Essence of the Soul in Different Religious Beliefs
In many different religions, the soul is considered to be “the incorporeal essence of a living being”. It is considered the spiritual ‘breath’ that gives life to the living organism. Since the soul is such an essential aspect across various religions, this group felt it was important to map the fate of the soul. In Hinduism, Jainism and Ancient Greek Religion, amongst others, the soul undergoes reincarnation, and between births, rests in the after-life. The ultimate goal of a soul is to transcend the need to return to life on earth, to achieve liberation from the constant cycle of death and rebirth.
Ancient Greek Religion
Ancient Greek religion comprised of numerous gods that represented the various aspects of the human condition, including concepts like justice and wisdom. Reincarnation refers to the transmigration of a soul into a body of the same or different species. It is also known as metempsychosis. The belief of reincarnation apparently came into prominence in Greece through the Orphic religion which believed that the soul longed for freedom but our body was the physical source that caged it. Death freed the soul but reincarnation trapped it again. Plato used the Myth of Er in the Republic (10.614 – 10.621) to put forth the theory of reincarnation which is based on self- accountability. He says that the dead choose the life they want to live. He wrote of two judgements. The first judgement assigns the soul a thousand years of compensation for their lives. After this, the fate of the soul with respect to reincarnation depends upon its ability to judge itself. For Plato, the idea that souls are sent to bodies that are appropriate to their nature illustrates justice in the cosmos. Socrates believed that the soul is immortal. Therefore, he believed that death is not an end in itself, it is just the separation of the soul from the body. Realm of Hades was viewed as another world where the deceased would go. Upon reaching Hades, the souls would be judged for the deeds they did in their lifetime and placed into one of the four fields. The souls were judged as mediocre, bad or good and placed into Asphodel, Tartarus and Elysium respectively. The Meadows of Asphodel was the eternal stop for all souls who had neither been evil nor heroic. Most people were thought to end up here. In many depictions, bodies of the dead remained unchanged (Od.11.33–43). The souls engaged in similar activities as compared to when they were living. They retained most of their memories but these became dull and distant, and although souls here were a continuance of their living selves, they were thought to be empty, cold, and indifferent. Those souls who had committed grave sins were placed into Tartarus or the Fields of Punishment. It was envisioned as dark, hopeless and grim and souls there were eternally trapped, serving out their punishments. Homer’s epic depicts a few exceptional figures like Tantalus and Sisyphus receiving punishment in the underworld (Od. 11.576-600). The Fields of Elysium were where the good souls were placed. It was characterised by sunlight, shade, clean water and other aspects that would be attributed to a good life. The souls were lively and engaged in various activities like taking part in intellectual symposiums. The souls here were often regarded as heroes in the living world and were able to enjoy their existence without toil. Within Elysium were the Isles of the Blessed. Only those who achieved Elysium in three separate lifetimes were allowed here. It is eternal peace and happiness and the Greek equivalent of immortality and liberation of the soul. In Works and Days, Hesoid wrote about the heroic souls, “they live untouched by sorrow in the Isles of the Blessed.” There was also the Field of Mourning that was reserved for the souls of those “whom ruthless love did waste away.” Homer’s epics depict a grim afterlife which is generally taken to be the standard Greek vision, but it is not the only way in which the ancient Greeks imagined life after death. In many sources, life after death was either an extension of the life one lived when they were alive, or a compensation for its problems. Hence, two forms of afterlife in Greek religion can be differentiated. A simpler image based on memories of the deceased which relies heavily on Eusebeia, and more complex imaginations that reflect upon life itself.
