False ego, see also Ahankara
False ego is what makes us think that our self and our external body are one and the same. The reality is that we are all spiritual. We don't die. Without understanding that, we think, "This body is who I am." We think our temporary bodily labels—white, black, tall, short, young, old, man, woman—apply to us.
We're made of spiritual energy, which means that we're eternal and conscious. Spiritual energy is superior to the temporary, unconscious matter our bodies are made of. False ego is the most subtle feature of the inferior, material energy. It's the the very point of contact between spirit and matter. It's what keeps us tied to repeated births and deaths.
Funhouse mirror photo by Jan Messersmith.
Are we free? Or are we—like the behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner’s rats—simply products of our environmental cages?
“Psyche,” from the Greek word for soul, connotesan inner spirit as distinguished from its vehicle, the material body. In Greek mythology, Psyche, a personification of the soul, falls in love with Eros, the god of love. Eros later deserts her, and Psyche, brokenhearted roams the world in search of him, performing difficult tasks until at last she becomes an immortal and rejoins him.
I was not acquainted with Psyche’s story when I chose, as a college freshman, to major in psychology, her namesake science, but if I had been, her plight would have touched me and spirited my studies. Like Psyche, I had a romantic desire to roam the world searching for, in my case, something I felt was missing in my own self and in the self of all human beings, something that would make me whole and fill mankind with peace and love. Like Psyche, I was ready to work hard, patiently submitting to earthly trials to achieve my goal.
In fact, I had submitted to plenty of earthly trials already. I had, for instance, lived at home with my mother and teenage sister, while my father was usually away on business. My brother was in the Marines in Vietnam. My best friend, a twelve year-old beagle, was gray and arthritic. These and countless other hardships had, I sensed, nurtured in me a natural intuitive genius, as yet untapped, for things psychological. Having paid my dues, I felt ripe for union with my missing inner self. Sort of like Psyche. Too bad we hadn’t met.
In my first semester, girded with intuition and away from home at last, I leafed through my course catalog and found a course description that went something like this: “B.F. Skinner and Behaviorism ... for sophomores and other students who have completed their introductory studies in psychology and who want to begin a scientific analysis of behaviour.”
Perfect. Whoever this B. F. Skinner was, my life experiences, I reasoned, would more than suffice for “introductory studies.” And what to speak of sophomores, I was prepared to rub shoulders with the very best.
But B. F. Skinner, it so happened, though the very best in his field of behavioural psychology, was not, and still isn’t, a beautiful maiden. Nor does his research into patterns of behaviour much resemble Psyche’s search for her lover or my quest for an inner self. Skinner doesn’t believe in an inner self, in a psyche as the Greeks conceived it. Skinner and other behaviourists say that the inner self and the mind, if they exist at all, are things we cannot study or measure scientifically. Only our behaviour is plainly visible. “The picture which emerges from a scientific analysis,” Skinner contends, “is not of a body with a person inside, but of a body which is a person in the sense that it displays a complex repertoire of behaviour.”
Skinner is famous for his experiments with caged animals. His cage, known now as a Skinner box, was equipped with a mechanism that automatically gave the animal food, water, or some other reward. A rat, for instance, might find himself in a cage with a lever and a dish, and when he pressed the lever a food pellet would fall into the dish. Using variations on this simple arrangement, Skinner was able to show how patterns of rewards and punishments control an organism’s behaviour.
Skinner’s idea, in short, is that we are products of our environment and consequently not responsible for our actions. We are not to blame for our failures, nor do we deserve credit for our achievements. All is done by the environment. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, his best- known work, Skinner argues that we possess neither freedom nor dignity in the ordinary sense of those words.
