In this essay, Mathew Spano illuminates the vital poetry of fifth century Indian poet Bhartrihari using a Jungian critical lens.
Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Mathew V. Spano
Tracking the Hermit’s Soul: A Jungian Reading of Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya
By Mathew V. Spano, Ph.D.
From behind the professor’s closed office door we might hear the mounting anxiety: “What a great new anthology of world literature! Poetry, prose, and drama from the Mayan culture, medieval Japan, and ancient India! But...how am I to read these works?” These doors and these words, incidentally, might easily be our own (don’t worry, nobody heard)! The stakes today are high when teaching World Literature, for if we take a soft approach to the texts, rely on popular conceptions and stereotypical interpretations, we risk misrepresenting authors and even entire cultures. Fortunately, some of our own schools of literary criticism may prove themselves both versatile and valuable when it comes to understanding texts from culture periods vastly different from our own. Some approaches, of course, may work better than others, and we should choose that which comes nearest the spirit of the work even over that which accounts for the most facts, literary or otherwise. Hence, when we come to the work of Bhartrihari, a fifth century Indian poet/ philosopher who appears in nearly every anthology of World Literature, we face some difficult decisions. The perfunctory introductions to his work tell us nothing more than that he was a court poet, grammarian, and Buddhist philosopher in the Gupta era and that he is coming to be appreciated in the West as a central figure in the formation and criticism of Indian language and literature. How, then, should we read him?
While some readings, such as historical or Marxian analyses, shed light on the complex class system and exploitation present in the fifth century Indian society surrounding Bhartrihari’s work,1 we might do better to call upon Jungian psychoanalysis to understand and appreciate the spirit of his work. Regarding Bhartrihari the grammarian, critic Harold Coward notes that “Jung provides the closest modern Western approximation to the yoga conception of consciousness [implicit in Bhartrihari’s sphota language theory]” (Coward 93), but he has little to say from a Jungian perspective about Bhartrihari the poet.2 As we read through Satakatraya (“three groups of one hundred verses”) Bhartrihari’s collection of Sanskrit poems,3 we note that each of its three principal books, Among Fools and Kings, Passionate Encounters, and Refuge in the Forest, seems to have its own presiding voice. In the first, we hear the cynic and the complainer; in the second, the passionate lover caught in the throes of sensual desires; in the third, the ascetic and spiritual seeker. Hence, in Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya we not only recognize a fragmented self, a torn self, but perhaps also an effort to compartmentalize the self (Walker, Lecture). But for what reason? Why divide a poetic work into these three books and these three distinct personalities? Is there a pattern or progression? Is Bhartrihari’s poetic personality changing, perhaps developing throughout the Satakatraya? Among the numerous literary critical schools to which we might appeal to answer these questions, Jungian analytical psychology may prove the most effective in shedding light on Bhartrihari’s poetry and psychology. Individuation, a term Jung coined to describe the process by which one comes to identify with the Self (the archetype of wholeness) as opposed to the ego alone (inflation), provides us with a key to understanding Bhartrihari’s evolving poetic self.
According to Jung, the psyche may be divided into three principle components: the ego and persona (the conscious, rational mind), the personal unconscious (suppressed thoughts and experiences), and the collective unconscious (the archetypes). Individuation begins with the weakening of the persona as archetypes (collective, instinctual drives which manifest in dream images) begin to constellate (become active) invading dreams and even waking consciousness. Typically, one’s relationships to daily life begin to suffer and traditional beliefs and ideals fall from the absolutes by which one lives one’s life to concepts of relative value. As the persona begins to fracture, the shadow emerges. The shadow, as Jung often describes it, consists of material that has been repressed by the ego as one matures through childhood and adolescent stages of development. It continues to accept anything we have difficulty fitting into our persona or rational outlook on life. The shadow holds the undesirable (and often vital) traits of our personality, the taboo, the Hyde to the persona’s Jekyll. Rather than acknowledge the shadow as part of oneself, one will typically project it outward onto an evil and monstrous someone or something else; hence, we see that the shadow, like the other archetypes, is an illusion-making factor within the psyche which prevents one from accurately perceiving and appropriately responding to reality. One’s first challenge in the process of individuation, then, is to try to accept the shadow figure, to negotiate with it in some way so as to integrate it and glean some of its energy--the treasure that has been buried along with the refuse.
