A Little Ego May Be a Good Thing
By Dr. I.J. Singh
: It is not possible to engage Sikhi without crashing into concepts of Haumae universally rendered into English as Ego. Even though popular Sikh teaching admonishes us to extirpate ego, root and branch, from our lives and awareness or else we cannot find or experience the Creator, a quick journey through Psychology and Gurbani speaks very clearly of its vital function in our life. If ego is pervasive in life then there are reasons for it as an essential function. We Sikhs have possibly mishandled the translation of haumae as ego while in fact it is closer to narcissism. It is this narcissism, from Greek mythology “ego run amok” that needs to be clearly and cleanly expelled from life. This distinction is critical.
Video of Presentation
Dr. I.J. Singh was unable to join in person for health reasons; so he participated remotely. Unfortunately, only the audio connection was available.
Body of Paper
Sikhi dwells heavily on the five fundamental evils that haunt and command us. They define our life, its purpose and demeanor. In short, the kind of person we become.
Further we are usually inundated with a most powerful message that haumae, translated loosely but universally as ego in Sikh parlance, is the supreme evil that drives and empowers the other four – lust, envy, greed and anger.
Ego then is the root of all evil. Deal effectively with ego, extirpate it from life, and all will become copacetic. That’s the way Sikhi often seems to present this matter.
Today let’s parse the idea of haumae or ego, as we see it. Let’s dub the exercise meditations or reflections on ego. In musical terms, it’s like a riff or an ostinato; remember that both are thematic and serve by changing chords or harmonies in short and repeating spells of background music and solo improvisations.
This remakes ego almost into a remarkable and magical spell. It is that but what exactly do we mean by the term “ego?” I am not a behavioral scientist but today, with my eyes wide open, I am going to step into this minefield.
Id, Ego & Super Ego
Richard Dawkins, in a book aptly titled The Selfish Gene, posits a gene that is largely, but not entirely, concerned with its own replication and survival. In fact, it seems to define the many behavioral strategies that have emerged in human societies, and continue to arise, from the “disorderly experience of life and the mix of ever-renewing chromosomes” (from Tim Radford’s review of The Selfish Gene).
Behavioral experts view personality as a complex of three distinct but intermeshed components: Id, Ego and Superego. These three, according to Freudian theory, in interaction, form and regulate the complexity of human behavior. A Canadian academic psychologist, Surinder Singh Sodhi, tells me that this Freudian construction has been superseded by very elaborate neuronal models that are the underpinnings of our sense of self, but that level of molecular-cellular biology is not the primary goal here today, and I will sidestep such matters.
Id speaks of the basic personality that seeks, for instance, immediate gratification for one’s needs and wants. If they are not quickly met, a behavioral episode might ensue. It is like the infant that is deprived of its pacifier, or the hungry baby that howls incessantly until fed. Surely we will recognize many of our friends and foes that operate at this basic level. Perhaps they have never learned to separate their wants from their needs, or that some gratification becomes sweeter with the waiting.
Ego is the next level that regulates our social behavior. At this stage, one learns to tame the pangs of instant gratification. Ego, therefore, deals with reality in the pursuit of our wants and needs.
Finally there is the Super Ego that adds judgment such as social constraints and morality to the process – the parsing of right from wrong, even when the law turns a blind eye, or no one is around to hold us responsible.
It seems that these three parts of the self, particularly the ego and the superego are the most, intimately and inseparably, intertwined.
Scholars of psychology may cavil on the finer points of what is a sense of self, but I offer you here fair working definitions of Id, Ego and Super Ego that give our lives a structural framework. I leave the details to behavioral scientists.
Ego in Guru Granth Sahib
Guru Granth offers extensive exploration of the concept of Haumae and how it plays in human life. The longest and defining composition (p.466) is an integral part of Aasa-ki-Vaar (p. 462-475). The commentary on haumae comes largely from Guru Nanak; a smaller but significant part comes from Guru Angad. A core belief in Sikhi is the idea of a sense of self, so haumae claims attention a myriad time in a myriad ways.
