The Yogic Conception of the Soul

What is the soul? Does such an entity exist, or is it merely a fiction of the religious imagination? Scientists are mainly concerned with the observation of objective phenomena, and are often inclined to dispense with the idea of a soul, or even of a mind in the generally accepted sense. A common tendency is to trace the functions and qualities that most of us might attribute to a soul or a mind, to the behaviour of nervous tissues lodged in the skull.

This scepticism as regards ‘soul’ is nothing new. In the time of the classical philosopher, Shankara, around 700 AD, there were already those who wished to reduce all the phenomena of consciousness to reactions of the body to external stimuli, and who also dismissed the hypothesis of either a soul outliving the body or a mind as we normally understand it.

Shankara pointed out that it was difficult to maintain this view. While the body changes from childhood to old age and is in fact changing minutely all the time, we have a sense of ourselves today, perhaps in old age, as identically the same person as we were as children. He regarded this element of changeless consciousness in us as eternal and also as immortal, from the mere fact of its being changeless. We feel ourselves to be the same perceiver in quite different times and circumstances, as is evidenced by the mere feeling ‘It was I who previously saw this.’ The presence within us of a changeless and in fact eternal and immortal consciousness separate from the body supplies, on Shankara’s view, the only possible explanation of memory.

The changes in the body are so slow that we do not notice them day to day, which encourages the illusion that the body is a solid object. It is only when we see a person after a long time that the transient nature of the body comes home to us. The writer remembers having seen a certain great singer early in his career, and then allowing some thirty years to pass before attending another of his performances—and being taken by surprise at the changes to his appearance wrought by time (as he, no doubt, would have been had the situation been reversed). But on Shankara’s doctrine, which is a reproduction of that of the Upanishads, the fundamental consciousness in both the singer and the writer was quite separate from the body and not really enclosed or limited by the evanescent ever-changing body. It had in fact remained identical and unlimited, the same immortal entity present in both the singer and the writer and in everyone and everything else. Consciousness in this eternal, changeless form, unlimited either in time or space, present always in all of us, is called the witness-consciousness. It is ever-present as the core of the human personality. But it is not to be identified with the ever-changing consciousness of everyday experience, of which it is the support.

This teaching is at the heart of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. Vedanta means that interpretation of the doctrine of the Upanishads that strictly preserves the fact that consciousness is always and everywhere changeless and identical, the one support of the whole panorama of plurality. It is known by different names, such as the Witness, or the Self, or as Consciousness, or as the Absolute, or the Supreme Spirit, only when spoken of in relation to different aspects of the realm of plurality, a realm which we are destined, one day, to realise as illusory, however firmly we may feel entrenched in it at present. In itself, the Self or Absolute has no name, and no name can apply to it. In practical terms, it can be best approached, as is well known, by the holy syllable OM.

For Advaita Vedanta, the true nature of a human being, as of everything else, is not a body or a mind or an individual soul, but this universal consciousness. One of the people who attained to a direct concrete apprehension of this truth in fairly recent times was Swami Rama Tirtha. About a hundred years ago he used to give lectures in America, and he knew that the general public would be likely to be incredulous if told that the whole world of plurality was a shadowy realm of illusion, so he tried to bring home to them that our resistance to this idea, both in theoretical and practical terms, is based on a narrow prejudice arising from our habitual self-identification with our individual mind and body.

In this respect, in one of his lectures he compares our behaviour to that of a spoilt child:

Children sometimes say, ‘I will eat from my special plate alone, I won’t have anything from any other plate.’ O children, see, it is not this particular plate alone which is yours. All the plates in the house, all the golden dishes are yours. If the people in this world come to know themselves, they will find their true Self to be God Almighty, to be the Infinite Power, but they have taken a fancy for this particular plate, this head, this brain. They feel, ‘Only what has been done by my brain has been done by me. What I have done through my mind is mine, all else I disclaim. I will only have that which is served to me on this particular plate.’ This is the source of all selfishness. It is the same as the mistake made by the prince when they asked him, ‘Where is your place?’, and he answered saying the name of the metropolis, the capital of his state. But the truth was, the whole state, the whole country was his, the magnificent landscape, the fairy scenes, the grand Himalayan scenery, were all his place and not just the particular small town in which he held court.

In another speech, he comments:

O where is the unflinching intrepidity of Vedanta once preached by Krishna and which sets us free of all timid regard, not only of the little body which we call ‘my own’, but exempts us from all weakening illusion that makes us attach undue importance to the bodies of father, uncle, grandfather and all relatives. Needed is the happy Vedanta which brings home the Imperishable Reality, the true Atman or Self, to such a degree that the Knower is not moved even if all the suns are hurled into annihilation and millions of worlds are melted into nothingness.

