Are Soul and Atman (Self) the Same?

Soul or Self

by Jayaram V

Question: Are Soul and Atman (Self) the same?

The question is not as simple as it appears. We have the same problem using the word “God” in Hinduism. The God of Abrahamic religions is not the same as the Brahman or Isvara of Hinduism, although we tend to use these words interchangeably. Sometimes, it is difficult to find Sanskrit equivalents in English with the same meaning and subtle nuances, or vice versa.

When it happens, we have to be content with near equivalents. When we speak or write in English about Hindu doctrinal matters, we may often use the word soul rather than self because the latter may not fit into an English idiomatic expression or may sound odd. Further, the word “self” in English can mean different things in different contexts and may even confuse those who are not familiar with Hinduism.

The soul and the self

When loosely translated, the soul and the self both refer to atma or atman only. However, the Abrahamic soul and the Hindu atman are not the same as one can see from the following explanation.

First, the self in Hinduism may point to an individual self (atman) as well as the supreme self (Brahman). In the body it is the lord of the body and mind. In the world, it is the lord of the world, and in the universe, it is the lord of the universe. In theistic schools of Hinduism, we use the word Isvara to denote them all. The soul usually refers to an individual soul, although in English language it is rarely used to refer to God. who is also known as the Holy Ghost.

Second, the self represents subjective reality, and the soul, the objective reality. The self has no attributes, no form, nor individuality, no subtle body, no distinguishing qualities. It is infinite, indestructible, eternal, supreme, self-existing, self-illuminating, self-knowing, subjective, beyond the mind and body, without any corporeality whatsoever. It is a subjective reality, which means it can neither be objectified nor known, other than by itself.

In contrast, the Christian soul is more like the subtle body. It has ethereality or a subtle body, which is distinguishable by name and form. It is perceptible in special circumstances and even communicable through extrasensory powers of the mind, in contrast to the Self, which is beyond the senses and the mind. According to Christian beliefs, upon death, a soul leaves the body and rests in heaven until the Judgment Day. On that day, even their bodies will rise to heaven and join the souls.

In Hinduism we believe that once a person dies, the soul leaves the body forever, while the body returns to the elements through cremation. In other words, in Hinduism the distinction between the Self and the body is very clear. They belong to different realms. The distinction between them remains even when they coexist together in a living being. You cannot also perceive the self by any means other than through oneness or self-absorption.

Third, the Self remains pure even when it exists in the body of a living being. The actions of the being do not affect it at all. Since it is eternally immutable, incorruptible and indestructible, it remains pure and undisturbed even amidst the impurities of life. This is not the case with the Christian soul. When it exists upon earth, it is corruptible and vulnerable to sin and suffering, and requires cleansing through allegiance to Christ and Christian faith, baptism, forgiveness and redemption.

Fourth, in Hinduism we believe that the Self exists in all, even in animals, birds, plants and microorganisms and in the beings of the celestial (mid-region) and subterranean (underworld) worlds. We also believe that the self in all these beings passes through several births and deaths and remain bound to the mortal world, until liberation is achieved.

Fifth, the soul is more like the subtle body (linga sarira). In Hinduism we believe that the Self in its embodied state is surrounded by five sheaths namely the gross body, the breath body, the mind body, the intelligence body and the bliss body. The gross body is what we perceive as the body with organs. The remaining sheaths are subtle and imperceptible to the ordinary senses. We may enter them in dream states or subtle states. However, it may so happen that sometimes in special circumstances (as in case of suicides, premature death, etc.) the Self may depart from the body with a well-formed subtle body before the completion of its natural lifespan, and may wander around in the mid-region until it is liberated. These are more like the Abrahamic souls.

The concept of liberation is foreign to the Abrahamic religions. According to them, each soul spends but one lifetime upon earth and returns to heaven where it awaits the Judgment Day. Once they are chosen by God for their allegiance and conduct, they live eternally, regaining their earthly bodies through resurrection. In other words, the souls are not independent entities. They depend upon God for their existence and redemption.

