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Spirituality and Participatory Rural Appraisal

Faculty Member
Madurai Institute of Social Sciences

Reflections on PRA- Summary

Men will devise beautiful methods of seeking /research that will promise /guarantee not only full
development of the seeker but it also provide right knowledge, which leads to effective action
H.H. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
The author finds a lot of similarity in the content of PRA and the theory of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s
transcendental meditation. An attempt is made to highlight the similarities. While dealing with the
student researchers, the author finds that they were mischievous with research methodology, especially
with data collection. The author traces this sorry state of affairs to some of the limitations of
conventional research. The ideas of “unlearning”, “handing over the stick” etc of PR have parallels in
Yoga, Zen Buddhism, transcendental Meditation. It is opined that PRA has incorporated both objective
as well as subjective methods to gain knowledge.
The conventional research methodology and the PRA has been compared in terms of process,
mystification of research, logic and rationality, methods of gaining knowledge –subjective vs.
objective, specialization vs. common basis of knowledge, passive vs. dynamic neutrality, researcher vs.
researched etc.
This article tries to look at PRA from a totally different perspective which needs to be further
examined. It may ultimately lead to new ways of bringing attitude and behavior change of an enduring
This paper was presented in the South- South Workshop on PRA: Attitudes and Behaviour
jointly organized by Action Aid India Bangalore and SPEECH, Madurai 1-10 July 1996.

This paper is based on my personal experience in PRA practice,

not as a lecturer in social work, but as a student and practitioner
of Transcendental Meditation

My first exposure to PRA was in the year 1992, in a PRA

training program organized by SPEECH (Society for People’s
Education and Economic Change). I was happy for many
reasons. I would have been jealous about the trainer Mr. John
Devavaram, his graceful mannerism, the way he introduced the
subject, his mark of simplicity, professionalism and transparency
in the training program and the hands on experience, provided if
the philosophical content of the PRA would not have reflected
the great vision of my spiritual master H.H. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Twenty years before he
prophesied that humanity will devise beautiful methods of seeking research that will promise /
guarantee not only the full development of the seeker (researcher), but also provides right
knowledge leads to effective action. I realized that his vision get reflected in the content of PRA
and I found a lot of similarity between the content of PRA and the theory of Transcendental

As a college lecturer, I had sufficient exposure (?) in the conventional research methodology. I
brought up in an academic environment which was not that much sensitive either to research
ethics or its perfection, so I used to feel that the methods that we employed instead of taking us
nearer to the truth …it alienated us from the truth …it never helped us to understand the “soul”
of the phenomena in question. When my students were mischievous with research methodology
(especially with data collection), I was able to understand them because I too was like them
during my student days. Not as a teacher but as a meditator, I realized that the reason for this
sorry state of was that for any purposeful involvement either the doer must be in a happy mood
or the process of doing should generate happiness? If this is not happening then the result,
especially in the research, will be a “Learned Mischief”. To avoid this, we have to keep the
researcher in a happy mood or to employ a process which will automatically generate happiness.
As a teacher of transcendental meditation, I thought that this was possible through the practice of
meditation. I have not advocated this to any one for the fear of ridicule.

The theory of transcendental meditation

used to say that searching is an innate
quality of human beings and it is not out of
fun people are seeking the unknown ( or for
the right understanding of the
known).People are seeking because the
process provides happiness, clarity,
awareness and more than that psychic
integration. If the process fails to provide
this, then the searching will become a
burden …and to lessen the burden we resort
to be formal, ritualistic. Since, searching and researching is innate to human beings, the process
and methods should also be natural, effortless and should be accessible and understandable to the
people interested in it, irrespective of their (academic) background.

When I attended the PRA training with this mental framework, I was able to understand how the
PRA process has been simplified and how objective and subjective methods of gaining
knowledge are rightly integrated not only for the better understanding of the phenomena under
observation but also for the personal enrichment of the researcher. It is my humble opinion that if
research methodologies failed to take care of the researcher’s ‘self”, then it will be too
mechanical and will not be soul satisfying.
The PRA process has taken care of both the knower (researcher) and the process of knowing
(researching). The special emphasis given to certain concepts like “unlearning”, “witnessing”
“handing over the stick” and “learning together” made me to recollect the great wisdom
contained in Yoga and Zen Buddhist tradition … an acknowledged way to put the knower in the
path of enlightenment.

