Life in the Divine Order

Soul, Body and Liberation in the Bhagavad-gītā

Author: Ronald Engert

Issue No: 95

In human life, the material body is the focus of our attention. We do everything to create the best possible and most comfortable conditions for our body, and we also see the highest values in it. However, this does not satisfy the eternal spiritual soul. According to Bhagavad-gītā, we are deceiving ourselves in our principles here. We achieve spiritual awakening when we realize the divine order and act accordingly.

Of all spiritual traditions, the Vedic tradition is the most radical with regard to the soul. In the Bhagavad-gītā, the main scripture of Vedic philosophy and spirituality of ancient India, we are told that we are eternal living beings. For the soul, there is neither birth nor death. The soul is aja, unborn (Bagavad-gita, Vers 2.20). The soul also exists beyond the perishable body and beyond the material space-time. Accordingly, it is not a matter of setting up life on earth perfectly or of considering earthly existence as a totality. It is not about identifying ourselves with the body. The Vedas clearly say, ‘You are not the body.’
Such a consideration has its challenges. It is not shared by so-called descending religions or earth religions. Shamanic traditions are about identifying fully with the body in particular, and feeling and understanding it as the epitome of one’s self. Here we find the understanding that we are children of the earth, embedded in the cycle of nature, in growth, in fertility.
Aren’t we split off from our body anyway and shouldn’t we better connect with it? Doesn’t a transcendence religion like the Vedic one lead here to a great misunderstanding, to a dysfunctional splitting off? These objections are to be taken seriously. But they do not form the subject of this discussion on the soul. Even if dysfunctionalities may occur here on the psychological level, this does not question the underlying spiritual reality. Just acting forces often become the subject of abuse. How could it be otherwise? Abusing things that have no effect or meaning is of no use.

So let us look at the Vedic understanding of reality in its constructive meaning. The Vedic culture offers the following alternative: ‘You are eternal spiritual soul.’ Only the body is impermanent and is changed at regular intervals. Your true identity is that you are an imperishable spiritual being beyond space and time, who assumes different bodies in the material world, but in truth belongs in the spiritual world, in paradise, where he assumes his true spiritual body.
Today, everyone is probably familiar with the idea of reincarnation. It originates from the Vedic culture and is unequivocally stated in the Bhagavad-gītā:

Never was there a time when I or you or all these kings did not exist, and likewise never in the future will any of us cease to be. (2.12)
Just as the embodied soul in this body continues to move from boyhood to youth and to old age, the soul similarly enters another body at death. A prudent man is not confused by such a change. (2.13)
Those who see the truth have realized that the inexistent [the material body] is without duration and the eternal [the soul] is without change. They have come to this conclusion after studying the nature of both. (2.16)

The Bhagavad-gītā describes the soul as follows:

Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul. (2.17)
The material body of the indestructible, immeasurable and eternal living being is certainly destined to die.
Neither he who thinks the living being kills nor he who thinks it is killed possesses knowledge, for the self does not kill and is not killed. (2.19)
For the soul, there is no birth or death at any time. It has not come into being, it does not arise, and it will never arise. It is unborn, eternal, everlasting and primordial. It is not killed when the body is killed. (2.20)
O Pārtha, how can a person who knows that the soul is indestructible, eternal, unborn, and unchanging kill someone or cause someone to kill? (2.21)
As a man puts off old clothes and puts on new ones, so the soul gives up old and useless bodies and takes on new material bodies. (2.22)
The soul cannot be cut by weapons, nor burned by fire, nor wetted by water, nor withered by the wind. (2.23)

The individual soul is unbreakable and indissoluble and cannot be burned or dried up. It is everlasting, present everywhere, unchanging, immovable, and eternally the same. (2.24)
It is said that the soul is invisible, incomprehensible and unchanging. Knowing this, you should not grieve for the body. (2.25)
O descendant of Bharata, the inhabitant of the body can never be killed. Therefore you need not mourn for any creature.(2.30)

These statements of Krishna to Arjuna, the warrior, are spoken against the background of the upcoming battle of Kurukshetra. Therefore, it also deals with the issue of killing or being killed. We cannot enter here into the significant ethical discussions that Krishna subsequently shares with Arjuna (footnote 1). Our considerations are about the immortality of the soul. Only the body can come to death, and a person on the transcendental level of consciousness knows this. That is why he has a different view of reality.
We humans are constantly busy nourishing, caring for, and equipping our bodies. We identify ourselves completely with this body and consider it the highest goal of our life. Everything that has to do with the body gets our full attention, starting with eating, which is the most important subject for many people, continuing with clothing as well as the most comfortable or practical accommodation of our bodies in housings, continuing with the transportation of this body with the help of certain vehicles, up to the great area of sexuality, in which we devote ourselves to our genital area and its pleasures. Also the large area of the healing and medicine finds our undivided attention, it concerns here nevertheless to bring the body with all kinds of means, whether they are naturopathic or orthodox medicine, again on mint condition.
In contrast, the soul is often not given much consideration. And even if it is, we do not know exactly what the soul is. Can it really be that the soul is eternal? Bhakti theology goes one step further than the better known Advaita interpretation of Vedic spirituality. While in Advaita-Vedanta it is at least still comprehensible that we as individual souls merge and become one with the great, cosmic whole, the Brahman, and thereby of course also somehow enter into eternity and unity, Bhakti-Theology claims that we are eternal even as an individual identity. In Bhakti-Vedanta, there is an I that exists eternally, and this I is my true identity.

