That the ātmā is distinct from the body is accepted in most Indian schools of thought. Mīmāṁsā, Vedānta, Yoga and Sāṅkhya all accept this, but do not agree on the ātmā’s svarūpa or essential characteristics.
There are many points about the ātmā on which there is agreement among the branches of Vaiṣṇavism such as Viśiṣṭa Advaita (Śrī Ramanujacarya), śuddha dvaita (Śrī Madhvacarya), Svābhāvika bhedābheda (Śrī Nimbarka) and śuddha advaita (Śrī Vallabhacarya).
Of these Vaiṣṇava groups, Śrī Jīva Goswami agrees fully with Śrī Ramanujacarya’s exposition about the nature of the ātmā, and disagrees with Śrī Madhva’s treatment. In his treatment of the subject in the Paramātmā Sandarbha, Śrī Jīva quotes a few concise verses on the subject from a teacher from the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition verbatim and then proceeds to explain their meaning in many different anuchhedas.
It is then, quite a sorry state of affairs, that there is tremendous confusion and disagreement among modern followers in the Caitanya sampradāya about the ātmā’s svarūpa. The not-so-simple thing to do is to study Śrī Jīva’s Sandarbhas from a teacher who has learned them in the tradition (and not through self-study!). If this is not available, one could find an ācārya in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition and learn about the ātmā from them given that Śrī Jīva’s views are identical to theirs! The Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition is very well established and its followers are absolutely clear about foundational precepts. Present-day Śrī Vaiṣṇava ācāryas continue to be greatly learned scholars of Sanskrit and śāstra.
Below, I put down some of the misconceptions about the ātmā prevalent in many modern followers of Caitanya Vaiṣṇavism.
- The ātmā is full of knowledge.
- The ātmā is full of Vedic knowledge.
- There is dormant prema inside the ātmā that simply needs to be remembered and brought out.
- The ātmā chose to enter the material world.
- The ātmā came to the material world from a taṭastha region.
- The ātmā has free will.
- The ātmā has an original form or svarūpa waiting for it in the spiritual world.
- The ātmā is currently in Vaikuṇṭha but dreaming it is in the material world.
- The jīva has fallen from Vaikuṇṭha.
- The cause of the ātmā’s ignorance is envy for Kṛṣṇa.
- Jīvas lie dormant in Brahman and at some point their karma is actuated, leading to entry into the material world.
- The ātmā has entered the material world from time immemorial.
- Like a drop of water and the ocean, the ātmā has the same qualities as Bhagavān – it is sac-cid-ānanda.
- The ātmā’s bliss and knowledge have become covered by ignorance.
Contrast it with the actual teachings of Sri Jiva Goswami:
- The ātmā cannot store knowledge; all content-based knowledge is vrtti jñāna- modification of the mind.
- Prema is Bhagavān’s śakti and He alone possesses it. The ātmā in the material world does not have prema. Prema is given to the ātmā by Bhagavān when the ātmā achieves perfection in bhakti.
- The jīva has been in the material world from beginningless time.
- There is no such place as a taṭastha region.
- The ātmā has the capacity to desire, but is dependent on Bhagavān for actualizing that capacity. Being devoid of knowledge of any kind, it cannot independently desire anything.
- The ātmā has no form because it is devoid of parts.
- The material world is real and not a dream.
- The ātmā is ignorant of Kṛṣṇa, and therefore cannot be envious of Him.
- The ātmā cannot leave Brahman once it has achieved it.
- The jīva is not like a drop of ocean water, while Bhagavān is the ocean. The jīva does not have the same qualities as Bhagavān. It is merely one type of śakti of Bhagavān.
- The ātmā possesses no bliss or knowledge that can be covered by ignorance.
To address these and many other misconceptions, Sri Babaji has written a book on this topic, which will come out in January (hopefully!). The title of the book is ‘Jiva Tattva’. I highly recommend it for a delightfully clear exposition of the ātmā’s intrinsic qualities.