This article is written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
The Sanskrit root ‘as’ rhyming with ‘bus’ would mean ‘to be’. The sanskrit ‘as’ is like ‘is’ in English. ‘as’ becomes ‘asmi’ when conjugated in its first person, singular, present tense. Asmi means ‘am’. Just like the English ‘am’ refers only to the first person, ‘asmi’ also will refer to the first person. ‘The suffix ‘ta’ or ‘taa’ would indicate ‘ness”. So asmitā would indicate ‘am-ness’ or the feeling ‘I exist’. Every creature has this feeling. I feel I exist, I exist in this body.
How does it take place? Just like the senses send signals from the external objects to the brain to project the image of the object in the mind for us to experience, the various nerves inside the body send signals to the brain which interprets the signals and gives the feeling or a certain awareness of oneself, a feeling of ‘I -exist’ in this body. It manifests during the waking state, but becomes dormant when one is in deep sleep or when in a coma (murcha avasta) or in certain types of yoga samadhi. It may be known in a flash– of oneself– as one emerges from deep sleep into the waking state. Sometimes while in deep sleep instead of waking up one may lapse into a dream state wherein one may get the feeling of ‘I-exist” with the dream self the lazy but innovative mind creates. That is also asmita.
Asmita is a term used in several Indian languages. It is used to indicate pride or self importance. But in darsanas like Samkhya and Yoga it is used in the strict sense of the feeling of existence. Asmita is what is felt. The entity that experiences this feeling is the real purusha or the self.
Ahamkaara is another term used both in darsanas and ordinarily life. Aham is “I’ and ‘kaara’ would mean maker. Or ahamkaara is that which makes the impression “I am a doer’. According to the philosophies of yoga, samkhya and vedanta the Self is merely an observer and not a doer. But something in the mind tells us that we are agents of action. It also could mean that even as each one is part of the universe, it is the feeling that one is different from the rest of the universe. It gives the identity about oneself. It divides the universe into subject and objects. The meaning of ahamkara can be extended into all the impressions about oneself. I am tall, I am smart, I am rich, and of course, I am dumb. Samkhyas describe ahamkara as abhimana or attachment to oneself. While asmita would just be the feeling of existence, ahamkara would indicate attachment to oneself. Contemporary scholars call ahamkara ‘ego’.
When once ahamkara is strong then the next strong feeling is mamakara or the feeling of mine. Of the innumerable articles and aspects of the universe each creature looks on some objects as ‘mine’. They develop attachments towards objects that please them and develop aversion towards those that displease them. Mamakara is the attachment to objects I own or what I consider as my own– like my body, my skills, my family, my country even though nothing belongs to the the real Self the Purusha. So this group of asmita, ahamkara amd mamakara manifests due to avidya or ignorance about one’s real self.
Both Samkhya and Yoga talk about this phenomenon called viparyaya or avidya. Samkhya karika beautifully explains that by knowing the 24 tatvas or aspects of prakriti and the 25th principle Purusha, which is distinct and different from prakriti, one is able to clearly see and remove absolutely the wrong impression of mine (me), me (aham) and existence feeling (asmi). Samkhya karika uses the term tatva abhyasa, or consistently maintaining concentration on the 25 principles, to overcome the wrong impression about oneself.
एवं तत्वाभ्यासात् नास्मि नमे नाहमित्यपरिशेषम्॥
अविपर्ययात् विशुद्धं केवलं उत्पद्यते ज्ञानम्॥
evaṁ tatvābhyāsāt nāsmi name nāhamityapariśeṣam||
aviparyayāt viśuddhaṁ kevalaṁ utpadyate jñānam||
In this way, by the contemplative practice (abhyasa) on the 25 tatvas, 24 of the prakriti and then purusha, one is able to discern that the common impressions of oneself go away and one is able to realize without an iota of doubt that one is not in this body (nasmi or no asmita klesa), nor is this body mine (naham) and I am not the doer of all actions (naaham, no ahamkara). Then the clear understanding that nothing belongs to me is the real self. It is absence of mamakara or as Samkhya karika says ‘na me’ . This arises out of the realization that the pure self is only consciousness and the observer. Then arises in the Yogi complete purity of thinking and complete removal of the wrong impressions about the Self. This leads to the knowledge of Kaivalya.
Patanjali in the Yoga sutra endorses this idea in his YS I chapter
अभ्यास वैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः।
abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ|
Patanjali also uses the term abhyasa here. Here it may be appropriate to consider that ahyasa would mean tatva abhyasa of the prakriti tatvas. In fact in describing sampragnyata samadhi he talks about four grades of objective samadhi- gross, subtle, feeling of happiness and then finally the feeling of ‘I exist’ (asmita). The human system made of the three gunas, five bhutas and thirteen indriyas or the drisya atma itself becomes the object of contemplation of the yogi and he/she is ale to develop step by step vairagya towards the non self or the drisya atma. And asmita is the last aspect for samadhi in this chain and development of vairagrya even on this asmita the first manifestation of avidya klesa leads to nirodha or kaivalya.
Some siddha yogis are said to master asmita and use it to create different chittas and work out or exhaust the the remaining karmas. Yogis also use the term abhyasa or samadhi abhyasa or yogabhyasa to achieve this result. The Yogi uses his or her samadhi capability to focus on various gross and subtle objects and ultimately focuses on the subtlest impression of all– the feeling of I-exist or asmita and then develops dispassion of vairagya over that too. The three subtle impressions of ourselves, I exist in this body, I am the doer and this is mine are all wrong impressions that bind the individual to actions or karmas both good and bad.
Actions lead to results and then further actions and results and this cycle keeps going on for ever. Perfect understanding of this group of wrong, but very powerful, subtle impressions of asmi (अस्मि) ahaṁ (अहम्) , me (मे) , and eradication completely (apariseshah) of them is the aim of the samkhyas and yogis and to achieve kaivalya.
Asmitaa is the most fundamental cognition, but to Yogis and Samkhyas it is a viparyaya vritti or incorrect presentation/perception of the Self. It is also the most fundamental klesa, or that creation of the mind (cittavritti), that causes pain many many lives long. Yoga is said to help see it clearly (samyak darsana)
I am the Purusha
The Self, pure consciousness
I am not in this person/body (naasmi)
I do not operate this person/body (naaham)
This person/body does not belong to me (na me)
The mind is peaceful (nirodha),
And I am ever free (kevala)