— Swami Vireshananda —
The study of human beings is one of the many fascinating studies undertaken within religion, philosophy, and the physical sciences for hundreds of years. In this study, a human becomes an object of investigation, the medium is the human mind, while oneself becomes the investigator. In other words, a knower investigates the nature of the knower himself through the tool of his mind.
What is Personality?
In general, when we observe a person over a long period of time, what we find is a certain pattern in his or her behaviour, feeling, and even thinking. This pattern is said to be one’s personality. The personality constitutes not only what others think about one, but also one’s estimation of oneself. It is a commonly accepted fact that the personality is the aggregate of one’s traits, some of which are more aggressive and dominant than others. The personality not only refers to the behaviour but also to dispositions and the mental impressions behind the behaviour. In all, what makes a person distinct from another is his or her personality.
Though it is actually the collection of several factors, one’s personality is expressed through the common notion of ‘I’. Here is a contradiction. Though it is generally recognised that personality is a conglomeration, the idea it conveys is always that of identity. Hence, on a subtler level, we have to conceive the personality to be that which stands for the identity of a person. However, philosophers, religious saints, and physical scientists are engaged in arguments over centuries on the question: ‘What is that identity, on which the individuality or personality of a human being rests?
It is widely assumed that the personal identity of a human being remains the same despite the changes in body, mind, and behaviour. However, we find a paradox in the idea of personal identity due to the fact that sameness and change, in themselves, are contradictory to each other. Hence, the personal identity has to contend with the change. This is what is called ‘The Problem of Unity’.
An interesting story narrated by John Locke elucidates this point: In this story, a cobbler wakes up one morning with the apparent memories of a prince. He has totally forgotten how to mend the shoes and is disgusted with his poor household. A person sometimes may behave in a different manner other than what his physical form permits him. In this case, the memories collected in his psyche prompt him to develop a personal identity that is not in consonance with his physical body. This case leads us to further question whether one is a person as suggested by one’s memories or as one physically seems to be. In short, what is that which determines personal identity—one’s body or one’s memories?
This problem is often discussed in a dualistic context of body and mind. Even the idea of the unity of the mind poses us a challenge, since the mind contains many fleeting thoughts. It, therefore, does not seem, in this sense, to have unity. In order to resolve this problem, the doctrine of a spiritual substance that acts like a central component preserving one’s identity is brought forward. David Hume is sceptical of the possibility of the existence of such a spiritual substance. He says that each of us appears to be ‘a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’.2 However, Locke holds the view that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity.
This spiritual substance is the source of awareness called self-knowledge, which is commonly understood to be the knowledge that a person has of oneself. This knowledge gives direct and privileged access to one’s present thoughts, feelings, and intentions. However, the question remains as to whether the self can be known or whether it will remain unknown forever.
The question as to whether the unity of a person is connected with the continuation of the body or survives even after its death leads us to the doctrine of immortality. If we do not believe that bodily identity is the same as personal identity, then we have to accept a non-physical identity, which could survive even after death. Another contention is that there is no need for such a non-physical substance to retain the identity of a person at all, since there is no need for an unchanging character in one’s personality.
Is It the Mind or the Body?
The discussion on self-identity opens up several questions. They include that of the very nature of personality or Self, which gives identity to a human being. Descartes equates the self with the mind and says that the self has characteristics of emotions, willpower, thoughts, and knowledge. However, Spinoza says that the self is both physical and mental at the same time. Locke and Berkley give prominence to the faculty of awareness in the personality and say that awareness is but the working of the consciousness since a non-conscious entity is incapable of knowing. Locke says in this context: ‘Person … is the name of the self. … The personality extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness.3 Since a human, being a knower, is an entity with consciousness, the human soul is of the nature of consciousness.
However, the well-known German philosopher Immanuel Kant says that the workings of the mind are to be considered the natural characteristics of a thinking soul. In his opinion, it is impossible to know the soul, since the experience of the soul falls outside the compass of objective experiences that one knows through the mind.
From the biological perspective, Charles Darwin, the father of modern zoology, says that there is no difference in the ‘nature’ of humans and animals except for the fact that what we find in humans is the higher manifestation of ‘nature’. In this context, there is a popular saying that ‘man is a rational animal’. Some thinkers also believe that the thinking faculty in humans is due to the soul they possess. Whether such a soul is absent in animals or not is a matter of contention in Western thought.
