"One's own dharma, even when not done perfectly, is better than another's dharma, even though well performed; one does not incur sin doing the action prescribed by one's own condition." - Bhagavad Gita XVIII.47











PRABUDDHA BHARATAPrabuddha Bharata | September 2004  




                 A Survey of the Mind



                Swami Satyaswarupananda




                    (Continued from the previous issue)



     Some Psychological Issues



     The experiential world of Yoga-Vedanta also delineates several issues of deep theoretical and empirical import to psychology. They outline a system of mental practices that explore and utilize the diverse capabilities of the human mind to help one discover the ontological ground of one’s being.


     Unfortunately, Western psychology, dominated for the most part by the behavioural and (Freudian) psychodynamic schools, has had very little to say about but the most commonplace human behaviour. The relatively newer humanistic and transpersonal schools, centred on the human, transpersonal and cosmic dimensions of the personality, and focusing on the individual’s inner potential for growth, are still some way from becoming major forces in Western thinking. To make matters worse, most mainstream Western psychologists have been ignorant of the psychological insights furnished by Eastern thought, or harbour profound misconceptions about it. When Freud started a correspondence with Romain Rolland after the First World War, Rolland drew his attention to the spontaneous religious sentiment (as opposed to formal religion), ‘the feeling of the eternal’ (or ‘oceanic’ feeling), which, according to Rolland, is not only not uncommon but widely exerts a rich and beneficent power. Rolland asserted that this sentiment had never failed him through his life, was a source of vital renewal, never affected his critical faculties, and had nothing to do with his personal yearnings (it being a contact imposed on him as a fact). (1) He also sent Freud his biographies of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda (as exemplars of this ‘spontaneous religious sentiment’) on publication. Freud admitted that he did not know how to explain this feeling, having himself never experienced it, but then proceeded to interpret it as an expression of a primitive (or infantile) ego - with poorly defined ego boundaries. He also believed that mystical intuition ‘cannot reveal to us anything but primitive, instinctual impulses and attitudes - highly valued for an embryology of the soul when correctly interpreted, but worthless for orientation in the alien external world’. Franz Alexander’s paper on ‘Buddhistic Training as Artificial Catatonia’ is another oft-quoted example of ill-informed psychoanalytic interpretation.


     There have been others, however, whose experience pointed to the contrary. R M Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist, had in 1872 a remarkable and immensely joyous experience of ‘intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe’. He then brought out an anthology of the lives and teachings of personalities with a recorded history of similar experiences. This was his famous work Cosmic Consciousness, which also included a sketchy chapter on Sri Ramakrishna. Medard Boss, the influential Swiss existentialist and psychiatrist, wrote about his experience of Indian holy men in his book A Psychiatrist Discovers India (1965): ‘There were the exalted figures of the sages and holy men themselves, each of them a living example of the possibility of human growth and maturity and of the attainment of an imperturbable inner peace, a joyous freedom from guilt, and a purified selfless goodness and calmness.’ (187-8) Alan Roland, a contemporary psychoanalyst (and psychoanalytic writer) posits a ‘spiritual self’ as distinct from the ‘phenomenological self’ studied by traditional psychoanalysts.


     Scholars have noted that Freud’s theories were influenced by his own personal idiosyncrasies, family and social upbringing, as also the intellectual climate of scepticism, rationalism and positivism that pervaded the Europe of his times. Although Freud used many analogies from physics to give his views a ‘scientific’ flavour, psychoanalysis failed to earn respect as an ‘objective’ science. But physics itself has taken some curious turns since the days of Freud, and in a remarkable reversal of positions mathematicians and theoretical physicists are now proposing models of the human mind. A subjective idealist, for instance, would find Penrose’s world view quite akin to his own. The classical Aristotelian laws of thought stand modified today as a result of empirical observations (like the dual nature of light), while purely ‘rational’ mathematical insights have led to experimental discoveries in physics that would have otherwise appeared counter-intuitive (like the bending of light by gravity).



