Manas. Studies into Asia and Africa.

Електронно списание на Центъра за източни езици и култури
Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски”

2015 / Том 2 / Брой 1 : Традиция и модерност в индийската култура

За семантичното развитие на думата ātmán във ведийски и санскрит

Гергана Русева


Въз основа на примери от ведийския език настоящото изследване се занимава с постепенното развитие на смисъла на думата ātmán. Ранните приложения на ātmán в Ригведа като вътрешна жизненост, същност, дъх естествено се доразвиват в по-късни рефлексивни употреби и в метафизични асоциации с вечната същност на живи същества. Думата ātmán е едно от емблематичните понятия в ведическата и санскритската литература. То е от първостепенна концептуална значимост както в брахманизма, така и в хиндуизма и осмислянето на индийската култура и на индийския начин на мислене е невъзможно без проникновеното разбиране на значението му. Затова ние ще проследим семантиката на понятието ātmán от Ригведа до Упанишадите, започвайки с неговата етимология и извеждайки различните му значения от контекста.


Основен текст

The word ātmán is one of the emblematic words in Vedic and Sanskrit literature. It is conceptually important for Brahmanism and Hinduism and the understanding of the Indian culture and the Indian way of thinking is impossible without the deep comprehension of its meaning. So we will trace out the semantic of ātmán from the Rigveda up to the Upanishads beginning with its etymology and deriving its various meanings from the context.


1. Etymology of the word ātmán

The word ātmán can be derived from the Proto Indo-European (PIE) stem *h1eh1tmén ‘breath’[1] taking into account that PIE h1e>skt. a, PIE eh1 > skt. ā  and PIE é > skt. á[2]. From the same stem are derived also Germanic *ēөm-a-/*ēdm-á-m ‘breath’, Old English äөm (ēөm), -es, m.`vapor, breath, hole to breath through, smell', Old Frisian ēthma, Old Saxon āthom, Middle Dutch ādem, Old High German: ātum, Middle High German: ātem, German: Atem ‘breath’ m.[3], Tocharian A āÔcäm ‘self, soul’[4], Greek aütmḗn ‘breath’, ātmós ‘vapor’[5]. PIE stem *h1eh1tmén ‘breath’ lacks an underlying verb although as suggested by Mallory and Adams[6] and also by Mayrhofer[7] it could be related to *h1eh1tr- which may have meant ‘lung’ with Greek parallel ḗtor ‘heart’. Mayrhofer notes also the interpretation of Thieme that suggested the proto-root *[ă]kt-mán ‘creep, sneak’ for the slinking and slight howling breath in contrast with the wind.  

Here the following question arises: If the word ātmán is of PIE origin why it has only a few appearances in the archaic family books (VII.87.2, VII.101.6, and VIII.3.24)? One possibility is that the older books are not concerned too much with the notion of breath. One of the other words used for “breath” in Vedic ásu ‘breath, life, life experience’ is used only once in the older portion of the RV (II. 22. 4) and 10 times in the whole RV[8]. The other word for ‘breath’ prāna is attested only a few times in the later books of the RV. There is also another word – tmán ‘self, person, vital breath’ that shares the same semantic (and later also functional) field with ātmán that is much more attested in the RV. The examples of tmán in the RV are eighty while those of ātmán are only twenty-nine. Mayrhofer suggested that “ātmán is ‘weakening’ of tmán[9]. The Thieme suggestion of the root *[ă]kt-mán could remove the problem with the Vedic ā-/ Ø- ablaut. The hypothesis that ātmán and tmán have the same etymology is supported also from the fact that the consonant cluster -tm- is relatively rare in Vedic and Sanskrit. It appears only in the words tmán, ātmán, vártman (guna (vṛt) + man) ‘path’, pátman (guna (pat) + man) ‘flight’ and their derivatives. It will be quite uncommon (of course not impossible) to have two phonetically near and at the same time synonymous words with different etymology.

Here we should also mention that as Kulikov’s study on Vedic reflexives showed “tmán and ātmán are opposed both chronologically (tmán is older in emphatic usage) and functionally (originally, ātmán- is only used as a reflexive, while tmán only functions as an emphatic.”[10] So there is a possibility of different etymology for tmán and ātmán that will explain the lack of long ā and the earlier attestations of tmán. It can be supposed that at the beginning tmán was an emphatic particle like Greek mén and mḗn, Latin tamen and Hittite enclitic -ma[11]. Monier-Williams[12] mentions that tmán was used as an emphatic particle with the meaning ‘yet, really, indeed, even, at last, certainly, also’. As was shown by Schladt[13] in Asia and Europe the grammatical strategy to use emphatic particles or pronouns as reflexives is 17,5% and it is the third important strategy after strategies using body parts or the words ‘person, self’. The word tmán can be used both as an emphatic particle and as a marker of reflexivity and this pattern is found in approximately half of the worlds languages[14].

