By Abhijit Toley
A mental journey leading to the conclusion that existence is unlimited finds support in the Vedic scriptures.
From early childhood I wondered where the limit of the universe might be. At night, as the stars twinkled enigmatically overhead and the moon majestically presided over the celestial assembly, I pondered what lies beyond this universe.
Suppose I ventured out into the enchanting night sky and some fine hour reached its limit. What would I find beyond it? If I ever found the boundary, I’d be able to distinguish between the two sides: inside the boundary, and beyond it. With the spirit of adventure and the anticipation of new discoveries, I would continue my journey. But then I might come across another boundary, and another, and another. Either I’d keep finding boundaries, or after a certain number of boundaries, I’d never find the next one. In either case, I concluded, I would never find a boundary beyond which existence ceased. Existence is unlimited. That idea seemed incomprehensible to me, but undeniable.
My childhood mental journeys were all but forgotten till I came across the profound Vedic wisdom, which addresses the fundamental questions whose perplexity discourages many from all but token enquiry. We read in the Vedic scriptures that existence is indeed unlimited, even though the universe we live in has a boundary. The universe is shaped like a sphere and covered by layers of material elements, like earth, water, fire, and air. The sky we see at night is inside this universe and can be called the material sky. But beyond this limited universe is the unlimited existence of the spiritual sky, which has no limits. In one corner of that spiritual sky rests the whole material creation, with countless material universes, one of which we presently live in. In the unlimited spiritual sky are innumerable unlimited spiritual planets, called Vaikunthas, on which the Supreme Lord resides in His unlimited all-powerful forms along with His uncountable loving devotees. There they enjoy unlimited loving pastimes, experiencing ever increasing and ever fresh happiness.
Lord Brahma to Sri Krishna: “What am I, a small creature measuring seven spans of my own hand? I am enclosed in a potlike universe composed of material nature, the total material energy, false ego, ether, air, water, and earth. And what is Your glory? Unlimited universes pass through the pores of Your body just as particles of dust pass through the openings of a screened window. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.11)
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explains: “The spiritual sky, which is full in all six opulences, is the intermediate residence of Lord Krishna. It is there that an unlimited number of forms of Krishna enjoy Their pastimes. Innumerable Vaikuntha planets, which are just like different rooms of a treasure-house, are all there, filled with all opulences. Those unlimited planets house the Lord’s eternal associates, who are also enriched with the six opulences.” ( Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 21.48-49)
In today’s scientific age, there is a strong emphasis on gaining knowledge through experiments whose results are tangible to the gross senses. If something is beyond direct sense perception, then we try to come to logical conclusions based on the data we obtain through our senses. However, since the senses are inherently imperfect (e.g., we can experience only the light within a certain band of frequencies), any knowledge they can provide is imperfect. In the face of this, one is left with no option but to accept and follow some higher authority that promises knowledge unapproachable by mere gross senses. The holy scriptures are one such authority. While our mental excursions can lead us to some conclusions, they can never give us any details about the nature of the transcendent Absolute Truth. On the other hand, the revealed scriptures, such as the Vedic literature quoted above, have not only acknowledged the fundamental questions, such as those about existence, but have authoritatively provided answers to them in great detail and clarity. Such deep insight is possible only because Vedic literature is not of mundane origin but is apaurusheya, of divine origin. As stated in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.1.1), at the beginning of the creation of the universe, the perfect authority, Lord Sri Krishna, imparted the complete Vedic knowledge to Brahma from within his heart.
Looking for the Source
Another question I wondered about as a child is the origin of everything. Each thing in our experience has a source, but what is the source of everything? And when did everything start coming into being? I did some thought experiments and arrived at this: For there to be an instant in time when existence came into being, there would have to be a time when existence was absent. That is, at time t, there was non-existence—nothing existed. And then, out of nowhere, literally, at time t + dt, voila! There was existence! Existence came out of non-existence. This, I was convinced beyond doubt, is not possible. So, what’s the alternative explanation? The only alternative is that there is existence eternally, for all time instants t. Since we are certain that there is existence, and that existence cannot crop out of non-existence, existence is eternal.