     Some Misconceptions about Eastern Psychologies



     The Yoga-Vedanta systems (as also the related Buddhist psychology embodied in the Abhidhamma and the Vishuddhimagga) provide a comprehensive functional model of the human mind that explains not only instinctive and ordinary motivated behaviour, but also ‘the farther reaches of human nature’ and the many dormant potentials of the mind that are seen manifested only occasionally in especially gifted individuals or in persons undergoing special discipline. Unfortunately, these psychological perspectives have not received the scientific attention they deserve, because of several misconceptions, a few of which it would not be out of place to discuss and clarify here.


     1. Because Eastern thought is largely religious, the scientific bent of modern psychology has led the great majority of Western psychologists to ignore the teachings of their Eastern counterparts. On the issue of Advaita Vedanta being a religion, the philosopher J N Mohanty argues:


     In the process of sadhana (or practice) shravana is hermeneutical, manana is philosophical, nididhyasana is meditative. None is religious. The meditative process is akin to explorations into one’s own psyche, to what may be called auto-psychoanalysis, than to anything that could be called ‘religious’. Moksha, the goal of this process, is not supernatural, otherworldly, soteriological. It is not salvation. It is discovery of the identity between the innermost truth of one’s ‘psyche’ and the innermost being of the world: of psychology and physics. What is religious about it? (2)


     D T Suzuki’s remark, made with regard to Buddhism, is also a perfectly valid appraisal of the position of the Yoga-Vedanta systems: ‘What would Freud have said to a religion in which there is no God, no irrational authority of any kind, whose main goal is exactly that of liberating man from all dependence, activating him, showing him that he and nobody else bears the responsibility for his fate?’ (3) On the contrary, as Joseph Byrnes notes, ‘Hinduism and Buddhism are so “psychologically” oriented that the use within the traditions of anything other than experimental psychology would be a redundancy.’ (4) It is worth noting that while both the Advaita Vedanta and Sankhya-Yoga systems allow for a God, He (or She) is not central to its theory and practice. One can be an adept in these systems without even believing in God.


     2. Issues of singular importance to Western personality theories, like developmental and social influence as well as the role of sex differences on mental function are not addressed by Yoga and Vedanta. Daniel Goleman has rightly suggested that the Eastern perspective of the human lifespan is radically different from Western concepts.5 Unlike Western psychology, Yoga-Vedanta takes a developmental perspective that not only spans across multiple lifetimes but also allows for ontogenetic movement up and down the evolutionary tree. There are not only good philosophical arguments in favour of transmigration (6) of the psychic apparatus, but many researchers have amassed impressive empirical data in its support. (7) Transmigration of the personality structure and continuity of existence often render the environmental influences over a few years of relatively lesser consequence. Moreover the social organization at the time of codification of these Darshanas was relatively simple and at the same time stratified by well-defined codes of conduct, so that social influences on behaviour were not as complex as at present. These theories also do not recognize sex differences in the Atman, the core of individual personality, or any gender-related differences in overall mental capacities, though other texts (like the Itihasas and Puranas) often discuss such differences in personality traits and behaviour.


     3. These psychologies being essentially phenomenological and a descriptive theory of internal states, they are very difficult to study objectively and experimentally, and leave enough scope for self-deception. This has been the stock argument of behaviourists, who refused to recognize mental states as the proper object of psychological study. But the newer and influential discipline of cognitive sciences specializes in the study of these very states. Electro-encephalography (EEG) and imaging techniques [Positron Emission Tomography (PET), Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)] now provide powerful tools for studying and correlating the electrical and metabolic activity of the brain with specific cognitive, emotional and volitional processes. It is now possible even to monitor the activity of a single neuron in situ. A whole host of positive physiological and psychological changes have now been scientifically found to be associated with meditation. Even differences in the types of meditation have been objectively documented. For example, in an oft-cited Indian study it was found that the EEGs of yogis practising deep one-pointed concentration of mind showed a pattern that could not be disturbed by strong stimuli like flashing lights or loud noise. In contrast, in a Japanese study of Zen masters practising mindfulness, on their exposure to repetitive stimuli (a series of clicks, neutral sounds as well as affectively loaded words) the EEG showed a continual and steady registering of each sound. They responded as much to the last click as to the first in a long series, and equally to neutral sounds and emotionally loaded words.


