I once saw a nature documentary that disturbed me quite a bit. It concerned a group of monkeys who lived in a temple complex in Varanasi. Varanasi or Benares is one of the holiest cities of Hinduism. It stands on a wide bend of the Ganges and it is most famous for its burning ghats. At dawn the river flows in its sacred stillness, without a ripple on the water. Often a boat loaded with produce or firewood for the market sails or is pulled upstream by men holding ropes who walk along the shore. The women on board sing a song that does not at all disturb the quiet flow of the current and the silent movement of the vessel. The sadhus go down to the water to do their ablutions and salute the sun rising red through the mist hiding the mango groves to the East. They intone their Vedic chants and read their scriptures or do their yoga exercises. Flocks of parrots fly from one grove to the next. A few goats roam around eating whatever they can find. A herd of buffaloes is washed in the shallows and the washer men and women begin their daily chore. The priests set up the funeral pyres and the corpses, shrouded in beautiful cloths, are laid atop the logs and set on fire. The cremation is complete when the skull cracks open in the flames. Along the banks the spiritual seekers and holy men sit wrapped in their saffron robes lost in the self-abandonment of meditation. Packs of wild dogs patrol the shores and guard their territories. Flocks of vultures perch on the trees nearby. They are all on the lookout for the animal and human carrion that comes floating down the river. The vultures land on them and peck at their entrails in midstream. The leaders of the packs challenge each other to a quick fight, the winner earning the right to be the one to swim into the river and drag the carcass ashore. After the victorious pack has had its fill, the other pack feeds on the spoils and then come the vultures, the crows and the pigs. It is not rare to find a human or animal skeleton on the shore or see a barefoot village boy kicking a skull back into the rippling waves, as a non-verbal comment on this creature, man, this paragon of animals, this quintessence of dust...

Such primordial experiences echo in the archetypal consciousness of mankind. Such opening scenes set the tone in Homer's Iliad, where the bodies of heroes fallen in battle are left in the open for the feasting of birds and dogs. The seemingly gruesome nature of these things does not hide their naturalness. On the contrary, it rather emphasizes the almost unbearable simultaneity, not to say oneness, of life and death. Some say that it is precisely at the meeting point between them that the immense opens and that the timeless emerges, revealing the hidden and true nature of mind as the unpolluted river that it always was. It is against this mortuary, dramatic and mystical background of Varanasi that our monkeys went about their business in their temple complex, perhaps unwittingly revealing a thing or two about the human condition and its more temporal vicissitudes.

The particular troupe under observation had its usual tribal structure. Its leader was a powerful male who kept his rivals at bay, forcing them, in fact, to live on the periphery of the group. The alpha male spent a good deal of his time atop a fig tree on the lookout for intruders. Naturally, he was the only one with access to the females, who bore his offspring. While the dominant male could ward off his rivals he was sure to keep his reign.

Monkey in Varanasi

But one day three of the younger males, impatient of the old boy's power and frustrated with their inability to access the females, ganged up on the leader, wounding him severely and banishing him from the group, perhaps to die. The victorious males went directly for the females. Those that were suckling their young, however, would not have intercourse with them. So the new bosses proceeded to kidnap and kill the baby monkeys in order to satisfy their sexual drive. The thought was simple and the horror just as understandable: if these are our nearest cousins in the animal kingdom, then...

It is of course natural to protest that we are no longer monkeys, that we are, in some sense, no longer animals. And yet we are aware of all that inheritance informing our existence in all sorts of ways. Certain general patterns of our conduct would indicate that we are still operating on three of the basic aspects of ape organization, namely what we might call the sexual, territorial and hierarchical rights. By 'rights' one means simply the pattern of claims that are made to these three domains by the group as a whole (territory) in opposition to other rival groups or by an individual or set of individuals within the group (sexual reproduction and hierarchy, the hierarchy being the indispensable qualification for sexual dominance as well). The above description of the troupe of monkeys in Varanasi fits this pattern and is generally applicable, as far as I know, to all monkey tribes.

Now, a cursory look at the human world reveals the persistence of this general pattern in our collective and individual behaviour. This suggests that such patterns are part and parcel of our inherited animal conditioning. Which in turn suggests that when we talk about unconditioning ourselves we have to take this whole instinctual background into account together with our more superficial cultural baggage.

Territoriality, sexuality and hierarchy continue to play a central role in our social and psychological organization. Nations, regions, municipalities, private properties of all sorts are the outer expression of this drive. Territory has been a basic aspect of survival, for it delimits the actual space required to provide the group with the necessities of life, mainly food and shelter. This is perfectly legitimate, it would seem. And it naturally implies the establishment of boundaries that, however flexible they might be, need to be defended against encroachment by competing groups, most critically those of the same species. This means that a certain amount of violence is inbuilt into this mode of survival.

