Crossing the Border of Impersonalism
By Abhaya Mudra Dasi
Iron Lust into Golden Love
Where does the border lie between impersonalism and personalism? Who is the guardian of that border and who permits crossing the border from the impersonal to the personal understanding of the Supreme Abssolute Truth? He is the bona fide spiritual master who drags us from the darkness of ignorance, as exemplified by the mayavadi’s illusiory concept of a senseless Godhead, towards an understanding of Krishna and His devotees through devotional service.
The meanings of personalism and impersonalism may seem clear when the subject is discussed in theory, but in practice these two understandings of eterna existence seem to intertwine and confound the inexperienced spiritual practitioner. The answer lies in how we approcath the Supreme Absolute Truth. While espousing the cause of a personal Godhead, neophytes are often seen to behave in a way that reveals longstanding impersonal roots. To understand the highest concept of personalism, let us see how Shrila Prabhupada describes the relationship of Krishna’s foremost devotees, the gopis of Vrindavana, to the Supreme Lord. And then let us consider how these compare with the relationships between materialistic women and men. Understanding this comparison is essential for realizing the difference between the ultimate reality of personalism and the utterly materialistic falsehood of impersonalism.
Shrila Prabhupada says in his Purport to Shrimad Bhagavatam 7.1.31,
“Chaitanya Charitamrita compares the desires of the spiritual and material world to gold and iron. Both gold and iron are metal, but there is a vast difference in their value. The lusty desires of the gopis for Krishna are compared to gold, and material lusty desires are compared to iron.”
In the relationship between the gopis and Shri Krishna, we find all the expressions that are commonly used even by materialistic men and women. To eyes that are polluted by material desires, the bond between the gopis and Shri Krishna appears to reflect the dealings that are conducted by the conditioned living entities. The visayi or sense gratifier, whose eyes are like peacock feathers, sees no difference in the sharing each others’ thoughts, their embracing and dancing together. But as we can see from the above example the quality of these activities—though they appear identical to the body-conscious—are as different as iron from gold.
We live in the Iron Age when the most popular metal is iron. Iron is a good conductor of electricity and attracts a magnet. But its durability is weakened and eroded by water. Gold, unlike iron, does not react to magnetism and it does not become eroded in water. And gold is even a better conductor of electricity. Gold lasts for a very long time. In Satya Yuga when all living entitles were paramhamsas this was the most used metal in the world. Gold is also the favorite metal of the demigods who are also pious living enmities.
Upon examining the qualities of gold and iron we find that durability and beauty are the most important differences between the two metals. Gold, unlike iron, is prized for how it can be shaped, its malleability. The most beautiful jewelery is fashioned from gold. The connection between a materialistic man and woman is compared to iron because that bond is based around the senses of a dead and impersonal material body. In such materialistic relationships there is little room for flexibility, for durability or for beauty because the essential element of personalism, the identiy of the eternal spiritual particle, is lacking.
As succintly described by Shrila Prabhupada in the above verse, the highest level of personal relationships between Shri Krishna and His devotees is seen by the devotion of the gopis of Vrindavana. It is a fact that for any relationship to achieve the most refined element of personal exchange, that relationship must be centered upon the lotus feet of Shri Krishna. Personalism can only exist in relation to Shri Krishna. In other words, the iron of material passions becomes transformed into gold when reposed in the service of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The Bhaktivedanta Purport to Shri Chaitanya Charitamrita (Madhya.8.187) instructs:
“We should always remember that Krishna’s sense gratification is never to be compared to the sense gratification of the material world. As we have already explained, Krishna’s sense gratification is just like gold. The perverted reflection of that sense gratification found in the material world is just like iron. The purport is that Krishna is not impersonal. He has all the desires that are manifest in the perverted reflection within this material world. However, the qualities are different—one is spiritual and the other is material. Just as there is a difference between life and death, there is a difference between spiritual sense gratification and material sense gratification.”
