The Indian “Psychologies” | Mitakshara Medhi

As soon as one is introduced to the discipline of Psychology in India, the first thing the individual is taught is that Psychology was formally founded by Wilhelm Wundt in 1879, when he established the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig, Germany. And in America, it is said to be William James who started with experiments at Harvard, his laboratory gaining formal recognition in 1885 (although he had established it in 1875). This is actually a very direct way of stating the history of psychology, because it seemed to have existed for a thousand years. Even if one were to doubt its existence, it is nevertheless true that this discipline was influenced by various “scientific” discoveries in very direct ways. So how correct would we be to fix a year for the start of the discipline (or any discipline for that matter)? Of course the “History of Psychology” is further complicated by the fact that after World War II, there was a heavy migration of the intellectuals of Europe to America.

If we leave the internal issue aside, and look deeper, we would stumble upon the realization that whatever we read today is actually the psychology of America and Western Europe, and to a lesser extent Russia. Brock (2006), in his book Internationalizing the History of Psychology, underlined three factors that enabled a certain event to be considered significant enough to be included in the history of Psychology – (a) it must be useful to America, irrespective of how useful it is to the rest of the world, (b) if it is influential in America, it counts; even if it has no use to the rest of the world, (c) Asia, Africa, Latin America and Oceania do not exist.

So what makes the American Psychology so dominant? Surely, America is the economic and cultural superpower. But how do they legitimize their theories in other population? When cultural homogenization is talked of, it is mostly the culture and values of the USA that seems to be taking over the other cultures (good or bad). Now imagine our lives – the lives of the privileged English speaking population, educated in elite schools. We are already drawn into the American culture, living, speaking emulating the American way. Now think of researches in developing countries. The tools we use are predominantly American, and most come with the pre-requisite of having a hold on the English language. Most of the studies published are conducted on the undergraduates or post-graduates (students already well-versed in the American or British traditions). So naturally, the research findings would support the theories based on their culture, since we are already so influenced by it. This process is called double reification, first propagated by Moghaddam and Lee (2006). Here the double influence of the American culture is talked of – first the economic and the cultural, second by verifying their hypothesis on those influenced by it. It leaves out a vast chunk of the population who are not so privileged – or rather unable to acquire the “much-desired” American culture.

This is not to critique the American culture and rob it of its advantages. This is simply to show a dissonance in the psychologies of the “Other”. Indian psychology is facing a similar confusion. Dr. Ajit Dalal (2010) brings forth this confusion in his article Journey to the Roots. He states that it was in the Calcutta University that Psychology was introduced in the academia, as part of the Philosophy Department. In 1905, Brojendra Nath Seal formulated the first syllabus and established a laboratory. It was converted into the Department of Experimental Psychology, in 1916, headed by the Harvard educated student of Wilhelm Wundt, Narendra Nath Sengupta. The experiments were embedded in the Western ritual and contained works in the field of depth perception, psycho-physics and attention. It was soon incorporated into the Indian Science Congress in 1923. The years of 1924 and 1925 saw the establishment of the Indian Psychological Association and the Indian Journal of Psychology (founded and edited by Sengupta) respectively. Sengupta was succeeded by Girindra Shekhar Bose in 1922, who was a psychoanalyst in close dialogues with Freud. Subsequent departments were later opened up in Mysore and Patna, before India gained independence.

Dala, in his article, resonating Nandy’s (1995) opinion, stated that the Indian population, in following the Western way of distancing away from religion, found themselves at an upheaval. Ancient Indian tradition was full with ideas of phiolosophy, and psychology, based on experience, introspection, intuition, and self-consciousness. The Indian exemplars are full of instances where the experiences of the kings, the grandmothers, the girl of the village far exceeded the knowledge of the scholars. The dissonance began when the West could not understand the abstract concepts of self of the Indians, unable to intake the culture and emotions of the Indian philosophy into their positivist-post-positivist paradigms. And the Indians, being imposed the Western concepts of reality and way of life, are finding themselves increasingly at crossroads – the influence of the American culture still heavy on them, and yet an inability to fully leave behind their Indian roots. For example, given that American culture is individualistic and the Indian culture in mostly collectivistic how would the Indian population accommodate the social psychology theories of the West? In this way, Dalal states, two psychologies exist in India today – often in a tug-of-war.

In conclusion, it is essential to distinguish between the various terms with regard to Indian Psychology. In his article, Indian Indigenous Concepts and Perspectives: Developments and Future Possibilities, S.K. Kiran Kumar (2010) elucidated the distinctions among terms used for Indian psychologies. Psychology in India referred to the history and present discipline of Psychology in academic and professional terms in India. Indian Psychological thought referred to the concepts and propositions underlined in the Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, Jain and Buddhist schools of knowledge. Psychology with an Indian Identity is synonymous to terms such as “Buddhist psychology”, “Hindu psychology”, “Jain Psychology” and “Dravidian psychology”. Psychology created by Indian Psychologists is the paradigm and philosophical foundations, usually in Western style, as is the prevalent trend today. Yet it must be acknowledged that the Indian mind is accustomed to changes and incorporation of those changes into the mind and lifestyle through adaptations. As Ramanujan (1990) rightly questioned – Is there an Indian way of thinking?


References

  • Dalal, A. K. (2010). A journey back to the roots: Psychology in India. Foundations of Indian Psychology, Volume 1: Theories and Concepts, 27.
  • Kumar, S.K. (2010). Indian indigenous concepts and perspectives: Developments and future possibilities. ICSSR, 5, 93-173.
  • Verma, S. (2002). The father reaches of a new psychology. Psychological Studies, 4770-86.

Mitakshara Medhi is pursuing her Master of Arts, in Psychology, from University of Delhi.

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