A God who waits

14 05 2020


A possible advantage of Dharmic religion over Christianity is not having an idea of an eternal Hell. Getting deeper into Gaudiya Vaishnavism, however, this supposed advantage becomes a bit complicated. I will start in the Sixth Canto:

[Nārada Muni had described that there is a bila, or hole, from which, having entered, one does not return. The Haryaśvas understood the meaning of this allegory.] Hardly once has a person who has entered the lower planetary system called Pātāla been seen to return. Similarly, if one enters the Vaikuṇṭha-dhāma [pratyag-dhāma], he does not return to this material world. If there is such a place, from which, having gone, one does not return to the miserable material condition of life, what is the use of jumping like monkeys in the temporary material world and not seeing or understanding that place? What will be the profit?

In the following purport, Srila Prabhupada explains the more obvious point that, once one has made it back to the spiritual world, one does not take birth in the material world again. However, this line is the one I wish he would have explained:

Hardly once has a person who has entered the lower planetary system called Pātāla been seen to return.

I should explain that Patala is the “basement” of the material universe. It is the lowest planet, the lowest ring of Hell in Dante’s parlance. However, it seems that Patala isn’t necessarily a place of suffering, but of enjoyment to the point that one forgets God. Think Venusberg of the opening of Wagner’s Tannhäuser or Calypso’s realm in Homer’s Odyssey. The worst part of “Hell” is not the suffering but the forgetting.

The question is then: Are there souls (jivas) who will never make it back to Godhead, or out of the material world?

The question is further elaborated by the realization that the Vedic idea of creation isn’t finite, but continuous. Srila Prabhupada entertains the question of what would happen if every soul returned to the spiritual world, or back to Godhead. The answer is that a new set of “fallen souls” would take their place:

Some people argue that if everyone thought of Kṛṣṇa in that way, the whole universe would be vacated because everyone would go back home, back to Godhead. However, Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura says that this is impossible because the living entities are innumerable. If one set of living entities is actually delivered by the Kṛṣṇa consciousness movement, another set will fill the entire universe.

There is thus no “Final Judgment” or apocatastasis in Krishna consciousness. By this, I mean that there is no universal restoration of all things. Material creation doesn’t end, sin doesn’t go away, and there will always be lost entities wandering separately from God.

The idea of universal salvation or damnation never enters into play because some souls will perhaps always be wandering in Hell and some will go up and down down like angels on Jacob’s ladder. While some may seem “stuck”, their situation is never static. The music never stops.

As a good Catholic, I would have thought this unending vertiginous carousel of pleasure and suffering would be a worse fate than eternal Hell, or perhaps a trick of the demons themselves. The Christian may be repulsed in existential horror at the thought that the trial may never end for some souls. Perhaps they could argue that the traditional idea of eternal hell for the reprobate at least brings a sense of closure.

Is Krishna cruel for not bringing all back to His spiritual abode? Or because He lets some languish in the cycle of birth and death, sometimes enduring punishments in hellish planets for millennia? Is the traditional Christian position of eternal Heaven and unending Hell more sensible? Or is the Christian universalist position best of all: guaranteeing a return of all souls to the Kingdom of God after an unspecified period of time?

Garuda Prabhu is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada otherwise known by his “karmi” name, Dr. Graham Schweig. In the above talk, he gives an interpretation of a verse in the Bhagavad Gita that he says is the most important of the text:

Because you are My very dear friend, I am speaking to you My supreme instruction, the most confidential knowledge of all. Hear this from Me, for it is for your benefit.

Though I love the Bhagavad Gita, I have a hard time getting into it, precisely for the reason it is popular with impersonalists, political ideologues, and people from all religious traditions. In all of the discussions of karma yoga and jnana yoga, people can get snagged into missing the actual point of the text, and that is bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. We’re only here because Krishna loves us. Krishna speaks the Bhagavad Gita to His good friend Arjuna to bring us all home to Him. As Garuda Prabhu states:

[Krishna] is telling Arjuna, ‘I will await an eternity for you to turn to Me’… Prabhupada will wait until I get it together…

Unlike the Biblical conception of God, Krishna is patient, perhaps infinitely so. He seems to abandon us here in this material world because He’s waiting for us to really want to come home to Him. If I find myself suffering here, I have to keep asking myself, “Do I really want to give all of this up?” And no matter how bad it’s going, no matter how miserable I am, I seem to keep answering, “No.”

But for Krishna to be truly be patient, we can’t possibly be these bodies. Philosophers and writers have reflected on existential games in which one must make a split second life-or-death decision. Perhaps the Biblical conception of God demands that, but Krishna doesn’t. Indeed, even when you screw up, you don’t start from zero when you get back on track. One of the first things devotees would tell me was that Krishna consciousness is cumulative over numerous lifetimes. If I was devout for only ten years fifty lifetimes ago, those “credits” don’t go away. “Death bed conversions” in this case are not really last second or out-of-the-blue. Just as our karma is a mesh of desires accumulated over perhaps millions of lifetimes, so our steps back to Godhead are an accumulation of devotional service (bhakti) also done over perhaps millions of lifetimes. Your real desire for God has to reach a critical mass, and if you haven’t gotten there yet, that you are even thinking about it is a good sign. Krishna will wait.

