Swami Vivekananda was an Intuitive Psychologist

  • What is Swami Vivekananda’s idea of Psychology? What is the difference between Indian and Western Psychology? What is Knowledge? 

Swami Vivekananda met William James, the father of modern American psychology, probably in 1894 and also in 1896. Mr James was already familiar with Eastern spirituality and hence, he was interested in what Swamiji had to offer to him. Swamiji made an ineffaceable impact on William James who later said: ‘That man is simply a wonder for oratorical power.’ Mr James had a good understanding of Eastern mysticism including Yogic disciplines and the higher Reality according to Advaita Vedanta by studying Swamiji’s books. 


It is said that, by 1900, William James had read all the available works of Swamiji, which he mentions in his letter to Josephine MacLeod dated 8 August 1900. So, we can safely say that Swamiji influenced the psychological ideas of William James articulated by him in his lectures and books. 1


Swamiji is considered a great mystic and philosopher. However, his contribution to the field of psychology is equally significant though not recognised to the full extent. His great psychological insights, spread over his numerous lectures and writings, can give new impetus to the usefulness of psychology in the modern world. They can also open new avenues for further research and investigation into the workings of the human mind and a re-examination of age-old theories of several philosophers and psychologists.


Swami Vivekananda’s Idea of Psychology  2

At the outset, Swamiji criticises the very idea of psychology prevalent in the Western world during that period, which he feels is degraded. Western psychology has been placed on par with other sciences and is judged by the same criterion of utility as that of other sciences. Swamiji says that everything is judged by the West on the criterion of utility to humanity. That utility is increa­sing happiness and reducing pain. 


However, according to Swamiji, psychology is the science of science.


The goal of psychology is not to increase sense-pleasures. As a human moves away from the animal state, the quest for sense-pleasures becomes less and less, and the consciousness of scientific and psychological knowledge becomes more and more intense. Swamiji says: ‘“Knowledge for the sake of knowledge”, regardless of the amount of sense-pleasures it may conduce to, becomes the supreme pleasure of the mind.’ 3


What Swamiji meant here is that the goal of psychology is to get a higher type of knowledge (intellectual and spiritual) which is capable of yielding the greatest happiness.


Sufficient data is required to study material science which results in scientific knowledge. The study and analysis of the mind in psycho­logy require no external data since the mind is analysed by itself. Hence, Swamiji considers psychology or the science of the mind to be the greatest (the science of science).


There is another reason for the supremacy of psychology over other sciences. Psychology teaches us how to hold in check the gyrations of the mind. It helps us place the working of the mind under the control of the will and frees us from the tyranny of the disturbed mind. Without psychology, all other sciences are worthless and hence, it is the science of sciences. An uncontrolled and unguided mind drags us down, while the mind guided and controlled will save us. It is psychology that teaches us how to achieve this.


There is another factor that distinguishes psychology from other sciences like physics. The results we get in the sciences are the same world over as they do not differ in general facts. In the realm of the mind, however, there are no universally recognised materials that can be observed and experimented with, as in the case of other sciences.


In psychology, one should have systematic training to be able to bring the mind under control. One is also required to attain that consciousness through which one will be able to study the mind unmoved by its fluctuations. This will enable a Yogi to observe reliable facts. Hence, in psychology, it is impossible to gather facts that are universally accepted and recognised.


The concentration of the mind on external things reveals their knowledge. However, in reli­gion, metaphysics, and psychology, the subject and the object of concentration are the same, that is, the mind. Here it becomes necessary to study the mind itself—the mind studying the mind. This power of the mind is called reflection. In this process, Swamiji says: ‘The powers of the mind should be concentrated and turned back upon itself, … this concentrated mind penetrates its own innermost secrets. Thus will we come to the basis of belief, the real genuine religion.’ 4


The Difference between Western and Indian Psychology

Swamiji, in unequivocal terms, points out the limitations of Western psychology. He says: ‘That is the great difference between Western and Indian psychology; in the Western psychology the mind is the soul, here (in Indian psychology) it is not.’5


In Indian psychology, the antaḥkaraṇa, the internal instrument, as the mind is called, is only the instrument of jīva, the individual self. It is through the mind that jīva interacts with its body and the external world. Jīva or jīvātman, as it is called, is eternal, without beginning and transmigrates from one body to another body until it gets final liberation.


Western psychology cogitates that the mind is the source of consciousness and awareness. However, Indian psychology holds that it is the Atman, which is consciousness itself. All inspiration, powers, purity, and greatness—everything is in the Atman. Western psychology is somewhat influenced by the Christian doctrine which holds that human beings are born sinners. Indian psychology, the offshoot of the doctrine of eternal, pure, and effulgent Atman, does not believe in such awful ideas.


