Towards a new foundation for psychology
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 27 April 2021

section 3
The Vedic understanding of reality

This is the third in a series.
If you haven't read Section 1 and 2, you may like to read these sections first

Introducing the Indian worldview

A central thesis of this text is that a solid integration with Indian thought would go a long way to help psychology become a more effective and quickly progressive science. Unfortunately this is not as simple as adopting a few neat techniques that just happen to work. The basic understanding of reality underlying the Indian knowledge systems is wider and more complex than that of modern science, so science cannot accommodate "Indian Psychology" as a small separate niche within existing science without trivialising it. Adopting Indian psychology as one more school or subsection within modern psychology will not do. For a successful integration we must rather turn the tables and use the ancient Indian ideas to create a new foundation not only for psychology but for the whole of science. Obviously this is a rather major enterprise, and it is beyond the scope of this text. All I intend to do is to indicate here in the Introduction a few of the main ideas on which such an edifice can be built, and then work these ideas out further in those areas of Psychology where they are most relevant. Here in the introduction I will focus on the Indian concept of consciousness and the role it plays in reality. Ideas on the Self and the structure of the personality will come in the chapters of "Who am i?"; ideas on how to make intuition and inner knowledge more precise and reliable will come primarily in the chapters on cognition and research methodology; ideas on the role of pain and suffering and what to do about them will come in chapters on self-development and helping others, and so on.

As mentioned earlier, the Indian civilisation is complex and one can hardly say anything about it that cannot be easily contradicted by something else. Fortunately the Indian tradition itself has found an effective way of dealing with these differences. It presumes that the underlying structure of reality as well as of truth is essentially hierarchical and that the upper ranges of the hierarchy are ineffable in the strong sense that our human ideas can never be more than partial expressions of the truth at the summit. This allows us to look at the many different ways in which humanity thinks about the divine and its manifestation as a family of ideas in which each member represents some truth; no one can claim to have the one and only truth; and dogmatism and excessive scepticism are equally avoided. It may be clear how wholesome (if not indispensable) such a wide-open approach to truth and reality is for the developing multicultural global civilization.

One of the many psychology-friendly ways in which this ultimately ineffable truth has been expressed can be found in what may well be the oldest Indian text, the Ṛg Veda. It holds that a divine Truth-Consciousness has manifested the world out of itself and that it is still the hidden essence of all that exists.1 This may sound "over the top" and it is definitely an unusual start for what is supposed to be a down-to-earth treatise on psychology, but as I hope will become more clear over the course of this text, starting from Truth-Consciousness actually makes more sense than starting from a purely physical "Big Bang". The Indian consciousness-centred understanding of reality offers a philosophical foundation from which the stunning complexity of our existence on this planet follows in a neat and coherent manner that is not in conflict with the findings of the hard sciences.2 As we will see in the chapter on the evolution of consciousness it leads moreover to an understanding of the evolution that does justice to far more facets of our human existence than Darwin's purely biological theory. Of particular interest to psychology is that within this evolutionary, consciousness-centred understanding of the world, the ordinary human mind is considered as no more than a middle term. Authors throughout the history of Indian thought have claimed that with sufficient training it is possible to free oneself from one’s embeddedness in the physical reality and the more well-known layers of consciousness, and explore what appear to be worlds of a higher consciousness than the ordinary mind. This is of course not unique to India. Mystics in many other cultures have made similar claims, but the Indian civilisation seems to have had an unusual focus on this effort, and it has brought forth not only a staggering variety of popular schools and sects that express different aspects of this hugely complex inner world, but also exceptionally high quality abstract thought as well as a real treasure of detailed inner know-how on which modern psychology can be built.


We have already seen that the starting point of the Indian world view is the idea that everything is the manifestation of consciousness, but the tradition goes one step further. It holds that the essential character of the ultimate reality is saccidānanda, an absolute unity not only of sat, Existence, and cit, Consciousness, but also of ānanda, Delight. The origin of this idea is no doubt experiential and it can be verified, or "realised", in experience by anyone who fulfils the psychological conditions. But as a concept it deserves to be taken as one of the most brilliant achievements of the human mind. The reason is that saccidānanda is not only seen as the essence of the absolute, transcendent Divine, but also as the essence of each individual human being, and a surprising number of practical ideas in psychology follow directly from it.

