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Self, see also Soul, Atma, Spirit

Lifeless Vitalism


The distinquished British scientist Michael Polanyi speaks of something he finds “unbelievable.” What is that? For three hundred years, he says, writers who contested the idea that life can be explained by physics and chemistry “argued by affirming that living things are not, or not wholly, machinelike.” What’s wrong with that? Instead, Polanyi says, those writers should have been “pointing out that the mere existence of machinelike functions in living beings proves that life cannot be explained in terms of physics and chemistry.”1

What does Polanyi mean?

According to the old, traditional belief, living beings are animated by some kind of vital principle we can’t fully understand in physical terms. Modern biology textbooks firmly reject that belief, called vitalism. Most modern biologists would say we can fully understand life through physics and chemistry. Today a scientist who goes in for vitalism puts his credibility on the line.

Yet Polanyi says life can’t be explained through physics and chemistry. Is he breaking ranks with mainstream science and going heretic? No. It turns out that Polanyi’s position fits snugly with the established principles of the physical and biological sciences. What he is doing is showing how to redefine vitalism so it agrees with those principles.

Transcending Boundaries

The key to Polanyi’s argument is the idea of boundary conditions. Physicists can predict what a piece of matter will do by taking account of two things: boundary conditions and the laws of physics.

For example, suppose we want to predict the trajectory of a cannonball. To do this we need to know the speed of the cannonball as it leaves the gun and the angle at which the barrel is tilting. Then, using Newton’s laws of motion, we can calculate the cannonball’s path. The important point is this: Unless we know the boundary conditions—the initial speed and the gun-barrel tilt—the laws of physics tell us nothing about what the cannonball will do.

Here’s a more complex example. In a computer, what are the boundary conditions? First we have the engineered structure of the computer, including such things as the design of its circuits. Then we have the operating conditions, like how hot the room is and how many volts come from the power supply. Next comes the software. And last there’s the information fed into the computer while it’s running. And the laws of physics? In this case the relevant ones are the laws of electromagnetism.

The boundary conditions here are highly complex, but when we think of a computer, these boundary conditions are mainly what we think of. For example, a programmer thinks of software, and a computer designer thinks of circuit diagrams. We skip the details of what the laws of physics say the computer is doing.

Even though the computer does obey the laws of physics, its design and software let us think about the computer and yet forget those laws. So on a practical level, we could say that the computer’s boundary conditions go beyond—“transcend”—the laws of physics.

Polanyi extends these observations to the bodies of living organisms, which in some ways resemble computers. Living organisms are extremely complex in structure, and their molecules of DNA hold vast information. That structure and that information, we can think, define the living organism’s boundary conditions. So Polanyi reasons that, as with the computer, a living system “transcends” the chemical and physical laws that govern the atomic stuff of which it’s made.2

For Polanyi, to “explain a phenomenon fully in terms of physics and chemistry” means to nail it down with physical and chemical laws plus simple boundary conditions, like those in the example of the cannonball. If the needed boundary conditions get complex, Polanyi says, then what we’re studying by definition transcends the laws of physics.

A Compromise that Fails

It may seem at first glance that Polanyi is attributing to life some unique property of transcendence. But in physics and chemistry, solving the vast majority of problems calls for knowledge of complex boundary conditions. So it follows that such problems all transcend chemistry and physics. Indeed, Polanyi says, any chemical compound that has a complex structure and so transmits a lot of information to its neighborhood must in this regard “be irreducible to physics and chemistry.”3

What it boils down to is this: Most scientists see boundary conditions as part of physics and chemistry, and they see life as fully physical. Polanyi accepts that the physical laws fully govern an organism’s material body. But by juggling words and separating complex boundary conditions from physical laws, he has found a way to declare that life is transcendental.

Polanyi has created a compromise between vitalism and physical science by redefining vitalism as a subdivision of the existing physical theories. But this won’t work. The old ideas of vitalism posited laws and energies of life that simply have no part in contemporary physics and chemistry. For example, the Bhagavad-gita says that energies called mind, intelligence, and false ego control how living organisms behave. Since these energies have no place in the existing theories of chemistry and physics, it follows that if the Bhagavad-gita is right, Polanyi’s understanding of life is wrong.

