Review: Paramatma Vaibhava: Jiva Tattva

Syamananda dasa reviews the book Paramatma Vaibhava: Jiva Tattva by Bhaktivedanta Suddhadvaiti Swami.

In modern Gaudiya Vaisnavism, a controversy has arisen regarding the origin and nature of the jivatmas: What is our source, and what are we? It is easy to see how these topics are related, and discussion of one naturally leads to discussion of the other, since finding the source of something will help determine what it is, and vice versa. In Paramatma Vaibhava: Jiva Tattva, Bhaktivedanta Suddhadvaiti Swami seeks to conclusively answer these questions, a laudable task, drawing from the statements of our acaryas and sacred texts. The author is sure enough of himself to believe that one who does not accept his book as the final word on the issue does not belong in Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s lineage. It is highly unlikely that our Ṭhākura would appreciate such a stance, and on top of that the book puts forth some questionable ideas.

The Source of the Jīva

The title is taken from a description of the jīvātmā given in Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī’s Ṣaṭ-sandarbha, a foundational work that establishes the teachings of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya. This description says that the taṭastha-śakti, the energy that jīvātmās consist of, belongs to the power (vaibhava) of Paramātmā (here referring to Mahā-Viṣṇu, who manifests the material universes). The author points out an important implication of this: the jīvātmās are not a manifestation of svayam Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s own direct energy, the svarūpa-śakti.

The Ṣaṭ-sandarbha lists two groups of jīvātmās: (1) the eternally liberated, who have faced God forever, without a beginning in time, and (2) the eternally bound, who have faced away from God for just as long. Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī states that this difference comes from the fact that the eternally liberated are blessed with Bhagavān’s svarūpa-śakti, and he mentions Garuḍa as an example.1

Here we may wonder, Do eternally liberated jivas such as Garuḍa have their origin in Mahā-Viṣṇu, who manifests jīvas in the beginning of every creation by glancing at the material energy? If Maha-Visnu does not glance at Vaikuṇṭha, how is it possible that Garuḍa and eternally bound jivas both belong to the taṭastha-śakti?

Śrīla Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja Goswāmī answers these questions in his Caitanya-caritāmṛta, which is considered the final word in establishing Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava orthodoxy. In the chapter on Nityānanda tattva, he describes one of Śrī Balarāma’s expansions—Mahā-Saṅkarṣaṇa, who resides in Vaikuṇṭha. Our Kavirāja Goswāmī states there that the taṭastha-śakti is singular and that it is sheltered in Mahā-Saṅkarṣaṇa. He immediately goes on to say that the puruṣa (Mahā-Viṣṇu) who manifests the material universes is an expansion of this Saṅkarṣaṇa.2 From this, we can understand that although eternal associates such as Garuḍa and materially bound jīvas belong to one and the same śakti, the former group is directly sheltered under Mahā-Saṅkarṣaṇa, while the latter is sheltered under his expansion, Mahā-Viṣṇu.

Why Some Jivas Are Eternally Bound

Understandably, because of material conditioning, one may wonder why some jīvas are sheltered under Mahā-Saṅkarṣaṇa, in Vaikuṇṭha, while others are sheltered under Mahā-Viṣṇu, in material nature. As Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura explains in his commentary on the first verse of Śrī Śikṣāṣṭakam, God places jīvas in material nature for the sake of his play:

The infinitesimal living entity, manifested by the taṭastha-śakti of the Lord, becomes covered by māyā on account of being an instrument for the Lord’s pastimes in the matter of the material creation. Otherwise, how can the conscious jīva be covered by inert matter?

While in the material world, the jīva has opportunity for sādhu-saṅga. Our Ṭhākura further says,

The living entity, bewildered by māyā, suffers the pangs of material existence. But when he establishes his relationship with the svarūpa-śakti, the external potency in the form of ignorance is dissipated.

