Abrahamic Concept of the Soul and Hindu Atman
The western term “soul” is sometimes used for the Hindu term “Atman”. The two terms can be very different in meaning, and if we use the term soul for Atman, we must carefully qualify what we are indicating.
In Abrahamic traditions, soul indicates the immortal part of our nature, conceived in the image of God. Yet that God is a personal God, with special messengers and a chosen people, not a universal principle beyond duality. The soul is created by God and is different than God, not a unitary principle one with divinity as the Atman in Hindu thought.
In Christianity the soul is conceived as incomplete without a body. Going to heaven depends upon the resurrection of the physical body as a necessary component of the soul’s identity. The same is true in Islam in which Paradise is a physical world that requires a body to enjoy it. Such a soul is a continuation of one’s earthly ego. Souls in heaven are said to join up with friends and families, who maintain, perhaps glorified, their physical appearances.
As for souls who do not accept Christian or Islamic beliefs, they are condemned to hell, perdition or permanent estrangement from Divinity. The nature of these fallen souls is also regarded as a continuation of their earthly identity, judged by the consequences of their earthly actions.
Atman as the True Self
The Hindu term Atman refers to Self in the highest sense as pure consciousness beyond body and mind, time and space. There is a distinction between the Jivatman, the individual Self or soul, and the Paramatman or Supreme Self. The Jivatman is the reincarnating soul that upon its full Self-realization merges back into Paramatman. The Jivatman is bound by ignorance and karma, while Paramatman is not.
In orthodox Christian and Islamic theology, of course, there is no acceptance of karma and rebirth, and no concept of Moksha or release from Samsara (worldly cycle of death and rebirth). The Christian soul gains salvation from sin by belief in Jesus and the One God of the Bible. The Abrahamic soul is not the Self, whether as Jivatman or Paramatman. It is not the Self of all, but a creature created by God.
Saving Your Soul
This means that in Hindu thought, there cannot be any such thing as “saving your soul” or “losing your soul”. The soul or essence of your being, meaning here the Atman, is your true Self and nature, who you really are. You cannot lose yourself. There is only ignorance of our true nature that can be removed by knowledge.
You cannot save the soul of another either, in the sense of their true Self. The other person has his or her own Divine essence, their Atman; it is not for you to give this or to take it away. That is only arrogance on the part of those who think they can. Similarly, the soul as the Atman can never be converted to anything. It remains what it is, which is Being-Consciousness-Bliss Absolute, Sadchidananda. You cannot be made into something that you are not. You are in essence the Divine consciousness. No religion can alter that. If a religion tells you that access to the Divine is only possible by their beliefs, then it is not a product of higher consciousness but of human prejudices.
Nothing can change its nature. You cannot turn fire into water and have it remain as fire. Saving of souls, conversion and going to heaven are all myths and false imaginations. What is necessary is to know ourselves – to be true to our inner nature beyond the biases and opinions of the external world, including all religious dogmas.
In Hindu thought, no one can be condemned by God, though each individual is responsible for his or her own karma. No soul can be rejected by God or separated from the Divine presence, which like the sun shines on all. There is an underlying unity of existence that embraces all beings, which is your inmost Self. It is accessible at any moment to all who are receptive to it.
The greatest of all questions is “Who am I?” The highest form of knowledge is Self-knowledge, in which we come to know our true nature and identity beyond time, space and karma. This knowledge of our immortal essence is much more than what Christianity and Islam refer to as knowing or saving one’s soul.
Knowledge of the soul in Abrahamic traditions is not the same as Self-knowledge in Vedanta. The true Self does not need a body. The Jivatman takes many births and has many bodies. The Paramatman is the true Self behind all bodies and minds, all creatures and all worlds. Vedantic thought is very scientific. It does not require belief in a soul but only the willingness to examine our own minds. Our true Self is the witness of our thoughts, behind the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep. That true Self is one with the supreme Deity, however one wishes to call it, by its very nature. We discover it through complete silence of the mind, not through any belief or projection of thought or emotion.
It is time that the world gave up this false imagination of sin and salvation, saving and losing of souls, heaven and hell, and instead embraces the inner truth of the Upanishads that is agreeable to all: Sarvam khalvidam Brahma, Ayam Atma Brahma – “Everything is Brahman or the Supreme Reality of Being-Consciousness-Bliss. The Self is Brahman.”