We have spoken of a single uniform principle of Consciousness, one single entity present in all of us, in which plurality rests as an illusory appearance. We have heard that it has various artificial names, such as the Witness, the Self, the Absolute and so on, though in fact it has no name. Amongst such names is that of Ishwara or the Lord, often used when the principle of reality is considered in relation to the world or the human individual. The ancient Upanishadic texts speak of the Lord as ‘entering’ into the human body as the soul. The philosopher Shankara was clear that this was mythological language. The ancient texts, he thought, do not always speak the literal truth. They say what is good for the student and will help him ultimately to understand the unity that lies at the back of all variety. He says that this kind of mythological statement is made rather in the way we say, ‘This will make your hair grow’ to recalcitrant children when we want them to drink milk.

In this connection, there is a passage in the Upanishads (Brihadaranyaka, 1:4:2) which says that the Self entered in ‘here’, meaning the human body, even to the tip of the nails, as a razor is hidden in a razor-case. This text comes in the context of teachings about the creation of the world. The idea is that the world is repeatedly projected and withdrawn again and again in inconceivably lengthy periods of time. This was a common belief in Shankara’s day. He himself, however, did not believe that from the highest standpoint it was a fact. He points to the fact that the various accounts of the creation that appear in the Upanishads are different from each other and incompatible with one another. He thinks that the fact that different accounts of the creation of the world are given in different Upanishads is part of the process of weaning the student from the idea that the creation of the world is a real process and not an illusion. They are deliberately made mutually contradictory, so as to imply that the creation they refer to is not anything real that actually happened in time.

If the idea that the creation of the world in which we live is a myth, the idea that the Supreme Self enters into the human body to the tip of the nails, as a razor is hidden in a razor-case, must also be a myth. The notion of a plurality of physical bodies is an illusion that appears before us from our own metaphysically ignorant standpoint.

However, the Vedanta, the Upanishadic teaching, does not start from the highest and final truth, but first descends to our ignorant standpoint of thinking that plurality is real, and proceeds, as Shankara puts it, like a compassionate mother, to raise us up to the final truth gradually. It devises deliberate myths that will be helpful to us on our journey, and then repudiates them either with texts that imply a contradiction, or a straightforward negation. If the accounts of the creation of the world are so many myths, then the doctrine of the entry of the Supreme Self into the human body must itself be a myth. There could be no real place in which the Supreme Self did not already exist and into which it could enter. But Shankara embraces the myth as useful for practical teaching, and embroiders on it to bring home a metaphysical point.

The point with which he is concerned is this. All of us have some direct knowledge of the universal Self, whether we acknowledge it or not. The mere fact that we are conscious and existent beings implies a direct experience of ourselves as the Supreme Self, but in a limited and distorted form, and limited by our self-identification with the individual body and mind. Our direct knowledge of ourselves as the Supreme Self is already achieved, but it requires to be purified by reflection and meditation.

However, as a helpful preliminary to this purification, there can be an indirect knowledge of the Self through inference, through reasoning. Reasoning will never give us more than an indirect knowledge of the Self. When we see smoke coming from a distant hill, reason can tell us that there must be a fire, but will never be able to give us direct perception of the fire. Similarly, reason can help convince us that the transcendent Self must exist within us, though it cannot yield a direct vision of the Self in its pure form.

Shankara himself amplifies the Upanishadic teaching about the universal Self by constructing a myth of his own, in which he personifies the Supreme Self and suggests its ‘thoughts’ as regards the act of ‘entering’ its creation. As we shall see, Shankara appeals to a fairly simple principle established by inference or reasoning. The principle is that everything that is composite, that is made of different elements put together, must have been put together deliberately by some conscious artificer to fulfil some purpose. For example, if you find stones lying about with no particular order or pattern, you take no notice; but if you find them arranged neatly in rows, you know that they must have been put there by some conscious being for some purpose. Even if it was only done for sport, the carefully arranged stones imply a conscious being at work and using them. And in so far as a physical body would have been needed to carry out the work, that also implies the presence of a conscious spirit, not ultimately identified with matter, for whom it operates as an instrument.

So Shankara treats the Upanishadic myth of the entry of the Supreme Self into the human body as a device to yield an inference that a Supreme Self must exist, that is separate from all the composite objects of the world, and so void of matter. To be sure, that inference cannot yield us direct knowledge of the Supreme Self. But the mere conviction through inference of the existence and presence within us of a Supreme Spirit strengthens our will to proceed with the discipline through which direct knowledge comes.

