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Harmony of Psyche: Tracing the Nexus of Ancient Indian Psychology, Colonial Legacies, and Contemporary Cultural Synthesis

Ancient Indian Psychology

India, a land steeped in diversity, has a rich heritage encompassing various cultures, religions, beliefs, and traditions. From science, metaphysics, and astronomy to literature, art, and politics, this country has made substantial contributions to human knowledge. Beyond the more well-known domains, ancient Indian psychology stands out. Intricately woven with spirituality and devotion to a higher being, it provides profound insights about a holistic approach towards well-being and health (Miovic, 2004). Not only does it discuss concepts like karma (actions/deeds), dharma (moral duty), and moksha (spiritual liberation), it also places an emphasis on atma-vichara (inner exploration), atma-jnana (self-realization), and finding meaning in existence.

Long before India’s encounter with European and American cultures, it had already developed a unique psychological perspective deeply rooted in spirituality. This indigenous viewpoint, distinct from Western models, interweaves the understanding of the mind, consciousness, and human behavior within the cultural and spiritual tapestry of the region.

This paper delves into the intricate terrain of ancient Eastern psychology, placing a particular emphasis on explaining the Hindu approach to understanding psychology. The pre-colonial face of psychology in India discussed the transitional journey from the unconscious to conscious, painting a different spiritual picture of concepts related to mind, body, and soul. These concepts were all intertwined until the Europeans and Americans swept away the authenticity of these concepts and amalgamated their influence, creating the recipe that we taste today. Furthermore, this paper scrutinizes the impact of colonial influence on the psychological framework, unravelling the intricate dynamics of how Western perspectives changed, and shaped, the narrative.

Ancient Indian psychology, intertwined with philosophy and spiritual traditions, focused on comprehending the mind, consciousness, and human behavior holistically. Concepts such as atman (the self) and manas (mind) were central to this philosophy, guiding individuals from unconscious ignorance to ultimate consciousness. This process involves transitioning from avidya (spiritual ignorance) to vidya (spiritual awakening) according to the Advaita philosophy (Majumdar et al., 2023). Ancient Indian psychologists and philosophers believed in traditional interventions like meditation and yoga, including Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. The aim of these interventions is to achieve sat chitt anand (eternal bliss) by gaining systematic control of the body and its functioning to attain liberation from the cycle of suffering or dukkha (Salagame, 2011). They aim to transform and evolve individual consciousness with the ultimate goal of realizing one’s true identity and experiencing the eternal bliss of unification with the divine (Shettar, 2021).

Sacred scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita, known as The Song of the Lord, explore complex psychological themes and provide intense analysis of life, emotions, and ambitions. They capture the teachings provided to Arjuna by Lord Krishna and encapsulate a therapeutic journey offering practical guidance for managing emotions, overcoming challenges, and achieving spiritual harmony (Gairola & Mishra, 2022). Even before India became acquainted with Western cultures, its rich and ancient heritage had already developed a distinct understanding of psyche.

The Upanishads, a sacred Hindu scripture serving as a culmination of Vedic thoughts on spiritual enlightenment, explored the nature of reality and that of self (Majumdar et al., 2023). It delved deep into the significance of dreams to understand the subconscious mind and laid importance on the stream of conscious thoughts and its connection between atman (true soul of an individual, true self) and brahman (the ultimate reality of universal consciousness; Osho, 2010). The Vedanta philosophy in Hindu scriptures talks about the concept of neti-neti (not this, not that) to negate the identification with the body and mind, leading to the realization of one’s true nature. Vedanta contributes significantly to the understanding of the self and the psychological journey toward self-discovery and realization (Miovic, 2004).

The ancient philosophy proposed that unwavering faith in the divine Gnostic power, which transcends individual existence, can help overcome challenges and lead to prosperity in physical, emotional, spiritual, and material aspects (Majumdar et al., 2023). It suggests that a belief in higher spiritual realities and metaphysical forces can positively impact one’s vitality and overall well-being. Culture and religion played a pivotal role in shaping the psyche of individuals due to the profound faith attached to them.

