jīva-tattva

Misconceptions about the ātmā

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.

  1. The ātmā is full of knowledge.
  2. The ātmā is full of Vedic knowledge.
  3. There is dormant prema inside the ātmā that simply needs to be remembered and brought out.
  4. The ātmā chose to enter the material world.
  5. The ātmā came to the material world from a taṭastha region.
  6. The ātmā has free will.
  7. The ātmā has an original form or svarūpa waiting for it in the spiritual world.
  8. The ātmā is currently in Vaikuṇṭha but dreaming it is in the material world.
  9. The jīva has fallen from Vaikuṇṭha.
  10. The cause of the ātmā’s ignorance is envy for Kṛṣṇa.
  11. Jīvas lie dormant in Brahman and at some point their karma is actuated, leading to entry into the material world.
  12. The ātmā has entered the material world from time immemorial.
  13. Like a drop of water and the ocean, the ātmā has the same qualities as Bhagavān – it is sac-cid-ānanda.
  14. The ātmā’s bliss and knowledge have become covered by ignorance.

Contrast it with the actual teachings of Sri Jiva Goswami:

  1. The ātmā cannot store knowledge; all content-based knowledge is vrtti jñāna- modification of the mind.
  2. 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.
  3. The jīva has been in the material world from beginningless time.
  4. There is no such place as a taṭastha region.
  5. 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.
  6. The ātmā has no form because it is devoid of parts.
  7. The material world is real and not a dream.
  8. The ātmā is ignorant of Kṛṣṇa, and therefore cannot be envious of Him.
  9. The ātmā cannot leave Brahman once it has achieved it.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

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9 replies »

      • Thank you for the quick response.

        One more question on ‘9. The ātmā cannot leave Brahman once it has achieved it.’:

        Does it mean that when an atma attains Brahman it will never come back to this world? We hear that the great acharyas are liberated souls who come again to this world to deliver more atmas. So the question…

        Thank you.

        Like

      • 1. When I mean atma attains Brahman, I mean Brahman, and not when atma attains Bhagavan. Brahman-mukti is eternal. There is no return to anything, because the atma eternally identifies with Brahman. Lacking a mind in that state, the atma is incapable of doing anything after that, except identifying with Brahman.
        2. When Bhagavan Himself becomes visible to the material world, then His devotees also become visible, which includes a few great acharyas who are His devotees. So because they appeared with Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri Rupa and Sri Sanatana are acharyas who have always been liberated. There are a few other exceptions, like Sri Vyasa in other yugas (Vyasa in this yuga is Narayana HImself), but those are generally mentioned explicitly in the scriptures.
        3. Sri Jiva teaches that only those acharyas can empathize with others’ suffering, and be moved to compassion for them, who have experienced suffering themselves. That means, an acharya needs to be a sadhaka first, and then become siddha (liberated). All acharyas far removed from Bhagavan’s lila in time, are generally sadhakas first. Otherwise they would not be functional in guiding disciples and the parampara would collapse.
        4. All acharyas (which means guru), by definition, are great. Their greatness is due to following the parampara. It would be offensive to start grading acharyas in terms of greatness. Of course, our foundation is Sri Rupa, Sri Sanatana, and Sri Jiva, which is fine because they were closely associated with Sri Caitanya’s pastimes, and Sri Caitanya founded the Gaudiya sampradaya.

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