One of the knotty problems in Vedānta is the relation of ātmā with the three guṇas of prakṛti. Ātmā, although conditioned by the material guṇas, never contacts them. The guṇas of prakṛti are not inherent in the ātmā and have no direct contact with it. The self does not have any type of relation with the guṇas, such as contact (saṁyoga), because ātmā is not corporeal.
Incompatibility between Ātmā and Prakṛti
One of the knotty problems in Vedānta is the relation of ātmā with the three guṇas of prakṛti. Ātmā, although conditioned by the material guṇas, never contacts them. The guṇas of prakṛti are not inherent in the ātmā and have no direct contact with it. The self does not have any type of relation with the guṇas, such as contact (saṁyoga), because ātmā is not corporeal. Nor is the relation one of inherence (samavāya) because objects are external to ātmā and contrary to its nature. Nor is the relation one of oneness (svarūpa) or identification (tādātmya) because ātmā and the guṇas are opposed to each other and identity between them is inconceivable. It is understood here that ātmā is not inert, while the guṇas are. Ātmā does not undergo transformation while the guṇas do, giving rise to subtle and gross elements. Ātmā does not give rise to any products which can be experienced through the senses.
Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.3.15) expresses that ātmā is not contaminated by contact with the guṇas: “The puruṣa is untouched.” Yet, by the inconceivable power of the Lord’s māyā potency, ātmā comes under the influence of prakṛti.
Bhāgavata Purāna (3.7.9) says: “This māyā of the Lord which cannot be understood by logic is the cause of the jīva’s bondage and ignorance although by nature the jīva is superior to matter and liberated.”
Bondage is Caused by Māyā
Jīva (ātmā) is superior to prakṛtic māyā because the former is sentient and the later is inert. Ātmā has the capacity to realize its own transcendental state, free from any misery. It is beyond any taint of guṇas, yet it is bound by them. This becomes possible because of ignorance (avidyā), a feature of māyā. Māyā is a potency of the Lord with the power to act in inconceivable ways.
Bhāgavata Purāna repeatedly points to māyā as the cause of the bondage of a jīva. Śrī Kṛṣṇa says this to Uddhava (SB 11.11.1-2):
“The state of the jīva as bound or liberated is said to be because of its being influenced or uninfluenced by the guṇas of prakriti controlled by Me. These states are not related to the essential nature of the jīva. Because the relation with the guṇas happens by māyā, there is no real bondage or liberation. That is My opinion. Just as a dream is an illusory manifestation of buddhi, similarly grief, infatuation, joy and distress and acceptance of another body happen by māyā and are falsely attributed to the self.”
This conditioning arises from the ātmā’s identification with a subtle body. Because of this identification one accepts the qualities of the subtle body as one’s own.
In the next verse (11.11.3), Śrī Kṛṣṇa states that this identification has no beginning. The ignorance of the jīva about himself is not a positive entity but “pre-nonexistence” (prāg-abhāva) of knowledge. Being pre-nonexistent, it has no beginning. It is a beginningless lack of the positive entity known as accurate knowledge. Due to this beginningless ignorance, the jīva is oblivious of his true nature as a conscious being devoid of misery; he identifies instead with the body, its qualities, actions and modifications. This is called “misfortune.”
Will of Ātmā Dependent on Iśvara
According to Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī, the luminosity of ātmā is dependent upon the power of the Lord. Ātmā is not completely independent. Iśvara is the primary knower, actor and enjoyer (jnāta, kartā and bhoktā). The jñātṛtva, kartṛtva and bhoktṛtva of ātmā are dependent upon Iśvara. In Bhagavad Gītā (15.15), Lord Kṛṣṇa says that memory, knowledge and forgetfulness of an individual being come from Him. He is the source of everything (10.8), the controller of all beings (BG 18.61) and He is the bhokta (BG 13.22). This obviously raises the question if the jīva has any true freedom to act at all. If jīva has no freedom to act, then the scriptural injunctions for jīva would become meaningless. Yet we can understand from our own experience that jīva is not completely free to act. Jīva has some freedom of choice.
According to grammar rules, a doer can be “one who inspires another to act” (prayojaka), or “one who acts under another’s inspiration or supervision” (prayojya). The jīva is the latter type of doer (prayojya kartā). He is free to initiate an action, but cannot be effective without approval of Iśvara. In Bhagavad Gītā, Iśvara is called the overseer and permitter (BG 13.22). Iśvara is the prayojaka kartā because He gives the approval to the jīva’s will. This does not make Him the initiator or doer of the action, the jīva is the initiator, and thus the primary doer, and therefore the result accrues not to Iśvara, but to the jīva. This is rooted in the basic Vedānta concept that there is one independent Absolute Reality and everything emanates and is dependent upon it (BG 7.6, 9.10, Katha Upaniṣad 5.12, Brahmā Saṁhita 5.1).
Another reason, the will of jīva is not entirely free is that he is conditioned by his past karma. One becomes restricted in one’s freedom to act, proportionate to the intensity of one’s ignorance and slavery to sensual habit. But freedom is never completely lost. The conditioning and limitation of the jīva’s will is just like a citizen of a state who has some fundamental rights and freedom to function in the society, but if he commits a crime he is prosecuted by the state and put in prison. There his freedom is restricted, but not absolutely.
According to the Caitanya school, there is one Absolute Reality called Bhagavān which has variegated potencies divided into three categories, namely internal (antaraṅga), intermediary (taṭasṭḥa) and external (bahiraṅga). Bhagavān’s body, dress, attributes, abode and associates are all manifestations of the antaraṅga potency. The material creation is a manifestation of bahiraṅga potency. The individual living beings are part of His taṭasṭḥa potency.
Living beings are of two types: beginninglessly liberated (nitya mukta) or beginninglessly bound (nitya baddha). The first type has always been devoted to Bhagavān, and lives with Him in His abode. The second type has always been under the sway of the bahiraṅga potency (māyā) but can become free from it by becoming favorable to Bhagavān.
The jīvas are anu in size and unlimited in number. They are conscious by nature and have the potential to know, will and act. But in the conditioned state, this potential can manifest only through a material body consisting of subtle and gross divisions. All the functions of cognition, willing, acting and enjoying happen within the material body but are attributed to ātmā because it is the direct cause behind them.
The ātmā remains unaffected by all the actions it performs and enjoyments it experiences within the realm of prakṛti. This is inexplicable by logic and understood as the function of ignorance working as an energy of the All-powerful. It can be only understood on the authority of scriptures and the writings of the enlightened persons, and realized by following the prescribed process given in the scriptures.
You can offer anything to Krishna, but you have to offer it with love. You have to offer it with some awareness. You really have to offer it from your heart. Don’t just offer it mechanically. Even if you have some bad habit, offer it to God. Because eventually your consciousness will change and you will think, why am I doing this to God?
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