Philosophy of Religion Series: A Brief Exploration of Ātman in Hinduism and Anattā in Buddhism

By R.N. Carmona

In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: ‘I am brahman.’ As a result, it became the Whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: ‘I was Manu, and I was the sun.’ This is true even now. If man knows ‘I am brahman‘ in this way, he becomes this whole world. Not even the gods are able to prevent it, for he becomes their very self (ātman). So when a man venerates another deity, thinking, ‘He is one, and I am another’, he does not understand.

Olivelle, Patrick. Upaniṣads: A new translation. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 1996. 15. Print

This passage from the Bṛadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad coincides with the earliest ideas of ātman (the self). The Upaniṣads, unlike the Vedas, explore ātman in greater detail. The “Ṛgveda (c.1200 B.C.E.), the earliest textual source from ancient India, ātman had already a wide range of lexical meanings, including ‘breath’, ‘spirit’, and ‘body’” (Black, Brian. “Upanishads”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Interestingly, the Upaniṣads, taken together, do not yield the same interpretation of the self, so there is a sense in which the concept of ātman anticipated a view in modern philosophy of mind. We will circle back around to that later. Of importance now is laying out a brief overview of the ātman in Hinduism. Then, we will turn to the Buddhist interpretation of the idea, anattā, which has interesting parallels to modern views of mind.

The Vedic idea of ātman never fell out of fashion as is made apparent in Uddālaka’s teachings. His idea of ātman is pretty much identical: it is the life force within all living things, the very essence creating a bridge between the parts and the whole. This is in keeping with Advaita Vedānta in where the “experiencing self (jīva) and the transcendental self of the Universe (ātman) are in reality identical (both are Brahman), though the individual self seems different as space within a container seems different from space as such” (Menon, Sangeetha. “Vedanta, Advaita”. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web.). Yājñavalkya offers a different interpretation, equating the self with consciousness rather than a life force. He ” characterizes the self as that which has mastery over the otherwise distinct psycho-physical capacities. He goes on to explain that we know the existence of the self through actions of the self, through what the self does, not through our senses—that the self, as consciousness, cannot be an object of consciousness” (Black, Ibid.). Despite differences from Uddālaka’s interpretation, Yājñavalkya still adheres to Advaita Vedānta. The Advaita school of Vedānta yields a concept of God that accords with panentheism.

Prajāpati also equates ātman with consciousness, but crucially, he also conflates it with the material body. Prajāpati, therefore, presents a strain of another school in Vedānta, namely Dvaita, which is dualistic. In a sense, it is a dualism of mind and body or consciousness and the material, but more importantly, it is a dualism of jīva and the Brahman, e.g., humankind and God. Given Prajāpati’s distinction, we see the beginnings of monotheism or henotheism, and the much later bhakti tradition in Hinduism in where a devotee of a given god is to unite their soul to this god by way of their love and devotion. Though there are other interpretations of ātman and Brahman in Hinduism, Advaita and Dvaita suffice for our purposes.

In Buddhism, there is no ātman. We are, therefore, introduced to the concept of anattā or non-self. There is no static, immutable, essential soul or consciousness. This is crucial for Buddhist teachings regarding suffering (dukkha) and detachment because if one does not have the idea of an essential self, one is less likely to pity himself over others, to regard his own suffering as having higher priority than that of other beings. Coseru elaborates:

The centrality of the not-self doctrine in Buddhist thought is explained on the basis of its pragmatic role in guiding the adept on the path to enlightenment. Furthermore, the not-self doctrine provides a justification for treating endurance, independence, and self-subsistence as neither desirable nor attainable, but rather as what they are: mistaken notions resulting from the habitual tendency to construct an identity from a stream of physical and subjective phenomena. 

Coseru, Christian. “Mind in Indian Buddhist Philosophy”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2012. Web.

As Coseru also points out, there is a sense in which the Buddhist idea of anattā anticipated Hume who thought that there was no self to apprehend within our perceptions. Along with anattā, Buddhists present “a fluid account of experience as an ever-changing stream of psycho-physical events. This dynamic model of human existence comprises the five classes of phenomena the Buddha referred to as the “aggregates of grasping” (upādāna-skandha), on account of our tendency to grasp after and identify with them” (Ibid.). This is opposed to our idea of a fixed self or consciousness experiencing life in a Cartesian theater.

When considering the Hindu idea of ātman and the Buddhist response of anattā, we can start to see how we could have avoided all of Descartes’ mistakes in the philosophy of mind had we been more studied on Eastern religions or other religions aside from Christianity. Christianity, akin to Dvaita, creates a dualism between God and man. There is never a sense, per Christian theology, in where man and God are identical or one. There is no sense in which man’s consciousness and God’s are identical either. Descartes took this a step further, dualizing the physical body and the mental soul. Hindus adhering to Dvaita Vedānta had already committed this error and the Buddhist idea of anattā, aside from reducing consciousness to the physical domain, suggested that there is no-self to speak of and more importantly, that there is no phenomenal consciousness to capture. It is an illusion.

