The Psychological Approach to Religion-M.S.Srinivasan

Indian religion gave birth to two great spiritual tradition: Hinduism and Buddhism.  India yoga or psychology is normally associated with the Hindu tradition.  But there is an equally profound tradition of yogic psychology in Buddhism.

In  fact  regarding  Buddhist Yoga, we can say with  much  more  certainty  and accuracy  than  Hindu  Yoga that it is nothing but applied  psychology.  As  a modern  exponent  of  Buddhist  Psychology points out  “Anybody  with  a  good knowledge  of  psychology and its history who reads the Pali Nikayas  must  be struck  by the fact that the psychological terminology is richer in this  than in   any  other  ancient  literature  and  that  more  space  is  devoted   to psychological  analysis and explanations in this than in any  other  religious literature”.

The Hindu Yogic tradition gave an equal emphasis to psychology as well as metaphysics.  This is because Hindu mind has a natural inclination for philosophy.   The Hindu spiritual mind, intellectually  well-developed, tends towards intellectualizing its psychological and spiritual intuitions and experiences  into  coherent  philosophical  systems  and  concepts.   This  has advantages as well as drawbacks.  The first advantage is that it helps  reason in assimilating  the higher knowledge revealed by intuition –  as much  as  it can – and creates a harmonious relationship  between  Reason  and Intuition.   The second advantage is that it helps in forging a  link  between spirit and life through reason and create not merely a narrow and  specialised religious  or Yogic systems but a broad and expanding culture of  thought  and practice,  a system of ideals, values are ways of living, Dharma.  In otherwords,  it creates a culture which  spreads into  every  activity of life – in Arts, Science, Literature  and  Social  and Political  Life  – and therefore can inspire the collective life  of  a  whole nation  for many generations.  The disadvantage of philosophising is that  the original  spiritual institutions and experiences gets indistinguishably  mixed with the mental idea and concept and with the passage of time was almost  lost in  the complex mental forms.  The other drawback of the philosophic  mind  in the  path  of  yoga  is that it gets  inordinately  attached  to  metaphysical speculations  about God and the Soul and the Absolute and tends to forget  the fact that yoga is the path of living and realisation and not just thinking and dreaming.

When Buddha entered the religious landscape of ancient India, the religious  life  of  the  nation  was in the grip of degenerate Brahminism.  The  philosophic temperamental  of  the Hindu mind had degenerated towards its  negative  side.  This  was  possibly  the  reason  why  Buddha  discouraged  all  metaphysical speculations  and tried to found a religious tradition based predominantly  on practical  ethics and applied psychology – first for the layman and the  other for  the  spiritual aspirant—rather than on  mystic  revelations,  metaphysics, mythology and theologies.

Budha’s teachings proceed from such a practical, scientific and  psychological approach  to  Religion.   We can see this very clearly  in  Budha’s  life  and teachings.   First,  there is a actual and deeply felt  observation  of  human suffering.  In  the second stage there is a long,  determined  and  persistent enquiry  into  the  cause of suffering; then in the  third  stage,  the  great enlightenment.  And finally, preaching of the eight-fold path as the way out  of suffering;  When  the  Hindu  philosopher was  trying  to  explain  the  human predicament in sophisticated metaphysical terms like Avidya, Maya, Ahankar etc. which  even the learned scholar found difficult to understand, Buddha  talked in  a  simple  and direct language understandable even  to  the  common  man, pinpointing  clearly the psychological rather than the metaphysical  cause  of human suffering.  Buddha laid a much greater emphasis on Desire rather than on “Ignorance”  or ego as the root cause of human suffering because desire  is  a more psychologically concrete, nearer and easily perceptible experience to  an ordinary man than “Ignorance” or ego.

Even a cursory and superficial glance at the Budha’s eight fold path will show the practical and psychological nature of the teaching: right thought, speech, action, effort, livelihood, mindfulness and meditation.  Here the stress is on right action proceeding from the right exercise of the psychological  faculties of  the human being.  But the spiritual core of Budha’s teachings lies in  the last  two  factors  of  the  eight-fold  path:  right  Mindfulness  and  right Concentration   which  are  purely  psychological  disciplines  for   knowing, liberating  and mastering the human kind. To understand clearly the  role  and significance  of  these last two factors of the eight-fold  path  in  Buddhist Yoga,  we have to examine them in the background of the philosophy and aim  of Buddhism.

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