The Soul Facts of Hinduism

Individual Self or Soul

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the nature of the soul or the Self according to Hinduism, and the method by which you may cultivate self-awareness to achieve liberation or self-realization.

Soul is one of the most frequently used words in common usage. It is also the least understood. People use it both literally and figuratively to refer to a person, his heart or his divinity. Most of us believe that the soul is hidden in each person, but we cannot exactly describe what it is and where it exists. The word divides the world into two camps, those who believe in it and those who do not.

The former groups are further divided, depending upon their beliefs and assumptions about souls. According to some all beings have souls and according to others only humans possess them. Some traditions believe that it is a subtle body hidden within the physical body and has the same form and shape as the latter. In Hinduism we believe that it is beyond the subtle body and very different from both. Almost all religious people believe that the soul survives the death and continues its existence in the afterlife.

Our knowledge of the souls comes to us mostly from the scriptures. Although we are intellectually or conceptually familiar with it, we do not know much about it. It is one of the secrets which resides in us but does not easily reveal itself to us. Many people think about the soul when they watch horror movies or think of mediums, ghosts, spirits, death, graveyards and haunted houses. A lot of superstition and fear are also associated with our knowledge of souls. Overcoming the fear of death and ghosts is one of the major themes of Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practices.

Soul questions

The following are some of the important questions regarding the soul, which are worth contemplating. There are no definite answers to them since they depend upon your religious beliefs, knowledge and understanding. If you want to know the nature of Soul, you must think about them and find answers to them either on your own or by learning from the wise masters or by both. As one of the scriptures of Hinduism declares, the Self is known to the one whom the Self chooses. In other words, you must reach a stage in your self-transformation and spiritual progress to become receptive to the knowledge of the Self. According to the Bhagavadgita only one in a million or so achieve that state, and that also after several births.

  • What is a soul? Is it an entity, consciousness, an individuality or a specific kind of energy field, consciousness or subjectivity?
  • Can we distinguish one soul from another? Do they have distinct shapes, sizes and will of their own?
  • How does the soul experience its individuality and oneness with God at the same time?
  • How does the soul come into existence and where does it go when it is liberated from the body?
  • What happens to a soul after the death of an individual, and when it reincarnates in another form?
  • How does a soul become entangled in a body, and why does it to suffer for so long before it is liberated?
  • Is it possible to transfer a soul from one body to another, or to communicate with them through a medium?
  • 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?

The Soul and no Soul

One of the notable differences between Hinduism and Buddhism is that Hinduism believes in the existence of an eternal, indestructible soul or Atman whereas Buddhism believes in the nonexistence of soul, no soul or not-self (anatma or anatta). However, both believe in the idea of liberation (moksha or nirvana). According to Hinduism liberation means the release of the individual soul from the cycle of births and deaths (samsara) whereas Buddhism regards liberation as the total destruction of the individuality or temporary Self.

In Hinduism, the soul is usually called the Self, since it has no identifiable attributes. The Self is the same in all. Hence, it is indistinguishable. It is also considered an aspect of the Supreme Self or the Supreme Self itself. Whatever distinction appears in the beings is because of their individuality (the ego or not-self) which arises as a projection and envelops the true Self. For convenience, in this essay we will use both words, self and soul, interchangeably.

The Soul nature

Any question about the soul is difficult to answer because according to Hinduism the soul (Atma) is beyond the mind and the senses. Hence, it is considered ungraspable, indescribable and transcendental. It is the subject, the ultimate enjoyer of all. Hence, it can be subjectively experienced in a state of self-absorption but cannot accurately be objectified in the state of duality. The speculative philosophies of Hinduism or the Darshnas attempt to answer them. However, they are not unanimous in their interpretation of the nature of the soul or its relationship with God.

The soul has no materiality, no form or physicality. It is very much like space without the transformative energy. However, it is not a void. It is an eternal constant, which is complete in all respects and self-aware. In your state of duality, you may vaguely feel its presence in moments of inspiration, or on occasions when you had a déjà vu like experience.

Intense emotional or spiritual experience can stir your soul and give you a momentary glimpse of its transcendental state. That alone can become a life altering experience for you as it happened to many. It is your observing and experiencing part, the witness consciousness, of which you become aware only in deep moments of equanimity, when you are silent or introspective and when your mind and body are at rest. You do not notice it when you are interacting with the world, and your mind is busily preoccupied with worldly concerns.

