Finding Our Souls in a Sea of Identities
Krishna Kanta Dasi
In the Bhakti paradigm, at our deepest level, we are each individual units of consciousness (atmans) trying on different identities, lifetime after lifetime. The minute we are born, we are given specific identities involving race, nationality, gender and family. As we age, individuate from our parents, and cultivate our own set of beliefs, we begin to shed old identity-constructs, and/or add on to them. This sense of self, or ahamkara, changes and becomes more sophisticated as we develop.
In Sanskrit ahamkara means “I am acting” according to so many temporary roles. Rich and colorful factors related to our upbringings, biology, environments and cultures all come into play when shaping the individual roles we play, the persons we see ourselves as. Because we each “contain multitudes”—as poet Walt Whitman once put it—it is always fascinating to hear others describe themselves.
“Who are you?” is a loaded question indeed, sometimes requiring a complex reply! After all, we are so many things to so many people. For example, in this world I am a daughter, sister, mother, wife and neighbor. I am also a student, teacher, doll-maker, vegan, homeowner, naturalist and an artist. I am also multi-ethnic, bilingual, and a resident of U.S.A. I can continue defining myself ad nauseam—as most of us can—for we wear our identities in layers. Some layers are worn very deliberately, while others are a product of our circumstances and conditioning. Some run shallow, like waves, and others seems as deep as the sea. Eventually, as we develop our sense-of-self, parts of our identity will emerge that we may feel very committed to—perhaps like being a vegan—and others that we may be more flexible about—like our specific beliefs about the afterlife.
Those who have embarked upon a spiritual journey are often characterized as feeling unsatisfied with superficial identity constructs.
We may feel that none of the ways in which we present ourselves on the outside, match the person we feel ourselves to be on the inside. Naturally, we are drawn to exploring new definitions for ourselves. Such identity explorations may stretch even beyond culture and religion, all the way into race, gender and species. Some individuals even like to think of themselves as being from other planets! This is a perfectly natural phenomenon experienced by embodied atmans all around the world and throughout time.
We are all searching for an unshakable identity that does not depend on fluctuating externals. If everything we identify with in this world were taken from us—our family, our career, our community, etc—would we feel as if we have also lost our selves?
This is what happened to Arjuna at the start of the Bhagavad Gita. Everything he previously identified himself with—his relatives, his warrior status, the kingdom—began to crumble before him. He then felt completely lost. Many of us can relate to the experience of an existential crisis. Although our core self, or atman, remains in tact, we nevertheless feel lost due to our shaky connection with it, and our human habit to revolve our sense-of-self around fleeting aspects of existence.
From the Bhakti perspective, we began collecting impermanent identities before we were even born!
Our souls have been cycling around in the circle of samsara for ions, reincarnating into different races, nationalities, genders and species. Our consciousness is like a container that holds all of these combined experiences, influencing the ways in which we define ourselves today. While it is easy to make intellectual assertions like “I am atman. I am a spark of God’s splendor”, behaving in a manner that reflects this ancient truth can take lifetimes of practice.
Bhakti Yoga is the practice through which we cultivate a sturdy connection with our core self, our atman. The atman is made up of sat (eternal being), chit (pure awareness) and ananda (deepest joy): the same inextinguishable ingredients that make up Divinity only in smaller quantities.
Our experience of this core self increases as our connection with the Supreme Divine, Krishna, also increases. The deeper we enter into our relationship with Krishna, the more we begin to reciprocate the love he has for us. We practice doing this here, in this world, within the many roles we play in our daily lives. Denying these roles in the name of identifying only as sat-chit-ananda, ultimately makes us insensitive to the world we are—undeniably—still a part of.
All the ways in which we define ourselves in this world—as temporary as they may be—have the potential to enter into our practice of Bhakti, and act as signposts to our deepest self. In Bhakti Yoga, we do not reject the world around us, prematurely renouncing it and the ways in which we define ourselves within it. Instead—as Krishna suggested to Arjuna—we give ourselves wholeheartedly to those external roles, while internally focused on the ways in which they will help illuminate our permanent role, our inextinguishable identity: our eternal role as beloveds of Krishna, devoted to reciprocating his divine love for us.
When we focus on the love God has for us, and the love he would like to see flowing between us—while simultaneously honoring the fleeting roles given to us in our lives—we are cultivating a balanced Bhakti Yoga practice: one that is in harmony with life around us.
As Krishna cautioned Arjuna, early in the Gita: “What will repression accomplish?” Hastily denying our own humanity, will not jumpstart our connection with Divinity.
In fact, it may very well do just the opposite. The only way to liberate ourselves from the human experience is to go through it, while remaining conscious of God’s love for us. Arjuna did not run off the battlefield in the Gita. Instead, he participated in it, with his mind focused on Krishna, his heart set on love.
Loving exchanges that awaken our love for Krishna are at the heart of the Bhakti tradition. When our sense-of-self—our identities—revolve around facilitating and participating in such loving exchanges, our practice will thrive. This does not happen in isolation. It happens when we interact with other people. One of the ways in which we can be most helpful to others while sharing Bhakti Yoga is to be sensitive to them: to really hear them, see them, and respond to whom they identify as the most. This fosters deep, heart-to-heart dialogue: the kind Krishna shared with Arjuna.
Acknowledging our “multitudes”—the many roles we play as humans—in the context of a Bhakti Yoga practice, nourishes dynamic relationships with our atmans. The two are quite interrelated, perhaps more intimately than we think. It is counterproductive to see them as disconnected from each other. For this reason, when we share Bhakti with others in ways that harmonize with the situations souls find themselves in today—as Krishna did with Arjuna in the Gita—we honor their individual soul’s journey. In doing so, we honor them, thus increasing their receptivity to Bhakti. This type of sensitivity to others is critical to cultivating love in our hearts: both for our fellow humans, as well as for Divinity.