The Self: Who are we?

Sanskrit Terms for Self: Definition and Use in Sacred Literature of the Vedas
There are two basic words for self in Sanskrit, the original language of India, as well as the language of philosophers and theologians there today. The first term is ātmā or ātman, and the second is jīva or, both words combined as jīvātman. The former word is defined as: “1. the soul; the individual soul, 2. self; oneself” (Apte, 1988, p.78). The latter’s definition, derived from the root jīv, “to live,” is: “1. the principle of life, the vital breath, life, soul, 2. the individual or personal soul enshrined in the human body and imparting to it life, motion and sensation, 3. life, existence, 4. a creature, living being” (Apte, 1988, p. 221).

Satsvarūpa (1977) sums up the definition of jīva, “The verbal root jīiv means “to live, be, or the noun jīva refers to the individual living being, or soul. According to the Vedic analysis, the living being (jīva) is separate from the body, yet, within each and every body (including those of men, beasts, and birds) an individual soul (jīva) resides. Individual consciousness is the symptom of the jīva’s presence” (p.26).

These two terms are used in context throughout the sacred literature called the Veda, as well as in philosophical treatises which expand or comment upon these. Among these, the most universally studied among many schools of thought is the Bhagavad-gītā (also referred to simply as the gītā). Although scholars wrangle over various dates, according to the text itself the conversation recorded therein would have taken place slightly more than 5,000 years ago. The ātma is described there in the following way: “yathā sarva-gataṁ saukṣmyād, ākāśaṁ nopalipyate, sarvatrāvasthito dehe, tathātmā nopalipyate, (word for word) yathā—as; sarva-gatam—all-pervading; saukṣmyāt—due to being subtle; ākāśam—the sky; na—never; upalipyate—mixes; sarvatra—everywhere; avasthitaḥ—situated; dehe—in the body; tathā—so; ātmā—the self; na—never; upalipyate—mixes. (translation) The sky, due to its subtle nature, does not mix with anything, although it is all-pervading. Similarly, the soul situated in Brahman vision does not mix with the body, though situated in that body” (chapter 13, text 33).

As for the term jīva, we find the following reference: “mamaivāṁśo jīva-loke, jīva-bhūtaḥ sanātanaḥ, manaḥ-ṣaṣṭhānīndriyāṇi, prakṛti-sthāni karṣati (word for word) mama—My; eva—certainly; aṁśaḥ—fragmental particle; jīva-loke—in the world of conditional life; jīva-bhūtaḥ—the conditioned living entity; sanātanaḥ—eternal; manaḥ—with the mind; ṣaṣṭhāni—the six; indriyāṇi—senses; prakṛti—in material nature; sthāni—situated; karṣati—is struggling hard. (translation) The living entities in this conditioned world are My eternal fragmental parts. Due to conditioned life, they are struggling very hard with the six senses, which include the mind.” (chapter 15, verse 7).

The self is, according to the gītā, the essential living being, a part of God, who is different from the body and mind, although struggling with them. A realized self ceases to struggle because of no longer identifying with this body and mind. Rather, a jīva in spiritual consciousness knows itself to be of a godly nature. This mentality is described in an older Veda, the Īśopaniṣad. There, it is stated, with reference to the ātma, “One who always sees all living entities as spiritual sparks, in quality one with the Lord, becomes a true knower of things. What, then, can be illusion or anxiety for him?” (Mantra seven).

Ancient Philosophers
The relation of the self to the body and mind is that the self animates the body. Kapila, living before the gītā was recorded, is one of many philosophical teachers whose conversations with disciples form parts of the Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, transferred from oral history to written form soon after the gītā was also written down. He explains, “Under the supervision of the Supreme Lord and according to the result of its work, the living entity, the soul, is made to enter into the womb of a woman through the particle of male semen to assume a particular type of body” (canto 3, chapter 31, text 1). “In this way the living entity gets a suitable body with a material mind and senses, according to its fruitive activities. When the reaction of its particular activity comes to an end, that end is called death, and when a particular type of reaction begins, that beginning is called birth” (canto 3, chapter 31, text 44).

