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What is Our Ego?

We all have two natures – the higher and the lower.

In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature.  In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone.  Signs of both these natures are to be found in men.  In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature.  The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature.  Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man’s spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature.  (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 60)

The ego is the animal side of us, which is full of selfish desires:

The ego is the animal in us, the heritage of the flesh which is full of selfish desires.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)

Other names for ego include lower nature, and Satan:

This lower nature in man is symbolized as Satan — the evil ego within us, not an evil personality outside.  (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 287)

According to the Bahá’í teachings, there is no such being as Satan. Satan is a human being who is led by his ego to live a life of wickedness and ungodliness. Shoghi Effendi’s secretary states on his behalf that ‘devil or Satan is symbolic of evil and dark forces yielding to temptation’ (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 513)

How is the Ego Developed?

From early childhood, human society trains us to exalt ourselves above others with the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power:

Human society at present exerts a pernicious influence upon the soul of man. Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 22)

How Does the Ego Manifest?

Instead of allowing us to live a life of service and sacrifice, our ego is highly competitive and teaches us to pride ourselves on our accomplishments. From early childhood we are trained to exalt ourselves above others, with the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power.

Instead of allowing him to live a life of service and sacrifice, it is highly competitive and teaches him to pride himself on his accomplishments. From early childhood he is trained to develop his ego and to seek to exalt himself above others, in the ultimate aim of achieving self-importance, success and power.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 22)

It manifests when we are thinking only of ourselves:

If man were to care for himself only he would be nothing but an animal for only the animals are thus egoistic. If you bring a thousand sheep to a well to kill nine hundred and ninety-nine the one remaining sheep would go on grazing, not thinking of the others and worrying not at all about the lost, never bothering that its own kind had passed away, or had perished or been killed. To look after one’s self only is therefore an animal propensity. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 41)

It manifests when we are willing to be well off while others are in misery and distress:

It is the animal propensity to live solitary and alone. It is the animal proclivity to look after one’s own comfort. But man was created to be a man—to be fair, to be just, to be merciful, to be kind to all his species, never to be willing that he himself be well off while others are in misery and distress—this is an attribute of the animal and not of man. Nay, rather, man should be willing to accept hardships for himself in order that others may enjoy wealth; he should enjoy trouble for himself that others may enjoy happiness and well-being. This is the attribute of man. This is becoming of man. Otherwise man is not man—he is less than the animal.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 41)

It manifests as personal desires and achievement of leadership:

Now some of the mischief-makers, with many stratagems, are seeking leadership, and in order to reach this position they instil doubts among the friends that they may cause differences, and that these differences may result in their drawing a party to themselves. But the friends of God must be awake and must know that the scattering of these doubts hath as its motive personal desires and the achievement of leadership.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 214)

It manifests when we ascribe certain attributs as belonging to us and not to God; and when we employ them to boost our own ego:

In many of His Tablets Bahá’u’lláh exhorts His followers not to become the bond-slaves of the Kingdom of Names. The well-known Islamic saying, ‘The Names come down from heaven’, has many meanings. In this world every one of God’s attributes is clad with a name, and every such name reveals the characteristics of that attribute. For instance, generosity is an attribute of God, and it manifests itself in human beings. However, a person who has this attribute often becomes proud of it and loves to be referred to as generous. When his generosity is acknowledged by other people, he becomes happy, and when it is ignored, he is unhappy. This is one form of attachment to the Kingdom of Names. Although this example concerns the name ‘generosity‘, the same is true of all the names and attributes of God manifested within the individual. Usually man ascribes these attributes to his own person rather than to God and employs them to boost his own ego. For instance, a learned man uses the attribute of knowledge to become famous and feels gratified and uplifted when his name is publicized far and wide. Or there is the individual whose heart leaps with feelings of pride and satisfaction when he hears his name mentioned and finds himself admired. These are examples of attachment to the Kingdom of Names.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25)

It manifests when we take responsibility of the Faith into our own hands and try to force it into ways that we wish it to go:

The Universal House of Justice has emphasized the importance of our avoiding any tendency to take responsibility for the Cause into our own hands: ‘Service to the Cause of God requires absolute fidelity and integrity and unwavering faith in Him. No good but only evil can come from taking the responsibility for the future of God’s Cause into our own hands and trying to force it into ways that we wish it to go regardless of the clear texts and our own limitations. It is His Cause. He has promised that its light will not fail. Our part is to cling tenaciously to the revealed word and to the institutions that He has created to preserve His Covenant.’  (Universal House of Justice, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 119)

