A primary task of every Vedantic tradition is to provide an analysis of the nature of the self according to the Upanishads and allied texts. In terms of theory, such descriptions are meant to provide insight into the coherent message which unites Upanishadic literature. In terms of practice, they guide the inner life of sadhakas in the attempt to recover their deepest selves. Gaudiya Vaishnavas (the followers of Sri Chaitanya) are no different in this regard. Practitioners aspire to recover their genuine self which is currently obscured by various upadhis (illusory designations). In truth, the Gaudiyas claim, the self is a small spark of the divine shakti (energy) of Brahman, in a sense one with, yet in another sense different from it’s source.
In the following paper, Ravindra-svarupa dasa provides an introductory presentation on the nature of the self according to the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. It was originally presented at the Vaisnava-Christian Conference on January 20-21, 1996 at Buckland Hall, Powys, Wales.
The Nature of the Self: A Gaudiya Vaisnava Understanding
The Sparks of God
The soul, or self (atma), is described as a separated, minute fragment of God, the Supersoul (paramatma). God is like a fire; the individual souls, sparks of the fire. As the analogy suggests, the self and the Superself are simultaneously one with and different from each other. They are the same in quality, for both the soul and the Supersoul are brahman, spirit. Yet they differ in quantity, since the Superself (param brahman—“supreme brahman”—in Bhagavad-gita 10.12) is infinitely great while the individual selves are infinitesimally small.
In the Upanisads some texts assert the identity between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, while others speak of the difference between them. The way the Vaisnava Vedanta resolves this apparent contradiction recognises identity and difference as equally real.
Such a reconciliation is conveyed in the Katha Upanisad (2.2.13) in the words nityo nityanam cetannas cetananam eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman. (“There is one eternal being out of many eternals, one conscious being out of many conscious beings. It is the one who provides for the needs of the many.”) This text states, in effect, that there is a class division in transcendence. It says that there are two categorically different types of eternal, conscious—hence, spiritual—beings. One category is singular in number (nityo), a set with only one member. This, then, is the category of God, who is one without a second. The other class is plural (nityanam), containing innumerable members. This is the category of the souls. The members of both classes are brahman, spirit. Yet one of them is unique, peerless, in a class by Himself, for He is the singular, independent self-sustaining sustainer of all others. Each of the others possesses a multitude of peers, and all of them alike are intrinsically dependent upon the one. The one is the absolute, the many are relative.
The Energies of the Absolute
Fundamental to the Vaisnava Vedanta is the doctrine that the Absolute Truth possesses energies. (The impersonalistic Advaita Vedanta, in contrast, denies the reality of the energies.) The energies are divided into different categories; one of them is comprised of the innumerable individual souls.
The “Absolute Truth” denotes that from which everything emanates, by which it is sustained, and to which it finally returns. The products of the Absolute are thought of as its sakti, its energy or potency. Heat and light, for example, are considered the “energies” of fire. Just as the sun projects itself everywhere by its radiation yet remains apart, so the Absolute expands its own energies to produce (and, in a fashion, to become) the world while remaining separate from it. Unlike the sun, the Absolute can emanate unlimited energy and remain undiminished. (The arithmetic of the Absolute: One minus one equals one.) In short, while nothing is different from God, God is different from everything.
The host of souls makes up the category of divine energy called the tatastha-sakti. Tata means “bank,” as of a river or lake. Tatastha means “situated on the bank.” The souls are characterised as marginal or borderline energy because they are, as it were, between two worlds. They can dwell within either of the other two major energies, the internal (antaranga-sakti) and the external (bahiranga-sakti). The internal potency is also known as the spiritual energy (cit-sakti), and the external potency is also called the material energy (maya-sakti). The internal potency expands as the transcendental realm, the eternal Kingdom of God. The external potency expands as the material world, which is sometimes manifest and sometimes unmanifest.
Because souls are spiritual, their original home is the spiritual kingdom. Almost all souls dwell there. These are called eternally liberated souls. Only a tiny minority of souls inhabit this material world. These are called fallen, or conditioned, souls.
Souls are small samples of God. Hence they possess a minute quantity of that freedom which God possesses in full. Although they are eternal, full of knowledge and bliss, and although their dharma, or essential nature, is to serve God, they may still, in the exercise of that freedom, wilfully turn away from divine service. Thereupon these souls fall into the inhospitable realm of the external, material energy.
