The Rational Basis of The Jain Concept of Soul

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The Rational Basis of The Jain Concept of Soul
By Cogen Bohanec, MA, PhD

Is there empirical evidence for the existence of an eternal soul? What data might be supplied by our senses, our experiences, that might provide justification for the existence of the soul? We note that as time passes, paradoxically, we both change but remain the same. Of course we are different than we were in the past, and we will be different in the future, but we also have a conscious sense that we are the same person across time, that all of our perceptions, memories, feelings, and thoughts are somehow unified as a changing identity, a perception known as having a sense of “diachronic unity.” Thus, we both have the sense that we are changing and we are staying the same. But is this a contradiction?


For the Jain philosophy of Anekānta, “many-sidedness” our perceptions of sameness and change are both equally true. If we believe only that we change at the expense of our sameness over time, that would be “ekānta” or a reductive “one-sided” belief that leads us to believe that we are destroyed with the movement of time, such as when we die.  On the other hand, if we believe that we only remain the same, and that our soul is non-dynamic, that would also be ekānta, reductive & one-sided. This is why Jains reject the belief in a non-dynamic soul such as is posited by the Classical Yoga of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra.


The sense of diachronic unity is treated as evidence for the eternality of the soul in a variety of philosophical traditions. That sense that even though we change in time we are nonetheless the same person across time, is taken as evidence that we have some sort of essence that remains despite any changes in our peripheral sense of self. Our bodies may change as we age, our social identities may change based on our changing marital and familial status. Our psychological sense of self may likewise change as we develop our capabilities, as we heal from or suffer from trauma, as we become more cynical or optimistic with the passing years. But despite the changes in our physical bodies and our psychological conditions we are still somehow the same person. Thus, our physical bodies and our psychological conditions are believed to be peripheral to our essential self, and that aspect of us that remains the same is considered to be essential, our essence. Afterall, if we are the same despite the loss or gain of some condition, that condition must not be our essence; it wasn’t essential. If something remains despite peripheral changes, then that something must be essential to us. And if our bodies are peripheral to what we are essentially, then our essence must survive the loss of our current physical body. This sense of diachronic unity, then, is phenomenological evidence for the eternal of the soul.


For Jain philosophy, to a certain extend our experiences of reality are to be taken seriously. If we perceive both change and sameness regarding the nature of our self, then that perception is reliable. Moreover, if we perceive our consciousness as being fundamentally different than non-conscious matter, that perception too is reliable. We see how living, conscious entities behave, and they are qualitative different from our observation of non-conscious, purely material entities. Moreover, the defining characteristic of material entities is decay and irretrievable loss; but the characteristic of consciousness seems to be an endurance irrespective of external loss and change. Thus, the essential nature of our selfhood is without irretrievable decay, and through a rational assessment of the validity of our first-person experience we can see that there is evidence for the belief in a dynamic, eternal soul, as per Jain Philosophy.