Atma is not quite spiritual

Jul 19, 2015, 03:41 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

The Sanskrit word ‘atma’ is often translated as soul and/or spirit in English.

Devdutt PattanaikThe Sanskrit word ‘atma’ is often translated as soul and/or spirit in English. These two words are often used interchangeably. Yet these words have different roots and meaning. Spirit comes from Greek mythology. Soul comes from Christian mythology. Atma comes from Hindu mythology.

The Greeks believed that when a person died, his ‘psyche’ or spirit or ghost had to make the journey to the afterlife on the other side of the Styx. A coin was placed in mouth of the dead for the ghost to pay the boatman Charon for a ride across the river that separated the land of the living and the land of the dead. Those who had no coin to pay stayed back as spirits, or ghosts, haunting the living.

illustration / devdutt pattanaik
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

In the 18th century, the term spiritual meant communicating with the spirit world of ghosts. In the 20th century, the word ‘psychology’ may mean study of the mind, but the use of the word ‘psyche’ for the mind reveals its close relationship with the study of the paranormal and the psychic, in Western cultures. Prior to the 20th century, psychology was seen as the study of spirits and demons that possessed the body. The rational and the occult thus intertwined. And it still does, oftentimes, when people use the word ‘spiritual’. They are seeking a non-rational, non-material, supernatural solution.

In Christian mythology, there are tales of the pure virgin soul, the corrupted soul, the sinful soul, the selling of the soul to the Devil, and of bodies without soul (zombies). Often times, in popular lore, a man without a soul is projected as a man without a conscience. Thus soul is equated with conscience. Soulless vampires are shown having no conscience, no love. There are long theological debates on whether animals have souls or not. Since animals do not have a conscience, can they have a soul? There are theories that human souls are special since they are rational, indicating soul was being equated with the mind, as in case of the word ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’. Heaven is for humans alone, not for dogs or cats.

Greek spirit had nothing to do with God or morality but Christian soul was all about it. Neither of these ideas has anything to do with the Hindu concept of atma, which is seen as a local expression of the cosmic brah-mana. Atma is jiva-atma in one being and param-atma in all beings. In the Gita, atma is seen as infinite and immortal, hence cannot be divided by space or time, hence permeates all beings equally. It is pure. It cannot be corrupted as in Christian mythology. Unlike in Greek mythology, it experiences multiple lifetimes. It is covered by karmic memories that propel it from one life to another. Thus the atma goes across the river Vaintarni in both directions, from the land of the living (bhu-loka) to the land of the dead (pitr-loka), and back, several times. The atma is described in the Rig Veda allegorically as the bird that watches the bird (our mind) eating the fruit (the world around us). In other words that which experiences the flesh experiencing material reality. This flesh can be human or animal or plant, or even rock. Ignorance entraps us in mortality and hence the great fear of validating our life. Wisdom makes us realise that atma is immortal, and infinite, hence suffers from no fear of invalidation, hence eternally tranquil. This realisation is liberation (moksha).

Here, the word atma refers to self-awareness or consciousness.  While Hinduism says atma is everywhere, in Jainism, atma is restricted to living beings. Buddhism challenges this and says there is no such thing as the atma. Even that is a delusion. For nothing in nature is permanent. This is the Buddhist doctrine of anatta. Next time to want to ‘save a soul’ or ‘uplift your spirit’, note that you may be referring to something beyond the body, but not quite the ‘atma’.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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