Atman: The Soul, the Real Self

In order to understand the Hindu worldview it is essential to grasp this first and foundational concept. Atman refers to the non-material self, which never changes. It is distinct from both the mind and the external body. This real self is beyond the temporary designations we normally ascribe to ourselves, in terms of race, gender, species and nationality.

Ideas of reincarnation are natural extensions of this preliminary concept. Consciousness, wherever it is found, is considered a symptom of the soul, and without it the body has no awareness. This life-giving soul is considered spirit (brahman), differentiating it from inert matter. Belief in the soul is not just theoretical or the property of theologians, but is a worldview expressed by Hindus in all walks of life.

Key Points

  • The real self (atman) is distinct from the temporary body.
  • Material designations do not apply to this eternal soul.
  • The atman is spirit (brahman) – unchanging, eternal and conscious.
  • Consciousness, as spread throughout the body, is a symptom of the soul.

A Useful Analogy: The Driver in the Vehicle

The body is compared to a vehicle and the soul to the driver.

  • A car cannot run without a driver. Similarly, the body will not work without the presence of the soul.
  • Just as a young child may not realise that each and every car needs a driver for it to move, those without developed knowledge perceive the body but fail to see the soul within.
  • The driver may identify with his car and even feel kinship with drivers of a similar model. Similarly feelings of friendship or enmity arise from identifying with the body.
  • The driver develops a deep attachment to the car, so in an accident he commonly cries out “You hit me!”If the soul identifies with the body in the same way, then – preoccupied with the body’s condition – he becomes caught in a web of distress and happiness.
  • The driver is not satisfied maintaining the car alone without looking after his own needs. Similarly, looking after the body alone cannot satisfy the soul.
  • Although the driver is not the vehicle, he will move according to the nature of the car, namely fast, slow, etc.
  • The same driver can get out of one vehicle and drive another. Similarly, the soul leaves one body and enters another.

Scriptural Passages

” … all living beings, are seated as on a machine made of the material energy.”

Bhagavad-gita 18.61

“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”

Bhagavad-gita 2.12

“That which pervades the entire body is indestructible.”

Bhagavad-gita 2.17

See also Bhagavad-gita 2.16, 2.20, 2.23, 5.18, 13.27, 13.34, 15.7

Related Stories

The Bird in the Cage (STO-101)
A poetic tale about the need for spiritual nourishment.

Liquid Beauty (STO-102)
How beauty lies within.

Related Values and Issues

The notion of the unchanging self and the ultimate need for self-realisation are at the root of Hindu attitudes towards many important issues:

  • Respect for life
  • Shared values
  • Tolerance, patience, forbearance
  • Austerity and renunciation
  • Empathy and compassion for others
  • Wealth and poverty
  • Tansience

Related Practices

All forms of yoga and spiritual discipline are aimed at realising the true self. Only when one stops seeking external happiness and looks within, can one perceive the true self. According to the Bhagavad-gita, this can be achieved not only through study, meditation, and renunciation but also by active and selfless performance of one’s duty.

Indeed, just prior to the great battle of Kuruksetra, Krishna encouraged Arjuna to develop his self-realisation by fighting.

Personal Reflection

  • How can a criminal be punished after a crime if he or she is “not the same person”? What is the scientific or philosophical basis for such continuity of identity?
  • Can matter ever be unchanging? Consider even the smallest quantity over the shortest of time periods.
  • Do we feel a sense of continuous identity or are we changing? What is it that is changing? What does not change?
  • Who am I really?
  • What is the difference between a living body and a dead body? Why do I react to them so differently?
  • Whilst eating a meal ask yourself, “If I am this body, then at what point does the food cease to be ‘not-me’ and become ‘me'”?

Common Misunderstandings

Hindus believe that they possess a soul.
On the contrary, Hindus believe that we, like all living beings, are the soul and possess a body

Hindus believe that atman = brahman.
Whereas practically all Hindus hold that the soul is brahman (spirit), this equation can be misinterpreted to conclude that all Hindus believe that the soul and God are equal in all respects.

Meaning and Purpose

  • Who am I?
  • What is my real identity?