Material world

Material World

Krishna expands Himself into the form of Maha-Vishnu to create the material world

We use the term material world to mean this world, where things are made of matter. Matter includes solids, liquids, gases, radiant energy, and space. The Bhagavad-gita explains that there's an additional category of matter–subtle matter–which includes mind, intelligence, and false ego, or the mistaken idea that the self is also material.

We often say "material world" as opposed to just "world" because so much evidence in Vedic literature suggests that this world isn't the only world there is. Many statements point to an existence beyond this one, a spiritual world made not of temporary elements but of even more subtle energies: permanent reality, enlightened knowledge, and complete happiness.

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The difference between the material and spiritual worlds is the difference between matter and spirit; matter comes and goes, spirit stays as it is. Everything we see comes into being, goes through changes, then disappears or dies. That's the nature of matter. And because the self is essentially spiritual, we can't be perfectly, permanently happy in this kind of environment.

But the Vedas say matter comes from spirit. There are detailed, step-by-step descriptions in books like Srimad-Bhagavatam of how the material world comes into being. Similar to the way things come into being in our experience—starting as an idea, evolving according to a plan, and finally manifesting as a complete whole—the Supreme Being has a purpose in mind when arranging for the creation of the material world, which then develops in a systematic way.

The material creation is one of the Supreme Being's many energies. Material existence is only a fraction of all that exists. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna calls all the wonders of this world "a spark of My splendor." It's meant to be a kind of correctional institution for all of us who'd rather be deluded by false ego and imitate the Supreme Person than be ourselves—spiritual beings, meant to enjoy unlimited and perfectly satisfying relationships with Krishna in the spiritual world.

While we're here, we can strut and fret as we pass through a series of material bodies—animal, plant, insect, infant, youth, adult, old, etc.—and Krishna orchestrates this material world to temporarily satisfy our desires for temporary, illusory pleasures. He maintains it for a while, then winds it up again.

Matter isn't permanent, neither is the material world. It's not our natural home, and isn't meant to be our permanent residence. Along with facilities for forgetting the Supreme Person and enjoying temporary pleasures, guidance is available to help us reconnect with our spiritual nature. We have the opportunity to learn about spiritual reality, and to have genuine spiritual experience—even while we're in the material world.

(The painting shows Krishna expanding Himself into the form of Maha- Vishnu to create the material world.)

Krishna's Energies

Although Krishna is invisible to us in our present state, we can perceive His presence through His energies, which are everywhere. Although innumerable, His energies fall into three primary categories.

Internal Energy

Krishna’s internal energy expands as the spiritual world in all its variety, including His ever-liberated associates there. The internal energy is eternal and full of knowledge and happiness. Presently beyond our perception, the spiritual world makes up most of reality.

External Energy

Krishna’s external energy consists of all that is matter: the material world, the laws of material nature, material bodies, and so on. The external energy is temporary and full of ignorance and suffering. It is inert by nature and must be moved by spirit. The material world is a tiny fraction of God's creation.

Marginal Energy

We finite spirit souls are expansions of Krishna’s marginal energy. We can choose to live in the spiritual world or the material world. Or, to put it another way, we can be deluded by matter or illuminated by spirit.

Both the external energy (matter) and the marginal energy (we souls) can become fully spiritualized by contact with the internal energy through acts of devotion to Krishna (Bhakti yoga).

"The Supreme Lord has nothing to do, and no one is found to be equal to or greater than Him, for everything is done naturally and systematically by His multifarious energies."Svetashvatara Upanishad 6.8

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All Problems Can Be Solved by Krishna Consciousness

Our spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, used to say, “All problems can be solved by Krishna consciousness.” We, his disciples, believed him, followed his instructions, and saw our problems solved individually and collectively in the Krishna consciousness movement.

But nondevotees don’t believe Krishna consciousness can solve the seemingly intractable problems facing the world today. How could the chanting of the names of God—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—possibly solve such problems as widespread violent crime, rampant inflation, or the threat of nuclear war? Except to devotees, the idea that “all problems can be solved by Krishna consciousness” seems too simple and Utopian.

