The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism

Soul or Self

by Jayaram V

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 earthly life.

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 without attributes."

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 Self."

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 detachment.".

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 really.

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 :

  1. The wakeful Vaishwanara, the Universal Male (the ego),
  2. The dreaming Taijasa, the enjoyer of subtle objects and the Lord of the luminous mind, (the astral),
  3. The mysterious Pragna, the deep Sleeper and the Lord of Wisdom and
  4. 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.

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