Atman (आत्मन्)

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Atman (Samskrit : आत्मा) is one of the primary teachings of the Upanishads along with Brahman, Maya and Karma. The eternal question, the mystery of death is solved by the Upanishads. They state that the inmost core of every person is not the body, nor the mind, nor the ego, but Atman (referred to as Soul or Self). Atman is the adhyatmik essence in all creatures, their real innermost essential being. It is eternal, ageless. Atman is that which is described at the deepest level of one's existence.

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

In addition to the visible gross body, the Upanishads talk about the Atma (Soul), which is distinct from, and independent of, the Indriyas (organs) sensory and motor, from the mind (in its two-fold aspect manas and buddhi) and from the Prana (vital force) with its different functions.

Here when Paramatama (परमात्मा) is addressed as Atman (आत्मन्), a confusion arises with regards to whether the discussion is about a living being or the supreme consciousness?

Brahma sutras, by Vedavyasa, (1-4-19 sutras) explain this as vakyanvayata (वाक्यन्वयत). "The word atma here has to be seen here as Paramatama (परमात्मा)".

आत्मतत्वम् ॥ Nature of Atma

Different upanishads portray different aspects of the Atma that[1]

  • Atma is unchanged and independent of body (Sharira); only it manifests itself more and more through these bodies.
  • It is distinct from the sense organs, manas and Prana (vital force)
  • It has no origin, because it is immaterial and thus beyond space, time and causation under which everything material exists.
  • It is indestructible, outlives the body and plays a chief role in punarjanma (reincarnation)
  • It goes after death to different worlds, high and low, and according to its past work and knowledge may return to this world
  • Its limitations are only for a particular time (until it is under the spell of Avidya as per the Advaita Vedantins)
  • It is said to have three states having attributes - waking (in which it experiences the outside world), dream (it experiences the inner world of mind) and deep sleep (a blissful state)
  • It is in reality ominipotent, onmipresent in the fourth state (turiya) when it is described as essentially identical with the Brahman (the unmanifested)

बहुत्त्वम् ॥ Manyness

Upanishads again are the source of answers to the existence of the multitude of beings in this creation. Many texts discuss about manifestation of beings (Jivatmas) at the start of Kalpa (origin of creation) when all beings stream forth from the unmanifested Mulaprakrti, and at the time of Pralaya (time of dissolution) all these separated existences again dissolve back into Mulaprkrti. In the following few slokas, the coming forth of the Many is stated.[2]

अव्यक्ताद्व्यक्तयः सर्वाः प्रभवन्त्यहरागमे । रात्र्यागमे प्रलीयन्ते तत्रैवाव्यक्तसंज्ञके ॥८- १८॥

परस्तस्मात्तु भावोऽन्योऽव्यक्तोऽव्यक्तात्सनातनः । यः स सर्वेषु भूतेषु नश्यत्सु न विनश्यति ॥८- २०॥

अव्यक्तोऽक्षर इत्युक्तस्तमाहुः परमां गतिम् । (Bhag. Gita. 8.18-21)

Meaning : From the Unmanifested all the manifested stream forth at the coming of day; at the coming of night they dissolve, even in That called the Unmanifested. There exist, higher than that Unmanifested, another Unmanifested, which in the destroying of all beings, is not destroyed[2]

That Brahman in its form as Hiranyagarbha (the conditioned form) presides all over the deities, who are none other that Its manifestations, are described in the Kenopanishad.

Kenopanishad of Samaveda, gives collective instructions;

तद्ध तद्वनं नाम तद्वनमित्युपासितव्यं स य एतदेवं वेदाभिहैनँ सर्वाणि भूतानि संवाञ्छन्ति ॥ ६॥ (Kena. Upan. 4.6)

Meaning : The Brahman is well known as the one adorable to all creatures; It is to be meditated on with the help of the name tadvanam (तद्वनं). All creatures surely pray to anyone who meditates on It in this way.[3]

Taittiriya Upanishad says,एसःयेव नन्द्याति || esahyeva nandayaati meaning He gives bliss to all (that is परमात्मा || Paramatama).

