The Concept of Ego in the Bhagavadgita

Aham, the Ego

by Jayaram V

The Ego, Aham, is one of the most misunderstood terms in Hinduism. In its purest and absolute sense ego or Aham is identical with the Self. Hence, you have mahavakyas that equate the Aham with Brahman himself (Aham Brahmasmi) or with the Atman (Aham Atma). However when this ego is subject to the impurity of egoism (ahamkar) the being develops a false sense of identity and accepts it as true. In this essay I have used Ego in a worldly sense as the personification of egoism.

In the Bhagavadgita you will find two types of references to ego (aham), one in a subjective sense as “I am” and the other in an objective sense as a reference to the individuality or the sense of self. For example, when Arjuna says, “kathaṃ bhīṣmam ahaṃ sāṅkhye droṇaṃ ca madhusūdana,” which means” How I am going to attack Bhishma and Drona in the battlefield, O Madhusudhana,” he is using aham in the subjective sense to refer to himself. However, when Krishna says, “nirmamo nirahaṃkāraḥ sa śāntim adhigacchhati,” which means, “those without the sense of ownership and egoism attain peace,” he is referring to aham in an objective sense as egoism.

The word “aham” appears in the Bhagavadgita numerous times, mostly in a subject sense. Sometimes it appears in association with other words such as “nigraham,” which means self-restraint or restraining the ego. The word is also hidden as a suffix in many other words to denote aspects of subjectivity or individuality. For example, agraham (anger), dukham (sorrow), sukham (happiness), graham (grasping one), and purusham (individual self).

Two types of selves

The Self is universal, eternal, one and without divisions. The expansive or exalted feeling that I am everything and I am all this does not constitute egoism. However, the feeling that I am so and so, or I have this and that constitute egoism or ahamkar. When the universal Self is covered with the impurities of delusion and ignorance, it develops this limited view of itself as a separate entity, which we recognize as ego.

Thus, the ego is the feeling of separateness, the sense of duality, or the idea of being distinct and different from others. It is the false perception of oneself as a separate being or a limited being. Egoism creates the limitations of space and time in which we become stuck. Since it exists in all of us as individual consciousness, it is a universal feeling. Ahamkar is that which is shaped by egoism. It manifests in us in several ways such as the following

  1. Ownership and doership
  2. Desires and attachments
  3. Pride and arrogance
  4. Self-esteem
  5. Selfishness
  6. Self-centeredness
  7. Aggression and competitiveness
  8. Judgment, opinions and criticism
  9. Identification with the mind and body
  10. Fear, suffering, anxiety, anger, stress, and so on.

In a limited sense aham also means pride or arrogance. However, it is rather an effect of ego or a sign of egoism. When a person is overly proud and conceited, we say he has a lot of aham, means he is very egoistic. Any feeling, thought, idea, expression, action or response which arises in a state of duality or the predicate state of subject and object has ego as its source. In worldly life, you cannot live without it. You need it to assert yourself, survive and succeed. However, in spiritual life it becomes a barrier to liberation. In Shaivism, it is referred to as anava, meaning atomicity or acting like an atom. Egoism makes a living being (jiva) feel separate and small. Hence, the expression.

The ego is a universal phenomenon. Everyone has an ego. Even gods and the highest Isvara has it. Whoever manifests or becomes distinguished from Brahman as a being has it. Only Nirguna Brahman (without qualities) has no ego. Everyone else, including Saguna Brahman, has it. However, its nature varies from being to being due to the predominance of gunas. It is the purest in Isvara, the Lord of the Universe or the Manifested Brahman, since in him it is made up of the purest (suddha) Sattva, whereas it is the most impure in the Asuras and beings of the darker worlds. Our egos are mixed with light and darkness. Hence, our behavior and conduct also vary.

The Bhagavadgita on ego and egoism

The subjective and objective aspects of ego are personified in the Bhagavadgita as Krishna and Arjuna. Lord Krishna personifies the universal Self with the purest and indistinguishable ego, whereas Arjuna stands symbolically for the limited self or the impure ego consciousness, which is responsible for the atomicity (anava) or feelings of separation and individuality.

Any suffering or any feeling or emotion that we experience, even a little disturbance or discomfort, is due to ego. In the perceptual world it is the source of all our knowledge, perceptions, feelings, and experience. In truth it is but a reflection of the Self only, which is the purest reality or pure consciousness. However, because it remains enveloped by the Nature’s impure realities (tattvas), of which the mind and ego are a part and form the ego consciousness, one acts like an individual and a limited entity.

Arjuna's suffering is because of his limited knowledge, his sense of separateness, his identification with his body rather than his soul, his belief that he is the doer of his actions and his anxiety about the results of his actions. Because of its limited knowledge, the ego is usually ignorant and confused. These qualities are reflected in Arjuna's suffering and his doubts and anxieties about fighting with his opponents. His suffering is the suffering of his ego. Indeed, in everyone it is the ego which is responsible for suffering, anger, fear, doubt, desire, attachment, etc.

