Carl Jung was a rebellious student who broke rank from his influential master, Sigmund Freud. He was a maverick thinker who studied odd subjects such as astrology, alchemy, and parapsychology. He had Nobel Prize winners such as Wolfgang Pauli as his patients. And above all, Jung was a psychotherapist – a doctor of the soul working hard to heal the painful wounds on the Western man’s psyche.
Carl Jung understood that all psychological questions ultimately meld into religious questions. When Jung’s search for answers finally brought him to India, he was struck by an alien culture that was very much at odds with his Western background. Living in Europe was like living inside an “insulating glass wall” – stepping foot in India was akin to coming face to face with “formidable realities.”
And yet Jung paid close attention to his first impressions. In The Dreamlike World Of India, Jung wrote: “A first impression of a country is very often like meeting a person for the first time: your impression may be quite inaccurate, even definitely wrong in many respects, yet you are likely to perceive certain qualities or certain shadows which would very probably be blurred by the more accurate impressions of a second or third visit.” Jung’s sensitive intelligence, his extensive experience as a therapist, and his receptivity to India led to some insightful remarks that are thought-provoking to this day.
Western psyche v/s the Indian psyche: Jung wrote:
It is quite possible that India is the real world, and that the white man lives in a madhouse of abstractions.
For the western psyche, to understand the world means to control and colonize it. Jung asked a provocative question: “Did you ever stop to think how much of the conqueror (not to say thief or robber) lies in that very term concept? It comes from the Latin concipere, ‘to take something by grasping it thoroughly.” The Indian psyche has no interest in screwing “the living world up tightly between two concepts” – it is more interested in the “increase of vision.” It is not the small details but the whole drama that interests us: “The Indian does not fish out infinitesimal details from the universe. His ambition is to have a vision of the whole.”
Western history v/s Indian history: In India, Jung found “immeasurable age with no history.” Western history has gone through impressive material changes over the past few centuries, and this makes it “worthwhile” for them to “record beginnings and later developments.” In the Western imagination, everything is “going somewhere,” and there’s a collective hope for “unheard-of possibilities and improvements in the future, spiritual as well as secular.” The Indian theory of time is diametrically opposite: “But in India there seems to be nothing that has not lived a hundred thousand times before.” Every individual today has “already lived innumerable times in past ages,” our Gods have “numerous avatars,” and our very world cycles through the same phases across eons. For such a worldview, “recorded history” doesn’t have the same appeal. Time, for the West, is a linear concept. Time, for India, is eternity – even the most momentous historical event is nothing but a wave crashing on the “shore of time,” leaving behind just a “strip of foam.”
On Space: India v/s The West: For the Western mind, space is something absolute to be explored, cataloged, and conquered. But India’s spiritual instinct tells us otherwise. Jung wrote: “Space is relative: the Yogi walks in his spirit-body with the speed of thought over lands, seas, and heavens.” India never sent marauding forces to take over foreign land like other advanced civilizations did. But why? Because India instinctively understood that the material grip over land is flimsy and transitory – what is superior is a spiritual grip over matter itself.
Indian Women vs Western Women: Jung’s encounter with Indian women felt him in awe – he said their attire was “the most becoming, the most stylish and, at the same time, the most meaningful dress ever devised by women.” He compared it to the “European evening dress,” in which he saw “shamelessness, exhibitionism, impotent provocation, and a ridiculous attempt to make the relation between the sexes cheap and easy.” In Indian women he found a “dignity and elegance” that he found missing in European women. In a lighter vein, he wrote: “Even fat women have a chance in India; with us they can only starve themselves to death.”
On Lord Buddha: Jung called Buddha “India’s greatest individual.” Jung believed that in the long-term, “Gods become philosophical concepts.” Gods as we understand them are projections of our latent powers, blindposts, and desires. As a culture matures, it understands that the cosmic drama it projects into the sky is really just the psychological drama of its own mind, externalized. This is where Lord Buddha comes in: he sped up the “the slow transformation of the Gods into ideas.” This made Buddha an “untimely intruder.” In What India Can Teach Us, Jung wrote of Lord Buddha: “The true genius nearly always intrudes and disturbs. He speaks to a temporal world out of a world eternal. Thus he says the wrong things at the right time.”
In India, Jung found a civilization anchored to spirit. However, he worried that the shiny productions and flashy achievements of the West might tempt Indians into ditching their millenia old “spiritual culture” and hitching their wagon to the materialist West. Jung wrote that India must not turn blind and deaf to the “demands of the soul” when presented with “the novelties of Western civilization.” Jung’s final word:
The breathless drive for power and aggrandizement in the political, social, and intellectual sphere, gnawing at the soul of the Westerner with apparently insatiable greed, is spreading irresistibly in the East and threatens to have incalculable consequences. Not only in India but in China, too, much has already perished where once the soul lived.
When our eyes grow weary of our own treasures, it sometimes takes an outsider to come in, take a look around, and point out our ancestral riches to us. Carl Jung was one such kind outsider – but will we look where he’s frantically pointing?