How the self becomes entangled with the body, taking its pains and pleasures as its own, is thoroughly explained by Bharata, another ancient sage. His taught that the real life of the self is spiritual. A person who understands this position does not feel bodily pains and pleasures as being part of the self at all, any more than one would accept a dream as ultimate reality. He explained that the mind and body are coverings for the self, acquired because of desire. How the soul manages the mind determines whether, to what extent, and in what way the self identifies with the body and therefore feels the pains and pleasures of the body as its own. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, canto 5, chapter 11, texts 1-17)

The Principal Philosophers in the Vedic Schools of Thought
All philosophers who reference Vedic texts as authoritative distinguish both between the self and the mind, and between the self and the body. Within that broad mutual understanding of the self, however, exist quite different ways of thinking among philosophers which lead to variant worldviews. For example, although the gītā, accepted by all followers of the Vedas, clearly states that the jīva or self is a separated part of God, there was one famous thinker who taught a philosophy of monism, positing that all selves are essentially one with each other and with God. Śaṅkarācārya, or Śaṅkarā (788-820), is the founder of the Advaita philosophy, which, in the West, is often taken to be the main understanding of what is considered as Hinduism, even though it represents a deviation from the original tradition and by no means is the understanding of a majority of those who follow the Vedas. Śaṅkara took strict vows of asceticism at the age of eight. He taught that there is ultimately only the existence of pure spirit, Brahman. All concepts of an individual self are due to ignorance. The plurality of jīvas, which seem obvious to our ordinary experience, are simply designations, or names that are neither real nor unreal. The appearance of many selves can be explained like the one sky appearing inside many pots or the one moon reflected in many ocean waves. In both cases there is only one; the appearance of many is an illusion. (Purusatraya, 1993, pp. 6-7)

Śaṅkara’s philosophy is known as nondualistic because he said that the jīva is identical with God. Although there are many Vedic statements which say the Absolute Truth is Supreme Person and the jīvas is subordinate, a part of God, Śaṅkara‘s idea is that jīvas are themselves the Absolute Truth. Therefore, according to him there is ultimately no variety or individuality in spiritual existence. (Satsvarūpa, 1977, p. 49) Śaṅkara’s ideas show up in various forms and permutations far beyond his own homeland and very short life.

Living in South India, Rāmānuja (1017-1137) strongly countered Śaṅkara’s teachings. If all concepts of an individual self are due to ignorance or false designation, as Śaṅkara taught, then, Rāmānuja explained, ignorance must also be real. But if real, then non-dualism becomes dualism because both spirit (Brahman) and ignorance would co-exist. If ignorance is unreal, we are driven to self-contradiction or infinite regress. Śaṅkara taught that knowledge would destroy the illusion that the self exists and, through knowledge, a person would again merge into oneness; Rāmānuja said that knowledge does not destroy what is real, but reveals it. (Introducing Vedanta, section: The Seven Impossible Tenets) Rāmānuja sees knowledge as an attribute of the jīva. Knowledge is the essence of the self and the self has knowledge as well. Although the self is eternal and unchangeable, its knowledge is subject to change. Mundane knowledge comes into being when the mind and senses come into contact with objects of the world. But spiritual knowledge always exists with the self, although it may be dormant when the self is in a conditioned state. (Purusatraya, 1993, pp.15-16)

Rāmānuja taught that the body is an instrument for the jīvas who either live eternally in a spiritual form or in the material world in a form made of gross elements. Every living body has an ātmā, including the bodies of plants and animals. It is the self who experiences events; the body acquired by karma, or works done in previous lives, determines the kind of experiences the self goes through. Because the self always has a body whether material or spiritual , self and body are inseparable, although they are different. (Satsvarūpa, 1977, p. 51)

