In Adhyaya 3 Brahmana 9 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the sage Yagnavalkya tells Vidagdha Sakalya what the eleven Rudras are associated with:

katame rudrā iti ।
daśeme puruṣe prāṇā
te yadā'smāccharīrānmartyādutkrāmanty
atha rodayanti
tasmādrudrā iti ॥

[Vidagdha Sakalya] asked: 'Who are the Rudras?'

Yâgñavalkya replied: 'These ten vital breaths (prânas, the senses, i.e. the five gñânendriyas, and the five karmendriyas), and Âtman as the eleventh. When they depart from this mortal body, they make us cry (rodayanti), and because they make us cry, they are called Rudras.'

Now this verse contains the word Atma, but all the commentators on the Brahma Sutras seem to agree that the word Atma here does not refer to the thing we usually denote by the word Atma, namely the soul or self. Instead, they say it refers to something else, like the Manas or mind or the Buddhi or intelligence. Here is what Adi Shankaracharya says in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya:

By the word Âtman we have to understand the internal organ, on account of its ruling over the organs.

And here is what Ramanujacharya says in his Sri Bhashya:

The organs are not seven only, but eleven, since the hands and the rest also contribute towards the experience and fruition of that which abides in the body, i.e. the soul, and have their separate offices, such as seizing, and so on. Hence it is not so, i.e. it must not be thought that the hands and the rest are not organs. Buddhi, ahankâra and kitta, on the other hand, are(not independent organs but) mere designations of the manas, according as the latter is engaged in the functions of deciding (adhyavasâya), or misconception (abhimâna, or thinking (kintâ). The organs therefore are eleven. From this it follows that in the passage 'Ten are these prânas in man, and Âtman is the eleventh'(Bri. Up. II, 4, ii), the word Âtman denotes the manas.

And here is what Madhvacharya says in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya:

The ten pranas are the ten sons of Vayu, while atma, the eleventh, is Buddhi or rather the presiding deity of Buddhi, namely, Brihaspati.

And for good measure, Nimbarka (the Kumara Vaishnava commentator), Srikantha Shivacharya (the Shaiva Siddhanta commentator whom I discuss here), and Baladeva Vidyabhushana (the Gaudiya Vaishnava commentator) also agree on this point; see here. This seems to be a rare case of unanimous agreement among all commentators on the Brahma Sutras! (I discuss two other such cases here and here).

So my question is, why is it that all commentators agree that the word "Atma" here does not refer to the actual Atma, but rather to the Manas or Buddhi? What is there in the text indicates that?

Also, is there anyone at all who does interpret this verse as referring to the actual Atma, whether the Jivatma or Paramatma?

  • "i.e. the five gñânendriyas, and the five karmendriyas" I think this is misinterpretation.. How Indriyas leave body when person dies?.. They are as before eg. Eye, Ear etc. are in usual place... Furthermore loss of Ear, Eye,hand, etc. doesn't makes person die... Hence 10 pranas refer to Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana, Vyana, Naga, Krkara, Kurma, Devadatta, Dhananjaya... person dies when these pranas leave body.. – Tejaswee Apr 27 '16 at 1:45
  • @Tezz Well, both Adi Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya, and I think the other commentators as well, make a connection between the Pranas and the sensory organs. Perhaps each of these Pranas has a connection to powering one of the senses, like one of them may power sight, one may power hearing, etc. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 27 '16 at 2:38
  • Swami Madhavananda's translation w Sankara's commentary shows it as 'mind' – Swami Vishwananda Apr 28 '16 at 14:33
  • @SwamiVishwananda Yes, Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and pretty much everyone else interpret the word Atma as mind here. My question is why do they interpret it that way. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 28 '16 at 14:36
  • I think because all 11 are referred to as organs of the body. The 'atma' or Self is not an organ of the body, but the mind is; therefore atma is referring to the mind as the mind is an organ of the body. – Swami Vishwananda Apr 28 '16 at 14:46

It isn't always necessary that people always intrepret 'Atman' as Mind in this case. Most people have interpreted it because it tells 'ten are pranas' first and then tells 'Atman as eleventh'. As Pranas and Mind are interrelated (Mind can be controlled through Pranas) most people have interpreted it as referring to Mind . Also, Commentators intrepret a verse as per their belief system.

Here is a translation from the book 'The Ten Principal Upanishads' by Shree Purohit Swami and W.B.Yeats.

