Advaita Vedanta and the Relational Framework


The Advaita Vedanta School of philosophy may seem perplexing and bewildering for western thinkers.  One of the reasons for this is that there is a radical difference between Advaita philosophy and general western psychology in regard to the ontological value placed on certain psychological experiences.  Western thought has a general tendency to place ontological validity on what Hans Loewald refers to as ‘secondary process’, being the public experience of differentiated subjects and objects.  Advaita philosophy contrasts this underlying assumption by placing ontological value on what Loewald calls ‘primary process’, an experience in which self and other are indistinguishable, in which the world of diversity is merged into a single ‘primal density’.  It is the intention of this paper to examine Stephen Mitchell and Hans Loewald’s interpretation of self and drives along with their discussion of primary and secondary process in order to contextualize the major concepts of Advaita philosophy within the framework of Relational psychology.   The aim of this endeavor is to make Advaita philosophy more accessible to western thought. 

I will embark on this endeavor by first examining Mitchell and Loewald’s discussion of the primary and secondary process in relation to the themes of fantasy and reality along with the ego’s objects and drives.  Following this I will give a brief description of Advaita philosophy and compare it with Mitchell’s discussion of the primary and secondary process in the context of these themes.  In the concluding portion of this paper I will also look at how both relational psychologists and advaita philosophers provide a rational approach to understanding the human experience of eternity in relation to the everyday experiences of temporality. 

In his chapter on ‘Language and Reality’, Stephen Mitchell discusses the cosmological big bang theory of the universe in which all structures emerged from a primal density:

Cosmologists tell us that our universe began in a primal density in which all the structures and differentiations we take for granted were collapsed in on one another.  The constituents of future atoms and molecules were all there, but they were packed together tightly.  Our world, the world as we know it, has evolved into atoms and molecules, stars and galaxies, and planets, animals and people, and spaces, vast spaces. (Mitchell p. 3)

He then suggests an analogy existing between the theories of the cosmos and the psychological theories of the mind; that our psychological experience of an objective universe may have also emerged from an undifferentiated primal density.  With this analogy he suggests that:

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to think of psychoanalysts as astronomers and cosmologists of the mind.  Patients begin treatment with fragments, pieces of a life that seem bounded and separate from one another…Psychoanalysts have learned to think of these seemingly bounded fragments in psychic space as constituents of a single forcefeild. (Mitchell p. 3)

Here Mitchell is referring to the psychological contributions of Hans Loewald

who postulated a primal density in which all of the features of our everyday world, which we take to be separate bounded elements are collapsed together in a non-differentiated field.  To this effect, Loewald suggests that we begin with experiences where there “… is no difference between inside and outside, self and other, actuality and fantasy, past and present.” (Mitchell p. 4)  According to Loewald, the various dichotomies that we take as givens, our perceptions of the ‘way that the world really is’, are complex constructions.  Mitchell explains that over the course of our early years these constructions arose slowly operating as a parallel mode of organizing experience that accompanies and coexists with our experiences generated by the undifferentiated primal unity. (Mitchell p. 4)

            Mitchell explains that this earliest form of experience characterized as the primal density, “…never disappears.  It underlies the later differentiations and bounded structures that make adult life possible.”(Mitchell p. 4)  Loewald characterizes this primal density as a component of the unconscious which not only precedes and persists throughout conscious developments, but also plays a determining role in the conscious life: “The dynamic unconscious, for Freud the true psychic reality, is prior to conscious mentation and transcends the conscious personality.  It not only engenders the formation of conscious mentation, but also determines conscious aspects of the life course, action, and thoughts of the adult person.” (Loewald p. 9)

The persistence of the primal density throughout a person’s life becomes apparent by an individual’s ability to re-experience those earlier non-differentiating states of awareness under special conditions.  These instances occur long after the more advanced secondary process has been established.  Loewald explains that: “The older, non-discriminating forms of experience persist behind the more advanced ones.  They may come to the fore under certain exceptional conditions: in psychosis, in situations of deep intimacy between people, in some drug related and in ecstatic states.  [Here] The intimacy of the infant mother unity or bond is the proto-type.” (Loewald p. 36)

Loewald’s model of psychopathology in its broadest sense represents an imbalance between the unifying and differentiating forces of the mind.  Within this model psychosis is portrayed as the primal density undermining ones ability to make adaptive, normative distinctions between inside and outside, self and other, fantasy and actuality, past and present.  Likewise, neurosis involves the constituents of the mind drifting too far apart from their original dense unity.  When describing neurosis, Loewald explains that, “We would lose ourselves in a chaos-different from that formless-ness of the unconscious or id, a chaos of fragmentation instead- if we were to lose our moorings in the unconscious and its forms of experiencing which bespeak unity and identity rather than multiplicity and difference.  [Thus] We know madness that is the madness of unbridled rationality.” (Loewald p. 56)

            Freud believed that there was a considerable gulf between the preverbal and verbal domains making it necessary for the unconscious infantile impulse that generates fantasy to piggyback onto words provided by the residue of present day experience.  Loewald challenges this separation by claiming that language transcends the distinction between preverbal and verbal.  In this sense, language begins to play an important role in the earliest days of life.  He concludes that, “The most important distinction is not between preverbal and verbal, or between primary and secondary process, but between the ways in which language operates in these two developmental eras and levels of mental organization.” (Mitchell p. 8) [Look up Loewald’s Language and Reality]

            In this regard, Loewald is suggesting that language is a key feature of this original ‘primal density’ composed of feelings, perceptions, others, and self as an undifferentiated unity.  Loewald explains this with the following:

She [the mother] speaks with or to the infant, not with the expectation that he will grasp the words, but as if speaking to herself with the infant included…he is embedded in a flow of speech that is part and parcel of a global experience within the mother-child field (Loewald p. 185).  While the mother utters words, the infant does not perceive words but is bathed in sound, rhythm etc., as accentuating ingredients of a uniform experience. (Loewald p. 187)

            Mitchell also discusses a new psychological model of fantasy and reality by focusing on Loewald’s challenge to Freud’s preference of objective language over subjective fantasy.  In this regard Loewald is said to have a sub-text to Freud’s theories of fantasy in which ego and reality are part of a primal unity.  To this effect, Loewald writes that:

The relatedness between ego and reality, or objects does not develop from an originally unrelated coexistence of two separate entities that come into contact with each-other, but on the contrary form a unitary whole that differentiates into distinct parts...mother and baby do not get together and develop a relationship, but the baby is born, becomes detached from the mother, and thus a relatedness between two parts that originally were one becomes possible. (Loewald p. 11)

*Here Mitchell agrees that there is a developmentally early phase of unity between mother and baby.  [Quote Mitchell here] 

            It is on these grounds that Loewald departs from Freud and emphasizes that the experience of un-differentiation is not illusory or less ‘real’.  In this context it is just as real as the differentiating distinctions essential to living adaptively in conventional reality.  These are not mere developmental phases; rather it is a continuous mode of experience. (Mitchell p. 19)  The idea here is that each person’s ego identity and experience of reality is built up upon the earlier experiences of the infant who begins with an experience of oneness with the mother in which the ego and the non ego are experienced as one and the same thing.  Thus Loewald claims that, “While the mother functions on several levels of experience, at once or successively, the infant, we assume, in early stages functions more or less exclusively on the identifacatory level of experience.” (Loewald p. 36)  The ‘realness’ of this experience rests on the fact that it was once a biological reality, and that such an experience persists as the foundation for the later psychic experiences of ego and reality.  (Loewald p. 36-39)

            Mitchell provides several empirical examples to illustrate this point.  In one instance he refers to an experiment conducted by Steven Suomi (1995) in which several groups of monkeys were separated from their natural mothers and placed with adoptive mothers.  The result was that the babies monkeys internalized the mothering style of their adoptive mothers.  In this instance the mothering style is not genetically determined, rather it is internalized by the infants identification with the mother, via the primary process. (Mitchell p. 21)  Mitchell provides another illustration in the following account: 

A woman who recently gave birth found herself holding her baby away from her body, with her arms outstretched, literally at arm’s length.  She can hold the baby in the customary fashion, up against her body with her arms bent at the elbows, but for some reason that she cannot begin to explain, the arm’s-length posture seems more natural, more comfortable, more “right.”  She later finds out that when her own mother was pregnant with her, she was in an automobile accident that broke both her arms.  Both arms were in casts, constantly outstretched, for several months after giving birth. (Mitchell p. 21)

This example illustrates how the undifferentiated awareness of the primary process in infants allows them to internalize and identify with various environmental elements which contribute the emerging psychic structure of the ego. 

            Mitchell identifies some of the revised conceptions of self and drives which Loewald develops within his dialogue of primary and secondary process.  He explains that Loewald used the Freudian language of drives as a means of shifting away from treating the individual as the point of origin for drives in favor of an interpersonal non-differentiated field in which the individual along with his or her drives are embedded.  He writes that “In the beginning… it is not the impulse; in the beginning is the field in which all individuals are embedded.” (Mitchell p. 35)  He clarifies this further when he writes that “Experience initially moves from outside inward, from an increasingly differentiated unity of which the individual is a part to the development of the individual through the internalization of those patterns.” (Mitchell p. 35)

            In this respect, the instincts or instinctual drives develop from and arise within a psychic matrix, a field constituted essentially by the mother child unit.  These instincts do not arise as biological forces, but as forces that manifest within and between what gradually differentiates into the plural experience of subjects and objects.  Thus the instincts and the emerging self remain a relational phenomenon as opposed to the Freudian conception of energies existing in a closed system.  (Mitchell p. 36)

            Mitchell concludes that the term ‘primary process,’ should be used in reference to the original state of the infant-mother field, in which there is no organization as such, in which all the usual distinctions that are integral to our ordinary experiences are missing.  The secondary process on the other hand, suggests that the relational field has become organized; that temporal and spatial distinctions have become established.  He also adds that the “Secondary process does not emerge spontaneously by itself; it is introduced to the child by caregivers.”   The secondary process however, “…cannot exist independently of primary process; it presumes an underlying unity that it organizes and differentiates.” (Mitchell p. 37)

Loewald also reminds his readers that the early stages of primary narcissism, being the primal density are not to be confused with the later development of libido drives and objects, since the experience of a self and the perception of differentiated objects has not yet occurred.  Here he writes: “But as the differentiation of ego and objects does not exist in the earliest stages primary narcissism must be understood without reference to what we call libido attachments to objects.  There is yet neither ego nor object.  We speak of an undifferentiated forcefeild which later becomes differentiated into ego and objects.” (Loewald p. 39)

In this context primal object seeking drives of the id only develop once the sense of ‘oneness’ between mother and infant is disturbed, such as when the mother’s breast is no longer readily available for feeding, or perhaps earlier, when the umbilical cord is cut.  Thus the oneness between child and mother begins to end when the needs of the infant are not gratified with such immediacy so as to seem as if the mother were simply an extension of the baby itself.  Here Loewald writes: “On the other hand, we cannot, in the strict sense, speak of an ego, a mediator between an id and an external world where there is as yet nothing to mediate.  The infant’s repeated experience that something in his original feeling a part of him, is not always available, this repeated experience of separation leads to a development of an ego which has to organize, mediate, unify.” (Loewald p. 5)

