Real Self and Ego

Real Self (capital S) is your inner most core. This Self is also called SatChitAnanda or Self Awareness. On the other hand, self (small s) is your ego. It is also called ahamkara – the maker of ‘I’. To avoid the confusion between Self and self, we will use ego for self (small s).

To a new Vedanta student, this can be quite confusing – how can there be two selves? It is obvious there cannot be two selves. We know and we do not feel that there are two selves. There is no case of split personality. We are always a single entity. Right from our birth to this moment, we know ourselves as the ‘I’. I am this, I am that, I want this, I need this. This ‘I’ has been with us since birth and it remains unchanged. Everything may have change around us, but the feeling of ‘I’ is the same.

This is the only ‘I’ we know. Isn’t this the Real Self or the Real ‘I’? Unfortunately, no. There is a Real Self and there is the Ego. If this ‘I’ we know is not the Real Self, then this is a source of confusion. How can there be two Selves? What is the difference between the Real Self and ego? Why don’t we know the Real Self? Do the Real Self and Ego function in different domains?  

The focus of this article is to answer these questions. This will help in clarifying the doubts between Self and Ego. All the above questions can be divided into the following three sections:

  1. Understanding the Real Self
  2. How does the Real Self create the Ego?
  3. Functioning of Self and Ego

Understanding the Real Self

Who Am I? Many people may not ponder about this question, because they are very sure – they are the body/mind complex. They are born with this body/mind and they have grown up with this body, so the association with the body is deep rooted. A simple question to ask is:  which part of the body are you? Are you the hands or legs, or the eyes? There is no clear-cut answer, but they may answer: we are the cumulative total of all the body parts. If so, what happens to the person, if they lose a hand, leg, or vision in some accident. Do they feel incomplete, do they feel only a fraction of the total? If you were to ask a crippled person, he or she would answer, despite losing a body part, they still feel complete. Their Self is not a fraction but is always full. This goes to show that they are not the body but something else. But what is that something else?

Another way to look at it is to ask yourself the question, are you the tree outside the window? You will look shocked and reply – of course not! Why aren’t you the tree? Because you can perceive the tree, its outside – you know it is a tree, you are aware of the tree. Since you are the knower, the tree is known to you. Anything known to you cannot be you.  It is something external. It is for this reason; you are not the tree. This logic and reasoning will apply to all external objects in the world. It is quite simple and straight forward when you talk about objects external to yourself. What about your body? Do you know or are you aware of your hands, legs and all the body parts? Of course, you are. So, we can apply the same logic as used for external objects. Applying the same reasoning, you will realize that your body and body parts are external to you. You are aware of your body and body parts; therefore, you cannot be the body. Then you may say you are the mind. The mind is full of thoughts made up of perceptions, feelings, and emotions. Once again you are aware of what is happening in your mind. You are the witness to your thoughts. There is no thought which you do not know about or which you are not aware of. This means that you are also not the mind. As a next step, you may say you are the ego.? This maybe close but the ego is only a thought, like any other thought masquerading as the Self. Below, are some of the typical statements made by the ego

  • I am a father
  • I am a son
  • I am a husband
  • I am a writer
  • I am a meditator
  • I am a player (of golf)

All the above are different roles played by the ego. You are aware of each one of these roles. You know you are a son, father, husband, etc. If you are aware of these roles of the ego, then you are a witness of them, so you cannot be your ego.

So, what are you or who am I? As Vedanta teaches, there are only two things in this universe. The Self and all the external objects. The universe is that simple. This is entirely logical and not complicated. We are obviously not external objects – not the body, not the mind nor any of the objects of the world. Vedanta states that we are the Self who is aware of all the external objects.

Who is the Self? What is the nature of the Self? Self is our inner most core, it is beyond our body, mind, and ego. Vedanta teaches us that our true self is SatChitAnanda.

  • Sat = Real – which is unchanging, uncreated, and uncaused
  • Chit = Consciousness
  • Ananda = Bliss

Over the years, I have discovered that understanding ‘Self Awareness’ is a better way to know your inner core or your true Self. If you get a proper understanding of Awareness and the inherent powers within this Awareness, it brings clarity to your understanding of your inner core or Self.

Self-Awareness: Self-Awareness is our inner core. It is the Real ‘I’ or Self. Self-Awareness means that Self is Awareness and Awareness is Self. Self and Awareness are the same thing.

