When mathematician-philosopher René Descartes offered ideas about the nature of the Universe in the early 1600s CE, his calculations ventured directly into metaphysical forces of the mind required to understand a larger reality. For unifying the existence of mind with the existence of matter, he was ostracized both by the Catholic church, whose dominion was the soul-mind and God, and by the dominant supporters of Aristotle’s realism, who accepted substance, the physical brain and the human senses as the sole basis for all Sciences.
Discomforted, the Catholic church placed Descartes’ prolific works on the unifying physics of body-mind on their Index of Prohibited Books.
Meanwhile, in India, where God resides not only in a church but in the atoms and ethers of each living being, the concept of mind-body-senses-soul existed amidst fundamental understanding of the forces of ecology that create a just and perfect balance in the microcosm and macrocosm. Mind and its vast potential, and aberrant dark alleys, were already mastered. Hṛdaya was deeply understood as the place in the body of receiving-hṛ, giving-da and exchanging-ya, giving a seat to the mind and taking home in the thorax. Its meaning was deeply metaphysical, connecting the soul and senses to the brain and mind. Mistranslations devolved hṛdaya as ‘heart’ but throughout Indian thought, both heart and hṛdaya connote emotions, conscience, knowingness, and mind.
Bharatiya dharma worldview knew the mind’s spectrum of abilities, corralling 14 functions under dhī-dhṛti-smṛti. Functions of intellect and buddhi, the ability to take in information through the senses after discriminating its value, and service as the inquirer were the domains of dhi. Cognitive functions, discretionary power and ability to allow selective information to enter deeper realms were enabled by properly-functioning dhī. Dhṛti involved retention, understanding of context, appropriate behaviors, communication, judgment, calculations, insight, decisions, emotions, sleep, and higher networks of data-knowledge-wisdom. It included the ability to access the one-consciousness for help during complete malfunction of logic. Smṛti was the jurisdiction of memory and recall, which includes the use of data inputs from the senses to anchor memories, as well as retrieval algorithms such as musical rhythm and language prompts to allow recall at will.
The ego-mind (ahamkara) and the spiritual mind (chitta) were both validated by ancient Indian wisdom when the west was still in its Dark Ages. The spiritual mind is a necessary tool for connecting with the ecosystem of macrocosm and microcosm to maintain context and balance. The ego-mind is constructed and developed only to help a person exist in society with necessary boundaries and defenses. The thinking mind (buddhi) and the feeling mind (manas) distinguish linear vs. spiral paths for connecting with the common Reality.
Most crucial was the absence of a concept of the unopposed evil mind, with men secretly scheming to have sex with their mothers or destined for the damnation of hell. Darkness was understood as tamasic mind: inertia and non-participation in the cycles of life and ecosystem of the Whole separate the mind from its usual optimal function. Aberrances such as bestiality and the ripus of the mind that created stealing, hoarding and depression were ascribed to uncontrolled vata, which created knots and muddled eddies in the mind, preventing clear thought and clean connection with our rightful instinct for self-repair. Even Ravana, the great evil antagonist of the Ramayana was understood as a great sage and master, who begged for immortality then became disenchanted he watched generations of loves die, and eventually riddled with imbalanced vata and pitta from grief, leading him to psychopathic insanity seeking to be killed by a Lord, the demigod Rama. His role as evil is a christian and eurocentric interpretation adopted by colonized north Indians.
Ancient sciences observed the mind when challenged with the spectrum of harmony with nature, known as sattva-rajas-tamas. Disharmony was tamas. Abundant tools were integrated into mainstream society and culture for the subtle management of the mind, with its tendencies for straying. When adopted, most aberrances never decayed into mental illness or associated physical sickness in the heart-mind. People were healed by pulling them back into the ecosystem with kindness and love.
These deeply integrated understandings of the mind weave seamlessly through all arts and sciences of ancient Indian wisdom, including theatre and textile, dance and dialect, music and medicines, physics and physiology.
To best train the mind, education began with learning how to learn, memory exercises using sound, light, and the rituals of union with the body-mind known as yoga. For the sharp and perceptive, the traditional education of the 64 kalaas was gifted, in which natural polymaths emerged from deep connection with constructs of human’s oldest knowledge in both arts and sciences. For the less sharp, known as alpa-medhasaam, one focused skill was mastered so that they could find a happy place in the Universe based on their optimal level of ability. This is the basis of the varna system, which separated people into vocational societies that encouraged their optimal function while they contributed to a society that understood its need to evolve through the efficiency of professions. This social system devolved in the past 500 years into a demonic, racist version known as the caste system, promoting abuse, anger and imbalances of discrimination that have promoted mental disease.
In ancient times, any imbalance of the mind simply required prompt re-connection with the ecoSystem. Time in nature, reconnection with trusted emotional relationships, medicines of the earth, and discourse with wisemen would heal imbalances before they became permanent mental illness. This wisdom of oneness with our macrocosm was integrated into the cultural norms through daily rituals of filling the senses with harmonizing elements of suganda, susparsha, sudrishta, sushabda, surasa using aromas, colors, textiles and music. Those who faced hefty burdens of life, such as the homemakers, were gifted with festivals that required them to dress in bright colors, wear attractive flowers in their hair, and beautify themselves to regain a lightness of Being. Rituals incorporated song, food, recreation, and games into emotionally-challenging times of marriage, childbirth, parenting, school, return from journey or war, and harvest. The community unknowingly but skillfully managed mental health, both inherited and acquired. Small children climbed onto laps of demented elderly and healed them by disallowing isolation at the end of life. Those with inborn severe mental illness (nija-manasa-roga, S., nija-internal, manasa-mental, roga-illness) were encouraged to live deep in Nature not around people and given tasks of tending to temples and animals. Women were celebrated as fountains of origination and not burdened to work alone during menstruation, menopause and after childbirth or loss of family.
