[Advaita-l] Different meanings of the term ‘Atma’

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Tue Mar 23 12:51:27 CDT 2010

श्रीगुरुभ्यो नमः

The word ‘Atma’ generally means the Self.  But in Vedanta the word ‘Atma’
takes different meanings depending on the specific context.  Here are some
instances where different meanings of this term can be seen to be used.

*Atman as the Self, the essence of the individual*:

In the commentary to the Kathopanishad mantra 2.1.1:

पराञ्चि खानि व्यतृणत् स्वयम्भू: तस्मात् पराङ्पश्यति नान्तरात्मन् ।

कश्चित् धीर: *प्रत्यगात्मानमैक्षत्* आवृत्तचक्षुः अमृतत्वमिच्छन् ॥

[The self-existent Lord destroyed/damned the outgoing senses.  Therefore one
sees the outer things and not the inner Self.  A rare discriminating man,
desiring immortality, turns his eyes away and then sees the indwelling

Sri Shankara says while commenting on the word *‘pratyagaatmaa’* of the

प्रत्यगात्मानं प्रत्यक्च असौ आत्मा च इति प्रत्यगात्मा । प्रतीच्येव आत्मशब्दो
*रूढो *लोके नान्यस्मिन् । व्युत्पत्तिपक्षेऽपि तत्रैव आत्मशब्दो वर्तते –

’यच्चाप्नोति यदादत्ते यच्चात्ति विषयानिह् ।

यच्चास्य सन्ततो भाव: तस्मादात्मेति कीर्त्यते ॥’ (लिङ्गपुराणम् १.७०.९६)

इत्यात्मशब्दव्युत्पत्तिस्मरणात् ।

// That which is pratyak*, in the interior*, and at the same time *atma, the
Self*, is the pratyagaatmaa*.  In common usage the word atma
conventionallymeans only the individual soul, and not anything else
*.  From the point of *etymology*, too, the word atma has that very sense.  For
in the Smriti the *derivation* of the word is given thus: ‘Since It
pervades, absorbs, and enjoys (all) objects in the world, and since from It
the world derives its continuous existence, therefore It is called the
Atma.’ (Linga PuraaNam 1.70.96) //

In His commentary to the famous mantra ‘Tat tvam asi’ occurring in the
Chandogya Upanishad VI. 8.7 says Shankara:

 अत: स एव आत्मा जगत: प्रत्यक्स्वरूपं सतत्त्वं याथात्म्यम् ।  आत्मशब्दस्य
निरुपपदस्य प्रत्यगात्मनि  गवादिशब्दव*न्निरूढ*त्वात् ।

[Hence that indeed is Atma, the Self of the world, its inmost essence, its
quintessence, its very reality, because the word Self when not preceded by
any other word, *conventionally* denotes the inmost Self, like the
conventional words cow etc. Hence ’thou art that Existence, O Shvetaketu.’]

The ‘convention’ Shankara is referring to here has been shown above in the
Lingapuranam quote that He has referred to in the Kathopanishad commentary.
One can see the consistency in His use of the word ‘rUDhi’ (convention) in
both the quotations above.

*Atman as referring to the mind/intellect/ego:*

Often the word Atman refers to the mind.  For example, in the Bhagavadgita
Chapter 13.24 it is said:

ध्याने*नात्मनि* पश्यन्ति केचि*दात्मानमा*त्मना ।

[By meditation some behold the Self in the self by the self….]

Here, the first underlined word ‘Atmani’ in the locative case refers to the
intellect.  The second underlined word ‘Atmaanam’ in the objective case
refers to the Self, the essence.  The last word ‘atmanaa’ in the
instrumental case refers to the trained mind/sharpened intellect.

The Bhagavadgita verses  6. 5,6 and 7 also convey the above sense of the
term Atma.

*Atman as referring to the gross body:*

Rarely the word ‘Atman’ is used to connote the gross body.  For example, in
the Kathopanishad mantra 1.3.4:

इन्द्रियाणि हयानाहु:…..

