Scope & Substance of Indian Psychology

K. Ramakrishna Rao

Classical Indian thought is rich in psychological content. However, it is in the raw, covered by concerns and issues extraneous to academic psychology. They need to be mined from the depths of classical writings, cut by current analytical tools, crafted by concepts in vogue and displayed dressed in contemporary discourse so that one can see their natural brilliance and radiant splendor. Unlike western psychology, which is content dealing with problems of ego and social adjustment, classical Indian psychology is concerned with transformation of persons to higher levels of achievement and wellness.

Centrality of consciousness is the defining characteristic of Indian psychology. The chief concern is with the “person,” conceived as consciousness-as-such. The person is conditioned and clouded in the existential context by a vortex of forces generated by the mind-body complex. Embodied, the “person” becomes the instrument of individualized thought, passion, and action. From this individuation arise subjectivity, rational thinking and the relativity of truth and values.

Psychology in the Indian tradition is an “inner” discipline in search of realizing truth and perfection in the human condition. The goal is to find oneself in an unconditioned and unmasked state. While assuming that consciousness is the ground condition of all knowledge, Indian psychology studies consciousness in its multifaceted manifestations and seeks to explore the experience of its true nature in one’s being. Indian psychology is not only a body of generalizable principles but it is also a set of practices that can be used for the transformation of the human condition towards perfection. It has its own methods appropriate to its subject matter and objectives. The methods are observational, but they are different from the externally oriented observations of “outer” sciences.

They are a peculiar blend of first-person and second-person perspectives. They provide for personal, subjective, and non-relational authenticity and in-group inter-subject validity. The strength of Indian psychology consists in the potential it offers for transformation of the person, through successive stages, to a state of perfection.

Psychology of transcendence

My own reading of Indian psychology suggests a new psychology, a psychology that is vastly different from what we know in Western psychology. I see it as a psychology of transcendence. Some may call it psychology of enlightenment. The human psychological condition is a manifestation of various forces acting on and interacting with the “person.” The person per se has access to consciousness in its pure form, knowledge in it true state, beauty in its pristine magnificence, and goodness in its ultimate perfection. But in the existential situation, the person finds himself conditioned and his behavior is determined in a variety of ways. Conditioned, the person becomes an instrument of individualized thought, action, and passion. Knowledge is now biased, happiness personal, and beauty subjective. It is possible to return the person to the unconditioned state. This could happen in various stages and degrees. There are techniques that could help in the process of returning the person to the unconditioned state, the state of transcendence. With obvious differences in detail, I suspect, the major systems of Indian thought, including Buddhism and Jainism, conform to this generalized model of delivering or liberating the individual from a conditioned state to the unconditioned state. This movement from the mundane to the sublime, from samsara to nirvana, or in the Vedanta jargon, from vyavaharika to paramarthika states is what I call transcendence.

Transcendence is generally understood in a metaphysical and otherworldly sense. But it makes sense also in more mundane terms by signifying an effort to transform the individual to reach the desired goal of knowing truth, becoming objective, and partaking in the good and the beautiful that are veiled by conditioned biases and distortions brought about by the attachments and subjective conditions in one’s life history. Transcendence implies overcoming the existential constraints of one’s body-mind complex. The goal is to achieve perfection in what we know, what we do, and how we feel. There is a general belief that such transcendence from a conditioned being to an unconditioned state of perfection is possible. It is variously called and described. In Buddhism it is nirvana and in Yoga it is kaivalya. Sankara among others speaks of jivanmukti concept (Samkara, 1980) and the Bhagavad-Gita describes at length the state of sthithaprajna (Date, 1971). These are essentially states of transcendence achieved by controlling sensory inputs with suitable mind-control practices.

There are fundamental differences between the western psychology and Indian psychological thought. These differences range from methodological preferences to theoretical assumptions, from the primary focus of subject matter to its practical orientations. In classical Indian psychology, the focus is on the person rather than on the object of experience. The emphasis is on the mental rather than the physical aspects. The preferred method is first-person based inner knowing (introspection) and personal insight. We find that in classical Indian thought metaphysical theories are grounded in psychological insights rather than built on physical facts. The intellectual exercise is more synthetic and less analytical in comparison to the West. Again, somewhat surprisingly, classical Indian psychology is more practical than theoretical. It is oriented towards transcending existential limitations and transforming the individual, as mentioned, from a state of conditioned being to an unconditional state of freedom, to know the truth (satyam), to practice the virtue (sivam), and to appreciate the beautiful (sundaram).

The purpose of contrasting the western and Indian perspectives is not one of merely showing how different they are. It is clearly not one of asserting that one is wrong and the other is correct. The differences may be seen as complementary aspects and not necessarily as opposing alternatives. In the Indian situation, what is important is the cultural relevance of what we do as psychologists. If we begin to appreciate what is inherently indigenous and practice it in our profession, we will not only promote psychology in the service of India, but we will also help to enrich psychology at large by broadening its scope and content.

