Asceticism has long been the sine qua non of spiritual exploration. In Hindu Tradition, it was long figured out that the basic, foundational and primordial existence was consciousness. How it manifested as matter was the only point of debate and discussion. Most learned called matter as vibration of the consciousness much like waves in an ocean. Those who had a hard time grasping that, “created” entities/semantics to understand the manifestation.
The prominent methodology to move to “understanding” the primordial nature of existence was “negative” exploration, or “Neti, Neti” as it was first articulated. Which essentially tried to deny whatever could be observed as not True and thus not the primordial existence (and thus vibration or the “other entity” as it was defined). The methodology of denial could only lead to asceticism. It did not entail a democratization of spiritual exploration (or spirituality for all). Only those who could have the ability to go through grueling rounds of discernment exercise while being aware of their own limitations and conditioning could even approach any level of understanding using the “Neti, Neti” or method of denial.
Of course, once they were “there” and could realize the “Oneness” of consciousness and the foolishness of the differences they could be oblivious of the differences and be equanimous with “everything’… since they could now see the non-duality of entire existence.
But compassion or love was not a starting point. In fact that could be a hurdle as it was an emotion when the quest started.
Krishna changed all that. He not only understood the true nature of bondage, but also the true dimension of love. Love could not be love, if it was anything less that omni-dimensional. If you could not see your beloved in everything and everything in your beloved, including you yourself, then your “love” was not really love of the spiritual dimension.
But to get to that point of realization, he had to take a completely and diametrically opposite route. Instead of “Neti, Neti” (Not this, Not this); he suggested the path of “I am this, I am this”. Seeing the worthlessness of all existence (as temporary as iit was) was a great way to get to consciousness (the Infinite); but embracing everything – perfections and imperfections… the vibrations of all hues and the consciousness – as they presented themselves and merging one’s own existence with them was a radically different articulation.
Lord Krishna said, I am All… and not “All is mine”. For “All” to be someone’s it had to be different, and so complete and unconditional embrace was impossible. Until there was a distance and conditions, such embrace was for one’s benefit as opposed to being one with all. Love in such relationship would remain partial and conditional and limited.
But as soon as one could embrace All, instead of negating “Some of All”, one needed to call upon a faculty that was present but tough to inculcate. It was present in most beings, but it didn’t get articulated in spiritual realm as much. It was compassion… Unconditional and Complete Compassion!
You can never say “I am All” until you have complete and absolute compassion. And once you have the compassion then Oneness with All is a certainty.
Krishna brought to fore the unconditional and unbounded Compassion – Devotion – as a valid methodology in spiritual exploration.
Attempts to get there had been made before, when “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahmam) was articulated. But first the existence was defined in terms of consciousness and then One’s self likened to that consciousness. Self was never at the outset itself likened to existence and beyond. That would have required a loving and compassionate self. The paradigm was completely different.
Krishna’s ability to articulate spiritual freedom in terms of compassion and love spurred many souls to continue on Devotion as a valid topolgy for freedom. Until then, negating and asceticism would render such ideas as irrelevant.
In that sense, Krishna made Bhakti possible and Loving Saints follow their love to freedom. No wonder most Bhakti Saints consider Krishna as their “Isht” (or deity).
Compassion was freed and made universal.