This article is about a conference on Indian psychology that took place in 2002 in Pondicherry. I posted it here again, as unfortunately not much has changed since then. The hopes at that time that “after ten years” there will be a big change have not come true. Meanwhile, “consciousness studies” have taken off in the west, where India should have been the natural leader. Maybe now, finally, there is a chance for Indian psychology to be re-discovered in India as well.
Indian psychology has been invisible as a subject in Indian academia. But exist it does, preserved in ancient texts and scriptures. A conference of professors and students of psychology decided to unearth and verify this “sophisticated, rich and practical” body of India’s wisdom that concerns the human being and the enormous potential it encompasses.
When two German magazines Yoga Aktuell and Advaita Journal, expressed interest in a report on a conference on Indian psychology, I was convinced of the demand for Indian psychology in the West. Off I went to Pondicherry, to attend the conference on ‘Yoga and Indian approaches to Psychology’ held a month ago.
Pondicherry was home to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who left behind a huge body of work on yoga and psychology. Sri Aurobindo had stated: “Yoga is nothing but practical psychology.” His vision of an impending change in the consciousness of humankind prompted the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology to ask Dr Matthijs Cornelissen from the Netherlands to organise this conference. The doctor has lived in the Ashram for almost 30 years and values the Indian tradition. During his lectures on Sri Aurobindo’s vision of psychology in America and Europe, he noticed that there is a big demand for teachers of Indian psychology in the West.
The many conference sponsors included the Indian Council of Philosophical Research and, the Infinity Foundation of USA. It drew 160 delegates from different universities and institutes from India and abroad, and over 80 papers were presented.
In his keynote address, Prof. Ramakrishna Rao, President of the Institute of Human Science in Vishakapatnam and former Vice Chancellor of Andhra University said: “Isn’t it an irony that there is no Indian psychology in any of our great universities?” He pointed out that out of the 1,000 colleges in Andhra Pradesh only 20 teach psychology. He asked why psychology was in such a pitiful state and answered the question himself “because psychology as it is taught now appears irrelevant in the Indian condition”.
It slowly dawned on me that Indian psychology is hardly taught in India, at least not at her colleges and universities. It amazed me. Psychology in India is completely ignoring the Indian tradition in spite of the great treasures hidden in its ancient scriptures. The textbooks here are written by western authors and many teachers are trained abroad. Prof. Girishwar Misra from Delhi University put it bluntly: “If you mention Freud, nobody asks questions. If you mention samadhi, everyone does.”
Prof Anand Paranjpe, who retired from Simon Frazer University in Vancouver, said he smuggled some Indian thought into his regular courses. These, he said, were tolerated and even appreciated in the west, yet not in India. Thirty years ago, when he suggested including Indian thought into the curriculum, nobody supported his idea.
For him, the conference in Pondicherry was like a dream come true. Finally, professors, lecturers and students from all over India appreciate the profundity of Indian tradition and realise that it is possible to develop a scientific psychology based on this tradition, which goes far beyond western psychology. About time, because the West has already discovered the immense potential of Indian traditions and techniques like yoga. Yoga and pranayama which concern the well-being and growth of human beings, are no doubt aspects of psychology. Westerners have also taken concepts from India’s ancient scriptures, and used them to go beyond behavioural and humanistic psychology to what is termed ‘transpersonal’ psychology and ‘transpersonal’ psychotherapy. This new movement began in the 1970s and even made inroads into the curricula of western universities.
The Indian tradition, according to Prof Anand Prakash from Delhi University, is a powerful, robust and encompassing system. Its emphasis on consciousness as the primary reality is a sound foundation. It offers invaluable tools for psychotherapy, education, management and social work. Prof Rao stressed that it has global relevance and can reduce the glaring and unhealthy asymmetry between outer and inner science.
Western psychology is still groping in the dark over the most important questions of humanity and prefers not to pose these questions. There is a huge body of psychological research, but most of it is either irrelevant or obvious. This is because western psychology tries hard to be an objective ‘science’ and relies mainly on observation that lies outside and not on experience that is inside, thus missing what is truly relevant for a human being. It chooses to ignore consciousness or rather it has no idea that consciousness is the basis and beyond the mind.
Some delegates had delved deep into the concepts of science, enabling them to counter those who demand ‘scientific’ research based on observation. They concluded that there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth’ in science. All findings that the mind and intellect can arrive at are relative, claims modern physics. Indian tradition claimed long ago that mind and intellect cannot know the truth, yet truth can be realised as one’s own being because it is one’s being.
Several students expressed their disappointment with the present curriculum of psychology. They chose psychology as their subject of study, because they wanted to find answers to the basic questions of humanity and these questions just did not figure in the curriculum. The disappointment was probably most acute for those who practise their tradition, because they know for sure that Indian tradition is valid. Dr Suneet Verma, a lecturer in Delhi University, for example, wanted to write his first thesis on ‘personal growth in the Indian tradition’. His professor told him that ‘personal growth’ is okay, but he should leave out ‘Indian tradition’.
This was in the 1980s, when the convergence between ancient Indian wisdom and modern science was the subject of conferences all over the world. One of those conferences organised by the International Transpersonal Association took place in Bombay in 1982, where a new paradigm that assumes the whole universe is an interconnected whole that ‘most probably is conscious’ (as Fritjof Capra put it) was adopted. The Indian image of Nataraj was used to illustrate this new paradigm. The Indian rishis of old knew that the world is maya, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is an appearance of the one true consciousness. Modern science recently confirmed their vision. That should be reason enough for psychologists to study and prove their vision of the human being and its potential for liberation.
