Bhagavān’s Paradoxical Potency, Māyā

Excerpt from the commentary on Tattva Sandarbha, Anuccheda 33.1, by Satyanarayana Dasa

white peacock at Pierre ChatelŚrīla Jīva Gosvāmī has explained that Bhagavān is not contented that Māyā has to delude the jīvas; therefore Māyā feels ashamed to face the Lord. One may ask, “If the Lord is all-powerful, why does He not intervene?” From scripture it is understood that Bhagavān empowers Māyā as the agent of the material creation, and she has been performing this service faithfully without a beginning point in time. Because she is a devotee of Bhagavān, He respectfully does not interfere with her service.

But this reply may lead to a further doubt: Besides being all-powerful, the Supreme Lord is said to be unlimitedly merciful, always disposed to everyone’s welfare. Why then does He fail to intercede in Māyā’s apparent harassment of the jīvas? The deeper implications of this question involve the existential issues of freedom and choice, and hence of the inevitability of conditional life as the play of finite existence. Suffice to say here that for the Absolute to be truly complete, finitude must be accommodated no less than infinity, relativity no less than absoluteness, saṁsāra no less than mokṣa. Yet, Jīva Gosvāmī points out that even though Bhagavān does not prevent Māyā from fulfilling her role within the divine plan, He compassionately instructs the jīvas how to get free from her clutches by withdrawing attention from phenomenal appearance and returning it in devotional surrender to Him. Māyā no longer has the power to influence any jīva who has reposed consciousness fully in Bhagavān.

Still a puzzle remains: Why does Bhagavān allow Māyā to create obstacles even for a jīva in whom the desire to surrender to Him has been born? Why does He allow her to repeatedly present various allurements that prevent the jīva from discriminating between proper and improper action and in this way baffle his attempts to surrender?

Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī answers this question by citing the verse beginning satāṁ prasaṅgān mama vīrya-saṁvido, which was spoken by Śrī Kapila in SB 3.25.25. This verse explains that devotees of Bhagavān associate favorably with one another and always relish talking about the Lord’s pastimes, which are a tonic for the hearts and ears of the sick and weak jīvas. This tonic immunizes them against the disease of material illusion and gradually brings them back to a healthy condition of life, namely establishment in their constitutional identity of service to Bhagavān.

Bhagavān’s only occupation in the spiritual world is relishing pure loving exchanges with His unconditional devotees, and this enjoyment would be subject to disruption by the intrusion of unhealthy jīvas—i.e., living beings still caught in egoic self-reference and pursuit of self-serving desire, and consequently in whom the pervasion of transegoic love for Bhagavān has not yet occurred. Māyā therefore employs stringent means to ensure that no unfit beings are allotted even the possibility of intrusion upon the Lord. Because this is her assigned service, He does not interfere. On the other hand, because of the obstacles she presents, the jīva becomes reflective, attentive, and insightful, and this supports the fervent turning of attention toward Bhagavān. In this way one quickly attains the Lord’s feet. Obstacles make one strong, although they seem unpalatable when faced. Obstacles develop one’s character and sharpen intelligence.

Bhagavān has not, however, employed Māyā just to inflict miseries on the jīvas. She does that, but as mentioned earlier, her real purpose is to chasten the jīvas, to encourage them to turn to Bhagavān. The punishment she metes out serves three purposes: to administer reactions to the living beings for their unwholesome deeds, to deter them from further transgressions, and to impel them to seek a solution to this world of suffering. Since this punishment ultimately benefits the jīvas by uniting them with God, He generally does not choose to come between the jīva and Māyā. The governor of a state will usually not interfere when the court system sends a criminal to prison. On the contrary, he may commend the policemen who captured the wrong-doer. People do not think the governor is cruel to employ such able policemen, and in the end, if the criminal is truly rehabilitated and then freed on parole, the former lawbreaker himself may thank the governor.

