Acts 2:1-21

Commenting on Acts 2, British biblical scholar Michael Goulder (A Tale of Two Missions. London: SCM Press, 1994, 46), “Tongues were a new phenomenon, in the sense that we have no evidence of them in the Old Testament, or rabbinic sources.” Yet one must wonder at such a claim, when we now understand that so many of the major concepts within the Gospels and in Acts are rooted somehow in the Jewish tradition which proceeds or parallels them.The outpouring of many languages in Acts 2:4 is sometimes referred to as glossolalia, though a careful comparison of the Acts text with various Pauline passages in 1 Corinthians will prove that glossolalia does not accurately describe the first human response at Pentecost. The Greek word “glossa” can mean both “tongue” and “language,” and the difference between these two is significant.

The best known passage about glossolalia is 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak human language or even angelic language, but I do not have love…” Ecstatic utterances as both product and proof of divine inspiration are common in the pre-New Testament world of Hellenistic culture (Plato, Cicero, Dio Chrysostom), in the Hebrew Bible (the ravings of prophetic bands in 1 Samuel, and see Isaiah 28:10 in the Hebrew), and in the intertestamental period (Testament of Job 48-52; Josephus, Antiquities 4:119). Such glossolalia originally referred to speech-like babbling that was widely esteemed, thought to derive from “possession by the deity,” or “enthusiasmos” in Greek (Luke Timothy Johnson. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992, 42). “Speaking in tongues,” then, cannot be defended as a uniquely Christian phenomenon, but is a practice common to many cultures in the ancient world out of which Christianity evolved.

We have no idea how wide-spread glossolalia was in the early church (C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles. ICC. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1994, 1.115-6). While esteemed in Corinth, there is no significant evidence of its practice in any of the other Pauline churches. It is significant that Paul does not use the term “problem” when he discusses glossolalia. Apparently it is a gift, a charismata, and Paul himself claims to be expert at it (1 Corinthians 14:18). But Paul argues that “tongues” (a) must never be considered as a sign of spiritual superiority; (b) is a private matter not necessarily even to be shared with the congregation; (c) does not build a sense of community within a parish, but rather increases jealousy and competition; and (d) should never be employed in public evangelism (Krister Stendahl. “Glossolalia – The New Testament Evidence,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976, 109-124).

All the New Testament mentionings of “ecstatic speech” also require an interpreter who can translate “the tongues of angels” into comprehensible human speech, except for Acts 2. The point is exactly the opposite in Acts 2: that no interpreter was needed, for “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The speech that Luke refers to, then, is intelligible, communicative speech, rather than unintelligible, ecstatic speech, and certainly is not glossolalia in the manner it is understood in contemporary pentecostal Christianity.

The distinction between intelligible and unintelligible speech is a common principle of exegesis in early Judaism. The medieval commentator Maimonides make the difference clear (The Guide of the Perplexed II.33 to Deut. 4:12. Trans. by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 363-365). When the Hebrew text uses “dabbar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which does not need interpretation. When the Hebrew text uses “amar” to mean “says,” it refers to speech which is open to interpretation, speech in which the meaning must be drawn out exegetically or homiletically, and which can be understood in a variety of says. In Exodus, when God speaks to Moses, the word is “dabbar”; when Moses conveys God’s instructions to the people, the word is “amar,” implying that there is room within the words of divine inspiration for humans to interpret them and to make decisions concerning their application. Using this same argument, both patristic and early rabbinic authors could claim that every verse of Scripture has multiple meanings (see Philip Culbertson, A Word Fitly Spoken: Context, Transmission, and Adoption of the Parables of Jesus. Albany: SUNY Press, 1995, chapter 2). Because all biblical texts are received through human mouths, God’s original “dabbar” only comes to us as “amar.”

The “speech act” in Acts 2, then, is unique. Nowhere else in the New Testament or in the early extra-canonical literature is there ever a reference to such an event. Oddly, such a unique event hardly figures in the New Testament. While virtually all Christian literature hails the event of Easter, there is no reference to Pentecost as an event except in Acts (Stendahl, 118). And surely no one would lay more emphasis on the Spirit than Paul (e.g., Romans 8:9), but he knows nothing of that Spirit-filled day in Jerusalem (Barrett, 100). The description of the event itself takes only four verses (2:1-4) and is extremely circumspect. There is something which is LIKE a strong wind blowing, and something which is LIKE tongues of fire, but beyond these analogies, we have no accurate description of what happened (Johnson, 45). How is it possible that the “founding event” of the new Christian community appears totally insignificant to all NT writers except Luke? If this event occurred some twenty years before St. Paul penned his epistles, why does he seem unaware of it?

Many biblical scholars presume that the entire event is a Lukan construction. Even the conservative Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. by Gerhard Kittel, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964, 1:725) refers to it as a “legend.” But rather than concentrating on the obvious lack of factual basis behind Acts 2, we should rather ask what are the theological points which would cause Luke to construct such a story.

First, Luke wishes to highlight the scandalously inclusive nature of Christianity by portraying a reversal of Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel. There the divisions in the human family created by human brokenness destroyed the human attempt to build a tower into heaven where humanity and divinity could be united. The symbol of that division was the confusion of languages. Now Luke was saying that in the outpouring the Holy Spirit, the human family was invited anew into God. And in that divine presence human divisions ceased, the barrier of different languages was overcome, oneness with God and with one another was established. The Tower of Babel’s confusion was finally overcome because the language of love is universal. It was a great story, a great truth being communicated in a Jewish style. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. 319)

Second, he wishes to portray a unique beginning of a new and distinctive religious community, by paralleling the Christian day of Pentecost with the Jewish Feast of Pentecost, or Shavuot. When the Torah was given at Sinai, it was accompanied by wind and fire. The Ten Commandments of the Torah were heard in seventy languages, so that each nation received the commandments in its own tongue (see bT Shabbat 88b). John Calvin (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 1-13. Trans. By John Fraser and W. J. G. McDonald. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1965, 50-51) remarks that if the Gospel had been proclaimed at Pentecost in only one language, the recipients would not have comprehended its universal intent. C. K. Barrett (111) summarizes: “The gift of Torah was an act of divine revelation in which the nature and will of God were made known on the basis of his gracious act of deliverance and with the result of a covenant between himself and his people; the Christian Pentecost is the new revelation through the Holy Spirit, based upon the new act of redemption and deliverance and issuing in the formation of a new, or renewed, people of God, based upon a new covenant.”

Third, Luke parallels Christ’s baptism with the baptism of this new community. In both cases, the Spirit descended and thereby created a special relationship between humanity and God. Both events were public, witnessed by many; both events assumed a willingness to receive God’s grace freely given. And both unleashed a potentially transformative power in the world.

Approaching Acts 2:9-10 as a manifestation of glossolalia obviates the point Luke wishes to make, though even here he is obscure. We must remember that those gathered in Jerusalem would have been, perhaps exclusively, Jews, gathered for the great pilgrim festival of Shavuot. The “catalogue of nations” which Luke presents, however, is primarily a list of non-Jewish ethnic groups, coinciding with the “Sons of Noah” (bnei Noah) listed in Genesis 10. (Michael Goulder, Type and History in Acts. London: SPCK, 1964, 153) So Luke claims that faithful Jews from “every nation under heaven” were assembled (for they were the only ones to have reason to be making pilgrimage to Jerusalem), and then for reasons I do not comprehend, presents instead what the biblical tradition assures us is a list of all the ethnic groups within humanity, 90% of whom are not Jews. Nor do they represent “every nation”; the mainland of Greece is missing, as are all the nations of Europe (J. A. Brinkman, “The Literary Background of the ‘Catalogue of the Nations’ (Acts 2,9-11).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963), 419). We are stuck with the choice of calling Luke (the learned physician) “geographically challenged,” or comprehending that he has presented us with a symbolic map. Indeed, the catalogue moves more or less from the East toward Rome, which is after all the shape of the Gospel’s spread throughout the book of Acts. This symbolic geography is further confirmed when we realize that the catalogue of the Sons of Noah in Genesis 10 connects immediately with Genesis 11, the story of the Tower of Babel.