In the same chapter of Caitanya-caritāmṛta referenced above, Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja offers further insight: Vāsudeva Nārāyana is preoccupied with the līlās of Vaikuntha and the extraordinary liberated statuses of sālokya, sārupya, sāmipya, and sārṣṭi. However, despite this transcendent preoccupation, Narayana also has a desire to bestow these liberated statuses on others. His desire to express compassion is facilitated by Mahā- saṅkarṣaṇa, who is also the shelter of the jīva­śakti and the Deity related to ego, or individual sense of identity. Thus, another līla is born—sṛṣṭilīla—the play of creation and the manifestation of time and space, as he who is transcendent becomes immanent as well.3

Different Explanations of Our Source

From the standpoint of the Absolute, there are no problems with any of the above. But because doubts sometimes arise as to the perceived injustice that some jīvas were always in Vaikuṇṭha while others were always in the material world, bhakti preachers have compassionately devised ways to think about this topic in order to inspire practice that will gradually lead practitioners past their doubts. Essentially, there is no problem here either, but friction appears when different practitioners with different ways of thinking about the scriptural teachings encounter one another.

To sort out the different explanations regarding our source, Paramatma-Vaibhava lists three different reasons as to why the jīvātmā is bound to this material world of repeated birth and death:

  1. We originally served Śrī Kṛṣṇa selflessly in the spiritual world, and then we became overcome with selfish desire, thus falling from the spiritual world.
  2. We have always been in saṁsāra (anādi-karma), since a time without beginning, and we are still here simply because we have not been liberated yet. 
  3. We chose at some point in time, from a position between the spiritual world and the material world, to go one way or the other.

The author seemingly arbitrarily calls the first and second explanation the thesis and the antithesis, respectively, and the third the synthesis. In chronological order, however, the anādi-karma doctrine came first. It is found directly in śāstra, and it is clearly meant to be taken literally (the śāstric argument itself being independent of English translations of the word anādi). Later, in the nineteenth century, Śrīla Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda offered the idea that we fell from a taṭastha region as a nonliteral tool to conceive of something that is difficult to comprehend, as stated by the Ṭhākura himself.4 Finally, the fall-from-Vaikuntha theory can first be found in the 1956 book Rasa Tattva: Divine Love & Amorous Sentiment by Y. Jagannatham, a disciple of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī Ṭhākura. Śrīla A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, who approved of Jagannatham Prabhu’s books, sometimes gave this explanation; at other times, he said that no one falls from the spiritual world. There is no record of Śrīla Prabhupāda explaining why he sometimes used the fall explanation. But since Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda said his explanation is nonliteral, the fall-down theory is clearly a development on that same strategy.

However, Paramatma-Vaibhava’s arrangement of the theories is not as arbitrary as it seems. Allow me to explain. In the early 1990s, a member of Iskcon who wanted to thoroughly study śāstra learned of the original śāstric argument. The śāstric argument, presented in the Vedānta-sūtra,5 does not appear in the context of answering why we are here instead of in the spiritual world. Rather, it explains why there is unfairness here, within this world. Why are some people born rich and others poor? The Sūtra answers that this is because of karma. Another doubt is then raised: What about in the beginning? The doubter implies that there may have been unfair conditions in the beginning, when everyone began their karmic sojourn. The Sūtra closes the case by saying that karma is beginningless.

If one accepts that karma is beginningless in the sense in which it is explained in these sūtras, it is impossible for the question of any fall to arise at all. That is to say, the term anādi needs to be taken literally to make sense. The author maintains that because Srila Prabhupada translated it as “since time immemorial,” which is in line with how Bhaktivinoda Thakura explained it, it is wrong to take anādi literally. According to the author, the whole discussion of the jiva’s source hinges on this point. The author makes much out of the nonliteral translations of this term such as “since time immemorial,” which according to the author must mean that there actually was a beginning; only it cannot be traced out. This is refuted by the fact that Srila Prabhupada also talked about the nitya-muktas as having been servants of Krishna “since time immemorial.” In other words, there was never a beginning to their service.

In 1995, the world’s largest Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava institution responded to the śāstric argument presented by one of its members with a resolution that only the fall-down theory is allowed to be taught as conclusive within its society of devotees. At the time of the 1995 resolution, Paramatma-Vaibhava’s author was part of the above-mentioned institution, serving under the shelter of a sādhu who did not approve of the resolution. When this sādhu left the world, the author took shelter of a śikṣā-guru outside of the institution. This guru schooled him in the way Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura offered devotees to think about material conditioning—namely, that we chose whether to come here or to go to the spiritual world. It is worth repeating here that the Ṭhākura himself said that this idea is figurative.

