We talk of things we don’t know of with reference to things that is already known to us. The concept of Atman is talked about in Bhagavad Gita in reference to things that we already know of in the form of the 5 elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space.
(Image Credit: Skye D.)
Study of Elements
Earth is the most gross form of matter. It has a definite shape, boundary, size and is finite. We can shape Earth into things that we want. When we speak of Earth, we are talking about Solids. Metal is a good example that can be considered here. We can shape metal and semiconductors into physical objects like a knife, for instance. Knife is a basic weapon which could cut through things. Now Atman is not something that a knife could cut through. Again, we cannot cut through water, fire, air or space as well. Only gross things with solid nature can be cut across.
Think about Water. The basic nature of water is to wet something or dissolve matter. A glass of water can moisten a piece of bread. A stream in the mountain can slowly and steadily erode through a tough block of stone and eventually crumble a whole hill on its way. Water has its own power that could be so soft in nature or totally destructive like a huge tsunami. One major flood can submerge a whole city and destroy everything on its way. Still, Atman is something that cannot be affected by water or liquids. Atman cannot be submerged, moistened or affected in any manner.
Let us look at evolution of planet earth as well. Before land appeared on Earth, it was one whole water body. It is shown that water converted into solid matter or land. So, Earth is formed from Water, as per the Indian Scriptures. Even though it is said in such simple terms, there is a lot of Chemistry involved in this line – “Earth was formed from Water”.
Where is water formed from? Earth was a globe of fire before water formed on its surface. Again, there is a lot of Geology involved in this statement that “Water was formed from Fire”. Fire has its own nature of burning anything at all. Modern weapons are Fire Weapons. Guns, tanks, Nuclear Weapons and so on are basically Fire Weapons. Even the toughest of metals can be annihilated with high temperature and pressure. Still Atman, cannot be affected by Fire.
Fire can burn only in the presence of Air. Air can be so subtle as breath or violent like a huge cyclone. Air is one of the most powerful forces that we know of. Still, Air cannot affect Atman in any way. Air is present in space. Indian thought considers Space as the most subtle of all elements. In fact modern science is looking closely at space and nature of matter in space only in the last 100 years.
It is said that Space is formed from “Brahman” and Atman is a part of Brahman. So, Atman or Soul is something of a very super subtle nature and yet super powerful that humanly known concepts cannot affect it. Yet, Atman is the core of all life experiences. There are a lot of terms that are used in Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Sloka 24) that describes the nature of Atman.
- Nitya – Atman is ever lasting. It has no destruction.
- Sarvagada – Atman is omnipresent or present everywhere in the universe. There is no boundary for the Soul or Atman. Look at human body. We have a boundary. But, the soul that is within us has no boundary. It is spread all over. This can be a difficult concept to grasp. That means, the soul in me is present beyond my body and in the world that is around me!
- Sthanu – Atman is fixed.
- Achala – Atman has no movement. A human being can move from one place to another. We even move from this planet into space and other planets as well. But, the Atman or soul is not moving.
- Sanathana – This means that the soul is ever present. It is older than the oldest concept and newer than the newest concept.
This concept of the Atman is quite similar to the Islamic concept of Allah or the Semitic concept of God. It is quite interesting to study the different religions and then come to the core concept of religions which basically point to the root of all existence – living or nonliving in nature. The soul concept in India is pointing to the very birth of universe itself.
The symbolism of many Gods in Hinduism is in fact pointing to the wisdom that is presented by the Rishis. In the vedic periods, the Gods were mostly the elements that could be perceived – Agni (Fire), Vayu (Air), Varuna (Water), Dharti (Earth). But, it was easier to focus attention on a Shiva, Ganesh, Devi and other deities to concentrate the mind. But, the symbolism of these deities are again pointing to deeper wisdom that was present in the land.