Beholding the Universal Form
“‘As the rivers flow into the sea, so all these great warriors enter Your blazing mouths and perish. (28)
I see all people rushing with full speed into Your mouths as moths dash into a blazing fire. (29)
O Visnu, I see you devouring all people in Your flaming mouths and covering the universe with Your immeasurable rays. Scorching the worlds, You are manifest. (30)
O Lord of lords, so fierce of form, please tell me who you are. I offer my obeisances unto You; please be gracious to me. I do not know what Your mission is and I desire to hear of it.’ (31)
The Blessed Lord said: ‘Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people. With the exception of you [the Pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.’” (32) — Bhagavad Gita As It Is, 11:28–32.
Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita is entitled “The Universal Form,” where Arjuna begs Krishna to reveal His true self as the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When Krishna does so, Arjuna finds himself astonished at what he sees. The visvarupa, or Universal Form, had never been revealed to any person until this moment in time. Because of his steadfastness as a devotee and friend of Krishna, Arjuna is gifted the vision of the Universal Form.
Arjuna’s vision of the Supreme Lord quickly shifts from majestic to terrifying, as the array of demigods and Divine Light (brahmajyoti) gives way to the sight of God as the destroyer. In an earlier verse, Arjuna beholds the grisly sight of seeing the heads of both his friends and his foes crushed by the Lord’s teeth. The gruesome metaphor — crushed heads — is the fate that awaits conditioned Souls at the time of death, chewed, swallowed, digested, and inevitably excreted by the Lord back into the Ocean of Creation, bound once more by karma to experience the pains of birth, suffering, aging, sickness, and death. The ghastly visage that Arjuna sees for both his nemeses and loved ones highlights the imperative for us to pursue and achieve liberation now, in this lifetime.
As time advances through this Kali Yuga, this age of darkness, liberation will only become more difficult in increasingly irreligious, atheistic circumstances. The wisest of thinkers advise us to understand the many internal, even selfish, origins of fear: attachment to the impermanent. Here, however, in the context of Arjuna seeing the Universal Form, his fear — equaled by his wonder and marvel — is indeed selfless. He beholds the horror of seeing everyone — “all people” as mentioned in Scripture — rushing towards an inevitable destiny: annihilation.
Rather than remain distressed by what he sees, Arjuna offers praise and honor to the Almighty Lord. This display of the Universal Form, previously unseen by any living mortal, compels Arjuna to inquire further: who are You, he asks, and what is Your mission?
Where Jesus Christ would delve into allegorical parables and the Buddha into thought-provoking riddles (koans), here the Lord wastes no time sharing His true Self and role: He is Time incarnate, the ultimate destructor of the same splendor He created, and His core mission is the engagement of ordinary persons to become devotees. He lays it out plainly, that everyone on both sides of the conflict at Kurukshetra Battlefield will die, and what Arjuna saw is merely their fate, be it in battle or somewhere else. In the immediate context of the battlefield, it is a statement that is literal: Arjuna will prove victorious. However, as a broader metaphor signifying the greater battlefield of life, Krishna is imparting a deeper Truth. In his newly-arrived position of enlightenment, Arjuna is that rare Soul who achieves liberation, one in a thousand or even ten thousand, who will reach that highest Realization in life, breaking the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and joining the Supreme Lord in His abode at the end of this mortal life.
The greater lesson for us, the seekers and disciples of Truth, is the steadfast reminder that liberation (moksha) is a deeply personal pursuit, and it is our main goal to free ourselves in the understanding that our close friends and beloved family members are on their own journeys. Their own liberation is theirs to attain. All we can do is point towards the Light of Truth, resting in the knowledge that such right-vision as what comes with liberation can never, ever be imposed on others, as much as we may wish to bestow that Blessed Gift to those we love.
The path to liberation can seem lonely, and that is why we are encouraged to spend time associating with other devotees and seekers. Early Christian teachers speak of the need for religious communities to emerge as a means of interpersonal accountability, but also to strengthen the upholding of Universal Truth. Hindu, Islamic, and Sikh teachers and Scripture promote this idea as well.
It need not be an isolating journey, even for those who find themselves on the margins of their surroundings. The most important item for those to remember is that, by calling upon the Supreme Lord, remembering God’s countless forms and names, and acting in devotional service, one is truly never alone. Resting in that knowledge has been my own refuge during the darkest of times while I’ve battled my own demons. By bearing this sweet Truth in my dark times, I’ve found myself able to carry through and am more eager to give thanks to the Lord in good times, grateful for being sustained as I weathered my storms.
May you find similar solace, whether your sky is grey or cloudless.
Om Sai Ram,