It manifests during Bahá’í consultation, particularly on the Assembly:

The application of these spiritual standards makes Bahá’í consultation a testing ground for every member of the Assembly. All the virtues of the individual—his faith, his courage and his steadfastness in the Covenant—undergo a rigorous test as the members sit around the table to consult. Here the spiritual battle within the soul of the individual begins and will continue as long as the ego is the dictator. Indeed, in many cases this battle lasts a lifetime. In this battlefield the forces of light and darkness are arrayed against each other. On the one side stands the spiritual entity, the soul of the believer; on the other, a great enemy, the self or ego. Whenever the soul hearkens to the lofty standards set by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and applies them during consultation, the ego, defeated, recedes into the background. The soul emerges victorious in this battle and becomes radiant with the light of faith and detachment. The application of these spiritual principles, however, must be genuine and not merely superficial. The feelings of love, unity, detachment and harmony must come from the heart. Humility and servitude, radiance, devotion, courtesy and patience, along with all the other virtues, are qualities of the spirit. These cannot be manifested by paying lip service to them. If this is the case, then the ego is the victor.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 36-37)

It manifests as Covenant Breaking:

Many people are puzzled by the fact that almost the entire family of Bahá’u’lláh defected. Why is it that those who were nearest to Him, who were members of His household, His sons and daughters, should be foremost among the violators of His Covenant? In normal circumstances, when a person attains a prominent position in the community, it is often the family members who rally around him and lend their whole-hearted support. But in the case of Bahá’u’lláh it was the reverse and a similar situation was created within the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá after His passing. To appreciate the reasons for this, we observe once again that the proper attitude of a believer towards the Manifestation of God should be a true demonstration of servitude, self-effacement and complete obedience. Whenever these qualities are absent, a barrier will be created between man and God. In such a case the believer may be associating with the Manifestation of God in person, yet because of this barrier he will not be able to appreciate His glory or become enchanted with His Revelation.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Child of the Covenant, p. 25)

What Happens When We Give In To Our Ego’s Demands?

We are prevented from ascending to the realms of holiness:

Anger, passion, ignorance, prejudice, greed, envy, covetousness, jealousy and suspicion prevent man from ascending to the realms of holiness, imprisoning him in the claws of self and the cage of egotism.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í Scriptures, p. 241)

Sin and error continue:

As long as the ego is subject to carnal desires, sin and error continue. (Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í World Faith, p. 184)

Our spiritual life is imperilled:

Shoghi Effendi writes: “After recognition of the Manifestation, the believer will be tested by God in many ways. Each time he passes a test, he will acquire greater spiritual insight and will grow stronger in faith. The closer he gets to the person of the Manifestation the more difficult become his tests. It is then that any trace of ambition or ego may imperil his spiritual life.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 1, p. 129)

We are changed into an animal, unable to judge good from evil, or to distinguish light from darkness:

As long as man is a captive of habit, pursuing the dictates of self and desire, he is vanquished and defeated. This passionate personal ego takes the reins from his hands, crowds out the qualities of the divine ego and changes him into an animal, a creature unable to judge good from evil, or to distinguish light from darkness. He becomes blind to divine attributes, for this acquired individuality, the result of an evil routine of thought becomes the dominant note of his life.  May all of you be freed from these dangers and delivered from the world of desires that you may enter into the realm of light and become divine, radiant, merciful, Godlike.  (Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 133)

We lose our faith, our goodness and virtues; and fall into the abyss of degradation and ignominy:

There are many people who have rendered notable services to the Faith and their names are recorded in its annals, yet when the winds of tests blew they were unable to subdue their self and ego. These individuals not only lost their faith, but also their goodness and virtues. They fell from the heights of glory into the abyss of degradation and ignominy.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 264)

We are summoned to wickedness and lust:

O people of the world!  Follow not the promptings of the self, for it summoneth insistently to wickedness and lust; follow, rather, Him Who is the Possessor of all created things, Who biddeth you to show forth piety, and manifest the fear of God. He, verily, is independent of all His creatures.  (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 41)

We will wander in the desert of heedlessness and regret:

Whosoever is occupied with himself is wandering in the desert of heedlessness and regret. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)

We will remain deprived of the outpourings of God:

But if … any one betray the least of trusts or neglect and be remiss in the performance of duties which are intrusted to him, or by oppression takes one penny of extortion from the subjects, or seeks after his own personal, selfish aims and ends in the attainment of his own interests, he shall undoubtedly remain deprived of the outpourings of His Highness the Almighty! Beware! Beware! lest ye fall short in that which ye are commanded in this Tablet!  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá v2, p. 403)

We will be entirely severed from God:

They do not know the subtlety of the ego of man. It is the Tempter (the subtle serpent of the mind), and the poor soul not entirely emancipated from its suggestions is deceived until entirely severed from all save God.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 487)

How Do We Subdue Our Ego?

Man can never completely eliminate the ego, but it can and should be ever-increasingly subordinated to the enlightened soul of man:

The complete and entire elimination of the ego would imply perfection—which man can never completely attain—but the ego can and should be ever-increasingly subordinated to the enlightened soul of man. This is what spiritual progress implies.  (Shoghi Effendi, Living the Life, p. 11)

We can seek to become more perfect:

The only people who are truly free of the “dross of self” are the Prophets, for to be free of one’s ego is a hall-mark of perfection. We humans are never going to become perfect, for perfection belongs to a realm we are not destined to enter. However, we must constantly mount higher, seek to be more perfect.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)

We can recognize that the Manifestation of God abides in a realm far above that of man

If we recognize that the Manifestation of God abides in a realm far above that of man, it becomes evident to us that the human intellect, when freed from self and ego, will admit its inability to appreciate fully the inner realities of the Word of God and His Covenant. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 1, p. 129)

We can understand that when we give free rein to our egos, we’re acting against God:

The mere consciousness of the fact that one is acting against God in condemning and attacking his fellow man, is sufficient to deter him in the pursuit of such reprehensible behaviour. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 189)

We can obey the laws of God, seek to live the life, pray and struggle:

By obeying the laws of God, seeking to live the life laid down in our teachings, and prayer and struggle, we can subdue our egos. (Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 453)

We can adorn ourselves with the virtues of humility and self-effacement:

The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh aims to reverse this process. The soul of man needs to be adorned with the virtues of humility and self-effacement so that it may become detached from the Kingdom of Names.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 22)

We can detach from all earthly things and banish all traces of passion and desire, of ego and  self-glorification:

But the requirements of faith and the path to Baha’u’llah……..remain unchanged. It is necessary for the believer of today, ………, to detach himself from all earthly things and to banish from his soul the traces of passion and desire, of ego and  self-glorification in order that he may truly appreciate the awe-inspiring station of Baha’u’llah …….. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 215)

We can renounce and forget our “self”:

The ‘Master Key’ to self-mastery is self- forgetting. The road to the palace of life is through the path of renunciation.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)

We can eliminate the use of the word “I”:

Bahá’u’lláh calls on the individual to kindle a fire within his soul and burn away every trace of self so that the concept and the very word ‘I’ may totally disappear from his being. Indeed this is one of the most profound teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. When a person tries to exalt himself, to celebrate his own name and aspires to become famous he is, in fact, going right against the plan of creation. Such an individual hinders the flow of the bounties of God to himself. Although outwardly he may be considered a great success, in reality he has failed to fulfill the purpose for which he was created. When a man attains to real greatness, he then recognizes his helplessness, unworthiness and impotence. And when he becomes truly learned he genuinely discovers that he is ignorant. It is then that he can manifest the attributes of God within himself and impart them to others.   (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 43)

We can sever ourselves from the Kingdom of Names:

To sever oneself from the Kingdom of Names may prove to be the most difficult task for a Bahá’í, and the struggle may indeed last a lifetime. If a man can only realize that his virtues are not intrinsically his own, but rather are manifestations of the attributes of God, then he is freed from the Kingdom of Names and becomes truly humble. Such a man will bestow divine perfections upon the world of humanity. This is the loftiest station that God has destined for man. To the extent that a believer succeeds in severing himself from these three forms of attachment, will he be fulfilling his part in the Covenant of God.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 28)

We can leave authority in the hands of the institutions :

