Psychology: need for a paradigm change
Shanti Auluck — Lady Sriram College, Delhi
In the days when an idea could be silenced by showing that it was contrary to religion, theology was the greatest single source of fallacies. Today, when any human thought can be discredited by branding it as unscientific, the power previously exercised by theology has passed over to science; hence science has become in its turn the greatest single source of error.
Science has won precision at the cost of remaining on a plane of secondary problems, leaving intact the decisive and ultimate questions.
… creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting point and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up.
Mind and consciousness are the most fascinating and wonderful phenomena in the universe. It has fascinated man throughout history. Questions about mind, self and consciousness have been raised not only by psychologists and philosophers but also by thinkers from diverse fields e.g. Physics, Biology, and Neuroscience. Their work within their own disciplines inevitably brought the urgency to look into the place of mind and consciousness in the entire scheme of creation. Several writings by great thinkers like Shroedinger, Sherrington, Penfield, J Eccles, Kothari, etc. eloquently testify it.
Questions about mind, self and consciousness were at the heart of Indian psychology which we find shrouded in the religio-philosophical traditions of India dating back to more than two thousand years. However it remained largely unrecognized and unappreciated in mainstream psychology both in India and other parts of the world. There is only an occasional reference to Indian psychology. According to Hall & Lindzey “One of the richest sources of well formulated psychologies are Eastern religions... Most major Asian religions have at their core a psychology little known to the masses of adherents to the faith, but quite familiar to the appropriate professionals, be they yogis, monks or priests”
Why these rich and profound knowledge systems about the inner world have largely remained unrecognized by mainstream psychology? Why there is a resistance in psychologists both in India and foreign lands to even acquaint themselves with Indian psychology to examine its value. Both these questions need to be examined if psychology is to really evolve and get enriched by the insights of Indian Psychology.
Why mainstream psychology has remained ignorant of Indian Psychology?
There are three reasons for Indian Psychology remaining unknown to mainstream Psychology:
The problems of scientism in Psychology
Following the model of scientific method, Psychology presumed that it can identify all the factors/causes that influence man’s mind and behaviour. Vast number of empirical studies have been done investigating every possible factor that may influence and shape personality and behaviour. However, it has often confirmed at best the common sense knowledge which did not sharpen the skills for prediction and control — the ultimate goal of science. It has not given us tools to bring desirable changes in one-self. Though insights emerging from Clinical Psychology have made valuable contribution in understanding the inner workings of mind and personality at conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious levels but it has failed to guide and even define what could be the possibilities of human perfection.
Looking at the contributions of mainstream Psychology one can broadly put it in two categories: (a) mind as an instrument of cognition (b) understanding the forces that shape our personality and behaviour. It has quite ingeniously applied experimental method to study the cognitive functions of the mind and gathered important insights about the cognitive processes of the mind. However the experimental method was found to be inappropriate for the latter category of issues. The whole approach of using objective methods and studying others to collect relevant data has at best approximated common sense wisdom. It is these issues where mainstream Psychology can immensely benefit from the Indian Psychology. However, the challenge before us is to present the insights of Indian psychology in a form that can be understood by the people working in the field of psychology. It is by no means an easy task and needs open dialogue that is free from all other compulsions.
Mainstream Psychology has its origin in the western cultures. It is interesting to note that thinkers of the west made great strides in knowing and understanding the mysteries of the outer world whereas the thinkers in India pursued with great passion the inquiry into the mysteries of the inner world.
Insights about the inner workings of mind forms a central core of Indian psychology. It has the potential of revolutionizing our understanding of man in the same way as Modern Physics did to our understanding of the universe.
The questions around which Indian Psychology is woven, may be broadly formulated as follows:
In brief we can sum up the above questions as “what is the nature of “I”/self (called Atman) viz a viz the nature of phenomenal world” and “how do we maximize ours as well as others well being.”
Such questions in Indian psychology led to deep analysis of mind, problems of identity and complexities of human life. The deliberation on these issues resulted into insights and vision which encompassed not only man and his life but the whole creation. This was a holistic picture which saw connectivities operating in the entire creation/nature. It had the potential of transforming man’s life in a manner which is the ideal of every human being, variously termed as “sthitpragya” or “Samatvayoga”(unshakeable mental equilibrium).
