As I reflect on the last 25 years of my conversations and experiences with the Indian community, particularly in California, the themes of liberation and integration emerge as most salient and compelling. The Indian community has been quite challenged by the dilemma of, “honoring your culture and shifting your culture.” Although this challenge is real for any group migrating from another country, Indians come with strong traditions, rituals, mores, and complex familial structures and identities. Our culture is one of the oldest cultures on the planet; the Indian subcontinent has welcomed and incorporated many cultures over the centuries and today has 30 languages and 2,000 dialects. In some ways it incorporates many expressions of humanity, yet it is also insular and oppressively entrenched in its own viewpoints and lifestyle. Thus, contradiction and complexity are inherent dynamics within the Indian culture.
As a psychologist, dealing with human complexity is my primary task. When I first started my counseling work with the Indian community in the San Francisco Bay Area, my clients were primarily heterosexual couples facing marital issues. The concerns ranged from significant communication impasses, dilemmas of allegiance with the spouse or deference to the in-laws, to verbal and physical abuse towards the wife or children. Over the years, women considering divorce, entering interracial relationships, and making significant career changes have come in for therapy. The themes of balancing career, family-life, personal time, and interests continue to surface. Divorced and re-married couples are seeking counseling regarding blending of families with children from previous spouses. In the last five years gay men and lesbians from the Indian community who are either struggling with coming out, or simply want to work through common personal issues, or are desiring deeper intimacy with their partners are utilizing the guidance of psychotherapists. Some gay and lesbian couples are having or adopting children while remaining quite connected to their extended families. Indians who work in information technology and have lived in the States for a decade or two are weighing the pros and cons of returning to India to continue their professions. Single and married folks in middle-age have come in seeking a place for deeper reflection regarding meaning and purpose in life, wondering whether they should enter new relationships or stay single, and exploring their inner lives in secular, spiritual ways versus in organized, traditional religious settings. A range of issues and aspirations are now the topics of conversations in counseling.
At the beginning of the 20th century two large waves in psychology and spirituality took hold in American culture. Depth psychology pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna and Carl Jung in Zurich crossed the Atlantic and American universities started offering lectures on the nature of personality, the unconscious, and the innate drive towards self-realization.
Teachers who had also dedicated their lives to exploring human consciousness arrived at the scene from India: Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Krishnamurti, and others. Hinduism and yoga philosophy and practices have become serious avenues of study for inner development in North America today. Numerous schools and centers are now established serving thousands of students (mainly Euro-Americans) interested in integrating Indian wisdom into their quest for more meaningful and guided lives. In 1968, Dr. Haridas Chaudri, originally from Bengal and a student of Sri Aurobindo, well versed in Eastern and Western philosophies, with a deep knowledge of integral yoga, established the California Institute of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Since 1980, it has been called the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), where graduate programs integrate Eastern and Western approaches to understand and bring forth greater knowledge of self and the nature of reality. Thus, Freud, Aurobindo, Jung, and Vivekanada are now studied in one psychology course.
Within the last quarter century Indian approaches such as ayurveda, yoga, music, food, and meditation have been infiltrating American life, sometimes without an understanding of the cultural context and the historical and political dimensions of appropriation. Nonetheless, India’s contribution to philosophy, psychology, and health is immense. It continues to balance out the Western rational, scientific, and fragmented worldview into an interrelated, meaningful and holistic one. The integration of Indian and Western perspectives assist in arriving at a fuller picture of human development. Western psychology has a strong focus on understanding the various dynamics of human personality and how each unique person can discover a real self and live into one’s own truth. However, for Indians, given the strong ties and allegiance to family, this work of individuation progresses with greater tension, fear, guilt, and confusion. Differentiating from family to know yourself and live by your own desires, authenticity, and inner calling becomes a delicate and even a lonely endeavor here.
About twenty years ago there were only about four of us South Asian psychotherapists practicing in the SF Bay Area. Today there are at least a dozen. Some of us come have come together to discuss our unique practices, theoretical orientations and the patterns and concerns we witness as we work with the South Asian community in the United States.
