Advaita Philosophy, Yoga Philosophy

The soul as individual consciousness — Part III


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:


‘Which is the self?’ ‘This infinite entity, (Purusa) that is identified with the intellect and is in the midst of the organs, the self effulgent light within the heart (intellect). Assuming the likeness of the intellect, it moves between the two worlds; it things, as it were, and shakes, as it were...

This sutra can also be read as defining an individual soul that ‘lights up’ the intellect, which is by itself unconscious, etc. The self can be seen as an independent entity, the atman or Jiva, which is called here the ‘Purusa’, the first born. It is this soul which is in the midst of the intellect and lights up or gives the intellect life. This is the common reading of this and the following sutras, and this is how Sankaracharya also has explained them. Of course with such a definition, this purusa, being tied up with a particular intellect, then cannot be undefined, unlimited, etc.

However, we can also understand it as: our self is the absolute Brahman itself. Our intellect, etc. are all modifications of Brahman, and Brahman supports this. When the question is raised, which is the self, which is our internal ruler , then the answer always in the Upanishads is, the absolute Brahman. It is this which is our real self. There is no other self than the absolute Brahman. Hence the Purusa defined here is the absolute Brahman itself and not a separate independent entity. Of course, our relative self is our consciousness only, but the absolute self is the Brahman.

Hence it says, ‘this infinite entity, the Purusa, that is identified with the intellect, ie, our individual consciousness. Our individual consciousness would not exist without the Brahman as its support, and hence there are two levels of existence, our individual consciousness, ie, the intellect, and our true self, the Absolute Brahman that supports, or is identified with, the intellect.

But the following sutras make it clear that the first explanation, ie, Purusa as an independent soul, is meant here. This and the other sutras describe the function of the soul during sleep, waking and dream states, and also that of deep sleep. The remaining sutras describe the soul during death and rebirth.

In the Upanishads, the soul comes to be defined as an independent entity whenever firstly, it is described in relation to sleep/dream states and secondly, when it is described in relation to death. But in the rest, the soul is not considered separately and it is repeatedly emphasized that our self, or atman, is the absolute Brahman itself.

The following sutras from 4.3.8 onwards, describe an independent soul and its functions during the stages of deep sleep, dreams, death, etc.

4.3.8 says, ‘That man, when he is born..’ describing the soul as a man, since it is the true self, and how it takes up a body during birth and then discards it during death along with its evils. The following sutras describe how the man has two abodes, this and the next, meaning the next life. The soul during dreams creates its own dream world. This radiant infinite being (Purusa) during the dream state is described as leaving the body aside and sporting in his own dream world. He preserves the body with the vital force when he roams out of it (into his dream world). The Purusa is described as a great fish which moves alternately between this bank and the next, meaning the waking world and the dream state, and returns back to its body from the dream state like a hawk or falcon flying in the sky returning to its nest when tired.

But during deep sleep, the Purusa is fully embraced by the Supreme Self, the Absolute Brahman, and does not know anything. The Purusa is then said to know a supreme bliss, the bliss of Brahman.

This idea, that the soul during deep sleep, is merged into Brahman and enjoys the supreme bliss of knowing Brahman, is emphasized in the Upanishads. It appears somewhat incongruous, as surely we are not aware of any such bliss when we fall asleep. This is one of the logical inconsistencies that we are thrown into whenever we try to think of the soul as an independent entity.

The deep bliss of attaining Brahman is described beautifully here, comparing it with the bliss of human joy first. It is said, ‘He who is perfect of physique and prosperous among men, the ruler of others, and most lavishly supplied with all human enjoyments, represents greatest joy among men. This human joy multiplied a hundred times makes one unit of joy for the manes (ancestors) who have won the world for theirs.’ This goes on, multiplying the joy by a hundred times each time for the world of celestial minstrels, gods of action, gods of birth, and so on, till we come to the ‘one unit of joy in the world of Brahman’. Thus the joy of knowing Brahman is compared ultimately to human joy, but said to be several million times this joy.

After describing this joy, the sutras go on to describe what happens to the soul after death in the next section, section 4.