I will briefly refer here to Buddhism, Yoga, and Advaita Vedanta to illustrate what I mean by transcendence and how it may be accomplished, as conceived in the Indian tradition. I have discussed elsewhere in some detail the basic tenets of early Buddhist psychological thought and how they add up to provide a coherent psychological model that has empirical ramifications (Rao, 1978). A more detailed discussion of Yoga and Advaita may be found in my book Consciousness Studies: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Rao, 2002).

Buddhist psychology

Buddhistic psychology is essentially an attempt to understand the nature of transcendence and the methods of attaining it. Normal consciousness and the psychological processes associated with it are organized so that they generate a sense of stable and enduring ego, which in its turn influences, colors, and even determines our passions, thoughts, and actions. Transcendence is a state where the psychological processes lose their ego-reference and thus attain a transpersonal state. Buddhism believes not only in the existence of such a transpersonal ego-less state but also in the possibility of attaining it by following certain practices. By describing the different stages involved in the progress from the normal to the transcendental states, Buddhism provides us with one of the most interesting and pervasive phenomenologies of consciousness.

As Charles Tart (1975) points out, some structures of our consciousness are essentially permanent such as the biological and physiological givens. These constitute the hardware of the mind. Other structures are mainly a result of our developmental histories and are formed by processes such as conditioning, learning, and acculturation. These constitute the software of the human mind. Our so-called normal state of consciousness is determined by the hardware of the mind as well as by the software programs that appear to be common to most individuals during most of their lifetime. This does not, however, mean that the programs do not undergo any changes or that they are essentially identical in all human beings. Although the seed program is largely shared, the manifest program itself may be more or less complex and developed. Consequently, the information processed by one mind may not be processed by another in precisely the same way. Information processed by two minds relating to similar things is, however, likely to be similar because they share the same hardware and the basic program.

According to Buddhism, karma determines both the software and hardware inasmuch as the physical structures and psychological functions are fruits of the past karma. What is important, however, is the belief that modifications in the programming process are possible by the very process that is a source of accumulating karma. The key concept here is “volition” (cetana). Volition, on the one hand, creates the illusion of self, “I-ness.” Consequently, one’s actions and experiences gain ego-reference. Such ego-reference and attachment produce additional karma, which further conditions one’s thought and action. Ego is an epiphenomenon of volition and not an intrinsic structure necessary for all mental processes. We may note that ego is not included among the skandhas. It is not mentioned even among the seven universal elements of consciousness (cetasikas). On the other hand, volition may be directed to jñana and made to function in a way that actions lack ego-reference and do not accumulate further karma. Such transcendence from the karma producing ego-involved thought and action would emancipate the person from a conditioned state and lead to an unconditioned state. In such an unconditioned state the knowledge process is free from the binding influences of karma so that one has access to knowledge as such, truth unsullied by the distortions brought about by karma determined biases, habits and reflex-like responses.

Buddhism postulates the existence of a stream of consciousness (bhavanga), which, functioning at the subliminal level, is the basis of the subjective feeling of continuity and identity and which is the binding influence on our perceptions, thoughts, actions, and feelings. This stream, which operates below the threshold of our normal awareness, carries with it the imprints of a person’s life history, which predispose him to behave in certain ways. The imprints are the karma residues. They motivate, condition, and drive an individual to behave in set ways; but they lose their strength and may even disappear soon after they have activated a set behavior. The resultant experience, however, in its turn will produce another imprint. So the chain of causation continues. The karma imprints are formed when the mind functions in such a way that the resultant experiences have ego-reference and entanglement. But it is possible for the mind: (a) to function so as to destroy the previous imprints and (b) to function without precipitating new ones. Attainment of a state where all these imprints are destroyed or disarmed and the mind functions independent of the constraining influences of karma is the state of psychological transcendence. This is basically a trans-ego state engendered by a reorganization of the psychic structures through devices such as meditation.

Yoga psychology

Yoga is explicitly dualist. Its dualism consists in its conception of prakrti and purusha as two irreducible but complementary principles of reality. Prakrti is the ground condition of all material things (Keith, 1949). Purusha underlies all conscious events. The two are fundamental and represent the changing and permanent aspects of reality. Prakrti with its components of sattva, rajas, and tamas is in constant change, evolving into the myriads of things of the physical universe (Kumar, 1983). Mind is also, in this view, an evolute of prakrti. Mind is subtle matter inasmuch as it is predominantly composed of the sattva element.

