The anti-transfiguration

5 10 2019

In one of the most dramatic episodes of the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna’s friend Arjuna asks to see Krsna’s universal form, the visva-rupa. The universal form is how Krsna, who is Bhagavan or the Supreme Personality of Godhead, interacts with the world. The original form of Krsna, the source of all of His expansions and avatars, is just as Arjuna sees Him on the Battlefield of Kurukshetra: blueish-black, two handed, and appearing no older than a sixteen year old boy (even though by then Krsna had been on the Earth well over 100 years). Having been instructed by Krsna, and knowing Him to be the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he asks to see the visva-rupa to know better who his friend is. Srila Prabhupada translates the manifestation of the universal form as follows:

Arjuna saw in that universal form unlimited mouths, unlimited eyes, unlimited wonderful visions. The form was decorated with many celestial ornaments and bore many divine upraised weapons. He wore celestial garlands and garments, and many divine scents were smeared over His body. All was wondrous, brilliant, unlimited, all-expanding.

If hundreds of thousands of suns were to rise at once into the sky, their radiance might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal form.

At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place although divided into many, many thousands.

Arjuna reacts to this vision stating:

O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

All the sons of Dhṛtarāṣṭra, along with their allied kings, and Bhīṣma, Droṇa, Karṇa – and our chief soldiers also – are rushing into Your fearful mouths. And some I see trapped with heads smashed between Your teeth.

As the many waves of the rivers flow into the ocean, so do all these great warriors enter blazing into Your mouths.

I see all people rushing full speed into Your mouths, as moths dash to destruction in a blazing fire.

O Viṣṇu, I see You devouring all people from all sides with Your flaming mouths. Covering all the universe with Your effulgence, You are manifest with terrible, scorching rays.

Even though the universal form is more majestic and terrifying than the form that Arjuna saw every day, it wasn’t Krsna’s original form. It is more akin to a “magic trick”. Though this varies among schools of thought, Krsna is the original form of God, as seemingly “ordinary” as He looks. The four-handed Naranya, the various forms of Vishnu, and even Lord Ramachandra of Ramayana fame, are all expansions of Syamasundara, the cowherd boy who never leaves Vrindavan. Though it may be a “magic trick” in one sense, it is an important one as Srila Prabhupada comments:

He knows the desire of Arjuna, and He can understand that Arjuna has no special desire to see Him in His universal form, for Arjuna is completely satisfied to see Him in His personal form of Kṛṣṇa. But the Lord can understand also that Arjuna wants to see the universal form to convince others. Arjuna did not have any personal desire for confirmation. Kṛṣṇa also understands that Arjuna wants to see the universal form to set a criterion, for in the future there would be so many imposters who would pose themselves as incarnations of God. The people, therefore, should be careful; one who claims to be Kṛṣṇa should be prepared to show his universal form to confirm his claim to the people.

Reading these passages, what immediately came to mind was the Transfiguration of Jesus in the Gospels. While I assume readers are familiar with this episode, I will quote from the Gospel according to St. Mark for reference:

And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power. And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them. And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. And there was a cloud that overshadowed them: and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him. And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves. (9: 1-8)

We can get directly into the mind of the Church concerning the Transfiguration by quoting the Troparion and Kontakion from the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy:

You were Transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God,
Revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light shine upon us sinners!
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to You!

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

I found a sermon online that further elaborates upon the Eastern Orthodox theology of the Transfiguration:

Today, as we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, the centrality of this event is that this “veil” which obscures our ability to see Christ as He is, was lifted and Christ was seen with the clearest of spiritual vision by three Disciples. Unlike how the Mother of God, Symeon the God-bearer, Anna the Prophetess, and John the Baptist saw Him, when Christ was seen as He walked in Galilee and Jerusalem, He looked to be a man like you and I. Only those who have had their hearts purified from passions, sins and their effects, are able to recognize Him and that only to the degree to which the Holy Spirit allows...