A look at human history and at the life in one's own village indicates that such boundaries have been one enduring bone of contention among people throughout the ages. In our own more highly developed brains such a structure of possession and conflict finds a nearly infinite proliferation of objects. It is no longer limited to territoriality, as in owning land or drawing a national border, but it goes through the whole gamut of ownership, including not just material objects but also ideas, be these political, philosophical, religious, scientific or of any other kind. As our livelihood depends increasingly on the possession and application of knowledge, the whole cognitive field has also come under the umbrella of the same territorial rights. Furthermore, our territoriality comes with our identity and the latter covers a vast spectrum of reality, from the most concrete to the most abstract, beginning perhaps with the very notion of identity itself. As far as one can tell, all wars have been fought over the issue of territoriality, whether the motive was competition over space and resources or the extension of ideological, cultural and racial domination.

When it comes to sex, the competitive element is also quickly discernible and the violent component comes easily to the fore. The animal predilection for the strong to lord it over the weak and for the winner to be the one to pass on his or her genes seems to be still very much alive and well in our so-called culture. From the survival point of view, this is quite understandable, since sexuality in its most basic sense is a matter of reproduction, which means that the conditions must be met to guarantee the successful rearing of the resulting offspring, should there be any. Animals have ritualized the competitive struggle for reproductive rights in seasonal trials of strength. The bucks in the forest lock their antlers, the rams take a few steps back and bang their horns, the kangaroos punch and kick each other like mesmerized boxers in a ring, etc. The feeling of jealousy as far as sexuality is concerned stems from this instinctual rivalry. The females also do some fighting among themselves for the attention of the dominant or more desirable males. Female sexual rivalry is visible everywhere. The sensual qualities associated with sex have become an important aspect of personal worth and the term 'sexy' is practically synonymous with anything being good. This very linguistic turn is indicative of the primitive stream that runs through our sophisticated cognitive age, whose very technical advances and consequent affluence drive it ever deeper under the rule of the pleasure principle.

Hierarchical achievement must be the culmination of the competitive spirit and it is taken to mean the automatic satisfaction of the other two instinctual drives at work. Hierarchy means who’s on top and who’s below, who commands and who obeys, who has power and who doesn’t. Wealth, power and status are its indispensable attributes. That’s as far as the worldly ladder. In the ecclesiastical echelon it may be virtue, knowledge and commitment, for example. Whichever the qualities or possessions involved, the gradation of one’s standing is a function of measure. And since the psychological chain of being is determined in terms of degrees of possession of the valued attributes, and measurement means the more, the equal and the less, competition is a natural outcome of this struggle for status and success. This is the ground of envy and its resulting comparative discontent. By this I mean that one is ever assessing one’s worth in terms of what others have. Because psychologically we operate according to an old equation whereby to be is to have. Or should it be to have is to be?

Anyone who has done a little self-observation may have detected these three main objects of desire whereby pleasure, security and status reveal themselves as the centres around which psychological thinking turns. While desire is thinking pursuing a valued sensation through the images that represent it as projected in a fictional time, the experience of the sensation is made to feel so real at the instant that it not only constitutes a hypnotic delusional event but it shapes the outlook on reality and becomes the motivating force or will to action. Every action movie plays with this archaic constellation of motives in one set of permutations or the other. This has become so universal and obsessive that one has the impression that humanity has been trapped for ages in a movie of its own making whose script is not likely to change substantially unless the monkey in our background is tackled and intelligence is brought to bear on the conditioned and mechanical process of desire that has become its so-called conscious human extension.

In this process thinking becomes essentially a tool at the service of survival, which is guided by these basic instinctual drives and their implicit competitive spirit. Given the evidence of our modern world, especially its elevation of competition as the testing ground of virtue, thus dividing society into winners and losers, this ingrained pattern of our animal background would seem to be very much alive in our midst. Some recent violent outbreaks, such as the rioting in the UK, would seem to bear witness to this same process. Desire is fuelled to delusional heights by our commercial and consumerist society, generating the equivalent levels of frustration in those who find themselves unable to afford or achieve the promised satisfactions. These promises are virtual fantasies made of images that represent the objects of pleasure, security and success. We seem to miss out on the perception that they are images, since the very act of imagination grants them such power over the instincts themselves, thus creating a closed loop, whereby an instinctual drive is associated with an image as its substitute stimulus. And here we see Pavlov’s dogs emerging with their conditioned reflexes to tell us something about our very human ways, namely the power of the image to overwhelm our self-awareness and confine us to a perpetual round of mechanical fictions and their destructive consequences.

The monkeys, I believe, are still in Varanasi. They are new monkeys, a new generation, but the pattern is still the same. They occupy the temple compound and the chief monkey stands atop the fig tree on the lookout for intruders. The day will come when a cleverer and stronger rival will dethrone him, who in turn will take up his post on the fig tree and father the new progeny. The dogs are still there patrolling the river banks and competing for the right to be the first to help themselves to the floating carrion. The vultures also wait and the pigs, dark and tusked like their wild cousins, rut about the filthy and desolate edge of the water. The sadhus attend to their religious practices and the buffaloes get washed while smoke rises skyward from the burning pyres. The train rattles over the metal bridge and the setting sun covers the land in its saffron light casting a shimmering path across the sacred river and spreading a quality of penetrating solitude over the whole scene whose ineffable otherness is the very heart of meditation. If one is very still, one senses that life and death come so close together that time can’t find a gap in which to exist.