What does ego really mean to you? Is ego bad?


What does ego really mean to you? Is ego bad?


H.D. Goswami Profile Picture

Ego is the Greek pronoun “I”, and Sanskrit aham.  In the dictionary and in our culture, it has at least one negative meaning.  For Freud, of course, it didn’t have any negative meanings, the ego was just a person. It does have at least one pejorative sense in our culture. Ego also has a neutral sense, simply prescribing or describing someone as the subject of their own consciousness, someone who intrinsically contains in their presence a sense of “I” being individual consciousness. Ego can also have a positive sense. For example, in the Sanskrit literature, the Upanishads, one of the important stigmas of the Upanishads is, aham brahmasmi, “I am spirit”. In other words , that I am not simply matter or dead matter; I am actually eternal spirit, aham-brahman-asmi. I am brahman,  is not intrinsically or necessarily bad . To be an individual conscious being, I think, is great.  

The word “person” comes from the Latin word that means mask.  Talking about whether God is a person, what is the relation there?

That gets into some of the limitations of etymology, in the sense that words have origins but they can dramatically shift in their meaning.  The word , person , has dramatically shifted in its meaning. In a sense , it is a fault cognate;  it no longer means what it originally meant in English.  Now, someone may claim that ultimately it still means that, but if you look in the dictionary, not one says that a primary means for person is a mask, or a persona, like a theatrical persona. Unfortunately, we just don’t have any other word, so we are stuck with person. 

And again, is one of those cases where a word has significantly shifted in its meaning. So if I was speaking Latin, I would probably use a different word. 

I guess it is inviting, if I would ask to see what’s really behind the mask…

Well, that’s true, but again, consider the example of a mask; what’s really behind the mask is a real face. In other words, it’s not that you take someone’s mask off and there’s nothing there. There are faces behind the mask. There’s even a verse in the Isopanisad, one of the oldest Sanskrit texts, that says, “iram mayena patrena satyasa pitram ukam, tatatuam pusanam pavana satyadarvaia drsti, that your face is covered by this iram mayena patena, this sort of golden effulgent covering.  For example, if someone looks directly at the sun, the light will be so intense that they would loose their ability for a few moments to actually see the sun glow; they would only see the diffused sunlight. In the Vedic literature, you find the same idea, that from the body of God, there is this Supreme light coming. This is the light that some yogis meditate on, and what they are actually meditating on, is the effulgence of God, the glow of the existence of God. Therefore, there is one prayer in a very ancient Sanskrit text saying, “ apavranu” , please remove this effulgent covering so that I can actually see your face. So again, behind the mask , is a face. 

There’s actually a word for that in Sanskrit, ahamkara, which sort of means egoism, in the sense of identifying with the body.  Dehagmimana, is the technical term. In other words, if I take myself to be the body, as in ; I am an American, or I am male, or I am so many years old , or whatever kind of body I am in , taking the intelligence to be myself or taking my ideas to be me,  that’s the mask. Ultimately, we’re pure spiritual persons, so when you remove the mask, there is a face, not nothing. 

One of the things you commented on earlier, was that the way religions come to agree sometimes, is  that they are individuals that gather who want to be devotional. A few people turns into a group, then a group becomes a community, and then communities become a society at some point. Then, there becomes this need for organization.  My question is, is it possible to consider, that as we grow in our development ,we can find the capacity such that we wouldn’t have to do this, that we would not have to have organization? 

The individuals can reach that, but my personal experience is that the whole society moves sort of at geological speed; it moves very slowly.  

For example, interestingly, San Francis Assisi was actually removed from his own movement during his life because he wanted to just wander around and be spiritual; and his followers wanted organization. Scholars feel , that San Francis died at the relative age he did , because of the physical hardships he endured. He wouldn’t dress, he would just sleep anywhere; but people wanted to have rooms and windows and not to sleep out in the rain.  Because people where being attracted to this movement of Francis, there needed to be leadership. You need to train people, you have to have a place to train people, and if they are trained by the wrong people, they get misled. So, you need to have the right people to train them, and that means, you have to give authority to certain people to train out others. Certain people can actually manage well and organize, and certain people are hopeless for management.  In the real world, it just happens.   

