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Indic Philosophy and Western Mind/Body Dualism

This paper will examine the division of mind and body in Western philosophy from the perspective of an alternative system of thought: Samkhya/Yoga, a school of Indic philosophy based in the sacred Vedic texts. Henceforth I will refer to this school of philosophy as Samkhya, since the practice of yoga will not be covered in my discussion. Fortunately yoga is familiar to many people in the Western world today, but we are less aware of the philosophy and ideology that was originally tied to yoga in ancient India.

Unlike the mind/body division in Western philosophy, the division of importance in Samkhya is between soul (or spirit) and everything else: mind, body, and all that is contained in nature and the changing world. This means that Samkhya holds the mind as such to be part of nature and not part of what is considered mystical or non-tangible. So, although Eastern philosophy is usually considered to be encompassed by spirituality and mystic thought, the Samkhya school reserves mysticism for the soul and does not apply it to either the mind or the body. Therefore, Samkhya is a rational and empirical philosophy regarding the mind, body, and natural things. There is nothing especially magical or religious about Samkhyas views of nature when they are separated from ideas about the spiritual soul.

However, in another sense the separation between spirit and matter sets up a dialectic between the two, so that they depend on one another for the roles they play in Samkhya philosophy. It would not be conceivable from the perspective of Samkhya to have a body without soul or matter without spirit, which clearly differentiates Samkhya from the Carvaka school of Indic philosophy. Samkhya incorporates the spiritual element of human life into the overall picture while still seeing a clear division of the spirit (or soul) from the body and mind. A concept that is important in understanding how Samkhya can achieve this simultaneous separation and integration is that of the gunas.

Gunas, or strands of substance, are present in the mind and body and also affect the soul. The gunas are ways to describe different aspects of the human whole; they must be in balance or else the mind and body will not function well.. The self, therefore, is perhaps not directly dependent on the balance of gunas, though the body and mind are; rather, the selfs overall condition is determined by the health status of the body and mind and also the effects of that status on the soul. The separation of soul from body and mind may offer a preservation of the self outside of the state of the mind and body, so that even in a person with the most extreme imbalance of gunas, the self is maintained as something separate from and above this imbalance.

I should note that this separate self is really a potential self, a capacity for transcendence that always exists but cannot be realized as long as the body and mind suffer. The guna of the soul is so ephemeral that its substance cannot be observed or defined, which I think may support the idea that the condition of the soul can only improve via concrete adjustments to the mind and body.

Over the course of a life, as the body and mind travel through different stages (I will specifically address the first two stages later on in this paper) and experience different sorts of limitations, the soul is in a sense waiting to create the fully realized self. The division between soul and nature suggests not only that I am not my body, as is also true for Western mind/body dualism, but also that I am not my intellect, my ego, or my primal substance. Then, perhaps, there is no need to fear that the potential self will not survive a drastic change in the body or mind, so such changes can be undertaken without the result of a spiritual crisis within the individual.

In this way, the division in Samkhya allows for an aggressively rationalist approach to problem-solving in matters of Nature, but one which still considers the spirituality of the patient. The body and mind can change without a fundamental alteration to the potential self, which depends also on the separate state of the soul.

In medicine, the separation of body/mind and soul of the Samkhya philosophy may cause the practice of Ayurveda to function similar to the way it might in materialism, in the sense that the physician does not need to concern himself with directly treating the soul or self but is interested only in the mind and body half of the dualism. So although the Carvaka school may be quite different than Samkhya in matters of religion and spirituality, in the practice of medicine these differences may not be not so important. Both schools emphasize the necessity of balance within the material body (which includes the mind) and discourage the preservation of imbalance for the sake of preserving qualities associated with the spiritual self.

For example, neither school would encourage an individual with an excess of the tamas guna to identify himself as essentially united with the qualities of tamas to the extent where correcting the imbalance would be to annihilate his basic identity. This is an element of Ayurveda and Indic philosophy that Western medicine, in my opinion, does not capture as well; specialization in the West can cause patients to feel like the doctor sees them as nothing but a diseased heart or a brain tumor, which is not a correct assessment of the patients identity. It matters not so much whether the doctor really cannot see the patient as a whole person but whether the patient feels objectified by the process of specialized treatment of a specific illness or organ.