Integrating people during fragility of grief and confusion provided orientation and prevented the imbalance of doshas that permitted the body to hold disease and mental illness. The tradition of including the weak was part of maintaining an ecosystem that understood that your strength today might create your burden tomorrow. Depression and anxiety were reframed as expectations of the future, denying the Now; the treatment was to teach gratitude for the present until the patient slowed down to appreciate clean food and sunlight and smiled again, releasing the disoriented ego burden of the past.
Two of eight Maharogas (profound diseases) in Ayurveda are unmada and apasmaara, insanity and loss of consciousness. Treatment included medicinal formulations that deeply heal the biology, chemistry, and physics of the brain-mind. Some cleansed the aberrant flow of vata. Many fortified the material and immaterial structures of the mana-vata-srotas, the channel of the mind. Oil-based procedures fortified the glial network of nerve insulation, while herbo-metallic formulations replaced minerals needed for lightning-fast thinking and coordination. Even today, good Ayurvedic physicians begin with examination of the satva-bala (mental strength), smrti-shakti (recall power) and manas-prakrti (baseline state of mind) to assess the mental faculties as they begin to work with any disease of the body.
Crippled by their biases, fears of tyranny of the church, and war over governance of the different territories of mind, Scientists in the west largely ignored Ayurvedic and yogic wisdom. Still, secret societies of the european Renaissance movement were known to gather for quiet readings of the ancient texts. Perhaps a few geniuses even admitted in their private diaries how much the Upanishads, the Gita or Charaka directly influenced their co-opted theories, as logic rarely guided their brilliant sudden epiphanies. Publicly however, Scientists funded mostly by Imperialism and corporate greed created translations of the great Sanskṛt wisdom that both limit understanding while stuffing the vast knowledge into limited western constructs. Unmada, apasmaara and the manasa-vikritis were translated as neuropsychiatric diseases, relegating them to a permanent state and subjecting patients to unspeakable experimentation and torture in asylums.
When the United Nations-based world order emerged in the 1940s, pharmaceutical options for mental imbalance were more convenient than confronting the underlying socio-ecologic imbalances propagating isolation, post-traumatic dysfunctions, and addictions. Wars trained soldiers to battle, but veteran benefit programs excused war-creators from hand-leading traumatized soldiers back into society. Neither experts of science nor soul effectively taught people coping skills. Chemicals, illegal but available to boost western imperialist economies, provided escape for war-grown, unemployed and discrimination-suffering people. Rich addicts were cyclically rehabilitated. Poor addicts were criminalized, delivered to the privatized criminal justice system, and owned legally by modern slaveowners.
Today, uncalculable economic loss due to anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, suicide, human trafficking, school shootings, and addictions destroys the hard work, intellectual prowess and impressive pantheons of the world order.
The well-heeled elite academics in mainstream healthcare are still warring about their turf in the mental health disciplines: psychotherapy, neuropsychiatry, psychoanalysis, psychology, psychiatry, talk therapy, pet therapy, music therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, social work counseling, rehabilitation programs, and a variety of patented and trademarked therapeutic panaceas all vie for patients who can afford them. They tout statistics that highlight the burden of mental disorder even as their own system propagates it. As they create lofty “Sustainable” Development Goals and conference agendas, the United Nations’ employees and consultants live in a grand world of plenty with well-groomed dark security guards to protect them from the mentally-ill who may invade their fortresses, feeding cake to the inmates of domestic violence and race discrimination that may one day fall off the precipice of pain, into mental illness. The frankly ill are quietly tucked away in lockdown wards where they continue to generate profits for pharmaceutical giants and generate statistics for shocking reports in leading journals.
Unable to apologize for the road mis-taken by ignoring Descartes’ wild notions of a unified body-mind, mainstream medicine has toppled like a statue of a slaveowner. No Decade of the Brain or World Mental Health Day can fix the divide. Today, blind followers of evidence-based scientific medicine are witnessing the mishandled, mismanaged and misunderstood claims of supremacy by confused scientists, the consequences of Covid-isolation, the money wasted down dead-end theories about corona cures and tests, the lives lost by ignorant use of ventilators, and the fake science published, retracted, then hung.
India offers more than cheap production of generic psychopharmaceuticals, medical diplomacy at the top echelons of the WHO, or on Covid vaccine committees. Soon after India was demanded to fulfill orders for hydroxychloroquine under verbal threat of attack, the global mental health pandemic has emerged. Abundant biomedical evidence has already demonstrated the effectiveness of regular meditation and yoga. Prescriptions of mind-balancing formulations and microbiome-fortifying herbs have been conveyed to hundreds of Ayurvedic practitioners in the west. Some are waking up, joining the LOHAS contingent and stepping away from the stigma and discrimination propagated by the mainstream healthcare system that ignores the tools of the ancients.
True psychoneuroscientists have begun to look east, at the blatant data of Indians who followed ancient prescriptions to shelter-in-place as community living together, those who followed rituals of the day and the seasons, who together used technology to fortify their minds with meditation, yoga, walks in nature, and online community gatherings. Indians who did not embrace western constructs are less impacted psychologically and thriving mentally.
Covid has separated the wheat from the chaff in one more way. As the riots, suicides, unspeakable crimes by police, and protest prisoners create a new curve of disease, the world order of unspoken white christian supremacy is eroding, shot down by its own citizen slaves who have had enough of separation of their mind and soul. They yearn for the society that includes and values them as a whole being, that cushions them as they contribute to the world.
(Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018-2022 in Public Health and Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. She is also trained in neuroscience, psychopharmacology and yoga).