Jnana Yoga

About the Atman

There is an ongoing debate as to whether the Atman is really a separate entity from the Self or it is one and the same with the Self. This debate seems to run primarily between two clearly defined camps, that of Advaita Vedanta and that of Dvaita Vedanta.

Advaita Vedanta basically declares that there is no difference between the Atman and the Self, whereas Dvaita Vedanta declares that the Atman is a separate entity from the Self. Advaita is known as a Monistic philosophy, while Dvaita is known as a Dualistic one.

Both Ramana and Shankara belong to the Advaita Vedanta camp. I belong to the Advaita camp as well and in order to attain direct Knowledge of my True Self, I adhered hermetically fast to the idea of non-duality. However, in Realizing the Self I also realized that, strictly in as much as the Atman is concerned, Dvaita Vedanta can be said to be partially right, although it is Advaita Vedanta which contemplates the Essential Reality of it all.

In my view, the core of this debate resides in the inability of our minds to elucidate the mystery involved in the Atman’s so-called individuality. The notion that the Atman could be an individual consciousness whose substance bears no difference from the substance of the Universal Consciousness can be something difficult to grasp for many of us.

At first hand, the term “Individuality” and the term “Universality” seem to be mutually exclusive, so that to assert that the Atman is an Individual Consciousness but that, at the same time, it is one and the same with the Universal Consciousness, appears to be a contradiction in terms. The problem here resides in our inability to conceive as one, through the direct application of our capabilities for understanding, two concepts which by their own nature seem impossible to reconcile.

In an effort to grasp such apparent contradiction, we can try approaching the matter using indirect means, such as allegories and parables are. To this effect, please consider the following:

Imagine an Ocean of water that is indeed limitless in every sense. An Ocean that truly has no beginning and no end. Please also imagine that this Ocean is the only thing that exists in the entire Universe and that nothing else exists anywhere other than this Ocean. Now imagine that it were possible to freeze some small portions of that Ocean’s water into extremely thin layers of ice. Then imagine that these thin layers of ice are so perfectly pure and polished that they are in fact the finest, most transparent kind of crystal you could ever conceive.

Now imagine that those layers of super pure and extremely thin crystallized ice mysteriously take the shape of small bubbles within the Ocean of water. Imagine also that when these crystal bubbles take shape they envelope within themselves portions of the ocean water in which they take shape. And, finally, imagine that those bubbles are allowed to travel within the Ocean waters, seemingly at random, carrying within them portions of exactly the same kind of water as that within which they travel.

If you were able to conceive these bubbles as I have outlined them above, you were able to conceive the individuality of something whose substance is in no way different from that of the totality in which it exists.

Now picture that the endless Ocean in my allegory is the Self. The Self has no beginning and no end. Then picture that, instead of water, the Self consists of Eternal Being-Consciousness-Bliss. Finally, picture the crystallized ice that envelops the bubbles in my allegory as the layer of Condensed Consciousness that forms the spurious individuality of the incarnating Atman, whose substance is actually one and the same with that of the Self. If you were able to picture this, then you already have a relatively good idea of the relationship between the Atman and the Self.

The Atman is the same as the Self and the Self is the same as the Atman, but through the mysterious intervention of the Self Itself (nothing else exists other than the Self), there are certain bubbles of Eternal Consciousness, i.e., the Atman, that, while remaining part of the totality of the Self, are also capable of acquiring certain clusters of characteristics that appear to separate them from the totality of the Self, but that, in essence, are one and the same with it.

In acquiring those characteristics, the Atman is required to incarnate and reincarnate in this world, over and over again, until it wears those characteristics off of itself, thereby no longer needing to give life to lesser kinds of consciousness such as are those that inhabit this Earthly plane. Once such clear mirroring of itself is attained through a human mind's Realization of the Self, the Atman is able to remain forever unattached within the totality of the Self where, in fact, it really always was since the beginningless, endless time.

One question here would be how come the Atman does not realize from the beginning that it is simply just a small part of the Whole? Here again we may hit the wall of incomprehensibility involved whenever there is a mysterious intervention from the part of the Self. However, it would seem that the layer of crystallized thin ice in my allegory is not always as pure and transparent as we may have imagined. Apparently, that layer can become quite opaque, so that the more opaque it becomes, the more the Atman is bound to fall into the illusion of separateness from the Whole.

A subsequent question would be how can that pure layer of Condensed Consciousness that envelops the Atman's individuality ever become opaque to the point of blinding the Atman to the Reality of its True Nature? And the answer is: By accumulating residual lower-level characteristics. Each time that the Atman incarnates it attaches itself with different degrees to its earthly attributes, thereby exposing itself to some very basic levels of consciousness such as are those involved in the practice of lower human tendencies, i.e., vanity, egotism, materialism, possessiveness, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, etc. The more the incarnated Atman is attached to its earthly attributes, the more it will dwell in the exercise of those tendencies, or lower-level kinds of consciousness and the more the Condensed layer of Consciousness that forms its individuality will become opaque.

On the other hand, the more the incarnated Atman is detached from its earthly attributes, the more it will dwell in the practice of higher levels of consciousness, such as are those involved in the practice of higher tendencies, i.e., selflessness, universal love, meditation and philosophical discrimination, and the purer and more transparent its layer of individuality will become. The purer and more transparent such layer becomes, the better the chances the Atman stands of Realizing its sameness with the Whole.

Please note that the root factors contributing to the Atman's opacity or clarity of Consciousness are its attachment to, or detachment from its earthly attributes.

Please also note that both kinds of levels of consciousness mentioned above, the lower and the higher kinds, are also part of the Self. Nothing that may or may not happen or that may or may not exist anywhere in the Universe resides outside of the Self. Any kind of behavior that the Atman might engage in while incarnated, therefore, is also part of the infinite realm of possibilities that resides within the Self. In other words, the Atman is never drawing its opacity or clarity of Consciousness from any extraneous sources, but from the very possibility for doing so that exists among the myriad possibilities of Being that exist within the Self.

As for the reason that the Atman is set to wander across eternity in the first place, in search of the right incarnation through which it may again attain the Eternal Consciousness of Itself, no one has ever been able to explain it. All that we can say is that such is the nature of the Self: To continuously re-create Itself for the sheer Glory of Itself.

This debate about the “Individuality" of the Atman also exists between the different schools of Buddhism, although, here again, it has never met with a definitive conclusion. It would seem, however, that the branch of Buddhism that most approaches the conceptualization of the Atman I have outlined above would be Mahayana Buddhism, but this observation may also be subject to interpretation and debate.

In any case, it is worth emphasizing that in no way am I hereby implying that the Atman’s Substance resides anywhere outside the Substance of the Self. No way. The same goes for whatever other reality that may ever be perceived on any plane, physical, mental or spiritual. Everything resides within the Self. Nothing exists outside of it. The Self is Itself everything that has existed in the past, exists in the present, and will ever exist in the future. In fact, there is no past, present or future within the Self. Everything JUST IS.

The same goes for the Atman. The Atman’s Substance is of the nature of Sat-Chit-Ananda, or Being-Consciousness-Bliss. The Atman exists since forever as the Eternal Being-Consciousness-Bliss which is the Self and it is one and the same with the Self.

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