The Mysterious Soul
“You are not the body; you are the soul.” This is one of the most important, and most repeated, Vedic teachings. Yet an aura of mystery hangs around the soul. What is its exact nature? How can we actually realize ourselves to be the soul?
The Vedic texts state that the essential characteristics of the soul are threefold: sat-cit-anand. It is eternal, knowledgeable and blissful.
Some of us may wonder, “If I am actually immortal, then why don’t I feel indestructible? Why do I feel so susceptible to destruction?”
The answer, the Vedic wisdom-tradition says, lies in the depth at which the soul is buried beneath a nearly impenetrable mass of misconceived notions and misdirected cravings. Our past prolonged actions under a materialistic conception of life have created deep impressions on our psyche that have almost entirely obscured our awareness of our spiritual identity.
Nonetheless, we can realize our spiritual identity by the dual tools of introspection and purification. By examining critically our assumptions about our identity, we can discover their superficiality and cast them aside. As we direct the introspective searchlight deeper and deeper, it finally illumines the essence of our identity: the soul. For the inner searchlight to reach the soul, we need to complement introspection with purification. Purification has two aspects: curtailing desires for inordinate material pleasures that pull our thoughts down to the bodily level, and cultivating desires for higher wisdom that lift our thoughts towards the spiritual realm.
Two Conceptions, Two Conclusions
Let’s now look at a classic Vedic story that illustrates this dynamic project of spiritual excavation through introspection and purification.
The Chandogya Upanishad (8.7–8.12), an ancient Vedic text, narrates the story of two individuals who sought to know the true nature of the self: Indra, the king of the godly beings, and Virocana, the king of the ungodly beings.
Brahma, the creator, famed for his deep spiritual wisdom, desired to benefit all living beings. So he proclaimed the importance of knowledge of the self, “The self is free from sin, old age, death, grief, hunger, and thirst. All need to search out and understand this self, for then we will attain complete fulfilment.”
Hearing Brahma’s proclamation, Indra and Virocana approached him to acquire that knowledge of the self. Accepting him as their spiritual mentor, they adopted a lifestyle of discipline and austerity. After they had purified themselves for thirty-two years, they requested Brahma for more insight. Brahma responded, “The person that you see with the eyes is the self; that soul is fearless and immortal.”
To verify their understanding, Indra and Virocana asked, “The reflection we see before our eyes in a river or a mirror – is that the soul?”
Nodding, Brahma replied, “Look at yourself in a pan of water, and report to me what you see there.”
After looking, they informed Brahma, “We see the complete self, from the hair on top of our heads to the toenails on our feet.”
Brahma then asked them to trim their hair and toenails and to adorn themselves with new clothes and ornaments. When they did so, he asked them, “What do you see now?” They replied, “The two persons in these reflections have cut their hair and toenails, just as we have. And they are dressed in new clothes and adorned with ornaments, just as we are.”
Brahma told them, “What you see in the reflection is the fearless and immortal soul.”
Indra and Virocana departed, delighted with their newfound knowledge.
Virocana returned to his people, the ungodly beings, and announced to them, “The body is nondifferent from the soul, so the body alone is to be worshipped, the body alone is to be served. He who does so gains both this world and the next.”
Indra, however, became pensive. On the way back to his abode, he thought, “The reflection in the water changes when the body changes; when the body is cleaned, it becomes clean. So, when the body perishes, it will also perish. How, then, can it be the immortal soul?”
Thinking thus, Indra returned to Brahma, who asked Indra to stay and delve deeper into the truths of the self.
After Indra had performed another thirty-two years of austerities, Brahma told him, “The ‘I’ in your dreams is the self you are seeking. The person you understand to be the self in your dreams – that is the fearless and immortal soul.”
Happy with this insight, Indra departed. But again, on his return journey he was overcome by doubt: “The self in my dreams sometimes feels fear and pain. The self of the dreams departs when the dream ends and so it is temporary. Moreover, that self is an imaginary, ever-changing entity – blind in one dream, multi-headed in another, and lame in yet another. How can it be the fearless, immortal soul?”
Troubled, Indra returned to Brahma, who urged him to study some more. After Indra performed austerity for another thirty-two years, Brahma told him, “The self lies hidden in the state of deep sleep that is entirely dreamless.”
As before, Indra felt initially joyous, then dubious. He thought, “In deep sleep, the self does not perceive anything at all; he is not aware of anything in existence, not even his own self. It is as if the self is annihilated. This can’t be the fearless, immortal self.”
Indra submitted his doubt to Brahma. The preceptor nodded and told him to stay on a while longer.
