The first verse in this quotation describes what ātmā is not: It is not the physical body, mind, intelligence, life air or ego, because it is the witness of all these – and the witness is distinct from the witnessed. The essence of this verse is that ātmā is not a material object and is therefore immutable and indestructible. The second verse begins with a positive description of what ātmā is. Let us consider this in greater detail.
It is not inert. It is conscious, and infuses consciousness into the subtle and gross bodies by its mere presence. The subtle as well as gross body cannot function without being illuminated by ātmā. Ātmā, however, requires no illumination from elsewhere, it is self-luminous by its very nature.
A human being experiences three states of life:
(1) wakefulness, in which one is conscious of one’s gross body as well as the mind; (2) the dream state, in which one is not aware of the gross body but experiences dreams in the mind; (3) the dreamless sleep, in which one is not aware of the body or mind. Ātmā is witness to all three states. An insentient, inert entity cannot witness anything, therefore ātmā must be conscious.
Ātmā is not mere consciousness. It is an entity that possesses consciousness. It is consciousness itself, and it possesses consciousness. Therefore it is described as “self-luminous” (svayam-prakāśa). Objects like a table or a book, for example, are not self-illuminating. They need to be illuminated by a light source before they can be seen. A light bulb, however, is self-illuminating, it illuminates itself as well as objects in its vicinity. But a light bulb is not aware of what it illuminates, because it is insentient, inert. Ātmā is not only self-illuminating but also self-aware. Ātmā illuminates itself and the body, and is conscious of the things it illuminates, including itself. For this reason, ātmā is called cid-rūpa, “sentient by nature.” Although self-luminous like a bulb, however, ātmā does not reveal the body to others, but only to itself. This concept of ātmā is in contrast to the notion of Advaita Vedānta, where ātmā is proclaimed to be mere consciousness, rather than possessing consciousness. In that school consciousness is only seen as the nature of ātmā, but not as its attribute.
Ātmā undergoes no modifications. Only the body undergoes various changes. If ātmā were subject to changes, it would not be a witness to the changes in the body. To witness a change, the witness must persist through the changes.
Ātmā pervades the whole body by its consciousness, just as a light bulb situated in one part of a room fills it with light. It is cid-ānandātmaka: it has sentience and bliss as its very nature. Thus it is neither inert, nor is there any tinge of misery in its svarūpa. No misery can ever contact the ātmā. This blissful nature of the self, ānandatvam, can be verified on the basis that it is spontaneously the object of everyone’s love; one’s own self is automatically the most important, dearest entity in one’s existence. Nobody loves something miserable, everybody loves joyful things. Since the self is automatically so powerfully attractive, it follows that it must naturally be completely free of any tinge of misery, and blissful.
Everything we love, we love because of its relationship to our self. We love our body as long as we occupy it. We love others as long as ātmā occupies their bodies. Once the ātmā leaves a body, it becomes unattractive and unlovable. We love persons and objects we identify as belonging to us. Sage Yājñavalkya told his wife Maitreyī that the wife does not love her husband for the sake of the husband but for the sake of the self (Bṛhad-āraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.5). This further demonstrates that ātmā is blissful, and therefore inherently attractive. However, the ānanda of the jīva is not the same as that of Bhagavān, whose bliss is that of the internal potency, antaraṅga-śakti. The ānanda of the individual ātmā only means freedom from misery, which can also be considered a type of bliss.
Ātmā is the meaning of the word, “I” (ahamartha). Atma is the self, so it is the object of the pronoun, “I.” In other words, it is the feeling of “I.” The core of the feeling of “I” is self-awareness, sentience, consciousness. Since ātmā is this core feeling of “I,” ātmā is self-awareness. Without self-awareness it is not possible to identify with anything else such as a material body. Because we know that ātmā indeed does become absorbed in bodily identity, we know ātmā must have its own sense of “I.” One without a sense of self (“I,” aham) cannot identify with anything else.
Therefore it is certain that ātmā itself possesses identity, a sense of individual self. This inherent individuality and self-awareness (“I”) of ātmā is not a cause of material bondage when it is grounded in the pure nature of the ātmā. It is a cause of material bondage only when it is projected towards a material body. The ātmā can project the feeling of “I” into a mass of matter (prakṛti) called a body. By so doing, ātmā identifies itself with prakṛti, thinks it is a parcel of prakṛti, and believes that it is the agent of deeds which in fact are performed by prakṛti.