Direct knowledge of the Self is not the acquisition of anything new, but the purification of the limited and distorted knowledge of the Self we already have. When we become finally convinced through study, reflection, meditation and the grace of the Teacher that the objects of the world, including our own bodies, are transient, unreal appearances, we become aware of ourselves as Infinite Spirit, present in all.

Here are the words in which Shankara amplifies the myth of the entry of the Supreme Self into the body of the individual. He pictures the Supreme Self as talking to itself and saying:

If I do not enter into this aggregate of body and organs and observe the results of the activity of its organs such as speech and the rest, like a King coming into his city and taking careful note of what his officers have and have not been doing, then nobody will be able to know Me as existent, and of such and such a nature. But if I do come into the body as the Witness of the operations of its organs, I shall be able to be known as the one who perceives as an object the sounds made by the vocal organs, and is existent and of the nature of consciousness, and who is the one for whose sake this vocal and other activity proceeds on the part of the composite organs. For these composite organs, being composed of different elements mixed together, must, from the mere fact of having been composed, exist for the sake of another, just as the pillars and walls assembled to form a mansion must exist, along with their parts, to serve some non-composite being.

From what we have already considered, we know that the true nature of the soul is the infinite Spirit or Supreme Self, present everywhere. But the soul regarded as an individual soul is an inhabitant of the world of plurality in which we appear to live. If we think of the soul as the person who inhabits a body, then the soul is that person, and it survives the death of the body. Although the great religions of the world tend to agree that there is a conscious or potentially conscious element in the human being that survives the death of the body, they are not agreed as to its exact nature or its likely experiences after the death of the body, and even in one tradition beliefs may change down the centuries. But even if we cannot subscribe to everything believed by our forefathers about the after-life, this need not undermine our acceptance of the teachings of the great religions, backed and seconded as it is by the experience of many mystics, that we are eternal and immortal beings who survive the death of the physical body.

Thus the human soul is immortal, but not immortal as an individual soul. Shankara analyses the nature of the individual person to show that it must rest on a kind of metaphysical confusion. It consists in a changeless and an ever-changing element, respectively conscious and non-conscious, that must be radically different from each other, and yet are identified through confusion—hence our erroneous conviction that we are separate individuals. As long as we are under this delusion, we are taught in works like the Bhagavad Gita that the individual soul has to go on incarnating in new bodies, undergoing a continuing cycle of birth and death, birth and death, until finally the soul becomes aware of its own nature as the infinite Self and throws off the sense of identity with an individual body and mind and reincarnates no more. However, when a person gets this enlightenment, as it is called, the body continues to run its appointed course, though one no longer feels identified with it, or at any rate, can deliberately withdraw that feeling of identity at any time; this accounts for the presence in the world of great spiritual teachers who have been able to guide their pupils with a clear and steady eye, so to speak, and who have founded wisdom traditions that have lasted down the years through passing from teacher to pupil, and have been of lasting benefit to mankind.

It is not helpful to speculate on the after-life. ‘Your concern is with right action alone, not with its rewards’, says the Bhagavad Gita, and much of its teaching is concerned with tutoring us in wise action, without superfluous thought. But as the Gita teaches a doctrine of reincarnation, and our concern is with the yogic doctrine of the soul, we should perhaps refer at least briefly to the manner in which reincarnation is conceived in Vedanta.

Vedanta posits three individual bodies enclosing the individual soul. The physical body needs no special explanation, we know it well. Within the inconceivable mass of the universe consisting of stellar systems far and wide, the physical body is like a minute bubble or eddy in a vast ocean. It is a unity, but destined to dissolve back into the material from which it emerged in a very short space of time.

Vedanta posits a second body for the soul, destined to enclose it for life after life until the soul finally attains enlightenment, and then the subtle body also dissolves when the body in which enlightenment has been attained itself dies and yields itself back to the elements, dust to dust. According to the work called the Brahma Sutras, the soul that has acquired enlightenment may survive in some individualised form for special purposes, connected with the relief of others in this illusory realm of plurality. Like the physical body, the subtle body is a unity and an organism composed of matter, only the matter here is conceived as subtle matter. Subtle matter is imperceptible to our sense organs as they normally function, but is recognisable through its effects. When the subtle body withdraws from the physical body at death, we recognise its absence through the coldness and pallor that set in, in the physical body.

The subtle body is conceived as an individual unity comprising seventeen factors: the five powers of apprehension in the five sense-organs of perception, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling; the five powers of action expressed by the bodily work of walking with the feet, grasping with the hands, speech through the mouth, and the two main kinds of excretion; in addition to these ten organs of sense-experience and action, there are the five forms that the life-energy called prana assumes in the body, notably breathing, and also two functions of the mind: that of wavering between different ideas, called manas, and that of coming down with firm decision on one of them, called buddhi. These are the seventeen components of the subtle body according to the classical Vedanta.