'What are the Vasus?'
'Fire, earth, wind, sky, sun, moon, stars, heaven.'
'What are the eleven Rudras?'
'Five living fires, five senses and the personal Self. When they leave our body, they make us cry out; hence their name Rudra.'
'What are Adityas?'
'Twelve months of the year; they pass carrying everything; hence their name.'

So they have translated it as personal self which means soul.

Also Swami Dayananda Saraswati in his book 'Satyarth Prakash' / The Light of Truth intreprets it meaning it to be Soul.

These eight are called Vasus, because they are abode of all that lives, moves or exists. The eleven Rudras are the ten pranas - nervauric forces - enlivening the human body and the eleventh is the human spirit. These are called Rudras because when they desert the body, it becomes dead and the relations of the deceased, consequently, begin to weep. [Page no. 204]

Also in page no. 365

These texts lend no support to Shaiva and other creeds, for Rudra means God, vital air, the soul and heat. The text relating to Rudra would mean that we should render obeisance to God Who is the Punisher of all evils doers, and should take proper food to keep up the animal heat in the body.

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    OK, but I'm still looking for an explanation for why all the commentators on the Brahma Sutras think it must refer to the mind. Dayananda Saraswati had unorthodox views on a great many things, but the purpose of my question is to find the justification of the traditional view. – Keshav Srinivasan May 28 '16 at 14:11

With all due respect to the authors of these texts, the first point to be noted is that these are commentaries and not pure translations. What Madhavacharya and Bhaskaracharya meant could have been totally different. I will support this here.

This is the Sloka:

कतमे रुद्रा इतिः

दशेमे पुरुषे प्राणाः आत्मैकादशः ते यदास्माच्छरीरान्मर्त्यादुत्क्रामन्त्यथ रोदयन्ति

तद्यद्रोदयन्ति तस्माद्रुद्रा इति


कतमे - Which of many, रुद्रा - Rudra, इतिः - Used for emphasis

दशेमे - Ten, पुरुषे - attendants, प्राणाः - life-force energy, आत्मा - Self, एकादशः - eleventh, ते - they, यदा - when, अस्मात् - our, शरीरान् - body अमत्याः - unconsciously, तु - used for emphasis, उत्क्रामन्ति - deviate from propriety, अथ - then, रोदयन्ति - cry

तद् - Thereby, यत् - that, रोदयन्ति - cries, तस्मात् - on that account, रुद्रा - Rudra, इति - Used for emphasis

Which of many are Rudra?

The Self being the eleventh; (in our body) the ten attendants (which pertain to the Prana or the life-force energy), on unconsciously deviating (from their true nature), they weep.

Thereby, as they weep, they are Rudra.

Commentary (my humble attempt at interpretation):

This is a common methodology used to differentiate between the 'relative' and the 'absolute'. The absolute that is being referred to is the Self. The relative i.e. the attendants (of the Self) in the body are - the five senses, the five faculties - breath, mind, intellect, memory and ego. When these attendants deviate from their true nature, they weep. Hence, they are called Rudra.

With regards to the title question:

Why does the word “Atma” in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad refer to the mind?

In this Shloka, it definitely does not.

PS: Although, the words manas and atman are sometimes used interchangeably, as you have mentioned. In my personal experience, I have seen (heard) this being used by many Gurus interchangeably (if the context allows such usage).

Hope this helps! :)

  • Well, considering that your translation differs from all the English translations of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I've ever seen, and considering that your interpretation of the word Atma differs from the interpretation given in all the commentataries on the Brahma Sutras, I'm almost certain that you're wrong. But I don't know Sanskrit, so I can't verify that myself. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 26 '16 at 22:33
  • @KeshavSrinivasan: Well, thats Kutarka. Just because my answer is different does not mean it has to be wrong. ;) – Amit Saxena Apr 29 '16 at 1:39
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    Well, some people believe that Hindu scripture is open to interpretation, but personally I think that there is one objectively correct interpretation of every verse in Hindu scripture. – Keshav Srinivasan Apr 29 '16 at 1:44

Atma can mean the body, the mind or the soul. It can mean any of these.

It depends on the speaker of the sloka what he/she means by it. So the word may mean any of these 3 in context to the speaker. Mostly it refers to the soul.

The real atma is the soul for that is the only reality - spiritual, eternal.

The body is material on a gross level and the mind too, on a subtle level.

