The Ideas of Carl Jung in Relation to Other Traditions — Hinduism
Carl Jung: “The philosophy of the East, although so vastly different from ours, could be an inestimable treasure for us too; but, in order to possess it, we must first earn it”.
This is the latest in a series about the ideas of Carl Jung. I am currently discussing the parallels between his thinking and other religions. Having previously discussed Sufism, Taoism, and a brief excursion into Kabbalah (for details and links to articles please click the link above), I now turn to Hinduism.
Instead of discussing Hinduism in general, I’ll focus on one incident in Jung’s life. Even though it is just one isolated incident, a discussion of it gets right to the heart of his views on Eastern traditions, and the differences between them and his own approach to spirituality.
When he was in India, Jung had the opportunity to meet the sage Ramana Maharshi, which he did not take up. This has prompted a variety of reactions among spiritually oriented people, ranging from surprise and puzzlement — I had a conversation with Bruce McGraw on Medium recently about this — to amazement and condemnation. A good example of the latter is the writer Victor Mansfield¹, who treats Jung’s behaviour as if it were some kind of inexcusable insult. (More of that below.)
Maharshi was a Hindu sage, considered to be a jivanmukta. That means “a person who, in the Vedanta philosophy, has gained complete self-knowledge and self-realisation, and attained kaivalya or moksha, thus is liberated while living and not yet died”². Since he was so interested in religion and spirituality, why would Jung not want to meet such a person?
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections he says this about his 1938 journey to India: “By that time I had read a great deal about Indian philosophy and religious history, and was deeply convinced of the value of Oriental wisdom… India affected me like a dream, for I was and remained in search of myself, of the truth peculiar to myself”.
He says that at that time he was engaged in an intensive study of alchemical philosophy and took a volume containing the principal writings of Gerardus Dorneus with him. He says that this European text provided a counterpoint to the “foreign mentality and culture. Both had emerged from original psychic experiences of the unconscious, and therefore had produced the same, similar, or at least comparable insights”. (He had said something similar about Taoism, as discussed in the previous article.)
He goes on to say that there he “had the chance to speak with representatives of the Indian mentality, and to compare it with the European… On the other hand, I studiously avoided all so-called ‘holy men’. I did so because I had to make do with my own truth, not accept from others what I could not attain on my own. I would have felt it as a theft had I attempted to learn from the holy men and to accept their truth for myself. Neither in Europe can I make any borrowings from the East, but must shape my life out of myself — out of what my inner being tells me, or what nature brings to me”.
Here we have some clues as to Jung’s motivation. He believed in his own personal truth, guided by the wisdom of the unconscious, rather than follow the traditions of others. That is in accord with Gnosticism, with which Jung identified (and, for what it’s worth, I agree with this viewpoint).
In ‘The Holy Men of India’, which is the introduction to a book by Heinrich Zimmer, and which can also be found in a volume of Jung’s writings called Psychology and the East³, Jung explains further his position. There he is extremely complimentary about Maharshi, describing him as “the latest and best incarnation of this type (i.e. the holy man)”, a “phenomenal personage”, “a modern Indian prophet who exemplifies so impressively the problem of psychic transformation”. He says that “Shri Ramana’s thoughts are beautiful to read”, and in Zimmer’s estimation he is “the true avatar of the figure of the rishi, seer and philosopher, which strides, as legendary as it is historical, down the centuries and the ages”.
There is no doubt therefore that Jung considered Maharshi to be an exceptional figure. This is the reason he gives for not wanting to visit him. Despite him being “undoubtedly distinguished”, he was one more in a long line of Indian sages, so that Jung doubted his uniqueness: “He is of a type which always was and will be. Therefore it was not necessary to seek him out”. His message/teaching could be found everywhere in India: “It is everywhere the same, but never monotonous, endlessly varied. To get to know it, it is sufficient to read an Upanishad or any discourse of the Buddha”.
This explanation does not satisfy Victor Mansfield. He quotes that passage, then comments: “Here is the smugness of the psychological standpoint in action. Since, according to the psychological standpoint, we cannot transcend the psyche, Ramana was only expressing an archetypal theme, living out the timeless myth of transcendence… Believing him to be a ‘type’, a timeless archetypal longing for release, not a real bursting of the bonds of the psyche, Jung decided not to visit Ramana”.
Here, it seems to me, he has completely misunderstood what Jung is saying. Jung may have used the word ‘type’, but not in the sense Mansfield suggests. For Jung, he is the ‘type’ of the truly enlightened sage, delivering an eternal message — after all, he compares him to the Buddha — not someone merely embodying and expressing an archetypal theme.
Mansfield further elaborates on his criticism of Jung, saying that “Ramana was a towering spiritual figure and an exponent of unqualified nondualism”. “A meeting with a genuine jivan mukta, who has completely transcended the opposites of the psyche while in the body might have been a confrontation with the limits of Jung’s psychological standpoint. Was Ramana really a jivan mukta? Is such a state possible? My study of his life and works seems to confirm this exalted status and those in a better position to know clearly saw him as one of the greatest examples of Indian spirituality of the century. Jung knew his reputation… He was surely worthy of careful scrutiny as a unique spiritual phenomenon who may have truly transcended the psychological standpoint. In the entire Zimmer introduction Jung is clearly on the defensive”. (As Mansfield says, Jung did know Maharshi’s reputation, and was highly impressed by him. What he doubted was the uniqueness that Mansfield claims but does not substantiate. Whether or not Jung was being defensive is obviously in the eyes of the beholder.)