According to the Bhagavadgita, the ego is an aspect of the eightfold division of lower divine nature, which is made up of the five elements, the ego, the mind and reason (7.4&5). It is a part of the physical reality, the kshetra or field (13.5), while egolessness is part of the knower of the field or the pure consciousness) (13.8&9).

The ego makes us believe that we are the doers of our actions and responsible for them. Because of that we engage in desire-ridden actions and desire for their fruit, whereby we incur karma and remain bound to the mortal world. As the Bhagavadgita (3.27) states, "All types of action are performed by the gunas, which arise from Nature. Deluded by the ego, the being, thus thinks, "I am the doer."

Thus, ego is the deluded belief that “I am responsible for everything.” From the scriptural and spiritual perspective, it is a form of impudence or arrogance. The Bhagavadgita suggests that if you think, “I am the eternal, universal Self,” and live accordingly, your actions do not bind you. However, “If you think I am this person with this name and form,” and perform actions with that selfish and limited notion, they will bind you. Therefore, it is better to stabilize your identity in the universal Self rather than in your limited self. If you dissolve or merge your limited ego in the purest ego of God, your life will be taken over by God himself, and he becomes responsible for all your actions. It is affirmed in the Bhagavadgita which recommends contemplation upon God as the effective method to accomplish it.

The Solution

From the above it is clear that the solution to the problem of ego or bondage is self-evident in the Bhagavadgita. You can escape from the mortal existence when you renounce your egoism and develop a universal vision of oneness and unity in which you will not hold on to any limited belief, judgment or perception. You renounce everything that separates you from the universal consciousness or acts as a hindrance.

The ideal which is presented in the scripture to illustrate it is the adept yogi, who is pure in his heart, who has controlled himself and conquered his senses. He sees himself in all beings and all beings in himself. Thereby, he is not tainted (5.7). If you identify yourself with the universal Self, overlook the duality and divisions of the world, and even vaguely cultivate the universal feeling of oneness with the whole existence, it is a good start. In itself it is a great sacrifice in which your whole life and actions become a continuous offering.

There are two aspects to you, one is the “real you” and the other is the “projected you,”  which is the sum of your name and form. The world knows you by your "projected you." It does not know the "real you" because it is hidden. When two people meet, what they see in each other is their projected selves. On the top of it, they also wear numerous masks, whereby no one can really know anyone in truth.

We really live in a world of projections and apparitions. The people we meet are not what they really are both literally and figuratively. Even after you spend a lifetime with them, you will not know them fully. Our unity is an illusion. Our relationships are fragile. No wonder, the followers of nondualism argue that the world is an illusion. The world itself is a projection of God, and the people who live in it are also projections.

The “real you” is your true Self, which is eternal and imperishable. The “projected you” is your physical self, which is perishable and limited. Your progress on the path of liberation depends upon how you reconcile them and bring them into an alignment. The “projected you” can become a problem if it goes by its natural propensity to become involved with the world. Hence, the Bhagavadgita cautions the seekers of liberation to harmonize and integrate their personalities to avoid falling into the trap of delusion. The (projected) self alone is the friend as well as enemy of the (eternal) self (6.5). The (projected) self is a friend of him who has conquered it and an enemy who has not (6.6).

Restraint of the ego (nigraham) is therefore important to experience peace of mind and self-absorption (Samadhi). As Lord Krishna states (6.7 & 2.71), the one who has conquered the Self stays peacefully in the company of God. He becomes equal to the dualities of life such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain, honor and dishonor. He attains peace, giving up all desires and attachments, and experiencing life and without ownership and egoism.

When one develops the discernment between the true Self and the projected self, the ego takes a back seat and lets the Self become the center of one’s life. This is the state of egolessness as well as the pure state of spiritual self-awareness. In that state of yoga, he transcends his limited vision, and performs desireless actions, without struggling and striving to be and to have. He believes that he does nothing while performing mundane tasks such as seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, walking, sleeping and breathing. (5.8).

The ego is the barrier which prevents you from seeing the truth of yourself. It is the boundary wall which keeps you locked up inside the prison of your own mind. When you remove that separation, you will see the world as an extension of yourself. Instead of locking up yourself inside your limited individuality, you enter the vast expansive feeling of oneness with all that you see and experience.

A yogi who reaches that state eventually becomes absorbed in God, having surrendered to him unconditionally, offering to Him his Self, his life and actions, and merging his individual identity fully in him. With his ego thus gone, he becomes whatever he touches and feels, and develops a unified awareness in which he sees the Self in all and all in the Self (6.29). In that state he finds himself everywhere, but when he is not in that state he worships him as the pervader of all (6.31).

Therefore, consider yourself an eternal Self. Identify yourself with it, instead of accepting yourself as your mind and body and becoming obsessed with your looks, or your name, wealth and status. Know that in the core of your being, in the silence of your heart, and in the absence of all seeking and striving, you dissolve all boundaries and enter the vast, endless space of Brahman.

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