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The Holy Men of India

The famous psychoanalyst’s thoughts about Sri Ramana Maharshi.

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Jung wrote this essay as the introduction to a book about Ramana Maharshi by Heinrich Zimmer.1 Paragraph numbers are from Jung’s Collected Works.

The Holy Men of India

Heinrich Zimmer had been interested for years in the Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai, and the first question he asked me on my return from India concerned this latest holy and wise man from southern India. I do not know whether my friend found it an unforgivable or an incomprehensible sin on my part that I had not sought out Shri Ramana. I had the feeling that he would certainly not have neglected to pay him a visit, so warm was his interest in the life and thought of the holy man. This was scarcely surprising, as I know how deeply Zimmer had penetrated into the spirit of India. His most ardent wish to see India in reality was unfortunately never fulfilled, and the one chance he had of doing so fell through in the last hours before the outbreak of the second World War. As if in compensation, his vision of the spiritual India was all the more magnificent. In our work together he gave me invaluable insights into the Oriental psyche, not only through his immense technical knowledge, but above all through his brilliant grasp of the meaning and content of Indian mythology. Unhappily, the early death of those beloved of the gods was fulfilled in him, and it remains for us to mourn the loss of a spirit that overcame the limitations of the specialist and, turning towards humanity, bestowed upon it the joyous gift of “immortal fruit.”

951 The carrier of mythological and philosophical wisdom in India has been since time immemorial the “holy man”—a Western title which does not quite render the essence and outward appearance of the parallel figure in the East. This figure is the embodiment of the spiritual India, and we meet him again and again in the literature. No wonder, then, that Zimmer was passionately interested in the latest and best incarnation of this type in the phenomenal personage of Shri Ramana. He saw in this yogi the true avatar of the figure of the rishi, seer and philosopher, which strides, as legendary as it is historical, down the centuries and the ages.

952 Perhaps I should have visited Shri Ramana. Yet I fear that if I journeyed to India a second time to make up for my omission, it would fare with me just the same: I simply could not, despite the uniqueness of the occasion, bring myself to visit this undoubtedly distinguished man personally. For the fact is, I doubt his uniqueness; he is of a type which always was and will be. Therefore it was not necessary to seek him out. I saw him all over India, in the pictures of Ramakrishna, in Ramakrishna’s disciples, in Buddhist monks, in innumerable other figures of the daily Indian scene, and the words of his wisdom are the sous-entendu of India’s spiritual life. Shri Ramana is, in a sense, a hominum homo, a true “son of man” of the Indian earth. He is “genuine,” and on top of that he is a “phenomenon” which, seen through European eyes, has claims to uniqueness. But in India he is merely the whitest spot on a white surface (whose whiteness is mentioned only because there are so many surfaces that are just as black). Altogether, one sees so much in India that in the end one only wishes one could see less: the enormous variety of countries and human beings creates a longing for complete simplicity. This simplicity is there too; it pervades the spiritual life of India like a pleasant fragrance or a melody. It is everywhere the same, but never monotonous, endlessly varied. To get to know it, it is sufficient to read an Upanishad or any discourse of the Buddha. What is heard there is heard everywhere; it speaks out of a million eyes, it expresses itself in countless gestures, and there is no village or country road where that broad-branched tree cannot be found in whose shade the ego struggles for its own abolition, drowning the world of multiplicity in the All and All-Oneness of Universal Being. This note rang so insistently in my ears that soon I was no longer able to shake off its spell. I was then absolutely certain that no one could ever get beyond this, least of all the Indian holy man himself; and should Shri Ramana say anything that did not chime in with this melody, or claim to know anything that transcended it, his illumination would assuredly be false. The holy man is right when he intones India’s ancient chants, but wrong when he pipes any other tune. This effortless drone of argumentation, so suited to the heat of southern India, made me refrain, without regret, from a visit to Tiruvannamalai.

