According to Plato, debating the nature of the human soul was the most popular topic amongst philosophers. A comparison of some of the soul theories that were around during his era explains why. Different schools of thoughts and religious cults had vastly contrasting ideas about spiritual matter and what happened to it after a physical body died. To get a snapshot, the following is a brief rundown of how Hindu, Egyptian, Hebrew, Persian, and Greek cultures define the soul, or parts thereof, followed by an explanation of their afterlife beliefs.
Hindu Soul Theory
- Anandmaya Kosha – Physical/food sheath (Also known Stuka Sarira)
- Pranamaya Kosha – Vital breath or energy Sheath (Also known as Suksma Sarira and works in unison with Manomaya Kosha)^
- Manomaya Kosha – Mental/Mind Sheath (Also known as Suksma Sarira and works in unison with Pranamaya Kosha)^
- Vigyanmaya Kosha – Wisdom Sheath (Also known as Karana Sarira; a combination of the above 3 aspects)
- Annmaya Kosha – Bliss/Joy Sheath
- Atman – Higher self / Divine spark
^ The Suksma Sarira consists of Sravandipanchakam (five sense organs); Vagadipanchakam (five organs of action); Pranapanchakam (five-fold vital breath); and Manas & Buddhi (mind, intellect, and wisdom).
Hinduism is arguably the oldest religion still practiced today. Therefore, we have the most detailed understandings of its complexities.
Hindu reincarnation beliefs are extensive and subject to variation between sects. To put them simply, basically the Anandmaya, Pranamaya, and Manomaya (Stuka Sarira and Suksma Sarira) are required to go through a series of lives as plants, animals, and people, in order to learn lessons; once this has been accomplished the cycle of death and rebirth is no longer necessary. Upon graduating, all aspects of a person’s soul are purified, therefore able to rejoin Brahman, the Divine Creator, whom every living thing is part of its Atman essence.
Upon death of the physical body, Hinduism believes it’s best to cremate the corpse to help release its soul.
Egyptian Soul Theory
- Khat or Kha – Physical Body
- Ba – Personality
- Ren – True Name
- Ka – Vital Essence
- Shuyet – Shadow
- Jb – Heart
- Akh or Ikhu – Immortal Self
- Sahu – Judge and Spiritual Body
- Sechem or Sekhem – Life Energy
There are still many mysteries surrounding Ancient Egyptian beliefs. However it appears very evident they believed that in order for the ank (immortal self) to live in the after world, the physical body had to remain intact – through mummification. This is the polar opposite of the Hindu attitude towards the physical body and its relationship to soul/spirit matter.
Upon death, Egyptians believed a soul (composed of Ka, Shuyet, and Jb) would be judged against a feather of Maat (truth and justice). A heavy heart meant instant annihilation by Ammit, the devourer of souls. Harmonious balance was recorded by Thoth (scribe of the underworld) and ensured the immortal soul’s journey into Sekhet-Aaru, a heavenly plane of existence.
To keep the spirit alive, remembering the person’s true name was important. Conversely, pharaohs who displeased their citizens could have their names wiped from all records.
Persian (Zoroastrian) Soul Theory
- Bodily matter and sensation
- Physical frame and nervous system
- Skeleton and muscles
- Life energy
- Astral body
- Ethereal substance
- Link between sensation and soul
- Inner soul
- Divine spark
Persian (Zoroastrian) Afterlife
Zoroastrianism was almost completely wiped out when Muslims conquered Persia (current day Iran and Iraq) during the seventh century. Some fled to India by boat and their decedents still practice the religion. Ironically, there is also speculation that Zoroastrian beliefs have ancient connections to the Vedas (sacred text of Hindus).
Zoroastrians believe the nine parts of the soul work in unison while a person is alive. After death, the first six disintegrate into the earth sphere (the physical matter of layers 1-3) and astral sphere (soul matter of layers 3-6). It is only the three spiritual layers that are immortal and go onto to heaven or hell.
Zoroastrian’s neither bury, mummify, or cremate the dead. A deceased person is considered to be unclean in both a physical and soul sense. Therefore, corpses are handled as little as possible. Traditionally, they were left out in the open for vultures, wild animals, and environmental elements to hasten decomposition processes.
Mourners believe the deceased person’s spirit remains near the body for three days, before crossing over a bridge and is judged by its conscience to be either good or evil. The verdict determines whether an inner soul goes to heaven or hell.
Zoroastrian prophecies say that an apocalypse will one day wipe the universe of everything, including hell, thus redeeming all souls. This occurrence precedes the ushering in of a golden era of paradise.
Hebrew (Kabbalah) Soul Theory
- Nefesh – Breath or material principle of vitality/life, the lowest level of consciousness
- Ruaḥ – Divine Spirit/Wind – vitality / with strong emotions
- Neshamah – Breath/conscious life or Godliness, the conceptual grasp of the intellect
Other Soul Aspects:
- Chayah – Life, Divine Energy, an aspect of the soul
- Yechiday – Singularity, Oneness, Holy One, corresponds to the level of soul called Adam Kadmon
Hebrew (Kabbalah) Afterlife
Judaism began in Mesopotamia around the same time as Zoroastrianism. There is no conclusive evidence to say which religion came first.
