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The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 1
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa Philosophy

The Ontology of the Jīva – Part 1

By Satyanarayana Dasa

This article describes the nature of the individual living being (jīva). It is based on a commentary on verses three through seven of the 26th Chapter of the Third Canto of Śrīmad Bhāgavatam by Śri Vīrarāghava Ācārya of the Śrī-sampradāya. I have included my own explanatory statements where required.

In this chapter of the Bhāgavatam, Lord Kapila describes Sāṅkhya Philosophy to his mother Devahūti. The basic principle of Sāṅkhya is the distinction between prakṛti (matter) and puruṣa (the conscious living being, which includes both the jīva and Paramātma.) In the first two verses of this chapter, Lord Kapila informs his mother about the importance of Sāṅkhya.  In the third through eighth verses, he describes the puruṣa. From verse ten until the end of the chapter, he describes prakṛti.


Bhāgavatam 3.26.3

 anādir ātmā puruṣo
ṇaḥ prakṛteḥ para
āmā svayaṁ-jyotir
śvaṁ yena samanvitam

“The ātma is the puruṣa who has no beginning, is beyond the senses and free from the guṇas of material nature. He is transcendental to prakṛti. He is conscious, self-effulgent, has a spiritual abode, and pervades the universe.

In this and the next verse, Lord Kapila clarifies the nature of jīva / ātma, distinguishing him from prakṛti.

The word puruṣa means jīva. The two characteristic features of the jīva’s nature are described by the words svayaṁ-jyoti and pratyag-dhāmā.

Svayaṁ-jyoti means self-luminous. In other words, it describes something that illuminates itself and other things, just like a lamp illuminates itself and the objects around it. Objects which produce no illumination (like a table, for example) require a light to shine on them before they can be perceived. But we do not need another lamp to see a lamp, it illuminates itself. It is “svayaṁ-jyoti.

Then, is ātmā like an ordinary, insentient lamp? Lord Kapila answers this by using the term pratyag-dhāmā. Ātmā is not insentient, he is conscious by nature. That which reveals to itself it called pratyak (conscious). Inert things are not revealed to themselves, they are revealed to others – thus earning the title parāk (inert, insentient). The word pratyag-dhāmā describes the ātmā as an entity inherently and naturally aware of himself. The categorical difference between ātmā and other luminous things like lamps, is that ātmā is a sentient illumination. To make this point, ātma is often described as jñāna svarūpa (“an entity who is constitutionally full of awareness”).

The term pratyag-dhāmā establishes that consciousness is the intrinsic nature of ātmā . The term svayam jyoti specifies that sentience (jñāna – “knowledge, awareness”)  is an attribute of ātmā . This is why ātmā can also be described as jñāna guṇaka (“an entity who possesses awareness”). Ātmā is conscious by nature, and also possesses consciousness as a quality. This stands in opposition to the Advaita-vada concept that the pure ātmā is merely consciousness which does not exhibit the quality of consciousness.

This is similar to a candle situated in one place with a flame two inches high. The flame is pratyag-dhāma (intrinsically full of luminosity) and the effulgence is svayam jyoti (the illumination it possesses). The effulgence of the candle illuminates the objects around it, and the flame illuminates itself. Consciousness as the attribute of ātmā illuminates objects around him by his own effulgence, svayaṁ-jyoti. Consciousness as the intrinsic nature of ātmā reveals itself to itself, pratyag-dhāma. Ātmā is both pratyag-dhāma and svayam-jyoti – the illuminator of himself and the illuminator of other things.

To summarize, the difference between the light of ātmā and the light of a candle is that the light of a candle can only reveal objects to a third-party observer, not to itself (it is “parāg-dhāmā”) but ātma is the observer of the objects he reveals, which includes the ātmā himself. Both the candle and the ātmā possess luminosity (svayam-jyoti), but only ātmā is a conscious observer, aware of himself (pratyag-dhāmā).

Ātmā is distinct from insentient luminous objects because he is sentient (jñāna svarūpa / pratyag-dhāmā) and utilizes his consciousness to comprehend himself and the objects around him (jñāna guṇa / svayam jyoti).

