The Hindu Concept of Soul – Part 2: What is the Soul?

The Hindu Concept of Soul – Part 2: What is the Soul?

By: Gary Gomes

The conception of the soul in Hindu belief is really relevant in connection with God, or Brahman (otherwise known as the reality—the state in which all reality exists). The two principle beliefs are that we are connected to Brahman and have always been connected to Brahman, but simply have forgotten, either because of ignorance or desire, of our divine nature. This is called Advaita Vedanta, and is, as we saw above, practiced by Shaivites and Saktis.

The motivation for the soul’s departure is open to speculation, but some theorize that the soul leaves to experience something in a more limited existence, under the illusion (Maya) that this will make them happy. When the soul attains a body, this triggers other desires because it is in a body. Eventually, over many, many lifetimes, the person gets tired of seeing the same things over and over again and starts wanting to return to Brahman. Either through many (millions) of lifetime or through advanced yogic practices, one ultimately returns to Brahman.

Click here for part 1


The Dvaita (dualistic) school believes that all souls are individual and self-contained, and they are always separate from God. This school often holds that all souls are all created at the same time, but they reincarnate into different shells in order to experience different types of existence. Beings on this earth are not yet worthy of being with God, so they must  build up merit, either through, acts or devotion. Eventually these souls do enough good works, or repeat enough mantra or ritual enough acts to sit next to Vishnu in Heaven.

There is a belief held in India by some that those who lead evil lives are reincarnated as lesser beings—animals or trees—or that some get born into different cultures, but reincarnation is a central concept of belief in most Hindu belief systems. One notable—and extinct—sect called the Charvakas dated at approximately 600 BCE, although dates differ—see: –were entirely materialistic and do not give any credence to an after life or reincarnation. Also, although not as extreme in their beliefs, Buddhism and Jainism, both of which originated on the Indian subcontinent, are atheistic in that there is no personal god to return to in their belief system.

Advaita is generally considered more difficult to practice as a belief system, because it the necessity of constantly remembering one is connected to the divine. Dvaita is a bit less intense from a personal perspective, although some groups connected with this school (specifically the Hare Krishna movement) require far more stringent behavior than most advaita schools.

Most groups in India believe that Jyotisha, or Indian astrology, provides a way to read the patterns of past-life karma.

Both groups encourage renunciation or at the very least, moderation so the individual has fewer attachments to this world to bind him or her here. The principal idea is to cultivate non-attachment through Santosha or contentment with the world, and later, this will lead to less ambitions to fulfill that would interfere with one’s ambition to return to the reality, be it with form (Saguna Brahman—this usually means a certain God, like Vishnu, will represent Brahman, and the other version of the reality is Nirguna Brahmani, which, although it has a nature and a life, does not have a personality—and this can make Nirguna Brahman, and consequently, Advaita Vedanta, very difficult for the normal person without an abstract perspective on deity.

Textural References:

Reincarnation is mentioned in virtually every major Hindu text:

Here is a listing of the primary SRUTI (fully cognized and divinely provided texts) and SMRTI (texts divinely inspired, but written by humans and subject to interpretation). One may make the distinction here of the division between laws and regulations


Rig Veda—This is the oldest recognized text, dated from 1500 BCE to 6,000 BCE by various sources. 1028 hymns are dedicated to a wide range of gods, including Indra, Agni and Varuna. Lunar mansions are mentioned in this Veda.

Yajur Veda (Veda of Liturgy)—This is a priestly book, designed to provide instruction is the establishment of the proper set-up, timing and execution of ritual. There are some timing elements based on Soli-Lunar combinations.
Sama Veda—These are select hymns of the Rig Veda, placed in devotional settings. Some translations of the Bhagavad Gita refer to this as the highest Veda.

Atharva Veda—This is the Veda connected with spells, incantations and rituals for practical matters that affect most people. Astrology, especially nakshatras, are mentioned in this text.

The liturgical core of each of the Vedas are supplemented by commentaries on each text which all belong to the śruti cannon:

  • Brahmanas
  • Aranyakas
  • Upanishads (these are the most commonly read by Westerners, and, in some regards, the easiest of these books to understand)

The literature of the schools, further amplifies the material associated with each of the four core traditions of Hinduism, but virually every tradition in Hinduism stresses final liberation or reunification with god (or Brahman).