So, misery is in the very nature of material existence, and its inevitability is meant to induce the jīvas to seek out their source, Bhagavān, and direct attention skillfully in His loving service. Only in this way can they gain liberation from Māyā’s clutches. In Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī confirms that this is the purpose of the creation:

buddhīndriya-manaḥ-prāṇān janānām asṛjat prabhuḥ
mātrārthaṁ ca bhavārthaṁ ca atmane’kalpanāya ca

“The Lord created the intellect, the senses, the mind and the vital force of the living beings for the purpose of apprehending sense objects (mātrā), for taking birth (bhava), for providing a range of experience for the self (ātmane), and [ultimately] for transcending the act of filtering experience through the screen of prior assumptions (akalpanāya, i.e., for liberation).” (SB 10.87.2)

One may still object that even if the Supreme Lord is not intentionally cruel, He is yet indifferent to the plight of the jīvas. This is another mistaken notion. Far from being indifferent to the jīvas’ suffering, Bhagavān provided Vedic knowledge at the very beginning of the creation cycle. Moreover, He frequently appears in this world to enlighten the fallen populace on the pretext of educating His intimate associates, such as Arjuna and Uddhava. Sometimes He descends as Vedavyāsa or as another enlightened instructor to make available the message of bhakti and uplift the suffering jīvas. All this He does out of His causeless mercy, because, as we have learned from the pramāṇa portion of Śrī Tattva Sandarbha, the jīvas can never directly know anything beyond the empiric range of experience merely by their own self-referencing endeavors. He alone is instrumental in the direct descent of His own intrinsic potency into the ātmā that is devotionally turned toward Him, making possible His own self-revelation as Bhagavān and the pervasion of unprecedented love for Him. In His appearance as Śrī Caitanya He delivers kṛṣṇa-prema, which is not available even to the residents of Vaikuṇṭha.

The miseries of the material world are meant to prompt the jīvas to direct their consciousness toward their supreme source, and therefore suffering is recognized as bearing intrinsic value by the far-sighted. It is like a wake-up call for the sleeping self. In this sense, misery can be seen as an aspect of Bhagavān’s inconceivable mercy. Out of His causeless mercy, the Supreme Lord offers the entrapped jīvas access to spiritual knowledge through the Vedas. As Kaliyuga began and the jīvas all but lost their ability to comprehend spiritual knowledge, He further helped them by explaining the same message in the Itihāsas and Purāṇas. Finally, He revealed the essence of all knowledge in the form of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. So it can hardly be said that Bhagavān is indifferent to the plight of the jīvas.

Once a jīva takes advantage of Bhagavān’s arrangement for spiritual education and comes to the point of transcendental realization, he need not fear any punishment for his previous misdeeds, no matter how dreadful they were. As Śrī Kṛṣṇa says in Bhagavad Gītā:

yathaidhāṁsi samiddho’gnir bhasma-sāt kurute’rjuna
jñānāgniḥ sarva-karmāṇi bhasma-sāt kurute tathā

As a blazing fire turns firewood to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge burn to ashes all reactions to material activities. (Gītā 4.37)

Thus, Bhagavān confirms that the jīvas’ punishment is meant not for inflicting suffering on them, but for awakening them to the knowledge that will lead them to freedom from all suffering and eternal life in the spiritual world.

Yet another doubt may be raised: If the punishment inflicted on the jīvas is for their ultimate good, why are they also allowed to enjoy in this world? If they were simply thrown into an ocean of ceaseless misery, they would have no choice but to quickly take complete shelter of God.

This may be answered as follows: First, ceaseless misery is not possible. Material misery and material pleasure are correlative conditions. If one suffers continuously, any decrease in pain will be experienced as pleasure. Moreover, ceaseless misery is not conducive to development of transcendental awareness, because the mind then becomes too disturbed to contemplate scriptural truths. Second, ceaseless misery is not necessary because any jīva with even a little rudimentary transcendental insight will realize that there is no real happiness in this material world. Without such knowledge, misery alone is insufficient to awaken a person to reality. Without knowledge one simply becomes acclimatized to misery. Such knowledge is available from śāstra. In the Yoga-sūtra (YS 2.15), Patañjali says that every phenomenal experience is miserable to a wise person.

