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The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 86: The Hurdle of the Ego in Yoga Practice

There is something which intervenes between the object of meditation and that which tries to unite itself with this object. It is this peculiar intermediary screen that is not easily recognised, though it is there as almost a kind of impenetrable wall through which the meditating consciousness is unable to penetrate into the object. It is not easy to discover as to what this thing is which stands between the consciousness that meditates and the object. The whole of yoga is nothing but the process of discovering this obstructing medium and eliminating it completely by some means or the other. The schools of thought and the systems of philosophy have been scratching their heads in trying to discover the relationship between mind and matter, consciousness and object, and so on. All these endeavours have borne various kinds of fruit, each one different from the other, without any kind of uniformity in their opinions.

That which stands between the meditating consciousness and the object is something inscrutable. It is because of this inscrutability that it cannot easily be overcome. On scrutiny, that principle will be realised to be a projection from the meditating consciousness itself. It is you yourself standing there as an obstacle to yourself. Ultimately you will realise that there is nobody else. You are yourself obstructing yourself, in some peculiar manner, by a double activity which you try to engage yourself in. On the one side, there is the practice of yoga, the effort of consciousness to pierce through the veil and to unite itself with the object. But on the other hand, there is a prejudice, a peculiar habit and a notion in the mind which prevents this unity that is endeavoured through the practice of yoga. The personality-consciousness, what is known as asmita in yoga parlance – called the ego-principle, usually – is what obstructs this unity. There is an intense affirmation of oneself which is so hard that it cannot be either understood or overcome. And, on the basis of this self-affirmation, there is all this practice – yoga and what not.

It is the most painful thing to conceive the abolition of the ego or the obliteration of one's personality. Even when we conceive of immortality, we always think of immortality of the ego, or the perpetuation of individuality. We would like to be the same Mr. or Mrs. even in the immortal condition, so that endlessly, for durationless eternity, we will maintain this particular personality. This is the idea of immortality we have, and this does not leave us merely because we are philosophically minded. This is more substantial than our philosophy; and that prejudice will persist even till the end of the day, even till the doom of the person. This sits on our head even at the time of meditation. There is a subtle affirmation of oneself which refuses to get identified with anything else in this world.

How can we identify ourselves with anything else when we have got such a self-conceited individuality which affirms itself as isolated from everything else? We have got a prestige and a status and a meaning of our own, due to which we always keep ourselves aloof from everybody else. We have a thought of our own; we have a feeling of our own; we have an opinion about things which is unique by itself – all which are the expressions of this self-affirming principle. It is this peculiar thing, which refuses to be observed by even the most investigative of minds, that prevents any kind of success in this world. All success, whatever be the nature of this success – temporal or spiritual, secular or religious – is nothing but the unity of the endeavour with the objective on hand. If the objective is not achieved, how can we call it a success?

An achievement is nothing but the unity that we acquire with the aim that we have in our mind. If this unity cannot be achieved, there is no achievement at all. There is no such thing as success where the object of success stands outside us, refusing to come near us. Even the so-called unity of objectives that we achieve in this world and the successes that we speak of in the various walks of life, are really not successes. They are only apparent achievements of the objective, not real achievements, because they have an end. The object has not really come to our possession; it stood outside us always, merely because we did not allow it to come in. We have invited our guest, but when he comes, we close the door. This is what we are doing in meditation.

Meditation is the invitation of a guest: “Come, I want you. I want to embrace you.” But when the guest enters, we close the door, and there is no success. This door is the ego. It will close itself and prevent the entry of the object into itself – the subject, or prevent the entry of consciousness into the object. So, with all the hectic efforts of the meditating consciousness, the unity cannot be achieved as long as this personality asserts itself. The greatest obstacle before us is what yoga calls asmita. There is the form of the object, called the rupa in Sanskrit, and there is the essentiality of the subject, called the svarupa. The svarupa is the quintessential form, the basic essence of the ‘self', and the rupa is the form of the object. The rupa always manages to keep itself away from the svarupa of the meditating consciousness. We always perceive the object; we never unite ourselves with the object. Such a thing has not been done because the senses, working together with the mind, act as a screen. They sift all processes of perception and take only the impressions of perception, sensation, etc., but will not allow the unity of the substantiality of the subject with the object because if that could be achieved, there would be no function for the senses.

