The soul’s journey after death is a fascinating and mysterious topic. Even if one takes the leap of faith of believing in the immortality of the soul, and the further leap of believing in reincarnation, many questions about the particulars of this process remain. In the traditional literature of Bhakti yoga, the journey of a soul through different incarnations has far more subtleties than the pedestrian understanding of working out “bad karma” that has made its way into popular yoga-speak. The story of Jaya and Vijaya, two heavenly gatekeepers afflicted with a curse, is illustrative of Bhakti yoga’s philosophical conception of the soul’s relationship with God, the process of reincarnation, and the nature of God’s involvement in the world. Many unexpected parallels to this story can be found in the literature of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, even though that tradition evolved in an entirely different part of the world. The teachings of both these traditions on death and reincarnation also reveal their nuanced views on good and evil, which are designed to inspire us towards a more sympathetic understanding of those whom we normally consider “enemies.”
Jaya and Vijaya are best known for their connection with the appearance of Narasimha, or Nṛsiṁhadeva, a particularly terrifying and yet protective incarnation of the Supreme Being who is one of the ten primary avatars of Vishnu enumerated in the Purāṇas. The Purāṇas are ancient and Medieval Indian texts, generally sprawling and of multi-volume length, which elaborate much of the content that has come to be known as Hinduism. In this article, I will focus on the lengthy, convoluted, and symbolically weighty version of the Jaya, Vijaya, and Narasimha story that one can find in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, which I will henceforth refer to as the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
The Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is a central text of Vaishnavism and the Bhakti movement, and its complicated plot and framing are intertwined with that of the more well-known Mahābhārata (and the Bhagavad-Gītā within the Mahābhārata). Like many important texts of yoga, the exact dates of composition of the Bhāgavatam are a matter of significant debate. The text itself presents itself as the transcription of a lengthy dialog that took place after the devastating events of the Kurukshetra war, at the very start of Kali Yuga. A virtuous king, Pariksit, commits an accidental offense and falls under a deadly curse as a result, which dooms him to die within seven days. Knowing that his imminent death is inevitable, Pariksit seeks out Sukadeva Gosvami, a great sage, and asks him to impart the teachings of Bhakti yoga to him. (This storyline of accidental offense and inescapable curse also mirrors the Jaya-Vijaya thread in the Bhāgavatam). According to traditional dates, Kali Yuga began a bit more than 5,000 years ago, and the narrative of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam would date back to that time; according to academic estimations, which are inexact by their own admission, the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is younger than comparable texts like the Vishnu Purāṇa, and was written by 1000 C.E.
I have used A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s translation and commentary on the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam in this article. Another well-known modern translation into English, as the Bhagavata Purāṇa, is by Bibek Debroy, who also translated the Mahabharata. Prabhupada, often called Srila Prabhupada by his followers, was the founder of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas. Curious practitioners, within the world of modern yoga but outside of formal academia, will likely first encounter Prabhupada’s Bhāgavatam. Although Srila Prabhupada is better known for his Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, a greater portion of his life was occupied with translating the multivolume Bhāgavatam. Srila Prabhupada began to work on his translation when he still lived in Vrindavan, in India, before he traveled to the West to spread the teachings of Krishna consciousness. When Srila Prabhupada traveled to New York City on a cargo ship, contrary to the pleadings of friends who thought that he was too old for such an adventure, he brought hardly any personal belongings with him, but he brought copies of his Śrīmad Bhāgavatam.
From Guardians to Demons
The story and significance of Jaya and Vijaya, which I have heavily simplified, can be found in Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, Canto 3, Chapters 14-19, and Canto 7, Chapters 1-8. The following is my paraphrasing:
In the depths of time, when this material universe was first formed, Brahmā, the first being created by Vishnu, in turn created four great sages, the Kumaras, the oldest living beings other than himself. Even though they were ancient and wise, they chose to assume the appearance of naked five-year-old children, because they did not desire families or worldly goods, only contemplation of spiritual truths. The four Kumaras journeyed through the heavens to Vaikuntha, the personal, paradisal abode of Vishnu, seeking to behold the transcendental form of God. When they reached the threshold, however, their way was barred by Jaya and Vijaya, two heavenly beings who had been tasked with guarding the gates of Vaikuntha, who did not recognize the Kumaras’ true identity. The Kumaras grew angry at this unintended insult, and cursed the heavenly gatekeepers to fall from Vaikuntha to the material plane of existence, forgetting their realizations of God and the Self.
