Who is the real “I” behind our intuitive sense of “I-ness”?
By Brajanatha Dasa
Great souls show us how to transcend the energy of the Lord that makes us forget who we truly are.
In normal parlance, the word ego can refer to egotism and arrogance and thus carries negative connotations. The Sanskrit word ahankara, sometimes translated as “ego,” refers to the subtlest of all material elements, the instrument through which the soul misidentifies with the body and mind. More precisely, Bhagavad-gita commentators refer to this sense of identification as “false ego” to contrast it with the true sense of I-ness, which comes from the soul, the source of consciousness.
The same Gita section that deems the false ego to be ontologically real (7.4) also deems the soul to be real (7.5). Krishna states that both the false ego and the soul are His energies. The false ego is one of the eight elements that make up His material energy, and the soul is a part of His spiritual energy. Krishna later coveys unambiguously that the soul is eternally existent, being an eternal integral part of Him (15.7).
That the soul is real and eternal implies that our sense of I-ness is real and eternal. So to become enlightened, we don’t need to give up our sense of I-ness; we just need to shift its focus from the body and the mind to the soul. Some voidist or nihilist philosophers claim that our sense of I-ness is the cause of all our illusion and tribulation, so it needs to be dissolved. By rejecting wholesale the sense of I-ness, they leave themselves defenseless against the question “When we give up I-ness, who will relish enlightenment?”
No one is free of the false ego. It exists for both devotees and nondevotees, especially those nondevotees Lord Krishna calls “demons” (asuras). But the difference is that devotees take shelter of the Lord to fight with the false ego, whereas demons take shelter of their lower qualities, such as false ego, lust, and anger (16.18), going against the desires of the Lord. The demonic think that by exhibiting and expanding their false ego, they can make their subordinates cower in fear. However, taking shelter of the false ego inevitably backfires. Even if subordinates stay silent temporarily, they remain resentful and eventually rebel.
How to Tell the False Ego to Go
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna explains that our essential identity is that we are eternal spiritual beings, parts of the all-attractive Supreme Being, Krishna Himself. Our true identity is foundational to all our functional identities based on age, sex, nationality, profession, economic bracket, and so forth. When we practice bhakti-yoga diligently and connect with Krishna, we gain increasing realization of our foundational identity. When we find security and satisfaction in our core identity, we become more immune to the false ego’s temptations for gratification through our various other identities. By thus going toward our core identity, we can tell the false ego to go. By basing our sense of I-ness in the soul, we open the door to enlightened, eternal, ecstatic life.
Because pure devotees of the Lord depend on Krishna, they have no confusion about false ego. Materialistic people also have no confusion, because they do not depend on Krishna. But sadhakas, those of us in the stage of devotional service in practice, may occasionally be challenged by confusion because we sometimes think of ourselves as servants of Krishna and at other times identify ourselves as the mind and the senses.
Krishna puts us in this painful situation of confusion to help us understand the false ego and remind us how far the false ego takes us away from Him. But by mercy gained though submissive surrender to the spiritual master, we can come to the realization that Krishna will reveal Himself and remove all obstacles on the path of devotional service. Being submissive to the spiritual master entails being stripped of our false ego. The death of the false ego is our ultimate death in the material world. The death of the body is painful, so we can imagine how painful is the death of the false ego, which doesn’t give up without a fight. But if we take shelter of guru and Krishna, surrendering our free will, the false ego will be curbed. This means engaging our free will within the domain of Krishna’s laws, instead of acting independently under the influence of false ego and the modes of material nature.
No matter how sincere we are in devotional service, while we are still working within materially conditioned bodies there is every possibility of acting from the platform of the false ego. One manifestation of false ego is subtle pride. But the Lord is so kind that if false ego as subtle pride is hindering our spiritual advancement, He intervenes to curb that pride, as shown in the following examples.
Traces of False Ego in Great Souls
Srimad-Bhagavatam relates how Bali Maharaja and his soldiers once ousted Indra from his rule of the heavenly planets. When Lord Vishnu, disguised as Vamanadeva, a brahmana boy, appeared before Bali Maharaja to recover Indra’s opulence, He asked for three paces of land according to the measurement of His steps. The charitably minded Bali Maharaja offered to give Him anything – even a planet of his own – but Vamanadeva declined the offer, saying He wanted only what He could cover in three steps. Ultimately, in just two steps the Lord took away everything from Bali Maharaja, who then surrendered himself at the lotus feet of the Lord and asked Him to place the third step on his head. For this deed, Bali is famed as the exemplar of full surrender unto the Lord.
Bali Maharaja had a little trace of false ego connected with his position as the emperor of all the worlds. While offering three steps of land to the Lord, Bali was proud that he could offer so much more. But his pride was not the same as the pride of defiance that constitutes the conditioned soul’s resistance against the authority of the Lord. Bali is a mahajana, one of the leading spiritual authorities glorified in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, and he demonstrated surrender to the Lord. If his false ego had been a significant obstacle, then he would have resisted surrender, or in other words, pride would have interfered with his surrender. So any little pride or apparent false ego found in Bali was an insignificant remnant of the influence of the material modes of nature, and by the mercy of Krishna as Vamanadeva, that little trace was cleansed away.
