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THE WONDER OF THE BRAIN

The first impact of genuine mystical experience on the mind ofthe experiencer is something like this that the world he was perceiving and hisown individuality, as he was conscious of it so far, were not true realitiesbut only the figures of, say, a relatively speaking, dream state from which hehas just awakened to the full bloom of another sun shining on a splendrousworld, entirely unlike the one which his senses were revealing to him before.It should be remembered that for this state of cognition, it is not necessarythat the percipient should be insensible to the sensory world. Not at all. Whatmakes mystical ecstasy an increasing wonder is the incredible fact that boththe sensory and supersensory worlds can be perceived simultaneously. But how?Like the radiant sky showing a mirage on it, both visible side by side.

The real status of the 'mystic' has not been correctly adjudged.He is not a dreamy idealist prone to visions, conjured up by his subconsciousor to epileptic seizures or to hysterical swoons or to ecstatic trances,brought about by a suppressed libido, or his own obsessive occupation with thesupernatural or by a pathological condition of the brain. In those cases, wherethese symptoms have been exhibited by true mystics, the abnormalities were theconcomitant features of the extrasensory mental state, as in the case ofgenius, and not the causative factors responsible for it. These are mereconjectures of the learned made in absence of an accurate knowledge of thephenomenon. Nor is he a special protege of the Almighty, sent to the earth topreach His glory among mortals and to exhort them to surrender their all forHis sake and, himself intoxicated with His love, to infuse this intoxication inothers also. The human intellect has since outgrown the anthropomorphic pictureof the Creator and it is time she outgrows the current picture of the mystictoo.

Every mystic born has been a specimen of the man to come. Hisself-imposed penances and his religious beliefs were the creation of hisculture, faith and the environment around him. But his vivid descriptions ofthe new visions gained, the new worlds unfolded and the basic teachings aboutthe way to be followed to reach the same state of perception were the outcomeof knowledge gained in the new dimension of consciousness to which he had attained.The descriptions are diversely colored and at times contradictory andconflicting because they are, as it were, the first reports of a few spacetravelers, separated by long stretches of time and distance, viewing thegigantic planet, Jupiter, at a distance of hundreds of thousands of miles fromdifferent angles through glasses of varied magnifying power.

Nature repeatedly produced the prototype of the future man toawaken humanity to her destiny. But the multitudes, including the scholars andthe divines, misinterpreting the hint, erected for themselves the four walls ofritualistic religions to confine themselves within, with a fanatical zeal whichled to some of the greatest horrors in history, still repeated at times in someparts of the earth. That the followers of every faith arrogate to their owncreed the highest station among all the religions, to their founder or foundersthe highest stature among all the prophets and to themselves the most favoredposition with the Almighty, makes it obvious that the human ego has been asstrongly at work in this holy territory, where humility is the law, as in theother spheres of life. This shows that self-worshiping man does not even sparehis Maker in the fulfillment of his selfish ends and makes of Him, too, a toolto bolster his own vanity.

I have purposely introduced the prosaic figure of the humanbrain in this discourse to serve as an anchor to the otherwise highly mobilevessel of thought, prone to be carried away here and there by the wind of prejudice,dogma, idiosyncrasy, stubbornness and the rest, especially when sailing on thewaters of religion, philosophy or metaphysics. It is only experiments on thebrain that can call a dead halt to these arbitrary flights of human thoughtwhen dealing with the phenomena of mind. In order to explain why this need hasarisen, I can do no better than refer the reader to the views expressed by someof the writers on mysticism in recent times. For instance, Evelyn Underhill, inanswering for her self-formulated question, "What then is the nature ofthis special sense--this transcendental consciousness--and how doescontemplation liberate it," proceeds to explain:

"Any attempt to answer this question brings upon the sceneanother aspect of man's psychic life: an aspect of paramount importance to thestudent of the mystic type. We have reviewed the ways in which our surfaceconsciousness reacts upon experience: a surface consciousness which has beentrained through long ages to deal with the universe of sense. We know, however,that the personality of man is a far deeper and more mysterious thing than thesum of his conscious feeling, thought and will: that this superficialself--this Ego of which each of us is aware--hardly counts in comparison withthe deeps of being which it hides. 'There is a root or depth in Thee,' saysLaw, from whence all these faculties come forth as lines from a center, orbranches from the body of a tree. This depth is called the center, the fund, orbottom of the soul. This depth is the unity, the Eternity, I had almost saidthe infinity of the soul, for it is so infinite that nothing can satisfy it orgive it any rest, but the infinity of God."

