African and Eastern psychologies

Psychology: an introduction (Oxford Southern Africa) - Leslie Swartz 2011

African and Eastern psychologies

Suntosh R. Pillay

This part consists of one chapter that offers a brief introduction to the broad fields of critical and cultural psychology, focusing on African and Eastern psychologies. African psychology refers to an international and pan-African movement that unpacks the experiences of black people, taking into account how historical injustices such as slavery and racism have impacted on the psychological well-being of black people. Eastern psychology refers to belief systems that arise out of Asia and the Middle East. Both African and Eastern psychologies are forms of indigenous psychologies, which means they have been developed within the geographical, social and cultural context in which they will be applied, and are thus not a foreign Western import. This section introduces some core ideas in African psychology, using specific examples from Zulu culture in South Africa, and to Eastern psychology, broadly covering Hindu and Buddhist knowledge systems.

These psychological systems have been historically marginalised in textbooks and training. However, in understanding worldviews different from one’s own personal cultural lens, this section argues that we need to develop a holistic psychology. This means incorporating people’s religious and cultural beliefs into psychological theories and practices, because these beliefs impact on how people make meaning in their lives. Psychology can only hope to understand people if we first understand the histories, philosophies, rituals and practices that colour people’s views of the world.

Suntosh R. Pillay & Nandisa Tushini


After studying this chapter you should be able to:

•explain why we need indigenous psychologies

•appreciate the need for both an African and an Eastern psychology

•understand the African perspective to psychology and explain why psychology needs to be more African in an African context

•understand the Eastern perspective to psychology and the specific worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism

•understand the basic tenets of the African and Eastern worldviews, and be able to explain similarities and differences

•explain how a person of African or Eastern origin might understand emotional distress or mental health problems, and how this differs from mainstream views

•apply the ideas in this chapter to practical applications of psychology in society.


Shanti is a student in a first-year psychology class. She has grown up believing that this life is just one of many lives she will live, and that her soul has been reincarnated many times before this. She flips through her psychology textbooks and notices that most personality theories assume that we only live once and seem only to start at childhood, not the previous life. She finds this odd, considering there are over 500 million Hindus in the world who believe in rebirth, not to mention the millions of Buddhists who believe the same! Her friend, Zolile, is also a bit confused. He’s been going through a rough time in his first semester because of personal and family problems. He flips through his textbooks, thinking that the sections on mental health will offer him some solutions. He’s surprised to find out that the main style of helping people doesn’t include family or community involvement, doesn’t acknowledge certain rituals that might help, and doesn’t even talk about appeasing the ancestors! Both of them are also confused by the absence of words that are commonly used in their cultures, such as karma in Hinduism and ubuntu in African cultures. They wonder if seeing a psychologist would be at all beneficial to someone in either of their cultures. Would the psychologist understand their people or their beliefs, and if not, what help could he/she really provide?


Most students when asked why they chose to do a module in psychology, would answer by stating their desire either to help people, or to understand them. This is a large part of what psychology tries to do. But there are many problems, even injustices, in how the field has gone about this.

There is such diversity in the world that it is rather unfortunate that the discipline of psychology has relied almost exclusively on theories and explanations developed in North America and Europe to understand and help human beings. Centuries of colonialism and cultural imperialism are partly to blame. This is because scientific ideas were valued if they originated in the so-called first world, the West and North, and ignored or undervalued if they originated in the East and South.

As a result, the indigenous psychologies of Africa and Asia are largely absent from our textbooks and classrooms, which still echo the ideas of Freud, Pavlov and Skinner. However, long before these grandfathers of modern day Western psychology told us about ourselves, the power of our thoughts, behaviour and feelings was well known by tribal villages in Africa, meditative yogis of India, and the monks and lamas of Tibet, among others, who had ancient, elaborate theories of mind and behaviour that served both philosophical and pragmatic purposes. An example of this is lucid dreaming, where you are aware you are dreaming and can control what happens in your dream. This was dismissed as nonsense by Western psychologists until LaBerge (1985), a Stanford University researcher, showed evidence of lucid dreaming through his experiments.

Apartheid in South Africa allowed this cultural imperialism to continue, and many psychologists perpetuated bad science, unethical practice, and ineffective assessment and treatment plans on oppressed people whose worldviews were completely different from the foreign theories of personality, motivation, health and illness developed in a foreign context (Nicholas & Cooper, 1993; Holdstock, 1979, 1981). To remedy this, a revival is currently taking place in psychological science where ancient forms of knowledge are now being integrated into universities and practices.

Some South African psychologists are writing about the value of African, Eastern and other indigenous ways of seeing the world (Edwards, Hlongwane, Thwala & Robinson, 2011; Kruger, Lifschitz & Baloyi, 2007; Laher, 2014; Mkhize, 2004), and we are beginning to learn from the hidden wisdom of sangomas, sanyassis, monks and energy healers. This is part of developments in the broad fields of critical psychology, which tries to expose ideological and cultural biases in knowledge (Hook, 2004), or cultural psychology that embraces more diverse forms of knowledge, including the infusion of religious concepts (Tarakeshwar, Stanton & Pargament, 2003).

By understanding worldviews different from our own personal cultural lenses, we may appreciate better the diversity, differences and commonalities in South Africa’s various groups of people. As suggested above, we need to develop a holistic psychology; however, this cannot develop in isolation from people’s religious and cultural beliefs, because these impact on their views of themselves, others, the world, and the meaning of health and illness, and how their problems ought to be properly solved.

Edwards (2014, p. 526) makes the case for a holistic psychology in South Africa, reminding us of the following:

The great wisdom traditions taught that all is one, one is all; with everything interrelated in an undivided universe. The healing professions such as psychiatry, psychology and social work still typically begin with the assumption of a human being as an integrated bio-psycho-socio-cultural-spiritual-ecological unity. For millennia the perennial philosophy of the great major wisdom and/or spiritual traditions, including ancestor reverence, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam, recognised a holistic form of psychology that included different levels of consciousness, from subconscious to self-conscious and beyond.


Figure 28.1 Religions of the world

’African psychology’ is an umbrella term for an international and pan-African movement that focuses on the experiences of black people, taking into account historical injustices. ’Eastern psychology’ usually refers to belief systems that arise out of Asia and the Far East. Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism are most common in China, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia and Nepal; Hinduism and Jainism are most common in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; Islam is common in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and predominant in the Far East, which includes Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Africa and the East are not homogenous geographical areas with clearly defined cultural groups, but are rich in diversity and have stark differences, inconsistencies and paradoxes among them.

There is no neat, single type of African or Eastern psychology, and neither are people from Africa and the East easily described in such a short chapter. It is hoped that interested students will engage with these subjects in more detail by reading the suggested texts.


Source: Steve Edwards, PhD, Emeritus Professor, University of Zululand

At the very least, this question requires both conceptual and pragmatic answers. Conceptually we need to define terms because definitions have theoretical and practical implications. The original meaning of the Greek term ’psychology’ implies the study and use (logos) of breath, energy, consciousness, soul or spirit (psyche) of life that leaves a person at death and continues in some other form. This definition recognises a universal, perennial, holistic, psychological form that has existed for many centuries, certainly long before such people as William James and Wilhelm Wundt established scientific laboratories in America and Europe just over a hundred years ago.

The plural ’psychologies’ recognises differential psychological forms. These include indigenous, cultural, folk, traditional and local psychologies as well as other contemporary proliferations and their applications, as found in this textbook. Thus, a conceptual answer is that we need indigenous psychologies because they provide the source and context for so-called modern scientific psychology.

Practically, ’modern scientific psychology’, although globally established, is itself an indigenous psychology since it has been developed in specific American and European contexts. For example, cognitive-behavioural therapy is particularly effective with specific disorders prevalent in economically developed countries. However, when considered within the total international context, these applications remain supported by medical aid schemes as band-aid quick fixes. More comprehensive, equitable and effective applications are needed globally and locally.

