Of Mind, Metaphors & Saint Thyagaraja’s Music

Understanding the human mind is the most challenging problem for the humanity. This is where metaphors come in handy.

How do psychologists describe the unpredictable nature of our mind? The modern psychologist Jonathan Haidt came up with an interesting metaphor of an elephant and a rider. Elephant represents the most incorrigible part of our brain which simply acts instinctively with a preprogrammed setup. That is why our responses are automatic to a variety of situations in life. Most of our emotions like love, compassion, worry, anger, jealousy are all preprogrammed.

Who is the Rider in the metaphor? Rider represents the intellect which is run by the conscious part of the brain.  Most of the emotions like anger are instinctive and unless the conscious part of the brain, the rider, is brought into play there is no way of improving our character.

The Psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (belonging to early 20th century)used the word Unconscious to describe the darker part of our mind which operates on an autopilot mode. Psychotherapy then involves bringing out this Unconscious through a few techniques involving the conscious part of the brain so that the corrections and improvements in one’s character can take place.

While psychologists were struggling to understand the mind, philosophers came up with interesting metaphors as a means to understand the complexity of the mind. For instance, the Greek philosopher Plato, describing the mind, came up with a metaphor of a chariot pulled by two winged-horses – one noble and the other wicked. One can easily imagine and sympathize with the plight of the charioteer. There is no way he can reach his destination.

Vedanta, known as Upanishads, has analyzed the problem of the mind in detail and came up with amazing metaphors. For instance, Kathopanishad came up with a very interesting metaphor to describe the mind (Bhagavadgita also uses a similar metaphor):

Atman or Self is the rider in the chariot,
and the body is the chariot,
Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer,
and Manas (mind) is the reins.The senses are the horses,
The rider, the Self or the Atman is a mere witness. His fate will depend upon how the budhi handles the mind & the senses, represented by horses.

The musical compositions of Tyagaraja, Annamacharya and Dikshitar abound in songs which address this problem of the Unconscious. How do they do it? They use two interesting techniques. In one set of compositions the saints address the Mind directly while in the second set of compostions the composers get into a dialogue with God Himself. In both cases budhi, the intellect, comes into play. The Unconscious, with its petty games, stands completely exposed. There are a number of songs falling into both the categories. In this post, I will present one such composition of Saint Tyagaraja:

In the composition Manasa mana samarthyamemi set to a rare raga Vardhini,  he addresses the Mind thus:

manasA mana sAmarthyamEmi O

vinu sAkEta rAju vishvamanE rathamu nekki tana sAmarthyamucE dAne naDipincenE

alanADu vashiSTAdulu paTTamu gaTTE palukula vini vEgamE bhUSaNamula nosagina kaikanu
palumAru jagambulu kallala nina ravijuni mAya vala vEsi tyAgarAja varaduDu dA canaga lEdA

This is a beautiful piece describing the true nature of the mind. The saint straight away hits the nail on its head. The vacillatory nature of the Mind is completely exposed.

It says: ‘’Oh, Mind, do not take any pride in your abilities. You are utterly powerless as the Lord seated on a chariot called the Universe is driving it with His prowess called Maya”. Maya is that power of the Lord which completely clouds the Mind of even the sanest person in inexplicable ways. The complexity of the Unconscious described by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung may be likened to Maya and its effects on the mind.

The saint goes on to substantiate the effect of Maya by referring to the story of Ramayana where Kaikeyi becomes a victim of the Lord’s Maya. When the sage Vasishta announces the celebration of coronation of Rama as the King of Ayodhya, Kaikeyi, at first, was all jubiliant like everyone else. However, she made a volte face and rejected the whole proposal. Blinded by jealousy, she demanded that her son should be made the king in the place of Rama. This sort of irrational and bizarre conduct of people in the world can be explained only in the light of the effects of Maya of the Lord which acts as a veil hiding the truth from the minds of people. It prevents the mind from seeing issues in the right perspective and leads us astray. This is why the saint is asking a rhetorical question in the beginning of this composition: Oh, Mind, of what use is your assumed abilities when you are under the cloud of the powerful Maya of the Lord?  By implication, the saint is pointing out the bizarre nature of the mind and the need to surrender one’s mind to the Lord as a means to keep one’s mind under control.

Listen to this beautiful song sung by ML Vasanthakumari



Manipulating human mind

Here is an old joke on meditation:
Student: Swamiji, can I smoke while meditating?
Swamiji: No.
One mischivous student who watched this conversation, told the first student later – ‘I know how to extract the right answer from Swamiji’. On the following day the second student approached Swamiji and asked: Swamiji, can I meditate while smoking?
Swamiji: yes of course!

This is manipulation of the mind, pure and simple. The technical term for this in psychology is priming the mind. In other words , you can deliberately set up someone’s mind to accept your suggestion. The purpose need not necessarily be to manipulate. It can also be for preparing a positive frame of mind before you break a sad story. For instance, Hanuman, in Ramayana, goes after a mission in search of Sita in Lanka. When he returns successfully having met Sita, his very first words were: ‘Seen by me is Sita’ or ‘Discovered is Sita’ He is basically conveying the good news first before narrating stories of struggles , trials and tribulations he had to endure in Lanka.

Modern psychologists have done tremendous amount of research which sheds light on the phenomenon of priming the mind and its effects. Daniel Kahneman, a nobel prize winner in economics, writes about what he calls Marvels of priming. In one interesting experiment conducted at a British University office kitchen, staffers had the tradition of paying for the tea or coffee to which they helped themselves by dropping coins into an Honesty Box. A list of suggested prices were posted. The experimenters, one day, displayed a poster above the price list. For a period of ten weeks images of either flowers or eyes were displayed. The eyes appeared as though they were looking directly at the observer. Display of such images were done without any context or explanation. Amazingly, the contributions to the cash box increased significantly on the weeks when the big eyes were displayed above the honesty box. The contributions on the “eye weeks” were three times more than those on the “flower weeks”. Obviously, a mere symbolic reminder of being watched prodded people into better behaviour. There was a clear and unmistakable influence of the “watching eye” on the contributions made. This is evidently a case of manipulation of one’s mind and behaviour by using suggestive pictures.

in another interesting experiment by psychologists, a group of students were shown words suggestive of old age such as Florida, forgetful, bald, grey, wrinkle.Immediately after that the students were given another assignment in another corner of the corridor. The experimenters then unobtrusively noted the time taken by the guys for walking from one end of the corridor to the other. Surprisingly, each one of them walked very slowly – their pace was reduced to half of that of a normal person. Obviously their minds were saturated with images of old age and that was enough to prime their minds to walk more slowly than usual. (This is famously known as Florida effect).

Likewise, being amused tended to make you smile while smiling made one feel amused. This is an example of how we can benefit from priming effects – you fake it till you make it!

Very interestingly, when one is immersed in discussing money matters like stock picking, investments, saving etc, one is found to be individualistic and selfish showing reluctance to get involved with others.

Another example of priming or manipulation is the use of rhyming aphorisms. This is also known as ‘rhyme as reason effect’. For instance, ‘Woes unite foes’ will be considered more insightful than ‘woes unite enemies’. Likewise the statement – ‘sobriety conceals what alcohol reveals’ is likely to be considered more insightful than a statement – ‘sobriety conceals what alcohol unmasks’. So, next time you want to make a clinching point, remember to put it in a rhyming aphorism!

Published in: on March 13, 2016 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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