Will Indian Psychology finally be re-discovered?

This article is about a conference on Indian psychology that took place in 2002 in Pondicherry. I poste it here again, as unfortunately not much has changed since then. The hopes at that time that “after ten years” there will be a big change have not come true. Meanwhile, “consciousness studies” have taken off in the west, where India should have been the natural leader. Maybe now, finally, there is a chance for Indian psychology to be re-discovered in India as well.

Indian psychology has been invisible as a subject in Indian academia. But exist it does, preserved in ancient texts and scriptures. A conference of professors and students of psychology decided to unearth and verify this “sophisticated, rich and practical” body of India’s wisdom that concerns the human being and the enormous potential it encompasses.

When two German magazines Yoga Aktuell and Advaita Journal, expressed interest in a report on a conference on Indian psychology, I was convinced of the demand for Indian psychology in the West. Off I went to Pondicherry, to attend the conference on ‘Yoga and Indian approaches to Psychology’ held a month ago.

Pondicherry was home to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who left behind a huge body of work on yoga and psychology. Sri Aurobindo had stated: “Yoga is nothing but practical psychology.” His vision of an impending change in the consciousness of humankind prompted the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology to ask Dr Matthijs Cornelissen from the Netherlands to organise this conference. The doctor has lived in the Ashram for almost 30 years and values the Indian tradition. During his lectures on Sri Aurobindo’s vision of psychology in America and Europe, he noticed that there is a big demand for teachers of Indian psychology in the West.

The many conference sponsors included the Indian Council of Philosophical Research and, the Infinity Foundation of USA. It drew 160 delegates from different universities and institutes from India and abroad, and over 80 papers were presented.

In his keynote address, Prof. Ramakrishna Rao, President of the Institute of Human Science in Vishakapatnam and former Vice Chancellor of Andhra University said: “Isn’t it an irony that there is no Indian psychology in any of our great universities?” He pointed out that out of the 1,000 colleges in Andhra Pradesh only 20 teach psychology. He asked why psychology was in such a pitiful state and answered the question himself “because psychology as it is taught now appears irrelevant in the Indian condition”.

It slowly dawned on me that Indian psychology is hardly taught in India, at least not at her colleges and universities. It amazed me. Psychology in India is completely ignoring the Indian tradition in spite of the great treasures hidden in its ancient scriptures. The textbooks here are written by western authors and many teachers are trained abroad. Prof. Girishwar Misra from Delhi University put it bluntly: “If you mention Freud, nobody asks questions. If you mention samadhi, everyone does.”

Prof Anand Paranjpe, who retired from Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, said he smuggled some Indian thought into his regular courses. These, he said, were tolerated and even appreciated in the west, yet not in India. Thirty years ago, when he suggested including Indian thought into the curriculum, nobody supported his idea.

For him, the conference in Pondicherry was like a dream come true. Finally, professors, lecturers and students from all over India appreciate the profundity of Indian tradition and realise that it is possible to develop a scientific psychology based on this tradition, which goes far beyond western psychology. About time, because the West has already discovered the immense potential of Indian traditions and techniques like yoga. Yoga and pranayama which concern the well-being and growth of human beings, are no doubt aspects of psychology. Westerners have also taken concepts from India’s ancient scriptures, and used them to go beyond behavioural and humanistic psychology to what is termed ‘transpersonal’ psychology and ‘transpersonal’ psychotherapy. This new movement began in the 1970s and even made inroads into the curricula of western universities.

The Indian tradition, according to Prof Anand Prakash from Delhi University, is a powerful, robust and encompassing system. Its emphasis on consciousness as the primary reality is a sound foundation. It offers invaluable tools for psychotherapy, education, management and social work. Prof Rao stressed that it has global relevance and can reduce the glaring and unhealthy asymmetry between outer and inner science.