Personality as Consciousness
Locke is one of the few philosophers who signified the overall pervasiveness of consciousness in the working of the knowledge that the self stands for. He says: ‘Self is that conscious thinking thing (whatever Substance made up of, whether Spiritual, or Material, Simple, or Compounded, it matters not) which is sensible, or conscious of Pleasure and Pain, capable of Happiness or Misery, and so is concern’d for itself, as far as that consciousness extends.’4
The above view resembles the opinion of Nyaya philosophy, which says that the self is a substance with the quality of consciousness (buddhi). This view of the Nyaya is contested by the Sankhya system that gives independent status to consciousness and says that purusha (self) is but pure Consciousness. The qualities like pleasure or pain belong to the mind that evolves from prakriti, the Primal Nature. It is only through wrong identification with the mind, an evolute of prakriti, due to ignorance, that the self becomes aware of pleasure and pain.
Advaita Vedanta says that Consciousness alone is real and all else is but the appearance of consciousness. Hence, the self in essence is consciousness and the existence of all the non-self entities is to be reduced to the Self. The Reality in the form of Self alone exists. Niralamba Upanishad put this idea thus: ‘Sarvam khalvidam brahma neha nānāsti kincana; all this is Brahman (Reality). There is nothing else whatsoever.’5
The personality seems to be a bundle of body, senses, and mind for a casual onlooker. However, from a higher perspective, as pointed out by several psychologists and philosophers, it is but a pattern of behaviour and thought. A still higher idea of personality is that of self-awareness gained through consciousness. However, the most profound idea is that which equates personality with Consciousness itself as proposed by Sankhya. Advaita Vedanta goes still further and says that all that exists is only the Self, which is of the nature of pure Consciousness. Here we reach the pinnacle of the concept of human personality ever conceived in the history of humankind.
Personality development is the emergence of the thought and behavioural patterns of a human being over time. It is these traits that make one’s personality. How do these patterns evolve and what are the conditions of such an evolution? Whether the traits which manifest in a person already exist in a potential form or does the external ambience contribute to the acquisition of such traits? These are some of the fundamental factors to be considered while assessing what personality development is. It is a multidisciplinary subject involving several branches of knowledge including philosophy, religion, psychology, genetics, and the like.
The overall concept of personality development in Western thought is that of acquisition of various thought and behaviour patterns through repeated interaction with the external environment. However, genetics traces some of the traits of a human being to hereditary factors. In all, it is the combination of these two factors that contribute to the personality development of an individual. As for the inherent potentiality of personality traits in a human being, Western thought holds a sceptical view. This is due to the overall denial of transmigration of the soul found in Western philosophy, science, and religion, despite contrary views held by a handful of thinkers.
Sigmund Freud says that the mind is not fully formed at the beginning of the life of a human. The agencies of the mind slowly emerge and develop in different stages. Culture and relationships contribute to personality development. Carl Jung, another famous psychologist, is of the opinion that personality development is the transformation of the ego or self into an integrated whole, which is accomplished by the integration of apparent opposites within the psyche. The resultant unified soul is conscious of all its parts.
The Western idea of personality development is best illustrated in the manner honeybees collect nectar to produce honey. Another illustration is that of a seed that grows into a tree by imbibing nutrition from various sources including earth, water, air, and sunlight. Here acquisition of the attributes from external sources through proper method and training is of importance. Hence, the external conditions play equal significance as inner potential in the evolution of a human being.
The Vedantic Idea of Personality Development
Swami Vivekananda brings in the idea of ‘involution’ which presupposes the ‘evolution’. He says:
Every evolution is preceded by an involution. The whole of the tree is present in the seed, its cause. The whole of the human being is present in that one protoplasm. The whole of this universe is present in the cosmic fine universe.6
The above idea resonates with the teachings of the Upanishads. Taittiriya Upanishad states that every living being comes out from, resides in, and merges into Reality (Brahman). Chandogya Upanishad speaks of sat, pure existence, which modifies into the universe with name and form. When there is the dissolution of name and form, what remains is sat.
The cosmic idea of evolution and involution equally applies to individuals also. Swamiji explains: ‘If a man is an evolution of the mollusc, then the perfect man—the Buddha-man, the Christ-man—was involved in the mollusc.’7 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad validates this through repeated assertion: ‘Brahman that is immediate and direct—the self that is within all—is one’s own (individual) self.’8
In contrast to the prevalent idea, Vedanta proposes that the discovery of one’s real nature as Atman or Brahman is the goal of personality development. The systematic enquiry into the nature of Atman and raising oneself to the higher realms of self-awareness is the process involved in personality development. Kena Upanishad elucidates the culmination of this progression:
प्रतिबोधविदितं मतममृतत्वं हि विन्दते ।
आत्मना विन्दते वीर्यं विद्यया विन्दतेऽमृतम् ॥
It (i.e. Brahman) is really known when It is known with (i.e. as the Self of) each state of consciousness, because thereby one gets immortality. (Since) through one’s own Self is acquired strength, (therefore) through knowledge is attained immortality.9
Sri Shankaracharya explains in this context that the strength got from wealth, friends, and the like cannot conquer death, for it is produced by impermanent things. But the strength, consequent on the knowledge of the Self, is acquired through the Self alone and not through anything else. The Acharya further states that strength resulting from the knowledge of the Self is independent of any means of acquisition and that strength alone is able to conquer death.