The last interpretive word must go to the great Reformation preacher John Calvin. The Lukan Pentecost story must not be preached as a factual reporting of an event, but as a challenge to the formation of Christian identity, couched in type and symbol. Formation is the result of seeking, and seeking begins with questions. Calvin (54) remarks that while it is important that the listeners were astonished to hear, each “in our own languages,” it is even more important that they were moved to ask questions, saying to one another “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Preaching any Biblical text as literal gives the listeners no room to ask questions, for all the easy answers are provided. Only God can provide a revelation whose meaning is absolutely clear (“dabbar”); once we enter the realm of human discourse and preaching, the meaning is available only to those who ask and seek.

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

Exodus 24:12-18

Lectionaries typically combine stories of God’s revelation to Israel at Sinai with the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. Such juxtaposition is tempting when we look at surface details. Exodus 24:12-18 and Matthew 17:1-9 both mention a period of six days, a high mountain where people go to be alone, a cloud from which the voice of God emerges, the pervasive feeling of fear, and the fact that the details of what happened on the mountain are to be withheld from the majority of believers. Yet the preacher should be wary of emphasizing the parallels too heavily, for a closer examination of the two texts reveals that the fit between them is not necessarily comfortable.Exodus 24:12-18 recounts Moses’s preparation to ascend Mount Sinai in order to receive “tablets” from God. These tablets appear suddenly in the biblical text, without preparation or clear explanation. Traditionally we understand that there were two tablets, based on Exodus 31:18, but our visual images of the contents are probably more influenced by Renaissance art and Charleton Heston than by Exodus 24 itself, for the number “two” does not appear there. Some traditions picture two tablets, each bearing five commandments-the first five addressing our relationship with God and the second five addressing our relationship with our neighbors, in keeping with Jesus’s two-fold Summary of the Law. The number two may also simply be a confusion resulting from the two trips that Moses made to the top of the mountain to receive a written text (Exodus 24 and 34), since the first set of tablets was destroyed in a fit of rage after Moses discovered the people worshipping the Golden Calf.

The number “two” may also be explained by citing scholarship fifty years ago connecting the Sinai covenant with Hittite suzerainty treaties. Anthony Phillips points out [“A Fresh Look at the Sinai Pericope: Part 2,” Vetus Testamentum 34:3, 1984, p. 293]: “Such treaties were inaugurated by being recorded in duplicate, one copy being retained by each party and placed in his sanctuary…Further to indicate that the treaty was broken, the tablet on which it had been recorded was smashed. For it to be restored fresh tablets were required.” However, the parallel between Israelite and Hittite covenantal forms is no longer taken for granted; and again, Exodus 24 does not mention that there were duplicates. [For a summary of the controversies on suzerainty treaties, see Richard Sklba, “The Redeemer of Israel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34:1, Jan. 1972, pp. 2-3.]

The narrative in Exodus 24 revolves around three principal characters or agents: God, Moses, and people of Israel. Other characters are also introduced, including Joshua, Aaron and Hur, but they do not eclipse the importance of the three main characters in the story. We might understand these three characters as paralleling God, Jesus, and the crowds in the Transfiguration story, but herein appears the first significant difference between the two stories. At Exodus 20:18-21, the people of Israel elect Moses as their intermediary with God. The gospel accounts do not portray Jesus as “elected” by his followers or the people of Judea and Samaria, but as elected by God. The Gospel of John states boldly: “the world did not know him…his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). Thus both Moses and Jesus are mediators, but their mandate of authority differs markedly.

The content of the tablets mentioned in Exodus 24:12 is disputed. This is due primarily to the many layers of editing which have shaped Exodus 19-24, to the extent that our present text makes Moses scramble up and down Sinai a number of times. The Decalogue appears first in Exodus 20, delivered as an oral text only. Exodus 24 then describes a second ascent and a first set of tablets, whose contents are designated “the law and the commandment” by the NRSV. The Hebrew text says “I will give you the stone tablets and the Torah and the commandment which I wrote,” as if the tablets and the Torah were different items. Phillips [p. 293] believes that the content of these tablets was the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant, but this makes the Hebrew text more specific than it can bear, and many scholars disagree with him.

