Yoga Sutra - Sādhana Pada 2.6
I-am-ness is when the two powers of seer and seen [appear]as a single self.
Ego is [to consider] the nature of the seer and the nature of the instrumental power of seeing to be the same thing.
Moving on to asmitā, the second of Patañjali’s kleśas, dṛk, the seer, is a reference to the awareness of puruṣa (referred to in I.3 as draṣṭṛ, another derivation of the same verbal root dṛś, to see). The instrumental power of sight, darśana, on the other hand, refers to the intelligence aspect of the citta, that is, to buddhi as the instrument of awareness. Buddhi is the first prākṛtic layer enveloping puruṣa and presents images of the sense objects in the world, and indeed all vṛttis, to the puruṣa. It is therefore the primary instrument in the power of sight; the senses proper, such as the actual physical sense of sight, although also instruments, can make their impressions known to puruṣa only through buddhi, when it molds itself into their forms (the metaphor for this process, we recall, is that of liquid copper poured into a mold). In other words, without buddhi as primary instrument, puruṣa would have no awareness of prakṛti. Patañjali thus defines ego, asmitā, as the attribute of misidentifying buddhi, the instrumental power of sight, with the puruṣa soul, the actual seer. I like to give the example of a person wearing spectacles to see clearly, but due to mental disorder refusing to remove them, imagining that the spectacles are his very self rather than an instrument perched on his nose facilitating perception. In a sense, the ego entails doing just this, imagining that the mind and body, which are simply instruments allowing awareness to perceive the world, are the actual self.
Another way of putting this is that the act of experience, says Vyāsa, becomes possible when the experiencer and that which is experienced—two completely distinct categories and metaphysical entities—are considered to be one and the same, ekātmatā. It is ego that promotes this confusion. Ego is the specific aspect of ignorance that identifies the nonself, specifically the intelligence, with the true self, puruṣa (ātman). It is the knot in the heart, says Rāmānanda Sarasvatī, that ties these two entities together. Indeed, says Vijñānabhikṣu, the very act of experience itself means the identification of puruṣa with buddhi: Experience means experiencing an object other than the subject of experience. However, when one understands the true natures of these two distinct entities, continues Vyāsa, one no longer attempts to enjoy this world, and complete uncoupling of puruṣa from prakṛti, liberation, becomes possible.
Vyāsa quotes a verse: “Not perceiving the puruṣa self to be distinct from the buddhi intelligence in form, nature, and awareness, one makes the mistake of considering the intelligence to be the true ātman self as a result of illusion.” The difference between the two, notes Vācaspati Miśra, is that the self is unchanging, and the intelligence ever changing. As a result of this misidentification, says Vijñanabhikṣu, one identifies with the states of the intelligence, and so one thinks oneself to be peaceful, or awake, or learned, or whatever state is present in the intelligence. But in reality, it is the intelligence that is experiencing these states.
Vijñānabhikṣu points out that the two kleśas of ego and ignorance are to some extent the same thing, but there is a difference in degree. Ignorance initially involves a not yet specific notion of I-ness, a sense of self as being something as yet undefined other than puruṣa, a partial identification of the real self with buddhi, the intelligence, while ego involves a more developed or complete identity between the puruṣa self and buddhi. For example, he says, identifying oneself with one’s spouse and children is analogous to ignorance, but actually feeling their happiness and distress is analogous to ego. Thus the difference is one of degree; ego evolves out of ignorance and makes the misidentification of nonself with self more concrete and specific.
It should be reiterated here that the asmitā, ego, as the effect of buddhi under the influence of ignorance, is different from that produced in the higher stages of samādhi by the pure sāttvic buddhi, as has been discussed. The asmitā in the context of samādhi in sūtra I.17 is true discrimination manifest in the citta, that is, correct identification of the puruṣa as the real source of I-am-ness. Asmitā in the present context of the kleśas is false identification, considering the I am to be the prākṛtic mind and body, due to the absence of such true discrimination (“I am female,” “I am fat,” “I am hungry,” “I am a dog”). Therefore, asmitā, referred to as ahaṅkāra in Sāṅkhya, is pivotal in terms of determining the choice the mind will take, in terms of whether it wishes to direct its attention to puruṣa or to prakṛti:
That choice will be either the observable world or a quest for liberating wisdom (jñāna). Ahaṅkāra then is that critical moment during which one of these goals must be chosen; the choice is either spiritual puruṣa or prakṛti, this is to choose between infinity and finitude … wisdom or unwisdom, knowledge or ignorance … This is the Sāṅkhyan either … or, the human plight which points to the need for the healing medicine of Yoga spirituality and discipline … Although this definitive choice certainly exists, phenomenal individuality and material identity unfolded by ahaṅkāra also threaten to become a prison of bondage; humans may chose to lock themselves into such a phenomenal world and fail to search further for liberating wisdom. (Podgorski 1984, 164)
One might mention here that asmitā and the ahaṅkāra of the Sāṅkhya system are roughly synonymous but etymologically can be taken to refer, perhaps, to slightly different functions of the ego. Ahaṅkāra is not used by Patañjali (but occurs in Vyāsa’s Bhāṣya in I.45 and III.47, where it is treated synonymously with asmitā). The etymological meaning of ahaṅkāra is I am the doer and is defined in the Gītā as the channeling of consciousness outward through the mind and senses into the world of objects, with the individual imagining himself or herself, due to illusion, to be the doer of actions in the world—actions that are actually being carried out by the mechanical forces of nature, prakṛti. In Kṛṣṇa’s words, “The soul, bewildered by ahaṅkāra, thinks ‘I am the doer’ of deeds that are actually being done by the guṇas of prakṛti.” (III.27). Asmitā is an unusual grammatical construction: Asmi means I am, the first-person singular of the present tense of the verb as, to be, and hence asmitā; literally means I-am-ness. Both ahaṅkāra and asmitā therefore involve consciousness refracting outward away from its source and being falsely identified with its prākṛtic embeddedness. But if there is a difference between ahaṅkāra as defined in the Gītā and asmitā as defined in this sūtra as a kleśa, it is that the emphasis of the former is on the false I as a doer of action, while the emphasis of the latter is on the false I as a prākṛtic entity (I am a man, a woman, sad, etc.). In other words, the Gītā emphasizes the mistaken notion of I-am-the-doer-ness, whereas Patañjali emphasizes the false sense of I-am-ness, a difference that resonates with the different concerns of the two texts (the former with action in the world and action in devotion, and the latter with realization of the true self).