Know this Atman
Never ceasing, beginning,
Unchanging for ever.
How can It die
The death of the body?
Knowing It birthless,
For ever unchanging,
Are shed by the body:
Are shed by the dweller
Within the body.
New bodies are donned
By the dweller, like garments.
Not wounded by weapons,
burned by fire,
dried by the wind,
wetted by water:
Such is the Atman,
Not dried, not wetted,
burned, not wounded,
Being of beings,
Forever and ever.
– Bhagavad Gita, translated by Prabhavananda and Isherwood
This (slightly edited) passage is one of my favorite scriptural quotes of all time. It is in line with my personal mystical experiences and resulting philosophy that a part of me was never born and will never die.
My Father and Grandmother
Over the years, only two people spoke to me about death in length: my father and my grandmother. Both have passed away. They were not traditionally religious but profoundly spiritual.
My father had a particular way of explaining his resistance to visiting cemeteries. He would say, “You would never go to a junkyard to look for the driver, would you?” His lighthearted analogy stuck with me, a sentiment that is reflected in the assertion that the death of the body cannot destroy the Atman.
Similarly, my grandmother often spoke to me about dying. She had a peaceful understanding that death was simply a return home—a drop returning to the ocean—and never showed any fear or worry about it.
Atom of Consciousness
From the time I first read this passage in the late 90s, it has provided me with comfort and understanding. Like a poem, I have read it countless times, both before and after meditation, and it has helped me to contemplate the idea of the unchanging innermost element. Through my subsequent experiences and reflections, I know (subjectively) that the Atman transcends body and mind. I like to think of it as the atom of consciousness.
The metaphor that the dweller sheds worn-out bodies helps to illustrate that our physical bodies are temporary and that the Atman, the eternal soul, is what truly persists.
In this way, I do not believe that I, Gudjon Bergmann, will survive after death in a traditional sense. My form will return to stardust. My thoughts and emotions dissipate into the ether. Only what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as the Atman, the innermost element, unborn, undying, never ceasing, never beginning, will continue on. This is the essence of yoga philosophy, the process of dis-identifying with that which is not the Atman and identifying with that which is the Atman, thus achieving a conscious awareness of the eternal.
Various spiritual and philosophical movements, such as mysticism, New Age, and interspirituality, have attempted to create a new philosophy that includes a concept similar to the everlasting, unchanging, ever-present Atman. However, none of them have fully captured the original philosophy of the Atman quite as elegantly as the Gita.
In conclusion, this passage from the Bhagavad Gita supports my understanding of the nature of the soul. It reminds me that spiritual practices and self-reflection can unveil this unchanging essence. The passage has the added benefit of serving as a reminder of the spiritual beliefs of my father and grandmother.
Author, Coach, and Mindfulness Teacher
Recommended books by GB:
- Monk of All Faiths: Inspired by The Prophet (fiction)
- Spiritual in My Own Way (memoir)
- Co-Human Harmony: Using Our Shared Humanity to Bridge Divides (nonfiction)
- Experifaith: At the Heart of Every Religion (nonfiction)
- Premature Holiness: Five Weeks at the Ashram (novel)
- The Meditating Psychiatrist Who Tried to Kill Himself (novel)
Picture: CC0 License