The Psychological Perspectives of Our Times…Three Shifts of a Rhythm – Foundations of Indian Psychology, Volume 1

The Psychological Perspectives of our Times…Three Shifts of a Rhythm

Aster Patel

As one looks within at the ‘existential’ position of one's being, one discovers that one is living in three distinct shifts in the psychological perspectives of our times. Time-shifts that overlap at moments, seem almost to converge and yet remain distant from reaching the ‘totality’ they strive for! We shall present these perspectives at some significant points of their own progression, without forcing an attempt to arrive at a comfortable-seeming conclusion!

At this stage of our journey, distinctions are needed to better understand the routes we have to follow to arrive at our destination—a collective destination for man in his effort to understand himself and arrive at his fullest potential of growth.

I

  • In the Western tradition, the quest for knowledge has been marked by the Aristotelian classification of the various disciplines—which required that they be pursued in their distinctiveness and isolation one from the other—as the greatest virtue lay in rendering distinct in identity, form and function

    Thus, from the sixteenth century onward, the analytic and reductionist method of enquiry came to the fore in a kind of absolute way—to delve into the secrets of nature and to unravel her operations. And to so recombine their mechanisms as to suit the purposes of man.

  • The results arrived at were so stupendous that it came to be believed that this was the method par excellence for all investigation, for any pursuit of knowledge.

    Not only for the study of natural phenomena, where the success was all too evident, but this was also the method to be applied to the study of psychological and social phenomena—to man and society.

  • Its first application to the study of man in modern times took the form of behaviourism, in which personality was seen in terms of the traits of behaviour, which could be the object of observation and interpretation.
  • However, the focus shifted, in course of time, to internal subjective factors with the need to look into causes of abnormal behaviour, which was the work to which Freud devoted himself—and developed the practice of psycho-analysis.
  • In order to set right the abnormalities of behaviour, it was found that in bringing to light the causes of such behaviour, a certain ‘integration’ of the personality took place as a consequent result.

    This fact of integration of the personality became for Jung, his successor, the most significant line of pursuit. How does integration take place? He arrived at the conclusion that there exists a deep-seated ‘centre’ in human personality, which exercises the function of integrating the disparate elements of the personality by attracting them to itself like a ‘magnet’. He added that he was led to posit the existence of such a centre in personality by the results that could be observed when a cure took place. But that he had personally no direct experience of its existence such as would serve conclusively as evidence. But, he went on to say, that the yogīs in India had a personal experience of it.

  • There was no reversal of this perspective of psychology in the West. It came to be accepted that there are deeper levels of consciousness in the human person—other than the observable traits of behaviour—which are subliminal and subconscious, both at an individual dimension and at a racial and archetypal one.
  • Our times are witness to this steady stream of exploration which has culminated in the ‘Transpersonal’ seeking for ranges of consciousness that are higher than the ones we habitually possess—in extent, quality and function.
  • How far can the analytic and reductionist method go, one that we are accustomed to applying in all our investigations—this is one of the burning questions that loom large on man's horizon. Has it begun to redefine its contours to seize the greater realities it is confronted with? Can it do so at all? Does man have to look for a new method altogether? Has such a method existed and been practiced, with good result, in other cultures and civilizations? A host of pressing questions form the search-list of these times! And the sense of urgency that accompanies them mounts with the hour!
•   •   •
  • Parallel to this development in the perspective of psychology, the physicist, in applying the analytic and reductionist method to the study of ‘matter’, arrives at radical results, which reverse all previous findings.

    He set out to disengage ‘parts’, so as to study them in their distinctiveness and thus arrive at a knowledge of the sum of the parts, in the form of ‘aggregates’.

    But he begins to find that the parts do not exist in their separateness—he is in the presence of ‘wholes’ as primary realities, that are organic and dynamic, and are present in each of the ‘parts’ and determine their character and function. Thus creating a structure and inter-linking of the ‘parts’ within the ‘whole’, with the ‘whole’ present in each of the ‘parts’.