It is  interesting, Krishna says in the Gita, those who are really enlightened, the way He puts it is, “tatmarati”, those who have found pure love within the self and complete satisfaction in the self alone; they have no duty in the world really. 

So yes, there is a type of enlightened anarchy, there is a type of anarchy amongst enlightened souls, and if you had a society where everyone is enlightened there would be actually a very small government.  

The Vedas describe there are these four great cosmic ages, like seasons. For example, Satya Yuga, lasts for a million years.  It is said that there is an age, and you find this also in the words of the Greek poet Homer, and basically ancient people, whether in Greece or India, had this understanding; that very far back in time there was a type of golden age in which there was almost no government, there was no need for government because people were naturally civilized. The weeds in those days were actually like fresh foods and vegetables. So, people didn’t have to work because very nutritious foods just grew everywhere. 

Just like in this room, for example, we don’t have to form a committee of who is going to be in charge, who is going to turn the lights off, or what do we do if someone tries to stop that person turning the lights off after the program. 

My experience, having been in my happy youth, very idealistic about these things, over decades of experience, I’ve sort of resign myself to the fact, that anarchy is not so viable for the mass of people. 

Is there not something in between, that is not just hierarchy or anarchy, that could be an organization that is not either one…

I think, the general principle is, that every person should be allowed as much freedom as possible. I think it is inappropriate to unnecessarily restrict anyone’s freedom. In general, it should just be the minimum, the absolute minimum needed to prevent significant harm.  I think, it is a pragmatic thing, in the sense that for example, still in America, there are some little towns where there is hardly any police presence, because you have people who respect their neighbors.  In other countries also, not just in America, there are places where people have a very high level of civility, they really respect their neighbors and so on, and there’s very little need for police; there’s very little need for enforcement of anything. Everyone sort of does the right thing. You don’t need the law of laws.  To the extent that there are people who do not respect others, they have to be made to respect others to prevent innocent people from being seriously harmed. In general, a government, or the necessary amount of government, increases as mutual respect decreases, and as mutual respect increases, the amount of government needed decreases. In any given community or society, I think, it just depends on the level of culture and civilization of a group of people. 

It is interesting, because often you find in the western civilization, and increasingly around the world, that there is a tendency to selectively call for low governments in certain areas and high governments in others. I’ll give you an example, when I was an undergraduate in Berkley in the second half of the 60s, I was right in the middle of everything, and my picture was even in the front page of the Oakland Tribune in the middle of a riot.  I remember during the late 60s that the same people, on the one hand, in regard to sex, were insisting that there should be no restrictions, no rules, and everyone should be free to do what they want.  In fact, the slogan back then was, “You can’t legislate morality”.  The same people were demanding that the government legislate morality in regards to civil rights.  The very same people were insisting that you can’t legislate morality, and yet they were marching into Washington, to legislate morality. 

What is the best way that you’ve found that you can get rid of the destructive ego? Again, in your personal experience

My personal experience actually coincides with a statement from my favorite statements in the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna says:  param jistua nivartate, one can actually withdraw from selfishness by experiencing something higher. In other words, when we were young we played with toys. My mother never came into my room and said, “ok, I’m taking all your toys away, you are too old to play with toys”. Rather, as I became older, at a certain point, I didn’t want to play with those toys anymore; I outgrew them.  I think, the natural way to get rid of selfishness, is to outgrow it, by growing our consciousness, by expanding our consciousness. If we cultivate higher consciousness, in a sincere devoted way, then we will actually outgrow selfishness, because our consciousness will get so large that we just don’t care about those things.  