After five more years of austerity, Brahma revealed the ultimate truth, “The physical body is just the abode for the true self, the soul, concealed within. Just as a horse is yoked to a cart, the soul is attached to the body. The body is forever subject to fear and death. When one breaks the attachment to the body, he realizes the fearless and immortal soul. It is the soul who sees through the eyes and hears through the ears. Beyond its present life of bodily attachment, the soul has its own life in relationship with God.”
This story illustrates, through Indra’s example, what is necessary for understanding one’s true identity: unrelenting introspection that is not satisfied with shallow answers, and unflinching purification that accepts whatever austerity is necessary to get to the truth. Those who are satisfied with superficial answers, like Virocana, get sidetracked.
Additionally, the story illustrates the different levels at which we may misperceive our identity. The most common misperception, the one with which both Indra and Virocana started, and the one which Virocana never relinquished, is misidentification with the gross physical body. For those who go beyond this misperception, the next level of misidentification is with the subtle body, where one identifies with one’s thoughts. Sometimes, as in this story, this level is divided into two states of covered consciousness. Those who probe further and enquire who is thinking the thoughts get the full insight: they realize their true identity as souls, beyond coverings physical and mental.
The Home Territory of Consciousness
The levels of misidentification in this story also correspond with the different operational levels of consciousness explained in the Vedic wisdom-tradition. The Shrimad-Bhagavatam (7.7.25) mentions these three levels to be jagarti (waking consciousness), svapna (dreaming consciousness) and sushupti (dreamless sleeping consciousness). Beyond these three is the original consciousness of the soul, which is called turiya (spiritually wakeful consciousness). Let’s take a closer look at these four states, based on the explanation given in another Vedic text, the Mandukya Upanishad (mantras 3–7):
- Waking consciousness: At this operational level of consciousness, we are aware of the physical world around us; the consciousness originating from the soul is routed through the subtle body and the gross body to the outer world. At this level, we generally misidentify ourselves with our gross physical body. This was the level at which both Indra and Virocana started.
- Dreaming consciousness: This operational level of consciousness is characterized by the presence of mental activity and the suspension of sense activity. The consciousness from the soul is extended primarily until the subtle body. As consciousness is essential for perception and action, this level is characterized by perception and action at the mental level, but not at the physical level. At this level, we misidentify with the mind, as indicated in the second answer given by Brahma.
- Dreamless sleeping consciousness: At this level, there is suspension of even mental activity and the absence of even dreams, so there is no awareness of anything at all, as indicated in Brahma’s third answer. Consciousness is not routed even to the subtle body at this level. Sometimes doctors classify patients as “unconscious” or even “comatose,” and use the Glasgow Coma Scale to measure the depth of the coma. Even in such cases, the Vedic wisdom-tradition asserts that consciousness, being an inalienable characteristic of the soul, is still present; it is just not being expressed at the physical or mental levels. Put succinctly, unconsciousness is also a state of consciousness.
- Spiritually wakeful consciousness: This is the original, natural level of consciousness, in which the soul is in home territory, perceiving its own spiritual identity as well as the spiritual realm. This is the level that Indra finally glimpsed through sustained introspection and purification.
Realization Through Devotional Connection
By similar introspection and purification, we too may be able to realize our nature as souls. But it is a dreary, dicey and drawn-out process; Indra needed over a hundred years of exhaustive and exclusive practice.
Some of us may wonder why Brahma didn’t give the real answer straight away. His strategy is in harmony with the overall purpose of the Upanishads. These complex metaphysical literatures comprise the jnana-kanda section of the Vedic literature, which offers spiritual insight custom-made for those who delight in their own intellectual prowess. Accordingly, it employs a strategy technically called neti-neti (not this, not this), a strategy that focuses on negation of misconceptions and a subtle, gradual, progressive affirmation of the correct conception.
The Bhagavad-gita embodies the essential wisdom of the Upanishads just as milk embodies the essential gift of a cow. So the Gita conveys clearly and directly the teachings that are conveyed obscurely and indirectly in the Upanishads. Srila Prabhupada, in the compassionate spirit of the Gita, makes this knowledge of the soul readily and repeatedly available through his books.
All the Vedic literature, including the jnana-kanda section, culminate in bhakti-yoga, the process for establishing devotional connection with Krishna. This process, drawing as it does on the grace of Krishna, enables us to progress more easily and swiftly toward complete spiritual realization – not just self-realization, but also God-realization. Our introspection finds its target faster when we guide by submissive study of the Vedic literature. Similarly, our purification proceeds more efficaciously when we connect our consciousness with the all-pure Krishna by regularly chanting his holy names.
When we thus guide our consciousness inwards through introspection and purification, we will realize the mysterious soul, and discover that the investigator of the mystery was the goal of the mystery: I, the seeker of the soul, am myself the soul.
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