Here we should mention also the popular among indologists etymology from the root an- ‘to breathe’[15]. (From this root is formed one of the other words for breath – prāṇa.) It is not clear how this stem can be transformed to ātmán. None of the roots ending in -an or -am combined with suffix ever form the consonant cluster -tm-, which, as mentioned above, is rare. Mayrhofer[16] also rejects this possibility.

In his early commentary Nirukta on the RV Yaska derives the etymology of  ātmán from the verbal root at- ‘to go, to move’, or āp- ‘to reach’: ātmātatervā āptervā api vāpta vi syāt (Nirukta 3.15) “ātmán [is derived] either from at- or from āpt- because [it] can be reached”. The etymology from the root at- could not explain either the long sound ā in ātmán either its lack in tmán. Nevertheless this etymology is wide accepted among the indologists[17]. The etymology from the past participle passive āptá of the root āp- ‘to reach’ is obviously a result from the later interpretations and Middle Indo-Arian formal developments of the word  ātmán > appa, āpa, atta. Nevertheless, as Gonda[18] suggested, very often a popular etymology can be a source of information about how either traditionally or in a definite period, the Indians themselves thought about the basic, central or ‘original’ sense of a key word.


2. The meanings ‘breath’, ‘vital breath’, ‘soul’, ‘spirit’

There are only two attestations of ātmán in the earliest portion of the RV, both in the seventh book. The meaning of ātmán in these passages is consistent with the supposed etymology and semantic ‘breath’ or ‘vital breath’[19]. In the first appearance in VII.87.2, a hymn addressed to Varuṇa:

VII.87.2a     ātmā́ te vā́to rája ā́ navīnot
VII.87.2b     paśúr ná bhū́rnir yávase sasavā́n

The wind, thy breath, had sounded through the region like a wild beast that seeks his food in pastures.

as also in some other hymns (I.34.7d, X.16.3a, X.92.13c, and X.168.4a)  ātmán is associated with the wind vāta and it is hard to consider it as anything other than ‘breath’.

In the funeral hymn X.16.3a:

X.16.3a     sū́ryacákur gachatu vā́tam ātmā́
X.16.3b     diyā́ca gacha pthivī́ca dhármaā
X.16.3c     apó vā gacha yádi tátra te hitám
X.16.3d     óadhīu práti tiṣṭhā śárīrai

Let [your] eye go to the sun, to the wind [your] breath; go, in a way that accords with nature to earth or heaven. / Go, if it be your lot, unto the waters; go, make your home in plants with all your members.

we can say with sure that ātmán corresponds to the (vital) breath.
Here man is viewed as a microcosmos. Each element in him comes from some element in nature with which it has most affinity and to which it returns. These affinities are pointed out with much detail in Shatapatha Brahmana XIV.6.2

yatra asya puruṣasya mṛtasya agniṃ vāg apyeti vātaṃ prāṇaś cakṣur āditya manaś candraṃ diśaśrotraṃ pṛthivīśarīram ākāśam ātmā…kva ayaṃ tadā puruṣo bhavati.

When the dead’s man speech goes to the fire, the breath to the wind, the eye to Aditya, the mind to the Moon, the ear to the directions, the body to the Earth, the soul /spirit to the ether… where is then this man?

where the word prāṇa is used for ‘breath’ and ātmán is used as a synonym of ásu ‘spirit, soul’ as is seen from a parallel passage of Aytareya Brahmana (II.6.13):

ryaṃ cakṣur gamayatāt vātam prāṇam anvavasṛjatāt antarikṣam asur diśaśrotram pṛthivīm śarīram.

Let the eye go to the sun, let the breath follow the wind, [let] the soul / spirit [follow] the middle space, [let] the ear [follow] the directions, [and let] the body [go] to the Earth.

The word ātmánvat (I.116.3c, I.182.5 and IX.74.4a) is rendered by “animated” in the Griffith’s translation, probably because of the etymology of the word animate from the root an- ‘to breath’. But as the examples show:

I.116.3a     túgro ha bhujyúm aśvinodameghé
I.116.3b     rayíṃ ná káś cin mamṛvā́m ávāhā
I.116.3c     tám ūhathur naubhír ātmanvátībhir
I.116.3d     antarikṣaprúdbhir ápodakābhi.

