Chapter 17: Psychotherapy and Indian thought – Foundations and applications of Indian psychology, 2e, 2nd Edition


Psychotherapy and Indian thought

Alok Pandey


Human thought has been preoccupied with the problem of suffering and pain since man became conscious of himself as more than just another struggling animal upon this charming and dangerous earth. Of course, this is not the whole of his evolutionary story. The greater part of his struggle has been to evolve a thinking creature out of the mud, to evolve a rational being out of the animal nature imprisoned by the sense-mind, even a spiritual person who lurks as a vague hint of light behind his familiar surface comprising of turbulent emotions, desires and passions. Still, a part of his evolutionary journey can be written as an attempt to overcome various forms of possible suffering and pain.

This move to conquer or contain suffering has taken two basic forms or approaches. One regards suffering as an inevitable and even natural state of living beings, with life being presented as a constant struggle for survival. Happiness is not intrinsically ingrained in human nature and is something that has to be acquired from the outside, although the urge to seek happiness is part of the human constitution. Here, relief from suffering and its alteration into some form of joy has to be a double approach: first, the eradication of pain through physical and psychological means, and second, the acquiring of happiness through largely external means. The other approach regards some form of joy or bliss as the natural endowment of humanity, even as the very basis of creation, and pain as a temporary imposition. This approach uses both inner and outer means to get rid of pain, but insists that true happiness can only be found in one’s own depths. The first approach has led to a multiplication of outer technology and methods to overcome physical and psychological suffering. The other has led man towards inner mastery, through yoga and such other inner means. While the first approach is generally associated with the Western outlook on life, the second is usually regarded as Eastern or, more specifically, Indian. However, this is only a generalization. A dispassionate look will show both approaches existing simultaneously across the globe at every point in time, the relative stress on each notwithstanding. For the modern mind, though, the Western world is associated with the advancement of material technology, while in the present era most inner approaches are associated with the Indian subcontinent, which still continues to shed an authoritative light on inner means.

The two approaches

Let us take a closer look at these two approaches with special regard to their relevance to psychotherapeutic methods. If psychotherapy is the science of changing the psychological patterns that give rise to mental distress and disorder, it must base itself on the most complete knowledge and understanding of what a human being is and can become. Much of psychotherapy is, however, based on what a human being was, either in his remote and hoary past (a pack of animals that could speak and think, as some would say) or in his more recent yesteryears of infancy and childhood. Through tracing the roots of present problems to the past, it tries to put a corrective by setting things right there. Although the principle sounds good in its own right, it has two fundamental problems. The first has to do with defining the past itself. In other words, how far back does our past go? The second problem concerns the future. Is the goal of psychotherapy to return the client to his past (when he was healthy) or to what has been till now his maximum possibility; or is it to utilize his crisis to enable an inner evolutionary journey towards a more meaningful future—that is, using the crisis as a learning experience for growth and progress? It is here that we come across the divergent world-views of people and their goals, destinies and scope, views that even provide a different understanding of the past and the future. These can be broadly divided into two main categories (at the risk of over-simplification for the sake of easier comprehension):

  • Man is a creature of mud formed by a process of chance evolution. He is essentially a physical, or perhaps a chemical, being. Psychologically, he is nothing more than an erstwhile animal or worm that has somehow managed to form itself through a series of random and accidental mutations. There is no essential goal or purpose to his life except to struggle and survive as other creatures do, and this tussle between his individual instinct to save himself and the social or collective instinct to save others is the source of his inner conflict. The crude animal is his past, the refined animal his maximum scope.
  • Juxtaposed to this, and somewhat of a contrast, is the other view, which holds man as a creature of heaven fallen here upon earth, and high and sublime in both origin and parentage. Psychologically, he is a soul, a miniature divinity shut in the prison house of matter, seeking release and escape. His goal and purpose is to find his true and spiritual self. Animal in nature but divine in essence, he is a cross between the two, and that is the secret of his difficulty and conflict. The animal nature is the trap; in freedom from this trap lies his hope of salvation.

As we can see, so different are these two views, so disparate their understanding, that it becomes nearly impossible to think of a reconciling synthesis. They have existed side by side in each civilization and culture in one form or the other, but without any reconciling station. There have been some compromises, such as the one attempted by Descartes himself, giving each idea its scope in its own domain. Sometimes their fortunes fluctuated. The sophists of old, the later-day positivists and the modern materialists try and explain everything on the basis of our material sense-perception and the struggle of animal life, denying every other experience as hallucination or poetic imagination. Equally strong has been the rejection of material life as a vanity, a delusion and nightmare of the soul, by the anchorites and the ascetics.

The evolutionary aim of life

The aim of psychotherapeutic processes is the relief of psychological distress in the individual. Of course, with the emergence of the field of psychosomatics and the recognition of the role played by the mind in physical illnesses, a variety of psychological methods (bio-feedback, for instance) are being used as adjuncts in the management of physical illnesses as well, especially in the case of chronic pain syndrome. The processes involved in the Western model are to do with strengthening the ego, exchanging immature with mature defences, enhancing assertiveness and other survival strategies, increasing adaptability to change, and coping with stress. All these means have evolved essentially from the view of man as an animal who is here for an adaptive survival. The emphasis is on making the body fit, the life impulse healthy and the mind more ‘mature’ in dealing with the problems of life. Of course, some of the later models, like the humanistic and the transpersonal, which draw heavily from the Eastern philosophies, include strengthening the social and spiritual aspects of health. Still, the stress remains on equipping man for survival and coping with stress. In fact, the overwhelming attention on stress is because it has been found that in physical diseases, stress can be counterproductive to survival when it escalates beyond a point. Needless to say, this is a purely material view, and even though some of the strategies to cope with stress may be superficially beneficial, they may not necessarily be the right strategies from a deeper evolutionary perspective.

What is this deeper perspective? Interestingly, both the traditional Eastern and the modern Western approach converge on one point—that an evolution is taking place behind and through all these processes of Nature. Yet, there is an essential difference, in that the material view of life regards nature as a mechanical, inconscient process with no essential purpose or aim. Whatever evolution we observe (and that is an undisputed fact where material science is concerned) is at the outer level, an evolution of forms governed by pure chance and accident. However, the Indian perspective essentially considers an evolution of the soul, which continues through many cycles of life, changing form one after another, till it reaches perfection. In this view, nature is conscious in its depths, an intelligent force that has a teleological basis. The purpose is not so much material survival (as that has only a secondary value), as a growing perfection of the soul embodying the material case. Interestingly, a deeper observation of the living world clearly points towards the existence of an intelligent force behind even the smallest of cells and the simplest of living organisms. Even the most modern findings in physics point in this direction, which we still fail to acknowledge despite it being self-evident. Is it because this would necessitate a radical shift in our self-view and world-view, which in turn would generate the stress of readjustment? Nevertheless, the Indian perspective has always recognized this evolutionary imperative, and holds that man can consciously participate in it by facilitating and accelerating it.

Thus, the aim of counselling, the processes used, and even the nature of what is considered a malady is different in the two approaches. In the materialistic system, psychological movements like anger, sexuality, attachment and greed are not regarded as abnormal, so long as they are kept within reasonable limits. Even anxiety and fear are regarded as adaptive so long as they do not become counter-productive. In the Indian perspective, however, these are to be conquered for the soul to reach perfection. The aim of psychotherapeutic counselling is therefore not merely to strengthen and assist survival and provide stress-busting strategies, but even more importantly to assist in the soul’s evolutionary journey. It is against this background that we can consider some of the strategies and solutions offered to counteract psychological and other forms of human suffering.

The negative māyāvādin solution to psychological suffering

There has generally been a tendency to attach the term ‘Indian thought’ to a process that tries to solve a problem by a radical cutting of the knot of pain, rather than by untying it. This view of the māyāvādin and the illusionist rejects the problem by labelling it as non-existent, a fever and malady of the soul, which can be cured by abolishing the world along with the problem. The solution therefore poses a greater problem for those left behind, the cure being radical enough to fell the body along with the disease. All life is summarily dismissed as a painful illusion, and escape from it, the sole remedy. From its radical and extreme perspective, birth itself is seen as an illness, the grandsire of all illnesses, and human life a supreme opportunity to escape from this cycle of birth and death and all that lies in between. According to this view, some form of psychological suffering will remain so long as one chooses to be born on the earth. The reasons attributed to this suffering may be different in different doctrines. Some blame it on the past, not on the individual past of this life alone, but those of other lives as well. Others, taking mercy on the poor soul (which they consider a learner and therefore prone to stumble and fall on its heroic journey), blame the root cause of suffering on a larger, cosmic principle of Ignorance, avidyā. It is this child of māyā that clouds the soul and keeps it enslaved to Ignorance, leading naturally to suffering. Still others speak of the cosmic principle of desire as the source of all misery, and cessation of desire as leading to a state of blissful calm and freedom, or nirvāṇa. In these conceptions suffering refers not only to the conscious suffering experienced by the mind, but to a deeper, unconscious and greater suffering experienced by the soul because it is trapped in this meaningless world of Ignorance. Yet so long as the soul chooses to be part of this avidyā, it will continue to suffer in some way.