People in less economically developed countries, especially in rural regions in Africa and Asia which lack in modern health care, make effective use of alternative and complementary health care. This includes the practise of indigenous psychologies, typically by consulting indigenous healers in local community contexts. Yet even in wealthier countries, where modern healthcare is readily available, there has been a trend towards holistic, alternative and complementary health care approaches. Thus, a pragmatic answer is that indigenous psychologies are needed to complement other approaches throughout planet Earth.


•A major goal of psychology is to understand and help people.

•In a diverse global world, it is unfortunate that, due to centuries of colonialism and cultural imperialism, mainstream psychology still relies on theories and explanations developed in North America and Europe.

•As a result, indigenous psychologies of Africa and Asia are under-valued.

•In apartheid South Africa, oppressed people were subjected to assessment and treatment which did not reflect their worldview.

•As part of developments in critical psychology, ancient forms of knowledge are now being integrated into universities and psychological practices.

•There is a need to develop a holistic psychology which caters for people’s diverse religious and cultural beliefs.

•African psychology focuses on the experiences of black people; Eastern psychology refers to belief systems that arise out of Asia and the Middle East. Both systems accommodate the great diversity in these areas.

Introduction to African psychology

Zolile is 18 years old and a first-year student. After only a few months of university, he has been experiencing what he recognises as bad spirits. He often does not sleep well at night because the spirits ’press him down’ (uyacinde-zeleka). In the mornings he is tired and cannot concentrate well in his classes. He also feels uneasy most of the time, and is constantly aware that there are neighbours in his community who are not happy about his success, and have reason to harm him. His mother has advised him to wait until the end of the term so that she can mix some herbs for him to bathe in. She is aware of the situation, and since they have been recently bereaved, they have to wait until the right time to have a cleansing ceremony that will get rid of these symptoms.

This scenario is one of many that face psychologists working in the African context. With the diaspora of African people, there have also been difficulties faced by mental health practitioners in Australia, Europe and other parts of the world. This is because of African immigrants in the diaspora who suffer from mental health problems but are unsatisfied by current psychological interventions that ignore their social, cultural and spiritual worldviews. African psychology has therefore been a response to many difficulties that are faced within research, intervention and understanding of the spiritual bases of African problems. It is a growing paradigm in psychology that is seeking theoretical, clinical and critical relevance. Although African psychology is still in the process of freeing itself from the colonial shackles of intellectual imperialism and cultural oppression, its goal is to be relevant not only for the African person in Africa, but a psychology that can adapt to globalisation and acculturation and the fluid experiences of African people in the global village.

African psychology, or Afrocentricism, is first and foremost informed by the lived experiences of African people in Africa, as well as the world (Magwaza, 2013; Mkhize, 2004; Motsemme, 2003, Nsamenang, 1999). Here, ’African’ refers to people who identify as being of African origin or descent. Although there is currently no uniform definition of African psychology, the discipline began as an exploration of how the historical conditions of slavery and racism led to a certain type of psyche of Africans living in the US, and how this psyche can be understood.

However, Nwoye (2014) suggests that African psychology can go beyond the historical nature of African psyches to study the current issues pertaining to African mentalities. He further states that African psychology must incorporate the ’systematic and informed study of the complexities of human mental life, culture and experience in the pre- and post-colonial African world’ (Nwoye, 2014, p. 57). The aim is to identify and to understand those important rituals, theories and techniques that are so salient in African indigenous communities, and study the effect of these on the psyche of African people.

Asante (1988, p. 45) asserted that ’Afrocentricity questions your approach to every conceivable human enterprise. It questions the approach you make to reading, writing, jogging, running, eating, keeping healthy, seeing, studying, loving, struggling, and working’. Psychology is a changing field, and as the changes occur, there is a need to incorporate multiple worldviews in understanding the behaviour of human beings. Mazama (2001, p. 388) states:

The Afrocentric idea rests on the assertion of the primacy of the African experience for African people. Its aim is to give us our African, victorious consciousness back. In the process, it also means viewing the European voice as just one among many and not necessarily the wisest one.

In order to understand African psychology, we have to understand African cultural worldviews. In the other chapters of this book, most of the theory, philosophy and concepts used to understand the world are based on Western principles. In this chapter, we attempt to see the world differently by imagining that the person we are trying to understand is specifically a black African adult or child. How can psychology be made relevant here?

The Afrocentric worldview

African traditional thought has much to say about the lived experiences of the people in all aspects of their lives. This includes their personality, their drives, their thoughts, their psyche, spirituality, values, morals and relationships. It is the business of African traditional thought systems to explain behaviour and thereafter help people change those behaviours that do not contribute to their highest values and morals. The morals and values refer to becoming umuntu, that is, becoming a person or, in traditional psychological words, the development of personality (although personality in its individualistic form is not the only facet to which we refer). In this process, specific values must be actualised, and this can take a lifetime. As a result, illness, disharmony and/or disequilibrium are all spaces where the process of becoming umuntu is being disturbed and healing is sought for such disturbances.

African societies generally conceptualise life in an interdependent manner and all aspects of life are impacted by the spiritual world (Bojuwoye, 2005; Graham, 1999; Holdstock, 2000; Mkhize, 2004). Interventions that seek to assist people of African descent need to be cognisant of the nature of the worldview of the people that they seek to assist.

An African worldview has God as the source, energy and strength. If we were to illustrate this worldview using a flower, its roots would be its spiritual nature and the soil the balance and harmony that strengthen the roots and hold it firm. The stem would represent the rituals and ceremonies often practised by most African people — the stability of the worldview. The petals would represent the beauty that we eventually see in an ideal community, where all the different tenets, or building blocks, come together. The basic building blocks of the African worldview, and therefore the building blocks of an African psychology, include the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings; the spiritual nature of human beings; the communal self; the validity of affective knowledge; the oneness of mind, body and spirit; and the value of interpersonal relationships. Noting and understanding the interaction of these factors help us to formulate our understanding of health, illness and treatment for African people suffering from psychological distress. These tenets are defined below.

The interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings

According to Graham (1999), there is great importance given by African people to the relationship between living, non-living and other elements of the universe: people, animals and inanimate objects. These are all dependent on each other within a specific hierarchy of beings (Mkhize, 2004). According to Wessels and Monteiro (2006), in rural areas, people attribute events in the visible world to events in the invisible world of the ancestors.

Wessels and Monteiro (2006) also say that, having a spiritual cosmology, rural people often regard spiritual stresses as primary even though their trauma narrative offers little insight into the spiritual nature of the problem. For example, often when greeted they respond with ’All is well, except a little flu’. One may think that the ’flu’ speaks of a physical ailment within the individual, whereas it may actually refer to some kind of conflict within the family, the cause of which often is the result of bewitchment. Thus, many of the ailments, whether physical, emotional or even psychological, are believed to be primarily spiritual. Within this view, Graham (1999) believes that the relationships in which everything is interconnected provide individuals with a sense of purpose and connection with their families and community. Aspects of personality, such as self-esteem and social competence, are then positively developed through harmonious social relationships.

The spiritual nature of human beings

Many authors (Bojuwoye & Edwards, 2011; Dei, 1994; Edwards, 2011; Mkhize, 2004; Nwoye, 2005; Phillips, 1990; Schiele, 1990, 1996) all agree that a critical tenet of African cosmology and psychology is the spiritual nature of human beings. This applies to the make-up of personality, motivation, lived experiences and behaviour. These are all propelled by the spiritual world which is active in the life of the person and family. Rituals to appease the spiritual world and petitions to the spiritual realm are all a natural part of life; in addition, the veneration of ancestors in the spiritual world is of great importance. According to Dei (2002, p. 341), to be spiritual involves acknowledging ’the power of the inner will to know and understand the self and to be able to interact with the outer world and the collective’, while being non-spiritual, in contrast, is the ’failure to show individual humility and to work with the knowledge that comes from knowing the self and inner spirit’. In African terms, this is a failure to act in ubuntu.

