Chapter 5 Part 1: The Ancient Debate – Does the Soul Exist?

“My soul knows that it is immortal. But you take a dead body to pieces and cry triumphantly, ‘Where is your soul and where is your immortality?’”[1]

The controversy about the existence or non-existence of the soul is as old as the ages. The Katha Upanishad which deals specifically with this issue of death in great detail, starts with this query itself:

देवैरत्रापि  विचिकित्सितं  पुरा  न  हि  सुविज्ञेयमणुरेष  धर्मः।
अन्यं वरं नचिकेतो वृणीष्व मा मोपरोत्सीरति मा सृजैनम्॥२१॥
Even by the gods was this debated of old;
for it is not easy of knowledge, since very subtle is the law of it.[2]

There have been schools of thought in ancient India who did not believe in any life other than this material one. Notable among these was the philosophy of Charvaka whose sole injunction to men was to eat, drink and be merry since there is no hereafter. And why not, since if material reality is the only reality and if this matter is nothing more than a chance and accidental combination of chemicals and gases, then there is no sense in any other impulse except to enjoy life regardless of consequences to oneself or others, till dust bites dust. The Charvakas continue to exist even today in another form and name, but so do the Nachiketas[3] and the seekers and seers of greater and deeper truths. And there is also this aspiration in man, an aspiration not just for joy but also for peace and truth and love and beauty and perfection and permanence. The whole story of evolution, the intelligible and intelligent order that drives the atoms and the stars, all point towards a Cosmic Intelligence and Being working within the heart of the Universe. How will the ancient controversy be resolved? By an improvement in the instruments that record events? By instruments that are sensitive enough to record subtler truths? By an unprecedented development of the human consciousness? By not just a few exceptional individuals but in the generality of the race? In our present state of collective ability (or inability) for knowing, we can choose to trust and then explore till faith turns into concrete and effective knowledge. Or else we can choose not to trust and thereby justify our blindness ad infinitum. For one thing is certain — if we never seek, we will be unlikely to find the truth even if it were to stand right before our eyes!

In other words, the issue of existence of the soul as with all subtle and profound truths cannot be settled by an armchair discussion or a seminar and debate in the prestigious centers of learning. For even the most esteemed centers of excellence excel only in the mental domain and have little knowledge as yet of what lies beyond the range of our embarrassingly limited senses. This limitation is our common inheritance as a race, just as the limitation of spoken language is the common inheritance of the animal world. However, at least in the case of the human being, we have also inherited a hidden but deep urge to overcome our shortcomings and in this case, it is the possibility of exploring and realising deeper truths within us. But before we turn towards that let us first settle some of the common arguments of the die-hard materialist who does not believe in the presence of the soul. The arguments are as given below:

Argument No.1: The soul does not exist since I do not see it. This can be stated semi-humorously with a limerick —

‘My name is Benjamin Jovit
I am a graduate from Bellial college
All that is knowledge I know it
And all that I do not know is not knowledge.’

Fair enough. But the real question is — have we tried to truly see it. Not all can see the electron. And many have not seen even what lies beyond the boundaries of their native place. This constant belief upon the testimony of our senses is a frightful slavery. For our senses only weave reality and not reveal it as it is. This is now known to science, which has hence graduated from the science of appearances to the science of probing deeper truths. Spiritual science also does the same, only it goes still deeper since it does away even with the limitations of physical instruments on which material science relies so much.

Argument No. 2: These ‘deeper truths’ are not verifiable. The truths of the soul are both subjectively as well as objectively verifiable. The soul can be felt as well as seen. That has been the constant truth of all yogic experience. Of course this verification cannot be done in the material way, that is to say you cannot reproduce the soul in a test tube much as you cannot reproduce many other things like feelings and thoughts. The laboratory in which the soul is tested is not the physical but a psychological one; it is the grand laboratory of our own nature which has been created as a testing ground for the soul. The ‘deeper truths’ and existence of the soul can be verified if one fulfills the conditions necessary for discovering it.

Argument No. 3: Even if it is there it is experienced by the few. This is also not true. While the full experience of the soul takes time and patient effort to develop, its results are felt fairly commonly in life. It is only because we are ignorant of the reason and conditioned negatively against it that we choose to ignore it or else call it a chance factor. In fact according to occult experience we get in touch every night with our soul. The common experience is that so often we wake up in the morning to find many of our problems sorted out somehow. We feel better and positive once again (except of course in states of active illness). The reason is that the soul’s contact for a few moments is enough to rejuvenate us. That apart, moments of spontaneous trust in life, the feeling of gratitude, courage that is fearless in the face of death, an attraction towards beauty and truth and good, an impulse towards God and Freedom and Unity and Harmony, all true love for the sake of love, noble generosity and self-giving, the repulsion against hypocrisy and falsehood, inspirational thoughts and poetry with a sublime touch in it, genuine faith and compassion… all owe their origin to the soul. These qualities are not a product of the mind and even a most brilliant mind or a strong vital devoid of the soul’s touch will not possess it. They develop like so many flowers only when the soul within us begins to grow and actively participate in our life.

But even where these things are not present or their opposites abound, it is not that the soul is absent, but merely that it is as yet dormant or underdeveloped. As a tree sleeps inside the hard shell of a seed, as the body of a giant sleeps shut in a tiny little gene, as the universe and a billion stars and galaxies slept in a single concentrated point before the big bang, as a tremendous power sleeps within the smallest atom, so too this little baby-god sleeps in humanity. There it is nurtured by nature through many cycles of birth, fed by the milk of life-experience till it wakes up one day and reclaims its kingdom. The only certain way of knowing the truths of the soul is not through mental debates; one has to find the soul, as a physical scientist takes pains to discover the hidden structure of the unseen and unfelt atom, or as an adventurer undertakes the arduous and hazardous journey for discovering new continents. And all who have undertaken this have found the effort and the labour worthwhile. After all, the soul is not some cheap imitation gem which can be found easily in a nearby Sunday mart. There is a price for it and the price is not easy for the human consciousness which does not know what it is exactly bargaining for. The price of discovering this true and immortal self in us is to give up the insistence of the false ‘I’, the surface soul made up of ego and desire. This is what Yama tests Nachiketas for, tempting him with many a boon to satisfy his earthly longings and desires. But when Nachiketas turns down the offers one by one, he is then found by death to be a fit candidate for inquiring into the nature of the soul.

Which brings us back to the question — what is the soul? Most of us use the term confusedly. Firstly, it is confused with some higher parts of our mind, especially in modern psychology which uses the two terms soul and mind as if interchangeably. It is true that in many human beings the soul is involved (stationed for experience, hidden as it were) in the mind and expresses itself indirectly through mental movements, through the word so to say. Yet the two are as distinct as the sun and the moon in relation to the earth. In our night, the moon reflects and thereby represents the sun. Both hang in the sky, and the moon being closer feels as a more important part of us. Yet all its light is a borrowed one. When the sun shines, the illusion disappears and we know the source that had lit up the moon and helped us journey through the night.

The second confusion is with any non-material reality, like ghosts and disembodied beings, which the Western occultists often use the word soul and spirit for. Indeed the soul is non-material or better still, composed of a substance differently organised than our matter, a fourth dimension vibration-energy. But while it is indestructible, these other non-material entities like ghosts and disembodied beings can be dissolved and have a term of life after which they disintegrate and disappear.

A third confusion is by the present day humanist whose belief in higher things is coloured by the scientifically sceptic temper of our times. Therefore it replaces soul with our moral conscience, that nagging hunchback rider of ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ created by the conditioning of the mind to tone down the vital and its excesses. Now the soul too distinguishes the true from the false and is indeed the true discriminator, but it is not judgmental. It is not like a critic pointing harsh fingers and inducing guilt but a gentle swan separating milk from water, taking one and leaving the rest for whatever purpose.

The halfway explorers of spiritual life create a final confusion. They use the expression soul to denote that plane of consciousness which is the stable, unchanging basis of all phenomenon — the Self or atman, that stands above all manifestation, impartial witness, base and indifferent support of all. However, the atman is not something individual. No doubt it is also indestructible as the soul is. But it is the One and the same for all. Transcending this universal Self or atman above and beyond all, yet holding in itself and becoming all things that in all time can be, is the paratpara Purushottam or the paramatman. But also the One who is all becomes the individual jivatman, for its evolutionary adventure. This individual jivatman, while itself remaining outside manifestation still presides over it by sending its projection in Time and Space. This individual projection is like the deputy who has to participate and work for the great evolutionary labour, help it grow and grow by it. It is this which is called the antaratman when still a sleeping baby inside the womb of nature. It is this that develops and becomes an individualised psychic being, the chaitya purusha. It is this that is born with the body’s birth and this that goes into the cycles through death till it is born again. Yet it remains always the indestructible immortal self.

This inmost soul, the psychic being is the true ‘I’. The false ‘I’ that is destroyed by death is the ever changing ‘I’ of the ego. The ego is a formation of nature due to the shadow of the individual psychic being falling upon it. The Greek myth puts it beautifully in the tale of Narcissus where the youthful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection. This reflection of the true soul in the waters of universal nature is the ego. It leads to a temporary and false identification with aspects of nature as Me and Myself, separate from others. The psychic being in contrast, though distinct and individual is yet always aware of its universality and knows itself as the center of the One Universal Divine. This is the true individual in us, which death cannot destroy.[4]

Behind each atom of existence there is found the divine spark that has descended into the dark nescience of matter to carry the evolutionary journey forward. For the soul this evolution means the bringing out of all the various possibilities concealed in the dumb abyss of matter — the possibility of will and impulse and desire, of movement and life and feelings, of thought and aesthetics and creativity, of poetry, science and art and philosophy, of spiritual ascension and soul force. As these possibilities emerge out of matter through a joint venture of the soul within calling the intervention of the respective planes above, the soul too grows by the experience. The little spark seemingly lost in the crypts of matter begins to grow in strength and stature till after many births it attains its full stature — angusthamatra purusha or the size of a thumb as described in the Upanishads. It is then and only then that it can exert a sort of free choice and mastery over destiny. Till then it uses all experience as a strengthening wine. It is only with its growth that there comes a turn towards spiritual life, an attraction for the sublime and the beyond, an urge towards the true and the good and the beautiful, a conscious aspiration for divinity. Till that happens the soul hints its presence through indirect signs — nobility and goodness, sincerity and goodwill, kindness and compassion, light and wisdom, forgiveness and gratitude, fortitude and perseverance, generosity and forbearance, strength and courage. It may be noted that the much talked about religiosity is not necessarily a sign of a developed soul. Religiosity is an ambiguous sign. It is not the fact of worshiping that is important, not even the name and form that one may bow down to, but what the conception of Divinity is for the seeker and the nature of his seeking. A God of wrath sought after by fear and for inflicting pain upon our enemies is certainly nowhere near the emergence of the soul. Whereas an atheist who identifies himself with beauty, trees and flowers and beasts and earth and humanity, willing to sacrifice his life for protecting the noble and the good is already beginning to reflect the soul in the mirror of his nature. Likewise, the emergence of the soul does not necessarily mean a brilliant mind or a strong and robust life force. The soul has its own intelligence and knowledge and force and dynamism but they are qualitatively very different from the mind.

But this is not the last step and the soul can grow further. With the flame growing into a fire, there comes a conscious aspiration for the Divine, a faith that not even a mountain of difficulties can shake, a devotion that can suffer a lifetime just for a glimpse of one’s Beloved, a surrender to the Divine which knows no bounds, a light that no clouds of doubt can hide, a love that seeks no return and is sufficient unto itself. And with this comes about the well-known signs of an inner and rather infectious Peace that surpasses all understanding and a causeless unconditional joy, ready to face each and everything in life with a benevolent smile.

In some rare individuals the soul can expand even further, growing from a tiny luminous seed through a soft and sublime deathless flame to a rapturous fire calling all the while the downpour of Light and Love towards the shadowless sun, lighting up the firmaments of the universe.

The whole story of human life and of the earth’s life can be understood and rewritten in soul terms, the soul playing with nature and the two growing mutually.

Yes, it is a unique gift to the earth and our mortal frailty, a more than adequate recompense if one may say so. The gods do not have it and therefore do not know about it as indeed Yama points out to Nachiketas. The demons and other beings of fixed and non-evolutionary worlds obviously do not know it. It is man who is the privileged child to have within him the one and only son of God, the immortal soul. And as to how to find the soul, it is best to let one who has had the experience answer this all-important question:

“This is the first thing necessary — aspiration for the Divine. The next thing you have to do is to tend it, to keep it always alert and awake and living. And for that what is required is concentration — concentration upon the Divine with a view to an integral and absolute consecration to its Will and Purpose. Concentrate in the heart. Enter into it; go within and deep and far, as far as you can. Gather all the strings of your consciousness that are spread abroad, roll them up and take a plunge and sink down.”

“A fire is burning there, in the deep quietude of the heart. It is the divinity in you — your true being. Hear its voice, follow its dictates.”[5]


[1] Sri Aurobindo: Thoughts and Aphorisms.

[2] Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Katha Upanishad First cycle, Verse 21, p. 218

[3] Refer to Ancient Texts for the story of Nachiketas

[4] Those desirous of a deeper study on the subject of the soul and the subtle truths of its different aspects can turn directly to the words of Sri Aurobindo, especially Letters on Yoga. The same book can also be referred to for a description of the different planes and orders of the worlds.

[5] The Mother: CWM Vol. 3, p. 1

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