A Treasure House of Tribulations
by Mathuresha Dasa
Freud’s astute analysis of material suffering strikingly resembles the Vedic description. But does he offer a viable remedy?
The conditioned soul … is always covered by ignorance and embarrassed by the threefold miseries of life. Thus he is a treasure house of all kinds of tribulations.
(Caitanya-caritamrita [a sixteenth-century Bengali scripture], Antya-lila, Chapter 5, verse 127).
The radium has once again begun to eat away at something, causing pain and toxic manifestations, and my world is what it was previously, a small island of pain floating on an ocean of indifference.
(Sigmund Freud, in a letter to Princess Marie Bonaparte, a few months before his death in 1939)
Miseries and tribulations are things we try to avoid. Nobody treasures them. Nobody cherishes deprivation or hoards disease. Yet miseries sometimes besiege a person in enough quantity and variety to constitute a perverse kind of wealth. Some people are richly constipated, some richly arthritic, some richly hungry or lonely, and some are all of these and more.
For the final sixteen years of his life, from 1923 to 1939, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was richly cancerous. In October of 1923, to arrest the spread of a malignant tumor, surgeons cut away large portions of the upper and lower jaw on the right side of Freud’s mouth. The prosthesis they inserted so that Freud could eat and talk caused him constant discomfort up to his death. The dozens of additional operations and radiation treatments he underwent over the years to remove and inhibit further growths were also a source of continual torment. Doctors and friends close to Freud during his long illness marveled at his stoicism. Never openly cursing his fate, he treated those around him with kindness and continued to see patients and to write until almost the very end.
Although Freud was a staunch atheist, his philosophic views on suffering closely resemble those of the Vedic literature, the world’s oldest and most comprehensive religious texts. In Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1929, Freud argues that belief in God, in a supreme father, is “patently infantile” and “foreign to reality.” Yet his analysis of the design of the universe reveals a nearly perfect understanding of the Supreme Lord’s intentions. “One feels inclined to say,” Freud writes, “that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation.’” Well said. In Bhagavad- gita, Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, certifies His material creation as a place of misery, a place devoid of lasting happiness. While denying the supreme father, Freud seems to have somehow understood His mind.
Confirming (unintentionally, of course) an aphorism in the Vedanta-sutra, Freud also states that our purpose in life is, simply enough, to be happy, to follow what he called “the pleasure principle.” But we can’t be happy. Freud continues, because, “We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction: and finally from our relations to other men” (Civ., p. 24).
Again Freud’s statements resemble those of Vedic authorities, who elaborate somewhat on two of Freud’s categories: mental disturbances and diseases are included in the category of bodily suffering, since the mind is a subtle body, and suffering from our relations with other humans is grouped with suffering that comes from nonhuman creatures, like insects and rodents. But aside from these slight differences, the Vedic literature agrees with Freud that we suffer continuously from either bodily ailments, natural disasters, or the assaults of other living creatures, and that in the face of these three kinds of miseries, fulfillment of our desire for pleasure is more or less impossible.
So not only do miseries sometimes besiege some of us with a wealth of tribulation, in varying degrees they constantly besiege everyone. This is a question not of pessimism but of stark realism. What people call happiness or pleasure consists in fact of nothing more than momentary relief from unpleasant physiological and psychic tensions. Money, good health, and sexual companionship, for example, are enjoyable only because they temporarily repel poverty, sickness. and sexual craving. In our present state of existence, happiness is the flip side of misery, could not exist without misery, and is so closely related to misery that it’s hard for us to distinguish between the two. The Vedic literature therefore classifies us as “conditioned souls”—we are conditioned to equate happiness with escape from unhappiness and to look upon our physical bodies, which are in fact “small islands of pain,” as oases of pleasure.
Despite acknowledging the hopelessness of finding happiness anywhere within the creation, Freud nevertheless outlines a number of ways by which we can at least attempt to overcome or elude the threefold miseries. To avoid suffering in human relationships, for example, we might choose to isolate ourselves from society. This won’t produce much positive pleasure, but it will afford us some relief. Better than isolation, however, is to join the human community and, with the help of science, try to forcibly overcome misery. Civilized man has indeed managed to eliminate some diseases and foresee some natural disasters. So if we join the ranks of civilized men, there’s a chance we can gang up on the sources of our torment.
