The Frenchman John-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was the most prominent exponent of existentialism. His philosophy is explicitly atheistic and pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one and thus human life is a “futile passion.” Here Śrīla Prabhupāda challenges his claim that God does not exist and that the question of His existence is not important to man.
Disciple: Descartes and Leibnitz believed that before the creation the concept of man existed in essence in the mind of God, just as a machine exists in the mind of its manufacturer before it is constructed. Sartre takes exception to this. In The Humanism of Existentialism, he writes: “Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or, as Heidegger says, human reality.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But where does human reality come from? There are also other realities. Why is he stressing human reality?
Disciple: As for man’s origin, Sartre would say that man is “thrown into the world.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Thrown by whom? The word “throw” implies a thrower.
Disciple: Sartre isn’t really interested in a thrower. “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing God doesn’t exist,” he writes. “Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing. There you’ve got our point of view. Not that we believe that God exists, but that we think that the problem of His existence is not the issue.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But if you and others exist, why doesn’t God exist? Why deny God and His existence? Let them all exist.
Disciple: Since Sartre sees man as having been thrown into the world and abandoned, for him, God is dead.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Abandoned by God does not mean that God is dead. You have to admit that you are condemned to the material world, but just because you are condemned, you should not think that God is also condemned. God is always in Vaikuṇṭha. He is not dead.
Disciple: Sartre believes that because we have been abandoned, we must rely on ourselves alone.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But God has not abandoned us. God is not partial. He does not accept one person and abandon another. If you feel abandoned, it is because you have done something that has brought this condition about. If you rectify your position, you will be accepted again.
Disciple: But Sartre would deny God’s existence, particularly that of a personal God.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But his denial should be based on some logic or reason. Why mention the word “God” if God does not exist? God is there, but Sartre denies God’s existence. This is inconsistent. If God does not exist, why even mention the word? His proposal is that he does not want God to exist.
Disciple: He wants to set the whole question aside in order to place emphasis on man, on human reality.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If you believe in your existence, why not believe in the existence of another? There are 8,400,000 different species existing in multifarious forms. Why shouldn’t God exist? According to the Vedic understanding, God is also a living being, but He is different in that He is the chief, supreme living being. According to the Bhagavad-gītā, mattaḥ parataraṁ nānyat. [Bhagavad-gītā 7.7] There is no living being superior to God. We all experience the fact that there are beings more intelligent than we. God is the ultimate intelligence. Why can’t a person who exceeds all others in intelligence exist? There is no question of “if God exists.” God must exist. In the śāstras He is described as the superlative personality, as the superpowerful, superintelligent being. We can see in this world that everyone is not on an equal level, that there are varying degrees of perfection. This indicates that there is a superlative, and if we go on searching—either for wealth, intelligence, power, beauty, or whatever—we will find that God possesses all qualities to the superlative degree, and that every other living entity possesses His qualities partially. How, then, can we rationally deny His existence?
Disciple: According to Sartre, the first principle of existentialism is that “man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.” This can be true only if there is no God to conceive of human nature.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If man is what he makes of himself, why doesn’t man exist as a superman? If his capacities are completely independent of anyone else, why is he in his present situation?
Disciple: That is also Sartre’s question. He therefore emphasizes man’s responsibility. “But if existence really does precede essence,” he writes, “man is responsible for what he is. Thus existentialism’s first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If man is responsible, who gave him this responsibility? What does he mean by responsibility? You feel responsible to someone when someone gives you duties to discharge. If there is no duty, or overseer, where is your responsibility?
Disciple: Sartre sees man as being overwhelmed by his very responsibility. He is in anguish and anxiety because he has the freedom to change himself and the world.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that man is in an awkward position. He wants peace, but he does not know how to attain it. But this does not mean that peace is not possible. Peace is not possible for a man in ignorance.
Disciple: Anxiety arises from responsibility. Man thinks that he has to choose properly in order to enjoy something. If he chooses wrongly, he must suffer.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Yes, responsibility is there, but why not take it to transfer yourself to a safe place where there is no anxiety? It may be that you do not know of a safe place, but if there is such a place, why not ask someone who knows? Why constantly remain disappointed and anxious? The safe place where there is no anxiety is called Vaikuṇṭha. The word Vaikuṇṭha means “no anxiety.”
