Atman is the observer that lets the gross body function unhindered, as the 'Self' tries to free itself from the ego & the senses to clean the slate of karma for us all.
Belavadi Shankar is a retired doctor who has a keen interest in Vedanta philosophy. He currently resides in Bangalore.
Before I begin this essay, I would like to narrate a dialogue between Calvin and his teacher in the cartoon ‘CALVIN AND HOBBES’. This cartoon appears in many English daily newspapers all over the world. In one of these cartoons Calvin is sitting in a class and the teacher says to the class: “If there are no questions, we’ll move on to the next chapter”. Calvin immediately raises his hand and says; “I have a question”. Teacher: “Certainly, Calvin. What is it?” Calvin: “What is the point of Human Existence?” Teacher: “I meant any questions about the subject at hand”. Calvin sits back at his desk dejectedly, and talks to himself: “Frankly, I’d like to have the issue resolved before I expend any more energy on this”. On another occasion, he was talking to his mother, who was sipping her coffee and reading the newspaper. Calvin: “Paul Gauguin asked, ‘where do we come from? What are we doing? Where are we going?” His mother did not say anything. Calvin continues: “Well, I don’t know about anyone else. But I came from my room. I’m a kid with big plans, and I’m going outside! See you later!” His mother still did not say anything, but sat there in a pensive state. Frustrated, Calvin tries to get some answer from his mother: “Say, who the heck is Paul Gauguin anyway?” No answer from her!
Well, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) painted his answer to the above question in a picture form in 1897-98! He was a French post-impressionist painter; and this painting (Oil on Canvas) has this title: WHERE DO WE COME FROM WHAT ARE WE DOING WHERE ARE WE GOING (Just like that without space between words – in French). In Svetâsvatara Upanishad we see the same statement: Kim kaaranam brahmakutah sma jata jevam, kena kava cha sampratishtah| adhishtiah, kena sukhetareshu vartamahe brahmavidovyavastharam||This painting is his master piece; the original is displayed at Boston museum, Massachusetts, USA. (A re-production copy of this painting is in my room).
These dialogues tell us a lot about the subject matter of this essay. The questions: Who am I, Why am I here, what is the meaning of this life etc. have been asked by numerous philosophers, thinkers and other intellectuals throughout human history without proper/satisfactory answers. The French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin also had the same question in his mind when he painted his Masterpiece. If I asked you this question, ‘Who am I?’ then you would say: ‘Of course I know you. You are Shankar’. The minute you see me (my body), or think of my name, you recognize me. It is the name given to me when I was born. But, what you may not know is that I am more than what you see. I have three parts: the manifested part (the gross body), the semi-manifested part the Ego, and the un-manifested part (subtle body) Atman, soul, and the law of karma. I am all these. The body and Ego use mind (function of the Brain), which is another part of ‘me’. Let me explain as much as I have understood. I know I am Atman only by reading Vedanta literature and by discussing with those scholars. Sri Ramana Maharshi spent all of his life exploring and explaining ‘who am I’. Even teenagers in the USA, at the advent of ‘Hippie’ movement, (and may be influenced by Maharshi Mahesh Yogi), began to leave home, as soon as they became 18, telling their parents that they want to ‘find themselves’. The question bothering them was ‘who am I?’ Many thinkers have tackled this question, and, to my knowledge, none have clearly and distinctively explained the answer in a convincing and logical way, so that the common man can understand without any ambiguity. It may be because of the abstract nature of Atman. It is not easy to understand the concept without a Guru explaining it.
I know my body quite well. Everyone who knows me recognizes me by looking at my body. The reason that Vedanta proclaims that ‘I’ am not the body is that the body is temporary and falls off one day. But, they say, Atman or consciousness (or SELF) is eternal and cannot be destroyed. Ashtavakra accepts the body as fact, but urges us to see that we are more than just the body. So I say to myself ‘why not I call myself this body until it falls off?’ But then I also realize that the body (and mind) cannot function without energy. That energy comes from within. Medical science calls this ‘Oxygen’. [Note: oxygen example is given simply to make those who have ‘no idea’ about Atman understand the Atman to some extent. No attempt is made here to ‘equate’ Atman with Oxygen.] Vedanta calls this, ‘Atman’. The only ‘catch’ is that Atman is not obvious, and the concept is hard to understand. It is SO abstract that vast majority of people shrug it off. But, it is not hard to understand that Oxygen is needed to sustain the functions of our body-mind complex. So, what is more important; body or oxygen (‘Atman’)? Adi Shankara in the 8th Century popularized the Maha Vakya “Aham Brahmasmi”, meaning ‘I AM Brahman’, the central point of the Advaita philosophy. He also said: “Jagan Mithya, Brahman Satya” (Viveka Chudamani); meaning ‘this world is Maya but Brahman is real and eternal’. There is another factor in this system (a very big factor indeed). And that is the third part of me, the ‘Ego’. People call it ‘Ahankara’ and take it lightly. It is this Ego that rules the world. ‘I’ am utterly its slave. ‘I’ am imprisoned within the fortress built by the Ego. [Note: here ‘I’ refers to anyone]. I said before, people recognize me when they look at my body. They also recognize me, to some extent, from this Ego. Because Ego puts out certain noticeable characters; such as raging anger, melodious singing, etc. That is why I call it as ‘semi-manifest’. Atman is ‘Akartha’, meaning it does not interfere in any of our activities. It is just an observer. It supplies power to all organs in the body, without getting involved. As powerful as it is, Atman does not control the Ego, just like it does not control mind or any of the body functions. All Vedanta scriptures say that Atman is JUST an observer. Every part of the body, except the Brain, carries out activities specific to that part, without any external command or assistance.