Exploring the Link at the Boundary

But we can salvage something from Polanyi’s ideas. Bhagavad-gita 3.27 indicates that Krishna, the supreme controller, acts in the material world through the agency of material nature. But material nature operates according to His will. This means that in the actual laws of nature there must be boundary conditions that represent the moment-by-moment link between matter and the supreme will. These actual natural laws will conform with the known laws of physics under special conditions. But in general they will extend further to allow for subtle energies (such as mind, intelligence, and false ego). And they will allow for Krishna’s personal direction of material affairs. So here’s a true challenge to physical science: Can it progress towards learning the details of these higher-order natural laws?


  1. Polanyi, Michael, “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry,” Chemical and Engineering News, Aug. 21, 1967, p. 65.
  2. Ibid., p. 55.
  3. Ibid., p. 62.

The Search for Self-fulfillment


from Back To Godhead Magazine #16-10, 1981

“There is no ‘real’ me—a tiny homunculus hidden beneath layers of frozen feelings. … It is not an isolated ‘object,’ a ghost locked in a machine or a mere consciousness located within the body. … You are inextricably enmeshed in the web of meanings shaped by the psychoculture that you helped to form and that, in turn, helps to form you.” (Daniel Yankelovich, in New Rules: Searching for Self-fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down)

What is the self? Is it something shaped and shared by our surroundings, as Dr. Yankelovich believes, or something private, autonomous, internal? Since everyone, no matter how he chooses to define the self, is interested in self-fulfillment, it is of paramount importance to know what the self is. Generally our concepts of the self are vague and speculative; so we often feel unfulfilled, even after attaining our goals. At a time when we are finding material goals more and more difficult to attain and when we are at a loss to find deep self-satisfaction, the Vedic literature’s unique statements can provide us with invaluable information about the self and self- fulfillment.

In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna describes the self as a permanent individual, an eternal conscious entity who interrelates with other selves. Bhagavad-gita gives us exact information of the self as an imperishable, nonmaterial particle, a spiritual soul (atma), who gives consciousness to the otherwise dead body.

People often deny the existence of the atma simply because the concept of the spiritual soul is rejected by modern science. Since with empirical methods one cannot detect or measure the spiritual soul, many people conclude—dogmatically—that no soul exists and that whoever believes in such a thing is only imagining a “ghost in the machine.” But from the perspective of Bhagavad-gita, to think of life in mechanistic terms, as mere chemical combinations and electrical impulses, is at best misguided, and at worst demonic.

Many people who scoff at religious explanations for the self embrace the theories of science as their new religion. Yet after hundreds of years of scientific philosophizing and experimentation, there is still no empirical explanation for consciousness, which the Bhagavad-gita explains to be the symptom of the self. Even the simple fact of individual conscious perception—everyone’s awareness that he is alive—remains totally inexplicable in material terms. Although the common man is in awe of advanced research in computer science (“artificial intelligence”) and other technologies, no scientist has been able to duplicate anything like a conscious living being.

The reason mechanistic science has failed to explain or create consciousness is easy to grasp. As Bhagavad- gita explains, the atma, the source of consciousness, lies entirely beyond the body and mind, so methods of perception that depend on the sensory apparatus of the body and mind can never detect the atma. Still, we can readily see the difference between the atma and the body by reflecting a little on our common everyday discourse. We think of the body as “ours,” and we say “my hand” or “my foot,” even “my mind.” Since the “I,” the self, is the owner of the body, it must be different from the body.

Bhagavad-gita describes that above the body is the mind, above the mind is the intelligence, and above the intelligence is the spiritual soul. It is because of a case of mistaken identity, false ego, that the deathless spiritual soul takes up residence in the perishable material body. The self’s identification with the body is like a person’s taking his body in a dream to be real. And a society that accepts the theories of mechanistic science as the absolute truth reinforces this misidentification.

Vedic knowledge confirms the sociologists’ claim that the beliefs of a society greatly influence the self. From birth, parents assure a child that he or she is a boy or a girl, a member of a certain family, a certain society, and so on. Except in a rare case in which a family or society imparts transcendental knowledge to the conditioned soul, one grows up with concocted, socialized conceptions of the self. Therefore one is bound to meet frustration in one’s search for self-fulfillment. Since one is actually eternal, one cannot be satisfied with temporary material goals.

