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Ahankara vs. Ahankara
Articles by Satyanarayana Dasa

Ahankara vs. Ahankara

Sharmistha and Devayani, Ego, Ahankara

There are 24 evolutes of prakṛti, ahaṅkāra (egotism) being the second in the list. Although second, it is the boss and rules over everything else. Nothing happens without it. All emotions find their strength in it. Without the ahaṅkāra, one cannot even get angry. It is the locus of material bondage. Therefore, Śrī Kṛṣṇa instructs that only by becoming free from the ahaṅkāra can one attain liberation (Gītā 18.53): “Giving up ahaṅkāra, the force of material desires, arrogance, desires for sense pleasures, anger, and possessions, and being free from the notion of ownership and serene at heart, one becomes qualified to realize Brahman.” It is the ahaṅkāra that controls our actions. To illustrate this, I refer to the story of King Yayāti and his two wives as described in the Ninth Canto, Chapter 18 of the Bhāgavata.

King Nahūṣa had six sons, Yayāti being the second of them. Yayāti became king because his elder brother Yati did not want to rule the kingdom. Yayāti married Devayānī, Śukrācārya’s daughter, after rescuing her from a well while he was in the forest. How is it that Devayānī found herself at the bottom of a well? What events led to this marriage between a kṣatriya and a brāhmaṇī, which is against Smrti principles? This is the story.

Mixing up of Dresses

Vṛṣaparvā was the king of the Asuras and Daityas, and Śukracārya was their guru. His daughter Śarmiṣṭhā was a very good friend of Devayānī, the daughter of Śukracārya. One day, along with their friends, the girls went to a garden outside the city to play. They played in a lovely garden beside a lake with lotus flowers. Bees were humming about. After playing for some time on the bank of the lake, they felt hot, and the most pleasurable thing to do in summertime is to jump in a lake or a pool to cool oneself. Since no men were around and bathing suits had not been invented, they entered the water naked. They played and splashed water on each other. Suddenly, the young girls saw Bhagavān Śiva, along with Pārvatī, coming towards them riding on his bull. The girls became shy and rushed out of the water to dress quickly.

Brahmaṇas usually have little wealth, but when King Vṛṣaparvā purchased something for Śarmiṣṭhā, he would buy the same for Devayānī, whom he treated like his own daughter. Since Devayānī and Śarmiṣṭhā had similar dresses, the girls could mix them up. Śarmiṣṭhā came out of the water first and mistakenly put on the dress of Devayānī, a brāhmaṇī. When Devayānī saw this, she immediately became angry at Śarmiṣṭhā. Her ahaṅkāra could not tolerate that a kṣatriya girl would adorn herself with the dress of a brāhmaṇī. This is material friendship. It can quickly turn to hostility if one’s ahaṅkāra is hurt. This is what is being shown here. The nature of one’s friendship is understood when one is in trouble. Sometimes, so-called friends may turn their backs and fail to acknowledge and support you.

Superiority Show

Just for such a little thing, Devayānī became angry and shouted at Śarmiṣṭhā, “Why did you put on my dress?” She could have said, “Oh, we were in a hurry. Please return my dress.” But Devayānī’s ahaṅkāra was simmering within. She taunted Śarmiṣṭhā, “How dare you put on my dress! Don’t you know that I am Śukracārya’s daughter??” The fight is always between two ahaṅkāras. Devayānī had the ahaṅkāra of being the guru’s daughter. She was respected as such even by the king. In śāstra, there is an injunction that you should respect the guru’s wife, son, and daughter like the guru. Vṛṣaparvā followed this protocol, and Śarmiṣṭhā was also respectful to Devayānī as long as her honor was not at stake.

Anger is like a tonic for the ahaṅkāra. When one gets angry, one loses the sense of discrimination. That is the characteristic of the ahaṅkāra. It flares up by seeing an opponent’s ahaṅkāra. One thus loses one’s tolerance. The ahaṅkāra and tolerance cannot sit together. The girls thus started arguing, counterarguing, and insulting each other. It is like a ping-pong match in which the ball is hit back and forth very quickly. To show her superiority, Devayānī insulted Śarmiṣṭhā further. She compared Śarmiṣṭhā to a female dog stealing the ghee meant for the devas from the sacrificial arena. In this turn of words, Devayānī compares herself to a deva, for her name is Devayānī, and Śarmiṣṭhā to a dog stealing her dress. It is said one should not use the personal objects of the guru, and Devayānī is guru-putrī, the guru’s daughter. Putting on her dress is an insult to Śukracārya himself.

