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Abortion, a Dharmic Perspective- I: Who is a Jiva?

Abortion has been a contentious topic across the world with people debating the issue, especially its moral and legal aspects, in and out. The West has been largely divided into two camps: the Pro-choice camp, which champions the right of women to choose to abort and the Pro-life camp, which champions the right of the fetus to be born and have life.

Last year, when a proposal from the Health Ministry to allow unmarried girls to abort in case of contraception failure by making suitable amendments to the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act had surfaced, the controversial issue had raised its head again in India, with many people taking to social media to wage a war for or against abortion.

Though, there is no clear cut camps in India on the lines of Pro-choice and Pro-life, one may still notice, people using similar arguments to make their case. Those supporting abortion have highlighted how it is a right of woman to decide what she wants from life and it should be her alone, who decides what to do with her body. On the other hand, those opposing abortion point out, how it is nothing but murder of an unborn child and hence, like murder, this should not be allowed. While the former appears to uphold the rights of the mother, the latter appears to be fighting for the rights of the unborn child. But, clearly, there is something amiss in this entire discourse. Pro-abortionists seem to ignore, perhaps deliberately, that no right is absolute, and rights are always stringed to some duties and responsibilities, whereas, anti-abortionists seem to deny the reality of human agency behind actions. This is so because, the discourse has largely concentrated on the morality of the issue on the one hand and its legality, on the other, without a reference to Dharmic principles.

Dharma is the foundation of all life. It is that, which upholds entire universe. Sanatana Dharma has facilitated the Indian civilization to thrive and reach the zenith for many thousand years now. Hence, the very Indian life and identity is rooted in Dharma. Therefore, without rooting the discourse on abortion on the firm ground of Dharma, the entire discourse not only misses out the various nuances and clarity provided by the Dharmic narrative, but also misses out the tools and solutions that could address ground reality.

Towards this end, the present series is an attempt to analyze the issue of abortion from a Dharmic perspective. We would try to answer important questions like what exactly does abortion imply? Whether it can be equated to murder of a person? Whether fetus becomes a Jiva right at conception or will it be at some stage of pregnancy? And many more such questions.

The series will be divided into four installments.

Part 1 will enquire into the question of who a jiva is.

Part 2 will highlight the importance of human life and how giving birth is a noble activity.

Part 3 will examine the stages in pregnancy and when the fetus will become endowed with jivahood.

Part 4 will examine whether abortion is an adharmic action.

Let us now begin with an examination of who a jiva is.

Who is a jiva?

Sanatana Dharma extensively deals with the issue of abortion. However, to have a proper understanding, it is vital to understand how Dharma perceives life itself and the process of birth. Therefore, let us start with a brief review of who a Jiva is.

Modern scientific view, which is largely rooted in materialism, perceives Jiva, an Individual, a living being- both human and non-human- as just a body. The farthest it goes is its recognition of the mind and the senses. But, even here, they are largely perceived as functions rooted in the physical body itself. Hence, on the one hand, all human life, though sentient, are reduced to mere physical bodies, and on the other, at its extreme, non-human beings are reduced to mechanical beings devoid of even the consciousness [1]! It naturally follows from this that human life is just an accident, a product of evolution perhaps, and there is nothing after death, after the body is either reduced to ashes or decays underground. And hence, life, as long as it exists, is meant to be enjoyed with ‘no strings attached’. As a result, many people who cater to this worldview, end up committing grave mistakes and crimes in their unrestrained perusal of sensory desires, which would not only put them in trouble, but also would cause considerable damage to others.

However, this is not how Sanatana Dharma perceives Jiva.

Even a cursory look at various Dharmic scriptures and the teachings of various Acharyas will reveal that a Jiva is not perceived just as a physical entity. Except perhaps the Charvakas, who considered physical body and the senses itself as Atman (Self), no other scriptures, traditions or lineages limit Jiva into Physical realm.

Sanatana Dharma posits Jiva as a complex multi-layered being, which on the one hand is a reflection of Brahman, the supreme divine reality, and on the other hand is endowed with Tri-Shariras (3 bodies) and Pancha Koshas (5 Sheaths), through which the Jiva interacts with the external universe. To understand what this means, let us begin with the Tri-Shariras.

The Vedanta Darshana [2] has laid out in depth how a Jiva has not one, but three bodies: Sthula (gross), Sukshma/Linga (subtle), and Kaarana (Causal). Adi Shankaracharya in his short work, “Tattva Bodha [3]” has explained what each of these bodies are and what they constitute. He defines the gross body as that “which is composed of the five Mahabhutas (elements) after they have undergone the process of Panchikarana; born as a result of good actions of the past; the tenement to earn the experiences of sukha, dukha and the like, and subject to the six modifications namely ‘is, born, grows, changes, decays and dies’.(Verse 10.2)” That is, the gross body is made up of five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether, and a Jiva becomes endowed with it- as a result of past good actions- so that the Jiva can experience happiness and sorrows, which again are results of past actions, and travel further in his/her journey towards Moksha. This is the outermost layer of the individuality of a Jiva.

