“All glories to Kunja-vihari, who stopped His relatives from performing the famous sacrifice, who then took away Indra’s pride, and who in sport lifted Govardhana Hill to protect against the weapon of Indra.” (Shrila Rupa Gosvami, Shri Kunja-vihary-astakam, 3)
līlayā jayati kuñja-vihārī
Question: “Why would Krishna stop a religious sacrifice?”
To be religious is good, after all, especially in the eyes of those who are themselves religious. It is considered better to spend your time in worship of a higher being than in feverishly pursuing personal sense satisfaction, which carries the cost of an inflated ego. The burden of that cost becomes so great that pretty soon there are not enough material elements around to maintain the level of inflation, thereby leading to pain and suffering. As beneficial as religious life is, there are still different variations of it, and in some circumstances the highest object of worship comes to the scene to stop religious efforts. This was the case one time with Shri Krishna in Vrindavana.
The people in the farm community of Gokula were simple. Nanda Maharaja was the king, and he would pay tax to the ruler of the neighboring town of Mathura. There was still an ample supply of provisions left over. Grains and milk products sustained life, and since Vrindavana’s inhabitants had plenty of land to roam freely on, there was no boredom either. Cows felt protected, and so they produced heaps of milk. The grass fed the cows, and the rain fed the grass, which meant that the wise citizens understood that whoever was responsible for the rain had a vital hand in their sustenance.
The people were followers of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. The original Vedas sing the glories of the Supreme Lord. Everything is God, as every object and every person come from Him. Therefore, in addition to glorification of the Supreme Lord Himself, there are hymns dedicated to the various governing agents, living entities who are expansions from the original God. They are part of the definition that is God, but they are still separate from Him and also subordinate. The glorification of these figures is included to help the individual roaming through the material land understand just how little is in their control.
punar āvartino 'rjuna
mām upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate
“From the highest planet in the material world down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 8.16)
Lord Indra is in charge of the rain. He is the king of the heavenly planets, where the duration of life is very long. The heavenly realm is still part of the perishable material creation, but it is considered a higher existence, a sort of VIP area that is the reward for pious deeds. In every religious tradition there is some concept of a heavenly afterlife, and in the Vedas we are provided more details as to what that life entails.
The people of Vrindavana worshiped Lord Indra annually through a puja, or formal ritualistic worship. One year Nanda Maharaja’s young son Krishna saw the preparations for this puja and decided to try to stop it. Krishna is the original Supreme Lord, who is worshiped best through a mood of love. The worship of the authorities in charge of important aspects like the rain is done in a sort of business transaction, the ole “I scratch your back so you’ll scratch mine.” In its purest form, worship of God does not carry any strings. There is only the desire to associate with Him, to enjoy His company. The blessed residents of Vrindavana had this benediction in the association of Krishna, so there was no need for explicit worship of Indra.
Krishna did not reveal His true identity to Nanda. Instead, through His insightful arguments combined with His charming innocence the father was won over. At Krishna’s direction, Nanda decided to instead hold a puja for the neighboring Govardhana Hill, which provided the grass for the cows to eat. Everyone else in the town followed Nanda’s lead, and all the preparations that were intended for Indra got shifted to this hill.
In the above referenced verse from Shrila Rupa Gosvami’s Kunja-vihary-astakam, Krishna is glorified for having stopped a famous sacrifice. This was no small feat, as the worship of Indra had been a staple in the community for as far back as anyone could remember. Think of cancelling Thanksgiving one year in favor of celebrating a new holiday. Something like that just isn’t done, but with Krishna’s influence anything is possible.
There were many purposes simultaneously served through the Lord’s intervention. Indra’s pride was curbed. Though he is in charge of the rain and the thunder, Indra is not autonomous. The material elements are created by Lord Brahma, who acts within the rules set by Krishna. Therefore Indra is more of a trustee; he is not the owner. It is easy for any person to get puffed up with pride when they are worshiped so often. Indra began to think that the people of Vrindavana depended on him, and that since they missed his puja one year they were ungrateful.
And how did Krishna curb Indra’s pride? He lifted the mighty Govardhana Hill after Indra, in a vengeful wrath, sent forth a torrential downpour on the town. A young boy held up a huge hill for seven days and bested a heavenly figure who was the leader of the celestials in their conflicts against the demons. To have your pride defeated by God is always a good thing, and on this occasion Indra’s appreciation of Krishna increased all the more.
Shrila Rupa Gosvami also notes that Krishna lifted the hill in mere sport. The Supreme Lord, through His impersonal energies, holds up the planets in outer space for a seemingly infinite amount of time, so holding a hill above His head for seven days is child’s play. More importantly, the incident showed that the true purpose to sacrifice, to all religion for that matter, is to please the Supreme Lord. That connection to the divine was directly available for the residents, who first followed Krishna’s recommendation to worship the hill and then stayed under His protection after Indra’s attack. In the modern age, the same connection is available to anyone who is fortunate enough to take advantage of the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
When affinity for religion you’ve got,
Why God your sacrifice would stop?
Worship not only to get food for meals,
Higher pleasure you should also feel.
When preparations for Indra-puja He did detect,
Advised towards Govardhana Hill worship redirect.
Residents first Govardhana Puja performed,
King of heaven thus felt scorned.
Indra Nanda’s son’s supreme position shown,
Since then as lifter of mountains Krishna known.