  • No discovery could have been more revolutionary! One that is irreversible in nature. A new departure in the further quest for knowledge is inevitable. Another ground is laid and to proceed farther, another methodology is needed.

 

Two momentous consequences follow:

  • If the physicist can discover the presence of ‘wholes’ in his study of matter by an analytic and reductionist method, then a very significant change must already have taken place in the perceiving consciousness of man to enable him to do so.
  • Further, this discovery has made it possible for him to create an entirely new range of technology—one by which we live and function today and which brings the world, nay, the universe itself, in a close-knit, web-like formation of a rhythmic and dynamic action. This technology finds itself in a cycle of progressive and accelerated innovation.
  • Consequent to these findings and the resultant technology, the ancient Aristotelian scheme of knowledge of the separateness of disciplines remains altered. Each discipline not only cuts into the edge of many others but none is complete unto itself without the others.
  • A new view of the universe expands the horizon. A ‘wholistic’ universe in which the inter-connectedness of structures ‘within the whole’ becomes the very basis of all its functioning. In such a universe, the pathways to knowledge amid the sciences themselves, as also amid the arts, connect, coalesce and mingle in a networking pattern of proximity and reciprocal meanings.
  • The scheme of disciplines, in the West today, stands changed—with new nomenclatures reflecting unified and complex lines of endeavour. There is hardly a discipline that does not move into other zones, overlapping territories and giving rise to new disciplines. The ‘body’ is identifiable but the frontiers are fluidic.
•   •   •
  • Man is faced with a serious question of methodology. Is the analytic and reductionist method of enquiry, which has stood him in such good stead so far, able to sustain the journey into these other horizons that open wide their vistas before him? Whether in his study of matter—or, of the human personality? He explores afresh, within his own cultural moorings or in other cultures elsewhere, with which he has today become familiar.
  • For the forces that gather momentum day by day with a striking rapidity are of the nature of a wide networking configuration—whether in international dealings, in economic structures, in communication and information, in movements of ideas and cultural interchange, in societal patterns. A sense of a vast web of the collective, as primary reality, prevails!
  • The West has come a long way from its early moorings—along a path well explored, till it has been led to a point, which was perhaps the least foreseen!

    It thus finds itself ‘perched’ on the experience that India has made of the universe—and the knowledge she has gathered along many routes and the methods that she has experimented with in her long, millennial history.

    It is a galvanizing moment in our contemporary times—when the West, sure of its methodology, needing none other for long, triumphant centuries, comes to a kind of standstill! Unsure of how to deal with the ‘wholes’ it has discovered, on the basis of an analytic, reductionist method. The question of a ‘new’ method, another ‘basis’ altogether of methodology is of critical urgency.

    It thus looks to other cultures, other civilizations which have made use of other methods—and to see if they correspond to present needs and situations.

  • It is in vain, that people speak of a clash of civilizations. What we are living through is a moment of the ‘complementarily’ that cultures offer—or, even of their integration into a greater whole of culture in which mankind can participate and enrich itself. An ‘integrative cycle’ of knowledge and cultures is ours.

II

  • What is the perspective in which the Indian spirit has sought knowledge of man, nature and the universe?

    The Indian spirit was imbued, since times immemorial, with a sense of three great intuitions:

    • Consciousness is the one all-pervasive fact of existence. All that is, is ‘consciousness’. Consciousness self-possessed or cast in forms of its own substance, to make real to itself its outline of objectivity. The dynamics of this act of creation is inherent in it—and the joy of expressiveness in form of being is its sole purpose. An inalienable absoluteness of joy—the joy of consciousness creating endlessly ‘forms’ from its own substance.
    • All experience and knowledge flow from identification with this pervasive fact of conscious existence. To know That—by knowing which all is known.
    • The way of knowing That is by a secret identity with It in the immediacy of one's consciousness. This is the one central way of knowing—by becoming That which is sought to be known. And since all existence is one and consciousness is the all-pervasive reality of this existence, man has only to fathom in himself the secrets of this consciousness and thus unravel the secrets of all existence.
  • Thus the entire process of knowledge is a unitary fact and the way of knowing is to energize the consciousness-force in oneself and to become identified with the all-existent, so as to gain knowledge of its contents in their full range and extent.
•   •   •
  • A unique way of knowing—but, surely, the intimacy and certitude with which we know the contents of our conscious being has no parallel with other ways of knowing, which distance themselves from the subject and circle around it. Besides, this unique way of knowing has stood the test of millennia of history. It has been practiced, tested with the utmost scruple of rigour and subtlety, and has found corroboration through long centuries of persistent and arduous effort by a galaxy of individuals of varying types and approaches, who dedicated themselves to its working out and to recording the results obtained.

    No method could have been so meticulously experimented with over such an endless period of time as this one; and the confirmation of results arrived at so overwhelming. The method of the natural sciences—the analytic, reductionist one—has not had such a long history of practice.

  • Thus the entire quest for experience, lived in consciousness, and the resultant knowledge arrived at, of both content and form, have been pursued essentially in a psychological perspective. A perspective of sounding the depths and ranges of consciousness in oneself and in the universe. And of doing so by a method deeply ‘introspective’, such as a deliberate plunge into the profundities of one's conscious being implies.
  • The being of ‘man’ was thus central to this pursuit. What he is, what he holds secret within him as further possibility of growth in terms of qualitatively higher levels of consciousness and how he can attain to them? These have always been the three clear goals of the abiding quest that marks the Indian psyche.
  • In the light of these findings and the discovery of the truths of such psychological dynamics, it looked at all the structures of life and society. Be they of education and culture and human relationships, or the many sciences and arts of life, or the structures of economy, polity and governance. The ancient Indian psyche built up all these with an eye to the minutest detail and the method of practice—the sense of practice was essential and basic to all the rest—and recorded this knowledge in treatises which exist today, in addition to the living sense of continuity offered by the oral tradition.

    Implicit in the creation of these structures was the deep psychological perception that growth to qualitatively higher levels of being was an innate fact of man's existence—both for an individual and for society. The structures followed an evolving pattern, which could serve as steps to make such growth possible—for both the individual and the society. They were created with a sense of evolutionary purpose, which they were there to fulfil.

  • What was the psychological understanding of the nature of man? And what were the structures of collective life, which served the purpose of growth?

There are a few essential perceptions that have stood the test of repeated experience through timeworn ages:

  1. There are four-fold states of consciousness:
    • jāgrat, or the waking state;
    • svapna, or the dream-state;
    • suṣupti, or the dreamless state;
    • turīya, or the state of Samadhi, of the states beyond.
  2. There are five koṣas, or sheaths, in the psychological being of man:
    • the annamaya—the food sheath, the body;
    • the prāṇamaya—the life sheath, the vital energy;
    • the manomaya—the mental sheath, the mind;
    • the vijñānamaya—the sheath of knowledge;
    • the ānandamaya—the sheath of bliss.
  3. Each of these sheaths has, within itself, a range of levels in the quality and action of that formation of energy—from the lesser to the greater, the less conscious to the more conscious.
  4. At the core of the being is a luminous centre, radiating joy—the caitya puruṣa.
  5. The ‘mind’ itself, though characteristic of the human mould, is only one level of consciousness—and there is an entire gradation of levels superior to it in quality, action and range of possibility.
  6. The total sum of energies in the personality is a subtle and complex poise and inter-penetration of the force of sattva (harmony), rajas (action) and tamas (inertia). One or the other can be the more dominant quality, though all are present everywhere. The dominance of a quality can be an evolving factor, making room for the other ones to take its place.
  7. From the qualitative nature of the balance of energies that make this equipoise, that give to the individual his innate bent of character and line of spontaneous action, svabhāva—will follow the rightful law of his being, his movement towards truth in his characteristic manner of seeking, his svadharma. As is the man, so is his path of growth and action in life.
  8. The status of being an individual enjoys—the adhikārbheda—which is his by ‘right’ is determined by the quality of consciousness and its range in the total gradation that forms the basis of the personality. The higher the quality, correspondingly will be the status to which he belongs in the hierarchy of beings. Such status is innate and self-existent—it is solely a fact of consciousness.
•   •   •

 

Among the structures of collective life, which are built into the social existence of an individual, and which offer him the steps of a ladder for his own growth of consciousness, are:

  1. The varṇas—the four types of actions which the society needs; and which are part of the individual's own law of growth, and are necessarily present in his own existence.
    • There is the brāhmin—the seeker after knowledge, who also imparts it to others.
    • The kṣatriya—the hero soul, who battles for the right and just and maintains law and order.
    • The vaiśya—who creates and produces so that life can continue its exchange of means and to fulfil her needs.
    • The śūdra—who works with his hands and feet and puts his body at the service of both the individual and the society.

    The human body itself—from the head to the feet—is symbolic of the functions that meet the needs of life. Like elsewhere, here too there is a sense of gradation, of levels of hierarchy that fulfil a just need without laying claim to domination of any kind.

  2. The āśramas—the four stages of an individual's journey through life. Stages, which are like ‘training grounds’, as the term ‘āśrama’ suggests. For, life is an evolving and enriching process and the psychological needs and the seeking for fulfilment changes with its progression.
    • There is the student period—the brahmacarya—in which all energies are focused on acquiring knowledge. Knowledge of the sciences and the arts, practice of martial skills, body-building, character formation. And learning to serve the teachers, to learn from the example of their lives and personalities.
    • There is the gṛhasthāśrama. The period of the householder's life, of making one's place in society, of drinking deep at life's many founts, of marriage and children.
    • The stage of vānaprastha—when one's duty to society is done, one has relished the richness of life and one withdraws into the forest, into the heart of nature, to draw the essence of all the experience one has made and to share it with others.
    • The stage of sannyāsa—when even this activity is left behind and there is felt a need to prepare oneself for the journey that lies ahead, from one life to another. So that this movement too might become a conscious one, in awareness of the purpose of this round of many lives that is ours.

    Not everyone went through this complete cycle of growth, for many stopped mid-way. But the sense of progression and of discovering the full rasa of life and its ultimate fulfilment was built into these structures, by which man and society were given a direction which they could follow if they so chose.

  • But the fundamental psychological perspective in which the ancient Indian placed himself was that of the innate urge of man to transcend himself—to exceed his existing status of consciousness and to reach out to whatever lay ahead of him as a further possibility.

    To explore the nature of this urge to transcend himself and the furthest possibilities that this could lead to—this was the unique and abiding interest and preoccupation of the ancient Indian psyche, which remains vibrantly creative to our day.

