The Essence of the Self and Reality

We all like to believe that we are special. Almost all creation myths from the world religions reserve special mention for the creation of human beings as distinct from non-human beings. What is that that accounts for that sense or desire for uniqueness among human beings? What is our essence that makes us different from other beings? And perhaps different from each other?

Religions and philosophies of the last three thousand years have said that the essence of being human is something other than the material body. They call it with various names, such as self or spirit, but the word soul may be the most common. The sages who composed the Upanishads also called the human essence soul. They used the Sanskrit word Atman.

In the early Veda, the Atman was closely associated with breath. Based on the commonsensical view that as breath leaves the body at death, breath must be the soul. By the time the Upanishads were being composed, the identification of Atman with breath was unsatisfying to most thinkers. Breath was seen as too physical, too closely associated with the body.

These developments started a quest for a permanent immortal human essence. This greater sense of individual uniqueness introduces the desire to discover that within ourselves which endures the ravages of time, that which makes us special. If not the breath, what does constitute the human essence?

Perhaps the most likely candidate might be what we call the mind. The mind seems to be for many of us the center of our experience in the world, the seed of our personality. The authors of the Upanishads were reluctant to identify the human essence with the mind. Even the Buddha, an Indian contemporary of the writers of the Upanishads, thought that the body would be a better candidate for the soul than the mind (although he ultimately rejected the existence of the soul). The body does not change as often and as rapidly as the mind. How can anything as unsettled as the mind be our immortal self?

One of the earlier Upanishads says: “It is not the mind what we should want to know. We should want to know the thinker.” Where do those thoughts of the mind come from anyway? Who is in control of our thinking? In the Upanishads, the mind came to be seen as just another organ of sense, similar in function to the other five senses. What was of greater interest was not the content or the activity of the sense but what existed beyond them.

The Upanishads concluded that what is beyond the senses and the mind itself cannot be sensed or thought about. From this insight derives unique qualities of the soul. The Upanishads describe the Atman as imperceptible, spiritual, beyond human categories of thinking, beyond comprehension and immortal.

The Atman does not come into being in a specified moment. It simply always has been. This is a troubling notion for many Westerners who have assumed that the self or the soul comes into existence at a particular time and may receive or attain the state of immortality.

Since it cannot be identified in any way with the body, the Atman is not subject to the experiences of the body, such as death and birth. Yet the Upanishads affirm that the soul exists within a physical nature. It is interesting that although the writers of the Upanishads sharply distinguish the soul and body, they almost always resort to physical metaphors to express their views. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said that given our human limitations we have to talk about the spiritual in physical terms. Even in the TV show The Simpsons when Bart sells his soul to Millhouse the cartoonist had to depict the soul in a physical and ghostlike way.

Ultimate Reality

The Upanishads sought to determine the human essence by turning inward but at the same time they sought a deeper understanding of ultimate reality, that which explains the totality of it all. What is the source of the universe? Where do we come from? Who rules over our joys and sorrows?

Many of these questions have not been answered in a satisfying way by the Vedas. To answer them, the Upanishadic sages reworked the conception of Brahman that we find in the Vedas and gave it a new meaning. Brahman means “that which makes great”. In the early Vedic era, Brahman was the power that resided in the gods. In the later Vedic tradition it was the mantra or the reality behind the sacrifice.

During the evolution of classical Hinduism, Brahman came to refer to the power of all powers, the deepest reality of the cosmos. This was a natural evolution of thought since the Vedas viewed a sacrifice as the reflection of the cosmos itself. It is a short step from the view that Brahman is the sacrificial power to the idea that it is the universal power.

As the concept of Brahman came to be identified as the ultimate reality, this concept became increasingly abstract and difficult to grasp. Although Brahman is removed from the world of everyday experiences, the Upanishads assure as that it is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Some passages in the Upanishads tell us that Brahman is one and undifferentiated unity. It is called the thread that strings together all creatures. Brahman is the source and sustainer of all that is. Brahman is also the destroyer of everything. Brahman is in everything. Brahman encompasses all that is good and all that is evil and yet transcends good and evil. It is beyond morality altogether.

Indeed, Brahman transcends all human categories. It is nirguna, a Sanskrit term that means “without qualities”. Its only quality is that of having no qualities. To try to describe it makes it into something that can be comprehended, which by definition it’s not.

You are God

As the sages of the Upanishads continued their quests for the human essence and ultimate reality, a new insight begins to break into awareness, an epiphany that comes to full expression in the later Upanishads. As they increasingly grasp the incomprehensible and unutterable nature of both Atman and Brahman, these two ideas converged. They concluded that that which is called soul is identical with ultimate reality itself.

To put this notion in more characteristically Western terms one might say that the soul and God are one and the same. The soul is not part of God as some traditions might be willing to say. In this view that is not possible because Brahman is indivisible and undifferentiated. Rather, the identity of Atman and Brahman means that they are consubstantial: two names for the same reality. The true self is God, it is ultimate reality.

The Upanishads express this insight in a variety of ways. One text asserted: “Whoever denies God denies himself. Whoever affirms God affirms himself.”

It is hard to imagine a more exalted view of humanity. This assessment of the self seems almost diametrically opposed to that of the mainstream of modern Western monotheism in which man must become poor so that God can become rich. “What is man that Thou are mindful of him” tells one of the verses of the Bible.

This view is what led the otherwise pessimistic philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer to call the Upanishads the most elevated reading in the world. “It has been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death”.

Despite this quite exalted view, the soul finds itself in an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Like many traditions that affirm the existence of the soul, the classical Hindu view understands that the embodied soul is not at rest. It is not its true home. It continues in this restless state seeking ever new manifestations until it finds rest with God.

According to the Upanishads, Samsara is the consequence of our own ignorance. Although our true selves are consubstancial with ultimate reality still we suffer and undergo transmigration because we are ignorant about the way things really are. Later philosophers developed the notion of Maya, a veil over reality. This idea is implicit in the Upanishads.

Maya causes us to perceive plurality when in reality there is only unity. We perceive and conceive the world as many things rather as the one reality that it is. Maya deceives us into thinking about ourselves as separate entities rather than as intrinsically connected. That very desire for being special is precisely the source of our misery.


The principle of the unity of Brahman and Atman is foundational for the path of wisdom. This idea gives shape to the characteristic elements of the path.

Taking the path of wisdom means living life in such a way that one’s very existence expresses the truth of this principle. It’s not enough that we have the knowledge of Brahman and Atman as a unity. It’s not enough that we grasp this intellectually by the mind alone. Mere knowledge must be transformed into a wisdom that deeply pervades the whole of one’s being.

To gain this kind of wisdom one must live as if there is no individual self separate from reality. Thus, accepting the path of wisdom requires renunciation, giving up all attachment to anything that encourages a sense of separateness or individuality.

When we talked about the men life cycle we briefly noted the stage known as Sannyasa. At this final stage of life a man may appropriately pursue this manner of being. As a sannyasi he gives up everything that has formerly marked his life: his possessions, his family, his occupation, even his religious practices, his caste and his name. All these ultimately keeps one entangled in Maya, the web of illusion.

The Upanishads put it like this: “When all desires that cling to the heart are surrendered, then a mortal becomes immortal”.

The path of wisdom entails a different orientation to discovering truth. Whereas conventional religion may encourage us to look for truth in a book or somewhere else, the Upanishads tell us that truth is not “out there”, but within. Within your deepest self. To discover one’s self is to discover God.

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