“The mysteries of the Conscious EGO or human Soul are great.”
– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 88
Many of today’s popular spiritual teachings have vilified the word “ego” to such an extent that a lot of people find it peculiar and puzzling to see this word used on a frequent basis in the teachings and literature of Theosophy and without any negative or judgmental connotations attached to it.
Is “ego” really a bad word? Do we really have to “get rid of our ego,” “overcome the ego,” or even “destroy the ego,” as so many loudly claim?
There are two important and primary things to understand in regard to this subject:
(1) The word “ego” literally means “I”. It is not possible to live a conscious and intelligent life on Earth without any inner sense or feeling of “I”, regardless of whether or not one claims to have “abandoned” his ego. Each one of us is an “I” and there is no escaping this fact. We do not have an ego; we are an ego.
(2) As H.P. Blavatsky explains in “The Theosophical Glossary” (p. 111), “Esoteric philosophy teaches the existence of two Egos in man, the mortal or personal, and the Higher, the Divine and the Impersonal, calling the former “personality” and the latter “Individuality.” … Egoity means “individuality”, never “personality”, and is the opposite of egoism or “selfishness”, the characteristic par excellence of the latter.”
In Theosophical terminology, the soul – the reincarnating part of our being – is very often spoken of as our Ego, usually with a capital E. It is called our “permanent individuality,” the true “I” of our being, and is that individual Mind-Entity or unseen Thinker which passes from life to life. It is the real thinker, doer, actor, and experiencer. It is the one which creates and experiences Karma.
It does this via its “present personality,” which consists of the personal mind (or everyday brain-consciousness) and the lower vehicles, instruments, or aspects with which this personal self has to work, i.e. the desire/passional nature, the life energy, the subtle astral body, and the outer shell of the physical body, with which we are all so familiar, perhaps even too familiar.
The permanent individuality, the Reincarnating Ego, is called the Higher Manas and the present personality – which is new and different in each successive incarnation and which is our own Karmic progeny, the product of our former thoughts, words, and deeds – is known as the Lower Manas. “Manas” is the Sanskrit word for “mind.” According to Theosophy, the mind is one Principle but it takes on a dual nature when incarnated.
These are the Higher Ego and the lower ego. In ancient Greek philosophy, these were called the Nous and the Psyche, the noetic and psychic elements of our being. One of HPB’s deepest and most esoteric articles is titled “Psychic and Noetic Action” and deals with this matter in a remarkably profound and revealing way.
“Believing as we do in a series of births for the same Ego, or re-incarnation, this distinction is the fundamental pivot of the whole idea. You see “Mr. Smith” really means a long series of daily experiences strung together by the thread of memory, and forming what Mr. Smith calls “himself.” But none of these “experiences” are really the “I” or the Ego, nor do they give “Mr. Smith” the feeling that he is himself, for he forgets the greater part of his daily experiences, and they produce the feeling of Egoity in him only while they last. We Theosophists, therefore, distinguish between this bundle of “experiences,” which we call the false (because so finite and evanescent) personality, and that element in man to which the feeling of “I am I” is due. It is this “I am I” which we call the true individuality; and we say that this “Ego” or individuality plays, like an actor, many parts on the stage of life. Let us call every new life on earth of the same Ego a night on the stage of a theatre. One night the actor, or “Ego,” appears as “Macbeth,” the next as “Shylock,” the third as “Romeo,” the fourth as “Hamlet” or “King Lear,” and so on, until he has run through the whole cycle of incarnations. The Ego begins his life-pilgrimage as a sprite, an “Ariel,” or a “Puck”; he plays the part of a super, is a soldier, a servant, one of the chorus; rises then to “speaking parts,” plays leading roles, interspersed with insignificant parts, till he finally retires from the stage as “Prospero,” the magician.”
– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Key to Theosophy” p. 33-34
There is an “element in man to which the feeling of “I am I” is due.” This “element” is the Manasic element, the Mind Principle, within us. It is our very soul, our permanent spiritual individuality.
In the entry for “Individuality” on p. 154-155 of her “Theosophical Glossary,” HPB defines the latter term as “One of the names given in Theosophy and Occultism to the Human Higher EGO. We make a distinction between the immortal and divine Ego, and the mortal human Ego which perishes. The latter, or “personality” (personal Ego) survives the dead body only for a time in the Kama Loka; the Individuality prevails for ever.”