The task of a counsellor subscribing to these views is to awaken the soul from its earthly nightmare by reminding it of its essential nature. The only solution is to cease from birth. Conscious suffering is used only as a strong point of support, a lever to develop vairāgya, a state of detached indifference towards life and world, leading thereby to non-affliction. It is a kind of desensitization or de-addiction programme for our world-addiction and craving for material happiness, which brings much suffering in its wake.

In actual practice, however, one does not take this extreme approach. The client’s mind is led through a cognitive framework, starting from his present crisis, to reveal the transient rather than the illusory nature of this world and all its events. The mind is made to note the utter impermanence of things; the wealth, position and fame, family and children, fortune and misfortune, are all too little to grieve for. The believer adds that the only thing worthy in life is that which is eternal and imperishable—the soul in man and the Divine above; some combine these individual and universal aspects of the Divine into a single formula—the Brahman. Here, a common misconception needs to be clarified. Some modern writers tend to use the word Brahman as interchangeable with the later Paurāṇika deity Brahmā, the progenitor of our world. Brahman is no particular god, although all gods, and everything else originates from It. Brahman is the stable, unchanging and eternal basis of all existence. Even if all creation, including the trinity of the gods, is dissolved, Brahman would still remain, as untouched as ever. One of the principal Upaniṣads, the Kena, describes through the sublime poetry characteristic of that period, how everything originates from Brahman, and therefore That alone is the object of our pursuit—tadeva brahma tvaṃ viddhi, nedaṃ yadidam upāsate, Know That to be the Brahman—and not this that men follow after here. Another Upaniṣad, the Kaṭha, describes through a beautiful verse the transient nature of worldly goods, attachment to which brings only grief and suffering and, at the end, death. Death, in these beautiful passages, lauds Naciketas, the young aspirant, for his choice of śreyas, the true good of the soul, over preyas, the momentarily pleasant and transient worldly good. Thus, through examples and narratives drawn from the everyday life of the client, the crisis he has faced and passed through, as well as from the cultural context, the person is gradually led away from psychological suffering and helped to focus his attention within, towards the true and ultimate goal. Even the first step is considered good enough, since by impressing upon the mind the concept of transience and impermanence, the client is able to detach himself from his malady and feel lighter and freer.

However, one may proceed a step further, depending upon the readiness of the client. One may, for example, help the person view the problem more objectively, since he would now be detached from its emotional effects. A certain distancing always helps us see better and understand the situation more clearly. This impermanence, far from being a cause of grief, becomes a positive thing, since it also means that grief and unhappiness, tragedy and suffering are not an eternal damnation or a permanent doom. They are only a temporary setback, an inevitable learning experience for the soul in its sojourn over one or several lives. Through pleasure and pain, happiness and grief, success and failure, the march goes on. The journey of the soul does not end at temporary halting points, but goes on and will go on till one has reached the goal.

Common to all Vedāntic systems is the belief that this world is not what it seems to be, and that our values have been misplaced due to the mind’s conditioning through centuries of evolution (and a series of births and rebirths). The psychotherapist corrects this cognitive error through a dialectic process involving thought, utilizing the person’s experiences to demonstrate this. But there is also a later divergence, which lies in the goal placed before the soul after it has thus disengaged itself and is able to look at the problem and enigma of human life and its events dispassionately. Useful as this is for certain problems, it has its own drawbacks. First, it presumes a certain degree of intellectual development, although perhaps less than is required to understand the complex dynamics of the classical Western models of psychotherapy. Compared to that, it is much more direct and close to the person’s experience. However, it does require a forceful mind on the part of the therapist, who should be able to logically lead the person from the events at the surface to the deeper phenomenon, and from the apparent to the real. There is a second and even more serious difficulty. According to the system itself, most souls are trapped in the snare of worldly māyā. So how can the blind lead the blind or the trapped rescue the trapped? The average graduate in medicine, opting for psychiatry as a field, is not interested in the high philosophy of life or its ultimate goal. He, like everyone else, the client included, is caught in his own nightmares and delusions. Even if he were to undergo some course, it would serve no purpose unless he was himself convinced, either through an innate sensitivity or through a deeper and calmer outlook, awakened through life experiences. This imposes a serious limitation on who is really qualified to administer this form of counselling. It is evident that outer degrees and qualifications, even a crash course in some Vedāntic school, is of little value here. Only that which has been lived through is convincing; the rest is only superficial and cannot bring about an inner and radical change. Third, the solution, if taken to its logical extreme, may induce total indifference towards the world. While this may be appreciated by certain extremist schools, the seers who propounded this thought were careful enough to not create confusion in the minds of the average person. An over-emphasis on this other-worldliness may well lead to inertia, justified under the holy name of vairāgya. One often finds such escapists who have joined the nirvāṇa bandwagon to avoid responsibilities. A visit to any āśrama will reveal quite a few who, unable to bear the stresses and strains of life, have taken recourse to the jungle. Those who have suffered disappointments sometimes espouse the philosophy, but nevertheless continue to nurture secret ambitions, which they find themselves inadequate to fulfil. This hypocrisy creates a serious dichotomy between thought and practice, and may lead to complications. It may, for example, lead to a person no longer being fit for life with its many problems and complexities while s/he waits for nirvāṇa to come to the rescue. Such an outcome is obviously undesirable. Individually, it may induce one to lead a double life, a sort of spiritual neuroticism, in other words. However, it is even more undesirable collectively for it weakens the very fabric of the race, depressing its vitality and vigour with its inevitable decline. Even genuine individual victory can lead to the doctrine being misunderstood and used to justify disparate things, leading to a collective social defeat with its attendant psychological and cultural problems.

Therefore, the wise ones insist upon not deluding the minds of the average who are not ready by enrolling everyone in the list of candidates for counselling—na buddhibhedaṃ janayedajñānāṃ karmasaṅgiṅām—he who is established in the Knowledge (true Knowledge or jñāna) should not create confusion in the minds of the ignorant (who are still attached to their egos and not yet ready). In other words, the doctrine requires a high degree of inner development on the part of the counsellor.

It is important to understand that ancient Indian thought saw in this impermanence only a passage towards a higher Permanence. The illusion was to be understood and torn in order to find the Real and not to rest in a midway house built upon the sands of nowhere. But doing so needs effort, a strong predisposition, a positive seeking that few can command. Yet if such a psychotherapist can take this final and crucial step of turning a negative experience into a positive seeking for the Eternal, it would mean a great and true release for the client. An example of this type of counsel appears in the classical treatise of Yogavāsiṣṭha, wherein the sage Vasiṣṭha counsels Rāma while the latter is going through a stage of non-involvement vis-à-vis life in the world.

This form of counselling, while useful for a select group of clients who suffer from depression arising out of life situations, is of little use in other forms of psychological disorders, although it may be useful in the case of those whose suffering stems from the pain of their near and dear ones. To take just one example, the depressed and suicidal mother of a mentally handicapped child was asked how she would have reacted had this child been her sister’s, and she had to bring him up for some reason or the other. The reply was evident. She would do all she was doing now, perhaps even more, but without the depression, perhaps even with the joy born from a selfless act. As she replied, she could see the obvious—how to live in this world without attachment or possessiveness. A single short session was enough to change her self-view and world-view. She actually recovered and remained well for years.

The positive Vedāntic solution

Indian thought, however, is not only about māyāvāda and illusion. Despite the current emphasis on other-worldliness, there have been other, equally powerful and positive streams of Indian thought. In fact, mukti of the Vedāntin view and nirvāṇa of the Buddhist view, which propose discarding this world as a nightmare, are not the only ideals conceived by Indian thought. The Vedic ṛṣis were extremely life-affirming. In fact, there have been other equally powerful tendencies in Indian thought. These views propose a more positive outlook and try to reconcile the material and spiritual aspects of existence. Of course, the life affirmation suggested here is not the one attempted in the material model, which is essentially an affirmation of the ego. Here the emphasis is on affirmation of the soul upon nature through a growing inner perfection. From a psychotherapeutic point of view, it is this that can be even more effective in dealing with problems of the mind. Some of these major trends can be roughly classified into the following.

