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The Three Selves of Indian Thought and Psychoanalysis

Alfred Collins

If speaking is through speech, if breathing is


through breath, if seeing is through the eyes,
if hearing is through the ears, if touching is
through the skin, if meditation is through the
mind, if exhaling is through the outbreath
then who am I? Aitareya Upanisad, 3.11
Who am I?
Ramana Maharshi

This essay will attempt to trace a self psychology that developed in Indian
thought from the Vedic period down through the centuries to the present day. While there
were significant and even dramatic changes in the theory over time, I will try to show that
there is a consistency in the questions addressed and to a large extent in the solutions
offered. Beginning with the Upaniads and pausing at the classical Skhya/Yoga texts
and the Bhagavad Gt, we will trace these ideas through tantra into the nearcontemporary teachings of gurus such as Sri Aurobindo and Sri Atmananda. At the same
time, we will compare and contrast the Indian thoughts with self theories drawn from
psychoanalysis, in particularly those of Freud himself (1914, 1930), D. W. Winnicott
(1967), Erik Erikson (1981), Carl Jung (1962), Heinz Kohut (1977), and Sudhir Kakar
(2003). The purpose will not be simply to show that Indian ideas can be interpreted in
terms of psychoanalysis, or conversely that psychoanalysis drew from and recapitulated
themes found in Indian thoughtthough I find some value in both these claims. Rather
the central point will be to demonstrate that the overlap of interpretive horizons between

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Indian and psychoanalytic self theories can illuminate and bring new life to both
traditions of inquiry.
I will begin by anticipating a double paradox that we will find at the heart of both
Indian and psychoanalytic theories of the self: selfhood is a shared, yet contested, event
that takes place between persons (often in a familial context), but it is alsoor on another
levelan essential experience that transcends the particulars of ordinary life and the
vicissitudes of the agonized familial self. Reconciling these two sorts of selfhood will be
our greatest challenge, both in India and in psychoanalysis. We will find that each
tradition finds in culturereligion, art, literature, ritual, music, drama, as well as more
mundane institutions of kinship and communitya third sort of self that participates in
the transcendent while at the same time residing in the ordinary world. This third,
cultural, self can be understood as a practice, a way of life or death, a dharma,
individuation, even a clinical psychoanalysis or therapy.

tman and Ahakra in the Vedic Period


We will begin by contrasting the descriptions of two sorts of self in early Indian
thought, which we will view under the rubrics of tman and ahakra, more or less
adequately rendered as transcendent or essential self and limited or personal self. The
distinction between these is clearly and sharply drawn in early texts and continues to
inform subsequent thinking in classical Indian religion, philosophy, and social thought.
Both terms were present and developing in the early Upaniads (around 800-600 BCE)
and have long and rich histories thereafter. tman, though always also a reflexive term
as well as a word used for other kinds of selves, came to refer specifically to a sense of I-

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ness independent of, prior to, and transcending the flux of temporal change (sasra,
prakti) and the particulars of personality and world. The interiority of the tman is
stressed, and it is compared to a thumb-sized man within the heart (aIguamtra-purua).
Ahamkra, which van Buitenen (1957) argued originally named utterance of the word
I,1 later became associated with pride and an inflated sense of personal worth
(abhimna). Close to some psychoanalytic understandings of narcissism,2 ahakra is
often found in the proximity of words like gaurva, swollen and heavy with a sense of
self-importance and smaya, the smile of pride of one who receives a compliment or
views himself favorably in a mirror. (Hulin, 1978). tman became one of the most
positively-valenced of Indian psychological and philosophical terms, while ahakra
became one of the deadliest and most despised of personal flaws. The evils of ahamkra
form the root of the Buddhist understanding of suffering (dukha) and its transcendence
(nirva).
Discussions of the development of the two terms will be found in Renou (1951)
for tman and in van Buitenen (1957) and Biardeau (1965) for ahakra. Both words
have been extensively treated by Hulin (1978, 2007). Briefly, tman began both as a
reflexive term (myself, etc.) and a name for that part of a person that acts as the center
for a set of otherwise discrete parts. Thus, in very early literature, tman is used to
describe the breathing pulmonary trunk of the body that unites the head, arms, and legs
(Hulin 1978). Generally, it was the unity, totality, or inner life principle or soul of a
person, and even later, in the classical tradition, tman often retained an implicit
reference to the body and its psychological faculties taken as a whole. From a name for a
1

Like omkra, utterance of the syllable om, etc.


I.e., ordinary self reference or cathexis of the ego or ego ideal, but not the oceanic feeling of primal
narcissism which will be discussed later.

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persons psychophysical unity tman came to designate a profoundly spiritual,


numinous sense of conscious selfhood very close to many Western definitions of the
soul or spirit.
Patrick Olivelles translation of the Upaniads illustrates how the reflexive use of
self almost imperceptibly slips into the sense of an inner soul or life principle. In the
famous dialogue between Yajavalkya and his wife Maitrey from the Bhadrayaka
Upaniad (BAU 4.5.6), Olivelle has the sage say, One holds a wife dear not out of love
for the wife; rather, it is out of love for oneself that one holds a wife dear (my italics;
Olivelle, 1998, p. 127-128). Radhakrishnan (1953. p. 283) and most earlier translators
render tman here as the self rather than oneself. As the dialogue progresses,
however, Olivelle translates tman successively as ones self, his self, and this self.
Olivelles reason for the semantic drift, presumably, is that Yajavalkyas teaching on the
tman moves gradually deeper, from the sense of oneself implicit in the reflexive
pronoun toward the formless mass of consciousness (prajana-ghana)compared to the
mass of [salt] taste (rasa-ghana) in the oceanthat the tman is shown to be at the end
of the passage. The personal pronoun turns out to be a pathway leading deeply into the
numinous realm of pure selfhood = pure awareness.3 Over twenty-five centuries later,
Ramana Maharshis spiritual quest followed a similar path (Ramana, 1988).4
Ahakra is a term invented by the priestly authors of the Upaniads. It was used
initially to denote the sense of I-ness or mine-ness that arises in a creator god at a
3

Franklin Edgerton also noted the connection between the bare reflexivity of the pronoun tman and the
numinosity of deep selfhood. One could hardly get a more abstract term for that which is left when
everything unessential is deducted from man and which is at the same time to be considered the principle of
his life, the living soul that pervades his being. (Edgerton, 1965, pp. 25-26).
4
Ramana questioned Who am I, and was able to move from the ordinary reflexive sense of self to a
transcendent selfhood. A less exalted but still successful identity was achieved by Rudyard Kiplings Kim
who likewise questioned, Who is Kim, Kim, Kim?

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certain moment in cosmogenesis, i.e., the moment after which individuation or separation
of particular entities from the creator or matrix is a wish or a fact. In different ways both
ahakra and tman named a sense of I-ness, although this became mostly positive for
transcendent tman and negative for worldly ahakra.5 There is a sense of
completeness in descriptions of tman, whereas ahakra is typically filled with struggle
to claim, assert, own, or become a self. One could view much of Indian philosophy as an
attempt to separate true (tman-like) from false (ahakra-like) selfhood.
Corresponding to the two senses of self are visions of the human world and
cosmos that can be characterized as a World One (i.e., the realm of ahakra and
suffering) and a World Two (the region where tman and consciousness, fulfillment,
and joy, reign).6 The ahakra is essentially a familial or social self, sometimes
participating as a willing constituent of a larger we-self and at other times struggling to
possess or be the center of that we-self. Examples of willing participation include the
flowing of the fathers vital essence at death into his son (Knipe, 1977), the lineal tie of
descent that unites a living man with his male ancestors and the gods, and the marital
bond that makes a wife part of her husbands familial self. The latter includes the
struggle to claim the dominant center of the lineage that we find in the Mahbhrata
between the Kauravas and the Pavas, in the concept of the bhrtvya or botherbrother enmity prevalent in late Vedic texts, in the figures of demons like Rvana who
try to possess the human and divine worlds by force, and in the schismatic nature of the

Ahakra is treated positively by many tantric authors and esthetic theoretitians such as King Bhoja
(Delmonico, 1999). Here it is a question of finding a core of tman within ahakra, so the essential
difference between the two is not elided.
6
References to two worlds or two levels of experience are common in Buddhism (the two truths) and
Vedanta (paramrthika and vyavahrika levels of experience).

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joint family in modern India (Fox, 1971).7 In the Puruaskta hymn from the g Veda
(RV X.90, perhaps composed around 1000 BCE) the cosmos was imagined to be created
by emanation or partition of the body of a cosmic giant, the Purua (later also called
Prajpati). The Puruas body was found to contain the whole cosmos through
identification of his articulated parts with cosmic regions and forces (his breath was the
wind, his eye the sun, etc.). The physical cosmos was imagined or experienced as an
emanation of Purua or Prajpati, and was therefore often thought of as his offspring.
Thus, in the Aitareya rayaka II.1.8:
This world was water. This (water) was the root, that (world) was the shoot; this
the father, those the sons. Whatever is the sons is the fathers and whatever is the
fathers is the sons. Mahidasa Aitaraya who knew this said, I know myself as
reaching to the gods, and the gods as reaching to me.