As its title suggests, Bhartrihari’s first book of poems Among Kings and Fools is filled with bitterness and cynicism directed at the evil and suffering of life in general and the evil and suffering of the court system in particular. We seem to hear the voice of a middle-aged or older man who has seen all aspects of political courtly life; in Jungian theory it is usually the “mid-life crisis” which signifies the start of the individuation process and the appearance of the shadow.
In poem # 24, the poet lists several of the most admirable of human virtues but couples them with their evil counterparts: i.e. the hero is also called cruel, the majestic are also called arrogant, etc. (Miller 39). The point of the poem, namely that the wicked slander all virtues, is certainly born out by the many examples which precede it, yet we wonder if Bhartrihari hasn’t made his point too well. Experience tells us that heroes are in fact often cruel, that the majestic are often also arrogant, etc. Certainly Bhartrihari is an experienced enough observer of court politics to notice the ring of truth in these “slanders,” yet he continually moralizes in this book, extolling the virtuous and condemning the wicked. Nor does he admit the possibility that he too is guilty of slandering the court, that he might possess a certain degree of wickedness himself. Curiously, no more than three poems later, he writes: “One should avoid an evil man/ even if knowledge adorns him./ Is not a diamond-hooded serpent/ an agent of danger?” (40). Is the poet not here contradicting himself in slandering the virtue of knowledge and intelligence? Does Bhartrihari number himself as one of the wicked? By the end of this first book, however, we notice a new perspective emerging, a broader consciousness. In # 71, for example, the poet seems to intentionally intermingle virtue and vice: the rogue’s guile precedes the saint’s affection, the teacher’s patience is followed by a woman’s cunning, etc. And it is “the skill these people have in their arts” (my emphasis, 56), the complex inter-relatedness and dynamic of the wicked and the virtuous, which forms the basis of society and keeps it running. Perhaps, as Jung suggests, those like Bhartrihari who have only just begun the journey of individuation may at times glimpse the goal, the archetypal Self which encompasses and harmonizes all the other archetypes.
After the shadow has been more or less integrated into consciousness, according to Jung’s theory, other archetypes begin to emerge in dreams and visions. Typically, the anima, the personified image of a man’s contrasexual psychic impulses, appears next in dreams in various roles: prostitute, seductress, even spiritual guide to name a few. She represents a man’s feeling function and her particular role corresponds to the kind of relationship a man has to his feelings. For a man detached from or averse to his own feelings, she appears in her dangerous aspect as mother-devourer, witch, siren, etc. Inability to sufficiently cultivate the feeling function and integrate the anima can lead to moodiness, oversensitivity, even severe depression or feelings of worthlessness (von Franz 186).
The second book of Bhartrihari’s Satakatraya focuses on just such a female figure as respected Sanskrit translator and Indologist Barbara Stoler Miller notes in her excellent introduction to Bhartrihari’s poetry:
Woman, his passion’s object, is an enigma that defies Bhartrihari’s solution. She seems to him an invitation to some kind of supraterrestrial paradise, but she is at the same time life’s device for enticing men into inescapable bondage. The delights of passionate encounter are at once beautiful and ominous; the vehemence of Bhartrihari’s denunciation of woman is only a measure of the terrible fascination she holds for him. The seductress who causes Bhartrihari’s unrest is neither his wife nor a particular mistress, nor is she some idealized Beatrice; she is every woman who is young, affectionate, artful, charming, and voluptuous. His adoration of her is neither a worshipful nor a ritual love; it is concrete passion which delights in the physical subtleties of amorous play and in the seasons which set love’s moods. (Miller 15-16)
It is the indefinite but powerfully alluring nature of this feminine figure for the poet as well as the emotional intensity she inspires in him which indicate the presence of the anima archetype.