*आत्मे*न्द्रियमनोयुक्तं भोक्तेत्याहुर्मनीषिण: ॥

 Here a definition of the jiva, bhokta, samsaari, the embodied soul, is
mentioned.  The word ‘aatmaa’ here refers to the gross body.  The entity
endowed with a gross body, senses and mind is called a bhokta, the
experiencer of the fruits of his karma.  Of course, he is the doer of
actions, too.

*Some common usages of the word Atma:   *

In common parlance we use the term Atma in conjunction with other words.  For
example, a popular usage is: ‘Atmahatyaa’ which means ‘suicide’.   In fact
the Upanishad itself uses this term.  In the IshavAsyopanishat  mantra 3 we

असुर्या नाम ते लोका अन्धेन तमसावृता: ।

ताँस्ते प्रेत्याभिगच्छन्ति ये के *चात्महनो* जना: ॥

[Those worlds of devils are covered by blinding darkness.  *Those people
that kill the Self *go to them after giving up this body.] * *

Shankaracharya comments that those people who remain in ignorance of their
true nature are the ones who kill the Self by continuing to be in samsara.

Then we have the usage ‘Atmakathaa’ to mean an ‘autobiography.’  Also, there
is the term ‘Atma-nivedanam’ that occurs for example in the Srimad
Bhagavatam.  The famous ‘nava vidha bhakti’ mentioned by the Great Devotee
Prahlada in the shloka:

श्रवणं कीर्तनं विष्णो: स्मरणं पादसेवनम् ।

अर्चनं वन्दनं दास्यं सख्य*मात्मनिवेदनम्* ॥

//(7.5. 22) Hiranyakas'ipu said. 'Now tell me Prahlâda my son, now you're so
well taught, something nice about all that you, o love of my life, have been
learning all this time from your teachers.'

(7.5.23-24) S'rî Prahlâda said: 'Hearing, singing, remembering Vishnu,
attending to the feet, offering worship and prayers, becoming a servant,
being a friend and *to surrender one's soul* are the nine ways making up the
bhakti that should be performed unto the Supreme Lord of Vishnu; this I
consider the topmost of learning.' //

The culmination of the spiritual journey that takes the path of devotion to
the Lord, is in the devotee erasing his ego totally and placing himself
fully at the feet of the Lord.  This is called Atmanivedanam.

There are other usages like ‘Atma-prashamsaa’ , ‘Atma-shlAghanam’, etc.
which mean ‘self-praise’, boasting, etc.  The term ‘Atma-shraddhA’ means

There are common usages like 'MahAtma', 'DharmAtmA', ‘puNyAtma’ (an exalted
soul), ‘pApAtma’ (someone with an impure mind), ‘shuddhAtma’ (a pure-minded
person), etc.

Again, to denote that an ear-stud is made of gold, the Sanskrit usage is:
‘suvarNatmakam  kunDalam’, an ornament that has gold for its material.  A
clay pot could be referred to as: ‘mRdaatmakaH ghaTaH’.  In these usages the
word Atma refers to the material cause of the object.  This material
constitutes the essence, the soul, the heart, of the object.

In all these usages invariably the term ‘Atman’ used as a prefix or suffix
means/refers to the individual soul only and not the ParamAtman.  Thus,
Shankaracharya’s assertion that the term ‘Atman’ refers to the *PratyagAtman
alone* is amply proved by the various examples, both scriptural and worldly,
that we saw above.

In Vedanta the term Atma means the ParamAtman too.  For example in the
Taittiriya Upanishad mantra:  आत्मन आकाश: सम्भूत:  the word Atma refers to
the Supreme Self from which the elements AkAsha, etc. manifested to form
this world.  Since Paramaatma is the essence of the world, He/It is the
PratyagAtma of the world. Again, since this essence of the world is what
constitutes the essence of the individual soul, it, the individual soul, is
no different from the ParamAtma.

Om Tat Sat

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list