When translating Gurbani into English, with nary an exception, Haumae is translated as Ego. A life fed and defined by haumae is transcribed in English as an ego-driven existence, and roundly condemned.
Clearly, Haumae empowers the other four cardinal sins – avarice, greed, lust and anger. And then our emphasis immediately shifts to the many lines in Gurbani that exhort us to extirpate root and branch all signs of ego in our lives — only the, we believe, would we be able to realize the Creator within us all.
But perhaps a more nuanced interpretation is more appropriate here.
Let me offer first the defining hymn from the Guru Granth (p. 466); text and translation are modified from Wikipedia:
“Ha-o vich aa-i-aa ha-o vich ga-i-aa (In ego we come, in ego we go.)
Ha-o vich jammi-aa ha-o vich mu-aa (In ego we are born, in ego we die.)
Ha-o vich ditaa ha-o vich la-i-aa (In ego we give, in ego we take.)
Ha-o vich khati-aa ha-o vich ga-i-aa (In ego we earn, in ego we lose.)
Ha-o vich sachiaar koorhi-aar (In ego we become truthful or false.)
Ha-o vich paap punn veechaar (In ego we reflect on virtue and sin.)
Ha-o vich narak surag avatar (In ego we go to heaven or hell.)
Ha-o vich hasai ha-o vich rovai (In ego we laugh, in ego we weep.)
Ha-o vich bharee-ai ha-o vich Dhovai (In ego we become dirty, in ego we are cleansed.)
Ha-o vich jaatee jinsee khovai (In ego we lose social status and class.)
Ha-o vich moorakh ha-o vich si-aanaa (In ego we remain ignorant, in ego we are wise.)
Mokh mukat kee saar na jaanaa (We have no understanding of salvation and liberation.)
Ha-o vich maa-i-aa ha-o vich chhaa-i-aa (In ego we love Maya, in ego we are kept in darkness.)
Ha-umai kar kar jant upaa-i-aa (Living in ego, mortal beings are created.)
Ha-umai boojhai taa dar soojhai (When one understands ego, then the Lord’s gate becomes known).
Gi-aan vihoonaa kath kath loojhai (Without spiritual wisdom, we babble and argue).
Naanak hukmee likee-ai laykh (Says Nanak, destiny is so recorded at the Lord’s Command).
jayhaa vaykheh tayhaa vaykh. ||1|| (As the Lord sees us, so are we seen. ||1||)”
— Guru Nanak, Guru Granth p. 466
Clearly there is no human activity, from birth to death that is totally and entirely devoid of ego. Given such an all-pervasive presence in all life – in a Sikh life as well, I wondered why and how could “haumae” be the pure evil that needs to be uprooted absolutely – exhortations that we hear every day in gurduaras.
I suggest that our confusion is shortsighted. We conveniently overlook that these lines of Guru Nanak are immediately followed by a composition by Guru Angad on the same page. I offer it here with the defining line in larger type:
“Ha-umai ayhaa jaat hai ha-umai karam kamahi (This is the nature of ego — that people perform their actions in ego).
Ha-umai ay-ee bandhnaa fir fir jonee paahi (This is the bondage of ego, that time and time again, they are reborn).
Ha-umai kithhu oopjai kit sanjam ih jaa-ay (Where does ego come from? How can it be removed?)
Ha-umai ayho hukam hai pa-i-ai kirat firaahi (This ego exists by the Lord’s Order; people wander according to their past actions).
Ha-umai deeragh roag hai daaroo bhee is maahi (Ego is a chronic disease, but contains its own cure).
Kirpaa karay jay aapnee taa gur kaa sabad kamahi If the Lord grants His Grace, one acts according to the Teachings of the Guru’s Shabad).
