From childhood we are led to believe that we are more than the physical self represented by the body - that in fact our essence is spiritual. We are told that at our core there is a Soul. This core, most faiths hold, is constant, indestructible, immortal and eternal. Most faiths underline that this core, the soul survives after the body perishes at death. Thus at funerals and at memorials we often hear people whisper 'may his soul rest in peace' or 'may his soul ascend to heaven' etc. When uttering such good wishes or blessings do we actually give any thought to what we may indeed be referring to?
While some faiths speak of the ascent of the soul to heaven or sometimes descent to hell, others speak of its reincarnation in future births in other bodies.
The soul goes by different names in different faiths, cultures and languages. Soul, for english speaking Christians, Atma for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and Rooh for Muslims. For Christians and Muslims it is not the living person but his soul or Rooh that eventually stands before the Almighty for judgement. For Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, the Atma passes from one lifetime to another getting embodied again and again before its final release from compulsive embodiment. This release from rebirth is called Moksha, Nirvana or enlightenment.
These appear to be varied interpretations and explanations of the same essential truth, depending on the cultural backdrop and metaphysical dogmas of the concerned faiths. But unless we go deeper and explore such concepts and relate them to individual experiences, we can no more understand this universal concept of soul, than when we began. So let us then commence our journey of exploration to see if we understand the soul as anything more than just a word in our language.
What is the meaning of this word we have often heard and used? There are many paths one can take to seek an answer. I can only begin by choosing one that appears familiar to me. Going along it I arrive at the august portals of Hindu thought and beliefs concerning the soul. For millennia the soul has been the subject of intensive introspection in India, a land immersed in mysticism and the spiritual quest, which produced great thinkers, sages, philosophers and prophets like Buddha and Mahavir (the last Jain prophet or 'Tirthankar' a contemporary of the Buddha).
India's quintessential scripture the Gita or Song Celestial, begins its discourse with a definition of the soul. It calls it the 'Indweller' (Antaryami), the one that dwells within. It also calls it the embodied one - one that has acquired a physical body. While the physical shell is destructible, its indweller, it asserts, is indestructible, eternal, not manifest, inconceivable and unchanging. It is neither born nor does it die. It describes it as stable, constant, invulnerable and ancient.
The question arises, where does this soul which gets embodied and becomes the 'indweller' come from. What is its source? This takes us back to the very fundamentals of Hindu metaphysics and cosmology. We cannot answer the question of the origin of the soul without first understanding the source from which it emerges. That source is obviously the Universal Essence, Universal consciousness, the Supersoul, Cosmic Being or God.
Hindu metaphysics is defined by western scholars as Transcendental Monism, a philosophical term which simply means the Oneness of everything, its indivisibility and grand unity. This is not Monotheism or the belief in a one and exclusive God without a second but indeed the oneness of both creator and creation. In other words, God is omnipresent and ubiquitous and the divine essence infiltrates every atom and particle of creation.
This divinity is present not merely at the spiritual plane but equally on the material and physical levels. Matter and Spirit are integrally conjoined and inseparable. The divine is thus universally present both as matter and spirit. Matter and Spirit, two facets of the Universal Essence or God, are not only inseparable and united but also exhibit attraction for one another by being in a state of perpetual interaction. While the material aspect is manifest, finite and perishable and recycled from creation to creation, the spiritual aspect is infinite, imperishable, constant and eternal. Matter is passionately attracted to the presence of spirit and spirit never leaves matter alone either, probing, infiltrating and combining with it.
The Oneness of the pristine Universal Essence becomes disturbed when an introspective, self consciousness stirs within it, as if it asked 'who am I' or again it asserted 'I am'. This 'I am' sounds like Aum the Hindu symbol of the sacred, the first primal sound resounding across the universe. This moment of acute self consciousness translates into what one may call the Big Bang of creation. At that moment the 'Unity' becomes splintered like our physical identity does in a dream. At that moment a tidal wave arises in the great Spirit's oceanic Oneness and with the wave, uncountable millions of drops are thrown up in a cosmic splash separating and rising up as sprays. The drops in the air are still parts of the ocean though apparently separated by the creative force of the tidal wave of the self conscious assertion of 'I Am' and destined to fall back before long, back into the ocean, to resume their unity with it.
