What is a Person?

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Introduction and Overview

In modern societies, a person is defined as something that has rights. Forests, rivers, mountains, oceans, birds, animals, fishes, and insects are not considered persons in modern scoeities and hence not given rights. Conversely, corporations are given rights, therefore, they are treated as persons. Moreover, the rights of a person are based on a social contract with a government of a nation, which means that the rights can be changed over time.

Since the social contract is between people and their government, therefore, a corporation of one country is governed by the laws of that country. The corporation must comply to the laws of other countries while operating in those countries. Some countries have lenient laws, so as to never prosecute corporations. The idea of personhood is the foundation of all legal doctrines, and changing that idea can also alter all legal doctrines. But when the idea of personhood varies from country to country based on the social contract between the citizens and their government, it means that all countries uphold different ideas of personhood.

How can a fundamental idea such as personhood be determined by the whims of people? Why isn’t there a scientific understanding of what it means to be a person? Why should people treat persons any different than other scientific topics? This article will try to establish a non-sectarian, non-nationalist, and a non-contractual understanding of personhood.

Six Aspects of a Person

In Vedic philosophy, a person is primarily defined as self-awareness, which creates the notion of “I”. Secondarily, this “I” is also defined as five other qualities called intention, emotion, cognition, conation, and relation. The quality of intention becomes “I wish”, “I will”, “I want”, “I need”, etc. It is slightly different from the other four qualities because the “I” and wishing are much closer than “I” and emotion, cognition, conation, and relation. That difference manifests in the addition of connectors such as “am” and “have” between “I” and the attribute of “I”. For example, we generally say “I wish” rather than “I am wishing” although we say “I am happy” instead of “I happy”. I will return to this distinction shortly to discuss why such differences exist and what they entail for our understanding of personhood.

The other four attributes of the person (emotion, cognition, conation, and relation) are relatively straightforward. The emotional qualities expand the self as “I am happy”, “I am angry”, “I am sad”, “I am afraid”, “I am jealous”, etc. The relational qualities expand the self as “I am a father”, “I am an employee”, “I am a citizen”, “I am a husband”, “I am a brother”, etc. The cognitive qualities expand the self as “I am tall”, “I am white”, “I am fat”, “I am pretty”, etc. Finally, conative qualities expand the self as “I am walking”, “I am talking”, “I am writing”, “I am cooking”, etc.

This six-fold definition of a person is used in many ways in Vedic philosophy. Even our cognitive apparatus is sometimes further subdivided into six mutually underdetermined aspects called percepts, concepts, actions, judgments, goals, and morals. In the same way, emotion, relation, and conation are also divided into six distinct aspects.

Sometimes, these six aspects are merged into three aspects—self-awareness, intention, and emotion are collectively called ānanda, cognition and conation are collectively called chit, and relation is called sat. Due to this 3:2:1 pattern, the ānanda component of the self is more complex than the chit component, which is more complex than the sat component. When a person is depersonalized, everything is modeled based on lawful relationships called “force”. That universalization of a corner case greatly minimizes the understanding of sat which makes it impossible to understand chit and ānanda. Depersonalization is hopelessly flawed because all reality is personal in Vedic philosophy.

Hierarchy in the Six Aspects

If a person is not acting or becomes incapable of action due to a disability, he doesn’t stop being a person. For example, a person who has lost his hands or legs in war hasn’t stopped being a person. Likewise, if some or all of our perceptual and mental faculties are disabled, we don’t stop being a person. For example, a blind or deaf person is still a person; a dumb person is still a person.

Then, a person who renounces relations to the world doesn’t stop being a person. A person may start living outside society, without family, friends, parents, employers, etc. but he is still a person. Then, an emotionally cold person is still a person. He may not feel compassion, love, pride, or other kinds of emotions, and the reduction of the emotions in a person doesn’t reduce their personhood. Finally, a person may give up his intentions—wanting, needing, willing, etc.—but it doesn’t destroy his personhood. We may say that he has no personality of likes and dislikes (which I will come to shortly), but he is still a person. This is because there is one aspect of personhood—self-awareness—intact.

There is complementarity between the six aspects, that results in the underdetermination of the six aspects by the other aspects. For example, every self-aware person doesn’t have the same intentions, emotions, cognition, conations, and relations. A relation underdetermines emotions, conations, cognitions, and intentions. This makes the understanding of six aspects slightly harder, but not impossible. We now define a person in a more nuanced manner.

