Emotion in modern psychology and Indian thought

Girishwar Misra

Department of Psychology

University of Delhi

After a long association with cognition, psychology is now deeply engaged with affect and emotion. As Paul Ekman and Davidson, in their interesting volume entitled The Nature of Emotions: Fundamental Questions (New York: Oxford, 1994) hoped that "just as the study of cognition provided a unified theme for psychology in the 1970s, emotion can serve a similar role in the 1990s . Notwithstanding this expectation the century old journey to understand emotions has reached a point where a unitary notion of emotion as a physiological thing has collapsed. Today it is difficult to offer a precise definition of emotion. Nowadays increasingly more attention is being paid to the analysis of the structure of emotions, examining its functions, and appraisal processes. The interface between cognition and affect is being looked at from biological, cognitive, social, and cultural levels. The contributions from the social constructionists have opened new possibilities. The linguistic practices and moral judgments through which feelings are interpreted as emotions are culturally relative. We take guidance from the social world for experiencing emotions. Thus the question of defining an emotion becomes the question of specifying the conditions under which we use the emotion word. The cross-cultural and cultural psychological work has shown that the modern western view of emotion does not help much to understand emotional diversity, particularly in cultures like the Indian where emotions are primarily social or interactive rather than individual. The emotional lives in India differ in structure, meaning, and shades. The poetic, dramatic and aesthetic tradition in India views emotions as a creative process. Dance, poetry or drama work as a catalyst and activate the bhava (emotion) that is already present. The notions of primary, transitory emotions and catalysts present a different schema to approach the affective world. The person in the audience shares the emotion. The experience of emotion is a creative process. One may experience the glimpse of Divine bliss in such moments -- emotions are the true Self. The emotional experience is thus born in a matrix of meanings, identities and relationships provided, in part, by the culture. This paper examines the trends in research and conceptualization pertaining to emotions in contemporary psychology and finally expands on the Indian perspective on emotion (bhava).


Email the author: "Prof. Girishwar Misra" <misragirishwar@gmail.com>


This paper was presented at the
National Conference on
Yoga and Indian Approaches to Psychology

Pondicherry, India, September 29 - October 1, 2002