The Struggle of Selfhood

An exploration of the self as portrayed and understood in literature reveals an intriguing commentary on the human condition. The Bhagavad-Gita and Arabian Nights and Days provide two distinct, compelling embodiments of selfhood that compliment one another in underlying significant concepts. While the Bhagavad-Gita outlines an involved lifestyle of devotion and Naguib Mahfouz’s writing implies societal criticisms, both texts underline the innate tensions within a selfhood of inherent multiplicity. Emphasizing that the true self is shaped through this necessary inner struggle, The Bhagavad-Gita and Arabian Nights and Days illustrate the ultimate possibility for self-harmony, while implicating each text’s unique worldview as influenced by this conception of the evolving, struggling self.

The Bhagavad-Gita describes the inner conflict between a personal self with intrinsic human wants and an aspired spiritual self-harmony. Arjuna manifests this inner tension, asking Krishna, “Is [man] not like a cloud split apart, unsettled, deluded on the path of the infinite spirit?” (68) Krishna teaches Arjuna that man is always fighting a part of himself in order to achieve the devotional ideal. He explains that man’s lowly instincts based in sensual desires create an unavoidable barrier to spiritual fulfillment of the self, saying, “All creatures are bewildered at birth by the delusion of opposing dualities that arise from desire and hatred” (74). Krishna makes clear that man’s natural obsession with impulsive wants deludes his purest self. Man’s instinctual desires, his “eternal enemy,” are an integral element of the self, but this element must be conquered in order to realize a higher self-existence (46). Krishna warns Arjuna, “The self is its own friend and its own worst foe” (63).  As a result of the conflicting tensions within selfhood from man’s instinctual desires, The Bhagavad-Gita proposes that the self may lead either toward a bright future or to a devastatingly ignorant existence, demonstrating selfhood’s inherent multiplicity.

The Bhagavad-Gita illustrates that the successful refining of the self toward the ideal is only possible through an innate personal struggle. The text exhibits this belief by providing a clear instruction on how to purify the tensions of selfhood. Arjuna learns that the path toward a participation in the universal self requires one to rid himself of man’s inborn obstacle of desire. On this topic, Krishna advises, “Be intent on action, not on the fruits of action; avoid attraction to the fruits and attachment to inaction!” (37) This notion of refining the self through discipline provides weighty significance to the struggle of a multi-faceted self as the necessary method for spiritual elevation.

The culmination of the struggle of selfhood as described in The Bhagavad-Gita points to an ultimate possibility for self-harmony. This text explains that the fight against one’s deluding human instincts creates self-awareness. Krishna expresses this progression, saying, “When ignorance is destroyed by knowledge of the self, then, like the sun, knowledge illumines ultimate reality. That becomes their understanding, their self” (59). The Bhagavad-Gita advocates for a salvation of selfhood that rejects the individual self. Krishna emphasizes this instruction with his statement, “When [man] renounces all desires, and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace. This is the place of the infinite spirit” (39). Man must strip himself of his innate passions and individuality in order to join the sanctity of the infinite spirit. Only if man “subdues the [individual] self” and “unites himself with the self of all creatures,” will he obtain the salvation of selfhood. This salvation requires the sacrifice of the personal self for spiritual unification with the universal self (58).

The Bhagavad-Gita’s worldview as implicated by its unique conception of selfhood outlines a specific devotional lifestyle that guides one toward a life focused on the sacred universal reality, as opposed to a spiritually inferior, personal existence. Its conception of the self reflects this text’s perception of the entire natural world as a hierarchal duality. Krishna announces that the idea of individuality is part of his “lower nature,” and he advises Arjuna, “Know my higher nature too, the life force that sustains the universe” (71). The Bhagavad-Gita challenges its readers to struggle through an inward, personal process in order to fulfill a spiritual goal that exists much beyond the individual self. With the discarding of the individualistic self, The Bhagavad-Gita articulates the fundamental religious goal to grasp the perpetuating force of the natural universe.

Arabian Nights and Days exhibits many similarities in its conception of selfhood while infusing its own unique implications. The Bhagavad-Gita exposes the self as a multiplicity, and Mahfouz’s writing asserts the moral complexity within man by also emphasizing the inner tensions of selfhood. The character Gamasa Al-Butli embodies this moral duality, as Mahfouz describes, “There was no heart like his for mingling black with white” (37).  This source illustrates the innate intertwining of man’s natural good tendencies with his inborn inclinations for evil. The self is an indefinable multiplicity, since Mahfouz implies that in every man’s heart is “a place for emotion and another place for avidity and hardness” (31). Such a conflict within the self echoes the explored struggle in The Bhagavad-Gita between man’s gravitation toward lowly desires and his aspirations for elevated spiritual achievement. Just as Gamasa Al-Butli feels tension between his moral ideals and his cruel actions, Arjuna struggles with his earthly wants while hoping to abandon the low, individualistic realm of selfhood.

