One of the most mysterious—and confusing—terms in yoga philosophy is Ātman. Sanskrit is a language of profuse synonyms, and the confusion is partly due to Ātman’s many synonyms.
This post will help you work through some of the terminology related to Ātman so you can gain useful knowledge of this important word.
Ātman: Sanskrit and English Synonyms
Most yogic texts refer to the Ātman. But they use a multitude of other terms. Some of them are Brahman, Chiti, Shiva, Kundalini, and Satchidānanda, to name just a few. There are even variations on these terms. For example, you might discover the word Parashiva used instead of Shiva.
As you can see, these words are foreign to us—and plentiful. No wonder it’s confusing!
English translations and synonyms are equally prolific: Self, Consciousness, Mother Goddess, Supreme Lord, The Absolute—even That. Note here that all these words are capitalized, like the word God.
The good news is that you are free to choose any variation that appeals to you. All of them are correct. But to avoid confusion, Quiet Karma will refer to the Ātman as Self. This is the most common English translation. Please note, however, the difference between Self (capitalized) and self (not capitalized). The word self is used to denote an individual person—not the Ātman. One’s self includes personality, name, likes and dislikes, and a finite, physical body.
The Self: What is It?
The Self is eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, and immovable. It is Real; therefore, It is the same forever. (Bhagavad Gita 2:24)
He who inhabits the mind, yet is within the mind, whom the mind does not know, whose body the mind is, and who controls the mind from within—He is your Self, the Inner Controller, the Immortal. (Brihadāranyaka Upanishad 3:7)
The Ātman—the experiencer—is pure Consciousness. It appears to take on the changing colors of the mind. In reality, it is unchangeable. (Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras 2:20)
I appreciate yogic scriptures. I’m grateful that so many of them have been translated into my language. Yet I find it difficult to really grasp their meaning. I need help. When I’m trying to understand an important concept like the Self, I turn to my Guru. His ability to communicate deep philosophical teachings in simple language is exceptional.
The Nature of Your Self
by Svāmī Gurupremānanda
The following is an excerpt from Gurupremānanda’s home study course on yoga. This is a section titled “Nature of Your Self”:
In our last lesson, we discussed the reason for the restlessness of the mind, and you were asked to pose to yourself the question “Who am I?” Today we’re going to answer that question by talking about the Self.
First let’s see what the Self is not. The Self is not your name—John Doe or Mary Chase—or the outer physical person. The Self isn’t your likes and dislikes; it’s not your achievements and your failures. You would surely argue that you are not what you do for a living, nor are you the things you possess. You are you. And that “real” you is the Self.
Have you ever been laid off from work? Suppose you were working as a schoolteacher but then you got laid off, and now you work as a jeweler. You are still the same person. Change of jobs did not make you a different person. You are you, regardless of what you do for a living. You are the Self.
Now let me tell you exactly what I mean when I say, “You are the Self.” Remember, we are talking about the inner Self.
What is the nature of the Self? The Bhagavad Gita, which contains the essence of yoga, says, “Some people look on the Self as a marvel and some speak of it as a wonder. And others even on hearing about it do not understand it.
“The Self is never born, nor does it die. It is unborn, eternal and permanent. It is not slain when the body is slain. Weapons cannot cut it; fire cannot burn it; water cannot wet it; wind cannot dry it. It is eternal, unchanging; the Self is the same forever.”
Again, pose the question, “Who am I?”
Let’s say your last name is Jensen. Then you get married and your name is changed to Smith. You are still the same person despite what people may call you. A name is just a label. If I call a donkey a sparrow, it will not grow wings and chirp. It will still be the same old stubborn donkey. Well then, who am I?
The Self permeates the whole universe. It’s like electricity. The same electric current flows through different lamps. Some lamps are round and some long, some white, and some brown or black. Outwardly they look different, but it’s the same current that is giving light to all these lamps. Similarly, it is the same Self that is in everything.
The Value of Knowing the Self
For success in yoga, it’s not enough to know synonyms and definitions for the Self. We must experience it in our practice, in everyday life, and under all circumstances. True knowledge of the Self is a constant awareness of Divine presence. Yoga masters know that knowledge of the Self is the ultimate form of freedom.
You can’t forcefully change your sense of identity. When you answered the question “Who am I?” you might have noticed feeling an identification with name, body, or occupation. But awareness of the inner Self comes gradually through spiritual practices.
Meditation is the primary practice that awakens your awareness of the Self. The Self has always been present within you. It will never change or die. You don’t need to worry about seeing or experiencing the Self. It will make its presence known through your practices. There is a saying: “The Self teaches the self.” It means that knowledge will arise from within. As you practice, you will prove this truth for yourself.
* * *
More information about Svāmī Gurupremānanda’s home study course is available upon request.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.