Who am I? — part 4
Our character
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: March, 2017

Dispositions and competencies

In our increasingly mobile and shifting society, our relationships, role-behaviours, group-memberships and possessions are becoming less and less fixed. As a result, the focus regarding our identity comes to rest more and more on individual differences, on issues of competence and capacity, on traits, dispositions, and temperament, all that we might call in short, our character, or perhaps our "attitude". It is in these that our individual differences come most to the fore, and one could easily come to the conclusion that with this we have finally arrived at something that we could rightfully call our identity. As students often formulate it "I am the manner in which I think." Assuming that thoughts are embedded in, caused by, or emerging from our brain, the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett would say "We are our neurons", or somewhat more sophisticated: we are the way our neurons are interconnected. [REFs x 2]. But what about change? In what way are we the same person as we were when we were one year old? In what way not? Are we like a river: one in name but never containing the same water?

The Indian tradition holds that all most people know of themselves is temporary and can change without effecting who we really are in our innermost essence. In Vedanta as well as in Samkhya, it is commonly held that in our innermost essence we are simply one with the Divine and "pure" in the exclusive sense of having no distinct qualities: all our differences are part of nature, and as soon as ignorance is left behind so is our indivdual existence.[REF to Sivananda on the jivatman and paramatman]. Sri Aurobindo does not accept this position. He agrees that we are in our essence one with the Supreme, but he also accepts that we have a permanent spiritual individuality with a unique svabhava and svadharma, spiritual nature and law of right action, which are part of our true Self and neither of Ignorance nor of universal Nature.1

To be completed


1. These other schools of Vedanta would say that even our svabhava and svadharmabelong in the end to the world of maya and dissolve once we recover from our ignorance. A more detailed discussion of how Sri Aurobindo's position differs from others in the Vedantic tradition, can be found here. One of several places where Sri Aurobindo describes beautifully and subtly how he sees the possibility of dynamic individual participation in the manifestation even after a full realisation of one's oneness with the Divine is in the chapter of The Synthesis of Yoga, titled "The Divine Will" (pp. 208-220).


Descartes, R. (1641/1996) Meditations On First Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (The text is the 1911 edition of The Philosophical Works of Descartes (Cambridge University Press), translated by Elizabeth S. Haldane.)

Descartes, René (1931). The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, New York, NY: Dover Publications. Original publication 1641.


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