The Bhagvat Gheeta and the Doctrine of Immortality

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The Bhagvat Gheeta and the Doctrine of Immortality


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"The Bhagvat Gheeta and the Doctrine of Immortality." The American Review; II, 3 (September 1845), 267-279.


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IT is written in the Vedas, “The soul should be known, that is, it should he distinguished from nature; for then it will not return, it will not return.” In this passage, under a form peculiar to the East, we find the enunciation of one of the fundamental problems of philosophy (that of the immortality of the soul) with an indication of its solution. It is the general belief of the Orientals, that the soul of a dying man, after leaving this present body, will be born again into the world under some new form. A man, in his next body, may he a horse, or a dog, and this re-birth, whether in the old or under a new form, is the return of the soul. The expiation of certain crimes consists, according to the description in the laws of Menû, in the soul’s living a thousand successive lives, in the bodies of a thousand different spiders. This is a specimen of the return. The prospect, therefore, is by no means agreeable, and we cannot wonder that the whole force of the Oriental mind should have been directed to the discovery of some means whereby the return of the soul might be avoided.

But, before we go further, let us examine this doctrine of the transmigration of souls, to see whether it really be so devoid of plausibility as we sometimes suppose. in all ages of the world there have been philosophers who held that the soul built the body, that is, that the character and form of the body was dependent on the character of the soul. The diametrically opposite doctrine is, indeed, more fashionable at this time, for many of our phrenologists and other materialists, believe that it is the body which builds the soul, that is, that the soul is a function of (dependent upon) some portion of the organism,—say the brain for example. An appeal is made, in both cases, to observation and experience, the phrenologist, from an examination of the skull, will give a pretty shrewd guess as to the character of its owner; the idealist will call our attention to the fact that the indulgence of certain passions will alter the conformation of the face, the expression of the figure. The man who acquires the disposition of a fox, will begin to look like a fox—will begin to become a fox as far as such a transformation is compatible with human nature. It is in the nature of Spirit, says the idealist, to express itself in some form, and, as we are all rendered free at death, why should we not, in the next birth, take the form best adapted to express our inward natures? Why should not the man, who is, in heart, a fox, take, in the next birth, the outward form of a fox? why should not a fierce bloody man be born the next time as a bull-dog; and a woman, who has no desire, except for dress and display, be born as a peacock ? Are their souls immortal? Yes, verily, but their present natures will remain with them, for their happiness or misery, throughout eternity. Conversely, a man of pure and angelic character begins inevitably to present a pure and angelic appearance, the countenance becomes placid, the manner sedate, and the soul of the man transforms the body till it becomes as angelic as is compatible with its present relations. And when it assumes a new form after death, what shall prevent it from assuming the one most appropriate to its nature?

Our Transcendentalists, hold not only that the soul builds the body, but that it builds all things, God, the universe, the body, other men, &c. “In the order of thought (says Mr. Emerson,) the materialist takes his departure from the external world, and esteems a man as one product of that. The Idealist takes his departure from his consciousness, and reckons the world as an appearance. . . . The experience of the Idealist inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative value, relative to that aforesaid unknown centre of him.” This doctrine of Mr. Emerson leads either to a denial of a future life, or to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls; for if the soul builds the body, and continues to live, it must inevitably assume, in the next state, a form appropriate to its nature. But, why, you ask, may not a Transcendentalist say that the soul assumes a spiritual body, in the old-fashioned heaven? If the Transcendentalist takes this ground, he will furnish at once the means, not only for the immediate destruction of a whole wing of the school, but also for ultimately sapping the entire system. For in admitting the old-fashioned heaven, he must acknowledge also the possibility of the old-fashioned special communications from the spiritual world to saints and prophets. He must thus admit the logical basis of the old-fashioned orthodoxy, inspiration, &c., and what will he do in the battle that ensues? But it is not necessary to push this inquiry; we know of no passage in the writings of any transcendental writer which asserts the doctrine of a future life. We have no reason to believe that any of them hold the doctrine. The future state is, for them, not one of life, but one of persistence of essence.

This theory that the soul builds the body, is connected with a vast system, which we have not time to examine, but a little thought will convince the reader that it is as plausible and as true as the other doctrine, that the body builds the soul; in short, subjective-idealism is just as true as materialism, and we may add, just as false. As was shown in the March number of this Review, if we start with man alone, our reasonings will leave us, at the end, in New England Transcendentalism, (subjective-idealism,) and, if we take our departure in nature alone, we end of necessity in material-realism; both partial, exclusive, and inadequate systems. The fact is, the body builds the soul, and the soul builds the body, but it is God who builds both.

II. What reasoning, what train of thought, lay in the minds of the writers of the Vedas when they explained the method to be followed by men desirous of avoiding a return into this evil mansion of pain? Why did they suppose that a distinction of the soul from nature, by the exercise of thought, would be sufficient to overcome this necessity of a return? We shall endeavor in the following pages to give an answer to these questions. But it will be necessary to explain some of the peculiarities of the Oriental philosophy, that the reader may readily understand the somewhat obscure text we shall find it necessary to quote.

What is the invisible world of the Orientals? This invisible world, is identical with the world of potential existences of Aristotle; it is identical with the abyss of Jacob Behman and John Pordage. These three expressions, the invisible world, the potential world, and the abyss, (which last term we prefer, as being more expressive,) are names indicating one identical thing in the universe of reality—we do not say in the universe of actuality.

