Most people misunderstand what Atman means

Now you might accuse me of flogging an already dead horse, but I’d like to suggest that “this” is not the same as the “horse” that is considered already dead. The Vedantic Atman is not the same as that which is considered “self” in the general sense of the word.

Atman and Nairatman (Anatta) is a massive “bone of contention” between Advaita Vedanta and Bauddha dharma, but it is rooted in half-understood concepts of what specifically Atman means from the point of view of Advaita Vedanta.

In Vedanta there is the concept of Jiva (a generic concept found in other systems of Hindu Dharma as well). Jiva literally means “living being”. The key features of Jiva are as follows —

  1. Jiva is born and therefore must die (has a beginning and an end)
  2. Jiva is the personality that transmigrates from one lifetime to another (or in other words, re-incarnates)
  3. Jiva comprises of the five sheaths or panchakoshas  —
  • the annamaya kosha or the sheath of food (anna means rice, literally), or the physical body
  • The pranamaya kosha or the sheath of prana (life force), or the energy body
  • the manomaya kosha or the sheath of the mind, or the mental body
  • the vijnanamaya kosha or the sheath of the intellect
  • the anandamaya kosha or the sheath of bliss

As one goes from outward focus (of the mind) to inward focus (towards finding the source of the mind), one encounters each of these sheaths or layers in meditation. Just as one clearly experiences and operates with their physical body and the thinking mind, one also experiences their energy body, their intellect (which is different from the mind in the indic tradition) or even the blissful nature at a higher level of experience.

The jiva predicates Ishwara, or God as the source of creation. With the help of the mind, body and intellect, jiva lives it’s limited life, with one of several (or combinations thereof) of positions –

  1. There is no ishwara and all of this (material world) is a result of happen-chance interaction of matter.
  2. There is an Ishwara who is the creator, maintainer and destroyer and one’s actions in their lifetime predicates whether they go to heaven (eternal joy and pleasure) or hell  (eternal suffering and pain). This type follow specific doctrinal guidelines which are purported to be resultant in their being able to go to heaven or hell, depending on how faithfully they have followed said doctrines.
  3. There is an Ishwara who does create, maintain and destroy the universe, but the Jiva has the ability to unite with this Ishwara through devotion, right action, yoga, etc etc. They still hold a separation between themselves and Ishwara, and their union with Ishwara is that of a benevolent Lord and devotee  (or a parent and child).

Atman points to something else completely. Unlike the limited nature of the jiva who lives in a body, and depending on one’s belief  — transmigrates across lifetimes or goes to heaven or hell for eternity or starts as matter and ends as matter, the Atman —

  1. is pure subject predicate, without which no manifestation can happen. At least that much is verifiable intellectually, from an “individual” perspective.
  2. It is neither a soul nor a personality. It is pure consciousness.
  3. It is empty as it is not a thing which takes up space or exists in time.
  4. However, both space and time appear in it.
  5. It is not something that can be experienced using the normal faculties and apparatuses (like the mind and the inner and outer senses).
  6. It can be directly known – Aparoksha Anubhuti.

What Emptiness means in this case, is that it is empty of “thing”ness. It cannot be captured with any of the sensory apparatuses. It cannot be described by the mind. If the mind tries to find it, it fails and finds only stillness and silence instead.

The question that many people ask is “if that is the case, why call it Atman or Self?”. The answer is because there is nothing more intimate than this. It is the root and the basis of everything we know. Knowing (with the mind and intellect) cannot be without it. What else can something so intimate be called?

That which is called “nairatman or Anatta” is the jiva itself. It is the non-self. Atman is the selfless Self. It is the lightless light.

However, it must be pointed out that ultimately, the Jiva is not different or separate from the Atman, because then, that would clearly be dualistic in nature. Jiva is a phenomenon that occurs as a result of mistaken identification with one of the five koshas, and primarily the lower 3 koshas.

