What is the soul?
Updated: Feb 11
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
It would have been interesting to sit down with Krishnamurti who, as a former Hindu, argued for animals having a soul as the reason not to kill them, and to discuss the theory of reincarnation. I would have liked to ask him where the scale of animals or birds begins and ends. How bad does one’s karma have to be for one to come back in the next life as a cockroach or a poisonous spider lurking in shoes?
Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest would suggest that there is a hierarchy in nature and that there is nothing wrong with adaptation to new conditions and the weaker species becoming extinct over time.
My favourite creatures are the sloth for its lazy demeanour and carefreeness, the meerkat for her lively curious face and yoga stretches in the sand, and the sea-dragon for beauty and fragility. It is easy for me to imagine all of them possessing a soul and I would have no problem returning to this earth to doze constantly in the treetops, prance in the desert or dodge predators among the majestic coral.
Perhaps if there was a more widespread strong belief in the soul and, as an extension, reincarnation, humankind would take better care of the planet to ensure some leafy foliage remained for our next comeback, or that our new home on the coral reefs was not bleached or clogged with plastic.
All worthy of contemplation – but are we even thinking about the devastation we’re causing our fellow creatures or our ancestors crying out for us to stop?
What is the Soul?
Where is God? Everywhere? And where do our souls go when we die? Are they living in the leaves of the trees or drifting in the clouds that form in the sky?
What is a soul and how do we know it exists?
It’s hard to believe that after we die we do not go on, but almost impossible to prove that we do. Therefore, it is a matter of faith whether we or any other living creatures on this earth have souls, including animals and even plants. Studies now show that when humans talk to plants their growth is improved and it’s also claimed that plants exhibit pain when cut.
Equally, it's hard to imagine how the earth, the planets and the solar systems came to be without a god or creator. What is our purpose without a soul? Perhaps that is the greatest mystery left undiscovered.
Does my kitten have a soul?
I really could not say.
And would St Peter at the Pearly
Gates turn him away?
Does a cockroach have a soul?
And what of fleas and lice?
I don’t want them infesting me
when I reach paradise.
Do I have a soul myself?
I certainly can’t feel it.
Perhaps once dead, an autopsy
might manage to reveal it.
Or am I simply blood and bones?
For if I’m being honest
I really don’t believe in souls -
I’m glad to be a monist.**
*Krishnamurti quote from 'Contentment' Commentaries on Living, 2nd series, p. 199.
** 'Monist': One who believes in monism, a philosophical and cosmological stance which posits an ultimate Unity of all things, and that all apparent differences, distinctions, divisions and separations are ultimately only apparent or partial aspects of an ultimate whole. Wiki
Copyright to the above authors. Photo credits: chick Wix; meerkat Unsplash - Sean Paul Kinnear; Krishnamurti c/- cvwilliams; stellar Unsplash; kitten Marjorie Banks.