Chapter 10: Ego and ahaṁkāra: Self and identity in modern psychology and Indian thought – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Ego and ahaṁkāra: Self and identity in modern psychology and Indian thought

Kiran Kumar K. Salagame

‘Know thy self’ and ‘ko’ham’ (who am I?) probably epitomize the Western and Indian approaches to the problem of human identity from ancient times. While the dictum, ‘know thy self’, is an injunction from the ‘other’, ko’ham, is an inquiry from ‘within’. Though both of them aim at realizing the nature of one’s true identity, they may be considered as representing the second person and first person or objective and subjective perspectives, and have formed the foundations of two different types of self—psychologies offering different perspectives on human nature per se. Ego and ahaṁkāra are representative concepts from Western and Indian traditions, which refer to human identity at a psychological level. They have been used synonymously and often ahaṁkāra is translated as ego. However, there are certain conceptual similarities and dissimilarities between the two. The purpose of this chapter is to examine these two concepts and their implications for human development and well-being.

In contemporary psychological discourse, the formulations related to psychological functioning in almost all domains are ego-centred. For example, psychodynamic theory uses a language that is replete with terms such as ‘ego-strength’, ‘ego-weakness’, ‘ego-boundary’, ‘ego-loss’, ‘strengthening of ego’ and ‘ego-functions’. Similarly, Piaget, in his theory of cognitive development, identified ‘egocentrism’ as one of the characteristics of the stage of pre-operational thinking. Ego-centrism is difficulty in seeing the world from another’s outlook. ‘Ego resilience’ is another concept recently used in life span developmental context, which refers to ‘powerful personality resource that enables people to handle midlife changes’ (Kail & Cavanaugh, 2004, p. 514).

Similarly, the goals of psychotherapy are conceptualized as ‘promoting autonomy’, ‘enhancing self-esteem’, ‘increasing self-regulation’, ‘achieving self-efficacy’, ‘facilitating self-actualization’, and so on. It is observed that in general, the Western conception of the self is of an individual who is separate, autonomous and atomized (that is, made up of a set of discrete traits, abilities, values and motives), seeking separateness and independence from others (Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Prevalence of ego related constructs in modern psychology can be understood, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a matter of the range and depth of human consciousness studied. As a cultural phenomenon, these constructs gain importance because the psychological theories and methods developed in the West in general, and in the United States in particular, adopted the individual as the basic unit of analysis, affirming the individualistic bias of Western culture (Kim & Berry, 1993). Berry et al. (1992) observe that the notion that a person is a bounded individual has been central to the discipline of psychology in general, and to personality psychology in particular (Much, 1995). Since psychodynamic and other theories are rooted in Western culture, the formulations of psychopathology and therapy as well as the mental health profession per se, are guided by the Western ethos.

The Western view of the relation between ego and consciousness is spelt out clearly by Carl Jung, who does not admit consciousness without ego at its centre (Jung, 1971). The Indian tradition agrees that in the ordinary waking state the ego seems to be the centre of one’s consciousness, but it does not limit consciousness to the ordinary waking state. It considers the ego too limited a construct to encompass the entire range of consciousness and human identity, and asserts that there also exists a type of pure consciousness, beyond all the dualities, called cetanā in its awareness aspect, and caitanya in its energy aspect. It is in this pure consciousness that it locates the real/true identity of a person, his puruṣa. From this perspective, the altered states of consciousness can be considered more appropriately as altered states of mind, pure consciousness being the substratum which remains changeless (Salagame, 1988). The distinction between pure consciousness and mind is crucial in the Indian tradition and has far-reaching implications for understanding human self and identity.

It is only in the last four decades, with the emergence of transpersonal psychology, that Western researchers have paid attention to the distinction between pure consciousness and mind, and the corresponding identity sense. In Eastern cultures the conception of a transcendental ‘Self’ is more prevalent than in Western cultures. It should be noted that Abraham Maslow in his last days recognized that human beings have a ‘need for transcendence’ and spoke of ‘Being-Needs’ (or ‘B-Needs’ for short), ‘Meta-Needs’ and ‘meta-motivations’ (Maslow, 1971). He was responsible for the establishment of Transpersonal Psychology.

