Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER V: THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF THE ATMAN AND ITS UNION WITH BRAHMA - The Thirteen Principal Upanishads
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER V: THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF THE ATMAN AND ITS UNION WITH BRAHMA - Misc (Upanishads), The Thirteen Principal Upanishads 
The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, translated from the Sanskrit with an outline of the philosophy of the Upanishads and an annotated bibliography, by Robert Ernest Hume (Oxford University Press, 1921).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CONCEPTION OF THE ATMAN AND ITS UNION WITH BRAHMA
In the dialogue in Bṛih. 2. 1 (and its longer recension, Kaush. 4), where a progressive attempt was made to conceive of Brahma, it was admitted that Brahma was to be found not only in the not-self, but also in the self; that It was not only the essence of cosmical phenomena, but also of the organic and mental functions of the human person.
This probably was an outgrowth of the primitive anthropomorphic notion that the world-ground is an enormous human person, graphically portrayed in the ‘Hymn of the Cosmic Person,’ RV. 10. 90. The sun came out of his eye, the moon from his mind, Indra and Agni (fire) from his mouth, Vāyu (the wind) from his breath, the air from his navel, the sky from his head, the earth from his feet, and so forth.
In the Atharva-Veda (10. 7. 32-34) the earth is the base of the highest Brahma, the air his belly, the sky his head, the sun and moon his eyes, fire his mouth, the wind his breaths.
In the cosmology in Bṛih. 1. 2 fire is the semen of the demiurge Death, the east is his head, the south-east and north-east his arms, the west his hinder part, the south-west and the north-west his thighs, the south and north his sides, the sky his back, the atmosphere his belly, the earth his chest.
According to Aitareya 1, there proceeded from the mouth of the world-person fire, from his nostrils the wind, from his eyes the sun, from his ears the quarters of heaven, from his skin plants and trees, from his heart the moon, from his navel death, from his male generative organ water. But here the important thought is added that not only are the bodily parts of this cosmic person to be observed in the external world, but they are also correlated with the functions of the individual person. So, in the sequel of the Aitareya account, fire became speech and entered in the mouth of the individual; wind became breath and entered in his nose; the sun, sight in his eyes; the quarters of heaven, hearing in his ears; plants and trees, hairs in his skin; the moon, mind in the heart; Death, semen in the generative organ.
This is perhaps the first detailed mention of a correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Glimpses of it there have been before, as in Chānd. 3. 18. 2, where Brahma, selfwise, is fourfold: speech, breath, eye, ear; and with regard to nature, is implicitly corresponding, also fourfold: fire, wind, sun, quarters. A correspondence between four parts of the bodily self and of the world is as old as the Cremation Hymn of the Rig-Veda (10. 16. 3), where the deceased is addressed: ‘Let thine eye go to the sun, thy breath to wind,’ a notion of dissolution at death which recurs in Īśā 17, ‘My breath to the immortal wind,’ and more fully in Bṛih. 3. 2. 13: ‘The voice of a dead man goes into fire, his breath into wind, his eye into the sun, his mind into the moon, his hearing into the quarters of heaven, his body into the earth, his soul (ātman) into space, the hairs of his head into plants, the hairs of his body into trees, and his blood and semen into water.’
After the correspondence between the parts of the bodily self and the cosmic phenomena was firmly in mind, the next step with the development of abstract thought was probably to conceive of the world as really a Soul (Ātman), a universal Soul of which the individual self or soul is a miniature. This was a great step in advance. A sign of the dawning of the philosophical self-consciousness and of a deeper insight into the nature and meaning of the self is given in Bṛih. 1. 4. 7: ‘One’s self (ātman), for therein all these become one. That same thing, namely, this self, is the trace of this All; for by it one knows this All. Just as, verily, one might find by a footprint.’ This thought recurs in Śvet. 2. 15:—
Still crude and figurative, it is nevertheless of deep philosophical significance, yielding a concept which is of equal importance to that of Brahma. Its development may in the same way be traced now, remembering that this Ātman theory was not in all probability a development subsequent to that of Brahma, which has already been traced, though its beginnings certainly were posterior to the beginnings of the Brahma theory. The two, it would seem, progressed simultaneously and influenced each other until their final union. For the sake of clearness in exposition, however, they are here analyzed and followed separately.
