What is Atman or the self: The story from the ancient scripture Chandogya Upanishad in which Brahma explains the truth about the Atman to Lord Indra.
What is Atman: The truth about the self
One day Lord Brahma, the Creator, announced: “The best goal in life is an attempt to know the atman. One who knows the atman knows everything, achieves everything. Anyone who knows the atman, his or her desires are destined to be manifested.”
The Gods and Demons got excited after hearing this. They discussed among their groups and realized that no one knew what is atman actually. The Gods decided that Indra, their king, would go and live with Brahma until he learnt what is atman. The demons selected their leader, Virochana, to serve Brahma and get the secret of the self out.
Both Indra and Virochana reached Brahma’s abode at the same time. Brahma asked them the reason for their visit. Both of them explained that they wanted to know what is atman so that they could become wise and manifest all their desires.
Brahma thought for some time and said, “Stay with me for some years meditating and practicing austerity. We shall see.”
Thirty-two years passed and both Indra and Virochana stayed with Brahma observing discipline. Brahma called both of them one day and said, “I will tell you what is atman. Fill in water in a vessel and look into it. What you see is the atman.”
Indra and Virochana both ran and picked up empty vessels. They filled the vessel, looked inside and saw their own reflections.
Virochana saw his face and his body in the vessel of water, and claimed delightedly, “I know what is atman. The atman is the physical form. The atman is the body.”
Virochana immediately returned home and proclaimed to his fellow demons, “The atman, that Brahma spoke about is our physical body. This physical body is our truth. Hence serve the needs of the body; eat, drink, be merry and beautify the body. For the body is the atman.”
The demons till this day, believe that the body forms their core truth. Demons and Gods are representative of the good and evil tendencies of man. Thus the demoniacal nature in a man stems out of this confusion that the atman is the body.
Indra was also tempted to return home, seeing that Virochana had returned to his life of comforts. However, he contemplated on what is atman and recollected on what he saw in the vessel.
Immediately he realized that the atman is eternal, permanent. But the body was transient. If the body fell ill, would the atman also fall ill? If the body disintegrated, would the atman also disintegrate? Hence Indra concluded that his interpretation that the body is the atman was wrong.
Indra went back to Brahma and said, “The atman is not the body.”
Brahma smiled and said, “Is it? Stay for some more time and we shall see.”
Another thirty-two years passed and Brahma summoned Indra again.
Brahma said, “You want to know what is atman? Atman is nothing but what you see in your dream. When you fall asleep and dream, what you see is the atman.”
Indra was again tempted to rush home with this knowledge. But he again sat down and meditated on this. Indra pondered, “In the dream, I see experiences that my senses have observed in my waking state. In the dream, I experience pain and pleasure, fear and happiness, hunger and thirst. The atman is beyond all this. And what happens when the dream ends? No, what I see in the dream state cannot be the atman.”
Indra again approached Brahma and said, “The atman is not known in the dream state.”
Brahma again smiled and said, “Is it? Stay for some more time and we shall see.”
For another thirty-two years, Indra practiced self-control and austerity.
Brahma summoned Indra again and instructed, “What you see in the state of deep sleep is the atman.”
Indra again resisted the temptation to return to his home and comforts and contemplated on Brahma’s statement. Indra realized, “In the deep sleep, there is no consciousness of the ego. There is complete darkness. The atman cannot be death of the ego. The atman is beyond the presence or absence of the ego.”
Indra again went to Brahma and said, “The atman is not known in the deep sleep state.”
Brahma did not smile this time. He looked at Indra and nodded, “Yes, that is correct. The atman is none of the three things I have told you. Stay for some more time and I shall tell you finally what is atman.”
Indra stayed for another five years practicing austerity. In totality, Indra had spent 101 years away from heaven and the other Gods. Brahma knew that Indra would persevere unless he was told the truth. Brahma decided to tell Indra the truth about the atman or self.
Brahma summoned Indra and said, “The atman is not what you perceive with your senses. What you perceive with your senses is your body. The sight, senses and body are all perishable. The mind that makes you dream from the residual memory of the senses is also not the atman. The mind is also perishable. The body and mind both merge in the deep sleep state; but this state is also temporary as the mind and body become different entities as soon as you wake up. Hence the deep sleep state also perishes.
“O Indra, I will tell you what is atman or the self. The air which has no body, the clouds which are not bound, the rays of the sun which heat, everything get absorbed in the space. The space becomes their source. Similarly, the atman is that consciousness which is the cause of the creation; the atman is the life principle present in every living creature. The atman is that which is both the experienced and the experiencer remaining totally unattached with the perception of the senses, the distractions of the mind and the quietude of the deep sleep state. When you realize that the atman is universal and not individual you will achieve joy and peace by being free from the cycle of life and death.”