At this moment, God intervened between the Kumaras and the heavenly guardians, who had realized their mistake too late. The Supreme Personality respected the brahmin’s curse of the Kumaras, and let it stand, but arranged to let Jaya and Vijaya carry out their sentence on the material plane of existence quickly. “The Lord replied: O brāhmanas, know that the punishment you inflicted on them was originally ordained by Me, and therefore they will fall to a birth in a demoniac family. But they will be firmly united with Me in thought through mental concentration intensified by anger, and they will return to My presence shortly.” Jaya and Vijaya fell from Vaikuntha, and took birth as Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu, twin demons of great fearsomeness and power.
Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu began to terrorize the cosmos and the demigods, and in response God first appeared in the incarnation of a giant boar, Varāha, fought with Hiranyaksha, and killed him. Hiranyakashipu was so enraged by his brother’s death that he undertook years of painful yogic austerities in order to gain a blessing from Brahmā of near invulnerability, and he presumptuously vowed to kill Vishnu. The demon king started to feel a special enmity towards his young son, Prahlāda, who had become a devotee of Vishnu and a student of Bhakti, because he felt betrayed that his son would choose to serve his brother’s killer. One evening, Hiranyakashipu loomed over Prahlāda, asking him where his God was to save him at that moment, when, with a fearful sound, a pillar in Hiranyakashipu’s palace split open, and Nṛsiṁhadeva, a half-man, half-lion incarnation of God, emerged from it. Laughing with delight, Nṛsiṁhadeva easily seized Hiranyakashipu, placed the demon on his lap, and tore him to pieces with his razor-sharp nails, dangling a coil of his intestines around his neck like a celebratory garland of flowers.
Thus, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu achieved the paradoxical blessing of being killed by God Himself. In later Yugas, or eras of time, Jaya and Vijaya returned again in the incarnations of Ravana and Kumbhakarna, who were killed by the divine avatar Rama, and then as Shishupala and Dantavakra, who were killed by Krishna during the events of the Mahabharata. The Kumaras’ curse sated, the gatekeepers were at last allowed to return to their true identities as devotees of God in the heavenly realms.
Although Jaya and Vijaya entered into material creation, and spent time in the forms of asuras, or demons, their true, spiritual nature was not altered, only concealed. Srila Prabhupada emphasizes, in his purports, that Jaya and Vijaya even kept their status as servants of God while they were behaving as demons. Vaishnava theology emphasizes that God contains the original form of every emotion and mood that humans can experience, and so this must include, from time to time, the desire to fight. “The Lord ordered the gatekeepers to go down to the material world to become His enemies so that He could fight with them and His fighting desires would be satisfied by the service of His personal devotees.” In a sense, the fighting between God and his devotees was like a show at a theater, played out with great vigor and relish, but indicative of no enmity in the final estimation.
A Little-Known Aspect of Mystical Judaism
The Kabbalistic literature of the Middle Ages, in a similar fashion to the Jaya-Vijaya story, contains ideas both of the immortal soul’s inherent worth and immutability, and that it might migrate through an array of surprising and ghastly forms in order to rectify past wrongdoings and to serve God. Although students of spirituality readily associate the idea of reincarnation with the belief systems of India, many would not associate it with Judaism. Different scholars debated the validity of reincarnation, or gilgul, throughout the history of Judaism, but the idea is a central aspect of esoteric Jewish mysticism, or Kabbalah. Many Kabbalistic texts claim to unpack the hidden layers of meaning in the Torah: a Jewish exegetical model dating back to the Middle Ages speaks of four layers of meaning in Biblical texts, the deepest of which is Sod, secret knowledge. Teachings at the level of Sod were not meant to negate the public doctrines of Judaism, just as the more mystical and obscure passages of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam were not meant to oppose the popular teachings of Bhakti.