953 Nevertheless, the unfathomableness of India saw to it that I should encounter the holy man after all, and in a form that was more congenial to me, without my seeking him out: in Trivandrum, the capital of Travancore, I ran across a disciple of the Maharshi. He was an unassuming little man, of a social status which we would describe as that of a primary-school teacher, and he reminded me most vividly of the shoemaker of Alexandria who (in Anatole France’s story) was presented to St. Anthony by the angel as an example of an even greater saint than he. Like the shoemaker, my little holy man had innumerable children to feed and was making special sacrifices in order that his eldest son might be educated. (I will not enter here into the closely allied question as to whether holy men are always wise, and conversely, whether all wise men are unconditionally holy. In this respect there is room for doubt.) Be that as it may, in this modest, kindly, devout, and childlike spirit I encountered a man who had absorbed the wisdom of the Maharshi with utter devotion, and at the same time had surpassed his master because, notwithstanding his cleverness and holiness, he had “eaten” the world. I acknowledge with deep gratitude this meeting with him; nothing better could have happened to me. The man who is only wise and only holy interests me about as much as the skeleton of a rare saurian, which would not move me to tears. The insane contradiction, on the other hand, between existence beyond Māyā in the cosmic Self, and that amiable human weakness which fruitfully sinks many roots into the black earth, repeating for all eternity the weaving and rending of the veil as the ageless melody of India—this contradiction fascinates me; for how else can one perceive the light without the shadow, hear the silence without the noise, attain wisdom without foolishness? The experience of holiness may well be the most painful of all. My man—thank God—was only a little holy man; no radiant peak above the dark abysses, no shattering sport of nature, but an example of how wisdom, holiness, and humanity can dwell together in harmony, richly, pleasantly, sweetly, peacefully, and patiently, without limiting one another, without being peculiar, causing no surprise, in no way sensational, necessitating no special post-office, yet embodying an age-old culture amid the gentle murmur of the coconut palms fanning themselves in the light sea wind. He has found a meaning in the rushing phantasmagoria of Being, freedom in bondage, victory in defeat.

954 Unadulterated wisdom and unadulterated holiness, I fear, are seen to best advantage in literature, where their reputation remains undisputed. Lao-tzu reads exquisitely, unsurpassably well, in the Tao Teh Ching; Laotzu with his dancing girl on the Western slope of the mountain, celebrating the evening of life, is rather less edifying. But even less can one approve of the neglected body of the “unadulterated” holy man, especially if one believes that beauty is one of the most excellent of God’s creations.

955 Shri Ramana’s thoughts are beautiful to read. What we find here is purest India, the breath of eternity, scorning and scorned by the world. It is the song of the ages, resounding, like the shrilling of crickets on a summer’s night, from a million beings. This melody is built up on the one great theme, which, veiling its monotony under a thousand colourful reflections, tirelessly and everlastingly rejuvenates itself in the Indian spirit, whose youngest incarnation is Shri Ramana himself. It is the drama of ahamkāra, the “I-maker” or ego-consciousness, in opposition and indissoluble bondage to the atman, the self or non-ego. The Maharshi also calls the atman the “ego-ego”—significantly enough, for the self is indeed experienced as the subject of the subject, as the true source and controller of the ego, whose (mistaken) strivings are continually directed towards appropriating the very autonomy which is intimated to it by the self.

956 This conflict is not unknown to the Westerner: for him it is the relationship of man to God. The modern Indian, as I can testify from my own experience, has largely adopted European habits of language, “self” or “atman” being essentially synonymous with “God.” But, in contradistinction to the Western “man and God,” the Indian posits the opposition (or correspondence) between “ego and self.” “Ego,” as contrasted with “man,” is a distinctly psychological concept, and so is “self”—to our way of thinking. We might therefore be inclined to assume that in India the metaphysical problem “man and God” has been shifted on to the psychological plane. On closer inspection it is clear that this is not so, for the Indian concept of “ego” and “self” is not really psychological but— one could well say—just as metaphysical as our “man and God.” The Indian lacks the epistemological standpoint just as much as our own religious language does. He is still “pre-Kantian.” This complication is unknown in India and it is still largely unknown with us. In India there is no psychology in our sense of the word. India is “pre-psychological”: when it speaks of the “self,” it posits such a thing as existing. Psychology does not do this. It does not in any sense deny the existence of the dramatic conflict, but reserves the right to the poverty, or the riches, of not knowing about the self. Though very well acquainted with the self’s peculiar and paradoxical phenomenology, we remain conscious of the fact that we are discerning, with the limited means at our disposal, something essentially unknown and expressing it in terms of psychic structures which may not be adequate to the nature of what is to be known.

