We often experience confusion regarding Atma and Brahman. In what ways are these two concepts similar or different? According to Sanatan Dharma, Atma is a part of the larger consciousness, i.e. the Brahman. Our souls are meant to attain moksha and become one with higher energy, unlike Abrahamic beliefs. Exactly what do Brahman and Atman mean and how do we ascend the path of true spirituality?
The Absolute or Eternal Truth is Brahman. It consists of three spiritual elements, namely knowledge, eternality, and bliss. In essence, Brahman is the ultimate cause of all things. It’s the originator of everything, a source of ongoing maintenance, and it absorbs everything post-dissolution. Simply put, Brahman is everything spiritual. It transcends all holistic materialism. Different schools of spirituality follow different philosophies. According to some, Brahman is an impersonal and abstract force, while to others, Brahman is God’s supreme and original personality. Human minds cannot understand Brahman because it is eternal and unchangeable.
Atma, on the other hand, is regarded as the spirit soul of a living entity. We can consider atma as one with Brahman. Although Atma is considered to be part of the same spiritual nature as Brahman, it is an infinitesimal part of it. Moksha is thought to be possible through realizing Atman, or one’s essential self. A person’s atman is perceived as their intrinsic essence, which, as per Hindu beliefs, is separate from their ego. Atma is an aspect of your greater consciousness, like a drop of water and a wide river. Even though that drop of water has the same properties as river water, it cannot be considered the entire river. Similarly, there are numerous and diverse individual atmas. Some schools believe that Atma is eternal, while others believe that Atma eventually merges into the eternal Brahman, losing its individuality.
Unity of Atma and Brahman
If Brahma is eternal fire, Atma is the spark that constantly flies out of it. Maya, or illusion, can easily control and blind the infinitesimal atmas. A sense of false entitlement results from being blinded by Maya (illusion) over the atma’s true wisdom and knowledge. Only by devoting oneself unconditionally in the service of God, with clear intentions, can one achieve freedom from karma, according to Sanatan dharma. One can be free of future karmic bonds by unconditional surrender to God. We realize our true nature as atma, distinct from the body by freeing ourselves from karmic bonds. In that state, the illusionary coverings (maya) are successfully shed. Moksha, or liberation, is achieved when one attains spiritual wisdom by recognizing the illusion of false identification with the body and material possessions.
Proof of existence
Metaphorical explanations of Atma and Brahman are found in the Upanishads. Atma is first mentioned in the Rig Veda. Rigveda is among the oldest written texts, with some sections likely penned between 1700 and 1200 BC. Similarly, the Upanishads discuss the concept of Atma. In between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C., the Upanishads were written. Upanishads are dialogues between teachers and students about metaphysics, the universe, and other topics. The Upanishads contain a wealth of information about Atman and Brahman. Upanishads suggest that there is no difference between Atman and Brahman. Upon liberation from the cycle of life and death, the atman returns to Brahman. Moksha is the re-absorption of Atma into Brahman.
Upanishads explain the concept of Atma and Brahman by means of metaphors. For instance, in Chandogya Upanishad, there is a passage on Atman and Brahman, where Uddalaka enlightens 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.
Indian Schools’ of thought
Among Hinduism’s major schools of thought are Vaisesika, Yoga, Nyaya, Vedanta, Mimamsa, and Samkhya. They all recognize the truth of the Atman but emphasize the importance of knowing the atman (self-realization). What makes them different is how they interpret the concepts.
- Vaiseshika School– Vaiseshikas believe in four eternal substances, namely space, time, mind, and atman. A collection of eternal and spiritual substances is described as Atman according to this philosophy. Understanding what atman is entailed understanding what it consists of. According to their beliefs, however, it doesn’t lead to unification with Brahman or eternal happiness.
- Samkhya School– As per Samkhya School, an individual’s atman is his essence, while his ego is what causes him suffering. There are infinitely many atmans, each unique – one for every form of life in the universe, according to Samkhya.
- Mimamsa School– According to Mimamsa, the Aman is identical to the ego, or personal self. It emphasizes the value of ethics, morality, and righteous works, as good actions have a positive effect on the individual.
- Vedanta School– It has many sub-schools of thoughts regarding Atman, which might not necessarily coincide with each other:
- Advaita Vedanta believes Atman and Brahman are the same. They see all living and non-living things as part of one divine whole. When humans achieve full self-understanding, they can achieve liberation or Moksha, even when they are alive.
- The beliefs of Dvaita Vedanta are opposite those of Advaita Vedanta, that is, it is a dualistic system of thought. In Dvaita Vedanta, there are distinct atmans and a supreme Atma (Paramatma). It is believed that liberation only occurs after death.
- Nyaya School– Nyaya philosophy believes consciousness is an indispensable part of the atman. They use rational arguments to support the existence of Atma as an individual soul.
- Yoga School– Samkhya School is philosophically similar to Yoga School. According to the Yoga school, there are various atmans rather than a single universal atman. Yoga also includes techniques for achieving self-wisdom or realizing the atman.
Therefore, one can see that the Atma belongs to the larger consciousness or the Brahman. A being’s spiritual journey essentially culminates at Brahman, which is a source of eternal energy. As per Sanatan Dharma, the ultimate goal of man is to attain Moksha and become one with the Brahman.