atman (Sanskrit: आत्मन् — "the True Self") — one's True Self, "generally translated into English as Self", beyond identification with the phenomenal reality of worldly existence. Just as a man living in a house is called a householder, atman (meaning “Self within”) living in a human body is called an individual. When this “human house” becomes old and irreparable, atman leaves the house and we say that the individual has died.


One of Hinduism's most fundamental tenets is that we are the atman, not the physical body, emotions, external mind or personality. Each human being, regardless of religion, geographic region, gender, color or creed is in reality atman clothed in a physical body. Since atman is inherently pure and divine, every human being is potentially divine. A man is not born a sinner, but becomes a victim of ignorance under the influence of cosmic ignorance, called Maya. Just as darkness quickly disappears upon the appearance of light, an individual’s delusion vanishes when he gains self-knowledge.

The Atma Upanishad describes atman, or purusha, as threefold: bahyatman, the outer or physical person; antaratman, the inner person, excluding the physical form, who perceives, thinks and cognizes; and paramatman, the transcendent Reality.

In order to be really comprehensive the whole system of knowledge about human being should be based on the premise that man is not his body, but consciousness, i.e. living energy, capable of self-awareness and that possesses mind and memory. Body is merely a transient habitat of man’s consciousness. And throughout his personal evolution every person moves in and out of those habitats, dropping off his old body and entering a new one.

Samsara refers to the process of passing from one body to another throughout all species of life. Hindus explains that consciousness is present in all life forms, even fish and plants. However, though the atman is present in all species, its potential is exhibited to different degrees. In aquatics and plants it is most "covered", practically asleep, whereas in humans it is most alert. This progression of consciousness is manifest throughout six broad "classes of life, "namely (1) aquatics, (2) plants, (3) reptiles and insects, (4) birds, (5) animals and (6) humans, including the residents of heaven. Most Hindus consider samsara essentially painful, a cycle of four recurring problems: birth, disease, old-age, and death.

The Evolution of Atman

  • Human Being are made up of various sharira ("bodies") such as sthula-sharira (gross body), sukshma-sharira (subtle body), karana-sharira (causal body) and within these shariras resides the atman (True Self). In human being all three shariras (bodies) exist simultaneously, but our recognition of them will vary greatly depending on the individual's state of awakening.
  • The atman that resides in human were once minerals, then plants, then animals, and finally human beings.
  • Human Beings are the highest evolved physical creatures in the universe.
  • The atman reincarnate from human body to human body until it become "liberated" from samsara (the wheel of rebirth).
  • The liberation of the atman from samsara (the wheel of rebirth) is called moksha or "mukti" ("liberation").

Important aspects of atman

  • Atman is uncreated, immortal and divine.
  • Although Atman is generally translated as soul or spirit, Atman and soul do not mean the same.
  • Atman has two states of existence, liberated and bound.
  • In the human body, Atman is deluded by cosmic ignorance, called Maya in Sanskrit.
  • There are various viewpoints regarding relationship of the liberated Atman with Brahman.
  • An individual is not born a sinner, but commits sin under the influence of Maya. Thus, the purpose of Hindu religious life is to transcend Maya.

A Useful Analogy: The Driver in the Vehicle

The body is compared to a vehicle and the soul to the driver [1]

  • 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.


1. Atman: The Soul, the Real Self, Heart of Hinduism: ISKCON Educational Services


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