(Interactive session on 12.09.2014)
Keynote address by Mr. R. K. Gupta
(Other participant speakers: Ms. Anuradha Banerjee Sarkar, Mr. A. K. Sengupta, Dr. Suhas Majumdar, Dr. Santosh Ganguly, Mr. Asim Banerjee, Mr. Sarada Ranjan Das, Mr. Amitava Tripathi, Mr. Sumit Dutt Majumdar, Ms. Sharmila Bhawal, Mr.Somnath Sarkar & Mr. Sujit Chatterjee)
[Opening song – Ms. Jayanti Dasgupta]
Anchor, Introduction & Conclusive Remarks: Asish K.Raha
Soul, from the very inception of our civilization, has invoked our curiosity with the most fundamental question – who am I. Am I the body, or something that survives the body? Am I consciousness? Do I die when the body dies? Am I matter or non-matter?
In the beginning of our civilization when science was nascent, all those posers essentially belonged to the domain of philosophy, and were addressed only by philosophers and spiritual masters for resolution. With exponential advancement of science, the postulates of age-old wisdom have obviously come under our scrutiny for validation. While some of those postulates have been demolished and some others have passed the scrutiny of science, the most contentious and yet unresolved issue relates to the mystery of soul, given the possibility of existence of a phenomenon called soul to make a body living.
The unresolved questions are varied and manifold. Some of those questions that we propose to dwell upon today are as follows:
A) Does soul exist or it is co-terminus with life? If soul exists following questions are relevant.
B) Whether soul is a matter or non-matter?
C) Whether it is single, manifested as many, or multifarious, as many as living beings?
D) Whether same soul is re-incarnated in different bodies, or it dies with the body?
E) Whether it is dynamic or inert?
F) Whether Shradh ceremony for Hindus or memorial services in other religions really matter to departed souls?
G) Whether soul is eternal or it ceases to exist at some point of time?
Before we take up all those contentious and thought provoking issues, let us examine in depth the concept of soul as has been enunciated and delineated by sages and spiritual masters who are believed to have unravelled the mystery of soul in the course of experiencing the Truth.
SOUL IN PHILOSOPHICAL PARLANCE
Philosophers irrespective of their religious orientation or spiritual upbringing have uniformly held soul as something that is Indescribable and Unexplainable; it is subtler than the subtlest and grosser than the grossest. Not only beyond words, it is also beyond the mind and the intellect. All faculties work on the strength of the soul and, therefore, it is impossible for the senses, mind and intellect to comprehend the soul; it can only be realized through the grace of the Master or the God. Yet, we are making an attempt to talk about the soul, for which we would like to take help of some of the stories in order to make our task a bit easy.
The story of Nachiketa & Yama (Katha Upanishad)
The story of Nachiketa and Yama, the Lord of Death is relevant. This story, narrated in Katha Upanishad in the form of a dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama, also finds mention in many scriptures. The Rigveda (10.135) talks of Yama and a child, which may be a reference to Nachiketa. He is also mentioned in the Taittiriya Brahmana, (3.1.8) and later, in the Mahabharata, the name appears as one of the sages present in the Sabha (royal assembly) of Yudhisthira (Sabha Parva, Section IV, and also in the Anusasana Parva).
Vājashrava was the father of Nachiketa, who while performing a Yajna (offering in sacred fire) desired to donate all his possessions, expecting a gift in return from the gods. Vājashrava, however, offered blind, lame or infertile cows to the Brahmans. Nachiketa, who was then only 12, was not satisfied with the offerings of his father. He wanted the best for his father and, therefore, asked him why he was not offering the best and in the process asked his father: “I too am yours, to which god will you offer me?”
Being pestered, in a fit of anger Vājashrava shouted, “Go to hell; I give you to death (Yama)”. Nachiketa, who was a true seeker, reached the ‘Yamaloka’ (abode of death) and was told that Yama was away. The young boy waited outside at the door of Yama for three days without sleep or food and when Yama returned, he was amazed to see this determined, fearless boy in contemplation. The pleased and somewhat embarrassed Yama offered Nachiketa three boons in lieu of the three days that he spent waiting for him. Knowing that his father would be upset and anxious about him, Nachiketa asked for the peace of his father, as the first boon. Then for the sake of the community, Nachiketa asked Yama the secret of fire sacrifice by which he could bring progress and prosperity to the community.
