Jiva and Isvara

Vedanta gives two sets of concepts about the individual (Jiva) and God (Isvara). One is practical, and the other is Absolute. The practical concepts prepare the person to proceed further towards the Absolute concepts. Thus, the practical aspect is of immediate relevance. Most of the Bhagavad Gita deals with this.


If you think about who you are, you can clearly distinguish various layers of yourself. You have a body that can be seen by you and by others. The body has various organs and does various functions. This is called sthoola sharira. You have a mind that cannot be seen by others. You alone know your thoughts, memories, emotions and knowledge. Others can only infer it when you talk about them or act based on them. This is called sookshma sharira. There is one more layer which has the faculty of freewill. You use your freewill to decide what you want to do. You are responsible for your decisions. The result of your decision (called karma phala) and tendencies that can influence your future decisions (called samskaara) are stored here. This layer gives you your individuality. This is called kaarana sharira. Behind all these three is your fundamental Awareness (called caitanya). That is called aatman. The aatman when associated with one or more of the three bodies (shariraas) is called Jivaatman. The Jivaatman along with the kaarana sharira is called the being (Jiva).

During waking (jaagrat) state, you are aware of all the three bodies. During dreaming (svapna) state, you are not aware of this sthoola sharira. You are aware of a different virtual sthoola sharira in the mind. During sleeping (sushupti) state, you are not aware of anything. But when you wake up, you remember that you had a good enjoyable sleep.

Freewill is a faculty that operates from the kaarana sharira level. You have choice over what you decide. You use your sense organs to know about a situation. You use your memory, emotions and knowledge to evaluate the situation, come up with various options, and evaluate the pros and cons of each of them. Finally, you decide what is to be done. You use your organs of action to perform the action. This freedom to choose is the core assumption of all human affairs. Along with the freedom comes the responsibility of the choice. There is a lot of research happening in neuroscience to decide if freewill exists or not. Without going into the details of that, we can say that, freewill is the foundation on which the entire human society is built. Concepts of right and wrong, crime and punishment, purpose of life, rights and duties are all based on the assumption that freewill exists. Without this assumption, the entire human existence and human endeavour will become meaningless. So, irrespective of the outcome of neuroscience, freewill is a necessary working assumption.

The individual (Jiva) is defined as the entity that wields the freewill and which is responsible for the decision. The concept that the Jiva has the freedom to decide, every decision gives an appropriate result and the Jiva is responsible for the result is called Law of Karma. Freewill and Law of Karma are two sides of the same coin. Without freewill, law of Karma does not have a locus to operate on. Without law of Karma, there is no basis to exercise the freewill. For example, if you eat when you are hungry, your hunger goes away. If this universal law is not there, when you are hungry, there is no basis for you to decide to eat. If there is no correlation between the action and the result, no action can be decided. So freewill and Law of Karma exist together. Another name of Law of Karma is Dharma.

Here is a picture to illustrate the Law of Karma. The description comes after the picture.

Every individual has a store of the accumulated results of the past actions. Some of them create a particular situation in life. The Jiva faces the situation. There are several similar situations in life that it can remember. Based on these, several options are presented to it. Some are based on likes and dislikes. Some are based on right and wrong. There is also the influence of habits and tendencies, which affect the decision in an unconscious manner. With all these inputs, the Jiva makes the decision of what to do using its freewill. The decision and action contribute to the following:

  • Current result
  • Future result
  • Conscious memory
  • Habits and tendencies

The current result not only depends on the current action. A part of the unused past results from the store also contributes to the current results.

This Jiva cannot be a part or product of the physical body. If it is a part or product of the physical body, it will be subject to the laws of physics and so it cannot be free. If the Jiva is not free from the laws of physics, freewill cannot exist. If the decision to do something is purely based on the chemical and electrical activity in the physical brain, then there cannot be freewill. So, the Jiva must be an entity totally independent of the physical body. The body and mind are only instruments to be used by the Jiva. The body and mind are like an FM radio, which is a gross instrument to manifest the music being broadcasted in a subtler form. The music played is what is broadcasted. The radio cannot create its own music. However, the quality of music depends on the quality of the radio. The radio cannot play better than what is broadcasted. It can be worse if the radio is not good. A healthy body and mind help the Jiva to express and experience fully.

The Jiva is your real identity in the practical world. Your body and mind are your instruments. You can experience the world through them. You can express yourself in the world through them. But your real identity is that of the person who holds the freewill and is responsible for the decisions. This is also evident from the way you call your body and mind as “my” body and “my” mind, like the way you use expressions like “my” house, “my” car, “my” clothes, etc.

