As a young child I used to introduce myself as ‘Ranjan Kumar Singh, son of Sri Shankar Dayal Singh and a resident of Patna’. Then someone asked me about my grandfather and my other introduction became ‘Ranjan Kumar Singh, the grandson of Late Kamta Prasad Singh, who hailed from Aurangabad in Bihar’. As I learnt more, my introduction kept changing. Now I know about my previous five generations, beyond which I still have no clue or knowledge. We all know ourselves up to a point that we have information about. As we acquire more knowledge, our introduction goes deeper and closer to our roots.
It is true that I am Ranjan; but is that all I am? It is equally true that I am the son of Late Shankar Dayal Singh; but does my identity end with that? In kindergarten, we were taught: ‘He is Ram. Ram is a boy. All boys are not Ram’ and also ‘She is Sita. Sita is a girl. All girls are not Sita’. How very true is this. We all have multiple identities and unique identity, both at the same time.
There happened to be another person named Shankar Dayal Singh who died and because of the similarity of name with my father a few condolences came to us. It was such an embarrassment for all of us. So, not even all Shankar Dayal Singh are the same. If Shankar Dayal Singh is not the Shankar Dayal Singh, then who is he? Certainly the identity of a person goes much beyond his name.
And if it is not the name, then it obviously has to be the face. We all know the faces too well and can recognize it. During post mortem, the near and dear ones are required to identify the deceased by looking at his or her face. Unfortunately this face too decomposes with the last rites. After the cremation of my father when he died, I came back home carrying his fond memories. I told myself, ‘Yes, I know. My father, who lived with me in this house, has died.’ A queer question followed, ‘Then who is this person who still lives with me in my thoughts?’
Certainly there was my father, who lived with me in this house; and there is my father who lives with me in my memories. Who is the real one? The obvious answer would be the one who lived with me in this house, the one I could see, I could hear and could touch. OK. If the physical being is the real person, then all relationships should end with the decomposition of the body, but it does not. You demolish a house to build a new one and the former ceases to be your house. So, how can my father, whose body was put to ashes, continue to be my father; but he does and will always be. Therefore, the identity of a person must also go beyond his body.
The question deepens: If I am not the name and not even the body, then who am I?
My thoughts take me back to my deceased father who still lives in my memory. And since the memory never dies, he would live there as long as I do. Question remains, is he the real one?
We take the one embedded in our thoughts as illusionary. As a matter of habit, we grieve over the one whom we have cremated, thereby completely ignoring the one who occupies the space in our thoughts. Yet, millions of people die every day but we do not mourn the death of each and every such person. Millions of children are born every day but we do not take pleasure in the birth of each and every such baby. We mourn the death of someone near and dear to us. We celebrate the birth of someone we can call our own. So it is not the deceased body that causes us to suffer, nor is it the new-born body that prompt us to rejoice. It is our relationship to the embodied that causes our suffering or our pleasure. Does someone really live in this body? Well, who is he? Is that the real me?
Looking at the mirror, I admire myself. I know if I am fat, or thin, or beautiful, or ugly. We take our body as ourselves. We take the bodies of our beloved ones as them. We all point at the body of a person and say ‘There he is’! We point towards the body of a person and ask, ‘Who is he?’ Have we ever seen someone ask, ‘Whose body is that?’ so long as the object of query is ‘alive’. But I have not even heard someone asking over a dead body ‘Who is he?’ Obviously we know very well that the real being is other than the body.
Yet, the physical association forms the basis of all our relationship. Thus we are grief-struck at the loss of the body of our beloved. The fact is that this body is ever changing. It is ever decaying. Scientists have found that we get completely new body every seven years. Within this period all the old cells, barring brain cells, are replaced by the new ones. So which of them am I? One who had supple skin in the childhood, or the one with the black mustache during youth, or the one with graying hairs now? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus conveys this truth in a wonderful expression: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he’s not the same man.
Problem occurs when we take our physical existence as our absolute identity. How can a thing that is ever changing be the absolute? Will I not be there, even if I lost my eyes, or limbs, or hairs? So why should I be not counted when I lose my other parts, lose my whole body?
In her infancy, when someone asked my daughter, ‘Where is your father?’ she would point her small little hand towards my photograph. For her I was there even when I was not!
Does this give us a clue?