This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

On The Seashore: Dialogues Between Indian Psychology and Modern Psychotherapy

By: Pulkit Sharma

M.Phil (Clinical Psychology) Scholar, Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), University of Delhi

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to bring out the crucial relevance of the need for a dialogue between Indian psychology and modern psychotherapy represented largely by the psychoanalytic perspective in this case. It is argued that since the experience of reality is experiencer dependent therefore no single perspective can claim a complete monopoly. The conflicts between the two perspectives are carefully scrutinized from a historical as well as an ontological angle. It is stressed that without a dialogue between the two schools humanity at large is facing a grave loss. The attempts toward a dialogue between the diverse schools are highlighted. It is suggested that rather than falling prey to intellectual wars, resources and energy must be directed towards a harmonious interaction of the two schools. Only then can we think of doing a greater justice and service to human suffering.

As a young student of Psychology, I intensely strive to reach at the perfect understanding of reality. However, one can catch a glimpse of a paradox in this simple goal, as no matter how hard I try, ultimately whatever I’ll reach will only be an understanding of reality and not the reality itself and also that since their can be many understandings of reality, none can be essentially perfect.

Reality understood is the reality experienced and thus an understanding of reality is a subjective truth, true for some and not for all. It is therefore incorrect to impose one’s view of reality on someone else and force the other to believe that one’s view is essentially the Reality. Any perspective, no matter how much enlightening or authentic it is, if it asserts itself to be the only truth it gets trapped in notions of determinism, positivism and rigidity and turns oppressive and suffocating thereby laying the ground for its own dismantling. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, one comes across an interesting anecdote appreciating the multiplicity of worldviews.

When the threefold offspring of Prajapati had completed their training in sacred knowledge with their father, they wanted him to say something. To the gods (deva) Prajapati responded with the syllable “Da” and when asked whether they have understood the gods said: “yes, we have understood. You said to us ‘control yourselves’ (damyata).” Upon which Prajapati said: ‘Yes, you have understood’. To the men (manusya), Prajapati replied with the same syllable ‘Da’and they too said they had understood” ‘you said to us “give” (datta).’ Prajapati replied: ‘Yes, you have understood.’ Finally, Prajapati told the demons (asurah) ‘Da’ and they said: ‘we have understood. You said to us “be compassionate” (dayadhvam).’ Prajapati said: ‘Yes, you have understood.’ [Radhakrishnan, 1953, pp289-291]

Thus, in a world where multiple truths exist, the assertion of one version of reality as the Reality would inevitably lead to the marginalization of several other truths and voices. As an individual who is searching for his answers and at the same time keenly interested in clinical work, rigid positions that various paradigms and perspectives take bewilder and frustrate me. With my relatively short seven-year tryst with Psychology I can hardly claim a complete understanding of any viewpoint, but at the same time I feel that I can look at the discipline with a unique vantage point since my interests are yet not crystallized and dogmatic. Almost every perspective has some extreme adherents who claim that their perspective is the only truth and rest all is garbage. Apart from these, especially in the field of Psychology and related disciplines there has sprung up a new breed of pseudo-secular proponents who are kind enough to admit that other viewpoints are of some value but ultimately assert that their truth is the supreme truth. With this kind of a standpoint it is almost impossible to have a much needed dialogue between different perspectives. As a result, we lose out on the benefits that can be reaped from interaction and integration.

The Battleground

Perhaps no living being can deny having experienced suffering and being overwhelmed, debilitated and suffocated by it. A major goal of human kind since ages has been to somehow overcome or rather transcend pain and suffering. Every civilization, every culture and every age, depending on diverse factors came out with their unique solutions to deal with suffering. This paper looks at two such perspectives, the Indian perspective which claims its roots to 3000 year old Vedantic philosophy and the contemporary psychotherapy and counseling schools that are seen as largely a western enterprise developed in the 20th century.

Almost all ancient civilizations had a strong belief in a supreme reality, soul and spirituality. In Europe, following renaissance, there was a rebellion against the oppression by church, which claimed to be a supreme power due to the assumed sanction of God behind it. The Cartesian dictum (Descartes, 1641/1996) asserted the notion of individuality and consequent rationality, which has been the center of all activities of science and modern world. Thus, in a battle against religion, ideas such as soul, God and spirituality were also discarded as irrational and termed unscientific. Modern psychotherapy also keenly wants to reside in the arena of science and its assumed notions of rationality and therefore has a discomfort with spirituality.

Thus, a great rift exists between the spiritually minded people who look down upon modern psychotherapy as reductionist and contemporary psychotherapists who look down upon spirituality as irrational and illusory. Proponents on both the sides refuse to acknowledge the other’s perspective as having some degree of merit. Freud (1927, pp.17-18), the father of Psychoanalysis accorded a defensive and neurotic view to religion and spirituality. He believed that religion derives from “man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable, and built up from material of memories of his own childhood and the childhood of the human race. Man’s helplessness remains and along with it, his longing for his father, and the gods. The gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcize the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common had imposed on them.”

Many subsequent analytic thinkers endorsed Freud’s views and discarded spiritual experiences as psychopathological or primitive states. Similarly, the psychoanalytic community remains antagonized by Sri Aurobindo’s (in Dalal, 2001, pp. 298-300) views that “the exaggeration of the importance of suppressed sexual complexes (by psychoanalysis) is a dangerous falsehood and it can have a nasty influence and tend to make the mind more fundamentally impure than before. The self-chosen field of these psychologists is besides poor, dark and limited…That is the promise of the greater psychology awaiting its hour before these poor gropings will disappear and come to nothing.”

Many proponents of Indian Psychology rebuke Psychoanalysis for fostering a culture of instinctive gratification and animal herd instinct. Here, the issue is not to judge that whose truth is greater but to realize that till such attitudes exist, both Indian psychology and modern psychotherapy will keep on fighting futile battles leading to a waste of energy and culminating in heavy losses that the ignorant humanity would have to bear.

The “Ego” Controversy and the Perfect Union: Points of difference

The major point of conflict between current psychotherapeutic paradigms and Indian psychology is their view of the ego. Indian Psychological perspective strongly believes that ego or the individuality is the root cause of all suffering. Till such time when ego continues to exist there is bound to be no escape from plight and the being continues to live in illusion. Swami Rama Tirtha (1978) expressed accented this aspect with the metaphor of a water particle and sea- “If you separate a small particle of water from the sea, it will become putrid, it will become stagnant and filthy. Similarly, the man who feels himself a finite being, limited by time or space, confined within a short area, is not healthy, is not whole; he can lay no claim to happiness.”

Modern psychotherapy believes that suffering emanates from unfulfilled needs and conflicting wishes and desires. The task of psychotherapy is thus to resolve these conflicts and help the individual reach an equilibrium and sublimation. According to Freud (1943), during analytic treatment “ at the expense of the unconscious the ego becomes wider by the work of interpretation which brings the unconscious material into consciousness.” This process however, as understood from the Indian perspective only strives to strengthen the illusory ego or the “adi maya” and it is the paramount goal in almost all psychotherapeutic and counseling paradigms. Psychotherapy is concerned with bringing equilibrium, fulfillment and tranquil in the phenomenal world and the Indian perspective encourages one to transcend the material world in search of the divine truth and omnipotent and omnipresent bliss, i.e. “Paramananda.”

Another consequent and accompanying void created between the two perspectives concerns the view of the relational dimension between the “seeker” and the “giver.” The “Self” always craves for a perfect union with some “Other” in which the personal boundaries blur and which gives it a sense of completion and a freedom from all suffering. On this aspect, Indian Psychology and modern psychotherapy differ diametrically as spirituality says that such a union is possible while psychotherapy taking the stand that it is impossible.

Clinical work is usually a helping alliance between the patient and the therapist. But, by virtue of being the supposed subject of knowing, the clinician or the therapist becomes a potential love object for the patient and thus emerges transference from the original love object to the therapist. The patient sees himself or herself as dependent on the therapist for all the answers he or she seeks. French Psychoanalyst Lacan identified the analysand with the lover, the analyst with the beloved, and the resulting strategies of transference as dynamics of love. The supposed subject of knowing refers to the individual’s belief that it is possible to attain a climax of full self-realization, a status characterized by definitive cancellation of all nonsense, the complete understanding of oneself and the discovery of the true signification of life (Nobus, 2002, pp.126-127). The analysis reaches its climax when the analysand finds out that everything will fall short of the “perfect” match. Thus, the prominent goal of the treatment is also to encourage a strong relational bond and ultimately make the analysand realize the “the perfect union” is an illusion that must be given up in order to heal and function.