Swamiji wonders: ‘… if we are by our very nature wicked, we can never be good—for how can [the real] nature change? If it changes, it contradicts itself; it is not [the intrinsic] nature.’6


In all Vedantic schools, there is one common psychology of the idea of Atman. According to Swamiji, the common psychology of Indian philo­sophies is that of ancient Sankhya philosophy. It is one important divergent factor between Indian psychology and Western psycho­logy. 


Modern Western psychology has found different centres for various types of sensations in the brain—some lower and others higher grade centres. However, it has not discovered one single unified centre which controls all other centres. Then, how do these centres get united to give us a feeling that it is one unified entity which is expe­riencing all these different sensations? Indian psycho­logy, Swamiji says, stands unchallenged upon this point. It argues that there must be unification, something upon which the sensations will be reflec­ted to form a complete whole. 


Swamiji says: ‘Until there is something, I cannot have any idea of you, or a picture, or anything else. If we had not that unifying something, we would only see, then after a while breathe, then hear and so on, and while I heard a man talking, I would not see him at all, because all the centres are different.’7 That unifying something is designated as the Atman or Puruṣa in Indian psychology.


Consciousness and Intelligence

One of the insights Swamiji gives, is the distinction he makes between intelligence and consciousness. He says that Mahat, the first change of Prakriti, is intelligence, not self-consciousness because consciousness is only a part of this intelligence.


Mahat or the cosmic mind, being universal, covers all grounds of sub-consciousness, consciousness, and super-consciousness. Swamiji further explains these three states. The sub-conscious state is what we call instinct, which we find in animals and humans. The instinct, according to Swamiji, rarely fails but has a very limited scope. It works like a machine in animals. The conscious state is a higher state of knowledge, which is also fallible but has a larger scope. Though of a larger scope, reason fails more often than instinct. There is still a higher state of consciousness called super consciousness, experienced only by the Yogis.


What is Knowledge?

Swamiji gives an interesting psychological understanding of how knowledge is produced.


Knowledge is only finding an association with other things which we already know. When we see a man in the street, we associate him with similar impressions or mental pictures of numerous men we already know which are stored in our mind. This association is called knowledge.


Swamiji says: ‘Knowledge is, therefore, pigeon-holing one experience with the already existing fund of experience.’8 Through this, Swamiji rejects the idea of some European philosophers that our mind is a tabula rasa, to begin with. If it is so, Swamiji asserts that one cannot get any knowledge because ‘knowledge is that recognition of the new by means of associations already existing in mind’. 9


Psychology of Will

Swamiji criticises the proposal of Arthur Schopenhauer, the famous German philosopher, who says that desire, or Will, is the cause of everything and it is the will to exist that manifests everything.


Swamiji argues that will is but a state of ego; a reaction to the sensations carried to the brain. When we see an object, there will be no will. Then its sensations are carried to the brain and from it comes the reaction to ‘do this’ or ‘do not do this’. This state of the reaction involving the ego is called Will.


Also, Swamiji asserts that there cannot be an independent entity called Will, which is not a reaction. Many things precede Will and it is a manufactured product of the ego. The idea that whatever we see is Will is primarily a Buddhistic idea, borrowed by Schopenhauer. Swamiji says that it is psychologically wrong as Will is identical with motor nerves. There cannot be any Will in the absence of the motor nerves. Swamiji also affirms that this fact is known scientifically after a series of experiments made with the lower animals.

Sage Kapila is said to have meditated in the forests of Amarkantak, source of holy river Narmada. 

Psychology of Perception

The psychology of the Sankhya system of philo­sophy is more or less accepted in all philosophi­cal schools in India, including Vedanta, Nyaya, and Vaisheshika philosophies. 


It depicts the perception, here in the case of vision, in this manner: Behind the instrument of vision, that is, the eye—there is an organ of vision or indriya—the optic nerve and its centres. Through this, the sensation is carried to the mind, the internal organ, and then to the intellect or buddhi, the determinative or the reactive state of the mind. The reaction comes from buddhi, and with it, the external world flashes. This reaction is called the Will. The process is not complete here. All the ideas of the mind are gathered and projected on something stationary called the Puruṣa or Atman. Through this unification, the perception will be complete.


The main omission we find in Western psychology is the absence of the idea of a subjective soul, which is the conscious seer of all perceptions. This has been effectively brought out by Swamiji in his explanation of the theory of perception.