Most devotees are aware of the three levels of spiritual realization as will be explained hereunder. Personalism exists mainly on the Bhagavan realization of the Supreme Lord. The level of Paramatma realization is a mix of a personal and impersonal relationship. The Supreme Lord as Paramatma guides the soul as a teacher. The living entity can either have a respectful relationship with the indwelling Guru when he knows about His existence or he can be totally unaware of the Supersoul as it is the case of nearly all conditioned living entities. Pure impersonalism is seen at the level of Brahman realization and it is for that reason it is called impersonal Brahman. The brhamajyoti is non-different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead because it represents the all pervading light emanating from His body. Nonetheless, the Brahman platform does not permit the living entity to see the face of the Supreme Lord. This is due to distance or gap created in the relationship between the Supreme Lord and the individual jiva soul. The living entity who acts on the impersonal level is not close enough to the Lord to be able to interact with Him. How the distance in the relationship between the living entity and the Supreme Lord creates different realities of interaction is given by Shrila Prabhupada in Bhagavad Gita As It Is (2.22, purport):
“‘The Absolute Truth is realized in three phases of understanding by the knower of the Absolute Truth, and all of them are identical. Such phases of the Absolute Truth are expressed as Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavan.’ (SB. 1.2.11) These three divine aspects can be explained by the example of the sun, which also has three different aspects, namely the sunshine, the sun’s surface and the sun planet itself. One who studies the sunshine only is the preliminary student. One who understands the sun’s surface is further advanced. And one who can enter into the sun planet is the highest. Ordinary students who are satisfied by simply understanding the sunshine-its universal pervasiveness and the glaring effulgence of its impersonal nature-may be compared to those who can realize only the Brahman feature of the Absolute Truth. The student who has advanced still further can know the sun disc, which is compared to knowledge of the Paramātmā feature of the Absolute Truth. And the student who can enter into the heart of the sun planet is compared to those who realize the personal features of the Supreme Absolute Truth. Therefore, the bhaktas, or the transcendentalists who have realized the Bhagavan feature of the Absolute Truth, are the topmost transcendentalists, although all students who are engaged in the study of the Absolute Truth are engaged in the same subject matter. The sunshine, the sun disc and the inner affairs of the sun planet cannot be separated from one another, and yet the students of the three different phases are not in the same category.”
Furthermore, in his Bhaktivedanta Purport to Gita 4.24, His Divine Grace explains how the material world is compared to covered brahmajyoti:
“Brahman means spiritual. The Lord is spiritual, and the rays of His transcendental body are called brahmajyoti, His spiritual effulgence. Everything that exists is situated in that brahmajyoti, but when the jyoti is covered by illusion (Maya) or sense gratification, it is called material. This material veil can be removed at once by Krishna consciousness…”
The difference between brahmajyoti and the material world is that in the material world the living entity is permitted to act upon his desires. And he can do so in such a way there is a chance for him to understand the higher levels of personal relationships a living entity ultimately can share with the Supreme Personality of Godhead Shri Krishna. The material world exists in order to offer the conditioned living entities a chance to revive their dormant relationship with the Supreme Lord. This world is the penitentiary of Maya Devi and—as every jail—it is a place for the purification and repentance of the prisoners. There is a chance for redemption from the material world, yet the only person who gives the liberation from the prison is the owner of the prison as described in the Bhaktivedanta Purport to Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.2.23:
“The prison house of the material world is created by Brahma under instruction of the Personality of Godhead, and at the conclusion of a kalpa the whole thing is destroyed by Shiva. But as far as maintenance of the prison house is concerned, it is done by Vishnu, as much as the state prison house is maintained by the state. Anyone, therefore, who wishes to get out of this prison house of material existence, which is full of miseries like repetition of birth, death, disease and old age, must please Lord Vishnu for such liberation.”
Whether concerning the material and spiritual worlds the topmost authority is Shri Krishna. In order to re-establish the personal relationship between Him and the living entities, He descends into the material world. Then by hearing about His pastimes from the lotus lips of His authorized representative, the pure devotee, the living entity himself becomes purified. As he unveils his eternal personal relationship with the Lord by the blessings of the bona fide spiritual master, he becomes qualified to go back to home, back to Godhead.