In the human condition, mind is the instrument of knowledge. It processes information with the available sensory apparatus. Mind (citta) is functionally distinguished into manas (the central processor), ahamkara (the ego or self-referencing function) and buddhi (the executive function). The manas selectively reflects on the material provided by sensory processing. The ahamkara appropriates what is processed and thus the processed material acquires self-reference. The buddhi then assimilates the information and reacts in an appropriate way. Up to this point all information is implicit and devoid of conscious awareness. Conscious awareness arises when the mind receives and reflects the light of purusha. Conscious awareness is subjectively experienced information content of the world of objects and events (phenomena) that are sensorily processed by the mind. It is the image of the world imprinted on the mind and reflected in the light of purusha. Therefore, the knowledge of the world mediated via the sensory channels is at best a credible image and seldom a direct apprehension of reality as such. The image is a function of the sensory system. If our senses were of a different kind, the image of the world would be different. The images are distorted by the processing mechanisms and biased by buddhi’s own state, which is influenced by past actions, karma, vasanas, and samskaras (subliminal influences). Thus in the human condition, the way one gathers information and knows the world and of himself (phenomenal awareness) is anything but perfect. Yoga is a determined pursuit to transcend the limitations of phenomenal awareness to achieve higher states of awareness in which awareness is progressively delinked from sensory processing. Patanjali at the very outset states in Yoga Sutras that the practice of yoga is to control the vrittis (fluctuating forms) of the mind. When transcendence is achieved, awareness is successfully delinked and dissociated from sensory mode in a state of samadhi, which is one of mind’s absorption in consciousness. Transcendence involves achieving a state of pure consciousness or experiencing consciousness-as-such. Knowledge obtained in such a state is perfect and beyond falsification and doubt. Such knowledge is indubitable and certain by self-certification in a manner similar to the certitude of one’s cogito. Thus yoga practice is believed to lead to a state of niruddha, complete control and transcendence of sense processes that enables one to achieve kaivalya or perfection (Woods, 1927).

Pure consciousness in Advaita

The metaphysical assumptions of Yoga system and Advaita Vedanta are glaringly different. Yoga, as mentioned embraces dualism of matter and consciousness and pluralism of purushas, whereas Advaita is uncompromisingly nondualist and absolutist. Yet there is a great deal of similarity in their conception of mind and theories of cognition and perception. In both the systems mind and consciousness are different in kind and mind is regarded as material and physical. However, the Advaitins hold that our normal perceptions are only empirically real and they are ultimately unreal.

In Advaita view, existence or being has multiple levels extending from the essentially unreal like a hare’s horn, or a barren woman’s son or a sky flower to the ultimately real Brahman. In between there are other gradations such as the illusion of silver in a shell, the hallucinatory experience in a dream, dreamless sleep devoid of any imagery and various states of samadhi. Our waking perceptions are also regarded as lacking true reality. They are only empirically real. They fade out when true wisdom dawns and the realization of the ultimately real Brahman is achieved. By reality, then, the Advaitin means permanence and changelessness, whereas in yoga changelessness is not a necessary requirement of reality. Prakriti the ground condition of the evolving physical universe is as much real as purusha, the changeless consciousness.

Putting aside the metaphysical differences, we find the antahkarana and citta, the concepts used by Advaita and Yoga respectively to denote mind, are essentially the same. Mind comprises of buddhi, ahamkara, and manas (Dasgupta, 1988). The processes of cognition and perception are described in a similar manner in both the systems. The goal in yoga is to transcend sense-bound mental processes to attain a state of pure consciousness, Kaivalya. Similarly, Advaita advocates achieving the transcendental state of pure consciousness, which is realizing Brahman in one’s being. Here the transcendence is from the empirical (vyavaharika) to the absolute (paramarthika). The absolute is none other than pure consciousness in which reality (sat), knowledge (chit) and fulfillment/enjoyment (moksha) blend harmoniously. It is a state of true and authentic being, of supreme and sublime knowledge, and of utmost and undiluted bliss.

Knowing at the empirical level, in Advaita view, does not give absolutely true knowledge, because such knowledge is essentially variable. At this level, dissociation between knowing and being, cognition and action, is possible. At the transcendental level of pure consciousness, knowledge is free from empirical distortions. At the empirical level, knowledge is mediated. It is representational and relative. At the level of pure consciousness, it is direct and immediate. It is intuitive apprehension of reality. Here, being and knowing become one. According to Advaita, the goal of human endeavor should be one of gaining absolute freedom from the limiting conditions of empirical existence. Perfect knowledge achieved by realizing states of pure consciousness is the way. Yoga is a recommended means. It is possible to achieve states of transcendence in an embodied condition. Sankara among others subscribed to the concept of jivanmukti, the notion that the mind can be freed from its existential sensory bondage being in the embodied state. Jivanmukta is one who has gained freedom from the constraints of the sense-bound mind and realized pure consciousness in his being.

Much of what has been said is admittedly metaphysical. But the subliminal stream, the carrier of past karma that Buddhistic psychology finds it necessary to postulate, for example, is no more mysterious than Freudian unconscious or Jungian archetypes. What is interesting, however, is the explanatory model that accounts for normal, abnormal, and paranormal behavior. The implications of Indian psychology to paranormal psychology are obvious. The state of transcendence is one in which new cognitive relationships are established and where subject-object dichotomies cease. It is necessarily a state where our experience and knowing are not limited by space-time barriers or our normal sensory thresholds. The theory also fits well with several of the psychodynamic factors studied by depth psychologists. In fact, some aspects of the theory have test implications and permit empirical verification.

In the Indian tradition, states of pure consciousness are not mere speculative conjectures or metaphysical presuppositions. They are asserted as empirical facts, grounded in the genuine experience of a few people. Procedures and practices that are believed to lead one to states of pure consciousness of the mind are systematized. Therefore, there are good reasons for assuming that transcendence in a secular sense is an achievable state of the mind with high potential for transforming the individual to enable him to live authentically (sat) to know truth in a pristine fashion (chit) and to live in happiness (ananda).

