1. Indian Perspectives and Positive Psychology – Positive Psychology


Indian Perspectives and Positive Psychology

Kiran Kumar K. Salagame
University of Mysore, Karnataka

Abstract:   Indian traditions, ‘Vedic’ and ‘non-Vedic’, have extensively dealt with issues of human happiness and well-being which are the core themes of contemporary positive psychology. Since the Indian traditions understand human nature and also the nature of the universe in a more integrated fashion as experienced from a state of consciousness that transcends the space–time dichotomy, their perspective on the nature of reality emerges from a higher state of awareness which is beyond voluntary consciousness and their understanding of the subject matter has greater depth and breadth as compared to that of contemporary perspectives. Though there are differences in these traditions, they converge on the point that there is more to reality than what meets the eye. Among the many aspects discussed about the nature of reality, consciousness, human nature, life, death and so on, the issues of happiness and well-being takes the centre stage, because it is observed that ultimately everyone is concerned with them. While in the Vedic tradition, happiness is approached directly as a state that is intrinsic to human nature itself as in Sat-Chit-Ānanda, Buddhist tradition discusses about it indirectly by focusing on suffering. These two primary approaches have led to two major perspectives on the nature of well-being and associated practices to reach the goal. In view of this, we are justified in speaking of Indian perspectives on positive psychology.

Indian Perspectives and Positive Psychology

Positive psychology rings a bell in the Indian psyche of familiarity. Happiness and well-being brings to mind so many words, like ārogya, sukha, samtosha, tripti, tushti, harsha, ullāsa, swāsthya, ānanda and so on (Salagame, 2006c). Similarly, altruism, courage, forgiveness, gratitude, spirituality, transcendence, wisdom and so on brings up to mind many familiar terms niswārtha, dhairya, kshama shīla, krtajňata, ādhyātma, prajňa and others.

When I read some of the initial research studies related to the limitations of wealth, sensory pleasure and exclusive pursuit of individuality, independence and autonomy to the neglect of relationships; about the need for development of family bond; about how satisfying it was for Seligman and his wife to allow their children in their infancy and early childhood to sleep with them in their bedroom sacrificing their sense of freedom; how breast feeding is psychologically very important; and many such findings (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Seligman, 2002). My immediate gut reaction was that all these are very familiar to me as grandmothers’ wisdom in my country! I felt so, because in our culture many of them have been spoken about in a matter of fact way in folklore, in literature, in poetry and in religious and philosophical texts derived from conventional wisdom. However, beyond this initial gut feeling, my academic and conceptual response to these developments was to view the emergence of positive psychology as an emphasis to move away from exclusive preoccupation with artha and kāma as goals of life; and as a shift in focus, from the preoccupation of modern psychology with rajo guna and tamo guna towards studying more of satva guna (Salagame, 2002a, 2002b, 2003).

In the last decade, more and more research findings have vindicated this view of mine. It appears that much of Indian psychology is devoted to the development of satva guna and, hence, it is not wrong to consider Indian psychology and positive psychology as ‘birds of the same feather that flock together’ (Salagame, 2006b). I have discussed elsewhere, how we can understand the notion of happiness and well-being from Indian perspectives, in terms of concepts like triguna, panchokosha, purushārhta, preyas and shreyas, sukha and dukkha, swāsthya, etc., (Salagame, 2014).

Not only did the ancient Indian thinkers analyse the nature of happiness, well-being, etc., threadbare, but also did they find ways of achieving a sense of well-being that is sustainable and termed it as ānanda and distinguished it from sukha which is conditioned by the spatio-temporal limitations of life. That is why, in our country, spiritually realized persons have their names suffixed or prefixed with ānanda, as in Swāmi Vivekānanda, Swāmi Shivānanda, Parmahamsa Yogānanda, Mā Ānandamayi, Māta Amrtiānandamayi, and so on.1

Jane Henry (2013: 421) notes that Eastern mysticism ‘documents many different higher states of consciousness which often leave the recipient in a state of joyful, perceptive, equanimity’. She observes, ‘western notions of happiness tend to be associated with high arousal, whereas the contentment and equanimity found in spiritual practice represent states of well-being associated with lower arousal’ (ibid.). In her opinion psychologists ‘could usefully spend more time examining different states of optimal experience and well-being; in particular, those associated with low arousal such as contentment’ (ibid.). We seem to be shifting gears from low arousal to high arousal in our culture, as a whole; moving towards artha and kāma; and becoming more rājasic and tāmasic losing much of sātvic nature.

Positive Psychology: A Very Short History, But a Very Long Past

As the popular English saying goes, ‘positive psychology has not just short history, but a very short one and yet a very long past. Positive psychology just entered its teenage period last year, since its formal launch with a special issue of American Psychologist in January 2000. However, its growth has been very fast and has already made a name for itself like a child prodigy! But its identity formation continues. However, it has very long past goes as far back as human history itself, when man could conceptualize good and bad, pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, etc. As Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) notes, ‘modern psychology focused too much and too long on the negative side of the polarity on anxiety, anger, depression, etc., and it is time to shift our focus on happiness, joy, contentment, and so on’. Henry (2013: 411) states, ‘Psychology has only recently turned its gaze to investigate happiness and well-being while spiritual traditions have been scrutinizing this for millennia’.