"Since normal man is utterly unable to set up relationswith spiritual reality by means of his feeling, thought and will, continuesUnderhill, "it is clearly in this depth of being--in these unplumbedlevels of personality--that we must search if we would find the organ, thepower, by which he is to achieve the mystic quest. The alteration of consciousnesswhich takes place in contemplation can only mean the emergence from this 'fundor bottom of the soul' of some faculty which diurnal life keeps hidden 'in thedeeps.'"

To draw a parallel for her own conclusion, Underhill turns tothe widely used concept of the 'unconscious mind,' a handy device of modernpsychology to explain whatever is unexplainable or unintelligible in the areaof mind. "Modern psychology," she continues, "in its doctrine ofthe unconscious or subliminal personality, has acknowledged this fact of arange of psychic life, lying below and beyond the conscious field. Indeed, ithas so dwelt upon and defined this shadowy region--which is really less a'region' than a useful name--that it sometimes seems to know more about theunconscious than about the conscious life of man. There it finds, side by side,the sources of his most animal instincts, his least explicable powers, his mostspiritual intuitions: the 'ape and tiger.' and the 'soul.' Genius and prophecy,insomnia and infatuation, clairvoyance, hypnotism, hysteria and 'Christian'science--all are explained by the 'unconscious mind.' In his destructive moods,the psychologist has little apparent difficulty in reducing the chief phenomenaof religious and mystical experience to activities of the 'unconscious,'seeking an oblique satisfaction of repressed desires. Where he undertakes themore dangerous duties of apologetic, he explains the same phenomena by sayingthat 'God speaks to man in the subconscious,' by which he can only mean thatour apprehension of the eternal has the character of intuition rather than ofthought. Yet the 'unconscious' after all is merely a convenient name for theaggregate of those powers, parts or qualities of the whole self which at anygiven moment are not conscious or that the Ego is not conscious of."

I have reproduced these passages at some length for two reasons.Firstly, to show the similarity between my ideas and the view expressed thatmystical vision is the herald of a 'new birth,' the symbol of a profoundtransformation in the personality of an individual which reaches down to theroots of his being, making him perceptive of spiritual realities denied to theaverage human folk. Secondly, to bring into focus the usual tendency amongmodern writers on religion, metaphysics or psychology to keep out the brain intheir discussion as if it does not come into the picture at all. This habitallows too loose a rein to fancy. We know very well that even a slightalteration in the chemistry of the brain, brought about by a drug, a shock, orloss of sleep can cause an explosive change in consciousness or the personalityof the subject for the time being. Hence to suppose that such a signal event asthe experience of God or the entry into supersensory planes of creation can bepossible without involving the cranial matter in any way is but to confess thefault, now common among scholars, of dissociating thought from the brain, bothinseparable chums from birth to death.

The answer to Underhill comes very near to the commonly acceptedexplanations for the extraordinary experience of mystics and saints. The notionis that there are submerged capacities and potentialities in the human soulwhich can make these enrapturing flights to the holy precincts of divine consciousnesspossible for those who apply themselves heart and soul to the task. Linkedinextricably to the idea that mystical ecstasy represents a union with or, atleast, a vision of God, and that the human soul is a particle of the divineessence, an explanation of this kind has every semblance of plausibility andusually puts the doubts of the inquirer to rest.

Every human being is aware of himself as a self-containedindependent unit of consciousness. The brain does not protrude into thepersonality at all. For this reason, we do not think of it any more than ofother parts of the body and at times, even less. On account of the fact that aserious injury to the head can easily prove fatal, all that the people exposedto accident risk do is to take greater precautions to protect it. But even so,it does not figure more in their thought, and the idea is usually absent thatthe brain is our workshop and all that we observe, think or imagine happensinside its bony frame.

There are glaring discrepancies in the conventional argumentadduced by Underhill. The lyrical mystical ecstasy which attracts and inspiresus is comparatively of recent origin, dating at the earliest from a period ofnot more than three thousand years before the birth of Christ. Before that thepicture of religion and the ecstatic trance is more ugly than beautiful. Weshould not forget the trance of the Shaman, the medicine-man, the witch-doctorand the magi which, too, among their contemporaries betokened ascent to thespirit-world or intercourse with supernatural beings. But often there washardly any element of the divine or the sublime as we understand it today, inthose states of entrancement. The rapture, the clearly marked expansion of selfand the sense of identity with all creation, which marked the later expressionsof the ecstatic state, are not noticeable in the earlier types, or at least inthe remnants of them which survived during historical times. It is a moot issuewhether the subjects of those ecstasies were mentally advanced enough even toentertain those feelings as the later mystics did.

