Devotees take different routes in their journey towards spiritual fulfilment. While some adopt the path of Karma (action), others take the path of Jnana (knowledge). Whatever path one decides to choose, his success in reaching his destination lies only in his ability to free himself from the clutches of ego. Since ego is the root and the primal form of ignorance, its annihilation alone paves the way for Jnana. Since ego is at the root of all our actions, its annihilation alone paves the way for Karma Marga.
What ego is all about? Ego is nothing but a mere thought. The mind keeps generating thoughts. The first thought that comes to mind is the ‘I’ thought. This ‘I-thought’ is ego. The Self is the natural state of a person. It is just being what he is. The very awareness of one’s existence is Self‐knowledge. While Self is the reality which gives the consciousness of one’s existence, the ‘I-thought’ or the false notion of ‘I’ which arises from mind parades itself as ‘I’. When the ‘I’ is experienced as “I am” or ‘I’ alone, it is Self knowledge, but when the ‘I’ is associated with ‘this’ and ‘that’, one becomes other than what he really is. Quite often we mistake this ‘I-thought’ as our real identity. Quite often we confuse the happiness derived by our ego as our own happiness. Our aim is to reach the source of ego so that it does not rise.
An individual went to a saint and asked how to cope up with the problems mounting day by day. The saint replied: “There are no problems as such. Actually, you are the problem. Though you are the divine supreme, the limitless Self, when you identify yourself with your mind, you become the problem. When you, the sublime and infinite Self listens to your mind, you become limited. When you, the Truth-Consciousness and Bliss forget your essential nature and come under the domain of your mind, you develop attachments and aversions. Nochur Acharya said: “You are divine and vast and not bound by any barrier. Conscious of your Self, you are transcended to infinite regions, but when you let the mind take over you, you suddenly become a localized personality.” If we probe into the nature of ego or Ahamkara, we would find that ‘Kara” is a suffix that refers to the false notion of ‘I am the doer’. If this notion is removed, what remains is the pure “Aham” (the Self).
Though ego is a very strong element in the human system, it remains dormant and hidden deep inside without giving any clue to others of its presence. It comes out only when provoked, just like a snake lying in a deep pit suddenly raises its hood when disturbed by a stick. The individual is normally decent and divine, but the moment an adverse comment or criticism is made, he becomes a different personality. Karthik, the husband had just reached home after the hectic work in the office. He took a seat in the hall and started reading the newspaper which he had left unfinished in the morning. His wife then came and started making some critical remarks about the neighbours, but Karthik was least concerned and gave no response. When she found that he was as inert as the chair in which he was sitting, she said: “You are also like that”. She had transferred to her husband all the criticisms she was making about her neighbour. That remark provoked him to respond because it was direct hit on his ego. If we think deeply, we would observe that when something is spoken unrelated to the person, he remains normal but when some critical words directly affecting him are spoken, he becomes abnormal.
When a person occupies a position of power and enjoys it, he unconsciously starts feeding his ego. Even if he changes his role, the ego refuses to leave him. The ego merely changes its position from the former to the latter. If a person retires from service and takes up an honorary position in a charitable or religious institution, the ego associated with his earlier position manifests in a different way. If a student completes his course and takes the profession of a teacher, the ego of being a vibrant youth goes away but a new ego of being a knowledgeable teacher steps in. Even if a family man adopts saint-hood, he merely changes his status but the ego within remains as strong as ever. The person may change his position, but ego takes a firm position as an enemy within. Some give ego refined names like ‘human dignity’ or ‘self-esteem’, thereby giving a kind of legitimacy or respectability to it. Whatever name one may give to it, ego is the single enemy within. If we are not able to reach God or the state of realization, it is because we have never let the ego go away from us. In Kerala temples, you find the entrance so small that unless you bend down, you cannot enter. Perhaps, the small entrance gives the message that you can reach God only when you hold your head down.
The term ‘I’ is the smallest word in English dictionary but we find that this is the word very widely used and misused. This is the false ‘I’ projected by the mind. Srimad Bhagavatam gives us two contrasting stories of one who constantly used ‘I’ and landed in trouble and one who never used ‘I’ and attained high state of realiation. King Hiranyakasibu was the embodiment of ego. He wanted everyone to glorify him. Being a King, everyone praised him but there was one dissenting voice which belonged to his son, Prahlada, an ardent devotee of Lord Narayana. Instead of uttering the names of Hiranyakashibu which symbolised ego, false-hood, pride and illusion, Prahlada uttered the names of Narayana which symbolised truth, purity and humbleness. Though Narayana appeared as Narasimha and destroyed the ego in Hiranyakashibu, it seems Hiranyakashibu has left behind the trace of his ego which is still being picked up and carried forward by many. Sri Anjaneya is the ideal example of one who never even for a moment thought of ‘I’. He went through great struggles, crossed the ocean, located Sita, challenged the enemies and came back to Rama to break the good news. When at last he stood before Rama, he said: “Sita was located”. He never used the word ‘I’ because he thought he was only a tool and succeeded in his mission only by the grace of Lord Sri Ramachandra.
The only way by which one can overcome ego is by seeking its source. Sri Ramana Maharshi defined ‘Jnana’ Marga’ as ‘an act of seeing or searching the origin of ego attentively’. The search should be made with as much yearning as one searches a valuable item lost in the water by holding his breath (Neeril Vizhuntha Porul Kana Vendi Muzhukuthal Pol…’Ullathu Narpathu by Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi). Once we reach the source and questions its existence, the ego vanishes, like a thief afraid of being caught. When Devaraja Mudaliar, a devotee said that one needs the grace of God in order to get Moksha (liberation), Bhagavan said: “The grace is already there and you may receive it in abundance so you long you (your ego) do not come in between.”