The senses have no work to perform if the unity between what is perceived and the perceiver is achieved. But the senses do not want to go without a job. They would be jobless if this could be done, so they vehemently prevent any such thing. If we perform our work very efficiently, and if all the work is completed, there will be no work for us to do; we will be jobless. So we do the work very slowly and very inefficiently, so that the work will be there forever, and we will be employed. That is a very good way of having work – never doing it completely. This is what the senses are doing. They will never allow this achievement called yoga because the moment it is achieved, they have no work. They will cease to exist. They will be put out immediately.

Thus, there is always a struggle and an effort on the part of the senses to maintain a distance between consciousness and the object. Whatever be the proximity of the object with the subject in meditation, a little distance is maintained. It is not a complete union. And, that little distance is equal to any distance. In an electrical operation, if there is even the least distance between the contacting wire and the plug, though it may be only half a millimetre of distance, there will be no contact, really speaking. It is not physical distance that counts here, but distance as such. Whether I do not like you a little, or do not like you very much, anyhow I do not like you – that is all. It matters little whether it is much or little. The quality is what is important here, not merely the quantity. The quality of the distance maintains the isolation of the object from the subject.

But yoga aims at the abolition of this difference between the rupa of the object and the svarupa of the meditator. The object has to assume the svarupa of the consciousness. There should be no such distinction between svarupa and rupa. The form of the object and the nature of consciousness should stand together on par. This is called samadhi – the balancing of consciousness on par with the nature of the object, so that they stand on equal footing, on a single level. There is no inferiority or superiority between the two. The moment we regard something as an object, we regard it as inferior. It becomes a tool, a kind of instrument for the purpose of the subject. But here, in this balancing of consciousness with the nature of the object, they stand on the same level of reality and value. In this sameness of value and reality they converge, or merge together, so that there is no distance between the object that is meditated upon and the consciousness that meditates.

The distance is really a psychological distance, and that is of greater consequence than physical distance. Physical distance does not count much, but mental distance is very important. Distance that is mentally maintained here has always kept the object outside. To come to the point, there is a subtle feeling that we exist as an independent entity, maintaining our own status as different from the nature and the status of the object. This idea will not leave us at all. How on earth can we ever imagine that we are the same as the object? No man with sense will ever think like that because the moment this idea of the sameness of oneself with the object arises, the attraction for the object ceases. This is a very peculiar thing.

All desire gets burnt up immediately the moment we assume the form of the object. No desire can function unless the object is outside us. If we have ourselves become the object, where is the question of desire? It is very strange – a psychological truth. We like something and we are bent upon brooding over that thing because of our liking for that thing. Day and night we contemplate that thing, but we do not want to become that thing because the moment we become that thing, our liking for it goes. So we are afraid that our love for it will vanish. How peculiar it is! What a peculiar trick of the mind it is that we do not want the intimate proximity of the object with ourselves, though we say that we like it so intensely. With all the force and vehemence of thought, the mind tries to push the object out of itself, even in meditation, so that it may maintain a distance. What prevents us from union with the object is nothing but this peculiar trick of the mind. There is nobody else obstructing us; it is our own mind that is preventing union. That very mind which is meditating on the object for the sake of communion is, at the same time, simultaneously, carrying on what they call a fifth-column activity without our knowing what is happening, and it will not allow us to achieve this purpose. Our own colleague and lieutenant is working against us. This is what is happening in meditation. Our dearest and nearest friend, our secretary himself is against us; that we do not know. Therefore, the instrument which we are using for the purpose of the achievement of the success is itself standing against us in a peculiar manner, with a subterfuge, with an undercurrent of activity which is not visible at the surface.

