Ahaṃkāra (अहंकार) is a Sanskrit term that is related to the ego and egoism - that is, the identification or attachment of one’s ego. The term “ahamkara” comes from an approximately 3,000 year-old Vedic philosophy, where Ahaṃ refers to the concept of the Self or “I” and kāra refers to the concept of “any created thing” or “to do”. The term originated in Vedic philosophy over 3,000 years ago, and was later incorporated into Hindu philosophy, particularly Saṃkhyā philosophy.
Ahamkara is one of the four parts of the antahkarana (inner organ) described in Hindu philosophy. The other three parts are Buddhi, Citta and Manas. In the Uttara Mimamsa or vedanta branch of Hindu philosophy, even though it is not discussed in great detail in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says to Arjun that ahamkara must be removed - in other words, it should be subordinated to the lord. The reason for this is that the Self is not (cannot be) present when one is in a state of ahamkara.
To have an understanding of this term means that we have a powerful tool for understanding the nature and behaviour of ourselves and of others. The Vedic philosophy taught that when one’s mind was in a state of ahamkara, one was in a state of subjective illusion, where the mind had bound up the concept of one’s self with a created thing. The created thing is usually a phenomenon which can be thought of as external to the self. It could be a tangible, concrete (material) thing - e.g., a motor car - or an intangible thing - e.g., such as a concept or idea (as in, for example, the concept of the fight for peace). The ego is involved in constructing the illusion.
Examples of ahaṃkāra in action:
Consider how an otherwise sensible young man might feel that his new sports car was a reflection of his true self and this would encourage him to race his car recklessly against another person’s car.
Similarly, consider how someone who believed in the fight for peace, and who ordinarily might behave in a non-violent manner, might come to blows with someone who threatened or challenged his notions of peace.
In both cases, the mind has created a state of illusion, but it seems very real to the person in that state, and objectivity and reality are obscured. This deeply illusory state is what can often cause people to do the strangest, oddest things, sometimes evil, and often quite out of character. All humans could - and usually do at some time or other in their lives - suffer from this.
Ahaṃkāra and spiritual development
Ahaṃkāra is the instrument of Ahaṃ (the Spirit), the principle of individuation, acting as an independent conscious entity within the impure reality - yet, it does not have consciousness of its own.
Ahamkara is (actually soul/ego-soul) the instrument of the spirit (made by thought-material=‘dark energy’ & emotion-material=‘dark material’) for individual development of the ego-soul, like DEHA (material-body/mold) is the instrument for individual development of the ego-soul/mind.
It is a receptacle of Cit śakti, its consciousness being a small spark from Cit, the universal consciousness.
manifests itself by assuming authorship of all the actions of buddhi, manas, the senses and organs of action.
It is believed to exist in the sphere of duality, in a state of identification with the physical body, its needs and desires.
It is related to Vak tattva , one of The 36 tattvas in Vedic and Hindu religious philosophy.
In ahaṃkāra, a state of rajas guna (agitation) predominates. This is because it identifies only with a small part of the creation (the body) and rejects everything else as “not me”; it becomes subject to a series of afflictions such as: pride, egoism, competitiveness, hate and jealousy.
Though ahaṃkāra is generally a state of illusion, once in that state, Vak tattva (one of the 36 tattvas) can appear. When it does, then, for the first time, individual will, determination, a sense of morality and ethics come into play - which is the first step on the path to spiritual development/enlightenment. Without a sufficiently harmonious and powerful ahaṃkāra (personality), it is thought to be impossible to exert the level of effort necessary to accede to a higher spiritual level. The position of ahaṃkāra and buddhi are sometimes presented in reversed order because, as the principle of “I-ness”, ahaṃkāra is allowed control over the manas (sensorial mind) and buddhi (superior intellect, intuition). Yet, buddhi is a superior tattva, and ahaṃkāra is thus only able to be in a superior position to buddhi from a functional point of view. From an absolute point of view, ahaṃkāra is created by buddhi and thus subordinate to it.
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