The Criminal Mind

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Throughout the annals of history we find stories of great saints who were originally feared criminals, murderers, thieves and dacoits. These stories have a basic theme. A great criminal who has been committing atrocious acts against man and society meets a highly spiritually illumined saint or guru, or is given some inspiring message which changes the whole direction and flow of his mental energies. Once the mind has changed, the same strength which allowed this man to commit his crimes becomes the source of great and unswerving dedication for spiritual service and the general upliftment of mankind.

The sage Valmiki, author of the most popular and revered spiritual text in India, the Ramayana, was a robber and murderer. One day he attempted to rob the sage Narada, however, Narada explained to him that by his actions he had accumulated so much bad karma that he would suffer terribly if he did not repent and change his ways. So bad was the karma of Valmiki that when he attempted to atone for his ways he could not even repeat the mantra Ram prescribed to him by Narada. To overcome this Narada told him to say the name Mara, Rama backwards, quickly so that eventually after years of sadhana he became an illumined saint. So great was his spiritual realisation, which wiped out his bad karma, that he presaw the birth of Rama and wrote his life story, the Ramayana, before Rama was even born.

What is right and wrong?

How do we judge a man? By what criterion do we and society praise and condemn? What is right and wrong? These questions have puzzled and troubled law makers, judges, lawyers, sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, neuro-physiologists and other researchers for centuries, if not millennia. Of course, standards have changed with time and so has the structure of society, the various laws, the methods of enforcing them and the methods of punishing infringements. Questions such as: Should we use the death penalty? How should prisons be structured? Can we rehabilitate prisoners and what is the best method to achieve this? remain unanswered even in our own supposedly enlightened times.

A crime is defined as an act punishable by law, an evil act, a sin. Law is defined as the body of enacted or customary rules recognised by a community as binding, injunctions, permitted, appointed. Both definitions leave a lot of room for interpretation according to culture, society and the individual situation. For example, what would be classed as deserving praise and a medal on the battlefield will send a man to prison in ordinary life.

Various factors must be taken into account when we attempt to understand actions in relationship to society and the law. The basic and central factor is our level of awareness, the mind, what we have been conditioned to believe, for example, in accord with the dictates for a stable and peaceful society. How we view our conditioning and our life situation depends on our awareness. Poverty and an initially difficult childhood can be the source of inspiration to improve oneself for someone with a positive, spiritually directed mind, whereas another person who is destructively and negatively directed can become bitter and vindictive, attempting to 'get back' at society by breaking its laws and hurting people in the process.

A man in prison, if he can turn his mind in the proper way, can use his time for spiritual pursuits. Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and various other saints have made their prison experience a model of ashram life. On the other hand even the most peaceful ashram can seem like a prison if the mind is restless and seeking external happiness, material security and the freedom to fulfil desires as and when we want to.

Saints and yogis who find themselves in prisons or seemingly negative situations, from the worldly point of view follow the yogic practice of detachment from likes and dislikes, as laid down in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, for example. They use their objectivity and detachment to gain the most good from each experience and opportunity. It is their state of consciousness, level of awareness, and spiritual discipline which distinguishes them from the average man, who tends to react to situations he does not like with negativity, passion and self-destruction.

The yogic view

Yogis, swamis, saints and sages are rarely connected with the worldly process of laws and their enforcement. These people have withdrawn themselves from society in order to advance spiritually. They have raised their own moral and ethical standards and self-discipline far above those set for normal society. These people are not against rules and regulations, which are essential for efficient, smooth and peaceful social interactions. However, yogis are attempting to achieve external peace and harmony through their own inner realisation so that their internal and external lives are balanced and in harmony. This internal regulation cannot be accurately recorded in words and is a far superior state to that achieved by external rules, codes, dogma and ritual. For it is a spontaneously creative and joyful state, exuberant rather than suppressed and does not lead to conflict, frustration of desires or the need to commit crime.

The balanced state is called sattwic. It is contrasted by the dynamism and passionate, restless energy of rajas and the laziness and inertia of tamas. That sattwic personality is a combination of rajasic and tamasic energy, but these energies are balanced and harnessed; each is in its right place.

Sattwa can also be linked to functioning of the sushumna nadi, rajas to pingala nadi and tamas to ida nadi. Individual and social diseases can be linked to imbalance within the gunas or the nadis. Insanity is an example of ida excess and passion is an example of pingala excess. Both states can lead to murder and various other crimes against individuals and the state. These sorts of mental imbalance are probably the most common cause of crime and suffering today.