Disciple: Sartre believes that the task of existentialism is “to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him....And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Suppose I want to benefit you, and you are free. Your freedom means that you can accept or reject my good intentions. How can I be responsible for you if you don’t obey? How can you be responsible for me? Sartre claims that you are responsible for others, but if others do not follow your instructions, how can you be considered responsible? This is all contradictory. Unless there is some standard, there must be contradiction. According to the Vedic version, God is the Supreme Person, and we should all be His obedient servants. God gives us some duty, and we are responsible to carry that duty out. Our real responsibility is to God. If we reject God, society becomes chaotic. Religion means avoiding chaos and meeting our responsibility to God by fulfilling our duty. Responsibility rests on us, and it is given by God. If we make spiritual progress by fulfilling our duty, we can finally live with God personally.
Disciple: Sartre claims that the existentialist does not actually want to deny God’s existence. Rather, “the existentialist thinks it very distressing that God does not exist because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him....If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible. That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist....”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that he does not know the meaning of God. As we have many times said, God is the Supreme Being, the Supreme Father who impregnates material nature with countless living entities. As soon as we accept material nature as the mother, we must accept some father. Therefore there is a conception of God the Father in all human societies. It is the father’s duty to maintain his children, and therefore God is maintaining all the living entities within the universe. There is no question of rationally denying this.
Disciple: Well, Sartre at least makes the attempt. He writes: “Since we have discarded God the Father, there has to be someone to invent values. You’ve got to take things as they are. Moreover, to say that we invent values means nothing else but this: Life has no meaning a priori. Before you become alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing else but the meaning that you choose.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Therefore everyone invents his own meaning? If this is the case, how will people ever live peacefully in society? Since everyone has his own idea of life, there can be no harmony. What kind of government would exist?
Disciple: Recently, Sartre has turned to Marxism.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But in Communist countries, there are very strong governments. It is not possible for a people to avoid government or leadership.
Disciple: Regardless of the form of government, Sartre believes that man is basically free. In fact, Sartre maintains that man is condemned to be free, that this is a fate from which man cannot escape.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If man is condemned, who has condemned him?
Disciple: Man is condemned by accident, thrown into the world.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Is it simply by accident that one person is condemned and another blessed? Is it an accident that one man is in jail and another is not? What kind of philosophy is this? Such so-called philosophy simply misleads people. Nothing is accidental. We agree that the living entity is condemned to this material world, but when we speak of condemnation, we also speak of blessedness. So what is that blessedness?
Disciple: Sartre argues that man is condemned in the sense that he cannot escape this freedom. Since man is free, he is responsible for is activities.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If you are responsible, then your freedom is not accidental. How is it you are accidentally responsible? If there is responsibility, there must be someone you are responsible to. There must be someone who is condemning you or blessing you. These things cannot happen accidentally. His philosophy is contradictory.
Disciple: Man’s nature is an indefinite state of freedom. Man has no definite nature. He is continually creating it.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that he is eternal. But the living entity does not change accidentally. His changes take place under certain regulations, and he attains specific bodies according to his karma, not by accident.
Disciple: But we have no fixed nature in the sense that today I may be happy and tomorrow unhappy.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is true to some extent. When you are placed into the sea, you have no control. You move according to the waves. This means that there is a power that is controlling you. However, if you put yourself into better circumstances, you will be able to control. Because you have placed yourself under the control of material nature, you act according to the modes of material nature.
prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ
ahaṅkāra-vimūḍhātmā kartāham iti manyate
“The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” [Bhagavad-gītā 3.27] Because you are conditioned, your freedom is checked. When you are thrown into the ocean of material existence, you essentially lose your freedom. Therefore it is your duty to get yourself liberated.
