What is Indian Psychology?
author: Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: DATE, 2015
In the Introduction of Foundations and Applications of Indian Psychology, “Indian psychology” is defined as “an approach to psychology that is based on ideas and practices that developed over thousands of years within the Indian sub-continent”, and that is how we will use the term in this text. In other words, the word “Indian” indicates and honours the origin of this approach to psychology — the origin of the underlying philosophy, the conceptual framework, the methods of enquiry, and the technology of consciousness that it uses to bring about psychological change and transformation. It is not used to localize or limit the scope of this approach to psychology; we do not mean, for example, “the psychology of the Indian people”, or “psychology as taught at Indian universities”.
We hold that Indian psychology as a meta-theory and as an extensive body of related theories and practices has something essential and unique to contribute to the global civilization as a whole.
It may also be useful to make explicit that this text is not about the past, but about the present and the future.
Psychology as taught at present, all over the world, is still amazingly unicultural. This is rather remarkable if we consider the intensity and ease of international communications, and the fact that it is almost half a century since the political decolonization of Asia and Africa was completed. Though the large component of European and American thought in psychology is understandable historically, it is not any longer excusable. For it is not that the rest of the world has not thought about human nature, and it is definitely not that contemporary psychology has found the one and only correct way of doing so. In this context, one could argue that Indian psychology will be relevant particularly to Asian, African, or Latin-American countries which share alternative non-Western world views about mind, psyche and various psychological phenomena such as healing, health, self, or personality; but we strongly believe that in spite of all cultural differences, there is a large common core to human nature, and that, to the extent that Indian psychology deals with that common core, it should be of interest to all members of the human family.
In short, we do not look at Indian psychology as something that belongs only to India or the past, but as a rich source of psychological insight and know-how that can be utilised to create a better future for the whole of humanity.
What the Indian civilization can contribute to psychology
The unique contribution which the Indian civilization can make to modern psychology can be looked at as consisting of three distinct elements—a sophisticated and well-worked out, psychology-based meta-theoretical framework, a wide repertoire of psychological practices, and a rich treasury of psychological theories. These three are, obviously, closely interconnected, and it may be clear that none of them can be fully understood without a fairly complete understanding of the other two. Yet, as language is inevitably linear, we will give here a separate short introduction to each of them.
A psychology-friendly meta-theoretical framework
The first major contribution the Indian civilization can make to psychology is a psychology-friendly meta-theoretical framework. To delineate the underlying theory, the basic 'paradigm' of the Indian tradition is, of course, a pretentious undertaking fraught with possibilities of error. The Indian civilization is immensely complex, and, given the abundance of different—often contrary—voices it harbours within itself, it is hard to state anything about it that cannot be contradicted with a striking counter-example. And yet, it is useful to give it a try, for the simple reason that without this background it is impossible to fully understand its psychological practices and its theories.
When one looks at the Indian civilization as it developed over the ages, it becomes quickly clear that within it there exists such a huge variety of distinct cultural traditions, that one may doubt whether it actually makes sense to speak of a single Indian tradition and whether it would not be more accurate to speak of Indian traditions in the plural. The doubt is understandable, but we would contend that in case of the Indian tradition, singularity and multiformity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A rich variety of expressions does not preclude the possibility of a common thread, a single foundation supporting the variety, and we are inclined to think that especially in India such a common core indeed does exist. In fact, the idea of a single truth supporting a variety of manifestations is itself one of the core-characteristics of the deep view of reality that underlies the whole wide gamut of Indian traditions. One of the most-often-quoted aphorisms expressing this acknowledgment of divergent views in spite of a single underlying reality is probably: ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti, which means, 'the truth is One, but the wise call it by different names'. An interesting aspect of this saying is that the differences are not described as errors: it is the wise that give different names to the one truth. Moreover, one would miss the point if one were to take this saying as no more than a polite exhortation for religious tolerance. It rests on a deep, psychological understanding of the human condition, which says that reality as it really is, will always remain beyond our limited mental capacity to grasp, and that each individual can perceive of that reality only as much as their individual capacity and inclination will allow.
