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‘The Psychology of the Ascetic.’

Masson, J.M.

Journal of Asian Studies. XXXV no. 4, 611-625 1976. [MJ1]

[MJ1 611] Dumont’s essay “World Renunciation in Indian Religions,” given as the Frazer lecture at Oxford in 1958, has achieved a considerable reputation; it inspired, for example, J. C. Heesterman’s article “Brahmin, Ritual and Renouncer.” Dumont’s article is not easy to understand; I feel that the rather naive and hasty general comments: “The renouncer thinks as an individual, and this is the distinctive trait which opposes him to the man-in-the-world and brings him closer to the western thinker” are unfortunate. I also feel that greater historical and linguistic rigor is mandatory. But more important than questions of scholarship and of method, it seems to me that something crucial is missing from Dumont’s essay. It is certainly useful to emphasize, as Dumont does, both in this essay and in his more recent Homo Hierarchicus, the structures evident in samnyasa as an institution (“[H]e does not really leave [MJ1 612] society...”) Even here I could not help but feel that a Marxist approach would have yielded greater theoretical gains. (Cf. the remarkable essays by the late D. D. Kosambi.) 1 am sorry to see that Dumont has failed to come to terms with renunciation as a psychological event; I shall attempt to focus more closely than has hitherto been done on the psychological characteristics of asceticism.
It may be claimed that, in the material that follows, I have chosen to study only the most aberrant forms of what need not be a pathological process. This is to some extent a justified criticism; but I believe that I have good reasons for so proceeding. In Indian aesthetics, I have drawn attention to a distinction between vyutpatti (learning) and pratibha (inspiration). It can reasonably be held that an analogous distinction holds in Indian philosophy and religion between the man who knows intellectually and the man who experiences directly.
[MJ1 612] One could claim that this is a universal distinction of character types. Freud warned that there would be people [MJ1 613] who would appropriate to themselves truths of a psychological nature that is, they would develop insight, but it would be a bloodless affair, for they would not have experienced an ounce of the truth they could so eloquently attest to.
To what does this distinction correspond? I believe that the scholar, the erudite mystic is in greater control of his repressed wishes his repression is more tenacious; whereas in the ecstatic, the repressed has returned, the barriers have broken down, and he is closer to what analysts call primary-process thinking. Hence, for a study of the underlying motives that impel a man towards mysticism in general, it is this form that allows us a clearer, more sustained view into the unconscious. The studiousness and sobriety of the scholar are defenses erected against the impulse to behave in exactly the way the ecstatic does.
I must make clear at the outset of this essay that I do not regard Indian asceticism as a unique phenomenon, to be studied the way one would study some odd eruption of nature. Quite the contrary, it should be plain from what I have already said that I regard both manifest asceticism and the tendency to asceticism as universal traits. Indeed, this is why I think it is worth studying such a phenomenon in such detail. To lend support to my statement, I need only remind the reader of the attenuated forms of asceticism we see in everyday life: the sacrificing mother, the wife who renounces her own ambitions to enable her husband to proceed without fear of being bettered (indeed, this attenuated form seems particularly closely allied to women; and we shall see that masochism which seems particularly prevalent among women is an issue germane to our topic).
Flaubert, in La Tentation de Saint Antoine (in the definitive version of 1874), made what is the most well articulated psychological comment on asceticism before the insights of psychoanalysis provided deeper possibilities. He has Hilarion tell St. Anthony:

Hypocrite qui s’enfonce dans la solitude pour se livrer mieux aux débordement de ses convoitises! Tu te prives de viandes, de vin, d’étuves, d’esclaves et d’honneurs; mais comme tu laisses ton imagination t’offrir des banquets, des parfums, des femmes nues et des foules applaudissantes! Ta chasteté n est qu’une corruption plus subtile, et ce mépris du monde l’impuissance de ta haine contre lui. (p. 55)

The subject of Indian asceticism presents an embarras de richesses. While the literature directly related to asceticism is not rich, we nonetheless find the general [MJ1 614] theme of asceticism so pervasive that it is encountered in almost all the major Sanskrit texts.