What then is meant by the term, the abyss? Suppose, in thought, this visible universe to be broken. Let all the qualities by which we distinguish the differences subsisting among the different bodies of nature, cease to manifests themselves. Let all properties, all activities in nature, reënter into themselves. Let all that by which each manifests its own proper existence, reënter the virtual state, so that all properties, all activities, exist no longer in act, but only in the power of acting. Like a circle that contracts more and more till it vanishes in its own centre; let all extensions contract into—into what, 0 ye Powers! Let all qualities derived from extension, or which are manifested to us through extension, enter again into themselves. Let, in short, all properties of things be only in potentiality of manifestation. The reader must endeavor to effect these operations in thought.

But perhaps it will be well to define some of our terms. What is essence? What is existence? What is the difference in signification between the words essence and existence? Essence is pure being, without efflux or manifestation. Existence involves out-going or manifestation. The soul of man, and every other substance, according to the foundation of its being, according to its centre or root, is; but according to its out-goings, manifestations, or operations, it exists.

What is potential existence? What is actual existence? What is the difference between potential and actual existence? A thing exists potentially, or in potentia, when it is possible only. This same thing exists actually when it has not only this possible (potential) existence, but also a real existence in fact.

A thing is, when in potentia, or when possessing only a possible existence; but it exists, when it has not only its root of substance or being, but also an actual manifestation.

When all outward things exist only in potentiality of manifestation, or, in short, when all things exist only in potentia, man also must cease from all actual existence; and must reënter the potential state In fact, how does man act, how does he manifest himself? He moves, eats, drinks, thinks, wills, remembers, hopes, loves, desires, &c. But can a man eat without eating something, or can he drink except he drink something? Can he move without moving through some space, pr moving something, viz: his body? Can he love, hope, desire, think, without thinking, hoping, loving, desiring, something? When all things are in the potential state, this something, which is necessary to all his actions, is withdrawn, and, as man cannot act or manifest himself, without the concurrence of this something, he must also himself cease from all action, all manifestation—he must himself, in like manner reënter the potential state. Conceive, if you can, that you are removed into some distant region of space where nothing can come into contact with you, where the light of the stars of heaven is extinguished, where the undulations of the all-pervading ether cease to operate, where all motion, all change, all springing sources, have reëntered into themselves; conceive, also, your memory to he so blotted out that the voices of the past sound no longer; conceive that no fact remains present to the mind on which to base an inference in regard to the future Would you live, act, think or desire? Of what would you think, or what would you desire? All these objects of thought and desire have entered, according to the supposition, into the potential state, and manifest themselves no longer to you. Evidently you have entered, as far as is possible this side the gates of death, into the potential state, into the invisible world, into the abyss.

When we thus conceive this universe to he broken, to have returned into its original essence, but non-existence—when we conceive man also to have ceased from all actual existence—we shall perceive all our representations, humanity, the outward world, ourselves, all thought, all desire, reëntering into each other, so as to exist thenceforth only in germ, only in potentiality of existence. Man and the universe will be effaced together—all things will enter the potential state simultaneously; for the human intelligence reflects the universe, and the reëntering of the universe into the potential state will he marked by the smooth surface of the mirror (the mind of man) which gives thenceforth no reflection, which marks thenceforth no change.

Thus beings have become one being, in potentiality of manifestation. Yet when we say one being, our words must riot be taken with too much strictness. Nature and man have reëntered into themselves, and all things exist only in potentia; they have become one being, insomuch as each is now a cause existing in potentiality of operation—one being, inasmuch as these causes are undistinguishable the one from the other, since all that can effect a distinction is swallowed up in the abyss of potentiality. But they are many beings, insomuch as they are the potentiality of a world involving diversity and change.

This one being, this world in potentia, is the abyss of Jacob Behman, the invisible world of the Orientals.


“I am (says Kreeshna, in the Bhagvat Geeta,) in like manner, that which is the seed of all things in nature; and there is nothing, whether animate or inanimate, which is without me. But what, 0 Arjoon, hast thou to do with this manifold wisdom? I planted the universe with a single portion and stood still. [The son of Pandoo then beheld within the mighty compound being, within the body of the God of gods, standing together, the whole universe, divided forth into its vast variety.] I see thyself (says Arjoon) on all sides of infinite shape, formed with abundant arms, and bellies, and mouths, and eyes; but I can neither discover thy beginning, thy middle, nor again thy end, 0 universal Lord, form of the universe!”


The following passage is clear, and shows the distinction between the potential and actual worlds, the first being the substance and seed of the latter, and the latter being the former drawn out into actual relations.


“They who are acquainted with day and night, know that a day of Brahma is a thousand revolutions of the Yoogs, and that his night extendeth for a thousand more. On the coming forth of that day all things proceed from invisibility to visibility; so, on the approach of night, they are all dissolved away into that which is called invisible. The universe even, having existed, is again dissolved; and now again, on the approach of day, by divine necessity, it is reproduced. That which, upon the dissolution of all things else, is not destroyed, is superior and of another nature from that visibility; it is invisible and eternal. He who is thus called invisible and incorruptible, is even he who is called the supreme abode; which men, having once obtained, they never more return to the earth: that is my mansion. That supreme being is to be obtained by him that worshipeth no other gods. In him is included all nature, by him all things are spread abroad.”


We will give a few more extracts from the Bhagvat Geeta, and then pass at once to the doctrine of creation.