     4. Meditation is the key to mental health in Eastern traditions. The Western concept of meditation is coloured by the Judeo-Christian theistic tradition, where meditation is synonymous with discursive prayer or reflection after scriptural reading, and is intended as a scheme of moral and devotional training. In the Indian tradition dhyana is commonly translated as meditation and is the penultimate of a series of eight steps in Patanjali’s Yoga. It involves a very high degree of internal concentration wherein a solitary train of thought is maintained to the exclusion of other thoughts and perceptions. (8) But the six prior steps constitute a long preparatory discipline aimed at developing concentration of mind and the power of introspection along with detachment of the will from the hold of instinctual desires (abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tannirodhah). Abstinence from immoral activities (yama), working with a spirit of objective detachment, invoking thoughts contrary to those arousing instinctual drives (pratipaksha-bhavanam), mental repetition of a mantra (to train the mind to retain a single thought as well as to lay positive samskaras) are all primary disciplines that weaken drives (klesha-tanukarana), neutralize complexes (by increasing awareness of one’s thoughts and reactions) and prepare the mind for meditation. Many behavioural and cognitive therapeutic techniques used by Western psychologists - like avoidance and systematic desensitization by reciprocal inhibition (equivalent to pratipaksha-bhavanam), used for the treatment of anxieties and phobias - can be correlated with these basic yogic techniques. In its elementary stages, the Vedantic discipline of viveka or vichara would involve much of cognitive retraining, that is to say, alteration of maladaptive attitudes and reactions to events as well as biased thinking. Dhyana and samadhi, then, are higher states of yoga that can be sustained only after preliminary mental purification attained through strenuous practice. Also, it is only in these states that the higher faculties of mind become apparent.



     The Yoga-Vedanta Model of Mind



     (In the following discussion we shall be using rather freely concepts and terminology that have been separately developed by the Yoga and Vedanta systems in order to outline a comprehensive model of the mind). The Vedantists conceive of the human personality as possessing five components (termed koshas or sheaths), namely the physical (annamaya-kosha), the vital (pranamaya-kosha comprising psycho-physical energies), the mental (manomaya­kosha), the intellectual and judgemental (vijnanamaya-kosha, also called buddhi, mediating judgement and volition and corresponding to the Western psychological concept of ego) and the blissful self (anandamaya-kosha) that has no equivalent in Western psychology).


     In terms of personality traits a common and basic classification is based on the Sankhya­Yoga categories (called gunas) of tamas (principle of inertia), rajas (principle of activity) and sattva (principle of equilibrium or equanimity), which are conceived of as the fundamental matrix of Prakriti, or nature. Details of the personality traits (based on varying proportions of the three gunas) have been discussed in the Bhagavadgita. (9)


     The Vedantists conceive of the mind, or antahkarana, in terms of four functional modes: chitta, manas, buddhi and ahangkara. (a) Chitta acts as the storehouse of memories, samskaras (or subconscious impressions) and kleshas (literally, ‘pain-bearing obstructions’; they stand for five instinctual mental forces). Samskaras are functionally classified into two: vasana samskaras responsible for memories of past events, and karma samskaras, or karmashaya (the residue of past actions). The latter, on an individual basis, provides the impulse to act in certain ways, and collectively, determines the species of birth, longevity and the general pattern of personality and life experiences. In its collective function the karmashaya also has a trans­personal and cosmic dimension. (b) Manas comprises the constant perceptions and cogitations (termed vrittis) derived from and working on sensory inputs, as well as memories rising to consciousness from the depths of the chitta. (c) Buddhi is the intrinsic capacity of the mind, or antahkarana, to get concentrated into a limited number of (usually logically or emotionally linked) vrittis. Buddhi manifests as a definitive judgement (nishcayatmika buddhi) or a conscious decision to act (sangkalpa or kriti). It is worth remembering that in the overwhelming majority of people this sangkalpa, or volition, is simply determined by the interplay of karmashaya and klesha and can hardly be termed free volition. (d) Ahangkara is the mental mode of self-reference and self-awareness that all humans possess. It is responsible for appropriating all physical and mental perceptions and activities. In common parlance the term ahangkara is equated with egotism or ego but technically it refers only to the ‘I-sense’ (the asmita component of the kleshas). Pure consciousness (chit or chit-shakti), which is the very nature of the Atman or Purusha and is not related to any material category, gets identified with the unconscious material (jada) dynamism of the mind and the product (chit-jada granthi) is ahangkara. The result of this combination is the sense of self-awareness, which is what we term empirical consciousness (chetana). It is only this chetana that can be the object of empirical study. (10)


