Psychology: Five Major Indian Contributions

Matthijs Cornelissen

One can look at knowledge systems other than one’s own in two ways: sympathetically, as a source of insight that can potentially enrich, complement or even replace one’s own way of looking at reality, or objectively, as a curious cultural characteristic of others than oneself. The latter is the approach of most historical and ethnographical studies. These disciplines study non-Western knowledge systems not for their intrinsic value, but in order to develop insight into the people and cultures that have produced them. Within modern science, Indian knowledge systems have been studied almost exclusively from such a third person, historical or ethnographical perspective. This is a serious loss for the developing global culture, as it effectively sidelines the contribution these knowledge systems could make to our collective insight into ourselves and in the world around us. It is true that since a long time Buddhist and Hindu Art are accepted as part of our collective heritage. It is even bon ton to admit that Buddhist and Hindu scriptures contain nuggets of truth that can help people with a certain disposition in their personal life, but the contribution Indian thought can make to mainstream modern science is largely ignored. This is perhaps understandable as a leftover of 19th century’s colonialist parochialism, but given the excellent modern communication facilities it is not excusable, for there are several subjects in which the Indian tradition has produced knowledge that is undeniably more comprehensive, reliable and socially relevant than what the as yet largely Euro-American modern science is producing.  A prime example of such a subject, to which the Indian tradition can make extremely valuable contributions, is Psychology.

There are five distinct areas in which the Indian tradition can make a major contribution to Psychology as an academic science:

  1. Philosophical Foundation. The Indian tradition provides a comprehensive philosophical framework that can not only support the enormous wealth of psychological knowledge inherent in its own spiritual paths, but also, and with equal ease, all branches of modern psychology. The core of this philosophical framework is its insight into the nature and role of consciousness, which provides a considerably more fruitful foundation for the social sciences than the materialist-reductionist theories and methods on which Western science presently bases itself.
  2. Epistemology and Methods of Subjective Enquiry. Based on this consciousness-based ontology, the Indian tradition contains a perfectly coherent theory of knowledge that has spawned numerous rigorous and effective techniques to arrive at valid and reliable insights in the subjective domain.
  3. Theories of Self and Personality. The Indian tradition has an understanding of the Personality and the Self that is more comprehensive, coherent and rewarding than any other personality theory presently available in academic psychology.
  4. Special Areas of Psychology. There are a number of specialized fields of psychology to which the Indian tradition has made extremely interesting contributions. Subjects that come to mind include emotions and aesthetics (eg. Bharata’s theory of bhava and rasa), language, motivation, human development, etc..
  5. Applied Psychology: Pathways for Change. Last, and perhaps most important, the different approaches to Yoga contain insights and techniques to bring about psychological change, that can revolutionize applied fields like psychotherapy and education.

Each of these areas is a world in itself and deserves to grow into an independent discipline within the wider field of Indian Psychology. In the first half of this paper I will touch shortly on a few major directions in each of these five areas. In the second half, I will work the Indian concept of consciousness out in some more detail because it is the foundation of everything else in Indian Psychology.  I will base myself for this exposition on the work of Sri Aurobindo, who has not only produced a comprehensive synthesis of the different schools of Indian thought, but also added a dynamic, evolutionary element missing in the tradition as it is commonly understood.

1. Philosophical Foundation

The all-pervading Brahman

The heart of Indian philosophy is the concept of the all-pervading Brahman (see Philips, 1997).

It is remarkable that in the ancient scriptures the simple mentioning of Brahman’s name is enough to settle all doubt. In the Kena Upanishad, which might well qualify as mankind’s shortest and yet most profound introduction to cognitive science, there is, for example, a sweet and famous story in which the gods, after a difficult & laborious victory over evil, have become too cockish for their own good. The gods obviously need a lesson in modesty, and Brahman, the Absolute One, appears in their midst in the form of a simple blade of grass. The gods are baffled by this sudden appearance of a blade of grass in their heavenly abode, and each one of them tries to deal with it in his or her own typical way. But to their great consternation Agni (fire) cannot burn it, Vayu (wind) cannot blow it away, and even Indra (mind) cannot grasp or destroy it. When Uma (dawn) finally announces that the blade of grass is no other than Brahman, all the gods are stunned and instantly realise the folly of their pride: they are forced to acknowledge the One who infinitely surpasses them.

When we take the gods as divine personifications of fundamental psychological powers and processes, the interpretation of the story is not difficult: Agni, the basic human drive and aspiration, Vayu, the cleaning force of the pure heart, and Indra, the Lord of the mind, are great powers, no doubt, but by themselves they have neither power nor value. In fact by themselves they could not even exist. As Uma, the first dawn of pure discernment, points out to them, there is a “secret ingredient”, an Absolute that makes them what they are and that, at the same time, infinitely and eternally surpasses them. That secret One is Brahman, at once the ineffable Transcendence, the all-comprehensive Cosmos, and the ultimate individual Presence. There is nothing beyond Him, nothing outside of Her, nothing too small for It. This lesson in humility is perhaps the one lesson modern man is most urgently in need of. 

