(Ātman) A Sanskrit word meaning “self” or “oneself” variously derived either from an “breathe,” at “move,” or va “blow.” Linguists believe it is cognate with the German verb atmen, “to breathe.” In the Upanishads, atman is identified as the basic conscious principle in man, and identical with Brahman, the underlying reality of the manifested universe. The Rig Veda has several references to atman, usually associating it with breath:
- The wind [or: air], thy Self (atman), has sounded through the region. (Rig V.. VII.87.2)
- The wind, Self (atman) of the gods, seed of the world! This god fares according to his will. His sounds are heard, his form is not seen. (Rig V.. X.168.4; cf. Bible, John 3.8)
In Rig Veda V.1.115.1, the Sun is said to be “the Self (atman) of all the moves and moves not. In the wind’s home is stored away the nectar of immortality.” Perhaps spirit has been considered in terms of breath or wind because of its intangibility, but also because it is essential for physical life. Helena P. BLAVATSKY, however, states that wind (or air), breath (or life-breath) is not atman, although the life-breath is directly linked to atman: “‘Prana,’ or ‘Life’ is . . . the radiating force or Energy of Atma . . .” (Key to Theosophy, 1949 ed., p. 174).
In its ultimate meaning, then, Atman is that universal life-flame or spark lit from the primeval Source of which each one of us partakes and in which alone we find our common equality and divine heritage. It is “our Father, which art in Heaven” of the Lord’s prayer, the Universal Self which Blavatsky refers to as our “plank of salvation” (SD I:174-5 fn). It is the ultimate goal to which we, as human beings can reach. Blavatsky, in her The Secret Doctrine (I:570) says this of it, “Atma alone is the one real and eternal substratum of all — the essence and absolute knowledge. . . .” But she points out that “. . . neither Atma, which is no individual ‘principle,’ but a radiation from and one with the Unmanifested Logos; or the Body, which is the material rind, or shell, of the Spiritual Man, can be, in strict truth, referred to as ‘Principles’” (The Esoteric Writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 1980, p. 356; Adyar ed. of The Secret Doctrine, vol. 5, p. 426). And in a footnote in The Key to Theosophy (1968 ed., p. 93), she says, “We include Atma among the human ‘principles’ in order not to create additional confusion. In reality it is no ‘human’ but the universal absolute principle of which Buddhi, the Soul-Spirit, is the carrier.”
Again, “We say that Spirit (the ‘Father in secret’ of Jesus) or Atman is no individual property of any man, but is the Divine essence which has no body, no form, which is imponderable, invisible and indivisible, that which does not exist and yet is, as the Buddhists say of Nirvana. It only overshadows the mortal; that which enters into him and pervades the whole body being only its omnipresent rays, or light, radiated through Buddhi, its vehicle and direct emanation” (Key to Theosophy, p. 101). For, she continues, “. . . Atman is the Universal ALL, and becomes the HIGHER-SELF of man only in conjunction with Buddhi, its vehicle, which links IT to the individuality (or divine man)” (Idem, p. 121).
Thus Atma-Buddhi is of no use to the physical man unless it is assimilated by, and reflected in, Manas, the higher mind. Furthermore, atman is not affected by karma, for, being universal and an aspect of the divine, it can never be an object of action and reaction, however lofty, equated as it is with Brahman, the Absolute. Nor can it become an object of perception, even in general sense of that term, since such perception would require a duality of subject and object. In order to realize it, one must become it; our higher mind — indeed our whole being — must be harmonized, uplifted, integrated, made whole (and therefore holy). As the Isa Upanishad (verse 7) puts it, “Whoso realizes the Self has become all being; for him, verily, where is delusion, where sorrow?” And the Atharva Veda (X.8.44) says, “Desireless, wise, immortal, self-existent, contented with the essence, lacking nothing is he. One fears not death who has known him, the atman, serene, ageless, youthful.”
See also HUMAN CONSTITUTION; SEPTENARY SYSTEM NOMENCLATURE; SELF.
© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila