Self in Indian Philosophy

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The human phenomenological experience of the universe consists fundamentally of the self or subject encountering a world of objects. Thus the two main objects of philosophy are the subject or the selfits nature and constitutionon the one hand, and the universe, along with its nature and constitution, on the other. Indian philosophy is no exception to this rule.

This experiencing self is referred to by several terms in Indian philosophy, the one most widely used being ātman. The word is usually derived from the root an, which means "to breathe"; apparently the fact that the perceiving self is an animate being who faces other animate beings and inanimate objects is central to its emergence as the marker of the self. It is called purua when its distinction from inanimate nature or prakti is emphasized, and it is called jīva when the ātman is viewed as caught up in the cycle of sasāra or birth and death, freedom from which becomes a goal of this empirical self (jīva ). In many systems this freedom is attained when the jīva or empirical self discovers its true relationship to the ātman or metaphysical self. This is the essential theological structure of the school of Indian philosophy known as Vedānta. But virtually each school of Indian philosophy possesses its own conception of the self or ātman, which must now be examined. Such an examination is facilitated by a review of the conception of the self in each of the nine schools of Indian thought. Although this standardization is relatively recent (Halbfass 1988, p. 353) it is worth employing because it enables one to present the concept of the self across the various schools with some measure of coherence. These nine schools, usually listed in order, are the Cārvāka (of Lokāyata), Jaina, Bauddha, Nyāya, Vaiśeika, Sānkhya, Yoga, Mīmāsā, and Vedānta.


According to the Cārvāka school, the body itself constitutes the self (deha eva ātmā ); of course, what is meant is that the conscious body constitutes the self. However, this immaterial element of consciousness in the body is considered an epiphenomenon of the material components of the body, in a manner reminiscent of scientific materialism. The Cārvāka school would establish the plausibility of the emergence of a property not contained in the elements by their coming together on the analogy of water, which possesses the quality of wetness, a property not possessed by the two gases of which it is composed. There is no question then of postmortem survival according to this school, as consciousness perishes with death. It therefore emphasizes making the most of life, with a pleasant death serving as the counterpart of salvation. Thomas McEvilley (2002) notes that these doctrines are similar to the ones Plato attributes to the physiologoi.


According to the Jaina school, the self consists of the soul or jīva which occupies the body. The soul is formless but it can occupy a body just as light might occupy a room. It is a striking feature of the Jaina view of the self that this jīva is said to be coextensive with the body. In view of the fact that the soul occupies the body, it can be said to occupy space, as the body does, and may even be said to be capable of extension, as when the body grows. The whole range of existence, including plants and minerals along with insects and so on, possesses a conscious soul, and if such consciousnesswhich is characteristic of the soulis not apparent, it is because it is dormant under the influence of karma. In Jainism karma is considered a very fine material substance that can permeate a soul, just as motes of dust might permeate light. Jaina soteriology consists of ridding the jīva of such matter, which keeps it weighed down in sasāra, so that, freed from it, it can rise to the top of the "universe" and be free forever. According to Jainism, knowledge is the natural attribute of the ātman, which is kept in check by ajīva or inanimate components of our being. "The eyes, for example are viewed here not as an aid to seeing, but as a check in the absolute sight of the soul" (Hiriyanna 1949, p. 61).


While the Cārvāka school does not believe in an ātman and denies anything like liberation, and the Jaina school believes in both, Buddhism denies the existence of a self or ātman while upholding liberation from rebirth in the usual Indic sense. According to Buddhism, continuity is possible without identity; hence there is no need to postulate a self that is reborn, for the next birth can be viewed as being caused by the present in the process of coming to an end, like an echo. Nirvāa brings silence to the re-echoing chamber of sasāra. The Buddhists seem to create many apparent logical difficulties for themselves by denying a permanent self or ātman but according to them the other systems create their own existential problems by believing in one. The Buddhist critique of a substantial ontology is very thoroughgoing; according to this critique, nothing whatsoever in this world possesses a permanent substratum (sabbe dhammā anattā ). The permanence or lack of it in the self has been a major issue in the Hindu-Buddhist interface (Chakrabarti 1999, chapter 5, appendix).

