Here’s a meditation: My greatest friend is the intelligence to find the truth, and my greatest enemy is the ego due to which I reject the truth. This post carries forward the discussion of the last one and describes the harmful effects of the ego, which are primarily two: (a) the ego causes our pleasure and suffering when our mastery is proved or disproved, and (b) it rationalizes every failure of mastery as a temporary setback, blames others rather than the self, and makes the soul bound to delusionary ideas even when the truth is hitting us in the head. It also discusses the nature of the spiritual ego in which the idea of mastery is reinstated without suffering and delusion.
Table of Contents
The “Good” and “Bad” Effects of Ego
In most cultures, pride in oneself, one’s culture, nation, race, society, and religion are viewed as good things because with pride in oneself, there is a greater motivation for material achievement and confidence that one will be successful in such endeavors. This is not entirely false; when people are more confident of themselves and their culture, race, society, nation, and religion, they strive harder than those who lack this confidence. By inspiring greater endeavor and successes in materialistic achievements, one could argue that ego is a good thing.
However, there is also a flip side to the ego. The pride in the self that tends to make you more successful is also the pride that makes you insensitive and brutal toward other people, especially those who have a lower pride. Those with a lower pride tend to accept their humiliation easily because they have a lower ego. The egoistic person thus rationalizes his brutality as a symptom of his superiority.
Every materialistic culture tries to instill pride in its people to become more successful. They express their ego by their attempt to dominate others. Racial superiority, nationalistic pride, ideological achievements, and technological dominance are expressions of this root desire for mastery. The greater the ego, the greater the pursuit of mastery, greater short-term success in mastery due to greater self-belief of being the lord of the world, but also greater insensitivity toward others, indulgence in heinous and brutal actions toward those with low ego.
The Cycle Produced by the Ego
When a person indulges in the adverse consequences of ego, then nature punishes them by destroying their power and prestige. When this mastery is destroyed, the egoistic person suffers from hurt, sadness, regret, and depression. However, they may still be unable to give up their pride. Their ego now drives them to work harder, achieve more power, and then use that power to brutalize others.
The journey of material existence driven by the ego is, therefore, cyclical—the ego makes a person commit heinous acts of brutality after which nature punishes them, takes away their power, to teach them a lesson about the bad effects of ego. However, the ego is often stronger than the punishment. Even as nature punishes us, we don’t immediately give up the ego. We just view it as a temporary setback. We rationalize material suffering as a temporary impediment on the path to greater success. Even if the setback seems permanent, the ego rationalizes it: It is not so bad after all. The ego persists by producing false rationalizations of failures in materialistic life.
The ego creates the delusion of grandeur, propels a person toward greater material advancement, under the conviction of invincibility. The ego blinds us to the reality of how insignificant our existence is, of how we are controlled by nature, how we are dragged by the insinuations of ego—both as pride and depression—at different times. By thinking that we are masters, we sometimes enjoy when our mastery is proved, and sometimes suffer when our mastery is disproved. Due to pride in our culture, nation, race, gender, or social connections, we falsely believe that others are inferior and we justify their subjugation, not realizing that the situation will eventually be reversed.
The Delusions of Material Ego
One of the key functions of material pride is to deflect responsibility of failures to others and take the credit for successes. Another key function of the ego is to segregate the world into friends and enemies. Those who feed our pride are our friends, and those who hurt it are our enemies. By the combination of these two things, many false ideas are reinforced: “I am great, and never at fault”, “If there is a fault, it is in others”, “I have many enemies who are causing me to fail”, “But I have many supporters who are helping me to be successful”.
We can look around ourselves, or within ourselves, and everybody thinks this way. But this is delusional thinking because under the influence of ego, factually nobody is our friend. Everyone is trying to attain greater mastery. Even our best friends think that they are better than us, more perfect than us, and they will abandon us if we fail in life, and then blame us for that failure: “I always knew there was a problem”. While they maintain a friendship, we are merely useful tools for them to attain the objective of their personal mastery. When we have served their need and can no longer be useful in their objectives of greatness, they cease to be our friends, and may even become our enemies.