Disciple: Because we are one thing today and something else tomorrow, Sartre says that our essential nature is “nothingness.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: You are nothing in the sense that you are under the full control of a superior power, being carried away by the waves of māyā. In the ocean of māyā, you may say, “I am nothing,” but actually you are something. Your somethingness will be very much exhibited to you when you are put on land. Out of despair, you conclude that your nature is that of nothingness. Sartre’s philosophy is a philosophy of despair, and we say that it is unintelligent because despair is not the result of intelligence.
Disciple: Although the basis of our nature is nothingness, Sartre maintains that man chooses or creates his own nature.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is a fact. Therefore you should create your nature as something, not nothing. In order to do that, however, you have to take lessons from a higher personality. Before philosophizing, Sartre should have taken lessons form a knowledgeable person. That is the Vedic injunction:
tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet
samit-pāṇiḥ śrotriyaṁ brahma-niṣṭham
“In order to learn the transcendental science, one must humbly approach a spiritual master who is learned in the Vedas and firmly devoted to the Absolute Truth.” [Muṇḍaka-upaniṣad 1.2.12]
Disciple: Sartre sees our nature as always in the making, as continually becoming.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: It is not in the making. It is changing, but man can make his nature in the sense that he can decide not to change. He can understand that changes are taking place despite the fact that he does not want them. Man can mold his nature by deciding to serve Kṛṣṇa, not by dismissing the whole matter and, out of confusion and disappointment, claiming to be nothing. The attempt to make life zero is due to a poor fund of knowledge.
Disciple: Sartre sees that we are constantly choosing or making our life, but that everything ends at death. That is, man is always in the process of becoming until death. At death, everything is finished.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Death means changing bodies. The active principle on which the body stands does not die. Death is like changing apartments. A sane man can understand this.
Disciple: Although man has no determined nature other than nothingness, Sartre sees man as a being striving to be God. He writes: “To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: On the one hand, he denies the existence of God, and on the other, he tries to be God. If there is no God, there is no question of desiring to be God. How can one desire to be something that does not exist?
Disciple: He is simply stating that man wants to be God. As far as God’s existence is concerned, he prefers to set this question aside.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But that is the main question of philosophy! God has created everything: your mind, intelligence, body, existence, and the circumstances surrounding you. How can you deny His existence? Or set it aside as not relevant? In the Vedas, it is stated that in the beginning God existed, and the Bible also states that in the beginning there was God. In this material universe, existence and annihilation are both temporary. According to the laws of material nature, the body is created on a certain day, it exists for some time, and then is eventually finished. The entire cosmic manifestation has a beginning, middle, and end, But before this creation, who was there? If God were not there, how could the creation logically be possible?
Disciple: As far as we’ve seen, most philosophers are concerned with resolving this question.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Not all philosophers are denying God’s existence, but most are denying His personal existence. We can understand, however, that God is the origin of everything, and that this cosmic manifestation emanates from Him. God is there, nature is there, and we are also there, like one big family.
Disciple: Sartre would not admit the existence of an originator, in whom things exist in their essence prior to creation. He would say that man simply exists, that he just appears.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: A person appears due to his father and mother. How can this be denied? Does he mean to say, “I suddenly just dropped from the sky”? Only a fool would say that he appeared without parents. From our experience we can understand that all species of life are manifest from some mother. Taken as a whole, we say that the mother is material nature. As soon as a mother is accepted, the father must also be accepted. It is most important to know where you came from. How can you put this question aside?
Disciple: Sartre believes that man’s fundamental desire is the “desire to be.” That is, man seeks existence rather than mere nothingness.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is so. Because man is eternal, he has the desire to exist eternally. Unfortunately, he puts himself under certain conditions that are not eternal. That is, he tries to maintain a position that will not endure eternally. Through Kṛṣṇa consciousness, we attain and retain our eternal position.
