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The Vedic Description of the Soul by Stephen Knapp


Who am I? What am I? Am I the body, mind or something more? These are the age old questions that every philosopher throughout the ages has tried to grasp and understand. After all, how will you know what to do in life if you do not even know who or what you are? However, the ancient Vedic literature of India has provided the clearest answers that have been found anywhere to answer these questions. 

            For example, the Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.9) explains that the living being is the soul, and that: “The soul is atomic in size and can be perceived by perfect intelligence. This atomic soul is situated within the heart, and spreads its influence all over the body of the embodied living entities. When the soul is purified from the contamination of the five kinds of material air, its spiritual influence is exhibited.”

            The Chandogya Upanishad (6.11.3) also states that although the body withers and dies when the self or soul leaves it, the living self does not die.  Further enlightenment is given in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.2.22) wherein it explains that the spirit soul has no death and is eternal and inexhaustible. He is completely different from the material body, but because of being misled by misuse of his slight independence, he is obliged to accept subtle and gross bodies created by the material energy and thus be subjected to so-called material happiness and distress.

            The eternal nature of the self is also explained in Bhagavad-gita by Lord Sri Krishna where He specifically says that there was never a time when He did not exist, nor any of the living beings, including you. Nor shall any of us cease to be in the future. The embodied soul continually passes from boyhood to youth to old age in this body. Similarly the soul enters another body at the time of death. But for one who is self-realized, there is no bewilderment through such a change.

            It is further explained that we should know that which pervades the entire body by consciousness is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul. Only the material body of the eternal living entity is subject to destruction. . . For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, undying and eternal. He is not slain when the body dies or is killed. . . As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

            Certainly this knowledge can relieve anyone from the anxiety that comes from thinking our existence is finished at death. Spiritually, we do not die; yet, the body is used until it is no longer fit to continue. At that time, it may appear that we die, but that is not the case. The soul continues on its journey to another body according to its destiny.

            The indestructibility of the soul is also explained. The individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. The soul is everlasting, unchangeable, and eternally the same. Knowing this, we should not grieve for the temporary body.

            So, the body dwindles and dies but the soul does not die: it simply changes bodies. Therefore, the body is like a shirt or coat that we wear for some time, and when it is worn out, we change it for a new one. Therefore, the Vedic literature, such as the Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.1), mentions that knowledge of the self within is what should be sought and understood by all. Realizing one’s spiritual identity solves the problems and mysteries of life.

            The more we realize our spiritual identity, the more we will see that we are beyond these temporary material bodies, and that our identity is not simply being a white body, or black, or yellow, or fat, skinny, intelligent, dumb, old, young, strong, weak, blind, etc. Real blindness means not being able to see through the temporary and superficial bodily conditions and into the real person within. Seeing reality means to recognize the spiritual nature of everyone.

      The Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.28.35) explains that the soul is self-luminous, beyond birth and death, and unlimited by time or space and, therefore, beyond all change. The Bhagavatam (11.22.50) also points out that as one witnesses the birth and death of a tree and is separate from it, similarly the witness of the birth, death, and various activities of the body is within but separate from it. 

            The size of the soul is also described in the Svetasvatara Upanishad (5.9): “When the upper point of a hair is divided into one hundred parts and again each of such parts is further divided into one hundred parts, each such part is the measurement of the dimension of the spirit soul.” So considering that the diameter of a typical hair is about three-thousandths of an inch wide, then to divide that into one hundreds parts, and then divide one of those parts again into one hundred parts means that it would be microscopic. And since it is spiritual and not made of material substance, to perceive the presence of the soul is not so easy. It is invisible to our material vision.

            The Katha Upanishad relates that within the body, higher than the senses and the sense objects, exists the mind. More subtle than the mind is the intelligence, and higher and more subtle than the intellect is the self. That self is hidden in all beings and does not shine forth, but is seen by subtle seers through their sharp intellect.

            From this we can understand that within the gross physical body, composed of various material elements, such as earth, air, water, etc., there is also the subtle body composed of the finer subtle elements of mind, intelligence and false ego. The psychic activities take place within the subtle body. It is also within the subtle body wherein exist the memories of past lives, however deep they may be. Yet, the living being has his spiritual form that is deeper than this subtlety, otherwise he could not have repeated births. A person actually sees his spiritual self as well as the presence   of   the   Supreme   Being   when   he perceives that both the gross and subtle bodies have nothing to do with the pure, spiritual self within. Therefore, it could be asked that since we are separate from the gross and subtle bodies, why do we so strongly identify with the material body? It is explained that though the material body is different from the soul, it is because of the ignorance due to material association that one falsely identifies oneself with the high and low bodily conditions.

            It is further elaborated that only because of the mind and ego that we experience material happiness and distress. Yet, in actuality, the spirit soul is above such material existence and can never really be affected by material happiness and distress in any circumstance. A person who truly perceives this has nothing to fear from the material creation, or the appearance of births and deaths. Thus, he can attain real peace.

            The Chandogya Upanishad (8.1.5-6) goes on to explain that the self is free from sin and old age, death and grief, hunger and thirst, lamentation and sadness, and all forms of bodily identification. It desires only what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine. Those who depart from this life without having discovered the self and those true or spiritual desires have no freedom in all the worlds. But those who depart from here after realizing one’s genuine spiritual identity and those spiritual inclinations have freedom in all the worlds.

            So, to summarize, the soul is a particle of consciousness and bliss in its purified state of being. It is not material in any way. It is what departs from the body at the time of death and, in the subtle body, carries its mental impressions, desires and tendencies, along with the karmic results of its activities from one body to another. To understand and perceive this self, which is our genuine spiritual identity, is the real goal of life. Such a realization relieves one of further material existence. As it is explained, those who have purified their consciousness, becoming absorbed in spiritual knowledge and absolving any impurities in the mind, are liberated from karma that frees them from any future births. They are free from any more births in the material world and are delivered to the spiritual atmosphere. How to do this is the ultimate accomplishment of human existence. 

            [This topic is very deep and requires much more additional Vedic knowledge to understand the soul and our spiritual identity more completely. You can find this knowledge in the books of Stephen Knapp such as "The Secret Teachings of the Vedas",  and "The Heart of Hinduism", along with other articles on his website.] 



Published with the kind permission of Stephen Knapp


Stephen Knapp (Sri Nandanandana) is the President and Treasurer of the Vedic Friends Association ( He has been researching Vedic spirituality and comparative religious study for over 30 years in a variety of settings. He has directly engaged in those spiritual disciplines that have been recommended for hundreds of years. He continued his study of Vedic knowledge and practice under the guidance of a spiritual master to get the insights and realizations that are normally absent from the ordinary academic atmosphere. Through this process he has been initiated into the genuine and authorized spiritual line of the Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya, or disciplic succession, under the sanction of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. He has also extensively travelled throughout India to most of the major holy sights and more, and is known for his slide shows on his travels to the holy places and spiritual festivals of India (even nicknamed "the slide show acharya"), and for his lectures on the Vedic and Indian philosophy. He has written several books on the science and spiritual practice of Vedic culture and Eastern philosophy.



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This article was published on Tuesday 26 May, 2009.
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