The Concept of Atman (Human Soul) in Vedic & Bahá’í Scriptures
- Dr. A. K. Merchant
LIFE on earth has gone through millions of years of evolution. The human being in his present form is less than two lakh years old. In this paper the author presents various texts from Shastras and Bahá’í scriptures and shows that both religious systems are agreed that human soul (the atman)is the ‘divine element’ in the ontological chain of existence and that it is a creation of God, the undifferentiated Eternal Brahman. He quotes widely from the Vedic texts, primarily the Upanishads namely the Brihad-Aranyaka, the Aitareya, the Katha, the Sevatasvatara, the Taitiriya, as well as the Bhagavad-Gita and juxtaposes these with selections from the Bahá’í sacred texts. The result is a composite worldview of the nature of man and the nature of society. In the Vedic worldview of God and the universe, pantheism plays the dominant role, although there is a varying degree of emphasis on transcendence. “God is the totality of creation. God is the whole; the world is a phase of the whole. God is not other than the world, as in transcendence. According to pantheism, man is a part of God or man contains a part of God.” The atman pervades all living beings, and individual atman enclosed, as it were in a body, is no different from the all-pervading Paramataman. This two-worlds concept of became a dominant paradigm in the post-Vedic era.
The teachings of the Bahá’í Faith postulate an immano-transcendent worldview explaining the limitations of an exclusively pantheistic approach to relating the human being to the Supreme Divinity. Bahá’í teachings explain that pantheism “draws no distinction between God and His creation, God’s knowledge and human knowledge. Divine Perfection and human perfection, that would logically end in the proposition that the Absolute and the relative occupy the same category and are in the same condition … The reason pantheistic model persists is that offers an egocentric explanation of the universe that allows man to share Divinity and causation (the law of karma) with God. This kind of belief make the Absolute and the relative, God and creation, a possibility of become the other… “ In fact the Vedic texts advocate the three-worlds concept analogous to the “sun”, the “rays”, and the “earth”. To put it differently, the Eternal Brahman, one and indivisible, the medium for emanation of all creation which is the Word (Shabad/Vani) and the contingent world in which the human being occupies the apex position.
The researcher concludes that the subject of “human soul” is inexhaustible and will forever remain elusive to us, at least on this earthly plane. Through selfless devotion, through pure and goodly deeds, through rapt meditation, and through true understanding of the holy Texts, one may approach a high station and reach the pinnacles of certitude but one can never transcend the station preordained for every human being.
Our planet is the product of millions of years of evolution. We stand at the threshold of a new way of life – a way of life never experienced in the past. For, humanity has never experienced the process of the planetization of life the way we are experiencing it today. The annihilation of distances, communication with the speed of light and travel with the speed of sound, is the reality of our age. The ancient prophecy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakkam(1) at long last is being fulfilled. The vision of our ancient seers, sages and poets sung throughout the ages has to be realized now. The planetization of humankind “implies at once a warning and a promise – a warning that in it lies the sole means for the salvation of a greatly suffering world, a promise that its realization is at hand.”(2)
In this backdrop and as a member of the Bahá’í Faith I would like to share my understanding of the true nature of every human being, i.e. the soul (Atman) and provide a correlation with the teachings about the supreme Godhead, the generator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. Let us first see what the Scriptures about that ultimate Reality, the Paramataman.
The Upanishads teach that:
“Greater than all is Brahman, the Supreme, the Infinite … He is indeed the Mighty Lord who moves the hearts of men … His is the power to sense all things, even though He lacks organ’s of sensation. He is the Lord and Ruler of all, the great Refuge of all.”(3)
“Brahman is eternal, above ignorance and knowledge. He is the One who rules over the root causes and the primal forms of all things … He is the Lord who created the lords of creation (Yatis), the supreme Soul who rules over all.
“Even as the radiance of the sun sheds light in all regions, so does that glorious Lord, single and adored, rule over all His creation … He is the One, the only God, who rules over the whole universe.”(4)
“Not by speech, not by sight, not by mind can He be perceived. How then can He be apprehended except by just saying: ‘He is’.”(5)
“They call Him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni and even the heavenly bird of fine plumage (Garuda); The learned speak of the One Reality in many ways.”(6)
Thus the Essence of Brahman or God cannot be known by man. Any ideas that humanity has had of the supreme Brahman was always the creation of man’s limited mind. Brahman as Absolute Reality is unlimited and infinite. Therefore any ideas that human minds may form cannot be complete description of Brahman/God. They are only partial descriptions which emerge from the limited capacity of man’s minds.
