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Descriptions of The Soul Or Self in the Bhagavadgita

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by Jayaram V

One of the notable differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is that Hinduism believes in the existence of eternal and indestructible soul or atman where as Buddhism believes in the concept of no soul or anatma. What is a soul? Is it an entity? Is it an individuality of some kind? Is it an energy field? Is it consciousness or subjectivity? How does the soul experience its individuality and oneness with God at the same time? Does it have a distinct shape and size and a will of its own? How does it come into existence and where does it go when it is liberated from the body? What happens after the death of an individual and when the soul reincarnates in another form? How does a soul get entangled in a life form and why it has to suffer so long before it finds its release? Is it possible for us to experience it consciously with our ordinary mental awareness? Upon its liberation does it continue to exist as an individual entity or does it cease to exist? These are perhaps some of the most difficult questions to answer because the soul is described by the Hindu scriptures as indescribable and indefinable.

Most of the speculative philosophies and darshnas or various schools of philosophical thought in Hinduism attempt to answer these questions. But there is no unanimous opinion among them as to the nature of the soul and its relationship with God. The individual souls are said to be different from God. But this is not an universal standpoint. According to some traditions, God does not exist but only individual souls. Among those who believe in the existence of God, some believe that God and the individual souls are the same while others believe them to be different. Some traditions hold that although God and an individual soul are the same, they do have some subtle dissimilarities which make them distinct. So you can say that they are the same from one perspective and different from another. It is difficult to prove which of these opinions are correct because no one has been able to establish the truths about the individual soul objectively.

The problem is aggravated by the fact that the individual soul is beyond the objective experience of the mind and the body and cannot be comprehended other than through subjective experience of transcendental nature, which so far has remained inconsistent and different among different subjects because of the limitations of the human mind to record those experiences accurately. There is also some speculation regarding whether all beings possess souls. Hinduism holds the belief that all living beings including plants and animals possess souls. Jainism perhaps holds the most extreme opinion in this regard since it believes that even inanimate objects like water, stones, even pieces of dead wood and tubers grown underground also possess souls, not just one but sometimes clusters of them. Souls are classified in some traditions into different categories, such as free souls, bound souls, semi free souls and forever bound souls.

The Bhagavadgita acknowledges the existence of both God and the individual souls. It believes in the incarnation of the individual souls, their delusion and bondage to the cycle of births and deaths because of their gunas or qualities and desire ridden actions. It also suggests various solutions for their salvation. The book touches upon various subjects like death, release of the soul from the body, its ascent to the higher worlds, it reincarnation or return to the earth to continue its cycle of births and deaths, its relationship with God and how it can find itself with the help of God and so on. According to it, the soul, or atman, is indestructible and eternal (2.18). It neither slays not can it be slain (2.19). It is never born, never dies and after coming into existence never ceases to be. It is nitya (always), sasvatah (permanent) and purana (very ancient) (2.20). It does not suffer and cannot be tainted. At the time of death it does not die, but leaves the body and enters into a new one (2.22). Weapons cannot pierce it, fire cannot burn it, water cannot moisten it and wind cannot dry it (2.23). It is impenetrable, incombustible, all pervading, stable and immobile (2.24). It is invisible, imperceptible and immutable (2.25).

The Bhagavadgita knows the limitations of human consciousness to gauge the true nature of the inner soul. So it concurs with the popular notion that no one can exactly know what a soul is. One looks at It with great surprise, another speaks about It with great surprise, another hears about It with incredulity and yet another after hearing about It knows it not (2.29). The soul is superior to everything else in the human being. It is said that the senses are great, greater than the senses is the mind, greater than the mind is buddhi and greater than the buddhi is the Self (3.42). This concept is similar to the concept of the tattvas explained in the various schools of Hindu thought where the soul is described to be the highest in the hierarch of the tattvas.

The soul residing in the body is referred as the indwelling witness, the Adhiyagna. We are told that when Purusha, also known as the Adhidaiva (Controlling Deity), resides in the body as the inner witness, He becomes Adhiyagna or the Seat of Sacrifice (8.4). These descriptions are in accordance with the internalization of the ritual process and its symbolic representation in the human body which happened in the later part of the Vedic period. The embodied soul is caught in the grip of Prakrit and cannot escape on its own without adquate spiritual effort and divine help. At the time of death it leaves the body and goes to a higher world depending upon its karma and time of death. According to the Bhagavadgita, the mental condition in which an embodied soul leaves the body at the time of death is very important, because whatever the person thinks of at that time, that alone he achieves thereafter (8.6). Thus if someone departs from the body thinking of God alone, he would undoubtedly attain Him (8.5, 12 &13).

A liberated soul is different from the soul that is inside in a living body which is referred by the Hindu scriptures as Jiva or the embodied soul. The embodied soul is caught in the snare of samsara or the causative world through desires and attachment, where as the liberated soul is free from all entanglements and is forever free from the control of Prakriti. What it does and where it stays in its liberated state only the adepts know. Even though there is a soul within every one, people cannot feel its presence because they remain distracted by the activity of their senses and minds. If they succeed in withdrawing their senses and look inwards, they have a chance of coming into contact with it. As the Bhagavadgita declares, the striving yogi perceives Him, as seated in the body enjoying the sense objects, united with the gunas, departing the body at the time of death, but the ignorant ones whose hearts are impure, do not perceive so even after much striving.(15.11&12).

Self-realization is the ultimate goal of all the yogas or spiritual paths discussed in the Bhagavadgita. The purpose of any spiritual discipline is to restrain the senses and stabilize the mind. These are the two barriers everyone must overcome in order to know their true selves. The Bhagavadgita says, "That condition is the aim of all yoga, in which through the practice of yoga, the mind become stilled, in which the self behold the Self within and is absorbed in the Self, in which the yogi finds supreme ecstasy," (6.21-22). And when the yogi develops the unified and holistic vision through the practice of yoga, he sees the Self in all and all in the Self (6.29).

Apart from the senses, the gunas or the qualities of the mind, namely sattva (purity), rajas (egoism) and tamas (grossness) play an important role in the bondage of the soul. When a soul is drawn into the body through the divine power of Shakti or Nature, it becomes bound to its physical personality and the illusory world through attachment arising out of the interplay of the triple gunas (14.5). Its consciousness becomes clouded and covered by a new identity which we call the ego. The ego consciousness acts and behaves as if the it is the real one, where as it is just a shadow, an illusion that survives through the mechanism of Prakriti. When through yoga the indwelling soul overcomes the triple gunas, It becomes free from birth and death, old age and sorrow and attains immortality (14.20). This is in brief the concept of the soul we find in the Bhagavadgita.

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