There is another ancient saying which goes a step further. It deals with the different perceptions that arise from affirmative and agnostic approaches to reality. It says—and one can immediately see how close some ancient Indian thinkers came to postmodern constructivism—that not only the name we give to an experience, but even the experience itself is determined by our 'set'. The Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.6.1), for instance, says, asann eva sa bhavati, asad brahmeti veda cet, asti brahmeti ced veda, santam enaṁ tato viduḥ, meaning, 'whoever envisages it as existence becomes (or realizes) it as existence, and whoever envisages it as non-being becomes (or realizes) that non-existence'. It may be noted that in the Indian tradition such differences are not attributed only to the different cultural priming; they are attributed primarily to the different type, level and quality of the internal state of the observer. And this brings us to what might well be described as the most important difference between the Indian and the Western paradigm.
The differences. Western psychology is largely confined to two dimensions which are both fully accessible to the ordinary waking consciousness—the physical and the social. Genetics, neurophysiology and the cognitive sciences are typical for sub-disciplines with a focus on the physical dimension, and the various offshoots of psychoanalysis, social constructivism and cross-cultural psychology could be considered typical for those who focus on social factors. Between the two, there is still, in spite of many attempts at 'softening' psychology, a widespread tendency to take the physical dimension more seriously than the social. Even in the field of consciousness studies, the existence of physical reality tends to be taken for granted, while the ontological 'reality' of consciousness and subjective experience is open for discussion. Their apparent existence needs some kind of justification, and both are commonly considered epiphenomenal products of material processes. Related to this, in terms of epistemology, the ordinary waking consciousness is considered the only acceptable state for the researcher to be in, and a clear rational mind is taken as the ultimate arbiter of truth. In fact, non-ordinary states of awareness are primarily associated with drugs and somewhat frivolous new-age activities. Finally, in terms of practical methodology, objectivity is taken as the ultimate ideal, and first-person, subjective observations are taken seriously only if they are embedded in statistics and third-person objective measures to counteract their inherent weaknesses. Obviously all this is a simplification and there are exceptions to this pattern—one could, for example, think of phenomenology—but still, a strong physicalist bias, an absolute faith in the ordinary waking consciousness and a total reliance on objective methods are so much part of mainstream psychology that amongst psychologists, they are commonly considered indispensable elements of the scientific method.
The intellectual tradition of India starts from radically different assumptions. Ontologically, the most fundamental reality is not matter, but spirit; or more precisely, the indivisible unity of saccidānanda, of absolute existence, consciousness and delight. In other words, the Indian tradition includes psychological phenomena like consciousness and joy as core-elements of reality, and in fact it takes not physics, but 'knowledge of the self' (adhyātma-vidyā) as the fundamental science. Accordingly, the possibility and cosmic importance of an absolutely silent, transcendent consciousness are hardly ever doubted, while there are major schools of thought that do doubt the importance and even the reality of the material pole of existence. While Western science has come to terms with the fact that there are many different types of physical energies and substances, of which some are not directly perceptible by the human senses, the Indian tradition takes it for granted that there are also various types and levels of non-physical existence—entire inner 'worlds' which are not directly perceptible to the ordinary waking consciousness, but that are ontologically as real, or even more real than the ordinary physical world. These non-physical realities are considered to be intermediate planes of conscious existence between the absolute, silent consciousness of the transcendent and the apparent unconsciousness of matter. As a result, physical and social factors are accepted as part of causal networks, but not as the full story—events are thought to be influenced by a wide variety of forces that include factors belonging to non-physical realities. Similarly, epistemologically, a rational mind is appreciated and cultivated, but it is understood that there are higher sources of knowledge and the possibility of a direct, intuitive apprehension of truth. Finally, objective, sense-based knowledge is considered a minor form of knowledge (or even ignorance, avidyā) and an immense collective effort has gone into the development of processes that can make us more open to the subtle worlds, and especially to the pre-existing inner knowledge, vidyā.
It may be clear that these two basic views of reality lead to a very different sense of what psychology is about, how it is to be conducted, and what can be expected from it. For those under the influence of the physicalist worldview, psychology deals either with outer behaviour or with mental processes that happen within the neuro-physiological apparatus of individual human beings; even those who stress social influences, tacitly assume that such influences are transferred by physical means. It is taken for granted that consciousness, whether individually or socially determined, depends on working neural systems. Non-physical realities are illusionary and parapsychological phenomena are 'anomalous'. For an eternal soul there is no place (except as a belief of others, not as an 'objective' reality that exists in itself). Methodologically, one has to rely on statistics and sophisticated third-person methods of research. In terms of application, one aims at (behaviourally verifiable) changes in others.