Naanak kahai sunhu janhu it sanjam dukh jaahi. ||2|| (Nanak says, listen, people: in this way, troubles depart. ||2||)”
— Guru Angad, Guru Granth p.466
Some Ideas about Ego
Now when I juxtapose these definitional constraints of Haumae on Id, Ego and Super Ego, I have to wonder about the appropriateness of the word Ego in translation of Haumae, or the binding command that it be systematically and totally uprooted.
Ego, as psychoanalysts tell us, deals with reality in life and its goals. It is the core of our sense of self whereas Haumae is distorted reality. It seems inappropriate then to use the two as synonyms of each other.
In our opening definitions we noted that Id speaks of our needs and wants; ego regulates and tames our social behavior, while super ago adds the social dimensions of legality and morality to the mix. On the Internet, a reader (Ali Zain) cut to the chase by a snappy summary; Id is pleasure, he said, while ego is reality and superego is morality.
And, as noted above in this essay, remember that the panacea for ego lies in the disease (Guru Granth p 466).
Two self evident ideas seem to emerge from this: First, that there is no question that ego needs to be tamed; but Secondly, that clearly our sense of self is rooted in ego.
Given its pervasive presence within our life, this God-given trait can’t then be pure unbridled evil, except when ego itself becomes purely unbridled and out of control.
It is also true that ego lies at the root of the four additional major distractions to a purposeful life – lust, greed, avarice and anger. Without ego, they likely would not exist. These five can morph into the devil’s work but harnessed to greater goals they make life possible, giving it meaning, direction and purpose. What we need then is an ego harnessed and disciplined to the greater sense of self. Since ego begets lust, greed, avarice and anger, the same conclusion applies to them as well.
What we really colloquially mean by ego then is an uncontrollable and exaggerated love for the self and a misplaced judgment of our puny place in the universe.
Such a searingly negating change in the sense of self is perhaps better labeled Narcissism. Behavioral scientists define it as extreme selfishness or self-centeredness. It comes with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as defining a personality type.”
Greek mythology speaks of Narcissus, a hunter known for his physical beauty. In his self love he disdained all that were around him. Noting his behavioral aberration, the Gods lured him to a pool, where he fell in love with his own reflection in the water. Unable to leave and walk away from the beauty of his own image, Narcissus drowned and gave us “narcissism” as the defining term for unhealthy self love, adoration and admiration.
I look similarly at haumae (pride, hubris or narcissism) and the four additional monsters it spawns of lust, anger, greed and avarice. All five, disciplined in service, are essential to making a life. Each demands uprooting when it runs amok. And haumae is the root evil.
It is really this degree of self-centeredness that Gurbani is talking about. Perhaps we have mishandled the literal translation of haumae as ego.
A sense of self is essential to life. In all dialogue there is “You and I” even in a conversation with the Creator. In a merger termed “us” there is you and I.
In short, the word haumae has two powerful ideas inherent in it. One is the ego that gives us a sense of self; it needs to be nurtured and harnessed. The other is the ego run amok as in narcissism and this deserves to be expelled lest it destroy us. The distinction between the two is critical. (I owe some of the insight on this topic to conversations with Dr. Harbans Lal from Texas.)
Has mine today become a paean of praise to ego? What gave life to this essay today? Well! Just recently I had a birthday and my thoughts naturally veered towards haumae.
Just remember that too much of a good thing doesn’t make it better; it may become worse. And that’s the way with ego and its cohorts. But a little ego is basic to a good and productive life.
September 22, 2015
About the Author
Dr. I.J.Singh, in 1960, came to the US on a Murry & Leonie Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He received his PhD in anatomical sciences from the University of Oregon Medical School and a DDS from Columbia University. He is a professor emeritus at New York University. He serves on the Editorial Advisory Boards of the Sikh Review and Nishaan. A prolific writer with many books to hios name, he also writes a regular internet column on Sikhi.