The self can truly be satisfied only by gaining enlightenment concerning his relationship with the Supreme. Lord Krishna describes this enlightenment in Bhagavad-gita (6.21-23):

In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.

And what about social responsibility? If the soul is spiritual, different from the material body, doesn’t that mean that a self-realized soul is antisocial, uninterested in helping others? No. Rather, when a human being comes to understand his real identity as atma, an eternal spiritual soul, a servant of God, then for the first time he realizes his loving connection with all living beings. Such a self-realized person becomes automatically nonviolent, even toward animals. And being self-satisfied and therefore not overly dependent on material things, he does not conflict with others in vicious competition. Moreover, his universal vision, in which he sees all living entities as spiritual souls or sons of God, enables him to take a nonsectarian view and give up envious distinctions of race, sex, religion, and nationality.

Paradoxically, one who becomes spiritually self-realized ceases to be selfish. The materialist, on the other hand, is always selfish. One who regards the self as isolated and private will selfishly try to experience as much sense pleasure as possible and minimize his concern for others. Or if he chooses to see the self in terms of shared meanings with society, he usually pursues the selfish interests of a particular social class or nation over all others. Only he who sees all selves on the spiritual basis can act in a way that will actually benefit others in their self-fulfillment.

Bhagavad-gita teaches that the real purpose of human life is to transcend death by liberating the atma from his bondage to material life. The soul who does not understand the self’s relationship to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has to transmigrate and return again to the material life of miseries: repeated birth, old age, disease, and death. Self-fulfillment conceived only in terms of one’s body, family, occupation, or nation is ignorance. Real self-fulfillment never ends, even with death. Since people are becoming increasingly concerned about self-fulfillment in an age full of uncertainties and great dangers, I would suggest that they not overlook the treasure of information about the eternal self and its fulfillment that has been presented by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in Bhagavad-gita As It Is.

Searching Past the Mechanics of Perception


The deeper scientists probe into the nature of perception, the farther away their subject recedes.

The idea that now dominates the life sciences is that life can be completely understood within the framework of chemistry and physics. Those who subscribe to this viewpoint say that we can explain all features of life—from the metabolic functioning of cells up to the mental phenomena of thinking, feeling, and willing-as the consequences of underlying chemical processes. With the spectacular successes achieved by modern molecular biology, this viewpoint has become so pervasive that, in the words of Nobel-prize-winning molecular biologist James Watson, “Complete certainty now exists among essentially all biochemists that the … characteristics of living organisms … will all be completely understood in terms of the coordinative interactions of small and large molecules.1*

Yet despite the popularity of this view, we can point to at least one feature of life—the phenomenon of conscious awareness—that is not amenable to a molecular explanation. The basic phenomenon of conscious awareness is the most immediate aspect of our experience, and it is automatically presupposed in all our sensations, feelings, and thought processes. Yet even though consciousness certainly exists and is of central importance to our lives, the current theoretical framework of biological and physical science cannot even refer to consciousness, much less explain it.

To see this, let us examine the process of conscious perception through the eyes of modern science. Our examination will take us through several levels of successively increasing detail, and at each level we will try to ascertain whether our scientific picture of reality sheds any light on the nature of consciousness.

First let us consider a man observing a physical object—in this case, a thermometer. Figures 1 and 2 depict the operation of the man’s sense of sight on the grossest biological level. The process of perception begins when light reflected from the thermometer is focused on the retina of the man’s eye, forming an inverted image. This light induces chemical changes in certain retinal cells, and these cells consequently stimulate adjacent nerve cells to transmit electrical impulses. These cells in turn stimulate activity in other nerve cells, and a systematic pattern of pulses is transmitted down the optic nerve. The image of the thermometer is now encoded in this pattern of pulses.

