Who are you ?

One of the students in a post-graduate class over 36 years ago, responding to request while the class was in session, tossed the subject question to the learned professor. At that point of time, the query was more in jest than with any serious intent . The professor, not suspecting a mischievous motive, lauded it as a multi-faceted question and promptly proceeded to expatiate on its various aspects.

The student who posed the question was myself; what was calculated as a playful tease turned out to be a trigger to an informative instruction that widened my perspective and provided me with enduring insights. In retrospect, I will respectfully refrain from mentioning the name of the professor as he is no more. As far as I was concerned, it was the beginning of an enquiry that spanned several years of erratic delving into scriptures and philosophical doctrines, listening to seers and savants, taking in discourses of preachers and evangelists within India and outside. What is known, after all the random journeys around the peripheries of infinitely vast reaches of the unknown, is only a trickle, that can be likened to collections of a child garnering pebbles beside the ocean of wisdom.

Who are you? The stock answers can be that one is , prefixed by various names, a president, minister, mayor, teacher, bureaucrat, doctor, banker, technocrat, media magnate, corporate head or any such position, through which one contributes to society and derives sustenance, finally suffixed by parental details and an address, just in case someone is interested in your lineage and whereabouts. Interestingly, society’s overriding concern with forms and status finds satiric articulation in the lines of Emily Dickinson : “I ‘m Nobody ! / Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too? / Then there’s a pair of us ! / Don’t tell ! they’d advertise – you know ! / How dreary – to be – Somebody ! / How public – like a Frog – / To tell one’s name – the livelong June – / To an admiring Bog ! “ While these words may partly be a reflection of the fact that Emily was largely unknown during her lifetime, it is an acerbic comment on the undue importance accorded to forms and appearances to the exclusion of the finer dimensions of one’s real self , that it prompts her to think that it is more refreshing to be nobody than putting up with the dreariness of being somebody.

Actually who are you? If our external appearance and paraphernalia do not describe our real self, then what does? What is the inner core that stands for who you are, if it is not one’s name and station in life? Is each one of us so essentially different from the other person as to distinguish one from the other with separate name and status? The oldest of all scriptures, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, lays down that all beings are part of the all-knowing and all-encompassing Absolute, that there is no duality between the Creator and the creation. All knowledge presupposes a dichotomy of subject and object, whereas the supreme reality, being the all-comprehending unity, is unknowable. The same applies to the individual self, being the knowing subject in all knowledge and thus cannot be the object. Dualistic perception assumes a distinction between ‘perceiver’ and ‘sense object’; such a distinction, according to non-dual tradition, is not inherent in reality. The reality that is staring us in the face all the time, is not perceived correctly. We are all along living in an illusory world of duality, of you and me, of our own self and the other. The Bible states “in the beginning was the word , and the word was with god, and the word was god”. There is no duality between word and god. Swami Vivekananda enunciated it stating that microcosm and macrocosm are based on the same premise of non-duality. Just as the individual soul is housed in the living body, the universal soul is present in surrounding Nature; shakthi or energy, in much the same way, dwells in and animates shiva or the great infinity. The whole universe of beings and things constitute the grand divinity or substantia as Spinoza would have it; the part is not separate from but integral to the whole. The covering of the one (soul) with the other (nature) is akin to the relation between the idea and the word expressing it; they are one and the same and it is only by mental abstraction that it can be distinguished. Thoughts are impossible without words. Thus, in the beginning was the word…, be it biblical or the vedic ‘0m’.

One of the greatest spiritual masters, Ramana Maharshi, laid down the mechanics of realizing the self through the discipline of controlling one’s thoughts, since the mind consists of thoughts. The ‘I’ thought is the first to arise in the mind. When the inquiry ‘ Who am I?’ is persistently pursued, all other thoughts get destroyed, and finally the ‘I’ thought itself vanishes leaving only the supreme non-dual Self. The false identification of the Self with the phenomena of non-self such as the body and mind thus ends, and there is illumination or ‘saakshatkaara’. The aforementioned process of inquiry, of course, is not an easy one. As one inquires ‘Who am I?’, other thoughts will arise; but as these come up, one should not yield to them by following them, on the contrary, one should ask ‘To whom do they arise?’ In order to do this, one has to be extremely focused. Through constant inquiry one should make the mind stay in its source, without allowing it to wander away and get lost in the mazes of thoughts created by itself. All other disciplines such as breath-control and meditation on the forms of God should be regarded as auxiliary practices. They are useful in so far as they help the mind to become quiescent and one-pointed. For the mind that has gained skill in concentration, Self-inquiry becomes comparatively easy. It is by ceaseless inquiry that the thoughts are destroyed and the Self realized – the plenary Reality in which there is not even the ‘I’ thought, only the experience of the silent self.

Who are you? You are not the gross body , not the five cognitive sense organs, not even the mind that thinks, not the nescience holding only residual impressions of objects. If you are none of these, then who are you?  The answer, as directed by Vedas, is the entity or Awareness that remains after negating all of the above, its nature being ‘sat chit ananda’ (existence-consciousness-bliss). We can attain this realization of the self, which is the seer, only by removal of the world of illusions to which we all cling and in which we all live. The illusory world will disappear when the mind, which is the cause of all cognition and all actions, becomes quiescent.