“The great Brahm (says Kreeshna) is my womb. In it I place my foetus, and from it is the production of all nature. I am generation and dissolution; the place where all things are reposited, and the inexhaustible seed of all nature. I am sunshine, and I am rain. I now draw in, and I now let out. I am death and immortality. I am entity and non-entity. The ignorant, being unacquainted with my supreme nature, which is superior to all things, and exempt from decay, believe me, who am invisible, to exist in the visible form under which they see me. . . . I am the creation and the dissolution of the whole universe. There is not anything greater than I; and all things hang on me, even as precious gems on a string. I am moisture in the water, light in the sun and moon, invocation in the Vedas, sound in the firmament, human nature in mankind. In all things I am life, and I am zeal in the zealous; and know, 0 Arjoon, that I am the eternal seed of all nature. . . . . . I will now tell thee what is Gnea, or the object of wisdom, from which understanding thou wilt enjoy immortality. This is that which has no beginning and is separate, even Brahm, who can neither be called sat (eus) nor asat (non eus). Unattached, it containeth all things, and without quality, it partaketh of every quality. It is undivided, yet in all things it standeth divided. It is wisdom, that which is the object of wisdom, and that which is to be obtained by wisdom.”


III. Some of the heretical sects supposed the abyss, the invisible or potential world, to be the supreme God. It is evident, that the Bhagvat Geeta, from which the foregoing extracts are made, is not exempt from the influence of this error. But the abyss cannot be God; for God is alive, while the abyss is unquestionably dead. The abyss has only a nugatory and potential existence, itself being the mere potentiality of the universe, while God, on the other hand, exists always in act. But, perhaps, it may be said that the abyss is alive, and that, in truth, it is itself the only life, that it passes always, by virtue of inhering necessity, into act, imparting life by that passage to all vital agents in the visible universe. This would be a statement of the fatal pantheism which has always reigned in the East, a pantheism somewhat similar to that of the Hegelians, and almost identical with that of a portion of our New England Transcendentalists. We will endeavor to render this matter a little more clear.

We read in the writings of Dupuis, the materialist, “amid the shadows of a dark night, when the heavens are covered with a thick cloud, when all bodies have disappeared from our eyes, and we seem to dwell alone with ourselves and with the black shadows which surround us, what is then the measure of our existence; flow much does it differ from an entire annihilation, especially when memory and thought do not surround us with the images of objects which the day had revealed to us. All is dead to us, and we ourselves are, in a certain manner, dead to nature. What can give us life, and draw our souls from this mortal weakness which chains down its activity in the shadows of chaos? A single ray of light can restore us to ourselves, and to nature, which seemed so far removed from us. Behold the principle of our true existence, without which our life would he but the sentiment of a prolonged ennui. It is this need of light, it is its creative energy, which has been felt by all men, for they have seen nothing more frightful than its absence. Behold their first Divinity, whose brilliant splendor, sparkling forth from the bosom of chaos, caused to proceed thence man and the universe, according to the theological principles of Orpheus and of Moses.” The thought here expressed is simple, but its power is inexhaustible, infinite! We will not dwell on the view of the nature of Life which is so clearly and beautifully expressed, nor upon the misapprehension of the theology of Moses, so manifested in the concluding line. But we would ask Dupuis, is there nothing but light which can expel this obscure gloom? is there nothing but light which can deliver man from this migratory abyss of potential existence? flow much is involved in the expression, “especially when memory and thought do not surround us with the image of objects which the day had revealed to us?” A single ray of light would indeed restore us to reality, to communion with nature, but would not the remembrance of a single object seen through the day, awaken the soul to a real and intense life, though not to an immediate communion with nature? while we are in this state of darkness and of silence, this state of dreaming without dreams, the whole expanse, if we may so speak, of memory, is spread before the inner eye, but without form, and, as it were, void. No distinct image is present to the mind, and all our conceptions lie in the memory and imagination, (which is another form, or rather a modification of memory,) in the mere potentiality of existence as actual conceptions. if we begin to act mentally, if we begin to form to ourselves a picture or conception, the facts of memory rise up before us, and, taking the isolated parts, we bring them together, perhaps in new forms, by the exercise of imagination, perhaps in the reproduction of some well known collocation, by the exercise of simple memory.

This vast, and apparently empty, (as in the case supposed by Dupuis,) expanse of memory, which stretches out before the inward eye when we seem to cease from all thought, is as the invisible or potential world, as the abyss. This empty expanse, containing the germ of all our conceptions, is a similitude, a correspondency, with the invisible world of the Orientals. But the invisible world is the seed of all nature, while the vacant expanse, or world, of memory and imagination, is finite, and the seed of the conceptions of the individual man only. As the whole universe is contained, in potentia, in the abyss, so, in this field of memory, are contained potentially all those elements which go to make up the conceptions formed by the mind when it entered into operation. It will be well, for the reader to look again at the passages relating to the invisible world, already quoted from the Bhagvat Geeta making those changes which a reference of the texts to the finite instead of the infinite abyss, will render necessary.

But to proceed. God is a self-existent (that is, a self-living) being. We shall endeavor, in some future article, to make it evident that God is not only Essence, but also Existence; for the present, we content ourselves with a simple assertion of the fact, being confident that our renders perceive the absurdity of denying it. But to obviate all objection, we will give a simple demonstration. If God be pure essence, without existence, it would be absolutely impossible that there should be any visible world, as there would be no reason why any thing should be drawn forth from the abyss into actual existence; but there is a visible world, therefore, &c. God is self-living, therefore having power to create. Man, by virtue of his energy as a living essence, has the power of originating new conceptions, the power of creating in a finite manner; but God, possessing an infinite life, has an infinite creative power.

