The Soul, The Ego And The Process of Liberation

Shiva and Shakti

by Jayaram V

Egoism is accepting the (two) powers (namely), the Seer and the seen, as the one (and same) Self. - Yogasutras 2:6.

According to the Upanishads, there are two selves in us. They are compared to two birds who sit on a tree. One watches silently, while the other is engaged in various actions. The Yogasutras describe the former as the Seer and the latter as the seen. The Seer is the subject and the seen is the object. Ignorance is not knowing the distinction between the two. Delusion is mistaking one for the other.

Salvation arises when the distinction between the two disappears and only the Seer remains. The ego is known in Sanskrit as ahamkar, which means "of the form of I am or the Self." The ego-self is different from the ego mentioned in the Samkhya philosophy, which is but an aspect or principle (tattva) of Nature (prakriti). The ego-self is what an individual is in his or her waking state. It is the usurper of the throne of the Soul. It pretends to be the real Self where as in reality it is but a shadow.

The ego-self is made up of all the tattvas of Nature, and constitutes the whole mind and body complex. It is visible and tangible and can be recognized based on its distinct form and attributes. It is a layer of impurities or a veil formed around the Soul like soot on the glass of a lamp. It envelops the Soul and prevents it from shining through. It extends itself into the world through the mind and the senses. Its consciousness is filled with desires, instincts, emotions, thoughts, impressions, memories and such mental formations which give rise to afflictions (vrittis) in our mind-body aural field (citta). Some aspects of its consciousness become latent impressions (samskaras) and accompany the soul to the next birth. According to Hindu scriptures, the ego-self is subject to the five limitations of space, time, knowledge, power and happiness. In other words, it is characterized by limited space, limited life, limited knowledge, limited power and limited happiness.

The Self has no form, but the ego-self has. The Soul is eternal, but the ego-self lasts for only a brief time. The soul is immutable, but the ego-self changes continuously. The soul is passive and self-absorbed, but the ego-self is dynamic and outgoing. When the Self builds a form around itself (usually the body), we recognize it as the ego or the form of the Self. The Soul is unborn (ajah), but the ego-self is a Nature's construct made out of the constituent parts (tattvas) of Nature . The ego-self is a temporary construct, created by Nature as an extension or formation around the Self. It perceives and experiences everything as separate and distinct. It is the inherent nature of the ego-self to extend itself into things through the senses and become attached to them. It experiences duality and suffers from attachment, ignorance and delusion.

The ego-self cannot be destroyed physically except in death. It remains active and alive in all beings and overshadows the Soul. By performing desire ridden actions and taking personal responsibility for them, it incurs karma and is reborn again and again, taking the soul along with it. The ego-self expands or diminishes in size and form from time to time according to circumstances and its engagement with the objective world. Not all of it is reborn, since most of the constituent parts of Nature present in it return to their source at the time of its death. Only certain parts of it, which are collectively referred as causative consciousness (karana citta), leave the body and go with the soul to the next world.

As long as the ego-self is alive and active in its natural form, there is no escape for the soul from its corporeal existence. The embodied Soul is a prisoner of Nature. It is held inside the mind and body sheath, enveloped by all kinds of mental formations and objective knowledge. This was why some ancient Indian sects identified the mind and the body complex as the biggest obstacle to self-realization and used to wear it away through rigorous austerities and even acts of self-immolation. What they followed was an extreme measure of self-denial and self-annhillation. Some traditional forms of Hinduism prescribed a similar harsher approach in the ancient world for those practicing ascetic life (sanyasa ashram) in the last phases of their lives, advising them to stop caring for their bodies by living in the open, not cooking food and starving it gradually with less and less food.

The problem of the ego-self, which is the biggest obstacle in our self-realization, consumed the attention of many ancient scholars and philosophers. Some sects, as we have discussed already, recommended severe austerities to burn away the impurities, while others suggested moderate measures such as renunciation, restraint and withdrawal of the senses from the sense-objects, detachment, dispassion and purification of the mind and the body through rules (yamas) and regulations (niyamas), cultivation of sattva (purity) and corresponding reduction of the other two qualities (gunas), namely, rajas and tamas. The Buddha, who did not acknowledge an immortal Soul, recommended the Eightfold Path to bring an end to the suffering of the ego-self and its future births. The Bhagavadgita recommends surrender, devotion and detachment from the fruit of one's actions as the means to let the Soul shine through the mind and body and become free upon death.

It is important to note that all the reforms and practices are meant for the ego-self. The inner Self is complete in itself. It never changes, even when it is under the control of Nature. Nothing can touch and nothing can make it impure. It is immutable and all knowing, even when it is held inside the body. It is also wrong to say that the Soul is deluded. What is deluded is not the eternal soul but he ego-self, the temporary construct, which believes that it is the real Self.