Nonetheless, the practical success of the Krishna consciousness movement in alleviating the problems of its own members cannot be discounted. It is a scientific principle that if one can build a successful model, there is a good possibility that one could expand the model and have it succeed on a larger scale. And now, when all the old “solutions” seem to have been tried and have failed, any successful alternative, however unusual, is worth serious study.

What is the Krishna conscious method of solving problems, and how does it work? That can best be seen by following the activities of ISKCON’s founder and spiritual guide, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Srila Prabhupada came to America in 1965 at age sixty-nine and began preaching about the science of Krishna, as taught in Vedic scriptures such as Bhagavad-gita. According to the Vedas, everything in the universe belongs to God, and a person should take only what is allotted to him as his quota, “but he should not take more than that, knowing well to whom it belongs.” This means that human society should be God-centered.

Srila Prabhupada writes,

“If we become God conscious, Krishna conscious, the fighting in the world will come to an end. ‘I am American,’ ‘I am Indian,’ ‘I am Russian,’ ‘I am Chinese’—all these nonsensical designations will be finished. The Krishna consciousness movement is so purifying that as soon as people become Krishna conscious, political and national fighting will immediately be over, because they will come to their real consciousness and understand that everything belongs to God.”

The philosophy of God consciousness is the basis of all genuine morality, but in the West the established religions have been unable to inculcate moral principles into society at large. In fact, crime in the United States has gotten so bad that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger, once felt compelled to decry “the reign of terror in American cities.”

Realizing the urgent need for practical spiritual knowledge, Srila Prabhupada conceived and began a society in which all the members agreed to factually give up sinful, antisocial activities and perform all their works for the pleasure of God, Krishna. Because he strictly forbade the taking of intoxicants (even tea or cigarettes) and indulgence in illicit sex, gambling, and meat-eating, many people were put off. But many joined as well, once they began participating in the sublime practices of chanting Hare Krishna and engaging in Krishna’s service.

Gaining a higher spiritual taste, devotees of Krishna, under Srila Prabhupada’s guidance, were able to reject the lower modes of life for the transcendental. Although most of the devotees had no prior training in austerities or advanced spiritual knowledge, they quickly developed to a point where they willingly rejected all socially disruptive and self- destructive activities.

“If one is pressured by the law or obligations to give up sinful activity,”

Srila Prabhupada writes,

“one cannot do so. However, if someone takes to Krishna consciousness, he can very easily give up all sinful activity.”

Thus, among the members of the Krishna consciousness movement there is no drug addiction of any kind; crime is almost nonexistent; marriage ties are strong; there is no unemployment; abortion is unheard of; the educational system is harmonious; interracial dealings are no problem at all—in short, the average devotee is hard-working, peaceful, happy, and secure.

The Krishna conscious way of life, aside from solving its followers’ basic social and personal problems, also overcomes the greatest problem of all—the problem of repeated birth and death. The Vedic scriptures teach that each person is actually an eternal living being, a spiritual soul. When the body dies, the soul, the real self, lives on. But as long as we have not developed self-realization, as long as we remain ignorant of our connection with God, then at the time of death the eternal spiritual soul has to enter another temporary material body, only to suffer once again the agony of death when that body dies.

The process of the soul’s transmigration from one body to another goes on under the strict laws of karma. By these laws, the actions we perform and the desires we cultivate in our present life determine our destiny in the next. But in whatever situation we are born, whether in a wealthy human family or a family of cats or dogs, we shall always face the multiple miseries of birth, old age, disease, and death. Therefore the Vedic culture teaches that while we have the intelligence and the good opportunity to cultivate spiritual knowledge-in other words, before our time in this human body runs out—we must solve this most fundamental problem, the problem of repeated birth and death.

That problem can be solved only by Krishna consciousness, because only Krishna consciousness can eradicate all karma. As Lord Krishna Himself says in the Bhagavad gita (2.50), “A person engaged in devotional service rids himself of both good and bad karma even in this life.” Eventually the devotee develops pure love for Krishna. Then, at the time of death, he is not forced to transmigrate to another material body; he attains a spiritual body and goes to join Krishna in the eternal, spiritual world. Only then are all his problems solved.