     In the Indian psychological context, behaviour is largely determined by samskaras, the dynamic residues of previous experiences lying dormant in the mind. They are stored not only during one’s present lifetime but through innumerable previous lives, thus allowing for an almost inexhaustible repertoire of behavioural patterns, although in practice the species, the physical body and the environment in a given lifetime narrow down the range of samskaras that can actually have a free play.


     The formation of karmashaya as well as its fructification is closely related to the function of certain forces termed kleshas, of which raga and dvesha, the attractive and repulsive drives, provide the familiar feelings of attachment and hatred to perceived physical or mental objects and lead to corresponding behaviour. Kleshas of a more pervasive nature are asmita, the sense of self, abhinivesha, the instinctual preservation of the self, and avidya, which by masking the underlying consciousness provides the matrix for the play of these psychic forces.


     Linked to a memory trace or any specific action (the physical effect of karmashaya), the kleshas not only result in the personal feelings of pleasure, pain and the like, but also leave fresh karma residues. Activated repeatedly, a klesha gains strength and results in the activation of karmashaya of certain types leading to fresh activity and fresh karmashaya formation, thus setting the pattern for behaviour stereotypes. De-linked from kleshas, or overwhelmed by karmashaya of a contrary nature, the karma-samskaras lose their inherent power of impulse generation in course of time. The kleshas, then, form the crucial link for all behaviour-modification strategies.


     Over and above this deterministic mind is the Purusha or Atman, the source of the consciousness streaming through the buddhi as also the will (chit-shakti), which guide our conscious behaviour. The will is responsible for concentrating the mind and detaching it from the play of samskaras and extraneous forces. This concentration and detachment of the mind (or the will) comprises the essence of all voluntary mental training.


     According to this model, deterministic behaviour derived from the samskaras can be modified in several ways. First, voluntary actions contrary to the general trend of the karmashaya weaken the force of the latter. Second, the kleshas can be consciously attenuated (technically termed tanukarana) by contrary thoughts. This is distinct from subconscious repression. Repressed kleshas are technically termed vicchinna. Finally, the light of consciousness (prajnaloka), when brought to bear on the subconscious portions of the mind, can completely neutralize dormant samskaras. This focusing of the prajnaloka requires discipline of a very high order, but even ordinary awareness of our samskaras through an alert observation of their effects on the conscious mind can help profoundly alter these effects. (11) Most effective psychological therapies depend on this focusing of awareness for resolving conflicts and complexes. All meditators are aware of the power of meditative awareness in calming the mind, reducing impulsiveness and dampening vortices of negative thought.