Thus, you can see that although we tend to use synonymously the words soul and self for convenience, they do not point to the same reality. The self is also called Purusha (the person) in Hinduism, in contrast to Prakriti (the body, materiality or Nature). The Self is pure consciousness, beyond the formations, structures (tattvas) and manifestations of Nature. Names and forms arise when that Self becomes reflected in the field of Nature. They are temporary and destructible.

Individual Self and supreme Self

Further, although the self is said to be without attributes and distinguishing qualities, it is often described in the Upanishad as having the size of an atom or a thumb, being located in the heart or in the place between the eyebrows, having the brilliance of a thousand suns, or having the appearance of a flame, and so on. These descriptions create the contradictory impression that the self may indeed have some attributes. This because various schools of Hinduism interpret the nature of Self differently as discussed below.

In Advaita (the school of nondualism), Brahman is the only ultimate reality. Everything else is an illusion, projection or appearance of the Brahman within himself. It means that even Isvara, the supreme Self and Atman the individual self are temporary appearances only within the supreme reality of Brahman. They disappear when they are withdrawn into Brahman.

The Vishistadvaita (qualified nondualism) school recognizes three realities instead of one namely Brahman (the supreme Self), the individual self and Nature or matter. Of them, Brahman is the only independent reality and the other two are independent. The individual self and the supreme self are different, but internally inseparable. The Supreme Self (God) is Brahman with qualities, while the individual self has knowledge as its attribute, which is subject to expansion and contraction according to its spiritual progress.

According to the Dvaita school, duality exists between not only the Supreme Self and the individual self but also between one individual self and another. The individual selves are also distinguishable from each other, just as the souls of Abrahamic faiths according to their gunas, knowledge, state of liberation, purity of intelligence, etc.

Some of the differences continue even after they attain liberation. They all depend upon God for their salvation and existence. Although the individual selves represent the subjective reality, from God’s perspective, they all exist in his objective realm as his dependent creations, just as the thoughts and images and the organs in our bodies exist in us.

The Samkhya and Yoga schools regard individual self (purusha) as the ultimate reality. Each individual-self is pure consciousness, infinite and indistinguishable from other selves. They are numerous and independent, each having an existence of its own while the Supreme Self (God or Isvara) does not exist at all. Once an individual self is liberated, it remains free forever.

The Vaisheshika school categorized Self as one of the nine substances (dravya). They agree that the self is omnipresent eternal. However, during its bondage to the cycle of births and deaths it is limited by physical and mental organs with which it becomes associated and develops attributes such as desire, cognition, perception, attraction, aversion, feelings, emotions, sin, merit, mind, consciousness, etc. They disappear when they are released. In the state of liberation, the self does not possess any attributes or qualities or even consciousness. Thus, according to the Vaisheshikas, during its bondage and transmigration the self is very much like a soul with qualities and attributes.

Different types of selves

There are further distinctions in Hinduism, which are explained below. Although many texts describe the individual selves as indistinguishable, pure and indescribable, they are often distinguished into pure selves (suddha), eternally pure selves (nitya suddha), impure and bound selves (baddha) and eternally impure and bound selves (nitya baddha). These distinctions arise in conjunction with the state of liberation as shown below.

  • The eternally pure selves are never subject to corporeality. They remain pure and unbound forever in the highest realm of Brahman or Isvara.
  • The pure selves are liberated selves, which were bound to the cycle of births and deaths before they attained liberation.
  • The impure selves refer to the embodied selves which are currently going through the cycle of births and deaths, and which may one day become liberated through spiritual effort.
  • Finally, the eternally impure selves refer to the irredeemable selves, which cannot be liberated by any means since they reside in the evilest beings of the lower worlds. Sometimes, they may take birth upon earth and create havoc.

It is important to remember that although we may call them pure and impure selves, in truth they are all pure and incorruptible, even when they may reside in different bodies or in different states of liberation and bondage. There are further distinctions in Hinduism, which are explained below.

Thus, you can see that on the surface we may speak about soul and self as if they are synonymous or represent the same entities, but in reality, they may be referring to different entities. Although there are divergent views about the Self in Hinduism, the most popular opinion is that the Self is subjective, eternal, indestructible, formless, infinite, incorporeal, pure consciousness. When we use the word "soul" in conjunction with Hinduism, it should be interpreted as Self only, unless it is explicitly used to mean something else.

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