Interestingly, the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta (monism), can be seen as paraphrasing anattā in that ideas of the self are illusory, a part of the Brahman dream (maya). This leads to the idea of mokṣa, the notion that we can free ourselves from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Hindus adhering to Advaita Vedānta, mokṣa is attained when one accepts the self as being one with Brahman. For Buddhists, Nirvana is the emptying of ideas of self and ultimately realizing that there is no self; this is how one comes to free oneself from the cycle of death and rebirth. Under both interpretations, there is a sense in which there is no self. On the one hand, any self that is at variance with the Brahman is illusory, a product of the maya while on the other, there is simply no self and any erroneous ideas we get about the self proceed from the ego. The ego is the engine through which false narratives of the self are created.

Further exploration of the self and ego delve too far into the philosophy of mind, but brief comments are in order. The Churchlands and Dennett adhere to anattā if ātman is defined as phenomenal consciousness. Ramsey states:

Dennett challenges not just our conception of pain, but all of our different notions of qualitative states. His argument focuses on the apparently essential features of qualia, including their inherent subjectivity and their private nature. Dennett discusses several cases—both actual and imaginary—to expose ways in which these ordinary intuitions about qualia pull apart. In so doing, Dennett suggests our qualia concepts are fundamentally confused and fail to correspond with the actual inner workings of our cognitive system.

Ramsey, William. “Eliminative Materialism”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2019. Web.

It can be argued, therefore, that if the history of philosophy of religion had been different, then the history of philosophy of mind would have proceeded differently. In other words, the missteps philosophers have taken throughout the history of philosophy of mind likely would not have happened. Of course, we would be dealing with a set of different mistakes, but some of these mistakes would not prevail till this day due to the obstinacy of apologists who do not want to relinquish the idea of Cartesian dualism. A thorough understanding of ātman and anattā would have at least disabused us of the idea of a theater of consciousness or a fixed self, and related ideas like qualia, which as Dennett points out, are problematic. See my recent “Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings” for a discussion on why the ideas of qualia and phenomenal consciousness are untenable.

On the philosophy of religion front, the concepts of ātman and anattā are fertile ground for discussions within the cosmotheological and ontotheological traditions (see Wildman, Wesley J. Religious Philosophy as Multidisciplinary Comparative Inquiry: Envisioning a Future For The Philosophy of Religion. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY. 2010. 248-261. Print. for an overview of these traditions in the philosophy of religion). As stated earlier, we now move away from mono or henotheistic frameworks and consider, for example whether panentheism best explains features of the universe, on the one hand, and features of being on the other. For one, consider the idea that we are star stuff. We are comprised of the same matter and energy that pervades the rest of the universe. In that sense, then, we are not distinct and all things in the universe recede back to the Big Bang singularity. Perhaps our ideas of essentialist distinction are illusory, a dream-like story we continue to tell ourselves. In light of this, there is either no self or the self reduces to the universe. Given the recent resurgence of panpsychism, some have argued that the universe is very much like a supermassive brain (see Ratner, Paul. “The universe works like a huge human brain, discover scientists”. Big Think. 19 Nov 2020). In any case, a closer look at Hinduism and Buddhism will take us in non-monotheistic directions that may prove fruitful in ongoing discussions in the philosophy of religion and of mind.

Ultimately, we begin to see why it is of the utmost importance to break up the Christian monopoly in philosophy of religion, so to speak. We can see how the winding history of ātman and anattā anticipate certain strains in the philosophy of mind while also providing new, fertile ground in the philosophy of religion. In Advaita Vedānta, there is just one self, the Brahman. Every other idea of self is illusory. This has some staggering implications for ongoing discussions about identity as well. In Buddhism, given anattā, we see that the “I Am that I Am” uttered by Yahweh is ultimately an error of the ego, overinflated and now extended into the idea of God. Furthermore, this supports the idea that the jealous, vindictive, tribalist gods so often prone to favoritism, unironically, of the people who happen to worship them, are created in our image. Anattā suggests that gods like Yahweh, Allah, and those pertaining to the various mono and henotheisms around the world are extensions of the ego imposing false ideas of the self. Most philosophers of religion, concerned not only with the nature of but also with the identity of God, seldom wrestle with the idea that perhaps there is no universal ātman, e.g., there is no God. This has some resonating implications all its own. The purpose here has been to move the philosophy of religion in yet another fruitful direction; while I can begin to exhaust possibilities, it is important for me not to create a self-induced echo chamber, especially given that my interest is to encourage philosophers of religion to travel down these newly paved roads. Anattā has far reaching implications for free will, ethics, identity, existentialism, and other areas of philosophy as well. In any case, it should be clear why Christianity’s iron grip on the philosophy of religion needs to be loosened.

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