The Development of Atman and Monism in the Rg. Veda.


            This research paper will explore the pre-Upanisadic conceptions of atman and monistic ontology in the Rg. Veda.  The intention of this research paper is to identify the conceptions of atman and monism as they actually appear in the Rg. Vedic texts themselves without the later interpretations of Vedanta scholars.      

Drawing on primary and secondary sources, I will begin by looking at the notions of monism and atman in order to illustrate how the earlier family books 2-7, show a depiction of the universe that is pre-dominantly polytheistic, making only a few vague references to a monistic absolute.  I will then show how the later books 1 and 10 indicate clearer formulations of a monistic principle. 

Although it is possible that the later books may have had local influences, there is not enough conclusive evidence to attribute these later monistic developments to ‘purely non-Aryan’ sources.  The fact that the ‘Aryans’ were probably further influenced by other peoples prior to reaching India also makes any definite historic distinctions between ‘Aryan’ and ‘non-Aryan’ problematic.  (Olivelle p. 21-22)  Therefore this paper will not be re-affirming or denying the dual origins theory maintained by Ross Reat and Heinrich Zimmer.  Instead, I will propose looking at the Vedic tradition as a dynamic and organic phenomenon interacting with and thus being influenced by surrounding cultures without identifying any of the more recent developments as necessarily non-Vedic in origin. 

In addition to the first task, this paper will show that there was no explicit emphasis placed the connection between the monistic absolute and atman (as human consciousness) in the Rg. Veda.  While some references to atman imply both a personal or cosmic essence, many other hymns speak of the monistic absolute in terms of cosmogony; an operative principle responsible for the creation of the universe in a past far removed from the consciousness of an individual.

While conducting this task I will also contend Ross Reat’s claim that there were no real notions of atman as a soul or psychic entity surviving death in the Rg. Veda. This will be done by examining various Samhita texts found in the Rg. Veda that use the term atman in reference to a self that is not necessarily dependent or limited to the physical body.  However, I will acknowledge that such notions are rarely depicted in the R.g. Veda, while much more predominant attention was given to notions of tanu, a quasi physical essence of a person which can be kept alive in a heavenly realm through the proper use of ritual. (Reat p. 63-69)

            In his book The Origins of Indian Psychology, Ross Reat explains that Upanisadic monism is pre-dominantly expressed in psychological terms that equate the soul (atman) with the universal principle (brahman).  In this sense both atman and brahman are regarded in the Upanisads as the monistic ontological principle of both the universe and the individual psyche.  In the Rg. Veda however, this concept is not clearly evident; rather, the early family books evince a tendency to elevate whatever deity that is being addressed to the position of supreme deity, in a practice referred to as henotheism by Max Muller. (Reat p. 9)

Reat explains that “The term henotheism, however, suggests the worship of only one god without denying the existence of other gods.  In fact, all of the gods in the Vedic pantheon are worshipped on different sacrificial occasions, and several of them are praised as the supreme deity.” In this form of worship the god in question is often represented as embracing the universe, either holding it in his or her hand or wearing it as an ornament. (Reat p. 10)  This claim can be sufficiently corroborated by references to some of the hymns in the early books.  Here is one example: “When thou, O Maghaven (Indra) didst grasp even these two boundless worlds, they were but a handful to thee.” (Rg. 3.30.5, M)

A further example of this all encompassing nature attributed to the gods can be found in references to Aditi and Brahmanaspati.  Reat points out that the cosmic depiction of these two deities is interesting, since they also appear in the later Upanisads. Aditi appears in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad with the same name, while Brahmanaspati may be a precursor of the Upanisadic Brahma.  Here are some examples drawn from books one and two of the Rg. Veda: “Aditi is the sky; Aditi is the air; Aditi is the mother, and father and son; Aditi is all the gods and the five tribes; Aditi is what ever has been born; aditi is whatever shall be born.” (Rg. 1.89.10, M)  “Thou in every way supreme in earthly power, rejoicing by thy might and strength has waxen great.  He is the God spread forth in breadth against the Gods: he Brahmanaspati, encompasseth this all.” (R.g. 2.24.11 G) (Reat p. 12)