The story of Sudama Vipra, told in chapters eighty and eighty-one of the Tenth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam, is another beautiful narration. Sudama was a poverty-stricken brahmana (vipra), and though he had nothing, he was quite content, being free of material desires. At the request of his wife, who desired some relief from their poverty, he visited the Lord in His palace in Dwarka. Before he left home, his wife begged some simple chipped rice from neighbors to offer the Lord as a gift. When Sudama hesitated to offer the paltry rice to the Lord, He grabbed it anyway and ate a fistful of it. When He was about to have a second fistful, His wife Rukmini Devi stopped Him because (unbeknown to Sudama) she had already awarded Sudama immense wealth at his home and had nothing more to give except herself.
The Lord generally does not bestow material blessings upon His devotees, because they may be entrapped again in the material world, characterized by continuous birth, death, old age, and disease, yet He gave immense wealth to Sudama.
In his commentary on this episode, Sri Jiva Goswami mentions that Sudama’s last trace of illusion lay in the subtle pride of being a renounced brahmana. This trace was destroyed by his contemplating the Supreme Lord’s submission to His devotees. The Lord’s bestowing wealth on Sudama was the Lord’s way of reciprocating Sudama’s love. Krishna thought, “I cannot repay Sudama’s exclusive love for Me, but let Me give him some material opulence.”
Krishna acts in a very personal way with those He favors, and not everyone’s spiritual needs are the same. If He takes away a particular person’s wealth, the goal is not simply to take away the wealth, but to enrich that person in spiritual understanding. Others may not need it. For example, His pure devotees are not attached to wealth. For them, whether they have it or not is irrelevant. Some of them have wealth, while others don’t.
Krishna’s special mercy and His giving of wealth do not necessarily go together, as the way His special mercy manifests depends on the particular devotee. Both giving and taking away can be His mercy.
False Ego Returns
Indra, the king of heavenly planets, is a devotee of the Lord, though not a completely pure devotee. He knows that Krishna is supreme, but due to false ego he is possessive of his rule of the celestial kingdom. This impurity was on display during the govardhana-lila (Bhagavatam 10.25), when he became furious because the Vrajavasis, the residents of Vrindavan, accepted Krishna as their Lord and offered Him a sacrifice originally intended for Indra. The punishment Indra inflicted on the Vrajavasis was way beyond reasonable for the supposed offense the Vrajavasis had committed. For example, if we do not pay our utility bill, the city just disconnects the supply and does not punish us. Indra could have done something like that rather than attacking the Vrajavasis with a storm meant to destroy Vrindavan and every living thing in it. Indra’s action shows the pitfall of material opulence for one who is not completely pure.
Attachment, pride, and anger all arise from material lust, which at its root is the desire to be the Lord. Indra exhibited this in its fullest sense because he holds the exalted position of lord of the heavens. Instead of representing Krishna, the ultimate Lord, as his agent, Indra became independent-minded and wanted to enjoy in opposition to Krishna. When this kind of attachment happens, one becomes angry and bewildered, and finally with lost intelligence one performs a destructive act. Indra was especially angry because he saw that the Vrajavasis canceled his puja not simply because of laziness or some small material pride but because they accepted Krishna as the Lord of their hearts. Indra saw this as a direct threat to his cherished position.
When we are too attached to position or material opulence, we become proud, and when someone threatens our status quo, we become territorial and angry and lose our sense of discrimination (Gita 2.63). That’s what happened to Indra, and hence he behaved the way he did.
This display of Indra’s anger is very instructive for us. We too may sometimes lose our centeredness and find fault with others, damaging their reputation. We may do this because we see others as our competition or better than ourselves. This episode teaches us to keep our false ego and pride in check and practice humility. In the end, that is what saved Indra from further problems. He bowed down to Krishna in humility, and Krishna forgave him.
Three Prongs of False Ego
Our false ego often acts like a trident that pierces us with three prongs: grandiosity, blame, and shame.
Grandiosity: When we set out to achieve something, our false ego makes us believe we are extraordinary and entitled to blaze our way to success. Such grandiosity often makes us look down on others who we think are not as talented as we are. By such condescension, the false ego makes us difficult for others to live with. And by distancing us from others, it makes us lonely and unhappy even when our grandiose dreams come true.
Blame: When we can’t actualize our grandiose dreams, the false ego tries to protect itself by blaming others. When we keep looking for scapegoats and refuse to take responsibility for our shortcomings and mistakes, we can’t grow; instead, we stagnate or even degrade, thereby setting ourselves up for misery.
Shame: When the false ego can’t find anyone to blame, it starts imploding. It beats us down, making us believe we are worthless, useless, and hopeless. By pitting us against ourselves, shame strips us of our energy for self-improvement and makes us depressed or even suicidal.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna explains that we are parts of a whole far bigger than ourselves: the all-attractive supreme, Krishna Himself. We have intrinsic self-worth because we are eternally loved by Him as His precious parts, irrespective of whether we succeed or fail in our endeavors. By humbly acknowledging that we are parts and not the whole, and by playing our role in a mood of devotional service, we can find inner security and satisfaction, thereby transcending the false ego’s delusions.
Bali, Sudama, and Indra reached that stage very quickly. Each of them, in different ways, had the direct company of the Lord. Certainly they are not ordinary souls; they are great souls assisting Krishna in His pastimes and thus teaching us, among other things, lessons about the false ego in relation to our all-important spiritual life.
Brajanatha Dasa, PhD, and his wife, Suvarna Radha Devi Dasi, PhD, both disciples of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, live in Longmont, Colorado, with their two daughters. They are active in book distribution and in serving Sri Sri Radha-Govinda at ISKCON Denver.