Neither deceive nor be deceived

28 03 2020

द्यूतं छलयतामस्मि तेजस्तेजस्विनामहम् ।
जयोऽस्मि व्यवसायोऽस्मि सत्त्वं सत्त्ववतामहम् ॥ ३६ ॥

(I am also the gambling of cheats, and of the splendid I am the splendor. I am victory, I am adventure, and I am the strength of the strong.)


There are many kinds of cheaters all over the universe. Of all cheating processes, gambling stands supreme and therefore represents Kṛṣṇa. As the Supreme, Kṛṣṇa can be more deceitful than any mere man. If Kṛṣṇa chooses to deceive a person, no one can surpass Him in His deceit. His greatness is not simply one-sided – it is all-sided…

-A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad Gita As It Is, Chapter 10, Text 36

There is a saying in Krishna consciousness that if Krishna wants to kill you, no one can save you; and if He wants to save you, no one can harm you. The same goes for cheating. One of Krishna’s ten major avatars is Vamanadeva. When the asura (demon) Bali Maharaja took over the entire universe, there was a cry to Narayana to deliver the living entities from bondage. The Lord then appeared as a dwarf brahmin named Vamana who asked Bali Maharaja for only three steps of land where he could live. In spite of counsel from his guru that it was a trick, and somewhat suspecting who that dwarf really was, Bali agreed. The dwarf then grew into a giant, and with one step, He covered the entire Earth, and with the other step, the entire universe. Having nowhere else to place His foot, Bali Maharaja offered his own forehead as the landing place for the last step. With a trick, the Supreme Personality of Godhead freed the entire universe from bondage.

This is not the only instance of Krishna’s deception in the Srimad Bhagavatam, the story of Krishna and His many manifestations. In the Eight Canto, Krishna appears as a beautiful woman, Mohini Murti, to steal back the nectar that the demons stole during the churning of the ocean of milk. In krsna-lila itself, the Supreme Personality of Godhead seems to act less than honestly. Krishna in Vrindavan steals butter, He steals the clothes of the gopis, and He runs off into the forest to dance with other people’s wives at night. This is so scandalous to some Vaishnava schools of thought that they refuse to recognize the Krishna of the rasa-lila as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and prefer to worship a more “tame and honest” Krishna.

We can move on from talking specifically about the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself and look more towards recent history. Having been formed in Christianity, it’s very difficult to accept that God can give off mixed messages. This was probably what drew me down into the rabbit hole of Catholic fundamentalism. (What has my writing been for, say, the last fifteen years other than an open-ended therapeutic session to recover from my encounters with Catholic traditionalism as a young man?)  Krishna signals mixed messages all the time. For example, it is well-known that Vaishnavism considers the Buddha to be a an incarnation of Vishnu, even though the Buddha preached atheism. The reasoning according to Srila Prabhupada is that people were using the Vedas to slaughter animals and satisfy their appetites in a sinful way. Thus, Krishna (God), who gave the Scriptures, decided to scrap them because people were using them for nefarious purposes. That may sound familiar to Christians, but really, the story of the Buddha seems like a bridge too far. God comes along and says, “You know what, I don’t actually exist. Now can you stop slaughtering animals in sacrifice please?” In order to preach real nonviolence (ahimsa), God had to get rid of God altogether.

Then Krishna gradually brought God back into the picture. Srila Prabhupada states that Shankaracharya, the great preacher of Advaita Vedanta or impersonalist monism, was an incarnation of Shiva whose mission was to keep those in the mode of darkness (tamaguna) in their ignorance. Imagine that you’re in a maze, and there is a guy who says he’s trying to help you but instead he leads you deeper into the maze. Well, that’s Shankaracharya’s teaching from the personalist Vaishnava point of view. The original sin of the spirit-soul (jiva) is to think that she’s God. I want to dominate like God, I want to enjoy like God, and I want to control like God. What better way to do that than with a philosophy in which I determine that I’m God (brahman), you’re God, that cat is God, that chair is God, etc. The Mayavadi philosophy according to Srila Prabhupapda is the endgame of the mistaken reasoning that we’re God. At most, you can get to the “outskirts” of God (the brahmajyoti), and enjoy the impersonal effulgence of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but you may tumble all the way back down into material existence and start over.

