According to Buddha there are three universal truths. They are: Anithya, Anathma and Dhukkha. The first, Anithya, means impermanent. Nothing is permanent in life; life itself is mortal.
The second, Anathma, means soulless; there is nothing called soul in this universe. Existence of a soul within man is a core belief in India, the land Buddha lived in, since time immemorial. In the Bhagavad Gita, believed to have been authored by Sri Krishna two millenia before Buddha qualities of soul are described elaborately. Probably during Buddha’s time soul, its liberation, rebirth etc had become the bases on which the priest class developed numerous rituals, strengthened caste superiority and built their control over individual and social life. It was a stunning assertion to say in that milieu there was nothing called soul in the world. Buddha must have shaken people out of their acquiescence and his teaching might be a revolt against the hold of an all pervading ritualistic religion.
Buddhism became a state religion of India under Emperor Asoka in 3rd century BC, two centuries after Buddha’s advent, and spread all over the Indian subcontinent from Afghanistan to Tamil Nadu during the next millennium. Yet amazingly a lot of customs of the ancient past including the belief and rituals concerning soul have survived to today’s India. During my north Indian tour in July 2010, when I reached the famous Ghats of Ganga at Varanasi I was approached by a ‘guruji’. He offered to conduct pujas (rituals) for the peace of my ancestors’ soul for a fee of a few hundred rupees. I told him that I believe that almost all souls take re-birth. Since my ancestors died long back, they might have already reincarnated and so there was no point in praying for the rest of their souls. He left me disapprovingly to accost other visitors. There were a lot of pilgrims who considered it their duty and privilege to engage gurujis like him and have the prescribed pujas performed. This teaching of Anathma (soulless) by Buddha must have also given his followers – who were from upper as well as lower castes – freedom from a lot of obligatory rituals and caste feelings of superiority and inferiority.
Buddha’s third universal truth, Dhukkha means sadness. Everything in life ends in sadness. He was right here, as there is no happiness in life that lasts forever. It ends somewhere and when it does it is often sadness that takes its place.
So while the first and the third universal truths of Buddha are astute observations of the realities of human life on earth the second one is – at least in the light of Sri Krishna’s teaching, even though it might have helped greatly people aiming for Buddha’s goal of Nirvana (non-existence) – debatable to say the least. Now 2500 years after Buddha, according to the teachings of another great sage of epochal significance, Sri Aurobindo, the evolution of man is guided by the presence of a growing soul within him and it holds promise of a divine future for the human race. The concept of soul promises to be an indispensable entity in spite of the advent of the great Buddha in future spiritual discourses and yoga.