“What is ego? I am pure soul, but with my intelligence and mind I am in contact with matter, and I have identified myself with matter. This is false ego. I am pure soul, but I am identifying falsely.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna Consciousness: The Topmost Yoga System, Ch 5)
Under the model where self-realization is pursued through gradual steps, the first requirement is knowing that I am a spirit soul, or aham brahmasmi. This understanding is crucial, because without knowing who we are, we can’t take the proper steps in finding happiness. This should be a simple concept to grasp, as in virtually every field of activity the knowledge of one’s proper identity drives the activities. If a baseball player on a certain team incorrectly identifies with the opposing team, they will take the wrong actions in the game. They will work to further the chances of victory for the opposing side. Similarly, if we don’t understand the soul, we won’t know how to act. After learning about the soul, the next issue is ego, with mind and intelligence playing an integral role in determining whether further maturation is achieved. When ego is properly situated, everything else falls into place.
“Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.29)
How do I know that I am spirit soul? What is a soul anyway? Based on our perceptions, we identify with our body, but this form is actually just a collection of different parts. The human form consists of hands, legs, a stomach, eyes, ears and a face. Should one of these parts cease to function, the identity of the individual does not change. Moreover, the entire body morphs over the course of time. In our childhood we had a completely different body, one that was very small in stature. But as we grow older, the entire collection of parts gets replaced, yet the identity within does not. Therefore there must be an identifiable aspect, the presence of an entity who is immune to the temporary manifestations of matter.
The Vedas kindly reveal that this entity is the spirit soul, or atma. We can try to study the soul and its properties using blunt instruments, but this route will be very cumbersome. To use an example, we can never actually see the wind, but we know it is present because of its effects on external objects. If a flag is waving violently outside or if when we step out the door we feel a sudden burst of air hitting our face, we understand that wind is present. Similarly, through the autonomous workings of individual living beings – actions that are undertaken by choice and also those functions which operate involuntarily, like breathing and the beating of the heart – we know that the spirit soul is present. When these functions are absent, the living being is considered dead. The same elements remain visually manifest, but the difference is that the life spark has exited the residence. An abandoned home and one that is currently occupied are not the same. Based on the symptoms found within the dwelling, we can properly decipher which is which. In a similar manner, based on the visible functions of the gross body, we can understand whether or not spirit is present.
After understanding that we are spirit soul and aloof to the changes of the body, we have to understand why we have a body in the first place. Why are we subject to the influences of matter, when in fact it is determined that spirit is superior to matter? This is where ego comes into play. While the gross elements make up the body that is visible, the subtle elements of mind, intelligence and ego drive the activities that the individual living being takes up while residing within a particular body. When the mind and intelligence identify solely with the body, the ego is considered false. Understanding that we are a pure spirit soul is only the beginning, for if we still have a false identification that is indicated in the activities we adopt, our knowledge of spirit is only theoretical.
“One should engage oneself in the practice of yoga with undeviating determination and faith. One should abandon, without exception, all material desires born of false ego and thus control all the senses on all sides by the mind.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 6.24)
What are the symptoms of identifying with the gross body? Studying the behavior of animals and children gives us some nice clues. We know that animals have limited intelligence; they are not able to understand God, spirit, matter, or their imminent death. The animal is driven by instincts, its desires to eat, sleep, mate and defend. Similarly, the young human being only wants preyas, or instant satisfaction. When the child is hungry, it wants to eat something nice. It will complain to the parents about not having food available right away. “Mom, I’m hungry. What’s for dinner?” The child has a difficult time when their sense demands aren’t met right away.
When a little more intelligence is acquired, shreyas, or long-term interest, is sought after. The animals and immature children are unable to seek out long term gains. A typical example of a future benefit is a degree from a school or university. You can’t just will yourself to get an education, and neither can you just demand that others give you the respect that comes from being educated. Rather, hard work, through many years of schooling and studying, is required to earn a degree or diploma. Since studying is not typically done with enthusiasm, there is no instant satisfaction in the activity. The ultimate goal, shreyas, is what keeps the student disciplined and adherent to their studies.
When the identification turns away from matter and shifts towards spirit, the real benefit of human life can be found. Under the false identification with matter and the body that is ever changing, the human being behaves similarly to an animal. In fact, in many respects the grossly foolish human being is inferior to an animal, for the fears are increased in the human form. The animal doesn’t lament over losing its childhood, not seeing friends for so many years, having to go to the office every day, or its impending death. These fears are introduced in the human species because of the advanced level of intelligence. We know that our time on earth is short and that in the past we had many good times that seem so distant now. We also know that death will one day come and remove us from our current environment.
But the intelligence given to the human being is not meant to be a punishment or a tool that further increases fears and worries. Rather, the intelligence is intended to be used to adopt a purified ego, wherein one identifies as a spirit soul that is part and parcel of God. The individual spirit residing within the body is knowledgeable, blissful and eternal. The gross elements the soul is falsely identifying with are just the opposite in character. If there is full association with something that has undesirable attributes, the resulting consciousness will be inferior. On the other hand, when the soul identifies with something that is knowledgeable and blissful, the results are topmost.
Since I am a pure soul, I should identify with something else that is pure. Not surprisingly, that pure entity is the same object of worship for every single person. He is most commonly known as God, but in the Vedic tradition He is given thousands of names. These names not only describe His numerous features and attributes, but they also serve as increased outlets for glorification. It is said that a voter would much rather have someone or something to vote for than vote against. The sitting officeholders are easy targets for the angst and unhappiness of the general public. Depending on their opinion of the current person in office, if a citizen should encounter something as trivial as a flat tire, they will blame the sitting president, the leader of the country.
But when it comes time for the election, the forces of love typically triumph over hate. If people have something tangible to support, a candidate who provides hope for a better day, the opposing forces who can only rely on their dislike will be defeated. This speaks to the nature of the soul, as it is endowed with a strong loving propensity. Under the false ego, the individual associates with matter and the ability to increase the level of sense gratification in areas such as intoxication, sex, gambling, and meat eating. Thus when the loving propensity needs to be released, it targets other entities who are similarly driven by a false ego. If people should happen to be good at acting, playing sports, or making a lot of money, they get some of the praise and adulation that others are so desperate to give.
Since God, as the all-knowing, understands this propensity in man, He comes to earth from time to time to enact pastimes. With each pastime comes a new name given to the Lord. With each new name comes a new outlet for the pure love that naturally exists within the heart of every living entity. The most inclusive and complete name for God is Krishna, which is a Sanskrit word that means all-attractive. Krishna is also known as Bhagavan, which means one who possesses the attributes of beauty, wealth, strength, fame, knowledge and renunciation to the fullest degree. No one can be smarter than Krishna; hence His teachings are flawless. As He is all-knowing, He is never under the delusion of false ego, even if He should appear before us in a form that looks similar to a human being.
When under the purified ego, the soul constantly engages in kirtana, or glorification of God. The best and most practical way to glorify Krishna is to chant His names found in the sacred maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. Those who recite this sacred formula are letting themselves and the higher authorities know that they are sick and tired of identifying with the gross body. The maha-mantra is the call to the Supreme Lord to allow the individual to love Him with full gusto, without any qualms or reservations. In every area of life not tied to devotional service, the loving propensity is checked. For starters, the objects of worship who are deluded by false ego immediately are limited in their ability to accept love and reciprocate properly. As soon as there is interruption or motivation involved in the worship, the mood of the devotee loses its purity.
With Krishna, however, there are no defects, as He is Bhagavan. Therefore simply by chanting His names on a regular basis and thinking of Him at all times, the necessary knowledge and intelligence are acquired. The false ego doesn’t stand a chance with a devotee who is dedicated to glorifying Krishna. The glorifications are itself a reward, as the time invested directly corresponds with the natural qualities of the individual. Under the false ego, the activities adopted ultimately lead to misery, as real shreyas, or the most important end goal, is not found.
As long as the desire for steady kirtana does not surface, the influence of the false ego will continue. Whatever identification we adopt is what we will keep going forward. The soul exists eternally, but the ego determines where the soul will reside in the future. At the time of death, the desires of the living entity are measured by the higher authorities and a commensurate future body is crafted. When going by the identifications of man, woman, Indian, American, priest, worker, fighter, etc., the desires at the forefront of consciousness will remain impure. Purity is only found in Krishna and anything directly related to Him.
If we have difficulty believing that Krishna is God, we can stay focused on the path of study, wherein one starts at the mental plane and gradually works up towards the spiritual plane. Under the abstract conception of God, it remains difficult to keep the false ego from resurfacing. We may know that we are spirit soul and that our body is ever changing, but unless we have an active engagement that reinforces these thoughts, the tendency towards animal behavior can return.
On the other hand, if we worship God in His personal form, the benefits are always there. The Vedic literature is full of instances of God performing wonderful activities and exhibiting His unmatched transcendental abilities. Krishna’s intelligence can be appreciated by reading His words of wisdom found in the Bhagavad-gita, the most celebrated and widely read work on spirituality in history. Krishna’s beauty can be appreciated by reading the Shrimad Bhagavatam and hearing the descriptions of His wonderful transcendental form put forth by His devotees, of which the gopis of Vrindavana are the topmost. They always swim in the ocean of spiritual nectar that is the vision of Krishna, who is blue like the dark raincloud and is opulently adorned with a flower garland, peacock feather, Kaustubha gem and other ornaments.
Krishna’s wealth can be remembered and honored by understanding that all the opulence we see in the world has God as its source. The Lord owns everything, so no one is richer than Him. Krishna’s renunciation can be marveled at by hearing of how He separated from the gopis. The cowherd girls of Vrindavana have the most beautiful external features, and their inner beauty marked by their devotion to Krishna stands out even more. If we had such wonderful devotees always thinking of us, we’d have a difficult time giving up their company. We would likely abandon our occupational duties and instead enjoy their association at all times. But Krishna had business to take care of in the neighboring town of Mathura some five thousand years ago when He roamed this earth. Thus He had to leave the gopis behind, showing that He is always fully renounced.
Krishna’s strength can be appreciated by remembering how He defeated powerful demon after powerful demon, including the feared king of Mathura, Kamsa. Krishna is also the most famous, as He is worshiped by every single person in some way or another. Even the atheists worship Krishna, through His external feature of matter, which does not bring personal association. The flawed identification under the false ego also results in worship, but since the Lord has no direct interest in the workings of dull matter, the results of such worship are inferior; they bring neither a real ego nor the Lord’s personal company.
But most of all we can appreciate Krishna’s kindness. He comes to this earth and shows the exalted devotees His transcendental form so that they can remain forever devoted to Him. Since the celebrated saints are the kindest welfare workers, they share their knowledge with others. By learning of Krishna’s features, the differences between matter and spirit, and the proper identification, the purification of ego can come very soon. For one who is fully confident of Krishna’s position as God and His ability to deliver the fallen souls, the ego quickly becomes the best friend, leading to the proper identification of “I am a spirit soul, who is eternally devoted to God.”
Categories: false ego