Author: Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay.
What is Soul?
According to Cambridge dictionary, soul is “the spiritual part of a person that some people believe continues to exist in some form after their body has died”. The word is classified under the category “Souls, spirits & ghosts” and some of the common synonyms and related words associated with soul are: astral plane[i], aura, ectoplasm[ii], ghostly, necromancer, Ouija board[iii], spectral, spirit, séance, wraith etc.
Soul is often also used to refer to a person of a stated type. For example: “She’s a happy little soul”. In an American context, soul also refers to a deep understanding of and pride in the culture of African-Americans[iv].
As per Christian theology, the soul is produced when, the human body receives the breath of life by God’s power. It is at that point that man becomes a living soul[v].
There exists a huge debate on whether souls are mortal or immortal and this debate has also seeped into everyday life of Christians and western world at large. In popular literature, Hans Christian Andersen in “The Little Mermaid”, writes: A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being.[vi]
Soul in Christianity
Only humans can have souls. God gave mankind dominion over plants and animals, and hence plants and animals do not possess souls. It was also believed that women and slaves did not have souls. 17th century British poet Samuel Butler in his “Miscellaneous Thoughts” writes: “The souls of women are so small, that some believe they’ve none at all.”[vii]
All humans are born as sinners due to the original sin of Adam and Eve, and so the true nature of the Soul is sinful. Hence God sent his son Jesus to save mankind from their sins, and only through Jesus can souls attain salvation.
Soul is very closely tied to the body. It is not something independent of the body. Nor is it something immortal or eternal. When the breath of life is separated from the human body, the living soul as well as the body both die.
Adam became a living soul when God breathed the breath of life into his human form. Consequently when the sinner Adam died, the human soul died. It ceased to exist.[viii]
A soul is capable of[ix]:
- Hunger – Proverbs 19:15
- Satisfied with food – Lamentations 1:11-19
- Touching material objects – Leviticus 5:2
- Of going into the grave (!) – Job 33:22+28
- Of coming out of it – Psalm 30:3
Some examples where the mortality of soul is alluded to:
- According to Ezekiel 18:20 New King James Version (NKJV): “The soul who sins shall die.”[x]
- Psalm 78:50 New King James Version (NKJV) says: “He made a path for His anger; He did not spare their soul from death, But gave [a]their life over to the plague”
- “Let my soul die the death of the just.” (Num. 23:10) “His soul fainted away, and was wearied even until death. He said: Let my soul die with the Philistines.” (Judg. 16:16, 30, marginal reading) “Deliver our souls from death.” (Josh. 2:13) “Their soul shall die in a storm.” (Job 36:14) “He spared not their souls from death.” (Ps. 77:50) Ps 78:50 “To deliver their souls from death; and feed them in famine. Our soul waiteth for the Lord.” (Ps. 32:19, 20) Ps 33:19, 20 “My soul is sorrowful even unto death.” (Matt. 26:38) “He who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way shall save his soul from death.”—Jas. 5:20[xi].
There are many such examples where soul clearly refers to something mortal and closely related to human body. According to The Gospel Truth website:
“Among the words renderings it is impossible to come to the conclusion that this is talking about an immortal part of the body which floats off to heaven or hell upon the death of the body. It is rendered “soul” 530 times, “life” or “living” 190 times, “person” 34 times, “beasts and creeping things” 28 times. Its also rendered “a man”, “a person”, “self”, “they”, “we”, “him”, “anyone”, “breath”, “heart”, “mind”, “appetite”, “the body” etc. In no instance does this word support the modern Christian idea that this is something immortal – always the reverse in fact.”[xii]
There is another camp which believes that souls do not die. According to them, “souls will live forever, either in the presence of God in heaven if we are saved, or in punishment in hell if we reject God’s gift of salvation.” However they also add that God is the only truly eternal being and exists without a beginning or end, while all other sentient creatures have an end and a beginning. The soul having come into existence, will continue to live forever. In any case, both camps reject the idea of total immortality of souls. They both accept that souls are born at some point in time.
“The Bible does not support the concept that our souls have always existed. Our souls are immortal, as that is how God created them, but they did have a beginning; there was a time they did not exist.”[xiii]
The question of immortality is one of the key differences between Soul and the Indian idea of Atma.
Atma in Hinduism
In Hinduism, the true nature of the Self or Atman is sat-chit-ananda, meaning truth-enlightenment and bliss. The real nature of Atma can be realized through sadhana or Adhyatma vidya. Kṣetrajña is another term used for the ātmā where kṣetra refers to the body. Atma is present in all objects – whether immovable or moving, including plants, animals and mountains. In Bhagavad Gita 13.27, Krishna says:
“yāvat sañjāyate kiñchit sattvaṁ sthāvara-jaṅgamam kṣhetra-kṣhetrajña-sanyogāt tad viddhi bharatarṣhabha”
Translation: “O best of the Bharatas, whatever moving or unmoving being you see in existence, know it to be a combination of the field of activities and the knower of the field.”
