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Year : 2015  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 9-13

Indian psychology: Understanding the basics

Centre for Indian Psychology, Jain University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Web Publication17-Jul-2015

Correspondence Address:
Vinayachandra K Banavathy
Centre for Indian Psychology, Jain University, Bengaluru, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2347-5633.161028

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This paper is based on the premise that Indian tradition is a rich store-house of knowledge on the human phenomenon, which is yet to be tapped adequately within the academic framework. Indian Psychology (IP), evolves from certain time-tested methodologies and 'technologies' in studying and understanding human nature based on centuries of rigorous self-observation and inner research by dedicated and conscientious 'explorers' of the realms of consciousness. The available records on these experiments bear testimony to the fact that they are repeatable and verifiable provided the necessary 'instruments' are well equipped and adequately calibrated. This paper attempts to give a brief introduction to the basic characteristics of IP. It starts by providing the context and need for IP. Further, it discusses certain important characteristics of IP and concludes with an emphasis on the need for an experiential understanding

Keywords: Consciousness, experience, Indian Psychology, self-observation, yoga

How to cite this article:
Banavathy VK, Choudry A. Indian psychology: Understanding the basics. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol 2015;3:9-13

How to cite this URL:
Banavathy VK, Choudry A. Indian psychology: Understanding the basics. Int J Yoga - Philosop Psychol Parapsychol [serial online] 2015 [cited 2024 Feb 22];3:9-13. Available from: https://www.ijoyppp.org/text.asp?2015/3/1/9/161028

  Introduction Top

One of the most valuable contributions of India to the world is her in-depth research, detailed exploration, systematic analysis and elaborate recording of the different dimensions of human existence and nature, their relationship with the environment and with consciousness, a term which has been used in a very specific sense in Indian thought. The extensive literature available in this field has usually been associated with philosophy and other related subjects in the academia where it remains mostly at a theoretical level for intellectual consumption and debate. The practical application of this knowledge system has been generally limited to those who have a personal interest in yogic traditions, spirituality or a genuine quest to probe beyond our partial and ego-based surface-level perception of life in search of more enduring and unchanging truths of existence. As a result, the precious psychological content of this vast treasure-house of knowledge has been virtually untapped by psychologists in the academic framework and has been awaiting its hour to provide an alternative paradigm of human nature that could revolutionize the way human beings perceive themselves and the world they live in. This paper is a basic introduction to certain salient features of IP with the objective of presenting a framework on the basis of which future research can be carried out in IP.

  The context and need for indian psychology Top

In the past few decades, there has been a growing awareness in a few circles of distinguished psychologists in India and abroad, of the eminent lacunae in mainstream psychology to understand the various dimensions of the human being that play a vital role in determining a person's existential reality. [1],[2] The fact that man was reduced to a mere biological entity and that his space and scope were limited to his instinctual gravity was too much to accept for many of them in the light of their own life, experiences and observations. This accentuated the necessity for having an alternative paradigm, which would be capable of looking at the human being and the world around him in a new light. In search of such an alternative, many of them felt the need to turn toward the valuable insights of Indian tradition to discover therein concepts and methodologies that address the individual and her experiences from a more holistic point of view. Eventually, this approach to psychology came to be recognized as Indian Psychology (IP). The word "Indian" is used here "to indicate and honor the origin of this approach to psychology - the origin of the underlying philosophy, the conceptual framework, the methods of enquiry, and the technology of consciousness that it uses to bring about psychological change and transformation" (p. xi).

  Understanding the basics of indian psychology Top

Unlike Western psychology which is predominantly based on Euro-American sources and is concerned with understanding the 'third person', Indian psychology focuses on understanding oneself first and, therefore, it is essentially subjective and experiential in nature. The whole approach bases itself on the premise that "truth should be realized rather than known intellectually." [3] In fact in the Indian thought tradition, it is emphatically stated that knowledge must necessarily culminate in experience Adi Shankara, a great spiritual master, contends that it is experience that finally validates knowledge. Hence, knowledge of the different layers of the self and the psychological processes therein, were also derived from rigorous experimentation and direct experience of their workings. Pointing toward the empirical nature of this approach, Rajiv Malhotra states that "It is the disciplined and systematic knowledge of the self and the environment attained through precise observation and critical reasoning." He continues by saying that this knowledge "does not demand blind faith to a dogma or belief but urges practitioners to critique their own beliefs and ideas. This is done using the methods of interior observation, wherein the mind itself is employed as an instrument for gaining insight." [4]