            Here it seems that the development of the ego along with the secondary process develops as an adaptation to a change in environmental circumstance which disturbs the unified experience of the primary process.  Here, Loewald explains that “The ego is pictured as a cortical layer of the psychic apparatus.  This layer comes into being through increasing tension between the psychic apparatus of the organism and what later is experienced as the external world.” (Loewald p. 6)

In addition to the physical changes that convey a sense of separateness to the infant, the use of language by the parent reinforces the perception of differentiation between ego and reality; yet it is that primary undifferentiated experience of the child that makes this development possible, since it is the child’s shared identity with the parent that allows the affective meaning of language to be internalized.  Thus: “…language is typically first conveyed to the child by the parental voice and in an all-pervasive way by the mother in the feeding situation and in all her other ministrations to the infant.” (Loewald p. 180)

He expands further on this with the following:

She [the mother] speaks with or to the infant, not with the expectation that he will grasp the words, but as if speaking to herself with the infant included.  The words of which her speaking is composed form undifferentiated ingredients of the total situation or event experienced by the infant.  He does not apprehend separate words-words separate from the other and separate from the total experience-but he is immersed, embedded in a flow of speech that is part and parcel of a global experience within the mother-child field. (Loewald p. 185)

When discussing language and reality, Mitchell identifies the preverbal and verbal realms with the primal density of undifferentiated experience and the empirical ‘objective’ world using the terms, primary and secondary process developed by Loewald.  Mitchell notes that for Freud, “Language is associated with secondary process, the reality principle, the ‘word presentation’, the present day adult world and is at considerable remove from the ‘thing presentation’, the preverbal, fantasy-driven workings of primary process.” (Mitchell p. 7)  He also adds that “Loewald argued repeatedly that it is a fateful error, which has become a cultural norm, to equate the world of objectivity with the true sole reality.” (Mitchell p. 23)

Loewald responded to Freud’s one-sided emphasis of ego over id by emphasizing the equal importance of the id as an agent of meaning for the mental life of ego.  According to Loewald, the id refreshes and adds new meaning through a continuous exchange and dialogue involving both id and the ego.  Thus the word presentation of the ego is enriched and renewed by the thing presentation of the id and the primal density.  Here he writes: “Where id was, there ego shall come into being.  Too easily and too often ego is equated with rigid, un-modulated, and unyielding rationality.  So today we are moved to add: where ego is, there id shall come into being again to renew the life of the ego and reason.”(Loewald p. 16)

            He also perceived a danger in the one sided preference that was given to the ego and its secondary linguistic differentiations.  Here he claims that the secondary process and the rational interpretation of reality can become both empty and destructive if it is not renewed by the experiences of primal density:

Secondary process mentation is an achievement of the highest order, but it must be seen as a continuous activity of the mind, not as a static state reached once and for all.  If we do not evolve it again and again from the primary form of mentation and return to and evolve from the latter again, rational thought becomes sterile and destructive of life, as it denies or ignores its own living source. (Loewald p. 57)

            Loewald’s model insists that objects, in the psychological sense, are devoid of independent existence from the subject.  Objects are created by being invested with significance through the organizational (object cathetic) activity of the primal density experienced in the secondary process.  Mitchell explains that object cathexis involves the creation of a boundary around a piece of experience, differentiating a certain element and saying, ‘This is you’, while narcissistic or identifacatory cathexis involves the isolation of a particular experience and saying, ‘this is me’. (Mitchell p. 36)  Mitchell explains that, “…all of these distinctions and boundaries with which we are familiar are superimposed on this primal density.’ (Mitchell p. 39)

For Loewald then, the subject as ego, and the object as reality are interdependent in so far as they are divided elements of the secondary process projected onto the non-differentiated primal unity of the primary process.  In one sense they can be interpreted as two complimentary components of a particular psychic structure.  He writes:

“…to start with, reality is not outside, but is contained in the pre-ego of primary narcissism, and becomes, as Freud says, detached from the ego.  So that reality understood genetically, is not primarily outside and hostile, alien to the ego but intimately connected with and originally not even distinguished from it.” (Loewald p. 8)

In this context there can be no isolated objects and subjects in the true sense of the word, and the ego itself becomes a construct so to speak, that is largely determined by its particular relation to other objects within a given secondary division of the original mother child matrix.  Loewald concludes with the following: “In other words, the psychological constitution of the ego and outer world go hand in hand.  Nothing can be an object, something that stands against something else, as long as everything is contained in the unitary feeling of the primary, unlimited narcissism of the newborn where mouth and mothers breast are still the same.” (Loewald p. 5)

A later passage seems to imply that the secondary process may be a natural counter part to the undifferentiated stage in so far as the secondary process may exist in a latent form within the experience of the primal density.  Here Loewald writes: “It [the primary narcissistic stage] is the undifferentiated stage in which the infant and its world are still one, are only beginning to differentiate from one another, which means also that the differentiation of the psychic apparatus itself into its structural elements is still dormant.” (Loewald p. 10)  It seems that he is implying that the differentiating function of the primary process arises out of the elements involved in the primal density, since it is the mother who is part of that primal density who also introduces the secondary process via language and physical separation.

Loewald’s re-interpretation of Freud’s theory of drives along with ego development lead him to challenge Freud’s original assertion that the ego’s development is a response to a stimulus that is purely outside and separate, since the ego as we have seen originates from a non-differentiated field in which the outside forces and the individual were one:

The following formation at this point seems justified: The relationship of ego to reality is not primarily one of defense against an outer force thrust upon the ego, originally unrelated to it.  The relatedness between ego and reality, or objects, does not develop from an originally unrelated coexistence of two separate entities that come into contact with each other, but on the contrary from a unitary whole that differentiates into distinct parts. (Loewald p. 11)

It is important to note here that Loewald is not flatly contradicting Freud’s original assertion; rather he is expanding on it since he is identifying an earlier experience which becomes a vital component to the ego’s development and adaptation to outside forces, forces which were originally intimately part of that ego. 

It is also interesting to note how the organizational activity of the secondary process creates an individual’s self reflective identity as in the case of the super ego:

“The ‘other’ in oneself appears in psychoanalytic theory in such terms as observing ego and super ego.  But this internal other is only the end product of a complex differentiating-from another viewpoint, self alienating process that takes its start in the primary unity of the infant mother psychic matrix.” (Loewald p. 41)  Here he is indicating how the internalized elements of one’s environment are also developed from elements that were once included as part of one’s identity from the perspective of the primary process. 

            Like the subject object splitting described in the cathetic organization of the secondary process in which the ego along with the drives of the id are split off from various elements, this same process occurs within the ego identity itself: “It may be recalled from the first lecture that the development of preconscious or conscient mentation is based on a similar splitting whereby a unitary, unconscious, mental process differentiates so that a mutual responding, an inner conscire may result.” (Loewald p. 41)

            The experience of love provides a compelling example of how the un-differentiated primal density pervades the secondary process and also acts as a medium by which the dynamic nature of the secondary process continues to redefine the boundaries between ego and reality throughout social interactions.  Loewald explains that, “In such identification [as in love relationships] the subject object differentiation is suspended or is not activated.  It is in this fashion that the ego may enrich itself and ‘take into itself’ aspects or traits of others.” (Loewald p. 39) This seems to demonstrate the continual presence of the primary process while indicating a dynamic quality as belonging to the ego-reality boundaries that are created through the secondary process.  He writes:  “Love then, is a force or power that not only brings people together, one person loving another, but equally brings oneself together into that one individuality which we become through our identifications.” (Loewald p. 40)

So far we have looked at the relational concepts articulated by Stephen Mitchell and Hans Loewald.  Some significant points have occurred bearing strong resemblance to the phenomenological narratives given by Advaita Vedanta.  First there is Mitchell’s discussion of a two tiered approach to psychological reality; one is a dynamic experience of temporal subject and object distinctions of our everyday empirical world called ‘secondary process’.  Then there is the ‘primary process,’ a primal unity of undifferentiated experience from which the language of ‘secondary process’ emerges. 

We also saw that Loewald shifts away from the traditional conception of reality as the sole privilege of the ‘objective’ and ‘secondary process’, to the recognition that the subjective experience of the undifferentiated primal unity is also real, in the sense that it is a continually present foundation upon which the objective experiences of the ‘secondary process’ are established.  We concluded this preliminary analysis by looking at the way in which the individual subject as the ego, along with its drives and its objects are relational secondary constructions that are isolated from the undifferentiated field through social interactions. 

            These conceptions of primary and secondary process are strongly analogous to the notions of absolute reality verses apparent empirical reality as expressed in Advaita Vedanta.  Advaita philosophers also speak of an empirical world of plural phenomenon, and an undifferentiated reality that is the foundation for that empirical world.  Within this framework the self as a separate individuated ego along with its objects is understood as relational and contingent, having no absolute reality of it’s own in the context of the undifferentiated reality called Brahman.

It would now be prudent to briefly examine Advaita philosophy and then examine its parallels with relational psychology.  I would also like to add that these two levels of experience referred to by Mitchell and Advaita Vedanta are analogous, yet not identical.  While the analogy will prove useful in clarifying the ideas expressed by Advaitin’s, an analysis of some of the particular discrepancies existing between these two frameworks will also prove fruitful. 

Advaita Vedanta philosophy postulates Brahman, being of the nature of undifferentiated pure consciousness as the absolute reality which is both timeless and non-dual.  Accordingly, pure consciousness is said to appear as the empirical world where the plurality of names and forms are manifested; therefore two levels of reality are acknowledged: that of reality and that of fragmented appearances. (Radhkrishnan p. 30) Advaita Vedanta claims to show how these two levels of consciousness (reality) yield a unifying perspective by arguing that these two levels are incommensurable.  Thus, “When Brahman is known, nothing remains to be known.” (Gupta p. xiii)  Yet despite this radical claim, Advaita Vedanta also maintains that the reality of the empirical world holds true until it is superseded by the apprehension of Brahman. (Gupta p. xiii)

In her book The Disinterested Witness, Bina Gupta asks how and why the real and apparent become confused.  The Answer to this question is shown to rest on the concept of saksin or witness consciousness, as a necessary principle in order to explain the interaction of absolute reality with apparent reality.  Saksin is explained to be a necessary means of knowledge: a principle established on epistemological grounds.  In this regard, Advaitins maintain that the manifestation of an object of knowledge is contingent upon its cognition, a cognition that must always be accompanied by an immediate self awareness of one’s cognitions.  Gupta writes: “…particular cognitions presuppose a continuous principle of self-awareness; this principle is none other than the witness consciousness.” (Gupta p. xvi)

This witness consciousness is considered both an epistemological qualifier and an absolute ontological reality; this underlying conception makes epistemology and ontology two interrelated endeavors in Advaita philosophy.  This central concept is expressed by Shankara in his commentary in the Mandukya Upanisad: “Moreover Atman is always of the nature of consciousness and effulgence.  Therefore it is reasonable to speak of Atman as ever effulgence.  It is all knowing, that is to say, Atman is all that exists and Atman is consciousness (awareness) itself.” (Shankara p. 192)

  In this context, the primary objective of Advaita philosophy is to show the non-reality of all distinctions; that the absolute ontological reality is not constituted of parts.  Reality in this sense is considered to be an un-conditioned absolute, typified by the notion of an eternal and non-differentiated witness consciousness (saksin).  Therefore the task of the philosopher is to dispel all layers of apparent differentiations that have accumulated to expose this reality rather than establish a positive identity. (Gupta p. 1)

This endeavor involves a response to some key philosophical problems.  One major problem encountered in Advaita Vedanta involves an investigation into how a finite being can achieve an identity with an infinite being that is beyond subject/object distinctions.  The idea here is that Brahman is the ultimate reality, which is the nature of pure consciousness being the only reality that is non-dual. This reality cannot be described accurately with positive descriptions since it is infinite while positive descriptions are mere finite particulars which would mislead and distort one’s understanding.    

While this first problem reflects a spiritual endeavor, the second problem is an extension of the first within the epistemological domain: ‘how can something infinite, be known by finite, imperfect and limited humans?’ ‘How does the experience of a plural world connect with the non-dual Brahman?’  Gupta explains that “The task is to elucidate reality (Brahman) as the essence inherent in all appearances.” (Gupta p. 2)  Therefore these paradoxes are resolved by showing that Brahman is both immanent and transcendent; that immanence and transcendence are seen as two different views of the one reality. (Gupta p. 2)

The immanence and transcendence of reality is maintained on the ground that the empirical world has no reality of its own.  Brahman is transcendent by the fact that it is the only reality that exists.(*independently from the subject and the object)  Its transcendence is experienced from the vantage of the empirical world which is ultimately illusory.  Its immanence results from the empirical world being an illusion that is superimposed on Brahman making it immanent from the empirical perspective.  (Gupta p. 2)

Another question asks: ‘how or when did Brahman become confused with the world of plurality, and where must one go to escape it?’  From the ontological point of view this journey of confusion never took place, yet the appearance of a movement or direction will always be experienced as a phenomenological fact.  Gaudapada deals with this topic in his Karika taken from the Mandukya Upanishad: “This unborn (changeless, non dual Brahman) appears to undergo modification only account[s] of Maya (illusion) and not otherwise.  For if this modification were real, the immortal (Brahman) would become mortal.” (Gaudapada p. 166) In this sense there are two levels of reality: empirical reality which is considered illusory and absolute reality which is Brahman. (Gupta p. 2)

Bina Gupta adds that “For consciousness to be an object in the world is for it to be a subject presented with other objects.” (Gupta p. 2)  Yet in this case, both the knowing subject and its object share the same essential being “…and accordingly, can only be understood as different aspects of one reality.” (Gupta p. 2)  So the answer to this type of question rests on the fact that the appearance of difference is only a phenomenal difference, yet each partakes in the same essence, the same non-dual reality: Brahman.  This answer leads Advaita philosophers to assert that Brahman can only be understood by knowing what is essential for the existence of the knower and the known. (Dasgupta p. 163-165)  This endeavor ultimately ends in recognizing that the perceiver and the perceived are ultimately Brahman which is non-dual in nature; thus one’s mind becomes free from the notion of a separate subject and object.  Shankara explains this with the following: “When the mind becomes free from all ideas of the perceiver and the perceived-the dual evils caused by ignorance-it verily becomes one with the Supreme and the non-dual Brahman.” (Shankara p. 190)

            As previously stated, this challenge of identifying the ontological real is addressed by the Advaita philosophers as an epistemological problem.  By analyzing the relationship between the knower and the known, being (sat) and consciousness (cit) are understood as “two alternate descriptions of being that have the same denotation, but connote different things…” (Gupta p. 3)  A common analogy is the morning and evening star, which are two different references and appearances of the same object.  (Gupta p. 3)

            This analysis involves the individual questioning what it means to be a knower and what the agent of knowing is.  (Dasgupta p. 163)  Gupta describes the nature of this investigation: “What is it that knows?  What is it that makes this knower both ‘this’- i.e., the object known and a knower? How do we distinguish the knower from both the object that it knows and more importantly, from the object that another knower knows?”  Advaitins postulate the concept of saksin in order to answer these questions. 

In an epistemological sense saksin is defined as a direct and immediate perception and as the thing that directly and immediately perceives the agent of perception.  In this sense, Saksin refers to a witness both in the legal and epistemological sense.  The witness implied here is that of a ‘phenomenologically pure’ observer, “…who observes without bringing anything to the operation.” (Gupta p. 4)  This implies seeing without being involved in the act that is being seen and having no interest in what occurs.  Saksin also signifies the self which is not involved in the cognitive process, yet is intelligent despite its detachment. (Gupta p. 4)  This is what Shankara is conveying when he writes that “…Jnanam means the essence of knowledge i.e. the consciousness which is the very nature of Atman or the Self. [Thus] Brahman is that whose expression is the knowledge thus described.  In other words, Brahman is one mass of sentiency.” (Shankara p. 191)   

            In order to understand why the undifferentiated witness consciousness is ascribed absolute reality as against the empirical and partial reality of differentiated phenomenon, one must understand the Advaita school’s ontological qualifier.  Shamkara takes a phenomenological approach by recognizing that the world of plurality is phenomenally real so long as one’s awareness is in that realm.  However, Shamkara defines reality as that which is not contradicted and remains consistent.  The realm of subject object relations is partially real since it is public; however it lacks absolute reality since its objects are subject to change and contradiction.  Saksin, the witness consciousness experienced behind all cognitions, perceptions, and objects is ever-present and unchanging even during deep sleep and is thus granted the status of absolute reality.  Thus, “(This Brahman is) birthless, free from sleep and dream, without name and form, ever-effulgent and omniscient.” (Gaudapada p. 192)  Sinha also adds that “According to him [Shamkara], real is ‘that about which our understanding does not vary’…real is ‘that the ascertained nature of which does not undergo any change.”’ (Sinha p. 37) 

