The Ego

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.

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About Dhanya

Dhanya developed an interest in Hinduism and Eastern philosophy in the early 1970s. In 1973, she traveled to India in search of a guru to guide her on the spiritual path. While there she encountered disciples of Neem Karoli Baba and his teachings of bhakti and karma yoga which influenced her life from then on. She studied Vipasana meditation for some time with S.N. Goenkaji beginning in 1974. In 1991 she met HWL Poonja, whose words sparked a desire in her to understand the teachings of nonduality. Subsequently she met other advaita teachers, including Jean Klein and Sri Ranjit Maharaj, who were great sources of inspiration to her. In 2002 she met her current teacher, Dr. Carol Whitfield, a traditional teacher of Advaita/Vedanta and a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Having found a teaching and a teacher with whom she has a deep resonance and who clearly and effectively elucidate the means for self-knowledge, Dhanya now lives in Northern California, where she studies Vedanta and writes on the topic of nonduality.

6 thoughts on “The Ego

  1. Dhanya:
    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.

    Unquestionably, the individual mind is useful in ordinary life, but the portion of ‘ego sense’, ahankara, has the habit of claiming for itself authority or agency and the enjoyment or otherwise of the results of actions. Does a realized person need the ego to do or accomplish anything at all, given that, furthermore, it is illusory? Are the three other components of the mind, plus consciousness, not sufficient by themselves? What you have writte above seems to me to be counter to Shankara’s teaching:

    ‘It is by the gunas or the modifications of nature, manifesting themselves as the body and the senses, that all our actions conducive to temporal and spiritual ends, are done. The man whose mind (antahkarana) is variously deluded by ahamkara, by egoism identifying the aggregate of the body and the senses with the Self, who ascribes to himelf all the attributes of the body and the senses and thus thoroughly identifies himself with them – he, by nescience, sees actions in himself: as regards every action, he thinks, “I am the doer”’.

    Ma.Ka.B., IV.58

  2. Dear Alberto Martin ji

    From my understanding of the teaching of traditional advaita vedanta I do not see a massive conflict between what Dhanya writes and your quote from Ma.Ka.B., IV.58.

    Here’s why not: As long a person is embodied, there will be a subtle body, which includes a mind, which includes the category of thoughts called ahaṅkāra. Mostly we hear of the negative association of ahaṅkāra that results from “identifying the aggregates of the body and senses with the Self” and “as regards every action, he thinks,’I am the doer’.”

    If, however, we appreciate the ahaṅkāra in its basic form as simply the’I’-thought, then the problem between your position and Dhanya’s does not arise. This ‘I’ can become identified as described above by Śhaṅkara, which leads to trouble and strife. Or it can identify with its truth: Aham Brahma asmi!

    In this latter case, there is no nescience and it is clear that “It is by the gunas or the modifications of nature, manifesting themselves as the body and the senses, that all our actions conducive to temporal and spiritual ends, are done.” The jñāni is not deluded into thinking “I am the doer”.

  3. Peter: Thank you for your pertinent and clear observations, with which I cannot disagree. As everybody knows the subject of the ‘ego’ is complicated, to say the least (in the East and in the West, in advaita and outside advaita), needing many nuances and clarifications, from different perspectives and disciplines; it has been so evidently from all time. Is it not the central subject of metaphysics, theology and spirituality? As Shankara wrote,”it is the hardest thing to overcome, the source of all perversities, of all evil acts”. But also, ‘“as appearance” is the effect of nescience, it follows that the samsara which is based on it is also the effect of nescience, so that, from the removal of the latter, there results the cognition of the soul being in reality nothing but Brahman”’ (Br.S.B., II.iii.50).

    The ego is not an entity on its own, a “something”; as Krishna Menon has remarked, “the ego is a spurious entity that neither exists nor can exist; it cannot resist the most minimal scrutiny. What is the difference between the ego and other things that you have accepted as being illusions? Such things at least appear momentarily, at a mental level. But the ego not even that. It is never experienced by anybody at any time.”. Well, perhaps the best description of it is that it is a ‘sense’ or feeling of being a subject, an ‘I’ (the ‘I’ thought, not the ‘I’ principle, which is the highest reality, Atman-Brahman).

    Yes, after awakening, the ego, that phantom, or usurper, as has been described, may remain in a small corner of the mind, half forgotten and inactive, for it has been unmasked, though it may still make some attempts at being recognized. As the shape and ‘substance’ of a burnt rope lying on the ground, though, can it be useful anymore?