Inquiry into the nature of “I” or “Self” resulted into two different streams of thought in Western & Indian cultures. Western psychology has viewed self as a unifying force within, which is all the time dynamically absorbing the experiences and at the same time determining the behaviour and quality of experience. It is constantly getting shaped and reshaped by the interactive forces of biochemistry, environment and its own unique way of perceiving itself and its circumstances. Different personality theories represent various perspectives to explain the shaping of self or personality. With the exception of Sir C.G. Jung, these theories have not clearly differentiated between self and personality.
Insights into the nature of self in Indian psychology revealed the witnessing nature of “I” called Atman. Upanishads say that Atman or Brhaman alone is the fundamental reality whose nature is pure awareness. This is the substratum of the whole creation including mind. Mind is called Antahkaran, i.e. instrument of knowledge of inner world. It consists of four-fold constituents:
Manas is by nature extremely unsteady. It can be disciplined by intellect whose capacity of choice and discrimination can be enhanced by introspection, knowledge and education. Ahankar (ego) or Dehatma-buddhi is a case of misplaced identity which is the root cause of ignorance about the real nature of Self leading to sufferings in life. The relationship amongst self, mind, intellect and ego is beautifully brought out in the following sloka of Kathopanishad:
Know the Self/soul as the rider, the body as the chariot, the intellect as the charioteer, and the mind as the reins; the organs are the horses and the sense objects the roads; the soul with the body, organs and mind is designated by the sages as the relisher of experience.
How do we comprehend the nature of Self which appears to be highly abstract to common sense view of ourselves that identifies self with body and mind. Upanishads carry a very comprehensive analysis to reveal the nature of Self:
“I” or “Self” is intimately experienced as the subject or knower of everything external as well as internal world. All modifications of mind e.g. perceptions, thoughts and emotions are only objects of knowledge and not the subject. In the words of Sri Radhakrishnan “the body, the sense organs, the mind and the ego all lay claim to being the self of man. Before enquiry man takes one or other of them as self. But philosophical enquiry reveals their non-self character, it reveals each one of them as an object and not a subject.”
Who is the subject then? To know the subject / knower means to objectify it and necessitating yet another knower leading to regress ad infinitum. Yet all forms of knowledge necessitate the existence of knower. Upanishads call this subject / knower as “Atman” whose nature is pure consciousness.
After showing the dissimilarity between knower (self) and known (mind) it analyzes the relationship between the two. The knower and the known are the two apparent aspects of one basic reality. Known is not independent of knower because its existence depends on the knower. Just as pot’s existence is not independent of the clay; pot is only name and form of the same basic substance, i.e. clay. Similarly known is not an independent reality, known and knower are one only. Thus the whole world, inner and outer, is resolved in one alone; Upanishads call it “atman”, the resolving point of knower and known whose nature is pure consciousness. Atman = Brhaman is the most profound statement of the Upanishads indicated by the following Mahavakyas:
What is the nature of atman? What is brhaman? What kind of equation the above statements are talking about? To understand the meaning of atman and brhaman one needs to know their etymological roots:
These statements may look utterly confusing to one who is not familiar with Indian Psychology, Comprehension of these Mahavakya require formidable shifts in one’s thinking and conclusions that man makes universally about himself and the world, namely
It is the burden of these conclusions which is the biggest barrier in comprehending the vision of Indian Psychology. The paradox of man is that he can deny his own self through a wrong self-image. Thus Atman which appears to be conditioned by body and mind (known by us as “I”) is in fact limitless. Just as space confined by room is same as space all over, similarly Atman which appears to be confined (identified) by body and mind is in fact without any confines, therefore, called Brhaman. It is in this sense that Atman is called the real self which is Brhaman. Its nature is defined as “Sat” (truth), “Chit” (consciousness), Anandam (ever blissful).
Thus reality is one alone, it is non-dual. It pervades every thing sentient or insentient. Isopanisad eloquently said: “Ishawasyamidam sarvam yatkinchjagatyam jagat” (everything is pervaded by brhaman alone).
