When we use the word soul, what do we normally mean? Soul really means the stuff of which a thing is made. When we say this is the soul of an institution, the soul of the home, the soul of life, what we mean is that it is that without which the thing concerned could not have been made. Many people, in many circumstances and many contexts, use this word, soul, loosely and that is why there is a great deal of confusion on this subject.
Apart from this definition that I have given you, we shall deal with some of these confusions. The word soul is sometimes used for something that is abstract, something that is ethereal, something that is intangible, something that is not capable of being seized upon, something that escapes us, something that seems to be lying above us. Now these words also are not entirely inapplicable to the real soul but they do not indicate exactly what the soul is. First of all the soul is not really intangible as many people believe it to be, the soul is not abstract, the soul is not something that cannot be seized, or that which cannot be grasped. To talk in positive terms the soul is concrete. In fact, when the soul is experienced, you feel that even the solidity of a substance such as a table is not as solid as that. When you really experience the soul, its concreteness is so great that the ordinary idea that the soul is abstract is found to be fundamentally incorrect. It is abstract only in the sense that in our ordinary life we take only material substance to be solid and everything else to be abstract, but actually speaking this matter is less concrete than the soul itself. When you really experience it, you feel the solidity and the stuff of it to be so powerful that it will be even much more solid than a heavy pillar of steel. It is true that it is above all that we know at present but it is also in everything that we know. The soul is present in everything – in the body, in our movements, in our thoughts, in our feelings, emotions, impulses, predilections, preferences, attractions, in everything it is present; because actually it is the stuff of which all this is made, so it is bound to be present everywhere.
Now there is another idea of the soul, which is conceived in the terms of a ghost. Very often people speak of the soul as spirit, and people say that when a man dies then the spirit goes on moving about in the house, in the surroundings and sometimes can be seen also by some people and they call it a ghost. In fact there is a great play of Shakespeare called Hamlet. The very first scene of Hamlet starts with a ghost. The story is that Hamlet was studying in a big university. He was a very bright and brilliant student and suddenly he is called back home because his father is dead. Everything is gloomy when he returns to Denmark, he is the prince of Denmark – and the entire play begins with the castle where Hamlet is waiting for his friend's arrival. There is a hush and the first one to arrive that night is Horatio, his friend. They discuss what Hamlet claims to have seen previously, namely the ghost of his father. They dispute the existence of the ghost and while the disputation goes on, suddenly the ghost appears before Hamlet and he cries, 'Look, look, he beckons me.' Nobody else can see, only he sees, and Horatio is horrified. Hamlet moves behind the ghost because the ghost is beckoning him. Horatio disappears from the scene. Alone with his father's ghost, Hamlet is told by him that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle in which his own mother conspired. It is a horrible story that he hears from the ghost – the murder of his beloved father, the King, in which the King's brother and the King's wife have conspired, and he is unable to believe it. But the father's ghost says, 'Do you not see that your mother immediately married your uncle after my death?' and gives the proof, as it were, of something that had really happened. Now Hamlet's entire tragedy hangs upon this story revealed by the ghost – a story that he cannot bear to believe. He had great regard for his mother. He himself was a man of great moral standards in which loyalty, faithfulness, and sincerity played the highest role in his life. He could never believe that his own mother could conspire to kill her own husband who was such a great man and that too with his uncle – a man who was not even one hundredth of what his father was, so how could his mother stoop so low? It was impossible for him to believe it. Then his father's ghost tells him, 'Take revenge.' This is the special kind of mission that is given by the ghost to Hamlet. The question before Hamlet now is whether to believe in the ghost or not. Shakespeare has given a very vivid description of the interplay between men – a living man and a dead man and how the dead man through his ghostly appearance influences the life of the whole of Denmark. In fact, ultimately, as the entire play unfolds, we see how the doubt in Hamlet's mind plays havoc with himself, plays havoc with his own beloved Ophelia. Ophelia was the one person in whom he had complete confidence and they were to be married. They were madly in love with each other. Unfortunately the father of Ophelia, Polonius, a very wise man was also the chief adviser of the king, and the constant advice that he was giving to his daughter was, 'Look, he is a prince and you are only a courtier's daughter, there is no comparison. The prince will use you for fun and frolic and you will go nowhere in life if you remain in this affair, so withdraw from it.' She is motherless, so she has nobody to turn to for advice. Here Hamlet, shattered by the ghost's revelation, begins to wonder what a woman can be. Can a woman be like this? And he begins to doubt even Ophelia. If his own mother can be like this, can Ophelia be faithful? And this is the basic question in his life. Unfortunately, exactly at this time Ophelia's father advises her not to respond to Hamlet. So although she wants to respond to him with all her heart, whenever Hamlet approaches her, she withdraws and that shatters him further. Hamlet is a great philosopher himself, a man of great thought; at the same time he does not believe in ghosts. To believe or not to believe, that is his question; that is his basic theme that if this is all that life presents to us, why should we exist in this world? He wants to commit suicide but shrinks from the one act that would end his sufferings and the only thought which prevents him is the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from where no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than to fly to others that we know not of. The ghost appears again before him and says, 'Remember, remember, remember'. Confused and in a fit of anger, one day, he kills Ophelia's father. He holds him responsible for preventing Ophelia from coming to him and also starts believing that he may be a partner in the plot to kill his father. That affects both Ophelia and her brother Laertes who now regards Hamlet to be his enemy because he is the murderer of his father. Unwilling to remain any longer in a state of doubt, he decides that he must do something to find out the truth. He pretends that he has become mad and speaks words, which mean nothing outwardly and yet mean quite a lot. For example, once he meets his uncle and smiles, the uncle smiles back and Hamlet remarks, 'One smiles and smiles and yet he may be wicked.' The king is shaken by these pronouncements because although he speaks like a mad man the message goes home and he wonders what has happened to Hamlet. He cannot banish him because he is the prince. Secondly, even though the queen betrayed her husband she was very much attached to her own son and she loved him very much, therefore he had to suffer him. Because of the conflict in his own mind, ultimately Hamlet invites a friend of his who is the leader of a troop of drama and says, 'I will tell you a story, which I want you to stage. I will invite the king and queen to attend the drama and then we will see their reaction'. And the story was a repetition of the plot in which his younger brother and his own wife conspire against the elderly king, and they put poison into his ears when he is asleep. After they see the play, both the queen and king are affected adversely. It is at that time that Hamlet is convinced that the story of the ghost is not untrue. Then of course, he kills the king, his uncle; the mother faints and dies. And then Ophelia's brother Laertes comes on the scene. Both Hamlet and Laertes kill each other. Left all alone, Ophelia becomes mad and drowns herself.
The whole story is told by Shakespeare to point out that in human life the role that can be played by doubt is horrible; and one that can lead to overall tragedy unless one becomes very clear, particularly about the inner realities of life. Men live basically on the outer surface but there are many inner realities, like the ghost for example. The important message of this whole drama is that there are invisible realities, which do play a role in life. But very often these ghosts are regarded to be the soul of man, which comes out of the body and wanders about but there, is truly speaking a great distinction between the ghost of this kind and the true soul. This is the knowledge that India possesses.