Srila Prabhupada did not invent the Krishna conscious method of solving problems, nor is this the first time in history that people have become peaceful and satisfied by practicing Krishna consciousness. According to the Vedic scriptural histories, in past millenniums the whole world was God conscious, living under the authority of enlightened kings who were themselves pure devotees of the Lord. Thus Srimad Bhagavatam (1.10.4,6) states, “During the reign of King Yudhisthira, the clouds showered all the water that people needed and the earth produced all the necessity of man in profusion. … At no time were the living beings disturbed by mental agonies, diseases, or excessive heat or cold. So, historically Krishna consciousness has worked to solve problems not just on small communal scale but also among the entire world’s population.

It may be some time before the world nations give up trying to solve their problems with patchwork solutions and take up the all-encompassing solution of Krishna consciousness. But even now, because of the existence of the Krishna consciousness movement, any individual in any nation or culture of the world can join the society of devotees and immediately solve his problems. All he needs is the good intelligence to see Krishna consciousness as the invaluable gift it actually is.

“Why Did This Have To Happen To Me?”

The Srimad-Bhagavatam tells the story of Bali Maharaja and Vamanadeva. Vamanadeva is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, appearing in the form of a small brahmana boy. He goes to Bali Maharaja and begs three paces of land, “as paced by My own steps.” As the story progresses, Vamanadeva reveals His universal form. His first two steps claim the whole universe, and Bali is then unable to fulfill his promise of three. Thus he is put into difficulty. Vamanadeva arrests him with the ropes of Varuna, and his wife and guru reject him.

The Bhagavatam tells us, however, that Bali Maharaja is neither ashamed nor aggrieved at his arrest. Instead, he addresses Vamanadeva as follows: “Many demons who were continuously inimical toward You finally achieved the perfection of great mystic yogis. Your Lordship can perform one work to serve many purposes, and consequently, although You have punished me in many ways, I do not feel ashamed of having been arrested by the ropes of Varuna, nor do I feel aggrieved.” (Bhag. 8.22.6)

Srila Prabhupada explains in his purport to this section that Bali Maharaja appreciated the Lord’s mercy and the fact that the Lord distributes His mercy liberally. “Bali Maharaja was indeed a fully surrendered devotee, but even some demons who are not at all devotees but merely enemies of the Lord attained the same exalted position achieved by many mystic yogis. Thus Bali Maharaja could understand that the Lord had some hidden purpose in punishing him. Consequently he was neither unhappy nor ashamed because of the awkward position in which he had been put by the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”

Why would someone feel ashamed to be put in such an awkward position? Because one likes to appear victorious, especially in front of friends and relatives. Also, one might be ashamed to be degraded in front of the greatest personality, the Supreme Lord.

Bali had lost all his material possessions—everything from home and kingdom to the respect of his family members. Bali at that time was ruling the whole universe. He had a lot to lose. But instead of being ashamed or aggrieved, Bali was jubilant. He accepted everything that happened to him as Krishna’s plan, and he had faith that even this awkward situation was created by Krishna for his own good.

Although we like to learn from the people in the Bhagavatam, we cannot pretend to be on the same platform as they. Bali was arrested by Krishna personally. We may not have the fortune to be punished directly by Krishna. Instead, we are punished indirectly by Him, through His material energy. We can understand that our suffering or awkward situations are created by our past karma.

Srila Prabhupada tells us, however, that we are receiving only a token of what is due to us, like a murderer whose retribution is only a pinprick. The state has the right to take the murder’s life, so a token reaction to his crime is like a devotee’s token reaction to his past sinful life.

A devotee who recognizes this lives by this verse from Srimad-Bhagavatam: “My dear Lord, one who earnestly waits for You to bestow Your causeless mercy upon him, all the while patiently suffering the reactions of his past misdeeds and offering You respectful obeisances, with his heart, words, and body, is surely eligible for liberation, for it has become his rightful claim.” This verse depicts Bali Maharaja’s attitude.

In another section of the Bhagavatam, we read of Maharaja Yudhishthira lamenting that so many people were killed to set him on the throne. Yudhishthira wanted to mitigate his suffering by understanding things had to happen that way. Bhishmadeva then began describing how the Pandavas had already suffered so much, although they did not deserve to suffer. Since the Pandavas were all pure devotees of Krishna, they could not be suffering from sinful reactions. They were destined to suffer by providence, the influence of time. When we are suffering, therefore, we can only be tolerant.