Psychology of Idealism

Swamiji points out the limitation of some European philosophers who have failed to explain the psychology of their idealistic position. They assert that this world exists because ‘I’ exists; if ‘I’ do not exist, the world will not exist. 


Modern philosophy has got only a glimpse of this principle but does not know the psychology behind it. Swamiji says that it becomes easy to understand this idea from the Sankhya point of view. The Sankhya says that it is impossible for anything to exist, without its material being a portion of our mind.


Swamiji gives an example. When we throw a stone into a lake, as a reaction, a wave is formed. The wave is what we know. In the same way, the external thing (for example, a table) suggests something, upon which we project our mind. What we really come to know is not the external thing, but the reaction of the mind in the form of a mental picture of the thing (table). Swamiji explains this: ‘What is external, nobody knows; when I try to know it, it has to become the material which I furnish. I, with my own mind, have furnished the material for my eyes.’10


Practical or Applied Psychology 

The practical application of psychology has been taken up in India from the very early times. It is Patanjali who researched psychology to formulate the system of Yoga by collecting facts and evidence for the first time.


Applied psychology at the outset aims at controlling the unconscious by directing the energies of all the human faculties.


Swamiji proclaims that it is feasible since the conscious mind is the cause of the unconscious. The unconscious thoughts are but submerged thoughts of our old conscious thoughts. However, we are not aware of them. It is these unconscious thoughts that make one miserable. Swamiji says that true psychology should try to bring unconscious thoughts under the control of the conscious mind. This is the practical application of psychology. The great task, before practical psychology, is ‘to revive the whole man, as it were, in order to make him the complete master of himself’.11 Even the automatic actions of the organs can be brought under control through this method.


The yoga of Patanjali gives clear guidelines to achieve mastery over the unconscious mind through various techniques. As such, Yoga is the most ancient and efficacious method for clean­sing the unconscious mind and having command over the body, senses, organs, and mind. According to Swamiji, this is the characteristic of true psychology. 


Kapila-The Great Father of Psychology

Swamiji pays rich tributes to Kapila, whom he considers the father of ancient Indian psychology. He says that there is no philosophy in the world that is not indebted to Kapila who propounded the Sankhya philosophy and is estimated to have lived in the 6th century BCE.


He also gives some historical facts to prove the influence of Indian thought on Greek Philosophy. The great Greek philosopher Pythagoras visited India and studied Kapila’s philosophy, which marked the beginning of the philosophy of the Greeks. Later, Plato got an inkling of it. Still later, Gnostics carried the thought to Alexandria. The Sankhya philosophy is the first rational system the world has ever seen. One part of it went to Europe and Alexandria and the other remained in India. Vyasa’s system of philosophy was developed out of it. Hence, Swamiji proclaims that ‘wherever there is any attempt at psychology or philosophy, the great father of it is this man, Kapila’.12


An Estimate

Swami Vivekananda infused new life and vigour into every subject he touched upon. It is more evident when he speaks on psychology. Swamiji explains the age-old Vedantic truths rationally using the modern semantics of science and psycho­logy. 


It is interesting to observe that Swamiji has used several ways to explain his topics that include psychological analysis. We can also identify his in-depth scholarship and ingenuity in psychology—both Indian and Western, in those elucidations. Swamiji always tries his best to give modern scientific and psychological interpre­tations to even the most abstruse ideas found in ancient Indian spiritual literature.


It is high time that we undertook extensive research on the psychological aspect of Swamiji’s lectures and writings. In them, we not only can recognise the best scholarly arguments of the nature of academic psychology but also their effective practical utilisation in solving everyday problems of human life. We should appreciate that though Swamiji was not a professional psychologist, his deep understanding of psychological issues makes him stand among other psychologists of merit. His thoughts go beyond the realm of empirical psychology into the transcendental realm of spirituality. Through his spiritual brilliance, Swamiji sheds new light on every subject of study of human interest, including psychology.


In this way, Swami Vivekananda emerges in his unique role as an intuitive psychologist.



1. See Prem Shankar and Uma Parameswaran, Swami Vivekananda and William James in the History of Transpersonal Psychology’, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 67, (Pune: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1986).

2. See ‘The Importance of Psychology’, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 6.28.

3. Ibid.

4. Complete Works, 1.131.

5. Ibid., 3.334.

6. Ibid., 3.335.

7. Ibid., 1.395.

8. Ibid., 2.447.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., 2.441.

11. Ibid., 2.35.

12. Ibid., 2.455.

 This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata. I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 200/ for one year and Rs 570/ for three years. To subscribe https://shop.advaitaashrama.org/subscribe/

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