            Shankara also postulates that the self and the not self are two fundamental components of human experience, with each opposed to one another like night and day.  Everyday experience is explained as revolving around a beginingless confounding of self and not self.  This interrelationship takes the form of ‘I am this,’ and ‘this is mine’.  In this instance the distinction between the self and the body is forgotten in the first form.  The second form involves a distinction between the self and the body while the attributes of the two are confused.  This type of confusion takes two forms: 1) ‘I am this body’ and 2) This body is I’.  In the first example the body is superimposed on the self, whereas in the second the self is super imposed on the body. (Gupta p. 40)

            According to Shankara, spiritual bondage results from the reciprocal superimposition of the self and the not self; when this occurs the empirical self acts and has experiences due to an erroneous identification of the inner self of consciousness with the inner sense (antahkarana).  In this light the self is not absolutely unknowable since it is apprehended as the content of the ‘I’ experience.  (Sinha p. 81)

            One may challenge this view by asking ‘if the self is never an object, how can objects and their properties be superimposed on it?’  Shamkara’s response claims that pure consciousness (as the self) becomes confronted by an object when one is aware of him or herself as ‘I am’.  Here the ‘I’ referring to the empirical individual is confused and bound with the restriction of the body, mind, and the sense organs.  Here the inner sense (antahkarana) the center of egoity is conflated with the content of ‘I’, the self as pure consciousness, while the self is simultaneously superimposed on the inner sense.  This conflation results in the multiplicity of names and forms, thus leading to the experience of agency and subjectivity by empirical individuals.  Within this barrage of plural experience exists the self as witness consciousness, which is both different from and the witness of the empirical ego. (Shankara p. 12)  It is this superimposition that leads one to experience the apparent world of plurality as real; it also endows the empirical individual with consciousness allowing him or her to be self aware and to ‘know that they know’. (Sinha p. 80-82) 

            In sum, the self for Advaita philosophers is the un-differentiated witness consciousness that perceives the mental processes and agents of perception experienced by the empirical individual.  This self, as pure consciousness (saksin) is only such when conflated with, and in relation to, the ego and its objects produced by the modifications of the inner sense (antahkarana).  On its own, this non-differentiated self as the absolute reality, is Brahman.  Thus for Shankara, “…the existence of Brahman is well known from the fact of its being the Self of all; for everyone feels that his Self exists, and he never feels, ‘I do not exist.’” (Shankara p. 12) 

The experience of the empirical world, along with the self other distinction is a phenomena resulting from the modifications of the inner sense and its ego principle conflated with the pure consciousness (saksin).  In reality this witness consciousness is Brahman, the non-differentiated absolute reality.  Therefore experience of the empirical world and the empirical self as a modification of the inner sense is the phenomenon of ignorance, which is a paradoxical condition of saksin. Saksin is the illuminating principle for Advaitins, and the existence of this ignorance along with its illusions is taken as a condition for illumination.  Thus the experience of the empirical world is the effect of ignorance which is manifested by saksin as a complementary necessity for its illuminating property.  Shankara sums this up in his commentary to the Mandukya Upanisad:

Moreover, it [saksin] is ever effulgent or it is of the nature of effulgence.  For, it is free from (the ideas of) manifestation and non-apprehension.  Apprehension and non-apprehension are (as inseparable) as day and night.  Darkness is the characteristic of ignorance.  These are the causes of the non manifestation (of the real nature of Atman).” (Shankara p. 192) 

            Hans Loewald’s concepts of primary and secondary processes are analogous to, but not identical with, the Advaita notions of absolute and empirical reality.  It is appropriate now to look at some of the particular correspondences and deviations existing between these two frameworks.  The Advaita concept of absolute reality as Brahman/Saksin corresponds with Loewald’s primary process in the sense that both realities entail an experience that is undifferentiated, or rather a non-differentiated form of consciousness.  However, metaphysically speaking, Brahman has no qualities and is not composed of the parts of empirical experience in its unity.  Brahman appears as saksin from the empirical perspective and manifests ignorance as a condition of its illumination.  From this ignorance arises the mental mode whose modifications produce the experience of the empirical world.  Mitchell’s description of the primary process deviates from the notion of Brahman/saksin when it is described as being composed of feelings, perceptions, others, and self.  In Advaita, these experiences are modifications of the mental mode superimposed upon Brahman or saksin, while Brahman itself remains devoid of all particular qualities. 

            Advaita Vedanta’s conception of reality contrasts the notions of reality expressed in the work of Freud and mainstream western psychology by regarding the undifferentiated experience of consciousness as the absolute reality, while Freud regarded such experience as subjective fantasy.  After reflecting upon Mitchell’s discussion of fantasy in light of the Advaita notion of reality, I would like to suggest that most forms of fantasy may be interpreted as belonging to a degenerate form of secondary process, since fantasy usually involves some form of self/other configuration.  In this view it may be more useful to think of fantasy as an element of the secondary process that is incoherent with the otherwise public dimension of secondary process as discussed earlier.  Thus we would have a public secondary process verses a private more subjective form of secondary process.  (maybe refer to empirical and subjective maya here)

            Loewald’s recognition of the undifferentiated primary process as being equally real as the differentiated secondary process involves a departure from traditional Freudian psychoanalysis and parallels the Advaita position which recognizes the undifferentiated consciousness as reality.  However, Advaita remains distinct in that it regards the undifferentiated experience of Brahman/saksin as the absolute ontological reality, due to its eternal and unchanging quality, while the apparent reality of the empirical world or ‘secondary process’ is only granted the status ‘apparent reality’ since its dynamic quality involves contradictions in experience. 