Thus, the agenda of focusing on positive subjective experiences, positive individual traits, and positive institutions (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) caught the imagination of many psychologists with a proliferation of thousands of research articles and hundreds of books. It became a rallying point for many researchers who were already working on these issues independently that appeared as seemingly disconnected areas till they were brought together under one title (Ryan and Deci, 2001). Since then, three key themes, viz., optimal psychological functioning (Snyder and Lopez, 2002); happiness and well-being (Seligman, 2002); and virtues and character strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) have constituted the core subject matters of positive psychology. Yet defining them precisely has remained a daunting task. Nevertheless, there is a rapid progress in understanding the nature, varieties, conditions and underlying psychological processes involved in them (Sheldon, Kashdan and Steger, 2011).

What is striking about the outcome of a decade of research in positive psychology is the growing realization that whatever was once thought by the West as the contributing factors to attain satisfaction in life and experience a sense of well-being are really not so. That list primarily includes earning more money, pursuing sensory pleasures, and attaining individuality to the neglect of relationships. It is observed that these factors lose their capacity to bring satisfaction and sense of well-being beyond a limit.

The emergence of positive psychology in USA is admittedly a cultural phenomenon and has emerged in response to the value crisis experienced in that society (Seligman, 2002). There are two aspects to this development. One is the recognition of the fact that any amount of material richness will not proportionately increase the felt sense of happiness or well-being among people. This is very well brought out in a book titled, The Poverty of Affluence: A Psychological Portrait of the American Way of Life by Paul Wachtel (1989), which provides a diagnostic insight from a trained clinician to the American situation. Many economically poor countries are found to be at par with the rich countries on the index of life satisfaction even though their purchasing power parity is quite uneven. For example, one study (cited in Seligman, 2002) shows that USA with Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of 100 on a scale of 1–100, has a life satisfaction score of 7.75 on a scale of 1–10. The same study shows that India has a life satisfaction score of 6.70 even though PPP is only 5. Just a difference of a single point on the life satisfaction index for a difference of 95 points on PPP! There are many other studies that report similar trends (Diener, 2000; Diener and Diener, 2002; Diener and Seligman, 2004). What does it tell? We need to ponder.

The second aspect is the moral and ethical value crisis experienced in that society resulting in focusing on the study of virtues and character strengths (Peterson and Seligman, 2004), which were once considered as value-loaded terms and, hence, not scientific enough to deal with in the mainstream psychology. It is in this background that researchers have focused on many other topics which were not considered as of much psychological significance. That list includes altruism, forgiveness, gratitude, love, courage, creativity, meaning, wisdom, spirituality, transcendence; all those traits humanistic psychologists associated with self-actualization.

More and more researchers are recognizing that human life is more fulfilling with the development of virtues and character strengths, healthy interpersonal relationships and living in supportive community. Barbara Frederickson’s ‘Broaden and Build Theory’ shows how love and meditation can enhance positive effects. Bourgeoning literature on the positive effects and benefits of mindfulness meditation shows how erroneous it was for psychoanalysts to view such practices as regressive in nature. Research on the positive outcome of gratitude exercises is another important focus. Last, but not the least, some researchers observed that happiness is intrinsic to human nature and seems to depend less and less on external circumstances.

While the literature related to happiness primarily focuses on hedonia—the pursuit of pleasure and positive effects, the age-old Greek concept eudaemonia is about focussing on the studies related to virtues and strengths, optimal psychological functioning, positive relations, and positive institutional building. These two have been associated with two conceptions of well-being, viz., Subjective Well-being (SWB) of Diener (1984) and Psychological Well-being (PWB) of Ryff (1989). Study of the relationship of happiness to stages and conditions of life across the lifespan and to variations in values across cultures are other important focus of research in positive psychology (Baumgardner and Crothers, 2006). The question that is actively debated is, whether hedonia and eudaemonia represent two different kinds of happiness and what are the problems in distinguishing them (Kashdan, Biswas–Diener, and King, 2008; Kristjansson, 2010). Indian thinkers have addressed many of these issues (Salagame, 2013a; Sinha, 1985). However, the way Indian perspectives address the themes of positive psychology, differs significantly.

A Note on the Indian Perspectives

A perspective is what provides a viewpoint on anything, be it something as natural and concrete as viewing one’s physical environment from a mountain top as against watching the same from the foot of the mountain; or something as highly abstract and conceptual as the fundamental nature of reality or truth, of consciousness, life and death, etc. In India, we do have many viewpoints, thus justifying the usage ‘Indian perspectives’, which seem to be the bases for the enormous diversity that exist in our country in all aspects of culture including caste, creed, language, food habits, customs, traditions, rituals, festivals, and so on. This enormous cultural diversity at both abstract and concrete levels, including the natural diversity in flora and fauna, has made foreigners to exclaim, ‘Incredible India!’ which has become a slogan for tourism promotion in our country.

