Prabhupada had confidently predicted an imminent nuclear war between the USSR and the USA. It did not happen. Prabhupada was asked why. He responded: Krishna had changed his mind.
Until I heard about Prabhupada’s statement, I had never even entertained the notion of God’s changing his mind. But prompted to think about it, how could I deny the possibility?
Of course, I had, for some time, acknowledged that the Absolute Truth is a person. Shrimad Bhagavatam reports that those who have seen that ultimate source of all energies know it as undifferentiated illimitable spiritual light (brahman), as the all-knowing guiding Self within all selves (paramatman), and as the transcendent enjoying Self endowed with spiritual senses, that is to say, a person (bhagavan). That unique individual is, in Prabhupada’s phrase, “The Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
If the Absolute, the source of everything, is a person, then the uncountable sentient beings in the world, gifted with senses, derive their own personhood from the divine prototype. We are, as Prabhupada says, “small samples of God.” This implies that we can understand God by studying ourselves, for whatever we posses in small measure God possesses in full.
And so: if we can change our minds, then Krishna can also.
Our freedom is tiny, for we are encaged by material nature. God’s freedom is unlimited, for he controls material nature. Of course he can change his mind—and act on it without restraint.
Now there are theologies which tend to deny God this ability. If God is fully perfect, the thinking goes, what would be the reason for his changing his mind? He would have no occasion to. He would never have to correct his course upon learning something new, come up with an improved plan, adjust to unforeseen circumstances. There is nothing unforeseen.
God knows all, past, present and future. From his coign of vantage in eternity, he sees all time in one glance. All future contingencies are settled once and for all. It follows from divine omniscience that God cannot “change his mind.” He never needs to.
From this view of omniscience and of the related idea of time, neither God nor humans during the world’s course exercise any freedom of choice. Beginning, middle, and end—past, present, and future—all is fixed and frozen from eternity.
Although God and humans may seem to make choices and decisions—often, as recorded in the literature of divine-human interactions, in response to each other—it is all a kind of illusion, a make believe, a pretense. In fact, since everything has been decided from eternity, creation is radically devalued: it is a superfluous, nugatory manifestation of what has already been decided. Creation goes on with God and humans alike shackled in a metaphysical cage.
Both divinity and humanity have been depersonalized, and the relation between them evacuated of all emotional richness and potential for increasing intimacy. God’s creation is no more than a police state, from which a few will be inexplicably released while the many remain inexplicably incarcerated.
These are the strict implications of this view of divine omniscience.
Let me begin presenting an alternative with an examination of the notion of “free will.” Like all followers of Vedic thinking, Prabhupada teaches that we have genuine free will. (The Vedas contain injunctions, telling us what we ought and ought not to do. What would be the use of such injunctions were we not free to choose?)
“Free will” implies that whenever we exercise our free choice, all the causal forces of our physical and mental conditioning—our karma included—are insufficient to account for the outcome. There is another factor involved in the outcome—our own free choice. The word “free” denotes that element not caused or determined by the past. Yet that element of freedom does affect the future. Hence, our own uncaused free choice has added something to the determinateness of reality.
Even a person with full and perfect knowledge of the past could not predict with certainty the outcome of a choice by a free agent. I—the free agent—may have a particular nature, I may have long-standing habits and predispositions, and on the basis of that an observer could make a prediction with a good chance of success. But if my free choice is involved, there will always be an area of indeterminateness, of uncertainty.
What about God? Certainly the divine omniscience entails that God knows the outcome even of a free decision.
Those who take this position assume that the outcome is already there to be known. They presuppose that the contents of past, present and future are objectively of the same nature. These people conceive of time on the analogy of an old-fashioned motion-picture film advancing through a projector. The present is like the frame directly behind the lens. The past is the already viewed film wound on the uptake spool, and the future is the unviewed film still wound up on the feed spool. Thus, the future is fixed and determinate, just like the past—only it hasn’t happened yet.
Now, put the film analogy out of your mind. Consider, instead, that the future is not just like the past—forever fixed and unalterable. Consider that the future as such is objectively indeterminate, fuzzy, fluid. When God sees the future perfectly, then, he sees it precisely as it is—fuzzy, composed essentially of possibilities.
The indeterminacy, the fuzziness of the future arises from the freedom of moral agents in the world. Each of the innumerable spiritual beings, the selves, acting in the world has its own minute freedom, and the supreme spiritual being, the Superself, has his boundless freedom. The pending decision of these free agents endows the future with elements that are objectively unsettled, regions of open, alternative possibilities.