The ideal of inner purification

Indian thought views Nature as not only a single continuous movement, but also as a continuum of ascending degrees or potencies. This continuum presents itself as an evolutionary ladder for the soul to ascend to its own innate perfection. According to this vision, all phenomena can be reduced to a three-fold movement placed one on top of the other, like the steps of a ladder. In this view, the true value and significance of an action or any phenomenon in general lies not so much in its appearance as it does in the level or type of consciousness motivating it. The inward and outward reactions and consequences that follow result from the type of consciousness involved, rather than the actual observed movement or action. Three major movements or modes are recognized: tamas, rajas and sattva.

The source of human misery, according to this view, comes at a certain middle stage of our psychological evolution, called the rājasic. In a nutshell, the human soul evolves through at least three levels over several rounds of birth before it is ready for the highest spiritual good. The first level is the tāmasic or the darkened state of inertia and resistance to change. Here, the law of the masses or the rules of the herd drive him like a subconscious beast or a half-conscious man. Next comes the rājasic or the state of kinesis and dynamic movement. This second stage can be further sub-divided into two: one, the preliminary or the predominantly rajo-tāmasic, wherein the being is engaged in self-flattering indulgences of every kind; two, the rajo-sāttvic, wherein the individual begins to seek some rule of inner law to govern his unruly nature, which he begins to perceive as the source of internal disturbances. Finally, there is the third or sāttvic stage, wherein the individual learns to subordinate his ego and take from life only what is rightfully his. He seeks harmony intuitively and is balanced in his conduct and in the distribution of life energies. In the primitive or tāmasic stage the individual does not consciously suffer, although he may be the cause of suffering for many others. The need for violent sensations to feel alive drives some of these people towards alcoholism and violence. Others simply enter a depressed state, refusing to budge from or outgrow this stage. The second stage is one of fiery pleasures and equally swift swings to the blues. An inordinate self-seeking and excessive ambition with its natural fallouts of anger, fear, hope, expectations and frustrations bring in their wake opposite reactions from their environment, and this egoistic narrowness makes these individuals extremely susceptible to misery. This suffering is actually Nature’s corrective, aimed at helping them to push forth and find a way out of their miserable existence. So lastly comes sattva, the great balancer, after the soul has experienced these lesser rungs of existence and grown through them.

It is the middle stage of the rajo-tāmasic guṇa that predisposes human beings towards extreme forms of cruelty, directed both at others and themselves. Many perversions, including sado-masochistic tendencies and drug dependence, arise due to a preponderance of the tamo guṇa. Illnesses like depression and some forms of schizophrenia can clearly be seen as gravitating towards the tāmasic state of nature with its attendant inertia, inability to exercise one’s will, a tendency to not alter one’s psychological condition, and to become progressively animal-like and stone-like, dubiously termed regression in modern psychology.

According to this strand of thought, psychological pain and suffering and pleasure and thrill are two sides of the same coin. Further, thrill (sphuraṇa or indriya-sukha), which is predominantly tāmasic and pleasure (viṣaya-sukha), which is largely rājasic, are clearly distinguished from happiness (sukha), which is sāttvic in nature, being subtler and therefore closer to the fundamental joy (harṣa) of existence. The highest and purest form is of course Bliss (ānanda), which belongs to the purely spiritual domain. To strive for thrill and the egoistic forms of pleasure is to invite suffering. We must grow out of such momentary sense-bound joy as well as the equally momentary joy arising through the possession of outer objects and move on to the happiness that can be observed in people whose mind is in a state of balance and satisfaction through moderation. What is necessary, therefore, is moderation and balance through enlightened reason and discrimination, sattvaśuddhi. This is the ideal of a sane moderation, similar to Aristotle’s golden mean. It is a conscious and deliberate cultivation of positive qualities of the mind and the heart, which help one grow into sukha or gladness and prakāśa or light of wisdom.

Inevitable to this system is the fact that the nature of the advice given to a client depends upon the stage of her/his inner evolution. A story attributed to Swami Vivekananda well illustrates this point. When approached by a man eager for sannyāsa (renouncing the world), a man moved by a desire to escape his responsibilities rather than by a positive call for Truth and God, the great one’s reply was: ‘What is it that you possess and can renounce? First go and earn a lakh of rupees and then come for renunciation!’ Unfortunately, most people today associate renunciation with escape from the struggle and labour of life. In actuality, true renunciation requires far greater inner strength (and is therefore an evolutionary move towards self-mastery) than the struggle necessary to satisfy one’s desires. It may be noted that even in modern psychoanalytic thought, certain sāttvic qualities like renunciation, non-possession and suppression (as opposed to repression) are regarded as mature defence mechanisms, the signs of a mature and healthy mind.

A counsellor working along these lines will therefore first assess the level of the individual’s inner evolution. Elaborate descriptions of the type of inner personality and constitution according to the three guṇas, as these three evolutionary stages are better known, abound in ancient Indian thought, especially in the Gītā and Āyurveda. While we are all a mixture of the three, there is often a predominance of one or the other guṇas, which leads to physical and psychological afflictions. The therapy and advice given, therefore, varies. Thus, a sāttvic person who suffers due to his idealism and sympathy for others is advised, helped and encouraged to develop a still deeper and spiritual outlook; the rājasic man of a higher order is advised to do his work while placing his trust in God and in accordance with the inner laws of his nature, svabhāva and svadharma. The rājasic man of a lower order is counselled and helped to achieve moderation in habits and outlook, and tone down the excess desires that torment and trouble him. His unruly and excess energy is channelled into healthy activities like sports. The army has learnt to use the rājasic type of man and channelize his energies into war. But for the tāmasic man, very little counselling works unless something shakes him up, some terrible misfortune, for instance, which affects him and arouses the energies dormant within him. Anything that can stimulate this type of person to work with concentration and perseverance is considered good counsel. Fine crafts and manual work requiring physical concentration help, as can be seen in cases concerning psychotics and extreme forms of depression. Also helpful is anything that can stimulate a sense of joy—like eating a dish they relish, or simple things that heighten pleasure. These people are rarely advised to pursue spirituality of the meditative ascetic type because they might use it as an excuse to remain a recluse or justify inertia and addictions that transport them to altered realms without much inner effort.

These guṇas have other sub-divisions, but all people can be classified along the lines of these three types. The utility of this typology in treating certain personality and behavioural/ conduct disorders is evident. It is also useful in understanding some of the conflicts that arise when an individual transits from one level to another with divergent pulls in his nature. In such cases, the task of the therapist is to assist the transition to the higher level while working through the conflict. A detailed discussion of all possible variations is beyond the scope of this chapter, but as is evident, this system offers great practical utility. It also settles the question of suitability for deeper spiritual counselling. Besides, it does not require great philosophical capacity or outlook on the part of the client, although it does require inner tact and understanding on the part of the therapist. Finally, this understanding can be combined with other forms of counselling as well, adding to its immense usefulness.

The harmony of body and mind

Illusionism is most commonly (mis)understood as representative of Indian thought, and some kind of mind-body harmony through yoga exercises is the most commonly sought after therapeutic technique. The haṭhayoga exercises (better known as āsanas or yogāsanas) prāṇāyāma and meditation are among the best-researched imports from India that have already found a place in modern psychotherapeutic systems. Many researches undertaken in both the East and the West from the 1960s (or perhaps even earlier) have demonstrated the efficacy of these simple techniques. While theories pertaining to the exact mechanism of their actions might differ, there is hardly anyone who would deny their efficacy in creating some sort of harmony between the body and the mind. While the West continues to search for material explanations, it would be interesting to know what the originators of these systems thought about the ‘mechanism’ of their actions. This may only help us to modify them to suit our needs.

First, these ‘techniques’ were originally not meant to be mere techniques. These exercises were part of a larger movement—that of coming in contact with our own Divine essence, hidden in everything and at each plane of our existence. They were also meant to prolong life, stabilize the life-force and increase mental vigour; however, these gains were not so much for adaptive survival as they were for creating the best possible conditions favourable to our inner journey towards perfection of the soul. Here, it must be clearly understood that the ancient Indian mind viewed the body and its preservation not as an end in itself, but as a means for right conduct and the fulfilment of dharma, śarīram khalu dharmasādhanam. Although these ancient practices are now being seen as the Indian counterpart of behavioural therapy, they are not so in their true essence, for the simple reason that very few things in Indian thought are divorced from spirituality, least of all the systems of yoga. Even atheistic and agnostic conceptions have their spiritual element.

