The human condition in world religions
by Ernest Valea
The human condition in the Vedas
The unity atman-Brahman in the Upanishads and Vedanta
The human condition in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas
The human condition in Hindu Tantrism and Hatha Yoga
The human condition in theistic Hinduism
The human condition in Buddhism
The human condition in Confucianism and Taoism
Humans have always been attracted by life's mystery: its origin, meaning, and finality. The author of Shvetashvatara Upanishad asks: "Whence are we born? Whereby do we live, and whither do we go?" (1,1). Consequently, not only Hinduism, but all religions need to give an answer to the fundamental questions concerning creation, life, and death.
What is the human being? According to pantheist religions, a small part of the Ultimate Reality locked up by the illusion of physical experience. According to Theravada Buddhism, nothing but an illusion, a temporary combination of five aggregates, none of which is ultimately real. Dualistic religions, like Gnosticism and Manicheism, state that humans are spiritual beings originated in another world, a kind of angels fallen into a miserable bodily condition. According to monotheistic religions, the human being is a person created in the image and likeness of God.
What is humanity's present condition? Have we fallen from the created status as a result of sin, defined as a moral barrier against our creator? Or are we rather a product of the periodical manifestation of the Ultimate Reality, and thus ignoring our true spiritual nature? Do we have a soul that predated our birth or not? Is our personal character illusory, or do we keep it for a further existence? Is our destiny limited to this present existence, or do we inherit an eternal one, and if eternal, is it personal or impersonal, conformed with the character of the creator or absorbed into the impersonal nature out of which all things emanated? These are some of the aspects that define the human condition in the world’s religions. Closely related to how human nature is defined are the values we pursue in life and the kind of relationship we have with our neighbors.
In the previous article, we have seen that the world religions do not agree on what they hold as Ultimate Reality. Could it then still be possible that humans share the same condition? Following the pattern used in the previous article, we will analyze the way human nature is defined in relationship to Ultimate Reality, its origin and present condition. Beginning with Hinduism, we will continue with the other Eastern religions and finish with the perspective of monotheistic religions, especially Christianity.
The human condition in Hinduism
The human condition in the Vedas
According to the Vedic cosmogony of the golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), both gods and men have their origin in an impersonal primordial entity (Rig Veda 10,129). The Brahmana texts add the appearance of a creator (Prajapati) from the golden egg (Shatapatha Br. 11,1,6), who created the world and humans out of his own body, by the power of his ardor (tapas). The Purushasukta hymn (Rig Veda 10,90) states that the product of the golden egg is the giant Purusha, and through his sacrifice by the gods the physical world was built, the four-caste system, the animals and the duality of sexes.
Although the Vedic hymns do not clearly state what role the most worshiped gods played in the creation of humans, they are responsible to the gods for how they live their lives. The prayers people address to Varuna, Indra, Agni or other gods denote a sinful human nature. Humans constantly ask for forgiveness for the sins they do, which are either errors in performing the right religious ritual, or faults against one’s neighbor:
Have wronged a brother, a dear friend, or a comrade,
The neighbor of long standing or a stranger,
Remove from us this stain, O King Varuna. (Rig Veda 5,85,7)
To the fire god Agni, who burns away sins through the fire ritual, people ask for forgiveness, but also for material welfare:
our sin, and shine wealth on us.
Shining bright, drive away our sin.
For good fields, for good homes, for wealth,
we made our offerings to you.
Shining bright, drive away our sin. (Rig Veda 1,97,1-2)
According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, humans are personal beings dependent on the gods, and their destiny is eternal life in a celestial world. Here is how the worshipers of Indra express their longing for personal immortality:
where the son of Vivasvat (Yama) reigns,
Where lies heaven’s secret shrine, where
are those waters that are ever young.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu!
Make me immortal in that realm
where movement is accordant to wish,
In the third region, the third heaven of heavens,
where the worlds are resplendent.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu! (Rig Veda 9,113,8-9)
Yama, the god of death (mentioned in old Buddhist and Taoist scriptures too), is sovereign over the souls of the dead and also the one who receives the offerings of the family for the benefit of the departed. Divine justice was assured by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their functions was to cast the wicked into an eternal dark prison from which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3; 17). It is important to keep in mind that the Vedas do not consider the human being as a part of an impersonal Absolute with which it would fuse after death.