In Judaism, the Hebrews views of what happens to the soul in the afterlife is nuanced. The general belief is that a soul remains near its body for twelve months, then goes onto a purgatory of sorts, called Sheol. However, there are some references to hell- and heaven-like dimensions.
Overall, Ancient Jews considered life on earth to be more important than life after death. Some scholars speculate this is because they were held captive by Egyptians for an extended period of time, hence, became opposed to focusing exorbitant amounts of energy on death (like mummification rituals).
The Jewish faith includes a belief that in the future, after a messianic era, all souls will be resurrected. It is unclear whether this resurrection will redeem all souls or just the righteous. This theory has some likeness to the Zoroastrian’s apocalypse prophecy.
Resurrection in the Hebrew sense means a revival of the dead, and is not the same as incarnation or reincarnation. It basically means souls exist in a kind of nothingness (no sorrow, no joy, no feelings at all) until such a time that G-d determines is right for the renewal. Whether or not this resurrection is purely spiritual or physical is debatable. During the first century, Pharisees argued that it would be a bodily resurrection, whereas Sadducees claimed it would be spiritual.
Greek Soul Theory
- Irrational soul – Sentience and Emotion
- Rational soul – Nous and/or Intelligence
- The Ego – an individual’s expression of their irrational and rational soul
- Celestial Fire – Godly or Supreme intelligence that humans (in particular males) could aspire to and/or existed outside of the human soul.
It is from the writings of Aristotle that some of the clearest descriptions Greek thought relating to the concepts of the irrational and rational soul have been passed down through time. Overall, these present a very misogynistic view in which women were said to have a more inferior (irrational) soul substance compared to men who had more rational soul substance, like God, therefore men were closer to being divine than women.
However, Aristotle’s beliefs were not universal; albeit they appear to be synchronous with the sociopolitical agendas of the Greek Classical period. Beliefs of the afterlife in Ancient Greece were very varied in accordance to time, location, and various schools of philosophy that people subscribed to. For instance, some people consider Plato to be “revolutionary” for his suggestion that females have the same soul substances as males.
Overall, the Eleusinian mystery cult was the most popular belief system of the Classical Era; however, due to secret packs, it’s precise beliefs are open to speculation. The Homeric story of Persephone suggests souls go through cycles of death and rebirth: when Persephone is with her mother, Demeter, this is said to represent life on earth, and when she is with her husband, Hades, this represents death. The story mirrors the agriculture cycle of crops through the seasons, and it has links to the theology of four elements of earth, water, air, and fire.
Whether or not contemporary evaluations of Eleusinian beliefs are accurate is a matter of opinion. However, what is beyond speculation is that some initiates remarked that once they had partaken in certain rituals they no longer feared death, thus suggesting near-death experiences may have been induced.
The references to potential beliefs in reincarnation in Ancient Greek are no where near as detailed and concise as what is known about Hinduism. It appears that while some people, like Plato, believed in an immortal soul, others favoured the view of souls travelling to the underworld of Hades or joining the gods and goddesses in the Olympus heavens. Or as Socrates put it, some Greeks wondered if perhaps death was just a long sleep, and who doesn’t enjoy a good nap.
Summary of Soul Theories
As I’ve said elsewhere, a generalisation of the ancient belief systems is that humans have a soul substance that is directly linked to the physical body, and a distinctively different spirit body that is a mediator between the soul and the divine. However, it is prudent not to assume such similarities are indicative of some universal truth. Upon closer exceptions, each ideology has elements of uniqueness that sets them apart from others.
|HINDU||EGYPTIAN||PERSION (ZOROASTRIAN)||HEBREW (KABBALAH)||GREEK|
|*Khat or Kha |
|*Bodily matter & sensation|
*Physical frame & nervous system
*Skeleton and muscles
|*Akh or Ikhu|
*Sechem or Sekhem
|*Link between sensation & soul|
Broadly speaking, once a person dies, most ideologies follow beliefs that indicate “lower” soul substance/s disintegrate within the earth’s atmosphere, like leaves on the ground. While the “higher” spirit aspects of a person is considered to be immoral, (often described as being of a substance like a great cosmic Creator/God), therefore journeys to another plan of existence. However, this framework is not universal, as noted in Hinduism in which “soul” substances are believed to require advancement so as they can develop into a “spirit” state.
The similarities and unique features of beliefs surrounding the human soul/spirit and what happens to it in the afterlife through different ideologies is remarkable. It is little wonder that philosophers of all eras have been enthralled by debating the possibilities.
In regards to Christian theories of the human soul and the afterlife, that’s a prickly subject I’m saving for a blog of its own.
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