Now we can somewhat understand why the author refers to the fall-down theory as the thesis, the idea of beginningless karma as the antithesis, and the fall from a figurative in-between state as the synthesis: the Gaudiya institution believed in the fall-down theory, a devotee challenged that theory with the sastric argument, and then the author learned of and accepted Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s teaching. But this order of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis is still hard to make sense of, is it not? Why would one figurative explanation be the synthesis of another figurative explanation and a literal explanation?

Modern Rifts in the Gaudiya Sampradaya

To understand the author’s reasoning, we have to look at the history of our lineage. In Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s dīkṣā lineage, it was customary, as in many other lineages, for the guru to formally give information about the disciple’s future service in the spiritual world as part of the initiation (siddha-praṇālī). Our Ṭhākura received such information and shared it quite freely with the readers of his books and songs. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī Ṭhākura, his son and disciple, did not formalize that aspect when he gave initiation. He instead stressed that such revelation need not be formalized; it will become clear to the disciple internally in due course of sādhana. At the same time, he pointed out how the formalized act of giving such information can be imitated and abused by unqualified gurus or misunderstood by the disciple even if the information is genuine. He generally took the same stance regarding hearing much in detail about the pastimes of Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Kṛṣṇa.

This and other things caused a rift between Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s mission and other Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava groups, creating suspicion in many of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Saraswatī’s followers toward sādhus outside of his branch of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava sampradāya. They have unjustly classified many of those sādhus as sahajiyā with no other basis than the fact that they do not belong to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s branch. Then, without looking at the scriptural arguments, a number of Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta’s followers have inferred that those sadhus’ teachings must be wrong.

The reasoning in Paramatma-Vaibhava indicates that the author has engaged in such unfounded labeling. The voice that brought attention to the scriptural teaching of anādi-karma in the author’s previous institution had heard this point from a sādhu belonging to another branch of Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavism. Although this sādhu’s teaching on anādi-karma is essentially the same as that of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, he did not present any additional “digestive aid” like our Ṭhākura did with his choice version. The author of Paramatma-Vaibhava labels this Vaiṣṇava as an enemy of our Bhaktivinoda parivara. He takes Ṭhākura Bhaktivinoda’s choice version as literal and does not care to directly address the Vedānta-sūtra’s argument regarding anādi-karma. As a wise friend of mine has said, if you absolutize the relative, you will inevitably relativize the absolute.

The author thinks that if the words of Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī and Śrīla Vyāsadeva do not match with those of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s figurative statements, then that must be due to mistranslation or tampering with their words. He does not, however, provide any evidence for this. If such arguments are to be taken seriously, he would do well to actually study and present śāstra systematically. Those who have done so have inevitably concluded that Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura meant what he said when he said that the choice version was figurative.

The Nature of the Jīva

Systematic students of śāstra have also been able to harmonize the other question that Paramatma-Vaibhava addresses: What are we? Is the jīva constitutionally wired for a particular type of sthāyi-bhāva and eternal līlā identity? When it comes to the jīva’s svarūpa, the author appears to assume that the term svarupa must automatically include wiring for a particular type of sthāyi-bhāva and eternal līlā identity. Here it is important to clarify that the term svarūpa refers to the essence of something, whatever it is. For example, wetness is part of water’s svarūpa. But the fact that water has a svarūpa does not mean that it is wired for a sthāyi-bhāva and eternal līlā identity.

In a section of 19 anucchedas in his Paramātma-sandarbha, Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī elaborately describes the qualities of the jīva. He lists 21 qualities of the jīva given by Śrī Jāmātṛ Muni, of the Rāmānuja sampradāya, based on the Padma Purāṇa. None of these mentions anything about an inherent wiring for a particular sthāyi-bhāva and līlā identity—in fact, just the opposite. Qualities eight and nine—eka-rūpa and svarūpa-bhāk, respectively—say that jīvas are of one form and situated in their own nature. Sometimes these two qualities are read as one: eka-rūpa svarūpa-bhāk. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura translates this as follows: “In their original identity, all jīvas are equal.”6 That is, they do not have a particular sthayi-bhava and lila identity, which would make them unequal.