The source of everything, Lord Sri Krishna, exists eternally and doesn’t depend on anything else for His existence. He says in the Bhagavad-gita (10.8), “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.”
So, existence is not only unlimited, but also eternal. Eternally unlimited existence. Again, incomprehensible, but undeniable. The Vedic scriptures confirm this as follows. The Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, and His energies exist eternally and simultaneously. Just as the sun and sunlight exist simultaneously (the sun being the source), so the Lord and His energies exist simultaneously (the Lord being their source). One of the Lord’s energies is the material energy, of which the material universes are made. This energy is also eternal, but its different manifestations are temporary. Therefore, everything inside this universe and the universe itself is temporary, being temporary manifestations of the eternal material energy of the Lord. The time scales might vary astronomically; some manifestations exist for a few minutes, while some, like this universe, exist for millions of years. But in any case, all are temporary. And they are hopelessly insignificant in size and duration when compared to the eternally unlimited nature of existence.
Is My Existence Limited?
The next question I pondered, especially after finding myself lost inside eternal limitlessness, was about my own existence. If my existence is limited to the eighty-odd years of the existence of my body, then nothing of this world is of any significance at all. What is eighty years compared to eternity? All human endeavors, philosophy, morality, achievement, emotions, aspirations, philanthropy—everything—is just plain insignificant. All discussions on any matter whatsoever are insignificant. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, independence and slavery, this philosophy or that, sports, politics, showbiz, likes and dislikes, virtue and sin—nothing is any more significant than an invisible harmless speck of dust compared to the vast desert. And therefore, I could resign myself to doing whatever I like for the hopelessly limited expanse of my existence.
But what about the other possibility? What if my existence is not limited to just this one lifetime? What if it extends to many lifetimes? What if it is eternal? If so, then how I lead my life becomes an important question because I don’t want to be uncomfortable for any significant length of time. How should I act so that my existence is comfortable and happy?
The Vedic scriptures assert, and base their teachings on, the fundamental understanding that life is eternal. All living beings, called souls ( atman), have existed eternally and will continue to exist eternally.
Lord Krishna says, “For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” (Bhagavad-gita 2.20)
The souls’ original home is one of the spiritual planets, and they have an eternal relationship of love with the Lord. The souls are thus meant for an eternal life of happiness and enjoyment experienced through spiritual senses by lovingly serving the Lord in the spiritual planets. The souls who desired an existence independent of the Lord were kindly provided by the Lord with this material world, with a material body to interact with the material world, and with the forgetfulness of their true identity. Thus, typically, the souls in the material universes are forgetful of their original position as an eternal loving associate of the Supreme Lord. However, because the souls have known sublime love and happiness in the spiritual world, they seek the same experience in the material world. Averse to serving anyone else, they develop the notion that they can achieve happiness only by gratifying their own mind and senses. Thus, in the quest for unlimited happiness through the temporary and limited material senses, they either resign to frustration (tolerating it or venting it), or they start exploiting others for their own selfish desires. In any case, the temporary and limited material senses, by interaction with the objects of this material world, can never taste the happiness the soul tastes through spiritual senses by loving service to the Lord. This situation is, in a nutshell, the cause of all the ills of this material world.
Lord Krishna says, “The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (Bhagavad-gita 15.7)
Thus, the root cause of all misery is that we are, of our own volition, looking for happiness in the wrong place. Unless we engage our mind and senses in the loving service of the Lord, the unlimited happiness we seek will never be ours. Nothing in the material world can give us that, as we can easily see by observing the lives of the richest and most materially successful people. What is the source of all lasting happiness? The Bhagavad-gita (2.65–66) answers: “For one thus satisfied [in Krishna consciousness], the threefold miseries of material existence exist no longer; in such satisfied consciousness, one’s intelligence is soon well established. One who is not connected with the Supreme [in Krishna consciousness] can have neither transcendental intelligence nor a steady mind, without which there is no possibility of peace. And how can there be any happiness without peace?”
