THE SPIRITUAL DISASTER OF MATERIAL ATTACHMENT

An Echo from Ancient Greece


by Suhotra Swami

"Look upon this Oedipus, he who knew the famous riddle and was the

most successful of men. Who among the citizens did not look upon

him with envy. Into what a great wave of disasters he has crashed. So

that, looking at that final day, count no mortal happy until he has

passed the limit of his life suffering no pain."

--*Oedipus the King* by Sophocles

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The nature of man and his struggle with ignorance, and the

disastrous truth that ignorance obscures, is the theme of the tale of

King Oedipus related by the classical Greek playwright Sophocles.

Even now, almost two and a half millenia after it was written, the

dramatic insight of *Oedipus Tyrannus* (Oedipus the King) cannot fail

to fascinate the reader. Sigmund Freud wrote, "In the very text of

Sophocles' tragedy there is an unmistakable reference to the fact that

the Oedipus legend had its source in dream-material of immemorial

antiquity . . ." The reason *Oedipus Tyrannus* remains so gripping,

Freud believed, is that Sophocles translated it from the inchoate but

enduring language of the *psyche*, the "voice within us which is

prepared to acknowledge the compelling power" of this tragedy.

Oedipus was found by a shepherd on the slopes of Mount Citharon

as an infant, with his ankles bound together (thus he was named

Oedipus, which means "swollen-foot").

King Polybus and Queen

Merope of Corinth adopted the foundling, raising him as a noble

prince. As Polybus told him nothing of his real origins, he believed

himself to be the king's son and heir. One day Oedipus heard a rumor

that he was not the real son of the Corinthian ruler. The young man

was so stubbornly devoted to the truth that even after his father's

assurances that he was indeed his son, Oedipus went to the Oracle at

Delphi to settle his doubts. However, instead of shedding light on his

past, the oracle predicted a terrible future for Oedipus: he would kill

his father and take his mother as his wife. To avert the possibility of

his committing such crimes, Oedipus did not return to Corinth. During

his travels he met a party of men at a crossroads. One of them, adignitary in a carriage, hit him as he passed by. A fight resulted.

Oedipus, taking the party to be a band of robbers, slew the man in the

carriage and all of his followers but one. He continued wandering until

he came to Thebes (the modern Thebai, not far from Athens). Thebes

was beset by the Sphinx, a monster with the head and breast of a

woman, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. Crouched on a rock

outside the city, she demanded that travellers approaching the city

answer her riddle, "What has four feet in the morning, two at noon and

three at night?" All those who could not answer she killed. When

Oedipus replied, "The answer is man, who crawls on four limbs as a

baby, walks upright on two as an adult, and walks with the aid of a

stick in old age," the Sphinx killed herself. The grateful Thebans made

Prince Oedipus their king, since the ruler of the city, Laius, had been

murdered during a recent journey. Oedipus took Jocasta, the wife of

the dead king, as his own wife. Jocasta bore him two sons and a

daughter, Antigone.

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Thereafter a plague struck Thebes, blighting all the edible plants

and sickening the cows and the women. To uncover the cause of the

plague, Oedipus sent his brother-in-law Creon to Delphi to consult the

oracle. Creon returned with the disturbing news that the plague struck

Thebes because the city is giving shelter to the murderer of the

previous king, Laius. Oedipus immediately launched an investigation,

threatening anyone who had aided the killer or might be concealing

the truth with severe punishment. He cursed whomever the murderer

might be to suffer a miserable life. At first he suspected that Creon

killed King Laius, because Creon would have inherited the Theban

throne had not Oedipus arrived to defeat the Sphinx. But as he

compiled the testimony of various witnesses, Oedipus soon learned

that King Laius was killed at a crossroads by someone unknown. Then

he learned that Queen Jocasta had given a son to Laius years before.

But because of a prophecy that this child would kill his own father, the

king abandoned the baby on the slopes of Mount Citharon.

