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Atman: The Soul, the Real Self


In order to understand the Hindu worldview it is


essential to grasp this first and foundational concept.

Key Points

Atman refers to the non-material self, which never

The real self (atman) is distinct


changes. It is distinct from both the mind and the

from the temporary body.

Atman: The Self

external body. This real self is beyond the temporary

Material designations do not apply

Reincarnation and Samsara

designations we normally ascribe to ourselves, in

to this eternal soul.


terms of race, gender, species and nationality.

The atman is spirit (brahman)

Key Concepts

Prakriti: Matter
Maya: Illusion
Moksha: Liberation
God: Perceived in Three
God: Two Main
Sanatana Dharma
Varnashrama Dharma

Ideas of reincarnation are natural extensions of this

preliminary concept. Consciousness, wherever it is
found, is considered a symptom of the soul, and
without it the body has no awareness. This life-giving
soul is considered spirit (brahman), differentiating it

unchanging, eternal and

Consciousness, as spread
throughout the body, is a symptom
of the soul.

from inert matter. Belief in the soul is not just theoretical or the property of theologians, but is a
worldview expressed by Hindus in all walks of life.

A Useful Analogy: The Driver in the Vehicle

One Goal, Different Paths

Scripture and Guru
Kala: Time

Core Values


The body is compared to a vehicle and the soul to the driver

A car cannot run without a driver. Similarly, the
body will not work without the presence of the
Just as a young child may not realise that each
and every car needs a driver for it to move, those
without developed knowledge perceive the body
but fail to see the soul within.
The driver may identify with his car and even feel
kinship with drivers of a similar model. Similarly
feelings of friendship or enmity arise from
identifying with the body.
The driver develops a deep attachment to the
car, so in an accident he commonly cries out "You
hit me!"If the soul identifies with the body in the
same way, then preoccupied with the body's
condition he becomes caught in a web of
distress and happiness.
The driver is not satisfied maintaining the car
alone without looking after his own needs.
Similarly, looking after the body alone cannot
satisfy the soul.
Although the driver is not the vehicle, he will
move according to the nature of the car, namely fast, slow, etc.
The same driver can get out of one vehicle and drive another. Similarly, the soul leaves one
body and enters another.

Scriptural Passages
" ... all living beings, are seated as on a machine made of the material energy."
Bhagavad-gita 18.61

"Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings; nor in the future
shall any of us cease to be."
Bhagavad-gita 2.12

"That which pervades the entire body is indestructible."

Bhagavad-gita 2.17

See also Bhagavad-gita 2.16, 2.20, 2.23, 5.18, 13.27, 13.34, 15.7

Related Stories
The Bird in the Cage (STO-101)
A poetic tale about the need for spiritual nourishment.

Liquid Beauty (STO-102)

How beauty lies within.

Related Values and Issues

The notion of the unchanging self and the ultimate need for self-realisation are at the root of
Hindu attitudes towards many important issues:
respect for life
shared values
tolerance, patience, forbearance
austerity and renunciation
empathy and compassion for others
wealth and poverty

Related Practices
All forms of yoga and spiritual discipline are aimed at
realising the true self. Only when one stops seeking
external happiness and looks within, can one perceive
the true self. According to the Bhagavad-gita, this can
be achieved not only through study, meditation, and
renunciation but also by active and selfless
performance of one's duty.
Indeed, just prior to the great battle of Kuruksetra,
Krishna encouraged Arjuna to develop his selfrealisation by fighting.

Personal Reflection
How can a criminal be punished after a crime if he or she is "not the same person"? What is
the scientific or philosophical basis for such continuity of identity?

Can matter ever be unchanging? Consider even the smallest quantity over the shortest of
time periods.
Do we feel a sense of continuous identity or are we changing? What is it that is changing?
What does not change? Who am I really?
What is the difference between a living body and a dead body? Why do I react to them so
Whilst eating a meal ask yourself, "If I am this body, then at what point does the food cease
to be 'not-me' and become 'me'"?

Common Misunderstandings
Hindus believe that they possess a soul.
On the contrary, Hindus believe that we, like all living beings, are the soul and possess a body

Hindus believe that atman = brahman.

Whereas practically all Hindus hold that the soul is brahman (spirit), this equation can be
misinterpreted to conclude that all Hindus believe that the soul and God are equal in all

Meaning and Purpose

Who am I?
What is my real identity?
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"Heart of Hinduism" is Copyright: ISKCON Educational Services, 2004