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If Psychology Had an Indian Heritage

This post originally appeared on my Psychology Today blog “The Fundamental Four” on 13th Dec. 2011.  This is cross-posted from  there.


Some days back, Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks blog linked to a blog post from Sabrina, of the Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists blog, and they both lamented the fact that modern psychology has a pre-dominantly western slant and speculated what might have been the case had psychology been developed under Korean influence (where for example Mind is ‘Maum’ or composed of feelings, motivations etc as opposed to being cognitive in nature).

To boot:

In the West, and, specifically, in the English-speaking West, the psychological aspect of personhood is closely related to the concept of “the mind” and the modern view of cognition. But, how universal is this conception? How do speakers of other languages think about the psychological aspect of personhood?

In Korean, the concept “maum” replaces the concept “mind”. “Maum” has no English counterpart, but is sometimes translated as “heart”. Apparently, “maum” is the “seat of emotions, motivation, and “goodness” in a human being” (Wierzbicka, 2005; p. 271). Intellect and cognitive functions are captured by the Korean “meli” (head). But, “maum” is clearly the counterpart to “mind” in terms of the psychological part of the person. For example, there are tons of Korean books about “maum” and body in the same way that there are English texts on “mind” and body.

Today I wish to extend the debate and focus specifically on how psychology might have been if it had been developed under Indian influence.

Firstly, instead of focusing on the somewhat dubious mind-body duality, we would be focussed on the more fruitful matter-consciousness duality.

As per the Samkhyaa (or Number- based) system of Indian philosophy (the oldest philosophical tradition), the world is composed of two distinct fundamental realities. The first is Purush (sentient pure consciousness) and the second is Prakriti (insentient Nature) and these two are not reducible to each other. This is very strong form of dualism.

The Purush is supposed to deform the Prakriti and this interaction leads to Prakriti splitting into 24 tattvas (or 24 basic elements) and that is the reason we see such diversity in nature.

Before you lose patience and leave as to what this has to do with personhood and mind, just bear with me for one more minute.

The prakriti gives rise to Mahat Tatva or Buddhi (intellect) as the first of the 24 elements. This is the subtlest aspect of a life form. Buddha or enlightened one derives from being at this stage.

From Mahat rises Ahamkar or Self and I. This is of three forms – sativk (stable; I, the observer) , rajasik ( in motion; I, the doer) and tamasik (stationary; I, the unchanging) .

From Ahamkar arises Mann (feelings) and Chitta (unconscious memories and precepts).

The ‘antahkaran‘ or the equivalent of subjective aspect of personhood i.e. what is referred to as Mind in English is made up of these 4 element – Chitta (unconscious memories, precepts etc) , Mann (feelings) , Ahamkar (sense of I or selfhood) and Buddhi (Intellect or reason).

Thus the second difference, if Psychology had evolved in India, would have been that Mind would not be predominantly cognitive and conscious in nature , but will have had unconscious aspects, as well as conscious aspects of feeling, willing and deciding.

To continue on the Samkhya evolution (from subtle towards grosser aspects of personhood), Mann gives rise to 5 Sense organs (gnyana indriyas) and 5 Action organs (karma indriyas); while chitta gives rise to 5 Mahabhut (matter forms) and 5 tanmatras (matter qualities).

Here I believe is where modern Psychology has heavily gone astray. Most scientists conceive of brain as an information processing tool and lean towards sensation, perception and believe that brain evolves basically for these purposes and action or movement is secondary; thus the focus on the 5 sense organs – those of vision, audition, somatosensation (touch), olfaction (smell) and gustatory (taste).

Psychology harps about these 5 sense organs but is silent on the agentic conception of the person/ life form whereby it is movement for which brains have evolved. A stray scientist like Daniel Wolpert or C H vanderwolf makes the case for primacy of movement and action , but that voice is easily lost in the cacophony surrounding research on vision and other senses.

Indian psychology/ philosophy/ religion puts action organs at equal footing with sense organs and implicitly imply that brains or mind is for both sensation/perception as well as for action/motion.

The five karmendreyas (action organs ) are mouth (from whose movement speech flows), hand (to handle tools) , feet (for locomotion), excretory organs (for pushing out the residues) and reproductive organs ( to inject / take inside reproductive material from a partner.

Thus, I guess the greatest contribution that Indian culture would have made to psychology would have been by making it more even handed towards both research paradigms focused on sensations and perceptions as well as research paradigms focused on action and motion.

What unique perspective does your culture/ religion offer on the sense of person-hood, the cultural nature of mind or the framing of the mind-body problem. Let us get as many insights from other cultures as possible and loosen the grip of WEIRDism on Psychology.

c: copyright: 2011 Sandeep Gautam

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