Jung and Indian Thought
by Pravrajika Vrajaprana
Reprinted with permission
When people in the Ramakrishna Movement think of Carl Jung, they tend to think of his earlier, yet undeveloped ideas about the East and spirituality. In his Prabuddha Bharata article of 1936, for example, Jung argues that Westerners were not suited for the practice of yoga. What has not been generally recognized, however, is how much Jung’s ideas and attitudes matured and changed after that article was written. “A careful look at his writings,” Dr. Steven Walker wrote, “reveals a slow and careful progress towards a greater acceptance of the relevance of Eastern mystical thought for the problems of the modern world.”
We should remember that Jung went to India in the winter of 1936-37, after the publication of the Prabuddha Bharata article. It may well be that Jung’s ideas changed as a result of, or were strongly influenced by, his visit to India and Belur Math in particular. All we can verify with certainty is that his basic outlook regarding spiritual practice in the East and West underwent a transformation.
One thing that certainly impressed Jung was the statue of Sri Ramakrishna at Belur Math. He later “commented that, whatever the word samadhi might mean exactly, every Indian would associate it with the image of a yogi in that state.” More importantly, as time went on, Jung began thinking of East and West not in opposition to one another, but instead as running along parallel lines; as his thought matured, “Jung’s psychology moved closer and closer to the wellsprings of Indian spirituality,” Walker observes.
In his 1939 article “What India Can Teach Us,” Jung praises India’s integrative religion, seeing it as a model for the modern Western world. India’s religion embraced “the whole man from top to bottom” unlike the Western variety which separated the rational from the natural human being. Jung appreciatively concluded that India had avoided the “fatal dissociation between an upper and a lower half of the human personality.”
Jung’s 1943 essay “The Psychology of Eastern Meditation” “emphasizes over and over again the affinities that link Western spiritual aspirations with India and the East. . . . The European, writes Jung, should apply his Western understanding ‘to understanding as much of yoga as is possible for the Western mind.'” In 1944 Jung wrote an essay as an introduction to Heinrich Zimmer’s German translation of Ramana Maharshi’s teachings. In this essay-now part of the Bollingen series entitled Psychology and the East-Jung presciently observes, “The Eastern peoples are threatened with a rapid collapse of their spiritual values, and what replaces them cannot always be counted among the best that Western civilization has produced.” Continuing in this line he adds, “From this point of view one could regard Ramakrishna and Shri Ramana as modern prophets, who play the same compensatory role in relation to their people as that of the Old Testament prophets in relation to their ‘unfaithful’ children of Israel. Not only do they exhort their compatriots to remember their thousand-year-old spiritual culture, they actually embody it and thus serve as an impressive warning, lest the demands of the soul be forgotten amid the novelties of Western civilization with its materialistic technology and commercial acquisitiveness.”
We have certainly come a long way since the 1936 Prabuddha Bharata article! Quotations from Sri Ramakrishna also appear in this remarkable essay: Jung is particularly interested in how Sri Ramakrishna contends with the problem of the ego. “The goal of Eastern religious practice is the same as that of Western mysticism,” Jung wrote, “the shifting of the centre of gravity from the ego to the self, from man to God.” Dr. Walker concludes from Jung’s essay that “Jung has found in Ramakrishna’s teachings a modern psychological and religious point of view with which he can agree-namely, that even if the dissolution of the ego is the goal of religion, the ego in practice is almost indestructible.”
As a footnote we can add that the end of Jung’s life was graced with transformative spiritual experiences that left him a changed man: “I would never have imagined that any such experience was possible,” he later wrote a close colleague. “I have never since entirely freed myself of the impression that this life is a segment of existence which is entirely acted in a three-dimensional boxlike universe set up for it.” These experiences-which included the vision of a Hindu yogi-were accompanied by “an incomparable, indescribable feeling of eternal bliss, such as I never could have imagined as being within the reach of human consciousness.” Not long before his death, Jung appeared on the BBC television series “Face to Face.” When asked whether he believed in God, Jung replied with great intensity, “I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.”