St. John of Damascus writes that Christ “was transfigured, then: not taking on what He was not, nor being changed to what He was not, but making what He was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see.” That is, not only were the disciples able to see past the veil of Christ’s flesh but the veil was removed from their eyes. For that moment, they were able to see Christ truly, not with their bodily eyes but with the eye of their soul by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The mystery of the Transfiguration is not that they see Jesus turn into something alien from what He really was, but that He unveils Himself to show them how He actually is. This was done to fortify the three chief Apostles to behold the Passion and Death of Jesus, where He would be covered in death only to emerge again manifesting eternal life. Only when Jesus conquers death by His death, sends the Holy Spirit, and restores all things do we cease to see “through a glass darkly,” and see the Lord as He is.  All of this is first and foremost the fruit of prayer and purification as Orthodox St. Gregory Palamas indicates in his homily on the Transfiguration:

That same Inscrutable Light shone and was mysteriously manifest to the Apostles and the foremost of the Prophets at that moment, when (the Lord) was praying. This shows that what brought forth this blessed sight was prayer, and that the radiance occurred and was manifest by uniting the mind with God, and that it is granted to all who, with constant exercise in efforts of virtue and prayer, strive with their mind towards God. True beauty, essentially, can be contemplated only with a purified mind. To gaze upon its luminance assumes a sort of participation in it, as though some bright ray etches itself upon the face.

One sees the splendor and glory of Jesus after pure prayer. The sky thunders and the Apostles are knocked over. The scene overwhelms them, but when they come to, they see Jesus once again, veiled in the appearance of normal flesh.

With Krsna’s visva-rupa, it is otherwise. At the heart of pure bhakti is not opulence and fear, cowering and reverence, but forgetting and pure servile love. The companions who surround Krsna in Vrindavan in past lives were great yogis and ascetics who studied and practiced Vedic injunctions for centuries, perhaps aeons, before arriving once again in the highest realm in the spiritual world. All this to forget that Krsna is even Bhagavan at all (krsnas tu bhagavan svayam). Srila Prabhupada writes in a purport of the Bhagavad Gita:

Devotees who are correctly situated in a transcendental relationship with Kṛṣṇa are attracted by loving features, not by a godless display of opulences. The playmates of Kṛṣṇa, the friends of Kṛṣṇa and the parents of Kṛṣṇa never want Kṛṣṇa to show His opulences. They are so immersed in pure love that they do not even know that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In their loving exchange they forget that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Lord. In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is stated that the boys who play with Kṛṣṇa are all highly pious souls, and after many, many births they are able to play with Kṛṣṇa. Such boys do not know that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. They take Him as a personal friend. Therefore Śukadeva Gosvāmī recites this verse:

 “Here is the Supreme Person, who is considered the impersonal Brahman by great sages, the Supreme Personality of Godhead by devotees, and a product of material nature by ordinary men. Now these boys, who have performed many, many pious activities in their past lives, are playing with that Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

Srila Prabhupada goes on to explain in a later purport of the Bhagavad Gita:

The original is the Kṛṣṇa form. The universal form, with its thousands and thousands of heads and hands, is manifest just to draw the attention of those who have no love for God. It is not God’s original form.

The universal form is not attractive for pure devotees, who are in love with the Lord in different transcendental relationships. The Supreme Godhead exchanges transcendental love in His original form of Kṛṣṇa. Therefore to Arjuna, who was so intimately related with Kṛṣṇa in friendship, this form of the universal manifestation was not pleasing; rather, it was fearful. Arjuna, who was a constant companion of Kṛṣṇa’s, must have had transcendental eyes; he was not an ordinary man. Therefore he was not captivated by the universal form. This form may seem wonderful to persons who are involved in elevating themselves by fruitive activities, but to persons who are engaged in devotional service the two-handed form of Kṛṣṇa is the most dear.

Arjuna, who is a pure devotee and hence not material, had no need of seeing the universal form, but asks to see it so that others might look for it should imposters claiming to be Krsna emerge. The original form is the “normal” one he sees: a seemingly normal if all-attractive person, not manifesting any supernatural opulence or splendor. In a notable passage from this part of the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna explains the other reason the visva-rupa is manifested:

The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people. With the exception of you [the Pāṇḍavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.

Therefore get up. Prepare to fight and win glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by My arrangement, and you, O Savyasācī, can be but an instrument in the fight.

Droṇa, Bhīṣma, Jayadratha, Karṇa and the other great warriors have already been destroyed by Me. Therefore, kill them and do not be disturbed. Simply fight, and you will vanquish your enemies in battle.