I find the Indian approach particularly helpful in planning empirical studies of meditation. The rich phenomenology Buddhism provides for understanding the changes in consciousness accompanying meditation may be used for determining associated psychophysiological states. Such a determination would not only provide the needed objectivity for the phenomena described but also permit a more precise application of the meditative techniques to perhaps less significant aspects than transcendence but more immediately relevant areas such as mental health. For example, much of psychoanalytic groundwork is aimed at scanning the client’s life history to identify those critical past experiences that seem to be causing the present symptoms. But the treatment itself touches only the periphery of the problem. The Indian approach provides a way for tackling the very root of the problem through transformation of consciousness.

Core concepts and common themes

What I have said above describing Indian psychology as a psychology of transcendence/enlightenment is just one model. The great strength and beauty of Indian thought is that it is not monolithic. The colorful mosaic of pluralistic traditions has the potential to inspire one’s creativity and generate a variety of models and even full-fledged theories to guide our research and practices in psychology. Despite the obvious diversity of ideas and their enchanting distinctiveness, there are common themes and perspectives across systems and schools that have significant psychological relevance. These include such concepts as jiva, the person, atman, understood as Consciousness, with capital C, and karma, samskaras and vasanas which have possibilities for clarifying many issues in consciousness studies and depth psychology. Some of these hold promise in such emerging areas as biocultural evolution. The four purusharthas (kama, artha, dharma and moksha) as primary motives, the five kosas (annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, and anandamaya) as developmental stages and the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) as clinical dispositions have provocative possibilities for future psychological research.

Further, Indian psychology recognizes three levels of information processing, at the level of the brain, mind, and consciousness. Knowing is not limited to learning (sravana), which is essentially a function of the brain,and understanding (manana), which requires the involvement of the mind. Themore important aspect of knowing is realization of truth through meditation (nidhidhyasana) (Brihadharanyaka Upanishad, IV.5.6, Panoli, 1992).This tripartite upanishadic division of knowing truth is restated in Bhagavad-Gita as surrender (pranipata), inquiry (pariprasna) and service (seva) (IV.34). The concept of nidhidyasana has important implications to educational theory and practice. There is pervasive dissatisfaction with the current educational system and near universal appeal for value-based education. Understanding alone is insufficient to mold one’s character. In the human condition, there is room for dissociation between knowing and being. One may know that smoking is bad for health and yet continue to smoke. Understanding needs to be reinforced with realization. In realization, knowing and being become one, and there is no room for dissociation between them. It is interesting that the Gita emphasizes service as an aspect of realization. If meditation and service are thus related, educationalists in our country need ponder how service can be incorporated into our curriculum to make students not only learn and understand truth but also realize it in their being.

The notion of nidhidhyasana has also important methodological implications. Realization involves intrinsic authenticity, first-person validation and self-certification as distinct from external validation and so-called objective observation. Indian psychology successfully over-comes the “explanatory gap” between first-person subjectivity and third-person objectivity by providing for mediation via second-person involvement, as we will discuss in a subsequent section.

Consciousness and mind

As mentioned, consciousness holds center stage in Indian psychology. However, consciousness in the Indian tradition means much more than a quality of experience where one has introspective awareness. There are important differences here between western and Indian notions. The crucial and the most striking respect in which the Indian notion of consciousness differs from the western is in regard to the basic distinction made between consciousness-as-such and the mind. In the western psychological tradition since Descartes and Locke, mind and consciousness are used inter-changeably. In the Indian tradition, a sharp and meaningful distinction is made between the two. This distinction is crucial in that it has several important psychological as well as epistemological and metaphysical implications. The distinction itself is a consequence of the overarching concern in the Indian tradition with the being rather than knowing. The emphasis on the being leads inescapably to evaluation of the existential matrix surrounding the being and an equally important concern for elevating the human condition to the best achievable state. The existential predicament is seen as suffering and the goal is to escape from it to a state of transcendence, a state of bliss or moksha.

The predicament is a consequence of the identification of consciousness with the mind. The escape is through the control of the mind. Karmais what binds consciousness with the mind, and gives rise to the constellation of the ego and concomitant attachments. Therefore, the purification of the mind by cleansing of its karmic deposits enables to achieve the dissolution of the ego and the disappearance of attachments that color our awareness and bias our attitudes. The concern with the being aspect, the experience of the existential predicament and the motivation to escape from it to attain a state of bliss or moksha are the steps in the path of transcendence. They stand in sharp contrast to western scientific inquiry, which with its concern for knowing is content with analysis and understanding without paying any attention to the value dimension. Thus quest for transcendence/enlightenment is value-laden and scientific inquiry is aimed at being value-free. Inasmuch as knowing is an aspect of being, inquiry cannot be completely devoid of values. Scientific inquiry, which begins bereft of values, finds them after the fact and therefore has unpredictable consequences.

Mind in the Indian tradition is considered to be a subtle form of matter, whereas consciousness is completely non-corporeal. The mind is the interfacing instrumentality that is connected at one end to the external world and to consciousness at the other end. Mental phenomena therefore manifest the influence of consciousness as ‘subject’ and of the world of things as objects. The subject-object dichotomy that is implicit in our ordinary phenomenal awareness is a consequence of the stage the mind sets up for the play of consciousness and the material world as subjects and objects.

