Śrī Kṛṣṇa is Bhagavān as we have seen repeatedly on this website. The Bhāgavata states that fear personified fears Him. He is the Supreme, and yet, He is depicted as afraid of His mother Yaśodā, when she picks up a stick and runs after Him to catch Him, or when she asks Him to open His mouth to check if He ate mud. Is Śrī Kṛṣṇa acting like in a play where the actor is aware that he is not actually the part? No, He is actually afraid of Her. The person, whom death (Yama) fears, is afraid of an old lady. How is this possible?
To understand this, we turn to the Bhāgavata for a narration of one of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s līlās. In the famous līlā where He ate mud, Yaśodā asks Him to open His mouth:
yady evaṁ tarhi vyādehīty uktaḥ sa bhagavān hariḥ | vyādattāvyāhataiśvaryaḥ krīḍā-manuja-bālakaḥ ||
[Yaśodā said] if that is so, open your mouth. Upon this, Bhagavān Hari, who performs līlās as the child of a human because He considers prema primary [and not aiśvarya or Lordship], opened His mouth.
Note how the verse reminds us that He is Bhagavān Hari, and not an ordinary child.
Śrī Kṛṣṇa is unaware that He is Bhagavān.
If Śrī Kṛṣṇa is aware that He is Bhagavān, then there is no way He can be truly afraid of anyone. It is only logical to posit that He must not be aware of the fact that He is Bhagavān. A parallel can be drawn here (with an important difference discussed below) to Śrī Hanumān’s lack of awareness that he had the power to jump the ocean. Only when Jambavān reminded him did Śrī Hanumān remember his great strength.
Śrī Viśvanātha’s commentary makes it clear that Śrī Kṛṣṇa is unaware that He is Bhagavān. Śrī Kṛṣṇa lies to Yaśodā that He did not eat mud out of fear. She then asks Him to open His mouth as we saw in the above verse. Now the problem is that if He opens His mouth and His mother sees the mud, then 1) it will be proven that He lied which contradicts the fact that He is satya, absolute truth, and 2) He lied specifically to protect Himself from her anger, but His wishes would be foiled, which would contradict the fact that He is satya-saṅkalpa- anything that He wishes must come to pass.
Śrī Viśvanātha offers a solution in his commentary to this verse as follows.
vyādehi mukhaṁ prasāraya nanu, mātā mamādy aparādhaṁ mā paśyatvitīcchayaiva tāḍnād bhītena bhagavatā mithyoktaṁ mukha-prasāraṇe tu mṛttikā-bhakṣaṇa-lakṣaṇa-vyaktyā sā tasyecchā kathaṁ saphalā syād:
[His mother said] open your mouth. [a question is raised] Bhagavān uttered a lie because He wanted to hide His eating of mud, being afraid of being hit by His mother. Now if He opens His mouth which would provide evidence that He ate mud, how would His desire be fulfilled?
ity ata āha—na vyāhataṁ prema-mādhuryavatvena nijaiśvaryānusandhānābhāvepi na parāhataṁ kintu sva-kṛtyāvasare svayam eva sāvadhānam aiśvaryaṁ yasya saḥ
[the verse provides the answer] (avyāhataiśvaryaḥ) means that His powers are not lost (na vyāhataṁ) despite the fact that He is unaware of His own Lordship (nijaiśvaryānusandhānābhāvepi). Instead, when His powers are needed, they become manifest on their own. He possesses such powers, and therefore He is [referred to by the bahuvrīhi compound] avyāhataiśvaryaḥ.
Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s powers are conscious and therefore can function without Him being aware of their existence. They come to the fore when He must be protected. How this happens in this particular case is described beautifully below:
satya-saṅkalpatā-śaktyā preritā aiśvarī śaktiḥ svayam eva prakaṭī-bhūya viśvaṁ darśitvā śrī-yaśodāṁ vismaya-rasa-nimagnīkṛtya putra-bharsana-phalakaṁ kopaṁ vismārayāmāseti bhāvaḥ |
The overall sense is as follows. His satya-saṅkalpa śakti, the power by which anything He wishes or says comes true, induced His aiśvarī śakti [power pertaining to His lordship that makes things happen] to manifest on her own, and to show the universe to Śrī Yaśodā in order to drown her in vismaya-rasa [rasa of amazement], and consequently to cause her to forget her anger which was about to result in her chastising her son.
As the universe is factually inside Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s mouth, He cannot eat mud – which is the act of bringing something that is outside oneself, into oneself. In this way, His śakti protected Him from the fault of uttering a lie.
Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s powers work like reflexes
Throughout all this, Śrī Kṛṣṇa remains afraid of Yaśodā. He continues to maintain the ego that He is her son, and Śrī Nanda Baba’s son, and it never occurs to Him that He is Bhagavān Himself. We can understand this through the analogy of a reflex action. When someone’s hand accidentally touches a hot surface, it becomes reflexively withdrawn without conscious effort. Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s powers work in a somewhat similar way. They manifest on their own and do the needful without His being conscious of them.
