Swami Vivekananda, in his discourse on Patanjali’s aphorisms (Complete works of Swami Vivekanada – Volume 1) explains the Atman thus. “The organs (Indriyas), together with the mind (Manas), the determinative faculty (Buddhi), and egoism (Ahamkâra), form the group called the Antahkarana (the internal instrument). They are but various processes in the mind-stuff, called Chitta. The waves of thought in the Chitta are called Vrittis (literally whirpool)… the intelligent soul is behind”.
Hence behind this physical frame of the mind and the senses is the Atman or the Soul. The Atman is described as being changeless, effulgent, omniscient and omnipotent. This is the definition of the Atman, the Self or the Soul according Hindu philosophy. Buddhism completely denies the existence of anything behind this physical body. Buddhism does not subscribe to the concept of a Personal Soul or the Self.
How do these two different philosophies, Hindu and Buddhist, deal with the problem of human suffering.
Suffering – The Buddhist Way
According to Buddhism, suffering is inevitable in human life. We have to accept suffering as a fact of this mortal existence. Buddhism also states that suffering is born of attachment, cessation of suffering is attainable and the path to cessation is based on taking the middle path given in his eight-fold path. The key aspect with the Buddhist way of handling misery in life is to accept this in our lives. Rather than trying to wish away suffering or imagining things we have to boldly accept it and strive to remove it by following the eight fold path based on right living, right speech etc. In many ways this is echoed in the Road Less travelled by Dr. Scott Peck who advocates accepting suffering in our lives. Dr. Peck mentions that if we run away from problems and pain in our lives we will tend to suffer from neurosis.
Suffering – The Hindu Way
The Hindu Way is the same for both pain and pleasure. The Hindu Way suggests a technique of detachment. It is based on the need to understand that pain and pleasure always only exists in the physical plane consisting of the mind and the physical body. Our suffering is because of the waves that are caused in our “chitta” or consciousness. Hinduism states that behind this physical frame of ours is our Soul which cannot be affected by pain, pleasure and is completely changeless.
While both approaches are equally valid, I personally prefer the Hindu way. The moment we understand that our interactions in this world are all because of activity of the mind and the physical senses we realize that we have a faculty that can transcend this physical frame. We can observe the changes that happen in our mind, the frustrations, the anger, the despair.
It is this higher faculty, of awareness, which enables us to be conscious of the perturbations in our physical frame, as it happens, is what I would like to call as the Atman or the Soul.
Hence I find a lot more comfort in the Atman concept.