Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 185?-254?) was one of the most influential founders of the Christian Church and ranks among the most prolific writers and teachers in the history of the Church. Known as the father of Christian mysticism, he taught reincarnation, a doctrine that later Church authorities rejected. Though many of Origen’s teachings seem to derive from the Vedic literatures, Śrīla Prabhupāda notes here that he was mistaken to think that the soul was created at some point.
Disciple: Origen is generally considered the founder of formal Christian philosophy because he was the first to attempt to establish Christianity on the basis of philosophy as well as faith. He believed that the ultimate spiritual reality consists of the supreme, infinite person, God, as well as individual personalities. Ultimate reality may be defined as the relationships of persons with one another and with the infinite person Himself. In this view, Origen differs from the Greeks, who were basically impersonalists.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Our Vedic conception is almost the same. Individual souls, which we call living entities, are always present, and each one of them has an intimate relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In material, conditioned life, the living entity has forgotten this relationship. By rendering devotional service, he attains the liberated position and at that time revives his relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Disciple: Origen ascribed to a doctrine of the Trinity, in which God the Father is supreme. God the Son, called the Logos, is subordinate to the Father. It is the Son who brings the material world into existence. That is, God the Father is not the direct creator; rather, it is the Son who creates directly, like Lord Brahmā. The third aspect of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit, who is subordinate to the Son. According to Origen, all three of these aspects are divine and co-eternal. They have always existed simultaneously as the Trinity of God.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: According to the Vedas, Kṛṣṇa is the original Personality of Godhead. As He confirms in the Bhagavad-gītā: ahaṁ sarvasya prabhavaḥ. “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds.” [Bhagavad-gītā 10.8] Whether you call this origin the Father or the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t matter. The Supreme Personality of Godhead is the origin. According to the Vedic conception, there are two types of expansions: God’s personal expansions, called viṣṇu-tattva, and His partial part-and-parcel expansions, called jīva-tattva. There are many varieties of personal expansions: puruṣa-avatāras, śaktyāveśa-avatāras, manvantara-avatāras, and so on. For the creation of this material world, the Lord expands as Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Maheśvara (Śiva). Viṣṇu is a personal expansion, and Brahmā is a jīva-tattva expansion. Between the personal viṣṇu-tattva expansions and the jīva-tattva expansions is a kind of intermediate expansion called Śiva, or Maheśvara. The material ingredients are given, and Brahmā creates each universe. Viṣṇu maintains the creation, and Lord Śiva annihilates it. It is the nature of the external potency to be created, maintained, and dissolved. More detailed information is given in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam and Caitanya-caritāmṛta.
In any case, the jīvas, or living entities, are all considered sons of God. They are situated in one of two positions: liberated or conditioned. Those who are liberated can personally associate with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and those who are conditioned within this material world have forgotten the Supreme Lord. Therefore they suffer here in different bodily forms. They can be elevated, however, through the practice of Kṛṣṇa consciousness under the guidance of the śāstras and the bona fide guru.
Disciple: Origen believed that it is through the combined working of divine grace and man’s free will that the individual soul attains perfection, which consists of attaining a personal relationship with the infinite person.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, and that is called bhakti-mārga, the path of devotional service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavān. The Absolute Truth is manifested in three features: Brahman, Paramātmā, and Bhagavān. Bhagavān is the personal feature, and the Paramātmā, situated in everyone’s heart, may be compared to the Holy Spirit. The Brahman feature is present everywhere. The highest perfection of spiritual life includes the understanding of the personal feature of the Lord. When one understands Bhagavān, one engages in His service. In this way, the living entity is situated in his original constitutional position and is eternally blissful.
Disciple: Origen considered that just as man’s free will precipitated his fall, man’s free will can also bring about his salvation. Man can return to God by practicing material detachment. Such detachment can be made possible by help from the Logos, the Christ.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, that is also our conception. The fallen soul is transmigrating within this material world, up and down in different forms of life. When his consciousness is sufficiently developed, he can be enlightened by God, who gives him instructions in the Bhagavad-gītā. Through the spiritual master’s help, he can attain full enlightenment. When he understands his transcendental position of bliss, he automatically gives up material bodily attachments. Then he attains freedom. The living entity attains his normal, constitutional position when he is properly situated in his spiritual identity and engaged in the service of the Lord.
Disciple: Origen believed that all the elements found in the material body are also found in the spiritual body, which he called the “interior man.” Origen writes: “There are two men in each of us....As every exterior man has for homonym the interior man, so it is for all his members, and one can say that every member of the exterior man can be found under this name in the interior man.” Thus for every sense that we possess in the exterior body, there is a corresponding sense in the interior body, or spiritual body.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: The spirit soul is now within this material body, but originally the spirit soul had no material body. The spiritual body of the spirit soul is eternally existing. The material body is simply a coating of the spiritual body. The material body is cut, like a suit, according to the spiritual body. The material elements—earth, water, air, fire, etc.—become like a clay when mixed together, and they coat the spiritual body. It is because the spiritual body has a shape that the material body also takes a shape. In actuality, the material body has nothing to do with the spiritual body; it is but a kind of contamination causing the suffering of the spirit soul. As soon as the spirit soul is coated with this material contamination, he identifies himself with the coating and forgets his real spiritual body. That is called māyā, ignorance or illusion. This ignorance continues as long as we are not fully Kṛṣṇa conscious. When we become fully Kṛṣṇa conscious, we understand that the material body is but the external coating and that we are different. When we attain this uncontaminated understanding, we arrive at what is called the brahma-bhūta platform. When the spirit soul, which is Brahman, is under the illusion of the material bodily conditioning, we are on the jīva-bhūta platform. Brahma-bhūta is attained when we no longer identify with the material body but with the spirit soul within. When we come to this platform, we become joyful.