Bhishma then turned to Yudhishthira and said: “In my opinion, this is all due to inevitable time, under whose control every person in every planet is carried, just as the clouds are carried by the wind.”

Even pious people have to suffer the miseries of the material nature. Still, we want to know more. What is this time, under whose influence everyone has to suffer? Prabhupada explains that kala, time, is identical with Krishna Himself and therefore the influence of time indicates His inexplicable wishes. There is nothing to be lamented, because it is completely beyond our control. It is simply to be accepted. Time and death are inevitable.

It is often easier to accept how time influences others than how it influences ourselves. People ask, “Why did this have to happen to me?” But no one can know the Lord’s plan. “Even though great philosophers inquire exhaustively, they are bewildered. … It is useless to inquire about it. The best policy is simply to abide by the orders of the Lord without argument.” In this way, a devotee can be at peace about life’s reverses.

A further point is that Krishna can carry out many purposes with one act. He can pull down two trees like a naughty boy, and at the same time liberate the two souls embodied in them. In offering those souls liberation, He also fulfilled Narada Muni’s promise to Kuvera’s two sons, whom Narada had cursed to stand as trees.

When Krishna directly or indirectly punishes us, we must have faith that He is acting to bring us closer to His lotus feet. We should pray to have this realization in times of difficulty or confusion, and to understand that the real purpose of life is to satisfy the Supreme Lord, not to satisfy ourselves. Satisfying Krishna is not difficult. We simply have to take whatever situation in which we find ourselves and transform it into an opportunity for devotional service.

Therefore, Narada Muni told Srila Vyasadeva: “O brahmana Vyasadeva, it is decided by the learned that the best remedial measure for removing all troubles and miseries is to dedicate one’s activities to the service of the Supreme Lord Personality of Godhead [Sri Krishna]. O good soul, does not a thing, applied therapeutically, cure a disease caused by that very same thing?” (Bhag. 1.5.32-3). Srila Prabhupada adds, “Milk preparations sometimes cause disorder of the bowels, but the very same milk converted into curd and mixed with some other remedial ingredients cures such disorders.”

It is our attachments to material objects that make us suffer. If we can take those same material objects and use them in Krishna’s service, that will help us go back to Godhead.

Two Energies, Two Choices

Lord Krishna has two energies, material and spiritual, but they can be used interchangeably if one knows how. Just as the same electricity can be used to heat or cool a building, so Krishna’s energies can be used for different purposes according to the living entity’s desire.

That doesn’t mean that the living entity can control Krishna’s energies, only that he can use them. When a conditioned soul wishes to exploit the material nature, he contacts the material energy. When he no longer wishes to dominate or enjoy the material energy and instead uses it in Krishna’s service, he contacts the spiritual energy. The living entity is called the “marginal potency” of God—he can go either way. The Bhagavad-gita (9.13) states: “Being marginal potency, as soon as the living entity is freed from the control of material nature he is put under the guidance of the spiritual nature.” There are only two choices.

In the Bhagavatam, Srila Prabhupada speaks of penance and repentance as our means to begin the switch from material to spiritual. If we regret our association with the material energy, we will no longer feel dependent upon its dualities and we will turn to Krishna. Repentance burns away our sins and pushes us toward surrender. Lord Krishna states, “The material energy is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bg. 7.14) Srila Prabhupada adds, “Krishna, being the Lord of the illusory energy, can order His insurmountable energy to release the conditioned soul.”

Repentance is followed by penance or austerity. We begin our austerity by trying to stop exploiting material resources as if we own them. That means we have to learn tolerance, because the material energy rarely acts for our comfort. Numberless little things in life irritate us. The more attached we are to physical ease, the more troublesome these things become. Therefore, we have to tolerate.

Those who tolerate are neither culprits who cause pain to other living entities to ensure their own comfort nor helpless victims living only for relief nor fools trying to enjoy. Our senses become subdued and our hearts purified.

