The following is a small portion of a debate that occurred between Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya and a Christian professor on the nature of the soul. It is excerpted from the upcoming biography of Sri Acharyaji.
While they discussed many different theological issues, the primary area of discussion between Acharyaji and the Christian professor was on the ultimate nature of the human person. Being a Jehovah's Witness, the professor held that the soul was not independent of the physical body, but was intimately united with it. Upon death, the soul "slept" until the impending Judgment Day, after which our physical bodies would be miraculously raised from the dead to be mystically reunited with the soul. The destiny of the "saved" was to then rule over the physical Earth in a new, eternal and perfected physical body. "If we're going to rule over the Earth in Jehovah's restored paradise, then we need to have a physical body. Or else, if we're just spirits floating in the air, how can we farm, work, enjoy this world, and serve the Lord?" the professor began the debate by asking.
Sri Acharyaji: "This is a convenient little eschatological scenario for those who are especially overly attached to their physical bodies, but isn't it a bit simplistic philosophically and completely unprovable either scientifically, rationally, experientially, or metaphysically? Also, this Biblical model of the nature of self doesn't take into account any psychological or philosophical concern about the ultimate nature of the intrinsic self."
Christian Professor: "The nature of the self is that we have a soul and a body and that both are necessary in order to serve God. There must be integrity between the two in order for the meaning of either to make any sense."
Sri Acharyaji: "But this idea doesn't really go deeply enough to explain several concerns, including a) the radically contradictory natures of consciousness juxtaposed to material physicality; b) the varying modes of both normative and transcendent states of consciousness that we experience in everyday life, and their meaning; c) the demonstrated ability of the soul to exist independently and self-sufficiently outside of the body."
Christian Professor: "The soul isn't `consciousness' . Consciousness is only a description of the soul when the soul is awake – it's then conscious. When a person dies nothing lives on, the person is dead and is conscious of nothing. In death, we all literally sleep. When the time comes for Jehovah to resurrect us from the dead he will create a new body for us. Those who have faith in Jehovah, witness for him, fear him, and serve him obediently will live forever. All others will perish forever. And more, what do you mean by the idea that consciousness and physicality are radically contradictory? How does that make sense?"
Sri Acharyaji: "One of the things that attracted me to the teachings of Hinduism, and especially the Bhagavad Gita, was precisely Hinduism's teachings on the soul. The Gita's teachings on the nature of the self are very deeply developed and are presented in a very logical, common-sense, and philosophical way. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna doesn't merely ask us to have blind faith in these teachings, but to use our reasoning abilities, personal experience, and meditative realizations, coupled with the teachings of the Vedic scriptures, to confirm His teachings on the nature of reality and of the eternal, intrinsic spark of consciousness that we all are.
"Your idea of `soul' seems to be that the soul is nothing more than an aspect, albeit a spiritual aspect, of the person. You feel that a person merely has a soul. For Hinduism, the idea is not merely that we each have a soul as some object aside from our own self-identity, in the same way that we have a spleen, a kidney, or a nose. Your soul is not merely a possession that you have. No. Rather, the truth of the matter is that we are the soul. Our soul, or consciousness, constitutes our inner-most true self. It is that which experiences all things, and which is the seat of all I-cognition (aham-pratyaya) . We are that perfect spark of consciousness that is a direct reflection of God's inner qualitative essence. Lord Krishna teaches that all living beings in this world are inherently spiritual beings temporarily clothed in various diverse physical bodies as a direct result of our free-will choices and decisions in this world. Our bodies are analogous to clothing; our bodies are limited, flawed, always changing, and will all eventually die. Our bodies just serve a function, namely, to temporarily house the immortal soul as she traverses this world in her journey toward self-discovery, ethical perfection, God-realization, and eventual liberation - freedom from the illusion of separation from God that constitutes the ultimate cause of all our suffering, anxiety and distress.
"Soul (or consciousness) and matter are in every way completely opposite ontological phenomena. The soul is unchanging, transcends space and time, perfect, monadic (without parts), and derives its existence from God. Matter, on the other hand, is ever-fluctuating, bound within the limiting confines of extension and temporality, imperfect, inherently divisive and multiplicitous, and derives its formal existence from our illusion of separation from God. Both consciousness and matter are divine energies of God. But, whereas consciousness is sentient (purusha) in its constitutional make-up, matter is considered insentient (prakriti), and thus the two are ontologically distinct and irreconcilable forms of being. Thus to claim that two irreconcilable forms of being (soul and the body) are nonetheless destined to be integrally united for eternity is an unsupportable logical contradiction.
"Next, the Biblical world-view doesn't take into account the existence or ultimate meaning of the full spectrum of modes of consciousness that exist in the human person. For example, the sub-conscious, the dreaming state, the intellective, the state of unconsciousness that you mentioned earlier, the meditative state, trans-personal states, and the seat of perceptual awareness, among many others. These are all subjectively experienced psychological phenomena that many human beings undergo. Yet, there simply isn't a science of consciousness anywhere in the Christian tradition to explain these many subtle psychological aspects of the self and their inter-relationship, and there never has been. Yoga psychology, on the other hand, understands the human person as a multi-dimensional being and has a fully developed science of consciousness that gives us a clear understanding of these many modes of consciousness.
"Finally, we have the demonstrated ability of the soul to exist independently of the body with full self-sufficiency, even greater volitional expanse, and ontological integrity. The entirety of human history is full of examples of yogis, saints, mystics, and even some very ordinary people, who have testified to having had vivid and very real out of body experiences. Modern science terms such experiences OBEs. This demonstrates that, not only is the soul in no way dependent upon the body, but more, since consciousness is superlatively superior to the body, to be eternally entrapped in the body as you posit in your version of Jehovah's earthly paradise would be not only logically impossible, but it would be an undesirable state of hellish suffering for the ever-free soul. We are made in God's image; as God's soul is ever-free, so is ours. As God transcends materiality (what you would call `the creation'), so do we."
Christian Professor: "It is true that we're made in God's image. But we are merely sinful creatures, while God is the pure and perfect Creator. Our souls are sinful and imperfect. Our bodies, though, are made in God's image, therefore, we have to have a physical body if we are going to emulate God's perfect form in our lives after the Resurrection. We will have perfect bodies, and we will be those bodies, because Jehovah decrees it so."
Sri Acharyaji: "Well, there is an inherent problem with your claim that the statement 'made in God's image' means that only our body is a reflection of God's image. Because, if this is what the statement actually means, then that would mean that God has a physical body for us to be a reflection of! The problem with this, of course, is that God isn't a physical being. If God were a physical being, then it would follow from your statements that God would have to suffer from all the imperfections and limitations that are an inherent aspect of material physicality. More, if God has a body made of material substance, and is thus necessarily bound by the spatial and temporal limitations that are natural to all material substances, then how tall is God? How much does God weigh? Is God a man or a woman? How old is God's body? Or if you say that God's body is `eternal', then how old does God's body appear? Is God old, young, middle age? Do you see how in ascribing something that is inherently limiting upon the Unlimited, you are denying the unlimited nature of God?
"Thus, rather than taking a logically contradictory view about the nature of God's essence, it makes more sense to interpret the statement that we are 'made in God's image' to mean that both God and we individual souls are qualitatively non-distinct, that both God and we individual selves are of the nature of consciousness, and are thus inseparable. "
In this way, Sri Acharyaji and the Christian professor spent several hours in friendly debate.
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
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