Analysis of knower and known has already revealed the error of locating “I/self in body and mind as both belong to the realm of “known” (objects of knowledge) and not the “knower”. It was also seen that knower can not become the object of knowledge as in itself it is a self-contradiction. Finally the logical necessity of tracing the known to knower resulted into the two being one alone, i.e. Atman or Brhaman, whose nature is pure consciousness. There can not be anything away or beyond consciousness, not knowing is also within knowledge. Every phenomena of the world including space and time is within consciousness, in that sense Atman is neither born nor dies.
How do we reconcile this vision with the phenomenal experience of everyday world. We need to remember that Truth can be altogether different from the appearances. In fact if we examine carefully we would find that knowledge always contradicts commonsense notions. Just as the earth appears stationary and sun seems to travel from east to west, which is only an apparent reality (called “Vyavaharik Satya”). Its falsity is revealed by the knowledge that it is earth which is rotating on its axis, causing the shifts in the position of the sun. This is called Paramarthic Satya or absolute reality. Thus in the light of Paramarthic Satya, the falsity of appearance (Vyavaharik satya) is revealed.
Analysis of three states — Waking, Dream and Sleep
Mandukya Upanishad analyzes the three states- waking, dream and sleep and shows the necessity of a common substratum which gives continuity to “I” experience. We spend our whole life alternating amongst these three states yet when it comes to defining our identity, we exclusively take into account waking state alone. The conclusion that “I am body and mind” is essentially arising during the waking state. When we examine dream and sleep states this identity gets questioned. Logically there should not be any experience or knowledge without experiencer or knower; then who is this knower without body- mind identity (“I” sense of waking state). Similarly in sleep, there is no experience of anything yet experience of “sound” sleep is there. We carry on the feeling of having good sleep when we wake-up, in other words the memory of sound sleep persists upon waking up. Logically there can not be memory without experience and an experience without the experiencer is not possible. Thus the above analysis reveals that the waking identity is only one type of identity and its firmness and persistence gets challenged when the very nature and process of experiencing in dream and sleep states is examined. It puts forth the need to re-examine our firm conclusion about the self only on the basis of waking identity (identity with body and mind) and needs deliberation on the principle which is more inclusive and fundamental. Upanishads call it Atman whose nature is pure awareness. Thus awareness / consciousness whose nature is “self-luminosity” or “knowing” persists through three states of waking, dream and sleep. It is upholder (adhishthanam) of the entire universe of names and forms including space and time.
Shankaracharya, one of the greatest thinkers of the world, said:
“There is some entity, eternal by nature, the basis of the experience of egoism, the witness of the three states of waking dream and sleep and distinct from the five sheaths, who knows everything that happens in the waking, dream and sleep states, who is aware of the presence or absence of the mind and its functions, and who is the basis of the notion of egoism.”
In the words of Jodson Herrick— Awareness itself has no locus, because the conscious act has properties that are not definable in terms of the spatial and temporal units which are employed in the measurement of the objects and events of our objective world.”
Great thinkers from diverse disciplines reached the similar vision of truth despite very dissimilar fields of their endeavour. George Wald, a noted biologist and noble laureate said “Just the contrary of consciousness first appearing as a late outgrowth of the evolution of life on this and other planets, I come to the view that this universe breeds life and consciousness, because consciousness is its source and because the stuff of this universe is ultimately mind-stuff. What we recognize as the material universe, the universe of space and time and elementary particles and energies, is actually an avtar, the materialization of primal consiousness. In that case there is no waiting for consiousness to arise. It is there always, at the beginning as at the end. What we wait for in the evolution of life is only the culminating avtar, the emergence of self-conscious bodies that can articulate consicousness, that can give it a voice, a culture, literature and art, and Science.”
Professor Kothari pointed out the similarity between visions of reality obtained by Quantum Mechanics and Upanishads:- “The Concept of oneness in Quantum Mechanics is a totally, fundamentally, new concept. We have a most remarkable thought provoking analogy drawn from modern physics for the great Upanisadic formula; the differnet individual selves on the empirical plane are one and the same on the transcendental plane”.