More questions follow after this —

  • Why does that happens?
    • It doesn’t really happen. It only appears to happen…
  • How can you explain the fact that you (and others) wrote so many pages and commentaries on this topic. If it doesn’t really happen, who and what is writing, and who and what is reading this?
    • The appearance of separate beingness (jiva) is reading this. The jiva who appears to have been awakened, is writing this. So the Self is reading what the Self has written. Or no one is reading nothing, ultimately. It doesn’t really matter

In my humble opinion and experience, irrespective of what one sees or experiences, the root of one’s consciousness in the manifest state, is the “I-ness” (aka I AM or I-I). This exists as witness to all things rising and falling, and staying with it, all things appear as part of it itself. The road, the landscapes, sky, people, animals, trees etc all are it’s very own Self. This I have experienced before starting with the mind expansions and also after the mind expanded. This root does not change — it remains empty and ever-present.

 

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13 Replies to “Most people misunderstand what Atman means”

  1. Let me analyze your statements in the light of what I am writing in the Br. Up series in this site.

    According to it “Whatever that existed before everything, which saw itself and nothing else, that is Atman. It is the aham/inside before any expression. Atma creates/inflates the Svah (heavens/space) like tearing a pea and this empty space is filled by Stri. The other part, Purusha, does not manifest. From stri, pair production happens. From Stri, Agni comes out. From Agni, Soma comes out. Soma is the annam. Agni is the provider of Annam. From Agni and Soma best of the devas come. Rishis, manushya, pazu et al manifest from it. Whatever is produced in the empty space Akasha that the Stri fills is knowledge/information.

    Now

    1. Is Atma is pure subject predicate, without which no manifestation can happen. At least that much is verifiable intellectually, from an “individual” perspective..?

    Yes Atma does not manifest. It separates Purusha and Stri and from Stri evolution happens. Atma is outside of all this.

    2. Is Atma neither a soul nor a personality.? Is Atma a pure consciousness..?

    Yes Atma is not our ‘Self’ (aham). Our ‘self’ is our ‘manas’. Atma exists before everything, before even Purusha. It is the ‘original’ ‘aham’ (inside). In fact, we use the word ‘aham’ to indicate our ‘Self’ (or our Manas) as our manas/Self exists before any expressions/thoughts that we make (like Atma).

    Thoughts are the ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ in our brain. The pair production that happens in Stri and all other matter and beings that evolve out of Stri filled AkAsha are the ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ of this Universe. In this way all matter and beings that evolve in the space are ‘thoughts’. If the devas, rishis, manuSya, pazu et al that appear on the Stri filled AkAsha are information/thoughts/entropy, then the consciousness that invokes these thoughts is the Atman.

    3. Is Atma empty as it is not a thing which takes up space or exists in time.

    Atma causes the Space (svaH or AkAsha). Time is nothing but fourth dimension of space. So Atma is outside of SpaceTime. But is Atma empty..? Who knows..? No one will ever know or even if they know they will know only partially says Nasadiya Suktam.

    4. Does space and time appear in Atma..?

    Space (SvaH or Akasha) appear due to Atma’s iccha. Like tearing up a pea, Atma inflates the space and fills it with Stri. But Atma is out of these. Hence the statement space and time appear in Atma may not be right.

    5. Atma is not something that can be experienced using the normal faculties and apparatuses (like the mind and the inner and outer senses).

    In a way we are ourselves thoughts that occur on Stri filled space outside of which we propose Atma exists.

    By definition, thoughts evolve based on interactions. So with thoughts in our brain, will we be able to catch Atma, which does not interact with anything, which we only come to know because we attribute the inflation and filling up of Stri in vacuum to it..? It’s tough.

    6. On aparokSa anubhUti, can we meditate on Atma and become that Atma..? Yes, we can imagine that we are. But that is limited to our imagination. The so called ‘realization’ is our ‘imagination’. Our imagination are perishable thoughts. Our body itself is a perishable thought/information that vanishes after a time.

    If we understand this, then we will do what we enjoy.

    -TBT

    1. Hi TBT,

      I think we should strip away all the forms and labels. What remains is Atman. If you approach this subject phenomenologically, you will find that only thing that remains is Awareness. The noumenon to all phenomena…

      Without the light of awareness, there can neither be space, nor light.