Jungians might explain the “terrible fascination” which mesmerizes the poet with the notion of an archetypal field: “Just as a magnet sits unnoticed and uninfluential until something comes into its surrounding field, so too does the archetype. As material gets drawn into the archetypal field, a complex is formed...” (Stamper 4). Bhartrihari adds to his anima complex by obsessively compounding erotic images and pulling in images from nature, religion, and even astronomy whenever he can to describe her allure: “she glowed with the magic of gems” (#131, 77), “she glowed with the planets’ magic” in (#132). In some poems, like # 78, he offers long lists of concrete, sensual details as evidence of the seduction and deception of the female form. Yet the brief, two line closing epigrams cursing women as obstacles to enlightenment are somehow anticlimactic and ineffectual coming as they do after seven or so lines of exotic sidelong glances and graceful hips. In poems 77 to 79, for example, he acknowledges that with her “exotic flashing eyes,” “voluptuous breasts,” “smiles, affection, modesty, and art...woman enchains us,” yet he is clearly fascinated with his captor (59).
So what is the anima for Bhartrihari? Is she a help or a hindrance in the quest for enlightenment? It would seem that the poet, struggling to understand her, sees her as both. At times, he praises her as a possible goal in place of enlightenment: “Deluded men who forsake her/ are fools pursuing illusory fruits...” (# 113, 71). In his obsession with the anima, he has reversed the traditional Buddhist view of women as one of the “illusory fruits” of phenomenal existence and liberation or nirvana as reality. He even suggests she is more powerful than the patriarchal gods of the traditional Hindu trinity or trimurti: “We bow to the god whose sign is a sea serpent,/ to Love, who makes the gods Shiva, Bhrahma, and Vishnu/ slaves in dark chambers of doe-eyed women;/ to Kama, whose marvelous artifice eludes all words” (# 112, 71). Here, Bhartrihari draws on the long-standing paradoxical Indian tradition of sexual love as a gateway to enlightenment as seen in Tantric practices and the Kama Sutra. Similarly, in the Individuation theory, the anima in her positive aspect acts as a kind of spiritual guide, bridging the gap between physical desire and spiritual desire: Dante’s Beatrice or the Virgin Mary or the female serpent guide in Indian Kundalini yoga. Even so, it is difficult to consistently view Bhartrihari’s anima as a spiritual guide since he also depicts her in her negative aspect, as an enchantress. He often identifies her with phenomenal nature (poems 89-91) which lures man and ignites passions and desires, thereby keeping him chained to samsara: “By [nature’s] magic woman is transformed from a creature of flesh and bones into a siren who destroys man’s reason” (Miller 16). Jungians also recognize this connection in a man’s psyche between the anima and nature, noting that in the siren, the nymph, the mermaid, etc., the anima emerges from the wilderness of the unconscious to lure him, to trick him, to enslave him on her island and keep him from continuing on his journey.
At best, Bhartrihari seems ambiguous in his view of the anima. In some poems she is a positive force worthy of a man’s utmost concentration and attention. In others, she is the siren drawing him off his spiritual course and into shipwreck on the rocks of samsara. Here, another Jungian concept, the theory of compensation might be of help in explaining the poet’s dual perspective of the anima:
It is the mythmaking artist, says Jung, who discovers the compensatory archetypal image that the age and the culture require for greater balance: “the artist seizes on this image, and in raising it from deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries according to their powers.” (Walker, Jung 20)
Hence, in both praising and cursing the collective female image, Bhartrihari may be depicting the society’s predominant view of woman and, perhaps, presenting an alternative view. His portrayal of her as a possible alternative to nirvanic release may serve as a compensatory image for a society which traditionally views woman as the seductress or enchantress who keeps the aspiring yogi enchained to the world of the senses and of desire.4 In all likelihood, however, Bhartrihari was unaware of this, continually vacillating on his view of the anima and struggling to understand her. Perhaps the time was right for the anima to begin insisting on being portrayed in her positive aspect and chose Bhartrihari as her vehicle.