Martin Noth [Exodus, The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962, p. 200] believes that “the law and the commandments” is a scribal gloss, and that the instructions delivered to Moses were limited to the regulations of cultic worship described immediately after our pericope, in Exodus 25-31:17. Some scholars have observed that to carve these six and a half chapters into stone would have produced more than two manageable tablets, and thus presume the entire episode to be a historical fiction constructed to justify the Deuteronomic reforms (see Noth ad loc.). Obviously, some readers would reject the designation “historical fiction”; the medieval commentator Nachmanides argued that the Sinai tablets contained the entire Torah, and that they were inscribed thereupon before the world was created [Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, trans. by Charles B. Chavel. New York: Shilo, 1973, p. 431). Some would here be reminded of the Christian doctrine of the pre-existent Logos.

Moses’s role as mediator is consistent with the text’s portrayal of him as a judge. Before ascending the mountain, Moses charges Aaron and Hur to stay behind in order to arbitrate disputes among the people of Israel.

The two thus function as appointed judicial interims (Nachmanides, 433, reads “Wait” [Hebrew: shevu] as “Sit as a court”). Hur’s identity is enigmatic; he is mentioned only twice in the Bible, the other instance being in connection to the battle with Amalek in Exodus 17:8-16. Rabbinic tradition describes him as the son of Miriam, thus making him Moses’s nephew.

The text’s emphasis on Moses’s judicial function seems designed to contradict any identification of Moses as a prophet. A judge stands in close connection to his community, acting to preserve its loftiest virtues. A prophet often stands in opposition to his community, contradicting social structures and customs. Jewish tradition forbids conflation of the two roles, raising interesting questions about our understanding of Jesus as a teacher of behavioral expectations versus Jesus as a prophet of the Kingdom of God. When Elijah appears in the “vision” at Matthew 17:3, it is not to emphasize the prophetic character of Jesus, for Matthew knew that Jewish tradition did not view Elijah as a Messianic forerunner. Rather, Jesus, Moses and Elijah stand together as three forerunners of the Kingdom of God. [For further discussion on this issue, see Daniel Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991, pp. 157, 254-56.]

Matthew 17:1 suggests that Jesus prepared six days before ascending the mountain. Exodus 34:16 suggests that Moses spent six days on top of the mountain before God spoke, presumably purging himself and focusing his concentration. In both instances, the number six is surely figurative, since it would make the revelatory event happen on the seventh day, underlining its theophanic character. Also in both instances, a cloud covers the mountain top. The wording of Exodus 34:15 is confusing, and we must carefully distinguish between “the glory of the Lord” and the cloud. Both rested on the mountain top, but the cloud is not God (at 34:16, Moses walks inside of it).

In either instance, the cloud seems to serve as a veil to prevent people from seeing what God looks like; only God’s voice is audible from within the cloud (compare Psalm 81:8). But whereas we are not told that those accompany Jesus see anything, Exodus 34:17 tells us that the Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai did see something which looked like “a devouring fire” on the mountain top. A literal translation of the Hebrew would read “an eating fire,” one which consumes whatever gets too close to it; this should be contrasted to the flame at the burning bush in Exodus 3:2, which appears not to consume (but compare Hebrews 12:29). Some scholars explain the connection between cloud and fire in the Exodus 34 account as describing a volcanic eruption. In any case, both texts carry a strong undercurrent of fear.

We are not told why Joshua accompanied Moses part of the way up the mountain, but Moses’s fear of being alone with God would be a logical explanation. Matthew 17:6 records that the disciples “fell to the ground” in fright. This parallelism challenges the common but completely untenable distinction between “the Old Testament God of fear and the New Testament God of love.” In both testaments, God is always to be both feared and loved (the Hebrew yir’a is difficult to translate into English, but sits somewhere between “respectful awe” and “sensible fear”). The same affective response is common in the Resurrection narratives: though the initial fear may eventually resolve to joy, whenever God or God-in-Christ appears to us, we are deeply unsettled by the presence of a power so much greater than our own.