In the material world the activities of the living entities are limited in the same way the activities of the inmates are limited inside a prison house. Anyone who enters the limits of a prison house can understand that it is governed by an arrangement of hard and fast rules. In the same way, the relationship between a man and a woman in the material world is also limited, much like in a prison. Their relationship functions in the jurisdictions of the impersonal brahmajoti and such relations express impersonalism to the core. The relationships between the conditioned living entities are mutually dictated by their self-centered desires. At the center of all material desire is sex. The fleeting moment of so-called pleasure experienced in sex is a reflection of spiritual pleasure in just the same way that this material world is a reflection of the spiritual world. Again, the main characteristic of the material world is that it is a covered brahmajyoti and for this reason it is also impersonal. Yet, the material world, being a covered brahman, is also in a certain ‘‘covered” way spiritual since the brahmajyoti emanates from the ever-blissful body of the Supreme Lord. Any pleasure found in the material world carries the same characteristics of covered or perverted reflections of personalism. This is one of the first points explained by Shrila Prabhupada in outlining his vast Shrimad Bhagavatam project, for in his purport to 1.1.1 we find:
“Shrila Vishwanath Chakravarti Thakura specifically deals with the original and pure sex psychology (adi-rasa), devoid of all mundane inebriety. The whole material creation is moving under the principle of sex life. In modern civilization, sex life is the focal point for all activities. Wherever one turns his face, he sees sex life predominant. Therefore, sex life is not unreal. Its reality is experienced in the spiritual world. The material sex life is but a perverted reflection of the original fact. The original fact is in the Absolute Truth, and thus the Absolute Truth cannot be impersonal. It is not possible to be impersonal and contain pure sex life. Consequently, the impersonalist philosophers have given indirect impetus to the abominable mundane sex life because they have overstressed the impersonality of the ultimate truth. Consequently, man without information of the actual spiritual form of sex has accepted perverted material sex life as the all in all. There is a distinction between sex life in the diseased material condition and spiritual sex life.”
Thus, even in the material world the highest pleasure is sex, although it exists here only in a perverted form. And it is always the highest pleasures that a living entity is attracted to although the ultimate pleasures of the spiritual world become the lowest. Krishna explains this to Arjuna with His famous banyan tree example. The highest point of a tree is the lowest point in its reflection as explained by Shrila Prabhupada in his Introduction to Bhagavad Gita As It Is:
“The Supreme Lord said: There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.” (BG 15.1) Here the material world is described as a tree whose roots are upwards and branches are below. We have experience of a tree whose roots are upward: if one stands on the bank of a river or any reservoir of water, he can see that the trees reflected in the water are upside down. The branches go downward and the roots upward. Similarly, this material world is a reflection of the spiritual world. The material world is but a shadow of reality. In the shadow there is no reality or substantiality, but from the shadow we can understand that there is substance and reality.”
But in order to regain one’s original personal identity, a living entity has to renounce his self-centered sex desire. In other words, this means that the individual soul must renounce impersonalism and in this way renounce forever the prison house of the material world. This material world is only good for renunciation. This is its purpose. For many devotional aspirants the thorny issue of sex life presents a double standard. Due to conditioning many believe that sex is natural and necessary, and that it cannot be renounced. Herein lies the point of confusion between impersonalism and personalism.
All that is related to Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead is personal. When devotees associate with other devotees, the eternal connection with Shri Krishna is also activated, or rather re-activiated. Shared personal relationships between Shri Krishna’s devotees is always beneficial because it is the training ground for re-newing our personal relationship with Shri Krishna. In Bhagavad Gita (18.68) Shri Krishna tells Arjuna that He derives such pleasure from those who preach His message that such preachers will find their way back to home back to Godhead:
ya idam paramam guhyam mad-bhaktesv abhidhasyati
bhaktim mayi param kritva mam evaisyaty asamsayah
“For one who explains the supreme secret tothedevotees, devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.”
