Relevance of Ancient Indian Wisdom to Modern Mental Health - A Few Examples

By Shamasundar, C. | Indian Journal of Psychiatry, April-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Relevance of Ancient Indian Wisdom to Modern Mental Health - A Few Examples


Shamasundar, C., Indian Journal of Psychiatry


Byline: C. Shamasundar

The ancient Indian concepts and paradigms relating to mental health are holistic and cover aspects that have been neglected by the modern mental health literature. The latter can borrow, study, and incorporate them in their text books to advantage. The current trend in mental health research is heavily biased in favour of biological aspects of psychological phenomena neglecting the basic entity, the mind. Correction of this partisan tilt is urgently needed.

Ancient concepts prevalent in any culture have always influenced the development of knowledge, especially in the field of psychology. Examples are to be found in the contribution of such pioneers as Freud and Jung. Moreover, in the last few decades, there has been a large-scale borrowing of eastern concepts in the practice of mental health. This fact was the basis for the author to explore some of the ancient Indian literature.

The subject matter in this write-up is based on the material that I collected during my sabbatical study in 1987-1988 funded by NIMHANS, Bangalore. The topic of that study was "Mental Health Concepts in Indian Mythology." The ancient Indian scriptures studied were: the two Epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha, principle Puranas, major Upanishads, Jataka stories, Jaina stories, and Ocean of stories (Bruhath-Katha-Saritsagara).

The mental health concepts collected during the study contributed to a change in my professional "assumptive-world." Earlier, I was pained by the glaring absence of such commonly useful concepts as "mind," "will-power," etc. in our standard psychiatric textbooks. After the study, I was wonder struck at the richness, wholeness and intense practicability of paradigms and wisdom contained in ancient Indian literature, and its potential to enrich our professional knowledge.

The topic of Indian concepts relating to mental health is very vast. Hence, I will limit my presentation to a few examples to serve as samples of the wide variety of material that is in store for serious students who wish to explore.

The examples in this presentation are inter-related, and an integral whole may emerge from this presentation. I hope that the readers will become interested in this area of knowledge.

In this write-up, I have deliberately refrained from ritualistically quoting references for those facts which are common knowledge among mental health professionals.

Mind, an object of academic apartheid Our current professional literature seems to be subject to a kind of academic apartheid in the form of avoiding usage and coverage of such common and useful concepts as mind, "will power," etc. Though avoiding the use of the word "mind," the textbooks describe two attributes of mind, namely, Kurt Lewin's concept of field-like property, and Freud's concepts of consciousness, unconsciousness, and libidinal energy.

In contrast to our textbooks, Encyclopedia Britannica is more generous in using the word "mind" and describing more of its attributes: (i) immaterial nature, (ii) related to personal identity and subjective experience, and (iii) having introspective ability.

Ayurveda and Indian scriptures accord mind the highest tribute, next only to God in terms of its immense potentialities. Apart from the attributes of conscious and creative energy, mind is also accorded an immaterial nature, by virtue of its association with soul in a physical body.

Attributes of mind From the above different sources, the attributes of the mind are: (i) conscious-unconsciousness, (ii) self-identity, (iii) field-like properties, (iv) energy or power, and (v) immaterial nature by virtue of its association with soul in physical body. For our purpose, these can be considered as tentative hypotheses. Each of these has corroborative evidences in the modern science literature. Few examples of such evidences are given below.

(a) Consciousness-unconsciousness

*The projective tests used in clinical and experimental psychology are based on the dynamics of unconscious processes influencing the subject's responses to ambiguous stimuli. …

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