For his third boon, Nachiketa desired to learn the mystery of what comes after death. He asked ‘What is beyond death? Is there any soul, if so does it survive the disintegration of the body? Nachiketa pleaded that this question has been plaguing humanity for long. Nachiketa further clarified his query: Is there anything that is beyond good and bad, beyond past and present, beyond doing and non doing? He sought to know the ground that supported all these flow and flux – a changeless support for the changing world.
Yama was startled at this question coming from a young person. He didn’t want to reveal the secret of death that easily. Yama tried to dissuade Nachiketa from asking such difficult questions whose answer the young boy may not grasp. He said that this had been a mystery even to the gods. He asked Nachiketa to ask for some other boon, and offered him many material things. Nachiketa, however, replied that material things will last only till the morrow. He who has encountered Death personally, how can he desire wealth? Yama tried to scare, tempt and distract Nachiketa from pursuing that question. But the more Yama insisted, the more Nachiketa persisted. Finally pleased with the resolve of the boy, Yama yielded and started revealing the truth to him.
Yama said there are two paths – Preyas (pleasant/attractive) and Shreyas (good/transcendental). Preyas – the path of material pleasures that tempts humans leads to death. Shreyas – the path of spiritual bliss leads to immortality. By a process of detached thinking the clear minded choose the path of immortality and the muddle headed fall for the path of pleasure and eventual pain and death. Yama then elaborated on the nature of the true Self, which persists beyond death. The essence of the realization is that this Self is inseparable from Brahman, the Supreme Soul, the vital force in the universe. The Self is the same as the Omnipresent Brahman. Smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest, the Self is formless and all-pervading. The goal of the wise is to know this Self. The Self is like a rider; the horses are the senses, which the Self guides through the maze of desires. After death, it is the Self that remains; the Self is immortal. Mere reading of the scriptures or intellectual learning cannot lead to the realization of the Self; one must discriminate the self from the body, which is the seat of desires; inability to realize Brahman results in one being enmeshed in the cycle of rebirths and that realisation of the Self leads to Moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death.
The Katha Upanishad talks of a Self that lights up the body, mind and senses, but that remains untouched by their limitations. It also talks about the millions of subtle channels/Naadis (nerves) that branch off from the heart through which the life energy flows. It again reiterates that everything in this universe is an expression of that universal spirit, the Brahman. The main theme is the spiritual foundation of the material universal consciousness, and unity of all life forms. It states senses are higher than the objective world, feeling mind is higher than senses, discriminating intellect is higher than mind, higher than the intellect is the collective conscious, higher than the collective conscious is the collective unconscious and higher than the collective unconscious is pure consciousness. That is the final destination. The Katha Upanishad, therefore, exhorts to resolve words in mind, mind in the pure heart and pure heart in the higher self.
Thus having attained the wisdom of Brahman from the Yama, Nachiketa was freed from the cycle of births. The great awakening call: Uttishtata jagrata praapya varaan nibodhata (arise awake and stop not till the goal is reached), is found in this Upanishad.
The story of Shvetaketu & sage Uddaalak (Chhandogya Upanishad)
An equally interesting and relevant story is the one from the Chhaandogya Upanishad relating to Uddaalak and his son Shvetatketu. Shvetaketu was the son of sage Uddaalak. Shvetaketu had learnt a lot from his father cum teacher and considered himself to be a great scholar. When he returned after completing his education, he was full of pride. Looking at his state of mind sage Uddaalak rightly came to the conclusion that Shvetaketu had not acquired the knowledge of the Self.
Uddaalak enquired-“Shvetaketu, Have you ever asked your teacher to give you that knowledge by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known? Shvetaketu was baffled and asked his father-“What that knowledge is?”
The father replied – “My dear, just as by a single lump of clay, all that is made of clay is known, all modifications being only a name based upon words, (the difference being only a name arising from speech) but the truth being that all is clay thus, my dear, is that instruction.” This aroused a lot of curiosity in Shvetaketu, who requested his father to explain this to him further.
Uddalaka asked him to bring him a fruit of nearby Nyagrodh tree (banyan tree). Shvetaketu immediately brought one, which Uddalaka asked him to break and asked him “What do you see there?” Shvetaketu replied that inside the fruit were extremely small seeds. Uddaalak asked him to break one of them and enquired “Shvetaketu, what do you see there?” Shvetaketu replied that he saw nothing inside the tiny seeds. The father said – “My son, that subtle essence which you do not perceive there, of that very essence this great Nyagrodha tree, grows (exists). Believe me, my son. Now, that which is the subtle essence (the root of all) in That all that exists has its Self; that is the Self; That is the Truth; That thou art, O Shvetaketu!”
