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Gita Lesson - 0403: Meaning of Atman

Bhagavad Gita
Unit - 04
Lesson - 0403: The meaning of the word 'Atman'
By Raja Subramaniyan

The word 'Atman' refers to the true meaning of the word 'I'. Whenever we use the word 'I', due to ignorance, we refer to the combination of two different entities. One is a conscious entity and another is an inert entity. The inert entity does not have any consciousness and the conscious entity is aware of the existence of the inert entity.

The conscious entity is Atman. It can also be called as consciousness, awareness, Brahman or by any other word since it is beyond names and forms. The word Brahman is used when we refer to the entity that supports the whole universe and the word Atman is used when we refer to the same entity in the context of supporting our individual body/mind complex. Although space is one indivisible entity, we refer to the space within a pot as pot-space. Pot-space is like Atman and space is like Brahman. There is no difference between pot-space and space. Similarly, there is no difference between Atman and Brahman.

The inert entity includes everything that is known. Since I know the body and mind, both of them are inert. The entity (Atman) which is aware of the body and mind is me, the consciousness.

However, in the absence of the systematic teaching, both the conscious entity (Atman) and the inert object (body/mind complex)] are completely mixed up. When we use the word 'I', sometime we refer to the conscious entity, sometime we refer to the inert body and sometime we refer to a combination of both.

We are not clear whether we have a hand or we are the hand, which is shown by the usage of the words 'me' and 'mine' interchangeably.
Example: 'This is me' OR 'This is my body'.

Gita educates us systematically on the difference between the two entities (conscious entity and the inert entity) that is referred by the word 'I'. Thus, gaining the knowledge on the self is called self-knowledge.

Example: I live eternally. (Lord Krishna refers to the conscious entity) Lord Krishna is born. (We refer to the inert entity)

Self-awareness will blossom into self-knowledge, if we are able to differentiate between the conscious entity and the inert entity and identify ourselves with the conscious entity.

It is difficult to understand that mind is inert. However, by definition it has to be inert because we know the existence of the mind. Awareness is the nature of knower (the consciousness or Atman or I). This awareness is reflected on the mind (the inert entity) and mind appears to have an independent capacity to know.

It is similar to a pen writing on a paper. Pen is an inert object and it used by us as a writing tool. Mind appears to be thinking, just as a pen appears to write in the hands of the writer. Mind borrows sentiency from the Atman.

Teaching 5: You are the changeless consciousness

I am the consciousness. I have a body and mind. While the body/mind complex keeps changing, I the consciousness do not change. This can be verified through self-enquiry and through logic. We can observe that our body/mind complex is changing continuously from the time we are born. The observer has to be changeless in order to make judgment whether the observed is changing or not. Therefore, I am changeless.

What happens on death?

When we are living our body/mind complex appears to be alive because it reflects the consciousness.

On death, the physical body is discarded. Mind together with the reflected consciousness, takes a new physical body (called birth).

I remain changeless.

What happens while living?

The body exists within the womb, it is born, it grows, it changes, it deteriorates and finally it dies.

The mind is continuously changing by interacting with the environment.

The environment continues to present situations that are pleasant and unpleasant and the mind is continuously affected by such changes.

There is no change in Atman whether the body is five years old or fifty years old. From our experience we know that whether we are old or young there is no change in our core being.

I remain changeless.

Lord Krishna tells Arjuna that there is no reason for him to grieve due to the following reasons:

1. Atman cannot be destroyed since it is eternal.

2. The mind does not die on death. It survives the death and it takes a new body. It is like abandoning an old house and moving into a new house.

3. Physical bodies are continuously deteriorating and will disappear one day whether Arjuna kills them or not.

4. One has to accept the extreme weather change without grumbling since it is part of the nature. Similarly, the pairs of opposites (gain/loss, love/hate etc) will keep alternating. One has to have the understanding and forbearance and not complain about such changes.

Chapter 2: Wisdom is the solution [Verses: 13 - 15]

2.13 Atman continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age. Similarly, it passes into another body on death. A wise person is not disturbed over such changes.

2.14 Oh Arjuna, pleasure and pain are like heat and cold, subject to arrival and departure. One must learn to tolerate the seasonal changes without being disturbed.

2.15 Oh Arjuna, the person who remains steady in both pleasure and pain, due to his wisdom, is certainly eligible for immortality.

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