India is a big country where people with diverse views and beliefs about the Self, God and the world live with unity.  They respect each other’s views and beliefs.  Unity in diversity is needed for a vibrant society.  Majority of the Indians believe Atman is the base of their life; however they have different views about the Atman.  This leads to different philosophies.  Different views about the Atman leads to different steps towards the ultimate.

The concept of ‘I’ defines our life.  Philosophies differ in understanding ‘I’ (aham).  Our life depends on the way we assume ‘I’ to be.  Definition of ‘I’ is different in different philosophies.  The way we assume ‘I’ decides our knowledge and discriminative power (bhuddhi).  The way we define ‘I’ makes us either a limited person or an infinite one.  Vedanta defines ‘I’ as Atman.  Atman is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient.  It is all-pervading and infinite.  Vedanta says, “I am Atman and I interact with this world with my mind and body”.

People at different degrees of understanding misunderstand the srutis (Vedas), according to their level of understanding, and jump to wrong conclusions.  This misunderstanding has paved way for different philosophies.  Knowledge and beliefs are based on gunas (nature).

This article outlines how the other philosophies differ from Vedanta in the concept of Atman.


Charvakas are of the view that the gross body is the Atman.  They think that gross body illumined by chit (intelligence) is the Atman.  When body dies the Atman (chit) also dies.  Life does not exist after that.  Therefore, they accept smart living without any concern for dharma, papa or puniya.  They are called materialists.  They do not accept the concept of Atman in Vedanta, that is, chit is all-pervading, omnipresent, and omniscient.

A division of the charvakas believes that the five senses along with the bhuddhi are the Atman.  Some have concluded that the five senses are the Atman.


Pranatmavadins believe that prana is the Atman.  They argue that when any one of the senses is weak (like being blind etc.) that person still survives; and therefore, life exists even without the senses.  However, one cannot exist without prana.  When prana leaves the body, the body is dead.  Therefore, prana is the Atman.  They also argue that when we say, “my eyes’, it shows that there is some other entity other than the eye and that entity is prana.  Senses are not powerful and so prana is the Atman.  Pranatmavadins are a division of the materialistic group.


They are devoted to the worship of deities.  They believe that mind is the Atman.  They say that only mind experiences all emotions, pain and pleasure.  Prana is inert.  It does not have intelligence and so prana cannot be Atman and the intelligent mind is the Atman.

Vedantins argue that mind is the reason for bondage and freedom.  Mind has different moods and it is dependent.  How can a dependent mind become Atman?  Mind is only an instrument.  In deep sleep mind disappears.  Therefore mind cannot be Atman.


A branch of Bhuddism says mind is dependent on Bhuddhi.  Bhuddhi decides, mind executes, and so bhuddhi (vijnanamaya kosa) is the Atman.  Antakarana (mind) has two kinds of thoughts (vritti).  They are, the I- Consciousness and This-Consciousness.  I-consciousness is the subject, the intellect; it is the cause (karanam).  Aham vritti (I-Consciousness) is the vijnanamaya kosa.  This-Consciousness is called the idam vritti.  It is the manomaya kosa (mind).  It is the object.  If put in a nutshell, the I-Consciousness is the bhuddhi; it is the ego and the subject.  This-Consciousness is the mind and the object.  This-Consciousness is based on I-Consciousness.  Here the discriminating factor of the bhuddhi and the doubting faculty of the mind are ignored.  Since ego is needed to perceive the external world and it is the base for the mind the I-Consciousness, which is bhuddhi is the Atman.

Another branch of Bhuddism shanika vada sect says, I-Consciousness appears and disappears in seconds (shanika).  It is only a continuance of momentary “‘I’s”.  I-Consciousness appears and disappears every moment.  It needs no further principle to illumine and so intellectual sheath or the vijnanamaya kosa is the Atman.  The whole world is cognized by ‘I’ and so vijnanamaya kosa is the Atman.


It is also a branch of Bhuddism.  It says that nothingness (void) is the Atman.  It says intellect (bhuddhi) is momentary like the flash of lightning in a cloud or twinkling of an eye; however, nothingness exists for ever and so nothingness (void) is the Atman.  Shanika vada accepts Atman; but it says it is temporary – only for few seconds.  However, suniya vada completely rejects the Atman and believes in void.


They refute Bhuddism.  They say that even void or illusion needs a witness; otherwise one cannot experience void or illusion.  That witness must be intelligent otherwise it cannot witness and it must be the base for vijnanamaya kosa; that witness is anandamaya kosa and so anandamaya kosa is the Atman.