The showing of the universal form also has a bloody if more actively violent catalyst than the Transfiguration of Jesus. The visva-rupa is a temporary manifestation of Krsna in the material world which those who lack love of God see instead of the higher forms of Narayana or Krsna. The non-devotee sees Krsna as sublime destruction or death: he cannot get past his false ego whereby he identifies with matter. So God looks fearsome to him, he trembles before the vision of what the Absolute is. Or in the case of the atheist, he ignores it until it taps on his shoulder and takes him away in death. The true devotee has no love for the material. In Vrindavan, he doesn’t even have a sense of Krsna being the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He only knows that he is attracted to Krsna and must serve Him, that Krsna is dearer to him than his own life, and so forth. Devotees even tease and punish Krsna, not just because they “forget” who He is, but because they see Him in His original form. They give Krsna love as a friend, a parent, or a lover. This is what Krsna, Supreme Personality of Godhead, truly wants.

Returning to the Transfiguration, I do not mean to indicate that the Apostles had something wrong with them. We are dealing here with diametrically opposed interpretations of reality. The Incarnation of the Son of God takes place in history: there is a definitive point ordained from all eternity at which the Second Person of the Trinity took on human nature in order to unite it to the Divine nature. The Transfiguration is the foreshadowing of the ultimate re-creation of reality in the eschaton: a cosmos that is all splendor and light, when the dross of the fallen material world passes away so that the New Jerusalem might arise. All of this only happens only once. It once was not, now it is, and it will be for all eternity.

In contrast, Krsna’s pastimes are happening right now, and have always been. Srila Prabhupada explains, again in the Srimad Bhagavatam:

As the sun appears in the morning and gradually rises to the meridian and then again sets in one hemisphere while simultaneously rising in the other, so Lord Kṛṣṇa’s disappearance in one universe and the beginning of His different pastimes in another take place simultaneously. As soon as one pastime is finished here, it is manifested in another universe. And thus His nitya-līlā, or eternal pastimes, are going on without ending. As the sunrise takes place once in twenty-four hours, similarly the pastimes of Lord Kṛṣṇa take place in a universe once in a daytime of Brahmā, the account of which is given in the Bhagavad-gītā as 4,300,000,000 solar years. But wherever the Lord is present, all His different pastimes as described in the revealed scriptures take place at regular intervals.

Somewhere Krsna is being shot in the foot with an arrow, being tied to a pillar as an infant by His mother, dancing with the gopis, or eating dinner with one of His wives in a palace; most likely “right at this instant” in the nearly infinite universes emanating from the pores of Maha Vishnu. And this is not to speak of the spiritual world, which is beyond all that. The enormity of time and space in the Vedic reality seems to be balanced by how the fons et origo of all of it is a flute-playing cowherd boy who likes to steal the clothes of girls bathing in the river Yamuna.

The Transfiguration shows human nature taking on the Divine Splendor. In the process of being redeemed, the flesh is united to God and made into something spiritual. In the universal form in the Bhagavad Gita, there is no question of the Divine being united with the material (because we are not this body). However, the Lord’s original spiritual body (sac-cid-ananda-vigraha) is manifested just as the impure spirit soul will see it, full of splendor and even terror. This is not a matter even of transformation or transfiguration but of perspective. Krsna’s flute heard by the gopis in Vrindavan is the same transcendental sound as Sukadeva Goswami reciting the Srimad Bhagavatam to Maharaj Pariksit on the banks of the Ganges, which is the same sound as the solitary person reciting the Maha Mantra alone in a room. Indeed, in Kali Yuga, Krsna is most present in His name.

In other words, nothing has to be transformed because it’s all already here. We just have to wake up from our slumber and see it.

I suppose one could say the same of the Uncreated Light witnessed on Mount Tabor. The one strength of Eastern Christianity in particular is to see the temporal as being a vague shadow of the eternal. The Divine Liturgy on Earth reflects the Liturgy celebrated in the spiritual world at the Throne of God. But all that opulence, similar to the opulence of Vaikuntha as the “first rung” of the spiritual world, isn’t the whole story. The purpose of bhakti is to move past that if we can, toward that Supreme Person of whom we are part and parcel. It is to forget ourselves in loving service to that Person. If we are too busy being impressed by the bells and whistles of Divine Splendor, we are likely to remain in the material, or at most “liberated” but not where we could be. Again, it boils down to who God is, not what He can do for us, or merely do.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: