Unit 2: Metaphysics

An Introduction to ‘Self and Ātman’

Lunneihoi Thangeo

Lunneihoi Thangeo is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at North-Eastern Hill University, India. She also teaches introductory courses in philosophy to undergraduates at St. Anthony’s College as a part-time lecturer. Her main interests are metaphysics and epistemology.

Ātman can be variously understood as the inner being, the eternally existing, the conscious, and the witness. It has also been called the true self that remains constant amidst all bodily changes. In Indian philosophy, there is a distinction between the lower self and the higher self. The consciousness of the lower self is finite, while the consciousness of the higher self is infinite. The lower self is trapped in the cycle of rebirths and re-deaths due to the law of karma, while the higher self is free. However, the lower self can get liberation from the karmic cycle using right knowledge and right action. Depending on the school of Indian philosophy, at liberation, the lower self can attain any of these three states – it realizes that it had always been the higher self, it becomes identical to the higher self, or it attains communion with the higher self.

The first sense of liberation (where the lower self realizes that it had always been the higher self) is the theme of the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna during the Kurukshetra War. The Kurukshetra War was a struggle for power between two groups of cousins. These were the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Arjuna belonged to the Pandava army and Krishna was his charioteer during the war. When they reached the battlefield, Arjuna’s determination to fight was weakened after recognizing familiar faces in the opposing army. Besides his cousins, he recognized his uncles and former teachers whom he did not want to harm. When Krishna saw this hesitancy, he began to instruct Arjuna on the true nature of the self. The Bhagavad Gita mentions Krishna as saying,

“The one who thinks that Ātman is a slayer, and the one who thinks that Ātman is slain, both are ignorant, because Ātman neither slays nor is slain… It is unborn, eternal, permanent, and primeval. The Ātman is not destroyed when the body is destroyed.” (2.19-20)


The nature of the self that emerges in the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is that of pure consciousness. Such a theory of self is taught by the Sāṅkhya and Yoga schools of Indian philosophy (henceforth, Sāṅkhya-Yoga). To say that the self is pure consciousness means that consciousness is the essence of the self. In other words, it means that the self is consciousness itself. This is different from saying that the self possesses consciousness. For the self to possess consciousness, we would have to think of the self as a substance. But Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophers deny that the self is a substance.

To clarify the point of how the self is not a substance, let us consider the meaning of a substance. By ‘substance’, we mean the basic constituent of reality. A substance is called the substratum of qualities. As a substratum, the existence of a substance is supposed to be prior to and separate from the qualities that are found in it. For instance, take the conception of a substance found in another Indian school of philosophy called the Vaiśeṣika. According to the Vaiśeṣikas, a total of nine substances make our reality. These are earth, air, water, fire, ether, space, time, soul, and mind. Each substance possesses unique qualities that differentiate it from others. Earth has the unique quality of smell, air has touch, water has taste, fire has color, ether has sound, space has extension and co-existence, time has duration and changes, the soul has consciousness and mind has perception. As per Vaiśeṣika philosophy, the soul substance represents the true nature of the self. The soul substance is not always conscious. The quality of consciousness is activated only when it comes into contact with the mind substance, which in turn has to be in contact with the physical substances. This means that in Vaiśeṣikas philosophy, we can separate the self from consciousness. But we cannot do the same in Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy. In Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy, the self is always conscious. This eternally conscious self is called purusha.

In Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy, there is no fundamental difference between the higher self and the lower self. The higher self is the original state of purusha, while the lower self is the ignorant state of the same purusha. Purusha has always existed. It cannot be killed. Purusha is Ātman. This is why Krishna could say to Arjuna,

“There was never a time when I, you, or these kings did not exist; nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future.” (2.12)

Krishna was talking about purusha and not the physical body. The physical body is a part of matter. In its original state, purusha is infinite and independent of matter. In its ignorant state, purusha is limited and dependent on matter. Matter is co-eternal with purusha. The name given to this primordial matter is prakrti.


Prakrti is uncaused and independent. While purusha is the conscious self, prakrti is the unconscious matter. Prakrti is a unity of three essential constituents. These are sattva guṇa, rajas guṇa, and tamas guṇa. Each of them has a distinct character. Sattva guṇa has the nature of illumination and pleasure. Rajas guṇa has the nature of activity and pain. Tamas guṇa has the nature of ignorance and indifference.

The creation of the universe cannot take place without prakrti. But prakrti alone cannot begin producing. Prakrti needs purusha to commence the creation process. We can understand the exact roles played by each using Aristotle’s classification of causes. Aristotle had divided all causes into formal, material, efficient, and final. The formal cause is that according to which the effect is to be formed or shaped. For instance, when an architect plans for a bamboo house, the blueprint of the bamboo house is the formal cause. The material cause is that out of which the effect will be formed. In the example of the bamboo house, the material cause is bamboo. The efficient cause is the force that will transform matter according to the plan. The energy of the builders will be the force that converts the bamboo sticks into the planned bamboo house. Lastly, the final cause is the driving reason behind the other causes. If the bamboo house was built for commercial purposes, then the final cause of the house is profit-making.

