Why no one can know Bhagavān

One of the defining characteristics of Bhagavān is that it is most difficult to understand how He functions. In Anuchheda 40 of the Bhagavat Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva Goswami analyzes Brahmā’s prayers to Bhagavān from the tenth canto of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, and gleans the four ways in which Bhagavān cannot be known.

The verse is as follows:

ko vetti bhūman bhagavan parātman yogeśvarotīr bhavatas tri-lokyām
kva vā kathaṁ vā kati vā kadeti vistārayan krīḍasi yoga-māyām

O Greatest One! O Supreme Person! O Self of all selves! O Master of all yogic power! Who knows where, or how, or to what extent, or when, You expand Your yoga-māyā potency and enact Your activities within these three worlds? (SB 10.14.21)

The second line of this verse contains four questions subsumed under one main question. Śrī Jīva writes:

क्व वा कथं वा कति वा कदा वा योगमायां दुस्तर्क्यां चिच्छक्तिं विस्तारयन् तथा तथा प्रवर्तयन् क्रीडसीति भवत ऊतीर्लीलास्त्रिलोक्यां को वेत्ति? न कोSपीत्यर्थ:। “यस्यामतं तस्य मतं मतं यस्य न वेद सः” (केन २/३) इति भावः।

[Brahmā is saying:] “Who in the three worlds knows where, or how, or to what extent, or when, You expand, or put into action, Your inconceivable internal potency, yoga-māyā, in all these ways and enjoy Your activities (ūtī), or pastimes, within the three worlds?” The question is rhetorical – no one knows. The same idea is conveyed in KU 2.3, “One who claims not to know Brahman, knows; but one who claims to know Brahman, does not know. “

The four questions are rhetorical as Śrī Jīva points out above, and are basically meant to convey that

No one knows

1. Where (kva)

2. How (katham)

3. How many or to what extent (kati), and

4. When (kadā)

Bhagavan performs His līlās in the material world.

According to Śrī Jīva, Brahmā answers each of the above questions in the first line of the verse by calling Bhagavān by four names. We list these below in the format of Question: Answer.

Kva or Where: Bhūman or all-pervading

Katham or How: Bhagavān or Lord who is replete with all opulences

Kati or How many: Parātman or One who has unlimited qualities and performs unlimited acts.

Kadā or When: Yogeśvara or One who is not limited by time.

How Bhagavān performs His līlās is difficult to understand in the above four ways. Because He is all-pervading, He can perform acts anywhere in space and manifest His form anywhere. It is not possible to predict where He will appear and perform His līlā.

Because He contains all possible śaktis, no act is beyond Him. He can perform amazing acts like lifting Govardhana on the tip of his finger, and it is inconceivable how it could be done. Similarly, the world comes into existence by His śakti, but it is impossible to understand if/how He participates in the world’s coming into existence and its evolution. This is beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Similarly, Bhagavān can perform unlimited acts simultaneously because He is unlimited. It is beyond the mind’s capacity to understand the extent of His activities.

Finally, because He is not limited by time, He acts outside the confines of time itself. Therefore His activities are even more bewildering. An example is when Arjuna was shown the viśva-rūpa in which He saw all the soldiers on the battlefield already dead, and the battle had not even begun. Furthermore, Kṛṣṇa asked him to fight those same warriors.

The conclusion is that it is very difficult to understand how, when, where and to what extent Bhagavān acts. Needless to say, one who claims to know how Bhagavān acts, even in the context of something as mundane as the evolution of the material world, is missing the basic sense of the Kena Upaniṣad:

“One who claims not to know Brahman, knows; but one who claims to know Brahman, does not know. “

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5 replies »

  1. I would like to ask a somewhat related question. It is about a passage in the Krishna the Supreme Personality of Godhead (Krishna Book) from ch. 87, Prayers by the Personified Vedas:

    “We think that even Your Lordship does not have complete knowledge of Your transcendental qualities. The reason is that You are unlimited. Although it is not befitting to say that You do not know Yourself, it is practical to understand that because You have unlimited qualities and energies and because Your knowledge is also unlimited, there is unlimited competition between Your knowledge and Your expansion of energies.”

    There follows some elaboration by Bhaktivedanta Swami:

    “The idea is that because God and His knowledge are both unlimited, as soon as God is cognizant of some of His energies, He perceives that He has still more energies. In this way, both His energies and His knowledge increase. Because both of them are unlimited, there is no end to the energies and no end to the knowledge with which to understand the energies. God is undoubtedly omniscient, but the personified Vedas say that even God Himself does not know the full extent of His energies. This does not mean that God is not omniscient. When an actual fact is unknown to a certain person, this is called ignorance or lack of knowledge. This is not applicable to God, however, because He knows Himself perfectly. But still, as His energies and activities increase, He also increases His knowledge to understand them. Both are increasing unlimitedly, and there is no end to it. In that sense it can be said that even God Himself does not know the limit of His energies and qualities.”

    I was intrigued by the idea of “unlimited competition” between Krishna’s energies and Krishna’s knowledge and tried to find the corresponding verse from the Bhagavatam. I think it is 10.87.41, the last prayer by the śrutis:

    dyu-pataya eva te na yayur antam anantatayā
    tvam api yad-antarāṇḍa-nicayā nanu sāvaraṇāḥ
    kha iva rajāṁsi vānti vayasā saha yac chrutayas
    tvayi hi phalanty atan-nirasanena bhavan-nidhanāḥ

    But only the first sentence of the translation of the BBT edition is about Krishna’s unlimited knowledge: “Because You are unlimited, neither the lords of heaven nor even You Yourself can ever reach the end of Your glories.” And in the purport there is an excerpt from Vishvanath Chakravarti’s commentary: “You śrutis are gifted with more sublime vision than the demigods who rule this universe. You will be able to reach the end of My glories if you do not stop now.” And the answer by the śrutis: “But even You cannot find Your own limit!” That’s all that is there on this subject.

    I am wondering if there is some support somewhere for the statement about the competition between the expansion of Krishna’s energies and His ever increasing capacity to know Himself.

    Thank you.

    • This verse (dyu-pataya) is cited by Sri Jiva Goswami in the Paramatma Sandarbha. You can see what he thinks the essence of the verse is. See page 140 of Sri Babaji’s Paramatma Sandarbha. The section (begins on page 130) is titled: Bhagavan Narayana Is the Ultimate End of All Knowledge Systems

  2. Thank you for your reply. I don’t have a copy of Sri Babaji’s book. Could you quote the relevant passage or if too long give the gist of Jiva Goswami’s understanding?

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