March 27, 1964. “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” was a front-page splash in The New York Times. While the headline declared there were 37 bystanders, the article said there were 38. The write-up described how for more than half an hour “respectable, law‐abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab” 28-year-old Kitty Genovese. “I didn’t want to get involved,” one onlooker had admitted to the police during the investigation.
The article gained much traction, and the episode became the emblem of urban apathy in America. It triggered academic studies, and the incident eventually made its way into psychology textbooks, which called this tendency of witnesses to distance themselves from a crime scene the “bystander effect,” or the “Kitty Genovese syndrome.”
On the personal front, Kitty’s brother, 16-year-old Bill Genovese, was among the most affected.
When he was 19, Bill readily enlisted in the Marines to fight in the Vietnam War. While his friends saw America’s intervention in Vietnam as tragic and schemed to dodge the draft, for him that kind of evasion smacked of the same apathy that shadowed his sister’s murder. In an interview with The Washington Post, Bill said he had responded to America’s call to arms because he “didn’t want to be like the 38 witnesses.”
Bill was injured on the war front in Vietnam and lost both his legs.
Calling Bill an egomaniac would sound way off the track and downright absurd. But was it his ego that pushed him— covertly—into a war that left him physically challenged?
For an answer, we need to better understand the ego’s working.
For starters, let’s discuss the positive indispensable role that the ego plays in our lives—as paradoxical as that may sound!
The ego—ahankara in Sanskrit—gives us our identities. Under the ego’s influence, I see myself as an Indian, a monk, a disciple, a son, and so on. And once I know who I am, I also know what I should be doing. Put differently, our identities define our thoughts, words, and actions. As an Indian, I am patriotic, seek opportunities to glorify our country’s ancient culture and teachings, and behave as a responsible citizen. As a monk, I think spiritually, try to avoid mundane gossip, and strive to serve society selflessly. As a disciple, my thoughts are disciplined and so are my words and actions. As a son, I desire good health for my ageing parents, call them up regularly, and visit them once in a while. Waking up every morning, I don’t find myself in limbo, endlessly wondering how I should spend the day. My identities bring to mind my responsibilities—and I am out and about. Put differently, the ego’s job is to ensure we know who we are and behave accordingly.
The ego gets toxic, however, when it endlessly defends identities that it has given. Take, for example, the story of the American inventor Edwin Land.
Edwin Land, best known for co-founding Polaroid Corporation, invented the instant camera in 1948, following which his company took off. For three decades Polaroid ruled the world of photography. In 1980, Sony founder Akio Morita confided in Land that the camera niche seemed to be on the cusp of digitalisation; he expressed interest in collaborating on an electronic camera. The idea was lost on Land, who reasoned that customers would always want a print, and the quality of digital images could never match that of chemically processed ones.
As it turned out, Land was wrong. But absurdly, even as Polaroid Corporation suffered in the emerging digital market, Land was unwilling to come around. He shielded himself with devout followers who supported his adamancy to continue pouring the company’s resources into traditional non-digital research. Eventually, the mounting losses forced the Polaroid board to oust Land from the very company that he had cofounded.
Would it be preposterous to conclude that Land’s ego had catalysed his toppling?
Land saw himself as a physicist and a chemist, and for three decades, these identities powered his brilliant ideas, actions, and inventions that resulted in his great run. But when the digital era started making its irrepressible headway, it was high time for him to let go of these identities in the larger interest of the company. Instead, his ego was unwilling and defensive, precipitating his downfall.
The Ego’s Defence Team
The defence team of ahankara, has two players: mann and buddhi. Mann, often translated as “mind,” is the emotional part of our psyche. And buddhi, often translated as “intelligence,” is the rational part. Mann, buddhi, and ahankara together form our sukshma sharir, our “invisible self” or “psyche.” (Interestingly, even according to modern science, our psyche consists of three selves: the emotional self, the rational self, and the egoistic self.)
The mind acts as the ego’s hatchet man and one of its jobs is to keep the ego happy. Any information coming in from the senses that threaten any identity given by the ego, the mind dismisses. It expresses this rejection through negative feelings like fear, anger, disgust, melancholy, annoyance, and so on. Edwin Land’s mind, for example, very likely picked annoyance when Akio Morita expressed that the wave of the future could be digital, a piece of information that threatened Land’s identity of being a physicist and a chemist.
Intelligence is the mind’s champion; it analyses the situation in accordance with the feelings generated by the mind. When Land was annoyed, his intelligence managed to reason out why the idea of a digital takeover was indeed irksome: people would always want printed photos, and the quality of digital photography would always be substandard.
Coming back to the murder story of Kitty Genovese, the apathy surrounding her slaying had hit Bill hard. He wanted to be empathetic; that was to be his new identity. Empathising with the American cause in Vietnam, therefore, became his calling. While defending that identity of being empathetic, his ego presumably ignored the naysayers of the Vietnam War, just as Land ignored Morita’s foresight.
Bill’s story is a stark example of how the ego’s tendency to defend identities can be a detriment even with virtues like empathy. It also demonstrates how the ego can have an overbearing influence on your life—unbeknownst to you—even though you qualify nowhere close to being labelled an egomaniac.
Further Implications of the Ego’s Reluctance to Let Go
The ego’s reluctance to let go of identities has ramifications on every world that you inhabit—from the macro to the micro.
So far we have only been discussing the ego-driven undoing of the lives and careers of individuals. Before we move on, here’s another interesting case that I came across as a spiritual life coach: that of a young man who relentlessly held onto the identity of being a professional cricketer. He spent hours at the net practising and dreamed of making his mark on the international scene one day. Blindsided by his ego, he ignored the raw reality that he hadn’t even qualified for first class cricket despite his advancing age. Clearly, it was high time for him to pivot away from the sport and start looking for alternative careers. But he was struggling to let go of his cherished identity even as time was ticking by, leaving him with fewer and fewer backup career options. I have seen this trend extend beyond the cricket ground, to people repeatedly attempting—but failing—to gain a CA degree, an IAS post, or a role in Bollywood. The list is endless.
On the global stage, the ego’s reluctance to let go of identities has been the steadfast recipe for wars all through history. While World War I got instigated and extended because countries couldn’t let go of their extreme nationalism, World War II was founded on Nazis defending a fabricated identity that Hitler had given them. And as regards the annals of wars that followed, the same principle of defending identities beyond limits resurfaces as the root cause time and time again. Right now, as I am typing these words on my computer, China is rehearsing military drills for the invasion of Taiwan, with the intent of defending its “One China” identity.
And while this war-mongering continues between nations, small domestic battles are being waged in innumerable Indian homes between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, again because of the ego’s tendency to hold on to expired identities. In Sanskrit, a mother’s affection for her son is called mamata, which means “ownership.” The mother has the identity of being the owner of her son, and it sure enhances the sweetness of motherhood. But once the son gets married, a new owner enters his life: his wife. And if the mother fails to acknowledge this change in proprietorship and continues to defend her expired identity, a war is sparked in the household.
Even in nuclear families, it’s often because of the ego that couples grow apart. Husbands and wives end up drawing battle lines upon returning from office because they refuse to leave behind their professional identities at the doormat. You may be the boss at the office, but back home your identity gets relegated to that of a servant—doesn’t matter whether you are the husband or the wife. Either you acknowledge this and learn to play the part or prepare yourself for fireworks.
Excerpted with permission from The Power of Karma Yoga by Gopinath Chandra Das
Publishing/ Jaico Publishing House (2023)
You can buy your copy here.
Gopinath Chandra Das did his B.Tech and M.Tech from IITB. In 2004, he joined ISKCON as a full-time monk. A life coach and motivational speaker, he helps people improve the quality of their lives with teachings from the Bhagavad Gita. With his background in science and technology, he presents the Gita in a scientific light. To contact him, you may visit www.thesacredconnect.com.