27 March 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 of them had admitted to the police during the investigation.  

The article gained much traction, and the incident became the emblem of urban apathy in America. It triggered academic studies, and the incident eventually made its way into psychology textbooks, which called such reluctance of witnesses to involve themselves 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 Bill that kind of evasion smacked of the same apathy that shadowed his sister’s murder. “I wasn’t going to be like the 38 witnesses,” Bill said in retrospect to the Washington Post years later. 

Bill went to Vietnam, was injured on the war front, 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. And for that, the story of the American inventor Edwin Land would be a suitable starting point, for the ego steamrolled over him – undisguised.

The ego

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 digitalization; he expressed interest in collaborating on an electronic camera. The idea was lost on Land, who reasoned that customers would always want print, and that the quality of digital pics could never match those of chemically processed ones.

As it turned out, Land was wrong. But ironically, 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 co-founded. Obviously, it was Land’s own ego that had catalyzed his toppling. But before we take a closer look at this case study, let’s first analyze the positive indispensable role 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, sing the national anthem, and cast my votes; as a monk, I think spiritually, lecture on the Bhagavad Gita, and strive to serve society selflessly; as a disciple, my thoughts are discipled, and so are my words and actions; and as a son, I desire for the good health of my aging parents, call them up regularly, and visit them once 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 the identities that it has given. And that’s exactly what happened with Edwin Land. 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. Instead, his ego was unwilling and defensive, which precipitated his downfall. 

Personally, as a spiritual life coach, I have come across two young men who relentlessly held onto identities of being professional cricketers. Both spent hours at the net practicing, and dreamt of one day making their mark on the international scene. But despite being in their mid-twenties, neither had ever qualified for any first-class cricket tournament thus far. Clearly, it was high time for them to move on, and start looking for alternative careers. But both struggled to let go of their cherished identities. Meanwhile, time was ticking by, and they were left with fewer and fewer backup career options.     

Catalyzing the undoing of individuals aside, the ego’s reluctance to let go of identities can lead to wars. 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 identity of “One China”. 

And while this war-mongering is escalating tension between nations, small domestic battles are waging in innumerable Indian homes between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, 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 literally 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. 

The ego’s defense team

The defense team of the ego, or the ahankar, has two players: mann and buddhi. Mann, often translated as the mind, is the emotional part of our psyche. And Buddhi, often translated as the intelligence, is the rational part. The mann, buddhi and ahankar together form our sukshma sharir, our invisible-self, our psyche. (Interestingly, even according to modern science our psyche consists of 3 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 any of the senses that threatens any identity given by the ego, the mind dismisses. That rejection is expressed through negative feelings like fear, anger, disgust, melancholy, or annoyance. 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. The feelings that the mind generates, the intelligence rationalizes. When Land was annoyed, his intelligence reasoned 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 hard on Bill. He wanted to be empathetic; that was to be his new identity. Empathizing with the American cause in Vietnam, therefore, became his calling. And while defending that identity of being empathetic, his ego presumably ignored the naysayers of the Vietnam war, like Land’s ignored Morita’s foresight. A stark example of how the ego’s tendency to defend identities can be a detriment even with virtues like empathy! Bill’s story also demonstrates how the ego can have an overbearing influence on your life — unbeknownst to you — even though you qualify nowhere close to being labeled an egomaniac.  

For instance, let’s suppose that your ego has given you the identity that you are good-looking. Now, if the evening selfie that you posted on Instagram is starving for likes even late in the night, you will very likely go to bed anxiety-ridden and stressed-out. Waking up in the morning, if you find it still famished, you will be either depressed, or angry at your friends, at the world, or perhaps at yourself. On the other hand, if your post is brimming with likes by morning, you will likely get arrogant. Or at least, your identity of being good-looking will get reinforced. There would be little reason to celebrate though, because the next time you post your selfie on Instagram – with that heightened conviction about your good-looks – your experience is going to be more intense: more stressful to begin with, and then, either more painful or more boastful. When the ego wins a battle, prepare for the war that’s going to follow; and again if it wins, prepare for a bigger war. And the more wars it wins, the more excruciating will be the defeat that eventually follows.

When the ego is battling to defend an identity, you experience stress and anxiety; when it loses, you either slip into depression or soar into a rage; and when it wins, you get arrogant. This battle-within gets waged every single day, every-now-and-then. These emotions – stress, anxiety, anger, depression, and arrogance – are ubiquitous in our times, a primary reason being that people’s egos are busy defending identities all day long. 

Aren’t you hearing a lot of buzz about managing emotions — on Youtube and social media outlets, in therapy sessions, magazines, and self-help books? The tips they provide do come handy, hands down. But equally important is to understand the interconnection between emotions and the ego. The detoxification of the ego — in other words, taming the ego to let go of identities — is interlinked with keeping the emotions from spinning out of control, whether they be positive or negative. 

Bhagavad Gita begins with Arjuna’s ego going defensive

Interestingly, the Bhagavad Gita opens with the warrior Arjuna – his ego rather – trying to defend identities on the warfield of Kurukshetra. 

The lead-up to this fratricidal war is described in the epic Mahabharatha. In essence, the Kauravas – one hundred brothers headed by Duryodhana – had usurped the throne of their cousins, the Pandava brothers – Yudhishtira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva. Consequently, the citizens had come under the sinister rule of Duryodhana, a megalomaniac. The Pandavas, after failed attempts for a peaceful settlement, had rightfully decided to wage a war to reclaim their kingdom – not for themselves, but for dharma to prevail in the state. Meanwhile, Duryodhana, continuing with his shenanigans, had convinced a major portion of the family-friends and kinsmen to side with him during the fight against the Pandavas.   

At the brink of war, Arjuna threw up his hands. He turned to his charioteer Lord Sri Krishna:  

My dear Krishna, seeing my friends and relatives present before me in such a fighting spirit, I feel the limbs of my body quivering and my mouth drying up… I do not see how any good can come from killing my kinsmen in this battle…why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? (Bhagavad Gita 1.29,31,34) 

On the battlefield, opposing Arjuna, was grandfather Bhishma, whose presence reminded Arjuna of his own identity of being a pet grandson. There was guru Drona, whose presence brought to his mind his duties as an obedient disciple; friend Ashvatthama’s presence evoked his commitment to a faithful friend; uncle Shalya’s sight called upon his responsibility as a nephew. The specter of war threatened all these identities — of being a grandson, a disciple, a friend, a nephew, and many more. And so Arjuna’s ego entered the defense mode, and his mind rushed in with negative feelings of depression, as Arjuna’s words reflect.

Next, Arjuna’s intelligence backed up those feelings with rationalizations; the Gita enlists – verse after verse – the reasons that he gives favoring evasion of war.   

Sri Krishna, well recognizing Arjuna’s state of mind, rubbishes those feelings and justifications. It was high time that Arjuna let go of those identities and did his duty as a responsible warrior. Sri Krishna doesn’t mince any words while shaking up Arjuna: 

Do not yield to this degrading impotence. It does not become you. Give up such petty weakness of heart and arise, O chastiser of the enemy. (Bhagavad Gita 2.3)

Sri Krishna didn’t stop at this, for he knew a mere pep-talk would fall short as Arjuna’s crisis ran deep – it was rooted in the ego.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna subsequently mentors Arjuna in the subtle art of letting go of identities.