For the ancient ones, the mentioning of Brahman’s name was sufficient, but our sceptical modern mind is not as easily satisfied as these more ancient gods; it does demand further argument. It wonders specifically why the realisation that All is Brahman would give any more satisfaction than the realisation that all is energy, mass, charge, charm, spin, or whatever else modern physics may tell us. The modern mind might actually argue that the latter concepts are more useful as they can be quantified and mathematised while the former are intangible, if not incurably ineffable. But contrary to what modern man is wont to believe, and in spite of the immediate practicality of the more mundane physical explanations of reality, there is good reason to hold that Brahman actually is superior to any purely material concept as the ultimate explanation of the Universe. The main ground to believe so, is that the concept of Brahman is more comprehensive and integral in the deep sense of the Sanskrit word “purna”. To be specific, Brahman includes three crucial elements missing or poorly understood in modern science, Personhood, Consciousness and Infinity. While it is impossible to arrive at a full understanding of what it means to be a Conscious Self on the basis of our present understanding of matter as unconscious substance, it is perfectly possible to develop a good understanding of matter on the basis of the complex Indian understanding of Sachchidananda: the lower can be explained in terms of the higher, but the higher cannot be explained in terms of the lower without losing somewhere on the way its very essence. For a full mastery, however, we need both types of understanding, the spiritual as well as the scientific. As the Isha says:

Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance1, they as if into
a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.
… He who knows That as both in one, the Knowledge and the Ignorance, by the
Ignorance crosses beyond death and by the Knowledge enjoys Immortality.
(Isha Upanishad, Sri Aurobindo’s translation, 1996, pp. 21-22)

To integrate the spiritual and the scientific, the materialist framework will not do. The integration, which the Isha demands, is only possible in the more comprehensive explanatory framework of the ancient, purna vedanta. The key of this framework, the conceptual link between the higher and the lower, the absolute and the relative, spirit and matter, is the understanding of Brahman as Sachchidananda, which, in its turn, is based on a marvellously rich and complex understanding of the nature and role of Consciousness, not only in the individual but also in the “outer” social and physical reality. We will take this up in some more detail in the second half of this paper.

2. Epistemology

Of the many Indian contributions to epistemology I’d like to mention only three that have major theoretical as well as practical implications. The first one is derived directly from the Vedic ontology. Starting from the idea that consciousness and being are in essence one, Truth is considered a quality of being, more than an attribute of sentences. With the exception of the highly sophisticated metaphysical and logical debates between the medieval darshanas, the cultural stress in India has been on experience, rather than on information. Popular Hinduism is full of stories in which the genuine wisdom of kings, old women and ignorant girls is successfully pitted against the experientially empty scholarship of learned pandits. True knowledge is something you have to own with your whole being, you have to become it: the real knowledge is, as Sri Aurobindo calls it, knowledge by identity.

Modern science and Indian spirituality are both aware of the fact that Reality surpasses our capacity to understand it. Popular science may make rash statements of the type: “Earlier we used to think that it was like this, but now we know that it is like that”, but real science doesn’t do so, it always remains open to the possibility that its conclusions will be refuted or refined in the future. Openness to what is beyond our (present) knowledge is an essential element of science as well as of spirituality.2 There is however one big difference between the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. While in science the “extra” is seen as “more of the same”, in the Indian spiritual tradition the “extra” is seen as something of another order, something ineffable beyond the whole category of mental statements. In this context it is interesting to note that the way of dealing with that ineffable “extra” seems to have changed in India over time. The authors of the early Upanishads and Vedas give the impression that they discuss reality while solidly established on heights of spiritual understanding quite beyond the mind. It appears that these ancient Rishis were still breathing the underlying oneness, and simply juxtaposed different approaches to the ineffable Absolute without the slightest worry about the logical contradictions this would entail. The medieval exponents of the six darshanas, on the other hand, were much more deeply engrossed in their mental logic, and they carried it to its extremes with all the enthusiasm of new converts. Even while at some summit of their being they must have been aware that the “real” reality surpassed their mind, they discuss truth in terms of exclusive mental categories: if the Ultimate is Personal, then it cannot be Impersonal; if it is Immutable, then it cannot be Mutable, and so on. Only a few had the courage to carry logic to its bitter end and proclaim, like Nagarjuna, that the Real is not A, not not-A, not both and not neither.

Seen from within the Indian system, it is easy to understand why the mind is incapable of arriving at a complete understanding of consciousness: the mind itself is considered to be just one, comparatively minor, manifestation of conscious-existence. The ultimate aim of studying philosophy and psychology is thus, even in the later darshanas, not to develop mental information and logical argument, but to surpass the mind and reach a higher order of knowing. As Sri Aurobindo wrote:

[T]he knowledge we have to arrive at is not truth of the intellect; it is not right belief, right opinions, right information about oneself and things, that is only the surface mind's idea of knowledge. To arrive at some mental conception about God and ourselves and the world is an object good for the intellect but not large enough for the Spirit; it will not make us the conscious sons of Infinity. Ancient Indian thought meant by knowledge a consciousness which possesses the highest Truth in a direct perception and in self-experience; to become, to be the Highest that we know is the sign that we really have the knowledge.
Sri Aurobindo, 1972a, p. 686

Even now, what the world is looking for in the Indian tradition is not just information—not even the right information. It is something we have to become.

It may be clear that this conception of knowledge has major consequences for the role and nature of psychology as a science and thus for the teaching of psychology, for research in psychology and for psychotherapy. It is not that western psychology has not realised the difference, for example, between information, assimilated theoretical knowledge and skill, but in the Indian tradition these refinements of the concept of knowledge are not an ad hoc addition needed to adjust the theory to the requirements from the field, but something that flows directly and harmoniously from first principles.

The second major Indian contribution to epistemology is based on the first one combined with the insight that there are many different types and levels of consciousness present amongst men. The one ultimate Truth is ineffable, or rather “of infinite quality” as the much richer Sanskrit equivalent, anantaguna, says, but it manifests in the form of many smaller truths that all embody entirely different and often contradictory parts and aspects of the One. In the field of religion, this leads to the wonderful concept of the Ishta Devata, the idea that the one ineffable supreme, can come to his devotees in myriads of forms.3 In the field of ethics, or truth in action, this idea of multiformity arising from a deep underlying unity leads to the marvellous concept of the individual svadharma, the personal truth of action which is not universal but is meant to guide the individual about what he or she should do in harmony with his or her own Svabhava, essential nature, under his or her specific circumstances. Again it may be clear how a deep understanding of the twin concepts of svadharma and svabhava would lead to major changes in psychotherapy, education, developmental psychology, business management and even law enforcement.

