Life and Soul

Miguel Angel Carrasco nisargadata at MX3.REDESTB.ES
Mon Feb 9 12:42:59 CST 1998

I'm not very fond of discussions about words, though at the same time I'm
all for clearly defining the key terms on which any serious debate is to be
based. Fon some time, in order to really understand many of the debates
held on this List, I have missed a set of clearly defined key terms. That's
why I welcome Nagy's question. But I'm a bit pessimistic. Because though
we all seem to share some basic tenets, we widely diverge in their
application to real life.

But to Nagy's question: "there is no equivalent word for Atma and Brahman
in english or any other language".  It's true that practically no word has
an exact equivalent in other languages, and divergence can be really great.
But I don't see a special problem with "atma". In Romance languages (and
English is to a wide extent one, at least in its vocabulary), we have words
coming from the Latin "spiritus", "animus", and "anima". The last two have
come to coalesce into one, e.g. "alma" in Spanish, "ame" in French, etc
(though none in English), meanining "soul". Unluckily, "soul" (and its
equivalents "alma", "ame", etc) are ambiguous: in a wider sense they mean
the living principle in all animals and even plants, and  that's why we
call all living beings "animate"; while in a more strict sense "soul"
stands for "spirit", that is, the eternal substance in all human beings.
Accordingly, atheists don't believe that people have a "spirit". This
ambivalence of "soul" is hardly present in the word "spirit". Western
thought doesn't hold animals to have a spirit, even though they may have a

It's true that "spirit" is also ambivalent: it can be both man's or God's.
Christians name "Holy Spirit" the third person of the divine Trinity, while
making man an aggregate of two substances, body and spirit (and they tend
to inlcude mind within the spirit). But this duality of "spirit" makes it
the more appropriate to translate "atman", which also can be applied both
to the person (jivaatma) and to Brahman (paraatman).

In translations of the Upanishads, I have seen "praana " translated as
"spirit". Maybe because originally "spiritus" (and its Greek equivalent
"pneuma") meant "breath".  I understand that praana is the breath of life,
the vital principle, thus something related to the body, not to atman. So I
don't think it is very correct to make "praana" equal "spirit", which now
has ceased to mean bodily life, to mean an immaterial substance.

        > "Soul is not atma."

If by that we mean that soul (mind or bodily life) is not spirit (atman,
the self), agreed. But anyway I think that in Adavaita we believe that
_nothing_ is atma. That atma, the Self, is the only conscious principle,
the unobservable Witness of everything, while all else, including the mind
or soul is observed, and so an object in Consciousness.  But often "soul"
taken as a synonym of "spirit" and different from "mind", and Christians
believe that their souls are immortal, thus "spirits". In that sense,
"soul" is atman.

For me, the problem in finding Western equivalencies to Sanskrit terms does
not lie here, but rather in "consciousness".  I have found so many words to
mean "consciousness" or its different states that I'm still very confused:
chit, chitta, chetanaa, chidaakaash, vijnana, prajnana, bodha, bhava,
matish, samvid, prajnaa, taijasa, turiya, viraat, visva, etc.
Is anyone ready to give neat definitions of them?

Miguel Angel

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