Lord Kapila also describes ātmā as “beyond prakṛti” (prakṛteḥ para). By his very nature, ātmā is completely distinct from the evolutes of prakṛti – the body, senses, mind and vital airs. That is why Lord Kapila also describes him as nirguṇa, devoid of the guṇas of prakṛti, such as sattva, rajas and tamas. Lord Kapila describes the ātmā as “pervading everything” because ātmā  enters into a physical body and sustains it. He therefore pervades the entire universe of gross and subtle bodies beginning from Brahmā, down to a blade of grass.

Lord Kapila uses the singular case in the word yena to refer to the ātmā as a class of puruṣa. This does not imply, as Advaita-vāda claims, that there is only one ātmā . One entity can represent an entire class, just as it is said, “One grain of rice nourished the whole of humanity.” The use of this grammar expresses that all bodies – devas etc. – are pervaded by a singular type of entity, the very subtle ātmā.

Bhāgavatam 3.26.4

 sa eṣa prakṛtiṁ sūkṣmāṁ
daivīṁ guṇamayīṁ vibhu
abhyapadyata līlayā

“Although he is very powerful, that ātma became attracted to the divine qualities of subtle prakṛti, and moved towards her. Prakṛti reciprocated by approaching the ātma, as was the will of the Lord.”

The previous verse described that the ātmā pervades all the material bodies in the universe, is very subtle, and has no beginning. In this verse, the words sa eṣa refer to the ātmā under discussion. Vibhu (lit., all-pervading) is an adjective describing ātmā as an entity capable to pervade all types of bodies, as a result of being very subtle. Since the ātmā is especially “subtle”, he must be distinct from the body and mind. He is not born when the body he adopts is born, nor does he die when that body dies. Only the body takes birth and dies, not the ātmā .

After hearing this, a doubt may arise: “If the ātmā does not take birth along with the body, then why do we experience oneness between body and  ātmā such that we feel and express things like, I am a deva, I am a human being, I am fat, etc.?”

The current verse answers this doubt. The characteristics of a body – such as ‘I am a deva, I am fat’ – are superimposed onto ātma as an outcome of the good and bad deeds done in the past. Therefore, ātmā is not born along with the body. To make this clear, Lord Kapila says that when a dreaming person wakes up, everything in the dream is destroyed, but the dreamer himself is unharmed. Similarly when the ātmā awakens from the dream of identification with the body, the body is destroyed but the ātmā is not.

But a doubt remains: “Since the ātmā is so distinct from the body and world, how can he interact with the world and enjoy or suffer the results of actions? Since ātmā and prakṛti are fundamentally different entities, how can they interact and have union?”

Lord Kapila answers by saying that prakṛti grants the ātmā a sense of being an active agent in her world. He will explain in the next verse how this allows ātmā and prakṛti to develop a union.

The current verse describes prakṛti with the adjective sūkṣmāṁ (lit. subtle), indicating prakṛti in a very subtle state in which there is no possibility of divisions by name or form. Therefore, we understand that the verse describes a condition at the beginning of creation, because it is only then that prakṛti exists in subtle, un-manifest state (sūkṣmām). In other words, the relationship between the ātmā and prakṛti did not occur at a particular time in history. It happened prior to the activation of the modes by time – and is therefore beginningless (anādi).

Universal dissolution destroys only the gross and subtle bodies of the ātmās, who enter unharmed into the body of Lord Viṣṇu. But the accumulated karma (sancita) of each ātmā persists even during the period of dissolution. At the next creation, Viṣṇu injects those ātmās  into prakṛti again by His glance.  This is the meaning of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s statement that He impregnates prakṛti (Gīta 14.2):

“Material nature (Brahman) is My great womb wherein I place the seed of all beings. From that, O descendent of Bharata, follows the birth of all beings.”

At that time, prakṛti is in its subtle state (sūkṣma) and functions according to the līla of Lord Viṣṇu (daivim).

(to be continued)