An interesting article about positive psychology in the light of Indian traditions. Courtesy of PsyInsight and Dr. Salagame. K. Kiran Kumar (Professor of Psychology, University of Mysore).

The emergence of positive psychology in the United States and elsewhere in the world heralds a new era in our discipline. While the themes dealt with are not new, the emphasis on studying the positive in human nature seem to be timely and is catching up very fast. The focus on the study of character strengths, virtues, happiness, well-being, wisdom, and so on goes well with Indian ethos because Indian traditions have all along reiterated these aspects. ‘Positive psychology and Indian psychology are birds of the same feather’ (Salagame, 2006), because the focus of both is achieving well-being. The difference lies however, in how good life and well-being are ultimately conceptualized. I will attempt to highlight crucial differences and similarities between the two.

First, the affirmation of a spiritual dimension to human existence for thousands of years in the Indian soil has shifted the search for ultimate happiness within rather than without, thereby rendering the pursuit of happiness in material-social world secondary. The sense of happiness and well-being is considered as intrinsic to human nature rather than being contingent on external sources. This perspective has provided a framework to evaluate the relative significance of all the different sources of happiness and well-being contemporarily studied such as money, relationships, biological and psychological needs, religion, etc. This is illustrated through many stories and folk tales and the one which is often highlighted is the dialogue between Nachiketa the boy and Yama the lord of death, in Upanishads. While the latter offers all the tantalizing sources of pleasure and happiness the former sticks to his request to reveal the secret of death, which in other words is what ensures a person lasting happiness and well-being.

Another well known example is related to the exponential understanding of ultimate happiness “Brahmananda” in terms of the multiples of “mānushānanda” in Taittiriya Upanishad. Mānushānanda, human happiness, is described in terms of the best of the best in wealth, youthfulness, strength, beauty, character and what not. This is one mānushānanda. The Upanishads describes the different levels of ānanda with respect to mānushānanda, in multiples of hundred.

One hundred times of this is ānanda of the departed souls who are believed to exist in the nether world. The ancient seers and sages set the limits of happiness from mānushānanda to Brahmananda and differentiated kinds of happiness, most of which are not considered today.

A host of characters come to our mind beginning with ancient Rishis, Kings like Janaka and Rama, Seeta, Krishna, Bheeshama, Dharmaraya, Draupadi, Karna, Dhruva, Satya Harishchandra, Teerthankaras, Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Acharyas, and many others who represent these themes. There were good numbers of people in ancient, historical, and modern times for whom these persons served as role models to emulate and live a noble life. They have been inspiring many more even to this day. That is why discourses on Ramayana, Bhagavata, Mahabharata, Upanishads, Bhagavdeeta, Dhammapada, and sacred texts of other traditions are popular even to this day all over India.

If we ponder reflectively about our culture we realize that our ancient and modern seers and sages be they Vedic and Upanishadic rishis, or Jaina munis or Buddha bhikshus , all emphasized on developing those characters and virtues which make a human being a perfect being. In general Indian traditions focused on elevating human beings from his (her) animal nature towards divine/spiritual nature. While ancient thinkers recognized that man shares with animals such needs as āhāra (food), nidrā (sleep), bhaya ( fear or need for security), and maithuna (sex) he/she also has divine/spiritual potentialities within, which needs to be brought out. They strove to develop such potentialities in themselves and tried to facilitate the development in fellow beings. In this sense each tradition of India be it Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism or Sikkhism, may be considered as a system of positive psychology.
For the purpose of discussion we may distinguish all sources of Indian traditions into two categories viz., (a) those which emphasized on Self-realization or Ātma sākshātkāra; and (b) those which emphasized on developing virtues and characters. In the first category we can place Upanishads and systems of Vedānta. In the second category we can place epics like Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata and Jaina and Bouddha teachings. Though Jaina and Bouddha teachings also laid emphasis on ultimate realization, the path to perfection according to these traditions is through cultivation of virtues. Keeping this distinction in view it may be profitable to study all the sources related to second category to develop concepts relevant for positive psychology.

The Indian idea of Self-realization or Ātma sākshātkāra is a step beyond contemporary concerns of positive psychology. The idea of positive and negative represent opposites and Indian tradition, particularly Upansihadic emphasized on transcending all dualities to reach an ultimate awareness, which is beyond all dualities of life. Krishan urges Arjuna to go beyond all gunas (nistraigunyobhavārjuna). From the point of view of Sāmkhya-Yoga and of Vedānta as well, human nature and behavior is as much determined by the three guna viz., sattva. rajas, and tamas as the phenomenal universe. As long as one is operating with the limitations of guna one is bound to take sides and is in the realm of dualities. From this position, even the development of character strengths or virtues is also a matter of developing more sattva guna, as against rajo guna and tamo guna. Thus from the Indian point of view, development of positive psychology within the western tradition is a movement towards the emphasis on sattva, from its focus on rajas and tamas (Salagame, 2002).

All the noble thoughts that we find in Indian traditions represent sāttvic qualities and our culture and traditions emphasize on developing them. However, in reality over the past several centuries what we find is a decline in the amount of sattva in Indian psyche. From a psychologist’s point of view, Indian scenario provides a paradox of sorts. On the one hand, our cultural heritage emphasizes on sattva and sāttvic qualities. But the behavior of people around is more tāmasic and rājasic. Hence, we lack living role models who help to develop sāttvic qualities. Their number is dwindling. In this juncture the responsibility of psychologists in India who care to disseminate the message of positive psychology is twofold. One is to highlight and study the Indian sources of positive psychology. The other is to extend this to real life and facilitate the development of virtues and strengths amongst the Indian populace. Theory and practice need to go together. This is the urgent need of our country. Our efforts need to be focused on these twin programs.

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