Chapter 15: Healing and counselling in a traditional spiritual setting – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Healing and counselling in a traditional spiritual setting

Anand C. Paranjpe


This essay presents an account of healing I have witnessed in the presence of my guru, Shri Ramchandra Bapuji Ambekar (1904-1990). In the first part of this essay I provide a description of the setting in which he sat for several hours three evenings every week listening to, and counselling, a stream of visitors. Then I present an overview of his life history and that of his guru, Shri Raosaheb Sahasrabuddhe, based on their published biographies. Shri Ambekar’s perspective on his work based on an extensive interview follows, as does an explanation of the principles underlying the healing process as reflected in their biographies. The first part ends with an overview of the historical background of the spiritual tradition of the Dattātreya sect to which both these healers belonged. In the second part I provide a detailed discussion of these healing practices from the perspective of modern psychology. In this discussion attention is provided not only to concepts and major theories of counselling and psychotherapy, but also to the relevant aspects of the wider world view within which contemporary Western psychology is ensconced.

The case study of a traditional Indian form of healing presented here is based on the following sources of data: (a) the author’s direct experience of sitting in the presence of the healer for numerous hours over ten years in his early adulthood, (b) an extensive semi-structured interview with the healer for over three hours, (c) two biographies, one of this healer (Sane, 1988) and another one of his guru (Deshpande, 1978), and (d) historical accounts of the tradition and lineage of gurus to which these two healers belong (Dhere, 1958/1999; Rigopulous, 1998). While the author’s observations as a participant, along with the reminiscences of several “clients”, offer examples of the varied problems for which cure was sought, the interview and the biography provide useful information about the principles on which interventions were grounded. To help get a sense of the situation in which this traditional form of healing and counselling happens, it would be useful to first describe the scene. This will be followed by a detailed discussion of the healing process first in light of the interview and biographical materials, and then by an examination of the practices and principles in light of contemporary concepts and practices.

The scene

In a middle class locality in the city of Pune in Maharashtra, a man who appears to be in his late fifties sits in the corner of the front room of a two-room apartment. He sits there for three days a week usually from about five in the evening to eleven o’clock in the night, i.e., for about five to six hours each time, as a series of relief seekers keep coming in. The front door is kept open during this period as people, young and old, men and women, walk in and get seated in front of him. Nobody is stopped at the door. The room, which is about 10’ by 12’ size, is packed wall to wall with people huddled together. The walls are bedecked with pictures of deities and calendars as is common in middle class homes in the area. There is a cot near the entrance of the room, which is used by visitors to sit on during visiting hours, and doubles in the night for family members to sleep. Behind this visiting room there is a smaller room which serves as a kitchen and additional living space for a family composed of the healer, his wife, their two adult children, plus the daughter’s two young children. Usually other members of the family are absent during the visiting hours, or confine themselves to the other room. The healer, clad in a clean white shirt and dhoti sits on a small mat in the corner diagonally opposite from the entrance. In a small cabinet behind him there is a statue of his guru seated with folded hands. Behind the statue hangs a framed picture of Lord Dattātreya, the three-headed deity worshipped in their tradition. The three heads represent the trinity of Brahmā, the creator, Viṣṇu, the protector, and Śiva, the destroyer of the world. The tradition of the worship of this triune deity is a very old one.1 In front of the statue of the healer’s guru, incense sticks keep burning next to some fruit and sweets offered by the day’s visitors.

The healer sits there for hours with a smiling face, intently listening to the visitors who take their turn asking for his help in connection with whatever is bothering them at the time. Some thirty to a hundred visitors may drop in each day. Many of the visitors come with some offerings, usually fruit, sweets, and incense sticks, which are given to the healer, who puts them in front of his guru’s statue. Generally the healer opens the pack of incense sticks, lights one or two of them, and returns the rest to the visitor who offers them. Most of the fruit and some of the sweets are returned to the person offering them, and the rest of the sweets are distributed among those present. As visitors are packed from wall to wall on the floor as well as on the cot, there is no privacy; the visitor may speak in a normal voice or whisper as she or he reveals the nature of suffering that brings her/him there. It is up to the visitor or the “client” to decide what or how much to reveal, since it may not be wise to disclose some of the personal details to the surrounding people. Needless to say, there is no place for a ‘case history’ or a record made of whatever sort. But despite the veil of secrecy and ambiguities of the conversation, the general nature of the topic of concern often becomes transparent, especially when it is brought to the attention of the healer for the first time. The typical problems include (a) sickness of the visitor or a family member; (b) quarrels or other interpersonal problems within family, co-workers or adversaries in a litigation; (c) students’ difficulties with studies or examinations or the parents’ concerns about the same; (d) concerns about finding or keeping a job; (e) marital problems such as spousal discord or childlessness; (f) loss of property from misplacing or theft; (g) court cases between business partners, renters and landlords—and the list can go on.

As the visitor sits in front of the healer, he looks straight into the eyes of the visitor. The most common response by the healer is a reassurance that things will turn out positively in the course of time. Sometimes the healer asks questions about the visitor’s background if she or he is a first time visitor. It is common that, after a bit of exploration of the visitor’s place of residence and some significant events in the life of the visitor, the healer speaks about some aspect of the background—the nature of the house and the place of worship therein, some major event such as death in the family and so on. Most often what he says comes out correct as indicated by the visitor’s spontaneous expression of astonishment and positive remarks. A common topic of conversation concerns the visitor’s religious background: which deity was commonly worshipped and in what form and so on. A common form of advice or remedial “prescription” is burning incense sticks returned by the healer with an instruction to light one each at the time of the daily prayer or on full moon nights, or some other auspicious days. In some cases, the healer suggests reading of a religious text—a “pothī” or a text such as the Guru-caritra—or performance of a vrat, i.e., following certain self-chosen restrictions such as fasting once a week, or performing periodic rituals as per one’s commitment to oneself. The visitor is normally sent away with the offer of a sweet by way of prasād with a generous smile and kind words of reassurance.

Background of the healer and his guru revealed in their biographies

The healer. According to the biography (Sane, 1988) of the healer, Shri Ramachandra Bapuji Ambekar, was born in 1904 in a middle class family in Maharashtra. After completing his high school education, he started to work, going from one temporary job to another. Most commonly the work involved operating and maintaining machines of various sorts: boilers, engines, pumps, and so on. At one time, for instance, he worked as a driver of a road roller. He got married in his early twenties, and the couple moved from place to place wherever he would find employment. In later years he found a steady job maintaining engines and pumps in a city water supply outfit in a part of Pune city. All through the years he was interested in religious and spiritual pursuits. In his early forties one of Shri Ambekar’s friends introduced him and his wife to Shri Raosaheb Sahasrabuddhe at his home in Pune. They hit off on a positive note at the first sight, and thus began a life-long relationship between the guru and the two disciples. Shri Raosaheb, often called Baba, or Baba Maharaj, usually spent most of his time alone, lost in deep meditation. He preferred to have tea in the afternoon, which Mrs Ambekar chose to supply every day year after year. A close association between the families provided ample opportunities for spiritual guidance for members of the Ambekar family.

At some point in time Baba asked his disciple—endearingly called Bhau (short of Rambhau)—if he would take over some of his responsibilities (upādhi). The obedient disciple immediately acquiesced, although the nature of the work to be done was not specified. Soon after this, Baba started sending some of his “clients” to Bhau with a piece of paper with the latter’s name and address written on it. The visitors would ask for help, saying that Baba had assured them that this is where they would get answers to all their questions. Bhau had no clue as to what to do, and was initially quite upset for being placed in an awkward situation. So he went to Baba and bitterly complained about the ordeal of having to face people in difficulty; how on earth could he offer help when he had no idea what to do? Baba immediately put him at ease, saying that he could just give the visitor some holy ash (aṅgārā or bhasma), and say some soothing words. As Baba continued to send more and more of his “clients” over to him, over a period of time Bhau settled in the role of a healer. Gradually his reputation began to grow, and more and more of his time after work began to be taken up by a steady flow of relief seekers. When the heavy demands of this role started to affect family life, Bhau’s wife, son and daughter forced him to limit the time for visitors to three evenings per week. This routine continued till his death in 1990.

