Soul, see also Atma, Self, Spirit
Atma means the self or the soul. This is what we really are—the spiritual spark inside our body—as distinct from what we mistakenly think we are—our body and mind. Generally we think of ourselves in terms of the various labels we've had pinned on us—American, English, Christian, Hindu, white, black, liberal, conservative, father, mother, Jones, Smith, man, woman, or whatever. But these are only temporary tags. Time unpins them and replaces them with new ones. After all, the label is different from the merchandise.
Therefore, although atma sometimes refers to one's temporary body, mind, or intelligence, the atma is ultimately the eternal consciousness (the spirit, or soul) that is present within the body of every living being. This atma—higher than the senses, the mind, and even the intelligence—is most mysterious and subtle.
(The painting shows how our bodies may be different, but the soul, atma, is what we all have in common.)
Spirit and matter are two seemingly incompatible things which, when combined, make up "the world as we know it."
Basic qualities of spirit: permanent, conscious, always satisfied and blissful. Basic qualities of matter: temporary, unconscious, subject to adverse conditions.
For example, I—the person, the spirit—feel that I exist. My senses collect data, and I experience those things. Life isn’t always easy or pleasurable, but I tend to avoid pain when I can, and hope for as much pleasure as I can get.
My body—made of biodegradable stuff called "matter"—came into being at a certain time and isn’t going to last forever. If I don’t make it move, my body wouldn’t go anywhere. Other physical conditions (nutritional, environmental) must also be constantly met in order for the body to continue to exist at all.
How I got into this body is another long story. But at some point—I’m not sure when—I will have to exit this body and go somewhere else. Where I will go is also another story, but when I leave it, the body will cease to function.
Spirit is the essence, the active principle in every living being. Without spirit, matter can’t do anything. Matter is the stuff bodies are made of, the stuff that makes up the whole universe.
The difference between spirit and matter is similar to the difference between a driver and a car: Car minus driver equals "parked car."
Sometime in the 1730’s, a young Scottish philosopher tried, and failed, to find himself. David Hume reflected upon this experience in his first book, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). The passage is much quoted and anthologized. I encountered it frequently as an undergraduate philosophy major, for my teachers regarded it as a watershed in Western philosophy. They revered David Hume—progenitor of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense style of empiricism they professed—and they amused their classes by reproducing in a Scottish burr a famous remark by the great philosopher’s mother: “Oor Davie’s a fine, good-natured crater, but uncommon wake-minded.”
Well, sons are sometimes hard on mothers, too. That was why I had the afternoon last fall to take my two grandsons in a search for the self, some 260 years after Davie had looked in vain. This Saturday my harried daughter needed a break, so my wife and I were at her house trying to load Parameshvara (age five), Bhaktivinoda (three and a half), and all their weekend gear into our car. In the midst of a great deal of coming and going, Parameshvara and I found ourselves at one point alone together in the car. We chatted. I was struck once more by how bright this lanky, tow-headed boy was, and I wondered how much of the philosophy of Krishna consciousness he understood. I decided to begin with what Srila Prabhupada called the “first lesson.”
Making sure I had his attention, I said, “Parameshvara, do you know you’re not your body?”
“I’m not?” he exclaimed in amazement. He looked at me expectantly, awaiting explanation.
“That’s right. You’re not. You’re the soul, the spirit soul.”
He knew plenty of Krishna stories, but, it seemed, no philosophy. Was he too young? His astonishment told me he was ready—my statement didn’t just go past him or bewilder him. Yet how could I get him to understand the soul? I did not want him simply reciting stock, catechistic responses that had no meaning for him.
Before I could go any further we were interrupted: “Jaga! Jaga! Help me!”
This was Bhaktivinoda, stranded on the sidewalk with a spill of paraphernalia, calling his older brother, whose in- house name is “Jaga” or “Jaga-bear.” (I can’t tell you why.) After we had packed the trunk and settled back-seat territorial disputes, Jaga went back inside to look for the trip snack-bag, leaving me alone with Bhaktivinoda, or, conveniently, “T-Node.” T-Node is a roly-poly kind of kid with a pale, circular face that’s surrounded by a sunburst of curly hair so blonde it’s nearly white. A toddler’s lisp overlays his low, gravelly voice.
