What did Jiva mean to the Buddha?

So, Māluṅkyaputta, you should remember what I have not declared as undeclared, and what I have declared as declared. And what have I not declared? I have not declared the following: ‘the cosmos is eternal,’ ‘the cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘the world is finite,’ ‘the world is infinite,’ ‘the soul and the body are the same thing,’ ‘the soul and the body are different things,’ ‘a Realized One exists after death,’ ‘a Realized One doesn’t exist after death,’ ‘a Realized One both exists and doesn’t exist after death,’ ‘a Realized One neither exists nor doesn’t exist after death.’

I was surprised to learn that the soul being referred to here was “jiva”. My question is what did “jiva” mean to the the Buddha? He does not seem to have the same issues with it, like with Atta. This seems to be a declaration that he will not comment on what we call the mind-body problem today more than two thousand years before Descartes started the whole western mind-body debate.


I think “jiva” refers to non existence phenomena or concept created by individual to avoid the death of body

jiva means the immaterial soul as self or core of being here

Do you know of any suttas that specifically address Jiva?

New Concise Pali English Dictionary


masculine, neuter

  1. a living thing, any living being
  2. the principle of life; vital breath; an individual living being experiencing entity within the physical body
  3. life

PTS Pali English Dictionary


adjective noun

  1. the soul. Sabbe jīvā all the souls, enumerated with sattā pāṇā bhūta in the dialect used by the followers of Gosāla DN.i.53 (= DN-a.i.161 jīvasaññī). “taṁ jīvaṁ taṁ sarīraṁ udāhu aññaṁ j. aññaṁ s.” (is the body the soul, or is the body one thing and the soul another?) see DN.i.157, DN.i.188; DN.ii.333, DN.ii.336, DN.ii.339; SN.iv.392 sq.; MN.i.157, MN.i.426 sq. AN.ii.41
    ■ Also in this sense at Mil.30, Mil.54, Mil.86
    ■ Vin.iv.34; SN.iii.215, SN.iii.258 sq.; SN.iv.286; SN.v.418; AN.v.31, AN.v.186 AN.v.193.
  2. life, in yāvajīvaṁ as long as life lasts, for life, during (his) lifetime DN.iii.133; Vin.i.201; Dhp.64; Ja.ii.155; Pv-a.76.
  • -gāhaṁ (adv.) taken alive, in phrase j.˚ gaṇhāti or gaṇhāpeti SN.i.84; Ja.i.180; Ja.ii.404; cp. karamara;
  • -loka the animate creation Ja.iii.394;
  • -sūla “life-pale,” a stake for execution Ja.ii.443;
  • -sokin (= sokajīvin) leading a life of sorrow Ja.vi.509.

In my understanding, it is the synonym of the word soul, but it has slightly different sense. Jiva is the lifeforce, something that is possessed by living things, or the energy that make something alive.
You can argue that lifeforce energy is the soul in that sense.

Later Buddhism, such as prajnaparamita text, mention the atman, pudgala, jiva, and sattva, and treat them all as variation of “Self”. I guess it is because people quibble, “Maybe you buddhist say that there is no atman, but surely we are alive, so we have jiva! And Jiva is the Self!”

Usage #2 does seem to include consciousness as well as a “life force”. This seems much closer to the western/Christian notion of a soul. Usage #1 seems to be a theory about biology. What makes someone alive as opposed to conscious.

I think he meant usage #1, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. The five aggregates does not explicitly seem to imply a life force as part or apart from the body, but does include consciousness as separate from the body, though it is dependent on it. In this case, what I said about the mind-body problem is wrong.

I haven’t found a treatment of the term explicitly for the pre-Buddhist use, but overall the most important meaning is “the living”, also as an adjective.

Later on it became common to understand jiva as “the embodied soul” etc. but I wouldn’t count on that. Also “vital breath” is a later undestanding, in my understanding for now.

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Arguments such as these were developed by the Buddha as a counter to Hindu doctrine, and should be seen as separate from the suttas dealing with practical meditation. Therefore by ‘soul’ is meant any reference to an eternal self, which according to empirically unsupported Hindu belief has a changing existence up to final unification:

" While the Upanishads recognized many things as being not-Self, they felt that a real, true Self could be found. They held that when it was found, and known to be identical to Brahman, the basis of everything, this would bring liberation. In the Buddhist Suttas, though, literally everything is seen is non-Self, even Nirvana.