The healer’s guru. The biography of Shri Ambekar’s guru, Shri Raosaheb alias Baba Maharaj Sahasrabuddhe, was published by one of his disciples named Deshpande (1978). It includes reminiscences of dozens of his disciples. According to the biography, Shri Sahasrabuddhe was born in a middle class family in 1883. In his late teens, while he was a student at a college of engineering, he was introduced to Ramananda Beedkar Maharaj, a well-recognized saint in the Datta Sampradāya (a tradition of devotees of the deity called Guru Dattātreya), and became his disciple.2 After being trained as a civil engineer, he started working for the Public Works Department of the government of the Bombay province. In his early twenties Raosaheb got married and eventually became the father of a girl. He kept working diligently and successfully on the job, but began to be known for his whimsical behaviour. As he became more and more deeply involved in his spiritual quest, he started saluting not only images of gods and goddesses here and there, but kept saluting any and every human being or animal he would come across. Finding him engrossed in himself quite often, and given his odd mannerisms like saluting anybody and everybody, his family got him admitted to a mental hospital when he was in his early thirties. After being treated there for several months for a condition diagnosed as “Mental Defect Melancholia”, he was discharged from the hospital. Thereafter he started getting government pension as an invalid, and spent time in deep meditation for days on. The pension amount was barely adequate to support a family of three. Gradually, the extraordinary qualities disguised under the veneer of madness began to reveal themselves, and he started attracting an increasing number of people who came for healing and advice.

The biographies of these two gentlemen throw much light on their thinking and modes of healing. More specifically, the biography of Shri Sahasrabuddhe contains reminiscences by dozens of seekers who benefited from his advice—and these provide a perspective on the principles on which his guidance was based.

The interview

I interviewed Shri Ambekar extensively when he was a bit over eighty years old. It was a semi-structured interview which went on for about three hours, and an audio recording was made. My first question was concerned with my observation that a large proportion of visitors who came to him were primarily concerned about mundane problems and that spiritual seekers seemed to be rare. He immediately corroborated this observation. He basically confirmed that most people came to him for help with the kind of mundane problems that were listed before.

The next set of questions was concerned with the common “remedies” he seemed to offer: (a) giving a few incense sticks to light, (b) a pinch of holy ashes (bhasma) to apply to one’s forehead or to ingest with water, and (c) in some cases worship a certain deity or read some religious text (pothī). How could such simple activities (mostly rituals, one may say) be effective in any way? The thrust of his answer was that it is the resolve (saṁkalpa) for doing something to ameliorate the bothering situation, which is the key for bringing about a change. Every time a seeker lights up an incense stick, he or she is repeating that resolve, and thereby moves a step closer to relief. More specifically, one gets detached from the problem on hand for at least a moment, and gradually a sense of detachment gets stronger—and a positive cycle gets initiated. But then, I asked, how is it that he arrives at a particular kind of response to a specific visitor, or comes up with suggestion for a specific course of action? Shri Ambekar was very forthright in explaining what happens in his interaction with a visitor. He said that he intensely concentrates on what the person says, looking first straight into his eyes, then his appearance and his complaint. As he does this, his mind goes blank for a moment, and then something flashes in his mind. One day in the case of a person complaining about the disappearance of a boy in the family, for instance, the image of a boy walking on a street flashed in his mind. So he immediately affirmed that the boy was not lost, that he was walking in a place that looked something like such and such, and assured that he would be found. Such reassurance put the visitor at ease, which made a good beginning. Often he is able to describe the details of what is thus “seen”—the direction in which the boy may be going, the setting such as the time of the day, which sometimes helps in locating the missing person or thing. Quite often he is proven right. When his “visions” usually get verified, it affirms his credibility, and the visitor comes back with some degree of trust or faith.

My next set of questions was aimed at exploring his views about causal effects, if any, of burning incense or applying holy ash on one’s forehead. He was very clear that there was no direct effect of such actions; what was effective, he said, was the thought behind the actions. Such acts could even help cure a physical disease, he suggested, although this would happen only when a disease was in a starting phase; it would not work in an advanced stage or in a serious condition. He affirmed that, in his view, mind would work on the body, no doubt.

The conversation then turned to the idea of God. God, he said, is an idea in our minds. What matters most, in his view, is the idea that there is some power behind everything that exists or happens in the world, and that a bit (aṁśa) of that power resides in each one of us. It is like the reflection of the sun in each wave of the ocean. And it is that part of the Divine to which we have to reach out. It is in this context that he mentioned Soundaryalaharī, a famous mystic work attributed to Ādi Śaṅkarācārya. Following that line of thinking he mentioned three means for reaching out to the Divine within us: mantra, tantra (technique), and yantra (instrument). Mantra is not just some sounds; there is a very specific mantra or set of sounds that is unique to a given individual, which, when chanted, would produce a desirable effect. Just any mantra would not do. This line of thinking could not be pursued further, but it explains part of the remedial strategy, namely the use of chanting of mantras.

The conversation then turned to the question: how does an individual turn to a spiritual pursuit? Shri Ambekar’s reply was unequivocal; one begins with a selfish motive, whether it is the desire for money or redress of pain. It is quite common among people to have no faith in God; most people turn to praying when desperate, and that too, rather reluctantly. Often when he gives a bunch of incense sticks to a reluctant visitor, he does not prescribe lighting it daily or whatever; it is totally up to the visitor to light them if and when she or he feels like, or ignore them completely. But after a seeker starts to pray or worship, something good may happen, which prompts him to continue with the ritual. A gradual process of change for the better sets in. Most often Shri Ambekar “sees” things in or about the visitor, which are relevant to the problem he or she may be facing. Sometimes he asks for the visitor’s birth date and checks the position of the stars on which she or he was born, and that, he says, gives him some clues about the person and his problems. As to his beliefs in the horoscope he says that they are based on the fact that people from the past, such as Bhṛgu and Parāśara, have recorded their mutually corroborating astrological observations at different times and places. Their mutual agreements indicate that the same kinds of things may be true in a given type of case as well. It is his observation that his horoscope-based calculations often come true, and that helps fostering a positive impression in the eyes of the visitor. Then he or she is more likely to follow the rituals as per his suggestions. The more important purpose in doing all this is to bring about a positive change in the person’s attitudes and conduct (vṛtti). Incidentally he also mentioned that black magic (he called it devaskī in Marathi) can also work, but he strongly suggested that one should never turn to such things.

As the interview continued, Shri Ambekar gave several examples of individuals coming in with a great sense of distrust and disbelief in matters of worship or spirituality at the outset, but would gradually overcome their negative feelings. In the course of the conversation he incidentally mentioned the names of various individuals who came to see him often, and described conversations that took place with them. One of them was a widely respected old theosophist, a learned man reputed for free dispensing of homeopathic medicines to visitors at the local theosophical lodge. There were some college professors among frequent visitors, one of them was widely known for his studies of the saint poets of Maharashtra. The discussions with such persons were on difficult passages in texts such as the Jñāneśwarī. But such discussions were not common part of events in evenings when one person after another was lined up seeking redress of her or his suffering of one type or other.

Upon further exploration of his views on the nature of positive changes that were said to happen in his visitors, Shri Ambekar said that it was a slow process of overcoming suffering (duḥkha or tāpa). Some come to him initially saying they did not want to ask any questions, that there was no real purpose for their visit. Often he was able to understand the reason for their coming in spite of their silence about it. When asked how he was often able to say something relevant to the incoming person’s problem without the person disclosing it, he said that he feels the vibrations in that person’s presence. It was not uncommon for visitors to think that he had some kind of power for “mind reading”. There were, however, some visitors who kept coming without really having any problem to solve; they would just sit there without saying anything or asking any questions because they just felt good in his presence.

