Transcending All Barriers of Individuality

Transcending individuality

by Jayaram V

In Hindu tradition we identify the body as the field (kshetra) and the self as the owner of the field (kshetragna). Our scriptures describe the body as the playground, in which the self (Iswara) is drawn to the material things and becomes subject to the law of karma and the cycle of births and deaths. In the macrocosm of God, we view the material universe as the field and God as its inhabitant and enjoyer (bhogi). According to our tradition, we indentify ourselves with our minds and bodies and accept them as the primary sources of our enjoyment and our primary fields of action. We develop a deep bond with them, whereby we become drawn to the earthly life and indulge in various activities, which culminate in our suffering.

Our first identity is therefore with our physical appearance. We use this identity to regulate our lives and secure our interests. This identity is so strong that we go to any length to protect it and preserve it. Whether it is in our choice of food or our relationships, it plays an important role. Self-image is an important component of our ego consciousness. People are either happy or unhappy with their looks. Many are willing to pay huge sums of money just to look attractive or presentable. Nowadays, people don’t even care how intelligent you are. Intelligence is now skin deep. If you look smart, you are deemed smart. Otherwise, you have to work hard to establish your credentials.

Our attachment to our field of action does not end here. It manifests in many other ways. In our outward search for happiness and security and to extend our zone of influence, we develop many attachments and identities. They act as our many extensions or our many avatars, which we use to promote our interests and extend our influence. You may even consider them as the ten heads of Ravana, the mighty demon. If you slay one, ten more will appear. While our individual egos create problems and individual karmas, our involvement with the material world through these various identities complicate our lives, creating problems at the collective or group level, and contribute to our collective karmas.

By the activity of the senses we spread out into the material world and connect with it through various identities. For instance, we not only have individual identities but also family identities, in which we take a great deal of pride, especially if the family enjoys a higher social status or a great reputation. A vast majority of people consider their family names to be part of their identities and do their best to protect them and defend them. Parents sometimes disown their children just to take away their family pride and punish them for disobeying family values. Children born without knowing who their parents are, suffer a lot in their lives, unless they have foster parents with good family background. Family loyalties are responsible for many disputes and conflicts. For example, the Mahabharata war was precipitated because of the differences between the families of two brothers. It resulted in huge bloodshed. Neither side was willing to withdraw their claim to the throne because their family prestige and family values were at stake.

Apart from family, people also take pride in their caste and tribal identities, with which they become strongly attached, especially if the caste or tribe in question has a higher social status or a great historical lineage associated with it. For thousands of years caste and tribal affinities shaped the behavior of people and determined the course of history. Even today they are very powerful social factors. In Hindu society, caste is a major dividing factor. Your caste identity gives you many advantages. You can use it to align with people of your caste and improve your social standing. It is such a powerful factor that people fight in the name of caste and do their best to preserve their caste identities. Tribal affinities are equally important. They play a vital role in the social structure of many African and Latin American countries. They often precipitate civil wars and bloodshed.

Physical form, caste and tribe are not the only fields of ego. There are many others, which are equally important and which play a vital role in inciting our passions and emotions and perpetuating our egoistic interests. Our regional, linguistic, racial, sexual, religious, institutional, professional and national identities are worth mentioning. All these identities are extensions of our egos. They serve a great purpose by defining us and representing us to the world. We use them as our mental crutches, or little props, to strengthen our identities and establish our self-images. Just as in case of caste and tribe, they expand our power base and give us an opportunity to exert our control and influence over others. You seek them basically to boost your ego and fortify your life with additional security. They fortify our egos with feelings of pride, self-importance, belongingness and brotherhood. If someone insults your caste, your tribe, your race, religion, organization or nationality, very likely you will take it personally and do whatever you can to defend them, if necessary through physical or violent means. What happened in Eastern Europe a few decades ago or what is happening now in the Middle East or Kashmir are great examples of how our identities can cause political and social unrest and turn the lives of people upside down.

There is one thing in common about all these identities. They are temporary and do not last forever. Some identities may last for a life time, although they are also subject to fluctuations, such as your physical identity, your caste or tribal identity and your racial identity. Others, such as your national, religious, regional or institutional identities, may not last that long. They may keep changing from time to time according to the choices you make and the actions you perform. For example you can change your religion as well as your nationality. We also acquire new identities in tune with our times and the advances we make. In this age of internet we now have several new identities such as your email ids, your usernames, yahoo groups, email groups, Facebook friend groups and so on. People become attached to them as emotionally as ancient Indians were attached to their castes and gotras or the Romans to their cities and legions.

Being a formation of Nature, the human ego remains confined to the material universe to the extent it can reach it through the senses. It cannot go beyond what it can perceive and relate to. So while everyone seeks to identify with something or the other of this world, none in particular likes to be identified with the universe itself. The universe is eternal, infinite and beyond the imagination and comprehension of the human mind. So the ego, which thrives on dualities and divisions, simply does not like to go there. Many people do not even think of themselves in terms of the earth or the solar system. Many would not even prefer to think beyond their villages, tribes, states or countries. But, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are part of the infinite universe. The universe is with us always, wherever we are and whatever we do. Whether we are asleep or awake, at no point of time we are separate from it. We are born in it and die in it. Each of us represents an aspect of it. We are its faces, voices, forms and manifestations. We are its intelligent, emotional and self-aware individualities, through whom the universe speaks to itself, observes itself and tries to fathom its own depths in utter amazement. We don’t arrive at such an expansive vision because we focus on our limitations and our differences. We are happy with our limited identities and little fields of distractions. Many people are happy to be part of some religion or caste or heaven and like to be identified with it. Tell them that they are part of the universe, they will tell you that you are questioning their religious beliefs.

The Upanishads declare the material universe as the body (field) of God (Brahman). They exhort us to transcend the field of forms to experience the field of the formless. We can do so only when we go beyond our appearances and our limited identities. You cannot be part of the universe if you latch on to small and little things that separate you from the rest of the creation. To be part of the universal self, we have to stop extending ourselves outwardly into the various identities we have discussed before. We should withdraw into ourselves to become one with the infinite and the supreme universal self, letting go of everything and emptying ourselves. When you become empty, you become full. When you detach yourself from all your limited identities, you become comfortable with the idea of being one with the universal self and improve your chances of achieving oneness with it. When you extend your identity to the universe and speak for it, you become its voice. This is the truth. This is the absolute and the highest identity towards which our Vedic seers wanted us to move through self-transformation and inner purification. The idea of universal brotherhood, which is enshrined in our religion, becomes a reality only when we transcend the limited identities with which we become involved and develop an expansive and limitless vision. .

Source: Reprinted with permission from the Awakened Life by Jayaram V

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