In Hinduism, the jiva (Sanskrit: जीव, IAST: jīva) is a living being or any entity imbued with a life force.[1] The word itself originates from the Sanskrit verb-root jīv, which translates as 'to breathe or to live'.[2]:211[3] The jiva, as a metaphysical entity, has been described in various scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the Vachanamrut (the teachings of Swaminarayan). Each subschool of Vedanta describes the role of the jiva with the other metaphysical entities in varying capacities.

A common metaphysical entity discussed in the scriptures (such as the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishad and Vachanamrut) in the seven schools of Vedanta is the jiva or atman: the soul or self.[4]

Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita contains verses describing the jiva. For example, the jiva is described as eternal and indestructible in chapter 2, verse 20:

"The soul is unborn and eternal, everlasting and primeval. It is not slain by the slaying of the body."

बालाग्रशतभागस्य शतधा कल्पितस्य च । भागो जीवः स विज्ञेयः स चानन्त्याय कल्पते ॥ ९ ॥

"If the tip of the hair were to be divided in to one hundred parts and each part was divided into 100 more parts, that would be the dimension of the Jiva (soul)". Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad (5.9)

The Shvetashvatara Upanishad compares the jiva and the Paramatma to two friendly birds sitting on the same tree:

समाने वृक्षे पुरुषो निमग्नोऽनीशया शोचति मुह्यमानः । जुष्टं यदा पश्यत्यन्यमीशमस्य महिमानमिति वीतशोकः ॥ ७ ॥

Swaminarayan has described the nature of the jiva in his discourse in Vachanamrut Jetalpur 2:

The jiva is uncuttable, unpiercable, immortal, formed of consciousness, and the size of an atom. You may also ask, 'Where does the jiva reside?' Well, it resides within the space of the heart, and while staying there, it performs different functions. From there, when it wants to see, it does so through the eyes; when it wants to hear sounds, it does so through the ears; it smells all types of smells through the nose; it tastes through the tongue; and through the skin, it experiences the pleasures of all sensations. In addition, it thinks through the mind, contemplates through the citta [one of the inner faculties] and forms convictions through the intelligence [buddhi]. In this manner, through the ten senses and the four inner faculties, it perceives all of the sense-objects [i.e objects of sensorial perception'. It pervades the entire body from head to toe, yet is distinct from it. Such is the nature of the jiva.

Vedanta is one of the six schools (darshanam) of Hindu philosophy, and it contains subschools that have derived their beliefs from the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The aforementioned three scriptures are commonly referred to as the Prasthantrayi.

The Advaita (non-dualist) Darshan posits the existence of only one entity, Brahman. It considers all distinctions ultimately false since differentiation requires more than one entity. Those distinctions empirically perceived, along with those expounded in the Prasthanatrayi, are accounted for within this school by the recognition of a relative reality (vyavaharik satta).[6]:188 One such distinction is that between jivas, or souls, and Brahman. Understood through the paradigm of relative reality, jivas are cloaked by maya—avidya, or ignorance—a state in which they are not able to realize their oneness with Brahman.[6]:189

The Akshar-Purushottam Darshan, the classical name given to the set of spiritual beliefs based on the teachings of Swaminarayan,[7] centers around the existence of five eternal realities, as stated in two of Swaminarayan’s sermons documented in the Vachanamrut, Gadhada 1.7 and Gadhada 3.10:

Puruṣottama Bhagavān, Akṣarabrahman, māyā, īśvara and jīva – these five entities are eternal.[8]

From all the Vedas, Purāṇas, Itihāsa and Smṛti scriptures, I have gleaned the principle that jīva, māyā, īśvara, Brahman and Parameśvara are all eternal.[8]

The jiva is defined as a distinct, individual soul, i.e., a finite sentient being. Jivas are bound by maya, which hides their true self, which is characterized by eternal existence, consciousness and bliss. There are an infinite number of jivas. They are extremely subtle, indivisible, unpierceable, ageless and immortal. While residing within the heart, a jiva pervades the entire body by its capacity to know (gnānshakti), making it animate. It is the form of knowledge (gnānswarūp) as well as the knower (gnātā). The jiva is the performer of virtuous and immoral actions (karmas) and experiences the fruits of these actions. It has been eternally bound by maya; as a result, it roams within the cycle of birth and death. Birth is when a jiva acquires a new body, and death is when it departs from its body. Just as one abandons one's old clothes and wears new ones, the jiva renounces its old body and acquires a new one.[2]

The Bhedhabheda Darshan, founded by Nimbark, maintains that jivas are at once distinct and part of Brahman, a middle ground of sorts between the extremes of Advaita, utter oneness, and Dvaita, utter distinctness.[9] This notion of difference yet non-difference is commonly depicted through an analogy: just as rays originate from the sun but are spatio-temporally distinct from it, so too jivas are parts of the whole that is Brahman.

Founded by Madhva, the Dvaita (dualist) Darshan rejects the Advaita (non-dualist) notion of one ultimate reality. It propounds a duality of five kinds, the most fundamental of which is that between jivas and Ishvara. A soul or jiva is differentiated from God or Ishvara due to the jiva’s dependence on Ishvara; this state is an indication of eternal, ontological distinction.[10] Unique to this school is the idea of a hierarchy of souls, evocative of predestination. Within the system, some souls are inherently and eternally destined for liberation, others for hell and still others for migration through the cycle of birth and death.[11]:267

The Vishishtadvaita Darshan, proposed by Ramanuja, maintains an ontological distinction between jivas and God. However, unlike in the Dvaita Darshan, the distinction is qualified. The jiva still remains dependent on God for its qualities and volition.[12]:234 Vishishtadvaita holds, like other darshanas, that the self is chetan, a conscious being that is made up of consciousness.[12]:235 The school offers many rebuttals against the Advaita conception, one of which addresses the way in which Advaita's jiva, Brahman, may be in a state of ignorance. The Vishishtadvaita Darshan argues that if ignorance is not a quality of Brahman, then the notion of non-duality is contradicted.[13]