You are responsible for the decisions you make. Everything that happens in your life is the result of the decisions that you have taken in the past. You cannot escape the results of any decision made by you.

Some children are born to poor parents. Some are born to rich parents. Some children are born healthy. Some are born unhealthy. Thus, the conditions at birth are not the same. The only logical conclusion that we can arrive at is that the Jiva’s birth conditions depend on the decisions that it made in its past lives. Every situation in your life is affected not only by the decisions that you made in this life. It also depends on the decisions that you made in your past lives. What you ate last month is a part of your body now, even if you do not remember what you ate. Similarly, the results of your past decisions affect you, even if you do not remember them now. Similarly, people make decisions till the last moment of their lives. They must face the consequences in a future life. This is the only logical possibility. Thus, if you do not see the effect of your decisions in this life, it will manifest in a future life. You cannot escape the results of your decisions even by death.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

dehinah asmin yathaa dehe kaumaaram yauvanam jaraa
tathaa dehaantara praaptih dheerah tatra na muhyati (2.13)

“Just as how a person goes through childhood, youth and old age, the person gets another body after the end of the current body. Wise men are not worried about this.”

jaatasaya hi dhruvo mrtyuh druvam janma mrtasya ca (2.27)

“Death surely follows birth and birth surely follows death.”

vaasaamsi jiirnaani yathaa vihaaya
navaani grhnaati narah aparaani
tathaa sariiraani vihaaya jiirnaani
anyaani samyaati navaani dehi (2.22)

“Just as a person discards old clothes and wears new ones, the Jiva casts out one body and takes on a new one.”

mama eva amso jiivaloke jiiva bhuta sanaatanah
manahshashthaani indriyaani prakriti sthaani karshati (15.7)

shariiram yat avaapnoti yat ca api utkraamati ishvarah
grhiitvaa etaani samyaati vaayu gandha anivaasayaat (15.8)

“The Jiva, which is a part of Myself, is eternal. It has collected the mind and the faculty of senses around it from Nature. This collective resides in a body that is acquired from Nature. When the time of death arrives, the Jiva takes these (mind and faculties) and moved to another body, like how wind carries the fragrance of flowers.”

The development of the Jiva continues across life times. The wisdom and habits developed in one life continues in the next. No good deed done, or a good habit developed is lost by death. Sri Krishna says this very clearly in the Gita (6.40-44). A Jiva who did virtuous deeds will be born to pious and prosperous parents. It will be born with spiritual insight from its previous birth and will continue to gain wisdom from where it left.

Thus, you are the Jiva, which holds the faculty of freewill. The body and mind are your instruments. You are responsible for your decisions. You go from life to life carrying the results of all your decisions. Everything that happens in your life is because of your decisions in this or a past life. You must face the results of your decisions in this or a future life. Thus, by making the right decisions, you can achieve whatever you want in this life or the next. Your destiny is fully in your hands. If you are facing something that you do not prefer, it is fully because of your own decisions in the past and it is fully in your own hands to change your future.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

uddharet aatman aatmaanam na aatmaanam avasaadayet
aatma eva hi aatmanah bandhuh aatma eva ripuh aatmanah (6.5)

“Raise up your mind by your actions. Don’t lower down the quality of your mind. A mind under your control is your friend. A mind not under your control is your enemy.”

Swami Vivekananda says, “We are responsible for what we are, and whatever we wish ourselves to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are now has been the result of our own past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.” (CW I-31) “Men in general lay all the blame of life on their fellowmen, or, failing that, on God, or they conjure up a ghost, and say it is fate. Where is fate, and who is fate? We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. None else has the blame, none has the praise. The wind is blowing; and those vessels whose sails are unfurled catch it, and go forward on their way, but those which have their sails furled do not catch the wind. Is the fault of the wind?” (CW II-224) “Say, ‘This misery that I am suffering is of my own doing, and that very thing proves that it will have to be undone by me alone.’ That which I created, I can demolish; that which is created by someone else, I shall never be able to destroy. Therefore, stand up, be bold, be strong. Take the whole responsibility on your own shoulders, and know that you are the creator of your own destiny. All the strength and succor you want is within yourselves.” (CW II-225)

If you accept freewill, you must accept the Law of Karma and its corollaries like rebirth. If you don’t accept freewill, there is no basis for most of the systems in a human society. Thus, Vedanta gives a very logical workable system. Any alternative will either be illogical or will not be workable. Vedanta’s system answers almost all the questions that a person might have about life.