Yea, Asvins, as a dead man leaves his riches, Tugra left Bhujyu in the cloud of waters./ Ye brought him back in breathlike/ vapory vessels, traversing air, unwetted by the billows.

I.182.5a     yuvám etáṃ cakrathu síndhuṣu plavám
I.182.5b     ātmanvántam pakíṇaṃ taugriyā́ya kám

Ye made for Tugra's son amid the water-floods that breathlike/ vapory ship with wings to fly withal.

IX.74.4a     ātmanván nábho duhyate ghtám páya
IX.74.4b     tásya nā́bhir amrtaví jāyate

Butter and milk are drawn from breathlike/ vapory cloud; thence Amrita is produced, centre of sacrifice.

ātmánvat is in close semantic connection with clouds and vapor so I think that here it should be rendered with ‘breathlike’ or even ‘vapory’.  

In RV VII.101.6b Parjanya, the lord of crop-enriching periodic rains is the holder of the breath ātmán of all things fixed and moving.

VII.101.6a     sá retodhā́ vṣabhá śáśvatīnāṃ
VII.101.6b     tásminn ātmā́ jágatas tasthúṣaś ca

He, the Bull of all, and their impregner holds the breath of all things fixed and moving.

In RV I.115.1d –

I.115.1c     ā́prā dyā́vāpṛthivī́ antárikṣaṃ
I.115.1d     sū́rya ātmā́ jágatas tasthúṣaś ca

The Sun, the breath of all things fixed and moving, had filled the air, earth and heaven.

‘breath’ in its wider sense as a rhythmic sustainer of life, as a vital essence  is also very logical translation of ātmán because the Sun like breath gives the rhythm of life and power for all things and beings.

The translation ‘breath’ in the broad interpretation of the word as inner vital essence is also very logical in hymns IX.2.10c and IX.6.8a where Soma is called ātmā́ yajñásya ‘the breath/ soul/ spirit of sacrifice’. Only Soma can enliven the sacrifice as only the breath can give life and rhythm to everything. Here ātmán can be rendered also by ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ as an inner vital essence, as principle of life and feeling.

The actual meaning of ātmán in I.164.4c

I.164.4a     kó dadarśa prathamáṃ jā́yamānam
I.164.4b     asthanvántaṃ yád anasthā́ bíbharti
I.164.4c     bhū́myā ásur ásṛg ātmā́ kúva svit

Who had beheld him as he sprang to being, seen how the boneless one supports the bony? / Where is the breath of earth, the blood, the spirit?

is difficult to reconcile with an easily applicable translation, although the meaning ‘breath’ again can do the job.


3. The meaning ‘life’

In the RV there are two examples of the compound śatātmán:

IX.98.4a     sá hí tváṃ deva śáśvate
IX.98.4b     vásu mártāya dāśúṣe
IX.98.4c     índo sahasríṇaṃ rayíṃ
IX.98.4d     śatā́tmāna vivāsasi

For you yourself, O Indu, God, to every mortal worshipper

Manifest thousandfold riches in hundred lives.

X.33.9a    ná devā́nām áti vratáṃ
X.33.9b     śatā́tmā caná jīvati
X.33.9c     táthā yujā́ ví vāvte

None lives, even he had hundred lives, beyond the statute of the Gods. So I am parted from my friend.

The initial meaning ‘breath’ had developed through ‘vital essence’ and ‘vital principle’ may be under the influence of the synonymous word ásu ‘breath, soul, life’ to the only meaningful translation of ātmán here: ‘life’.

4. The meaning ‘(vital) essence, nature’

In the hymn X.97 one can choose among the meanings ‘essence/ vital essence/ soul/ spirit’:

X.97.11a     yád imā́ vājáyann ahám
X.97.11b     óadhīr hásta ādadhé
X.97.11c     ātmā́ yákmasya naśyati

When, bringing back the vanished strength, I hold these herbs within my hand, The essence of disease perishes…

So Ātmán could be the essence of both the disease and the afflicted person. From Brahmanas onward when ātmán is used as a second component of a compound it have this meaning (see for example mahātmán ‘who is great by nature’) or it means ‘mind’.