In my opinion, the passage that may have had the greatest influence on the whole subsequent history of asceticism is an early prose passage found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. It is a fine passage in itself, quite apart from its formative character for the rest of the tradition; I translate from Br. Ar. Up., III.4.l:
[The Atman is that which] passes beyond hunger and thirst, sorrow, delusion (moha), old age, and death. When a Brahmin knows this Atman, he rises above the desire for sons and the desire for wealth and the desire for [the conquest of] worlds, and lives like a wandering monk (bhikshacaryam caranti). For the desire for sons is the desire for wealth, and the desire for wealth is the desire for worlds. For both these are merely desires. Therefore a Brahmin becoming disenchanted (nirvidya) with learning [pandityam cf. Katha 2.23] should act like a child. When he becomes disenchanted both with learning and with childlikeness (balyam), he [becomes] a silent sage (muni). When he becomes disenchanted both with talking (amaunam) and with silence [maunam cf. Br. Ar. Up. IV.4.2ll, then he becomes a Brahmin.... Everything different from that (atman) is wretched (ato nyad artam).
The main source is, of course, the great epics of India: the Ramayana, and even more, the Mahabharata. I think in particular of the stories of Tuladhara found in the Shantiparva (Xl1.262), of Jadabharata (Vishnupurana 11.13), and finally of Rishyashringa the ascetic boy who had never seen a woman (M.Bh., III.110) How is one to deal with such a vast amount of material? A variety of approaches suggest themselves. One could concentrate on a single character and attempt to come as close to a good case history as [MJ1 614] possible; this is what Freud did, for example, on the basis of an autobiography in his great study known as the Schreber Case. For this purpose, a figure from recent times would be more fruitful for example, Ramakrishna (though a psychological study of Shankara or Chaitanya would be valuable as well). In this study I have preferred to remain with generalities about Indian asceticism as a whole, though I am by no means unaware of the pitfalls of such intrepid behavior. So at the risk of remaining rather superficial and of treating the texts only very hastily and sketchily, I would like now to indicate at least the direction in which our psychological understanding might move.
I will begin with the most general comment that I wish to make: I look upon asceticism as a defense a mechanism whereby unacceptable urges and impulses can be warded off and never permitted to reach consciousness, let alone motility. But these same warded-off impulses, these “strangulated affects” as Freud called them in his first study on hysteria, will find distorted expression some way or another, either in a somatization (conversion) or in a symptom. Freud discovered something astonishing in this respect: the symptom contains the very impulse it was designed to ward off, albeit in a heavily disguised form. The”return of the repressed,” as Freud so pungently described it, can make its appearance in a dream, or in a symptom, or even in an absence. Anna Freud was the first to describe adolescent defenses against instinctual urges via asceticism, and the study of adolescent moods has remained one of the most promising means of approaching our topic. Since her comment has attained such fame in psychiatric literature, I quote it in full:
Young people who pass through the kind of ascetic phase which I have in mind seem to fear the quantity rather than the quality of their instincts. They mistrust enjoyment in general and so their safest policy appears to be simply to counter more urgent desires with more stringent prohibitions. Every time the instinct says, “I will”, the ego retorts, “Thou shalt not”, much after the manner of strict parents in the early training of little children. This adolescent mistrust of instinct has a dangerous tendency to spread; it may begin with instinctual wishes proper and extend to the most ordinary physical needs. We have all met young people who severely renounced any impulses which savoured of se+uality and who avoided the society of those of their own age, declined to join in any entertainment and, in true puritanical fashion, refused to have anything to do with the theatre, music or dancing. We can understand that there is a connection between the foregoing of pretty and attractive clothes and the prohibition of se+uality. But we begin to be disquieted when the renunciation is extended to things which are harmless and necessary, as, for instance, when a young person denies himself the most ordinary protection against cold, mortifies the flesh in every possible way and exposes his health to unnecessary risks, when he not only gives up particular kinds of oral enjoyments, but [MJ1 616] “on principle” reduces his daily food to a minimum, when, from having enjoyed long nights of sound sleep, he forces himself to get up early, when he is reluctant to laugh or smile or when, in extreme cases, he defers defecation and urination as long as possible, on the grounds that one ought not immediately to give way to all one’s physical needs. [ The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence (1936), translated by Cecil Baines, rev. ed. (London: Hogarth Press, 1966, pp. 166-69.]