As to the process of self-improvement, Shri Ambekar did not deny the need for effort (prayatna) on the part of the seeker. However, he was not in favour of determined and strenuous efforts such as those demanded by the pursuit of yogic meditation. He did not care much for the various yogic postures; in his view we naturally adopt a bodily posture suitable for a given activity—such as sitting down to read, or bending down to pick up an object on the floor. One should follow one’s natural inclinations, rather than setting up a specific program of action with a specific image of the desired outcome. An enterprise in pursuit of a fixed goal tends to make too much of an image of the expected outcome, and one tends to run after it. It is better, rather, to just let things happen, he said, because spiritual development naturally unfolds in due course. It is important to keep working without expecting much. Listening to, or studying, good ideas, meditating upon them, and becoming singularly engrossed in them (implying the three commonly prescribed steps, namely śravaṇa, manana, and nididhyāsana) naturally follow one another. You cannot suppress them, he said.

If so, why do they not happen to everybody? That is because many people are too involved in mundane activities and gains, said Shri Ambekar. It was his observation that almost all of those who keep coming to him kept making (spiritual) progress on their own. It is common for people to try to make sure that they continue to make progress. There is no need to worry about markers and milestones along the way; after some time whether or not one is going on the right path automatically becomes clear. It is common among people to keep comparing with fellow travellers—especially fellow disciples—to see if one has become as good as, or better than, someone else. Such comparisons are impediments to progress, and should be avoided. Individuals progress at different rates; some may take a few months or four years or decades, while someone could make the same journey in a few days. Among the many people who came to see him, he thought there were some who had made good progress, up to fifty or even eighty percent of the best that could be expected.

How could we recognize whether someone is spiritually advanced, to the level of “the person of stable intellect” (sthitaprajña) described in the Gītā, for instance? The most important sign of spiritually advanced persons is that they are not attached to mundane gains and pursuits: my home, my family, my son; they do not think that they must get something or other. The word in the Gītā that described such a person best is non-attached (niḥsaṅga). It implies being innocent like a child. Often such a person is not appreciated even by members of the family. Indeed, the behaviour of a spiritually highly advanced person looks odd to many people around him. Shri Sahasrabuddhe, for instance, was widely thought of as whimsical or even mad. He was sixty-five years old by the time he was clearly understood as being a truly spiritually advanced person, which was only during the last five years of his life!

Finally, I asked him to describe in simple words what he thought he was doing for hours sitting in his room and entertaining questions from any and all who dropped in. What he was doing, he said in Marathi, was “mānasopacār”, which in plain English means psychotherapy.

Thoughts and principles expressed in the biographies

The biography of Shri Sahasrabuddhe (Deshpande, 1978) includes a series of reminiscences of a number of individuals that indicate the nature of problems for which they sought the guru’s help, the nature of advice they were given, and extent of relief they attained. They also contain occasional and incidental reference to concepts or principles that were heard in the course of interaction with the guru. Although the biography of Shri Ambekar (Sane, 1988) does not include reminiscences of his disciples, the author does occasionally refer to her guru’s thoughts which shed light on the philosophical principles on which their lives and teachings were based. Neither of these gurus wrote out their own views, but it is possible to reconstruct the principles underlying their healing practices from various references in the biographies.

Shri Ambekar’s biography provides some interesting information of the kind of instruction he received in his early days, which may have adequately prepared him to receive guidance from Shri Sahasrabuddhe. Thus, according to Sane (1988, p. 26), Shri Ambekar had met Shri Uplekar Maharaj earlier in his life, and the thrust of the instruction he repeatedly received was: “sit in silence and look inside, and all is obtained”. This, it would appear, is quite consistent with the main teachings he received later from Shri Sahasrabuddhe. Sane’s conversations with Shri Ambekar also provide pointers to the ideas that guided his behaviour. Thus, when she asked him to explain the secret of the courage with which he had faced many difficult situations in his life, and had usually come up with a prompt and correct course of action as demanded by the occasion, he explained in words that may be paraphrased as follows: “If one has firm faith in God and believes that He does everything needed to get us through, then there is no place for fear and anxiety. Then one automatically develops the attitudes of vigilance and courage needed for right action. One should focus only on the situation on the hand, and the right course of action automatically suggests itself” (Sane, 1988, p. 17). By comparison to such relatively rare gleanings, the longer biography of Shri Sahasrabuddhe provides reasonably extensive information on his thoughts and teachings.

One specific point is repeated several times and seems to indicate the central principle of Shri Sahasrabuddhe’s teaching. To paraphrase it in English, it can be described as follows: “One should meditate on the effulgent nature of the Self, and enjoy or suffer as dictated by Providence” (Deshpande, 1978, pp. 37, 330)3 When asked about what one should do, a common instruction was that one should sit in silence. Sometimes the suggestion was to sit with closed eyes, and gaze at the void in the skies. The common Marathi words he used were “svastha rahā” which literally means just stay in silence. As the biographer Deshpande (1978, p. 386) explains it, the word svastha is to be understood as sva-stha meaning that one should be firmly grounded in the Self, i.e., in Ātman, the unchanging principle underlying the continually changing images of the self. At one point, the Ātman was explained as the eternal propitious principle (ātmā eva sadāśivaḥ, p. 168); and at another point it was indicated that it was the same as the ubiquitous Divine principle (viśvaṁ viṣṇuḥ, p. 200). Lest the instruction is understood to mean simply sit down and do nothing, it is repeatedly emphasized that one must learn to “stand on one’s own feet” and face the challenges of practical life. The need for repeated and untiring effort (abhyāsa) at meditating on the nature of the Self while following the guidelines given by the guru is suggested, and it is emphasized that no one can do this but oneself (Deshpande, 1978, p. 335). To describe this form of meditation, the traditional Sanskrit word ātmānusandhāna, which means focussed contemplation of the inner Self, is repeatedly used. Such usage would naturally guide a serious seeker to traditional philosophies which explain the correct ways of inquiring into the nature of the Self, particularly the philosophy of the Advaita Vedānta.

It was not Shri Sahasrabuddhe’s style to teach through lectures; difficult but crucial ideas were often conveyed through incidental remarks and practical demonstrations. The biographer describes an episode in which the guru asked him to fetch a handful of sand from the other bank of the river where they were standing. Lacking confidence in his skill in swimming, the biographer fearfully waded through neck-deep waters, and somehow managed to bring back a fistful of sand. As he handed it over as per instruction, Shri Sahasrabuddhe described the grains of sand as imbued with the principles of viveka and vairāgya (Deshpande, 1978, p. 381). The two words he used incidentally convey important principles for a spiritual aspirant; first, the principle of viveka, which means wise discrimination between the real Self on the one hand, and the ego or the false sense of self on the other; and the principle of vairāgya, which means a deep sense of detachment in regard to worldly gains. The incidental reference to such words was enough for the adept listener to get the point; he understood what he was expected to do for his progress on the spiritual path. His fear for life while wading in deep waters would now be understood as a sign of the lack of a sense of detachment to life, for instance. He had enough background to understand the meaning of these concepts in the classical account of the path of knowledge (jñāna mārga) described in the Advaita Vedānta tradition of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya.

Interestingly, Deshpande narrates all this as an example of how Shri Sahasrabuddhe never communicated difficult ideas through lectures and discourses, but taught them “through experience” (anubhava dvārā). It is hard to say what exactly is meant by “through experience”. In the example of fear experienced in wading in deep waters as an instance of learning through experience, it could also mean the need for a direct experience of the nature of the Self. The latter meaning seems to be particularly implied in the fact that he often discouraged — even derided — an overly intellectualized approach (pāṇḍitya). It appears from the narrative that the disciple was in the right mood to absorb the message under the circumstances and in the manner in which the words were conveyed. A clearer example of Shri Sahasrabuddhe’s practical way of teaching is found in an episode described by Shri Ambekar’s son Yashvant. The young Yashvant was one day revising his geometry lesson about the definition of a point. Shri Sahasrabuddhe asked him to explain the idea in his own words. The boy naturally thought of this as a question about geometry, but that was not what he meant. Then the guru explained that the Brahman is like a point. This was beyond the boy’s comprehension; he was totally confused, and asked for an explanation. Then the guru put his finger on Yashvant’s forehead right between his eyebrows and said, look here and you will see the “point”. Yashvant admits in his narrative that he was too young to understand what was involved. However, a reference to a point in the middle of the forehead comes up again in the context of the biographer’s conversation with his guru, so it deserves a mention here.