The patient of Western medicine who feels this way can become defensive of her whole self and irritated with a doctor who tells her to change her lifestyle so that the organ he is focusing on can function better. The cardiologist, for example, may insist that a patient lose weight in order to lower his risk of heart attack. The specialist is not likely to consider that the patient may also have a problem with stress or alcoholism which could become more problematic if the man were to give up food as a source of relief. Ayurveda, in viewing the sick person as a natural system with many parts that are out of balance, achieves a better synthesis between the patients body, mind and soul.

The self, Samkhya dictates, is not defined by anything in the body or mind alone. Carvaka dictates that the self as this individual views it is nothing but ego, but Samkhya acknowledges the importance of the potential self by placing it in an entirely separate category; in this way, the individual with an imbalance can be reassured that his basic as-yet unrealized identity will remain even if the imbalance is corrected and the qualities of his body and mind change. He may even come closer to realizing his potential self with the successful treatment of his imbalance.

It may be useful to say more about the precise differences between the mind/ego and the soul, according to Samkyha. The ego is an intellectual self-conscious entity which can only exist as it does along with a certain physical container. The potential self made possible by the connection between the separate realms of body/mind and soul does not share its existence with the body; it encompasses the qualities of everything in the individual, including the body, mind, and soul, so it is not limited in the same way as the ego.

The ego, because of its separation from the soul, is in itself a non-spiritual entity which can function spiritually only when it achieves the connection with the soul that allows the potential self to be realized. In contrast, the soul is an inherently spiritual entity with no physical attributes or dependence on a physical body. Of course, the soul must be ascribed to a physical body, but once that body dies the soul still exists, which accounts for its independence from the body.

Ayurveda can therefore be a radical science of adjusting the balance of the gunas in the ego as well as in the body, which in Western medicine might be seen as an attempt to alter the individuals entire self (since the ego is a central aspect of the self in Western philosophy) and as a sacrifice of the individuals innate personality. In Ayurveda the individuals entire life and spectrum of habits can be altered without a loss of his soul, so it is not a narrow body-only realm in which his life must change, but in every area of his existence: diet, outlook, and self-image, habits of both thought and bodily maintenance.

Samkhya and Ayurveda recognize the close ties between physical and mental health because the physical and mental are not divided; therefore Indic medicine is both more unified and more divided than Western medicine, because the difference is in where the division occurs.

Mental illness would be defined in Samkhya (as well as in Western medicine) as ill health within the ego and cognitive processes, not within the soul. But the dialectic of the spirit and body creates separation with a mutual capability on the part of each side to affect the other, so the soul is negatively affected by ill health within the ego. When the body and ego are not well, the spirit cannot embrace the body or ego and the person is almost literally not himself, since he is not in contact with his spirit. To be fully himself, a person must experience both aspects of the dialectic to the fullest, because if he is lacking in either one the potential of the entire self will be weakened.

The individual referred to before who has an excess of the tamas guna is not identified as inevitably lacking in qualities of the other two gunas (in other words, as a fundamentally inactive and dark person), but as capable of change though acquiring more of the energetic/active and cerebral/light qualities. It is assumed that everyone has, on the Nature side of the division, (body and mind/ego) all three gunas present within themselves and the potential for all to be in proper balance.

The realization of the potential self involves the satisfaction of the four aims of life in Indic philosophy: artha, kama, dharma, and moksa. I will now describe the role each of these aims plays in bringing the soul closer to freedom.

Artha is the material aim in which all subgoals serve the body and mind as substances which are not eternal, such as adequate nutrition, finances, shelter and other requirements. The non-material goals do not have to be eclipsed by Artha, as it ministers only to the material half of the individual and not to the spiritual half. But when the goals of artha are unsatisfied, the body and mind suffer, whether it be from lack of sufficient food or the physical and mental exhaustion that accompany the state of poverty. There will most likely be an imbalance of doshas, the categories of physical qualities like heat and energy, darkness and solidity, and lightness. Food, water, rest, and shelter are necessary for the attainment of the other three aims of life.

Kama as well resides in the material half of the self, but its satisfaction has perhaps more of an effect on the spiritual half in the sense that when the body is pleased, the soul is not trapped by the suffering of the body. Sensual satisfaction allows for the satisfaction of the soul. Without pleasure, the body and mind are either in pain or lacking any sensation at all, neither of which are ideal states. The soul cannot thrive when there is no sensual pleasure. If the aim of artha has been satisfied, the individual has a chance to achieve sensual satisfaction, whereas if he is lacking in the satisfaction of artha, he will not likely experience much pleasure or even basic sensual comfort. This will be prevented by conditions of hunger and physical illness.

Dharma is the aim of virtue and morality in purpose and action. It cannot be achieved separately from kama or artha, as without material and sensual satisfaction the soul is trapped in the suffering of the body and mind. But in Samkhya, since the soul is a real yet separate entity, Dharma is as necessary for the soul as kama and artha are to the body. Dharma is a special ministration to the soul, because its subgoals are explicitly ethical and therefore address an aspect of the spiritual. The self as a whole will not be satisfied without the achievement of the spiritual aims.

Moksa, the final aim of life, is the fulfillment of explicitly spiritual goals such as an understanding of the divine. Here again the ultimate spiritual satisfaction cannot be achieved without virtuous action, dharma, the first sequence on the path to spiritual fulfillment. Next Moksa can be sought, but one cannot hope for spiritual enlightenment without having satisfied the material needs of artha and the sensual desires of kama, and freed the soul through virtuous behaviors that satisfy the goals of dharma.

So, we see that all four aims of life are dependent on each of the others in some way according to the Samkhya school, since material satisfaction on its own is incomplete and spiritual satisfaction on its own is impossible. But why is material satisfaction incomplete; does this mean that artha and kama, if achieved without also satisfying the aims of dharma and moksa, are not truly satisfied? Perhaps it does, in the sense that ultimate satisfaction is a unity.

The four aims of life are categorized but not separated, so that one aim satisfied without the others is not even true satisfaction of that single aim. Here is the aspect in which Samkhya supports unity: one part can be dealt with on its own but cannot be said to be satisfied or fully healed without the effects of other satisfied parts.

Now we must ask, what is the implication of this for the individual who seems physically healthy but mentally unsatisfied? How is she treated with Ayurveda according to Samkhya philosophy? It is likely that anyone with mental illness will be seen as also physically ill, since both types of illness are in the same part of the Samkhya dualism. The same principle of balance will therefore apply for curing mental illness, but the imbalance will appear in this case as one guna overwhelming the others in the form of character traits rather than physical abnormalities.

In the earlier example of the individual with an excess of tamas, the character problems would include stubbornness, failure to succeed and produce, and stifled creativity and intelligence. This is a concrete person who cannot move from his solid grounding in material reality. He will have trouble achieving kama because of his lack of energy, dharma because he is not sensually satisfied, and moksa because kama and dharma remain unsatisfied. His soul, although not sick itself, will be trapped by the suffering of his mind and body until the imbalance in gunas is corrected; only then will his soul be able to participate in the achievement of dharma and moksa.

This example illustrates the way in which in aim of life cannot be truly satisfied when other aims are blocked, because even if this individual is satisfied in artha, he will not actually experience this material satisfaction; his body will be affected by his mental disease so that he believes he is in physical discomfort as well as mental despair. So, although it is not his body that is ill, he will feel as though the attainment of artha has not really occurred until the mental disease has been resolved as well. The mentally healthy and capable individual should be examined with regard to the four aims of life, and also to see at what point in time these aims tend to be reached.

If we consider a person who has successfully achieved the aims of artha and kama, it is likely that he is in the second stage of life as defined by Indic philosophy, which is the stage of family and work. The first stage, that of the student, may correspond only to artha (if that) because the individual is young and may not appreciate the full variety and depth of sensual experience that defines kama. In other words, the financially comfortable young person (who has satisfied the aim of artha) might be experimenting with many different kinds of experiences like sex, mind-altering substances, etc., but in this period of experimentation he is in too much of a rush to fully immerse himself in kama. It is in the second stage that he settles down enough to achieve this aim.

