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INDIAN CONCEPTS OF MENTAL HEALTH -
PREVENTIVE RATHER THAN CURATIVE
P. Marutham, Ph.D. (Clinical Psychology)
Indian Conceptualization of Mental Health
The Indian conceptualizations viewed mental health in terms of prevention from time immemorial. Parikh (1971) says that the Indian conceptualisations saw "what ought to be", i.e., the ideal, towards perfection, thus not getting into problems. Hall and Lindzey (1974) say
... in the East, there are rich sources of psychological knowledge in the religious texts and practices. All the Eastern psychologies seek to describe the nature of human experience. They find fault with humans as they are, and try to posit an ideal model for better growth of humans. This is done through changes in personality such that the ideal qualities become stable traits. This change in personality is done through meditation". They further go on to say that, "the conception of personality in Indian thought is more spiritual than psychological. The scriptures said that the individual ought to have certain qualities, behave in certain ways and perform certain rites in order to attain 'moksha'. The description of personality in Indian scriptures is 'what ought to be' and not 'what is'. A man of personality is a man of sound character, whose thoughts, speech and actions are integrated. The Indian thinkers view personality and character identical. They believe in performance of penance and training of mental faculties for development and improvement of personality.
The Indian conceptualisations of mental health can be understood from the major works among the many available sources like the Vedas, Upanishads, Religio-medical texts, Yoga and Rituals.
In all these mental health is dealt with in terms of the ideal state. The ideal state includes descriptions given by each of the above said sources. Deviation from the ideal is considered to be problematic. To begin with the ideal state is described. Only when the individual is found to have a deviation from the ideal state, i.e., found to have a mental illness or disturbance in mental health, intervention procedures are dealt with. The ideal state of mental health, which is preventive strategies, is dealt with hereunder.
Among the four Vedas - rig veda, samaveda, yajurveda and atharvaveda, atharvaveda deals with mental health and illness.Singh (1977) quotes Shende (1952), "the attitude of the Atharva is purely defensive, obliging and working for the benefit, happiness and long life of the people who follow it". Singh says that, it mainly deals with the concepts of 'Triguna' both physical, i.e., 'vata', 'pitta', and 'kapha'; as well as mental, i.e., 'satva', 'rajas' and 'tamas'. The physical 'triguna' maintain certain equilibrium, and there is health. When there is an extraordinary increase or decrease in any of these, there is resulting abnormality. Similarly, the mental 'triguna' also maintains certain equilibrium. 'Satva' does not get corrupted. If there is an extraordinary increase or decrease in 'rajas' or 'tamas', then there is a resulting abnormality. It is found in the above description that Atharvaveda has a certain norm, i.e., optimal functioning of the 'trigunas', and any deviation results in abnormality. As Shende says, is has a defensive maneuver, that is preventive of mental illness.
Following the Vedas, the Upanishads evolved its approach to mental health. In the Upanishads it is found that, personality consists of many dimensions - Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vignanamaya and Anandamaya. These should collectively function to maintain equilibrium, i.e., homeostasis, resulting in tranquility, which is the ultimate goad in life (Venkoba Rao, 1975). Healthy personality means the healthy state of these components (Khurana & Singh, 1984).
The two major religio-medical sciences of life - Ayurveda and Siddha, discuss about the bodily humors as also discussed in the Veda, in the maintenance of health in its holistic sense. The bodily humors 'vata', 'pitta', and 'kapha' (Singh, 1977) as discussed in Ayurveda; and 'vali', 'azhal' and 'iyam' (Somasundaram et al, 1986) as discussed in Siddha should maintain an optimal proportion for mental health. Dietary and other personal habits are specified to maintain an equilibrium of the three humors to keep up mental health and also for further development of the mind and self. Somasundaram et al (1986) comment that "the underlying philosophy of Siddha sysem is not only curative but also preventive which clearly indicates the far advanced stage the Siddha system had reached in such an early period".
Yoga, which is considered to be the advanced branch of Indian psychology, is a comprehensive practical of self culture. Self-culture means the physical, mental, moral, and spiritual unfolding of an individual. Yoga aims at the evolution of personality. Patanjali gives eight steps - Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi, in his Ashtanga Yoga to achieve self culture, and ultimately a healthy personality. The first three are concerned with ethical purification; the middle two with psychophysical control; and the last three with progressive control of the psychic apparatus culminating in Samadhi (Neki, 1978). As seen above, Yoga deals with the healthy personality and further development of it. It is only recently that Yoga is being applied with clinical cases with positive findings. Thus yoga is a preventive measure and also a curative one.
In India, the life events, which are positively stressful like that, of birth and marriage; as well as negatively stressful like that of death are dealt with, with rituals, called 'Samskaras'. These ritualistic practices make the individual undergoing the event as well as people around him to face the event in a smooth way. The event does not come as a shock to him. But he gets slowly sensitized and hence can face the event almost peacefully. Pande (1949) has described the various rituals, which help men to undergo stress in a smooth way. This prevents any psychological maladjustment. In addition, when an individual has mental illness, he may be taken to temples where various rituals are performed. There are many temples of fame in India where mentally ill are treated with rituals, exercises, diet, isolation, offerings to the temple, rolling around the temple and idol worship (Balodhi, 1991). Thus, rituals could act as preventive as well as curative of mental illness.
In all the above, there is evidence for Indian conceptualisations being preventive rather than being curative. Also it is found that Indian conceptualisations handle mental health in terms of growth towards the spiritual or transpersonal.
To conclude I quote Singh (1977), "It is useful not only to the abnormal but also to the normal individuals".
Hall, S.C.; & Lindzey,G.: (1974). Theories of Personality. John Wiley & Sons Inc. New York.
Khurana, A.; & Singh,A.: (1984). Mental Health - Western and Indian Concepts. The Vedic Path. Vol. XLVII (2).
Neki (1977). Psychotherapy in India. Indian Journal Of Psychiatry. 19. 2-11.
Parikh, B.A.: (1971). Personality In Indian Psychology. In Sharma Ramnath's Indian Psychology. Kedarnath Ramnath. India.
Shende, N.J.: (1952). The Religion and Philosophy of Atharvaveda. Oriental Research Institute. Poona.
Singh,H.G.: (1977). Psychotherapy in India. National Psychological Corporation. India.
Somasundaram, O., Jayaramakrishnan, T., & Sureshkumar.: (1986). Psychiatry in Siddha (Tamil) System of Medicine. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine. 9. 38 - 45.
Venkoba Rao.: (1975). History of Psychiatry in India. In World History of Psychiatry (ed. G.Howells), Bruner / Mazel. New York.
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