Self = Awareness

Since the Self and Awareness are the same, it is important to understand Awareness. Please read my post ‘Analyzing Awareness’ for a detailed explanation. Here is a quick run-down.

If Awareness is analyzed, it will be found to have three things: Subject, Intelligence and Object. If any one of them is missing, there will be no Awareness.

  • There must be a Subject, who is aware of the experience. The subject is the “knower” of Awareness
  • There must be an Object, which must be experienced. This object is the “known” part of Awareness
  • There must be Intelligence by which the subject gets to know the object. This is the “knowing” part of the Awareness

Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence

Power of Awareness = Power of Knower + Power of Knowing + Power of Known

Awareness is made up of Subject, Intelligence, and Object and it has three different powers – Knower, Knowing and Known. It must be understood that the Subject, Intelligence, and Object and the three powers are not something outside in the world, they are within Awareness and they make up Awareness. Wherever there is awareness, Subject, Intelligence and Objectare present with all the three powers. Right now, you are aware of reading this article, therefore Subject, Intelligence and Object are present within your Awareness of this article. 

What is Self-Awareness? There must be a Self who is Aware. Vedanta teaches us that this Self is our inner core, which is full, complete and it is self-sufficient. For Awareness to be full and complete, it must be Self-Aware. Self-Awareness means that ‘Awareness is aware of Awareness’. It is like saying ‘I am reading this article’. Here ‘I am’ is the subject and the article is the object. Reading is the intelligence connecting the object with the subject. Applying this to Self-Awareness, you will notice that the subject is Awareness, object is Awareness, and the intelligence is Awareness. The Self in Awareness plays the role of subject and object. In other words, Self is the subject and Self is the object. This is not easy to grasp, but there is only the Self which is both subject and object. This Self is therefore non-dual. This complete, independent Self is our inner core. It is both subject and object. Self-Awareness is non-dual and homogenous. It is Self-Shining.

Awareness = Subject + Object + Intelligence

In Self-Awareness, Self = Subject = Object = Intelligence.

This Self is shining Awareness. It is like a Bulb radiating of Awareness. This is our inner core. It is not dependent upon anything else and it generates its own light of Awareness. 

How does the Real Self create Ego?

If our nature and inner core is Self-Awareness, why don’t we know it, why don’t we feel it? The simple answer is that we are ignorant of our inner core. Since we have forgotten our true nature, Ignorance covers up the Real Self. When we forget who we really are, Ignorance pops up and like a veil that covers Awareness.

This veil of Ignorance is made up of a countless number of pixels, each pixel representing a living being. Each living being thus has their own unique pixel of ignorance, depending upon their degree of ignorance. A self-realized person will have zero ignorance and at the other extreme there are living beings with 100% ignorance, who have no clue about their true nature. Each one of us falls somewhere in between these two extremes. You have a pixel of ignorance; I have one and every living being has a pixel of ignorance. You could say that the veil of ignorance with its countless pixels covers Self-Awareness.

Ignorance has yet another strange power; it can separate the subject and object from the non-dual Self-Awareness. Yes, it has that power! How does this happen? Because of ignorance, we forget we are both the subject and object, we do not know that both subject and object are part of our inner core. If we do not know that we are both Subject and Object, it means that the subject and object are no longer a single entity but are separate and independent entities. Non duality becomes duality by the simple fact of not knowing. This forgetting or not knowing is the power of Ignorance. 

Although Self Awareness is nondual, it does have the following 4 parts:

In Self-Awareness, Self = Subject = Object = Intelligence

The process of separation of the subject and object is like refraction. Place a prism in front of light and we can see the 7 different colors on the other side. In the same way, the pixel of ignorance refracts the light of Self-Awareness into the following 4 different components. 

  1. Manas (Mind)– The home of the objects  
  2. Buddhi (Intellect) – The home of the intelligence
  3. Sakshi (Witness) – The home of the subject.
  4. Ahamkara (Ego) – The home of the self

These homogenous and integrated parts of Self-Awareness become 4 independent parts. The word “Mind” is also used to describe the 4 parts collectively. Thus, Ignorance of the Self has the power to create the mind. This ignorance also creates the ego.   