In his Nobel address Delbruck (1969) said: “Even if we learn to speak about consciousness as an emergent property of nerve sets, even if we learn to understand the processes that lead to abstract ion, reasoning and language, still any such development presupposes a notion of truth that is prior to all these efforts and that can not be conceived as an emergent porperty of it, an emergent property of a biological evolution.”
We find a strikingly similar conclusion by Schroedinger, great physicist of 20th century, in the epilogue “Determinism and Free Will”. He said “two incontrovertible facts are (a) My body is a machine(b) Its motions are under my control. The only possible inference from these two facts is, I think that I , I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt “I”, am the person, if any, who controls the “motions of the atoms” according to the laws of nature.... In itself the insight is not new. Earliest records to my knowledge date back some 2,500 years or more. From the early great upanisads the recognition Atman = Brahman(The personal self, equal the omnipersent, all comprehending eternal self) was in Indian thought considered, far from being blasphemus, to represent the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world.”
Insights of clinical and personality psychology show us vividly the role that self-image plays in our day to day life. We not only act as unified self but we also hold certain image about it. The entire dynamics of inner life revolves around the positive or negative experiences with regard to the self-image. Self reflection or objectivity entails distancing from our own selves and trying to have a re-vision of it. It is like enhancing the witnessing character of our selves. Thus comprehending the non-self character of our identities makes it easy to deal with our reactions. Not only this, it also shows us egocentricity in our thinking and actions. Thus in a limited way the development of this self distancing or objectivity itself resolves several problems. Bhagvad Gita analyzes in great length the inner dynamics which plays havoc in our lives and create problems and sufferings. It details the effectiveness of Karmyoga and Gyanyoga as sure ways of emancipating ourselves from the vicissitudes of inner life. More of it would be discussed later.
The above discussion can be summarized as follows:
Western & Indian Psychology
How the above discussion is relevant to Psychology. For comprehending its relevance we need to take a re-look at the goal of psychology. The ultimate goal of psychology is to reveal the mysteries of the inner world. Therein lies the hope of solving man’s problems and maximizing his effectiveness. Indian and Western psychology do not differ in terms of the goals. However the difference lies in the approach and the paradigm within which they operate.
The developments in Physics showed that the order of nature is different in large and small objects. At macro level the nature works within a deterministic design with laws that can help in precise prediction and control. However, at micro-level the whole order of nature’s working undergoes change. “Contrary to Newtonian Physics, Quantum mechanics tells us that our knowledge of what governs the events at sub-atomic level is not nearly what we assumed it would be. It tells us that we can not predict sub-atomic phenomena with any certainty. We only can predict their probabilities” Gary Zukav (1979).
According to modern physics, Nature at micro-level defies precision in prediction and control, the hallmark of classical Physics. Not only this, it questions the independence of observer and observed as the very nature of observed gets altered by the act of observation. “Philosophically, however, the implications of Quantum mechanics are psychedelic. Not only do we influence our reality, but, in some degree, we actually create it” Gary Zukav (1979). It shows striking similarity with the phenomena of the inner world.
Mind and phenomena of inner world obviously belongs to the micro world subtler than atoms and its constituent electrons and protons etc. Taking the lead from Modern Physics, mind can not be understood through exploration of deterministic laws and therefore it needs a paradigm shift within which it is currently operating.
Search for truth cannot set limits to itself; it has to exhaust all possible ways of explorations. It requires unbiased examination of facts as they are and constant reformulations of our worldview till our questions and doubts are answered to our satisfaction.
The dissatisfactions from the state of contemporary psychology are mounting and efforts towards the search for “meaningful psychology” are increasing appreciably. Bruner (1990) says: “the wider intellectual community comes increasingly to ignore our journals, which seems to outsiders principally to contain intellectually unsituated little studies, each a response to a handful of like little studies. Inside psychology, there is a worried restlessness about the state of our discipline, and the beginnings of a new search for means of reformulating it.”