The core of both expressions of this second epistemic point is respect for difference in manifestation, based on a deep awareness of an implicit, underlying unity. Interestingly, this is also the hard-fought-for essence of modern democracy which is defined not only as the rule of the majority, which by itself could be monstrous, but as the rule of the majority combined with a deep respect for minorities and individuals4.

The third major epistemological contribution of the Indian tradition to psychology that I want to mention here, is its methodology. In all areas of science it is implicitly understood that the nature of the researcher does play a role. A student of physics or medicine does not only learn the established facts of his subject, or even the right research methods, but in the process of his studies he becomes a physicist or a doctor. But this inner change is not the key issue in his studies. The largest part of the collective progress in the hard sciences comes about through the development of better theory and better instrumentation, which in turn is made possible by the progressive feedback loop between technology and science. In Psychology the nature of the researcher is, however, of paramount importance, as it is in fact the researcher’s own human nature, which is the main tool for his enquiry in the nature of consciousness. The Indian tradition has worked this out in a detailed and rigorous manner that has simply no equivalent in the West. The enormous wealth of techniques and processes developed as part of Yoga, can all be looked upon as ways to improve the efficiency, purity and resolution of the antahkarana, the inner instrument of knowledge. And it is a perfected inner instrument of knowledge, which is most needed to arrive at detailed and reliable psychological insight. A full recognition of this fact—which will have to go together with acceptance of psychology as a first person rather than a third-person science—will lead to drastic changes in selection criteria for psychology students, methods of teaching psychology, research methodologies, establishing lines of authority within the discipline, and so on.

3.  Models of the self and the personality

When we finally come to the content of psychology, the most important contribution made by the Indian tradition is no doubt its concept of the Self as the Atman, the Purusha, and the relation of this Self on the one side to the ego, the ahankara, and on the other to the cosmic and transcendent realities of Prakriti and Brahman. Together with this, one has to consider its fine understanding of the different types of consciousness (the koshas), the centres of consciousness in the human body (the chakras), the varieties of mind like vijnana, buddhi, manas, and the way they relate to the chitta.

One of Sri Aurobindo’s main contributions in this field is his distinction between the immutable Self, the Atman, above, and the evolving soul, the chaitya purusha, which he calls “the psychic being”. Another major contribution is his detailed description of the different types of consciousness, right from the consciousness of the body to the higher ranges of mind, and especially the distinction he makes between the Overmind and the Supermind (e.g. 1972a, 271-89).  Of major practical importance is also his understanding of how the vertical Vedic system of different planes of consciousness interacts with a concentric system consisting of the outer nature, the inner nature and the purusha on each of these different levels.

4. Special areas

There are many specialised areas of psychology in which the Indian tradition can make major contributions. One can for example think of Bharata’s detailed study of aesthetic pleasure and emotions; cognition, perception and awareness; language; personality types (gunas, varnas); life-cycles (ashramas), etc. One of the most interesting for modern psychology is perhaps the Indian approach to developmental psychology. In this field, the contributions from the Indian and the modern Western tradition are clearly complementary. Western developmental psychology has done a lot of work on what is unique to early childhood. Just as in pre-modern Europe, the peculiarities of early childhood have not received much attention in the Indian tradition, and what happens during this period of life is taken largely as not more than a specific application of general principles. But what the Indian tradition can add to developmental psychology are its insights in the evolving soul. While the debate in modern Europe has been largely between nature and nurture, the Indian tradition brings in a third element, the self, the soul. In the Indian tradition our biological endowments, what we would now call the genetic foundations of the personality, are not taken as part of the self, purusha, but as part of Nature, prakriti, and as such as part of the circumstances of life. The real “I” is the eternal soul, and the focus is first about what the soul does to create the environment it ends up living in, and second how this soul subsequently should deal with that “environment” (which includes the peculiarities of its own character). Though we do get here into an area about which the different religions have strong, sometimes contradictory and often dogmatically defended opinions, this area is too important to be ignored entirely by psychology. To me personally the Indian idea of souls that grow slowly over many lifetimes seems to fit perfectly with experience and can explain much about the huge differences between people and especially young children that is very hard to make sense of otherwise. Luckily, most of the practical consequences for upbringing and education remain the same whether life is seen as a one-time affair for the individual soul or not. The main point, on which the major religions all agree, is that there are individual souls5, that they are not in all respects identical, and that they should be helped to grow and flourish. The Indian tradition has an incomparable wealth of insights in the details of this process of growth and development.

5. Change

This is the area where the Indian tradition has probably had the greatest influence on the evolving global civilization, not only in the subculture but also in mainstream Psychotherapy and Human Resource Development. The latter is probably due to the fact that these fields of applied psychology are much less theory driven than academic psychology proper and as such more open to new ideas, irrespective of whether they fit in what is traditionally considered scientific or not, as long as they can be shown to work. This pragmatic focus is an advantage as well as a disadvantage. In Western psychology, meditation and yoga are widely recommended as “relaxation techniques” without the slightest hint of their deeper spiritual meaning and cultural context, which is a rather tragical travesty of their original intent. I suppose this has to be accepted as a beginning but we must hope that a more broad-based introduction of Indian psychology in academia will lead to a better understanding of what these techniques purport and how they are related to a complex and intricate web of meaning and purpose.

In this area too, Sri Aurobindo has made a number of significant contributions. The most important is perhaps that he realised that yoga is nothing but practical psychology (1972b), and that he worked out in great detail how the basic natural processes at work in our psychological nature can be used to uplift and transform our existence. In harmony with his vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo sees as the ultimate aim of Yoga not only liberation, but also transformation. His yoga involves a triple transformation: first a perfecting of the outer and inner nature as an instrument in service of the soul, then a bringing of more and more of one’s being under influence of the higher ranges of the mind and spirit, and finally a supramental transformation which he considers to be the inevitable next step in the evolutionary process (for more detail, see for example 1972a, p. 889 onwards).

The Indian Concept of Consciousness

As mentioned in the beginning, the heart of the Indian contribution to modern psychology is its wonderfully rich and comprehensive conceptualisation of consciousness. But before we go deeper into the Indian understanding of consciousness, it may be useful to realise that Western science and philosophy have failed spectacularly in their attempts at developing a coherent understanding of consciousness. In the beginning of the 20th century the scientific study of consciousness was, in fact, for all practical purposes given up, and for about 80 years, consciousness became more thoroughly taboo in academia, than sex had been in Victorian England (Guzaldere, 1992). Though recent progress in neuroscience and artificial intelligence has revived scientific and philosophical interest in consciousness, the 1997 edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy has not even an entry for consciousness!

The explanation for this amazing failure is to be found in the peculiar history of modern science in Europe. Since the European “Enlightenment”, European thought has laboured under a strict separation of Church and State, Religion and Science, Spirit and Matter. In a culture where the dominant religion was tied to well-established doctrine by a strong central authority, this was probably needed to create sufficient space for secular progress, and the “Cartesian Split” is widely believed to have helped the physical sciences to prosper. But it has created insurmountable problems for the social sciences and especially for psychology. The crux of these problems is that an exclusive study of external, physical “behaviour” can give psychology no more insight into the human psyche than what a quantitative analysis of paper and ink can contribute to literary studies. Just as literary criticism cannot escape from difficult issues such as “meaning” and “beauty”, a psychology worth its name cannot escape from the study of subjective experience, thoughts, feelings, and consciousness. Sneaking these back into “objective science” by the back door of the (objective) study of (inherently subjective) self-reports that are based on naïve forms of introspection, as psychology has done in the second half of the 20th century, introduces low quality subjective data that no amount of sophisticated statistical analysis can remedy. Comparing the way modern psychology collects data with the manner, in which the exact sciences arrive at their basic data, may make the situation clearer. Astronomy, for example, does not make progress by asking professional astronomers to survey what random members of the lay-population have seen in the sky during their evening stroll, but through the observations which a few exceptionally gifted, well-trained and equipped specialists have made themselves. The Indian tradition has followed the same procedure for psychology: it has developed its massive base of solid knowledge about the inner realities of consciousness by making use of the direct self-observations of a small number of highly motivated, gifted and trained individuals. Western psychology, on the other hand has tried to study what is going on in human nature indirectly through the professional interpretation of the lay self-observations of the “common man”. It is hardly surprising that this has lead to a science that has failed to rise above first appearances.

There is still another direction in which the self-imposed limitations of the social sciences have created entirely unnecessary difficulties for psychology. Mathematics and even physics cannot prosper without incorporating in their systems the abstract and immeasurable notions of absolute zero and infinity.  For very similar reasons, one cannot have a meaningful psychology as long as one leaves out the possibility of “pure consciousness” and the existence of the intrinsically infinite soul, spirit, and divine in man. However difficult these things may be to measure “objectively”, the numinous is much too crucial a part of what it means to be human to be ignored with impunity. The European solution of allotting the secular and the spiritual to the two entirely independent and non-communicating knowledge systems of science and religion may have been useful to remove a too dogmatic religion from most of our day-to-day affairs, but in the long run it is not a healthy solution. It is rather the sign of a collective multi-personality disorder that might well prove fatal for the human race if it spreads much further than it has done already.

As a result of this failure to keep science and spirituality together, the dominant concept of consciousness in western science suffers from two serious defects. The first is that it is limited to sensorial awareness of one’s surrounding (in other words to manas in its most narrow denotation of sense-mind). Though this limited concept of consciousness is useful for neurosurgeons and anaesthetists who need to determine whether a patient has “regained consciousness” or not, it is not suitable for wider use in psychology, as it doesn’t do justice to the wide range of entirely different types of consciousness human beings can have. It is equally unusable for evolutionary biology and philosophy because it turns consciousness into a freak phenomenon unconnected to anything else in nature. The second defect is that consciousness is still routinely confused with a variety of mental functions, which often, but not always go together with human consciousness. Both are rather primitive errors, which were already recognised as such in the earliest Upanishads and the most ancient texts on Yoga, but they have been common throughout the history of modern Western thought right up to the present.

There are still a few caveats before we finally will dive into the Indian concept of consciousness. The first of them is that there are several Sanskrit words that are routinely translated as consciousness, and this leads, obviously, to quite different understandings of the nature and role of consciousness in the Indian tradition. In this essay, I will follow Sri Aurobindo’s conventions for the terminology: I will use the word “Consciousness” mainly for Chit and its derivates, I will systematically use “Self” for the Purusha and the Atman, and I will keep the word “ego” for the ahankara, the temporary formations in the outer nature, with which the Purusha mistakenly identifies itself.

Second, there are many different schools of thought in the Indian tradition. If there are 30 lakh gods in the Indian pantheon, we should not be surprised to find at least as many concepts of consciousness. The following discussion is not meant as an historical overview of all these different concepts, but as an attempt at distilling an underlying essence, a core that can help to put modern psychology on a more fruitful track. This is obviously a very personal choice, and though it is largely based on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation and extension of the tradition, it is not a verbatim rendering of his writing or, for that matter, of any other Indian source. It is my own rendering in modern psychological terminology of what I see as an important common essence that underlies and supports the many different Indian positions.

The third and final difficulty I want to mention, is that everything related to consciousness is interrelated. Different aspects of consciousness can conceptually be separated, but they are still part and parcel of the single reality of Brahman. Awareness and form-giving Energy, Oneness and Duality, Self and Nature, can all be discussed separately but their underlying reality is one. The following 12 points should thus not be considered in isolation, or in opposition to each other, but together, even where they seem to contradict each other.

Twelve Aspects of Consciousness

1. Consciousness is Awareness.

Consciousness is the light in which all is seen.

