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Ahamkara: Understanding Ego

Is your ego getting in the way of your happiness? Is it causing you pain? Have you tried unsuccessfully to manage it? Here is your ultimate guide to understanding the nature and qualities associated with ego, Ahamkara in Sanskrit, and turning it from a negative to an important one.

Scriptural Mention

Ahamkara, or the ‘I-awareness,’ is mentioned in the Samkhya philosophy, one of Hinduism’s six significant schools. In the Samkhya school of thought, it is considered the original seed that gives meaning to the seen/manifest creation. The ego concept also finds mention in other eastern religious philosophies, including Buddhism and Jainism, as a quality that could do well with some sublimation.

The idea of ahamkara is born out of intellect. It tells an individual they are something or someone with particular personality traits, likes, dislikes, cravings, aversions, and good and bad qualities, among other things. But in reality, every individual soul is considered part of the indivisible, universal consciousness with no independent existence. This universal consciousness becomes one’s reality as one goes deeper into the practice of meditation.

Understanding Ahamkara

Are you comfortable meeting people from different cultures, backgrounds, economic statuses, or social positions? Can you spontaneously get up and dance or sing without a concern about how you will be perceived? Ego or ahamkara is a sense of separation from everyone and everything around us.

Ego as a Sense of Separation

“Ego means lack of respect to the Self,” global spiritual master and humanitarian Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar shares while explaining the nature of ego. “Ego is identity-‘I am this.’ Ego is also ‘I am not this. Ego is ‘I am separate from others.’”

Gurudev explains with an example, “Suppose you are a general in the military, but you also behave in the same role within your family. You are stuck in your ego of being a military officer. Being a general is only one of your identities—you’re also a father or mother, a husband or wife, sister or brother, a son or daughter, and so on. You dissolve your ego when you balance all these identities and give them equal importance.”

Ego is getting stuck with any one identity. Ego causes discomfort, fear, and anxiety. When we gain self-awareness in life, we desire to eliminate it. Ego doesn’t let love flow because it is separateness, wanting to prove, possess, and being unnatural. It always needs someone else to appreciate and recognize it. Ego is there when you get attention, don’t get attention, or seem to be losing attention.

“The ‘I’ or ego is a tiny atom. When this atom, the ego, identifies with the body, it becomes miserable. But when it is associated with the spirit, it becomes divine, the shakti. In a huge atomic reactor, it is just one atom that has exploded. In the same way, in our whole body, there is just one atom of ‘I.’ When this ‘I’ explodes, it becomes the light of the Self.” —Gurudev

Does ahamkara have a good side to it?

As we discussed at the beginning, ego is another level of our existence that comes after intellect. Though you can’t wish it away for the pain it brings, you can transcend it. On the one hand, ego makes a person courageous and creative in problem-solving.

There are three types of ego—tamasic, rajasic, and sattvic. The tamasic ego is the destructive ego, like that of a terrorist or fundamentalist. The rajasic ego is restless, fidgety, and attention-seeking. Finally, there is the sattvic ego, the purest form of ego that includes everyone as part of itself. When the ego is expanded and purified, it increases belongingness in a person and brings in patience and peace—though a seeker’s goal would be to transcend even the sattvic ego.

But when ahamkara or ego begins to harden, it transforms into an invisible wall between the individual and others—cutting one off from the rest of the world. It brings with it sadness and isolation. Can such stiffness and separation be transcended?

“In success, drop your ego but in failure, hold on to it. When you think you are failing, the ego says, this is nothing. I can deal with this.”—Gurudev

The Antidote to Ego: Unconditional Love

Growing unconditional love in oneself for the creation dissolves the ego. Everyone is made up of love. Spiritual knowledge is an aid to developing this innermost state in you. A seed has a shell over it; when you soak it in water, it sprouts and the covering drops.

Similarly, ego is a necessary unnaturalness that develops in you. Knowledge uncovers the shell over you and makes you like a child again—natural, simple, and innocent. It is the antidote for ego—be in unconditional love and ego disappears.