fbpx

Atman

Atman

ATMAN: The individual self stands self – proved and is always immediately felt and known. One is absolutely certain about the existence of one’s own self and there can be neither doubt nor denial regarding its existence.

This individual self is the highest thing we know and it is the nearest approach to the absolute, though it is not itself the absolute. In fact the individual self is a mixture of the real and the unreal, a knot of the existent and the non – existent, a coupling of the true and the false. It is a product of ignorance. But its essence is the light of the absolute. Its real nature is pure consciousness, self – shining and self – proved and always the same. It is called the ultimate witness or the saksi and as such is one with the absolute. The sense, the mind, the intellect, the feelings and will, the internal organ are all products of Avidya and they in invariably surround the individual self and constitute its ‘individuality’ but the self really is above them, being the absolute.

The word ‘Atman’ originally meant life – breath and then gradually acquired the meanings of feeling, mind, soul and spirit. Shankaracharya quotes and old verse giving the different connotations of the word ‘Atman’. The verse says that ‘Atman’ means that which pervades all; which is the subject and which is knows experience and illuminates the objects; and which remains immortal and always the same.

The true self has been the main topic of investigation in the Upanisads. Socrates of ancient Greece has also persistently advocated the supreme necessity of ‘Know Thyself ’. We may select three Upanisads – the Chhandogya, the Mandukya and the Katha, for our present purpose. In a dialogue between Prajapati and Indra, narrated in the Chhandogya, we find a development of the concept of the self from the waking or the bodily self through the dreaming or the empirical self and the self in deep dreamless sleep to the absolute self. The gods and the demons the dialogue tells us, sent Indra and Virochana respectively to Prajapati, to learn the teaching about the self. The teacher asked them to undergo penance for thirty two years to qualify themselves to receive the teaching. After fulfilling the prescribed condition, both come to Prajapati who teaches them that the self is that which is seen when one looks into another’s eyes or into water or a mirror. Virochana was satisfied and went away. But Indra began to think thus: How cab the self be the reflection of the body? Or, how can it be identified with the body itself? If the body well adorned and well dressed this self also is well adorned and well dressed. If the body is beautiful, this self is also beautiful. If the body is blind or lame or crippled, this self is also blind, lame and crippled; in fact if the body perishes, this self is also should perish together with it. There is no good in this. Being dissatisfied, Indra approaches Prajapati again and tells him his doubts and difficulties. Prajapati now tells him that he who is seen in dreams roaming freely, i.e., the dreaming subject, is the self. Indra, again doubts thus: though this self is not vitiated with the defects and faults of the body, though it cannot be said to perishing along with the body, yet is appears as if this self feels afraid and terrified, as if it is being chased and struck, it appears to be conscious of pain and to be weeping. There is no good in this also. Indra again returns to Prajapati and tells him about his doubts. This time Prajapati teaches him that the enjoy of deep dreamless sleep is self. But Indra feels his difficulties, the self, he thinks, in deep sleeps reduce itself to mere abstraction. There are no objects to be felt, to be known, to be enjoyed. This self appears to be absolutely unconscious – knowing nothing, feeling nothing, willing nothing. It is a zero, a cipher. There is no good in this too. And again he approaches Prajapati tells him about his doubts. The teacher is now very much pleased with the ability of the disciple. And now follows the real teaching: Dear Indra! The body is not the self, though it exists for the self. The dream – experiences are not the self, through they have a meaning only for the self. The self is not an abstract formal principle of deep sleep too. The eye, the body, the mental states, the presentation continuum, the stream of consciousness – are all mere instruments and objects of the self. The self is the ground of waking, dream and sleep states and yet it transcends them all. The self is universal, immanent as well as transcendent. The whole universe lives and moves and breathes in it. It is immortal, self – luminous, self – proved and beyond doubts and denials as the very principle which makes all doubts, denials and thoughts possible. It is the ultimate subject which can never become an object and which is to be necessarily presupposed by all knowledge.

