Additional Thoughts about Ramana Maharshi and C.G. Jung (6/7/11)

Re-reading Ramana Maharshi’s little book[1]—which I have done periodically since I first discovered the book at an ‘esoteric’ bookstore in 1977—always presents baffling questions to me. In a number of ways it is deeper and far more radical in its claims than Jung’s, Plato’s, Hillman’s, or even Nietzsche’s. Perhaps the point of greatest divergence from Jung and Nietzsche is RM’s firm and uncompromising position towards the ego, or ‘I’ consciousness. For him, the ego is an utter illusion and it is the ‘one big thing’ obstructing the path to Self-realization, happiness, and bliss. Jung and Nietzsche, while they are not at all naïve about humans’ capacity for self-deception (and the crucial role played by the ego in this business), do not preach or recommend the annihilation of the ego by means of radical self-enquiry, as Ramana does.

For Jung, without ego-consciousness there cannot be true moral conscience and responsibility—and to dispense with these is to become sub- rather than super-human. The ego provides a crucial two-fronted defense against outer world seductions and threats, on the one side, and potentially overwhelming unconscious inner drives and impulses, on the other. But it is not merely a defensive factor; it is also integrative and assimilative on those same two, inner and outer, fronts. Jung does not make a simple equation between the inner world of the unconscious and ‘God’ (or the ‘Self’)—as such—as Ramana appears to do. Or, if Jung does recognize parallels between the unconscious (as it is perceived via its phenomenology) and a God-image, it comes much closer to the God-image of the morally ambiguous Old Testament Yahweh than to the All-good and All-forgiving God-image of the New Testament. At any event, the idea of annihilating the ego—if such a feat is even possible—and identifying with a God-image, any God-image, constitutes a kind of madness for Jung—or, at the very least, a dangerous inflation which invites a compensatory deflation by the unconscious.

To be fair to Ramana Maharshi, ‘morality’ as it is conventionally understood (or mis-understood) is irrelevant to the Self (or atman), as the very notion of a ‘doer’ or agent is obliterated in ‘final liberation.’ There is a kind of ‘Catch-22’ or inescapable paradox to this divergence between Jung and Ramana Maharshi, which may stem from their fundamentally incommensurable vantage points. Since Jung is viewing these questions from the standpoint of the ego, or ‘I’-consciousness, and Ramana has presumably transcended ego-consciousness and speaks from the standpoint of atman, it follows that their views must diverge. (Moreover, since I am still ordinarily bound within ‘illusory’ ego-consciousness, it stands to reason that I am likely, under normal conditions, to find Jung’s stated position more persuasive—since it proceeds from a psychological standpoint with which I am all too familiar.) Ego-consciousness is, by its very nature, discriminating consciousness—as Jung repeatedly informs us—while the ecstatic, mystical awareness of the sage is not. What we have here is something vaguely analogous to the difference between the Apollonian and the Dionysian modes of consciousness, as famously described by Nietzsche in his Birth of Tragedy.

The liberation that Ramana Maharshi speaks of is liberation from the pairs of opposites—those very syzygies and polarities from which ego consciousness is generated. Jung’s chief concern, in the more advanced stages of the individuation process, is the reconciliation or balancing of the various pairs of opposites. This problem of the opposites is the focus of his attention in perhaps his magnum opus, The Mysterium Coniunctionis. What are being conjoined are the pairs of opposites. But, paradoxically, the idea of the ego reconciling the opposites from which it is generated is akin to Baron Münchausen lifting himself out of the quicksand by pulling his own ponytail. The ego does not actively orchestrate the coniunctio; it endures it. One necessarily undergoes a shift in one’s psychic center of gravity during this liberating ordeal, this torturous (from the ego-standpoint) crucifixion of the illusory self as the true Self incarnates from the background. The stronger and deeper the attachment to the world of literal forms and to the ego’s accomplishments and holdings, the more painful the process of renunciation, those ‘purgatorial’ fires that burn away the ligaments binding the jiva to the realm of maya.


Another way of presenting RM’s ‘Who am I?’ enquiry (the method of dissolving the ego for which he is best known) is to explore the various meanings and interpretations of the phrase ‘seeing through the ego, or I-consciousness.’ The goal here is to gradually and systematically bring about a stable identification with the seer—and to break the identification with the seen or with the modes or means of seeing. RM repeatedly maintains that the Self or Seer is our true nature and happiness is the natural condition of the Self. In the myriad instances of particular individual beings who are ignorant of the one Self behind all the world and its creatures, the Self has become lost, or absorbed, in its projections. As each individual, one by one, breaks the spell of enchantment (of unconscious projection of Self into forms, names, objects), a splinter or spark of the Self is returned to its timeless, absolute source. The individual ego—as a conduit or fiber-optic channel for the light of the Self—has rendered its highest possible service at that point and it ceases henceforth to claim any separate identity for itself. Its very ‘existence’ is seen to have been illusory and insubstantial.