But scientific progress, Freud points out, also does little to increase human happiness. We may extend our lives by curing a disease, but that only prolongs our suffering from other sources, including other diseases. The wonders of modern transportation enable us to conquer distances, but that “victory” in turn practically forces us to live and work far from our loved ones. In otherwords, the happiness derived from technical achievements seems to carry with it some corresponding distress, or, as a Vedic spokesman would put it, again concurring with Freud, the advantages of material progress never outweigh the disadvantages.
What next? Freud outlines many other alternatives, including the creation and appreciation of works of art, the pursuit of scientific truth, and the use of intoxicants. Yes, intoxicants. Suffering, after all, is only a sensation, and there are many substances we can deposit in our bloodstreams to deaden unpleasant sensations. While acknowledging some drawbacks to this “drown your cares” method, Freud gives it a fairly high mark. Here he gets no support from Vedic followers. Drowned cares always surface again, often accompanied by hangovers and other physical and emotional creatures of the deep. (Freud’s own addiction to tobacco, a relatively mild intoxicant, was the direct cause of his suffering. Although doctors repeatedly warned him of the “nicotine etiology” of his cancer, he never gave up smoking cigars.)
Yoga,which according to Freud involves “killing off the instincts,” is another somewhat viable alternative, at least in theory. If indulging our instinctual appetites spells but momentary happiness, and the inability to indulge them spells severe pain, then why not do away with our appetites altogether’? On this path we eliminate the sources of misery but sacrifice all opportunities for positive enjoyment as well, again achieving only relief. As the isolationist avoids social suffering by avoiding his fellow man, so the yoga practitioner obviates privation by isolating himself from instinctual desires.
The Vedic literature has much to say about yoga and control of our instincts. But before discussing these topics more fully, let us consider one more path sometimes followed to circumvent misery: the path of adjusting reality. On this path. Freud warns, one becomes a madman and tries to re-create this miserable world, to replace it with a dreamland, a “delusional remolding of reality,” where misery is nonexistent and all one’s wishes are fulfilled. To a certain extent, each of us tries to “correct” reality in this way, but there are also cases where large numbers of people cooperate to create a common delusion. “The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass delusions of this kind,” says Freud, once again attacking belief in a supreme father.
No matter which path we take. Freud concludes, we cannot obtain lasting happiness. We are doomed to suffer the threefold miseries. The best course of action, he suggests, is to invest our energies in each path according to our inclinations, spreading out our “investments” as a businessman would, so that our failures on one or two paths do not leave us bankrupt of all pleasure. In this way we may eke out some little satisfaction here in this world of misery. Religion, says Freud, by restricting our choice of investments and intimidating us to remain on one path. prevents us from savoring even the tiny bits of happiness available amidst the treasure of our tribulations.
Now, that’s pessimism! The Vedic literature certainly says that this world is a miserable place, but rather than leave us in the lurch, it elaborately describes the systems of yoga by which we can transcend this world and enjoy unadulterate transcendental pleasure. Freud was correct to a degree in saying that by controlling our instinctual desires through yog we can remain aloof from the sources o misery, but he didn’t go far enough.
According to Bhagavad-gita,the desire laden soul is an eternal, indestructible individual who lives within the fragile physical body. Nursing a penchant for gratifying the bodily senses, the conditioned soul ignorantly identifies with his body and thus experiences the mixed pleasure and pain of sensual life, just as a person eating a mixture of ice cream and sand feels a painful grating on his teeth even as he relishes the ice cream’s sweetness.
Understanding as Freud did, the ultimate futility of striving for pleasure on the sensual plane, an intelligent soul may take advantage of the yoga disciplines to detach himself from desires for bodily pleasure. Thus he renounces sandy ice cream—renounces all paths to bodily happiness—and attains relief by eating nothing. As Freud correctly indicated, yoga cannot be practiced alongside paths that recommend enjoyment of the material elements.
