Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #45 – A Reasonable Question Without a Reasonable Answer

November 8th, 2021

A natural inquiry that comes up in almost all spiritual traditions concerns the origin of the living entity being in the material world. All mokṣa traditions—Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain—universally profess that our condition here in ignorance is beginningless or eternal. The Judeo-Christian traditions, in contrast, profess that the material world, and consequent ignorance, is not eternal but has a creative beginning point that is followed by a sort of “fall theory”, which begins with Adam’s tumble from a position of innocence. Śrīla Prabhupāda seems to have indicated at different times propositions that coincide, more or less, with either theory, although the propositions are mutually exclusive. In other words, if one is true, the other cannot be. So, which is a better explanation of the origin of the conditioned soul’s ignorance?


From the standpoint of reason, there is no satisfactory answer to this straightforward inquiry, for rather than one position being reasonable and the other not, they are both problematic when engaged from within the parameters of human reasoning. To think that the soul has been eternally suffering for no initial causal reason on its part seems ontologically unreasonable and cruel. On the other hand, how can imperfection exist in Goloka or Brahman, as that goes against the unspoiled nature of that reality? In other words, no matter which way various theistic traditions tackle the question of the origin of the conditioned soul’s ignorance, their conclusion seems to challenge a theistic or divine basis of reality. But does it? Some thoughts on this quandary:


First, we need to remember that these questions on the origin of the living entity are being discussed within a cause-effect framework, where all scriptures posit that Brahman (God) is beyond time and space and thus the Divine can only be fully known by revelation and not human reason. Similarly, the nature of His energies emanating from Him, such as avidyā (ignorance), can only be known by revealed scripture, because their origin is beyond the space/time cause/effect frame on which reason is based. In other words, the laws on which this world operate, and upon which reason is based, come from God and can thus never subject Him to their parameters. So, while reason can tell us that there is an intelligence behind the creation, it is limited in talking about its intrinsic nature, such as the “whys” about avidyā, a position clearly established by the Vedanta commentators in the very opening verses of the Vedānta-sūtras: trans-temporal and trans-spatial truths can only be revealed.


Let me offer an example how inconceivability, or beyond reason, is a sensible conclusion when describing the ontology of creation. There are only two choices for the nature of reality: it is either eternally existing, or it came into being out of nothing. Can we possibly conceive of something that has been eternally existing, and that no matter how far back we go ad infinitum can still recede in time further and further forever? Or, in contrast, how are we to conceive of a reality manifesting from nothing? If we think deeply about the possible choices of the origin of this world, there is no way to fit either into to our frame of cause-effect reason based on our experience in this world. As both alternatives are inconceivable, yet one must be true, we can conclude that the nature of reality, however it came into being, must be beyond our ability to fully conceive.


I therefore think that when dealing theologically with quandaries concerning an ultimate origin such as the origin of ignorance, the existence of evil, the ontology of the soul, and so on, we are bound to reach a roadblock in our understanding by reason, for they are phenomena that originate in God, who is existing in an eternally present spiritual time but by necessity expressed through a language and logic based on material time. This is like trying to fit a multi-dimensional reality into our two-dimensional reality—the former can only be expressed by flattening the concept into the dimensions of length and breadth and thereby losing its spatial extensiveness.


I, myself, appreciate how Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura deals with this point after discussing the ontology of the soul in terms of the locus of bhakti:


“I have explained all this to you in words, but you can only understand their true meaning to the extent that you have realized and experienced the unalloyed spiritual realm. I have just given you a glimpse; you should try to realize the meaning of what I said through spiritual meditation (cit-samadhi). You will not be able to understand these topics through mundane logic or debate. The more you can free your faculty of experience from material bondage, the more you will be able to experience the spiritual domain.”[1]


And that is why some reasonable questions logically have no reasonable answer.



“What is the use of such discussions? So whether you were in the Brahma-sāyujya or with Kṛṣṇa in His līlā, at the moment you are in neither, so the best policy is to develop your Kṛṣṇa consciousness and go there [back to Godhead]—never mind what is your origin.” (an addendum that Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote to a letter he penned to his disciple Madhudviṣa Dāsa in June of 1972.)



[1] Jaiva Dharma by Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura, translation and commentary by Śrīla B.V. Nārāyaṇa Mahārāja. Chapter 2, p.30

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