Atma or Atman, the Individual Self in Hinduism

Atman, the Soul

by Jayaram V

A fundamental difference between Hinduism and Buddhism is that Hinduism believes in an eternal soul whereas Buddhism does not believe in it. Buddhism regards the Self in the being as transient and identifies it as the not-Self or Anatma (Anatta). The Buddhist Anatma is an aggregate of parts, not an indivisible whole. It becomes dissolved into an indefinable state upon Nirvana.

Jainism believes that souls (atmas) are distinguishable by their form as well as size and possess materiality. Some souls are extremely minute and may live in clusters while some, which reside in large animals such as elephants are much larger. The bound souls are subject to transmigration but the liberated souls are all knowing and reside in the highest realm of the universe.

In Hinduism, atma means that which breathes. In the early Vedic literature, Atma was identified with breath (prana). Since breath is vital to the continuation of life in the body and the functioning of other organs, it is considered the lord of the body. In the subsequent literature, the Self is identified as the lord (Isvara) and breath as a deity (Vayu).

According to Hinduism and its various schools such as Samkhya and Yoga each being possesses a Self (Atma) and a not-Self (Anatma). The Self remains hidden in the body (the not-Self), which is made up of the finite realities (tattvas) of Nature such as the senses, the mind, the ego, etc., and may contain both gross and subtle bodies or only subtle bodies.

The Upanishads describe the Self as lord who lives inside the city of nine or eleven gates or openings. The Yogasutras (2.5) declares that in the state of ignorance (avidya) one perceives the transient, impure and painful not-self as the eternal, pure, joyful Self. Attachment to not-self and identification with it lead to bondage and suffering.

The body exists for the enjoyment of the Self. The individual Self is a replica of the Cosmic Self or Purusha. Hence it also goes by the name Purusha (the Universal Male).

According to Saivism in the phenomenal world called Samsara, the individual Self is subject to the impurities of egoism (anava), delusion (moha) and attachments (pasas).

The Upanishads abound in the descriptions of Self. A closer study reveals that the concept of Self in the Upanishads emerged overtime through different phases of understanding from that of a breathing self to an eternal Self.

The Hindu concept of Self is different from the Judea Christian concept of soul. The Christian soul is subtle, but it has qualities and even a name and form. They are identifiable by their individual personalities at least until the Judgment Day.

In Hinduism, the Self in its boundless state is pure, eternal and without qualities, beingness or individuality. In the pure state as the liberated soul, it is indistinguishable from other Selves. However, in the embodied state or in the bound state it has both gross and subtle bodies, and like the Christian soul is identifiable.

According to Advaita, the individual soul is an illusion. It is the same Self which appears in the body as an embodied Self, but upon liberation it disappears into the universal Self just as the waves subside into the ocean.

There is no equivalent word for Atman in English. In English the word Self conveys a different meaning, but for lack of proper expression and convenience, we are accustomed to use the word soul for the Self.

Both contemporary and ancient literature of Hinduism abound in the descriptions of Atman, which is considered the ultimate essence of all existence. The following are few selected quotations on Atma or Atman.

Quotations on Atma, the Self

"Or individual soul is the immortal and spiritual body of light that animates life and reincarnates again and again until all necessary karmas are created and resolved and its essential unity with God is fully realized." Subramuniyaswami.

"Our soul body was created in the image and likeness of the Primal Soul, but it differs from the Primal Soul in that it is immature. While [God] is unevolutionary perfection, we are in the process of evolving." Subramuniyaswami.

"By you this whole universe is pervaded. By you it is sewn and bound as it is. You are pure intelligence by nature. Do not cultivate an impure and narrow mind." Ashtavakra 1.16

"In the interior of the heart, Brahman alone shines in the form of the Atman with direct immediacy as I. To abide in the Atman, I enter the heart with an inquisitive mind or by diving deep within or by controlling the breath." Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi

"One who knows is as the killer and the one who thinks this as the killed, both of them do not know that this neither kills nor becomes killed. The Self neither does born nor dies. At no time it was not non-exist in the past, will not be non-existent in future, nor will it become non-existent again. Unborn, eternal, permanent and the most ancient, this is not killed when the body is killed. " The Bhagavadgita, Chapter 2.

"In the mortal world, the individual Self is subject to three forces, namely egoism (anava), attachment (pasas) and delusion (maya). When the Self is held by them as a hostage, it is also subject to the law of karma and the cycle of births and deaths. Neither of these pertains to the Self, because He is above all these. They pertain to the domain of the elemental consciousness or the mind. The Self becomes free when the mind and the body are freed from these impurities through the practice of yoga." From Brahman by Jayaram V

"That which is the subtle essence (the root of all) this whole world has for itself. That is true. This is the self. That art thou, Svetaketu." Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7

Like a flame without smoke, the size of a thumb, is the soul; the Lord of the past and the future, the same both today and tomorrow." Katha Upanishad.

"The intrinsic and real nature of all beings is their soul, which is goodness. All is in perfect balance. There are changes, and they may appear evil, but there is no intrinsic evil. Aum. The soul radiates love, is a child of God going through its evolutionary process of growing up into the image and likeness of the Lord. Goodness and mercy, compassion and caring are the intrinsic, inherent or indwelling nature of the soul. Wisdom and pure knowledge, happiness and joy are the intrinsic nature of the soul. Can we believe the soul is anything but goodness, purity and all the refined qualities found within super-consciousness? When God is everywhere, how can there be a place for evil?" Satguru S'ivaya Subramuniyaswami, Dancing with S'iva.

"Each one of us is God (Atman). Nobody is deprived of this. When we realize our Infinite Self, we are replete. There is nothing more to desire. But as long as we do not recognize our own Divinity, we have a yearning. It is yearning for our Divine Self but, blinded by the maya ("illusion") of the world, we mistake this yearning as desire for material pleasures." Kerry Brown, ed. The Essential Teachings of Hinduism.

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