Transpersonal psychology emphasizes the spiritual dimension of human nature. It considers man as divine and spiritual in addition to being an animal and uniquely human. Sigmund Freud, a physician by profession, boldly postulated a theory of unconscious mental process out of necessity to account for certain disorders. In a similar way, some Western psychologists and psychiatrists took the bold step of establishing Transpersonal Psychology (Sutich, 1969; Tart, 1975) and Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychotherapy (Cortright, 1997; Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996) when they encountered ‘peak experiences’ and altered state phenomena. Within the discipline of psychology, psychoanalysis and transpersonal perspectives may be considered as marking a distinct shift from body to mind, and from mind to spirit. They have turned towards Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, in their attempt to formulate new theories and models. Thus psychology has completed a full circle, recovering the soul/spirit that was lost on its way (Salagame, 2006).

Identity and self in Indian thought

The Indian perspective views human beings as bio-psycho-social-spiritual organisms. Hence, there are many concepts related to identity and self, referring to different aspects. Among them are: ātman, puruṣa, jīva, dehī, kṣetrajña, ahaṁkāra, ahambhāva, asmitā, jñātā, bhoktā, and kartā, which are used in different contexts with specific meaning and significance. They represent transcendental, empirical (physical) and psychosocial dimensions of human nature.

On the transcendental level, identity refers to ātman in Vedānta and puruṣa in Sāṁkhya. Since the Upaniṣads declare that the transcendent Self, ātman, is identical with the highest principle of the universe, Brahman, (ayam ātmā brahma), the Upaniṣads also declare that this self is Brahman or ‘I am Brahman’ (ahaṃ brahmāsmi). The notion of a transcendent Self, ātman, requires further elaboration because it is said to be beyond the distinction of subject-object. Viewed in this context, transcendence is really not an ‘experience’ in the ordinary sense because, transcendence implies no experiencer or experienced. The transcendent state of consciousness, if it can be called a state at all, is itself called Self, ātman. Hence, the idea of self here is not the same as the idea of self-sense on the empirical level or its psychological referent, and it is cogently articulated in Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad as follows:

The Fourth (turīya), the wise say, is not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, nor cognitive both-wise; neither is it an indefinite mass of cognition, nor collective cognition, nor non-cognition. It is unseen, unrelated, inconceivable, un-inferable, unimaginable, indescribable. It is the essence of the one self-cognition common to all states of consciousness. All phenomena cease in it. It is peace. It is bliss, it is non-duality. This is the Self, and it is to be realized (MU, 7, Trans. Swami Sarvananda, 1976).

Thus turīya or the so-called fourth state of consciousness, vis-à-vis the other three—jāgrat (waking), svapna (dream) and suṣupti (deep sleep)—is the substratum of all phenomenal experience, irrespective of the state. Hence, as one follower of Vedānta put it (personal communication), turīya is the original condition and the real state; and all other phenomenal states of consciousness, including waking, are altered states from the Upaniṣadic point of view (Salagame, 1988). Thus, turīya is the ‘ground’ of awareness, on which waking, dream, deep sleep, and other experiences happen with a ‘subject-object/self-other’ duality as ‘figure’. Therefore, turīya was considered as the essence of the one self-cognition common to all the other states, and was regarded as the Self to be realized—sa ātmā sa vijñeyaḥ.

This ‘subject/self’ of phenomenal experience is termed as jīva or dehin in the Indian tradition, and they are incorporated into the linguistic structures of many regions. The person who undergoes the cycle of birth and death is jīva and it is at the empirical plane. It is also referred to as dehī in the Bhagavad Gītā (II. 22).

vāsāṁsi jīrṇāni yathā vihāya navāni gṛhṇāti naroparāṇi |

tathā śarīrāṇi vihāya jīrṇānyanyāni saṁyāti navāni dehī ||

Just as a human being casts off worn-out clothes and takes on a new one, similarly, the owner of this body (dehī) gives up worn-out bodies and takes on new ones. (Author’s translation).

The term puruṣa is also used in a pluralistic sense to refer to jīva. Thus the concept of person or individual or self or subject is represented by three terms—jīva, dehin, and puruṣa—in the Indian tradition. Padmapāda, the foremost disciple of Śaṅkara, gives a definition of jīva as follows:

And that Jiva—of the nature of ‘not this’, conditioned as ego in the waking and dream state, and conditioned in sleep by avidya which has within it traces of the impressions (that the inner sense has left behind) which is the opposition of Jnana and which obstructs the light (of Atma)—keeps going forwards and backwards and as such is termed in Sruti, Smrti in common parlance as Samasari (the worldly person), Jiva, vijnanaghana, vijnanatma, prajna, sariri, sarirah, atma, samprasadha, purusa, pratyagatma, karta, bhokta, and ksetrajna.