It therefore makes sense that when there is illness or disharmony of any kind, the individual will express this as having come via his/her spirit. Zolile’s experience, for example, of spirits pressing him down when he sleeps is a symptom not only of the physical attribute of insomnia, but of distress in the spiritual realm. Although he may relate this as a dream that he was having, it is dealt with as if it was reality, and physical washings are then carried out to cleanse him on a spiritual level. Furthermore, the cleansing ritual recognises and represents the fact that Zolile is still in a spiritually vulnerable space because of his recent bereavement. Since this ’dark cloud’ is hovering over him, it is expected that both spiritual as well as physical symptoms will manifest.

The communal self

According to Nwoye (2006), the idea of the communal self is used to refer to the relational (or dialogical) and inclusive character of the African self. The notion common in African communities is the self as a participant in the lives of others. This places emphasis on the phenomenon of social solidarity or mutual dependence of selves, including the living and the dead (the ancestors). It can be said that this idea is distinct from the idea of interconnection in that this is the basis upon which an African personality can be understood. Whereas interconnection is a philosophical understanding of why things are as they are, the idea of the communal self gives us the understanding of the behavioural patterns of individuals.

This implies that part of the centre of gravity of the African self is a dialectic connecting him/her and members of his/her community. If one has been cast away from the community, part of the self is no longer there (Nwoye, 2006). This notion of collective identity focuses on human similarities and commonalities, over individual differences, thus emphasising collective responsibility when living in community. The axiom ’umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ has been cited many times to illustrate this idea. Loosely translated, this is an isiZulu saying that means ’a person is a person through other people’, or ’I am because you are, and since you are, therefore I am’. This saying illustrates one’s responsibility towards others, and the community’s responsibility towards the individual.

This valuing of one’s space in the community brings to the individual a consciousness of others, and a sense of connection and mutual participation in each other’s lives. Total separation and independence from one’s family home or community are not valued, as is common in Western cultures. Many Western developmental theories see the purpose of a person’s life stages as gradually achieving independence from one’s family and moving towards self-reliance.

The validity of affective knowledge

African ways of knowing are cognisant of the fact that personal subjectivity and emotionality must be legitimised (Dei, 2002; Schiele, 1990). As such, although humans are rational beings, with the ability to think rationally and to make objective, mechanistic and scientifically sound decisions, African psychology takes a position that this is a limited view. Owing to the interdependence of all things, the subject (e.g. the scientist, psychologist or person) is never truly separate and autonomous from their object of knowledge (the topic being researched, understood or theorised).

Instead, Schiele (1990) believes that human behaviour is influenced by a multitude of positive and negative experiences resulting from social interactions. Therefore, our emotions (affective experiences) can drive our behaviour resulting in specific decisions, actions and more feelings. Knowledge, therefore, is always affected by the knower’s values, beliefs, ways of making meaning and emotional states. Consequently, affective decision making and knowledge are incorporated as an integral learning component that affects the way we experience and understand the world and generate knowledge.

Traditional African thought considers that emotional states affect one’s whole outlook to life and living. An emotional state (feeling sad, depressed, happy, jealous, etc.) can easily be used as a measure of the wellness of the person, family and community. In fact, Schiele (1990) contends that the only way for one to directly experience the self is through affect. This way of thinking contradicts the dichotomous ways in which the West sees the world. The subjectivity/objectivity, rationality/irrationality splits are challenged. Instead, any level of objectivity or rationality is offset by a means of knowing through affect (Schiele, 1990). When intimately connected to spirituality, affective knowledge becomes an important source of knowing (Dei, 2002).

The oneness of mind, body and spirit

The idea that the mind, body and spirit are separate entities is unheard of in an African understanding of life. Any division of the mind, body and spirit indicates a limited view of people, because each is given equal value and is believed to be interrelated in African psychology (Graham, 1999). African people are careful not to separate these aspects of self because they believe that this may cause neglect of some aspects, such as the spiritual self.

Looking at Zolile, for example, if we only focus on his lack of concentration at lectures, we may miss other aspects. According to an African perspective, Zolile’s mind is probably sidetracked by the death of his father. His body is also not coping. To help him, a cleansing ritual must be performed because his problems may be linked to what Ngubane (1976) describes as pollution. Ngubane (1976, p. 274) explains pollution as umnyama, which means ’darkness of the night’ or a ’dark cloud’ hovering over a person. She says that darkness is symbolically seen as representing death. Pollution for Zulu people can be seen as a marginal state believed to exist between life and death. It is conceptualised as a mystical force, which diminishes resistance to disease, creates conditions of misfortunes, disagreeableness and repulsiveness, showing disequilibrium among the family or community (Ngubane, 1976).

Considering the above, the promotion of optimal health must include all aspects of the self, that is, the mind, body and spirit. All these aspects must be at harmony and balance, and many rituals are performed to ensure this.

The value of interpersonal relationships

Interpersonal relationships are not only valued, but enhanced through numerous rituals and ceremonies in many African communities. There is pre-eminent value in enhancing relationships and maintaining them. One has only to look at the efforts which African people will make to emphasise success, attend functions that are far away, have extravagant funerals, have prolonged marriage ceremonies etc. All this is done to sustain relationships within the community. The idea is that when interpersonal relationships are maintained in a community, the end result is the preservation of that community (Schiele, 1990). According to Phillips (1990), the maintenance of harmony, balance and equilibrium are the focus of African perspectives. As such, the inclusive nature of rituals and ceremonies moves people towards harmony with each other and the universe. This provides fertile ground for the development and success of the people within the community.


•African psychology has developed in response to difficulties (based in slavery and racism) faced by people of the African diaspora; it is now aimed both at these people and the African person in Africa.

•African psychology needs to adapt to globalisation and acculturation while also understanding the important rituals, theories and techniques salient in African indigenous communities.

•An Afrocentric approach is needed in order to understand African cultural worldviews while focusing on the primacy of the African experience for African people.

•African traditional thought informs the lived experiences of African people in all aspects of their lives and aims to ensure moral behaviour (becoming umuntu).

•Illness, disharmony and/or disequilibrium indicate that the process of becoming umuntu is being disturbed; healing is sought for such disturbances.

•African societies conceptualise life in an interdependent manner; all aspects of life are impacted by the spiritual world.

•In an African worldview, God is the source, energy and strength; rituals enable stability and harmony.

•There are a number of building blocks to the African worldview:

”The interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings (all living, non-living and other elements of the universe are dependent on each other within a specific hierarchy of beings)

”The spiritual nature of human beings (this is a critical tenet of African cosmology and psychology)

”The communal self (this is the relational — or dialogical — and inclusive character of the African self which is connected in a dialectic with members of the community)

”The validity of affective knowledge (African psychology goes beyond the rational to incorporate personal subjectivity and emotionality)

”The oneness of mind, body and spirit (these are interrelated and of equal value in African psychology; they must be kept in harmony and balance through rituals)

”The value of interpersonal relationships (these are enhanced and maintained through rituals and ceremonies).

A critical look at ubuntu

Ubuntu, according to Kamwangamalu (1999), is an Nguni term which translates as ’personhood and humanness’. He goes on to say that not only is this concept found in many African languages (Kikuya and Kimeru in Kenya; kiSukuma and kiHaya in Tanzania; shiTsonga and shiTswa in Mozambique; Bobangi, kiKongo and giKwese in the Democratic Republic of Congo), it is also a concept that defines the ideal way of life for Africans, and is an integral part of African language and culture (Kamwangamalu, 1999).