Now a philosopher may sometimes misinterpret as well, deviating from the teachings of the acharyas. This needs to be confirmed by referring to the commentaries of the acharyas coming the same sampradaya. They must be the same. Sometimes we may see suggestions/opinions amongst the commentaries but it ultimately concludes to the same aspect of the Absolute Truth.

For example when we use the word atmarama - atma here cannot possibly mean body or mind. Satisfaction is of the soul only. It is also of the body and mind, but that is temporary, that is not real and eternal. It may be encouraged though in some part of Vedas to encourage materially attached class of men who cannot take to the higher truth. But real atma is the self, the soul. The other meanings must ultimately conclude towards the actual self.

  • OK, but I still want to know why the word Atma has to refer to mind in this particular case. All the commentators on the Brahma Sutras say it refers to the mind in this case, but none of the them seem to provide any justification for why this interpretation is the correct interpretation. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 1 '16 at 7:27
  • Let's consider this: Firstly, as already discussed - Atma can refer to body for those on bodily platform, mind to those on mental platform and soul to those on transcendental platform. The higher meaning is parmatma for that's the source of atma, paramatma. Next, as already discussed, at different times atma may mean any of these 3. If acceptable then, here: 1) The 10 senses is sum total of all senses, so in that sense, the ten senses is body, one meaning of atma. – Kṛṣṇa Sep 2 '16 at 5:16
  • So atma can refer to either soul or mind here. To comment further I need to understand 'us' in 'because they make us cry'. Is us referring to observers of the departing atma of mortal body? – Kṛṣṇa Sep 2 '16 at 5:17
  • *Atma can refer to body for those on bodily platform, mind to those on mental platform and soul to those on transcendental platform - DOESN'T mean the interpreters are on mental platform for they describe atma as mind – Kṛṣṇa Sep 2 '16 at 5:29
  • To describe the 11th Rudra as soul means, he must be a vishnu tattva or eternally transcendental (nitya-mukta)? – Kṛṣṇa Sep 2 '16 at 5:33

The context here is that

Yajnavalkya answers and points out that it is difficult to name 3306 devatas because only 33 devatas are well known and famous and their names alone can be enumerated. Then what to call them? Yajnavalkya says all those devatas are only mahimanah. They are only mahimanah the expressions or the facets of 33 devatas. 3306 are only manifestations of the thirty-three devatas. Then Sakalya asks Yajnavalkya if you don’t want to name 3306 devatas, now please tell me who are the 33 devatas. Yajnavalkya says that it is easy for me to enumerate; they are 33 devatas viz., eight Vasus, eleven Rudras and twelve adhityas; they are thirty-one devatas and add Indra and Prajapathi that will make thirty-three devatas. Still the answer is incomplete. Sakalya is not happy. Now Sakalya’s question is who are the eight Vasus, who are the eleven Rudras and who are the twelve adhityas.

Remember Yajnavalkya will get the cows only if he is an expert in Purva Bagha and vedanta of the Vedas. Veda includes karma as well as jnana kanda. We should know that Yajnavalkya is being tested as to whether he is an expert in Veda Purva bagha as also vedanta so that he will get the title of Brahmavid. It is in this context Sakalya is grilling Yajnavalkya with questions on Veda Purva bagha.

So the meaning of the verse regarding ekadasha rudras goes as

Who are the ekadasa the eleven Rudras? Here Yajnavalkya gives a subjective interpretation. He says the ekadasa Rudras are ten Indrias, ten sense organs and one mind is the eleven Rudras. In this mantra the word prana means indriyam and the ten organs in the human body are the eleven Rudras. The upanisad gives the reason why they are called Rudras. At the time of death the eleven organs depart from the mortal body and they make others weep because, they make other people weep [Rud] and therefore the organs are called Rudras. It makes the dying person as also the kith and kin cry therefore they are called Rudras. Rodayadi Iti Rudrah. Rud means cry in Sanskrit. These are the second group of devatas.

So, this is the reason the word atma here is taken as manas or mind an organ of the body but not the actual atma as we are talking about karma kanda or veda purva bhaga describing the deities.

Hope this helps you.

The above lines are taken from the discourses on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad based on Adi Sankaracharya's commentary (transcript of classes ) by Swami Paramarthananda, a direct disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati.

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protected by Ankit Sharma Apr 29 '16 at 13:44

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