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from Back to Godhead, November-December 1993
Recently I attended a conference held to honor an Indian missionary who’d come to America a century ago bearing India’s message of Vedanta. Though in America his name is now all but forgotten (if ever it was known), back home in India his fame lives on, his impact on the West still an item of national pride.
The conference, a gala event put on for a million and a half dollars by a worldwide body of Hindus, featured, aside from singers, dancers, musicians, and politicians, an assembly of respected Indian swamijis discoursing on the glories of Vedanta.
Their talks went in various directions, and so did I: For a couple of minutes I’d sit and listen, and soon I’d know I ought to be somewhere else—anywhere else.
The speakers, you see, stood mainly for Advaita, for Oneness, for the doctrine that an abstract impersonal reality is all that truly is. All else is but an appearance, an illusion. We may revere whomever or whatever we choose. In the end it doesn’t matter, for ultimately everything is God, everything is One. And as we give up our illusions, we merge with that One and become identical with God.
This doctrine has problems. Among them:
First: If I am God, why am I suffering like a dog? The swamijis will say it’s because I’ve forgotten who I really am. But what kind of God is that?
Second: If all that exists is one supreme impersonal truth, where does illusion come from? Truth and illusion—that’s not one, that’s two.
And third (and this is the worst): To persuade myself that I’m God, I first have to dispose of Krishna, for all the Vedic scriptures speak of Krishna as God.
For this the swamijis at the conference were at our service. Krishna, they told us, was merely a symbol of something higher. As one swamiji put it, “Krishna was the greatest product of Indian civilization.”
But according to the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna is Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is the source of everything—all truth, all illusion, all matter, all living beings. Impersonal oneness is but a partial display of Krishna’s energy, as the sun rays are but a partial display of the sun. We are one with Krishna in quality, but Krishna is eternally great and we are eternally small; He is infinite, we are infinitesimal. The entire purpose of Vedanta, says the Gita, is to understand Krishna, the personal form of God, to be the ultimate truth and to surrender to Him in devotional service.
So although the speakers at the conference offered oneness as the ultimate profundity, that oneness was the last snare of illusion, for to think “I am God” is the ultimate expression of false ego.
Krishna is not “a product of Indian civilization.” Rather, Indian civilization—in fact, all civilization—comes from Krishna. And by minimizing Krishna, the swamijis were in fact attacking the very heritage they had supposedly come to uphold.