They Can’t Revoke Your Soul For Tryin’

My students decided they wanted to know more about the soul.  They came up with a list of questions, including what is the soul?, how could the soul exist?, is the soul permanent?, and all sorts of other questions. One of my students even wanted to compare the concept of the soul to the more new-agey concept of energy (a brilliant question, I think, when asked in earnest).

They also agreed that we do not want to be multicultural tourists in the class; rather, we want to wrestle with the questions. But at the same time, we don’t just want to riff off the top of our heads about the definition of the soul. We actually — all of us — want to learn something.

The Hindu (Vedanta) Concept of the Soul

Yes, this is about to happen.

There is a thing called an atman and a thing called a brahman. That’s pretty much what I know about the Hindu concept of the soul.

Both the atman and the brahman make up the soul. The Hindus are not the only ones to have divided the soul into parts (St. Augustine does it, as does Freud, as do a lot of other people), but the Hindus are the ones who connect the individual soul to an infinite soul, not as one to an other, but as one and only. The soul we each have, the atman, is like our individual soul, our heart, but the soul we all share is the brahman, which is like the music made by all of our hearts beating together, not as one but as many, the music we make, the melody, bass line, and percussion, moving as one in song.

I read the Bhagavad Gita in college. In it, Krishna stops time just before a major battle to help Prince Arjuna make a decision. Arjuna is dithering because the men he is about to fight are his family members and loved ones. He knows it is his duty is to go into battle, but how can he kill people he loves?

I don’t remember a lot of the book.  But that’s not important. Sure, it’s one of the most sacred texts in all of Hindu literature, but by this point, there’s been so many thousands of years of dissection and analysis that anything I’d even be able to add to the discussion would always already be besides the point.

That’s okay. Because I’m not trying to teach the Bhagavad Gita right now.

What I’m trying to teach is that it says there is a sense of duty that each soul has — and by soul, I’m talking about the atman, the individual-ness of us. In some sense, the duty of every individual is to turn to face God (Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as a god with faces on all sides, whose core shines with the light of a thousand suns; having faces on all sides allows all of us to face him individually), but each individual, as an individual, turns to God in a way that is unique to their atman; it is the duty of each of us to find and know and do our atman.

Are you a dancer? Then dance your way to God. A reader? Read your way to God. A warrior? A prince? A priest? A queen? Act as a queen should act, regardless of whether there’s a crown on your head.

But remember, you are not the queen (even if you do have a crown). You are a subject of God, with all of the gifts and rights of any subject worth their salt; we are to God as the roots are to their leaves, all as one.

The goal, however, is to cut down the tree and separate into the flowing robes of the infinite.

Reincarnation is a part of this, too. How (who, what) we get reincarnated (as) has to do with the way we live up to our duty. The Hindus call this dharma.

Dharma is what puts the ethics in our actions. It’s like the universal law, telling us exactly what we should do. But it’s also like a river: the more you move when and where you’re supposed to move, and how you’re supposed to, the better off you’ll be; the more you fight against dharma, the worse off you’ll be.

That’s one of the ways Hinduism differs from Taoism. Taoism wants you to surrender to the flow, while Hinduism wants you do more than that — it wants you to be more like a whitewater river guide who has been trained in the ways of the river and experienced it over and over again until you understand the best way to get yourself out of the river safely; Taoism, on the other hand, just wants you to close your eyes and jump in.

To use the tree metaphor again, dharma is the way the roots channel their energy up through the trunk of the tree and out onto the farthest reaches of the highest leaves, where it finally comes into contact with the sun. If you ignore your dharma and keep channeling your energy around and around near the base of the tree, you’ll grow stunted, ensuring that when the tree dies, all of your energy will just goes back into the ground, to try once again to go home.

Follow your dharma, and you’ll know exactly which way to go.

But that’s all argument from metaphor. How to philosophize that argument?

I’ll leave that one for my students.

Minnesota’s Question of the Year

A friend sent me an article about Minnesota’s Great American Think-Off, which poses a question for people to answer in essays of 750 words or less. Four writers will then debate the question, and the winner will receive a $500 prize (FYI: this post is not my answer).

This year’s question is: “Which is more ethical: sticking to your principles or being willing to compromise?”

While I love the idea of a “think off,” I don’t think the question is a very good one because, as in all things ethics-related, the answer turns on context. There are a thousand different examples we could come up with where the ethical thing would be to stick to your principles, and a thousand more where the ethical action would be to compromise.

One of my college professors, Steven Fesmire, wrote a book, John Dewey & Moral Imagination, in which he makes the analogy that being ethical is like playing jazz. Quoting Martha Nussbaum, he writes, “a responsible action is a highly context-specific and nuanced and responsive thing whose rightness could not be captured in a description that fell short of the artistic.” The jazz metaphor “spotlights and illustrates the empathetic, impromptu, and inherently social dimensions of moral composition,” by which he means, taking a moral/ethical action requires recognizing the social dimension of the problem at hand, understanding and empathizing with how all parties feel and what they’re trying to achieve, and then having the skill to add your own voice and interests in such a way as to contribute, build, and improve upon the general harmony of the moment.

To ask whether it is more ethical to stick to your principles or compromise is like asking whether it’s better to have a saxophone or trumpet in your quartet. The only responsible answer is to say, “Well, it depends.”

Ethics are not written in stone. Like jazz, they are improvisational while also aligning with received tradition and continuous feedback. You can’t write down a list of ethics. All you can do is develop your sense of empathy and add your authentic voice to the song that’s being played.