Tributes to a renowned scholar, could be paid in several ways, the easiest of these being a compilation of anecdotes by other renowned scholars or scientists who had, at some time or the other, some form of association with said scholar. Another would be to put together a compendium of key essays or extracts from articles that convey the essence of the scholar. Unfortunately, the former approach often ends up sounding like a hagiography, and the latter may run the risk of triteness particularly if the articles and essays are already available in the public domain. Happily, in honouring Sudhir Kakar, arguably one of the most original thinkers and prolific writers in post-independence India, Dinesh Sharma, a cross-cultural researcher and Associate Research Professor at the Institute for Global Cultural Studies, SUNY, Binghamton, New York, has opted for a more innovative approach.
Aware that Kakar’s greatest contributions to the literature have lain in the interface between psychoanalysis, culture, religion and mysticism, Sharma has brought together ten other intellectuals aside of himself, from backgrounds as wide-ranging as psychoanalysis, psychiatry, psychology, cultural anthropology, education and religious studies, and who, in one way or another, have been influenced by, exposed to or worked with Sudhir Kakar and his writings, and persuaded them to share their own views on the subjects of their expertise.
On the face of it, one would imagine that a collection of essays from such a wide array of disciplines might be a bit of a mixed bag. And indeed it is! However, the joy in pulling things out of a mixed bag, at least in my opinion, is far more invigorating than reading essay after essay of uniform density.
The subjects are indeed dense ones and usually require immense concentration and a fair degree of psychological sophistication. Sometimes, they may make for laborious reading indeed, unless one possesses Kakar’s extraordinarily fluid literary style. Although it would be unfair to use Kakar’s consistently elegant prose as a yardstick, and although by this benchmark the essays do fall short, it must be said that not only do some of them manage to hold their own, none of them was ponderous or required an additional cup of coffee to be ploughed through. But that’s all the carping I’m going to permit myself, for I would otherwise be doing poor justice to a volume that is actually a very agreeable read.
Ever since Girindra Sekhar Bose wrote to Freud differing with him on the universality of the Oedipus Complex and Japanese psychiatrist Kosawa described an alternative dynamic he referred to as the ‘Ajase complex’ based on the teachings of Buddhist scriptures, Asian psychoanalysis was ripe for innovative explorations based on the understanding of the depth of influence that culture has on the psyche. Kakar made himself at home in this particular location and proceeded over his years of psychoanalytic practice and research to explore Hinduism, mythology, scriptural writings and ‘ecstatic’ states to come to several conclusions that eventually became the cornerstones of modern Indian psychoanalytical thought and praxis. All of these are extremely well captured in some of the essays in the book, particularly those by June McDaniel on religious ecstasy, Jhuma Basak on the positioning of the Oedipus Complex in Asian Cultures and Manasi Kumar on the intersection of Psychoanalysis and Culture. Basak also touches on one of Kakar’s famous descriptions of what he described as the “Ganesha Complex” derived from Hindu mythology which explains how Ganesha’s ‘maternal fusion’ is more likely to be valued and rewarded than his brother Skanda’s (Karthikeya) attempts at individuation from their mother, Parvati.
Excellent essays by Dinesh Sharma on Aurobindo and Harold Coward on the Guru-Shishya paradigm of Indian psychotherapy, as well as a brief, though engaging one by Wendy Doniger on lingams and cigars (an apocryphal quote attributed to Freud on the unconsciously phallic symbolism of his cigar smoking is, “Sometimes, a cigar is only a cigar”) are not just easy to read, but extremely informative and thought-provoking as well. Barring one essay on Leadership by Manfred F R Kets De Vries which, though extremely interesting in itself, seemed jarringly out of place in this volume, speaking as it did a more corporate sort of language, all the other essays served to embellish Kakar’s own thoughts as expressed in his writings, approaching these from a variety of different perspectives.
Perhaps, the biggest successes of this book are that all the essays are written in a language that can be comfortably understood even by non-academic readers, that they are all written with a genuine and deep appreciation of Kakar’s phenomenal body of work, and that they honour Kakar the thinker, not just Kakar the man. All in all, a worthy tribute to an exemplary intellectual.