The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism

Soul or Self

by Jayaram V

Summary: Atman, meaning the breathing one, or the individual Self is one of the most important concepts of Hinduism. It is central to the theme of the Upanishads and the entire Vedic conception of creation and existence. In this essay we will discuss the significance of Atman in Hinduism

Atman is the immortal aspect of our mortal existence, the individual Self, which is hidden in every object of creation including humans. It is the microcosm which represents the macrocosm in each of us, imparting to us divine qualities and possibilities and providing us with consciousness and the reason to exist and experience the pains and pleasures of earthly life.

Atman is Brahman Itself, the very Self which descends into the elements of Nature through self-projection or manifestation and participates personally in the game of self-induced illusion and pure Delight. However, bound by the senses and limited by the ego, bonds, duality and perceptual knowledge, we, the jivas, do not perceive the truth. We go out, become involved and in the process forget who we are. It is like a person who travels to distant lands under a spell and forgets his roots, identity, and homeland.

When you look around, you rarely look in. When you are deeply involved with the world, you lose self-awareness and become immersed in the task at hand. It is how Nature created your mind and body to keep you bound. "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 adequately explained or described in human language, 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 have an impact on 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, and subsides into quietude. The experience of the Self arises "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 the thumb, which is said to exist physically between the eye brows, or psychically in the heart, its exact location is uncertain. It has no physical or mental aspect as such, other than as a mere reflection or an idea in the intelligence of the mind. However, unquestionably He exists, and He only is real. All else is false, or an illusion, which withers away, crushed by the weight of sins, decay of the world, 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 unmanifested cause. And beyond is Brahman, who is omnipresent and without attributes."

The ego is Atman's poor cousin, the false center, which assumes the lordship and ownership of the mind and body, whereas 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 soaked 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 the Chariot, body as the chariot itself, buddhi as the charioteer and mind as the reins. The senses are said to be the horses and selfish desires are the roads by which they travel. When the Self is confused with the body, the mind and the senses, they say that he appears to enjoy pleasures and suffer from 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 explains the difficulty of knowing the Self 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."

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 elsewhere.

In the Kena Upanishad the problem is further explained and the way to reach Atman is also suggested, "The ignorant one 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." Thus, intelligence may give you wisdom and discernment and pave the way, but it cannot give you the experience of pure Self.

The idea which is implied or suggested in the Upanishads is that Atman cannot be realized by ordinary consciousness, when the senses are active and when the mind is unstable, and buddhi, intelligence, is under the influence of desires, delusion and duality, which interfere with the process of knowing and the discernment of truth and right knowledge. There cannot be an experience of Atman when there is the gulf of "knowing" between the knower and the known. He who knows It (as an object), knows It not really.

The mind and the senses stand between the two polarities of the knower and the known, or the subject and object. They prevent the being from knowing and realizing Atman as its very Self. The mind is an imperfect instrument with an inherent inability to understand and discern Atman. "The truth of Self cannot come to him, who has not realized that he is the Self. His intelligence cannot reveal the Self to him, beyond its duality of subject and object."

How does one realize Atman? What is the solution, or the process by which Atman becomes self-evident? The Upanishads are clear. "The self cannot be known by a person who does not restrain himself from unrighteous ways, who does not control his senses and still his mind, and who does not practice meditation or austerity," explains Yama to Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad. He also adds, "This awakening which you have known comes not through logic and scholarship, but from close association with a realized teacher."

However, mere association with a spiritual master may not be very helpful, unless there is an inner and deep commitment and aspiration to know the transcendental Self. "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 who the Self chooses. Verily to them does the Self reveals Itself."

Establishing the connection between the outer and the inner worlds is neither easy nor direct and straightforward. One has to pass through many intermediate states and stages, overcome many obstacles, remove many impurities, silence many noises of the mind and body, suppress undesirable qualities and negative tendencies to reach the final goal.

In the mortal world, the Self is subject to the illusion of states. The Mandukya Upanishad informs us that the self is fourfold:

  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 Prajna, the one who remains in deep sleep and who is the Lord of Wisdom
  4. Atman the eternal, the incommunicable, the end of phenomena, and verily Brahman himself.

Every day, we go through these four states but we do not know who we truly are as we mistake the ego for the Self. Our minds do not have the purity or the force to know transcendental truths or the deepest truths of our own existence beyond the objective experience. The inward journey is difficult and mysterious, and we are inadequately equipped to discern the presence of the Self within us or its infinite truths. There may still be many profound truths and planes of consciousness between our wakeful and deep sleep states, which we may never know.

However, what can be said about the ultimate experience of knowing the Self? What happens when a seeker reaches there? No one seems to know clearly, or describe adequatley what happens when a seeker achieves union with the Self or Brahman. From the experience of others, we understand that the state of self-realization is beyond the faculties of the human mind and cannot adequately be translated into any human language, since words, which belong to the domain of the conditioned mind, do not carry the intensity or the luminosity of transcendental truths. Mysticism itself is a vague field and mystic experiences are even vaguer.

At the same time, we know that there is a palpable secret somewhere in the recesses of our own consciousness. We know it is there because in profound moment we can feel its presence. We know we are different when we are silent and deeply contemplative. Even with all the distractions which the world offers, the delight of the Self cannot be contained forever in the secret caves of the heart.

In the expansive states of the mind, in sumblime states and profound moments when you feel connected to the world or Nature, and in moments of great vulnerability when you feel lost or helpless, the joy and the love of the soul gushes forth into your wakeful mind with the thundering sounds of a wild river and wake you up to the truth of the Self.

Thus, the Self who is the eternal witness does not entirely forsake you. If you manage to express the best of human nature, if you have compassion, love, tolerance and equanimity, and if you overcome the demons of your own mind, you will increasingly feel connected to him and see the world with his eyes.

In the journey of knowing the Self, you may also need the grace of God. In the Isa Upanishad we come across a vague reference to it when a seeker prays to Brahman in the following words, suggesting the importance of devotion. "The face of truth is hidden behind a golden lid, O, Pusan, may you remove the lid so that I may see the golden Truth!" When the request is granted and the Truth, which he was seeking, manifests itself, he reaches the indisputable conclusion in a state of bliss and exclaims, "In truth I am Him."

The Self is the ultimate mystery of human life. To know it is the ultimate goal, which a person may be destined achieve after numerous births by earning great merit. In him the cycle of creation reaches its full circle, when he discovers the Truth that remains hidden behind the golden lid. While people struggle and strive in the mortal world with vague yearnings and unfulfilled desires, a few manage to achieve the almost impossible dream of knowing who they are. And the world worships them.

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