What is the Soul in Vedic Philosophy?

There are several ways in which the soul in Vedic philosophy differs from the soul in other religions: (a) It establishes unity in diversity, and it is detected by that unity, (b) Its immortality is exactly the same as the immortality of matter, (c) It goes from body to body every moment, not merely at death, (d) Matter is treated as a state of the soul, rather than an object, and (e) The soul has six facets that lead to a choice and isn’t a monolith. In this article, I will discuss how these make the soul an essential part of all science, instead of separating it from science through a soul-matter divide.

The Non-Physical is Hidden in Plain Sight

Let us begin talking about the soul by discussing the distinction between object and property in modern science. A property is defined as anything that is conserved. For instance, energy is conserved, so it is a property. Charge is conserved so it is a property. We can speak about the past and future at present, so time is conserved, hence it is a property. We can speak about all positions and angles at any time, so space is conserved, and hence it is a property. If an object has a position, angle, or time property, it has borrowed these from a “pool” collectively called space and time and they will be returned to the “pool” eventually. Since space and time are conserved, therefore, they can also be called properties.

Unlike properties, objects in science have never been conserved. For instance, in classical mechanics, particles can split and merge, so they are not conserved. In classical electrodynamics, waves can split and merge, so they are not conserved. In all quantum particle theories, particles can split and merge, so they are not conserved. In quantum field theories, fields can split and merge so they are not conserved. What is not conserved cannot be considered a real entity. There is no other notion of reality in physics.

Objects are theoretical fictions in science denoted by the use of brackets around property tuples. For instance, a classical particle is denoted as {x, p}. An electron in an atom is denoted as {n, l, m, s} which are numbers corresponding to energy, momentum, angular momentum, and spin. A pair of brackets “binds” multiple properties into an “object”. There is no glue, tape, or rope binding properties together, because if such a thing existed, then it would be conserved like the other conserved properties. The brackets are not conserved. They are theoretical fictions we call a particle, wave, field, quanta, etc.

Hence, if we were looking for something non-physical, then we need to look no further than our favorite physical theory. We can find the non-physical in a physical theory through object concepts like particle, wave, quantum, field, electron, proton, and so on, represented by non-physical entities called brackets such as {}. This method of representing the non-physical is taken from set theory where a set is denoted by brackets. An object in physics is a set of properties. The properties are conserved but the set is not.

The Non-Physical Establishes Unity in Diversity

The non-physical has existed in physics forever. It is used to establish unity in diversity—the properties are the diversity, and the object is the unity; the properties are conserved but the object is not. Science constructs macroscopic physical objects—such as a car—by assuming the existence of microscopic physical objects—such as electrons—when in fact these particles are theoretical fictions denoted by brackets.

The forces that bind subatomic particles into molecules are also theoretical fictions called “quantum ensembles”. Bigger aggregates of molecules—all the way to a car—are bigger theoretical fictions. There has never been a “physical object” in any physical theory to date. It was always a pair of brackets.

Therefore, we have to go back to set theory and ask—How do we draw a circle, boundary, or brackets around some properties to construct an object? And having drawn that boundary, what is its physical status? It acts just like glue, tape, or rope, but can we ever call it a physical entity? The fact is—we can’t. Therefore, nobody knows why objects exist, because objects are imaginary boundaries around properties. They are just as imaginary as boundaries on a map denoting countries, states, and cities. We can draw such boundaries on some imaginary canvas but we can never call them physical entities.

The Linguistic Necessity of Object Concepts

Ordinary language uses three basic figures of speech—nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They joined using conjunctions. They are sometimes substituted by pronouns and adverbs. If we don’t have nouns, then we cannot make a sentence. Even a sentence like “It is raining” requires “it” to mean something like a cloud, which is a noun. Without nouns, there is no language. Without language, there is no knowledge.

Knowledge requires the existence of objects denoted by nouns—the things to be known. But we never see those objects or nouns. We only see their properties (the adjectives) and their changes (the verbs). We bind them together through an imaginary construct of an object which is denoted by a noun. We also attach the properties and changes to nouns through conjunctions. To make these attachments, we use theoretical fictions denoted by nouns, which are never perceived like adjectives and verbs.

Objects have been earlier called noumena in Western philosophy and contrasted to observable phenomena, namely adjectives, and verbs. “The table is heavy” requires a noumenon called a table and a phenomenon called heaviness. In mathematics, these noumena are replaced by brackets. Hence, a table will be represented as a set of properties such as {heavy, square, black, long} in which the members of the set are phenomena whereas the brackets that combine them into an “object” are the noumena. Now if you say that “the table is heavy”, it means that “heavy” is a member of the set called “table”. The table is now just a name or symbol for two brackets. It remains a non-physical noumenon.

