Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self

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by Jayaram V

Hindus believe in the existence of soul, which is eternal, invisible,imperishable, unchanging and exists beyond the grasp of the mind and the senses. Hindus call it Atma or Atman, that which is deep inside. It is derived from the root word "an" which means to breath. Atman is that which breathes. Atman is ajobhaga , the unborn part of man (Rigveda), which is different from and not to be confused with neither the body nor the mind.

According to Hinduism, a person is evolved to the extent he is aware of the true nature of his self. It is this awareness which distinguishes an ignorant person from the self realized one. In the Chandogya Upanishad we come across an interesting story. Virochana, the demon from the world of demons and Indra, the lord of the heavens, went to Prajapati and sought clarification on the nature of self.

Prajapati first explained to them that the body was the self. Virochana satisfied with this explanation went away, with the belief that the body was indeed the soul which became the doctrine of the demons.

But Indra not satisfied with this explanation stayed back and pursued his enquiry. Through stages and after many sessions with Prajapathi, he came to the realization that the soul was neither the body, nor the dream self, nor the self in sleep, but the spirit that always existed in pure state beyond all these states.

The self is realized only when one withdraws the senses from the sense objects like a tortoise and looks inward. The Mandukya Upanishad describes the four states of consciousness, which one experiences as he passes through the waking consciousness into deep sleep.

These are Vaishwanara, the wakeful state., followed by Taijasa, the dream state, then pragna, the deep sleep state and finally ,Turiya, the transcendental state in which one experiences the real self. "It is the state which has no elements, which cannot be spoken of , into which the world is resolved, benign, non-individual." What exists beyond the self is the unmanifest, avyaktam. (Katha Upanishad 7).

Self-realization should be the object of human endeavor. Every thing else leads to pain, suffering, birth and rebirth. He who realizes his self goes beyond this world into the world of Brahman never to return again.

Hindus believe that the individual soul and the universal soul are the two sides of the same reality. Atman is Purusha who enters the body as a part of His creative process. Since the body is made up of the gunas, he comes under the influence of illusion and develops a false identity called the sense of self or the sense of individuality, also known as ego or ahamkara.

A devout Hindu's primary concern is how to overcome his ego sense and discover his true self. For that he would resort to different means, starting with simple idol worship, performing household rituals, observing samskaras (sacraments), and ending up as a seeker of truth either through the path of knowledge (Gnana), or the path of action (karma) or the path of renunciation (sanyas) or the path of devotion (bhakti).

The scriptures suggest three simple methods to realize the self, namely sravanam (listening), mananam (thinking or remembering) and nidhidhyasana (concentration and meditation on the self).

Atman cannot be realized by reading books or indulging in rituals, but only through self-control, discipline of the mind and body, withdrawal of the senses and elimination of all forms of desires. Or he may also experience it through intense devotion obtaining the grace of God.

It is not known to many that when a Hindu worships an idol, he simultaneously, and in many cases unknowingly, worships his inner self, which he symbolically installs in the object of his worship before performing the ritual of worship. The process is generally referred as prana-prathishta, or "establishing life breath."

It is also interesting to note that among the many reasons why Hindus bear the names of gods and goddesses as their personal names, one is that it is a way of acknowledging the presence of god in man.

Man is a god in the making. Inside his body resides the eternal soul whose ultimate destiny is the Supreme Self. "The breath that exists in him is also the same life breath that sustains this universe. His body is verily a living temple, a city of nine gates, in which resides the divine soul."

Hindu Scriptures urges us not to identify ourselves with our bodies and minds which are sense dependent, perishable, and unreal. The body has to be subjected to control and discipline, which is generally accomplished by way of fasting, observing austerities and in some extreme cases through pain and self-torture. (But these are not an end in themselves. In many cases we are advised to desist from going to the extremes in our eagerness to gain control over our bodies.)

On the positive side, the body has to be treated as a vehicle of truth and should be kept in a state of good health, free from both internal and external impurities. The practice of yoga is to make the body supple and effective so that it would be a helpful instrument in the self- realization.

At the time of death, the soul discards the body the way we discard a new garment. At the time of rebirth it assumes a new one. Between death and rebirth it may either go to a heaven or a hell depending upon its previous deeds, but once the fruit of its previous karma is exhausted, it would definitely come back to earth.

According to Hinduism, the soul exists in all beings, including plants and animals. Even the mineral world is not devoid of the Supreme Spirit. "He exists in all and all exist in Him." The whole universe is thus very sacred, pervaded by the Universal Self.

The beings as well as the elements are in a continuous state of evolution and the souls that reside in them move through the cycle of births and deaths till they attain union with the Supreme Soul. This is in short the concept of soul according to Hinduism.

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