Anna Freud goes on to say that this repudiation of instinct differs radically from ordinary repression in that no loophole is left for substitutive gratification. Instead of compromise-formations (corresponding to neurotic symptoms) and the usual process of displacement, regression and turning against the self we find almost invariably a swing-over from asceticism to instinctual excess, the adolescent suddenly indulging in everything which he had previously held to be prohibited. [The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence, p. 170.]
Do we find, in ascetic practices, evidence of their defensive nature, and that the instinct defended against yet reveals itself in the practice assumed to banish it? I think it is evident that we do. The ascetic literature, for example, is preoccupied with se+ual purity more than with any other single topic. The ascetic exists because he is tempted. And not once, but over and over. The only role of women in ascetic literature is as degraded objects, inspirers of lust and of the horror of lust. I hardly need labor this point, so evident in all the literature. This phobic avoidance of women bespeaks an unusually intense desire for contact. A phobic avoids the street, for example, because the street is a place where dangers arise, yet the actual dangers are internal. The Buddha warns Ananda not to speak with women; if he must speak to one to keep his eyes on the ground; and if he must look, “Then beware Ananda, beware.” The catalog of se+ual offenses in the Vinaya Pitaka and other similar texts is well beyond the realm of possible se+ual gratification; we are aware that we are in the realm of unbridled se+ual fantasy. Banished to a book of rules for the monks, they can be safely contemplated from a distance. It is not surprising that the very word for asceticism, tapas, is also a word commonly associated with virility, with se+ual powers, especially with increased potency (evidence for this is found not only in the Sanskrit texts, but in the observations of many [MJ1 617] travelers in India. The myths of Shiva show such connections in detail. It is not surprising that the concern with incontinence would lead to fantasies about the powers inherent in semen; we can see this attested to in the ancient stories containing oral pregnancy fantasies (a ubiquitous theme in the Mahabharata: e.g., Kashyapa, Rishyashringa’s father, lost his semen at the sight of Urvashi, and it was swallowed by a female antelope who subsequently gave birth to Rishyashringa hence his name “Antelope-Horned”).
These se+ual fantasies of immense prowess are of course only the other side of the coin from constant fears of se+ual depletion. Such concerns, universal and timeless, are particularly well documented in the case of the Indian villager. It is not surprising, then, to find fantasied compensations in other than se+ual areas as well, so that we can always expect the ascetic in an Indian text to be endowed with some form of magic power (siddhi). Such omnipotence fantasies, common in childhood, persist into adult life in the form of daydreams of sudden glory, winning the Nobel prize, or finding a cure for cancer. In the case of the ascetic, however, they often reach more alarming proportions, and it seems that many of these magic capacities were actually believed in; in this case they became delusions, and we suspect that we are dealing not with neurosis, but with various shades of psychosis. The belief in magic of all kinds is nothing but the persistence into adulthood of infantile fantasies. We all have more of them than we ever care to admit. What I am discussing here is not, however, hypocrisy; while that may enter into it, it by no means explains the vast majority of cases where the dynamics are much deeper, both in origin and in time.
Is there evidence in the life of the ascetic of that other great instinct in human behavior, aggression.? Without including the more obvious manifestations of hostility e.g., the many irascible ascetics that we encounter in Hindu fiction (e.g., Durvasas) and the great emphasis placed on the ability of the great sage to pronounce an effective and devastating curse, though this could well lend itself to more detailed study we may confine ourselves to more subtle manifestations of aggression. It is true that we hear relatively little of the “dark night of the soul” of the Hindu ascetic, but we [MJ1 618] should not, on this account, too rapidly conclude that the ascetic in India is not prone to depression.
I believe that the concern voiced ubiquitously by the ascetic in Indian literature vairagya or nirveda, “world weariness” or “disgust” is an oblique reference to the affective disorder known as sadness when mild, depression when strong, and melancholia when severe. The most striking example of this phrase is one known to every Sanskritist: yad ahar eva virajet, tad ahar eva pravrajet (“On the very day that one conceives disgust for the world, on that very day should one set out to wander alone”). I do not think that in this context “depression” as a translation of nirveda or vairagya would be very far off (cf. the near-synonymous vaimanasya). It is characteristic of the depressed individual to lose interest in his own family, his friends, his work, and his surroundings. It is only with the advent of psychoanalysis that we have been able to understand the deeper mechanisms of depression. It was Freud, as early as 1917, in his great essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” who explained depression as aggression toward some one important in one’s life, being internalized and turned in against the self. Freud put it wonderfully: Der Schatten des Objekts fiel so auf das Ich (“the shadow of the object fell upon the ego”).
What forms might this reflected aggression take? The Indian texts tell us clearly self-destruction. Analysts since Freud have long claimed that nobody kills himself unless he [MJ1 619] wants to kill another. Similarly, no man sets about destroying his body systematically unless he is simultaneously destroying people from his past who are now lodged firmly within him.
Of course this is only one possible unconscious motive for suicide; there are many others for example, the wish to unite oneself to a beloved person who is already dead. Children, like many religious traditions, do not consider death as more than a departure; such views often remain active in the unconscious of the adult. Thus Kate Friedlander says of one analysand: “The patient’s ultimate aim is not to destroy himself. He merely wants to sleep in order to wake up to a better life in which all his wishes are fulfilled.”
This is the explanation of how people can mutilate themselves and not feel the pain: they are not being mutilated, somebody else is. Since we know that fasting for a Jain monk in particular often leads to death, we cannot help but turn our attention to a well-known clinical disease syndrome where the secondary gains involve aggression even though the symbolism is se+ual: anorexia nervosa. A true anorexic (who, if female, will also have amenorrhea) suffers from no organic pathology related to the endocrine glands. The refusal to eat often to the point of death is determined solely by psychological causes. These differ in individual cases, of course; but common to almost all of them is the “fantasy of oral impregnation, with the mouth as the receptive organ of food symbolizing conception, the gastrointestinal tract symbolizing the womb and the cessation of menstruation being associated with pregnancy.” It is often accompanied by increased fluid intake an obsessive ritual as an internal cleaning and purification rite (such behavior is well known to students of yoga).
It is a clinical observation (as old as a paper Karl Abraham wrote in 1911) that depressive patients rarely go through life without contact, at some point or other, with the other end of the spectrum either mania proper, or at least hypomania (which is often mistaken for constitutional cheerfulness or optimism). Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1925) was the first publication in which Freud discussed defense mechanisms (an interest that culminated in the book by his daughter mentioned earlier). A defense he did not specifically mention by name began to play an increasingly large role in understanding mania: denial. In my opinion, the finest study ever made of mystic states of [MJ1 620] consciousness is Bertram Lewin’s book, The Psychoanalysis of Elation. He describes the “neurotic hypomanic personalities” who
are characterized by the immense enterprise they show in daily affairs, overfilling their time with inconsequential doings, throwing themselves vigorously into hobbies, se+ual affairs, or business deals, to drop them all abruptly with a striking sudden loss of interest. Their analysis shows a latency period in which strong identifications are built up with a usually dead or absent parent, and a sharp, often conscious recrudescence of incestuous wishes at puberty, followed by a vehement plunge into activities as a distraction. Along with the overactivity, neurotic symptoms of various kinds develop, of which the most constant is insomnia. In their analysis, the discovery of painful data is avoided or bagatellized, and countered by “hypomanic” acting out.
