It is stated in the Bhagavad-gita that whoever understands beyond doubt that the Supreme Lord Krsna is the origin and proprietor of everything is undeluded and free from all taint, although he is among those who are subject to death. Of course every living being in the material creation, from the great Brahma whose life span encompasses aeons and aeons to microscopic bacteria that endure only for a fraction of a second, is subject to old age, degeneration and death. Countless entities in multimillions of species of life are born into darkness and nourished in darkness, and after briefly fumbling in the caverns of the senses, are dying in darkness. And yet their minds remained attached to this darkness and to the things of the caves, and so they take bodies according to their propensities to enjoy. This taking on and shuffling off of bodies is like so many changes of dress.
In Book III, Chapter 25, of Plato’s Republic, Socrates uses the allegory of the cave to illustrate the nature of man’s attachment to the illusory things of this material universe. He tells of men living in the depths of an underground cave, the entrance of which is open to the light. There is a long passage leading from the entrance to a chamber where the men sit in darkness. They have been sitting in this chamber from their very childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck. They cannot move, and they can see only what is in front of them because the chains will not let them turn their heads. Behind them a fire burns, and between the prisoners and the fire is a parapet like a screen at a puppet show which hides a number of puppet masters who manipulate their puppets at the top. These puppet masters hold up various objects made of wood and stone shaped in the figures of men and animals and other natural phenomena. And these objects are projected on the wall before the prisoners. The prisoners see nothing of themselves or of one another. They are wholly enchanted by the shadows thrown by the firelight on the wall of the cave, and thus since their early childhood they have been watching the false show on the wall of the cave and thinking those shadows of artificial objects to be reality.
Socrates then requests his listeners to imagine what would happen if suddenly these prisoners were released from their chains (though not stated, possible by the grace of guru or the mahamantra, the mind releaser that breaks the shackles of material illusion) and set free and forced to stand up, turn their heads and walk with their eyes lifted to the light. For the prisoners, all these movements would be very painful, and they would be too dazzled to perceive the objects whose shadows they are accustomed to seeing. And what would they think, asked Socrates, “if someone told them that what they had formerly seen was meaningless illusion? Would not such men be pained and confused? And would they not question the reality of these new objects which they suddenly behold, and maintain the reality of the illusions which they are accustomed to seeing? For them the flickering shadows on the side of the cave constitute the reality of existence. The eyes of such men would ache to look at the light, and they would try to turn back to see those things which they could see distinctly, the shadows to which they are accustomed, being convinced that these are really clearer than the new objects being shown them.”
Then Socrates goes further to ask what would happen if someone were to drag one of these prisoners forcibly through the rugged passageway of the cave and haul him out into the sunlight. Would he not suffer great pain and be very angry and vexed? And when finally he is out in the sunlight, would he be able to see a single one of the objects which he is suddenly told are real? No. Such a quick transition would necessitate his becoming accustomed to this new and brilliant environment. At first he would only be able to make out shadows in the upper world and gradually images of men and things. Then when he finally becomes accustomed to the things of day, Socrates says, he would surely think himself happy and be thankful for the change. He would also feel sorry for his fellow prisoners who still remain in the chambers of the cave. And imagine what would happen if such a man suddenly went down again to take his former seat in the cave. Coming out of the sunlight, his eyes would be full of darkness, and when he joins his fellow prisoners he would be asked to make comments on the puppet pantomime in the cave, and having difficulty readjusting, he would be the object of ridicule for his fellow prisoners. They would laugh at him and say that he went up out of the cave only to return with his sight ruined, and they would conclude that it is worth no one’s time to even attempt the ascent. Indeed, if they could lay hands on the man who would try to set them free and lead them out of the cave, they would kill him.
At this point it is easy to see that the prisoners in the cave are conditioned souls bound by material desires, lust and anger. Originally these souls sported in the clear daylight outside, but being attracted to the cave and the things of the cave they left the environment of light and plunged into the darkness of the body where they sit shackled by desire. The puppet pantomimes perceived on the wall of the cave represent other living entities and the various objects the soul perceives while in the body. These are but flicks and specks that come and go. They have no substantiality. Each imprisoned soul takes the shadows of these puppets to be the real objects of the universe. Although the prisoners are seated next to one another and although they exchange opinions about the show they are watching, they neither see themselves nor one another, for they are bound by their passions. Indeed, their real bodies are there hidden in darkness, just as the spiritual body is hidden to one who can perceive only through the material senses. The poet Coleridge must have been influenced by this Socratic allegory when he wrote:
For all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds; and we in this low world
Placed with our backs to bright Reality,
That we may learn with young unwounded ken
The substance from its shadow.