In Sanskrit, the term ‘perspective’ is known as darśana. As Hiriyanna (1993: 182) a well-known Indian philosopher notes darśana is the ‘general name for the results arrived at by means of the several pramānās. Pramānās are the means of obtaining valid knowledge such as perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumāna), experimentation (prayoga), authority (shabda), and others, which are discussed by the branch of philosophy known as epistemology.’ Hence, darśana means, ‘philosophic opinion’ and it signifies a specific school of thought as distinguished from others. Thus, Indian philosophical systems are referred to as darśana. It is a convention in India to regard Vedic paradigm as orthodox. Therefore, darśana is divided into two categories āstika (orthodox) schools and nāstika (heterodox) schools.

Hiriyanna (ibid.) notes that the distinction made between orthodox and heterodox is arbitrary and, hence, it is not absolute, but relative. Further, the terms āstika and nāstika are used as synonyms for theism and atheism by many scholars and researchers. This is a wrong usage, because the two Indian terms have altogether different connotations. As Sastri (1997) notes, ‘āstika denotes the systems which recognize the Vedas and their branches as the supreme authority’. It does not denote ‘theism’ in the Western sense. Sāmkhya, for instance, is an atheistic philosophy, yet it is regarded as Brāhmanic system (a āstika system) since it has accepted the authority of the Vedas. But, Buddhism and Jainism are considered to be non-Brāhmanic (nāstika systems), because they do not recognize the authority of the Vedas. According to another interpretation, āstika is one who believes in the existence of the future world, etc. As per this interpretation, the Buddhists and the Jains cannot be called nāstikas, because they believe in reincarnation. So, what distinguishes these two types of systems is whether they owe allegiance to Vedas (vaidika) or not (avaidika). Otherwise, they tend to hold similar views on certain fundamental assumptions of ontological nature (Salagame, 2008a).

There are six āstika schools and six nāstika schools. Āstika schools are the Nyāya of Gautama, Vaiśeşika of Kanāda, Sāmkhya of Kapila, and Yoga of Patañjali, Pūrva-Mimāmsa of Jaimini and the Uttara-Mimāmsa or Vedānta of Bādarāyana. Traditionally, scholars have grouped Nyāya-Vaiśeşika, Sāmkhya-Yoga and Pūrva-Mimāmsa, Uttara-Mimāmsa or Vedānta together, forming three pairs, because they have found that the schools forming each pair agree either in their general metaphysical outlook or in their historical basis or in both. The ontological assumptions underlying the different darśana are provided in a tabular form (see Table 1.1).

According to Hiriyanna (1993), another meaning of the term darśana is in the sense of its equivalent term drişti, which literally means ‘sight’ and may be taken to indicate that what the Indians aspired after in philosophy was not a mediate knowledge of the ultimate truth, but a ‘direct vision of it’. Such a direct vision of truth is termed as yogi pratyaksha and swayam prakāshatva. The word darśana, thus, conveys the difference between modern Western philosophy, which mainly relies on intellectual pursuit and Indian philosophy that aims at transforming the insight and conviction arrived through such intellectual pursuit into direct experience (Salagame, 2008a). To borrow a term from Abraham Maslow (1971), what our ancient thinkers aimed at was ‘Being-cognition’. Systems of Indian thought have developed either accepting the Vedic paradigm (āstika) or independent of it (nāstika). Vedas are said to be products of revelation and intuition and the Vedic rishis were cognizers of the Vedic hymns (mantra drastāra) (Salagame, 2008a). Even non-Vedic traditions were founded by persons who had a direct vision of truth, such as Tirthankaras of the Jaina tradition and Gautama Buddha.

Table 1.1  Ontological Assumptions Underlying the Different Darśana




Those who hold that reality is only material as perceived by sensory organs and there is no metaphysical reality.

Cārvāka or Lokāyata


Those who believe in the existence of objects independent of mind and the Atman.

Mimāmsaka, Nayāyika, Vaiśeşika, Jaina and Bouddha


Those who believe that there is a plurality of objects and jivas and all of them are real.

Mimāmsaka, Nayāyika, Vaiśeşika, Jaina, and Bouddha


Those who hold that all particulars are independent of one another and they are infinite in number and cannot be reduced to anything in common.



Those who believe outward reality has its base in an inner reality.

Sāmkhya, Yogi, and Vedānta


Material world which appears plural is derived from a unitary principle.



Those who hold that there is no plurality and reality is one.

Advaita, Vishishtādvaita

Adapted with permission from Raju, 2009.