957 This epistemological limitation keeps us at a remove from what we term “self” or “God.” The equation self = God is shocking to the European. As Shri Ramana’s statements and many others show, it is a specifically Eastern insight, to which psychology has nothing further to say except that it is not within its competence to differentiate between the two. Psychology can only establish that the empiricism of the “self” exhibits a religious symptomatology, just as does that category of assertions associated with the term “God.” Although the phenomenon of religious exaltation transcends epistemological criticism—a feature it shares with all manifestations of emotion—yet the human urge to knowledge asserts itself again and again with “ungodly” or “Luciferian” obstinacy and wilfulness, indeed with necessity, whether it be to the loss or gain of the thinking man. Sooner or later he will place his reason in opposition to the emotion that grips him and seek to withdraw from its entangling grasp in order to give an account of what has happened. If he proceeds prudently and conscientiously, he will continually discover that at least a part of his experience is a humanly limited interpretation, as was the case with Ignatius Loyola and his vision of the snake with multiple eyes, which he at first regarded as of divine, and later as of diabolical, origin. (Compare the exhortation in I John 4:1: “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God.”) To the Indian it is clear that the self as the originating ground of the psyche is not different from God, and that, so far as a man is in the self, he is not only contained in God but actually is God. Shri Ramana is quite explicit on this point. No doubt this equation, too, is an “interpretation.” Equally, it is an interpretation to regard the self as the highest good or as the goal of all desire and fulfilment, although the phenomenology of such an experience leaves no doubt that these characteristics exist a priori and are indispensable components of religious exaltation. But that will not prevent the critical intellect from questioning the validity of these characteristics. It is difficult to see how this question could be answered, as the intellect lacks the necessary criteria. Anything that might serve as a criterion is subject in turn to the critical question of validity. The only thing that can decide here is the preponderance of psychic facts.

958 The goal of Eastern religious practice is the same as that of Western mysticism: the shifting of the centre of gravity from the ego to the self, from man to God. This means that the ego disappears in the self, and man in God. It is evident that Shri Ramana has either really been more or less absorbed by the self, or has at least struggled earnestly all his life to extinguish his ego in it. The Exercitia spiritualia reveal a similar striving: they subordinate “self-possession” (possession of an ego) as much as possible to possession by Christ. Shri Ramana’s elder contemporary, Ramakrishna, had the same attitude concerning the relation to the self, only in his case the dilemma between ego and self seems to emerge more distinctly. Whereas Shri Ramana displays a “sympathetic” tolerance towards the worldly callings of his disciples, while yet exalting the extinction of the ego as the real goal of spiritual exertion, Ramakrishna shows a rather more hesitant attitude in this respect. He says: “So long as ego-seeking exists, neither knowledge (jñāna) nor liberation (mukti) is possible, and to births and deaths there is no end.”2 All the same, he has to admit the fatal tenacity of ahamkāra (the “I-maker”): “Very few can get rid of the sense of ‘I’ through samādhi.… We may discriminate a thousand times, but the sense of ‘I’ is bound to return again and again. You may cut down the branches of a fig-tree today, but tomorrow you will see that new twigs are sprouting.”3 He goes so far as to suggest the indestructibility of the ego with the words: “If this sense of ‘I’ will not leave, then let it stay on as the servant of God.”4 Compared with this concession to the ego, Shri Ramana is definitely the more radical or, in the sense of Indian tradition, the more conservative. Though the elder, Ramakrishna is the more modern of the two, and this is probably to be attributed to the fact that he was affected by the Western attitude of mind far more profoundly than was Shri Ramana.

959 If we conceive of the self as the essence of psychic wholeness, i.e., as the totality of conscious and unconscious, we do so because it does in fact represent something like a goal of psychic development, and this irrespective of all conscious opinions and expectations. The self is the subject-matter of a process that generally runs its course outside consciousness and makes its presence felt only by a kind of long-range effect. A critical attitude towards this natural process allows us to raise questions which are excluded at the outset by the formula self = God. This formula shows the dissolution of the ego in the atman to be the unequivocal goal of religion and ethics, as exemplified in the life and thought of Shri Ramana. The same is obviously true of Christian mysticism, which differs from Oriental philosophy only through having a different terminology. The inevitable consequence is the depreciation and abolition of the physical and psychic man (i.e., of the living body and ahamkāra) in favour of the pneumatic man. Shri Ramana speaks of his body as “this clod.” As against this, and taking into consideration the complex nature of human experience (emotion plus interpretation), the critical standpoint admits the importance of ego-consciousness, well knowing that without ahamkāra there would be absolutely no one there to register what was happening. Without the Maharshi’s personal ego, which, as a matter of brute experience, only exists in conjunction with the said “clod” (= body), there would be no Shri Ramana at all. Even if we agreed with him that it is no longer his ego, but the atman speaking, it is still the psychic structure of consciousness in association with the body that makes speech communication possible. Without this admittedly very troublesome physical and psychic man, the self would be entirely without substance, as Angelus Silesius has already said:

I know that without me
God can no moment live;
Were I to die, then he
No longer could survive.