     This theory of the mind is in agreement with many recent neurophysiological findings. (12) Repeated excitation of a nerve leaves it easily excitable (termed ‘long-term potentiation’, or LTP), which then enhances its facilitatory or inhibitory function. Repeated stimulation has also been shown to alter gene expression, thus laying down long-term memories and patterns of behaviour. Also, emotionally charged cognitions (associated with strong kleshas) that are routed through the limbic system (responsible for mediating emotions) in the brain have been found to lay down memories very difficult to erase and thus modify behaviour accordingly. However, there is no known neurophysiological equivalent to the transpersonal dimension of karmashaya. Also, neurophysiological understanding of awareness is still rudimentary. Researchers are focusing on the neural correlates of attention and short-term memory as well as global processing of information by the brain to build a theory of awareness. The theories proposed to explain the sense of self are, however, not very credible. For example, some neurobiologists have proposed that a major portion of the brain is primarily concerned with the mapping of bodily as well as external perceptions. A second order of neurons then creates a fresh representation of their interaction and this in itself gives rise to the feeling of a coherent self. Unfortunately, even personal computers deal with many second-order representations, but they have never reported self-awareness.


     The most striking insights provided by Eastern psychologies are in the domain of mental powers and advanced capacities. As we noted earlier, the mind is actually structured to release tremendous power and attain apparently ‘supernormal’ insights if properly disciplined, purified of distractions and concentrated. Here we shall only consider two specific insights provided by these psychologies: (a) the Atman as the source of all pleasure; and (b) the mind’s capacity to erase all thought (nirodha). Vedantists identify the Atman as the source of all joy, right down to the pleasure of ordinary sense perception. The Atman is identified not only as the ground of existence (Being), but also as of the nature of consciousness and bliss. As stated earlier, perception, in Vedantic epistemology, depends on the mind’s ‘taking the form of’ its object (tadakara vritti). This focused vritti illumined by the consciousness of the Atman constitutes objective knowledge. In every act of focused perception the Atman is revealed (sakshad-aparokshad-­brahma). (13) Consequently, every act of knowing leads to satisfaction - a manifestation of the bliss of the Atman. All sensual pleasure also is a result of this focusing of the mind induced by the object of pleasure.n (14) However, voluntary concentration of the mind is an arduous task (as any schoolchild can aver); in fact, forcing a desultory mind into concentration often results only in reactionary distractedness. Hence the universal urge for novelty that transfixes the mind involuntarily. This also accounts for the sense of joy in and after deep sleep. It is worth noting that neurophysiologists have identified neurotransmitters that mediate pleasure. Every novel experience is found to release endogenous opioids (opium-like substances) in the brain, and this is associated with pleasurable sensation. Nevertheless, as we have noted earlier, identification of a chemical mediator does not in itself explain the psychological experience of pleasure. The fact that the core of the human personality is blissful or joyous is alien to Western psychology. In fact, some post-Freudian psychoanalysts tell us that there is a ‘depressive core’ to the human personality. Existential psychologists contend that guilt and dread (of Nothingness) are basic human existentials that none can transcend. In contrast, Yoga and Vedanta take this transcendence to be the very goal (purushartha) of humanity. Recognizing this true source of joy can drastically alter one’s perception of life for the better. Therapists can also use this insight to help patients with a whole range of disorders including anxiety and depression. Finally, for empiricists, this can be a hypothesis that can be put to objective test.


     Meditators universally record the experience of joy that accompanies meditation once early distractions are overcome, and this increases till the mind is able to sustain a solitary thought (samanajatiya pratyayapravaha), a state technically termed savikalpa samadhi. Yoga psychologists, however, speak of stages even beyond this. The mind can actually be turned off (termed nirodha), that is, made free of all vrittis. This is distinct from sleep since sleep itself is a vritti. As the phenomenon is very rare, authentic descriptions of its physiological effects are also difficult to come by. Evidently, the yogi practising nirodha is initially able to stop all vrittis for brief periods only, but once established in the nirodha of asamprajnata yoga, most yogis would not be able to reverse the process. About the characteristics of nirodha in the context of Buddhist meditation, Daniel Goleman writes:


     Although nirodha can last for seven days of the human time-rhythm, there is no time sequence in the state itself: the moment immediately preceding it and immediately following it are experienced as of immediate succession. The limit of seven days given for the duration of nirodha may be due to its unique physiology: heartbeat and normal metabolism, it is said, cease along with consciousness though metabolic processes continue at a residual level so that the meditator’s body can be distinguished from a corpse.’ (15)


     Sri Ramakrishna tells us that for most yogis the body expires in three weeks’ time following nirodha. The fact that Sri Ramakrishna’s own heartbeat would stop during samadhi was recorded by his physician. (16) An interesting eyewitness account of a yogi’s passing away twenty-one days after what was apparently nirodha, at a Ramakrishna Mission hospital, was recently recorded in this journal. (17) To the yoga psychologist this is no suicide. It is the culmination of the effort to regain self-identity (that is, the Atman) unhindered by the trappings of the mind.






