Who am I? The face I see every morning in the mirror? The eyes that scrutinize it? The heartbeats within my chest? Or the thoughts that race through my brain while I am wondering about all this?
Am I the body that I have obtained from my parents? Or am I the mind or intellect by means of which I am busy making plans and breaking resolves?
According to the ancient Vedic scriptures, I am none of these things. I am an eternal soul - a jiva - a living entity, by nature spiritual, but now embodied in a material form.
Inquisitiveness into the nature of the self is the first step on the path of self-realization which leads to the entity known as 'I'. But 'who am I'? Who is the entity known as 'I'?
This 'I am' is the sense of the self called ego. When the sense of 'I am' is applied to this temporary material body it is called false ego. When the sense of self is applied to the spiritual reality, the soul, that is real ego. False ego means considering oneself to be a product of this material world and accepting this physical body as oneself. When one understands that he is not his material body and is spirit soul, that is real ego.
There are some pseudo-philosophers who say that we should give up our ego altogether, but we cannot give up our ego because ego means identity. We, of course, should give up the false identification with the physical body and realize the spiritual nature of the self called the soul. Ego is always there. False ego is condemned, but not the real ego of the spirit soul. Real identification pertains to the living entity dwelling within the physical body. Unfortunately, because of ignorance, the living entity identifies himself with the material body and therefore becomes confused when he tries to find out who he really is.
For example if we ask someone 'Who are you'? he may reply 'I am Mr Johnson, an Englishman, 35 years old, tall and rather sunburnt', but all these designations are attributes of the gross physical body. He may regard himself as possessing a good ear for music or as being rather short-sighted, which are really comments on the sensory apparatus. He may feel that he is clever and energetic, and is probably conscious of having a limited individuality different from other people and of being sometimes happy and at other times depressed; these are all in fact modes of the subtle mind and ego along with its emotional and psychological functions.
The changeless element within the personality, which provides the background against which all the changes in body and mind take place, is essentially unconnected with those changes. The activities of the body and mind in the waking-state, dream-state as well as deep-sleep are retainable by one's memory and witnessed by the observer of the body. Those activities take place in the light of the inner self which is transcendental to the gross physical body and subtle mind.