I had him alone: How would someone this young respond? Would he be interested at all?
“T-Node,” I asked in a serious voice, “do you know you’re not your body?”
“I’m not?” he exclaimed at once, his eyes wide with astonishment. He looked up at me, waiting.
“No, you’re not. When Jaga comes back I’ll explain it.” I began making plans.
My wife agreed to drive, and by the time we made the turnpike I was ready. I had remembered how Srila Prabhupada had taught some schoolchildren and decided to try it.
I twisted around to face the boys in the back seat. “Now I’ll show you that you’re not your body. First stick your pointing finger out straight, like this. OK? Good. Now just do what I tell you. Ready?”
They were; they were into it.
“Now: point to your nose!” I pointed to my nose, Jaga to his, T-Node to his.
“Now point to your belly!” We all did. I led them through a sequence: elbow, eye, foot, knee, chest …
(Once they got going I stopped pointing.) I hammed it up a bit and gradually gained speed until I reached the punchline: “Now point to your self!” Consternation. Pointing fingers waved about aimlessly, eyebrows knit together in bafflement. They laughed … “What? What?” Jaga said, his finger looping around like a bottled-up fly.
“See!” I said. “You can’t point to yourself. That’s because you are not your body! You’re the soul.”
T-Node was thunderstruck; he had clearly undergone an intellectual breakthrough. His face was lit up with the wonder of discovery.
“Do it again! Do it again!” T-Node begged. We went through the sequence a few times, and each time it worked to both boys’ satisfaction. “I’m not my body,” I heard T-Node saying to himself. “I am the soul.” It seemed to sound right to him.
But I felt an unease, a mental chill, almost a presence. It was the ghost of David Hume. With suave, measured tones that nicely set off a hint of contempt, I heard the words of the Treatise announcing the position about to be demolished:
“There are some philosophers who imagine we are every moment intimately conscious of what we call our self.…”
But where, Hume asks, could we get the idea of a self from? All real ideas are based on “impressions”—on sensations, passions, or emotions. We must be able to analyze or dissect ideas down to show ultimately the impressions that produced them. If we cannot, then the so-called idea is meaningless. What impression, Hume asks, is responsible for the idea of a single, simple, enduring, changing self?
If any impression gives rise to the idea of self, that impression must continue invariably the same, through the whole course of our lives; since self is supposed to exist after that manner. But there is no impression constant and invariable. Pain and pleasure, grief and joy, passions and sensations succeed each other, and never all exist at the same time. It cannot therefore be from any of these impressions, or from any other, that the idea of self is derived; and consequently there is no such idea.
Yet don’t we need a self to possess or unify all our particular impressions? Well, where is it?
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.
A person may attest that he perceives “something simple and continued, which he calls himself,” Hume says, “though I am certain there is no such principle in me.” Setting such “metaphysicians” aside, Hume affirms that humans “are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”
Haunted by Hume, I kept on conversing with the metaphysicians in the back seat while the Pennsylvania croplands poured away behind them. They were learning to discriminate between matter and spirit. I held a rubber ball in my hand and beat it with a fist.
“See? I can hit it over and over again—hard—and it never goes ‘Ow!’ It never cries. But if I hit you”—they bobbed away from my slow-motion punch—”you’ll feel it. You’ll cry. That’s because there is a soul—you—in your body. But there’s no soul in this ball.”
“This morning Jaga hit me and made me cry,” T- Node said.
“If you hit a cat or dog, it feels it,” Jaga quickly put in. “It is also a spirit soul.”
“Even ants or spiders,” I added.
T-Node looked down guiltily. He’s been known to step on ants on purpose.
How could Hume have missed himself? Was he being willfully obtuse? Imagine him conducting an inventory of his mental contents, like an auctioneer appraising the contents of an estate up for sale. He walks through each room, examining each object. Picking it up, setting it down. Looking for something in particular. “Is this myself? Is this? Is this?” After an exhaustive search, he reports—truthfully enough—that he didn’t find it.