      The thoughts are NOT in the brain. Neither is consciousness in the brain. Here’s a very good and succinct explanation of what actually is…

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9n6NvDpcwLM

      While intellect is very useful in eliminating what IS NOT atman, it takes a special “turning around” to realize what/who Atman is.

      1. I am afraid I am saying the same thing as in the Video. Please read my response once again. What I explain in question no.2 is what I see in video. I explained it logically.

        I am just repeating the Question 2 her:

        2. Is Atma neither a soul nor a personality.? Is Atma a pure consciousness..?

        Yes Atma is not our ‘Self’ (aham). Our ‘self’ is our ‘manas’ (which the video calls mind). Atma exists before everything, before even Purusha. It is the ‘original’ ‘aham’ (inside). In fact, we use the word ‘aham’ to indicate our ‘Self’ (or our Manas) as our manas/Self exists before any expressions/thoughts that we make (like Atma).

        Thoughts are the ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ in our brain.

        (In the same way) The pair production that happens in Stri and all other matter and beings that evolve out of Stri filled AkAsha are the ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ of this Universe. In this way all matter and beings that evolve in the space are ‘thoughts’. If the devas, rishis, manuSya, pazu et al that appear on the Stri filled AkAsha are information/thoughts/entropy, then the consciousness that invokes these thoughts is the Atman. (The video also says the same)..?

        -TBT

        1. Hi TBT,

          What you call the “Self” is what Advaita Vedanta calls the “Not-self”. The Self (Atman, who is none other than Brahman), is Pure Awareness. The sense of self (Ahamkara) that is part of the antahkarana is the not the Self. It is rather like a reflection of the Light that is Pure Awareness (reflection of the Self).

          1. I still think what I say here is what is in the Video. Rather I am using Br Up to say why is it being said so.

            If the Sanskrit word for what you call ‘Self’ is ‘aham’, then Br. Up. says ‘Sa aham asmi iti agre vyaharat, tata aham nAma abhavat”. The Atma was there before everything. Before all expressions ‘aham’ thus exists. That’s how it called aham”. In further stanzas it says the usage of ‘aham’ for indicating us before others comes from that.

            Thus ‘aham’ can indicate Atma (the consciousness as in the video, the Supreme consciousness according to the prabhupAda, something it is extremely virtual in quantum science).

            The ‘aham’ can indicate our ‘Self’. This ‘Self’ that gives us an identity, an ‘aham-kArA’. This aham is the ‘Self’ concsiousness according to prabhupAda, ‘mind’ according to the Video, virtual in quantum science.

            This ‘mind’ or ‘manas’ according to the video is reflection of the consciousness. We can also say the ‘Self’ consciousness is reflection of Supreme consciousness.

            But how does it become so.. ? On what basis we can claim that mind is a reflection of the consciousness..? That’s where I explain in this series.

            All the matter in this Universe is the ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ of Universe. The Br. Up. says this information arose from ‘Stri’ that fills the vacuum/empty space, in pairs.

            Hence we can say the matter (and beings) in this Universe are ‘information’/’knowledge’ of something.. That something is Atma, the Consciousness (according to video) or Supreme consciousness (according to prabhupAda). This matter in the Universe and hence the information/knowledge/entropy of that Consciousness is going on increasing. That is its nature (that is science also).

            At one level we (biological beings) are the information/knowledge of that Consciousness. At another level, we (biological beings) have ‘growing/changing/evolving information’ inside us. What drives that changing/evolving information..? That is our ‘manas’ (what we call as mind).

            Now this manas /mind is a ‘reflection’ of the ‘consciousness/supreme consciousness’ in the sense they drive exactly similar characteristics. They dirve information/knowledge/entropy which keep growing.

            Atma, that consciousness is driving the evolution of Universe. Mind is driving the evolution of you.

            -TBT

  2. Restructuring it better here:

    I still think what I say here is what is in the Video. Rather I am using Br Up to say why is it being said so.

