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Consciousness and health

Dealing with the ego

Dr. Soumitra Basu

The parable of Sambara

In Yoga Vasistha, an important Vedanta treatise, the psychological significance of the ego is beautifully described in the parable of the mighty demon, Sambara who had produced from himself three projected formations or emanations in the form of three apparently invincible demons. These were robot-like zombies who had no ego and hence no psychological attributes. They did not know about victory or defeat and were only programmed to kill. The gods were terrified and turned to Brahma, the Supreme Creator, for help.

Brahma explained that these zombie-demons could not be defeated unless they developed an ego-sense. However, as these beings were totally ignorant, they could be manipulated to develop the feelings of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. The continued battle with the gods in which the demons went on winning finally generated in them the basic concept of ‘I am’.

Once the ego-sense arose, desire developed with concomitant consequences — they became slaves of desire. They lost their freedom and experienced fear. They could now be easily defeated by the gods (1).

This parable shows how important the ego is for psychological conditioning. Indeed, all modern schools of psychology have to give prime importance to ego-functioning.

What is the ego

This brings us to a fundamental question. What actually is the ego? Are we born with the ego or does it appear at birth, consolidating itself during the process of growth?

In the ascending scale of terrestrial evolution, life-energy manifests in matter and within the matrix of animated matter, the mind-principle manifests at an optimal point of development.This amalgam of successively manifested planes of consciousness superimposed on and intertwined with each other needs to be coherently organised around a coordinating principle to have a sense of objective presence in Space and a sense of dynamic mobility in Time. The responses of the emergent being to the contacts of Nature are modulated by sensory perception, memory, intelligence and will and all inputs and outputs gather an optimal and temporal consistency around an ‘ego-sense’. As an infant grows up, the ego-sense gives a uniqueness that first makes it aware of the boundaries of the body (the infant at one stage pinches itself and others to see the difference in its own sensations). At the next stage it becomes aware of the capacities of its power to be assertive about its demands as well as about its own strength. With further development and the gradual organisation of the cognitive faculty, the child develops an ‘ego-idea’ about his or her own self-existence. By the time one reaches pre-adolescence, the ego-idea starts supporting the formation of a desire-soul. Later, as one grows towards adulthood, the ego becomes more and more structured. The ego can now be recognised in different poises. There is the mental ego which supports one’s world-view that can be zealously safeguarded against other world-views. There is the vital ego which supports one’s style of dynamism and one’s emotional character and bolsters one’s self-esteem. There is the physical ego which maintains one’s physique and bodily habits. The different poises of the ego do not seem to have a harmony amongst themselves. As a result the ego is often skewed in its functioning. Moreover the desire-soul, supported by the ego can be so assertive about its own demands and preferences that it can foster disharmony between individuals and clash with the interests of the collectivity. It is because of the ego that, till now, a perfect harmony between the individual and the collectivity has not been worked out.

However the saga of the ego is one aspect of individuality. It is true that the emergent being from the Inconscience has to arise, with the ego as scaffolding. Yet the sanction for the individuality to emerge was ordained by the Supreme and initiated by a divine spark projected by the unevolving Spirit, the true self. Could that one day come forward and replace the ego for a more harmonious functioning of the individuality that at present is plagued by dualities and inconsistencies? Sri Aurobindo explains that the ego is a temporary variable and it can be replaced by a fourth-dimensional soul-principle — the Psychic Being.

“It is this ego-sense that gives a first basis of coherence to what otherwise might be a string or mass of floating impressions: all that is so sensed is referred to a corresponding artificial centre of mental consciousness in the understanding, the ego-idea. This ego-sense in the life-stuff and this ego-idea in the mind maintain a constructed symbol of self, the separative ego, which does duty for the hidden real self, the spirit or true being. The surface mental individuality is, in consequence, always ego-centric; even its altruism is an enlargement of its ego: the ego is the lynchpin invented to hold together the motion of our wheel of nature. The necessity of centralisation around the ego continues until there is no longer need of any such device or contrivance because there has emerged the true self, the spiritual being, which is at once wheel and motion and that which holds all together, the centre and the circumference (2)”.

Actually the true self or spiritual being was always behind the manifestation; it had projected a soul-spark to initiate the process of individuation from the undifferentiated matrix of the Inconscience. However the soul-spark remains hidden behind and for practical purposes, the ego-sense builds up the scaffolding of individuality that gradually emerges to assert itself.The soul-spark remains hidden behind all the time but also grows up through evolution to become a soul-personality or Psychic Being. A time comes when the ego is no longer needed to hold the scaffolding. The soul-personality or psychic being, if sufficiently developed, can come forward to lead the individual through harmony and truth.

Thus, in practical terms, the ego is a time-bound formation of Nature constructed from the evolving physical, vital and mental planes of consciousness,“a mental form of thought-centralisation in the perceiving and discriminating mind, a vital form of the centralisation of feeling and sensation in our parts of life, a form of physical conscious reception centralising substance and function of substance in our bodies (3).”