Repentance and penance are nothing more than attitude. An episode in the Bhagavatam shows how our attitude determines whether we live in the spiritual or the material energy. When Vidura tried to convince Dhritarashtra to return the throne to the Pandavas, its rightful heirs, Dhritarashtra threw Vidura out of the palace, which had been his home. So Vidura decided to go on pilgrimage. Because of his love for Krishna, he accepted his new situation as the Lord’s will. Srila Prabhupada states that in this instance the Lord’s material energy acted as the internal, spiritual energy. Although Vidura could see that he had been mistreated, he also saw Krishna’s blessing. Suddenly he was free of political entanglement and could seek out pure Krishna consciousness in a life of renunciation and devotion.

When we stop blaming others for the pain they seem to cause us, and understand our role in causing our own karma, and when we see our powerlessness against the material energy, we will become more dependent on Krishna. Then the material energy will become spiritual in our hands. Instead of dragging us further into material life, our happiness and distress will elevate us in Krishna consciousness. Rather than causing us pain, our predicaments and perplexities will provide us another chance to meditate on Krishna. And that will make us happy.

Of course, the atheists consider this mad, irresponsible. You should not tolerate your suffering but strive to overcome it. But is it possible? No matter how hard we work to get ahead in life, we never seem to become happy. That’s because everything we do must be done at the expense of others, who are seeking gratification at our expense. If we manage to climb to the top of the pile, then Providence slaps us—a family member dies, the fortune dwindles, the spouse is unfaithful, we contract a debilitating disease, and in the end we die. To pursue such a blind path is the ultimate in irresponsibility.

The Bhagavatam (1.3.34) states: “If the illusory energy subsides and the living entity becomes fully enriched with knowledge by the grace of the Lord, then he becomes at once enlightened with self-realization and thus becomes situated in his own glory.” We are the marginal potency of God. We can go either way. We can respond to whatever life deals us by glorifying God, or we can make that other choice.

Krishna's Energies

Although Krishna is invisible to us in our present state, we can perceive His presence through His energies, which are everywhere. Although innumerable, His energies fall into three primary categories.

Internal Energy - Krishna's internal energy expands as the spiritual world in all its variety, including His ever-liberated associates there. The internal energy is eternal and full of knowledge and happiness. Presently beyond our perception, the spiritual world makes up most of reality.

External Energy - Krishna's external energy consists of all that is matter: the material world, the laws of material nature, material bodies, and so on. The external energy is temporary and full of ignorance and suffering. It is inert by nature and must be moved by spirit. The material world is a tiny fraction of God's creation.

Marginal Energy - We finite spirit souls are expansions of Krishna's marginal energy. We can choose to live in the spiritual world or the material world. Or, to put it another way, we can be deluded by matter or illuminated by spirit.

Both the external energy (matter) and the marginal energy (we souls) can become fully spiritualized by contact with the internal energy through acts of devotion to Krishna (Bhakti-yoga).
"That supreme abode of Mine is not illumined by the sun or moon, nor by fire or electricity. Those who reach it never return to this material world." — Krishna, Bhagavad-gita 15.6


The Inconceivable … One More Time

A NUMBER OF readers have written—several at formidable length—to express doubts or objections concerning the essay “On Conceiving the Inconceivable.” I hope it will be helpful for me to respond to the more significant points raised.

You may recall that the essay 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 loath 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.

ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission, on which I have served, once 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."

(Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.28.53-54) 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.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.28.53, purport)

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."

(Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.54, purport) 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.”

(Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.1, purport) 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."

(Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.64) 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."


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."


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.’ ” (Quest for Enlightenment, Chapter 2, "Fall of the Soul") 14

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.

So, when someone asks, “When did we come into contact with this material nature?" the answer is that we have not come into contact. By the influence of the external energy we think we are in contact. Actually we are not fallen. We cannot be fallen. We have simply created a situation. Rather, we have not created a situation; Krishna has given us a situation. Because we wanted to imitate Krishna, Krishna has given an opportunity.

