Saturday, January 9, 2010

Transcendence or Transformation: Eastern Philosophy Compared to Soul-making

This is a paper written for Dr. Patrick Mahaffey's exceptional Hindu Traditions class taken at Pacifica Graduate Institute during the Fall Quarter of 2009.


Return or Progress: Hindu Sankhya Philosophy Compared to Soul Making

Is the purpose of existence to make[1] a new Self/Soul, or to Realize the original Self? The difference is between discovery and recovery, between revolution[2] and evolution.[3] Is the point of human existence, as Paul McCartney sang, to “get back to where you once belonged,” or to begin as a nascent soul-seed and become someone you have never been?

Yogananda is representative of a view held by many Indian philosophers which teaches that humans have a pseudosoul which must be defeated or shed in order to return to the original pure Brahmanic Source, which Yogananda calls ‘King Soul’.

The ego is called pseudosoul, for it imitates the authority of King Soul and tries to dominate the entire bodily kingdom…The timeless message of the Bhagavad Gita [sees] life as a series of battles between Spirit and matter, soul and body, life and death…discrimination and the blind sense-mind. (Yogananda, Bhagavad Gita, I, 19, 7)

According to Yogananda, when one meditates properly and connects to the “true Self, he is so wholly satisfied that by that joy he casts away all poisoned honey of human cravings…” (Yogananda, Bhagavad Gita 297). The goal of existence is to fight this deluded ego and ‘cast away’ the toxic desires which keep one from reconnecting with that Source of pure bliss from whence we originated.

The Soul Making perspective suggests that the ego is not poisoned, but rather neutral and a kind of seed for an emerging Self that has never before existed. The ecumenical yet still Christian theologian John Hick is representative,

The broad picture of man and his place in the universe…is teleological, presenting our life in time as a movement towards a goal. The telos to which our existence is directed can be formally described as human perfection, man’s full humanization, the total realization of the potentialities of finite life or, in the daring language of eastern orthodox Christianity, man’s divinization. (Hick 407)

One might say that the general Hindu mentality seeks to re-realize the Soul by shedding the ignorant ego[4], while a Soul Making perspective seeks to real-ize or ‘make real’ for the first time a brand new entity from the raw material of ego.[5]

Overview of the Sankhya System

The Hindu Sankhya Philosophy, one of the six major philosophies of India, underlies Yogananda’s words and the Bhagavad Gita in general. This school of thought espouses a movement from the unified Source which is called Purusha, into individual souls (jivas) that become egos or selves wrapped and therefore trapped in limiting material bodies and mental illusions. Some of the key features are:

1. Purusha, which is pure, unmoved, absolute Spirit; the Source of each perfect soul spark. This uncontaminated spiritual essence never changes and is the completed Self. It is absolute and unaffected by any stimuli. From this Source each human soul emerges and ideally returns.

2. Prakriti, which is the eternally shifting substance of transient minds and all material objects. Physicists might call this the subatomic stuff comprising all matter, but that analogy leaves out the fact that mental and emotional ‘stuff’ are contained in Prakriti. In the Sankhya system, Purusha combines with and animates or moves this eternal ‘stuff’ into form, including individual ego selves with thoughts, intentions and emotions. These are in a state of ceaseless activity and flux, making them illusory, or maya. Maya does not mean they are not real, just that they are not permanent.

3. From the mingling of these two timeless ‘essences’[6] evolves the Higher Mind (Buddhi) which allows “the possibility of individual perception…or the determination of this and that” (Muller 32). From Buddhi Mind radiates the personal ego self (ahamkara) which can distinguish subject from object, the ‘I’ from the ‘other’. This subjective perceiving is facilitated by the lower mind (manas) which is comprised of the five grosser and five subtler elements, as well as the five senses and the five organs of action.[7] Indian commentator Vachaspati-Misra describes how these various elements of the self work together, “Every man uses first his external senses, then he considers (with the Manas), then he refers the various objects of his Ego (Ahamkara), and lastly he decides with his Buddhi what to do.” (qt. Muller 32).

The result is that a part of the eternal Self becomes ensnared in transitory existence. Freeing the imprisoned spark of Purusha (Higher Self) from the erroneous thoughts, delusional emotions and shifting sense forms of Prakriti is the goal of life. Through spiritual disciplines, specifically Yoga, one may become Self Realized and escape the delusion of ego-identity, eventually returning to untainted Purusha Consciousness.

