Atman (आत्मन्) is a Sanskrit word that refers to the (universal) Self or self-existent essence of individuals, as distinct from ego (Ahamkara), mind (Chitta) and embodied existence (Prakṛiti). The term is often translated as soul, but is better translated as “Self,” as it solely refers to pure consciousness or witness consciousness, beyond identification with phenomena. To attain moksha (liberation), a human being must acquire self-knowledge (Atma Gyaan or Brahmajnana). The six orthodox schools of Hinduism believe that there is Atman in every living being (jiva), which is distinct from the body-mind complex. This is a major point of difference with the Buddhist doctrine of Anatta, which holds that in essence there is no unchanging essence or Self to be found in the empirical constituents of a living being, staying silent on what it is that is liberated.
Atman Etymology and Meaning
Atman (Atma, आत्मा, आत्मन्) is a Sanskrit word that refers to “essence, breath.” It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *h₁eh₁tmṓ (a root meaning “breath” with Germanic cognates: Dutch adem, Old High German atum “breath,” Modern German atmen “to breathe” and Atem “respiration, breath”, Old English eþian). Atman, sometimes spelled without a diacritic as atman in scholarly literature, means “real Self” of the individual, “innermost essence.” While often translated as “soul,” it is better translated as “self.”
Atman, in Hinduism, is considered as eternal, imperishable, beyond time, “not the same as body or mind or consciousness, but… something beyond which permeates all these”. Atman is the unchanging, eternal, innermost radiant Self that is unaffected by personality, and unaffected ego; Atman is that which is ever-free, never-bound, the realized purpose, meaning, and liberation in life. As Puchalski states, “the ultimate goal of Hindu religious life is to transcend individuality, to realize one’s true nature”, the inner essence of oneself, which is divine and pure.
Development of the Atman concept
Atman in Vedas
The earliest use of the word Atman in Indian texts is found in the Rigveda (RV X.97.11). Yāska, the ancient Indian grammarian, commenting on this Rigvedic verse, accepts the following meanings of Ātman: the pervading principle, the organism in which other elements are united, and the ultimate sentient principle.
Other hymns of Rigveda where the word Ātman appears include I.115.1, VII.87.2, VII.101.6, and VIII.3.24, IX.2.10, IX.6.8, and X.168.4.
Atman in Upanishads
It is a central topic in all of the Upanishads, and “Know your Atman” is one of their thematic foci. The Upanishads say that it denotes “the ultimate essence of the universe” as well as “the vital breath in human beings”, which is an “imperishable Divine within” that is neither born nor does die. Cosmology and psychology are indistinguishable, and these texts state that the core of every person’s Self is not the body, nor the mind, nor the ego, but Atman. The Upanishads express two distinct, somewhat divergent themes on the relation between Atman and Brahman.
Some teach that Brahman (highest reality; universal principle; being-consciousness-bliss) is identical to Atman, while others teach that Atman is part of Brahman but not identical to it. This ancient debate flowered into various dual and non-dual theories in Hinduism.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (800-600 BCE) describes Atman as that in which everything exists, which is of the highest value, which permeates everything, which is the essence of all, bliss, and beyond description. In hymn 4.4.5, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes Atman as Brahman and associates it with everything one is, everything one can be, one’s free will, one’s desire, what one does, what one doesn’t do, the good in oneself, the bad in oneself.
That Atman (self, soul) is indeed Brahman. It is also identified with the intellect, the Manas (mind), and the vital breath, with the eyes and ears, with earth, water, air, and ākāśa (sky), with fire and with what is other than fire, with desire and the absence of desire, with anger and the absence of anger, with righteousness and unrighteousness, with everything — it is identified, as is well known, with this (what is perceived) and with that (what is inferred). As it does and acts, so it becomes: by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil. It becomes virtuous through good acts, and vicious through evil acts. Others, however, say, “The self is identified with desire alone. What it desires, so it resolves; what it resolves, so is its deed; and what deed it does, so it reaps.— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5, 9th century BCE
The Chandogya Upanishad (7th-6th c. BCE) explains Ātman as that which appears to be separate between two living beings but isn’t, that essence and innermost, true, radiant self of all individuals which connects and unifies all. Hymn 6.10 explains it with the example of rivers, some of which flows to the east and some to the west, but ultimately all merge into the ocean and become one.
