November 19, 2006

The Indian tradition is truly "postmodern"

Sri Aurobindo And Psychoanalysis By Don Salmon, PhD
It was mentioned earlier that the use of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic tool to understand Indian spiritual writings may itself be a kind of "defense mechanism" against the full implications of a spiritual vision of Reality.16 Scientists are slowly, if reluctantly, awakening to the fact that the world is impossible to understand as a purely objective observer. The Indian tradition – truly "postmodern" for more than two millennia" – has always seen fundamental understanding to be achieved by means of inner transformation (though not in opposition to reason, as is generally the case in the Western religious tradition). How might one present the kind of view which Sri Aurobindo offers – one which takes terms like "Self", or phrases like "status of the Divine", to represent not merely ideas, conceptions or hermeneutic tools, but rather, "Reality"?
In recent years, the discipline of psychology – scientific psychology, not only the more clinically oriented theories of psychotherapy – has become more receptive to research methodologies which integrate experiential components. In order to engage in scientific research from this integrative stance, one needs a great deal of flexibility and transparency in regard to the use of language. Sri Krishnaprem describes in the following passage the confusion that often occurs in scholarly discussions because of the common inability to direct attention towards that to which the words refer. He mentions the work of Rudolf Otto, who asks whether the "Vedantic Brahman, the Buddhist Nirvana and Eckhart's Godhead are the same or different."
Despite the fact that Otto's work was written over 60 years ago, and Sri Krishnaprem's comments are over a half century old, the very same confusion identified by him persists to this day, as evidenced in numerous attempts to engage in the comparative study of religion: "What is different? The words, of course, are different: the groups of ideas referred to by the words are also different, to some extent at least. But that is not the end of the matter. That to which these words refer is neither a word nor an idea, and no one who thinks that it is can possibly come at the root of the matter. There are not half a dozen of these mystical absolutes floating about in the universe. There is not even one true and several false ones. There is just one Reality which has been symbolized in various ways, each symbol expressing more or less inadequately some one particular aspect of it. 'The Real is one; men describe it in many ways' (Rig Veda)."17
But it must be acknowledged, the problem described in this essay – the unwillingness to engage with Indian spirituality on its own terms, the need to reduce it to safe proportions by means of such distorting lenses as psychoanalysis, is ultimately not a matter for intellectual disputation. Rather, one needs something along the lines of a "spiritual appreciation" course to prepare the scholar for the full radiance of a text like the Isha Upanishad, just as the musical neophyte may need a "music appreciation" course to fully understand and experience the St. Matthew Passion of Johannes Sebastian Bach. Perhaps it was this need that the philosopher Gabriel Marcel was acknowledging when on one occasion he attempted to respond to scholarly incomprehension. According to Lawrence Leshan, Marcel was giving a lecture "to a group of American Logical Positivists on grace and transcendence. They kept telling him to speak more clearly and to 'say what he meant.' Finally Marcel paused and then said, 'I guess I can't explain it to you. But if I had a piano here, I could play it.'"18

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