The question itself is not new. Throughout the history of mankind, man has deliberated about his true identity. However, the term ‘Self ’ has been used and interpreted in different ways by various cultures and religions. Even the modern psychologists and philosophers have different and sometimes contradictory views about the true identity of ‘ Self ’. All these views and explanations only manage to confuse the reader’s mind and lead to more questions then answers.
So, let us try to simplify things here and consider only a singular integrated perspective.
I will start with the term ‘I’…
What does this term ‘I’ denote? ‘I’ who is at the centre of all of one’s very own sensory experiences, beliefs, likes — dislikes, motivations, joys and sorrows!
— ‘Is it the physical body?’
No, I am not this physical body!
Nor am I the five organs of senses. I am not the five organs of external activity also. Because, even if you take away any one or more of these, I still exist.
— ‘Is it the mind, then?’
No, I am not even the thinking mind.
Nor am I the five vital forces (the vital forces which control respiration circulation etc).
Because, I exist while asleep. Even in the state of medically induced coma where under the influence of anaesthetic drugs patient achieves a state of unconsciousness, the lungs continue to breathe and the heart continues to pump, but the patient has no cognitive awareness. I still remain intact and survive!
So, if I am not this nor that! then who am I ? Is there any such thing as an ‘I’? What if this is just an illusion, a mistaken belief?
— One of the most well known views on this question came in 17th century from french philosopherRene Descartes. Widely accepted as the father of modern Western philosophy, he contended that above everything else, he was a thinking thing. He argued that it’s through thinking that Identity emerges. Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I Exist.
So, Descartes proved that I exist and I am not an illusion.
and if through Thoughts the identity of ‘Self’ emerges then the existence of I should be found on a metaphysical plane.
Sigmund Freud who is known as the father of psychoanalysis and one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers put forward the theory of psychoanalysis which takes us closure to our goal. The theory states that our personality develops from the interactions among the three fundamental structures of the human mind: the id, ego, and superego.
Let us try to understand this theory by a simple example: Suppose you walked past a stranger eating ice cream. The id ( the most primitive of the three, it is concerned with instant gratification of basic physical needs and urges) would most likely try to take the ice cream for itself. However, your superego will come into action and try to stop you from doing something that is wrong according to your belief (the superego is concerned with social rules and morals — ‘the conscience! ). Your superego develops as a child while you learn what your culture and society considers right and wrong.
In contrast to the instinctual id and the moral superego, the ego is the rational, pragmatic part of our personality. It is less primitive than the id and is partly conscious and partly unconscious. It’s what Freud considered to be the “self ” and its job is to balance the demands of the id and superego in the practical context of reality.
So, if you walked past the stranger with ice cream one more time, your ego would mediate the conflict between your id (“I want that ice cream right now”) and superego (“It’s wrong to take someone else’s ice cream”) and decide to go buy your own ice cream.
— According to Freud ‘ I ' may be ‘ego’ — a distinct metaphysical part of our conscience which makes the decisions for us.
- Over the years, Freud attracted many followers who adapted and modified his theories to create new theories of personality.
The most famous of these Neo-Freudians is Carl Jung.
Carl Gustav Jung rejected the notion of Freud that the human mind is a blank slate at birth to be written on solely by experience. He postulated that the human mind retains fundamental, unconscious, biological aspects from the ancestors. He argued that these behavioural patterns called ‘archetypes’ serve as a basic foundation of how to be human.
According to Jung the ‘Self’ is an archetype that represents the unified unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual. It balances the ego ( the known or conscious side of the personality) and shadow ( the unknown dark side of the person). This Self or ‘I’ is the center of the psyche ( our persona or intellect) to which the other parts of the psyche are connected and subordinate.
It is a transcendent, unchanging part of ourselves, in contrast to the ever-varying and evolving ego, shadow, complexes, etc. Although Jung was criticized for it but he did call the ‘Self ’ the “God within us” in his famous work — ‘Psychology and Religion’.
Jung further explained that in addition to being a symbol of God in the psyche, the Self could also be considered a symbol of what the religions call the “soul.” Jung believed that this journey of recognizing this transcendental part of our being, which he called individuation (‘Self realization’ )is at the heart of all religions.
— In other words Jung hinted that ‘I’ or Self is a phenomenon at the centre of our existence. It is a transcendent, unchanging part of ourselves, and each individual is born with it.
Fine! Now we know for sure that a transcendental and omnipresent ‘I’ exists which is altogether different from the physical body of a person. That’s why even when the body is born, grows, ages, and sooner-or-later dies, I continues to exist. But, what are the characteristics of the ‘Self ’? Do we acquire it through learning and experiences or we are born with it?
What will we found if we explored the nature of Self…
— Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) was the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and a world spokesperson for Vedanta. Most of the ‘Vedanta’ Societies in America and Europe can trace their origins to him.
Swami Vivekananda spoke of three types of Gunas or ‘ self ’ archetypes.
1. The lowest ones are the tamasikas, the bound(bound by the worldly joys and sorrows).
2. Then there are the rajasikas, the egotistical, who talk always about “I,” “I.” They do good work sometimes and may become spiritual.
3. The highest are the sattvikas, the introspective, those who live only in the Self.
These three qualities — tamas, rajas, and sattva — are in everyone, and different ones predominate at different times. What we call God is really only the Self, from which we have separated ourselves and which we worship as outside us; but it is our true Self, all the time, the one and only God.
But surprisingly, the best answer to our question is found in an ancient scripture by the name of ‘Atma Shatakam’ ( six verses about who am I ! ) written by the Hindu philosopher and great teacher — Adi Shankaracharya. According to the legend, the future Shankaracharya, while only a young boy of eight, was wandering in the Himalayas, seeking to find his guru, when he encountered a sage who asked him, “Who are you?” The boy answered with these stanzas, which are known as “Nirvana Shatakam” or “Atma Shatakam.” — summarizing the basic teachings of Advaita Vedanta, or the Hindu teachings of non-dualism. It was later written around 8th century CE.
I will end with the English translation of the last 2 of the 6 famous verses…
Who am I?
- I do not have fear of death, as I do not have death. I have no separation from my true self, no doubt about my existence, nor have I discrimination on the basis of birth. I have no father or mother, nor did I have a birth. I am not the relative, nor the friend, nor the guru, nor the disciple.
Who am I?
- I am all pervasive. I am without any attributes, and without any form. I have neither attachment to the world, nor to liberation. I have no wishes for anything because I am everything, everywhere, every time, always in equilibrium.
Who am I?
I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, the auspicious (Shiva), love and pure consciousness.
And in this answer lies the message that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goal. Our main task, is to discover and fulfill our deep, innate potential. Life is nothing but a journey to meet the ‘Self ’ and in the process to meet the Divine.