We all know the verse – ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam (SB 1.3.38). It’s our main proof that Kṛṣṇa is the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself and not a mere incarnation of Viṣṇu. It must, however, be controversial to the other vaiṣṇava sampradāyas who do not consider Him the source of all other avatāras. Nimbārka sampradāya and followers of Vallabha ācārya are with us on this, we should not forget that. Still, as a branch of Madhva sampradāya, it’s a pretty big disagreement on our part.
I guess the main point of followers of Madhva is that Kṛṣṇa is listed as an eighth incarnation of Viṣṇu and they just go with that. There’s another story that Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma were born out of black and white hairs from the head of Viṣṇu when Brahmā and others came to beg for protection from evil Kaṁsa so they clearly must be incarnations of Viṣṇu and not the other way around.
Our answer is that Kṛṣnas tu bhagavān svayam and all apparent inconsistencies must be resolved in accommodation of this overriding principle. We say that Kṛṣṇa appears here as an avatāra of Viṣṇu due to respect for the predominating deity of the universe. We say He comes through Viṣṇu, not out of Viṣṇu. That is also the answer to the black and white hair theory. We also say that Kṛṣṇa merely displays His pastimes for us, He doesn’t actually incarnate and He never leaves Goloka Vṛndāvana. Vṛndāvana simply becomes visible and how it fits with the evolution of the universe it’s not His problem, let Viṣṇu deal with public reasons for the appearance.
There’s another argument against our interpretation and it’s based on us reading too much into this “bhagavān svayam” phrase. It appears four other times in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, they say, and there it doesn’t refer to Kṛṣṇa at all so Kṛṣṇa is not special. Let’s have a look at these verses.
First up is SB 2.7.21
dhanvantariś ca bhagavān svayam eva kīrtir
nāmnā nṛṇāṁ puru-rujāṁ ruja āśu hanti
yajñe ca bhāgam amṛtāyur-avāvarundha
āyuṣya-vedam anuśāsty avatīrya loke
Word for word:
dhanvantariḥ — the incarnation of God named Dhanvantari; ca — and; bhagavān — the Personality of Godhead; svayam eva — personally Himself; kīrtiḥ — fame personified; nāmnā — by the name; nṛṇām puru-rujām — of the diseased living entities; rujaḥ — diseases; āśu — very soon; hanti — cures; yajñe — in the sacrifice; ca — also; bhāgam — share; amṛta — nectar; āyuḥ — duration of life; ava — from; avarundhe — obtains; āyuṣya — of duration of life; vedam — knowledge; anuśāsti — directs; avatīrya — incarnating; loke — in the universe.
The Lord in His incarnation of Dhanvantari very quickly cures the diseases of the ever-diseased living entities simply by His fame personified, and only because of Him do the demigods achieve long lives. Thus the Personality of Godhead becomes ever glorified. He also exacted a share from the sacrifices, and it is he only who inaugurated the medical science or the knowledge of medicine in the universe.
Dhanvantariś ca bhagavān svayam, they say, is a clear indication that “bhagavān svayam” is not exclusive to Kṛṣṇa, contrary to our claims. The verse doesn’t end there, however, the line continues to include svayam eva kīrtir and in Prabhupāda’s translation svayam relates to kīrtir – “simply by His fame personified”. It might not be so clear from word-for-word but that’s how the full translation reads.
Could it be read any other way? Possibly, but, I’ve been told, Śrīdhara Svāmī and another commentator from Śrī sampradāya explain this verse in the same way. We traditionally consider Śrīadhara Svāmī the foremost authority on Bhāgavatam and if he says svayam refers to kīrtir here then who are we to argue?
It doesn’t stop our opponents, however, because they are not obliged to accept Śrīdhara Svāmī’s word as final. They also argue that Śrīdhara Svāmī’s edition of Bhāgavatam is incorrect and the “true” śloka end the line with “svayam āsa devo” instead of “svayam eva kīrtir”. In “svayam āsa devo” reading svayam should refer to Dhanvantari and not to anything else, say.
It’s hard to argue with this without knowledge of Sanskrit and without relevant books at hand – there are two editions of Bhāgavatam with accompanying commentaries that show the difference. I don’t think our opponents are Sanskrit scholars either, just amateurs who picked up something on the way. Still, let’s give it a shot.
Looking at the words themselves – “svayam āsa devo” can simply mean God Himself without references to particular hierarchy among avatāras. It still svayama āsa devo, not bhagavān svayam. Or it could be bhagavān svayam who then āsa devo – became a deva, an incarnation. The line then would then read “Dhanvanari was a God Himself who incarnated as a deva”. Once again, I cannot say anything definitive here without knowing how all these words should be connected to each other according to Sanskrit rules.
In Sanskrit it’s “dhanvantariś ca bhagavān svayam eva kīrtir” or “dhanvantariś ca bhagavān svayam āsa devo”. Ca means “and” and it refers to the list of incarnations described in that chapter. The second line is about curing people – “nāmnā nṛṇāṁ puru-rujāṁ ruja āśu hanti”. Nāmnā is “by the name” and it makes sense that it’s connected to svayam eva kīrtir – svayam eve kīrtir nāmnā, which is how Prabhupāda translated it – simply by His fame personified.
If we take the other version of the verse and the opposing explanation then “āsa devo” becomes hanging. I can’t see it any other way as “bhagavān svayam” became “devo” who by “nāmnā” cured people. What else does āsa refer to? Bhagavān svayam āsa – bhagavān svayam became…? It would make sense only if Dhanvantari wasn’t an avatāra but a source of an incarnation that then cured people and which is referred here simply as “devo”. This reading, however, is clearly nonsensical.
More importantly, whenever anyone challenges us like that we should ask them to state their allegiances first so that we can determine whether engaging them is worth the effort or not. If they rely on academic studies of the books and on that ground can easily dismiss an authority like Śrīdhara Svāmī if they find some alternative editions then we will never come to any understanding. We represent the authorities. When we don’t know something we refer to them and if someone accuses us of incorrect interpretations we, first of all, check with our authorities, not with academics and wannabe Sanskrit scholars. We are not going to argue Sanskrit meanings better then Jīva Gosvāmī, for example, and if these people think they can understand Sanskrit better than Him they are simply trolls stirring up trouble.
Perhaps this fundamental approach to our challenges should have been discussed first but making sure our translations stand firm is a lot more fun. Let’s see if it would as easy with three other “svayam bhagavān” verses.