I personally practice bhakti-yoga.  In the Bhagavad-Gita, which is probably the most famous yoga text in Sanskrit, or in any language, Krishna says that of all yogis, the bhakti-yogi is really the culmination, because it is the yoga of love and devotion. Ultimately, all of the mechanical aspects of the breathing exercises, the postures, and the different meditation techniques and so on, really are meant to bring us to the point of pure love. In this bhakti-yoga, we have what is called the sadhana, the practice.  Throughout the day, sadhana is a process of keeping your consciousness always in touch with God.  The example is given, if you put an iron bar in fire, the iron becomes fire, it becomes fiery.  The principle of yoga is that you put your consciousness in contact with Supreme consciousness, which is actually pure, and by that contact, by that yoga, your consciousness becomes purified. Because God actually is the source of infinite bliss and infinite pleasure, with that connection, with God, you experience a much higher pleasure; a pleasure which is based in giving rather than taking. So, it  is in the ecstasy of that spiritual love, that devotion and that service that the selfishness becomes insignificant. 

Like those things that you take now as your life or death: thinking , “she loves me, she loves me not”, and so on, these life or death things we go through actually become trivial.  We might be obsessed now, thinking , “will she ever appreciate me…”, but then you get to a point where you realize, that actually, I’m self satisfied.  I love this person but I love this person in the sense that I want this person to be happy, not that I want to possess this person, or simply degrade this person or transform them into an instrument of my satisfaction. Rather , that I respect and accept this person as the center and subject of their own unique existence, and out of love, if I can help this person in some way, I will happily do so. My love for this person, because it is actually love, is not a craving for this person to gratify me by expressing their devotion through me. In other words, I want to love, rather than be loved. We are all infinitely loved, that’s not a problem.  All of us are infinitely loved, and so it is loving that we need to do. 

Can you describe somewhat, if I were to meet someone who has reached that level of consciousness, what would I observe?

That’s a great question. Actually, that very question almost exactly as you put it , is in the Bhagavad-Gita. Arjuna asks the same question to Krishna, actually a few times. He asks,  “What visible symptoms can we see that someone has actually transcended these material qualities?” In another chapter Arjuna says, “sthita pragiasya kamasa, “ this means , one who is really fixed in higher knowledge. What is their language? One who is in Samadhi, how do they speak , what do they do, what’s their behavior and so on? It’s very interesting, that it is a classic question. 

The first thing Krishna said in response, was , “prajiajati jaga Kaman, sarvam partam manogata,” that a person is known to be sthita pragia, fixed in spiritual understanding, when a person gives up all of their selfish desires.  Selfish desires ,by the way, include the selfish desire for one’s own salvation, or the selfish desire for enlightenment, because enlightenment is really like the super “wow” experience. Therefore, we can selfishly desire enlightenment. 

It’s not a negative state, yet if you look at Buddhism, which has many good things about it, one thing which is undeniable is that the ultimate perfection is grammatically a negative term.  The prefix nir means without, so without vana, without the current of material existence. The other principle adopted was anatman, none-self. Ultimately, there is sumniata, emptiness. No-vana, or without vana, everything empty, no self, these are negative expressions, not in the sense that they are bad, but in the sense that they are grammatically negative. If you study historical Buddhism as it spread into many parts of the world, it actually became sort of a generic religion. In fact, by the time Buddhism was violently persecuted by the Muslims in India (which was kind of the end of Buddhism in its place of origin), it was becoming almost indistinguishable in many ways from Hinduism, because they had taken in so many of the trappings, paraphernalia, rituals, beliefs, and so on. 

To answer your question, if someone has pure love, an enlightened person, would have love for every living being and for God. There’s a type of egalitarianism which is not completely free of ego. In other words, thinking, I’m a soul, you are a soul, and there’s no God that’s any better than anybody else.  There is a type of jealous egalitarianism that doesn’t allow anyone to be a Supreme Being, but if we actually love, we would not resent the fact that there is a God and it’s not you and me. To deny that anyone could be God, above anyone else, is one aspect of vanity.  You see it even sometimes in spiritual practitioners. So, if we really give up that vanity, that envy and resentment and we’re completely happy about the fact that there is a God and it’s not me, and we can love God and love every living being, then that is actually the symptom.

Is it possible to get beyond mind and ego?

