What is Atman or the Self: Brahma’s teaching to Indra


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

what is atman
Indra Seated on a 3 Headed Elephant: Temple Wat Arun, Thailand

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.”

Suggested Reading:

What Stops YOU from being free? The story of the Caged Elephant


Lord Brahma -The God of Creation


Lord Brahma- In Mythology and Philosophy

Lord Brahma is the Hindu God of Creation.

Lord Brahma
Lord Brahma- The creator of universe

Lord Brahma is the creator of the universe as per Hindu scriptures. Lord Brahma is part of the Holy Trinity, the other gods being Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Brahma undertakes the creation of the universe, Vishnu sustains the universe and Shiva annihilates it. This eternal recurring process is called creation.

Lord Brahma in Philosophy

God Brahma is called “Svayambhu” meaning that which is “self-manifested” or “self-born”.  In Vedic philosophy, Lord Brahma reminds us that the one supreme consciousness adopts the illusion of diversity for the purpose of creation. Lord Brahma is the first differentiated reality from the one undifferentiated consciousness. It is for creation that the one supreme consciousness deludes itself and becomes many due to the illusion of differentiating between the seer and the seenthe body and the mindI and them.

Lord Brahma in Mythology

In Puranas,  Brahma, the first god among the trinity, is represented by “Hirayangarbha”  or “The Golden womb” from which all the creation has originated. Hence Lord Brahma is called Prajapati since all creatures emerged from him and are his progeny. In another recitation, a golden coloured lotus grew from the navel of Lord Vishnu and that became Lord Brahma’s seat. The parts of the lotus represent the entire world.

 The Holy Trinity

The wise know  that Brahma represents the mind,  Vishnu represents the Prana or life force that sustains and Shiva represents the wisdom that is beyond ego.  Hence when one develops his mind or intellect, he is able to create a path to balance his life-force and finally attain the wisdom that will lead to Vairagya and Viveka                    

The Symbolism of Brahma

Lord Brahma is traditionally represented with four heads and four arms. The four hands of Brahma hold a water-pot, a spoon, a rosary and the Vedas. The symbolism is explained below:

Four heads of Brahma: They represent the four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama, Atharva) and the four yugas (Krita, Treta, Dwapara, Kali).

Four arms of  Brahma: The four hands of Brahma denote the four directions showing the eternality of the cosmos. The objects in his hands thus represent their eternal purpose. The spoon is for pouring of Holy Ghee in the sacrificial fire, the water-pot denotes the all encompassing nature of the ocean, the rosary is for keeping track of the Universe time and the Vedas represent the truth of the creation.

God Brahma’s vehicle

Brahma’s vehicle is a divine swan. In mythology, the swan is bestowed with a virtue called Neera-Ksheera Viveka or the ability to separate milk from the water symbolising the ability to separate good from the evil.

Other Facts about God Brahma

In Kali Yuga, Lord Brahma is not worshipped as prominently as other deities. The reason is due to Shiva’s curse which is mentioned in the Shiva Purana and also explains the significance of Shiv Ling.

The story in Shiv Puran accurately predicts decline in worship of  Brahma and explains why Ketaki flower is not used as worship for Lord Shiva.

The most famous temple dedicated to Brahma is located at Jagatpita Brahma Mandir in Pushkar, Rajasthan

Suggested Reading:

 Brahma’s greatest teaching to Indra- What is Atman or the Self?

Brahma Temple Pushkar- Religious Significance