The following was written in reply to a correspondent of mine who observed that people often act from ‘a basic egoic condition.’
Although some people may occasionally criticize others for acting from ‘the basic human egoic condition.’ I think it’s important to understand that the ego–at least according to the teachings of Vedanta–isn’t a bad thing to have.
The basic human egoic condition in Vedanta is known as ‘self-ignorance,’ or in Sanskrit ‘ajnanam.’
It’s important to note that self-ignorance is considered to be a condition of birth and not the fault of anyone who has it. Everyone, every single living being has self-ignorance, or that being wouldn’t have been born in the first place. The only living beings that don’t have self-ignorance are the ones who have self-knowledge. And these are considered to be quite rare individuals.
What is the definition of the ‘ego’ in Vedanta. First of all it is known in Sanskrit as the ‘ahankara,’ the aham ‘I,’ kara ‘maker.’ The ego, or ahankara, is considered to be a type of thought, which is the hallmark of self-ignorance.
How does that ‘thought’ go? It goes, ‘I am the doer, the thinker, the enjoyer.’ In other words, ‘I am the body/mind/sense organs individual, who does things, cognizes thoughts and objects, experiences pain and joy, and is subject to birth, death and change.’
In the West to say someone is ‘egoic,’ is usually somewhat of a negative value judgement about the person. But to say that a person believes that his or her existence is as a body/mind/sense organs individual is not a value judgement per se. It is just stating the basic human condition that we all start out with.
Even for a person who has recognized the truth of existence there will still be an ‘as though’ ahankara. Otherwise that person couldn’t get up, or eat, or walk, or talk, or do anything. There will still be an ‘as though’ identification with the body/mind for the purpose of functioning in duality, but this as though ahankara, or ego, is compared to a burnt rope.
If a rope lying on the ground is burnt, the shape will still be there, but that rope will no longer have the power to bind.
This is the same with the ego of a mature jnani–one who is firmly established in self-knowledge. He or she can still use the ahankara in order to function, but it no longer has the power to bind because that person has now recognized that the true identity of all things is the same.
That person knows, ‘My existence is truly as the self–as the atma which is brahman unchanging, the ground of being. This is the truth of everything, and therefore my existence is not dependent upon a particular body/mind/sense organs individual in order to be.’
I mention this because I think the poor old human egoic condition gets a lot of bashing, when in reality Vedanta just considers the ego just to be a condition of birth, and not something to be chastised for having.