It seems to me plausible that the ascetic is originally in the grip of a potential depression (evidenced by his concern with the peculiar mental state of vairagya), which he attempts to counter by adopting one solution flight and eventually discovers that he has only run toward a deeper problem. His second line of defense is then the various manic forms we are accustomed to find in asceticism, along with the denial of the true meaning of these acts. Thus we find the denial of pain in the notorious pancagni and: other self-tortures; the denial of physical needs in the refusal to take sufficient food; the denial of physical illness (often by branding fevers trance states); the denial of the basic human needs of companionship (in his living in isolation), affection, and family ties the most common Pali formula associated with the monk is agarasma anagariyam pabbajati (from the life of the home he wanders away into homelessness).
Lewin writes of “affective denial”:
Just as there are negations, contradictions, and delusions to offset the intellectual contents, so there may be odd moods, depressions, elations, perplexities, confusions, states of dim awareness, even stupor, which insistently pervade the affective apparatus of the mind and leave no place for anxiety.
But, as Lewin’s book intends to show, mania is not only a defense; it is also a kind of dim somatic memory of a very early, preverbal experience of nursing and its attendant physical pleasures (being touched, falling asleep in satiation, etc.). Lewin ends his book with the following observation: [MJ1 621]
The mechanism by which the unpleasant is ignored is one aspect or mode of affirming a preferred, different reality, the reality of feeling and of the first subjective oral experiences. The happy mood of the manic, therefore, is a repetition. It is subjectively valid and real to the one who experiences it, because it relives a primary, real, happy feeling. In the actual content of ideas of manics, besides the experience at the breast, are included the later events of childhood which themselves in some way repeat or revive the nursing situation, or may themselves have been falsified by it.
The “oral triad” of which Lewin has written at such length and with such a wealth of clinical material the wish to eat, to sleep, and to be eaten can be used with profit; in reference to the Indian material.
This brings us to the wider area of masochism in general. To the ordinary person, there is something awesome about the man who severs all ties with the objects of his past. Mortimer Ostow has spoken of the defensive quality in the abandonment of one’s loved ones, “that if the act of abandonment becomes libidinized, it can itself become a mode of object relation and instinctual gratification.” The psychoanalytic literature on masochism since Freud’s famous 1915 paper Instincts and Their Vicissitudes is very large, and there are many aspects of the psychology of masochism to which we might address ourselves. Skirting the issue of whether masochism is primary that is, a destructive instinctual drive which is self-directed or not, I shall confine my remarks to the tendency of deflected sadism turned back upon the self to repeat earlier states, which is the hallmark of secondary masochism. What are these earlier states? I have been impressed with the thinking of Bernard Berliner, who, in a series of important articles has argued that masochism is a pathological way of loving. The only kind of love the [MJ1 622] masochist knew in his childhood is one connected with suffering. Berliner found in the childhood of masochists that they were invariably ill treated or neglected in some crucial way; if they were not directly abandoned, or being constantly threatened with abandonment, they were psychologically and emotionally put out of the house. “In the history of all masochists there are actual severe traumatic situations in early childhood. In my experience most of them were unloved, or directly hated, mistreated children.”
Thus, the bizarre behavior of the masochist in later life is nothing but distorted memory: It is the only kind of love he knows. The hostility he displays towards himself is not, in fact, his own; it derives from his parents’ real hostility towards him as a child. “Such a child comes to seek similar treatment in later life from other persons as a substitute for love.” As N. Bromberg has noted, a child is most loved when it suffers most, a conviction which leads to seeking suffering when love is wanted. Berliner writes:
If the masochist turns his aggression against himself he does so because he accepts the aggression of the love object, treating himself as his love object would treat him in order to please the object and to secure love.
