The Sanskrit term ‘ahankara’ literally means ego. Ahankara has deep importance in a person’s life. It is the ahankara which makes a person to involve in the worldly activities, at the same time it is responsible for many of our problems in life. Vedanta teaches to balance this difference. Ahankara according to Vedanta is ‘the thought which creates the concept of I-sense’. The fundamental ahankara, the I-sense is pure. However, gradually the ahankara turns into a bundle of thoughts and concepts about our own self. When a child is born it has pure ahankara. It expresses only its individuality and it is of pure nature. When the child gradually matures in to different stages, the pure ahankara associates itself with different concepts and experiences, then the pure ahankara becomes a collection of labels and concepts like ‘I am rich, I am fat, I am educated and so on’. At this stage ahankara involves in comparison and it becomes a problem. Some people develop ahankara at a very early stage itself due to their circumstances, and some people at a later stage, but it is hard to avoid developing ahankara. Ahankara is a great obstacle for a person’s spiritual and intellectual evolvement. Spirituality helps to understand this profound concept and when understood properly, it transforms a person in to a free person.
In Sanskrit, thoughts are called vrittis. Mind itself is a pool of vrittis. Mind is the manifestation of the supreme consciousness and so are the thoughts. Mind exists in consciousness. Vrittis can be otherwise said as the form of consciousness. Consciousness is limited by the form of vritti. Just as the brightness of the reflected sunlight depends on the medium (waves and purity of the water), the reflected consciousness depends on the vrittis of the mind. When the vrittis are fewer and pure, the reflected consciousness is brighter. This bright reflection is seen in jnanis and spiritually evolved persons. They represent the pure form of consciousness. The vrittis of their mind are fewer and pure and they do not distract the reflected consciousness. It is understood from the ideas and concepts they have about the life. In modern times, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa are the true example for a jnani.
Reflected consciousness is said as an experience and every experience is a conditioned consciousness. When the consciousness illumines the mind full of worldly vrittis, the reflected consciousness mingle with worldly vrittis, and hence the reflected consciousness is said as experience. Consciousness is all pervasive, but experience makes it appear as limited. Each of our experience is consciousness in the form of vritti. Vrittis are superimposed on consciousness. For instance, a wave is nothing but water in the form of a wave. Likewise, experience or reflected consciousness is nothing, but consciousness in the form of vritti.
According to Sri Sankaracharya, the vrittis are distinguished as ego and mind. “Manifest in the mind, consciousness shines being reflected. Mind is two-fold: one aspect is ahankara-ego, the other is antahkarana-mind” (Drig-Drishya viveka, verse 6). Worldly matters occur between the subject (I-sense) and the object (worldly activities). All the worldly experiences appear as vrittis in the mind. Every individual has a basic concept of their own and this is ahankara, the subject. The life full of karmas (actions) and experiences are based on this ahankara and they are considered as objects. For example, when I say, “I am writing”, the ‘ I ‘ represents the ahankara (subject), and ‘writing’ is an experience (object). The ahankara ‘ I ‘ is identified with the different experiences. All our experiences are the combination of the subject and the object. When the ahankara gets identified with the body, mind, emotions, feelings etc, it is defined accordingly. When ‘ I ‘ say, ‘I am a woman’, the ahankara gets identified with the body. When I say, ‘I am sad’, the ahankara gets identified with the emotions. Thus the mind has only two types of vrittis, the ahankara vritti and the virttis of different experiences.
Ahankara is a vritti
Vedanta repeatedly emphasizes the fact that ahankara is a vritti and not the real Self. It is a common mistake to consider ahankara as the real Self. If it is a vritti, it can be ignored as any other vritti. Ahankara or the I-vritti is a modification of consciousness in the form of ‘ I ‘. Like any other vritti, ahankara appears and disappears in the mind. “In deep sleep, ahankara disappears, and the body becomes insentient. In dream, the ahankara is half-manifest. In waking, it is fully manifest”, (Drig-Drishya Viveka, verse 10). This proves that ahankara is not permanently present. For example when we deeply enjoy our favourite music, the ahankara disappears for a few seconds and in that moment consciousness illumines without any distraction. When we come out of that moment, ahankara appears again. This proves that like any other vritti, ahankara appears and disappears in the mind, and it is not permanent.
Failure to recognize ahankara as a vritti is the cause for all kinds of suffering. Ahankara is an assumed concept and it keeps on changing according to experiences and situations, we ignorantly consider it as the real Self. Ahankara is a vritti, and the Self, the supreme consciousness illumines that vritti. A being is much more than a mere vritti, Vritti keeps on changing, whereas the Self is omnipresent and omniscient. When I say, ‘I am talented’, the ‘ I ‘ belongs to the ahankara and the ‘talent’ belongs to the buddhi. They both are mere vrittis. An ignorant person unnecessarily associates both with the Atman, the Self. This is the root cause for samsara and it is the real problem in life.
When we associate with something, then the suffering or excitement is more. For example, when a car in a parking lot is damaged, then it is a fact to us. At the same time, when our car is damaged, then it is pain to us. Likewise, when the body is ill, then it is a fact, but when the ahankara associates with the body deeply, then it is suffering. Suffering is a vritti, it can be made to disappear by diverting the attention. Considering a vritti as permanent is the next problem. The suffering and excitement are vrittis and they should not be associated with the real Self.
“Identification of ego with reflected consciousness is like a glowing hot iron ball. Due to identification of ego with that (reflection) the body gains sentiency” (Drig-Drishya Viveka, verse 7).
When an iron ball is placed in fire, the heat of the fire is superimposed on the iron ball, and the iron ball glows like a fire ball. Similarly, the experiences are superimposed on ego and the ego also identifies with the experiences. By this superimposition, the ego feels that, ‘I have this experience’. When ahankara identifies itself with other vrittis, it limits itself. Only when the ahankara identifies with the body, the body gains sentiency. The ahankara identifies with the other vrittis and thus it involves in the worldly activities.
Identification of the ahankara
“Identification of the ahankara with reflected consciousness, body and witness is natural, due to karma and due to ignorance – each of these three respectively”, (Drig-Drishya viveka, verse 8).
Identification of ahankara is analyzed in three fundamental ways.
1. Identification with the reflected consciousness – it is natural
2. Identifacation with the deha (sthula and suksma sarira) – due to karma
3. Identification as the sakshi (witness-consciousness) – due to ignorance
1. The identification of ahankara with the reflected consciousness gives us various experiences. Sri Sankaracharya says that this identification is natural. It cannot be destroyed but can be ignored. When the ahankara fails to identify with the worldly experiences, it cannot do any karma and it is difficult to survive in the world. At the same time, when it identifies with the worldly experiences, it is suffering and excitement. Therefore, there must be some functional identification to solve this problem. Since the vrittis and its mutual identification are natural, Vedanta tells to destroy the ignorance associated with the vrittis and not the vrittis itself. Due to ignorance we think that the vrittis are the reality. By knowledge one must treat the vritti as the mere appearance. For example, when we travel by a fast train, the trees and buildings on both sides appear as moving in the direction opposite to the movement of the train. It is not the reality but an optical illusion. A person without this scientific knowledge thinks that the trees are really moving in the opposite direction of the train. Another example is, when we watch sunset from the shore, it appears as if the sun is plunging in the sea, but by knowledge we perceive that it is an optical illusion and the reality is that the earth is moving. When we know the truth we do not take the illusion seriously. Likewise, the identification exists, but the ignorance is destroyed by knowledge and we perceive that the ahankara is not the reality. This concept is explained by Sri Sankaracharya as ‘Brahma satya jagad mitya‘, which means that ‘Brahman is the reality and the world is a mere illusion’.
2. The karmas (actions) are associated with the body and mind. One cannot destroy the past karmas, but by knowledge one can divert the attention from the karmic experiences. Knowledge destroys ignorance. The experience of the karma is only a vritti. Even an enlightened person will have physical discomforts due to past karmas, but he ignores it as the problem of the anatman. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa had acute pain due to throat cancer, but he ignored the pain as the problem of anatman and refused to take any medical assistance. A jnani’s pattern of thoughts and feelings are different from a common man. They feel that the experiences are mere vrittis and not the reality and they do not suffer by it.
3. According to Vedanta even the thought that, ‘I am Sat-Cit-Ananda swarupa’, is a mere vritti. The ‘ I ‘ represent the ahankara vritti and not the real Self. In the exalted state of Supreme consciousness, there is no experience or expression. It is the state beyond the mind. Experiences are misleading, because they are not the reality. By knowledge we perceive the reality and the ignorance is destroyed.
The substratum of ahankara is consciousness. Just as the smoke indicate the presence of fire, vrittis of ahankara and antahkarana (mind) indicate the presence of consciousness. In the worldly life one experiences the body, mind, emotions and so on, but Vedanta emphasis not to consider it as the reality. “The one thing that is to be taken in life seriously is, do not take life seriously”, Swami Chinmayananda. For example, when we watch a murder scene in a movie, we are well aware that it is not the reality. Neither the actors nor the audience is affected by it. Similarly ahankara is another vritti, it should not be taken seriously, and this knowledge avoids ahankara from associating from many more vrittis. This is knowledge and this is freedom.
Drig-Drishya viveka, Sri Adisankaracharya