The Higher Ego is characterised by Egoity or selfhood whilst the lower ego is characterised by egoism or selfishness.
The sense of self is impossible to fully and entirely erase. “The Individuality prevails for ever.” Why? How can this be? What exactly is this individuality, this Ego, this inner and higher “I”? Archaic Eastern Esotericism, presented to the world in modern times under the name of Theosophy, asserts that it is a pure and divine entity, a “celestial exile” of sorts, a god, an individualised ray of the Universal Mind, a Manasaputra or “Son of Mind.”
“In its very essence it is THOUGHT … individualised “Thought” … called in its plurality Manasa putra, “the Sons of the (Universal) mind.” … “Manas is a “principle,” and yet it is an “Entity” and individuality or Ego. He is a “God,” and yet he is doomed to an endless cycle of incarnations, for each of which he is made responsible, and for each of which he has to suffer. … the re-incarnating Principle, or that which we call the divine man, is indestructible throughout the life cycle: indestructible as a thinking Entity, and even as an ethereal form.” So says HPB in “The Key to Theosophy” p. 184, 183, 177.
This may not sit very comfortably with those quasi-nihilists amongst today’s spiritual seekers who seek to demonise not only the notion of individuality but even the very fact and act of thought and thinking. “Destroy your thoughts…go beyond mind…give up thinking…live in the realm of no-mind, not-thought and not-thinking,” they urge us, apparently unaware that we are minds and thinkers in evolution, for “mind is a term perfectly synonymous with Soul.” (HPB, “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge” p. 29)
It is true, however, that we have to destroy the thoughts, habitual tendencies, inclinations, and selfishness of our lower mind. These all relate to the personality rather than the individuality, which is the higher mind. Theosophy calls our lower ego the “individual personality” and our Higher Ego the “impersonal individuality.” This is something to contemplate and ponder upon. “The universal consciousness of the real Ego transcends a millionfold the self-consciousness of the personal or false Ego.” (“Transactions” p. 74)
This Higher Ego exists on its own plane, the higher mental plane, where it is inherently omniscient, and which far transcends this physical plane and the physical brain. Through spiritual practice along the lines of self-mastery, self-discipline, self-purification, and development of the faculty of concentration in both meditation and everyday activities, we may make the brain and the personal mind more porous and open to the ever-present influence and inspiration of our Ego, which in some places in the teachings is referred to as our “parent Ego” and our “higher alter Ego.”
“Were the Personalities (Lower Manas or the physical minds) to be inspired and illumined solely by their higher alter Egos there would be little sin in this world. But they are not; and getting entangled in the meshes of the Astral Light, they separate themselves more and more from their parent Egos.”
– H.P. Blavatsky, “Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge” p. 66
Thankfully there are brief but all too infrequent moments in which the Higher Egoic light is able to shine through nevertheless, as evidenced in those usually rare instances of accurate intuition, premonition, and the voice of conscience.
The Antahkarana or Antaskarana is a term which “the Occultists explain … as the path or bridge between the Higher and the Lower Manas, the divine Ego, and the personal Soul of man. It serves as a medium of communication between the two, and conveys from the Lower to the Higher Ego all those personal impressions and thoughts of men which can, by their nature, be assimilated and stored by the undying Entity, and be thus made immortal with it, these being the only elements of the evanescent Personality that survive death and time.” (“The Theosophical Glossary” p. 23)
Many students of Theosophy view and understand the phenomenon of the “Being of Light” who features so prominently in so many Near Death Experiences as relating directly to the presence of our Higher Ego. The following is an excerpt from the 1989 publication “A nineteenth century explanatory scheme for the interpretation of near-death experience: the transpersonal model of death as presented in Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy” by Dr Jean-Louis Siémons, a longtime associate of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Paris, France:
“Entering the Light”, or “encountering the being of light” – an imaged interpretation by the personal self of its re-union with its deep-rooted source of self-consciousness.