960 The intrinsically goal-like quality of the self and the urge to realize this goal are, as we have said, not dependent on the participation of consciousness. They cannot be denied any more than one can deny one’s ego-consciousness. It, too, puts forward its claims peremptorily, and very often in overt or covert opposition to the needs of the evolving self. In reality, i.e., with few exceptions, the entelechy of the self consists in a succession of endless compromises, ego and self laboriously keeping the scales balanced if all is to go well. Too great a swing to one side or the other is often no more than an example of how not to set about it. This certainly does not mean that extremes, when they occur in a natural way, are in themselves evil. We make the right use of them when we examine their meaning, and they give us ample opportunity to do this in a manner deserving our gratitude. Exceptional human beings, carefully hedged about and secluded, are invariably a gift of nature, enriching and widening the scope of our consciousness—but only if our capacity for reflection does not suffer shipwreck. Enthusiasm can be a veritable gift of the gods or a monster from hell. With the hybris which attends it, corruption sets in, even if the resultant clouding of consciousness seems to put the attainment of the highest goals almost within one’s grasp. The only true and lasting gain is heightened and broadened reflection.

961 Banalities apart, there is unfortunately no philosophical or psychological proposition that does not immediately have to be reversed. Thus reflection as an end in itself is nothing but a limitation if it cannot stand firm in the turmoil of chaotic extremes, just as mere dynamism for its own sake leads to inanity. Everything requires for its existence its own opposite, or else it fades into nothingness. The ego needs the self and vice versa. The changing relations between these two entities constitute a field of experience which Eastern introspection has exploited to a degree almost unattainable to Western man. The philosophy of the East, although so vastly different from ours, could be an inestimable treasure for us too; but, in order to possess it, we must first earn it. Shri Ramana’s words, which Heinrich Zimmer has bequeathed to us, in excellent translation, as the last gift of his pen, bring together once again the loftiest insights that the spirit of India has garnered in the course of the ages, and the individual life and work of the Maharshi illustrate once again the passionate striving of the Indian for the liberating “Ground.” I say “once again,” because India is about to take the fateful step of becoming a State and entering into a community of nations whose guiding principles have anything and everything on the programme except detachment and peace of the soul.

962 The Eastern peoples are threatened with a rapid collapse of their spiritual values, and what replaces them cannot always be counted among the best that Western civilization has produced. From this point of view, one could regard Ramakrishna and Shri Ramana as modern prophets, who play the same compensatory role in relation to their people as that of the Old Testament prophets in relation to the “unfaithful” children of Israel. Not only do they exhort their compatriots to remember their thousand-yearold spiritual culture, they actually embody it and thus serve as an impressive warning, lest the demands of the soul be forgotten amid the novelties of Western civilization with its materialistic technology and commercial acquisitiveness. The breathless drive for power and aggrandizement in the political, social, and intellectual sphere, gnawing at the soul of the Westerner with apparently insatiable greed, is spreading irresistibly in the East and threatens to have incalculable consequences. Not only in India but in China, too, much has already perished where once the soul lived and throve. The externalization of culture may do away with a great many evils whose removal seems most desirable and beneficial, yet this step forward, as experience shows, is all too dearly paid for with a loss of spiritual culture. It is undeniably much more comfortable to live in a well-planned and hygienically equipped house, but this still does not answer the question of who is the dweller in this house and whether his soul rejoices in the same order and cleanliness as the house which ministers to his outer life. The man whose interests are all outside is never satisfied with what is necessary, but is perpetually hankering after something more and better which, true to his bias, he always seeks outside himself. He forgets completely that, for all his outward successes, he himself remains the same inwardly, and he therefore laments his poverty if he possesses only one automobile when the majority have two. Obviously the outward lives of men could do with a lot more bettering and beautifying, but these things lose their meaning when the inner man does not keep pace with them. To be satiated with “necessities” is no doubt an inestimable source of happiness, yet the inner man continues to raise his claim, and this can be satisfied by no outward possessions. And the less this voice is heard in the chase after the brilliant things of this world, the more the inner man becomes the source of inexplicable misfortune and uncomprehended unhappiness in the midst of living conditions whose outcome was expected to be entirely different. The externalization of life turns to incurable suffering, because no one can understand why he should suffer from himself. No one wonders at his insatiability, but regards it as his lawful right, never thinking that the one-sidedness of this psychic diet leads in the end to the gravest disturbances of equilibrium. That is the sickness of Western man, and he will not rest until he has infected the whole world with his own greedy restlessness.

963 The wisdom and mysticism of the East have, therefore, very much to say to us, even when they speak their own inimitable language. They serve to remind us that we in our culture possess something similar, which we have already forgotten, and to direct our attention to the fate of the inner man, which we set aside as trifling. The life and teaching of Shri Ramana are of significance not only for India, but for the West too. They are more than a document humain: they are a warning message to a humanity which threatens to lose itself in unconsciousness and anarchy. It is perhaps, in the deeper sense, no accident that Heinrich Zimmer’s last book should leave us, as a testament, the life-work of a modern Indian prophet who exemplifies so impressively the problem of psychic transformation.