Literal meaning of ego (aham in Sanskrit) is one’s idea or opinion of himself – the idea of being different from others. It is a sense of one’s personal identity. When the ego degenerates into excessive pride or self-centerdness, it is known as egoism or egotism (ahamkara in Sanskrit). The self (individual soul), on the other hand, is the essence of one’s being. Bhagavad Gita has examined the concepts of ego and the self in great detail – their origin, their characteristics ; and the ways and means of understanding the self and taming the ego.
The Supreme Lord, Ishvara, has two natures – the consciousness nature which is the soul ; and the material nature which consists of the five elements, mind, buddhi, and the ego. The Universal Soul is eternal, all-pervading and indivisible. A fragment of the Universal Soul becomes a living soul and draws to itself a body and the mind. The undivided reality of the Universal Soul, thus, appears to be divided into the multiplicity of the souls. That is how the individual souls come into being. Identification of the individual soul, the self, with a particular mind and the body gives rise to a sense of ‘I’ or ‘my’. That is how self-sense, the ego is produced.
Corresponding to the two natures of the Supreme Lord, each individual has two aspects – the conscious soul and the image of himself, the ego. Whereas the self, being part of the Universal Soul is divine, self-aware and eternally free ; the ego is limited by the forces of nature. Whereas the self is pure, free and distinct from the modes of nature ; the ego is forever entangled in the modes. Whereas the self is a changeless center of the ultimate truth, there is no immortal nucleus in the ego or other constituents of nature. Being part of the impermanent material nature, the factors of ego are always in flux and change from moment to moment.
The self experiences life through the material nature. Such an experience results in development of a limited view of oneself, as an entity which is distinct and separate from everyone else. The self being the subject, everything else including the body, mind and ego are objects. By gaining knowledge of the subjective and objective realities, one can learn to discriminate between the indestructible self on the one hand ; and the ever changing forms of the material nature, on the other. Such a realised person never confuses the self with the ego.
Egoism manifests itself in myriad forms such as arrogance, selfishness, fear, anxiety, anger, aggression, stress and so on. Egoism is, thus, responsible for most of one’s sufferings. Knowledge of the self, on the other hand, leads to equanimity and serenity of the mind.
Being part of one of the two natures of the Supreme Lord, ego and other constituents of nature are not an illusion. Ego is rather a natural phenomenon. Every thinking being has an ego, an image of himself which distinguishes him from everyone else. In the phenomenal world, ego is an essential constituent of one’s being. Without it, one cannot evolve as an individual. However, in spiritual terms, it is an obstacle to self-realisation. It is only when one’s ego vanishes and he knows the self experientially, can he attain to the freedom of the soul.
Ego is a mixed bag of good and evil. That is why behaviour of people vary from one another to such a great extent. Even the behaviour of one person varies from time to time. But when the light of the self shines, the sense of a separate finite being disappears along with its likes and dislikes and also hopes and fears ; and one experiences spontaneous joy.
Whereas all kinds of works are done by the modes of material nature, the individual soul, deluded by egoism, attributes all such acts to himself. Of all the actions performed by his mind and the body, he considers himself to be the doer. He holds himself responsible for the actions and their results ; and thus suffers their consequences. But when he renounces his egoism and identifies himself with the Universal Soul, he enjoys life without any sense of ownership and doership. He remains fully active outwardly even while renouncing all actions inwardly. Actions and their results do not trouble him.
If out of egoism, one intends to defy God i. e. try to work against the laws of nature, he is bound to suffer. And when one overcomes egoism, he acts not for any selfish ends, but as a conscious instrument of the Divine. He leads a joyful and meaningful life.
When one becomes one with the Divine in him, his sense of distinctiveness vanishes. In this exalted state of being, he renounces everything that separates him from the universal consciousness. Whatever be his worldly life, inwardly he dwells in God.
To conclude, the ego is one’s idea of himself which camouflages his true nature. The perception of separateness so created imprisons one within the four walls of his self-image. When one breaks the barriers of his limited individuality, he sees whole of the creation as an extension of himself. With his separateness thus gone, he develops a unified awareness in which he sees the Universal Soul in all and all in the Universal Soul. He becomes one with the whole stream of life.