The Social Necessity of Object Concepts

Let’s replace the noumenon with a person and for the moment assume that a person is a theoretical fiction like a set denoted by curly brackets. If a person gains weight, then the members of the set change. If a person colors their hair, then the members of the set change. If a person gets older, then the members of the set change. Each of these sets can be denoted by a unique letter such as A, B, C, etc.

Since the set is changing, hence, the previous and new sets must be denoted by a unique letter. If that letter is an identity, then the person’s identity is not fixed. If A got married to Y, then after the change to B, the marriage should be voided because the marriage occurred between A and Y, rather than B and Y. If A bought a property Y, then after the change to B, the ownership should be voided because the property was owned by A and not B. If A worked for a year, then after changing to B, his or her promotion should be voided because the work was done by A rather than B. A changing identity voids every social contract.

All social laws rely on a persistent personal identity. Crimes committed during youth can be punished in old age. Work done in the past can be rewarded in the future. Property purchased during youth can be enjoyed in old age. Marriages are not dissolved with passing age. If there is no persistent person then every social law is void. Belongings will be repossessed, crimes would not be punished, previous work would not be rewarded, and marriages will be dissolved because the person is a set of attributes within brackets denoted by a label and as the attributes change the label must change. Since all laws depend on a persistent label, therefore, laws cannot be applied to changing labels.

Some people might want to attach their identity to their DNA. But DNA is also a pair of brackets around some genes, each of which is many pairs of brackets around subatomic particles. As the DNA is replicated, new pairs of brackets are created and the old ones are destroyed. Calling identical copies of the DNA the same person would be like calling two identical cars the same car. The DNA always mutates—even if ever so slightly. The DNA is modified by viruses which then results in diseases. We don’t consider a diseased person, or one with mutated DNA, a different person than the one prior to disease or mutation. A person who undergoes organ transplants acquires organs with a different DNA, without changing the identity. Therefore, identity is always assigned to some noumenon and not to phenomena.

The Postulate of a Soul in Vedic Philosophy

The problem of persistent identity exists across all domains—(a) physical theories require objects, (b) ordinary language needs nouns, and (c) social laws necessitate a person. The object may be non-physical, the noun may be unperceivable, and the person may be a legal construct, but they are necessary. The phenomena are useless without the noumena. We cannot make a sentence without a noun. A society with laws being applied to persons cannot exist without a personal identity.

I wanted to convince the reader that some non-physical noumena nouns are necessary before I talk about the soul in Vedic philosophy. I will now convert these necessities into a postulate of the soul. A soul is an object that combines the diversity of properties into a unity. The soul is that noun that joins adjectives and verbs and enables us to formulate sentences. The soul is the noumenon that creates persistent personhood despite changing attributes. The soul is signified in the act of drawing boundaries in set theory. If the soul doesn’t exist, then language, knowledge, science, society, and laws (both social and natural) cannot exist because each of these relies on the existence of an object, noun, or identity. These nouns can be temporary or persistent identities, an issue to which I shall return shortly.

When every noun is a soul, then rivers, mountains, oceans, trees, and animals are as much persons as humans. Each of these is referred to as a unity, object, or identity when a noun is used to refer to it. If that unity is destroyed, then the noun is no longer applicable, and the soul is no longer present. The word “soul” can therefore be substituted by the word “unity” and the word “body” can be replaced by the word “diversity” constituted of various adjectives and verbs, combined into a singular noun.

What makes a body living? The same thing that makes it a body, namely, a unified singular entity that can be referred to by a noun. The moment there is unity in diversity, there is a soul. When the soul detaches from the diversity, then the unity disappears, and whatever was previously called the “body” disintegrates. Factually, the “body” is not an object because it is a collection of attributes denoted by adjectives and verbs. We can drill within each such attribute, go down to subatomic particles, and there will still be no object because objects have never existed in any physical theory. Physical theories have relied on theoretical fictions of ensembles, particles, waves, quanta, and such, signified them with brackets, without explaining how brackets aggregate some numbers—i.e., adjectives, and verbs.

The Distinction Between Matter and Materialism

The flaw in materialism is the assumption that there are material objects. The flaw is thinking that a “body” is an object when it is just a pair of brackets around particles, each of which is a pair of brackets around properties. Layers upon layers of bracket pairs are used to construct bigger and bigger objects, without explaining what corresponds to such bracket pairs. Certainly, there is nothing physical about them. They are not material things, not conserved, and not even measurable by any instrument.

