An open letter to a famous
psychoanalyst reveals how scientific
scrutiny fails to illuminate the
characters of God and His devotees.
Dear Professor Erikson*,
[*Erik H. Erikson, an American psychoanalyst and educator, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for Gandhi's Truth: On the Origin of Militant Nonviolence.]
Nearly twenty years ago you wrote a letter to Mahatma Gandhi and published it as a chapter entitled "A Personal Word" in your book Gandhi's Truth. Since "A Personal Word" is an open letter, I'm taking the liberty to submit this open, and tardy, reply.
The "Personal Word" letter speaks to the late Gandhi as you had come to know and admire and doubt him through his writings and by interviewing some of his friends and followers. When you began the letter, you were halfway through Gandhi's Truth, and a disenchantment with Gandhian nonviolence was making it difficult for you to finish the book. Addressing Gandhi, you wrote:
I must now confess that a few times in your work … I seemed to sense the presence of a kind of untruth in the very protestation of truth; of something unclean when all the words spelled out an unreal purity; and above all, of a displaced violence where nonviolence was the professed issue.
You contend, Professor Erikson, that Gandhi, the champion of nonviolence, had a violent, vindictive side to him, especially when dealing with his own family. Gandhi was, in his own words, "cruelly kind" to his wife Kasturba, and he disowned his son Harilal simply because Harilal wanted to get married. These and other examples of apparent harshness prompt you to caution Gandhi that "the future of Satyagraha is at stake … because you seem unaware of … an ambivalence, a co-existence of love and hate, which must become conscious in those who work for peace." Without an awareness of this ambivalence, of man's "inner ambiguities," the strict moralism of the nonviolence movement could only succeed, you said, "in driving our worst proclivities underground, to remain there until riotous conditions of uncertainty or chaos would permit them to emerge redoubled."
This is certainly a controversial analysis of Gandhi, who to this day is worshiped in India as a saint, martyr, and national hero. What I find most disturbing, however, is that you juxtapose Gandhi's alleged hidden violence with his fondness for the story of the boy named Prahlada:
You, Mahatmaji, love the story of that boy prince who would not accept the claim of his father, the Demon King, to a power greater than God's, not even after the boy had been exposed to terrible tortures. At the end he was made to embrace a red-hot metal pillar; but out of this suggestive object stepped God, half lion half man, and tore the king to pieces. You call that prince the first Satyagrahi.
I am familiar with the history of Prahlada because it is recounted in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the topmost of India's ancient Vedic literatures. Prahlada is a pure devotee of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna. And the half-man, half-lion God is Nrsimhadeva, an incarnation of Krsna. In mentioning Gandhi's appreciation for the story of Prahlada and Nrsimhadeva you imply a parallel not only between Gandhi and the tolerant, nonviolent Prahlada, but also between Gandhi's subconscious anger and the fierce form of Lord Nrsimhadeva hidden in the pillar.
You also remark how Lord Nrsimhadeva emerged from a pillar, which you call a "suggestive object." (According to the Bhagavatam, by the way, the pillar was not red-hot iron, nor was Prahlada forced to embrace it. But these are only details.) Since you are a protege, a devotee, of Sigmund Freud, "suggestive" could only mean that the pillar was a phallic symbol and that Gandhi was therefore embroiled in an Oedipal struggle with the paternalistic British empire, feigning affectionate nonviolence but gripped deep within himself by a murderous vengeance.
You seem to have dragged not only the saintly Gandhi but Prahlada and Nrsimhadeva as well into the ambiguous, contradictory, and seamy arena of the human psyche. I fear, in other words, that in the activities of Prahlada and Nrsimhadeva, as in Gandhi's activities, you "sense the presence of a kind of untruth in the very protestation of truth, . . . of a displaced violence where nonviolence was the professed issue." I suspect that you find it contradictory, or untruthful, that Prahlada's nonviolent demeanor led to his father's violent demise. You seem to indicate that Prahlada too had an Oedipus complex, and that in acting nonviolently toward his father, he succeeded only in driving his "worst proclivities underground," where they remained "until riotous conditions of uncertainty" permitted them to "emerge redoubled" in the form of the angry Nrsimhadeva.
Perhaps I am mistaken, Professor Erikson. Perhaps I have misjudged your intentions. And certainly your discussion of the Prahlada history is a minor theme in "A Personal Word." But even so, I feel compelled to vindicate the characters of Prahlada and Lord Nrsimhadeva.