When these pulses reach the brain, a very complicated response occurs, involving many electrochemical actions and reactions. Although scientists at present do not know the details of this brain activity, they are nonetheless in substantial agreement about the basic phenomena involved. When the impulses streaming down the optic nerve reach the brain, they modify the overall pattern of chemical concentrations and electrical potentials maintained by the brain’s vast network of nerve cells. This pattern, scientists say, represents in coded form the specific content of the man’s thoughts and sensory impressions. As time passes, the physiochemical transformations of this pattern give rise to sequences of electrical impulses that emerge from the brain along various motor nerves, and these impulses in turn evoke corresponding sequences of muscular contractions. These organized contractions constitute the man’s gross external behavior, which may include spoken reports of his sensations, such as “I am seeing a thermometer.”

What and where Is Consciousness?

At this point in our investigation, we can understand how descriptions of this kind may, at least in principle, shed light on a person’s external behavioral responses to environmental stimuli. We can easily imagine constructing a machine involving photocells and electronic circuitry that would respond to a red light by playing a tape recording of the statement “I am seeing a red light.” On a more sophisticated level, we can visualize a computer that will analyze the images produced by a television camera and generate spoken statements identifying various objects. Thus although we are grossly ignorant of the actual physical transformations occurring in the brain, we can at least conceive of the possibility that these may correspond to processes of symbol manipulation analogous to those that take place in computers. We can therefore imagine that the man’s statement, “I am seeing a thermometer,” is generated by a computational process physically embodied in the electrochemical activity of the nerve cells in the brain.

But all this tells us nothing about the man’s conscious perceptions. Our description of the image formed on the retina of the man’s eye says nothing about the conscious perception of that image, nor do scientists suppose that conscious perception takes place at this point. Likewise, the statements that light-sensitive cells in the retina have been stimulated and that sequences of nerve impulses have been induced convey nothing at all about the actual subjective experience of seeing the thermometer.

Many scientists feel that conscious perception must take place in the brain. Yet our description of the brain, even if elaborated in the greatest possible detail, would consist of nothing more than a list of statements about the electrochemical states of brain cells. Such statements might have some bearing on patterns of behavior, but they cannot explain consciousness, because they do not even refer to it.

At this point one may argue that since consciousness is subjective, we cannot use the word consciousness in scientific statements describing objective reality. One might point out that while we can observe a man’s behavior and measure the physical states of his brain, we could not possibly find any measurable evidence of his so-called consciousness. According to this idea, the man’s statements about his conscious perceptions are simply electrochemical phenomena that require physical explanation, but to say that consciousness exists in any real sense is meaningless.

Each of us can refute this argument by considering the matter in this way: The reality of my own conscious perceptions is certainly undeniable, and my understanding of all other aspects of reality depends on this basic fact. Thus I know by direct perception that consciousness exists in me, and it is also perfectly justifiable to suppose that other beings like me have similar conscious experiences. There is no need to embrace the futile and absurd viewpoint of solipsism, which holds that I am the only conscious being and that all others occupy a lesser status as mere automatons. Consciousness, therefore, exists as a feature of objective reality, and any scientific account of reality that fails to explain it is incomplete.

If consciousness exists but the level of biological description we have thus far considered does not refer to it, then how can we understand consciousness in terms of our existing scientific world view? The mere assertion that neural impulses “generate” consciousness does not constitute an explanation, for it offers no conception of any connection between impulses and our conscious perceptions. Our only recourse is to examine the structures and processes of the brain more closely, with the hope that a deeper understanding of their nature will reveal such a connection.

Going Deeper

Figure 3 presents a closer view of some of the neurons in the brain, and Figure 4 depicts the detailed structure of one of the synapses, or connecting links, between neurons. When we examine living cells closely, we find many intricate structures known as organelles. Just as we can describe the functions of the gross body in terms of the combined actions of its many component cells, so in principle we can describe the functions of the cells in terms of these subcellular components. Yet this does not help us in our attempt to understand consciousness, for it merely leads to a more complicated account of bodily behavior. As before, there is no reference to the conscious experience of seeing.

Let us go deeper. What is the essential nature of the cellular organelles? As we earlier pointed out, the nearly unanimous opinion of modern biochemists is that one can understand all biological structures as combinations of molecules, and all biological processes as the consequences of molecular interactions. Figure 5 depicts the three dimensional structure of a globular protein, one of the main kinds of complex molecules found in the body. Organic chemistry describes the structure of such molecules in terms of three dimensional arrangements of atoms, and molecular interactions in terms of the formation and dissolution of chemical bonds, or inter-atomic links.

