Identity and Self in Indian Thought

When we examine self-concepts, we discover that, much like contemporary psychologists, philosophers in our culture have identified and recognized self-related concepts. The spiritual perspective of our civilization is the primary reason for the disparity, though. In light of this context, we must comprehend our thoughts and ideas. In Indian psychology, terminology for self and identity can be divided into two categories: those that refer to our spirituality, like atman, Purusha, jiva, and jivatman, and those that are conceptual, such as aham, ahamkra, ahambhva, abhimna, and asmita.

Identity and Self in Indian Thought

The distinction between contemporary psychology's and Indian psychology's views of the self and identity may be summed up as follows. Modern psychology rejects a broad sphere of human experience as unreal while affirming a small subset as genuine. As a result, most concepts in modern psychology deal with waking life and, to some extent, dreams. The second reason is that contemporary psychological theories of self and identity are only grounded in these levels since our experiences in these states are bio-psycho-social. In contrast, Indian psychology acknowledges waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and other types of human potential, including the paranormal, mystical, and spiritual. The possibility of experiencing pure awareness is supported, and the transcendental Self-concept is also upheld.

In light of this, Indian psychology claims that all human experiences containing the duality of subject-object/self-and-other are mere "figures" in the background of a "ground awareness," which is the sole true Self and the rest as non-self. Because of this, they believe that the jiva (soul) or dehin (owner of the body) are likewise non-selves and that it is incorrect to regard non-selves as selves. This is referred to as ajna (lack of transcendental Self-knowledge), which causes incorrect identifications with non-self—jva or dehin rather than tman—which is the cause of human troubles and suffering.

Spiritual Terminology

The spiritual component is described using a variety of words. The first group of terms refers to reality and existence, and it could be more imaginative and conceptual. Deha and Jiva are distinguished in Indian culture, asserting that they are separate entities. Because of this, when someone passes away, their body is treated as if it were dead, although Jiva is seen to proceed on its voyage. Thus, there are two parts to shraddha karma or death rites. One is for the deceased person's body before cremation, and another is for Jiva to aid it in continuing its voyage. Indian psychology and philosophy primarily concern this physical and spiritual division. Therefore, we must comprehend the two sets of notions independently.


: The most common word used to describe oneself is "atman." The terms "atman sakshatkara" (self-realization), "atman jnana" (self-knowledge), "atman sthairya" (self-determination/grit), "aatmanbhimana" (self-respect," "atman samarpana" ("self-surrender")," and others are well known. They include Atman Sakshatkara and Atman. From its early uses in the Vedas to its later usage in the Upanishads, the word has experienced alterations in its connotation. Even while the Greek word "atmos," which means "fumes" or "evaporation," shares a morphological resemblance with the term "atman," its history and development are still unknown. He contends that prana or asu, each of which denote life—the former referring to the real key segment while the latter to the vital principle—may be alternative expressions of the Vedic concept of "atman." the recognition of atman as the primary or central life principle, as evidenced by the emphasis placed on motion, activity, pervasiveness, fullness, and energizing. This age-old division between flesh and a concept in charge of life and action is prevalent across the entire universe. While this distinct principle was shunned by Western psychology, it has taken center stage in Indian psychology.


The term "Purusha" is also employed in a spiritual and sometimes even bio-psycho-social connotation. Alongside Prakriti, as described in the Samkhya system, it constitutes a key core rule of this cosmos in the first sense. Here, it stands in for the principle of consciousness, while Prakriti embodies the triguna—the three guna, namely, sattva, rajas, and tamas—the principle of materiality. When utilized in the bio-psycho-social context, it refers to the distinctive identity or soul and symbolizes a "person" in a gender-neutral meaning. Over time, however, the phrase has also come to be employed in everyday speech and by laypeople to refer to men. Every human possesses the principle of consciousness, realizing this is the end objective.


Jîva stands for life in contrast to nirjîva (lifeless). Animate and inanimate are similar terms for this concept. It implies that vibrancy, or the life principle is the source of all power, motion, and activity. This Jiva is the one that is thought to leave the physical body, and it has a name: demise. Jiva is the Sanskrit word for "soul," and it is usual to state that "it" left the body. Krishna akins death to a common occurrence like discarding a worn-out piece of clothing in the Bhagavad Gita. He asserts that the "person in the body" casts off the old or worn-out physical body and dons a new one, just as a person discards a ragged garment and dons a new one.