When Śrī Kṛṣṇa consciously lifts Govardhana, He still does not think He is Bhagavān
What about incidents where He appears to be conscious of His powers? For example, Śrī Kṛṣṇa made the conscious decision to lift Govardhana, which is clearly not an ordinary human action. The answer is that even while lifting Govardhana, He does not think He is Bhagavān. He continues to think of Himself as Nanda’s son, and when He lifts the hill, He thinks that the love of the residents of Vraja protects Him. The analogy here is with a child who thinks it can do impossible things and may even try to do them. But Śrī Kṛṣṇa can actually do them if and when He tries!
Here the difference from Śrī Hanumān is also apparent. Śrī Hanumān remembered that he had the strength to jump the ocean upon being told by someone else. In the case of Śrī Kṛṣṇa, He will not accept that He is Bhagavān even if someone explicitly told Him. This is the strength of His identity as Nanda-nandana.
Everyone in Vṛndāvana rationalizes Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s superhuman acts as Nārāyaṇa’s mercy
When Śrī Nanda Baba sees Śrī Kṛṣṇa lift Govardhana, He puts it down to the mercy of Nārāyaṇa, his own worshipable deity, who he thinks empowered his son temporarily. Likewise, all other superhuman acts of Śrī Kṛṣṇa are rationalized or interpreted to deny the fact that He is Bhagavān. Yaśodā does not start to think of Kṛṣṇa as Bhagavān even in the Govardhana līlā. She continues to think of Him as her child. Devakī, on the other hand, started to pray to Him when He was born to her in His four handed form. In this way, the lack of awareness of His own Lordship is carefully maintained by everyone surrounding Him as well. This happens only in Vṛndāvana.
This is of course in marked contrast to others who try to prove that they are Bhagavān. Here Bhagavān is trying His best to maintain His ego that He is just an ordinary child.
Vṛndāvana is full of special people who think they are utterly ordinary
Śrī Viśvanātha raises a question in his commentary. In the material world, everyone is afraid of something or the other. Now we see that Bhagavān is also afraid. What’s the point of being Bhagavān then? Shouldn’t He be free from fear and anxiety?
nanv alaṁ bhagavataḥ prema-mādhuryāsvādena yato yaśodā-bhartsana-tāḍanādibhyopi tasya bhayaṁ syād ata īśvaro’ham iti svayam eva nijaiśvaryām anusandhāya nirbhaya eva kathaṁ na tiṣṭhatviti
Enough of this tasting of prema-mādhurya, sweetness of prema, by Bhagavān! [In this state] He is afraid of even Yaśodā’s chastisement and beating. Why shouldn’t He be aware that “I am īśvara”, be aware on His own of His Lordship, and stay fearless?
ata āha, krīḍeti | krīḍā-pradhāno manuja-bālaka iti śāka-pārthivāditvān madhyama-pada-lopaḥ śāka eva pradhānaṁ yasya tathā-bhūtaḥ pārthiva ity atra pārthivo yathā-nijāsvādyeṣu khaṇḍādi-vastuṣu madhye śākam eva pradhānāṁ manyate tathaivāyam īśvaro manuja-bālaka-krīḍāṁ tādṛśa-premamayīm eva pradhānaṁ na tu svīya-sarveśvaratvādikam iti bhāvaḥ
[the verse answers] (krīḍā-manuja-bālaka means) a human child for whom krīḍā is primary. krīḍā-manuja-bālaka is a madhyama-pada-lopa-samāsa or a compound in which a word is elided. It is similar to the compound śāka-pārthiva, which really is śāka-priya-pārthiva, which means a king to whom green leafy vegetables are dear. The king may like green leafy vegetables the most out of several other items [he also likes] like sweets and so on. In the same way, this īśvara or lord considers the activities constituted of prema, love, primary, compared to activities in which His own Lordship is manifested.
Prema is the most relishable because it offers the most happiness. Śrī Kṛṣṇa wants this prema, and so do His bhaktas. To relish prema, each person in Vṛndāvana maintains the ego that they are utterly ordinary.
The essence of the līlās of Bhagavān depicted in the Bhāgavata is to convey rāgānugā bhakti, which is only available in Vṛndāvana. There, His devotees love Him no matter what happens- whether He steals their butter, breaks their pots, pinches their babies and makes them cry, lies, or, does superhuman acts like lifting Govardhana. They remain steady in their relationship with Him and continue to love Him unconditionally. For the rest of us, who read these līlās, the commentators and the Bhāgavata’s narrator continuously remind us that He is Bhagavān. Otherwise one can start to think that He is really ordinary, which would have undesirable consequences.