These ancient methodologies and interventions are regaining prominence in the wake of changing political tides and scientific evidence validating their efficacy. Practices of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and Ayurveda have all gained recognition in the modern, holistic healthcare realm. Research supports their effectiveness in reducing stress (Khoury et al., 2015), depression, and anxiety (Cramer et al., 2013), as well as improving overall well-being. Concepts related to perception, memory, and reasoning found in several sacred scriptures, such as the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, and Vedanta philosophy, are being revisited. This aligns with the current interest in the intersection of traditional knowledge and scientific inquiry.

Current political ideologies and philosophies in India are embracing these traditional spiritual practices by actively encouraging citizens to engage in yoga and meditation. They are also promoting Ayurveda, which is deeply rooted in ancient Indian mythologies. These traditional practices served as a form of soft power in international relations. These traditional practices were means for heritagization of religion on national and international levels. Different countries showcased our cultural and spiritual heritage, which Indian leaders used as a means to enhance their global influence and strengthen diplomatic ties (Mazumdar, 2018). Before this resurgence, however, Western influence had significantly shaped the trajectory of psychology as a developing domain, painting its current fresco and presence.

Colonization and its Psychological Impact

Frantz Fanon, a prominent Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher, described colonialism in his book The Wretched of the Earth (1963) as, “not just about holding a people in its grip and emptying the natives’ brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (Quinn, 2017). Colonialism went beyond economic and political control and aimed to shape a particular way of thinking, resulting in what is known as colonial consciousness.

The concept of colonial consciousness reflected the psychological effects of colonization, including power imbalance, domination, and oppression experienced by the colonized. This sense of superiority and entitlement among colonizers contributed to the feeling of inferiority, self-hatred, and disconnection from cultural roots among the oppressed. It also attempted to erase and distort their cultural and historical identity. Ashis Nandy, Indian political psychologist and social theorist, explored this phenomenon in The Intimate Enemy (1989), highlighting colonialism’s profound impact on mental health and emotional well-being. It left lasting psychological scars on the collective psyche of Indians, resulting in dynamics of resistance, adaptation, and internalization of colonial norms. This impact extends beyond the individual, influencing the collective psyche of communities (Nandy, 1983). Despite external control, colonized people actively negotiate their identities and preserve elements of their cultural heritage.

The Euro-American colonial character significantly influenced the field of psychological science, often neglecting other cultural viewpoints. The pioneers of psychological schools are predominantly Western, leading to the adoption of Americanized curricula and techniques in psychology (Rao, 2010). The marginalization of indigenous concepts and knowledge within the field was evident. The adaptation of Americanized curricula, textbooks, and prevailing diagnostic frameworks, along with using Western interventions and paradigms in teaching and research, might not completely encapsulate the diverse ways mental health is understood in non-Western societies.

Numerous psychological concepts from Eastern traditions were revised and reintroduced in the context of Western understanding. The concept of anant atman became known as transcendental self-actualization, popularized by Abraham Maslow (Miovic, 2004). Both concepts emphasize the realization of one’s full potential and a deeper understanding of oneself. Experience of flow was an idea already highlighted by the Bhagavad Gita and has been combined with the concept of being completely present in the moment. Constructs, like manas and buddhi, have new identities consistent with emotional intelligence and cognition. Freud emphasized the importance of dream analysis, a concept also discussed in the Upanishads, showcasing the vibrancy and complexity of the human mind (Miovic, 2004). The cross-cultural exchange of psychological constructs between the Eastern and Western traditions has demonstrated a multi-dimensional understanding of the human psyche.