The figurative analogy of the ocean and the drops is employed repeatedly in Hindu thought to illustrate the complex metaphysical reality of the Universal Essence and its relationship to the soul incarnate.. The separated drops poised in the air momentarily, before they fall back into the ocean of the Universal Essence are the freshly generated souls. Thus we understand the origin of the soul.
The soul is therefore an integral part of the Universal Essence or divine source - a spark of divinity with all the attributes of the original source - indestructible, eternal, unchanging, all knowing - God in miniature. Apparently separated and thrown up from the oceanic heart of the Universal Essence, it now journeys to the physical plane like a meteor entering earth space, bright and incandescent.
Matter is furiously attracted, as we observed earlier, to this magnificent spark of divinity, much like a mob is attracted to a film star, swarming him, or as iron filings are drawn to a magnet. Different combinations of matter - pure and subtle matter (Satvik), dynamic and passionate matter (Rajsik) and inert and fetid matter (Tamsik) - swarm the numerous falling star souls and envelop them in an irresistible embrace which cannot be deflected or denied. The soul is now entrapped in a material body and becomes what the Gita calls the 'embodied one'. Another analogy is that of a physical shroud covering a spiritual heart.
In the Gita, God speaks of the incarnation of the soul thus:
'' I am the Self, seated in the hearts of all beings...''
'' An eternal portion of Myself becomes the eternal soul in the living world, drawing to itself Nature's five senses and the mind '' in other words matter.
The 'shroud' or physical body has certain attributes which we call personality. There are numerous shrouds with varying textures (people with a range of personalities) covering the souls which are themselves beyond personality, being divine, pure and eternal. The physical personality,which the en-trapped soul does not share, is also called Ego. Unlike the soul's purpose, which we shall discuss later, the Ego or physical personality's purpose is defined by self-preservation - survival, success and well-being of the physical entity by overcoming any obstacles that come in its path. This compulsion to survive produces the qualities of that personality - selfishness, desire to procreate and thereby perpetuate oneself, jealousy arising from comparisons and competition, aggression to enable acquisition of something valuable that another may possess, dominance to subdue others, sorrow, pleasure etc. The shroud is made up of these materialistic qualities.
Some shrouds are thick, coarse and rough. Others are of fine texture and some are so refined as to be transparent. The soul is not visible through some shrouds that are thick like blankets. But as the shrouds improve and evolve its light begins to show through and finally when the shroud becomes transparent, the soul shines forth.
The personalities of people like Gandhi or the Buddha would have been such refined shrouds and the soul would then shine brightly through their eyes, their actions and their deeds.
The material shroud that covers the soul or the human body that embodies it, basically are quite independent of the soul, neither being governed, dominated or directed by it. The body or person is in fact governed, directed and dominated only by the personality-ego - mind complex, which is entirely physical. The ego goes about urging the physical person to do its bidding in enhancing pride and prestige, acquiring wealth, satisfying desire, rising above others, imposing one’s will, exercising power, dominating others, preserving, protecting and enhancing its level of existence by obsessively grasping every opportunity. What role the soul plays we shall see later.
We learnt that it is the Ego and not the soul that dictates to the physical self what it needs to do to survive in the world of senses. The actions that the physical self performs to satisfy the ego's demands produce Karmic effects. Here the law of Karma comes into play. The nature of actions, good, bad or indifferent create Karmic results and effects which inexorably get registered as marks, scars, or odours (called Sanskars in Sanskrit) left by previous and present actions, inclinations, desires and acquired potential. Where are these marks registered? This brings us to the nature of the physical self as understood by Indian philosophical traditions.