Biochemists have found that living cells contain many different kinds of extremely complex molecules. For example, the E. coli bacterium, one of the simplest unicellular organisms, is said to contain some two to three thousand different kinds of proteins, each of which consists of thou-sands of individual atoms. A complete molecular description of a single cell would therefore be enormously complex, and, in fact, scientists have not yet come close to providing such a description, even for the E. coli bacterium.

Yet however complex it might be, a description on this level would consist of nothing more than a long list of statements about the making and breaking of chemical bonds. Such a list could give us no greater insight into the nature of consciousness than any of the higher-order descriptions we have considered thus far. In fact, lists describing patterns of bonds and lists describing trains of nerve impulses are equivalent, in the sense that both say nothing about conscious experience.

Can Quantum Theory Explain Consciousness?

Can we find the insight we are seeking by taking a closer look at the atomic structure of molecules? In Figure 6 we see a diagram representing the spatial distribution of electrons within an organic molecule. Those who subscribe to the modern scientific world view claim that we can completely understand atoms and molecules in terms of the interactions of subatomic particles such as protons, neutrons, and electrons.

The branch of science that deals with these interactions is known as quantum mechanics, and it describes subatomic phenomena in terms of mathematical equations, such as the one depicted in Figure 7(a). Although pictures such as Figure 7(b) can partially express some features of these equations, they are essentially impossible to represent in three-dimensional form. We might wonder, therefore, whether some deep insight into the abstract mysteries of these fundamental physical equations might finally enable us to grasp the nature of consciousness.

Unfortunately, however, this hope must meet with disappointment. If we study the essential nature of these mathematical equations, we find that they amount to nothing more than codified rules for the manipulation of symbols. Such symbols, in turn, are simply marks drawn from an arbitrary finite alphabet. They may be represented either by the internal states of an electronic computer or by marks on a piece of paper.

Thus Figure 8 gives us a glimpse of the ultimate appearance of a fundamental quantum mechanical description of nature when reduced to its elemental constituent terms. In this figure the alphabet of marks consists of 0, 1, 2, …, 9, A, B, C, …,F, and the rules for their manipulation are expressed in terms of the internal language of a particular computer. These rules simply describe certain ways of rearranging patterns of marks to create new patterns. Finally, in Figure 9, we reach the end of our investigation of the scientific world view. Here we find both patterns of marks and the rules for their manipulation encoded as strings of ones and zeroes.

At this point we meet with final frustration in our effort to understand consciousness in terms of modern scientific conceptions. At each stage of our investigation we have been confronted with a set of symbols that refer to repeating patterns in the stream of events we observe with our external senses. Thus we began our investigation by describing a man with symbols like retina and optic nerve, which refer to observable features of gross anatomy. Now we have ended up with an abstract description in which our symbols refer to mathematical constructs, or even to elementary rules for manipulating arbitrary marks on paper. At each successive level of examination, our symbols failed to refer to consciousness, and, if anything, the symbols on each successive level seemed more unrelated to the world of our subjective experience than those on the level above it.

An Extension of the Scientific Method

How, then, are we to understand consciousness? Although we know by direct perception that consciousness exists, we have seen that the methodology of modern science is inherently incapable of revealing anything about it. Does this mean that we have encountered an insurmountable barrier to our understanding of reality? The answer, in fact, is no. In our remaining space we will outline an extension of the scientific method that can give us a satisfying understanding of consciousness.

This extension, known as sanatana-dharma, is delineated in the Vedic literatures of India, such as Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam. Since it has been known for a very long time, it is an extension of the modern scientific method only in the sense that it has a greater scope than this method and logically includes it. Historically speaking, we would have to say that the modern scientific method is a contraction of sanatana- dharma.

We can break down the subject matter of sanatana- dharma into the following basic categories: the Supreme Self, or paramatma; the individual self, or jivatma; the superior, or spiritual, energy; and the inferior, or material, energy. As with any science, sanatana-dharma consists of a body of theory supported by observations. But the methods of observation employed by sanatana-dharma enable it to deal directly with all four of these categories, whereas modern science is restricted entirely to the category of the material energy.

