When we use the word “ego” in the West, we automatically think of the quality of a boorish person who muscles his/her way around without much regard to others. We also attribute the ego as having a size like “he has a HUGE ego.” Some even value this quality in people and want to have a large and “healthy” ego. This is only one definition of the word.
While studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it becomes evident that the ancient writer’s definition of the ego is very different than the one we use in the West. To clear up the definitions of this word, I will give both the definitions used in psychology and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis, used the term das ich which is translated to “ego” to describe the mind’s attempt to balance the superego and the id.
According to Freud, the “superego” is our moral blueprint that says “thou shall and thou shan’t.” When you say to yourself, “I would like that diamond, but it would be illegal to steal it,” that is an example of your superego guiding your behavior.
The “id” is the impulse that wants you to have the diamond no matter what the consequences. From this definition, it would be incorrect to label the obnoxious person as having a big ego, but rather an “unchecked id.”
The “ego” is the mind’s ability to meet the demands of the id, while adhering to the superego’s integrity. A healthy egoic resolution to the diamond scenario would be to purchase it on a payment plan, or justify not buying it because it is outside one’s budget.
Patanjali’s definition of “ego” is very different than that of Freud. In Sanskrit, ego is translated from the word ahamkara which roughly translates to “the I maker.” This “ego” definition refers to one’s sense of self. For example “I am Hispanic, I am male, I have a Ph.D in Astrophysics.” It is how we identify ourselves to make sense to others. It is part of the three aspects of the citta (mind-stuffs) which are manas (mind) and buddhi (intelligence) in addition to ahamkara.
The wrinkle in the plot is that this ahamkara or “I maker” confuses us into strongly identifying ourselves into something we are not. It is listed as a vrtti in Pantajali’s text which means it is something that modifies our mind into thinking it is something that is not part of our true essence. Our “ego” in the Eastern terminology likes to attach itself to things. We want to have good fame and good fortune and have people recognize us for those things. A good way to see your ahamkara is to feel slighted at something and then see what it is that makes you feel so important. “You can’t do that to me, I am the president of the PTA!”
Through the correct practice of yoga, we learn to psychologically shave off those parts of us that our “I maker” attaches to until we are shaved down to nothing. It is a sobering thought to be nothing, but according to Patanjali, it is the point where true liberation begins. That is why yoga is an extremely non-Western practice. Most everything about the West in modern times is about ego attainment and attachment. Just watch 10 minutes of commercial television to see this clearly.
This is just one word of many that does not translate well into English from Sanskrit. The other aspect of Sanskrit is the language’s vibrational qualities that do not have any translation, but add to the “feel” of the language on a superficial level, and add greater effects for the seasoned practitioner on deeper levels.