The sum total of all existence is called God (Isvara). Isvara is that Being to whom the whole physical Universe is a part of His physical body, all the minds of all the beings put together is a part of His mind, all the karma phala of all the Jivaatmaas put together is a part of His karma phala. He has Absolute knowledge, Absolute power and identifies Himself with all beings. There is nothing apart from Him. He is formless, not limited by space or time and not limited by any individuality. He includes everything that exists, but He is not limited by anything. He knows all the past and all the present. He knows the innermost thoughts of every being in the past and present. He has absolute control over all physical nature. However, He does not interfere in the way each individual Jiva exercises his freewill. Jiva has that freedom, which even Isvara does not interfere with.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

mattah parataram na anyat kincid asti dhananjaya
mayi sarvam idam proktam sootre mani ganaa iva (7.7)

“There is nothing apart or beyond Me. Everything here is connected to Me, like beads strung on a thread.”

aham aatma gudaakesa sarva bhuta aashaya sthitah
aham aadis ca madhyam ca bhutaanaam anta eva ca (10.20)

“I am the Consciousness residing in the heart of every living being. I am the beginning, middle and end of the living beings.”

Swami Vivekananda says, “After so much austerity, I have understood this as the real truth — God is present in every Jiva; there is no other God besides that. ‘Who serves Jiva, serves God indeed’.” (CW VII-247)

Isvara is the “whole” in every “individual” context of the Jiva. If the Jiva considers himself as the doer of actions, Isvara oversees the disposal of the results of the action. If the Jiva considers himself as an earthling, Isvara assumes the form of Mother Earth. If the Jiva goes to take bath in river Ganga, Isvara assumes the form of the Goddess Ganga. If the Jiva starts an endeavour, Isvara assumes the form of Ganesha, the Lord of obstacles and passage. If the Jiva seeks knowledge, Isvara assumes the form of Sarasvati, the Goddess of Knowledge. If the Jiva identifies himself as an Indian, Isvara assumes the form of Bhaarat Maata, Mother India. If the Jiva considers himself as a worshipper of Vishnu, Isvara assumes the form of Vishnu. If the Jiva considers himself as a worshipper of Shiva, Isvara assumes the form of Shiva. If the Jiva considers himself as a worshipper of Hanumaan, Isvara assumes the form of Hanumaan. There is only one Isvara who is omniscient, omnipotent and compassionate. So, anytime anyone worships anything considering the object of worship as omniscient, omnipotent and compassionate, he is worshipping the same Isvara through that action. This includes worship of nature, natural forces, ancestors, divine beings, saints, words, sounds, abstract diagrams, etc. All the names and forms, and also the nameless and formless are ways to worship the same Isvara.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

ye yathaa maam prapadyante taan tathaa eva bhajaamyi aham
mama vartma anuvartante manushyaah paratha sarvasah (4.11)

“Howsoever people seek the Infinite, I respond to them. People seek Me only through all those different ways.”

yo yo yaam yaam tanum bhaktah shraddhaya arcitum icchati
tasya tasya achalaam shraddhaam taam eva vidadhaami aham (7.21)

“In whichever form, through whichever ritual a devotee worships with faith and sincerity, I respond through that same form to strengthen the faith of that devotee.”

tapaami aham aham varsham nigruhnaami utshrujaami ca
amrutam ca eva mrutyus ca sat asat ca aham arjuna (9.19)

“I am the dispenser of the fruits of all actions – mundane (like heat or rain) and spiritual (mortality and immortality). I am the manifest Universe (which is an object of all perception) and also the unmanifest Consciousness (which is the subject of all perception).”

Isvara creates, sustains and recycles the whole Universe to match the karma phala of the Jivas. Isvara is not a person. He is a principle. Jiva is also not a person. He is also a principle. Isvara, Jiva and Dharma (law of Karma) are eternal. They are all principles. They are non-physical, formless and free from any idea of gender or species. You must drop your temporary role as a human being and identify yourself as Jiva, the spiritual principle governed by Dharma and having an eternal relationship with Isvara.

As Jivas go through the cycles of birth and death, they accumulate more karma phala than that can fructify in any birth. So, the time lapse between the action and the result becomes large. This makes people lose their faith in the law of Karma. This results in dominance of evil over good. To bring back balance and faith, Isvara manifests in the world as an individual while retaining the full knowledge His true nature. Such a manifestation is called Incarnation (avataara). There is no limit to the number of avataaras. Different avataaras manifest the power of Isvara to different extents based on the necessity. Some of the avataaras are popular for worship.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

yada yada hi dharmasya glaanih bhavati bhaarata
abhyutthaanam adharmasya tadaa atmaanam srjaami aham
paritraanaaya saadhunaam vinaashaaya ca dushkrtaam
dharma samsthaapana arthaaya sambhavaami yuge yuge (4.7-8)

“Whenever there is a decline in Dharma and dominance of Adharma, I manifest Myself in the world. In every eon, I manifest Myself to protect the good, to destroy the evil and to establish the faith in goodness.”