One of the distinguishing features of Bahá’u’lláh’s embryonic world order is that it does not harbour egotistical personalities. Bahá’u’lláh has conferred authority on its institutions, whether local, national or international, but the individuals who are privileged to serve on them are devoid of any authority. Unlike men who wield power in the world today and seek to acquire fame and popularity, members of Bahá’í institutions cannot but manifest humility and self-effacement if they are to remain faithful to Bahá’u’lláh. Those who do not succeed, through immaturity or lack of faith, in living up to these standards are indeed attached to the Kingdom of Names and become deprived of the bounties of God in this age.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 25-26)

We can protect ourselves from becoming complacent or indifferent:

Life is a constant struggle, not only against forces around us, but above all against our own ‘ego’. We can never afford to rest on our oars, for if we do, we soon see ourselves carried down stream again. Many of those who drift away from the Cause do so for the reason that they had ceased to go on developing. They became complacent, or indifferent, and consequently ceased to draw the spiritual strength and vitality from the Cause which they should have.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)

We can repent and return:

We have repeatedly revealed similar utterances, but they have not profited the heedless ones, for they are found to be captives to egotism and lust. Ask thou God to enable all of them to repent and return . . . It is hoped that the hand of the Divine mercy, and the blessings of the compassionate One may assist them all, and adorn them with the garment of forgiveness and favor; and that He may also guard them from that which impairs His Cause among His servants. Verily, He is the powerful, the mighty, and He is the forgiving, the merciful! (Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’í World Faith, p. 184)

We can never afford to rest on our oars, for if we do, we soon see ourselves carried downstream again:

Life is a constant struggle, not only against forces around us, but above all against our own ‘ego‘. We can never afford to rest on our oars, for if we do, we soon see ourselves carried downstream again.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)

We can burn away every veil that comes between us and God:

There are passages in the Mathnavi in which Bahá’u’lláh exhorts man to burn away every veil that comes between him and God. Then and only then can he behold the beauty and grandeur of his Lord. One of these veils is the ego.   (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 43)

The best way to do this is through prayer – as this line from the Long Obligatory Prayer tells us:

I beseech Thee by them Who are the Daysprings of Thine invisible Essence, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, to make of my prayer a fire that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of Thy Presence.  (Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 6)

What Happens When We Overcome Our Ego?

We will be called saints:

We call people “saints” who have achieved the highest degree of mastery over their ego.  (Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 453)

We will not be discouraged by  criticism or pleased with praise and glorification:

When a person reaches this stage of maturity and discernment, he will neither be discouraged by undue criticism, nor pleased with praise and glorification. It is always the ego which feels offended in the former case and gratified in the latter. The above-mentioned teaching of Bahá’u’lláh helps the individual to subdue his ego.  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 189)

We will recieve the confirmations of the Kingdom:

Today the confirmations of the Kingdom of Abha are with those who renounce themselves, forget their own opinions, cast aside personalities and are thinking of the welfare of others.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)

We will make spiritual progress:

Regarding the points you refer to in your letter: the complete and entire elimination of the ego would imply perfection — which man can never completely attain — but the ego can and should be ever-increasingly subordinated to the enlightened soul of man. This is what spiritual progress implies. (Shoghi Effendi, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 11)

We will strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection:

The other self is the ego, the dark, animalistic heritage each one of us has, the lower nature that can develop into a monster of selfishness, brutality, lust and so on. It is this self we must struggle against, or this side of our natures, in order to strengthen and free the spirit within us and help it to attain perfection.   (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 113)

Adib Taherzadeh has a story of those early believers who were able to subdue their egos:

“There were many among His disciples who were enabled to subdue their ego. By their words and deeds they demonstrated their utter nothingness when they came face to face with their Lord. These became the spiritual giants of this Dispensation, and through their faith they shed an imperishable lustre upon the Cause of God. It is concerning such men, during the days of Baghdad, that Nabil writes:

Many a night, no less than ten persons subsisted on no more than a pennyworth of dates. No one knew to whom actually belonged the shoes, the cloaks, or the robes that were to be found in their houses. Whoever went to the bazaar could claim that the shoes upon his feet were his own, and each one who entered the presence of Bahá’u’lláh could affirm that the cloak and robe he then wore belonged to him. Their own names they had forgotten, their hearts were emptied of aught else except adoration for their Beloved… O, for the joy of those days, and the gladness and wonder of those hours!”  (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 2, p. 214 -216)

How has this helped you understand the ego better?  Post your comments below!