Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Self, part 1

If there is one concept which the spiritualists love to talk about, it is the "self" or the "ego" and how it is the cause of all that is wrong with the world.

Religions are against mostly pride and egoistical behavior whereas spiritualists decry the very feeling of being a self.

Spiritualists regard being oneself as an unmitigated evil which needs to be done away with.

According to spiritualists, being or feeling an individual causes humans to feel separate from each other and from the world; it causes violence and suffering; it causes the mind to play tricks with itself and with others; it causes greed, lust, desire, attachment, sorrow, and all the usual miasma of human interaction.

While in Hinduism, the aham (I) is asked to realize its unity with Brahman (God, see note), in Buddhism one is asked to realize that there is no individual self at all, and that it is all an illusion.  Buddhists claim that the "true nature" of everything, especially the self, is "Emptiness".

The fact of the matter is that all normal human beings do feel as individuals.  Such an extreme criticism of such a basic feeling as being oneself causes a not unsurprising effect: the mundane individual feels guilty and un-evolved when compared to the selfless ideal.  This guilt then expresses itself into all kinds of compensatory behavior: from submission to the guru, to giving money to godmen, to feeling depressed and helpless against this existential curse.

Feeling oneself to be an individual is supposed to cause all the normal human failings and thereby suffering.  On the other hand, being selfless (or being one with the "Self" with a capital S, God in other words) is supposed to end all suffering.  Selflessness is the end goal of human life, it is said.

If a person is told that he is wrong about a particular fact or feeling, one can still feel reasonably confident about one's mental faculties.  But if one is told that one is wrong even about what one is, that one's very being is a fraud perpetrated by unholy forces, there is not much ground left for one to stand on.

Then one is at the mercy of the guru or the scripture.  After all, if one is wrong about oneself, what could one be right about?

For the recorded human history, these statements of spiritualists and godmen have gone unchallenged because the field of developmental psychology was not yet advanced enough to answer this question: How does the feeling of "I" form and what is its nature?  What is the "self", after all?  How can we explain subjective consciousness or awareness as a phenomenon?

All we had as answers to this doubtlessly important question were stern proclamations and repetitions by stern faced godmen and their ilk.

(to be continued)

Note: God in Vedantic Hinduism refers to many kinds of entities.  There is Ishwara, the director of affairs.  Brahman is the very source of it all and is considered at a higher plane.  It is Brahman into which the self, the Atman, is to merge (or to realize its unity with).

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