Deus furens

21 04 2020

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As is the case with many people, my forced exile from the world due to a medieval plague has been far less intellectually fertile than initially expected. I thought I would write all those brilliant thoughts down that came to me in the middle of going here or there or doing this or that. At most, my quarantine has been devoted to endlessly surfing the news and social media, and perhaps creating the “dank meme” or two. It turns out that not being able to go anywhere but the “essential places” darkens the brain as much as being too busy. As I say professionally, “more” doesn’t often seem like more, it just seems a wasteland, as when I would look out over the Argentine pampa and know it goes on for hundreds of miles without anything of significance impeding it.

The only real thing of significance that I am studying (far less consistently than I should be), is the Srimad Bhagavatam, and this is probably not helping with my mental lethargy. I am culpable in this regard so I should explain. I will no doubt write more on this at a later date, but these scriptures don’t lend themselves to intellectual speculation. What is meant by this is that, as opposed to the Christian versions, an allegorical reading is often not appropriate. For example, some time ago I asked a devotee why Krishna plays the flute, and his answer was, “Because He likes it”. After over a year of studying, I have to conclude that this is still the best answer. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a flute is just a flute, a blue cowherd boy is just a blue cowherd boy, except He’s God, and He dances with millions cowherd girls in a meadow in the highest Heaven… you know, the typical theological insights.

Which brings me to one of Krishna’s most popular avatars, the half-man, half-lion Lord Nrsimhadeva. I first encountered Him in my first visit to the ISKCON temple in Berkeley years and years ago. I had no idea what I was looking at. I know now of course all of the intense and odd metaphysical details of Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda; the trio of Deities Lord Jagannath, Baladeva, and Subhadra who I mistook for big eyed dolls… and of course Nrsimhadeva: the Satya Yuga avatar. For even the Golden Age had villains who needed slaying, and Hiranyakashipu was a worthy opponent in this regard. Due to the performance of severe penance (tapasya), Hiranyakashipu won a benediction Lord Brahma, the direct creator of the universe, to never be killed by man or beast, on earth or in the sky,  during day or night, or with any weapon. So when Hiranyakashipu conquered and terrorized the universe, Lord Narayana (Krishna in a mode of oppulence) promised the demigods to descend Himself to destroy the demon. When Hiranyakashipu tortured and threatened to kill his five year old son, Prahlada Maharaj, Lord Narayana finally emerged as the half-man, half-lion avatar from a pillar that Hiranyakashipu struck. Having defeated Hiranyakashipu in battle, Lord Nrsimhadeva placed Hiranyakashipu on his lap (neither the sky nor ground), at dusk (neither day nor night), and ripped open his abdomen with His claws (not weapons). The half-man, half-beast thus kept Lord Brahma’s promise to Hiranyakashipu yet eradicated the evil from the universe. The boy Prahalada, however, asked the calmed Lord Nrsimhadeva to liberate his father from his sins, a wish that Lord Nrsimhadeva granted.

The moral of the story (without getting into the labyrinthine backstories of reincarnation and who is really who in the spiritual world) is that Krishna is fierce when defending His devotees. The young Prahalada was being persecuted by his father because the great space-traveling sage Narada Muni had preached Krishna consciousness to him in his mother’s womb. He was thus a devotee of Lord Narayana who Hiranyakashipu considered to be his enemy (for killing his brother, again, long story). Hiranyakashipu was so evil that he was prepared to slay his own son because he was preaching devotion to his enemy. That is what made Lord Narayana so furious that He emerged from a pillar in such an awful form, His roar making the three worlds tremble.

There is one piece of allegory to hold onto here, and namely that’s in the name of the villain. “Hiranyakashipu” is a combination of the words for “bed” and “gold”. So when Lord Nrsimhadeva rips out the demon’s intestines to wear them as a garland, He is really destroying lust and greed. In Krishna consciousness, the first sin is really lust, because to want to enjoy for yourself and not serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the reason for the material manifestation in the first place. One should only enjoy in connection with one’s service to Krishna: one must eat the remnants of what Krishna eats, one must enjoy stories connected to Krishna’s glories, and one should only use the procreative faculty of the human body to beget children for Krishna’s service. All else is just lust and greed: acquiring gold so that one can enjoy the pleasures of the bed. That is what is being destroyed in that gory scene.

I’ve never had a problem with the fierce and even gruesome aspects of the Divine. I am not just talking of the bloody Baroque Spanish religious imagery I have referred to before. I mean things like Santa Muerte and the monstrous aspects of traditional religions. I just expect things to get ugly at times. There is no point prettying up or sugar-coating the grotesque: it merely is a part of life. If I am not being made uncomfortable on one level, there is something wrong. So that’s what I like about Krishna: He manifests as a normal handsome youth (who He really is) but also as a half-man / half-lion, a fish, a boar, a dwarf, a horse, etc. etc. Krishna mainly takes on those forms to kill the demons, but just not for that reason. For example, in the spiritual world, Prahlada Maharaja goes to the “planet” of Lord Nrsimhadeva to be with Him eternally. He is drawn to the half-man / half-lion form above all others, so he goes to dwell with Him in a Heaven where that is the form of God.

Many devotees are attracted by Lord Nrsimhadeva because, to put it colloquially, He looks cool. But my attraction to Him comes from somewhere else. In Nrsimhadeva, Krishna experiences the rasa (mood) of fatherhood. I heard a talk in which a devotee said that, after Nrsimhadeva calmed down, He placed Prahalada on His laps and licked him like a mother cat licks her kittens. That is the parental mood that this fierce manifestation embodies: He’s only furious because He wants to defend His young vulnerable devotee. The bloodied avatar is ultimately a figure of parental love which is both tender and savagely defensive.

This is the reason why Lord Nrsimhadeva is so venerated among Vaishnavas and ISKCON temples around the world hold a special aarti to Him every morning. He defends the devotees, and He is invoked in times of danger. Many ISKCON temples throughout the world have held special yanjas to Him in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. More than any other image of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, His is the image most invoked against evil. Perhaps on an instinctual level, we know that God is a bit scary, and even when He comes to protect out of love, He can do so only because He can be scary.

That’s what I love about Krishna: He’s a bit frightening and weird. That harmonizes quite a bit with my experience of life. The material universe can seem like an elaborate prank, especially when we experience it at times like this. The Christian God is quite sober, He is reserved and sits above everything. Jesus is meek and humble of heart, which we by all means should try to imitate. But Krishna is haughty and playful, He is also opulent and combative if needed, and even terrible and bestial if circumstances call for it. Krishna shows us how small even our emotional capriciousness is compared to His own. Mainly, He wants to be “conquered” by His devotees like the gopis of Vrindavan, Prahalada Maharaja sitting on His bloodied lap, or even those who sing His glories in the streets. The reason why Hare Krishnas seem crazy and cultish is because God was crazy and cultish for them first. He even ripped out some guy’s intestines and wore them like a garland just because someone was messing with one of them. What’s not to like about that?

My own enthusiasm is so lackluster and muted compared to that, but I don’t want it to be. I guess I should just keep chanting.

 


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