The Inconceivable … One More Time
by Ravindra Svarupa Dasa
My essay “On Conceiving the Inconceivable,” addressed the conceptually vexing question How did the conditioned soul—the jiva—get that way? Upon this topic—“the jiva issue”—a small but prolix band of people in and about ISKCON have piled up a great number of words. I was loathe to add to them. For to expend time and energy on this issue goes counter to the instructions of Srila Prabhupada. “What is the use of such discussion?” he wrote about efforts to comprehend the causal history of the jiva’s falldown. “Don’t waste your time with this.”1
Why did I go against such clear instruction? How did I become so foolish as to rush in where angels fear to tread? It happened like this.
Last year ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission, on which I serve, had to deal with an uproar caused by a 300-page book on the “jiva issue” that a couple of devotees had just written and published.
The controversy arose over the way in which the authors attempted to resolve the issue. The reader may recall that the issue centers upon the apparent incompatibility of two authoritative accounts of the origin of conditioned souls. One account—which receives by far the most stress in Prabhupada’s teachings—tells that the conditioned souls were originally Krishna conscious, but that they willfully repudiated service to Krishna and in so doing fell from the spiritual into the material world. The second account holds that conditioned souls have been so perpetually, while the eternally liberated souls in the spiritual world never fall.
How are these two accounts to be reconciled? The controversial book before the GBC reconciled the two simply by throwing out the first of them. Yet how is it possible to dispose of that account? After all, it is a prominent leitmotif of Srila Prabhupada’s teaching. It is presumed by the name Srila Prabhupada gave this very magazine. The story of the jiva’s fall, theorized the book’s authors, is Prabhupada’s benevolent fiction. It is a myth, a white lie, invented by Prabhupada because we Westerners are mentally incapable of accepting the concept of a soul that has simply always been conditioned.
Asked to pass judgment on this theory, the GBC resolved that this way of solving the jiva issue was unacceptable. The GBC ruling went no further, but naturally in discussion the question came up of what sort of resolution would be acceptable. To further the GBC’s discussion, I produced the little paper later published in these pages. I labored to keep the paper short—a minimalist work—because I wanted to be considerate of the GBC as well as faithful to Srila Prabhupada’s instruction not to waste time—mine or the readers’—on this issue.
The editor of Back to Godhead read the little essay, liked it, and published it here. He saw the brevity of the article as a virtue.
Some readers, however, have seen it as a vice. Several in particular have deplored the paucity of “quotes”—they mean explicit citations and quotations from authorities. One reader claims that such references are a requirement, especially when presenting “a new elucidation,” while another asserts their absence sufficient in itself to prove the article “mental speculation” and nothing more.2
It is not the case that a Krishna conscious article requires explicit citations and quotations. As a brand-new devotee, I received much knowledge and inspiration from a little piece by Srila Prabhupada called “On Chanting Hare Krishna.”3 A paradigm of brevity and elegance,4 it is innocent of any quotations or references. Yet one who knows the philosophy of Krishna consciousness recognizes that every word is faithful to authority.
When I wrote the jiva article, I had supposed that devotees would similarly have little trouble recognizing the source of the ideas in it: Srila Prabhupada. Rather than presenting “a new elucidation,” my article set forth my spiritual master’s own resolution of the “jiva issue.” In the rest of this essay, I will provide the quotations to show that.
Some of the demand for proof-texting focused on a premise of the article: that the account of the fall of the jiva is an authoritative narration. Is there indeed scriptural and traditional authority for it?