The ego-self is perpetuated by the activity of the mind, the senses and the aggregation of various tattvas or principles and gunas or qualities of Prakriti. From our mental perspective, the ego is but the self. We mistakenly accept it as the Self itself because of our lack of proper knowledge and discrimination (buddhi). In truth it is just a construct, a cloth or a drapery that is woven around the soul to keep the mind and body alive. If the soul leaves the body, it dies instantly. Therefore Nature makes sure that the Soul is held inside body tightly so that the ego-self can continue its existence and keep performing its normal duties.

The State of the Self

During the process of creation, individual souls descend into matter and energy field and assume forms. The energy forms are temporary. They are subject to change. They suffer from many limitations and distinct delusions. They strive to perpetuate themselves through desires and accumulation of other objects. Your ego-self is what you are right now. It should not be mistaken for the real self. It is just a veil or a shadow, that usurps the throne and tries to become the center of its world. The ego-self never becomes the real Self even after transformation. They are two distinct entities and should not be confused one for another. Your ego-self is active in the first three states of consciousness: waking state, dream state and dreamless state, and fully asleep in the deep sleep state.

The Self is entirely different from the ego-self. It is not subject to births and rebirths. It simply goes from one birth to another without undergoing any change. What changes from birth to birth is the ego-self. The Soul is complete in itself. It is self-aware and self-absorbed, even when it is held inside body. It is content to remain where it is, because it is not subject to any limitations of time and space and does not experience either want or suffering. The suffering is for the mind and the body, which are subject to desires and the consequences of one's actions. The soul is pure, calm, detached and radiant.

If you can identify yourself with an empty space you are probably closer to the concept of Soul. If you can imagine yourself without all the layers of construction around yourself, if you can take way mentally your mind and body, silence momentarily all the thoughts, desires, attachments, impulses, feelings, emotions, memories and notions of name and form, you will probably get a little idea of what a soul is really like. Or imagine that your mind has gone totally blank and you are filled with only one thought of, "I am," without a second. Then you will come closer to understanding the state of the Self. To be honest, what I have tried to explain here is a mental construct. In reality the state of the Self is indescribable. Some call it the witness consciousness and some experience it as bliss consciousness. I believe it is more than that. It is an all pervading awareness, without a center, without a definition and without a boundary.

Going Forth - The Outward Journey

The following verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad gives us a clue as to how the ego-self came into existence from the Self.

In the beginning Self alone existed in the shape of a person (purusha). Looking around It saw nothing but Itself. The It said, 'I am he.' Therefore It became he by name. So even now, if a man is asked, he first says, 'I am,' and then pronounces any other name he may have.

According to the verse, when I say " I am so and so", the "I am" part, the subject, is the Self and the "so and so" part, the object, is the ego. In simple words, when the "I am" part in a being is wrapped around with qualities, it assumes an ego personality and together they become a living bering (jiva). The aham or ego-self is the thought that "I am this" or "I am that" or "I have it" or "I do not have it" or "I want it" or "I do not want it", or "I like this "or "I do not like this", or "I can do it" or "I cannot do it" and so on, where as the Self is simply, "I am I am". The ego-self is subject to the pairs of opposites and the sense of duality. This thinking and attitude drags the ego-self, and along with it the Soul, right into the whirlpool of life and subjects it to the objective experience of duality and multiplicity, pairs of opposites, binding relationships and mental afflictions such as conflicting emotions, feelings, reactions, desires and expectations. All the while the Soul remains inside unaffected by all that is happening to the ego-self.

The ego-self suffers as it stretches itself outwardly, like an expanding ripple in water, and gets mixed up with the objects of the world, like a child lost in its own play. It enters into a state of objectivity by identifying itself with various objects and remains there stuck like person caught in a bind, unwilling to pull himself out because he has begun to like it, however unpleasant the situation at times turns out to be. As the Upanishad puts it, all this happened because the individual Soul wanted to have company and not remain alone. So it allowed another entity to join it.

"But It felt no delight. Therefore a man who is lonely feels no delight. It wished for a second. It was so large as man and wife together. It then made Itself to fall in two (pat), and thence arose husband (pati) and wife (patni). Therefore Yagnavalkya said: 'We two are thus (each of us) like half a shell. ' Therefore the void which was there, is filled by the wife. He embraced her, and men were born."

(The wife here means wife in the physical sense and also Prakriti in the symbolic sense)

Withdrawal - The Inward Journey

The key to spiritual progress is the realization that the ego-self is the real obstacle and that its transformation is the key to self-realization. Self-realization means the realization that the ego-self and the real Self are two distinct entities and that they need to be discerned clearly with right awareness and proper discrimination (buddhi). Without it there is no hope for salvation. It is also important to recognize that the ego-self will never become the real-Self, even in a person who has become a perfect master (sampoorna jnani). In an ordinary person, the ego-self forms an outer layer and shadows the Self. So what you see in such a person is a reflection of his egoistic thinking and behavior. You cannot feel the presence of his Soul because it is buried deeply behind a thick cloud of gross impurities. It is only when the ego-self is completely transformed and purified that it begins to reflect the radiance of the soul. So what you see in an advanced yogi is a true reflection of his Soul where as in an ordinary person, a true reflection of his ego-self.