5. The meaning ‘body’

In X.163.5a and X.163.6c

X.163.5c   = X.163.6c     yákṣmaṃ sárvasmād ātmánas
X.163.5d   =  X.163.6d     tám idáṃ ví vṛhāmi te

From all yourself/ your body I drive your malady away.

the reflexive meaning competes with the meaning ‘body’ as the representative of the whole body and all mental processes, senses and functions of a living being. In the Brahmanas and in the Upanishads this meaning ‘body’ as wholeness is common. For example in Katha Upanishad I.3.4:

ātmendriyamanoyuktaṃ bhoktetyāhurmanīṣiṇaḥ.

United with the body, senses and mind the wise men call the experiencer.

and in Katha Upanishad II.12:

aṅguṣṭha mātraḥ puruṣo madhya ātmani tiṣṭhati.

Purusha, big as a thumb, is in the middle of the body.

In the RV the words that signify ‘body’ are tanū and śarīra. In the RV the first is used as a reflexive pronoun: yajasva tanvam ‘worship yourself’. The word tanū is rarely used after the RV with reflexive meaning and in the Brahmanas and later literature it always means ‘(corporeal) body’.


6. Reflexive usage

There are two attestations of reflexive usage in the RV:

IX.85.3a     ádabdha indo pavase madíntama
IX.85.3b     ātméndrasya bhavasi dhāsír uttamá

Unharmed, best Cheerer, O Indu, flowest on: you yourself, are Indra's noblest food.

IX.113.1c     bálaṃ dádhāna ātmáni

…putting strength into himself…

From the late RV onwards, ātmán is attested in the reflexive usage. In the Atharvaveda, it becomes common but is still in competition with tanū.[20]

Reflexive usages in a broad sense encompass the expression of coreference with the subject, and emphatics:

John scolds himself.                                                               reflexive
John himself was unable to solve this problem.                     emphatic
John drew this picture himself.                                               emphatic

The meaning of -self in emphatic usages can be determined as a signal of the fact that its referent is unexpected to some degree. In some languages, the reflexive and emphatic meanings are rendered by different words (for example in Bulgarian reflexive sebe si vs. emphatic sam), in some other languages it is rendered by one single word (for example English -self). Vedic Sanskrit belongs to the latter type of languages. Vedic reflexive pronouns, in particular ātmán, can be employed either as a marker of a coreference with the subject or as an intensifier:

(Maytrayani Samhita 1.6.4:93.3)                                             reflexive
híraṇyaṃ dadāty ātmánam evá téna punīte

He gives gold; thereby he purifies himself.

(Taittiriya Samhita                                                      emphatic
táto devā́ ábhavan párā ásurā yásya eváṃ vidúo `nvāhāryá āhriyáte bhávaty ātmánā párā asya bhrā́tvyo bhavati.

Then the gods prospered, the asuras perished. He, who, knowing thus, performs the Anvaharya-rite, prospers himself, his rival perishes.

In the RV the basic meaning of ātmán is ‘breath’ but ‘breath’ as a vital essence that gives rhythm to everything “moving and stable”. Gradually it develops other meanings as ‘vital essence, essence, soul, spirit, body’. By the end of the period ātmán became to be used also as a reflexive, probably not without the influence of the phonetically similar word tmán. After the RV, in the Vedic literature the semantic field surrounding ātmán undergo significant changes, most of which are a direct reflection of the nature of the texts themselves. One of the primary changes is the appearance of a ‘composite self’[21] made up of a complex series of connections which are deliberately constructed in the ritual as a part of the representation of the micro-macrocosmic equivalences and representation of individual, social, seasonal, and cosmological functions. In this ‘composite self’ ātmán represents a vital essence of an individual (which is internal). So it can be rendered also by the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’. The word ātmán is used repeatedly with púruṣa, a word that have signification of inclusive wholeness until the Upanishads. Ātmán is the essence of what moves and breathes on the earth, but is not constructed as an archetypical sacrifice. Ātmán is, instead, a component of that sacrifice.

Ātmán is something more abstract than prāṇa, which is regarded mostly like specific function, while ātmán is the very essence of breath and the essence of life. Prāṇa has a specific function in the body and has obtained the supremacy over other vital functions, whereas ātmán is unspecific. After the RV the association of ātmán with the sacrifice and the three breaths prāṇá, apā́na, and vyā́na became predominant. Ātmán’s consistent association with breath and ongoing meaning of essence evolved into one of the central themes of the later literature.

