Prahalad Singh

A systematic study of Eastern thought which can provide lessons for achieving wellbeing and happiness in the present times can be useful. Eastern wisdom of the past needs to be interpreted in today’s context and its negative, anti ecumenical and  irrelevant aspects have to be shed. Scientific, empirical or inter-subjective validation where possible can be carried out. Eastern traditions are considered more holistic while in the Western tradition separation has taken place between science and spirituality, between psychology and philosophy, and between individual and community. However in the East holism can sometimes be at the cost of belief in sectarian dogma, rituals and blind faith. Because of the limits of Christianity and secular rationalism many in the West are turning to Eastern spirituality and holism for their true happiness.

Traditional wisdom and culture is related to a set of shared beliefs, values, attitudes, and self characterisation. Aspects of culture include religion, language, customs, arts etc.  Wisdom of cultures refers to a shared tradition of religion, spirituality, world outlook and role models for wellbeing and for a good and happy life. It should be qualified that cultures are not a monolith and frozen categories but are dynamic, changing and contain diversity and diverse interpretations. Within the same nation or tradition there are many cultures and sub-cultures with their own wisdom. Cultures have been interacting with each other and have been mutually influencing one another

For the purpose of this article the focus will be on three major traditions of Asia or the East which are more or less representative. These are Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Christianity and Islam and others are also part of Asian traditions but they are excluded firstly because they are associated more with the Abrahamic traditions requiring a separate discussion and secondly because for our limited task here it will be unwieldy.  General, brief and core aspects of the three major traditions which mainly refer to the conception of a good and happy life will be discussed. Happy life here also denotes a higher sense of wellbeing and fulfillment.


Confucianism originated about 600 years before the Christian era. Confucius wrote two important books: The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean. The major idea of Confucianism is ‘Jen’ which in a simple sense means to love fellow men.’ Jen’ is the essence of man and is similar to virtue. A person with ‘Jen’ is virtuous and has achieved the conditions required for a good life. Individuals and society should cultivate ‘Jen’ and all activities should be carried out in accordance with virtues like duty, trust, property , benevolence and  intuition. Confucius talks about benevolence being within grasp and that the quality of life lies within one’s own hands. He emphasizes that virtue is obtained by learning extensively, by having a firm and sincere aim, enquiring with earnestness and reflecting with self application. Learning is the necessary and enabling condition for a good life.

In his book The Great Learning Confucius elaborates more virtues like investigating things, keeping sincere thoughts, rectifying the heart , regulating ones family and society, governing the state rightly and making the whole kingdom tranquil and happy. A good quality of governance leads to the good quality of life of the people which in turn leads to the ruler’s good name and his good life. While advocating meritocracy over democracy and the rule of the wise and the virtuous he emphasizes the rule of law of the government, and the rule of the communities which provide the right social conditions for the good life of the people.

Confucius advises followers to engage in active life and not to be passive, to think things over, reflect every day to improve oneself, to give up older ideas if necessary and act positively. He also lays stress on social values like friendship and family. Knowledge, responsibility, duty , tolerance, dialogue and new ideas are significant values. Confucius maintains that ritual performance has the potential to lead to an ordered state of affairs for the community in general. A life which is simple, normal, ordered and rational is a good life.  Life is worthwhile and we should preserve it carefully to live long. Death and life after death are to be ignored but when death becomes inevitable it should be accepted.


Buddhism believes that when we stop struggling with attachment and its consequent wounds and realize the futility of securing and solidifying a sense of permanence of Self, we awaken to a healthy lightness and spaciousness which liberates us from reification and clinging which by its nature is contingent and transient. Wellbeing and happiness is achieved by cleansing of negative perceptions and emotions ( like craving aversion, desire, hate, anger and ignorance), by meditation by ethical conduct by practice of compassion, by the  discipline of self restraint and above all by changing of perspective.

In Buddhist psychology the aim is not to emphasize so much the causes of symptoms but to allow expression of patterns of the process thereby revealing their superfluous and impermanent nature which is than overcome by getting over clinging to these patterns. Volitional content or ‘sankhara’ are the habits and impulses generated by mental activity, and they in turn modify our cognitions, loading them with the weight of past experiences  and associations. With feelings of attraction or aversion ego consciousness arises. There is a sense of something to defend, represent or enhance .Buddhist psychology believes that the so called needs of the ego proceed to impose fabrications of the external world. Buddhism believes that the self is nothing by itself it is actually an interplay of aggregated elements or ‘Khandhas’. We need to deconstruct the imagined  secure and constructed self into its parts and their interplay is really what is real and what matters. This awareness leads to a sense freedom and wellbeing

We re-present ourselves through these fixed embodied patterns by defending and advancing them which many times leads to suffering. A skilled mindfulness helps in examination of body, feelings, perceptions, beliefs and consciousness so that we are able to move towards our  fluid and dynamic identities and change our self-limiting  suffering self. By being aware of the process rather than being tied to the form liberates us from the fetish of attachment.