In the same way, the individual souls are pure beings, states the Chandogya Upanishad; an individual soul is a pure truth, and an individual soul is a manifestation of the ocean of one universal soul.
Along with the Brihadāranyaka, all the earliest and middle Upanishads discuss Ātman as they build their theories to answer how a man can achieve liberation, freedom, and bliss. The Katha Upanishad (5th to 1st century BCE), for example, explains Atman as the imminent and transcendent innermost essence of each human being and living creature, that this is one, even though the external forms of living creatures manifest in different forms. For example, hymn 2.2.9 states,
As the one fire, after it has entered the world, though one, takes different forms according to whatever it burns, so does the internal Ātman of all living beings, though one, takes a form according to whatever He enters and is outside all forms. — Katha Upanishad, 2.2.9
Atman as per Indian philosophy
Atman is a metaphysical and spiritual concept for Hindus, often discussed in their scriptures with the concept of Brahman. All major orthodox schools of Hinduism – Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta – accept the foundational premise of the Vedas and Upanishads that “Ātman exists.”
In Hindu philosophy, especially in the Vedanta school of Hinduism, Ātman is the first principle. Jainism too accepts this premise, although it has its idea of what that means.
In Samkhya, the oldest school of Hinduism, Puruṣha, the witness-consciousness, is Atman. It is absolute, independent, free, imperceptible, unknowable through other agencies, above any experience by mind or senses, and beyond any words or explanations. It remains pure, “nonattributive consciousness”.
Any designation of purusha comes from Prakriti and is a limitation. Unlike Advaita Vedanta, and like Purva-Mīmāṃsā, Samkhya believes in the plurality of the puruṣas. Samkhya considers ego (asmita, ahamkara) to be the cause of pleasure and pain. Self-knowledge is the means to attain kaivalya, the separation of Atman from the body-mind complex.
The Yogasutra of Patanjali, the foundational text of the Yoga school of Hinduism, mentions Atma in multiple verses, particularly in its last book, where Samadhi is described as the path to self-knowledge and kaivalya. Some earlier mentions of Atman in the Yogasutra include verse 2.5, where evidence of ignorance includes “confusing what is not Atman as Atman”.
Avidya (अविद्या, ignorance) is regarding the transient as eternal, the impure as pure, the pain-giving as joy-giving, and the non-Atman as Atman. — Yogasutra 2.5
In verses 2.19-2.20, Yogasutra declares that pure ideas are the domain of Atman, the perceivable universe exists to enlighten Atman, but while Atman is pure, it may be deceived by complexities of perception or mind. These verses also set the purpose of all experience as a means to self-knowledge.
Early atheistic Nyaya scholars, and later theistic Nyaya scholars, both made substantial contributions to the systematic study of Atman. They posited that even though the “self” is intimately related to the knower, it can still be the subject of knowledge.
The Nyaya scholars defined Atman as an imperceptible substance that is the substrate of human consciousness, manifesting itself with or without qualities such as desires, feelings, perception, knowledge, understanding, errors, insights, sufferings, bliss, and others. Nyaya school not only developed its theory of Atman, but it also contributed to Hindu philosophy in several ways.
The Vaisheshika school of Hinduism, using its non-theistic theories of atomistic naturalism, posits that Ātman is one of the four eternal non-physical substances without attributes, the other three being kala (time), dik (space), and manas (mind). Time and space, stated Vaiśeṣika scholars, are eka (one), Nitya (eternal), and Vibhu (all-pervading). Time and space are indivisible realities, but the human mind prefers to divide them to comprehend the past, present, future, relative place of other substances and beings, direction, and coordinates in the universe.
Unlike all other schools of Hinduism, Mimamsaka scholars considered ego and Atman as the same. Within Mimamsa school, there was a divergence of beliefs. Kumārila, for example, believed that Atman is the object of I-consciousness, whereas Prabhakara believed that it is the subject of I-consciousness.
Mimamsaka Hindus believed that what matters is virtuous actions and rituals completed with perfection, and it is this that creates merit and imprints knowledge on Atman, whether one is aware or not aware of Atman. Their foremost emphasis was formulation and understanding of laws/duties/virtuous life (dharma) and consequent perfect execution of kriyas (actions).
Atman in Buddhism
Applying the disidentification of ‘no-self’ to the logical end, Buddhism does not assert an unchanging essence, any “eternal, essential and absolute something called a soul, self or atman,” According to Jayatilleke, the Upanishadic inquiry fails to find an empirical correlate of the assumed Atman, but assumes its existence, and, states Mackenzie, Advaitins “reify consciousness as an eternal self.” In contrast, the Buddhist inquiry “is satisfied with the empirical investigation which shows that no such Atman exists because there is no evidence” states Jayatilleke.
The notion of Buddha nature is controversial, and “eternal self” concepts have been vigorously attacked. These “self-like” concepts are neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality.
Influence of Atman-concept on Hindu Ethics
The theory in Upanishads had a profound impact on ancient ethical theories and dharma traditions now known as Hinduism. The earliest Dharmasutras of Hindus recite Atman theory from the Vedic texts and Upanishads, and on its foundation build precepts of dharma, laws, and ethics. Atman’s theory, particularly the Advaita Vedanta and Yoga versions, influenced the emergence of the theory of Ahimsa (non-violence against all creatures), the culture of vegetarianism, and other theories of ethical, dharmic life.
The Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras integrate the teachings of the Atman theory. Apastamba Dharmasutra, the oldest known Indian text on dharma, for example, titles Chapters 1.8.22 and 1.8.23 as “Knowledge of the Atman” and then recites,
There is no higher object than the attainment of the knowledge of Atman. We shall quote the verses from the Veda which refer to the attainment of the knowledge of the Atman. All living creatures are the dwelling of him who lies enveloped in matter, who is immortal, who is spotless. A wise man shall strive after the knowledge. It is he [Self] who is the eternal part in all creatures, whose essence is wisdom, who is immortal, unchangeable, pure; he is the universe, he is the highest goal. – 188.8.131.52-7
Freedom from anger, from excitement, from rage, from greed, from perplexity, from hypocrisy, from hurtfulness (from injury to others); Speaking the truth, moderate eating, refraining from calumny and envy, sharing with others, avoiding accepting gifts, uprightness, forgiveness, gentleness, tranquility, temperance, amity with all living creatures, yoga, honorable conduct, benevolence and contentedness – These virtues have been agreed upon for all the ashramas; he who, according to the precepts of the sacred law, practices these, becomes united with the Universal Self. – 184.108.40.206— Knowledge of the Atman, Apastamba Dharma Sūtra, ~ 400 BCE
This precept against injuring any living being appears together with Atman theory in hymn 8.15.1 of Chandogya Upanishad (ca. 8th century BCE), then becomes central in the texts of Hindu philosophy, entering the dharma codes of ancient Dharmasutras and later era Manu-Smriti.
Ahimsa theory is a natural corollary and consequence of “Atman is universal oneness, present in all living beings. It connects and pervades everyone. Hurting or injuring another being is hurting the Atman, and thus one’s self that exists in another body”. This conceptual connection between one’s Atman, the universal, and Ahimsa starts in Isha Upanishad, develops in the theories of the ancient scholar Yajnavalkya, and inspired Gandhi as he led the non-violent movement against colonialism in the early 20th century.
Similarities with Greek Atman Philosophy
The concept and its discussions in Hindu philosophy parallel with psuchê (soul) and its discussion in ancient Greek philosophy. Eliade notes that there is a capital difference, with schools of Hinduism asserting that liberation of Atman implies “self-knowledge” and “bliss”. Similarly, the self-knowledge conceptual theme of Hinduism parallels the “know thyself” conceptual theme of Greek philosophy.
How to attain Moksha by realizing Atman?
In conclusion, Atman is a profound concept that holds significant importance in various Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions, most notably in Hinduism and Buddhism. It refers to the eternal and indivisible essence or soul that resides within every living being. While it may be a complex and abstract concept, its exploration offers a profound perspective on the nature of reality, self-discovery, and the interconnectedness of all life. It reminds us of the inherent divinity within each individual and the potential for transcendence beyond the limitations of the physical world. By recognizing and realizing the essence of Atman, one can embark on a transformative journey toward spiritual awakening and liberation.
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