This is not what I wanted to hear. If the Skinner box was an experimental model of the world as Skinner perceived it, then in Skinner’s eyes, I figured, I was little better than a rat, responding predictably to food, water, and other stimuli. What irked me further was that although we were all supposedly products of our environmental cages, Skinner and other “social engineers,” as he called them, could step outside their cages to study and manipulate the rest of us. I hadn’t the least desire to join the ranks of the Skinnerian engineers, and besides, with my intuition flagging, I was nearly flunking the course.
Twenty years later I still disagree with much of the Skinnerian creed, but I can more easily admit that I have never been wholly free. I have my own family now, and the crying or laughter of my children, my wife’s moods, the arrival of bills or checks in my mailbox, and a host of other stimuli, cause me to behave in quite predictable ways. Even if I wanted to break away, disappearing over the hill and into oblivion, wouldn’t that only make me the servant of a different passion? Skinner quotes Voltaire: “When I can do what I want to do, there is my liberty, … but I can’t help wanting what I do want.”
So do I have any freedom? Or am I boxed?
In the Third Chapter of the Bhagavad-gita,Lord Krishna confirms that the environment, or nature, controls behaviour: “The spirit soul bewildered by the influence of false ego thinks himself the doer of activities that are in actuality carried out by the three modes of material nature.” Nature is so fully in control, in other words, that we could say that nature, not ourselves, behaves. When “nature,” or the environment, is a Skinner box, we might therefore say that the box and its controller, B. F. Skinner, are acting, not the rat, although we would have to take into account that all three—the box, the rat, and Skinner—are under the influence of a larger controlling environment.
Unlike Skinner, however, Lord Krishna makes a clear distinction between the body and the self, or the person, and between the mind, which is a subtle body, and the person. A human being, He asserts, is indeed a body with a person inside, and that person, or soul, is an eternal individual, an individual who exists both before and after the body’s existence.
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time.... He is unborn, eternal, ever existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain. (Bhagavad-gita 2.20)
How do we perceive the soul? By consciousness. The consciousness that pervades our body is the soul’s energy, just as sunlight is the energy of the sun.
That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul. (Bhagavad-gita 2.17)
The material body and mind are temporary clothing for the eternal self, which does not mix with matter, just as oil and water do not mix. What nature controls is the gross body and subtle mind, since they are, after all, part of nature. Nature does not control our eternal self, which is part of Krishna’s spiritual energy. But because we are bewildered, we, the eternal selves, identify with the material body and mind, thinking that when the body and mind act, we are acting. This is called false ego. Real ego is to think “I am an eternal person and a part of Krishna.” False ego is to think “I am this material body and mind.”
Just as a reflection of the sun on a pool of water moves with the movements of the pool, so the soul whose consciousness is fixed on matter appears to move with matter. The fact is, however, that the soul is aloof and—as long as it identifies with matter—inert.
But we are not forever bound to inertia and false ego. As Skinner is the creator and controller of his boxes, Krishna is the creator and controller of nature. “The material world is working under My direction,” He says in the Ninth Chapter of the Gita.The universe, therefore, is a Krishna box, and Lord Krishna has kindly described how His box works and how to free ourselves from the false ego that renders us inert under the spell of material nature.
Krishna explains that nature acts in three modes: goodness, passion, and ignorance. These modes force upon the soul a variety of insurmountable desires to enjoy and control nature. The mode of goodness is characterized by the development of knowledge, and by austerity, steady determination, and sense control. The mode of passion is characterized by the attraction between man and woman, by intense longings for sense enjoyment, and by hard work to acquire material wealth. The mode of ignorance, which Krishna calls “the delusion of all embodied living beings,” is characterized by sleep, indolence, madness, and intoxication.
These three modes of nature compete for supremacy over our consciousness, and one mode or another is usually prominent in an individual’s behavior throughout life, although all three are always present. In the mode of goodness there is always at least a tinge of passion and ignorance. And even in the darkest ignorance, which is the predominant mode of the lower animals, there exists a degree of passion and goodness.
