by Sam Buntz
“And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line…”
-Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life”
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, most adherents tend to think of the soul as a permanent version of one’s present personality: you’ll still retain your name, your basic earthly identity, and (quite possibly) your hair and skin color, throughout all eternity, after the Judgment Day recalls you from your dusty entombment—resurrecting you to endless future duration in a heavenly paradise or in an intemperate and otherwise rather uncomfortable hell. The soul for most Christians is, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “the form of the body”: the mental order behind our corporeal being. It’s the silvery, ethereal glue that makes our physical being and our personality hang together.
However, surprising as it may seem to some, not everyone views the soul this way. In many Hindu schools of Yogic thought, the Soul or Self has almost nothing (or—to cut out the “almost”—precisely nothing) to do with the personalities we inhabit on a daily and yearly basis. It is something radically other. Again, Abrahamic religions tend to think of the Soul as being essentially the same thing as the mind or personality—but, according to the Hindu Sage Patanjali’s famed Yoga Sutras, the “Purusha” (the Soul or “True Person”) is utterly distinct from the mind and personality. It is, itself, an unknown island, a virgin continent spread out somewhere beyond the ocean of our interior darkness, perpetually awaiting discovery. The purpose of Yoga—understood, in this case, to be a program of meditation and moral conduct rather than a method of physical exercise—is to unite this hidden, essential Self with…itself. The Soul is both the knower and the known—knowing, to steal St. Paul’s phrase, as it is known.
The Yogi seeks to realize that our normal, everyday modes of being are essentially disguises—products of “Maya” or cosmic illusion. The great Swami Vivekananda told audiences in the United States, “You are not your body”, and also—more shockingly—“You are not your mind.” The true “you” is something beyond either, impossible to define, just as God Himself would be impossible to define. You could only be it, realizing your existence as it—since any information gained about the Soul or any attempt at formulating a scholarly definition would still be occurring at the level of the mind—which is the part of our being responsible for looking up and creating those definitions in the first place. At most, the purified mind can act as a sort of mirror or reflector for the soul—as the moon does for the sun—shining with a little of the soul’s light while simultaneously dimming it (the metaphorical association of the moon with the mind is pretty persistent throughout many Hindu texts.) If the mind “shifts to strange effects / After the moon” (to steal a line from Shakespeare), the soul is like the sun since it is always at full strength, a limitless source of life and energy—because it is life and energy.
In Yogic thought, the Soul is like a person watching a movie—the play of the body and mind—and becoming so enveloped in it that it identifies itself with the characters in the film. However, it stands a chance of remembering its true identity—indeed, in the fullness of time, it will eventually step back from the mirage entirely. (I can’t claim this is a particularly original analogy—in fact, it’s sort of a stock analogy in describing this concept, I’m afraid, though hopefully a potent one). Before this happens, the Soul remains trapped in time—in the cycle of births and deaths, reincarnating as one life-form and then another—lost in the pantomime.
Interestingly, this notion of the Soul radically up-ends the typical Western and Near Eastern ideas of sin and wickedness (some Sufis, Kabbalists, and Christian mystics excused). If the soul isn’t really the same as the body and the mind, it can’t ultimately be guilty of their sins—it may continue to identify with the false self that does these wicked deeds, but it can’t, in the final analysis, be held hostage to the sins of the body and mind for all eternity. Hence, in Yogic philosophy and in Hindu Thought more generally, no one burns in hell forever—sins are finite, mere dirt that will be washed off when one eventually incarnates as a successful Yogi. It is nothing permanent or essential—hence, nothing you can burn in hell for. This is obviously not to deny the vast amount of evil and suffering present in the universe—but it does state that evil is nothing that can infect the deepest part of our being: the Soul remains pure and good (or, more accurately, “beyond good and evil.”) It is only the body and the mind, subject to the effects of cosmic illusion, that continue under the sway of sin—though one needs to break away from sin and live a moral life if one is going to gain the peace of mind necessary for encountering the Soul.
Although this might seem quite alien to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ways of approaching the soul, it is strikingly akin to the distinction the early Christian Gnostics (or “Knowers”—since their goal was to know the deep Self) drew between the different parts of the self: there was the body, and then the mind or psyche, and, finally, the true self, the spirit or pneuma. Although contemporary Christianity generally avoids such spiritualized notions of, um, the spirit—preferring to imagine The Kingdom of Heaven as a kind of All-U-Can-Eat Buffet, presided over by none other than Jesus Christ, in the flesh—hints of a deeper understanding are evident as far back as…well, the teachings of Jesus.
The Gospel of Thomas—recognized as potentially being an authentic representation of at least some of Jesus’ actual words by Professors Helmut Koester of Harvard and Elaine Pagels of Princeton—records such sayings of Jesus as, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are that poverty,” and “Those who have found themselves, of them the world is not worthy.” Also, it is important and instructive to remember that, on page one of the Bible, God breathes His own breath into Adam, granting His Spirit to His newly formed child… Might that not have some deeper significance to it, as well—hinting that the origin of the deepest part of our being has a source alien to our physical and mental uniform?
Discussing the need for Self-Knowledge can easily rankle Christian sentiments (and those of non-Sufi Muslims, and—to a far lesser extent, because of the impact of Jewish mysticism—Jews). Inquiry into the nature of the Soul or the Self seems to be beside the point for many of the more socially-conscious believers—the point of religion, for them, is to do good in the world. However, this is to set up a false division between Christian and Hindu thought (as evidenced by Jesus’ own likely authentic sayings on Self-Knowledge), where the Eastern person turns inwards and does nothing socially constructive, and the Western person expands ever outward in his or her un-reflective zeal to improve. Obviously, this isn’t a correct depiction of reality, and the lives of Hindu saints like Kabir and Mirabai, help demonstrate how a commitment to knowing the Soul can go hand in hand with selfless ideals of service (since the ego, which hampers such service, isn’t the true Self or Soul in the first place)—as do the lives of Christian saints like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
But where does God fit into the Yogic system? A Western believer might rightly desire an answer to this question. The early texts on Yoga definitely acknowledge the existence of a Supreme God, Ishvara, and many schools of Yoga make God-Knowledge their end-goal, attempting to rejoin the now-free Soul to its original home in God—a droplet falling back into the primordial Ocean of Mercy. For these Yogis, Self-Knowledge is but a necessary step on the way to God-Knowledge.
This is doubtless a strong dose of medicine for the Western World, where our attempts to adjust the world around us frequently become deformed, primarily due to our inability to know ourselves (numerous failed revolutions and social movements, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution to the rise of Fascism, all testify to this fact). On the other hand, to give a more positive example, the Jesuits are known for being “Contemplatives in Action”—and isn’t that what, in a sense, we are all required to be? A more thorough acquaintance with the Yogic idea of the Soul could help at least some Westerners regain a better sense of proportion—refreshing their persistent efforts at external reform with at least the occasional cup of contemplative water, drawn from the deep well of the Soul.