This phenomenal universe, a “mighty alphabet for infant minds,” reflects a bit of the Supreme, although pervertedly. But the prisoners of the cave cannot perceive this.
The puppet masters in the cave are the demigods in charge of material nature. They are agents of maya, and they conduct the show which fascinates the prisoners. They are the goddess of wealth, the god of sex, the god of fame, the god of war, and so on.
It is only by the mercy of one who is unshackled, of a liberated soul, a bhagavata or spiritual master, that a prisoner can be released from his chains. The cave dwellers cannot release themselves nor one another. They are dependent on someone coming from the outside. And so the spiritual master comes from outside the cave, from the realms of light, and descends into the chambers to release the prisoners who are in no way deserving of his mercy.
Socrates points out that the transition from bondage to freedom is very painful for a prisoner. At first he has difficulty moving once he is released from his chains. Then the light of the fire within the cave blinds him. And surely the ascent out of the cave is very difficult. In the same way in the Bhagavad-gita Krsna states that for the neophyte the practice of Krsna consciousness in the beginning is like poison but in the end is like nectar. Therefore at first the prisoner who is being led out of the cave sometimes struggles against the guru, but it is the patience, perseverance and compassion of the guru that sees him through this transition period and out the entrance of the cave into the sunlight. This represents the ascent of the soul out of material engagement into spiritual engagement. At first the soul is dazzled by his new environment and activities. One can imagine that if he is blinded by the fire in the cave, how much more he is blinded by the light of the sun itself.
After relating this allegory, Socrates explains that the chambers of the cave correspond to the region revealed to us through the sense of sight and other gross material senses. The fire within the cave corresponds to the sun that is perceived within the material world. The ascent out of the cave into the upper world represents what Socrates calls the “upward journey of the soul into the region of Absolute Intelligence.” Once in the realms of Absolute Intelligence, Socrates says that the soul has the most difficulty perceiving the source of light itself, which he calls “the essential Form of goodness.” “Once this form is perceived,” he says, “the conclusion must follow that for all things this is the cause of whatever is right and good; in the visible world, it gives birth to light and to the lord of light, while it is itself sovereign in the world of intelligence and is the parent of intelligence and truth.” Here, Socrates is talking about the absolute source of all light and goodness, which is Krsna. It is interesting that he refers to the essential form of goodness. That is to say he does not accept the impersonal light as the ultimate but indicates a source of this light which has form. He further states, “Without having had a vision of this Form, no one can act with wisdom either in his own life or in matters of state.”
Once a prisoner has reached the heights of the upper worlds and has become accustomed to them, it would be very strange indeed if he wanted to return to the cave. Therefore Socrates says that those who have attained the upper world are reluctant to become involved in the affairs of men. Their souls simply long to spend all their time in that upper world. Those who are in Krsna consciousness are reluctant to become politicians or fruitive laborers of any sort. Indeed, what rewards could the cave offer them, and how could they become absorbed again in the pantomime of puppets once they have seen the reality of the upper world? A man would sooner return to the toys of his childhood and try to play with them. It is interesting that Arjuna, a soul in Krsna consciousness, did not want to fight in the battle of Kuruksetra. But it was only when he was told by Krsna to fight, not for the sake of the puppet battle but for the sake of the Supreme Himself, that Arjuna consented to go into the cave of battle and fight against other puppets. Those liberated souls who descend out of the upper regions into the cave of the material universe are called avataras, or “those who descend.” When an avatara does descend into the cave and mingles in the darkness with blind asuras, demons, literally “those opposed to light,” he may often encounter unpleasant situations. Socrates notes this: “Nor again is it all strange that one who comes from the contemplation of the Divine to the miseries of human life should appear awkward and ridiculous when, with eyes still dazed and not yet accustomed to the darkness, he is compelled, in a law court or elsewhere, to dispute about the shadows of justice or the images that cast those shadows, and to wrangle over the notions of what is right in the minds of men who have never beheld justice itself.” Notably we have the example 500 years after Socrates of Lord Jesus Christ who descended into the material world to lead the gross materialists to the light of the kingdom of God, but being so absorbed with the shadows of their puppet play they could not understand him. They were especially confused whenever he mentioned the relationship between himself and his Father, the source of light. And not understanding, being confounded and angered, they finally crucified him. There is also the example of Lord Nityananda and Jagai and Madhai. Thus the avatara, descending from the realm of light to lead the prisoners out of the cave of darkness, runs great risks. Because of this, Krsna says that no servant in the world is more dear to Him than one who delivers His message of freedom to others. “For anyone who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, devotional service is guaranteed and at the end he will come back to Me. There is no servant in this world more dear to Me than he, nor will there ever be one more dear.” (Bg. 18.68-69)
Obviously there is a gulf of difference between one dwelling in the upper worlds of light and one dwelling in the darkness of the cave. The transition from darkness to light or from light to darkness confuses the eyes. But Socrates observes that the man coming from the light is different, and his transition is not as painful, for when he enters the darkness of the cave he realizes that his vision is obscured by the darkness. He is not really confused because he knows that his constitutional position is established in the light of happiness, and he feels compassionate toward those who are accustomed to darkness and who identify their happiness with flickering shadows. “Indeed if he were inclined to laugh at them,” Socrates points out, “that would be less ridiculous than to laugh at the soul who has come down from the light.”
