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The concept of Ego is something that has troubled humans from the time we’ve formed civilizations. Questions on ego and identity have formed the basis of philosophy and, to a large extent, psychology.  It is interesting to note that ancient philosophers across the world spoke of immortality of the soul, and this permanence of the soul became the core for many cultural and religious philosophies. For example, Plato, way back in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, wrote a treatise ‘On the Soul’.  In this, he records his teacher, Socrates’ discourse about the soul. Central to this idea is the notion that the soul is imperishable.  In India, gurus like Madhvacharya, Ramanujachrya and Shankaracharya shaped Hindu philosophy that guides many of us even today.  The core of our philosophy is once again the immortality of the soul, in contrast to the perishability of the physical body.

This central idea further gave birth to the Dvaita and Advaita philosophies. Madhvacharya advocated the Dvaita philosophy – there is the supreme God soul – Brahman (paramatma) and the individual soul (jivatma). His treatise and teachings went on to distinguish the differences between these two ‘entities’ – hence ‘Dvaita’ (two). On the other hand, Ramanujacharya and Shankaracharya advocated the Advatia (not two or ‘a-dvaita’) philosophy – where we believe that the souls of individuals, and that of the Brahman, are one and the same. Of course, it is much more complex than that – ‘soul’ is considered as the highest, and purest form of consciousness – and in this state, the soul is nothing but Brahman or God. In the Sri Vaishnava philosophy, we believe that supreme soul or Brahman is none other than Vishnu. In other words, each of us carry a drop of that supreme power – the power that is responsible for imparting that initial energy to atoms, from where it all began.

These are terribly exalted metaphysical ideas – but I believe this quest started with Who am I? Rene Descartes famously said ‘I think therefore I am’ - indeed the entire western philosophical journey starts with this statement. Don’t you think it is fascinating – I mean from an evolutionary perspective, one moment we were grunting and growling, rubbing two stones together and discovering fire – and the next moment, we are on this complex self-realization quest!

Ego too is tied with this sense of ‘I’.  What does this ‘I’ mean? Surely, it is much more than a sum total of your body parts. We can vaguely answer as ‘mind and soul’. We can say identity. But what is identity? Is it just your name? Your lineage? Consider a hypothetical situation – let’s say you are cut off from all the people you know and your memory is completely erased. What does ‘I’ signify in this case?

If you compare the works of all these great philosophers, you’ll realise that we all have the same fundamentals.  The difference lies in our quest for the answers. If you look at the Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism – be it any of the Acharyas, the Thirthankaras or The Buddha – this quest was a personal undertaking. All these great men chose to walk the path, and their discourses were drawn from their experiences.

I’ve often pondered on the phrase – attained enlightenment. What did this mean? I came across this phrase in school, in the history text book. It mentioned the place where Siddhartha ‘attained enlightenment’ and thus became The Buddha. It troubled me no end, this not knowing. When I raised this question, I was unfortunately misunderstood, and was reassured that such questions won’t be asked in the exam.

But somewhere along the way, it was Mahavira’s exceptional life that helped me understand, to a very miniscule level, what these great men were after.
When we say a quest for higher consciousness, it has to be a consciousness that is completely cut off from the physical world. Research has shown that consciousness exists outside the five physical senses through which we interact with the environment. It is this unattached consciousness that is liberating, boundless and energy in its purest form. But neither have we been able to study it, nor harness it.

The pursuit of this consciousness demands an extraordinary state of complete detachment. In other words, you have to break every form of attachment – from your relationships, to even self-love. You have to completely dismember the concept of ‘I’.  The first step is to distance yourself from things that attach you to a physical world– renunciation.  But just by cutting yourself off – going away to an uninhabited forest – does that help? In a small way it does – you now become alone. You don’t have any emotional crutches. Without human interaction, there is no emotional friction. The mind becomes free for higher pursuits.
But this is the easier part. What about your self-love? That is the survival instinct at a very primal level – encoded in our very DNA – the reflex to avoid anything that causes physical pain and discomfort. By shunning creature comforts and denying luxury to the body – some control over that survival instinct is obtained. The biggest obstacle however, is the larger part of the ‘I’ – the ego that encompasses your sense of self-respect. How does one detach from that? I think this is the reason why all the great tapasvis also became bhikshus – they adopted the practice of accepting alms.  How much of a beating the notion of self-respect must take, when a former prince or a king should stand in front of a house, with his palms extended, begging for food? What a rigorous, ruthless way to destroy the ego!

