Book review by David Lorimer
AGELESS MIND AND TIMELESS IDEAS (AMTI)
Edited by V. Balamohandas and K.R. Rajani
DK Printworld, 2016, 186 pp.
CULTIVATING CONSCIOUSNESS (CC)
K. Ramakrishna Rao et al.
DK Printworld, 2014, 380 pp.
Gowri Rammohan is right when he observes that Dr K. Ramakrishna Rao is to Indian psychology what Dr S. Radhakrishnan is to Indian philosophy in bringing the depth and richness of classical Indian thought into a contemporary context. Radhakrishnan was the first Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford and subsequently President of India and a recipient of the Templeton Prize. He has had a very considerable influence on my thinking over the past 40 years. Ramakrishna Rao deserves to be equally well-known to readers for the scope of his contribution to psychology, philosophy, parapsychology, yoga, mysticism and education. Like Ervin Laszlo and his time twin Stanley Krippner, he was born in 1932 and has made extensive scholarly contributions over a period of 60 years. He first visited Duke University and the parapsychology lab of JB Rhine in 1958, at the age of 26. Rhine had a formative influence on his thinking, and he was closely involved with his work over many years. He has held many distinguished positions, including Vice Chancellor of Andhra University, President of the Parapsychological Association, President of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, President of the Asian Congress of Philosophy and currently Chancellor of the Gandhi Institute of Technology and Management University (GITAM).
These three books are complementary in their coverage of Ramakrishna Rao’s life, thought and central concerns. The first celebrates his 80th birthday with 17 contributions from colleagues around the world, while the second is a Festschrift of reflections and reminiscences of his life. The third volume was first published in 1992, and the new edition contains four new and authoritative essays by Ramakrishna Rao on yoga, Vedanta, Buddhism and East-West approaches to consciousness.
A good place to start is the definition of consciousness, which depends equally on context, academic discipline and culture. Rao states that consciousness in the Indian tradition is more than an experience of awareness, but rather a fundamental principle that underlies all knowing and being. The cognitive structure does not generate consciousness, but rather reflects, limits and embellishes it. It is the source of our awareness or the light which illumines the things on which it shines. (AMTI, p. 38). In his conclusion to the final essay in the third book, he characterises the Western scholarly tradition as equating consciousness with the mind and defining intentionality as its essential characteristic. The goal is rational understanding of what consciousness or mind is, and the focus is on the phenomenal aspect. By contrast, the Indian approach does not distinguish between consciousness and mind, characterising consciousness as such or pure consciousness as non-intentional, while mind is intentional. Critically, the goal is one of developing practical methods for transformation via the realisation of consciousness as such. (CC, p. 348) Rao believes that humans enjoy dual citizenship of the phenomenal and transcendental domains of consciousness, but it is striking how the transformational impulse is generally absent from the Western tradition, except more recently in humanistic and transpersonal psychology. The West is mainly concerned with knowing, while the East addresses both knowing and being.
Rao was 15 when India gained its independence in 1947. However, Indian education was still fundamentally influenced by the Western worldview, and indeed more specifically by science, especially emphasised by Nehru. There has been a tendency, also present in early anthropologists, to assume that the Western way of knowing is inherently superior, which disregards the thousands of years of sophisticated philosophy in India, China and elsewhere. In the 19th century, Lord Macaulay stated the aim of education as cultivating Indians who were English in taste, in opinions and intellect. However, this comes at the cost of denigrating and distancing Indians from their native culture while privileging those of the West, and arguably results in a crisis of philosophical identity. In particular, Rao argues that by providing a more expansive context, Indian psychology can throw light on and resolve some of the major challenges confronting psychology, namely the consciousness puzzle, the enigma of cognitive anomalies, and the development of human spirituality.
In elucidating these topics, Rao has exhibited a commendable intellectual courage in the face of academic pressure to dismiss or ignore parapsychology. He identifies the limitations of scientific materialism with respect to both parapsychology and spirituality. He was Director of the Institute for Parapsychology in Durham, North Carolina from 1976 to 1984, and Executive Director of the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (also founded by the Rhines) from 1988 to 1994. He has published extensively in both fields, always with the aim of connecting them in his pursuit of ‘wisdom aimed at transforming the person and society.’