This true I is in an eternal relationship with Goddess-God, as servant, friend, parent or lover. There is a spiritual world that is beyond space and time, but still contains forms and qualities and individuality.

That is where we really belong, and that is where we participate as individual persons with our true identity in the eternal divine game, the lila.

The distinction between matter and spirit

The body is classified as matter in Vedic spirituality because it is made up of the five elements of earth, fire, water, air and ether.

It is also said in the Bible that God created man from clay and then breathed into him the breath of life. In our body earth is found, for example, as calcium in the bones, it find essentia, the fifth essence, which is added to the four elements known in the West, and stands for our spatial extension. These five elements are also associated with the senses: Thus, earth is associated with smell, water with taste, fire with sight, air with touch, and ether with hearing.
Interestingly, in Vedic ontology, mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi), and false ego (ahankara) are also among the material elements. It is helpful to distinguish here between the gross material and the subtle material levels, both of which are still material, i.e., material and to that extent not spiritual. Next to these two material levels there is then another, higher energy: the life energy. The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhagavan Sri Krishna, says about this:

Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego – all these eight elements together constitute My segregated material energies. (7.4)
Besides these lower energies, O strong-armed Arjuna, there is another energy, My higher energy, which encompasses the living beings who exploit the riches of material, lower nature. (7.5)
All created beings have their origin in these two natures. Know, of all that is material and all that is spiritual in this world, I am both the origin and the dissolution. (7.6)

Thus, the five gross material elements and the three subtle material elements constitute the material energies. Furthermore, there is another energy that comprises the living beings. The created beings, in turn, that is, we who have a biological body, are a combination of both. In chapter 13, this will be further specified:
One should understand that the material nature and the living beings are beginningless. Their transformations and modes of appearance of matter are products of material nature. (13.20)
Nature is considered the cause of all material causes and effects, whereas the living being is the cause of the various sufferings and enjoyments in this world. (13.21)
Thus, the living being in material nature follows the ways of life and enjoys the three manifestations of nature. This is due to its connection with material nature. Thus it meets with good and bad in the various forms of life. (13.22)

Thus, happiness and suffering do not arise from material circumstances, but from the living being’s experience and evaluation.

While all material events are causal, i.e., based on cause and effect, the living being judges these effects as good or bad depending on place, time, and circumstances. Here is the starting point for what is called awakening or enlightenment in spiritual traditions. In enlightenment, one is above these evaluations and is unattached to the material experiences and results. This is described in detail in the Bhagavad-gītā:

O son of Kunti, the impermanent appearance of happiness and suffering and their disappearance in the course of time are like the coming and going of summer and winter. They arise through sense perception, and one must learn to tolerate them without becoming confused. (2.14)
O best among men, he who is not disturbed by happiness and suffering, but is steady in both, is certainly suited to attain liberation. (2.15)
An intelligent man does not draw upon the springs of sorrow arising from contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and therefore the wise man does not delight in them. (5.22)
Someone whose happiness is within, who is active within and experiences joy within, and whose goal is within, is truly the perfect mystic. He is liberated in the highest, and ultimately he attains the highest. (5.24)

In the material consciousness, the material interactions appear positive or negative depending on the approach and understanding. However, this dynamic is not just a result of our mind (manas) and cannot be changed by thinking alone. The dynamic goes much deeper and is based on the issue of attachment to the fruits of our actions (karma) and identification with material forms (ahankara). The false ego (ahankara) is still counted among the material elements. In this respect it is not spiritual and cannot give us spiritual satisfaction. As conditioned beings, we are subject to illusion (maya), which means in particular that we are attached to material things and build our identity on them.
For example, if we are attached to a particular kind of food, we think it is good if that food is available; but we do not think it is good if that food is not available to us. This applies to all material forms of status, especially in the area of choosing a partner, but also, for example, in relation to money, housing or a certain form of our body, which usually visibly succumbs to the effects of gravity as we age and loses its beauty and shapeliness. Fame and honor, status, education and physical strength are some other values that belong to material identification and by their material character cannot make the spiritual soul happy. We feel this kind of happiness on the subtle level of the mind and the false ego. However, this also gives rise to perspective distortions and prejudices, which are basic elements of ideologies and fanaticisms.