Deshpande (1978, pp. 38-39) once asked Shri Sahasrabuddhe to explain what is meant by the expression “the Divine fills up the entire world of moving and non-moving objects, and also transcends the world by a measure of ten fingers”.4 The reference is obviously to the idea that the Brahman, the ultimate principle reality, is supposed to be immanent throughout the world and also transcends it “by a measure of ten fingers”. To help explain what this means, the guru measured the distance across his own ten fingers, then put the tip of his finger point at an equal distance in front of the forehead of the inquirer. As the latter focussed his attention on that point, he experienced bliss beyond description, and realized that this is the bliss implied in the definition of Brahman as truth (sat), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ānanda). This episode indicates that Sri Sahasrabuddhe had the capacity to explain difficult concepts of the Advaita philosophy by inducing a direct experience of bliss in a mature inquirer.

This brings us back to Sri Sahasrabuddhe’s point that he did not care for scholarly discussion and intellectual exercises, nor did he indulge in lecturing or pontification. His emphasis was on tactfully teaching serious and eligible inquirers the techniques of a deeply personal inquiry that would lead to the direct experiences that are often expressed in terms of abstruse philosophical concepts. No amount of lecturing could be substitutes for truths that need experiential verification. The point is clearly expressed by L. R. Phadke in his reminiscences (Deshpande, 1978, pp. 262-263). He mentions that Shri Sahasrabuddhe used to occasionally ask if any of the visitors had read texts such as the Dāsabodha by Saint Ramdās, or the Jñāneśvarī by Saint Jñāneśvar. This induced Phadke and some others to start studying them carefully. As their study progressed, they started to ask many questions about subtle points which they had failed to clearly understand. When they asked the guru to explain, he got angry, castigating them for failing to meticulously follow his teaching and try to gain understanding of basic principles through direct experience. What is the use of mere reading, and study, he said, unless you follow up your studies through sustained critical thinking (manana), and become totally absorbed in contemplation (nididhyāsana).

The three steps of study (śravaṇa), critical thinking (manana) and deep absorption in contemplation (nididhyāsana) are clearly the steps toward Self-realization recommended in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. These steps are elaborately described and developed in the Advaita tradition. There is a quaint reference in Shri Sahasrabuddhe’s biography that, while he mentioned this traditional methodology to select visitors who were ready for it, he also hinted at the possible use of other techniques. Thus, Shri Joglekar, one of the senior disciples, mentions in his reminiscences (Deshpande, 1978, p. 214) that at one point his guru wrote on a piece of paper the following words: yantra, mantra, and tantra. These three words were followed by the trilogy of words: guru, the great (parama) guru, and the ultimate (parātpara) guru. The narrator of this incidence says that these words did not immediately make any sense to him, nor does he explain the meaning in his account of the episode. But readers may recognize that Shri Ambekar had referred to the same three words yantra, mantra, and tantra, which respectively refer to the instruments, words, and techniques for Self-realization that developed within the tāntric tradition. Shri Ambekar mentions that these words occur in Śaṅkarācārya’s Soundaryalaharī, a reference that suggests the inclusion in his tradition of the teachings of both the tāntric as well as the Advaita traditions.

Aside from such incidental mention of tāntric techniques, there is no specific indication that they were prominent part of the teaching imparted by either Sri Ambekar or his guru. In his overview toward the end of the biography Deshpande (1978, p. 374) suggests that there were two main pathways (mārga) to spiritual development that Shri Sahasrabuddhe asked his disciples to follow: (1) the use of chanting of particular words or a “name” (nāmajapa), and (2) the practice of meditation (dhyāna yoga). On the other hand, there was obvious emphasis on the practice of prayer, worship and other common aspects of the path of religious devotion (bhakti yoga). Clearly the teaching of these two gurus was syncretic; a combination of various elements of the major paths to spiritual development was recommended as appropriate to the temperament of the specific seeker.

Insofar as a major part of Shri Saharabuddhe’s biography involves reminiscences from a number of people, it is natural that what we learn about him is based on the impressions of the followers, which they found worth reporting. A most common impression is that he seemed to always be immersed in a state of bliss. Sometimes the visitors found him lost into his inner experience, oblivious to what was happening in the surrounding. Often he had to be awakened from the trance. According to Deshpande (1978, p. 349), Shri Sahasrabuddhe constantly used to be in the Fourth State of consciousness (the turiyā avasthā described in the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad). While being in such a state, one becomes oblivious to one’s physical condition and of the surroundings. As an example he narrates an incidence where the guru had been oblivious to burns caused by a cigarette butt as he slipped into a trance in the middle of a smoke. I remember how at one time Shri Ambekar told me that Shri Sahasrabuddhe often walked the fine line between a totally transcendent state on the one side, and normal wakeful state, mindful of the surroundings, on the other.5 This account is clearly reminiscent of a reference in the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (3.1), where two birds on a self-same tree are described such that while one thinks of the sweet or sour fruit on the branches of the tree, the other merely witnesses and remains totally uninvolved. It implies that Shri Sahasrabuddhe had attained a state where a yogi is able to stay continuously in the Fourth State (turiyā) so as to sustain that experience while being in the wakeful state at the same time.

Another common impression recorded in the reminiscences was his whimsical behaviours, which many viewed as signs of madness. When asked about this, the guru replied that he had to feign madness to protect himself from unwanted visitors. As soon as he smelled that an undesirable type of person was entering his room, the guru would make some sudden remarks or put up a scene designed to drive away that person. One of the things that is repeatedly mentioned in the reminiscences is the child-like innocence manifest in the guru’s behaviour. Aside from all this, a most significant common observation concerned the guru’s total selflessness. He had completely overcome the more common inducements for indulgence, namely the desires for the opposite sex (dāreṣaṇā), for money (vitteṣaṇā), and for fame (lokeṣaṇā) (Deshpande, 1978, p. 351). That he had unlimited compassion for all kind of suffering souls is obvious from the large number of people from varied background, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, that kept coming to seek solace in his company. It was only the undesirable visitors who came to him to either poke fun at him or with some ulterior and ignoble motives that were turned away; everyone else was warmly welcomed.

The historical and cultural background

It will be useful now to turn our attention to the historical background of the Dattātreya Sampradāya, which is a spiritual and religious tradition to which belonged the two healers described above. A lot of information is available on this tradition in varied sources, including books (Dhere, 1958/1999; Rigopoulous, 1998), encyclopedia articles such as the relevant article in the Bhāratīya Saṁskṛti Kośa in Marathi, as well as the Wikipedia article available online. The historical roots of the tradition go back to stories of the Purāṇas, the “mythological” texts of medieval times, which describe the origin of Dattātreya. As noted before, Dattātreya is the name of a Hindu deity characterized by three heads representing the trinity of the Hindu gods, indicating the syncretic character of the teachings in this tradition. More specifically, this syncretic character is symbolically indicated by the story that Dattātreya learned various virtues from twenty-four different teachers collecting gems of wisdom like a honey bee collecting nectar from innumerable flowers. Small wonder that the teachings of this tradition combine elements of the major paths (mārga) to spiritual progress. To put it simply, their healing practices are based on principles and philosophies of several rich traditions with a long history. As such, a proper understanding of the teachings and healing techniques of these gurus would have to be based on the philosophies and spiritual practices of the many traditions from which they have drawn various elements.

The followers of this tradition are spread across different regions of India. In Maharashtra the tradition is traced to Śrīpāda Śrīvallabha (c. 1323-1353), and Narasimha Saraswatī (1378−1458), the two saints whose life histories are described in the popular Marathi text called the Guru-caritra. Narasimha Saraswatī was initiated into saṅnyāsa by Kṛṣṇa Sarasvatī, who was connected with the Vidyāraṇya lineage of the Shṛngeri Math. This background puts him clearly in the tradition of the Advaita Vedānta. The lineage of Śaṅkarācārya (788-820) is, in turn, historically traced back to his guru Govinda and his guru Gauḍapāda — and further back to the Upaniṣadic sages. Narasimha Saraswatī was known for healing a large number of people of varied backgrounds. A Muslim king (probably Allauddin II of Bedar) is said to have approached him for relief from the pain caused by a blister. Helping such persons regardless of their background is common to several saints of the Dattātreya tradition, and they are known to have attracted the following of many Muslims. Reciprocally, several Sufi saints had many Hindu followers. Narasimha Saraswatī is followed, in turn, by a long chain of teachers and disciples (guru-śiṣya paramparā), and the history of this chain has been published by Dhere (1958/1999). It is to this tradition that the two healers described above belong. According to Dhere (1959/1999, p. 146), Shri Sahasrabuddhe’s guru was Shri Ramanand Beedkar (1839-1913), who in turn was a disciple of Shri Swami Samarth of Akkalkot (? -1878)6. Swami Samarth is a legendary figure whose long life is said be stretched back to Narasimha Saraswatī. On the whole the historical background of the tradition is quite well known. Given that a vast amount of spiritual and philosophical writings of saints and philosophers of this tradition is available, the healing practices described above can be safely placed in the “classical” as distinguished from the “folk” traditions of India.

The modern context

During the life time of the two healers described above, Shri Sahasrabuddhe and Shri Ambekar, practice of modern psychotherapy based on Western models had slowly started to take root in Pune city. By the time of writing this essay in early years of the twenty-first century, signs of clinics announcing the therapeutic practices based not only on Western models, but also of Chinese acupuncture and Japanese Reiki have sprouted in neighbourhoods not far from Shri Ambekar’s residence. Given that Shri Ambekar explicitly said that he was practicing psychotherapy (mānasopacār), comparison of his approach with imported models naturally arises. Those who follow Western models are bound to view the traditional practices from their own vantage point. Against this background, I wish to offer an interpretation of this traditional approach in the light of principles and idiom of modern psychology.

As a student of modern psychology, and particularly its theory and history, I wish to cast my net wide, taking into consideration the long and rich intellectual histories that have shaped current practices in India and the West. As is well known, the founders of modern psychology were inspired by the success of the natural sciences, and most psychologists today silently share the world view of science. As I understand, there are certain aspects of the traditional approach to healing that do not fit the world view of science, and these misfits may immediately turn away some of our psychology colleagues in disbelief. This is true not only of many psychologists trained in the currently popular approaches to psychotherapy as described in standard texts (e.g., Fell et al., 2004; Feltham & Horton, 2000), but also others who are trained in other disciplines and have imbibed the world view of science. In the next section of this essay, therefore, I wish to consider some of the common objections that are likely to be raised against the traditional healing practice described above, so the ground is cleared for the subsequent discussion. Those who think that considering such objections is unnecessary may skip the next section and continue thereafter.

Some initial objections

Objections due to religious background. Given the strictly secular approach of modern science, the distinctly religious context of Shri Ambekar’s healing practices is likely to raise the eyebrows of many. The fact that science had to establish itself in the seventeenth century Europe in the teeth of opposition by the Church, an antireligious feeling has seeped into the world view of science. Psychologists seem to be affected more specifically by this background, because the conflict between supporters of evolutionism versus advocates of “intelligent design” is raging at the same time that neurology and evolutionary psychology are getting increasingly popular among psychologists. I have personally witnessed a gut level reaction against anything connected with religion among my psychology colleagues in not only North America but also India.

To those who have such reactions, I wish to point out that disdain for religion is the result of the historical baggage of Europe, and not of India. Unlike Christianity, whose foundational beliefs were challenged by Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin, discoveries of science have not offended the doctrines or sensibilities of Hindus, Buddhists or Jains. Their religious traditions have felt no need to strictly monitor the beliefs of their followers, nor have they set up watchdogs to identify and punish heretics and apostates. By and large, the pathways to spiritual development promoted by religions of Indian origin tend to be neutral to belief systems. The world wide appeal of Yoga illustrates this point. Anybody wanting to practice dhyāna yoga or jñāna yoga need not renounce their creed before starting to practice. More specifically, the Dattātreya tradition to which Shri Ambekar belongs has not only been eclectic, but tolerant of diverse religious ideologies as evidenced by the large following its saints have acquired among Muslims. In this regard, the tradition is close to Sufism within the Islamic fold. Interestingly, atheists are equally welcome to practice dhyāna, jñāna or karma yoga; indeed, the Sāṁkhya system is itself atheistic; it has had no need to postulate any kind of God.

Do we need philosophy? Shri Ambekar’s approach is clearly grounded in Indian philosophy, particularly the Advaita Vedānta, and for many psychologists today, philosophy is anathema. The fact that modern psychology had to “cut the apron strings” of the mother discipline of philosophy has led to an anti-philosophical stance among psychologists. This is not simply a matter of burden of the history of nineteenth century Europe and America; the department of experimental psychology at Pune University, for instance, had to face opposition from philosophers when it was founded in the nineteen forties. Those who take pride in empirical studies in psychology tend to think of themselves as scientists wanting to benefit humanity through their discoveries, and take a dim view of “armchair speculation” that philosophers are supposed to indulge in.

However, if philosophy is understood as providing conceptual foundations for psychology—for instance in providing a favoured solution to the “mind-body problem”—then at least some of the objections to philosophy may be removed. Another important use of philosophy is in providing thoughtful guidelines for assessing the true value of propositions based on sound principles of epistemology, or the philosophy of science.

Are old historical ideas relevant today? Aren’t old insights obsolete? Psychologists who follow the natural science model often tend to think that they should try to articulate timeless laws that control behaviour; which means that there is no need to study what happened in the past. The fact that today’s psychology itself is a product of the intellectual history and the contributions of the discipline’s pioneers and forebears is often ignored. Psychology’s ahistoric stance is, unknown to many, informed by an understanding of the nature of development of knowledge in any field proposed by Auguste Comte in early nineteenth century. Comte proposed that knowledge in any field goes through three stages: theological, philosophical, and positive or scientific, such that each subsequent stage is superior to the previous stage. He also suggested that science develops through a continuous process of refinement such that each new discovery makes earlier developments obsolete. Unwittingly following this line of thinking, students of psychology were routinely told that they should not have more than five references older than five years in their research reports. Leahey (1987) has called such attitude to history a “Whig view”, and has noted its prevalence among contemporary psychologists.

This idea, that old cannot be gold, militates against the recognition of old insights that might still be relevant and of practical value. Certain Upaniṣadic insights are an integral part of the teachings of Shri Sahasrabuddhe. The three-step process of study, critical examination, and contemplation in search of Self-knowledge, for instance, goes back to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. And it is still found useful by many who have tried it out. Thus, there is no need to be gingerly anti-historical in our approach to psychology—and to methods of healing.

Are you proposing a belief in ESP? The fact that Shri Ambekar used to “see” things beyond his eyesight, that he could often recognize the unasked questions in the mind of visitors, and that he could correctly predict what lay in somebody’s future, may be viewed as signs of his extra-ordinary powers—powers such as Extra-Sensory-Perception (ESP), mind-reading, and precognition. Such powers are believed to contravene laws of science, or as anomalies. As Kuhn (1970) has pointed out, the history of science has repeatedly demonstrated the tendency of scientists to routinely ignore observations that do not fit the contemporary understanding of the laws of nature. Indeed, during the past century, numerous studies in the field of parapsychology have amassed lots of empirical data suggesting the existence of paranormal phenomena, especially cognitive anomalies. Many of the studies in this field meet—even exceed—the most stringent criteria of experimental methodology. However, as K. R. Rao (2011) has pointed out, for those who are committed to the world view of science, no amount of corroborating data can convince the actuality of ESP and other such paranormal phenomena.

