Vedanta and the Ego

Some weeks ago, I presented a topical explanation of Vedanta, one of the schools of Hindu philosophy that has interested me for some years. I listed the Five Kleshas, or poisons, that Vedanta cites as sources of suffering. Today, I would like to explore Asmita, or as some teachers call it, self-non-recognition.

The term Ego comes to our understanding of the self via Sigmund Freud, who chose the Latin first-person pronoun, or what in English would be “I.” His model of the human psyche included the Ego along with the Id (Latin for “it”–entirely unconscious and responsible for urges, responses, and impulses that keep the human organism alive) and the Superego, which encompasses concerns beyond the self. An oversimplified analysis of Freud’s model would tempt us to believe the Ego is bad, and the Superego is good. Freud’s theory, however, is far more complex. Both the Ego and Superego have bright and dark sides.

For example, the Superego’s emphasis on other people or on a group to which one belongs could, at first glance, appear favorable. Selflessness, after all, leads to generosity and cooperation. These build meaningful social connections such as friendships, families, and communities. Of course, a Superego out of balance can lead an individual to become part of a mob or a destructive, hurtful ideology. This results from an individual’s failure to connect his or her relationships to a personal identity and beliefs.

Similarly, the Ego may at times favor the self over, and even at the expense of, others. But it also represents a self-identity, an understanding of how one fits into social contexts, as well as a set of values that assist in determining right and wrong. An ego out of balance with the Id and Superego can make a person mentally and socially unhealthy. This can occur whether the Ego is too strong or too weak. A weak Ego subjects a person disproportionately to the influence of a social context, as noted above, but a strong Ego has some interesting complexities.

Most obviously, an overpowering Ego impels people to be selfish, to favor one’s own material and mental needs over those of others. Most of us have seen this in ourselves and others, and we find it offensive. More subtly, however, the selfish individual suffers greatly in a manner that deserves our compassion. That selfishness reveals an emptiness, a lack of genuine understanding of one’s own worth, which needs no external validation if a person sees it clearly and can embrace it. People who are blind to their true selves and their invaluable worth seek desperately to replace what is missing in manners that are not only hurtful to others, but also harmful to oneself. Worse, this continual error only leads people away from the very understanding that would end the suffering.

This distorted conception of the self, then, reveals itself as a source of suffering for oneself, as well as the origin of trouble that one can create for others. Being relatively new to Vedanta, I find this valuable understanding both helpful and liberating. Hinduism uses the word Atman to represent the soul, the true self. Vedanta posits that our true selves stand apart from our actions, emotions, and even our thoughts. Any event or mental phenomenon in our lives amounts to a mere disturbance, or vritti, in our consciousness. This need not negate the existence nor validity of experience; instead, it offers the possibility to detach while retaining a healthy, invested stake in our own lives and those of others. That detachment represents the antidote to self-nonrecognition.

And certainly such detachment requires concentration, commitment, discipline, patience, and determination. But it all begins with the understanding much human suffering comes as the result of us allowing our misguided sense of self to warp our lives and our understanding.

Photo credit: Everton Nobrega, Pexels

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