The Bhagavad-Gita warns that the self may become one’s worst enemy with its deluding instincts, and The Arabian Nights and Days also recognizes the dangers of the multi-faceted self. Because one struggles with his conflicting moral dispositions, Mahfouz illustrates the self’s vulnerability to become corrupt, especially with exposure to authority. When “authority had completely absorbed [Gamasa al-Butli],” the character’s “tendencies toward good became submerged,” displaying the hazardous effects of authority in creating an imbalance between man’s good and evil inclinations (40). This criticism of authority’s effects on the self mirrors The Bhagavad-Gita’s dismissal of individualistic desires for reward. The greed for power that corrupts Gamasa al-Butli incites the same lowly passions that Krishna detests. In both texts, opposing elements within the self restrict man from reaching spiritual fulfillment.

Exhibiting the necessity of an inner struggle for self-realization, Arabian Nights and Days emphasizes the need for personal self-awareness and responsibility. In order to purify oneself from moral hypocrisy, man must fully perceive his true, multi-faceted self. This awareness results in a conflicting inner struggle, as displayed by Gamasa al-Butli who, when faced with the accusations of his cruelty, “plunged into a bottomless pool of speculation” (43). The Bhagavad-Gita also underlines the importance of self-awareness as the integral step toward self-refinement, as Krishna teaches, “He is content within the self, seeing the self through himself” (65). Only after struggling through denial, doubt and cowardice can Gamasa al-Butli begin to purify himself by purging his conflicting tendencies. In The Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna learns to recreate himself through a struggle against desire and individualism, and, in The Arabian Nights and Days, Gamasa al-Butli also redefines himself through awareness by “burying the old Gamasa and evoking another one” (46).

The major differences between these two sources’ conception of selfhood appear with their separate understandings of self-fulfillment. While The Bhagavad-Gita requires detachment from the individualistic realm, Arabian Nights and Days shows the need for claiming personal responsibility. The sheikh’s denial of Gamasa Al-Butli’s request for advice exemplifies the text’s belief that self-redemption requires only the individual. The sheikh’s words, “The story is yours alone and the decision is yours alone” emphasize the centrality of personal responsibility for self-refinement (45). Mahfouz’s focus on the individual in acquiring the ideal self differs from The Bhagavad-Gita’s religious goal for pure unification with the universal.

Due to Gamasa al-Butli’s full acceptance of the responsibility for his immoral actions, he is ultimately saved, though his old self with evil tendencies indeed receives punishment. The spiritual separation of Gamasa al-Butli from his disciplined physical self proves his successful self-purification, while underlining the inescapable punishment for wrongdoings. With this story, the worldview of Arabian Nights and Days is present within its conception of a struggling selfhood. Emphasizing the innate duality of the self, Mahfouz criticizes the immoral actions of authority as the result of man’s tendency for corruptness. The author asserts the inevitability of just punishment for those who commit evil with an emphasis on personal responsibility. Arabian Nights and Days offers a societal commentary, displaying the corrupting effects of authority and warning wrongdoers of their inescapable punishment.

The illustration of selfhood’s multiplicity is a stable foundation for The Bhagavad-Gita and Arabian Nights and Days’ commentaries on the human condition of morality, the natural relationship between man and his surrounding world, and the inherent struggle for spiritual fulfillment. Through their related understanding of selfhood’s tensions in a process toward self-harmony, these texts portray powerful messages about man’s intrinsic imperfection and his spiritual responsibility for improvement. While The Bhagavad-Gita and Arabian Nights and Days conclude with differing worldviews, their successful delivery of such values and criticisms relies on the texts’ comparable emphasis on man’s natural and necessary struggle of selfhood.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for Major Literary Texts of India and the Middle East with Professor Hossein Kamaly at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Works Cited

Mahfūz, Naǧīb. Arabian Nights and Days. Trans. Dennys Johnson-Davies. London: Doubleday, 1995. Print.

Miller, Barbara Stoler., trans. The Bhagavad-Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

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