Question: "What is the atman in Hinduism?"
Answer: In Hinduism, the one true reality is called brahman, with anything else being labeled maya, which literally means “play” and is related to the word for “magic”; it is that which is not “really real.” Anything that we think about or experience rationally is maya. This includes all physical objects, including our bodies, along with our feelings and emotions.
Inside everything, including the human soul, there is a reality that is not maya, which is called atman, sometimes translated as “true self” or “inner self.” The atman is eternal and is itself the core essence of each individual, the personality. Hinduism teaches that where the atman or true self resides, there is God. The atman provides humans with their consciousness and gives them divine qualities. According to Hinduism, “The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart . . . and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy” (Bhagavad Gita, 18.61).
Atman is identical with brahman; both are true reality. The key to Hindu thought is to transcend the world of maya/experience and uncover one’s identity with the atman or brahman. This is done from separating oneself from the world and living a life of deep contemplation. Only in quietude and the cessation of all sensory activity and thought processes can one realize his oneness with the atman.
In Hindu philosophy, the atman is contrasted with the ego. The ego is a “false center” of self, the product of sensory experiences, accumulated memories, and personal thoughts. The ego is the feeling of “separateness” or limitation, that is, the sense that we are distinct from other beings. Thinking in terms of “me” and “you,” rather than acknowledging that all entities are eternal and undivided, is an example of the ignorance of the ego. The atman is reality; the ego is illusion. The atman is permanence; the ego is transience. The atman is blessedness; the ego is suffering. The ego must be rescued by the indwelling atman.
If oneness with the atman is accomplished in life, then at death the atman or brahman reality is fully recovered, the cycle of reincarnation is broken, and the soul reenters brahman as a drop of water returns to the ocean. At that point, nirvana, a state of supreme bliss, has been realized.
Belief in the atman cannot be reconciled with the Bible’s teaching. God, who is a personal Being, does not dwell within all things; He is separate from His creation (Revelation 4:11), and we do not find Him by journeying within ourselves. Humanity is not “divine,” and the soul had a beginning—it is not eternal. Reincarnation is not real; we die once and then face the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). The physical world experienced through our senses is just as real as the spiritual world.