By Mrinalini Rao
We flag off a new column on indian psychology that seeks to explain the principles behind it and how it can lead us to fulfilment, mental health and the realisation of our potential.
We continue to search for mirrors in our lives;
Mirrors that show us how complete we are
Mirrors that reveal only some facets to us
Mirrors that take the form of people, places, objects
Of relationships, theories, perspectives
In our search for our identities,
We plod on relentless,
The Crescent moon yearns for fullness
One such mirror has been the growth of psychology, both in Western and the Indian tradition. Initially, psychology was a part of philosophy. The word ‘psychology’ is itself derived from the Greek word ‘psyche’ meaning ‘soul’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘study’. The roots of Western psychology can be traced back to the Greek philosophy that became an independent discipline only some few hundred years ago.
In our quest for certainty, many of us have been bred on several theories of personality and the self that have led us to conclude several things about ourselves. Consider Rohit, a 26-year-old who loves to revel in the explanation that his critical upbringing has ‘doomed’ him to be always critical of relationships, including the one that he shares with his girlfriend. Like Rohit, many of us run the risk of narrowly defining ourselves and not reclaiming our human freedom in the misled pursuit of a certain theory.
We have forgotten the times that led to the formulation of a theory or perspective, in the first place. As my teacher rightly remarked, “A leader of his times is also a product of his times.” While one deeply respects Freud for his theories on ego and the defence-mechanism, we often forget that the fabric of the Victorian era was interlaced with prudery and rigorous controls. No wonder sexual repression was the order of the day! To interpret behaviour in today’s relatively more permissive ambience with the Freudian perspective alone, may give rise to faulty conclusions.
Through this column, we would like to acknowledge and assimilate the rich tapestry of psychological thought in the Indian mainstream, also known as Indian psychology, which has always been ours to begin with. Knowledge of the ‘self’ and of the ‘divine’ is not something that belongs exclusively to one religion or a country. In India, the pursuit of the self in terms of spiritual practices and the evolution of religions were taken to its highest levels because knowledge was considered paramount. This is evident even today in worshipping Goddess Saraswati, the embodiment of knowledge, or even in the simple act of begging forgiveness, if one were to accidentally step on a book.
There are important differences in the perspectives offered by the Western and Eastern psychologies. The purpose of contrasting the two is by no means an effort to assert that one is correct and the other incorrect. It is to get a balanced view of how psychological thought in the two traditions developed and led to the indigenous practices and values.
In the Indian tradition, mental problems are perceived as problems faced on the way to enlightenment. They are either seen as human suffering or the individual’s erroneous conclusion, ‘I’m like this only’, also typified by a popular music channel’s assertion.
While Western psychology deals with the problems of ego and social adjustment, which is to say, healing mental illness, classical Indian psychology is concerned with a transformation of a person to a higher level of achievement and well-being. Indian psychology is concerned with wellness, not illness. With transcendence as its goal, Indian psychology goes beyond understanding dysfunctions caused by chemical imbalances, childhood trauma and problems of sex.
The emphasis on moral development as reflected in dharma (enduring eternal principles and values) is a road map for life. It is not a list of do’s and don’ts, rather a compendium of universal values like honesty, compassion, justice, love, which when lived, leads to psychological wellness. Perhaps a couple of decades ago, we still referred to a person going to work as ‘going for his duty’. We lived in harmony with recognition and performance of one’s duties, in keeping with one’s svakarma and svadharma.
In the West, people have an external orientation; their temperament being characterised by an aggressive trait, with the underlying belief that man has to conquer nature. The result of this perception is an immediate sense of dissociation with nature and hence, a deep sense of overwhelm, isolation and insecurity.
On the other hand, if one looks at many observances and practices in India such as worshipping the forces of nature (for instance, invoking God as Vayu or Agni) or celebrating festivals such as Basant Panchami (welcoming spring), the underlying principle is that man is intrinsically connected and in harmony with nature. There is no difference between the secular and the sacred.
The wisdom of unity at all levels is reflected in everyday life. During one of my journeys, while I was travelling in a local train in Kolkata, I came across a poor woman chanting with her beads. Just to make a conversation, I asked, “Which God’s name are you chanting? “Don’t you know that there is only one God? In fact, there is only God,” she rebuked.
The realm of Western psychology essentially deals with the human experience—the interface between the mind-body complex of the human being and the sensory data received. On the other hand, Indian psychological thought is more ‘inward’ looking with a greater emphasis on introspective knowing and meditation. In Western psychology, mind is considered as a function of the brain and ever since Descartes and Locke, mind and consciousness are used interchangeably. However as per the Indian perspective, the mind is a subtle form of matter and the attempt is to understand the consciousness underlying everything.
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