Therefore, matter must be redefined as simply adjectives and verbs. For example, the position of a particle is an adjective and its momentum is a verb. When momentum is measured by an instrument, the resulting number becomes an adjective of the instrument. When position is measured by an instrument, the needle on a dial moves, resulting in a verb. The distinction between adjectives and verbs is not hard and fast, because the moving needle is a verb and the new position is an adjective. Hence, we can simplify these into “attributes” of an object. Matter is simply attributes of the soul—the noun, noumena, object, or thing that we can identify by giving it a clearly distinguishable name or number.

The soul, on the other hand, is that which (a) binds the attributes, (b) knows the attributes, and (c) uses the attributes. I will return to these three traits of the soul shortly while discussing consciousness.

The Eternity of the Soul in Vedic Philosophy

Now that we have the necessity of a non-physical noumenon noun, and it is distinguishable from the attributes constituting matter that are selectively and occasionally unified into the appearance of a unified body, then we can talk about whether this unity-establishing soul is eternal. For sure, we need this persistent identity as we grow older in this life—to keep getting paid for the job done last month, to keep owning the things we have previously purchased, and to preserve previously forged relationships.

The question is: Does the soul persist even after death when the body has disintegrated? In simple words, are the curly brackets conserved in some sense even if the members within those curly brackets have disintegrated? The answer to this question is another question: Why not? You see, the attributes within the curly brackets are constantly changing in this life as we go from childhood to youth to old age. But the curly bracket—i.e., the personhood—is persistent in this life. If it needs to persist right now—for society, language, and science to exist—then why should it not persist beyond the present life?

You might say: Well, stretching a lifespan—of let’s say 75 years—to eternity is quite a stretch. But count that from the perspective of how many atomic state transitions occur in our body during that period. Let’s say, the number of 1050. If the personal identity persists through this time, then, what stops us from multiplying this by 10, to talk about 10 lifetimes, with a total number of state transitions being 1051? The point is that one life is almost like an eternity from the perspective of atomic state changes. If we can insist upon a persistent identity through this enormously high number, then eternity is not unimaginable.

But if you are still skeptical, then responsible skepticism also demands that the skeptic provide an explanation of how curly brackets are created from microscopic particles to a macroscopic body by invoking some material property called “objectivity” created at birth and destroyed at death.

For the skeptic, objectivity cannot be non-material because the skeptic is trying to escape the problem of a non-material identity. It also cannot be material, because whatever is created at birth and destroyed at death is not conserved, and hence it cannot be matter. The only remaining alternative is that there is never any object, which also means that crimes committed during youth should not be punished in old age, property acquired during youth could be repossessed at any time, legal relationships created at any time cannot persist, and work done in the past should not be rewarded at any time in the future.

The standard for a soul is not higher than the standard for matter. The standards are precisely the same, namely, whatever we call real must be conserved. When material properties are conserved, but the soul is not, then identity is changing as the body is changing and we cannot make sentences with the same nouns, formulate equations of motion for the same particles, or laws of society with persistent identities. A soul is necessary for each of these. However, if someone doesn’t like that option, then they have to also ponder the problem of creating bracket pairs all the way from atomic particles to living bodies.

The assumption that identity persists because DNA persists begs a question: Why does the DNA begin to disintegrate after death? Death comes before DNA disintegration not after it has begun. In fact, as long as a person is alive, DNA errors are repaired. That doesn’t happen after death. Hence, every skeptic of a persistent identity will have to start explaining every molecular change bottom up again based on a single event called “death” without recourse to a soul leaving the body to cause its disintegration.

How Can the Object Also Be Consciousness?

Object constructs in classical physics assumed that all attributes of an object are simultaneously active. This is no longer true in quantum physics where attributes are activated and detected occasionally. What causes the activation of preexisting attributes is still unknown but the role of consciousness has often been postulated. The problem is that the mechanism for activating the attribute has been mysterious due to the Cartesian mind-body separation. But as we have noted, such separation relies upon the postulate of bracket pairs, which are not physical. Therefore, instead of saying that mind and body are separate, we can say that mind is the noun that unites adjectives and verbs constituting the body.

How does the mind interact with the body? The mind draws boundaries around attributes, which requires the mind to know the attributes. Subsequently, the aggregated attributes can be activated. The proposed role of the mind in a quantum collapse is not the only role; an even more fundamental role in creating a quantum ensemble comes prior. Some interpretations of quantum theory like replacing collapse with other non-conscious alternatives. But they cannot explain how an ensemble is formed. There is no quantum mechanics without the notions of ensembles and particles. The quantum collapse is a subsequent issue after an ensemble of attributes has been formed.