Conceptually, in the Upanishads, ātmán can be considered as a transcendental and constant principle, of which the manifested creature (the human for example) is only a transient and conditioned modification – modification that in no way can influence the principle. Ātmán is the principle owing to all the states of being, manifested or non manifested exist. Ātmán brings its being out of itself and there is no and there could not be whatever principle external to it. For every being ātmán  represents his very essence and that is why the same word is used as a reflexive. From the other side the impersonal and superpersonal absolute and universal principle is called Bráhman in the Brahmanas and in the Upanishads. So if we take the most abstract meanings, consequentially also the most general, ātmán and Bráhman are identical in the Upanishads as the words signifying the absolute, universal principle.



[1] James Mallory and Douglas Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 189-190.

[2] James Clackson, Indo-European Linguistics. An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37-39, 56-57.

[3] Walde Pokorny. Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Sprache, (Leipzig. 1927-1932), I 118.

[4] Mallory and Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 190.

[5] Charles Lanman. A Sanskrit Reader, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1920), 125; Pierre Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue Grecque. Histoire des mots. Tome I (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1968), 134; Henry Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 271, 279.

[6] Mallory and Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, 190.

[7] Manfred Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoariscen, I Band. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter - Universitätsverlag, 1992), 164.

[8] John Gardner, “The developing terminology of the Self in Vedic India”. (PhD diss., University of Iowa,1998). See also RV-finder at

[9] “…stehen ‘schwache’ von tmán-“ Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoariscen, I Band, 164.

[10] Leonid Kulikov, “The reflexive pronouns in Vedic: a diachronic and typological perspective,” Lingua 117 (2007): 1431.

[11] Adelaide Hahn, “Some Hittite-Sanskrit Parallels,” Language, Vol.29, No. 3 (1953): 242-244.

[12] Мonier Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 456.

[13] Mathias Schladt. “The typology and grammaticalization of reflexives,” in Reflexives. Forms and function, ed. Zygmund Frajzyngier and Traci Walker-Curl. Typological Studies in Language 40 (Colorado,  2000), 103-124.

[14] Ekkehard König and Peter Siemund. “Intensifiers and reflexives,” in Causatives and transitivity ed. Bernard Comrie and Maria Polinsky, Studies in Language Companion Series, ed. Werner Abraham and Elly van Gelderen (John Benjamins publishing company, 2005), 194-197.

[15] Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 135.

[16]Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoariscen, I Band, 164.

[17] Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit-English Dictionary, 135.

[18] Jan Gonda, “Some notes on the study of Indian religious terminology,” History of religion I. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), 271.

[19] Gardner, “The developing terminology of the Self in Vedic India,” suggested ‘vitality and activity of life’.

[20] See B. Delbrück, Altindische Syntax, (Halle: Verlag der Buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1888), 207, 262.

[21] Gardner, “The developing terminology of the Self in Vedic India”.


За автора

Софийски университет „Св. Климент Охридски“.

Доц. д-р Гергана Руменова Русева е преподавател по санскрит и морфология и синтаксис на хинди в kатедра “Класически изток”, Факултет по класически и нови филологии, СУ „Св. Климент Охридски“.


Последни публикации
Гергана Русева, Взаимовръзка и взаимопроникване на тялото и съзнанието: дъхът прана, Духовност и морални ценности на Изтока, редактор/и:Бойка Цигова, издателство:Пропелер, 2017, стр.35-54.
Гергана Руменова Русева, Къде е ātmán (аз-ът) според Упанишадите, Луна, бамбук и огледало - изтоковедски изследвания, 2016.
On the Notions of Memory in Buddhism, The Silk Road: Collection of Papers from the Third International Conference on Chinese Studies "The Silk Road" organized by the Confucius Institute in Sofia, June 2015, ed. Aleksandra Angelova, Sofia University "St Kliment Ohridski" Press, 2015, стр.222-229
Граматика на идентичността: За развитието на думата atman в индоарийските езици, Индологическа фондация "Изток Запад", София, 2012.

Публикации в списание МАНАС:

Русева, Гергана. Ātmán и петте пътя на самоосъзнаването: огледалото. – Във: Манас: Южна Азия: Идентичност и културно многообразие, Том 1, 1, 2014.

Русева, Гергана. Усещането за време според Йогасутра на Патанджали и Йогасутрабхашя на Вяса. – Във: Манас: Сетива и сетивност, Том 2, 2, 2015.

Русева, Гергана. Значения на думата ātmán в три стиха от Бхагавадгита. – Във: Манас: Изток–Запад: езици, култури, общества, Том 3, 1, 2017.