In the Fourth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Narada Muni narrates the allegorical story of King Puranjana. In the part that concerns us, Puranjana has just died and his widow, Vaidarbhi, is lamenting piteously. A brahmana approaches the queen and introduces himself as her “eternal friend.” The brahmana, who symbolizes the Supersoul, says to the grieving queen:
My dear friend, even though you cannot immediately recognize Me, can’t you remember that in the past you had a very intimate friend? Unfortunately, you gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world. My dear gentle friend, both you and I are exactly like two swans. We live together in the same heart, which is just like the Manasa lake. Although we have been living together for many thousands of years, we are still far away from our original home.5
Commenting on these verses,6 Srila Prabhupada explains that the passage “gave up My company and accepted a position as enjoyer of this material world” refers to the soul’s fall from the spiritual into the material world. To explain “how the living entity falls down into this material world,” Srila Prabhupada quotes Bhagavad- gita 7.27: “All living entities are born into delusion, overcome by the dualities of desire and hate.”
“In the spiritual world there is no duality, nor is there hate,” Prabhupada says. But “when the living entities desire to enjoy themselves, they develop a consciousness of duality and come to hate the service of the Lord. In this way the living entities fall into the material world.” He elaborates further: “The natural position of the living entity is to serve the Lord in a transcendental loving attitude. When the living entity wants to become Krishna Himself or imitate Krishna, he falls down into the material world.”
In Narada’s allegory, the brahmana speaks of himself and the queen as two swans—symbolically the Supersoul and the soul—who have wandered together far away from their “original home.” What place is that? Prabhupada explains:
The original home of the living entity and the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the spiritual world. In the spiritual world both the Lord and the living entities live together very peacefully. Since the living entity remains engaged in the service of the Lord, they both share a blissful life in the spiritual world. However, when the living entity wants to enjoy himself, he falls down into the material world.7
It is clear that Narada Muni teaches here in Srimad- Bhagavatam that the conditioned souls dwelt originally in the spiritual world, their homeland, where they enjoyed a relation of active service with Krishna. However, these souls willfully gave up Krishna’s company in order to become enjoyers. Srila Prabhupada explains that they wanted to imitate Krishna rather than serve Him. As Prabhupada states it elsewhere in his Bhagavatam commentary: “The first sinful will of the living entity is to become the Lord, and the consequent will of the Lord is that the living entity forget his factual life and thus dream of the land of utopia where he may become one like the Lord.”8
In addition, Srimad-Bhagavatam repeatedly speaks of liberation in Krishna consciousness as a restoration, a return, a reawakening, a recovery, a remembering. Narada Muni uses such language himself a little further on in his allegory of the soul and Supersoul:
In this way both swans live together in the heart. When the one swan is instructed by the other, he is situated in his constitutional position. This means he regains his original Krishna consciousness, which was lost because of his material attraction.9
In this verse “regains his original Krishna consciousness” is a translation of nashtam apa punah smritim. Krishna consciousness is literally a lost (nashtam) memory (smritim) which is gained (apa) once again (punah). In Srimad- Bhagavatam this terminology of forgetting and once again remembering is invoked over and over.10 Remembering, regaining, returning, recovering—all these terms presuppose a past state that had once been ours, had then become lost, and will be ours once more. Srimad- Bhagavatam teaches it, and so, of course, does Srila Prabhupada.
Srila Prabhupada as Authority
What I have given is sufficient to establish the authority of the account of the jiva’s fall, and I will leave it at that. I may disappoint readers who will want proof- texting from authorities who stand between Narada Muni and Srila Prabhupada in the disciplic succession. I am confident, however, that Srila Prabhupada is a bona fide spiritual master. As such, he is a “transparent medium” who represents (literally, presents over again) the entire tradition coming from Krishna. To those readers who claim not to have found in those authorities confirmation of the teaching spelled out here, I can only suggest that you go back and look again. Srila Prabhupada undoubtedly understands those authorities better than you or I. Go back, and this time use Srila Prabhupada as your guide.
Srila Prabhupada is uniquely qualified to understand spiritual teaching. Such understanding is hardly a matter of academic scholarship. The Svetasvatara Upanishad, in its concluding verse (6.23), tells who among its readers will have revealed to them the purport of what they’ve read: only a great soul, a mahatma, who possesses pure devotion (para bhakti) to the Lord and, in equal measure, to his spiritual master. Srila Prabhupada himself exhibited extraordinary devotion to the Lord and to his guru. Only because of that devotion was he empowered to achieve unprecedented success in preaching Krishna consciousness throughout the world. I take the greatness of his success as a measure of his greatness of soul, and therefore I accept him as empowered by Krishna also with the ability to penetrate deeply into the meaning of spiritual teaching. It is therefore my policy to follow him in his understanding.
