3. The Nature of the Individual Soul (Jiva)
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3. The Nature of the Individual Soul (Jiva)

Atman as anu:

The Atman is referred to as being anu, or a monad, in several scriptural statements. This word is used in several shades of meaning at various places. Sri Ramanuja prefers to use this word in the meaning of being existentially limited and imperfect to denote the jiva, as opposed to Brahman, who is great and unlimited. Thus, Brahman is sarvagata (omnipresent) while jiva is anu, or limited.

However, some srutis (Vedic passages) do refer to Brahman as being present in the heart of human beings. How is this possible if Brahman is all pervading. Sri Ramanuja explains that Brahman has chosen to associate Himself with a particular place (heart) or time, for the purpose of encouraging devout meditation on Him. This is consistent with His compassionate and merciful disposition.

There is a third sense in which the scriptures (e.g., Chhandogya Upanisad 8.1.1) use the word anu - that of something which pervades owing to its subtlety, and through the property of its consciousness. The word anu here distinguishes material stuff (the modifications of Prakrti - the material cause of the Universe) which is gross, insentient and is pervaded, from the soul - which is subtle, eternal and pervades.

Atman as Jnantr and Kartr (knower and doer):

The Advaitins, as well as followers of Samkhya, hold that the soul is a non-doer. It is in fact the 'upadhi' which is nothing but a modification of triguna prakrti, which, by virtue of having consciousness superimposed on it, that acts. This upadhi is the ahamkara (I-ness). In a similar manner, it is the ahamkara that is the knower of ephermal and perishable empirical knowledge. This view was a natural derivative of the Hindu darshanic doctirine that the soul is immutable and eternal - so how can it be associated with transient actions? Sri Ramanuja, however, sees no contradiction in the immutable soul being the performer of transient actions. He argues that although knowledge it unrestricted by itself, it is capable of contraction and expansion. Thus, while it is the jiva that is the knower in reality, it undergoes change as a knower only extrinsically. Similarly, being a doer has to do with the flow of knowledge by means of the senses and this is not essential to the soul. In other words, the atman remains essentially unchanging in that being a kartr is an extrinsic change brought about by karma.

What is the role of Brahman in the jivas' actions?

Ramanuja clarifies that He has provided all jivas with all the necessary apparatus that is required for the performance of actions and the enjoyment of the fruit that results. The individual, conditioned by this apparatus of the powers of faculties, acts freely while the Lord, as the individual's existential support, allows this action to be realized, to take being.

Atman as bhoktr (experiencer):

According to Sri Ramanuja, the soul as the doer and the experiencer are coextensive since one's experiences are merely the results of one's actions. So, experience of one's actions does not contradict the immutability of the soul.

Definition of karma according to Sri Ramanuja:

Ramanuja defines karma as action which is of a meritorious or of an unmeritorious nature. Hence, the doer is morally responsible for his actions and so experiences the fruit thereto. But, only actions performed with a motive of its fruit actually bear the intended fruit. Selfless actions performed from the motive of pure love of God do not bear material fruit. The performers of the latter kind of actions are in fact, akartr - or "non-doers". Ramanuja goes a step further and remarks that such non-doers may be regarded as inspired by and under the control of the Lord as in their case, although the devotee has not surrendered an iota of moral freedom, he has acquired a 'holy will.'

The jiva in the state of salvation (Moksa):

Sri Ramanuja admits a plurality of selves even in the state of Moksa and this follows quite naturally from his designating the jiva as being responsible for his actions. According the Advaitins, the I-ness of consciousness is sublated when release results. Both Sri Yamuna, (in his Atmasiddhi) and Sri Ramanuja mock at this notion and state that no one will desire a liberation that leads to one's own extermination. Sri Ramanuja affirms that in release or in bondage, the jivas are qualitatively identical yet numerically distinct. All have consciousness and bliss as their essential characteristic, but are incapable of inter-communicating their experience of personal identity as experience. It is this reflexive experience that is self-distinguishing for each jiva. Sri Ramanuja does not deny false memory experiences producing inauthentic I-recognition, these affect the recognition of one's empirical self identity and not one's basic self identity.

In the state of Moksa, the atman is no longer the subject of extrinsic limiting factors, and its individual consciousness, by participating in the all-knowingness of the Lord, expands to its fullest extent. There, the atman, in the company of the Blessed One, exists in loving and blissful communion with the central focus of that company - the Lord Himself. Moreover, the liberated atman continues as an identifiable person; her identity is not sublated in some homogeneous and amorphous Consciousness as claimed by Advaitins.

As to the extent of the I-awareness of a liberated soul, Sri Ramanuja adds that it is a blank, formal I-awareness and is continuous with the basic I-awareness of the samsaric condition, but purged of every trace of the empirical coloring of that condition. However, as the liberated atman shares the all-knowingness of God, the liberated atman cannot be ignorant of the experiences of which it was really, only if contingently, the subject during its samsaric pilgrimage. The liberated atman is totally blissful, in contrast to its unenlightened samsaric experience as sorrowful; it sees the good and the bad, the triumphs and failures, the joys and sorrows of its past as transmutated and summated in a final healing vision.

Thus, while the Advaitins view our worldly activities as experience of some pseudo self engaging in a mundane transaction that never really was, according to Sri Ramanuja, a liberated soul views them as reflected in an enlarged and enriched moksaic identity which gives it a lasting worth.

athAto "brahma" zignAsA - Then thereafter be inquisitive to enquire about "the Absolute"