The attention to the “inward” in Indian thought has led to an emphasis on consciousness and its primacy. The primacy is asserted either as an overarching single reality as in Advaita monism or as an irreducible aspect of reality independent of the physical as in Samkhya-Yoga. In either case, the assumption is not engendered by rational argument alone based on metaphysical presumptions. They are derived from their respective epistemological positions, which are themselves grounded in psychological assumptions based not merely on the authority of the Vedas, but claimed to be empirically supported.

In its quest for truth, the Indian tradition turning inward, attempts to identify the elements that tend to distort and falsify our general understanding of the world around us. It seeks to explore methods and strategies to control them. Further, it endeavors to develop techniques that reveal truth in its pristine and unsullied condition, to formulate philosophical theories and to prescribe practices of conduct consistent with the truth so revealed. In such a scheme, the first step is to understand how we normally acquire information and the possible limitations and imperfections of such information. The beginning point then is cognitive science as systematic epistemology.

Now, the predominant mode of acquiring information is sensory processing. Such processing is known to be biased because of the manner in which the processing person is situated, whose presuppositions, attitudes, and motivations constrain and bias perceptions. More importantly, the processing mechanisms themselves determine to some degree the form, the extent and situation of the content of cognitions. The way bats perceive the world is different from the way we do. Humans cannot process low auditory signals as dogs or deer can. If we were situated differently with different kinds of sensory-motor apparatus we would likely function differently and our knowledge of the world would be different in significant ways. What then is the “true” world? Answers vary depending on what one’s focus is. If the focus is outward, one’s perception of the world consists in the way it is represented to us. The representations are believed to be true inasmuch as they are seen to correspond to the external objects and events, a correspondence attested by inter-subject agreement/validation. Even though the outward reality is known only via the representations we have of it and, in Kant’s terms, the things-in-themselves are forever unknown. Our knowledge of the world is true and valid to the extent we have consensual agreement on it. If the focus is inward, however, one tends to view true reality as no other than awareness itself. Some philosophers in the West subscribe to this view and asserted that our perceptions constitute reality. In the Indian tradition, even when reality is equated with awareness, awareness is not limited to representational perception. Rather awareness is regarded as consisting of direct and unmediated awareness of reality. Such nonrepresentational awareness in a significant sense is reality itself. Humans, it is assumed, have the ability to realize reality in itself as consciousness-as-such. Indeed, it is generally agreed among Indian thinkers, independent of their metaphysical preferences, that, by following specified procedures and cultivating certain habits of mind, it is possible to attain a state of awareness that is reality itself. Such an understanding underscores much of Hindu and Buddhistic thought.

We thus find in the Indian tradition a belief in the possibility of non-sensory source of knowledge, which by its very nature is free from the distortions, and imperfections that beset sensorially processed information. The ultimate goal of human achievement is spoken of as liberation or moksha. In an important sense it is the liberation of the mind from its sensory bondage that is believed to be the most significant single source that screens true reality from us. For the one who realizes reality in its true form, the sensory knowledge we have of the world appears as nothing but ignorance or avidya, as a dream appears on waking. Freedom from such ignorance and disinformation is a necessary condition for realizing truth in one’s being. The goal is to achieve perfect knowledge, because perfect knowledge makes one perfect. To know Brahman is to be Brahman. Knowing in the final analysis thus involves realization in the being. The strength of such assertion is not derived merely from rational argument. Rather it is grounded in the belief that it is possible to find such persons in real life. Realizing consciousness-as-such is considered an empirical fact experienced subjectively as well as shared by those who undergo necessary training and practice (sadhana) the prescribed discipline. Yoga is considered almost universally by Indian thinkers, to be a useful technique for emancipating the mind from its existential condition of sensory bondage so that it can access consciousness-as-such for realization of the absolute truth.

The equating of mind and consciousness has another important consequence in the western tradition. In general, intentionality has become the defining characteristic of consciousness. The emphasis on the intentionality of consciousness highlights on the one hand, the fundamental distinction between subject and object, whether functional or foundational, and entails on the other hand, a representational theory of knowledge. Moreover, it rules out a priori the possibility of states of pure consciousness. If consciousness is conceived to be inseparable from phenomenal content, there can be no direct knowledge of things except through their phenomenal representations. Even those who conceived of transcendental aspects of existence, such as Kant, admitted that things in themselves are essentially unknowable.

If consciousness as awareness in its broader sense includes explicit as well as implicit awareness, no fundamental distinction between consciousness and the unconscious can be sustained. Similarly, the attempts to restrict consciousness to focal attention, short-term memory or reflective awareness, i.e., awareness accessible to introspection, and to regard the mind more broadly to include implicit awareness and unconscious process (Farthing, 1992) are unsatisfactory.