In Buddhism it is explained that at the core of our being are the positive, healthy and profound “Brahmaviharas” or heavenly realms which are our true nature and need to be accessed and celeberated. These are ‘karuna’ compassion, ‘upeka’ or ‘equanimity’, ‘mudita’ or sympathetic joy for others and ‘metta’ or loving kindness. The aim is not only to overcome and avoid negative patterns of thought and suffering but also like to attain a compassionate, balanced, joyful and a spiritual outlook by accessing the heavenly realms for a more fulfilling sense of well-being.

Five correct behaviors are to be inculcated for the self development and for the social good which leads to wellbeing for all. The five rules are (1) Respect all life, cause no injury and make life pleasant for everyone. (2) Respect the lawful possession of others and do not accept what is not voluntarily given.(3) Avoid sensual gratification which causes harm and uneasiness to others.(4) Avoid lying ,slander and harsh words and speak well (5) Avoid addiction to intoxicants.

The eight-fold path contains elements for ethics (sila) like right resolve, speech, action, livelihood, and effort while the other elements pertain to insightful knowledge. The cultivation of insight and inward good of morality is manifested in the outward good life in terms of social ethics and mindfulness. “Nirvana” is interpreted by some not as a transcendental state but an awakened or enlightened state in this world where all negativities have been blown away.

Particularly in Mahayana and Socially Engaged Buddhism it is believed that one cannot just focus on personal development while ignoring all the injustice, poverty and deprivation all around in the world. Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Philosopher activist has suggested that the vertical movement of personal individual transformation should integrate the horizontal movement of social transformation into a single movement of Inter-Being. Dalai Lama emphasizes compassion for the deprived as a basis for personal happiness. Social engagement, voluntary work and altruistic behavior leads to a good and happy life.


Hinduism has a prominent concept of cosmic order or ‘dharma’ in which natural and social relationships are properly maintained. Various duties and behaviors have to be performed depending on one’s position in society and one’s stage in life so that the social order can be preserved  which than leads to the preservation of the cosmic order leading finally to wellbeing universally.

Human flourishing is brought about by balancing and pursuing four legitimate goals in life ( purusa-arthas) which include  pleasure( kama), prosperity ( artha)  virtues and ethical duties ( dharma) and liberation ( moksha) from the bonds of worldly conditions. These are both a description of and prescription for an ideal life. The last goal of liberation was added later on  which creates a sort of dilemma. The first three are concerned with wellbeing in this world while the last one considers this world of birth and rebirth as a bondage to be overcome and transcended. Pleasure, prosperity and ethical living, it is believed, do not lead to immortality which can be achieved by the union of the soul(atman) with the universal divine soul(Brahman).  The dilemma is sought to be resolved by some schools of thought by making the first three goals instrumental in achieving liberation thereby accomplishing wellbeing in this world and in the transcendental realm.

Vaisesika a school of Hindu philosophy proposes “dharma” as the performance of what is right which lead prosperity and to the good in the highest sense. The Mimamsa school maintains that “dharma” has simply followed because it is an injunction by the sacred texts not because it leads to wellbeing. The famous textbook “manu smriti’ lays down that values of dharma for all classes are nonviolence, truth telling, non stealing and controlling sensuality. The great epic Mahabharata identifies supreme dharma with compassion, forgiveness, truth. The chronicles of Vikrama point out that the dharma of a million sacred texts can be summed up in the saying that helping others is good, hurting others is bad. Other ancient scholars have pointed out that dharma is following one’s knowledgeable inclinations or cultivated conscience, implying choice although this choice is limited by one’s social status and education.

In Hindu psychology the three levels of consciousness: lower mind, ego, and intellect have to be moved towards a higher, more aware and blissful state by overcoming the distortions inflicted by defilements of passion, hatred, and delusion. The ideal life in the Indian sacred text Gita is explained as one that harmonises virtuous practice, knowledge and love. Gita also emphasizes performing action without desiring the fruits of the action. Raja Yoga proposes eight steps for personal development and wellbeing. These steps can be grouped into (1) ethical,(2) physiological, (3)  proper orientation, and (4) spiritual.

Hinduism is characterized by two conceptions of the good. One is the good of this life which is a virtuous life offering ethical fulfillment of human needs and desires. The second is the good beyond this life, which is a state where the nature of reality is understood and its limitations transcended to achieve truth, pure consciousness and supreme bliss. Wellbeing has psychological, social and spiritual aspects.