Western psychology is still groping in the dark over the most important questions of humanity and prefers not to pose these questions. There is a huge body of psychological research, but most of it is either irrelevant or obvious. This is because western psychology tries hard to be an objective ‘science’ and relies mainly on observation that lies outside and not on experience that is inside, thus missing what is truly relevant for a human being. It chooses to ignore consciousness or rather it has no idea that consciousness is the basis and beyond the mind.

Some delegates had delved deep into the concepts of science, enabling them to counter those who demand ‘scientific’ research based on observation. They concluded that there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth’ in science. All findings that the mind and intellect can arrive at are relative, claims modern physics. Indian tradition claimed long ago that mind and intellect cannot know the truth, yet truth can be realised as one’s own being because it is one’s being.

Several students expressed their disappointment with the present curriculum of psychology. They chose psychology as their subject of study, because they wanted to find answers to the basic questions of humanity and these questions just did not figure in the curriculum. The disappointment was probably most acute for those who practise their tradition, because they know for sure that Indian tradition is valid. Dr Suneet Verma, a lecturer in Delhi University, for example, wanted to write his first thesis on ‘personal growth in the Indian tradition’. His professor told him that ‘personal growth’ is okay, but he should leave out ‘Indian tradition’.

This was in the 1980s, when the convergence between ancient Indian wisdom and modern science was the subject of conferences all over the world. One of those conferences organised by the International Transpersonal Association took place in Bombay in 1982, where a new paradigm that assumes the whole universe is an interconnected whole that ‘most probably is conscious’ (as Fritjof Capra put it) was adopted. The Indian image of Nataraj was used to illustrate this new paradigm. The Indian rishis of old knew that the world is maya, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is an appearance of the one true consciousness. Modern science recently confirmed their vision. That should be reason enough for psychologists to study and prove their vision of the human being and its potential for liberation.

Though yoga and Indian psychology were the subject of the conference, most presentations started by quoting western scholars. “Do we have to deconstruct western psychology first to construct Indian psychology?” a student questioned. “We cannot ignore history,” replied the lecturer. “In that case let us go back to the Vedas”, the student countered and certainly had a point.

Now what actually is Indian psychology?

Indian psychology encompasses the vast body of India’s wisdom that concerns the human being. Indian philosophy and Indian psychology share a framework and believe the human has enormous potential hidden in its being. Indian psychology also has the ‘technology’ to raise the consciousness of a human being to a higher level. It is “sophisticated, rich and practical”, Prof Rao pointed out, and deals with the most basic human questions, for example: Who or what is a human being? What is the purpose and goal of life? Who is an ideal human being? How can one live a happy and peaceful life? What is the cause of suffering? What is death? Has every person his own ‘battery’ or is she connected with an all-pervading power? Is there free will? And so on.

The Indian tradition gives profound and intuitive insight into the human condition. It also gives practical methods to find peace, joy and love, which, it claims, are inside everyone. These qualities are aspects of one’s true self– of pure consciousness. In the Indian tradition, a person is not a separate fragment but on a deeper level one with all–a claim that is in tune with the findings of modern physics. To find one’s true self, and thereby disidentify from the ego, which one mistook for one’s self, is the goal of life and is mukti–liberation. It is a change in consciousness that has vast implication for society as well.

The Indian tradition not only goes beyond but is often diametrically opposed to the view held by mainstream western psychology. For example, it says that one’s inner state determines the outer, whereas western psychology believes the outer circumstances determine one’s inner state. Indian tradition says that the fulfilment of desires would give short-term happiness, until a new desire springs up. Lasting fulfilment and joy are found by stilling the mind and diving deep within–to pure, thought-free consciousness. Western psychology believes that a human being is his body and mind. It does not even consider the existence of pure consciousness.

There is every possibility that the vision of the Indian tradition is valid and will be confirmed if proper research is done. At present, Indian psychology lies scattered as it were in the ancient scriptures. At the conference, papers mainly discussed the view of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s yoga sutras. However, there is much more. For example, Kashmir Shaivism is a goldmine for psychologists. Buddhist and Sufi texts also give extraordinary insights. It is a challenge to dive deeply into the Indian tradition and come up with relevant and helpful insights for the human being and society. Further, it is necessary to find ways to prove the validity of those insights.

