Who am I? This existential question has probably teased, even troubled, many an individual through the ages. Nothing seems to satisfy our innate curiosity and our eternal quest to understand ourselves and our origins. Literature, art, evolutionary science, and astrology, among other fields have attempted to find answers, each in their own way.
Philosophy too has strived to answer fundamental questions: What is reality? Is there a best way to live? Do we truly have free will? Most schools of philosophy address this need of ours to find deeper meaning in life. The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism is no different. To answer the esoteric ‘Who am I?’ the philosophy delves deep into the concept of ‘self’ and the ‘other’. Only, there is no ‘other’. The belief in Advaita is one of non-duality.
The very name ‘advaita‘ means the soul (self/atman) is no different from the ultimate universal reality (other/brahman). According to this school of philosophy, one can attain spiritual liberation by gaining knowledge of the true nature of the atman and brahman. This ‘true self’ is nothing but the non-dual nature of the soul, whereby it’s one with everything around it.
According to Vedic scholar and Advaita practitioner Dr C V Giridhara Shastry, “The soul or chaitanya is liberating, while upadhi, the body/physical reality, is limiting and often discriminating. The soul has no form, so we can’t really tell one soul apart from another. The body or physicality on the other hand, has a form, so we easily separate ourselves from others.”
Once we are aware of the infinite and intangible soul, we’ll no longer see rich and poor, male and female, friend and enemy.
So, if we were to understand that every individual’s soul is the same, could we then see ourselves in everyone around us? Dr Shastry certainly thinks so. He believes that upadhi makes things finite and tangible, and therefore limiting and distinguishing. Once we are aware of the infinite and intangible soul, we’ll no longer see rich and poor, male and female, friend and enemy. It brings about tolerance, and in fact, acceptance if we can see ourselves in others, he explains.
Tolerance and acceptance are surely the need of the hour in today’s world. After all, we have all kinds of people amongst us, each with a different belief system; there are atheists, monotheists, polytheists, idol-worshippers, non-idol-worshippers. And even when people belong to a group of those with the same belief system, unity comes hard.
It is said that during the 8th century, Hindus who worshipped one god were intolerant of those who worshipped another. So, Adi Shankaracharya, a renowned philosopher and Advaita propagator of the time, devised a custom called the panchayatana puja to unite them all. Under this custom, a devotee is expected to pray to Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Shakti and Ganapati. With this, Shaiva (devotees of Shiva), Vaishnava (devotees of Vishnu), Soura (devotees of Surya), Shaakta (devotees of Shakti), and Ganapatya (devotees of Ganapati) were obligated to worship the idols of all five deities simultaneously.
That Advaita makes room for idol worship, which is considered upadhi (limitation), is quite surprising. After all, its philosophy is rooted in seeking chaitanya (liberation). But this apparent contradiction is not without logic. Not all of us are capable of comprehending the intangible atman, are we?
Perhaps, idol worship makes the idea of atman more tangible, more comprehendible. Vedas and Upanishads expert H V Nagaraj agrees. He says, “The Advaita Vedanta philosophy classifies individuals as manda, madhyama, and uttama, depending on how far along they are on their spiritual journey. The manda are materialistic and find it hard to seek spirituality. The madhyama are materialistic, but are aware of the higher consciousness. The uttama are very involved in their spiritual journey.” He explains that accordingly, kamya yagna (sacrificial fire prayer for personal gains) is prescribed to the manda, idol worship and reading of scriptures to the madhyama, and deep spiritual practices like meditation to the uttama. This way, Advaita strives to help all kinds of individuals on their spiritual journey to attain moksha (relief from worldly cycles).
When we manage to see ourselves in one and all, perhaps, we can be less discriminating, more accepting, less restrictive, more open.
True to its premise that we’re all one, the Advaita philosophy makes it a point to unify people in every way possible. It’s also what Swami Vivekananda attempted, with his vision of taking Advaita Vedanta philosophy to the Western world. It’s said that he was a ‘neo-Advaitan’ (Advaita practitioners who believe understanding oneself/atman is enough and studying holy scriptures is not necessary). Indeed, self-enquiry and insight are feasible options for those who can’t study the scriptures. So, with this approach, spirituality becomes accessible to every individual, irrespective of their belief system, as Advaita advocates tolerance and acceptance of all.
There’s a passage in the Bhajagovindam stotra (a devotional composition in Sanskrit) that summarises this core message of Advaita–that we’re all the same atman, that we’re all one. It goes:
tvayi mayi cānyatraiko viṣṇuḥ
vyarthaṃ kupyasi mayi asahiṣṇuḥ ।
sarvasminapi pashya atmanam
sarvatra utsruja bheda jnanam।।
In you, in me, in all,
There is but one omni-present atman.
So, why the intolerance?
You need only acknowledge the atman
And discard discrimination.
When we manage to see ourselves in one and all, perhaps, we can be less discriminating, more accepting, less restrictive, more open. This knowledge of oneness is the first step towards accomplishing the ultimate liberation from worldly woes. And along the way, maybe we can find our true selves. Who am I? Perhaps, I am atman, I am brahman. I am him, I am her. I am them, I am us.