Whether Vedic or non-Vedic, all Indian perspectives emphasized on knowing or realizing the truth, directly or unmediated. In the Vedānta system, the direct, unmediated cognition is referred to as aparokshānubhuti and is contrasted with sensory mediated or indirect knowledge, paroksha. Hence, Indian and Western perspectives are distinguished on epistemological grounds. While the former admits intuition and revelation as valid sources of obtaining knowledge the latter has come to limit itself to sensory perception and inference supported by experimentation in modern times. There is no place for intuition and revelation in Western tradition and contemporary cognitive psychology does not discuss these human capacities.

Darśana: Higher Stages of Cognitive Development and Paradigms

Indian philosophers like Sri Aurobindo, Hiriyanna, Jwala Prasad and others have observed that development of Indian thought traditions underwent different cognitive phases beginning with a predominance of intuition during the Vedic period and then gradually moving towards predominance of intellect during the Upanishadic period culminating in the development of darśanas based on logic and reasoning (Salagame, 2008b). Their observations suggest that there lies a necessary link between our cognitive systems and the worldview that we hold.

Jean Piaget discussed the relationship between epistemology and psychology under the heading ‘Genetic Epistemology’. In recent years, there have been many studies that examine the relation between psychology of individual differences and knowledge acquisition process under the heading ‘Personal Epistemology’. These studies show how individual cognitive development plays a vital role in understanding different subjects in one’s educational career.

In a similar way, it is possible to relate modes of cognition and stages of cognitive development to different knowledge systems that exist across cultures. It has been suggested that two primary modes of consciousness, viz., intuition and intellect have been differentially emphasized in the Eastern and Western cultures (Ornstein, 1972). Wilber, Engler and Brown (1986) distinguish pre-personal, personal and transpersonal stages of development and relate them to different psychological systems. Swāmi Ajaya (1983) discusses Piagetian and post-Piagetian stages of cognitive development and their relation to four paradigms, viz., reductionist, humanistic, dualistic and monistic, underlying different psychologies and psychotherapies of the East and West. According to him, the reductionist paradigm is rooted in Piaget’s formal operational thought. Dualistic and monistic paradigms emerge from two further stages beyond the formal operational stage. Two post-Piagetian researchers in developmental psychology, Klaus Reigel and Herb Koplowitz, have described these stages. Klaus Reigel describes ‘dualistic though’ and Koplowitz goes beyond this and describes ‘unitary thought‘. These two kinds of thought underlie the dualistic and monistic paradigm described by Ajaya. Sāmkhya and Advaita Vedānta are cited as representative of these two paradigms from the Indian tradition. Therefore, all these suggest that Indian indigenous perspectives and concepts have a different foundation than modern psychology (see Salagame, 2011, for a detailed discussion).

Indian Perspectives

What implications such fundamental differences between Indian and Western perspectives have for our understanding of positive psychology is our immediate concern? Among the Indian perspectives, it is the position of Cārvāka which is parallel to the reductionist paradigm. They were the modern equivalents of positivists. Since they adhered to the epistemological position that there is no reality beyond what is perceivable through sensory modality, they denied all metaphysical understanding prevalent in the Indian culture. For them, bodily death is the end of life. They said nothing remains except ashes after cremation. No soul, no afterlife. So, they advocated that one should enjoy life thoroughly maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But, their position never gained prominence in the Indian culture.

On Pleasure and Pain

The Vaiśeşika hold a position similar to that of humanistic paradigm, but not the same, because all humanistic psychologists do not accept the notion of spirituality and transcendence except Abraham Maslow. As mentioned in Table 1.1, Vaiśeşika are particularists, i.e., they hold that all particulars are independent of one another and they are infinite in number and cannot be reduced to anything in common. The term, ‘Vaiśeşika’ is derived from visesha, that which differentiates. From this, the term vaishistya is also derived which means uniqueness. Kanāda (300, BCE), the founder of Vaiśeşika darśana holds that pleasure and pain are two irreducible feelings and are different from each other, since they arise from cognitions of either a desirable or undesirable object and are hostile to each other. Many thinkers (Prasastapada, 400 CE, Vachaspati Misra, 900 CE, Sridhara, 1000CE, Udayana, 1050CE, Kesavamisra, 1300 CE and Annambhatta, 1700 CE) hold that pleasure is an agreeable feeling. Its nature is one of gratification or satisfaction. Pleasure arises under certain conditions: (1) Proximity of desirable objects; (2) Interaction of the objects with the appropriate sense organs; (3) Conjunction of the self with the mind; (4) Perception of the desirable object; (5) Merit; and (6) Health of the organism. This gives rise to organic (i.e., bodily) expressions like brightness of the eye, beaming of the face, etc., (Sinha, 1985).

It should be noted here that Indian thinkers bring in two conditions—merit (dharma) and health (swasthata)—as additional factors in the experience of pleasure. Merit or virtue is the peculiar trait of a character acquired by the self due to its past moral deeds and it is the subjective, moral or predisposing condition of pleasure, whereas external objects are the exciting conditions (Sinha, 1985).