This peculiar principle of ‘I-ness' is a subterfuge. It cannot be visualised, because all visualisation proceeds from this affirmation of the ego. So it always remains as a background of the visualisation of even this effort of investigation into the nature of this ego. Who will investigate the ego? The ego itself has to do it. How is it possible for a policeman to catch himself? That is not possible. We always come a cropper and get defeated in this effort. Hence, nobody can attain samadhi – this is what it comes to. We cannot reach that state. Even dhyana is difficult, and what about samadhi? It is far off. We have to simply die first, before we attain samadhi. Who would like to die? We do not want to die, because life is the dearest of things. And what do we mean by ‘life'? The maintenance of this ego – that is called life. The abolition of the ego is the real death for us.

We can imagine what it is to counterattack the wishes of the ego. Let anyone attack our ego – we will see what happens. Is it a pleasure, a joy? Will we feel very happy that the ego is attacked? There can be nothing worse than that. The attack of the ego is the worst of pains that one can endure. This is what we are trying to do in yoga. How is it possible? It cannot work because the ego is the citadel of our greatness in this world; that is the fortress that we have built around ourselves for the values that we recognise in this world. That is what we ourselves are – and we want to abolish our own selves. Who can do that, and what can be worse than this very concept itself? But this is to be done. There is no other alternative. That which is almost impossible now has to be made possible.

That which is unthinkable has to become practicable. That which will appear as most horrible to do, that is the thing that we are expected to do now. The sword of knowledge has to sever the head of even the dearest of things. What is the dearest of things? Our own self. Who else is dearest? All the things of the world are dear to us because of our own dearness. We are very beautiful, we are very pleasurable, we are most wonderful, most valuable and most significant, and everything has to be subservient to us. That has to go. Oh, what a horror! But this is the thing. We have to behead ourselves psychologically. That is the real suicide, if we want to call it so in a psychological sense. Die to live. This is the great dictum of the master. If we have to live in the eternal, we have to die in the temporal. We cannot keep both at the same time. God and mammon do not sit together in the same seat; and the greatest mammon is the ego. So, in the hard effort of meditation for achieving success in the form of communion with the object, this tremendous impediment comes, and that is the hurdle which is difficult to conceive in the mind.

In all the Puranas and the Epics we are told that the ego comes in the end, as the final one to be slain is the devil who is the most powerful. He may be a Ravana, or a Hiranyakasipu, or a Sumbha; whatever he is, he comes in the end. He will not be there in the beginning. We cannot face him like that, at one stroke, because he always sends a retinue. We have been facing the army, the regiment or the retinue of this great power called the ego, and we have been to some extent successful. That is dharana, that is dhyana – concentration, meditation. But when we meet this gentleman face to face, it is terrific. It was a terrific thing even for Rama to face Ravana; it was not an easy thing. It was with great hardship that Ravana could be slain, and he was the last man to be faced. However much we may try to slay this force, it will resume its activity. Ravana could not be attacked. There was another peculiar Ravana called Mahiravana. The more one attacked him, the more powerful he would be because when his head was severed, another head would come up. Oh, what is this peculiarity? He is cut and slain, reduced to pieces, and he reassembles his limbs and resurrects himself once again. How is it possible? In the Devi Mahatmya there is a peculiar personality called Raktabija, whose very drop of blood, if it falls on the ground, will generate thousands of similar demons. One cannot kill him because the moment one attacks him blood falls, and the blood that falls generates many like him instantaneously. So there is no question of attacking him. The moment we attack this ego, it has its own ramifications. It will undergo various shapes and forms like Mahishasura – now it is an elephant, now it is a buffalo, then it is a third thing, and then a fourth thing. If we attack it in the form of a buffalo, it is an elephant. If we attack the elephant, it is a lion. If we attack the lion, it is a fish. If we attack the fish, it is a jackal. How will we attack it?

The ego is a chameleon which takes any colour, any shape, according to the atmosphere in which it lives. It knows its tricks very well, much more than all the understanding can work. It is a chameleon in the sense that it can assume the colour of the atmosphere in which it lives, so that we cannot detect it or discover it. It is one with the atmosphere, so how will we discover it? It has taken the same shape, colour and value of the conditions under which it is living, so it cannot be attacked. Even when we try to resume the practice of meditation for the sake of communion, samadhi, this ego will subtly work from inside and maintain its distance from the object. Hence, persistent effort is necessary to be cautious of this subtle activity going on inside, which obstructs our attempt at communion. We have to psychologically analyse ourselves. What is the reason behind this distance that we maintain between ourselves and others? What is the harm if this distance is removed? We will find it will make a world of difference. If I do not maintain a distance between myself and you, what difference will it make to me in my life? Well, it will make all the difference. It will simply make my life impossible; that is what will happen. If there is no distance between me and others, there will be no life at all. What we call life will cease to be, if the distance does not exist. The panoramic drama or the colourful activity and enactment that we call this life – the pageantry of this phenomenal experience – will cease in an instant, the moment we commune ourselves with things.