NyĀya and VaiŚeika

The concepts of the self in the Nyāya and the Vaiśeika schools have much in common and hence are presented together. According to the Nyāya and the Vaiśeika school, the soul or ātman is eternal, but consciousness is not its inherent property. Consciousness arises when the self or ātman is conjoined with manas or the mind, which is, however, by itself inert. The soul or ātman differs from other atomic or all-pervasive objects in that, unlike them, it is potentially capable of consciousness. The selves are numerous and all-pervading but remain distinct in the state of release because of the property of viśea, which accounts for things being different that are in other respects all alikefor example, two atoms that are otherwise identical are not numerically one. The self has no consciousness in the state of release because such a state involves the absence of manas. The ātman in Nyāya is a unique substance that possesses the attributes of cognition, emotion, and conation and the qualities of desire, aversion, pleasure, pain, volition, and knowledge. The Vaiśeika school provides a longer list (Organ). As these are not perceived by the external senses and are not physical, they must belong to a nonphysical substance such as the soul. However, although consciousness or knowledge is an attribute of the ātman, it is not inseparable from it. The soul is thus an independent substance, but consciousness is an accidental property of it. In order for conscious states to arise, manas must come into play, hence the otherwise cryptic remark that "the true self is broken up here, we may say, into two 'selfless elements'" (Hiriyanna 1949, p. 91). Scholars such as McEvilley (2002) note parallels here with Aristotelian thought.

SĀnkhya and Yoga

The concepts of the self in the Sānkhya and the Yoga schools are also sufficiently similar to be treated together. In Sānkhya the self is called purua or soul and represents pure consciousness, in opposition to prakti, which represents matter. The self loses its inherent consciousness by mistakenly identifying itself with the body as involved in the process of sasāra; the self is utterly passive and merely a spectator but mistakes itself for an actor and thus undergoes the ups and downs of the cosmic drama. Although the word purua is often used in the singular, in reality the system allows for a plurality of puruas, all consisting of pure consciousness, but distinct from each other and prakti or matter. The purua in Sākhya and Yoga is an uncaused, eternal, all-pervading, and changeless reality, which witnesses change as a transcendent subject distinguished by pure consciousness that can itself never become an object of knowledge. Salvation consists of this discrimination (viveka ) that one is pure spirit and not the mind with whose derivative reality one identifies oneself. The system of Yoga with its eight limbs or constituent elements is meant to guide one, through a series of meditations, to the realization of this ultimate transcendent witnessing subject as distinct from the mind, body, and ego just as the surface of the mirror is totally independent of the objects that are reflected in it but appear included in it.


The concept of the self in Mīmāsā is broadly similar to that found in Nyāya and Vaiśeika, but there are some differences. The list of specific qualities characterizing the self is similar but not identical, with Mīmāsā dropping those of dharma and adharma and adding that of śakti or potency. The most significant difference however consists of the fact that while according to the Nyāya-Vaiśeika school knowledge is a quality of the self, according to Mīmāsā it is an activity of the self.


The conception of the self or ātman in Vedānta needs to be presented in accordance with the school of Vedānta involvedwhether it is Advaita Vedānta, Viśiādvaita Vedānta, or Dvaita Vedānta. Thus the exact conception of the ātman depends on whether we are dealing with the "non-dualism of the qualified" (Advaita) or dualism (Dvaita). Prior to identifying the self in these three schools of Vedānta, however, it might be useful to indicate the concept of the jīva they all share in common on the basis of their reliance on the same foundational texts. Another aspect of the issues relating to the self or ātman, which receives relatively greater treatment in Vedānta than in other systems, is its relationship to Brahman, or the ultimate reality. It will therefore be useful to begin the discussion of the self in the three Vedantic schools with the conception of it they all share and conclude it with their views on the nature of the relationship of this ātman to Brahman.