But the Ego does its own thing. The brain (mind) though, provides ‘me’ an opportunity to escape from the prison ‘I’ am in; it could be my friend in my struggle with Ego. [This ‘confusing’ part becomes clear later in this essay]. However, the Ego has firm control over the mind. The Ego uses the brain-power, the five senses, and the body to carry out its acts undisturbed. For example: Raga, Dwesha, Mada, Maathsarya, Greed etc. are all toys for the Ego to play. This is where Vedanta comes into play. The mind (a function of the Brain) is my best friend to defeat my worst enemy, the Ego. By constant focused, and continuous meditation one can make our mind to help freeing ‘I’ from the clutches of the Ego. Another reason why the body is NOT me is, they say, the body’s appearance may change beyond recognition in the event of a devastated accident, and it may change its name, and, could alter the appearance using modern medical technology; such as plastic surgery, sex change etc. But, Atman does not change. Hindus believe that escaping from the cycle of ‘birth and death’ is the goal of everyone. Vedanta tells us that to achieve this goal one must discard the ‘body’ (mentally) and to be union with the Atman (Atmajnana); because, to escape from the cycle of birth-and-death we need Atmajnana. Who is going to be union with Atman? ‘I’. That ‘I’ who is imprisoned by the Ego should escape from that Prison and merge with the Atman, they say. By doing so, ‘I’ will know the truth and be liberated from misery. Atman is part of the Brahman, the Power that encompasses the whole Universe. Since the Universe is called ‘Brahmanda’, it is called ‘Brahman’. Although it is hard to understand this concept, I am willing to go along with it, with some objections.
When the whole world is overpowered by the Ego and when the Ego has built the strongest possible fortress, how can I escape? The Upanishads and the Yoga (Ref: Pathanjali’s Yoga Sutra (5)) give us the required guidance in this regard. First, we should begin practicing concentration of the mind by meditation. We all know a million thoughts flash through our mind every waking minute. Ignoring these thoughts (not responding), we should fix our mind on certain thing-figure-symbol or anything for as long as possible. (But, Ramana Maharshi disagrees: He asks us to ‘Meditate ONLY on Atman. However, Ashtavakra says; “The Self is beyond thought and cannot be an object of thought. Meditating on It is therefore nothing but creating a certain mode of mind, and that is not Brahman”. (4) Pathanjali also says that: “Brahman is not ‘an object of concentration’”). One could concentrate on ‘OM’ while meditating. Even if it is for a few seconds in the beginning, we could increase this time gradually. Pathanjali suggests that we begin meditating for 18 seconds and a gap of a few seconds and repeat as many times as possible; and gradually increase the duration. With regular practice we will learn to train our mind to hold on to one and only thought under ‘OUR’ command. During this time our sensory organs will be idle. If we do this for, say, 10 minutes one day, and increase it by a few minutes each day (practicing this every day), then one day; -even if it is after years-and-years, we can say ‘we have conquered’ the Ego (may be partially). (Read Pathanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutra’, especially the part: Yama, Niyama, and Samyama). For this, one needs a lot of patience. I think this is what is meant by the ‘renunciation of the Ego’ (Read: Ishavasya Upanishad). When once this happens, the ‘I’ will be freed from the clutches of the Ego and ready to merge with Atman. Even if one is not ready to obtain ‘Atmajnana’, these meditations will help in taming the ‘Two Raging Bulls’; the Ego and the Sense Organs. Meditation can cure depression, and may increase the power of rational judgments, and even enhance memory power.
