In the Hindu religion, the concept of Atman refers to the doctrine of an eternal self that is said to be the life-force found within all beings including the cosmos itself. Comparable (although not equivalent) to the Western notion of the soul, the concept of atman occupies a major place in Hindu philosophical and theological reflection. The atman is deemed to be the very foundation of one's spiritual nature and identity. In some schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta, it is held that the atman is fully identical with Brahman, the supreme monistic principle of the universe. Other Hindu philosophical schools, such as Visistadvaita, however, disagree with this claim. Moreover, Buddhism repudiated the concept of an eternal soul with its doctrine of anatman, claiming that the Hindu concept of atman is an illusion (maya).
The atman doctrine of Hinduism, nevertheless, has had a tremendous impact on Hindu philosophical and ethical thinking. Since many Hindus claim the atman is found in all living things, this doctrine helped make Hinduism more amenable to embracing ahimsa (non-violence) as an ethical precept, as well as cultivating an awareness of the interrelatedness of all life, in which the "Self is seen as other" and "Other is seen as the self." Soteriologically (the study of salvation from suffering), Hinduism in some forms teaches that moksha (spiritual liberation) is attained through knowledge of the atman. This view of salvation is known as Atmavidya (self-knowledge/realization) by which it is meant introspective knowledge of humanity's innate divinity.
While the early Vedic texts are centered on celebratory ritual re-enactment of cosmic sacrifice (yajna), the later Hindu texts known as the Upanishads turned their focus inward. The Upanishads contain detailed discussions of the nature of the self and its relationship to Brahman, the ground of being. Since the Upanishads themselves are heterogeneous texts, they include a variety of perspectives of atman, describing it in a number of ways such as "will," "consciousness," "breath,” and the "fire-soul" (the warmth of life, usually related to the sun, by which the "food" constituting life is cooked), among other things. Perhaps most profoundly, the atman is described as the eternal self that is never born and never dies, lasting throughout eternity. Thus the notion of atman transformed into an abstract, cosmic principle equivalent to the ground of being itself. Atman is the true, radiant self, which "is not born, nor dies. / This one has not come from anywhere… " Furthermore, it is "unborn, constant, eternal, primeval, this one / Is not slain when the body is slain" (Katha Upanishad II).
With the profession of the eternal nature of the soul came the introduction of the idea that atman is trapped within a cycle of rebirth, known as samsāra. Katha Upanishad III explains that "He (… ) who is unmindful and ever impure / Reaches not the goal / But goes on to reincarnation." This idea, which may have been in currency in the earlier Indus Valley Civilization, was merged with the idea of karma to create the idea that thoughts and actions within and individual's present life could determine the condition of their soul's future existences. The motivation of religious and moral activity, then, is to accumulate good karma in order to free oneself from the baneful material world and thereby liberate the soul from the cycle of rebirth. As the Chandogya Upanishad explains:
The self which is free from sin, free from old age, from death and grief, from hunger and thirst, which desires nothing but what it ought to desire, and imagines nothing but what it ought to imagine, that it is which we must search out, that it is which we must try to understand. He who has searched out that Self and understands it, obtains all worlds and desires. (Chandogya Upanishad VIII: 7:1)
Bliss, then, awaits the individual who realizes the true nature of their self.
Atman and Brahman
A famous claim made in the Upanishads is that atman is the very same as Brahman. The ninth chapter of the Taittiriya Upanishad reports this as follows:
He who knows the Bliss of Brahman, whence words together with the mind turn away, unable to reach It? He is not afraid of anything whatsoever. He does not distress himself with the thought: 'Why did I not do what is good? Why did I do what is evil?' Whosoever knows this regards both these as Atman; indeed he cherishes both these as Atman. Such, indeed, is the Upanishad, the secret knowledge of Brahman.
However, the most famous and direct suggestion of this oneness between Brahman and atman is found in the Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7, in a dialog between Uddālaka and his son Śvetaketu. Here, Uddalka advises his son tat tvam asi, which translates to "that thou art." Scholars have interpreted this phrase to mean that the human soul is a microcosm of the pervasive divinity that forms the ground of the universe. Based upon statements such as these, the three principle schools of Vedanta ("end of the Vedas”) provided different interpretations of the nature of this equivalence between Brahman and atman in the years that followed.
