What we colloquially call the “ego” is a very complex covering of the soul in Vedic philosophy. It comprises four components, namely, (a) the idea that I’m a master called Pradhāna, (b) the desire to exercise mastery in a particular way called Prakṛti, (c) the idea that I possess great qualities called Mahattattva due to which I can exercise mastery, and (d) the pride in the self under the belief of possession of great qualities called Ahaṃkāra. From this Ahaṃkāra manifests the cognitive instrument comprising the intellect, mind, senses, and sensations, the gross body comprising the perceivable elements, and the relationships to other bodies by which social identity is constructed. This post discusses the deconstruction of the colloquial “ego” as described in the Sāñkhya Sūtras. This discussion is illustrative because it shows how the world expands from the (false) idea of mastery into a demonstration of mastery as the subtle and gross existences along with social relationships, but because the proof of demonstration is temporary, therefore, the “ego” is constantly modified until the idea of mastery is given up.
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The Social Construction of Identity
Lord Kṛṣṇa describes the ego as aham mameti or “I and mine”. These two are mutually defined. Who am I? I might say: I am an Indian. In so saying, I have defined myself in relation to a country. Similarly, I might say: I am male. In so saying, I have defined myself in relation to my body. Then, based on this identity, I consider some things to be “mine”. For instance, I can say: “This is my body” or “this is my country”.
In Western philosophy, this is sometimes called the social construction of identity. Postmodernism rests on social construction. It says: Everything that we consider ourselves to be our personal identity is actually based on our relations to the world. In short, our identity is socially constructed. We bear numerous relationships to the world—e.g., a family, employer, nation, race, etc.—and these relationships define “me”. Similarly, the things which define me—e.g., family, employer, nation, or race—are defining themselves in relation to me.
If we alter our relationships with the world, then we will change our identity. For example, we can renounce the citizenship of one country and accept the citizenship of another country. By that change, our national identity would be altered. Likewise, I can change my employer, and by that change, I would have altered my professional identity. I can get married or divorced, and by that change, I would have changed my familial identity. I could even change my romantic relationships with other people, and, by that, I would have changed the “socially constructed” identity of gender. In this case, the social construction pertains to the idea that men relate romantically to women (and vice versa). The change to social construction would allow men to relate romantically to other men and women to women.
Three Types of Identity
The trouble with this way of thinking is that whatever we call “identity” has three components—objective, subjective, and intersubjective—so there are objective and subjective identities apart from the socially constructed identity. The body for instance has a gender, which is an objective identity. I might have some personal values, beliefs, thoughts, and sensual preferences that form my subjective identity. Finally, there is also an intersubjective component to the identity, which is defined by my relationship to the race, nation, employer, etc.
The “I” therefore has two aspects—the objective and subjective components of “I”. And “mine” is the intersubjective component of the same “I”. In an ultimate sense, neither of these three identities stand alone. They must combine to produce a complete identity. Therefore, “I” is incomplete without “mine”, and vice versa. But since they are distinct components, therefore, each component is said to be either dominant or subordinate in forming the identity. For instance, based on a strong subjective identity about a certain gender (e.g., female), one can disregard the objective identity of the body’s gender (e.g., male), and the intersubjective identity of relations based on socially construed norms about gender (e.g., that males have romantic relationships to females) and resort to alternative ideas (e.g., a romance between males). In this case, we would say that the subjective identity is dominant, and the objective and intersubjective identities are subordinated.
The Relational Nature of Identity
But there is another sense in which all identity is constructed only out of relationships, which is understood if we see the soul distinct from the body. For instance, we noted that the bodily gender is objective but this is not entirely true; that identity pertains to the body, not the self, and it becomes “my” gender when I identify with the body. Hence, whatever we call an objective identity is not objectively about the soul; it is objectively real but pertains to the body. Therefore, it is not truly “me”. Similarly, whatever we call our subjective identity, namely, my values, goals, beliefs, thoughts, and sensations, is actually not truly “mine”. They also pertain to a body, which is sometimes called the “subtle body” and sometimes the “gendered body”, different from the “gross body” (of hands and legs). All our subjective experiences are caused due to the association of the soul to an objective material reality, although that reality may only be accessible in our experience.
Thus, even our objective and subjective identity is a relational identity—the relation is to the gross and subtle bodies. Then, what we call our intersubjective identity is obviously a relational identity—the relation is established between different gross and subtle bodies.