Disciple: Sartre feels that man wants solidity. He is not satisfied with being a mere being-for-itself. He also desires to be being-in-itself.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Nothing in the material world exists eternally. A tree may exist for ten thousand years, but eventually it will perish. What Sartre is seeking is actual spiritual life. In the Bhagavad-gītā, Kṛṣṇa speaks of another nature, a nature that is permanent, sanātana.
paras tasmāt tu bhāvo nyo ’yakto ’vyaktāt sanātanaḥ
yaḥ sa sarveṣu bhūteṣu naśyatsu na vinaśyati
“Yet there is another unmanifest nature, which is eternal and is transcendental to this manifested and unmanifested matter. It is supreme and is never annihilated. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is.” [Bhagavad-gītā 8.20] After the annihilation of this material universe, that eternal nature will abide.
Disciple: This desire to be being-in-itself is the desire to be God, which Sartre maintains is man’s fundamental desire.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This is more or less Māyāvādī philosophy. The Māyāvādīs believe that when they attain complete knowledge, they become God. Because man is part and parcel of God, he wants to be united with God. The conditioned soul is like a man who has been away from home for a long time. Naturally he wants to go home again.
Disciple: Sartre believes that this desire to be God is bound to fail.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Certainly, it must fail. If man is God, how has he become something else? His very desire to be God means that he is not God at the present moment. A man cannot become God, but he can become godly. Existing in darkness, we desire light. We may come into the sunshine, but this does not mean that we become the sun. When we come to the platform of perfect knowledge, we become godly, but we do not become God. If we were God, there would be no question of our becoming something other than God. There would be no question of being ignorant. Another name for Kṛṣṇa is Acyuta, which means, “He who never falls down.” This means that He never becomes not-God. He is God always. You cannot become God through some mystic practice. This desire to become God is useless because it is doomed to frustration.
Disciple: Therefore Sartre calls man a “useless passion.”
Śrīla Prabhupāda: A man is not useless if he attempts to be Kṛṣṇa conscious. The attempt to be Kṛṣṇa conscious and the attempt to be Kṛṣṇa are totally different. One is godly, the other demoniac.
Disciple: Sartre then reasons that because it is impossible to become God, everything else is useless.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: That is foolishness. You are not God, but God’s servant. You have chosen to attempt to become God, but you have found this to be impossible. Therefore you should give up this notion and decide to become a good servant of God, instead of a servant of māyā, illusion. That is the proper decision.
Disciple: Sartre concludes that since things have no reason to exist, life has no essential purpose.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Nothing can exist without a purpose, which is given by the supreme being, the cause of all causes. The defect in such philosophers is that they do not have sufficient brain substance to go further than what they superficially see. They are not capable of understanding the cause of causes. Many modern scientists also maintain that nature, prakṛti, is the sole cause of existence, but we do not ascribe to such a theory. We understand that God is behind nature and that nature is not acting independently. Nature is phenomena, but behind nature is the numen, God, Kṛṣṇa.
In the Bhagavad-gītā, philosophy like Sartre’s is called demoniac. Demons do not believe in a superior cause. They consider that everything is accidental. They say that a man and a woman unite accidentally, and that their child is the result of sex and nothing more. Therefore they claim that there is no purpose to existence.
asatyam apratiṣṭhaṁ te jagad āhur anīśvaram
aparaspara-sambhūtaṁ kim anyat kāma-haitukam
“The demons say that this world is unreal, with no foundation, no God in control. They say it is produced of sex desire and has no cause other than lust.” [Bhagavad-gītā 16.8] This type of philosophy is called demoniac because it is of the nature of darkness, ignorance.
Disciple: For Sartre, being-for-itself refers to human consciousness, which is subjective, individual, incomplete, and indeterminate. It is nothingness in the sense that it has no density or mass.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Because he is so materialistic, his senses cannot perceive anything that is not concrete. According to Vedic philosophy, the senses and their objects are created simultaneously. Unless there is an aroma, the sense of smell has no value. Unless there is beauty, the eyes have no value. Unless there is music, the ears have no value. Unless there is something soft, the sense of touch has no value. There is no question of nothingness. There must be interaction.
