Compare the ideas of Self (ātman) found in the Upaniṣads with the Buddhist concept of no-Self (anātman)

Topics: Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, Anatta Pages: 6 (2244 words) Published: December 3, 2013
Compare the ideas of Self (ātman) found in the Upaniṣads with the Buddhist concept of no-Self (anātman) The early Upanisadic notion of the Atman, a permanent, unchanging essence common to all human beings, obscured by the physical and emotional activities of human, or illusion (maya).1 In contrast, Buddhist literature is usually thought – at least within more mainstream academics – to contend that, instead, humans are merely experience, or rather, the culmination or accumulation of feelings, bodily and mentally, experienced through life, which itself is essentially suffering; Miri Albahari identifies these two traits as naturally and as two sides (the negative and positive) of the same coin (the anatman coin).2 This essay aims to highlight and explore the difference in the concept of the self between what is shown in the Upanisadic literature and in the Buddhist tradition, including the origin and consequences of these differences. In doing this, it is hoped to examine the theory that the differences steam from the divergent emphasis and goals of the religious life, although it should be argued that these differing attitudes and ideas result in a similar outcome, namely that of action without desire.3 Firstly, some history about the composition of the Upanisads is beneficial to explore how the concept of the atman, Brahman and their link may have surfaced. The predecessors to the Upanisads, the Brahmanas focused exclusively on ritual activity.4 The Upanisads expanded the ritual concept to encompass all aspects of life, transforming life itself and each person into a ritual which needed to be performed correctly.5 To put it very simply (succinctly), the concept of Brahman, the all-encompassing essence which creates, sustains and links, was established in order to link all human activity to idea of the cosmic ritual.6 According to the early Upanisads, Atman is the eternal essence of humans, the self in its ultimate form.7 It can also be interpreted as divine breath,8 highlighting the link between the human atman and the ultimate divine entity underlying all, Brahman. Throughout all our life experiences, as variable as they are, lies the invariable Atman, yet although it underlies all human experience, it itself is immune to anything the human experiences, including suffering.9 Within Upanisadic literature the true self is elusive, both in terms of the narrative framework– the sages are reluctant to reveal the true nature of the self – which in turn obscures the fact that the self itself is hidden.10 That the self in early Upanisadic literature is almost unknowable, completely hidden, begs two questions: why/how is it hidden, and how can one realise the true self?11 Some answers to this question in the Upanisads were that the self is too small to be discovered, while another is that it is too big, ‘saturating’ the entire body, both resulting in an indiscernible self.12 What Ganeri suggests as the primary theory established in the Upanisads is that the Atman is actually too close to experience.13 For example, you can never catch yourself without a thought. Additionally, the self lacks any qualities that can identify it, and as it is on the inside, on the ‘wrong side’ of a sensory perception system that looks outwards towards objects, is impossible to detect.14 However that is not to say that the self is completely separate from the senses; indeed, it might be said to be the thing that is the cause of all perception.15 Therefore the self is both an ‘active, engaged agent’, the subject not an object, it is also, according to tradition, quiet and still, observing and aware of the actions being committed.16 This means that mental processes, cognition and human consciousness, are anti-reflexive, in that the subject reacts to an object.17 Relatedly, in Upanisadic philosophy the perceiver cannot be perceived; it is anti-symmetric. Another reason as to why the self is unidentifiable is that it is limitless. As it is part of the...

Bibliography: Albahari, MIRI. ‘Against No-Atman Theories of Anatta’. Asian Philsophy, 12(1), 2002.
Background Reading (non-referenced)
LINDTNER, Christian (1999) From Brahmanism to Buddhism, Asian Philosophy, 9(1), pp
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