Transcendence or Transformation

The term transcendence is often used by Hindu practitioners to describe this escape. Transcendence is defined as, “to separate from the material universe” (Websters 1419). The highest aim of the Sankhya philosophy “is to make Purusha turn his eyes away from Prakriti, so as to stop her acting and to regain for himself his oneness, his aloneness, his independence, and his perfect bliss” (Muller xii).

A soul making philosophy prefers the word transformation to transcendence. Transformation means “to change in form, appearance, nature, or character” (Websters 1420). Both words involve change, but change of a very different kind. Transcend signifies a regressive change of position and character, from below to above, while transform signifies a progressive change of position and character. Transcendence suggests acquiring traits that have been lost, while transformation suggests acquiring traits heretofore unknown. In the latter, the potential qualities may be innately present in the nascent soul, but the content has not been apprehended until the transformation has occurred.

In the Sankhya philosophy, the change of position (transcendence) is obviously not literal, but figurative, implying that the human soul must move from delusional materialism to an awakened state of spiritual self realization, from a psycho-physical attachment to pain and pleasure and into a state of detachment from all sensory, mental and emotional phenomena. On the other hand, soul making transformation is more literal in that the primary materials of the self--including body, soul and spirit--morph from one ‘form’ into another. The ego is not shed in toto, but rather transmuted, not the enemy to be defeated as the ego is portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, “Use your mighty arms to slay the enemy that is selfish desire” (Easwaran 3:43), but rather an immature, brutish and incomplete germ of the evolving new creation. The ego will contain elements that may be experienced as adversarial, yet are actually normal and necessary adjuncts to the process of creation. This is analogous to the physical body experiencing pain and frustration from having under-developed muscles which appear to be antagonistic to movement, but the resistance and subsequent suffering serve the purpose of forming skeletal structure and musculature. So too, from a Soul Making perspective, all pathological experiences in the ego provide a foil or resistance for making a soul.

The Hindu philosophy of transcendence leaves the purpose of our material existence in question. Suffering and evil seem to be intruders or nuisances to an otherwise pleasant and preferred prior existence in the spiritual realm from whence we emerged. The aim is to use spiritual exercises to extricate our dysfunctional egoistic selves from this material situation of suffering.

Psychic transformation on the other hand gives a clearer purpose to material existence and suffering. It is through the material body and world of objects that the human grows up.[8] It is in conjunction with and because of emotional and mental suffering that the changes in psyche take place.

Does Karma Make Transcendence Purposeful?

The usual Eastern response to the question of purpose is that the soul shows up in this world of conflicts to work out its karma, basically defined as consequences of past actions. Yogananda locates this karmic objective right at conception and during gestation:

The first contest of the soul in each incarnation is with other souls seeking rebirth. With the union of sperm and ovum to begin the formation of a new human body, a flash of light appears in the astral world, the heavenly home of souls between incarnations. That light transmits a pattern which attracts a soul according to that soul’s karma – the self created influences from actions of past lives…The soul within the embryo also has to contend with karma, which is influencing for good or ill the formation of the body in which it is now a resident. (Yogananda, I, 7-8)

Setting aside the epistemological discussion of how he knows this, my main question is, “From whence and why did the very first karmic action take place during the existence of each soul?” Or, “How and possibly more importantly why does an originally pure spark of Purusha accrue its first karmic debt?” There is no doctrine of Original Sin, so the answer is often Lila, or divine play.

Brahman is full of all perfections. And to say that Brahman has some purpose in creating the world will mean that it wants to attain through the process of creation something which it has not. And that is impossible. Hence, there can be no purpose of Brahman in creating the world. The world is a mere spontaneous creation of Brahman. It is a Lila, or sport, of Brahman. It is created out of Bliss, by Bliss and for Bliss. Lila indicates a spontaneous sportive activity of Brahman as distinguished from a self-conscious volitional effort. The concept of Lila signifies freedom as distinguished from necessity. (Misra 89)

But does that satisfy the human imagination? It resembles John Calvin’s Reformed Theology which gives no justification for why one person is damned and another elected to eternal life, other than God’s sovereignty. I must admit that my psyche demands purpose. Many humans, at least in the West, act with intention and prefer to imagine that life is more than just a game of extrication from desire and suffering.

What Difference Does it Make?