Why would Krishna play that trick on poor spirit souls wandering lost in the material manifestation? The question could be asked more simply: Why would God lie? Since I mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas recently, I will invoke the anecdote in his life of when his fellow friars pointed out a window and said that an ox was flying in the air. Aquinas rushed to the window innocently enough, and his brothers had a good laugh. The Angelic Doctor is said to have rebuked his brothers because one shouldn’t lie, even in jest. Months ago, I asked my ex-Catholic friend who became a Hare Krishna in the 1960’s if he remembered the line of the catechism that states that God can “neither deceive nor be deceived”. He said that he did, and I indicated that this was a major difference between Krishna consciousness and the Catholicism of his childhood. As the quote that I cited at the beginning of this reflection indicates: Krishna doesn’t just cheat, He is cheating par excellence. A Catholic would have a hard time stating that about the Biblical God.

But why does Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, deceive? Again, it comes down to first principles. If the purpose of our existence is juridical, that is, if it’s strictly a matter of reward and punishment, or even partially so, then being led into making the “wrong decision” seems exceptionally cruel and even monstrous. (Think of the recent controversy in the English-speaking Catholic Church concerning the translation of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “…and lead us not into temptation…”) We fallen souls are so dumb and vulnerable, and we supposedly have only one shot to get out of eternal damnation according to orthodox Christian revelation, that one false move and we’re condemned forever. If God refuses to help us, who can stand?

Krishna consciousness sees the matter differently. Here I will cite one of Srila Prabhupada’s purports (Srimad Bhagavatam 4.24.63):

There is only a material world for those who want to imitate the Lord and become enjoyers. Indeed, the material world is nothing but forgetfulness of the original Supreme Personality of Godhead, the creator of everything. The distinction between matter and spirit is created by the sleeping energy of the Lord when the Lord wants to give some facility to those living entities who want to imitate the Lord in His enjoyment. It is only for them that this material world is created by the dormant energy of the Lord. For instance, sometimes children want to imitate their mother and cook in the kitchen, and at such a time the mother supplies them with some toys so that the children can imitate her cooking. Similarly, when some of the living entities want to imitate the activities of the Lord, this material cosmic manifestation is created for them by the Lord…

So the purpose of our material existence is not juridical but didactic. For some reason, we think we can be God, so the Supreme Personality of Godhead gives us “toys” so we can play God in our own childish way. The material manifestation is not about what God wants, but what we want. False ego, the idea that we are this body independent from God, is the primary building block of matter. Once we recognize that we are servants of the Supreme, and His part and parcel that is eternally subordinate to Him, the child’s game of material existence ends. There are so many instances in the Srimad Bhagavatam when a pure devotee and eternal associate of Krishna hits the eject button and vanishes back into the spiritual world. Their part is played out in the material manifestation, and they become absorbed once again in Krishna, not as in some monist annihilation of their identity, but rather in returning to their original position of eternal servant.

For me at least, this ontological insight concerning the nature of our material existence clarifies Krishna’s trickery. Anyone who has laid out presents on Christmas morning or threatened to cancel a birthday of an uncooperative child knows that deception is part of the magic of parenthood. I can threaten all I want to do something to a wayward child, but that doesn’t mean I will go through with it. Idle and exaggerated threats are just part of being a parent in many instances. In a relationship of love, I might threaten, cajole, bribe, throw a fit, or exaggerate to get my child to do what is best for her. That’s why Krishna cheats. But most of all, we want to be cheated. We’re not ready for the game to be over just yet, and we want to play God a little bit longer. It looks like we’re harming ourselves in the process, but we’re eternal beings who wander from body to body, so really we’re just whacking ourselves over the head with foam baseball bats in a secure playpen just like the children in the purport who are pretending to cook. Part of us is enjoying it and doesn’t want to stop. Krishna deceives because we want to be deceived, just as in the old Latin saying: mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur (the world wants to be deceived, therefore it is deceived).

I am sure by now any Christian still reading this is thoroughly confused or even disgusted. As I say often, I’m not here to trash or refute any particular system. So I will  try to apply these insights to the “orthodox” Christian understanding of God and man. There are certainly instances of trickery in the Bible that are hard to explain. Most famously in the Book of Genesis, Jacob robs Esau of their father Isaac’s blessing by pretending to be Esau.  St. Paul puts words in the mouth of God in the Epistle to the Romans saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” even though it was Jacob who acted crookedly. Then later in the Book of Genesis, Tamar fools Judah into fathering a son by her by pretending to be a harlot. Even in the New Testament, the Parable of the Unjust Steward has thrown many orthodox commentators for a loop: Jesus seems to be praising a corrupt steward who is bribing his way out of ruin by canceling part of the debts owed to his master. So while God as presented in the Bible may not be as morally problematic (from our perspective) as Krishna, He certainly has his own gray areas.

