Ego in Western and Indian psychology

by Jacques Vigne



Ego is this part of psyche which enables to say 'I'. It has a central role, and one must definitely go beyond according to what the various spiritual traditions say. Greek Fathers used to see in 'philautia', the attachment to ego, the common basis of the difficulties of inner evolution.

One could say of ego what is said of money: it is a good servant but a bad master. It is like the driver of a luxury car who would be inclined to forget the owner who is on the backseat and to believe that he is the only master aboard. Being not identified to mind does not mean not using it at all, but using it when necessary. Mind should be like hands and feet which rest if not in use. Then, it can be said that mind functions without ego.

Psychoanalysis presents ego with its defensive aspect: pulled between the Id and the overself, its main role would be to activate defence mechanisms. Another definition of ego seems interesting to me: 'Ego is the total sum of all our attachments.' Western psychologists who goes until the end of their reflection will agree with the idea that guilt, fear, inferiority feeling and reactions of projection are not accidental qualities of ego, but are part of its very structure. Ego is anyhow fragmented; one must go from the superficial impression of personal unity to the real unity beyond the person. Trust in this superior unity will enable us to organize again fragments of ego, just as iron filings, when polarized in a magnetic field, organize themselves according to new lines of force. An individual who sees consistency behind the chaos of ego sees his capacities radically changed.

Human sciences clearly showed that one could well study a phenomenon only by replacing it in its context, that one could well understand a form only by seeing it in its background. For Indian thought, ego or 'I' can be rightly studied only in relationship with this background which the Self is. But usually it seems that people go near a huge tank, take a small glass of water and say: "This is 'I'."

Ego represents both a theoretical question of comparative psychology and quite a practical problem for the spiritual aspirant who would like to go beyond it without knowing very well how. Before dealing with the notion of ego in the East and the West, I would like to point out that going beyond ego is important not only for a good psychic health, but also for the body. Those patients that cardiologists classify in the A-type personalities have a typical profile of ego hypertrophy. In this sense one may quote Larry Scherwitz study; he is a psychologist in the University of California "Scherwitz recorded conversations with more than five hundred men, of which one third were heart patients. Others were in good health. While listening to these records, he counted how many times each of them used the words 'I', 'my', 'mine'. By comparing the results of the normal group with that of the heart patients' one, Scherwitz realized that patients made more use of these words. Besides, by following up these patients during several years, he discovered that the more a man spoke of himself, the more he had chances to have a heart attack. The author concludes that the antidote was to be more generous and respectful of the others, less ego-centered." (1) This is the first step on a long way to forget the ego, who has deeper roots than egotism in the mere moral sense of the term. Tasne Ikani, the oldest woman in Japan, stated on her 116th birthday that she thought to have got a long life because she never had been egoistic and she had completely surrendered the care of her life to nature.



Ego in the West : Narcissus and personalism

There is a slight difference between the notions of ego and person, ego being more circumscribed, with often a pejorative undertone, while the word 'person' denotes a more positive aspect (see for instance the dignity of human person). However, both meanings have a common basis. Christianity, as well as popular psychochology, has the notion of a 'hard kernel' in every person, able to resist to outer pressures at any cost and to affirm oneself individually. This idea of person was developed with the school of personalism in the '30s, at a time were individuals were threatened by the storm of totalitarian regimes and by materialist psychology. I spoke of the notion of person in a text giving a general overview of the relationship between non-dualism and Christianity. Roughly speaking, one could say that totalitarian ideologies and materialistic psychologies 'go out' from the person downward, while mysticism and the traditional Eastern psychology go out of it upward, and eventually reach beyond. To constitute oneself as a person is necessary for the child and the adolescent. Learning to respect the person of the partner in a couple is important for a young adult to counterbalance the primary drive of physical urge in the couple. Going beyond the person is a necessity for him who has reached an inner maturation.

Narcissus' myth is often interpreted in a simplistic way: "Don't care too much for yourself, if not you will go for trouble" Narcissus was contemplating the reflection of his face in water and finally fell in it and was drowned. But more than this, one may recognize in it an evocation of a complete itinerary of meditation, especially if one connect it with the path of Knowledge. Narcissus' body represents the ego based on identification with physical body. In the beginning, Ovide, the Latin poet, describes Narcissus 'as beautiful as ivory': this is the stage when he was still before adolescence, mostly centered on himself and so as cold as ivory. Then he falls in love with the nymph Echo, but she left her body instead of giving herself physically and just sent him back his own words and thoughts: this underlines in a very clear way the ultimately illusory side of physical love, which is a projection and which adds to the identification to one's own body the one to the body of someone else; instead of grasping the object of one's desires, one faces only one's own mental projections. This leads Narcissus to question himself, to come back inside and to split oneself into two polarities, the observer and the object of observation, which is the very basis of the path of Knowledge. This process unfolds on the 'dissolution of the body', that is indeed the dissolution of the ego based on the identification to the body. Then Ovide tells that Narcissus continues to observe its own image in the waters of the Styx, the underground stream which is also connected with oblivion of the past life by people who cross it after recently dying. In the place where was his body remains a flower with a yellow heart, white petals and a pervasive smell. His companions eventually find it. Thus, the meditator who gave up identification to the body keeps on observing the stream of consciousness in the depths of his own self. The body which is been seen by the onlookers and visitors is there only out of compassion for others. This compassion, symbolized by the flower names narcissus, makes its purity beam around and sheds its fragrance for anyone who passes by.