By virtue of this creative power, the universe is evidently, from all eternity, possible; that is, the universe must have existed, from all eternity, in potentia.

This possibility is, therefore, itself uncreated; for God, being self-living, cannot, by any possibility, exist without the power to create. For when we say that a thing exists in possibility, or is possible, we mean that some active agent has the power to bring it to pass. The words possible and power, come from the same root.

The abyss, the invisible or potential world, exists, therefore, from eternity; it is uncreated, dependent not upon the will, but upon the being of the self-living God.

But, perhaps, this explanation, as it now stands, is not altogether satisfactory. We say then that the abyss, the potential world, the original possibility of things, is uncreated. Why? For this reason— if God created the original possibility, that creation of the original possibility, was itself possible with God; here a new possibility rises up behind the possibility first considered, and this new possibility is a prior condition requisite to the very being of the possibility first considered. If we treat this new possibility, (which we have formed on the hypothesis that the original possibility was created, to be prior to that original possibility itself), if we treat this new possibility as we did the other, still another possibility will rise up behind this new possibility, and so on to infinity. If, therefore, the original possibility was created, that possibility was by no means original, for it must have been preceded by another possibility, and this last by another; all which is evidently absurd.

The possibility of a particular act of creation is a condition logically prior to the creative act itself; for if the particular creation be impossible, it will evidently never take place. The possibility is not made to be by the very fact of creation, for the particular creation would have remained possible, although the actual creation had never taken place. The greater portion of the abyss, the greater part of the possibilities of things, have indeed not yet been realized, and, in all probability, they never will he. The possibility of an act of creation is therefore a condition logically prior to, and independent of, that act itself; and this reasoning applies as well to the first act of creation as to any other. The possibility of creation, the universe in potentia, the abyss, therefore, existed before the very first act of creation and is, therefore, itself uncreated—the proposition that was to be proved.

We are now able to see the bearing of a profound expression recorded in the Vedas. “Waters [fluids in most of the ancient systems represented the abyss,] waters alone there were; this world originally was water. In it the Lord of creation moved, having become air: he saw this earth, and upheld it, assuming the form of Varacha. The Lord of creation meditated profoundly upon the earth, and created the Gods, the Vasas, the Rudras, and the Adityas: these gods addressed the Lord of creation, saying, How can we form creatures? He replied, as I created you by profound contemplation, so do you seek in devotion the means of multiplying creatures.” Thus, according to the Vedas, this visible universe was created out of the abyss of essence, but non-existence, by the profound contemplation of the Lord of creation, that is, by a method analogous to that of the production of conceptions and images in human thought. As the facts in the memory of man are distinct from, though dependent upon, him, so the invisible world, or the abyss, (which is, as it were, the vacant expanse of the infinite memory,) is distinct from God, though dependent upon him; and as it requires a living and personal man to create a poem, or other work of memory and imagination, so it requires a living and personal God, to create this transcendent poem which we call nature and man, or the visible universe. So this world is the thought of God, but that thought rendered firm and stable, in its manifold relations, by the simple volition of the Divine mind; for the worlds were created by the will of God.

But here, a confusion of thought, leading to pantheism, must be noticed; and this more especially as the Oriental philosopher invariably became bewildered, and identified God with the Abyss. We wish the reader to bear in mind that in this assertion of the self-existence of God, superior to the Abyss, we separate ourselves from the Oriental systems. The writers of the Vedas undoubtedly believed in the personality of God, but when they came to write, they found the thought too powerful for them, and sought to shelter their weakness in the pantheistic hypothesis. Nearly all the writers who gathered their systems from the sacred books, adopted this hypothesis, but abandoned the element of truth which was more vaguely expressed. We are far from endeavoring to vindicate the Oriental systems, yet we think the writers of the Vedas ought to have the credit of half seeing the truth we have been endeavoring to explain. But to proceed when we form a conception, we gather the detached portions together in the memory, and the complete conception starts up, as it were, before us. But we can bring no element into our conception which we have not previously acquired by experience, which we do not retain as a fact of memory; all things must exist in the memory before they can enter and become a part of the conception. When, however, the conception is formed, we recognize that it is distinct from us, that it is not ourselves, but an image, a mental picture, dependent upon us for its continuance in existence. If we withdraw our attention it vanishes. It depends upon us for our existence, but our existence does not depend upon it. We do not flow into the conception, it does not partake of our essence, yet we sustain it, and, if we withdraw our sustaining energy, it returns again into the potential state in the vacant expanse of memory; it will no longer be a picture actually existing before our minds. We would here remark, by the way, that no picture, no representation, can exist in the mind; for the mind is simple, and therefore without any capacity of including space, and, where there is no space, the use of the word within is absurd. The picture is present to the mind, not in the visible world, but in the invisible world of memory and imagination, where indeed there is space, but of another order from the space of the visible world. A further investigation of this matter would require psychological developments wholly incompatible with the nature of this article; we are concerned at this moment, not with psychology, but with ontology.