Peace and Happiness Through Selfless Service
A satisfied and peaceful mind is the basis of lasting happiness. How do we keep our minds satisfied, especially in an age where glittering promises of instant pleasures surround us? Many of us might have found that helping others brings a sense of satisfaction to our lives. Why? The Vedic scriptures explain that the very nature of the soul is selfless service to the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna. Thus, because serving someone other than Krishna resembles service to Him, it delivers a drop of the ocean of satisfaction and happiness in store for us when we start lovingly serving Krishna directly. When we start serving Krishna, very shortly we start experiencing a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness. And naturally we want to share with others our good fortune of discovering real happiness.
People sometimes ask, What’s the use of serving God, who doesn’t really need our help, instead of serving the needy and unfortunate of this world? The answer, which you’ve likely figured out by now, is that every soul needs to serve God. Only by serving God can souls be as happy as they want to be. Therefore, we should serve God for our own benefit. Moreover, having understood this fundamental truth, we would naturally want to serve others by encouraging them to also serve God and thus find true happiness in their lives. This is the only real service one can render to others; all else will just be a mere semblance of service, with no lasting positive impact, because nothing else tries to cure the root cause of all maladies. Thus, let all types of social workers carry on their good work, but also add this most important factor—spreading God consciousness—into their list of activities. With that, their endeavors will be truly successful; without that, all their endeavors are but utter failures. In the words of Prahlada Maharaja, an exemplary devotee of the Lord: “Persons who are strongly entrapped by the consciousness of enjoying material life, and who have therefore accepted as their leader or guru a similar blind man attached to external sense objects, cannot understand that the goal of life is to return home, back to Godhead, and engage in the service of Lord Vishnu. As blind men guided by another blind man miss the right path and fall into a ditch, materially attached men led by another materially attached man are bound by the ropes of fruitive labor, which are made of very strong cords, and they continue again and again in materialistic life, suffering the threefold miseries.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.31)
The scriptures inform those seeking happiness away from God that unlimited happiness is found only in serving Him. Thus, by knowing that one’s true self-interest lies in serving God, the typically selfish soul of this world starts serving Him. And by serving God, even just for one’s own benefit, one’s dormant love for God awakens, transforming actions of self-interest into selfless actions of love. The soul’s nature is to love and serve God, and once reinstated in that natural original consciousness, the soul just wants to serve God out of pure love. A pure devotee of God does not consider whether he himself is happy or not; his only concern is how to serve and please the Lord. The devotee’s love moves Krishna, who is all-loving, and Krishna reciprocates in such a way that the devotee’s happiness knows no bounds. Still, the pure devotee’s actions are motivated not by Krishna’s reciprocation but only out of pure love. The pure devotee never seeks his own happiness; he always seeks Krishna’s service. Indeed, this is the very definition of pure love, and pure love for Krishna is the very essence of the existence of the soul.
“This is the natural result of intense love of Godhead. The devotee does not consider personal inconveniences or impediments. In all circumstances he wants to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 4.186)
Thus, the journey that started from the terrace of my house as I gazed into the lovely night sky led me beyond the boundaries of the material world into the limitless expanse of the spiritual sky. It further led me into the eternally limitless existence of the Lord and His energies. Discovering such incomprehensible vastness made me wonder about the significance of my own existence. Further excursions led me to discover the eternity of my own existence, and of my natural eternal state as a loving servant of God.
What’s more, I now find myself on an even more fascinating journey—a journey from selfishness to self-interestedness to selflessness. The incomprehensible but undeniable eternal limitlessness of existence out there has led me to discover myself in here.