Looking at it from a traditional Indian standpoint, instances of ESP and particularly mind reading are commonplace. That many holy men (sādhu puruṣ) routinely recognize the thoughts of visitors and answer unasked questions is common knowledge. Richard Alpert, the psychologist who was fired from Harvard for his controversial experiments on LSD, has put on record his experience of this sort in his book published under his new name Ram Dass (1974). When Alpert went to see Neem Karoli Baba in the Himalayas to find out if the LSD he was carrying in his pocket could give him Nirvāṇa, the first thing Baba asks him was concerned with what he was carrying in his pocket—a paper bag containing LSD. For those who are familiar with the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, it should be clear that the third chapter lists a number of extra-ordinary powers that an advanced yogi is supposed to attain. While affirming their existence, Patañjali also warns that adepts should meticulously avoid using such powers if and when they manifest in the course of their spiritual development. This is because the use of such powers tends to inflate the possessor’s ego—which is exactly opposed to the main goal of yoga—to overcome, and ultimately dissolve, egotism. Interestingly, as far as I remember, there was no talk about such powers (called the siddhis) in Shri Ambekar’s presence, which indicates following the caution of such avoidance in the Yoga Sūtra.

Effective communication across world views would not be possible unless we are willing to set aside initial misgivings arising from misfits such as those mentioned above. A good way to proceed would be to set aside such misgivings for the time being at least, and focus instead on the fundamental principles as understood from an “insider’s” perspective.

Turning to basic principles

As noted, the tradition to which Shri Sahasrabuddhe and Shri Ambekar belonged goes back to ancient times, and to understand the key concepts in their repertoire it is necessary to trace them to their original sources. Let us first look at the most crucial concept in their enterprise of healing, namely the concept of suffering, called duḥkha in Sanskrit, and its modern derivatives.

A most well-known work, which aims at understanding the nature of suffering and its radical removal, is the Sāṁkhya Kārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa.7 It proposes three basic types of suffering:

  1. the ādhibhautika type, meaning that which arises from physical causes such as pain caused by falling objects, which is left for the doctors (bhiṣaj) to deal with;
  2. the ādhidaivika type, meaning that arising from haunting by ghosts and other menacing creatures, which is left to the mantriks (shamans) to deal with through black magic; and
  3. the adhyātmika type, meaning that belonging to the self, which in turn is divided between two subtypes, bodily and psychological.

Shri Ambekar’s mandate was, clearly, to deal with psychological suffering. According to the Sāṁkhya-Yoga and the Advaita, the systems that have arguably the greatest influence on his tradition, the main cause of psychological distress is the misconstrual of the true nature of the Self (avidyā). When misconstrual of the nature of the Self is accepted as basic diagnosis, appropriate therapeutic strategies seeking enlightenment follow. Small wonder, then, that in Shri Ambekar’s injunction “sva-stha rahā” the key term is sva, meaning the self, and its correct meaning is to be understood in light of the philosophies of the Advaita and Sāṁkhya-Yoga.

The Advaita tradition is based on the Upaniṣads, where the term for the Self is Ātman. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (2.4.5) suggests an inquiry into the true nature of the Self as the most important thing to undertake in life, and proposes three steps for attaining correct Self-knowledge: “listening to”, or studying, the classical teachings concerning this issue (śravaṇa), critically examining the implications of the teachings (manana), and becoming deeply absorbed in contemplation (nididhyāsana). It should be clear that it is precisely this method for Self-realization that Shri Sahasrabuddhe suggested to his more serious and capable disciples. In the Advaita literature (e.g., Dharmaraja, 1972) that follows the lead of the Upaniṣads, a more specific guideline for critical inquiry is suggested: make a wise discrimination between the permanent versus impermanent (nitya anitya viveka) in regard to the self. What is implied here is that the true Self (Ātman) is the principle of unity and sameness underlying the continually changing images of the self. Critical examination shows that the views involving identification with the body, possessions, social roles, beliefs and even highly cherished core values are open to change, and what remains unchanged is only pure consciousness.

In Patañjali’s yoga, essentially the same theme is repeated, although the specific technique suggested there is different and a different terminology is used. According to the Sāṁkhya system, the unseemly collusion between the primordial principle of pure consciousness (puruṣa) and the principle of materiality (prakṛti) leads to a fundamental source of ignorance (avidyā), and the result is the genesis of innumerable individualized centres of awareness, or sentient organisms of varied sorts. Patañjali follows this line of reasoning and suggests that this basic ignorance (avidyā) breeds egoism (asmitā), likes and dislikes (rāga, dveṣa), and an urge to cling to life (abhiniveśa). These are the primary afflictions (kleśa) that lead to suffering (duḥkha). According to Patañjali, the ego identifies itself with changing thoughts that appear in and disappear from awareness in wakeful and dream states, feeling happy with the gain of likeable things and sad with their loss. Being continually thrown into alternating experiences of pleasure and pain is not taken as a sign of happiness. To escape from the frustrating repetition of the pleasure-pain cycle, bringing the flow of thoughts to a stand-still through concentrative meditation is suggested as a way out. According to Patañjali (1.3), when the flow of thoughts is brought to a stand-still, the true Self (draṣṭā, seer) stays into its pristine state [of bliss] (tadā draṣṭuḥ sva-rūpe avasthānam).

Shri Ambekar did not recommend this yogic strategy of concentrative meditation following a rigorous discipline of postures (āsana) and breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma). In his view, the same result can be more effortlessly achieved if one simply sits down in silence and tries to remain grounded in the Self. Let us remember now the explanation of remaining sva-stha given by Deshpande in his biography of Shri Sahasrabuddhe saying that here sva means Self, the unchanging basis of selfhood, and stha implying abiding in a stable state or stasis. This should make it clear that the message is essentially no different from that of Patañjali.

Interpreting the teachings in the contemporary context

We may now try to understand Shri Ambekar’s teachings and healing techniques in the language and idiom of contemporary psychology.

Note first that according to the traditional teachings passed on by Shri Sahasrabuddhe and Shri Ambekar, the root cause of psychological distress is misconstrual of the true nature of the Self. Let us see how this diagnosis compares with the prominent diagnostic ideas of the West: Disobedience of God’s commandments, or sin, as the main cause of suffering according to Christianity; repression of id-impulses by socially imposed restrictions as the cause of anxiety and distress according to Freud; maladaptation to the environment as the main problem of difficulties according to behaviourism; discrepancy between the real self and ideal self according to Rogers, misconception of role expectations in George Kelly’s view; being other-directed or being inauthentic from the existential viewpoint. The distinctiveness of this traditional Indian approach should now be quite clear. It is but natural that different approaches to healing and psychotherapy follow from differing views of what goes wrong, and why. Since the Self is the core concept in the injunction “sva-stha rahā”, we can start the discussion of what that means from Western psychology’s viewpoint.

Self (Ātman, Puruṣa). As noted, Patañjali uses the term draṣṭā to designate the Self, which means the self-as-seer rather than self-as-seen. A well-known text in the Advaita tradition called the Dṛg-dṛśya-viveka (1931) states the same. To put it in terms of modern psychology, the Self is the self-as-subject as distinguished from the self-as-object in William James’s (1890/1983) terms. James included the following in the domain of self-as-object: Material Self meaning body and possessions, Social Self meaning one’s social roles and reputation, and Spiritual Self, by which he meant one’s thoughts, ideas and ideals. To put it in another way, the self-as-object includes all sorts of objects, including objects of thought with which the “I” feels identified. (In this context ideas and beliefs, although intangible rather than tangible like physical objects, are “objects of thought” open to description like other objects.) If we ask someone “who are you?”, the common answers she or he would give include one’s name, occupation, place of residence, country and citizenship as well as thoughts, feelings, and actions with which one feels identified. What then is the self-as-subject? It implies that in us which has the experiences, the “I” which is aware as distinguished from things he is aware of. This is not very easy to explain, because the seer cannot be seen in turn. To help reach out to the centre of awareness, the Advaita system provides a guideline: find out that in us which remains changeless, in other words the principle of unity and self-sameness underlying the changing body, roles, thoughts, feelings and actions. Another word for this principle of unity and sameness is identity.

