What is ahaṅkāra?

The word ahaṅkāra literally means “I-ness”. However, this term also refers to the subtle element called ahaṅkāra which is a product of mahat-tattva, which in turn is a product of prakṛti. How does this material element ahaṅkāra relate to the I-ness which actually belongs to the individual ātmā? To understand this puzzle, we turn to Śrī Jīva Goswami’s commentary in Anuccheda 53 of the Paramatma Sandarbha.

The concept of nimitta and upādāna kāraṇa

Before examining ahaṅkāra, we discuss the concept of nimitta and upādāna kāraṇas (causes). These two terms can be best understood through an example. The clay is the upādāna or ingredient cause of the pot. But the clay cannot become the pot by itself. For this, it needs a nimitta kāraṇa or instrumental cause. This instrumental cause is the potter.

Now it is not necessary that the nimitta kāraṇa be a conscious entity. In Anuccheda 53, Śrī Jīva Goswami cites a verse from the Bhāgavatam which makes the distinction between the upādāna or hardware of the body, and the nimitta or software that runs it.

The constituents of the body, or the hardware, are the mind, ten senses and the five mahābhūtas, ahaṅkāra, the prāṇas and the tan-mātras. From here, it is clear that there is a type of component called ahaṅkāra which forms the hardware of the body.

The nimitta kāraṇa are the software which run the hardware of the body. The nimitta kāraṇas are kāla (time), daiva (destiny), karma (actions) and svabhāva (innate disposition). Śrī Jīva Goswami comments that the software actually enters the hardware, that is, a part of kāla, daiva, karma and svabhāva enter the upādāna constituents of the body. Of these, daiva, karma and svabhāva influence the subtle part of the body, while kāla influences the subtle body as well as the physical body.

One cannot change the hardware of the body one has, but one can change the software. While kāla is beyond our control, daiva, karma and svabhāva can be changed. Changing these three software programs is feasible only through sādhanā-bhakti.

ahaṅkāra is the hardware port into which is loaded the aham-vṛtti software

Before we try to understand ahaṅkāra, it is useful to consider the computer analogy. The computer has hardware in it, but it is useless without software. One may load software through a port- such as a USB port- and then open the program. In the same way, ahaṅkāra is the hardware port. This port is a product of the ahaṅkāra tattva which is a product of mahat-tattva. Thus, ahaṅkāra is a physical organ, similar to how the eye is a physical organ for the subtle sense of sight. Just as the eye’s function is to facilitate seeing, the ahaṅkāra’s function is to facilitate the jīva’s identification with the body. The physical location of the ahaṅkāra is the mulādhāra chakra in the body.

As the eye is the physical organ or seat of the sense of sight, the ahaṅkāra (upādāna) is just a seat of the ‘sense’ of “I-ness” (nimitta). The technical term for this sense is aham-vṛtti, and it is the software that gets loaded into the ahaṅkāra port.

The pure jīva, who is stripped of the subtle and physical bodies, is basically a being endowed with the sense of “I”. This pure “I-ness” is called aham-artha, but it has no predicate. When this pure “I-ness” is superimposed on the aham-vṛtti or software which is pre-loaded into the physical organ which is ahaṅkāra, the jīva thinks, “I am this body”. The tying together of the jīva’s pure sense of “I” with the software in the body called aham-vṛtti also has a term – it is called the hṛdaya-granthi or knot in the heart. Untying this knot, and retying it with a software of a different kind- “I am Bhagavān’s servant” – is accomplished by sādhanā bhakti.

The analogy of the robot
Suppose there is a robot which says “I am Mr. Robot”. The software in the robot which makes the robot say that sentence is aham-vṛtti. The hardware which makes it happen is ahaṅkāra. The battery is the aham-artha.

[Of course the analogy is not correct because the robot does not have I-ness at all. ]


  1. ahaṅkāra refers to a physical organ which is part of the body
  2. This ahaṅkāra is composed of the subtle element called ahaṅkāra.
  3. aham-vṛtti is the material nimitta cause or software which is loaded into the hardware called ahaṅkāra.
  4. The jīva’s I-ness is tightly bound with the aham-vṛtti software, and this causes the jīva to think that it is the body.
  5. The process of bhakti unties the knot between the jīva’s I-ness and the aham-vṛtti software, and reties it with a different program.

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