But who is looking? Who is inspecting this memory, this joy, this love, this fear, this regret, this ambition, this or that train of thought? David, you could not find your self in all that because none of that, taken separately or all together, is your self. The self is not the seen but the seer, not the experience but the experiencer. You are not even David Hume, but rather the experiencer of being David Hume.
Teaching my grandsons had given me a new insight into the Treatise. Like T-Node and Jaga, David Hume had been playing the pointing game. T-Node and Jaga played by pointing to different parts of their bodies, while David played by pointing to different parts of his mind—the subtle body. I could take Davie through it point by point, running through the inventory of mental goods, until: “Point to your self!” And the indexical Human finger wavers, finding no object. “See!” I’d say. “You’re not your mind. You’re the spirit soul.”
For we are no more to be identified with our minds than with our bodies. The mind belongs to the category of the not- self as much as the body does. Both mind and body are material, the former being merely finer or subtler than the latter. Vedic seers know this, but Western philosophers have conflated the spiritual and the mental; “mind” and “soul” are synonymous. David Hume discovered in the Treatise that the mind was not the self, but he drew a false conclusion: there was no self, no soul, at all.
My grandsons were doing better:
“What happens if I attack the soul with ninja swords?”
“Nothing! It can’t be cut!”
“What happens if I drop a huge rock on it?”
“It can’t be smashed!”
“What happens if I put a blowtorch to it?”
“It can’t be burnt!”
“How can I kill the soul?”
“You can’t! You can’t kill the soul!”
They were good students. They made me wish I had Davie in my class along with them. I thought about that. Since the presence of such a great philosopher might intimidate me, I would want his mother along too. She sounded like a formidable woman, and she seemed to know her son.
A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Srila Prabhupada: The Lord says, mamaivamsho jiva-loke jiva-bhutah sanatanah. Find this verse.
Disciple: All right, Srila Prabhupada. That’s in Bhagavad-gita. Fifteenth Chapter, text seven. “The living entities in this conditional world,” Krishna says, “are My eternal, fragmental parts.” And then He adds, manah-shashthanindriyani prakriti-sthani karshati: “Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.”
Srila Prabhupada: So the soul uses his mind and intelligence—his subtle senses, his subtle instruments—to manipulate his gross machine, his material body. In this way, he is just like an airplane pilot who uses his subtle electronic instruments to manipulate his gross machine, causing it to fly this way or that. Where is the difficulty in understanding this? This material body in which we are now living is simply a machine.
And bhramayan sarva-bhutani: “All living beings in this material world are simply wandering.” Bhramayan—”wandering.” Just as the pilot uses his airplane to wander here or there, so the soul uses his material body to wander here or there. This is going on. Urdhvam gacchanti sattva-stha … adho gacchanti tamasah: Sometimes the soul goes up; sometimes, down. Just as the pilot uses his airplane’s wings and other features for going up or down, so the soul uses his body’s arms and other features for going up or down. Find this verse.
Disciple: That’s in the fourteenth chapter of the Gita, Srila Prabhupada. Text eighteen.
urdhvam gacchanti sattva-stha
madhye tishthanti rajasah
adho gacchanti tamasah
“Those situated in the mode of goodness gradually go upward to the higher planets; those in the mode of passion live on the earthly planets; and those in the abominable mode of ignorance go down to the hellish worlds.”(Bhagavad-gita, 14.18)
Srila Prabhupada: So whether we look at the soul in the body or the pilot in the plane, we see the same thing. If the pilot is not expert, then at an untimely moment he goes down to the lowest place. Finished. Adho gacchanti tamasah. If the pilot is third class, then instead of flying high, he plummets from the sky, and everything is spoiled.
Therefore, everything depends on the pilot. The machine is not so important. The machine can go up if the pilot knows how to do it. And the machine can go down. Actually, this is happening. If the pilot cannot handle his machine very nicely, immediately it will be smashed. That is due to the mismanagement of the pilot. At times I have seen that as soon as the flight is over, the other passengers and the crew applaud. [Laughter as Srila Prabhupada claps.] “The danger is over.”
Anyway, urdhvam and adhah: Depending on how you use this bodily machine, you can go up, and likewise, you can go down. And madhye tishthanti rajasah: If you become passionately attached to these middle planets, then for still another lifetime you can stay here.