Some of the fundamental questions that IP, raises about the human being are "What is ego? What is mind? What is self?" and "How do we experience these in our lives?" Unlike the more prevalent third person approaches in various systems of psychology that seek answers to such questions using the outside-in method of behavior analysis, IP prefers to adopt the inside-out method or the first person approach, using the means of a systematic and unbiased self-observation in order to understand these aspects of human existence without fully negating or discrediting the results obtained by the former. Differing from mainstream schools of psychology that are reluctant to admit introspection as a potentially objective and valid means of self-knowledge, IP recognizes that one can stand back and separate one's center of identification from the mind as a whole and arrive at a state of relaxed concentration from which one can watch one's inner psychological processes with complete freedom and detachment. [5] According to IP one can in fact arrive at a level of disinterestedness that is not inferior to the level of objectivity that is cultivated by the hard sciences for the study of the physical world. [5]

Furthermore, IP considers that the data thus collected is the most authentic way of studying the human mind since it is not dependent on any external support for its observation, experimentation and conclusions. IP bases itself on the premise that the Self is the experimenter and the observer, while the mind is the laboratory. Therefore, it concerns itself not just with the study of behavior but of the mind in all its aspects which is termed as antaḥkaraṇa (internal instruments) and which is composed of manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), citta (memory) and ahaṅkāra (ego). It is to be noted that these are not distinct faculties but functional aspects of the mind. Mind here is perceived as a stream of thoughts and emotions, feelings and attitudes which are initially ego-centered and but which can become free from the ego and so on. In this context, Rao holds that IP deals largely with the study of antaḥkaraṇa which is considered to be the instrument in the interface between consciousness and the objective world (Rao, 2011, p. 433). [6]

  Some important features of indian psychology Top

One of the key features that distinguishes IP from mainstream psychology is that the latter posits consciousness as the "fundamental principle that underlies all-knowing and being" (Rao, 2011, p. 335). [6] It is the singular reality of which Schrodinger points out "the plural is unknown." He adds that "there is only one thing and that what seems to be a plurality is merely a series of different aspects of this one thing, produced by a deception." [7] Defining psychology, Sri Aurobindo says it is "the knowledge of consciousness and its operations." [8] According to him, "A complete psychology must be a complex of the science of mind, its operations and its relations to life and body, with intuitive and experimental knowledge of the nature of mind and its relations to supermind and spirit. A complete psychology cannot be a pure natural science, but must be a compound of science and metaphysical knowledge." [8]

Sri Aurobindo's definition highlights one of the salient features of IP, which is that it is the study of the whole range of human existence and experience. William James takes this into account when he says,
"It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaption. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question…" [9]

As though in response to the question of James, Ken Wilber uses the expression "spectrum of consciousness" to show that human personality is a multileveled manifestation or expression of a single consciousness, just as the electromagnetic spectrum is a multi-banded expression of a single characteristic electromagnetic wave. [10] He adds "That each approach, each level, each band is but one among several other bands should in no way compromise the integrity or the value of the individual levels or of the research done on these levels. On the contrary, each band or level, being a particular manifestation of the spectrum, is what it is only by the virtue of the other bands. The color blue is no less beautiful because it exists alongside the other colors of a rainbow, and 'blueness' itself depends on the existence of the other colors, for if there were no color but blue, we would never be able to see it." [10]

In a similar way, IP takes into account different bands of human nature ranging from negative behavior and perversities up to the ineffable pure consciousness itself. The ambit of its study include the whole range of conventional psychology viz., perception, motivation, hierarchy of need, emotional management, sexuality, desires, etc., but it adopts a unique approach to analyze and evaluate these domains by placing places them in a wider context of the spectrum of consciousness, and that it holds that they are influenced by saṁskāra-s and vāsanā-s. One of the notable features of IP is that, since it regards the scope of human nature as a spectrum of consciousness, it stresses the possibility of consciously shifting the locus or center of one's identity from one band to another depending on one's capacity and the circumstance. It holds, in full harmony with modern research on CBT that an individual who becomes aware that his nature is dominated by the band of consciousness pertaining to negative thoughts and emotions, can consciously move his locus of being in a systematic manner and become a more positive, optimistic, calm, realistic, energetic and joyful person.

