There is an exquisite photograph by the US space agency NASA of Sri Lanka and part of the Subcontinent from space, taken during the Gemini 11 mission in September 1966 (see pic). In it, Sri Lanka is patchworked and fretted by cloud formations, with a vortex eye exposing Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) and the central hills. To the north lies India, with its cirrus-flecked mountains and cumulus-encrusted plains, highlighted by the surrounding wastes of blue-green water. Linking the landmasses to the north is a curious semicircular chain of small but dense cloud, which evokes the much-quoted traveller’s maxim, Ceylon, the pearl in the necklace of India.
Whenever I study this photograph – which is often as, happily, it graces my study wall – my thoughts almost invariably float to the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the 20th century’s master physician of the soul, interpreter of symbols and intrepid explorer of the human mind. It was Jung who redefined alchemy for the modern world, who rediscovered the universality of myth and symbol, who diverted psychology from the confines of Freudianism, and who gave us the concepts of the collective unconscious, the archetype, synchronicity, introversion and extraversion, among others.
Although he was a great sage, he was not without foible, as is evident from Frank McLynn’s Carl Gustav Jung (1997), the first comprehensive biography of the psychologist. There is little doubt that Jung was a xenophobe and anti-Semite, and his rightwing views and Nazi sympathies drove Thomas Mann to denounce him publicly. Jung was also a prodigious philanderer, whose long-suffering wife, Emma Rauschenbach, had to live in a ménage à trois with his mistress, Toni Woolf, as well as put up with a coterie of female admirers known as the Valkyries. Moreover, his unconscionable lack of professional ethics permitted him to seduce many of his female patients.
In late 1937, Jung left Switzerland for India on the invitation of the British government, to attend the 25th-anniversary celebrations of the University of Calcutta. Jung had been anxious for some time to go to India, in the hopes of affirming his convictions on the value of the wisdom of the East. As he admits in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963), he was also in search of himself – or, rather, the truth peculiar to himself. He considered the ‘Oriental’ to be archetypal, without the Occidental extremes of personal differentiation. Jung therefore made no plans to visit holy men or spiritual leaders, as he had an exact notion of their archetype, and refused to accept that which he could not attain on his own.
The beginning of Jung’s Indian journey was not very promising, for when he landed in Bombay in December 1937 he was depressed by the endless bustle of the city. Delhi and Agra were a distinct improvement, but it was the next destination, Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh, that was to be the most significant of his Indian stay. Sanchi, an important Buddhist pilgrimage area, was of special interest to Jung because, for him, Buddhism was the most appealing of religions. “It was not surprising that Jung was drawn to Buddhism,” states McLynn. “He preferred Buddha’s mode of overcoming the world by reason to that of Christ by sacrifice.”
Visits to Allahabad, Benaras and Darjeeling followed, where Jung collected honorary degrees, before moving on to Calcutta. During his stay in the latter, Jung also travelled to Orissa to visit the temple in Konark, celebrated for its erotic sculptures. Unfortunately, however, he also went down with dysentery during the trip, and was unable to attend the honorary-degree ceremony in Calcutta. He spent ten days in hospital, but admitted that he welcomed the rest after his strenuous itinerary. “Yet he had a last, and important call to make before departing for Europe,” writes McLynn. “He sailed to Ceylon, and here found the Buddhist paradise he had sought.”
Ceylon immediately struck Jung as being “no longer India; there is already something of the South Seas about it, and a touch of paradise, in which one cannot linger too long.” The comparison with the Pacific Isles and the reference to paradise are familiar, but the passing admonition against staying on is somewhat curious and certainly runs counter to tradition. Perhaps Jung believed that intellectual laxity was inevitable in such a near-paradise.
A short while after his arrival in Colombo, Jung gave an informal talk on the subject of dreams to the Rotherfield Psychological Society, which had been founded the previous year by W S Ratnavale, a pioneering Ceylonese psychiatrist, to educate the public in matters of mental health. Introduced by Ratnavale as “one of the few who have contributed towards the knowledge of modern psychology,” Jung declared to the large gathering present, “Dreams are not the product of conscious and intelligent thinking or conscious activity. They cannot be directed, produced at will, or controlled. They are the expression of an autonomous functioning of our psyche.” As dreaming was a process that intimately involved the unconscious, Jung went on to say, the meaning of dreams could only be deduced by consulting with the unconscious, which he referred to as “the two million year-old man”. To lend support to the theories he propounded, Jung delved into his considerable casebook as a practising analytical psychologist to relate several examples where his interpretation of a patient’s dream was vital in effecting a cure.