In haṭhayoga and prāṇāyāma, the practitioner first tries to regulate, and then still, the otherwise restless physical and vital energies. This, however, is a preliminary first step. The next and more important one is where he tries to gather and concentrate these energies in an attempt to reach their divine source and bring out their deeper divine possibilities. Before this divine possibility emerges, and certainly after that, the energies of the body and life-force become forceful, effective, balanced, harmonious and, thereby, curative. This is excellent for those not so psychologically minded, and for those less inclined towards an esoteric spirituality. It is quite effective, and has been used with considerable success in treating psychosomatic disorders. The principle here is that diseases of the body arise due to an imbalance in the flow of prāṇic currents (life-force), which moves mainly along five different channels, two lower (apāna), two upper (udāna) and one in the middle (samāna). These practices were meant to regulate the life-force along its five-fold path in a balanced and harmonious way—an occult knowledge that we are only fragmentarily discovering again. The disadvantage lies in the fact that these methods, to be fully effective, have to be practised regularly. They are time-consuming and often need the supervision of a qualified expert. They are best used as adjuncts in treating a wide range of disorders, including psychoses.

Meditation is slightly different, even though it falls under the broad category of ‘techniques’ evolved by the Eastern paradigm, although nowhere is the range and variation as wide as it is in India. It is a vast subject and one need not go into every detail of the different techniques and their relative efficacy. Suffice it to say that one of its well-known effects, recognized now the world over, is toning down the response of our sympathetic nervous system, creating a sense of calm at the most physical level. There may be deeper reasons though, since the nervous system, more specifically the autonomic nervous system, is a sort of interface between the gross physical energies, and those of life and the mind, which act upon matter and influence it. Two techniques are especially helpful. One is the Buddhist method of witnessing self-reflection and introspective meditation. This technique is useful for undoing certain habitual nervous responses, anxiety states, obsessive patterns of thoughts and behaviour, in anger management, and even in studying and thereby controlling oneself. The essential steps here are thought-observation, witnessing, control and mastery. But this is difficult and usually demands some isolation on the part of the practitioner; further, it is only a somewhat developed mind that can separate one part of it from another. The other, more popular and easier, yet very effective, technique is dynamic meditation and its scientific offspring—guided imagery. This method relies on the faculty of imagination and can be considered a first cousin of auto-suggestion. In fact, the two are often combined together. It is used largely in the treatment of psychosomatic disorders, anxiety disorders, etc.

The integral thought of the Gītā

There remain two powerful, widely used, but often misunderstood systems of ancient Indian thought. These systems appear to move along very different lines, although there is an unspoken occult and higher synthesis between them. The first is the ideal of the Gītā, often misrepresented as the gospel of karma, and further reduced to mean a motivation to duty, regardless of its effect. One can only smile at such summary dealings of a great scripture that has endured centuries of invasion and corruption, and yet continues to inspire and transform mankind. All one can say is that if the Gītā were to teach nothing more than mere moral rectitude, it would not be worth the trouble. In fact, quite a few words and sūtras in the Gītā can be utilized for counselling and therapeutic purposes. This is because unlike many similar scriptures, the Gītā is an attempt to synthesize various truths known till then. In addition, it adds something unique, profound and new, enriching the old with a fresh insight.

First among these sūtras is the truth that man is essentially an imperishable soul who uses the body as a charioteer uses the chariot. This reverses the dependence of our psychological state on the physical events of life by constantly reminding us that we are eternal and imperishable souls that assume a transient body, just as a person wears clothes. This doctrine has had such a great impact through the ages that till date it is the most effective counselling for the grief and pain of death. Millions of people have used the Gītā in times of crisis—especially loss—and found solace and strength. This is the first thing to remember—that we are essentially souls that cannot be destroyed by the catastrophes of life and nature.

The second doctrine is that man need not take this soul merely on faith (although faith is a great power, the blind man’s indispensable staff till he begins to see the higher truths). He can discover his soul through many ways, one of which, according to the Gītā, is the enlightened use of his intelligent will. Instead of turning it constantly outward and downward to satisfy our desires or remaining caught up in the web of surface phenomenon, this intelligent will can be turned upward and inward to discover our own sublime realities, which free us from bondage to grief, error, suffering and pain. The Gītā also briefly mentions one or two psycho-physical practices and forms of concentration to help us go within.

A third principle states that we have not been abandoned upon earth; God Himself is concerned with the march of civilization towards some ultimate Good. What that ultimate Good is, has been left unsaid or only hinted at, but the Gītā assures us that He is concerned intimately with the earth and men. Each element of the universe has a Divine superconscient (not the super-ego or the conscience, which are human things, aspects of our mind and the ego’s constructs) hidden within it, and not just a subconscient animal principle (instincts as the base of everything) as Freudian psychology at one time asserted. The Gītā states that Divinity dwells within the human being, and that it is the task of each to bring it out rather than stifle it. This is the great conflict occurring at the macro and micro levels.

The principal conflict, therefore, is between the cosmic principles and powers of Light and their opposites—darkness and Ignorance. This is the fourth principle, that war and conflict will remain unavoidable evolutionary necessities so long as earth and mankind are imperfect. Our inner conflicts are essentially evolutionary conflicts, our inner and outer crises are essentially cries for evolutionary change. Man can choose to remain in a darkened state, pursued by suffering, till he once again chooses the path towards eternal good, which is also the collective good. The Gītā elaborately describes in the closing chapters the nature of the powers of light and darkness. Thus man, to be free of error and grief, has to consciously cultivate the qualities of light and truth.

A fifth element of the Gītā, and the most widely known, is the concept of niṣkāma karma. The principle of karma and its consequences depend upon the level on which an action has been done. This has already been hinted at. Suffice it to say that according to the Gītā, karma is an inner evolutionary mechanism and not a summary disposal by a judge through a system of rewards and punishments. If anything, the rewards and punishments come from within, through an ensuing inner psychological state. Thus, acts done under a tāmasic state delude our consciousness, making it more dense and impervious to Light and Joy. Similarly, even philanthropic acts done under a rājasic state of ‘I’ and ‘My’ (committed under the stress of the vital ego) bring in their wake happiness that is transient, and invariably mixed with or followed by suffering. Sāttvic acts lead to increased inner happiness and wisdom, sukha and prakāśa. We can, however, be free of karma and its consequences by arriving spontaneously at that high point of our soul’s evolutionary career towards which the machinery of karma and Nature is driving us, that is, to discover the Divine secret within us. The Gītā suggests that we dedicate our everyday actions to the secret indwelling Godhead and Lord who resides within the hearts of every living and thinking creature, Vāsudeva (the indwelling Deity) and mānuṣīm tanum āśritam. Thus practised, even our most trivial everyday actions can lead us to a happy state of being, if done in a selfless spirit of dedication to the Divine Master and as long as one remains equal to the fruits that they may bring. This emphasis upon a mind that is tranquil under every circumstance—the seemingly pleasant and unpleasant, in success and victory and in failure and defeat—is a great liberating principle of the Gītā, and helps to ameliorate much of our everyday psychological and even physical suffering. This equality is not indifference but a state of joy by dwelling constantly in The Lord’s remembrance and abiding solely by His Will.

The establishment of equanimity is therefore another practical method prescribed by the Gītā to free us from the stress of everyday life. But would it not lead to a casual lackadaisical approach towards life? This question stems from an assumption that desire for a particular result is the sole motivator of human action. While that may be true of certain needs such as hunger and thirst, desire is very clearly a distortion that arises when need turns to greed. Even need, though, is not an imperative. For according to yoga, needs are nothing but habits of Nature, conditioned responses of the mind to an object. We can recondition ourselves to such an extent that even the needs of food and water can be done away with (in an extreme form of yoga). Still, the question of motivation remains. The Gītā commands us to approach all work as the work of God, to do them for the benefit of the world, since He alone knows what is best for all. Our role, or rather the role of nature in us, is to be a faithful and perfect instrument. In other words, the Gītā enjoins us to pursue perfection and excellence as part of our instrumentality, but with the sole motive of service and love inspired by a higher knowledge and guidance, arising in a tranquil mind free of the turbulence of desires and passions. The rewards, which are not to be sought after for their own sake, are an intrinsic delight and unconditional peace, wisdom, freedom and, above all, the growth of our entire being towards God. Equanimity is not only a strong foundation for a higher life, but also a bedrock of safety against the harshness of the world. We can arrive at it through several ways, one of which is to practice stepping back. Before rushing to speak or act in haste, we need to hold back for a while and look at the relative importance of a thing from the widest possible frame of reference. If practised sincerely, it will help us to discover the triviality of many things we considered important.