Different schools are also formed based on the size of the Atman.  Some say that Atman is atomic in size, others say it is all pervading and some are of the view that it is something in between.  Now, let us see the idea of different schools based on the size of the Atman.


They hold the view that Atman is atomic in size, because they travel through minute capillaries (nadis).  The capillaries itself are very small like’ hair’s end split into 1000′ and Atman travels through these very minute capillaries.  Therefore, Atman must be very minute in size.  They quote many sruti verses to support their claim like “Atman is smaller than the smallest, minute than an atom and more refined than the most refined” etc.


They hold the view that Atman is equal to the size of the body; it pervades the body and illumines all parts of the body.  They also say that Atman is of medium size and it easily enters a body adapting to any size.  It enlarges or diminishes its size to accommodate itself to the parts of the body into which it enters.  Atman according to them, being with parts, can adjust itself.

Vedantins reject this view because if Atman has parts, then it is perishable.  Body perishes because it has parts.  Atman is imperishable; it has no parts.  Another point is if Atman is born, and enters the body then there will be no continuity of karma.  If Atman is perishable then all the merits and demerits of the jiva in a particular birth vanishes without bearing their fruit.  Similarly, in the present birth jiva cannot experience the result (effect) of the previous birth.  The incidents in this life will be purely accidental.  Therefore, Vedantins refute the theory of the Digambars.

Vedantins maintain the view that Atman is all pervading.  It is neither atomic nor of medium size.  It is infinite, partless and all pervading.

Now we discuss about the different views based on the nature of the Atman – whether it is conscious, unconscious or a compound of the two.


Followers of Prabhakara say that Atman by nature is unconscious.  They think that Atma is an elementary matter like earth, water etc.  Matter has guna (attributes); for example, the guna of akasa is sound.  They think that Atman is a matter and its guna is chit.  Atman differs from the other matters due of its particular property, consciousness.

Vedantins cannot accept this view for the very obvious reason that Atman is not a matter and it has no gunas.


Tarka sastra agrees that Atman is consciousness, but they include eight other special gunas with the Atman.  These gunas are desire, aversion, effort, virtue, vice, pleasure, pain and latent impressions.  They say that Atman’s basic guna is chaitanya (intelligence).

They say Atman and mind are different.  They come together because of karma and give the effect of the karma.  When karma is over they are separated again.  When Atman and mind are separated, karma cannot give its effect.  When the past karma ceases to operate as cause, jiva goes into deep sleep and the eight properties too become latent.  They say that Atman possess intelligence and therefore called intelligent.  It manifests intelligence in the form of desires, aversion, and effort.  Atman is a doer.  It performs good and bad deeds and as a consequence experiences pleasure and pain.  Despite its all-pervasiveness, Atman goes from birth to death.  Moreover, Prabhakara and tarka sastra believes that anandamaya kosa is the Atman.  Vedantins refute this theory and argues that gunas are based on the mind.


Followers of Bhatta hold the view that consciousness is hidden in Atman and its nature is both consciousness and unconsciousness.  They hold the view that knowledge is obscured by ignorance in certain conditions.  Inert state is experienced in deep sleep and so Atman is unconscious.  At the same time, remembrance of unconsciousness in deep sleep is possible in the waking state because Atman is conscious.  They say Atman is both conscious and unconscious.  It is both intelligence and inert.


School of sankya accepts the fact that Atman is chit (intelligence), but it introduces another inert concept, Prakriti.  Chit aspect is called purusha and jada (inert) aspect is called prakriti.  Prakriti is unconscious in nature.  Sankya refutes the school of Bhatta by saying, Atman cannot have two states, both chit and achit.  It is only chit and it is called Purusha.  Prakriti is jada and it is ever changing.  Prakriti is composed of three gunas namely sattva, rajas and tamas.  Purusha and prakriti are always together.  Purusha is pure and it is subject to bondage and freedom because of prakriti.  It also says that there are many purushas because each one has different destinies.  Individual purusha is released from prakriti when purusha understands its original nature.


Vedanta differs from the school of charvakas to sankyas in the concept of Atman.  This is the root cause for forming different schools.  Verses of Vedas are misinterpreted by different people.  The non-dual Universal power, Atman, is interpreted according to their capacity or latent knowledge, which results in multiple schools of philosophy.



Advaitam and Science