Let’s look at the second “proof” that Kṛṣṇa isn’t “bhagavān svayam”. It’s SB 5.24.27:
tasyānucaritam upariṣṭād vistariṣyate yasya bhagavān svayam akhila-jagad-gurur nārāyaṇo dvāri gadā-pāṇir avatiṣṭhate nija-janānukampita-hṛdayo yenāṅguṣṭhena padā daśa-kandharo yojanāyutāyutaṁ dig-vijaya uccāṭitaḥ.
Word for word:
tasya — of Bali Mahārāja; anucaritam — the narration; upariṣṭāt — later (in the Eighth Canto); vistariṣyate — will be explained; yasya — of whom; bhagavān — the Supreme Personality of Godhead; svayam — personally; akhila-jagad-guruḥ — the master of all the three worlds; nārāyaṇaḥ — the Supreme Lord, Nārāyaṇa Himself; dvāri — at the gate; gadā-pāṇiḥ — bearing the club in His hand; avatiṣṭhate — stands; nija-jana-anukampita-hṛdayaḥ — whose heart is always filled with mercy for His devotees; yena — by whom; aṅguṣṭhena — by the big toe; padā — of His foot; daśa-kandharaḥ — Rāvaṇa, who had ten heads; yojana-ayuta-ayutam — a distance of eighty thousand miles; dik-vijaye — for the purpose of gaining victory over Bali Mahārāja; uccāṭitaḥ — driven away.
Śukadeva Gosvāmī continued: My dear King, how shall I glorify the character of Bali Mahārāja? The Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of the three worlds, who is most compassionate to His own devotee, stands with club in hand at Bali Mahārāja’s door. When Rāvaṇa, the powerful demon, came to gain victory over Bali Mahārāja, Vāmanadeva kicked him a distance of eighty thousand miles with His big toe. I shall explain the character and activities of Bali Mahārāja later [in the Eighth Canto of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam].
The “contentious” part is highlighted in Sanskrit and English. When we look at the translation there’s nothing suspicious there at all, there’s no case to be made, so it’s all in manipulating Sanskrit to mean something else. The śloka is quite long and translation ends with the beginning (“I shall explain … later”) because that’s how often Sanskrit sentences are formed. Never mind that, what we are asked to look at is the Sanskrit “yasya bhagavān svayam akhila-jagad-gurur nārāyaṇo dvāri gadā-pāṇir avatiṣṭhate” which means “at whose door someone stands” (speaking of Mahārāja Bali) and the “controversy” is in the identity of that someone.
This then distills to “bhagavān svayam akhila-jagad-gurur nārāyaṇo” and we can possibly subtract “akhila-jagad-guru”, too, because it’s simply an adjective describing Nārāyaṇa as a master of three worlds. That’s how we get “Bhagavān svayam Nārāyaṇa” which is offered as proof that it’s Nārāyaṇa who is “bhagavān svayam”.
Once again, I’ve heard that other commentators explained this verse in the same way as Prabhupāda, which is to be expected, so what’s the problem? It lies in the self-appointed Madhvas who took it as their mission to discredit not only ISKCON but the entire Gauḍiyā Vaiṣṇavism, too, starting with the Six Gosvāmīs. I guess they spare Lord Caitanya because He didn’t write anything and it’s the Six Gosvāmīs who expressed our Gauḍiyā siddhānta.
When we cite commentators from other sampradāyas agreeing with our interpretation they say that we reject them when it suits us. Well, Srīla Prabhupāda used an edition of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam which contained several Sanskrit commentaries, most notable of which was Śrīdhara Svāmī’s who was clearly not Gauḍiyā because he lived a few hundred years before Lord Caitanya.
On that note, Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī explained that when translating the famous kṛṣṇa-varṇaṁ tviṣākṛṣṇaṁ verse (SB 11.5.32) Śrīdhara Svāmī separated tviṣākṛṣṇāṁ into tviṣā and kṛṣṇam – black color instead of tviṣā akṛṣṇam – NOT black color because he wasn’t aware of the future advent of Lord Caitanya and so thought that it was Kṛṣṇa Himself who was spoken of in that verse. The arguments in favor of this interpretation of Śrīdhara Svāmī’s “mistake” are not the subject of this post, however.
Anyway, we have the right to disagree with commentators from other traditions on issues of our siddhānta but it doesn’t mean we reject their ability to understand Sanskrit altogether. This verse isn’t controversial and it does not deal with the topic of hierarchy among various avatāras the way our reliable “ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam” which specifically refers to the preceding list of incarnations – ete, and contrasts them with Kṛṣṇa. We would argue with alternative interpretations of this verse but are not going to question our siddhānta because of a random phrase spoken in completely different context elsewhere.
Now, does this different interpretation of “bhagavān svayam nārāyaṇa” make sense? Nope, not to my eye. I won’t argue for the word order in Sanskrit because I’m not qualified on that but the turn of the phrase and the context make the meaning very clear:
Someone was standing, guarding the door of Bali Mahārāja, and it was none other than God Himself, Nārāyaṇa. That’s the whole point of the glorification of the Lord here – that He took a menial position in service to His devotee. It’s not about Nārāyaṇa being “bhagavān svayam” but about God Himself coming to guard the door. The alternative interpretation diminishes the beauty of this verse.
Alternatively, svayam there could refer to “akhila-jagad-gurur” to further stress that it was the master of three worlds Himself who took this service to His servant. In this reading it’s not only that Nārāyṇa is Bhagavān that produces the effect but also that it was the teacher of the three worlds Himself, which adds to the glory of the Lord submitting to His servant in the gesture of deep appreciation for Bali’s surrender.
All in all, it’s a typical screwing own fancy meanings out of otherwise clear verses. This one is quite famous by itself because it highlights the most impressive features of Lord Vāmanadeva – that He took guard service at the door of His servant. The other one, about kicking Rāvaṇa, is not very clear because I don’t think it’s in Bhāgavatam at all. It’s well known story anyway, even though I’m too lazy to trace its origins right now.
Anyway, after running in troubles with Hanumān and other monkeys Rāvana went to Bali and got stopped by Vāmanadeva at the entrance. He tried to squeeze in but Lord Vāmana put His foot on him and nearly crushed him. This was the moment when Rāvaṇa’s body got the mercy of Viṣṇu’s lotus feet and became qualified to be killed by Lord Rāmacandra. After purifying Rāvaṇa this way Lord Vāmaṇa let him in and it was in that conversation with Bali that Rāvaṇa was shown a mountain of gold bedecked with jewels that turned out to be a mere earring that fell off Hiraṇyakaśipu. Rāvaṇa couldn’t lift it and Bali told him that Viṣṇu has killed demons much bigger than him, just so Rāvaṇa knows. There’s nothing there about Vāmanadeva kicking Rāvaṇa, however, maybe to give him a boost to ascend back to the higher planets, I don’t know.