I realized in the first PRA training itself that the advocates and proponents of PRA made
attempts to provide a natural and effortless procedure of gaining knowledge (techniques of PRA)
which simultaneously includes the procedure for the development of the researcher (attitudinal

I feel that PRA seems to be the need of our time. . It is an outcome of the efforts of people who
were seeking new methodologies to take care of both the knower (researcher) and the process of
gaining knowledge simultaneously. The incorporation of certain concepts (e.g. unlearning)
which are subjective in nature, the purpose of which, I feel, is to purify the researchers’

The term unlearning is frequently used in Yoga literature to get rid of the psychological
memories (not factual memories) to get perceptual clarity and an open mind. So, also the term
witnessing is frequently used by eastern mystics to se the things as they are without seers’
interruption. Handing over the stick demands tremendous psychological mobility from the
position of an instructor to a learner … which demands the dissolution of the ego of the person
(knower) involved in the process. There is a logical sequence in the terminology used in the PRA
training. Unlearning leads to smooth handing over the stick which will result in genuine way of
learning together, which is psychologically rewarding, non alienative, integrative and take us
nearer to truth.

What I have learned from my PRA training, that PRA has incorporated both subjective as well as
objective methods to gain knowledge. Subjective methods to purify / develop the researcher..to
expand his consciousness so that his perception may be unbiased … gives the ability to perceive
things from different angles …or the ability to see both sides of the coin simultaneously. And
objective methods (e.g. social mapping) to gain knowledge. When the objective and subjective
methods are rightly combined, the ordinary observation of the researcher will become visionary..
Which is extra rational (not irrational), holistic and intuitive…one will get insights i.e. more than
the findings one get from the research.

There is a danger of interpreting the same empirical evidence indifferent ways, because the level
of expertise and experience (level of consciousness) differ from researcher to researcher. But in
PRA, right understanding result not only from empirical evidence, but also from the researchers
level of consciousness, which is the home of all knowledge, which any field worker/ researcher
can gain it through unlearning, witnessing and handing over the stick for which academic
qualification is not a pre requisite.

With this understanding, I made an attempt to identify the differences between conventional
research and PRA

Conventional Participatory Rural Appraisal

The researcher, the researched and the process The researcher, the researched and the process
of research are separate of research are inseparable
It mystifies the research by demanding formal It demystifies research by declaring that
educational qualification searching is an innate quality of human beings
in which any one can participate and contribute
It used only logic and rationality It uses not only logic and rationality but also
It emphasize only on objective methods of It emphasize both objective and subjective
gaining knowledge methods of gaining knowledge
Success is measured based on the amount of Success is measured based on the integration
empirical evidence generated and its reliability of information generated. Since the integration
is innate in the process, it is always reliable.
It emphasize on specialization kept the It emphasis on team, common basis of all
researcher within narrow boundaries knowledge / disciplines
It emphasize the filling the container of It emphasize not only filling but also
knowledge (knower/researcher) through more expanding the container of the knowledge
It emphasize on passive neutrality It emphasize on witnessing which leads to
dynamic neutrality, which is critical but not
Systematic or holistic understanding is difficult Systematic or holistic understanding is easy
to achieve achieve
Since the researcher and the researched are two Researcher and the researched influence upon
separate entities, there is no influence or one another which leads to empathy
impact on the another

By pointing out the differences, neither I am intending to claim superior status for PRA nor to
declare that PRA will replace conventional research in the time to come. I feel that PRA will add
beauty, meaning and enrich the research process.

Not only the subjective concepts emphasized in PRA, but also the objective methods used in
PRA have its own impact on researcher’s psyche. I have noticed such an impact from social
mapping exercise. Social map, once drawn, will remove the cognitive gap related to a place and
its people and it kindles the imagination and planning, positive qualities a researcher has to