Both Buddhism and Hinduism distinguish ego-related “I am, this is mine”, from their respective abstract doctrines of “Anattā” and “Atman”.[112] This, states Peter Harvey, may have been an influence of Buddhism on Hinduism.[113]"—Wikipedia

Hinduism does not believe the ‘Self’ at the level of conventional reality exists. This refers to the dualism described in SN 1.25, and the understanding of two simultaneous realities is the gateway to insight. Most beginner discussions on non-self stem from the inability to accept that there is a self, yet ultimately there is not:

“An arahant monk,
one who is done,
effluent-free, bearing his last body:

He would say, ‘I speak’;
would say, ‘They speak to me.’

knowing harmonious gnosis
with regard to the world,
he uses expressions
just as expressions.”

jīva is a quite common word in the suttas. The dynamic of jīva and sarīra appears a few times, and it’s basically a copy & paste, probably from an SN source:

SN 12.35-36, SN 24.13-14, SN 33.1, SN 33.55, SN 41.3, SN 44.7-8, SN 56.8, SN 56.41, AN 4.38, AN 10.20, AN 10.93, AN 10.95-96, MN 25, MN 63, MN 72, DN 6-7, DN 9.

I don’t know why @sujato settled for “soul” as translation for jīva when the more obvious translation would be “life”. Tradition? It leads to a more concise interpretation, but also to an unwarrented connection to the atman debate.

I looked at some of the other suttas, one where someone was talking about looking to see if the jiva left the body after death as a means to prove whether or not there was an afterlife. It was not the Buddha, but I think that soul made sense there. It also implied that it was understood that the “person” was to be preserved in another world if there was an afterlife. I am changing my mind again and saying that usage #2 from above is meant.

I think this interesting, because I think that it means that he would not comment on whether the five aggregates were only body(all five aggregates) or body + mind (the last four aggregates) . I suppose it could also mean all five were mind.

This is how I originally interpreted it and I am back to it. I just never thought of it in terms of the five aggregates before.

That’s interesting, please share this sutta. And again, I don’t doubt that later on a meaning of ‘soul’ or ‘vital essense’ was meant. I’m doubting that this was meant in the early time.

DN23 is very long, but has the references I spoke about. Again, the Buddha does not say this, but I think it may be representative of how people at the time thought about Jiva.

The quote here has to be read in context with the sutta to be understood

DN23 (Jiva is expected to remember and be the “person”)
“Well then, chieftain, I shall give you a simile. For by means of a simile some sensible people understand the meaning of what is said. Suppose there were a man sunk over his head in a sewer. Then you were to order someone to pull him out of the sewer, and they’d agree to do so. Then you’d tell them to carefully scrape the dung off that man’s body with bamboo scrapers, and they’d agree to do so. Then you’d tell them to carefully scrub that man’s body down with pale clay three times, and they’d do so. Then you’d tell them to smear that man’s body with oil, and carefully wash him down with fine paste three times, and they’d do so. Then you’d tell them to dress that man’s hair and beard, and they’d do so. Then you’d tell them to provide that man with costly garlands, makeup, and clothes, and they’d do so. Then you’d tell them to bring that man up to the stilt longhouse and set him up with the five kinds of sensual stimulation, and they’d do so.
What do you think, chieftain? Now that man is nicely bathed and anointed, with hair and beard dressed, bedecked with garlands and bracelets, dressed in white, supplied and provided with the five kinds of sensual stimulation upstairs in the royal longhouse. Would he want to dive back into that sewer again?”
“No, Master Kassapa. Why is that? Because that sewer is filthy, stinking, disgusting, and repulsive, and it’s regarded as such.”

DN23 (Jiva can be seen and transmigrates)
“Suppose they were to arrest a bandit, a criminal and present him to me, saying, ‘Sir, this is a bandit, a criminal. Punish him as you will.’ I say to them, ‘Well then, sirs, take this man’s life without injuring his outer skin, inner skin, flesh, sinews, bones, or marrow. Hopefully we’ll see his soul escaping.’ They agree, and do what I ask. When he’s half-dead, I tell them to lay him on his back in hope of seeing his soul escape. They do so. But we don’t see his soul escaping. I tell them to lay him bent over, to lay him on his side, to lay him on the other side; to stand him upright, to stand him upside down; to strike him with fists, stones, rods, and swords; and to give him a good shaking in hope of seeing his soul escape. They do all these things. But we don’t see his soul escaping. For him the eye itself is present, and so are those sights. Yet he does not experience that sense-field. The ear itself is present, and so are those sounds. Yet he does not experience that sense-field. The nose itself is present, and so are those smells. Yet he does not experience that sense-field. The tongue itself is present, and so are those tastes. Yet he does not experience that sense-field. The body itself is present, and so are those touches. Yet he does not experience that sense-field. This is how I prove that there’s no afterlife.”