In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anātman

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Texts
  • The Early Buddhist Context
  • No-Self in Early Buddhism
  • The Doctrine of the Person
  • Vasubandhu’s Refutation
  • No-Self in Later Indian Buddhism
  • Reactions of Different Brāhmaṇical-Hindu Schools
  • No-Self in Central and East Asian Buddhism
  • Comparative Studies
  • Modern Interpretations

Buddhism Anātman
K.T.S. Sarao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0193


The term ātman (Pāli. attā/atta) is often translated into English as “self, soul, or ego.” As compared to this, anātman (Pāli. anattā), which is the antonym of ātman, may be translated into English as “no-self, no-soul, no-ego.” Due to its non-acceptance of the existence of ātman, Buddhism is sometimes referred to as anātmavāda (Pāli. anattavāda i.e., “the teaching of no-self”). After the death of the Buddha, due to conflicting interpretations within the Buddhist monastic order (saṃgha) as well as differences of the Buddhists with the non-Buddhists, many powerful and compelling arguments were produced by Buddhist scholastic communities of India to support the view that the “self” or “person” (Pāli. puggala, Skt. pudgala), conceived as an enduring entity, simply does not exist and that everything is a succession and in flux, there being nothing that is substantial or permanent. However, the notion of the person gave rise to many problems that Buddhist philosophers of the later period attempted to resolve. One line of thinking within the Buddhist community of philosophers, for instance, appears to have advocated the “doctrine of the person” (Pāli. Puggalavāda, Skt. Pudgalavāda) implying that a substantial self may indeed exist. Now as the Buddhist notion of anātman is becoming better known, more and more contemporary scholars have begun to hint at the ostensible parallels between Western and Buddhist methods applied to unravel the mysteries of the self and personal identity. The Buddhist concept of anātman is inextricably linked with many other aspects of early Buddhist teaching such as skandhas (Pāli: khandhas. aggregates), nāma-rūpa (name-and-form), pratītyasamutpāda (Pāli: paṭiccasamuppāda. dependent arising), anitya (Pāli: anicca. impermanence), duḥkha (Pāli: dukkha. suffering), karma (Pāli: kamma), rebirth, and nirvananirvāṇa. Further, in Mahāyāna thought this concept was enlarged to encompass śūnyatā (Pāli: suññatā. emptiness), ālayavijñāna (ground consciousness), and tathāgatagarbha (buddha-nature). In other words, no scholarly study of the Buddhist concept of anātman can be satisfactorily accomplished without fully comprehending the aforementioned. The present bibliography does not deal with these concepts that have been dealt with extensively elsewhere.

General Overviews

The doctrine of the self, first formulated in the Upaniṣads (or perhaps in the Greater Magadhan culture as suggested by Bronkhorst 2007), has remained fundamental to Indian thought. Thus, discussion of Buddhist perceptions of the self and personal identity can only take place with reference to the pre-Buddhist background of these notions in India. This can be found in Bhattacharya 1998, Ganeri 2007, Hulin 1978, Kapstein 2001 (cited under Vasubandhu’s Refutation), and Radhakrishnan 1931. The Upaniṣads, some of which are pre-Buddhist, assume that there is an ātman in one’s personality that is permanent (leaving the impermanent body at death), immutable, omnipotent, and free from sorrow. For instance, the Chāndogya Upaniṣad points out that the ātman is “free from old age, from death and grief, hunger and thirst.” According to the Kaṭha Upaniṣad, the ātman can be separated from the body like the sword from its scabbard, or the stalk from the muñja grass and it can travel at will away from the body, especially in sleep. Main doctrines of Buddhism and historical background to them are available in Gethin 1998 (cited under the Early Buddhist Context) and Gowans 2003. An overall picture of the notion of anātman can be seen in Sarao 2003.

  • Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar. Some Thoughts on Early Buddhism with Special Reference to Its Relation to the Upaniṣads. Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1998.

    While arguing that the Buddhist doctrine of anattā does not imply a negation of the Upaniṣadic ātman, Bhattacharya makes a forceful presentation of the Upaniṣadic thinking about ātman.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004157194.i-416

    Points out that in the Greater Magadhan spiritual culture the self was primarily thought of as the inactive core of a living being that, due to its inactivity, offered a way out of the cycle of rebirth determined by karmic retribution. As compared to this, the early Upaniṣads present the self in a way that suits Vedic speculations about the homology of macrocosm and microcosm.

  • Ganeri, Jonardon. The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    Presents different viewpoints on the nature of the self as visualized in various Indian philosophical traditions. By authoritatively examining the ancient Indian texts, Ganeri shows that besides many contemporary theories of the self having been both predicted and developed sophisticatedly, these writings offer many other yet unexplored notions about the self. Also see its review by R. Martin in Mind 117.468 (2008):1072–1075.

  • Hulin, Michel. Le Principe de l’ego dans la pensée indienne classique: La notion d’ahaṃkāra. Paris: Collège de France, Institut de civilisation Indienne, 1978.

    Examines the notion of ahaṃkāra in depth in ancient India, including Buddhism.

  • Gowans, C. W. Philosophy of the Buddha: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2003.

    The basics of the philosophy of Buddhism, including doctrines of karma, rebirth, no-self, and nirvaṇa are explained in clear, concise, and readable English. This is an excellent textbook for introductory courses on Indian and Buddhist philosophy.

  • Radhakrishnan, S. Indian Philosophy. 2d rev. ed. Vol. 1. London: Allen and Unwin, 1931.

    Long acknowledged as a classic, chapter 4 deals with philosophy of the Upaniṣads.

  • Sarao, K. T. S. “Anātman/Ātman (No-self/Self).” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Edited by Robert Buswell, 18–20. New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003.

    General outline of the Buddhist perception of no-self.

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