ATMAN (Sanskrit, spirit, soul, breath)—in the Rgveda atman is an element of life and is transitory. Only in one of the oldest Upanishads does it occur as the subject of vision, hearing, and thought, as the “internal director” in man and beast, and even in the phenomena of the surrounding world, as something extrasensory and free of death.
According to one of the oldest Upanishads, atman is what is still moving in man when he sleeps and dreams, and deep sleep without apparitions or phantoms is the seat of the atman which is free from the world. The view also occurs that the transitory body is the seat of the ever-living atman, and that atman undergoes suffering and joy only when it resides in the body, but apart from the body it remains in perfect happiness. The view that all the powers of the world of phenomena, including the gods, are in essence manifestations of one atman of the world (brahman is atman, the self of all) presupposes that atman is identical with brahman; the ancient legendary sage Yaynavalkya (around 500 BC) had stated such a conclusion.
Atman was initially presented as equal with the other elements of man, but with time it became the central element. Since, according to one of the teleological theories, some element of the cosmos corresponds to each element in man, the conception of atman began to be presented in terms of the cosmos. It came to be regarded as the ultimate principle of the universe, the highest reality, that which constitutes the source of all the world and all beings, including gods; atman became a synonym for brahman and was identified with the Absolute. This identification, not the only identification, lay at the foundations of an important axiom in the later period, especially for the philosophical system of vedanta; the axiom proclaimed that individual soul which is discovered by self- analysis and introspection, is identical to the single eternal power that manifests itself in everything. This identity, in a short time recognized as a dogma, is hidden from those people who are incapable of having intuitive experience of it. According to Shankara, the belief in the existence of brahman consists in the awareness of the real existence of atman, which constitutes only another aspect of this same reality. The eternal and infinite brahman can be known only be a higher mystical experience (anubhava) that transforms man’s who being or essence, and which is characterized by the fact that in it that which is known and he who knows are one. The experience and intuitive vision of atman within oneself is a state of perfect internal unity (mystical unity). At the same time it is the highest pleasure in which all differences between subject and object, between the internal world and the external world, between God and the world, every pain and thus all fear of death and rebirth, vanish. Immortality here is not the existence of the self-aware soul that will no longer be interrupted, but the dissolution what what on earth occurs as the individual, in infinite brahman beyond the person. Atman is therefore what in European languages we describe as soul, spirit, etc., something unchanging in the river of changes, a substratum. In an old Upanishad (Baudhayanaranyakopanishad) we find the belief that it does not matter for salvation (moksha) whether the body is still alive. The identification of atman with brahman proclaimed in the Upanishads gives way in Hinduism to an understanding of brahman as the soul of the world, and of atman as the individual soul. The individual does not achieve liberation or salvation until after death when the atman joins with brahman.
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