Indeed, he seems utterly possessed by her right up through the end of Passionate Encounters and into his third book, Refuge in the Forest. From depression to frustration and anger, he exhibits the full range of anima moods (von Franz 186), at one moment giving up all hope of breaking from her orbit and achieving enlightenment: “Who can really forsake the hips/ of beautiful women bound/ with girdles of ruby jewels?” (#147, 82). At another moment, enraged at her power over him, he reduces her to images of the scatological: “...her face, a vile receptacle of phlegm...her thighs, dank with urine...Mark how this despicable form/ is flourished by the poets” (# 159, 87). Even well into book three, he can “choose no single course” (# 172, 91), vacillating between courting beautiful women and pursuing the life of the religious ascetic. While we would certainly misread Bhartrihari to suggest that he ever fully integrates the anima, we can argue that he seems to make his peace with her, for she relinquishes her position at center stage in his consciousness and is replaced by another archetypal image by the end of book three, that of the divine couple and the ascetic’s quiet and peaceful forest--the archetypal Self.
According to the theory of Individuation, once one has more or less made one’s peace with the shadow and anima, the Self--the harmonizing archetypal force--begins to emerge in various dream symbols including the divine child, the savior figure, the cosmic man, or a circular symbol called a mandala or magic circle. Jung borrowed this term from the Sanskrit, evidence that he drew upon Indian religion and philosophy to confirm what he was observing in some of his patients’ dreams: “The Self operates as the unconscious inner core of an individual’s being, as the ultimate principle of harmony and unity. Perhaps inspired by the Hindu term “Atman” (literally “Self” in Sanskrit), which designates the transpersonal oneness of identity for all beings...Jung calls this new center the Self...” (Walker, Jung 84). As the “superordinate factor in a system in which the ego is subordinate,” (Singer 210) the Self is the center of consciousness itself as well as all the other archetypes.
Significantly, in book three of Bhartrihari’s work, we hear the voices of books one and two--of the shadow-projecting cynic and the anima-possessed lover--intermixed throughout. In #166 he chides the king for being proud and arrogant while extolling his own selflessness, yet two poems later he reports that he has been “boasting about [his] own virtues” (90) to impress the aristocracy. This time, however, Bhartrihari is more aware of the shadow and of his own tendencies toward pride, for in this same poem he is ashamed of his boasting and chastises himself for his failing: a Buddhist monk bragging about his selflessness to the selfish and powerful is, in fact, seeking power himself. That Bhartrihari recognizes this speaks well for him. Indeed, in the first half of the poem, he clearly indicates his understanding of the shadow tendency toward pride and arrogance that is part of human nature: “To cultivate lives as ephemeral/ as droplets on a lotus leaf,/ what do we not stoop to do/ when discrimination fails us?” Discrimination, incidentally, is the ability to distinguish the illusory world of the senses and the ego from the eternal world of the Self. We hear in book three, then, a somewhat less cynical voice or a voice whose cynicism derives from the perspective of one who is transcending the phenomenal world not trying to change it.
And though the mysterious female form is also still present in book three, it seems to give way to a stronger obsession with time and the transience of existence in the last poems. We might explain this as Bhartrihari simply growing older, wiser, more philosophical, or we might attribute the poems in book two to his meditations on the nature of the anima’s appeal throughout books one and two. In commenting on archetypal fields (which would include anima possession), Jungian analyst Mary Stamper notes that “if one does get in it, this sensitivity could allow one to leave the field [or grow out of it] before getting in so far that its power is overwhelming...We might say that reflection decreases one’s susceptibility to the field” (Stamper 6). By book three, he has shifted emphasis away from the anima and toward the Self. We hear a less obsessed, more philosophically detached voice. In # 171, for example, the feminine appears not as seductress, as we might expect, but as Kali, the goddess of both fertility and death: “Time plays a frenzied game with Kali,/ his partner in destruction” (91). Time in this poem would be the god of time Kala, Kali’s consort; hence, Bhartrihari now perceives the feminine from a much wider perspective as a part of the cosmic game of birth and death:
“Kali is one of the many names of Sakti: the names descriptive of the creative power are the feminine forms of the words pertaining to the many aspects and functions of the unitive godhead:...Kali...derived from Kala...define[s] the creative aspect of the One. In iconography this concept is imaged as Ardhanarisvara--the Lord whose one half is woman. Siva and Sakti [Kala and Kali] are therefore one indivisible whole” (Rajan 23).