A failure to treat all persons with dignity, respect and regard is a failure at being umuntu (a person). As such, many authors regard ubuntu to be a philosophy of life that is one’s testimony to being human, reflecting one’s fundamental need to show oneself as qualifying to be human. An example of this is showing such characteristics as an ability to lead in issues pertaining to African heritage, culture, customs, beliefs, value systems and extended family structures and beliefs. Authoring this chapter is a statement of ubuntu, as is a good disposition towards others, and giving of alms.

However, a common critique of ubuntu is that if African people have such a good philosophy on life and living, then why is Africa faced with so many social ills? One only has to Google ’Africa’ and the first results relate to violence. In South Africa, there were 46 253 reported rapes and 17 068 reported murders in 2013/4 (Africa Check, 2014). Unethical leadership also plagues the post-1994 government, with R700 billion lost to corruption in 20 years (SAPA, 2015). The 2015 State of the Nation address was brought to a halt by opposition parties asking the president to pay back money ’owed’ by himself to the country for the expenses incurred by his extravagant Nkandla home.

In Nigeria, 14-year-old boys and young girls are forcibly involved in the war between the government and Boko Haram. These children are either kept as hostages, or used as soldiers for either party. Other examples include terrorism that continues in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the persecution of sexual minorities in Uganda, racism that continues in South Africa, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor throughout the continent, and the ever-shrinking economy of Zimbabwe which leaves its citizens impoverished, desperate and demoralised.

In light of the above, one may say that this idealised concept is a romanticism of both African psychology and ubuntu itself. However, it is well worth noting that a philosophy should not be measured only by its weaknesses, but by its strengths. Our aim is to maximise on the potential of the philosophy to help Africans respond to African problems using a philosophy that best resonates with them.

Let us consider nepotism as an example. Nepotism in business or politics is patronage or favouritism shown on the basis of family relationships. Many African leaders have been accused of nepotism. What would influence one’s decision to favour a friend or family member? Assuming that the individual in question uses ubuntu as the yardstick that measures morality, he/she is obliged to work hard enough to be able to favour family members and friends in positions that will eventually help that family or community financially. Using this communitarian ethic, one could controversially argue that this is the moral thing to do, notwithstanding the criminal nature of the act according to the law. In fact this speaks to all the aspects of being a truly moral person, for whom the status of being umuntu can be bestowed.

African psychology — reflection

To conclude this section, consider Mazama’s (2001, p. 388) plea to African scholars:

The challenge is monumental: Our liberation and Afrocentricity contends and rests upon our ability to systematically displace European ways of thinking, being, feeling, and so forth and consciously replace them with ways that are germane to our own African cultural experience.

New initiatives, such as the creation of the Forum for African Psychology (FAP), a division of the Psychological Society of South Africa (PsySSA), are helping advance this paradigm (Magwaza, 2013). Additionally, the first Pan-African Psychology Union (PAPU) workshop was held in Accra, Ghana on 26—27 April 2013. It was hosted by the Ghanian Psychological Association, the University of Ghana and the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS). Participants included presidents and representatives of psychology associations in Cameroon, Ghana, Egypt, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa. The International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS) was represented by two South African psychologists — former Robben Island prisoner and current IUPsyS president, Professor Saths Cooper, and Secretary-General Ann Watts. The speakers urged the mobilisation of African capacities, knowledge, voices and wisdom to inform human development not just on the continent, but also globally. How can you, a university student who is an emerging researcher, practitioner or social scientist, also take up this challenge?


Ubuntu represents personhood and humanness; it is an integral part of African language and culture.

•All persons should be treated with dignity, respect and regard.

Ubuntu seems to have broken down in many parts of Africa; the concept seems to be idealised and romanticised.

•The philosophy needs to be maximised to help Africans respond to African problems in a way which resonates with them.

•New initiatives are helping to advance African psychology with the aim of mobilising African capacities, knowledge, voices and wisdom globally.

Introduction to Eastern psychologies

What we call ’normal’ in psychology is really a psychopathology of the average, so undramatic and so widely spread that we don’t even notice it.

Maslow (1968, p. 21)

The Hindu worldview

Hinduism is an ancient Indian philosophy which lays claim to being the oldest living religion. This section is based largely on the works of Compton (2012), Dass (2004), Knott (1998), Prabhupada and Dasi (1999) and Prabhupada (1972) and will show that Hinduism is also an elaborate psychological system, aimed at helping people achieve greater self-discipline and self-awareness.

Originally called Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way, its scriptures are collectively known as the Vedas and were passed down orally for thousands of years before being written in the Sanskrit language from about 1400 BCE (Rosen, 2002). The world, according to Hinduism, has gone through four cycles, or yugas. Satya Yuga (Golden Age of truth) emphasised meditation; Treta Yuga (Silver Age) emphasised sacrifices; Dvapara Yuga (Bronze Age), emphasised worship of deities; and the present fourth and final age, the Kali Yuga (Iron Age of darkness), emphasises the chanting of holy names. This age is described as an epoch of moral and social decay, in which righteousness, truth, happiness, peace, wisdom and spirituality will be at an all-time low. What does this mean for the psychology of our humanity?

On the one hand, the picture is rather bleak. Depression, anxiety, materialism, ignorance, environmental destruction, wars and other negativities will permeate our existence and deepen our malaise. On the other hand, it seems obvious that the incentives to escape this world once and for all are many. This creates a kind of spiritual optimism, because Hindus believe that the world as we perceive it is an illusion, or maya. The goal of life is to escape this maya and to liberate oneself and move onto the next level of existence. There are methods for this which are outlined in the Vedas, and specifically in a story called the Mahabharatta. Inside this epic is a shorter dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior, and Krishna, his friend (who is actually God in disguise, an avatar). This conversation is called the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Divine, and succinctly summarises Hindu philosophy and its major concepts (Prabhupada, 1972).

The setting for the dialogue is a battlefield, with both sides ready to attack. Here, Arjuna is in a state of despair, conflicted about what to do because his loved ones are on both sides of the combat. Win or lose, he will have harmed people he cares for. If he avoids the war and spares himself the trauma and guilt of killing his loved ones, he will have to endure the shame and indignity of abandoning his duties. Krishna and Arjuna then have an intense, quite psychotherapeutic conversational encounter, wherein Krishna advises Arjuna on how to approach this dilemma. Bhatia, Madabushi, Kolli, Bhatia and Madaan (2013, p. 316) comment that ’Arjuna’s dilemma is an allegory of our lives where our internal conflicts related to positive and negative dynamisms are fought on the battlefield of our minds’. The key concepts covered in the Gita (atman, reincarnation, karma, maya, yoga, dharma and moksha) are summarised below.


Krishna’s major point is that death is not the end of life. The soul, or atman, is an indestructible life force that resides inside the body. The body is animated and given life by the soul, which enters the body at conception and leaves the body at death. People therefore exist beyond their physical bodies. The soul, being indestructible, is like energy — neither created nor destroyed, only transferred. The soul has none of the material qualities of the body, such as a sex or species, so this transformation involves the reincarnation of a soul into a new form of existence, which could be another human body, an animal, a plant or even a demi-god.


The theory of reincarnation states that your current existence is part of an ongoing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Your material, physical body may die and perish, but your soul lives on forever, transmigrating into new forms of life. The reason for this is karma.


Figure 28.2 A reincarnation symbol


The theory of karma states that for every single action there is an opposite and equal reaction. This means that no thought, feeling or behaviour that you experience will go unaccounted for in the grand scheme of the universe. If you cheat on a test or examination, you are bound to experience in living form events that compel you to understand why cheating is wrong. If you harm someone else, you will be harmed one day. If you lie to your partner, you will be lied to one day. Karma is your spiritual bank balance, constantly being credited and debited by your every action.