Because souls are constitutionally servants, even the rebellious souls remain under God’s control, but that control is now exercised indirectly and unfavourably through the agency of material nature. Souls do not have the freedom not to be controlled by God, but they do choose freely how they wish to be controlled. Those who will not voluntarily be controlled by the Lord are controlled involuntarily by material nature. For this reason, spiritual souls become incarcerated within matter. Under the superintendence of the Lord, there is a confluence of the marginal and the external energies, and the creation arises.
Spirits in the Material World
The presence of spirit within the material world is disclosed immediately to us by consciousness. Consciousness is the symptom of the soul. It is the current or the energy of the soul. Consciousness does not arise as a by-product of the material energy. A material object like a table or chair is entirely an object and in no way a subject. It does not undergo experiences. It has no significance for itself. An embodied soul, a living being, on the other hand, is a subject; it has significance for itself as well as for others; it undergoes experiences. The claim that the soul is a “metaphysical entity” beyond all possible experience is simply false. Not only do we experience the soul; the soul is the very condition for our having any experiences at all.
Thus, souls are fundamental, irreducible entities in the world. Each living, conscious being is of a different category from the material energy which embodies and surrounds it. The Upanisads declare: aham brahmasmi, I am brahman, I am spirit. The corollary is: I am not matter. And further: I am not this body. Human beings achieve their full potential when they realise this.
The material elements, of which living bodies are made, are traditionally given as eight: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego. They are arranged in sequence from the grossest to the subtlest, that is, from the most apparent to our senses to the least. The first five are the gross elements (maha-bhuta-s); the last three, the subtle elements (suksma-bhuta-s). The gross elements become more intelligible to us when translated as: solids, liquids, gases, radiant energy, and space. The subtle elements, taken together, make up what we in the West generally call the “mind.” The subtle element manas, or mind, is the locus of habit, of normal thinking, feeling, and willing according to one’s established mind-set. Buddhi, or intelligence, is the higher faculty of discrimination and judgement; it determines mind-sets and comes to the fore when we undergo conversions or paradigm shifts. Ahamkara, or the sense of self, is the faculty by which the embodied soul assumes a false or illusory identity in the material world.
Conditioned souls attain human form after transmigrating upward through the scale of beings; thereupon they become capable of self-realisation and liberation. Liberation means giving up the false identification of the self with the gross and subtle material coils and regaining one’s original spiritual form as a servant of God.
Even in the conditioned state, the soul always remains a spiritual being. Like a dreamer who projects his identity onto an illusory, dream-self, the conditioned soul acquires a false self of matter. Although the self is by nature eternal, full of knowledge and full of bliss, this nature becomes covered by illusion. Identifying with the material body, the soul is plunged into the nightmare of history, trapped in the revolutions of repeated birth and death (mrtyu-samsara). This false identification by the embodied souls with their psychophysical coverings is the cause of all their suffering.
The quest by conditioned souls for happiness in this world inevitably fails. The eternal souls naturally seek eternal happiness, yet they seek it where all happiness is temporary. The fulfillment of the most common and basic desire, that of self-preservation, has not once met with success. Indeed, the deluded souls do not know that matters are just the opposite of the way they seem. Gratification of the senses is in fact the generator of suffering, not happiness. This is because each act of sense gratification intensifies the soul’s false identification with the body. Consequently, when the body undergoes disease, senescence, and death, the materially absorbed living beings experience all these as happening to themselves. Death is an illusion they have imposed upon themselves owing to their desire to enjoy in this world. So enjoying, their agony continues unabated. A mind brimming with unfulfilled yearnings propels them, at the time of death, into new material bodies, to begin yet another round.
Recovering the Authentic Self
Fallen souls have been granted a false material identity because they reject their authentic spiritual identity. The traces of that rejection are found everywhere. We see that all organisms, from microbes on up, are driven by the mechanism of desire and hate, by “approach” and “avoidance.” This duality is the reverberation of the original sinful will that propelled them into this world. The original sinful desire is: “Why can’t I be God?” And the original sinful hate, “Why should Krishna be God?”