According to sanatana-dharma, the real self, or jivatma of each individual person is an entity distinct from the material elements that make up the physical body. The jivatma is equipped with senses inherently capable of perceiving the paramatma, other jivatmas, and both the superior and inferior energies. However, in the state of existence familiar to us, the jivatma is associated with a physical body and can perceive the world only through the material sensory apparatus of that body.

The situation of the embodied jivatma is like that of a pilot flying an airplane on instruments (Fig. 10). The pilot can obtain only a very limited picture of his surroundings from such devices as the radar screen and the altimeter, although he still has his normal senses and, in fact, uses them to observe these instruments. The embodied jivatma is similarly hampered. Since the sensory apparatus of the body is composed of matter, this apparatus can provide information only about configurations of material energy and their transformations. One can use this information to make indirect inferences about the other categories forming the subject matter of sanatana-dharma, but this information cannot directly reveal anything about them. Since the modern scientific method relies solely on observation through the material senses, scientists have tended to ignore these higher categories or even to deny their very existence.

As we have seen, however, modern scientific theories cannot explain our direct perception of consciousness, and this failure is sufficient to show that such theories must necessarily be incomplete. According to sanatana- dharma, consciousness is an inherent feature of the jivatma. Although the embodied jivatma restricted to observing the world through material senses, all sensory information must eventually reach the senses of the jivatma itself. The self-referential aspect of consciousness, whereby the self is not merely aware but is aware that it is aware, arises because the true senses of the jivatma perceive their own operation. Thus the self is never completely limited to perceiving the material energy but also has some awareness of the spiritual category. At this point one may object that although modern science might not be able to explain consciousness, we gain nothing by asserting that a nonmaterial self exists and that consciousness is one of its characteristics. One may say that this simply amounts to assigning a name to the mystery of consciousness-a name, in fact, that consists of nothing more than some marks on a piece of paper.

We reply to this objection by pointing out that sanatana-dharma provides methods whereby the consciousness of the individual can expand beyond the level of the material senses and come into direct contact with the paramatma and the superior, spiritual energy. Sanatana-dharma states that the Absolute Truth, the cause of all causes, is an eternal sentient personality who is the source of the innumerable jivatmas, or individual selves. These selves are also eternal persons, and though quantitatively minute and permanently individual, they are of the same qualitative nature as the unlimited Supreme Person. Thus each individual jivatma has a natural, constitutional relationship with the Supreme.

This relationship is one of loving personal reciprocation between the individual jivatma and the paramatma. Since personal reciprocation requires the use of senses, such a relationship can be experienced only if it is possible for the individual person to engage in active sensory perception on a level completely transcendental to the realm of matter. The purpose of the practical methodology of sanatana-dharma is to enable the embodied individual to attain to this level of sensory activity and reawaken his dormant relationship with the Supreme Person.

One method of doing this is by chanting the names of the Supreme Person. Since the Absolute Truth is personal, He has innumerable names, such as Krishna, Rama, and Govinda, and since He is absolute, these names are nondifferent from Him. By chanting these names, the jivatma comes into direct contact with the Supreme Person, and thus the jivatma gradually awakens to his natural relationship with the Supreme.

Here we see an interesting contrast between the use of symbols in sanatana-dharma and in modern science. From the viewpoint of modern science, the names Krishna and Govinda could at most be patterns of marks that play some computational role in a theoretical system. To the scientist, the ultimate justification for the use of such symbols would lie in the correlations he might find between the results of these computations and some measurements involving the physical senses.

If we simply examine these names through our physical senses, this viewpoint seems valid. However, sanatana- dharma takes into account the full sensory capacity of the self. From the viewpoint of sanatana-dharma, the pattern of marks corresponding to the name Krishna. and the manipulation of those marks on paper are the least significant aspects of the name Krishna. On the level of spiritual perception, the name Krishna is identical with the Supreme Person Himself. Thus Krishna is not merely a symbol but a name with inherent, absolute meaning. Because of his natural relationship with the Supreme, the jivatma can directly appreciate absolute reality; he is not limited simply to manipulating insubstantial networks of symbols that reduce in the end to nothing but strings of ones and zeroes.