    If the Sanskrit word for what you call ‘Self’ is ‘aham’, then Br. Up. says ‘Sa aham asmi iti agre vyaharat, tata aham nAma abhavat”. The Atma was there before everything. Before all expressions ‘aham’ thus exists. That’s how it called aham”.

    In further stanzas it says the usage of ‘aham’ for indicating us/ourselves before others comes from that. Thus aham can indicate two different things.

    1. Thus ‘aham’ can indicate ‘Atma’ (the consciousness as in the video, the Supreme consciousness according to the prabhupAda, something it is extremely virtual in quantum science),

    2. The ‘aham’ can indicate our ‘Self’. This ‘Self’ that gives us an identity, an ‘aham-kArA’. This aham is the ‘Self’ concsiousness according to prabhupAda, ‘mind’ according to the Video, virtual in quantum science.

    These two are different.

    This ‘mind’ or ‘manas’ according to the video is reflection of the consciousness. We can also say the ‘Self’ consciousness is reflection of Supreme consciousness. That is point 2 is reflection of point 1.

    But how does it become so.. ? On what basis we can claim that mind is a reflection of the consciousness..? That’s where I explain in this series.

    All the matter in this Universe is the ‘information’ or ‘entropy’ (Veda) of Universe. The Br. Up. says this information (Veda) arose from ‘Stri’ that fills the vacuum/empty space, in pairs.

    Hence we can say the matter (and beings) in this Universe are ‘information’/’knowledge’ (Veda) of something.. That something is Atma, the Consciousness (according to video) or Supreme consciousness (according to prabhupAda). This matter in the Universe and hence the information/knowledge/entropy of that Consciousness is going on increasing. Entropy increasing is science.

    1. At one level we (biological beings) are the information/knowledge (Veda) of that Consciousness (Atma).
    2. At another level, we (biological beings) have ‘growing/changing/evolving information’ (Veda) inside us. What drives that changing/evolving information..? That is our ‘manas’ (what we call as mind).

    Now our manas /mind is a ‘reflection’ of the Atma (‘consciousness/supreme consciousness’) in the sense they drive exactly similar characteristics. They dirve information/knowledge/entropy and they keep it growing.

    Atma, that consciousness is driving the evolution of Universe, by driving more and more entropy.
    Mind is driving the evolution of you, by driving more and more information/knowledge.

    Thus mind does in a smaller scale what Atma does in a larger scale. Mind in this way is a reflection of that Atma.

    -TBT

    1. Hi TBT,

      Your points look more coherent now (to me). To go a bit deeper, the “aham” (I am) that you are referring to is the first principle that appears as manifestation. This gives rise to “I am this” and “I am that”. Prior to this “I am” is Atman. You can liken it the waves on the ocean surface.

      If we considered the Ocean to be Pure Awareness, each wave would rise as “I am”, and form its relationship wrt. all other waves and the ocean by considering “I am this”, “they are that”…subject object separation.

      So while it is true that the wave seems to be separate from the ocean, it’s “I am” doesn’t really have a separate existence from the ocean itself. So in Advaita Vedanta, it is said that the wave is ultimately illusory (does not have a separate independent identity) when considered from the perspective of the ocean. So the Self of the Wave is none other than that of the Ocean. However as a wave, it appears to be different.

      The appearance of biology/biological nature is just a manifestation (like a wave in the ocean). It is not considered to be independent of Brahman/Atman. In a sense, the two level model of reality, Paramarthika and vyavaharika provide us a basis on which to build our inquiry and sadhana.

      The Vyavaharika is the reality of every day life. Body-minds and their interactions with the “universe”. The paramarthika is the Absolute Pure Awareness, ever free and detached. We can’t avoid the vyavaharika. And even after “enlightenment” the samsara continues to exist. But before we were identified with the body-mind-personality and after, we are no longer identified with them.