The question here then is: Can God “deceive” on an essential matter of faith? Does God lie to get us closer to a higher truth? I will mention only in passing the conversation from some months back concerning universal salvation and Christianity. One point that I alluded to was how all the threats of eternal damnation in the Bible may be exaggerations or hyperbole. I will not reignite that argument here, but I will state that sometimes God might lead people to do the wrong things for the right reasons. The corollary to this is that many might be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons; things aren’t always so clear cut. Years ago, pre-Internet, I was reading a book on holy places in California. There was an anecdote in that book told by a British-born monk about how he converted to Buddhism. It turns out that, as a young man, he was “spiritually shopping” for his path in life, and he was also interested in the Orthodox Church. In that journey, he became friends with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. He had discussions on and off with the Orthodox hierarch, but one day, Metropolitan Anthony came up to him in church and handed him a prayer card with a picture of the Buddha on it. The young man looked at the card and then walked out of the church, never to return. He interpreted the card as an indication of the path he was meant to take.

Another instance of God writing straight with crooked lines is found in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence. Honestly, it’s been years since I read this book and I know that it has many fans, so I am going to tread lightly here. Briefly, the novel is about a missionary priest in Japan who seems to apostatize from the Catholic Faith in order to save his flock from being tortured and killed. From my point of view at least, Silence is an unexpected take on faith and martyrdom that may have not have been well-received had it been written a generation before. The traditional idea is that, in the face of persecution, you have to stay strong in your faith come what may, and not compromise one inch. All the priest had to do in the novel was step on an image of Christ and his flock would be saved from persecution. He didn’t have to mean it, but the ancient martyrs were offered the same bargain which they rejected. Endo thus leaves us with the conundrum: Did the priest do the right thing, or should he have imitated the martyrs of old and not compromised in his faith? Or was his compromise an indication of a greater love?

My general point is that, while one doesn’t have to adopt “Hindu” ideas of reincarnation and the nature of the soul, I think that one can have a similar attitude when encountering people on divergent paths. Many Christians think that there can be no “soft sell” when it comes to the Gospel: to attempt one is automatically moral cowardice and indifferentism. To do the right thing means always doing the right thing right now, otherwise you could drop dead tomorrow and you will be lost forever. While that is certainly a possibility, I think we all can afford to be a bit more patient than that, as God is patient. Even if you believe that we don’t have the luxury of Vedic cyclical time, repentance and turning to God only takes an instant, and an instant can seem like an eternity. But in the meantime, maybe people need to meander a bit, maybe there’s no need to harangue them for going on the wrong path as long as they’re not hurting anyone but themselves. Perhaps people need to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, in order to not do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

I think we can all see God like a loving father who pretends to be Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. That father is technically “lying” to his children, and there are “honest Christians” out there who object to even that little white lie. I would still argue that the language of love is not straightforward, and our own psychological makeup might require a bit of deception to get us going in the right direction. In that holy deceit, God is leading us down the path of a higher truth: that He wants to save us from our suffering even if we are attached to things that make us suffer. We want to be deceived, so God leads us by deceit. In order to get us back, God will cheat because He loves us.






2 responses

18 09 2020

I’ve always understood the incidence of deceit in the OT to be pedagogical. Originally written as a history of the Jewish people with the intent on educating and forming the ancient Israelite elite, these stories emphasize over and over again that it is better to be clever than to be strong. That survival and God’s favor rests with those who think and are clever in the face of creation and its challenges. Even in the wrestling with the Angel, it is Jacob’s technical move to dislocate the hip that allows him to prevail. The OT is many things but it is also a leadership manual, be like this, select your leaders with these traits.

2 04 2020

In the Bible, God only tricks the deceivers and the cunning, catching them in their own craft. So I think this “fatherly cheat” is more a product of a specific “commonsense” that we, living in the weird conundrum of not believing in santa but perpetuating the belief in doing so, take for granted. Like God’s laughter, if you’re getting caught in a divine scam then the end for you is nigh.

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