What the Indian knowledge traditions can contribute
Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 01 August 2022

Four crucial contributions which the Indian civilisation can make to science, and more particularly to psychology

One can distinguish four crucial contributions which the Indian civilisation can make to science, and more particularly to psychology. In each these areas we'll give a short indication of what modern science has tried so far and what more is possible.

  1. The first is a genuinely integral understanding of the whole of reality, an understanding which is equally suitable for the physical as well as the psychological domain.
  2. Its earliest formulations can be found in some of the oldest Indian texts like the Ṛg Veda, the early Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā. The "Vedic paradigm" given in these texts functions like a loving grandmother to the enormous variety of spiritual, philosophical, religious and cultural schools which India later brought forth. Outside India, it has been mainly these later traditions that have made an impact. One can think for example of the many different meditation techniques that have spread since millennia throughout Asia and in more recent times in Europe and the Americas. There is an extensive body of research about them, and there can be no reasonable doubt about their value for self-development and therapy. But the older, more integral tradition is interesting for a different reason. It is its ability to support and nurture in an impartial (and often surprisingly modern) manner, the entire range of human efforts at understanding and improving the world and ourselves, whether religious, cultural, spiritual, or scientific. As science and technology are removing the distances that used to keep people and cultures apart, it is hard to exaggerate how much humanity needs such an integral framework for understanding all aspects of reality, and all the different ways in which people deal with them.

    In modern times, Sri Aurobindo is the main exponent of the integral Indian tradition. We will discuss Sri Aurobindo's take on the Vedic understanding of reality in the following chapters of the introduction.

  3. The second major contribution India can make to modern science consists of an epistemology and a range of research methodologies that are appropriate for the rigorous, in depth study of consciousness and other aspects of psychology that cannot be studied effectively from our present physicalist and constructivist perspectives.
  4. It is these research methods that have produced the techniques of yoga and mindfulness of which decontextualised forms are now used on such a large scale in counselling and therapy. If modern science would adopt the Indian understanding of the basic nature of reality and knowledge, as well as the Indian methods for the study of the subjective domain, these two things together could revolutionise psychology and its applications in education, self-development, counselling, therapy, management, etc.

    We will look at the epistemology and methodology in Part Two, "How do we know?".

  5. The third contribution the Indian civilization can make to psychology consists of coherent and well-worked out theories about psychological structures, functioning and development.
  6. One of the neat outcomes of the Indian approach is that it provides a logically coherent map of human nature in all its complexity, including things that are entirely beyond the grasp of mainstream psychology at present.

    Psychological theories and models will be taken up in Part One, "Who am I?", and in Part Three, "Meeting others and the world".

  7. The fourth consists of a wide range of effective techniques for change and all-round development.
  8. As mentioned earlier, decontextualised versions of two of these, hathayoga exercises and mindfulness, are already adopted by mainstream psychology, and more comprehensive implementations are part of a variety of subcultures, but while all this is great for those who use them, it is not enough to take psychology further as a science. For that we need also to understand the ontology and epistemology that gave rise to them.

    We will explore a variety of such techniques for inner change and development together with the underlying theory in Part Four, "Working on oneself", and in Part Five, "Working with others".

Studying the Indian tradition is however, not that simple. The Indian civilisation is extremely complex and so, if one wants to go beyond the usual platitudes, one has to choose between a selection and a synthesis. For one's own individual growth, a selection may well be the most efficient way to proceed, but since each Indian system has specialised in a different aspect of human nature, if we want to develop a comprehensive framework for the whole of psychology, what we need is a synthesis. Instead of attempting to make my own, for which I am ill-equipped, I've used for this text, the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century.1

Sri Aurobindo's synthesis

There are several things that make Sri Aurobindo's work uniquely suitable for the development of a new foundation of psychology. One of them is that he realised early on that what works in the enormous variety of Indian efforts at developing knowledge and mastery in the inner domain is a specialised use of in itself common psychological processes. As he wrote in the introduction to The Synthesis of Yoga, "yoga is nothing but practical psychology" (p.44). And so, for the synthesis he made of the various schools of yoga and philosophy, he left their outer — often culturally determined, religious and ritualistic — forms aside and concentrated instead on the underlying psychology. The result of that effort is an exceptionally comprehensive understanding not only of those aspects of human nature that are important for spiritual growth, but of the whole of psychology, right from our dealings with our everyday physical and social circumstances, to the most lofty, light and harmonious regions that only spiritual practice can make accessible. As may be clear, one can fully, experientially, know such a synthesis only from an inner height and wideness of consciousness that most of us are not capable of — and perhaps not even need — but even a simple mental understanding of it helps, just like a good map helps to find your way in an unknown country.