Shvetaketu not having fully understood, requested his father to explain to him further. Uddaalak gave him a grain of salt and asked him to place it in the water and to come to him in the morning. Shvetaketu complied with his father’s instructions. Next day the father said to him – “Bring the salt, my dear, which you put in the water last night.” The son looked for it and did not find it, for it had been dissolved in the water. Sage Uddaalak asked Shvetaketu to taste the water from the surface and to answer how does it taste? The son replied – “It is salt.” Uddaalak then asked him to taste the water from the middle and from the bottom and to answer how it is? Shvetaketu replied – “It is salt.” The father said – “Throw it away and come to me.” The son did so. Then the father said to him – “Here also in this body, forsooth, you do not perceive the Truth (Sat or Pure Being), my son, but there it is indeed.” The father said – “Now that which is the subtle essence (the root of all), in That all that exists has its Self: That is the Self; that is the Truth; That thou art; O Shvetaketu!
This is the real knowledge, the knowledge of the Self, which is the highest knowledge beyond which there remains nothing more to be learnt.
Both these stories reflect upon the soul from a spiritual point of view. It would be interesting to know what the philosophers have to say about the soul.
Soul in Greek philosophy
The Ancient Greeks used the same word for ‘alive’ as for ‘ensouled’, indicating that the earliest surviving western philosophical view believed that the soul was that which gave life to the body. The soul was considered the incorporeal or spiritual ‘breath’ which animates (from the Latin, anima, cf. animal) the living organism.
Socrates believed that the soul existed even after death. He believed that as bodies died, the soul was continually reborn in subsequent bodies. His disciple Plato, however, considered the psyche to be the essence of a person, being that which decided how we would behave. He considered this essence to be an incorporeal, eternal occupant of our being. Plato believed in the immortality of the soul as well but he thought that only one part of the soul was immortal (logos). The Platonic soul comprised three parts located in different regions of the body:
• the logos, or logistikon (mind, nous, or reason) – located in the head. This part of the soul has to do with reason. It regulates the other part.
• the thymos, or thumetikon (emotion, or spiritedness, or masculine)- located near the chest region. This part of the soul has to do with anger.
• the eros, or epithumetikon (appetitive, or desire, or feminine) – located in the stomach. This part of the soul has to do with one’s desires.
Each of these has a function in a balanced, level and peaceful soul. However, logos (reason) governs the others in order for the “psyche” or soul to function optimally.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) did not believe in a separate existence of the soul from the physical body and defined the soul or psyche as the first actuality of a naturally organized body. In Aristotle’s view, the primary activity of a living thing constituted its soul; for example, the soul of an eye, if it were an independent organism, would be seeing (its purpose or final cause). For Aristotle, the soul was the form of a living creature.
The various faculties of the soul or psyche, such as nutrition also known as vegetative (peculiar to plants), movement also known as passionate (peculiar to animals), reason (peculiar to humans), sensation (special, common, and incidental) and so forth, when exercised, constituted the “second” actuality, or fulfilment, of the capacity to be alive.
A good example was someone who fell asleep, as opposed to someone who fell dead; the former actually could wake up and go about their life, while the latter could no longer do so. Aristotle identified three hierarchical levels of living things—plants, animals, and people, for which groups he identified three corresponding levels of soul, or biological activity:
(1) The nutritive activity of growth, sustenance and reproduction which all life shares: This is the power living beings have to grow and take in nourishment. Aristotle considered nutrition as first of the individual faculties of the soul, for two related reasons. The first was that the nutritive soul belonged to all naturally living things. The second was that the higher forms of soul presupposed nutrition.
(2) The appetitive-the self-willed motive activity and sensory faculties, which only animals and people have in common: This is the power of desiring. The sensory: This is the power of perceiving things with the five senses. The locomotive: This is the ability to move; and
(3) The reasoning- reason, of which men alone are capable: This is what makes humans different from animals.
As regards the immortality of soul, there is controversy as to whether he stated that soul as a whole was mortal or a part called “active intellect” or “active mind” was immortal and eternal.
