The Ascent of the Spirit
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: Human Individuality and Its Functional Features

The psychological structure of the human being is responsible for the instinctive urges, loves, passions, etc., manifest in the personality. Here, however, it has to be remembered that the mind-stuff, which is the repository of all psychological functions, does not work absolutely independent of the physical conditions of the body through which it operates. The physical, chemical and vital processes which determine the existence and function of the bodily organism have a great influence upon the workings of the mind, or the mind-stuff. That is, the studies of Biology have some relevance to those in the field of Psychology. Setting apart for the time being the extravagant demands of the Behaviourist school that psychological functions are only the effects of the exudations from the brain cells and the nervous structure of the body—a rank materialist approach to things—we may safely agree that the bodily functions have something to say in the matter of the functions of the mind. It is not unknown that serious physiological disorders can affect mental functions, even as excesses or deformities in the mental functions can affect bodily conditions. Biology and psychology are in a way sister sciences, one contributing to the other in a considerable measure. Enthusiastic zealots of the biological principles have gone to the extent of denying all originality to mind and consciousness and attributing all reality to the vital process alone, an elan vital. This, again, seems to be an extravagance of human enthusiasm, for a life process, even the elan vital, cannot produce mind or consciousness as its effect, for consciousness is never seen to be an effect of anything. In order that consciousness may be regarded as an effect, its cause must have consciousness present in itself implicitly, which would mean that the cause is potential consciousness, and it would then be pointless to say that the consciousness is an effect. Unconscious causes cannot produce conscious results, unless these unconscious causes themselves are hidden forms of consciousness. Biology is contributory to the higher studies in the progress of the evolution of life and is not a water-tight compartment holding all reality within itself alone. Botany or the study of plant life, zoology or the study of animal life, and anatomy and physiology or the study of the human organism, are comprehended in the science of Biology. The instincts for self-preservation and self-reproduction are the most insistent of the urges that manifest themselves in the plant, animal and human kingdoms. It is not without some truth that it is said that life sleeps in inorganic mater, breathes in plants, dreams in animals and wakes up in human beings. The study of biology cannot be completely separated from a knowledge of the basic principles of psychology, because the human organism has always behaved as a complex psycho-physical substance, with a mutual action and reaction between the bodily functions and the operations of the mental faculties. The theory of the Behaviourists that psychic functions are motivated by physiological reflexes and activities cannot be accepted since it is difficult for anyone to conclude that thought can evolve from matter. It is also not acceptable that body and mind are two entirely distinct realms of being with no interaction between them. Utter dualism hopelessly fails. Also, the theory of parallelism of movement and action by the mind and the body is also unintelligible, since parallels are not known to meet, at least in any empirical experience of the kind in geometry, and so, then, there would be no correspondence between the mind and the body, between thought and the physiological functions. It has never been an easy question for anyone to answer, as to what sort of relation there is between the mind and the body.

Biology and psychology are united in modern medical science for the reason that the behaviours of the body and the mind have not been found to be capable of being distinguished on scientific grounds. Rather, it was easily discoverable that the one tells upon the other in a certain manner and in a given type of intensity. We thus hear these days of what are known as psychosomatic conditions requiring a similar technique of handling them. The body-mind-complex is usually regarded as a single phase of human life, and biology and psychology again come out as two aspects of a single subject of study.

The solution to the problem of the relation between the mind and the body is perhaps to be sought in a deeper study of the sources of the human organism itself. Investigations in the field of astrophysics and the science of life at the biological level have revealed that the human individual is a developed form of what was originally a united substance, call it an atom or cell. In this primordial condition of existence it would be impossible to draw line between matter and consciousness, between body and mind, for here existence appears to be at the stage of an indistinguishable and subtle mass of mystery. Is it not a wonder that poetic genius, scientific acumen and philosophic wisdom which shake the world of mankind with their force of impact and power of conviction, should be hidden latently in a microscopic cellular form of sperm or gene or chromosome? How could one explain the presence of a mighty and wide-spreading banyan tree in an insignificantly small seed thereof? Could the origin of thought and the origin of the body be identical in its structure and formation? Would it be that the body and the mind are only two facets of the same crystal of an original reality, the two eyes of a single observing individual? How else is one to conceive reasonably that eluding relation between the mind and the body, which should make one hesitate even to use the term ‘and’ between them? This is precisely the answer we would get, whether we follow the scientist and accept his theory that from the nebular cosmic dust the galaxies, the solar systems, the earth, plant, animal and men are formed, or whether we listen to the doctrine of the Vedanta that from the Universal Compound of isvara, hiranyagarbha and virat, in which there was no distinction between matter and consciousness, body and mind, everything down to the blade of grass and the grain of sand on the ocean’s shore has been made manifest.

