Sudhir Kakar: Biography and Contributions to Psychology

Biography: Sudhir Kakar is an Indian psychoanalyst, novelist and scholar who specializes in the fields of cultural psychology, psychoanalysis and religion. Kakar belongs to the psychoanalytic school of thought, based on the work of Sigmund Freud, which posits that all manifestations of behaviour are determined by latent (hidden) causations, placing heavy emphasis on the unconscious. Dr. Kakar’s reputable status has been acknowledged worldwide with Harvard University placing him as Senior Fellow at the Centre for Study of World Religions at the prestigious university and Universities of Chicago, McGill, Melbourne, Hawaii and Vienna inviting Dr. Kakar as visiting faculty.

SUDHIR KAKAR IMAGE

A prominent figure in the fields of cultural and religious psychology, as well as a novelist, Dr. Kakar is the author of 21 non-fiction books and 6 works of fiction. His oeuvre ranges from topics such as the Psychoanalytic study of Hindu childhood and society, Indian identity and cultural psyche to creativity and the psychology of terrorism. Some of his works include, ‘Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (1982)’, ‘The Colours of Violence (1995)’, ‘The Analyst and the Mystic (1991)’, ‘The Indian Psyche (1996), ‘Culture and Psyche (1997)’, and a translation of the ‘Kamasutra (2002).’

In 1971, Kakar began his training in psychoanalysis at the Sigmund-Freud Institute in Frankfurt, Germany. Four years later, he set up a psychoanalytic practice in Delhi where he was the Head of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology. Dr. Kakar’s idiosyncratic use of psychoanalysis has afforded him several accolades such as the  1987 Boyer Prize for Psychological Anthropology of the American anthropological association and the Abraham Kardiner Award, Columbia University, 2002 among others.  His characteristic approach to eastern epistemology through the lens constructed by western modes of psychological analysis have allowed Kakar to introduce a plethora of fascinating findings to the growing body of psychological research.

Sudhir Kakar Contributions to Psychoanalysis

Sudhir Kakar’s most prominent works deal with the following themes, critiquing existing frameworks and constructing new ideas for psychoanalytical thought:

What is psychoanalysis:

Kakar belongs to the psychoanalytic school of thought, based on the work of Sigmund Freud, which posits that all manifestations of behaviour are determined by latent (hidden) causations, placing heavy emphasis on the unconscious. Psychoanalysis, thus, deals with unconscious desires, with an emphasis on pleasure and desire. Psychoanalysts deal with states of consciousness, principles of gratification and erogenous zones of pleasure, each taking root in one of Freud’s proposed psycho-sexual stages. Kakar’s approach to psychoanalysis applies these frameworks while moulding them for application to eastern culture and thought.

  1. Kakar’s Psychoanalysis of Culture:

Dr. Kakar provides an in-depth analysis through placing psychoanalysis, as a theoretical-clinical model into the complex Indian cultural context and its traditional therapies. His aim was to provide and prove a correlation between the psychic and social areas of human behaviour. In an interview with Scroll.in, Kakar explains, ‘My romantic Indian vision of reality could not be easily reconciled with the ironic psychoanalytic vision, nor could the Indian view of the person and the sources of human strengths be reconciled with the Freudian view (Zutshi, 2016).’

The global relationship between psychology and anthropology is dominated by western thought, which has historically interpreted the ‘other’, its cultures and customs relational ‘realities’ of said cultures in reductive terms based on an evolutionary view that sees these cultures in terms of perceived “primitivism”. Thus, the psychoanalytic approach stood in stark contrast to Indian and Hindu perceptions of life. The Hindu view according to Sudhir Kakar lays heavy emphasis on the need for community and social belonging. His work on cultural psychoanalysis bridges the gap between psychoanalysis and Indian, more specifically Hindu, tropes of spirituality, community and modes of healing.

Kakar’s work highlights the more general relationship between culture and the unconscious; he elaborates that an Indian patient who is upper-middle class and influenced in part by Western values, they, at the level of unconscious processes, reveal a relevant psychic component that is formed on the basis of the traits of Indian or, more specifically, Hindu culture.

He emphasises the observation that, in scientific and artistic Western discourse, there is considerable preoccupation with what is going on within the fortress of the individual body. He speaks of the psychoanalytic preoccupation with the unconscious as a determinant of ‘The Self’ in the differing Western and Indian streams of thought. Dr. Kakar posits that ‘The Indian self is much more open and strongly influenced by its surroundings (Zutshi 2016)’, that it lies at the intersection of the body and the cosmos. This contrasts the Western conception of the self which, throughout the emergence and consequent lifespan of modern psychology, emphasis the self as an individual consequence of each person’s unique past, their desires and traits.

  1.  Sudhir Kakar: Psychoanalysis of Mysticism

Sudhir Kakars work predominantly concerns itself with the complexity and richness of the ritual practices that are characteristic of India’s social anthropology and psychology. Preoccupied with the spiritual elements of Hindu culture, Dr. Kakar seeks to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis and the Indian mystical tradition. The ‘mystical’  appears as a distinct characteristic of dominant Indian cultural tradition, refers vaguely to the spiritual healing practices and customs that are characteristic of the Orient. Although having significant history in European culture, contemporary mystic customs and traditions are perceived to be a product of eastern culture and history.