Difference between Real Self and Ahamkara (ego)

Ahamkara means the maker of ‘I’. It is the self or ego within us. There is a Self within Self Awareness. This Self in the presence of ignorance is refracted to become the self (with a small s). This self is the Ahamkara or ego. The ego is the combination of Self and Ignorance:

Ahamkara (ego) = Ignorance in the presence of Self

Ignorance in the presence of Self in Self-Awareness creates the self/Ahamkara or ego. The substratum of ego is Ignorance. It does appear that in the presence of ignorance the Self has been modified to be become the Ego. The entity of Self has now become ego. This is what the ego thinks, it thinks it is the Self.  This is the delusion of the ego. This delusion is because of ignorance. This ignorance is hiding Real Self.

The Real Self is full and complete, it can never be deluded by Ignorance. Real Self is always pure. How to understand this? Let us take an example. We know water is colorless. If you put this colorless water in a red bottle, the water in the bottle will appear red. An ignorant person will think that the color of the water has changed to red. The color of water will always be colorless. In presence of the red bottle the water may appear red, but it is still colorless.

In the same way, the Real Self is always untainted and pure. However, in the presence of ignorance Self appears as ego. This ego is the product ignorance. If there was no ignorance, there would be no ego, there would only be the bulb of self-shining awareness. In the presence of ignorance, the Self appears to play the role of ego.

We mentioned earlier that each living being has a pixel of ignorance. Each of these pixels, refracts the Self to create an ego within each pixel of ignorance. It is important to note that there is only one Real Self, which is refracted by all the pixels of ignorance. How can a single Real Self become so many different egos? Vedanta has the classic example of buckets with water. If there are an unlimited number of buckets filled with water, the sun will be reflected in every bucket. There is but one sun in the sky, but each bucket has a reflected sun. In the same way, there is one Real Self, but the Reflected Self appears as ego in each pixel of ignorance. The Real Self is common to all the different egos. The inner core of every living being is the same. This is the power of the Real Self.

Functioning of Real Self and Ego

If you see a tree, ask yourself who is it that is really witnessing the tree? The ego or the Real Self? If you ask the ego, the ego will confirm it is witnessing the tree. If you ask the same question to the Real Self, the Real Self is also aware of the tree. This can cause confusion – it’s a dilemma that causes misunderstanding and a difficulty in grasping the difference between Real Self and ego.

How is this misunderstanding to be removed?  The best way to begin to understand it is to go to the popular Vedantic metaphor of the Pot and the Clay. We know the clay pot comes in many different sizes, shapes, and designs. Some are tall, some are short, some are round, some are square etc. There seems to be an unlimited possibility for shapes and sizes. If you study all the clay pots carefully you will see that each clay pot has the following two components – Content and Form. So, which part is the content and which part is the from? The answer is obvious, the clay is the content, and the pot is a form on the clay. With different shapes and sizes, the form of the pot could vary, but the content of all the pots will always be clay.  

Clay Pot = Clay (content) + Pot (form)

A simple question – in the clay pot, what is the weight of the clay which is the content and what is weight of the pot which is a form? The answer is obvious, the clay has all the weight and pot has no weight. Another question – can you separate the pot form from the clay content? The answer is that it is impossible to separate the pot form from the clay content. They are inseparable. It would seem the pot form is an idea or concept which has been superimposed on the clay.

This Vedantic metaphor can help us understand the underlying components for every object in this physical universe. it would seem every object in the universe has the following two components:

  1. Content
  2. Form.

What is Content made of?

So, what is the Content for all the objects in the universe? First, let us ask – how do we know an object exists? The simple answer is that we are aware of the object. We see it, we know it, we can touch it.

  • How do we know the tree is green? Because we are aware of it. 
  • How do we know sugar is sweet? Because we are aware of it. 
  • How do we know we have two legs and two hands? Because we are aware of it. 
  • How do we know the weight of the chair is 20 lbs.? Because we are aware of it. 
  • How do we know the smooth touch of silk? Because we are aware of it. 
  • How do we know we are listening to music? Because we are aware of it. 

The common thread to all these questions is Awareness. It would seem Awareness is a prerequisite to observe any object. Awareness is a prerequisite for the existence of any object. Without awareness, we would not know any object which is perceived by the 5 senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. These objects coming in from our sensory organs must encounter Awareness. The object we perceive is then filled with Awareness, only at that point do we observe the object.  For an analogy, think of the sun. When there is no light from the sun, you cannot see anything, but in the presence of the light everything becomes visible. In the same way, when an object comes in the presence of the light of Awareness, we become aware of the object. If there is no light of Awareness, you will perceive nothing, and no object will exist.