In contrast, the place of “guru” or “murshid” in Indian perspective is that of an omnipotent, omnipresent and benevolent “Other” who means almost everything to the disciple or the seeker, right from lover, father, mother, friend, child, protector to the entire cosmos. Transferences are not intellectually analyzed but it is through their celebration and bold assertion that the divine truth is attained. The Bhakti and the Sufi path advocate merging the self with the divine reality so that the Master and the seeker are one, and the seeker does not have an independent existence anymore. In words of 17th century mystic Bulleh Shah (Duggal, 1996, p.53) -

Ranjha ranjha kardi nii main aape ranjha hoii
Sado nii mainuu diido ranjha heer naa aakho koii
(Remembering Ranjha day and night, I have become Ranjha myself.
Call me Dhido Ranjha, no more I be addressed as Heer.)

However, this phenomenon of union is complex. Usually, scientifically minded people view this union as pathological dependency and a wish to “return to the womb” and get united with the love object thereby overcoming all the fears of separation. There seem to be some flaws with this existing explanation. Firstly, it is not mandatory that the individual vanish into the divine; he may bring down the illumination of the higher consciousness into all aspects of his life and various levels of consciousness and continue to be in the world thereby contributing to the spiritual and evolutionary growth of humanity. “ The liberation and transcendence need not necessarily impose a disappearance, a sheer dissolving out of the manifestation; it can prepare a liberation into action of the highest Knowledge and an intensity of Power that can transform the world and fulfill the evolutionary urge” (Sri Aurobindo in Dalal, 2001, p.399). Secondly, the purpose and the essence of the merger is not the loss of individuality per se, but it is the giving up or surrendering of the ego as articulated by Sri Aurobindo (in Dalal, 2001, p. 366)-

"There is individuality in the psychic being, but not egoism."

According to the Indian perspective, in order to reach our true individuality we need to get united with the divine that essentially exists in us, but about which we are ignorant. Once the veil of ego is lifted we cease to be the apparent and the ignorant self and transform into the True Self. The “Self” must not be confused with ego. When we discover our True Self, all contradictions resolve as we discover the One and the All in us. The union that leads to resolution of all contradictions is expressed by Sufi mystic Bulleh Shah in following verse (Duggal, 1996, p.31) -

"Na maen moman vich maseetaan, Na maen vich kufar diyan reetaan,
Na maen paakaan vich paleetaan, Na maen moosa na pharaun.
Bulla, ki jaana maen kaun.

Avval aakhir aap nu jaana, Na koi dooja hor pehchaana.
Maethon hor na koi siyaana, Bulla shauh khadda hai kaun.
Bulla, ki jaana maen kaun.

(I’m neither a believer going to the mosque, nor given to non-believing ways.

Neither clean nor unclean, neither Moses nor Pharoh.

I know not who I am.

I was in the beginning, I’d be there in the end. I know not any one other than the One.

Who could be wiser than Bulleh Shah, whose Master is ever there to tend?

I know not who I am.)

The Spurious Empathies

Noble, innovative and highly creative energies just like the atomic energy at times end up in mass destruction. On both the sides, highly alert, ethical and empathic intellectuals would express that they or their perspective must not be held responsible for any act initiated by an untrained, unethical and ostensible adherent. I strongly feel that proponents of any viewpoint must also accept some responsibility for the misuse of their perspective by ostensible practitioners. The task here is not to put the blame on their shoulders but to urge them to see to it that any system is not used at peril of humanity. However, before this argument is stressed, I would like the reader, whatever his/her orientation is to look at the situation from the vantage point of an individual who is in severe distress and pain and is desperately looking for a solace.

First, let us assume that this seeker has a spiritual emergency and he happens to unknowingly knock at the door of a therapist who relentlessly believes that religion and spirituality are simply psychotic states, which deserve to be tamed through electric shocks, biochemical medicines, token economies and obviously rigorous institutionalization. Ultimately, a creative being that could contribute worth to the world and to his own being is lost. On the other hand, consider the fate of the individual if he has deep rooted conflicts and happens to meet a faith healer, then he keeps on searching for divine truths which make his problems worse, though it would be beneficial if he could get the knowledge of his own split parts. Till the time that people remain rigid about their positions or in a trance of superiority of their thinking, such incidents will continue to occur. The problem is severe in developing countries like India where almost anyone becomes a self-assumed therapist.

