22 Oct 2008

Manasi Pahwa's correspondence: Letter #1 from Manasi

[This is the first of three letters exchanged between Manasi Pahwa and Peter Heehs. This letter was originally written to the Ashram Trustees and was passed on by them to Peter for his comments.]

Subject: Gross errors in Peter Heehs' book: 'The Lives of Sri Aurobindo' from the point of view of psychology, science and objectivity.

The book by Peter Heehs has made itself open to the possibility that

"… those familiar with the literature of psychiatry and clinical psychology may be struck by the similarity between Aurobindo's powers and experiences and the symptoms of schizophrenia…. When I speak of Aurobindo's experiences, my aim is not to argue for their veracity or for their delusiveness" [quoted from PH's book]

Since, Peter claims that he is a historian and yet prefers to use psychological terms and even quotes a psychologist or two, it became inevitable that I address him. As Peter 'claims' he is a historian, so can I 'claim' to be a psychologist, since I have been a student of psychology and a scientific researcher like him, for the past 8 years now.

As a student of psychology, it is necessary that we study all the schools of thought existing in psychology from its very origin. Hence, I can 'claim' that I am well-versed in the field of psychology to give a rejoinder to Peter Heehs' comments on Sri Aurobindo's psychological state.

First and fore-most, I would like to say, that any kind of mystical experience was looked upon with suspicion in psychology, as psychology drew most of its philosophy from psychiatry a medical field, and also since it suffered from an inferiority complex from the natural sciences, it restricted its scope of "normal experience" to outwardly visible behavior. Hence only the behavior pattern that could be tested on animals was acceptable as normal human behavior. Anything beyond the scope of animal experimentation was considered abnormal.

Then emerged Freudian or Psychoanalytic Psychology, which accepted unconscious motives as the driving force behind all human behavior. The origin of psychoanalysis can be traced to around the 1890s. Psychoanalysis considered all mystical experiences to be a sign of psychopathology, hence the terms schizophrenia, delusions, regression, etc have been used to describe such experiences.

Mystical experiences have been interpreted as regressions to union with the breast, ecstatic states viewed as narcissistic neurosis, enlightenment dismissed as regression to intrauterine stages, and meditation seen as self-induced catatonia.

I will now describe in a little detail the terms schizophrenia, delusions, and hallucinations.

Schizophrenia is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a mental disorder characterized by abnormalities in the perception or expression of reality. It most commonly manifests as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions or disorganized speech and thinking in the context of significant social or occupational dysfunction.

A hallucination, in the broadest sense, is a perception in the absence of a stimulus. In a stricter sense, hallucinations are defined as perceptions in a conscious and awake state in the absence of external stimuli which have qualities of real perception, in that they are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space. It may be noted that all hallucinations are not considered pathological, even in medical psychiatry.

A delusion is commonly defined as a fixed false belief and is used in everyday language to describe a belief held with conviction and not shared by others, that is either false, fanciful or derived from deception. However to determine these beliefs cultural considerations have to be taken. In psychiatry, the definition is necessarily more precise and implies that the belief is pathological (the result of an illness or illness process).

True these disorders exist in the medical books and in real life. But one of the major and extremely important characteristic of these disorders which Peter seems to have willfully overlooked is that it causes one to lose touch with reality and it affects their day to day functioning. If the esteemed trustees wish so, I can show them the symptomatology of Schizophrenia as enumerated by DSM-IV, and then leave it on them to decide if the statements Peter has made have any foundation in psychiatry or clinical psychology or if it is a generalized statement to suit his purpose of sensationalizing and fulfilling the needs of a certain kind of public.

Now, the very obvious question that arises is that: "Would someone suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations and delusions be able to write 35 volumes of books. Interpret the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita……???? Schizophrenia is also characterized by ramblings of a broken mind with no coherence in speech and writing. In fact, if seen from the perspective of Carl Rogers Humanistic perspective, all of Sri Aurobindo's works prove him to be 'Fully Functioning Person'. A fully functioning person is described as:

  • Away from facades.
  • Away from oughts.
  • Away from meeting expectations.
  • Away from pleasing others.
  • Towards self-direction and autonomy.
  • Towards Being process: towards being process, is a process of potentialities being born, rather than being or becoming some fixed goal.
  • Towards Being complexity: all the richness and complexity with nothing feared and nothing hidden.
  • Towards acceptance of others.
  • Towards openness to experience.
  • Towards trust of self.

Would Sri Aurobindo's writings even if minutely examined be considered as ramblings of a broken mind with no coherence? If so, then why is it being read world wide? The sales of books at SABDA and VAK should answer this question by default.

Would such a person be aware of the day-to day functioning not only of the ashram, but of the country and the world???? I don't think I need to quote Sri Aurobindo's words on the political state of the country when the Cripps' Mission was sent to India leaders (an extremely powerful example of his political insight); and the world during World War II.

These questions are self-explanatory and do not need further tedious scientific examination.