Before I go further I will acknowledge that my understanding of the particulars of the Indic stages of life is limited, so it is possible that my thoughts about peoples behavior in the various stages is actually based on my observations of Western culture. However, I have tried to be general enough in my descriptions of the individual in various stages that they may apply to any human society, with the risk of inaccurate statements if this is not possible.

Dharma should be a goal that the individual strives for ideally in every stage of life; but if he never achieves the aim of artha, dharma may be impossible. For example, if he must steal food in order to keep himself alive, he has no choice but to put aside any consideration of the virtuous or moral act. This person is only concerned with survival and no other aims, so it is natural that he would not value the achievement of dharma while he is so stricken by poverty.

The student who has adequate financial resources, whom I discussed in reference to kama, will be working on the aim of dharma at the same time that he is involved in sensual experimentation. The simultaneous striving toward both these aims could create conflict for the student if they turned out to be in opposition with one another. This student might, for example, discover that his own fulfillment of kama must come from immoral sexual involvement with animals or small children, in which case he must choose between the aims of kama and dharma.

Clearly he has no chance at achieving dharma if he acts on his desires, but perhaps if he chose to strive for dharma and therefore restricted himself from acting, he might find other sources of sensual pleasure that were not immoral. In this way, kama is more flexible than dharma, because dharma is externally defined by ones impact on others, while kama is defined by the individuals own sensations.

The student with unacceptable sexual desires cannot hope to change the values of those outside himself, but he might have some success at changing (or expanding) his sensual preferences. Still, he might find that kama is somewhat sacrificed no matter how much he attempts to find other sources of pleasure, which would ultimately hinder the development of his potential self. The soul would not thrive on behavior that went against the demands of dharma, but neither would it be free to develop if the body and mind were frustrated by restrictions on the individuals pleasure.

I would like to close by addressing the importance of the inclusion of soul in the Samkya philosophy when it is compared to certain traditions of Western medical tradition. Unlike the doctrine of types of Western medicine that center on the physical anatomy and its composite of chemicals and neurons as the only substance, Samkhya dictates that there is substance within the mind as well (as it is part of Nature) which can be disrupted at its source just as the bodys substance can be. Western medicine sometimes has a tendency to say that the self is made coherent primarily by the mind, a belief that derives from the Cartesian tradition.

Descartes, commenting on the brain, said that it receives impressions both from external objects and from the soul; and in receiving these impressions the brain acts as the organ or seat of the common sense, the imagination and the memory. A philosopher in the Samkhya school would probably argue that since the brain is separate from the soul, the brain cannot be the unifying force that integrates impressions from the soul and impressions from outside.

Common sense as Descartes thought of it would be not be a type of wisdom that unites the body, mind and soul in Samkhya. Each part of the self (body, mind and soul) are represented in the four aims of life as having equal importance in an individuals functioning. There is the assertion in Samkhya that mind is an organic mechanism, just as there is in Western medicine, but the difference is in Samkhyas value of the self as something that both includes and is separate from the organic mind, body and brain.

The ultimate goal of mechanically oriented Western medicine is to get the bodys anatomical system working at its highest level of efficiency, because this will result in optimum health for the individual as a whole. The goal of Samkhya is to improve the relationship between body/mind and soul, which may be achieved through medical treatment, or through changes in the individuals outlook, or by helping the individual to change his lifestyle (including diet, activity level, stress level, etc.). Probably, in fact, it will be a combination of all of these adjustments.

The patient, understanding that his potential self is not gone but merely stifled by imbalance, can assess what he may be missing in his life; one or more of the four aims is not satisfied, so the patient will view healing as the path on the way to realizing a significant accomplishment. It is this active and central human role that Ayurveda gives the patient in his own healing that has caused me to take a critical view of Western medicines mechanistic approach.