JanmashtamiEach year on Janmashtami, the Hindu holiday celebrating Krishna's birthday, my family and I read together from the Bhagavata Purana, a sacred text recounting Krishna's pastimes. These stories talk of Lord Krishna as a disarmingly human-like boy who tends cows, charms his family and friends, and plays his flute. He spends most of his childhood, however, killing demon after demon, humorously re-routing their plans to destroy him so that they end up sealing their own doom.

Of course, Krishna is more than a mere comic book hero. All Hindus honor Krishna, and followers of the Vaishnava denomination especially revere him as the one Supreme Personality of Godhead. I am captivated by stories of his feats, and yet these stories force me to confront a debate raging within me. The devotee in me, the bhakta, wants to embrace these stories as literal truth and celebrate Krishna's wonders. The skeptic in me, the jnani, points out how irrational a literal adherence to these stories seems to be.

My head and heart would be forever deadlocked were it not for a 19th-century theologian named Bhaktivinode Thakura. Bhaktivinode was a renowned devotee of the Lord, and his poetry in praise of Krishna is sung faithfully in temples to this day. However, Bhaktivinode was also a man of this world--a husband and father, a government magistrate, and a Hindu scholar in an India ruled by the British. If anyone could reconcile intellect and devotion, and do justice to both, it is Bhaktivinode. On one level, Bhaktivinode speaks of Krishna's slaying the demons as symbolic representations of his removing impediments--in Sanskrit called anarthas--that stand in the way of our attaining love of God. These anarthas root themselves in the heart of aspiring devotees, preventing our faith from growing at all. Thus, Bhaktivinode recommends, even if we have a hard time accepting Krishna's killing the demons as literal fact, merely appreciating it in a metaphoric way can help us advance towards higher levels of spiritual realization.

On another level, though, Bhaktivinode explains that Krishna can certainly do things which stretch the bounds of our limited, material intellect. If his activities sound incredible, unbelievable, or far-fetched, don't worry: they're supposed to. After all, Bhaktivinode reminds us, we're talking about the Supreme. By definition, he is the most extraordinary unique being there is. We may not understand precisely how he accomplishes his feats. But through the agency of faith, Bhaktivinode insists, we can know them.

For Bhaktivinode, there is ultimately no conflict. Krishna's activities are divine play, lila. Fittingly, Krishna is anything but predictable. That Krishna can kill demons is wonderful; that such feats can speak to our own lives is more wonderful still.

Take, for instance, the first demon that Krishna faced--a witch named Putana. Adept in black magic, this ghastly hag specialized in murdering babies. Her supernatural abilities allowed her to change her hideous form into that of a beautiful nurse; incognito, she easily gained entrance into the room where the infant Krishna was sleeping and took him to her breast, which she had smeared with deadly poison. All-knowing--even as a seemingly helpless baby--Krishna accepted her tainted offering, but it had the reverse effect. Putana herself soon fell to the ground dead, her body restored to its true ugliness.

Bhaktivinode explains that Putana represents hypocrisy, particularly the hypocrisy that arises from superficial displays of devotion. To accomplish her nefarious mission, Putana had ostensibly came to nourish Krishna with her milk. Similarly, warns Bhaktivinode, we may make a show of piety while still harboring hidden motives, including the desire to be flattered and worshipped ourselves. Remembering Krishna's effortless slaying of Putana, we can pray to the Lord to accept our offerings--however contaminated they may yet be--and at the same time expose the hypocrisy in our hearts for what it is, so that we may develop humility.

Cultivating humility is, of course, easier said than done. Challenging us at every step of the way is false pride. To overcome this anartha, Bhaktivinode recommends that we meditate on Krishna's slaying the demon Trinavarta. This crooked yogi studied the mystic arts extensively and had learned to manipulate the wind. Taking the shape of a powerful tornado, he kidnapped baby Krishna, and spun him high into the sky. Trinavarta began to laugh at how easily he would be able to kill Krishna and, just to show off, flew higher and higher up into the sky.

Krishna enjoyed the ride for some time, but understanding the demon's true intent, made himself unbearably heavy. Trinivarta's massive body came crashing down, and with it his hopes of killing Krishna. The demon's limbs and pride were both smashed to pieces by the transcendent baby Krishna, who emerged without a scratch.