What Is Atman in Hinduism?

And the Difference Between Atman and Brahman

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The atman is variously translated into English as the eternal self, spirit, essence, soul, or breath. It is the true self as opposed to the ego; that aspect of the self which transmigrates after death or becomes part of Brahman (the force underlying all things). The final stage of moksha (liberation) is the understanding that one's atman is, in fact, Brahman.

The concept of the atman is central to all six major schools of Hinduism, and it is one of the major differences between Hinduism and Buddhism. Buddhist belief does not include the concept of the individual soul.

Key Takeaways: Atman

  • Atman, which is roughly comparable to the soul, is a major concept in Hinduism. Through "knowing Atman" (or knowing one's essential self), one can achieve liberation from reincarnation.
  • Atman is thought to be the essence of a being, and, in most Hindu schools, separate from the ego.
  • Some (monistic) Hindu schools think of atman as part of Brahman (universal spirit) while others (the dualistic schools) think of atman as separate from Brahman. In either case, there is a close connection between atman and Brahman. Through meditation, practitioners are able to be joined with or to understand one's connection with Brahman.
  • The concept of atman was first proposed in the Rigveda, an ancient Sanskrit text which is the basis for certain schools of Hinduism.

Atman and Brahman

While the atman is the essence of an individual, Brahman is an unchanging, universal spirit or consciousness which underlies all things. They are discussed and named as distinct from one another, but they are not always thought of as distinct; in some schools of Hindu thought, atman is Brahman.

Atman

Atman is similar to the Western idea of the soul, but it is not identical. One significant difference is that Hindu schools are divided on the subject of the atman. Dualistic Hindus believe that individual atmans are joined to but not identical with Brahman. Non-dual Hindus, by contrast, believe that individual atmans are Brahman; as a result, all atmans are essentially identical and equal.

The Western concept of the soul envisions a spirit which is specifically linked to an individual human being, with all of his or her particularity (gender, race, personality). The soul is thought to come into existence when an individual human being is born, and it is not reborn through reincarnation. The atman, by contrast, is (according to most schools of Hinduism) thought to be:

  • Part of every form of matter (not special to human beings)
  • Eternal (does not start with the birth of a particular person)
  • Part of or the same as Brahman (God)
  • Reincarnated

Brahman

Brahman is similar in many ways to the Western concept of God: infinite, eternal, unchanging, and incomprehensible to human minds. There are, however, multiple concepts of Brahman. In some interpretations, Brahman is a sort of abstract force which underlies all things. In other interpretations, Brahman is manifested through gods and goddesses such as Vishnu and Shiva.

According to Hindu theology, the atman is reincarnated over and over again. The cycle ends only with the realization that the atman is one with Brahman and is thus one with all creation. It is possible to achieve this realization through living ethically in accordance with dharma and karma.

Origins

The first known mention of atman is in the Rigveda, a set of hymns, liturgy, commentary, and ritual written in Sanskrit. Sections of the Rigveda are among the oldest texts known; they were likely written in India between 1700 and 1200 BC.

Atman is also a major topic of discussion in the Upanishads. The Upanishads, written between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, are dialogues between teachers and students focusing on metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe.

There are over 200 separate Upanishads. Many address the atman, explaining that atman is the essence of all things; it cannot be understood intellectually but can be perceived through meditation. According to the Upanishads, atman and Brahman are part of the same substance; atman returns to Brahman when the atman is finally liberated and is no longer reincarnated. This return, or reabsorption into Brahman, is called moksha.

The concepts of atman and Brahman are generally described metaphorically in the Upanishads; for example, the Chandogya Upanishad includes this passage in which Uddalaka is enlightening his son, Shvetaketu:

As the rivers flowing east and west
Merge in the sea and become one with it,
Forgetting they were separate rivers,
So do all creatures lose their separateness
When they merge at last into pure Being.
There is nothing that does not come from him.
Of everything he is the inmost Self.
He is the truth; he is the Self supreme.
You are that Shvetaketu, you are that.

Schools of Thought

There are six major schools of Hinduism: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. All six accept the reality of the atman, and each stresses the importance of "knowing atman" (self-knowledge), but each interprets the concepts slightly differently. In general, atman is understood to be:

  • Separate from ego or personality
  • Unchanging and unaffected by events
  • The true nature or essence of oneself
  • Divine and pure

Vedanta School

The Vedanta school actually contains several subschools of thought regarding atman, and they do not necessarily agree. For example:

  • Advaita Vedanta states that atman is identical with Brahman. In other words, all people, animals, and things are similarly part of the same divine whole. Human suffering is caused largely by unawareness of the universality of Brahman. When full self-understanding is reached, human beings can achieve liberation even while they are living.
  • Dvaita Vedanta, by contrast, is a dualistic philosophy. According to those people who follow Dvaita Vedanta beliefs, there are individual atmans as well as a separate Paramatma (supreme Atma). Liberation can occur only after death, when the individual atman may (or may not) be near (though not part of) Brahman.
  • The Akshar-Purushottam school of Vedanta refers to the atman as the jiva. Followers of this school believe that each person has his or her own separate jiva which animates that individual. The jiva moves from body to body at birth and death.

Nyaya School

The Nyaya School includes many scholars whose ideas have had an impact on other schools of Hinduism. Nyaya scholars suggest that consciousness exists as part of the atman, and use rational arguments to support the existence of atman as an individual self or soul. The Nyayasutra, an ancient Nyaya text, separates human actions (such as looking or seeing) from actions of the atman (seeking and understanding).

Vaiseshika School

This school of Hinduism is described as atomistic, meaning that many parts make up the whole of reality. In the Vaiseshika School, there are four eternal substances: time, space, mind, and atman. Atman is described, in this philosophy, as a collection of many eternal, spiritual substances. Knowing atman is simply understanding what atman is—but it does not lead to unification with Brahman or to eternal happiness.

Mimamsa School

Mimamsa is a ritualistic school of Hinduism. Unlike the other schools, it describes atman as identical with ego, or personal self. Virtuous actions have a positive impact on one's atman, making ethics and good works particularly important in this school.

Samkhya School

Much like the Advaita Vedanta school, members of the Samkhya School see atman as the essence of a person and ego as the cause of personal suffering. Unlike Advaita Vedanta, however, Samkhya holds that there are an infinite number of unique, individual atmans—one for every being in the universe.

Yoga School

The Yoga school has some philosophical similarities to the Samkhya school: in Yoga there are many individual atmans rather than a single universal atman. Yoga, however, also includes a set of techniques for "knowing atman" or achieving self-knowledge.

Sources

  • BBC. “Religions - Hinduism: Hindu Concepts.” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/concepts/concepts_1.shtml#h6.
  • Berkley Center for Religion, and Georgetown University. “Brahman.” Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs, berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/brahman.
  • Berkley Center for Religion, and Georgetown University. “Atman.” Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs, berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/essays/atman.
  • Violatti, Cristian. “Upanishads.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 25 June 2019, www.ancient.eu/Upanishads/.