Another point that our dear historian venturing into the world of psychology seems to have forgotten is that psychoanalysis has become outdated world-wide. "Sorry sir, I don't know your age but I guess you forgot to update yourself after you turned 10 years of age."

Modern psychology accepted spiritual experiences way back when the humanistic era emerged in psychology, with Maslow himself describing his "peak experiences" which were similar to spiritual experiences of the mental world. In fact, even Jung who broke away from Freud acknowledges the realm of spiritual experiences as a reality of a psychological kind.

Why, may I ask has Peter not quoted any of the modern psychologists like Maslow, Assiagioli, Grof, Washburn and many other reputed Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologists who not only acknowledge the existence of spiritual experiences but in fact have delved into the concept of cosmic consciousness in great depth? Is it that according to Peter these experiences are true if they occur to others but false and pathological if experienced by Sri Aurobindo? Is this book some kind of personal vendetta against Sri Aurobindo?

As a biographer he says, the first person account is considered to be unacceptable as a factual document because it is non-scientific. Strange, because psychology, sociology, anthropology all these social sciences accept first person accounts as scientific and is called auto-ethnography. In fact, Sri Aurobindo's every single experience is validated from the point of Autoethnography. Let Peter update himself before venturing into an area of which he seems to know next to nothing.

Every one of Sri Aurobindo's experience that has been experienced by mystics world wide, why only mystics every follower of yoga who has had spiritual experiences is the data against which Sri Aurobindo's data stands scrutiny and passes with flying colors. Described below are the five interrelated kinds of validity (in psychological parlance) proposed by C. T. Fischer (2006) that can be used as the basis on which Sri Aurobindo's experiences can be proved to be valid.

Unfortunately for Peter, he has himself given me the data to prove that Sri Aurobindo's experiences as valid. Here I quote from Peter's book:

"His experiences were similar to those described in the Puranas…."

He may talk about hagiography and biography, but he definitely cannot pass absolutely any comments about Sri Aurobindo's mental health and I sincerely request you to ask him to withdraw any statement s he has made regarding the validity of Sri Aurobindo's experiences and his mental health, because the entire foundation on which he draws these conclusions collapses in the face of the existing models of psychology and psychological research.

I will be sending a copy of this letter to his publishers questioning the 'veracity' of Peter's scientific research and knowledge in the field of Psychology, and also requesting them to pull back the books to make the necessary changes.

Peter has paid a lot of respect to the school of psychoanalysis, since he has almost picked psychoanalytic phrases "consciously-unconsciously" that one wonders.

"In the imaginary world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner." [quoted from PH's book from his reaction to Sri Aurobindo's poem: Viziers of Bassora]
"If his earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him." [quoted from PH's book from his reaction to Sri Aurobindo's play Vasavadutta]

Freud coined a term called Oedipal Complex drawn from the story of Oedipus and his lust for his own mother which led him to kill his father so that he could marry his own mother. According to Freud most boys developed an oedipal complex in their childhood which gets resolved with time and transferred to a large extent to his wife.

Now Peter seems to have very obtusely used this complex for describing Sri Aurobindo's search for a partner since he had an unfulfilled sense of love both from his mother who was "mad" and his wife.

Here I use this opportunity to explain to Peter, that even modern psychoanalysts do not accept this explanation any more. And the corresponding Electra complex that Freud described in girls was vehemently rejected by his own daughter Anna Freud, Karen Horney and all Neo-Freudians. According to H. Eysenk, "psychoanalysis must be regarded as a failure. We are left with nothing but imaginary interpretations of pseudo-events, therapeutic failures, illogical and inconsistent theories, erroneous 'insights' of no proven value, and a dictatorial and intolerant group of followers insistent not on truth but on propaganda."

Since Peter has so 'wisely' analyzed Sri Aurobindo's poems, essays and plays to be out-dated I am surprised how he forgot to update his own knowledge of psychology before using such psychological terms so freely. Since he states very clearly that he is being thoroughly objective and scientific, he should be very very alert when using scientific parlance and not use it like a lay-person would. This leads me to question the 'veracity' of his objectivity and scientificism. If you the trustees wish so, I could send you the definitions of 'Objectivity' and 'Scientificism' as used by mainstream Science today, and you can see for yourself if he has been objective and scientific or has merely passed personal comments and judgments in the guise of scientific research.

I am writing this letter not under the sway of any emotions, instead I wished to point out to you the errors of this book, focusing only on the psychological part of which I can speak with some authority, and I request you to get this book off the market before it does any damage. This book is full of gross errors on the part of the writer and is extremely biased. That such a book has hit the market would put the Ashram's reputation in grave danger. It would openly offer material to the outdated psychoanalysts to willfully malign the Ashram and Sri Aurobindo using extracts from Peter's book. Therefore, I kindly request you to look into the matter and ask Peter to withdraw the book as it is done without the least care and caution that such a work deserves.

Yours truly,

Manasi Pahwa.
PhD. Scholar,
Department of Psychology
University of Delhi.

[The next in sequence of the three letters is PH's reply to Manasi here.]

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