These depictions found in the earliest books reveal what Reat characterizes as a “…thoroughly polytheistic religion which moves only vaguely in the direction of monotheism by developing the mere concepts of creativity and supremacy and assigning these attributes to several anthropomorphic gods without any apparent hesitation.” (Reat p. 13)  Another good example of this can be observed in book five where Agni is said to be Varuna, Mitra, and Aryaman, suggesting a more monotheistic concept:

1. Thou at thy birth art Varuna, O Agni; when thou art kindled thou becomest Mitra. In thee, O Son of Strength, all Gods are centred. Indra art thou to man who brings oblation.
2. Aryaman art thou as regardeth maidens mysterious, is thy name, O Self-sustainer. As a kind friend with streams of milk they balm thee what time thou makest wife and lord one-minded. (Rg. 5.3.1&2, G)

Books one and ten also appear to retain the archaic characteristics of the early family books while making a more defined move away from straightforward polytheism. Such a move however, appears to be more in the direction of an impersonal monism as opposed to monotheism. 

This theological shift can be observed when certain sages in book one ask “Which god is Supreme?” From this one could argue that such a question implies that universal creatorship cannot be merely a supreme title attributed to several gods as portrayed in the earlier books; rather, such a notion entails a unique first cause from which all else follows.  Here is an example from the first book of the Rg. Veda:

4.Who hath beheld him as he sprang into being, seen how the boneless one supports the bony?  Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit?  Who approach the man who knows, to ask it?...  

            6. I ask, unknowing, those who know, the sages, as one all ignorant for the sake of     

knowledge.  What was that one who in the unborn’s image hath ‘stablished and fixed firm these world’s six regions?  (Rg. 1.164.4-6)

This appears to be one within a series of rhetorical riddles that provides a motif by which a more coherent doctrine of monistic creation is explicated for the first time in the Rg. Veda.  This expression of the doctrine becomes apparent when the sage Dirghatamas explains: “They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly winged Garutman.  To what is one, sages give many a title; they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.” (Rg. 1.164.46 G)  Reat explains that “The obvious implication of these passages is that the polytheism of the Vedas is worship only of the attributes of one absolute being.” (Reat p. 14)

The status of the gods is further diminished in yet another verse of the same hymn.  In this instance both sustenance and creation are attributed to this unique principle: “From her (Guari, the buffalo) descend in streams the seas of water: thereby the worlds four regions have their being.  Thence flows the imperishable flood, and thence the universe hath life.” (Rg. 1.164.42 G) (Reat p. 14)

There is also another enigmatic, yet interesting hymn that vaguely suggests a relationship of the absolute with consciousness coming very close to approaching the absolute in Vedantic terms where Brahman is conceived as cit (consciousness) as well as sat (being):

20 Two Birds with fair wings, knit with bonds of friendship, in the same sheltering tree have found a refuge.  One of the twain eats the sweet fig-tree's fruitage; the other eating not regardeth only.
21 Where those fine birds hymn ceaselessly their portion of life eternal, and the sacred synods, there is the universe's mighty keeper, who, wise, hath entered into me the simple.
22 The, tree whereon the fine Birds eat the sweetness, where they all rest and procreate their offspring,--Upon its top they say the fig is luscious none gaineth it who knoweth not the Father. (Rg. 1.164.20-22 G)

In order to analyze this passage, Reat refers to the Vedantic interpretation of Sayana, who claims that the two birds symbolize the individual soul (jivatman), which eats, thus experiencing the fruit of karma, and the supreme soul (paramatman) which remains aloof from samsara, both sharing the same body which is represented by the tree. 

