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  • Writer's pictureJitendra Savanur

From Four Arms to Four Legs: a Tale of Spiritual Devolution

(This article was inspired by conversations with my mentor, HG Mukundanand Das)

Seeing terrible looking beings trying to drag him away, Ajamila was overcome by extreme fear. Having lived a sinful life as the husband of a prostitute, by giving up his pure brahminical life, a consequence like this at the end of his life was quite certain. However, by the virtue of his previous good deeds, he ended up intensely chanting the name of Narayana, which happened to be the name of his youngest son. Due to the greatness of the Holy Names, he was going to be saved from being taken away by the ghastly looking beings. And for this, two angel-like beings with four arms appeared at the spot and argued with the terrifying beings who had come to take him away. Eventually, we know that he was given second chance and that he perfected his life this time and went back home, back to Godhead.

So who were these four-armed beings? Srila Prabhupada explains that they were Vishnudutas, or servants of Lord Vishnu in the spiritual world, Vaikuntha. They had bodily features exactly like that of Lord Vishnu: a blue body with beautiful features, four arms and garments as effulgent as that of Lord Vishnu Himself. They were liberated souls, souls who had perfected their lives in the service of God, by virtue of which they had attained a type of liberation known as sārūpya mukti, in which the devotee is bestowed with the same bodily features as that of Lord Vishnu. Other types of liberation include: sālokya (living on the same planet as the Supreme Lord), sārṣṭi (having opulence which is equal to the opulence of the Lord), sāmīpya (to be a personal associate of the Lord) and ekatva (merging into the effulgence of the Supreme Lord). All these liberations indicate various levels of spiritual perfection, which is supposed to be the ultimate objective of all our spiritual endeavors.

Srila Prabhupada explains that originally, all of us were in a pure and liberated state of existence, or in other words, in one of the states described above. And due to our causeless envy and the willingness to enjoy separately from Krishna, we fell down from the spiritual world and took up an existence in the material world. Being in the material world from time immemorial, we have been taking up bodies in the 8.4 million species, thus being caught up in the cycle of repeated birth and death. Out of the 8.4 million species, it is said that the animal species are in a more precarious situation than humans because they are almost completely governed by instincts and do not have the ability to discriminate or endeavor for spiritual perfection. Thus, being in animal species could be considered as a huge roadblock on our way to spiritual perfection. So how did the soul in the spiritual world fall down into the material realm?

Srila Prabhupada writes that there are three main reasons for the spirit soul to descend into the material. These are:

1. The curse of a pure soul:

The example given is that of Jaya and Vijaya. Jaya and Vijaya were two gatekeepers of Vaikuntha planets. When the four Kumaras, who were realized into the impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth, reached the gates of Vaikuntha, they were curious to know what was within those gates. Jaya and Vijaya refused to allow them inside and this angered the four sages. After an exchange of strong words, the four Kumaras cursed Jaya and Vijaya to be born as demons on the earthly planets for three life times. Thus, they were born first as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, then as Ravana and Kumbhakarana, and finally as Shishupala and Dantavakra. Thus, the curse of a powerful personality can become a reason for the soul to descend into the material world.

2. The desire to create:

Since the spiritual realm is complete in all respects, nothing needs to be created there. Therefore, when a spirit soul wants to exercise his creative potency, he is sent to the material world, first in the form of Brahma, to create and fulfil his proclivity to create. However, if as Brahma, the spirit soul loses his focus to go back to the spiritual world to serve the Lord eternally, he becomes entangled in this world and the cycle of birth and death continues, till he is again reinstated back to the process of self-realization.

3. The Lord requesting the soul to fulfil some divine purpose in the material world:

This position is reserved for highly elevated associates of the Lord. The Lord Himself asks some of His associates to be a part of His divine pastimes in the material world or become His instrument to spread His message and attract the bewildered souls back to the spiritual world. To fulfil their Lord’s purpose, these souls descend to the material world in the form of human beings. However, such nitya-siddhas (eternally liberated souls) do not get bewildered by the illusions of the material world and fulfil their purpose before going back to the spiritual world to exist in their eternal relationship with God.

Crow-And-Fruit Philosophy

Having known the possible causes of our descent into the material world, it is but natural to delve into the cause of our own fall down. However, our access to the knowledge of our previous lives is highly restricted, and almost nil in most cases. The toil to trace back our origins into the material realm is a very tedious process, which may or may not be a fruitful one in the end. Therefore, the scriptures and the saintly persons recommend that instead of utilizing our energies to know the cause of our fall down, we can utilize the same energy in our spiritual pursuits, to understand our eternal nature as servitors of Supreme Lord, and to strive to redeem it.

To illustrate the futility of arguing where the soul fell from, Srila Prabhupada narrates a story where in there is a tree which has nice fruits. A crow lands on the tree and the fruit falls down. Nearby, a group of philosophers are discussing the cause of the fruit’s falling down. One said, “The fruits fell because when the crow landed, it shook the limb.” Another said, “The fruit actually fell just before the crow landed.” And so on. Whether we came from Krishna’s pastimes or from some other spiritual source, Srila Prabhupada said, “at the present you are in neither. So the best policy is to develop your Krishna consciousness and go there [to Krishna], never mind what is your origin.” Don’t waste time with the crow-and-tal-fruit logic, Srila Prabhupada advised. “Now the fruit is there. Take it and enjoy.”

The Opportunity to Evolve

Thus, from a liberated state of having four arms in the spiritual world to the precarious condition of being in the animal kingdom with four legs is indeed a distressing tale.  One thing that is common through this entire tale, however, is our free will, which is never taken away from us. Although we might have misused our free will to descend into the material world, we can utilize the same free will to endeavor for spiritual perfection. Thus, this tale of devolution does not have to continue. By sincere practice of spirituality, especially by regular chanting of the Holy Names of God (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare), we can kick start the process of spiritual evolution and evolve into wonderful persons initially and as sincere servitors of God in his eternal kingdom eventually.

Finally, Krishna promises in Bhagavad Gita that once we attain His Supreme abode, we do not fall back to the material world again:

mām upetya punar janma duḥkhālayam aśāśvatam nāpnuvanti mahātmānaḥ saṁsiddhiṁ paramāṁ gatāḥ

“After attaining Me, the great souls, who are yogīs in devotion, never return to this temporary world, which is full of miseries, because they have attained the highest perfection.” (Bhagavad Gita 8.15)

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