with courtesy from www.psmalik.com
The question “Who are you?” is one of those fundamental questions that is intimidating and almost unanswerable. It can mean so many different things, depending upon the desire of the person asking. Thus the questioner might be asking:
Please place yourself in the structured schema that I use to describe society and the world around me. In other words, give me a series of tags that I can use to categorize you.
The answer to such a demand needs must depend upon the categories and tags that the questioner recognizes. Fortunately there are a large series of such tags that are commonly and conventionally recognized. Thus the categories of nationality, ethnic origin, gender, occupation, income, place of residence, marital status, hobbies and interests, religion, and political affiliation.
An answer in terms of these tags often suffices to satisfy the questioner because we all of us carry with mental schemas, lists of default assumptions about persons bearing said tags. This is a practical necessity – we cannot know everyone in intimate detail. These assumptions are only defaults; each individual holds its individuality. He is unique.
This form of the question is more of a “What are you?” than a “Who are you?” – that is, it reduces the person to a list of attributes.
There is another meaning that the question might take. It may be asked
… “Who are you?”
You are likely to utter, “I am Ramesh from London.”
“And if you weren’t not of London, would you still be Ramesh?” may be the next question.
“Of course… I …” Ramesh might have replied.
“And if you were not Ramesh?” the question is likely to be continued “Would you still be you? If you were crippled, or old – if you became a leper, or lost your manhood – who would you be then?”
“I don’t know -”
An irony in this passage is that Ramesh, at that point, is traveling under a false identity.
The questionnaire presumes one of the great answers to the question of identity, which is that we have an inner essence which defines our self, the various attributes being trappings like the clothes we wear.
There is an old story that purports to explain the difference between Eastern and Western philosophical approaches. in Europe there was a mountain. a famous Guru dwelt on the mountain. One day a would-be disciple made his way to the Guru’s hermitage and asked:
Oh, Guru, What is the Answer?
To which the Guru would have replied:
What is the Question?
In India also there was a mountain. It too was home to a famous Guru. One day a would-be disciple made his way to the Guru’s hermitage and asked:
Oh, Guru, What is the Answer?
To which the Guru would have replied:
Who is asking?
Each Guru, perhaps, is addressing the dictum, Know thyself. The Western Guru was teaching that one has to cut through the confusions and discern what one is really about, what one’s needs really are, what question one is really asking. The Western Guru does not question the existence of the self; rather he demanded of the disciple that the disciple correct his ignorance of his self. This approach is more of utilitarian origin. Making use to the maximum utility is the aim of any knowledge.
The Eastern Guru’s teaching was somewhat different. Not only his teaching was different, rather his approach was different. He taught that the self that the disciple was conscious of was an illusion compounded of identification of self with attributes and desires. He demanded of the disciple that he cut through the illusion of self, that he discovers who he was.
The Western Guru seems to be definitive on the side of an essential self, commonly called a soul. He has no doubt regarding the identity of selves – one possessed by him and the other believed by him that he possessed. The Eastern Guru’s position is more mystic. First of all he stresses on the self realization.
Another answer is that there is no existence of any essential self and that people are like onions from which you can remove layer after layer. There is nothing like a core. There are only layers of cognition or those values of identity which were called false identity by the Gurus in the first section (supra). Perhaps it is this continuous search for meaning behind meaning that the Eastern Guru calls illusion.
Another theory, one that is popular among cognitive psychologists and artificial intelligence theorists, is that the mind is a collection of mental faculties. These faculties are bound together. By this theory a self is nothing but a collection of faculties. It propounds that our self is really a community of selves of different types. Our perception of self is an illusion created by collaborating selves.
The fictional theologian, “Bull” Morris, claimed that we wear masks and that the masks become part of our selves. He appears to be saying that our selves are composite rather than elemental. According to Morris, the illusion of self is the result of such composite selves. These composite selves appear to be our composition rather than the composition of the masks.
This theory does not solve the problem rather it creates a paradox regarding the self itself.
Thus consider a ship that has had every part of it replaced. It so changed that there is no original component left. Is it the same ship? If you say yes because it still has the same shape and configuration then consider this situation further:
Over time the owners of the ship have reworked it and redesigned it. ( …As it is done in case of Russian air craft carrier Gorshkov to be handed over to the Indian Navy.) Everything including nails and rivets has been changed. Is it still the same ship? If you say yes because it has the same purpose (it is a ship) and continuity of existence then consider this further:
The owners, after its retirement from service, beach the ship and convert it into a museum.(as it was done in case of Indian air craft carrier Vikrant). They cut a door in the side; add seats in a common area. Is it still the same ship? If you say yes because it is still recognizably a ship then consider this:
The owners do well with this museum. Over time they add additions and remove the cumbersome bits of ship until eventually nothing whatsoever is left of the original lumber and parts, and indeed nothing of the original configuration. In short every mark of the ship is gone save its name and then even that is changed? Is the ship now gone?
Some would say no, it is not, in that it is part of the tradition of the museum. Similarly our past selves are neither truly gone nor truly present. Reality’s memory always holds traces of the past, but those traces are not complete – memory fades and the past fades with it. Identity is not preserved over time, only the semblance of identity. It is a river of identities and the correct question is which identity? At what time?
“Who were you?” and “Who are you?” now have become two different questions with different answers. Indeed, some would say that a true answer to “Who are you?” is impossible because by the time you answer the question you are no longer quite the person who was asked the question. (Remember here that for Sthavar Buddhists the time does not last more than a moment).
Even our physical identity is not beyond doubt. Our bodies are constantly changed. Every cell in our bodies is replaced by a new cell over a period of time in succession. In case of nails and hair this is manifestly visible. The same is true for other organs inside the body.
If the physical identity continuously changes then who is he who is changing? If you define a shirt of yours as the one which fits you over your body then why do you call a 15 years old shirt as yours because it fits nowhere on your body. May be, that at some point of time it fitted you but it were you fifteen years back. The question whether you are the same who you were 15 years back has already been dealt with.
At the end of the discussion it can be seen that there is no definitive answer to the question as to who are you. One assumes any one of the answers which suits his way of thinking. All the questions can be corroborated by the same number of arguments as these can be given in favours of the others.
So at last,
The predicament remains where it began ?
Who am I?