Hinduism embraces the doctrine of reincarnation (samsara) and therefore asserts a part of man survives the death of the body and is reborn in another body. This inner self is most often referred to as a spirit rather than a soul, but the distinction appears trivial. In the Chandogya, the sage Uddalaka reveals to his son the spirit of the inner self, the Atman, is identical to the absolute spirit of the universe, the Brahman – when he reveals the ultimate truth of existence: “tat tvam asi” – “thou art that.”8
Buddha also accepts the doctrine of reincarnation, but nonetheless preaches the non-existence of a self or ego (anatta), which seems to be logically inconsistent. Schools of Buddhism have attempted to resolve the contradiction by substituting alternatives for the soul such as:
1. Personhood (pudgala)
2. Suchness (tathata)
3. Seed-consciousness (alaya-vijnana)
4. A stream of continuously flowing discrete elements of sensation, consciousness, feeling, activity, impulses, and bodily processes (dharmas)– which give rise to the impression of an enduring self.9
However, it is unclear exactly how these solve the inconsistency as each denies the existence of a permanent and unchanging substance that meets the criterion of a soul.
From this brief introduction, we get a taste of the variety of concepts of the soul in the world traditions. Besides some level of agreement that the soul is immaterial and distinct from the body, there are significant differences. It may be perceived as ideal or form, unique to humans or possessed by all living things, readily separable from or permanently united with the body, individual or participating in a universal spirit, and in the case of Buddhism – perhaps indefinable or even an illusion (although a necessary one).
So our task in addition to deciding on the rationality of belief in the soul is to characterize it based on these and other propositions. Next we will take up arguments and other warrants for belief in the soul.
1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972. Volume 6, page 329.
2Adler, Mortimer J, et. al., The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World, Volume II, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952 page 795
3Ibid., page 798
4 Ibid., page 796
5 Ibid., page 791
6 Ibid., page 798
7Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, New York, 1997. ISBN 0-385-50819-0, page 104.
8Koller, John M., Oriental Philosophies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970. ISBN 684-13668-6, pages 96-102.
9 Ibid. pages 126-145.