In recent times, there have been quite a few attempts to integrate the diverse viewpoints of spirituality offered by the Indian Perspective and the gains offered by modern psychotherapies. Any attempt at trying to unite diversities deserves applaud, but it also needs to be looked at with criticism especially with regard to the end result it creates. Also, when one is propagating a viewpoint, care should be taken that it is not misinterpreted by novice and ignorant people. At times, spiritual quest also becomes a neurotic escape from the world whereby out of frustration, incompetence or anger an individual decides to abandon the world, using spiritual quest as a shield. Similarly, there are therapists who due to lack of training in their own field use “spiritual icing” to deflect the client from the right path and shield their own weakness to provide healing. To someone who is unable to cope from stresses of cosmopolitan culture, they may simply say, “everything is useless” and wrongly claim that they employ an integrative perspective moving in the direction of spirituality. One must be open that emotional conflicts and pathologies can exist even in people having spiritual endeavors. One should neither invalidate their spiritual quest by magnifying the role of psychic conflicts but at the same time one must also not use their spiritual inclinations to invalidate their emotional problems.

Integration should not simply mean a hapless and haphazard summing up of various diverse parts resulting in a bewildered and useless cocktail. In recent times, there have been many therapists and healers who have adopted meditation and yogic postures into their therapeutic work and claim to be falling under a spiritual framework. Thus, you have a few techniques being ripped apart from a system, decontextualized and being practiced and prescribed for relaxation, achievement of material success and fitness. Using any technique out of a context reduces it to a gimmick that loses its essence in the long run. The yoga without its yamas and niyamas, without its spiritual orientation is not the Yoga. Any spiritual system is a unique configuration and cutting it into parts would lead to a loss of its purpose and true existence.

Having said all this, I would like to maintain that interaction and integration is of crucial importance in present times and must be intensely sought for but care should be taken that in doing so there is no loss of essence.

Towards a Dialogue

A just and fruitful attempt to integrate psychotherapy and Indian psychology should include the obliteration of power and superiority struggles, an empathic understanding of each other from one’s standpoint, sensitization toward the other view and the culmination of the expertise and energy of both to serve mankind. Indian psychology as one of its important aims for spiritual attainment requires the surrender of the ego. But, one must have an ego in the first place to surrender. An ego which is overwhelmed by unconscious and infantile fears, which has not learned to relate harmoniously with others, which seeks power and immortality in order to aggress, which repeats trauma to master it needs something else before it goes on the difficult path of spirituality. Ego development is crucial before one can give it up. In Wilber’s (1980, pp.110-11) words- “it is ridiculous to speak of realizing the transpersonal until the personal has been formed.”

Thus, in many cases where there are prominent psychic conflicts, modern psychotherapy can resolve them making the ego stronger and thus laying the foundation for a spiritual endeavor. In this way, modern psychotherapy becomes a pre-stage on the spiritual path. The ego even plays a crucial role in spiritual endeavor. According to Sri Aurobindo (in Dalal, 2001, p. 383)- “so long as the higher consciousness above ordinary mind does not descend, ego remains a necessity even in aspiring towards the Divine.” The fact that psychotherapy, by strengthening the ego and breaking troublesome defenses can assist an individual in spiritual growth has been acknowledged by the spiritual community as well. “The mature self that emerges from psychotherapeutic work is stronger, yet this strength allows for flexibility, fluidity, the capacity to let go off control and to surrender to the deeper self. Spiritual practice becomes blocked or slowed down for most people without significant psychological work” (Cortright, 2001, p. 69). Before attempting to reach our true self we need to deal with the panic associated with the journey towards the unknown.

Similarly, there has been a movement in the psychoanalytic camp from looking at mysticism with skepticism towards acknowledgement and acceptance of existence of divine states of consciousness. The tendency to apply psychoanalytic concepts to understand mystical states as pathological dependency and submission has been given up. In the last few decades, there has been a shift in the way oneness experiences are viewed within psychoanalysis (Blass and Blatt, 1996). The psychotherapeutic community shows a greater acceptance and recognition of spiritual states – “ it is pointless to deny the muddiness of the mud, but it is equally silly to deny the beautiful blooming nature of the blossom. Both are aspects of the flower” (Kripal, 1999, p. 449).

A common tendency, which we tend to show while discussing or integrating two perspectives, is too see them as distinct and far apart from each other. We view, understand and categorize reality in dichotomous polarities as east and west, scientific and unscientific, modern and traditional, theirs and ours; thereby creating conflicts. Reality however might be different. There is a need to look beneath dichotomies and find commonalities. By trying to find commonalities behind diversities I neither wish to say that a spiritual journey can be reduced to psychotherapy or vice-versa and nor do I intend to create a doctrine of positivism that there is only one truth behind varied perspectives, but that by virtue of their dealing with human suffering there are some common unifying elements between both.