Reat argues that this interpretation is doubtful since according Venkata, following Yaska (Nirukta 3.12) the two birds represent Aditi and Soma, or the sun and moon, while the tree serves as a cosmological motif by representing the universal tree. (Reat p. 15)

In consideration of these interpretive inconsistencies he writes that “Nonetheless, it would seem that the overall intent of this Vedic passage is to state a relationship between ‘me the simple,’ the human being and the absolute principle of the universe.” (Reat p. 15)

The hymn does not make any specific reference to the identification of the human consciousness with the absolute principle.  In this regard it may be possible that the Dirghatamas’ hymn conceives of the absolute only in terms of being and the human being.  Here the relationship between human and the absolute is not dealt with in an overtly psychological manner as it occurs in the Upanisads. (Reat p. 16)

Throughout the Rg. Veda, the human being is defined in terms of the divine, either by a servile relationship to the gods or by a deficient participation in the absolute principle.  The Upanisads differ from this by emphasizing the concept of the absolute as consciousness and thus seek to define the absolute in terms of human consciousness.  In such a context the human beings relationship with the absolute becomes one of identity as opposed to deficiency.  This relationship is depicted in the Chandogya Upanisad where the self (atman) is identified with the absolute as brahman:  “This self (atman) of mine that lies deep within my heart-it is smaller than a grain of rice or barley, smaller than a mustard seed, smaller even than a millet grain or a millet kernel; but it is larger than the earth, larger than the intermediate region, larger than the sky, larger even than all these worlds put together…It is Brahman…” (CU 3.14.2-4 Olivelle)

The tenth book of the Rg. Veda offers a more apparent portrayal of a monistic principle.  The hymns in this particular book reveal further ideas that may be implied by a monistic doctrine:

1 In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born only lord of all created beings.
He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?
2 Giver of vital breath, of power and vigour, he whose commandments all the Gods acknowledge -.The Lord of death, whose shade is life immortal. What God shall we adore with our oblation?  (Rg. 10.1212.1-2 G)

Here when the question is asked: “What god shall we adore with our oblation?” it appears that the notion of a monistic principle existing beyond the gods throws into question the nature of the gods and polytheism in general.

The following passage exemplifies what appears to be the search to depict a creative monistic essence which preceded the manifest universe:

1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered it, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was in-discriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of warmth was born that Unit. (Rg. 10.119.7-8)

This is a relatively clear postulation of an absolute unity devoid of particular qualities which was apparently both the efficient and material cause of the universe. (Mahony p. 56)  Despite the monistic implications of this hymn, it appears evident that the latest and more sophisticated hymns take a cosmogonic approach by their expression of the absolute as a creative force that is located at some inaccessible point in the distant past.  Such a description seems to fall short of the Upanisadic notion of a monistic principle that is identified with the essence of the human being.

There are also various passages that describe the exhilarating effect of drinking Soma as making humans like gods.  (Mahony p. 86-87)  Such references however, do not necessarily reflect the psychological character of the Upanisads in Vedic monism, though they may have been used as authoritative referents by later exponents of Vedanta.  (i.e. ‘I am brahman’)  Here are some brief examples of the references made to soma:

7 The heavens and earth themselves have not grown equal to one half of me
Have I not drunk of Soma juice?
8 I in my grandeur I have surpassed the heavens and all this spacious earth
Have I not drunk of Soma juice? (Rg. 10.119.7-8 G)

Reat writes that “This exhilarated state, even if it is taken to be a sort of human divinity, bears no resemblance to the Upanisadic concept of the utterly peaceful and inactive human conciousness which resolves within itself the cosmos without differentiation.” (Reat p. 17)

Despite the Rg. Veda’s lack of an overtly psychological orientation in its approach to the absolute there are two potentially psychological motifs employed in two creation hymns from the tenth book.  The “Purusa Sukta” declares that the universe originated from a cosmic person (purusa) who is said to be “…all this (universe) what has been and is to be.” (Rg. 10.90.2)  Here the unitary cosmological principle is depicted as a person, this is a motif that seems to corresponds with the Upanisadic identification of the self (atman) with the universal principle (brahman): 

1 A thousand heads hath Purusa, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.
On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.
2 This Purusa is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;
The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food.
3 So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusa.
All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.
4 With three-fourths Purusa went up: one fourth of him again was here.
Thence he strode out to every side over what cats not and what cats.