Another method is to look at the essence of events and circumstances, and at the place they hold in the totality of life. For things are often ascribed a place that is out of proportion to their real value when seen from a truer perspective. Setting things in their right place and viewing them from the right perspective helps us avoid troubles and misunderstandings in life. Yet another way is to develop a dispassionate and philosophical outlook, or resilience and fortitude that can endure shocks. However, equanimity can be best developed by a conscious and willing surrender to God’s Will in the cosmos.

This brings us to the greatest word of the Gītā, which assures us that God will deliver us from all fear and evil if we can learn to surrender ourselves into His hands. Modern psychology, born out of a sceptic temperament suited to material pursuits, has little sympathy with the idea of God. It may even regard talking of God in matters of science as blasphemous. But we must remember that psychology is not a physical science. It deals not with physical but with psychological phenomena and, whether we like it or not, the fact remains that the quest for Divinity and all that is good, faith and surrender are all psychological phenomena, as ancient as the mountains, yet at the same time as modern as the quantum theories of space and the universe. Psychology will suffer a great loss if this body of psychological self-experience is left unutilized, for it is not scientific scruples but our blind attachment to Ignorance that prevents us from seeing the Light and offering greater possibilities to man. Whether accepted in scientific circles or not, the empirical fact is that faith in God has continued to relieve and cure people around the world, cutting across man-made and natural barriers. The two views of science and faith are perhaps merely two different ways of seeing the One Reality, which exceeds and fulfils both.

In actuality, there is no real opposition between faith in God and reason. If we are sincere, reason leads us to the doors of agnosticism and even hints at some cosmic Intelligence at work. When we regard this vast and wonderful world of myriad phenomena, we clearly see the workings of a perfect Intelligence that is conscious and precedes its works, even when the object worked upon is not aware of It. It even adapts Itself to Its instruments; it is then logical to say that one’s supreme fulfilment would be in the ability to express and manifest that Intelligent Will as perfectly as one can. If we can concede this simple observational and inferential truth, then we have to make only one other logical extension—that this perfectly conscious Intelligent Force is also at once a Being, which we can relate to. In fact, it is our own highest Self, the greatest possibility hidden within us. Several eminent men and women have experienced this essential divinity, which cuts across the boundaries of space, time and education. The difficulty lies in reconciling the various notions of God created by different religions, whose external details do not coincide. However, since science seeks to go beyond appearances, it can learn to look behind the various religious practices and arrive at an essential truth about Divine Perfection and a Conscious Force existing behind this world and Nature.

A bold reconciliation: The path of Tantra or an inner technology

Reconciliation, however, is possible. The first attempt to reconcile the two apparent opposites (the materialist and the spiritual) took place in the great and now lost tradition of Tantra. The Gītā seeks to reconcile life in the world (the problem of the practical man) with spiritual realization. Tantra seeks to reconcile the energies moving this cosmos (the field of the scientist) with the Supreme Energy from which these lesser forms, forces and energies originate. Given this, it might be possible to master the lesser energies through the stronger and greater ones. This is the fundamental principle of Tantra—to understand, possess, control and master the forces and powers of nature, as well as those of a greater super-nature. From this perspective, it is closer to our conception of science, albeit with a much wider application.

Thus, while science studies and tries to master physical forces and the energies of matter, Tantra goes deeper to study and master other occult energies beyond the play of our material universe. It sees physical phenomena as by-products or the final end result of still deeper occult events occurring at other levels of our consciousness. In the field of illness, for example, it believes that there are entities, beings, and forces of disruption and disintegration on which one can act directly if one has the occult knowledge, thereby curing an illness without physical intervention. Unfortunately, modern insistence on physical causes alone has damaged this highly developed science, which has its own rationale of working. Tantra itself fell into disrepute since few occultists and tāntrikas had the required inner purity to handle such intense forces. Many, attracted by the power but unable to pay the inner price, turned to lower and derivative activities like black magic, witchcraft, etc. The worship of power not backed by a solid grounding in the highest knowledge led to a further decline of the discipline, and indulgence in practices that were more in the nature of occult quackery than wizardry. The presence of incompetent doctors or quacks in the field of medicine does not abrogate medical science as a genuine branch of science. So too the modern disrepute of Tantra does in no way mean that Tantra in itself belonged to a lower order, or that its practitioners were indulging in some mumbo-jumbo.

Indian thought and psychiatry

There is a lot that Tantra can offer psychiatry, not by way of our modern misreading of its hieroglyphs through the lens of psychoanalysis, but in terms of increasing our understanding of the subtler causes of illness. Thus, according to Tāntrika knowledge, insanity results from possession by certain entities emanating from the dark and hostile worlds. These turbulent energies first enter the atmosphere of a person susceptible to them (through affinity of some parts of his nature). This is the prodrome stage, when the first stage of occult prevention can be undertaken. They next cast an influence which usually takes one or the other following forms:

  • Early influence leads to some personality changes (loss of faith and will, doubts, depression, confusion, perverted religiosity, excessive self-vanity, excess of sexual and other appetites, uncontrolled impulsiveness).
  • Epilepsy, which is characteristically due to resistance offered by the affected person against the force.
  • Hysteria, especially states of possession, dissociation, multiple personality, etc.
  • Active communication with these dark entities through voices and other means, as seen in certain forms of psychosis.
  • Finally, frank possession/incarnation of one of these stronger dark entities, leading to a total perversion of thought, feeling, will, action and speech, resulting in personalities known as the tyrant, the psychopath and the pervert.

These dark forces and beings have been elaborately classified in Tāntrika literature. Some of these are the asuras (distorters of mind, specifically thought and speech), the rākṣasa (those perverting and distorting feelings and will) and piśācas (distorting sensations and physical instincts). There are other minor entities, such as elemental beings called bhūta and disembodied beings called preta, who float in the vicinity of the dead, especially those who have died traumatic deaths. These beings and entities are known everywhere, and are mentioned under different names in Western, Arabic and other spiritual literature.

Now the tāntrika, the occultist, the shaman, the thaumaturgist—call him whatever you will—knew about these forces and the ways to neutralize them, just as a modern scientist would know about the forces of wind, rain and fire, and how to handle them. The tāntrika can be further sub-divided into two main types. The lower type has within its control some powerful entity of the same plane, which executes its will, either for good or for evil. Others have mastered the higher energies through sufficient purity and self-control. These can then neutralize the lower beings with the power of Light. Naturally, it is the latter tāntrika who is preferable and also the one whose powers are more permanent, but this type is rare to find as too much inner austerity is called for on the part of the practitioner.

The lost knowledge of Tantra is now being recovered, albeit in forms more suited to the scientific temper of our times—Reiki, prāṇic healing, working with body and mind energy, a study of the effects of thoughts and other vibrations upon the body and mind and so on. Despite the onslaught of modern science, this ancient science is not dead; rather, it is being reborn through new sciences such as parapsychology. In fact, physical science itself has entered the threshold of the occult and it would not be surprising if in times to come the old ghosts return in the garb of new names and the buried are raised in a different attire.

The two roads to the one solution

Before embarking upon a synthesis of all these diverse systems of Indian thought, a recapitulation. The practical side of Indian thought can be broadly divided into two main categories. The commonly known method is the way of knowledge—Vedānta—and its child, Yoga. The aim here is to rise above suffering through discovering a level higher than and outside the sphere of our pain and suffering. While this will not help us to end suffering or change reality, we can definitely transcend it. This itself is a significant gain and, for many, it is enough. They say, ‘Let the stain remain, the imperfection of our earth-nature and its resultant suffering continue; it is enough if I can escape its psychological consequences. If others too do it, we all can collectively ascend to a level where suffering is not felt or experienced even though all below is disarray and strife.’

The other method is that of power or Śakti and its child, Tantra. An effort is made here to understand the forces that create confusion and disorder, sickness and imperfection, suffering and pain. Effort is also made to conquer them, and therefore this method is known as the vīra mārga or the hero’s path. But inadequacy can set in here too, since power without knowledge is unsatisfactory. One cannot find the final cure if one is unaware of the ultimate origin. A knowledge of the origins of suffering and evil and imperfection can alone lead to a perfect and radical cure. In other words, in their highest station, Vedānta and Tantra, the Highest Knowledge and the Supreme Power, are essentially one. But somehow they have not been reconciled. The vedāntin who knows only one half of the truth dismisses the issue of suffering as an illusion without caring to find out why this illusion was superimposed upon the Supreme Truth. The Śākta tāntrika, who has the power, also misses the truth since he does not know how this fall into error and confusion came about and the means to rescue the energies that have seemingly deviated from their true purpose.