According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical body, asu and manas. Asu is the vital principle (different from personal attributes), and manas is the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The belief in the preservation of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the family addressed the departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person:
As was the case in ancient Chinese religion too, the departed relatives constituted a holy hierarchy. The last one deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence for good or bad the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6). Beginning only with the Brahmana writings (after the 9th century BC), which are the first to mention a primitive idea of karma and reincarnation, did the tendency appear to abandon the idea of preservation of personhood after death. However, this was not the spirit of early Hinduism.
The unity atman-Brahman in the Upanishads and Vedanta
The Upanishads state that the world finds its ultimate unity in Brahman, the impersonal matrix equivalent to the One of the Rig Veda (10,129). In their search for a fundamental entity of human nature, something that should be the unifying principle of all psycho-mental faculties, but above their temporal fluctuations, the Hindu rishis defined the concept of atman. In the Chandogya Upanishad (5,1,1) it is stated that breath (prana) is the "oldest and the best" principle that assures the functioning of all other psycho-mental capacities (sight, speech, hearing, thought). That is why from the notion of breath (Sanskrit "an" = "breathing") derived the notion atman (reflexive pronoun), which came to designate the self, man’s spiritual being. Therefore atman is not the seat of personhood, or man’s soul, as it is sometimes mistakenly translated, but a spiritual entity distinct from personhood and from the physical body.
Unlike all other manifestations of Brahman, atman is of the same ontological quality with Brahman; it does not fluctuate, it is expressionless, irreducible, eternal and pure:
Given his condition as a product of Brahman’s manifestation, a human being's purpose in life is to join the returning process of all manifestations to the initial state of non-manifestation. This is possible only through dissociating the self (atman) from the corporeal and psycho-mental experience, and realizing the identity between his self and Brahman. However, there is an important aspect to emphasize here: Man’s return to Brahman is a concept that could raise confusion. In fact, Brahman is already present in humanity, both at a transcendent and an immanent level, that is, both as the absolute atman and the relative (gross) manifestations (body and psycho-mental faculties). Discerning between the two conditions is possible by gaining a deep mystical knowledge of atman: "The self is to be meditated upon for in it all these become one. This self is the foot-trace of all this, for by it one knows all this, just as one can find again by footprints (what was lost)" (Brihadaranyaka Up. 1,4,7). "Meditating on the self" means getting the knowledge of his essential identity with Brahman, and this knowledge is equivalent with attaining effectively the atman-Brahman identity, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states:
However, there exists the obstacle of illusion (maya) against getting this intuitive knowledge. Maya deceives humans about the true nature of existence, channeling ones wishes toward the phenomenal world that is ever changing. At the same time, maya strengthens the confusion of atman with the psycho-mental activity and the physical body. As a result of illusion, humans grant true spiritual value to what is unstable and changing instead of knowing their eternal immutable self. This ignorance (avidya) is the cause of atman’s captivity in the world of material experience:
As a result of ignorance, a process develops in the spiritual world similar to the law of action and reaction that works in the physical world. This is karma, the law of action and retribution according to one’s deeds. Its origin is found in the exegesis of the benefits of sacrifice. It was thought that the same way sacrifices bring good results to the one who performs them, all his other acts also need a reward. This mechanism prevents humans from entering the celestial world after death or limits their stay there, forcing them to come back in this life and reap the fruits of their deeds. (For more information on the subject of reincarnation, see our special article on this topic.) As a result of karma, any action has an effect on its performer. The practical way one reaps the fruits of his or her deeds is reincarnation (samsara). It teaches that we live further lives as humans or, according to how badly we acted and how gross our ignorance was in detaching from the material world, as animals or plants.