This is what I tried to do in my Back to Godhead article. It is not that Srila Prabhupada was silent on the “jiva issue.” His disciples brought it up a number of times, and there are lectures, letters, and conversations in which he addressed it head on. Never once do we find him so much as hinting that Narada Muni’s account of the origin of bondage is a myth or fiction. Rather, he defends that account vigorously and teaches his disciples how to reconcile it with the statements that there is no fall from Vaikuntha, the spiritual world.
The central point in Srila Prabhupada’s reconciliation is that every single soul is in fact eternally liberated (nitya-mukta) and not a single soul ever really leaves the spiritual world. The so-called “conditioned souls” (nitya-baddha) only superficially appear to be so to themselves, and their apparently bound state is an illusion of such vanishingly small duration and significance that it is virtually of no weight at all in the true scale of things.
Thus, Srila Prabhupada said that the appellation nitya- mukta is factual, while the appellation nitya- baddha is only a manner of speaking. “You are not eternally conditioned,” Srila Prabhupada wrote one disciple.
You are eternally liberated, but since we have become conditioned on account of our desire to enjoy [the] materialistic way of life, from time immemorial, therefore it appears that we are eternally conditioned. Because we cannot trace out the history of the date when we became conditioned, therefore it is technically called eternally conditioned. Otherwise the living entity is not actually conditioned.11
As Srila Prabhupada affirmed in a Srimad- Bhagavatam lecture,12 “We cannot be eternally conditioned, because we are part and parcel of Krishna. Our natural position is ever liberated, eternally liberated.” The term “eternally conditioned,” according to Srila Prabhupada, is not accurate from the philosophical point of view, but is a figure of speech.
Constitutionally every living entity, even if he is in Vaikuntha-loka, has [a] chance of falling down. Therefore the living entity is called marginal energy. But when the falldown has taken place for the conditioned soul is very difficult to ascertain. Therefore two classes are designated: eternally liberated and eternally conditioned. But for argument’s sake, a living entity being marginal energy, he can’t be eternally conditioned. The time is so unlimited that the conditioned souls appear to be eternally so, but from the philosophical view they cannot be eternally conditioned.13
Even as Srila Prabhupada speaks of the soul’s fall from Vaikuntha, he also upholds the statements that Vaikuntha is that place from which no one falls. The deep truth of the matter is that we are even now in Vaikuntha but we don’t know it. Lecturing on Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.1, Srila Prabhupada directly says that now he will reply to those who ask, “How did the living entity, who was with Krishna, fall into the material world?” Prabhupada then states that the fallen condition is merely an appearance: It “is simply the influence of the material energy, nothing more; actually he has not fallen.”
Prabhupada gives this example: Just as clouds passing in front of the moon at night make the moon appear to move, so the material energy makes the soul, who is eternally with Krishna, appear to be fallen. “Actually, the moon is not moving. Similarly, the living entity, because he is a spiritual spark of the Supreme, has not fallen. But he is thinking, ‘I am fallen. I am material. I am this body.’ ”
The second example Srila Prabhupada uses comes directly from the Bhagavatam verse. A dreaming person manufactures an alternate dream-self that he temporarily takes to be his real identity. Thus, the dreamer imagines himself undergoing all kinds of adventures. Say in a nightmare he dreams he is running in panic through a dense jungle at night, a huge and hungry tiger chasing him down. With a thudding heart, he hears the tiger coming inexorably closer. Then claws rake his back, and fangs crush his neck, and he wakes up screaming in terror. With relief he sees he is safe in bed. The fictional dream-self is gone. All along he had been safe in his own bed. He was never lost in any tiger-infested jungle.