Sudhir Kakar (1938-2024) | ‘Passionate analyst of Indian culture’

India’s foremost psychoanalyst and writer leaves behind a rich legacy of books which will inspire generations to come

April 23, 2024 03:57 pm | Updated 04:02 pm IST

With wit and humour, Sudhir Kakar deeply probed Indian culture, social mores and family ties. 

With wit and humour, Sudhir Kakar deeply probed Indian culture, social mores and family ties.  | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

Sudhir Kakar, India’s foremost psychoanalyst who helped readers understand Indian men and women like none other, passed away on April 22. French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur had once described Kakar as one of the 25 major thinkers of the world. With wit and humour, he deeply probed culture, social mores, family ties and elucidated what sets apart Indians from citizens of the world, and what sets apart Indians from Indians.

He leaves behind a rich legacy of books, both non-fiction and fiction, including among others, The Inner World (which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1978), Shamans, Mystics and DoctorsIntimate Relations: Exploring Indian SexualityIndians: A PortraitThe Colours of ViolenceThe Analyst and MysticThe Kipling FileThe Ascetic of DesireYoung Tagore: The Makings of a Genius and so forth.

Sumanta Datta, Managing Director of Oxford University Press (OUP), says the passing of Kakar will leave a void in intellectual and literary circles: “He was one of India’s foremost writers and his nuanced research on post-Independence Indian psyche will inspire generations to come, enriching global perspectives on the intricacies of cultural identity.” In 2011, OUP published The Essential Sudhir Kakar, which compiled 15 essays on psychoanalysis, culture and religion, and their confluence in Kakar’s work. An edited excerpt from the Preface by Ramin Jahanbegloo:

Sudhir Kakar is neither a holy man living on top of a mountain nor a pretentious scholar not willing to listen to and learn from others; he is a remarkable human being and a passionate analyst of the Indian cultural imagination, who has studied the explicit link between modernity and tradition in India for years.

While analysing sexuality as practised in ancient India, Kakar remains a severe critic of the conservative and puritanical sexual mores of contemporary India. As such, his new and fresh translation of the Kamasutra, done jointly with Wendy Doniger, appears to be an effort to critique modern Indian sexual behaviours through the presentation of this classical erotic text. Kamasutra, which many tourists who visit India wrongly regard as a textbook about sexual positions, is actually one of the oldest Hindu texts about the art of living. The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the society of ancient India along with much advice on cultivating knowledge of the arts, good manners, and grooming. Kakar’s translation and study of the Kamasutra recovers and reconstructs the ancient text’s insistence on the indispensable balance between the erotic and the spiritual. For Kakar, Indian spirituality is intended to be an intensely practical affair concerned with the alchemy of the libido. Here morality and sexuality are fused together, and it is true that individualism, in its Western form, is foreign to the traditional Indian sexual and spiritual consciousness and experience. For Kakar there are hidden images of individuality incorporated into Indian culture, and mystical experiences in India illustrate this fact. But the question which remains at the centre of Kakar’s work is: to what extent is psychoanalytic theory that has originated primarily in the Western canon valid and meaningful when applied to the Indian context? Can the psychological make sense of the cultural in all human experience? The only way to understand Kakar’s methodology is to recognise the fact that he has a measure of the modern as well as of the traditional.

Sudhir Kakar at a seminar in Kerala’s Thrissur in August 2010.

Sudhir Kakar at a seminar in Kerala’s Thrissur in August 2010. | Photo Credit: K. C. Sowmish

Open to debates

Kakar invites his readers to participate in open debates about the universalistic pretensions of psychoanalytic theory when he applies them to Indian culture. A psychological analysis of the Hindu world image by Kakar makes sense because it provides readers with an analysis of the distinctive features of the Indian social and spiritual structures based on notions such as dharma, moksha, and karma. Realising that these three coordinates are typical traits of Indian individuality/sociality that are different from Western traits, Kakar contextualises them in his psychological analysis of India as forms of relational existence.

‘The idea that every individual’s svadharma is unique,’ writes Kakar in his book The Inner World, ‘enhances a deeply held belief in a pervasive equality at a personal level, among all human beings … It is more a belief that each individual has a dignified, rightful place and function in the society, a belief which transcends the formal patterns of deference to caste, class, and family hierarchies, but does not hold the promise of an egalitarian society.’ In other words, the Hindu mind has a strong inclination to subjectivize timeless mythical events as if they were personal material. ‘In India,’ affirms Kakar, ‘historical events have little immediacy in the lives of individuals; they seem to recede almost instantly into a distant past, to become immemorial legend … On the other hand, mythical figures like Rama or Hanuman are as actual and as psychologically real (if not more so) as recent historical characters such as Ramakrishna or Shivaji.’

Response to critics

However, not all Indians agree fully with Kakar’s critical analysis of everyday Indian psychological behaviours. Many Indians feel that Kakar’s psycho-biographic work on Indian spiritual figures is of a reductionist nature: it fails to appreciate the true essence of Indian mystic traditions correctly. Kakar’s response to all these misconceptions and misunderstandings has been: ‘… mysticism is a kind of individualised religious experience that is limited to very few people; it can be expressed in a society that respects that, and India very much respects mystics. It is comparable to Gandhi: I will not be an ascetic like Gandhi, but I nevertheless respect Gandhi. This means India allows Gandhis to live their lives as it allows mystics to flourish and not put them into any kind of asylum.’

Looking back at Kakar’s life and work, one can easily understand his interest in both religion and spirituality as a form of interplay between the individual and society. According to Kakar, ‘It is the core of religion that is important for religious people, and that is spiritual rather than sectarian.’ What Kakar calls ‘sectarianism’ or ‘communalism’, when viewed psychologically, is a change from the idea of community to that of communalism. Kakar observes that ‘religious community is the interactive aspect of religious identity’ and what is considered to be dangerous to this identity gives birth to ‘communalism and the potential of social violence’. That is to say, religion has a greater emotional intensity and a deeper motivational thrust than ethnic pride or national identity.

Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press

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