ĀTMĀ, Sanskrit ātman, originally meant breath'. Later the term came to connote 'soul' or 'principle of life'. The different systems of Indian philosophy gave it further semantic shades. Nyāya Viśeṣaka considered ātmā a substance and endowed it with qualities of cognition, pleasure, pain, desire, aversion and effort. Sāṅkhya recognized it as an object of inference. Bhaṭṭa-Mimāṅsā held it as the object of internal perception (manaspratyakṣa). Prabhākara Mimāṅsā considered it to be the knowing ego revealed in the very act of knowledge and held it to be the subject and not the object of perception. The Upanishads regarded it as the object of higher intuition and equated it with Brahman, the Impersonal Absolute. Śaṅkara'sadvaitaVedānta held it to be pure consciousness above the distinction of subject and object, knowable by an immediate intuitive consciousness. Rāmānuja, however, rejected Śaṅkara's concept of ātmā as pure consciousness and considered it to be nothing but the knower or ego.

        The Sikh concept is nearest to the Upaniṣadic-Advaitic viewpoint. In Sikh lore, ātmā is considered to be of the nature of pure resplendent consciousness: man tūṅ joti sarūpu hai āpṇā mūlu pachhāṇu- O my Self ! you are of the nature of light; do recognize your origin (GG, 441). 'Light' here signifies consciousness. The Self (ātmā) is conscious while the non-self is the object of consciousness. Though itself not an object of consciousness, ātmā is apprehended by unmediated intuition. "As the Self realizes, enlightenment grows without effort" (GG, 87). In fact, consciousness is directed outwards to objects, inwards to ātmā. Ātmāis pure consciousness without any content. Thus, the contentless consciousness within is ātmā.

        Ātmā is not different from Param-ātmā, the Cosmic Consciousness, but is only a fraction thereof. Kabīr designated it as Rām kī aṅs (a fraction of Rām). It is the subtlest, purest essence of life: nirmal joti nirantari jātī- purest light constantly seen inside (GG, 1039). It remains unperturbed-ātmā aḍolu na ḍolaī(GG, 87) - through life's vicissitudes, pleasures and pains. Uninterrupted tranquillity is its hallmark.

        In its corporeal attire, it passes through cycles of transmigration. Through Divine Grace, it can merge back into the Cosmic Soul (Paramātmā) and escape the throes of birth and death again and again.

        It is equated with Brahman: ātam mahi pārbrahmu lahante - they discover pārbrahma in ātmā (GG, 276). The individual soul and the Cosmic Soul are indistinguishable one from the other: ātmā parātmā eko karai - (he) reckons the personal soul and Cosmic Soul as one (GG, 61). The ātmā is Divine, the Divine is ātmā: ātam deu deu hai ātamu (GG, 1325). Ātmā is also equated with the Creator: ātam pasārā karaṇhārā prabh binā nahī jāṇīai. The Self is the creator of the entire universe, beyond it reckon naught (GG, 846). It is also equated with the immanent God: ātam Rāmu raviā sabh antari - the immanent Self pervades everything (GG, 916).

        The experiential realization of this identification is the summum bonum of Sikh mysticism. Ātam dhiān (self absorption) is the operational mode for such an attainment and ātam giān(self-knowledge) is its apprehension.

        The empirical ego (haumai) is only an object of consciousness. There must be a witness of the empirical ego, otherwise there can be no unity of apperception in our knowledge of the external objects and that of the empirical ego. Ātmā, in fact, is such witness. However, ātmā itself is not an object of knowledge; it is the presupposition of all knowledge-the knowledge of objects as. well as that of the empirical ego. Ātmā is thus the transcendental Self as distinguished from the empirical ego. Intuitive apprehension of this is ātam giān and its actual experience is ātam daras, vision of the Self. Such experiential absorption in the Self is attended with the highest aesthetic pleasure, ātam rasor ātam raṅg-aesthetic, because it is based on an experience of ultimate beauty.


  1. Sher Singh, The Philosophy of Sikhism. Lahore, 1944
  2. Avtar Singh, Ethics of the Sikhs. Patiala, 1970
  3. Jodh Siṅgh, Bhāī, Gurmati Nirṇaya. Lahore, 1932
  4. Nripinder Singh, The Sikh Moral Tradition. Delhi, 1990

Jaswant Siṅgh Nekī