Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming


  • Amitabh Vikram Dwivedi
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200039-1


Etymologically, the term “catharsis” is derived from the Greek word Katharsis, meaning “purification,” “cleansing,” “healing,” “transforming,” and “purging.” Bharat’s Natyashastra and Aristotle’s Poetics discuss catharsis in their dramatic theories. Bharat states that drama evokes a particular aesthetic–emotional experience, i.e., Rasa, which deals with and transcends the problem of egoism, whereas Aristotle claims that dramatic experience is uplifting and edifying. Both Indian and Greek scholars argue that the process of purification leads to liberation.

Most of the definitions of catharsis emphasize four chief aspects: cognitive, psychological, emotional, and religious. Aristotle and Bharat discuss the emotional effect of catharsis in their dramatic theories. An almost similar connotation of catharsis is mentioned in medicine: Hippocrates considers catharsis as a purifying agent, and he associates it with healing. Breuer and Freud bring forth the cognitive and psychological aspects of catharsis in modern psychology by introducing the therapeutic method in their “catharsis therapy.” Finally, the religious aspect of catharsis is associated with practices such as attending sermons, confessions, reading scriptures, chanting prayers, fasting, observing silence, mourning, and beating and torturing oneself.

Catharsis and Psychology

Freud and Breuer describe catharsis as an instinctive and involuntary body process, whereas the American Psychological Association describes it as “the discharge of affects connected to traumatic events.” Scheff incorporates the idea of distancing into catharsis – cognitive awareness and emotional–somatic discharge – while emphasizing the components of catharsis. Similarly, Schultz and Schultz define catharsis as the process of eliminating a complex through conscious awareness. Most of the psychological theories claim that unreleased negative emotions get stored in the psyche, and they create pressure on the human system – so much so that these emotions increase hypertension, hysteria, and other mental disorders; therefore, venting of negative emotions is necessary to keep us healthy. Many psychologists and health professionals support the hydraulic model, which is supported by an analogy of fluid flowing through the human body.

Catharsis and Religion

Religious texts add a spiritual aspect to catharsis, where the emphasis is on discharging harmful emotions from the head and the heart, so that followers can become pure. Mostly, religions consider human beings as sinful, and they provide prescriptions of dos and don’ts in the form of allowed actions and prohibited actions. Purification is generally performed in response to a diverse set of actions, circumstances, and objects: sex, birth, death, killing, disease, dirt, menstruation, bodily fluids, food, sorcery, prayer, adultery, and entry into religious places. Religions across cultures perform activities of purification with the help of sacrifice, prayer, food, water, blood, fire, pilgrimage, and changing of attire.

In Hinduism, vrat (“fasting”) is observed for many purposes: to please gods, to correct the metabolism of the human body, and to develop strong will and determination. Also, there are many types of fire sacrifices practiced in Hinduism to help seek the grace of a god as well as purification of the heart. In Christianity, the traditional “Sunday Mass” is a good example of providing relief to Christians and of increasing solidarity and social identity affirmation. In Islam, prayer, alms giving, the Ramadan fast, and pilgrimage to Mecca are compulsory for every Muslim. Further, the traditional religions have ceremonies such as curing rituals, funeral rites, and mourning, where cathartic activities such as crying, weeping, dancing, and drumming are performed so that the practitioners may convert negative emotions into virtuous dispositions.

See Also


  1. American Psychological Association. (2007). Dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  2. Aristotle. (2001). In R. McKeon (Ed.), The basic works of Aristotle. New York: Modern Library.Google Scholar
  3. Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1974). Studies on hysteria. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  4. Dwivedi, A. V. (2015). Gods in Indian popular jokes. In God and popular culture: A behind-the-scenes look at the entertainment industry’s most influential figure (Vol. 2). Santa Barbara: Praeger.Google Scholar
  5. Dwivedi, A. V. (2016). Hinduism. In The SAGE encyclopedia of war: Social science perspectives (Vol. 2, pp. 786–787). New Delhi: SAGE.Google Scholar
  6. Scheff, T. J. (2001). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Lincoln: iUniverse.com.Google Scholar
  7. Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A history of modern psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thompson.Google Scholar
  8. Szczeklik, A. (2005). Catharsis: On the art of medicine (trans: Lloyd-Jones, A.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar

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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Humanities & Social Sciences – Languages & LiteratureShri Mata Vaishno Devi UniversityKatraIndia