Skip to content

The Indian Jungle.

A Fortnightly Review.

The Indian Jungle: Psychoanalysis and Non-Western Civilizations
by Sudhir Kakar.
Karnac Books, 2o24 | 9781915565204 (paperback); 9781915565181 (e-book) |

By Anthony Howell. 

From the word go, Sudhir Kakar’s book on psychoanalysis and non-Western civilizations promises to be entertaining as well as enlightening. Initially he points out that most of our knowledge on how human beings feel, think and act is derived from a small subset of the world’s population which he identifies by the acronym WEIRD—Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. He maintains that this subset has a distinctive morality, citing Jonathan Haidt who, while studying morality in twelve groups of different social classes in different countries, told his interviewees stories and assessed their reactions.

One of the stories goes: A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. Only one group out of the twelve showed a majority (73 percent) who tolerated the chicken story, finding it acceptable. These were students from the University of Pennsylvania, a liberal, Ivy League college in the United States and certainly the most WEIRD among the twelve selected groups. Their rationale for their tolerance: It’s his chicken, it’s dead, nobody is getting hurt and it’s being done in private.

Though claiming scientific status, Freud’s creation of the discipline of psychoanalysis was Euro-centric, steeped in Greek mythology…

Though claiming scientific status, Freud’s creation of the discipline of psychoanalysis was Euro-centric, steeped in Greek mythology (perhaps the favourite “antiquity” of Europe since the Renaissance), and very much focused on the nuclear family; in itself a product of the industrialisation that is a component of WEIRD culture. Kakar points out that non-Western civilisations may have a cultural imagination that does not relate to this European view; an imagination that shapes a “vision of reality” in the lives, songs and stories of a vast number of people which may differ from the culture shared by European elites. Drawing on his own Hindu background, he points out that:

The Indian experience of the self is not that of a bounded, unique individuality. The Indian person is not a self-contained centre of awareness interacting with other similar such individuals. Instead the traditional Indian, in the dominant image of his culture and in much of his personal experience of the self, is constituted of relationships.

The almost exclusive emphasis on the parental couple in psychoanalysis is to some degree misplaced in a society where families are extended, where uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces provide a wealth of interactions. In analytic sessions in Delhi, this could create a conflict between the mental health of the individual and the health of the family as a whole.

I vividly remember the patriarch of a large, extended business family, clad in suit and tie, but with the traditional turban as his headgear, walking into my office one day to discuss the progress in therapy of his twenty-one-year-old granddaughter who had become clinically depressed as the date for her arranged marriage with the scion of another rich family approached. As her depressive symptoms receded, the girl began to express her opposition to her family’s plans for her marriage. Sitting across from my desk with both his palms resting on the silver handle of a walking stick he could hardly hide his disappointment in me: “She may be better, doctor, but we are much worse!”

Kakar…suggests that there is a role for silence that is well understood in Indian culture…

Elsewhere, Kakar compares the role of the psychoanalyst in the West to that of the Guru in India, and he suggests that there is a role for silence that is well understood in Indian culture and could benefit the analytic session. Thus the “talking cure might be helped if imbued with intervals of aware listening—which Kakar relates to meditation. At the same time, he is critical of the notion of the subject passively expecting his master to do the work for him, and he sometimes finds his Indian patients too passive, as if they expected to be cured in some mystical way, when the work has actually to be done both by the analyst and the analysand, and of course this may involve a degree of discomfort as barriers are broken down, and objections dismantled.

Kakar provides rich insights into the immense wealth of both Buddhist and Hindu mythology in terms of analytical paradigms that might aid analysis, particularly in non-Western environments—going into some detail about the roles of divinities such as Ganesha and Skanda and their relevance to issues of filial devotion, while the power of “maternal enthrallment” may be impacted by the hundreds of myths surrounding Devi, the great mother goddess, especially as the mother of sons. This introduces a Jungian aspect into what are largely Freudian issues; however, Freud’s somewhat exclusive focus on Oedipus is definitely in need of qualification (and expansion) when it comes to non-Western analytic issues. In contrast to the son though, Kakar observes that “the maternal enthrallment of the daughter is given short shrift in the Indian cultural imagination,” and he is critical of the little time a daughter spends with her father and especially the culturally enjoined cessation of any physical contact between the father and the daughter as she enters puberty.“The absent father at this stage of a growing girl’s life has been called ‘one of the great tragedies of Indian family life.’”

