Among the many visitors that came to India in the medieval ages was scientist and philosopher Al-Biruni (or Abu-Raihan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Alberuni to give his full name). Born in central Asia, he was captured when Sultan Mehmud of Ghazni conquered the region and taken into the Sultan’s employment as a court astrologer/astronomer. Being of a scientific and curious bent of mind, he offered to accompany the Sultan on his conquest of Western India around 1000 AD. His primary reasons were to learn Hindu mathematics which was significantly different from prevalent Greek and Arab mathematics, to learn Sanskrit literature and to interact with Indian philosophers and scholars.
While his main claims to fame are as mathematician, astronomer and scientist, Al-Biruni was also a learned philosopher, deeply interested in the religions of his time. In the tradition of older societies, he learnt in-depth, the dominant philosophies of his region – Greek, Christian, Islam/Sufi and pre-Arabic. To this he added knowledge of various Indian philosophies he encountered on his trip. In India, he was able to meet and learn from scholars about various religious and philosophical sects. He has covered Indian religion and philosophy in surprising depth in his work on India (Tarik Al-Hind), comparing them with corresponding thoughts from other faiths. His work gives an excellent picture of India at that time, describing her society, geography, culture and science in great detail comparing them with his own native land’s at times.
One of the more interesting topics he has covered is the nature of the soul – a central concept in many of India’s religions. Not only does Al-Biruni discuss the concept of soul in Indian philosophy in detail, but he brings up similar thoughts from other parts of the world.
As the word of confession, “There is no god but God, Muhammad is his prophet,” is the shibboleth of Islam, the Trinity that of Christianity, and the institute of the Sabbath that of Judaism, so metempsychosis (transmigration/development of the soul) is the shibboleth of the Hindu religion. Therefore he who does not believe in it does not belong to them, and is not reckoned as one of them.
Given its importance, numerous philosophers and scholars dwelt on the soul and its qualities at length. Almost everyone of them felt it was of divine origin and all living beings – including plants and animals – and in some philosophies even inanimate objects, were believed to possess a soul and thus have a connection to divinity. Ahimsa (non-violence) was a natural progression; Making any creature suffer was tantamount to making oneself and the divinity suffer. On its basic qualities, Al-Biruni says:
Those Hindus who prefer clear and accurate definitions to vague allusions call the soul purusha, which means man, because it is the living element in the existing world. Life is the only attribute which they give to it. They describe it as alternately knowing and not knowing, as not knowing (actually), and as knowing (potentially), gaining knowledge by acquisition. The not-knowing of purusha is the cause why action comes into existence, and its knowing is the cause why action ceases.
Living beings differ from one another when the soul combines with the nature of the creature.
People say the soul resembles the rain-water which comes down from heaven, always the same and of the same nature. However, if it is gathered in vessels placed for the purpose, vessels of different materials, of gold, silver, glass, earthenware, clay, or bitter-salt earth, it begins to differ in appearance, taste, and smell. Thus the soul does not influence matter in any way, except in this, that it gives matter life by being in close contact with it.
Krishna also explains the transition of soul through a lifetime to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. In doing so, he emphasizes the immortal nature of the soul, a quality that became central in many philosophies.
“If you believe in predestination, you must know that neither they (Arjuna’s enemies) nor we are mortal, and do not go away without a return, for the souls are immortal and unchangeable. They migrate through the bodies, while man changes from childhood into youth, into manhood and infirm age, the end of which is the death of the body. Thereafter the soul proceeds on its return.”
Al-Biruni brings a Christian description of the soul, which is similar to Krishna’s.
The Apostles asked Jesus about the life of inanimate nature, whereupon he said, ‘If that which is inanimate is separated from the living element which is commingled with it, and appears alone by itself, it is again inanimate and is not capable of living, whilst the living element which has left it, retaining its vital energy unimpaired, never dies.’
The behavior of the soul within and without the body was also considered by many philosophers.To explain metempsychosis, the Indians say the purpose to life is to provide the soul with experience and knowledge. That is, to evolve, the soul needs to be born as a living being.
The soul, as long as it has not risen to the highest absolute intelligence, does not comprehend the totality of objects at once, or, as it were, in no time. Therefore it must explore all particular beings and examine all the possibilities of existence; and as their number is, though not unlimited, still an enormous one, the soul wants an enormous space of time in order to finish the contemplation of such a multiplicity of objects. The soul acquires knowledge only by the contemplation of the individuals and the species, and of their peculiar actions and conditions. It gains experience from each object, and gathers thereby new knowledge.
Patanjali, who formalized the yoga system and author of Yoga-sutra, emphasizes this. He felt there is no other way for the soul to evolve.
”The soul, being on all sides tied to ignorance, which is the cause of its being fettered, is like rice in its cover. As long as it is there, it is capable of growing and ripening in the transition stages between being born and giving birth itself. But if the cover is taken off the rice, it ceases to develop in this way, and becomes stationary. The retribution of the soul depends on the various kinds of creatures through which it wanders, upon the extent of life, whether it be long or short, and upon the particular kind of its happiness, be it scanty or ample.”