According to Gershom Scholem’s entry on gilgul in the Encyclopedia Judaica, transmigration of the soul was frequently mentioned in the foundational Jewish mystical texts, the Sefer haBahir and the Zohar. Strikingly, the Bahir specifies that the soul commonly transmigrates three times after the death of its original body, just as Jaya and Vijaya journeyed through three incarnations in three different Yugas to “atone” for their original insult to the Kumaras. The Bahir also explains that righteous people can choose to transmigrate and return endlessly for the good of all, a statement that echoes Krishna’s revelation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita on his many births as different avatars to restore dharma: “Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” Medieval Jewish texts also presented the cycles of reincarnation as an expiatory process; several asserted that, rather than souls suffering in hell, they took birth as animals and lower life forms. The Kabbalists of Safed, a community of mystics and scholars that flourished in Israel in the 16th century, developed the doctrine of nizozot ha-neshamot, or “sparks of the souls.” With the first sin of Adam, they wrote, the spiritual “sparks,” the animating principle in a material body, were separated from their original root or true nature, and scattered throughout the world and concealed. Kabbalists, just like many practitioners of yoga, sought to elevate their own spark and those of others, and to help them return to their true, forgotten nature.
The Kabbalists of Safed were fascinated by the theory of reincarnation because they believed that they were living at the dawn of a Messianic age of redemption. In this new age, sparks of different souls that had become lost and separated from their true natures would be restored, and the Kabbalists themselves could play a part in this process through their scholarly and meditative practices. Rabbi Moses Cordovero, in Safed, wrote a short work, Shemu’ah be-‘Inyan ha-Gilgul, which expanded on his thoughts on reincarnation from his magnum opus, a commentary on the Zohar. In these works, he unpacked the Kabbalistic significance of a seemingly mundane minor Jewish law, that of shiluach ha-ken, or chasing a mother bird away from her nest before taking her eggs or young. The bird symbolizes the Shekinah, or divine indwelling, which used to abide with ancient Israel before the destruction of the First Temple, symbolized by the bird’s destroyed nest. Another significance is the bird as a person’s uprooted, homeless soul after death, and the destroyed nest as the physical body undone by death. The purpose of this minor act of destruction is actually to remind God of the exile of Israel, and to awaken His mercy towards them. In a similar way, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu’s destructive actions, which create the opportunity for the divine avatars to kill them, was, in a deeper sense, “part of the plan all along.” The mercy of God, in the case of Jaya and Vijaya, was to be killed by God, and thus to return to Him.
According to Isaac Luria, the foremost Kabbalist of the Safed community, one can elevate spiritual sparks trapped in the material world even through activities that would normally be recognized as mundane, such as eating. In a sermon on food, he said, “You can mend the cosmos by anything you do — even eating. Do not imagine that God wants you to eat for mere pleasure or to fill your belly. No, the purpose is mending. Sparks of holiness intermingle with everything in the world, even inanimate objects. By saying a blessing before you enjoy something, your soul partakes spiritually. This is food for the soul.” The phrase “mend the cosmos” refers to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which has been a central injunction in Judaism from the beginning of the common era to the present. The idea that one can sacralize ordinary activities through intention and ritual also has strong commonalities with the practices of Bhakti, particularly that of taking prasad, food that has been sanctified by being offered to the deity. Only with the eyes of devotion can one appreciate the hidden, spiritual nature of these acts, just as one can only appreciate the demons Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu’s true identities as servants of God by remaining aware of the spiritual backstory behind the outermost layer of the good versus evil narrative.
Not only was gilgul envisioned as a penalty for past transgressions; it also represented a chance for a soul to activate some potential of theirs that they had failed to realize or perfect in a past life. Hayyim Vital, Isaac Luria’s student, listed some of his past incarnations as Joseph, from the book of Genesis, and the first-century sage and martyr Rabbi Akiva. Although these had both been men of great holiness, they had failed to observe some minor aspect of the commandments, and therefore Vital was tasked with repairing these sins. Feeling pressured by what he perceived as his cosmic role, Vital fell into scrupulosity and religious neuroses, especially around the minutia of sexual purity and eating kosher food. By his own accounting, Vital, when he was older, looked back and admitted that he had failed to achieve the level of spiritual perfection he was aiming for.