All yogic practices aim at rebalancing the gunas and nadis, the internal and the external, mind and body, in order to realise the spiritual energies which result. They are therefore the best remedy to prevent crimes and other forms of suffering which result from imbalance. However, even on the spiritual path one must be cautious and follow the advice of a spiritually realised guru.

The fearless state

When ida and pingala are balanced sushumna flows and the spiritual experience, linking the ever changing, mundane, material world with the sublime heights of the eternal, spiritual reality, becomes possible. The awakening of sushumna is associated with spiritual experience, daring exploits in battle, success in adventures and life. It is a fearless and joyful state of mind. However, it is also associated with criminal acts or acts of violence, though these are of a different kind to those performed at the height of passion or at the peak of insanity. These crimes are usually premeditated, coldly calculated and performed without fear, remorse or guilt.

The research of David T. Lykken, professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Minnesota, lends support to the yogic theory that the fearlessness and strength of sushumna activity underlies both great spiritual leaders and certain types of criminals, especially psychopaths.*1 He contends that in every generation, a minority is born who are relatively fearless. From these can come astronauts, Medal winners, heroes, innovators, leaders, but also psychopathic murderers.

Lykken studied the personalities of heroes and psychopaths and found striking similarities as well as certain basic differences. Both groups are fearless in the face of danger, one of the reasons few survive to reproduce the necessary genes and behaviour to propagate fearlessness and make it more common in society.

The psychopaths studied were non self-conscious, carefree, unpredictable. Lacking concern for the future, they could focus more intently on the present and make each moment come alive. These are characteristic of sushumna awakening. Apart from being intelligent and displaying great charm, psychopaths were fundamentally unreliable, disregarding truth, incapable of real love, indifferent to punishment, lacking remorse or shame and often nationalised their behaviour and blamed others. They lacked the insight to appreciate how others think about them or to foresee how they will react to their conduct. Of course, these are generalisations.

Fearlessness, Lykken states, is hard to handle and can easily lead to danger for oneself and others.

Psychologists theorise that a man's genetics and childhood determine how he turns out in life. Parents and schools teach us fear, shame and guilt in order to control our behaviour and condition us to society's dictates. Love, empathy and self-esteem are also used to socialise. It is assumed that fearless children are more difficult to manage and that if they miss out on love, praise and admiration which lead to empathy and self-esteem, and these are difficult things to teach even to a normal child, then they may develop in a destructive direction. If they do not get praise at home, they will seek it from the streets and in gangs, for example. In yoga, the concept of satsang explains that the company we keep is extremely important in our development. If we live with criminals we begin to think like them. If we live in the ashram with enlightened sages and yogis our energies are turned in a spiritual direction.

The spiritual state

Spiritual realisation can be had from birth if one's parents are yogis, from special herbs, by the practice of mantra, austerity and by guru's grace. From the yogic point of view the difference between the hero or saint and the psychopathic criminal is the degree of spiritual realisation in the form of discrimination, self-discipline, compassion, wisdom and so on. The individual who falls into the path of crime rather than the spiritual path is not spiritually evolved. His awareness is at a low level.

On the spiritual path it is not enough to just balance the nadis and awaken sushumna. When this pas sage opens we must also release shakti, spiritual energy, so that the consciousness is illumined by the light of truth. This experience leaves one with unshakeable conviction as to the spiritual reality, as well as intuition, wisdom and compassion for one's fellow men and an understanding of what one needs in order to progress spiritually.

Shakti should only be liberated when one is mentally purified, chitta shuddhi. If this occurs while we are imbalanced or impure then the experience can be dangerous and unpleasant. It is for this reason that gurus put the aspirant through severe but strengthening trials in order to test and retest the capacity for endurance (titiksha) and discrimination (viveka) between what is right and wrong, good and bad for the spiritual evolution. The guru also cultivates balance within the personality, making it softer or harder or gentler, whatever the need may be. He may also add certain ingredients such as wisdom, compassion, etc. After purification has taken place, the guru can be sure that when shakti is finally and successfully liberated, there will be neither insanity from ida excess, criminal activity from pingala excess or the misuse of powers which arise from premature awakening of sushumna.

The correct and systematic practice of yoga, therefore, is a powerful remedy for suffering and disease at both the individual and social levels, as it is proving today in trials being conducted in prisons all over the world. It is the ideal ingredient, not only for successful rehabilitation in jail, but for our total spiritual evolution out of the bonds of ignorance that imprison us all.


*1. 'Lykken, D. T., "Fearlessness- Its Carefree Charm and Deadly Risks", Psychology Today, September 1982, pp.20-28.