What is the soul? It’s a question philosophers, theologians, and humankind in general has been asking for thousands of years. It’s much easier to say what the soul is not, rather than what it is. The soul is not the body, because we can lose or replace any part of this physical incarnation without losing who we are.
The soul is not our thoughts; who among us can say we have the same thoughts now that we did fifteen years ago? The soul is not our emotions, those tides of feeling that come and go and come again.
There is a part of us at work behind the thoughts we think, behind the emotions we feel. Something that animates this body and gives rise to ecstatic experiences. The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Sanskrit text considered holy in the Vedic and Hindu religions, takes an intriguing perspective when approaching the soul.
Using the terms of Atma, Jivatma, and Paramatma, the Gita describes not only our individual souls, but the interaction of souls up to the highest level of Divinity.
Many schools of thought
Before I dive into exploring these three terms in more depth, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the wide array philosophies that use Paramatma, Atma, and Jivatma. Across the huge variety of Hindu religions and sects you can find an equally huge variety of approaches to Atma.
I’m not an expert, and some of what I write here may contradict your understanding of these concepts. If that’s the case, please let us know! I write in the hopes of starting dialogues, getting people thinking, and bringing up questions, not because I claim to Have The Answers.
Paramatma: The soul of God
“I am seated in everyone’s heart as the all pervading Supersoul and from Me comes remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness.” ~ Bhagavad Gita 15:15
Typically, when we think of God, or Life, or Divinity, the concept we’re thinking about can be called Paramatma. This is the Supreme Soul, or the Supersoul. As the above quote from the Gita illustrates, Paramatma is present in each and every living being.
When a soul is incarnated into this present reality – just as you and I are at this moment – three essential attributes arise from Paramatma: remembrance, knowledge, and forgetfulness.
With remembrance, we not only have the ability to recall that which has passed in this incarnation, but we are also given a deeper memory of that which has passed in previous incarnations. The latter informs us, on a subtle level, what work we need to do in this particular incarnation.
The attribute of knowledge as given by Paramatma is knowledge, again in two forms. Firstly, the ability to perceive and come to conclusions about this particular incarnation, which could also be interpreted as intelligence. That which allows our minds to work at their highest level.
Secondly, Paramatma (which can alternately be called Krishna) has given us the knowledge of the Vedas, ancient texts that can point the way back Home, to union with the Divine. Lastly, we have the attribute of forgetfulness. Primarily, this refers to forgetting past incarnations, in order to enable the individual soul to focus on the work that is to be done in this current incarnation.
Jivatma: The individual soul
“One who sees the Supersoul equally present everywhere, in every living being, does not degrade himself by his mind. Thus he approaches the transcendental destination.” ~ Bhagavad Gita 13.29
According to many traditions, the Jivatma is the personal soul. That is, it is a soul that maintains a sense of individuality from one incarnation to the next, carrying with it the karma of previous incarnations. An important thing that distinguishes Jivatma further from Paramatma is the ability of Jivatma to get distracted by maya, or the illusion that is this plane of existence.
Maya indicates anything which is not permanent. Since the soul is permanent, and Divinity is permanent, these qualify as reality. However, anything you can see, touch, taste, etc., is subject to change and eventual dissolution. In this way, it isn’t permanent, just a passing show put on by all of God’s creations. It can be a very convincing, engrossing show.
However, when an individual can recognize the presence of Paramatma in everything, behind the illusion, that person begins to recognize the importance of focusing on that which further illuminates Divinity. That is, surrounding him or herself with beauty, love, and truth, instead of hatred, anger, and lies. The more we cultivate the former in our lives, the closer we come to God.
Atma: Self with a capital S
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.” ~ Bhagavad Gita 2.20
Atma is the all-pervasive soul, the broad concept that envelops individual souls and the Divine alike. It is the Self, not as in my Self or your Self, but the Self.
The Param – in Paramatma translates from Sanskrit as highest, or best. The Jiva – in Jivatma refers to an incarnated being, specifically one who has become identified with its body. Thus, Paramatma is the highest soul, Jivatma is the incarnated soul, while Atma refers to the soul in a broad sense. Kind of like high school and middle school are both school, but distinct in and of themselves.
Paramatma in everything
With this approach of looking at the soul, it can be easy to see how our personal souls get covered up and distracted by all the very shiny things this physical world has to offer. By turning our eyes toward Paramatma, and by actively trying to cultivate that which resembles Paramatma (Beauty, Love, and Truth), we can help ourselves move away from the attachments of the world. Maybe give our souls a little breathing room, and some space to remember who we truly are: an aspect of that Divinity which courses through everything.