Q. According to Hindu beliefs when did the human race become vegetarian? Did it start that way or did humans become vegetarian through evolution? Do you concur with the anthropological view that humans shifted from a hunter-gatherer civilization to an agricultural one?
A. Modern anthropology is inextricably tied to the evolutionary theory that consciousness evolves from matter. We disagree with this premise and assert that life comes from life, not that life evolves from inert material elements. Our philosophy maintains that matter has its origins in consciousness, and that the soul, consciousness, and life are synonymous. On this basis, Hindu scripture does acknowledge evolution, both the evolution of consciousness and the evolution of matter in conjunction with the evolution of consciousness.
Creation, Evolution, and the Big Bang
Hindu scripture teaches that ultimately consciousness and matter have no beginning. The world of matter and its inhabitants are both particular saktis (potencies) of the divine that in combination with one another cause the world to manifest and unmanifest ad infinitum. Thus, among humans, there have always been vegetarians. Those who consider kindness a fundamental virtue of cultural progress realize vegetarianism as the diet of the most evolved human species. Kindness also implies greater complexity, for one has to think not only of how to survive, but how to survive while avoiding harm, both physical and emotional, indicating that when a human being shifts from hunting and gathering to a nonviolent agrarian culture, he or she is evolving positively. Intellect governed by true spirituality fosters divine kindness through which humanity can realize its highest potential. On the other hand, intelligence devoid of spirituality and ruled by sensual demands leads to a society governed by greed, which can be an even more violent society than that of hunter-gatherers.
Q. Can you say a few words about human evolution?
In my estimation the most evolved being is the kindest being, hardly the meanest. Indeed, few would choose a Hitler over a Gandhi as a role model. I do not say this in an effort to dismiss the theory of natural selection, for which there is considerable evidence. For that matter, it would be incorrect to assume that if the most evolved person is indeed the kindest person that the theory of natural selection is therefore wrong because it appears to say that the most evolved person is the strongest, the one that prevails over others, and thus the meanest. This would be a misunderstanding of the theory, which makes no moral judgment. Accordingly, the theory implies that the human species could evolve a strategy of pursuing kindness as the best means of survival. I hope they do.
Q. My understanding is that the materially conditioned soul has existed in his karmic predicament forever, an idea that is inconceivable to us, at least in our present state. What to do?
A. It should come as no surprise that some things are inconceivable. Mathematicians have proven that there are truths that are not provable. For example, Kurt Godel, arguably the past century’s most brilliant mathematician, proved that human thought is less (weaker) than that which is possible. He proved that there are truths that can be known that cannot be mathematically proven, and thus that there are truths that lie beyond the limits of reason. Because of this, we accept revelation as the means to comprehensive knowledge, and we thus acknowledge the limits of human reasoning. We want the world to conform with our reasoning, but if God and the self lie beyond intellect, such a proposal is not reasonable.
Vedanta-sutra says that karma is anadi, without beginning. It says this in response to the argument that the assertion that karma is the cause of suffering itself suffers from infinite regress—a sequence of reasoning or justification that can never come to an end. To help us understand the beginningless nature of our karmic predicament, the sutras point to our experience of how a tree comes from a seed, yet the seed comes from a tree.
We know from scriptural verses that the soul has no beginning, but scripture also sometimes speaks in ways that seem to say otherwise: that the soul does come into being at a particular time. Such is the limit of language. Our task is to harmonize both positions and awaken to the fact that we are indeed in a very serious karmic entanglement. The good news, however, is that there is a solution. If we accept the verse you cited, as we should, the next logical step is to accept the solution that the Bhagavad-gita has to offer, man-mana bhava mad-bhakto mad yaji mam namaskur: “Fix your mind on me (Krishna) and become my devotee. In this way you will surely come to me,” and sarva dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja: “Forgoing all religious injunctions, take exclusive refuge in me (Krishna). I will deliver you from all karmic reactions. Do not fear.” (Bg. 18.65-66)
Q. The materially conditioned soul is sometimes compared to a criminal who has been sentenced to prison, the idea being that to gain its freedom the soul must appeal to God for mercy as a prisoner appeals to the governor for clemency. The difference is that we souls were born into bondage without knowing the where or why of our situation. Only when guru or scripture informs us of the land where everyone is eternally happy and free do we fully understand our lamentable condition. We are told that in the eternal “freeland” we have brothers and sisters (nitya-siddhas) that our father (God) never sent to this prison. For me this brings up the question as to why we are imprisoned and not the others. The answer we receive is that we were envious and rebelled against him. Is this the whole picture?
A. People often want a nice story to explain everything, but such stories often do not do justice to the metaphysical reality we are part of. In this case, the idea that we were imprisoned in the material world because we “rebelled against the all-good God” makes things simple; the understanding being that if we conform to God’s will by following the advice of scripture we will be free again. Almost every religion uses some type of “Adam and Eve” or rebellion analogy in order to account for the human condition and exonerate God for the existence of suffering and evil in the world. Some sects even take their tradition’s analogy literally.