This nuanced definition is hierarchical:

  • self-awareness is the highest notion of a person,
  • their intentions of likes and dislikes are the next definition,
  • their emotions are the next definition,
  • their cognitions are the next definition,
  • their relations are the next definition, and
  • their actions are the lowest definition of a person.

In simple words, if you want to know a person, observing their behavior is the least good way to know them, because actions are the lowest definition of a person.

In case you might not know, Behaviorism was a prominent school in psychology that reduced a person to their behavior. But a person is underdetermined by behavior—not totally determined, and not completely undetermined. Behaviorism is therefore a failed model for understanding a person. However, every other modern psychological model has failed because these psychologists have never been able to incorporate the hierarchy and complementarity of six aspects into grasping a person’s nature.

Once we understand complementarity, then we can say that there are six ways to know the person. Once we understand hierarchy, then we can say that some of these ways are better than others. Quite specifically, we can remove the lower aspects, but that will not make the person impersonal, because these lower aspects were manifest from the higher aspects as expansions of the self-aware “I”. Like a root grows into a trunk, which then grows into a branch, twig, and leaf, and cutting off the leaf doesn’t eliminate the root, similarly, by removing the lower aspects, we don’t destroy the person itself.

Degrees of Material Identification

Once we understand this hierarchical definition of a person, then it is very easy to discuss why we use the term “I wish”, “I want”, “I need”, and “I desire” to describe our likes and dislikes: these things are closest to “I”, although still not self-awareness (identical to “I”). In contrast, we say “I am happy”, “I am sad”, “I am angry”, or “I am jealous” because these are next lower compared to the personality. The “am” in “I am” puts a greater distance between “I” and the quality that we are referring to.

A further distance between “I” and quality is created when we use “I have”—e.g. “I have morals”, “I have goals”, “I have ideas”, “I have a perception”, “I have a body”, and “I have a car”. In essence, as we go down the hierarchy of personhood, we create greater distance from “I”. Since the lower five aspects are separate from “I”, therefore, we also use “mine” to describe them: my house, my car, my body, my sensations, my thoughts, my judgments, my goals, my morals, my feelings, my relations, etc.

A Brief Segue to the Past

A few years ago, I tried to describe the three aspects of the soul—sat, chit, and ānanda—as “I am”, “I have”, and “I want”. The problem was that these terms are not used consistently in English. For example, “I have money” is technically equivalent to “I am rich”, and “I have a body” can be technically equivalent to “I am the body”. This equivalence arises due to people having different levels of identification with things other than the “I”. The person who identifies with their body and wealth will say “I am the body” and “I am rich”. Conversely, the person who doesn’t identify with them will say “I have a body” and “I have money”. The man who loves his wife will say “I am a husband” and one who doesn’t will say “I have a wife”. Someone well-versed in such nuances can figure out the deeper reality from the words, as people put different distances between “I” and their intentions, emotions, cognitions, conations, and relations. Due to varying distances, “I am”, “I have”, and “I want” often become equivalent.

I tried to solve the problem using contractions: “I have a body” and “the body has tallness” is contracted into “I am tall”. But this methodology did not produce clarity, because by contraction I meant reducing the distance to an external quality, due to which the thing that is farther from “I” becomes closer to “I”, but unless we begin from “I”, mere contraction of sentences to produce a shorter one makes little sense.

Thus, the use of “I am”, “I have”, and “I want” does not produce the clarity I was hoping for, because it might have seemed clear to me, but not to everyone in the same way based on their level of material identification. Hence, I gave up these terms and decided to limit myself to sat, chit, and ānanda. I also did not have the heart to say to those who felt confused by my terminology: “you are identifying yourself with things that you are not”. Hence, I have now rephrased the problem and I would leave it to individuals to decide.

Confusions About Personhood

Ideally, we should have five different words that attach the “I” to intentions, emotions, cognitions, conations, and relations, and everyone should have the same level of material attachment to use these five different attachments consistently. Both of these are absent. For example, in Śrīmad Bhagavatam 5.5.8, only two terms—ahaṁ (I) and mameti (mine)—are used. This is quite like saying “I wish” vs. “I am happy”, “I am tall”, “I am working”, and “I am married”. In a more technically precise language, we would have to use five different connectors to connect “I” to the five other qualities of “I”.