Sometimes, devotees point to Vedānta-sūtra 4.4.1 as evidence that the siddha-deha springs forth from the jīva’s own constitution. There, it is asked whether the mukta gets a body like that of a deva or whether it simply manifests its own form (svena rūpeṇa). The answer is the latter, but what is referred to as its “own form” is not a siddha-deha. Rather, it is a mass of qualities such as freedom from sins, anger, hunger, thirst, old age, death, and grief. In Śrīla Baladeva Vidyābhūṣaṇa’s commentary on sūtra 4.4.12, he talks about the siddha-deha as distinct, strictly speaking, from the jīva‘s svarupa (although it will not feel that way), describing it as one with Kṛṣṇa, its actions being direct movements of the cit-śakti. In this section Sri Baladeva concludes that the mukta can choose to acquire a spiritual body or it can choose not to, referring to liberation with or without form.

Pointing to Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura’s Jaiva Dharma, which describes the jīva as having a beautiful body composed of spiritual limbs, the author of Paramatma-Vaibhava draws the questionable conclusion that each materially conditioned taṭastha-jīva has a unique spiritual code that contains the information about its future sthāyi-bhāva and līlā identity. He says that this spiritual code is nondifferent from Kṛṣṇa’s desire for each one of us to serve him in a particular way. Before jumping to such conclusions, it would be good to look at what Śrīla Rūpa and Jīva Goswāmīs say about the cause of a particular sthāyi-bhāva and līlā identity, as Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura bases his work on theirs.

The Cause of Our Siddha-deha

In Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, Śrī Rūpa poses the question, “Since mādhurya-rasa is the highest, why do not all devotees aspire for that?” He then answers his own question by saying that it is because of predisposition (vāsanā) that devotees aspire for a particular rati.7 As Jīva Goswāmī explains in his commentary, this predisposition is not something in the jīvātmā’s constitution. He speaks of three different types of people: nir-vāsanā (someone who has no vāsanā), bahu-vāsanā (someone who has several different vāsanās), and eka-vāsanā (someone who is fixed in one vāsanā). Śrīla Viśvanātha adds that these impressions come from sādhu-saṅga. The author quotes this verse in Paramatma-Vaibhava, but he overlooks its meaning.

In his Ṣaṭ-sandarbha, Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī concurs with Śrīla Viśvanātha when speaking about how a specific spiritual identity arises in the sādhaka, saying that the specific identity is a function of prīti (which belongs to the svarūpa-śakti) and that it arises according to the deity one worships. In turn, the deity one worships depends on which type of sādhu-saṅga one has.8 Also, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura writes in his Bhāgavatam commentary that someone who is on the verge of realizing Brahman may by chance attain bhakti by the mercy of some pure devotee; he or she will then find Brahman tasteless and surrender to Bhagavān. The Ṭhākura says there that the recipient of mercy attains the same type of bhakti (śānta, dāsya, sakhya, vātsalya or mādhurya) that the giver of mercy has.9

Given these statements, it would have been more appropriate for the author of Paramatma-Vaibhava to harmonize the statement about the jīvas having a beautiful body composed of spiritual limbs with another statement about the jīvas from Jaiva Dharma, one that the author quotes in his book: “In their composition, there is only atomic, pure sentience.”10 Qualities like these—that is, atomicity, purity, sentience, and so on—could also be seen as limbs of the jīva’s body, which in the context of sādhu-saṅga mingles with the svarūpa-śakti, forming a siddha-deha. Such a view is in keeping with Śrī Rūpa’s and Śrī Jīva’s teachings.

