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Themes of Indian dreams

Themes of Indian dreams

Author: Uma Asher
Publication: The Times of India
Date: May 24, 2009

Introduction: In the Hindu world view, "the real and the fantastic merge into each other…there is a permanent flow between all layers-plants, animals, human beings."

What happens to us when we sleep? A new book attempts to answer that question

The renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung said, "Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens." Thousands of thinkers have looked within, yet the enigma of dreams has endured over the centuries. Claudine Bautze-Picron, editor of a new book titled The Indian Night: Sleep and Dreams in Indian Culture, says, "Dreams are as natural as eating or sleeping. But they are also mysterious… an echo of our hidden soul." Indian philosophers dealt with dreams elaborately, she notes, adding that dreams were a recurrent motif in literature and the biographies of the Buddha and Jina. "The impact of dreams on the daily life of Jain monks led to the regulation of their way of sleeping," she says.

Bautze-Picron, a research fellow at the National Centre of Scientific Research in Paris, and Delhi-based Madhu Tandan, contributor to The Indian Night and author of Dreams And Beyond: Finding Your Way In The Dark, took time out for an email conversation with TOI.

Bautze-Picron lauds the fact that Indians have long considered dreams worthy of literature and art. Citing the familiar image of Vishnu reclining on Anant Nag on the cosmic waters, she says, "In letting their gods and goddesses sleep and dream, Indians tell us that dreams are of a subtle nature". She is fascinated by how, in the Hindu world view, "the real and the fantastic merge into each other…there is a permanent flow between all layers-plants, animals, human beings." In contrast, she notes, Christian culture tends to isolate human beings. The Hindu tradition "tells us that it's worth dreaming… that it's an activity to which we should perhaps pay more attention," she says.

She explains that today's political borders make little sense in understanding traditions, because Indian ideas influenced many cultures. India should be understood as South Asia-including Pakistan, where Buddhist culture once flourished in Gandhara (near Afghanistan), she says. She also cites the example of medieval Southeast Asian Buddhist and Hindu art which depicts what was described in Indian texts much earlier, to show how knowledge of literary antecedents is crucial to understanding such art.

But why worry about the east at all, when we have modern psychology to explain dreams? Madhu Tandan highlights a fundamental difference between the Western and Hindu view of consciousness. Unlike the Western view that our consciousness-defined as the ability to assess and reflect on sensory inputs or internal data-comes into being after we are born and disappears when we die, "the Upanishads ask what happens when we are asleep," says Tandan.

In the western view, the dream world contains "unacceptable feelings" or addresses unresolved conflicts. "Grudgingly, the problem-solving potential of dreams is acknowledged," she notes. The Hindu tradition, on the other hand, regards people as having different forms of consciousness when asleep and awake. So why restrict our understanding of dreams and consciousness to bodily processes, asks Tandan, when the body, with its limited lifespan, is merely the vehicle of consciousness? In Hindu tradition, consciousness is the ultimate reality that precedes birth and survives death, she points out.

According to Tandan, the Hindu view of dreams "acknowledges that dreams are residues of the past, but also
allows for precognition, telepathy and indications of illness and healing". It regards dreaming as one of four states of consciousness-jagrat (waking), svapna (dream), sushupti (dreamless sleep) and turiya (transcendence), she notes, adding that the last is considered the most real.

The ancient western world regarded dreams as warnings or prophesies that helped people foretell events, notes Tandan. But at the turn of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud "dispensed with gods and demons, and introduced the idea of the unconscious as a repository of all that's threatening, painful, unacceptable and unexpressed. Our drives are the demons that chase us, and our aspirations are the gods that motivate us," she says. Jung extended Freud's concept to posit the "collective unconscious". Cognitive psychology has turned away from these ideas and reduced dreams to a memory process, says Tandan.

While the mystery of dreams may never be unravelled, The Indian Night will perhaps throw some light on our dim understanding of this intimate part of ourselves.

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