Due to the absence of multiple connectors, multiple levels of material identification, and the inconsistent use of “I am” and “I have”, personhood is not understood as six different aspects, of which five are distinct but inseparable from “I”. Inseparability is described in Vedic texts as manifestation. The five aspects of intention, emotion, cognition, conation, and relation manifest from an “I”. If they are not manifest or manifest partially, the “I” is not eliminated. However, if they are manifest, they were manifest from an “I”, therefore, we cannot say that the person is just those things. Thereby, we get a complex conclusion: The person can be all those things, and yet, those things are not the person.

This is one of the many forms of Bhedābheda in Vedic philosophy: neither identical nor separable. A more detailed understanding of Bhedābheda is that five aspects manifest from an original aspect, these are complementary aspects, and yet, because they manifest successively, they are hierarchical. If we don’t use this hierarchical and complementary understanding, we don’t understand personhood.

Since this understanding is unknown in modern society, therefore, personhood is misunderstood. The modern view of a person, for instance, excludes all these six aspects and designates it as something with rights. Then, animals supposedly don’t have rights even though they have self-awareness while corporations supposedly have rights although they have no self-awareness. As a result, animals are not persons while corporations are persons. This is an example of how persons become impersonal and the impersonal becomes a person. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord Kṛṣṇa calls the inversion of truth into falsity and falsity into truth a symptom of tamo-guna. Since all legal doctrines in a society are based on the idea of personhood, all legalities become immoralities if they don’t grasp the nature of personhood.

The Personhood of a Fetus

One of the classic examples of converting a person into impersonal arises in the case of abortions. The advocates of abortions say: The fetus is not moving, doesn’t have a developed brain to have cognitions or emotions, we cannot say that it has an agency or intentionality, and therefore, it cannot be a person. They cannot fathom that even if a fetus has no relation, cognition, conation, emotion, or intention, it can still have self-awareness. That self-awareness is the primary definition of “I”, not the other things. When the other things manifest, they are manifest out of the “I” progressively and hierarchically.

For example, the fetus will first develop intentions, then emotions, then cognitions, then relations, and finally conations. These are also developed progressively, like a tree develops some leaves, before the twigs, branches, and trunks thicken to produce more trunks, branches, twigs, and leaves. Therefore, even when the fetus moves in the mother’s womb, it doesn’t mean it has fully developed intentions, emotions, cognitions, conations, and relations. Those things will continue developing slowly even after the child’s birth, and in most cases, they keep growing over the course of one’s lifetime. Older people, for instance, are more skilled, better at social relationships, and have better emotional intelligence.

The question is: What is the source of all these properties of personhood? And the answer is that they emerge from self-awareness, which is the primary definition of a person. Of course, we cannot perceive that self-awareness, because it might often not have any visible effects. However, because it eventually produces visible effects, therefore, we must accept that there is a person. A cause can be inactive, and we might say that we don’t know if it exists. But we cannot say that there is no cause unless we see an effect because, by that definition, something would not be a gun unless it has killed someone. The gun exists as a potential even when it hasn’t caused an effect. We can confirm the cause’s existence by its effects. However, while that is not confirmed, we cannot deny the existence of the cause. Rather, we have to subject the cause to the appropriate conditions to manifest its properties before we conclude its true nature.

Personhood in Vaishnavism

The six aspects of personhood have numerous manifestations in Vaishnava theology. For example, there is a five-fold manifestation of Nārāyaṇa, Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, from Balarāma. These five personalities constitute the Pāñcharātra system of worshipping God, because it is understood that God is one “I”, however, there are five successive manifestations from this person. By these manifestations, God is known better, because we see more of His aspects being exhibited.

Similarly, in Gaudīya Vaishnavism, there is a five-fold manifestation of God’s persona described as Chaitanya, Nityānanda, Advaita, Gadādhara, and Srivās, which are called Pāñchatattva and are manifest from Kṛṣṇa. Worshipping them together is the worship of the complete form of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa. However, even if we just worship Kṛṣṇa, then we have worshipped the other five since they are manifest from Kṛṣṇa. Thereby, the Pāñchatattva system of worship is philosophically identical to the Pāñcharātra system. The Pāñchatattva system of worship is somewhat superior to the Pāñcharātra system because Kṛṣṇa is the origin of Balarama as well.

There are numerous such five-fold manifestations discussed extensively in various Vedic texts. The book Conceiving the Inconceivable discusses and summarizes many of these five-fold manifestations in the introduction of the book. Personhood is not an easy concept, because it has six aspects. The progressive manifestation of these aspects, followed by their subdivisions, creates literally infinite forms of God. For example, as we noted above, cognition itself can be divided into six aspects of morals, goals, judgments, concepts, percepts, and actions. Since the manifestation occurs progressively, therefore, one form manifests another form. All these forms are based on the same philosophy of personhood. We just have to understand what we mean by a person before we try to understand the Complete Person.