When we realize that even “I” is a relational identity, quite like the “mine”, then all ego—which we defined above as “I” and “mine”—becomes a relational identity. This means that we can discard all these identities by stopping the relation to the body and mind. If we give up the attachment to the subjective and objective identity, then the intersubjective identity is also discarded. Conversely, the identity expands from the subjective to the objective to the intersubjective. For instance, my subjective thoughts and perceptions are objectively expressed through the body, which then intersubjectively relate to other bodies. If the subjective identity was destroyed, then all the other identities would also be lost. The “destruction of ego” pertains to the destruction of the deepest identity, namely, of identifying with some beliefs, thoughts, perceptions, etc. because if the subjective identity is destroyed, then the objective and intersubjective identities would be too.
Expansions of the Ego
This idea is succinctly explained in Sāñkhya when the intellect, mind, sensations, senses, and the sense objects are all said to have expanded from the ego. The basic import is that the world is expanding inside-out, namely, from the soul’s material identity into its expression. This expansion of identity begins in a subjective component (e.g., thoughts and perceptions), then into an objective component (i.e., the gross body), and then into the social worldly relational component of race, nationality, employment, family, property ownership, etc.
Sāñkhya Sūtra further expounds on this idea by stating—“the ego is pride”. In short, the subjective, objective, and intersubjective identities are by-products of pride. If we are not proud of our thoughts and perceptions, then we will discard them, and only those thoughts are percetpions that accentuate our pride will be created. If we are not proud of our bodily appearance, then we try to change it (people trying to change their gender is an extreme example of this, but there are other ways in which people try to change their bodily identity by altering their hairstyle, skin tone, clothes, etc.), and those appearances that undermine our pride would be discarded. Finally, if we are not proud of our nationality, race, profession, etc. then we try to change them, and what we accept will be that which makes us proud.
Thus, as the subjective, objective, and relational identities are traced back to the ego, the ego itself is defined as “pride”. The subtle and gross bodies, and their relations to other bodies, are hence expanding from the pride. Pride now also becomes the basis on which the ego is said to create our happiness. Basically, when we feel proud, we call it “happiness” and when we don’t feel proud, we call it “unhappiness”.
Sāñkhya then delves deeper into the origin of the pride and states that it arises from principles of ideality called mahattattva. Basically, to even feel proud, we must think that we are perfect in some sense, and the worldly expression realizes or “proves” that perfection. Then, even this sense of perfection is traced back to some desire to enjoy, which is called prakṛti, because something is ideal only relative to our goals. If our goals are different, then the definition of ideality must be altered. Finally, even this desire to enjoy is traced back to something called the pradhāna or the idea that “I am the boss or master”. Thus, material existence begins in the idea of personal mastery, which expands into a desire to exercise a specific type of mastery, which then expands into a certain type of idealism about oneself to attain mastery, which then expands into pride about the self being capable of mastery. This pride is generally called our “self-confidence” in our personal abilities. From this self-confidence progressively expand the subtle body, the gross body, and the relationships to other subtle and gross bodies.
For example, if we want to exercise our mastery through wealth, then prakṛti represents the desire for wealth. Then, mahattattva is the idealism of being capable of earning wealth. Then the ego is the self-confidence in oneself being capable of earning wealth. From this pride emerge beliefs, thoughts, and sensations of wealth, which transform into the gross bodily apparatus, which then leads to relationships.
The Tree of the Root Ego
In simple terms, the world is expanding from our need for mastery to the desire to prove our mastery, to personal qualities that will prove the mastery, to the ego that feels proud of these qualities, to the subjective, objective, and intersubjective expressions of the pride (which is, in turn, the expression of the personal qualities, desires, and ultimately, the need for mastery). Even if the pride is hurt, the idea of mastery, the desire to establish this mastery in a specific way, and the idealism about the self being capable of this mastery are not destroyed; they are temporarily obstructed but they spring again and again into a new reality, until, of course, the need for mastery is completely destroyed.
We can visualize this process as a world springing out much like a tree grows out of a root, such that even if the leaves and branches are cut, the root remains intact and produces new branches and leaves. No matter how many times the leaves and branches are cut, the tree doesn’t stop growing unless the root is destroyed. Our desire for proving our mastery may change from the acquisition of wealth to the acquisition of knowledge. Our idealism about the self may change from being capable of earning wealth to capable of acquiring knowledge. Our self-confidence may change from pertaining to wealth to knowledge. And our thoughts, bodies, and relationships may change based on knowledge as opposed to wealth. And yet, despite these superficial changes, the root belief that “I am the master” remains unaffected.