The first clear mention of samsara is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3,2,13), where it is mentioned that "one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action". It is also stated that the reincarnation cycle is started by desire: "As is man’s desire so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever he does, that he attains" (4,4,5). The "desire" is that of experiencing the physical world, and consequently illusion, and "that he attains" is the fruit reaped in a further life, as a result of karma’s retribution. Karma is the direct link between desire and reincarnation, which builds an inter-conditioning mechanism between the previous, the present and the next lives. As a result of karma’s retribution, any thought, word or deed of this life will find its reward in the next life, at the same level. In the Katha Upanishad (2,2,7) it is stated: "Some souls enter into a womb for embodiment; others enter stationary objects according to their deeds and according to their thoughts."
An important aspect to emphasize here is the fact that reincarnation should not be understood only as solution for punishing bad deeds. Reincarnation functions independently of how good or bad actions are. It follows only the necessity imposed by karma, an impersonal and amoral law. Between atman and moral values there is no possible connection: "He (atman) does not become greater by good works nor smaller by evil works. (. . .) What he has done or what he has not done does not burn him" (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,4,22). Good deeds only provide a short reward in heaven, but then the soul has to return to earth and continue its struggle. In the Mundaka Upanishad (1,2,10) it is stated:
The Upanishads mark a transition from the point where the human condition is determined by divine personal agents (the Vedic gods), to the situation of being totally controlled by the impersonal law of karma. As anticipated, from the polytheistic perspective of the Vedas, of a universe governed by a sovereign god (Varuna) through a law that was subordinated to him (rita), we arrived at the pantheistic view of the Upanishads, where the impersonal law of karma is ruling the world. In this situation humans are alone facing their destiny, having the duty to escape by their own efforts from the vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara, an objective that will be foundational to most Hindu religious systems.
The human condition in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas
As we have seen in the previous article, these two darshanas are dualistic, accepting the real status of primordial substance (prakriti) beside purusha (the equivalent of atman). None is the manifestation of the other. Purusha and prakriti have different natures and do not aim to reconstruct a unique essence, as was the case in pantheism.
Purusha, the self, is the spiritual entity that defines human existence. It is the eternal substrata of the individual being, devoid of any attributes and relations, without beginning or end, indifferent, autonomous, immutable and perfect, above senses, intellect, time and space. All these categories belong to <8>prakriti. Purusha can have relations only with itself. It can know only itself and contemplate itself. On the other hand, prakriti, the primordial substance, is capable of manifestation and produces all the physical and mental aspects of the world.
Not only the physical world is a product of prakriti’s manifestation, through the loss of balance of the three gunas, but also the world of psycho-mental phenomena. Sattva produces virtue, wisdom and goodness; rajas produces passion, contradiction, agitation and wickedness; and tamas is responsible for generating ignorance, confusion, indifference and depression. The psychological human states are combinations of effects produced by the three gunas. For instance, when the sattva dominates, the soul is calm and tranquil; when rajas dominates there is passion and nervousness; and with tamas in control humans are inert, lazy, and ignorant.
Although there is not much known about how the initial balance between the three gunas was disturbed and how purusha got involved with the manifestations of prakriti, this situation is the source of all problems, the cause of purusha's captivity in the illusion of psycho-mental activity. The confusion of the two opposite realities, the eternal purusha and the psycho-mental activities, is maya, illusion. Persistence in this state is a result of ignorance (Yoga Sutra 2,24) and starts the process of karma and reincarnation. Purusha will reincarnate as many times as needed, according to the deeds performed by the individual in ignorance of his true identity. All actions demand a fulfillment, or consummation, in the present or further lives. Samsara works the same way as in pantheism, until true knowledge about the nature of purusha is attained.
The human condition in Hindu Tantrism and Hatha Yoga
The world and mankind appeared through the dissociation of the primordial unity of Shiva and Shakti. In the Shiva Samhita (1,92), a text that is common to both religious schools, is stated:
The self (atman) is considered to be Shakti, who lives in the human body as a spiritual energy called kundalini. Following the pattern of other pantheist schools, the goal to be pursued is the return of self (Shakti, corresponding to atman) in the Ultimate Reality represented by Shiva (the equivalent of Brahman). Illusion (maya), ignorance (avidya), karma and reincarnation are described in a similar way to other Hindu schools. Personhood and empirical knowledge are two main categories that produce false attachments and have to be surpassed.
