It’s been a while since I wrote about the topic of mental health and the brilliance of the mind. Today I’m comparing how Mental Health was thought of in ancient India.
Yes! Indians found out about this 20,000 years ago and wrote some really spectacular literature, tests and methods on the subject. Modern mental health as we know it it roughly a 100 years old… So let’s see how we’re doing.
Let’s begin with some basics of the Vedas.
“Hinduism” is not the original name of Indian religion and those who followed the same since the ancient times never gave it any particular name except for “dharma,” which simply means “the eternal law that supports and sustains those who practice it.” The words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” were used by ancient Persians identifying people inhabiting the banks of river Sindhu (Indus). In the language of ancient Persians, the ‘S’ of Sanskrit became ‘H’ and this name has continued since then.
The major scriptures of Hinduism are the Vedas, the Upanishad, and the Bhagwad Gita. Among these, Vedas are considered the oldest and the tenets and earliest concepts of Hinduism are recorded in the four Vedas viz., Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda. The Vedas describe the worship of God in natural elements such as fire, water, wind, etc., This main purpose of worship was to express gratitude for survival of creatures. Over the years, this worship of God has taken many different forms, which include elaborate systems of rituals and sacrifices to please the Gods. When one tries to understand the concept of mind and mental illness from ancient Hindu knowledge – Rig Veda and Yajur Veda, it suggests that mention of prayer through mantras (rhymes) can lead to formation of noble thoughts in the mind which help in the prevention of mental pain (depression). The Rig Veda, also discusses about the speed of mind, curiosity for methods of mental health, prayers for mental happiness, methods of increasing intelligence and power of mind in healing.
The Upanishads provide descriptions of theories of perception, thought, consciousness, and memory. There is a description of prakritui, which can be considered as equivalent of personality in modern psychiatry. The Upnishads describe the different states of mind: waking state, dreaming state, deep sleep state, and Samadhi. The psychopathology of the mind was understood in terms of their trigunas and tridosas.
The Bhagavad Gita provides a description of emotions and cognitive deviations. The Bhagwad Gita also gives beautiful description for gaining mastery over the vacillating mind and also describes the consequences of failure to attain such mastery. Essentially, The Gita shows a way out of worldly concerns and teaches that a person can be his/her own master.
History of Psychiatry
The occurrence of mental illnesses has been identified and documented since ancient times. The earliest predecessor of mental hospitals on record was a Greek sanctuary at Epidauros. The fourth century AD witnessed the establishment of institutions solely for the mentally ill in Byzantium and Jerusalem. Thereafter, Christian and Muslim religious orders established places of refuge for the mentally ill and patients were treated by a variety of procedures with a religious coloring. The first psychiatric hospitals were built in the medieval Islamic world from the 8th century. In the early 8th century, the first hospital was built in Baghdad (705 AD) followed by hospitals built at Fes and Cairo. The first major modern mental hospital, the Bethlehem Hospital, was started/opened in 1247 in London. By the late 18th century, the condition of mentally ill patients in these institutions was one of neglect, restraint and abuse with poor clothing, unhygienic conditions, poor nutrition, restricted movements due to chaining of hands, feet and lack of stimulation, largely contributed to by scarcity of funds, lack of interest among the ruling aristocracy and over-crowding of mental hospitals.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Pinel revolutionized care of the mentally ill by propagating a humane approach to care. Mental health started changing then, and this is fairly close to the modern approach we see today. Around the same time the York retreat was established by William Tuke to provide a kind and tolerant approach towards the mentally ill. Dorothea Dix proposed setting up of State run hospitals for treatment of the mentally ill based upon Pinel’s moral approach. Mid 1950s saw emergence of two major forces which influenced the evolution of modern psychiatry as specific drugs like chlorpromazine were discovered for treatment of mental illnesses; the second being the antipsychiatry movement led by the likes of Goffman, Szaz and others, which along with the economic recession were motivating factors for deinstitutionalization of mentally ill persons and the evolution of the concepts of community psychiatry.
Modern Mental Health
Who better to learn from about psychology today, than Psychology Today!
As the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self.
Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment.
Sixteenth-century English phrases such as “losing one’s mind,” “going out of one’s mind,” and “not being oneself” captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.
So fundamentally what ancient India had documented, proven, treated and maybe even cured – the modern world is just rediscovering. The methods of the ancients are highly valuable and worth learning; yet the modern methods include a variety of testing and validation techniques that were not possible in ancient times – for example using a web based software like this one.
I’m of course fascinated with how much of the Vedas we’re re-discovering. It makes me feel that today’s Human Civilization is nothing but a child race – with powerful toys – but little real wisdom. I am humbled to look upon the Indian Vedas, Upanishads and other ancient texts as my guide to the ways of the truly wise.
As for mental health – I don’t imply that everyone is a nutcase; far from it I feel that knowing the depth of the mind and the powers … MYSTERIES of the mind can help us evolve into better humans.