For Devotees, Shared Love is Love for Shri Krishna
Although all love should be directed to Shri Krishna still devotees must remain in the company of one another. This is the verdict of all shastras as verified by Shri Krishnadas Kaviraja Goswami himself (CC Madhya 22.54):
sadhu-sangha sadhu-sangha sarva shastra koy
lava matra sadhu-sangha sarva-siddhi hoy
“The verdict of all revealed scriptures is that by even a moment’s association with a pure devotee, one can attain all success.”
When devotees associate their Krishna-centered devotional sentiments are shared amongst themselves. The Lord’s servants perfect the art of loving devotional service to Shri Krishna through relating to one another. It is not that in the spiritual world devotees will disappear and will one day only relate to Shri Krishna. The company of the Lord’s devotees is one of the opulences of the Shri Krishna. As Shrila Prabhupada says, “We have to seek the association of such devotees. For this reason we have begun the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.”
The awakened living entity is always receiving knowledge while the position of the Supreme Lord is to be all-knowledgeable. Thus we can never avoid other devotees, nor can we avoid the training we receive from them as agents of the Supreme Lord. Because the devotees continue to associate with each other in the spiritual world the qualities of gold—or personalism—also exist in the relationship between two pure devotees. For those who are not sufficiently purified, the neophytes, there can get be a sort of iron and gold mixture in relationships. This can be quite unpleasant because iron and gold simply do not mix. In the Bhaktivedanta Purport to BG 3.37 Shrila Prabhupada states:
“When a living entity comes in contact with the material creation, his eternal love for Krishna is transformed into lust, in association with the mode of passion. Or, in other words, the sense of love of God becomes transformed into lust, as milk in contact with sour tamarind is transformed into yogurt. Then again, when lust is unsatisfied, it turns into wrath; wrath is transformed into illusion, and illusion continues the material existence. Therefore, lust is the greatest enemy of the living entity, and it is lust only which induces the pure living entity to remain entangled in the material world. Wrath is the manifestation of the mode of ignorance; these modes exhibit themselves as wrath and other corollaries. If, therefore, the modes of passion, instead of being degraded into the modes of ignorance, are elevated to the modes of goodness by the prescribed method of living and acting, then one can be saved from the degradation of wrath by spiritual attachment.”
So should devotees renounce sex or not? Since the entire world is under its spell as long as one has material body he will find it difficult to renounce sex. Therefore the secret lies in the art of transformation. Shrila Prabhupada often gives the example that iron can be transformed into gold through the agency of a touchstone. In the same way, through association with a pure devotee, material desires become transformed into personal relationships with the Lord and his devotees.
In this way a sadhu’s transcendental affection for the Lord and His devotees may appear as iron to the worldly even though the quality of his relationships are gold. But there is danger in the opposite scenario also. A man may pretend to be on the purified level to exploit innocent living entities for sex. In other words, while pretending to be gold his qualities are actually iron-like. In a letter of 4 January 1973 to his disciple Madhukara das, Shrila Prabhupada warned of the consequences of such convenient relationships:
“Householder life means wife, children, home, these things are understood by everyone, why our devotees have taken it as something different? They simply have some sex desire, get themselves married, and when the matter does not fulfill their expectations, immediately there is separation—these things are just like material activities, prostitution. The wife is left without husband, and sometimes there is child to be raised, in so many ways the proposition that you, and some others also, are making becomes distasteful.
“We cannot expect that our temples will become places of shelter for so many widows and rejected wives, that will be a great burden and we shall become the laughingstock in the society. There will be unwanted progeny also. And there will be illicit sex life; that we are seeing already. And being the weaker sex, women require to have a husband who is strong in Krishna consciousness so that they may take advantage and make progress by sticking tightly to his feet. If their husband goes away from them, what will they do? So many instances are already there in our Society, so many frustrated girls and boys.
“So I have introduced this marriage system in your Western countries because there is custom of freely intermingling male and female. Therefore marriage required just to engage the boys and girls in devotional service, never mind distinction of living status. But our marriage system is little different than in your country, we do not sanction the policy of quick divorce. We are supposed to take husband or wife as eternal companion or assistant in Krishna consciousness service, and there is promise never to separate.”
