Delhi psychologist Aruna Broota, PhD, doesn't let her doctoral training at an American university stand in the way of using Indian folk beliefs in her work.

The importance of such beliefs were evident in a recent case in which one of Broota's patients beat his wife. Broota's probing revealed that the husband was angry at his wife for disobeying her mother-in-law by having her child immunized on a day the mother-in-law considered inauspicious.

Broota's analysis? The women should have placed a small black mark behind the child's ear to protect him from evil.

"Pardon my saying so, but if there was a white therapist, he would try to be 'rational,'" says Broota, a psychology professor at the University of Delhi and editor of the Journal of Research and Applications in Clinical Psychology. "Whereas in India, we try to look into the belief system of the client. I was being ancient as well as modern to create peace in the house."

Broota and other Indian psychologists are incorporating Indian traditions into Western psychology to create what they call an "indigenized" psychology. Like Broota, they are putting clients' folk beliefs to constructive use. They are integrating traditional Indian practices such as yoga and meditation into their work with clients. And they are applying Western psychology to India's social problems.

A transplanted tradition

Western psychology arrived in India in the early 20th century. Calcutta University opened the first Indian psychology department in 1916, and the Indian Psychological Association appeared in 1925. In keeping with India's role as a British colony until 1947, Indian psychology was heavily influenced by British traditions. Convinced of the universal applicability of Western psychology, many Indian psychologists tried to keep the discipline free of any Indian traditions.

But this kind of "culture blind" psychology leads to misunderstandings, says Girishwar Misra, PhD, a past president of the National Academy of Psychology and editor of Psychological Studies. Western psychology's emphasis on independence, for instance, is at odds with Indian notions of extended families and community contexts. "Things that are normal in one culture appear quite pathological when viewed in a different cultural context," he explains.

Now, there is growing interest in the idea of indigenizing psychology. According to Misra, an indigenous Indian psychology would emphasize such Indian ideas as a holistic worldview, the importance of self-discipline, the transitory nature of human experience and belief in both spiritual and material worlds.

"I can't say there is a fully developed indigenous psychology that's going to replace Western psychology," says Misra, a psychology professor at the University of Delhi. "There's give-and-take between the two. We have to look at what we can learn from both traditions and see these diverse cultural traditions as resources."

Meditation or medication?

From a practitioner's viewpoint, an indigenized Indian psychology often means incorporating Indian techniques such as yoga and meditation into psychotherapy. Aruna Broota, for example, has developed a relaxation technique that combines four yogic postures and repetition of a religious word like shanti, or peace. Such techniques make thoughts more accessible, says Broota, which facilitates Western techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy. And the technique is effective for everything from depression to panic disorder to stress management, she says, in part because yoga is so familiar to Indians.

Another psychologist incorporating indigenous practices into his practice is Sangram Singh Nathawat, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur and editor of the Indian Journal of Clinical Psychology. Nathawat prescribes various forms of meditation to help clients enhance their potential or overcome depression, anxiety and other problems.

To lay the groundwork for therapy, Nathawat often recommends that patients spend a few weeks beforehand learning to relax at a meditation or yoga camp. In a series of studies, Nathawat has found that spending time in such camps improved positive measures and decreased negative symptoms when compared with those in control groups.

"Meditation is really helpful," says Nathawat. "I sometimes ask my patients, 'Meditation or medication?'"

Other psychologists are applying Western psychological techniques to such distinctly Indian problems as caste prejudice, women's rights and work forces ill-prepared for a fast-changing economy.

Neharika Vohra, PhD, a social psychologist at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, believes that Western-style psychology has an important role to play in India's economic development, for instance. In fact, she says, some of the most critical problems facing India's industrial sector have to do with such psychological issues as motivation, alienation and stress. Helping former farmworkers adapt to industrial jobs is one high priority, she says.

"Most of them are first-generation industry workers, and it isn't easy for them to easily fit into the professional, independent attitude required to fit into the industry," explains Vohra, the associate editor of Indian Psychological Abstracts and Reviews. "There are many problems as a result of the clashes that occur between the required behavior and the learned pattern of most first-generation industry workers."

Psychologists face many barriers as they work to achieve these and other goals, however. Vohra even worries that psychology is "dying a slow death," thanks to ill-funded universities, poor-quality journals and a lack of leadership.

Another critical problem is the sheer shortage of well-trained psychologists, adds Blanche Barnes, PhD, president of the Bombay Psychological Association and professor of clinical psychology at SNDT Women's University in Mumbai. Although no one seems to know for sure just how many psychologists there are in India, all agree that there aren't enough to serve a population that now tops more than a billion. And some who call themselves psychologists really aren't.

"Even without a PhD, people brand themselves as clinical psychologists," says Barnes. "Most of the psychologists in India are not accredited, and there is no such thing as licensing. That's something we're working very hard to change."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

This article is part of the Monitor's yearlong series on psychology around the globe.