The argument here is not that the Western forces stole the authentic Eastern traditions and ideas and transformed them into a colonial byproduct in this realm, but that they shaped the point of view beyond spirituality. The Western influence played a crucial role in providing scientific evidence for constructs that were once considered highly sacred and spiritual. The concepts of cognition, intelligence, emotions, and actualization became more observable, experimental, and scientific (Arulmani, 2007). It is crucial to approach this discussion with sensitivity, recognizing that positive influences were often intertwined with challenges and negative consequences. The influence of Western psychology during the colonial period led to a complex and multifaceted impact on the understanding of the human mind and behavior in our societies. There were many regions where the colonial powers discredited traditional healing practices, contributing to the marginalization of indigenous knowledge about mental health and well-being. However, colonialism also introduced psychiatric practices and institutionalization, influencing how mental health and illness were understood and treated post-colonialism. This affected the local perception of mental health and contributed to the medicalization of psychological issues.

Many South Asian communities navigated colonial influences by selectively adopting Western ideas while maintaining indigenous psychological constructs, fostering a dynamic and evolving cultural identity. The constructs of resilience, post-traumatic growth, and adaptive coping strategies combined with indigenous techniques helped build a holistic worldview. Such Western ideas enabled individuals to incorporate modern psychological concepts into their worldview, fostering a more comprehensive understanding of human behaviour. Despite its colonial touch, India achieved a nuanced balance between indigenous and denaturalized approaches. The integration of Western psychological concepts, though associated with colonialism, contributed to the evolution of a unique psychological landscape. This blending resulted in culturally sensitive approaches that acknowledge and respect diverse cultural contexts.

During the era of British colonial rule, known as the British Raj, psychological concepts in India were significantly modernized and confounded by an evolving consciousness of colonial influence. While the Euro-American colonial character in psychology presents challenges, it has also contributed to the synthesis of diverse perspectives, fostering a more inclusive and culturally aware approach. Though there were discrepancies among the problems of the Indian population and the solutions provided by the Western approach, decolonizing psychology has led to a more inclusive representation of human experiences within Indian culture. One positive outcome of Western influence on therapy is evident in the assimilation of therapeutic modalities that seamlessly integrate with indigenous cultural contexts, enriching the therapeutic landscape in India.

Decolonizing Psychology in India

The current approach to therapy employed by psychotherapists in India is a positive outcome of the Western influence on psychology. The introduction of such therapeutic modalities has left a lasting impact, offering valuable insights for mental health professionals. This influence has enriched the therapeutic landscape in India, providing practitioners with a diverse set of methodologies that integrate seamlessly with indigenous cultural contexts. The assimilation of these Western approaches has facilitated a more comprehensive and adaptable framework for addressing mental health concerns, contributing to the evolution of a nuanced and effective therapeutic practice in the country.

Relational Cultural Therapy (RCT), for example, is a treatment modality that demonstrates the synthesis of Euro-American psychology and its relevance to the Indian context. An indigenous approach emphasizes the connection between one’s self and others, focusing on relationships and incorporating ethnic competency, multiculturalism, and diversity. In a country where familial and social relationships along with cultural insights are of paramount importance, RCT emphasizes relational dynamics with traditional values. By recognizing the impact of relationships on mental health and fostering culturally sensitive adaptations, therapists in India leverage the positive aspects of Western-influenced modalities, like RCT, to enhance the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions (Comstock et al., 2008). It focuses on individual differences, and promotes inclusivity by respecting cultural diversity (Frey, 2013). Thus, the modality contributes to the ongoing process of decolonization within therapeutic practices.

Current political influence plays a prominent role in advertising the indigenous psychological concepts and interventions in contemporary India. Political leaders often highlight the importance of preserving and promoting India’s cultural heritage, portraying spirituality and traditional wisdom as integral components of its cultural identity. Integrated healthcare initiatives have endorsed practices of yoga, meditation, and ayurveda as preventive measures, potentially reducing the burden on conventional healthcare systems (Mazumdar, 2018). Additionally, promoting cultural events and festivals showcasing ancient practices further enhances the visibility of Eastern spiritual concepts, portraying them as symbols of strength, integrity, and deep religiosity. This emphasis on national heritagization underscores the inherent character strength of Eastern psychology.