There are certain features of the ego that necessitate its surpassing at an optimal point in personal growth:

a. As the ego itself is a temporary variable, that aspect of the being which is coordinated by the ego and studied as “personality” in psychology must also be “a temporary constructed personality”, “a construction of Nature and so dominated, driven, determined by her that it cannot be free (4).” This aspect of the being which is so painstakingly analysed in academic psychology is considered in yoga psychology as a surface personality or outer being or “partial and superficial being (5)” that cannot dissociate itself from the play of cosmic forces. It is “a smaller temporary and unreal self” that has to give way at a certain point of inner growth to “our true self’s eternal largeness (6).”

b. The self-experience coordinated by the ego for conscious utilisation of life is not representative of the entire repertoire of consciousness, a reason why the ego-bound personality is considered to be a “restricted partial and ignorant being (7).” The mental ego can relate to a small part of our waking individual consciousness (8) as it cannot have access not only to the subconscious (the Freudian unconscious) in the psychological sense but also to the subconscious that underlies our physiological functioning or biological mechanisms. What is more important from the yogic perspective is the fact that the mental ego cannot have any access to the deeper and higher ranges of consciousness. It cannot access our soul-space in the depths holding the Spirit-essence (the psychic being). It cannot fathom the cosmic consciousness necessary for the universalisation of experience. Our ego-bound surface personality is a result of a transaction between the unborn Self and Nature and thus cannot directly access the Spirit.

The implications of the ego

It is the ego which serves to build the desire-soul with which we ordinarily travel the journey of life. The problem with the ego is not that it is to be considered to trespass morality. The problem is that it is skewed in its action and biased towards one or other parts of the being; it cannot harmonise with a sense of proportion. It was originally meant to balance our mental, emotional and physical planes but it fails to do that, exaggerating one or other part. If it is biased towards the mind, it can support dogmas and overvalued ideas and in psychotic subjects, can become dissociated to produce delusional thinking. If it is biased towards the vital or emotional repertoire, it can support dynamism and valour or unnecessary loss of self-esteem and these characteristics could get dissociated in mood disorders and affect the vital mind (the mind that modulates our life-energy) to produce grandiosity or depression. If the ego is biased towards the physical consciousness, it could lead to aggrandisement of physical prowess or inertia and could get dissociated to produce chronic somatisation disorder or hypochondriasis. If the ego is too biased towards the physical mind (the poise of the mind enmeshed in our sensory schemata), it could produce obsessive compulsive neurosis. It is the ego which is the nodal point of all our suffering and illnesses.

The substratum ego

Indian spirituality tries to deal with the situation by transcending the ego and merging with the vastness of the Superconscious. But that did not mean that the aspirant who transcended the ego became free from the possibility of illnesses and suffering where the ego was the key component. This is because even if the ego is transcended, there still remains a residual impression of the ego as “a general sense of the separate I(9).” Sri Aurobindo explains that this “indefinable but fundamental ego-sense (10)” is the substratum ego.“This substratum ego is something vague, indefinable, elusive; it does not or need not attach itself to anything in particular as the self; it does not identify itself with anything collective; it is a sort of fundamental form or power of the mind which compels the mental being to feel himself as a perhaps indefinable but still a limited being which is not mind, life or body but under which their activities proceed in Nature(11).” It is only the rare yogi who can really transcend the ego completely.

Sri Aurobindo also explains that the substratum ego gives the impression of a ‘self’ or ‘being’ behind the ego and separate from the ego, hence it is often mistaken for a spiritual essence, the ‘true self’ or ‘soul-essence’ or ‘true Purusha’ or ‘true Person within’ (12). Thus the aspirant who opts for transcendence of the ego may be unwillingly led to a great deception.

The Psychic Being

If the ego is transcended so that one can merge with the Superconscient vastness, the aspirant has to live an exclusively spiritual life cut off from the vicissitudes of life. It is a great spiritual solution to the problem of the ego but leaves no psychological space for a life that can be pursued in reality in a poise of Truth. Sri Aurobindo preferred a different approach. He brought in the concept of an ego-transcending principle, the Psychic Being, projected by the Self, Jiva or Ātman, which could replace the desire-soul propped up by the ego. The Psychic Being is a being of truth, harmony, beauty, unalloyed joy, peace and light and could dispense with the ego and bring a higher discipline in the lower members of our being. As it is projected by the Higher Self in the Transcendence, it does not evolve from the Inconscience as the rest of our being and is thus free from any negative influence. It is the classical Beyond-Ego principle which can transform ordinary life. True well-being ensues when one is poised in the consciousness of the Psychic Being that has replaced the ego. It is not affected by suffering, disease or adversity. The psychic being is the torchbearer of Truth, Light, Peace and Joy and the true harbinger of integral health and living (13). One thus does not need to escape from the world by transcending the ego but substitute the ego with a Beyond-ego principle to enjoy life in a new and novel denouement.


1. Swami Venkatesananda. The Supreme Yoga — Yoga Vasistha. Delhi, Motilal Banarasidass; 2010, pp. 118-9.

2. Sri Aurobindo. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volumes 21-2. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 2006, pp. 574-5.

3. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Volumes 23-4; 1999, p. 214

4. Ibid., p. 216.

5. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Volumes 21-2; p. 596.

6. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Volume 23-4; p. 356.

7. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Volumes 21-2; p.597.

8. Ibid., p. 575.

9. Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Volumes 23-4; p. 360.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Basu S. Integral Health. 2nd ed. Pondicherry: SAIIIHR; 2011, ppp. 76-9.

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