What we call the mind is a wondrous faculty residing in the self. It is the cradle of all thoughts. Take away the thoughts and there is no such thing as mind. Thought is the nature of mind and thoughts create the world around us. In deep sleep, there are no thoughts and there is no world. In other words, the world exists in our waking and dream states. Waking is long and a dream short; other than that there is no difference. Just as happenings in our waking hours seem real, so do those in a dream while dreaming. During dream, the mind takes on another body. In both waking and dream states, thoughts, names and forms occur simultaneously. The mind projects the world out of itself in the same manner as the spider spins the web out of itself. When the mind comes out of the self, the world appears and the self disappears and vice versa. When one persistently inquires into the nature of the mind, the mind will end leaving the Self (as the residue). What is referred to as the Self is the atman or supreme reality. The mind always exists only in dependence on something gross, not otherwise. It is the mind that is called the subtle body or the soul.

The mind is that which rises as ‘I’ in the body. Of all the thoughts that flood the mind, the ‘I’ thought is the first, followed by others. The mind can be stilled by the inquiry “who am I?” This question will destroy all other thoughts and is like the stick stirring the fire and the query, like the stick, eventually gets consumed in the fire of self-realization.

How do we acquire the discipline of self inquiry? It is through control of the mind, for which various methods are practiced to attain focus such as meditation, breath control, divine chanting etc but these practices are seen to give only temporary results. In chanting, meditation and breath control , the mental quietude lasts only for the duration of the chant, meditation or controlled breathing, and the mind starts wandering the moment normal breathing resumes. But in deep sleep, although the mind becomes quiescent, the breath does not stop, which is apparently part of Almighty’s design to enable preservation of life. Breath is the gross form of mind. Till the time of death, the mind keeps breath in the body; and when the body dies, the mind takes the breath along with it. Therefore, the exercise of breath-control is only an aid for rendering the mind quiescent, it will not destroy the mind. Through consistent meditation on the self, thoughts are destroyed.

There is nothing like an evil mind or a good mind – the mind is only one. It is the residual impressions that are of two kinds – auspicious and inauspicious. When the mind is under the influence of auspicious impressions, it is called good; and when it is under the influence of inauspicious impressions, it is regarded as evil.


The mind should not be allowed to wander towards worldly objects and what concerns other people. The world is made up of all kinds of people and howsoever bad others may be, one should bear no hatred towards them. Both desire and hatred should be eschewed. Based on non-duality, all that one gives to others, one gives to one’s self. If this truth is understood, anything, by way of good deed or action, that is offered to others, is an offering to one’s own self. Elaborating it further, one’s ‘karma’ (action and result thereof) depends on one’s ‘dharma’ (conduct that sustains life and universe).  


What is the nature of the real self? Self is that which exists in truth. The world, individual soul, and god are appearances in it. The self is that field in which the ‘I’ thought does not exist, because the self itself is ‘I’ , the self itself is the world, the self itself is shiva or christ or allah, or god by any other name. The greatest devotee is he who gives himself up to the self ; it means the person who remains constantly in the self without allowing any extraneous thoughts to gain ascendance. I have heard devoted Christians talking about living in the holy spirit since “the kingdom of god is within you”. It is no different from living in the self.


Yet another reason for remaining in the self is because of the fact that self is the seat of true happiness, strength and wisdom. Happiness is the very nature of the self; happiness and the self are not different. There is no happiness in worldly objects or material possessions. When the mind goes out, it experiences misery; when its desires are fulfilled, it returns to its own place and enjoys the happiness that is the self. Thus the mind keeps alternating between moving out of the self and returning to it. The mind of the one who knows the truth does not leave the self. The mind of the ignorant, on the contrary, revolves around external objects attracting sorrow. In fact, the world is only a thought. When the world disappears, i.e. when there is no thought, the mind experiences happiness; and when the world appears, it goes through miseries. In the state of desirelessness, there is true strength that comes when we are free from all desires and attachment. Strength is the experience we feel in our relationship with the world around us. We are weak to the extent of our desire for worldly objects; we are strong otherwise. Remaining in the self also means attaining wisdom as wisdom comes from detachment. The state of desirelessness equates to wisdom. ‘Nirvaana’ the ultimate realisation, according to Buddhism, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘without desire’. Life’s suffering ends by permanently halting the process of desiring, similar to the sufi’s evolutionary path of attaining ‘fanaa’ (pure consciousness) through complete annihilation of earthly desires. Deepak Chopra sums it up beautifully when he states “in detachment lies the wisdom of uncertainty; in the wisdom of uncertainty lies the freedom from our past, from the known, which is the prison of past conditioning. And in our willingness to step into the unknown, the field of all possibilities, we surrender ourselves to the creative mind that orchestrates the dance of the universe”.  




2 thoughts on “Who are you ?

  1. You are so profound, Rajagopal…read Sai’s debate with one of his disciples on what is dwaita and what is adwaita, what is g(y)nan and what is ag(y)nan and he finally arrives at the question “who am I?” and solves it..even after reading it so many times, being the ignoramus that I am, I have not been able to internalise the essence..you seem to have!

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