There is a fear that joy will vanish and sorrow will come. The ego tells us, “Why are you attempting this?” Buddha was told: “My dear friend, what are you trying for? You are digging your own grave. You are a great man. You are a great hero,” – and likewise his ego was pampered by Mara. The thing that Buddha was trying for was the abolition of the ego, the nirvana of experience where he would cease to be and would become the All. And Mara came and said, “Why are you trying for this? This is something very undesirable. You have achieved great success. You are the lord of all the worlds. You have the greatest power conceivable. Get up and go!” This is what Mara was saying in the ear of Buddha: “You are a very great man.”

The idea that you are a very great man and a highly powerful meditator will come. “That is sufficient. I have meditated for years. Who can be equal to me?” This idea that you are a yogi is what prevents you from achieving success. The idea that you are a good person, a virtuous person, and better than others, will not allow you to achieve success. The idea that you are a child of God or you are a divine being and a spark of eternity – that itself is the ego. You always speak of being a spark of God, and all that. Do not speak like that – that is the ego again. Another form of ego is making you think that you are a spark of God: “How great I am!” Whatever thought that arises in the mind is the ego, whatever the thought. It may be a good thought or it may be a bad thought. It may be even a divine thought, from your point of view. That will subtly work a peculiar lever inside you, and then you will be propped up into a level which is exactly the thing which you wanted to avoid.

The lives of saints are our teachers. Theoretical discussions will not do here. We may think that we have understood the subject very clearly, but practice is quite different from understanding theoretically. When we actually face the devil, we cannot really face it. We will find that we have to turn back because we have not seen it. Now we are going to face something which we have never seen in our life. If we have seen it once and we are used to it, that is a different matter. We are going to face something which we have never thought of, which we have never heard about, and which we cannot think about. Therefore, the caution should be very great. The lives of saints who have lived this life of yoga through these hurdles we are speaking of in the systems of yoga, they are the great teachers. What happened to others can happen to us also, and perhaps it will happen to everyone. No one can be exempted from this law of the universe. It is better to learn a lesson before it is taught to us with the rod of punishment. Honourable teaching, honourable learning is much better than harassment in jails and reformatories. The learning, the viveka, the company of saints, the satsanga that we do, and the investigation, self-analysis, etc. are only a way of avoiding the unnecessary pain that may come upon us by the lifted rod of nature if we will not follow her rules honourably.

Thus, we have now come to a very strange conclusion: of all the obstacles that yoga has spoken of, the ego is the most prominent, and it is the principal obstacle. Finally, there is no obstacle at all except the ego. All those other things – impediments, kleshas and what not – that the sutras have described up to this time are only rays emanating from this central phenomenal sun, which makes the whole world shine beautifully. That is the ego. There is no other impediment; this is the only impediment. Finally, this is what we have to face. If something is stolen from our house, we run here and there, and run to the police and tell people, “Some thieves have come at night and stolen. . . .” We will find that our own treasurer has stolen the whole thing! We did not know that. The treasurer to whom we have entrusted everything – he is the thief. We are running about in search of the thief somewhere else, but he is sitting near us. He is speaking to us, and he himself went to the police to make a complaint. The man who has stolen – he himself went to the police.

The ego is trying to practise yoga. Oh, what a pity! The ego cannot practise yoga, because the ego is to be destroyed in yoga. So how can it practise yoga? Here we have a strange difficulty, and it has to be overcome with a strange technique; that is yoga itself. Yogena yogo jñātavya yogo yogātpravartate (Y.B. III.6), says the Yoga Bhashya. Yoga is achieved by yoga itself; there is no other means. This is what yoga tells us.