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Psychology in Context: India

At Dalaut Ram College in Delhi, I engaged a young girl named Kritija in conversation. Tired of the monotonous questions about boys and American dating that were being constantly hurled at me from some of the other students, I decided to ask her point-blank about the one thing I had really come to India to learn more about: “When you study psychology here, what is it, exactly, that you’re studying?”

Kritija blinked a few times, taken aback at the pointedness of my probing, but recovered quickly enough with an answer that struck me as especially poignant: “Why, we learn what you learn,” she said nonchalantly, “but we also find ways to connect the mind beyond itself.”

Though I am not a student of psychology, and have only ever studied the subject from the perspective of an introductory beginner, my understanding of American and Western psychology had never before left me with the notion that studying the mind removed itself from all other aspects of study - that the mind was independent of the body, the spirit, society, culture, etc. And yet, that Kritija viewed Western psychology in such a way intrigued me - if she indeed studied our same Western psychology to the extent she claimed (which I in no way doubt), then her understanding of Indian psychology must extensively push beyond the mind-body border that Western psychology already breaches.

What has emerged for me in my understanding of Western vs. Indian psychological studies is the extent to which the metaphysical and the spiritual are allowed to permeate the Indian understanding of the body and mind in interaction. Hinduism is an underlying cause for much of this relationality. “For over 3000 years, Hinduism has provided a vast literature on various systems of philosophy that involves elaborate conceptual frameworks, critical thinking concerning the mind and the body, theoretical analyses of the human personality, introspective methods of observing psychological phenomena, various therapeutic techniques designed to help individuals cope with the difficulties of human life and reach higher levels of development, as well as a broad range of social institutions that reflect, facilitate and structure the kind of personality growth that Hindu culture regards as the basis for well-being and fulfillment.” (Chakkarath, 2005).

This interconnectivity between the mind, body and spirit adds a dimension to indigenous Indian psychology not otherwise present in traditional Western psychology, which looks at mental health and awareness from a straightforward biological (rather than religious) perspective. While traditional US psychology doesn’t deny the interaction between mind and body, it is heavily focused on how the mind affects the body, works with the body, rather than the other way around. Even in more nuanced psychological fields like developmental psychology and mental health tend to rely on a “mind-first” understanding of behavior.

The downside to an Indian psychological perspective, however, is how psychology and mental health are regarded in common society. In a society heavily reliant on a religion that promotes mental and bodily stability, any inconsistencies are ostracized and heavily stigmatized. Our class visit to NIMHANS in Bangalore highlighted this pervasive and frightening stigmatization in a way that left me heavily uncomfortable and more emotionally upset that I had been on the rest of our trip. We wandered through an open ward for women (obviously the closed ward wasn’t available for our perusal, but I could hear the anguished cries of the patients through the boarded up windows - a haunting sound pushing past us while we stood in an elaborately landscaped garden). We were ushered through education and skills training centers, a children’s care center, and a hospital center for things like electric shock therapy.

All the emotions I’d been suppressing thus far flooded over me - the poverty, the dirty conditions, and the absolute inhumanity that is superimposed onto types of people here - both the Dalits and the mentally ill. I obviously knew that the things I was seeing, the people I was watching as I gazed through the windows of their locked rooms, were in the best possible environments they could have been - but it didn’t feel that way, and that was scary. NIMHANS is a government-run facility, meaning that patients are there on reduced or eliminated prices. This also means that the facilities do not appear exceptionally maintained or appropriately furnished. The children’s ward (or at least the part we saw) seemed exceptionally barren. I was also severely disturbed by the types of mental illness that were being admitted to the children’s facility - autism, ADHD, and even simple learning disabilities - things that, in America, aren’t severely stigmatized to the point of needing consistent treatment away from home. Though I think people complain a lot about the state of mental illness in the US (just recently I saw a friend’s Facebook status that said something to the effect of “Depression is so misunderstood, at least in this country”), the mere fact that people are even questioning mental health awareness shows that America is at least farther along in de-stigmatizing mental health than places like India.

Still, Kritija was keen on helping me understand Indian psychology and its potential interaction with Western psychology in common practice. Having been exposed to both indigenous methods and Western methods, Kritija could talk with authority on subjects like consciousness and understanding. Western psychology, she argued, only focused on two levels of consciousness - conscious and unconscious, the latter of which, she argued, is under-studied even in Western psychology, with the exception of Freudian psychological understandings. Indian psychology, specifically the yogic method, emphasizes a variety of levels of consciousness that defy the simple binary present in Western understanding.

Hindu Vedantic tradition regards the Vedas as a source of valid knowledge. Importantly, these teachings must satisfy the criteria for valid knowledge and “the most significant among these is non-contradiction.” (Rambachan, 2014). According to a 2014 Huffington Post article by St. Olaf Professor of Religion Anantanad Rambachan, Indian religion and Western science can and should be easily integrated and non-contradictory. It’s an essential nature of truth-seeking that truth must be non-contradictory. “For the great Vedanta teacher Shankara, religious teachings cannot contradict or be opposed to established facts. If a religious teaching contradicts a well-established fact of experience, it cannot be considered authoritative,” he argues. Contradictions that exist between different sources of knowledge should be subjected to inquiry, with both religious and scientific leaders on both ends aiding in the discussion and discovery of truth.

If Western psychology and Indian culture can embrace this approach to truth-seeking in the realm of psychology, perhaps a similar understanding on the wealth of human psychology can be obtained. However, this will take significant work from both ends: Western psychology will need to be open to acknowledgement of potential indigenous methodologies and actively work within the metaphysical “truths” that dictates much of non-Western psychological thinking. Consequentially, Indian society needs to continue to overcome the dichotomy between Western and Indian approaches to mental health, and allow Western methodology and “truth” to influence the current standards of stigmatization regarding mental health and psychological study. While it is not clear to me that this is the direction Indian psychology is moving, the students and educators I have met that are embracing this dialogue and the students I traveled with that are opening themselves to these new methodologies encourage me to believe a psychological method that is devoid of regional necessity and works within all realms of understanding.

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