Of course, some aspects of the future are fixed or determined with a high degree of certainty. It is well know, for example, how the Vedic literature describes the movement of history through the great yuga cycles, setting forth the generic characteristic of each age. Those who know these texts can predict the future. The Bhagavatam, for example, relates how Vyasadeva foresaw the impending Kali-yuga; Prabhupada explains Vyasa’s vision with this example: “As an astrologer can see the future fate of a man, or an astronomer can foretell the solar and lunar eclipses, those liberated souls who can see through the scriptures can foretell the future of all mankind.”
Yet even the ordained constraints on things to come cannot annihilate possibilities of freedom. The degree of indeterminateness for any given future time-frame may be great or small, and it may well fluctuate as it draws near to the present. In any case, the indeterminacies of the future await final determination by the decisions of free agents, who, by acting in the present, produce the fixed and unchangeable record knows as the past.
Prabhupada himself was quite aware of both the determinate and the indeterminate areas of the future. In a letter to Karandhara (November, 1970) Prabhupada writes about the free choice open to his own disciples:
It is most encouraging to me to see that you are spreading this movement so nicely and I thank you for this. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu has forecast that this Hare Krishna Mantra will be heard in every nook and cranny of the globe. He is God, so it will happen, that is a fact. So if we take advantage then we may take the credit, but if we do not someone else will.
Prabhupada repeatedly urged, exhorted, and encouraged his followers to dedicate themselves completely to the mission of Lord Chaitanya, who descended to promulgate the dharma for this age, the chanting of the names of God. Chaitanya’s appearance was predicted in Shrimad Bhagavatam. And Chaitanya himself is quoted in Chaitanya Bhagavata as predicting “In as many towns and villages as there are on earth, everywhere, my name will be broadcast.”
This much, Prabhupada says, is fixed, settled. It will happen. But who will do it? How will it happen? That is still unsettled. Prabhupada therefore urges his disciples to “take advantage” of the opportunity afforded by Chaitanya’s mercy. Divine grace has been offered, but it remains up to his disciples to accept it or not; it is their free choice. If we disciples decide to accept it, then “we will get the credit.” If we reject this offer—if we decide we’d rather spend our lives in other pursuits—then someone else will accept Chaitanya’s offer.
We have our freedom. God is all powerful, and all of us must be under the divine control at all times. But we do have the scope to freely choose how we wish to be controlled. We can be controlled indirectly and unfavorably through the agency of material energy (Durga). Or we can be controlled directly and favorably through the agency of the spiritual energy (Radharani). Our freedom is for this choice.
And Krishna facilitates our choice. Even when we—against his wishes—turn from him, run from him, hide from him, he alone makes it possible, provides us with the means and the power to do so. In this way, Krishna enables us to do what he does not want us to do.
And even as he empowers us to reject him, he also tries to bring us back, to rescue us, to reestablish our relationship. But he always carefully respects our freedom. If we had no freedom, we would be no more than lifeless machines, automatons. But Krishna produced living beings endowed with his own qualities—freedom among them—so that there would be others with whom he could engage in ever-intensifying exchanges of love. Without freedom, the reciprocities of love would be impossible. The eternal exchanges of love between Krishna and his devotees produce a dynamic of ever-expanding, ever-intensifying transcendent joy, beauty and wisdom. This is the divine life. Participation in this life is our purpose and the right use of our freedom.
Freedom always permits its wrong use, and that misuse engenders the material world, a place created for the drop-outs.
Krishna does not want the world to be the way it is. This world is the way it is because it is filled up with his fallen devotees, vying with one another in a free-for-all to consummate their personal God-projects. Thus they go ravening through history, taking turns as predator and prey, destroying and being destroyed by fang and claw, by fist and club, by ICBM and IED.
In 1975 the world’s accumulated burden of misdeeds had reached a point that nuclear destruction was imminent.
This was the world’s future. So Prabhupada foresaw. Then Krishna changed his mind. The world had another future.
The war did not happen, and ten years after Prabhupada’s prediction Mikhael Gorbachev was elected Premier of the Soviet Union, and his programs of glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), unleashed an uncontrollable cascade of events. The Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself in 1991.
