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

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Event sponsored by the Infinity Foundation, NJ, USA

Report by Matthijs Cornelissen, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry to Rajiv Malhotra, The Infinity Foundation

Dear Rajiv,

I thought I should give you a little feedback on the psychology conference in Kollam.

It was for me very interesting to see what a complex world the psychology scene in India is. George Mathew had organised the conference in such a way that the first two days were entirely devoted to Indian Psychology. There turned out to be little in depth knowledge but a great interest and openness in this direction. According to those who had attended earlier conferences, this was the first time that so many psychologists so openly came out with their interest in their own tradition. The enthusiasm was visible, moreover, throughout the spectrum of location, sophistication, status and seniority. Only two people expressed serious reservations about the advisability of introducing Indian psychology in the curriculum, and even they did not dare to oppose it directly. Janak Pandey of the G.B. Pant institute in Allahabad, who is probably one of the most capable and influential people in the field of Psychology in India at present, concluded the conference by saying (approvingly) that it did mark a definite shift in focus. All this is the more remarkable as till now Indian perspectives on psychology are taught only in very few universities, and that generally as a minor side topic.

The Infinity Foundation grant made it possible for a large number of people from North India to attend, so the influence of this conference will be felt on an all India level. Appreciation for this financial support was expressed at several occasions.

I'm afraid Peter Fenner's talk went over the head of most of the audience, as most Indian psychologists are not involved in psychotherapy and know little about Buddhism, but his trip was worth it for the sake of one absolutely perfect remark he made at the concluding session on the second day. He said there that he was impressed by the extensive knowledge of western psychology the speakers had shown, but astounded to find that they were seriously discussing whether there was something like Indian psychology and whether it was worth teaching it at the Universities, especially since the whole rest of the world is clamoring for it. His remark was perfectly timed and right on target.

One of the most constructive developments is that Kiran Kumar of Mysore university (who also attended the conference on Integral Psychology in Pondy) has got a syllabus approved for a course on "Indian perspectives on Psychology". He is also planning to give 3-4 week refresher courses for psychology teachers who are planning to teach this subject. He may approach you for financial support if the Indian Government fails to do its duty. You can find the syllabus he proposes in the conference proceedings.

Neeltje gave a workshop on teaching psychology based on her experience in Mirambika (the integral teacher training centre we founded in Delhi). It is clear that teaching Indian psychology exclusively in the form of lectures transferring information is not enough. As the basis of Indian psychology is self-observation & direct personal experience, these have to be incorporated in the teaching of Indian psychology. Kiran Kumar got enthusiastic and is working on ways to incorporate Neeltjes' approach in his course and in research projects we are planning to set up together.

I've attached the talk I gave immediately after the presidential address by Janak Pandey. It is a bit simplistic, as I've left out all references to more progressive strands in western psychology as well as all references to recent developments in the philosophy of science, but I think this approach was appropriate for most of the audience. (There are huge differences in sophistication between Delhi and the smaller State Universities: while Delhi University is steeped in post modern thought, most other universities still follow a classic cognitive-behavioral paradigm. I guess that there must be a similar split between high-brow philosophy and daily practice in US psychology departments.)

The basic points I tried to convey are similar to what Don argues:

1. Indian philosophy offers a much wider and more coherent ontology than western philosophy, so you can understand western science perfectly from within the Indian framework, but when you try to study Indian knowledge systems through any of the accepted western scientific methodologies you are bound to miss the essence of it.
2. Reductionist science trivialises life. Constructivism and its relatives have done an excellent job breaking it down, but they leave the social sciences in a mess: they end with social consensus as the only criterion for truth, which is a loose & quite dangerous foundation for science. The Indian approach, on the other hand, which uses yoga as a method to get at valid, unbiased and reliable inner knowledge by a systematic perfectioning of the inner instrument of knowledge (the antahkarana) offers a much more promising direction for the social sciences and especially for psychology. It leads to solid and applicable knowledge, and it is founded on a perfectly sound and internally coherent epistemology.
3. Indian psychology is not something that belongs to the past, or to India alone, but something that is of the greatest importance for the future of the world as a whole.

I think that we are just at the beginning of a long process of cultural change, but it appears that a crucial turning point has been taken.

Best regards,

Matthijs Cornelissen

PS 1. You were quite right in describing George Mathew as a winner. He did an excellent job with this conference and there is no way it could have turned out so well without him. At the end of the conference he was in fact offered to become the next president of the National Association of Indian Psychologists but he refused. My only consolation is that he is in good company: Sri Aurobindo refused in the 40s to become president of the Indian Congress! I'm looking forward to see what he is going to do next.

PS 2. I recently came across an announcement for your July conference on the second Renaissance. If you think this would be appropriate I would be happy to give there a presentation on similar lines as what I presented in Kollam. I strongly feel that the most important contribution the Indian tradition has to make is in its basic ontology and epistemology and in yoga as the practical means to arrive at high quality subjective insight as well as psychological change. Given the different audience I could probably go into more detail. I think you should invite George Mathew for the July conference, and perhaps Janak Pandey and Girish Misra (head of the psychology dept. in Delhi).