Four Aspects of the Ego
The first four elements of Sāñkhya—namely, pradhāna, prakṛti, mahattattva, and ahaṃkāra—collectively constitute what we colloquially call the “ego”. Sāñkhya, of course, uses the term ahaṃkāra to describe the pride in oneself or self-confidence. Since pride is often equated with the “ego” therefore ahaṃkāra is also translated as the “ego”, although if we look closely, the idea that I’m a master, that I want to prove my mastery in a certain way, that I’m capable of proving my mastery due to possession of ideal qualities, and the feeling of pride because of the possession of these personal qualities, collectively constitute the “ego”. What we colloquially call the “ego” is thus deconstructed into four distinct parts in Sāñkhya, of which “pride” in the self is only a superficial expression of the most primordial idea that “I am a master”.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, this four-fold division of the “ego” is summarized into a single entity called the “ego”. The text states that there are eight components of the material energy, of which ahaṃkāra is the first. This is a summarized description of the ego in which four components—i.e., pradhāna, prakṛti, mahattattva, and ahaṃkāra are bundled into ahaṃkāra, as they are four facets of the ego.
False Science Created From the Ego
Since intelligence is a by-product of the ego, the implication is that this material intelligence is not suited for knowing the truth. Its sole function is to create theories about the world that prove the mastery of the self, in order to justify our greatness and enhance our pride. Therefore, even when a person is said to be highly intelligent materially, he is still considered foolish, because his intellect is produced from the ego, and it serves the ego. That ego is serving the pride, which is serving the desire for personal mastery. The intellect would be truly great if the idea of mastery was true and real. But if the soul is not truly a master, then all attempts to justify it are ignorance.
The fact is that all intellectual speculation, or what we call modern science, are by-products of the intellect, which is a by-product of the ego, which is trying to prove the false idea of personal mastery of the world. When this intelligence is used for speculation about the world, all theories of nature are produced only to reinstate the idea that we can control and dominate nature, to prove our mastery over nature.
Underlying our scientific endeavors, therefore, is the idea that I will become a master of nature by pursuing scientific progress. Any scientific theory that demonstrates that we have failed to be a master is dismissed as a temporary setback to be soon overcome by a better theory that will reinstate our mastery. Even when a scientific theory conclusively demonstrates that we have failed irrevocably and that we cannot perfectly control and dominate nature by our will, some “interpretation” of the theory is created to prove that we are still masters.
For instance, when it became clear that the scientific method cannot reveal the nature of reality, due to irrevocable failures of empiricism and rationalism, then Pragmatism was created as the “epistemology” of science to claim that even if we cannot know nature, that failure isn’t so bad if we produce working technology. If the technology works, it doesn’t matter if we know the truth, because science is a tentative “working model”. In short, even if our “knowledge” is not the truth, it is not so bad if we can blind the public to our failure via technology. This is the nature of the ego—it rationalizes a failure as the gate to a new heaven, to perpetuate the sense of false grandeur.
False Religion Created from Ego
Similarly, many false religions are produced from the ego as means to control others. For example, a religious leader may sometimes describe himself as the embodiment of God on Earth. Many political leaders often portray themselves as God’s gift to mankind. These leaders use religion as a tool to propagate their own power and try to demonstrate their own supremacy rather than God’s supremacy.
In another form, many people treat transcendence as another type of egoistic achievement. They want to transcend the world by their own effort, knowledge, yoga practice, and so on, and don’t want to recognize the supremacy of God. They present themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” because in their “religion” the self is supreme and the supremacy of God thereby need not be recognized.
In yet another form, many “gurus” who accept God’s supremacy may still want to use religion to create a second-level mastery by accumulating power, wealth, and followers. That situation is not different from an ordinary person trying to prove their mastery through the acquisition of worldly wealth and power. The outward expression of the ego in terms of dress, words, and relationships may seem different. But the root is the same. Such a person is not truly a master nor is he a guru. He is still a servant of the same egoistic principle.
Then, in another form, religion is tied to materialistic ideas of race, nationality, the pursuit of wealth, the exercise of global power, etc. All these pursuits are justified as the rewards furnished by God to His followers and pursuits of power and prestige are justified as religion.
These false, pretentious, and imaginary religions do not lead one to transcendence; they keep the soul bound because they are rooted in the ego principle which is the cause of material existence. Since the ego can produce literally infinite variety, it can produce both overt and covert materialistic identities. The overt materialistic identity appears in the form of blatant pursuit of wealth, power, control, and followers. But the covert materialistic identity can appear in the pursuit of mystical powers, greed for a powerful position in a religious organization, and philosophical justifications of the self being the supreme. The latter are not fundamentally better than the former.
Therefore, materialistic religions are as much a product of the ego as scientific materialism; both products have a singular aim to prove that the self is the master. They rationalize all their failures as temporary setbacks and take solace in their limited successes. They can appear to be vastly different but they are produced from the same desire to justify, rationalize, and demonstrate one’s mastery of the world.