My attempts to understand why Krishna changed his mind always lead me to consider the extraordinary devotees from the Soviet Union. They must have had something to do with it, and when I finally was able to talk to some of them at the end of the 80s, they told me a story that convinced me of their role.
Shrila Prabhupada had visited Moscow in June of 1971, and in spite of state restrictions and KGB supervision he was able to initiate one Russian devotee. This devotee was in turn able to bring many others to Krishna consciousness. Gradually books were translated into Russian and smuggled behind the Iron Curtain. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust gained a place in the 1979 Moscow Book Fair, from which more books somehow made there way into the country. Following the Russian samizdat system for propagating state-suppressed literature, devotees copied the books by hand, and those copies were circulated and recopied. The Russian devotees practiced and preached in increasingly difficult circumstances. Their numbers still grew. By 1982 the New York Times was reporting “Hare Krishna Chant Unsettles Soviet.” The government stepped up its persecution, incarcerating more and more devotees in psychiatric hospitals and labor camps to undergo vicious abuse and torture. When Gorbachev became Soviet Premier, ISKCON began an international human rights campaign to secure basic civil right for the Soviet devotees.
In 1987 the Soviet Government gave permission for fifty-four Russian devotees to travel to Mayapur for the annual festival. Every year after that more and more Russian devotees came. During one festival I accompanied a large group of them on parikrama, traveling by foot and boat all around the Mayapur District countryside, visiting the many pilgrimage sites, camping out each night in a different place. I got to know the Russian devotees well, and I was warmed again by that particular emotional fire I had known from my Russian grandmother and her relatives.
One evening a group of Russian devotees told me this story: They all worked together on a kolkhoz, a collective farm, in Soviet Georgia near the Black Sea. In this case, the farm was a gigantic orchard of citrus trees. The life suited the devotees. It was peaceful, and in the huge orchard there was ample opportunity to gather by themselves to chant and read together.
The fruit they harvested was not for everyone—only select people called the nomenklatura, well-placed in the Communist hierarchy, could have access to their harvest. It was sold in exclusive stores reserved for this privileged group.
The devotees serving in the orchard came to know whenever there was a meeting of the Politburo, the governing body of the Communist Party. At that time they would get a special order for the best quality of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and so on. And at that time the devotees carefully made their own special arrangement.
After picking all the choice fruit, they would gather it together and take it to a secluded area of the orchard. There they would arrange their harvest nicely, and with an arati and a long kirtan, they would offer it all to Krishna. Then they would carefully pack it up and deliver it to be flown off to the Kremlin. They were delighted to be able to regularly feed the Politburo with Krishna’s prasadam. I listened with growing amazement as I heard them relate this story, laughing and occasionally interrupting each other in Russian. Looking at them, I thought of all that the Russian devotees had suffered at their government’s hands. As I sat with them, gratefully basking in the intensity of their devotion, it dawned on me that Krishna must really have relished their citrus offering.
And then, of course, I remembered Prabhupada’s declaration that Krishna had changed his mind. The nuclear war between the USSR and the USA was called off. Now I had what seemed a very concrete reason for it. Perhaps it was not just this act of causeless mercy to the Politburo, but the dedication of the Soviet devotees to Lord Chaitanya altogether, a dedication that this particular fruit offering epitomized to me.
An addendum. It is said that when, because of devotional service, a devotee is relieved of the future suffering karmically due him, he may still experience that reaction on a subtle level—usually in the form of a dream.
In a similar way, World War III may also have made its appearance on a subtle level. In 1987 the American writer Tom Clancy published the techno-thriller Red Storm Rising. The author had many contacts in the military, and they had apparently made available to him what they knew of the NATO and the Warsaw Pact plans for World War III. Military forces rehearse constantly for the next war, and they develop their weapons system with the coming conflict in mind. They continually update their plans. And of course, they try to find out what the enemy is planning for next. Paradoxically, in the course of these activities, the enemies gradually come to resemble each other more and more, to unite together in increasing intimacy, mirroring each other in their dance of death like performers in a balletic pas de dux. Thus the war becomes as thoroughly and carefully choreographed as Swan Lake or Petrouchka.
Tom Clancy took all of this in and made his novel out of it. As one who had grown up in perpetual anticipation of that war, I could not resist reading Red Storm Rising. And there it was: the war that did not happen, manifest harmlessly as a best selling techno-thriller, a day dream, a fantasy.
That particular danger may have been avoided, but it seems to me that we may want Krishna to change his mind again—and soon.