The true Self, we have heard, is unchanging immortal consciousness, one and the same in all of us. But our individual physical body and subtle body are peculiar to us as long as they last in this realm of plurality and illusion. We know that the subtle body is not immortal, because it undergoes change. For example, it is always receiving new impressions from the perceptions of the sense-organs. It is not a second reality existing over against the Supreme Self, as it will ultimately have to be dismissed as a mere appearance and as an illusion. Yet, it has to be understood as different from the universal Self, as non-conscious, and requiring to be illumined by the Self to produce that reflection of true consciousness that is the source of the consciousness that reveals our worldly state and supports our bodily and mental functions. Although our unity as an individual soul is only an individual unity, it comes to us ultimately from the unity of the universal supreme Self. Our individual unity is the unity of the Supreme Self as reflected in that parcel of subtle matter that makes up the highest function of our mind, the buddhi. Since the buddhi consists of the subtlest matter in the human organism, it is the first part to catch a reflection of the Supreme Self. Shankara writes:

An emerald or other precious stone, when thrown into milk or the like to test it, imparts its own particular sheen to the milk. In a similar way, the light of the universal Self, being more subtle even than the individual buddhi, stands within the latter in the heart and unifies the heart and the whole assemblage of organs and limbs, imparting to them the sheen of its own light. For it is the inmost principle of all, and they transmit this sheen one to another, since they form a hierarchical series descending from the more subtle to the more gross.

The buddhi, he continues, receives a reflection of the light of the Self as pure Consciousness first, since it is transparent and stands in immediate proximity to the Self. Hence even persons of discrimination identify themselves first of all with the buddhi. Consciousness next illumines manas, the lower mind, as the next inmost principle in the soul, and does so mediately through its contact with the buddhi. Consciousness next illumines the sense-organs mediately through its contact with the manas—the lower, wavering function of the mind. And next it illumines the body through the body’s contact with the sense-organs. And in this way the entire psycho-physical organism is illumined by a reflection of the light of pure Consciousness in successive stages. And thus it is that everyone identifies himself with this or that part of the psycho-physical organism, and with this or that function of its various organs, according to the progress in or limitation of our powers of discrimination.

Though Shankara does not spell it out in the same way, it is the reflection of the light of the universal Spirit that unifies the subtle body as well, and, thus unified as an individual entity, it serves as the vehicle for the soul in its transition from one body to another in the course of reincarnation.

The American philosopher William James used to say that there was hardly any need of a recording angel, as all our deeds and thoughts lie registered in our nervous system anyway. The subtle body, too, being composed of matter, even if it is subtle matter, can and does receive impressions of all our thoughts and deeds, and thereby retains a record of them, and it is according to our thoughts and deeds recorded in the subtle body that we qualify for reincarnation in what is called a higher or lower womb.

Commenting on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4:3:20, Shankara clearly says that the impressions from which our experience in later lives will spring up lie in the subtle body. But this function was in later times attributed to a third body, the causal body, the catch-all abode of the impressions of all our thoughts and deeds from all lives. From the vast array of seeds lying in the causal body, only a few are required to sustain our next life, and the activation of these is presided over by Ishvara, the Lord or God.

Fixed as we are before enlightenment in a world of plurality, we have to posit God as its controller to account for the inevitability of its rules and laws and of the order that prevails, even if, in the end, it will be seen and realised that He was not really a controller, since there is no world of plurality for Him to control. Equally, as long as the world is real for us, God must be accepted as its ruler, to account for the element of order in the world. And it is God who supervises the awakening of the seeds left by some of our myriad thoughts and deeds, so that they come together to form the basis of a new life in a new womb. The process is not mechanical, and the seeds are not endowed with consciousness, will or instinct to select themselves to come together as the subtle body in a future life.

The first half of this article is an attempt to show how the Vedanta philosophers teach that what the human soul will turn out to be is the universal Spirit or Consciousness that pervades the illusory universe as its support. In the second half we heard a little about how the Vedanta philosophers speak when they come down for our benefit into the world of plurality in which we appear to live. At this level, they speak of a subtle body, held together by a reflection of the Supreme Self, passing from gross body to gross body through reincarnation. The more we act in conformity with the moral teaching of the Veda, the better our chance of coming into the saving grace of a God-realised teacher in this life or the next, who may be able to guide us effectively to that peace beyond all understanding—the ultimate fulfilment, which reincarnation in the world can never give.


This article is from the Winter 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.