"The Lord is like a great blazing fire, and the living entities are like small sparks of that fire.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi, 7.116)
Question: “What I do not understand is how, with God being one, perfect and whole, that He would manifest himself in a variety of forms that were condemned to being lost in finitude and frustration? Why do we exist separately from Brahman right now in our present form? Why would God see fit to manifest Himself into weakness and suffering?”
Answer: This is a question that comes up quite often from those who are inquisitive about the origin of the spirit soul. The Bhagavad-gita and other religious scriptures provide various prescriptions for how we are to act going forward in hopes of achieving spiritual happiness, but there is no concrete information given on the origin of the soul.
Young children often like to play the Why Game. The game is very easy to play; you keep questioning someone about a particular subject by constantly asking them “But why?” For example, Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad-gita, that we spirit souls are eternal and that there never was a time when we did not exist:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bg 2.12)
One can then ask the question: “if we have always existed, then why and how did we end up this material world?”
The general Vedic teaching is that we spirit souls are here because we want to be. We wanted to lord over material nature and pretend to be God ourselves, so the Lord begrudgingly gave us the opportunity to fulfill this desire by creating this material world. It is in essence our playground. We’re allowed to go hog wild, taking any and all opportunity to further our sense pleasures. Since all of our desires are colliding with one another, naturally there will be both good and bad results. Any activity done for a material result is called karma. Karma is what makes the world go around, and it is the single force behind our remaining in the material world. In the Bhagavad-gita, the Lord also states that our consciousness at the time of death determines what kind of body we will receive in the next life:
“Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body, that state he will attain without fail.” (Bg 8.6)
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Bg 2.22)
“For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bg 2.20)
From this verse, we can understand that the soul is eternal and that it never takes birth. Eternal means having no beginning and no end. In fact, that is how religion is defined in the Vedic sense. It is referred to as sanatana dharma, meaning the “eternal occupation of man”. It is more than just blind faith, for it is the inherent duty of living entities to be God conscious and to engage their time in spiritual activities.
The Vedic tradition states that we spirit souls have a minute amount of independence. God is great and the Supreme Controller, yet He has allowed us to take birth in this material world, giving us the reigns to determine our own fate. It is similar to the concept of a father and son. Playing the Why Game, one can ask “why would God allow us to come here if He knew it was bad for us?” The answer again goes back to the issue of karma. It is our desire. It is our choice.
The accepted belief amongst followers of Christianity is that this material world was meant to be a place of complete purity, where people would be completely God conscious and without sin. However, Adam and Eve, the first two living beings, tainted everything by engaging in the original sin by taking the Forbidden Fruit, an act which has since plagued all of their descendents. A similar concept exists in the Vedas in relation to the purity that existed at the beginning of creation. The Vedas tell us that the universe is constantly going through cycles of creation and destruction. Each creation is divided into four time periods known as Yugas. In the first Yuga, known as Satya or Krita, man is completely pure. Dharma exists at full strength. With each successive time period, dharma dwindles by one quarter in strength. The real sin of Adam and Eve was not necessarily the specific act they engaged in. Sinful activity really means anything done which has an associated karma, or material reaction. Any activity done along religious principles, work performed for the benefit of Krishna, is considered spiritual. Any other activity is technically considered sinful since it binds us to the repeated cycle of birth and death. Yamaraja, the god of death, explains this very well in the Shrimad Bhagavatam. Similar to the idea of the Grim Reaper, Yamaraja takes charge of the spirit souls right after the time of death, determining what type of body they will receive in their next life. A long long time ago, there was a brahmana by the name of Ajamila, who had been a devotee earlier in his life, but then later took to sinful life. At the time of his death, he inadvertently called out for his son Narayana, which also happens to be the name of Krishna’s four-handed form also known as Vishnu. Yamaraja’s agents came to take his soul, but they were intercepted by the Vishnuduttas, the agents of Lord Vishnu. Yamaraja later had to explain to his agents that he only accepts those souls which aren’t God conscious. He instructed them not to bring him those souls which were devoted to God, for the devotees go directly to Krishna’s spiritual abode after they die.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gives further insight into the reason behind the existence of spirit souls:
“Although sparks and a big fire are both fire and both have the power to burn, the burning power of the fire and that of the spark are not the same. Why should one artificially try to become like a big fire although by constitution he is like a small spark? It is due to ignorance. One should therefore understand that neither the Supreme Personality of Godhead nor the small sparklike living entities have anything to do with matter, but when the spiritual spark comes in contact with the material world his fiery quality is extinguished. That is the position of the conditioned souls. Because they are in touch with the material world, their spiritual quality is almost dead, but because these spiritual sparks are all Krishna's parts and parcels, as the Lord states in the Bhagavad-gita (mamaivamshaa), they can revive their original position by getting free from material contact. This is pure philosophical understanding. In the Bhagavad-gita the spiritual sparks are declared to be sanatana (eternal); therefore the material energy, maya, cannot affect their constitutional position.
