Jubilation of the Bald Parrot
Jubilation of the Bald Parrot
A shopkeeper had a lovely parrot. It could speak fluently, sing when in the mood and was the greatest attraction of the shop. But one day it did something that was none of its business. It sat on the shoulder of a customer, a lady, and pecked at the gold on her nose. As the lady shrieked, the shopkeeper hit the parrot hard on the head with a rod that had been heated for some purpose. It fell silent and stopped talking. It grew extremely remorseful. By and by, all the hair on its head fell off and it became totally bald.
A year passed. One day a venerable member of the nobility, who happened to be bald, entered the shop. The parrot suddenly began flapping its wings and shrieking and, hopping onto the customer’s shoulder, exclaimed, “So, you too pecked at the lady’s nose and were hit by a hot rod, eh?”
It began to talk and sing as before.
The folktale educates us on two points of some psychological import. First, the parrot was cured of its melancholy and dumbness the moment it found someone who seemed to share its own humiliation — with whom it could fraternally sympathize. It is a consolation that one was not alone in one’s sorrow. Second, one judges a phenomenon in the light of one’s own experience — the nobleman must have grown bald for the very reason for which the parrot had become bald.
This second truth, which the story tells, returned to my mind with a vengeance when I happened to read Vishnu on Freud’s Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, edited by T.G. Vaidyanathan & Jeffrey J. Kripal.
When Girindrasekhar Bose, the doyen of psychoanalysis in India, sent an ivory carving of Vishnu as a gift to Freud on the latter’s seventy-fifth birthday, little did he know that he was also making a gift of a valuable title to the aforesaid compilation. The ivory Vishnu, we are told, still adorns Freud’s desk. Vishnu on Freud’s Desk, therefore, looks like a reference to a bare fact. But it becomes more or less an allegory as one proceeds reading it.
For sometime, this author suspected that since there had been a population explosion of psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, sooner or later they would face scarcity of food and would greedily view the realm of Indian myths and traditions as a fresh and fertile pasture. This anthology reinforces the suspicion. And my fear that they will try, nay, strive to fit the meaning of symbols and institutions to the Procrustean bed of their theories and ideas has come true.
The contributors to this anthology attempt at applying psychoanalysis to the Hindu myths, some of the traditions and rituals, through essays bearing quite inviting titles, such as ‘Sex and Yoga’, ‘When a Lingam is just a good cigar’ and ‘The Bloodthirsty Tongue and the Self-feeding Breast’ — even tantalizing — thanks to the influence of journalism. (By the way, I am not out of that influence while choosing a title for this piece.)
Alas, if A.K. Ramanujam states that, “Searching for the stories of the Oedipus type some years ago in the myths and folklore of the Indic area, I found very little that looked like the Sophocles play where a young man kills his father and marries his mother,” the author of the very next essay, Paul B. Courtright, proceeds with an amazing confidence to interpret a certain conflict between Shiva and Ganesha, ‘and the latter’s subsequent submission and restoration as a proof of the father/son aggression’ which ‘invites comparison with the myth of Oedipus and the meaning Freud and his followers have derived from it for understanding human psychological dynamics.’
In his Afterword, Jeffrey Kripal says that many of the authors in this volume are either themselves South Asians, or are trained in intellectual disciplines that make South Asia a specific object of study, and he informs us of the presence of a desire in them ‘to refashion psychoanalysis itself in the light of Indian culture’.
How much I wish that such a desire had been evident in a credible way — if not its fruition. But a reader, with some basic knowledge of Indian myths, seeking to profit from these scholars, would close it with a sigh of disappointment. Not that pretensions to such a desire cannot be seen in flashes, but none of these experts seem to care for the unavoidable truth (they could not be stark ignorant of it) that myths could be the crystallized essence of experiences and realizations that are far beyond the scope of psychoanalysis, that elements in folklore could be distortions or exaggerations of ideas that were sublime at their source, that the ‘Mother’ for the Indian psyche could be qualitatively different from the wisdom of psychoanalysis would allow them to perceive and that man can be potentially greater than man. No one, however intelligent a scholar in his discipline, can ‘refashion psychoanalysis itself’ without such faith and an attitude of humility.