Identity. In daily life we wear many masks. In the morning I am a father who takes my son to his school, an employee during the day at work, a member of the tennis club in the evening, a buddy of my best friend with whom I have coffee in the evening, a husband when I go back home in the evening. When I go to the library and borrow a book, the clerk at the desk knows that I am the same as the one pictured on the ID card. Normally, sameness is established across time and place by the way I look, speak, and so on. Establishing one’s “identity” is very important not only in ensuring that one is eligible to borrow a book or cross an international boundary, but also in proving someone’s guilt or innocence in a court of law. For only the same person who did something right or wrong can be rewarded or punished for respectively his right or wrong actions. Also, we change a lot from year to year over decades of life in various ways. Although we take our different roles and many changes in our stride, it is not easy to say exactly what, if anything, accounts for our being one and the same person.

In modern psychology, Erik Erikson is most well-known for his work on identity. He defines identity, or more precisely psychosocial identity, as an “evolving configuration of roles”. In his opinion, we can only develop a “sense” of identity, a sense that is forever revisable. At one point in his writing Erikson (1968) says that “there is in fact in each individual an ‘I’, an observing centre of awareness and of volition, which can transcend and must survive the psychosocial identity” (p. 135). The idea of “centre of awareness” comes the closest to what is meant by Ātman or Puruṣa in Indian philosophy, and that is what is meant by Shri Ambekar when he talks of sva in the expression sva-stha rahā. Interestingly, that in us which sees cannot be seen in turn. However, the sages of the Advaita and Yoga traditions insist that it is possible to reach into the source of experience—and stay there. Several techniques of meditation have been devised over the centuries, although I never saw Shri Ambekar directly teaching any such technique. An interesting technique is suggested in the writings of Sri Ramaṇa Maharshi (1879-1950), a famous sage and a contemporary of Shri Sahasrabuddhe. Here is a quotation of his words:

To say “I am not this” or “I am that” there must be the “I”. This thought is only the ego or the “I-thought”. After the rising up of this “I-thought” all other thoughts arise. The “I-thought” is therefore the root-thought. If the root is pulled out all other at the same time are uprooted. Therefore seek the root “I”, question yourself “Who am I”; find out its source. Then all this will vanish and the pure Self will remain ever . . . All that you need to do is to find out its origin and abide there. (Talks with Sri Ramaṇa Maharshi, p. 168)

Emphasis on sameness versus emphasis on change; Being vs. Becoming. The emphasis on stasis, or seeking to remain in a changeless state, is common to Shri Ambekar and Sri Ramaṇa Maharshi. They represent the continuation of the persistent theme of culture reflected in sources of the literature on the Advaita and Yoga. This stands in contrast with a dominant and persistent theme in the cultural tradition of the West. Aristotle’s concept of self-actualization, for instance, suggests that there are hidden potentials in human beings even as the ability to grow into a huge tree is dormant in a tiny seed such as an acorn. Aristotle suggested that continuing to manifest one’s potentials is the essence of becoming happy; a well grown and growing oak is a happy tree than a stunted one! It is presumed that the continued manifestation of hidden potentials, which implies continual accomplishment of successes of various sorts one after another, is a good thing. In modern psychology, Abraham Maslow (1970) revived the Aristotelian view of self-actualization. The examples of self-actualized persons that he presents include Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Schweitzer and other such highly accomplished persons—or heroes. And for Maslow these individuals represent human ideals worth emulating. In a similar vein, Carl Rogers (1961) talks of “On becoming a person”, implying the notion that Becoming, or continually changing for something better than before, is intrinsically desirable. Against this background, the emphasis in the Indian tradition on seeking some changeless state would seem odd, especially in current times where seeking more of everything or “endless progress” is a value promoted all over. One must keep improving one’s personal worth—or bank balance—even as a country must attain greater and greater Gross National Product.

Indeed, I remember Shri Ambekar saying to me that it is important to recognize that there is no need, really, to go anywhere, to keep seeking something or other. “Just be”, he would say. What sense does this message make? Is this not a message asking for stagnation, for remaining idle, doing nothing?

The answer to this question is easy to find if we just look at his own life. If it was true that Shri Ambekar’s message were to result in idleness, he would not have been so busy. He was carrying a full time job, and looking after a family of two adult children and grandchildren, and was tirelessly facing personal problems heaped at his feet some five to six hours a day after work for three days a week. It is as if he was on an overdrive, and it looks as if his sitting in silence was the key to his working non-stop—and that in selfless service to others.

But does this therapy work, and if so, how? It may be recalled that Shri Ambekar was quite candid and modest in estimating the effectiveness of what he delivered. It is important to recognize that the primary focus of the enterprise is spirituality, and in his own estimate the proportion of people interested in spiritual pursuits is less than five per hundred. And of those, few make limited progress. What then happens to the vast majority of people who seek his help? One way of looking at this issue is to judge by the fact that few of the initial visitors keep coming; not all. Those who keep coming tend to sit in his presence primarily because they simply feel good; which is what is claimed to happen according to the tradition. To my knowledge, some of the frequent visitors say that over the years they feel that they are being guided in the right direction all along. As noted by Shri Ambekar, spiritual progress is quite slow and the rate of progress is highly variable from one individual to another.

But when seen from a modernist standpoint, the evidence of effectiveness of interventions should be measurable, and there is an increasing number of publications reporting assessment of effectiveness of therapy based on varied methods of measurement. And such effort is extended not only to many Western therapeutic techniques but also to techniques of Asian origin, like Transcendental Meditation and vipāśana. The possibility, relevance, and worth of application to the Dattātreya-type healing is an open question. It may be noted, however, that the demonstration of effectiveness is partly a matter of marketing, and somewhat of an American obsession, and of little relevance from the point of view of genuine spiritual progress. As Shri Ambekar indicated, to become oblivious to markers of progress is, ironically, a sign of spiritual progress. In any case, seen from the vantage point of contemporary psychology, it makes sense to suggest two aspects of Shri Ambekar’s healing technique that seem to be at work: First, there could simply be a degree of relief coming from letting the steam off, a form of catharsis from having spoken out the fact that one is suffering. This may be common to all forms of help, whether speaking to a friend, or a counsellor, or a psychoanalyst for that matter. Second, it is the “unconditional positive regard” for the sufferer, which Rogerian therapy considers as a most essential aspect of effective therapy. Here it will be useful to note the assessment of spiritual healing by Sudhir Kakar (2003), a well-known psychoanalyst. “Theory of cure that makes best psychoanalytic sense of spiritual healing is that of Heinz Kohut,” says Kakar. In his view, Kohut’s approach “cures by restoring to the self the empathic responsiveness of the selfobject” (p. 662). Comparing psychoanalytical healers with spiritual healers, Kakar suggests that “[i]n their empathic identifications, analysts can perhaps never go as far as a few spiritual teachers” (p. 671). He further adds that “the chief obstacle to an analyst’s empathy is his phenomenal, sensual self” (p. 673). I tend to agree with Kakar’s observation about the difference in levels of empathy in healers belonging to the two different traditions. For a spiritual healer such as Shri Ambekar, overcoming the demands of the sensual self—such as those for wealth, progeny, and reputation—is a basic step on the way to attain the goal of genuine selflessness. His guru asked him to help people in distress only after ascertaining that he will not do it to make money. On the other hand, modern psychotherapists, whether of psychoanalytic or other persuasions, are trained to pursue a career that would help them in earning enough to afford a comfortable life style and a good reputation as a successful professional.

