A Case for Dharmic Psychology: Report on the Swadeshi Indology Conference 4
Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist and I don’t claim to be one. I’m writing from a common man’s point of view with a decent understanding of both the Arts and Sciences.
Something interesting happened a few days ago at my home. It had happened earlier too. But it became interesting only now because I had just come home after attending the Swadeshi Indology conference 4, organized by Shri. Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity foundation India with the Department of Psychology, Delhi University, on Indian Psychology and Mind sciences. It was a six-day conference, organized during the final week of March at the Delhi University.
So back to the incident at my home. The other day our cook had left the stone pestle lying on the counter of our kitchen after her morning duties. When she came back in the evening, my mother advised her on why that should never happen again, i.e leaving the pestle away from the mortar. She explained why things that should be in pairs, like the pestle and mortar and several such similar items that we use daily, should always be kept as a single unit and never be separated because in a normal Indian (Dharmic) household that represented the husband and wife unit. The separation of either of them from one another was akin to the separation of the wife and the husband, which was inauspicious and disastrous for the family and to the community as well. This could well be considered as a superstition in the present day, but to me (and several millions of Dharmic Indians as well I presume), it presents a very nuanced Psychology and Philosophy. As I said earlier, I have heard this explanation before, but it suddenly made more sense after having been at the Mind science conference and having listened to many papers and discussions. And this of course at once led me to think about Ramayana and Sage Valmiki, who started composing the Itihaasa as a reaction, when a hunter killed one of the pair of the Krouncha birds. This is then the Psychology, the thread of connection across centuries, millenniums and thousands of miles, which is so inherent and prevalent in India and among its people, from the time of Ramayana and even before.
And this was also something that was completely missing in the conference. There were a lot of topics addressed. There were many papers on Yoga, Pathanjali, Aurobindo’s Philosophy, Ayurveda, Islamic perspectives and even Christian yoga. But in most papers only Philosophy(ies) was discussed, which raises an important question of whether Psychology and in particular, Indian Psychology, could ever be discussed in isolation, distinct from Indian Philosophy. Perhaps as one of the speakers Dr. Ram Manohar, from the Amrita Centre for Advanced Research in Ayurveda, had pointed out that there was no Indian Psychology as Dharmic Philosophy only concerned itself with Atma and not Manas. But on the other hand the thought process of a set of people belonging to this land and even spilling to other neighboring places because of the homogeneity of a civilization that once existed, cannot be questioned.
One of the key discussions that took place during the conference was the question of whether there needs to be something called Indian Psychology, whether there is a need to start it and whether it could be a legitimate branch of ‘science’. Some of the Psychology experts, lead by Dr. Matthijs Cornelissen, were of the opinion that such a thing shouldn’t exist. The reason they gave was that knowledge cannot and should not be localized. It will cease to be a ‘science’ then, they argued. Hence they opined that those (which consisted mostly of Indians) who are in favor of such a branch of knowledge are in fact doing more harm to the Indian cause than any good. This was very similar to the argument that Stephen Laberge, the apparent ‘discoverer’ of Lucid Dreaming, offered to Rajiv Ji, when he was asked about why he was not attributing his discovery to the Indian practice and theory of Yoga Nidra from which he had heavily borrowed. It goes something like this: If it (the Indian practice/knowledge/Philosophy) is appropriated and given a new Western name, preferably an English one, then its market value goes up, in addition to its popularity and hence the generous Westerners are doing the primitive Indians a great favor.
So do we need to start a branch called Indian Psychology? No. We don’t need to. Because it already exists. It has existed for long. It may not have a specific name or a school/college from which it is taught. But one can’t deny its existence. Just like one can’t deny the existence of Western Psychology. It is local to that culture and to that civilization. Now there is the question of how it could be considered local if it is a science? Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology are apparently sciences. Who decided that? – A bunch of Western psychologists. If you go through the list of the most influential cognitive psychologists, you will not find a single non-western person in that. I would go one step further and say that there is not even a single non-white person in it. And further more it is now being equated to Physics! There were enough examples given in the conference on the similarities between both. Probably the closest connection between Psychology and Science would be neuroscience because it deals with perception, senses, brain etc. I agree that there could be some grey areas that could be bordering both Psychology and Neuroscience. But to call it a science and equating it to Physics is ridiculous. If so how could one explain, say the Psychology of the ‘Guugu Ymithirr’, the aboriginal tribes in Australia who only use the cardinal directions, instead of saying left or right? How could one apply the theories and ‘research’ that were made in the comfortable rooms of the Harvards and the Oxfords and apply them on someone living thousands of miles away with a culture, language and lifestyle that is so vastly and inconceivably different. As an Indian I find it blasphemous and completely insensitive that this could be done in the name of education or even research.
