What Is Ahankara?

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The ego

Ahankara Definition

Ahankara is the Sanskrit term for the ego. Essentially it’s our conscious mind, the part of our ‘self’ that we identify with and become attached to. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar calls this the ‘cage of matter’.

Ahankara Deep Dive

Ahankara is a vritti that arises in the mind. A vritti, outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is a thought or stream of consciousness.

It’s part of the four-part system of Antahkarana, the ‘inner organ’, which is essentially the totality of the mind. It’s what dominates our human existence and is generated through our five senses.

The Veil Of Separation

When we think of ego, we usually associate it with pride, arrogance, or a sense of entitlement and self-importance. This is not what Ahankara means by ego, it is referring to our sense of individuality.

The ego is the part of us that creates the illusion that we are separate from one another, or what makes us think we are ‘just’ individuals. In other words, it divides the world into ‘me’ vs. ‘not me’ and ‘mine’ vs. ‘not mine’. Maya (illusion) is the cause of this perceived separation.

If we relate to the material world around us through ignorance, it can lead us to believe that we are separate from the divine instead of at one with it. When we think like this, we become bound to this continuous cycle of death and rebirth, instead of becoming liberated.

I am not this body or mind, but I believe that I am.

woman doing yoga on a rock by a lake

There is no such thing as ‘me’ or ‘mine’. The truth is that the only ‘me’, ‘mine’, or ‘I’ is Satcitananda. Truth, consciousness, and bliss – the absolute.

In Tantra, we call this the difference between the big self and little self, big ‘I’ and little ‘I’. The only identification the ego should have is with the big self.

You might have seen the image of Goddess Kali with a severed head in one hand, this head represents the destruction of Ahankara or the ego. When we overcome the illusion of separation, we can find unity in the Atman (the soul or supreme self).

Although Ahankara sounds negative, it isn’t all bad. It also accounts for the identification with the ego on a cosmic scale, that being the identification with oneness. Knowing that this body is a tangible manifestation of the divine.

Once we are freed of the ego that ‘separates’ us from the rest of the universe, we discover ourselves as limitless beings.

Ahankara in your life

Dissolving the Ego

As we have seen, when we falsely identify the Atman as the mind, instead of the real self, we take experiences and emotions and claim them as individual knowledge.

We must try to control this ego and false identification and still the fluctuations of the mind if we want to become enlightened.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states:

Tada drustova savrupay awasthanam

At that time (the time of concentration) the seer (the Purasa) rests in his own (unmodified) state.

As soon as the waves have stopped, and the lake has become quiet, we see the ground below the lake. So with the mind; when it is calm, we see what our own nature is; we do not mix ourselves but remain our own selves

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 1.3 – Swami Vivekananda translation

When we stop identifying with the part of our ego that causes us to believe we are separate, we come to abide in our true selves, pure consciousness. Our true nature.

woman meditating outside

So, how can we access this state?

1. Flow State

By constantly keeping one’s attention on the Source, the ego is dissolved in that

Maharshi’s Gospel

Have you ever been so completely absorbed in something that your sense of space and time completely disappears? It could be creating a piece of art, writing, listening to music, practicing yoga, or meditating.

You might have noticed that the mind chatter, or vrittis, fades away, along with the ego!

In an experience like this or a flow state, as it’s sometimes called, our ego temporarily disappears because we become completely immersed in the powerful experience of what we are doing.

I like to think of this as the little self unifying, or fusing, with the big self. We are too absorbed in the activity to be concerned about protecting our ego. We are freed from self-consciousness and self-importance.

In the absence of the ego, we merge into oneness. United with the whole.

Practicing things that help us get into a flow state reminds us that individuality is a myth and that separation is merely an illusion.

2. Deep sleep

Make sure that you’re sleeping enough hours through the night to allow your body to access deep sleep (sushupti), and avoiding habits that disturb this state.

This stage of sleep usually happens around 90 minutes after you fall asleep, but there are many things that can interrupt it, such as alcohol, caffeine, medications, or digital devices, as well as anxiety and depression.

This is because it’s thought that the ego is absent during this stage of sleeping, whilst it is present in our waking and dreaming state.

In our deep sleep state, we perfect the state of ego-less-ness. The aim of meditation is to help us bring this into our waking state too.

3. Meditation

Meditation can help us to release those fluctuations of the mind/ego that blind us from our true selves, coming closer to the realization of our real nature.

You will know if you’ve ever meditated that our thought process is largely unconscious, with often random thoughts popping into our head that we never even thought were meaningful to us!

This is how we become aware of our minds and are able to see beyond the conditioning of our egos. Becoming aware of the ego, knowing that your thoughts aren’t you, automatically weakens it. After long enough, the ego will get bored and give up!

person meditating on top of a rock at sunrise

4. You are worthy of worship

The flowers, incense, grains, oils, and honey offered in worship are all made of the same divine stuff as you. Who then is being worshiped?

The Radiance Sutras

This step is inspired by the quote above from The Radiance Sutras.

When we come to the realization that we are exactly what we are searching for, praying to, and revering as divine, we release the small self and merge with the one. We are not separate from Ahankara because this big self includes the ego too.

We are both this and that, both Shiva and Shakti, both divine and mortal, big self and small self.

To think that we are not worthy of worship is a fallacy.

Think about how our body regulates itself every single second without us having to think about it, the air we breathe filling each cell with life, our brains being the most complex thing we have yet discovered in our universe.

On top of this, our ecosystem is filled with plants and trees that give us the oxygen we need to breathe, whilst using the carbon dioxide that we breathe out as energy for growth, acting as the lungs of our planet.

This is surely divine mechanics!

I get little snippets of this bliss mostly when I’m in nature, where I truly feel at one and know that everything I am looking at is also an individual manifestation of the macrocosm, just as I am a microcosm of the cosmos.

When we treat ourselves as a divine manifestation of Source, we can come to see that happiness is not something external that we must achieve or strive towards, but something inside that we can tap into at any moment with a little stillness and appreciation.

Once we become aware of how Ahankara, the ‘I’ self, operates in our lives, we can release the false sense of detachment and rest in the big, Infinite ‘I’.

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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Liz is a Qigong and Yoga teacher based in Gloucestershire with a love for all things movement, nature & community. She strives to create a trauma-informed space in which everyone is empowered to be their authentic selves. www.elizabethburns.co.uk

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