Last updated: December 21, 2023

What Does Atman Mean?

Atman is a Sanskrit word, defined in simple terms as an individual’s inner self, spirit or soul. The concept of Atman as the true self is considered to be the first principle of Hindu philosophy, particularly according to the Vedanta tradition.

Dualistic schools such as Dvaita Vedanta believe that Atman is distinct from Brahman (universal principle), whereas non-dualistic schools such as Advaita Vedanta teach that Atman and Brahman are one and the same, contained within one another. In such traditions, liberation from suffering can only be attained when an individual realizes that Atman and Brahman are identical.

Atman is regarded as eternal and imperishable, distinct from the physical body, mind and consciousness. It is believed to be found within every living being, though some individuals do not recognize this true self due to ignorance or illusion, known as Maya.

Practices such as yoga and meditation can help to increase Atma Jnana, a form of self-awareness or self-knowledge that lifts the veil of ignorance and relieves practitioners of suffering.


Yogapedia Explains Atman

The concept of Atman first appears in ancient Indian scriptures such as the Rig Veda, in which it generally occurs as a reflexive pronoun meaning "oneself." It doesn’t develop deeper philosophical connotations until later in the Upanishads, in which it is a central concept.

According to the Upanishads, Atman is the spiritual essence at the deepest level of an individual’s existence.

Despite differing interpretations, all major schools of Hinduism and Jainism accept the premise of Atman, in contrast to Buddhism which has no concept of the individual soul or self.

It is generally accepted that the union of Atman and Brahman through cultivating self-knowledge is a means of achieving liberation from suffering.

Those who live in ignorance of this self-awareness see themselves as separate from one another and from the universe, leading to behavior driven by impulse, fear, craving and anxiety. This sense of separation from Atman and Brahman is said to be the root cause of all suffering.

Atman is responsible for the faculties, organs and activities of a person, and it represents the true self as opposed to the ego. As such, Atman transmigrates upon death, following the individual to their new life after rebirth.

Within yoga, meditation is believed to be the most effective way to develop self-realization. In some schools of thought, if an individual achieves the highest state of self-realization in which Atman is understood to be identical with Brahman, freedom from the death and rebirth cycle is achieved, otherwise known as Moksha or liberation.

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