By tracing the journey of one soul, we can
better understand the mercy and justice of God.
We might sometimes wonder whether Krsna is really our well-wisher. If He indeed is, and if He is all-powerful, then why doesn't He simply take us back to our eternal spiritual home? Why does He force us to pray to Him, render service to Him, and surrender to Him before He lets us back in? Some people might view His actions as those of an egotistical tyrant, not those of the all-merciful benefactor He's made out to be.
To better understand Krsna's motives, let's follow a living entity we'll call Jivatma, who could be any one of us. As one of the innumerable spiritual beings living in harmony with God in the spiritual world, Jivatma, exercising his God-given free will, desires to enjoy separately from Krsna. He becomes envious of Krsna and other souls. Because envy is not permissible in the spiritual world, Krsna, the most compassionate father, has created a material world, separate from the spiritual world, where the living entity can enjoy independent of Him. So Jivatma leaves the spiritual world for the material world and begins to enjoy there, thinking himself the owner, trying to take all that is there for the taking.
Now, the problem is that everyone else in the material world is trying to own and enjoy the place. In this quest they're more than willing to deprive others. To protect Jivatma and everyone else, Krsna has created the law of karma to ensure fairness in a completely self-centered world. The law of karma dictates that one will suffer the consequences of evil deeds and enjoy the results of pious ones.
The situation is much like that of a prison. Having been incarcerated for breaking the law, prisoners are subjected to additional rules and regulations in the prison. If they break them, they get more punishment. Similarly, the living entities, having misused their free will, are now in the material world, where they are subject to the additional laws of karma. (On the other hand, just as a freed prisoner is no longer subject to the rules of the prison, a liberated soul transcends the laws of karma.)
Having descended to the material world, Jivatma tries hard to enjoy. Krsna keeps awarding him appropriate bodies according to his desires and activities. In one life, to fulfill his desire to eat flesh, Krsna gives him the body of a carnivore. In another life, Jivatma performs many pious activities, such as giving charity and helping the poor, and Krsna rewards him in the next life with material opulence and fame. In yet another life, he performs many sacrifices and, having pleased the demigods, obtains birth in heavenly planets as a demigod himself. There he enjoys a long and opulent life. But when the credit of his pious activities runs out, he again falls to the lower planetary systems.
Depending on his consciousness, Jivatma works in one of the three modes of material nature: goodness, passion, and ignorance. In all cases, he enjoys or suffers the reactions of past and present activities performed in these modes. As he continues to perform karmic activities, he stays locked to the endless cycle of repeated birth and death. Bound by the infallible rules of karma, and driven by his desires for sense gratification, Jivatma has by now transmigrated through most of the 8.4 million species of life, each specially suited for some form of sense enjoyment under the broad categories of eating, sleeping, mating, and fighting. But Jivatma never finds lasting peace and happiness. His senses burn like fire, and the more he tries to gratify them, the stronger their demands become.
Krsna, allowing Jivatma his free will, watches with much sorrow and compassion. He wants to show Jivatma a path out of material existence. He periodically descends to the material world to show amazing pastimes to inspire Jivatma and others like him. He gives instructions on how to return to the eternal abode, and He sends His trusted associates to inspire by word and example.
In one life, Jivatma has evolved to the human form, unique because it gives him the mind and intelligence to question and reason. Perplexed about the apparently random distribution of fortune and misfortune around him, he gradually begins to realize that the material world is not all that great. In fact, it's a pretty inhospitable place, where almost everyone is envious and self-serving. But having spent countless lifetimes in the material world, he has completely forgotten his original position in the spiritual world.
In his quest for answers, Jivatma meets a bona fide spiritual master, who, though in the material world, is a fully self-realized soul sent by Krsna to help fallen souls. Jivatma submissively questions his spiritual master and learns about his own original position and his current temporary situation.
But Jivatma is conditioned by many lives of identifying with his material body. So even though he hears about his true, original position, he can't develop a sincere desire to reclaim it. Understanding this, his spiritual master nurtures him gradually and gently. He first elevates Jivatma out of the mode of ignorance by instructing him to abstain from meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. To further purify Jivatma's consciousness, his spiritual master requests him to chant the holy names of Krsna, which are identical with Him.
Jivatma dutifully follows the instructions of his spiritual master. Even though in the beginning he has no taste for the holy name, he chants in a regulated way. He begins to mechanically follow the daily procedures for worshiping Krsna given to him by his spiritual master. In the meantime, he patiently suffers his karmic reactions, accepting them as Krsna's mercy.
Having surrendered to the instructions of his spiritual master, Jivatma gradually begins to relish the chanting of the holy name. As promised by his spiritual master, the potency of the holy name is slowly and surely cleaning away many lifetimes of material conditioning.
Jivatma begins to realize the impermanence of the material body and the eternality of the spirit soul. He then inquires more from his spiritual master, having pleased him by rendering service to him. His spiritual master reciprocates by teaching more about Krsna and the process for returning to the spiritual world, and he lovingly relates many pastimes of Krsna and His associates.
By sincerely performing his regulated worship, Jivatma shows a sincere desire to return to Godhead. His practices purify his consciousness, and he gradually develops his latent love for God, which has become dormant under the modes of material nature. Krsna eagerly reciprocates with every step that Jivatma takes towards Him by taking ten steps towards Jivatma. Through his spiritual master and directly, Krsna gives Jivatma many realizations about Himself and the eternal loving relationship Jivatma enjoyed with Him.
Blessed in this way, Jivatma is now relishing the nectar of the holy name, understanding the name to be identical with Krsna. His ritualistic worship now becomes truly ecstatic, since he sees no difference between Krsna and His deity form. He understands that his true position is not in the material world, so he becomes detached from material trappings of wealth, power, followers, and glory. The same free will he misused to leave Krsna, Jivatma is now using to return.
Krsna is most pleased to reclaim His lost son, who has suffered much out of his own desire to enjoy separately. Seeing that Jivatma sincerely desires to return home, back to Godhead, Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, welcomes him back. Jivatma returns to the spiritual world, ecstatic about returning to a place where he can eternally serve His Lord without envy, freed from the cycle of birth, old age, disease, and death.
That is the happy ending. Like Jivatma, we were all in the spiritual world but fell to the material world by our free will. Like Jivatma, we have transmigrated through countless life forms, enjoying and suffering our karmic reactions. I hope and pray that like Jivatma we will also be fortunate to surrender to a spiritual master, and by his mercy and our sincere desire, return home, back to Godhead.
Bhayahari Dasa, a disciple of Romapada Swami, lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with his wife, Indulekha Devi Dasi, and six-year-old son, Dhruv. He works as an IT professional and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.