The grand synthesis and more

In our own times, a grand synthesis of Vedānta and Tantra, Eastern and Western, the spiritual and the materialist approach has been achieved and effected in the work and vision of Sri Aurobindo. Of course, Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is not an eclectic combination of different methods and paths, although it embraces the highest knowledge possible to the vedāntin and the greatest power possible to the tāntrika. And yet it includes something more, something not found elsewhere. What that is and how it can help us in our knowledge and practice of medicine and psychiatry has been discussed in the following section. Sri Aurobindo has shed light on practically every sphere of life, reconciling not only the great streams of Indian thought, but also joining materialism and other prominent ideas with the currents of Indian spirituality. It is therefore rewarding to study it as a prototype in some detail as it can form the backbone of an integral synthesis of ancient Indian wisdom and currently prevalent modern thinking on the subject. For our present purposes, however, we shall confine the exposition to the problem of psychological well-being and view it against the background of this grand vision of Indian thought.

First, Sri Aurobindo confirms the ancient knowledge that man is not just an aggregate of physical cells or chemical reactions. He is that only in his outer material basis. His true self-identity lies in his possession of a soul. Sri Aurobindo does not use the word ‘soul’ in a vague or general sense. There is a universal Self, but there is also an individual soul that has been projected from the One Self into the drama of earthly life. This individual soul, called the psychic being, is important to our psychological well-being. The psychic being is our true being, the secret divinity present in us. Its very essence is peace, harmony and joy; it has a natural affinity towards the true, the good and the beautiful. However, it remains veiled in human beings by their surface nature and its movements. But it exists even in the crudest of human natures as a ray of light and hope, a spark of undying truth covered by darkness.

One source of psychological maladies springs from our inability to dwell in the psychic consciousness. We live our lives mostly upon the surface, where there usually is nothing but confusion and disorder. Our nature, in the absence of guidance, depends heavily upon our outer mind and sense data. Our desires, emotions and passions further corrupt this imperfect, partial and broken knowledge (called Ignorance). The result is a falsification of knowledge, a crass Ignorance about others and ourselves. This wrong identification with the ignorant movements of nature as if that were ‘me’ is the origin of our subjective sense of the ego which appears so very real. With this notion of the superficial ‘me’ comes the idea of what is ‘not me’. And thus begins a conflict and clash of forces, since no real unity or harmony is possible with the ego, only at best some accommodation, tolerance and adjustment. The sense of ego leads inevitably to conflict with all that is not perceived as myself, whether it be as seen in others or hid in our own subconscient depths, which in essence is the same thing. For we almost instinctively see in others a reflection of our own selves. We also wish to see in others the perfection that we secretly desire, but have not yet achieved. Much of our social and emotional conflict with others stems from the separative ego-sense and its attendant Ignorance, or vice versa. This does not mean that there is no such thing as the individual. On the contrary, there is indeed a true divine individual within us that has been projected to manifest one or the other aspect of the Integral Divine. It is our individual drive and need that leads us to arrive at that manifestation of the divinity within us. The more we do so, the more fulfilled and thereby truly satisfied and happy we feel, and our conflict with others lessens as we begin to perceive them as equally representative of yet other aspects of the One and Infinite Deity. The mutually contradictory parts within and outside us begin to appear as mutually complementary, thus resolving many conflicts and contradictions that arise in our everyday lives, from unresolved internal conflicts to discord in relationships. To put it more precisely, the outer conflicts of man are the reflections of his inner conflicts.

Another source of conflict is a tussle between what we are and what we secretly aspire to be, between our animal past and our god-like future. There is no part of human nature that can truly resolve this conflict. Reason, even at its best, often leaves us in a quandary, as happened in the case of Arjuna. What should or should not be done often leaves even sages perplexed, says the Master of the Gītā. The standards of reason are those of Ignorance, since reason has not the sure light of perfect truth on which to act. Besides, we are often left to the mercy of our emotions, impulses, passions and desires, which can all too easily override reason. Not all of us are fortunate to have an embodied avatāra or guru by our side to guide and lead us. But there is in each of us the inner avatāra, the Divine spark within, the psychic being which can guide us infallibly. This is the first line of psychological help available to us, the inner healer who can put things straight within us, yaṃ paśyanti hṛtayechīndoṣa.

Not content with theorizing, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother have provided us with abundant practical methods to aid us in the discovery of our psychic being. To discover and uncover the psychic consciousness is to break through the first rank and file of the army of Ignorance into our own true nature, svabhāva, and unleash the knowledge and power of the soul. But this is only the first step. There are other aspects of Ignorance that are important, without which we can never be free of suffering and imperfection. This next step is towards our spiritual evolution. Sri Aurobindo once again affirms the ancient truth of rebirth, but imbues it with a new and unique significance. Rebirth, or rather birth itself, in Sri Aurobindo’s vision is neither a chemical nor a spiritual accident. It is not an issueless creation where a stern judge sits over us watching and passing decrees of reward and punishment over souls stumbling helplessly through the dark forests of Ignorance. From one birth to another and through different experiences the soul in us grows till it is ready to manifest its inherent divinity upon the earth. Mukti, which amounts to an essential freedom from our lower nature and its reactions, is only a preliminary step towards something higher. It is the manifestation of a higher Super-nature upon the earth. Although our soul is inherently divine and its discovery helps us to recover our inner poise and outlook, the nature the soul gathers around itself is not necessarily perfect. As long as the nature that we wrap around us remains fallen and obscure, life on earth shall be replete with error and suffering. The realization of our individual souls will no doubt save us from personal misery, but the common universal problem will continue, leading to disease and disorder of the body and mind.

So the next step is to ascend to still higher levels of spiritual consciousness, and with each ascent to take up the lower levels and elevate these to a higher quality by the touch of the higher descending into the lower. This is the evolutionary aspect of life, which can be best described as ascent and integration towards a greater degree of wholeness. This gives man a new aim and psychotherapy a new goal. This evolution is paralleled by the evolution of the consciousness. While it is an unconscious process in animals, it is a more conscious one in humans. In other words, we are not helpless, mute witnesses or unconscious automatons in nature’s hands, being shaped by struggles towards higher development. We are and can be active participants, and our choices can help or hinder the evolutionary pace, although it cannot alter the inevitable outcome. Our evolutionary journey stretches through many lives, and it is here that we discover the real significance of rebirth. Our illnesses are not punishments for bad deeds, they (as everything else) are a learning process, an inner growth through which we learn about our different responses to the different energies put forth by our nature.

Here we discover another source of conflict. The first is a general one between our true being and our lower nature, that is, between our true spiritual self and the false ego. The other conflict is between the different parts of our nature that dwell on different levels of consciousness. Thus, the mind may be ready to evolve while the heart may refuse to move and remain confined in its narrow boundaries. Or the heart may be ready to widen, but the life impulse may be mired in lower motives and the body may refuse to move. This creates an inner disharmony, leading to psychological and physical imbalances. If the imbalance is too strong and the psychic development weak, the cosmic forces of disruption and disorder may create more serious imbalances, as seen in psychotics, sociopaths and criminals.

The concept of cosmic forces has been present in all ancient mystic thought. The modern mind, unable to see beyond the ego’s immediate field of vision, knows nothing about it. But the insight of the yogi and the mystic goes deeper and reaches farther into the infinite landscapes of our Consciousness. He sees the hidden forces that move life, the occult sources of our action, both the dark and bright sides to our reality, the play of the gods that lead us to harmony, truth and light, and the evil luring the human heart. From another point of view, we may simply see them as evolutionary challenges, assisting our growth by throwing at us obstacles that need to be overcome. The evolutionary journey therefore presents a double challenge, the outer challenge for overcoming the stresses of our environment, and the inner challenge to the soul to overcome the pressure of cosmic forces. When correctly mastered, the first of these challenges leads to a harmonious adaptation between our nature and the environment. The inner challenge can be successfully overcome through inner growth, leading to harmony between the different parts of our nature and their equation with the cosmic forces.

Finally, Sri Aurobindo has provided the widest possible map of consciousness that can be considered a common matrix for a reconciliation between Science and Spirituality. Both admit to Consciousness, but while one sees it as a by-product of our mental evolution, the other sees evolution itself as the natural outcome and an act of Consciousness that is the immaterial and subtlest of subtle Reality behind everything. It is a new way of seeing and mastering life and its anomalies, a top-down view rather than the bottom-up we follow now, leading to much confusion. To take just one example, in the traditional psychoanalytic model lust and anger would be considered primary forces while love and strength are seen as their sublimated and altered versions, and therefore only a civilizational eyewash. But in the spiritual view, it is Love and Strength that are the original forces (among others), and lust and anger their degraded forms. The difference is radical, since the former implies that in effect, man’s natural state is akin to that of a fallen animal, and therefore any humanness in him is merely a temporary and fragile cover for the beast; the other view holds that man is essentially a spiritual being and his animal nature as well as his humanness are only a temporary phase leading towards godliness.