“Although it is the philosophical work of Rāmānuja that marks the first major attack on the non-dualist Vedanta, historically it is the dualist school of Madhva that provided the most determined and resolute opposition to the Advaitins (of Śaṅkara)” (Introducing Vedanta, section: Madhva) . Madhva (1239–1319) “maintained that although the jīvas are superior to matter, they are distinct from the Lord and are His servitors. Whereas the Lord is independent, the jīvas are totally dependent on Him. … In addition, Madhva explained that each person molds his own karma , and that through bhakti one can eliminate all his karma and return to his original position of serving the Lord in the eternal spiritual world” (Satsvarūpa, 1977, pp. 51-52).

In his work, Viṣṇu-tattva-vinirṇāya, Madhva defines the self as that to which a person refers when he or she says, “I.” It is the self or jīva who feels happiness or misery, who is subject to repeated births within material bodies, and it is the self who can finally get liberation by the process of loving God. The state of the self in liberation, he explains, is not as a formless point or colorless being, but as an individual with a transcendent form, name, and characteristics. (Purusatraya, 1993, p. 40)

Madhva differs from Rāmānuja in some important ways. Madhva defines the selves as images of God; Rāmānuja as exactly like God but of smaller size and limited creativity. (Introducing Vedanta, section: Madhva). More importantly, Madhva defines three classes of jīvas, one of which is eternally damned. (Purusatraya, 1993, p. 42) No other philosopher who allies with the Vedas considers that any ātmā is, by nature, unable to achieve liberation. Madhva also distinguishes himself by insisting on absolute and eternal distinctions between the jīva and God, one jīva and another, and between the jīva and matter. (Kapoor, 1976, p. 169) Rāmānuja, on the other hand, posited that the jīva is an attribute of God, not totally separate as Madhva claimed, nor totally one as in Śaṅkara’s conception. Yet Madhva criticized that Rāmānuja failed to explain the relationship between God and the souls except by analogy. (Kapoor, 1976, p. 165)

Today’s followers of Madhva are numerous and important; those of Rāmānuja number in the hundreds of millions and make up probably the largest numbers of those considered as orthodox Hindus, although there are different branches among his followers. A lesser known teacher, Nimbarka, is significant because he represents one of four ancient schools of Vedic thought and does have followers today mostly in northern India. Little exact information on his life and birth are known, though it is most likely that he lived between the time of Rāmānuja and Madhva. (Purusatraya, 1993, p. 51) He taught that the jīvas are parts of God, both identical and different from Him. He said that the identity with God is real and eternal, while the difference is unreal and accidental, due to designations like the body and senses, and will cease after liberation. However, the identity of the jīva as separate from the Lord is as real as its identity with Him. He seeks to reconcile both points of view. (Kapoor, 1976, p. 167) Nimbarka details categories of souls not according to an intrinsic nature as does Madhva, but in terms of how the self is presently situated in relation to material or spiritual inclinations and sub-categories of these. (Purusatraya, 1993, p. 53)

Many people in the present western Indian state of Gujarat are in the line of followers of Vallabha (1481-1533), who was originally from South India. Like Nimbarka, he categorized jīvas according to their present inclinations and activities, though his system was far simpler. He delineates three main groups which are as follows: (a) souls which are always free, (b) souls which are in bondage in material nature, and (c) souls who have become free by the process of loving service to the Lord, having previously been in a position of bondage. The second group he further divides into three categories that are as follows: (a) those that are fully busy with material affairs, (b) those trying for the spiritual according to scriptural rules, and (c) those worshipping the Lord with love through grace. (Purusatraya, 1993, p. 60)

