Jung's "Self," Hindu Atman and Buddhist Anatta | Madhu Bazaz Wangu
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Jung’s “Self,” Hindu Atman and Buddhist Anatta

Jung’s “Self,” Hindu Atman and Buddhist Anatta


The noted psychoanalyst Carl Jung has contemporized the concepts of soul and spirit with his theories of the “Self.” His work on individuation and the “Self” have amazing parallels with atman of the Gita and anatta of the Dhammapada.

Jung studied the working of the human mind with meticulous detail and declared that the majority of us do not have complete knowledge of our mind. Workings of the human psyche, (conscious and unconscious mind) is as complex as the workings of our body. When we say ‘I know-myself’ we mean we know our conscious (ego) self only; we do not know our unconscious. The ego is only a small part of the psyche. The unconscious mind is hidden from us. It is hidden the same way as the anatomical and physiological workings of our body are hidden. Jung recommended that we pay all the attention we can to our unconscious.

According to Jung our psychic system has an organizing center, the inner source. He called it the “Self.” When our life is out of balance the “Self” sends signals in dreams in the form of symbols so that we can do something about centering ourselves. We also receive the signals from the unconscious as instincts, hunches, intuitions and synchronicities. Each is a spontaneous product of the psyche with which the “Self” hints at something we need to pay attention to.

When the ego (conscious) is willing to listen to the messages of the “Self,” the “Self” becomes more real. In order to progress spiritually an individual must train his ego to “listen” attentively to the “Self.” The individual who is attentive to the signs and signals from the unconscious feels guided by them. He develops an ability to find his way not only in the inner world but in the outer world as well. At some point, in the life of the self-aware individual, the ego encounters the “Great Man” within, blissfully merges into it, and becomes a national hero or a spiritual teacher.

Throughout the ages men have been intuitively aware of the existence of the “Self.” It is represented as an “inner companion,” “intimate friend,” or the “Great Man.” In Buddhism the “Self” is projected as the Buddha, in Hinduism as Krishna.

According to the Gita, at the core of each individual is a spark of the divine-atman. Through its eighteen chapters it discusses atman as dormant deep within. Hidden and unknown to most people, it is unsullied by the activities of the body. It is always at peace with whatever storms go on outside.

An unwise person is unaware of atman, and has no spiritual guidance. He follows his ego and thinks he “knows” himself. With uncontrolled mind and untrained senses he is like a wildly flickering flame in a storm. The wise person, on the other hand, is like a steady flame in a windless place. For such a person atman is a friend and a guide. Just like Krishna is to Arjuna in the Gita. In the tenth chapter Krishna says, I am atman, the “Self” seated in the heart of all beings. He calls himself the inner guide and companion that can be experienced by deep devotion and by plunging deep into meditation.

The Buddha contradicted the basic principle of a divine core within humans. When asked about atman, he kept the Golden Silence. He simply said to look within and explore for yourself what you will find. He taught to put an end to the ego with the earnest effort in meditation and to rely solely on oneself and seek no other support. He taught that self-reliance is a practical spiritual tool and that one’s permanent ground of being is one’s own self.

The Dhammapada says that what lies deep within each one of us is untapped source of great energy. By staying in touch with it, it puts us on an inner path of spiritual growth. When our rational mind and the guide within work in unison, life becomes meaningful. The twelfth chapter of the Dhammapada says, “Guard yourself diligently,” “Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself,” and “Your own self is your master who else could be?” This teaching of the Buddha is called anatman or anatta meaning no-atman. Here the Buddha is talking not about traditional self such as in ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ but about what Jung meant by the “Self.” The principle is strikingly similar to that of Jung’s “Self.”
The Buddha had intuitively figured out that self-understanding, self-will and self-development leads to self-maturation. “With yourself well controlled, you gain a master very hard to find.”

In summary, Jung’s “Self,” Gita’s atman and the Buddha’s oneself ultimately mean the same thing. The significant teaching is that we must pay heed to this ground of our being. Some time when we think logically and are ready to make a decision a feeling urges us to do otherwise. This is our unconscious sending a signal to follow our heart. The concepts of atman, individual self and psychic “Self” suggest that in humans there is an unchanging, everlasting and absolute inner source that is interdependent, that guides us on our life’s spiritual path. Stop and listen!

The survival of the self depends on “Self,” the spiritual source of being. When we meditate, pray or worship we may address a being outside ourselves but the “kingdom of heaven” is within us. The divine power dwells in the depths of our consciousness. It is our true nature.

Suggested Reading:
The Undiscovered Self, C. G. Jung, (translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull), A Signet Book. 2006.

Man and his Symbols, Carl G. Jung (edited after his death M.-L. von Franz), A Windfall Book, Doubleday & Company Inc., New York. 1964.

What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1974. (1st Pub. 1959)

Dhammapada, Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, California. Second Edition, 2008 (1st Pub. 1985).

The Bhagavad Gita, Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, California. Second Edition, 2008 (1st Pub. 1985).

1 Comment
  • Dr.Indu KapoorM.D.

    My Dear Madhu,
    An excellent comparative analysis of the three great philosophies and thoughts.
    I must have missed reading this write up earlier (in August ), being very close to May 22nd 2010 ,my saddest day .
    I found whole write up, very well analised in addition it also answered a number of my questions.Thanks.
    Good work.Lots of love. Chotti.

    March 2, 2011 at 2:55 am

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