(Rg. 10.90.1-4 G)

Although the creative principle is depicted as a person, the main thrust of this hymn appears to draw a sharp distinction between the divine three fourths that “went up,” and the manifest one fourth that encompasses “what eats not and what eats,” that is both animate and inanimate creation. (Sharma p. 49)  Thus the third stanza of the hymn proclaims: “So mighty is he in his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusa.  All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.” (Rg. 10.90.3 G)

Even though the anthropomorphic metaphor around which the “Purusa Sukta” is built may imply certain psychological overtones corresponding to Vedantic thought, these overtones themselves are not grounded in the actual text of the hymn.  Thus this passage does not make any direct connections between consciousness and the absolute as portrayed throughout the Upanisads. 

It is also insightful to consider the statement in the “Nasadiya Sukta” that desire was the original motive force behind the creation of the universe:

3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this all was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of warmth (tapas) was born that unit.
4 Thereafter arose desire in the beginning, desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent. (Rg. 10.129.3-4)

This passage portrays desire (kama) as a cosmogonic force and thus imparts a psychological tone to this hymn, since the impulse here is said to be desire (a familiar human emotion) occurring in the divine mind. (Reat p. 21)  The Upanisadic portrayal of desire as a cosmogonic force shows similarities to, and differences from the Vedic concepts.  Here is a passage from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad:

1 In the beginning this world was just a single body (atman) shaped like a man…

            3 He found no pleasure at all; so one finds no pleasure when one is alone.  He   wanted to have a companion.  Now he was as large as a man and a woman in          close embrace.  So he split (pat) his body into two, giving rise to husband (pati)    and wife (patni). (BU. 1.4.1-10, Olivelle)

Despite the prominence of the Vedic element of desire in this passage, it differs from the former by its emphasis on the personal nature of the cosmogonic principle.  In the Vedic passage a sexual metaphor is used to portray the cosmogonic principle as being subject to desire much like a lonely human, thus implying that the universe emerged as a result of this need to escape loneliness.  The Upanisadic context of this myth is slightly different in that the creative process becomes intertwined with the human being.  Reat elaborates on this when he writes that, “In the Upanisadic context the process of creation remains contemporary in human desire, and is therefore reversible.” (Reat p. 23)

In this sense the conquering of desire in the upanisads is depicted as a return to a pre-creation state of pristine unity, which was a universal situation before the act of desire had occurred.  Again Reat offers some insight on this issue: “The Upanisadic sages may well have learned the concept of cosmogonic monism from the Vedas, but Upanisadic monism takes on overtly psychological overtones in that the process of creation is seen as an ongoing function of the human mind.” (Reat p. 23)  In this light, Vedic monism takes on a different flavor by its cosmogonic concerns of ontology while Upanisadic monism was primarily psychological in its connection of creation with human consciousness.  

Now that the notions of Vedic monism have been analyzed it would now be appropriate to look at the way the concept of atman is treated in the Rg. Veda.  So far this paper has identified a shift from the vague developments of monotheistic concepts within the predominantly polytheistic cosmology in the early books, to a more clearly articulated monistic ontology described the later books.  In these later books it has been observed that the absolute has been depicted in both anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic terms, which lends a certain psychological character to the nature of the universe that is similar to, but not explicitly identical with, the psychological identification of the absolute with human consciousness in the Upanisads.  It will now be profitable to look at the way in which the concept of atman is used in the Rg. Veda.   

An initial glance at the word atman in the Rg. Veda reveals a concept that takes on many psycho-physical connotations.   In her book The Vedas, Jeanine Miller explains that there are two noteworthy attempts to fix the derivation of the word atman. The root ‘an’, meaning ‘to breath’, and ‘tman’, the old reflexive form meaning ‘self’.  Here she argues that “Both roots point to an essence or essential self, (sard), or (svayam)”.  She explains that “It is this self which the priest, in Rg. Vedic hymns addressed to the medicinal plants, is trying to recall that he might ‘win back’ the departing one’s ‘very self’, atman, to this life.  (Rg. 10.97.4) (Miller p. 192)

She also explains that the most intimate bodily process on which life depends is breathing and henceforth links atman with life breath: “The close connection between, and even identification of, wind, breath and spirit is noticeable throughout antiquity as in the Greek pneuma and the latin anima.” (Miller p. 192)  She backs this argument up by examining the references of atman to wind in the Rg. Veda.  Here she quotes a passage where the wind is called the atman of the god Varuna: ‘“…the wind, thy atman, has sounded through the region.”’ (Miller p. 192: Rg. 7.87.2) 

