In the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when the great warrior Arjuna faced the army of Kauravas, he was overcome with sorrow. Among them where his brothers, friends and teachers – how could he be expected to kill them? Sensing his dilemma, Arjuna’s charioteer Lord Krishna intervened, and urged him to place duty above all else.

This conversation between Krishna and Arjuna, compiled in the Bhagwada Gita, is one of the earliest examples of cognitive therapy, says Dr Avinash Joshi, a psychiatrist in Nagpur. “Arjuna was demoralised but his attitude changed after Krishna’s sermon. The rest, as they say, is history.”

On a hot summer day in Nagpur, Joshi was giving this writer a tour of the Museum of Brain and Mind that he founded in 2007. For what is perhaps the only one of its kind in India, the museum barely asserts itself – it occupies just three small rooms of a 10-storey building dominated by corporate offices and nursing homes.

A graduate from Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, Joshi almost single-handedly developed material for this museum to educate people about mental illnesses in particular and the workings of the brain in general. “Most people I’ve met are curious [about mental health] but have a lot of misconceptions,” he said. “For example, many would often ask me if a psychiatrist can read minds.”

Its walls are lined with posters documenting the history of mental illness, the various kinds of ailments and the treatments available. There are sections dedicated to the history of psychiatry, anxiety and mood disorders, child psychology and addiction as well as the workings of the brain, neurosurgery and even how spirituality affects the mind.

With illustrations and accompanying text in Hindi, the posters try to break down the complex world of mental health into a form that even a school student can understand.They also assert that mental illnesses are not a concept imported from the West, as some sceptics suggest.

Big gap

Mental illnesses are not just widely misunderstood but also taboo in India. The low priority accorded to mental health is evident in the medical infrastructure as well: India has just about 3,000 psychiatrists (against a need of 11,500), according to data from the National Rights Human Commission. It also has just and 443 public mental hospitals to treat an estimated 70 million suffering from mental illnesses in the country. The situation is worse in rural areas, where facilities are limited and people often approach faith healers or tantric and voodoo practitioners, consigning mental illnessess to the realm of the occult.

“Nobody says ‘I had a heart attack because of black magic,’” saidJoshi. “Even a lay-person might be aware of terms like angioplasty or bypass surgery. But we don’t understand mental illnesses, so we attribute it to something beyond our understanding.”

The idea for the museum was sparked during a visit to the Rock Gardens of Chandigarh in 2003, Joshi said. Though the concept of Rock Gardens – a 40-acre space decorated with sculptures made of urban and industrial waste including rocks, tiles and bangles – is entirely different, it was the passion of its founder, Nek Chand, an official in the Public Works Department of Punjab that inspired Dr Joshi.

“I was greatly impressed by his passion,” Joshi said. “He collected rocks. I decided to collect words.”

A year later, he started researching and writing on various aspects of mental health, documenting the history of its evolution – from the mythology to modern science, from Krishna to Sigmund Freud. He worked in early mornings, late nights and in his spare time between treating patients, spending nearly Rs 5 lakh to set up the musuem.

The musuem, Joshi said, is an attempt to decode the human mind by explaining the workings of the brain. It delves into the biological make-up as well as the neurological processes to understand the mind in the context of addiction, psychology and mood disorders. Once he had the posters ready, he contacted the local veterinary hospital and procured brains of an ox, dog and a goat for comparison with the human brain, which are displayed at the musuem. As a finishing touch, he installed a “confession box”, where visitors could write about anything that ails them or even seek counselling. Such discretion is necessary, he explained, as mental illness is still largely stigmatised in India, even though awareness about it is growing in recent years.

The Museum of Brain and Mind relies mostly on word-of-mouth for publicity. While this writer did not find any visitors in the hour he spent there, Joshi insisted it had generated interest among school students, doctors and nursing staff, social workers and, on occasion, rationalists like the late Narendra Dabholkar.

He now plans to start a self-help group to help deal with internet addiction, along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, that he plans to run from the musuem. Initiatives like these, he said, will help create wider acceptance of mental illnesses. “And hopefully, people would realise that even our brain needs to be nurtured and cared for,” Joshi said. “Just like our heart.”