Atman is the immortal aspect of the mortal existence, the
self, which is
hidden in every object of creation including man. It is the
microcosm, representing the macrocosm in each of us, imparting
to us divine qualities and possibilities and providing us with
the reason to exist and experience the pains and pleasures of
Atman is Brahman Itself, the
very Self which descends down into the elements of nature
through self-projection and participates Itself in the game of
self-induced illusion and
pure Delight. But bound by the senses
and limited by the sensory knowledge and sensory perceptions,
we, the jivas, do not perceive the
truth. We go out, get involved and in the process forget who we
are. It is like a man who travels out into distant lands and
forgets his roots or his homeland. "The self-existent Lord
pierced the senses to make them turn
outward. Thus we look to the external world and see not the
Self with in us."
The Self is the silent partner in all our deeds and
experiences, the observer and the indweller of all embodied
beings. Its nature cannot be explained or described in human
language adequately, as it is beyond the senses and the mind.
"There the eyes cannot travel, nor speech nor mind. Nor do we
know how to explain it to the disciples. It is other than the
known and beyond the unknown."
It can only be experienced when all the sensory activity
ceases to impact the mind, when the mind itself is freed from
the movement of thoughts and sense objects, and the torment of
desires, which are the prime cause of all human activity and
suffering, subside into quietude. The experience comes " When
the mind and the five senses are stilled and when the intellect
is stilled ....They say that Yoga is complete stillness in
which one enters that state of Oneness."
Although it is described as a flame, of the size of thumb,
which is said to exist between the eye brows physically , or in
the heart of all emotionally , its exact location is uncertain.
It has no physical or mental dimensions as such, other than as
a mere reflection or an idea in the mind. But unquestionably He
exists and He alone is real. All else is false and withers
away, crushed by the weight of sins and pressures of time.
We are told, "The adorable one is seated in the heart and
rules the breath of life. All the senses pay homage to him.
When He breaks out of the body in freedom from the bonds of
flesh, what else remains? This Self is Supreme." We are also
told, "Above the senses is the mind, above the mind the
intellect, above that is the ego and above the ego is the
unmanifest cause. And beyond is Brahman, omnipresent and
The ego is Atman's poor cousin, the false center, which
assumes the position of control and ownership, where as in
actual reality it is a mere reflection, a product of illusion
and a mental projection, born out of sensory experiences and
the accumulation of memories and thoughts. While the basis of
Atman is reality, permanence and Bliss, the nature of ego is
illusion, impermanence and suffering.
The ego of a living being is permanently situated in
ignorance and gloom and needs to be rescued from eternal doom
and damnation by the indwelling Atman. The ego is a false
reflection of it. The Katha Upanishad explains the relative
status of the two selves in this manner, "There are two selves,
the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When one raises
above I, me and mine, the Atman reveals Itself as the real
The Mundaka Upanishad is more explicit and poetic, "Like
two birds perched on the same tree, intimate friends, the ego
and the self, dwell in the same body. The former eats the sweet
and sour fruits of life, while the later looks on with
This symbolism is further expanded in this verse of the
Katha Upanishad, "Know the Self as the Lord of Chariot, the
body as the chariot itself, the buddhi as the charioteer and
the mind as reins. The senses are said to be the horses and
selfish desires as the roads they (the senses) travel. When the
Self is confused with the body, mind and senses, they say that
he appears to enjoy pleasures and suffer sorrow."
Although Atman is located in all of us, we cannot know It or
understand It adequately with our ordinary awareness. "There no
eye can penetrate, no voice, no mind. Nor do we know how to
understand it or preach it." In the Kena
Upanishad the teacher explain the difficulty to the
students in the following words, "If you think that you know
the Self you know not." And the student admits," I do not think
I know the Self, nor can I say I know Him not."
And in the
Katha Upanishad, Yama, the Lord of Death explains to
Nachiketa," The Self cannot be known through the study of
scriptures, nor thorough intellect nor through hearing learned
discourses. It can be attained only by those whom the Self
chooses." He reemphasizes the same point again else where.
The problem is further explained and the way to reach Atman
is also suggested to the students in the
Kena Upanishad, " The ignorant thinks that the Self can be
known by the intellect, but the enlightened one knows that He
is beyond the duality of the knower and the known."
The idea is that Atman cannot be realized by the ordinary
consciousness, where the senses are
active and where there is the interference of
the mind in the process of awareness. There cannot be an
experience of Atman where there is this gulf of "knowing"
between the knower and the known. He who knows It, knows It not
It is the mind and
the senses which stand between the two poles of reality,
the knower and the known, and prevent the ordinary
consciousness from realizing the true nature of Atman .
The mind is thus an imperfect instrument with an inherent
inability to understand and realize Atman. "The truth of Self
cannot come from him who has not realized that he is the Self.
The intellect cannot reveal the Self beyond its duality of
subject and object."
But how does one realize the Atman? What is the process?
"The self cannot be known by he who does not desist himself
from unrighteous ways, does not control his senses, nor stills
his mind and does not practice meditation," explains Yama to
Nachiketa and also adds, "This awakening you have known comes
not through logic and scholarship, but from close association
with a realized teacher."
But mere association with a teacher may not again be
helpful, unless there is an inner and deep commitment to know
the truth. "The Self cannot be known through the study of the
scriptures, nor through intellect, nor through learned
discourses. The self can be attained by only those whom the
Self chooses. Verily to them does the Self reveals Itself."
The connection between the outer and the inner worlds is not
direct and straight. There are many intermittent stages to pass
through and conditions to achieve and obstacles to over come
before reaching the final goal. In
Mandukya Upanishad, we are told that the self is four fold
- The wakeful Vaishwanara, the Universal Male (the ego),
- The dreaming Taijasa, the enjoyer of subtle objects and
the Lord of the luminous mind, (the astral),
- The mysterious Pragna, the deep Sleeper and the Lord of
- Atman the eternal, the Incommunicable, the end of
phenomena, Brahman Itself.
Perhaps this may not be the entire truth for so mysterious
is the inward journey and so inadequately is equipped the human
mind to record the experiences of the spirit, that there may be
deeper and other planes of consciousness between the wakeful
state and the Atman, about whom we have yet to gain knowledge.
But what about the ultimate experience? what happens when
one reaches there? No one seems to explain that experience
accurately and to our complete satisfaction. It is beyond human
language, for our words do not carry the intensity and
luminosity of that transcendent experience.
At the same time the delight of the experience cannot be
contained in the secret caves of the heart, as it gushes forth
with the thundering sounds of pure joy into open. Thus for the
benefit of the posterity and the ordinary, the experiences show
themselves in some feeble analogies and vague symbolism.
In the Isa Upanishad we come across
one such instance. The seeker first prays to
Brahman, " The face of truth is hidden behind your golden
lid, O Sun. May you remove the lid so that I may see the golden
Truth !" And when the request is granted and the splendor
manifests Itself in him he, submerged in pure bliss, lets out
these words, "In truth I am Him."
Perhaps that is the ultimate Truth a person can discover in
his or her spiritual journey, the Truth that remains hidden
behind the golden lid eager to show its resplendent golden face
while we struggle and strive in the mortal world with vague
yearnings and uncertain future.