When souls evince the desire to become the Lord, the Lord responds by granting them the illusion of independent lordship. They enter the material kingdom, to be provided with a sequence of false identities—costumes fabricated out of material energy—along with an inventory of objects which they think they can dominate and enjoy. Even so, the Lord accompanies them in their wanderings, dwelling in their hearts as He works to bring about their eventual rectification and return from exile. When the soul in the depth of his being again turns to God, the Lord makes all arrangements for his inauthentic, illusory life to end.
The renovation of real life is called bhakti-yoga—reconnecting the soul with the Supersoul (yoga) by loving devotional service (bhakti). Bhakti rests upon the principle that desire and activity are not in themselves bad. The soul itself is the source of desire and activity. The original, pure desire of the soul is to satisfy the senses of the Lord. This is called prema, or love. When souls contact matter, their love becomes transformed into lust (kama), which is the desire to satisfy one’s own senses. The practice of bhakti-yoga reconverts lust into love. Desire is not suppressed or repressed; it is purified. One may call this “sublimation,” but it should be understood that when desire is thus sublimated it returns to its own natural and aboriginal state.
The world, the body with its senses, the sense objects are not to be enjoyed, but neither are they to be renounced. The world is God’s energy, and it should not be decried as false or evil. Rather, the elements of this world are to be engaged in divine service. When that is done, the veil of illusion is lifted, and everything and everyone are seen in their true identity: in relationship to God. The way to see divinity everywhere and in everything is to utilise everything in the Lord’s service. God is the first of fact, but our materially contaminated senses cannot perceive Him. When, however, the senses become purified by being engaged in the Lord’s service, they regain their capacity to perceive God directly.
Such purified souls are fully joyful. They neither hanker nor lament. Their happiness does not depend upon the course of circumstance. They see all living beings as the same. They see that all the agony and hopelessness of the world is exorcised when the illusion that has rendered us oblivious to our own identity is dispelled, and they engage themselves in the highest welfare work of rousing sleeping souls from their nightmare. For themselves, they take no mind of what becomes of the future of their lives.
Because they have no material desires, there is no further birth for them in this world. Instead, they attain their original spiritual forms in the kingdom of God, spiritual bodies suitable for pastimes of love with the Lord.
Spirits in the Spiritual World
The Absolute Truth has both an impersonal and a personal feature, but the personal feature is the last word in Godhead. To say the Absolute is a person is to say that it has senses (indriya-s). Traditionally, the senses are ten: those through which the world acts upon us (instruments of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling), and those through which we act upon the world (instruments of manipulation, locomotion, sound production, reproduction, and evacuation). The mind is often considered the eleventh sense. A body, accordingly, may be thought of as an array of senses organised around a centre of consciousness. Thus, to say that the Absolute is a person is to say that the Absolute has body or form.
The body of God is not material. It is a spiritual or transcendental form—sad-cit-ananda-vigraha, an eternal form of bliss and knowledge. Though differentiated by limbs or parts, a spiritual body is nevertheless completely unified and identical with its own possessor. Therefore, in God, there is no difference between body and soul, mind and body, soul and mind. Every limb or part of that body can perform all functions of every other limb.
Because the Absolute is a person, the souls, the offspring of God, are also persons, and they fully manifest their authentic identity only in relationship with the Supreme Person. When conditioned souls act under the impetus of sense gratification, their bodies evolve materially. But when the souls act in their constitutional position, their love toward God displays itself as the soul’s proper spiritual bodies. Thus, the selves achieve their full personal identity and self-expression as lovers of God.
All relationships in this world are dim and perverted reflections of their real prototypes in the kingdom of God. The taste or flavour of a relationship is called rasa (literally, “juice”). It is said that there are five primary rasa-s a soul can have toward the Lord. In order of increasing intimacy, they are passive adoration, servitorship, fraternal, parental, and conjugal.
God and His devotees engage in eternal pastimes of loving exchanges in spiritual forms that are sheer embodiments of rasa. Such bodies are the unmediated concrete expressions of spiritual ecstasies. These unceasing, uninterrupted, ever-increasing variegated ecstasies are nondifferent from the souls and from the spiritual bodies that bear them. The forms and activities of the Lord and His devotees all possess transcendental specificity and variegatedness. The forms of love are not abstractions and their relations are not allegories. In the kingdom of God life is infinitely more full, vivid, and real than anything of the thin shadows that flicker here, on and off. Here, we are not what we are. There, we are truly ourselves again because we are truly God’s.