Bhartrihari’s vision of the divine play of the creative reality of the goddess which manifests the eternal, changeless reality represented in the god suggests he is no longer held captive by the anima but has envisioned the Self:
“Because this symbol represents that which is whole and complete, it is often conceived of as a bisexual being. In this form the symbol reconciles one of the most important pairs of psychological opposites--male and female. This union also appears in dreams as a divine, royal, or otherwise distinguished couple” (von Franz 216).
In the last poems, Bhartrihari shifts even further away from political concerns and desire for the collective feminine form, focusing more and more on Siva and Brahman, the eternal aspect of existence: “If you men perceive your deeper selves,/ then reach toward Brahman boundless,/ enduring, remote, and pervading;/ and it shall follow that/ power and pleasure in the world/ will seem the obsessions of wretched fools” (# 188, 98). The “deeper self” which the poet refers to here is Brahman--the primordial energy source from which forms come into being and back into which they must return. Like other classical Sanskrit poets, Bhartrihari enacts a “transference of authority to a voice beyond Time, to ‘the voice of Silence’ that shaped the universe...” (Rajan 24). For Bhartrihari this silence is imagined as “a sylvan silence...a forest where no echoes sound” (# 181, 95). In her new book Sounding the Soul: The Art of Listening, Jungian analyst and author Mary Lynn Kittelson links the auditory experience of the archetypal Self to the three thousand year old claim in the Hindu Vedas that the phenomenal world emanated (and emanates from) the primordial sound, a sound which the Buddhists interpreted as OM, the source of all sounds which is in and of itself absent of distinct sound (qtd. in McFadden 15). This is the primordial silence which Bhartrihari imagines as the perfectly still and quiet forest-- “where no echoes sound.” In these last poems, we hear the poet’s final voice--that of a teacher giving counsel to “you men” (#188, 98) or students to meditate on this forest silence, on Brahman, as a way of transcending not only worldly politics but one’s own fears and desires as well. Hence, it would appear he has completed his quest for release from the compulsions of the archetypes.
Nevertheless, our comparison of Bhartrihari’s spiritual progression throughout Satakatraya to Jung’s process of individuation presents certain difficulties which should be noted, for individuation differs significantly from the Buddhist quest for nirvana in several ways. First, the goals in each quest appear to be quite different. Through individuation one is to recognize and understand “one’s unique psychological reality, including strengths and limitations...It leads to the experience of the Self as the regulating center of the psyche” (Sugg 422). In other words, it is the process of breaking free of the archetypes’ influence and projections and achieving a psychological balance so as to re-enter society and function in a healthy and productive manner. The Buddhist, on the other hand, seeks liberation from society, politics, desires, and fears; to him these all contribute to attachment to the grand illusion of samsara, the wheel of suffering in which humans are perpetually reborn. Reality rests in the mystical state of nirvana whereas the goal of individuation lies in self understanding and acceptance. Consequently, we may question the comparison of the archetypal Self to the Indian notion of Atman. While the Self represents the totality of an individual psyche, Atman represents both the individual soul and the mystical, divine, universal self and the paradox that the two are indeed one. Finally, we should note that Bhartrihari’s progression, whether psychological or spiritual, is far from perfect or complete. He frequently complains about social and political injustice as well as his bewitchment by the female form throughout his third and final book.
