What Is The Difference Between The Soul And Consciousness?

Question: What is the difference between the soul and consciousness?


1. Non-difference

There is a non-difference between the soul and Consciousness (which is usually capitalized). Synthesizing The Upanishads, The Brahma Sutra states, “And the effulgent Self [= Consciousness] appears to be different [from the soul] during activity, as is the case with light etc.; yet (intrinsically) there is non-difference [from the soul] as is evident from repetition (of “That thou art”), my emphasis.

2. Definitions

Soul (jiva): Limited, localized, individuated transmigratory essence; not identical with mind, body, or senses, all of which perish; storehouse for samskaras (innate ego tendencies).

Consciousness (cit): Pure Awareness without objects; THAT which essentially IS; THAT on account of which every manifestation temporarily appears.

3. Truth, Revisited: Direct Pointing

Since Consciousness is what essentially IS, the soul is reducible to Consciousness. Therefore, there really is no soul.

How Everything ‘Gets Transformed’ Into Pure Consciousness

Out of compassion, Atmananda sometimes tells the earnest reader or disciple that every experience “gets transformed” so that it can be witnessed by Consciousness.

Take the following representative example: “[T]he I-principle [one of his favorite terms for the Ultimate] is said to be the witness of thoughts. The ‘I’ cannot come down to the mind’s plane to witness the thoughts. But thoughts get transformed into pure Consciousness in order to be witnessed by the I-principle; and Consciousness is the real nature of the ‘I’-principle” (Notes on the Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume I, no. 38).

This is such an elegant line of higher reason. How can an apparently physical object be witnessed by Consciousness? It cannot unless it’s directly understood that the physical object is nothing but form (mind) and that mind is nothing but Consciousness. Hence, in the language of “transformation” (it’s a fudge, a teaching tool, and Atmananda, teaching with compassion, knows it), the object “gets transformed” into the idea and the idea “gets transformed” into Consciousness.

The truth is that there is only Consciousness-without-an-object. Yet this truth, for many sadhakas, often requires some “step ladders” in order to be “reached.” Those step ladders, of course, are sadhanas, one especially stunning one being the Direct Path as expounded by Atmananda. The above is but one way in which (what I’ll term) the Way of Reduction works. With immense skill does Atmananda trace out other lines of higher reason.

You noticed, I trust, that I put “step ladders” and “reached” in quotes. This is because

[r]ealization consists in becoming deeply aware of the fact that you have never been in bondage. Because realization can never happen; it can never occur in time. To the question: ‘When shall one realize?’, the answer can only be: ‘When the “when” dies.’

Ibid, no. 84.

How Can Atma Choose Who Gets Realized?

The Katha Upanishad states, “Only he realizes whom Atma chooses.” But how can Atma, which has no personal qualities, choose anything or anyone at all?

Let’s listen to Atmananda:

It is ordinarily said that a thing attracts one. It is not on account of anything done by that particular thing that it is said to attract, but one gets attracted to it of himself. It is in this way that Atma’s ‘choosing’ has to be understood. It means that he who is earnest about getting to Atma–the ultimate Truth–gets attracted to it without anything being done by Atma itself. That is the choosing.

Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume 1, ed. Nitya Tripta,p. 54.

Atmananda sounds patently Neoplatonic here: there is something, presumably, so peaceful (ananda) about Atma that some wish not just to see Atma (for seeing still implies duality) but to be Atma.

Thus, what grows and grows in the sadhaka is what I term earnest resolve: only to be Atma and nothing else. This, and this alone, is what drives more and more of the spiritual aspirant’s activities and inactivities.

That natural attractiveness of the Source, however, mustn’t mean that the spiritual aspirant finally “gets merged” with the Source; it must mean, rather, that ignorance gets shed and shed to the point at which there is nothing remaining but the Source alone.

The Direct Method Of Atmananda Explained

Atmananda from Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda. What follows, beneath the first “*,” is the entire text from note 71. What follows after the second “*” is my brief commentary.


71. The Direct Method Explained

1. By examination of the subjective element in man, from the body backwards to the I-principle, it is proved to be Knowledge or Consciousness itself.

2. Similarly examining the gross objective world, it is found that since the gross object cannot exist even for a moment apart from the perception concerned, the object is clearly the perception itself.

Similarly, taking one’s stand in the mind and examining perceptions, it is found that perceptions are nothing but thoughts.

Lastly, examining thoughts and feelings, by the use of vidya-vritti or ‘functioning Consciousness,’ it is found that they are Consciousness itself, the ultimate subject.

Thus both subjective and objective worlds, when properly analysed, are reduced into the Ultimate–which is neither subject nor object. To know this beyond all doubt, and to establish oneself there, is the direct method.


