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Atma does not reside in the body,nor does Atma ever leave the body || Acharya Prashant,on Bhagavad Gita
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
16 min
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वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय

नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि।

तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णा

न्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही।। 2.22 ।।

vāsānsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya

navāni gṛihṇāti naro ’parāṇi

tathā śharīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇānya

nyāni sanyāti navāni dehī

As after rejecting worn out clothes a man takes up new ones, likewise after rejecting worn out bodies the embodied one unites with other new ones.

~ Shrimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 22

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Question: At the start of the second chapter of Bhagavad Gita, Shri Krishna explains to Arjuna the difference between the body and the Self, and in verse 22 he says, “As after rejecting worn out clothes a man takes up new ones, likewise after rejecting worn out bodies the embodied one unites with other new ones.”

This analogy has been widely used to explain how the body is not the self, and the same analogy also provides a nice model to grasp the concept of rebirth. But is it as simplistic as it appears? What is the essence?

Do Ātmān and Soul refer to the same entity? If not, what is the difference?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Chapter 2, Verse 22.

“As after rejecting worn out clothes a man takes up new ones, likewise after rejecting worn out bodies the embodied one unites with other new ones.”

Who is the ‘embodied one’? Therein lies all the general confusion. The Truth, the pure Self, the Ātmān is formless, nameless, timeless and obviously bodiless. So, the embodied one in verse 22 obviously does not refer to the Ātmān; it refers to Prakriti, it refers to the Jīvātman—and Jīvātman is not at all Ātmān. Jīvātman is not at all the “Ātmān of the Jīva”, “Jīva’s Ātmān”.

Jīvātman simply means that which the Jīva, being a Jīva, thinks of as his Ātmān or his centre. The Jīva—the person being a person, being a mistaken entity—thinks of his ego, his ‘I’ as his centre, so he calls the ego as Ātmān. That is Jīvātman. Jīvātman does not have anything to do with the Ātmān.

So, it is the Prakriti that moves from body to body. It is the Jīvātman that moves from body to body. In other words, it is the Prakriti that keeps giving rise to one body after the other, and all bodies carry the central trait of the previous bodies. All bodies carry the central trait of the bodies that came before them. What is that central trait called? The ego, the ‘I’.

So, it is the ‘I’ sense or the ‘Prakriti’ or ‘Jīvātman’ that keeps on dawning, adopting one body after the other. It is that tendency to ‘be’ that keeps assuming one shape after the other. And that tendency to ‘be’ is so keenly in search of its final association, that even when it appears like being associated with one particular body, it is actually changing its association moment to moment. How? Because the body is constantly changing, and because the mind is constantly changing.

So, really, the ‘I’ sense is moving from body to body every second. It is not that the ‘I’ sense moves on to a different body only after the previous body has died. That which you call as the 'previous body', that which you call as one particular body, is not a fixed or constant entity. It appears to be constant because the changes occurring in it every second are infinitesimally small, so we are not able to detect them. There is an illusion of continuity, whereas there is no real continuity.

Look at your body as a scientist would look at it; how greatly it changes every day. Where is the continuity? And even more significant is the change in the mind every half an hour. Don’t we know that? And the ‘I’ sense is associated with the body and the mind, and therefore, it is adopting a new identity every new moment. Right now it says, “I am happy”; next moment it says, “I am angry.” Has the ‘I’ sense not moved on to a new mind?

Similarly, if it says, “I am the body,” then right now it is ‘I am body 1’. Then you go to sleep, and when you wake up in that interval, the body has actually undergone a substantial change: ‘body 1’ has become ‘body 2’. So, you have changed your identity straightway from ‘I am body 1’ to ‘I am body 2’.

How is it different from saying, “Now I am Ramesh; a few hours back I was Rajesh”? But when you say, “Rajesh has changed to Ramesh,” then it is a clear case of rebirth. The thing that was once Rajesh is now calling itself as Ramesh, and now you will say, “See, rebirth has taken place.” You will keenly agree. It will be a matter of excitement.

But when the same thing happens within one particular body, then you do not quite so eagerly accept it. ‘I am body 1’ becomes ‘I am body 2’; it’s just that ‘body 1’ and ‘body 2’ are coincidentally carrying the same name. If you are ‘Satyam’, then ‘body 1’ was named Satyam and ‘body 2’ is also named Satyam. It’s just that ‘Satyam 1’ is very different from ‘Satyam 2’. We are not able to notice this because memory provides, as we said, an illusion of continuity.

When you read verse 22 of Chapter 2, never forget that the one that is transmigrating is not Ātmān; it is the Jīvātman, and Jīvātman is nothing but Prakriti. Jīvātman is nothing but the ‘I’ sense, and Jīvātman is nothing in particular, because Prakriti is nothing in particular. Prakriti is no-thing, no person in particular. Prakriti, you could say, is the principle that runs this universe. You could even say that Prakriti is a set of principles that lies at the bottom of this universe. So, Jīvātman is also no particular thing.

Do not try to visualise the Jīvātman as something which is moving forward from body to body. Because we do have very popular pictorial depictions, in which it is shown very loudly, very-very clearly that something gets outside a dying man’s body, and then enters into some other womb, and then the thing inside the womb gets life. No! It is the Jīvātman that is common between one body and another body. But, Jīvātman is a principle, not a thing. A principle doesn’t quite hop from one body to the other. The Jīvātman is nothing in particular.

So, do not think that there is something called the ‘Soul’ residing in your body that gets out at the time of death and enters some other body. Nothing like that ever happens. That’s a total misinterpretation of Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita. And a lot of damage has occurred because people have been very mistakenly interpreting verses like 2.22 of Bhagavad Gita. They have been interpreting it out of context. They have been interpreting it without using the broader light of the Bhagavad Gita itself and Vedanta in general. Anything that is said in the Bhagavad Gita will obviously concur with and resonate with Vedantic literature in general.

The Gita is a de facto Upanishad. Some even say that the Gita is the essence of all Upanishads. If Gita is a de facto Upanishad, is Gita going to be saying something that goes against the essence of Upanishads? So, this verse has to be read along with the other important verses and the Mahāvākyas of the Vedantic literature. And when you read them all together, when you read them all in a holistic way, then you clearly see that there is nothing called a ‘Soul’ as far as Vedanta is concerned.

There is the Ātmān, and there is Prakriti, and the ‘I’ sense is one of the elements of Prakriti. What are their respective qualities? Pay attention!

The Ātmān has no qualities, it is Nirguna, which means that the Ātmān is never-ever born—so how can it be reborn? That’s one basic principle of Vedanta. The Ātmān is Ajaat, Ajanma and Amar; never born, never died; doesn’t take birth, never dies.

And somehow most people forget this basic axiom. They start saying, “Oh, the Ātmān has taken rebirth!” But the Ātmān never takes even one birth. How can it take a rebirth? Ātmān doesn’t take the first birth. Ātmān is never born. So how can it be reborn? So, keep Ātmān out of all this. When birth, rebirth and death are being discussed, Ātmān is not in question. In these equations, Ātmān has to be kept totally aside.

Then, what is it that takes rebirth? You will never forget this.

It is the Prakriti that keeps waving like an ocean. The Prakriti is an ocean that waves. And every wave when it is rising, is a ‘birth’, and every wave when it is ebbing, dying, is a ‘death’.

So, the material world arises from Prakriti and goes back to Prakriti, just as all bodies arise from the soil and go back to the soil. And from the same soil, more bodies arise, and then they again go back to the soil. It is Prakriti that takes birth and rebirth, and as we said, Prakriti is nothing in particular.

So, there is nothing in particular that is taking one body and then moving into the next body. We will have to totally drop this bad idea that there is something that survives even after a person has died. We harbour this kind of a notion that something in a person will survive his death and that surviving something will then move onto the next body, another body. No, nothing like it.

Nothing in a particular person is going to survive his death. All that you are, is going to be totally destroyed with death. What will survive your death? That which was there even before your birth, and that is the principle. The principle that gave you birth will survive your death as well. The name of that principle is not Ātmān; the name of that principle is Prakriti.

Ātmān is a mere witness. It keeps witnessing the entire birthing and rebirthing game of Prakriti. Ātmān neither takes birth, nor is ever subjected to death. Ātmān is a mere witness and perfect non-doer. In front of the Ātmān, the Prakriti is playing its entire game.

What’s happening in the game? Rise and fall! Rise and fall! What can else happen? Any game consists of only rise and fall. In various games, pick up any game, it will always involve something rising, something falling; something rising, something falling; something going left, something going right, which means opposite forces at play, which means the game of duality. Prakriti is constantly playing the game of duality.

In the game of duality one side is called ‘birth’, and the other side is called ‘death’. Ātmān is not playing that game. Ātmān is merely watching and enjoying that game. Enjoying not by the way of consumption; enjoying by the way of non-interference, non-association, dispassion.

Ātmān has nothing to do with anything. It will not have anything to do with one body, nor will it have anything to do with another body. Get rid of this notion that the Ātmān resides in the body. The Ātmān does not reside in the body. Nothing resides in the body except its material constituents. And all the material constituents are reduced to ash and vapour, when the body is incinerated.

What survives the body? Let’s revise the principle. The Prakriti principle survives the body. And the Prakriti will take rebirth, just as an ocean gives rise to one wave after the other. And the essential element of all waves remains the same.

Similarly, the essential element of all births remains the same. What is that essential element called? That which is very interested in taking birth; that which is very interested in associating with somebody.

What is that which is so lonely that it desperately keeps wanting to associate with somebody? That is called the ‘I’ sense, the ‘ego’, or the ‘Aham Vritti’. It has to associate with this; it has to associate with that; it has to associate with this. All these sequences of successive associations can be called as rebirths.

I associated with you, then I broke off, and then I associate with him. This can as well be called a rebirth. I was saying that I am something with respect to you, and now say that, I am something with respect to him. So, ‘I am Rajesh’ has changed to ‘I am Rakesh’. Isn’t it a rebirth? ‘I am Rajesh’ has changed to ‘I am Rakesh’. That’s a rebirth.

But rebirth is not what we generally think of it. That’s all a very childish fantasy. Unfortunately, in India, we have lived for too long with that kind of misinterpretation and a very fantastic kind of imagination. We must give it up. All the myths regarding one fellow dying and then taking birth in the next village have to be totally junked. All that is sheer nonsense, propaganda.

Questioner(Q 1): The example which you gave, the example of sea and waves, I have heard it many times, but I find it difficult to understand.

AP: It means that we are from the same pool. A lot of beings keep rising and then they fall back to the same pool. When they rise, then they assume a particular name, a distinct personality. When they go back to the same pool, then they again become anonymous, turn into nothing. When they rise, then they start getting counted as ‘persons’. After they are gone, their essence still remains, but the personality is lost.

When birth happens, then you feel happy; then you say, “Now the person has come into existence.” The person has risen from the soil and he goes back to the soil. Then it is not the soil that has been destroyed; it is the personality that has gone. From the same soil, something else will rise; another personality. So, the soil keeps rebirthing again and again.

Q 2: You have explained the Prakriti that goes to the cycle of birth and rebirth. And that Prakriti is violent, and that it is ego that takes birth and rebirth.

AP: I never said that Prakriti is violent. There is no violence in Prakriti as such; there is just movement. Prakriti moves in its own predetermined ways. There is no violence there. For violence, there has to be a choice to be non-violent. Prakriti has no choice. In Prakriti, there are just set patterns that keep repeating and that also keep evolving. So, there is no violence really in Prakriti. A lion attacking a deer is not really violence, but a man killing a deer might be violence, because the man had a choice.

Q 3: Can we say that fear is Prakriti that goes from one entity to another entity?

AP: Fear is Prakriti’s way, one of the tools that is given to the person to ensure that the person is able to successfully complete his lifetime. In Prakriti, fear exists as a tool to support life. Animals too are afraid. Even plants are afraid. But when they are afraid, their fear is for physical survival or protection. Prakriti has given them this tool: Have fear and you will survive.

Man too finds some utility in the tool of fear. But for man, fear often becomes problematic because fear is constituted to protect only your little self which consists of the body and the mind. Fear is not designed to liberate you from body and mind. The quality of fear is designed to protect your existing little self. “Oh! Somebody should not hurt my body. Somebody should not hurt my ego, my prestige or fame or notions.” That’s fear. Correct?

But fear never says, “Oh, I should not miss out on Liberation.” Man is never afraid of missing out on Liberation, because the fear in the prakritik way has not been designed to have liberation as an object. The object of the fear is always the little self; the mind and the body. That’s what you are always afraid about.

Prakriti has not designed fear to have Liberation as the object, as an end. And that’s why fear is not good for those who are looking to have an evolved consciousness, to those who want freedom from littleness and the mundane traps of life. Fear is not good for them.

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