We might think of ego-consciousness as an illusion produced by the confluence of various real elements which are then viewed from a particular vantage point. It is this crucial factor—the particular vantage point of the perceiving subject—that produces the illusion of separate ego-consciousness. An analogy can be found in the rainbow and in the desert mirage, both of which depend for their appearance, upon a combination of real factors and a particular vantage point of the perceiver. In the case of the mirage—hot air, sand, and sunlight, coupled with the angle of vision of the perceiver, create the optical illusion of water, which happens to be a most alluring appearance to anyone in a desert. Likewise, the rainbow—another image of favorable import to the beholder—depends for its appearance upon water droplets in the air and the sun behind the perceiving subject, whose position vis-à-vis these real factors is crucial for the production of the appearance of the rainbow—which is not ‘actually’ there. It exists, like the desert mirage, in the mind of the perceiving subject. According to RM, the human ego, while no more real, at bottom, than a mirage or a rainbow, feels as real to most of us as the rainbow and mirage appear to be real. Those who are ignorant of the actual and perceptual factors at work behind mirages and rainbows are apt to chase and pursue these elusive (and illusive) appearances, while those who know better will remain still and not run after them. They will see ‘non-things’ as mere phenomena or appearances—and not as substantial or real.

Jung may be said to greatly expand the realm of appearances—which can be taken for efficacious or substantive realities—by including psychic contents, fantasy material, and so forth, within the category of empirical phenomena. Does he render an unequivocally positive service to spiritual enlightenment and liberation by making this move—the ‘discovery’ of the objective ‘reality’ of the psyche? From RM’s position, this is a double-edged sword since, for him, ‘Gods’ and all the psychic images that are continually being generated by the psyche are just as unreal and unworthy of our deferential attachment and belief as our bodies are.

In Hillman’s writings the ego ‘feels’ very different—and a good deal ‘lighter’ or more ‘relativized’—than it does in Jung where, despite his repeated efforts to de-reify and de-hypostatize the concept, it still comes off bearing more bulk and heft than Hillman’s, which is explicitly presented as a fiction…a perspective, even. Nietzsche’s concept of the ego, on the other hand, turns out to be just about everything under the sun; a ghost, a kind of membrane or provisional platform between the will-to-power and the world; a mere assemblage of habits (of thought and feeling); an internalized and reified ‘story,’ etc.

In seeing through the ego—an individual ego—into its murky but discernible archetypal background, Hillman has developed an ‘imaginal’ method of relativizing the ego in an impressive manner. By finessing and sussing out the underlying archetypal image or drama that is being played out (usually without one’s conscious awareness of these secretly guiding motifs), Hillman implicitly articulates and psychologically instantiates various topoi out of which the ego—any ego—emerges like a plant out of its soil.


After watching the 73 minute documentary about Ramana Maharshi’s life and teachings (on Google video), I am moved to ponder how much wider the reach of the sage’s healing wisdom and light might have been if he had bothered to take the ‘network of interconnected caverns’ (my metaphor for the modern global cultural situation —borrowed from Plato and updated) more to heart. Imagine the bridges and corridors he could have constructed and opened up if he had been able to direct the divine light of the Self into that network of dark caverns. Of course, in order to do that he would have had to first acquaint himself with the furnishings, structural features, and points of connection between these caves—along with their respective esoteric and exoteric teachings. This is what the ‘heroic’ Jung attempted, at the very least, along with other notable thinkers like Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, and Mircea Eliade, to name only a few.

At the tender age of sixteen, RM leapt over and beyond the dogmatic bounds of culture—relegating most written and traditional doctrines to the potentially obstructive realm of mayavic illusion. In saying these things, I do not wish to disparage his actual accomplishment, which is undeniably stupendous and indisputably authentic. But there is much, much more to be done if the billions of suffering and confused prisoners huddled and pressed into these culture-caves are to gain a greater measure of inner freedom. This is the obverse side of mysticism—the less attractive side: its characteristic muteness and its sweeping, categorical dismissal of those oppressive or deranged terms and conditions 99.999% of us actually wake up to every day. Perhaps when RM’s ego-personality underwent its dissolution in that moment, early in his extraordinary life, when he became absorbed in Atman, his intellect—while as focused and as potent as a laser beam—was not as well-stocked with learning, literary and cultural knowledge as it would have needed to be in order to produce this very different sort of teacher—and very different sort of path. Do we not see a somewhat similar example in Western culture in the contrast between Jesus and Socrates/Plato?

These two paths—that of the Enlightened Heart and that of the Enlightened Mind—sometimes appear to converge and even to be one and the same. And then, from a slight adjustment of one’s perspective, they appear to be coming at the same questions and problems from radically different directions. But I suspect one must have a capacity for following both of these very different paths in order to see where they converge and where they diverge. Although I show a stronger propensity for the dispassionate and rather cold path of mental illumination, I have a powerful sense for the path of the awakened heart. As we approach the goal of our journey—on either path—the fundamental insights and basic virtues of the ‘other’ path come within our reach, I believe. Seeing and understanding this might prove to be very useful in arbitrating the frequent misunderstandings and tensions that occur between impassioned followers of these two paths that lead to the same goal: abidance in the Self.

[1] The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi; Shambhala Publications; 1972


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