Śrīmad Bhagavatam describes 24 incarnations of God and then states in 1.3.28: ete cāṁśa-kalāḥ puṁsaḥ kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam, which means “These and the aṁśa (parts), kalā (parts of aṁśa), and puṁsaḥ (the parts of kalā), are but (the parts of) Kṛṣṇa who is bhagavān svayam (the complete form of God). These forms are successively manifest in different ages for different types of pastimes. To understand all of them—which constitutes theology—we have to grasp why a person is not simply “I”, but five other aspects of that “I”, which through successive divisions create infinite variety.

Vaishnava theology thus seems immensely complicated if we try to understand the many forms of God. It becomes much easier if we try to understand personhood prior, which is just the understanding of what it means to be a person.

Personalism vs. Monotheism

In Vedic philosophy, there is nothing other than God. Even the infinite number of material universes, infinite number of souls, and infinite forms of God are simply varied parts or aspects of a Complete Person. Thereby, there is a relative preference for the worship of the Complete Person over the parts and aspects of that person, but even the universe is personified as Virāta Rūpa (Cosmic Form) of God. Hence, before anyone tries to understand the Complete Person, he or she is urged to understand the Cosmic Form or the Complete Universe.

Similarly, all living entities such as demigods, humans, beasts, birds, fishes, and trees are parts of God. They are entitled to respect in the order of their manifestation from God. Thereby, demigods are superior to men, men are superior to beasts, which are superior to birds, which are superior to fishes, which are superior to plants.

This hierarchy implies that if we have to sacrifice something, it must always be the sacrifice of a lower form of life to preserve the higher form of life. Likewise, if such a sacrifice is performed, it must be the sacrifice of the lowest form of life possible or available in a given situation.

In simple words, if plant food is available, then we have to always begin with plant food. If we cannot get plant food, then we can kill fish. If we cannot get fish, then we can kill birds. If we cannot get birds, then we can kill beasts. There are hierarchies within each of these classes of species too. For example, a cow is the least deserving of death among the beasts. It is better to eat a dog than to eat a cow. Such dog-eaters we considered the lowest of mankind formerly, and are called Śvapaca in the Bhagavad-Gita.

Anything that doesn’t follow this strict order is in violation of the natural hierarchy of life-forms manifested from the original life-form, God. Hence, everyone has to kill something to eat. But they have to start at the bottom of the hierarchy and rise up only if the bottommost is unavailable. By such consumption, one part of God is sacrificed to preserve another. But just like you won’t cut off your head to save your legs, although the reverse is possible, similarly, the strict hierarchy has to be observed.

Monotheism is a very specific idea—everything other than God is separate from God and hence not God. Personalism is also a very specific idea—everything other than God is a part of God. This constructs a progressive hierarchy in which there are infinite partial aspects of God (including the material nature), and then there are atomic parts like the soul.

The atomism of the soul is that it cannot further divide into parts to manifest other souls. However, since nature can divide into parts, therefore, nature is superior to the soul. Nature, however, cannot love God in the same way as the soul—nature acts only upon God’s direction and not voluntarily—however, the soul can also act voluntarily. This voluntary capacity for action is the reason that the soul is called superior to material nature. This is, however, not the only sense of superiority. Nature is superior because it can subdivide but the soul cannot.

Contradictions of Monotheism

Monotheism contradicts Personalism in numerous ways: (a) all species other than humans are not persons, (b) demigods don’t exist, (c) nature works according to laws rather than due to persons, (d) nature and souls are separate from God, (e) myriad aspects and parts of God are rejected as polytheism, (f) God loves everybody, but He sends so many to eternal hell, (g) even those who go to God’s kingdom are not loving souls but those with self-serving contracts with God, (g) a worldly person is defined as one with the ability to sign self-serving contracts with another, and (h), over time, even the impersonal entities are legally personalized by giving them the ability for contracts.

In any logical derivation, if your premise is a person, then the conclusion can never be impersonal, because how can you have a logical derivation in which the conclusion contradicts the premise? We don’t have to analyze the entire derivation to know that it is wrong. We can know that it is wrong simply from its structure, namely, that the conclusion contradicts the premise. This contradiction is introduced very early in monotheistic theology by keeping nature and soul separate from God. Thus, everything derived afterward is false. This falsity has been obscured by the fact that monotheistic doctrines have borrowed ideas from many cultures, some of which were less flawed than others. By mixing things, you can delay the inevitable. Hence, we see the contradictions much later, but if we trace the problem back to where it started, then we will know that the derivation was flawed from the very beginning.