A terrestrial divine perfection: The complete solution

To grow in knowledge (the aim of the Vedāntic yoga) and to grow in power (the aim of Tāntrika yoga), and through this growth to discover the ānanda of becoming is the great human journey. The meeting point of these two seemingly different aspects of existence is Consciousness, which in the ancient Indian conception is at once knowledge and power, cit-śakti. A growth in Consciousness is the aim of human life and the solution to our human misery and suffering. The more we grow in Consciousness (that is, towards higher levels of knowledge and power), the more we become progressively free of Ignorance and limitation, and the more we discover the peace and ānanda hidden at the base of everything. To discover these hidden springs of ānanda is to be free from suffering, to discover the hidden source of Light is to be free from error, to discover the hidden source of Love and Oneness is to be free from disharmony and disorder, and to discover in this ascending scale the divinity of Life is to be free from death.

Illness, in this sense, is a barometer, geared towards discovering our hidden weaknesses that need to be developed and perfected, or, in Darwinian language, challenges thrown to the soul by nature to uncover its own inherent divine potential. Each illness represents the obverse of some potential yet to be discovered. Each shadow of the body or mind in the form of illness conceals some possibility of light. Our illnesses are therefore evolutionary challenges, our crises and conflict means for greater self-discovery. Nature utilizes our pain and struggle so that a greater delight and strength may be born within us. It is the task of the therapist to assist this evolutionary process.

How does he do it? What are his means and tools? The first and most important instrument in this catalytic process is the therapist himself. It is the consciousness of the therapist that interacts with the consciousness of the client to effect this change. According to the ancient Indian conception, such an inner change in another individual can only be effected by someone who has worked out the change within himself. The next best alternative is that the person must at least have a strong conviction and faith in the intended change. When neither alternative is available, this change can be brought about by faith in some past Master or representative of God, in whom the client can trust. In either case, the main task of the therapist is to induce faith in a higher Grace or Power and awaken in the client the will towards the possibility of change. Till that happens, the therapist takes on the role of a spiritual midwife to assist the delivery of the client through his dark and painful passage in the womb of nature. The task is indeed a delicate one: moving from dependence on something outside to the discovery of the only true and authentic freedom, brought about by placing oneself in the hands of the divinity within. This was the original conception of ‘guru’ provided in Indian thought, on which so much stress is laid. The guru is not merely a counsellor (although he is that as well); according to ancient Indian conception, he is a representative of the Divine who is now veiled to the eye of humanity. He reveals to humanity its own higher aspect, the spiritual self concealed by our surface consciousness. The shock of contact with the guru acts as a force to bring forth our hidden self, and inspires us to make the necessary effort to discover the inner guru, the Divine within. And since the guru embodies not only knowledge but also power, the greatest of gurus aid the person in distress to discover his own inner divinity. It is only a modern and vulgar misconception that leads to the guru’s power being seen as a means of satisfying one’s frustrated desires. The guru may do that if necessary, but more importantly, he equips the disciple with his own inner power and light, which can weather a million frustrations without breaking down. The guru’s light also unmasks the hidden weaknesses in the disciple without his needing to undergo the painful and difficult processes of disease and crisis. It is this growth in sincerity through the guru’s intervention, this stripping off of our subconscious defences so that we may see ourselves as we are and then, with the guru’s help, grow into our own divine nature that is forever free of afflictions and imperfections, full of harmony, peace and ānanda, which is the crucial movement of inner growth. In ancient Indian conception it is not the ego defences (mature or immature) that are strengthened, but the strength of the soul that is cultivated. The ego, however necessary at a particular stage of our evolution, becomes a prison at another stage, and must be replaced by the soul. This does not mean a defeatist attitude of inaction as those who know of no other identity than the surface ego perceive it to be. Defeatism is only another warped expression of the ego. The evolution we aim at is an exchange of our surface orientation, superficial understanding and limited responses with a deeper, truer and more powerful understanding and response to life, people and the world. Life assumes the appearance of a frightening struggle so long as we live in Ignorance and for the ego. It becomes a self-possessed delight when we live in and by the soul and for Truth and God.

The means, the instruments and the tools

The counsellor therefore leads the client through a progressive deepening, heightening and widening of his consciousness, using every experience of life, past and present, as materials to aid in the evolutionary process. Towards this end, he may use any and every means, again depending upon the client’s readiness to accept, his natural bent and temperament, and most of all, his constitution and faith. All the methods mentioned above can be used. In certain situations the counsellor may even refer the patient to a particular technique as a temporary aid, say for example yogāsanas or prāṇāyāma. But he must know that these techniques are merely temporary devices, which will eventually need to be outgrown. The goal of the psychotherapeutic journey is not just to ward off the present symptoms, but to discover the inner healer who can heal all anomalies of life in all times to come. It is this discovery of the true soul, this ascent to our own higher levels of consciousness that will progressively reduce our dependence on the guru, since we will have discovered the same guru within.

This is no easy task. It requires colossal inner development on the part of the counsellor himself. Outer knowledge matters little in this process; in fact, a lot is not even suited to this process. It needs a certain predilection and temperament; perhaps, to use the ancient Indian language, some are destined for it. It is not a question of inner spiritual achievement or merit alone; along with spiritual self-development, it calls for wisdom with strength, a high degree of faith and conviction, an inner goodwill and generosity, but most of all a deep compassion and love for humanity. It is not a Ph.D. course in spiritual counselling, neither does it provide intellectual mastery of the subject but a real living of the truths that one wants to communicate, that matters.

There are lesser alternatives. A client may have faith in a lesser mortal, and still be helped. His faith becomes the guide and the Divine uses it to lead the student through the medium of the teacher. One could also suggest a guided or direct reading of Śāstra, a book rich in spiritual knowledge and power. Millions of people all around the world have been helped by reading the Bible, the Gītā, the Dhammapada in times of crisis rather than by visiting a professional psychiatrist. The modern medical man with his rational tools is often a poor substitute for faith in our own soul’s strength and in the Divine Grace. Depending upon the client’s need, he could be a teacher, a father figure, a loving and kind mother, a generous and understanding friend, or even simply one human being leading another on the great journey. A counselling session willing to accommodate all possible variations in human nature cannot be based on rigidly fixed principles. The approach has to allow flexibility and not a uniform prescription, for example meditation for all and sundry. In fact, the counsellor should work as an influence whose personal example inspires the client and instils him with faith. And even his counsel should proceed after due consideration to the client’s present level of evolution, his natural seeking, his hopes and expectations, his strengths and his weaknesses. This can be best learned through a long and close association with the teacher rather than through any formal course. Ancient Indian thought understood this all too well, and therefore such learning took place largely informally through living with the guru, rather than relying on bookish knowledge and the classroom method. The methods of our reductionist science cannot apply if we are to treat the prospective counsellor and client as a living whole. Our problems are not isolated from our total being. Even when they arise in one aspect, they affect the whole.

The counsellor-client relationship in Indian thought

It must, however, be noted that the guru-śiṣya form of counselling in the ancient Indian setting was not just a ritualistic formula or method, but simply a statement of fact. Not everyone can be a guru; only the man who has moved far on the path of self or God-realization can do so. The guru is not an erudite scholar trained in spiritual dialectics or a master in spiritual philosophy. He may or may not be any of these. He may not be a trained psychologist or perhaps even a man of letters, although these would only work to his advantage. He must, at the least, be a man who has found his true soul and is living consciously in it. If he can transmit this soul experience to another, it would help. This is important because the modern mind often misreads in the guru-celā relationship either a dependence of a Freudian type, or else a convenient device to facilitate the psychotherapeutic process through faith alone. Faith is no doubt important in the Indian setting, but the emphasis on faith does not sanction blind and irrational obscurantism. On the contrary, it is a necessary pre-condition to arrive at knowledge. It is an enlightened faith that is necessary, a faith consistent with reason; if there is a Divine sense and purpose in this world, then surely there must be a means to discover it; if there is a soul that can help heal, then surely there must be a means to find it; if one man has found it then, given the right means and method, others too can find it. Above all, a faith that if there is at all divine guidance in this world behind the so-called anomalies of life, then there must be a purpose in each trial and tribulation, behind each crisis and failure, behind every stumble and fall. The guru assists in this process of discovering the real meaning and significance of crisis, and through it the meaning of our own life in this seemingly meaningless universe. Faith and surrender to the guru’s guidance is the starting point of this discovery; will, effort and aspiration, the middle stage; knowledge and union with the truth found, the third and last stage of this process. According to Indian tradition, counselling ideally does not end with immediate recovery from the perceived distress, but is carried further till the person has moved beyond all possibility of distress. Distress is only an excuse that the soul uses to start the great journey. Its end is not temporary relief from the transient stresses and satisfactions of life, but the establishment of permanent peace and an unfading joy in the being, a radical cure from all present, past and future ills.