Ironically, far from showing any sign of that indispensable humility, some of these scholars startle us with their dogmatism and poverty of comprehension. For example, T.G. Vaidyanathan refers to a passage from one of Sri Aurobindo’s letters to a seeker where the Master said:
“I find it difficult to take these psychoanalysts at all seriously when they try to scrutinize spiritual experience by the flicker of their torch lights, yet perhaps one ought to, for half-knowledge is a powerful thing and can be a great obstacle to coming in front of the true Truth. This new psychology looks to me very much like children learning some summary and not very adequate alphabet. They look from down up and explain the higher lights by the lower obscurities. The superconscient, not the subconscient is the true foundation of things. The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analyzing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms forever in the Light above. The self-chosen field of these psychologists is besides poor, dark and limited; you must know the whole before you can know the part, and the highest, before you can truly understand the lowest.” (Letters on Yoga)
While Vaidyanathan cites the passage only to show how ‘seemingly irreconcilable’ are the positions taken by the mystic and the analyst, his collaborator, Kripal, in one breath detects in the statement a colonial context and refers to the lotus symbolizing the reproductive organ — a knowledge which he is mercifully in favour of putting aside for the time being, and proceeds to ask ‘how any one could hope to understand something as biological as a lotus without first beginning with the larger ecosystem, that is with the secrets of mind in which it grows’!
What prudence, what a profound outlook for a metaphor!
One of the valued authors of this anthology, Sudhir Kakar, had referred to the same passage of Sri Aurobindo in his work, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (1982), and had advised Sri Aurobindo that being a Yogi he should not display anger and a ‘certain peevishness’ towards psychoanalysis. Kakar must have taken recourse to some mysterious wavelength of ether to feel ‘anger’ in Sri Aurobindo’s words, but do the likes of Kakar and Kripal believe that they alone had the right to explain away man, and a mystic must forfeit it to them? Do they believe that their discipline alone can measure human life and destiny? God save the discipline if its champions must demonstrate their wisdom through an examination of Sri Aurobindo’s lotus imagery in such crude terms without the least regard for its spirit implying that man is not merely a creature of darkness.
Noted thinkers in the West have been merciless towards the claims of the devotees of this discipline. To wit, “Psychiatry’s chief contribution to philosophy is the discovery that the toilet is the seat of the soul.” (Alexander Chase, Perspectives, 1966) In comparison, Sri Aurobindo’s is a mere pointer towards its limitations. That three exponents of psychoanalysis should pounce on it — which was originally a personal letter to a seeker — speaks of an ominous complex of which they would do good to heal themselves, before pouncing on the world of Indian myths, which can only deceptively lend itself to them through its superficial versions, but which in its original theme is far beyond them.
That I am not exaggerating their incapacity, should be quite clear from what one of the contributors, Wendy Doniger, has to say: “Stories from ancient India present a great boon to psychoanalysts trained in the Freudian, Western tradition… The blatant sexuality of the Hindu myths had often been noted… The Hindu stories seem to corroborate Freudian hypotheses about infant sexuality.”
The over-enthusiastic, simplistic attraction for a great lore, verging on glee and avarice, is alarming. We can very well expect some more scholarship of the type of our old good bald parrot’s.
The principle of psychoanalysis may be effective within a certain range of the working of human consciousness — and at a certain plane. The danger lies in its ignoring the truth that the consciousness is too vast for Freud and his disciples to survey it in full. There are spheres of occult reality and planes of consciousness that can be known only through deep concentration, meditation and other methods of Yoga, not through a course in psychoanalysis. Centuries have gone into paving the different paths of Yoga. Great geniuses have perfected them. Psychoanalysis, formalized the other day, should do good to be humble, not to try to explain away the experiences of, say, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, with their formula.
Alas, it had begun gatecrashing into spheres angels fear to tread