“This ‘I am,’ the sense of self, also exists in the liberated stage of self-realization. This sense of ‘I am’ is ego, but when the sense of ‘I am’ is applied to this false body, it is false ego. When the sense of self is applied to reality, that is real ego.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.8-12 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
In the Bhagavad-gita Shri Krishna describes the eight material elements that cover a living entity. Those elements are divided into gross and subtle.
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego - altogether these eight comprise My separated material energies.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.4)
The subtle elements are interesting because they can’t be perceived. It’s like asking someone if they have seen the wind. You only know about the wind based on its effect. The trees are swaying back and forth. The flags are moving in a certain direction.
In the same way mind, intelligence and ego are perceptible based on life symptoms. Ego is known as ahankara in Sanskrit, and the more specific translation for this word is “false ego.” If something is false or fake, it means that the real thing must exist. Counterfeit currency is based on genuine currency. A shadow can only exist if there is sunlight.
So what exactly does false ego mean? When or how does it become real? Or is that even possible? A good way to study further is to take some of the common uses of the term “I am.”
1. From a specific country
I am Indian. I am American. I am Russian. These designations are quite common. They become more prominent during international competition, like at the Olympics. The United Nations has many different flags flying outside the building.
This identification is a form of ahankara, or false ego, because the exact geographic location of a person’s birth shouldn’t really matter. If I am born in a cave but moved to an urban area immediately afterwards, what difference does it make?
If I am American, does that make me inherently different from someone who is European? Do not both people eat? Does not every person sleep? From the spiritual science descending from the Vedas it is learned that the living entity constantly changes, from one body to another. This means that while I am American today, in the next birth I could be African. Will that make me completely different?
2. From a specific race
This time the “I am” is based on specific features of the gross body. The skin color is of a certain shade. The eyes have a certain shape. “I am black.” “I am white.” “I am Asian.” Indeed, the body type brings advantages and disadvantages. I may be limited by height. Perhaps my speed in running is enhanced. But again, the spirit soul can find another type of body in the next birth. This type of “I am” is insufficient. It is indicative of ahankara because of the guaranteed change to the body.
3. Of a specific occupation
The deficiencies of this “I am” are a little more obvious. Especially in industrialized nations, occupations can change quickly. There is the fabled success story of the person who started out in the mailroom of a company. Through the years they eventually worked their way up to CEO. When they earlier said, “I am a doorman,” did it last? When they later became the chief executive, why did not the “I am” remain the same?
4. Spirit soul
The Sanskrit phrase is aham brahmasmi. This means, “I am spirit soul, part and parcel of God through the Brahman energy.” When this “I am” is used and properly understood, the false ego changes to real. This “I am” is permanent. It can be stated at any point in time and remain accurate. Even if a person is unaware, they are still spirit soul, equal to all other individual souls.
“The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 5.18)
Not only is everyone the same on the inside, but when they take up work after transforming to the real ego they remain equal in the eyes of the Supreme Lord. He does not make a distinction between a sweeper in the temple and a travelling preacher taking every risk to spread His glories. God is always tied to the individual soul, remaining close by and acting as the greatest well-wishing friend. The secret to embracing Him and feeling His grace is transforming the ego, a process that begins by shedding the many faulty “I am” designations.
Of “I am” many forms exist,
But not through time to persist.
Like of one occupation today,
Then another tomorrow to say.
On American soil birth taking,
In next life another home making.
As spirit soul, to Supreme Lord tied,
His servants viewed with equal eye.