The concept of ego is neither ontological nor philosophical in my view. It is a practical instrument in our hands. When we consider any thing as an instrument, then it is neither good nor bad intrinsically. But unfortunately it is the most misunderstood and wrongly punished aspect of our being. Normally, in most spiritual circles ‘ego’ is looked down and is considered to be a big hurdle in the path of one’s spiritual journey. Several questions come up while accepting this concept. Let us try and find a logical understanding of this ‘ego’, so that we can utilize this highly simplified introspective knowledge for the healthy growth of the individual to live a happy life free from all distresses which is the goal of any spiritual seeker. Let us pause and think without any prejudice, if the ‘ego’ was only a big hurdle and, a poison why such a thing was created by God?? Like many things which are good in one area and dangerous in another area, my feeling has always been that ego also must have its good and bad aspects. It may be that we have interpreted it wrongly and overplayed its bad aspects and made it a big hurdle to one’s evolution. It is like the food which can be nourishing when taken in the right way, in the right place, in the right quantity and at the right time (in empty stomach) and can become a poison and destructive when the conditions are not right. It is not the fault of the food but the application is wrong. Similarly, according to Indian philosophy there are both the good and bad aspects of the ‘ego’, just like a sharp edged razor which can be used for killing some one brutally or saving someone through a life saving surgery. We discuss about ‘ego’ and think that only adults can understand and realize the impact of ego on one’s life as it is too philosophical. But an incident happened which surprised me to realize how even a simple child can also recognize this concept of’ ego’. A group of our friends were watching a documentary on yoga and its relevance to modern man in which there were several elite people who were being interviewed to give their ideas about yoga, yoga research and its application as a science etc.. The anchor person questioned one of the participants of the panel, about his opinion on yoga. He started talking about how much he is committed to scientific experimentation, how many papers in science he has published and how rigorously he is scientific in his temperament etc. Listening to this for about two minutes, a small girl of not more than eight years sitting next to me said very innocently, “Why is he talking about himself and not coming to the topic?” It was interesting to realize that , while an innocent young girl could understand what is ego and also that it is bad which the elite adult , the speaker, could not .What could be the reason ? There are several reasons. Let us understand how Indian scriptures understand this inner stuff called ‘ego’ and how it camouflages itself as we grow into adults.
Ego , the self, can have dual existence, (a) as a distinct entity (the observer mind) or (b) connected inseparably with all aspects of our personality ,the entire body mind consciousness complex. Ego exists not only in human beings but you can find it in entire creation. That means every thing in this manifested world has its own ‘being’ which distinguishes its ‘self’ from others. Hence it cannot be good or bad; it is only a self distinguishing quality of the organism. Animals have ego, plants have ego and even the matter has its ego. In case of physical matter, we may not use the word ‘ego’, but we call it as its innate property .Thus, ego of physical matter establishes its identity and individuality, manifests as its fixed property and is predictable. .For example water follows the law that under normal pressure and temperature, it becomes steam at one hundred degrees centigrade and turns into ice at zero degree temperature. It is the property of the water. This property inbuilt into its nature distinguishes it from other substances. This is what I call as the ego of nonliving physical world and all objects share their distinct ‘self’ or ‘ego’. Similarly plants also have their own individuality. For example, roots grow downwards into the soil in search of water. The genetic programming is to find water and not just a downward growth. Hence, if the roots happen to come across an obstacle of a huge rock on their way, they know how to negotiate themselves to reach the water. This clearly indicates the inbuilt intelligence that helps the plant to survive and is achieved through this programmed effort to strive to reach a goal. This ability and intention to pursue its goal is the ego of a plant. Thus, in case of living organisms the ego takes on the property of trying to protect its own existence in addition to its physical property .This can be established so clearly when we see small plants which start their small roots in small cracks in a wall. These little ones, as they continue to grow, send their roots into the wall in such a complex network that even the huge stone structure may give way over time although their aim was never to destroy the wall. This ‘ego’ makes the widespread roots of huge trees break open and lift off the heavily concreted road surfaces for their survival. This is the ego of living things that is characterized by the law of ‘survival instinct’.
Further in case of insects or animals, we can see this ego for survival or the survival instinct has an added advantage of mobility. Try to disturb an ant that is resting, you can see the ant becoming alert at once and trying to run away or fight for its survival. This survival instinct can be found even in the new born.
In the’ Animal World Channel’ of the television i saw a live video, wherein the baby
Turtles coming out of their eggs early in the morning on the sea shore, were swiftly rushing towards the ocean! They were millions of them and not one of them missed their direction. Who told them that the ocean is in that direction and they have to go to the ocean for their survival? Even though at some places the sand dunes were going up and the ocean was far behind them, the turtles made no mistake. The anchor of the program picked up one of them and turned it around and left it on the sand in the opposite direction, the turtle wasted no time to turn around and proceed on its journey to the ocean! It is the ego of the turtle which makes it to do this way. It is the individuality which ensures its survival. This I call as the ‘good ego’, the very nature of the individual described as ‘Asmita’ in Vedanta. This ‘Asmita’, the ego, is the first aspect of our personality to take birth as we evolve as an individual and then comes the other aspects of our being that includes the mind and the physical body.
As human beings also, we all have this ego that strives for survival. This exists from the time of birth. This is very much visible within seconds after birth even in human babes. I was watching a documentary where the doctor puts the baby on the mother’s tummy as soon as it is born (even with out cleaning it) and in less than ten minutes, it crawled on the mother’s tummy to reach the breast! How did the baby know that the food is available there! This is the ego of survival.
In the case of human beings, apart from this survival ego which is programmed into our physiology, we have evolved enormous degree of free will which we may perceive as psychological ego. There are three aspects of this psychological ego that we use for our day to day functioning. These are- the doer ego, the identifier ego and the experiencer ego, which are called Kartrutva Asmita, Bhoktrutva Asmita and Jnatrutva Asmita respectively in Indian scriptures.
Let us try and understand what we mean by these three types of Asmita.
- to be continued...