In the second movement, Ātman being postulated as the world-ground, attempts were made to conceive of him as was the case with Brahma. Thus there was an early theory of procreation, Bṛih. 1. 4. 1-5, but much coarser than the similar theory with Brahma. Although by a recognized mistake he was stricken by fear at first and overcame it, Ātman was possessed by a feeling of loneliness in his primeval solitariness and wished: ‘Would that I had a wife, then I would procreate’ (Bṛih. 1. 4. 17). By an act of self-bifurcation which, etymologically interpreted, explains the existence and complementary nature of husband and wife, he produced a female principle by union with which, the pair continually converting themselves into different species, all the different kinds of animals were born. Then, by the usual method of attrition and blowing, he made fire. This crude myth, near the beginning of the earliest Upanishad, is based on the primitive idea that the same empirical methods which man uses for productive purposes, especially the one which is the most mysterious and which accounts for his own production, may be held accountable analogously for the production of the world. It is in the old Brahmanic style and is somewhat misplaced in an Upanishad. The idea does not recur again.
A more serious attempt to conceive of Ātman is the dialogue in Chānd. 5. 11-18, which again resembles similar attempts with Brahma. Five learned householders came together and discussed: ‘Who is our Ātman? What is Brahma?’ (a collocation which shows that the two theories of the world-ground were being connected; in this passage they are not, however, identified, as they are to be later). These five decided to resort to another who had the reputation of understanding that universal Ātman, but even he dared not expound him and answer all questions concerning him. The six then repair to the famed Aśvapati for instruction. He, in genuine Socratic manner, first elicits from each of them his present conception of the universal Ātman. One says that he venerates the sky as the universal Ātman. Aśvapati commends the conception and gives assurance that he is shining like the sky, but a great deal more. The sky would be only his head. The others in turn contribute their conceptions, all of which are accepted as true, but as only partially true, and in essence false. The universal Ātman is indeed the sun, and like it all-formed; but the sun is only his eye. He is indeed the wind, and like it moving in various paths; but the wind is only his breath. The universal Ātman is indeed space, and like it expanded; but space is only his body. He is indeed water, and like it abundant; but water is only his bladder. The universal Ātman is indeed the earth, and like it a support; but the earth is only his feet. The six Brahmans, as they learned from Aśvapati, in spite of having thus grasped partial truth, had made a most serious error in conceiving of Ātman as something apart from themselves. This universal Ātman, or Soul, is best referred to as in oneself.
Important steps in the development of the Ātman doctrine are here taken. In the figurative manner of speculation, from which Indian philosophy as well as all philosophy proceeded, Ātman, like Brahma, is first conceived under the form of particular objects of nature. The truth there contained is appreciated and, better than in the Brahma-dialogues, commended by being immediately universalized. All the great nature-gods, mentioned as henotheistically venerated for the philosophical world-ground, are indeed the Ātman, but only parts of him. They may, by an accommodation to the learner’s standpoint of sense-thought, be regarded as his bodily parts. But by transcending this lower plane of attention directed to objectively observed facts, Aśvapati directed them, in their search for ultimate reality, to an inclusive cosmic Self, which must be conceived of after the analogy of a human self and with which the human self must be identified.
A new line of thought is here entered upon, namely introspection, which always follows after extrospection, but which marks the beginnings of a deeper philosophic thought. What it finally led on to will be described after an exposition of certain developments and conjunctions of the concept of Ātman.
The world-ground being Ātman, an objective Soul, which was known by the analogy of the soul, but which externally included the soul, certain closer relations were drawn between the not-self and the self, of both of which that Ātman was the ground. On pages 23-24 citations were made illustrating the notion of correspondences between parts of the world as a cosmic corporeal person and of the individual’s bodily self. That notion occurs also in the first chapter of the Chāndogya. ‘This [breath in the mouth] and that [sun] are alike. This is warm. That is warm. People designate this as sound (svara), that as sound (svara) [an approximation to svar, light] and as the reflecting (pratyasvara)’ (Chānd. 1. 3. 2). ‘The form of this one is the same as that [Person seen in the sun]’ (Chānd. 1. 7. 5). But now with the doctrine of a universal Ātman immanent both in the subjective and in the objective, it is no longer similarities, but parts of a unity or identities. ‘Both he who is here in a person and he who is yonder in the sun—he is one’ (Tait. 2. 8; 3. 10. 4). ‘He who is in the fire, and he who is here in the heart, and he who is yonder in the sun—he is one’ (Maitri 6. 17; 7. 7). ‘He who is yonder, yonder Person (puruṣa)—I myself am he!’ (Bṛih. 5. 15; Īśā 16). ‘Verily, what the space outside of a person is—that is the same as what the space within a person is. Verily, what the space within a person is—that is the same as what the space here within the heart is. That is the Full, the Non-moving’ (Chānd. 3. 12. 7-9).
