limitation. With every attribute there is a complement, or an opposite. It is also said that God is the Supreme Absolute Truth. This means that one quality doesn’t seem sufficient, for by saying that someone possesses one feature, automatically its opposite feature is missing. While this law applies to worldly objects and people, it has no bearing on the one person who is above duality, whose nirguna feature reveals that none of His attributes are limiting.
How does this work exactly? How do we know that the Supreme Person is not limited in His features? In the Vedic tradition, the original divine being is known as Krishna. He is all-attractive and blackish in complexion, so the name suits Him well. The name is assigned by others based on features which already exist. We also know from shastra, or scripture, that Lord Krishna holds a flute in His hands, wears a flower garland around His neck, has a peacock feather in His hair, and sports a smile that defeats the pride of thousands of cupids.
These features are certainly attractive, but what about the opposite quality of unattractiveness? If everything comes from God and the Lord possesses every feature simultaneously, how is He not also unattractive? If He is only attractive, does not that limited feature set represent a defect? If the Lord has a defect, how can He be absolute? How can He be God? Actually, the unattractive feature is also present in Krishna. The entire world is His expansion, so every concept we know of comes from Him. Unattractiveness is not present in His original form, however, for there is nothing negative that comes from Krishna’s personal association.
As an example, take the time that mother Yashoda checked young Krishna’s mouth to see if He had eaten dirt. The other children had accused the young boy of the nasty deed, but the Lord called them liars. Normally, if you’re checking someone’s mouth there is nothing attractive to find inside. The mouth that has just eaten something, especially dirt, will not be pleasant to look into, but the good mother doesn’t care. She is only interested in loving her child, so there is nothing that can disgust her when offering her motherly affection.
“When the Supreme Personality of Godhead Krishna was so ordered by His mother, He immediately opened His mouth just like an ordinary boy. Then mother Yashoda saw within that mouth the complete opulence of creation. She saw the entire outer space in all directions, mountains, islands, oceans, seas, planets, air, fire, moon and stars.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 8)
That which is normally unattractive ended up being a mesmerizing vision. The inside of Krishna’s mouth showed the universe, with its many planets and stars. The mother thought she was hallucinating, that the vision couldn’t possibly be real. Here we see a small example of what nirguna, or the absence of material qualities, means. A guna is a material quality assumed by the living entities travelling through the cycle of reincarnation. A guna can also mean an attribute, an identifiable feature. What we typically refer to as unattractive does not have the same nature in the Supreme Lord. The feature may still be there, but the effect is different. The inside of the mouth that is normally unattractive is a spiritualized guna, or attribute, with Krishna.
Another example is stealing. Normally, theft is against the rules of propriety. Everything originally belongs to God, but during travels through temporary bodies, the living beings get to borrow the various material elements for their personal use. Taking that which belongs to someone else is inherently wrong and it carries negative consequences in the future. If you steal from someone today, karma dictates that someone will steal from you at a later time.
With Krishna, stealing carries no negative consequences. For starters, the Lord is above dharma, or religiosity. The purpose of a system of maintenance that meets the qualities of the soul is to connect the individual with the ultimate reservoir of pleasure. Krishna doesn’t need to follow rules and regulations to meet Himself; therefore He is not bound by any laws of conduct. When He was a child in Vrindavana, He would steal butter from the neighbors. The mothers would hide their stock of churned butter in a safe spot, but Krishna and His friends would hatch elaborate plots to steal the supplies and enjoy the butter to their stomachs’ satisfaction.
When a thief steals they are punished, but when Krishna steals He is celebrated. To this day devotees delight in hearing the pastimes of the butter thief of Vrindavana. Ordinarily the act of theft represents a defect in personal qualities, ignorance with respect to property rights. Since God is nirguna, the same quality turns out to be beneficial to all parties involved.
Krishna’s childhood form also gives us an example of an apparent contradiction. Children and adults are at opposite ends of the spectrum because of the difference in maturity levels. A child doesn’t know any better and due to their poor fund of knowledge they require adult supervision. The adult is responsible for the care and providing for the family’s well-being. Yet with Krishna the form of a child bears no limitation. He can steal, eat dirt, tease the young girls of the town, and have wrestling matches with His friends and the activities are heralded and meditated upon by yogis. These childish antics normally don’t mean anything, as they are considered childish for a reason.
If Krishna possesses all mutually contradictory attributes, how are we to properly address Him? We can say that He is attractive, but He is unattractive at the same time. We can say that His form is beautiful, but He has a formless aspect as well. We can say that He is extremely kind, but He can show wrath as well. With the demon Hiranyakashipu, Krishna in the form of a half-man/half-lion bifurcated a miscreant using His nails. This is certainly a gruesome way to kill someone, and yet with Krishna the act is celebrated. In pictures depicting the incident, it is seen that Prahlada Maharaja is offering a flower garland to Narasimhadeva as the killing is taking place. Prahlada was Hiranyakashipu’s five year old son, so how could he not protest what was going on? Ah, but Prahlada had been harassed by his father to the point that so many attempts were made on his life. Prahlada’s real affection was for God, so seeing Him in a ferocious form was still a cause for worship.
The question is how to describe the indescribable. The answer is that you can’t. Rather, the Supreme Absolute Truth is neti neti, or not this and not that. However, this doesn’t mean that the attempt can’t be made. We can never make the perfect painting or write the perfect song, but the process is pleasurable nonetheless. There is some enjoyment derived through the attempt and also in the interaction with the end product. With Krishna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga, the process purifies the participant along the way. The devotee who at least attempts to glorify Krishna finds so much pleasure that they’ll spend the rest of their life doing the same. At the time of death, they’ll pray to be able to continue that glorification in life after life. As the original source of everything, Krishna ensures that whoever wants to glorify Him is never bereft of attributes and pastimes to focus on. The Lord’s all-pervading nature, His qualities that don’t have limitations, provide endless delight to the sincere souls.
In bhakti, the sincere worshiper inherits the same ability to transcend duality that exists in the heavenly father. For instance, normally the loss of fortune is considered harmful. Fortune is beneficial because it allows for life’s necessities to be met without a problem. A person who becomes destitute thus has a tough time dealing with life, with their mind constantly burdened with fears pertaining to the future. Destitution in bhakti, however, can be good because it allows for thoughts to more clearly focus on Krishna. With too much opulence, a person can get distracted by all the attachments to objects. In the more renounced spirit, not only is life easier to maintain, but so is the dedication to regularly chanting the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, which is the most effective cure for misery in the modern age.
No amount of indulgence in divine love is too much and no amount of contemplation upon the wonderful features of the butter thief of Vrindavana can satisfy the appetite for transcendental nectar. Insatiability is usually a negative feature, but when applied to Krishna, it serves as a catalyst for repeated engagements that automatically keep one renounced from harmful acts and focused on the path that leads to the imperishable spiritual sky.
Butter from the neighbors Krishna does steal,
Hearing of this the mind it does heal.
How is this, is not theft something bad?
Does not taking property make others mad?
Rules don’t apply to Shri Krishna’s case,
Full of transcendental charm is His smiling face.
Supreme Lord possesses features contradictory,
Understood through hearing Vedic history.
In bhakti all conditions end up being good,
Because in path Krishna gradually understood.