By devotional service one can understand that Kṛṣṇa first of all manifests Himself as svayam-rūpa, His personal form, then as tadekātma-rūpa, and then as āveśa-rūpa. It is in these three features that He manifests Himself in His transcendental form. The feature of svayam-rūpa is the form by which Kṛṣṇa can be understood by one who may not understand His other features. In other words, the form by which Kṛṣṇa is directly understood is called svayam-rūpa, or His personal form. The tadekātma-rūpa is that form which most resembles the svayam-rūpa, but there are some differences in the bodily features. The tadekātma-rūpa is divided into two manifestations—the personal expansion (svāṁśa) and the pastime expansion (vilāsa). As far as the āveśa-rūpa is concerned, when Kṛṣṇa empowers some suitable living entity to represent Him, that living entity is called āveśa-rūpa, or śaktyāveśa-avatāra.
The personal form of Kṛṣṇa can be divided into two: svayam-rūpa and svayam-prakāśa. As far as His svayam-rūpa (or pastime form) is concerned, it is in that form that He remains always in Vṛndāvana with the inhabitants of Vṛndāvana. This personal form (svayam-rūpa) can be further divided into the prābhava and vaibhava forms. For instance, Kṛṣṇa expanded Himself in multiple forms during the rāsa dance in order to dance with each and every gopī who took part in forms in order to accommodate His 16,108 wives. There are some instances of great mystics' also expanding their bodily features in different ways, but Kṛṣṇa did not expand Himself by any yoga process. Each expansion of Kṛṣṇa was a separate individual. In Vedic history, Saubhari Ṛṣi, a sage, expanded himself into eight forms by the yoga process, but Saubhari Ṛṣi remained one. As far as Kṛṣṇa is concerned, when He manifested Himself in different forms, each and every one of them was a separate individual. When Nārada Muni visited Kṛṣṇa at different palaces at Dvārakā, he was astonished at this, and yet Nārada is never astonished to see expansions of a yogī's body, since he knows the trick himself. Yet in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is stated that Nārada was actually astonished to see the expansions of Kṛṣṇa. He wondered how the Lord was present with His queens in each and every one of His 16,108 palaces. With each queen, Kṛṣṇa Himself was in a different form, and He was acting in different ways. In one form He was engaged in playing with His children, and in yet another form He was performing some household work. These different activities are conducted by the Lord when He is in His "emotional" forms, which are known as vaibhava-prakāśa expansions. Similarly, there are other unlimited expansions of the forms of Kṛṣṇa, but even when they are divided or expanded without limit, they are still one and the same. There is no difference between one form and another. That is the absolute nature of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam it is stated that when Akrūra was accompanying both Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma from Gokula to Mathurā, he entered into the waters of the Yamunā River and could see in the waters all the planets in the spiritual sky. He also saw there the Lord in His Viṣṇu form as well as Nārada and the four Kumāras, who were worshiping Him. As stated in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (SB 10.40.7):
- anye ca saṁskṛtātmāno
- vidhinābhihitena te
- yajanti tvan-mayās tvāṁ vai
There are many worshipers who are purified by different processes of worship—such as the Vaiṣṇavas or the Āryans—who also worship the Supreme Lord according to their convictions and spiritual understanding. Each process of worship involves understanding different forms of the Lord, as mentioned in scriptures, but the ultimate idea is to worship the Supreme Lord Himself.
In His vaibhava-prakāśa feature, the Lord manifests Himself as Balarāma. The Balarāma feature is as good as Kṛṣṇa Himself, the only difference being that the bodily hue of Kṛṣṇa is dark and that of Balarāma is fair. The vaibhava-prakāśa form was also displayed when Kṛṣṇa appeared before His Mother Devakī in the four-handed form of Nārāyaṇa, just when He entered the world. At the request of His parents, however, He transformed Himself into a two-handed form. Thus He sometimes manifests four hands and sometimes two. The two-handed form is actually vaibhava-prakāśa, and the four-handed form is prābhava-prakāśa. In His personal form, Kṛṣṇa is just like a cowherd boy, and He thinks of Himself in that way. But when He is in the Vāsudeva form, He thinks of Himself as the son of a kṣatriya and acts as a princely administrator.
In the two-handed form, as the cowherd son of Nanda Mahārāja, Kṛṣṇa fully exhibits His opulence, form, beauty, wealth, attractiveness and pastimes. Indeed, in some of the Vaiṣṇava literatures it is found that sometimes, in His form as Vāsudeva, He becomes attracted to the form of Govinda in Vṛndāvana. Thus as Vāsudeva He sometimes desires to enjoy as the cowherd boy Govinda does, although the Govinda form and the Vāsudeva form are one and the same. In this regard, there is a passage in the Fourth Chapter of the Lalita-mādhava (4.19), in which Kṛṣṇa addresses Uddhava as follows: "My dear friend, the form of Govinda, the cowherd boy, attracts Me. Indeed, I wish to be like the damsels of Vraja, who are also attracted by this form of Govinda." Similarly, in the Eighth Chapter, Kṛṣṇa says: "O how wonderful it is! Who is this person? After seeing Him, I am so attracted that I am now desiring to embrace Him just like Rādhikā."
There are also forms of Kṛṣṇa which are a little different, and these are called tadekātma-rūpa forms. These may be further divided into the vilāsa and svāṁśa forms, which in turn have many different features and can be divided into prābhava and vaibhava forms. As far as the vilāsa forms are concerned, there are innumerable prābhava-vilāsas by which Kṛṣṇa expands Himself as Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha. Sometimes the Lord thinks of Himself as a cowherd boy, and sometimes He thinks of Himself as the son of Vasudeva, a kṣatriya prince, and this "thinking" of Kṛṣṇa is called His "pastimes." Actually He is in the same form in His vaibhava-prakāśa and prābhava-vilāsa, but He appears differently as Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa. His expansions as Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha are in the original catur-vyūha, or four-handed forms.
There are innumerable four-handed manifestations in different planets and different places, and they are manifested in Dvārakā and Mathurā eternally. From the four principal four-handed forms (Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha) there are manifest the principal twenty-four forms called vaibhava-vilāsa, and they are named differently according to the placement of different symbols (conch, mace, lotus and disc) in their hands. The four principal manifestations of Kṛṣṇa are found in each planet in the spiritual sky, and these planets are called Nārāyaṇaloka or Vaikuṇṭhaloka. In the Vaikuṇṭhaloka He is manifested in the four-handed form of Nārāyaṇa. From each Nārāyaṇa the forms of Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha are manifested. Thus Nārāyaṇa is the center, and the four forms of Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha surround the Nārāyaṇa form. Each of these four forms again expand into three, and these all have different names, beginning with Keśava. These forms are twelve in all, and they are known by different names according to the placement of symbols in their hands.
As far as the Vāsudeva form is concerned, the three expansions manifested from Him are Keśava, Nārāyaṇa and Mādhava. The three forms of Saṅkarṣaṇa are known as Govinda, Viṣṇu and Śrī Madhusūdana. (It should be noted, however, that this Govinda form is not the same Govinda form that is manifested in Vṛndāvana as the son of Nanda Mahārāja.) Similarly, Pradyumna is also divided into three forms known as Trivikrama, Vāmana and Śrīdhara; and the three forms of Aniruddha are known as Hṛṣīkeśa, Padmanābha and Dāmodara.