Pride Leads to further Insults

Devayānī then speaks about her entire lineage, “Do you know who are the brāhmaṇas? Even Bhagavān Kṛṣṇa considers brāhmaṇas as worshipable. Although He is deva-deva, He respects brāhmaṇas.” So, according to Devayānī’s logic, Śarmiṣṭhā has committed a big offense. She possesses the ahaṅkāra of being a brāhmaṇī, although lacking brāhmaṇical qualifications. This is the meaning of identification. Now, she is not just Devayānī, Śukracārya’s daughter; she is the seminal daughter. Devayānī flaunts her greatness because she was born in a brāhmaṇical lineage. Brāhmaṇasare qualified because of their austerities, knowledge, tolerance, and humility. However, it is not praiseworthy for a brāhmaṇa to be upset like this. The greatness of a brāhmaṇa lies in their instructing humanity on the path of the Vedas. Devayānī should behave appropriately, like a brāhmaṇa. Devayānī exemplifies how unqualified people may take advantage of their lineage and birth.

On top of this, Devayānī said, “We come from the Bhṛgu dynasty. Bhṛgu is the son of Brahmā. Bhṛgu was so powerful that he kicked Viṣṇu in the chest. Has anyone else done this?” This is how the pride of lineage works. She continued, “Who is this Śarmiṣṭhā? She is the daughter of my father’s disciple. She is nobody; she is an asurī.” Devayānī concluded her insult strongly: “Just see the improper action of this servant lady.” Calling a princess a maidservant is most insulting.

Emotions are Contagious

There is no rasa if an opponent does not respond during a fight. Vīra-rasa manifests when there is a reciprocation of one’s fighting spirit. When Devayānī was abusing her, Śarmiṣṭhā could not tolerate it. The human mind similarly becomes influenced by the emotions of another person. When you observe someone laugh, you also laugh. If you see someone cry, you also feel like crying. If you see someone in an angry mood, your anger arises. Humans have this characteristic of mirroring another’s emotions. Research shows that emotions are contagious. The brain’s mirror neurons fire off signals, making us feel the same emotions as the person we observe, whether we like it or not! Interestingly, mirror neurons fire whether we perform an action or watch someone else perform the same action. Consequently, another’s feelings are mirrored in our brains. We cannot control this process; it overrides our thinking and manifests automatically. Therefore, don’t become angry if you don’t want someone to respond with anger. Do this much. When you become angry, you can be sure there will be anger on the other side. Brāhmaṇas are supposed to be more tolerant.

Śarmiṣṭhā, however, was a king’s daughter; she wasn’t an ordinary girl. She took pride in being a princess and was respected by all. Insulted and breathing heavily out of anger, Śarmiṣṭhā is here compared to a snake that has been kicked. A snake is, by nature, angry. Śarmiṣṭhā was so furious that she was biting her lips. Now, she takes revenge, speaking words stronger than those of Devayānī. Otherwise, there is no sport. She responds, “Why are you boasting, you beggar? Your father comes and stands at my father’s gate like a crow, begging for crumbs of food. You have nothing; we send food to you. We have honor, wealth, and respect. What do you have? Even this dress was given to you by my father.” In the varṇāśrama system, it was the custom to leave food out for crows, dogs, and other beings before eating. Keeping that in mind, Śarmiṣṭhā said, “You get whatever crumbs of food we throw at you.”

The Consequence of Wrong Decisions

Śarmiṣṭhā was so angry that she didn’t stop at verbal abuse. Fights usually start with verbal statements; they may become physical when they escalate. Śarmiṣṭhā then took Devayānī’s clothes and threw her into a well. When we are angry, we disregard the outcome of our actions; we can do anything. Because of this one act, for the rest of her life, Śarmiṣṭhā would have to act as Devayāni’s maidservant. One wrong act or decision can change the course of one’s life. When one is angry, he or she can do anything without consideration of the consequences. That’s how dangerous the anger is. This story illustrates the workings of the material ahaṅkāra.