Disciple: Since man’s essential nature is an undetermined nothingness, Sartre believes that man is free to choose to be either a coward or a hero. Our situation is in our own hands.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If you are tossed into the world by some superior power, what can you do? How can you become a hero? If you try to become a hero, you will be kicked all the more because you are placed here by a superior power. If a culprit under police custody attempts to become a hero, he will be beaten and punished. Actually, you are neither a coward nor a hero. You are an instrument. You are completely under the control of a superior power.
Disciple: Well, if someone is attacking you, you have the power to choose to be a hero and defend yourself, or to run.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: It is not heroic to defend oneself. That is natural. If that is the case, even a dog can be a hero when he is attacked. Even an ant can be a hero. Heroism and cowardice are simply mental concoctions. After all, you are under the control of a power that can do what He likes with you. Therefore there is no question of your becoming a hero or a coward.
Disciple: Suppose someone is in danger, and you rescue him. Isn’t that being heroic?
Śrīla Prabhupāda: All you rescue is the exterior dress. Saving that dress is not heroism. It is not even protection. One can be a real hero only when he is fully empowered or fully protected. Such a person can only be a devotee, because only Kṛṣṇa can fully protect or empower.
Disciple: Being free, man is subject to what Sartre calls “bad faith,” a kind of self-deception. Through bad faith, man loses his freedom and responsibility.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: You certainly have limited freedom to choose, but if you choose improperly, you have to suffer. Responsibility and freedom go hand in hand. At the same time, there must be discrimination. Without it, our freedom is blind. We cannot understand right from wrong.
Disciple: A man in bad faith drifts along from day to day without being involved, avoiding responsible decisions.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that he has decided to drift. His drifting is a decision.
Disciple: Sartre believes that bad faith must be replaced by a solid choosing, and by faith in that choice.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But if he makes the wrong decision, what is the value of his action? Moths fly very valiantly and courageously into the fire. Is that a very good decision?
Disciple: Due to bad faith, people treat others as objects instead of persons. Sartre advocates rectifying this situation.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: He speaks of bad faith, but what about good faith?
Disciple: If bad faith is the avoidance of decisions, good faith would mean making decisions courageously and following them out, regardless of what these decisions are.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: But what if your decision is wrong?
Disciple: For Sartre, it is not a question of right or wrong.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Then whatever decision I make is final and absolute? This means that the moth’s decision to enter the fire is a proper decision. This is the philosophy of insects. If man can do as he pleases, where is his responsibility?
Disciple: Sartre believes that the fate of the world depends on man’s decisions. Obviously, if man decides properly, the world would be a better place.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Therefore we are trying to introduce this Kṛṣṇa consciousness in order to make the world into Vaikuṇṭha, into a place where there is no anxiety. But this is not a blind decision. It is the decision of a higher authority; therefore it is perfect.
Disciple: Many people call Sartre’s philosophy pessimistic because he maintains that man is a “useless passion” vainly striving in a universe without a purpose.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Sartre may be a useless passion, but we are not. No sane man is useless. A sane man will follow a superior authority. That is Vedic civilization. If one approaches a bona fide spiritual master, he will not be bewildered. Sartre believes that the universe is without a purpose because he is blind. He has no power to see that there is a plan. Therefore, as I have already mentioned, the Bhagavad-gītā calls his philosophy demoniac. Everything in the universe functions according to some plan. The sun and moon rise, and the seasons change according to plan.
Disciple: For Sartre, man stands alone in the world, yet he is not alone if he is a being-for-others. Man needs others for his own self-realization.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: This means that man requires a guru.
Disciple: Sartre does not speak of a guru but of interaction with others for self-understanding.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: If this is required, why not interact with the best man? If we require others to understand ourselves, why should we not seek the best man for our own understanding? We should receive help from the man who knows. If you take the advice of one who can give you the right direction, your end will be glorious. That is the Vedic injunction. Tad-vijñānārthaṁ sa gurum evābhigacchet. [Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1.2.12]
Disciple: Sartre feels that in the presence of others, man is ashamed.
Śrīla Prabhupāda: Man is ashamed if he is not guided by a superior. If you are guided by a superior, you will be glorious, not ashamed. Your superior is that person who can lead you to the glory of Kṛṣṇa consciousness.