The Subjective Element Examined

1. Here, Atmananda encourages us to ask, “Who am I?”

2. It will be seen that (i) I am not the body, (ii) I am not the senses, and (iii) I am not the mind.

3. This is because I must be the Witness to whom the body, senses, and mind all appear.

4. Yet when I inquire into the nature of the Witness, I find that it is Consciousness.

5. So, I (the I-principle, as Atmananda terms it) am Consciousness.

The Objective World Examined

1. Here, Atmananda is inviting us to ask the metaphysical question, “What is there?”

2. Starting off with gross physical objects, I see that each can be reduced to forms. For I cannot see a tree without the concepts of shape and color (and shape is reducible to color).

3. Soon I understand that form can be reduced (here) to seeing. For can there be any direct experience of color in the absence of seeing?

4. Understanding that I am only “seeing seeing” or that there is “just seeing” (in the language of Zen), I then realize that seeing is appearing to the Witness.

5. But then the Witness is nothing other than Consciousness.

6. Furthermore, I know that since “[c]onsciousness cannot perceive anything but Consciousness,” it’s clear that seeing is Consciousness itself.


Therefore, the question, “Who am I?,” turns out to yield the same answer as the one discovered from asking “What is there, really?” In short, who is what. That is, the I-principle is Consciousness, and Consciousness (chit) is Reality (sat). So, I am Reality.

‘Consciousness Cannot Perceive Anything But Consciousness’

Atmananda was a teaching master of the Vedanta. Here is one stunning pointer he gives us in passing: “When you know any object, you stand as Consciousness; and the object also cannot help appearing as Consciousness, since Consciousness cannot perceive anything but Consciousness” (Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda, ed. Nitya Tripta, no. 34, p. 18, my emphasis.)

I. Knowing Any Object

1. To know any object, there must be that which is aware of the object. But that which is aware of the object is Consciousness.

2. What is thus established is the priority given to the Subject–namely, Consciousness. To know any object, then, requires standing as Consciousness.

II. An Object’s Appearing

1. Consciousness can be said to know the object in the sense that Consciousness is shining its light on the object. Without the luminosity of Consciousness, the object could not appear.

2. What is thus established is the object’s dependence on Consciousness. There is no sense in which it could be correct to speak of the object’s having an independent existence.

3. Therefore, the object “borrows” whatever existence it has from Consciousness.

III. Consciousness Can Only Perceive Itself

1. The crux of the argument in higher reason is to be found right here: “Consciousness cannot perceive anything but Consciousness.” This, indeed, is what needs to be expounded upon.

2. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that matter exists. (This is what Vedanta denies.) Is it not so that matter can only interact with matter? Could matter ever interact with angels (should angels also exist)? No, since matter and angels are made of totally different stuff.

3. Let’s suppose that mind exists. (This too is what Vedanta, in a sense, i.e., in the sense of the rejection of reification, also denies in that mind is, on this understanding, nothing but thinking and feeling.) Could mind ever interact with anything other than mind stuff? No, for such is the insurmountable problem of Cartesian substance dualism. So, mind can never come into contact with matter or with any angelic substance (were there to be such a substance).

4. The principle has therefore been established: X can only ever interact with something X-like.

5. Deep meditation has already established the fact that Consciousness exists. Furthermore, deep, intuitive understanding has also make it plain that Consciousness shines its lights on all objects.

6. But then how could Consciousness shine its light on what is other than Consciousness? This is impossible, for there would be no way for Consciousness to “cross the gap” to make contact with matter (physical objects), the senses (seeing, etc.), or mind (thoughts).

7. Therefore, since Consciousness exists and since it is precisely the shining of its light on an appearing that is the condition of possibility for that appearing, it immediately follows that Consciousness must be shining its light on some Consciousness stuff.

8. But then Consciousness stuff–here, so elegantly handled by Atmananda, is Vedanta’s claim about Brahman as the material cause (see Brahma Sutra)–is none other than Consciousness Itself. So, Consciousness cannot perceive (or witness or know) anything but Itself.

9. Therefore, everything–the objects of experience as well as the Subject of experience–is Consciousness.

To Be Concrete

  • The Body: Feeling sensations ordinarily mis-labeled pain is Consciousness. Doing is Consciousness. Movement is Consciousness.
  • The Senses: Seeing is Consciousness. Hearing is Consciousness. Smelling is Consciousness. Touching is Consciousness. Tasting is Consciousness.
  • The Mind: Thinking is Consciousness. Feeling is Consciousness.
  • The Witness: The Background of all experience is Consciousness.

Everything is Consciousness and Consciousness is everything.