Together we have also written articles for PRANA (Prevention and Awareness for South Asians). Doctoral students with Indian backgrounds at universities in the SF Bay Area are writing about migration, family systems, acculturation, and assimilation, the diaspora and exploration of bi-cultural identities and interracial relationships. Books such as Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents, by Minal Hajratwala tell stories of these themes and speak to some fundamental questions: “Where did we come from?” “Why did we leave?” “What did we lose and gain?” This year two volumes of the book Indian Psychology were published, edited by three psychologists teaching at Indian universities. The book explores psycho-spiritual insights in traditional Indian thought regarding social, educational, physical and emotional dimensions of human nature. It features authors from India, the United States and other countries who bring light to the multi-dimensional self as conceived in the rich Indian culture. The work assists in the new project of de-centering Euro-American models of human development, family structures, and mental health. It also brings centuries of philosophical wisdom and indigenous practices into understanding personality and greater dimensions of human potential.
The melding of spirituality and psychology is further evidenced in the Indian community with one of the Hindu temples considering creating a counseling center on their premises to serve their members. Thus, there is a budding recognition that personal and family concerns cannot always be resolved within the family, with a guru, or strictly by religious teachings and practices. At times a confidential and professional relationship is ideal and needed. My monthly Dear Doctor column addresses this regularly. With the Indian diaspora, intersecting influences make being Indian complex, challenging, and hopefully rich and resilient. Understanding the various implications of such drastic changes is paramount at this time.
Over ten years ago, I received a phone call from a woman who worked for Maitri, an organization for South Asian women who are stuck in abusive relationships. She told me about a Pakistani woman who was recently physically hurt by her husband who needed some counseling for depression and possibly psychological testing. When I walked into the waiting room on the day of the appointment, I expected one woman. Instead there were three. Two volunteers from Maitri were escorting my new patient. They were also housing her and essentially giving her complete care. I was quite astounded and impressed, as I had never encountered such support and advocacy from a non-profit organization of this sort.
Organizations like Maitri have arisen in response to a growing need for a place where South Asian women can reveal problems occurring in their families and receive peer counseling and guidance. I see this as a significant milestone. I also look forward to treatment options for the men who still struggle with violent behavior towards their partners and children. More education, support, classes, and counseling that address the behavior previously shielded within the family can be of much service for the entire community.
Another organization dedicated to empowering members in the South Asian community is Trikone. It was founded in 1986 by two Indian American engineers (Arvind Kumar and Suvir Das) who wanted to create a support group for gay and lesbian South Asians. This was quite daring for its time, as the South Asian community is primarily heterosexually identified.
Culturally, our approach to homosexuality has been reactionary, although same sex relationships have been part of Indian history for centuries. Today Trikone is one of many similar organizations in American cities as well as Canada, United Kingdom, and South Asia.
Organizations like these are doing pioneering work in bringing to light some of the deep emotional issues that the community has sought to repress over the years, in recognition that such exposure is vital to the continuing health and progress of the community and the culture.
The Indian community in the United States and across the globe has many flavors and layers. It continues to integrate what may seem like disparate identities—the traditional, modern, Eastern, Western, the familial and the individual. The well-established, binding forces of family and community now contend with postmodern forces of self-expression and authenticity. We also live with the question of how much diversity any community can tolerate, support, and integrate. Exploring this question of liberating the individual and integrating each person into a healthy, supportive, and inclusive family and community excites me.
Writing the Dear Doctor column for India Currents since 1999 has allowed me to keep my finger on the pulse of some core psychological issues and dynamics of our readers who write in questions and send me letters sharing their personal stories and feedback on my perspective. Reader responses help me look at where my bias might be and aspects of the culture that I may be less aware of and want to understand more deeply.This is invaluable as a cultural psychotherapist. Not only have I heard from Indians in California, but also white Americans interested in Indian philosophy or in close relationships with South Asians, and Iranians and Arab-Americans who resonate with South Asian themes of relationship and family. The internet has also made it accessible for folks in India and elsewhere to respond to the column. Thus, one of the benefits of writing for India Currents has been a contact with diverse folks from communities that I would not easily access without this forum.
Relationship issues have been the mainstay of this column over the decade. I have also enjoyed responding to questions about struggles with creative expression, career changes, and finding meaning in work, world crises, and living a conscious life. I have been touched by a couple of teenagers writing about their challenges at home and seeking counsel on having effective conversations with their parents. Applying counseling and communication skills to help people across generations speak about their struggles, needs, and visions is essential and inspiring to me. I look forward to the continual growth of readership in the coming years and tackling the rich inquiries of the personal and relational world of India Currents readers.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.