The human condition in theistic Hinduism
Out of the many forms of theistic Hinduism that exist today, we will analyze briefly only some aspects of Vaishnavism as it was stated by the great theistic Hindu thinkers Ramanuja and Madhva. (There is also available a special article aimed at analyzing the theism of the well-known poem Bhagavad Gita). The works of Ramanuja and Madhva represent an extraordinary contribution to Hindu spirituality, by the special way they understood the relationship between humanity and divinity and the significance of salvation. According to them, humans have a different nature from Vishnu, the personal god who is accepted as Ultimate Reality, and there is no impersonal atman-Brahman fusion that has to be attained.
According to Ramanuja, Vishnu’s relationship to the world is similar to that existing between soul and body. As the body cannot exist separately from the soul, the existence of the universe and of individual beings depends totally on Vishnu. He conducts the souls; they cannot exist without him, but have also energies and activities of their own. The individuality of each soul (jiva) is not an illusion that has to be discarded through knowledge, but a metaphysical fact. Although they depend entirely on Vishnu, individual souls are real, unique, eternal, and possess intelligence and conscience. The main cause of their present state is ignorance, defined as the illusory idea of independence from Vishnu, and manifested as the desire for seeking material goods. The souls enter into connection with material bodies according to the karma they acquired in previous forms of existence. Karma is an instrument used by Vishnu to punish evil but also to remind humans of their true status and what they should actually seek in life. But the question of how souls first came under the power of karma is unanswered, because the cosmic process has no beginning.
For Madhva too, matter and mankind depend totally on Vishnu. The ontological differences between him, humans and matter are fundamental and eternal. However, the fact that Vishnu, souls and karma are all eternal and beginningless, poses difficulties in understanding the relationship between them. On the one hand, if Vishnu didn't create souls, he cannot have any role in sustaining them, and they have no reason to be responsible to him. If one's soul is beginningless, it means it isn't created, which further means it isn't responsible to a deity. A soul can only be responsible to the deity who created it, as it is in the monotheistic religions. On the other hand, it is difficult to reconcile the supremacy of Vishnu with the self-sufficient law of karma. The three phases in the existence of a soul are: 1) the dormant state; 2) the state of enduring transmigration; 3) the liberated state. Vishnu is the one who introduces the soul into the stream of transmigration so that it might discover its spiritual nature. It is stated that in the incarnated state, the physical and subtle bodies produce the illusion of independence toward Vishnu and also attachment to the physical world, perpetuating in this way the chain of samsara. As a result of their accumulated karma, Vishnu chooses to have each soul undergo the fruits of his past labors. But on what authority? Why should he be the controlling force, giving each soul what it deserves? Karma is a law that can work by itself, as it does in Samkhya (which also states that souls are beginningless), so it doesn't require a god. The soul (purusha) in Samkhya is eternal and doesn't depend upon any god for its existence, transmigration and liberation. Karma operates without the need or intervention of any god. Why should the situation be different in Dvaita, as long as the souls are not created? Simply adding the fact that karma is under the sovereignty of Vishnu is an artificial theory.
The human condition in Buddhism
Following the ascetic tradition of his time, the Buddha described the human condition in very harsh terms:
The all-pervading reality of suffering as motivation for seeking liberation is not a new element in Hindu spirituality. The Upanishads have already exploited this topic. But the Buddha went further than the ideologies of his time, excluding from his metaphysics even the fundamental concepts of Upanishadic philosophy: atman and Brahman. He denied there is a self as an unchanging entity that would define our nature, that would reincarnate and eventually attain liberation. This is called the no-self (anatta) doctrine. What we call a "person" is in fact the product of five factors that depend upon each other and are themselves in a constant process of becoming. These five factors, called aggregates (skandha), are the following:
1. The body, also called the material form (rupa);
2. Feeling (vedana), the sensations that arise from the body’s sense organs.
3. Cognition (sanna), the process of classifying and labeling sensory and mental objects, which enables us to recognize them.
4. Mental constructions (sankhara), the states which initiate action and give shape to our character (most characteristic being the will).
5. Consciousness (vijnana), the sense of awareness of a sensory or mental object, the aggregate that generates the illusion of a self.