A messenger arrived from Corinth to inform Oedipus that King

Polybus had died. The messenger also revealed that Oedipus was not

the real son of Polybus, but was found on the slopes of Mount

Citharon. Hearing this, Jocasta begged Oedipus to stop his

investigation, and when he refused she took her own life, though the

reason for her suicide was not yet clear to Oedipus. Finally, the single

survivor of Laius' travel party testified that it was Oedipus himself who

had killed Laius, and that the son of Laius abandoned on Mount

Citharon had been adopted by King Polybus. The disasterous truth

was at last revealed: Oedipus was the murderer of his father and hadcommitted incest with his mother. Utterly disgusted with himself,

Oedipus put out his own eyes and went into exile.

A spiritual analysis of the Oedipus tragedy

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Our analysis comprises six points.

PD

Sophocles presented *Oedipus Tyrannus* as a drama of human

responsibility and divine omnipotence. Sigmund Freud called this "an

uncomprehending secondary elaboration of the material." He analyzed

the story in his own materialistic way, known to every educated person

as Freud's theory of the Oedipus Complex. We propose that a Krsna

conscious analysis of Sophocles' play is more in keeping with

Sophocles' intent than Freud's. The reader interested in evidence of

the many "parallels between Greek and Indian eschatology" that tend

to support our way of analysis is invited to consult *Early Greek

Philosophy and the Orient* by Oxford scholar M.L. West.

1) Oedipus represents every soul covered by ignorance. Although

he was apparently wise and good, due to an illusion unbeknownst to

him he was actually foolish and wretched.

2) Oedipus was cast away by his father because he was fated to be

his father's rival. Similarly, the Supreme Father places the souls who

intend to usurp His position within the material nature.

3) In ignorance, Oedipus killed his own father and took his mother

as his wife. Similarly, the souls in Maya kill God consciousness with

atheistic, materialistic ideologies. Having disposed of God, they then

claim His *sakti* (feminine material energy) as their own to enjoy as

they like. Since the souls receive their bodies from the material

energy, she is actually their mother.

4) Jocasta begged Oedipus to stop his investigation. Similarly,

whenever an ignorant soul comes in contact with the truth, Maya

attempts to drag him back into ignorance by appealing, "where

ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." Jocasta's suicide represents

the end that spiritual knowledge spells for illusory material happiness.

5) The tragedy of Oedipus gets its psychological power from a

hidden truth about every one of us: that in a profound philosophical

sense, we are guilty of patricide and incest with our mother.6) Oedipus' blinding himself represents the penance of spiritual

awakening. In order to see spiritually, the material eyes (or the

science of ignorance that hides rather than reveals the science of

truth) must be renounced.

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PD

"There must be a voice within us which is prepared to acknowledge

the compelling power of fate in the *Oedipus*," wrote Freud. "His

fate moves us only because it might have been our own, because the

oracle laid upon us before our birth the very curse which rested upon

him." The curse laid upon us before our birth is lust, which, as Krsna

explains in *Bhagavad-gita 3.39, is the eternal enemy of the soul. Lust

covers our innate spiritual knowledge and impells us to perform the

depraved acts even without our realizing it.

According to Vedic

injunction, *matrvat para-daresu*: every woman other than a man's

lawful wife is his mother, and every man other than a woman's lawful

husband is her son. Most people in the world today, of course, do not

view one another in this way, which is a Vedic method of purifying

human relationships of illicit attractions. Fated by the sinful *karma*

of previous lifetimes, born in a society ignorant of Vedic principles,

countless modern Oedipuses are driven by lust into the sexual

embrace of their mothers every day.

Is there any wonder, then, that all is not right today in the minds

of mankind? The *Bhagavad-gita* defines an unbalanced mind as one

that swings between the dualities of *sukha* (material pleasure) and

*dukha* (material distress).

As much as the mind lusts after

*sukha*, it must proportionately suffer *dukha*.

As we see

practically: the same world media that daily seduces us with the

genital character role model, likewise daily shocks us with real-life sex-

horror stories--a debauched, mentally unstable mother drowns her two

children; a psychopathic man murders a series of sex partners and

keeps their dead bodies in his closet for necrophilia; and so on. These

modern true-life tragedies, like the ancient Oedipus tale, dramatize

externally the private hell of our own uncontrolled minds. A voice

within us acknowledges the compelling power of the fate of all such

victims of lust, for we share their fate to one degree or another.

