Sunday, July 19, 2015

A critique of the Freudian theories using data from an anthropological study conducted in Bangkok, Thailand on Hindu believers, followers of the Arya Shamaj movement.

Sigmud Freud believed there is a psychological dimension to every aspect of human life: dreams, jokes, personality quirks, the nature of family, social life, and of course religion. He believed he found a golden key through the analysis of the psyche to explaining all human thought and action. He developed a framework for his theories revolving around the four pillars of the unconscious, the Oedipus complex, neuroses, and a three-part framework for the human personality. For Freud religious behavior bears a close resemblance to the behavior of neurotic patients, so he considers religion as a neurosis. This paper explores the Freudian theories and evaluates whether it can be possible to apply these theories to a religious practice as foreign as the practice of Arya Shamaj, a Hindu Reform movement contemporary to Freud, that promotes the teachings of the Vedas. In order to further understanding and apply the Freudian theories to practitioners of Arya Shamaj interviews were conducted in their temple in Bangkok, Thailand. One of the critiques of the theories of Freud is that his theories are developed in the Judeo-Christian context and do not apply to a religion that is not monotheistic, such as Hinduism. Indeed analysis and further anthropological investigation suggest that this could indeed a limitation to the Freudian theories. In the context of Arya Shamaj further limitations to the Freudian theories were explored such as the problems of analysis and history, the problem of circularity, and the problem of psychoanalysis as a form of science. By exploring Freudian theories through a critical approach it is interesting to note that there seems to be some merit to these theories on an individual psychoanalysis level nonetheless, justifying the profound influence the theories had on the twentieth century. This critique is based on writings from Freud’s article Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices (1907), and his books Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), and Moses and Monotheism (1939).
Arya Shamaj (Sanskrit ārya samāja आर्य समाज, Punjabi: ਆਰੀਆ ਸਮਾਜ "Noble Society") is a social religious revivalist movement founded in 1875. The movement was started by Sannyasi social reformers (like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, M.G. Ranade and Swami Dayanand Saraswati) and eulogized the position of women in ancient India to encourage a return to the Vedic period, while rejecting Hindu religious orthodoxy and idol worship. This movement was formed on a religious basis to advocate reform to the caste system in India, to glorify the position of women, to
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encourage prohibition of child marriage by law, or the remarriage of child widows. Sri Dayananda emphasized the ideals of brahmacharya (chastity), was opposed to divorce, and women and society widow remarriage in general, and emphasized separate schools for girls and boys. Several Arya Kanya Pathashalas were set up which later became colleges and contributed to the cause of women’s education. Though mainly an urban movement, its influence also extended to semi-urban and rural areas. While rejecting the caste system it never demanded its abolition. Preference for arranged marriages within the caste group and emphasis on home-making roles of women limited its contribution to the cause of women’s emancipation. However, “the radicals like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Jyotirao Phule and Lokhitvadi Gopal Hari Deshmukh attacked the caste system, which they said was responsible for the subjugation of women. Phule said that Sudras and women had been denied education so that they would not understand the importance of human rights of equality and freedom and would accept he low position accorded to them in law, custom and traditions” (Makesh, 2011). Arya Samaj, as a socio-cultural and political movement, gave birth to this social organization and later began as a reform movement to educate people on various social, cultural practices that are not gender equal, class and caste divisions (Malhorta, Mir, 2012). Though the ethos and philosophy of Arya Shamaj is rooted in Hinduism and specifically in Vedic philosophy, which is considered a higher dimension of life on this earth, the influence of Arya Samaj’s main founder Swami Dayanand, who had exposure to a European, thus Western, education, is reflected in the teachings that make the movement more socialist in thought, and thus a good example of an Eastern approach to religion that yet has some correlation to the Western World, thus a rich example for an exploration of the theories of Sigmud Freud.
