Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

Freud's Unconscious in the
Light of vedAnta

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Sundararajan Mohan

(As published in the October-December 2008 issue of Mountain Path, a quarterly journal from
Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu - 606 603, India)

Sundararajan Mohan

For more information about Sundararajan Mohan and his work, visit his blog, Advaitananda.

Sarvam etad brahma ayam atma brahma soayam atma chatushpath
mANDUkya upaniShad

mANDUkya upaniShad is one of the briefest expositions on vedAnta and is yet considered to be one of the most significant treatises. It definitively and authoritatively describes the structure of the human being and the entire universe as being fourfold in nature.

The first part (or pAda, literally connoting �quarter�) is the physical aspect, the human body and the entire physical universe, both of which have been the subject matter of science. This is termed the �gross body� (the sthula) and is described as having nineteen modes of expression. These include the five sensory organs, the five organs of action, the five vital airs (or prANa), thoughts, intellect, memory (chitta) and individuality (ahaMkAra). The last two modes are a kind of memory bank of accumulated information, impressions and experiences, and various unique feelings associated with them. Chitta � ahaMkAra thus defines the unique personality of the individual and describes how the person views the world. It will be noted that the physical aspect, according to the upaniShad, incorporates the four aspects of the mind, thus emphasizing that even the so-called physical aspect comprises not only the bodily parts but also the vital airs and the mind. The first pAda, the vaishvAnara or vishva, is thus an amalgamation of all three energies, physical, vital and mental.

The first part of the human system is amenable to observation by others in the form of its actions, expressions and general behaviour. This first pAda is termed the �waking state� or �jAgratha avasthA�. It implies that in this condition the human being is aware of the outside world in a fully wakened condition. The term �waking� differentiates this part from the other aspects.

This part of the human personality is the easiest to study and hence Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) termed it the �conscious� aspect of human personality. As a medical practitioner and scientist he commenced his study from this part.

The second part is the mental aspect of the human being. While the �mind� is present in the first part in a muted and invisible presence in the awakened body, in the second part everything is mental. The upaniShad calls the second part as �of the nature of light� or taijasa. The mental part of the human personality reproduces all the experiences of the first part in a subtle or �illuminated� form. It is akin to a movie or video record of real-life experience. The waking state experiences the latter, while the mental state reproduces the former. That is why the purely mental state is called �dreaming state� or �svapna�. The dreaming condition in the human being best delineates the mental state. The upaniShad calls it the �inward consciousness� or antar pragna. This condition has all the characteristics of the waking state because it simply reproduces the stored memories of past experiences.

Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the dream state. He carried out a careful study of the dreams of his patients as also his own dreams. He noted, as the upaniShad indicates, that past experiences are replayed in dreams. However, his analysis indicated several important features of dreams. In particular, he noted that certain experiences are replayed in a distorted form. He spent considerable research effort in analyzing the nature and cause of these distortions and posited the existence of a filtering or �censorship� mechanism that does not permit certain memories to be replayed in their original form. He concluded that the dream is an important means of ventilating stored memories. He theorized that such stored memories could be said to have an �energy� level of their own. Negative memories could be said to have higher energy levels than normal or positive memories. One could say that the more difficult or traumatic the experience, the higher the energy required to store or suppress the memories.

Consequently these negative or traumatic memories seem to exert a force of their own to become known. This resulted in complex dreams, or in many cases, the stored negative memory forced itself out even in the waking condition in the form of peculiarities of speech, or facial contortions, or strange behaviour accompanied by strong emotions, all of which, in Freud�s time came to be classified as �hysteria�.

The upaniShads do not specifically classify dreams as negative or positive but state that they have the same characteristics as the waking state, except that they are in subtle form.

The waking and dream states in man are considered akin to each other, as they arise from the same original cause, namely, chitta-ahaMkAra i.e. stored memories and individuality.

In his seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud posited a vast storehouse of memories from which the censor would permit distorted versions to appear in the form of dreams. He called this storehouse as the �Unconscious�. He sensed that the human being is not aware of this storehouse, but it had the capacity to create tremendous internal and external problems for the person. It is this very storehouse that is called chitta-ahaMkAra in the upaniShad. The memories relate not just to the day-to-day experiences of this lifetime but contain traces from previous births.

Freud�s analysis of dreams tends to be selective, being limited to those shared by his patients and those experienced by him. Several thinkers have recorded dreams which do not seem to relate to any experience of this lifetime. All creative thinking, art, literature, music, etc., can be said to derive from the chitta-ahaMkAra. Modern existentialism has given a free reign to the expression of these inner memories in various forms.

Freud called this ventilation of inner urges as �wish-fulfillment�. The upaniShad terms it as an expression of desire or kAma. However, Freud did not analyze the third part of the human system which the upaniShad describes, and which is called �deep sleep�. The upaniShad gives this aspect a great deal of importance. The deep sleep condition or suShupti state, which is called the third pAda is a state of bliss marked by the total absence of sensory phenomena and the absence of mind in all its aspects. The only consciousness in the deep sleep state is of a state of bliss.

From this analysis arises the yoga formula that absence of mind with all perceptions of memories and feelings can result in a near state of bliss. All yoga sAdhanA, therefore, attempts to describe methodologies to detach consciousness from the world outside, from one�s body, and from one�s mind, the stored memories, and feelings of individuality and the stress of desires.

The upaniShad posits that the bliss of the deep sleep condition is only a reflection of the blissful nature of reality or brahman. In this condition, the jIvAtma no doubt experiences bliss but it is steeped in ignorance of reality and does not cognize brahman. Thus the state of deep sleep is one of blissful ignorance.

However, the upaniShad goes on to state that �This Atma is brahman�. When that realization is achieved, the jIvAtma becomes paramAtma. The transition from the third part, represented by the deep sleep state, to the fourth part or level that is realization of brahmanhood is the most difficult sAdhanA.

In India we have been blessed with a continuous exposure to brahman in various forms with various names. The names and forms given to brahman , the pantheatic tradition of symbology of gods and goddesses, of symbolic battles and all sorts of legends and stories, the Purana-s, has helped us to detach ourselves from the waking and dreaming experiences in life and look beyond deep sleep at self-realization as a worthwhile goal of life.

The upaniShad promises peace, auspiciousness and non-duality or unity, as the resultant condition achieved by sAdhanA. Thus, instead of researching the phenomenal world of the waking condition and the memory-actuated world of the dreaming condition, instead of indulging either in the pleasures of the outer world or the pains of past memories, one is continuously advised to look seriously at the bliss of the deep sleep condition, recognize the broad outlines of one�s soul, and yearn, struggle and contemplate union with brahman which is called the Existent Truth, the Perfect Pure Awareness and Absolute Bliss (sat-chit-Ananda).

For the last century, the Western world has been greatly exercised with the discoveries of Sigmund Freud and the long line of psychologists who have followed him. It may be appropriate for the world to consider, more seriously, the fourfold structure of the human personality and the universe propounded by vedAnta. Mankind�s march to universal peace, brotherhood and bliss may lie in this path. Several Vedic and Vedantic texts state with great conviction, �There is indeed no other path!� i.e. nanyaha pantha ayanaya vidhyate!

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