When we say someone is egoistic, we often imply that the person is proud. Sri Aurobindo observed that egoistic movements are actually of three types – sattwic(illumined), rajasic(kineticism) and tamasic(indolent). The sattwic ego revels in the brilliant power of its intelligence, the rajasic ego is eager to dominate, and the tamasic ego wallows in self-pity.
Sri Aurobindo’s essay on these three movements
The meaning of the word, ahankāra(ego), has become so distorted in our language that often a confusion arises when we try to explain the main principles of the Aryan Dharma. Pride is only a particular effect of the rajasic ego, yet this is the meaning generally attributed to the word Ahankara; any talk of giving up ahankāra brings to the mind the idea of giving up pride or the rajasic ego. In fact, any awareness of ‘I’ is ahankāra. The awareness of ‘ I ‘ is created in the higher knowledge Self and in the play of the three principles of Nature, its three modes are revealed: the sattwic ego, the rajasic ego and the tamasic ego.
The sattwic ego brings knowledge and happiness. ‘I am receiving knowledge, I am full of delight’— these feelings are actions of the sattwic ego. The ego of the sadhak, the devotee, the man of knowledge, the disinterested worker is the sattwic ego which brings knowledge and delight.
The rajasic ego stands for action. ‘I am doing the work, I am winning, I am losing, I am making effort, the success in work is mine, the failure is mine, I am strong, I am fortunate, I am happy, I am unhappy’— all these feelings are predominantly rajasic, dynamic and generate desire.
The tamasic ego is full of ignorance and inertia. ‘I am wretched, I am helpless, I am lazy, incapable and good for nothing, I have no hope, I am sinking into the lower nature, my only salvation is to sink into the lower nature’— all these feelings are predominantly tamasic and produce inertia and obscurity. Those afflicted with the tamasic ego have no pride though they have the ego in full measure but that ego has a downward movement and leads to death and extinction in the void of the Brahman. Just as pride has ego, in the same way humility also has ego; just as strength has ego, in the same way weakness also has ego. Those who have no pride because of their tamasic nature are mean, feeble and servile out of fear and despair. Tamasic humility, tamasic forgiveness, tamasic endurance have no value whatsoever and do not produce any good result.
Blessed indeed is he who perceiving Narayana(Divine) everywhere is humble, tolerant and full of forgiveness. Delivered from all these impulsions coming from the ego, one who has gone beyond the spell of the three modes of Nature has neither pride nor humility. Satisfied with whatever feeling is given to his instrumental being of life and mind by the universal Shakti(Energy) of the Divine and free from all attachment, he enjoys invariable peace and felicity. The tamasic ego must be avoided in every way. To destroy it completely by awakening the rajasic ego with the help of knowledge coming from ‘sattwa’ is the first step towards progress. Growth of knowledge, faith and devotion are the means of liberating oneself from the grip of the rajasic ego. A person predominantly sattwic does not say, ‘I am happy’; he says, ‘Happiness is flowing in my heart’; he , does not say, ‘I am wise’ he says ‘Knowledge is growing in me.’ He knows that this happiness and this knowledge do not belong to him but to the Mother of the Universe. Yet when in all kinds of feelings there is bondage to the enjoyment of delight, then the feeling of the man of knowledge or the devotee is still proceeding from the ego. Simply by saying ‘It is happening in me’ one cannot abolish the ego-sense. Only the person who has gone beyond the modes of Nature has completely triumphed over the ego. He knows that the ‘Jiva‘, the embodied being, is the witness and enjoyer, the Supreme is the giver of sanction, and that Nature is the doer of works, and that there is no ‘I’, all being a play in knowledge and ignorance of the Shakti of the sole Brahman without a second. The sense of ego is only a feeling born of illusion in the nature established in the ‘Jiva’, the embodied being. In the final stage this feeling of egoless ness merges into Sachchidananda, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. But having gone beyond the modes of Nature one who still stays in the divine play by the will of the Lord respects the separate existence of the Lord and the ‘Jiva‘, the embodied being, and, considering himself a portion of the Divine in Nature, he accomplishes his work in the Lila, the divine play. This feeling cannot be called the ego. Even the Supreme has this feeling. There is no ignorance or attachment in Him, but His state of beatitude instead of being self-absorbed is turned towards the world. One who possesses this consciousness is indeed a soul liberated in life. Liberation by dissolution can be gained only after the fall of the body. The state of liberation in life can be realised in the body itself .