In the Bahá’í Scriptures I discovered the following statements: “The conceptions of the devoutest of mystics, the attainments of the most accomplished amongst men, the highest praise which human tongue or pen can render are all the product of man’s finite mind and are conditioned by its limitations.”(7)
“Exalted, immeasurably exalted, art Thou above the strivings of mortal man to unravel Thy mystery, to describe Thy glory, or even to hint at the nature of Thine Essence. For whatever such striving may accomplish, they can never hope to transcend the limitations imposed upon Thy creatures …
“Far, far from Thy glory be what mortal man can affirm of Thee, or attribute unto Thee, or the praise with which he can glorify Thee! Whatever duty Thou hast prescribed unto Thy servants of extolling to the utmost Thy majesty and glory is but a token of Thy grace unto them, that they may be enabled to ascend unto the station conferred upon their own inmost being, the station of the knowledge of their own selves.”(8)
Moreover, the concept that only the Paramatman has an absolute existence and that man’s existence is contingent and relative is found in several places in the Bahá’í Writings (9). This is in essence a non-dualist position of Shankara (Advaita Vedanta). On the other hand, there are also many passages in the Bahá’í Writings that agree with the dualism of such philosophers as Madhva.
“Immeasurably exalted is He above the strivings of human mind to grasp His Essence, or of human tongue to describe His mystery. No tie of direct intercourse can ever bind Him to the things He hath created, nor can the most abstruse and most remote allusions of His creatures do justice to His being.”(10)
According to the Bahá’í Writings, no complete knowledge of the cosmos is available to man. Thus all descriptions, all attempts to portray the metaphysical basis of the cosmos, are necessarily limited by the viewpoint of the particular person making them. As a result, the explorations of both the dualist and non-dualist schools are limited and provide relative truths only.
“All that the sages and mystics have said or written have never exceeded, nor can they ever hope to exceed, the limitations to which man’s finite mind hath been strictly subjected … The meditations of the profoundest thinker, the devotions of the holiest of saints, the highest expressions of praise from either human pen or tongue, are but a reflection of that which hath been created within themselves …”(11)
Thus the conceptual framework of the soul’s (Atman) relationship to the Paramatman is three fold. First, the origin and ultimate cause of this universe Paramatman: being wholly other, the object of devotion and love (the dualist view); secondly, as being within us, the object of knowledge that has been cleansed of the obscuring dust of maya (the non-dualist view), the thirdly as personified in founders of religion, who occupy a level of existence other than mortals but also not the same as the supreme Divinity. All three represent differing but valid ways of forming a concept of what Paramatman is. The Upanishads also hint at this idea when, for example, we read that Brahman may be found ‘hidden in the depths of the heart and in the highest heaven’.(12) And what Krishna states in the Gita: “The deluded despise me when clad in human garment, not knowing my higher nature as the Lord of all existence.”
Thus the various views of the different philosophers in Hinduism (Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and others) are all valid aspects of the truth contained in the Vedas. They are each reflections of the varying types of mind present among human beings. They all represent Absolute Reality seen from different points of view. None is wholly right or wholly wrong. And so, in the end, the view that each one of us chooses to favour depends only on our own type of mind. In this way, the Bahá’í darshana seeks to reconcile the disagreements among the schools in Hinduism.
The focus of my larger research was primarily on the soul (Atman). Various texts in the Hindu and the Bahá’í scriptures were explored as currently available in their English translations. Our study showed that both the Faiths agreed that the human atman/soul is the ‘divine element’ in the ontological chain of existence and that it is a creation of Brahman/God. Some of the difficulties encountered by the philosophers and sages in trying to prove or disprove the existence of the soul, the many definitions by different schools of thought, and to describe its state and condition both in this world and the hereafter, were noted. When studying the subject in English translations one is handicapped by a certain lack of clarity because not all scriptures were translated by the same person. Thus the terms jiva, atman, buddhi, lingasarira, sukshmasarira, in the Hindu scriptures, and nafs, ruh, aql, in the Bahá’í scriptures and their equivalent English translations namely spirit, soul and mind have been interchanged and give rise to different explanations. Nevertheless, it has been noticed that our human reality has three aspects namely a body, a mind (the rational faculty), and an immortal identity (the soul or spirit). The mind may be considered as a link between the soul and the body the two interact on each other. The soul is a non-material reality. It is an emanation from the spiritual world of God. The soul comes into existence when the embryo is conceived in the womb of the mother.