            In Mitchell’s description of relational psychology, the self as a differentiated ego along with its drives and objects, is relational in so far as the ego’s particular qualities and experiences involve the internalization of social or environmental elements experienced during the undifferentiated state of the primary process by the activity of the socially induced secondary process.  In Advaita philosophy, the empirical ego is also treated as being relational in so far as its experience is contingent upon the relation of differentiated subjects and objects experienced by the inner sense whose existence is dependent on and super-imposed upon Brahmin/saksin. 

            Another key difference occurs when Mitchell speaks of the self in terms of the differentiated ego, being a relational phenomenon of the secondary process.  The Advaita system identifies the self with the non-differentiated reality of Brahman, while distinguishing it from differentiated ego that is constructed by the inner sense, while maintaining that Brahman as pure consciousness is the content of the ego’s ‘I’ experience. It is also interesting to observe that while Mitchell relies on the unity of consciousness experienced between the mother and infant as an empirical bases for the undifferentiated state of the primal density, Advaitins refer to the state of deep sleep as an empirical bases for their notion of the undifferentiated pure consciousness (saksin). 

Stephen Mitchell points to the non-differentiated field as the point of origin for the experience of self, objects and drives.  Advaita Vedanta differs by attributing the experience of the empirical ego, its qualities and objects to the ignorance manifested by saksin’s illuminating quality.  Thus in Advaitin terms the non-dual awareness of Loewald’s primal density would provide the content of the ego’s ‘I’ experience which is determined by the secondary process as a mode of nescience.  Loewald’s model is similar to the Advaitin framework in so far as it attributes the differentiation of the primary process to the activity of the socially induced secondary process.  This is similar in some ways to the differentiation of self and other that occurs with the operation of the inner sense, which is then superimposed upon the non-differentiated unity of Brahman/saksin.

It could be argued here that both Shankara and Loewald are providing two different models to account for the human experience of eternity.  The former takes ontology as the reference point, while the latter uses psychology.  Shankara is providing an account of eternity in terms of the absolutely real; his account deals with the experience of eternity as Brahman in the context of nescience and illusion.  Loewald’s model also provides an account of eternity in relation to the temporal experiences of ego and reality induced by the secondary process.

In his book Psychoanalysis and the History of the Individual, Loewald devotes special attention to the unconscious process as a potential mode for religious experience.  He explains this connection with the following: “I believe that some aspects of religious experience are related to unconscious mental processes.  Other aspects of religious life and thought can be approached by interpreting them in terms of the emergent dialectic between unconscious and conscient mentation, roughly speaking between irrational and rational.” (Loewald p. 57)  This perspective could also be applied toward Advaita philosophy, which is also a religious philosophy and interpret it as an emergent dialogue between the primary and secondary process, or the unconscious and the conscious.

            Loewald discusses the nature of religious experience in terms of timelessness, a sense of eternity experienced by the subject.  Here he identifies how such experiences involve a stimulation of the mind that overwhelms the secondary process, manifesting the unconscious element of the primal density:

In all such experiences [of timelessness]while our rational processes may continue to operate and to articulate the material of experience, at the same time another level of our mind has been touched or activated and the secondary rational loses its weight.  It is overshadowed or pervaded by the timelessness of the unconscious or primary process.  Once the experience is over, we can of course try to grasp and keep hold of it in terms of secondary process mentation.(Loewald p. 67)

            He even goes so far as to suggest that various religious interpretations such as life after death, heaven and hell, may be due to the interpretation provided by the secondary process, making religious doctrine a product of this dialogue.  Thus:“The idea of eternity has often been made concrete in religious terms as everlasting life after death.  That eternity is represented in this fashion is, I believe, due to the influence of sencondary process mentation.  Using such mentation, as we ordinarily do, the expression ‘everlasting life after death’ is the closest we can come to the representation of eternity.”(Loewald p. 67)

Loewald discusses Freud’s definition of the unconscious as ‘timeless’ and discusses the contrast of temporality.  Here he suggests that the human concept of time is connected with the knowledge of death.  He adds that, “Individual life has a beginning and an end, it takes place in time; it is likely that our idea of time and the temporal articulation of our experience is in some way intimately connected with our knowledge of death.  On the other hand, Freud thought that the unconscious has no conception of death, and that the id is timeless.”(Loewald p. 67) 

This runs parallel with the religious aims associated with Advaita philosophy.  Here the philosopher seeks to overcome death by achieving an identity with a changeless principle that is ‘absolutely’ real, in contrast to the transitory experiences of temporality.  In this sense the Advaitin is seeking to overcome the ego identifications that experience death by means of philosophical examination in order to experience a new identification that does not experience birth and death.  Thus Saksin as Brahmin would be the epitome of eternity experienced within the context of Loewald’s primary process.

In the Mandukya Upanisad Shankara discusses the nature of temporality in terms of the illusion of duality and advises the student to withdraw from any attachment that are connected with desires.  According to Shankara such attachments are caused by one’s ignorance of reality and one’s true nature and simultaneously reinforce the illusion of duality produced from that ignorance:   

Remember that all duality is caused by Avidya or illusion and therefore afflicted with misery.  Thereby dissuade the mind from seeking enjoyments produced by desires.  In other words, withdraw the mind from all dual objects by impressing on it the idea of complete non-attachment.  Realise…that all this is verily the changeless Brahman.  Then you will not anything to the contrary, viz., duality; for it does not exist. (Shankara p. 202)

Here the idea of affliction and misery alludes to the inevitable experiences of death and temporariness produced by the experience of temporality, and of self object differentiation.  Thus the understanding of the ‘real’ for Advaitins is not merely an intellectual achievement; it involves a certain psychological transformation and a philosophical realization, in which eternity as the indestructible content of the ‘I’ experience is understood as the true nature of the self and the universe. Thus Gaudapada writes that, “The man of discrimination realizing Aumkara as all-pervading like the sky, i.e., knowing it as the Atman, not bound by the law of transmigration, does not grieve; for, there is no cause of misery for him.” (Shankara p. 82)

            In the context of Loewalds discussion of eternity and religion as a dialogue articulating eternity, one could consider Advaita Vedanta as a religious philosophy, yet this philosophy is unique compared to the models of heaven and hell and life after death referred to by Loewald.  First of all for Advaita there is no life after death, no heaven and no hell, there is simply Brahman which is infinity or eternity itself and then there are the temporal appearances that spontaneously arise in the imagination of Atman as Brahman due to nescience.  For Advaita, there can be no death, only ignorance which allows one to have the phenomenological experience of death.  Thus in a superficial sense the removal of ignorance by the discipline of Advaita Vedanta is the removal of the illusion of death and misery, since their reality is not absolute. 

