Academic psychology in India:
Past trends and future possibilities

Suneet Varma
Dept. of Psychology
University of Delhi.

Academic psychology has been in existence for some 125 years and largely represents a Euro-American worldview. The discipline arose in Germany, but flourished on American soil. At the time of institutionalisation of psychology, the authority of religion had been displaced by that of science, and it was a narrow conception of science which dictated the growth of the discipline. In addition, the dominant ideal of ‘self-contained individualism’ in the United States, coupled with the capitalist eco-political system, also had a decisive role in shaping the discipline. In India academic psychology was first introduced at Calcutta University in 1905. The framework of psychology which was adopted at that time came as a ready-made package and was part of the transfer of technology from the West. It was assumed at that time that the western conception of knowledge and science is superior, which led to an uncritical acceptance of western concepts and methodologies. At the same time the rich Indian traditions of psychology were left out of the curriculum for they appeared to be ‘non-scientific’ endeavours emanating from the primitive notions of a backward people, as projected by the British rulers.

Not much has changed on the Indian front, academic psychology continues to be a discipline dominated by a western worldview rooted in a limited understanding of the nature of science. Enamoured by the technological superiority and material wealth of the West, Indian psychologists have failed to uncover and explore the hidden treasures located in their own backyard. As Paranjpe (1984; p.3) has noted, “the Indian philosophical system has all the ingredients required to make a comprehensive system of Psychology… [This includes] an elaborate conceptual framework comprising a worldview, a theoretical analysis of structures and processes related to human personality, a set of techniques developed to help the not-so-developed individuals reach more desirable levels of development, and a set of social institutions within which the growth of personality can be facilitated”.

Against this backdrop, the author shall recount his own encounters with academic psychology in India from the time he was first exposed to the institution as a student when he came face-to-face with the non-acceptance of the Indian perspectives as legitimate and credible psychology, till the present time when he as a member of the Indian academia observes the gradual opening up to the Indian approaches. The main focus of the account will be the obstacles and challenges that lie in the way of greater acceptance of Indian psychology as well as concrete steps that can be taken to overcome the barriers. Finally the author will briefly touch upon his recent discovery that Sri Aurobindo in his writings, has outlined a unifying metatheory which can help immensely in providing a guiding framework for a ‘Greater Psychology’ which includes the best of what the Western as well as the Eastern traditions have to offer, and goes beyond. Sri Aurobindo’s Integral perspective can immensely enrich the scope and potential of academic psychology, especially in India, paving the way far a more harmonious existence both at the individual as well as the collective plane.

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This paper was presented at the
National Conference on
Yoga and Indian Approaches to Psychology

Pondicherry, India, September 29 - October 1, 2002