     We have briefly reviewed some of the important theoretical and experimental perspectives that have a bearing on our current understanding of the human mind. It is obvious that a lot of ground remains to be covered before we can have an adequate empirical understanding of the mind and mental processes. Developments in disciplines as diverse as psychology and theoretical physics are likely to have important contributions to make in this process. Interdisciplinary collaboration and collation of ideas will be needed to develop a working theoretical model of the mind that can not only explain known behaviour but also generate testable hypotheses. This is the very basis of scientific development. Much of the advances in higher experimental and applied physics has been accompanied (and often preceded) by advances in theoretical physics. The last decade was christened ‘the decade of the brain’. Many people believe that this century will witness spectacular advancements in the empirical understanding of the mind and consciousness. The current trend of events does not belie that hope.





     Notes and References



     1. Selected Letters of Romain Rolland, eds. F Dore and M Prevost (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 86-8.

     2. J N Mohanty, ‘Advaita Vedanta as Philosophy and Religion’ in Vedanta: Concepts and Application (Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 2000).

     3. D T Suzuki, Erich Fromm and Richard De Martino, Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), 124.

     4. Joseph Byrnes, Psychology of Religion (New York: Macmillan Free Press, 1984), 240.

     5. Daniel Goleman, ‘Eastern Psychology’ in Theories of Personality, eds. C S Hall, G Lindzey and J G Campbell (New Delhi: John Wiley, 1978), 373.

     6. For example, see ‘The Cosmos: Microcosm’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.212-25; and ‘ Reincarnation’ in ibid., 4.257-71.

     7. Ian Stevenson, Director, Division of Personality Studies, University of Virginia, USA, has compiled an International Registry of over 3000 cases of individuals with memories suggestive of reincarnation. Dr Stevenson’s reports are characterized by their attention to detail, rigorous attempt to cross-check the claims of the participants and scientific analysis of data to eliminate biases. In India the leading researcher in this field has been Satwant Pasricha, a clinical psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore. Unfortunately, theological, dogmatic, cultural and personal biases have consistently worked against the incorporation of these findings in the orthodox scientific world view. Consequently, psychologists have to persistently keep ignoring many important behavioural issues (like the talent of prodigious children) inexplicable on the basis of a single lifetime, and several cultures fail to derive the benefits of a world view with wider existential ‘givens’ which can profoundly and positively affect one’s approach to issues like disease and death.

     8. William James thought this to be an impossible task. He wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, ‘No one can possibly continuously attend to an object that does not change.’

     9. See Bhagavadgita 13.19-40 and 17.2-22.

     10. The Gita (13.5-6) identifies chetana as an attribute of kshetra, or Prakriti.

     11. The Gestalt psychotherapist F Perls had rightly noted that ‘Awareness itself can heal.’

     12. This is not to suggest that the present neuro­physiological model is the best way of explaining mentality.

     13. Vedanta Paribhasha of Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, trans. Swami Madhavananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1983), 8.

     14. See ‘The Bliss of Objects’ in Panchadashi of Sri Vidyaranya Swami, trans. Swami Swahananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1975).

     15. Daniel Goleman, The Buddha on Meditation and Higher States of Consciousness (Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1980), 44-5.

     16. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, trans. Swami Jagadananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1978), 385.

     17. Swami Sarvagatananda, ‘You Will Be a Paramahamsa’ in Prabuddha Bharata, January 2003, 16-7.


     Read more:


     A Survey of the Mind (July 2004)

     A Survey of the Mind (August 2004)

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015






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