The cosmos, then, is represented as a continuum of quasi-human substance


flowing through the generations (i.e., across time) and from heaven to earth (across
space), with its proximal source in the Cosmic Man who emits the flow or from whom it
emanates. Sometimes, a prior source is sought even for this generative Cosmic Man.
Typically his ur-source is imagined to be a female principle, often in the figure of the
Waters. For example, atapatha Brhmaa XI.1.6.1-2:
In the beginning this world was nothing but a sea of water. The Waters desired to
be born [i.e., to propagate themselves]. They worked at inward brooding (tapas),

The Bengali family, according to Inden and Nicholas (1977) is characterized by being centered on a seed
male, the Kart who possesses selfhood in a way not possible for other member of the family whose
selfhood is limited to participating in and enhancing his. Between generations, when the issue of who is to
hold the role of Kart is unclear or disputed, the family is liable to fragmentation and struggles for
succession and legitimacy. As we will see, this is a central theme in the Mahbhrata (cf. van Buitenen,
1973). The close parallel between the familial Kart and the cosmic Purua is explicit. [The Kart] is the
living seed-man (purua), the living divinity of the family and his body is the microcosmic form of the
cosmic purua out of whose body the world was created. The body of the Kart encompasses the bodies
of all the living persons of his family, signifying their unity. (Inden and Nicholas, p. 30). For a fuller
discussion of the Kart-purua parallel see Collins, 1992.

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became heated and produced a golden egg. The egg floated for one year, and
Prajpati was born from it.
Prajpatis birth usually results, as here, from a desire on his mothers part to be
born. The verb for be-born, prajyemahi, expresses the parents desire for an act of
birth in which the distinction between parent and infant is not sharply drawn, a
nondistinction which permits the parents existence to continue in the child. The idea of
extending a mans lineage is even more explicit in the expression tanayebhi tanute, He
extends (tan-, to extend, hold out) himself through offspring (tanaya).
Whether it is a paternal or a maternal entity that emits or lets flow part of his/her
essence to form offspring, the central idea of the ahamkra self is that a single blended
selfhood unites parent and child, and by analogy other relationships such as that of
husband and wife, older and younger brother8, etc.. In a patriarchal society, naturally,
interest was primarily on the father-son lineage, though father-daughter imagery is also
found. Upon the birth of a son the Vedic father uttered the formula to his child, You
are my self (tman) called son (ataptha Brhmaa 14.9.4.26). When the father dies,
he transfers his vital breaths (pras) into the son and gives him the sacred knowledge of
transcendent reality (brahman) which is itself often spoken of as a mans tman-self
(Knipe, 1977). Here we see the joint ahamkra we-self merging into the tman self. We
will see a similar move toward integration of the two worlds at the time or approach of
death in the psychoanalytic thinkers we will review next: Freud, Winnicott, Erikson, and
Kohut.

E.g., Rma and Lakmana.

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Narcissism and the self in psychoanalysis


The anthropologist McKim Marriott has shown that the Indian concept of the
person does not correspond to the relatively independent and demarcated individual
familiar in post-Reformation and Enlightenment European thinking but is rather a fluid
and permeable dividual interchanging substance and qualities with other dividuals
within the familial, ritual, and economic structures of culture and society (Marriott,
1989).9 Marriotts idea is an elaboration of the Skhyan theory of the interacting
strands (guas) that make up psychophysical reality (prakti). Personhood, blended
from the three intertwined guas of sattva, rajas, and tamas (essence, activity, and
darkness or lethargy) evolving over time through the dynamic process called satkrya,10
involves an essentially joint, intermingled sense of self which Prakash Desai and I have
termed the we-self (Collins and Desai, 1986). Psychoanalysis, as a child of the
Enlightenment, naturally wanted to view the sense of self (Freuds Ich, usually translated
as the ego) as individual and autonomous, not as something shared with others. This, it
soon became clear to Freud, was at best an ideal to be striven for by mature adults living
in a modern, liberal culture, and in no way a biological given. He expressed the egos
quest for autonomy through the figure of the Dutch reclaiming land from the sea: Where
it (id) was, there I (Ich) shall be. (Freud, 1923). But, ironically, Freud found again and
again that the I (ego) was itself formed in part through the reworking and elaborating of
prior identifications with parental images (especially same sex images); thus, the goal of

Sabina Spielrein in 1912 had used this same word dividual to describe the mutable nature of the
psychoanalytic ego. (Spielrein, 1994).
10
Literally the reality of the effect, meaning that the effect is already there, implicit though unexpressed
outwardly, in the cause, the potential state of psychophysical matter called the avyakta- prakrti. A slightly
different term used for the process of satkrya is parima, unfolding.

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separate selfhood rests on a prior sharing of self with others.11 The Freudian analogue to
the struggle for ownership of the familial ahamkra self in India is epitomized in the
boys oedipal conflict and identification with the father.
Going back one step, the infants I-sense was originally located in a state of
merger with the mother that Freud called primal narcissism and that he found described
figuratively by his friend Romain Rollands phrase, the oceanic feeling. Like the
Freudian oedipal ego, the contested late-Vedic father-son familial self was found to grow
out of and rest upon a more ancient maternal substratum, imagined in India also as
water.12 Here we find a first analogue to the Indian tman self in Freud.
The psychoanalytic theory of narcissism developed by Freud in the late 1920s,13
points to a time or a state in a childs development when selfhood was not contested but
rather was experienced as pure and complete. This state is later remembered at an
unconscious level in the mature psyche, and desire for return to it motivates the search for
all narcissistic satisfactions. But the idea of return to a primordial state immediately
brings to mind a psychoanalytic concept that seems at first almost diametrically opposed
to narcissistic merger. I am referring to the scandal and creative peak of Freuds later
years, the death instinct (thanatos), which likewise yearns for regression to an earlier
condition, in its case that of inorganic matter. In fact, as I will try to show, the death
instinct and narcissism express two sides of one thing, though Freud never quite
succeeded in making the connection explicit. From the perspective of the
tman/ahamkra discussion, the death instinct and narcissism in Freudian
11

For example, the shadow of the object has fallen on the ego. (Freud, 1917).
In psychoanalysis the oceanic feeling; in India the Vedic Waters in which the fire god Agni takes his
birth (RV II.35) and the ocean on which the god Viu reclines between periods of cosmic manifestation.
13
The first theory of narcissism (1914) was purely an ahamkra theory focused on ego enhancement rather
than ego transcendence.
12

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metapsychology express complementary aspects of the transcendent realm of World


Two.
In wrestling with the attraction of organic matter for regression to the inorganic,
Freud adopted the term nirvana principle to express the inherent tendency of all drive
states to seek quiescence (Freud, 1920, p. 50). The death instinct, which developed from
the nirvana principle (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973, p. 273), similarly implies that the
psyche seeks release from a state of tension and rigid structure and yearns to relax into
quietude and undifferentiation. Clearly in some way the psyche must remember and
tacitly (unconsciously) represent to itself a prior state in which it was free of struggle and
felt peaceful contentment.14 The identification of this state as one of full I-ness
(purhat in one strain of Hinduism, or Freuds primal narcissism), as opposed to one
where the I seems to have definitively disappeared (as in Buddhism, or Freuds death
instinct) may be at a deeper level a matter of personal preference or perspective.
Translated into Indian terms, the death instinct seeks elimination of the cravings and
presumptions of ego (ahamkra), while the I of primal narcissism expresses something
close to the transpersonal tman, but the eclipse of ahamkra/ego and the rise of
tman/primal narcissism may represent two sides of the same process.
If the tman-like memory of the undivided experience of primal narcissism and of
the pre-organic state before life are crucial in Freuds final metapsychology (though not
foregrounded in his working-out of clinical psychoanalysis), tacit knowledge or structural
memory of the higher self is just as central in both Hindu and Buddhist psychological
thought, though here too on a hidden or esoteric level. For instance, the word for
14

The identification of a state of spiritual peace with the inorganic is also found in India, for example in the
image of the enlightened person inhabiting the state of a rock.

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mindfulness, a central practice in Buddhism, is smti (Pali sati), literally remembrance.


