Vijay Nagaswami

I must confess that I have always enjoyed Sudhir Kakar's writing, and was eager to get my hands on his recent offering, On Dreams and Dreaming , having completely overlooked the fine print on the cover, that the book was only edited, not written by him. Fortunately any concerns I may have had were almost instantly quelled as I read on, for the content was absorbing, sometimes challenging and always engaging.

The material in the book is from the first in a series of symposia held in Wasan Island, Ontario, Canada in 2009, as part of a project led by Kakar and German psychoanalyst Almuth Sellschopp, called Boundaries of Consciousness, under the aegis of the Stuttgart-based Breuninger Foundation.

The object of the book is not to educate, to pontificate or even debate issues pertaining to a fascinating phenomenon of the consciousness experience, but to provide a space for experienced thinkers and workers in the field to articulate their insights without overtly extolling, though sometimes subtly subverting, whatever theoretical perspectives they have affiliation to.

This is precisely what makes this collection different from your garden-variety compilation of symposia proceedings. The contributors are scholars from different disciplines and, therefore, bring their unique perspectives into their essays. Even though cognitive neuroscientists tend to regard dreams as meaningless firings of resting neural circuitry, psychoanalysts have viewed dreams as being of fundamental importance in shedding light on unconscious mental processes and the inner world of the dreamer, which all the contributors to this book are deeply interested in.

Kelley Bulkely's essay on ‘Big Dreams' sets the tone for the book, written in the language of science but without being pedantic. Tracey Kahan's piece on the underlying cognitive processes in dreaming adopts a similar approach of marrying some of the fundamentals of neuroscience to the perspective that dreams represent a liberation of consciousness and explores the possibility that dreams, much like conscious thought, have the potential to transform neural and behavioural response patterns of the human being.

Cultural context

Running through the book is the cultural context of the dream experience and the psychological differences between the East and the West in this regard, well captured in a delightfully unpretentious essay by Madhu Tandan, wherein she describes her explorations of dreams in a Himalayan monastery resulting in a vivid description of what Almuth Sellschopp refers to, in the final summary, as a “radical way of being integrated into dreams”. ‘Lucid Dreaming' (a dream in which one is aware that one is dreaming) by Fariba Bogzaran also probes the East-West perspective on human consciousness and attempts to relate the phenomenon to meditative and contemplative experiences.

Other aspects of dreams covered by some of the contributors do not always engage the reader's curiosity as effectively, even though, or perhaps because, they are extremely erudite treatises, save for an absorbing essay by Luigi Zoja which discusses nightmares from the standpoint of human evolution.

All in all, the book is a most satisfying read. However, if you're looking for interpretations of some puzzling or troubling dreams of yours, you will not find them. But if you're looking to expand your horizons and the boundaries of your consciousness, look no further.

When Oxford University Press came out with a sort of anthology of Sudhir Kakar's writing, titled The essential writings of Sudhir Kakar, in 2001, I couldn't help wondering whether the writer was announcing his retirement, for such tomes are usually published when a writer has little to say beyond what has already been said.

Fortunately, subsequent years saw some prolific output from Kakar. Now, exactly a decade later, the same OUP comes out with another compilation of the country's most celebrated psychoanalyst's essays, The essential Sudhir Kakar , and one begins to wonder again.

For the Kakar aficionado, this book will be a bit of ‘been there, done that'. However, for the newbie, it will be a wonderful introduction to the world of Sudhir Kakar, and in that sense, will make for essential reading. Over the entire period of his study and his subsequent work life, Kakar has been preoccupied with the relationship between culture and the human psyche and the impact of this on the psychoanalytical process. The book faithfully covers these major themes.

As for me, I could get a glimpse of two distinct Kakars. The first of these was the psychoanalyst fascinated by the workings of the psyche and who sees culture, religion, and spirituality as determinants of the inner psychic experience. He expounds this, using the tools of the analyst and theorist — case study and introspective speculation.

But he also wears his other hat — that of the social scientist, when he addresses larger issues facing Indian society today, as in the chapters on ‘Religious Conflict', ‘the Hierarchical Man' and ‘the Indian Mind', in which he shifts easily to a macro-perspective and relies on hard data in coming to his conclusions.

The engineer and the psychoanalyst somehow seem in harmonious juxtaposition to each other. And together they provide a unique weltanschauung that is as compelling as it is inclusive.