Several centuries later, in the early 1800s in Ukraine, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov injected the teachings of the Safed Kabbalists into the Hasidic devotional movement in Judaism. Hasidism in Eastern Europe, and the Bhakti movement in India, bear a striking resemblance to one another in that they both strove to make mystical teachings, previously only available to a specialized, scholarly in-group, available to a more general audience. Rebbe Nachman claimed to be the tzaddik ha-dor, or the tzaddik (righteous person) of his generation, which meant that he bore the root soul which had once belonged to Moses in Biblical times, and which was destined to one day become the soul of the Messiah. In fact, Nachman felt that he was the last incarnation of this soul before the Messiah himself. According to the Safed Kabbalists, in each generation, this same soul with Messianic potential appeared, but would not manifest as the Messiah until its generation proved itself worthy through righteousness.
Hiranyakashipu’s paradoxical, simultaneously good and evil nature comes through in an episode in which he skillfully delivers a discourse on the immortality of the soul, and the relationship between spirit and matter, to console his demonic relatives after his brother’s death. Prabhupada’s purports emphasize that, although Hiranyakashipu was a declared enemy of God, his advice on this matter was “quite sound”; one purport throws the marvelous shade that “although Hiranyakashipu was a great demon, he was not as foolish as the population of the modern world” (i.e. he did not believe that the material body was the Self). Through becoming consumed with hatred and envy of God, Hiranyakashipu cultivated a concentration of sorts on spiritual matters, whereas the purport takes the dig that modern humanity is largely preoccupied by mundane affairs. The historian Wendy Doniger characterizes this style of attachment to God, which also appears in other Bhakti narratives, as “hate-devotion,” which brings about the unintentional salvation of the evildoer through “accidental grace.” Medieval Kabbalistic literature, in a similar way, emphasized the practice of fixing one’s concentration continuously on God, and particularly on the names of God: Kabbalistic mysticism and the theology of Bhakti both uphold the idea that God is already mysteriously immanent and present within the material universe, and that one only needs to remember this divine indwelling. In Kabbalistic texts, this continuous concentration is called devekut, or “clinging.”
As another scholar put it, “The Bhāgavata Purāṇa demonstrates with poetic power that there is a natural intensity in hatred which makes the negative mode peculiarly fitted to portray the ideal of intense attachment to the Lord.” In particular, he noted the contrast between Western and Eastern literary treatments of evil and villainous characters, saying that, in spiritual epics such as the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, demoniac characters were “transformed” into devotees of God. While this scholar, Hospital, correctly perceives the paradoxical redemption arc of the story, and its optimism about the possibility for personal change, he misconstrues Jaya and Vijaya as undergoing a transformation from enemies to devotees. Srila Prabhupada’s purports note that people can fall from a high spiritual status, but Jaya and Vijaya did not. “The case of Jaya and Vijaya is not a falldown; it is just an accident. The Lord is always anxious to get such devotees back again to the Vaikuntha planets as soon as possible.” As opposed to fallen souls who might cycle through many lifetimes before they ran across the chance to hear the teachings of Bhakti yoga again, Jaya and Vijaya were theatrical players in a high and spiritual lila.
Even the nature of good and evil itself in the Jaya-Vijaya story and in Kabbalistic texts defies a conventional, “us-versus-them” understanding. In Kabbalah, evil is referred to as the sitra achra, literally, the “other side” of creation. Spiritual sparks that become trapped in the sitra achra are covered over and concealed by kelipot, or “shells”. However, the Kabbalists did not understand the sitra achra as merely something external, or even necessarily as an enemy, in a simplistic sense: Isaac Luria quoted a verse from the Book of Micah, “The enemies of man are the members of his household,” and then unpacked the esoteric meaning of that verse in several ways. This could mean that a righteous person might encounter sparks or fragments of his own soul within his enemies, and redeem that spark by killing them. It could also refer to the marriages between ancient Israelites and women of other nations, whom Luria saw as possessing lost, Jewish souls from earlier incarnations. Lastly, it could refer to human participation in the growth and strengthening of the sitra achra through sexual transgressions. In general, it refers to the necessary human intimacy with the “other side”, and how our interactions with it, whether by defeating it, or by accepting it, are part of the unfolding of the divine plan. Hiranyakashipu, similarly, says that “the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, is always equal to both of us—namely, the demigods and the demons,” meaning that Vishnu gives equitable, impartial treatment to both the demigods and the demons. In fact, Vishnu’s even-handed treatment of demigods and demons is seen as so fundamental that Hiranyakashipu (erroneously) accuses Vishnu of having departed from this natural order of things by killing Hiranyaksha! The demons, despite being described in the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam as having ferocious tendencies like blood-sucking and meat-eating, are also depicted as part of God’s creation.