Particular sections of the Bhagavata purana relating to the catur sloki and the concept of svayam bhagavan are considered Śruti by some Vaishnava Vedantists, as is the Mahabharata (an Itihasa, or History) or at least the chapter within the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita.

Among South Indian Shaivites, a Tamil language text called the Tirukural is considered a Shruti text as well.


These texts date from around 500 BCE and are regarded as secondary in authority to the Shruti texts. These include texts such:

  • The Laws of Manu (the oldest known Smrti),
  • The Ithihasas—which are the epic works like The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, and
  • The Puranas—These are at least twenty sets of books that cover areas like the creation of the universe, dissolutions and recreation of the universe, the genealogy of devas and sages, the birth of the human race, and the evolution of dynasties.
  • The Thirumantiram—a South Indian Tamil text, fits roughly as Smrti. (This text explains yoga practices such as those described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, but in much more detail.)

All of these texts contain astrological references (the Mahabharata contains references to activities begun under certain nakshatras, or lunar mansions and The Skanda Purana at 71,000 lines, three times larger than any other Purana, contains an extensive discussion of astrology), Most Puranas were though to be written long before they were actually written down and published in the Gupta dynasty between 300-500 CE.

A discussion of how these texts work into the overall view of the universe will be contained later in this course.
Development of Philosophy and Integration of Mythology in Vedic Astrology

A NOTE ON HISTORY: Although I will not delve into the history of Hinduism at this point, it is important to remember that, within the culture and religion itself, Hinduism is regarded as having no identified founder, and many of the theories of how this system of belief came into India are in contention currently. Given the similarity between some European beliefs, the Aryan invasion theory was developed in the 19th century, with virtually no archaeological evidence. More recent hypotheses about the Mohenjo-Daro civilization being the foundation for the development of Hinduism are not well-documented either and subject to dispute from various authorities, and research within this area will probably continue for some time. So neither theory at this time is satisfactory.

The gods and myths of India represent an enormous body of work, so this will not attempt to list them all, let alone analyze all of the implications of these myths. But we will attempt to cover to determine some appropriate links with Vedic Astrology or Jyotisha.

The basic theories of the development of Hindu Mythology tend to divide into those that argue that

  1. the Vedas prefigured everything that came after (this belief is based upon a reinterpretation of the dating of the Vedas that contrasts with Western scholarship) (see Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization and see Thompson, Richard,Vedic Cosmography and Cosmology, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, United States, 1989, 242 pages for a religious historical perspective on the dating of both the Vedas and other texts such as the Surya Siddhantha) ) and
  2. those that argue that the Vedas were imposed upon a pre-existing culture between 1200 BCE and 500 BCE that had more in common with Greek society (Danielou, Alain, The Myths and Gods of India, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 1991, 441 pages and McKenzie, Donald, India, Senate Publishing, London, England, 1995, 463 pages).

There are valid arguments on all sides, but many recent authorities, both orthodox and unorthodox, have been pushing the origins of civilization in India, backwards, so it is not unreasonable to form earlier dates for many traditions and/or classical texts.

The Vedic texts, especially the Rig Veda, the Black and White Yajur Veda, and the Sama Veda are thought to be the original Vedic texts, joined relatively late by the Atharva Veda at about 500 BCE. The Atharva Veda contains the first references to Indian astrology that can be recognized in its current form. Was this an early interaction between Indian culture and foreign cultures, or was this an indigenous development? We don’t know, as details are lacking, and lack of astrology texts prevents an objective assessment of the use of this knowledge by the culture.

The Vedas were thought to have reflected a very ritualistic culture, in which propitiation of the gods (devas) played an important part in the life of the culture and people. It is also noteworthy that, as far back as the Rig Veda, astronomical references, particularly references to the fixed stars or nakshatras, are mentioned prominently, and this is the basis for some scholars dating these texts as far back as 8,000 years ago).

The number of gods mentioned in the Rig Veda is astonishing, but the predominant deities seem to be

  • the Rudra (who is considered by some to be a representation of Shiva);
  • Agni, the god of the sacrifice, Surya, the Sun God, Varuna, the judge of the world,
  • Ushas, goddess of the dawn, Ratri, goddess of the night, and
  • Chandra, the Moon, identified with Soma, the sacred drink of the gods.
  • Mitra was also there, as a deity that had strong identification with the Persian, Mithra, whose cult made its way into the middle east and later Rome.
  • Indra, the chief of the gods—he apparently took over this position from Varuna-was a popular god who had traits in common with thunder gods in other societies, such as Greek Zeus and Norse Thor. (This was not uncommon. When Alexander invaded in the fourth century BCE, he and his soldiers were surprised to find Indian figures that shared attributes of Herakles and Dionysos—Krishna and Shiva. (Feuerstein at al. pp. 233-235.) Many parallels can be found between Hindu Gods and their Greek and Norse counterparts (MacKenzie, pp. 19-37)

Ultimately, these myths provide a common ground for linking the planets with the Vedic deities.