Psychological Connotations

Certain psychological terminology with self- and identity-related connotations is used in Indian traditions. Aham, Ahamkra, Mamakra, Abhimana, and Asmita are significant and frequently used among them. We can use the prefix aham, which means "I," to talk about oneself. Technically speaking, ahamkra is someone who acts, delights, and endures. Mamakra is the sensation of "I." The "sense of participation and affiliation" is known as abhimna. Asmita talks about our "identity," which can be either personal, social, or role-based.

Aham and Ahamkara

The word "ahamkra" originates in the Sanskrit word "aham," which is akin to the English word "me." Therefore, the questioner is curious about the true nature of aham when they ask, "Who am I?" or "koham." Speaking about Brahman implies that a person has merged with the universe and speaking of the atman or the Purusha implies understanding the self at the degree of unadulterated consciousness. When referring to Jiva, they refer to themselves as an entity that goes through birth and death cycles. Speaking of Bhokt (the experiencer) means speaking of the mental level of I. These terms may refer to ontological, transcendental, factual, and psychological classifications. Thus, there are huge individual variances, and the experience of I or aham may occur to everyone to any extent. Ahamkra is the Advaita Vedanta term for the idea that "I am the implementer" (aham kart). One of the main qualities or expressions of ahamkra is thought to be this sensation of doer-ship, often known as the "sense of agency."

Development of Self and Identity as per Indian Traditions

Hundreds of r+shi, muni, yogis, Siddhas, avadhuta and other notable individuals have repeatedly proved that the gamut of human experience is not constrained to the jgrat condition throughout India's centuries-long history. We can transcend the confines of time and space and extraordinary encounters happenings. To transcend, they have developed various methods, all of which are referred to as yoga. Based on their experiences, they have learned that the bio-psycho-social self we build has a finite range and may be expanded to encompass our spiritual side. They claim that this is where our "real identity" is found.

Therefore, two procedures are essential to recognizing our genuine selves and identities. One is the Viveka (discrimination) between a Transcendental self-awareness coming from "pure consciousness" and a bio-psycho-social self. The second is vairgya, the process of detaching from one's bio-psycho-social self. -sense. We enhance the bio-psycho-social identity as long as we still participate in social life and meet our biological and psychological requirements. That will not assist us in experiencing "pure awareness," as we are constantly enmeshed in the everyday aspects of waking life. As a result, it is necessary to cultivate detachment and retreat from active social life. However, that is only possible by properly satisfying our demands up to saturation.

As a result, the four life stages of brahmacharya (studying), grhastya (housing), vânaprastha (retiring to the forest), and sanyasa have been suggested by ancient spiritual gurus (renunciation). The final two phases are when we are liberated to explore consciousness and realize our genuine identity. However, the first stage is creating our bio-psycho-social self and identity. Individual variances exist, and some may miss a few of these phases. However, most people are advised to follow this line of growth


All subject-object/self-other dichotomies in human experience, according to Indian psychology, are mere "figures" in the background of a "ground consciousness," which is the sole true Self and the remainder are non-self. Because of this, they believe that the jiva (spirit) or dehin (master of the flesh) are likewise non-selves and that it is incorrect to treat non-selves as selves. This is referred to as ajna (absence of transcendental Self-knowledge), which causes incorrect identifiers with non-self—jiva or dehin rather than atman—which is the cause of human troubles and suffering.

Ergo, the key to ending human misery is first having the correct comprehension of the demarcation between the self and the non-self, or Viveka (discrimination), which can be attained through introspection and hearing what the rishis have to say (Ravana, which in modern times also includes other ways of learning) (manana). Make a deliberate effort to use meditation (nidhidhysana) to overcome the incorrect identification after that. After then, one becomes jnani (Self-realized). Thus, Viveka (discrimination) and Vairagya, the procedure of dis-identification or dissociation, play significant roles in the rishi framework for comprehending oneself and one's identity.

Updated on: 03-Feb-2023

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