Soul in Oriental & Western philosophies & traditions
Following Aristotle, the earlier Persian Muslim philosophers made a distinction between the soul and the spirit, and included the idea that the immortality of the soul was a consequence of its nature, and not a purpose for it to fulfil. Avicenna (Ibn Sina) in his theory of “The Ten Intellects”, viewed the human soul as the tenth and final intellect. According to him, the idea of the self was not logically dependent on any physical thing, and that the soul should not be seen in relative terms, but as a primary given, a substance. This argument was later refined and simplified by René Descartes in epistemic terms when he stated: “I can abstract from the supposition of all external things, but not from the supposition of my own consciousness.”
Avicenna generally supported Aristotle’s idea of the soul originating from the heart, whereas Ibn al-Nafis rejected this idea and instead argued that the soul “is related to the entirety and not to one or a few organs”. He further criticized Aristotle’s idea that every unique soul requires the existence of a unique source, in this case the heart. Ibn al-Nafis concluded that “the soul is related primarily neither to the spirit nor to any organ, but rather to the entire matter whose temperament is prepared to receive that soul,” and he defined the soul as nothing other than “what a human indicates by saying ‘I'”.
Later, Thomas Aquinas stated that the soul is not something made up of matter and form and that it could not be destroyed in any natural process.
Psychology being defined as the study of mental processes and behaviour, James Hillman distinguishes between the soul and spirit, which are often viewed as synonyms. Hillman argues that they can refer to antagonistic components of a person. Summarizing Hillman’s views, author and psychotherapist Thomas Moore associates spirit with “afterlife, cosmic issues, idealistic values and hopes, and universal truths”, while placing soul “in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love”. Hillman described the soul as that “which makes meaning possible, [deepens] events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern”, as well as “a special relation with death”.
Advances made in neuroscience have undermined the validity of the concept of an independent soul/mind and has done much to illuminate the functioning of the brain but much of subjective experience remains mysterious.
Soul as per religious traditions (Egyptian, Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Chinese etc.)
Coming to the religious point of view, in the ancient Egyptian religion, an individual was believed to be made up of various elements, some physical and some spiritual. Similar ideas are found in ancient Assyrian and Babylonian religion.
In so far as Christianity is concerned, most Christians believe in the reality of the soul, which is integrally connected with the body and yet distinct from it. Its characteristics are described in moral, spiritual, and philosophical terms. According to a common eschatological belief, when people die, their souls will be judged by God and consigned to the Heaven or the Hell for the eternity. All sects of Christianity recognise that Jesus Christ plays a decisive role in the process of the salvation of the soul. Some Christians believe that if one has not repented of one’s sins and did not have firm faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, one will go to Hell and suffer eternal damnation or eternal separation from God. Some others hold that the unrighteous soul will be destroyed instead of suffering eternally. Believers will inherit eternal life in Heaven and enjoy eternal fellowship with God.
Some Christians espouse a trichotomic view of humans, which characterizes humans as consisting of a body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma). The majority of modern Bible scholars, however, point out how spirit and soul are used interchangeably in many biblical passages, and so hold to dichotomy: the view that each of us is body and soul.
The present Catechism of the Catholic Church (a summary of principles, often in question-and-answer format) defines the soul as “the innermost aspect of humans, that which is of greatest value in them, that by which they are most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man”. All souls living and dead will be judged by Jesus Christ when he comes back to earth. The souls of those who die unrepentant of serious sins, or in conscious rejection of God, will at judgment day be forever in a state called Hell. The Catholic Church teaches that the existence of each individual soul is dependent wholly upon God: “The doctrine of the faith affirms that the spiritual and immortal soul is created immediately by God.”
References to the Spirit having the attributes of God are found in the Holy Bible as under:
• eternal, having neither beginning nor end (Hebrews 9:14),
• omnipotent, having all power (Luke 1:35);
• omnipresent, being everywhere at the same time (Psalm 139:7); and
• omniscient, understanding all matters (1 Corinthians 2:10,11).
Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox views are somewhat similar, in essence, to Roman Catholic views although different in specifics. Orthodox Christians believe that after death, the soul is judged individually by God, and then sent to either Abraham’s Bosom (temporary paradise) or Hades/Hell (temporary torture). At the Last Judgment, God judges all people who have ever lived. Those, who know the Spirit of God, because of the sacrifice of Jesus, go to Heaven (permanent paradise) whilst the damned experience the Lake of Fire (permanent torture). The Orthodox Church does not teach that Purgatory exists (Purgatory, according to Catholic Church doctrine, is an intermediate state after physical death in which those destined for heaven “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven”.)