So, what is Awareness and what does Awareness have to do with the content of the object? Everything. Awareness is the content of all the objects in the universe. The content of the objects from the five senses can only be Awareness.

 Awareness by itself is formless, but it has the potential to become any object. The object it will become depends up on the input received from the five senses. A good metaphor to explain this is a lump of playdoh which is formless, but you can manipulate the playdoh to any shape. Whatever form you create; the content is always playdoh. In the same way, the content of all the objects in the universe is only Awareness. It can take any shape or form, but the content is always Awareness.

Next time you see a tree, or listen to music or feel the cold water, you must be clear that the tree, music, or water is made up only by Awareness and nothing but Awareness. It is content of every object.

What is the Form Made up off?

We now know the Content of any object is Awareness. What about Form? This is not an easy question to answer. In the clay/pot example we saw, the content is clay only. There is no place for pot in the content. Pot is something introduced from outside the clay, we can agree that it is just an idea which is superimposed on clay (by the potter). Yet, though it is external, the pot cannot be separated from the clay.  The pot form is totally dependent on clay. The clay can exist on its own, but the pot cannot exist on its own.  Even after the superimposition of the pot, the content is still Clay. There is no change to the content. The idea of the pot does not make any difference to the clay. Clay is still clay.

Using the same logic, the content of all the objects in the world is Awareness. There is no place for form in this content. There is no denying that we do see form everywhere. This form cannot be part of the content; it cannot be part of Awareness. It is something external being superimposed on Awareness. The form may be external, but it cannot be separated from the content and the form cannot exist on its own; it is totally dependent on Content.

We saw earlier that because of our ignorance of our true nature, a veil of ignorance is created and covers Awareness. This veil is external to Awareness. The veil of Ignorance has nothing to do with Awareness. See the connection – the veil of ignorance is external; the Form of objects is external. Based on this, it is possible to conclude that the veil of ignorance is the source of the Form of Objects.

Veil of Ignorance = the source of the Form of Objects.

Yes, veil of ignorance is the source for the Form of objects. The underlying reality of every object in the universe is ignorance. The tree outside, the car on the road, your friend sitting next you, even the stars and planets out there, are all ignorance.

This is not easy to comprehend because all the objects of the world seem so real. They appear real because of our ignorance. The truth is that the content of objects is always Awareness. The Form is part of ignorance and not Awareness.

Based on the reasoning given above, there seem to be two independent worlds –

  1. The World of Content
  2. The World of Form

World of Content: This is the Real World. This is the world of Awareness. We have mentioned earlier, wherever there is Awareness, there must be subject, object and intelligence. The Real Self is Awareness. The Real Self is the Subject, the Real Self is the Object and Real Self is the intelligence. The Real Self has nothing to do with Ignorance. The Real Self has nothing to do with the Form of the Objects – it is the Content of the objects. This is the Real world but is unknown to the ego.

Self-realized people live in this world of content, the world of Awareness. They have no ignorance. A more accurate statement would be to state that they are Awareness. They are the Awareness in the objects. They are not part of the Form. Since they are Self-Aware, they see their own Self in all the objects. There is no separation between them and the Awareness in all the objects. Awareness in all objects is their Self.  

World of the Form: This is world of the ego and the mind. This is the world we live in. This is the world whose source is Ignorance. The ego functions in this world. Everything we see around us functions in the world of Form. The world of Form is elaborate, it appears so real. Such a huge universe out there. It appears real, but it is not real. The world of Content is the only Real World. Just like clay is the only real thing in the pot/clay example.

The ego along with the power of intelligence in the buddhi, slowly learns and gains knowledge of the different forms in the world. We learn about different things in the world almost every day. All the advancements in science are taking place the world of Forms. Gaining knowledge of objects of the world will not remove the ultimate veil of ignorance. The ultimate veil of ignorance lies in not knowing our true nature, not knowing we are Self-Aware. No knowledge of the external world can help remove this veil of ignorance.

The final objective for any ego is to transfer itself from the world of forms to the world of content. This is not an easy task. The teachings of Vedanta can help direct your ego towards the Real Self.

To conclude, Real Self is our inner most core, it is our Real ‘I’. However due to ignorance of our true nature, the ego comes into existence, which masquerades as the Real Self. This ego lives in the world of forms.    

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