Thus, there is nothing other than God. God has manifested as the world outside us, including all the living beings. God is the pure Consciousness, which reflects in the kaarana sharira to give you your individuality.

Jiva Isvara Aikyam

Both Jiva and Isvara are conscious. Advaita Vedanta goes one more step further to show that at the Absolute level there is only one Infinite Consciousness.  The same Consciousness that reflects both in the Jiva and Isvara at the relative level.

The ultimate goal of life is not pleasure or possessions. The ultimate goal of life is wisdom. All pleasure is momentary. All possessions gained in life are left back at death. Only wisdom gained is carried forth. Isvara creates the situations in the life of the Jiva (in the form of dualities like pain and pleasure) according to his karma phala, to enable the Jiva to gain the wisdom that everything is Isvara only. Such a wise person sees the hand of Isvara in every situation in life. He sees Isvara in everything that he sees. Everything that he does becomes an offering (arpana) to Isvara. He accepts everything that happens as gift (prasaada) from Isvara. When the Jiva gains this wisdom, he is not carried away by the dualities of life like pain and pleasure, loss and gain, failure and success, infamy and fame, etc. In every situation, he does what is appropriate without any attachment to the results. Firmer the conviction of this wisdom, freer is the Jiva from the psychological problems of lust, greed, anger, jealousy, arrogance and delusion. This freedom and its effects of equanimity and peace of mind are built up life after life.

Swami Vivekananda says, “Sense-happiness is not the goal of humanity. Wisdom (Jnâna) is the goal of all life. We find that man enjoys his intellect more than an animal enjoys its senses; and we see that man enjoys his spiritual nature even more than his rational nature. So, the highest wisdom must be this spiritual knowledge. With this knowledge will come bliss. All these things of this world are but the shadows, the manifestations in the third or fourth degree of the real Knowledge and Bliss.” (CW III-4)

When this peace is gained to a certain degree, the Jiva can move to the Absolute point of view. The Jiva can look deeper within and realize that the innermost core of his own being is not different from that of Isvara. This is beautifully and poetically expressed in the Mundaka Upanishad in the allegory of the two golden birds. The translation of the mantras is given in Swami Vivekananda’s words.

dvaa suparnaa sayujaa sakhaayaa samaanam vriksham parishasvajaate |
tayoranyah pippalam svaadvattyanashnannanyo abhichaakasheeti ||
samaane vrikshe purusho nimagno.anishayaa shochati muhyamaanah |
jushtam yadaa pashyatyanyameeshamasya mahimaanamiti veetashokah ||
yadaa pashyah pashyate rukmavarnam kartaarameesham purusham brahmayonim |
tadaa vidvaanah punyapaape vidhooya niranjanah paramam saamyam upaiti ||

“The whole of the Vedanta Philosophy is in this story: Two birds of golden plumage sat on the same tree. The one above, serene, majestic, immersed in his own glory; the one below restless and eating the fruits of the tree, now sweet, now bitter. Once he ate an exceptionally bitter fruit, then he paused and looked up at the majestic bird above; but he soon forgot about the other bird and went on eating the fruits of the tree as before. Again, he ate a bitter fruit, and this time he hopped up a few boughs nearer to the bird at the top. This happened many times until at last the lower bird came to the place of the upper bird and lost himself. He found all at once that there had never been two birds, but that he was all the time that upper bird, serene, majestic, and immersed in his own glory.” (CW VII-80)

The lower bird is the Jiva, the wielder of the freewill. The upper bird is the Atman (identical to Brahman), of the nature of pure Consciousness. The first step is to drop our identity with the body and mind, and start identifying ourselves as the Jiva, that goes through the karmic cycle of birth and death. The second step is to drop that individuality also, and identify ourselves as the pure Consciousness.

We should start with the first step. If we take care of the first step, Isvara will take care of the second step for us.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita,

ye tu sarvaani karmaani mayi sannyasya mat paraah
ananyena eva yogena maam dhyaayanta upaasate
tesham aham samuddhartha mrtyu samsaara saagaraat
bhavaami na chiraat paaratha mayi aaveshita cetasaam (12.5-6)

“Whoever, having Me as the Goal, offers all actions to Me, meditates on Me with concentration, I will save the person from the whirlpool of karmic cycle (samsaara).”

Knowing oneself as the pure Universal Consciousness, instead of an individual is Moksha. This knowledge will be given to you by Isvara through a Guru when you are ready for it. The way to make yourself ready for it is to offer all actions to Isvara and meditate upon Isvara having Isvara as the goal.

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