For a highly selfless person, who has no expectation from anybody, whether of money or any other reward, the empathy and regard for the other is most genuine, and therefore likely to be most effective. Nevertheless, the role of persons like Shri Ambekar is different from the role of a modern therapist; their roles are embedded in two different social institutions shaped by long historical development of different cultures. It would therefore be useful to examine the differing roles of healers in differing cultural contexts.

The differing roles of therapists in different institutional and cultural contexts

Three evenings a week the door of Shri Ambekar’s residence used to be wide open; anybody could walk in and seek relief from her or his pressing personal distress. There was no sign announcing the place as a clinic, although sometimes he used to say that he had opened a clinic (davākhānā). This would appear strange coming from a person who was never enrolled in a medical college or a psychology class. Several questions might pop up regarding this, particularly when seen from a contemporary perspective where people are, and ought to be, concerned about the training and qualifications of anyone practicing as a medical or paramedical professional.

The medical context: That Shri Ambekar could think of his role similar to that of a medical professional is not strange if we look carefully at his cultural and historical background. In his commentary on Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra (2.15), Vyāsa views the enterprise of Yoga as analogous to that of medicine (cikitsā śāstra). Thus, Vyāsa explains, suffering (duḥkha) is the disease, the mistaken views of the Self is the cause of the disease, and acquiring the correct knowledge of the Self is the therapy. A similar analogy is found in the Advaita literature about its enterprise. Small wonder, then, that Shri Ambekar was well aware of the role of a therapist that was bestowed upon him in the Dattātreya tradition which combined the elements of the systems of Yoga and Advaita. Yet, clearly, this role does not fit the prevailing model, where a medical or paramedical practitioner must be a duly trained and licensed professional.

Surely Shri Ambekar was not a “professional” therapist. He derived his mandate from the Indian tradition, which is very different from that of the West in some respects. Indeed, there is no simple, single name to his role as a healer. It is a common practice in India, however, that some enlightened persons keep helping and guiding people. Sometimes such people earn the informal titles like “Bābā” or “Mahārāj”—just as Shri Sahasrabuddhe did. I never heard Shri Ambekar being referred that way. Sometimes people who gather around such persons are supposed to be having “satsaṅga”, which literally means being in the company of a good man—a sage or a saint. But unlike in the West, especially in the Catholic Church, where a person has to be “canonized” as a saint, i.e., officially recognized as having performed miracles, in the Indian tradition there is no such formality of an endorsement of sainthood. Sometimes saintly persons are recognized as “gurus”; and of course Dattātreya is the quintessential guru. The role of a guru, too, is not a matter of being certified or “ordained”; some wise and kindred soul becomes recognized by others for his wisdom, and they seek his advice. The role of a guru is sometimes compared with that of a therapist (Neki, 1973). Where does Shri Ambekar fit in this cultural context? 

It should be clear that in case of Shri Ambekar, his role as a healer was not what he had sought, nor was he self-appointed in a helping role. As noted, he was “drafted”, so to speak, by his guru to start helping people. It is Shri Sahasrabuddhe who started sending distressed people to him. There was apparently no training provided to be a healer. This route toward becoming a healer is radically different from the way modern therapists get trained and certified. Insofar as therapists trained in the Western style practice side-by-side with traditional healers like Shri Ambekar, a comparison between them would help in understanding the challenges ahead for both the modern and traditional types of healers.

Tradition and professionalization. A careful look at the professionalization of medicine in the West would indicate that the concept of the regulation of practices of professions like medicine, law, engineering and so on is not that old. The story goes that the work of doctors used to be regulated by the European monarchs till the time of the French revolution in the late eighteenth century. When the revolutionaries replaced the monarch, they were at a loss to know how to deal with issues concerning professional practice, such as dealing with complaints of malpractice. So they assigned the task to the associations of professionals to collectively regulate their affairs. Now in countries around the world there are “Colleges” of doctors, lawyers and engineers which collectively regulate their affairs.

Feltham and Horton’s (2000) Handbook of counselling and psychotherapy provides an excellent discussion of the problems in the professionalization of counsellors and psychotherapists in the Western world today. The main issue is accountability. The public, or particularly the clientele who pays for the services of the professional doctors, therapists, lawyers or engineers, deserve to be protected from ill-trained, incompetent, or irresponsible professionals. It is for this purpose that the College or association of professionals perform the important task of ensuring that training provided at universities or training institutes is of high quality; that training programs and their products are respectively accredited and certified to practice; that ethical guidelines for proper conduct as professionals are laid down; and that committees are set up to hear complaints against errant members and disciplined in case of proven guilty. Most governments legitimize the functioning of the professional associations and bestow on the Colleges the authority to fine recalcitrant members or cancel their privilege to practice. 

It is clear that in India today there is a crying need to form a credible and legally approved association of professional counsellors and psychotherapists. There is a common complaint that individuals without adequate training call themselves counsellors or psychotherapists without the need for certification, and the danger of abuse exists. It is well known that the government has been approached for support in this regard, but such efforts have not yet been successful.

Now we may ask: what about similar regulation of traditional healers? The field of traditional healers is wide open in India. There are spiritual and religious gurus, there are shamans, and many folk practitioners: masseurs, curers of snake bites, many who pedal folk remedies (called vaidus in Marathi) for diabetes, jaundice and so on, who are not formally trained as are Āyurvedic vaidyas. Many astrologers in fact do psychological counselling, and this has been well recognized by some anthropologists (see Pugh, 1984), but rarely by psychologists. For want of professionalization, the situation is “buyer beware; go at your own risk”. There has been no shortage of abuse at the hands of charlatans plying in the name of religion and even spirituality. Scandals about so-called sadhus break out in the news now and then. Against this background, it is useful to recognize the distinctive authenticity of healers of the Dattātreya tradition described here.

In my opinion, the key issue is charging money for service rendered. Modern counsellors and psychotherapists are—or rather should be—certified professionals who pursue a career and legitimately charge fees for their services just as lawyers, engineers and architects do. There are of course self-proclaimed gurus who charge fees for giving mantras to seekers and there are so-called gurus who own fleets of expensive cars and live in five star mansions. This is because many people do not recognize that spirituality is not a consumable open for sale. There is an unwritten rule, a convention in traditional spiritual circles, which asks us to beware of yogis who claim to have special powers and offer to use them for your (or rather their own) benefit. It must be emphasized that Shri Ambekar did not charge any fees, or expect any returns in kind. Indeed, it is not only the classical healers like him who refused to charge fees in cash or kind; even many folk practitioners worked on the principle of no fees. Puneites may remember a family of masseurs who rendered their fees as a matter of their family obligation (kulācār); I know of one of them who used to get very angry if any client would dare to offer him money. It was a common practice for expert healers to teach their techniques only to those who would take a vow not to charge any fees. Some of them were told that the efficacy of their cure would vanish in case the no-fee rule is violated. Whether that was true or not, it is clear that in the Indian culture, this was a way in which attempt was made to instil an ethical code for healers. 

But who could, in these days of stark commercialism and high cost of living, afford to provide services for no charge? Why did persons like Shri Ambekar provide selfless service at high cost to themselves and their family members? The answer is that Self-realized persons totally overcome their egos; for them there is no lure of wealth (vitteṣaṇā), progeny (putreṣaṇā), or fame (lokeṣaṇā). Having discovered an unending source of bliss in their inner Self, and having shed their narrow egos, such persons behave in a totally selfless manner. Genuine selflessness becomes manifest in Self-realized persons, and people start coming to them for advice and healing. For such kindred souls, regulations are unnecessary and professionalization is irrelevant.

Where do we go from here?

There are implications here for psychologists. For too long training in psychology is restricted to imported textbooks and models. It is high time that we realise that psychological theories and practices, including therapeutic, developed in the Indian tradition exist, and are providing benefits to countless individuals. Various techniques of meditation devised in Asian traditions have already begun to be incorporated by Western psychologists in their clinical practice. If we do not decolonize our minds, and erase the continuing shadow of Macaulay in our thinking, we may import Indian insights with a “Made in the USA” stamp.


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