2. The Fundamental Nature of Atman (Soul)
With reference to the intrinsic nature of Atman, the Advaitins held that in reality, the Soul is one, undifferentiated
entity and is of the nature of pure consciousness. The plurality of souls/finite selves (jivas) is provisional (serves only
a practical purpose) and ultimately sublatable.
Being a theist, Sri Ramanuja has little patience with this view of Brahman, since it cuts the very roots of
his devotional theology. He refutes the Advaitin contention by comparing the Atman to a flame and consciousness to the light
radiated by the flame. Just as the flame is self radiant and does not require any external illumination, so also the soul
is a light unto itself and illuminates the body it resides within. Secondly, just as the flame, though finite itself, pervades
the room through the light it radiates, so also the soul animates the body it resides in, with consciousness. Thirdly, the
light radiated has the flame as its substratum and cannot exist independent of the flame.
Similarly, the body cannot exist independent of its animating soul and starts falling apart once the soul
departs from it. Finally, the flame, although not identical with the light, is yet often equated to light, so also the soul
is often called as consciousness (as in Taittiriya Upanisad 2.1.1).
Sri Ramanuja clarifies that Atman and consciousness cannot be identified without a remainder. Consciousness
is the way of the Atman's self expression and so it enjoys a sui-generis relationship with the Atman. As constituting the
Atman's essence, it exists substantively; as separate acts of consciousness characterizing and flowing from the Atman, it
Therefore, Atman is both of the form of consciousness and has that for its quality.
Sri Ramanuja advances an additional reason to buttress his view that consciousness is different from its substratum,
viz. the Atman. And that is the phenomenon of memory. Acts of recognition of something that one has experienced/done in the
past establish that the acts of recognition are transient but the object of recognition is permanent.
These two arguments, besides establishing the distinction between the individual knower and its conscious
acts, also implicitly establish the plurality of individual selves. These various souls are the same insofar as their nature
is concerned, but are different and independent entities with regard to each other.
The Advaitins also subscribe to the theory of dual superimposition. According to them, bondage is caused by
Avidya (ignorance), which is neither sat (existent), nor asat (non existent), nor both. The nature of Avidya is beyond description
and it is this Avidya that cause the notion of multiplicity of selves. For, Avidya itself is manifold. Although insentient
itself, Consciousness gets superimposed on each 'Avidya', which then acts as if it is sentient itself. Moreover, Consciousness
itself superimposes Avidya on itself and starts identifying itself with Avidya.
Since there are infinite such prakrtic (material) modifications of Avidya, multiplicity arises.
Sri Ramanuja terms this view as absurd and states that while Atman can indeed be superimposed by Avidya, the
latter, by virtue of being insentient, can never be the substratum of consciousness.
Reflexive and Transitive Actions:
Another question dealt with by Sri Ramanuja is - "If Atman is the subject of awareness, what is the object
of awareness?". Sri Ramanuja defines two types of actions here. A transitive act of awareness is that in which the explicit
act of attention is something external to the knowing object. In such acts, the knowing object is aware of himself only to
a partial degree - which depends on the level of extrospection. Reflexive acts, on the other hand, are those in which the
chief object attended to is the knowing subject itself qua knower. Because the Atman is essentially conscious and therefore
self aware, it is impossible for this I-awareness to be sublated, as the Advaitins claim, in a higher or more immediate pure
Sri Ramanuja's Theory of Error:
According to Sri Ramanuja, error is not a positive distortion of reality or a superimposition of some object,
but incomplete comprehension or partial knowledge. The person in error suffers from a false perspective.
The state of Jagrti (Consciousness) and the state of Susupti (Deep Sleep):
According to the Upanisads, the individual self can exist in 4 states - jagrita or awakened, swapna, or the
state in which dreams are seen, susupti or deep sleep (in which no dreams are seen) and turiya or the liberated state. Of
these, the third is considered a reflection of sorts of the fourth. This is because in the state of susupti, the soul gets
detached from all material adjuncts, so to speak, and exists in its own nature, i.e., consciousness.
Now, the Advaitins argue that since we have no recollection of self awareness during the state of susupti,
it follows naturally that during turiya also, the object of consciousness, viz. the Atman is sublated and what remains is
pure consciousness. Thus, Atman is of the nature of consciousness and not a substratum of the same.
Sri Ramanuja decries this interpretation and states that when a person awakes from slumber, he feels refreshed
since during sleep, the Atman was detached from the trauma-causing state of samsara (the worldly cycle of birth and death).
Hence, susupti does in fact point towards the uninterrupted existence of Atman even during that state. Moreover, the absence
of self awareness during this state does not imply that the Atman had been sublated into pure consciousness. What happens
during susupti is the disappearance of consciousness of 'I-ness" that is characterized by the association of the soul with
the body, i.e., one's caste, age etc. Rather, this state is a state of pure reflexive awareness, in which the Atman is aware
only of itself as 'I'.
Jagrti (Consciousness) and the state of Svapna (Dreams):
According to Sri Ramanuja, dreams are caused by God and are a means of expending the fruits of one's actions,
since dreams can be either pleasurable or otherwise. The objects of dreams are illusory in so far as they have a provisional
standing, lack public verifiability and are banished by waking consciousness; they are real in so far as they are actual objects
of experience in the dream state. Thus, dreams are of the same class as the wakeful state in that they are a medium for expending
of one's karma and a form of direct samsaric (wordly) experience.