Ancient Psychologists


In this activity, students will put the psychological theories of the Bhagavad Gita and / or the Republic to use.

Background Information


Students sometimes have difficulty conceptualizing ancient theories of psychology as theories that are meant to actually explain human behavior - this exercise helps students think of two of these ancient theories of psychology as live theories, and it helps students to realize that these theories, though perhaps simplistic, have surprising explanatory power.


Primarily, this exercise uses the Bhagavad Gita and / or the Republic. Chapter 14 of the Bhagavad Gita is the locus for discussion of the three gunas and Book IV of the Republic is the locus for Plato's tripartite theory of the soul.

Activity Plan

After introducing the psychological theory in Plato’s Republic and in the Bhagavad Gita (i.e the tripartite theory of the soul and three gunas, respectively), give students (in groups or pairs) the following prompt:

“Congratulations! You have just received your license to practice counseling psychology. Unfortunately, on your first day of work you are teleported back in time to ancient Persia. Ever the optimist, you set up the world’s first counseling office. Many of your clients are either Greek or Indian in ethnicity. Your job will be to diagnose these clients and make suggestions to them in the framework they can understand: either the three gunas or the tripartite theory of the soul.”

Scenarios: (a) Patient A was referred to you by his parents. He seems to have no enthusiasm for life. He says he is not depressed, but he is extremely passive, so people think he is lazy. (b) Patient B is uncontrollable, always getting in arguments and even fights over the smallest of perceived slights, (c) patient C appears to have no self-control, and always seeks out immediate, short-term interests to the point where it is becoming a danger to her health.


Instead of (or in addition to) giving students these scenarios, ask students to diagnose their roommates, siblings, or best friends.

Discussion Questions

  • Is it realistic to reduce all of human psychology to the interaction between three areas? Why would people want to do so? Can it be helpful?

  • Has the way the people think about human psychology changed over the last couple thousand years? How and how not?


Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)