We conclude by observing that sanatana-dharma offers an explanation of consciousness that is satisfying in a very genuine sense. In science, we generally say that an explanation is satisfying if it leads to new insights and new, interesting realms to explore. As it stands, modern science cannot provide such an explanation of consciousness. In contrast, sanatana-dharma introduces us to a realm of experience that gives us a deep understanding of the absolute nature and meaning of our own conscious existence.

The Inconceivable … One More Time


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.
“Eternally Conditioned”

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.

The Search for the Authentic Self


from Back To Godhead Magazine #33-01, 1999

In her book Mightier Than the Sword, Kathleen Adams has a chapter called “Authenticity.” She writes, “The discrepancy between image/being, external/internal, acculturated self/authentic self—the maintenance of the lie—reverberates in the journals of men like an echo bouncing off canyon walls. The search for authenticity is a modern-day grail quest. It is the beating heart of many men’s writings.”

The search for authenticity is the beating heart not only of people’s journals but of many people’s lives. It means asking that age-old question: Who am I? That question is deep; we can’t lie when we answer it. Authentic means the answer has to be real.

But “real” has different levels. From the Vedic literature we learn that real means I am an eternal, separated part of Krishna, constitutionally a servant. On another level, it feels real that I am sitting in this room, at peace for a moment, seeing a flock of swans land on a calm lake. Yet another level of real is the acculturated self, shaped largely by the society we live in. Then there is the voice within us that rebels against that self and lives in a private, confidential world of spiritual and material aspiration.

So which is the authentic self? Or are they all authentic? Sometimes we have to start with the negative side of the question: Who am I not? By peeling off identities one after another—marital status, occupation, responsibilities, desires—we can learn to redefine ourselves by what we find important.

Srila Prabhupada speaks about authenticity in terms of self- interest. He says self-interest is good but most of us know neither what our real self-interest is nor how to pursue it. We pursue a limited self-interest, starting with physical gratification and extending that to identification with community and nation. Because we don’t recognize the authenticity of our constitutional nature as servants of Krishna, we don’t remember that the goal of life is to satisfy Him. Which takes us back to that ultimate level of understanding our authentic self: we are servants of God, eternally. If that truth remains only theoretical to us, we cannot be single-minded in our endeavor to satisfy the ultimately authentic self. The only way to satisfy that self is to act out of love for Krishna.

Therefore we are still searching for authenticity. We haven’t found the truth yet. For people in our condition, the guru recommends regulative devotional service (vaidhi-bhakti). When we are living our authenticity, we will love Krishna spontaneously. In the meantime, we have a list of shoulds and should-nots to follow, and often we have to accept the discipline they impose in spite of ourselves. Srila Prabhupada explains that the more we practice devotion even when we don’t always feel it bubbling up within us, the more we will uncover our original, authentic natures. When we uncover our pure intelligence, he says, we won’t know anything but surrender to Krishna.

But it’s a razor’s edge. We can’t lose ourselves in the following. As Srila Rupa Gosvami writes in Sri Upadeshamrita, a too-rigid following of rules and regulations without understanding the ultimate goal can be just as detrimental to our search for authenticity as not following at all. The goal of life is to love Krishna with our pure selves, but if we don’t know who that pure self is, we have to love Krishna with whatever we are now. We have to make room for all those other voices within us—the physical voice, the mental voice, the emotional voice—and imbue them all with the truth of our spiritual aspiration. Then we can turn to something we love to do, something meaningful to us, and offer it to Krishna.

And we have to consider not what is authentic but how much we are willing to be authentic. It’s that “being” that constitutes surrender of the self to Krishna. If we are searching for the authentic self, we can’t remain mere imitators of spiritual life. Imagine going through an entire life with the blessings we have been given and choosing to remain inauthentic. A devotee wants to be tuned to the ring of truth within himself. He wants to get behind the image, even the one he has of himself, to find his honest, loving offering to place at Krishna’s lotus feet. Eventually, as we practice expressing devotion, the outer self will harmonize with the inner self, and we will become whole.