The first step in this purification process is to subject the needs of the ego-self to the greater aim of ending its births and rebirths and allowing the Self to become finally free. This is possible only when the ego-self develops right awareness, right knowledge and cultivates detachment, morality, purity, devotion and surrender to the Self. This is not easy, because in the process of stretching out and becoming involved with the objective world, like a tree that penetrates deep into the earth through its roots, the ego-self develops many bodies or sheaths, not just the physical body but others as well.

Hindu scriptures recognize four distinct sheaths surrounding the soul, the physical body (annamaya kosa), the breath body (pranamaya kosa), the mental body (manomaya kosa) and the intelligence body (vignanamaya kosa). The fifth body, known as the bliss body (anandamaya kosa) is the original state of the soul or the area where the Soul's true state is reflected. The first four bodies constitute the ego-self or the ordinary self. We are not sure of the inmost since only a few descriptions are available. They belong to the domain of Prakriti (nature). Together they become the field (kshetra) of activity and entanglement for the ego-self. When a person dies, parts of the ego-self from these distinct bodies become attached to the the soul as the residual ego component and leave the world. It remains attached to the Soul for the duration of its stay in the next world and becomes the seed for the formation of next ego-self.

The Significance of Yoga Practices

The next step in freeing the Soul is to purify the mind and body so that they cease being an obstacle and let the Soul become free from its servility to Nature. This purification process has to take place in the ego-self in all its component parts mentioned above. Yoga also aims to accomplish the same objective, by suggesting various techniques as enumerated in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

  • The five yamas (abstentions namely violence, lying, theft, sex and possessions) and the asanas (yogic postures) are meant to transform the physical body.
  • The five niyamas (observances, namely purity, contentment, austerities, study and surrender to God), pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects and dharana or concentration are meant to purify and transform the mental body.
  • Pranayama or control of the vital breath (prana) through controlled breathing practices is meant to purify and transform the breath body.
  • Dhyana or meditation helps us in purifying our intelligence body as meditation and contemplation lead to clarity of thought and better discrimination.

When an aspirant practices these techniques sincerely and manages to purify and transform his various bodies, he will finally experience the state of Samadhi, in which he feels the presence of Soul deep inside and experiences oneness with it. In samadhi, the ego-self is completely inactive and almost disappears, thereby allowing the Self to radiate its brilliance.

Important facts about the ego-self and the real Self

It is worth reviewing some important facts about the both the selves which are mentioned repeatedly in the Upanishad and other Hindu scriptures.

  • The ego-self is dynamic and active. The real Self is passive. witnessing Soul.
  • The former lives only for a life time in its entirety The real Self is eternal. It is unborn and indestructible.
  • The former is outgoing and dispersive. The later is self-absorbed and self-contained.
  • The ego-self considers itself as the real Self. There is no such confusion with the real Self.
  • The former relies upon sense organs to interact with the objects and accumulate knowledge. The later interacts with none. It is complete in itself and does not seek thing to become fulfilled.
  • The residual self formed out of the ego-self goes with the Soul to the next birth and becomes the seed for the next ego-self.
  • Both the ego-self and the real Self are distinct and different. The former never becomes the later even after transformation and sublimation of its energies.
  • When the ego-sense is purified through the practice of yoga and cultivation of sattva, it reflects the brilliance of the Self. When the ego-self becomes silent and stabilized, it begins to reflect the soul, like a diamond that reflects the objects upon which it rests. The self-realized souls, the gurus and rishis exemplify this state, which is described in the Yogasutras as nirvitarka samapattih (formless engrossment)
  • In an ordinary person the body is a prison in which the soul is chained for an indefinite period. In an enlightened person the body is a temple in which the soul is worshipped as Isvara.

The Importance of Guru and God In Liberation

The entanglement of the Soul with matter or energy (prakriti) happens over a long period of time. Once the ego-self takes over control, there is hardly any chance for the real Self to become free. The problem is complicated further by the laws of karma, the bonds of attachments and the delusion that is integral to our world, which keep the ego-self in a state of continuous debt. Suffering is the only means by which it comes to the realization that it has to let go of things to escape from the problem of suffering. A guru or someone who has already opened his eyes to these eternal truths can be of immense help in providing guidance to the new aspirants who want to set their Souls free and cease to be born again and again. It is said that when a guru initiates his disciples into spiritual life, he neutralizes all their karmas and hastens their progress.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

Suggestions for Further Reading

* The author of Conversations with God and other books.

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