Mohini on a Swing (1894) Raja Ravi Varma (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Identity, Struggle, Liberation, and the Self

Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.


As a seeker on a Hindu path, I’ve always struggled to fully connect with Western concepts and spaces of social justice, not because of their commitment to reducing suffering in the world, but because I don’t see their approaches as always effective. I often find they make things worse.

Let me clarify.

I’m not talking about spiritually bypassing material inequity and struggle in the world. I’m not talking about gaslighting or ignoring the suffering of other people in any way. How could I? That is not at all what Hinduism teaches. Hinduism is about making sense of and navigating that struggle and being of service from a place of Self-knowledge. This means that to serve the planet effectively, one must come closer to one’s true nature — the Self.

It’s important to remember that these words do not have universal definitions.

For Hindus, one of the key components of finding relief from the suffering that is an inevitable part of human existence is vivekam. On its top layer, vivekam means wisdom or knowledge. But what wisdom? What knowledge? When you dig just a little deeper, you learn that vivekam is about being able to discern between that which is always changing and that which is constant, or never changing. Everything that we relate to every day — everything that seems to be our reality — is actually in flux. Our weight, our age, our friendships, the weather, our abilities, so much of what feels so real and that we have so much attachment to (whether positive or negative) is actually constantly changing. (Remember that all of this is embedded within the cycle of reincarnation, so those changes also may occur across lifetimes.) But there’s something that is never changing, that is constant. That which observes and marks change. (Something needs to be constant for change to be perceived, right?) And so, according to Hinduism, only that which is not changing is the Truth.

So what never changes? The Self. Not the self at the level of ego, but the Self that is eternal and is beyond the ego of any particular birth. My Guru teaches that there are seven layers of existence. Moving from the most outward to inward layers are the body, breath, mind, intellect, memory, ego, and then the Self. The ego is typically oriented away from the Self, towards the physical (the body, the breath) and subtle layers (memory and intellect) of this life. Those layers, beginning with ego, are constantly in flux and changing, right? Now bear in mind that there is no judgment here about the ego or any of the layers that are changing. We are not trying to get rid of any of that. At the same time, we acknowledge that our attachment to these things (a natural part of being human) leads to suffering. It is the nature of things.

But the Self is constant. It never changes. It is eternal.

How does this relate to my disconnection with social justice? What’s troubled me is that part of the culture of social justice is an apparent over-identification with everything that is constantly changing. This includes things like identity markers, sexuality, and trauma, all of which sit at the outer layers. Given the Hindu perspective — that it is already a human tendency to be attached to that which is constantly changing and that this is what leads to suffering — you can easily see how social justice ideas run counter to the path of liberation from suffering according to Hinduism.

This over-identification seems to have been heightened in the past decade or so. What’s worse is that it is often described as “my truth.” My truth is my trauma, my truth is my body, my truth is all of these things…that are constantly in flux! We know these things are changing, maybe not every day, but any middle-aged person who finds themselves holding their phone at a distance while they read this will readily attest to this. And yet the rhetoric of social justice insists that for society to be uplifted we must each affix our identities to these malleable things in an even more exaggerated or magnified way. The space has become trauma-led. It’s become so serious.

For someone like me, on a spiritual path of Hinduism, I recognize that these layers are absolutely in our line of perception across the senses and, most of the time, are on our minds. But the journey is to learn to have a lightness about them, to not make ourselves intentionally hyper-attached to them. And yet that’s exactly what’s seen in liberatory discourse and diversity protocol. “I identify as ______.” We sometimes even announce how we “identify” with them before Zoom meetings.

And it strikes me as counter to my journey as a Hindu.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I am suggesting in any way that these changing layers aren’t what we experience on a daily basis, and that those things haven’t impacted how I am seen in the world. Absolutely. Society is constructed around our apparent reality. I am not endorsing that it is okay to discriminate against anyone based on these layers. In fact, I am offering the opposite. That it is a universal condition of human existence to be convinced of the apparent reality of things that are actually changing. These things may change in others and in ourselves, or they might change at the level of perception, memory, intellect, emotions, even the ego. (How many times have you held a strong opinion about someone only to discover something new about them and your strong opinion suddenly shifts? How many times have you felt a shift in your encounters with others because you have released trauma inside yourself?) Holding all of it more lightly allows for more acceptance. It allows for more plurality and fluidity of experience, expression, and community because we haven’t calcified our minds and our identities around things that are changing. It’s in flux, and that’s the nature of it — to be changing.

I understand that a system has been developed around a particular way of thinking about existence, justice, and liberation. Social justice emerges from liberation theology, which has particular religious roots. (And no, Hinduism can’t authentically be retrofitted into liberation theology, no matter how cleverly some might try.) Liberation theology and social justice are not universal — they advance a particular ontology (theory of being) that simply isn’t what I believe. This isn’t about my identity marker “as a Hindu” being included or excluded in the discourse. It’s about the lack of resonance with Hindu concepts of the Self and liberation.

I’m don’t pretend to align with social justice anymore because I don’t endorse its ontology and worldview. As I become more rooted in my spiritual journey in the Advaita tradition, I don’t believe that sustainable solutions — even to material problems — emerge from a material perspective. I don’t believe it leads to liberation from suffering. It does the opposite — it is divisive and perpetuates cycles of harm.

Sorry, not sorry, Marx. (He was an enthusiastic Hinduphobe, by the way.)

I believe that really powerful solutions — creative, transformative, paradigm-shifting ones that positively impact material and spiritual suffering in the world — emerge when we seek the Higher Truth that is our Self and move from that Self-knowledge and vivekam.

Jai Guru Dev.



Indu Viswanathan, Ed.D.

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