For those under the influence of the Indian system, consciousness is primary. It is taken to be all-pervasive, and as existing within space and time, as well as beyond both. The borders of the individual are porous, and the individual consciousness is found to extend through space and time, to others, to all kinds of inner worlds, and even to what is beyond all manifestation. As a result, non-physical realities and parapsychological phenomena fit perfectly within this explanatory framework, and there is no difficulty accepting an eternal soul as our real self. For research in Indian psychology, sophisticated first person methods are the natural first choice. In terms of application, Indian psychology aims primarily at the mastery and transformation of oneself.
When one lists these differences in this manner, the two systems seem to belong to different worlds, and not only serious misunderstandings, but even a certain mutual distrust appears almost inevitable. Historically this has indeed been the case. In the Indian tradition, right from the Upaniṣads and the stories of the Purāṇas, the basic ontological and epistemological assumptions of modern psychology are looked at as beginners' errors, remnants of an ordinary, naive way of looking at the world that stand in the way of a deeper understanding of how the human mind, consciousness in general, and even the physical reality actually work. Seen from the other side, from the perspective of mainstream psychology, giving up its positivist, constructivist, or agnostic assumptions looks like a return to a superstitious past, a giving up of the most valuable accomplishments of the European Enlightenment, a recipe for disaster.
Roads to reconciliation. There are several factors that may, however, help to overcome these difficulties. The first is that the inability of modern science to deal effectively with non-physical realities and 'the divine', may not be intrinsic to science as such. Future generations, who are likely to have a more globally informed cultural background, may ascribe this inability largely to the vagaries of European history. It might well be found that in the early years of modern science, Europe left these inner realms aside, not because it is intrinsically too difficult to research them in an intelligent and open-minded manner, but simply because they were too encrusted in the religious environment of the time. It is true that neither alchemy, nor the later efforts of parapsychology have led to sufficiently concrete results to convince the sceptics; but that might well be because their studies were hampered on the one side by the lack of a sufficiently supportive philosophical framework, and on the other by their failure to develop effective powers within the inner realms they purported to study.
As we will see throughout this text, the Indian tradition might be able to provide both. Though the Indian civilization has had its own difficulties — 800 years of foreign interference not the least of them — such a dramatic split between the physical and the inner domains is not part of the Indian story. In fact, the social structures and mental attitudes supporting spiritual pursuits in India are much closer to those of European science than to those of European religion. Even Śaṅkara—who arguably comes closest to what in the Christian tradition would have been called a church-father, given his role in founding centres of religious authority and power — in the end puts personal experience (anubhava) above tradition. In his Bhagavad Gītā Bhāṣya he says, for example (18, 66), 'Even a hundred scriptural passages will not become authoritative when they, for instance, announce that fire is cool or dark' (Rao, 1979, p. 65). The methods of yoga and meditation are nowadays primarily looked at soteriologically, that is, as a means for salvation, as a means to arrive at samādhi or nirvāṇa—at least if they are not seen as a means to arrive at physical health and the survival of a corporate lifestyle. In the culture of origin, however, they are part of a coherent knowledge system and they are clearly looked at as a way to arrive at reliable knowledge. This is most clear in the case of jñānayoga (the yoga of knowledge); but one can easily discern elements of the pursuit of truth even in karma- and bhaktiyoga (the paths of works and devotion), which also, in their own way, have methods to reduce the distortions of perception and affect that are part of the ordinary human consciousness.
The good news then is that modern scientific and ancient Indian approaches to psychology may not be so much contradictory as complementary. It is true that they are based on different ontological and epistemological assumptions, that they use different methods, and to some extent, that they look at different sides of the human enterprise, but in the end, they are based on the same human urge for true knowledge, pure love, effective power and happiness. It may not be easy to come to mutual respect and understanding, but the effort will be worth it, for our preoccupation with knowledge and power in the physical domain has not solved humanity's problems. On a global scale, suffering due to poverty, violence and disease is still rampant, and we have added a considerable risk of sudden environmental self-destruction. One could well argue that the one thing we need most at present is a more integral and more wholesome understanding of our own nature, and we hope that this text will make a valuable contribution to that endeavour.