It needs to be mentioned that the spirit of counselling is not commercial at all. If we revert to ancient Indian thought, we find that there was only one criterion that the guru used in taking on disciples—the readiness to evolve along the same lines as the master, the adhikāra bheda. But once accepted, all commercial and other considerations were put away. If the disciple offered something of his own will, it was another matter. Indeed, the disciple was expected to offer something by way of guru dakṣiṇa at the end of the course, and this may have been something as small as a penny or as big as an empire or an object held dear. The disciple gave it in faith and gratitude, trusting that the master knows best. This gift of love at the end of instructions boded well for the student, since ingratitude towards the master, whose debt can never be repaid, was considered the worst of all lapses. Some masters even shouldered their disciples’ burdens, not only for one life but for all lives to come.

How relevant is all this in our modern scenario? And is it practicable at all? We must understand that ancient Indian thought aimed at making the ideal pragmatic and practically possible, and the spirit of ancient India is not dead, despite the onslaught of material thought. Even now there exist teachers, instructors, counsellors and masters who go about their task silently without any considerations of money or fame. The gift of knowledge and the help they provide is the greatest gift of all. By the very fact of it being a gift, it becomes one with love and the two are the most potent powers to effectuate the deeper change that is the goal of all authentic psychotherapy.

The goal of psychotherapy

The goal of psychotherapy can be no different from the general goal of mankind in its great evolutionary journey. A crisis only pushes us further towards the goal. The psychotherapist, in the Indian conception, is only a catalyst in this journey from darkness to light. He provides support through authentic love, compassion, wisdom and strength, but most of all through his inner being rather than through the techniques and processes that he may advise, suggest or prescribe. The end result is not just a temporary restoration of the original status quo, but a growth in consciousness towards greater wisdom, greater love, greater freedom, greater harmony that come through our ascent out of animality into divinity, through the discovery of our secret soul. This is beautifully summarized by Sri Aurobindo (2005, p. 4):

To know, possess and be the divine being in an animal and egoistic consciousness, to convert our twilit or obscure physical mentality into the plenary supramental illumination, to build peace and a self-existent bliss where there is only a stress of transitory satisfactions besieged by physical pain and emotional suffering, to establish an infinite freedom in a world which presents itself as a group of mechanical necessities, to discover and realise the immortal life in a body subjected to death and constant mutation,—this is offered to us as the manifestation of God in Matter and the goal of Nature in her terrestrial evolution.

… For all problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony. They arise from the perception of an unsolved discord and the instinct of an undiscovered agreement or unity. To rest content with an unsolved discord is possible for the practical and more animal part of man, but impossible for his fully awakened mind, and usually even his practical parts only escape from the general necessity either by shutting out the problem or by accepting a rough, utilitarian and unillumined compromise.

In conclusion: A question of faith

This chapter has touched upon the theoretical framework of Indian thought and its relevance to the psychotherapeutic process. The framework is vast and heterogeneous and, despite several points of agreement, there are important divergences as well. Besides, a number of techniques, processes and methods described in various ancient and modern treatises are too exhaustive for even a summary discussion. Each of these needs sustained and persistent practice for practical utility, and cannot be picked up from a book, however helpful they may be. The repeated message that comes through is that Truth is what is lived and experienced within one’s soul, and mere preaching without practice will lead nowhere.

In conclusion, one may say that Indian thought moves along many lines simultaneously, resulting in an extraordinary complexity. While on the one hand it creates difficulties in comprehension, on the other hand this richness can be practically useful in catering to the diverse strands and demands of human nature. Yet, certain general principles can be culled out of this complex structure, which can help mankind in its pursuit of relief from suffering. These general principles are elements common to most systems. Since psychotherapy is more concerned with relieving psychological suffering than with philosophical dialectics for its own sake, the thing of the greatest utility is also that which is closely held in the collective faith of the human race. The role of the psychotherapist is not to convert the sick and suffering to any particular belief or to proselytize for narrow sectarian and evangelical purposes, although that might just happen, given that it is natural for a person to develop a faith in something that has been of help in moments of crisis. Faith is a common denominator in Eastern and Western thought, and in both ancient and modern systems. A philosophical doctrine will remain ineffective unless it seizes and holds not only the mind’s interest, but also the heart, faith and will. Therefore, what is first necessary in the practical application of ancient Indian thought is that the psychotherapist lives in a wide catholicity, utilising the intrinsic faith of the patient as an essential means of support in his work. And if the faith is found insufficient to support the change, he will work towards instilling and widening it keeping in mind the client’s natural bent and past evolution, rather than trying for conversion. Faith works best when it arises from within, and works poorly when it is superimposed from without. This blossoming of faith is a crucial element in all psychotherapy, without which everything else remains incomplete. So common is loss of faith in psychological problems, especially depression, that one may say that most crises of life are actually crises of faith.

This is the first important element in Indian spiritual thought—an insistence on faith as a key element in life, more so than reason. For in spirituality, it is necessary to suspend all judgement and begin with faith as it transcends the mind. It is said that in the end, this faith is fulfilled and justified by the knowledge that emanates from direct and authentic spiritual experience. In a sense this is true of everything else, including science. One begins with faith in a proposition or a method and works patiently till one finds the answer. Thus, we choose one out of many possibilities to strive for. Widening this intrinsic faith rather than confining it within a fixed system of belief is perhaps the most important task of the therapist. Here we must distinguish between faith and belief since the two are commonly confused; although somewhat allied, they are very different in their power and potency.

Belief is directed outward. It is a system of thought held by a mind or a heart and will be conditioned to respond to certain social movements. Faith is more intrinsic, the very grain and mark of man, as the Gītā says. It is the spontaneous cry of the soul, which is often buried beneath dead rituals, mechanical beliefs and professed creeds. It is the psychotherapist’s task to patiently extract this intrinsic faith, the inner scripture hidden in every heart. This is the Indian version of cognitive therapy, where a client’s mind is approached through her/his soul. To change from within by using the client’s own faith is therefore the method favoured by the therapist. Towards this end, he moves from the surface to the depths, from outward and professed beliefs and non-beliefs towards that which is concealed in the secret spaces of the soul. Using the helpful material offered by the client’s mind, heart and will, the therapist works patiently, offering timely suggestions and intuitive guidance to recover this faith. And it is in this process that we find the role of cognitive and other aspects of the patient’s inner constitution.

Despite the enormous complexity of Indian thought, the common cognitive and emotional structures supporting belief are fairly simple. They can be chiefly summarized as belief in an individual soul, in a personal Divine (whether outwardly professed or not in the corresponding philosophical school), in rebirth as one of the means used by nature to arrive at evolutionary fulfilment, in the existence of cosmic forces that help or harm us, and finally, a belief in mukti or liberation or a state of soul-perfection as the final goal which all shall one day reach. At the same time, the Indian mind has one great advantage vis-à-vis this complexity—it has become catholic in its approach since it readily accepts the presence of diverse approaches to Truth and Freedom and God. The Indian mind is more ready to accept the word of an enlightened man. It is not because Indians are more credulous, as is commonly believed, but because of the nature of their inner being, which is awake to subtler and deeper realities and is aware that the mind must subordinate itself before the spirit. They know instinctively that Truth can be arrived at not through reason and analysis, but through faith and practice. Most of all, they believe that God’s Grace or the intervention of a highly developed person can help us overcome difficulties. The therapist can use these cognitive structures and emotional bonds, already deeply rooted in the Indian psyche.

Whether faith is scientific or not is not the issue here. But if what we have discovered is nothing compared to what remains to be discovered, then man must indeed proceed on faith, a faith in matter or in the spirit, in reason or in faith itself. Especially when it comes to something as subtle as psychology, we must know that truth is not only an external objective reality but an intimate subjective reality, deeply real to the one identified with it. And of all realities known to mankind, there is none more insistent, attractive and universal than the experience of the Divine within and around us, the one simultaneously objective and subjective experience. To deny it in the name of science is to deny the very roots of life itself, and to deny man and his total existence. This is the great truth that Indian psychology carries within it, if we care to listen to its voice of wisdom and compassion. To deny it and give our material research precedence may harm the progression of the human race and its hope to conquer pain and evil. But let us hope that this denial is temporary, for beyond the vision of our material science waits the spirit of a greater truth in man’s heart, ready to free us from grief and suffering. The limits of our sight are not the limits of light!


Aurobindo, Sri (2005). The life divine. Puducherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department.