Figure 28.3 Karma

This cosmic justice system ensures universal fairness among all creatures, because you will be equally rewarded and punished for every single good and bad action respectively. But karmic reactions may be not be fulfilled in one lifetime, so you may carry karmic baggage into your next life, though you will not remember it. The soul carries this spiritual baggage, and the soul is only freed from reincarnation once all good and all bad karma is settled. The only way for this to happen is for a person to begin a conscious path of spiritual self-realisation, a process called yoga, and relinquish all types of positive and negative rewards and see life for the façade that is it — maya, a material illusion.


Maya means illusion, and although winning the lottery may seem like a pretty good illusion, and getting cancer may be seem extremely unfair, maya induces us to look at both these experiences similarly — part of the superficial materiality of the world. Our spiritual purpose would be to stop accruing good and bad karma and finally escape this maya. Attachment to maya is the root of suffering and anxiety because it creates desires that can never be fulfilled permanently. Like an intense movie that reels us in and makes us laugh or cry or feel scared, we participate in the movie-watching experience while knowing that it is not really happening. It will end, and we can go back to our ’real life’. However, to avoid being stuck in this unreal movie forever, to end the reincarnation cycle, specific methods are prescribed in the Vedas.


The media and gyms have popularised yoga as secularised body exercises and meditation poses, but yoga is much more than this. Yoga means ’union with God’ (White, 2012). Different personality types may follow different pathways to transcend maya and achieve moksha, spiritual liberation. Krishna elaborates four main yogas in the Gita:

Jnana yoga is for the intellectual types who want to rigorously study the philosophy and nature of existence.

Karma yoga is for the practical types who want to do acts of kind service motivated by compassion.

Raja yoga is for the disciplined types, who want to learn to control their thoughts, body, breathing and sensory desires.

Bhakti yoga focuses on wholeheartedly loving God through devotional practices.

Additionally, the sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are spiritual texts for additional methods to practice yoga (Compton, 2012):

Hatha yoga focuses on strengthening and purifying one’s body though specific postures and exercises.

Mantra yoga focuses on sacred sounds to improve concentration during meditation, such as the OM/ AUM syllable.

Laya yoga focuses on disciplined sitting.

Kundalini yoga focuses on awakening the seven spiritual energy centres throughout the body, called chakras.


Figure 28.4 The OM/AUM symbol

Different people can choose different paths, but they all lead to the same result. Likewise, even across religions, Hindus believe that all religions and genuine spiritual practices, be they Christianity, Islam, Jainism, etc. will all lead to the same place eventually. Hindus value different religious systems as different truths for the same purpose of spiritual liberation.


These yogic pathways to escape maya do not mean becoming a recluse who meditates on the Himalayan hilltops in a saffron robe away from civilisation — though this is certainly an option for the dedicated. One can escape maya while participating in it, but — and here is the key — with an attitude of detachment. This means performing one’s duty, or dharma, but acknowledging that this is all temporary and only one level of one’s existence. Your dharma as a student, an employee, a parent, a citizen and a spiritual seeker should be dutifully fulfilled without becoming attached to the results. Service without attachment is called seva, a term also used to describe genuinely charitable actions. Dharma ensures a larger social and moral order beyond the individual person. It keeps the system balanced.


Finally, once the soul has reincarnated hundreds of thousands of times, accrued and lived out all its karma, and successfully navigated its yogic path, the person reaches a state of total union with God and the soul is freed from rebirth. This moment of transcendence is called moksha, or liberation.


By Alleyn Diesel, PhD (1998) (Formerly of University of KwaZulu-Natal)

Hinduism is the only living religion which practises veneration of divinity in female form. This uniquely women-focused tradition encapsulates in its characteristics and mythology the potential for the empowerment of contemporary women. This is particularly true in the ancient Dravidian Amman (Mother) tradition of south India which appears to have pre-patriarchal roots extending back to the Indus Valley civilisation. These Earth Mother Goddesses are revered as creator and sustainer of the fertility and wellbeing of the earth, animals and humans, manifest in all creation.

Hinduism venerates not only the mild, consort goddesses, partners of male divinities (such as Parvati, Lakshmi, Sarasvati), but also these potent female divinities, independent of male control (Draupadi, Durga). The powerful mythology of these goddesses relates multiple incidents of sexual assault, abuse and false accusations, but these determined, courageous women are eventually vindicated, sometimes only after death, and elevated to divine status. These suffering Mothers therefore understand the pain of their human daughters, offering potentially liberating role models for women.

Highlighting these images of divine motherhood — correcting the imbalance of the traditionally accepted male divinity — can challenge gender injustice, and encourage the promotion of feminine values, such as creativity, nurturing, compassion and reverence for all creation. In our present moral crisis of violence and abuse of fellow humans and the environment, particularly apparent against women and children, this worldview could assist in defining a gentler way for women and men to engage with a new spiritual consciousness, rather than perpetuating the competitive violence, destruction and materialism too often fostered by our consumerist societies.


•Hinduism claims to be the oldest living religion; it is also an elaborate psychological system, aimed at helping people achieve greater self-discipline and self-awareness.

•The Hindu scriptures are known as the Vedas.

•According to Hinduism, the world has gone through four cycles or yugas.

•Hindus believe that the world as we perceive it is an illusion, or maya. The goal of life is to escape this maya and the methods to achieve this are outlined in the Vedas.

•Included in the Vedas is the Mahabharatta which contains the Bhagavad Gita; this summarises Hindu philosophy and its major concepts.

•The key concepts covered in the Gita are as follows:

”Atman (the indestructible life force/soul that resides inside your body; upon physical death this is reincarnated in another physical form)

”Reincarnation (your physical body dies, but your soul lives on in a new life form)

”Karma (a system of cosmic justice: every action you make results in an opposite and equal reaction)

”Maya (the illusions of life; attachment to these is the root of suffering and anxiety; the Vedas tell you how to end the reincarnation cycle)

”Yoga (means ’union with god’; the four main yogas in the Gita are Jnana, Karma, Raja and Bhakti. Other yoga methods are Hatha, Mantra, Laya and Kundalini yogas)

”Dharma (the duty to serve without attachment)

”Moksha (a state of total union with God in which the soul is freed from rebirth)

The buddhist worldview

Buddhism is a moral philosophy/religion based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (566—486 BCE), popularly known as the Buddha, ’the awakened one’. A wealthy prince, he once had all the riches he needed, but was unhappy; he then renounced his wealthy life and lived a pauper’s life but was still unhappy. He came to realise that a middle path of self-control — neither hedonistic nor ascetic — was the path to self-liberation. Buddhism teaches a process for self-enlightenment and awakening to the true nature of reality called nirvana (absolute truth/bliss). Although Hinduism and Buddhism share many similar beliefs, such as karma, maya and reincarnation, there are also stark differences described in more detail elsewhere (Compton, 2012).


Figure 28.5 The Tian Tan Buddha

Buddha’s teachings are collectively called the Pali Canon, written in the Pali language. His liberating insights revealed ’Four Noble Truths’ that are the foundation of Buddhism:

•Life is suffering.

•Desire causes suffering.

•Suffering can end.

•Use the eightfold path to end suffering.

They all highlight dukkha, anxiety or suffering, and explain ways to end it. They are discussed further in the sections below.

The human condition involves suffering

Buddhists contend that nothing is permanent; everything will end, fade, or cease to be. Since death is inevitable, we will lose everything eventually. Physically and psychologically, pain and suffering are inescapable as we experience life, its temporary joys and sorrows, grow old and eventually die.

Suffering is caused by our desire and attachments

Since nothing is permanent — none of our happiness or unhappiness — life is seen as an endless cycle of temporary gains and losses. Attachment to pleasures, aversion to pain and ignorance of the nature of reality, are the three main origins of suffering. As long as we are stuck in this cycle, aimlessly craving our desires, we are suffering, because the world as we perceive it is a material illusion and our cravings can never be permanently satisfied. Desires for wealth, fame, titles, possessions, sex, food, image, identity, etc. keep us clinging to the vicious cycle of submission to material things.

Table 28.1 The eight-fold path of Buddhism

Right understanding

Seeing the world as it really is, not as you believe or desire it to be; this means a deeper perception beyond the material surface. This is like looking at a map and actually understanding what the map is telling you about that area.

Right intent

This is an emotional, heartfelt need, or deep desire to want to embark on the journey of self-realisation

Right speech

This is thoughtful communication by speaking kindly and avoiding all forms of abusive, slanderous, unkind speech towards others.

Right action

This is ethical, non-violent living that does not harm others or wrong others in any way.

Right livelihood

Your job or livelihood should not harm others, either humans or animals, directly or indirectly.

Right effort

This is a focused, determined attitude that enthusiastically propels you forward.

Right mindfulness

This a specific type of heightened awareness, where you intentionally pay attention to yourself, your feelings, thoughts, bodily reactions and environment, and notice more deeply what is going on, inside and outside of you.

Right concentration

An uncluttered, mindful mind that is easily able to go into a deep state of meditation and awareness.

End all desires and attachments to stop suffering

If desires cause suffering, then the simple solution is to stop desiring. If being attached to temporary things causes suffering, live with detachment. This solution means changing our attitudes towards negative and positive experiences, because all emotions and experiences are transient, so we should not over-invest or get too excited or depressed about a particular feeling, thought or event. The mantra for this attitude would be ’It is what it is, for now’. This leads to equanimity: calmness, balance, stability and self-control.

Eight strategies to end suffering

Buddha further recommended ’the noble eight-fold path’ that emphasises ethical living. These are right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration (see Table 28.1). The outcomes of these eight paths should be loving kindness and compassion towards all. In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are twin virtues. A wise person is a compassionate person and vice versa.

Like Hinduism, the path to self-realisation may take many lifetimes of reincarnation, and each re-birth carries the karmic debts and benefits of the previous lives. However, Buddhism differs sharply by stating that we do not have souls that transmigrate after death. Instead, it is consciousness that continues to exist even after the material body dies, and this consciousness and life energy is what gets reincarnated into new forms. An example commonly used in Buddhism is that of a wave in an ocean. Once the wave hits the shore, the wave appears to exist no longer. However, the wave is merely reintegrated back into the vast ocean and eventually reaches the shore again. This process of becoming a wave and reintegrating back into the ocean is analogous to the Buddhist version of rebirth (Compton, 2012).

Dependent origination

A tricky but logical conclusion of Buddhist thinking is that even our ’self’ does not exist and is temporary — there is no ’self’ outside of our perception of it. Buddhists reject the idea of an inner self, soul or mind. Buddhists argue that this false belief in an independent self creates harmful thoughts of ’me’, ’mine’ and ’I’, causing individualistic desires that increase attachments and deepen suffering by leading to greed, power, fame, fortune and other temporary highs and lows that are the origins of dukkha.

To better explain this concept of no-self, take the example of a car. What is it that makes up a car? Is it the wheels? The engine? The radiator? The metal casing? The fuel? It is all of this together, right? When we say ’car’, we are actually referring to the sum total of all these parts, but we never refer to just one part alone as the car. Although each part co-creates the car, no part on its own could ever be a car.

Similarly, our perception of the ’self’ is a temporary network of interconnected parts that could never exist by themselves. ’I’, ’me’, ’self’, ’soul’, and so on are just convenient labels for a temporary arrangement of elements. This is dependent origination. Buddhists call these elements the five skandhas:

form or matter, such as our physical body

sensations or feelings, which arise from our interaction with matter, producing pleasure or pain

perceptions, which allow us to make sense of, recognise and organise information

impulses or mental formations, which trigger actions towards things

consciousness, which is the dynamic interaction of the preceding skandhas that creates the illusion of a stable, permanent self.

There is no separate, independent self outside these five skandhas. All have total interdependence and everything, internal or external, is causally connected in the universe.

A common, cynical criticism of Buddhism is that it seems to negate and diminish the value of a person to nothing. However, this is not the case, as Mosig (2006, p. 45) reminds us:

… it [Buddhism] empowers the individual by erasing the boundaries of separateness that limit the personal ego or self. The person becomes transformed from an isolated and powerless individual struggling against the rest of the world, into an interconnected integral part of the universe. The person’s boundaries dissolve, and the person becomes the universe.

Realising our universal oneness should therefore generate universal compassion and kindness because wisdom is compassion and compassion is wisdom in Buddhism. This becomes a psychological therapy of the everyday variety; it helps alleviate everyday suffering: the pathology of merely being human. This is the reason for the quote by Maslow at the start of this section. Unlike mainstream Western psychotherapy that encourages talking as a means of understanding one’s self, Buddhism argues that reality is inexpressible, and a direct experience of reality is best achieved through non-verbal means, such as meditation. These meditation processes cultivate mindfulness, which is a deep form of awareness and insight into the world around us and the true nature of ourselves. This process of ’fine-tuning’ our perceptual cognitive awareness creates an evolved level of consciousness, which facilitates both spiritual and psychological maturation.

Eastern psychologies — reflection

Eastern psychologies offer us a theory of universal interconnectedness of all beings, and describe people as inherently spiritual in nature. In these aspects, they share similarities with African psychologies. The goal of life in both Hinduism and Buddhism is to progress on pathways of self-discovery. However, the end goals are rather different. For the Hindu, who believes in an eternal soul that will reincarnate until final liberation, the end is a release of their soul to merge within the ultimate spiritual abode of God. For the Buddhist, who rejects the soul and any inner self, the end is a state of blissful awareness of our essential emptiness, in addition to cosmic unification with everything, leading to universal compassion and wisdom.

Eastern philosophy has shown relevance for our contemporary social problems and current psychological practice. For example, mindfulness-based meditation, which has Buddhist roots, has been secularised and become part of mainstream psychotherapy approaches. Davis and Hayes (2011) reviewed the scientific evidence and found numerous benefits to both patients and practitioners who practise mindfulness, including improved empathy, compassion and counselling skills during psychotherapy. Additionally, in a world dominated by technology and the constant expectation that people be available electronically, mindfulness meditation and other ’Eastern escapes’ have become popular mental detox strategies.


•Buddhism is a moral philosophy/religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha).

•Although Hinduism and Buddhism share many similar beliefs, there are also significant differences.

•Buddha’s teachings are collectively called the Pali Canon.

•The ’Four Noble Truths’ are the foundation of Buddhism: Life is suffering (death is inevitable).

”Desire and attachment cause suffering.

”Suffering can end (through giving up our desires and attachments).

”The eightfold path can be used to end suffering (right understanding, right intent, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration).

•Buddhism believes in karma and reincarnation but does not believe in a soul that transmigrates after death. Instead, consciousness continues to exist after the material body dies and it is this that is reincarnated.

•Buddhist thinking implies that there is no ’self’ outside of our perception of it.

•Buddhists reject the idea of an inner self, soul or mind.

•The five skandas of dependent origination are:

”form or matter (our physical body)

”sensations or feelings (arise from our interaction with matter)

”perceptions (allow us to manage information)

”impulses or mental formations (trigger our actions towards things)

”consciousness (the dynamic interaction of the above skandhas that creates the illusion of a stable, permanent self).

•Buddhism has been criticised in that it seems to negate and diminish the value of a person.

•Unlike mainstream Western psychotherapy, Buddhism argues that reality is inexpressible, and a direct experience of reality is best achieved through non-verbal means, such as meditation.

•Eastern psychologies are similar to African psychologies as they offer us a theory of universal interconnectedness of all beings, and describe people as inherently spiritual in nature.

•Hinduism and Buddhism do differ, however, in their end goals.

