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In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that people follow the example of great men.

यद्यदाचरति श्रेष्ठस्तत्तदेवेतरो जनः। स यत्प्रमाणं कुरुते लोकस्तदनुवर्तते।।3.21।। न मे पार्थास्ति कर्तव्यं त्रिषु लोकेषु किञ्चन। नानवाप्तमवाप्तव्यं वर्त एव च कर्मणि।।3.22।। यदि ह्यहं न वर्तेयं जातु कर्मण्यतन्द्रितः। मम वर्त्मानुवर्तन्ते मनुष्याः पार्थ सर्वशः।।3.23।।

3.21 Whatever a great man does, other men also do. Whichever standard he sets, the world follows it. 3.22 For me, Arjuna, there is nothing in all the three worlds which ought to be done, nor is there anything unacquired that ought to be acquired. Yet I go on working. 3.23 If I did not continue to work unwearied, O Arjuna, men would follow my path.

The implication of this is that great men should set an example to ordinary people.

Yet, in the Srimad Bhagavatam, Krishna's behavior towards gopis, who are the wives of other men, raises questions, which the Bhagavatam itself touches upon.

ŚB 10.33.26-27 श्रीपरीक्षिदुवाच संस्थापनाय धर्मस्य प्रशमायेतरस्य च । अवतीर्णो हि भगवानंशेन जगदीश्वर: ॥ २६ ॥ स कथं धर्मसेतूनां वक्ता कर्ताभिरक्षिता । प्रतीपमाचरद् ब्रह्मन् परदाराभिमर्शनम् ॥ २७ ॥ ŚB 10.33.28 आप्तकामो यदुपति: कृतवान्वै जुगुप्सितम् । किमभिप्राय एतन्न: शंशयं छिन्धि सुव्रत ॥ २८ ॥

Parīkṣit Mahārāja said: O brāhmaṇa, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the Lord of the universe, has descended to this earth along with His plenary portion to destroy irreligion and reestablish religious principles. Indeed, He is the original speaker, follower and guardian of moral laws. How, then, could He have violated them by touching other men’s wives?

O faithful upholder of vows, please destroy our doubt by explaining to us what purpose the self-satisfied Lord of the Yadus had in mind when He behaved so contemptibly.

The bhagavatam's answer is that ordinary rules dont apply to such gods. Ordinary people should not imitate such behavior.

ŚB 10.33.29 श्रीशुक उवाच धर्मव्यतिक्रमो द‍ृष्ट ईश्वराणां च साहसम् । तेजीयसां न दोषाय वह्ने: सर्वभुजो यथा ॥ २९ ॥

Śukadeva Gosvāmī said: The status of powerful controllers is not harmed by any apparently audacious transgression of morality we may see in them, for they are just like fire, which devours everything fed into it and remains unpolluted.

ŚB 10.33.30 नैतत् समाचरेज्जातु मनसापि ह्यनीश्वर: । विनश्यत्याचरन् मौढ्याद्यथारुद्रोऽब्धिजं विषम् ॥ ३० ॥

One who is not a great controller should never imitate the behavior of ruling personalities, even mentally. If out of foolishness an ordinary person does imitate such behavior, he will simply destroy himself, just as a person who is not Rudra would destroy himself if he tried to drink an ocean of poison.

So here there are two mutually contradictory viewpoints -

  1. Krishna Himself says in the Gita that great men need to set an example to ordinary people.
  2. Srimad bhagavatam saying that certain actions of gods should not be followed by ordinary people.

How to reconcile these two viewpoints? How can gods behave in questionable manner if they are supposed to set an example to ordinary men?

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    Why should it be reconciled? – Wikash_ Jan 26 at 16:01
  • He said to follow great men like Suryavanshi kings like Janaka, Rama etc., in Geeta chapter 3, Krishna is not even categorized in level of men, he showed several miracles. If one wish to have affair with several gopis, than one should also be able to lift govardhan mountain first. Bhagavatam also explained that those gopis were reincarnation of sages of Treta Yuga who found Nirguna Brahman monotonous and had met Rama during his voyage. Read original Bhagvatam version not edited ones by Iskcon. – user16530 Jan 27 at 6:57
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    There is difference between imitating someone and following someone. – Ubi Bhatt Jan 27 at 19:53
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The Bh.Gita answers this in chapter #4, verse #9, "janma karma ch me divyam..."