There were many gods and goddesses, human, divine or demoniceven in the form of animals, birds, reptiles and fish, that demanded bizarretypes of worship and ritual, including human sacrifice, cannibalism,self-mutilation, infanticide, obnoxious ceremonies, revolting sexual orgies andthe like. It is not wise to overlook, in our zeal to find a supernaturalexplanation for mystical ecstasy, the dark side of religion or religiousexperience in the primitive phases of human culture nor the barbarous featuresthat attended the birth and growth of current faiths--forced conversion,ruthless persecution, bloody wars and massacres, pillage and rape, the curse ofuntouchability, the revolting custom of sati, self emasculation, the horrors ofthe Inquisition and the rest.

The mystics, whose writings or recorded histories are before us,do not even form one billionth of the population that lived on earth and passedaway during this period. Why they alone were gifted that way we do not know.Why even now hardly one out of myriads reports success in the same endeavor isstill an enigma. Millions of aspirants to Samadhi in India abandon their homes,dwell in solitude, practise every form of austerity, penance andself-discipline, meditate and pray day and night without coming anywhere nearthis state of indescribable beatitude. Were the 'sense' of Timeless Being anintegral part of man's spiritual consciousness, as argued by Underhill, thenthe Vision of Reality would be equally accessible to all, of course, withvariations in the degree of success gained, as happens when a class of studentsattends a university course to widen their knowledge or a group of athletesworks in a gymnasium to streamline their bodies. If this view were correct, the'Vision' would have been the same for the cave dwellers of the neolithic age asit is for the cultured products of this day. But we know this is not the caseand the two are poles apart. Why in our religious beliefs do we overlook thepast?

The extreme rarity of success in this enterprise has beenclearly recognized in India. "Among thousands of men," says theBhagavad-Gita, "scarce one striveth for perfection, and of the successfulstrivers, scarce one knoweth me in essence." But even this rare one whoachieves the blessed union has, according to the Indian tradition, behind himan accumulated store of meritorious actions done in previous lives, which formthe seeds of success in his present one. Explaining this, the Gita says:"But a Yogi, laboring with assiduity, purified from sin, fully perfectedthrough manifold births, he reacheth the supreme goal." This is emphasizedagain at another place: "At the close of many births, the man full ofwisdom cometh unto Me; 'Vasudeva is all; saith he, the Mahatma very difficultto find."

It is obvious that the glorious consummation of human life, ofwhich the Gita sings, and of which a glowing picture is presented in thewritings of all great mystics of the past, cannot be the work of a day or evenof a lifetime, unless there are constitutional factors favorable to the climax,of which we have no knowledge yet. In this respect, the great mystics can beclassed with the great secular geniuses of the earth. The mystical consciousnessof an Eckhart, or Al-Ghazali or a Chaitanya, is not possible for even one outof hundreds of thousands of earnest practicers of yoga or other spiritualdisciplines, in the same way as the intellectual achievement of a Shankara, orEinstein is not possible for every scholar or university professor. What theseconstitutional factors are, it will be my endeavor to explain.

I have briefly touched on the views expressed by EvelynUnderhill, as representative of a religious bent of mind, which believes in Godand the divine nature of the Soul. For the views representative of modernpsychology, I shall turn to William James and quote him at some length to showthe wide divergence in the two points of view. The trouble starts when theFreudian psychologists on the one side, behaviorists on the other,transpersonal on the third, anthropologists on the fourth, physicists on thefifth, philosophers on the sixth, theologians on the seventh, the laity on theeighth, the Vedantists on the ninth, the occultists on the tenth and, to crownit all, the mystics themselves on the eleventh, express highly divergent viewson the same phenomenon, using all the embellishments of language and theresources of intellect to make their point, without even one calling in forevidence the one single witness of all the happenings in this historicallyageless scene. Not one of them even mentions the brain.

