Thank you for your kind words of respect for ISKCON. And I’m glad to know that you have chosen Krishna as the deity you most prefer.
Sanatana-dharma is indeed all-encompassing, for it offers every human being an opportunity to make further progress and at last attain perfection.
Yet among the followers of Sanatana-dharma there are two schools, with contrasting views. The contrast is not between the inflexibly rigid and the universally tolerant, but rather between the impersonalists and the personalists.
Both schools accept that the Supreme has both a personal and an impersonal aspect. The question to be settled is how best to regard these two different aspects of the Supreme.
Two schools of thought
The impersonalists agree to the worship of any god because in their view these gods are but steppingstones to a higher reality — the impersonal Absolute, or impersonal Brahman. According to this view, only the impersonal Absolute is real, and all else — even the gods themselves — must ultimately be seen as illusory and therefore given up. According to this view, one may worship Lord Krishna (or any other god), but ultimately one must understand that Krishna (as well as all the other gods) merely represents a higher, impersonal reality; ultimately, the personal identity of Krishna is but an illusion.
The personalists, on the other hand, regard realization of the impersonal Absolute as but a partial, incomplete understanding of the Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna. According to this view, one must go still further, beyond the impersonal Absolute, to recognize the eternal nature of Lord Krishna’s name, form, qualities, pastimes, and other transcendental personal features.
The basis of the formless Absolute
This difference of opinion between the personalist and impersonalist schools can best be settled by reference to Bhagavad-gita.
In the Bhagavad-gita (14.27) you will find that the impersonal Absolute rests upon the Personality of Godhead. According to the Gita, brahmano hi pratisthaham: It is Lord Sri Krishna, the Personality of Godhead, who is the basis of the impersonal Absolute.
The impersonalists say that the Personality of Godhead is but the formless Absolute represented in a form of material nature (prakriti). But in the Bhagavad-gita (9.10) Lord Krishna instructs us that, on the contrary, He is the controller, the supervisor, of the material nature.
To emphasize the factual superiority of the Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna says in the Gita (9.11), “Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature [param bhavam] as the Supreme Lord of all that be.”
After many, many births
The impersonalists insist that the param bhavam, or supreme nature, of the Lord is higher than the Lord Himself. That supreme nature, they say, is the unmanifest, impersonal Absolute, which manifests itself as Lord Krishna.
But elsewhere in the Gita (7.24) we find:
avyaktam vyaktim apannam
manyante mam abuddhayah
param bhavam ajananto
According to this verse, those who subscribe to such an impersonalist view do not know the Lord’s param bhavam (param bhavam ajananto). The Lord says that only those still lacking in intellectual development (abuddhayah) think that His manifest feature as the Personality of Godhead is derived from an unmanifest, impersonal feature of the Absolute.
After many, many births of progress in cultivating knowledge, when one reaches perfection, one surrenders to the Personality of Godhead (Vasudeva). Vasudevah sarvam iti: that Personality of Godhead is everything. It is He who is universal and all-encompassing, and all else — including the Vedic pantheon of gods and the impersonal Absolute — is but a partial manifestation of Him.
A mistaken approach
Now, let us look at some other points raised by your letter.
Quoting Gita 9.23, you offer your own translation and interpretation of the verse. You translate it this way:
“Kaunteya, even those devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods (with some interested motive), worship Me alone, though with a mistaken approach.”
From this you argue that the problem with these devotees is not that they’re approaching other gods but that they’re doing it “with some interested motive.”
As a third-year Sanskrit student, however, you’ve been properly scrupulous about putting that phrase “with some interested motive” in parentheses, thereby indicating, quite rightly, that it doesn’t appear in the text.
So what you’ve done, really, is to parenthetically insert your own comment into the verse, and then argue from your comment as though it were evidence from the Gita.
Ms. Sethia, please — you simply can’t do that.
Drop the parenthetical intrusion, and your rendering of the verse is fine: “Even devotees who, endowed with faith, worship other gods worship Me alone [Lord Sri Krishna], though with a mistaken approach.”
Whether we prefer to say that worshiping other gods is “mistaken,” “irregular,” “wrong,” or whatever, it boils down to pretty much the same thing: it isn’t right. What’s right is to abandon all other approaches and surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna (sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja).
Above all others
You suggest that it’s wrong to regard Krishna as “the only Supreme” and others as inferior. But the very meaning of Supreme is “highest,” “ultimate,” “above all others.”
Thus we find in Bhagavad-gita 11.43 that Arjuna says to Lord Krishna, na tvat-samo ’sty abhyadhikah kuto ’nyo: “No one is equal to You, so how could anyone be greater?” The same conclusion is confirmed in the Svetasvatara Upanisad 6.8 (na tat-samas cabhyadhikas ca drsyate).
Lord Siva and other gods are exalted servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and therefore it is proper that one have great respect and devotion toward them also. But still one should understand their true exaltedness as servants of the Supreme Lord, not as independent Lords themselves.
The origin of all the gods and sages
From Chapter Ten of Bhagavad-gita (10.23) you quote Lord Krishna’s statement rudranam sankaras casmi: “Of all the Rudras, I am Siva.” This is fine, but not as evidence that Lord Siva is equal to the Personality of Godhead.
In the same chapter, Lord Krishna says that among beasts He is the lion (10.30), among fishes He is the shark (10.31), among seasons He is spring (10.35), and among cheaters He is gambling (10.36). The point is not that the lion is God, the shark is God, spring is God, or — least of all — that gambling is God. The point is that each of these, in its category, is superlative and by thinking of what is superlative one can ultimately come to think of the Supreme Lord, Krishna, the Personality of Godhead.