In a speech delivered at the Sigmund Freud Foundation in Frankfurt, Dr. Kakar spoke on spiritual practices in the context of their psychotherapeutic function. Both psychoanalysis and the spiritual traditions acknowledge the primacy of the human mind in terms of suffering, processing and coping with emotional distress. The two practices thus converge in approach to primal instincts of the unconscious which prompt feelings that are claimed to be at the root of mental illness. In Hinduism these would comprise the five passions of – sexual desire, rage, greed, infatuation and egotism. Through his analysis, Kakar posits that the two traditions merge on the shared conviction that distressing episodes worthy of treatment or healing are created within us and the root cause will never be found in the external (Kakar 1982).

In many Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist schools, an experiential understanding of the ‘true’ nature of the self is sought through an intensive practice of meditative contemplation (Kakar 1982). These meditative practices are said to be predominantly for the reduction of noise and glare produced by the sensual self. This view can be traced through ascetic values as well as the psychoanalytic belief that the mismanagement of sexual desire can be phenomenally detrimental to one’s mental health and development as well.

Kakar argues that psychoanalysis can also be viewed as a singularly modern meditative praxis. He proposes that Eastern meditative discipline could be included in psychoanalytic training to essentially create a modern meditative praxis within the traditional framework of the theory.

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  1. Kakar’s Psychoanalysis of Sexuality:

When speaking of Hindu culture, it would be careless to omit the sexual and sensual facets of the religion. Dr. Kakar who co-wrote a translation of the Kamasutra in 2002, sought to include this into cultural and psychoanalytic discourse. This element permeates several aspects of psychoanalytic theory but the approach to sexuality has largely been in terms of the libido and pleasure being derived from erogenous zones at different ‘psycho-sexual’ stages of development.

A facet of interest to Kakar was not so much sexuality in India but rather the rejection of the erotic that has led to India being a ‘sexual wasteland for two centuries (Zutshi 2016).’ Dr. Kakar brings to attention the duality of Hindu culture; the celebration of the sexual and the glorification of the ascetic. At the same time that the Kamasutra was being composed, there were several texts that were accelerating ascetic ideals and extolling the virtue of celibacy for spiritual progress. Kakar uses cultural psychoanalytic tools while asserting that this phenomenon is due to a combination of British prudery, adopted by the upper classes in what may be called an “identification with the aggressor”, as well as the deep-seated strain of Brahminical asceticism (Kakar 2016).

  1. Sudhir Kakar: Psychoanalysis of Religion

Sudhir Kakar consistently observes and comments on Religion through a psychoanalytic lens. In a section entitled ‘Psychoanalysis and Religion revisited’ from his book ‘The Analyst and the Mystic (1991)’, Kakar perfectly encapsulates the essential context of Psychoanalysis and its approach to religion. A critique of Freuds ‘hostile approach to religion’; Kakar aims to understand religious and spiritual habits in their psychotherapeutic function. The dominant psychoanalytic interpretation sees religious belief and prayer as ‘illusory wish fulfilments’, its ‘hold on man’s imagination was seen as derived from the child’s helplessness in face of a threatening external world on the one hand and his ambivalent feelings toward a father who is both a source of protection and fear on the other (Kakar 2007)’.

The psychoanalytic habit of pathologizing religious behaviour was something Kakar sought to address and dismantle. He reiterates in his book, that “Religious rituals were scathingly indicted through psychiatric diagnostic labels when Freud compared devotional practices to self-imposed restrictions of the obsessional neurotic. The famous psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich attributed mystical experiences to a misinterpretation of sexual feelings. This psychopathological analogy was extended to internal perceptions of religious belief which were compared to amentia, a state of blissful, hallucinatory confusion (Kakar 2007)”.

Neo-Freudians like Erich Fromm and Karen Horney, however, changed earlier psychoanalytic conceptions, stating that the common agenda of both psychoanalysis and religion is to heal a man’s soul. Dr. Kakar concludes that psychoanalysis has developed a specific and elaborate theory of karma—the influence of the past on the present— a canonical conception in Hindu texts and belief.

References

Kakar, Sudhir. The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism. Penguin Books, 2007.

Zutshi, Vikram. “’India Has Been a Sexual Wasteland for Two Centuries’: An Interview with Psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar.” Scroll.in, Scroll.in, 28 Dec. 2016, scroll.in/magazine/817637/india-has-been-a-sexual-wasteland-for-two-centuries-an-interview-with-psychoanalyst-sudhir-kakar.

Kakar, Sudhir. “Psychoanalysis and Eastern Spiritual Healing Traditions.” Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 5, no. 48, 2003, pp. 659–678.

Kakar, Sudhir. “Reflections on Psychoanalysis, Indian Culture and Mysticism.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 10, no. 3, 1982, pp. 289–297., doi:10.1007/bf00240668.