In observance of Mental Health Week, Shepparton Interfaith Network in collaboration with Voices for Harmony conducted a forum, Religion and Mental Health at GOTAFE on Friday, 9th October. In this article, we look to Hinduism and Mental Health.
Hinduism is both an ancient philosophy and way of life; and like the Vedas, has no identifiable founder, no authoritative source. It is called the Perennial Philosophy, for it reflects the order of the Universe, r’ta and finds that order in the smallest aspiration of the worshipping Hindu. It is this order that provides the foundation for mental health in the human being, whatever their station in life. This foundation for mental health is called “dharma”, the righteous path through life. The word dharma has both an individual and universal application.
Dharma is a challenging word to translate to English directly. It can mean right conduct, righteousness, the righteous path through life; it is also means the right order of the Universe and the right action of all that exists within the universe. Dharma in its more proper expression means to support, hold up, preserve. It is the intrinsic essence, inherent purpose or property of a thing; hence, the essential order of things. Dharma also scopes to encase the laws of nature that sustain the operation of the universe. For the individual, dharma is rightness; righteous conduct; virtue; justice and faith. Dharma is the essence of all religions but beyond them: ‘Religion is like a river. Dharma is like the ocean’. (Sathya Sai Baba) Dharma is ‘the vesture of the cosmos’ (Sathya Sai Baba) ; it has both a general and a personal application: the harmony of the world must be maintained, and an individual’s dharma must be fulfilled by adherence to the duties and obligations relating to each person’s inherent nature, profession, status and stage of life as laid down by the ancient lawgivers.
The stages of life laid down by the ancient lawgivers are colloquially known as the 16 Rites of Passage or the Shodasana Sankaras. These refer to the Vedic way of life wherein there are rituals for advance through the four stages of life: childhood~student, the householder, retirement and renunciation. These sanskaras translate as “to reform”. We might ask ourselves “What needs to be reformed?” … and the reply would be something along the lines of ‘the inherent tendencies to follow desires’… which surround the soul. The social and cultural practice of these rituals uphold and protect the four stages of life, providing order, boundaries, meaning and satisfaction at each stage. These elements are important to humans.
The rituals, the stages of life, the protecting elements all add up to what is called true humanness. Humans are not animals, they are not plants, they are not rocks or stones. They are the highest form of life and have two important faculties which separate them from animals: discrimination and detachment.
If only every one asks the questions, “Who are we? Whence did we come? Where have we come to? How long will we be here?”, the truth can be easily grasped. That questioning is the sign of discrimination. When by means of this discrimination, the idea that the world is impermanent gets deeply rooted in the mind, all attachments cease automatically. That is the stage of renunciation, or detachment. Is it worthwhile to be caught up in this unreal world? one asks; this is false, misleading, one tells himself; he then turns his efforts towards the goal of life. It is through discrimination and detachment that man understands who he really is. Without them, it is impossible to know it.
Artha means wealth; purushartha means the (four) legitimate goals of man: dharma, artha, kāma and moksha. ‘Acquire wealth (artha) by righteous means and use it for righteous ends (dharma); develop desire (kāma) for liberation (moksha).’ These four goals keep the human in balance; they are like the tyres of an automobile; put too much air in one tyre and it will burst and the vehicle (the human person) will crash and come to a halt. Human life is a journey from birth to death; we are born in order that we will not be born again, rather, we achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of birth-death-birth-death-birth …
Master the Mind
The key to mental health in Hinduism is to realise that the mind is not in charge; the mind is not the horse pulling the cart of the body around; rather, the self-awareness, the intellect, manages the mind and holds the reins of the mind. A popular strophe in Hinduism is “bend the body, mend the senses, end the mind”. Purpose is like a key; turn the key to the world, there is lack of peace and suffering. Turn the key towards the heart where Divinity resides, there is peace. One of the many names of the Divine is “hrudaya vasi“, indweller of the heart.