CGY gives a comprehensive overview of the whole range of Ramakrishna Rao’s work in psychology, yoga, parapsychology, applied psychology, philosophy and Gandhian studies. The essays are written by experts in the respective fields and make for highly stimulating reading across a wide range of issues. Max Velmans compares his reflexive model of consciousness with the Body-Mind-Consciousness Trident model advanced by Rao. This is a thorough and very instructive chapter highlighting both similarities and major differences while situating his own contribution within the Western tradition. Max provides a detailed comparative table (pp. 120-121) and highlights the importance of perspectival switching between first and third person accounts of causality.
The essay on the search for authentic self provides an illuminating contrast between Western and Eastern approaches. The authors see this as a process of becoming through being, which in the West focuses on the development of personality – ‘being true to oneself’ – while India emphasises an inner orientation. They discuss Sri Aurobindo and Mahatma Gandhi as case studies of people who transformed themselves in order to achieve a greater, selfless purpose. In these cases, authenticity is a process of transformation or self-transcendence rather than a narrower self-fulfilment. This makes for fascinating reading, with extensive quotations from both authors. The more holistic Indian approach also relates to community, responsibility and shared goals – it is much less individualistic and requires a degree of detachment.
A major strand of Ramakrishna Rao’s work is Gandhi’s applied spirituality, informed by the philosophical principles such as satyagraha (truth force, a form of spirituality in action). Rao is deeply concerned by the extent of violence in our societies and equally impressed by the way in which Gandhi and others have addressed this through nonviolence. Rao writes about this himself in the final essay of AMTI, where he relates his own model to Gandhi’s life, epitomised by an acute tension between higher and lower aspects of his nature. Thus, we have a constant and fundamental choice of orientation, where practice of yoga and meditation can play a critical role.
CC originates in a conference held to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Louisa Rhine in 1991. It contains many classic contributions, including an essay on metaphysical foundations of modern science by Willis Harman, with a critical commentary by Stephen Braude, an exposition of Whitehead’s understanding of consciousness from David Ray Griffin, epistemological issues covered by Eugene Taylor, the importance of balancing Yin and Yang, feminine and masculine in science, an essay by Michael Grosso on imagination and healing as well as contributions from Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne from Princeton. An interesting theme is the relationship of psi to the unconscious and subliminal perception as it presents an immediate form of knowing often only subsequently verified or falsified. Of course, a huge amount of research has been published since the first appearance of the book in 1992, but it still provides many pertinent reflections.
Many people are put off the ideas of Whitehead because of their difficulty and the fact that he invents new terminology to replace what he considers to be defective or incomplete ideas. His point of departure is experiential events, or occasions of experience, so the stuff of the mind is experience rather than consciousness. Griffin argues that consciousness itself is not efficacious, but the human mind as a whole – with its unconscious depths as well as its conscious surface – is the most powerful actuality on the face of the planet. He also discusses whether consciousness is a blessing or a curse, quoting Whitehead as saying that the function of philosophy is the self correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. He sees consciousness as selectively obscuring the totality, which philosophy has to seek to recover. This gives a fresh insight into the field.
Ramakrishna Rao’s own contribution the body of the volume discusses some conceptual and methodological issues, covering definitions, the relationship between conscious and unconscious, philosophical approaches by Descartes, Husserl and Sartre, issues of upward and downward causation, first and third person perspectives and the role of meditation. However, his new essays on yoga, Vedanta and Buddhism are masterly expositions of these traditions and their relationship to modern psychology. His final essay, as mentioned earlier, is a wide-ranging consideration of Western and Eastern approaches also covering Western phenomenology and existentialism. It provides a fitting summation to the themes covered in all three books.
Ramakrishna Rao’s prodigious output over the last 10 years has amounted to over 5,000 pages, including the magisterial Cognitive Anomalies, Consciousness and Yoga, which I reviewed for the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He is an interdisciplinary giant who has integrated his ideas across many disciplines, while never losing sight of the fundamental importance of wisdom, the process of spiritualisation, and applied spirituality addressed to the fundamental challenges of our time.