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What is the soul?

Updated: Feb 11, 2020


Australians are notoriously agnostic, if not outright atheistic. The stats from the most recent census in 2016 show that almost one third of Australians describe themselves as having 'no religion'.


That census showed that those ticking 'no religion' rose from 22.6 per cent to 29.6 per cent — nearly double the 16 per cent of five years earlier in 2001.


That does not mean, of course, that those with no established religion are necessarily more brutal or less empathetic with their fellow men and women - or with other animals. Many people see themselves as humanists, or conscientious objectors to killing, or simply carry a personal philosophy of harmony with other people, animals and nature at large.


But who among us can venture to define the soul?

In the mid-20th century the philosopher Krishnamurti, born in India but living most of his adult life in the United States, not only observed that many people in the West did not recognise what 'the soul' was, but killed without much heed for the seriousness of an act of killing. Here are some of his thoughts*:


Human beings like to kill, whether it be each other, or a harmless, bright-eyed deer in the deep forest, or a tiger that has preyed upon cattle. A snake is deliberately run over on the road; a trap is set and a wolf or a coyote is caught. Well-dressed, laughing people go out with their precious guns and kill birds that were lately calling to each other. A boy kills a chattering blue jay with his air-gun, and the elders around him say never a word of pity, or scold him; on the contrary, they say what a good shot he is. Killing for so-called sport, for food, for one's country, for peace - there is not much difference in all this. ... In the West we think that animals exist for the sake of our stomachs, or for the pleasure of killing, or for their fur. In the East it has been taught [referring to religions in India such as Hinduism and Jainism] for centuries and repeated by every parent: do not kill, be pitiful, be compassionate. Here animals have no souls so they can be killed with impunity; there animals have souls, so consider and let your heart know love.


Judging by Sydney Writers Circle participants' responses, next time you write the word 'soul' in a story, it might be helpful to bear in mind that your potential reader may not go along with you:

An Investigation of the Soul