But this is not simply a book for analysts. Kakar is a novelist as well as a doctor of the mind, and he appreciates how literature and art allow different cultures to apprehend life in a diversity of ways. He sees the interconnections of the Indian extended family as reflected in what he considers a greater connective imagination congruent with the main thematic content of Indian art. He quotes an observation by Richard Lannoy, that Indian sculpture evokes: “an all-encompassing labyrinthine flux of animal, human and divine…visions of life in the flesh, all jumbled together…suffering and enjoying (life) in a thousand shapes, teeming, devouring, turning into one another.” Kakar continues,

Connective imagination is also the essence of many religious forms. I am especially thinking of Tibetan-Buddhist and Hindu Tantra which have the visualization of the deities and the devotee’s union with these mind-created forms as their central spiritual practice. Here, let me mention only one of the many tantric techniques, nyasa, in which a Tantric visualizes the goddess and then introjects her into the various parts of his body by touching them. The imaginative world created by the Tantric is not the personal one of the artist (or the psychotic) but is both shared and public in that it is based upon, guided, and formed by the symbolic, iconic network of his religious culture. Another example of religious practice where connective imagination manifests itself is in the daily ritual puja of an orthodox Hindu who gets the gods to dwell in the various limbs and parts of his body before he begins to chant his prayers. Indeed, a great attraction of religious practices may well lie in the opportunity they afford the believer to release and exercise his capacity for connective imagination.

Kakar’s wide fund of reference encompasses both Eastern and Western art, as well as their poetry and philosophy.

Kakar’s wide fund of reference encompasses both Eastern and Western art, as well as their poetry and philosophy. This makes for an immensely refreshing book. He contrasts the Oedipal trauma of patricide which Freud maintained dominated the West with a more likely trauma of filicide in East, where the father envies the son’s bond with the mother (Kakar points out that a child may be suckled far longer in India than in the West, and that the mother remains a nourishing force long after infancy). But he is also able to borrow from Schopenhauer’s imagery, that the basic problem of human relationships resembles that of hedgehogs on a cold night.

They creep closer to each other for warmth, are pricked by quills and move away, but then get cold again and try to come nearer. This movement to and fro is repeated until an optimum position is reached in which the body temperature is above the freezing point and yet the pain inflicted by the quills (the nearness of each other) is still bearable.

His cultural awareness prompts him to point out how important one’s mother tongue may be for effective analysis.

One’s mother tongue, the language of one’s childhood, is intimately linked with emotionally coloured sensory-motor experiences. Psychoanalysis in a language that is not the patient’s own is often in danger of leading to “operational thinking”, that is, verbal expressions lacking associational links with feelings, symbols, and memories. However grammatically correct and rich in its vocabulary, the alien language suffers from emotional poverty, certainly as far as early memories are concerned.

Kakar goes some way into how an analyst may deal with this issue in practice, warning of the danger of thinking that you know the nature of the subject’s culture, when this is actually your own projection—as he says, a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.

This is a book that has insights which may contribute to the creativity of the artist and to the writer as well as to those interested in analysis. I particularly appreciated Kakar’s choice of this quotation from John Keats:

As to the poetic Character itself—it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing. It has no character—it enjoys light and hate; it loves in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet—A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no identity—Not one word I ever utter can be taken for granted as an opinion growing out of my identical nature—the identity of everyone begins to press upon me. (Keats, 1958, pp. 386–87)

…he sees the empathetic role as in essence no role,…

Kakar is discussing this in relation to the empathy required of the analyst in order to relate to his patient or client. He sees this as the “cornerstone of the healing process,” and it intrigues me that he sees the empathetic role as in essence no role, the analyst is not a character, and his persona is either shaped by the requirement of his subject or it would “often appear to be absent, transiently replaced by the experience of the patient.”

The final chapter of this book concerns “Desire in old Age” and the varying approaches to this issue in the West and in the East. It is a thorny subject, both for gurus and for analysts, as indeed it is for authors and artists—(I’m thinking now of Picasso’s drawings of the wizened old ape drawing a delicious young creature). Kakar may not have been able to bring this chapter to conclusive resolution, and seems finally to veer away from the subject of contrasting views in terms of European and Indian attitudes, settling mainly for examples from contemporary Western literature; but I did enjoy this observation that he made.

Leaving aside the question whether Freud’s (1905a) view that the mental processes of people older than fifty are inelastic and thus they are unsuitable for psychoanalytic treatment has its antecedents in Freud’s own personal stance toward old age, it is fortunate that a number of analysts did not make Freud’s reservations their own. In an exhaustive review of psychoanalytic literature of the last hundred years on the psychoanalysis of the elderly, Plotkin (2014) shows that a number of analysts have not only refuted Freud’s claim of old-age rigidity but, in some cases (e.g., Cohen, 2005; Coltart, 1991; King, 1980; Pollock, 1982), turned it on its head, finding older adults more insightful, focused, and less defensive. Yet, it is also true that, by and large, psychoanalysts still hesitate to take older patients into therapy and that the analytic literature is parsimonious as far as older patients are concerned (Junkers, 2006; Plotkin, 2014, p. 35). Freud’s pessimism continues to haunt psychoanalysis in spite of the demographic changes all over the world, meaning, with the increase in life expectancy, the potential clientele for analytic therapy would be increasingly old.

I think Kakar is spot on with this insight. I recall that after some five years of child therapy, I told my analyst that I thought my mother was the one with the problems, rather than me. After a long silence he responded, “Yes, but she is too old to adjust, and you have the flexibility to adjust to her.” I was scandalised by this idea. That night, on returning home, I told my mother that I was done with analysis, and after that I never went back.

Anthony HowellANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbookThe Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and PracticeDetails about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Editions, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Consciousness (with Multilation)was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *