Materialism vs Spiritualism

Many people who proclaim to be materialists are actually spiritual if the surface of their logic is scratched a bit.

Materialism can be defined as the position that there exists nothing but matter. Physical matter (including field, energy, etc) is the fundamental building block of this world. Everything that exists is a composition or product of matter. Everything in this world can be explained as the result of physical phenomena.

There is no individuality beyond the body. With the death of the body, my individuality is entirely gone without a trace. I simply cease to exist.

Thoughts are a product of the chemical and electrical actions happening in the brain. As this is an entirely physical system, the dynamics of every part of matter is the result of the dynamics that was set into motion during the Big Bang. This means, I have no control over my thoughts. Everything I think is the result of the dynamics of matter. There is no free will. I am destined by matter to think what I think and do what I do. So, I cannot be held responsible for what I think or what I do.

How many people who claim to be materialists accept this logical conclusion? Anyone who accepts free will cannot take materialism as the basis. Materialism and the concept of free will are contradictory.

Spiritualism assumes that I am a “self-willing” entity with an independent existence. The technical term for this entity with free will is “jiva”. The material world is called “jagat”.

The basic law of nature, the Law of Causation, which manifests in the physical world as the laws of conservation of various entities like matter, energy, momentum, charge, current, etc will apply to the jiva also. The jiva, which is free to decide what to do in a given situation, is responsible for the consequences of its action. The experiences that the jiva goes through are strictly the consequences of its own past actions, following the basic law of causation. The law of causation applied to the jiva is called the law of Karma.

Following the law of causation, everything the jiva faces has to be the result of its past action. One child is born in a very luxurious environment. Another child is born in a pathetic environment. So we have to assume past existence and actions of the jiva before birth. Similarly, people keep doing things till the end of the life of the body. Not all the results of all the actions are experiences in that life itself. So we have to assume a future existence after the drop of the body.

Now, which of these models is the truth? Just because materialism does not allow free will, can that be discarded as false? The choice between materialism and spiritualism does not come under science. It is not “falsifiable” (see Only things that can be judged based on observations through physical means come under the purview of science. So no amount of observation and logic based on those observations can help us to choose between these two. Any choice is an unfounded speculation.

Where there is no approach by senses, the scriptures of religions come to help. The great philosopher Sankara says “ateendriyaarthe shaastram pramaanam” – The scriptures are the authority on matters which are not related to the physical world accessible to the senses. When we are left with no option other than mere speculation, religion comes in and gives a meaningful and fruitful choice, claiming the choice to be a divine revelation. In the world of the senses, science is authority. In the world beyond the senses, scriptures are the authority.

Advaita Vedanta considers this concept of jiva and jagat only as a relative model. This is only a “working model” to be used as a stepping stone to the absolute model. The absolute truth is that there is a more fundamental entity underlying both jiva and jagat. The nature of the entity is pure Consciousness. Discussion about that is beyond the scope of this article. You can read about that in articles like this.

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6 Responses to Materialism vs Spiritualism

  1. Sreenivas says:


    Firstly, we should not equate spiritualism with religion. Please think about it … Thinking about what happens after death or before birth need not necessarily have anything to do with religion.
    Secondly, For all the claims made by all religions of being spiritual none of them can give a cogent or consistent reply to the question of why this creation exists. Like science they will explain (or at least try to) how it came into being. Take Hindu philosophy for example. It claims creation is a result of the brahman deciding to entertain itself (leela). That begs the question as to why a nirvikara like brahman should have the vikara of wanting entertainment. It is just glossed over.
    Finally, there are umpteen riddles and contradictions in the paramatma, jeevaatma, or just plain atma. Gita says atma is pure and untouchable. So how come it carries the punya and paapa of the being?



    • gokulmuthu says:

      Dear Sreenivas,

      I agree that there is a popular confusion in terminology, points of view, etc. But a serious and systematic study does clear off all the questions. I feel most of the problems is because of a casual approach to a deep subject. If you want to take up a serious systematic study, I would suggest that you start with the series of 16 lectures at Listen to the lectures in sequence. Listen twice or thrice any portion if you think you have not got it. Please let me know if you have questions after listening to all of them.

      With regards,

  2. Anand Balaraman says:

    Gomu : You said “Many people who proclaim to be materialists are actually spiritual if the surface of their logic is scratched a bit”
    I am of the opinion that the converse is also equally true. 🙂

    I have a question about the origin of Jivatmans. They say Jivatmans are Anadhi and Anantha. My understanding of Anadhi and Anatha is as follows : Anadhi means they have existed since t=-Infinity and Anantha means they will continue to exist until t=+Infinity, assuming of course that the present is assigned t=0. How can this be true? Because Jivatmans could attain enlightenment and loose their identity and merge with the Paramatman. If Jivatmans are just ripples of Avidhya on the otherwise homogeneous field of Brahman, then we cannot call them Jivathmans the moment they merge in the background field. So Jivatmans must have a time of appearance and a time of disappearance, thus a finite life. This opens up so many more questions :
    * To keep the Universe populated, if new ripples are going to be created as the old ones merge with the background, then it appears Mukthi itself is a meaningless pursuit.
    * If Paramatman is Gnana Svarupa why does Avidhya (seeds of Jivathman) exist in the first place?

    Sorry for the non conventional vocabulary such as homogeneous background field etc. I have no doubt you will understand what I intended to ask though.

    • gokulmuthu says:

      Hi Anand,

      I agree with you that many people who claim to be spiritual are actually materialists.

      Coming to your question, what I have presented here is only the dualistic model. This model is presented only as an intermediary model. We say that the jiva and the jagat are both anaadi and ananta (without beginning and end). This is just another way of saying that this model applies only to the steady state. This model does not explain the boundary conditions. In this model, there is no concept of jivanmukti. That is the reason why dualists define freedom as going to vaikunta, kailasha, paradise, etc.

      It is only Advaita that tries to explain the boundary conditions. But then, it says that the boundary conditions can be talked about only in a different generic model, of which, this model is a particular case. The “particular case” is ignorance or maaya. In the generic model, there is no division between jiva, jagat and ishvara. Everything is unified as a single entity, which is shown to be the real Knower himself. So Advaita is the absolute truth in the most generic case. When in the relative case, jiva-jagat-ishvara model applies. It is like Theory of Relativity being the most generic case and classical mechanics being the particular case for big masses and low speeds.

  3. gokulmuthu says:

    When almost all religions and philosophies accept that the body is not the “real” person, they consider the “karta-bhokta” – the free-willing entity which does action and experiences the results – as the “real” person. Advaita goes one more step in saying that even this entity is not the “real” person. The “real” person is the pure Consciousness which neither does anything or experiences anything. I am the changeless Reality behind all changes.

  4. jaydip varnesiya says:

    Frankly saying that I don’t believe in spiritualism but this article has patronised my spiritualism and made me to think over it. Definitely a rich and worth reading article.

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