This heap of aggregates generates the illusion of personal existence, the false notions of person (puggala), vital principle (jiva) and self (atman). Therefore, the human being is a cluster of ever changing physical and mental processes, a mere heap of the five aggregates, which has no underlying self. All five of them are subject to becoming, as they depend one upon the other as in a castle of domino tiles, and therefore are marked by suffering. Therefore we do not merely suffer in life, but life itself is suffering.
The rejection of a self has most of all a practical significance. All discussions and philosophical debates on the existence and definition of atman have as the only result persistence in suffering, and are hindrances in attaining liberation. The Buddha argued that the answers we would like to know about the character of the universe, the existence of a soul or a transcendent Ultimate Reality, start debates that lead us astray from our real problem, which is escaping from suffering (Majjhima Nikaya sutra 63). He discouraged speculative thinking on these issues in order to concentrate all efforts in reaching nirvana, a state where they all lose importance, not because the answers are found, but because in nirvana there is no one left to get them.
Some immediate problems raised against Buddhism came from the way it described human nature as having no abiding principle or self. If there is no self, who is actually suffering the pain of which the Buddha was speaking so much? Who is liberated? If there is no self, what is reincarnated from one existence to another? The Buddha answered that only karma is passing from one life to another, using the illustration of the light of a candle, which is derived from other candle without having a substance of its own. In the same manner, there is rebirth without the transfer of a self from one body to another. The only link from one life to the next one has a causal nature. (For a further analysis of Theravada Buddhism, see our special article on this topic.)
The human condition in Confucianism and Taoism
Confucius did not establish a new religion or a new philosophical system. All his efforts were channeled into finding an ethical system that could improve the Chinese society of his time (6th century BC). His main concern was social life and the principles that should govern it for the welfare of society, family, and personal life. Although Confucius respected the existent Chinese religious traditions, he gave them a mere ethical interpretation.
Human perfection, according to him, cannot be attained by religious rituals or meditations, but only by proper education and by respecting moral values. Therefore, religious traditions have value only as means of moral living. The most important ethical principles emphasized by Confucius were reciprocity (shu) ("what you do not want others do to you, don’t do to them"), doing good for the benefit of others (jen) and loving and respecting ones own parents.
Following the moral principles means implicitly to conform oneself to the will of Heaven, but metaphysical speculations on life after death are futile (Analects 7,20). The same is true with regard to worshiping gods or spirits. Confucius denied their importance saying: "If you cannot serve people, how could you serve the spirits?" (Analects 11,11). In conclusion, early Confucianism had no religious beliefs; it pursued only the perfection of human character by fulfilling one’s social and familial duties, according to what is true and morally right.
Unlike Confucianism, which focuses on human moral duties, Taoism states that humans have to align their life to the pulse of nature. All instincts, feelings and imagination have to be allowed to manifest freely, imitating nature. The Confucianist morality is criticized because it is considered to be an illusory and dangerous way of departing from the essence of Tao:
Duty and justice appear;
Then knowledge and wisdom are born
Along with hypocrisy.
When harmonious relationships dissolve
Then respect and devotion arise;
When a nation falls to chaos
Then loyalty and patriotism are born. [...]
If we could abolish duty and justice
Then harmonious relationships would form; (Tao-te Ching 18-19)
Human nature is a reflection of the universe. It is a small universe permeated by the Tao, with which it has to be in resonance (gan ying). Like the universe itself, humans have an ascending life and a descending one, which ends in death. The ascending life is the intrauterine one, which leads one to birth, the climax of his or her existence. For this reason it is said in the Tao-te Ching that the one "who is filled with harmony is like a newborn" (55). Physical life, unlike the intrauterine one, is chaotic because humans do not know how to keep up their vital force. They die as a result of this ignorance, before yin and yang can naturally separate and their being return into the Tao. Progression and regression are constant developments in the universe and also in the human body. Because of their ignorance, humans cannot understand this dynamic and subscribe to it. The natural result is reincarnation, repeating physical existence until liberation is attained. However, reincarnation is a topic developed only later in Taoism, probably two centuries after Lao Tse.