The description of the human person as found in the Taittirīya Upaniad (II, 15) became paradigmatic in later Vedānta. According to this description a person consists of five sheaths within which the ātman lies enclosed. Starting from the outside, the first sheath consists of the body made of food (annamaya-kośa ); within it are the vital airs that comprise the second sheath (prāamaya-kośa ). The mind comprises the third sheath (manomaya kośa ), consciousness the fourth (vijñānamaya kośa ) and bliss the fifth (ānandmaya ). In Advaita the self consists of self-effulgent consciousness (svaprakāsa caitanya ), which is rather than has consciousness. It is one and the same in all human subjects (unlike Sākhya) and eternally free. Later Vedānta also developed a doctrine of the three bodies that comprise a human being, which ostensibly seems to possess only one body. These are the sthūla-śarira (or gross body) which corresponds to the annamaya kośa ; the sūkma-śarīra (or subtle body), which corresponds to the prāamaya the manomaya and the vijñānamaya kośa and the kāraa-sarīra (or casual body), which corresponds to the ānandamaya kośa. The true selfthe ātman lies beyond all the five sheaths and the three bodies or may be said to constitute their nucleus depending on how one chooses to describe it (Kesarcodi-Watson 1994).

According to Advaita Vedānta, the ātman is one's true self and is identical with Brahman. Any differences between the two are adventitious, caused by upādhis or superimpositions. A popular metaphor illustrates the point as follows: Different jars of different shapes and sizes may contain jar-space. The space enclosed by these jars may appear distinct, but if one breaks the jars, all space becomes one and the same. It was, however, one and the same to begin withthe jars only created ultimately artificial and unreal differences. Thus the selves of all are identical with each other and with Brahman.

The ātman per se is of the nature of pure consciousness according to Viśiādvaita Vedānta. The self is not pure consciousness, as maintained by Advaita Vedānta, but "a conscious subject called the ego or the 'I.'" The ātman is the self, but this self both is and has consciousness. Moreover, the self may mistakenly identify with the objects of the world, but it is identical neither with them nor with Brahman. It has lost sight of its true nature, one of utter dependence on God or Brahman. Moka consists in being properly aligned with God through devotion and grace. One important difference between Advaita Vedānta and Viśiādvaita Vedānta is that whereas the ātman is infinite in its true nature according to Advaita Vedānta, it is considered atomic or infinitesimal in size in Viśiādvaita Vedānta, but it is able to have knowledge beyond itself through the fact that it not only is but possesses consciousness called dharmabhūta jñāna. Jīvas or empirical beings are infinite in number according to both the schools, but because of its metaphysical non-dualism, Advaita ultimately concedes only one reality: ātman = Brahman.

According to Dvaita Vedānta, the ātman s are infinite in number. The reason given to justify this is the obvious differences in their experiences (which are considered ultimately only empirical in Advaita Vedānta). They are atomic in size, and, as pointed out, differ from each other. They also differ from God, and the distance posited between them and God is somewhat greater in Dvaita Vedānta than in Viśiādvaita, as indicated by the very designations of these systems. Viśiādvaita Vedānta accepts the "monism of the qualified," of God as qualified by the ātman s, but Dvaita Vedānta is frankly dualistic. Salvation results from the grace of God.

An utterance found in the Chāndogya Upaniad famously states "that thou art." The that here is usually taken to relate to Brahman and the thou to ātman, and the interpretation of this seminal utterance in the three schools of Vedāntathe Advaita, the Viśiādvaita, and the Dvaitais instructive of the differences in the concept of the ātman as it is understood in the three schools. According to Advaita Vedānta it means that ātman and Brahman are identical. "The identity of the denotation of the two terms" has to be realized "while their connotations are different" (Hiriyanna 1949, pp. 163164). According to Viśiādvaita Vedānta it is to be interpreted as follows: "'That' finally denotes God as having the entire universe as his body; and 'thou,' God having the individual soul as his body" (p. 184). According to one interpretation offered by Dvaita Vedānta, the identity here really implies resemblance, for ātman "have features like sentience and bliss (though qualified) common with God" (p. 192). The precise idea of the self differs in virtually every system of Indian thought beyond the ones discussed here (see K. P. Sinha 1991).

See also Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy; Brahman; God in Indian Philosophy; Knowledge in Indian Philosophy; Liberation in Indian Philosophy; Meditation in Indian Philosophy.


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Arvind Sharma (2005)