A certain psychology reduces the consciousness beyond the ego to the overself; this is an obvious mistake, even without taking into account spirituality. How could we explain with simply the overself of psychoanalysis (made out of parental taboos) poetic, artistic and even only intellectual intuition? Likewise, the 'Id' of psychoanalysis cannot be confused with the Self: this would come to identify the petrol which makes the car work to the owner of the car. Ego, which is based on the instinctual drives of nature, is not irremediably opposed to culture; this a duality which must be transcended as the other ones.

Western psychology is much interested in inferiority complexes, etc. that ego can develop, but in India it is said that the very ego is a complex, even a double complex since it is entangled in itself and entangled to the body inasmuch as it is identified with it. In the evolution of species, paleocortex (the basic animal instincts) has been included and regulated by neocortex; likewise, in inner evolution, our ego must be included and regulated by the Self.

Real therapy has an 'impersonalizing' effect in the good sense of the term; one comes to realize that certainly, there are victims, but no culprits. Patiernts are no more paralyzed by deep-entreched guilt feelings. Out of the field of psychology, great minds such as Einstein had a clear idea of the necessity of going beyond ego: 'The genuine value of a human being first depends upon the extent and the sense in which he reached the freedom from ego.'(3)


Absence of ego in the East: 'powerful impersonality'

An important distinction to do to understand the Indian thought regarding the ego is differentiating sattvic ego from the absence of ego. Spiritual aspirant must first transform

the tamasic ego (laziness, etc…) into rajasic ego (capacity for work, but attachment and anger also) and then into a sattvic (purity, etc…) one. Then only one can hope a real absence of ego. One can see the necessity of the constitution of a sattvic ego in the advice of the Bhagavad-Gita: "It is by himself only that one should lift oneself." (VI, 5) In Indian society, one can say that the decision to take monastic life (sannyas), to leave everything for God in spite of a frequent opposition of the surroundings represents a manifestation of sattvic ego, which is not unrelated to Jungian individuation. This does not implies that ego or person will ever be free, because it is just from this ego and this person that one should get free. To express this in a clear way, sages like to speak of themselves in an impersonal way: Ramakrishna used to say 'here' while pointing to himself, Swani Ramdas from Kanhangad used to speak of "Ramdas" as if someone else was concerned, Ma Anandamayi used to say "this body".

We will now successively examine sattvic ego and the absence of ego.


Sattvic ego

Ramakrishna clearly explains: "The consciousness of self is of two kinds: one ripe, the other unripe.'Nothing is mine, whatever I see, feel, or hear -nay, even this body itself is not mine. I am always eternal, free, and all-knowing' - such consciousness as this originates in the ripe ego; while the unripe ego makes man feel forever related to the transitory things of the world. 'This is my house, this is my child, this is my wife' -consciousness like this is the manifestation of the unripe ego."(4)

Consciousness is trapped by ego only in a temporary way. Time will come when it will be free again, if not in this life, so in an ulterior one. Sometimes, one makes the difference between 'aham' which is the pure and superior 'I', indeed the impersonal 'I', we could say in a paradoxical way, and 'ahamkar', which is the usual ego that we make with the net of our desires and worries. Indian spiritual psychology is much less interested than modern psychology in the contents of ego or mind, but more in the way in which one can have his buddhi disentangled from them.

The most usual defence mechanism of the ego is so usual that psychologists forgot to mention it as such: this is dispersion, distraction (vikshepa), a fundamental notion in vedanta. By the way, it is interesting to note the similarity of the sanskrit words 'chitta', memory, and 'chinta', worry, disquiet: this means that the idea that most problems come from the past was already implicit in sanskrit vocabulary, the closest to the original indo-european source. One can note also in Hindi the double meaning of 'soch', thought, anxiety.

To conclude these short reflections on sattvic ego, we could point out than renouncing one's ego does not mean becoming a slave to the ego of others. Ma Anandamayi says clearly: 'Be very careful never to fall under the influence of someone. To remain steady, composed, deeply serious, heroic and keep your personality intact, honest, pure and holy, remain centered in God." (5)


The absence of ego.

The absence of ego is not the apanage of India: one can find in taoist texts phrases like 'going in an empty boat', 'vomit one's intelligence', 'thinking without head'. The word 'atma' in sanskrit is interesting, because as there are no capitals in devanagari it can means both the poles, the extremes of inner evolution, the small self and the universal Self. When I was starting the study of Indian philosophy and psychology, I thought it was the sign of a theoretical confusion, but afterwards I realized that this uncertainty of meaning was exactly reflecting the uncertainty of inner reality, where we continuously evolve from self to Self. To progress in this sense, giving up the idea of doer (karta) is a must. Ramakrishna gives striking similes about this: 'Vegetables in the cooking pot move and leap till the children think they are living beings. But the grown-ups explain they are not moving by themselves; if the fire be taken away, they will soon cease to stir. So it is ignorance which thinks 'I am the doer' All our strength is the strength of God. All is silent if the fire be removed. A marionette dances well, while the wires are pulled; but when the master's hand is gone, it falls inert.'

