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Prabuddha BharataLatest Issue
Editorial : Losing Individuality
Human beings have distinct personalities. The extent of the pronounced differences from person to person, even in minor details of behaviour, is something the human being has evolved into. Every person is a class unto oneself though belonging to a bigger community, and the still bigger species of humans. Consequently, human education involves the honing and emphasising of these specific traits of a person. While group behaviour is considered vital, humans consider the development of individual traits to be synonymous with culture. Even the screen of one’s mobile phone is styled according to one’s very particular, and oftentimes, peculiar preferences.
Most animal life is characterised by group or herd behaviour. We humans have apparently outgrown the need for a herd mentality. Or have we? Humans are caught in a tug-of-war between the need for individual enclosure and social bonding at the same time. Introversion and a cloistered life often inspire creation. They could also be neglected symptoms of mental ill health. Every person has a specific idea of the collective and individual life. When the value systems of the individual life are much divorced from those of the collective life, one experiences inner conflict. Such conflicts may subside by temporary periods of introversion or by one’s gradually becoming insensitive to the conflicts. If creating a defined individuality is a sign of the evolution of the human being, why does it create conflicts? Probably because individualisation of the human being is a failed attempt to make up for the ignorance about one’s true nature. Unknown and inexplicable things or phenomena are often given euphemistic names like individualism. Therefore, if a person has to sincerely seek the knowledge of one’s true nature, she or he should give up the cosy enclosure of individuality.
Partly the problem with the notion of individuality is that it is a mistaken notion. Instead of seeing oneself as identical with the Real, we generally see ourselves as limited in space and time. Often the words ‘identity’ and ‘individuality’ are used synonymously. But, they are not synonymous. Individuality necessarily presupposes distinction. Identity, on the other hand, could be that of oneness with the whole. Individuality can be another term for our constant penchant with distancing ourselves from the collective. We are so obsessed with attempts to individualise our lives that we cannot see anyone or anything as other than a set of limiting or demarcating features. For instance, when we get to know a person for the first time, we mentally catalogue a list of qualities that belong to that person. Introduction to a person thus becomes a pigeonholing process. Many social scientists today argue that in the wake of the mushrooming of social networking websites, people have started losing individuality. Here again, individuality is used to mean identity as well as the distinct attributes of a person.
Technology or social networking websites have only accentuated that which human beings possessed much before—the need for being separate and distinct. Individualism is a thought that is considered to be a sign of enlightenment. This philosophy advocates that people think out of the box and have the courage to go against traditional paths. This school of thinking was also born out of notions of individuality. There is apparently no problem with harbouring ideas of individuality till one has to extend one’s help or broaden one’s identification, say with one’s family or society. Then it becomes difficult to accommodate or even understand the viewpoints of others, particularly those that go against one’s beliefs.
Cultural and religious disharmony is caused due to these strange ideas of uniqueness called individualism. It brings in us a streak of impatience that does not allow deep listening to others. Self-abnegation is an important goal of all faithtraditions and that can be achieved only by opening oneself to interactions with different belief systems. It also truly leads one to greatness by becoming part of a greater collective. Even the mental strength of such a person increases manifold.
Contemporary society gives one the tools to be completely cut-off from the world, though depending on the efforts of almost the rest of the world for sustenance. For instance, one can shut oneself in a house, have sources of income through investments managed through the Internet, can buy supplies from the Internet, and get practically everything else through the Internet, while not contributing anything to society, apart from being an unwilling part of the economic chain. The very possibility of such a life shows how individuality can quickly turn into outright selfishness. This further translates into discord and an unwillingness to live harmoniously, giving importance only to one’s world view.
An individualistic approach to life also comes in the way of the spirit of learning. When one is intent on maintaining one’s distinctions and goes out of the way to appear as unique and different from others, it is difficult or well-nigh impossible to have a deep understanding of others’ wisdom. One then lives in the bleak confidence that there is nothing more to know in this universe and that one’s intellect has the solution to all problems. When life brings its share of misery upon such a person with pronounced individualistic tendencies, an irreversible psychological trauma and shattering of oneself is the result.
In spiritual life, particularly in the practice of Advaita Vedanta, individuality in this sense is a great stumbling block. When a person identifies oneself as having individuality in the sense of particular traits in space and time, any practice that requires the aspirant to give up notions of the body and the mind lead to a frightening scenario, where the clueless practitioner is afraid of being pulled into the dark depths of uncertainty. The first question that crops up in the mind of the aspirant is: ‘What will become of my individuality?’ But, the idea of individuality that people normally possess is transient anyway, with all the ideas of one’s personality changing by the minute. True individuality is a doubtless understanding of one’s personality. This has been called God, Reality, Truth, and by many other names. Unless one is definitely clear about individuality in this sense, one cannot even begin to be unique.
The greatness of the human being lies not in its obsession to become distinct or separate, but in its innate pull to converge with the universe. It is a great faculty of the human species that it has striven across millennia to lose its limited individualistic notions of itself and merge with the Real. Petty ideas about oneself only increase our suffering. It is only by developing an all-encompassing conception of our personality that we truly become unique.