The transition from the Vedas to the Upanishads around 600 BCE-400 BCE marked a shift from a ritualistic society to a more introspective one, and helped lay the foundation for Buddhism. The Upanishadic philosophy was not a popular form of mysticism, but probably helped lay the foundation for Buddhism and Jainism, which essentially refined even more the mystical concepts contained in the Upanishads.

The next important step in Hindu religious thought belongs to an earlier systematizer of religious principles, Badarayana (fifth century BCE), who developed a system of dualist thought and is the apparent creator of systematic theology which reconciled the mysticsm of the Upanishads with earlier religious thought contained in the Vedas, and built a system for interpreting the revealed knowledge of the Vedas and Upanishads. He laid the foundation for systematic thought for generations to come that allowed in variations into Hindu thought such as Nyaya (logic) and cosmology (Sankhya), among others. He also may have been one of the first individually identified thinkers who equated the attainment of Brahman—or unity with the reality, or god—as the ultimate goal of human life, although the thought is contained in earlier documents.

In the timeline of religious thought, some date the Ithihasas, or epic texts, as arriving between 500 BCE and 100 BCE. These texts, including the MahaBharata, the largest epic poem ever composed, were and remain a foundation for ethical conduct. The most important single part of this work though, is considered to be the Bhagavada Gita or Song of God, in which a sage eavesdrops on Krishna and Arjuna’s discussion about duty, desire and action (karma). The Gita systematizes into one short book, the entire essence of the philosophy of karma yoga, or the way by which one can achieve the highest spiritual state through his or her action in the world. It is an essential text for those who wish to understand the concept of yoga.

Another landmark achievement (estimated to have been written between 200 BCE and 400 CE) were the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Many scholars think that these Sutras are a condensation of earlier concepts contained in the Vedas, and later Indian religious texts.These works described, in detail, the benefits of meditation; meditation as the path to God-consciousness, but also, towards the end of the sutras, to the attainment of various siddhis or occult powers, one being knowing the past, present and future through meditation on the Sun. The Yoga Sutras are very short, but these have been used as a teaching tool (like the Bhagavad Gita) for close to 2,000 years.

Important thinkers like Nagarjuna developed critiques of Buddhist thinking and Vasubandhu defended Buddhist thought.

Ishvarikrishna (350 – 425) developed the school of Sankhya philosophy and essentially set up a system in which spirit interacts with matter, but is essentially independent of it. This is important in that spirit can manipulate matter, but does not have to be tied to it. While this can be seen as a reflection of Patanajali’s teachings, it is also a differentiation in that we are allowed to create our reality, but do not have to be tied to it, laying the foundation for the thought that liberation from matter can be achieved while one is alive.

These schools show systems of thought that are in no way incompatible with an astrological view of the world as contained in Indian astrology. The point at which an astrological system would be in most difficulty would be the development of the Buddhistic or Jainistic traditions, because these are unrelenting in their path to liberation, and there is some speculation that the traditions of the Brahmins, including astrology, suffered when Buddhism gained ascendancy, both during Ashoka’s reign and again around 200 CE, but these were not substantial eliminations of astrological practice.

  • Books like the Arthasastra (written no later than 150 CE, and dated by some at 500 BCE), a political text, contain references to astrologers, and religious texts like the Grihya Sutras (estimated to have been written no earlier than 500 BCE) contain rituals for planetary propitiation.
  • The foundational religious texts of India—the Vedas—are said to be ruled by certain planets—
    • The Rig Veda (the oldest spiritual text) is ruled by Jupiter;
    • The Yajur Veda, which is a book of priestly rituals, is ruled by Venus;
    • The Sama Veda, the book of hymns, is ruled by Mars; and
    • The Atharva Veda, the most recent of the four, is ruled by Mercury.

