On the Self

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A reflection on the Aitareya Upanishad

Throughout previous reflections, I have looked at differing aspects of thought and how the individual should attempt to broaden the scope of their understanding. This has primarily focused on the idea of internal improvement over external changes. However, in the search for self-improvement, I have failed to analyse the concept of the ‘self.’ In an attempt to remedy this I will look to the physical, mental and metaphysical aspects of the individual and attempt to discern a single threat which links them together.

The first instance we should examine is the idea of the self as the corporeal body. Many people conceive of themselves through the actions they conduct, the structure of their face and the capability of their physical frame. However, from a biological standpoint, our material bodies are replaced at the microscopic level continually throughout our lives – the likelihood that all the cellular material which comprised your body at birth remains in your system is negligible. Further, we should question ourselves – would I still be myself if I lost my hand? My legs? My face? What about the inevitable decline of later life – are we still ourselves when we are grey-haired and sapped of physical strength? My answer to these questions would be a resounding yes, but with this answer, we must look elsewhere for the self.

The next place to examine would appear to be the mind, as the apparent locus of thought and decision. However, as I have previously argued (see on Common Humanity), we should ask: when a body is deprived of its mind – be that through age, injury or disease – is the person concerned no-longer in existence? Has the essence of that individual departed their frame – leaving behind only a breathing husk? At a less extreme level we should ask: if a person’s mind is changed radically – a conversion or paradigm shift – is that person still the same, or are they fundamentally changed? My answer to both these questions would be that regardless of the mental capacity or mindset – there remains continuity between an individual and their past self. If we reject this standpoint, we must conceive of the self as being born in an instant, flourishing and then dying as that unique moment drew to a close.

So what ties together the self along the temporal thread? If it is not the physical or mental, then we must either accept metaphysics or deny the self. If there exists beyond the physical a metaphysical driver – a soul – then the self could be based upon this unchanging matter. However, note that I have not pronounced the immortality of such an object – it very well could be born with the physical body and collapse into nothingness with the extinction of the corporeal. The other option would be that the self is an illusion, a narrative created by the human mind to comprehend the material world, stitching together the disparate actions of different creatures throughout the metamorphosis of our lives, an almost infinite splicing of different individuals at different times together into a single coherent whole. If we accept the second interpretation, then any concepts of punishment or reward are meaningless – as the self that exists at any moment is only defined within the specific environment, thoughts and actions of that instant.

Original text

The Aitareya Upanishad


S. H. Raza, Jal Thal, 2014


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