An Indian approach to Selfhood: A few speculations by Atreya Sarma Uppaluri

This essay was printed in our release Selfhood: Varieties of Experience, available from Amazon. 

 

The perennial philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, Tat tvam asi (That art thou); the Atman, or the immanent eternal Self is one with Brahman, the Absolute principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being is to discover the fact for himself.

 – Aldous Huxley

 

The first rays of the rising sun play on the waves of the rills. The gentle breeze sways the verdant damsels laden with bouncy blossoms. The cuckoos croon their matutinal tunes from their invisible perches. Flights of birds head on the skyways for their daily nibbles. Flocks of cows and sheep bobbing their heads are out toward the pastures to graze. Lissom village belles amble down to the pond to collect water in their pots. Groups of fitness freaks in towns and cities go out on their jog or stroll. Hawkers plod or pedal their way and cry vegetables. Children slurp their milk to get ready to finish their homework…

All the above scenes create an air of blitheness and joy. Joy comes out of a feeling of happiness within us or on sighting particular scenes or instances. An all pervading or infectious joy occurs when there is a great fellow-feeling. Here enters the question of self and others. Everyone should try to excel in their chosen fields but not deliberately at the expense of others. While ‘selfhood’ in the lexical sense of “The state of having a distinct identity; individuality; the fully developed self; an achieved personality” is welcome, that in the sense of “self-centeredness,” needs a conscious correction and sublimation, for the good of one and all.

The co-existence of billions of selves in the creation presupposes a kind of harmony, of development of each, and maintaining and honouring mutual space with little scope for clash. That’s why we have inherited the wisdom of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.

The pain and pleasure we experience tells us how others also have similar feelings. If we probe and know ourselves well, we can also get to know others well. That is why sages stress self-realisation which can be achieved only by a holistic approach to life through optimal exercise of our body-mind-heart-soul faculties. It is not just the humans that matter in this creation but every living and even non-living being. It is a wonderful, symbiotic concatenation, with a larger over-soul binding every form of life and non-life. Great minds and cultures recognise this and tell us to be grateful for every facet of creation, and to be inclusive in our attitude. This way of thinking also adds to eco-consciousness and automatically leads to virtues like love, nonviolence, peace, eclecticism, syncretism and harmony. Not that in the name of non-violence we should not be meat-eating, when, after all, carnivores are a natural part of the creation. Only, we have to ensure that we slay them just for food, and with least pain to them. How both the oak and the lily have their place in the scheme of things, so does every critter from the ant to the elephant.

A compartmental outlook skews our vision, and distorts the purpose, spirit and unity of creation and consequently the logic of our actions would prove to be fallacious, even harmful.

God has created all of us and assigned us our own place and roles. He has not made us a puppet in his hands but has gifted us with the faculty of discretion. It is this discretion that matters a lot and contributes to the overall evolution of civilisation. Just how every electron and every planet has its well-defined orbit, so should we move in our own, and in that sense we have to appreciate the tethered discretion that we have.

We should constantly strive to be conscious about this so that we can properly fulfil our role as part of a larger system. In any given society of any time, the men of ideas are always few, and the responsibility always rests on them to disseminate the salubrious ideas, especially when they are an outcome of rigorous penance, undivided focus, and keen, selfless and wholesome observation of things and phenomena. The knowledge so evolved is indivisible, and whatever may be the super-specialisation of the day, it is still broadly all-embracing and interdisciplinary. Hence there is a need to highlight the inter-connectivity both in the introduction to any branch of learning, and in any thought process of designing any scheme or project aimed at larger good.

Realising this cosmic holism, Indian genius has recognised the duty of acknowledging every art, science and endeavour as a blessing from the divine and dedicating it to the divine. What has come forth from God should also be a means toward realising God. For those of us who do not believe in God, let us take it as the Force of Creation.

At a very practical and mundane level, captains of sports and industry, leaders in various fields and altruistic activities generally show the spark of this beyond-the-self empathy and bring about an amount of camaraderie and consensus. Happiness and harmony come out of viewing and working shoulder-to-shoulder beyond the ‘self’ and sharing what we have with other ‘selves’; but not by amassing every material thing for our own self. “Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.” What a sublime and succinct observation by Democritus regarding the primacy of soul!

The soul-seeking Indian genius sees every entity of creation or physical life as a combination of the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. It has even gone beyond these basic five by adding four more – time, direction, soul and mind/heart, in order to be able to understand the relativity of the phenomena. Indians’ time-tested experiments for a balanced personality of man have evolved into the Yoga, which is a means to realising the unity between the body-mind-soul at the personal level, and between self-selves-cosmos-creation at the spiritual level.  The Indian philosophical thought has influenced many a Western thinker like Emerson, Thoreau and W.B. Yeats in the modern times.

A trained and right-thinking mind sees no distinction between one’s self and the selves of others. Viewing everything as a part of the same regenerating source has led to the conceptualisation of a cosmic unity that transcends even anthropocentrism. At the social, environmental, global, cosmic and spiritual levels – this holistic wisdom has created axiomatic concepts like – Atmavat sarva bhutani (Treat every living being like yourself); Lokah samasta sukhino bhavantu (May all the beings and all worlds be happy); Aham brahmasmi (I am the infinite reality), Tat tvam asi (That thou art/ Thou art the infinite reality).

Coming to the element of love especially the conjugal in the Hindu way of life, both the husband and the wife are under a vow to jointly pursue not only the spousal, familial and material obligations but also the spiritual quest. Followed in the right spirit, it yields a synergic effect. That is why a Hindu marriage is a lifelong sacrament, even extending beyond life.

Well, is it not so hard to practise all these things? Of course, it is. No pains, no gains. Can there be any shortcut to a lasting happiness? If we are true to our conscience, we have to give it a sincere try. And let us conclude with an Upanishadic invocation for universal weal.

Aum! Sahanaavavatu, sahanau bhunaktu, saha veeryam karavaavahai, tejasvina aavadheetam astu, maa vidvishaavahai. Aum! Shantih! Shantih! Shantih!

“Aum. Let all of us protect each other together, may all of us enjoy together, may all of us work together and let our study become radiant. Let there be no hatred between us. Aum! Peace! Peace! Peace!”

***

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