THERE ARE TWO WORLDS, the material world and the spiritual world. Great liberated devotees can experience the spiritual world, even while in their present bodies. When Uddhava, Krsna's chief associate in Dvaraka, was fully absorbed in the transcendental ecstasy of love of God, he actually forgot all about the external world. Srila Prabhupada says, "The pure devotee lives constantly in the abode of the Supreme Lord even in the present body, which apparently belongs to this world. The pure devotee is not exactly on the bodily plane, since he is absorbed in the transcendental thought of the Supreme. … A living entity can live either on the material plane or in the transcendental abode of the Lord, in accordance with his existential condition."
Srila Rupa Gosvami draws the metaphor of a plant. The seed of devotion to Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is already present in the heart of every living entity, but when the living entity comes in contact with a pure devotee the seed is awakened and begins to grow. Then as the living entity continues to water the seed with hearing and chanting about Krsna, the plant sprouts and grows through the limits of this universe and into the spiritual world. By hearing from Srimad-Bhagavatam, we gain faith in and realization of the spiritual reality. In other words, we can live either in the spiritual world or in the material world, depending on our existential condition.
In the Bhagavatam, Uddhava's ability to live in the spiritual world while in his physical body is described. Vidura, another great devotee of Krsna, was on pilgrimage when he came upon Uddhava and inquired from him about Krsna. Vidura asked many questions about creation, about the position of the living entity, about the position of God, and so on but he was particularly keen to hear Uddhava talk about Krsna, the Lord of the Yadu dynasty. At the mention of Krsna, Uddhava became fixed in thought of Krsna. Not that Uddhava wasn't already remembering Krsna, but Vidura's questions served as a catalyst to intensify his remembrance. Love of God is not static. Although the ocean of spiritual love is not troubled by the waves of material miseries, it has its own waves, which constantly intensify a devotee's remembrance of love of the Supreme.
At first, Uddhava was unable to speak due to his ecstasy. "Uddhava had all the transcendental bodily changes due to total ecstasy, and he was trying to wipe away tears of separation from his eyes. Thus Vidura could understand that Uddhava had completely assimilated extensive love for the Lord." In Vidura's presence, Uddhava experienced the eight types of ecstatic symptoms, but Uddhava's ecstasy wasn't only due to remembrance of Krsna's sweetness or His greatness: Uddhava actually traveled to the spiritual world.
The spiritual world is not allegorical. It does not exist only in the heart of a devotee. It is a real place where Krsna engages in real pastimes with His associates. A pure devotee can leave this material world and go to the spiritual world to associate with the Lord because these different worlds exist.
I can give an example from Prabhupada's life: In 1966 Prabhupada said that when he was in India he would hear about America and think it a vastly different place. "But now that I have come, I see that it is just the same as India. I see the same moon, the same sun, and the people are not that much different. Even in the park I see the squirrels are the same." (One lady who was listening said, "No, the squirrels in America are much bigger than the squirrels in India." Prabhupada said, "That I admit, that I admit.") Prabhupada's point was that no matter where we go in the material world it will be about the same but the spiritual world is completely different. The spiritual world is full of ecstasy and eternality; the material world is full of misery and anxiety. Even if we travel to another country in the material world, we are in anxiety about where we will stay, what we will eat, and whether we will be robbed of our money. The spiritual world is anxiety-free.
A devotee can go to the spiritual world, even while on the human plane. How this happens can only be understood by experience. What sent Uddhava to the spiritual world? Vidura asked him to speak about Krsna.
Again, we can draw an example from this world. If we meet someone from another country where we've never been and ask that person to describe his homeland, he may close his eyes and enter a kind of trance of remembrance. He may even cry because he misses his home. That person has actually gone home by his remembrance. Similarly, when Uddhava thought of Krsna and remembered serving Him, Uddhava was able to go home, to the spiritual world, to be with Krsna.
What about us? Can we go to the spiritual world? We go there by gradual increments when we hear and chant about Krsna. By our participation in Krsna consciousness, we make a radical break with the material world and begin to experience the existence of a different world. Srila Prabhupada used to say that the Hare Krsna temples are not in Los Angeles or London but in the spiritual world. They are in the spiritual world because "the existential situation" is worship of Krsna.
All devotees want to get out of the material world, and we hope we will at the time of death. But we should be changing ourselves now, even while living in these bodies. Don't invest your love or your energy in the material world. Concentrate on the spiritual world. Eat food offered to Krsna (spiritual food). Transform your body with that spiritual food, and your mind by hearing about the spiritual energy. Learn the science of devotion to God in the spiritual world, and your emotions, intellect, and body will all be transformed into spiritual energy.
When I first joined ISKCON in 1966, I had a strong impression of the two worlds, the material and the spiritual. It was very early in my attendance at the storefront temple, and I hadn't yet given up all my bad habits. One night I was at the storefront with Prabhupada and the devotees, and by taking part in the chanting and in hearing Prabhupada's lecture I felt part of the spiritual world. It was vastly different from my experience of living on the Lower East Side and indulging in the nightlife with my friends. As I kept attending Prabhupada's evening program, that spiritual feeling stayed with me. And when the program was over I would walk out into the night and feel like I was entering the material world. But when I finally surrendered to Prabhupada, I felt like I was leaving the material world forever. This experience is common among devotees. We can just as easily experience the bigger difference between the two worlds when we go from the material world to Goloka Vrndavana.
Uddhava's experiences are amazing, and they are the proof that the spiritual realm exists. We can glimpse his experience in our own lives. Living in the material world means living for the senses eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The conditioned soul tries to enjoy these four activities, but the result is always suffering. That's because the material world is only full of perverted pleasure. We are in such ignorance that we don't even know what real happiness is.
Devotees don't indulge in sense gratification. In the beginning of devotional service we may still have a taste for the material world, but by our higher intelligence, and by the force of the guru's order, we refrain from pursuing our material desires. This is called vaidhi-bhakti. First come the rules and regulations, then assimilation of and steadiness in the spiritual principles, then pure love of God. By avoiding illicit sex, meat-eating, intoxication, and gambling, we begin to enter the spiritual world. That is, we no longer live in the material world; we live in the spiritual world, in a not-fully-realized way, a hopeful but going-through-the-motions way. When we become actually fixed in devotional service, we will begin to taste real spiritual life, and we will fall in love with Krsna and His abode. Then everything material will be forgotten.
Mundane or atheistic psychologists will say that devotees avoid the material world out of fear or frustration or a sense of failure, but devotees avoid the material world because there is a spiritual world. Uddhava did not feel imaginary feelings or undergo imaginary ecstatic transformations. We are aspiring to experience what Uddhava experienced. A saintly person lives in this world but is not of this world. A devotee invests everything in the spiritual reality, and eventually he finds himself back in the spiritual world, never to return.
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami travels extensively to speak and write about Krsna consciousness. He is the author of more than two dozen books, including a six-volume biography of Srila Prabhupada.