by Swami Krishnananda
The role of instincts in human life is a little difficult to understand, since the instincts do not remain outside life’s processes. It is precisely the inseparability of instinctive action or desire from one’s conduct and activity that makes all effort at investigation into their origin and function hard for even a good psychologist to conduct. It is almost commonplace among men to presume that they are rational, by which they unconsciously assert the superiority of their character, conduct and action over the undignified promptings from within, known as instincts. For purpose of study and analysis we may take into consideration the distinction that is usually made between personal instinct and social instinct. While people would be ready to accept that they are, at one time or the other, dominated by instinctive urges even in the altruistic movements of their nature, they would not be so easily ready to concede that there is such a thing, called social instinct, for social life has always been regarded as a refined and glorified corrective to the selfish cravings of personal instinct. Thus it is that social activity, especially what is known as service, is almost deified as a sublime human ideal unrelated to and absolutely removed from the inglorious desires of personal instincts. But psychological analysis, when it is expected to be scientifically conducted, will not take any assumption for granted, though such an assumption might have been held in high esteem as one’s primary duty in life, through the tradition of time immemorial.
As it was observed, an instinct is not something outside human nature; it is only a name that is given to a non-rational pressure of the mind towards a particular end in view, this pressure being an unreasoned and often unpremeditated course of action taken by the individual towards the end pointed out by the instinct. Leaving aside the detail of this question for the time being, we may bestow a little thought upon the relationship between the individual and society. It is true that society is an appellation given to a group of individuals kindred in character, who live and move together for the purpose of fulfilling a common interest. This fact would imply that human society does not contain anything which is not discoverable in the individual, and the latter is only an exact part or portion of the former. From this it would also follow that society cannot be free from the foibles of human nature, though many individuals may sit together and deliberate over the necessity for and the ways and means of steering the course of life for public good and free from the selfish characters pertinent to the individual alone and not conducive to social good. This theory has, of course, many things to be said in its favour, since from a purely pragmatic observation of human nature it is found that even collective interest cannot be totally free from saturation in the demands of the private interest of the individual. This is the reason why, perhaps, throughout the passage of human history running through the ages, human weakness has not been otherwise than what it can be at any time, and the causes of man’s fall are found to be the same today as they have been centuries ago. This is to put the finger on the seamy-side of human character and activity in general, an emphasis upon which would obviously lead to the conclusion that man is essentially an automaton driven by unconscious urges beyond his control, a tool in the hands of desires and passions, selfish to the core, and untrustworthy in the end. And this, unfortunately, happens to be the picture presented by man in the common movements of his usual routine of life.
If this is the whole truth of the matter, life would turn out to be a terrible scene of perpetual anxiety and fear, perhaps not even worth living, ultimately. But, human beings do not seem to be entertaining this matter-of-fact view of their psychological constitution and the part it plays in human society. Psychologists have found it necessary to draw a line between individual psychology and social psychology, which two are treated as different subjects with a characteristic difference in their structure and function. This distinction is attributable to a new qualitative feature that is visible in what is known as ‘society’ as different from its being merely a quantitative total of the individuals which are its constituents. The difference between quantity and quality is important enough to give a place to social values in life, transcending the realm of individual instincts which are no doubt inseparable from even a ‘total’ of individuals. Though psychoanalysis, particularly of the Freudian type, will insist that there is nothing qualitatively different in human society from its being merely a quantitative total of whatever inner urges there are in the individuals, an acceptance of this view in its entirety would rule out the very existence of such a thing as morality, ethics and unselfish conduct. Psychoanalysis confirms, of course, that this is the whole truth, and this is the unveiled reality behind human nature. But, is this all, and is there nothing more, is a question which human values thus ostracised would be obliged to pose before themselves.
Before we try to answer this question in any satisfactory manner, we would do well to revert to a point in relevance to which reference has already been made above, and that is the reason why a sense of anxiety and insecurity persists in human society in spite of repeated collective efforts that have been made by people towards the achievement of social good and international peace of a universal character. There is a very clear and persistent cause behind this unpleasant phenomenon. And it is this. The principles of education are based on the concept of life and the aim of existence directed by the nature of its structure and the prevailing conditions of the environment in which we live. It is taken for granted, usually, on the basis of observation and experiment conducted through the methods of empirical science, that the universe is formed of physical, biological and psychological units, called things, entities and persons—which, when selected and studied in their isolated capacity are known as individuals, and, when taken in groups with kindred characters, go by the name of society. The educational process has normally been a series of techniques in studying and gathering information on the objects of sensory perception and mental cognition, which are supposed to constitute the environment of man.
On the supposition that the units forming the human environment are outside the subject of perception and cognition, educational institutions have been including in the curriculum of studies such themes as mathematics, astronomy and physics; chemistry, biology and psychology; sociology, civics and economics; geography, history and politics. To these primary subjects of study were dovetailed certain accepted doctrines of ethics, philosophy, religion and aesthetics, founded on the assumption that persons and things are independent units contained in the cup of the universe, almost like pebbles filled in a bottle, heaped together in mechanical contacts with one another but individually enjoying absolute independence, each for itself. This vision of the universe is practically the basis of modern educational philosophy and psychology and its implementation in the teaching field of institutions. We, thus, hear students being asked to choose a group of subjects among the several enumerated above, and they obtain a pass or a degree after a course of learning how to add, subtract, multiply or divide factors of computation in arithmetic, algebra and geometry, how things behave on observation of their bodies, how they act and react among one another—in short, what is the result on an empirical investigation of the visible structure and behaviour of perceived objects.