In Gītā 9.33, Śrī Kṛṣṇa characterizes this world as temporary and devoid of real happiness: anityam asukhaṁ lokam. The so-called happiness one experiences here is nothing but a temporary cessation or diminution of misery. It is like the pleasure felt by a man who is repeatedly dunked in water and then brought to the surface just before drowning. Upon taking in the life-giving air, he feels great relief and joy, but such happiness is really only the temporary absence of continual misery. Śrī Kṛṣṇa, therefore, advises us not to strive for the so-called happiness of this material world: sama-duḥkha-sukhaṁ dhīraṁ so’mṛtatvāya kalpate. “A wise person who remains equipoised in both misery and happiness, considering them to be of the same nature, is eligible for liberation” (Gītā 2.15). Only such a person can taste real happiness; others experience only the illusion of happiness.

In conclusion, therefore, Bhagavān has designed a two-part program for both chastening and rehabilitating the jīvas: On the one hand, Māyā punishes them, and on the other, the Lord instructs them through various avatāras, the Vedic scriptures and His pure devotees. Thus, Māyā’s and Bhagavān’s actions perfectly complement each other.

Although Māyā is Bhagavān’s material energy, she also exists in her personal form. All the energies of Bhagavān have their personal forms with corresponding identity, will, affect and sphere of action. (Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī will discuss this point in greater detail in Śrī Bhagavat Sandarbha, Anuccheda 99.) That Māyā has a personal form is evident from a dialogue between Lord Indra and Māyādevī narrated in the Third Chapter of the Kena Upaniṣad:

Once there was a war between the devas and the asuras. After a long struggle, the devas prevailed by the Supreme Lord’s mercy, but they mistakenly ascribed their victory to their own valor and became proud. To humble them, the Lord appeared before them in the guise of a yakṣa. Unable to identify the yakṣa, they appointed Agni, the fire god, to find out who He was. When Agni asked the yakṣa to identify Himself, He placed a straw in front of Agni and said, “Burn it.” With all his power Agni could not burn the straw. Then Vāyu, the air god, was sent to identify the yakṣa, but he could not blow the straw away. Next, Lord Indra approached the yakṣa, but the mysterious personality disappeared. Finally, Māyādevī appeared to Indra in the form of Umā and told him that the yakṣa was in fact Bhagavān.

Many similar accounts in the Vedas and Purāṇas demonstrate that māyā and other energies of Bhagavān have their own personal forms. Thus, the description of how Vyāsa saw Māyā standing behind the Lord out of embarrassment is not figurative. Māyā experienced shame before Bhagavān due to the nature of her actions.

Yet, another question might be asked: “If Māyā, the predominating deity of the material energy, can manage all her affairs, what need is there for Paramātmā to regulate this world? Śrī Kṛṣṇa answers this in Bhagavad Gītā:

sarva-yoniṣu kaunteya murtayaḥ sambhavanti yāḥ
tāsāṁ brahma mahad yonir ahaṁ bīja-pradaḥ pitā

O son of Kuntī, whatever forms appear in the various species of life, primordial nature (mahad brahma) is their womb and I am the seed giving father. (Gītā 14.4)

Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without the help of a potent man, Māyā cannot manage the material world without the help of Paramātmā. Māyā has her innate potencies for serving the Supreme Lord, but still she needs His help in carrying out her duties. For this reason Vyāsa saw that she was dependent on Bhagavān, a fact Kṛṣṇa confirms in Gītā 9.10 when He says that this material nature, which is one of His energies, is ultimately working under His direction.