But on the path of yoga,renunciation is only half the picture. As the soul is eternal and indestructible, so also are his desires for enjoyment. There is no way to “kill” desire altogether. We are forever sentient and pleasure-seeking, even after giving up bodily attachments. The bodily senses are merely coverings over the eternal, spiritual senses of the soul. Therefore even after detaching ourselves from the body, we have senses and sensual needs.
So what’s a yogi to do? In the third chapter of the Gita, Lord Krishna Himself states that the soul cannot be inactive even for a moment. Even if the yogi manages to restrain his senses, his mind will be active, dwelling longingly on all that rejected ice cream. Sure the sand grates on your teeth, but isn’t that better than nothing at all?
Little did Freud suspect that the other half of the yoga picture is active service to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the supreme father, Lord Krishna. Employing one’s senses in Krishna’s service is known as bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion. Yoga literally means “union,” or “yoke,” so to complete the process of yoga we must not only detach ourselves from matter but also yoke ourselves to the Supreme through active service. Since Krishna is transcendental to His material creation, and since He possesses an eternal, blissful, spiritual body, attachment to Him and detachment from matter are one and the same thing.
The bhakti-yogi has no affinity for sandy ice cream. He directs his mind toward the all-attractive form of Krishna by hearing about His pastimes, chanting His many names, offering Him prayers, cooking for Him, cleaning His temple—in short, by dedicating his mind, body, and words to Krishna’s service. The bhakti-yogi gives only perfunctory attention to the care of his physical body, maintaining his health and strength not for the futile pursuit of material pleasure, but for the performance of spiritual activities—activities that please the senses of the Supreme Person. The pure, transcendental happiness that a bhaktiyogi experiences through serving Krishna erases from his mind any lingering illusion that the so-called pleasures of material life are worth the trouble.
Yoga as it is most commonly known—involving sitting postures and breathing exercises—is called ashtanga-yoga,and it is true that the ashtanga- yoga system emphasizes physical inactivity and silent meditation. But meditation on what? Modern, commercial yoga schools may recommend meditation on “the void,” on a “white light,” on a candle, a flower, or what have you. But in the Vedic source books of yoga—in the Gita as well as in Patanjali’s Yoga-sutra—stress is given to the ultimate achievement of uninterrupted meditation on the form of the Supreme Person.
Since the bhakti-yogi can achieve uninterrupted meditation on Krishna’s form from the very start, he is beyond the practice of sitting postures and breathing exercises, which are preliminary disciplines designed to withdraw the mind from matter and the senses from material activities. The devotee is already meditating, already free from material desires and activities, whereas the ashtanga- yogi has yet to rise from the platform of detached inactivity to the platform of devotional attachment to Krishna, which is the perfection of yoga.
By giving a tentative thumbs up to yoga and an unequivocal thumbs down to religion, Sigmund Freud betrayed his incomplete knowledge of both, since the major religious traditions of mankind are based on the principles of bhakti-yoga. The followers of the world’s various faiths go to churches, mosques, or temples, offer prayers to the Supreme, bow down before Him, hear His instructions and activities, and render service to His cause. In each faith, the more devout followers give up their worldly connections to join monastic communities and fully devote themselves to God. Though the world’s faithful, both laymen and clergy, may address the Lord by names other than “Krishna,” may know of the Lord’s personality in varying degrees, and may be unaware of the full meaning of the word yoga, they are nonetheless practicing bhakti- yoga in its most fundamental sense: communion with the Supreme through devotion. Bhakti-yoga is not a sectarian dogma—the property of a particular religious tradition—nor is it a mass delusion. It is the scientific process of pleasing Supreme Personality of Godhead with our service and thus activating the transcendental chemistry of a loving exchange with Him.
Perhaps Freud’s failure to recognize the intimate connection between yoga and religion was due in part to the inability of many religionists to show they possess two essential symptoms of the yoga practitioner: knowledge and renunciation. The yogi, according to both Freud and the Vedic literature, renounces material enjoyment because he knows it brings unavoidable material miseries. Above and beyond these preliminary qualifications, the devotional yoga should have transcendental knowledge of the all-blissful Supreme and a strong desire to renounce everything for His satisfaction. “Unless one renounces the desire for sense gratification,” Lord Krishna warns in the Gita,“one can never become a yogi.” Bhakti-yogi included.
