Philosophy 104 - 6.2.3 Hindu and Buddhist Views of Self

Within Hindu traditions, atman is the term associated with the self. The term, with its roots in ancient Sanskrit, is typically translated as the eternal self, spirit, essence, soul, and breath (Rudy, 2019). Western faith traditions speak of an individual soul and its movement toward the Divine. That is, a strong principle of individuation is applied to the soul. A soul is born, and from that time forward, the soul is eternal. Hinduism, on the other hand, frames atman as eternal; atman has always been. Although atman is eternal, atman is reincarnated. The spiritual goal is to “know atman” such that liberation from reincarnation (moksha) occurs.


Hindu traditions vary in the meaning of brahman. Some will speak of a force supporting all things, while other traditions might invoke specific deities as manifestations of brahman. Escaping the cycle of reincarnation requires the individual to realize that atman is brahman and to live well or in accordance with dharma, observing the code of conduct as prescribed by scripture, and karma, actions and deeds. Union of the atman with brahman can be reach though yoga, meditation, rituals, and other practices.

The book cover of The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. Additional text on the cover reads “The Principal Texts Selected and Translated from the Original Sanskrit by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester. Images of two statues appear below the text.”
Figure 6.7 The Upanishads are Hindu scripture. (credit: “upanishads” by Dr Umm/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Buddha rejected the concept of brahman and proposed an alternate view of the world and the path to liberation. The next sections consider the interaction between the concepts of Atman (the self) and Brahman (reality).

The Doctrine of Dependent Origination

Buddhist philosophy rejects the concept of an eternal soul. The doctrine of dependent origination, a central tenet within Buddhism, is built on the claim that there is a causal link between events in the past, the present, and the future. What we did in the past is part of what happened previously and is part of what will be.

The doctrine of dependent origination (also known as interdependent arising) is the starting point for Buddhist cosmology. The doctrine here asserts that not only are all people joined, but all phenomena are joined with all other phenomena. All things are caused by all other things, and in turn, all things are dependent upon other things. Being is a nexus of interdependencies. There is no first cause or prime mover in this system. There is no self—at least in the Western sense of self—in this system (O’Brien 2019a).

The Buddhist Doctrine of No Self (Anatman)

One of many distinct features of Buddhism is the notion of anatman as the denial of the self. What is being denied here is the sense of self expressed through metaphysical terms such as substance or universal being. Western traditions want to assert an autonomous being who is strongly individuated from other beings. Within Buddhism, the “me” is ephemeral.


Listen to the podcast “Graham Priest on Buddhism and Philosophy” in the series Philosophy Bites.

Suffering and Liberation

Within Buddhism, there are four noble truths that are used to guide the self toward liberation. An often-quoted sentiment from Buddhism is the first of the four noble truths. The first noble truth states that “life is suffering” (dukkha).

But there are different types of suffering that need to be addressed in order to understand more fully how suffering is being used here. The first meaning (dukkha-dukkha) is commensurate with the ordinary use of suffering as pain. This sort of suffering can be experienced physically and/or emotionally. A metaphysical sense of dukkha is viparinama-dukkha. Suffering in this sense relates to the impermanence of all objects. It is our tendency to impose permanence upon that which by nature is not, or our craving for ontological persistence, that best captures this sense of dukkha. Finally, there is samkhara-dukkha, or suffering brought about through the interdependency of all things.

Building on an understanding of “suffering” informed only by the first sense, some characterize Buddhism as “life is suffering; suffering is caused by greed; suffering ends when we stop being greedy; the way to do that is to follow something called the Eightfold Path” (O’Brien 2019b). A more accurate understanding of dukkha within this context must include all three senses of suffering.

The second of the noble truths is that the cause of suffering is our thirst or craving (tanha) for things that lack the ability to satisfy our craving. We attach our self to material things, concepts, ideas, and so on. This attachment, although born of a desire to fulfill our internal cravings, only heightens the craving. The problem is that attachment separates the self from the other. Through our attachments, we lose sight of the impermanence not only of the self but of all things.

The third noble truth teaches that the way to awakening (nirvana) is through a letting go of the cravings. Letting go of the cravings entails the cessation of suffering (dukkha).

The fourth truth is founded in the realization that living a good life requires doing, not just thinking. By living in accordance with the Eightfold Path, a person may live such that “every action of body, mind, and speech” are geared toward the promotion of dharma.


Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths

Part of the BBC Radio 4 series A History of Ideas, this clip is narrated by Steven Fry and scripted by Nigel Warburton.

The Five Aggregates

How might the self (atman) experience the world and follow a path toward liberation? Buddhist philosophy posits five aggregates (skandhas), which are the thoughtful and iterative processes, through which the self interacts with the world.

  1. Form (rupa): the aggregate of matter, or the body.
  2. Sensation (vedana): emotional and physical feelings.
  3. Perception (samjna): thinking, the processing of sense data; “knowledge that puts together.”
  4. Mental formation (samskara): how thoughts are processed into habits, predispositions, moods, volitions, biases, interests, etc. The fourth skandhas is related to karma, as much of our actions flow from these elements.
  5. Consciousness (vijnana): awareness and sensitivity concerning a thing that does not include conceptualization.

Although the self uses the aggregates, the self is not thought of as a static and enduring substance underlying the processes. These aggregates are collections that are very much subject to change in an interdependent world.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax