Happy baby

Memory and Imagination—Boon or Curse?

Human beings are special because of their inner senses which have the ability to function in the past and future. Progress in humanity, material or spiritual, is due to these two capabilities. First, we have memory which enables us to learn from the past. Second, we have the power to imagine, which enables us to plan for the future. We can build from our past experiences and can improve upon our mistakes. We are thus better equipped than other species to face problems and difficulties.

In contrast, animals have very limited memories and hardly any imagination. It is as if they don’t have internal senses. Most animals are functioning in the present moment. A dog gets his meal and is not bothered about the next meal. Some animals and birds store their food, but this behavior is more of an instinct than a well-thought-out plan. Due to instinct, animals behave in a certain manner and do not seek to improve. In a way, an animal remains the way it is from birth; it never becomes a better animal. Many species of life became extinct because they lacked these two abilities of memory and imagination and thus could not learn from past experiences nor plan to protect themselves from future calamities. 

Training and Utilization of Faculties

Human beings, however, have improved their lives and are better equipped to face problems. Human beings can grow and become superhuman by making use of these two faculties of memory and imagination. When a child is born, she is just like an animal. She can neither walk nor talk, nor plan anything. But as the child grows, her faculties develop. Then, depending on how the faculties are trained and utilized, she may become a great person or an evil person. At birth all babies are basically equal; there is not much difference in their capabilities. But as they grow, they develop their character and qualities by making use of these two faculties. They have the potential to become masters in a particular field and to achieve extraordinary results. Such a development is not possible for an animal.

There is, however, an adverse side to these two faculties, as is the case with any capability. Any power can be used, abused, misused, not used, overused, or underused. The results of each are different. This is what brings variety to human society, more so than in any other species.

For example, just as Mahatma Gandhi became a great leader and influenced society positively, another human being can become a great criminal and bring destruction. As babies, there may have not been much difference between Gandhi and Hitler, but as they grew up, they took two very different paths in life. Mahatma Gandhi became the messenger and propagator of peace and nonviolence, while Hitler became the orchestrator of a world war and was instrumental in killing millions of people.

Mental Problems due to Memories

Just as all societal advancement is due to the faculties of memory and imagination, suffering is also an outcome of these two faculties. People suffer different kinds of mental problems such as phobias, traumas, and psychosis because of their past. If there were no memory, there would be no phobias. Sometimes people question why we do not remember our past lives. Remembering the pains and traumas of this life is troublesome enough; just imagine if one could remember the past ten lives! How traumatic that would be? In contrast, animals are not traumatized like humans by their past.

Human beings can protect themselves better than any other species. They are powerful enough to tame a lion, ride an elephant, encage a bird, and make breakfast of an aquatic. Yet human beings are more fearful than any other species because they imagine something negative will happen, even when there is no such possibility. In fact, if there was no imagination, there would be no fear. You can see this on the face of a baby, who looks very peaceful because she is not imagining. She lives in the present and thus appears cute and attractive.

Proper Use of the Internal Senses

The purpose of Vedic society was to utilize these two faculties to make one’s life peaceful and happy here on earth and also to achieve the ultimate goal of life, mokṣa or prema. Kṛṣṇa gives two instructions while concluding His discourse to Arjuna, which He calls the most confidential teachings. For memory, He says that Arjuna should think of Him, man-manā (Gītā 18.65), which means to remember Him. And He asks him to take His shelter, māmekaṁ śaraṇaṁ vraja and thus have no fear, mā śucaḥ (Gītā 18.66). If we take shelter of Kṛṣṇa and remember Him, then we become free from fear, stress, and anxiety because we know that Kṛṣṇa gives protection to His devotees under all circumstances. There is nothing to fear, even in the worst situations. Remembering Kṛṣṇa and being surrendered to Him is the proper use of the internal senses. 

This instruction seems simple and clear; take shelter of Kṛṣṇa and become free from fear and suffering. However, our internal senses may also prevent us from truly surrendering to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. It is the sense of imagination that makes us fearful of surrendering, the very panacea for fear. We imagine how we will become powerless and unimportant if we surrender to Him. Or worse yet, our imagination leads us to believe that we are surrendered when actually we are not. To compound matters, the sense of memory blocks us from surrendering because we have had some unpalatable experience of surrender in the past.

Remaining Independent

Although Kṛṣṇa’s instruction is to think of Him, instead we think of ourselves only. We think it is wonderful to remain independent, and thus we believe it is more intelligent not to surrender. We think of our own needs and how we can use guru and Kṛṣṇa to satisfy them. Thus, we continue to act in selfish ways, remaining independent, even after taking shelter of a guru. We use spirituality and the guru to serve and meet our own needs instead of the other way around. It is very subtle how our internal senses drive us to act in dysfunctional ways. We cannot see it; therefore, we do not try to change because we don’t think we have a problem. Consequently, we don’t make spiritual progress. However, we think we are making spiritual progress, and only notice those around us who are not. In conclusion, our progress depends upon how well we use these two special faculties of memory and imagination.

Satyanarayana Dasa

7 thoughts on “Memory and Imagination—Boon or Curse?”

  1. This article reminds of a peculiar condition known as aphantasia. The definition: “Aphantasia is a phenomenon in which people are unable to visualize imagery. While most people are able to conjure an image of a scene or face in their minds, people with aphantasia cannot. If you were to ask a person with aphantasia to imagine something, they could likely describe the object, explain the concept, and say facts they know about the object. But that person would not be able to experience any sort of mental image to accompany this knowledge.” However, people with aphantasia are known to recover from grief quickly(from the passing of a loved one) or in most cases they do not even suffer grief.

    My question is, why is this so and what are the mechanics behind that in terms of yogic philosophy?

    1. This is the first time that I am hearing this term. I can only make a guess about its cause. As per yogic psychology, our experiences are stored in the citta.
      Imagination happens in the manas, which reflects in the brain. Different parts of the brain function as instruments for manas and citta.
      If the specific part of the brain that reflects the images of manas gets damaged or one is born with a defective brain, then one. may have aphantasia.

  2. Very interesting! I never saw 18.66 from that angle. Man-mana = memory / past, and ma-sucha = imagination / future.

    Is bhava a verb or adjective or what? Is it part of the “man-mana” phrase? or is it part of “mad-bhakta”? or both. If it can apply to mad-bhakta – then maybe we have a pravrtti and nivritti guidance for the future: imagine yourself as my bhakta (pravritti) and dont feel like you need to imagine yourselve being anything else (ma suca)?

    And the rest of the verse are things to focus on in the present? (yaji & namaskara)

    1. “Is bhava a verb or adjective or what?”
      It is verb, an injunction.
      “Is it part of the ‘man-mana’ phrase? or is it part of ‘mad-bhakta’? or both.”
      It goes along with both. It also applies to mad-yājī.

    2. Whether ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi has effected society positively is debatable. His idea of ahimsa was a blanket projection of his own misunderstanding of ahimsa. Bose and Shastri deserved more recognition.

      Caution: politically incorrect!

  3. Pranams.
    The point mentioned about how mind/senses works in dysfunctional ways is true and very important to consider. Infact it might take a week or year or even a decade to realize all the sadhana one had performed are the trick of the mind to attain something separate from the sadhana. Mind will show steadfastness to sadhana / obedience to Guru only uptil it has not got what it wants. Once mind gets what it wanted, sadhana or respect to guru becomes artificial and most laborious.

    Hence If a person has never done parOpakara and mind has got some samskara from such acts, how is it even possible to conceive of nature of bhakti which is centered on selflessness? By all means it seems logical that only a mind which has been purified from selfishness and finally hypocrisy/fame can begin to develop taste for bhakti via random encounter with a bhakta. Until then even if one is closely connected with devotees, they may end up “USING” devotion and devotee to “meet ones own needs” of subconscious mind. This is the most unfortunate thing that can happen to jiva – to associate with devotee with an impure heart!!

    This being the case, what does Srila Vishvanath cakravarti takura mean by saying bhakti is not dependent on purity of mind like how jnana yoga is? Or in context to this article what is the use of utilizing memory and imagination when the samskara is selfishness personified?

    Kindly help understand

    1. “This being the case, what does Srila Vishvanath cakravarti takura mean by saying bhakti is not dependent on purity of mind like how jnana yoga is?”

      That is in a different context. The text has to be understood in context.
      Or, in the context of this article, what is the use of utilizing memory and imagination when the samskara is selfishness personified?
      When I know I have a disease, I take medicine for that. If I know I have selfishness samskaras, then I use my buddhi to be aware of them and not become influenced.

Comments are closed.