Other references include: ‘“Praises should be sung to the wind for it is the atman of all.” (Rg. 10.92.13) “The wind, atman of the gods, seed of the world, this god wanders according to his will.  His sounds are heard, his form is not seen.”’ (Miller p. 192:Rg. 10.168.4)  These references appear to attribute a wide range of qualities to atman, some which may seem contradictory.  The last quoted passage refers to atman as the “…seed of the world.” This could imply a connection with the monistic absolute discussed earlier, thus implying an ‘essence’ of the world.  Nonetheless it is also equated with wind, and also breath and prana, which also implies a physiological faculty.  Such all encompassing descriptions of atman make it too easy for scholars to reduce it to simply one element, when in fact the texts portray it as encompassing several elements.  To reduce atman simply to a vital faculty or to limit it to a ‘soul’ or cosmic ‘essence’ involves a distortion of its actual portrayal within the texts.

Reat makes a similar connection between atman and breath, explaining that prana connotes life, wakefulness, and activity. (Reat p. 91)  In this regard he notes that the word ‘vata’ came to designate a “vital air’ or ‘subtle breath’ in later Indian thought, while in the Rg. Veda it seems to denote meteorlogical wind.  Reat claims that in passages where atman is represented as being related to wind, the most obvious translation would be simply breath. He adds that, “Like prana, atman is represented as a vital faculty which, on a macrocosmic scale, corresponds to wind.” (Reat p. 93)  Thus he attempts to reduce the term atman to only one of its many frames of reference.  This becomes problematic as will be shown later on.  

Other Vedic contexts portray atman as a more complex psychological concept than simply a form of prana.  The fundamental connection of atman with respiration signifies a situation which suggests the translation of the Vedic term atman with the English ‘spirit’ because of the etymological connections of spirit and breath.  Thus the term atman-vant (‘having spirit’) apparently means ‘animated living.’ (Reat p. 93)  Reat points out that in various passages where Soma is described as the atman, or ‘spirit’ of the sacrifice (atma-yajnasya), “…the term should probably again be taken as implying an animating principle rather than in the Vedantic sense as ‘essence of the sacrifice.’” (Reat p. 93) 

The problem with this claim is that Reat is splitting hairs.  He does not explain the difference between the notion of an ‘essence’ and an ‘animating principle,’ it is also arguable that essence is an animating principle; if the essence of something is removed, so is the life of the thing itself.  The real problem here is that he is not define what he means by essence; there also does not appear to be any way of gaining conclusive proof that the word atman, even in terms of the English equivalent of ‘spirit’ is reducible to a vital faculty.     

Reat also acknowledges that atman is sometimes referred to in psychological terms, such as a source of joy or a source of torment, or as a repository of strength (balaam); however, he argues that these are uncommon usages of the term.  Instead, he claims that the term atman primarily denotes a subtle form of breath, functioning as an individual vital faculty.  Thus the dependence of atman on food indicates that it was not conceived of in Upanisadic terms as an imperishable essence of an individual.  “This point becomes even clearer in a passage in which the priest, by means of medicinal herbs, seeks to restore the atman of a dying man.” (Reat p. 94)  He also adds that, “The universal atman of the Rg. Veda refers to the life force, the spirit if you will, of the universe, which is conceived of as a living being.” (Reat p. 95) 

This claim is also problematic.  He is right to point out that purely ‘psychological’ references to atman were not predominant in the Rg. Veda; however he founders in his attempt to oversimplify what is otherwise an ambiguous word having a multitude of various referents. Even his reference to the priest restoring the atman of the dying man takes on a trivial nature since one could also argue that it is the man’s ‘essence’ or ‘imperishable’ part of himself that is being returned to the body, not merely the persons vital faculties.