The entire chapter, in fact, is meant to help us understand that all opulences flow from the ultimate source of everything, Lord Krishna. This is clear from the final verses. There Lord Krishna says (10.40), “Know that all beautiful, glorious, and mighty creations spring from but a spark of My splendor.” And finally (10.41): “But what need is there, Arjuna, for all this detailed knowledge? With a single fragment of Myself I pervade and support this entire universe.”
By the way, in the beginning of the chapter (10.2) Lord Krishna has explicitly stated that none of the gods or sages can know His opulence, because He is the origin of all the gods and sages.
Not limited by name or form
That Krishna is not limited by name or form is also a fact, because Krishna’s name and form are identical with Krishna Himself and therefore have unlimited potency. So when Krishna speaks of Himself by saying “Me,” we need not impose our own interpretation by saying that Krishna is speaking of an impersonal “Supreme Consciousness.” To rightly understand Bhagavad-gita, better to accept Bhagavad-gita as it is. When Krishna says “Me,” He means just what He says. “Me” means the person speaking, who here is Lord Sri Krishna, mentioned throughout Bhagavad-gita as “sri bhagavan,” the Personality of Godhead.
What sets Sanatana-dharma apart is not that it would have us believe that all gods are equal, but rather that it explains the Supreme Personality of Godhead in detail, with all His diverse opulences and potencies, as mentioned in the Svetasvatara Upanisad (parasya saktir vividhaiva sruyate). In this way, with broad, deep understanding, one can realize the all-encompassing presence of Lord Krishna, the Personality of Godhead, and avoid the fanaticism sometimes seen among the narrow-minded and less well informed.
Not everything is the truth
That learned men express the truth in many different ways does not mean that everything is the truth. Otherwise, what would be the need of learned men or Vedic scriptures?
Rather, in various ways all the Vedic scriptures glorify the Personality of Godhead. Therefore Sripada Madhvacarya has quoted:
vede ramayane caiva
purane bharate tatha
adav ante ca madhye ca
harih sarvatra giyate
“From the very beginning [adau] to the end [ante ca], as well as within the middle [madhye ca], all the Vedic literature, including the Ramayana, Puranas, and Mahabharata, glorifies Hari [Lord Krishna], the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Who gives that faith?
You mention Bhagavad-gita 7.21 (yo yo yam yam tanum bhaktah), and again the meaning of the verse is clear:
“Whatever celestial form a devotee [craving for some worldly object] chooses to worship with reverence, I [Lord Krishna] stabilize the faith of that particular devotee in that very form.”
So even if for worldly gain one chooses to devote oneself to one of the 330 million subordinate gods, one can do so only by the grace of the Supreme God, Lord Krishna. On the other hand, when one recognizes Lord Krishna to be the ultimate source of everything and therefore surrenders to Him in love and devotional service, it is Krishna Himself who gives one the power to do so and thus attain Him (dadami buddhi-yogam tam yena mam upayanti te).
Following the path of Sri Arjuna
That the separate, individual devas merely serve as symbols of the Divine, that they don’t really exist, and that therefore all paths are equal is not supported in Bhagavad-gita.
In Bhagavad-gita (9.25) we find:
yanti deva-vrata devan
pitrn yanti pitr-vratah
bhutani yanti bhutejya
yanti mad-yajino ‘pi mam
Here it is stated that those who worship various devas (Lord Siva, Ganeshaji, goddess Durga, and so on) reach the abodes of the devas. Those who worship the ancestors reach the abodes where the ancestors reside. Those who worship ghosts go to live among the ghosts. And only those who worship Lord Krishna go to Krishna’s supreme abode (tad dhama paramam mama).
If you buy a ticket from London to Glasgow, it will not take you to Paris. So too, it’s not that whatever spiritual ticket one chooses will bring one to the same destination.
Were all paths and all choices equal, there would have been no need for Lord Krishna to speak Bhagavad-gita. He could have simply let Arjuna slink from the battlefield in disgrace and illusion. “Well,” the Lord could have said, “that’s your path, and all paths are one.” Instead, He enlightens Arjuna so that Arjuna becomes Lord Krishna’s surrendered devotee. And anyone can attain perfection by following the path of Sri Arjuna.
Natural attraction to Krishna
As you say, Brahman cannot be imperfect, because Brahman is all-encompassing, all-inclusive. But the impersonal aspect of Brahman, though transcendental, is not all-inclusive, because it excludes the eternal existence of spiritual form, name, qualities, pastimes, and individuality.
But the Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, includes all these — and also includes the impersonal Brahman as one aspect of His transcendental existence (brahmano hi pratisthaham).
Therefore, when one has gone even beyond the impersonal Brahman realization to realize Brahman in the highest aspect, as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna, one surrenders to Him in pure devotional service (mad bhaktim labhate param).
As I can understand from your letter, you are already naturally attracted to Krishna and devoted to Krishna, so much so that you have even written the holy name “Krishna” in devanagari on the top of every page.
So I hope you will forgive me if I have unintentionally said anything insolent, unmannerly, or discourteous.
As devotion to Lord Krishna is already your chosen path, I am not trying to divert you. I simply hope you will follow that path further and further. And at the end of the path, may you ultimately meet your Lord Kanhaiya face to face and become one of His eternally joyful companions in the spiritual world.