Atma means the self or the soul. This is what we really are—the spiritual spark inside our body—as distinct from what we mistakenly think we are—our body and mind. Generally we think of ourselves in terms of the various labels we’ve had pinned on us—American, English, Christian, Hindu, white, black, liberal, conservative, father, mother, Jones, Smith, man, woman, or whatever. But these are only temporary tags. Time unpins them and replaces them with new ones. After all, the label is different from the merchandise.

Therefore, although atma sometimes refers to one’s temporary body, mind, or intelligence, the atma is ultimately the eternal consciousness (the spirit, or soul) that is present within the body of every living being. This atma—higher than the senses, the mind, and even the intelligence—is most mysterious and subtle.

The Bhagavad-gita describes it in this way: “For the atma there is neither birth nor death at any time. He does not come to be, has not come to be, and will not come to be. He is unborn, eternal, undying, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain . . . .The atma can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. This individual atma is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable, immovable, and eternally the same. ( 2.24).

One who realizes this eternal atma within himself—that is, one who recognizes himself to be the eternal consciousness or soul within the body—becomes a perfectly self-realized person. There are innumerable atmas, all in essence the same yet each eternally distinct. And above all these atmas is the Paramatma, or supreme atma—God. God, too, is distinct from all other living beings, and this distinction is eternal. God, the supreme infinite, is the complete spiritual whole, and all other living beings are infinitesimal parts of God. A living being can never “become God” any more than a drop of water can become the entire ocean.

  • Bodies and Souls
    – Bodies are temporary and made of matter. “Soul” refers to the self/person/spirit within the body.
  • The Function of the Soul
    – How is the body growing? On account of the presence of that small particle, the soul.
  • The Search for Self-fulfillment
    – Is the self something shaped and shared by our surroundings, or something private, autonomous, and internal?
  • The Anatomy of the Self
    – What makes one complex arrangement of atoms living and another nonliving?

More on this topic

We like to quote our sources. This page is based on the following:

  • Srimad-Bhagavatam, 1.1.11, Purport: “Atma, or self, is distinguished from matter and material elements. It is spiritual in constitution, and thus it is never satisfied by any amount of material planning. All scriptures and spiritual instructions are meant for the satisfaction of this self, or atma.”
  • Bhagavad-gita, 6.37, Purport: “The basic principle of self-realization is knowledge that the living entity is not this material body but that he is different from it; and that his happiness is in eternal life, bliss and knowledge. These are transcendental, beyond both body and mind.”
  • Bhagavad-gita, 2.20: “For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.”
  • Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya-lila 20.108-109: “It is the living entity’s constitutional position to be an eternal servant of Krishna because he is the marginal energy of Krishna and a manifestation simultaneously one with and different from the Lord, like a molecular particle of sunshine or fire.”
  • Bhagavad-gita, 2.22: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
  • Bhagavad-gita, 2.23: “The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”
  • Katha Upanishad, 2.2.13
    —As discussed in Srimad-Bhagavatam, 3.28.43: “The small particles of soul are just like sparks of the larger soul. The greatest soul is the Supersoul, but the Supersoul is quantitatively different from the small soul. The Supersoul is described in the Vedic literature as the supplier of all necessities of the smaller soul (nityo nityanam). One who understands this distinction between the Supersoul and the individual soul is above lamentation and is in a peaceful position. When the smaller soul thinks himself quantitatively as big as the larger soul, he is under the spell of maya, for that is not his constitutional position. No one can become the greater soul simply by mental speculation.”(also see Srimad-Bhagavatam, 2.9.33)
  • Bhagavad-gita, Introduction: “Now the jivas, or the living entities, have been accepted by the Lord, as we will note in the later chapters, as His parts and parcels. A particle of gold is also gold, a drop of water from the ocean is also salty, and similarly we the living entities, being part and parcel of the supreme controller, ishwara, or Bhagavan, Lord Sri Krishna, have all the qualities of the Supreme Lord in minute quantity”

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