The chemistry of elements and of a living body, known as inorganic and organic chemistry, also may be said to be closely associated with biological functions. This fact is brought to high relief in the effects produced by the administering of chemically manufactured drugs into the human system and the chemical effect of organic substances introduced into the body of a human being. Here again we have revealed before us the mystery of the inter-relationship obtaining among chemical, biological and psychological functions. The bifurcation of these sciences into independent subjects unconnected with one another would thus be not proper. Chemistry is the study of the character of the molecular substances constituting the building bricks of all substances—earth, water, fire and air—whether these are studied in the external world or through the individual bodies they form by different permutations and combinations. Chemistry is also the science of the mutual reactions produced by substances when they are combined in a given proportion. Though the science of life does not appear to feel the necessity to pay any appreciable attention to the subject of chemical action and reaction of substances, whether inorganic or organic, it is hard to believe that the chemistry of the body has no relevance to its biological functions and incidentally to the psychological factors in an individual. As we go further and deeper, we would realise that every subject of study is connected with every other, all which are equally indispensable from one point of view or the other.

In the context of the psychological development of the human individual, in its relation to its biological features, it is essential to review those significant processes through which the individual passes in his evolutionary development and which may be regarded as inseparable from the human individual himself, basically. The biological life may be said to commence immediately from the seeds provided by the physical features and characteristics of the individual, so that the earliest stage of biological life, as far as the human being is concerned, is a sort of ‘brute consciousness’ scarcely separable from a kind of inanimate existence with premonitions of the dawn of a coming age of living and moving in the organic world. In this condition, consciousness may be said to be buried so deep in the material vesture that it would be practically impossible to decipher even its very existence. May we compare it to a state of sleep where consciousness is incipient? Perhaps, so. Like the huge banyan tree subtly lying latent in the tiny seed, the entire complexity of human existence lies potentially in the seed of future development.

A further ascent of life, in the next stage, is characterised by an instinctive capacity to react to external stimuli for the purpose of self-preservation, as may be usually seen in plant life or in the lower species of living bodies, such as the insect or the earthworm, whose life can with difficulty be called a life of consciousness at all in the proper sense of the term. A further push of the urge of life manifests itself as a deliberate tendency to self-preservation, which may be said to be the crudest form of personal selfishness, whose intention is merely to preserve oneself as a physical individual even at the cost of other such individuals, even if it may mean the death of others for the preservation of one’s own life. Rudimentary forms of this tendency can be seen in the vegetable kingdom and in the wild life of animals.

Life’s urge is incomplete without the pressure towards self-reproduction which goes hand in hand with the desire to preserve one’s individuality. The great drama of empirical life, in any level of its manifestation in the phenomenal realms, may be summed up in the impetuous activity of the twin forces of self-preservation and self-reproduction. Like the right hand and the left hand of a single person, these two forces press forward parallelly to fulfil the great purpose of the diversifying nature. In man, the crowning phase of the evolving species, self-consciousness, intellect and reason reveal themselves.

But, man is also an animal, though a social one, and he cannot be said to be free from the urges of the lower biological stages through which he has passed to come to the human level. Strictly speaking, human nature, as distinguished from the animal, in its pure and simple form, should be regarded as that special prerogative and character which considers other individuals as equivalent to one’s own self, both in weakness and in strength, in one’s present needs and future aspirations—a character that may be called humane. But the man of the world does not represent in himself this form of unadulterated humanity, as might be expected from his being the much esteemed homo sapiens. Human nature, as it is revealed in personal life and public activity, is mixed up with the features of the lower levels. This is the glory of man as well as his foible. An analysis of the biological and psychological structure of the human individual would show that he can sleep like a brute, be selfish like a beast, yield to passions with demoniacal pleasure, and assert his ego in as intolerable a manner as could be conceived. Not only this, there is that dangerous operative faculty in man called the intellect which can act as a double-edged sword, cutting both ways. It is this strange feature of the human understanding that employs a weapon as its trump card in the form of a ‘rationalisation’ of the passions, urges and instincts of the lower nature. For instance: “If I get angry, I do it for a righteous cause. If I exhibit an inordinate love or attachment to anyone, it is a ‘Platonic’ sympathy of love that I manifest in a divine manner. If I wreak revenge on someone, it is in the interest of justice and fair play, for the purpose of social peace and common good. If I attack another, it is for self-defense, which is obviously a justifiable reason. The defective, the ugly and the erroneous are engendered by factors outside, beyond one’s control, while one honestly tries to be reasonable, just, serviceful and good in a harmonious manner.” Apart from these blatant forms of self-justification and rationalisation of instincts, there are several other generalised shapes of the ‘defence mechanisms’ of the mind, employed for the preservation of the psycho-physical organism and for its perpetuation through the species.