Prahlada should not be analyzed using ordinary human standards, because as a pure devotee he did not identify with his temporary human body. He correctly saw the body as a vehicle for the eternal self. Thus, unlike us, he didn't think of himself as a citizen of a particular nation, a member of a particular religion, a male, or a youth, but only as a soul surrendered to God, the supreme father.
If Prahlada had identified with his body, he would not have been able to peacefully tolerate the tortures administered by his demoniac father. And to be thus devoid of bodily consciousness, he must have been totally free from all sex desire, since sex tightens the knot of bodily identification. Prahlada therefore cannot properly be subjected to Freudian analysis and thereby assigned material, sexual motives.
One whose only motive is to serve and glorify Krsna is, according to the Bhagavad-gita's definition, a "mahatma," or great soul, and Prahlada perfectly fits that definition. Even during Hiranyakasipu's atrocities, Prahlada was chanting Krsna's glories and calmly urging his demoniac father to do the same. Prahlada knew that glorifying God frees the soul from samsara the cruel and violent cycle of repeated birth and death. In trying to induce his father to chant, Prahlada therefore exhibited the supreme form of nonviolence. He was indeed the "first Satyagrahi." Of course, Prahlada's staunch faith in God only enraged his atheistic father, although that was not Prahlada's intention.
Not only was Prahlada not bound up in a murderous Oedipal struggle with his father, but he saw his father as he saw himself a pure soul in a temporary body.
Prahlada neither requested nor reveled in the bloody shredding of his father. Instead, after Hiranyakasipu's death, Prahlada humbly requested Lord Nrsimhadeva to liberate Hiranyakasipu's soul from samsara. And the request was readily granted.
Even more than with Prahlada, ordinary analysis fails to illuminate the character of Lord Nrsimhadeva. Nrsirhhadeva is not the product of "a riotous condition of uncertainty," nor is He an Oedipal eruption in anyone's psychic terrain. Nrsimhadeva is nondifferent from Krsna, the fully independent and fully cognizant Supreme Personality of Godhead. The Personality of Godhead is not a product of anything, but rather produces everything from Himself.
To be exact, Nrsimhadeva is a personal expansion of Krsna, and every one of Krsna's innumerable expansions, though They are all one and the same personality, are also separate individuals. This is the absolute and inconceivable nature of the Personality of Godhead. When you or I exhibit anger or some other emotion, our friends may remark that we have become "different persons," because our personalities have to some degree been temporarily transformed. Krsna's personality also has many moods and emotions, but since He is supreme, His "different persons" have an eternal individual existence as expansions of His personality. Lord Nrsimhadeva is such an individual, so to judge Him as we would a human being is a gross blunder.
As the original person, Krsna is the origin of all the emotions we experience such as affection and anger and He Himself possesses feelings and emotions to a supreme degree. God is a person like us, but unlike us both His affection and His anger are unlimited, transcendental, and of equal value.
In the Prahlada pastime, for example, it appears that Krsna favored Prahlada and punished Hiranyakasipu that He showed an ungodly, partisan spirit. But Hiranyakasipu benefited as much from Krsna's anger as Prahlada did from His affection. Krsna is the father of all living entities, and therefore, like a good father, He exhibits love and anger only for His children's benefit. Krsna Himself explains in the Bhagavad-gita that He is equally disposed to everyone but that He warmly reciprocates the service and friendship of His devotees. Thus we cannot properly criticize His anger, nor should we make a material distinction between His violent and nonviolent moods.
By all this I do not mean to say, Professor Erikson, that the Personality of Godhead cannot be the subject of your scientific scrutiny. On the contrary, for the serious student of personality, Krsna and His expansions are essential subject matters. The possibilities for research are limitless. The Srimad-Bhagavatam (10.14.7) declares:
In time, great scientists may be able to count all the atoms of the universe, all the stars and planets in the sky, and all the particles of snow, but who among them can count the unlimited transcendental qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead? He descends on the surface of the globe for the benefit of all living entities.
As a great scientist yourself, you could do no better than to take up the eternal occupation of mahatmas like Prahlada by analyzing and describing the unlimited character of the Absolute Truth in order to liberate all human society from the violence ofsamsara.