Kheper Home | Brado Home | Topics Index | News and Updated | Search

The Kabbalistic after-life - The three souls

 "The nefesh remains for a while in the grave, brooding over the body; the ru'ah ascends to the terrestrial paradise in accordance with its merits; and the neshamah goes directly back to its native home"
previous next

Kabbalah - Multiple souls and after-life states

If the Egyptian, the Greek, and the Chinese perspectives have anything in common, it is that they all conceive of man as a multiplicity of spiritual principles, which separate after death and each go their own way, rather than as a single "soul" or "spirit".  And this is also the assumption of the Jewish occultists, the Kabbalists, who had a very much more sophisticated understanding than the old Biblical Hebrews of two thousand years earlier with their ideas of breath-soul, sheol, and (later) bodily resurrection.

The Kabbalists postulated at least three distinct principles: the Nefesh - the etymological derivation of which term has already been given - which is sometimes the lower or animal soul and sometimes the personality as a whole (as with the Egyptians, the same term was at different times and by different writers given totally different meanings); the Ruah, an intermediate principle, associated with the conscience, or with the intellect, and the Neshamah, the Divine Spark.  Each of these has its own fate.  As Gershom Scholem, the doyen of Jewish mysticism, explains:

 "The nefesh remains for a while in the grave, brooding over the body; the ru'ah ascends to the terrestrial paradise in accordance with its merits; and the neshamah goes directly back to its native home [the Divine world or Divine Mind, the sefirah Binah].  Punishment and retribution are the lot of the nefesh and ru'ah alone..."
[Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, New American Library, New York, 1974, p.161]

Here of course we have the parallel with the Chinese P'o which sinks into the ground, and the Hun which becomes a Shen or daimonic spirit. We could say that the Kabbalistic Nefesh, as the lower personality principle which has a rather dismal post- mortem fate, is at least partially equivalent to the Chinese P'o, while the Ruah, as the more elevated spirit, can be equated with the Hun or Shen.

Again, this Kabbalistic conception of several souls, each of which has its own specific fate after death, likewise finds connection with the Egyptian understanding.  The Nefesh which " the grave, brooding over the body" can be compared with the Ka which remains in the tomb; and the Ruah ascending to the "terrestrial paradise" finds similarity with the Ba which likewise ascends to the paradisical regions, but is not yet totally free of the trials of this world.

The Kabbalistic anthropology can also be favourably compared with ancient Persian thought, as represented by the Zoroastrian religion and its offshoots. There, the distinction is likewise between the higher principles: the Fravashi or Fravarti (heavenly archetype) and the Daena ("religion" or conscience), which are Divine in nature and suprapersonal; and the personality principles, the urvan, baodah, and ahu.  Of these latter

 "...the urvan...correspond(s) to our English word "soul". It is a moral power, by which man exercises his free choice between good and evil; it shares with the following element (the baodah) his responsibility, and so must undergo judgment and consequent reward or punishment after death.  The baodah appears to indicate "consciousness", or perhaps "intelligence" ....(T)he ahu...(is the) life or vital force...which...comes into being with the body and perishes with it..."
[L.  C.  Casartelli, "Philosophy (Iranian)", in Encyclopeadia of Religion and Ethics, ed by James Hastings; T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1908, 2nd Impression 1925, pp.866-7]

So we have the distinction between "Higher Self", soul, and vital force. The schema is made confusing by the presence of two higher principles and two more or less identical souls, although the problem may lie with the fact that we are dealing with mere fragments of a once more complete psycho-spiritual theory of human nature.

internal link  Multiple after-life states - a preliminary summing up

The "Lower", "Middle", and "Higher" Self

The three-fold Kabbalistic soul-conception is much tidier and more workable than the confusing Egyptian array of soul and spirit-principles.  We have three distinct levels of soul, which make up an obvious sequence; although the precise nature of these prin-ciples varies according to the particular school of thought or teaching.

In the earlier Zoharic speculation (13th Century) the sequence was one of increasing levels of consciousness (or stages of spiritualisation and transcendence): personality/physical consciousness (nefesh), spiritual/moral consciousness (ruah), and Divine consciousness (neshamah).

In the later (16th century) Lurianic movement (and also to some extent in the Zohar as well), we have a different sequence: first what could be called the lower self or "animal soul" (nefesh behemis), then the middle self or intellect (ruah), and finally the higher or divine self (neshamah).  Two even higher princiiples are added,

Both schemes are extremely useful; but the first mentioned is spiritual-mystical, like the comparable maps of stages of the development of consciousness in Tantra, Sufism, and Christian Mysticism, whereas the latter is more psychological, like the Freudian distinction of Id and Ego It has even been suggested that Freud got some of his ideas from Kabbalah, although I would see any similarity as coming from  the "Kabbalistic" psychology being already ingrained in the popular Jewish mind, and thus be uncon-sciously transcribed, rather than direct and conscious borrowing.

A fascinating parallel to Kabbalistic psychology is to be found in the Kahuna or Hawaiian occultism, with its claim that every person possesses three souls: a "spirit that remembers" (unihilipi = nefesh or subconscious), a "ghost that talks" (uhane = ruah or ego), and an "utterly trustworthy parental spirit" (Aumakua = neshamah or superconscious), which is a sort of guardian daimon.  These three souls were then popularised as "lower self", "middle self" and "higher self" by the first Westerner to sympathetically appraise the Kahuna system, Max Freedom Long.  Long's books have been extremely influential, and his terms entered the popular "Alternative" consciousness. In the last two decades or so a popularised Kahuna (or "Huna", as it is referred to for short) has apparently become quite popular in the Californian human potential/"New Age" movement, but this, although using similar terminology and even a few similar techniques, would be closer to popular "New Age" fads like Rebirthing, Loving Relationships, Affirmations, and Creative Visualisation, than to serious Hawaiian shamanism.  (This is not to criticise the above-mentioned "New Age" practices, but simply to put things in perspective).

In any case, the terms "Lower Self", "Middle Self", and "Higher Self" are useful ones, which certainly do not haver to be limited to a strictly Huna context.

Kabbalah main page

previous next

Kheper index page
Topics index page
Bardo main page

Creative Commons License
Unless otherwise attributed or quoted, all text material on this page is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license version 1.0 and version 2.0.
This license does not cover images or quoted material

contact me

content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 28 November 1999, last modified 19 September 2005