•Eastern philosophy has shown relevance for contemporary social problems and current psychological practice.

Future directions

Indigenising psychology

Think back to Freud’s view of personality, or Skinner’s view of human behaviour, or Erikson’s life stages, or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Do these theories fit comfortably with the African and Eastern views of life? Do they match up with the types of thoughts and feelings a Hindu or Buddhist or African person may have when faced with emotional problems or when diagnosed with a dreaded disease or after the death of a loved one?

Chances are, when we take into account issues of spirituality, community, cosmic unity, karma, yoga or the other pillars of Eastern and African belief systems, the typical psychological theories we are accustomed to, or the usual expert advice we might see in magazines and TV shows, will not quite resonate anymore. It is no surprise, therefore, that traditional healers are more popular among the majority of South Africans, who prefer consulting someone who empathises with their frame of reference.

Interestingly, the gap between traditional healers and professional psychologists is rather small. In one study, Edwards (2011) found that although healers and psychologists worked quite differently, they were in significant agreement when rank ordering biological, psychological, sociocultural and religious aspects of diagnosis and treatment in the same group of psychiatric patients. These patients even rated traditional healers and psychologists as equally helpful. Similarly, Mkhwanazi (1989) found that empathy, warmth and genuineness (the main qualities in Carl Rogers’ humanistic therapy) were also present in isangoma therapy sessions between diviners and their clients. Kekae-Moletsane (2008) provides an interesting example of successfully using a South African seSotho game (masekitlana) in child psychotherapy.

Psychology, therefore, can only benefit from being as indigenous as possible. In their international analysis of indigenous psychologies, Diale and Fritz (2007) and Moodley and West (2005) agree with Allwood and Berry (2006, p. 266) that they ’are an exciting and creative addition to contemporary psychology’.

Embracing psycho-spiritual approaches

The need for a spiritual psychology is long overdue (Miovic, 2004). For example, Eastern and African traditions both see the person as being made up of different parts, usually physical, cognitive and spiritual, all interacting in an environment made up of rational, visible beings, and unseen, intangible forces. This dynamic communication of mind, body and spirit differs from the Western idea of a mind and body being distinct, separate entities, usually devoid of spirit. When the equilibrium or equanimity is disrupted in Eastern or African systems, especially in the unseen supernatural realm, spiritual illnesses may develop (Laher, 2014).

Although physical and mental illnesses such as epilepsy, bipolar mood disorder or schizophrenia are not denied, African and Eastern traditions recognise an additional category of ’spiritual illnesses’ caused by a disruption in the supernatural environment (Mkhize, 2004). These spiritual illnesses can be categorised as spirit possession, black magic or ill-will (Laher, 2014). These do not replace Western diagnostic categories, but exist in parallel. However, even beyond conceptualisations of illnesses, the field of transpersonal psychology provides an example of modern-day psychology incorporating diverse forms of spirituality and mysticism into its research and practice. Transpersonal psychology explores the spiritual and transcendent aspects of human existence (Wilber, 2000). Earlier psycho-spiritual approaches in modern-day psychology can be seen in the Eastern-oriented work of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1961).

Growing Afro-Eastern connections

Edwards (2014, p. 527) argues that ’psychology may be viewed as a relationship science that connects all the other sciences from biochemistry to mysticism, anthropology to sociology’. This interconnectivity bodes well for both African and Eastern approaches, which also need to connect with each other more strongly, as they have developed rather separately in psychological thought and writings, despite many shared metaphysical and cultural assumptions. For example, Capra (1975) says the essence of the Eastern worldview is the awareness of the unity and mutual inter-relation of all things and events as interdependent and inseparable parts of this cosmic whole, while Markus and Kitayama (1991) argue that the defining feature distinguishing Eastern and Western lifestyles is that the East values interdependence of self in community, while the West values independence of self from community. These are indeed defining features of Afrocentric thinking as well.

The way forward is to start thinking about how the East, West and Africa can co-exist equally, interact meaningfully, and work towards benefitting humanity.


Prof. Augustine Nwoye (University of KwaZulu-Natal), responding to a question about the future of African psychology states the following (Nwoye, 2014, p. 61):

Although, currently, not many students and scholars of psychology in Africa have identified with the urgent call for the Africanisation of psychology, one can still say that the future of African psychology is indeed very bright. The anticipated future directions would be along the lines of continued mapping, elucidation, and consolidation of the field in African universities. … [F]uture directions will go along the lines of producing relevant theories targeted at improving our understanding of human beings as cultural beings. Original and creative researches are also expected, which will aim at generating data to improve the denigrated African image and identity arising from the regrettable caricature propagated in the literatures of colonial psychology and psychiatry in which Africa and its peoples are represented as victims of negation and absence. It is envisaged too that some visionary and forward-looking African universities will soon go beyond the mere exercise of mounting degree courses in African psychology at the undergraduate level to the higher initiative of establishing research chairs and graduate programs in African psychology.


•Traditional Western psychological theories do not seem to fit comfortably with African and Eastern views of life.

•Perhaps as a result, many South Africans prefer to consult with traditional healers, who empathise with their frame of reference.

•Traditional healers and professional psychologists tend to work differently although they may agree on various aspects of diagnosis and treatment.

•It will be useful to indigenise psychology as much as possible.

•The need for a spiritual psychology is long overdue.

•Eastern and African traditions are both concerned with the dynamic communication of mind, body and spirit; this differs from the Western idea of a mind and body being distinct, separate entities, usually devoid of spirit.

•African and Eastern traditions recognise an additional category of ’spiritual illnesses’ caused by a disruption in the supernatural environment.

•African and Eastern approaches also need to connect with each other more strongly, as both value interdependence of self in community.

•In future, we need to consider how the East, West and Africa can co-exist equally, interact meaningfully, and work towards benefitting humanity.


This chapter has argued that psychology in South Africa has been skewed in its development, its teaching and its practice, because it has uncritically imported Western theories of personality, health, illness, motivation, identity and cognition, resulting in an absence of culturally relevant theories. African psychology has been the response, with a rallying call to students, scholars and health professionals to use Afrocentric ideas in their theorising about human beings. Additionally, the worldviews of Asian people have also been marginalised in the literature, resulting in the development of Eastern psychology. Together, both African and Eastern psychology represent a movement towards the indigenisation of psychology and the creation of a more ethical, fair and contextually relevant field of study and practice.


Imageacculturation: the process whereby different cultures meet and are influenced by each other, resulting either in one culture dominating another, or an infusion across both

ImageAfrican psychologies: a body of psychological ideas whose initial focus was on how the historical experiences of Africans in America had affected their psyches, but has now shifted to understanding the psyches of people of African descent all over the world

Imageatman: the Sanskrit term for ’soul’; in Hinduism, the soul is a life force that animates one’s material body and exists even after the death of the body

Imagecolonialism: the process whereby Western nations established their rule in parts of the world away from their home territories by economically, politically and culturally dominating another country

Imagecommunal self: the idea that individuals cannot be understood separately from other people, emphasising human similarities and commonalities rather than individual differences

Imagecritical psychology: a field of study that both critiques modern psychology and attempts to develop new, critical methods of theorising and practising psychology

Imagecultural imperialism: cultural rule over indigenous people by other cultures, which transforms their ideas and institutions to suit those of the ruling culture, and often results in political control and economic dependence

Imagecultural lenses: a way of perceiving and interacting in the world through one’s culture, which is influenced by culturally appropriate norms, thoughts, beliefs and behaviours

Imagecultural psychology: a branch of psychology that studies the relationship between the psyche and cultural and social practices

Imagedependent origination: a Buddhist law stating that everything in this universe is inter-related and interdependent, and that nothing originates independently of related cause and effects

Imagedharma: a complex, Sanskrit term which generally refers to one’s duty to fulfil religious, social and moral obligations