If a religionist is eager for material enjoyment and ignorant of the concomitant material miseries—miseries that even a great atheist like Freud could perceive—then where is the question of yoga practice, what to speak of devotion? Religious leaders who encourage their congregation to petition God for political, economic, or even philanthropic objectives have missed the point. Yes, the almighty supreme father can grant material benedictions, but why ask Him for more sandy ice cream, even if by His grace the sand is minimized to some degree? The Srimad- Bhagavatam, the topmost Vedic literature, states that bhakti-yoga has the power to completely uproot the threefold miseries and instate the devotee in a heart-to-heart relationship with Krishna. Bhakti isnot meant for strengthening our old material roots, or for establishing new ones.
In addition to missing the purpose of devotion, religionists often exhibit their disqualifications as bhakti-yogis in more cardinal ways. In both Discontents and The Future of an Illusion, published in 1927, Freud notes religion’s failure to inspire obedience to basic religious and moral (and, we can now add, yogic) codes, such as those aimed at curbing man’s sexual and aggressive drives. For one thing, Freud asserts, if we take into account the nature man has inherited from his ape ancestors, commandments like “’Love thy neighbor as thyself’ are just about impossible to follow, anyway” (Civ., p. 56). Furthermore, Freud says, some religious authorities in effect encourage immorality by teaching that man is by nature weak and unable to control his instinctual drives, while God is by nature strong and merciful. If we repent our transgressions of God’s laws, He will bless us with His mercy. Some say that transgressing and repenting is in fact the best way to get His blessings. “In every age,” Freud concludes, “immorality has found no less support in religion than morality has” (Future, p. 38).
Freud was specifically referring to some European Christian traditions, but the debased transgress-repent mentality also manifests in traditions outside Christianity—wherever the principles of devotion and yoga are poorly understood. It is true that Krishna is merciful and forgiving toward His devotees, whatever their professed faith. And it is also true that man is weak and more or less helpless in the face of, material, instinctual desire. But the genuine bhakti-yogi, even the neophyte, is no longer faced with material desires or captivated by material pleasures. He has experienced God’s mercy in the form of the superior pleasure of devotional service, and he for the most part faces only his own growing enthusiasm for serving God. Past bad habits may lead the bhakti-yogi to accidentally transgress moral or religious guidelines, but material instincts can never drive him to incorporate transgression into his doctrine of faith.
Would these vindications of religion’s apparent shortcomings have placated Sigmund Freud? Would he have acknowledged that religion and yoga renunciation go hand in hand, and that religious devotion is therefore at least as valid as inactive yoga for escaping the threefold miseries?
Maybe not. In Discontents Freud, with typical caustic wit, scoffs at those who try, using “pitiful rear-guard actions,” to defend religion. Perhaps Freud would have mistaken scientific Vedic explanations for such rear-guard actions—for shallow attempts to perpetuate mass delusion.
On the one hand, there’s no need to give much attention to Freud’s allegations. The atheist can always dig up new ways to muddy the waters of faith and knowledge. In general the better part of valor is to avoid such mudslingers and calmly proceed with devotional service in the company of fellow believers. Freud’s allegations merit reply only because of the widespread longterm effects of his slinging.
On the other hand, we can profit by giving our attention both to Freud’s keen insights into the inherent misery of material life and to his partial understanding of the value of yoga.Canakya Pandita, a Vedic sage, advised that an intelligent man should not hesitate to pick up gold from a filthy place or to take good advice from someone who is otherwise a fool. Freud’s golden insights into misery can serve to inspire the devotional yogi with the determination to pull up his material roots by wholeheartedly serving the transcendental Personality of Godhead.
That wasn’t Freud’s intention, of course. He said there was no escape from the threefold miseries. For his own part, that meant he was convinced there was no escape from his aging, cancer-ridden body—from his treasure house of tribulation. But what did that conviction get him? Hardly anything: he spent his very last days quiet, wistful, and withdrawn—“a small island of pain floating on an ocean of indifference.”