Protestants generally believe in the existence of the soul, but hold different opinions about what this means in terms of an afterlife. Some, following Calvin, believe in the immortality of the soul and conscious existence after death, while others, following Luther, believe in the mortality of the soul and unconscious “sleep” until the resurrection of the dead.
Buddhists believe that nothing is permanent and that all things are in a constant state of flux, including the human beings. According to Buddhism, therefore, there is no permanent “Self”, which is also known as the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman) – “no-self” or “no soul”. The words “I” or “me” do not refer to any fixed thing. They are simply convenient terms that allow us to refer to an ever-changing entity. If the word “soul” simply refers to an incorporeal component in living things that can continue after death, then Buddhism does not deny the existence of the soul. Instead, Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent entity that remains constant behind the changing corporeal and incorporeal components of a living being. Just as the body changes from moment to moment, so do the thoughts come and go. There is no permanent, underlying mind that experiences these thoughts, rather, conscious mental states simply arise and perish with no “thinker” behind them. When the body dies, the incorporeal mental processes continue and are reborn in a new body. Because the mental processes are constantly changing, the being that is reborn is neither entirely different from, nor exactly the same as, the being that died. However, the new being is continuous with the being that died – in the same way that the “you” of this moment is continuous with the “you” of a moment before, despite the fact that you are constantly changing.
There are differences of opinion amongst various schools of Buddhism about what continues after death. The Yogacharya school in Mahayana Buddhism believes in Store-house consciousness which continues to exist after death. Some schools, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, believe in the existence of three minds: very subtle mind, which does not disintegrate in death; subtle mind, which disintegrates in death and which is “dreaming mind” or “unconscious mind”; and gross mind, which does not exist when one is sleeping (similar to Jagrat, Swapna and Sushupti states in Hindu philosophy). Therefore, gross mind is less permanent than subtle mind, which does not exist in death. Very subtle mind, however, does continue, and when it “catches on”, or coincides with phenomena, again, a new subtle mind emerges, with its own personality/assumptions/habits, and that entity experiences karma in the current continuum.
On the contrary certain modern Buddhists, particularly in the Western world, reject or at least take an agnostic stance towards the concept of rebirth or reincarnation, which they view as incompatible with the concept of anatta.
Jainism believes in every living being having a soul, which has no beginning and end, being eternal in nature but changes its form till it attains liberation. They categorize souls as Liberated Souls, which have attained liberation (Moksha) and, therefore, do not become part of the life cycle again and Non-Liberated Souls, which are stuck in the life cycle of four forms Manushya Gati (Human Being), Tiryak Gati (Any other living being), Dev Gati (Heaven) and Narak Gati (Hell). Till the time the soul is not liberated from the innumerable birth and death cycle, it gets attached to different types of above bodies based on the karma of individual soul.
In the Islamic tradition, the Holy Qur’an speaks very briefly about the ‘Ruh’ (Soul), as the brilliance of the God. It mentions:
And they ask you about the Ruh. Say, “The Ruh belongs to the domain of my Lord; and you were given only little knowledge.” (The Holy Qur’an 17.85)
God takes the souls at the time of their death, and those that have not died during their sleep. He retains those for which He has decreed death, and He releases the others until a predetermined time. In that are signs for people who reflect. (The Holy Qur’an 39.42)
The followers of Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í Faith) believe that “the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel”. Bahá’u’lláh stated that the soul continues to live after the physical death of the human body and is immortal. Heaven can be seen partly as the soul’s state of nearness to God; and hell as a state of remoteness from God. Each state follows as a natural consequence of individual efforts, or the lack thereof, to develop spiritually. Bahá’u’lláh taught that individuals have no existence prior to their life here on earth and the soul’s evolution is always towards God and away from the material world.
In modern Judaism the soul is believed to be given by God to a person by his/her first breath. It is mentioned in Genesis: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7. Judaism relates the quality of one’s soul to one’s performance of mitzvah (divine commandments) and reaching higher levels of understanding, and thus closeness to God. A person with such closeness is called a Tzadik (righteous one).
In the Chinese traditions, every person has two types of soul called hun and po, which are respectively yang and yin. Taoism believes in ten souls, Sanhunqipo “three hun and seven po”. The pò is linked to the dead body and the grave, whereas the hún is linked to the ancestral tablet. A living being that loses any of them is said to have mental illness or unconsciousness, while a dead soul may reincarnate to a disability, lower desire realms or may even be unable to reincarnate.