It is said that during the time of death, all the senses like the eye, nose, etc. retreat into the Brahman. The self departs from the heart, either through the top of the head, the eye or any other part of the body. When it departs, the vital force also departs and the body falls dead. It is then said (4.4.2):

‘...Then the self has particular consciousness, and goes to the body which is related to that consciousness. It is followed by knowledge, work and past experience’

Here, it is said that even after death, the soul has ‘particular consciousness’ this means that the soul is endowed with a propensity towards a particular type of body depending on the life it has lived. With this propensity, it acquires that type of body which is most suited for it. It is necessary to say this, that the soul remains endowed with a particular consciousness, because only then can we explain how the soul goes to different types of bodies depending on the life it has lived. This is necessary for the whole process of reincarnation and karma. But when we say that the soul, even after death, has a type of consciousness, we effectively define an independent entity. Thus in reincarnation, we are forced to say that the soul is an independent entity, apart from both the body and Brahman.

It is described that the soul transmigrates from one body to another like a leech, which grasps another support and then leaves the previous support (4.4.3). Or like a goldsmith who breaks down one piece of jewellery and fashions another with the same gold, so also it fashions different bodies.

The next sutra (4.4.5) says:

That self is indeed Brahman, as also identified with the intellect, manas and the vital force (prana), the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air...’

The self is connected with the Brahman at one end and the world at another. So this section, which describes an independent soul ultimately ends up describing three levels of existence, Brahman, the self and the world, including human bodies, minds and other forms in the world.

The next sutra, 4.4.6, says that this action, transmigrating from one body to the other, occurs only in case of those who have desires, but for the man who has no desires, the self is merged in Brahman.

Thus in these sutras we see that an independent entity, the Purusa, is clearly described as our self, our atman, and this is a clear definition of three levels of existence.

But we shall very soon see in subsequent sutras that this idea of an independent soul is not supported.


Those who have known the Vital Force of the vital force, the Eye of the eye, the Ear of the ear, and the Mind of the mind, have realized the ancient, primordial Brahman.

Here we see that the Vital Force of the vital force, meaning the support of the vital force or prana in the body, the Eye of the eye, or the support of vision in the body, etc. is said to be the ‘ancient, primordial brahman’. Here again there is no place for the soul. The vital force or prana, eye, mind, etc. are all components of our human consciousness. It is described that this is supported by the Absolute Brahman itself.

In the earlier sections, the Purusa was described as ‘the seer of vision’ etc. and again the Purusa was described as something apart from Brahman. But in this sutra, and the subsequent sutras, there is again no place for the Purusa and two levels of existence are again described, ‘the Eye of the eye, the Mind of the mind’, etc.

The ideas described in different sutras are not always conformatory. Perhaps they were composed at different times or by different seers. Perhaps also, this difference between the two ideas were not realized or not considered important.

The independent soul becomes important mainly for describing reincarnation (and also sleep). In all other sections of the Upanishads, the soul or self or atman is not given a separate third identity.

Perhaps, since reincarnation was so important to the Hindu ethos, the Upanishads tried to describe this in terms of ontology and thus were constrained to describe an independent soul, whereas it was not really a part of the thinking of those seers.


That great, birthless Self, which is identified with the intellect and is in the midst of the organs, lies in the ether that is within the heart...’

Here, it is quite apparent that the entity which ‘lies within the heart’ is none other than Brahman itself. The Brahman supports our existence, and hence is said to lie within the heart. But there is no place for a third entity like a ‘soul‘ to lie within the heart.

This is like 4.3.7:

‘Which is the self?’ ‘This infinite entity, (Purusa) that is identified with the intellect and is in the midst of the organs, the self effulgent light within the heart (intellect). Assuming the likeness of the intellect, it moves between the two worlds; it things, as it were, and shakes, as it were...

The entity within the heart here is none other than Brahman. In 4.3.7, the Purusa appears to be but another name for Brahman until the subsequent sutras which deal with sleep and death make it clear that a separate soul is being described.


‘...(The self) ia imperceptible, for it is never perceived; undecaying, for it never decays; unattached for it is never attached; unfettered – it never feels pain and never knows injury. Through what, O Maitreyi, should one know the Knower?...’

Here again, and through all the preceding and subsequent sutras, it is made quite clear that the self is the absolute Brahman itself. There is no other self, no ‘soul’ in between, other than the absolute Brahman.


This is Prajapati – this heart (intellect). It is Brahman, it is everything...’

Here, again, the heart or intellect contains Brahman and no other entity. Here, the intellect (ancient Indians considered the heart to be the brain) is considered at one level, the level of personality, and then it is said, this intellect is Brahman. Thus two levels, the intellect, or individual consciousness, and Brahman.


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