While Madhva, Rāmānuja, and Nimbarka teach that the bondage of particular souls is due to the free will of those souls, and Śaṅkara implies free will though he cannot explain the origin of the ignorance that covers the jīva, Vallabha attributes the material covering of some jīvas to the will of the Supreme. Vallabha writes that all jīvas have the powers of God because of being of the same nature. The bound jīvas, however, have their powers, especially bliss and knowledge, obscured for the sake of divine sport. Such a philosophy seems to make God responsible for the jīvas’ good and bad deeds, and deprive the selves of free will. This teaching puts him at odds with the Vedic sages who strongly taught a philosophy of both individual responsibility and reactions for deeds (karma). (Kapoor, 1976, p. 174)

Officially becoming a disciple in the line coming from Madhva, Caitanya (1486-1534) essentially started his own school of practice and philosophy, and is considered by many to fulfill scriptural predictions for being an incarnation of Kṛṣṇa, the Lord Himself and the original speaker of the Bhagavad-gītā. When Caitanya decided, at the age of 24, to take vows of asceticism, he explained to his widowed mother the doctrine of the self. He explained that the ātmā is within the body and is simply imagining itself to be someone’s mother or husband, man or woman, due to false designations. Traveling through various bodies due to reactions to work (karma), when the self fortunately attains a rare human body, the jīva can get free from illusion and bondage by developing affection for God. (Locana dasaṬhākura, trans. 1994, pp. 205-206)

After becoming a renounced monk, Caitanya taught philosophy to a number of his leading disciples, some of whom wrote books and had disciples of their own. One of his most famous discussions was with Sanātana Gosvāmī, a former government minister in Bengal who took up the life of a religious to learn from Caitanya. Caitanya explained the self to Sanātana as a spiritual energy of the Lord, in the position of an eternal servant. The jīva is marginal, as it can choose to live either under the shelter of the material or spiritual energy. Choosing matter, the self becomes covered to various degrees, thus getting all kinds of miseries and fear. Then, instead of serving God, the jīva tries to compete with Him. To rectify this mistake, the self should worship the Lord through the process of devotional service. This worship must be done under the guidance of saintly persons, sacred literature, and the Lord within, because a jīva cannot become free solely by its own efforts. Upon gaining freedom, the self regains knowledge of its real identity. This identity is that of inconceivable oneness and difference with God, like the relationship of a particle of sunshine with the sun. (Kṛṣṇa dasa Kavirāja, ~1610, trans. 1996, Madhya 20.108-126)

The understanding of simultaneous identity and non-identity, called in Sanskrit, is acintya-bhedābheda-tattva, is at once a harmonizing and an expanding of the previous philosopher’s explanations of the relationship between the self and God. Śaṅkara proposed only oneness. Madhva taught only difference. Rāmānuja, Vallabha and Nimbarka attempted to say that both existed while emphasizing one or the other. Caitanya’s philosophy was that both exist equally and are completely real and describable. Yet the fact that opposites can co-exist in the same measure cannot be conceived by the human mind, however well described with logic and analogy. The term, acintya, meaning beyond the power of conceptualizing, acknowledges the limits of grasping the full reality, or tattva, of the spiritual relationship.
When giving instructions on the self to various persons, Caitanya explained the relation between the jīva and the subtle and gross bodies. As soon as a soul desires not to serve the Lord, and so comes under the control of material energy, the ātmā gets a covering of a subtle body. The three aspects of this covering are mind, intelligence, and false ego, the latter which causes identification with the world and particular gross bodies. This subtle body is not capable of action or enjoyment. The jīva, therefore, is further covered by a body made of bones, flesh, and so forth, for the purpose of fulfilling the subtle body’s desires and interacting with material nature. According to the good or bad deeds done by the self with the body, various changes take place in the subtle body which lead to taking birth in corresponding gross bodies in many species of life. Having an essentially spiritual nature of happiness, however, a jīva is drawn always to look for pleasure, even though lasting happiness is not to be found in matter. Upon meeting a saintly person, the self can start to regain its true nature. (Kapoor, 1976, pp. 134-135)