The first and most obvious aspect of consciousness is “awareness”, but it is amazingly difficult to describe what awareness actually is. Awareness seems to belong to the same category as Time, of which Augustine said, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it…, I do not know” (Augustine, 440/1955, Bk. 11, Ch. 14). The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines “awareness” in terms of “knowledge” and “perception”, but then defines “knowledge” and “perception” in terms of “awareness”. The Oxford editors cannot be blamed for this circularity: like time, awareness is one of the foundational elements of our existence, and classical definitions of the Aristotelian type, that start from a more general term and then narrow it down, don’t work. There simply is no appropriate more general term to define awareness with.

It is somewhat easier to show what awareness is not. When an electronic video camera “sees” the world, the camera is making a picture of the world in some electronic form. Yet, there is little reason to presume the camera has any “awareness” of the world. Even if you could connect the camera to a robot, which could imitate all the complex computational processes that happen in the brain, it remains dubious whether you should call this robot “conscious” in an ordinary, human sense.6 It is more and more widely held that even in humans, all behaviourally relevant cognitive processes can take place without awareness, which leads to the view that awareness is not an intrinsic part of those cognitive processes but something that can occur on top of them.7 It is interesting that this standpoint is totally different from that of Descartes (1641/1931), who put thinking without the slightest hesitation at the side of the self. The modern view is in this respect much closer to the ancient Sankhya view in which mental processes as such are considered to be part of external nature, Prakriti, while at the side of the Self all we have is pure consciousness. The big difference is of course that in the modern view, the physical thinking processes are considered the most important, they are what what really is, and what we are, while consciousness is considered "epiphenomenal". In the Indian view it is the physical reality which is secondary, while what we really are is our consciousness. In the Indian tradition it is often said that consciousness is the light in which the world is visible. This “light” in which everything is seen is the “Purusha”, the Self. In the Kena Upanishad, it is the secret unknowable that sees in the seeing, hears in the hearing, and knows in the knowing, and this brings us to the second aspect of consciousness.

2. Consciousness is the source of our individual Identity.

Consciousness is our self, or at least a power of the self.

Consciousness is very closely related to our Self. It is the basic source of our identity. When you wonder what the difference is between a camera and a human being, you could simply say, “in the camera, there is nobody home.” The technology is there, but the person is missing; the seeing is taking place but there is nobody home who sees it. In short, the question of the Kena Upanishad is not answered.  Sri Aurobindo calls consciousness a power of the Self but the two are so close that many scholars simply identify both as one and the same thing. For this reason both Purusha and Atman are sometimes translated as consciousness and sometimes as Self. Experientially one could well argue that we humans are, more than anything else, our consciousness.

3. Consciousness is not only Individual, but also Transcendent and Cosmic.

Consciousness is the transcendent source and all-pervasive upholder of the universe.

There is no consensus in modern science on any aspect of consciousness, but in the most common view all the consciousness that exists on earth occurs inside our human bodies, or at most in a few other highly developed animals or perhaps machines.8 Consciousness is nowadays widely considered to be an “emergent property” of information processing, that is to say, as something that comes into being during information processing when it reaches a certain level of complexity. As such it can exist only inside those animals (or machines) that have a brain that is complex enough to generate it. According to the Indian tradition, it is just the other way around. Consciousness is the very stuff of which the world is made. It is primarily transcendent, secondarily universal and only in the third instance individual. Our little individual centres of consciousness are small emissaries of the real thing who mistakenly identify themselves with an individual mind, ego, life and body, just as if waves would think themselves to exist apart from the ocean. Through yoga we can retrieve our Selves from this entanglement and re-identify ourselves with the one cosmic and transcendent consciousness, which we always have been in our essence, even at the time when our surface mind was imagining itself to be separate.

4. Consciousness is Unitary.

There is only one light in which all is seen.

A fourth basic and fascinating attribute of consciousness is that consciousness is unitary: there is basically only one consciousness. This singularity is true again on many different levels. One of the big issues in neuroscience at the moment is the “binding problem”: it has been found that at any given time hundreds if not thousands of parallel processes take place in the brain but there is no clear anatomical structure that is responsible for the fact that in the end we have only one integrated view of the world. In our subjective experience we can consciously only do one thing at a time and all the rest is done subconsciously. Even when we compare, for example, different ways of looking at reality, we still rely on one extra frame into which we put all these different smaller frames together. Phenomenally, our consciousness appears thus as a small, single window that looks out on a tiny selection from the multitude of mental processes that take place in the mind at any given time.

The Indian tradition has focused on the unitary aspect of consciousness on a quite different scale, the scale of the manifestation as a whole. In spite of the Sankhya position that there are many purushas, and the theistic schools that stress that there always remains a difference between man and God, the most common and most typically Indian understanding is that in ultimate essence, each separate Self is one with the Supreme Self. In the end, there is thus only one consciousness, the Consciousness of the Divine, which carries this whole world and all that are part of it. And this brings us to our fifth point.

5. The individual Self is one with the Cosmic and with the Transcendent Self.

This is “the Knowledge, which, once known, makes everything known”.
Each individual can realise his identity with the Absolute, every other & every thing.

If you add up the first four factors— that consciousness is awareness, that it is the source of our identity, that it can manifest on an individual, a transcendent, as well as a cosmic level, and that it is basically one—the conclusion imposes itself that in essence our own individual consciousness is one with the consciousness of the whole. As such, it should be possible to “realise” this in one’s experience. And this is, of course, exactly what the great mystics have managed to do, and what they say each one of us can do if we care to put in the necessary effort.

6. Consciousness is Joy.

Joy is the affective essence of consciousness and of all that is.
The ultimate reality is Sachchidananda.

This sixth aspect of consciousness, that it is one with Joy, is derived from the concept of Sachchidananda. The idea that the ultimate reality is an inalienable oneness of Existence, Consciousness, and Joy, is one of the greatest masterpieces of Indian thought and for psychology perhaps more important than Einstein’s famous equation of mass and energy for physics. I think it is simply brilliant to realize that essentially being, consciousness and joy are one and the same thing, for, indeed, you cannot have one without the other. Experientially the concept is derived from the fact that the realisation of absolute consciousness goes together with absolute joy. On our more humble levels of existence, consciousness and being, the equation of consciousness with joy may, however, not be so obvious. For us the world is divided into a curious mixture of pleasure, pain, and indifference, and there are not a few who have felt that in the end pain dominates. The problem of pain and suffering is one of the greatest mysteries of life and it is not possible to do justice to the issue here, but a few points can be made.