Whether one accepts the notion of past moral deeds or not, the fact remains that we cannot enjoy or derive pleasure purely because external conditions are present unless we also have the necessary mental set. This explains why many people are unhappy despite all the riches they have. It is noteworthy that Indian thinkers also considered health as an important condition for experiencing pleasure because we all know that a condition of ill health can hinder enjoyment.

Another important feature recognized is that pleasure or pain is independent of the object, because the same object produces pleasure in one person and pain in another or in the same person at different times (Sinha, 1985). Intra-individual and inter-individual variations in the potentiality of objects, events, etc., in causing pleasure or pain have made Indian thinkers define pleasure and pain with respect to a person’s state of mind, thereby emphasizing that it is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.

(A) Kinds of Pleasure and Pain

In distinguishing the kinds of pleasure, Indian thinkers differentiated between pleasure and happiness. Prasastapāda classifies them into four, viz., sensuous, retrospective, prospective and happiness. Sensuous pleasure arises from the perception of desirable objects in interaction with the sensory organs. Retrospective pleasure stems from recollection of previous enjoyment and prospective pleasure comes from anticipation of occurrence in future. While these three kinds spring from the gratification of desires, happiness arises from the conquest of desires. For example, the term jina means a hero who has achieved mastery over oneself by conquering desires and negative emotions. From the term jina the noun ‘Jaina’ has been derived and the teachings associated with are known as Jainism. Therefore, it is considered superior and it arises from wisdom (vidyā), tranquillity (shamā), contentment (samtosha) and a peculiar merit (dharmavisesa). Wisdom refers to true knowledge of the self. Tranquillity refers to perfect self-control. Contentment is the absence of desire for more than bare necessities of the preservation of life. Merit refers to the highest excellence of virtue which makes the self completely independent of objects of enjoyment. Thus, happiness is rational and abiding, whereas pleasure is physical and temporary (Sinha, 1985).

With regard to pain also, Indian thinkers (Kanāda, Prasastapāda, Gautama, Vātsyāyana, Udayana, Varadarāja, Annambhatta, Patañjali, Prabhakara, Sridhara, Sankara, Ramanuja, etc.) have made similar analysis. Pain is regarded as a disagreeable feeling produced by an undesired object and involves a feeling of being thwarted. Pain occurs due to the proximity of undesirable objects interacting with the sensory organs in conjunction of the self with manas associated with demerit. Pain manifests in the form of gloomy appearance (vicchāyata) or depression (dainya) (Sinha, 1985).

Different schools of thought have classified pain differently. The classification provided by Nyaya-Vaisesikha and Sāmkhya-Yoga schools have been by far the most frequently used classification, viz., ādhyātmika, ādhibhoutika and ādhidaivika. Ādhyātmika refers to self and it is divided into two categories, viz., physical and mental. Physical refers to the bodily disturbances causing uncomfortableness and pain. Mental pain is associated with desires, anger, greed, fear, delusion, dejection, envy, etc. Mental agitations, emotions and passion are not necessarily dependent on external conditions. Ādhibhoutika refers to pain and suffering caused by external circumstances of physical nature that include natural calamities, as well as suffering caused by animals and other human beings. Ādhidaivika refers to pain and suffering caused by imperceptible agents, ghosts, demons, and other supernatural entities (ibid.). So far so good, and some of these explanations make sense from a reductionist paradigm as well. However, Indian thinkers have gone further in the understanding of pleasure and pain. They explained neutral feeling or feeling of indifference, upeksha. They also described the relation between them and even transcendence of pleasure and pain.

(B) Relation of Pleasure and Pain

Indian thinkers dwelt on the question of the relation between pleasure and pain. Though both pleasure and pain are recognized as two independent feelings in their own right, they are considered to be inseparably related to each other. This relation is explained in terms of a sequential occurrence. Sinha summarizes it as, ‘A person erroneously regards pleasure as the supreme end of life, pursues it with undivided attention and inevitably comes to grief. Pleasure brings pain in its trail as an inseparable correlate….They are always related to each other. Pleasure is always experienced as related to antecedent or consequent pain. Pain is always experienced as related to antecedent or consequent pleasure.…Pleasure alone cannot be pursued and pain alone cannot be shunned’ (1985: 71). This type of thinking is known as cyclical causality which is a characteristic of dualistic paradigm (Ajaya, 1983).

(C) Upeksha: Feeling of Indifference or Neutral Feeling

Indian thinkers discussed about the possibility of a feeling tone which is neither positive nor negative. But the way it is interpreted, differ from one school of thought to another. The Buddhist recognizes neutral feeling as a distinct kind of feeling. According to Buddhaghosha, a Buddhist scholar, neutral feeling (upekkhā) is neither pleasure nor pain. It is not the mere absence of pleasure or pain. It is a positive feeling or experience of what is contrary to both the desirable and the undesirable. A Vedāntic scholar, Vidyāranya, a follower of Samkara, also distinguishes feeling of indifference from pleasure and pain. While Buddhist upekkhā indicates absence of any feeling, the neutral feeling referred to by Vidyāranya appear to represent a state with a positive connotation. ‘Neutral feeling lies midway, between the two feelings. It is the phenomenal appearance of the intrinsic bliss of the self’ (Sinha, 1985: 78). To appreciate this, we need to move further away from individualized consciousness trapped in the samsāra.