Followers of Caitanya
One of Caitanya’s disciples, Rūpa Gosvāmi, (1489-1564) took his master’s teachings and systematized them. Rūpa Gosvāmi is today considered the leading preceptor of the many millions of people who form the branch of Madhva’s school which comes through Caitanya, called the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas. Rūpa, while saying that the qualities of God are unlimited, described them in 64 main categories. He then explained that the perfected jīva exhibits the first 50 of these in minute degrees. (1541, trans. 2000, p. 176)

Rūpa also delineates in great detail the nature of the perfected form, mood, and activity of a jīva who has realized its true nature in love of God. He described, for example, the five main loving relationships a realized self can have with the Lord, which are as follows: (a) neutrality, as in reverent worship without activity; (b) active service in a variety of ways, and in many types of spiritual bodily forms for the self; (c) friendship of several types; (d) parenthood where the self takes the role of a seeming superior to the Lord; and (d) conjugal lover where the self is the wife or beloved of the Lord in several types of relationships. (1541, trans. 2000, p. 231-233)

Probably the most concise and easy to understand explanation of the jīva’s path from bondage to realization was described by Viśvanātha Cakravartī (~1646-1754). In his Mādhurya Kādambinī, he describes that first, a jīva develops a little faith that there is a spiritual reality. Gradually that faith leads the self to spend time with saintly persons who guide the person to the practice of devotion. Through such practice, the self gradually sheds all material designations, becomes fixed in realization, attached to God, and then develops ecstasy and spiritual love in one of the ways described by Rūpa Gosvāmi. The relationship between the self and subtle body in this process is particularly interesting. Prior to the stage of attachment (āsakti), a person wanting self-realization has to forcibly withdraw the mind from material engagement. At the stage of attachment, however, absorption of the mind in spiritual matters is automatic; one is not aware of how the mind naturally goes to topics of God. (Viśvanātha, trans. 1993, p. 39)

A more recent follower of Caitanya’s line, Bhaktivinoda (1838-1896), wrote, “One who is thoughtful should first examine oneself. From the existence of one’s own self, the existence of other objects is ascertained. A thoughtful person may say, ‘If I do not exist, then nothing else exists; because without me, how is it possible to realize other things?’” (1879, trans.1998, pp. 161-162). He described a very detailed account of the nature of the self, its entanglement in matter and the process of freedom. He also gave 12 characteristics of the unbound self. These are that the ātmā is eternal, unlike the body and mind. The self is ultimately not contaminated by matter, and is free from dualities or possessions. Being the seer, the self is the shelter for gross or subtle objects, rather than being under their shelter. Although the body goes through various changes such as birth, growth, production of by-products and dwindling, the self is not really affected. A realized self perceives himself through transcendent senses. The self is the root of the nature and existence of the body and mind, but is not localized to any one place. Although within the material world, the soul is never truly affected by the material qualities, nor covered by matter. A person who understands this transcendent nature of the self gives up the illusion of “I and mine” in relation to this world. (1879, trans.1998, pp. 166-167)

There is a beautiful prayer that sums up the feeling of one who has understood the transcendent nature of self in loving relation to the Lord. It is as follows:
All there is that may be indicated by the words “I” and “mine” I offer at Your lotus feet, O merciful Lord! I no longer consider even myself to be “mine”, O Lord! Now I have become exclusively Yours. The soul inhabiting this mortal body has given up the false ego attached to the word “I”, for today the spiritual sense of being Yours has entered his heart. All my possessions—body, home, servants, brothers, friends, wife, sons, personal belongings, fencing, and gateways—all of these are now Yours, for I have become Your servant. I am but a mere occupant in Your house. You are the owner of the house, and I am Your most obedient servant. My only activity now is endeavoring for Your happiness. (Bhaktivinoda, 1893, trans. 1994, p. 24)