One way to understand the contradiction between the yogic assertion of all-pervading joy and the everyday pervasiveness of suffering is to compare joy with temperature. If you need a domestic scale of temperature you can use Celsius or Fahrenheit. Both start at an arbitrary place that happens to be convenient to us, like the temperature at which water freezes. Anything above that is called positive, warm; anything below that, is called negative, cold. With joy we do the same thing. Anything that is somehow within our range of liking we call positive, joy; anything outside this narrow range we call negative, suffering. The scientific way of measuring temperature, however, is Kelvin, which starts at absolute zero, and as such it has no negative points. In Kelvin, any temperature is positive. Only with such an absolute scale it is possible to work and think effectively and scientifically with temperature. With joy it might be the same thing. For domestic use the usual scales of pleasure and pain with a fairly arbitrary zero point in between are appropriate. But if you want to deal effectively with and think seriously about the basic Joy of Being, you have to start at the absolute zero and take everything beyond that as positive. After all, it is just our human smallness and ignorance that make us look at some things as suffering and some things as joy. They have no absolute meaning and the border between them is much more arbitrary and nebulous than popular sentiment presumes. Anybody who has tried even a little bit of self-mastery, knows that there are many things that in the ordinary, egoic life produce suffering, but that with a little effort can be made interesting, if not positively enjoyable. This is, like so many things, true at the top and at the bottom of human experience. Psychiatrists know for example that most people who have serious psychological problems, at some level or another enjoy having these problems. There is something in man, obviously something perverse, that likes trouble, is addicted to it and clings to it. At the top end of the human ladder as well, we see that many great mystics have suffered pain with a happy heart. And in between these extremes people do like to put in effort, and people actually enjoy discomfort, for example in sport or during holidays, as long as they manage to see it “as part of the game”. Essentially it seems to be only our human smallness and our ego that make us dislike pain and feel suffering. When our consciousness increases, our capacity for both joy and suffering increases. In fact, initially one may become more aware of the pain than of the joy inherent in life, just as one becomes aware of the dust in a room only after one starts cleaning the room. But in the end another Joy far beyond pleasure takes over and begins to penetrate every aspect of being.

All spiritual traditions have asserted the possibility of overcoming suffering, but for at least 3000 years there has been a tendency to seek the eternal Joy outside the earthly manifestation, either in some heaven beyond earth, or in a total annihilation of one’s individuality. In India, the perception of life as an illusion wins from the perception of life as Brahman, and the manifestation is seen as Brahma’s veil, Maya, rather than as his play, Lila. Even the otherwise life-affirming Gita, gives in one place as its ultimate aim the release from the cycle of birth and death. According to Sri Aurobindo this is a diminution of the original Vedanta, which did not have as its goal release from birth and death, but immortality. Sri Aurobindo’s answer to the problem of pain is not to escape in an absolute of Existence, Consciousness and Bliss beyond manifestation, but to call that Absolute Consciousness and Bliss right down into the manifestation. He sees this as a new possibility, and as part of the next step of our biological evolution, which will move from an embodied mind, manas, to an embodied “supermind”, vijnana, through a radical transformation of our nature. It may be clear that this change of perspective has major consequences for many areas of psychology, especially for one’s ideas of personal growth and motivation.

These are six essential, static and passive qualities of consciousness, related to “being”.

There are also six dynamic aspects of consciousness, aspects related to “becoming”.

Both in the West and in the East, the passive qualities of consciousness have dominated philosophical discourse. It is interesting to ponder why this is so. A sceptical psychologist might argue that there is no other reason than that philosophers, as people, tend to be idle observers of the world-scene who as such only recognise the passive aspect of consciousness in themselves and around them, while those who get actively engaged in the world, rarely find the time to write philosophy. But there may be more profound experiential reasons as well. In the early stages of yoga it is for example comparatively easy to develop a pure witness consciousness, “pure” in the sense of a total separation from “nature at work”, but it is extremely difficult to develop a pure will. All power corrupts, as the saying goes, and the dynamic will tends to be too mixed up with our lower animal nature to be distilled into a genuinely free, independent force. Karma Yoga is often seen as an early, preparatory stage of Yoga, (for example in the Yogasutras of Patanjali) and work can, no doubt, be used as a preparation for more contemplative aspirations. But to reach perfection in Karma Yoga is more difficult than to reach perfection in contemplation, as it necessitates a level of transformation of the nature that is not needed in Jnana or Bhakti Yoga where the nature can simply be put aside. In the later stages of yoga too, it is easier to identify with the Absolute in its transcendent, witness aspect, than in its dynamic, cosmic action. It is thus not surprising that the Advaita tradition, with its stress on the passive, witness aspect of consciousness, has become dominant over other more integral approaches. As a road to liberation it simply works because for a realisation of the Infinite it is not needed to come to a full reunion of Purusha and Prakriti. It is sufficient to separate the Purusha from the Prakriti and to reach the ultimate Oneness by dismissing Prakriti as Maya, illusion.

The original Vedic tradition is open to different interpretations, but it seems to have acknowledged both the active and the passive sides of consciousness equally. It may well be argued that such a more balanced approach should lead to the most complete realisation because Brahman itself clearly has a dynamic as well as a static aspect. This by itself is reason enough to value both equally, however difficult it may be to “realise” the dynamic side in one’s personal experience. And so we will add six more aspects of consciousness that balance out and complement the earlier six. If Sri Aurobindo’s vision of an ongoing evolution of consciousness is correct, then recognition of the dynamic aspect of consciousness will become crucial in the time to come.