These traditions hold that the physical 'body' is not merely what appears to the eye. What is visible is merely the gross body, but enveloping it are other layers of physicality, even though not visible to the naked eye of an ordinary person. That is what in the West has been termed as Auric phenomenon. These are pulsating fields of energy falling within the definition of the physical, which hover around the gross body and are an integral part of that body. We need not here go into details but briefly these sheaths are those of the vital force ( Prana- the harmonized bodily functions that allow the body to function in good health ), the mind and the understanding. Even though the other sheaths are not clearly manifest and tangible, like the gross body is, they are essentially a physical category as opposed to the spiritual one and are known in India and elsewhere in mystical circles as the subtle body.
It is in this subtle body that the 'History' of every act and its effects are registered indelibly (much like history is in present day Personal Computers) and which sets in motion the dynamics of the Law of Karmic effects - 'as you sow, so shall you reap'. While the subtle body is marked by all the traces and effects and 'odours', its 'Indweller', the soul is not.
The subtle body incurs the effects of action under the law of Karma but the soul, though dwelling within it (Indweller - Sanskrit: Antaryami) does not. Through all the actions generated by the ego - personality-body, the soul remains untouched, pure, eternal and uncontaminated by these actions of the 'shell' or 'shroud', standing aside as it were, observing but not participating. We must remember that it is indeed a part of the Universal Essence, the Supersoul. It is after all, God in miniature within your body even if that body or personality is immersed in sinful activity. Just as God is not responsible for your good or bad deeds neither is the soul. The Gita explains that the soul incurs no sins committed by the body it inhabits and forever remains untainted. Why so is the obvious question. The answer lies in several verses/cantos of the scripture:
'' he truly sees who knows that all actions are done by Prakriti (nature or the acting body's inherent characteristics and impulsions ) alone and the Atma (soul) does not act''
and again''....he who in imperfect understanding looks upon the Self (soul) as the agent (of action) - he does not see at all. and again any circumstances. The soul is within the host but distinct Having mentally renounced all actions, the self disciplined indweller (soul) rests in the city of nine gates (the body and the senses), neither acting nor causing action.''
The 'agent' often spoken of in the Gita is the ego-body complex. It is free to act the way it wishes. This is not a deterministic puppet show with human puppets on a string controlled by an inexorable fate or divine command. The human entity, the body-ego-personality, is free as was Hitler to commit the gravest atrocities based on free will while of course, accumulating negative Karmic effects with dire consequences in this and future incarnations. On the physical plane there is total freedom and free unhampered will to act for good or ill. Thus the Gita explains:
''The Lord (God) does not create an agency or actions for the world. He does not create fruitful consequences for actions. Nature ( the ego- personality complex as doer and the Law of Karma meting out consequences) does all this.''
The law of Karma (like the law of gravity) is the inexorable natural law at play on the earthly plane and like any body of law strictly applies measured consequences for actions committed. The soul merely councils prudence but does not dictate - it is the voice of your conscience which you are free to ignore.
Thus we see that the soul is not the agent of action, the ego is. We also see that it does not dictate terms to the ego. We are also familiar with the idea that the soul is a fragment of the Divine Essence and the 'indweller'' in the body. Often in India the devout call God the indweller (Antaryami) and when in prayer or meditation they look inwards to the God within. Does the fact that divinity resides within us make us divine? No it does not. The content is divine not the container. There is divinity within you but you are not divine.
As this is so, the question arises whether a person can identify himself with his soul. When he says 'I', whom is he referring to? The 'I' of a person is his personality and ego, his actions, acts of omission and commission, in the present and in past lives, which have registered in his subtle body and which produce the Karmic dynamics for shaping his future incarnations. Like the DNA of a cell, his actions past and present are the determinants of his future form and incarnation. The 'I' is therefore not his soul under any circumstances.
We saw that the soul does not act nor is it an agent of action. Actions arise from the free will of the ego and the personality - ego - body which then faces the consequences. As the soul does not engage in action it is not tainted by it, though it continues to inhabit the body that commits those actions. If the soul is not tainted by the actions of the body, urged by the ego (neither participating nor taking responsibility for them) and cannot control or direct those actions, we may as well ask what is the purpose of the soul inhabiting that body! What indeed is the role or utility of this apparently passive, non- acting soul as 'indweller'.