The Freudian vs. the Vedic Unconscious

Reading Time: 17 minutes

The initial thesis of Freudian psychoanalysis and that of Vedic philosophy are similar—namely, that our surface behaviors are the result of a deeper “unconscious” reality. The person in both cases is described hierarchically—e.g. as an iceberg, with only the tip visible, while most of its reality is invisible. Nevertheless, there are numerous differences in the process of how the unconscious is created—the process is repression in Freudian theory and it is expression in Vedic philosophy. But the biggest difference lies in their description of fear and desire. In Freudian theory, desire is internal and fear is external. In Vedic philosophy, fear is even deeper than desire, and causes that desire. In other words, we are triggered into action due to our fears. But even deeper than fear is envy due to which we don’t want to accept that we are small parts of a bigger whole and we must act our part. The Vedic description of how desire is created from fear, and fear from envy, provides a very useful and practical contrast to the theories of the Freudian unconscious, besides a guide on how one can overcome fear and desire by giving up envy.

The Id, The Ego, and the Superego

If we’re looking for similarities, we don’t have to look very far. Freud’s conception of the id-ego-superego is nearly identical to the Vedic conception of sat-chit-ananda with some rearrangement. The Id in Freud’s terminology is the collection of all uncontrolled desires. The Superego is the conscience, the moralizing and analyzing tendency. There is constant clash between the Id and the Superego, and therefore these two have to be balanced and mediated by a third agency called the Ego.

What Freud calls the Ego is called sat in Vedic philosophy; it is the active agency which makes choices. Since sat is choosing something, we can ask: What are the alternatives it is choosing from? The answer is that there are two alternatives—chit (meaning) and ananda (pleasure)—from which the consciousness chooses. I have previously discussed the property of choice as the need to prioritize between meaning and pleasure. Sometimes we think meaning is more important, and at other times we give greater importance to pleasure. The pleasure-seeking tendency is therefore the Id, while the meaning-seeking tendency is the Superego. Their continuous clash and the resolution of such clashes by the soul’s choices represents the dynamic called id-ego-superego. A recent post, described how pleasure creates the feminine while meaning creates the masculine; we can say that the Id is feminine and the Superego is masculine.

Be careful not to equate masculine to male or man! Similarly, do not equate feminine to female or woman. These are  technical terms, not to be equated capriciously. Thus, there can be a feminine-male, who is pleasure seeking and lives without care. Conversely, there can be a masculine-male who is responsible and analyzes situations carefully to avoid mistakes. These two kinds of men are dominant in Id and Superego, respectively. That is, their Ego or their choice making ability prefers pleasure over meaning, or meaning over pleasure, respectively.

In an earlier post, I described how the pleasure and meaning seeking tendencies exist in all living bodies as the downward-moving idā and the upward-moving pingalā, respectively. Similarly, the Superego or the moralizing and analyzing tendency takes one from impulsive pleasure tendencies to well-reasoned and meaningful objectives. Conversely, the Id or the uncontrolled desires push a person down towards pleasure, even disregarding what kinds of harms might come one’s way as an outcome. There is, hence, considerable initial conceptual synergy between the id-ego-superego and the sat-chit-ananda descriptions.

Man is an Animal in Freud’s System

One of the flaws in Freud’s thinking was to equate the Superego to something which society imposes upon us, and which we have imbibed and internalized to conform to social expectations. Freud’s idea is that the Ego is partial towards the Id or the pleasure seeking tendency—quite like the animals. However, unlike the animals, which are able to live a life of unrestricted and unconstrained pleasure, humans are constrained by the laws and norms of good behavior defined by society. Freud doesn’t delve into why society would come up with such norms in the case of humans, when the animals haven’t done the same. In other words, he doesn’t seek the origins of human morality. And by not asking this question, Freud leaves the door open to the idea that man is just like animals—with some extra rules.

The primary legacy of Freud’s work is that most people emerge from his psychoanalytic approach believing that humans are animals who have been caged by society and all psychological problems are the result of putting the animal in a cage. It’s surprising that so many people have come to this conclusion when Freud did not seem to have explicitly articulated such a view, although he did not do anything to prevent the incidence of such a view either. I make this point because Freud (1856 – 1939) followed Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) who had pronounced the judgment that man is an ape. By not resisting the idea, Freud appears to have upgraded the view to “man is a sick ape”.

Freud’s flaw lies in using the study of mental sickness to define the working of a healthy mind, rather than using a grasp of the healthy mind to diagnose the nature of the sickness.