In Vedic philosophy, what is derived from a person, is always a person. We can never produce anything impersonal from a person because that constitutes a logical contradiction. Thereby, everything is a person with different natures. That means, they have different intentions, emotions, cognitions, conations, and relations (and some of these may even be absent). Those differences don’t mean that they don’t have self-awareness. We may not be able to observe their self-awareness, quite like we don’t see self-awareness in a fetus and consider it impersonal. That is our ignorance about how myriad variety can be manifested from an “I”. If we understand this simple principle, then we will understand why monotheism is not personalism, and we can stop discussing their similarities.

Implications of Personhood

The idea that God is a person, and everything else is manifest as a person from God, changes every single subject.

Personalism changes theology because there are many partial aspects of God, which can still manifest other parts, and hence they are called the many forms of God (unlike the soul which cannot manifest other souls). Those many forms of God are not many “Gods”. They are aspects of a complete person. Likewise, personhood changes all legal doctrines. For instance, animals and trees are now persons, while corporations that don’t have self-awareness and cannot manifest intention, emotion, cognition, relation, and conation on their own are not persons.

Similarly, personhood changes the concepts of material science, because nature is not unconscious anymore. Nature might not manifest emotions, but every material object “perceives” certain other objects and acts in relation to them like other persons, based on the contextual relations between things. Nature also has intentionality. Nature cannot be impersonal just because it doesn’t express emotions.

In Vedic texts, material nature is personified as Durga, who is called giri-nandini or the “daughter of a mountain”. She has a stoic, forbearing, and resilient character. You could say that She is almost like a mountain: Rigid, unchangeable, strict, and tough. She is the mother of the material world, and what we see as impersonal and fixed in this world is a reflection of Her persona. But it is incorrect to call a stoic, fixed, strict, and tough person a non-person. Personalism is not restricted to feelings and emotions. Therefore, those who worship and meditate on Durga, acquire Her stoic qualities. This worship is better than the weak emotional condition of most people, but not the highest state of perfection because a person who experiences a wide variety of feelings without being weakened is better than the stoic.

Thereby, the worship of Durga is recommended in Vedic texts, to become stoic like Her. The worship of other forms of God is recommended to acquire other qualities. The worship of Kṛṣṇa is recommended for a person to acquire the quality of joy and love.

Kṛṣṇa’s joy is not temporary and love is not weak. Unlike material love, the loving nature of Kṛṣṇa has all the qualities of resilience and stoicism. Hence, it is difficult to understand Kṛṣṇa’s nature, because He has all the qualities of Durga as well. Kṛṣṇa is the complete form of Godhead because His nature includes all other natures, although they are exhibited to varying extents in different contexts and in relation to different persons who may want to see Kṛṣṇa in more than one way. Thus, Kṛṣṇa becomes a killer of demons sometimes. But that is a rare thing. Most of the time, He is playful, joyful, romantic, and unassuming. His Durga-like nature is displayed rarely.

The fact is that everyone doesn’t want to acquire the quality of joy and love. Many people just want to be stoic. Due to this variation in their desires and aspirations, the Vedic texts recommend the worship of different partial forms of God, which are parts of the complete form.

People who understand the philosophy of personalism do not argue and fight between themselves. They know which forms of God are superior, and yet, they prefer one form over others. Those who don’t know the philosophy of personalism fight to assert their superiority. Then there are people who want to dissolve all forms to eliminate the fights, rather than learn the philosophy of personalism. Both positions are wrong. It is wrong to create contradictions between different forms of God, and it is wrong to merge them all into one.

Personalism, therefore, changes every conceivable subject that we may be interested in. It is the unifying thread that can help us understand everything using the same principles. Every other approach is incomplete or inconsistent, which means that it can never unify our understanding of all the subjects, and either we don’t know those subjects, or we think of them in contradictory terms. If we grasp personalism instead, then by understanding one subject, we can understand every subject, because the basic underlying principles of all subjects are the same. Otherwise, learning each subject is like crossing a different kind of ocean, and is impossible for anyone.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "What is a Person?," in Shabda Journal, March 21, 2022, https://journal.shabda.co/2022/03/21/what-is-a-person/.