    • Namaste Friends,

      Martin, you wrote above: “Well, perhaps the best description of it [the ego] is that it is a ‘sense’ or feeling of being a subject, an ‘I’ (the ‘I’ thought, not the ‘I’ principle, which is the highest reality, Atman-Brahman).”

      Something that is interesting to note, and which that my teacher often points out, is that the source of the ‘I’ thought itself is atma which is brahman. The ‘I’ principle (if I understand what you mean by the word ‘principle’) and the ‘I’ thought are not two different things.

      ‘I’ is a direct pointer to the atma. For my teacher this fact became self-evident when she realized that the Upanisads were talking about what she now calls ‘the me.’

      This is something that is difficult for us seekers to grasp at times, accustomed as we may be to experience seeking, or to searching for something outside of ourselves, when in reality there we are all along, brightly self-shining as ‘I.’

      A classic definition of the aham kara is that it is the aham, the ‘I’ thought, which the mind then goes and connects to other thoughts having to do with the body or mind of sense organs, such as ‘I am tall, I am happy, I am perceiving an object.’ All of these have the ‘I am’ thought in common. I am is a true thought. I am is pointing to atma.
      which is brahman. I is a direct pointer to recognize this simple fact.

      The ego isn’t a sense of being a subject. The subject is atma brahman. Atma is the ultimate subject and you are that, right here right now.

      The ego is a strange combination of two completely different things as it were. (1) I, who am atma/brahman unchanging, and (2) the body/mind and sense organs which are constantly changing.

      Noticing that these two (I and the body/mind) are completely different is the first step in the gain of complete stability in self-knowledge. The sense of being the subject might be a good one to examine. Because you are the subject. Everything else is an object that comes and goes in you.

      Best wishes,

  4. Thank you, Dhanya. Your points are well taken. The ‘‘I’ principle’ refers itself to Atman, the only subject there is. The ‘‘I’ thought’ has as its referent the reflection of the Consciousness of Atman in the ego: chidabhasa.

    [the thought to “get rid” off thoughts, the desire for thought free gaps are the games of I-thought, (chidabhAsa – Sanskrit word to mean a fallacious appearance i.e. I-consciousness or ego – Ramesan]

    Thus, the difference between the two expressions is that, while both are conceptual in themselves, the ‘I’ thought is as seen from the vyavaharika perspective, whereas the ‘I’ principle belongs to the higher perspective. Certainly, ‘I’ is a direct pointer to the atma, as you say (a most important point), and you can see now why I gave the meaning of the ego or ahankara as a “sense” or feeling of being a subject (a limited one at that). It is pointing in the right direction.

  5. What I like about this thread is how each post is an attempt to refine and refine the expression of these great truths in a way that communicates best. Sadly English is what we have available for this job and I now see why traditional advaita teachers keep returning to śruti and Sanskrit to avoid the pitfall of using the closest common words in another language. The pitfall is that common words if not properly ‘handled’ (to borrow the term used by Swami Dayananda) carry part of their common contemporary meaning and this inevitably falls short because the Sanskrit usage sometimes carries a ‘technical’ meaning instead of a common one. I am prompted to say this because a couple matters from the exchanges should not be allowed to vanish through verbal entropy.

    One term that requires ‘handling’ is ‘reflection’ or ‘reflected consciousness’. By translating ‘chidabhāsa’ as ‘manifest’, Swami Dayananda side-steps any possible misunderstanding associated with the word ‘reflection’ (which, incidentally, is an accurate English translation of ‘chidabāsa’). ‘Consciousness is MANIFEST AS the mind’ is more accurate than ‘consciousness is REFLECTED IN the Ego’. The first expression means: Consciousness, which is unmanifest in reality, is available for recognition only when it is manifest as the mind. Further analysis shows that this recognition can only take place in a human mind. Why? Because only the human mind is cable of the ‘I’ thought, and only by knowing the true nature of ‘I’ can consciousness be known. From this perspective, ahaṅkāra stops being the villain of the show and takes its place as vital for self-knowledge. The limitation of the statement ‘consciousness is reflected IN the ego’, by comparison, doesn’t necessarily lead to such an understanding and has another limitation: consciousness and reflecting medium become two separate things, like mirror and the object reflected in it.

    The second thing that shouldn’t be allowed to slip by is the distinction, (already well made here) between the ‘I’ principle (pure consciousness/ātmā-brahman) and the ‘I’ thought. Even the thought ‘aham’ is not consciousness: in the form of a word, it is an experience. Any experience is Consciousness+vṛtti (mental modification). No vṛtti, no manifestation. But self is that into which all vṛtti-s resolve. This means that for mokṣa the ‘aham’ vrtti too needs to be resolved into its essential meaning: saccitānanda, limitless existence-consciousness.

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