We should identify the holy scripture where He is playing the role of a human. When He comes between us doesn't mean He is absent from His transcendental domain. The Chhandogya Upanishada explains His eight transcendental features. The one is that He is "satya-sankalpah", which makes Him different than great people and demigods.

https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org/chapter/4/verse/9

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One way could be using conditions and consequences. I was told by a friend that The Tamil Pouranika named Kripananda Warrier said the following (meaning I didn't hear this discourse personally, but I am being honest to give the attribution exactly as I heard through a friend of mine) -

Lord Krishna adopting ways that are questionable in our perspective, is like a police man speeding to catch a thief (which a non-police personnel should not do). If the police man does not do it (assuming no civilians are harmed in the pursuit), chances are high the offender will get away. So people with power, people with the responsibility to restore Dharma have certain exceptions that others don't have. The qualifiers that apply to ordinary people, are not the same that bind people with power and and noble souls. (I know how this can be, and is being, misused in the current world - but that's a different topic :-) )

While this does not explain every folklore we hear on the name of Lord Krishna, or everything mentioned in The Puranas about The Lord, I thought this was a nice way to explain some of the actions of Lord Krishna when he approved of certain actions.

The Lord with all HIS objectives of his avatAra, still balanced the actions. rAsakrita etc showing HIS human approach, subjecting HIMSELF to the human ways of working, and human emotions. Approving Bhimasena to hit Duryodhana on the thighs could be taken like the action of a police man exceeding the speed limits. The Lord going personally HIMSELF as a messenger to broker peace between Pandavas and Kauravas could be taken as an instance of HIM setting an example for humans to follow. This can be taken as an example of verse 3.21 that you quoted from The Bhagavad Gita in the question.

In short, The Lord demonstrated all the behaviours - behaviour of the highest authority with wide sway in following rules, behaviour of a human with all the emotions, behaviour of a human bound by rules and conventions.

So to reconcile the two ideas that you highlighted, you could use the context in each one of those instances. Going to Hastinapura to broker peace didn't create an irreversible harm to any one. It could have avoided the war, and turned out it didn't, putting the Pandavas back to square one. But not allowing Bhimasena to hit Duryodhana could have resulted in Bhimasena being killed, and Duryodhana enjoying the kingdom after all the atrocities he committed (including attempt to kill his cousins and his aunt by setting the house of lac on fire).

So one way to take this would be along the consequentialist / utilitarian angle. The interpretation may be that even a great man, who has the responsibility to set examples, should not blindly follow rules for the sake of rules. In the real world, consequences matter. One should be mindful of consequences of one's own actions (as The Lord tells The King Yudhishtra and Arjuna in The Karna Parva). But at the same time this does not mean one should hanker for results for every positive thing he / she does (karmanyE vAdhikaraste ma phalEshu kadAchana..).

Being mindful of the consequences, particularly harmful ones, is different from seeking reward for one's own positive actions. That's how I would see the difference. If we don't observe this difference humans will be causing collateral damage everywhere justifying that using Bhagavad Gita.

I know the way my answer shaped up supports a utilitarian style of thinking. There is nothing totally wrong with it, as both utilitarian ethics and deontological ethics have their own place and applicability. I am just showing one way to reconcile the views, which is by applying certain conditions (conditions involving consequences / harm).

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    I am sorry I did not understand your answer. Avoiding interference in Mahabharata war could have had harmful cosequences. But how is avoiding rAsaleela going to have any harmful consequences? – yAdRcchika Jan 26 at 17:48
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    I think OP is specifically asking about 'Krishna's behavior towards gopis, who are the wives of other men' whereas your answer is addressing other examples where dharma needs to be established ('But not allowing Bhimasena to hit Duryodhana could have resulted in Bhimasena being killed'). – sv. Jan 26 at 17:51
  • Krishna's interference in Mahabharata war can be interpreted as taking the side of dharma - something which is a good example to be followed by ordinary men. – yAdRcchika Jan 26 at 17:53
  • @yAdRcchika I agree. Not all can be explained. That's why I made a statement (copy - pasting here) "While this does not explain every folklore we hear on the name of Lord Krishna, or everything mentioned in The Puranas about The Lord,.." So rAsaleela is hard to explain this way. In my view that falls in the second category which is The Lord simply exhibiting the "behaviour of a human with all the emotions". But your question is understandable, and hard to explain using constructs like these. – Vidyarthi Jan 26 at 22:08
  • @sv. thanks for pointing out that contrast. I tried to answer more generically. I agree some of those events / actions, including but not limited to this rAsaleela, cannot be explained. If the question is specific only to rAsaleela, I agree my answer does not explain it. – Vidyarthi Jan 26 at 22:09

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