The Concept of Anatma in Hinduism

Vedas, Sruti

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the meaning and concept anatma or anatta in Hinduism and how it differs from that of Buddhism.

The concept of anatma or Not-self or No Self is common to the liberation theologies and Dharma traditions of Indian origin such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It is an important part of their religious and spiritual doctrines, beliefs and practices. They may go by different names, but the idea of an eternal reality and a temporary reality as the sum of our existence is present in most of them.

Atma refers to an eternal, indestructible, indivisible, invisible, independent and infinite Self or soul, which is beyond the mind and the senses. Anatma refers to that which is not Atma or the eternal Self. It includes everything other than the Self. Practically everything from your mind, body, ego and consciousness to all that which you experience through your mind and senses as the objective reality constitutes anatma or the not-self.

For those who believe in an eternal Self, a living being is made up of Atma and anatma. The Self is held in bondage to the not-Self. All the physical and mental states including those which you experience as thoughts, feelings, sensations, dreams, and dream states also constitute anatma. For those who do not believe in the Self, a being is entirely made up of anatma or not-self only.

In the macrocosm, God is Atma, and his creation is anatma. The entire material universe, both subtle and gross, is anatma. Those who believe in God (Self) hold that he is its support. The entire creation which arises from him is but not-self only. It is unlike God or not-God 1 because he is eternal and his essential nature is endless bliss, whereas his creation is impermanent, unstable and the source of our desires, suffering and bondage.

The Self (Atma) is subjectively experienced. To know it no medium or intermediary is required because it is free from all dependencies and dualities. It is also not known through knowing or ideation, but becomes self-evident when one goes beyond the mind and the senses to become absorbed in it without duality and physical or mental awareness.

In contrast, anatma is objectively experienced when our minds are actively engaged with the sense-objects. Anatma is a dependent reality. It becomes evident only in a state of duality when there is a subject and object relationship. You can know it, feel it and sense it through your mind and senses. We may say that anatma is the perceptual or experiential reality, which arises within the field of mind and the senses in both wakeful and dream states.

Atma does not have predicative relationships. It is completely independent and self-existent. Hence, you cannot empirically or objectively prove the existence of Atma, nor can you bring it into the realm of the mind or the senses to validate any truth concerning it. Inference and scriptural validation are the common intellectual means to acknowledge the existence of the Self, whereas perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana) and expert opinion (sabda) are the best means to know the truths regarding not-self, or draw conclusions about it.

Since the Self can never be proved objectively, it always remains a mystery to the human mind and a subject of speculation, skepticism and conjecture. However, the same is not the case with the not-self. You perceive it, experience it and deal with it almost continuously in both wakeful and dream states. Its subtle states may not be immediately evident to an untrained mind, but they can be observed, analyzed and understood through mindful observation and meditative absorption by overcoming the hindrances of the mind and body.

Hinduism and Buddhism have divergent opinions about Atma and anatma. Hinduism believes in the existence of both Atma and anatma, popularly known as Purusha and Prakriti. Each living being arises from their union. Buddhists believe in the existence of anatma only. For them, the idea of an eternal soul or Self is inconsistent with the nature of existence, which is impermanent and unstable. Therefore, they reject the notion that beings possess eternal souls and can self-exist beyond the objective realm.

Hinduism further holds that only the Self is real and the not-self is unreal or an illusion, meant to distract the beings and keep them in bondage. Some philosophical schools hold that anatma is a projection or super imposition upon the reality of the Self. It is also impure and imperfect. When beings become involved with it through desires and attachments, they suffer from ignorance, delusion and bondage, etc.

Buddhists believe that anatma is the only reality. It is a combination of pure, impure and mixed aspects and realities. One cannot ignore it or wish it away because we are deeply immersed in it, made up of it and surrounded by it. However, since it is the source of suffering, delusion and ignorance, one should approach it with great caution, knowledge and intelligence and practice dharma to escape from its harmful effects. 

These beliefs also influence the way both religions interpret the meaning and purpose of liberation. According to Hinduism, liberation means freedom of the Self or soul from the association and involvement with anatma. Buddhists hold that liberation (Nirvana) means dissolution of the ego or individuality and freedom from anatma itself and thereby from the impermanence, associations, aggregations, beingness and bondage which arise from it.

Strictly speaking, the state of Nirvana is a kind of subjective, boundless state only. Descriptions of Nirvana found in the texts allude to some form of pure and boundless consciousness only, which is free from egoism, relationships, objectivity and formations and which is similar to soul-consciousness. However, Buddhists refuse to label it since they believe that it is an indeterminate state and nothing can definitively be spoken about it.

Such differences between the two also shape the paths recommend for transformation and liberation. Hindus aim to achieve it by purifying and transforming the not-self (mind and body) and making it pure and transparent, so that it becomes identical in many respects to the Self and facilitates union or self-absorption. Final liberation (moksha) arises from self-realization or union or absorption or contact with the Self, which is pure consciousness and free from impurities, distinctions and objectivity or the awareness of otherness.

Buddhists also aim to achieve liberation through the purification of the mind and body by practicing right living on the Eightfold Path. However, according to them Nirvana does not result in any union or absorption with another reality. It is a permanent release from the not-self reality, which is a source of impermanence, pain and suffering, and from the cycle of births and deaths.  Upon Nirvana, beings enter the indeterminate state of indistinguishable and indescribable existence, which is the opposite of not-self and which is often compared to the Buddha mind.

Hinduism and Buddhism were not the only religions which speculated upon the nature of Self and not-self. There were other schools of philosophy which held different opinions about them. For example, the materialistic and atheistic schools acknowledged only anatma as the verifiable and dependable existential reality. However, unlike Buddhism they discounted the possibility of transmigration and rebirth. According to them death was final Nirvana. There was no afterlife or rebirth. Beings originated from and dissolved in anatma only which was made of four elements, fire, water, earth and air. Therefore, the best course left for humans was to live responsibly and make the most of their time upon earth.

The Samkhya school believed in both Atma and anatma. However, they held that the world had no eternal and infinite soul or a deity who presided over everything or who was responsible for creation, preservation and destruction. Nature represented the not-self reality, and had no will of its own. It merely made active a preexisting and hidden or dormant causes and effects to manifest reality. Individual souls existed either in the jivas (living beings) or in a free state. They attained liberation upon becoming free from the hold of Nature and from the cycle of births and deaths

Suggestions for Further Reading

1. Some traditions such as Zoroastrianism or Christianity you may find the not-self reality represented as anti-God or Devil.

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