Such an example of the broad range of meanings attributed to atman in the Rg. Veda can be seen in a list compiled by Balder Raj Sharma in his book The Concept of Atman in the Principle Upanisads.  Here he gives a list of the various meanings that have been attributed to the word atman throughout the Rg. Veda; these references include: i) wind (atma vatah), (ii) breath (prana), (iii) oneself (svayam), as standing for a reflexive pronoun, (iv) body (sarira), (v) essence (sara), (vi) controller (dharayiti or sutratman), (vii) eternal and intelligent principle (cetenatman). (Sharma p. 11)  This listing shows the complexity and all encompassing nature of atman as it is used throughout the Rg. Veda.  It would be futile to excogitate a monothetic definition of the term, since its meaning is both complex and context dependent as it occurs throughout the texts; however, it may be fruitful to look at how the emphasis of the word changes and evolves throughout the history and composition of these texts. 

Although Reat is able to provide a unique and in depth analysis of atman, he seems to be too caught up with his agenda of supporting the dual origins theory of Heinrich Zimmer which requires discrediting the Vedic concept of an immortal soul.  He states this claim with the following: “There is no indication in the Rg. Veda of the concept of a unitary and essential human soul which inevitably survives death and establishes one’s identity in the afterlife.” (Reat p. 25) 

I disagree with this claim for a number of reasons.  The main one being that even though the predominant Vedic notions of an afterlife involved the notion of a quasi physical body (tanu) who’s length and quality of life was dependent on ritual (Reat p.63-69), there are also many passages in the Rg. Veda that use the word atman in reference to a part of a person that is either not affected by bodily harm, or is able to transcend time and space.  Such references indicate how the Rg. Vedic term atman cannot be accurately pigeon holed or reduced to any one of its many referents.  

In his book Upanisadic Symbolism,  Satya Prakash Singh identifies atman as the key Indian word for the centre of the personality.  Singh explains that the word atman as a reflexive pronoun stands for the psychophysical organism which one feels oneself to be ordinarily; however, he also points out that the Samhitas contain notions of atman that go beyond the concepts of a mere psycho-physical organism when he writes: “This is the lowest rung on the ladder of self realization.  As is evident from the following, this stage has been left behind by this Samhita.” (Singh p. 56)

Singh explores several passages from the Samhita section of the Rg. Veda in order to illustrate references to the term atman that do not fit as neatly into the psycho-physical box as those examples offered by Ross Reat.  One such example can be found in the horse sacrifice hymn, where the horse is consoled that his dear self (atman) would not suffer pain caused by the knife falling on his body:

20 Let not thy dear soul burn thee as thou comest, let not the hatchet linger in thy body. Let not a greedy clumsy immolator, missing the joints, mangle thy limbs unduly.

21 No, here thou diest not, thou art not injured: by easy paths unto the Gods thou goest. Both bays, both spotted mares are now thy fellows, and to the ass's pole is yoked the Charger. (Rg. 1.162.20)

In this passage it appears that the soul (atman) of the horse takes on more of a ‘psychic’ character when the hymn explains that the horse’s atman will not be harmed. In this sense the passage refers to an imperishable element of the horse such as when it counsels the horse, saying “…here though diest not, thou art not injured: by easy paths unto the Gods thoug goest.” (Rg. 1.162.20)

Another hymn also supports this ‘psychic’ aspect of atman in reference to the horse sacrifice.  In one of the asvamadha mantras, the seer practically claims to have visualized through his mind the atman of the horse while on its way to heaven:

6 Thyself from far I recognized in spirit,--a Bird that from below flew through the heaven. I saw thy head still soaring, striving upward by paths unsoiled by dust, pleasant to travel. (Rg. 1.163.6)

Another reference to the ‘psychic’ aspect of atman can be found in the hymn to Agni in regard to the dying person whose eye is said to go to the sun and his atman to the air: “The Sun receive thine eye, the Wind thy spirit; go, as thy merit is, to earth or heaven.” (Rg. 10.16.3)  Singh interprets this hymn as indicating atman to be “…an airy substance separable from the body and surviving its fall.” (Singh p. 57)