As briefly noted above, the soul does three things—(a) knows attributes, (b) binds attributes, and (c) uses attributes. Attributes can be macroscopic like my hand or microscopic like the energy of quanta. The emission of energy can be a state change of an electron defined by {n, l, m, s}. In talking about a state change, we assign a persistent identity to the thing whose state is changing. Since that thing is nothing other than curly brackets, therefore, these brackets are given persistence as their members are changing. Thus, an electron is in a superposed state of many potentials denoted by several {n, l, m, s} and one such state is activated by choice. Likewise, up and down are potential states of my hand, and choice activates one of those states to move the hand up or down. My hand remains my hand even if it moves up or down. That is identity persistence through state changes. It can be understood only if up and down are potential states of some persistent identity.

The question is: How does choice activate a potential? The answer can be as simple as using three kinds of brackets, such as {}, [], and <>. Let’s define {} as binding attributes, [] as knowing attributes, and <> as using attributes. The attributes, such as the up and down are bound as a potential into a hand, denoted by {}. Before being used, the binding agency must become aware that the hand can be moved up or down, denoted by []. After that awareness, the binding and knowing agency must transition from merely binding and knowing those states to activate them, denoted by <>. The sequence between binding, knowing, and using is not fixed; they can occur in any possible order.

Now we can talk about a change in the noun, soul, object, or person, from being {X} to knowing [X] to using <X>. The X is not changing but the brackets around X are. What causes the brackets to change? We have to postulate the existence of a person with a will. The will acts for a purpose—ultimately pleasure—so will is driven by a personality of the types of pleasures a person seeks. The person can be distinct from that personality due to the possibility of changing the sought pleasures without changing the person.

Description of the Soul in Vedic Philosophy

I can now introduce the Vedic concept of soul, defined by six words—person, pleasure, will, being, knowing, and acting. These are variously grouped and divided in many ways because each such grouping and/or division serves to illuminate one issue better while keeping other issues out of the focus.

These six words are sometimes grouped into two—a triad called Puruṣa (loosely an enjoyer, comprising person, pleasure, and will) and a triad called Śakti (loosely the power, comprising being, knowing, and acting). The attributes of a person—i.e., adjectives and verbs—are called Prakṛti (sometimes also called guna or adjectives and karma or verbs). The same six words are sometimes grouped and divided into a 3-2-1 collection called ānanda (person, pleasure, will), chit (knowing, acting), and sat (being). Collectively, the entirety of Prakṛti (i.e., all the conceivable adjectives and verbs) are also the being, knowing, and using of another Puruṣa + Śakti, that can be loosely equated to “God” of other religions. It is easy to get confused, and it is not difficult to maintain clarity if we can remember the below terminology:

  • Puruṣa = the enjoyer = person, pleasure, and will
  • Śakti = the power = being, knowing, and acting
  • Prakṛti = guna (adjectives) and karma (verbs)
  • Guna = creative expansion of knowing aspect of Śakti
  • Karma = creative expansion of the acting aspect of Śakti
  • Puruṣa + Śakti = enjoyer and its powers = the noun soul
  • Puruṣa + Śakti = enjoyer and its powers = the noun God
  • The soul is also a part of God’s pleasure, will, and power
  • Souls + God = all eternally individual persons = Brahman
  • Sat = the power of being some adjectives and verbs
  • Chit = the power of knowing and using adjectives and verbs
  • Ānanda = the enjoyer, person, pleasure, and will

The adjectives and verbs have a being—i.e., they exist—but only as the attributes of the nouns. Since there are two kinds of nouns—souls and God—hence, the same adjectives and verbs have two nouns, enjoyers, and controllers—the soul and God. God is the primary and the soul is the secondary noun. Due to limited awareness of the adjectives and verbs, the noun can also be misjudged, akin to equating lime to lemon. The material world is a “body” of God controlled by His will for His pleasure, by the power of being, knowing, and acting. A part of that world is the “body” of the soul, controlled by its will for its pleasure, by its power of being, knowing, and acting. The conflict between two controllers of the same body is resolved by the soul’s capacity to move from body to body, and/or activate different potentials in the body, like a person can play different roles in a drama, without changing the script of the drama.

If the above description leads to more questions, then I think this article would have served its purpose. Everything can be described at a high level and in greater detail. An introduction is meant to be high-level and details are reserved for those who might be motivated by the high-level description.

Novelties in the Vedic Conception of the Soul

I will use a simple question-and-answer format to answer common questions regarding the above. Wherever these can be contrasted to the concept of the soul in other religions, can be called a novelty.