(D) Transcending Pleasure and Pain

The idea of transcendence in Indian traditions is integrally related to the notion of non-identification and detachment. It was noted that pleasure and pain occurs due to desirable and undesirable conditions since they evoke agreeable and disagreeable feelings. Human beings have a tendency to identify with the former and disown the latter. Therefore, according to Indian thinkers, the trick lies in not identifying with or developing attachment to anything, either positive or negative, which means giving up both attraction and aversion. In the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2), Krishna calls such a person sthitaprajňa and describes the characteristics in terms of how such a person acts or behaves as requested by Arjuna. In those descriptions, we come across the role of desire in causing negative emotions and losing one’s equanimity of mind. These verses also describe, how a sthitaprajňa reacts to pleasure and pain (sukha and dukkha) and how he relates to everyone and everything in life. They also propose an associative theory of frustration and aggression leading to mental imbalance. They describe, how a sthitaprajňa regulates one’s senses and emotions and is always guided by intellect. These descriptions of a sthitaprajňa provide a different kind of subjective well-being of Indian variety as contrasted with Diener’s variety of subjective well-being, which operates on satisfaction–dissatisfaction dimension. A sthitaprajňa on the other hand is one who has transcended the opposites in life (verses 55–72). It is only in the context of dualistic and monistic paradigms that we can make sense of neutral feeling or relation of pleasure and pain and their transcendence.

Dealing with Polarities: Western and Indian Approaches

Ajaya (1983: 41–42) notes, ‘everything that exists is part of a polarity and, thus, has its counterpart. The world of ordinary experience is made up of innumerable polar qualities, such as inside/outside, hot/cold, near/far, light/dark, high/low, stop/go, and so on.’ According to him, ‘the reductionist, dualistic, and monistic paradigm each understand and deal with polarities in a different way.’ While reductionist paradigm approaches them as antithetical, dualistic paradigms approach those as complementary and monistic paradigm emphasize on transcending them.

Commenting on the way, Western culture has dealt with polarities, Ajaya observes that throughout its history Western civilization has regarded two sides of a polarity as antithetical or opposing one another. Therefore, ‘the conception of opposition is ingrained in the Western mind and reveals itself in all aspects of one’s life,’ and one typically tends to identify with one side of an antithesis and to disown the other. Thus, a person seek to be ‘successful rather than a failure’; ‘rich rather than poor’; ‘happy rather than unhappy’; ‘healthy rather than sick’; ‘courageous rather than fearful’; and so on. ‘The conception that polarities are made up of opposing forces is also expressed in shared belief systems’, and this is ‘particularly evident in Western religion, in which good and evil are set against one another and regarded as clashing and irreconcilable forces’ (1983: 41). He also states that viewing polarities as antithetical is a characteristic more prominent at the stage of cognitive development that comes to ascendency in adolescence, which Piaget described as the stage of formal operations (ibid.: 43).

Note that Seligman himself first came up with the concept ‘learned helplessness’ and at a later stage of his career he also came up with the concept ‘learned optimism’, which are opposites. Even the very emergence of positive psychology itself can be seen as a movement from the negative to positive pole of human nature. The distinction of positive–negative, hedonia and eudaemonia, SWB and PWB and their discussion in literature as though they are antithetical polarities is another outcome of a reductionist approach.

The other way of dealing with polarities involves experiencing the opposite qualities as complementary, which may transpose themselves, i.e., transform themselves into one another. This is being expressed in myths and fairy tales wherein small creatures are depicted as transformed into humans; a servant becomes a king; Cinderella is transformed from a lowly servant to a princess; a good fairy turns out to be a witch in disguise and so on. Complementary views are found in more primitive thinking, in myths and dreams, in mystical thought, in a few schools of modern psychology, and in Eastern philosophy, and in both ‘more elementary and more evolved stages of cognitive development than in the stage of formal operations, which characterizes Western reductive thought, (Ajaya, 1983: 42). Formal operations thinking, in fact, seem to be an intermediate stage in which the view that polarities are antithetical reigns supreme. But ‘at both, less and more evolved stages of cognitive development, one experiences the two sides of a polarity as complementary, interchangeable, and mutually sustaining’ (1983: 42–43).

Ajaya’s observations about the presence of complementary view raise a fundamental question about Indian thought traditions and perspectives. Are they products of less evolved stages of cognitive development or of higher stages? Are Indians less evolved in their cognitive development or more evolved? When we look around, we find that Indian people are in no way different from Westerners and they do experience polarities as antithetical and, also tend to identify with either of the poles. People certainly want pleasure and do not want pain or sufferings. In this, the average Indian mind is no different from the average Western mind. Even a great warrior and a person of noble character like Arjuna of Mahabharata, in the battle front, wanted to avoid the enormous sorrow and suffering that would entail in waging the war and killing his own people. He weighed that the magnitude of pain would be more than the magnitude of pleasure he will get by winning the war and getting back the kingdom. He was bargaining for lesser pleasure than intense pain. This is what majority of people do anywhere.

