"Who am I? Why do the threefold miseries always give me trouble? If I do not know this, how can I be benefited?” (Sanatana Gosvami speaking to Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 20.102)
It is in the nature of the human being to ask questions. It begins during childhood. The child asks so many questions of the father. “Dad, where are you going today? What time will you be home? What is that? Can I play with it?” They ask the mother so many questions as well. “Mom, can I go play outside? Can I have something to eat? What are you making for dinner? How did you make that taste so good?” The tendency continues into adulthood, but the perfect question is not asked until one inquires into their own nature. “Who am I and why do I have to die?”
The journalist asks so many questions of the powerful personality. When interviewing an athlete, the queries typically relate to performance. “How were you able to make that shot at the end there? Did you feel the pressure from the fans and the media? How have you adjusted to your new surroundings? How did it feel when you got traded last year? Can you talk about what it’s like playing for a new coach?”
Indeed, news stories on websites and in magazines and newspapers are nothing more than extended question and answer sessions. The journalist reporting on a breaking story looks to answer the questions of who, what, where, when, why and how. The autobiography from a famous celebrity is often composed through a question and answer session with a writer, who then turns the transcript of the lengthy interview into prose, organizing the content to make chapters of a book.
So there are always questions asked and then answers given, extending all the way out into the most difficult subject matters. And yet through it all, one question is glossed over: who am I? If asked, the typical response to this question is one’s name, for that is the identification used in dealings with their fellow man. But this name is given by the parents. It’s just a form of address. It has no meaning beyond that. A person can change their name very easily. Sometimes a person has a nickname that they go by. The name given by the parents is what goes on government documents and the like, but the nickname is how others grab their attention.
If I can change my name very quickly, it must mean that the name cannot identify me. If the name doesn’t identify me, it doesn’t identify others either. After all, everyone else is more or less the same as me. We all took birth from a mother, who was impregnated by a father. We all went through childhood, where we had so many hopes and dreams of a bright future. We all go through adulthood, where we typically work to maintain a living. We all think that we’ll never get old, but we do eventually. One day we wake up and find that different parts of our body don’t function as well as they used to. Just by turning the wrong way we can throw our back out. Just by sleeping in the wrong position overnight we can injure our hip and have a difficult time walking.
As the name does not completely identify us, the same applies for the body. We see that the body is always changing. Did my childhood form represent me or does my body today suffice? I can’t freeze my form today. Eventually it will change; though in fact it is changing at every second. We just can’t perceive the changes until a significant period of time has passed, allowing for clearer comparison points, a before and after.
If my body doesn’t identify me, it means that whatever I do with this body can’t identify me either. If I’ve raised and shepherded multiple children into adulthood, I am praised for being a good parent, but this was all done with my temporary body. If I was the leader of a great nation, taking it out of the depths of poverty and lifting it into prosperity, again my effort was the result of work done by my destructible body. Since I still have a body, I still have the opportunity to cancel out my previous good effort. A famous football player who is honored one day in the Hall of Fame may one day later commit a heinous crime that tarnishes their reputation forever. There is the saying that there is no sinner without a future and no saint without a past. This means that one’s status determined by body can change at any time.
The “who am I” question is answered by the Vedas. The simple answer is aham brahmasmi, which means “I am Brahman.” This is the only correct answer because it is true at all points in time. It is true whether I am alive or dead. Being alive means that someone else can see where I am. Being dead means I have gone somewhere else, into another body that may or may not be within the visible vicinity.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
Brahman also has a deeper explanation, which means there are other answers to the question of “who am I,” yet where the meaning to the answers is always the same. Brahman is spirit. More specifically, it refers to the complete spiritual energy. The dog, the cat, the ant, the cow, the deer, the infant, the adult, and the senior citizen are all Brahman. They are all spirit. They belong to the total energy known as Brahman. Thus aham brahmasmi can also translate to “I am a spirit soul, part and parcel of the complete spiritual energy.”
Brahman has a source. It comes from Parabrahman. Parabrahman has spiritual attributes, which are identifiable for understanding. They are also used for identification, but that identification is never specifically tied to those attributes. This means that Parabrahman does not have a name, but names are used to address it nonetheless for the benefit of the sparks in Brahman. The names given to Parabrahman bring its association, and since there are many names no one is excluded from associating with Parabrahman.
In this way we see that there is a relationship between the two Brahmans. When the features for Parabrahman are identified and drawn out, we see that it is a personality. It is full of opulences, so it is also known as Bhagavan. A more fitting description for Bhagavan is “Supreme Personality of Godhead.” The relationship between Brahman and Parabrahman is servant-master. Therefore we get another translation to aham brahmasmi: “I am a spirit soul who is eternally a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Again, we can further expand on this definition. Service can take place in different moods. A term to describe that service is bhakti-yoga, which is divine love. I can serve God through hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, and other methods. As I am Brahman forever, I can follow this service forever. In fact, I will always follow some kind of service, even if I am temporarily forgetful of my original identity.
This brings us to why we die. If we don’t know our true identity, we wade through the turbulent waters of the material ocean. This is obviously a negative. In all other aspects of life, if we fail to identify ourselves properly, we will be harmed. If someone calls out my name when I’m waiting for a table at a restaurant, and I don’t identify with that name, I will miss my chance to be seated. If I don’t know my government identification number, I won’t be able to apply for a job. If I identify with the wrong team in a competition, I will fail to complete my assigned tasks properly.
When we forget that we are eternally a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, we find so many difficult situations. Immediately we get changing bodies. With the changes, it is easier to forget who we are. We are bewildered by attachment and aversion. One second we are happy in the company of our closest friends and the next they are gone, never to be seen again. One second we are happy playing with the latest tablet computer and the next we are frantically trying to get rid of it since a newer model has come out.
Death is stopped when we remember our true position. The key is to remember it at the time of death, when consciousness becomes most important. The aggregate of our thoughts and desires from the just completed lifetime make up our consciousness when quitting the body. That consciousness then steers the ship of reincarnation, determining the next type of body. The living entity who remembers that they are a servant of Bhagavan gets a body suitable for executing that service. Since Bhagavan is full of features that never leave Him, service to Him is endless. Therefore the soul conscious of Him gets an endless body, one that never changes. It becomes identical with their person, showing that they have realized their true self.
Though of government post’s fame,
Sanatana to Mahaprabhu came.
Posed question of “who am I”,
And suffering threefold miseries why?
Life of questions and answers a series,
And issue of identity missing in these queries.
Know that as spark of Brahman meant to serve,
Supreme Lord, so consciousness of Him preserve.