At bottom, I suggest, it is the undivided state of unity prior to or outside the delusory
struggle over individual identity that should ideally be remembered in each moment of
later life, though this is fully realized only in the final instant of dissolution in nirva.15
Turning to Hinduism, specifically to the Skhya-Yoga school of thought, we find a
similar structural memory in the concept of pururtha, the fact that the higher self or
consciousness (purua) is the sole aim (artha) of all human and quasi-human activity. The
eternal and underlying fact of pururtha is held to be the one central truth that makes
release from suffering possible. The abiding reality of pururtha is remembered
through the innate presence in the human mind of a single unafflicted (akta) state of
affect or thought (bhva), namely discriminative insight (jna).16 To express this
psychologically, all humans feel an inner yearning for spiritual truth, and this yearning
motivates everything we do, even when we are not aware of it.17
Freuds first theory of narcissism (1914) had found that some libido (sexual
energy) was narcissistic (focused on the self or ego in an autoerotic attachment) while
other energy was outwardly directed. Both kinds of object relation are dualistic and do
not imply a return to primal union with the mother/world. The theory laid out in
Civilization and its Discontents (1930) and elsewhere suggests something quite different,
namely that return to a limitless sense of I-ness and union with the universe (= mothers
15

Matthew Kapsteins discussion of the momentary reflexivity of consciousness in Buddhist thought


suggests the connection of each moment of consciousness with nirva (Kapstein, 2001, p. 150). The only
difference between ordinary moments and nirva is that the consciousness of the nirva moment sees its
own emptiness and points beyond, into a vacuum, an absence around which the person is configured.
(ibid, p. 156).
16
Yoga Stra I.5.
17
Sri Adwayananda, the son and successor to Sri Atmananda, said, There is a latent push in any man
which is only a search for perfection. Rightly pursued, one finds this in ones awakening experience to
ones real nature through the atmosphere between the real teacher and the taught. (Words inscribed above
the door of the Sri Atmananda Memorial School, Malakara, Kerala, and Austin, Texas).

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body and presence), rather than autoerotism, underlies narcissistic phenomena.


Complementing the unity and universality of the I-ness felt in the remembrance of this
primal state, later psychoanalytic reflection on the early self has also recognized qualities
of numinosity, consciousness, and bliss.
Erik Erikson, in a creative psychoanalytical reading of the New Testament, finds
this sense of aliveness, vitality, and luminosity at the center of ones being expressed in
Jesus Galilean sayings (1981). Erikson points out that this same dynamic I sense was
identified by William James and opposed by him to the me or ego experienced as an
objective sense of self (James 1890). Freuds first narcissism theory viewed the self as a
me that could be cathected (charged) with erotic or self preservative energy. The
second theory, however, is implicitly an I doctrine that understands the remembered
self of primal narcissistic unity to be an inner center of happiness and light, and
potentiallyas Erikson, like Winnicott arguesof creative action. Later psychoanalytic
theories can usefully be divided according to whether they view the self as me or I in
this sense. Object relations theory, including the work of Melanie Klein, falls into the
former category, while self psychology and intersubjective theories belong to the latter
(Kohut, Winnicott, Stolorow and Atwood, etc.).18 Me theories of the self tend to
emphasize its sufferings while I theories see it as potentially free and creative. As
Winnicott put it, from that perspective [i.e., that of the self as I] everything is
creative. (1971).19

18

Winnicott (appropriately!) falls into a transitional area, and can be seen either as an object relations
theorist or a self psychologist avant la lettre.
19
Freud himself at times retreated to a me theory of the self, e.g., in Civilization and its Discontents,
viewing the oceanic experience (remembrance of primal narcissism) as a defense against the sense of threat
from a hostile world (Freud, 1930).

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Eriksons treatment of Jesus Galilean sayings sets off the tman-like I-ness
expressed by Jesus, and the Jewish culture he represented, against the environment they
inhabited, a deprived political, economic, and natural setting that seemed to negate the
essential nature of I-ness: its luminosity, numinosity, centrality, and sense of efficacy.
Erikson views the Jews faith in God as based, in part, of the ability of the God image to
uphold their sense of the higher tman self. The tman-like I was preserved, that is, by
being located in a God felt to be the transcendent center of the life of the community and
of the individuals making it up. This, Erikson argues, explains Jehovahs statement to
Moses, I am that I am. In worshipping God and in remaining faithful to him, the Jews
kept alive their own sense of the tman, although they located it in God rather than in an
image of inner selfhood.
Heinz Kohuts thoughts on the self and its development and pathologies have
been very influential in the past 40 years, and have been the starting point for other
movements such as intersubjective theories (Stolorow and Atwood, 1983). Like Erikson,
Kohut begins by positing a basic and innate sense of self, a seed around which coalesce
the structures and purposes of what he calls the nuclear self, a development of the
Freudian ego viewed as an I rather than simply a control structure or content of the
mind (a me). The nuclear self contains two primary constituents, ambitions and ideals,
which together make up the blueprint of selfhood which the nuclear self tries to live out
over a lifetime. We can sense here something like the Indian idea of dharma, the law
governing each persons life and the harmonious interaction of social groups and
families. Kohuts is from one point of view a we-self theory like the Vedic model we
discussed earlier. That is, the self-sense of a person requires relationships with others,

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whom Kohut calls selfobjects. These are of two primary types, mirroring and
idealizing. Mirroring refers to the empathic response of others to the person that gives
him or her a sense of the numinosity or charged vitality that Erikson speaks of in
discussing Jesus Galilean sayings. Idealizing expresses a sense of participation in the
greater selfhood of a parental figure, and takes the place of Freuds superego, though it
emphasizes the ego ideal rather than the harsh father imago. Both mirroring and
idealizing suggest the we-self or shared selfhood we found in the Vedic father-son
lineality, the Bengali Kart, etc. Early experiences of being empathically mirrored,
according to Kohut, develop into ambitions, and experiences of idealizing appropriate
persons are transformed into inner ideals and values. Thus the individual, via a process
called transmuting internalization, becomes less dependent on outside support of his
sense of self by selfobjects, and the psyche becomes more bounded and structurally
stable. The we-self comes to be more, though never completely, internal.
In normal development a persons self lives out the trajectory defined early in
life by the nuclear self. By late adulthood, however, the structural side of the self appears
to grow less central, and persons ideally return to a more direct relationship with the outer
world, both the natural world and the cultural-human realm, as a whole. As the sense of
selfhood permeates nature and culture, the person in later life should come to feel
increasingly at one with the cosmos. This stage of cosmic narcissism is very close to
Rollands oceanic feeling that Freud referenced in developing his second narcissism
theory and in recognizing the inherent hunger of humans for the complementary (even, as
I have argued, ultimately inseparable) states of primal narcissism and dissolution through

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the operation of the death instinct. Kohuts we-self or ahamkra-type self theory thus
begins to merge into something approaching an tman perspective.
Freud contrasted the death instincts tendency to seek nirvana (implicitly
equivalent to seeking union in primal narcissistic fulfillment) with the tendency of the life
instincts (eros) to move toward greater relatedness and an ego organized inwardly to
facilitate the binding of instinctual energy (including especially that of the death instinct
itself) into the sublimated forms of culture. He expressed the relationship between the
two principles or aims of our existence by saying that the ego energies lead the organism
to [want] to die only in its own fashion (Freud, 1920, p. 33), to follow its own path to
death (ibid). This concept of ones own path20 is very close to Kohuts blueprint of
selfhood, Jungs individuation,21 and the Hindu concept of dharma. All four ideas
express a pathway or practice of living by which the ultimate aim of human existence
(respectively, death/narcissistic union, wholeness, cosmic narcissism, and
enlightenment/release) can be achieved, or at least approached, by humans who live in
the realm of limitation, suffering, and ahakra. All four concepts describe a stage or
kind of life suspended between the limited and ego-dominated self, on one hand, and the
higher, ego-transcending self on the other. If the death instinct and narcissism are two
sides of the same coin, each appears transformed in the living mirror of the other. The
inorganic state of nature sought by thanatos becomes also a state of fulfillment and
oneness, and narcissism can no longer be understood just as regression to an early state of

20

The American pop singer Frank Sinatra made famous a song whose title expresses, from the perspective
of old age, satisfaction with a life lived My Way.
21
Jungs individuation describes the progressive diminution of the importance of the individual ego and
the corresponding rise of a larger integrative principle in the psyche, the Self. Cf. Jung (1962).

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oneness with the mother but is revealed as a source of numinous I-ness and selftranscending creativity.
At the end of his paradigm-breaking work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud
appears to digress into a dense, almost unintelligible discussion of one-celled organisms
and the relative primordiality of the death instinct versus eros. I suggest that in these
pages we see Freud struggling to unite the death instinct and narcissism, and to transform
narcissism from a purely regressive pull within the psyche to a creative principle leading
beyond the limitations of the personal ego. In a way, he is struggling to realize that his
original theory of narcissism (i.e., overvaluation of the self) is diametrically opposed to
his new understanding, where narcissism implies merging of the self in its creative
origins. Freud is moving toward a more spiritual view of life. Significantly, it is here
that Freud cites the earlier paper of Jungs student Sabina Spielrein (1994, originally
1912) on the necessity of destruction to the possibility of origination of new life.
Spielrein was struck by the essential connection between sexual reproduction and the
death of the parent organism. She observes that we are ambivalent about sex,
simultaneously attracted to and repelled by it, because sexual union implies (and feels
like) our individual destruction.22 This feeling rests on an unavoidable reality: that the
new generation lives off the energies, and leads to the death, of the prior.23 Freud does
not quite get to this point explicitly, but his discussion implies it. The life instincts (eros,
sexuality) serve only to stretch out the period before death, allowing the organism to die
in its own fashion; but this, Freud argues, applies only to life of the individual organism.
22

Cultural differences seem to be present here. Spielrein finds the greatest fear of personal destruction in
females. It is widely recognized that the situation in India is often reversed, foregrounding the males fear
of losing personal strength to the female through the emission of semen (Carstairs, 1968; Meckel, 2002).
23
This ambivalence between father and son was expressed again and again in Vedic and post-vedic
Indian literature. See Collins, 1991 and 1994, and Collins and Desai, 1989 for references and discussion.

