Wednesday, September 2, 2015

When the dream monkey has got your back

Dreams are individual and sometimes social experiences that often seem to reflect universal themes. This is part of the fascination of sharing dreams. We recognize something of our shared humanity as we listen to someone else's dream, and yet the final decision on the nature and meaning of a dream experience will rest on working with what is quite specific and possibly unique to the dreamer.
     We need also to be alert to the role of culture patterns in dreaming. Active dreamers come to recognize their personal styles of dreaming and construct personal dictionaries of symbols by keeping and studying their dream journals over time. The monkey in your dream is not the same as the monkey in my dream.
     However, if both of us were raised in a traditional Arab family, or a medieval European one, we might have been schooled to think that monkeys in dreams represent criminal or sinful behavior - in ourselves or others - and dream accordingly. If we have been raised in Hindu families in India, on the other hand, we might be primed to dream of monkeys very differently. Indian children are exposed from childhood to popular tellings of the Ramayana in Bollywood films and television series, in comic books, in school plays and from sidewalk storytellers. This might well leave a shared impression that monkey dreams are auspicious. Why? Because in the perennially popular epic the Ramayana the monkey god Hanuman helps Rama to destroy the demon king of Lanka. He later records the whole epic,  writing with his nails.
     In western India pilgrims are sometimes inspired by monkey dreams to journey to the temple of Balaji (a form of Hanuman) near Bharatpur in Rajasthan. Sudhir Kakar reported that "the dreams typically involved a personal summons from the divine healer, either through the god speaking directly in the dream or through the dream image of one or more monkeys - the symbol of Hanuman. Thus even before they embarked on the healing journey, some patients had begun to send themselves images of reassurance from the unconscious depths, increasing their hope and confidence in the success of the healing mission." *
     Kakar's statement that the dreamers" send themselves' messages is obviously couched in the language of Western psychoanalysis. Dreamers who take the road to Balaji see their dreams as a field of interaction with transpersonal powers, and come to the temple, above all, for release from malignant spirits they believe to be the source of physical and mental illness.    
    These spirits are collectively known as bhuta-preta and are thought to reside in a halfway house between the realms of the living and that of the ancestral spirits (pitri-lok) when not attached to living people. The most troublesome among them are the "ghosts of unsatisfied desires."
    From an Indian perspective, it would be good to know that the monkey god has got your back. But "ghosts of unsatisfied desires"  could surely give you the sense of monkeys on your back!

There is a marvelous twist on the monkey theme in Vikram Chandra’s novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. The Indian novelist's protagonist is a writer named Sanjay. His time on earth is up, but because he is a marvelous storyteller he is able to strike a bargain with Death, who loves stories. So long as Sanjay is able to hold the attention of his audience — who soon fill the courtyard outside his room — he is allowed to live.
he weaves his tales, Death ceases to be an adversary. Sanjay makes stories for the joy of making stories, and when he is done, he rests his head in Yama’s lap, peacefully accepting his transition to another life. Sanjay the storyteller is a white-faced monkey who is typing his memories of his human incarnations, to be read aloud by children. No writer with a sense of humor will find it hard to identify with Sanjay’s plight and no one can miss the positive valuation of monkeys in the collective dreaming of India.

* Sudhir Kakar, Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982) 82-83. 

Image:Lord Hanuman recites the Ramayana. Watercolor on cloth.