Section I. The Social and Philosophical Context – Foundations of Indian Psychology, Volume 1

Section 1

The Social and Philosophical Context


Indian psychology as an academic enterprise is inspired by a set of specific realizations about the nature, scope and methods of critical and comprehensive engagement with the human mind and its myriad manifestations. This enterprise, however, did not receive much attention from modern scholars engaged in the process of learning and teaching. In recent years, the academic scenario has started changing in many respects, and there are indications of a dialogue opening up with diverse cultures and knowledge traditions. In this context, it seems worthwhile to address some of the key aspects of the disciplinary matrix that have shaped the way the discipline has grown. Hence, before introducing the themes deliberated in the chapters of this section, it would be relevant to articulate some of these disciplinary developments.

To begin with, it may be noted that unlike in the physical sciences, the growth of the disciplines constituting the human sciences are conditioned by particular socio-cultural conditions and are directed towards the goals and ideals upheld by society at a given point of time. Ideological concerns, therefore, often predominate and inform the ontological, epistemological and methodological assumptions of the systems of inquiry. The conceptual tools, theories and perspectives of various disciplines often illustrate the cultural imprints on their agenda. The modern discipline of psychology emerged in Western Europe and North America, and subsequently proliferated in other parts of the world. In colonial India, academic psychology was introduced as a mere adaptation of psychology from the West. As such, it reflects an approach to psychology that is individual-centred, and that considers a person as a separate entity geared toward achieving control over the environment. This other-oriented psychology maintains a discontinuity between persons and their surroundings, which comprises many things, including other persons. Also, its assumptions are rooted in a mechanistic, objectivist, reductionist, deterministic and materialistic world-view. Adherence to such a perspective goes on unchallenged, even at the cost of ignoring substantive issues and confining inquiry to trivial issues. This entire enterprise is undertaken, sustained and widely shared on the mistaken premise that the physical sciences offer a prototype for doing a complete, culture-independent science.

Somehow, a collective amnesia is maintained by the community of academic psychologists, whereby it is forgotten that humans are simultaneously both subjects as well as objects. As conscious beings they constantly think and reflect about themselves. They engage with creating reality in major ways. This kind of reflexivity is made possible due to the gift of language, which opens the doors of creativity and introduces elements of indeterminacy. Barring simple reflexes, most human actions and behaviours have an undeniable emergent quality and are based on meanings that are socially created, sustained and modified. This brings in a degree of complexity and uncertainty that is unmanageable within the received paradigm, one which is bound to the premises of the physical sciences. Overwhelmed by the early success of the physical sciences, psychologists preoccupy themselves with issues, even if they are trivial and obvious, that are amenable to the methods offered by the dictates of physical sciences.

The history of modern psychology tends to indicate that, but for a few exceptions, the vast majority of the psychology fraternity has seriously engaged in the pursuit of analysing psychological phenomena under the dominant assumption that reality is one—and that the psychological reality can be approached and analysed in line with the rules and procedures of the physical sciences. As a consequence, a sincere and vigorous endeavour is made to adopt the same strategies for the study of the psychological reality as are used for the physical reality. Thus quantification and objectification prevail and the adoption of analytic procedures helps in creating a scientific framework that puts forward physical science-like claims. Developments in psychophysical methods, psychometry and experimental designs reinforce the image of psychology as a science. The paradigmatic constraints do not receive the attention they deserve due to anticipated gains from emulating the physical sciences. In some important and essential ways, the discipline's journey has been a misguided one.

A closer scrutiny reveals that these scientistic efforts have not culminated in much success. Psychology has failed to achieve prediction or control of behaviour in the way physicists have been able to in certain domains. The findings have not been cumulative and the laws have limited generalizability and replicability. This has led to a rethinking about psychology and the moves undertaken have tried in different degrees to innovate and redress the discipline by bringing culture, language, ecology and spirituality into the disciplinary discourse.

The present section, ‘The social and philosophical context’, begins with K. R. Rao's chapter, ‘Indian psychology: Implications and applications’, in which he argues that unlike Western psychology which does not have an overarching theory encompassing the entire discipline, Indian psychology's approach is synthetic and holistic, so that it becomes possible to overcome dichotomies such as science and spirituality, the sacred and the secular, theory and practice, individual and society. At the same time, Indian psychology, broadly speaking, has applications ranging from individual transformation to conflict resolution at the societal level. Rao takes centrality of consciousness as the defining characteristic of Indian psychology, and goes on to delineate twelve principles which provide the outline for a model of Indian psychology. The realm of extra-ordinary human experience (including telepathy and the direct action of mind over matter), Rao elucidates, can be researched most thoroughly using the concepts, methods and models of Indian spiritual psychology.

