Definition - Ananda Wood
The Sanskrit word 'Atman' means 'self', plain and simple. In particular, it refers to an inmost self that is pure spirit, at the living centre of each person's body, sense and mind.
When a body is called 'I', it is taken to know a world of objects outside. When a body's senses are called 'I', they are taken to know a sensory world of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. When a mind is called 'I', it is taken to know a changing process of perceptions, thoughts and feelings that conceive a physical and mental world.
These are three identifications of self: as a body, or as sense-organs, or as mind. In each case, an inner knowing is essentially implied. And that inner knowing is confused with some outward actions: with bodily actions towards outside objects, with sensual actions towards perceived sensations, with mental actions towards a conceived world.
The self called 'Atman' is that inmost knowing principle which is shared in common by our confused identifications. It is that plain and simple self which is found only by reflecting back to it, to its pure knowing unconfused with outward personality.
That reflection is described in the Katha Upanishad 4.1, which is appended and freely translated below.
parA~nci khAni vyatRRiNAt svayaM-bhUs tasmAt parA~N pashyati nA 'ntar-Atman kashcid dhIraH pratyag AtmAnam aikShad AvRRitta-cakShur amRRitatvam icchan
[This world that happens of itself has excavated outward holes, through which perception looks outside and does not see the self within. But someone brave, who longs for that which does not die, turns sight back in upon itself. And it is thus that self is seen, returned to self, to its own true reality.]
Elaboration on the verse from Katha Upanishad - Prof. V. Krishnamurthy
Shankara interprets `svayam-bhU' as the Great Lord who exists ever by Himself. `parAnchi khAni': The outgoing senses. `vyatRRiNAt' : afflicted, that is, killed.
So the first line means, according to Shankara "The Self-Existent Lord destroyed the outgoing senses". And that is why ("tasmAt") all perception looks outside and does not see the Self within ! In other words, the Self-existent Lord made the senses turn outward. The verb used in the Upanishad for `made' is `vyatRRiNat' which means also `punished', thus giving an interesting meaning that the senses were `punished' not to be able to look inward. Accordingly man looks towards what is outside and sees not what is within. (Recall the Lord's punishment for Adam and Eve for disobeying His orders!).
Incidentally, in his commentary on this verse in the Kathopanishad, Shankara quotes a verse from Linga-purANa, thereby giving the definition of `Atman'. The verse derives `Atman' from the root word which means `to obtain', `to eat, absorb or enjoy or pervade all'. It says:
Yac-cApnoti yad Adatte yac-cAtti viShayAn-iha / Yac-cAsya santato bhAvas-tasmAd-Atmeti kIrtyate //
Yat : That which
Apnoti : obtains
Ca : and
Yat : that which
Adatte : absorbs and pervades
Ca : and
Yat : that which
atti : eats, enjoys
viShayAn : (all) objects of enjoyment
iha : in this world
yat asya : that from which
santato bhAvaH : the world (derives) its continuous existence,
tasmAt : for that very reason
kIrtyate : (it) is named
AtmA iti : as AtmA.
The essay on "The Nature of the Self" by Swami
Krishnananda provides a detailed account of "Atman".
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