The early Hindoo philosophers knew very well that God was self-living, and superior to the Abyss, but they always became entangled in their speculations, till they confounded the Abyss with the Divine Nature itself. Sometimes they say the Abyss is. God, which is atheism, for the Abyss is evidently dead, and to say that God is dead, is but another way of saying that there is no God. This is not the doctrine of the Orthodox sects, but of the heretics, the Buddhists for. example. Sometimes, however, the most Orthodox writers affirm, in the same passage, the self-living, personal, existence of God, and the divinity of the Abyss; the assertion of contradictory things produces inextricable confusion. An example may be found in the beginning of the Laws of Menû:—


“This universe existed only in the first Divine idea, yet unexpanded as if involved in darkness, imperceptible, undefinable. undiscoverable by reason, and undiscovered by revelation, as if it were wholly immersed in sleep.

“He, having willed to produce various beings from his own divine substance, first with a thought created the waters, and placed in them a productive seed.

“The seed became an egg, bright as gold, blazing like the luminary with a thousand beams; and in that egg he was born himself, in the form of BRAHMA , the great forefather of all spirits.

“The waters were called nara, because they were the production of NARA , or the Spirit of God; and since they were his first ayana, or place of motion, he thence is named NARAYANA , or moving on the waters.

“From THAT WHICH IS , the first cause, not the object of sense, existing everywhere in substance, not existing to our perception, without beginning or end, was produced the divine male, famed in all worlds under the appellation of BRAHMA .

“He whose powers are incomprehensible, having thus created both me and this universe, was again absorbed in the Supreme Spirit, changing the time of energy for the time of repose.

“When that Power awakes, (for though slumber be not predicable of the sole eternal Mind, infinitely wise, and infinitely benevolent, yet it is predicated of BRAHMA , figuratively, as a general property of life,) then has this world its full expansion; but when he slumbers with a tranquil spirit, then the whole system fades away:

“For while he reposes, as it were, in calm sleep, embodied spirits, endued with principles of action, depart from their several acts, and the mind itself becomes inert.

“And when they are once absorbed in that supreme essence, then the divine soul of all beings withdraws his energy, and placidly slumbers.

“Then, too, this vital soul of created bodies, with all the organs of sense and of action, remains long immersed in the first idea, or in darkness, and performs not its natural functions, but migrates from its corporeal frame. . . . . .

“Thus the immutable Power, by waking and reposing alternately, revivifies and destroys, in eternal succession, this whole assemblage of locomotive and immovable creatures.”


The Orientals held, as a very general thing, the Abyss to be God. The visible universe is nothing other than the Abyss itself, proceeding from the potential state into actual relations—proceeding from invisibility to visibility. Hence the invisible world, if it have a substantial existence, (which it must have, if it he identical with God,) is the substance of the visible, so that there would be but one substance or being in the universe; for the Abyss, as has been already shown, is one. The universe, therefore, while in the potential state, would be God, but after it has proceeded forth from invisibility to visibility, it is the actual world. Thus God is supposed to be the substance of the visible world. While things are in their actual relations, they are not God, but when they return into their primordial source, they are God; for each thing according to its potential existence is of the Abyss, and it is the whole Abyss, for the very being of the Abyss consists in this, that all which distinguishes one thing from another is swallowed up, destroyed. It is probably, for these or similar reasons, that some of our subjective Idealists (Transcendentalists) affirm that “they are God when they are out of the body, but not God when in the body.”

In fact, our Transcendentalists believe, as we have already seen, “that this visible universe is a procession from some unknown centre in the Transcendentalist himself.” Is it not evident, therefore, that when the universe enters its primordial source, it will enter the Transcendentalist himself, since it is from him that all things originally proceed? This is the genesis of Transcendentalism. The thinker identifies the Abyss with himself, calling the Abyss God, and then says that he creates and destroys the universe, by alternating seasons of energy and repose. He uses the words of Kreeshna, saying, “There is not anything greater than I; and all things hang on me, even as precious gems on a string. I am entity and nonentity; I am death and immortality. I now draw in, and I now let out.” And evidently, if the Transcendentalist enters the potential state, he is the whole Abyss; for be can enter that state only by destroying every quality which distinguishes him from the rest of the universe. But by what right does he affirm himself to be the whole actual universe, even though grant that he is the whole universe in potentia? If a man enter the potential state, as is very evident from the preceding considerations, he dies, and does by no means become greater than he was. A Transcendentalist ought not, therefore, to affirm himself to be all things, hut rather, on the contrary, to affirm himself to he dead. The following lines, quoted from the Dial, will show that our Transcendental friends have not always manifested this wisdom:


“Nothing is if thou art not. From thee, as from a root, The blossoming stars upshoot, The flower-cups drink the rain. Joy and grief and weary pain Spring aloft from thee, And toss their branches free. Thou art under, over all; Thou dost hold and coverall; Thou art Atlas, thou art Jove!”

We will make another quotation from the Bhagvat Geeta, and then pass to the next general head:

“This whole world was spread abroad by me in my invisible form, All things depend on me, and I am not dependent upon them. Behold my divine connection. My creative spirit is the keeper of all things, not the dependent. Understand that all things rest in me as the mighty air, which passeth everywhere, resteth in the ethereal space. At the end of the formation, at the end of the day of Brahma, all things, o son of Koontas, return into my primordial source, and, at the beginning of another formation, I create them all again. I plant myself in my own virtue, and create, again and again, this assemblage of beings, this whole, from the power of nature without power. Those works confirm not me, because I am like one that sitteth aloof, uninterested in those works. By my supervision, nature produceth both the movable and the immovable. It is from this source, 0 Arjoon, that the universe resolveth.”