The creation of humanity in Judaism and Christianity
According to the Bible, God creates the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and not out of his own substance (ex Deo). This "nothing" has no ontological statute, it is not a primordial substance, because prior to creation, nothing existed except God. Creation ex nihilo is not an artifice of Judeo-Christian philosophy, but the only possibility compatible with the existence of a personal God as Ultimate Reality. The creation of humans follows the act of creating the physical universe, as is mentioned in the Genesis account:
There is no ontological continuity between the nature of God and that of humans, as between Brahman and atman, but a fundamental difference that excludes any pantheistic resemblance. Unlike the physical world, the human being has a physical dimension (the body) and a spiritual one (the soul). Both are created by God at the same time, so the human being is not a pre-existent celestial soul fallen into a material body.
Image and likeness. Personhood in Christianity vs. Eastern religions
The fact that humans were created in the image (eikon) and likeness (omoiosis) of God does not imply that God has a physical nature, but suggests that humans received by creation a way of existing resembling that of the persons (hypostases) of the Holy Trinity. According to the Church fathers of the first centuries, the "image" conferred to the human being represents the personal character of God, as an ontological fact of creation. Since God exists only as person, human nature too, exists only as person. Humanity is defined primarily by the ability to have communion with the creator and other people and only secondarily by self-consciousness, ability to think, feel and will. As the hypostases of the Holy Trinity are defined only in relationship with each other, in the same way the human hypostasis is defined only in relationship with God and other humans. This relationship is a reciprocal fellowship, accomplished by a personal unfolding of each toward the other.
While God's image is imprinted on humans and remains in them as their personal character, the "likeness" is defined as a way of being. It corresponds to a free will relationship of obedience to the creator. While the image is an ontological fact of human nature, the likeness is an attribute that has to be built up through exercising the relationship with God. This position is held by most Church fathers of the first centuries, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyon, the Cappadocians, etc.
Man does not have the nature of God, but only qualities resembling his. Therefore, "the breath of life" (Genesis 2,7), which God has transmitted to humans, is not a small part of God’s essence (a kind of atman), but the act of life giving, which marked the beginning of experiencing self-consciousness. According to Christianity, human personhood has real and unique value. It does not succumb to the Eastern doctrine of illusion (maya). Both body and soul define human personhood and neither of them is intrinsically bad or illusory. The command says: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10,27). Nor do the elements of psycho-mental life have anything bad in themselves, reason for which Christianity demands the renewal of mind (Romans 12,2), discernment between good and bad feelings (Galatians 5,16-23) and using the will for good purposes (Titus 3,8). Nowhere in the Holy Scripture is it taught that they should be annihilated in order to grasp a higher impersonal Ultimate Reality.
In Hinduism, the principle of individuation (ahamkara, the sense of the "I", of duality and separatedness from others) is considered to be one of the most important causes of illusion and suffering in the world, as well as abhinivesha - the will to live. Unfortunately, a clear difference is not stated between personhood and egoism, both terms being translated as ahamkara. In Christianity, on the other hand, the sense of the "I" itself is not the cause of problems (as it belongs to our created status), but its wrong usage, which generates bad products, such as egoism. Without personhood and self-consciousness, in other words without the quality that makes one person different from another, the idea of personal communion with God, the very reason humans were created, is absurd.
In the pantheistic religions, as a result of affirming an impersonal Ultimate Reality, all that belongs to personhood has no ultimate meaning and therefore personal communion with God cannot be the purpose of man's existence. Except the impersonal self (atman or purusha), any other element that may define human existence is a source of karma and by consequence has to be annihilated. In Buddhism there is a similar situation. Personhood is the result of the coming together of the five skandhas. In order to destroy any element that may lead to attachments, Buddhism rejects even the notion of atman in defining human nature.
Another consequence of having a personal status according to the Christian worldview is the fact that desire does not have an evil nature in itself, as does the Hindu trishna (the desire to experience existence). Desire belongs to human nature, with the role of being used in order to attain likeness with God. Personal desires have to be channeled to function in obedience to God, not to be annihilated.
In conclusion, Christianity brings a major novelty in defining human nature. Humans are created as personal beings by a personal God, but without having the same essence with him. Personhood holds nothing wrong in itself, but is the premise for grounding a personal relationship with the creator.