The other affective character of both texts is loneliness. Th. Booij [“Mountain and Theophany in the Sinai Narrative,” Biblica 65:1, 1984, p. 11] explains the remoteness and isolation of Mount Sinai: “One has to journey three days into the wilderness in order to be out of the Egyptian cultic territory. So…the mountain of God is extra-territorial; it lies outside Egypt, first of all, and outside Midian, ‘behind the wilderness’ (Exod 3:1). There, beyond human territory, it is a holy place and a meeting place for nomadic or partly nomadic groups…” [see also Belden Lane, “Fierce Landscapes and the Indifference of God,” The Christian Century, Oct. 11, 1989, pp. 907-910]. Moses is alone at the top of a lonely, holy place. Jesus is not alone on the un-named mountain; Peter, James, and John are with him. The difference between three companions and no companions is significant, though no amount of companionship could easily reduce the loneliness of Jesus’s messianic vocation.

Connecting Exodus 24 with Matthew 17 is sometimes justified by the current opinion that Matthew portrays Jesus as “the new Moses”. Typologically this may be true, but the preacher’s failure to grasp the poetic license behind the juxtaposition of Moses and Jesus ultimately does violence to both texts under consideration. Both Moses and Jesus are influencers and mediators in bridging God’s will to humanity, but neither is the source of Torah. That is God’s role alone. Both Moses and Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is to be worked out here among humanity, and both attempted to provide “a pattern of life which alone measures the capacity of the human heart” [Sklba, p. 16]. But to the dynamic revelation at Sinai, that the will and presence of God can be discerned in the “tablets” of scripture and tradition, Jesus adds a new dimension: the will and presence of God can be discerned in the lives of individuals among whom we live. Jesus did not come to destroy the authority of all that Moses brought down from Sinai (see Matthew 5:17), but rather to teach us yet one more way to access God’s love, by turning to the lives and characters of our own human brothers and sisters.

Philip Culbertson
Auckland, New Zealand

Mental Health and Polynesian Clients

Originally published in The GM Resource & Referral Directory 2000, 258-259.
By Cabrini Makasiale, with Philip Culbertson

People indigenous to Oceania and the South Pacific are either Melanesians (Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea) or Polynesians (Samoa, Tonga, Rarotonga, Niue, Aotearoa). There is a great similarity when we talk about doing counselling and psychotherapy with people of these various cultures, and yet each culture has its unique history, traditions, and values. In order to be responsible, since no Melanesian therapist contributed to this article, the remarks herein are limited to the stressors and needs of Polynesian clients.


Five major issues define Polynesian identity: hierarchy, obedience, family, land, and spirituality. Polynesian cultures are all hierarchical, though there is some difference among them in the way that power is distributed and moderated. All Polynesian cultures require obedience from inferior to superior in a complicated vertical structure of authority. “Family” is a large category in Polynesian societies, and most often resembles what Pakeha would call “a widely-extended” family. Land, too, is a primary source of identity: all Polynesians can recite easily the name of the village or geographical area to which their family belongs and something of the family’s history there. Personal names often relate to family history, or geography of origin, or the achievements of an outstanding ancestor, or the family’s hopes for the bearer. Names, like traditions of greeting and welcoming, are a critical factor in establishing a therapeutic alliance with Polynesian clients. Conversely, incorrectly pronouncing a client’s name or dismissing the expectations of cultural protocols, can quickly damage that alliance.

Culture Specific Stresses

It is very difficult for Polynesians to separate culture from self, or family from self. A child is born into “a group belonging.” From day one, the child goes to the group – on the mother’s lap, the sister’s lap, the auntie’s lap – and sleeps with a group when the group sleeps, and is carried everywhere and participates in everything. For this reason, many Polynesians are unskilled at making decisions independently, without seeking family advice and consensus. Therefore, an “externally-referenced” personality emerges. Pakeha culture presumes an independent core identity of separation, individuation, and individualism; Polynesian culture presumes a situational identity, dictated most often by cultural expectations, family desires, and tradition as interpreted by elders. Exposure to Pakeha ways of being and thinking undermines this identity structure, and can create significant stress and even nnd so the counselor working cross-culturally must exercise patience with the client.

With Polynesians, the family is always present, even when it is invisible (the family within). At times, it may be appropriate to have other family members present in the treatment rooms. At other times, the “internal family” needs to be made visible through externalization. Only then can choices be made about when to be connected and when to be separate. Polynesian clients may be reluctant to make decisions or behavioral changes without checking with the extended family first. I say to my client, “Yes, you may go check with your family, and there’s something else I would like to put before you to have a look at and see whether you would be interested in another way of looking at it – after you have come back from your family.” Eventually they will tire of functioning as a go-between between the therapist and the family, and begin to find a sense of self, to make decisions on their own.

The mental health worker’s knowledge of the client’s culture, effective observation of expected protocols, and a secure therapeutic alliance of trust all serve as doorways to allow new ideas to be introduced. Among the most productive counseling techniques is re-framing, in which the content or intent of traditional ways of doing things is honored, but the outward expression of the tradition is altered to accommodate the client’s new situation, or needs for personal expression toward future goals.

For Further Reading:

  • Becker, Anne. 1995. Body, Self and Society: The View from Fiji. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. >
  • Culbertson, Philip. 1997. Counselling Issues in South Pacific Communities. Auckland: Accent Books.
  • Culbertson, Philip. 1999. “Listening Differently to Maori and Polynesian Clients,” Forum: The Journal of the New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists 5, 64-82.
  • Epati, A’e’au Semi. 1998. “Multi-Cultural Issues in Everyday Practice: Samoan Culture.” Auckland: Auckland District Law Society.
  • Finnegan, Ruth and Margaret Orbell (eds). 1995. South Pacific Oral Traditions. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Foster, RoseMarie Perez, Michael Moskowitz, and Rafael Art. Javier (eds). 1996. Reading Across Boundaries of Culture and Class: Widening the Scope of Psychotherapy. Northvale: Jason Aronson.
  • Ihimaera, Witi, ed. 1998. Growing Up Maori. Auckland: Tandem.
  • Mageo, Jeannette Marie. 1998. Theorizing Self in Samoa: Emotions, Genders, and Sexualities. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
  • Morton, Helen. 1996. Becoming Tongan: An Ethnography of Childhood. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Tuilotolava, Mary. 1998. “Multi-Cultural Issues in Everyday Practice: Tongan Culture.” Auckland: Auckland District Law Society.


Mental Health and Indian Clients

Originally published in The GM Resource & Referral Directory 2000, 258-259.
By Laetitia Puthenpadath, with Philip Culbertson

The attainment of autonomy and emotional dependence from childhood attachments is a Western notion. In the Indian cultural context, personality development is a relational process. Maturation of the human person is attained through coming into harmony within social relationships. Self-identity is extended into a familiar self. This means fulfilling a complex system of obligations and responsibilities towards others throughout one’s life cycle. Even beliefs concerning the nature of health and illness flow from such an extended sense of self. Disease is not just localised in the individual. Well-being is viewed as a balance or harmony of forces maintained by the proper observance of social obligations and other interpersonal behaviours.


Indian culture is actually extremely diverse, so the mental health worker should not assume a sense of uniformity from one Indian client to the next. Yet all Indian clients tread the difficult line between individuality and a family-defined “we-self” which may strike the Westerner as completely paradoxical. While Indian clients have many ways of expressing their individualism, in the end they are extremely sensitive to family ties, societal conformity and group approval.

Traditional values include interpersonal harmony, filial piety, hierarchical family and social relations, and shame as a major behavioural influence, ideals of emotional restraint and self-control. Attainment of harmony both intrapsychic and interpersonal through negotiation between individual’s needs and group needs is of high value. Indian culture normalises dependency. Experiencing helplessness is accepted as a basic fact of human existence.

Another significant cultural element is shame. The phenomenon of shame influences behavioural patterns in Indian culture. An Indian living in a Western culture, if unable to live according to the norms of the family, will suffer a sense of guilt and shame which colours his or her behaviour not only at home but in public intercourse as well. The implications of this shame-based emotional link between self-image and the image of others can be far reaching. Exploration of self-identity and fulfillment of self-esteem will have less meaning for an Indian client and may actually intensify guilt feelings, derived from the inability to subordinate his or her desire for autonomy, in order to live harmoniously with parents and peers. Western models of psychotherapy that call for clients to express themselves openly in healthy self-disclosure, especially concerning problems with parents or elders, may cause difficulties for an Indian client. The client may experience this as self-indulgence and against the values of loyalty and family obligation.

