The idea of the soul varies widely in religious tradition. While these variations exist, its basic definition is unvarying. The soul can be described as the ultimate internal principle by which we think, feel, and will, and by which our bodies are animated. The soul is seen as the core principle of life or as the essence of a being 1. Views on the permanence of the soul vary throughout religious tradition as well. While some view it as a mortal entity in flux others believe the soul is an immortal and permanent unit.
These interpretations vary from time period to time period and between religions. These characteristics of the soul are interpreted differently through an Eastern or Western perspective. In general, Eastern and Western Religions, with the exception of Buddhism, consider the soul to be a permanent entity, which is either reborn or sentenced to a permanent heaven or hell. Christianity views the soul as the permanent entity within oneself, which is judged by God. The purity of one’s soul decides whether it passes to heaven or hell.
Christianity shares this basic belief with both Islam and Judaism which also say heaven or hell is the final resting place of the soul. The Eastern religion, Hinduism, preaches that Atman, or permanent soul, is in every being and is the embodiment of the ultimate divine, Brahman. Buddhism, on the other hand, believes in Anatman, or impermanent soul, because everything in the world is changing, making the idea of a permanent soul improbable. Atman, the deepest self or inner soul, is the totality of the universe that is present in an individual 2.
Hinduism believes that realizing the soul is the embodiment of Brahman is essential to being released from the cycle of rebirth, Samsara. Hindus understand that the soul, atman, is permanent and only inhabits a physical shell which dies and passes the soul on to the next mortal shell, which can be better or worse than the previous depending on karma. With that said, Hindus believe in rebirth until one realizes the ultimate divine at which point they would be free from the punarjanma, the transmigration of the soul, liberating their souls to achieve moksha.
Buddhism, on the other hand, challenges Atman with the belief in Anatman, which is non-self. Buddhists believe that the world is constantly changing, nullifying the concept of the permanent soul, Atman. There is no reason the soul remains unchanged in a perpetually changing environment. Anatman is the idea of “no permanent soul” 3. A common misconception is that Anatman means people have no soul. In reality it describes the constant change of the soul during its time on earth.
Buddhism holds that while there is no soul, the five elements that make up an individual orient themselves to form a new individual. With each cycle of rebirth, these aggregates, which include mind, consciousness, body, impulse, and feeling, will combine differently to form distinct individuals 4. While Buddhists believe in karma, a summation of positive and negative actions, they differ from Hindus by not believing in a permanent soul. The goal in life for Buddhists is to eventually achieve enlightenment, which they can do by living according to the Four Noble Truths and following the Eight Fold Path 5.
Their dedication to Buddha’s teachings determines how quickly they will release themselves from the material world and reach nirvana. In comparison to Eastern religions, Western religions believe the soul differs in the afterlife. While there are numerous sects of Christianity, most believe that a person’s soul is punished or rewarded after death. Some Christian denominations believe that strong ethics and pure actions will result in rewards, similar to the Eastern idea of karma, while others simply believe that devotion to God will lead a soul to heaven.
Hinduism’s idea of the soul’s permanence can be applied to Christian beliefs. Where the two religions split is in the notion of rebirth, which Christianity rejects. Christians believe that the soul travels to heaven or hell, and is not reborn as in Hinduism. Again, the soul’s final resting place in Christianity depends on one’s devotion to God and in some denominations, a person’s actions in life. Islam beliefs of the afterlife strongly correlate to Christianity.
Muslims believe if a person adheres to the Five Pillars of Islam, the witness, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage, their soul has the potential of growing and finding Allah 6. The growth of one’s soul is contingent upon following the teachings of Allah, similar to Christianity’s idea of devotion to god. Islam states that the soul of a being can either proceed to heaven or hell depending on the purity of the soul. Islam’s definition of the soul is similar to that of Judaism. Like Muslim belief, Jewish tradition is based on the immortality of the soul which carries on to the afterlife.
The existence of an afterlife is described in terms such as Gan Eden (the Heavenly Garden of Eden, or Paradise), Olam Haba (the world to come), and Gehenna (Purgatory) 7. In all, it can be argued that, besides Buddhism, the Eastern and Western religions examined all believe in a permanent soul, which is either sent to heaven, condemned to hell, or reborn. Buddhism, which was born as a challenge to Hinduism, finds its variance from Eastern and Western religions in its rejection of the permanent soul.