As the dreamer forgets that he is safe in his own bedroom, so we have simply forgotten where we really are: the spiritual world. 15

Crow and Tal Fruit

Srila Prabhupada gives a more elaborate description of the nature of the jiva’s bondage in the paper entitled “Crow-and-Tal-Fruit Logic.” 16 He sent this paper to the GBC representative in Australia in June of 1972 to settle a controversy that had arisen there over this issue. 17 “Crow-and-Tal-Fruit Logic” presents Prabhupada's most thorough statement of the solution, and the paper was circulated throughout ISKCON. I saw it in Philadelphia that year and studied it carefully. Upon it I have based my reflections in the Back to Godhead article on eternity and time.

Prabhupada begins his paper by asserting our eternal and permanent relation with Krishna. “We never had any occasion when we were separated from Krishna,” he says, and then he uses Srimad-Bhagavatam’s analogy of a dream to explain how the illusion of separation arises. He also takes care to explain how it is possible for even a liberated soul to become illusioned:

"Our separation from Krishna is like that. We dream this body and so many relationships with other things. First the attachment comes to enjoy sense gratification. Even [when we are] with Krishna the desire for sense gratification is there. There is a dormant attitude for forgetting Krishna and creating an atmosphere for enjoying independently."


He then continues his exposition:

"We cannot say, therefore, that we are not with Krishna. As soon as we try to become the Lord, immediately we are covered by maya. Formerly we were with Krishna in His lila, or sport. But this covering of maya may be of very, very, very, very long duration; therefore [in the interim] many creations are coming and going. Due to this long period of time it is sometimes said that we are ever-conditioned. But this long duration of time becomes very insignificant when one actually comes to Krishna consciousness.

It is like in a dream: We are thinking it is a very long time, but as soon as we awaken we look at our watch and see it has been a moment only. To give another example: Krishna's friends were kept asleep for one year by Brahma, but when they woke up and Krishna returned before them, they considered that only a moment had passed.

So this dreaming condition is called non-liberated life, and this is just like a dream. Although in material calculation it is a long, long period, as soon as we come to Krishna consciousness this period is considered a second."

Here Srila Prabhupada explains how this condition of illusion is “very insignificant.” Not only is it insubstantial like a dream, but it is also momentary. Although within the dream unlimited years seem to pass, in reality the dream lasts virtually no time at all—a “moment” or a “second.”

Then Srila Prabhupada offers another example of how a seeming long duration of time can last only an instant. He recalls the story of how the cowherd boys napped under the spell of Brahma for only one truti (or 8/13,500 of a second) of Brahma’s time while an entire year passed in human time. 19

Srila Prabhupada invokes the relativistic temporal structure of creation to explain how the illusion of the jiva is insignificant, and I followed him in my article. I attempted only to elaborate Srila Prabhupada's explanation in a more systematic and explicit manner. In the example of the cowherd boys, one truti of Brahma’s time is contrasted to one year of human time. If we consider the case of the sleeping jivas rather than the sleeping cowherd boys, how much greater would be the contrast between real time (in the spiritual world) and dream-time (in the material world)? Obviously, the “moment” in real time would become vanishingly small—infinitesimally small—while in “dream-time” it would become infinitely great—anadi, without a traceable beginning.

In short, Srila Prabhupada uses the example of dreaming to say that the soul never really leaves Vaikuntha. And he alludes to the contrast between eternity and time to show that the soul’s period of illusion is objectively instantaneous, that it lasts virtually no time at all.

This is how I derived my explanation from Srila Prabhupada. I focused my article on the relation between time and eternity because that seems the source of much of the difficulty in thinking about the jiva issue. I did not for a moment think that I was going to figure out the inconceivable, as some readers have charged. Rather, I simply tried to highlight what makes the subject so difficult to conceive.

Mayavada Philosophy?

One reader objected that the account in my article presents “Mayavada philosophy.” Quoting from my article, he writes, “ ‘For the logic of eternity dictates that no one falls from eternity—even if he does so.’ Here the author attempts to convince the reader that conditioned existence is an absolute illusion, a mere figment of the imagination, because the conditioned soul never really left the spiritual world.” As I have shown, Srila Prabhupada teaches that conditioned existence is indeed a figment of the imagination, and that the conditioned soul never really does leave the spiritual world.