Soul according to Vedantic tradition
Let us now revert to Hindu point of view, which has most elaborately dealt with the subject in various Upanishads and Bhagwat Gita, known in short as the Vedanta, as also in the Puranas, wherein the expressions Jiva, Ātman and “Purusha” have been used to refer to the Self meaning thereby the individual Self, which perceives all objects. This self is distinct from the various mental faculties such as desires, thinking, understanding, reasoning and ego, all of which are considered to be part of Prakriti (nature).
The three major schools of Hindu philosophy agree that the Atman (individual Self) is related to Brahman or the Paramatman, the Absolute Atman or Supreme Self, but they differ in the nature of this relationship. Scholars belonging to the Advaita school of thought consider the individual Self and the Supreme Self, as one and the same. Scholars belonging to the Dvaita school, reject this concept of identity and instead identify the Self as a separate but similar part of Supreme Self (God), that never loses its individual identity. Scholars belonging to the Visishtadvaita take a middle path and accept the Atman as a “mode” (Prakara) or attribute of the Brahman. Both the Brahman and Atman possess the same attributes or qualities of Sat, Chit and Anand. I would, however, like to mention that these differences are only from a relative perspective, depending upon the plane where one stands. Here it would be important to mention that the Srimadbhagwat Mahapuran in Tritiya Skandh, Adhyay 29 mentions that ‘the God resides in the heart of all creatures in the form of the soul. One, who considers the soul and the God to be even slightly different, faces the supreme threat of death’. The soul, therefore, is qualitatively the same as the Supreme Soul and its true nature is eternal bliss.
According to the Sankhya Yoga, human body comprises of the twenty three elements namely, Mahtatva, Ahankar, five gross elements (namely Aakash, Vayu, Agni, Jal and Prithvi), their five subtle principles (namely Shabda, Sparsh, Tej, Rasa and Gandha), Manas (the mind), five organs of senses (namely, the ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose) and the five organs of action (namely, the speech, hands, feet, the genitals and anus). But these elements could not combine together to result into a human aggregate. The Sat Purush, therefore, cast His irradiation in the form of Atman to bring life to this conglomeration, into the human being.
The Srimadbhagwat Gita in chapter 2 ‘Sankhya Yoga’ mentions about the soul that it is unmanifest, immutable, inconceivable and eternal. Weapons cannot cleave the soul; fire cannot burn it; water cannot wet it nor can the air dry it. The soul is unbreakable, insoluble, all pervading, unchanging and immovable. The great philosopher Socrates was asked by Crito ‘in what manner should he be buried?’ It is said that Socrates had replied: ‘In any manner you like, but first you must catch me, the real me. You can bury only my body and not the real me.’
Because of the ignorance of its own true nature, the soul, however, gets involved in the process of manifesting and transmigrating through cycles of birth and death. According to the Hindu Philosophy, human aggregate comprises of three bodies-gross, subtle and causal bodies. The gross body has the characteristic qualities of Movement and growth. Thinking and knowing are the characteristic qualities of the subtle body. The union of gross body and subtle body is called birth and their separation is called death. In regard to birth and death the Srimadbhagwat Mahapuran in Tritiya Skandh, Adhyay 31 mentions that the subtle body remains in existence till one achieves liberation; its union with the gross body is known as birth and its inability to work together i.e. their separation is known as death. The causal body, which is the storehouse of all Karmas (actions), however, causes their union or separation.
When the Soul gets embodied it is called birth, when the Soul leaves a body it is called death. The Soul transmigrates from one body to another body to enable it to bear the fruit of actions, thoughts and desires according to the Karmic theory of Hindu philosophy. Being the irradiation of the all-shining luminous Sat-Purush, the soul is also luminous. It, however, lost its original luminosity while descending in the human aggregate, because of identifying itself with the body, senses and mind due to false association with the ego.
The feeling of man’s existence as a separate individual arises because of his ego. The individual’s mind and his physical body are the manifestation of man’s ego. The mind, however, assumes the position of the ruler and rules over not only the physical body but also over the soul (the Jeeva or the embodied soul), which due to this false association has lost its original luminosity and has assumed a false identity. The story narrated by Sant Sunder Das is related: A lioness gave birth to a cub in the forest, which fell in the hands of a ‘shepherd’ who brought up the cub as one of the sheep. One day a lion passed by and spotted the cub. The lion wondered how the cub was behaving like a sheep and was feeding on grass, forgetting his own true self. The lion roared and asked the cub to do the same. The cub also roared imitating the lion. The sheep and the shepherd ran away. The lion took the cub with him and showed him his face in a pond of water. The cub then realised that it was not a sheep but a lion.
