(by Madhusudana Visnu Das)
“Can the soul be killed? Is the soul killable? What is the soul? What are its characteristics?”
These are some questions that popped in my head when I first came across this Vedic statement — the killer of the soul — in one of the most important Upanishad texts, Sri Ishopanishad, Mantra 3.
To anyone, even a new student of spirituality, who has some knowledge of atma, or spirit soul, knows that by nature atma is eternal. It is ever-existing, and neither it takes birth nor does it ever die.
Lord Krishna, the famed original speaker of Bhagavad-gita, which is one of the most authoritative books on spiritual knowledge, gives the knowledge of atma in many verses (2.11 to 2.30). He explains this rarely understood subject in different ways to help us have a good grasp of it.
Spirit soul is opposite to matter in quality. Matter is always dead; it comes into existence at a certain period, dwindles, and meets its end at another time, near or distant. Atma, however, does not go through such changes. Ontologically, atma always exists. It is this nature of it that is inseparable from it, and this defines atma to be atma.
In simple words, Lord Krishna describes to Arjuna:
That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul. (2.17)
Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, needed a more relatable explanation of the teaching, because soon he was going to shoot arrows at his enemies and kill them. So who was he going to kill if the soul is not killable?
Reading Arjuna’s mind, the all-knowing Lord Krishna replies:
Neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge, for the self slays not nor is slain. (2.19)
The atma can neither kill nor it can be killed. This makes Arjuna ponder over the power of his various weapons and their ability to cause massive destruction.
He inquires, “What about my sharp arrows? Can’t they pierce the spirit soul and cut it into pieces?”
Lord Krishna answers, “Certainly not. The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon.”
Arjuna asks, “What about my fire weapon?”
The Lord replies, “The soul cannot be burned.”
“Oh! And what about my water weapon?” expressed Arjuna.
“Water cannot even touch it. The soul cannot be moistened,” the Lord smilingly said.
Arjuna was speechless. But he still tried for the last time. He said, “But my wind weapon, which is insurmountable, can definitely dry out the soul. Right?”
“No Arjuna. The soul cannot be dried by wind.” (2.23–24)
The Lord’s words left Arjuna amazed. He understood that atma, or spirit soul, is anti-material. It has no material qualities, and yet it has spiritual qualities.
That is a lot of evidence about the eternality of the soul. Then why does Sri Ishopanishad mention the word atma-hana, literally meaning “the killer of the soul.” When no one can kill the soul, how can there be its killer?
How to interpret these contradicting concepts? This needs some philosophical deliberation. Neither Bhagavad-gita can be wrong, nor Sri Ishopanishad.
A story can make it simpler for us:
Once in a small town lived a family of six which had meager means to support themselves. The members of the family were a father, a mother and four children. Shyam, the eldest son, was an excellent dancer and wanted to pursue that as his vocation and perhaps the future profession. But his father neither supported him nor encouraged him. Rather, the father thought, since Shyam was already 17, it was easily possible for him to gain some menial job and support the family financially. Shyam started remaining very disturbed. He could the see the sun of hope set in his life and in the world of his dreams.
A few days later, Shyam’s uncle visited the family. He was very close to all of them, and he knew about Shyam’s ever-cherished desire to learn to dance. Seeing Shyam dejected, the uncle thought of speaking to his father. Of the many things he told Shyam’s father, one thing he said was, “Do you know that this decision of yours can kill Shyam?”
The father blurted out, “What do you mean by kill Shyam?”
The uncle said, “Well, this decision of yours will kill the dancer within Shyam and because he so much identifies himself to dancing, it will kill an essential part of his identity.”
These words made sense to the father, and he changed his mind.
Often a statement can have a literal meaning and can also have a metaphorical meaning. When the uncle said that this decision will kill Shyam, he did not mean to say it literally. He had an indirect message to pass on to the father. Likewise, when Sri Ishopanishad calls a person “killer of the soul,” it means to say that when a person, a spirit soul, which can be anyone of us, does not allow its spiritual nature, qualities and purpose of existence to flourish by bona fide spiritual practices, the soul almost dies. It enters a state of numbness, which is somewhat like going through the experience of death. It does not refer to becoming non-existent, but it refers to having such experience.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great saint and scholar of the 19th century, writes, “Those who do not establish a relation to the Supreme Lord, Paramatma, and engage themselves in only materialistic enjoyment [the different material fun that people have in this world] are killers of the soul.”
He further elaborates, “They kill their soul because by their materialistic endeavors they put their soul in a dull and almost destroyed state.”
As much as our body has its needs, our mind has its, our intelligence also has, likewise, we as spirit souls, atman, have our spiritual needs. Let us take out sufficient time to cater to those needs by taking to some bona fide spiritual practices as taught in Vedic literatures, especially the Bhagavad-gita.
If we miss doing so, then we kill our soul; we kill its spiritual nature, and we kill our spiritual experience.
1. Verses quoted from the Gita are from Bhagavad Gita As It Is by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.