What is Identity?

How do you identify others?  How do you identify yourself? Is it by appearance? Undoubtedly this is an important means of identification otherwise we would not have to include up-to-date photographs in important documents such as passports. Is your identity defined by familial or social relations? You are so-and-so’s son, daughter, mother, father, spouse or you belong to a particular church or denomination or are a citizen of a particular country. Or is perhaps your identity tied to particular interests you have in music, sport, entertainment or by sexual preference? Which of these definitions of identity is the most valuable and important and which can be disregarded and why are they even necessary?

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali five klesha or causes of suffering in this world are defined. I quite like the Sanskrit word klesha as it seems very onomatopoeic like the English word “clash”. The first of these is avidya, ignorance, which is clearly a great cause of suffering and is pretty self-explanatory although I will mention it again later. The second one which is very relevant to what I’ve been discussing is asmita, which in the version of the Yoga Sutras I have by Swami Vishnudevananda is translated as “egoism” or “I-ness”. Interestingly this is very close to the Gaelic expression “Is mise” which is used before giving your name and means “I am”. Sanskrit and Gaelic are quite closely related and share many similarities which are also common to most European languages. However the point I’m making is that whenever you use the term “I am” you are basically defining your own identity. “I am Drew McNaughton”, “I am a writer”, “I am an American”, etc., etc. Of course other people can do it to you as well: “He is my son”; “You are white”; etc. All of these instances come under the category of asmita and can cause problems.

The next two klesha to be defined are raga and dvesha which in the translation I have mean likes and dislikes and also attraction and aversion respectively. You would think that only the latter of these would be a problem but let’s look at them from a different angle to see why they are both included. In chemistry there are two key physical properties that can be attributed to chemicals: hydrophilia (water loving) and hydrophobia (water hating). These two extremes can be demonstrated in the fact that oil and water do not mix. Water is a polar substance and a characteristic of these is that they are hydrophilic, whereas oil is a non-polar substance and hydrophobic, hence they cannot be dissolved in one another and remain separate. Certain substances however can be both hydrophilic and hydrophobic and some of these make up the outer membrane of our cells and thus life as we know it depends on them. Why am I digressing into chemistry? Well the two terms philia and phobia are the key terms I want to focus on and these I think make a good analogy for raga and dvesha. For example, if you are really interested or even passionate about music, you are an audiophile or if you really like things to do with France, you are a Francophile, but note that again I’m using the term “you are” which again identifies you in a particular way. Some individuals or groups take the opposite stance and their identity can be defined by the objects of their hatred. This is a well known and unfortunately growing phenomenon. So we have islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia and so on. As I said before it is clear that these identities are sources of suffering, usually because the people who hold these views inflict some kind of injury, psychological or physical, on the subjects of their hatred. Both the philic and phobic inclinations can be seen then as problematic and this is why I think Stoicism is so similar to Yoga philosophy. There were probably Stoics in ancient times who were aware of Yoga and vice versa due to transmission of philosophies across large geographical distances. Travel, even back then, was difficult but not impossible. Both schools also held that unbridled hedonism didn’t lead to the best results and dealings with society at large should be conducted compassionately.

The last of the klesha to be defined is a rather important one as well. Abhinivesha translates as “fear of death”. I should say at this point that Patanjali in his thorough manner in the subsequent sutras gives definitions for each of the klesha in order to clarify his statements. This is the classic rhetorical device for the sutra form. And his definition of abhinivesha is remarkably succinct as he says that “Fear of death is the continuous desire to live which is rooted even in the minds of the wise.” It is essentially our instinct for survival. But what is it that we are trying to preserve? Ourselves? But who are we ourselves? Ach cò a tha sinn fhéin? And we come back to the original question of what is identity? At our death we merely are losing this sense of identity which we are so strongly identified with. It is such a strong identification that it even exists in the minds of the wisest beings who have ever walked on this Earth, who dwell here now and who will ever dwell here in the future. But these body tissues that are made of flesh and bone, of the very cells that were mentioned earlier and consist of nothing more than a collection of polar, non-polar and hybrid molecules and even more basic elements and sub-atomic particles will disintegrate and re-coalesce into other forms both living and inanimate for vast stretches of time well beyond our limited human lifespan. It is perhaps because of the ignorance (avidya) of this and the wondrous workings of Nature and the Universe that avidya can be considered the root of all the other klesha and the greatest cause of suffering of them all.

However on a final note, because I don’t really think I have managed to answer the question I first set out to answer, I just want to mention that in Gaelic the term for “self-identity” is féin-aithne. I think this term was coined relatively recently as it doesn’t have an entry in Dwelly’s dictionary and this perhaps reflects the modern fascination with the ability to make a conscious decision to identify yourself in some way for reasons that may be bound up in identity politics and relationships of power. Language itself is a potent symbol of identity and the language and even accent you use can greatly define your identity. Returning to the Gaelic word aithne which formed part of the compound word for self-identity, it has an interesting usage and one which I have to admit I struggled with understanding when I first started learning the language. It is worth remarking that it seems to echo the English word “identity” and perhaps comes from the same historic root. Its use when I first came across it was as a form of knowledge or acknowledgement particularly in relation to people with whom you have an acquaintance. The closely related word aithneachd (both are feminine nouns by the way) also means “knowledge” but also “recognition”. Does this once again refer back to a person’s appearance or is it more than that? One way or the other the specialised use of the word indicates that identity, for all its complexity, is deeply rooted in human, and perhaps even non-human, experience.

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