Unraveling the Essence of Identity: Navigating Paths of Self-Discovery and Fulfillment

By Dr. Jaharlal Debbarma

Often, I find myself engrossed in pondering the essence of my true identity, as I embark on a relentless quest for profound self-discovery. I find myself entangled in a dilemma due to the multitude of identities I bear in this world. This complexity hinders me from gaining a clear understanding of my true self. As an indigenous person from Tripura, I am known by numerous names, such as tribal, S.T. putra, janajati or even chinki  in ‘mainland’ India. For instance, when I read the poem of Kishore Murashing’s, “Identity”, the poet vividly depicts the sombre and desolate state of the indigenous people of Tripura. The poem showcases the various labels or names and stereotypes or identity forced upon them by different individuals and institutions.

“Contemporaries call me: “Hey  mama.’

Teacher calls me,  ‘Hello extremist’.

To the police, I am a terrorist.

To the leader, I am a man  from the backward class.

To  a ration dealer, I am a  BPL card holder.

To somebody else, ‘Hey  pahariya’.

To  some  others,  separatist.

There  may  be  innumerable  identities.

Sometimes  I wonder, is it not possible for me to be known as a relative, a brother, a  friend, or as  a human.”

Similarly, in Shefali Debbarma’s poem “Lamination,” the poet expresses the profound anguish experienced by the tribal people of the state who are predominantly known by the caste certificates they carry.  

“In the year I was born,

I got an S.T. Card

singed by the S.D.O.

My mother, preserved it with great care within

the folds of risa and pachchra

in the khuturuk lest it gets torn.

Today, after almost a century the risa and pachchra have been torn to shreds and diligent termites have fed on the khuturuk;

on the S.T. Card shines bright within the lamination.”

These laminated certificates not only serve as proof of their identity in the land, but also serve as constant reminders that they belong to a supposedly less sophisticated and more barbaric group or civilization.

Consequently, the question of my true identity remains unanswered, leaving me in a state of uncertainty. As I navigate through life’s complexities and bear the weight of multiple identities, I find myself grappling with the profound question: Who am I, truly? Consequently, I am left grappling with these questions in my mind:

Who am I? What dies? Who dies?

Are we born merely to face death?

Do I transcend death? .

Do I contemplate these questions prior to encountering death?

Do I ponder these questions before meeting the inevitable end?

Is social existence a conspiracy to divert us from such profound inquiries?

Nevertheless, there exist heroic individuals who perceive themselves in a constant confrontation with mortality, challenging themselves to respond. The demise of a loved one, the constant news of death, the looming threat of war, or the spectre of a nuclear explosion all compel us to contemplate the hidden question of who am I?

In this quest for self-discovery, I am left with a profound urge to unravel the enigma of my true essence/self/identity and understand the profound depths of my being.

As I ponder the question, “Who am I?” or the concept of self, I find myself grappling with the various aspects that define it. Is it the names I bear, the physical body I inhabit, or the essence of my soul (referred to as “atman” in some beliefs) that can be called the self? This inquiry leads me into a state of dilemma as I seek the right answer.

If I consider my identity or self to be solely determined by my name, I encounter a predicament. There are others who share the same name as mine, highlighting the fact that names themselves are merely conventions used to distinguish individuals, devoid of inherent worth or meaning. This reminded me of the famous question posed by playwright William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?”

On the other hand, if I identify my body as the self, attributing the experience of pain or suffering to it, I encounter another quandary. When a person dies, their body ceases to feel pain or suffer. Hence, it cannot be solely the body that defines the self and experiences such sensations.

This leads me to consider whether the soul is the true essence of the self. However, it would be incorrect to claim that the soul experiences pain because the soul does not feel pain or suffer.

Therefore, I find myself grappling with the complexities of defining the self, searching for an answer that eludes me.

As when we see how the concept of the soul has been explained and being explored by the various western and Indian philosophical traditions throughout history.

Western Philosophy:

Ancient Greek Philosophy: In ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato, the soul (psyche) is often regarded as an immortal and divine entity that exists independently of the body. Plato suggested that the soul is eternal, pre-exists before birth, and continues to exist after death. He described the soul as having three parts: the rational, the spirited, and the appetitive.

Christian Philosophy: In Christian philosophy, the soul is often viewed as the spiritual and immortal essence of a person. It is considered to be created by God and is believed to be the seat of consciousness, morality, and personal identity. The soul is thought to be united with the body during earthly life and is believed to survive bodily death.

Cartesian Dualism: René Descartes proposed a dualistic view of the soul, separating it from the body. According to Descartes, the soul (or mind) is a non-physical substance, distinct from the material body. He argued that the mind and body interacted through the pineal gland, and while the body is subject to the laws of physics, the mind/soul is free and capable of rational thought.

Indian Philosophy:

Hinduism: In Hindu philosophy, the soul is referred to as Atman. It is considered eternal and unchanging, representing the individual’s true self. Hinduism views the soul as distinct from the physical body and the temporary material world. The ultimate goal is to realize the identity between Atman (individual self) and Brahman (universal reality).