From this allegory Socrates concludes that the soul of every man possesses the power of learning the Absolute Truth, but he must be turned around in order to see the light. It is not that the prisoners in the cave are blind. Their vision is already there, but it is obscured.
We are all originally Krsna conscious entities, and we have the ability to partake in the light of devotional service to Sri Krsna. Krsna consciousness, love for Krsna, is innate in all of us. We simply need to be turned around. And this is the role of the guru. He directs the soul away from the flickering temporalities of this material world to the contemplation of the Divine. Socrates says, “Just as one might have to turn the whole body round in order that the eyes should see light instead of darkness, so the entire soul must be turned away from this changing world till its eyes can bear to contemplate reality and that supreme splendor which we have called the Good.”
This Supreme Good, or Krsna, is the ultimate destination of all souls conditioned or unconditioned, and the process for realizing Him is called Krsna consciousness. This Krsna consciousness is a science and an art to be studied and practiced under one who has actually seen the realms of day. Socrates hints at such an art whereby the Divine may be perceived: “Hence there may well be an art whose aim would be to effect this very thing, the conversion of the soul, in the readiest way; not to put the power of sight into the soul’s eye, which already has it, but to insure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be.”
Regarding this spiritual rectification, Lord Sri Krsna says: “Even if you are considered to be the most sinful of all sinners, when you are situated in the boat of transcendental knowledge, you will be able to cross over the ocean of miseries. As the blazing fire turns wood to ashes, O Arjuna, so does the fire of knowledge burn to ashes all reactions to material activities.” (Bg. 4.36-37) To attain this knowledge, Krsna enjoins the conditioned soul to approach a spiritual master. “Inquire from him submissively and render service to him.” (Bg. 4.34) The spiritual master, who has descended into the cave for the purpose of liberating conditioned souls, can “impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.”
In fact, it is the duty of one who has seen the truth to impart it to others. Socrates warns that those souls who have keen visions must not remain in the cave, for if their intelligence is perverted they will be much more evil than those of dull vision. He says, “They must be made to ascend to the vision of Ultimate Goodness which we call the highest Object of Knowledge; and, when they have looked upon it long enough, they must not be allowed, as they now are, to remain on the heights refusing to come down again to the prisoners, or to take any part in their labors and rewards, however much or little these may be worth.” Similarly, Krsna sets the guideline for the man of vision: “As the ignorant perform their duties with attachment to results, similarly, the learned may also act, but without attachment, for the sake of leading people on the right path. Let not the wise disrupt the minds of the ignorant who are attached to fruitive action. They should not be encouraged to refrain from work, but to engage in work in the spirit of devotion.” (Bg. 3.25-26) So those in Krsna consciousness should not withdraw to forests to simply chant in solitude or meditate. Rather, they should engage in action and teach others the principles of Krsna consciousness. They will then indeed be the best citizens of the state, and they will be leaders, as Socrates says, like “king bees in a hive.” Once one has seen the light of reality he must descend to the cave of temporalities and work for the spiritual welfare of all conditioned souls. “Therefore without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty; for by working without attachment, one attains the Supreme.” (Bg. 3.19) Socrates further instructs those who know the truth in this way: “You must go down, then, each in his turn, to live with the rest and let your eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. You will then see a thousand times better than those who lived there always; you will recognize every image for what it is and know what it represents because you have seen justice, beauty and goodness in their reality, so to live in such a commonwealth [of Krsna conscious men] will be no mere dream, as it is in most existing states, where men live fighting one another about shadows and quarrelling for power, as if that were a great prize.”
Therefore this country, this world, this universe requires mahatmas, great souls who have left the darkness of material existence and have seen Krsna, the source of all light. Such mahatmas can lead all of the millions and millions of living entities who are wandering aimlessly in the darkness of countless species of life out the cave of their material desires and back to Godhead.