The ‘self-consciousness of man’ is the principle of the ego and individuality. Researches in psychology have revealed that living beings below the human level lack self-consciousness in the intensity in which it blossoms itself in man. It is this specific reason which explains the incapacity of the sub-human species to conduct logical processes of induction and deduction in daily affairs, remember the past and anticipate the future in a mathematical and logical form, as man does. But, this special endowment raising man above the subhuman level, also at the same time, acts as a serious obstacle to leading a harmonious life with other people, especially. For, self-consciousness is often blended with egoism of an autocratic nature, which refuses to give due credit to people around and delights in affirming its supremacy over others. Metaphysicians explain that egoism is an unfortunate product of a mutual superimposition between consciousness and the principle of individuality, which on the one side lifts up the banner of the indisputable supremacy of consciousness, and the separatist tendency of individuality on the other.

The psycho-biological organism is afflicted with hunger and thirst, heat and cold, fatigue and sleep. These concomitants of the organic individuality persist in all living beings, right up to the human level, so that, in respect of these characteristics of the organism, man is one with the lower species. The cause of these instinctive reactions of the body-mind-complex is obviously a type of self-consciousness, latent or patent, which cuts off the individual from the cosmic forces of Nature. It should follow from this understanding of the reason behind these natural sufferings of the individual that the greater the intensity of one’s self-consciousness the more also is the suffering and the pain, and the lesser the intensity thereof the greater is the sense of freedom from the pain of dependence on externals. The psycho-physical nature of man as an individual or an isolated unit would be enough explanation of the nature of the ‘original sin’ due to which the angelic Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden. This is the story of the ‘Paradise Lost’, that fateful epic of the ‘primordial fall’ occasioned by the soul’s revolt against the Absolute.

The greed for name, fame, power and authority is an essential part of the ego of man, such that these may be regarded as the ingredients of human nature in general. The urge of the ego for standing above others in all possible aspects is a subtle artifice contrived by the distorted consciousness in affirming its universal subjectivity and lordship through the media of space, time and objectivity. Hence, the ego, with its craze for fame, power and authority, may be rightly regarded as a disease of consciousness which struggles under the delirium of an illusion that it is pursuing a praiseworthy end while, in fact, in the manifestation of such desires, it is only exhibiting a headlong rush towards the precipice of bondage and sorrow. Side by side, the phenomenon of death pursues the individual like a shadow, and freedom from this unfortunate end-result of all human endeavour does not become possible until individuality itself is retrieved from the basic error of the false notion that it is even possible to conceive such a thing as one’s separation from the Absolute. Death is inseparably connected with rebirth, and is a natural corollary of one’s involvement in the complex of space-time-objectivity. It is the fear of death that compels one to protect oneself against external attack, internal disharmony and the insecurity characteristic of the unknown future that is awaiting everyone in the history of evolution.

Self-consciousness does not end with itself as a final achievement in the evolutionary process but manifests difficulties of an unforeseen nature. The affirmation of individuality is simultaneous with the perception of other persons and things as objects to oneself. And this phenomenon is perhaps the most difficult one to understand; for, the perception of an object by a subject is not merely a bare ‘awareness’ of something outside the subject but it involves a positive ‘judgment’ which the subject passes upon the object. This judgment is always a decree proclaimed under the auspices of the fundamental laws framed by the constitution of the subject itself, according to its own structure, aims and objects. This judgment would imply that all change and error, disharmony and discrepancy should be attributed to the object rather than the subject, because the subject cannot see these defects in itself, it being the vehicle of that supernal consciousness which can brook no rival, disorder, ugliness or defect of any kind. Thus, the very act of the perception of an object implies an opposition with the object, explaining perhaps why two persons cannot be friends for all time to come. For permanent friendship between two persons would require an unchangeable affinity of character between the subject and the object, which should be an utter impossibility, for the subject can never become the object, nor the object the subject. This ‘cold war’ between the perceiving centre and the perceived form outside remains in a state of imperceptible ebullition of condition until it breaks out into an actual war wherein the subject decides upon the destruction of the object; for the existence of the object is a perpetual violation of and a threat to the independence and supremacy of the subject. Humanity does not need a better commentary on itself.

But how is this possible? Can anyone harbour in one’s bosom a desire to annihilate the other and be at peace with oneself? Naturally, the answer is a ‘no’. But, then, what happens to the impossibility of the subject to tolerate the presence of the object, for reasons well-known? The subject strikes a via media and reconciles itself with the only possible course left: destroy not the ‘object’ itself, but the ‘independence’ of the object, by making it either a part of the very being of the subject, as in love, or subservient to the subject, as in the exercise of power and authority. Where this cultured attitude of a psychological compromise which calls for a shrewd adjustment of oneself with others is lacking in individuals of a baser nature, in whom the lower levels of life have still an upper hand, the intolerance of the presence of the object which defies one’s personal cravings may even precipitate into a desire for the physical destruction of the object. Here we have the true ‘phenomenon of man’, wherein are hidden the seeds of mankind’s strife and of human restlessness, so glaringly seen in present-day society.