But the author of Paramatma-Vaibhava stresses his own notion, as mentioned above, referring to it as the spiritual code in the jīva—Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s idea and desire, “not ours.” But if we distinguish between “Kṛṣṇa’s” and “ours” in discussing the taṭastha-jīva’s essential nature, what is the “ours” part? The author answers: “Our free will seems to be limited to decide whether to serve Him or Maya.” This is one example of many where the author does not realize or admit that both fall theories are essentially the same. They both imply awareness of the svarūpa-śakti in a state where the jīva is not yet conditioned. What resistance could there be in such a situation? This is especially important for the author to consider if he wants to say that svayam bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s own personal desire for a particular līlā-sevā is the essence of the jīva’s constitution. Good luck trying to reconcile that idea with the point he makes at the beginning of his book: the jīvātmās are not a manifestation of svayam Bhagavān Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s own direct energy, the svarūpa-śakti.

Conclusion

We can see the benefits of preaching strategies, how they inspire practice, and how we can also find truth in them. The author of Paramatma-Vaibhava does this in relation to the theory that we fell from the spiritual world. He says that Śrīla Prabhupāda used this to evoke in his disciples a sense of belonging to Kṛṣṇa. The author is, however, not willing to accommodate the possibility that one preaching strategy could replace another. He emphasizes Śrīla Saraswatī Ṭhākura’s statement that without knowing the siddhānta, we cannot make advancement in bhakti. Therefore, the author reasons, why would his śikṣa-gurus have replaced the fall-from-Vaikuṇṭha teaching with the fall-from- taṭastha teaching if the latter was not the siddhānta? But if one strategy is able to evoke a sense of belonging to Kṛṣṇa, why would another strategy not be able to evoke further progress, say, in the form of a sense of responsibility for our choices?

Śrīla Saraswatī Ṭhākura’s is thus not a black-and-white statement. The siddhānta that we belong to Śrī Kṛṣṇa comes through in the version that we fell, as the author has stated. Based on that siddhānta, we can progress to a point where it becomes obvious to us that no one could ever fall from Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s abode or from any in-between state. At the same time, we will feel like we are going home, going to a very familiar place: back to home, back to Godhead.

It behooves the author to take a step back from the frontlines of a war that really exists only in his mind and reconsider on what basis he thinks he is supposed to be the arbiter of what our lineage is and who belongs to it. By broadening his mind, he would be more helpful in keeping the current of Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Thākura alive in the world.

  1. Paramātma-sandarbha, anuccheda 47 []
  2. Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta 1.5.45-46 []
  3. Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta 1.5.29-30 []
  4. Jaiva-Dharma, Chapter 15: “All Vaiṣnavas say that the jīva is an eternal servant of Kṛṣṇa, that his eternal nature is to serve Kṛṣṇa, and that he is now bound by māyā, because he has forgotten that eternal nature. However, everyone knows that the jīva is an eternal entity, of which there are two types: eternally liberated and eternally conditioned. Thus, the subject has been explained in this way (jīvas forgetting Kṛṣṇa, etc.) only because the conditioned human intellect being controlled by inattentiveness is unable to comprehend a subject matter.” []
  5. Vedānta-sūtra 2.1.34-35 []
  6. Daśa-Mūla-Tattva, chapter 6 []
  7. This is Śrīla Jīva Goswāmī’s reading of Bhaktirasāmṛta-sindhu 2.5.38. []
  8. Prīti-sandarbha, anuccheda 92. The numbering of the anucchedas differ among editions. []
  9. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 6.14.5 []
  10. Jaiva-Dharma, chapter 4 []


About the Author

2 Responses to Review: Paramatma Vaibhava: Jiva Tattva

  1. Pranams 🙏🙏🙏
    excellent review , very clearly highlighting the flaws in the author’s misunderstanding and presentations on the origin of the jiva in his book .
    Practicing sadhaks will do well by reading your review and previous articles by Swami Padmanabh on jiva tattva, thereby saving themselves from such a misconception.Otherwise their false understanding will cause their disqualification from the Sri Bhaktivinod dhara .🙏
    Jai RadheShyam.

  2. Pranams Symananda,

    Thank you so much for your in depth review.

    I have a question; why would a particular sthayi-bhava and identity in the lila make the jivas unequal?
    Doesn’t this amount to rasism?

    🙏
    Greg

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