Someone may argue, ‘Why is there a need to create the spiritual sparks?’ The answer can be given in this way: Since the Absolute Personality of Godhead is omnipotent, He has both unlimited and limited potencies. This is the meaning of omnipotent. To be omnipotent, He must have not only unlimited potencies but limited potencies also. Thus to exhibit His omnipotency He displays both. The living entities are endowed with limited potency although they are part of the Lord. The Lord displays the spiritual world by His unlimited potencies, whereas by His limited potencies the material world is displayed. In the Bhagavad-gita (7.5) the Lord says:
‘Besides these inferior energies, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises all living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature.’ The jiva-bhuta, the living entities, control this material world with their limited potencies. Generally, people are bewildered by the activities of scientists and technologists. Due to maya they think that there is no need of God and that they can do everything and anything, but actually they cannot. Since this cosmic manifestation is limited, their existence is also limited. Everything in this material world is limited, and for this reason there is creation, sustenance and dissolution. However, in the world of unlimited energy, the spiritual world, there is neither creation nor destruction.
If the Personality of Godhead did not possess both limited and unlimited energies, He could not be called omnipotent…’The Lord is greater than the greatest and smaller than the smallest.’ He is smaller than the smallest in the form of the living entities and greater than the greatest in His form of Krishna. If there were no one to control, there would be no meaning to the conception of the supreme controller (ishvara), just as there is no meaning to a king without his subjects. If all the subjects became king, there would be no distinction between the king and an ordinary citizen. Thus for the Lord to be the supreme controller there must be a creation to control. The basic principle for the existence of the living entities is called chid-vilasa, or spiritual pleasure. The omnipotent Lord displays His pleasure potency as the living entities. The Lord is described in the Vedanta-sutra (1.1.12) as ananda-mayo 'bhyasat. He is by nature the reservoir of all pleasures, and because He wants to enjoy pleasure, there must be energies to give Him pleasure or supply Him the impetus for pleasure. This is the perfect philosophical understanding of the Absolute Truth.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi, 7.116 Purport)
One can play the Why Game again and ask “why would God need to feel superior?” In actuality, He doesn’t. The Lord is referred to as atmarama, meaning He is self-satisfied. He is need of nothing. Both God and the spirit souls are eternal, but the main difference is that the human mind cannot grasp the concept of infinity. The ideas of time and space represent the limits to our knowledge base. After all, the subtle elements of mind, intelligence, and ego are all products of this material world. They are not spiritual. We cannot even begin to fathom the concept of no beginning and no end.
The real meaning of life is love. Not the ordinary love between man and woman, or friends and family, but rather the highest form of love, Krishna prema. In most instances, the reason people decide to have children is because they want to have other people in their life that they can love unconditionally. God is the same way in that sense, except that He has expanded Himself for our benefit. He loves us no matter what, but just as with parents and their children, there is no way for God to force us to love Him back. The choice is ours in that respect. If we do decide to become devotees and give our love to the Lord, then the relationship that ensues is completely of a spiritual nature. It is the highest rasa, or transcendental mellow.
All this philosophy may seem confusing and contradictory, but one key point should be remembered: we can only understand the meaning of life and why we are here once we realize the futility in trying to figure it out. One can go on asking why until they reach a stumbling block, but Krishna has given us the way out of this world and that is all that should concern us:
“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.” (Bg 8.5)
God is God and we should love Him unconditionally. That is all we need to know. It is a very natural thing. Many great devotees of the past have followed this path, including the gopis of Vrindavana, Prahlada Maharaja, and Hanuman just to name a few. They are perfect in every respect and by following their example, we can do no wrong.