Krsna says to Uddhava, *durjayanam aham manah*: "Of things

that are difficult to conquer, I am the mind." (*Bhag*. 11.16.11) And

to Arjuna He says, "For one who has failed to conquer the mind, that

mind is his greatest enemy." (*B.g*. 6.6) We are fated by lust to

make an enemy of our real father. He, Manomaya, the Lord of theMind, therefore defeats us *by our own ignorance*. What is that

ignorance? It is, again, the subjective-idealist mistake of thinking *I

am the mind*. To think "I am the mind" is to think "I am Krsna, the

controller of matter." Yet by thinking "I am the mind" we come under

the control of matter. And thus we suffer.

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PD

The science of ignorance, psychology, has no solution for suffering,

because it is based upon the same misidentification with the mind that

causes the suffering in the first place. The mind is many-branched,

constantly manufacturing newer and newer speculations. Following

the ways of the mind, psychology is likewise many-branched. The

school Freud founded, psychoanalysis, is only one of at least seven

schools of psychology, and even the Freudian school itself is now

many-branched. Among the schools and their subdivisions there is no

overarching theory about human suffering, its causes, or its treatment.

One school says suffering is caused by biochemistry. Another school

says it is caused by social factors. Still another school says all

suffering can be traced to childhood. But whatever the theory may be,

the prescription is *never* the renunciation of the idea that "I am the

mind," and *never* the renunciation of lust. Psychology is the science

of ignorance precisely *because it attempts to shift the burden of

attachment from one material object to another*. A typical example

from Freudian psychology would be of a woman who has difficulties in

her marriage because of an unconscious attachment to her father; her

analyst would try to help her shift her attachment from her father to

her husband. But this is like shifting the weight of a heavy load from

one shoulder to another. Initially there may be relief. But eventually

the load will again become too troublesome to bear. Still, renunciation

seems too extreme for most people.

King Oedipus' dreadful

renunciation of his ignorant, wretched mode of existence may appear

to us to be a cure more drastic than the disease. But renunciation is

likely to be a drastic, forced affair so long as one remains part of an

ignorant society. Wherever ignorance predominates is called hell (cf

*Bhag.* 11.19.43). In the hellish association of people who are

addicted to bad habits, about the most a sober-minded person can do

to renounce bad habits is to forcibly repress desire. Such repression

itself is hellish and ultimately hopeless.

Join the society of love

Krsna tells Uddhava, *sat-sangah sarva-sangapaho*, "by

associating with My pure devotees one can destroy one's attachmentfor all objects of material sense gratification." (*Bhag.*11.12.2) The

society of devotees cultivates the mode of goodness by the method

Krsna calls *mat-arthesv anga-cesta*, "the offering of ordinary bodily

activities to Me." (*Bhag.*11.19.22) This is *varnasrama-dharma*,

by which the modes of passion and ignorance are overthrown,

pacifying the physical and mental instincts.

PD

But more than this, Krsna's devotees constantly hear and chant

about Him, worship Him, praise Him, serve Him, bow down before

Him, worship His devotees, see Him in all living beings, engage their

words in describing Him, offer their minds to Him, renounce all

material desires, wealth, sense pleasure and material happiness for

Him, and perform all kinds of pious works for Him. By all these

activities, the fully surrendered devotees *automatically develop love

for Krsna*.

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How can it be so easy to develop love for Krsna? The answer is

very simple: the true object of every soul's pure attraction is Krsna,

who loves all His parts and parcels so strongly that He stays in their

hearts even if they forget Him. Now, although Krsna loves both the

liberated and conditioned souls equally and for all time, it is up to us

who are conditioned to learn how to favorably reciprocate with His

love. That is why we must associate with His pure devotees. Krsna

tells Uddhava that repeatedly, age after age, demons, birds, beasts,

celestial demigods and fallen, low-grade human beings achieve His

eternal abode simply by associating with His devotees and learning