The term ego refers to the awareness of an individual’s own existence and perception of an independent identity. It is that sense of i-ness or my-ness by which one distinguishes oneself from other beings, and also from the objects of his attention. It, in fact, is that identity with which one equates his very existence.
The ego conveys the idea or opinion that a person has of himself, especially in comparison to other beings and the world at large. It is that aspect of one’s being that not only has a view of himself but also an opinion about others. One interacts with the outside world, with such a perspective of a distinct identity.
The dictionary meaning of ego is a person’s sense of his own worth and importance. Egotism, on the other hand, is the quality of being excessively conceited or self-centered. In spiritual terms, ego (aham), is that aspect of the material nature that enables one to experience temporal reality. Egotism (ahamkara), on the other hand, means treating the mind-body complex, not as the means of experiencing the phenomenal world; but as one’s essential nature, the true self. Whereas ego is a natural concept, egotism has been declared to be an obstacle on the path of self-realization.
Bhagavad Gita has thrown light on both of these aspects of one’s personality - ego and egotism. It has been stated in shlokas from 7.4 to 7.6 that all living beings are manifested by the union of two natures of the Divine - the lower nature (prakriti - the physical reality including the mind-matter) and the higher nature (consciousness - the souls). Ego is stated to be an aspect of the lower nature. These very natures have also been described in shloka 13.2 as kshetra or field (the physical reality) and kshetragya (the knower of the field - pure consciousness). The concept of kshetra has further been elaborated to include the ego in the physical nature (shloka 13.6).
Ego, thus, is an essential part of the material nature of all living beings. As against the inevitability of the ego, egotism has been declared to be a hinderance on the path of spiritualism. Absence of egotism has been declared to be one of the means of gaining spiritual wisdom (shlokas 13.9 and 13.12).
To put it in simple words, each person has two sides - the conscious nature (the soul) and the material nature (the senses, mind and intelligence). Whereas conscious nature is eternal and imperishable, material nature is always in flux. When the jivatman (individual soul, the self) identifies himself, not with the all-pervading and indivisible consciousness but with a particular mind-body complex, he is enveloped by ignorance. He formulates a limited view of himself, as a separate entity. That is how the idea of ego arises.
Bhagavad Gita has not only explained the concept of ego, it has also provided insights into the means of transcending it. It has declared that all actions are performed by gunas (the three modes of material nature). The one who is deluded by egotism, considers himself to be the doer. But, he who understands the nature of both, the gunas and the karmas, understands that action is caused by inter-play of gunas with each other. Therefore, he does not get attached (shlokas 3.27 and 3.28). In other words, due to identification with the body, one (the embodied soul) considers oneself to be the doer of all actions. But through the cultivation of spiritual wisdom, by following different paths of yoga, one’s inner vision opens to the shining knowledge of the self.
When one realises his true nature, he transcends the ego and attains unity with the eternal consciousness. He remains aware of the fact that as an individual, he is distinct but not separate, from the creation. The more one’s self-image is closer to reality, the more one is comfortable with himself and also with the world at large. The more one is separated from the truth, the more one suffers in day-to-day life. In other words, the exaggerated ego (egotism) causes more and more misery.
The one who has gained spiritual wisdom realises that consciousness represents an inclusive view of universal unity. He also understands that ego creates a sense of separateness. The unity is the ultimate truth and multiplicity is an expression of that truth.
To conclude, the teachings of Gita are relevant not only for those who seek spiritual perfection but are equally important for an ordinary person in his day-to-day life. When one looks beyond the limited contours of ego, his perspective of life is widened and he gets glimpses of the ultimate truth.