Self in the Upanishads
Turning back in
Quite plainly and simply, the Sanskrit word ‘atman’ is equivalent to the English word ‘self ’. This is so both in classical Sanskrit and in the modern Indian languages that derive from Sanskrit. And further, it is so not only in the ordinary, unquestioning usage of everyday life, but also in the reflective usage of philosophical enquiry, where reason turns back to question the very assumptions from which it proceeds.
One such habitual assumption is that a person’s self consists of a body, a set of senses and a mind, which are part of a larger world outside. But then, if self is just an object in the world, how can the world be known by it? Or, if self is not just an object, then what else can it be? And how can it be known?
The word ‘atman’ is derived from the root ‘an’, meaning ‘to breathe’ or ‘to live’. In the Rig Veda, it has an early form ‘tman’, meaning ‘the vital breath’. In accordance with this derivation and early usage, the word ‘atman’ describes the self as an inner, spiritual principle of life: quite distinct from the outward personality that is seen to act in the external world.
In the Katha Upanishad, 4.1, the true nature of the self is described as ‘pratyag-atman’: which means literally ‘the turned-back self’ or, to elaborate a little, ‘the self, returned to self [to its own true reality]’.
What is there to be found by turning back within? In the following story from the Chandogya Upanishad, 8.7-12, a progressive enquiry is described, through the three states of waking, dream and sleep. At each stage, persistent questioning shows up the inadequacy of previous understanding; until the nature of the self is shown at last to be pure consciousness: unconditioned by the gross external body that appears in the waking state, or by the subtle body of imagination and feeling that appears in dream, or even by the absence of body that appears in the seeming nothingness of deep sleep.
The rider in a chariot
How can the inner, real self be distinguished from the outward, seeming selves that appear in our conditioned and varying personalities?
In the following translation and retelling from the Katha Upanishad, 3.1,3-4, apparent personality and inner self are distinguished through the metaphor
of a chariot.
Like a chariot, the apparent personality moves about and changes in a moving and changing world. The inner self is like the rider in a chariot; it is the living principle for whose sake the personality changes and moves from place to place. But known within, from its own point of view, self stays the same and is in truth unmoved; as scenes of passing world go by, just like the scenes a chariot passes through.
The enjoyer and the witness
How is experience known by self?
The following passage occurs in both the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (4.6-7) and the Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.1-2). It distinguishes two kinds of experience.
• In the first kind of experience, knowledge is mixed with the actions of conditioned personality. And accordingly, the experience is conditioned by changing enjoyments and sufferings that result from the successes and failures of such personal action.
• In the second kind of experience, knowledge is pure illumination: quite unattached to any actions or consequences in the changing world. Accordingly, the experiencer is not an enjoyer or a sufferer, but a purely detached witness: quite unaffected by anything that happens in the conditioned world.
Where self is falsely identified as a personal ego, consisting of body or senses or mind, it seems to know experience in the first way: as a conditioned enjoyer and sufferer. But where the self is understood to know experience in the second way, as a completely detached witness; there the false identification of ego is dissolved, and the true nature of self is realized. Thus known entirely unmixed with any conditioned action or enjoyment, it turns out to be the final goal of love that motivates all actions, and the underlying source of happiness that shines out in all enjoyments.
As shown below, the same passage has been retold rather differently, in the
differing contexts of the Shvetashvatara and Mundaka Upanishads.