Fall of the Jiva: how souls fall in the material world and why this is such a difficult question
Do the jivas fall from the spiritual world? Were we in Krsna Lila before falling in this material world, or have we just fallen here from the viraja river, and that's our first taste of Krsna Consciousness? Have we ever met Krsna before?
To ask "how the souls fall into the material world" sounds like a perfectly bonafide question, something a visitor could make in a Sunday class. However, it became one of the most polemical topics inside our movement, evoking heated discussions and a few occasional fist fights. For the last 40+ years, books have been written, long discussions held, resolutions have been made by the GBC, and we are still far from a consensus.
How could such a simple question become the center of such fratricidal dispute?
The question is that this is an extremely difficult question to answer. There are so many different sides to reconcile, and the more you go deep into it, the harder it becomes to understand. Srila Sridhara Maharaja, a senior godbrother of Srila Prabhupada once commented that this is the most difficult question to answer. How is it so?
The fall of the jiva is an extremely complicated subject, because it deals with the intrinsic differences between the spiritual reality and our conditioned reality in the material world. Not knowing anything different, we try to understand this difficult topic on the basis of the linear time of this material world, not understanding that such linear time doesn’t apply to the spiritual world. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains:
“Please avoid the misleading question ‘When were these jivas [living beings] created and enthralled?’ The Mayik time has no existence in spiritual history, because it has its commencement after the enthrallment of jivas, and you cannot, therefore, employ Mayik chronology in matters like these.” (Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, His Life and Precepts)
The souls don’t even have an origin, since Krsna clearly explains in the Bhagavad-gita that they are ever existing. The concept of creation exists only inside the material world: all spiritual beings, including ourselves, are simply ever existing, without beginning. This alone is an idea impossible to fully understand with our material brains. Srila Prabhupada explains that although many passages in the scriptures appear to suggest that the souls and different expansions of Krsna are created at a certain point, this is just to make us understand the point that Krsna is the supreme origin. In reality, they are ever existing. Just like it’s sometimes explained that Krsna wanted to enjoy and thus He divided Himself, as Radha and Krsna. There is not such a historical episode when such a division occurred, it’s explained in this way just for us to be able to understand Their relationship. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains this intricate idea in more detail in the 15th chapter of his Jaiva Dharma:
“Vrajanatha: You said earlier that the cit world is eternal, and so are the jivas. If this is true, how can an eternal entity possibly be created, manifested or produced? If it is created at some point of time, it must have been non-existent before that, so how can we accept that it is eternal?
Babaji: The time and space that you experience in this material world are completely different from time and space in the spiritual world. Material time is divided into three aspects: past, present and future. However, in the spiritual world there is only one undivided, eternally present time. Every event of the spiritual world is eternally present.
Whatever we say or describe in the material world is under the jurisdiction of material time and space, so when we say "The jivas were created", "The spiritual world was manifested", or "There is no influence of maya in creating the form of the jivas", material time is bound to influence our language and our statements. This is inevitable in our conditioned state, so we cannot remove the influence of material time from our descriptions of the atomic jiva and spiritual objects. The conception of past, present and future always enters them in some way or another. Still, those who can discriminate properly can understand the application of the eternal present when they comprehend the purport of the descriptions of the spiritual world.”
Some try to explain the fall of the jiva by arguing that the jivas were situated originally in the brahmajyoti. This sounds like a good explanation, since the jivas are described as the marginal potency of the Lord and the brahmajyoti is, well, marginal. However, Srila Prabhupada disagrees with this idea, explaining that the brahmajyoti is already a fallen position and therefore it is not the origin of the soul. Despite being called "nitya-baddha" (eternally conditioned) the souls are also not a product of this material world. The term “nitya-baddha” means just that the soul is conditioned for such a long period that the beginning can’t be traced back.
In the 3rd chapter of his Harinama Cintamani, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura (quoting Srila Haridasa Thakura) describes sambandha-tattva, the basic facts concerning the jiva, God and the material nature:
“Krishna is the eternal Lord, and the living entities are His eternal servants, linked to the Lord by the bond of love (prema). This relationship of jiva to God in prema-bhakti is also eternal. This is the living entity's constitutional nature, which has only to be uncovered.”
How can we have an eternal relationship with Krsna and still be in this material world at present is the inconceivable part, since it is stated that nobody falls from Krsna’s personal abode. That’s the part that Srila Prabhupada told us to not waste time discussing. Not only is the full explanation not given, but even if it was, we would not be able to really understand, for the reasons I explained previously. Srila Prabhupada gives a few simple explanations on this point in his article “Crow And Tal-Fruit Logic” (originally part of a letter from 16 May 1972 to Madhudvisa Swami and the devotees in Australia), emphasizing the free will of the soul and comparing the conditioned stage to a dream.
This subject is also explained by Srila Prabhupada in a few other lectures, conversations, and letters, but the real point we should keep in mind is how to cast off our material contamination and regain our original position as servants of the Lord. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains:
“The independent jiva is a beloved servant of Krsna, and thus Krsna is kind and compassionate towards him. Seeing the misfortune of the jiva, as he misuses his independence and becomes attached to maya, He chases after him, weeping and weeping, and appears in the material world to deliver him. Sri Krsna, the ocean of compassion, His heart melting with mercy for the jivas, manifests His acintya-lila in the material world, thinking that His appearance will enable the jiva to see His nectarean pastimes. However, the jiva does not understand the truth about Krsna’s pastimes, even after being showered by so much mercy, so Krsna then descends in Sri Navadvipa in the form of guru. He personally describes the supreme process of chanting His name, form, qualities and pastimes, and personally instructs and inspires the jivas to take to this path by practicing it Himself. Baba, how can you accuse Krsna of being at fault in any way when He is so merciful? His mercy is unlimited, but our misfortune is lamentable.” (Jaiva Dharma, ch. 16)
Another point is that the journey of the jivas is long and has many stages. We all stayed in the viraja river, entered in the body of Maha-Vishnu, went through numerous cycles of creation and annihilation in different material universes, possibly went all the way to the brahmajyoti and back, and so on. This journey is so long that it is not possible to trace back when it began. This explains the apparent contradictions in the explanations of different acaryas (and even amongst different passages from Srila Prabhupada himself) on this matter, since different explanations can be given, in different levels of detail, according to the understanding of the audience. At one instance, it may be said that the jivas came from the glance of Maha-Vishnu, in another that they came from the viraja river, or emanated from the personal effulgence of the Lord, or even just said that the jivas have been in this material world for as long as it can be traced back. These are just explanations that narrate different stages in the jiva’s journey, according to what is relevant in the context, since this is ultimately a subject matter impossible to be fully understood for a conditioned soul.
One example that can be given is that nowadays most apples come from China. Someone planted a seed, that became a tree, that gave fruits. Someone picked the apple, put it in a box, and shipped it. After more stages, it arrived in a supermarket, where someone bought it. If we would want a more complete explanation, it could be added that the seed came from a lineage of trees, that goes all the way to a Prajapati, who was created by Lord Brahma, who in turn came from Garbhodakasayi Vishnu and so on. One could write volumes about the origin of the apple.
If one asked: “From where the apple came?” One could answer that it came from the supermarket, another that it came from China, another that it came from a tree. All these answers would be correct, but individuals with a limited understanding could take these partial answers literally and quarrel about where the apple came from, not understanding how the apparently contradictory answers fit together.
Only a liberated soul may be able to fully understand, but still he will have difficulties to explain to us due to our conditioned understanding of reality. In the end, it's better to follow the advice of Srila Prabhupada and just focus on trying to get free of this material ocean instead of becoming busy enquiring about how we came here.