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Beyond the individual lifespan with its emphasis on pleasure lies the transgenerational
purpose of uniting with the germ cells of another individual to create new beings. It is
here that Freud (who used the word mystical twice in prior pages, while disclaiming its
application to his own thinking) becomes most speculative and approaches a religious
perspective. He refers to Platos myth of the androgyne whose split halves yearn to be
reunited, and in a footnote asserts the storys roots in the Bhadranyaka Upaniads tale
of the self of the Cosmic Man (tman in the form of Purua) dividing into the various
kinds of animals, etc. As Spielrein had earlier found, sex implies death (at the level of
the individual) but it also aims at return to a creative source (at the level of the species).
Putting the ideas together, we have a two stage process. First, the individual person dies
in his/her own way, in the process uniting narcissistically with the long-lost other half.
Second, the reintegrated whole splits into new individuals. Seen purely as death instinct,
thanatos operates only at the level of the individual. Seen as an expression of primal
narcissism, thanatos operates to express the life principle intergenerationally. But Freud
does not quite stop here. Clearly recognizing how mystical he sounds, he only suggests
the next step, namely the possibility that even this generationally extended life principle
might itself still fall within the scope of a further postponement of the death instinct, a
further lengthening of the road to death. (ibid, p. 34). In the end, Freud is not sure
which urge is ultimate: nirvana or return to the mother to be reborn. The two principles
are best viewed as complementary absolutes that translate into a single individuated and
cultural way of living.
Of all psychoanalysts, perhaps the one whose life and work best expressed the
sense of death in ones own way was the British child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott.

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The clear distinction of self (in the tman sense) from the strivings of the instincts (the
Freudian analogues of the Skhyan guas) was instinctive with Winnicott, and he did
not need to elaborate it. Instead, he focused on the play between the two, andlike
certain characters in Indian mythology such as Markandaya24he moved back and forth
between them. Winnicott took as epigraph for a chapter of his book Playing and Reality
a line from Tagore that shows this: On the seashore of endless worlds children play.
As we will also see in Skhya, cultural life is properly lived on the boundaries of the
transcendent self. "Self" for Winnicott is thus a fundamental reality, a basic experience
that cannot finally be explained in terms of other concepts. As he said, "We can use
words as we like, especially artificial words. A word like 'self' knows more than we
do; it uses us, and can command us." (Winnicott 1965, p. 158). The selfs use of
humans, we will see, is culture.
The region of experience between the self that commands us and World One of
ordinary life is called by Winnicott the transitional space or realm (this is the
seashore in his metaphor). It is here, in the world of culture that I have called World
Three, that we die in our own ways. Winnicott, by all accounts, was a man who lived in
his transitional space more than most. Although not a believer in any traditional sense,
he tried to encompass even his own death within the purview of the self. Knowing that
he had heart disease, he imagined his death, his lungs filling with fluid as he slowly
suffocated. Winnicott was survived for years by his wife Claire, with whom he had been
extraordinarily close. Every day of their married life Donald gave Claire Winnicott one

24

Zimmer, 19

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of his "squiggle"25 drawings at breakfast, or if they were separated he mailed one to her.
The two of them lived in a transitional space that continued after his death. Soon before
his passing, Winnicott wrote in his journal, "Oh God! May I be alive when I die." To
understand what he meant, it is necessary to understand the word I in the numinous
sense Erikson found in the life of Jesus and Jehovah. Claire apparently did so, and his
words continued to live within her psyche. Ultimately, she fulfilled his hope, in a dream
that came to her a year later.

I dreamt that we were in our favorite shop in London, where there is a


circular staircase to all floors. We were running up and down these stairs,
grabbing things from here, there, everywhere as Christmas presents for our
friends.I suddenly realized that Donald was alive after all and I thought
with relief, "Now I shan't have to worry about the Christmas card." Then
we were sitting in the restaurant having our morning coffee as usual and
I looked him full in the face and said: "Donald there's something we have
to say to each other, some truth that we have to say, what is it?" With his
very blue eyes looking unflinchingly into mine, he said: "That this is a
dream." I replied slowly: "Oh yes, of course, you died, you died a year
ago." He reiterated my words: "Yes, I died a year ago." (Clancier and
Kalmanovitch, 1987, p. 103).
Winnicott, in Claires dream, was alive when he died and even after. In our shared
cultural memory, as in Clare Winnicotts dream, he continues to live, as he died,
in his own way.

Skhya and culture at puru as edge


Like other Indian traditions, the psychological/philosophical school called
Skhya (and its closely allied companion Yoga) opposes a World One self term to one
from World Two. In Skhya/Yoga the terms mainly used are ahamkra or asmit (I
25

Winnicotts squiggles were a technique he invented to encourage patients, especially children, to


express their conflicts and hopes in a creative, transitional way, and thus to initiate a process of healing.

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am-ness), on the side of everyday World One, and purua and cit (consciousness) from
the World Two side of enlightenment and freedom. We will look at the relationship
between purua and prakti through the latter's structure of guas (constituent "qualities")
and bhvas ("fundamental strivings in the core of man's nature" [Larson, 1969, p. 192],
"urges" [ibid, p. 199]). I will aim to show how the gua theory elaborates Skhyas
fundamental presupposition of pururtha (purua + artha, for puruas sake), whereby
prakti acts solely to give purua pleasure and release, into the many specific pathways to
these goals that constitute Indian culture. Viewing these pathways under the lens of
psychoanalytic self psychology (Winnicott and Kohut) will allow us to see some of the
details of culture in India, and understand how culture is related to the sense of self.
Conversely, interpreting self psychology in terms of the guas and bhvas, and their
relationship to purua, deepens the psychoanalytic theory of culture and makes it more
capable of addressing the crisis of the "disenchantment of the world" (Max Weber) that
has gnawed at the roots of the Western self for the past several hundred years.
Although its psychological importance will only become clear later, I will begin
with the question of how many "selves," or loci of consciousness, exist. This is a
fundamental topic in Indian philosophy as an academic or intellectual discipline, and
Ramesh Kumar Sharma claims, for example, that "the paramount question that Skhya
discusses" is: "is this self one, as, for example, in Advaita Vedanta, or many?" (Sharma
2004, p. 425). Apparently incompatible answers to the question have been given by
various schools of thought, ranging from the many selves (puruas) doctrine of Skhya,
to the one self (tman) doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, to the no self (antman, anatta)
position of the Buddhists. While they contradict one another when laid out like this as

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settled claims or conclusions, and disputes among these and related ideas reappear
frequently in Indian philosophical discourse, I will argue that when understood
psychologically the point of each position is to offer a pathway towards a "World Two"
experience, and that each does this by building its own, specific means (upaya) of
attaining the bliss or release of World Two. Philosophy, as so often, is here motivated by
religious psychology. I will claim for each of the Indian positions discussed what
Matthew Kapstein says of the thought of the Buddhist thinker ntarakita:

This philosophy, in the end, is not primarily about objects of thought (jeya) but
is rather a way of coming-to-be (bhavana)one that we are enjoined to bring to
fruition within ourselves. (Kapstein, 2001, p. 14-15).
For purposes of orientation, it may be helpful to sketch of some of the main ways
in which the transition from World One to World Two has been understood. For the
Buddhists, the opposition between the world of sasra and nirva, bondage and
release, is fundamental, and all Buddhist practice aims to move us from the one to the
other. The "two truth" doctrine which distinguishes a relative everyday perspective from
the absolutely true, enlightened viewpoint follows from and elaborates on this opposition.
The early Vedantin thinker Gaudapda draws a similar distinction between worldly or
"limited" knowledge (samvti, root v-) and the higher understanding (paramrthika) that
we seek to realize. In this he was followed by the preeminent thinker of Advaita
Vednta, aIkarcarya. In Skhya, the basic distinction is made between the
unconscious evolution of the psychomaterial principle (prakti) and an onlooking pure
consciousness (purua), a watcher (sakin) whose isolation or individuation is the aim
of all life. In popular literature, as well as in philosophical discourse, a sharp opposition is