And so the pain that the ascetic feels is the condition rather than the source of his pleasure, which is often of a displaced se+ual variety. The paradox is this: the ascetic wishes to abandon his physical self for a better, more purified self; in order to do this, he engages in an activity that is nothing less than a form of hypochondria a total and often exclusive preoccupation with the body. The reverse care he bestows on this body obsessively watching it, torturing it acts as a kind of reproach to his own past (i.e., to his parents): “See the concern I evince for my body; but it is a negative concern, just like yours.” The loving care he never received he returns with a vengeance; in so doing, in so parodying his parents’ behavior (with the deep insight of the psychotic), he both mocks them and conquers them (by doing what they did, only more so), and displays to them at the same time his misery. It is an unconscious cry for help, a pitiful revenge anachronistic and doomed never to be seen.
{[footnote] The bizarre practices of Hathayoga, where the vegetative nervous system is systematically beleaguered, is well known to students of such texts as the Hathayogapradipika and the Gorakshashataka. Buddhaghosa speaks of dantavakkalikas who stripped off the bark of trees with their teeth, which reminds us of the accounts of wolf-children. Even if these latter are fantasies, it is interesting that ascetics tend towards acts which would bring into doubt their very humanness; no doubt the wild appearance of many ascetics today in India is the result of a deep need to appear inhuman. (Samnyasopanoshad 13 describes the ascetic who eats like the ajagara (boa constrictor), lying down and passively opening his mouth. It is a pathetic attempt to frighten which conceals the deeper urge to be approached, wanted, and eventually loved. It is a type of counterphobic gesture so well described by Otto Fenichel in his classic article “The Counter-Phobic Attitude,” IJP, XX (1939), pp. 26-74}
This is why, I believe, the ascetic can stand isolation, contrary to what one might expect from the many experiments that show the disastrous effects of sensory deprivation: he is not alone. He has an entire population of familial members inside of himself as his eternal bound audience. This explains the obvious exhibitionism involved in so many ascetic practices. The ascetic constructs a dramatic scene, where his life is on stage for all to see even when nobody is there. For in the end, he is always addressing somebody, even if only the gods, or an unseen world of spirits and past rishis. We are reminded of the [MJ1 623] child’s desperate fantasies that he will suffer mutilation or death, and “then they’ll be sorry.”
There is another element to this ability to active create rather than passively suffer punishment: the need to be in control. R. M. Loewenstein, in an article on masochism, puts it well: “By imagining or producing scenes of torture or punishment which he himself devises, the masochist excludes the possibility of being tortured or punished in an unexpected and uncontrollable way.” Loewenstein also remarks on one of the functions of masochism being “to maintain object relations, however precarious, in the face of aggressions which threaten the object world or the individual himself.” That is, if the ascetic were to do to others what he does to himself, he would be a homicidal maniac rather than a saint.
There is a final goal of the masochist, which I should briefly mention: the need to “seduce the aggressor,” as it has been called by Loewenstein. This occurs particularly in the case of what Freud called the moral masochist that is, a person who seeks to suffer, though not necessarily in a directly se+ual way. What is achieved here is that one appeases the gods (i.e., the harsh conscience) or fate by suffering. This is of course a reversion to childhood, where the child hopes that he can turn the future anger into love, and is always watching for the smile that his provocative behavior sometimes produces and which means for the child forgiveness of the much more horrifying inner wishes of aggression directed against the father. “Nothing you do to me can be as horrible as what I do to myself” says the ascetic in his counterphobia.
Am I saying, then, that all ascetics must have suffered from harsh and unloving parents in their childhood Yes. I should add, however, that most analysts would disagree, and would qualify this by saying that often the harsh treatment was only imagined often as retaliation for imagined evil in the little child himself, for his own destructive fantasies vis-à-vis his parents and siblings. In any case, asceticism is a means of or rather, an attempt at (and one doomed to failure) forcing love. But my own suggestion goes further; it is that all ascetics suffered massive traumas in their childhood in one of three ways: they were sexually seduced, or they were the object of overt or covert aggression, or they lost those closest to them early in their lives. Their lives were pervaded with sadness; their rituals, their obsessive gestures of every kind, are an attempt to recapture the lost childhood they never had. It is not surprising to find that all addicts have suffered such loss.