How different is this doctrine from that of the Vedas! The text of the sacred hooks is intermixed with errors, hut still they assert the existence of a creative God; while here, in the Bhagvat Geeta, the Deity is identified with the Abyss—. that is, his being is denied.

“As the spider spins, and gathers hack its thread (say the Vedas); as plants sprout out of the earth; as hairs grow on a living person; so is this universe produced from imperishable nature. By contemplation the Vast One germinates.” In the first sentence we have indeed the procession of all things from the Abyss, the visible resting its substantial being upon the invisible; but in the second, we find the assertion of a living and personal God; for, it is by contemplation that the Vast One germinates, that is, the Vast One is a contemplative agent, a living person. But the Vast One is identified with the Abyss, the Abyss is made to be alive, and from this admixture of incongruous thoughts flows forth, as usual, an inextricable confusion.

IV. After these somewhat extended preliminary observations, we are able to examine the question of the soul’s immortality. First, then, what is death, or the transition from this life to that which is to come? Death is not the contrary of being or of existence, for the contrary to being is nonentity, and the contrary to existence is non-existence; death is contrary to life, and hardly that. Death is the passage of a vital agent from one state of existence to another. A man when he leaves this present state for the future world is said to die, though it is not to be supposed that his soul ceases for a moment to live. Is the death of the soul conceivable? Endeavor to conceive of yourself as dead—make the attempt. Do you not still find yourself as a living agent, contemplating some imaginary picture, which you have conjured up before your mind, and which represents yourself as dead. Make the attempt again. Evidently it is fruitless; no man can conceive of himself as dead. We may indeed conceive of ourselves as dead to this present state, as having departed from the present body, but not as totally dead. A man may die as to this present body, but he is immediately horn into a new, a higher state; for the soul, speaking without reference to the particular state of existence, does not cease to live. To die, therefore, is not to cease from all life, but to cease from this present form of life which we enjoy in the body. The soul, absolutely speaking, never dies, it merely dies relatively, it merely dies in relation to that form of life which it lived in the body.

The philosophical arguments, however, which are generally adduced in favor of the immortality of the soul, are good for nothing, Perhaps it will be well to examine a few of them. The first is derived from the simplicity of the soul; this is the metaphysical argument. The soul is simple, that is, not made up of parts, therefore indecomposable, therefore indestructible. Granted. But this only proves that the soul, quod being, will never cease; the same may be said of every particle of matter. When the body is destroyed the particles are not destroyed; they go into new relations; what was once wheat or grain is now a man, and what was once a man is now some animal—”all flesh is grass,” but does this proverb prove that each particle of matter enjoys immortality? The question is, whether the soul in its future state will continue not merely to be, but to live. The question is not concerning persistence in being, but concerning future life. The metaphysical argument proves nothing in relation to immortality. The soul lives now in the body, is dependent upon the body for its communion with outward nature, it cannot learn or know anything of the visible world except through the medium of the senses, and without the cunning organization of the ear, human speech and the communion of man with man, and therefore, human sympathies, and, in short, human life, would be impossible. Who does not know the influence of spiritous liquor, tobacco, and opium, upon the memory? Do these material agents act directly on the soul? Evidently not; hut they act on the body, and this weakening of the memory by material agents operating on the body shows us that the soul is dependent, for the continuance of the exercise of memory and imagination, to a certain extent, upon its connection with the body. Who shall say, with the metaphysical argument only to sustain him, that the soul, on its separation from the body does not enter the Abyss, does not enter the potential state? Is there any life there, any immortality in the Abyss, which men would desire? Again, there is the Platonic argument, which goes on the ground that man existed in some celestial region before he was born of a woman. But this fact must be made good before it can he used in any argument ; this we believe has never yet been done. Then comes the argument from consciousness. Some say they are conscious they will live hereafter. Consciousness, we believe, gives us knowledge concerning the immediate operations of our own minds, and concerning these only. The argument from consciousness, is, therefore, not absurd, but ridiculous. We know a lady who denies the Christian miracles, and when asked why she denies them, she answers, “I am conscious that they never happened.” This is a specimen of the argument from consciousness. The fact is, our friends really mean, when they say they are conscious of the reality of a fact concerning which they have no certain knowledge, that their belief in that direction is strong. But strong belief is no valid philosophical argument; for many false opinions have been firmly held, and all creeds, the false as well as the true, count their martyrs who have sealed their faith in their blood. For ourselves, we know of no good argument for the immortality of the soul, except the one so philosophically set forth by our Saviour and the Apostle Paul. But this will lead us perhaps too far into the dark region of theological controversy. We will, however, say a few words in relation to the metaphysics of the Christian doctrine of immortality, and, in so doing, we shall be careful to trespass on the limits of no sect—to say nothing which could justly be condemned by an intelligent man of any religious denomination. The Hindoo theologians say that man’s life is generated from the bread he eats: Moses gives a nobler expression to this thought, saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” What is Life? We do not conceive it necessary to answer this question, although we think it one by no means difficult to answer. The manner in which life is sustained is the question which now concerns us. We are not upon the problem of the nature of life, but upon that of immortality, the continuance of life.

A man lives a sort of vegetable life, a life similar to that of the plants, according to which the involuntary functions, such as the circulation of the blood, the action of the stomach, are performed. He lives also a sort of animal life, a life similar to that of the brutes, according to which he gratifies his animal passions, and lives in the enjoyment of sensual pleasures. He lives also a social life, which he has in common with other men and women, according to which he gratifies the tendencies proper to man. This analysis is incomplete, and, in fact, altogether erroneous; for man has naturally but one life, which is human life; yet these distinctions will enable us to express our thought more clearly. Man’s life is sustained by the bread he eats. A plant deprived of light, air, and moisture, dies; in like manner a man, deprived of the same, dies, for his physical system cannot hear up under the privation. Now light, air and moisture are the bread which the plant eats. An animal deprived of the means of living according to the nature of animals, dies, or if he continues to live, it will he a sort of dumb life, like that of a vegetable: so it is with man. These means of gratifying the natural tendencies, are the bread which the animal eats to sustain the life peculiar to animals. A man deprived of society dies to all social life, and becomes a mere brute. Take, for example, those men who have become idiotic in solitary confinement: some indeed hold out longer than others, hut let the confinement he continued, and human nature cannot resist it. Now society is the bread which a man eats to sustain his social life.

It is evident, therefore, that man is dependent for the continuance of his life upon something which is not himself. lie cannot always have food given him. There is no life in the Abyss where all relations have vanished; there is no life in pure essence, but only in existence. The true question then is, What shall prevent man, on the dissolution of the body, from going hack into the Abyss? What shall man do to inherit, not continuance of being, but eternal life?

If nourishment be withdrawn, a man must die to all those powers which are deprived of nourishment. But the body, as we have seen, is the means whereby man assimilates to himself this various nourishment. When, therefore, this earthly tabernacle is withdrawn, it is to he feared that man dies altogether, for the means whereby he assimilated the nourishment of his life is withdrawn. The man, therefore, who has no life higher than that which is nourished by the things of this world, has no true and well-grounded hope of immortality; for he will one day be withdrawn from this world, and then there will no longer he any nourishment for him.

The question again recurs, What then must we do in order to inherit eternal life? Evidently we must, at once, commence to live a life dependent upon nothing in this present perishing world; we must begin to feed immediately, that is, without the intervention of the body, on something altogether independent of sensible things; in other words, we must begin to live, not by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God. But where is this spiritual bread? where is this nourishment altogether independent of things which perish? where is this nourishment which the soul can eat without the intervention of the body? Our Saviour says, “I am the bread of life. . . . If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever. . . . . Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, bath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” But mark! these words have a mystical meaning. “It is the spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing; the words which I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.”

In order now that Christ should be able to give nourishment to those that live in him, so that they who are in him may have eternal life, three things are necessary: 1st. That he himself should have attained to eternal life; 2d. That he should have ascended above all perishable and transitory things; 3d. That his disciples may live in him without the intervention of the body. Let us examine these separately.

1st. Our Saviour himself describes his qualifications, so far as his own attainment of eternal life is concerned. “As the living Father hath sent me, (he says,) and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.

2d. If it can be proved against Strauss and his followers, and against the Rationalists, that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father on high, the second condition is abundantly fulfilled. The reader must bear in mind that we confine ourselves purposely to the philosophy of immortality, that we do not intend to trench upon theological ground in any direction, and that we express no opinion whatever as to the validity or non-validity of any fact.

3d. If it can be proved, from the experience of private Christians, that there is an immediate relation between Christ and the individual soul, the third condition also is abundantly fulfilled. The soul must be in constant relation with some nourishment, and it will live according to the nature of that nourishment. If the nourishment be material, the man will live a natural and perishable life; if it be spiritual, he will live a spiritual life. But if man, while living a natural life, lives a spiritual life also, and that spiritual life be the immediate, direct communion of the soul with something transcending all perishable things, the spiritual life will continue to subsist, though the body and the nourishment of the natural man both enter the Abyss, both enter into mere potential existence.

The Christian argument appears to be this: Our Lord represents himself as living spiritually, and yet literally, upon God as his nourishment; for the passage quoted is connected with those [6th of John] relating to the bread of life. We quote the text again: “As the living Father bath sent me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” Here Christ is represented as living on (by) the Father, and his disciples as living, in a like manner, upon him. His disciples are represented as living spiritually, and yet literally, upon him as the nourishment of their souls—”so he that eateth me,” &c,. Some analogies to this method of obtaining life by nourishment, may be found in the teachings of Zoroaster. It was the living Father that sent Christ; that is, the self-living Father, “who alone bath immortality” in himself, as St. Paul says. But Christ lived in God, so that his life was in two imperishable things—his soul, which was the vital agent, and the Father, who was the nourishment of his soul. Our Lord, therefore, was in communion, or relation, with something which could never cease from actual existence; and, although the world should enter the abyss, and his life as far as the world was concerned should cease, for want of nourishment, his life which was in God could never cease. We are saved therefore in Christ, “not by the law of a carnal commandment, but by the power of an endless life.” But whosoever eats our Lord spiritually, even he shall live by that same nourishment. This is clear, for the soul itself is imperishable; this can be proved by the metaphysical argument already noticed, although that argument is impotent in relation to the continuance of life. The soul of man is imperishable, (quoad being,) and Christ, the nourishment of the soul, is imperishable also, by reason of his connection with the Father; the life, therefore, between two imperishable things, is also imperishable. “He that believeth on me, (saith our Lord,) though he were dead, yet shall he live, and he that liveth and believeth on me shall never die.” It is in this way that we explain the saying of the Saviour, “Because I live, ye shall live also; and at that day, ye shall know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you ;” and also the passage in the writings of Paul, “Your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory ;” and scores of other passages which want of space compels us to omit.