In the field of philosophy the moral and epistemological arguments have won the greatest favour. The very notion of immortality of soul (Atman) is open to three distinct interpretations. In the first place, it may mean that soul can enjoy material goods and experience for an infinity of time, in the second that the soul may suffer for long space of time, and in the third place it may be interpreted as meaning the progress of the soul towards final liberation. Different interpretations have suited the temperament and attitudes of different religious system but in the main the theory of an immortal soul is aligned with the faith in the permanence and continuity of life and it is in this connection that it has been most commented upon in the scriptures and by the philosophers.
Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad (4:3:7) defines the Soul thus:
“What is atman? That which manifests as consciousness in the organs.”(20)
Aitareya Upanishad (3:1) also defines the Soul:
“What is atman? Because of what one sees things, hears sounds, smells scents, articulates speech, and distinguishes taste and distaste, that is the atman.”(21)
Sevatasvatara Upanishad (1:6-8) gives a different perspective:
“This vast universe is a wheel, the wheel of Brahman. Upon it are all creatures that are subject to birth, death, and rebirth. Round and round it turns, and never stops. As long as the individual self thinks it is separate from the Lord, it revolves upon the wheel in bondage to the laws of birth, death, and rebirth … The Lord supports this universe, which is made up of the perishable and imperishable, the manifest and the unmanifest. The individual soul, forgetful of the Lord, attaches itself to pleasure and thus is bound.”(22)
The Katha Upanishad and Bhagavad-Gita express the theme of the Atman (soul) through the famous metaphor of the chariot wherein the senses represent the horses that pulls the individual into different directions; the mind is the driver who hold the reins of these horses; one occupying the seat in the chariot is the true self or the Soul.
The Bhagavad-Gita (2:23) describes the soul as follows:
“Weapons do not cleave this self, fire does not burn him; waters do not make him wet; nor does the wind make dry.”(23)
In the Taitiriya Upanishad we find yet another analogy that of the five difference sheaths or levels that enclose the inner being. These levels are given in an ascending order:
a. The physical body (annamaya kosha)
b. Energy sheath (pranamaya kosha)
c. Mental sheath (manomaya kosha)
d. Sheath of intellect (vijanamaya kosha)
e. Sheath of bliss/emotions (anandamaya kosha)
These sheaths are defined at increasingly finer levels. At the highest level, is the soul.
The pre-Upanishadic reflection on the nature of ultimate Reality has very little to offer to the understanding of the idea of soul and consciousness. In their metaphysical speculation, they had the concept of an immanent and universal Reality, unitary underlying force of the cosmos with potentialities of further enquiry as evident from the hymn of creation in the Rig Veda X.129). This has importance in the sense emphasis has been shifted from plurality of phenomenon to the concept of a unitary and fundamental principle. The implications of the Rita and the hymn of creation are evidence to this fact. But the task of defining the exact nature of this inner reality (Atman) left unascertained in it. The Upanishads took the thread and attempt to develop rationally and systematically the characterization of reality. Thus reality became characterized as an eternally conscious principle composed of Pure Intelligence and Bliss and this ultimate principle is recognized as one other than one’s own soul. Thus the task of characterizing the ultimate Reality from the pre-Vedic uncharacterized entity to its ‘svarupa’ or essence and with regard to its relation to the human being has been accomplished by the Upanishadic seers. The Atman (soul) is one that persists unaffected through all the conditions of empirical existence.