7. Consciousness is Power; Chit is also Chit-Shakti.

Consciousness is not only passive awareness, but also form-giving energy, force.

The first of the dynamic aspects of consciousness is that consciousness is power. Consciousness is not only a passive witness. It does something. On the physical level, it is the consciousness in material things that gives them the habit of form and the tendency to obey certain fixed laws of nature. As you go up the ladder of consciousness, consciousness takes different shapes. Will on all levels is conscious power. On the vital plane, for example, both fear and desire tend to attract what is feared or desired. On the level of the mind, the clear formulation of an idea helps to bring it into existence. Such “conscious” or “subconscious” mental formations, the morphogenetic fields of Sheldrake, neurosis, Mantras, Samskaras are all complex forms of consciousness that have an active influence on what will manifest in the social and physical world. For us as individuals, the most important form of consciousness as power is our sraddha, the faith arising from the depths of our nature which determines what we will become: yo yacchraddhah, sa eva sah, as the Gita says. For the cosmos as a whole it is the consciousness-force of the Divine, which creates the worlds, and the Grace of the Shakti who guides our ways.

8. Consciousness is Biune (Ishwara – Shakti) and Dual (Purusha – Prakriti), as well as Unitary.

Consciousness is One, but it can manifest as none, biune, dual, or even many

One interesting aspect of consciousness is that consciousness is one, but not only one: it can also manifest as none, biune, two or many. These different aspects of consciousness lead to radically different experiences of the fundamental nature of reality, experiences that are so strong and convincing that they have given rise to different philosophies and religions, which are difficult to reconcile for the narrow logical mind, but which all find expression within the richness of the Indian tradition. Consciousness in the ordinary waking state is largely dual: it has a clearly marked ego as subject and an equally distinct and “real” nature as object. This state and the ideas derived from it are part of the current orthodoxy in the modern Western philosophy of science. As a result, intentionality is widely taken as the main criterion of consciousness. Even Jung, who was otherwise deeply influenced by Indian thought, could not imagine that a state without ego could be anything else than unconscious.9 At the other extreme are on the one hand the experience of the utter unreality of everything including the self, which leads to the Buddhist concepts of anatta and sunya, and on the other hand the Vedantic experience of the eternal Self being one with Brahman. In between there are the theistic religions which have different views on the ultimate nature of individual souls, and the Sankhya conceptualisation of many individual Selves, in whose immutable and unstained mirrors a single Nature is reflected.

The Sankhya stress on duality is generally taken as one step short of the Advaita experience of ultimate oneness. But it is such an important tool for progress on the spiritual path that there is virtually no school of yoga that does not in some way or another recommend the development of the pure witness consciousness. It is the easiest way of getting out of our entanglement in our ego. But whatever road one follows, whatever aspect one may try to stress, it seems that in the end one has to accept, realise, and enjoy, the many and the one as two faces of the same ineffable mystery.

9. Consciousness is Love.

Love is the essence of all relation.
Joy and Love are one.
Knowledge and Love are one.

The most beautiful form of consciousness is Love. It is as Love that consciousness sustains the world. But, like almost everything else in human life, love gets easily corrupted till, as desire it has turned into it’s very opposite. Yet, in essence Love and Joy are the same thing. Love is the dynamic, the active part of That. Joy is the passive, receptive side. And again this is true on the highest level of Absolute Ananda, as well as on the very mundane level of a mother with her child, or of two people “in love” with each other. Love is a simple, unconditional joy in the being of another person. Just as a child comes into being because of the love between his parents, however diminished or perverted that love may be, so this whole wide world would not exist if it was not carried by the Love of the Divine. One could fill volumes with the beautiful texts from the Indian tradition describing on the one hand the Love of God for his devotees, and on the other, the human love for God, which is seen as one of the highest and most profound ways of knowing him.

10. There are many Levels and Types of Consciousness

There are different types of consciousness, physical, vital, mental and beyond mentality.
These types exist not only “in us” as states of our personal being: they make up the world we inhabit, as well as the independent, typal worlds.
Each world presents a different relation between Purusha & Prakriti.

This is again an aspect of consciousness, which is obvious to all who are even faintly familiar with any occult or mystical tradition, but as we have seen in the introduction, it is at the moment not acknowledged in the given “orthodoxy” in scientific Consciousness Studies which take consciousness as a simple on/off mechanism: either you are conscious or you are not. It may be clear that an incorporation of India’s deep and complete understanding of all the different types of consciousness active in man, and the myriads of ways in which they interact would revolutionise psychology.

11. In Time, Consciousness Manifests as an Ongoing Evolution of Beauty, Truth and Joy.

Consciousness gradually takes form in space and time.
The World is not finished; it is a work in progress.

For me the most fascinating aspect of consciousness is that in space and time consciousness manifests primarily as a big adventure — as an evolution — in which slowly consciousness evolves, both in the individual and in the world as a whole, till, as Sri Aurobindo says, the consciousness of the Divine will be fully manifest in matter. The Puranas contain the story of the ten avatars, but till recently this seems to have been understood mainly as depicting stages in the progress of the individual. The idea of a collective evolution of consciousness is something that some orthodox Vedantins might immediately disqualify as absurd on the ground that consciousness is a property or power of the Purusha, which is eternally the same so that there is nothing that can evolve in consciousness except Maya. But as we saw in the introduction, the Indian tradition is very rich and the immutable Purusha is not the only word that can be translated as consciousness. When Sri Aurobindo talks of the evolution of consciousness, he talks about the evolution of Chit, which is the very stuff of existence and as such does enter into creation and does allow change.