            Gaudapada explains this when he writes that, “All the Jivas are, by their very nature, free from senility and death.  They think, as it were, that they are subject to these and thus by this very thought they appear to deviate from their very nature.” (Gaudapada p. 219)  Shankara elaborates on this passage further in his commentary:

These are all the Jivas, who are, by their very nature, free from all changes.  Though the Jivas are such by their very nature, yet they think, as it were, that they are subject senility and death.  By such imagination about their selves, like the imagination of the snake in the rope, they (appear to) deviate from nature.  This happens on account of their identification, through thinking, with senility and death.  That is to say, they (appear to) fall from their real nature by this defect in their thought. (Shankara p. 219)

In this sense Advaita Vedanta and relational psychology can both be said to be articulating the human experience of eternity and identifying it as a real component of human life.  The main difference is that Advaitins maintain Brahman to be an ontological fact while Loewald looks at eternity as a psychological fact.      

Loewald’s willingness to look at the religious experience as a real subjective phenomenon and his attributing of that experience to the enriching and life giving dimension of the primary process indicates a distinct departure from Freud’s rather dark perspectives of the religious experience.  To this effect Freud writes:

‘The common man cannot imagine this Providence otherwise than in the figure of an enormously exalted father.  Only such a being can understand the needs of the children of men and be softened by their prayers and placated by the signs of their remorse.  The whole thing is so patently infantile, so foreign to reality, that to anyone with a friendly attitude to humanity it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.’ (Loewald p. 58)

Loewald points out that Freud had admitted in his book The Future of an Illusion, that he may have over looked ‘“the deepest sources of the religious feeling.”’ (Loewald p. 58)  This acknowledgment was encouraged by his friend Romain Rolland who had objected to Freud’s one- sided critique of religion.  Freud documents Rolland’s own account of the ‘religious feeling’ which proves quite insightful in relation to Loewald’s discussion of the primal density and religious experience.  Here is Freud’s accound of Roland’s position:

‘The true source of religious sentiments…consists in a peculiar feeling, which he [Rolland] himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people.  It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded-as it were, ‘oceanic.’  This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them.’ (Loewald p. 59)  

(o.k. so now what ?)

After analyzing these two narratives of consciousness it becomes apparent that Mitchell’s Relational Psychology and Advaita Vedanta both share an analogous division of human experience characterized by the undifferentiated experience of consciousness and the experience of differentiated subjects and objects.  Both schools of thought use a phenomenological approach by founding their discussions on experiences of consciousness.  Mitchell and Loewald speak of psychological experiences, while the Advaita philosophers speak of different levels of consciousness.  While the Advaita philosophy attributes ontological value to certain phenomenological experiences, Mitchell identifies an analogy between the primal density of the psychoanalysts with the primal density of cosmologists.  While the parallels between the two discourses are supplemented with unique deviations, the analogy of the secondary and primary process; the notions of fantasy and reality; along with the notions of a relational ego may help unpack the rich narratives of Advaita philosophy for the western audience.   







Gupta, Bina. “Introduction” “Shamkara on Saksin” “Saksin and Advaita Epistemology”

“Saksin and Western Phenomenology” “Saksin and Advaita Metaphysics”. The Disinterested Witness. North Western University Press.  Evanston: Illinois. 1998 Pgs. Xi-170


Mitchell, Stephen A. “Language and Reality” “Drives and Objects”. Relationality: From

Attachment to Intersubjectivity.  The Analytic Press. Hillsdale: New Jersey. 2000 Pgs. 3-57


Radhakrishnan, S. “The Commentators” The Brahma Sutra: The Philsophy of Spiritual

Life.  Greenwood Pres, New York. 1968. pgs. 29-35.



Sinha, Jadunath. “The General Problems of Indian Epistemology.” “The Value of

Determinate Perception.”  “The Epistemology of Illusion.” “Self, Knowledge, and Object.” Indian Epistemology of Perception.  Sinha Publishing House Private Limited Calcutta: India. 1969 pgs. 20-150


Sinha, Priti. “Kevaladvaita of Sankara.” “Man and his Bondage.” The Philosophy of

Advaita. Sivarasa Publications. Pilikothi: Varanasi.  1986. Pgs 41-92





G. “Atman, the self-luminous, through the power of his own Maya, imagines in himself by himself (all the objects that the subject experiences within or without).  He alone is the cognizer of the objects (so created).  That is the decision of the Vedanta” (p. 96)


“The mind should be unified with (the sacred syllable) Aum.  (For)Aum is Brahman, the ever-fearless.  He who is always unified with Aum knows no fear whatever.” (p. 80)


“Aum is verily the Lower Brahman, and it is also admitted to be the Supreme Brahman.  Aum is without beginning (cause), unique, without anything outside itself, unrelated to any effect and changeless.” (p. 80)


“Svapna or dream is the wrong cognition of reality.  Nidra or sleep it the date in which one does not know what Reality is.  When the erroneous knowledge in these two dis-appears, Turiya is realized.” (p. 61)