The Sufi Way of Islam

The Sufis arrived on the scene around 800 years ago, and were originally pious devotees, whose poor woolen clothes showed their humility: “Sufi” comes from the Arabic word for wool. Above all, the Sufis sought the divine reality or ultimate truth that stands above all the illusions and deceptions of the material world. In order to achieve ecstatic union with God, they incorporated techniques of sound and movement — chanting and music, swaying and dance. Believers joined in tight-knit brotherhoods or tariqahs, each following a charismatic leader (shaykh). They presented an Islam that incorporated local traditions and worship styles, including Christian saints and Hindu gods.

Sufis offer great hope for pluralism and democracy within Muslim nations. The Sufi religious outlook has little of the uncompromising intolerance that characterizes the fundamentalists. Their brotherhoods cherish intellectual exploration. Progressive Sufi thinkers are quite open to modern knowledge and science. People organize processions, they seek healing miracles, and women are welcome among the crowds. While proudly Islamic, Sufi believers have always been in dialogue with other great religions.

Sufis neither condemn unveiled women nor censure modern means of entertainment. For them the distinction between virtue and vice is determined by intent, not by appearance. According to Maulana Wali Rehmani Mongeyri, it is the fusion of spirituality and modernity which creates the unique aesthetic experience that is so appealing to the young and that is what makes them reject extremism.  In the West and especially in America the popularity of the

Sufi poet Rumi is greater than ever before. In Morroco the young people find that the Sufi norms of beauty and humanity allow them to enjoy the arts, music and love without giving up their religious or social obligations, As Ahmed Kostas an expert on Sufism and director of Morocco’s  Ministry of Religious Affairs points out  “Progress and change are basic tenets of Sufi philosophy making this old spiritual tradition so popular among the youth”

The great Mughal emperor Akbar was a keen  follower of Khwaza Moinuddin and made annual pilgrimages to his tomb in Ajmer, India. He married a Hindu princess, gave her due respect and her son inherited the throne. He was fond of organizing Sufi dances and musical concerts. His empire extended from Kabul to parts of Burma. As Amartya Sen points out in his book “The Argumentative Indian” that Akbar, although a devout Muslim evolved a composite multi-culture and encouraged rational enquiry and inter-faith dialogue to promote understanding and social harmony. Akbar founded a new all faith forum called “Dine Ilahi” where scholars and spiritual leaders from all faiths were invited to dialogue and learn from each other’s point of view. In his autobiography “Akbar Namah” he affirmed: “The various religious communities are treasures entrusted to us by God. We must love them as such. It must be our firm faith that He blesses every religion. The Eternal King showers his favors on all men without distinction”

The Wahhabi movement emerged in the 18th century in Arabia, and in modern times it has built a worldwide presence on the strength of Saudi oil money. In its radical form this exclusive tradition rejects knowledge that is not clearly rooted in the Quran and Islamic legal thought, and regards other religions and cultures as dangerous rivals lacking any redeeming qualities. Al Qaeda and its affiliates represent an extreme and savage manifestation of this creed

A woman from Iran who was making a film on different religions and inter-faith dialogue asked me for advice and when I told her that apart from others she should meet Maulana Wahaduddin, a highly respected  liberal Muslim, who lives near the tomb of the Sufi; Nizammudin Aulia in Delhi, her spontaneous reaction was “but he is a Sunni”. Sufism can provide an inclusive openness and ecumenical intra-faith dialogue within the Islamic streams and sects as well as inter-faith dialogue with other religions for more tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. I could not believe that the Iranian woman making a film on inter-faith dialogue was from the same wonderful land as the world class Persian poets with Sufi leanings like Hafiz, Rumi and Omar Khayyam. Rumi’s poetry resonates the Sufi way as opposed to rigid dogma and seeks formless fluidity. In his poem ‘Infidel Fish’ he writes: In the world full of shape / there you are without form

The most interesting historian of South Asian Islam; William Dalrymple writing in the New York Review of Books ( Pakistan in Peril , February 12, 2009) narrates that during his last visit to Pakistan, it was very clear that while the Wahhabi-dominated North-West was on the verge of falling under the sway of the Taliban, the same was not true of the Sufi-dominated province of Sindh, which currently is quieter and safer than it has been for some time. In southern Pakistan, On the Indian border, Sufi Islam continues to act as a powerful deterrent against  fundamentalist Islam of the Wahhabi mullahs

The tolerant Sufi culture of Sindh has been able to defy this imported Wahhabi radicalism. William proposes that “Here is an entirely indigenous and homegrown Islamic resistance movement to fundamentalism, with deep roots in South Asian culture”. A leading Iraqi intellectual, a former minister and a Fellow at  the  Princeton University Ali Alawi argues in his book; Crisis of Islamic Civilization (Yale University Press, 2009)  that Sufism is integral to the revival of Islamic civilization which is facing grave threats on the one hand from Modernist Islam and on the other from Wahhabi Islam which is against heterodox and individualist folk Islam like Sufism