The real meaning of this story is that our soul is the cub, which lives under the control of the mind, which is the shepherd and the senses are the sheep. The soul has come from the Infinite. The mind has mixed up the soul with the senses and body. The mind now rules us and feeds us on worldly things, which are like grass. When a Master like the lion tells us about the Truth and shows us our reality, we know the real form of our soul.
SELF-REALIZATION – the essence of Vedanta
The emphasis of Vedanta philosophy lies in attaining Self-realization. Self-realization refers to the process in which one acquires the knowledge of the Self and returning back to the Source which is Brahman. The Mandukya Upanishad verse 7 describes the Self as the ‘Pure Consciousness’. It mentions the fourth aspect of Atman or Self as Turiya, (literally the fourth) in which consciousness is neither turned outward nor inward. Nor is it both outward and inward; it is beyond both cognition and the absence of cognition. This fourth state of Turiya cannot be experienced through the senses or known by comparison, deductive reasoning or inference; it is indescribable, incomprehensible, and unthinkable with the mind. This is Pure Consciousness itself. This is the real Self. It is within the cessation of all phenomena. It is serene, tranquil, filled with bliss, and is one without second. This is the real or true Self that is to be realized.
Consciousness is the attribute of the Soul and since all sentient and insentient beings possess consciousness, the entire universe is pervaded by Soul. The Srimadbhagwat Mahapuran states that in the beginning there was nothing except God and in order to create the world, He started to look around. This faculty of differentiating the seer from the scene was the first manifestation of Maya. This was the foremost illusion and the mother of all principles of relativity. The man has to realise this truth; overcome this illusion of duality of the seer and the scene, in order to realise his true Self. The faculty, which realises, however, is not the soul since the soul is the very object that is to be realised. The soul is the reality, the real state of being. That which realises the soul is not the soul. When one realises the soul all is left behind, as everything gets merged in the soul. Everything in the first instance has originated from the soul and one can get back to it only when all that is created by it gets dissolved in its essence.
The first glimpse of the soul occurs in the ‘Chitta’ (the faculty of thought-Mahtatva in the Sankhya Yoga), where alone the knowledge of Truth is first perceived. The feeling of duality very much persists at this plane, as the one who perceives and the one that is perceived stand distinctly apart.
More important than acquiring the theoretical knowledge of the Soul is to know how to realise it? While seers and sages have described various ways and volumes have been written about them, I intend to mention here the essence of them all and that is-‘Satsang, Satguru and Satnam’. Satsang means spending time in the company of realised souls-saints and Mahatmas, which gradually prepares the seeker to receive the true knowledge. It is the exhortation of all scriptures that when the disciple is ready, Satguru (a true Master) is sent to guide him. It is not true that the seeker finds the Master; rather it is the Master, who descends to guide and help the true seekers. The Satguru leads the seeker on the path of Self-realisation through his grace, which is known as ‘the Satnam given’ by the Master. In other words, it is the desire or inquisitiveness to seek the Truth that leads one to the Truth and the nature of Truth is such that one, who realises the Truth, becomes the Truth personified.
An integral self-realization, according to Sri Aurobindo, is a triple process. First, the realization of the individual soul called ‘the physic being’, the immortal in a mortal body as the divine element in the evolution. Second, is the realization of the cosmic self which is one in all. Third, is the realization of the Supreme Divine at the height of all forms of Atman (Sarvabhutantaratma – Kena Upanishad). Both individual self (Jivatman) and cosmic self have emanated from Him. The soul which was represented by the Vedic god Agni or the mystic fire, was replaced by Atman (inner soul) in the Upanishads, according to Sri Aurobindo.
The Upanishads prescribe a triple path for selef-realization – Shravana or study and listening to scriptures, Manana or contemplation of what is learnt, and Nididhyasana or constant focusing and meditation on Atman or soul. But Katha Upanishad and the Rig Veda warn that all those efforts may not eventually lead to self-realization and that Atman reveals itself only to the chosen ones, just like a chaste woman bares herself to her husband. In Sri Aurobindo’s words: “He who chooses the Infinite has been chosen by the Infinite” (refer ‘Synthesis of Yoga’ by Sri Aurobindo).