Some students rued the fact that there are no textbooks ready on Indian psychology. However, Dr Cornelissen assured: “A lot is ready. Everyone has to work and find out for himself.” Prof Rao warned: “If we do not do it, westerners will do it. And they will do it badly.”

Westerners may do it badly, but Indians also may do it badly–if they do not practise what they read and preach. The psychologist has to be a mystic, Kundan Singh, a Ph.D. scholar from San Francisco, postulated. Prof V. George Mathew, director of the Integrative Psychology Institute in Thiruvananthapuram, suggested an aptitude test for psychology students, because they require a high degree of sattva. Moreover, he suggested an evaluation of their personal growth instead of exams.

If a psychologist talks about sthithaprajna as an ideal, he needs to have some idea of what equanimity under all circumstances means. If he stresses the great power of pure consciousness, he needs to be convinced of it and be able to tap it. “Psychology is not a theory, or an intellectual gimmick. It is a verifiable truth–verifiable in oneself,” stressed Kittu Reddy, who grew up in the Aurobindo Ashram and worked as a psychologist with the army. “It is based on fundamental laws. Yet these laws have to be grasped at a deeper level than merely by intellectual understanding. One has to follow a certain set of practices which will help intuition and self grow strong and one will be truly self-ruled,” he said.

The fact that several delegates, among the younger generation as well, had an inner experience of the Indian tradition, gives rise to hope. However, to assume that every psychologist will be a mystic in near future would be naive. The delegates were aware that given the politics in academia, it would not be easy to introduce Indian psychology into the universities’ curricula. The ego still rules where ideally the Indian psychologist should not be ruled by his ego.

Change may be slow, but it certainly is approaching. “In ten years, when Indian psychology is taught in the universities, the number of psychology students will skyrocket,” Dr Cornelissen predicted.

A ‘Pondicherry Declaration’ was passed and a committee was formed with Prof Rao, Prof Janak Pandey, head of the department of psychology of Allahabad University, Dr Cornelissen and Prof Misra on the board. It was high time Indian psychology was given its rightful place in the colleges and universities, to consider, study and verify the views of the Indian tradition.

Suppose psychological research reveals that persons who identify with their ego (the prevalent state of being today) live a life of far inferior quality than persons who truly feel the oneness of all and are not concerned with ego gratification. Suppose the latter feel not just inner peace and joy, but their lives also flow with ease and their needs are met in an astonishing way. Suppose research confirms Krishna’s assurance that he really looks after those who surrender to him… Would it not motivate people to forsake the ego and its false promises of happiness and discover the deeper realm of their being that truly liberates?

Perhaps Dr. Cornelissen referred to this when he said: “Indian psychology is a living force for the future.”

By Maria Wirth

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21 comments

  1. dhanyawaad maria jee for your thought provoking write up, for us the youth of india is fortunate to born in such civilization we need to realise our potentials.

  2. Sujata Srinath (@Susri1210) · · Reply

    This is a truly wonderful article. Thank you for writing it! Even if it is ten years past and the prediction is yet to come true, it is enough that a start was made…really uplifting! And I really liked the point that those who want to study psychology must be saatvic. Yes…I find it hard to take any theory or concept seriously when I find that the proposer lead a confused and messy life. If you have to help those who are challenged by their thoughts or emotions then you should at least know how to tap into your inner strength and draw from it…you should be able to get to the state of stithapragnya to be able to see how you can help them. I asked my daughter if any of her psychology lecturers ever spoke about psychology in the Indian tradition…and I got a look.