"The last aspect of religious life which remains for me totouch upon," writes James, "is the fact that its manifestations sofrequently connect themselves with the subconscious part of our existence. Youmay remember what I said in my opening lecture about the presence of thepsychopathic temperament in religious biography. You will in point of facthardly find a religious leader of any kind in whose life there is no record ofautomatisms. I speak not merely of savage priests and prophets, whose followersregard automatic utterance and action as by itself tantamount to inspiration, Ispeak of leaders of thought and subjects of intellectualized experience. SaintPaul had his visions, his ecstasies, his gift of tongues, small as was theimportance he attached to the latter. The whole array of Christian saints andheresiarchs, including the greatest, the Bernards, the Loyolas, the Luthers, theFoxes, the Wesleys, had their visions, voices, rapt conditions, guidingimpressions and 'openings.' They had these things because they had exaltedsensibility, and to such things persons of exalted sensibility are liable. Insuch liability there lie, however, consequences for theology. Beliefs arestrengthened wherever automatisms corroborate them. Incursions from beyond thetransmarginal region have a peculiar power to increase conviction. The inchoatesense of presence is infinitely stronger than conception, but strong as it maybe, it is seldom equal to the evidence of hallucination. Saints who actuallysee or hear their Savior reach the acme of assurance. Motor automatism thoughrarer is, if possible, even more convincing than sensations. The subjects hereactually feel themselves played upon by powers beyond their will. The evidenceis dynamic; the God or spirit moves the very organs of their body."

"When, in addition to these phenomena of inspiration,"adds William James, we take religious mysticism into account, when we recallthe striking and sudden unification of a discordant self which we saw inconversion, and when we review the extravagant obsessions of tenderness, purityand self-severity met with in saintliness, we cannot, I think, avoid theconclusion that in religion we have a department of human nature with unusuallyclose relations to the transmarginal or subliminal region. If the word'subliminal' is offensive to any of you, as smelling too much of psychicalresearch or other aberrations, call it by any other name, to distinguish itfrom the level of full sunlit consciousness. Call this latter the A-region ofpersonality, if you care to, and call the other the B-region. The B-region,then, is obviously the larger part of each of us, for it is the abode ofeverything that is latent and the reservoir of everything that passesunrecorded or unobserved. It contains, for example, such things as all ourmomentarily inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurelymotive passions, impulses, likes, dislikes and prejudices. Our intuitions,hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general,all our non-rational operations, come from it. It is the source of our dreams,and apparently they may return to it. In it arise whatever mystical experienceswe may have, and our automatisms, sensory or motor; our life in hypnotic and'hypnoid' conditions, if we are subjects of such conditions; our delusions,fixed ideas, and hysterical accidents, if we are hysteric subjects; oursupra-normal cognitions, if such there be, and if we are telepathic subjects.It is also the fountainhead of such that feeds our religion. In persons deep inthe religious life, as we have now abundantly seen--and this is myconclusion--the door into this region seems unusually wide open; at any rate,experiences making their entrance through that door have had emphatic influencein shaping religious history."

This is where we land at the end--the bottomless hollow of theunconscious, the sub-conscious, below-the-surface, transmarginal and subliminalmind. This is the hidden region of our personality which, they say, stalks onthe stage in dreams, hypnotic and somnambulistic conditions, in hysteria andinsanity, in genius and inspiration, in mediumistic displays and extrasensoryperception, in possession, obsession and fixations, in cracks, twists and kinksin the brain; in fact, in all the abnormal, paranormal, extraordinary orinexplicable conditions of the mind.

But has anyone explained why in some it leads to nightmares, insome to happy dreams, in some to a mixture of the two and in some to dreamlesssleep? Why some are somnambulists, others not; why some are suggestible andmore intractable; why, in some, it leads to the highest purity and nobility ofcharacter, as in mystics and, in some, to revolting compulsions or horribleperversions; which make them act more like brutes than human beings; why insome it leads to the horrors of insanity and in some to the joy of creation?What rational solution is this that leaves everything unexplained? To sayreligion and religious experience come from the unconscious is to shift thevenue to another compartment of the same mind. But, whether from thiscompartment or that, mind is the bastion from which these incursions andinvasions, insidious or sudden, come. This we know, but how?

Were we to believe implicitly the saga of the 'unconscious,' thesuggestion would be irresistible that we harbor in our interior the arch-fiendhimself, and fall victim to his machinations every moment of our lives. Heturns into psychopaths the rare few who have the Vision of God, into lunaticsthe handful who create or discover new treasures for the race, shocks the pureand innocent in dreams or maddens the good and gentle with appalling fear inwakefulness! Where is the man who can truthfully declare that he has subduedthis invincible giant? Who has taken a census yet or alleviated the anguish ofmyriads who watch daily with horror, grief or shock the unpredictable obliquitiesof their own mind? Does all this cart-load of fears, sorrows and sins rumbleout of the cavernous 'unconscious' or does it symbolize a slice of the tormentreserved for rebellious man for partaking of the forbidden fruit?

Written by: Gopi Krishna


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