A Layman’s Guide To Jivatma And Paramatma
In the late 1960s when I was in my early career as a college teacher, I had one of the biggest embarrassments in life when a student asked me a question for which I could only give some inanities for an answer. What he wanted to get from me was an explanation for the terms Jivatma and Paramatma. These two terms, so crucial to Hindu theology, had absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of the class and I could have avoided giving a reply. But I ventured to give a reply which I knew was far from satisfactory, both for me and for the students. As an afterthought I told the class ‘I am humbled by my ignorance,’ adding that these arcane terms needed a seer or a scholar in scriptures to give a lucid explanation.
Even half a century after that event I am still at a loss to give anything but a rudimentary, peripheral explanation for the two terms. I have, on occasions, tried to delve into the interpretations of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Prasna Upanishad and the like to find passages referring to Atma, Jiv. atma and Paramatma. But I found them so complex, fit only for the expert or the scholarly. The interpretations given by great souls were too grandiloquent to suit my level of comprehension.
So I gave up the effort altogether but instead tried to put in place the jigsaw pieces rusting in my mind to come up with a simple, elementary, uncomplicated explanation for the relationship between Jeevatma and Paramatma.
But before going to that, a look at some of the interpretations generally found on the two concepts:
- Atma denotes the Individual Self, but by the word Paramatma, which word also expresses Boundless Life, Boundless Consciousness, Boundless Substance in Boundless Space, is meant the Atman of all Atma or the Supreme Self or the Universal Self.
- At the time of release the portion (aspect) of the Paramatma and the portion (aspect) of the Jiva presiding in the right eye become unified with the Paramatma and the Jiva presiding in the heart.
- In the Prashna Upanishad ( IV.11) the word Atman cannot refer to Jiva because the Jiva cannot of its own accord throw off its body or understand Avidya, therefore, it refers to Paramatma. Jiva attains Moksha when he actually knows Paramatma.
- Paramatma is one of the many aspects of Brahman and has all attributes of Brahman.
- Atma (Spirit) and Paramatma (God) are one.
- The Upanishads also give the parable of two birds, sitting on a tree. One of them eats the fruits of that tree, the other just watches it. The former is the Atma and the latter the Paramatma.
The interpretations go on like this and ordinary mortals cannot be faulted if they find them less than comprehensible or, in the jargon of the current times, not at all user–friendly.
An easier understanding of the concepts can be had from the Bhagavad Gita which, in Chapter XV verse 16-17, distinguishes between ‘two types of Purusas (categories), the perishable (kshara) and the imperishable (akshara). The kshara consists of all Jivas in embodiment who are subject to change, while the akshara consists of the collectivity of liberated Jivas who remain aloof from the changeful matter and are unaffected by it. But there is yet another Purusa, known as Supreme Being, who is the highest of spirits and who pervades all the three worlds and sustains them. (Swamy Tapasyananda Translation).
True to what the Gita says there is something that pervades the whole world and sustains it - the air we breathe. Call it by any name, Supersoul, Paramatma, Boundless Life, Boundless Consciousness, Boundless Substance in Boundless Space, or by any other name, it is this air, with the life supporting Oxygen content in it, that sustains the world.
Take the case of a newborn. Till it comes out of the mother’s womb, its oxygen requirement is met by the mother through the umbilical cord. As it comes out, its lungs full of lung fluid, the newborn within the first ten seconds makes a spasmodic effort to breathe in air, the vital air containing oxygen. If it fails to breathe within one minute, it may turn out to be a lifeless piece of flesh. The first breathing, followed by the first cry, means that the newborn has successfully taken in a part of the whole of that life supporting matter that envelops the entire world.
The same is the case with the last expiration of a man before dying. While the newborn breathes in, drawing from the pool of life giving air in the room, the dying man breathes out his last, again into the air in the room. It means the newborn gets his Jiva(soul) from the life sustaining air (Paramatma / Supersoul) and the dying man releases his Jiva (soul) into the same life sustaining air (Paramatma/ Supersoul).
Since air is not static, the Jiva released by a dying man does not stay in the room but moves out fast, depending on the speed of the wind flow. With localized breezes, strong winds, storms or hurricanes and traditional wind patterns like planetary winds, trade winds, easterlies, westerlies etc there is a constant movement of air from place to place around the globe. This would ensure that the last breath of a man, exhaled into the atmosphere, does not remain static but is taken across states, countries or even continents in no time. Then, in a far away hospital labour room a newborn may be making the first spasmodic bid to breathe in life sustaining air. It is possible that the life breath or Jiva that escaped from the dying man may be sucked in by the newborn. Such a process may also explain the concept of transmigration of souls.
According to UNESCO figures about 360,000 babies are born in the world every month. Data on deaths suggest 160,000 deaths every month in the world. In all these cases there is the process of breathing in Jiva vayu or breathing out Jiva vayu. The ‘collectivity of liberated Jivas’ that the Bhagavad Gita speaks of, which forms part of the Paramatma enveloping the world, facilitates this process of breathing in and breathing out. Along with this, there is also the normal breathing of the entire world population. We all partake of the life sustaining air from the same source, irrespective of our religious perceptions, colour, race or country.
So my search for Jeevatma and Paramatma ends here. Jivatma is the soul within us and Paramatma is all around us. It is right there in our living room, as also everywhere else in our home. Step out and we will find it, or rather feel it, all around us. It envelops the entire world and sustains it, like a protective sheath.