Jung quickly left the heat and daily precipitation of Colombo for the cooler climes of Kandy, where he was to witness (and comprehend the significance, although not the ritual) of the evening puja at the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth. Jung has left us a vivid impression of this ceremony, which remains a popular tourist attraction:
Young men and girls poured out enormous mounds of jasmine flowers in front of the altars, at the same time singing a prayer under their breath: a mantram. I thought they were praying to Buddha, but the monk who was guiding me explained, ‘No, Buddha is no more; He is in Nirvana; we cannot pray to Him. They are singing: This life is transitory as the beauty of these flowers. May my God (God = deva = guardian angel) share with me the merit of this offering.’
As a prelude to the ceremony a one-hour drum concert was performed in the mandapam, or what in Indian temples is called the hall of waiting. There were five drummers; one stood in each corner of the square hall, and the fifth stood in the middle. He was the soloist, and a very fine drummer. Naked to the waist, his dark-brown trunk glistening, he stepped up to the golden Buddha bearing a double drum, ‘to sacrifice the music.’ There, with beautiful movements of the body and arms, he drummed alone a strange melody, artistically perfect. I watched him from behind; he stood in front of the entrance of the mandapam, which was covered with little oil lamps. The drum speaks the ancient language of the belly and solar plexus; the belly does not ‘pray’ but engenders the ‘meritorious’ mantram or meditative utterance. It is therefore not adoration of a non-existent Buddha, but one of the many acts of self-redemption performed by the awakened human being.
McLynn interprets Jung’s Dalada Maligawa experience in the following way: “Intoxicated by the drumming and the singing, Jung realized that it was Buddhism that had made Ceylon and the south come alive for him as Benares, Calcutta and Orissa never had; these temple ceremonies summed up the relationship between the Self as eternal and the Ego as bounded by space and time.”
In Volume 10 of his Collected Works, Jung relates several incidents he witnessed in Ceylon that, for him, exemplified this ‘living Buddhism’. The first occurred when he came across two men in their bullock carts who had met in a narrow lane and could not pass one another. Jung maintained that in Switzerland this situation would invariably have ended up in argument; in Ceylon, however, the two carters simply bowed politely to each other and said, “Passing disturbances, no soul” – in other words, these events were taking place in the ephemeral world of maya. On another occasion, Jung recounts how he saw two boys fighting but, when they threw punches, their fists always stopped in the air just inches away from the other’s face. (Historically, of course, others have come away from Ceylon with a decidedly less rose-tinted view of its inhabitants’ daily lives.)
Most of Jung’s time in Ceylon was spent in mist-swathed Kandy, primarily at the Dalada Maligawa, which he felt radiated a special charm. He was attracted in particular to its impressive library, where he conversed with the monks and studied the Buddhist canon, marvelling at the texts “engraved on silver leaves”. Eventually Jung left Kandy and proceeded to Colombo, where he boarded a steamer for Trivandrum. After a meeting there with a disciple of Ramana Maharishi (the guru who had fascinated Somerset Maugham), Jung returned to Colombo and embarked on the voyage to Europe. Aboard the ship, Jung began work on a new alchemical synthesis, and became so absorbed that he failed even to go ashore during the stopover at Bombay.
The wonderful blue light
On his return to Switzerland at the end of February 1938, Jung was advised to rest in order to recover from the dysentery he contracted in Calcutta. During this convalescence, Jung had an opportunity to reflect on his visit, which he had begun to consider important for several reasons. One was that it had confirmed for him that, whereas the religious impulse was as deeply rooted in human beings as the sexual instinct, no religion except perhaps an ultra-sophisticated version of Buddhism was capable of eclipsing the others. “In Christianity more is suffered,” Jung once stated. “In Buddhism, more is seen and done.”
In addition, the India and Ceylon experience confirmed Jung’s holistic theory that, ultimately, everything links up with everything else, which he felt was evidence for the existence of a collective unconscious. He also believed that there was a convincing parallel between the Southasian mandala and the circular symbols so often drawn by his patients while undergoing treatment. Most significantly, the difference between Orient and Occident matched perfectly Jung’s concept of introversion and extraversion, since the occidental being purportedly projected meaning into objects, while the oriental being, he theorised, felt the existence of meaning within.
During the course of his therapeutic work, Jung had discovered that one of the commonest causes of psychological breakdown was loss of spiritual conviction and religious faith. Consequently, Jung’s principal area of interest shifted, as he expressed it, “from therapy to the art of living”; as such, most of his later studies were concerned not with psychiatry but with alchemy, astrology, spiritualism and folklore, which his colleagues and critics dismissed as unworthy of genuine scientific attention.