The RAND Corporation came out with a major report in 2007, called “Building Moderate Muslim Networks,” which stressed the Sufi role as moderate traditionalists open to change, and thus as potential allies against violence. The British government is befriending the Sufi orders, and has made groups like the British Muslim Forum and the Sufi Muslim Council its main dialogue partners in the Muslim community. Philip Jenkins a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, makes a plea that “Sufis, better than anyone, can tell disaffected young Muslims that the quest for peace is not a surrender to Western oppression, still less a betrayal of Islam, but rather a return to the faith’s deepest roots”

Most of the discussion on the good life and happiness in the Western tradition of psychology is concerned with the hedonic aspects, focusing on positive and pleasurable emotions. There also exists to a lesser extent the Western philosophical eudaimonic tradition of conceptualizing virtuos human flourishings which is associated with Aristotle. Recently Positive Psychology which has been to some extent influenced by Eastern values has proposed happiness as  life satisfaction, flow and finding meaning. The Eastern traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism are more oriented towards the good life in the ethical sense, wellbeing and happiness being a byproduct of an ethical and spiritual life (particularly in the case of Buddhism and Hinduism).

On the basis of recent empirical studies it has been suggested that in East and South East Asian societies believing in Confucian and Buddhist values like order, ethical and hard work and being law abiding has lead them to prosper, although in trying to be modern and catch up with West  they  are face the danger of consumerism. Scientific studies and tests have proved that the practice of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and the Hindu Transcendental meditation leads to enhanced brain activity related to a sense of peace and happiness. In a study of young Indians who believed in the Hindu work ethic of doing one’s best without expectation of reward had higher levels of satisfaction. A study in Australia found that while western young people scored higher in personal happiness,  the Non-Western youth  had more next generation optimism.

Buddhism and Hinduism both emphasise nonviolence and peace as a core value for wellbeing, both as a means and an end.  Mahatma Gandhi inspired by Hinduism and Jainism stressed nonviolence in thought, speech and action as the basis of contentment and wellbeing. The Dalai Lama has been proposing the role peace within and peace outside in achieving happiness in society and in the whole world. Unfortunately the happiness literature today especially in the West ignores the role of mental peace and lack of social conflict as a source of happiness. Ed Diener in his recent book on Happiness has noted that for people of Asian cultures happiness means being calm and controlled while for Americans it is more likely to mean being excited and joyful and that  this trait is socialized early in life. Asians prefer calm and harmony producing activities while North Americans choose upbeat, energetic positive emotions.

Broad statements need to be at times qualified so that we are aware of over generalization and do not ignore many limitations in Eastern cultures and societies as well as the achievements of the West. In the East hierarchy, low status of women, other-worldliness and belief  and fatalism of past life karma can be limiting.

Yet traditional wisdom of the East helps in having a meaning and purpose in life as well as a sense of community, belonging and social support which are significant indicators of wellbeing and happiness. This is contrary to the West where alienation, loss of meaning and breakdown of families and communities is more prevalent. The greater traditional emphasis on collectivism and spiritual aspirations in the East provides the possibility ,( if not always actualized in practice in the present time of rapid economic and social change)  to less individualistic hedonism, consumerism and better chances to move from lower, baser motivation to higher goals, so that happiness can be conceived as higher fulfillment and deeper wellbeing.


Akhilanand, Swami., 1960, Hindu Psychology: Its Meaning for the West, Routledge and Kegan Paul

Dalai Lama, Cutler,H,C.,1999, The Art of Happiness, Coronet Paperback

Diener, Ed, Biswas-Diener, Robert., 2008, Happiness: Unlocking The Mysteries of Psychological, Wealth, Blackwell.

Goleman, D., 2003, Healing Emotions, Shambala, Boston

Haidt, J., 2006,The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom and Philosophy to the Test of Modern Science, Arrow Books.

Pandey, G, C ,. 1980, Meaning and Process of  Culture, Manohar Publishers

Pickerin, John., 1997,The Authority of Experience: Essays on Buddhism and  Psychology, Routledge.

Ram-Prasad,C., 2005, Eastern Philosophy, The Orion Publishing Group

.Schoch, R., 2007,The Secret of Happiness: Three Thousand Years of Searching for the Good Life, Profile Books.

Thich Nhat Hanh., 2000, Interbeing, Full Circle, Delhi.

Zhang,G, and Veenhoven, R., Ancient Chinese Philosophical Advice: Can it Help Us Find Happiness Today, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2008 (9: 426-443

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