This idea is in contrast with the Western idea of personality development that mainly focuses on the acquisition of excellent qualities, capabilities, skills, education, health, wealth, and the like from external means to shape oneself into a perfect human. The Vedantic idea of personality development is acquiring strength through the knowledge of Self, the perpetual fountain of infinite existence, infinite knowledge, and infinite bliss, and becoming immortal.
Dimensions of Personality
The process of raising oneself to higher realms of awareness has been graphically described in the Taittiriya Upanishad in the form of five kinds of selves: annamaya ātmā, prāṇamaya ātmā, manomaya ātmā, vijñānamaya ātmā, and ānandamaya ātmā. The grossest is the body, which an ordinary person considers as one’s self. The Upanishad says that it is a wrong identification. Hence, one is instructed to proceed further inwards. Then one finds that the gross body is but a covering (kośa) to a still higher idea of the self, that is, vital energy (prāṇamaya ātmā). The vital energy is also not a correct concept of the Atman. It is but a covering (kośa) to manomaya ātmā (the mind). Then the aspirant finds that the mind is also a wrong idea of Atman. It is but a covering to vijñānamaya ātmā, intellect. Even a subtle idea such as that of intellect cannot be the true Self as it is also a covering to ānandamaya ātmā, the blissful causal body experienced in the deep sleep. Ultimately, ānandamaya ātmā is also a covering and hence, it is also a false idea of the Self. Then the Upanishad proceeds to give its greatest teaching: ānanda ātmā; pure bliss is the Self. All the five selves mentioned earlier are but apparent manifestations. The real Self is of the nature of ānanda, the pure bliss.
One who has attained this knowledge, transcends one by one, sheaths (kośa) of food, prāṇa, mind, intellect, and bliss and becomes one with Brahman, which is described as satyam, reality, jñānam, knowledge, and anantam, infinite. Through this, she or he realises oneness with all.
The real personality is that which realises oneness with all. It is of the nature of Brahman, the Reality. When one transcends the inferior ideas of one’s personality, one ascends to such a state in which one finds oneself in union with Brahman, the ultimate Reality, and realises oneness with all. This is the culmination of personality development according to Vedanta.
The pursuit of this ultimate spiritual goal requires harmony of the faculties of body, mind, and intellect. Swami Vivekananda emphasises this in his lectures: ‘What we want is to see the man who is harmoniously developed … great in heart, great in mind, [great in deed].’10 He says that more than anything else, it is the personality that matters in an individual. The ideal of all education, of all training, is man-making, which is identical to personality development. Swamiji also lays down laws of personality development, which he terms ‘Yoga’. He says: ‘The science of Yoga claims that it has discovered the laws which develop this personality.’ Swamiji outlines the different layers of personality and says that the real knower is the Atman, ‘the Soul of man, the real Self of man’.11
Swamiji compares human personality to a glass globe, in which there is pure white light—an emission of the Divine Being—in the centre. However, the glass—that is, a conglomeration of body, mind, and the like—being of different colours and thicknesses in each individual, the rays of the divine light assume diverse aspects in the transmission. Swamiji explains the core idea of personality development in glowing terms: ‘The equality and beauty of each central flame is the same, and the apparent inequality is only in the imperfection of the temporal instrument of its expression. As we rise higher and higher in the scale of being, the medium becomes more and more translucent.’12
Personality development is a buzzword used nowadays in academic and business circles to train young people into successful professionals. However, it has got a deep meaning and dimension than the commonly accepted notion of developing qualities necessary for a specific enterprise. The general notion of personality development is limited to the development of different faculties that make up the human personality. However, Vedanta presents a grand idea of personality development to be the discovery of one’s divine nature hidden under the garb of human personality. Swamiji’s exhortation in this regard can be accepted to be the last word on this subject:
Teach yourselves, teach everyone his real nature, call upon the sleeping soul and see how it awakes. Power will come, glory will come, goodness will come, purity will come, and everything that is excellent will come when this sleeping soul is roused to self-conscious activity.13
1 See The Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. and The Free press, 1972), vol. 6, pp. 95–96.
2 See <https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/mind-bundle-theory-of/v-1>.
3 See <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_identity>.
4 Ulrich Steinvorth, Rethinking the Western Understanding of the Self (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 37.
5 Niralamba Upanishad.
6 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.255.
7 Ibid., 2.75.
8 See Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.4.1.
9 Mundaka Upanishad, 2.4.
10 Complete Works, 6.49.
11 Ibid., 2.425.
12 Ibid., 4.191.
13 Ibid., 3.193.