Arrogance is stupid. Only the weak are arrogant. Arrogance is the tool of the charlatan who tries to market a certain item as that which it is not. For even when, at a worldly level, one may have attained much, does that attainment determine your Self? If hypothetically we were to take away all your material attainments one fine morn, would you still not be you? And which among those attainments was not rather a movement of a number of beings (say your parents, teachers and co-workers) and circumstances? Fighting COVID and facing lockdowns has shown us the transience of life, of pursuits, of attainments. It has shown us, in stark contrast, the relational reality that Buddha spoke of – that the essence of reality lies in the correlations and unity of nature, not as much on the absoluteness or identity of a specific element, entity, process or phenomenon. In Ancient Indic thought, the concept of Ahaṃkāra (अहंकार) meant the form of the self-sense (Aham). The understanding of Aham as Self, in its truest sense, is given in the powerful words: अहम् ब्रह्मास्मि from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Here the subtlety is around what is the Self. It is spoken of as Brahman, in Vedantic thought. But what is Brahman? Brahman is the fundamental reality underlying the Universe, in Sanatana Dharma. It defies any description based on relative constructs and ideas. It is eternal, formless, attributeless. All that sounds beautiful but this is not just philosophy constructed by seers in confined hermitages. This is the lived truth, which one can access by simply focussing on the self and asking
Who am I?
Am I the physical body? Am I the thoughts or emotions carried by it? Am I the defined by the background I come from? Am I the achievements and attainments I have had? If any of these are yes, for you, ask yourself: what happens if you take them away either partially or completely? While taking the body completely away is a question that may be beyond the purview of rational thought, since reasoning defines that as the end of existence itself, the other questions highlight that while taking any of these away is going to change your form or state of being, it does not change your being. It does not change your very existence, nor your faculty of being conscious even as you live, nor your completeness within yourself. In Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the “psychic apparatus is said to be comprised of distinct, interacting agents described by the concepts of id, ego and super-ego. In his book An Outline of Psycho-analysis published in 1940, Freud defines id as
contains everything that is inherited, that is present at birth, is laid down in the constitution — above all, therefore, the instincts, which originate from the somatic organization, and which find a first psychical expression here (in the id) in forms unknown to us
Id precedes ego, in the Freudian model. The mind of a child is said to be full of id: a mass of instinctive impulses and drives that need immediate satisfaction. The ego seeks to please this drive of the id in realistic ways that bring benefit, not grief, in the long run. Über-Ich, German for the super-ego, is basically the reflection of the internalization of cultural rules, primarily taught by parents who apply their influence and guidance. There is an iceberg metaphor that is often used, when trying to relate these concepts with the conscious and unconscious mind: parts of the super-ego and ego alongwith the entire id is submerged in water, representing the unconscious mind, while the remaining parts of the super-ego and ego, displayed above water, represent the conscious mind.
Seers of ancient India also tried to discuss reality of one’s Self in terms of the waking state, dreaming state, and dreamless deep sleep. It, however, goes one further in talking about the fourth – Turiya, the state transcending all three. This state is defined in the Mandukya Upanishad (Verse 7):
नान्तःप्रज्ञं न बहिष्प्रज्ञं नोभयतःप्रज्ञं न प्रज्ञानघनं न प्रज्ञं नाप्रज्ञम्।अदृष्टमव्यवहार्यमग्राह्यमलक्षणमचिन्त्यमव्यपदेश्यमेकात्मप्रत्ययसारं प्रपञ्चोपशमं शान्तं शिवमद्वैतं चतुर्थं मन्यन्ते स आत्मा स विज्ञेयः॥Meaning: He who is neither inward wise, nor outward wise, nor both inward and outward wise, nor wisdom self gathered, nor possessed of wisdom, nor unpossessed of wisdom, who is unseen and incommunicable, unseizable, featureless, unthinkable, and unnameable, whose essentiality is awareness of the Self in its single existence, in whom all phenomena dissolve, who is calm, who is good, who is the One than whom there is no other. Him they deem the fourth; that is the Self, the object of Knowledge.
While this particular text goes into the essence of one’s Self, reflecting on the words may help, even at a certain day-to-day level. Wisdom is an attribute, an acquired asset that is based on predicated truth and knowledge, either obtained by experience or learning. If you acquire it, can you be that? If your parents named you, can you be your name? Was there no you before you were named? If life and your journey therein equipped you with an education, occupation, thoughts and tendencies, ideologies and alignments, can you be those either? Was there no you before all these were obtained?
If you meditate and try to be aware of yourself, you shall see that once, like peeling the layers of onion away, one peels off all these superficial and additional layers of truth associated with you, the fundamental Self is simply existence that is self-aware and complete in itself, for it needs not anything else to fulfil its being. Now, if one were to take that proverbial leap of insight and awareness, and look around, at others, at nature itself, do you not see the same truth in each of them? Just like Indians tag themselves such as they live or `belong’ to India, just like we physically identify our body as everything within a certain form, must we not also identify that which satisfies a definition of Self consistently as part of the same Self? Simply self-aware and complete existence. You may ask whether a stone is aware or whether a dolphin or an amoeba is `”complete”. Yes, a stone is “aware” as much as awareness is defined by its tendency to react or respond to physical stimulus like a shove, which going by our definition of Self, means that the stone and agent undertaking the shove are part of the same Self. Dolphin or amoeba are complete within themselves, even as they have evolved and aligned well with the specific conditions in their environment, to be self-reliant and self-dependent. This tendency of increasing consciousness and completion is what ancient Indian texts regards as “spiritual evolution”.
Given this definition and understanding of the Self, does it make sense to have acute body-consciousness or ego centred on physical individuality and attainments? We are different reflections of the same one Self, and these attainments of ours are appreciable and good only in a limited, relative sense. Even the greatest of seers, scientists, doctors, leaders and traders, everyone from Alexander to Albert Einstein, everything from hieroglyphics to the steam locomotive that spurred the Industrial Revolution, will be lost in the pages of history, ages down the line. All that will be left will be the operative and utilitarian development of humanity and its existence. All that will be left is a collective consciousness that encapsulates, either in our very DNA or in Freud’s super-ego or in the Vedantic spiritual memory, if you will, all that we have progressed through. In this broad realisation, where exactly does your individual ego factor in? The ego of a human in a small planet in one of many planetary systems of a galaxy that is in one corner of the Universe. Laughable, wouldn’t you say? Some would say that what is the point of attaining anything at all then? Or working in any direction? The point is in instantiating the essence of correlating, of uniting in structure, tendency and essence, for no attainment, no task is performed in isolation by any element in the Universe. Even within us, there is a self-correlation of sorts, where many different faculties work together to create a specific form and functionality of our body. Even if we were to look within, this relational reality comprising of elements that have no functionality or meaning by themselves, becomes clear. We all are qualitatively distinct and more than just the sum of our parts. The parts, frankly, do not matter beyond a point. It is in the essence of those parts, in the actions they take, in the bonds and correlations that they form, that something beautiful and profound lies waiting to be found: the self-aware, complete existence. We are not this and that.
We just are.
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