The dualist and monist paradigms teaches us that life would be a perennial struggle if we keep on dealing with the opposites as though they are antithetical with an approach–avoidance stance. Purandara Dasa, a famous saint from Karnataka (1484–1564 CE) observes, ‘to say I don’t want difficulties and want only intense pleasures’ is a ‘desire for wasted life’. It is simply meaningless to strive for such a life because it is unrealistic. Therefore, we have two alternatives. One is to accept both as inevitable without fighting and without trying to choose one over the other; to treat the so-called negatives of life as opportunities to grow. Such an attitude is inculcated in the minds of people through various ways. One of them is the practice of eating a bit of jaggery made from sugarcane, which is sweet, with little flower buds from neem tree, which is bitter, on the Hindu New Year festival Ugādi. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that a person with equanimity of mind (is one who treats both sukha and dukkha and lābha and alābha (profit and loss) as equal. Such a person does not get over-excited at the prospect of pleasure and does not get unduly agitated in pain. This is the complementary view of dualistic paradigm, because it affirms the reality of pleasure and pain.

A step beyond is the monistic, more appropriately non-dualistic (a-dvaita), paradigm which urges us to transcend all dualities or polarities including subject-object duality and realize that in reality there is no duality. As per the Advaita Vedānta, as long as our locus of identity is at the realm of subject–object duality, it is inevitable that we experience all kinds of duality and its consequences. Since this is a very abstract and complex issue, the simplest way to explain it is by referring to a discussion of states of consciousness found in the Upanishads.

In Māndukya Upanishad (Nikhilananda, 2000) which has only 12 verses, we find a discussion about transcendental consciousness with reference to the other three states, viz., waking (jāgrat), dream (swapna) and sushupti (deep sleep). It is said that there is a fourth, turīya, in addition to the three states. This fourth is an adhāra (support, ground, foundation, etc.) for the other three. It is in the background and all our phenomenal experiences of the three states are in the foreground like figure, in the Gestalt psychology sense. So, to know this, to realize this, we have to reverse the figure–ground relationship. Ramana Maharshi tries to make it further simple by comparing this fourth state to a movie screen in a cinema theatre. He observes that whatever movie is projected, the screen by itself supports all of them equally, but remains unaffected.

From this point of view, even waking state and our waking experiences are also like dreams, a virtual reality, having no substance like a holographic display in the sky. Therefore, the ‘pleasure–pain’ duality has no substantial reality from such a state. To experience that fourth state and being established in it 24 × 7 × 365 is jīvanmukti, i.e., liberation of consciousness during one’s physical existence. For such a person, polarities and dualities are non-existent and do not affect the way it does ordinary mortals. This requires a radical transformation in awareness, which happens with only a few, one in a million. But all others have to follow a gradual course, if one desires, which entails modification in our svabhāva and that can be understood with reference to triguna.

Triguna and Positive Psychology

In the beginning, it was mentioned that one way of viewing positive psychology movement from the Indian perspective is to view it as a movement towards sattva, from the exclusive preoccupation with tamas and rajas. These three together constitute triguna, which is an important construct in Indian traditions. Though its origins are found in the early Vedic and Upanishadic literature, it is developed in Sāmkhya Darśana (dualistic paradigm) and accepted by all the other darśana. Indian thinkers have used the concept of triguna to explain everything in the universe, since both matter and mind are viewed as manifestations of triguna alone. Sattva, rajas and tamas, correspondingly represent the principles of illumination and creativity, activity and energy, and inertia. Matter is regarded as preponderantly constituted of tamas, the principle of inertia and mind is regarded as preponderantly constituted of sattva, the principle of illumination and creativity. Therefore, Indian traditions hold that matter and mind are not polarities as Descartes thought, but a continuum.

Indian worldview holds that these principles operate in various combinations in the entire universe in the structure and function of everything including human beings. Thus, people are differentiated as predominantly sātvic, rājasic and tāmasic depending on the preponderance of one of the three over the other two. A sātvic person is described as one who has discriminative intellect; who is self-controlled, serene, equanimous and steadfast; who is virtuous, generous and gentle; and who is detached and duty-bound without expectations, a seeker of self and aware of the unity underlying all diversities. A rājasic person is one who is driven into action by passion, is restless, is struggling; who has more desires, strong likes and dislikes, and pursues sensory pleasures; who is attached to one’s social roles; who lacks clear discrimination and has distorted understanding; and who is egotistic. A tāmasic person is depressed, lethargic, disinclined to work, negligent, undisciplined, arrogant, hostile, indecisive, ignorant, inadvertent, uncertain and dull. It is to be noted that all the three gunas are present in all the individuals, and it is the preponderance of one over the other which leads to the labelling of persons as sātvic, rājasic and tāmasic type (Murthy and Salagame,2 2007).

