Atman is a basic concept of Indian religion and philosophy. Both in eastern and western traditions there are two opposite streams of thought as regards the notion of the self. The Atman is commonly believed to be a permanent spiritual phenomenon, an eternal entity that outlives the body that dies, and continues to transmigrate to another body. This view is more or less held by all the six Vedic philosophical schools known as astika. In the hymns of the Rg Veda there are references to a single God which is the Supreme Reality and the source of all other divinities and phenomena in the universe. This Reality assumes several names in the Upanishads such as Atman, Brahman or Sat (Being). In the Aitareya and the Brhadaranyka the Atman is said to have been alone at first, and it is stated in the Chandogya that if Atman is known, everything is known. A similar statement is found in the Chandogya Upanishad when it says that ‘there was only Being (Sat) at the beginning, it was one without second’. As a cosmological principle the Atman is the ‘universal Soul’ or ‘universal spirit’ which is synonymous with the Brahman. References in the Brhadaranyaka saying that ‘this self is the Brahman’ or ‘I am Brahman’ clearly show that the Atman and Brahman are one and the same. The Brahman, ‘the one without the second’ is not only the principle and creator of all there is in the world, but is also fully present within each individual.
The Vedanta school such as Sankara’s Advaitavada (monism) accepts the Upanishadic view about the identity of the soul and God, and emphasizes that the soul within each living being is fully identical with the Brahman, the all pervading soul of the universe. The other Vedanta school such as Ramanuja’s Dvaitavada (dualism) differs from Sankara’s Advaitavada in that it differentiates between the individual souls in living beings and the Supreme Reality, the Atman (Paramatma). Sankara’s Advaitavada is a pure and unqualified monism as he admits nothing except God, the single and unitary Divinity, and denies all multiplicity even within God. The world is then not a real creation, but a mere appearance which God creates by his inscrutable power called Maya, and which appears to us real because of our ignorance. Ramanuja agrees with Sankara that God is the Absolute Reality, but denies that there is nothing except God. Ramanuja believes in multiplicity, as God is possessed of two integral parts, the material objects and the finite souls. Ramanuja’s Dvaitavada thus may be called Vixistadvaitavada as it means the unity (advaita) of the Brahman possessed of real parts (visista), the conscious and the unconscious. For Ramanuja, therefore, the world is not an illusion or what Sankara calls Maya, but a real creation of God (Brahman). The finite souls that Ramanuja speaks of are only an integral part of and not identical with the Brahman as Sankara claims. Though every soul is endowed with a material body, it is possible to liberate itself from its bondage, yet the liberated soul only becomes similar to God, but not identical with Him.
In line with the Vedanta, other astika schools such as the Sankhya, the Nyaya-Vaishesika, theYoga and the Mimamsa also believe in the existence of the soul or self as a spiritual entity distinct from the body and mind. In the Sankhya system the soul is admitted to be the second ultimate reality known as Purusa, the other reality being Prakrti. The self (purusa) plays a vital role in the evolution of the world, as the world starts evolving only when the purusa and the prakrti come into contact with each other. For the Sankhya the existence of the self is self-manifest as every body feels that he or she exists. Unlike the Vedanta Advaitavada that admits of one universal soul pervading all bodies alike, the Sankhya believes in the plurality of selves, each having been connected with a body.
The Nyaya-Vaishesika and the Mimamsa describe the self as indestructible, eternal and infinite as it is not limited by space and time. A unique substance distinct from the body, senses and the mind, the self is endowed with many attributes such as cognition, feelings and conatus. In the Upanishads the soul is recognized as infinite consciousness. For the Nyaya-Vaishesika and the Mimamsa, however, consciousness is not an essential and inseparable attribute of the self. All conscious states and cognitions arise in the self only when it is related to a body. It is, however, not the one all-pervading self that is to be found in all the bodies. There are different souls or selves for different bodies. Since consciousness arises in the self only when it is embodied, in its disembodied condition is absolutely devoid of knowledge and consciousness.
In the Yoga system the individual self (jiva) is considered as a free spirit despite its association with a gross body and a subtle body. The subtle body is made of the senses, the mind, the ego and the intellect. Unlike the Nyaya-Vaishesika and the Mimamsa, the Yoga takes the self as pure consciousness free from the body and the mind. It is because of ignorance that the self confuses itself with the mind.
Of the three nastika schools, (nastika meaning a denial of the authority of the Vedas), jainism stands in sharp contrast to the Carvaka and buddhism with regard to its view about the soul or self. While Jainism states in line with the astika schools that souls inhabit in all beings and things, living (jiva) or non-living (ajiva), both the Carvaka and Buddhism reject such a position outright. The Jainas hold that there are as many souls as there are things in the world.’
The Carvaka materialists reject the idealistic view that there is any soul distinct from the body. For the Carvaka the soul is nothing but the body endowed with consciousness. Consciousness is an attribute of the body, and not of the soul. Consciousness originates in the body out of a peculiar combination of the four perceptible elements such as air, water, fire and earth. As the body dies, these four elements disintegrate and consciousness ceases. Thereafter nothing remains of it.
Like the Carvaka, Buddhism discards the idealistic concept of soul; and at the same time it also rejects the Carvaka view that the soul is identical with the body. The Buddhist theory of no-soul (anatta) may be taken to be a corollary of the two important Buddhist theories, namely, the theory of dependent origination (Pratityasamutpada) and the theory of Impermanence and Momentariness (anicca). Everything in the world, according to Pratityasamutpada, ‘is related to, contingent upon and conditioned by something else’ and that all things are subject to appearance and disappearance, arising and passing away. The theory of Momentariness states that the entire universe is a process of ceaseless becoming, all phenomena, corporeal or incorporeal, are in a constant state of flux. There cannot be therefore any permanent or eternal substance in man. Buddhism denied that there is any such permanent entity that remains constant behind the changing components of a living thing. The words that we commonly use such as ‘I’ and ‘me’ do not in fact refer to any fixed thing. They are simply conventional terms that are used to refer to an ever-changing entity.
It is, however, not that Buddhism denies the existence of immaterial entities and that it clearly distinguishes the bodily states from the mental ones. According to Buddhism, a perceptible human being is composed of five groups of existence (khandas) known as nama-rupa, rupa meaning corporeality and nama referring to four psychical states such as feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. The self is neither to be identified with the combination of the khandas nor can it be said to be distinct from them. The self is merely a collective name for the Khandas. This has been beautifully illustrated in one of the Buddhist Scriptures known as the Questions of King Milinda. Every one of us is given a name by his or her parents. If a person is named Nagasena, for example, it would be ‘just a denomination, a designation, a conceptual term, a current appellation, a mere name. The person Nagasena, the self cannot be apprehended in the Khandas. To take another example, a chariot is made of the axle, the pole, the wheels, the framework, the flag-staff, yoke, reins etc. Similarly, the chariot cannot be discovered in any of the components of it, or in the combination of all its components. Just as the denomination ‘Nagasena’ takes place in dependence on the thirty-two parts of the body and the Khandas, so the name or the conceptual term ‘chariot’ does depend on the pole, the axle, the wheels, etc.
There is also a very striking affinity between the Buddhist theory of no-self and British philosopher Hume’s view on self or mind. Hume argues that we cannot have any idea of the self as we do not have any impression of it. He goes on to say that we cannot observe in us anything other than some sort of perception, either ‘of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain and pleasure’. For Hume what we call self is ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’. What Hume calls ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions’ is to be understood, from the Buddhist point of view, ‘a stream of mental or psychical processes’ with no self behind it, just as there is no mind or self other than ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions’.