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A Handbook of Hindu Religion: Jiva


The study of the Jīva or the Ātman holds a central place in Hinduism. Hinduism insists on the sacredness of life and the solidarity of all Jīvas. The ātman is to be reflected on and realised before God or Paramātman is reflected on and realised. The ātman is different from the body made of prakṛti and its 33 elements. It is different from the gross body consisting of the five elements, namely, earth, water, fire, air and ether, known as the pañcabhūtas. It is not the five prāṇas and is more than life. It is not the five sense organs, namely the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and the organ of touch. The ātman is to be distinguished from the subtle body or sukṣmaśarīra, consisting of manas, buddhi, citta and ahaṅkāra or the mind, reason and egoity. Hinduism regards the mind and reason as part of the body and the ātman as different from the sukṣmaśarīra and the sthulaśarīra or mind-body. The bodies come and go but the ātman never changes and it is eternal or nitya. It is beyond birth and death and beyond all mental changes, like the waking state, dream and deep sleep. It is a changeless entity by itself.

The Jīva is thus different from its quality of jñāna or consciousness. The jñāna or quality undergoes changes and not the substance or ātman. In the jāgrat or waking state, the Jīva is conscious of the external world, and its five sense organs are active. It sees things with the eyes, hears sounds with the ears, has the sensations of smell, taste and touch through the nose, the tongue and the skin. Therefore sensations are in the Jīva and the objects which cause them are in the external world. In the dream state or svapna, the Jīva does not perceive things but is only mentally active and enjoys pleasure and pain. In deep sleep or suṣupti, the Jīva is at perfect rest and its consciousness does not work. Though it is not active, it is not non-existent; it is in a latent state.

The ātman is by nature self-effulgent, active, joyful and eternal. It is a mode or aṁśa of God and though it exists as an eternal entity, it is not separate from Him. It is not born and it does not die. It is beyond the past, the present and the future and is thus beyond time and it is beyond space. The ātman is essentially self-conscious and it has the quality of jñāna by which it thinks, feels and wills. It is a knowing subject and is not jaḍa or inert. It has moral freedom and it is not passive. It is joyful and is not miserable or sick-minded. In this way it abides in its own spiritual nature and is different from prakṛti and God. Ātman has its own dignity, intrinsic worth and autonomy. It is not a thing or physical substance like a stone or piece of wood which is acit or jaḍa. It is not subject to prakṛti and its guṇas and is free from the instincts, like lust, anger, hatred, jealousy and it has self-mastery. Thus it is a spiritual personality which is free and eternal. It is a knower, a free agent and is joyful. The ātman that subjects itself to the evils of Saṁsāra or the bondage of karma is called baddha-jīva. It somehow, owing to avidyā or ancient ignorance which cannot be explained, mistakes itself for the body made of prakṛti and suffers from the series of births and deaths. It is like the prince who exiles himself from his father's throne and joins the wild hunters in the forest, marries a hunter girl, begets children by her and thus gets immersed in savage life. The ātman somehow deserts its divine home, enters into the body made of acit, wallows in sense life and is caught up in the wheel of births and deaths. Why or how it lapses from the divine heritage and suffers from avidyā, kāma and karma, is a mystery. But the jīva alone is responsible for the evils and ills of worldliness and not any outside agency. Avidyā makes it identify itself with prakṛti and its guṇas; kāma makes it seek the pleasures of the senses and suffer from the pains of animal life and karma subjects it to the endless series of births and deaths. But the Jīva does not suffer from original sin or unmerited suffering. Though the origin of avidyā, or saṁsāra cannot be understood, it can be destroyed by jñāna and the ātman can go back to God and return no more to saṁsāra. But as long as its true nature is concealed by avidyā it is bound by karma and is subject to the rounds of births and deaths.