Another feature of IP that needs to be mentioned in this context, is the sense of acceptance of a person's nature and the scope it provides for the gradual growth of the individual. It emphasizes that at no point is an individual condemned to remain in the same mental, emotional or intellectual framework she possesses at a certain point in one's lifetime. Concepts such as āϊrama-s and puruṣārtha-s not only map the individual's psychological progress and growth but also provide a meaningful setting wherein the individual can outgrow certain needs as she passes through various stages of his life. A number of exercises are devised to reduce internal tensions, stress, conflicts, misunderstanding etc., which can enable the person to often experience a profound transformation and shift in his attitudes and refine the quality of his fundamental character which gets reflected in the way one behaves as well as the manner in which one interacts with his environment.

In IP, the need to become conscious of the different stages of life and the various bands of the spectrum of consciousness in order to enable individuals to willfully recognize and shift their locus of identity to the desired bands forms part of its principle objectives. As mentioned earlier, it adopts certain time-tested "technologies of consciousness" [5] based on experiments that have evolved from the yogic traditions of India to systematically achieve their goal. Studying the Indic traditions from the perspective of cognitive science, Allan Wallace observes "the primary instrument that all scientists have used to make any type of observation is the human mind." He further states that,
"Over the past three millennia, the Indic traditions have developed rigorous methods for refining the attention, and then applying that attention to exploring the origins, nature, and role of consciousness in the natural world. The empirical and rational investigations and discoveries by such great Indian contemplatives as Gautama the Buddha profoundly challenge many of the assumptions of the modern west, particularly those of scientific materialism." [11]

These "technologies of consciousness" based on yoga techniques involve the systematic observation and mastery of both mental and vital energies (manas and prāāṇa) as in Hatha yoga. The Bhagavadgita delineates different kinds of yoga-s that have to be practiced in various combinations depending on the temperament, inner-need, motivation, priorities, emotional states and thought processes of the practitioner.

It is important to note that yoga, in the Indian tradition, has never been a matter of merely doing some physical exercises. It involves techniques at mental and emotional levels as well that are essentially "a set of experiments in the strictly scientific sense of that term" [10] with the main objective of enhancing one's level of consciousness. Furthermore, just as an in-depth study and training are necessary to understand advanced aspects of physical and biological sciences, intensive training in mind-management and self-observation techniques are required to understand the various levels, which form the spectrum of consciousness.

The practitioners of these "technologies of consciousness" declared that it is only when a person is able to calm the turbulent and restless mind and direct his mental energies into chosen channels that the mind becomes a "suitable instrument for scientific exploration" for which "stability and vividness of the attention must be developed to a high degree." [11] From there onwards one can think of the next stage of the inner discipline, which deals with asking crucial existential questions like "Who am I?" "What is the purpose of my existence?" etc. Such investigations into the problem of one's essential identity imply the need to probe deeper into the source of the 'I'- thought as suggested by Sri Ramana Maharshi, to discover the nature of one's ego, to see the extent of one's identification with it and to continue to push the frontiers of the 'I' thought till one arrives at the truth of one's self. [12] It is worth mentioning at this point, that the basics of IP as highlighted thus far, are of a universal nature. They have been corroborated by the findings of mystics like Eckhart Meister, Rumi and many others from various world traditions, who were deeply engaged in investigating similar fundamental questions pertaining to the truth of their self and their real identity. [13]

The Yogic traditions of India speak of various explorers and experimenters who are "living human laboratories pursuing the methods and techniques needed to refine and develop the inner scientist's capabilities," [4] and who have dedicated their lives to the enquiry of the various realms of antaḥkaraṇa and consciousness. The validity of the experiential and experimental basis of IP can be founded on the insights drawn from the research findings of recognized modern explorers of the spectrum of consciousness like Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda and Sadasiva Brahmendra Saraswati and many others, as details regarding their experiments and experiences are well documented and easily accessible. Wilber states that, "the only sound, the only believable, the only scientifically reliable authorities are those conscientious explorers who have experienced all the levels of consciousness, including both that of being an ego and that of transcending the ego." [10]