brahma-bhūtaḥ prasannātmā na śocati na kāṅkṣati
samaḥ sarveṣu bhūteṣu mad-bhaktiṁ labhate parām
“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.” [Bhagavad-gītā 18.54] In this position one sees all living entities as spirit souls; he does not see the outward covering. When he sees a dog, he sees a spirit soul covered by the body of a dog. This state is also described in Bhagavad-gītā.
vidyā-vinaya-sampanne brāhmaṇe gavi hastini
śuni caiva śva-pāke ca paṇḍitāḥ sama-darśinaḥ
“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater [outcaste].” [Bhagavad-gītā 5.18] When one is in the body of an animal, he cannot understand his spiritual identity. This identity can best be realized in a human civilization in which the varṇāśrama system is practiced. This system divides life into four āśramas (brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya, and śūdra) and four varṇas (brahmacārī, gṛhastha, vānaprastha, and sannyāsa). The highest position is that of a brāhmaṇa-sannyāsī, a platform from which one may best realize his original constitutional position, act accordingly, and thus attain deliverance, or mukti. Mukti means understanding our constitutional position and acting accordingly. Conditional life, a life of bondage, means identifying with the body and acting on the bodily platform. On the mukti platform, our activities differ from those enacted on the conditioned platform. Devotional service is rendered from the mukti platform. If we engage in devotional service, we maintain our spiritual identity and are therefore liberated, even though inhabiting the conditioned, material body.
Disciple: Origen also believed that the interior man, or the spiritual body, has spiritual senses that enable the soul to taste, see, touch, and contemplate the things of God.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes. That is devotional life.
Disciple: During his lifetime, Origen was a famous teacher and was very much in demand. For him, preaching meant explaining the words of God and no more. He believed that a preacher must first be a man of prayer and must be in contact with God. He should not pray for material goods but for a better understanding of the scriptures.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, that is a real preacher. As explained in Vedic literatures: śravaṇaṁ kīrtanam. First of all, we become perfect by hearing. This is called śravaṇam. When we are thus situated by hearing perfectly from an authorized person, our next stage begins: kīrtanam, preaching. In this material world, everyone is hearing something from someone else. In order to pass examinations, a student must hear his professor. Then, in his own right, he can become a professor himself. If we hear from a bona fide spiritual master, we become perfect and can become real preachers. We should preach about Kṛṣṇa for Kṛṣṇa, not for any person within this material world. We should hear and preach about the Supreme Person, the transcendental Personality of Godhead. That is the duty of a liberated soul.
Disciple: As far as contradictions and seeming absurdities in scripture are concerned, Origen considered them to be stumbling blocks permitted to exist by God in order for man to pass beyond the literal meaning. He writes that “everything in scripture has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a literal meaning.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Generally speaking, every word in scripture has a literal meaning, but people cannot understand it properly because they do not hear from the proper person. They interpret instead. There is no need to interpret the words of God. Sometimes the words of God cannot be understood by an ordinary person; therefore we may require the transparent medium of the guru. Since the guru is fully cognizant of the words spoken by God, we are advised to receive the words of the scriptures through the guru. There is no ambiguity in the words of God, but due to our imperfect knowledge, we sometimes cannot understand. Not understanding, we try to interpret, but because we are imperfect, our interpretations are also imperfect. The purport is that the words of God, the scriptures, should be understood from a person who has realized God.
Disciple: Origen did not believe that the individual soul has been existing from all eternity. It was created. He writes: “The rational natures that were made in the beginning did not always exist; they came into being when they were created.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is not correct. Both the living entity and God are simultaneously eternally existing, and the living entity is part and parcel of God. Although eternally existing, the living entity is changing his body. Na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre. [Bhagavad-gītā 2.20] One body after another is being created and destroyed, but the living being himself exists eternally. So we disagree when Origen says that the soul is created. Our spiritual identity is never created. That is the difference between spirit and matter. Material things are created, but spirit is without beginning.
na tv evāhaṁ jātu nāsaṁ na tvaṁ neme janādhipāḥ
na caiva na bhaviṣyāmaḥ sarve vayam ataḥ param
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” [Bhagavad-gītā 2.12]
Disciple: Origen differed from later Church doctrine in his belief in transmigration. Although he believed that the soul was originally created, he also believed that it transmigrated because it could always refuse to give itself to God. So he saw the individual soul as possibly rising and falling perpetually on the evolutionary scale. Later Church doctrine held that one’s choice for eternity is made in this one lifetime. As Origen saw it, the individual soul, falling short of the ultimate goal, is reincarnated again and again.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, that is the Vedic version. Unless one is liberated and goes to the kingdom of God, he must transmigrate from one material body to another. The material body grows, remains for some time, reproduces, grows old, and becomes useless. Then the living entity has to leave one body for another. Once in a new body, he again attempts to fulfill his desires, and again he goes through the process of dying and accepting another material body. This is the process of transmigration.
Disciple: It is interesting that neither Origen nor Christ rejected transmigration. It wasn’t until Augustine that it was denied.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Transmigration is a fact. A person cannot wear the same clothes all of his life. Our clothes become old and useless, and we have to change them. The living being is certainly eternal, but he has to accept a material body for material sense gratification, and such a body cannot endure perpetually. All of this is thoroughly explained in the Bhagavad-gītā:
dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā
tathā dehāntara-prāptir dhīras tatra na muhyati
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” [Bhagavad-gītā 2.13]
śarīraṁ yad avāpnoti yac cāpy utkrāmatīśvaraḥ
gṛhītvaitāni saṁyāti vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt
“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another, as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another.” [Bhagavad-gītā 15.8]
So, this process of transmigration will continue until one attains liberation and goes back home, back to Godhead.