The title of Ajit K. Dalal's chapter, ‘A journey back to the roots: Psychology in India’, alludes to the recent and renewed interest in models of psychology that have originated and developed in India over millennia. Dalal's chapter offers a comprehensive history of academic psychology from its inception in 1905 at Calcutta University as part of the Philosophy Department, to the contemporary emergence of the Indian psychology movement. The chapter is accurate and informative in that it provides details of academic psychology in India, in terms of the number of psychologists, universities and colleges offering psychology, details of associations formed by psychologists over the years, and a chronology of events of direct significance to academic psychology. But more than that, Dalal has been able to pin-point that the main reason why psychology has failed to develop as a discipline of national importance is that it is largely a Western import. Right from the beginning, psychologists have led a double life, in the sense that they subscribe to one kind of psychology in their professional lives (Western), but to another when it comes to their personal lives—for which they lean on the Indian textual tradition, and the psychology contained therein (for example, the Bhagavad Gītā). As Dalal points out, academic psychology in India became more useful and relevant from the 1970s onwards, with a shift in focus to social problems, and more so in the 1980s when it was acknowledged that culture played a dominant role in the shaping of the psyche. Academic psychology in India is becoming increasingly more culture-sensitive and culturally rooted; and at the same time, the emergence of the Indian psychology movement, with its emphasis on the global relevance of systems such as Vedānta, Buddhism, Yoga and the more recent integral psychology of Sri Aurobindo, is also witnessed.

In ‘Psychological ideas in the Vedas and their relevance to contemporary psychology’, R. L. Kashyap expounds on the emphasis in the Vedas on an all-sided perfection of human life, and the modes of its realization. In the Vedic view, life is a journey from one peak of perfection to another. Kashyap indicates that the Vedic gods are supra-physical beings endowed with consciousness, knowledge and power, but without physical bodies. Thus Agni is the power of will endowed with wisdom, and Indra is the Divine mind which provides appropriate knowledge to human beings so that they may attain perfection in all their actions. Kashyap further notes, based on Sri Aurobindo's work, that the Ṛg Veda is poetry of a high order and its true meaning is concealed in its symbolism. Kashyap goes on to provide a list of proper nouns (names of Vedic gods), and the deeper meaning and significance concealed behind the symbolism.

Vladimir Iatsenko further expands ‘On the Vedic Symbolism in the light of Sri Aurobindo’, and attempts to recover the true meaning of the Veda, the possibility of heaven on earth, that is, to possess and live in that highest Divine consciousness here on earth. The Vedic view was one of transformation—invoking the higher powers by aspiration, and surrendering to them to bring about a transformation. This was the Vedic Sacrifice, and its aim was transformation of terrestrial existence.

In ‘Beyond mind: The future of psychology as a science’, Kundan Singh argues that true knowledge is attainable only by a shift in consciousness from a lower to a higher level, and not by clever manipulations of concepts located in the mind. Kundan begins by exposing the limits of induction, the mainstay of the scientific method, and challenges the possibility of any true ‘objectivity’, largely on the ground that to the fact that our most basic tool of research, language, not only describes events, but also creates a cosmology, a worldview that influences the thought, behaviour and perception of the user. Leaning towards Eastern wisdom traditions, and basing his arguments largely on Madhyamika, Advaita Vedānta and Integral Yoga, Kundan then offers the view that mind is not the knower of things, but an object of knowledge. He holds that the truth of one's existence can only be found by identifying oneself with a higher consciousness beyond the mind.

John Pickering discusses the place of ‘Indian psychological thought in the age of globalization’. He first looks at why Buddhism has been more widely received outside India as compared to other Indian systems, and he is of the view that Buddhist thought is richly comparable with contemporary Western thought. Pickering notes that a positive contribution of postmodernism is that it offers a pluralistic view on knowledge, whereby systems of psychology falling outside the purview of mainstream positivist psychology are given a fair hearing—thus leading to greater openness to Indian psychological thought. The author also examines how changes in the scientific worldview, after quantum physics established itself as the dominant paradigm, may also contribute to greater acceptance of Indian psychology. In closing, Pickering suggests that Indian psychological thought is more appropriately considered a world-view as well as a way of life, and that such a way of life appears to be a highly sustainable one.

Taken together, the chapters in this section offer a disciplinary context in which the present effort is situated. They provide not only a historical account of modern psychology, but also delineate a broader framework derived from Vedic and subsequent conceptualizations. The ensuing dialogue with other disciplines may lead to a more engaging, productive and fulfilling enterprise of psychology.