To conclude this paper, let us look more closely at the reparative aspects of asceticism asceticism as a ritual, as a game, as play. We should remember that the purpose of play, as Freud already demonstrated in 1908 in the case of Little Hans, is to master anxiety. What are the compensations of the ascetic? I have assumed, with [MJ1 624] analysts, that all human activity is accompanied by daydreams (fantasies), either conscious or more often unconscious. The more we learn about universal fantasies of children, the more able we are to see their derivatives in the case of adults. Treasure stories is a good example. Here is what Selma Fraiberg writes at the end of her article “Tales of the Discovery of the Secret Treasure”:
These tales of the buried treasure and the discovery of the great wealth are among the oldest daydreams of the race. These are the longings of childhood which live on in the unconscious memory of the grown man. Their ageless appeal derives from the universal and perennial mystery which confounds the child in his first investigations of origins. In every life there is this momentous discovery of the secret through an accidental touching or an observation, a revelation of the “magic” of the genitals. And always there has been a magician with greater powers and a secret knowledge which is denied to a poor boy. There is the childhood mystery of “the place” where the treasure is hidden, the mysterious cavern which has no door, the hidden place deep under ground. And there is the unwavering belief of the child that if he should have the magician’s magic lamp, the pirate’s map, the key to the treasure, the knowledge of”the place,” he could win for himself this treasure of treasures. In this ageless daydream of childhood, the poor boy who has nothing steals the magician’s secret, the pirate’s map, and outwits the powerful opponent who stands between him and the treasure.
So what is it that the ascetic says? He says: “I am not anonymous, insignificant. I am important and central. I am not alone; I live in a world peopled with mythic figures. I am not powerless; I can create magic I can fly, I can become big or small, I can remember my past births, I can know everything, I can go anywhere.” These siddhis bear a remarkable resemblance to the ubiquitous fantasies of children.
Lili Peller, a child analyst, notes certain compensating fantasies of children. For the denied deficiency “My body is no good,” we find “My body is a perfect instrument for my wishes.” For the anxiety “My mother can desert me, etc.,” we find “I can do to others what she did to me”; and for the latency anxiety of “I cannot start all over again,” we find “I can live many lives.”
If the ascetic acts out these fantasies in startling ways on his own body, whereas others are content to merely imagine them, it is, I believe, due to economic reasons: his needs are quantitatively greater than those of other people, because his deprivations in childhood have been proportionately greater. Others wander in fantasy, he wanders in real life. The image of the monk who lives alone, described in the Pali canon as wandering “like a bull elephant who has left the herd” (see Sutta Nipata I.3.53: nago va yuthani vivajjayitva) strikes the reader as so much bravado like the little child who packs his bags and leaves for the open country, all the while desperately awaiting the sign from his parents that will allow him to abandon his spite and rush to the waiting arms of a loving parent.
Taking a hint from A. Garma’s article “The Deceiving Superego and the Masochistic Ego in Mania,” it occurred to me that the Indian adolescent who has been forced by his culture to make what can only be termed pathologically excessive restrictions on [MJ1 625] his libidinal life takes his vengeance through a mocking compliance by later turning into a genuine ascetic who massively and permanently denies all physical enjoyment. It is as if he is telling his parents: “You wanted me to renounce. I will do more than you ever expected; I will renounce everything you included.” Later, because his asceticism is culture-syntonic, it is reinforced (through secondary gains) and becomes impermeable to any further prying loose. Since there is always an audience for the ascetic if finally only an internal one it struck me that the happiness of the ascetic is a form of self-deception, a play directed at a specific if long-departed audience. Freud’s evocative phrase “the shadow of the object falls on the ego” leads me to a parallel with the melancholic. I was struck by the word “shadow.” It evokes unreality. The melancholic lives in a world peopled with shadows and ghosts from the past; these are internal objects. Is it perhaps that internal objects are always bad a good object consisting in its being outside? The correspondence I see would be that the melancholic also stages a play a shadow-play with no real people. The ascetic’s belief in psychic immunity is purchased at a high price: irreversible psychosis, self-destruction, or unbearable loneliness.


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