The question then is whether consciousness is merely a quality of mental representations, as implied in the notion that equates it with focal attention or other brain processes. Alternatively, do mental phenomena as they manifest in our experience involve an independent factor or process without which experience of awareness is not possible? The western approach favors the notion that consciousness is merely a quality of certain mental states. The Indian perspective, however, takes the alternative position that leads us to regard consciousness as an independent source that makes subjective awareness possible in the human condition. In other words, in the Indian view, cortical processes alone cannot give us subjective awareness. Here a basic distinction is made between consciousness and mind, a distinction that helps to resolve the problem of interaction between mind and body in some important aspects. In Buddhism, however, consciousness is not seen as an outside source, something different from the mental states. At the same time, all schools of Buddhism recognize the existence of transcendental mental states and provide for nonintentional states of pure consciousness. In the Madhyamika and Yogchara schools, this point becomes more explicit in the concepts of sunya and alayavijnan.

Can we observe experience?

The primary characteristic of consciousness in human condition is subjectivity, which gives the phenomenal feel to awareness. Subjectivity involves exclusive accessibility to and ownership of a state of awareness by the experiencing person. For example, the experience of pain is uniquely personal to the one having it. Others may observe a person in pain. They may infer that she is experiencing pain from her behavior or physiological state, but they cannot directly experience that pain. In this sense, felt pain is an exclusive experience of the one in pain and it is not directly accessible to outside observers. However, the pain behavior, the pain report or the concurrent brain states of the person in pain are accessible to everyone who cares to attend to them and has the competence to read into them. In other words, the experience of pain is what it is like for one to have the pain, which is different from observing a person in pain. The former, experience of pain, has only first-person accessibility, whereas the latter, observation of pain, has also third-person accessibility. Thus awareness of pain has two contrasting aspects or perspectives. Between the two there is an epistemic asymmetry in that the experience of pain is uniquely personal and subjective and the observation of pain is public and shareable.

In the western scientific tradition, the approach to close the “explanatory gap” between first-person experience and third-person observation involves rendering the subjective into objective by reduction or by translation. For example, when a first-person methodology such as introspection is employed, the concern is to observe and not to experience. The attempt is to obtain an impersonal and objective account of what is going on within oneself. The introspecting individual is ideally one who reports a given state of mind in much the same way a machine records whatever it is monitoring. Critics of the use of introspection as a viable method, such as Auguste Compte, argue that it is an essentially impossible task for the experiencing person to be an observer of his/her own experience. “The thinking individual,” wrote Compte, “cannot split himself in two, one part of which would think while the other would watch the former thinking. The organ observed and the organ observing being, in the case, identical, how could any such act of observation take place? This supposedly psychological method is therefore radically faulty in principle” (quoted from Vermesch, 1999, p.19).

Many of the methodological improvements to introspective techniques undertaken since the time of Brentano and James in the name of “systematic introspection” and “experimental introspection” by psychologists such as Binet in France, Kulpe in Germany and Titchner in the United States are important. They have a place in psychological research. However, they are all aimed at making introspective reports inter-subjectively reliable by transforming experience into observation. Even the so-called method of phenomenological reduction is one of making observations out of experience. In all these cases the basic difference between observation and experience is not adequately appreciated. It is assumed that attentive experience bereft of expectations, assumptions, biases, and prejudices is observation. It is questionable, however, whether a mere intellectual exercise could in principle enable one to effectively suspend the “natural attitude” so as to observe the phenomena in their pure state. Even if it were possible to arrive at such phenomenal data via reduction or by suitably refined methods of introspection, do such data capture the “what it is like” character of experience? In other words, can one ever transform an experience into an observation even at the level of the first-person? Can experience per se be observed? I believe, experience is an item for realization and not of observation.

The real source of the problem, it would appear, is the basic distinction made between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ in the western tradition. Such a fundamental dichotomy between the two does not allow any adequate transformation of one into the other. In the area of consciousness studies, this has led to unsuccessful attempts to reduce consciousness to its contents by regarding intentionality as the defining characteristic of consciousness. The contents are mistaken for the container, and consciousness is confused with the data it contains. With the spotlight on phenomenal data, the possibility of pure consciousness is lost sight of. This is the major lacuna in the western conception of consciousness.

In the Indian tradition, one way of circumventing this problem is to deny the distinction between subject and object at a fundamental level. The manifest dichotomy between them at the empirical level is regarded as an unreal appearance. At the more profound level of being, accessible with disciplined effort, the subject-object distinction disappears. Knowing truth in a representational form gives way to a different mode of realizing truth intuitively. In this view, the former gives us only the appearance of reality whereas the latter involves experiencing reality as such in an unmediated mode. The endeavor here is to seek and participate in pure conscious experience and realize truth in one’s being. Realization involves participation and entering into a relation of identity with consciousness-as-such.

It is asserted that a pure conscious experience is intrinsically authentic; it does not require external validation. As mentioned, in experiencing states of pure consciousness, there is realization, which is distinct from understanding. Realization engenders instant conviction of certainty. Its validity is reflexive. How about those who have not reached a state of realization, but are on a path to it? How to relate their experience to reality? Here, it seems to me, Indian tradition resorts to the second-person perspective, which closes, in a sense, the “explanatory gap” between the first-and third-person accounts.