  • Can the soul be known empirically? Yes, the soul is always known empirically by the presence of unity (a noun) in diversity (verbs and adjectives). The simple distinction between a living and dead body is that the living body stays unified whereas a dead body disintegrates.
  • The soul has the body or does the body have the soul? The soul always has the body, because the body is adjectives and verbs of a noun, and the soul is the noun. A ball has a size and speed. Size and speed do not have a ball. A figure of speech inversion is contrary to linguistic intuitions.
  • How can the soul be one thing and six aspects at once? This is called the elephant and five blind men problem. There is no elephant without a trunk and there is no trunk without an elephant. These are distinct, but mutually defined and inseparable aspects of the same thing.
  • Can the soul-matter interaction problem be resolved? Yes, the resolution of the problem is that matter (adjectives and verbs) is potentials combined, known, and used as the soul itself goes through the states of being, knowing, and acting driven by its personality of pleasure.
  • Is the world real or an illusion? Nouns, verbs, and adjectives are real, but the combination of some nouns with some adjectives and verbs is temporary. Hence, the soul being a body is temporary and ultimately an illusion, although the constituents of the body are real.
  • Can we describe the internal causality in the soul? Yes, the causality of choice is divided into six aspects. The will is always activated by a personality of pleasure of a person. It can also be called the process of a person wanting to enjoy by being, knowing, and doing something.
  • Is the soul identical to God in some sense? The six attributes above apply to all persons, including the soul and God. But except individual personhood, the other five attributes—pleasure, will, knowing, acting, and being—of the soul are minuscule compared to that of God.
  • Can the will vs. determinism problem in science be solved? Yes, the world is deterministic as a drama and free as the choice of a soul to participate in different roles. We can predict what will happen in the future without fixing who does what, or who plays which role in a drama.
  • How can the world be rational if governed by God’s will? There is no conflict between will and rationality because both operate under a personality. A person’s behavior is predictable if their personality is known and stays unchanged. It is unpredictable only if the personality changes.
  • Is a soul inherently masculine or feminine? The Puruṣa aspect is masculine and the Śakti aspect is feminine. Both exist in all souls. Sometimes power activates will, and sometimes will activates power. Whichever activates the other more makes the soul masculine or feminine.
  • Is God inherently masculine or feminine? God is both masculine and feminine. When the power activates the will, then the feminine aspect is dominant. When the will activates the power, then the masculine aspect is dominant. God is hence known as a masculine-feminine couple.
  • How does this square with modern science? It doesn’t, because science has disregarded the process of object formation and postulated fundamental particles. Nouns, adjectives, and verbs are fundamental, but particles constructed by combining them are not fundamental.
  • Do you foresee a scientific realization of these claims? An alternative science has to begin from the process of sentence construction rather than object motion. Sentence sequences can describe all object motions but object motions cannot describe all sentence sequences.

There is no mind-body separation in this description because nouns, adjectives, and verbs are part of each sentence. Some people erroneously equate the inextricability of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in a sentence to their identity. They are not identical. Nor is the distinction between noun, adjective, and verb ever dissolved into oneness, although when a person becomes self-aware, they seem to have dissolved because the knower is the noun, the known is the adjective, and knowing is the verb. Since the same thing can be alternately called noun, adjective, and verb, therefore, an appearance of their identity is created when even in that appearance, the knower, known, and knowing distinction exists.

Sometimes changes to adjectives and verbs change the noun. Sometimes, a change to the noun changes the adjectives and verbs. Predictions involve knowing the noun from the verbs and adjectives and then predicting the verbs and adjectives based on that noun. This is just like we know personalities based on sentence sequences and predict sentence sequences based on that personality. A sentence sequence can change a personality which will then change the sentence sequences. This is a reciprocal causal process between nouns, verbs, and adjectives and not a linear causal process used in modern science. All rational and empirical criteria thus apply to sentence construction instead of object motion.

Indeterminism in science is the result of choices activating different noun-adjective-verb bindings. But this indeterminism is the default state in language. Sentence sequences can be continuous or discrete but motion cannot be discrete. Therefore, all discrete and indeterministic phenomena are perpetually beyond the scope of the science of motion but within the purview of the science of sentences.

The science of how a speaker utters sentences that then transform the speaker was earlier practiced in India. It was lost over centuries due to the decline of the ritualistic mantra chanting and then revived 500 years ago by Sri Chaitanya Mahāprabhu. The revived process stresses personal change but the erstwhile process was used both for personal and material change. The mantras used in these processes are often different but the science of sound utterances is the same in the two cases. The science-religion divide ceases to exist in such a practice because both rely on the same principles of soul and matter, how the soul uses matter to produce sounds, and how it transforms itself and matter through that sound.