Subtler than the gross body is the subtle body. Adi Shankaracharya defines subtle body as: “That which is composed of five Mahabhutas (elements) prior to their undergoing the process of Panchikarana, born of good actions of the past the instruments for experiences of pleasure, pain etc. constituted of the seventeen items namely: the five Jnanendriyas, (sense organs) the five karmendriyas, (the organs of action) the five Pranas (Prana, Apana, Udana, Samana and Vyana), the mind and the intellect.(Verse 11.2)” The subtle body is thus, inner in comparison to the gross body, in the sense that subtle body is formed, before the gross body. But, like gross body, it is also made up of five elements, but in their subtle forms, and the Jiva becomes endowed with it to experience the fruits of previous actions. The difference between the gross and the subtle body is what their name states. The former is gross or physical and it refers to the body made up of blood, bones, muscles, and marrow. Whereas, the latter is subtler than the physical, in fact is non-physical, and is made up of seventeen items: the mind, intellect, and the faculties of organs of sense and action. While the organs themselves are gross, their ability to function, the faculties which causes them to function is subtle and belongs to subtle body. Thus, subtle body forms the second layer with which the Jiva is endowed.

And then, we have the Kaarana Sharira or the causal body, which as the name states is the cause of both the subtle and gross body. Adi Shankaracharya defines it as “That which is inexplicable, beginningless and in the form of Avidya (ignorance of the Reality), the cause for the other two bodies (the subtle and the gross), ignorant of one’s own real nature (Self), free from duality or division. (Verse 12.2)” Without going into depth of it, it is sufficient to understand that the causal body is the storehouse of all our previous actions. When a set of actions, called Prarabdha Karma, ripens enough to give fruit, it manifests into the subtle and gross body, resulting in a Jiva to take birth in the physical plane, being endowed with gross and subtle bodies. In other words, even without the gross and the subtle bodies, the Jiva exists in an unmanifest undifferentiated state as causal entity. This, causal body is the third and innermost layer of Jiva.

Beyond this, the Jiva loses its individuality, and becomes non-different from Brahman, who as Atman is the innermost Self, the true Self. Hence, the famous Vedanta dictum, “Jivo Brahmaiva na paraha”- Jiva is Brahman itself, not different. In other words, it is Brahman or Atman, which is the innermost Self of all objects and beings and it is Brahman, through its own mysterious power of Maya appears as Jiva by endowing itself with causal, subtle, and gross bodies. In the Upanishads, such as Taittiriya Upanishad, this 3-body frame work has been further divided into five-sheath framework: Annamaya Kosha, which corresponds to gross body; Pranamaya Kosha, the sheath of five Pranas; Manomaya Kosha, the sheath of mind; Vidyanamaya Kosha, the sheath of intellect, and finally the Anandamaya Kosha, which corresponds to the causal body and beyond this is non-dual Atman.

This entire discussion was necessitated by the fact that today people often identify an individual with only the gross body, and at best with the mind. But, Sanatana Dharma on the other hand, perceives, a Jiva, both human and non-human, as being non-different from Brahman or God (not the Abrahamic God) at the highest transcendent level, and as being endowed with three bodies, and five sheaths at worldly level. Secondly, the non-human entities are not perceived as mere unconscious mechanical entities. Instead, as Sri Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita, He, i.e. Brahman exists in the Hrdaya (heart) of all creatures. Here, Hrdaya is a reference to the central point of individuality. If, a Jiva is understood as a circle, the outermost circumference is the gross body and the center, which is the point of manifestation, is the Hrdaya or Heart. This central point is the place of first manifestation of Brahman as Jiva and is called as Angustamatra Purusha- the thumb sized Purusha, which later becomes endowed with the gross and subtle bodies. Hence, it is this, Jiva as Angustamatra Purusha, which is inner-controller of a Jiva, be it human and non-human. Based on the kind of bodies taken, the activities of the Jiva is determined, but it is the Angushtamatra Purusha, the reflected manifestation of Brahman, which is the conscious entity, which enlivens the Jiva. Hence, Sanatana Dharma does not limit consciousness to human beings, but extends it to all living entities, be it animals, plants, insects, or microbes. Sanatana Dharma goes a step further, and says “Whatever objects is in the universe, is inhabited by Lord Himself” (Isha Upanishad verse 1). That is, even inanimate lifeless objects like rocks, metal, etc. are inhabited by Brahman, only that this consciousness is in unmanifest state, and hence, they remain as inanimate state.

This understanding of Jiva as not being a mere flesh and bone, but instead being a conscious entity, a spark of the divine, endowed with multi-layered individuality, is very vital to any discussion on abortion from a Dharmic standpoint. After all, without understanding who a Jiva is, any discussion of preventing such a Jiva from taking birth becomes futile.

In the next part, we would look into the importance of human life and why giving birth to a child is considered a very noble activity.


  1. Akash Ravianandan, “Understanding Animal cruelty: Why compassion to animals is not a cultural universal”, IndiaFacts []
  2. Vedanta Darshana is one among the six Astika Darshanas that accept Sruti/Veda as a valid Pramana. Especially, the Vedanta Darshana, which is also called as Uttara Mimamsa, is based on the teachings of the Upanishads.
  3. Tattva Bodha is a Prakarana Grantha. The translations of this text has been extracted from: []

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(This article was first published by IndiaFacts in 2017)

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