Kerala Seminar - Psychology in India: Past, Present and Future

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Event sponsored by the Infinity Foundation, NJ, USA

"Sharing my Experience About the Psychology Conference at Kollam," a report by Sangeetha Menon, PhD, Associate Fellow: Consciousness Studies, Philosophy of Science Unit, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore, India 560 012

1. Organisation: The organisers really did a wonderful job, always careful to have traditional Kerala touch, including for the formal inaugural session. The head of the dept. of psychology of the college, principal and their colleagues were all so wonderful. My thanks to all who made this conference possible, especially, Prof. George Mathew (Head, Dept. of Psychology, University of Kerala), Prof. Jose Puthenveed (Head, Dept. of Psychology, FMN College, Kollam) and Prof. Henry (Principal, FMN College, Kollam). I would say it was a good 'experience'. They tried to include all of whom desired for paper presentation, and even fit in a panel session.

2.Quality: Sadly, below average papers ruled the stage. It once again showed that Indians have the 'extraordinary' ability to talk about something with no research or thinking at all. The President of the Academy, with whom I had extensive dialogues shared my view. But still, if I make a little more differentiation, the senior professors seemed unconcerned about what they speak, or to put their ideas in a larger context and open it up for dialogues. Young scholars and students, though their representation was quite small, relatively, did a better job. Most of the papers concerning Indian psychology were repetitive and usual glorifying stuff with the starter like 'ancient Indian wisdom or psychology having all answers and being the repository of all solutions'. There were hardly any presentation (on Indian psychology) with detailed study, except a few on Sri Aurobindo's psychology.

3. Convictions: It was interesting to see that almost 90% of the participants directly or indirectly appreciated the idea of looking at
'Indian psychology'. Of the 10% which didn't favour the idea, half the number had somewhat well spelt out reasons, while the other half had reasons based on faulty notions and ideas. This came up during the panel session which Janak Pandey (President of NAOP) chaired, on the last evening of the conference. Two ideas fascinated me, of the opponents of (looking at) Indian psychology, both for their shallow conceptualisation. One argument ( he was a senior professor of psychology) was that Indian psychology cant be related to empirical methods, and the other argument was that (she is a feminist, I think) ideas like 'self-exploration' cannot be pursued by subaltern sections of the society, since it is for hierarchically higher classes or sections of people. Let me also share with you my responses (in short) to these two arguments which I expressed at the panel: i) there need to be a clear distinction made between what is empirical and what is experiential; to be empirical, in order to be validated, is a normative idea we have followed, but the norm need not be the truth, when what is 'empirical' itself is to be re-looked and accounted for. ii) 'self-exploration' or 'self-hood' is not a right to
be gained or lost. It is looking for new understandings of one's identity, re-directing goals, new experiences. What is needed is a paradigm shift in our thinking and framing concepts

4. Experience: The conference over and above helped to generate a wholesome and tranquil ambiance, which I think is also influential in helping people to frame their thoughts. The Stotras which were chanted in between the presentations, and the mystic fading sound of the cymbals and the silence which followed, certainly created a spiritual, positive environment all throughout. This particular design made the conference a unique one. Also, the boat ride to the island resort for the second day's session was quite relaxing, though the sessions at the resort themselves were not that rewarding.

5. What was missing: I think what was missing was, guidelines to the conference as to what to achieve through it, atleast the tangible goals. Certainly it brought a good number of people (though I am not sure how many are involved in decision making when it comes to recommendations, syllabi, courses etc.) together and raise the main issue of 'Indian psychology'. The number of paper presentations exceeded limit by both quality and quantity. What would have helped is:

i) at least one small round table meet on core issues, immediate and future

ii) review and selection of presentations than the 'open for all' method

iii) publication of a document (with suggestions, recommendations and
selected papers)

6. Dialogue with Janak Pandey: On the last evening of the conference I had an interesting dialogue with him, who is the Director of G.B.Pant Institute for Social Sciences in Allahabad, (his email address is and the president of the NAOP (for 2000-2001). I came to know that, he has been compiling and publishing literature relating to Indian psychology for some years now. We shared many thoughts especially relating to quality research, present academic conditions in India etc. He was quite sad by the fact that social sciences and humanities, especially philosophy and psychology disciplines are facing major crisis because of substandard work in the departments. The critical number of quality people to sustain and continue these departments is presently absent. One idea we discussed is that, for the next NAOP meet (in Bhubaneshwar) we plan a round table meet of about 15 people who would have already thought about certain core themes, researched on it and also write about it. May be an e-group could be formed to facilitate this discussion months in advance to the next conference.

7.Syllabus suggested by Kiran Kumar: Only this professor from Mysore came up with a practical suggestion which was more tangible. His paper was a model of the papers on Indian psychology for undergraduate students. You can see this (in the hard copy document-proceedings – if that was sent to you) in the website where they have posted all abstracts – I was happy that he could take such an initiative but was quite dismayed by his selections of themes and his own idea of what constituted 'Indian psychology'. Later I had discussions with him, when I tried to talk with him that what is needed is just not a course on Indian psychology but an authentic and true representation of Indian psychology in such a manner that it is possible to place it in larger and
global contexts of discussion. I was quite unhappy that he didn't have a detailed picture of the themes for discussion or the resource people who will be able to give authentic ideas and who have spent good part of their lives studying the tradition, than who have 'learned' Indian philosophy as a recreational activity. I couldn't convince him on this issue since his point was that teachers wont listen to hardcore philosophy.

8. Other Dialogues: I also had a meeting with a senior professor(Prof. Mishra) at Dept. of Psychology of Delhi University. He was keen to have a seminar organised on 'consciousness' in Feb. 2002. I also suggested to him about designing and organising 2-3 week courses (for University psychology teachers) on Indian psychology. We hope to continue dialogue on these ideas.

9.Last but least, I am happy to inform you that mine was the (only) paper looking at contributions to Indian psychology from philosophy originated in Kerala. It had given me immense pleasure working for this paper, which gave me an opportunity to look at the philosophical traditions of Kerala, especially that which is also part of Malayalam literature. The title of this paper is "Binding Experiences: Looking at the Contributions of Adi Sankaracarya, Tuncettu Ezuttacchan and Sri Narayana Guru in the Context of Recent Discussions on Consciousness Studies". The full text of my paper could be read at

10. What I have shared here (1-9) is purely from my personal perspective, and hence I am sure there could be alternative views, experiences and suggestions.