Question: In the purport to Srimad Bhagavatam 3.25.36, Srila Prabhupada states that even third-class neophyte devotees are liberated souls. How is it possible that such neophyte devotees, who don’t possess the qualities of a liberated soul, are in fact liberated?

[ For reference we provide an excerpt from Srila Prabhupada’s purport:

“There are three divisions of devotees – first-class, second-class and third-class. Even the third-class devotees are liberated souls. It is explained in this verse that although they do not have knowledge, simply by seeing the beautiful decoration of the Deity in the temple, the devotee is absorbed in thought of Him and loses all other consciousness. Simply by fixing oneself in Krishna consciousness, engaging the senses in the service of the Lord, one is imperceptibly liberated.

Even the third-class devotee – who is not advanced in knowledge of the Absolute Truth but simply offers obeisances with great devotion, thinks of the Lord, sees the Lord in the temple and brings forth flowers and fruits to offer to the Deity – becomes imperceptibly liberated.” ]

Answer: One who comes in contact with Krishna consciousness in any way is at once liberated from material existence, but his liberation in the initial stages is imperceptible. Imperceptible means that something cannot be perceived, experienced, or measured. Twice in this purport Srila Prabhupada qualifies the liberation of the neophytes with the word “imperceptibly”. Yes, they are liberated, but they are imperceptibly liberated. Just as Lord Krishna imperceptibly killed all of the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, so in the same way Lord Krishna imperceptibly liberates all those who come in contact with bhakti. To understand this better we should look to the 11th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:

kalo ‘smi loka-kshaya-krit pravriddho
lokan samahartum iha pravrittah
rite ‘pi tvam na bhavishyanti sarve
ye ‘vasthitah pratyanikeshu yodhah

“The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: Time I am, the great destroyer of the worlds, and I have come here to destroy all people. With the exception of you [the Pandavas], all the soldiers here on both sides will be slain.”

tasmat tvam uttishtha yaso labhasva
jitva satrun bhunkshva rajyam samriddham
mayaivaite nihatah purvam eva
nimitta-matram bhava savya-sacin

“Therefore get up. Prepare to fight and win glory. Conquer your enemies and enjoy a flourishing kingdom. They are already put to death by My arrangement, and you, O Savyasaci, can be but an instrument in the fight.”

dronam ca bhishmam ca jayadratham ca
karnam tathanyan api yodha-viran
maya hatams tvam jahi ma vyathishtha
yudhyasva jetasi rane sapatnan

“Drona, Bhishma, Jayadratha, Karna and the other great warriors have already been destroyed by Me. Therefore, kill them and do not be disturbed. Simply fight, and you will vanquish your enemies in battle.”

In these three verses, Lord Krishna explains how he has imperceptibly killed all of the Kauravas, even prior to the battle having commenced. He states that “they have already been destroyed by Me” and “they are already put to death by My arrangement”. Yet, factually speaking (or perceptibly speaking), they were all alive and fighting ferociously on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Bhishma was not dead; he was shooting arrows at Arjuna and inflicting physical pain on Arjuna with his attacks. How was this possible when they had already been killed by the Lord? It is because Lord Krishna imperceptibly killed them, meaning he did it in a way that could not be perceived, experienced, nor understood. Thus the time factor was required to bring the perceptible and imperceptible realities into one frame of view, but factually Lord Krishna had already killed all of the Kauravas.

Though they had already been killed by the Lord’s divine will, that fact could not be perceived nor experienced. Lord Krishna further confirmed this when He told Arjuna to become His instrument and “kill the enemies”, despite having just said that all the soldiers were already killed by Him. The divine plan or will of the Lord is the factual reality, and that path of divine fate is unswerving like the flow of a powerful river. The flow of a river will always predictably follow the path of the riverbed. Once the Lord has made a determination or has decided on an outcome, that very decision is reality and truth, with only the time factor seperating the perceptible and imperceptible realities.

In the same way, factually krishna has liberated all devotees (including neophytes) who have come in contact with bhakti, but He has chosen to do it imperceptibly, and thus we have no practical experience of it. The time factor is required to bring the perceptible (currently our conditioned state) in line with the imperceptible (our liberated state). As neophytes we do not experience that we are liberated (i.e. liberation has spiritual perceptions of bliss, etc.). Since Lord Krishna has “imperceptibly” liberated all of us, we have no experience of this. Just as Lord Krishna imperceptibly killed all of the Kauravas on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, so in the same way, Lord Krishna imperceptibly liberates all those who come in contact with bhakti. This is his causelss mercy, awarding liberation to anyone regardless of their spiritual qualification. If you simply come in contact with the Lord’s bhakti, you are already liberated from material existence – only the time factor is required to bring the perceptible and imperceptible into one frame.

How is it that contact with bhakti causes imperceptible liberation? Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita:

nehabhikrama-naso ‘sti
pratyavayo na vidyate
sv-alpam apy asya dharmasya
trayate mahato bhayat

“In this endeavor there is no loss or diminution, and a little advancement on this path can protect one from the most dangerous type of fear.”

The practice of bhakti results in eternal benefit for the conditioned soul, and there is never any loss or diminution to this eternal spiritual credit. Once one has even come in indirect contact with bhakti, he has opened his spiritual bank account and has begun accumulating this devotional credit which is eternal. As Srila Prabhupada states in his purport to this verse, “Even a small beginning of such activity finds no impediment, nor can that small beginning be lost at any stage.” Even the tiniest (su-alpam) endeavor in devotional service brings eternal spiritual results, which can never be lost at any time. Perceptible liberation occurs when we have become 100% Krishna conscious, always absorbed in the Lord. But even for those of us who are conditioned souls, to what ever degree we advance in bhakti, we will always continue from that point and move higher and higher towards liberation. If in this life we have perfected our spiritual life 10%, then from next life we will continue from 11%; we will never lose that spiritual advancement that has been accumulated. Thus it can be visualized as a devotional bank account where one can only make deposits, but never has any of the balance debited. It will continue to increase and increase until we have reached the level of 100% pure devotion to the Lord. At that stage imperceptible liberation transforms to perceptible liberation.

Thus for anyone who takes to bhakti, even in the smallest way, liberation is guaranteed, and only the time factor acts as the seperator between perceptible and imperceptible realities. In this way, even the most neophyte devotee is factually liberated by the divine will of the Lord, but in the initial stages it will be imperceptible untill the passage of time (and accumulation of devotional credit) raises him to the level of 100% pure devotional attachment to the Lord.

It is like the filling of a vessel with water. Even if only a drip of water is droping continuously into this vessel, it is slowly filling more and more, and at some point it will become full. The path of bhakti involves filling our heart with love for Lord Krishna. Even if only one or two drops of love have entered our hearts, the flow has begun and it is only a matter of time before we are filled with unalloyed devotion to the Lord. Thus from the very beginning liberation is guaranteed, as it is the Lord’s divine will to liberate anyone who comes in contact with his devotion.

Because there is never any loss or diminution to our accumulated love for the Lord, it is certain that it will continue to increase and increase until we attain perfection, at which time liberation becomes perceptible. In this way we are on a one way path to liberation, with no chance of turning around towards material bondage. Since it is a one way path, and since there is never possibility of diminution on this path, therefore we are all liberated, but imperceptibly. We will only perceive it once the time factor (Sudarshana) has acted and assisted us in performing 100% pure devotional service to Lord Krishna.

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