The Vedantic concept of soul can be aptly summed up by saying that the essence of ‘being’ lies in ‘non-being’, which is the real state of the soul. The ‘non-beingness’ can be realised only when all attributions, adaptations, coverings, assumptions and presumptions, are gone.
From the above discussions, it is implied that soul exists within the body and when it leaves the body, death occurs. It is also suggested that soul is independent of body and is not co-terminus with the body. In other words, soul does not die with the body, but outlives it. As for definition of soul, there can be none, inasmuch as definition means limitation, and it has not been possible yet to find the limitation of soul. In other words, soul is indefinable. Thus our first poser in the Introduction is answered. Let us now deal with remaining posers.
i) Whether soul is a matter or non-matter?
Vedanta that has extensively and intensively dealt with soul has envisaged soul or Atman at three levels. At the first level, it is known as Kshara or destructible phenomenon as it is encompassed with the three Gunas (qualifications) viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, along with its correspondent attributes (refer verse 5, chapter 14 of Bhagwat Gita). In that state, the soul within the body is identified with the person in whose body it remains encaged. When the body dies that destructible phenomenon ceases to exist. In other words, the soul after shedding off the mortal body realizes that it is not the body. It is in fact indestructible or Akshara which is its real character. This realization dawns at the second level. As a matter of fact, a man of wisdom realizes that truth while living, and is thereby able to transcend the limited mortal identity of the soul. But vast majority of men confuse soul with their mortal self and when they die, their deluded soul leaves the body, shrouded by ignorance, being tied by the three Gunas without realizing its true character. The soul at the third or the last level is nothing but pure consciousness or divine existence per se. In that state soul is non-matter while in previous two states, not being free from the bondage of the Gunas the soul remains as matter and is subject to law of nature or Prakriti.
ii) Whether same soul is re-incarnated in different bodies?
Factum of re-incarnation has been extensively dwelt upon in our interactive session cum post on ‘Spirit World’ dated 7.2.2014 wherein the anecdote of Shanti Devi, a young North Indian girl who vividly remembered and described her past life, has been presented as an incontrovertible proof. Besides, opinions of neuro-biological researchers like Sir John Eccles, a Nobel Laureate, and the findings of past life regression therapists like Dr. Brian Weiss have been referred to in support, in our post on ‘Consciousness & Super-consciousness, dated 9.8.2014. All those findings in present time validate the Vedantic and Buddhist affirmation of re-incarnation according to one’s past Karma (action).
iii) Whether soul is dynamic or inert?
According to the Vedanta, it is the Prakriti that is dynamic or kinetic. Soul as pure consciousness is inert and without action. In support we rely upon verse 27, chapter 3 of Bhagwat Gita which states as follows:
“All action is universally engendered by the attributes (Gunas) of primordial nature (Prakriti). A man whose self is deluded by ego thinks, ‘I am the doer’.”
iv) Whether Shradh ceremony for Hindus or memorial services in other religions really matter to departed souls?
It is generally believed that the departed souls that are not liberated are destined to different lokas or levels according to their karma and attributes, such as Deva Loka (level of gods), Pitri Loka (level of fathers), Preta Loka (level of lower spirits) etc. Brahma Loka or the level of Brahman happens to the ultimate level meant for liberated souls who have conquered the cycle of birth and death. While the liberated souls do not need any sustenance from the phenomenal world, it is believed that non-liberated souls do need such sustenance as long as the bondage of Prakriti shackles them. It is believed that Shradh ceremony and memorial services help such non-liberated souls in receiving their sustenance primarily through olfactory power.
v) Whether soul is eternal or it ceases to exist at some point of time?
The soul as pure consciousness is identified with the Divine and is, therefore, eternal. However, the soul while at its lower levels of delusion when it identifies itself with a mortal being or beings, cannot be considered as eternal. Such deluded souls exist as long as their delusion lasts. To be precise, the delusion is nothing but ‘I’ consciousness. When ‘I’ Consciousness is eliminated or killed, the soul realizes that all through it has been pure consciousness only, which is without beginning or end. The Moksha or liberation of Vedanta and the Nirvana or extinguishing of the soul of Buddhism imply and suggest the annihilation of this ‘I’ consciousness only. Sans ‘I’ consciousness, the soul is indivisible and eternal.