(Panchapadika of Padmapada, XXXIV 135, pp. 100–101. Quoted in Safaya, 1976, p. 213.)

In the preceding definition, we find that different terms have been used to represent the different aspects of the self in a conditioned existence. Their connotations are as follows:1

  • Sansārin—involved in worldly enjoyment and activity;
  • Jīva—soul;
  • Vijñānaghana—embodiment of discriminatory knowledge with a spiritual dimension;
  • Vijñānātman—prime mover of discriminatory knowledge;
  • Prajñā—self as cognizer;
  • Śārīrin—one who is embodied;
  • Śarīra—the equipment which enables the jīva to function in the phenomenal world;
  • Samprasāda—the self-sense present in dream;
  • Puruṣa—human being;
  • Pratyagātman—self as Brahman;
  • Kartā—self as agent;
  • Bhoktā—self as experiencer/enjoyer/ sufferer;
  • Kṣetrajña—knower of the field.

It is the identification with the jīva that is called avidyā (ignorance of one’s true nature) or ājñāna (lack of transcendental Self-knowledge). Therefore, the tradition emphasizes on delinking the self-sense from jīva. All phenomenal experiences are attributed to jīva or dehin, while ātman is ‘experience-less’, as the term experience is understood with reference to an empirical subject.

Ahaṁkāra is derived from the word aham. Aham simply means a feeling of ‘I’, as in the question ‘who am I?’ (ko’ham). The Sanskrit term ‘aham’ is a nominative singular of the term asmad, a pronominal base from which several cases of the first personal pronoun are derived. Asmad refers to individual soul or embodied soul (Apte, 1988). Ahaṁkāra represents the sense of doership and ownership, thus serving as a generic term representing the cognition and the feelings associated with me and mine. In the Vedānta tradition, ahaṁkāra along with buddhi, citta and manas constitute what is called the antaḥkaraṇa catuṣṭaya, the quartet of the internal organ. In its technical sense ahaṁkāra refers to that aspect of the antaḥkaraṇa which provides a subjective frame of reference to experience (Rao, 1962). Rama et al. (1976, p. 70) illustrate it thus: ‘… when a sensory-motor mind functions, a rose is seen. But when ahaṁkāra adds its influence, I see a rose.’ Thus ahaṁkāra appropriates the experience to itself, leading to an affirmation of the sense of an objective world as perceived by the subject—resulting in increasing differentiation between subject and object serving as the principle of individuation. Ahaṁkāra also refers to the feeling of individuality/uniqueness, one’s identifications and the sense of differentiation of oneself from the other, the ‘I’ from the ‘not-I’. Thus, the term ahaṁkāra refers to the subject in the subject-object duality in the realm of mind/psyche, and therefore it is more appropriate to translate it as ‘self-sense’. On the other hand, scholars often translate the term ahaṁkāra in English as ‘ego’, ‘egoism’, ‘egotism’, etc. (Salagame & Raj, 1999).

In the ontological sense, aham represents ‘being’. Hence, when the question is asked as to who this being is, in the first person as ‘who am I?’ (ko’ham), it has different referents, depending on the level at which it is understood—transcendental, empirical and psychological. For example, one may say ahaṁ ātmā (I am ātman), ahaṁ puruṣaḥ (I am puruṣa), ahaṁ jīvaḥ (I am the embodied soul), ahaṁ bhoktā (I am the experiencer) and ahaṁ kartā (I am the doer). A layperson’s understanding from his/her daily experiences is that whoever is that ‘experiencer’ or the ‘subject’ who participates in all experiences during jāgrat (waking state) is the real self. This includes our body, our mental states and our social relationships. So we incorporate most experiences of jāgrat as part of our identity or self-sense, and deny some of them into our self-structure, which constitutes the Freudian unconscious. Hence, a layperson’s identity is largely bio-psychosocial (Salagame et al., 2005).

A layperson also usually treats experiences that occur during svapna (dream state) as not part of reality (exceptions being certain tribal people—Tart, 1969), though at the time of dreaming their reality is no less than those of the jāgrat experience. Similarly, many other types of experiences that may happen to people are rejected as figments of the imagination, dreams, hallucinations, delusions, far-fetched ideas and so on. In other words, they are treated as non-real. Thus, whatever one tends to identify with, becomes part of reality; and whatever one denies, becomes unreal. Hence a vast domain of possible human experiencing is declared unreal.