Though yoga and Indian psychology were the subject of the conference, most presentations started by quoting western scholars. “Do we have to deconstruct western psychology first to construct Indian psychology?” a student questioned. “We cannot ignore history,” replied the lecturer. “In that case let us go back to the Vedas”, the student countered and certainly had a point.
Now what actually is Indian psychology?
Indian psychology encompasses the vast body of India’s wisdom that concerns the human being. Indian philosophy and Indian psychology share a framework and believe the human has enormous potential hidden in its being. Indian psychology also has the ‘technology’ to raise the consciousness of a human being to a higher level. It is “sophisticated, rich and practical”, Prof Rao pointed out, and deals with the most basic human questions, for example: Who or what is a human being? What is the purpose and goal of life? Who is an ideal human being? How can one live a happy and peaceful life? What is the cause of suffering? What is death? Has every person his own ‘battery’ or is she connected with an all-pervading power? Is there free will? And so on.
The Indian tradition gives profound and intuitive insight into the human condition. It also gives practical methods to find peace, joy and love, which, it claims, are inside everyone. These qualities are aspects of one’s true self– of pure consciousness. In the Indian tradition, a person is not a separate fragment but on a deeper level one with all–a claim that is in tune with the findings of modern physics. To find one’s true self, and thereby disidentify from the ego, which one mistook for one’s self, is the goal of life and is mukti–liberation. It is a change in consciousness that has vast implication for society as well.
The Indian tradition not only goes beyond but is often diametrically opposed to the view held by mainstream western psychology. For example, it says that one’s inner state determines the outer, whereas western psychology believes the outer circumstances determine one’s inner state. Indian tradition says that the fulfilment of desires would give short-term happiness, until a new desire springs up. Lasting fulfilment and joy are found by stilling the mind and diving deep within–to pure, thought-free consciousness. Western psychology believes that a human being is his body and mind. It does not even consider the existence of pure consciousness.
There is every possibility that the vision of the Indian tradition is valid and will be confirmed if proper research is done. At present, Indian psychology lies scattered as it were in the ancient scriptures. At the conference, papers mainly discussed the view of the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali’s yoga sutras. However, there is much more. For example, Kashmir Shaivism is a goldmine for psychologists. Buddhist and Sufi texts also give extraordinary insights. It is a challenge to dive deeply into the Indian tradition and come up with relevant and helpful insights for the human being and society. Further, it is necessary to find ways to prove the validity of those insights.
Some students rued the fact that there are no textbooks ready on Indian psychology. However, Dr Cornelissen assured: “A lot is ready. Everyone has to work and find out for himself.” Prof Rao warned: “If we do not do it, westerners will do it. And they will do it badly.”
Westerners may do it badly, but Indians also may do it badly–if they do not practise what they read and preach. The psychologist has to be a mystic, Kundan Singh, a Ph.D. scholar from San Francisco, postulated. Prof V. George Mathew, director of the Integrative Psychology Institute in Thiruvananthapuram, suggested an aptitude test for psychology students, because they require a high degree of sattva. Moreover, he suggested an evaluation of their personal growth instead of exams.
If a psychologist talks about sthithaprajna as an ideal, he needs to have some idea of what equanimity under all circumstances means. If he stresses the great power of pure consciousness, he needs to be convinced of it and be able to tap it. “Psychology is not a theory, or an intellectual gimmick. It is a verifiable truth–verifiable in oneself,” stressed Kittu Reddy, who grew up in the Aurobindo Ashram and worked as a psychologist with the army. “It is based on fundamental laws. Yet these laws have to be grasped at a deeper level than merely by intellectual understanding. One has to follow a certain set of practices which will help intuition and self grow strong and one will be truly self-ruled,” he said.
The fact that several delegates, among the younger generation as well, had an inner experience of the Indian tradition, gives rise to hope. However, to assume that every psychologist will be a mystic in near future would be naive. The delegates were aware that given the politics in academia, it would not be easy to introduce Indian psychology into the universities’ curricula. The ego still rules where ideally the Indian psychologist should not be ruled by his ego.
Change may be slow, but it certainly is approaching. “In ten years, when Indian psychology is taught in the universities, the number of psychology students will skyrocket,” Dr Cornelissen predicted.
A ‘Pondicherry Declaration’ was passed and a committee was formed with Prof Rao, Prof Janak Pandey, head of the department of psychology of Allahabad University, Dr Cornelissen and Prof Misra on the board. It was high time Indian psychology was given its rightful place in the colleges and universities, to consider, study and verify the views of the Indian tradition.
Suppose psychological research reveals that persons who identify with their ego (the prevalent state of being today) live a life of far inferior quality than persons who truly feel the oneness of all and are not concerned with ego gratification. Suppose the latter feel not just inner peace and joy, but their lives also flow with ease and their needs are met in an astonishing way. Suppose research confirms Krishna’s assurance that he really looks after those who surrender to him… Would it not motivate people to forsake the ego and its false promises of happiness and discover the deeper realm of their being that truly liberates?
Perhaps Dr. Cornelissen referred to this when he said: “Indian psychology is a living force for the future.”