Culture Specific Stresses

Due to the paradoxical nature of Indian culture, stressors are extremely contextual. Predictable ones include the pressures and expectations which come with Indian culture’s complex structuring according to caste, class, socio-economic influence, and race. In general, Indians feel caught between the influences of Western culture, and the patriarchal authority assumed by the indigenous cultures of the country.

Duty to parents and elders is a strong value in all Indian cultures, a duty which continues into adulthood. Because Indian children are raised in groups, by groups of caregivers, individualism remains a possibility where individuation is not. The norms of filial piety preclude any of the discussion or debate inside the family that ordinarily leads to individuation. Instead, Indian children are raised with an elevated awareness of the importance of pleasing their families in all things, and increasing the family’s status in society.

Gender role divisions are rigid in these patrilineal and patriarchal cultures, and the status of women in most families is often quite low. Even arranged marriages are expected to succeed, primarily through subordination of women to their husbands.

Coping Strategies

Coping strategies of Indian clients are basically four. Clients may somatise, that is, express their psychic stresses in bodily disorders. Conversely, they are susceptible to conversion disorders, in which bodily ills are expressed through psychological maladjustment. In more extreme cases, clients may exhibit histrionic symptoms or compulsive behaviours.

Symptom Presentations

Many Indian clients may seem to be emotionally repressed; culturally one is expected to always subordinate the individual self to the needs of the group, in order to avoid disharmony and disruption. Symptom presentations often appear subconsciously calculated to restore a version of the client’s childhood history which will maintain the integrity of the family’s social status of choice.

In New Zealand, Indians experiencing acculturation conflict ordinarily pass through three distinct stages: (1) The individual conforms to parental values, and adopts a traditional stance. (2) The individual rebels against parental values and adopts an extreme affiliation with Western values. (3) The individual attains self-worth through developing a new Indian-New Zealander cultural heritage with mainstream Western values. Mental health workers need to measure carefully the development level of their Indian clients, in order to choose a therapeutic approach that will be appropriate.

Psychological Approaches To The Treatment

Psychotherapy and counselling are not usually familiar in the various Indian cultures; physicians, however, are held in very high regard, so most referrals for psychological support must originate with a GP for them to be taken seriously. The mental health worker should expect that a “quick magic fix” be requested, due to cultural expectations. Long term treatment plans are, therefore, rarely successful; when the Indian client does not see immediate results, he or she will usually terminate. For this reason, contractual brief-term therapies – solution oriented and designed for symptom relief – are the best options.

Indian clients expectations of mental health workers are strongly shaped by the traditional Indian expectation of a guru-disciple relationship. To therapists, this will feel like an unhealthy dependency, but should be recognized as an expression of cultural norms. Therapists may find themselves quickly idealized, and then the subject of the client’s projected shadow as a test of the relationship. The client will often test the counsellor’s personal integrity and spiritual depth as well, since Indian culture is still heavily affected by Hindu spiritual values. Mental health workers are cautioned to focus on their own personal integrity, and to let go of any desire to succeed or to see results.

For Further Reading:

  • Almeida, Rhea. “Hindu, Christian and Muslim Families.” In Monica McGoldrick, Joe Giordano, and John Pearce (eds.) Ethnicity and Family Therapy. 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press, 395-423. >
  • Bracero, W. 1994. “Developing culturally sensitive psychodynamic case formulations: The effects of Asian cultural element on psychoanalytic control-mastery theory.” Psychotherapy 31:3, 525-532.
  • Britt Krause, Inga. 1998. Therapy Across Culture. London and New Delhi: Sage Publications.
  • Hoch, E. 1960. “Patterns of neurosis in India.” American Journal of Psycho-Analysis 20:3, 8T
  • Hoch, E. 1963. Psychotherapy in India and Indo-Asian Culture. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations.
  • Kakor, Sudhir. 1991. Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kurtz, Stanley. 1994. All Mothers are One: Hindu Indians and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Mitchell, S. 1988. Relational Concepts in Psychoanalysis: An Integration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Singh, Ajit. 1998. “Multi-Cultural Issues in Everyday Practice: Indian Culture.” Auckland: Auckland District Law Society.
  • Sue, D. W. and Sue, D. 1990. Counseling the Culturally Different: Theory and Practice. Second edition. New York: John Wiley.