The centrality of consciousness in Indian psychology.1

K. Ramakrishna Rao

The pervasive theme of Indian psychology is consciousness. The centrality of consciousness in the human condition is asserted in the Hindu darshanas as well as by the heterodox systems like Buddhism and Jainism. The overarching concern in Indian psychology is the “person”, his purity, perfection, freedom, and liberation. The human psychological condition is a vortex of various forces acting on and influencing the “person”. The person per se is consciousness-as-such. Pure consciousness in its sublime state is knowledge of self-certifying truth, beauty in its pristine manifestation and goodness in its ultimate perfection. It is cognition, emotion and value all rolled into one. In the existential embodied situation, however, the person finds himself conditioned. The conditioned person becomes an instrument of individualized thought, action and passion. Knowledge is now relative and biased, happiness personal, and beauty subjective. Knowing and being become separate. Values get divorced from actions. What is beautiful may not be valued. What is valued may not be acted on. What is known may not be true; and what is true may not be known.

In the Indian view, this is not an irrevocable and irremediable situation. It is possible to return the person to the unconditioned state. This can happen in various degrees, shades and grades. There are different halts and stages on the return path. There are techniques that can be used to help us in the process of liberation from the conditioned to the unconditioned state. The unconditioned state is a manifestation of pure consciousness; it is an experience of consciousness-as-such.

I argue that the above is the central theme of Indian psychology, notwithstanding of course interesting intersystem differences. For example, the question whether consciousness is one or many is answered differently by Samkhya and Vedanta thinkers. Similarly there are differences on the important issue whether embodied liberation (jivan mukti) is possible. I argue also that the Indian psychological tradition is no more speculative than psychoanalysis and no less methodologically rigorous than behaviourism. It is rooted in astute observations of human conduct and is deliberately geared to elevate the human condition to greater reaches of wellness and potential. Buddha did not dream up suffering in humans. He saw it in abundance around and his quest was to understand its origins, to find its cause, and to discover its cure.

The concern of Indian psychology with consciousness does not of itself constitute a distinct psychological tradition native to India. In fact, psychology began even in the West as the study of consciousness. Wundt, James and Titchner had no problem in defining psychology as the science of consciousness. However, psychology’s marriage with consciousness did not last very long in the West. First, there was a conflation of the concepts “consciousness” and “mind”. Second, consciousness enjoyed such a multiplicity of meanings that it soon lost its identity and value as a scientific concept. As George Miller (1987) observed so aptly, “consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues”. James Ward complained a hundred years ago that consciousness is “the most treacherous” of all psychological concepts. Third, Western psychologists were primarily concerned with relating the human condition, whether it is consciousness or behaviour, to physical events and external conditions and not with understanding consciousness-as-such.

The work of Wilhelm Wundt, who may be credited as the father of the psychological science in the West, illustrates the inherent contradictions in the Western studies of consciousness. Wundt published the first treatise on psychology, The Principles of Physiological Psychology in 1874 and established the first psychology laboratory at Leipzig in 1879. Wundt tells us that his exercise in writing this book is “to work out a new domain of science,” a science of consciousness. He attempted to study consciousness as it related to physical events. He hoped to analyse mental content into its constituent elements as in chemistry and thus understand the structure of consciousness. He used introspection, a subjective procedure, to study the process of consciousness. Obviously, the goal of finding the structural base of consciousness in human physiology and the intention to deal with conscious processes in the way they relate to physical events are clearly compromised by the use of introspection as the research tool. The manifest incompatibility between the goals and the method in psychological research led to a progressive disuse of first-person methods to study third-person phenomena. In fact, the overwhelming goal of rendering psychology an “outer” or objective science led to the behaviourist revolution, which ruled out mind and consciousness as legitimate topics, and introspection as a useful method for psychological study.

Fifty years later, when the limitations of the behaviourist manifesto are fully recognized, cognitive psychology emerged as a viable alternative. Adhering to strictly scientific third-person methodologies, cognitive psychology hopes to deal with topics such as consciousness that were excluded from psychology under the influence of behaviourism. It studies conscious experience from the perspective of the observer of that experience, and employs such observable measures as response time and accuracy. The cognitive psychologist’s main concern is not the discovery of the structure of consciousness, but the study of the processes involved in conscious experiences like memory and attention. This exercise has been successful to some extent, and we now have a much better understanding of mental processes. The problem of the intrinsic difficulty in equating consciousness with observable events and processes persists, however. One wonders whether cognitive psychology has lost its “consciousness” because subjectivity, the primary characteristic of consciousness, is essentially left out of any serious consideration. The concern for objectivity, understood as third-person perspective in the West, either leaves out consciousness from the precincts of science or reduces it to phenomena that are essentially without consciousness.

In the Indian psychological tradition, there are no such internal contradictions between the subject matter of psychology and the methods adopted to study it. Psychology is regarded as an “inner” science and appropriate tools to fathom it were meticulously developed. Consciousness does not refer to mental phenomena mediated by sensory-cortical structures. Consciousness has primacy of its own. First-person methods are necessary and appropriate to study consciousness.


1This text is part of a chapter under the same title in Kireet Joshi and Matthijs Cornelissen (Eds) (2005). Consciousness, Indian Psychology and Yoga. New-Delhi: CSC.