Ahankāra – Sri Aurobindo on Tamasic, Rajasic, Sattvic Ego and More

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Editor’s Note: Sri Aurobindo wrote this essay for the Bengali journal “Dharma”. It was published in September 1909 in Dharma issue no. 5. We present here its English translation that is publicly available.

The meaning of the word, ahaṅkāra, 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 ahaṅkāra; any talk of giving up ahaṅkāra brings to the mind the idea of giving up pride or the rajasic ego.

In fact, any awareness of ‘I’ is ahaṅkāra. 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.

Egoism and Its Forms: Becoming Conscious with Guidance from Sri Aurobindo

Blessed indeed is he who perceiving Narayana 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 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 egolessness 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-abosorbed 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.

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 9, Bengali Writings)

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