Now let us turn to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh on the subject of human soul, in one of His works He states:
“As to thy question regarding the soul: Know thou that among the people there are numerous treatises and manifold views as to its stations. Among these are the sould of the kingdom, the soul of the dominion, the celestial soul, the divine soul, the sanctified soul, as well as the benevolent soul, the contented soul, the soul pleasing unto God, the inspired soul, the irascible soul, and concupiscent soul. Every group hath its own pronouncement concerning the soul…. Know that the soul which is common to all men cometh forth following the commingling of things and after their maturation, as thou dost observe in the germ: once it hath developed to its predestined stage, God manifesteth the soul that was latent within it…. As to the soul which is intended, in truth it hath been called forth by the Word (Shabd) of God and is such that, if it be kindled with the fire of the love of its Lord, neither the waters of opposition nor the oceans of the world can quench its flame. That soul is indeed a fire ablaze in the tree of man which proclaimeth: “No God is there by Him!”…. Know, furthermore, that the life of man proceedeth from the spirit, and the spirit turneth to wheresoever the soul directeth it, …. Should it soar in the atmosphere of love and contentment, then it will be related to the All-Merciful, and should it fly in the atmosphere of self and desire, then it will pertain to the Evil One; may God shield and protect us and protect you therefrom, O ye who perceive! Should the soul become ignited with the fire of the love of God, it is called benevolent and pleasing unto God, but should it be consumed with the fire of passion, it is known as the concupiscent soul…. Say: Spirit, mind, soul, and the powers of sight and hearing are but one single reality which hath manifold expressions owing to the diversity of its instruments. As thou dost observe, man’s power to comprehend, move, speak, hear, and see all derive from this sign of his Lord within him. It is single in its essence, yet manifold through the diversity of its instruments. This, verily, is a certain truth….” (24)
In another place He writes:
“… Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however, acute can ever hope to unravel. It is the first among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator, the first to recognize His glory to cleave to His truth, and to bow down in adoration before Him. If it be faithful to God, it will reflect His light, and will, eventually, return unto Him. If it fail, however, in its allegiance to its Creator, it will become a victim to self and passion, and will, in the end, sink in their depths…”(24)
Elsewhere in the Bahá’í writings it is stated:
“… The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the reality of all things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings…”(25)
In yet another work Bahá’u’lláh elucidates:
“And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death. Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world can alter.”(26)
In the Hindu world view of God and the universe, pantheism plays the dominant role, although there is a varying degree of emphasis on transcendence. “God is the totality of creation. God is the whole; the world is a phase of the whole. God is not other than the world, as in transcendence. According to pantheism, man is a part of God or man contains a part of God.”(27) The atman pervades all living beings, and individual atman enclosed, as it were in a body, is no different from the all-pervading Paramatman.
The problem with the pantheistic view of the world the Bahá’í teaching explain is that it “draws no distinction between God and His creation, God’s knowledge and human knowledge. Divine Perfection and human perfection, and must logically end in the proposition that the Absolute and the relative occupy the same category and are in the same condition … The reason the pantheistic model persists is that it offers an egocentric explanation of the universe that allows man to share Divinity and causation (the law of karma) with God. This kind of belief makes the Absolute and the relative, God and creation, a continuum, each merging into the other. God is the More and we are the less, with each having the possibility of becoming the other …”(28) Such a view also caused the three worlds concept of the Vedas—analogous to the “sun”, the “rays”, and the “earth” to become universally superimposed by the two worlds concept of post-Vedic Hinduism.
The Bahá’í writings propound a three worlds concept. There is, for instance, the World of God which is inaccessible to mortals. Bahá’u’lláh teaches that God is unknowable and “beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress.”(29) “No tie of direct intercourse can possibly bind Him to His creatures … No sign can indicate His presence or His absence …”(30) The inability of mortal human being to grasp the Divinity does not lead to agnosticism, since God has chosen to reveal Himself through His Avatars/Manifestations. The World of these Intermediaries is distinct in relation to the two other worlds. The Manifestations of God are viewed as occupying two “stations”, or occurring in two aspects. The first “is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity”, in which one may speak of the oneness of the Avatars of God because they are all manifestations of His Will and exponents of His Word. This, Bahá’ís believe, does not constitute syncretism since “the other station is the station of distinction … In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission …”(31) The third World is that of creation in which the human being endowed with a rational soul occupies the apex position.
Commenting on the three world’s concept, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, stated: “God has no beginning and no end, and Man has a beginning but no end.” The Manifestations’ body and soul – because this part of Them is human – “have a beginning too, but the spark from God in Them partakes of the pre-existence of God.” “The soul has developed ever since the embryo …” Its three stages are “the embryonic world, this life and the future life … We retain in the next world our identity and self-consciousness, but our self-consciousness is greatly increased.”(32)
From our study of both the Hindu and the Bahá’í scriptures we learn that the true nature of the soul encompasses every process of life and is, indeed, the basic motive force of life. As already explained, the soul is not a “something” residing passively somewhere inside that body, as suggested by some commentators, waiting to be released in a pure and holy state at the hour of death. The soul is a collectivity consisting of all those qualities and attributes endowed by Divinity that makes us members of the world of humanity.
The Hindu view of explaining historic time as cyclical is partly the cause for belief in the teachings of reincarnation and metempsychosis. Interestingly, this belief was prevalent among the Egyptians and entered the Hindu darshana in the post-Vedic era. The Bahá’í view of understanding historic time as linear offers a different perspective. Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Verily I say, the human soul is exalted above all egress and regress. It is still, and yet it soareth; it moveth, and yet it is still. It is, in itself, a testimony that beareth witness to the existence of a world that is contingent, as well as to the reality of a world that hath neither beginning nor end.”(33) Thus, Bahá’ís regard the purpose of our earthly existence as a period of struggle, of effort, of growth and understanding, of development, so that, the human soul is able to prepare itself for the spiritual world, a world of perfection in which the soul fulfils its ultimate destiny of attaining the presence of its Creator in the most befitting form.
