Bhagavad Gita and Mental Health: A Transdiagnostic Perspective

Dr. Ishwar V Basavaraddi

Mental Health is a determinant of our daily well being encompassing emotional, psychological and social upkeep of individuals. It greatly affects our day-to-day productivity depending on how we think, feel, and act when dealt with common lifestyle issues and problems. The knowledge of ensuring a healthy mind can be sourced from the treasure of ancient texts such as Bhagavad Gita which is a scripture of principles that can change one’s life in positive ways.

Morarji Desai National Institute of Yoga, in lieu to its weekly webinar, organised a session on “Bhagavad Gita and Mental Health: A Transdiagnostic Perspective”  introduced by Dr. Ishwar V. Basavaraddi, Director, MDNIY, with Taiyab Alam, Communication and Documentation Officer along with other members of the institute on the panel. 

Dr. Basavaraddi addressed the webinar with his introductory remarks welcoming the esteemed guest speaker of the evening, Dr. Jyotsna Agrawal, Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Bengaluru. Currently, she’s also working on applications of Indian Psychology and Positive Psychology in the Clinical settings. 

Director MDNIY elaborated on the objectives of this webinar aimed at discussing an overview of the current mental health picture in India, especially with respect to the most common mental health disorders wherein there are certain common psychological factors behind many of these disorders, also known as transdiagnostic factors. Moreover, insights from Bhagavad Gita were discussed concerning these factors with a deliberation on how the holy scripture can contribute towards positive mental health when understood deeply.

Dr. Jyotsana began her session with a message that “I am only a Student of Bhagwat Gita – learning what I can from such a vast source of knowledge since it would take a lifetime to grasp even a little from all that this holy scripture has to offer.”

Dr. Jyotsana elaborates on what constitutes “Mental Disorders” which is a wide range of multiple conditions with symptoms like reduced ability to concentrate, affects of deep sadness, inability to manage daily stress, sleeping disorders, strong feelings of fear, worry, guilt, etc. Such symptoms can either be common or severe in nature. 

She majorly focuses on the common mental disorders like depression, stress and anxiety which are often referred to as “Common Cold of Mental Disorders.”

Giving a brief overview of the current scenario of Mental Health in India, Dr. Jyotsana states that common mental disorders constitute for about 10.0% of the population in the country. Moreover, stating some surveys she quotes, “1 in every 20 people in India suffers from Depression. Talking about why we should be concerned with addressing the mental health problems she lists out certain factors such as Morality, Disability (with respect to social and work-life), the economic burden (treatment costs), it’s the link that leads up to other physical illness, and other intangible costs such as poor quality of life, etc.

Image Source: Presentation used in the Webinar

Dr. Jyotsana states that there is a large “Treatment Gap” prevalent in India wherein people with mental disorders do not receive adequate treatment on time. This situation is further complicated by the lack of awareness among people and the margins of the population who cannot afford expensive treatments in addition to the gap between urban and rural areas. Therefore, Dr. Jyotsana stresses on the need for more non-specialist professionals in mental health care delivery aided by the prevention and health promotion through Yoga.

She further iterates that Indian texts such as Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Vasistha, etc. are full of mental health insights which may be built into large scale community programs and can help in overcoming issues of culture-match, low resources leading to more acceptance.

This idea, she says, is further supported by a shift happening in the field of mental health wherein new findings in the field of genetics and brain sciences suggest that there is no single cause for mental illness, rather it is multifactorial. There has been an increasing consensus upon the genetic, familial, social-psychological (cognitive-affective, interpersonal-behavioural) processes behind many mental disorders.

To further this point, Dr. Jyotsana explains using many theory perspectives stating that mental disorders have both;

Multifinality (same set of causes to different outcomes)

Equifinality (diverse causes producing the same disorder)

She refers to a recent study from Newzealand which followed people from age 11 to 45 indicating that very often a person having one disorder, later has another one which is acknowledged as an ” Ebb and Flow” of mental disorders within the same person.

Such common causes are called “Transdiagnostic” because they are beyond a single diagnosis for example examining a person with anxiety and depression together. The Transdiagnostic approach is known to be more efficient when there are multiple disorders to access and are easier to scale up for understanding.

Here, Dr. Jyotsana focuses on the common Transdiagnostic factors and insights from Bhagavad Gita – how these are related.

She elaborates upon two different kinds of “motivation” that move people towards or away from doing activities and experiencing things.

Image Source: Presentation used in the Webinar

The Approach Motivation and Avoidance motivation are tendencies which in dysfunctional forms are associated with mental health disorders. In the Yogic language, these tendencies are known as “Raag” and “Dwesh” (common afflictions).