After Darwin’s work on the biological evolution in nature, Sri Aurobindo and a few others realised that the evolution Darwin describes is actually not just an evolution of the biological form, but an evolution of consciousness, and more importantly, that in this evolution, the human being may not be the final stage. Man has all the trappings of a transitional creature somewhere halfway between the worm and the Divine. If you compare the evolution that has taken place so far with the Vedic classification of consciousness in seven layers, then it is clear that the highest step evolution has manifested so far is the embodied mind, manas. It is tempting to think that the next step of the evolution might be the embodiment of the supra-mental, vijnanamayakosha, which, as the link-layer between the higher and the lower hemispheres, could enable a divine, Gnostic consciousness in matter. This evolutionary view of our earthly enterprise makes many things fall into place that otherwise are hard to accept. Sri Aurobindo explains, for example, most of human suffering as due to the fact that we are as yet nothing more than “transitional beings”. The famous painter Van Gogh says something quite similar. He writes to his brother that we should not blame God for the state of the world: It is only a draft, God has not yet finished his painting!
We, human beings, are in process and have to wait and see what God makes out of us. 

12. Consciousness is a Mystery

One cannot understand God, but one can Love God, Know God, and even, to some extent, Become God.

After all that is said about consciousness, it is still a mystery, and luckily it will always remain a mystery. The more we know about it, the deeper the mystery becomes. The final truth cannot be understood with the mind because the mind itself is only a middle term, a quite limited form of consciousness. You cannot understand God; you can become God. You can very much love God, and to some extent you can know God in yourself and in the world, but you can never make a mental understanding that fully encircles it. 

These 12 points and the introductory remarks I made before them are all very basic and seemingly simple ideas, but if taken seriously, they could have far-reaching consequences for almost all areas of human endeavour, but especially for psychology. They do not contradict materialist science anywhere except in its claims of exclusivity and completeness. Without a deep understanding of the role of consciousness and the Divine in the world, the world would be dead and meaningless. Science has delivered humanity from the pits of ignorance, superstition and fear, for this we must be grateful, but it would be an absolute disaster if we would allow a materialistic science to rob us of the summits of the spirit.


The neatest and most beautiful summary of the Indian contribution to Psychology is formulated in one of the oldest and most recited verses of the whole tradition, the sloka from the Brihadaranyaka, which describes our eternal yearning, the quest to lead us
from the non-being to true being,
from the darkness to the Light,
from death to Immortality.


Augustine, St.  (400 / 1955), Confessions (book XI), trans. Albert C. Outler (1955), at (October 30, 2003).

Aurobindo, Sri (1972a), The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol. 18 & 19, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

—— (1972b) The Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol. 20 & 21, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

—— (1996) The Upanishads, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Coward, Harold (1985) Jung and Eastern Thought, New York: State University of New York Press

Descartes, René (1641 / 1931) The Philosophical Works of Descartes, trans. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. R. T. Ross, New York, NY: Dover Publications.

Guzeldere, Guven (1995)  “Consciousness, what it is, how to study it, what to learn from its history” Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 2, no. 1 pp. 30-51

Holland, Owen, ed. (2003) “Machine Consciousness”, special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 10, no 4-5.

Pearsall, Judy (1998) The New Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips, Stephen H. (1997) Classical Indian Metaphysics, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Skribina, David (2003) “Panpsychism as an Underlying Theme in Western Philosophy: A Survey Paper”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 4-46.

Velmans, M. (1991) “Is human information processing conscious?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 14, pp. 651-726.


1   Avidya, literary “no-knowledge”, is translated traditionally as “ignorance”, but it is used most typically for knowledge that is not knowledge of the Absolute. As such it includes science.

2   The Dean of the physics department at Cambridge University once told one of his students that the M.Sc. programme had only two objectives: 1) to convince the students that they know nothing; 2) to teach them how to continue learning without being taught!

3   It may be noted in passing that the centrality of this idea in Indian thought is a major argument not to consider Hinduism as a single religion in the exclusive Hebraic sense. Unlike Islam and Christianity, Hinduism is not exclusive, and can best be seen as a comprehensive philosophical and cultural framework that can embrace all forms of religion. As long as a religion doesn’t make claims on having found the one and only acceptable form of the Truth, it can always finds a place under the Hindu umbrella. This tolerant, non-exclusive attitude, which is an intrinsic part of the Indian tradition as long as it is known, is in the West only a very recent phenomenon, and the rising world culture can learn much from the way religious tolerance has been practiced in India for millennia.

4   As Dr. Kapil Kapoor has pointed out (personal contact), the concept of minorities should not be limited to the few major political groupings that are identified as such in Indian politics. Everyone alive on this great and complex earth, whether Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Parsi, Brahmin, Dalit, artist, teacher, tall, small, green-eyed or whatever, is simultaneously member of several overlapping minorities and at the same time a member of the single joint family of humanity. The point is the respect for individual differences which modernity has such an amazing difficulty with.

5   Buddhism seems, of course, to be the exception with its dogma of anatta, no-self, but this may be more a matter of theory than practice. The stress on “compassion towards all sentient beings”, which is common to all schools of Buddhism, is in practice dominant over the nihilistic trends in Buddhist theory.

6   The question whether it is possible to make non-conscious machines (“Zombies”) that are functionally fully equivalent to human beings, is considerable more complicated than it looks at first sight. The Journal of Consciousness Studies published a long series of papers on this issue till one of the more perceptive participants brought up that according to the Indian tradition ordinary human beings are quite like zombies in the first place and that the most urgent question should not be how to create zombies, but how to stop being a zombie! After this the debate fizzled out in no time (see JCS, volumes 1 and 2). The opposite question, whether we can make machines that are conscious, becomes more and more relevant as we begin to make machines that mimic conscious behaviour more and more closely. For an interesting discussion of many different aspects of this question, see the special issue on Machine Consciousness of the Journal of Consciousness Studies vol. 10, no 4-5 (2003).

7   For a full discussion of the empirical data, see Velmans, 1991.

8   There is an extensive “panpsychic” tradition, even in the West (see Skribina, 2003), but it seems to be almost forgotten in recent times, and is certainly not part of scientific “orthodoxy”.

9   For a good discussion of the limits to Jung’s understanding of the Indian tradition, see Harold Coward (1985, e.g. p. 73-75)