Ego, as I understand it, is the emotionally invested persona that one feels and expresses in one's interpersonal relationships. Arrogance, humility, pride, self-esteem, insults, affirmation, rejection, etc. pertain to this phenomenon of our psychological world.
Before condemning something, it is generally worthwhile to consider the reasons for its existence. Ego has been condemned most vociferously by spirituality and religion, and to abnegate one's ego, to surrender it to a higher power has been considered a noble virtue.
If a child manages to jump across a manhole, if a man wins an award for a scientific breakthrough, if a professor knows that he understands a particular subject very deeply, they may feel proud and their "chest may swell".
On the other hand, if one is called a fool in public, if one discovers that one's wife is cheating on oneself, if a professor's paper is rejected by a journal, they may feel insulted, let down, and may feel depressed.
It must already be clear to astute readers that, in the evolutionary sense, ego and the feelings related to it are cues for us to gain status and respect of our peers.
Ego is only meaningful in a relationship with other human beings. Imagine a child growing up on a secluded island. It intuitively sounds correct that he will not have stored insults and would not have self-esteem issues.
The formation of the ego is also not very difficult to understand. As soon as one starts interacting with humans other than one's nourishing and caring mother, a challenge-response feedback loop is set up. One may justify a sole claim on one's mother (unfortunately one's father competes for that resource as well), but other resources in life are claimed by numerous competitors.
To thwart the competitors by physical force is one way, to deter them with social force (with the threat of physical force if they don't get the hint) is another.
Ego is the weapon of interpersonal intimidation which provides me with the power to psycho-socially subjugate others.
This weapon can be "rightly" gained in various ways. Through inheritance and association, through achievement, through hard work, through intellectual and artistic recognition, through wealth, through having an asset which is the envy of others, and so on and so forth.
Ego is the psychological marker of my worth and status in my peer group. I feel it, and others feel it.
And needless to say perhaps, a diminishing of one's ego is, simultaneously:
(a) Painful to oneself,
(b) Painful to those who are positively associated with oneself,
(c) Pleasant to those who stand to gain by my demotion,
(d) A trigger for the desire to regain the earlier state (e.g. by revenge)
Now, why do religions and spirituality condemn this phenomenon?
First of all, being egoistic makes one less inclined to defer to others' wishes, so it is a control tactic by the priestly classes, ruling cliques and the various gurus, etc.
Secondly, it can be counterproductive to be too egoistic in a group where one's interests align with others (e.g. in a family or clan). Hence, within certain limits, it may pay to "swallow one's pride" and therefore it may be considered a virtue in those contexts.
Thirdly, it is obviously painful to suffer an ego wound, and spirituality is a balm for those who, once humiliated and suffering from inferiority, have no urge to fight in the social arena and get back their ego status. It is an "inward" solution for those for whom the "outer" solutions are too stressful.
A true spiritualist will therefore not feel passionately inclined to do something which gains him status amongst his human peers. He will not be interested in inventing a new drug, or in winning an award, in building a great bridge or building, in proving a new theorem, etc.
A spiritual seeker may say that he doesn't value "status", but it may very well be that he cannot handle the battle-heat for winning it from his peers. And of course, spiritual leaders must necessarily be supremely egoistic (they are leaders more than they are spiritual). Buddha engaged in tough arguments with Brahmins for intellectual status (he didn't hope to enlighten them, now, did he?). Osho was immensely touchy to any hint of criticism. Krishnamurti's aristocratic air and intimidatory dialectic in conversations is well-known.
And of course, the battle for ego-status (to get it, to regain it, to hurt the other who hurt me) is going to continue as long as humans have a power structure where greater power leads to one being a more valuable member of society and leads to better resources for oneself and one's associates.
Ego and status can be ill-gotten and can be enforced via fear and the threat of physical force (common amongst third-world politicians), it can be ill-gotten by faking one's accomplishments (common amongst university professors), it can be ill-gotten by cunning and deceit (common on Wall Street), but in each of these, it requires ingenuity. One may say that skill in exploiting the loopholes of a social system is eligibility enough for one to gain dominion over others. As the world becomes more democratic, these loopholes are sought be closed by the lowly masses against their oppressive masters. The battle continues.
Now, to give up one's ego is a refusal to participate in the social battle. It is, and there is no other way to say it, an escape. Such people (i.e. the enlightened) will always be a rare minority precisely because it is not an evolutionary-stable-strategy. If a man engages with the rest of society in a truly egoless way, he won't get the prettiest lady or the biggest house, to put it mildly.
In short, such human beings have no genetic future and are therefore should be considered aberrations and not the "perfect humans" which average mortals must seek to emulate. The rest of humanity is engaged in a do-or-die struggle, full with ego, and insults, and hurts, and battles, and such enlightened people are best to just bow to for their blessings for victory in one's personal battle.
If you are hopelessly incapable of fighting it out, egolessness is a viable option. However, interestingly, the arena of egolessness (spirituality) is again full of status anxiety and competition these days.
Hence, true seekers work it out in solitude. To be part of a religious group is not to seek egolessness, but to seek status in a different game.
(to be continued)