When modern psychology discovered in the beginning of the 20th century that introspection was not a very reliable method of enquiry, it did not discover anything new. The Indian civilization had discovered this thousands of years ago. What was different however, was how modernity reacted to this discovery. It is good to stand still at what happened for the consequences have been far-reaching and by and large negative.
Modern psychology escaped from the problem of introspection by redefining psychology as the science of behaviour. Initially this must have seemed a splendid idea and, especially in the USA, the whole field fell for it with a stunning degree of unanimity: psychology suddenly became a real science, purely objective, third-person, dealing in undisputable facts.
It took remarkably long before it began to dawn at what cost all this had come for the cost was high: By focusing exclusively on outer behaviour, almost everything that really matters to people had disappeared from view. Things like truth, love, joy, beauty, even meaning itself had become difficult to research, and so all those things that are central in a truly human life got an air of being intangible and unsubstantial. Moreover, as behaviour was easier to study in small (and cheap) animals than in people, the study of cognitive behaviour shifted to rats and pigeons. These “laboratory animals” were first starved and then taught random behaviour with the help of rewards in the form of food-pellets. And it is here that it all became really serious: the results of these animal studies were applied to human education, and so we have now children who are taught what to them appears as random facts, with the help of rewards in the form of marks and degrees. And once children are systematically trained to do anything whatsoever as long as it produces high marks, is it surprising that we end up with ‘grown-ups’ who are willing to do anything as long as it produces money?
It is hard to prove, but it appears at least that a relatively innocent looking choice regarding scientific methodology at the beginning of last century has led to one of the most serious problems our global civilization is presently facing: a true, world-wide epidemic of corruption and money-mindedness. It is obviously difficult to prove the link, and one may well argue that modern psychology is not anymore about “rats and stats”. We have now the well-established quantitative methodology of statistically processed surveys, more recently the promise of qualitative, narrative analysis, and a growing awareness of how knowledge gets socially constructed. But none of this goes deep enough. Good science goes below the surface, but these approaches don’t allow that to happen. The statistical surveys are limited to what representative populations of large numbers of lay people can report about themselves; the narrative analysis can not go beyond what concerned lay people already happen to know. Both have their use, no doubt, but the first cannot deliver more than a kind of sophisticated psycho-social geography, the second will find it difficult to rise beyond high quality journalism.
In case it is not clear whether this rather harsh criticism of mainstream psychology makes sense or not, it may help to consider what would have happened to astronomy if it would have followed the path taken by psychology. What would have happened if astronomy had limited itself to quantitative analysis of what large, representative populations of lay people see in the evening sky? It is clear that what people see is informed by their culture, it is also clear that one single “qualitative” interview with a farmer living high in mountains could have given better information on the sky than a large study of people living in the plains. But still, the real road ahead for astronomy was to forget about all this, and to ensure that a few highly trained professionals could make use of the most powerful and reliable pieces of equipment available.
Interestingly this is exactly what the Indian tradition has done in the field of psychology.
The ancient rishis and yogis realized, like their modern counterparts, that what ordinary people know about themselves is not worth much, but they did not shy away from the problem. Instead they analysed the causes for this human incapacity and then they set to work on methods to overcome these defects. They found that the two main problems were egoism, and a too naive reliance on what the senses make us believe. Regarding the former, they found that the egoism expressed itself through desires, preferences and the natural “vested interests” we all have in the outcome of our self-observations. All such factors lead in their own way to distortions. What is more interesting is that they found that it is actually possible to remove these obstacles, and that this not only leads to greater clarity of thought, but also to a remarkable type of unconditional inner joy and effectiveness in action. The latter may be a surprise to those who have been brought up on the virtues of “ego-strength”, but there is convincing scientific evidence that the detachment furthered by yoga and meditation actually does lead to greater social effectiveness and life-satisfaction. An anecdotal but almost certainly historical support for this comes, besides, in the form of the life of the Buddha, a living example of selflessness, and yet, one of the most influential individuals who ever lived.
Regarding the need to overcome the first impressions our senses give us, this is of course a hallmark of modern science. In the beginning of the modern, scientific era, the sense-impression of a “rising sun” was discarded in favour of a model in which the earth turns around its axis. More recent discoveries in quantum mechanics do not fit in our ordinary sense-based view of reality at all any more, and yet we use them as they can still be processed mathematically and used technologically. In a similar way, yoga and meditation have led to insights that are hard to grasp for the ordinary sense-based mind — for example “pure consciousness”, or the presence of “the Divine” as our deepest identity — but they can be made real experientially, and then they have a perfectly concrete, beneficial effect on our psychological existence.
Though the beneficial effects of yoga and mediation on our subjective sense of well-being have been shown to exists in numerous researches, they may still not be the most important contribution of the Indian tradition to psychology as a science. The most interesting might well turn out to be what the Indian tradition can contribute in terms of detailed, incisive and reliable psychological knowledge. For we should not forget that the ancient rishis were not only seeking for “ananda”; they were also seeking to overcome ignorance; they wanted true, undistorted knowledge. And real knowledge meant for them knowledge of the self, and this stress on looking inward first makes sense, for every thing we know or do, we achieve through our own nature. If our own nature is weak or distorted, everything we know or do will be tarnished by our weaknesses and distortions. So the first necessity it is to clean up, to purify and to get to know our own nature as thoroughly as we can. And this is exactly what jnana and purna yoga are about: to purify the inner instrument of knowledge so that it can provide undistorted truth about reality. If this purification and transformation are extended to the inner instruments of action, this will automatically lead to action which is no longer ego-based but in harmony with the whole.
Given the obvious treasures of psychological knowledge one can find alike in ancient scriptures like the Rg Veda, the Upanishads, and the works of modern yogis like Sri Aurobindo, it would be a great loss for humanity if modern Psychology chose to ignore this contribution. For the rishis developed something which mainstream psychology did not: a rigorous and effective method to develop detailed and reliable knowledge of the subjective domain. And this might well be the one thing humanity is presently most in need of.