The idea of saccidānanda does not seem to tally with our ordinary human experience. Physical things look unconscious to us, and our lives are not always joyful, but in Vedānta both objections are attributed to our typically human, egocentric assessment of reality. We consider everything that differs from the narrow range of our ordinary waking state as “unconscious,” and we experience any input that is for us too little, too much, or of the wrong kind as “suffering,” but that doesn’t mean that consciousness and delight are actually absent.

One could say that the Indian tradition does the same with consciousness and happiness as what modern science does with temperature. In ordinary life we measure temperature in Fahrenheit or Celsius. These two scales have negative values below a threshold that happens to be convenient to us as human beings. But the scientific scale to measure temperature is Kelvin, which has an absolute zero and only positive values. It seems reasonable to suggest that when we try to develop scientifically useful concepts of consciousness and delight, we should also use scales that can, in the very nature of things, have no negative values, and this is exactly what the Indian system has done. Cit and ānanda are conceived as the very essence of everything in existence, and if we don't "feel" them as such, it only means that we look at the world in too anthropocentric a manner, and that our inner, psychological instrumentation needs to be refined to detect them.

If one watches oneself (or others) carefully, one realises that there is some secret satisfaction in depression and bad moods. People can be quite attached to them.

Through contemplative practice or otherwise one can experience consciousness in situations that formerly appeared sub- or super-conscious, and if we can put aside our own interests, we can see or sense that there is some delight, some secret will to be, even in situations and processes that used to feel painful or indifferent.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Indian authors are blind to the hardships humans encounter and to the limitations of individual centres of Existence, Consciousness and Delight that are part of ordinary life. In the ancient texts it is stressed again and again that the normal human life is full of suffering. But this suffering is attributed to ignorance, and as such a characteristic of our limited view of the world, not of the world as it is in itself (that is, as it is known by the original creative consciousness). And because pain is due to ignorance and attributed to the experiencing person rather than to the experienced world, it can be overcome by an inner change. When we stop identifying with our superficial ego and embodied mind, we can extend, as it were, backwards into the original vastness from which we come and become aware of the transcendent essence of bliss, which is also our essence, till we become again consciously one with its infinite, conscious, Joy. 3

As mentioned before, Indian philosophy is complex and many-sided, but what we have sketched here in a few large lines is the foundation, and as we will see, we can deduct a surprisingly large number of psychological theories directly from this basic understanding of reality. If we can manage to operationalise in a pragmatic modern fashion the consciousness-centred integral philosophy, it may do for psychology what mathematics has done for physics. The reason for this is that everything here appears to be the result of two movements: a material one rising up, and a spiritual one coming down. How this works is perhaps easiest to recognise in a building, say a temple, a cathedral or even an ordinary house. If you look only at the physical side, it is built bottom up. No magic anywhere: every brick rests on top of another one. And yet the building as a whole would not have come up if there had not been an owner of a piece of land with a plan and the power to execute that plan. Interestingly the plan is not always ready-made in all its detail from the beginning. The owner calls an architect to detail out the form. An engineer makes sure that that form is feasible and that the end result will be structurally sound. A contractor is needed to procure the material and to bring the technicians and tools together to get the work done. In other words, to fully understand the building, physics is not enough, one has also to grasp the intention behind it, its role in society, its design, and the hearts and minds of the people who built it. We will have a closer look at how these two groups of forces interact first on an abstract level in the next chapter, which is on integrality. After that, we will look at it again, in more detail, in the chapters of the Introduction which deal with consciousness and its evolution. Finally, we'll deal with it in a more hands-on, practical manner in the chapters on cognition and development. But all that is for later. To start now, first the basic idea of integrality in the radical sense that Sri Aurobindo gives to it.


1.   There are several references to an involution preceding the evolution in the Indian literature. One of the most succinct descriptions can be found in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (1.7-9). I have tried to give a feel of the persisting identity of the One and the many in the chapter "Why this text is called Infinity in a drop".

2.   In fact, according to physicists who are familiar with the Vedic understanding of reality, it takes the mystery out of quantum physics and it offers a coherent explanation of the reason why humans can understand physics so well. But given my limited understanding of theoretical physics I have to accept this on hear-say, and as such it will have to remain outside the scope of this text.

3.   This doesn't mean we should not try to work in the outside world. The interest and commitment to do so are a valuable part of human nature and there is no need to abandon them: the idea is only to make our happiness independent from our success in achieving what we set out to do.