Material mind and ego, we should say, because actually there is a spiritual mind and  there is spiritual consciousness. The understanding that comes out of these ancient literatures is, that you, the real you that’s inside the body, that’s the eternal you. The eternal, unique, beautiful, all-knowing person, is actually covered. Of course, we are physically covered by the body, but it is actually our identification with the body that’s the problem.

To give a crude example, where I grew up, in Southern California, where you sort of are what you drive, I don’t mean to say everyone is crass and superficial there, but it is very prominent. Let’s say I buy something like a Porsche SUV, which the current consumer’s report has given a low average reliability rating, but never mind that, there’s a certain status to Porsche. Let’s say I buy one of those and then I drive down the street; somehow my ego extends to that car, this hunk of metal, and somehow I become a greater person because I’m driving this car. Obviously, I am not that car, but somehow I have psychologically extended my identity to the car so that the status of the car somehow showers me in its glory, and as this car is prestigious, I am prestigious because I can own this car. 

What happens is something which is really extrinsic to ourselves, which is outside of ourselves. We identify with, we take it in as part of our identity, so therefore,  “I am this car”, or “I am this fantastic dress”, or “I am this college degree” etc. We take things which are really totally outside of ourselves and we assimilate them into a false identity. 

There is a very ancient analogy, that the body is the vehicle or the car. It’s a very, very ancient metaphor found in many different Sanskrit literatures. I take this fancy car to be me. I’m prestigious, because the car is. I take the body to be the self. 

The body is a great gift, which allows us to practice spiritual life. It’s  a very valuable object and we can’t vandalize it or neglect it. The mind is the subtle part of the body. Just as the physical body covers the soul, the mind covers your spiritual consciousness. You, as an eternal spiritual person, are a thinking being. You have unlimited consciousness. It’s just that now our consciousness is functioning through a covering, because the material world has its gross and its subtle material elements that cover consciousness.  


Going back to the last thing you said, it was so helpful to me because you see people that have really high ideals but it looks like they are judging everybody, and then you see people who are living by really high ideals but you don’t feel judged when you are around them, you feel that they are closer to enlightenment,  and I know I’m judging when I say that…

To make judgments is not to be judgmental, because honestly, if we didn’t make judgments we could not refrain from any type of activity. If I decide, for example, I am not going to rape the earth and pillage the women, if I decide that I’m not going to engage in abusive behavior, that’s a judgment. I have decided that it is  immoral for me to abuse other people or to cheat other people. If I didn’t make judgments like that I couldn’t govern my own behavior. I think it would be like pretending to say that I have decided that for myself it is wrong and bad to exploit other people, but if someone else exploits other people I can’t say anything. Really , the reason that I decide not to exploit other people is because I think it is generally wrong, it’s  not because I think it’s  only wrong for me. I think as a universal principle people should not abuse and exploit each other.  How could I not conclude that as a general principle? If I then see someone terribly abusing another person, I can’t say anything. Is it judgmental to take a child away from a child abuser?  Again, to be judgmental means perhaps to unnecessarily be critical, but to make reasonable necessary judgments is part of what it means to be a civilized human being.   So to make judgments is not to be judgmental. 

So your emphasis is on the love, and not on the judgment, even when you’re taking the child away from the abuser you’re seeing the person, the self…

Yes, because it’s compassion and love, because the child has to be helped, and even the abuser has to be saved from creating more atrocious karma and just degrading himself; so, we can do it out of compassion and out of love, but we have to make judgments. This doesn’t mean we are judgmental. If we didn’t make judgments, we couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, because that’s a judgment. Theoretically, you could stay in bed until the end of your life.

I guess I’m trying to say that I see a difference in  people where it is coming from love or is coming from anger…

Yes, exactly. That’s very important because as we know some of the most judgmental people we ever meet are people that tell everybody else not to be judgmental. Thus, it  is important to make that distinction, that it is our sacred duty to make reasonable judgments about what’s right or wrong in life. Yet ,  we should not be judgmental in the same  sense as some people, it being their biggest thrill in life, finding out that someone did something wrong. 

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