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drawn between the grasping, clinging ego (ahamkra) and the calm, unattached life of the
real self (tman, purua). The well-known theory of the four stages of life found in
Manu's Dharmastra, etc., divides ordinary lifethe stages of child and householder
from the meditative life and renunciation prescribed for life's final stages (vanaprasth
and sannysa). Here World Two is defined as a place and time of peace outside the
turmoil of civilization and the messiness of the developing and procreative phases of life.
Emphasis in the later stages of life should be on the tman self, as the ahakra is
increasingly left behind. What is generally acknowledged to be India's greatest literary
work, Kldsa's akuntala, turns on this opposition between the two worlds, represented
by King Duanta's court (World One) and the forest ashram of the sage Kanva (World
Two) where the king meets his beloved akuntala. It is akuntala's fate to be caught on
the threshold between these worlds of tman and ahakra, and as punishment for
ignoring the first to be bound, for most of the duration of the play, within the suffering of
the other.26 As always, the aim of the work is the cultural integration of these opposites.
Let us turn again to Skhya's "many purusas" doctrine and look more closely at
what actually happens psychologically in the story that this apparently dry text narrates.
In the beginning, we are told in the first verse of the Skhya Krik, we live in a state
of "threefold suffering" (dukhatraya) that motivates us to seek a way out (SK 1).27 We
are in World One (the realm of ahamkra) and we need, as we innately desire, to find our
way to World Two (purua). Our predicament, the realm of ordinary life, is constituted
by the unfolding of a psychomaterial principle, prakrti (elsewhere the goddess Prakrti),
whose sole aims are the happiness and release of each instance of consciousness, purusa.
26

Engrossed in her passion for King Dusanta, akuntala ignores the sage Durvasas, and thus turns away
from the world of spiritual enlightenment in which she has been raised by Kanva.
27
It is interesting to note that Freud also has a theory of three sufferings.

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We are told much about this paradoxical world of bondage-seeking-enlightenment; in


fact, almost all of the text is devoted to describing how that world, including both its
mental and physical aspects, is organized and how it works for better or worse. We learn,
or we are reminded, that our natures are complex and afflicted (klia) by qualities of
ignorance, weakness, lawlessness, and passion. Even though we also have positive
possibilities such as strength, morality, dispassion, and insight, it is only the last of
theseinsightthat will be of ultimate benefit in moving from the first world to the
second.
Summarized in this way, Skhya reminds us of a folk narrative similar to other
tales of quest found in a reference book like the Stith Thompson Myth Motif Index. From
yet another literary perspective it resembles a Bildungsroman or tale of education of
the soul. In Patajalis Yoga Stra we learn of the many stages of self-discipline, clean
living, breath control, and mental discrimination that we must pass through on the way to
the blessed land, the ultimate goal of kaivalya, completeness or individuality of the spirit
(purua) that we truly are. Throughout the whole quest, however, there is one essential
principle: we must discriminate between purusa and prakrti, between World One and
World Two. The way to World Two is to see that it fundamentally different from and
unlike World One, although it is also the latter's basis (adhihna).
Interspersed among the descriptive and analytical passages are set little
mythologems or seeds of narrative that personalize the account and show us that it is not
just dry concepts that are in play here but our own lives. One of the most revealing of
these tropes is the Skhya Krika image of prakti as a female dancer performing for a
king who represents purua. Let us imagine this scene, a performance taking place at

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night in some king's courtyard, with oil lamps shedding their flickering light on the
beautiful dancer as the monarch sits calmly watching her performance. Prakti's is a sort
of dance of the seven veils. She unwinds layer after layer of her karmic garb, showing
the king finer and finer aspects of her nature. Each successive discrimination artfully
reveals that some quality or aspect of herself is different from the kingly consciousness
that looks on. For his part, the king observes the development of this exquisite creature
who transforms before his eyes from what he (and she) had imagined to be a suffering,
deluded being afflicted by the dukhatraya of life, into the most perfect maiden
(sukumarataram na, SK 61). Embodying the highest, purest insight (buddhi), this dancer
becomes the king's teacher or guru and, like a cow whose milk flows to nourish her calf
(another trope from the same text), her buddhi's dance flows to release the Kings purua.
Looking at Prakti's development (and let us refer to her by the proper noun at this
point), she sees more and more deeply into things, coming finally, in the central verse of
the Skhya Krika to her final realization, a moment that recalls the denouement of
Charlie Chaplin's great film Limelight when Clair Bloom, playing a ballerina, pirouettes
on stage while her dying lover, a clown, watches from the wings. It is for him she dances,
and Chaplin shows her performance through his eyes. In Skhya, conversely, it is the
female rather than the male who "dies" in the gaze of her Other; further, her death is not
really death at all but fulfillment, and we see it through both their eyes. Prakti says, and
her dance expresses, "nsmi na me nham," "I am not, I have nothing, there is no I in
me." (SK 64).28 This moment of negative realization constitutes also her understanding

28

The similarity between the narcissism/death nexus in psychoanalysis and the nham moment in Skhya
is extremely close. Paradoxically, this moment of nay-saying the I is precisely the moment of maximal Iness. By dying in her own way the person fulfills herself and achieves what Jung called individuation.
The expansiveness or even narcissistic exaltation apparent in the Buddhas utterances at birth (I am the

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that she "has been seen" (d 'ham) by Purua (to accord him, too, the proper noun), and
is simultaneously marked by Puruas recognition that "I have seen her" (d may).
This is a spectacularly paradoxical moment, for it constitutes at the same time the purest
discrimination of the difference between prakti (including the ahamkra which is part of
prakti) and purua, and also the instant when they become essentially indistinguishable
from one another and most closely linked (sati samyoge, SK 66). This linkage is
indicated by the fact that each says the same, crucially significant, word at the same
moment: d, "seen." It is also shown by the description given of Prakti/prakti at the
moment of enlightenment (whether it is her enlightenment or his is an unanswerable
question). Her understanding (jna) is said to be "pure" (viuddha), and complete,
individual (kevala). The use of the word kevala in reference to prakti is highly
significant; it evokes purua's kaivalya state of aloneness and suggests that it also applies
in some way to her.
It is significant that both purua and prakti (Purusa and Prakrti) act quite out of
character and take on the qualities of one another. If Prakrti comes near kaivalya
(possesses the quality of kevala or individuation), Purua does something equally strange
when he says "dr may," "I have seen her." Before this moment, Purua's
consciousness has been merely that of enjoyer and onlooker. Now he gains insight. The
orthodox interpretation of the verse would be that the refined insight of buddhi is here
reflected in the unchanging (and essentially uninsightful) purua, but that is not what the
text says. This is an instance of a third world, where World One and World Two merge

highest in the world, etc., Nanamoli, 1972, p.5) and upon enlightenment are regularly repeated in the
enlightenment experiences of his followers, for example in the cases recounted in Philip Kapleaus Three
Pillars of Zen (1965).

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and dance together. In psychoanalytic terms, we again see the possibility of another,
third self position midway between the merged, empty, and objectless self of primal
narcissism/death and the ego-bounded self of ordinary life. The Skhyan perspective
can be imported into psychoanalysis and implies that by dying in its own way the ego
takes on some of the qualities of nirva and primal narcissism. This is analogous to
Freuds theory of sublimation, where some of the taste of the instincts, especially the
deep instincts of narcissism and death, is enjoyed through the productions of culture.
Prakti is Purua's guru. The whole process of discrimination, the whole dance,
is done "for purusa's sake," pururtha. And yet Purua is the cynosure of prakti's
pravtti or evolutionary process. Paradoxically, all that she does makes sense only in
terms of her support (adhihana) by the purua to whom she shows his nature. Her
action can be seen as worship, bhakti, toward purua. How, then, can she be his guru?
That she is in fact guru is clear also in the mythology of Ka and Rdh, when Ka
bows down and touches Rdhs feet (Adwayananda, 1998). The same theme is found in
the mythology of Siva and Parvati ([Doniger] OFlaherty, 1968) and in the story of Nala
and Damayanti. (Collins, 2001). The guru principle is fundamentally feminine, because it
must necessarily be part of prakti. Purua does not act and cannot therefore resolve
doubts. And yet, it would appear that prakti cannot be guru because she is unconscious.
It is this paradox that will call us to the third world, the world between the guru and the
disciple which is simultaneously the world of culture.
It will help at this point to resolve, for Skhya, the question raised initially: how
many puruas are there? The Skhya Krika's main reason for asserting the multiplicity
of puruas is that reality is divided into many bodies, each with its burden of saskras,

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karmas, etc. The ideal of kaivalya (for purua) and kevala (for prakti) would not make
sense if each person was not centered on a unique and distinct self. The enlightenment
(attainment of kaivalya) by one purua due to the wisdom of the buddhi associated with it
does nothing toward the enlightenment of the puruas associated with other bodies. At the
level of World One, the good or evil deeds done by each subtle body must exist for the
sake of the enjoyment and enlightenment of a specific purusa.
On the other hand, if a purua achieves enlightenment in its small region of the
worldif World One becomes World Two in a specific locusthe rest of the world as
perceived by the buddhi of the enlightened person will cease to have the quality of
manyness, and the struggles between egos that fill World One will disappear in that
person's eyes. The enlightened person (buddhi + purua, Rdh + Ka) will see the
worldthe whole worldas Vrindavan because she/he will see only pururtha
operating there. The unconsciousness of the other liIga arras will be dissolved in the
consciousness of the enlightened one.29 This is precisely the situation realized by the
Buddha at the moment of enlightenment: "wonders of wonders, all sentient beings are
intrinsically Buddhas." It is also the motive for the Buddhist vow to enlighten all sentient
beings, so that (translating the argument into Skhyan terms) each purusa's dancer
becomes subtler and more beautiful as she reaches the state of knowing, and saying to
purua, "I am not, I have nothing, there is no I in me." As Advaita Vednta, Mahyna
Buddhism, and Skhya all recognize, enlightenment is a process of attaining what has
already been attained. Vowing to enlighten all sentient beings, who are already

29

This must be a necessary condition of the possibility for other people to be enlightened.