Dr. Jyotsana takes an example from the Chapter 1 of Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna is trying to avoid fighting due to aversive outcome while Krishna asks him to do his work without thinking about the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the outcome. In life, people run on motivation either driven by experiencing whatever is pleasant or the need to avoid something they consider unpleasant.

The behaviour is connected with the description of “Triguna” in Gita. Various variables of Goals: types, reasons to pursue a goal, and the manner in which it is pursued – influence whether a goal is reached and how people feel afterwards. 

This is further determined by two categories; Linkers – when someone links achieving their goals to their happiness, and Non-linkers.

The former may end up achieving more but are usually found to have lower well-being. 

Thus, Bhagavad Gita emphasizes various kinds of shifts in oneself, while selecting a goal and doing one’s work such as Swadharma, Nishkama Karma, and Yajna.

The second element related to Transdiagnostic factors is Emotions; wherein one goes through the frequent experiences of negative emotions, difficulty managing them, inability to tolerate unpleasant ones and acting upon the desire to avoid such emotions. 

Bhagavad Gita emphasizes the development of Emotional Balance (Samatvam) that encourages one to develop a capacity to tolerate unpleasant bodily sensation (cold heat) and emotions (sadness-happiness). 

Furthermore, Bhagavad Gita talks about multiple techniques such as Meditation and Contemplation, the Yogic practice of Pranayama (breathing exercises) – Surrender and Offering (Yajna), Mindfulness, developing a larger perspective of self-others-universe and the divine.

Image Source: Presentation used in the Webinar

Another factor highly recommended, says Dr. Jyotsana, is Non-attachment and Psychological flexibility which refers to the capacity to endure healthy separation and an ability to let go of things.

Moreover, seeing self as the consciousness (self as context) and distancing from these thoughts-feelings (cognitive defusion) is commonly used as a therapy mechanism across diagnosis.

Dr. Jyotsana especially emphasises upon the feeling of “Awe” which is defined as an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc. – produced by something grand, sublime, extremely powerful. The feeling of Awe in Arjuna, says Dr. Jyotsana is also talked about in Bhagavad Gita around Chapter 9-11, which is simultaneously triggered for a reader also. 

Image Source: Presentation used in the Webinar

This emotion is linked with multiple benefits from making one feel connected to other people and humanity, to describing materialism, making people more generous/cooperative, from enhancing the sense of time to ultimately improving health, mood, critical thinking abilities, etc.

Image Source: Presentation used in the Webinar

Dr. Jyotsana refers to multiple chapters in Bhagavad Gita that are devoted to positive qualities worth cultivating – from persistence to friendliness and compassion, etc. (Daiviya Sampada, Satvik Guna).

These qualities when studied extensively in Positive Psychology were found to be associated with the basic ingredients of positive mental health (namely – Positive emotions, engagement, meaning, healthy relationships and Accomplishments).

In the Interactive Session Dr. Vandana poses a question to the Guest speaker on behalf of the viewers: How can Bhagavad Gita help with treating Parkinson’s Syndrome?

Dr. Jyotsana explains that Parkinson’s Syndrome is a biological disease but it has emotional aspects such as the feeling of “why me” given its severity and not being able to move further in life as it affects the quality of it, Bhagavad Gita can help in the Emotional parts of recovering from this disease – countering the sadness and depression that are induced by it. One can come to accept and think about leading a healthy psychological life.

Next, Dr. Bassvaraddi questions, How to integrate two great sciences which are Psychological help and clinical medicines referred to cure Mental Disorders?

Dr. Jyotsana says that Psychotherapy or counselling in itself is very effective but is intense and takes weeks or months as it aims to target the thought process gradually. Whereas medication can help people to start this journey, for example in severe cases of depression where people are not in a position to engage with counselling as their responses are restricted. Medication can bring them to a position where they can start with Psychotherapy. But it is very important to remember that each person is different and they may need individualised treatments“.

In conclusion, Dr. Jyotsana and Director MDNIY deliberated that more study and research needs to be done to develop new models that integrate Medication, Yoga and Psychotherapy together to better help people suffering from Mental Health disorders in the best way possible. 

The webinar also constituted a 10 minutes presentation by a student of the institution Satyam Tiwari who spoke on the “Scientific investigation to the stress of Arjuna” pulling out facts and perspectives from  Bhagavad Gita as a dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. 

Presentation by a Student

The Webinar greatly emphasizes Gita as a treasure house of innumerable psychological insights that can enhance health through many pathways and it is time to develop-build mental health intervention models based on these insights and studies.

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