Beginning with Vedantic Hindu philosophy, the Ātman — Sanskrit (masculine nominative singular: Ātmā) is regarded as an underlying metaphysical self. It is first seen in its current Hindu usage in the Upanishads, some of which date back to 1000 BCE. The word “Atman” (pronounced in Sanskrit like “Atma”) is interpreted by some schools as the “Main Essence” of man, as his Highest Self. “A” in this word is a negative particle. One popular, albeit apocryphal, etymology has it that the 'tma' of "atma" “Tma” means “darkness” in light of the word “tamas” – “darkness, ignorance or inertia”, “spiritual darkness” – has the same root. Therefore “A-tma” or “Atman” means “opposite to darkness”, “shining”.
Some believe that individual "personal" souls exist as Maya only, and think of an ultimate ātman (synonymous in this sense with brahman) as the all-pervading soul of the universe: the universal life-principle, the animator of all organisms, and the world-soul. This view is of a sort of panentheism (not pantheism) and thus cannot be equated with the single creator God of monotheism.
Hindus identify individual souls, or jiva-atmas, with the 'One Atman.' This is the monistic Advaita Vedanta position, which is critiqued by dualistic/theistic Dvaita Vedanta (which claims reality for both a God functioning as the ultimate metaphorical "soul" of the universe, and for actual individual "souls" as such) and compromise schools like Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. The 'dvaita' (or dualist) schools, therefore, in contrast to Advaita, advocate a monotheistic position wherein Brahman is made synonymous with Vishnu.
By contrast, Jiva is the psychological or phenomenological self, the "I" which appears as the subject of verbs. The jiva is typically regarded as having its freedom limited by the triple bond of anava (ego), karma (action) and maya (illusion).
Jainism also believes in the atman.
Non-technical uses of ātman
Ātman is also sometimes used non-technically to refer to the commonsense self (i.e., the individual as opposed to other beings or to the environment). It is frequently used to reform compounds in this capacity, both in Hindu and Buddhist writings. Upanishadic writers would frequently stress the difference between oneself (ego-bound) and the True Self (atman and Atman).
- Wikipedia. (2004). Atman (Hinduism) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atman_%28Hinduism%29). Retrieved Sept. 28, 2004.