Our scriptures are very clear on the fact that Atman is eternal. In Bhagavad Gita 2.20, Krishna says:
“na jāyate mriyate vā kadāchin nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ ajo nityaḥ śhāśhvato ’yaṁ purāṇo na hanyate hanyamāne śharīre”
Translation: The Self is neither born, nor does it ever die; nor having once existed, does it ever cease to be. The Self is without birth, eternal, immortal, and ageless. It is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.
As per Kathopanishad 1.28.18[xiv]:
na jāyate mriyate vā vipaścinnāyaṃ kutaścinna babhūva kaścit | ajo nityaḥ śāśvato’yaṃ purāṇo na hanyate hanyamāne śarīre || 18 ||
Translation: The intelligent âtman is not born, nor does he die; he did not come from anywhere nor was he anything, unborn, eternal, everlasting, ancient; he is not slain though the body is slain.
There are numerous instances where our texts talk about the eternal nature of Atman. In fact Atman is a very technical term with clear precise definitions and usages. Atman has no relation to myriad and often bizarre and ridiculous ideas like spectral body, Ouija board, spirit, ghosts etc. – which is the case with soul from a western point of view. As Swami Sivananda says:
“Atman is Sat. That which exists in the past, present and future, which has no beginning, middle and end, which is unchanging, which is not conditioned in time, space and causation… Atman is Chit for it shines by itself unaided by any other light and illumines the whole universe by its own light…. Ananda is that bliss which is eternal, uncaused and unexcelled. It is the real nature of Atman… He who has realised this Sat-Chit-Ananda Atman is a liberated sage. He has nothing more to learn, has nothing more to do, has nothing more to gain. All his desires are gratified. He has obtained all worlds. He is freed from the jaws of death. He attains immortality.”[xv]
The Indian idea of Atma is wrongly translated as soul, and both the words are used interchangeably. Our gurus and spiritual leaders themselves use soul instead of Atma in their discourses. As is evident, soul and atma each belong to very distinct philosophical systems, and in many cases are gurus are themselves not aware of the differences between these two ideas. More often than not, they impose their own understanding of Atma, which may be correct as per Dharmic traditions, onto that of soul, which is a product of a completely different metaphysical system.
As Rajiv Malhotra explains in Being Different, “holding on to Sanskrit terms and thereby preserving the complete range of their meanings becomes a way of resisting colonization.”[xvi] This is one of the key motivations behind his ambitious and path-breaking ongoing project – Sanskrit Non-Translatables, where huge efforts are being made to prevent mis-translations as well as to reclaim digested Sanskrit words. Therefore we must not confuse these very two different concepts of Atma and soul. Not only does it create confusion among the adherents of Sanatan Dharma, it also facilitates the cultural digestion of Hinduism into the western Judeo-Christian/ secular establishments which leads to the increased mainstreaming of phrases like “RIP” (rest in peace)!
About Author: –
Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay is a civilization studies researcher with a background in data science. His writings on culture, philosophy and economics have appeared in various newspapers, online platforms and academic journals. He has authored two monographs titled “The Complete Hindu’s Guide to Islam” and “Ashoka the Ungreat“, and is a recipient of the Foundation for Indian Civilization Studies award for 2017.
Bad News about Christianity. (n.d.). Women’s Rights. Retrieved from Bad News about Christianity: http://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/gaf_women.htm
Singh, A., & Natarajan, S. (2013, September). Note on Sanskrit Non-Translatables. Retrieved from rajivmalhotra.com: https://rajivmalhotra.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/SanskritNonTranslatables.pdf
The Gospel Truth. (2010, June 18). The Bible teaches that human nature is mortal. Retrieved from The Gospel Truth: https://www.the-gospel-truth.info/the-bible-teaches-that-human-nature-is-mortal/
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). The Human Soul, Mortal or Immortal. Retrieved from Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania: https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1953526
[i] The astral plane is the level beyond the physical, the realm of dreams, spirits, and psychic phenomena, the substance and vehicle for contact between the material and the mystical. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/legal-and-political-magazines/astral-planes
[ii] Ectoplasm denotes a mysterious vaporlike substance that, Spiritualists claimed, streamed out of the body of entranced mediums. https://www.encyclopedia.com/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-and-general-terms/miscellaneous-religion/ectoplasm
[iii] Ouija boards are used by one or more people who place their fingers lightly on the indicator, which moves across the wooden board, seemingly involuntarily, from letter to letter, making words or sentences. The messages created during the game have been described as links to the spiritual world and/or the subconsciousness of the players. https://www.encyclopedia.com/media/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ouija-boards
[v] (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, n.d.)
[vi] The Little Mermaid, translated into English by Mrs. H. B. Paull in 1872), The Little Mermaid
[vii] (Bad News about Christianity, n.d.)
[viii] (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, n.d.)
[ix] (The Gospel Truth, 2010)
[xi] (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, n.d.)
[xii] (The Gospel Truth, 2010)
[xvi] (Singh & Natarajan, 2013)