“No wonder that NDE’ers should feel unable to describe their experience in usual terms of daily life language. Like to the prisoners in the famous cave imagined by Plato in his Republic (Book VII), they had been accustomed from birth to the casual spectacle of the world’s moving shadows (maya for the Hindus), fettered in their dualistic views (myself, and the others, etc.), and their linear perception of time, flowing between past and future. Then, all of a sudden, the prisoners were set free and drawn out of the cave, to a place enlightened by the sunshine, beyond all familiar limitations. In their ignorance that, at this point, they had returned to their Parent-Self, their psychic machinery interpreted the latter as different from themselves – a welcoming light, or a “being of light” – a personal being. In Moody’s words,
“It has a very definite personality. The love and the warmth which emanate from this being to the dying person are utterly beyond words, and he feels completely surrounded by it and taken up in it, completely at ease and accepted in the presence of this being. He senses an irresistible magnetic attraction to this light. He is ineluctably drawn to it. [R. Moody, Life after Life, p. 59.]
“Quite often, in their efforts of description, experiencers use different labels to identify this “presence” – God, Christ, Angel, Guide, or what not. Obviously, in their complete ignorance of deep (spiritual) psychology, they could hardly find better terms to translate, in an intelligible mode, this unexpected encounter with their own individual Ego-Self, which seems to “know all about them”, to bear them “a total love and acceptance” and to have with them a kind of intimate, “personal” exchange. For very good reasons indeed – in the light of Theosophy – if we remember that this Ego is not a stranger to its terrestrial personality, but remains closely “interested” in its destiny: from birth to death, the transpersonal individuality broods over (or “meditates”) its earthly representative (or emanation), registering the latter’s behaviour and inspiring it with its own knowledge and energy, through the unspoken language of intuition, dreams, etc.”
“All is impermanent in man except the pure bright essence of Alaya. Man is its crystal ray; a beam of light immaculate within, a form of clay material upon the lower surface. That beam is thy life-guide and thy true Self, the Watcher and the silent Thinker, the victim of thy lower Self.”
– “The Voice of the Silence” p. 63, translated by H.P. Blavatsky from The Book of the Golden Precepts
We each have our own Higher Ego, for it is said that there are as many “gods” in “Heaven” as there are human beings on Earth, as well as those who are undergoing their Devachanic interlude between embodiments.
Each man, woman, or child, is the physical incarnation of his or her own Ego; the present yet fleeting personality or temporary persona of the permanent individuality, the real inner “I”. Whilst the lower “I” is very often selfish in nature and driven by desire, the higher “I” is of the very nature and essence of impersonality, universality, altruism, wisdom, love, and compassion. One who may succeed in subjugating and conquering his outer personality to such an extent that the inner individuality may shine forth continually in all its light and glory through the vessel of the external being is one who may truly be looked upon as a divine incarnation. This is the task, mission, and destiny of all of us.
HPB was once asked, “But the two, the higher and the lower, Manas are one, are they not?” She answered:
“They are, and yet they are not – and that is the great mystery. The Higher Manas or EGO is essentially divine, and therefore pure; no stain can pollute it, as no punishment can reach it, per se, the more so since it is innocent of, and takes no part in, the deliberate transactions of its Lower Ego. Yet by the very fact that, though dual and during life the Higher is distinct from the Lower, “the Father and Son” are one, and because that in reuniting with the parent Ego, the Lower Soul fastens upon and impresses upon it all its bad as well as good actions – both have to suffer, the Higher Ego, though innocent and without blemish, has to bear the punishment of the misdeeds committed by the lower Self together with it in their future incarnation. The whole doctrine of atonement is built upon this old esoteric tenet; for the Higher Ego is the antitype of that which is on this earth the type, namely the personality. It is, for those who understand it, the old Vedic story of Visvakarman over again, practically demonstrated. Visvakarman, the all-seeing Father-God, who is beyond the comprehension of mortals, ends, as son of Bhuvana, the holy Spirit, by sacrificing himself to himself, to save the worlds. The mystic name of the “Higher Ego” is, in the Indian philosophy, Kshetrajna, or “embodied Spirit,” that which knows or informs kshetra, “the body.” Etymologize the name, and you will find in it the term aja, “first-born,” and also the “lamb.” All this is very suggestive, and volumes might be written upon the pregenetic and postgenetic development of type and antitype – of Christ-Kshetrajna, the “God-Man,” the First-born, symbolized as the “lamb.” The Secret Doctrine shows that the Manasa-Putras or incarnating EGOS have taken upon themselves, voluntarily and knowingly, the burden of all the future sins of their future personalities. Thence it is easy to see that it is neither Mr. A. nor Mr. B., nor any of the personalities that periodically clothe the Self-Sacrificing EGO, which are the real Sufferers, but verily the innocent Christos within us. Hence the mystic Hindus say that the Eternal Self, or the Ego (the one in three and three in one), is the “Charioteer” or driver; the personalities are the temporary and evanescent passengers; while the horses are the animal passions of man. It is, then, true to say that when we remain deaf to the Voice of our Conscience, we crucify the Christos within us.” (“Transactions of the Blavatsky Lodge” p. 67-69)
It is indeed a “great mystery,” as the Teacher of Theosophy readily stated. It is made even more intriguing when we consider that these Egos – i.e. ourselves – began their (or our) cyclic pilgrimage of incarnations on this planet towards the latter part of the Third Root Race, known as the Lemurian Epoch, possibly 18-million years ago.