There is a long road between notions of man in Western and Indian Psychology. Scientism in mainstream Psychology has piled up a heavy, layered and deeply entrenched views about man and his/her inner world. Opening of new horizons is an arduous task This is a ripe state for taking a new plunge. Indian psychology promises to offer further breakthrough in understanding man’s inner world.
Comprehending Indian psychology is not easy. It is not like noticing a fact, but far more like achieving a great possibility through a strenuous effort. Mere knowing is not sufficient to grasp the view of Indian psychology. The long journey of inner purification is important to comprehend its deliberations. Inner purification demands freedom from conditioned ways of thinking. It requires introspective orientation, critical self examination and willingness for change. Existential questioning becomes pre-requisite condition to even begin this inward journey. A mind that is free from conditionings becomes the master of itself. It slowly attains freedom from all enslaving tendencies. Such a state of mind is called sthitpragya, the highest perfection of man, a man of self-realisation. It is called Moksha. Moksha is the highest goal of life. Knowledge leads to liberation( sa vidya va vimuktaye) is a very profound statement of the Upanisads. Dehatmabudhi, a case of misplaced identity, is the root cause of all notions and complexes which keep creating problems and sufferings for us.
Need for a shift in Paradigm
Paradigm within which mainstream psychology operates is, that, man is a creation in the Universe. Just as everything in nature is governed by the laws of nature similarly our body and mind are also governed by universal laws. Science offers the best methodology to study such laws of Nature, therefore, mind would also reveal its secrets when studied by scientific methods. New paradigm emerging from Indian psychology is that pure consciousness alone is the fundamental reality. The entire universe including body, mind and senses is only a manifestation of this reality and belongs to the same category as the material world. Man’s identity does not lie in body and mind but in Ataman. Misplaced identity is the root cause of all our problems and sufferings. There can never be an end to man’s search for happiness and meaning till he discovers his own essential nature i.e. pure consciousness qualified as Sat + Chit + Anandam. Pure consciousness is the most fundamental reality and the ultimate truth of all creation, manifest or unmanifest. Different schools of Indian Thought are unanimous in saying that the true nature of man and its identity lies in Consciousness and not in body and mind, though they have adopted different methods for articulating it.
Mind and body are also creations in nature and follow orderly functions. Analysis of life situations, its impact on oneself and others can give a clue to understand its order of functioning. Indian Psychology stresses self-inspection and self- experimentation to achieve self-mastery and perfection. It exhorts discipline of oneself and not of others Wisdom is acquired by introspection, reflection and experimentation with ones own self in the light of spiritual knowledge (Atmagyan). It has redefined the goal of life from pursuit of happiness to freedom (Moksha) revealing fantastic understanding of the order of the inner world.
As earlier discussed Psychology faces twofold challenges — understanding cognitive processes and maximizing effective living. It is already collaborating with neuroscience to unravel the mystery of human cognition. However it needs to open up to Indian Psychology for broadening its horizons for the latter. Psychology can not be value neutral in this regard as it can not shy away from the fact that human beings are inherently beset with the dilemma of making choices in life and it needs firm ground for doing it.
Delbruck (Nobel Address 1969) quoted in Atom and Self in Evolution of Consciousness, Ed. Kishore Gandhi. 1983
Einstein, Albert and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1938, p. 31
George Wald. Life and Mind in the Universe in Evolution of Consciousness, Ed. Kishore Gandhi. 1983
Hall, Calvin & Lindzey Gardner. Eastern psychologies in Theories of Personality. London: John Wiley 1957.
C.Judson Herrick. The evolution of Human Nature. New York 1961. p.429
Kothari, D.S. Atom and Self in Evolution of Consciousness, Ed. Kishore Gandhi. 1983
Krishna Chaitanya. The Psychology of Freedom. Somaiya Publications Pvt. Ltd. 1976.
Michel Polayani. Knowing and Being. University of Chicago Press, 1969.
Shankaracharya quoted in “Eastern religions and Western Thoughts. S. Radhakrishnan. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1959.
Schroedinger, Erwin. What is Life. Cambridge University press. 1948
Zukav Gary, The dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of New Physics, Bantam Books 1979.