Existence & Nature of the Self in Eastern Philosophy

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  • 0:03 The Nature of the Self
  • 1:20 Hinduism
  • 3:39 Buddhism
  • 5:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Are we all different and independent, or are all people part of one whole? In this lesson, we'll examine what Eastern philosophy and religion, including Hinduism and Buddhism, believe about the self.

The Nature of the Self

Norah has been watching the news and the way everyone is at each other's throats, and though it's painful and sad to watch, she also thinks it's inevitable. After all, people are all independent and very different from one another.

Her friend Charlie isn't so sure though. He believes that everyone is connected to each other and to the world. To Charlie, we are all one, so no one should be fighting.

Norah and Charlie are thinking about the nature of the self. When philosophers talk about the nature of the self, what they are really asking is: Are we separate from each other and from the universe? In Western philosophy, people tend to think like Norah: people are separate and unique from each other. What one person does or experiences is completely independent of other people and the world at large.

However, in Eastern philosophy, the self is often treated as an illusion. That is, the idea that people are separate entities from each other and the world is not considered a reality in Eastern thought.

To Charlie, Eastern thought seems pretty clear, but Norah's still confused about it. How can the self be an illusion? Does that mean she doesn't exist? To help Norah understand better, let's look at two major religious traditions in Asia - Hinduism and Buddhism - and how they view the self.


Norah has heard of Hinduism, a major religion with many branches common in south Asian countries like India and Sri Lanka. But, she's not sure what Hindus believe, or what their beliefs have to do with the self.

There are many different branches of Hinduism with varying beliefs, sort of like there are many different branches of Christianity. But in all the branches of Hinduism, there are two important concepts that will help Norah understand the Hindu view of the self: the Brahman and the Atman.

The Brahman is essentially the sacred, the god spirit or the universe. In contrast, the Atman is the human soul, or the self. So when Norah thinks about her soul as a separate entity from others, she's thinking of her Atman.

Unlike Norah's belief that the soul is separate, Hinduism teaches that the Atman is essentially part of the Brahman, or universe. To help Norah understand, Charlie tells her to think about a single drop of water in a cloud way up in the sky. It comes down with other drops in the form of rain and makes its way to a river where it blends with other drops. Eventually, this single drop of water flows out to the ocean where it is indistinguishable from other drops. Finally, it evaporates and makes its way to the atmosphere, where it becomes part of a cloud again.

To the Hindus, this drop of water is the Atman, and the cycle that it goes through is kind of like reincarnation, or the belief that people die and are reborn over and over again. Each time a person dies and is reborn, it comes closer to the Brahman. Eventually, the person will complete the cycle of reincarnation when they have developed enough. When this happens, they stop being reborn and are fully reunited with the Brahman. It's like the drop of water stopped collecting in a cloud, raining down and evaporating and instead simply dissolved into everything: the air, the earth, and the water.

So, what does this have to do with the self? Norah's already figured out that Hindus think very differently about the self than she does: they think in terms of centuries and lifetimes, whereas she thinks about herself in terms of who she is today and tomorrow. In Hinduism, the self, or the Atman, is just part of a larger whole, the Brahman, which encompasses everything. The self, or the Atman, is tied to everything, or as one sacred Hindu text says it, ''Thou are thou.''


Norah is starting to understand a little bit how the self can be thought of as part of the universe. But there's still a self, right?

Charlie doesn't believe in the Atman; he doesn't believe that there's such a thing as a self at all. That's because he's a Buddhist. Buddhism is a common Eastern religion and philosophy where the self is often thought of as an illusion.

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