Therefore, the belief that we have some “friends” and “enemies” in the world is a very elaborate and complicated illusion. The fact is that most people are indifferent. They just don’t care about your problems, your goals, your needs. They are preoccupied with their goals. Their pursuit of material greatness is predicated on their idea that they are perfect and others are at fault. They too see others as friends and enemies based on their selfish aspirations. Thus, everyone thinks they are the greatest, and others as friends and enemies based on their needs. The delusion of the ego is that nobody is able to realize that they are not great, nor do they have friends or enemies.
The Reformation of the Ego
Therefore, spiritual life begins with the rejection of the materialistic ego (in the last post we noted how false religions are created from ego as means to increase, justify, and rationalize our ego, but they are not to be considered the source of spiritual emancipation).
In a preliminary stage, it means the destruction of the false idea of material mastery and the pride in our race, country, body, profession, social status, or prestige. But we cannot be happy in this “egoless” state because to be happy we have to feel proud of ourselves.
Therefore, the path of spiritual perfection is described through an alternative ego and pride as the servant of God. Feeling pride in the self is now through performing great deeds in the service of the Lord. What is great? It is not by the measure of what others think to be great, but what pleases God the most. The Lord is the greatest, and whatever He judges to be great, automatically becomes great. Therefore, “great” is defined by what the Lord finds great. It can be very small by our measurements, but it can be great in Lord’s assessment.
The Bhagavad-Gita describes that even by offering a leaf, a fruit, a flower, or water to the Lord, the Lord is pleased. It may seem small to others, but it is “great” for the Lord. All ordinary measurements of greatness are discarded, and love becomes the essence of greatness. Whatever is done with more love is greater. By such love, the Lord is controlled by the lover. Now, the Greatest is conquered by love.
The Lord is the master of the world through His power, and the soul can become the Lord’s controller through love. Both have the capacity to be masters although in different ways. God’s mastery is unchallenged because He controls everything by His power. And the soul’s mastery can be unchallenged because, by his love, He can conquer the Lord—the master of the universe through His power!
The Nature of Spiritual Ego
This loving conquest, or the control of the Lord through love, also constitutes an ego, because it has all the previous four ingredients we identified in the case of material ego, namely, (a) the belief that I’m a master, (b) the desire for a specific type of mastery, (c) the possession of great qualities to achieve this mastery, and (d) the pride in the self because of the ability to attain the mastery. Similarly, all the expansions of the ego—i.e., subjective, objective, and intersubjective—are also present, hence there is a spiritual mind, body, and society.
The difference is simply that this mastery is based on love rather than power. As a result, all the categories discussed in Sāñkhya regarding material nature have a spiritual counterpart. The study of Sāñkhya would be merely a material study if there was no spiritual world. However, this study is also a spiritual study because there is a spiritual world. Material mastery is based on the idea that I become a greater master by demonstrating more power. Conversely, spiritual mastery is based on the idea that I become a greater master by showing more love. The material master wants to conquer everything by power, and the spiritual master wants to conquer everything by their love.
Factually, only the Lord is the universal master by power; only He is omnipotent. But everyone can be a master by love; everyone is capable of infinite love—the kind of love that can conquer even the Lord. Therefore, it is somewhat incorrect to say that the soul is a “servant” of the Lord because the soul can also be the Lord’s master by love. It is however correct to say that the Lord is omnipotent, except when in relation to the devotee, where He seems to lose all His power of domination. Every religion in the world has the conception of an omnipotent God, the controller of the world by His power. But only Vedic religion has the conception of immense love in the soul that can even control God.
The soul is called the “servant” of God to destroy its material ego, where it tries to control nature, and enjoys a false sense of pride and mastery when temporary control is obtained. But in an ultimate sense, the soul is a “master” if its true ego in a loving relationship with God is established. Since both God and the soul can be masters—although in different ways—therefore, the jīvā is also iśvara (i.e., a controller), although in a different sense: God is iśvara by power, and jīvā is iśvara by love. The ego founded on love is not delusional as it can be realized permanently. The material identity or ego based on the quest for control over the world is however temporary and therefore false.