Contrary to the prevailing belief that spiritual schools talk of only the divine truth and neglect all that is personal and past, many spiritual schools agree to the fact that there exists a personal unconscious and knowledge of which is essential for growth and liberation. In words of Sri Aurobindo- “ the animal in us, - the infernal also, - has its lair of retreat in the dense jungle of the subconscience. To penetrate there, to bring in light and establish a control is indispensable for the completeness of any higher life, for any integral transformation of the nature (Sri Aurobindo in Dalal, 2001, p.40).”

It is a misconception that psychoanalysis raises into action the repressed impulses and the unconscious content. The goal of analysis is to make the individual aware of his hidden personal truth- the truth that he is scared to acknowledge. Analysis is a process where the analysand opens himself in presence of an uncritical, benevolent and non- judgmental “other.” The analyst never blames, ridicules or criticizes the analysand and never imposes anything on him, but serves as a witness consciousness that the analysand gradually internalizes. Paradoxical analytical rules permit the expression and articulation of impulses, feelings and desires without sanctioning their gratification in the analytic dyad. The individual’s truth no matter how trivial or horrifying is received and respected and through this awareness and benevolence foundations for a new self are laid down. There occurs a flowering and widening of the self, a reduction in anger and hostility where one becomes benevolent and moves beyond the self to a concern for others. “Health depends on taking back into ourselves and thereby integrating what we otherwise split off and externalize into others” (Steiner, 1993, p.210).

Epstein (1984, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1995) has attempted to integrate Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. The distinctly Buddhist meditation is the mindfulness practice (Epstein, 1990) in which consciousness is allowed to flow freely and whatever arises in the mind from moment to moment is attended to. The process of free association resembles mindfulness practice in many ways (Epstein, 1995). In Epstein’s view, after exploring childhood trauma and breaking down of the defenses, there should be a shift into the meditative mode. Rather than focusing upon feelings, the therapy should shift to the sense of the “I” and its insubstantiality. Thus, the attention is directed from never ending emotional pain to a spiritual quest.

Jung also emphasized the spiritual aspects of clinical work. Jung believed that in order to reach the true self, one must transcend the ego. He compared the process of realization of the Self in yoga to the process of analytic therapy “ To experience and realize this self is the ultimate aim of Indian yoga, and in considering the psychology of the self we would do well to have recourse to the treasures of Indian wisdom. In India, as with us, the experience of self is a vital happening which brings about a fundamental transformation of personality” (Jung in Swami Ajaya, 1983, p. 139).

However, there do certainly exist quantitative and qualitative differences between various psychotherapies, between psychotherapies and spiritual schools and also between various spiritual perspectives. These differences fall in the realm of the methodology and the extent to which awareness, meaning and liberation is strived for. Thus, what we need in the present hour is not integration or a takeover of one perspective by another but only a dialogue through which a realization and appreciation of the ends pursued by all schools is possible. Some of the models and frameworks have commented upon the different layers of consciousness, eg. Advaita Vedanta perspective, Sri Aurobindo’s perspective, Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Model (Wilber, 1977), etc. We certainly need a theory integrating all the levels of consciousness- the ones we already know and also the ones, which we still might be ignorant about. But, that should not lead to a domination of one view by another or desperate attempts to map one view over the other, because in practice each theoretical modal follows a unique course and thus cannot be reduced or enlarged to be put into a framework of another view. In doing so, we will essentially be missing out something.

One can point out the similarity between free association and Buddhist mindfulness practice and be sensitized to both or attempt a transformation of existing perspective to some extent, but Psychoanalysis is Psychoanalysis and Buddhism is Buddhism. In practice, a single view can hardly do justice to the concerns of all. Just as human body is one and yet we have several specialists- endocrinologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, and etc. catering to specific organs of the body, similarly we can think of having consciousness specialists working on a theoretical continuum but dealing with specific levels, fully aware of their strengths and limitations and those of their colleagues as well. Ultimately, everything gets determined by individual choice- that whether in order to alleviate suffering one needs Exposure and Response prevention, Prozac, Psychoanalytic Couch, Yoga or Sufi song and dance- and as there are different individuals, there ought to be different pathways.


In order to alleviate suffering, Indian Psychology and modern psychotherapy can complement each other. We need a theoretical framework containing all levels of consciousness, which could create a possibility of a dialogue between diverse perspectives, but in practice each view needs to be given its due place. Enough of time and energy has already been wasted in futile battles for the top slot. Let us put an end to this intellectual race and move to new horizons for the betterment of humanity.


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