What the Indian civilisation can contribute

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 24 March 2024

The Indian civilisation can make four major contributions to psychology and the science of the inner domain.

The four contributions

  1. The first is a genuinely integral understanding of the whole of reality, an understanding which is equally suitable for the physical and the psychological domain.

    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 as 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 Buddhist meditation techniques that have spread since millennia throughout Asia and in more recent times in Europe and the Americas and the "eightfold path" described in Patanjali's Yogasutras wich became popular amongst American practitioners of hatha-yoga. There is an extensive body of research about them, and there can be no reasonable doubt about their value for self-development and therapy.

    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, and we will make use of Sri Aurobindo's work based on the Vedic understanding of reality throughout this text.

  2. The second major contribution India can make to modern science consists of a psychology-friendly epistemology and a range of research methodologies that are appropriate for the rigorous, in-depth study of consciousness and other aspects of reality that cannot be studied effectively with the research methods of the hard sciences or those that mainstream psychology developed for the study of behaviour.

    With this we have arrived at what may well be the most important contribution the Indian civilisation can make to modern science. While decontextualised forms of yoga and mindfulness are used on a large scale for well-being, their potential for providing detailed and reliable knowledge and know-how in the inner domain has hardly been touched. This is remarkable — and tragical — since in the culture of origin yoga was taken up not only for happiness, but also, and often primarily, for the sake of knowledge and wisdom.

    It is a major theme of this text that these first two — the Indian understanding of the basic nature of reality and knowledge, together with its practical methods for the study of the inner domain — 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?".

  3. The third contribution the Indian civilisation can make to psychology consists of coherent and well-worked out theories about psychological structures, functioning and development.

    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 scope of present day mainstream psychology.

    Psychological theories and models will be taken up in Part Three, "Who am I?", and in the following chapters that deal with self-development and other applications of psychology.

  4. The fourth consists of a wide range of effective techniques for change and all-round development.

    As mentioned earlier, decontextualised versions of for example hathayoga and mindfulness, are already adopted by mainstream psychology on a large scale, 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 first two contributions, 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".

The need for a synthesis

Studying the psychological aspects of the various Indian knowledge systems 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, since any one of these different paths can take the seeker to the experience and realisation of the divine Absolute. All that an individual needs is to find the path that works best given his or her unique background and nature. But if our aim is to develop a comprehensive framework for the whole of psychology, we need a synthesis, since each of these traditions has specialised in a different aspect of human nature.

Instead of attempting to make my own synthesis, for which I am ill-equipped, I've used the synthesis Sri Aurobindo made in the first half of the last century. This synthesis is special for several reasons. The first is simply the sheer quality of his work, which I hope will come across even from the short quotations from his work I've included in this text. The second is that it is the outcome of a rigorous effort at going back in his own experience to the aspects of reality that gave rise to the different terminologies and schemata developed by the major Indian knowledge systems. As a result of that deeper, more inward effort, Sri Aurobindo's synthesis does not give the appearance of a purely intellectual construction; it appears rather like a remarkably comprehensive and coherent description of the iner aspects of reality that gave rise to the various, and sommetimes conflicting ways in which humanity has looked at them in the past. The third is that his work includes not only the Indian systems for individual spiritual development, but also Darwin's idea of biological evolution and the European ideal of collective, social progress. Together these Indian and European elements give rise to a fascinating perspective on life that is centred around the conception of an involution of consciousness, creating the physical world we know, followed by a still ongoing re-evolution of consciousness within that physical world. We'll discuss this in some detail in the last chapter on consciousness since I feel that it is an extremely helpful perspective from which to look at our human attempts at understanding ourselves, others, the world, and the direction in which we are moving.1

The core of this synthesis is the concept of integrality, purna: the idea that the ultimate whole is responsible for the existence and the functioning of the parts. This deserves to be a central theme in psychology, since our human lives go well to the extent that we are and act in harmony with the truth of consciousness and delight that manifests the world in and out of itself. The next two chapters will deal with integrality in two very different styles. The first is about the allegorical image that has given rise to the title of this text. The second is a more prosaic explanation of the concept of integrality as translation of the Sanskrit word purna.



1 For those who are interested, there is a short biography of Sri Aurobindo in the appendix.