Only on the liberated level one has the transcendental view, where one sees all living beings with the same eyes and makes no distinction between plants, animals and human beings, nor any distinction between different kinds of human beings in terms of race, sex or class.

Then one sees everywhere only the soul of living beings, because every living being is animated by a soul:

The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see a learned and noble brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater (casteless) with equal vision. (5.18)
A person is considered self-realized and is called a yogi (mystic) when he is fully satisfied with power of learned and realized knowledge. Such a person is anchored in transcendence and is self-controlled. He sees everything-whether pebbles, stones, or gold-as the same. (6.8)
When an insightful person stops making distinctions based on different material bodies and sees how living beings are present everywhere, he attains the vision of brahman. (13.31)

The soul is the actual life energy that comes from God, that is, it has a spiritual origin. Therefore, the soul and life cannot be explained materially, mechanically or causally. One must describe the soul and life as spiritual phenomena.

How can you transcend the material plane?

Any kind of material action falls within the realm of karma. Karma generally means action, but with the purpose of reaping the fruits of that action. The living being who performs karma does things with the intention of enjoying them for himself. On the human level, the general instinct for self-preservation and enjoyment is joined by the desire for power. The materially thinking human being assumes that the world revolves around him and that he (or the exclusive group defined by him to which he feels he belongs) is the central star according to which everything has to be directed. Every person in the material identification wants to be the controlling and the possessing one. Ahankara, the false ego, translated means “I am (aham) and I do (kara)”. So I identify myself with a certain material form and function and consider myself the doer who has the power to control or use things. In this respect, the Bhagavad-gītā also speaks of living beings exploiting material nature (cf. 7.5). The transcendental reality of our situation, however, is different:

The embodied spiritual living entity, the master in the city of his body, never causes activities. Neither does it cause others to act, nor does it produce the fruits of its activities. All this is caused by the modes of appearance of material nature. (5.14)
The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: the indestructible, transcendental living entity is called brahman, and his eternal nature is called adhyatma, the Self. Activities relating to the development of the material bodies of living entities are called karma, fruitive activities. (8.3)
Those with the view of eternity see that the imperishable soul is transcendental and eternal and is beyond the modes of appearance of nature. Despite its contact with the material body, O Arjuna, the soul does nothing, nor is it entangled. (13.32)

When one truly realizes that in all actions none other than these modes of nature are active, and knows that the Supreme Lord is transcendental to these modes, he attains my spiritual nature. (14.19)

To get out of the cycle of action and reaction of karma, it is necessary to perform karma-free actions. There is one type of action that is predestined for liberation and is also recommended as such in the Bhagavad-gītā: bhakti-yoga, pure, selfless love for God:

One who is fully engaged in devotional service (bhakti-yoga) and does not deviate under any circumstances immediately transcends the modes of appearance of material nature and thus attains the plane of brahman. (14.26)

As human beings, we have the right to act, but we do not have the right to dispose of the fruits. Of course, we immediately think that if I do something, I want to enjoy the result. However, spiritually speaking, we are all creatures. We are created by God. Likewise, this universe with its planets is created by God. So everything belongs to God. God is the owner and the controller. We are God’s children and are allowed to enjoy these things, but we should realize that we are not the possessors, nor are we the rulers. This idea of material ego is the root cause of suffering in the world. It causes all disturbances and collisions and therefore must be abandoned. When we do everything for God and give our fruits to God, we are in the right divine order and thus become enlightened. In the divine order, we are always well supplied with everything. It is also the only thing that completely satisfies the soul. So it is in giving up the claim to dominion and independence that the soul finds its fulfillment. Every soul tends to serve. We serve our children, our country, our pets. But the best service is service to Goddess-God, because it nourishes the root of the tree, and thus all the branches and leaves are also supplied. The best we can imagine for our lives is only a glimpse of what Goddess-God has provided for us. So when we engage in bhakti-yoga, in devotional service to Goddess-God, our lives attain perfection.

About the author:

Ronald Engert, born 1961, 1982-88 studied German studies, Romance studies and Philosophy, 1994-96 Indology and Religious Studies at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University Frankfurt/M. 1994 co-founded the journal Tattva Viveka, since 1996 publisher and editor-in-chief. 2015-22 Studied cultural studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin. 2022 Master’s thesis on “The Magic of Language in the work of Walter Benjamin”. Author of “Gut, dass es mich gibt. Diary of a Recovery” and “The Absolute Place. Philosophy of the Subject”.

Footnote 1: More detailed explanations can be found in: Ronald Engert, “Eternal Peace through Transcendence. What do the spiritual traditions say?”, in: Tattva Viveka 92, Berlin 2022, pp. 50-61.

Alle Zitate aus: A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada: Bhagavad-gita Wie Sie Ist, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1987

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