This problem is not unlike the one the introspective techniques in general face. The resolution of the problem in the Indian tradition is achieved by the second-person role of the teacher as a mediator. In the Indian tradition the guru (preceptor) is an important and indispensable part of any training program to reach higher states of consciousness. The guru should be the one who traveled the path before. He serves as the reference point and provides a second-person position. He is the “caravan leader” who guides his pupil mindful of checkpoints and signposts in transit. The guru plays an important role of guidance, helping the practitioner to improve and progress along the path he knows. Thus the guru occupies an intermediate position between first-person experience of the practitioner and the final self-certifying state of pure consciousness, playing an indispensable role of mediation and providing a second-person perspective to supplement third-person observations. Thus Indian psychology advocates the use of first-person and second-person approaches. The first-person methodology with second-person mediation provides for subjective and non-relational authenticity and in-group intersubject validity. We have here important methodological implications to psychological research, which deserve our careful pondering.

Sacred and secular aspects

We can neither ignore nor exaggerate the spiritual significance of Indian psychology. The emphasis on transcendence in Indian psychology gives one the appearance of focusing on the other-worldly and the “sacred” aspects of being. In the west the sacred and spiritual aspects, are considered antithetical to science. It is important to note, however, that in the Indian tradition there is no deep division/dichotomy between science and spirituality. Consequently the paradox of naturalizing the supernatural is less of a concern. Even in systems like Advaita Vedanta, which make a distinction between empirical and transcendental realms, the two blend in our being just as dreams and wakefulness coexist in one’s life. More importantly, transcendental states, it is believed, can be attained in the embodied human condition. Thus transcendence has a place in the world here and now. Let us remember that in Indian psychology transcendence and the states of pure consciousness are asserted as empirical facts grounded in genuine experiences of a few people and that jivanmukti, i.e., embodied emancipation /transcendence, is possible. Steps on the journey towards transcendence/enlightenment are carefully described; and procedures and practices, may I say technologies, that one could use to travel the path of transcendence are assiduously developed and practiced. Thus while the emphasis and the goal of the quest is transcendence, the pursuit of that goal takes into consideration the existential situation. In doing so, Indian psychology provides an equally interesting secular account of human nature. The secular and sacred are not given as totally different and disparate realms of being. They can be presented as parts, aspects or stages in a coherent and consistent system. Let me illustrate this point with reference to mental illness and psychopathology.

In the Indian tradition, mental illness may be defined in terms of problems faced on the way to transcendence/enlightenment. They may be seen as problems of consciousness, underscoring the spiritual significance of life and suffering in the human condition. As we are aware, western psychology by and large, with its focus on the ego in the mental health area, has few goals beyond social adjustment. Indian psychology with transcendence as the goal goes beyond understanding dysfunctions caused by chemical imbalances, childhood trauma, and problems of sex. The focus then shifts to the problems faced at different stages of transcendence, problems with language and behavior dependent on it, and clouding of consciousness by conditioned biases, habits and karma. Indian psychology puts a special emphasis on moral development; and morality is not considered arbitrary or external to human condition. Niddhidyasana is a nonlinguistic information processing resource. It could help alleviate a variety of ailments rooted in language related dysfunctions.

The rich phenomenology of consciousness contained in Buddhist and other classical texts can be applied for understanding the changes in consciousness accompanying various practices. For example, meditation studies could give us important knowledge about the associated psychophysiological states. Such knowledge would give not only the desired “objectivity” for the phenomena described, but also permit more precise application of the techniques in relevant areas of mental health. A good deal of psychoanalytic groundwork is aimed at scanning the client’s life history to identify those critical past events and experiences that seem to cause the present symptoms. The treatment, however, touches only the periphery of the problem. What could be more important in psychotherapy than relevant methods of disarming, or even better, destroying the disruptive effects of the patient’s past, karma. I speculate, based on my understanding of Indian psychology, psychotherapeutic techniques designed to generate pure-conscious experience could be invaluable tools to deal with a variety of psychopathological states. Inasmuch as pure-conscious states are states of realization in which there is no dissociation between belief and behavior, they are necessarily conflict-free states of profound mental health. Also they could be utilized to bring about positive transformation of the person not only in the travel towards transcendence but also to cope with anxiety, depression and disease. What is a state of pure consciousness, you may wonder. Ponder for a moment what is it that you have between two thoughts when your mind moves from one to the next!

I have already referred to the implications of the Indic system of the three-way information processing (sravana, manana, and nidhidhyasana) and the normal and paranormal information sources to educational theory and practice. I want to emphasize again that Indian psychology should have a factual base. Its concepts should have empirical moorings, and its models testable. Contemporary meditation research offers ample evidence to show that Indian psychological concepts and theory are adequately rooted in empirically verifiable data. Again, parapsychology has a solid database that is very relevant to some of the basic assumptions of Indian psychology. Much of the controversy and confusion surrounding parapsychological research is generated by the fact that western psychology does not simply have the conceptual and theoretical tools to meaningfully handle the available data.

Also, recent research on spiritual dimensions of health, the effect of religious beliefs and practices on human health, is quite relevant to Indian psychology. Here again, western psychology with its impoverished conceptual framework and narrow categories is unable to relish these findings and has difficulty in digesting them.