This dialogue brings out the essential nature of the self and has very important implications. The empiricism of Locke and Berkeley and the skepticism of Hume, the flux of Heraclitus, William James and Bergson, the Copernican revolution of Kant and the abiding contribution of Hegel, the positions of Green, Bradley and Mc Taggart – all have been long before anticipated in this dialogue. The self, surely, cannot be identified with the body, senses or the internal organ, nor can it be regarded as a mere by – product of matter. The bodily self or the waking self identifies itself with its contents – body, sense, mind, wife, son, daughter, wife, husband, father, mother, brother, relation, friend.  It stretches itself and identifies itself with the objects and feels as if they constitute its being, as if it is incomplete, nay, no more, without them. But in fact that which can be known as an object can never itself be the subject. It cannot be a mere bundle of the qualities. It cannot be the empirical self. Dreams have been selected by Prajapati because here the objects have to be framed by the mind independently of the body or the sense. In the waking life, the objects are there apart from and outside of the mind which are only known and not created by it. Here the mind is helped by the sense which take the fleeting and scattered manifold of sense – impressions cause by the external objects to the mind which arranges them into order and gives meaning and unity to them. But in the dreams, the mind has to function alone and fabricate imaginary objects for itself. It is the state, therefore, of perception without sensation. The self in the waking as well as in the dream state is ever changing and therefore cannot be the real self the self must persist throughout the changes as their knower. The ego, limited by space and time, by birth and death, is a miserable creature. Indra, not being able to find the self in the waking and dreaming state, anticipates Heraclitus, Lock, Berkeley, Hume, William James and Bergson, and also some of the Buddhists. There is only change and you can never bathe twice in the same river, says Heraclitus. Lock regards the mind as a tabula rasa, a blank tablet, by itself as good as nothing, on which experience writes with the fingers of sensation and perception. Therefore ‘ in sleep and trances the mind exists not ’  declares Berkeley. ‘Every drowsy nod explodes the self the self theory’ says Lock. ‘I can never catch myself’ says Hume. ‘Whenever I try, I always stumble at some sense impressions or idea’. ‘The so called “self” is only a stream of thought’; declares William James, ‘the passing thought itself is the thinker’. These empiricists, skeptics and pragmatists take the self as a mere bundle of ideas. Indra also comes to the same conclusion. The self in waking and in dreams is ever changing, tortured, chased, and vanishing. There is no good in this. What we get here is only a fleeting mass of qualities, the scattered manifold of sense – impressions or ideas, and no permanent self. The same conclusion is arrived at by Bradley also. Indra rightly thinks that in the deep sleep the self becomes a mere abstraction as there are no contents at all. A content less self in the empirical life is an impossibility, the self, as subject, must oppose itself to an object. But in deep sleep there are no objects at all neither real nor imaginary. Hence, in the absence of the object, the self also ceases to exist. The Copernican revolution of Kant is the celebrated doctrine which he introduced into European Philosophy that knowledge requires both sensation and thought, that ‘concepts without percepts are empty and percepts without concepts are blind’, and that every knowledge situation necessarily presupposes the self, the ‘transcendental unity of pure apperception’ which is not a category of unity, but the fundamental postulate of all knowledge which makes possible the play of categories. The abiding contribution of Hegel has been the persistent insistence that the self should not be taken as a substance but as a subject and that. This subject does not mean the empirical ego but the transcendental and yet immanent Absolute Idea running though the categories which are the various stages of the development of thought. Green, Mc Taggart and others has emphasized the same point. In fact the foundation of this true Idealism was already laid down, many centuries before Kant and Hegel, in the Upanisads. Prajapati’s emphasis on the fact that the true self is the ultimate subject, the fundamental postulate of all knowledge, the transcendental background of the empirical trinity of knowledge, knower and known, the self – luminous and the self – proves pure consciousness which manifests itself as the subject and the object, as the self and the not- self, and which at once overreaches that division, Yajnavalkya’s declaration in the Brhadaranyaka that the self, the ultimate knower, can never be known as an object because it knows all objects, and yet it does not reduce itself to an abstraction because never is the knowledge of the knower destroyed, never is the sight of the seer destroyed; that when the sun has set, when the moon has set, and when fire is extinguished, the self alone shines in its light; the thundering assertion in the Katha that ‘Not there the sun shines, nor the moon or the stars, not these lightings either. Where then could this fire be? Everything shines only after the shining spirit; through its light all this shines; and in the Mundaka ‘The fire is its head, the moon and the sun are its eyes, the four quarters of the sky is its ears, the Vedas are its speech, the wind is its breath, the universe is its heart, for verily it is the immanent self of all beings; are sufficient to prove our assertion. Prajapati teaches Indra that the real self illumines consciousness but itself is not in consciousness. The Atman is the transcendental background of both self and not – self and none can doubt its reality.

In the Mandukya Upanisads also we find a similar analysis of consciousness. We are told that the self in the waking state enjoys gross objects; it has the consciousness of the external world and is called ‘Vishva’. In the dreaming state it enjoys subtle objects, it has the consciousness of the internal world and creates its own imaginary objects and it’s called ‘ Taijasa ’. In the state of sound sleep there is no object, neither gross nor subtle, and hence no subject; the subjects-object duality is transcended and here the self is called ‘ Prajna ’. In sleep we have absence of pain. We have neither desires nor dreams. We have the shadow of the supreme bliss. It is called shadow because we do not enjoy positive bliss. Ignorance persists in its negative aspect of concealment in this state, although its power of projection is arrested. Ignorance and unconsciousness remain in this state and therefore a higher positive state is necessary. This is the fourth state of the self, a state of pure consciousness where, like the deep sleep, there is no subject – object duality, but unlike there is enjoyment of positive bliss. All ignorance vanishes here. The self shines in its own light as the ultimate subject without reducing itself to a mere abstraction. This is the true self, the foundation of all existence and the presuppositions of all knowledge. It cannot be fully described for descriptions are possible only in the empirical state of subject – object duality. It can be realized directly and intuitively. It is called ‘Turiya’, the fourth or ‘Amatra’, the Measureless. It is calm, no – dual, blissful and all – consciousness where all plurality is merged. Aumkara with its parts A-U-M, the waking, dreaming and sleeping states, is its symbol. This self is the common ground of all these states. It manifests itself in these three states and yet in its own nature it transcends them all.

In the Katha Upanisads, the Atman is said to be the ultimate reality. The objects are the roads, the body is the chariot, the sense are the horses, the mind is the reins, the intellect is the charioteer, the ego is the enjoyer and the Atman is the Lord sitting in the chariot. The senses are further compared to good and bad horses. Plato in his Phaedrus has also compared them to the white and the black horses. The Katha further states that the sense are higher than the objects, the mind is higher than the sense, the intellect is higher than the mind, the subtle reason ( mahat ) is higher than the intellect, the Unmanifest ( avyakta ) is higher than the subtle reason, and the Purusa ( atman ) is higher than the Unmanifest, and there is nothing higher than the Purusa which is the ultimate end, the highest reality. Objects, senses, mind, intellect, reason – all exist for the self and serve its purpose. It is the self that is immanent in them and gives them life and meaning. But these cannot be identified with the self, for it transcends them all. This is the crux of the teaching imparted to Nachiketa by Yama. The self is immortal, self – proved and self – luminous and can only be directly realized by transcending the empirical subject – object duality.