The Enemy and Friend Within
The real enemy is not outside but within: The material ego deludes us into thinking that we are masters, and then makes us suffer when this mastery is disproved. When the ego is hurt due to the destruction of pride and mastery of the world, it is the ego that prevents us from seeing the truth—i.e., that we are not masters. Due to the ego, we persist in our attempts to regain mastery of the world. The ego is therefore not just the agency that causes our material happiness and sadness, but also the agency for our perpetually deluded state in which we try to regain mastery even when this mastery is frustrated. Therefore, all over Vedic texts, the ahaṃkāra is described as the agency that makes us suffer and enjoy, and the cause of all delusions. Due to the latter effect, the ahaṃkāra is said to be in the mode of ignorance.
Nevertheless, just as the enemy lies within, similarly, the friend also exists within us. This friend is the intellect. By our intellect, we can analyze our existence clearly—i.e., how the world is created from false pride. This, by the way, is not a pleasant situation because it creates a war within: This is the war between the ego and the intellect. The ego creates delusions of grandeur, and the intellect tells us about our precarious condition. The ego tells us that the problem lies in the external world in some imagined enemies and friends, whereas the intellect tells us that the ego itself is the enemy although it creates a distraction by pointing to the problem onto things that aren’t truly the problem. This war within is the hardest war that we will ever need to fight. All external battles are insignificant in comparison.
Conquering the Ego by Devotion
When the intellect begins to dominate, then the soul is caught in the inner battle between the ego and the intellect. Sometimes it drifts toward the intellect and sees its true situation. Then it drifts back toward the ego and sees the world in terms of dreams of grandeur and fear of frustrated dreams. Even as we can, in principle, conquer the ego by the intellect, in practice, this victory is nearly impossible because the ego is very strong and the intellect is very weak, especially in this age where we have increased the false notions of pride based on our appearances, race, nationality, culture, religion, etc. Even those who don’t have these things are constantly hankering for their acquisition to prove their superiority over others. With so many kinds of delusions, it is impossible to see the nature of the truth.
Therefore, Lord Kṛṣṇa speaks about buddhi-yoga as follows: “To those who are constantly devoted to Me and worship Me with love, I give them the intellect by which they can come to Me.” Notably, the Lord doesn’t simply liberate the soul, although He can. Rather, He gives us the power to fight the ego, and destroy it. The buddhi is the intellect, and it can fight with the ego, but the material intellect is subordinate to the ego. However, under buddhi-yoga, the intellect is different: it is not subordinate to the ego. Rather it is under the control of the Lord.
When the Lord feeds our intellect, then the ego can be defeated, because the more powerful Lord sides with the intellect. In short, if we become devoted to the Lord, then the Lord helps us fight the ego by empowering our intellect. The more we remember the Lord, the more the intellect wins the battle against the ego. This is still a long and arduous battle, using the intelligence to fight the delusion.
Since the Lord guides the intellect to proper understanding, therefore, He is our true friend, although we don’t see the friend immediately; we only see Him through the effects of the intellect. Just as the ego is covering the soul, similarly, the intellect is a representation of the Lord. When we become devoted to the Lord, then the intellect becomes our friend, and the ego our enemy. Then we can overpower the ego. But if the soul forgets the Lord, then the ego blinds the intellect. Therefore, we can also say the ego is the enemy within while the Lord is our friend within. The Lord doesn’t fight our ego, but He can help us fight our ego by giving us the intelligence to negate the delusions.
The Supremacy of Devotion
True transcendence begins when we relinquish our ego and surrender to the Lord asking for His help. The Lord then gives us the intellect by which we can conquer the ego. When the Lord feeds our intellect by knowledge, then we can win the difficult battle against the ego.
We still have to use the intellect and fight the ego. The Lord is not going to fight for us, but He gives us the weapons by which we can fight the battle to win. Therefore, intellectual knowledge, yoga practice, work in the world, and devotion to the Lord are not contrary ideas. Rather, yoga practice and work are guided by intelligence, which is guided by the Lord, Who is controlled by devotion. Thereby, the devotion has the highest place, knowledge is next, and practice and work are done under the control of that knowledge, guided by the Lord, because we are depending on the Lord’s help. We cannot win the truth vs. ego battle on our own, but we can win that battle guided by the Lord.