Their incarnation en masse into senseless “animal man” was what constituted the birth of true humanity. Our word “Man” is derived from the Sanskrit “Manas” which means, as we now know, “Mind.” This is described and explained in HPB’s monumental master work “The Secret Doctrine,” particularly in the second volume titled “Anthropogenesis,” which deals with the origins, birth, and evolution of the human race.
Our Ego is our individual self-consciousness; our self-conscious individuality.
It would thus be advisable for Theosophists to maintain the integrity of this word, as did HPB and her colleague and fellow Teacher William Q. Judge, and as did their own Teachers, the Mahatmas or Masters of the Wisdom.
The word “Ego” unqualified and by itself, whether written with a large or small “e,” is only ever used in a good and positive sense in the Theosophical literature. Never once in all the thousands of pages of her writings does HPB speak of “the ego” or “the Ego” in the same way as popular modern spirituality. If we want to accurately represent and explain her teachings to others, we ought to follow her and the Masters’ example, rather than that of the crowd. When she speaks of the lower ego, she always without exception calls it either the lower, personal, or false ego. More often than not, she simply calls it “the personality” and reserves the term “Ego” for the permanent reincarnating individuality. As sincere students of Theosophy, we should do the same.
Then any misunderstanding will not be on our part but will lie with those who have unphilosophically abused and unthinkingly slandered a noble word and lofty metaphysical concept.
In closing this article, it remains necessary to mention one further thing. This is that in Theosophy the terms “Higher Ego” and “Higher Self” are not synonymous. We have not been speaking at all of the Higher Self throughout this article but rather of the Higher Ego. “But Ego and Self are synonyms in the English language!” one might protest. True but they are not always exact synonyms in the Theosophical teachings.
Our Higher SELF is not Manas, nor Buddhi, but Atma, which is sometimes written as Atman. “Atman” in Sanskrit literally means “Self” but it is not an Ego-Self. It is Self in the sense of being the One Universal Self of all, pure eternal Spirit, the impersonal and infinite divine Essence, the supreme all-pervading omnipresent Energy, and not any type of Ego, individuality, or anything individual or personal. Atman is not an Entity but is the “absolute Non-Entity,” the infinite Divine Principle, DEITY ITSELF, the ULTIMATE.
We each have our own Higher Ego but the Higher Self is ONE and the same for each and all. There are many souls but there is only one spirit. Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that just as one and the same sun shines over every body on this Earth, so one and the same Spirit shines over and illumines every soul. Spirit, Atman, the Higher Self, is not individualised consciousness but Pure Consciousness ITSELF.
We are told over and over again in the Ageless Wisdom Teachings not to work, act, and live, for our own self, whether personal or individual, but for and as “the Self of all creatures.”
For further elucidation, the reader is referred to the articles Definite Words for Definite Things, Atman – The Higher Self, Manas – The Mystery of Mind, The Difference between Soul and Spirit, 12 Things Theosophy Teaches, The Sevenfold Nature of Man, The “God” Question, The Impersonal Divine, Death and the Afterlife, The Personal Self in the Light of Theosophy, Self and Non-Self in Buddhism and Theosophy, Human Evolution in The Secret Doctrine, Original Theosophy and Later Versions, Theosophy – An Explanation and Overview, and most importantly to the original source teachings of Theosophy, the writings of H.P. Blavatsky and William Quan Judge.