The ātmā’s self-concept is called ahaṅkāra. Ātmā can invest its ahaṅkāra within itself, or can project it towards something else, an alternate identity composed of an external substance: prakṛti. The ahaṅkāra projected into the body is inactive in deep sleep. On awakening one deliberates about it with statements like, “I slept happily and wasn’t aware of anything.” The recognition that “I wasn’t aware of anything” shows that the ahaṅkāra related to the body is not eternal and can become inactive. It also shows that there is another ahaṅkāra, witnessing that lack of awareness of the conventional self. This is the ahaṅkāra in relation to ātmā. Forgetting oneself in deep sleep implies ignorance about material ego, and it implies a witness of this ignorance who recollects on waking up. Thus there is a real-I inherent in the ātma, which is the ultimate basis for the word “I,” and there is also a material I, projected into material organisms. These are the two ahaṅkāras. Without the real I of the ātmā, there would be no basis upon which the material I of identification with a particular mind-body-complex could exist. This refutes the Advaita-vāda theory that there is no real “I” in the ātmā.
By proving that “I-consciousness” is in the nature of the self, it naturally follows, as Jāmātṛ Muni says next, that there is a different ātmā in each body. He also gives another reason why the ātmā must be different in each body: It is aṇu (infinitesimally small) although it diffuses its consciousness throughout the entire body. Since it is infinitesimally small it is indivisible. Since ātmā cannot divide its sense of self into many different bodies, there must be a separate self in each body.
The infinitesimal smallness and indivisibility of ātmā is stated many times in the scripture. In Śrīmad Bhāgavatam (11.16.11), Kṛṣṇa tells Uddhava that the ātmā is the most minute of minute things, “Of enormous things I am the totality (mahat-tattva). Of minute things I am the ātmā (jīva).”
The Śruti statements also support this:
“This self is minute and to be known by the intellect…” (Muṇḍaka U. 3.1.9);
“The size of the ātmā is like one ten-thousandth of the tip of a hair” (Śvet. U. 5.9);
“The jīva seems to be a pinpoint” (Śvet. U. 5.8).
This refutes the Advaita-vāda conception that one ātmā is spread throughout all bodies. When scriputes make statements to this effect — such as “One divinity is hidden in all beings” (eko devaḥ sarva-bhūteṣu gūḍhaḥ, Śvet. U. 6.11) — they describe not the ātmā but the Paramātmā.
The self is eternally a part of Paramātmā, even in the liberated stage. Kṛṣṇa confirms this in the Gītā (15.7): “The eternal living being is verily a part of Myself.” This is the very nature of ātmā. Ātmā is not an outcome of some covering or limitation imposed on Brahman, as proposed by Advaita-vāda.
In Bhāgavat Sandarbha (section 15), Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī establishes that Paramātmā naturally has translogical potency. Ātmā is a particle of a ray of the translogical potency of Paramātmā, but can exist in a conditioned state, under the influence of matter. Being a ray of Paramātmā, ātmā is eternally under His shelter and cannot exist without Him.
According to Viṣṇu Purāṇa, the ātmā is one of the three energies of the Lord. The three energies are “para” (superior — conscious, spiritual energy), “apara” (inferior — insentient material energy), and “kṣetrajña” (the knower of the body — the ātmā). Ātmā is a third category of energy because it cannot be wholly subsumed in either of the other two categories. It is superior to the insentient material energy, but inferior to sentient spiritual energy because, unlike the para energy, it can come under the influence of the apara energy.
Paramātmā is an eternal being, thus His energies are eternal, as is the relationship between Him and His energies. Therefore ātmā is eternally a part of Paramātmā, even in the liberated stage. Scriptural statements that seem to indicate a loss of this distinct relationship by the ātmā merging into the Absolute at liberation are not confusing when we understand that they describe the ātmā attaining identical qualities as the Absolute. Here are examples of scriptural statements which make this clear:
“A jīva, getting free from the conditioned state, attains an equal status to the Paramātmā.” (Muṇḍaka U. 3.1.3)
“Those who have attained qualities like Me by resorting to this knowledge, are not born again at the time of creation, nor are they distressed at the time of dissolution.” (Gītā 14.2).
“The knower of Brahman indeed becomes Brahman.” (Muṇḍaka U 3.2.9). This means that the liberated ātmā acquires qualities like Brahman.
“One attains the nature of the Supreme.” Vedānta-sūtra (3.1.23).
In Paramātmā Sandarbha (section 37) Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī states that ātmā is not a part of Bhagavān, but of Paramātmā who is in charge of the jīva-śakti and māyā-śakti. He also clarifies the meaning of the term “part.” It is not a literal part, like a drop is part of ocean. It is “part” because it belongs to one of the energies of Paramātmā and is subservient to Him.
One may raise a doubt here: If jīva is an eternal part of Paramātmā, how can it exist in Vaikuṇṭha which is outside the realm of Paramātmā? Here it should be understood that Paramātmā and Bhagavān (the presiding personality of Vaikuṇṭha) are not two absolutely distinct personalities. Paramātmā is an expansion of Bhagavān. Thus Bhagavān Himself takes the role of Paramātmā for the liberated jīva. In the material world, Bhagavān does not directly deal with the conditioned jīvas. It is Paramātmā who controls the jīva and māyā. Once the jīva is imbued with the parā-śakti, Bhagavān deal directly with him.
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