Soul and Self in Vedic India

Abstract: The study employs the analytical concept of “soul” as an umbrella term under which, it is argued, a variety of conceptions pertaining to life, personality, consciousness, and afterlife may be usefully grouped to-gether and analyzed. A survey is conducted of the various Vedic con-cepts which fall within this category, their development being traced from the earliest times to the close of the Vedic era. By outlining the evolution of the early Indian “soul”-conceptions, a larger picture of the transformations of Vedic notions of personhood and the afterlife is made to emerge. In particular, the study seeks to explain the formation of the Late Vedic soul-concepts, ātman and puruṣa, and the emerging idea of an immortal consciousness-core in all beings, which contrasts sharply with the relatively scant interest in soul-related matters seen in earlier texts, where the person is seen as a conglomeration of psycho-physical constituents which disperse at death. The so-called “unification of the soul” seen in the Upaniṣads, whereby the functions of older soul-concepts are absorbed by a newer, dominant form of soul, was ex-plained by Ernst Arbman (1926-27) along evolutionistic lines, as the dissolution of an archaic “soul-dualism” into a single soul-concept, but should rather be seen against the background of larger changes in the Vedic culture, especially the decline of the sacrificial ideology and ac-companying shift of focus from exterior acts of ritual to the human interior. This process of interiorization led to the relocation of ātman and puruṣa, originally names for the postmortal body received by the sacri-ficer in yonder world, to the body’s interior. It is shown that knowledge of the soul or “self” (ātman) began to replace the ritual as the Brahmins’ chief source of royal patronage.

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