However, there appears to have been a more personal reason for the fundamental change in the focus of his investigations, as well. At the age of 69, Jung underwent an extraordinary experience that had a profound influence on his later life and work, and from the time of which he deemed “the second and most fruitful half of my life”. Four years after returning from Southasia, in February 1944, Jung slipped on the snow-covered road near his home and broke his ankle. After ten days in hospital an embolism developed, followed by a severe heart attack. In a state of unconsciousness and close to death, he began to have visions; meanwhile, his body, according to his nurse, was surrounded by a bright glow. She later told Jung it was a phenomenon she had sometimes observed in the dying.
“It seemed to me that I was high up in space,” Jung writes of his experience.
Far below I saw the globe of the Earth, bathed in a glorious blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through the wonderful blue light.
In many places the globe seemed coloured, or spotted dark green like oxidized silver. Far away to the left lay a broad expanse – the reddish-yellow desert of Arabia; it was as though the silver of the earth had there assumed a reddish-gold hue. Then came the Red Sea, and far, far, back – as if in the upper left of the map – I could just make out a bit of the Mediterranean. My gaze was directed chiefly towards that. Everything else appeared indistinct. I could also see the snow-covered Himalayas, but in that direction it was foggy or cloudy.
It is remarkable that Jung was able to provide such an accurate description of the Earth as viewed from near space – particularly the characteristic of the “glorious blue light” often commented on by astronauts – nearly two decades before the first manned orbital flight. That Jung’s description hauntingly foreshadows the Gemini 11 photograph is extraordinary. In his transitional state, Jung continued to contemplate the superlative vista beneath and beyond him, unable to imagine what would transpire next:
I had been standing with my back to the Indian Ocean, as it were, and my face to the north. Then it seemed to me that I made a turn to the south. Something new entered my field of vision. A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite.
I had seen similar stones on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. They were blocks of tawny granite, and some of them had been hollowed out into temples. My stone was one such gigantic granite block. An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon his bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames. I had once actually seen this when visiting the Temple of the Holy Tooth at Kandy in Ceylon; the gate had been framed by several rows of burning lamps of this sort.
As Jung approached the steps leading up the entrance to the rock, a strange feeling assailed him in which everything was slipping away; everything I had aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process. Nevertheless, something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done.
Jung was convinced that he was about to enter a room where he would meet all those people to whom he “belonged in reality”, and discover into what “historical nexus” he or his life fitted. Life, however, was to reclaim Jung. Before he could climb the steps or enter the portal of the temple, the image of his doctor floated up in space, exhorting him to return to Earth. At this juncture the vision ceased, leaving him with an initial sense of disappointment that “the painful process of defoliation had been in vain,” and that he had not had the opportunity of witnessing the interior of the temple.
1000 miles out
The reverberations of this experience are evident throughout the latter half of Jung’s autobiography. The objectivity it created he believed signified “a detachment from valuations and from what we call emotional ties. Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of emotional relationship.” After he recovered from his illness, he entered into an extremely fruitful period of work. “A good many of my principal works were written only then,” he noted. “The insight I had had, gave me courage to undertake new formulations.” Jung also felt that his experience had resulted in an affirmation of his destiny, an acceptance of the condition of existence and of his own nature. The importance of this affirmation to the human ego was, he admitted, only realised after his illness. “In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen,” he wrote, “an ego that endures and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then to experience defeat is also to experience victory.”
One question regarding his experience that Jung never seems to have addressed is whether or not there was any significance in the island of Sri Lanka being beneath his feet as he floated in space. The American researcher Patrick Harrigan claims that there are oral traditions still current in the island that tell of hidden portals through which those with extraordinary mental powers can travel to distant places, and even other worlds and dimensions. His contention is that Jung passed through such a gateway to heaven. During correspondence with Markus Fierz in 1949, Jung discovered that he would have been about one thousand miles out in space, as he could see the Mediterranean at the top left of his vision, Sri Lanka at the bottom right, and India, West Asia and the horn of Africa in between.
Jung died in 1961, bequeathing one of the strangest experiences in the annals of this often-mysterious island. Equally strange is the uncanny similarity with the breathtaking NASA photograph, which was not taken until five years after Jung’s death. For its part, the Gemini 11 picture, the first of Sri Lanka from space, was presented to the then-Prime Minister of Ceylon Dudley Senanayake by then-US President Lyndon B Johnson. Over the past 30-odd years, this picture has become for me an indispensable device for reflection on Sri Lanka. While travelling abroad, I use it to transport me mentally and spiritually to places of personal significance. While residing on the island, I use it to gain objectivity and to place Sri Lanka in its proper perspective. To quote the words of the song “Ceylon, Ceylon” from the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood:
By the Bengal Bay,
East of Jaipur,
West of Mandalay
~ Richard Boyle is a Contributing Editor to this magazine.