Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities / Edition 1

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"Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty . . . weaves a brilliant analysis of the complex role of dreams and dreaming in Indian religion, philosophy, literature, and art. . . . In her creative hands, enchanting Indian myths and stories illuminate and are illuminated by authors as different as Aeschylus, Plato, Freud, Jung, Kurl Gödel, Thomas Kuhn, Borges, Picasso, Sir Ernst Gombrich, and many others. This richly suggestive book challenges many of our fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our world."—Mark C. Taylor, New York Times Book Review

"Dazzling analysis. . . . The book is firm and convincing once you appreciate its central point, which is that in traditional Hindu thought the dream isn't an accident or byway of experience, but rather the locus of epistemology. In its willful confusion of categories, its teasing readiness to blur the line between the imagined and the real, the dream actually embodies the whole problem of knowledge. . . . [O'Flaherty] wants to make your mental flesh creep, and she succeeds."—Mark Caldwell, Village Voice

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226618555
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2009
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 382
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty is the Mircea Eliade Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School and a professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was.

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Dreams, Illusion, and other Realities

By Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1984 University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30809-8


The Interpretation of Dreams

The Western assumption that dreams are softer (more subjective, false, private, transient, and illusory) than the hard facts of waking life (which we think of as objective, true, public, permanent, and real) is an assumption that is not shared by Indian texts devoted to the meaning of dreams. Indian medicine and philosophy do not recognize the distinction between two aspects of dream analysis that is made by Roger Caillois, who speaks of "two types of problems concerning dreams that have always puzzled men's minds." The first is the meaning of the images inside the dream; the second is "the degree of reality that one may attribute to the dream," which depends on our understanding of the relationship between dreaming and waking.

The two aspects of dreams merge from the very start in India, since one word (svapna, etymologically related to the Greek hypnos) designates both the content of dreaming—i.e., the images in the dream, the actual dream that one "sees"—and the form of dreaming—the process of sleeping (including the process of dreaming), which involves the relationship between the dream and the waking world. The first is what we would regard as the soft or subjective aspect of the dream, visible only to the dreamer; the second we think of as the objective or hard aspect of the dream, visible to other observers. The first is what we examine on the psychoanalyst's soft couch; the second we analyze with the hardware of the sleep laboratory.


The earliest Indian reference to dreams, in the Rg Veda (c. 1200 B.C.), describes a nightmare, but it leaves ambiguous the question whether what is feared is merely the experience of the dream (the process of having a bad dream) or the content of the dream (the events in the dream and the implication that it will come true): "If someone I have met or a friend has spoken of danger to me in a dream to frighten me, or if a thief should waylay us, or a wolf—protect us from that." Are the thief and the wolf part of the dream, too, or part of a contrasting reality? A different sort of ambiguity is posed by the waking dream, which is mentioned in the Rg Veda as an evil that one wishes to visit on one's enemies. Yet another Rg Vedic verse tells of an incubus who bewitches a sleeping woman in her dream. He shades off into the actual person who rapes the woman, either by transforming himself when she is awake or by manipulating her mind when she is bewitched by the demonic powers of illusion:

The one who by changing into your brother, or your husband, or your lover lies with you, who wishes to kill your offspring—we will drive him away from here. The one who bewitches you with dream or darkness and lies with you—we will drive him away from here.

These scattered references reveal an assumed link not only between the worlds of dream and magic but between the worlds of dream and reality. They also give us an indication of what the ancient Indians thought people dreamed about: a friend warning of danger, a thief's attack, a wolf, or being raped by someone who assumes an illusory form. These motifs recur in later Indian dream books and myths about dreams.

By the time of the Upanisads (c. 700 B.C.), the question of the reality of dreams was approached in a more systematic way. These texts speak of four states of being: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep (all natural states), and the supernatural, transcendent fourth state, the identity with Godhead. Later Indian texts concentrated much of their attention on the first and fourth levels, waking and Godhead, and on the ways in which waking is a distorted image of Godhead. Dreamless sleep and dreaming are the intermediate steps: dreamless sleep gives us a glimpse of the true brahman, the divine mind that does not create; dreaming sleep gives us a glimpse of the god (Visnnu or Rudra) who creates us by dreaming us into existence.