As I enthusiastically endorse programs of study and research in Indian psychology, let me also add a word of caution. Not everything that is Indian is great. There are some concepts and ideas that have neither relevance nor validity. Indian psychology we do, must be constructive as well as critical – critical to ensure their methodological rigor and conceptual clarity, and constructive to make the connection with current factual base and future directions and programs of research.

Research in the area of meditation could be an eye opener. A plethora of techniques are now paraded as yoga/meditation; and numerous claims are made of their beneficial effects. Some of them are in published research. However, the description of these techniques is often conceptually vague. The evidence presented is not always clear and unambiguous. Ill defined and over-generalized, some of them are unlikely to stand up to rigorous and systematic scrutiny. I have reviewed elsewhere meditation research and some of the significant omissions and commissions (Rao, 1989; 2002). There are as it is all too evident for us in India, numerous gurus and unorganized and unsystematic practices that claim to be based on yoga. Some of these gurus have wide following. To what extent are these claims credible? What is the theory/theories behind them? There is a need for a solid and scientific evaluation of the myriads of yoga based practices for their usefulness in psychotherapy, spiritual guidance and counseling. Let us hope psychologists in India gear themselves up to meet these challenges and help to push Indian psychology as a serious scientific discipline with a factual base and a strong empirical grounding.


We are able to touch only the periphery of the subject. Indian psychology is rich in content and sophisticated in its methods. It holds great promise for application in a variety of areas. As I have tried to show, in Indian psychology, transcendence (nirvana, moksha, kaivalvya) is the theme. Consciousness (atman) is the center stage. The spot light is on the person (jiva). Karma is the script. The mind (antahkarana), its buddhi, ahamkara, and manas and other adjuncts are the players. The vasanas and samskaras are behind the scenes prompters and helpers that put the whole act together. The different steps in the climb to research the peaks of transcendence are the different acts in the play.

Mind enjoys dual citizenship in the physical world of sense, reason and objectivity, on the one hand, and in the realm of consciousness, on the other. Itself a material form, the mind’s citizenship in the material world is by birth as it were. Its naturalization in the domain of consciousness is a matter of choice and an outcome of significant effort.

Normal and paranormal processes aid the mind in its dual roles. The sensory-motor processes are those that come under the category of the normal. The paranormal process involves accessing consciousness-as-such. In normal processes, consciousness is reflected in the mind. By the paranormal process, consciousness is realized in the mind.

Indian psychology is not opposed to science, even though it leaves room for understanding the spiritual side of human nature. First-person methodologies have extensive application in Indian psychology. Second-person mediation provides a way of bridging the explanatory gap between first and third-person perspectives.

What Indian psychology needs is the empirical base to anchor its concepts and theories. We need to cast the pillars in concrete facts gathered by carefully crafted designs of research. The bridges we build to cross into the future would rest on these pillars. Researches in the areas of meditation, consciousness studies, parapsychology and transpersonal/ spiritual psychology have already accumulated a significant amount of data that is waiting to be systematically organized to develop coherent models for productive research programs to emerge. For the inquiring mind in Indian psychology, indeed sky is the limit; vast areas of unchartered territory await our entry. The challenges are too compelling and the opportunities are too obvious to overlook. It is time to usher in a new era. Let us not miss being an important participant in the burgeoning Indian renaissance. As Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan pointed out:

The land of ours is no sand bank thrown up by some recent caprice of earth. It is a stately growth with roots striking deep through the centuries. Nations have a history as well as geography. They live and grow, not by the forces of the wind and the rain, sun and stars, but by the passions and ideals which animate them… Any one who has studied and meditated on the ancient classics of this country will testify to their peculiar greatness, their power to yield new meanings and their inexhaustible value as a criterion of present day modes of life.


Dasgupta, S. N. (1988). A History of Indian philosophy. Delhi: Motilal Banarisdass

Date, V. H. (1971). Brahma-yoga of the Gita. New Delhi: Munshiram   Manoharlal

Farthing, G. W. (1992). The Psychology of consciousness. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Keith, A. B. (1949). The Samkhya system: A History of the Samkhya philosophy (2nd ed.). Calcutta:

Kumar, S. (1983). Samkhya thought in the brahmanical systems of Indian philosophy. Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers.

Panoli, V. (1992). Upanishads in Sankara’s own words Vol. II. Calicut: The Mathrubhumi Printing and Publishing Co.

Radhakrishnan, S. (1927). Indian philosophy (2 vols.) New York: McMillan

Rao, K. R. (1978). Psychology of transcendence: A study in early Buddhisitc psychology. Journal of Indian Psychology, 1, 1-21.

Rao, K. R. (1989). Meditation: Secular and sacred: Review and assessment of some recent research. Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, 15, 51-74.

Rao, K. R. (2002). Consciousness studies: Cross-cultural perspectives. NC: McFarland & Co.

Samkara (1980). Vedanta-sutras with Samkara’s commentary (trs. Thibaut). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tart, C. (1975). States of consciousness. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Vermesch, P. (1999). Introspection as practice. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 6, 17-42.

Woods, J. H. (1927). The yoga system of Patanjali. Cambridge: M.A. Harvard University Press.