In the Indian tradition, all experiential phenomena which involve a subject-object (vyakti-viṣaya) duality, like the experiencer (bhoktā) and the experienced (bhogya), the observer (dṛk) and the observed (dṛṣya), the knower (jñātā) and the known (jñeya), are considered to be in the realm of manas, or mind2 in its broadest sense. From the Indian perspective, all types of human experiences involving subject-object duality—be it normal, abnormal, pathological, paranormal, religious or mystical—are all mental phenomena (manovyāpāra), however extraordinary they may be. There is a vast domain of possible human experiences which we now call paranormal and mystical, and Indian texts provided detailed descriptions of such experiences. They also discussed dreams, illusions, hallucinations and delusions (Sinha, 1985). However, they went a step ahead of the laity and modern psychologists in their analysis of the real and unreal. They declared that even the commonly understood self of jāgrat is actually non-real and declared that the only true self is that ‘ground awareness’, or ātman. This is the unique contribution of the Veda and the Upaniṣads.

Thus, the difference between most modern psychologists and the Indian view can be summarized as follows. The former affirm a narrow range of human experience as real and self, and they deny a vast domain as unreal. The latter declare all human experiences involving a subject-object/self-other dichotomy as not more than relatively real and as only ‘figures’ against the backdrop of a ‘ground awareness’ that is the only fully true reality; and the only real Self while the rest is seen as non-real and non-self. Hence, for them jīva (soul) or dehin (owner of the body) is also non-self and it is a wrong understanding to treat non-self as Self. This is ājñāna (lack of transcendental Self-knowledge), and leads to wrong identification with the non-self—jīva or dehin instead of Self—ātman, and this is seen as the root of all human problems and suffering. The solution lies in first obtaining the right understanding of the distinction between the non-self and the Self, called viveka (discrimination), through the process of listening (śravaṇa) (in modern times includes other means of acquiring information) and reflection (manana). The next step involves making a conscious attempt to overcome the wrong identification through a process of meditation (nididhyāsana). It is only then that a person becomes jñānī (Self-realized). Therefore, in the Indian scheme of understanding the self and identity, two processes play a crucial role. One is viveka or discrimination, and the other is vairāgya, or the process of dis-identification or detachment.

The question is who identifies with the non-self, who has to make the discrimination between the non-self and the Self, and who has to make the conscious attempt to dis-identify with the non-self? Ahaṁkāra is regarded as one of the antaḥkaraṇa (‘inner instrument’, mind) as the one involved in this process. Safaya (1976, pp. 221–222) observes that different schools have used different terminologies to refer to what is called the Mind, ‘Sāmkhya named it antaḥkaraṇa, Yoga named it citta and Nyāya named it manas (buddhi etc., included in the same). Vedānta calls it antaḥkaraṇa, but enumerates distinctly the four aspects viz., buddhi, manas, citta and ahaṁkāra.’ However, it is debatable whether the term antaḥkaraṇa as used in Sāṁkhya and Vedānta is generic in its meaning, or refers exclusively to the cognitive aspect, requiring further research. On the other hand, citta of Yoga and manas of Nyāya are more generic in nature.

As Rao (1966) has clarified, according to Sāṁkhya the buddhi is only the adhyavasaya or discriminating principle in general. It does not have any ‘individual’ or ‘egoistic’ touch about it. So at this level the puruṣa does not even feel that he is the enjoyer or sufferer. It happens to be the function or contribution of ahaṁkāra to make the puruṣa strictly ‘personal’. Further, Rao (1966) notes that self-consciousness or a feeling of personal identity cannot arise if the mental organ does not present something determinate to it. Though it is generally believed that it is a Sāṁkhya concept, references to ahaṁkāra are also found in the Chāndogya and Praśna Upaniṣad. In the Praśna Upaniṣad (IV, 8, Trans. Subramanya Sharma, 1947), ahaṁkāra is listed along with buddhi, manas, and citta. Chāndogya Upaniṣad (VII, 25, 1 & 2, Trans. Sachhidananda Saraswathi Swami, 1956) speaks about ahaṁkāra as self-sense, and points out that those who fail to discriminate between ātman and body will confound the self-sense with the body.