The books range from very lofty discourses on the nature of existence (the Rig Veda) to a book of practical magic—for lack of a better term—embodied in the Atharva Veda. In some ways, the assignations are very apt, as

  • Jupiter rules philosophy,
  • Venus rules courtesy, and charm and, by implication, appropriate.behavior. Appropriate behavior i.e. following the rules of praise, are at the heart of the Vedic rituals.
  • Mars rules action and energy (praise and actual worship) and
  • Mercury rules practical knowledge.
  • Among the other planets, the Sun and Moon are the rulers of everything, but they do render divine light and knowledge to the world, while Saturn provides a foundation.
  • Rahu rules unorthodox beliefs and Ketu gives direct spiritual access.

There is also some astronomical information contained in the Rig Veda, that describes planetary placements to the nakshatras (or lunar mansions) described in Hindu Astrology. The Rig Veda describes planetary positions that are at least 6,000 years old. This is one of the arguments for setting the origins of Indian culture and Indian astrology as far back as some authorities do.

How to Understand Vedic Texts

There are six Angas or explanatory limbs, to the Vedas: the siksha and vyakarana of Panini, the chhandas of Pingalacharya, the nirukta of Yaksha, the Jyotisha of Garga (Garga is an ancient sage or teacher, and is sometimes referred to as the teacher of Parasara–see above for references to Parasara), and the Kalpas (srauta, grihya, dharma and sulba) belonging to the authorship of various rishis.

  • Siksha is knowledge of phonetics, dealing with pronunciation and accent.
  • The text of the Vedas is arranged in various forms or Pathas. The pada-patha gives each word its separate form. The Krama-patha connects the word in pairs.
  • Vyakarana is Sanskrit grammar. Panini’s books are most famous. Without knowledge of Vyakarana, it is said a person cannot understand the Vedas.
  • Chhandas is meter dealing with prosody.
  • Nirukta is philology or etymology.
  • Jyotisha is astronomy and astrology. It deals with the movements of the heavenly bodies, planets, etc., and their influence in human affairs. It includes earthly signs like Nimhita (omens) and the ability to read different parts of the body (palmistry is the most commonly used, but there are others.) (See above.)
  • Kalpa is the method of ritual. The Srauta sutras (from the Yajur Veda see above) which explain the ritual of sacrifices belong to Kalpa. The Sulba Sutras, which treat of the measurements which are necessary for laying out the sacrificial areas, also belong to Kalpa. The Grihya Sutras which concern domestic life, and the Dharma Sutras which deal with ethics, customs and laws, also belong to kalpa.

There are many texts that explore the philosophy of Jyotish, but its basic philosophy is based on Sankhya (see above-some consider this the oldest system of philosophy in the word), a system of thought that categorizes states of existence between spirit and matter. This is as we saw above, the foundation for the decline of the soul into matter and its progress back to Brahman). Interestingly enough, Sankhya’s complementary discipline is Yoga, which is the process by which we merge again with the divine, while still retaining our identities, as above.

Indian philosophy is heavily steeped in the belief in reincarnation, and the astrology chart is seen as an indicator of how far away from, or how close to reunion with God the soul is.

There are six darshans or viewpoints in Hinduism, set into three pairs—

  • Nyaya (logic) and Vaisheshika (discrimination);
  • Samkhya (categorization) and Yoga (Union); and
  • Purva Mimamsa (religious and spiritual ritual) and Vedanta (or the elimination of boundaries between the divine and the human)

This is certainly not the only use of Jyotisha, but ease of life is considered the result of past life actions, which lead to reward or suffering. The spiritual aspect to these life events depends on how we deal with the good and bad that life hands us—or that we hand ourselves! Also, the concept of the level of karma a person must face becomes important.

Sankhya is considered to be ruled by the Moon (as will be discussed later) and the Moon is probably the most important heavenly body in Jyotisha–the Moon is our mind through which we sense and experience the world and the sensations that the Moon brings keep us reincarnating–and experiencing life in this world.


Karma is divided into four primary categories: (1) sanchita, (2) prarabdha, (3) kriyamana, and (4) agama. Sanchita and prarabdha karma can be generally understood as the unchangeable fate or destiny of the individual, with kriyamana and agama karma reflecting the person’s free will or choice. The following is a basic description of each type of karma.