Such results as Shrila Prabhupada outlined above are produced when there is immaturity in discriminating personalism from impersonalism. A gold quality relationship can never occur between an advanced devotee and a materialist. Such relationships can be compared to a fool’s gold. The pyrite or false gold stone ignites illusions for wealth into the hearts of the inexperienced gold diggers, especially those who are looking for easy spiritual advancement. Again, the quality of golden relationships can only occur in the company of advanced souls and in the service of the source of all purity, the Supreme Lord Shri Krishna. Pure golden relationships are very rare in this world and are practically inaccessible for the souls that are still struggling with material contamination.
For the sake of maintaining the sincere relationships amongst devotees, and to facilitate their advancement into relationships of genuine gold, householders must renounce illicit sex. By limiting sex desire one can keep his mind focused. When the mind can choose only the Supreme Lord in all of his activities one can move beyond the impersonal nature of sex desire and transform it into love. The difference between sex and love is that the first one is impersonal while the second one is personal. One is iron the other one is gold. For example devotees eat like everyone else, but only Krishna prasadam. There is no such necessity to renounce eating.
Transformation begins within the heart and is reflected into one’s surroundings. The transformation can further be extended in ones family between a husband and a wife. It is said that Shrila Gaura Kishora das Babaji advised one man to accept his wife as a guru and thus advance in his relationship with Shri Krishna. He himself called his wife “Matajee as the mother is supposed to be the guru of her children. Babaji Maharaja spoke thus to a newly married man:
“A Vaishnava wife is extremely rare and difficult to find in this world. If one has the good fortune of having one, he should see it as a benediction from Krishna. The wife worships the husband as her lord and master. Similarly, the husband should worship the wife because she is Krishna dasi, a servant of Krishna. In this way, the husband can protect his devotional enthusiasm not by considering his wife to be his maidservant, but she is always the maidservant of Krishna.”
This advice is essential. When one can curb his false ego and accept his fellow devotee as a guru then he may advance to the level of a golden relationship. How can someone accept his wife as a guru? Essentially, anyone who gives us Shri Krishna is our guru. In the spiritual world sometimes we can see that a son or a daughter is the guru of their parents. The cowherd boys who play with Shri Krishna connect their parents with the Supreme Lord because the boys have a closer relationship with Shri Krishna. The parents are always superior to their children but in relation to Shri Krishna they have to accept their boys or girls as the link. Even considering that a husband is superior to his wife, he can still accept her as a guru or as a link to Shri Krishna if she is Krishna conscious. This instruction also applies to all women, although in general a devotee wife does not have a problem accepting her husband as guru. Shrila Prabhupada explains,
“Well, if he is bad, how can he become a guru? [Laughter.] How can iron become gold? Actually, a guru cannot be bad, for if someone is bad, he cannot be a guru. You cannot say ‘bad guru.’ That is a contradiction. What you have to do is simply try to understand what a genuine guru is. The definition of a genuine guru is that he is simply talking about God—that’s all. If he’s talking about some other nonsense, then he is not a guru. A guru cannot be bad. There is no question of a bad guru, any more than a red guru or a white guru. Guru means ‘genuine guru.’ All we have to know is that the genuine guru is simply talking about God and trying to get people to become God’s devotees. If he does this, he is genuine.” (The Science of Self Realization: SSR 2: Choosing a Spiritual Master: What Is a Guru?)
When two devotees in a family accept each other as gurus or links to Shri Krishna then they can further progress and share a golden quality relationship between each other because Shri Krishna is always in their company. Thus, they have successfully transformed mundane desires into love.
Warning: The transformation of iron to gold is a simple process but also a rare one. Iron can be transformed into gold but pure gold can never become iron. So someone who wishes to become gold has to understand that the process is irrevocable. In a lecture on Bhagavad Gita delivered on 13 February 1969 Shrila Prabhupada summed up this process:
“So how you can do that? The same example: You have to keep the iron constantly with the fire. You have to keep yourself constantly in Krishna consciousness. Then even your this body, material body, is spiritualized.”
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