Other Upanisads add certain significant details to the outline of the four states. Waking, one knows what is outside and is common to all men; dreaming, one knows what is inside, and one enjoys what is private. The private, internal nature of dreams is emphasized: "When he goes to sleep, these worlds are his.... Taking his senses with him, he moves around wherever he wishes inside his own body." The fact that the dream exists only inside the body of the dreamer does not, however, imply that it is unreal, as such a dichotomy (inside vs. outside, private vs. public) might imply in Western thinking. The fourth state, which is called the Self (atman), is the one in which one knows neither inside nor outside; but the dreamer in the second state, it is often said, knows both of these. The third state, deep, dreamless sleep, may also have the creative qualities that are usually associated with dreaming (the second state): in deep sleep, the sleeper constructs (minoti) this whole world and becomes its doomsday (apiti). The dream of a universe created and destroyed is a theme that we will often encounter in Indian texts.

The question of the reality of the dream world is taken up in discussions of dreams as projections. The verb srj, used to express projection, means literally to "emit" (as semen, or words), and it frequently occurs in stories about the process of creation (sarga, from srj) in which the Creator emits the entire universe from himself the way a spider emits a web:

A man has two conditions: in this world and in the world beyond. But there is also a twilight juncture: the condition of sleep [or dream, svapna]. In this twilight juncture one sees both of the other conditions, this world and the other world.... When someone falls asleep, he takes the stuff of the entire world, and he himself takes it apart, and he himself builds it up, and by his own bright light he dreams.... There are no chariots there, no harnessings, no roads; but he emits chariots, harnessings, and roads. There are no joys, happinesses, or delights there; but he emits joys, happinesses, and delights. There are no ponds, lotus pools, or flowing streams there, but he emits ponds, lotus pools, and flowing streams. For he is the Maker [Kartr].

This text has not yet reached the extreme idealism of certain later schools (particularly Mahayana Buddhism) that suggest that all perception is the result of projection; rather, in one particular liminal state the dreamer is able to understand the relationship between the two worlds, both of them equally real and unreal. The dreamer takes apart the elements of the outside world and, like a bricoleur, rebuilds them into an inside world of dreams, without affecting their reality status. The text does not pass judgment on the substantiality of the elements out of which the external world is built and the internal world is rebuilt; the same verb is used, here and throughout Indian literature, to denote one's perception of both worlds: one "sees" (drs) the world just as one "sees" a dream. Moreover, the same verb (srj) that encompasses the concepts of seminal emission (making people), creation (making worlds), speaking (making words), imagining (making ideas), and dreaming (making images) is also used for the simple physical process by which a turtle "emits" (i.e., stretches forth) its limbs, and this is one reason why God is often visualized as a turtle.

In the Upanisadic view, the nature of the content of dreams—the subjective reality of dreams—is closely related to the problem of the status, or objective reality, of dreams. The texts tell us the sorts of things that people dream about: "The dreamer, like a god, makes many forms for himself, sometimes enjoying pleasure with women, sometimes laughing, and even seeing things that terrify him.... People seem to be killing him, overpowering him, stripping his clothes from him; he seems to be falling into a hole, to be experiencing unpleasant things, to weep." The pupil to whom this doctrine is expounded (Indra, the king of the gods) comes to realize that, because such violent things could not happen to the transcendent Self, the self that one sees in dreams cannot be truly identical with that transcendent Self or Godhead. The nature of dream experiences—their emotion and instability—is taken here as evidence of the inadequacy of dreams as witnesses of reality. Many later philosophers, including Sankara, continued to argue that dreams are less real than waking experience, though the unreality of dreams was taken as a clue to the fact that waking experience, too, is less real than Godhead.