We can now put the roles of Purusha and Prakriti in terms of these four causes. Prakrti performs the three roles of being the formal, material, and efficient cause. Prakrti is the formal cause because the nature of guṇas determines the form of everything that comes into existence. The combination of the three guṇas is present in all things in different proportions. Prakrti is the material cause of the universe because there is no other matter besides it. Prakrti is also the efficient cause because it already possesses the energy required for creation in the form of rajas guṇa. The final cause is purusha. Purusha is the witness to the creation process. Creation takes place for the self-realization of purusha.

In Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophy, prakrti is not just the cause of the sense and motor organs, but also the intellect, mind, and ego. Thus, in human beings, the ability to sense pain and pleasure, to be at rest or perform an activity, and to gain knowledge or remain ignorant are the potentials of the material body and not the self.

Bondage and Liberation

Even though prakrti possesses the potential for sensations and mental formations, these cannot be experienced by prakrti. Prakrti is devoid of all awareness. Even the mind and ego seem to be aware only because they reflect the consciousness of purusha. The mind and ego can reflect the consciousness of purusha because they are dominated by sattva guṇa, the guṇa of illumination. This can be illustrated in the following way. Of all the natural surfaces, the water surface possesses the property of reflection. So, when we want to see the reflected image of the bright moon at night, we approach a water surface. Although the water surface has this extra reflective property compared to say, a mound of earth, it does not know about it. The water surface remains as unconscious as the mound of earth. This is the same thing that happens with the mind and ego. They are like the water surface, capable of reflection, but they are not aware that they are reflecting. The mind and ego remain as unconscious as the sense and motor organs.

If the mind and ego remain unconscious, then what is it that says, ‘I have a mind’ or ‘This is my body’ or ‘I am feeling pleasure’? According to Sāṅkhya-Yoga philosophers, this is purusha. We can explain this by taking the example of the moon again. The moon seems encaged by the boundaries of the water body which reflects it. In the same way, purusha seems confined by the mind and ego that reflects it.

But purusha does not possess guṇa so it cannot have sensations and mental formations. However, since purusha is awareness, what happens here is that it becomes aware of the sensations and mental formations taking place in prakrti. So, purusha experiences pain and pleasure only in association with prakrti. In other words, purusha has a sense of having a finite body and limited perception only in association with prakrti.

During this association, purusha ignores its true nature by paying attention to its reflection in prakrti. It begins to appropriate the physical and psychical changes occurring in prakrti as its own. This mistaken identity can trap purusha for a long time. Since matter goes through composition and decomposition, purusha also seems to pass through recurring cycles of births and deaths according to the law of karma.

Purusha can get liberated from this endless cycle by realizing that it is eternally independent of prakrti. There was never an actual association between them. Matter cannot imprison consciousness. Rather, consciousness seems to be imprisoned only by a misconception.

Meditative practices can also facilitate the removal of misconception. The purpose of meditation is to wean the consciousness away from the various sensations in the body and the ever-changing thoughts in the mind. At first, a single object is chosen as the locus of concentration. When consciousness gets distracted, it is brought back to this object. The ultimate aim, however, is to transcend even this locus of concentration and become free of all thoughts. Only then will purusha become truly liberated.

There are two kinds of liberation – jῑvanmukti and videhamukti. In jῑvanmukti, the self is enlightened, but it has not yet discarded the body. However, it is no longer moved by pain or pleasure and the fear of death is removed. In jῑvanmukti, the discriminatory knowledge of the self and the not-self is achieved. In videhamukti, the self transcends this discriminatory knowledge and returns to its original state of pure consciousness. Pure consciousness is devoid of intellectual content, change, and activity. Videhamukti is the event of the release of the enlightened self from the body at death.

Even though videhamukti is the final liberation, it cannot be achieved without jῑvanmukti. A jῑvanmukta continues to perform actions but only out of a sense of obligation. When actions are performed without any self-interest, then no new karma residues are collected. For this reason, a jῑvanmukta is also a karma-yogi.


After talking about the true nature of the self, Krishna then instructs Arjuna to follow the path of karma-yoga. Karma-yoga is the practice of doing things without the expectation of results. A person who takes this path is called a karma-yogi.

“A Karma-yogi whose mind is pure, whose mind and senses are under control, and who sees the same Self in all beings, is not bound (by Karma) though engaged in work.” (5.07)

When the true nature of the self is known, then struggling ends. No action can enrich or take away anything from the self. The true self, purusha, is never-changing, does not have any requirements, and does not aspire to become anything else. A  karma-yogi is no longer enticed by praise, material possessions, or heavenly bliss. A karma-yogi is also not driven by negative emotions such as hatred, jealousy, or vengeance. The actions of a karma-yogi are passionless. The only motivation for action is to meet the demands of the various responsibilities that one is given in life. These responsibilities could be that of a parent, a student, a laborer, or a warrior as in the case of Arjuna.

Reading Questions

  1. What do you understand by Ātman?
  2. Illustrate how purusha is the true self and ego is the false self.
  3. Explain how purusha gets associated with prakrti.
  4. Can prakrti ever become conscious?


Levin, Noah, ed. “Self and Atman.” In SOUTH AND EAST ASIAN PHILOSOPHY READER, AN OPEN EDUCATIONAL RESOURCE, 105–15. NGE Far Press, 2019. https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Philosophy/Book%3A_South_and_East_Asian_Philosophy_Reader_(Levin_et_al.)


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An Introduction to ‘Self and Ātman’ Copyright © 2020 by Lunneihoi Thangeo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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