      The role of the manas is in vyavaharika only. It is where thoughts and feelings manifest and are experienced. It is nothing more than that. It is merely reflected consciousness. It exists only in context of objects that manifest therein (through both the inner and outer sensory apparatuses). That which is growing and changing is our storehouse of impressions and memories (chitta). The combination of Manas, Ahamkara, Buddha and Chitta are what operate in the vyavaharika world.

      People seek liberation from samsara (objects). Samsara never seems to provide lasting satisfaction or happiness. When one progresses down this path, there are three stages of understanding.

      First, there is the understanding that Self/Atman is not the body, or the mind (manas, buddhi, ahamakara and chitta). Atman is Pure Chaitanya (or Chit), the eternal witness. The subject to all objects.
      Then there is the understanding that samsara, is nothing but appearances of chaitanya (consciousness) in various permutations and combinations (like the dreamer’s universe is nothing apart from the dreamer’s limited consciousness). So the world is considered “unreal” (or illusory). The objects don’t exist independent of the subject.
      Third, the realization occurs that samsara never goes away, because it was never independently real or separate from Atman in the first place. And then the happenings of samsara are accepted as they are. Without attachment or rejection.

      1. Few thoughts here denying and supporting the above comments

        1. If ‘manifestation’ means the energy and matter that we observe, interact etc, then Atman is not the first manifestation. It is Unmanifest, according to Br. Up. It tears apart Purusha and Stri, establishes heavens and fills the Stri with it. But it is behind/beyond all these manifestations.

        (So Atma is not the first principle of manifestation, if manifestation is about Universe as we see it).

        2. The Unmanifest was all alone at first. It saw nothing else apart from it. It was the ‘aham’, the one that is (deep) inside. Since our our (human) ‘manas’ also sees itself and nothing else (all alone), we can use ‘aham’ for identifying ourselves before others.

        (So we use aham (Self) for us because it is similar to the unmanifest (may be just a reflection), but not because it is derived from Atma or connected to Atma at all). So are Atma and us do not seem to be connected in this way..)

        3. I definitely understand Ocean and waves is an analogy. But it is true in a very different way.

        Br Up says ‘Stri’ fills the Svah/AkAsa the empty space, the vacuum we see in the Universe. Stri fills the space of cosmic ocean. On this cosmic ocean space, manifestation occurs in pairs. From this occurs Agni, the energy that is transferable/usable. From Agni comes Soma. With Soma and Agni best of the devas manifest, rishis manifest, manuSya manifest.

        All the Universal manifestations are the ‘waves’ in the cosmic ocean of ‘Space’ filled with Stri. These manifestations appear and disappear.

        (But is the cosmic ocean space the Atma..? No. Atma inflates the heavens and fills it with stri on which Universe manifests.)

        4. As just an analogy, are Atma and the manifestations connected like Ocean and its Waves..? For eg. Waves are fast moving water. So that example seem to say the Supreme Consiousness (Atma) and the Self consciousness (manas) are one and same, just different perspectives. Is that true..?

        Atma is umanifest. Waves are manifest. Is manifest and unmanifest same..? Is original and reflection same..? We know self consciousness. What is Supreme consciousness..? What is its role in evolution of matter and beings that come out of Stri…? What does Br Up say about these..? Will cover more on it in the next few slokas I write in the Br Up series..

        -TBT

        1. Hi TBT,

          //1. If ‘manifestation’ means the energy and matter that we observe, interact etc, then Atman is not the first manifestation. It is Unmanifest, according to Br. Up. It tears apart Purusha and Stri, establishes heavens and fills the Stri with it. But it is behind/beyond all these manifestations.//

          I’m going to start with the assumption that we agree that Atman = Brahman.
          Atman/Brahman is beyond manifest and unmanifest (or being and non-being) as it is beyond all duality, being the Nondual truth. Yet, we have conceptualizations of it as Nirguna Brahman (without any characteristics) and Saguna Brahman.