    I am now reading a book by Dr. Brian Wiess called Miracles can Happen…about past-life regression therapy and I can’t but help think that reincarnation is so central to Indian thought and…we don’t use it here as a means for treating patients! There are umpteen stories of how gurus and swamis have healed various troubled people and these are recorded as ‘mahima’ or miracles…but these are not ‘scientific’ enough for those following Western psychology. Great pity. And like Prof Rao says we, in India, need to bring that huge corpus of Indian thoughts and insights on psychology into the main stream education. May that happen and soon.

    1. Yes, “May that happen and soon…”
      Once ‘belief’ in rebirth becomes more common, it will also dent the dogm religions.
      Did you see htis?
      https://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/born-again-in-another-form/

  3. As an Archetypal Psych my focus is on the ‘Unconscious’, however I agree that a greater inclusion is needed of approaches that are not of western origin.

  4. ராமச்சந்திரசேகரன் · · Reply

    To put the indian psychology in a nut shell is almost impossible.It is North Vs south ,Tamizh VS karnatka/keral/andhra/, Brham Vs Non brhms ,Fair skin Vs Black,Rural Vs Urban,upper Caste hindusVs lower castes,Metros Vs Metros,Changing loyalties to truth either due to power/money/region/religion/language/colour/foreigner etc is also with above. So many infinitesmal differentials
    not known to the naked eye.

  5. Reblogged this on Indian Sage and commented:
    “Indian psychology is a living force for the future.”
    by Dr.Cornelissen
    Blog by Ms.Maria Wirth

  6. Dear Mam

    You have again written something which is desperately needed by Indian Society to recoganise. I feel the basic reason for why Indians, especially, shun away from Adhyatam Vidya (Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma) is over preaching of Sankhya Yoga, misuse of Bhakti Yoga and Non-Preaching of Karma Yoga.!! Really.!!

    Western Psychology claims that Indian religion teaches “Everything is Maya”, hence, “Need for Achievement” is lower in Indians. Hence, Indians achieve nothing. Moreover, Vegetarian food that Indians eat or satvik food that Indian religions profess to eat, results in Calm Mind, and Satisfied Fulfilling Life, and hence, Indians are found to be comparatively more Content and less Compititive. Hence, all the behaviour of Indians can be explained by this. Again coming to same conclusion “Need for Achievement” in Indians is lower.

    I feel “Karma Yoga” preached by Shri Krishna have to be emphasized in a very rational way.

    Today, general people hate talks about religion, because the Bhakti Yoga is being highly misused by these self turned Godmen.!!
    And people are not interested in Sanyas, or living austere life or moving to forest. They have huge dreams and desires. They know Moksha, understand it, but nobody wants it in this life.!!

    Moksha is saved for next life.

    Karma Yoga is the only antidote for the disease being suffered by Indians. Indians should do their work to perfection, the best possible, just for the sake of doing it, just because our name is associated with it. And never, never, never for the sake of Money. Money will come. Do not live for Money.!!!!!!!!

    Karma Yoga.

    1. Indians have forgotten that Vishnu, Lakshi pati, stands for Economic Prosperity. Only Vishnu temples are full of Gold, and money. All the Vishnu paintings show him wearing costly clothes and jewelry. Lakshi mata stands for the Goddess of Money.

      This is what Indians want today.

      Vishnu —- Krishna —– Karma Yoga —— Prosperity

      1. Shiva Temples are never like that.

      2. One can relate Vishnu to Capitalism anyday..!!

        Dharma
        Artha = Capitalism, Prosperity, Artha-shastra
        Kaam = Desire of all kind. Should be completely. Need not to shun away from any. Dont be shy.
        Moksha

  7. I do not dispute that there must be a great treasures of texts that the sages must have left behind. My only hurt trusting in hindu psychology is that, 1400 years back, 50 kingdoms could not defend brutal invasions from a few arab kings. I suspect hindu psychology is simply about ‘escaping confrontation’, plainly the other word for ‘conscious apathy’…………with regards to the context of this article, oh please take the vedas to America or Europe, atleast they will record it there and preserve it and research it, don’t expect India to save its ancient wisdom, had we done it, we wouldn’t be the loose and apathetic people that we are.