At some level this whole topic is seemingly pedantic and largely irrelevant, until one translates it into our daily interaction with the material world and the significance of human ideas, emotions and bodies. Rodney Stark[9] suggests that the reason the West developed and excelled in ‘modern science’ and technology was due to a philosophy that gave spirit and matter ontological equivalence. The Hebrew Bible calls the creation ‘good and very good,’ and the Apostle Paul writes, ‘God is for the body’ (I Corinthians 6:13). Humans are made in the image and likeness of God, giving rational thought or logos high value. The sensorially driven human mind is comprised of more than delusional impressions (manas) which must be transcended; humans contain a little bit of God’s Mind (Purusha) to be utilized in the material world. In fact, Spirit (Purusha) and Matter (Prakriti) were not separate--God became flesh in the Christian myth. Stark theorizes that the Indian philosophy of transcendence would never have allowed the development of the modern scientific methodology and all subsequent technologies. Why change a world or get involved at all with improving it if it is a prison to be escaped? If matter is essentially contrary to spiritual liberation, why make the prison more comfortable for an already ensnared ego? Joseph Campbell, writing about Oriental mythologies says,

There is therefore nothing to be gained, either for the universe or for man, through individual originality and effort. Those who have identified themselves with the body and its affections will necessarily find that all is painful, since everything—for them—must end. But for those who have found the still point of eternity, around which all—including themselves—revolves, everything is glorious and wonderful just as it is. The first duty of man, consequently, is to play his given role—as do the sun, the moon, the various animal and plant species, the waters, the rocks, and the stars—without fault; and then if possible, so to order his mind as to identify it with the inhabiting essence of the whole. (Campbell, The Mythic Dimension, p. 20)

Furthermore, the Indian gods and heavens were part of the illusion. There was no ‘real’ enlightenment or eternal rationality in them. Those qualities were beyond them, in Purusha. Appealing to the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Stark writes,

…the images of gods found in other religions, especially in Asia, are too impersonal or too irrational to have sustained science. Any particular “occurrence might be due to the fiat of an irrational despot” god, or might be produced by “some impersonal, inscrutable origin of things. There is not the same confidence as in the intelligible rationality of a personal being.”…For those holding these religious premises, the path to wisdom is through meditation and mystical insights, and there is no occasion to celebrate reason…The critical point in all of this is methodological. Centuries of meditation will produce no empirical knowledge. (Stark 15)

A philosophy of transmutation was at the heart of the medieval fascination with alchemy, the magical forerunner of modern chemistry. These Judeo-Christian scholars operated from a cosmology that viewed matter as essentially good and the rational mind as an attribute of God that had been implanted in humans who were made in His Image. This rational mind and the objects of study, Scripture and Nature, were to be exercised rather than exorcized.

According to Gavin Flood, in the Sankhya Philosophy, liberation[10] is,

…the discriminative knowledge that pure consciousness is eternally distinct from primordial matter; there is only a proximity between them…Discrimination allows consciousness to distinguish the self from what is not the self, and so to perceive that the self was never actually bound to matter…the true self is beyond. (Flood 234)

This attitude is similar to early Christianized Gnostic teachings, but at considerable variance with traditional orthodox Christian theology which sees matter, soul and spirit as somehow mingling and transmuting into what the Apostle Paul called a ‘spiritual body’ moving toward the ‘day of completion’ (I Corinthians 15; Philippians 1:6).[11]

The 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus, developed this ontological tripartite interaction of body, soul and spirit by appealing to the statement in Genesis 1:26, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” He paid specific attention to the terms ‘image’ and ‘likeness,’ two completely different words in the original Hebrew and the subsequent Greek Septuagint. Appealing to the Septuagint, Irenaeus distinguished between ‘image’ (eikwn) and ‘likeness’ (‘omoiwsis),

The ‘imago’, which resides in man’s bodily form, apparently represents his nature as an intelligent creature capable of fellowship with his Maker, whilst the ‘likeness’ represents man’s final perfecting by the Holy Spirit. (Hick, Evil and the God of Love 211)

The natural body, containing material form and rational thought, was being perfected by all of life’s myriad experiences and encounters. In Irenaeus one can see psychological, perhaps even archetypal, similarities to some extent between ‘image’ as ‘Prakriti’ and ‘likeness’ as ‘Purusha’ as the basic elements of existence. The difference is that Irenaeus sees them working together to perfect a new creature rather than needing to distinguish themselves from each other to achieve a return to pure Spirit:

[For] the man is rendered spiritual and perfect because of the outpouring of the Spirit, and this is he who was, made in the image of and likeness of God. But if the Spirit be lacking to the soul, he who is such is indeed of an animal nature, and being left carnal, shall be an imperfect being, possessing indeed the image [of God] in his formation, but not receiving the likeness through the Spirit. (Against Heresies, Book V Chapter 6)

Jung sees the animalistic nature as contributing to psychological development when he says that “the animal is the symbolic carrier of the self…the structure of wholeness was always present but was buried in profound unconsciousness, where it can always be found…” (Jung, C.W. 14, 214) This presence of the ‘spiritual’ self in the beastly self is found in ancient totems, our dreams and modern sports teams rife with animalistic totems.

A high regard for all elements of human experience gives value to the whole range of our emotions, pleasurable and painful, as agents of soul making rather than annoying obstacles that oppose Self Realization. Jung highlights this in a comment about his own practice of yoga while confronting the emotional images and messages in his unconscious,

I would do these [consciousness revealing] exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. As soon as I had the feeling that I was myself again, I abandoned this restraint upon the emotions and allowed the images and inner voices to speak afresh. The Indian, on the other hand, does yoga exercises in order to obliterate completely the multitude of psychic contents and images. (Jung, Memories 177)

Jung’s personal work with dreams and inner voices was to translate the unconscious emotions into meaningful symbols so as to bring them to sufficient awareness in order to avoid possible neuroses and to further what he called individuation. He seems to be suggesting that an Indian teacher might see his use of yoga to be taking Jung in exactly the wrong direction, namely, deeper into the sense-mind (manas) and the shadowy realm of confusion and illusion. But for all his love and appreciation for Hindu myths and philosophies, Jung sought transformation rather than transcendence—a move toward the completed Human, also referred to as the telic Anthropos, or the Adam Kadmon.[12]

Nature itself seems to favor transformation. The moth[13] provides an example. The pupa metabolizes physical nutrients, morphs into a worm, metabolizes more material sustenance and spins a cocoon made of matter which emerges from the worm itself, and finally changes shape yet again inside the chrysalis via the substances within the insect. It forms a different body, sprouts wings and comes out a different creature. Furthermore, the material shell provides resistance against which the flexing wings strengthen, preparing the moth to unfurl those exercised wings and seemingly defy gravity through an aerodynamic flapping motion—a new creation from the old material.

These two differing perspectives also affect religious practices, specifically with regard to rituals, sacrifices and the use of the mind in studying ideas. "The one religious consequence of the Sankhya-Yoga is an emphasis on austere asceticism and a turning away from [many] ritualistic elements" (Encyclopedia Britannica, Yukteswar). We see this in scattered statements by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Neither knowledge of the Vedas, nor austerity, nor charity, nor sacrifice can bring the vision [of pure Krishna Consciousness] you have seen. But through unfailing can…attain union with me” (Easwaran, Gita 11:53-54). If the shifting vagaries of Prakriti are a hindrance to Self Realization, then such religious actions are just smoke screens obscuring the return to pure Purusha consciousness. To the credit of the Eastern system, it makes the point that such inferior practices are not a complete waste of time, yet they are at best a kind of precursor of and step toward final liberation since one is still dabbling in the realm of a deluded ego.


Our modern exposure to so many different mythical and philosophical ideas can leave one metaphysically dazed and confused. In a politically correct culture, with so many options, one is often very hesitant to stake a claim in or argue for superiority of any one position. After all, we are after academic objectivity. I understand this and am far from absolute or dogmatic. However, it seems to me that G.K. Chesterton’s advice applies here, “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid” (Chesterton). I recently heard the phrase, “non-exclusive particularism,” suggesting that it is possible to hold a distinct position without consigning those who disagree to eternal damnation. It seems to me that these ‘solid truths,’ albeit provisional and usually temporary, are necessary for soul making and creative thought. Claude Levi-Strauss addressed this very issue in 1977:

What threatens us right now is probably what we may call over-communication—that is, the tendency to know exactly in one point of the world what is going on in all other parts of the world. In order for a culture to be really itself and to produce something, the culture and its members must be convinced of their originality and even, to some extent, of their superiority over the others; it is only under conditions of under-communication that it can produce anything. We are now threatened with the prospect of our being only consumers, able to consume anything from any point in the world and from every culture, but losing all originality. (Levi-Strauss 20) (Italics mine)

If some groups are too dogmatic, then perhaps others are too amorphous. Maybe this is why there is a growing rift between the American socio-political left and right. Both are craving some solid idea to hold onto. Undoubtedly each group would be horrified to be lumped in with the other, but people everywhere seem to be looking for some useful perspectives, or as Campbell might say, “the new myth”.