Elucidation of the nature and function of ahaṁkāra can be found in the ślokas related to antaḥkaraṇa, aham-padārtha-nirūpaṇa, and ahaṁkāra nindā in the Viveka Cūḍāmaṇi of Śaṅkarācārya. In śloka 103, Śaṅkara defines ahaṁkāra by stating that the antaḥkaraṇa dwells in the sensory and motor organs and in the body as aham with abhimāna (ahamityabhimānena) in the reflected brightness of ātman. In śloka 104, he states that it is to be understood as ahaṁkāra, which due to abhimāna (identification) becomes kartā (doer) and bhoktā (enjoyer), and also due to its association with sattva and other guṇas, will have avasthātraya (three states—waking, dream and sleep states). It is made clear that ahaṁkāra experiences happiness and sadness in relation to favourable and unfavourable circumstances, and therefore sukha (happiness) and duḥkha (sorrow) are its dharma, and not the dharma of the ātman which is sadānanda (forever blissful).

Śaṅkara further makes a distinction between ahaṁkāra and aham-padārtha (Viveka Cūḍāmaṇi, ślokas: 292–296). He equates aham-padārtha with ātman and elucidates it as the self-sense which remains even in deep sleep, and which is the witness even for ahaṁkāra and other functions. Therefore, he exhorts giving up abhimāna (identification) with māṁsapiṇḍa (body made of flesh), as well as with that ahaṁkāra which has dehābhimāna (bodily identification), and is fashioned out of mūḍha buddhi (dull intellect). Further, Śaṅkara exhorts giving up abhimāna (identification) with kula (caste), gotra (clan), nāma (name), rūpa (form) and āśrama (stage of life), which are dependent on the ‘living corpse’ (ardhaśava aśriteṣu). He also exhorts giving up abhimāna with the doer and enjoyer of the linga śarīra (subtle body). Thus, in modern terms, Śaṅkara is exhorting one to give up one’s sense of identity with bio-psycho-social and even psychical aspects of human nature—all of which constitutes ahaṁkāra—in order to realize the ātman, attain śānti and to realize akhaṇḍa ānanda—inseparable bliss, itself.

Thus, it appears that abhimāna is the essence of ahaṁkāra. Apte (1988) has listed different meanings of the term abhimāna, one of which is ‘referring all objects to self, the act of ahaṁkāra, personality’. As mentioned earlier, Swami Rama illustrates this with a very lucid example—‘when sensory-motor mind functions, a “rose is seen”. But when ahaṁkāra adds its influence, this becomes “I see a rose”’ (Rama et al., 1976, p. 70). To see a rose, therefore, an ‘I’ is not essential. Similarly, to experience life, a sense of self is not essential.

According to the Upaniṣads and Vedānta, all problems start when this non-essential factor adds its influence in our lives. Therefore, ahaṁkāra is considered negative, and we find many ślokas denigrating ahaṁkāra (ahaṁkāra nindā) (14 as against 3 describing its nature) in the Viveka Cūḍāmaṇi. Ahaṁkāra is looked down upon with the following metaphors and descriptions (ślokas 297–310). It is vikāra, duḥkha, rāhu, powerful wild serpent, residue of poison in the body even after it is purged from a body, a thorn in the throat of a person taking food, an enemy to be slain with the sword of vijñāna, and fashioned out of mūḍha buddhi (dull intellect). Even after it is completely rooted out, if its thought is left for a while, it sprouts hundreds of vṛttis (mental modes, movements, and disturbances). Even after it is completely controlled, it should not be given scope through sense objects. If it is given any such leeway, it is like watering a withering lemon plant that will come into life.

Some Indian psychologists and philosophers have described the nature of ahaṁkāra in modern terms. Rao states: ‘The general consciousness which is undifferentiated and rudimentary in course of time gets individuated. It acquires a subjective frame of reference and the process of individuation is afoot. This state, a further development of the capacity to be conscious of objects may be designated as self-consciousness. The Sāmkhya theory has brought into currency the expression “ahaṁkāra” to denote this. This is a word which superficially signifies “I making”’ (1962, p. 41).

Srinivasan (1967, p. 199), interpreting the views of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta of Rāmānuja, states thus, ‘Ahaṁkāra is characterized by the contracted consciousness of the individual whereby he imposes on himself artificial and ego-centric “separative” limitation, conceives himself as divided from “God” and opposed to other individuals and lands himself in a state of struggle and suffering in the pursuit of selfish desires. This is the state of human bondage or inauthentic existence. Only by transcending this state of ahaṁkāra can the true status of the individual soul be realized.’

Safaya (1976) notes that according to Sāṁkhya, with the development of ahaṁkāra, the subject-object differentiation in living beings takes place. Joshi (1979) observes that through this process a false centre is created, around which one moves, and becomes a subject of constant friction and irritation. Rama et al. (1976, p. 70) observe that the I-ness inherent in ahaṁkāra ‘provides a sense of separateness from the rest of the world, a feeling of distinction and uniqueness. It is the agency, which defines what of the sensory data and memories is “I”. It is the property of subjectivity.’ Ajaya (1983, p. 128) notes that as the distinction between ‘not-I’ and ‘I’ rigidify, the human being comes increasingly under the illusion that this distinction is real rather than an artificial creation of the mind. This illusion limits the human being from experiencing the ‘holistic substratum of existence’.

Ahaṁkāra and ego: Some conceptual issues

In modern psychology, due to non-recognition of a transcendent Self, all discussions on the self terminate at the level of one’s bio-psycho-social identity. Neither ātman nor jīva is accepted as real. Therefore, notions like life after death, reincarnation and transcendence are suspect. Engler (1986) notes that a classically trained psychoanalyst will have difficulty in appreciating the possibility of transcendence because it involves going beyond the personal identity or ego, which is the basis of healthy human functioning. This idea is reinforced by some studies on meditation, which show that those who have not achieved a reasonable amount of ego-integration are likely to break down due to meditative experiences (Boorstein, 1997). Hence, Engler (1986) made the famous statement that ‘you have to be somebody before you can become nobody’.

An issue of far reaching clinical significance that is debated in this context is whether attempts at transcendence lead to psychopathology. The position postulated here is that such issues are semantic in nature and they arise due to incorrect translation of concepts from one language to another. For example, the exhortation in the Upaniṣads is only to lose ahaṁkāra in the sense of false identity in order to realize ātman the true identity, but not to lose vijñāna or buddhi, the discriminating principle, which is very much required to understand the difference between ātman and anātman (non-Self). What is emphasized in general in the spiritual traditions is to go beyond the limited identifications, but certainly not to lose those ego-functions, which keep a person sane.

Freud and other early psychoanalysts used the concept of ego to include both the identity sense and many other functions collectively referred to as secondary process thinking (Bellak et al., 1973). Bellak et al. (1973) consider the sense of identity or self-sense (ahaṁkāra in the Indian context) as one of the twelve ego-functions. It was only later that self-psychologists used the term ‘self’ to refer to the identity sense and retained the term ego-functions for many of the secondary process functioning (St. Clair, 1986). Hence, there is a need to understand and articulate the Indian and Western concepts more sharply. Thus, the contention here is that the concept of ahaṁkāra and the concept of self of self-psychologists are nearer to each other than ahaṁkāra and the psychoanalytic concept of ego-functions.

Understanding ahaṁkāra: An empirical approach

To examine some of these issues, this author initiated a series of studies in the Department of Psychology, University of Mysore. Archana Raj (1993), Shireen Gaur (1994), Rekha (1995), Pannaga K. Murthy (1999) and Parimala (2001) worked on this topic for their post-graduate dissertation. In 2001 and 2002, Kiran Kumar collected data on large samples of students from the University of Mysore and the Makrere University in Uganda. The findings of the first study are reported elsewhere (Salagame & Raj, 1999), while findings from the other studies are detailed in Salagame et al. (2005). A summary of the findings of all these studies is provided here.

From the findings and the trends emerging from the analysis of different sets of data the following inferences were drawn. Ahaṁkāra is a different construct than ego as defined by psychoanalysts and the functions of the latter appears to be conceptually more similar to the functions of the buddhi. The four main components of ahaṁkāra derived theoretically, are vindicated from factor analysis. They are Identification, Individuality, Agency and Separation. The Identification component of ahaṁkāra as measured in this study in terms of one’s associations, attachments (mamakāra) and attractions (moha) may represent the most important aspect of abhimāna and thus validates the theoretical analysis of Śaṅkara, with regard to the essence of ahaṁkāra. The concept abhimāna and Identification as measured here seem to be similar to Otto Kernberg’s concept of internalization in his synthesized model of object relations theory and Freudian instinctual theory. Kernberg’s process of internalization has three levels: introjection, identification, and ego-identity which are progressively more conscious in operation (St. Clair, 1986). Abhimāna seems to encompass all the three levels.

The factors Separation (dvaita bhāva) and Individuality (vaiśiṣṭya) of ahaṁkāra appear to be conceptually near to Margaret Mahler’s concepts of Separation and Individuation. ‘Separation and individuation have two intertwined and complementary tracks. The track of individuation involves the evolution of intrapsychic autonomy, by which the child assumes the characteristics of being his or her own individual. The track of separation involves the child’s emergence from the symbiotic fusion with mother, and therefore a differentiation and disengagement from her...’ (Mahler et al., 1975, p. 63 cf. St. Clair, 1986, pp. 106–107).

The findings show that there is a lack of uniformity in the number and composition of the factor structure which may suggest that people differ in terms of the composition of ahaṁkāra. It could also be due to variations in the number of items, their wording, response alternatives in different versions used and the different samples on which the data is collected. Nevertheless, it is possible to speculate that individuals may be differentially predominated by one or more components of ahaṁkāra. One person may have a greater ahaṁkāra in terms of uniqueness and Individuality, another in terms of Agency, a third in terms of one’s attachments and Identifications and a fourth in terms of the extent to which one feels separated from the others. In other words, to use Sanskrit equivalents, one may be seeking vaiśiṣṭya (uniqueness and individuality); another may feel a strong self-sense as kartā and bhoktā (I am the doer and enjoyer); a third may seek self-sense in terms of associations, attachments, and attractions, saṅga, mamakāra and moha; a fourth may feel a strong sense of boundary in dvaita bhāva, separation in terms of self-other, with strong in-group-out-group feelings, strong likes and dislikes, etc. However, this can only be confirmed after ruling out the other possible psychometric reasons for the obtained differences (Salagame et al., 2005).3

Speculations and conclusion

The findings have the following implications for the development of a theory of self and personality, psychopathology, psychotherapy, mental health and positive psychology from an Indian perspective. With the different components discussed above, the concept of ahaṁkāra can serve as a meta-construct that can embrace many of the modern psychological concepts related to self and identity, such as locus of control, self-efficacy, self-esteem, individuality, relational self, individualism-collectivism, ego-boundary and autonomy. The ahaṁkāra concept with its components delineated here appears to be parsimonious and it is possible to understand several contemporary theories of self and identity with reference to this meta construct.

It is possible to speculate that certain mental problems, particularly neurotic and personality disorders, can be seen as manifestations of under or over emphasis of one or the other component of ahaṁkāra. For example, a Type A person who may have problems, may be speculated to have the agency component, kartṛtva, overemphasized. Similarly, its under-emphasis may result in the sense of loss of control that is associated with many disorders. While over-emphasis on identification, mamakāra, moha, saṅga, results in all kinds of emotional problems and conflicts, under-identification may lead to psychopathic and antisocial tendencies. Similarly, the lack of dvaita bhāva, or feeling of self-other separation, except in transcendent phenomena, may lead to an undifferentiated psychotic state; and its rigidification may lead to obsessions, insulation, withdrawal, and the like. Hence, there is here scope to build an indigenous theory of psychopathology and psychotherapy from an Indian perspective. On the healthy side is the emphasis on vaiśiṣṭya, or uniqueness and individuality, which is required for self-actualization.

However, from an Indian psychological point of view, experiencing any of the above four components in greater degree is dangerous. All of them reinforce one’s bio-psycho-social identity. Kartṛtva, vaiśiṣṭya, dvaita bhāva, mamakāra, moha and saṅga—all of them have personal involvement and investment, feeling of me and mine, which is abhimāna. While it is necessary to some extent for normal functioning, it cannot be the ultimate ideal of growth from an Indian point of view. While modern psychotherapeutic methods emphasize their development, the Indian tradition stresses that for further spiritual development, involvement in all of them is to be refrained from. For example, Sri Aurobindo says in one of his aphorisms, ‘When we have passed beyond individualising, then we shall be real Persons. Ego was the helper; Ego is the bar’ (1915/1998, p. 199). Hence the need for detachment from all of them. Only then can one experience true identity. Viewed from this perspective, the modern psychological attempt is to increase abhimāna, and thus ahaṁkāra, in the name of therapy and growth. Here is the difference between growth and self-actualization of modern psychology, and the Self-realization of Indian psychology.


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