A very interesting way of envisioning the relationship between the jīva, mind, body, and the world has been explored by Dr. Richard Thompson (1947- ). He presents the material world as a kind of computer simulation, with the bodies of living beings like the characters seen in a role playing game. The subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and false ego acts as the interface much like computer mouse and keyboard, with the self as the one desiring and willing. He explains the irony of a rationalist trying to understand the existence of the self, “The problem here is that anything that we can fully describe in words is something of which we are aware, and this it is not awareness itself. But if awareness is not fully describable by words, then is it anything at all?…The very feature of consciousness that disqualifies it for many modern philosophers is the starting point for meditative disciplines that try to realize the self by discriminating it from non-self” (2003, p.17)

Western Thought
The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) gives this definition of self, “Chiefly Philos. That which in a person is really and intrinsically he (in contradistinction to what is adventitious); the ego (often identified with the soul or mind as opposed to the body); a permanent subject of successive and varying states of consciousness.”

While it is doubtful that in the West one will find the richness and specificity about the self that Rūpa Gosvāmi gives in his Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu, there are certainly a variety of viewpoints about the self’s existence and definition among Western philosophers. Reminiscent of Bhaktivinoda, Kant (1724-1804) writes, “The consciousness of my existence is at the same time an immediate consciousness of the existence of other things outside me” (1969, B 276) He understood “I” to be not intuition, but the form of consciousness (1969, A 382), which, coincides with the view of most philosophers in the Vedic tradition in regards to the real ego. If “I” is meant to mean the body, mind, or the designations of this world, then such, in terms of Vedic understanding, is not the self, but rather a false ego or covering of the self.

The gītā (chapter 6, text 25) states, “Gradually, step by step, one should become situated in trance by means of intelligence sustained by full conviction, and thus the mind should be fixed on the self alone and should think of nothing else.” In a similar way, J.G. Fichte (1762-1814) admonishes us, “Attend to yourself: turn your attention away from everything that surrounds you and towards your inner life; this is the first demand that philosophy makes of its disciple. Our concern is not with anything that lies outside you, but only with yourself” (1982, p. 6) He clearly distinguished between the self and not-self (p. 104 and 110), similar to Madhva who emphasized an absolute distinction between one jīva and another and between the jīvas and the world.

Hume (1711-1776) thinks that we should put our attention out of ourselves as much as possible because there is nothing but perception. (1739, p. 67) He seems to understand that all is senses and sensation (p. 103) and that our beliefs are the results of emotions rather than logic (p. 183). Yet perhaps he agrees with the concept of self being different from mind when he writes, “The same person may vary his character and disposition as well as his impressions and ideas, without losing his identity” (p. 261). All that he mentions as changing relates to what Vedic influenced philosophers would identify with the mind, intelligence, and false ego—the subtle body, whereas the self remains unchanged. Hume also agrees with the concept that the jīvas are each separate individuals when he states that each person is “entirely loose and independent of each other” (p. 466).

On the other hand, echoes of Śaṅkara sound in the works of Spinoza (1632-1677) who writes that when the human mind has an idea, such is actually God’s idea. (2000, p. 439 and 456)

Then there are those who wonder if there is any self at all. It is common in the modern world to teach Darwinian evolution which states that a complex combination of matter somehow developed into life. What distinguishes life from matter becomes unclear, if there is any demarcation at all. Perhaps the only difference is the degree of complexity, so that we could expect sophisticated computers to one day exhibit symptoms of life. With such a philosophy, the brain is considered to be the mind, and body is the self. William James (1842-1910) summed up this soulless view of the world by calling all our spiritual activity “really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked” (1981, p. 301). So it is not surprising to read a prominent Western philosopher declaring, “Self is the only person whom we know nothing about” (Disraeli, 1826, Oxford English Dictionary, 1989, definition e).

Perhaps one of the most difficult terms to define is the one with which a person should be most familiar—one’s own self. On this journey of life, when deciding on meaning, goals, and searching for happiness, the first business would seem to be to know something of personal identity.

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