The modes direct us to various kinds of enjoyment in the material world, but none of them can bring us to a full understanding of our eternal self or a full realization of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Rather, the modes distract us from selfrealization. This is because the modes are material while our selves and the supreme self are pure spirit situated in the spiritual mode of pure goodness. Pure goodness is transcendental, untouched and untouchable by the three material modes.
While the material nature is composed of three modes, the spiritual nature is composed entirely of unalloyed goodness. But the Vedic literature informs us that both natures are in fact one nature,one energy of Krishna acting in different ways. When we want to forget Krishna, His nature acts in three modes, both to assist us in that forgetfulness and to punish us with repeated birth and death, thus bringing us to our senses. When we want to remember Krishna, however, the same nature acts to encourage and assist us in the activities of pure goodness.
Activity in the mode of pure goodness is called bhakti, or devotional service to the Supreme Person. Bhakti is both means and end. As the means, the practice of bhakti cleanses us of false ego and revives our pure consciousness that we are eternal servants of Krishna. As the end, bhakti is the eternal activity of the liberated souls who are absorbed in love of God and have no other desire than to serve Him.
The assistance rendered to us by the spiritual nature is nothing like the activities of the three modes, which force us to act contrary to our eternal constitutional identity as pure spiritual individuals. Because the three material modes are presently forcing us to serve material desires, we get a bad experience of servitude. We feel boxed. But service to Krishna in the spiritual world, assisted by the spiritual nature, is not forced service, because there we serve out of spontaneous love, and because there we are in full harmony with nature, which is as fully conscious and fully devoted to the Lord as we are.
So am I free? Or am I boxed?
I am free to choose to associate with the three modes of material nature or with the spiritual mode of pure goodness. Within the three modes, I also have some freedom to choose the mode I prefer. I can, by practice, develop in my life the mode of goodness, the mode of passion, or the mode of ignorance.
The Bhagavad-gita describes the different kinds of work, knowledge, determination, happiness, food, charity, faith, and so on characteristic of each mode. So we have some freedom, in other words, to choose which mode will dictate our desires. And if we like, we can take credit for our successes in fulfilling those dictated desires. But in any case, if I choose to maintain my false ego, I must serve the modes within the cycle of birth and death.
I may also, however, choose to develop the mode of pure goodness through the practice of bhakti in the association of pure devotees of Krishna. If I thus choose to revive my original Krishna consciousness, then I gradually regain my pure status as an eternal servant of Krishna, free to render Him varieties of devotional service with the full cooperation of His deathless spiritual nature.
from Back To Godhead Magazine #16-10, 1981
by Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
“There is no ‘real’ me—a tiny homunculus hidden beneath layers of frozen feelings. … It is not an isolated ‘object,’ a ghost locked in a machine or a mere consciousness located within the body. … You are inextricably enmeshed in the web of meanings shaped by the psychoculture that you helped to form and that, in turn, helps to form you.” (Daniel Yankelovich, in New Rules: Searching for Self-fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down)
What is the self? Is it something shaped and shared by our surroundings, as Dr. Yankelovich believes, or something private, autonomous, internal? Since everyone, no matter how he chooses to define the self, is interested in self-fulfillment, it is of paramount importance to know what the self is. Generally our concepts of the self are vague and speculative; so we often feel unfulfilled, even after attaining our goals. At a time when we are finding material goals more and more difficult to attain and when we are at a loss to find deep self-satisfaction, the Vedic literature’s unique statements can provide us with invaluable information about the self and self- fulfillment.
In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna describes the self as a permanent individual, an eternal conscious entity who interrelates with other selves. Bhagavad-gita gives us exact information of the self as an imperishable, nonmaterial particle, a spiritual soul (atma), who gives consciousness to the otherwise dead body.
People often deny the existence of the atma simply because the concept of the spiritual soul is rejected by modern science. Since with empirical methods one cannot detect or measure the spiritual soul, many people conclude—dogmatically—that no soul exists and that whoever believes in such a thing is only imagining a “ghost in the machine.” But from the perspective of Bhagavad-gita, to think of life in mechanistic terms, as mere chemical combinations and electrical impulses, is at best misguided, and at worst demonic.