Krishna offers a somewhat different view on this topic:
“If the soul is free from matter, it is knowing; but as long as it is clad in matter, the soul is not-knowing, on account of the turbid nature of matter. It thinks that it is an agent, and that the actions of the world are prepared for its sake. Therefore it clings to them, and it is stamped with the impressions of the senses. When, then, the soul leaves the body, the traces of the impressions of the senses remain in it, and are not completely eradicated, as it longs for the world of sense and returns towards it. And since it in these stages undergoes changes entirely opposed to each other, it is thereby subject to the influences of the three primary forces. What, therefore, can the soul do, its wing being cut, if it is not sufficiently trained and prepared?”
Al-Biruni also quotes the Greek philospher Socrates, who provides a explanation similar to Krishna’s.
Socrates says in the book Phaedo: “Our souls lead an existence of their own in Hades. The soul of each man is glad or sorry at something, and contemplates this thing. This impressionable nature ties the soul to the body, nails it down in the body, and gives it, as it were, a bodily figure. The soul which is not pure cannot go to Hades. It quits the body still filled with its nature, and then migrates hastily into another body, in which it is, as it were, deposited and made fast. Therefore, it has no share in the living of the company of the unique, pure, divine essence.”
Patanjali describes a somewhat passive or detached learning role for the soul, as have many later philosophers:
The task of the soul is to learn the actions of matter like a spectator, resembling a traveler who sits down in a village to repose. Each villager is busy with his own particular work, but he looks at them and considers their doings, disliking some, liking others, and taking an example from them. In this way he is busy without having himself any share in the business going on, and without being the cause which has brought it about.
Kapila, one of India’s most influential philosophers and father of the Samkhya philosophy, adds an interesting view that the soul is affected by its surroundings whose actions it cannot control fully.
The book of Samkhya brings action into relation with the soul, though the soul has nothing to do with inaction, only in so far as it resembles a man who happens to get into the company of people whom he does not know. They are robbers returning from a village which they have sacked and destroyed, and he has scarcely marched with them a short distance, when they are overtaken by the avengers. The whole party are taken prisoners, and together with them the innocent man is dragged off; and being treated precisely as they are, he receives the same punishment, without having taken part in their action.
And finally when the soul has a complete knowledge of the universe, it no longer needs to be born.
Hindus compare the soul to a dancing-girl who is clever in her art and knows well what effect each motion and pose of hers has. She is in the presence of a sybarite most eager of enjoying what she has learned. Now she begins to produce the various kinds of her art one after the other under the admiring gaze of the host, until her program is finished and the eagerness of the spectator has been satisfied. Then she stops suddenly, since she could not produce anything but a repetition; and as a repetition is not wished for, he dismisses her, and action ceases.
Al-Biruni provides an Islamic context. Quoting Sufi philosophy, he says:
The same doctrine is professed by those Sufı who teach that this world is a sleeping soul and yonder world a soul awake, and who at the same time admit that God is immanent in certain places—e.g. in heaven—in the seat and the throne of God (mentioned in the Koran). But then there are others who admit that God is immanent in the whole world, in animals, trees, and the inanimate world, which they call his universal appearance. To those who hold this view, the entering of the souls into various beings in the course of metempsychosis is of no consequence.
It is interesting to note that within Islam, there existed two opposite philosophies – one that believed in an universal soul and transmigration, and another that did not.
Al-Biruni covers much more on topics relating to the soul, mostly from sources we now recognize with mainstream Hinduism. The development of religion, discussions and arguments on what constitutes good behavior, evolution of the soul and others are all presented. There are also quotes from the Iranian Christian philosopher, Mani, who was banished out of his land and traveled to India, and thus developed an Indian view of the soul. Interestingly, Buddhism, which focuses on this concept, is mentioned only in passing and Jaina works on this topic are strangely absent. Also absent is any mention of Sankara, who had traveled across India to establish and preach his Advaita philosophy in the 8th century. Perhaps they were more popular in South India, well away from his route and he never encountered any scholars of this new philosophy. Or perhaps they were upcoming (Advaita) or waning or incorporated into other philosophies (Buddhism and Jainism) and did not figure in mainstream philosophies of that time.
The concept of an immortal soul capable of metempsychosis, and whose fate was decided by its convoluted time behavior endowed Indian society with a certain moral character. Citizens, concerned with their next birth, kept themselves in moral check even in the absence of authorities. They attributed good and bad fortunes in one’s lifetime directly or indirectly to their own behavior in previous lives. Rules on what constituted proper ethical and moral behavior among individuals were decided by their own subgroups or castes in some cases, by society elders and Brahmins in others or even by society as a whole. Some of them were short-lived while others survived through the ages. These rules were at times illogical or unfair, particularly as societies became larger and more complex. But by and large, they were observed, having been decided with much participation and discussion. The desire to cause as little suffering (Ahimsa paramo dharmah, as the saying goes) was an overriding factor which mitigated the severity of such rules. Religion grew around it and an ascetic class developed, interested in methods to elevate the soul during one’s lifetime. People that joined this order withdrew from mainstream life, subsisted minimally and were given a high place in the society, irrespective of their origins. The concept of an immortal soul also gave the society a certain indifference to death, a quality that captured the attention of Arabian and European rulers and visitors. Misfortunes were usually borne stoically as it was felt they were deserved and undergoing them now would be beneficial in future lives.
Given the metaphysical and speculative nature of the topic, it is surprising to find such unity in its description and relation to the body across the world. Perhaps all philosophers learnt about it from a single source. Or perhaps it represents a truth most of us are yet to comprehend, but was evident to philosophers of those times.