Hinduism is an Indian religion, one of the oldest in the world. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of Indian cultures and traditions with diverse roots and no founder. One of the foundations of Hinduism is the belief in cyclic reincarnation of souls which is talked about extensively in The Bhagavad Gita. In Hinduism, the belief is that the body is nothing but a shell and the soul inside is immutable and indestructible and takes on different lives in a cycle of birth and death. When you die, you cannot bring your accumulated riches, lands, or other physical things, with you into the next life. The end of a cycle, when one achieves liberation and becomes one with the ‘paramatman’, is known as ‘moksha’. The atman leaves the body and is reincarnated according to the karma performed by one in their last life. A soul completes this cycle many times, learning new things each time and working through its karma. This cycle of birth, death and rebirth is called ‘samsara’. According to Hinduism, one is born based on their past karma. However, neither death nor life are permanent unless the soul attains liberation or self-knowledge. Lord Krishna explains the secrets of the universe and the purpose of life to Arjuna on the battlefield right before the war. He says, “Every creature in the universe is subject to rebirth, Arjuna, except the one who is united with me.” Hence, one is in a constant circle of samsara. There are two main courses that are followed by the souls to reach heaven. The purest souls who meditated wholeheartedly during their earthly life and followed all the scriptures follow the path to brahmaloka where they attain liberation. The path followed by ancestors or virtuous souls who may not have been liberated but led their earthly life virtuously with vows, worship and austerity go to chandraloka where they are rewarded for their good deeds and then sent back to earth as they may still have earthly desires. The souls that have committed serious sins and indulge in demonic actions follow a third path known as ‘narak’ or hell. Once these souls have exhausted their karmas, they come back to earth as insects, worms and other low life forms. Every soul also goes to ‘pitraloka’, which is the path of the ancestors, and stays there before being reincarnated to earth. According to the Vedas, Yama is the god of justice. In the Mahabharata, Vrihaspati’s account of ‘the frightful regions of Yama’ is a good description of hell. He tells king Yudhishthira that within the kingdom of Yama, there are certain places which are worse than the areas assigned to animals and birds. Similarly, there are mythical tales in the Hindu texts giving a description of heaven. Many of these tales mention beautiful gardens and dances of Apsaras.
Jainism is one of the many religions that have their origins in the Indian subcontinent. It is believed to be formed as a reaction to and rejection of certain beliefs and practices of Hinduism. Jainism believes that all karma, both good and bad, will lead to rebirth. ‘Punya’ leads to a good life, whereas ‘paap’ leads to a bad life. Therefore, one of their main goals is to remove all the karma that has been attracted to the soul in every birth and to stop accumulating new karma. Different kinds of karma are attracted to the soul depending upon the actions and intentions. The four basic sources of karma are attachment to worldly things, passions, sensual enjoyment and ignorance. In order to achieve liberation, they need to break their attachments to the world. In order to achieve Moksha, one has to get rid of eight karmas, namely, Mohniya, Jnanavarniya, Darshnavaraniya, Antaray, Nam, Gotra, Vedniya, and Ayushya. When the first four karmas are removed, then the soul shows its true nature by surfacing Kevalgnan, Kevaldarshan, Vitrag and Omnipotentness. Once this happens, the soul no longer has any attachment to anyone or anything. When the current life of the soul ends, it gets rid of the last four karmas as well and obtains Moksha. The soul is then free from karmic baggage. It moves to the top of the universe in its purest form and reaches ‘siddhashila’ or abode of the liberated souls. Jainism does not believe that there is a God who is the creator, survivor and destroyer of the universe. Jainism believes that God is a perfect being who has destroyed all his karmas and has become a liberated soul. Jains prescribe that right faith (samyagdarshana), right knowledge (samyagjnana) and right conduct (samyakcharitra) together constitute the way to liberation. They are called the three jewels in Jainism. For the attainment of liberation all three must be practised simultaneously. After death, the soul can have four ‘gatis’ in Jainism, which are Human beings, Heavenly beings, Tiryancha beings (lower forms) and Infernal beings, of which, only human life is suitable for achieving salvation as they are capable of choosing their actions.
Jainism and Hinduism both believe that rebirth and liberation is dependent upon karma however, they have very different takes on how the three are connected. Hinduism believes that karma is an essence of transgressions to atone for a debt or blessings to receive in the next life. On the other hand, Jainism thinks of karma as a particle that attaches itself to the soul. This means that Hindus try to accumulate good karma to atone for the spiritual debt while Jains try to purify the soul by getting rid of all the karma. Greek religion has a starkly different view from Hinduism and Jainism. It does not believe in a connection between rebirth and past life. Rebirth is optional and dependant upon the persons’ ability to evaluate themselves. Liberation according to the Greeks, is less of a state of being and more a physical place, that is the Isles of the Blessed. Greek religion also places a larger emphasis on the after-life, with the Underworld being well-defined across various texts and eras.
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