To continue, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) combines elements of purely Western cognitive therapy with Eastern traditions of meditation. Eastern philosophers, particularly those rooted in Buddhism, have long embraced mindfulness as a central component of mental well-being. The interaction of Buddhist meditation with mindful awareness of sensations, thoughts, and emotions fosters greater self-awareness (Allen et al., 2021). The integration of MBCT with Indian mindfulness practices provides individuals with a versatile toolkit to manage stress, anxiety, and depression (Evans et al., 2008; Marchand, 2012; Rizwana, 2020). By combining cognitive restructuring techniques with mindfulness, individuals can cultivate a more balanced and adaptive approach to their thoughts and emotions.

Another such decolonizing influence is the emergence of culturally inclusive and competent professionals in the field. Many prominent healthcare practitioners are actively advocating for ethnic minority inclusion in various ways. These include offering counselling services in regional languages, placing an emphasis on the cultural background and ethnic beliefs of the clients, and exploring cultural stigma they may face. They are asked to adapt a dual lens approach, which involves understanding a client’s situation using a therapeutic modality while also appreciating and effectively incorporating the diverse cultural roots of those they serve. Culturally competent practitioners in India are now adept at recognizing and respecting the values, beliefs, and practices of their clients. They skillfully adapt Western therapeutic interventions, infusing them with a touch of cultural heritage and Eastern traditions to meet the unique and varied needs of individuals in the Indian context.

Indeed, the journey towards decolonizing the field of psychology in India involves embracing indigenous approaches. However, its crucial to acknowledge that the development of psychology and therapy in India bears the significant imprint of Western influence. Without the interference of the Euro-American approach, the fresco of psychology in the country might have lacked the diversity, depth, and range of vibrancy that we obverse today. The synergy between indigenous perspectives and Western insights has fostered a dynamic and inclusive framework, marking a unique chapter in the evolution of psychology and therapy in India.

As a psychotherapist holding a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology from St. Xavier's College Mumbai, I have honed my skills through a blend of online and offline therapeutic practices. My journey has been defined by a profound passion for mental health research, which has led me to qualify for the National Eligibility Test for Assistant Professorship by UGC. Currently, I am poised to embark on my Ph.D. in psychology this year, driven by the ambition to become a university professor in the field. Alongside my academic pursuits, I am committed to contributing to the discourse through both scholarly and opinionated articles. My ultimate aim is to leverage my expertise to foster understanding, support, and advancement within the realm of psychology.

Cite This Article

Mehrotra, K. (2024, May). Harmony of psyche: Tracing the nexus of ancient Indian psychology, colonial legacies, and contemporary cultural synthesis. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 59(3).

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1 Comment

  1. Sanjeev Saxena

    Hi Khushi,

    Congratulations on the publication of your research article, “Harmony of Psyche: Tracing the Nexus of Ancient Indian Psychology, Colonial Legacies, and Contemporary Cultural Synthesis,” in the only and esteemed American Journal for Psychotherapies. This is a remarkable achievement and a testament to your dedication, insight, and scholarly prowess.

    Your work delves into the profound interconnections between ancient Indian psychological concepts, the impact of colonial legacies, and the ongoing synthesis within contemporary culture. This pioneering exploration not only enriches our understanding of the subject but also bridges cultural and academic gaps, fostering a deeper appreciation of diverse psychological paradigms.

    Your ability to weave together historical and contemporary threads with such clarity and depth is truly inspiring. This accomplishment reflects your unwavering commitment to advancing knowledge and your unique perspective on the interplay of culture and psychology.

    May this milestone be just the beginning of a long and fruitful journey in your academic and professional endeavors. We look forward to seeing more of your insightful contributions to the field.

    With admiration, best wishes and love !!

    Reply

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