Home is where the heart is. Home is most frequently the place of peace, the place of retreat from the travails of the world. Yet, life in the world is full of ups and downs, success and setbacks, happiness and sorrows. Like the motor vehicle, it has gears; some are for forward travel, others are to travel in reverse. Every now and then, life presents us with a forward moving motion with screeching setbacks, we seem to be going backwards; many say, “One step forward, two steps backwards”. There is a problem with this statement, for if it is repeated with feeling and emphasis, then this is the reality we will create, for in Hinduism, yad bhavati, tad bhavatum, as the feeling, so the result. For a positive life, for peace and happiness, we need to cultivate positive thoughts, words and feelings, and give expression to them, no matter what cards have been dealt to us from the deck we call life. In Hinduism, manas-tapas, management of the mind.
Cultivating positive thoughts, words and feelings is a form of mind-management. If we master the mind, then we become a mastermind. Mastering the wayward, outgoing mind in face of the ups and downs of life produces steadiness and builds inner strengths. By cultivating positive thoughts, words and feelings, we build wellness within. We build a character bank, which builds credits we may withdraw when inner support is needed. We may call this our character bank, the bank that has funds for us built by our practice of positive thoughts, words and feelings, our cultivation of virtues, our building inner integrity – which we may use to make withdrawals. When you go to the bank, and you seek a withdrawal, the teller makes reference to your credit established and issues the funds. Ditto strength of character and management of our minds; we may make withdrawals from our character bank in times of setbacks, reversals, sorrows and sufferings. We have this inner strength of mind which we may call upon. In this wise, we build our resilience.
Resilience is freedom from the tyranny of the ego, sometimes called ‘ahamkara‘, I, Me, Mine. The grasping, selfish nature of the ego limits human freedom and resilience by claiming it seeks and attains freedom. The freedoms claimed by the ego are not the freedoms from sorrows and sufferings built up by cultivation of the character bank. In fact, it is the opposite, gained by abuse of human freedoms. In the name of self-satisfaction, the ego pursues desires and conceits; jealousy, greed, envy, infatuation and gives vent to anger. In Hinduism, these are called the six enemies of man, kama, krodha, lobha, moha, mada, matsarya, (lust, anger, greed, infatuation or attachment, conceit, jealousy). Pursuit of and expression of these six enemies of man do not lead to resilience nor the building of the character bank. They are abuses of human freedom.
Abuse of human freedom is a failure of self-knowledge. It is a failure of discrimination, a failure that is expressed externally as prisoner of the mind, a form of mental illness. Hinduism teaches we are not the mind, we are not the body, we are not the senses. Discrimination and detachment are needed in order to discover one’s true identity. Great teachers of humankind in Hinduism tell that 75% of our time should be spent in self-inquiry, in order that we discover our true selves, and the motives for our actions. Lust, anger, greed, infatuation or attachment, conceit, jealousy do not lead to self actualisation, nor inner peace. Some inner fires once lit, never go out.
For mental health, Hinduism teaches the habit of self-inquiry, using the intellect, and practice of discrimination and detachment. All have to ask the questions, Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? How shall I get there?. The practice of such discrimination leads to detachment and renunciation of the enemies of man such as lust, greed, attachment, etc. It is through discrimination and detachment that a person truly understands who they are. The practice of discrimination and detachment leads to knowledge, skill, balance, insight and identity. When we have these, we are in the driver’s seat, and the mind is the instrument which takes us towards the goal.
There are many forms of mental illness. Some are psychotic in nature, and require the assistance of the medical profession; others are non-psychotic and management of the mind is the royal road to self-recovery. Where one has physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, cognitive symptoms, or behavioural issues, resorting to mind-management is the solution offered by practitioners of Hinduism. Each and every stage of life – 16 Rites of Passage or the Shodasana Sankaras – shape and form the mind in ways that curb excesses and build inner self-discipline. Hinduism teaches na sreyo, niyamam vina – without discipline, there can be no progress. Just as culture and society shape the mind, so also, the influence and disciplines of Hinduism – more properly known as sanathana dharma (or the perennial philosophy) shape and form the inner self discipline building self-respect, self-confidence, self-satisfaction. The proper foundation of human freedom – discrimination and detachment – builds the character bank which enables us to make withdrawals when we are confronted with challenges and adversity.