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Individual Self And Universal Self In Hinduism - The Atman - Brahman

The individual self is referred to as Atman and the universal self is referred to as Brahman in Hinduism. The realization of the identity of the atman (individual self) and Brahman (universal self) represents the final goal of Hindu philosophy. The nature of worship is taught by sharing the identity of the worshipper and the worshipped. Mahavakyas of Upanishads such as tat tvam asi, ‘That art Thou’, are statements of the identity of atman and Brahman. Atman and Brahman in the Vedanta can be studied from different philosophical, standpoints such as Advaita and Visishtadvaita.

In Upanishads, atman means severally the body, the vital divine breath, awareness, the subject of all sensations, and of everything, the independent active subject, the real self in and of a man, the self of the world, the subject of all spiritual actions as well as the subject of cosmic consciousness, and finally Brahman.

Atman – Brahman equation can be understood only as a qualified identity, as a qualified tautology. Brahman, the consciousness, needs an ultimate subject, atman. The Upanishadic search leads to the concept of atman as the ultimate subject, the ultimate knower. The relationship between atman as the subject of everything and ahankara, jivatanma, the individual self, is complex. The true qualification of atman-Brahman, individual and the universe, has been speculated in more than one culture. All things, including human beings, can be said to be drops of water in the ocean, participants in or reflections of the single one, being of the Being.

This realization of the true self, of atman leads us to discover its identity with Brahman. This atman is the supreme person, uttama purusha. The atman – Brahman intuition is the discovery of the equation between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The atman and its identity with Brahman, the awareness of oneself being a part of the whole must be realized as the only noble goal of human life.

Meditation on Brahman leads to pure ecstasy while atman leads to pure entasis, states Satapatha Brahmana. Atman is the thread holding all things together; it is the antaryami. Yajnyavalkya knows this as he expands it: the atman remains ungraspable because it is neither ‘this’ or ‘that’. Atman is that which holds the human person together in unity and guides the individual selves. Katha Upanishad reveals the paradoxical nature of atman which can be grasped only by sadhana, worshipful meditation and not by an intellectual approach. Vetasvatara Upanishad adds that atman can be gained from the individual self by effort, truthfulness and fervor as butter is procured from milk. The overarching nature of atman, its cosmic character and spiritual reality are again stressed in Mundaka Upanishad.

The doctrine of the interdependence of all things – as of honey and bees – is found in Brihadarnayaka Upanishad. Purusha in the cosmos and purusha in man are atman, Brahman, the whole universe. The list of macro-micro cosmic correlation includes – earth-body, water-seed, fire-speech, wind-breath, sun-eye, religion-hearing, moon-mind, lightning-inner light, thunder cloud-sound, space-space within the heart, holy order-obedience to holy order, truth-truthfulness, humanity-humanness, and the cosmic and personal atman. Thus Brahman and atman are included in the all-embracing power of the purusha. The Upanishad stresses that the teaching concerning atman – Brahman is a matter of experience. Meditating on the light of atman may have the visions or listening to the inner voice, one may hear some kind of sound. Mandukya Upanishad states atman brahman is to be known and realized – He who knows the Brahman exists – his is an indirect knowledge; he who knows ‘I am Brahman” – this is direct knowledge.

This knowledge of oneness of self and greater self is brahmavidya. According to brahmavadins, jnana (knowledge) brings moksha (liberation from here and now) and one who has jnana of self has jnana of Brahman. Moksha can be attained by vidya tells us that Brahman is the whole of reality and the substratum of all external values like truth, goodness and beauty. It is satya (real reality), jnana (self-consciousness) at Ananta (infinity). Goodness or amalatva is the moral content of Brahman, Ishvara. He is defined as satya, jnana, Ananta, amala and anandamaya.

And atman is savayam prakasha (self illuminated) and its intelligence is both substantive and adjectival. It is self realized and at the same time the subject of jnana or jnanashraya. Brahmajijnasa (the enquiry into Brahman) is governed by the supreme spiritual end of moksha.

Prahlada realized Narayana, the inner self of all, and attained samadarshana (the sense of spiritual similarity and solidarity). Katha Upanishad affirms that the wise man who meditates on the self is rid of sorrow. It refers to the distinctive attributes of the atman as a meditating subject and Paramatman as the object of meditation. Aum (om) is the akshara Brahman, Brahman not subject to change.

The implications of such significant concepts as atman and Brahman are far reaching. The attainment of atman or the state of Brahman or moksha is the highest goal of a man and all other achievements are insignificant. Accordingly, the state of atma-jnana is above all, permanent and attaining it is the highest aim of life. On the philosophical plane, atman is conceived of as the highest principle and all other principles like jiva, jagat and maya are said to be supportive of it and part and parcel of the philosophy of atman. The average Hindu mind is inward turned, antarmukhi, and somewhat indifferent to merely material success.