Let me give you another example of why Psychology could only be local that is influenced by the culture and civilization in which one grows up. The Oscar winning documentary, ‘The Act of Killing’, is about the death squads that killed many people in Indonesia in the 1960s. Most of them were politically motivated murders with people of Chinese descent being the targets. Towards the end of the film, one of the chief perpetrators of that atrocity repents and speaks about how he would need to repent for his crimes even in his next birth! Mind you, he is a Muslim and Indonesia is an Islamic country. But his culture is the same as that of a Dharmic society because of the vast influence of Indian civilization on East and South East Asia that spanned over millenniums. And it is the very same reason why even though a person is practicing Yoga in England or in the U.S, he/she refuses to believe in karma and rebirth. Because it is not in them to accept those principles because of their culture and society, how so ever they appear and declare to be open and ‘liberal.’
Perhaps we have to completely rethink the top to bottom paradigm of knowledge production and distribution. Here is what I mean. During one of the panels in the conference, Mr. Pawan Gupta, from Society for Integrated Development of Himalyas (SIDH), very rightly pointed out about how we are still colonized in our minds. He brilliantly cited the conference itself, the way it was being organized, the stage arrangement, the seating arrangements etc, as an example of how we cannot think beyond the western paradigm on simple mundane issues, even when we are trying to organize a program on an Indian knowledge system! The western method of defining what Psychology is, what Philosophy is and what behaviorism is, is probably best suited to their culture, their language, their way of life and their thinking. They have the full right to do what they want. Perhaps their methods of psychotherapy work successfully on them. But why should we be constricted to follow them, especially in a supposed free country and society? Their academic disciplines are formulated by a group of intellectuals and academicians who for the most part have no connection with their everyday society and who would hate to identify themselves with the masses. So even in their own societies, the ‘theories’ of these people is forced down the throats of the common man there.
We have to understand that the Western civilization has an extraordinary amount of baggage that we have no reason to bear. The sickness that permeates in their civilization, from a Dharmic psychological standpoint, is overwhelming. Serial killings, genocides (both physical and cultural), mass shootings in schools and malls happen even to this day. And their sexual depravity: less said the better. The knowledge systems that get produced there are a result of those experiences. The attempt to globalize their knowledge systems is a clear case of Western Universalism as described by Rajiv Ji in Being Different. By checking and halting any and every attempt to give importance to the local traditions, knowledge systems, names and their practices, it is not only easy to appropriate them but once the local population is homogenized to the Western world view, these afore mentioned knowledge systems can then be easily digested leaving no traces of their sources and origins. A talk by Prof. George Mlakuzhyil of St.Xavier’s on the last day of the conference reinforced this argument. He talk was on Christian Yoga. The whole presentation, which was supposedly about this new-age Christian practice (albeit being termed as unchristian by most sects and Churches of Christianity), was filled with Hindu symbols and even mantras. In fact he finished with ‘Satchidananda’ and ‘Om Shanti’! On being questioned about this blatant appropriation of Hindu practices, symbols and mantras, his response was that all these were not Hindu but Indian and the former came only later. Hence as an Indian he has the full right to appropriate whatever he wants! So it is clear that though a person could be Indian in nationality and in skin color, he /she wouldn’t mind to shamelessly appropriate the practices of his Dharmic forefathers, give it another name and then defend such a brazen act, because his connection and loyalty is not to the civilization of the land but to the civilization to which his present belief system belongs.
Hence an Indian answer to not just Psychology but to other humanities, arts and sciences as well, without any influence from any alien culture is very much the need of the hour. We have to take inspiration from Shri Aurobindo. There seems to be a life-changing incident that happened to the great Sage during his initial days in Pondicherry. He wasn’t particularly sure of what his goals were and how he was going to achieve them. But he was attracted towards a Siddha, who roamed around in the garb of a mad man, called Siddhar Kullachamy. One day when Sri Aurobindo was drinking tea, the Siddha came to him and threw out the contents of his glass to the ground and showed him the empty glass. Aurobindo knew at that moment the significance and meaning of that action and what he had to do. He decided to empty his own mind, which was full of Western influence and which then lead him in relearning and researching our Vedas, Upanishads and other Dharmic books, finally culminating in the vast amount of thoughts, books and his Philosophy. Hence we should also clear out our colonized minds and empty its contents and start afresh. We should not be afraid to call this system as Dharmic Psychology.
The Psychology that is behind the belief and the behavior of the pestle and mortar incident that was mentioned at the beginning of this article could be seen all over India, well at least in places which have not yet been invaded and destroyed by Western and modern lifestyle. It over rides Jatis, languages, geography and sometime even religions etc. It is a product of our civilization, borne out of its experiences for millenniums. Its richness cannot be fathomed and compared, much less emulated by another paradigm. We have no obligation to follow and offer our loyalty to another system of knowledge that has got nothing to do with us. In this we must be unapologetic and firm.
Featured Image: Conference Poster