Jungian theory, however, is flexible enough to allow us to more or less address each of these criticisms. Frequently, Jungians point out that individuation is not a simple linear progression toward self understanding. It is difficult and often frightening to attempt to reclaim all those split off aspects of the psyche, and “it is rare for anyone to realize it [individuation] completely” (Walker, Jung 33). Sometimes, however, in the midst of reflecting on one’s own compulsions and projections, one may catch a glimpse of the archetypal Self as in a dream a divine child or savior figure might appear in the midst of a battlefield or dungeon. The Self, furthermore, is not simply representative of one’s unique psychic reality as Jungians frequently claim; it is an archetype and by definition part of the collective unconscious. Hence, much like the Atman, it represents the harmonizing factor in one’s individual psyche as well as within the collective psyche of the society or even the human race. Savior images such as Christ, Buddha, Krishna, etc. appear in dream as do images of Abe Lincoln, Martin Luther King, or even one’s nephew or wise old grandfather: all serve the same function--to harmonize and unify split-off parts of the psyche (individual or collective). Finally, who is to say that like the nirvanic experience the experience of the Self in dream is not mystical in nature, at least within the dream’s reality? And in that experience, is not one liberated at least for a moment from worldly concerns and desires? While it is true that important differences still exist between individuation and Indian yoga, the similarities are compelling enough to argue for Jungian criticism as the most productive approach to studying classical Eastern literature.
1. The fact that Bhartrihari was a poet in the fifth century Gupta court might lead us to believe a historical or Marxian reading applies best. D.D. Kosambi, the famed Marxian Sanskrit scholar and critic, blasted practically all of Sanskrit literature as the product of a caste system whose primary means of production was the exploitation and oppression of India’s starving masses:
The subtle mystic philosophies...[and] ornate literature...of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen un-coordinated discontent among the workers, the general demoralisation, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, the one is the expression of the other. (qtd. in Goldman)
Nevertheless, as Goldman astutely notes, Kosambi ironically praised Bhartrihari in critical editions of his poetry, poetry which exemplified for Kosambi “the elitist cultural expression which he so soundly indict[ed]” (Goldman 137). Perhaps it was Bhartrihari’s first work, Among Fools and Kings, which drew Kosambi, for here the poet soundly criticizes the court system of which he was a part. In lyric 25, Bhartrihari sees moksa (liberation) as the great social equalizer: “Cast noble birth to hell!/ All the virtues even lower!...Leave us free to win that wealth/ without which all these merits/ count as worthless bits of straw!” (Miller, 40). His ironic voice is clear in lyric 51 where he sees all apparent virtues and talents arising from a privileged social position: “A man of wealth is held to be high-born,/ wise, scholarly, discerning;/ eloquent, and even handsome--/ all virtues are accessories to gold!” (Miller 49). Later in this work, he even seems to praise the contributions of the lower, middle, and priestly classes over the Bourgeoisie in lyric 71: “...the skill these people/ have in their arts is the basis of society” (Miller 56). A compassionate and bitter tone may be heard here as well. These classes are the means of production for the society, yet the implication is that they enjoy few or none of its fruits. Passages such as these perhaps reveal Bhartrihari’s appeal for Kosambi, but they also make it difficult to see the poet as a propagandist for the ruling caste, which is how Kosambi also characterized him. Kosambi himself realized this contradiction, seeing Bhartrihari “as [a poet] of frustration who offer[s] at most an “escape,” but no “solution” to the grinding contradictions of [his] own [society]” (Goldman 140). From a Marxian perspective, then, Bhartrihari is something of an enigma--a court poet who, as part of a caste system which exploited millions, writes for royalty and the ruling classes yet undercuts them, it would seem, when he has the chance. To more fully appreciate his literary and theoretical contributions, we must look elsewhere.
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McFadden, Kirsten. “Sounding the Soul.” Rev. of Sounding the Soul: The Art of Listening, by Mary Lynn Kittelson. The Round Table Review of Contemporary Contributions to Jungian Psychology. IV. 4 May/June, 1997: 15-16.
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