Buddhism: Buddhism challenges the concept of a permanent, unchanging soul (Anatta). It teaches that the idea of a substantial and independent self is an illusion. Instead, Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence and interdependent nature of all phenomena, including the self.

According to Buddhism, realizing the non-existence of a fixed soul is crucial for attaining enlightenment.

Jainism: In Jain philosophy, the soul is called Jiva. Jainism considers the soul to be eternal and inherently pure, but subject to the cycle of birth and death due to karmic attachments. The liberation of the soul (moksha) is achieved through the purification of karma and the realization of its true nature.

It’s important to note that the concept of the soul can vary within different philosophical and religious traditions. The specific beliefs about the nature, characteristics, and destiny of the soul may vary among different philosophers, schools of thought, and cultural contexts.

I believed the true self is the soul which I uphold, however, as I/body get entangle with the worldly attributes I am blind to understand and know the true self.

When I delve into religious texts from around the world, a common theme emerges: they shed light on understanding oneself/true self and the path to liberation or enlightenment, or heaven. The mystic Sadhguru once said, “The fundamental strength of Bharat is that we are a land of seekers – seekers of truth and liberation – and this spiritual thread is what binds us as a nation.” These seekers yearn to uncover a specific truth – the truth about their own essence/self and how to liberate it from its bondage. It is from this philosophical standpoint that we can explore profound questions such as “Who am I?” and gain insight into the nature of the self and attained moksha or liberation.

As we embark on the journey of life, our quest to discover our true selves is met with the presence of two divergent paths, each offering a unique array of possibilities. These paths, known as sreya and preya according to the ancient sages, hold profound significance in shaping our existence. Let us delve into a thoughtful examination of these paths, their inherent qualities, and ultimately unravel the unequivocal choice that lies before the earnest seeker.

They are the path of preya (dear)/immediate gratification and sreya (good) long-term fulfillment. These paths are as tangible as life and death  and has influenced those who came before us and will continue to impact those who come after.

At its core, sreya signifies the path of goodness, while preya represents the path of personal desires and attachments. It may initially seem perplexing why these two paths are distinct, as what is dear to us should naturally align with what is best for us. However, for those who have not yet attained self-realization, this assumption is challenged, leading us to explore the reasons behind this divergence.

In order to grasp the distinction between sreya and preya, it is essential to delve into the nature of our identity. Are we merely the physical body we perceive in the mirror? Are we solely the thoughts that occupy our minds as we engage with these words? The answer is no. Both the body and mind act as veils, concealing our true essence/self. We are eternal souls, indivisible units of consciousness, whose purpose and fulfilment manifest in the realm of awareness. Our existence transcends physicality, and we do not perish with the body’s demise nor gain through the mind’s indulgence. When we attain a profound realization of our authentic self, the distinction between sreya and preya becomes starkly evident, encompassing vast dimensions.

Upon an initial encounter with the concepts of sreya and preya, it is natural for both paths hold a certain allure. After all, we are inherently inclined towards both what is beneficial for us and what brings us personal joy and fulfillment. However, within the cryptic verses of the Katha Upanishad, we discover a profound insight:

“Anyat śreyaḥ uta anyat eva preyaḥ,

te ubhe nānārthe satī puruṣaṁ sinītaḥ.

Tayoḥ śreyaḥ ādadānasya sādhu bhavati,

u saḥ arthāt hīyate yaḥ preyaḥ vṛṇīte.”

Translation:

The good (sreya) is one thing, and the dear (preya) is another. These two, with distinct aims, bind the individual. Those who choose the path of goodness attain righteousness, while the one who selects what is dear sacrificed the ultimate goal.

Upon hearing this, a natural question arises: “What do ‘the good’ and ‘the dear’ truly signify?” Sreya, representing the good, refers to that which benefits the soul, our authentic self. On the other hand, preya, representing the dear, pertains to what is cherished by the illusory ego.

Precisely so Preya encompasses all that is pleasing, agreeable, or desirable to our false ego and its associated aspects: the body, senses, mind, intellect, and any extensions of self we identify with, such as family, friends, nation, or location. Any endeavours undertaken solely to fulfill these aspects, without considering the welfare of our true self, tread upon the path of preya.

On the other hand, sreya represents all that is beneficial for the eternal soul. However, the true understanding of sreya goes beyond mere relative benefits and extends to what is supremely advantageous for the soul. It denotes the good that surpasses any equal or superior alternatives. Sreya embodies the pinnacle of welfare, our ultimate fulfillment. It encompasses the highest good, the summum bonum.

Both Western and Indian philosophers engage with these profound questions, who am I? But they may approach them from different cultural, religious, and philosophical frameworks. It is important to note that there is no single definitive answer to these questions, and philosophers continue to offer diverse perspectives, inviting individuals to reflect, contemplate, and seek their own understanding and meaning in life.

 Dr. Jaharlal Debbarma is Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Kabi Nazrul Mahavidyalaya, Sonamura.

 

 

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