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intrinsically Buddhas, means to show them that they functionand have always
functionedpururtha; and to educate their buddhi to the level of the one doing the
teaching so that they are able to recognize the truth of this.
The answer to the question, then, is that there are many puruas in the sense that
there are many instances of consciousness in the world but what each sees is essentially
alike and will be actually identical when all are enlightened, and all movements (vttis) of
prakti are stilled (nirodha, Yoga Stra 2). As Skhya Krik verse 62 puts it, "none is
bound, no one is released, and no one transmigrates." This fact, true for the enlightened
purua + prakti, becomes actual throughout the cosmos when all sentient beings realize
it. The situation closely resembles the case of quantum physics as described by Peter
Pesic's (2003) concept of "identicality." In quantum physics, all electronsno matter
what atoms they are part of, or where or when in the unfolding of the cosmos they happen
to beare exactly alike, in every particular, and it is impossible to tell them apart. It is
the same with purusas: in essence, all are identical. This paradoxical truth lies at the
bottom of the tantric Pura tales, wonderfully retold by Heinrich Zimmer30, where a
person finds that he has become someone else and does not discover his "real" identity
until the end of the story. The point of the tale, of course, is that the "real" identity is
ultimately quite arbitrary. The I of Devadatta and the I of Ka are the same in
essence.
The world between the guru and the disciple, then, as well as the world within the
guru and within the disciple, is a place that is not bound, was never bound, but also does
not attain release. (Skhya Krik, 62). Enlightenment happens but only shows that

30

The King and the Corpse

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things were always this way, always pururtha. The world between the guru and the
disciple is like a festival that celebrates, and shows again and again, more and more
deeply without limit, that things are this way. It is like a temple performance of music or
dance that goes on all night, journeying farther into the same feeling (bhva) but with
increasing profundity and insight so that the art stays fresh, the rasa of the raga emerging
more vividly as the night passes.

The Bhagavad Gt and bhakti


Whether or not the Bhagavad Gt was part of the original Mahbhrata, it is
arguable that it addresses, and to a large extent resolves, the central conundrum of the
great epic: the impossibility and ultimate incoherence of the patrilineal we-self that was
found to be so central to the understanding of selfhood in the Vedic period and after. The
epic seems intent on making it completely unclear who is the legitimate heir of the
original king, antanu. Endlessly repeated are themes of disputed succession and
pathology of the patrilineage. Fathers are inadequate, sons disloyal or illegitimate. In the
Bhagavad Gt the whole familial we-self scheme is overturned and replaced by a new
foundation of selfhood, the realization of the inner tman or purusa. Ironically, this inner
self is only to be attained through a variation on the old we-self bond of shared selfhood,
but now the selfobject is not the father or father figure but a guru, the avatar of Visnu, ri
Ka; and the relationship takes place not through the male lineage but through the
female (Ka and Arjuna are brothers-in-law and Ka is Arjunas mothers brothers
son).

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It may help to sketch schematically the plot of the Mahbhrata and to relate it to
the ideas of ahamkra, the guas, and the shared selfhood that we discussed earlier. The
epic tale at the center of the Mahbhrata tells of the great civil war in the Kingdom of
the Kurus, in the region of modern Delhi. (Basham, 1959, p. 407). The war pits the
brave and virtuous Pava brothers against their evil and selfish cousins the Kauravas.
The action of the epic is motivated by, and endlessly repeats, failures of the father-son
lineality of selfhood, and also breakdowns of the husband-wife bond which is almost as
central as that of father-son. The story begins when King antanu falls in love with a
young fisher woman, Satyavat. In order that her progeny can accede to the throne
Bhima, the kings older son by another wife, gives up his rights and binds himself to
remain celibate for life. As the drama unfolds, the fisher/queens son, Vicitravrya, is
discovered to be unable to sire children with either of his wives. According to the law of
niyoga, Bhima is asked to impregnate the wives of the impotent heir, but true to his vow
he refuses. Fortunately Satyavati had another son by a wandering ascetic before
marrying antanu. This son inseminates his half-brothers two wives, who give birth to
the two patriarchs of the Mahbhrata, Dhtartra and Pau.
The great war that is the subject of the Mahbhrata involves primarily the sons
and descendants of Dhtartra and Pau. The theme of the inadequate father that we
saw in the previous generation is repeated with both brothers. Dhtartra is blind and
Pau cursed and unable to sire children. Luckily, Paus wife Kunti possesses a magic
formula (mantra) that allows her to conceive three sons by the gods. She passes the
mantra to her co-wife Madri, who uses it to have two more sons. Pau, it is evident, is a
father in name only; his lineage is confused and incoherent. The confusion is carried on

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in the next generation, as the five Pava brothers have a single wife, Draupadi. This
implies that their sons cannot be identified with certainty as the descendants of whichever
brother sired them. It seems clear that the Mahbhrata wants to present us with a riddle
impossible to solve on its own level.
Two aspects of the we-self confusion are particularly sharp in the Mahbhrata.
First, we-selfhood is fragile and in constant need of support and renewal. Second,
selfhood becomes confounded with the momentary possessor of the contested patrilineal
self and so is a continual source of familial conflict. The latter reality can be seen even
more graphically in the figures of demons whose evil resides in pathological egotism or
narcissism (ahakra), and it is quite explicit that the Kauravas are descendants of
demons and themselves demonic. A particular danger for kings (and royal demons),
narcissism is a universal problem and leads cosmically to the decay of the world. This is
the underlying theme of the Mahbhrata, as the actions of the demonic Kaurava clan
lead to the transition from a better age of the world to the worst of the four stages through
which it passes before dissolution and renewal.
It is here that the Gt enters and offers a different answer to the problems of the
familial self and the narcissistic ego. The answer involves a creative reinterpretation of
the we-self idea and its integration with the tman self. Arjuna, one of the five Pava
brothers, is afraid and confused by his role in a war where he must kill males of his own
patrilineage (fathers and brothers). In essence this implies the destruction of his own
sense of self which is shared with them. The god Ka, his charioteer, shows and gives
Arjuna a new kind of shared selfhood through devotion to Him (devotion translates the
word bhakti, which literally means sharing). If father-son patrilineal selfhood has

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become incoherent, the Gt brings something new, a sharing of the tman self that had
tended to become limited to a purely transcendent and isolated or individuated sense of
self, as in the Upaniads and a superficial reading of the Skhyan kaivalya (isolation).
(In fact, as we saw earlier, the sharing of the spiritual purua is implied in the Skhya
Krik.) The Gt, and later bhakti texts (and performance) go further, finding the tman
in another human being, the guru. Although the guru-disciple relationship does transform
the old we-self, it is significant that in the Mahbhrata (and so in the Gt) Ka and
Arjuna are also relatives within a variation on the lineal we-self model: they are cross
cousins and brothers-in-law.31 Instead of a father-son transmission the connection is
through the wife/sister, but the sharing of selfhood and participation in anothers self are
the same.
As Kakar (2003) notes, the Indian psyche, though not immune to sexuality and
oedipal issues, is best understood in terms of narcissistic or self psychology. Kohuts
selfobject theory (1966, 1977), Lacans mirror stage (1966, originally 1936), and
Winnicotts concept of the transitional object (1971) elaborate on Frueds classical (1914,
1930) theory of narcissism and provide a basis for understanding what happens between
Arjuna and Ka in the Bhagavad Gt. Arjuna feels profoundly understood (Kakar,
2003, p. 666) by Ka and, in returnthrough Kas grace in revealing the deep
nature of his self (his vivarpa)Arjuna profoundly understands Ka. Kohuts
idealizing selfobject transference describes well how Arjuna relates to Ka although, as
Kakar also shows, it is not just a matter of the disciple idealizing (and merging with) the
31

Arjunas mother Kunti is the sister of Vasudeva, the father of Ka and his sister Subhadra who is
also.Arjunas fourth wife. Arjuna and Ka are thus related both by marriage and by descent. In both
cases the connection is via a woman (Subhadra and Kunti, respectively). I have written elsewhere in
Jungian terms of how the relationship between males is often carried by females (Collins, 1994). Claude
Levi-Strauss (1993) had made the same point previously in more structural terms.