  • Sanchita can be defined as one’s collective karma from all past incarnations. Sanchita basically means “heaped together” and reflects the collection of all karmas due to known and unknown actions of the past.
  • Prarabdha karma is the specific karmic lessons that an individual is ready to experience in this lifetime. Thus, it is only a portion of the collective sanchita karma and may be experienced as a person’s destiny or fate in the present incarnation.
  • Kriyamana karma is created by our current actions in this lifetime. It can be thought of as our free will or effort that we are exerting now. It is our daily behavior and personal actions. As the great Jyotishi, Swami Sri Yukteswar stated, “The first lesson on the spiritual path is to learn to behave”.
  • Agama karmas are created by how we envision the future. They are the new actions that are contemplated as you plan your work as a result of personal insight.

Dates of the development of these ideas is uncertain. The difficulty we have in validating dates probably has its roots in two factors, one historical and one cultural—the historical part comes to a certain extent from the rise in Buddhism in India. Buddhism did not particularly welcome astrology (if the moderate path is the path, what need do we have of rituals or even an analysis of destiny—whatever astrology was practiced before 400 BCE is not in evidence), and we may have a cultural manifestation as well.

Many Brahmins (who were the astrologers in ancient days) allegedly passed along this knowledge orally, and it may be that this knowledge was only written down in the late Hellenistic era—but this is speculation. However, many of the Puranas and other classical texts, are, to this day in India, transmitted orally even though classical texts are now written down The main point here is that, it is quite impossible at this point in time, to set an exact date.

It is impossible to tell whether the books written in the first 500 years of the current era are a reinvention of the Vedic system, a massive borrowing from Hellenistic astrology, or something else. Certain revered classics, like Brihat Parasara Hora Sastra place such a range of techniques together that the book has the feel of a compendium of knowledge, although it does possess a certain consistency. But these debates will rage on for many years.

Integration of the Soul with the Cosmos

The four aims or goals of Hindu life are: dharma (right action), artha (prosperity), kama (healthy desires), and moksha (spiritual liberation). These aims or goals are related to the twelve houses of the zodiac.

Some authorities believe that early Indian astrology was used for setting times for rituals or propitiate the gods of the Rig Veda (hence an integral part of the interaction of the soul and the cosmos) and that is was later used by kings (a king has karma to unfold!) and perhaps later used for other castes, and was used in both worldly and spiritual pursuits. Around the thirteenth century, worship of the Sun became an important part of Indian religion, and evidence of this practice can be seen at the Temple of Konark. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (one of the tools used to speed up evolution), from which one can know past, present and future through meditation on the Sun, and this seems to be an aphorism for astrology.

However, it is extremely important to realize that not all followers of Hinduism believe that the only way to integrate the soul with the cosmos is through astrology. Some groups actively abjure Jyotisha as being irrelevant or distracting to personal development and the process of liberation and that the relationship with the cosmos can be reflected more simply in the concept that the universe repeats itself at all levels.

As a culture, and as a religious tradition, the Sanatana Dharma has always striven to drive humans back to the Brahman from which they came (or to which they aspire.) It is linked directly and intimately to the release of the soul, and the mechanism for understanding this relationship, is really, in humanity’s connection with the universe.

References texts:

1.    Brihat Parasara Hora Sastra (either the Santhanam or Sharma translations are fine; the differences between the two are pretty minimal Publisher: South Asia Books; 2nd edition (January 1, 1997) Publisher: Ranjan Publications (1995), Delhi.

2.    Burgess and Whitney, Translators, Surya Siddhantha (currently unavailable)

3.    Danielou, Alain, Myths and Gods of India, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, USA.

4.    Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley, In Search for the Cradle of Civilization, Motilal Banarsidss,India; New Ed edition (January 1, 1999), Delhi, India

5.    Howland, John (Jarada Dasa), Hinduism, Vastu Sastra, Vedic Astrology and Gemology, Spiritual Guides, Krishna Culture, 2001, Houston, Texas, USA

6.    Translators, Prabhavananda and Manchester, Frederick, Upanishads, Breath of the Eternal, Mentor Books, 1975, New York, New York.

7.    Roebuck, Valerie, The Circle of Stars, Element Books, 1992,  Rockport, MA, USA

8.    Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya, Dancing with Siva, Himalayan Academy, 1993, Concord, California, USA.

9.     Thirumoolar, Siddhar, Thirumandiram (Three-volume set), Babaji Books, 1993, volume 1, Quebec City, Canada

10.    Thompson, Richard, Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1989, United States (no city or state provided)

11.    Vishwanathan, Ed. Am I a Hindu?, Halo Books, San Francisco, California.

12.    Waterstone, Richard, India, Duncan Baird Publishers, London, England