  • This exploration was pursued along three lines, which formed part of a single quest:
    • First, to understand the human person by a deep and many-sided sounding of the full range of consciousness active in him—from the level of the conscious, and below that threshold, to the levels that lead the individual into circles of his universality; and those that are infinitely superior to his habitual poise, but are accessible to him in their vast transcendence.
    • To unravel the dynamics of the normal operations of consciousness—at each of these levels, separately and in their reciprocal interactions—so as to seize hold of the secret springs of these operations that function with such minuteness of an intricate complexity in the totality of all that constitutes the conscious organism of man.
    • Having discovered the secret of the dynamics of the operations of consciousness—and having sounded the possibility for each part and element of the psychological being of man to go beyond its existing range or limit to a greater one—the ancients in India set out to discover and experiment with a set of processes that were psycho-physical. These processes could take up either each of these parts in itself or all the parts together in the person taken as a whole, and see if the fact of change and transcendence could not be made a ‘conscious process’, pursued deliberately and by a willed effort at practice, through a sustained endeavour.
  • Thus were created the various yogic disciplines—each one often specializing in taking up one significant part of the human personality and entering deep into its complex functioning, re-combining its elements and opening them up to the action of forces of a higher order in order to effectuate changes in its own functioning. Such as the disciplines of haṭha yoga, rāja yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, and many others.
  • In the millennial history of this endeavour and experimentation, of which neither memory nor history offer an exact record of time, there were also attempts made to look at the personality as a whole. As a complex entity of many essential psychological elements or parts—and discover and experiment with processes that could take up the entire complexity of this psychological structuring and make an attempt to raise the ‘whole’ to a higher level of being and functioning.
  • Such processes of growth were embodied in the Vedas, its form of yogic discipline, that of the Tāntric endeavour, the yoga set forth in the Gītā; and in our times in the lived experience of Shri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, and in the creation and practice of the ‘Integral Yoga’ by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.
•   •   •
  • We wish to observe here that this entire effort at the deepest level of exploration into the human psyche, the creation of psychological disciplines on that basis and their continued practice through unrecorded time is a fact of the utmost significance in human history and for the future possibilities of man.

    There is a parallel, of a different order, that draws one's attention. Since the sixteenth century in Europe, man has sought to unravel the secrets of the forces operating in nature and has made use of this knowledge to harness energies in new combinations to put at the service of man. The modern era of technology springs from such an effort.

    The knowledge born of the practice of these ancient yogic disciplines—and the modern ones—could well be of inestimable value in creating a new future for man himself. This time, it is not another environment that is in question—but the being of man himself.

  • It is equally significant to note that the Indian psyche has, generally speaking, a deep and abiding ‘attraction’ towards the pursuit of yoga, whichever discipline may be taken up by an individual. This attraction is natural to the flow of his being. Not only as a specialized pursuit to which one's life is dedicated, but all of life in its many aspects, and all the structures that have been created—offer a pathway of ‘growth’ for man's consciousness. This becomes evident if we carefully observe these structures which form the basis of the life of the collective, and the underlying truths which give body to this culture. Life itself is a yoga—a process of growth and transcendence of the psychological being of man. The paths have been explored, exact processes have been worked out, and there is the corroboration of results arrived at by centuries and centuries of continued practice. No scientific endeavour could ask for more!
•   •   •
  • In present times, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother have created a process of yoga know as the ‘Integral Yoga’; and have experimented with it for almost a hundred years now. In their own beings, in the first instance—and then with a growing number of individuals round the world. This experience is gaining ground.

    In line with the traditions well worked out in India, they sounded the psychological being of man, identified the essential elements of existing yogic disciplines and unified the path of practice into a core of truth which would gather all the parts and elements of the being along a central axis of process and dynamics. With this central axis identified as a psychological process that is operative in the being, the rich complexity of the process, in its wealth of detail, finds its rightful bearing in the full range of human personality.

    The process of ‘Integral Yoga’ has a bearing not only on the individual in the entire range of his personality—but this range includes the presence of the collective as a psychological force and reality. The two are mutually inseparable manifestations of the human race in its existential position; and in the entire unfolding of the evolutionary process on earth.

    In fact, the process becomes co-terminus with that of an ‘accelerated’ evolution, which man can pursue consciously—in full awareness of the aim and of the processes of growth that lead to it.

  • At the present moment, it is a self-exceeding of the ‘mental’ consciousness of man—of mind in its habitual operations—that marks our onward advance. An observation that we had occasion to make earlier.

    In the ranges of consciousness that lie beyond that of the mind and which man can attain to, there is a nodal level that Sri Aurobindo calls the ‘Supermind’.

    He experiences it as the level in the scale of evolutionary progression where all dichotomies cease and a consciousness of the ‘whole’—with its power of ‘whole-willing’, ‘whole-feeling’ and ‘whole-action’—become accessible to him in one movement of his being.