The law of karma occupies an important place in Hindu Ethics, and it alone solves the problem of the inequalities of life and unmerited suffering. Why does the wicked man prosper in life and the good man suffer from all kinds of misery, physical, mental and social? and why does the new-born child suffer for the sins of its parents and from untold evils and why should there be evil and misery at all if there is a good God? These problems are as old as humanity itself. But of all the solutions offered, the theory of karma is the least objectionable. Evil and suffering no doubt exist but each man is responsible for the ills of life he undergoes and not God or the Devil. The theory of karma is the law of causation applied to moral life and each man reaps what he sows. The effect of karma or action done by thought, word and deed (or manas, vāk and kāya) is never lost; it is conserved in the mind-body or śarīra. The present karma is the effect of the past and is the cause of the future. In this way all karmas are connected as cause and effect and they form a series without any beginning. The law of causation operates uniformly without any exception and it is the moral law of retribution. If a man does good deeds or puṇya-karma he is rewarded and he enjoys the effect of his deeds, like health, longevity of life, prosperity, power and glory; but if he does bad deeds he is punished and he suffers for his bad acts and they lead to disease, poverty and misery. Good and evil thus lead to pleasure and pain and there is a mathematical ratio between virtue and pleasure and vice and suffering. In this way every man is accountable for his good and bad deeds.


The laws of rebirth and transmigration of Jīvas follow as the consequence of karma. No child is born out of nothing; it is not born with an empty mind. It does not evolve from the parents and follow the laws of heredity. Every child is born with certain predispositions or vāsanas which are retained in the subtle body, as the effect of no deed is lost. When a person dies, the gross body alone is dissolved but the subtle body of the Jīva remains, retaining all the effects of its karma. The Jīva then enters into a new body suited to its past karma and is born again. Thus every birth is the result of past karma and is the cause of a new body and birth. Just as a man throws away worn out garments and puts on new garments, the Jīva throws away worn out bodies and puts on new bodies. Just as there is continuity in a man's life from infancy to old age and personal identity, so there is continuity of the same Jīva in the series of births and rebirths and personal identity. There is identity in spite of numerous births and this is due to the eternity of the Jīva.

The adventures of the Jīva in the world of saṁsāra are not confined to this earth alone. It migrates from body to body according to its karma in the cosmic spheres known as the three lokas ranging from Brahmaloka or Satyaloka above to the Pātālaloka below. In the celestial worlds above, starting with Svarga, the quality of sattva is dominant and the Jīva enjoys pleasure. In the nether regions, starting with Atala, the quality of tamas is dominant and Pātāla is the lowest region of darkness and the Jīva suffers from pain. But the middle region called Karma Bhūmi is influenced by rajas. It is the moral world of man and it is here that he does good deeds and bad deeds and their effect is reaped in the worlds above and below. There are other Brahmāṇdas like this and they are countless like the stars and they are ruled by Īśvara according to the karma of the vas. The worlds have no spatial meaning but they have hierarchical moral values. Good men ascend to higher regions according to their karma and enjoy celestial pleasures and when the effect is exhausted, they come down again and are born in different bodies, sub-human and human. Likewise wicked Jīvassuffer from pain and when it is exhausted, they have a new chance and are born again in this moral world.


The scientific view of karma in terms of cause and effect is open to the objection that it leads to fatalism and pessimism and that it does not provide any hope of bettering the future. Since every man reaps what he sows, he has to submit meekly to what happens without any moral freedom. He has to endure what cannot be cured and is a slave of circumstances. But the scientific view is only one aspect of karma as the more important side is the assertion of the moral freedom or freedom of the will. It says that every man can control his inclinations like anger, fear, lust, hatred and jealousy and that he can control his future. The scientific theory applies only to prārabdha- karma and not to sañcita-karma. The former refers to the karma that has already happened, like the birth of a person, and which cannot be changed. But the latter refers to the future which is in our hands. Everyman is the master or architect of his destiny and not even a God can alter it. If a man has a conflict of desires, like the choice of a career, he has the moral freedom to decide for himself which career he can choose. He can control his passions, like anger or hatred and attain moral victory. But if he chooses the way of the animal, then he once again is chained to the wheel of Saṁsāra. But he too will one day begin to realise the futility and pain of choosing the animal way of life and turn towards the higher path of freedom through self-control. In either case freedom is inherent in every soul to choose the higher or the lower. A soul has freedom to choose but not the power to get the results of what it chooses as it likes. The results depend on the laws of the worlds and causation (karma).