Longer descriptions of Ātman as the basis of the unity implied in the usual correlations of the not-self and the self, are the two following: Ātman is the person in the earth and the person in the body; in the waters and in the semen; in fire and in speech; in wind and in breath; in the sun and in the eye; in the quarters and in the ear and in the echo; in the moon and in the mind; in lightning and in heat; in thunder and in sound; in space and in the space of the heart; in law and in virtuousness; in truth and in truthfulness; in humanity and in a human; in the Self and in the self. All these are just Ātman (Bṛih. 2. 5). Bṛih. 3. 9. 10-17 similarly presents this idea of the one Person immanent in and including the self and the not-self: the person in the earth and in fire is also the person in the body; the person in the sun is also the person in appearances and in the eye; the person in space is also the person in the ear and in hearing; the person in darkness and in the shadow is also the person in the heart; the person in the waters is also the person in semen and in the heart. And finally he is Ātman, the Self, the Soul.
So, as Yājñavalkya explained to Ushastas: ‘He who breathes in with your breathing in is the Soul (Ātman) of yours which is in all things. He who breathes out with your breathing out is the Soul of yours which is in all things. He who breathes about with your breathing about is the Soul of yours which is in all things. He who breathes up with your breathing up is the Soul of yours which is in all things’ (Bṛih. 3. 4. 1). The inner essence, then, of the objective and the subjective is one Being, and that, too, of the nature of a Self, by reason of the reality of the directly known self which necessarily constitutes a part of that ground of all being.
But by a different course of speculation and (as was natural with the earlier) one which had regard more especially to the objective, the conception of a single world-ground and then of the actual being of the world itself had been that of Brahma. An objective entity though this Brahma was, the unity of being which it was intended to signify could not disregard the existence and activities of the self, which surely were as real as the sun, moon, waters, space, and so forth that had been the prominent facts to be grounded in the unitary being of the world of Brahma. An approachment to Brahma as underlying the self also was being made, as was shown in the exposition of the development of the conception of Brahma. But, differently from the realistic procedure with Brahma, a more personal and self-like ground was necessary for effecting the union of the psychologically viewed subjective and objective. For this purpose the old conception of a cosmic Person was more serviceable; and it was developed away from its first materialistic and corporeal connections to that of a more spiritual Ātman, who is immanent in self and not-self and who constitutes the unity expressed in their correlation.
Yet finally these two world-grounds, Brahma and Ātman, are not different and separate. Their essential oneness, as aspects of the same great Being, was at first only hinted at, but was later explicitly stated. The suspicion that these two theories, which were becoming current and which people desired to understand more fully, were both of the same Being, was manifested by the form in which learners who came to recognized philosophers for instruction put their questions. Thus, Ushastas came to Yājñavalkya and said: ‘Explain to me him who is the Brahma, present and not beyond our ken, him who is the Soul (Ātman) in all things’ (Bṛih. 3. 4. 1). Likewise the five householders who came to Aśvapati were first discussing among themselves ‘Who is our Ātman (Soul)? What is Brahma?’ (Chānd. 5. 11. 1).