    A level of consciousness—a supreme grade in the ascension of man—in which the all-pervasive Spirit reveals its secrets in Matter. And Matter reveals itself to us as being none other than the ‘body’ of the Spirit. Matter made of the Spirit's stuff—an essential ‘whole’ re-creating itself in the ‘parts’.

  • A veritable transformation of ‘matter’ is the aim that the process of ‘Integral Yoga’ offers to man. A transformation that unravels these great secrets and with the potency of its action, brings about corresponding changes in the psychological being of man, which is rooted in the material base of the ‘body’. The changes it effects are far greater than those that technology brings about in his external environment.
  • We find that we are coming a full circle in our onward march!

But a few audacious questions loom ahead. Shall we try to formulate them?

  1. Is the method and process of ‘Integral Yoga’ what contemporary man is looking for—as a means to transcend the mode of action innate to mind and to attain that of the ‘supramental’ level of consciousness? This knowledge is by ‘identity’, which can work directly with the ‘contents’ of consciousness. And since consciousness is the all-pervasive fact of existence, it can eventually work directly with all existence—even with all the forms of matter.
  2. What then is the role of the analytic and reductionist method that seizes things from the ‘outside’, disengages ‘parts’ to get into the ‘core’ of matter?
  3. Is there visible already—on the horizon—a zone where the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ become one ‘expanse of territory’ and the two methods move into one complex process of being and becoming?
  • The questions are of great audacity—but our times are no ordinary ones! In raising these questions—we are possibly creating a clearing for the future.

III

  • The third time-shift is in need of a new rhythm! For it is marked by ruptures but holds also very rich possibilities.

    The psychologist in the university circles in India is a soul who ‘wanders’—in search of his moorings! The fact that he is looking for these moorings is, however, of great significance.

  • By virtue of an alienated system of education in the country—set up in a different historical time—he is bereft of the psychological heritage to which he is rightfully heir.

    He has an inner awareness of this body of knowledge since the cultural patterns, of which he is a part, reflect this in a substantial measure. But, academically, he is nurtured on the perspectives of psychology that have taken shape in the Western world.

    If he looks at these ancient streams of experience that India offers, it is more often than not under an implicit compulsion to see them as ‘additional perspectives’ to the ones he has acquired and to force a synthesis of sorts. This is not how true knowledge can be arrived at.

  • An attempt at mere juxtaposition does not meet the criteria set by science in its rigour for an experience that needs the test of corroboration.
  • An urgent task awaits him. He needs to free himself—by a deep and wide psychological action—of ‘perspectives’ ingrained in him by such education. A putting aside of certain assumptions is called for.

    And, then, to immerse himself—almost literally, as in an ocean—in the cumulative energy of the body of experience that India holds and, even more so, in the grain of its practice. This latter fact is of the greatest value, for this gives to any psychologist his own field of direct experimentation.

  • Once such an attempt is made, he will be in an authentic position to look afresh at what he has earlier put aside. And to see if these perspectives are complementary or can be integrated into a greater ‘whole’ of both knowledge and method.
  • This is a unique responsibility that rests with the Indian psychologist. His innate capacity to sound the depths of the experience of consciousness that India has made is his to avail of. His familiarity with the method and the findings of the West are also there. He is in a position to create a new synthesis in times to come. A synthesis born of a lived experience of wholeness…

In sounding these psychological perspectives of our times, we find that they are present in our own conscious beings as so many dimensions—of space, time and history. We, of the third millennium, are no unidimensional beings—and we seem to draw all of the past and the present of mankind into one upward point of the spiral that pushes ahead towards the future…To rise up in one transcending movement that will succeed in crystallizing them into whatever the future holds as Totality…in the fullness of ‘integration’ such as the present evolutionary moment of the action of the Supermind seems to make possible. An action half–veiled—though palpable in our lives.

An action of our times…fulfilling itself.