Simple, catchy, ingenious, and filled with meaning
by Hari-kirtana Dasa
My spiritual teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, had many extraordinary talents. One of them was his ability to come up with simple English phrases to express complex philosophical ideas that are packed into compressed Sanskrit aphorisms.
‘Spirit soul’ was one such phrase that he frequently used to differentiate our essential spiritual nature from the material nature of the bodies we inhabit. He would often say, "We are spirit souls, not this material body."
A question about this phrase came up the other day in connection with a series of classes I’ve been giving. The question was, “Why did Prabhupāda say ‘spirit’ soul and not just ‘soul’?
I think the answer to this question shows just how ingenious this catchy little phrase really is. The corresponding Sanskrit expression is ‘ahaṁ brahmāsmi,’ which can be partially translated as ‘I am Brahman.’
‘Brahman’ may be translated as ‘the ground of being’ or ‘the Supreme’ or ‘Transcendence’ or ‘the substratum of existence’ or ‘the Absolute Truth,’ among other possibilities. It can be used as a qualitative description of spiritual existence or as a quantitative description of ultimate reality. Either way, Brahman is understood to be a timeless, changeless, and unified state of being.
In the Vedānta-sūtra, ‘Brahman’ is defined as ‘that from which everything proceeds,’ which is to say that Brahman is the original cause of all subsequent causes and effects. Brahman, however, has no cause. In other words, Brahman is the cause of Brahman. Hence, Brahman is categorically different from everything else since Brahman stands alone as being completely independent.
As if this weren’t already complicated enough, Brahman is also understood to be an undifferentiated unity encompassing the totality of reality, which would seem to make it impossible for there to be an ‘everything else.’ And to top it off, the Upaniṣads describe Brahman as having two aspects: with form and without form; a paradoxically dualistic feature of something that's inherently non-dualistic.
Therefore, to say ‘I am Brahman,’… well, that’s really sayin’ something.
So how can one succinctly translate the phrase ‘ahaṁ brahmāsmi’ into English?
By translating it as “I am spirit soul.”
Brahman is said to be the spiritual cause of the material world. The material world is described in the Bhagavad-gītā (7.4) as ‘separated energy.’ The process by which Brahman produces the material world is described in the Vedānta-sūtra as a ‘transformation of energies.’ Brahman is thus understood to have inconceivable energies that are simultaneously different from and not different from Brahman.
It’s another paradox that I'll catch up to in a minute; for now, just keep going.
The energies of Brahman undergo a transformation from spiritual to material. In other words, matter is a transformation of energy, which we already kind of knew: the inverse corollary of Einstein’s famous theorem E=mc2 is M=ec-2.
The energies are transformed but Brahman, the source of the energies, remains unchanged in the same way that a potter is unchanged by the process of transforming a lump of clay into a clay pot.
The Bhagavad-gītā (7.5) also describes how living beings consist of a categorically different kind of energy from matter: spiritual energy. In other words, you and I are qualitatively Brahman insofar as we’re made of the same spiritual energy that constitutes the substance of Brahman.
Therefore, to say “I am Brahman” is a qualitative statement that differentiates us, as spiritual beings, from the material bodies we inhabit. But if we want to translate 'Brahman,' is it enough to say “I am spirit?” Well, it’s a true statement but it’s incomplete.
For starters, to say “I am spirit” carries an implication of oneness that resonates with the idea of Brahman as an undifferentiated unity but might conflict with our experience of individuality. This is a significant problem: if individuality is an illusion then there’s no possibility of anyone realizing that they’re Brahman because the individual who thinks ‘I am Brahman’ doesn’t really exist. In other words, we can’t get there from here because we’re not really here.
There’s also the problem of cultural context: in the west, the word ‘spirit’ is usually taken to be synonymous with a the essence of a person’s character or to indicate a disembodied being, such as a ghost. So can we say, “I am soul” instead of “I am spirit?”
This would also be a true statement but it would also be incomplete because, in this same western context, the word ‘soul’ is often seen as synonymous with the word ‘spirit.’ Additionally, we tend to think of ourselves as having a soul rather than being a soul. A ‘soul’ is thus understood to be something we possess rather than as what we are.
But if we combine the word ‘soul’ with ‘spirit,’ then the word ‘soul’ serves a different purpose: it implies individuality. I’m a soul, you’re a soul, everyone’s a soul. And the word ‘spirit’ provides the defining characteristic of a soul as being spiritual.
Therefore, the phrase ‘spirit soul’ comprehensively describes our status as spiritual individuals. As ‘spirit’ we all share a qualitative oneness with Brahman and as a ‘soul’ we retain a quantitative difference from the totality of Brahman that confirms our spiritual individuality, which, in turn, supports the possibility of spiritual relationships.
And bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion, is the yoga of spiritual relationships. Which brings us back to the first paradox: Brahman has inconceivable energies that are simultaneously different from and yet not different from Brahman.
Thinking this through to its logical conclusion, if Brahman is the energetic source and we, as ‘spirit souls’ are in the category of spiritual energy, then we are simultaneously, if somewhat inconceivably, both one with and different from Brahman. Therefore the ultimate realization of our spiritual relationship with Brahman consists of both union and separation.
What does that look like?
Well, if it looks like anything then that brings us back to the second paradox: that Brahman comes in two flavors: with form and without form. And I’ll save the resolution of that paradox for another post.