Mundakopanishad explicitly mentions the distinctness of Atman thus[4]

बृहच्च तद् दिव्यमचिन्त्यरूपं सूक्ष्माच्च तत् सूक्ष्मतरं विभाति ।

दूरात् सुदूरे तदिहान्तिके च पश्यन्त्विहैव निहितं गुहायाम् ॥ ७ ॥

न चक्षुषा गृह्यते नापि वाचा नान्यैर्देवैस्तपसा कर्मण वा ।

ज्ञानप्रसादेन विशुद्धसत्त्व-स्ततस्तु तं पश्यते निष्कलं ध्यायमानः ॥ ८ ॥

एषोऽणुरात्मा चेतसा वेदितव्यो यस्मिन् प्राणः पञ्चधा संविवेश ।

प्राणैश्चित्तं सर्वमोतं प्रजानां यस्मिन् विशुद्धे विभवत्येष आत्मा ॥ ९ ॥ (Mund. Upan. 7-9)[5]

Yajnavalkya explains, during the highest stage of yoga, जीवात्मा || jivatama is drowned in the bliss of embrace of the परमात्मा || Paramatama, this परमात्मा || Paramatama bliss is described with an analogue;

"तद्यथा प्रियाय स्त्रिया स्त्रियासंपर्ष्वक्तः ||"

"tadyatha priyaya striya striya samparshvaktah ||"

Meaning : When the husband and wife enjoy the union as if they are one, without the duality of outside or inside. (IV-3-21).

Brhadaranyaka Upanishad explains, Atma (परमात्मा || Paramatama) is more lovable than son, friend and everything and everyone else. Without this understanding if some one loves other things then the paramatma, will inspire him by creating opposition. Therefore it is explained that one should love the परमात्मा || Paramatama as the only lovable person. आत्मानमेव प्रिय मुपसिता || atmanameva priya mupasita such love will never be exhausted, it is eternal and gives rise to अम्रत्व || Amratva (immortality) (1-8)

Bhagavad Gita quotes Sri Krishna,

प्रियो हि जननिनोत्यार्थं अहम् स च मम् प्रियः || (Bhag Gita. VII-17)

priyo hi jananinotyartham aham sa ca mam priyah || (Bhag Gita. VII-17)

Meaning : Just like for the jnani i am lovable beyond measure, similarly he is very dear to me.

With this background He also declares, with great pride that such jnani is my very soul, without him I sustain no life air.

Vishnupurana, talks about Prahalada, who was bhakta with wisdom, who even after being bitten by snakes expresses thus;

सत्त्वसक्तमतिः कृष्णे दह्यमनो महारोगैः | न विवेदात्मनो गत्रम् तर्तत्यल्हद संस्तितः || (Vish. Pura. VII-18)

"sattvasaktamatih krsne dahyamano maharogaih |"

"na vivedatmano gatram tartatyalhada samstitah || (Vish. Pura. VII-18)"

Prahalada’s deep love removed the awareness of even the snake bite.

This is one of the very illustrious examples for loving the Paramatama as most dear. The lord being conquered by such भक्त || bhakta (with wisdom) has declared them as most magnanimous (VII-18 of Vishnupurana). In other words, anyone for my cause receives even little, it is like giving everything of mine and showing great kindness. This is the proof of greatest and unlimited compassion and kindness.

Hence He is सकलफलप्रदात्रः || sakalphalapradartrah,(one who awards all kinds of fruits) and endowed with magnanimity. A प्रतिग्रहिता || pratigrahitra (seeker) if is not present, then the most important of quality of paramatama, will be destroyed being unable to exhibit magnanimity. Hence the devotee facilitates the परमात्मा || Paramatama to display this quality, he is called as greatly magnanimous.


  1. Swami Madhavananda author of A Bird's-Eye View of the Upanishads (1958) The Cultural Heritage of India, Volume 1 : The Early Phases (Prehistoric, Vedic and Upanishadic, Jaina and Buddhist). Calcutta : The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. (Pages 345-365)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sanatana Dharma : An Advanced Textbook of Hindu Religion and Ethics. (1903) Benares : The Board of Trustees, Central Hindu College. (Pages 62-88)
  3. Swami Gambhirananda (1989 Second Edition) Eight Upanishads, Volume 1 (Isa, Kena, Katha,and Taittriya) With the Commentary of Sankaracarya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama (Pages 82-83)
  4. Swami Gambhirananda (1937) Eight Upanishads, Volume 2 (Aitareya, Mundaka, Mandukya and Karika, and Prasna) With the Commentary of Sankaracarya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama. (Pages 154-157)
  5. Mundaka Upanishad (Complete)