Simple analogies have their utility, but with regard to the soul and creation, Hindu scripture relates something quite different. It says that it is God himself as Maha-Visnu who came here! This is his world. He did not go elsewhere or send anyone else to the freeland. Scripture says that out of love Maha-Visnu desired to become many and so entered his world. He has no other world of his own, no other lila to speak of. He enters material existence as energy—tatastha-sakti—consisting of innumerable souls (jivas). This is not to say that the jivatma is not distinct from the Paramatma. Paramatma is simultaneously one with and different from the jivatma. However, the Paramatma himself never fully enters material existence in that he remains transcendental to it. Thus to truly enter here, the one becomes many. However, because the many are infinitesimal, they do not fare well in relation to Visnu’s powerful illusory energy (maya-sakti). So God as Narayana sends avataras of himself to help the sakti of Maha-Visnu in its plight. This is srsti-lila, the divine play of creation.
Q. The term nitya-baddha (eternally conditioned) implies that there is no particular point in history when Maha-Visnu began the srsti-lila, as it is eternal, and that originally there is no choice on anyone’s part since choice implies a fixed point in time. Is this correct?
A. Scripture clearly states that there is no beginning to karma. It is anadi. The srsti-lila is beginningless as well, but Visnu manifests his tatastha-sakti at the dawn of each creation. Then from homogeneity the heterogeneity of the jivas awakens and they take their place in the world in conformity with karma. The jivas are either manifest in the world or unmanifest in susupti (mystic slumber) within Visnu. Once the jivas are manifest, they can choose to turn toward God/Bhagavan or face away from him. They have this opportunity during the manifestation of the world, and the more knowledge they have, the more informed their choice is. Only when they meet Sri Guru can they make a truly informed choice. Scripture says that the position of the baddha-jiva who chooses to serve Bhagavan is most glorious.
It should be carefully noted that in lila there is no consideration of fairness—all is fair in love. Furthermore, in consideration of tattva, there is only one, no “other” to blame, God is merely interacting with his potencies.
Q. Is the homogeneity of susupti different from the homogeneity of undifferentiated consciousness in Brahman?
A. They are quite similar, enough that Srila Sridhara Maharaja sometimes used the term Brahman when describing susupti with regard to the movement of tatastha from homogeneity to heterogeneity. In scripture this deep dreamless sleep (susupti) is also compared to Brahman; however, susupti is a homogeneity that does not endure, one in which karma is temporarily suspended but not eradicated.
Q. Are there any scriptural references for beginningless karma?
A. The following are perhaps the most pertinent ones. They are from Vedanta-sutra 2.1.34-35.
vaisamya nairghrinyena na sapeksavat tatah hi darsayati
na karma avibhagat iti cet na anaditvat
The gist and spirit of these terse sutras is:
“There is no favoritism or neglect on God’s part because the happiness and distress of the jivas is determined by karma, as per scripture. Thus it is their doing, not God’s.”
“No,” the second sutra responds, “The theory of karma does not absolve God of unequal dealings and thereby the responsibility for the evil we see in the world because in the beginning of creation there was no karma. Therefore in the beginning the jivas must have been created unequally.”
“No,” the second half of the second sutra replies, “Karma has no beginning. It is anadi.”
In other words, just as God is eternal, so too are the jivas and the principle of justice (karma). Jivas have been interacting with maya-sakti forever, as Maha-Visnu has always existed and eternally performs his srsti-lila. The interaction of the jiva-sakti with the maya-sakti binds the jivas to material nature. They exploit her and she responds. Indeed, we see that the consequences for our actions are the very nature of the world. People say, “What goes around comes around” and “Ultimately we get what we deserve.” These common statements express the scriptural truth, however imperfectly. While some people seem to suffer for no apparent reason, the theistic theory of karma seeks to explain this through the concept of many lives, karma being the explanation of that which we are presently experiencing. Scripture also explains how to change our karmic fate by forgoing exploitation, leading to a life of love.
Ultimately, God makes himself available to the jivas in every creation, whereby they can choose to end their bondage through devotion (bhakti). This opportunity is always available. Indeed, although Bhagavan honors the principle of justice that implicates the jivas in suffering, he also intervenes. This is called mercy. Karma makes mercy possible, for without justice there can be no mercy. Through bhakti, even those in less complex forms of life such as plants and animals are extended mercy, predisposing them in future lives to make the right choices when they are in a position to do so.
Q. Why is it that a Gaudiya sadhu’s answers always seem to make sense to me, while often other people find it hard to appreciate them?
A. We identify with the logic of our tradition to a greater or lesser extent because of our psychology. Our emotions impact our reasoning, and our psychology is the result of our previous life’s actions, be they karmic or devotional. Reason is hardly the final arbitrator in any of our decisions. It may seem to be, but if we look beneath the surface, we will find other causes. While spiritual life should make sense to us, there are good reasons why it may not make sense to us in all respects, and not make sense at all to others. Thus scripture recommends the transrational approach to comprehensive knowing.
Transrational means beyond logic, but not necessarily without logic. Obviously, some things are simply beyond logic. Actually, if you think about it you will realize that the best and most wondrous things are beyond logic. Play is beyond logic. Love is beyond logic. Life itself is beyond logic.
Scripture tells us that lila, or the divine play of the sweet absolute, is transcendental, supramental (above the mind), and of course beginningless. Knowingly or unknowingly, everyone is involved in divine play, as the jiva is never really separate from God. We are part of God, his energy—tatastha sakti. In Sri Gita, Krishna says it like this: “I am the life of all that lives. All living beings are part of me; they are in me; they are mine.”