Atmashatakam – Our Identity

Age is no barrier to the quest for knowledge and a deeper realisation of our innate selves. Adi Shankaracharya, the consolidator of the Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) philosophy proved this over a thousand years ago. When he was only eight years of age, he was by the Narmada River. He was approached by a man who would go on to become his Guru (teacher/ spiritual master). The Guru asked him a question, “Who are you?”

To this, Adi Shankaracharya replied with six verses, which came to be known as the Atmashatakam (or Nirvana Shatakam). Very articulately, he introduced the true self (the soul), that resides in all living entities, as follows:

mano buddhi ahankara chittani naaham
na cha shrotravjihve na cha ghraana netre
na cha vyoma bhumir na tejo na vaayuhu
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory,
I am not the senses of perception (the ears, tongue, skin, nose or the eyes),
I am not the five elements (space, earth, fire, water or wind),
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva…

na cha prana sangyo na vai pancha vayuhu
na va sapta dhatur na va pancha koshah
na vak pani-padam na chopastha payu
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I am not energy or the breath, nor the five functions of breath (Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana),
I am not the body composed of the seven bodily tissues or matter (Rasa, Rakta, Mamsa, Meda, Asthi, Majja, Sukhra or Arthava), nor am I the five sheaths of consciousness (Annamayakosha, Pranamayakosha, Manomayakosha, Vijnanamayakosha, Anandamayakosha)
Nor am I the organs of action, being speech, the hands, or the feet,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva…

na me dvesha ragau na me lobha mohau
na me vai mado naiva matsarya bhavaha
na dharmo na chartho na kamo na mokshaha
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

There is no like or dislike in me, no greed or delusion,
I know not pride, arrogance or jealousy,
I have no need for prescribed conduct or duty; I do not seek wealth; I have no need for desire (lust, obsession) nor do I seek liberation,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva…

na punyam na papam na saukhyam na duhkham
na mantro na tirtham na veda na yajnah
aham bhojanam naiva bhojyam na bhokta
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I need no virtue (righteousness) nor vice (sin), no pleasure nor sorrow,
I need no mantras, no pilgrimage, no sacred scriptures nor any rituals,
I am not the entity experiencing the material aspects of life, nor am I the experience itself,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva…

na me mrtyu shanka na mejati bhedaha
pita naiva me naiva mataa na janmaha
na bandhur na mitram gurur naiva shishyaha
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I have no fear of death, no doubts, nor do I have any caste or creed,
I have no father, no mother, for I was never born,
I have no relatives, friends, teachers or students, nor am I any of this to others,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva…

aham nirvikalpo nirakara rupo
vibhut vatcha sarvatra sarvendriyanam
na cha sangatham naiva muktir na meyaha
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I am devoid of duality; I am not my thoughts nor my imagination; I have no attributes or material form for I am formless,
I am all pervading, exist everywhere and pervade all senses,
I have neither attachment to this world (or anything within it), nor desire for liberation,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal Shiva!

Over a decade ago, the first time when I came to understand this meaning, I remember thinking “wow, what an introduction!” It emphasised for me how conditioned we have become to the material world such that we link our identity so much to our name, body, position, wealth, status and titles. It is true that these are the instruments through which we experience life, but it is equally a matter of fact that this is all impermanent, transient and subject to change or destruction at any time without notice.

Adi Shankaracharya identified himself with that which is permanent and indestructible, the soul which he calls ‘Shiva’. Shiva is a name used to refer to a higher consciousness, or the supreme consciousness. The soul is described as ‘nirgun’ meaning that which is so unique that it is beyond any characteristics or description, and ‘nirakara’ meaning that it is beyond any material manifestation; it is formless. That is why Adi Shankaracharya had to relate this identity by quite extensively detailing what it is not. He identified the soul by identifying what it is not. This is quite an important virtue of this work.

When we are clear on what we don’t want and what we are not, it brings us closer to knowing and realising what we do want and what we truly are. Personally, I find this ability of discernment to be an invaluable life skill that is intricately linked to our intuitive power to make the right decisions in all facets of life, ensuring that we do not fall into the traps of confusion, indecisiveness and insecurity.    

As conscious beings, when we venture on the journey of identifying our life’s purpose or self-realisation, the Atmashatakam tells us that the journey is one that is within; the element of divinity waiting to be realised is in fact within us.

It’s my great privilege to be able to learn and share the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya. Namaste, thank you, and hope you enjoyed the read.