          //(So Atma is not the first principle of manifestation, if manifestation is about Universe as we see it).//

          Again, I’m not saying Atman is first principle of manifestation. I am saying that “I am/I-I” (Aham) is the first principle of manifestation. The “Aham” is not Atman (per se), but like a bubble that seems to arise . But it is also not not Atman… 😉

          In context of Advaita vedanta, we can talk about Brahman and its Maya (Creative Power). This Maya is what makes the world seem to appear and disappear. Atman/Brahman is beyond appearance and disappearance, being and non-being.

          1. Sorry misunderstood it. You had written clearly that Prior to I am is Atman. My bad. I should say I don’t have any specific agenda in this discussion. I am just loudly sharing my thoughts and this interaction helps.

            Yes it is mAyA that makes the Universe appear as we see it. That mAya is Vishnu, which is the property of ‘mass’ (in my translations and understanding).

            But more important, while Atman is something that we don’t know about, Brahman is the ‘ati sRsti’, the process of super-creation (you can call it evolution) in which mere oscillations are evolved to become immortal matter and beings. This is what I see in Sloka 1.4.6

            So Atman is something we have no idea about or may have a partial idea, by brahman is the process of evolution (ati sRsti) in which higher and higher order matter and beings are produced.

            This Universe is Brahman.

            -TBT

  3. Hi TBT,

    //That mAya is Vishnu, which is the property of ‘mass’ (in my translations and understanding).

    But more important, while Atman is something that we don’t know about, Brahman is the ‘ati sRsti’, the process of super-creation (you can call it evolution) in which mere oscillations are evolved to become immortal matter and beings. This is what I see in Sloka 1.4.6

    So Atman is something we have no idea about or may have a partial idea, by brahman is the process of evolution (ati sRsti) in which higher and higher order matter and beings are produced.

    This Universe is Brahman.//

    imho, all the exercises into understanding/mapping what are essentially Jnāna treatises to Physics is a process of rendering these powerful tools/means of relieving ignorance (avidyā) (about our Self nature) into more avidyā.

    The role of the intellect is to divide and dissect. If you try to get to the “truth” by dissection, all you will get is confusion. The way is to literally dissolve the mind back into prajña itself.
    प्रज्ञानम् ब्रह्म
    Prajñānam Brahma.

    Once that is done, then other explanations are unnecessary…

    Best,

    Dwai

  4. Sure, Sure. My aim is not to move you away from your path. I am just sharing my thoughts loud.

    As they say “Yogo jnanam tatha sankhyam vidya shilpadi karma cha, Vedaa shastraani vijnanam etatt sarvam janardanat”.

    VijnAna is about understanding information, spreading information, discerning or developing knowledge through information in Vedas and sAstras. vijnAna is Science. Vedas and sAstras lead to vijnAna. It is logical processing.

    jnAna is about knowing and practicing. It is physical. Yoga, sAnkhya and other learning like Shilpa that involves action (karma). That is jnAna.

    At a very fundamental level it is all physical. jnAna, knowing, happens when physical interactions take place. So it is all jnAna at a very ground level. Go to a higher level. The ‘knowing’ is processed as information and perceptions are developed as our ‘knowledge’. This is logical and vi-jnAna. But go to a still higher level. The processed information leads to more practices , more karma, more actions and that is jnAna, which is physical again. That jnAna leads to more interactions and then more information and more knowledge, which is vijnAna again.

    So jnAna leads to vijnAna which leads to more jnAna which leads to more vijnAna and this is the repetitive cycle which we all undergo.

    The jnAna that we know or practice, which involves our physical body, be it meditation, dhyAna, asanas or even various skillsets, or whatever we call that practice that involves our physical body, when we really practice it vigorously, it will lead to more information, knowledge and vijnAna. In the same way vijnAna leads us to more knowing, more physical interactions and practices.

    Can we dissolve ourselves in a ‘trance’ and be ‘integrated’ with that ‘Self’ and feel a blissful state..? Why not..? But when you really feel it, next time you look at the world, you will get more perspectives, more information, more knowledge, more vijnAna. That information and knowledge (vijnAna) should lead you to devise/define more physical practices, more karma and there is no way escaping from this cycle.

    -TBT

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