There are four ultimate idolatries: body; oneself considered as a person, i.e., ego; spiritual master considered as a physical person; and the Divine, considered as a metaphysical person. When one is really no more identified with the body, the three other idolatries vanish by themselves; before this, they keep a reality at their level. Identification is deeply rooted even in the vocabulary: don't we say in English for 'a person ' 'some-body'? Death of ego appears, according to the testimony of those mystics who experienced it, as more frightening than the death of body itself. Nevertheless, it is at the same time an opportunity to rejoice. Nisargadatta Maharaj compares it to the joy felt when, after believing that a friend had died in a train accident, one eventually realizes that he had not taken this train at all. (7) Ego and permanence are two notions which support each other as to invalids: should we suppress one, the other will collapse; should we focuss on imperm,anence, ego will be dissolved. The result of this process is an essential absence of fear, as Nisargadatta was saying to his visitors: "Your world is like a stranger, and you're afraid of it. My world is myself, I am at home.' (8)


Nobody is separate

This idea which was before mainly supported by mystics gets momentum among scientists too. A well known specialist of cognitive sciences, Francisco Varela, who is also a personal friend of the Dalai Lama, fully supports the idea of absence of ego, and is not again the notion of non-substantiality of the world which does not prevent, according to him, the emergence of a global ethics.

A relatively recent notion in psychology which has become quite popular is that of subpersonality, which is also called multiple personalitiy or states of ego. They are not the only characteristic of schizophrenia or major cases of split personality, but can be found in a minor way among most people. According to the situation, the person changes roles, and it seems often that these different roles have little relationship between each another.

The person is more than a mask (in Latin, 'persona'), it is a whole series of masks. A practical way of meditating is to look one's own face from inside, i.e., no more the face built up to communicate to others, but a relaxed, natural face, 'the face one had before birth' to take the formulation of a Zen koan.

We said before that the usual view on the ego is that it is a 'hard kernel', a 'hard core' within ourselves. If we are able to provoke the fission of this nucleus, we will be able to produce an enormous energy similar to the energy of fission of atom. The instinct of conservation which support the cohesion of ego corresponds to the strong interactions between the components of the nucleus. In comparison with this instinct, sexuality which secures the stability of relationships between individuals is a weak interaction, analogous to the electromagnetic fields which enable atoms to gather in molecules, or to gravitational fields which allow stars to form galaxies.

Ideal ego is often criticized by psychologists as being a source of illusions on oneself. Indeed, this is true since the genuine ideal is absence of ego. However, practically, an ideal of ego is needed. It should be like this runner who sprints just ahead of a sportsman to train him: he should be neither too near, because the trainee will slow down, nor too far ahead, because he will be discouraged. After pursuing this ideal of ego for a long time, one has a chance to really achieve the ideal beyond ego, which means Liberation.

Western psychology which is based on general sense has a superficial idea of individuals as being separated like islands. On the contrary, traditional, especially Indian psychology knows there is a common base, shelf which links islands to one another (11). Ego has its role in psyche, but when it gets hypertrophied, it can become like a malignant tumor. Meditating means developing immunity against this growth… In any case one should know that ego in itself is incurable; better to get disentangled from it as soon as possible. At this point one reaches what Gita describes as a stability 'atmanyatmana', 'in oneself by oneself' or 'in the Self by the Self'. This experience of unity with others is the foundation of true compassion. We will then be able to become disciples of this three year old child who was saying to his mother in his special language: "I love you myself"…



  1. Quoted by Barrere in 'Choisir de ne pas vieillir' (choosing not to grow old) Troisieme Millenaire, n.37, p.88.
  2. Vigne Jacques 'Indian Wisdom, Christianity and Modern Psychology', ch.14 and 15, BRPC, Delhi, 1996, also available on the Internet, see below.
  3. Einstein Albert 'Ideas and opinions' Crown Publishers, 1954, and Rupa, 1993, p.12
  4. 'Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna', Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1994, p.22
  5. Ma Anandamayi 'Vie en jeu' presented by JC Marol, Accarias, Paris, 1995, p.81
  6. 'Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna', op.cit. p.24
  7. Nisargadatta Maharaj 'Seeds of Consciousness' Acorn Press, p.164
  8. " " " p.17
  9. Varela Francisco "L'inscription corporelle de l'esprit' Seuil, 1993, p.8.
  10. Walkins JG in BB Wolman 'Handbook of States of Consciousness' Van Nostran Reinhold Company, New York, 1986, p.134 sqq
  11. Those who want more information on the topics of ego and personality in Indian thought should see 'The Indian Cultural Heritage of India', Vol III, The Philosophies, part on personality.