Imagedialectic: in African psychology, the internal tension or conflict and interaction of different aspects of the self that are felt in the internal world of the individual, causing him/her to act in accordance to what is best for the family and/or community

Imagedialogical: in African psychology, the relational nature of communication between the self and others or two separate entities

Imagedukkha: a Sanskrit term used in Buddhism to refer to the anxiety and suffering caused by one’s attachment to things that are not real, such as a permanent self or material belongings

ImageEastern psychologies: an umbrella term to refer to a range of religious, philosophical, social, cultural and psycho-spiritual belief systems that arise from eastern parts of the world, mainly the Asian continent; includes Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism

Imageglobalisation: the process of international integration and interdependence between different peoples, regions and countries in the world as social, cultural and economic relationships are stretching worldwide

Imageindependent self: a sense of self contained within an individual’s beliefs, will and behaviour that does not affect the whole family, and is separate from that of the community

Imageindigenous psychologies: psychological theories and practices that have been developed within the geographical, social and cultural context in which they will be applied

Imageintellectual imperialism: a process whereby one set of ideas dominates over other sets of ideas, leading to oppressive knowledge production

Imageinterdependent self/communal self: a sense of being that enhances one’s understanding of self as dependent on others, and as such is considered as one with others and the community

Imagekarma: a Sanskrit term in Hinduism and Buddhism that refers to the moral and spiritual principle of cause and effect, whereby every good or bad action has an equal, consequent effect back to the person, as a universal cosmic reward and justice system

Imagelucid dreaming: being aware within a dream that you are dreaming

Imagemaya: a Sanskrit term that means ’illusion’; in Hinduism, the illusory sensory experience of the material world that appears real but is merely obscuring the true spiritual nature of reality which one must aspire to see clearly

Imagemoksha: a Sanskrit term in Hinduism that refers to liberation from the endless cycles of death and rebirth in the material world, and is the ultimate goal of a Hindu person’s life

Imagenirvana: a Sanskrit term used in Buddhism and Hinduism to refer to a state of mind that has transcended all illusory material conditions and attained peace, bliss and enlightenment

Imagepan-African: the idea that African people, both in Africa and in the diaspora, share a history and a common destiny, and as such ought to work towards the African agenda

Imagepost-colonial: the period after a colonising country formally ends its domination of a country

Imagereincarnation: the theory of rebirth; in Hinduism, the movement of the soul from one material body into another, with the type of body and consequent quality of life depending on one’s karma; in Buddhism, the continuation of consciousness or life energy into new forms, because Buddhists believe in a soul inside one’s body

Imageskandhas: a Sanskrit term used in Buddhism to refer to the aggregates of human experience, or the five components that make up the human being: matter/material forms, sensation/feelings, perceptions, impulses/mental formations, and consciousness

Imagesubjectivity: personal feelings, emotions and thoughts. It is contrasted with objectivity that tries to erase or limit a person’s affective, personal perspective. Western psychology values objectivity, while African and Eastern psychologies value both objective and subjective approaches.

Imageubuntu: the indigenous African idea of growing into wholeness through relationships, compassion, hospitality and generosity, and treating all human beings with respect and dignity

ImageVedas: the collective term for the large volumes of Hindu scriptures; a concept is Vedic if it originates from the Vedas

ImageWestern psychologies: Euro-American understandings of human behaviour, research and practice that inform most psychological theory, also known as traditional psychology

Imageworldview: a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world which often depends on culture and/or religious beliefs

Imageyoga: a Sanskrit term that means ’union with God’

Imageyugas: a Sanskrit term that refers to an era or period of time


Multiple choice questions

1.Why is it possible to learn about African and Eastern psychologies in one chapter?

a)They have both been marginalised by Western psychology.

b)They are both indigenous psychologies missing in most psychology textbooks in South Africa.

c)They both embrace spiritual aspects of life.

d)All of the above are correct.

2.Which of the following factors have led to a lack of teaching of indigenous psychologies in South African universities?



c)cultural imperialism

d)all of the above are correct.

3.In which continent did African psychology begin as an exploration of how the historical conditions of slavery and racism led to a certain type of psyche of Africans living?





4.Which of the following statements is NOT an important aspect of African philosophy?

a)There is an expectation that when one is blessed with a job, they will thank their ancestors for their job through rituals.

b)One’s child is everybody’s responsibility in the entire community.

c)An individual’s actions do not affect the whole community.

d)God is the source of everything.

5.Which of the following statements is true?

a)African psychology does not address the effects of colonialism and racism on the psyche of African people, whereas traditional psychology does.

b)Traditional psychology has a better and more advanced body of knowledge, and as such is better for practice.

c)While traditional psychology has made considerable efforts at assisting the whole world with its interventions, there are yet gaps for practitioners working with people of African and Eastern descent.

d)None of these is true.

6.Rituals in African traditional thought are important because:

a)animals are always slaughtered, and African people like to eat meat

b)there is a belief that the ritual has the power to connect the people to each other and to God

c)the rituals maintain harmony, balance and equilibrium in the family or community

d)b and c.

7.Having understood basic issues that pertain to African and Eastern perspectives to psychology, it can be said that:

a)There are some gaps in knowledge, such that Eurocentric and American psychology cannot be taken as the only truth.

b)Spirituality is not an important aspect of psychology; it is too complicated and should be left to shamans, izangoma and religious leaders.

c)Illness narratives in African and Eastern contexts are so imbued with spirituality that for a mental health worker to assist, he/she has to have a basic understanding of these issues.

d)a and c.

8.Reincarnation is:

a)a theory of rebirth unique to Hinduism

b)the upward movement of the soul into better bodies

c)the purpose of life in Buddhism

d)none of the above is true.

9.Which of the following beliefs is NOT shared by both Hinduism and Buddhism?

a)There is a soul inside our physical bodies.

b)The material world is maya, an illusion that obscures the true nature of reality.

c)It may take many lifetimes to reach a state of enlightenment.

d)Feeling attached to material things creates anxiety because material desires can never be fulfilled permanently.

10.Which one of the following is NOT relevant to Buddhism?

a)the middle path

b)the Four Noble Truths

c)the four yugas

d)the eight-fold path.

Short-answer questions

1.Interview or chat to someone who subscribes to the African or Eastern worldviews discussed here. How do they apply their worldview to their everyday lives and what are some of the similarities and differences to your own worldview?

2.Choose another chapter in this textbook and notice who is mainly referenced or cited as authorities in these fields (e.g. Freud on personality). Google their names and research the contexts in which they grew up, lived and studied. Discuss whether their life experiences and the contexts in which their studies took place, including the types of people they used to produce their theories, can be generalised to people in Africa and Asia. How applicable are their theories in your own life context?

3.Psychology in South Africa is often accused of being out of touch with the majority of the population because its mental health interventions are primarily based on private, individual counselling sessions. This is an unusual way of dealing with problems in African and Eastern cultures. Find out how these cultures helped people deal with emotional distress long before psychology developed as a field, and find out how people from these cultures continue to seek help when they are in distress.

4.Currently there is a growing list of social problems in South Africa, such as unemployment, crime and teenage pregnancy. Think about ways in which psychology could respond to this problem, based on the principles you have learned in this chapter.

5.Most interventions in African religions are based on practical changes that can be made to one’s life, that are displayed through ceremonies and rituals, as opposed to abstract ideas around behaviour change. With this in mind, think of some ways in which peace building in Africa can be a reality. Do you think that it is possible to use African perspectives on behaviour change (i.e. the African worldview) to bring peace to the continent?

6.How has your own cultural and/or religious worldview been affected by globalisation and acculturation?

7.Research and compare how both Eastern and African traditions deal with a particular life issue (e.g. birth, marriage, coming of age or death) and then illustrate how this relates to the worldview of each and how this differs from modern psychological theory.


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