What is the Self, the Atman?

Comments on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iii.7


The question:

Which is Self, the Atman? In other words, is Self the intellect, mind, the ego, the five senses (indriyas), or the body?

The answer:

When the One, the imperishable immutable Fullness, takes on the appearance-of-separation, it is called the highest Purusha, the guiding Light (jyotih) that resides in the Heart Center. This appearance of a ‘portion’ of the one is called the Self, Atman, the Soul (jiva) and moves through the adventure of Life by becoming identified with the temporal illusory dreamlike worlds it creates.

Life is the “dream” of the Self.

However the Self, the God-within, transcends this world. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (VII.12): I am not in them, they are in Me! The Self remains pure, untouched. After countless lifetimes of birth and death, the Self moves the Soul to transcend the mortal forms it has assumed to experience the apparent temporal illusory hologram we know as Life.


The Atman Self dwells within you, but most of us remain unaware, unconscious of our true essence. This Purusha-Self-Atman is the same in all beings. There is only one soul. We all have the same soul (Bhagavad Gita IX.29 & XIII.31); only the forms we take vary. When you realize this, you are liberated (mukti) from the illusion of separation.

The Self cannot be perceived by the five senses; therefore, it cannot be reached by the senses. The Real we are seeking does not lie outside of us. Whatever satisfaction sense gratifications give quickly evaporate.

It does not matter how rich or powerful we become. Sooner or later whatever we have acquired, we will lose. Most of us spend our entire lives in desperate pursuit of external sense objects. Most of us are lost, happy for a moment and then inevitably we sink into states of boredom and depression. Nothing external can satisfy! Only the God-within us, the Self, can give us the fulfillment we seek. Only that which resides within us all along, can take us Home.

The search for happiness in the external world will drain your life force and leave you empty.  It is simply not possible to find lasting happiness in these external objects-of-the-senses. Eventually death itself will rob us of all we have acquired. As our bodies fail with age, we are denied even basic pleasures. We all know this - and yet it seems we are helpless to relinquish our compulsions.

In this verse the external objects-of-the-senses are called the ‘death forms’ (mrityo rUpAni). In his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Krishnananda writes this: “… the things you see in waking life are forms of death.”

This cycle of death and birth will go on until we are ready to awaken from this Dream (svapno) world we ourselves have created. Until that time we move from one body to another carrying those tendencies (samskAras) we have generated through our actions.

Our thoughts and acts create the bodies the Self will inhabit lifetime after lifetime. These impressions (samskAras) attract, magnetize, and compel us to specific DNA, which thus makes up the hologram of our memory, proclivities, and inclinations. In the Bhagavad Gita (XV.8), Krishna calls them “fragrances” which are embedded in the subtle body and follow us down the pathways of Time.




The Texts:

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Krishnananda; The Divine Life Society, Uttaranchal, Himalayas, India, 2006.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, commentary of Sankaracarya, translated by Swami Madhavananda; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, India, 2004.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Commentary of Sri Madhvacarya, Translated by Rai Bahdur Srisachandra Vasu Vidyarnava; Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, India, 2001.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Sivananda; The Divine Life Society, Uttaranchal, Himalayas, India, 2002.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad; in The Upanishads, A New Translation by Swami Nikhilananda, Vol. III; Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1990.






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