From this perspective, Christian universalism seems deficient. There is a balance in Krishna consciousness between the the infinite mercy of Krishna and the seeming infinite depravity of the jiva trying to play God. There are 8,400,000 forms of life in the universe according shastra, and of those, only the human being is capable of going back to Godhead under most circumstances. The human form of life is for God-realization according to Srila Prabhupada, yet so few use their human faculties for the service of Krishna and His devotees. Many go to Hell only to be reincarnated into lower forms of life, and even the pious with material attachments ascend to the higher planets only to fall down into the lower realms again after their good karma has “run out”.

In order to respect human freedom, God must be patient, and that means he has to provide us with vehicle after vehicle to crash until we learn our lesson. And as a text above states, perhaps there are those who will never make it back. But even with them, Krishna sits in their hearts, observing and taking care of each living entity. The fallen jiva is not Krishna’s enemy, far from it. The Lord is waiting for the jiva to finally come to her senses and say,

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee

As for the lack of finality of “creation” itself, in general the Christian vision of life is one of rest (requiescat in pace), whereas Krishna consciousness will always be about service. We don’t wish to reign with God, or merely passively contemplate God as if He were the Best Movie Ever that never ends. Rather, the goal of the inhabitants of the spiritual world is to please Krishna, to sing His praises, to feed Him, to clothe Him, to play with Him, and to lovingly sport with Him. The world doesn’t end because service doesn’t end. We were made for service, not “leisure”, and service has no finality. “Salvation” then is not about us, but about God. That there are wayward or rebellious servants who refuse to recognize their own existential position in relationship with Krishna changes very little. The only lasting reality is outside the mental hospital that is the material world. May we all get there one day, by the grace of guru and Gauranga.




4 responses

17 05 2020

I personally think that Christianity, properly understood, is very strongly Neoplatonic–certainly there were very strong strains of syncretism of Christianity and Neoplatonism up until the High Middle Ages. I think also that there is a tendency to literalize too much in Christian doctrine–in this case, the idea that you have a discrete “end” of the world, after which the jig’s up, and it’s all heaven or hell. Writer Mary Jo Meadow argues that “Purgatory” has some parallels with the various realms of rebirth in Buddhism, and that thus instead of the typical Western image of Purgatory as a sort of holding cell for those who committed misdemeanors until they get spring, it might be better to look at a vast panoply of states, perhaps lasting for eons, after death in this world. Technically, there’s nothing in Church teaching that would definitively rule this out.

I think there’s always been a tension between the Semitic and the Hellenistic in Christianity. It’s a synthesis of both, but not always a comfortable one. The Hellenistic tradition actually has certain parallels with the Indic (almost certainly there were influences going both ways, though we can’t pin it down, and Pyrrho actually is known for certain to have spent time in India), and I think these have generally been salutary additions to Christian theology. If you look at Semitic mythology, though–Phoenician, Assyro-Babylonian, etc.–it is striking, even in comparison with other pagan mythologies, in being extraordinarily brutal, literalistic, and uncongenial for philosophical appropriation. I think the saving grace of the Semitic part of Christianity is the passionate Jewish concern for justice, and the idea of a God of perfect love, developing out of rachmones (“compassion”) into the love of Christ in the New Testament.

So in short, Christianity is the best of the passion of the Semitic peoples and the metaphysics of the Greeks. Too many get it reversed–the metaphysics of the Semites get you young-Earth creationism and a finite universe that has no room for universalism; and Greeks tended to lack the keen sense of justice and agape that comes out of the Jewish context.

So, yeah, Hart is very Hellenic, very Platonic; but I see that as a feature, not a bug; and I think that if one looks at it correctly, universalism works perfectly well in Christianity.

14 05 2020

A few people have suggested online he may leave Christianity, but I can’t see it happening, not least for personal reasons: big dog Ortho theologian with a rep, but I sometimes struggle to connect his views with anything in Christianity. His preference for Greek philosophy – Platonism – strikes me as having far more a natural home in the east. In many ways, he’s already become a version of Tolstoy: rejecting everything in his church and tradition that he dislikes and that doesn’t sit well with his morality, a somewhat cult like following, intolerance of opposition etc.

14 05 2020

Karl, I honestly think that Hart is barking up the wrong tree in thinking Christianity can be universalist. It’s more a metaphysical consideration than anything else. One can have a finite creation and restoration of all things or one can have free will where one can choose subservience to the divine, but one can’t have both. Hart would do better just leaving Christianity altogether and going East, since I think that’s where he gets a lot of his ideas anyway.

14 05 2020

There seems – on first glance anyway – a resemblance between Krishna’s infinite patience and Hart’s God who draws all back, although maybe the latter plays a more active (coercive?) role in salvation. As for eternal celebrating and celestial activity, it seems similar in essence to the kind of thing going on in Dante’s Paradiso, although maybe with more individual freedom?

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