So in this way, we must present this subject matter of self- realization. The living entity, the soul, is the important thing within this body. And just see how he’s struggling. Due to ignorance of his real identity apart from the body, he’s struggling. Manah shashhanindriyani prakriti-sthani karshati: “On account of being entangled in this material world, the soul is struggling very hard with the six senses of the material body, which include the mind.” This is his position.
Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, often you say that transmission of this knowledge of self-realization requires both the proper speaker—Lord Krishna or His pure devotee—and also the proper hearer.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Only if somebody is interested in knowing the truly important thing in life can he understand this knowledge, this science of self-realization. But if he’s an animal—simply eating, sleeping, and mating—what will he understand? An animal is not interested in knowing how the world is working. He gets his food and sex; that’s all. These are the animal’s propensities.
But when the soul receives a human body, he must come to the human platform—inquisitive. Like Sanatana Goswami, he must ask, ‘ke ami,’ ‘kene amaya jare tapa-traya’: “Who am I? Why must I endure all these miseries, culminating in death?” Of course, the modern animalistic human is not interested in these essential questions. Instead he inquires, “How shall I develop my economic position?” But Sanatana Goswami already had a very high-grade economic position and left it behind. He was not interested in such temporary affairs. He was interested in knowing, ‘ke ami,’ ‘kene amaya jare tapa- traya’: “Who, actually, am I? And what is my position? Why I am suffering in this material atmosphere?” That is human life.
Disciple: Returning to Bhagavad- gita, Srila Prabhupada, isn’t it also true that Arjuna asks these questions?
Srila Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Karpanya- doshopahata. Karpanya-dosha. “Due to miserly weakness, my dear Krishna, I have neglected my real duty, which is to understand my actual, spiritual self and then serve You. Rather, I have been thinking about the bodily welfare of my nonsensical relatives and teachers, even though they are waging a war to usurp my kingdom. What is this foolishness? I know that.
“After all, no matter how tender my sentiments, what benefit will these rascals get? It may be that they are going to die in this war. But sooner or later, this way or that, they are going to die. What can I do? So therefore, why am I perplexed about their bodily fate? I know that this is my defect. I cannot cause these living entities’ deaths or births, nor can I prolong their lives. All this is beyond my tiny jurisdiction. Still, I am anxious: If I kill them, then what will happen? What will happen?”
“You may kill them or not kill them, Arjuna,” says Krishna. “But rest assured, they’ll be killed, today or tomorrow. Gatasun agatasumsh ca nanushocanti panditah: A learned man knows that this material body will be finished, today or tomorrow—so why be concerned about this body?”
Concern should be for the person within the body—whether he’s going to heaven or hell, up or down, urdhvam gacchanti or tamo gacchanti. This is the issue of real concern. The material body will be finished, today or tomorrow or after a hundred years. Who can protect it? But one should be concerned about the body’s owner: where he is going—what will be his next position. And in Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna clearly delineates this issue. Urdhvam gacchanti sattva-stha, madhye tishthanti rajasah, … adho gacchanti tamasah: According to the modes of nature in which you are living your present life, you are deciding whether, in your next life, you will go up or down or remain in the same status. Three outcomes are possible: up, down, or the same status.
Disciple: Today, though, Srila Prabhupada, people may say, “I have a soul,” but they live pretty degradedly, as if “Really, I am this material body—that’s all there is.” They live as if they’ll have no next life. Or they think in the next life they’re automatically going upward, because, they say, they’ve accepted God or Jesus or Muhammad into their heart. Meanwhile, they go on breaking God’s laws all over the place and just generally catering to their bodily whims. Just living a low-grade life.
Srila Prabhupada: Therefore, they’re rascals. And for the rascals, Bhagavad-gita’s teaching is there. Learn. People are giving far too much emphasis on the material body: “When this current body is finished, everything is finished.” They do not know anything beyond the body. But real knowledge begins when we learn, “No—you are beyond this body.” This is real knowledge. This is the beginning of knowledge. Any other knowledge except this—that is ignorance. People are accepting ignorance as knowledge.