On God having toenails

19 02 2021

Even if I have dismissed something in my own head, I like to return to it on occasion to see if I still dismiss it. Above is a video from lay Catholic theologian Christopher West about the foundational premise of John Paul II’s theology of the body. I went over ad nauseam about a dozen years ago why I find the theology of the body erroneous, and in spite of my effective change in religious faith, more or less I stand by my objections. In fact, I now adhere to a faith that has the premise, “we are not this body,” at its very foundation: it is effectively a key idea of the Bhagavad Gita.

Nevertheless, West is expressing at the beginning of this video one of the only premises of Christian metaphysics that I still adhere to, one of the only ones that is agreeable to Vedic thought. The axiom is, in its concise Latin formulation: bonum est diffusivum sui. That is, the good wishes to expand or multiply itself. In Krishna consciousness, Krishna is Svayam Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, but every other divine and temporary manifestation unfolds from Him. It is in His very nature to “expand” Himself, to enrich and enjoy His own nature in infinite manifestations and qualities. For West, this is what the meaning of the body is. However, in Gaudiya theology, we would say that not all bodies are the same. Some are eternal (sac-cid-ananda vigraha) and some are temporary, and their possession can be didactic and at times punitive. The bodies that we have and continue to take on are reflections of our desires and, ultimately, our false ego: our solipsistic selfishness that wants to “go it alone,” independent of God, our source. We would also say with West that how we utilize our bodies in the human form of life, in devotional service or bhakti yoga, is the key to returning to our real bodies: the ones which exist in the spiritual world where we serve Krishna unhindered by the selfishness and suffering in the material world.

So bodies themselves aren’t the problem. Another point mentioned by West is that the body manifests the burning invisible love in the Godhead visibly. Here Gaudiya theology also diverges. It’s not that God is originally invisible, and in the body He manifests Himself in the visible form through His union with the material in the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. God doesn’t take possession of a body, He is a Body. The diversity of matter, its variety and tangibleness, isn’t an afterthought, it’s there at the beginning (or has no beginning). What we see in the material world is only a distortion of the spiritual. In essence, we live in the basement of reality: our ideas of what constitute “spiritual” and “material” are skewed according to our own prejudices. Srila Prabhupada often employed the anecdote of “Dr. Frog” being stuck at the bottom of a well. Another frog comes down the well and tries to tell him about the ocean, but Dr. Frog can only ask ill-informed questions like, “Is the ocean as big as this well? Twice the size?” His mind can’t even come close to fathoming what the ocean is like if his only experience is that of the well. Such is the difference between the spiritual and material body.

Because we are talking about Christopher West here, we have to discuss teleology and the nature of bliss in the afterlife. West states that the body and specifically our genitals indicate that God ultimately wants to “marry us”. For Hare Krishnas, that sort of intimate connection with God is only one mood for very elevated servants of God (madhurya-rasa), and while it is the supreme mood, it is one among many. In more mainstream Catholic theology, the ultimate bliss of the afterlife is the Beatific Vision, a union with God in which one remains separate but infused with divine love in a glorified resurrected body. The nuptial imagery of the Song of Songs and other literature is supposed to be an analogy for this union, but unlike in the rasa-lila or the amorous pastimes of Goloka Vrindavan, there is none of the actual kissing, caressing, etc. in the Catholic afterlife. (“When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven,” Mark 12:25.) I would state that Catholic theology is employing “frog in the well” logic here as well. As the body is the cause of both pleasure and suffering in the material world, all of its natural functions must be a hindrance to true spiritual bliss, or at most, a visible sign of an invisible grace (sacramentum). The Catholic theologian might argue that, in the end, any pleasure or ecstasy conceivable in the body is far surpassed by the luminous vision of the Divine Light of the Holy Trinity in the eschaton. If we are to compare heavenly bliss to food, the Beatific Vision is like the Soylent of spiritual pleasure: in spite of its uniformity and ethereal nature, it encompasses all of the pleasures and joys that one could possibly conceive of. All of the bliss, none of the actual variety: a one-size-fits-all of the Afterlife. Who needs the tastes, textures, varieties, and nutrition of actual food when you can just guzzle a bottle of Soylent?

That may be an unfair characterization, but try describing the Hare Krishna Spiritual Sky to an orthodox Catholic theologian and observe the bemused look you will probably get. Many armed Vishnu-forms? Touchstones? Lakshmis? Cows? It all seems like a idolatrous pagan fever dream. But all of that dizzying unfolding, as well as its contrast to the material world, are part of the Divine Mystery to us. That it all originates in a little blue boy who likes to play the flute to His cows is the final stop in this wild ride we call Reality. As one devotee put it recently, even those in the spiritual world descend to enjoy the “brokenness” of our own:

Residents of Goloka come to this world again and again because they, in a way, want both – they want to express their heart in the world ruled by brains. They revel in subversion, especially gopis, and yet they never openly go against the status quo and always, always comply with demands places by smartas. You can’t catch them! They love this game and it’s absent in Goloka itself, so they have to come down here where there are Indra pujas, demons, real life husbands and mother-in-laws and so on. This world also imposes very real separation.

I suppose I will say, and perhaps West might echo this sentiment in his own way, that Heaven isn’t the final act of an unfolding drama, but a reality that is here, right now. That is why when we chant Hare Krishna, see the Deities in the temple, touch our tulsi beads, etc. we are not experiencing material things, but spiritual ones. The two worlds intertwine and penetrate each other, we don’t have to wait for the “end of days” in Krishna consciousness to experience any of this. We have toenails so that we might be reminded of the Lord’s toenails, which are the means of our own liberation, and visible to anyone who truly surrenders to the Lord in a mood of service:

A concrete description of the eternal form of the Lord is given here. The Lord’s sole is depicted with distinctive lines resembling a thunderbolt, a flag, a lotus flower and a goad. The luster of His toenails, which are brilliantly prominent, resembles the light of the moon. If a yogī looks upon the marks of the Lord’s sole and on the blazing brilliance of His nails, then he can be freed from the darkness of ignorance in material existence. This liberation is not achieved by mental speculation, but by seeing the light emanating from the lustrous toenails of the Lord. In other words, one has to fix his mind first on the lotus feet of the Lord if he wants to be freed from the darkness of ignorance in material existence. (SB 3.28.21)


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