One of the first things that strike us in Sri Aurobindo's synthesis is how many broad avenues and narrow byways there actually are from the limitations, conflicts, pain and suffering of the ordinary consciousness to the perfect love, joy and understanding we crave for. Though this may look confusing at first sight, it actually means that there is always a road, from wherever one happens to be, to the place where one needs to go. It is this variety of paths that explains why there are so many entirely different therapies and spiritual schools that all seem to work for some people in some circumstances. For individuals this variety is fine. All they need is to find a path that works for them and pursue it with all the energy, rigour and sincerity they can muster. But for our collective life it is not enough. For social services like education, medicine, and psychotherapeutic care, we need to develop a comprehensive science of the subjective domain as a whole, and if we do this well, it is bound to take our knowledge of the subjective domain further than isolated individual efforts have ever achieved. For this we need as starting point an understanding of reality that is, as Sri Aurobindo says, wider than those of the various spiritual (and psychotherapeutic) traditions which are too focussed on individual salvation, and deeper than that of our present science which is too exclusively focussed on the material aspect of reality. To enable this widening and deepening we need three things. The first is a provisional understanding of the basic stuff, structure and functioning of reality that will not stand in the way of further discoveries. Ideas that got the material sciences started were for example that all matter is composed of particles and force-fields, that the earth is a globe circling around the sun, and that both follow fixed laws that can be described in the language of mathematics. For the humanities a good starting point would be that the basic "stuff" of reality is the triple unity of saccidānanda, existence, consciousness and joy, and their dynamic counterparts, energy, power and love. We'll discuss this further in the remainder of this introduction. The second thing needed are methods to make our knowledge more accurate. In the physical sciences this involves on the one hand standardised procedures for discovery, critique and sharing, and on the other hand the use of previously developed insights to construct ever more powerful tools to improve our observations further. For the inner domain the nature of these procedures and tools have to be different. This will be discussed further in Part1 One, "How do we know?" and Part Four on Self-Development. The third consists of effective sharing and the application of the newly developed knowledge, know-how and tools for the "common good". This serves for the outer and inner sciences the same triple purpose: it is obviously good in itself, it provides the social support needed for the effort, and it leads to new questions that spur further development.

In short, for each individual his or her individual growth is the most important and for this one well-chosen specialised path is sufficient, but for the society as whole, we need a more comprehensive map of the entire territory and effective methods to make our enquiry in the subjective domain more quickly progressive, and these are the focus of this text.

To conclude

The scientific discipline that is most in need of a new foundation is psychology. Its very name indicates that psychology is supposed to be the science of the psyche, the Greek word for soul, and in this text we will take this seriously. We will look at psychology in first instance as the science of our innermost essence, and it is from that understanding, that we will look at our more humble thoughts and feelings, our desires and fears, our outer action and inner agency, and the myriad ways all these interact in shaping our lives. Above all else, we will focus on our urge for progress, our search for a greater love and a more beautiful life, our aspiration for a wider consciousness, a deeper meaning and a higher truth, for that is the central contribution our souls make to our lives.

Before we get to all this, we need, however, to get a deeper and wider understanding of reality and of the different types of knowledge we humans have at our disposal for understanding it. Since consciousness is at the heart of all the confusion about psychology and how to take it further, we'll begin with a closer look at three very different ways in which humanity has understood consciousness till now.



1Interestingly, it was roughly in the same period that Freud created Psychoanalysis in Europe, and that Watson lay the foundation of Behaviourism in the USA, that Sri Aurobindo began to test — and expand — India's ancient inner knowledge with impeccable intellectual rectitude in a remote French corner of colonial India. While Freud and Watson started large movements within the academic world, Sri Aurobindo worked quietly on his own and though he published the first version of almost all his major prose works between 1914 and 1920, even now, more than a century later, the quality and extent of his work are still hardly known. Those who don't know his work may wonder why I have put so much faith in one single author, but I hope that as we proceed, whatever initial scepsis the reader may have will be dispelled by the sheer quality of Sri Aurobindo's work. There is a short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the Appendix.