“I am” and “I am this”
A. The teaching of Kashmir Shaivism.
- Kashmir Shaivism distinguishes between “I am” (aham), which is the unlimited divine consciousness and ahamkāra, which is the consciousness of the individual who is limited in time and space etc. Thus, there is the divine consciousness “I am” and the limited consciousness “I am only this”.
- There is a precise relationship between aham and ahamkāra. The aham (“I am”), the consciousness of Siva, freely expresses itself in the limited variety of this world, even down to the level of brute matter (prakṛiti). The limited self (ahamkāra) is, therefore, an expression of the unlimited Self.
- The error, the illusion (maya), is for the idinvidual to suppose that he/she is really only the limited self. Liberation consists in realising that the limited self is an expression of the divine self, which is in fact one’s true nature.
- This realisation does not eliminate the limited self as such, for it destroys only the limited understanding of the self. (The question of the cycle of emanation and reabsorption, the cycle of Brahmā, is a quite different topic, which is another topic.) The individual person does not disappear but is profoundly re-interpreted. The emphasis shifts from the limited sense of “I am this” to the unlimited sense “I am”, which is the divine mind.
- In Vedānta the limited individual is really non-existent but in Kashmir Shaivism the limited self is not unreal and does not disappear: it is reinterpreted.
B. Western paradigms
Our Western notion of the individual self is very strong. The idea of the soul, coming from the Greeks, has become reified and absolutised. The classical Greek notion of metempsychosis holds that the soul is the real self and that at death it transmigrates from one body into another body, which is just the carcass imprisoning the real self. This notion of the individual, immortal soul has had a huge impact on Christianity.
The individualism of the modern age only reinforces the absolutising of the limited self.
C. The Biblical tradition
- The biblical notion of the person is much more flexible. To begin with, the human person is not an incarnate soul but a living body. The human being is essentially flesh. The term “body” does not mean just flesh and bone but the whole set of relationships. The individual person is essentially fleshed and essentially social. When, therefore, someone dies, the person ceases to exist. The soul may continue to exist in some shadowy sense, but the person has ceased to be. This is most important. It is why the Christian creed holds quite explicitly to the resurrection of the body, which means the restoration of the whole person.
- The purpose of the Christian life is to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). St Paul in Gal 2.20 says, “I live or rather not I but Christ lives in me.” He acknowledges that his essential self is Christ. His limited self, Paul, still lives, but really it is Christ who lives. In John 3.3 Jesus says, “Unless a person is born from above [or born again] he cannot see the kingdom of God”. The great Athanasius states, in the often-quoted phrase: “God became man so that man might become God”: Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπισεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν (Migne PG, 25, 192B De Incarnatione Verbi, 54,3).
- The moment of salvation comes when the individual is at last freed from all limitation, “dies”, and takes on the person and nature of the Christ. The limited “I am this” is transfigured into the “I am ” of Christ. The whole point of Jesus’ life and death is to break down the barrier (Eph.2.14), the dualism, and to become the uniting bond of all creation (Col.1.17).
D. Christianity understood in terms of Kashmir Shaivism.
- Or to put it in other words, which are more akin to Kashmir Shaivism, Jesus says, “I am” and cannot say “I am not”. God, in Christ Jesus, cannot say “I am not that drunk, that no-hoper” Rather he says “You are my very self”. It is the divine compassion. It is the incarnation where the Word is made flesh in all the limitation and sinfulness of humanity. As a result the drunk (for example), who realises what Jesus is doing and comes to faith, could repeat the statement and say to Jesus in reply, “You are my very self”. It is a moment of intense intimacy, a moment of deep love. Thus there is only one self, the divine self, manifested variously in human beings, although through the fall this has been forgotten.
It follows – and this is the heart of the matter – that the individual authentically can take up the words of Colossians 1:15ff and say: “I am the image of the unseen God … holding all things in unity etc…” I can say these words from myself, both my universal self and my limited self, which is an expression of my universal self. As long as I think of Christ and of myself individualistically and as essentially separate, I can never really attain that higher consciousness. Jesus of Nazareth reveals to me my essential self, which is his essential self, so that we are one. It is not as though his mind is superimposed over mine, rather we are of one mind, and so I am saved. He ceases to be “other”, for he is my very self, I am his very self: there is one self. Thus, as he says “I am” very frequently in the Gospel of John so, as a result, I am able to say authentically “I am”.
2. The sense of individualism is extremely strong in modern society and is largely but not entirely opposed to the notion of person. Christianity does not promote individualism but places greater emphasis on “person”, which is more flexible and approachable, not exclusive and atomic. Thus Christian theology teaches that there are three Persons in the one God, not three Individuals in the one Individual. Jesus can say, “He who sees me sees the Father” because his person is not cut off individually from the Father but fully reveals and manifests Him. “The Father and I are one”. (Jn 10.30)
3. All this involves a considerable shift in our Western presuppositions, which are often confused with Christianity.
4. It is not a question of infantilism, regressing to the stage where the child does not distinguish itself from the mother. Nor is it a question of mindless tribalism or group identity. Rather it involves complete lucidity and transparency. The Gospel of John lends itself well to the non-dual (advaita) attitude, which is the middle path between the extreme individualism of our day and the illusionism of the Vedānta.
In the intimacy of love, the lovers acquire the sense of being the one reality, the one body, neither of them eliminated by the other, where one is the other and in the other, manifested by the other, existing because of the other. The intimacy of love is one of the best models for the final state of mankind where “God is all in all” (I Cor.15.28).