The pre-Buddhist meaning of ātman

I am critical of the common translation of attā as self/soul, both for linguistic reasons and for reasons of consistency within the suttas. For anyone interested in the complex historical development of the term ātman before the Buddha here are a few papers:

Elizarenkova - The word ātmán in the R̥gveda (2005)

This paper investigates the oldest layer of ancient Indian texts…:

The analysis of the lexical meanings of åtmán- represented by various cases gives a scale of meanings, beginning with “breath”, “soul” and ending with “body”. Thus, the concept of soul was not strictly separated from the physical substance – they were linked together by a continuous chain of lexical shades.

The following paper is about the next layer of texts and includes the Atharvaveda.
Orqueda - Semantic Change of Atman in the Rig Veda and Atharvaveda (2015):

The results of this research show that ātmán- acquires new meanings and uses during the course of this process (‘being, ‘self’), without losing the previous ones (‘vital breath’, ‘breathe’). The systematisation of the different uses into a semantic map leads to the conclusion that: 1) the directionality of this semantic change is similar to that of equivalent words in other languages, and 2) this change is closely connected to that previously experienced by tanū́- ‘body, ‘self’.

In her book “Reflexivity in Vedic” (2019, p.188), Orqueda also references Kahle, who in his dissertation (in Spanish) comments on the further development of the term ātman in the Brahmana period:

Kahle (2012) makes a further interesting observation, as he connects this change with that of related terms within the semantic field. Kahle proposes that the meaning ‘vital breath’ is assumed by prāṇá- in the Brāhmaṇas, while ātmán- becomes specifically associated with the concept of ‘being’ or ‘person’. Thus, ātmán- evolves from ‘vital soul’ to the identity of the being, dragging a change in the relation with ásu- ‘vital breath’ (Kahle, 2012: 550).

If someone is interested in this very detailed dissertation, it’s here:
Kahle - El surgimiento de la doctrina de la transmigración de las almas en la India (2012)

Since I’m tired of the camps and the ‘discussions’ around the topic I just want to provide the literature for whoever is open-minded and interested enough to engage with the subtleties of linguistic research.


These are very much appreciated. Thanks.

Thank you for the resources :grinning:

No criticism here at all. Can you please:

  1. Tell us in clear details which meaning(s) of ātman that you think will seriously impact the teaching of the Buddha? I am interested to know. Thank you.
  2. Kindly provide a summary or a table. I think many people will thank you for that.
  3. Please reply: Why do you think and how sure you are that: the Buddha referred to any particular meaning(s) of atman within the list that you provided? Maybe it is provided after many pages of careful research but it is easier and time saving to get directly from you. Thank you. :pray:

Thanks, @Gabriel. That was really interesting. Above my knowledge level, but I could follow enough to find the readings quite fascinating.

Is that common move in languages from a word representing something physical (body) to more and more representing a concept (self)? I’m thinking, for example, how in Hebrew נֶפֶשׁ (nephesh) meant throat or neck and came to also mean person or soul, and לֵב (lev) meant heart and came to also mean mind or will. And both Hebrew (רוּחַ) and Greek (πνεύμα) have words for spirit that originally meant breath.

Is this movement from a word meaning the physical body or a body part to representing a metaphysical entity a common shift in languages?

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Well in English spirit means a person’s essential identity and comes form a word meaning to breath, so it’s evident in English too.


English “ghost” coming from the same root as “gasp” is another breath/being example…


So based on the first Elizarenkova article spirit seems a pretty good English parallel?

Oh and thank you @Gabriel ! I haven’t finished reading but this is quite exciting stuff!

Dear @Gabriel,

In your thesis, if I’m not mistaken, you said that the atman which the Buddha refutes is not the same with the Brahmanical atman, but perhaps it is the atman of other pre-Buddhist Sramana sect. Do you have any clue of this concept of atman?

I found this recent post by Ven. Brahmali, on a similar thread, very helpful:

“This [jīva] contrast with attā, which has a quite specific meaning, namely “permanent essence”. This is how it is defined, for instance in MN2, the Sabbāsava Sutta. Even the body can be regarded as an attā, which distinguishes it from the jīva.”

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, @josephzizys ! I wasn’t sure about spirit - I knew spiritus was used in Latin to translate the Hebrew ruah and Greek pneuma, so I wasn’t sure if it was an independent example or a translation of the Hebrew and Greek examples.

That is so cool! Thank you! :slightly_smiling_face:


What I meant was mostly that the atman the Buddha refutes is not upanisadic but actually an older iteration of Brahmanic thinking. My conclusion is that we’d have to look for the proper reference in the late Samhitas or the Brahmanas.

But since the Buddha applies anatta not only to Brahmins - and in fact more rarely to Brahmins - we have to assume that the “wanderers of other sects” also held beliefs about atta/atman in some way. And as many researchers currently understand that Brahmins haven’t been in Magadha/Kosala for too long at the Buddha’s time, my suggestion is that the atman belief in Kosala stems from times of earlier migration from Kurupāñcāla - hence a Samhita-Brahmana period.


Classical Chinese translators and commentators (3-5th c. CE) have the same types of discussions about atman as we do today. They vacillated between translating the concept as “soul/spirit” (神) and “I/myself” (我). They also recount superficial objections about using the pronoun “I” in ordinary communication (e.g. “How can sutras open with ‘Thus I have heard’ if there’s no I?”) vs. the intent of the concept of anatman, etc. The change in meaning had happened by that time if it did evolve from very earliest times.