Many people who scoff at religious explanations for the self embrace the theories of science as their new religion. Yet after hundreds of years of scientific philosophizing and experimentation, there is still no empirical explanation for consciousness, which the Bhagavad-gita explains to be the symptom of the self. Even the simple fact of individual conscious perception—everyone’s awareness that he is alive—remains totally inexplicable in material terms. Although the common man is in awe of advanced research in computer science (“artificial intelligence”) and other technologies, no scientist has been able to duplicate anything like a conscious living being.
The reason mechanistic science has failed to explain or create consciousness is easy to grasp. As Bhagavad- gita explains, the atma, the source of consciousness, lies entirely beyond the body and mind, so methods of perception that depend on the sensory apparatus of the body and mind can never detect the atma. Still, we can readily see the difference between the atma and the body by reflecting a little on our common everyday discourse. We think of the body as “ours,” and we say “my hand” or “my foot,” even “my mind.” Since the “I,” the self, is the owner of the body, it must be different from the body.
Bhagavad-gita describes that above the body is the mind, above the mind is the intelligence, and above the intelligence is the spiritual soul. It is because of a case of mistaken identity, false ego, that the deathless spiritual soul takes up residence in the perishable material body. The self’s identification with the body is like a person’s taking his body in a dream to be real. And a society that accepts the theories of mechanistic science as the absolute truth reinforces this misidentification.
Vedic knowledge confirms the sociologists’ claim that the beliefs of a society greatly influence the self. From birth, parents assure a child that he or she is a boy or a girl, a member of a certain family, a certain society, and so on. Except in a rare case in which a family or society imparts transcendental knowledge to the conditioned soul, one grows up with concocted, socialized conceptions of the self. Therefore one is bound to meet frustration in one’s search for self-fulfillment. Since one is actually eternal, one cannot be satisfied with temporary material goals.
The self can truly be satisfied only by gaining enlightenment concerning his relationship with the Supreme. Lord Krishna describes this enlightenment in Bhagavad-gita (6.21-23):
In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
And what about social responsibility? If the soul is spiritual, different from the material body, doesn’t that mean that a self-realized soul is antisocial, uninterested in helping others? No. Rather, when a human being comes to understand his real identity as atma, an eternal spiritual soul, a servant of God, then for the first time he realizes his loving connection with all living beings. Such a self-realized person becomes automatically nonviolent, even toward animals. And being self-satisfied and therefore not overly dependent on material things, he does not conflict with others in vicious competition. Moreover, his universal vision, in which he sees all living entities as spiritual souls or sons of God, enables him to take a nonsectarian view and give up envious distinctions of race, sex, religion, and nationality.
Paradoxically, one who becomes spiritually self-realized ceases to be selfish. The materialist, on the other hand, is always selfish. One who regards the self as isolated and private will selfishly try to experience as much sense pleasure as possible and minimize his concern for others. Or if he chooses to see the self in terms of shared meanings with society, he usually pursues the selfish interests of a particular social class or nation over all others. Only he who sees all selves on the spiritual basis can act in a way that will actually benefit others in their self-fulfillment.
Bhagavad-gita teaches that the real purpose of human life is to transcend death by liberating the atma from his bondage to material life. The soul who does not understand the self’s relationship to Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, has to transmigrate and return again to the material life of miseries: repeated birth, old age, disease, and death. Self-fulfillment conceived only in terms of one’s body, family, occupation, or nation is ignorance. Real self-fulfillment never ends, even with death. Since people are becoming increasingly concerned about self-fulfillment in an age full of uncertainties and great dangers, I would suggest that they not overlook the treasure of information about the eternal self and its fulfillment that has been presented by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in Bhagavad-gita As It Is.