Then we find it directly stated: ‘Verily, that great unborn Soul, undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless, is Brahma’ (Bṛih. 4. 4. 25). ‘He [i. e. Ātman] is Brahma’ (Ait. 5. 3). ‘Him [i. e. Brahma] alone know as the one Soul (Ātman). Other words dismiss’ (Muṇḍ. 2. 2. 5). ‘The Soul (Ātman), which pervades all things . . . , this is Brahma’ (Śvet. 1. 16). Before the identification of Brahma and Ātman was formally made, the two terms were hovering near each other as designations of the ultimate world-ground, as in Bṛih. 2. 5. 1, where to emphasize a point the phrases are used in succession: ‘This Soul (Ātman), this Immortal, this Brahma, this All.’ After the identification was made the two became interchangeable terms, as in Chānd. 8. 14. 1: ‘. . . Brahma, that is the immortal, that is the Soul (Ātman),’ and Muṇḍ. 2.2.9: ‘Brahma, that which knowers of the Soul (Ātman) do know’ (through the whole of this section, where the Imperishable is being described, the terms Brahma and Ātman are used indifferently). So the two great conceptions—Brahma, reached first realistically, the unitary cosmic ground, with outreachings towards a cosmo-anthropic ground; and Ātman, the inner being of the self and the not-self, the great world-spirit—were joined, the former taking over to itself the latter conception and the two being henceforth to a considerable degree synonymous. Here the quest for the real,1 for the unity of the diversified world, for the key to the universe, reached a goal. That which Śvetaketu did not know, though he had been away from home studying twelve years and had studied all the Vedas and thought himself learned, even that ‘whereby what has not been heard of becomes heard of, what has not been thought of becomes thought of, what has not been understood becomes understood’ (Chānd. 6. 1. 1-3); that for instruction in which Śaunaka, the great householder, came to Aṅgiras (Muṇḍ. 1. 1. 3); that which Nārada knew not, though he knew eighteen books and sciences, and for lack of the knowledge of which he was sorrowing (Chānd. 7. 1. 1-2); that for complete instruction in which Indra remained with Prajāpati as a pupil for one hundred and one years—that supreme object is just this Brahma, this Ātman, who is in the world, who is the great Self, the ground of oneself. He is the highest object of knowledge, whom one should desire to know.
He is the key to all knowledge. ‘Verily, with the seeing of, with the hearkening to, with the thinking of, and with the understanding standing of the Soul, this world-all is known’ (Bṛih. 2. 4. 5). ‘Verily, he who knows that thread and the so-called Inner Controller knows Brahma, he knows the worlds, he knows the gods, he knows the Vedas, he knows created things, he knows the Soul, he knows everything’ (Bṛih. 3. 7. 1). ‘This is the knowledge the Brahmans know. Thereby I know what is to be known’ (Bṛih. 5. 1. 1). ‘As, when a drum is being beaten, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the drum or the beater of the drum the sound is grasped; as, when a conch-shell is being blown, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the conch-shell or the blower of the conch-shell the sound is grasped; as, when a lute is being played, one would not be able to grasp the external sounds, but by grasping the lute or the player of the lute the sound is grasped’—so by comprehending Ātman or Brahma everything is comprehended (Bṛih. 2. 4. 7-9).
So the unity which has been searched for from the beginning of Indian speculation was reached. ‘As all the spokes are held together in the hub and felly of a wheel, just so in this Soul all things, all gods, all worlds, all breathing things, all selves are held together’ (Bṛih. 2. 5. 15). Pantheism now is the ruling conception of the world, for the world is identical with Ātman. ‘Ātman alone is the whole world’ (Chānd. 7. 25. 2). ‘This Brahmanhood, this Kshatrahood, these worlds, these gods, these beings, everything here is what this Soul is’ (Bṛih. 2. 4. 6; 4. 5. 7). ‘Who is this one?’ is asked in Ait. 5. 1, and the reply is: ‘He is Brahma; he is Indra; he is Prajāpati; [he is] all the gods here; and these five gross elements, namely earth, wind, space, water, light; these things and those which are mingled of the fine, as it were; origins of one sort or another: those born from an egg, and those born from a womb, and those born from sweat, and those born from a sprout; horses, cows, persons, elephants; whatever breathing thing there is here—whether moving or flying, and what is stationary.’ As the later metrical Śvetāśvatara expresses the thought:—
And again, with more indefiniteness, concerning the pantheistic ‘That’:—
And most important of all, as Uddālaka nine times repeated to Śvetaketu (Chānd. 6. 8-16): ‘That art thou.’
[1 ]Beautifully expressed, in a different connection, by the three verses of Bṛih. 1. 3. 28:—
The earnestness of the search for truth is one of the delightful and commendable features of the Upanishads.