Negating the ego

The Bhagavad Gita lists out five major negative behavioural traits of human beings.

They are, in order, ostentation, arrogance, self-conceit, insolence and ignorance. Each of them acting singly or in combination, manifest themselves in all persons in varying degrees, either as inherited tendencies or those resulting from the surrounding environment. These negative traits act as impediments to man’s growth in the material, emotional and spiritual spheres.

Indian philosophy does not see each of these as separate, but takes a holistic view that stems from a firm bedrock of spiritual awareness, which in turn leads to emotional stability and maturity, which again is a key factor to man’s success in the material world. Adi Shankaracharya’s treatise Vivekachudamani speaks about one such human trait – egotism.Shankara commences by saying that ridding oneself of these negative tendencies is the first step in achieving spiritual awareness. This is easier said than done, but, as Shankara says, it can be achieved through a gradual process of disciplining the mind to resist unbridled sense pursuits. To the extent to which the mind is turned inward, it frees itself.

It is to be noted here that complete detachment from material pursuits is not advocated, but rather, a controlled approach to life’s essential wants. As long as the sense of egotism prevails, the sense of the ‘I’, it is like a veil that shrouds his true nature, blinding man to the presence of the divinity inherent in him. Shankara here gives the example of the moon which has been eclipsed. Once it has come out of the eclipse, it shines in all its effulgence. So with man’s essential nature. When it is freed of its ego sense, it lifts man to higher planes of existence. Shankara here says that this ego is like a terrible three-hooded serpent which has coiled itself around the treasure that man’s inner divinity is. It requires these three heads to be cut asunder to get at the treasure. The three hoods of the serpent are the three basic qualities of every human, called as the Sattva, Rajas and Tamas in Vedantic parlance, responsible for the aforementioned negative qualities.

The sword used to cut off these heads is the sword of discrimination – between the real and transient things in life, which confers emotional and spiritual awareness. Shankara drives home this point by asking whether the human body can be considered to be healthy even if there is a trace of poison in it. So with the ego, whose presence makes man emotionally and spiritually imbalanced. Shankara says that this ego is like a thorn in the throat, preventing him from swallowing the nectar of spiritual bliss. Like the wind that brings the clouds together, the world projects sense attractions. Like cause and effect.

Both mutually feed off each other. Sense attractions engender desires, which leads to greed and ego. “Subdue the effect by controlling your excessive greed. Thus negate your bloated ego,” says Shankara.

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