The four Upanisadic stages of being also suggest a technique of realization, a means of approaching enlightenment. For if one understands that one is, in fact, dreaming when one thinks that one is awake, one can begin to move toward the true awakening that is enlightenment—the fourth stage. Thus, it is argued in the Yogavasistha, when we take the material universe to be the ultimate reality, we make a mistake comparable to the mistake someone makes when he thinks he sees his head cut off in a dream, a traditional image in Indian dream books. The metaphor of the dream is further developed:

When someone dreams while he is awake, as when one sees two moons or a mirage of water, that is called a waking dream. And when someone throws off such a dream, he reasons, "I saw this just for a short time, and so it is not true." Though one may have great confidence in the object that is experienced when one is asleep, as soon as sleep is over one realizes that it was a dream.

These texts argue that what we call waking life is truly a kind of dream, from which we will awaken only at death. The minor mistakes that we make in confusing waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep are a clue to the entirely different nature of Godhead, which is not really in the same series at all.

Many of these Upanisadic concepts persist even in present-day Indian medicine as practiced by the Ayurvedic physicians, or vaids:

The vaids maintain that the widely held belief that we are in the waking state ("consciousness") during the daytime is delusionary. In fact, even while awake, dreaming is the predominant psychic activity. Here they seem to be pre-empting Jung's important insight that we continually dream but that consciousness while waking makes such a noise that we do not "hear" the dream.

Indian dream theory not only blurs the line between dreaming and waking but emphasizes the importance of dreaming as a kind of mediator between two relatively rare extremes—waking and dreamless sleep. In fact, the Upanisadic fourth stage, added to the triad, is the whole point of the original analysis; called simply turiya, "the fourth," it is, in a sense, "the first three all in all," the true state toward which the other three point. And since all four stages are regarded as progressive approaches toward what is most real (Godhead), some Indian philosophers assume that dreaming is more "real" than waking. In dreams one sees both the real (sat) and the unreal (asat), and this liminal nature of dreams is the key to the material power they possess in later Indian texts. The content of the dream is explicitly related to the objective world: "If during rites done for a wish one sees a woman in his dreams, he should know that he has seen success in this dream vision." The particular significance of the woman in the dream is also highly relevant to later Indian dream analysts.

The significance of the content of the dream was the subject of the sixty-eighth appendix of the Atharva Veda, composed in the sixth century A.D. This text organized dreams with reference to the objective, waking world—for example, according to the physical temperament of the dreamer (fiery, watery, or windy), the time of night the dream took place, and so forth—but it was primarily concerned with the subjective symbolism of dreams or, rather, with the objective results of subjective contents. This is also apparent from the fact that the chapter on the interpretation of dreams is immediately adjacent to the chapter on the interpretation of omens or portents; that is, the things that happen inside people have the same weight as the things that happen outside them and are to be interpreted within the same symbolic system.

The first chapter of this text describes the dreams that people of particular temperaments will have. The fiery (choleric) man will see in his dreams tawny skies and the earth and trees all dried up, great forest fires and parched clothes, limbs covered with blood and a river of blood, gods burning things up, and comets and lightning that burn the sky. Tortured by heat and longing to be cool, he will plunge into forest ponds and drink. Mocked by women, he will pine away and become exhausted. These are the symbols (laksane) by which the dreams of fiery people are to be recognized. The dreamer in this text creates an entire world, with planets and trees and everything else; and it is a world marked by his own inner heat. By contrast, watery (phlegmatic) people construct cool rivers in their dreams—rivers covered with snow—and clear skies and moons and swans; the women in their dreams are washed with fine water and wear fine clothes. Windy (bilious) men see flocks of birds and wild animals wandering about in distress, staggering and running and falling from heights, in lands where the mountains are whipped by the wind; the stars and the planets are dark, and the orbits of the sun and moon are shattered.

