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Emotions & Cognition: Two Vedic Views

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As with western philosophy, there has been in the classical Indian tradition (and in the subgenre of that known as Vedic) a lot of attention to the relationship between emotion, or vedana, on the one hand and cognition, or vijnana, on the other.

Popular western impressions of India and its literature may convey the idea that the latter teaches escape, liberation, from the feelings, which presumably tie one to this earthly realm, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and all of that. Isn't detachment the way to nirvana? 

Well, yes, to some. And of course that idea is not unique to India. The above paragraph might put one in mind of Plato, who located the passions at the bottom of his tripartite division of the soul, and specified that the top part, reason, must be firmly in command.

In India, a close analog to Plato's thought is provided by the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika scholars. Individual emotions, whether likings or aversions, are regarded as defects (dosas).  They are responsible for our attachment to the world -- for keeping us inside this cave, as Plato would put it. Further, the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika school holds in contradistinction to many other scholars in the Vedic tradition, that the self is a substance (the atman is a dravya in their terminology).  There is an individual soul which must use reason to free itself of emotions to get out of the cave of the material world.

But in what remains I'd like to speak of another and very different part of the Vedic tradition. It is exemplified by the Samkhya/Yogi school of thought, which puts reason and emotion on the same side of a spirit/matter dualism. They are both material. There is an eternal pure consciousness, but it only mistakenly identifies itself with prakrti (ego and intellect).

This actually sounds like Scientology! If I understand correctly, the essence of L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction story behind it all -- the human soul is that of a political prisoner from another world, sent here by a tyrant. Long ago these spirits/prisoners, wandering the earth, found that they were a workable match for some bipedal apes, so they took to inhabiting the mind and nervous system of those apes. To the extent we can say who we 'really' are, we are those prisoners, but both our ape-like bodies AND minds (the evolved nervous systems of those apes) are part of the earthly realm. We -- the real we -- presumably want to escape from all of it in order to continue our revolution against the tyrant in outer space.

But let's stick with Samkhya. The purity of the soul isn't just thrown into a material body, it is mixed up with a mind that can be understood in material terms. Our thoughts and emotions can, accordingly, be both be understood in material terms, although the thoughtless meditative state achieve by yogic practice cannot be so understood, and recalls purusa back to itself.

Liberation, in the Samkhya system, is achieved in two stages. The critical implication is that the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika  are overly concerned with just one of these. The first step is that in which the passions are mastered by the mind/ego. But then, as a separate step, the mind/ego has to dispense with itself in order to achieve pure contentless consciousness.

And with that I will dispense with myself for tonight.



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