Prahlāda, Hiranyakashipu’s son who becomes a devotee despite his demonic origins, is another instance of sparks of goodness trying to struggle free of their inauspicious surroundings. The Śrīmad Bhāgavatam tells of how Prahlāda’s mother, Kayādhu, while pregnant with him, had to flee for shelter to the ashram of the sage Nārada Muni. Otherwise, the demigods, thinking that her child would be another terrible demon like Hiranyakashipu, were planning to kill him as soon as he was born. Prahlāda, from within the womb, heard Nāradha Muni speaking to Kayādhu on devotional service and transcendental knowledge, and absorbed the teachings exactly; as Srila Prabhupada says in his purport to the text, “One cannot imagine how the baby in embryo could hear Nārada, but this is spiritual life; progress in spiritual life cannot be obstructed by any material condition.” Wendy Doniger underlines the significance of the figure of Prahlāda as an example of the Bhakti movement’s challenge to the existing social order in Medieval India. Prahlāda’s personal dharma would have, previously, prescribed that he support his father in his enmities, but now devotion to God overrides loyalty to family, tribe, or caste. This leads into a key takeaway for modern-day practitioners of Bhakti yoga: anyone is welcome to begin these practices at any time, regardless of their origins or present status in life. Not only this, but it is impossible for us to judge the spiritual status of a soul, or the purpose of their journey in life, from the outside, and thus a practitioner of Bhakti should be “more tolerant than a tree” towards everyone, in the words of the Śikṣāṣṭaka prayer.
Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita, says to Arjuna, “Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead.” (2.11) How this might be is conveyed in greater detail in the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, both in its Jaya-Vijaya story, and in an array of other narratives in that text. The Kabbalists envisioned a similar wandering of the soul through successive births and deaths, in order that both God’s mercy, and His justice, could ultimately be satisfied. In a sense, it feels presumptuous to even contemplate the mysteries of the soul’s journey after death, but, simultaneously, these death-and-reincarnation stories can have a real impact on how we live our lives, and the amount of understanding we extend to other.
The Śikṣāṣṭaka Prayer:
Eight verses written by the 16th-century Bengali saint and teacher of Bhakti yoga, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who is known for encouraging and popularizing kirtan, the congregational chanting of the names of God. Srila Prabhupada’s translation of these verses runs,
1 Glory to the śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtana, which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of conditional life, of repeated birth and death. This saṅkīrtana movement is the prime benediction for humanity at large because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon. It is the life of all transcendental knowledge. It increases the ocean of transcendental bliss, and it enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.
2 O my Lord, Your holy name alone can render all benediction to living beings, and thus You have hundreds and millions of names, like Kṛṣṇa and Govinda. In these transcendental names You have invested all Your transcendental energies. There are not even hard and fast rules for chanting these names. O my Lord, out of kindness You enable us to easily approach You by Your holy names, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attraction for them.
3 One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street; one should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and should be ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.
4 O almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I desire beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. I only want Your causeless devotional service, birth after birth.
5 O son of Mahārāja Nanda [Kṛṣṇa], I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean of death and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.
6 O my Lord, when will my eyes be decorated with tears of love flowing constantly when I chant Your holy name? When will my voice choke up, and when will the hairs of my body stand on end at the recitation of Your name?
7 O Govinda! Feeling Your separation, I am considering a moment to be like twelve years or more. Tears are flowing from my eyes like torrents of rain, and I am feeling all vacant in the world in Your absence.
8 I know no one but Kṛṣṇa as my Lord, and He shall remain so even if He handles me roughly by His embrace or makes me brokenhearted by not being present before me. He is completely free to do anything and everything, for He is always my worshipful Lord, unconditionally.
One can find this translation of the Śikṣāṣṭaka in Śrī Cait- anya-caritāmṛta, Antya-līlā at https://vedabase.io/en/