Sigmund Freud was an Austrian physician who propounded psychoanalytical theory to explain behavior and mental illness in the nineteenth century. It is important to note for his theories on religion that he was born a Jew in a predominantly Catholic society and spent most of his life in Vienna. His theories are rooted in a Victorian era Christian context in Europe. In The Future of an Illusion he states that “people who carry out obsessive actions or ceremonials belong to the same class as those who suffer from obsessive thinking, obsessive ideas, obsessive impulses and the like”. In understanding though religion as an “obsessional neurosis” (zwangneurose), Sigmund Freud terms religion as an illness where relief is found through performing these obsessive actions otherwise guilt takes over. In the interviews conducted every single interviewee stated that their religious practices brought them happiness indeed and brought them peace, yet there seemed to be no feelings of guilt associated with the absence of these practices. In fact when asked about psychoanalysis there was almost a uniform response that through the practice of introspection and observation, combined with meditative practices the need for the mind to dominate subsides and peace is attained, so that psychoanalysis becomes unnecessary. All of the respondents had heard of psychoanalysis, and three of the respondents had a vast knowledge on Freud himself and yet found his theories to be in sharp contrast with what they believed to be true. Freudian theories are rooted in the concepts of guilt and fear and are heavily loaded with unconscious wishes and desires and their influence on conscious behavior, so in a movement
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where the unconscious mind is controlled as a religious practice in order to reach enlightment, a theory that reduces human beings to unconscious beings that follow their instincts only encourages suggestions that sufferers could benefit from learning meditation techniques. And whereas they acknowledge that in a primitive state a human would be driven by those very basal instincts that Freud describes, they also recognize that in the Arya Shamaj practice these instincts are subdued. “By removing superstition and meaningless customs and practices, Arya Samaj showed the true path of worshiping and doing sacraments (sanskars). Taking the Vedas as their guide, Arya Samaj awakened the true form of the Vedic Dharma which had been destroyed by the creation of many faiths and customs of the many religious groups” (PM). In that sense, Arya Shamaj goes against the basic view that Freud holds that religious practice is filled with obsessive and repeated practices and is as such a neurosis.
A central critique on the theories of Freud is that the ideas could be applied more or less successfully to a monotheistic religion where the concept of the God takes the form of the father, so it is natural to apply this critique using a non-theistic religious practice like the Arya Shamaj movement in the Hindu Religion. Moreover in this application Arya Samaj opposes idolatry, animal sacrifice, ancestor worship, a caste system based on birth rather than on merit, untouchability, child marriage, pilgrimages, priestly craft, and temple offerings, whereas it upholds the infallibility of the Vedas, the doctrines of karman and rebirth, the sanctity of the cow, the importance of the individual sacraments (samskaras), the efficacy of Vedic oblations to the fire, and programs of social reform (PM). In Totem and Taboo Freud explores the idea of the totem, “an animal (whether edible and harmless, or dangerous and feared) (…) that stands in a peculiar relation to the whole clan”, in the case of Hinduism the worship of the cow can easily be identified as the candidate for the totem animal since the cow is revered as a symbol of wealth, strength, abundance, selfless giving and a full Earthly life. In Canto 1 of the Vedas it is written “The personality of religious principles, Dharma, was wandering about in the form of a bull. And he met the personality of earth in the form of a cow who appeared to grieve like a mother who had lost her child. She had tears in her eyes, and the beauty of her body was lost” (SB: 1-16:18). Freud continues that “the oldest form of sacrifice (…) is the sacrifice of animals whose flesh and blood was enjoyed in common by the God and his worshippers. It was essential that each of the participants has his share of the meal” because in Freud’s view this satisfies the requirement of the guilt associated with the Oedipus complex. And whereas in Arya Shamaj the practice of animal sacrifice is banned by design, in countries like Nepal exists a day every five years, Gadhimai, where bulls are sacrificed by the thousands and yet they are left uneaten. In Arya Shamaj the participants can choose to be strict vegetarians, so the basis of Freud that the totem as he identified it is a way to repeat the cycle of guilt around the initial father symbol sacrifice seems to be quite distant from the reality of the practices. Moreover, for the interview subjects in the question “What about nature in general? What is your belief? Is nature animate or inanimate?” the responses were rather uniform that nature is inanimate and in fact represents the beauty of creation, so it is a wonderful place to connect with the divine in an elevated state.
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Another main focus point of the critique of Freudian theories is the problem of the historical reconstruction of the events in society through the analogy of the development of the life of a single neurotic patient. In Moses and Monotheism Freud himself points out a part of his writing is “established historically” although that point is also debatable since some of the sources and theories he used did not withstand the test of time and then in addition to this incomplete analysis, “a hypothetical sequel begins” where Freud projects forward and backwards events and circumstances. Freud hypothesizes that “Moses was an Egyptian (…) murdered by the Jews and the religion he [had] introduced was abandoned” creating thus this collective Oedipus complex. Hindu belief in reincarnation supports the Freudian theories that a possible murder of an Egyptian Moses would create a collective guilt that religion as a societal neurosis addresses. Hinduism does promise rewards for suffering in the afterlife and in the case of Arya Shamaj it can be seen as the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth that the soul is trapped in while navigating the wheel of karma. Where the interviewees seemed to be in direct opposition to the theories put forth by Freud is that the reward of their religious practice was apparent in their everyday life and development, offering them peace in their present everyday life. Some of them were extremely happy and displayed a view that the cycle of rebirth will involve their karmic balance of sorts caused by their actions, whereas their religious practice was strictly a way to navigate the turmoil of their present condition. Freud also says that the natural human response to being confronted with natural forces (including death) is panic and helplessness at the human defenselessness and solitude and religion helps by creating the illusion of power and control. In the responses of the interviewees that was not so apparent since in the Hindu tradition the cycle of death and rebirth is natural and only a transition so there is less fear associated with that eventuality. So Freud suggests that in order to continue to feel safe as an adult when the father protector is no longer there, the father figure is replaced by the God and thus the feelings of safety remain. In that sense the teachings of the Vedas differ. Freud in his conclusions seems to ignore the theism that can be found from the time of the worship of the Varuna (Vedic Age) to the Bhakti cult. In the interviews in a culturally different way the fear would be apparent through the line of questioning asking whether the soul would like to escape the cycle of rebirth through enlightment, and yet most of the respondents were not overly concerned with the continuation of their soul past this death. They were in fact striving to have a pious life which would in fact better their karma but they seemed to express that they reaped the benefits in their lives already through a sense of peace of happiness.
Moreover, Freud started his premises with a decidedly negative view of religion that he considered to be dangerous and infantile. As an atheist, Freud held a fascination with religion and he put forward into establishing a psychology of religion. In The Future of an Illusion Freud states that the social psychological inventory “consists of religion in its wider sense, (...) in other words, of its illusion”. Freud believes that religion is simply an illusion created by humans to fulfill some need or desire, the problem being that our society is often at conflict with the most basic desires (the desires of the id). And in such religion provides with a reason to submit to authority, explaining the suffering in terms of the need to obey to an omnipotent God. Freud consistent
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with his belief that the libido is what controls human behavior, he turns his ideas to the origin of religious ideas that he claims are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. The secret in their strength lies in the strength of these wishes, (…) what is characteristic of an illusion is that they are derived from human wishes [and] in that respect they come near to psychiatric delusions.” In the case of Arya Shamaj in the related question line of how desires separate a believer from the divine it was interesting to note that participants did not seem to identify with this limitation because for them their practice was a goal in finding peace in itself and the meditation and rituals performed seemed not to be an escape rather they were a support in their daily lives.