I am particularly moved by Mahavira’s journey into self-realization. He gave up wearing clothes (a practice still followed by Digambaras) – the last bastion of self-love.  When you reach a stage where you break down your ego to its very atoms – you begin to dissociate yourself from your body. By a cruel paradox, the body is still the vehicle for whatever energy you carry – so it has to be nourished. So you must reach a stage where you eat only for nourishment, as if you are just taking care of an independent entity.

If you examine your thoughts – it is all tied down to your relationships, yourself, your actions, someone else’s actions, your comforts, your desires. So what happens when you withdraw from all this including your own physical body? I can only guess – when all the noise is turned off, you become so self-aware (another paradox) that you can ‘feel’ the vibration of very cell, every atom.  Indeed, there is no absolute silence – it is said that in this state of hyper silence within your mind – the sound that you can hear is ‘Om’; which is why it is called the primordial sound. It is the state where you are able to harness the energy within you - the Brahman within you; you become a part of the Brahman, you become enlightened.

At a very primal level, ego is tied to one’s body and nothing more. To that extent, even animals have ego. But as we become more sophisticated in our thinking, in our interactions and relationships – ego assumes larger, more abstract proportions. It encompasses notions of self-respect, self image, self love. At the end of the day, in order to function well in our social hierarchy, ego is important and necessary. When our sense of ‘I’ is inclusive – ‘my home, my town, my planet’ – it is beneficial to society in the long run. When ego becomes restricted to self-pleasure, it takes on an ugly shape ‘everyone should recognize my power and importance, I am entitled because I exist...’

I think for this life – it is enough if we choose the right kind of ego.

©Sumana Khan – 2015


  1. It is refreshing to get a break in the morning and read your posts then took quite a long break from writing.. I did miss your writing then. This blogathon in April is gets to read on new topics everyday..this post was refreshing.. Truth be told I didn't expect it to go where it did in the beginning... And go it did, down the advaitha way.. Since I have been interested in this topic for quite sometime now it was an added pleasure to read..I was wondering where you would end it though and perhaps it was from being hooked on to the topic that I felt that you ended it rather tamely in the last write more..feels nice to read on a crappy day..and most days now have become well "boring"... He he..

    1. Thanks Leo. Just curious - how did you think this would conclude? :)

  2. Well for starters I was quite engrossed in the topic and the writing that I didn't feel it would where it did. Then, since you were talking of things otherworldly or rather not of this world I didn't expect you to wind up with such a low-life as ego you know? You were painting a beautiful picture with such things as the Brahman and the all encompassing power in this universe and such, that I expected you to end in the same when it went back to such a pitiful thing as ego I was surprised and a bit hurt cos I was really enjoying something that was stimulating the brain... Do you get my feeling?? That's all..what about tdy's piece? Nothing after that "hello world"?

  3. Hmmm... interesting topic.... I enjoy the debates / discussions we have at home on the different schools of philosophy. Very interesting to wonder about our evolution from cavemen to what we are today, and how Ego has played a role in it. And I also sometimes wonder in what way the world would have been different if there was no Ego. And can there be a state where there is no Ego at all? Wouldn't the quest of a human to find enlightenment involve his / her Ego to some extent? Just wondering! You can call me wonder-head with all the wondering I do. :)

    1. you are absolutely right! i can't imagine a life without ego...the right kind. we would not have been ambitious, made progress, gone after science...

      i like 'wonder head' :)


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