After the death of my son last year, I found myself holding firmly and unapologetically to a Soul Making perspective. My reasons for holding to this point of view were both intellectually defensible and pragmatic, providing emotional support. However, I still practice meditation and find Hindu mythology and philosophy to be extremely helpful. As an archetypalist, I am sympathetic toward the various mythologies of the world. I find truth in both the Eastern idea of return to the Source and the Western notion of purposeful evolution.[14] Both views make valuable contributions to my psycho-spiritual journey. There have been periods in my life when I felt the need to return to some larger Source or Cause. There have been other times when I have needed the model of evolving forward. Some days my ego feels like an enemy that needs to be battled and defeated as it seems to oppose my Higher Self, and other days I feel the benefit of my pathological ego as the stubborn and necessary seed pod containing the new self. Like John Keats who was dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty five, I experience life as the ‘vale of soul making’ with my personal horn book filled with psychological assignments—fighting and progressing, revolving and evolving.

Perhaps we can liken spiritual revolution and evolution, or return and progress, to the tension between monotheism and polytheism. I remember the relief I felt when James Hillman pointed out that certain Catholic Renaissance artists and thinkers considered themselves ‘religious monotheists and psychological polytheists.’ I think it is possible to return and evolve at the same time. Nature itself is always moving in cycles, yet also moves through time, as plants and animals gradually morph into new forms. A conscious sports fan will tell you that at some level every professional football or baseball game looks the same, yet the games have clearly evolved over the decades. The movie Groundhog Day explores this theme of returning while progressing.

W.B. Yeats and others have adopted the image of two merging horizontal spirals, gyres within gyres, cyclical and linear patterns encountering one another--one coming to an end as another is born, both progressing and regressing.

Lastly, my intention is not to claim that the Eastern perspective is wrong. Primarily I wanted to survey the differences between the Eastern Self Realization and Soul Making ideas. There is a common error I hear often these days, namely, that all religions are essentially the same. They are not. How unchallenging and boring that would be in a universe where each human is in his or her own stage of psycho-spiritual experience. The Dalai Lama was once asked why there were so many different schools within the Buddhist tradition. His answer was concise and informative, “Stages and dispositions.”

[1]Genetics. the transfer of genetic material from one cell to another resulting in a genetic change in the recipient cell.

[2] Revolution is commonly defined as ‘a procedure or course, as if in a circuit, back to a starting point; a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, esp. one made suddenly and often accompanied by violence’ (Websters 1150) This includes devolution and evolution, aspects of what is sometimes referred to as emanationsim.

[3] Evolution is commonly defined as, “a process of gradual, progressive change or development, a progression incomplete in itself, but combining with coordinated shifts to produce a single action. Synonyms are: unfolding, change, progression, metamorphosis.” (Websters 472)

[4] The modern New Age mystic, Eckhardt Tolle, speaks similarly of the ‘dysfunctional’ ego mind and agrees with the Augustinian Christian doctrine of the Fall (New Heavens). For Tolle, as with most Eastern writers, the aim is to extricate the deluded ego from the transient illusion of the world and to find the True Self. Suffering often, though not always, appears to be nearly pointless if only humans would just shed that dysfunctional ego.

[5] The Apostle Paul seems to advocate a soul making idea when he speaks of Christ as the ‘firstborn from the dead.’ The idea is that a completely and completed new kind of being has come into existence. The 2nd century theologian Irenaeus developed this as the main reason for his attack against the matter-denigrating heretics called ‘Gnostics’ by modern scholars.

[6] There is an ongoing debate as to the relationship of Purusha and Prakriti. Some argue that they comprise an eternal duality. Other argue that they are aspects of Brhaman, while a third groups sees them as emanations of Brahman. (Ramacharaka, 54-58)

[7] This is similar to the various so called early Christ-inspired Gnostic mythologies which imagined the infinite Bythos generating or emanating Ennoia (Thought) from which came the various syzegies which eventuated in a variety of spiritual beings, then matter and eventually humans trapped in that matter. In the Valentinian version, found in the Gospel of Truth, fear, grief and confusion congealed into matter. Most of what we know of these myths came from 53 source documents discovered in a buried pot found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.

[8] The same is true for the whole Cosmos; it is through the various conflicts and chaotic collisions and collusions that evolution takes place.

[9] Starks book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, explores the philosophical and theological differences between the various religions, concluding that modern science, capitalist economics and the vast technological advances in the past two centuries are directly related to world views.

[10] kaivalya in Sanskrit

[11] Paul wrote of the three parts or elements of evolving consciousness, “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23

[12] This term is from Jewish Kabbalism and refers to the Primordial Human found in many religions and mythologies—P’an Ku in China, the Last Adam in Christianity, the Anthropos in Gnostic myths, etc.

[13] Psyche in Greek means ‘breath,’ but is also used of the night moth. The implication of soulful metamorphoses is clear.

[14] Some Process[14] thinkers are suggesting that the discussion of matter and spirit is over. Arthur Young suggests that action is more basic than matter or spirit.

No comments: