According to the Hare Krishnas, the Supreme Lord Krishna has a “form”. God is transcendent but he also has a body or some physicality that is extended and takes up space. The Hare Krishnas criticize conceptions of God that view him without having form. Certain popular Western conceptions view God as absolutely simple and lacking any parts. Such God is conceived as a person but who has no physical body; he is an immaterial spirit. In this post, I want to reflect on this conception of deity and point out what I think are several assumptions and possible tensions that the Hare Krishna conception of deity presents.
According to ISKCON devotee and writer Chandidas dasa,
“Often people become puzzled when they see a picture of Lord Krishna. Usually they have been exposed only to Western religious philosophy, which hints that God is a person—the eternal father of every living entity—but gives scanty information about His form. For this reason many people think God is formless or void.”
The Hare Krishnas contend that God must have a form. After all, how can we love something that is without form? Further, everything in creation has form, so how can God have no form? To have no form while creation has form would mean that God is less than his creation, which is impossible. Chandidas dasa maintains that by using logic one can come to understand that God must have a form. God has a form just like our “fathers are persons with form.” If even our lowly fathers have form, then why should we discount this when it comes to God? To say that God is a person without form is somewhat contradictory or irrational: a formless person does not exist. ISKCON further contends that although God is like us in form, he is also very much different from us,
“Just as we are all individual persons, so God is also an individual person. But He is not an ordinary, materially covered person like us. He is a transcendental person (nityo nityanam cetanash cetananam). And to realize His personality is to realize all His transcendental features—His name, His qualities, His activities, His associates, and His form.”
The author then points in detail to Krishna, the Supreme Lord, who has a certain form,
“The form of Krishna—with His bluish hue, lotus eyes, blooming youthfulness, and pearl-white smile—is not fanciful. It is not created by an artist, a philosopher, or a mundane poet after seeing the beautiful panorama of the material world… Lord Krishna ‘s beauty possesses mind-attracting splendor greater than emeralds. His lustrous body resembles a dark cloud newly appearing in the sky during the rainy season. Just as the rainfall glistens, His bodily features also glisten. Indeed, Krishna is the sum total of all beauty. He stands gracefully with His legs crossed. His body curved, and His head tilted to the side. His yellow garment is more attractive than newly arrived lightning. A peacock feather decorates His head, and on His neck hangs a lovely necklace of brilliant pearls. Lord Krishna’s eyes defeat the beauty of white lotus flowers, and His eyebrows move slowly like bumblebees on His lotus-like face. As He takes His charming, flute to His lips and moves His fingers upon it here and there, His face looks as beautiful as the full autumn moon.”
There is some justification in the Hare Krishna’s primary text, the Bhagavad Gita, for seeing God as having form (5.30, 5.32). The author realizes that much hinges on the testimony of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedic literature when it comes to knowing things about God. He presents his argument as follows,
“But if we reflect for a moment, we can understand that every day we accept the statements of superior authorities on subjects we know nothing about. For instance, many people have never visited mainland China, yet they believe that it exists and that almost a billion people live there. We believe the magazine, newspaper, radio, and television reports about China. These are the sources of our knowledge, and if we wish we can confirm them by going to China ourselves. In the same way, the Vedic literature are the source of knowledge that reveals Krishna’s form to us. And we can confirm that knowledge as well—by following the Vedic teachings in our everyday life and developing the vision to see Krishna directly.”
In summary, the author believes that the Supreme Lord as a physical form, that this conception is supported by his sacred texts, and that conceptions of deity as being formless are illogical.
It appears that the author’s conception of deity, although not appearing on its surface logically incoherent, holds to several assumptions that are not necessarily a given. In arguing that God has form, the author assumes that this makes him superior: to have form is to be better than having no form. But why suppose that form is superior to formlessness? One could argue that when it comes to God a material reality is inferior to spiritual reality. Perhaps it is formlessness that is superior to form. For example, the critic might point out that a formless, immaterial God is immense and infinite in himself; by contrast, human beings and other objects with form are limited in time and space. He might further maintain that the Hare Krishna conception is anthropocentric in that it argues from the creature to the creator. The view that God must have form because humans have form is to argue that God must be like creatures because the creatures exist in a certain mode. But why does God’s mode of being have to be like that of creatures? This assumes that God exists for or from us, that God is somehow dependent upon us, and that his existence is predicated on our existence just as much as our existence is predicated by his.
Regarding the author’s claim that humans cannot know or worship a formless God, this assumes that a formless God could not make himself known through revelation. Why couldn’t a formless God create creatures in such a way that they can apprehend him?
The critic might further point out that God having a form is itself a problematic concept. He will argue that God’s physicality leaves us with an infinite regress of causes that undermine an ultimate explanation. The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas argues in his Second Way that all effects in existence are contingent upon something else for their being. But if we are just left with contingent objects, we face an infinite regress of contingent objects caused by something else (a cause of the cause, a cause of the cause of the cause, a cause of the cause of the cause of the cause, etc.). But an infinite regress is logically impossible and it would also leave us without an explanation for anything; all effects just keep receding without an ultimate explanation for why contingent things exist at all. To solve this, Aquinas posits a first cause that is not contingent upon anything else for its existence; it is with this first cause that the regress terminates. As a Christian, he identified this first cause as God. Some philosophers and theologians today refer to this “God” as a “metaphysically necessary being”. It is metaphysically necessary because it is in its nature to exist; it is not contingent on anything else for its existence, it can’t not exist, and it is what gave rise to all contingent things in existence. The critic argues that such a conception of deity makes sense only if the deity is immaterial and spiritual, rather than physical and having form. This produces tension for the Hare Krishna conception of deity. Their God is physical because he has a form. It is a transcendent yet physical object. But, as Aquinas logic suggests, all contingent objects must owe their existence to something else; they are not metaphysically necessary entities. By implication, the critic argues that the Hare Krishna conception of deity is just like any other contingent object in existence; it is just like a rock or a planet. Like a planet, it is a part of all contingent things and is therefore not an ultimate explanation that terminates an infinite regress. Few would think such a being would rightly be identified as God. The Hare Krishna conception of deity is criticized as being contingent and stuck in an infinite regress.
Moreover, a critic will also take issue with the author’s appeal to the Bhagavad Gita as an authority in the absence of reasons for believing the text to be divinely inspired and holding divine truth. As noted above, the author argues that the Bhagavad Gita is the authority on spiritual matters. By his analogy, it is an authority like the testimony of visitors to China who inform us about their trip, or like news and radio reports that inform us of events happening in China. These constitute authoritative sources, like the Bhagavad Gita, for learning about reality. But there are assumptions in this argument. The major assumption is that it assumes testimony is necessarily reliable. It could be, to use the author’s analogy, that visitors to China or the news reports about the country are mistaken, partially true, disingenuous, or deceitful. Because the country in the analogy is China, deceit seems a likely candidate and should render doubt on the testimony itself. For example, the Chinese government has hardly been open about many things, one of which is the persecution of religious minorities in the country that it attempts to keep secret. In other words, testimony is not necessarily reliable on its surface unless we have reasons for accepting its reliability. This is the commonsensical evidentalist approach to texts and persons who are authorities. In the same light, the Bhagavad Gita might claim to contain the words of the Supreme Lord and divine revelation, but it could be mistaken, partially true, or deceitful. To appeal to the Bhagavad Gita as if reality speaks of spiritual reality is an assumption of the author’s that requires justification.