Mansfield then wonders whether “the reader thinks I am being unfair to Jung or that this statement is taken out of context”, therefore twice quotes a letter from Jung supporting his criticism. He also mounts a massive defence of Advaita Vedanta (a strict nondualist tradition) as being superior to Jung’s ‘psychological viewpoint’, and concludes: “To anyone who has studied both depth psychology and Indian thought, Jung’s attitude here is a deep disappointment”.
As an aside, I wonder exactly what Mansfield thought might have happened if the meeting had gone ahead. Does he think that Jung would suddenly have become enlightened merely by being in the presence of Maharshi? He was on a short visit to India, so would not have been there long enough to become Maharshi’s pupil. Would he suddenly have seen the light on the basis of one conversation, and completely changed his views? None of these outcomes seems very likely.
All this is somewhat reminiscent of discussions I have on Medium. Every time I praise or write favourably about Jung, I am likely to get a response from non-dualists of various persuasions (Buddhists, quasi-Buddhists, Zen Buddhists, Vedantists), telling me that I’ve got it wrong, that Jung is limited, and how their favoured practice is superior.
How does Jung respond to all this?
In another chapter in Psychology and the East entitled ‘Yoga and the West’, he says: “When a ‘religious’ method recommends itself at the same time as ‘scientific’, it can be sure of finding a public in the West. Yoga fulfils this expectation… It offers not only the much-sought way, but also a philosophy of unrivalled profundity”. Again we see that Jung is extremely complimentary about Hinduism and the East.
He attributes “the importation on a mass scale of exotic (Eastern) religious systems” to the “bankruptcy” of Protestantism, concluding correctly therefore that this is a late development in the West. Meditation and yoga are, on the contrary, traditions in the East going back many centuries. Jung believed that the West is not ready for such sophisticated practices, and has more pressing psychological needs, given its general unconsciousness and lack of self-awareness: “The wisdom and mysticism of the East… serve to remind us that we in our culture possess something similar, which we have already forgotten, and to direct our attention to the fate of the inner man, which we set aside as trifling. The life and teaching of Shri Ramana are of significance not only for India, but for the West too. They are… a warning message to a humanity which threatens to lose itself in unconsciousness and anarchy”. (This one is from ‘The Holy Men of India’.)
In simple terms, there is a lot of catching up to do. He says: “In the East, where these ideas and practices originated, and where an uninterrupted tradition extending over some four thousand years has created the necessary spiritual conditions, yoga is, as I can readily believe, the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together so that they form a unity that can hardly be doubted. They thus create a psychological disposition which makes possible intuitions that transcend consciousness”.
However, “the split in the Western mind makes it impossible at the outset for the intentions of yoga to be realized in any adequate way. It becomes either a strictly religious matter, or else (a physical discipline) and not a trace is to be found of the unity and wholeness of nature which is characteristic of yoga. The Indian can forget neither the body nor the mind, while the European is always forgetting either the one or the other”. The Indian “not only knows his own nature, but he knows also how much he himself is nature. The European, on the other hand, has a science of nature and knows astonishingly little of his own nature, the nature within him”.
“The European has become so far removed from his roots that his mind was finally split into faith and knowledge, in the same way that every psychological exaggeration breaks up into its inherent opposites. He needs to return, not to Nature in the manner of Rousseau, but to his own nature. His task is to find the natural man again”.
“If I remain so critically averse to yoga, it does not mean that I do not regard this spiritual achievement of the East as one of the greatest things the human mind has ever created. I hope my exposition makes it sufficiently clear that my criticism is directed solely against the application of yoga to the peoples of the West. The spiritual development of the West has been along entirely different lines from that of the East and has therefore produced conditions which are the most unfavourable soil one can think of for the application of yoga. Western civilization is scarcely a thousand years old and must first of all free itself from its barbarous one-sidedness. This means, above all, deeper insight into the nature of man”.
I’ll be saying more about this in the next article about Jung and Buddhism, but briefly, and put in simple terms, the goal of Hinduism and Buddhism would seem to be the same for each individual. Everyone is seeking the experience of Enlightenment, samadhi, moksha, a state of pure consciousness which has dissolved the ego, and is free of any trace of personality. I assume therefore that this experience is the same for everyone who achieves it. On the other hand, the goal of Jung’s spiritual path, which he calls the Individuation Process, is that each person expands their consciousness, in order to become the unique individual that they are, with their own unique purpose. (It is an open question whether this might be a preparation for a later incarnation in which the Eastern method is practised.)
A recent article by Bruce McGraw seems to be relevant in this context. There he writes about Divine Law which “directs humans and other creatures to their supernatural end, which consists of a vision of God [or the Ultimate/Ground of Being etc.] and eternal blessedness… It’s the law that gives our lives purpose. It’s the law that lets us know if we are on the right path or the wrong path. This is the law that connects us to the intelligence of the Universe”.
Discussing Aristotle and Aquinas, he says that “for humans, it is the urge to fulfillment and happiness by becoming the person we are meant to be”.
“We are the universe becoming aware of itself… the ‘Universe’ is the ultimate, and it is constantly evolving and growing. As far as we know, we are its latest creation. Since we are the universe in the form of a human, it is our purpose to continue to evolve ourselves and the universe by, as Aristotle said, realizing and actualizing our potential”. “We are the intelligence of the universe in the form of a human… and we each have a unique potential to fulfill”.
The first quote seems to offer an experience at least comparable to samadhi, and all three quotes are in accord with Jung’s thinking. It would seem that his ideas are following this Divine Law, and in accord with a Western tradition going back at least as far as Aristotle.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- In Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making : Understanding Jungian Synchronicity through Physics, Buddhism, and Philosophy, Open Court, 1995, 5th printing 2001, pp173–175
- Princeton University Press, 1977