Singh also acknowledges various analogies made between atman and air in the same Samhita. (Rg. 1.34.7)  He explains that in certain contexts the word atman signified to the Vedic seer the basic principle of life which was identified as prana surviving the fall of the body.  He writes that the association of atman with air may be taken to suggest that atman has a close relationship with air.  However, this association does not necessarily reduce atman to air itself, nor does such an association necessarily mean that air is the essence of atman. (Singh p. 57)  He supports this insight when he writes that “…there are some other cases in which atman has been used in the sense of spirit or the basic principle of existence.  Thus, for instance, in one of the mantras, the seer claims to dispel the atman or spirit of the disease yaksma as soon as he takes certain herbs in his hand.” (Singh p. 58)

This particular use of the word atman occurs in the tenth book of the Rg. Veda: “When, bringing back the vanished strength, I hold these herbs within my hand. The spirit of disease departs ere he can seize upon the life.” (10.97.11)  Here, the notion of atman as spirit connotes essence, since a person would not want just the ‘vital faculties’ of the disease to leave the body: they would want the entire disease, its ‘essence’, or ‘spirit’ to leave the body. 

There are some other hymns where atman appears to be portrayed as something more than a vital faculty or function such as ‘air’, ‘breath’, or ‘prana’.  In the hymn to Indra such a notion of atman is described as a human fact when the character Vamadeva decares himself to have been Manu, Surya, seer Kaksivat, Poet Usanas, to have acted as several of the gods including Indra, and to have understood the secret of the birth of the gods while himself yet in the womb. (Rg. 4.26.27)  Singh suggests the implications of atman as the human self in this hymn with the following: “…it all amounts to the realization of the immensity, all-pervasiveness and universal creativity of the Atman from within the petty reflexive atman of an individual.” (Singh p. 59)

A similar account of an all pervasive sense of identity is depicted in the Vak hymn:

1I travel with the Rudras and the Vasus, with the Adityas and all-Gods I wander. I hold aloft both Varuna and Mitra, Indra and Agni, and the Pair of Asvins.
2 I cherish and sustain high-swelling Soma, and Tvastar, I support Pusan, and Bhaga. I load with wealth the zealous sacrificer who pours the juice and offers his oblation
4 Through me alone all eat the food that feeds them,-each man who sees, breathes, hears the word outspoken. They know it not, but yet they dwell beside me. Hear, one and all, the truth as I declare it.

Here it seems that the seer has identified himself with the ontological principle of the universe, since the seer is claiming his or her self (atman) to be the basis upon which gods, humans and all things are sustained.  This identity with a timeless sustaining principle is also affirmed when the seer proclaims that “…I hold together all existence.” (Rg. 10.125)

            These references to atman in the Rg. Veda are scant in comparison to the extant funeral hymns dealing with notions of tanu, a quasi material body that is supposed to perpetuate ones individual identity; these hymns emphasis the importance of maintaining one’s tanu and the attainment of a heavenly afterlife through proper the use of rituals. (Reat p. 63-69)  Unlike the later Upanisads, the Rg. Veda does not make any direct reference to rebirth, and spiritual release, and the term atman is generally portrayed in a more psycho-physical sense as pointed out by Reat.  However these latter references to atman indicate that its occurrence in the Rg. Veda is complicated and eludes any reductive interpretations.  Therefore instead of arguing that there was no concept of an immortal soul in the Rg. Veda; it would be more accurate to emphasis that there was no clear articulation of an immortal soul, although the idea is suggested in some passages. 

            This paper has also identified the development of a vague sense of monotheism within an otherwise polytheistic framework, leading to a clearer formulation of ontological monism in the later first and tenth book. It has also been shown that the monism in the Rg. Veda differed by its emphasis on the cosmogonic character of the absolute acting as creative force in a distant past, while the Upanisads placed more emphasis on the psychological relation between the absolute and human consciousness.  It is possible from this analysis to conclude that the real difference between the Rg. Vedic and Upanisadic conceptions depend not so much on the concepts found within them, but more on the concepts they put emphasis on.  Such can be seen with the term atman which is described both in ‘psychic’ and psycho-physical terms in the Rg. Veda and the Upanisads; however, the Upanisads focus more on atman as an eternal essence identical to the absolute, while the Rg. Veda places predominant emphasis on its psyco-physical features.