But the Oriental doctrine in no way resembles this. The Christian doctrine gives a true continuance of life in actual relations; but the Oriental theory makes the future state of the soul to consist in either, 1st. The return of the soul into the present forms of existence, in the bodies of men or animals, or, 2d. A total absorption into the abyss. The first condition, or that of transmigration, fills the mind with terror; and it is the chief design of the Hindoo theology to furnish some means whereby it may be avoided.

We read, in the Laws of Menû, in relation to this doctrine:


“Action, either verbal, mental, or corporeal, bears good or evil fruit, as itself is good or evil; and from the actions of men proceed their various transmigrations in the highest, the mean, and the lowest degree. . .

“For sinful, corporeal, a man shall assume after death a vegetable or mineral form; for such acts mostly verbal, the form of a bird or beast; for acts mostly mental, the lowest of human conditions. . .

“By the vital souls of those men, who have committed sins in the body reduced to ashes, (it was the custom to burn dead bodies,) another body composed of nerves with five sensations, in order to be susceptible to torment, shall certainly be assumed after death.

“And, being intimately united with those minute nervous particles, according to their distribution, they shall feel, in that new body, the pangs inflicted in each case by the sentence of YAMA . . .”


But we are more interested in the other form of the doctrine, viz: the method of escape from this necessity of migrating from body to body. This is by a return into the abyss. A man must, in this world, crucify every affection, every tendency, and endeavor to be always in the state described in the quotation from Dupuis. When a man thus without affection comes to die, he has no particular character, or tendency, and therefore will not take any form, but will at once enter the potential state; in which indeed he now really is as far as existence in the body will permit. This reentrance into the potential state is annihilation rather than immortality. When the soul distinguishes itself from nature, it destroys, as far as in it lies, its actual relations, and thus commences to disentangle itself from those things which tend to necessitate a return. Thus the soul, when it is known, that is, distinguished from visible nature, and from actual relations, does not return. Kreeshna is the Abyss, and the highest state of future happiness, held out by the Bhagvat Geeta, consists in a return into Kreeshna. In this state of essence without existence, we are indeed free from the danger of migration, for we are thenceforth free from all relations whatever; hut no future life is compatible with such an order of being. We should like to know how our Transcendentalists answer the objections brought against the doctrine of the Bhagvat Geeta. Their whole desire is to reënter into themselves, to he absolved from all dependency upon anything which is not themselves, flow do they escape the Abyss? How do they avoid a return into Kreeshna, into “the Supreme Abode?” Their only argument for immortality is the metaphysical one, derived from the fact of the soul’s simplicity; hut this proves only that the soul’s being is imperishable, it proves nothing in relation to a future life.


“He, O Arjoon, (says Kreeshna,) who, from conviction, acknowledges my divine birth and actions to be even so, doth not upon his quitting his mortal frame, enter into another, for he entereth into me. . . Those men of regulated lives, whose sins are done away, being, freed from the fascination arising from contending passions, enjoy me. . . At the end of time, he, who having abandoned his mortal frame, departeth, thinking only of me, without doubt, goeth unto me; or else (if he think not of me, but of other things) whatever nature he shall thus call upon at the end of life, when he shall quit his mortal frame, he shall go into it (transmigrate.)”


These Oriental doctrines have in other respects a great analogy with the truths of Christianity; for example, the doctrine of regeneration is well known in the East. Our Lord says: “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and in him.” The following passage from the Bhagvat Geeta has at least a verbal resemblance to this saying: “They who serve me with adoration (it is Kreeshna that speaks,) I am in them, and they in me.”

But what practical conclusion can we draw from the considerations, brought to view in this article? For it is without doubt unbecoming in philosophers, which we take both ourselves and our readers to be, to waste so much paper, ink, time, and nervous fluid, on a question of history, and mere question of curiosity. What practical conclusion can we draw? It seems to us that we may be justified in concluding that the theory of the future existence of the soul, independent of any body, spiritual or material, is unphilosophical, and unworthy of being believed by any well instructed man. The Scriptures teach the resurrection of a body, not the natural body, indeed, but a spiritual body. “it is sown a natural body (says St. Paul); it is raised a spiritual body.”

What in fact is meant by this term body? A thing producing certain effects upon us, as hardness, weight, existence, color, &c. Abstract these qualities, or modes of activity, from the particular body, and what remains? Evidently nothing but the potential existence of that same body. Now the soul, in order to communion with other souls, must have some mode of activity, and some means of recognizing the activities of other souls; that is, it must exist in actual relations, that is, again in a body, either spiritual or material—it must not have entered the Abyss. For the existence of the body, as we have seen, consists in these actual relations; as, for example, color, hardness, weight, &c., in the case of material bodies. As for this term spiritual body, its meaning is not altogether plain; it probably signifies a body having a real existence, but an existence entirely different from any with which we are now acquainted. We would not he misunderstood; we do not believe the soul to be the substance of the body. We hold that the soul and body are distinct, though not separate; at some future time, we may, perhaps, endeavor to explain the nature of their union.


William Batchelder Greene, “The Bhagvat Gheeta and the Doctrine of Immortality,” The American Review 2 no. 3 (September 1845): 267-279.



Greene, William Batchelder, 1819-1878, “The Bhagvat Gheeta and the Doctrine of Immortality,” The Libertarian Labyrinth, accessed January 16, 2018,