  8. Thanks for a nice article and we are doing our best to impart ‘sanathana dharma’.

  9. Jesus Rabell · · Reply

    I find the article thorough and refresing. As to yoga psychology publications I have read Practical Yoga Phychology by Dr. Rishi Vivekananda of the Bihar School of Yoga and find it most enlightening.

  10. Could not agree more with the idea of introducing Indian psychology in the curriculum of psychology and philosophy studies in India as well as world wide. Not much is known to the youth about the same which hampers the chances of its growth in future. Western ideas and understanding of the subject is limiting and, as very rightly put in the article above, is because of them misunderstanding it to be part of science. But yet a certain unconventional approach is required to introduce the Indian psychology, as the mindsets have already been altered in such a way that anything coming from our culture leads it away from being taken seriously as a subject of relevance.

  11. Just came across this – excellent article, thanks for reposting. I was a speaker at the 2nd international integral psychology conference in 2001, in Pondicherry, and am glad to see the work continues. I just received this morning, in my email inbox, a notice about an 8 month course in “integral indian psychology” taught by Dr. Cornelissen which looks very promising.

    I wonder now, how much progress has been made in India. Here in the US there are major university departments (UCLA, Emory, Brown, NYU, and many others) exploring “mindfulness” and first person research, but I’m afraid it is quite superficial compared to the riches of Indian psychology.

    I’ve been comoderator – for the past 8 months – of an online forum dedicated to Bernardo Kastrup’s work challenging materialism in science and society. He’s doing wonderful work, but again, compared to Indian psychology, it barely scratches the surface.

    My wife and I are now immersed in creating music and videos for our website, http://www.remember-to-breathe.org (which, though not using Indian psychology terms, follows very closely Sri Aurobindo’s model of integral psychology). We hope by 1 or 1 1/2 years from now to have time to focus fully on supporting this emergence of an integral indian psychology.

    My plan is to take Dr. Cornelissen’s two volume work on Foundations of Indian Psychology, go through it chapter by chapter and show links to other work in psychology and philosophy of science going on now in universities and scientific institutions around the world.

    The closest project I am aware of in the West to this indian psychology project is “Beyond Physicalism”, the product of 14 years of yearly meetings at Esalen of a remarkable group of scholars (I have an extensive review of the book on the Amazon page for Beyond Physicalism). Readers here may be interested to know there are some excellent chapters that deal directly with Indian psychology. Dr. Wirth (I assume you are at the doctorate level? Forgive me if I gave you an extra degree:>)) mentioned Kashmir Saivism, and in fact, there is a wonderful chapter in BP on Abhinavagupta. Dr. Eric Weiss has a very interesting chapter also on Whitehead and Aurobindo, and the concluding essay on panentheism by Michael Murphy draws a great deal from Sri Aurobindo.

    Thank you again for the article.

    1. Don, you did give me an extra degree. No, I don’t have a PH D, and frankly, i wouldn’t like to play by western academic rules… I have high respect for people who have PH Ds in the science field, but sorry to say, not in humanities. It unfortunately seems to give them “authority” even if their views are highly biased, especially when it comes to western “Indology”. This authority needs to be challenged.

      1. Oh, i’m more than delighted to withdraw your (not so?) honorary doctorate:>) As we say here in the states, my having a Ph.D means my knowledge is “Piled High and Deep”.

        I should go back to school and get a degree in challenging authority. Let’s see, what classes shall I sign up for?

  12. Anjana · · Reply

    Nice article. I am new to Psyschology. Could you please suggest some books or authors and their works. Thank you.

    1. go to ipi website (Indian Psychology Institute in Pondiherry. they were in the process of producing textbooks. don’t know how far it has reached

  13. […] Will Indian Psychology finally be re-discovered? […]

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