  To conclude Top

We have thus far delineated some basic characteristics of IP. It would be interesting, however, to study the lives of realized personalities of modern times mentioned earlier in this background to establish appropriate "epistemic rigor" and validity of subjective enquiry where the mind itself becomes a potent instrument, which can be systematically trained to become free of various inherent and acquired conditionings and biases and used to probe objectively into the deeper realms underlying the more accessible bands of ordinary human consciousness. While mentioning about the Indian sages whom he personally met who had achieved higher and newer (not familiar in the west) states of health and well-being, Boss notes: [14]
"And yet there were exalted figures of the sages and holy men themselves, each one of them a living example of the possibility of the human growth and maturity and of the attainment of an impeccable inner peace, a joyous freedom from guilt, and a purified, selfless goodness and calmness… No matter how carefully I observe the waking lives of the holy men, no matter how ready they were to tell me about their dreams, I could not detect in the best of them a trace of a selfish action or any kind of repressed or consciously concealed shadow life."

The experiences of such explorers, as documented from time to time, point towards the fact that subjective enquiry and related outcomes are based on the firm ground of rigorous, repeatable, verifiable and time-tested procedures and practices.

Moreover, the long-standing tradition of explorers of consciousness who have systematically reaffirmed the experiential basis of IP offers meticulously developed approaches that can be followed by anyone who is genuinely interested in discovering their full potential and living their lives on the basis of the greater psychology that Sri Aurobindo describes in the following words -
"The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analyzing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms forever in the light above…. The superconscient, not the subconscient, is the true foundation of things…. You must know the whole before you can know the part and the highest before you can truly understand the lowest. That is the promise of the greater psychology awaiting its hour…" [15]

Finally, in order to understand and appreciate the basics of IP, one needs to undertake experiments on oneself as laid out in first person research methodologies, in the true spirit of scientific enquiry, as suggested by Ananda Coomaraswamy:
"It would be unscientific to say that such attainments are impossible unless one has made experiments in accordance with the prescribed and perfectly intelligible disciplines… that this is so (i.e., that mind exists, or that mystical awareness is possible) cannot be demonstrated in the classroom, where only quantitative tangibles are dealt with. At the same time, it would be unscientific to deny a presupposition for which an experimental proof is possible. In the present case, there is a Way (i.e., an experiment) prescribed for those who will consent to follow it…" [10]

  References Top

Singh K. Beyond mind: The future of psychology as a science. In: Cornelissen MR, Misra G, Varma S, editors. Foundations of Indian Psychology. Vol. I. New Delhi: Pearson Education; 2011. p. 86-102.  Back to cited text no. 1
Pickering J. Indian psychological thought in the age of globalization. In: Cornelissen MR, Misra G, Varma S, editors. Foundations of Indian Psychology. Vol. I. New Delhi: Pearson Education; 2011. p. 103-25.  Back to cited text no. 2
Bhawuk DP. Methodology for Building Psychological Models from Scriptures: Contributions of Indian Psychology to Indegenous and Universal Psychologies. Psychol Dev Soc 2010;51:49-93.  Back to cited text no. 3
Malhotra R. Being Different. Noida: HarperCollins; 2011.  Back to cited text no. 4
Cornelissen MR. The integration of psychological knowledge from the spiritual traditions into the psychology curriculum. J Conscious Experiential Psychol 2000;4:1-4.  Back to cited text no. 5
Rao RK. Cognitive Anomalies, Consciousness and Yoga. In: Chattopadhyaya DP, editor. History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. Part I. Vol. XVI. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilization; 2011.  Back to cited text no. 6
Schrodinger E. What is Life? With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2006.  Back to cited text no. 7
Aurobindo S. Essays Divine and Human. Vol. 12. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press; 1997.  Back to cited text no. 8
James W. The Varieties of Religious Expereince. New York: Barnes and Nobles; 2004.  Back to cited text no. 9
Wilber K. Spectrum of Consciusness. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass; 2002.  Back to cited text no. 10
Wallace A. Why the West Has No Science of Consciousness: A Buddhist View. from Infinity Foundation; 28, July 2002. Available from: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/indic_colloq/persons/person_wallace_alan.htm [Last retrieved on 2012 Feb 03].  Back to cited text no. 11
Osborne A. Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-knowledge. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam; 2010.  Back to cited text no. 12
Happold FC. Mysticism. Harmondsworth: Middlesex, Penguin Books; 1990.  Back to cited text no. 13
Boss M. A Psychiatrist Discovers India. London: Oswald Wolff; 1965.  Back to cited text no. 14
Aurobindo S. Bases of Yoga. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press; 1993.  Back to cited text no. 15


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