The nature of sin
God’s command to Adam was:
Here must be emphasized the following important aspect: The knowledge (gnosis) of good and evil does not mean gaining some new information. It is neither a kind of a science (episteme), nor abstract information. It is not a matter of conceptual elaboration, a science of good and evil that would explain rationally two opposite concepts without judging them morally. In this Biblical text, knowledge (gnosis) means experiencing and getting mixed with another reality. It is an ontological process rather than an epistemological one. Rather than to know (as we understand it), gnosis means to be in communion with something and live according to it. The same way as knowing God is not just a mental operation, but a participation and subscribing to his will, the knowledge of good and evil is an existential experience, an accommodation to a state that is not indifferent to human nature. In this context, God’s command is not a hindering from getting necessary knowledge or an artificial limitation of man’s freedom, but a warning concerning the possibility of getting involved with the nature of evil, of participating in another reality than that intended by God. This other reality was the world of Satan and the fallen angels. (For more information on this topic see the nature of evil in Christianity.)
Since this is the context of creation in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the meaning of human existence cannot be found in oneself, but only in one’s creator. Humans are not meant to find an inner "true spiritual nature" or a "higher self" inside (a kind of atman), but to adjust to the character of God. Therefore the human status in the spiritual world can be better likened to a river bed than to a spring. In other words, the human being can be better defined as a river bed that chooses what spring will flow through it rather than a spring that doesn’t depend upon external circumstances. This is the ultimate ability one has in attaining "a higher spirituality". As a river bed is clean or dirty according to the water that flows through it, human identity (and obviously one's morality) is fashioned by the spiritual source one chooses to obey - God or Satan.
The story in Genesis reveals that Satan’s temptation cast doubt on the justice of God’s demands, suggesting that God’s command was not just and that rebellion against him would bring total freedom:
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’" "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman.
"For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3,1-5)
The temptation can be summed up as "to be like God", that is, to find all resources in oneself and follow the same path of rebellion Satan had followed, in order to find self-determination. The Genesis story says that Adam and Eve sinned against God and that the first thing the came to know was not that they had become like god, but that they were separated from God and also from the perfect environment where they lived (Genesis 3,24). The biblical meaning of sin does not correspond to some pantheist interpretations, which consider it to be the loss of a pantheist view of reality ("the perception of the One") and the subsequent appearance of duality and illusion. The human fall is a consequence of man’s wrong decision toward independence from God; it is an act of perverting the relationship established by God in his creation.
In order to define sin, one of the most frequently used terms in the New Testament is the Greek word hamartia, literally translated "to miss the mark". It suggests that humans have missed the mark that God has intended for them. Calling us sinners, God blames us for what we know is wrong but still do, not for unknown mistakes done against some unknown laws of God (see Romans 2,1-15). According to God’s justice, the consequence of this situation would have been that God should respect humans’ desire to live a separate existence from him (as a fulfillment of their free will), and to abandon them in a world where he withdraws his presence and intervention, where separation from him and any good thing he created is eternal. This world is called hell. (See some comments of the Early Church Fathers on hell, death and life after death.) It is often asked: How can a loving God condemn humans to such a horrifying punishment? But instead of seeing hell as a punishment, it can rather be taken as a real chance of existence offered to those who reject his presence. God would be unjust if he forced humans to live in his presence against their will.
The Eastern concept of hell is different from the Christian one. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism hell is analogous to the Catholic concept of Purgatory. It is not an eternal damnation, but only a place to expiate bad karma in order that the purified soul can continue its advance toward liberation (see Markandeya Purana 13-15, Sutta Nipata 672-76, The Tibetan Book of the Dead). The punishments one has to bear in hell are according to his or her karma, and Yama, the lord of hell, acts in accordance to the demands of karma.
According to Christianity, sin has thoroughly affected human nature, conferring a hereditary perverted status. This is called "the sinful nature" or "original sin" (see Romans 7-8), which we all inherit. It represents a natural tendency toward evil and manifests itself through the conscious sins we commit with our thought, speech and deeds. It is important to notice here that we inherit neither the particular sins of our ancestors, nor sins we have done in alleged previous lives, but the sinful nature of mankind. In other words, what we inherit is not karma. Humans do not "pay" for sins committed out of ignorance in previous lives, but for individual and conscious sins committed here and now.
