This Month’s Special Article
Western Psychology and Vedanta
Man, proud man
Drest in a little brief authority
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured.
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven.
As make the angels weep
What did Shakespeare mean by man’s “glassy essence”? In Vedanta for the Western World, Aldous Huxley thinks that the words refer to the divine spark in man, which he can develop or not, as he chooses.
In this scientific age, science knows nothing about a divine essence. Shakespeare’s words have little meaning for the scientist. Western psychology is now striving to become a science, but originally psychology was part of philosophical and religious teaching. Nowadays knowledge is divided into well-nigh watertight compartments and the result is that in the West psychology has lost all connection with religion and philosophy. Though western psychology has gained in some respects by this severance, it has lost in many more.
My aim here is to contrast the psychologies of the East and the West. The first important difference derives from the fact that the East has a great store of still living traditional knowledge. But Western psychology has no contact with any traditional knowledge. Rene Guenon, that fine old Frenchman, considers that loss of all traditional knowledge is the cause of the maladies of the West today. Modern science cannot be regarded as a young traditional knowledge for science is always changing. One theory is superseded by another: Newtonian physics is discarded for Einstein’s theories: and so it will go on.
The second difference is the disappearance in the West of the belief that man can develop into something other than what he is, that he can evolve. I am not now referring to the ordinary theory of mechanical evolution; it is doubtful whether that kind of mechanical evolution will continue, now that the human stage is reached. Nature brings man to this condition, and then seems to leave him to choose whether he will advance or regress. The very basis of Vedanta is that man can evolve by his own conscious struggles.
The third difference is that in the East it is understood that knowledge depends on being. By being is meant all that a man is, his character, state of consciousness, intelligence, and so on. But in the West the idea is that if a man is clever, assiduous, has enough books, he can learn all that there is to learn and that it all depends on his perseverance. It does not matter what sort of man he is, how conceited, how dishonest. Whatever he is, he can know everything.
The Oriental view is that to know more, one has to become more. The mind requires to be prepared for the reception of higher knowledge. It is like polishing a mirror, in order that the reflection may be truer. Patanjali described the necessary process as stilling the fluctuations of the mind. If greater knowledge is to be attained, there has to be a change of being. This idea is connected with the second difference, already mentioned, that there are different levels of development for man.
Fourth comes the idea of different states of consciousness. If you look up “consciousness” in a textbook of Western psychology, you will either not find it, or you will find that consciousness is equated with thought: a man is either able to think or, when he sleeps or is struck on his head, he becomes unconscious.
Though Freud wrote about the subconscious, let us not suppose he discovered it, for many writers both Eastern and Western described it long ago. This is not to deny Freud’s valuable contributions to psychology. According to him the subconscious is an unpleasant place, a chaos of passions and animal tendencies. The English mystics spoke of this undercurrent of thought and feeling and in the Victorian age Myers called it the “subliminal self”. But Myers said that there was treasure as well as rubbish to be found there. Myers was right. This is borne out in the lives of geniuses in the arts. We read of Blake, on his deathbed, clutching pencil and paper, despite protests of his wife, and trying to put down the torrent of ideas welling up within him, and exclaiming, “It is not mine! It is not mine!”. And then there was Mozart unable to write down fast enough the music coming to him from a mysterious source, the subliminal self.
Jung’s idea of the subconscious is also less sordid than Freud’s. He posits a personal subconscious and a social subconscious.
It is strange that it never occurred to Freud that there might be levels of consciousness higher than the normal. Western psychologists have not realized how complex the human mind is. At the present time we are again being reminded of this as a result of the current interest in parapsychology. This deals with such phenomena as telepathy and precognition. Dr Rhine and others have submitted these to severe scientific tests. In spite of their researches, which prove beyond doubt the existence of these phenomena, parapsychology is not accepted by the so-called scientific world, because its findings would make chaos of many of the scientific concepts.
These last remarks are made only in passing in order to emphasize the complexity of the mind. But from all this we see that Western psychology has completely failed to deal with the existence of different levels of consciousness.
Now let us turn to the truths of Vedanta, which Alduous Huxley has aptly described as “the minimum working hypothesis!” I do not pretend to be able to expound to you the Vedanta, but its teachings in regard to man seem to crystallize into three:
- Our real nature is divine
- The aim of human life is to realize that this is true and that there is an underlying divine Reality.
- The fundamental truths of the major religions are the same.
How should we view these three propositions? My inclination is to examine them as I would any scientific theory, and where possible to test them by personal experiment.
The psychology of Vedanta is able to explain certain things satisfactorily which Western psychology is quite unable to do. It appeals to me intellectually, as well as emotionally. Such experiments as I have been able to make only go to confirm the truth of Vedantic psychology. Furthermore, as far more important than my personal experiments, these truths are asserted by the great spiritual giants like the Buddha, Ramakrishna and others. And because these experts are in agreement, I am willing to accept tentatively what they say, until such time as I have proved their findings by my own experience. These men were infinitely more than I am and they knew also infinitely more.
If the major religions had come to different conclusions, then there would be good cause to doubt their findings. That their essential conclusions agree is very strong evidence in favour of their truth. The idea that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”, is twaddle—at least when it comes to important issues of life.