Henry (2013) summarizes the spiritual approaches very meaningfully as:

‘Spiritual psychologies advocate living ethically and stress the importance of an interpersonal orientation and the value of quieting the mind. Spiritual practice often encourages people to go within, root out their failings, and develop the capacity to attend to others kindly. There is greater focus in Eastern spiritual practice on acceptance and detachment from desires than seeking and striving after goals found in many Western forms of psychological development. An increasing number of new interventions such as mindfulness, compassion therapy, and reconciliation, are drawn on spiritual practice for inspiration. The marriage of psychological and spiritual approaches shows great promise (2013: 421)’.

All this involve developing more of sātvic qualities.

All the Indian perspectives concur that spiritual development involves getting more refined, which means, shedding of tāmasic and rājasic tendencies and developing more of sātvic qualities. Since sattva is the principle of illumination transcendental consciousness can be realized only when mind becomes more transparent by losing its opacity (tamas). That is why the prayer asatoma sadgamaya tamasoma jyotirgamaya mrtyorma amrtamgamaya. All the virtues and character strengths contemporary positive psychology speaks of, are listed as sātvic qualities in Indian traditions.

We can compare this movement away from tamas and rajas towards sattva, to a rocket which is launched to outer space. If the rocket has to successfully move upwards, it has to burn its lower stages, which gives an upward thrust and velocity required to escape the gravitational pull of the atmosphere of the earth. Our seer, sages and saints have compared transcendence to such a process where one has to burn the negative tendencies. From Indian perspectives, therefore, positive emotions and individual traits are not the antithetical opposite of negative emotions and traits, but complementary opposites which can be transposed or transformed. Patañjali Yoga Sutra prescribes such a procedure of developing, viz., maîtri, karuna and upeksha in the face of hatred, downtroddenness and egotism.

Since Sāmkhya and Yoga are recognized as approaches which speak of a gradual evolution of psyche culminating ultimately in kaivalya, they teach a way of dealing with opposites in a complementary manner. The Upanishads and the Vedānta being non-dual in perspective teach that the polarities of life be accepted as they are, but not to be identified with. This is what the Bhagavad Gita teaches in sthitaprajňa lakshana. This is what Krishna says in Verse 57 (Chapter 2), wherein he points out that sthitaprajňa neither congratulates nor despises anything accepting equally well good and bad and maintaining a sense of detachment with everything.

Implications of Indian Perspectives for Positive Psychology

The implications of Indian perspectives, for positive psychology, may be understood at two levels, viz., theoretical and applied levels.

  1. At a theoretical level, there are many distinctive features of Indian thought which provide a different vision of reality than what is possible from a purely positivist point of view and it is the view that reality is fundamentally spiritual rather than material. From this meta-perspective, there are certain fundamental notions commonly accepted by all darśana, which are of ontological and epistemological significance and may be regarded as the core of Indian psychology. Indian traditions and perspectives uphold that ‘(a) the spiritual reality can be perceived through intuitive faculty; (b) the soul is independent of body; (c) consciousness, cit, is different from mind/psyche; (d) body and mind are constituted of the same three principles or guna (triguna) and, hence, they are not different in substance; (e) there is life after death; (f) there are paranormal phenomena which can be experienced; and (g) a human being can attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death through self-realization. These and other related views have shaped the way of life in the Indian sub-continent leading to a holistic perspective, in which a human being is understood as biological, psychological and spiritual in nature and is in constant relation with the whole cosmos’ (Salagame, 2013b).
  2. At an applied level, the distinctive features delineated above, implies that we need to examine our current lifestyle and revalidate them with respect to what Indian traditions regards as good life or fulfilled life, instead of aping the West mindlessly when Western society itself is turning towards India for spiritual guidance. We have many good things to learn from positive psychology developed in the West, but we need not just limit ourselves to those theories and models. We can develop our own models. In this direction, there are some efforts, which are worth looking into (Anand, Srivastava and Dalal, 2001; Kohli and Dalal, 1998; Misra, 2009; Mohan, Prasad and Rao, 2004; Mohan, Mohan, Roy, Basu and Viranjini, 2004; Naidu and Pande, 1999; Palsane and Lam, 1996; Pande and Naidu, 1992; Rangaswami, 1994; Shinde, 2001; Shinde, 2002; Singh and Misra 2000; Tewari, 2000; Wadhwa and Jain, 1990).


Modern psychology views man from the Darwinian perspective and regards him (her) as the highest of a primate ‘man an animal’ in simple terms. On the contrary, the spiritual view of India looks at ‘man as potentially divine’ or as an aspect of the divine (daivāmsha sambhūta). These two radically different perspectives on human nature mean a lot as to how we grow and develop ourselves as human beings; how we define ourselves; what type of self-concept we develop; how we lead our lives; what goals we wish to pursue and ultimately how we evaluate our sense of well-being and happiness.


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