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The Vedic Period in northern India: Part Five: concepts: Atman


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

In Hindu philosophy, Atman is defined as the Self, that is, the True self, as opposed to a self which is part of some phenomenon of existence such as that of an individual human personality, or an elephant.  Depending on one’s position as to duality, the Self is either identical with Brahman (the ultimate reality) (which is called advaita, non-duality, or monism), entirely separate from Brahman (dvaita, duality), or both separate and the same (bhedabheda, dual and non-dual.)  The six orthodox schools of Hinduism all agree that there is atman in every living being, human and animal.

To the advaita school of Hinduism, the atman is the same as the brahman.  In a sense, this is monotheism; here, Brahman and Vishnu are the same, as are all gods and avatars.  Vishnu, the Supreme Being, the Controller of the Entire Universe, Parabrahman, all are one and the same.  This includes the trinity (Trimurti) of Vishnu: Brahma (Rajas), creation or passion; Vishnu (Sattva), preservation or goodness; and Shiva (Tamas), destruction or darkness.  There are over a thousand names for Vishnu, representing different qualities, but in the advaita school they are all fundamentally the same.  Likewise, Vishnu has many avatars, all from the same source.

In the dvaita (dualist) school, Brahman is distinct from atman.  This distinction means that one cannot achieve union with Brahman or liberation during one’s lifetime, only after death.  Brahman is synonymous with Vishnu but separate from the individual atman of each living soul.  The best one can do during one’s lifetime is to reduce the separation to an infinitesimally small distance from Brahman.

Regardless of whether the atman is identical to Brahman or not, the atman is distinct from the ego (what we think of as the individual self.)  The atman does not have an individual personality and feels neither pleasure nor pain.  It is up to the ego to feel.  The ego is referred to as “ahamkara”, which is a combination of “I” and “to do”– meaning that the ego is inseparable from actions.  “Aham” is also translated as “spirit” which may be confusing.  There is a separate web page in Wikipedia for “ahamkara” and, in one section, it refers to the ways in which a person can become confused when bound up in personal possessions or in philosophies.

The ahamkara is distinct from the atman in the sense that the atman is the real owner of consciousness while the ahamkara is the expression of individuality.  This duality (not dvaita, which is different) causes people to misidentify their inner selves with their outer selves, to take their sense of personhood from their possessions, or to mistake their true philosophy as being less important than their defense of their viewpoints.  For example, (as described in Wikipedia) a man may buy a sports car and drive like a racer, even though he is not trained as a race car driver.  Or a woman may receive a diamond tiara and act like a queen, even though she is not of royal blood.

Another example would be someone who comes to believe in pacifism, goes to a demonstration, and gets in a fight with someone who supports the war.  Instead of applying the philosophy of pacifism to their personal life, the person will engage in violence to defend their point of view from counter-demonstrators.  Here the general philosophy is confused with the personal commitment.

The ahamkara is an illusion, but it is a necessary place to start on the path to enlightenment.  One must cultivate patience and forbearance in order to separate oneself from the manifestations of a turbulent world.

This verse comes from the Bhagavad Gita (4.7-8); it describes how Vishnu creates an avatar and sends it into the world to conquer evil whenever it becomes manifest:

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.
For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil,
and for the establishment of righteousness,
I come into being age after age.

The doctrine of “ahimsa” (non-harm to all living beings) is credited to the monistic idea that all living things possess atman in common and thus should not be harmed.  It dates to one of the earliest Vedas, the Isha Upanishad, which is thought to have been composed some time in the early part of the first millenium BCE.  Wikipedia quotes these verses from the Isha Upanishad (hymns 6-8):

And he who sees everything in his atman, and his atman in everything, does not seek to hide himself from that.
In whom all beings have become one with his own atman, what perplexity, what sorrow, is there when he sees this oneness?
He [the self] pervades  all, resplendent, bodiless, woundless, without muscles, pure, untouched by evil; far-seeing, transcendent, self-being, disposing ends through perpetual ages.

The Isha Upanishad predates the Buddha and ahimsa was incorporated into Buddhism.

In Buddhist philosophy, there is no atman.  Buddhists call the concept of atman an illusion (“maya”) and state that “nirvana” is that state of bliss achieved when one realizes that there is no self.  This was an area of active debate between Buddhists and Hindus in the Vedic period and after.  The Hindus believe that “moksha” (liberation) from the cycle of birth and rebirth (whether it is attainable in this life or not until after death) depends on realizing true self-knowledge and self-realization– the understanding that the inner soul is attached to, or part of, the universal soul or Brahman.   Buddhists believe that there is no permanent self.

This is another good place to stop.  I hope that this gives you some relief from thoughts about the pandemic.

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