The notion of sin, as stated in Christianity, has no correspondent in the Eastern religions. Although there are some Hindu terms translated as "sin" (papa - any form of wrongdoing; adharma - acting against one's own dharma; aparadha - mistake), they do not represent a crime against God, but an act against dharma (the moral order) and against one's own self (leading to accumulation of karma). The origin of "sinful" conduct is spiritual ignorance (avidya). Therefore, a "sinner" needs only instruction and not condemnation. He needs help to reason the right way and realize that he is responsible for his actions, for which he must pay the consequences in samsara. Being a manifestation of the Absolute, humans have in themselves the divine nature (atman, purusha) and all resources to overtake the state of ignorance. But Jesus stated:
According to the Judaic understanding of humanity, which was the context of Jesus’ saying, the "heart" is the core of man’s being, the headquarters of mental, emotional and volitional life. Consequently, in the New Testament, the heart is depicted as something that can think and understand (Matthew 9,4; 13,15), be troubled (John 14,1; Romans 9,2), rejoice (Ephesians 5,19), make decisions (2 Corinthians 9,7) and also participate in salvation by expressing faith (Romans 10,9-10). There is no deeper level of man’s nature that could hide a superior spiritual self. According to Christianity, the attitude of relying on inner resources in order to find an alleged "true inner nature" is a result of spiritual pride, the very cause of the fall. The Bible teaches that humans do not possess an intrinsic divine nature, and thus are incapable of saving themselves from sin. The only "true inner nature" humans possess is a sinful nature.
The human condition in Islam
The Quran presents the creation and fall in a way similar to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Humans and angels were created to worship Allah (Quran 51,56). However, there is a major difference from the biblical account. Allah created Adam and commanded that he be worshiped by all angels. Satan (Iblis) opposed this command and only then was he banished from heaven:
After this episode Iblis planned to deceive humans and make them disobedient to God, which he accomplished in a similar way to the biblical account (see Quran 7,20-21). However, in Islam there is no such thing as original sin. Although Adam and Eve sinned, they repented and were forgiven, so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race. In their present condition, humans are exhorted not to repeat the mistake of Adam, and also warned that the devil attempts to cheat them by all means (Quran 7,27). However, all people sin because of the passion to which they are subjected by Satan and because they are careless about the demands of the Quran. For each individual are appointed two angels who record all sins and good deeds that are performed during his or her life, and these records will be revealed at the final judgment.
(For an indepth study of the basic differences between Christianity and Islam see the article Six Muslim Beliefs and a Christian Response, by Jay Smith.)
Ultimate Reality and human nature are in a cause and effect relationship. An impersonal Ultimate Reality determines that the essence of the human being, or its innermost nature, is also impersonal. This is the case in the pantheistic religions. The core of human nature is the impersonal self (atman), of the same essence with Ultimate Reality (Brahman in Vedanta, or Shiva in Tantrism). Humanity's present condition is governed by karma, an impersonal law started by spiritual ignorance that forces the self to reincarnate until true knowledge is attained.
Buddhism rejects both personal gods and Brahman as Ultimate Reality. As a result it denies the reality of any permanent self residing in humans and defines human nature as a mere process of becoming in which are involved five aggregates of an impermanent nature. The only reality of human existence is that of suffering. Although reincarnation is fully accepted, it deals only with the passing of karma from one life to another, without any permanent self being involved.
The monotheistic religions state humanity's personal created status as a fundamental element of their theology. Personhood has nothing bad or illusory in itself, since it is the major condition for having personal communion with God. Karma and reincarnation are excluded. They have no room in Judaism, Christianity or Islam, because the role of supreme judge belongs only to God. The major flaw that defines human existence is sin, understood not as ignorance for one's "true inner nature", but as an offence against the creator. The barrier between humans and God has a moral nature, not an epistemological one, as in the Eastern religions. The result of sin is hell, a state of definitive separation from God, according to man's decision during this single earthly life.
In conclusion, there is no harmony among the world's religions concerning the status of humans and their present condition. Their positions are too divergent for any possible reconciliation.