Collins, Three Selves


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guru. In fact, the guru typically seeks out the disciple (as Ka sought Arjuna to be his
brother-in-law, then chariot mate) to become his mirroring selfobject. The nexus of
Ka-cum-Arjuna expresses a full selfobject relationship: Kas mirroring by Arjuna,
which magnifies the greatness of Kas self, is complemented by Kas choice and
mirroring of Arjuna, which allows the latter to participate in Kas glorious selfhood.
Kohuts concept of cosmic narcissism illuminates the mirroring of the Ka self by the
universe at the moment of his self revelation in the cosmos (the vivarpa) and suggests
Arjunas ecstasy on merging with Kas cosmic self. There is no need for struggle to
maintain a responsive selfobject environment (as there is in the we-self) when the cosmos
in its essential nature is attuned to oneself (or to ones beloved gurus self, into which one
has merged). Ka and Arjuna together participate in a primal narcissism that dissolves
the ahakra and returns Arjuna to his life on a new level. Rather than seeking the
fruits of action in order to shore up an enfeebled or incomplete self Arjuna can now act
creatively and with joy. He is now fully an I.

Tantrism and the culture of dynamic selfhood


While Skhya and the Bhagavad Gt both point toward a practice of living the
tman self within the ordinary social world (this is more overt in the case of the Gt), the
traditions called tantric emphasize the integration of what I have called World One and
World Two much more comprehensively and explicitly than other Indian spiritual
paths.32 Several features of tantrism show this orientation towards an emphasis on the

32

Vaiava traditions including Rmnujas qualified non dual (viidvaita) philosophy could be
discussed as another instance where deep and extensive interpenetration of the two Worlds has taken place.
Vaiavism emphasizes the integration of the worlds in many ways, e.g., the theory of the cyclic universe
growing from the body/mind of the god, the descent (avatra) of god into the world to reinstate dharma, etc.

Collins, Three Selves


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World Three of culture. First, the tantric community is organized as a kula, which here
means a spiritual family or lineage, though the term commonly refers to any familial
group. Second, the head of the kula (analogous to the male Bengali Kart) is typically a
female, as opposed to the patrilineal emphasis of the Vedic father-son traditions
discussed earlier. Third, there is an emphasis on the heroic ability of the tantric virtuoso
(vra) to face annihilation and yet reconstitute a self that can persist in the face of death
(White, 2003).
As David Gordon White (2003) has noted, almost all of contemporary Tibetan,
Chinese, and Japanese Buddhism, as well as much Hinduism, is tantric, which he defines
as
that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that
the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the
divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to
ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in
creative and emancipatory ways. (my italics).
This definition makes it clear that World Two (the divine energy of the
godhead) and World One (the universe we experience) are brought together in
tantrism. The diachronic processes of the manifest worlds emanation from, and return
to, the origin are present in tantra as in the Vedas, Skhya, and the Bhagavad Gt. As
in other Indian thought, creation and destruction are conceived in tantrism in primarily
feminine terms, and destruction as cause of coming to be (Spielreins idea) is mediated
by females (yoginis) who destroy the ego and give it back to the viras transformed
(White, 2003). Tantra conceives of a world on the edge between the origin and
dissolution of the world, and only the vira can surf the turbulent waters of this chaotic
Closely related to the Mahbhrata/Bhagavad Gt position discussed above, Rmnujas ideas deserve
more attention than space allows here. I have previously sketched his psychospiritual thought from this
perspective (Collins 1992).

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liminal zone where most founder and drown. The concept of jivanmukti (liberation while
alive) is an ideal for the tantric hero33, and shows that tantra attempts to collapse the
developmental history of human life and the cosmos into a single synchronic moment.
Van Buitenens (1959) classic discussion of the hero in Indian literature as vidyadhara
(a kind of semi-divine being more or less on par with the gandharva and apsaras)
describes the tantric ideal, with the valuable addition of viewing tantric consciousness
through the Skhyan concept of buddhi.
The preparedness and collectedness of ones faculty of discrimination and
decision... is what the philosophical psychology calls buddhi, which comprises
both the wide-awake vigilance and the capacity for immediately acting upon what
comes within its purview. Seldom does the hero allow his mind to be
distracted.

The primordial and normative jivanmukta, or hero, in tantra is the god iva. As
pure consciousness, iva is the emanator/emitter of the world. In tantra (e.g.,
Abhinavagupta) it is inherent in consciousness to be self-referent, and this self-referential
process stands at the base of cosmic emanation.
He [iva] becomes emitting through his kauliki energy, namely self awareness
(vimara). (Silburn1988, 19).
In other words, consciousness by its very nature emanates kulas, families of organized
entities whose unity rests on the self which emitted or let them flow from itself, and
which continues (synchronically) to ensoul them.34 Thus the whole cosmos is ivas
kula and he is called the akula (non-kula) to express the fact that he is not entirely
included in his emission.35 Again, iva as consciousness is self-referent, and to be self-

33

As for other schools of thought, particularly Advaita Vedanta).


The term ensoul in this context is taken from Lipner ( 1986).
35
Cf Muller-Ortega, 1989, p. 59.
34

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referent is to have the capability to emit a family (kula). Therefore it is by means of


the kula that iva refers to himself. In terms of Kohuts self psychology, the kula is
ivas mirroring selfobject. Just as the family of the Bengali seed male or Kart
mirrors the fullness of his selfhood, so being part of ivas kula allows the family
(tantric community) to define itself and participate in the idealized selfhood of the god.
In aivism many things are called kula, including the body of disciples around a
guru, the personal body, and the akti or powers of iva.36 All these constitute the
material and fabric of culture. The kula idea and image suggests that iva and his
consciousness (vimara) are understood in a personal way, i.e., in terms of the
relationship of a self and a selfobject such as a family or other social group which
completes the self. On the other hand, however, ivas situation differs from that of other
selves in that his purpose in creating is play (ll), in the dual sense of being joyful (and
not driven) and not motivated by any lack in the god.
A caveat is in order here. As we noted earlier, there is a dark side to selfselfobject unity because the dependence on the selfobject renders the self vulnerable to
desertion or fragmentation. This possibility is of constant concern in tantra, which
frequently discusses the universal tendency toward particularization, solidification,
condensation, contraction, and coagulation (ghanat, the fact of becoming a lump). It
is this process that accounts for the existence in the world of apparently separate entities,
i.e., things that refer to themselves rather than back to iva, the true self.

36

Cf Muller-Ortega op cit, pp. 61, 110, and 101.

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Muller-Ortega (pp. 59, 102) notes that the concept of kula is bivalent, expressing
not only ivas self-reference through his emissions but also the contraction (sakoca) or
condensation or entitites out of the manifold self projection of the god. That is, not only
is the entire universe (synchronically) gods kula, but temporally or physically limited
parts or aspects of the world become bound together (diachronically) around and in
service to the particular selves (called au-s or atoms) which inhabit them. The kula
idea is ambiguous: in order for the family or group to mirror the self it must be a cohesive
entity, with the self as its principle of unity; but when the group condenses around the
self at its center it can also be felt to bind or trap the self within the lump (ghana) of
matter which it has become in the process of grouping. In this way the infinite
consciousness of Bhairava [iva] has been reduced, apparently, to the inertness and
unconsciousness of a stone (Muller-Ortega, p. 147).37 In terms of the three worlds
rubric, World Three is fragile and is always poised on the edge of disaster.
Tantric culture aims to reverse this process of increasingly solid and unfree
atomic (aava) selfhood, to move it back in the direction of freedom and the shattering
of binding structures. The self-reference (vimara) of consciousness works in both
directions, making this reversal possible if never inevitable. While on the one hand
vimara tends toward contraction, on the other it can move towards dissolution of
bondage. Only when the practitioner is poised in the very moment of consciousness
where birth and death are one simultaneous vibration (spanda) can a cultural world be
sustained that does not fall into coagulation or, conversely, dissolve completely into
nirvaa. This world, for tantrics, has for the most part been a twilight or nocturnal world,
37

I have elsewhere worked out the process by which kulas give rise to little selves (au-s) and to more
and more limited kulas (Collins, 1992).

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though this has not always been by choice. White and others have pointed out that
daylight or conscious tantric kingdoms were in fact instituted at various times in the
early second millennium CE. The classical tales retold by van Buitenen (1959) and
Zimmer (1971) of vidyadhra heroes who defeat the forces of evil through alert, decisive,
and enlightened buddhi also imagine tantric life as triumphant in the actual world.

Modern teachers of the self, and worlds between the guru and the disciple
1. Atmananda.
There has been a renaissance of Hindu thinking on the self since the nineteenth
century (one of many renewals over the past twenty-five hundred years, as is evident
from the discussion above) as a result of the Indian response to colonialism,
modernization, and secularization. I will discuss two modern teachers and their visions
of culture and selfhood. Sri Aurobindo is a central figure in recent Hinduism and is
known to almost all students of Indian thought. Sri Atmananda Guru, called the police
saint of Kerala, is not as famous as Aurobindo but has the honor of having expressed the
question of culture with particular clarity, for which reason I will begin with his
teachings.38
Sri Atmananda, the spiritual name for Sri Krishna Menon, was a police officer in
Kerala whose life as a guru began when he was approached by a monk from Almora who
traveled by rail to Krishna Menons home in Trivandrum for the purpose of initiating
him. Although nothing is known of this man, there are enough tantric elements in
Atmanandas teachings to suggest that the monk might have been influenced by tantra.