The subject of the “human soul” is inexhaustible and will forever remain elusive to us, at least on this earthly plane. By turning regularly to the revealed Texts and purifying ourselves of the mundane influences of this material world we can increase our understanding of our inmost spiritual self and thereby obtain some knowledge of the spiritual realms above. “The Word of God is the storehouse of all good, all power and all wisdom. The illiterate fishers (in the times of Christ) and savage Arabs [through the guidance of Prophet Muhammad, (pbuh)] were thereby enabled to solve such problems as were puzzles to eminent learned men in all the ages. It awakens within us that brilliant intuition which makes us independent of all tuition and endows us with an all-embracing power of spiritual understanding. Many a soul in the ark of philosophy, after fruitless struggles, was drowned in the sea of conflicting theories of cause and effect, while those on board the craft of simplicity reached the shore of the Universal Cause by the aid of favourable winds blowing from the Point of Divine Knowledge.”(34)
REFERENCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. The reference to this quotation is one of the Upanishads which I have been unable to locate. My source is Sambhuti—My Quest for the Fulfillment of Hinduism by S.P. Raman, Bahá’í Publishing Trust New Delhi: 1986.
ayam nijaparoveti gananam laghuchetasam
udaracharitanam tu vasudhaivakutumbakam
It means: “This is mine, this yours, this sort of divisive intellect is the sign of people with small minds. For those with the greater consciousness, the world is a family.”
Interestingly, there is another verse on the Unity of Humankind in the Rig Veda 10.191.2 whose Sanskrit text reads:
sam gachahadhvam sam vedhat dhvam
sam vo manansi jaanatam
deva margam yatha purvah
It means: “O citizens of the world! Live in harmony and concord. Be organized and cooperative. Speak with one voice. And make your resolutions with one Mind.”
3. Svetasvatara Upanishad 3:7, 12, 17; trans. Siddheshvar Varma Shastri, in Sacred Books of the Hindus ed. Maj. Basu. Allahabad: Panini Office, 1916.
4. Ibid, 5:1-14.
5. Katha Upanishad 6:12; op. cit.
6. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad II, 3:6, op. cit.
7. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, compiled and translated by Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, New Delhi; 1973, XXVI, p. 62.
8. Ibid. I, pp. 3-5. See also XIX, pp. 46-7.
9. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings, LXXXVIII, p. 157: Prayers & Meditations, No. 58, p. 69.
10. Ibid. CXLVIII, p. 317.
11. Ibid, CXLVIII, pp. 317-18.
12. Taittiriya Upanishad 2:1.
13. Rig. Veda IV, 40:5, Katha Upanishad 5:2.
14. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings, XCIII, p. 183.
15. Bhagavad-Gita 4:7-8.
16. Vishnupurana, Qtd. By R.K. Pandey, The Concept of Avatars, p. 2.
17. See Agni Purana Chapter 1-16 and 49.
18. See Bhagavata Purana vol. 1, 3:6-25.
19. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings, XIX, pp. 46-7.
20. Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad, 4:3:7.
21. Aitareya Upanishad 3:1.
22. Sevatasvatara Upanishad, 1:6-8.
23. Bhagavad-Gita 2:23.
24. Bahá’u’lláh. The Summons of the Lord of Hosts—Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, compiled and translated by Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa 2002, paragraphs 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35.
25. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings, LXXXI, p. 156.
26. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Some Answered Questions, compiled and translated by Laura C. Barney, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, India, New Delhi: 1973, p. 243.
27. Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings, LXXXII, pp. 158-59.
28. Shook, Glenn A. Mysticism, Science and Revelation, George Ronald, Oxford: 1953, p. 6.
29. Conow, Hoff B. Bahá’í Teachings for a Resurgent Model of the Universe, George Ronald, Oxford: 1990, p. 39-40.
30. Bahá’u’lláh, The Book of Certitude, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, U.K., London: 1946, p. 98.
31. Ibid., p. 152.
32. Ibid., p. 176.
33. Shoghi Effendi, quoted, by M. Gail in Arches of the Years, George Ronald, Oxford: 1991, p. 305.
34. Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, LXXXII, pp. 161-62.
35. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Scriptures (a compilation), edited by Horace Holley, Brentano, New York: 1923, paragraph no. 713, p. 381.
The author is the Secretary-General, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of India.
This article is from the proceedings of the international vedic convention 2005 Mind, Body, Soul & Health
October 22-23, 2005, New Delhi
The Bahá`i World