This is not Mayavada philosophy, however. The impersonalistic Mayavada philosophy claims that the Absolute has no energies: There is no material world, no dreaming existence; indeed, there is no jiva who dreams. On the contrary, Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.1 clearly states that the agent which produces the jiva’s illusion is Krishna's own, real energy. My statement “No one falls from eternity—even if he does so” can only be construed as denying material existence by ignoring the second half of the statement.

Another reader seems to have been misled by taking the diagram of the temporal structure of the world somewhat too literally. For simplicity’s sake, I depicted that structure by means of an equilateral triangle. A more accurate diagram, of course, would have the two ascending sides converging infinitely toward the center axis—an asymptote—never actually to meet. Similarly, the two sides in descending would infinitely diverge as they grew closer and closer to the baseline.

A triangle with an apex, however, could suggest that the illusion of matter doesn’t exit at all; it “disappears” absolutely. In fact, that illusion does exist as illusion. From the point of view of reality, however, that illusion suffers a radical reduction in value and being. Material existence is like the flicker of a hallucination so quick, so close to subliminal, that afterward you are not sure it was there at all.

Did it happen or not? Never mind—here’s Krishna. Let’s get on with our game.

Ravindra Svarupa Dasa served for many years on ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission. He joined ISKCON in 1971 and holds a Ph.D. in religion from Temple University.

*A "leitmotif" is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

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1. See “Srila Prabhupada Speaks Out,” page 29.

2. Both readers, however, neglected to supply the requisite “quotes” in support of these assertions.

3. Once the title article of a street distribution booklet published by ISKCON Press (New York), “On Chanting Hare Krishna” has been reprinted under the title “Chanting the Hare Krishna Maha-mantra,” in the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust anthology The Science of Self-Realization.

4. Elegant in the sense that a mathematical proof is said to be elegant.

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5. Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.53–54.

6. We are reminded that Srila Prabhupada called his commentaries “purports,” comments to make clear the intended meaning, sense, and purpose of the verse.

7. Srimad-Bhagavatam 4/28/54, purport.

8. Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.1, purport.

9. Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.28.64.

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10. For instance,

11. Letter to Aniruddha Dasa, November 14, 1968.

12. Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.10.5, given June 20, 1973, in Mayapur, India.

13. Letter to Upendra Dasa, October 27, 1969.

14. The lecture, given in Tokyo on April 20, 1972, is included in the book Quest for Enlightenment, Chapter 2 p. 57.

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15. During a class in London (July 30, 1971) on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.15, Srila Prabhupada answered a question about our position in the spiritual sky before we fell by saying, “You are already in the spiritual sky. . . . Actually we are always in the spiritual world.”

16. The paper appears in this magazine, on page 29.

17. In that case, some devotees were propagating the theory that since no one falls from Vaikuntha, the conditioned souls must have fallen from the Brahman effulgence. In “Crow-and-Tal-Fruit Logic,” Srila Prabhupada rejects this theory. A few years earlier he had responded to the same theory in a letter to Revatinandana Dasa (June 13, 1970): “Those who are in the Brahman effulgence they are also in the fallen condition, so there is no question of falling down from a fallen condition. When fall takes place, it means falling down from the non-fallen condition. The non-fallen condition is Krishna consciousness.”

18. Srila Prabhupada consistently taught that souls do in fact have the option of exercising their freedom even in the spiritual world and hence of falling into the illusion of material existence. Because the soul is a spiritual part of God, he has inherent independence or free will, which some misuse. For a sample of Srila Prabhupada's elucidations on the point, see: Lecture on Srimad-Bhagavatam 6.1.5 (London, July 30, 1971); discussion at the end of lecture on Sri Caitanya-caritamrita, Adi-lila 7.108 (San Francisco, February 18, 1967); conversation with Dr. John Mize in Los Angeles (June 23, 1975); conversation with disciples in Mayapur (February 19, 1976); conversation with disciples in Washington, D.C. (July 8, 1976); letters to Jagadisa Dasa (February 27, 1970, and April 25, 1970).

19. “When Lord Brahma returned after a moment of time had passed (according to his own measurement), he saw that although by human measurement a complete year had passed. …” Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.13.40. The word for “moment” in this verse is truti. A truti is the smallest measure of material time. According to Srila Prabhupada's purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.11.14, a truti equals 8/13,500 of a second.

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