Last as the test of time was placed on the theories of Freud and the twentieth century came to its conclusion, the field of psychology as a whole started evolving past the original, at the Victorian era, ideas of Freud and as the field has been reinventing itself it became apparent that new theories were more applicable. Whereas Freudian theories were being sidelined and completely wiped out it is almost ironic to observe that the desire of the children as they grow up to kill the father has turned the field in itself with the now students or children wanting to kill the father of Psychology and Freudian theories were being sidelined and almost completely wiped out. Today in the mental health and psychology fields as well as in the cultural sciences and literature fields Freud is studied almost exclusively as a part of history. On a more limited scale, that of explaining human behavior through psychoanalysis that Freudian theories really excelled in, and in that sense offered a large influence to the world as we know it, it is interesting to observe that the strict human behavior of the interviewees can offer some insights into their human nature and associated behavior. In a movement built to explore the role of women it is interesting to note that despite explicit requests to involve women respondents to the questioning, only one woman was a participant to the series of interviews conducted. Interestingly four women were invited and in fact came but they did not end up speaking. Even more intriguing was the fact that the one woman participant was shadowed by her husband, her answers were evaluated and corrected by her husband and two other men, especially a preacher of sorts who flat out started expressing himself in a loud vocal manner to declare that her answers were wrong and that they were not representative of the real teachings of Arya Shamaj to the point where it became necessary to evacuate observers to the interview process from the vicinity in order to conduct the interview. In Totem and Taboo Freud explores the “Oedipus complex (…) as the nuclear concept of the neurosis.” In the primal horde there is a dominant father figure who is the male leader and in this example of the interviews the dominant male role was quite apparent. Freud explains that the tribe solved the problem of guilt through the fact that the clansman are under a sacred obligation (subject to automatic sanctions) not to kill or destroy their totem and to avoid eating its flesh (or deriving benefit from it as the Nepalese tradition of leaving the slaughtered bulls untouched); and in other ways along with the taboo against having sexual relationships with the women of their own tribe, in Arya Shamaj manifested as an encouragement towards celibacy and in general monogamous relationships. In the limited example of the interviews conducted by a female investigator it was interesting to note that
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every single male interviewee made sure to explain that they view women as their sister, raising the question of whether this almost unnecessary clarification was an unconscious desire being suppressed and more to the point whether all females are evaluated as such by the men. It is an open question of how much the libido influences the decisions of men. So indeed in a more individual behavioral level Freudian theories could possibly be applied although maybe there is a clear limitation to the societal projections and extensions that Freud makes. There seems to be some basis to the idea of psychoanalysis even if the initial suggestions of Freud are mostly regarded by the scientific community as having mainly a historical value. In conclusion it is interesting to investigate the limitations of the Freudian theories through a Hindu reform movement, Arya Shamaj. Freud proposed a psychological approach to explaining religion and projected his individual patients’ assessments into the whole society and its religious evolution. When it comes to connecting these two movements through investigating their relationship in history, it is interesting to note that because they are rooted in separate religious traditions and cultures the focus is different and thus Arya Shamaj can mostly be used as an example to critique Freud’s theories. Through emic anthropological interviews conducted with participants in the Arya Shamaj movement the theoretical investigation of the applicability of the Freudian theories was tested also practically. What transpired from this analysis and investigation is that Freudian theories might indeed present limitations to explaining a religious movement in Hinduism and thus might be less universally applicable as Freud himself believed they might be. This investigation was rich in insights and had a very interesting conclusion even if it lead to a mostly critical exploration.
Freud, S. (1890- 1939) Complete Works Ivan Smith electronic distribution
Arya Shamaj, Pamphlet Material Arya Samaj, Bangkok (PM)
Malhotra, A. and Mir, F. (2012) Brave Converts in the Arya Samaj: the Case of Dharm Pal, Punjab Reconsidered: History, Culture and Practice 261-286 New Delhi, Oxford University Press
Makesh, C. (2011) Women and Society Calicut University, Malappuram Kerala, India
Srimad-Bhagavatam : Canto 1:"Creation" : SB 1.16: How Pariksit Received the Age of Kali : SB 1.16.18

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