The Creation of the Unconscious

Another big difference between Freud’s ideology and the Vedic description lies in the creation of the unconscious. In Freud’s view, the unconscious is created primarily due to the repression of desires. In Vedic philosophy, the unconscious is created due to the expression of desires. The difference between the two arises due to a different understanding of the unconscious.

In Vedic philosophy, the unconscious is the guna or the three modes of nature which exist as the habits of meaning and pleasure. Every time a habit is expressed, the habit is reinforced and strengthened. If, therefore, one has to overcome the effects of the unconscious, one has to stop the expression of habits, so that their effect will eventually wane away. Every time a desire to express a habit arises, if the habit is suppressed, then after some time a new habit will be formed. In fact the best way of overcoming past bad habits is the formation of new good habits.

In Freud’s view, the unconscious is the byproduct of repression of what was previously in the conscious. For example, if society looks down upon extramarital relationships, the desire would be suppressed and then later expressed as sexual activity in other forms. Freud called this transference. His recommended approach to curing mental problems is first to discover all repressions through dream analysis and free association in which you are prompted for a symbol and you explain its meaning. Once the unconscious has been discovered, Freud argues, it should be given a free reign in order to heal a person.

There is truth in Freud’s ideas about the suppression of desire, because ultimately a living entity has desires—primarily of meaning and pleasure. The question is: How should these desires be expressed? There are legitimate expressions of desire, and there are illegitimate expressions of desire. Overcoming the unconscious involves sublimating the desires from illegitimate to legitimate ways, thereby forming new habits such that the old habits would automatically die down. If, however, the desires are given a free reign in illegitimate ways, they would be strengthened and create additional problems.

The difference between Freud and Vedic philosophy therefore originates in their different views of the unconscious. If we have desires, why are my desires different from yours? Vedic philosophy offers an answer: the desires are habits. That is, the material desires are not native properties of the soul. However, they are habits which have been acquired due to past repetitions and can be given up if those repetitions were stopped.

These habits exist in an unmanifest form—i.e. as possibilities for choice—and they manifest as choices. If these desires are suppressed they will manifest in other ways, as Freud correctly diagnoses. However, the solution to that transference is not to give all desires a free reign, but to find the correct avenues for expressing one’s desires. For example, if one has the desire for violence, there are legitimate expressions of this desire—e.g. in a nation’s defense or law enforcement. There are also partially legitimate expressions of this desire—e.g. in playing contact sports. Finally, there are illegitimate expressions of this desire in domestic or civilian violence. No desire is invalid, but there are correct and incorrect avenues for the expression of desires.

The Misinterpretation of the Unconscious

Many so-called spiritual teachers have employed the principles of psychoanalysis to teach people that it is okay to let go of one’s “inhibitions” imposed “artificially” by society. These views have dominantly arisen in the West where the need for individualism is prioritized over the rules of socially acceptable behavior. People have been taught that these social rules are coming from religious traditions which created social norms in order to subjugate the population according to God’s commandments, although that God is not helping them find the happiness they need. Therefore, to become happy—without the constraints of religious rules—one has to reject social norms.

People have forgotten that the rules of moral behavior enshrined in religions have a basis in the theory of karma—which is a natural law of cause, effect, and consequence. God doesn’t directly participate in the natural law, however, the consequences of actions are delivered through demigods who administer the universe. These administrators are quite like the bureaucrats in a government who punish those who violate the laws of a country. The difference is that a criminal may escape the punishment of a government, but no criminal goes unpunished by the natural moral law.

It is therefore incorrect to presume that social norms are just cultural restrictions. They may have been expressed previously according to the culture (and some of these rules may be irrelevant now), but there is indeed a natural law that determines the legitimate and illegitimate expressions of desire. Letting go of one’s inhibitions and doing whatever one wants invites karma, the result of which will be that a person would be placed under even more severe restrictions such that their desires would be even less fulfilled, thereby causing even more repression and transference. The problem of repression and transference therefore originates in giving desires a free reign.

The Genesis of Material Fear

The origin of what Freud considers social hemming of individual desires is actually a consequence of karma due to which a person is unable to fulfill their desires. Living entities are not free to do whatever they want. There are, of course, social strictures which normatively prohibit a person from doing many things. But quite aside from such norms is karma which creates the opportunities in which one can fulfill their desires. If the relevant karma is missing, the opportunities are not available.

We can blame social laws for the lack of such opportunities, but the laws are only normative and not preventive. That is, they are telling you that it is bad to do something; they are not preventing you from actually doing it. Karma, however, prevents a person from fulfilling their desires by limiting the opportunities in which such desires can be fulfilled. For example, a person’s desire to find a loving partner may be frustrated when he or she only meets incompatible prospects due to previously created karma.

There is, hence, desiring and deserving, where the latter is produced as a moral consequence of our actions. One of the main causes of repression of desire is the frustration of desire. For example, if someone has experienced failed marriages, they would naturally imbibe a fear of marriage. Though they have the desire to find a loving partner, they would tread cautiously, not expose themselves to yet another disaster, and thereby not avail of any opportunities even when they are knocking at the door. The fear that stops us from exercising our desires is not just social norms but also bad experiences arising from karma. Indeed, the dominant cause of repression is bad encounters due to karma; the social conformance exists too, but is not dominant.

It is noteworthy that karma will frustrate your desires only if you have frustrated other’s desires in the past. Karma is retribution for what one has done in the past. Therefore, if you have instilled fear in others, nature will arrange circumstances by which fear would be struck in your heart. Thus a person suffers through the cycle of hurting others, getting hurt themselves, suppressing the desire, transferring it elsewhere, which is then manifest in convoluted and illegitimate ways, creating more pain and suffering. Freud’s understanding of this process is non-existent, because he sees neither guna as preformed habits, nor karma as the consequence of illegitimate enactment of habits.

The Genesis of Material Desire

The term guna is translated as a “rope” which binds the soul. This binding is like a leash on a dog, by which the dog can be controlled and dragged by its master. Lord Shiva is called Paśupati—the master of the animal. The term paśu indicates an animal, which is tied by ropes or guna, and then dragged by the master. The master in this case is Lord Shiva—the personification of time. Thus, time is the master, guna is the leash, and the soul is the animal tied by the leash and dragged by time. This is a powerful imagery to understand the condition of the soul in the world, and how the soul develops new desires.

The basic process is that when the rope of the guna is tightened, the soul feels suffocated, which gives rise to the fear of death and destruction, because the soul is already small, and when the leash is further tightened, the soul develops the fear of extinction. To overcome that fear, the soul becomes impatient and acts impulsively, which is called desire. So, the trigger for all material desires is fear (of which death is the most dominant), and therefore fear and desire are simply two sides of the same coin. Owing to this fact, psychoanalysts have examined some deep connections between fear and desire.

The tantra scriptures describe that a soul feels constrained in five ways due to guna: niyati, kāla, rāga, vidyā and kalā. Niyati is the feeling that the soul is in a particular place and that it cannot be in all the places. The limitation of kāla is the feeling that the soul is in a particular time and cannot be in all times. The limitation of rāga is the feeling that the soul can only accept a few things and not whatever is offered by the circumstances. The limitation of vidyā is the feeling that the soul can only know a few things and even if perfect knowledge were offered it is impossible to know that perfection. The limitation of kalā is the feeling that the soul has certain abilities and cannot be asked to do things that are beyond the capabilities. These five constraints are subdivisions of māyā which is the idea that “I am not that”—which means that I’m limited, incapable, bereft, and deficient in something.

It is a fact that the soul is limited, which is why it is called anu or atomic rather than vibhu or complete. But being limited itself cannot be the cause of unhappiness—if you feel secure and happy in the protection of God—just like a child feels safe in the lap of a mother or father and rests peacefully. The source of unhappiness is that the soul is small (like a baby) and it is also alone (without the mother and the father, having rejected their protection). The combination of being small and feeling lonely under fear leads to a deep sense of unhappiness. The unhappiness is therefore not just in the tightening of the leash (which makes the soul feel small) but also in the sense of loneliness (due to isolation from God) because one feels helplessly alone.

The problem is that material nature mocks and teases the soul for its powerless situation, by reminding it again and again about how small it is, how incapable it is, and how deficient it is. The soul is baited by material nature through provocation and incitement and this creates anger and fear in the soul. Once the fear and anger is created, the soul is motivated to get up and fight these limitations, as if to teach those who are mocking it a lesson. This passion and anger to get up and fight against the mocking and teasing is called material desire.

The Mechanism of Desire

This process is described in Vedic texts as comprised of two stages: āvaraṇātmikā which means “covering” and prakṣepātmikā which means “throwing”. The soul is like a dog bound by a leash called āvaraṇātmikā. When the leash is tightened, it angers the dog and it starts struggling to become free of the leash, and that tightening is called prakṣepātmikā—the desire to get up and fight the oppression of the leash. If the dog is sitting peacefully, then nature will tighten the leash in order to provoke the dog, and hence this tightening is called “throwing” because it causes the dog to become restless and run around in order to free itself from the leash. When the leash is loosened somewhat, the dog feels comfortable: “Ah, finally, I have proven my superiority over the leash, and now I am independent, so I can do whatever I want”. The tendency to feel comfortable in life is called “covering” or illusion. In short, āvaraṇātmikā is the loosened leash and prakṣepātmikā is the tightened leash. Both are leashes, and hence two different aspects of the guna.

Time goes cyclically—which means sometimes the leash is tightened and at other times it is loosened. Accordingly, there are periods of restless activity, followed by relaxed satisfaction and enjoyment. The restless activity is “throwing” when the leash is tightened. The relaxed enjoyment is “covering” when the leash is loosened. Thus, it is said that happiness is nothing but the cessation of suffering because the soul suffers like the dog whose leash has been tightened. When the leash is loosened a bit, the dog feels relaxed that it can move around a little bit and that causes it to go back to sleep again.

The tightening and loosening of the guna are like a piston. If you have seen steam engines, the pulling and pushing of the piston makes the wheels go round and round. Time is that force which causes the piston to push and pull. Like a horse rider who pulls and relaxes the reigns on a horse in order to make it run in a race, similarly, time pulls and relaxes the guna of a soul to make it run. We can also think of the soul as a puppet orchestrated by strings in the control of a puppeteer—time. Sometimes the puppeteer pulls the strings and then at other times it relaxes the strings. These are powerful analogies but there is also an equally vivid science underlying these analogies.

Ultimately, we can see that even in Vedic philosophy the living entity is an animal. The difference is that in Freud’s thinking the animal is wild, while in the Vedic thinking the animal is domestic. That is, the animal has a leash and is under control, not free to do whatever it desires, and however it desires it. That minor difference, however, changes the understanding of the unconscious and how desires (consciousness) emerge from it.

Fear and Desire Originate in Envy

The soul is fully aware of its limited situation. I mean, who doesn’t know that they are in one place and not in all places, that they can know very few things, that they cannot like everything, or that they have limited abilities? And yet, the soul has innate envy of God who is complete—i.e. He is in all places, He is in all times, He can like anything, He knows everything, and He is capable of anything. We use words such as omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, etc. to describe God. God is complete or vibhu and the soul is limited or anu. But the soul doesn’t want to be reminded of this limitation due to its envy of God. Time reminds the soul repeatedly of its limitations and provokes it.

In other words, either the soul has to accept that God is superior and thereby surrender to God. Or nature will keep tightening and loosening the leash periodically due to which the soul would be repeatedly reminded that it is actually bound, constrained, small, and incapable. Superficially, it appears that by baiting, material nature is actually instigating the soul to get up and fight. At a closer look, however, we can see that material nature is only reminding the soul that it is very small and it has to surrender. Material nature is therefore also a spiritual energy—but it is spirituality meant for the envious.

The spiritually advanced person realizes that fear and desire would never arise if they did not have the envy. If the soul is cognizant of God, then when material nature reminds the soul of its small position, the soul would simply nod its head in agreement, and accept that it is very small and helpless. Where is the need to be provoked on being told the truth? If the provocation is that you are small, then accepting that idea as a fact of life is the cure to the material problems. In fact, if the soul truly accepts that it is limited and small, then it will cry out like a baby seeking the shelter of a mother or a father.

Similarly, when a spiritually advanced person undergoes suffering, he simply nods his head in approval. He doesn’t feel bad about the fact that he is helpless against circumstances, nor does he resent the circumstances, because he accepts that he is small and at the mercy of the complete. Anger and frustration at suffering is the sign that a person hasn’t accepted their smallness, and that they feel entitled to a good life when the circumstances they are in are just outcomes of previous karma.

The Folly of Not Recognizing Envy

Psychoanalysts have correctly recognized that fear and desire are the deeper underlying problems in all humans; the desires are suppressed due to fear. However, their diagnosis of fear is incorrect because they don’t go deep enough to recognize envy as the root cause of fear. Their opinion is that fear is coming from outside—the social constraints—when the fear is created inside a person when they are forced to feel inadequate, insufficient, and incapable. The fear and anger is not that the world is oppressing me, and therefore I don’t have to revolt against the oppression of the world. The fear and anger is that I am so limited that I’m unable to fight the worldly limitations.

The oppression and suppression from the external world is simply an ignition for our internal insecurity. When we feel helpless against the oppression and suppression it makes us angry and fearful. But we must recognize two things. First, that we feel fear and anger because we know that we are helpless; if we had the power to change the world, then we would not feel fear and anger; we would rather feel excited about the opportunity to show our power; fear and anger are thus due to insecurity and helplessness. Second, we must recognize that all souls are helpless in the ultimate analysis; they might appear to have some relative strengths and power for the time being, but even they are barking like a ferocious dog precisely because there is fear and insecurity inside them. The root cause of our suffering is therefore not outside—caused by other people—but inside, originating in our insecurities.