38

Sri Atmananda, also known as Gurunathan, is discussed in Koestler (1961) and Masson (2003).

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We will focus on Sri Atmanandas teaching about the guru-disciple relationship and
culture. As his son and successor Sri Adwayananda put it:
That world between the guru and the disciple is the real basic culture of India. (Sri
Adwayananda, 1988, p. 13)
Referring to Ka as teacher of the gopis, Sri Atmananda writes that the Lord
used everything to bring his devotees to the truth.
Through different forms, activities, and gunas or qualitieswhatever is there
He accepts them and uses them towards this [spiritual realization]. (Sri
Adwayananda, 1998, p. 11).

We beginas alwaysin the World One of dukhatraya, the place of suffering that also
tacitly seeks to give enjoyment to purua. The most important thing to realize, and what
the ego never quite seems to get on its own, is that the ahamkra self cannot enjoy
anything. The enjoyment we seek is for purua's sake though it seems to us that it is for
"our" sake, for the sake of the ahamkra. By enjoying, purua gives the buddhi the
ability finally to understand, to see that buddhi does not enjoy (recall the phrase na me,
Skhya Krika 64), and in this way, paradoxically, purua brings the buddhi to a state
like his.
The term we have used for enjoyment, bhukti, has many synonyms, one of which
figures in a verse of Sri Atmanandas devotional poem Radhamadhavam discussed at
some length by Sri Adwayananda. The word is svadana, "eat, taste, enjoy." The root
svad- means to be pleasing, especially to the sense of taste, and the preverb - suggests
a process of taking into oneself. svadana, then, signifies to take into oneself something
tasty or enjoyable. The verse reads in Malayalam:
Gopi-prem-amrt-asvadana-madhura-kala-lilayal tyagi-cittam (Radhamadhavam,
verse 2).
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Your lila with the gopis, enjoying the sweetness of their ambrosial love,
transported them to a devotional height far beyond the reach of great tyagis
[renouncers]. (Translation by Sri Adwayananda, 1998, p. 8).
The gopis love is sweet and gives Ka enjoyment. His enjoyment carries the object of
enjoyment, i.e. the gopis themselves, to his own level, just as Prakti in the Skhya
Krik becomes essentially like Purua. Here, from the viewpoint of the enjoyed, a
certain concern arises (to use Sri Adwayanandas euphemism, p. 60). After all, to be
taken into another as something tasty or enjoyable seems very much like being devoured!
Sri Adwayananda writes of Radhas condition as she enters nirvikalpa samdhi, the state
of nonduality (the netivastu or nham = I-lessness):
Radhas resting place is lost. You know when you can put your foot somewhere,
but she doesnt know. There is no basis there for Radha to stand. (Sri
Adwayananda, 1998, p. 60).
Sri Adwayananda makes it clear a little later that the concern felt on entering
Samadhi, what we are calling World Two, is in fact the fear of death. In the last verse of
the poem Rdhs merger with Ka is described vividly in language that suggests death,
and not just death but a welcome one. Sri Adwayananda recalls Swami Vivekanandas
terror when his guru Ramakrishna put his foot on the young man, communicating to him
the experience of complete satisfaction that negates the I-sense of World One with its
intrinsic quality of lack, dukha. Spiritual realization implies death of the ego, as Sabina
Spielrein also saw from her psychoanalytic perspective. In fact, Radhamadhavams
author, Sri Atmananda, forbade anyone reciting the poem from stopping with the last
verse precisely because for an ordinary person the effect of the verse can be than of a
death. (p. 67).

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Culture rests on the relationship between guru and disciple, and the bond between
Ka and Rdh is paradigmatic of this relationship. Sri Atmananda, a married
householder guru, emphasized the tantric ideal of enlightened life in the world, which
signifies the life of culture where Worlds One and Two interpenetrate.
2. Aurobindo.
Sri Aurobindos thought has been correctly situated within the tantric tradition by
Jeffrey Kripal ( 2007). For Aurobindo, reality is divided into three realms that
correspond to Worlds One, Two and Three as I have posited them. First, the ordinary
world of mind, life and matter is contrasted to the absolute world of being-awarenessbliss (sat-cit-ananda). Aurobindo, however, more than other thinkers, centered his
thought on the third realm that he called Supermind (= World Three), which corresponds
to Skhyan buddhi as a potentially narrowing or widening perspective that can move
back and forth between mind-life-matter (World One) and sat-cit-ananda (World Two),
through the cosmic and psychospiritual processes he called involution and evolution.
Sri Aurobindo, however, goes considerably beyond any possibilities I have suggested for
culture in this paper. World Three in Aurobindos thinking, the world of the
supermental, is an initially cultural world where the tman self comes down into
matter, but it is not limited to even the highest forms of culture as envisioned by tantric
thinkers, Vaiava visions of Vrindavan, Atmanandas world between the guru and the
disciple, etc. Aurobindo forsees a new age when spiritual culture will triumph,
transforming nature and bringing about a new race of superhuman beings living in a
paradisal universe where death has disappeared. Yoga is the practice that, for
Aurobindoas for Patjali, less ambitiously, nearly two millennia before him

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embodies the supramental integration of the absolute with the ordinary world of mindlife-matter. This insight is valuable even if we do not follow Aurobindo to his utopian
end. Culture essentially must operate as a process in some way like yoga, a process
acting through refined and enlightened buddhi to move from World One to World Two.
In other terms, culture is a practice, as is psychoanalysis in all its forms (Jungian,
Freudian, Kohutian, etc.), and as was the Vedic sacrifice at the root of all Indian self
theories. By living this practice more and more fully, Aurobindo thought we could
transform not just human life but the whole material cosmos. The vision is grandiose, but
it is not completely unique in India where visions of higher forms of matter have been
imagined traditionally as heavens of Viu or iva, Buddha realms, etc.

Conclusion: Hinduism and psychoanalysis as cultural psychologies


We have seen that much of the thrust of Hindu thought on the self points to a
third, medial realm of culture lying between ordinary suffering existence centered on the
ahakra self, and rare but precious moments of higher realization or enlightenment
when complete satisfaction is tasted in the tman. Although this paper has touched on
only a few of the ways Hinduism has worked out middle paths for culture between these
two worlds of tman and ahakra, a pattern has emerged of combining psychospiritual
practices such as yoga or meditation with cultivation of artistic and intellectual creativity.
These paths are ways of spiritual life within the actual world, and form the basis of a
Hindu cultural psychology or psychological culture. Psychoanalysis is also a cultural
psychology, though Freud more often seems to lump culture with the civilization of the
egos discontents. Nevertheless, Freud at times (and the Freudian left of Erikson,

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Kohut, Winnicott, Lacan, et al much more fully) suggest that culture can be better
understood as a world beyond the patriarchal strictures and limitations of civilization, and
not reducible to it. This region of psychical/cultural practice Freud located in proximity
to the sphere of higher narcissism, when the life instincts (eros) find a place for
wholeness within our day to day existence by recalling primal narcissistic satisfaction.
The concept of sublimation into artistic and other cultural productions of the rough
desires of ordinary libidinal life most profoundly names this achievement of (or approach
to) wholeness.39 In many ways the process of sublimation of the instincts in
psychoanalysis parallels the role of buddhi with respect to Nature (prakti) in Indian
thought. As Indian buddhi rests on the underlying reality of the purua self, and works to
turn us toward the purua by negating itself, so sublimation can exist only because there
is a memory in all of us of a sense of completely satisfied selfhood void of ego struggles.
Like buddhi to purua, sublimation turns our attention toward that oceanic feeling of
oneness that is also emptiness remembered from early life.
Both in psychoanalysis and Hindu traditions we have seen again and again that
thought turns back toward the sense of a higher and more fulfilled selfhood seemingly
lost or obscured in the toils of daily existence. Ways of bringing this self into the world
where we live are at the center of both traditions. In the paradoxical foothills of
sublimation or buddhi, above the dusty plains of the ahamkra/ego but below the snowy
heights of purua and the satisfactions of primal narcissism, suffering humans can
touchand even find ways to live in proximity toa deeper selfhood that we may never

39

The idea of refining the emotions of ordinary life (the realm of dukha) into subtle essences that merge
into or point toward higher selfhood or wholeness immediately suggests the Indian esthetic theory of rasas
(essences). See Masson and Patwardhan (1985).

Collins, Three Selves


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fully attain. This third life, still tied to suffering but oriented toward pure selfhood free of
suffering, is the realm of art, ethics, and religion. Hinduism and psychoanalysis teach us
that we have an innate sense of the possibility of this full satisfaction and whole selfhood,
and that working to achieve it is our nature and birthright, our dharma.

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