Question: What is the right and the wrong way of being humble?
Mother: It is very simple, when people are told “be humble”, they think immediately of “being humble before other men” and that humility is wrong. True humility is humility before the Divine, that is, a precise, exact, living sense that one is nothing, one can do nothing, understand nothing without the Divine, that even if one is exceptionally intelligent and capable, this is nothing in comparison with the divine Consciousness, and this sense one must always keep, because then one always has the true attitude of receptivity – a humble receptivity that does not put personal pretensions in opposition to the Divine.
Letters to a disciple on this topic
Nagin: For the last few months nearly all the parts of my being have felt that there is no need of living on earth. Interest and joy in life are now gone. Once the Divine thought of making me His instrument and therefore there was some sense and delight in going ahead. Because of my constant tamas and illness He seems to have lost that hope. Now I am only a burden to Him.
Sri Aurobindo: These are the feelings of the tamasic ego — the reaction to a disappointment in the rajasic ego. Mingled with the true attitude and experience or running concurrently along with it was a demand of the vital “What I am having now, I must always have, otherwise I can’t do sadhana(askesis); if I ever lose that, I shall die” — whereas the proper attitude is “Even if I lose it for a time it will be because something in me has to be changed in order that the Mother’s consciousness may be fulfilled in me, not only in the self but in every part.” The lower forces attacked at this weak point, made demands through the vital and brought about a state of inertia in which what you had clung to seemed to be lost, went back behind the veil. So came the tamasic reaction of the ego, “What is the use of living, I prefer to die.” Obviously it is not the whole of you that says it, it is a part in the disappointed vital and tamasic physical. It is not enough that the active demands should be broken and removed; for this also is a passive way of demand “I can’t have my demands; very well, I abdicate, don’t want to exist.” That must disappear.
Nagin: What is the tamasic ego?
Sri Aurobindo: The tamasic ego is that which accepts and supports despondency, weakness, inertia, self-depreciation, unwillingness to act, unwillingness to know or be open, fatigue, indolence, do-nothingness. Contrary to the rajasic it says “I am so weak, so obscure, so miserable, so oppressed and ill-used — there is no hope for me, no success, I am denied everything, I am unsupported, how can I do this, how can I do that, I have no power for it, no capacity, I am helpless; let me die; let me lie still and moan” etc. etc. Of course not all that at once or in every case; but I am giving the general character of the thing.
It is now that the tamasic ego has been manifest, it showed itself in the tone of what you wrote about your illness, helplessness, also the recent suggestions of hopelessness and dying etc.
Nagin: In spite of my vigilant eye how on earth could the ego get in?
Sri Aurobindo: So long as you had fully the attitude of surrender, the rajasic ego could only take the form of suggestions from outside, uprisings from the subconscient. It was suppressed in the vital. When the inertia rose and the energy of will receded, it began to try to come in again.
Nagin: I had thought that at least the rajasic ego had been eliminated!
Sri Aurobindo: Do you mean to say that you never had any rajasic element in you? There is not a human being who has not got it in him so long as he is not divinised in his vital. What were all the vital suggestions coming to you so insistently always, except appeals to the rajasic ego? When you threw out sex, jealousy, vanity etc. what were you throwing out but the rajasic ego? What was the demand at the pranam(obeisance) or the disturbance caused there but a movement of the rajasic ego? Some of these things you threw out successfully — others still kept a response.
Nagin: Since you saw wrong things entering me and myself being unconscious of them, why did you not warn me about them?
Sri Aurobindo: Here again is the rajasic ego in you, dictating to us what we should have done and showing us our mistake .
- Sri Aurobindo. Writings in Bengali. Ahankar.
- Collected Works of the Mother. vol.5, p 46
- Nagin Doshi. Guidance from Sri Aurobindo, vol. 2, p 90-92, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust 1976
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- Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
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- Obsessive-compulsive spirituality
- Four epistemic methods of consciousness
- How does the Mind change with Yoga?
- Why spiritual experiences do not repeat?
- The ability to withstand hardships in the spiritual path
- Interplay of faith and doubt in Yoga
- Transcending the work-leisure cycle
- Rising above ennui or boredom