After reading the book: ‘A message from Arunachala’, by Paul Brunton, I got the feeling that this author really attained ‘Atmajnana’ at the end of his stay at Arunachala, while visiting Ramana Maharshi. The last three pages of that book are very gripping and solemn. I mention this because persistence and disciplined approach towards reaching this goal may produce success to ‘anyone’ who is determined to go all the way. But, I have to qualify this statement by saying that this is not for everyone, and certainly not absolutely needed. Even those who want to reach this state may have to work all their life, and, maybe even beyond this life! We should know one thing; that by understanding the Ego’s game, and by practicing simple meditation, one can prepare our mind to guide us through the life’s journey, safely and, lead a productive life with helpful attitude. [See the NOTE below] That is why Vedanta stresses the importance of ‘Renouncing’ the Ego.
Regarding the goal of the Hindus, ‘Escaping the cycle of Birth-and-Death’, I have been grappling with this issue of ‘Who is trying to escape from this cycle?’ for quite some time. It is not the body, since it has only ONE life and be destroyed at the end of its time. It is not Atman, since Atman is eternal and has no Birth-and-Death issue. Then WHO? I could not find this topic being discussed in the published literature in any details as far as I can remember. So I have made-up my own theory! It is the ‘Ego and the Law-of-Karma’ complex. (The subtle body). In the Taittiriya Upanishad (Part II) the five ‘Koshas’ are described (Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya, and Anandamaya). While reading this section I began to think that: Why not we call this complex as ‘Jeevamaya’ Kosha! If we take the Ego and the ‘Law-of-Karma’ and place them in this Kosha and make the ‘I’ as a prisoner in it then it will complete the picture. (In some scriptures – for ex. Brahma Sutra - calls this ‘soul’). Ego works independently using the mind and all the faculties of the body, especially the sense organs to conduct its own business. The law of Karma merely records all our activities and processes their consequences in order to prescribe the suitable remedies. The Ego works using the imprisoned ‘I’ as a front for its enterprises. All the Vedanta messages ask us to ‘renounce’ this Ego which is preventing our ‘escape’ from the bondage. The Atman is only the observer and cannot help. Some might say that the mind also accompanies the Atman to the next Janma. If this were to be true then one SHOULD remember everything that happened in the previous Janmas. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “I remember everything in my past Arjuna, but you don’t”. (6) So Mind will not travel to the next Janma, in my opinion. Moreover mind cannot exist without Brain – when the brain is dead there will be no mind, again this is my understanding.
The captured ‘I’ should be made to use the mind to slowly gain enough strength to tackle the EGO gradually reducing its effectiveness, finally bringing it down completely. When we address ourselves I, it is the ‘I’ imprisoned in this complex. Now to attain ‘Moksha’ we need to liberate this ‘I’ and merge it with Atman. For this we need to completely eliminate ‘Ego’ and make the ‘record’ that is kept by the Law-of-Karma ‘Blank’ (both positive and negative ‘karma phal’ zero separately). So when ‘I’ shreds the body at this juncture then there is no reason to be born again. At that time ‘I’ joins Atman and merge with Brahman, and the Law-of-Karma has NO bank balance. That is absolute moksha. This is my understanding of ‘liberation’ (Moksha).
On the relationship between the Body and Atman I wish to quote a line from a Kannada poem by the late Professor K. V. Puttappa, who was a National Poet Laureate in Kannada: “Dehavidu neeniruva gudiendu tilidu, gudisuvenu dinadinavu Deva Deva…….” The meaning: Considering my body is your temple, Oh Atman, I clean this ‘Temple’ every day. This could be the ‘gist’ of the messages from the Upanishads. Although the body is temporary and Atman is permanent, until Atman leaves the body one should give utmost attention, making sure that this body is neat, healthy and fully functional. We should remember that the ‘temple’ is there because of Atman. Although Atman is just an ‘observer’ of what we do, and does not, in any way, participate in those ‘actions’, everything we do requires the support of Atman.
I started this essay with a cartoon and ended with a quotation from a modern poem to make a point that the concept of Atman separate from the body is not so abstract and if one can think deeply then this truth will be revealed.
1. The Ancient Wisdom of Ashtavakra. Manuel Schoch. Wisdom Tree press.
2. A Message from Arunachala. Paul Brunton, Pilgrims Publishing.
3. The Call of the Upanishads, by Rohit Mehta. Motilal Banarsidass.
4. Ashtavakra Samhita (XII.7); translated by Swami Nityaswarupananda).
5. Pathanjali Yoga Sutras. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.
6. Universal Messages of the Bhagavad Gita, Vol. 1. By Swamy Ranganathananda.
7. Brahma Sutra Bhashya of Shankaracharya: Translated by Swami Gambhirananda.