The origin of the insecurity is envy. The psychoanalytic attempt to look deeper and deeper into the psyche is incomplete if we simply look at anger and fear and then immediately run outwards into the external world and blame society for creating that anger and fear in us. This is a cop-out where you begin an inward journey and after going to some depth you refuse to go further in. Vedic philosophy teaches us that the fear and the anger in us (which outwardly appears as desire) is only a surface symptom of envy. We are small and helpless, but we have refused to accept the One who is big and helpful. Every time when problems arise, we should remember that the worldly situation would not be perceived as a problem if it were not for our inner fear and anger—ultimately caused by envy. When our fear and anger is seen as originating internally, then we can become free of it.

The Oedipus and the Electra Complexes

There are areas in Freudian psychology where psychoanalysis becomes psychogymnastics, when extraordinarily convoluted explanations of quite simple phenomena are sought. A classic case of such explanatory gymnastics is the Oedipus and Electra complexes which represent a boy’s preeminent attraction to his mother and a girl’s natural fussing about her father. Below are some excerpts that describe the convoluted thinking.

“The psychodynamic nature of the daughter–mother relationship in the Electra complex derives from penis envy, caused by mother, who also caused the girl’s castration; however, upon re-aligning her sexual attraction to father (heterosexuality), the girl represses the hostile female competition, for fear of losing the love of her mother.” — Wikipedia on Electra Complex

In the phallic stage, a boy’s decisive psychosexual experience is the Oedipus complex—his son–father competition for possession of mother. It is in this third stage of psychosexual development that the child’s genitalia are his or her primary erogenous zone; thus, when children become aware of their bodies, the bodies of other children, and the bodies of their parents, they gratify physical curiosity by undressing and exploring themselves, each other, and their genitals, so learning the anatomic differences between “male” and “female” and the gender differences between “boy” and “girl”. — Wikipedia on Oedipus Complex

In previous posts (here and here), I described how consciousness has four basic archetypes—feminine, masculine, male, and female—which are paired together as complementary companions. I also discussed how every human being is a combination of the two opposites, and an enlightened soul therefore creates this internal union between opposites in order to advance in spirituality. Any male therefore needs a female, and vice versa. The Oedipus and Electra complexes are simply manifestations of the idea that a child—if he or she doesn’t have the unity of opposite archetypes will feel incomplete and therefore aim to unite with the opposite. This unity, however, is not due to a boy’s envy of his father or due to a girl’s envy for her mother. It is possible that if a boy has greater feminine tendencies while the mother is more masculine relative to the father, then the boy would be attracted more to the father.

Freudian psychoanalysis is symptomatic of the problem that Freud carefully observed numerous human psychological phenomena and then contrived their explanations in a way that most of them turn out to be excessively complicated and false, while the simplest explanation that could actually demystify a number of difficult phenomena is neglected.

The Relation to Impersonalism

The impersonalist philosopher recognizes that the root of our suffering is fear, anger, and desire. But he refuses to see that these arise due to envy. Of course, the impersonalists don’t immediately run outward like Freud looking for an excuse for our fears and repressions. In that sense impersonalists are better than psychoanalysts because at least they recognize that the fear, anger, and desire inside us is an innate problem, not a problem caused by external circumstances. Nevertheless, the impersonalist’s inward journey is also incomplete because they aren’t able to realize that the origin of fear lies in envy.

The impersonalist therefore recognizes that fear, desire, and anger are the root causes of suffering and he practices freedom from them. The impersonalist also imagines that when he becomes free of fear, desire, and anger, he has become God—because God too is free of fear, anger, and desire. In that sense most impersonalists believe that upon freedom from material desires they will merge into God and become identical with God.

The problem is that even if you temporarily give up fear, desire, and anger, there is no guarantee that you won’t get it again, because while pretending to give up fear, desire, and anger you don’t become equal to God, who is always vibhu (complete) and we are always anu (atomic). God is indeed free of material fear, desire, and anger, but the reason is that He is the master of the material nature. He doesn’t need to fear something that He fully controls. So, if the soul also conquers their inner fear, they have just conquered themselves, and not the world. And yet, the impersonalist confuses the two; he thinks that by conquering ourselves we have transcended the material world just like God.

Owing to the tendency to portray themselves as powerful conquerors—who slay the demons of inner fear, desire, and anger—the impersonalists often take shelter of psychoanalysis. But ultimately there are no answers in psychoanalysis, which goes inwards and then takes a U-turn outwards. Impersonalists are not therefore followers of the Vedic tradition because the journey inwards is completed when fear, desire, and anger are rooted out by recognizing that we are atomic and God is complete.