The Self is described in the Upanishads as infinite, eternal, indestructible, indescribable, indivisible, indistinguishable, pure, radiant, free, pure consciousness, highest intelligence, like a particle, smaller than the smallest or larger than the largest, pure light of the size of the thumb, and so on. As you can see, these abstract descriptions do not help us much to understand the true nature of the Self. The Upanishads also suggest that the Self resides either in the heart or between the eyebrows but pervades the whole body and beyond.

Silence and the soul

The scriptures unanimously agree that the soul is pure consciousness, without distinguishing qualities, modes or gunas, and any individuality. It is the substratum of your consciousness or the deepest aspect of your being. You cannot reach the Self except through the doors of silence. In yogic terms, silence means the silence of the mind and body, of all desires, cravings, attachments, yearnings, needs, wants, dependence, emotions, fears, care and concerns and so on.

When you become a muni (the silent hermit), you are truly qualified to know the Self. Hence, the practice of silence has such a great significance in the spiritual practices and yogic methods of Hinduism. Silence is the support for the aspiring souls. Through silence one goes beyond the mind and the senses into the realm of the transcendental Self.

If you silence the outer layers of your consciousness, which are mostly the creations of the mind and the senses, and if you strip your consciousness of all notions of individuality, duality, movement, separation, desire, distinction, ownership, attachment, limitation, emotion, feeling, instinct, name, form, relationships and such other modifications, whatever remains thereafter in a stable state may be considered the representative state of your soul.

It is perhaps the nearest approximation to the state of the Self from the mental or intellectual perspective. Hence, as the Yoga tradition upholds, as long as your mind and body are active you cannot experience the Self. To become the Self or experience it, you must completely silence your mind and rest it in tranquility. When the not-self is completely silenced through dhyana and other transformative practices, the Self appears. When the modifications of the mind (citta) are completely suppressed, one becomes absorbed in the Self.

God and soul

A diversity of opinion exists about their relationship between God and individual souls. According to some traditions, God is the creator, and the individual souls are either his creations or projections. They depend upon him for their existence as well as liberation and are withdrawn at the end of each cycle of creation. They are either the same or notionally different or entirely different from God.

Some schools of Hinduism such as the Samkhya and Yoga schools do not believe in the existence of God or his role as the Creator. According to them, only the individual souls exist. They are eternal, uncreated, self-existing, infinite and imperishable. Through a random process, they are drawn into the field of Nature and subject to bondage, from which they can escape only through an arduous, transformative process.

Soul confusion

It is difficult to prove which of these schools of opinions are correct, because no one can truly translate the subjective experience of the Self into objective terms. In other words, you cannot objectify the Self which is transcendental and beyond the intellect. It is more problematic than even remembering your dreams. If two individuals go through the same transcendental experience, the chances are they may differently describe it according to their knowledge, awareness and intelligence.

The human mind is like a sieve. It has a tendency to filter the sensory information according to its vocabulary, idiom and imagery. If you do not know something, probably you may not even recognize it or you may mistake it for something else. Probably a similar mechanism filters our transcendental experiences and translates them into the language we understand. For example, a child, an illiterate person and a scientist may all witness the same meteorite in the sky and draw different conclusions.

After an intense spiritual experience, a worshipper of Shiva may attribute his experience to him and use the knowledge and imagery associated with him or his sect to interpret it. In almost all spiritual experiences, when a person returns from a transcendental state, his subconscious mind throws up appropriate imagery to reinforce his knowledge and beliefs or his methods. It is why spiritual experiences are not universal but mostly subjective and difficult to explain.

The knowledge of the Self thus enters the conscious mind through a sieve or belief system so that one can make sense of that experience which happens beyond or without the mind. Therefore, we are advised by the self-realized yogis not to dwell too much upon such experiences or describe them in public so that one will not knowingly or unknowingly entertain false expectations or self-induced delusions.

From self-awareness to self-realization

Self-awareness is critical to self-realization. Self-awareness is the awareness that you are pure consciousness, without any movement or modification. It arises from the knowledge, which is gained through study and pure observation. The idea must become an integral part of your thinking and behavior, which may take time.

The scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita or the Upanishads are a great place to start your spiritual study. If you study them with a reflective mind, you will develop your own critical mind, which is essential to purify your intelligence and cultivate discernment. Mindfulness is another important tool. Use it to study your own behavior, understand the causes behind your actions, reactions and emotions and make right decisions.

As your knowledge increases, the idea that you are pure consciousness rather than your body becomes firmly established in you, and as you discipline your mind and body and engage in contemplative practices and self-cleansing, you gain control over the modifications of your mind and body. With increased awareness, discipline and control, you will succeed in stabilizing your mind in the thoughts of the Self. These are the initial steps. Thereafter, your progress depends upon your sincerity and resolve and your karma.

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