Shankara (788-820 C.E.), the famous Hindu philosopher who developed the Advaita philosophy, interpreted the Upanishadic connection between Brahman and atman to be one of non-dualism (essential oneness). The atman or self, he claimed, is indistinguishable from the supreme reality from which it derives. For Shankara, the entirety of the universe except for the highest, indescribable form of Brahman, is an illusion (or maya). Perceived differences between Brahman and the individual soul are created by the erroneous perception of particulars in the physical world. Once an individual eschews all distinctions of the illusory particular things, Shankara believed they could then come to realize that atman is Brahman. Only then can they escape maya and merge into oneness with Brahman. The philosophical system that he founded known as Advaita (or "non-dualistic") Vedanata thus denied any dualism between atman and Brahman.
Visistadvaita (or "qualified non-dualistic") Vedanta refers to the Hindu philosophical school, popularized by Ramanuja (1017-1137 C.E.), which claimed that individual atmans are distinct from Brahman but utterly dependent on Brahman as their inner-controller. According to this school, Brahman is both "non-dual" and "qualified" by souls and matter. Yet, while the atman maintains its own will, it is ultimately dependent upon Brahman for its creation and preservation. Ramanuja's conception of Brahman allowed for the worship of God in personal form and conceived of moksha not as a merging of atman and Brahman into impersonal oneness but as a union of their distinct identities. For Ramanuja, a soul's union with Brahman and liberation from the world is attained through intense personal devotion to God, or bhakti, rather than Shakara's prescribed realization of equivalence. Liberation entails the experience of the divine power of Brahman, though the individual self is not dissolved into Brahman as in Shankara's determination.
Dvaita (or "dualistic") Vedanta denies any equivalence between Brahman and Atman. Rather, Brahman (which is almost always perceived in the form of a personalized god, rather than the impersonal form) is totally separate from and superior to the physical universe and the souls within it. Founder Madhva (1238-1317), denied the Advaita teaching that all human beings are essentially divine, instead construing the divine as completely separate from humanity and the physical world. Like Ramanuja, Madhva claimed that souls are real entities, existing independently not only from each other but also from God, albeit God is responsible for each soul's existence and continuity. Brahman and atman are not the same in Madhva's estimation, much as reflections of the sun are like the sun itself. Madhva also prescribes bhakti as the means by which to attain salvation, though the physical world and the distinction between all souls within it remains even after salvation has been reached.
Unlike Hindus, Buddhists do not believe that within human beings and other life forms there is a permanent, indestructible and absolute entity called a soul or atman. Therefore, Buddhists reject the Hindu doctrine of atman, claiming that such ideas are fabricated by humans in order to deny their impermanence. Buddha taught that the idea of an eternal self is a misleading belief that is ultimately harmful, producing negative notions of "me" and "mine" and thereby providing the psychological basis for desire, attachment, and hatred. In short, Buddha described the self as the root of all evil, and characterized the attachments it creates as detractors from one's attainment of nirvana. This denial of the self at so thorough a philosophical and ontological extent marks Buddhism as unique among the other world religions.
Buddhist thinkers further characterized the unchanging self as no more than an illusion created out of psychophysical factors that are in flux from moment of moment. These psychophysical factors are known in the Pali Theravada tradition as the five skandhas, which make up what is referred to as the human personality, but by no means suggest a permanent ego or self. These elementary psycho-physical states are: form, feeling, cognition, volition and consciousness.
However, within the Mahayana branch of Buddhism a number of passages found in the highly influential Tathagatagarbha sutras suggest that an eternal "True Self" exists in stark contrast to the impermanent and illusory self that is perceived as an epiphenomenon of the five skandhas. This "True Self" is none other than the Buddha himself in his ultimate enlightened nature. The essence of this Buddha-self (or Buddha-dhatu), is described as uncreated, immutable and present in all living creatures. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which discusses this principle in the most detail, warns that this True Self must never be confused with the mundane and ever-changing worldly ego, which conceals the True Self from view. Furthermore, some contemporary Buddhists do not accept the English translation of atman or atta as "self" in the sense that we know it. Instead, these Buddhists refer back to early Buddhism where they claim the individual self is held in great esteem as the agent and benefactor of salvation, albeit not as divine entity or as a microcosm of the universe.
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