The phenomena of birth and death have always mystified man. Whether there is ‘something’ before birth and whether it survives death has been an eternal question haunting human minds. Most of the Indian philosophical systems have accep-ted the existence of such a spirit, generally termed ‘ātman,’ though views about it have varied greatly.
In the early Vedic literature the word ‘ātman’ has rarely been used. Even when used (vide Ṛgveda 1.115.1) it does not seem to have any mystical or metaphysical significance as found in the later literature. From a simple notion of cosmic unity, the word gradually came to represent the entity which is both immanent and transcendent with regard to the cosmos.
The term ‘ātman’ has been derived and defined in various ways: that which animates; that which pervades; that which experiences; that which exists always. A fuller development of the concept is found in the later Vedic literature such as the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads. Here, together with the word ‘Brahman’ it has been used to denote the Cosmic Spirit both in its transcendent and in its immanent aspects. However, gradually, the word ‘Brahman’ came to be used much more to indicate the transcendent Reality whereas the term ‘ātman’ was generally confined to the immanent Reality or the individual self.
Descriptions of the nature of the ātman or the soul as given by the various schools of Indian philosophy differ widely from one another. The Cārvāka (material-istic) schools deny the existence of a permanent soul and attribute consciousness to the chemical reactions brought about by the combination of the pañca-bhūtas or the five fundamental elements constituting the world. Jainism believes in the existence of eternal souls, infinite in number. They possess consciousness which is limited in manifestation but capable of evolving to infinite proportions. Buddhism, while denying the existence of a permanent soul, accepts the continuity of life which generates the next life as one tree produces another through its seed.
The Nyāya system admits of the existence of ‘ātman,’ an eternal soul, different from the body, the senses and the mind. It is vibhu or all-pervading and has consciousness, not as integral to it, but as an adventitious attribute brought about by its association with the mind. It is an agent of action and suffers its consequences. Due to mithyā-jñāna or false knowledge or ignorance, it allows itself to be swayed by the impulses of rāga (attachment), dveṣa (dislike) and moha (infatuation). Consequently it performs good or bad actions and suffers their results. It attains apavarga or liberation by tattvajñāna or right knowledge of the Reality. In this state it is freed from all sorrow, suffering and misery. It is a negative state of transcendence of duḥkha (pain, suffering) and not a positive state of bliss as some others deem to think. And, the ātmans are infinite in number.
The Vaiśeṣika view is practically identical with that of the Nyāya school.
The Sāṅkhya and the Yoga systems accept the ātman as an indubitable reality, which they call as ‘puruṣa.’ The puruṣa is eternal, pure and all-pervading consciousness. He gets into the bondage of saṁsāra (transmigratory existence) due to aviveka or non-discrimination between himself and prakṛti (nature). By viveka-khyāti or knowledge that distinguishes him from the prakṛti, the non-self, he recovers his original state of freedom, freedom from pain and suffering. It is not a state of joy or bliss.
These systems also concede that the puruṣas are innumerable.
The views of the Mīmāṁsā school regarding the ātman or the soul, are very similar to those of the preceding four systems mentioned here. The ātman is an eternal, infinite substance which is related to a real body in a real world. It survives death to be able to reap the consequences of its action performed here. Consciousness is not its essence but only an adventitious quality which arises when some conditions are present. There are as many souls as there are individuals. Liberation is obtained by the disinterested performance of obligatory actions, knowledge of the ātman and the wearing out of the karmas accumulated in the past. Total stoppage of rebirth and remaining in a state beyond pleasure and pain is the special charac-teristic of liberation.
The Vedānta system has branched off into three main schools—Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita and Dvaita.
The Advaita school maintains that the ātman is eternal, infinite and is of the nature of pure consciousness. It is, in the ultimate analysis, Brahman the Absolute Itself. Ajñāna or the ignorance of its real nature has led to its bondage and jñāna or knowledge will lead it to liberation. This is not a state to be attained but the original state itself regained. In this state it will enjoy unalloyed bliss.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita school declares that the ātman or the soul, though eternal, is not vibhu (infinite) but aṇu (atomic) in size. Consciousness is intrinsic to it, though its contraction and expansion are possible. Such souls are infinite in number. They are different from Brahman or God, but parts of it. Liberation is attained by bhakti or devotion to God. In this state the souls become similar to God but not absolutely identical with him.
According to the Dvaita school, the soul is eternal, atomic in size and has consciousness as its essence. The souls are innumerable, different from God and from one another too. They are of three classes: those that are bound but may become liberated; those that are eternally confined to transmigratory existence and those that are doomed permanently to the misery of hell. Liberation is obtained by knowledge, devotion to Viṣṇu, and by his grace. It is living in Vaikuṇṭha, the world of God, in his eternal presence. Even in the state of liberation differences among the liberated souls persist.