On the simplest level (the level of primary interest to the Indian medical texts), dreams reflect the psychosomatic condition of the dreamer; for example, when a particular bodily sense is disturbed, the dreamer will dream of the objects of that sense. But there are other causes of dreams, as well, for it is said that dreams that are not conditioned by one's temperament are sent from the gods. The text does not expand on this laconic remark, but it goes on to describe the effects that will result from dreaming specific dreams—or rather, perhaps, from knowing that one has dreamt specific dreams. For it is clearly stated: If one sees a string of dreams but does not remember them, these dreams will not bear fruit. So, too, if a man has an auspicious dream and wakes up at that moment, it will bring him luck. This may imply that it is the dreamer's awareness of the dream that brings about its results. The dream is the beginning of a chain of causes, not the result of such a chain or a mere reflection of an event that was always fated to happen and has simply been revealed to the dreamer through his dream (as other Indian texts imply). These two ideas—that dreams reflect reality and that they bring about reality—remain closely intertwined in Indian texts on the interpretation of dreams. Is it always necessary for the dreamer to be conscious not only of his dream but of its hidden meaning in order for it to come true? This is a question that remains highly problematic for the Indian authors. For one might believe that the dream was sent by the gods, or by one's own unconscious mind, or by someone else, but the agent who would carry out the events in the dream might not necessarily be the same as the sender of the dream, and this agent might work with or without the knowledge of the dreamer.

Chapter two of the Atharva Veda's appendix sixty-eight is devoted to the symbolism of dreams. Good luck is said to come to anyone who experiences any of a series of what we would certainly classify as nightmares:

Whoever, in a dream, has his head cut off or sees a bloody chariot will become a general or have a long life or get a lot of money. If his ear is cut off, he will have knowledge; his hand cut off, he will get a son; his arms, wealth; his chest or penis, supreme happiness.... If he dreams that his limbs are smeared with poison and blood, he will obtain pleasure; if his body is on fire, he will obtain the earth.... If, in a dream, a flat-nosed, dark, naked monk urinates, there will be rain; if one dreams that one gives birth to a female boar or female buffalo or female elephant or female bird, there will be an abundance of food. If someone dreams that his bed, chairs, houses, and cities fall into decay, that foretells prosperity.

Thus, apparently, even an unpleasant dream is regarded by Indian tradition as a good omen, presaging the fulfillment of a wish. But if these are auspicious dreams, one may ask, what would an ominous nightmare be like? Dreams of bad omen are for the most part as unpleasant as the so-called good dreams. Indeed, it is hard to generalize about the characteristics of good versus bad dreams in Indian theory. A systematic (not necessarily structural) analysis of the lists, along the lines of Mary Douglas's analysis of Leviticus, might tell us much about India, but probably not much more about dreams. Since "good" and "bad" are not trustworthy labels to stick onto any reality, it is necessary to interpret the dream images in their cultural context. Words like "auspicious" and "inauspicious" (subha, asubha) imply things that we do and do not want to have happen to us, but we may be wrong either in wanting or not wanting them. For someone committed to the world of samsara, for example, the death of a son is the worst thing that can happen; for someone seeking moksa, the death of a son may be the first move on the path to enlightenment. Thus a dream of the death of a son may be a good dream or a bad dream, depending on the point of view not (as in depth psychology) of the individual dreamer but rather the point of view of the author of the particular textbook on dreams. In the text just cited, the dreamer—a man—gives birth to various female animals, and it is a good dream. For a man to dream of giving birth is not regarded as an unnatural nightmare, in part because many mythological males give birth in India, and in part because this text assumes that all dreamers are male and therefore that any dream—even a dream of parturition, in itself a natural and positive image—may retain its positive symbolism when applied to a man. The combination of natural symbols, cultural restrictions, and values of the author of the text determines whether a particular dream will be interpreted as portending good or evil for the dreamer. The authors of the Hindu medical textbooks on dreams are primarily samsara-oriented; the Buddhist and philosophical texts are primarily moksa-oriented. To an impressive degree, they agree on what people do dream about, but they often differ about whether the dream portends good or evil. The Epics and Puranas draw on both traditions of dream interpretation according to the tastes of the author and the situation of the dreamer in the story.


Excerpted from Dreams, Illusion, and other Realities by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. Copyright © 1984 University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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