An exclusive interview with Dr. Sudhir Kakar

An exclusive interview with Dr. Sudhir Kakar

Date of Birth: 25 th July 1938

Place of Birth: Nainital, Uttarakhand, India

Educational Qualifications:

B.E. in Mechanical Engineering (Gujarat University, 1958)

Master’s Degree (Diploma-Kauffmab) in Business Economics (Mannhiem, Germany, 1964)

Doctor’s Degree in Economics (University of Vienna, 1971)

Training in Psychoanalysis (Sigmund-Freud Institute in Frankfurt, Germany in 1971)

Professional experience:

In Press:

• The Collected Essays of Sudhir Kakar, 4 vols. (Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Religion, Biography) Oxford University Press.

• Brotherhood is now a Distant Aspiration: Essays on Gandhi. Oxford University Press.
Previous Assignments:

• Harvard University (Lecturer in General Education, 1966-71)

• Psychoanalyst Practitioner (1975- 2000)

• University of Vienna (Visiting Professor, 1974-75)

• Indian Institute of Technology (Head of Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, 1975)

• University of McGill (Visiting Professor, 1976-77)

• University of Melbourne (Visiting Professor, 1981)

• University of Chicago (Visiting Professor, 1989-93)

• INSEAD, France (Visiting Professor 1994-2013)

• Centre for Study of World Religions, Harvard (40th Anniversary Senior Fellow, 2001-02)

• Institute of Advanced Study (Fellow, Princeton, Wissenschaftskolleg, Berlin)

• University of Cologne (Fellow, Centre for Advanced Study of Humanities)

• GITAM University (Honorary Professor)

Rewards & Recognition; Excellence:

• Homi Bhabha Fellow, 1979-80

• Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow, 1986–88

• Boyer Prize for Psychological Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association, 1987

• National Fellow in Psychology, Indian Council of Social Science Research, 1992–94

• MacArthur Research Fellowship, 1993–94

• Abraham Kardiner Award, Columbia University, 2002

• Member, Academie Universelle des Cultures, France, 2003

• Distinguished Service Award, Indo-American Psychiatric Association, 2007

• Fellow, National Academy of Psychology, India, 2007

• The Order of Merit, Federal republic of Germany, Feb. 2012

• One of 25 major thinkers of the world by The French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur

• One of twenty one thinkers for the 21st century by The German weekly Die Zeit


• Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World

• Inner World: A Psycho-Analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India: Psychoanalytic
Study of Childhood and Society in India, OUP India

• Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors

• Tales of Love, Sex and Danger

• Intimate Relations

• The Colors of Violence

• The Indians: Portrait of a People

• Kamasutra

• Understanding Organizational Behavior

• Conflict and Choice

• Identity and Adulthood

• The Analyst and the Mystic

• Culture and Psyche

• The Indian Psyche

• The Essential Writings of Sudhir Kakar

• A Book of Memory, 2011


1. How a trained mechanical engineer and economist developed interest in psychology and what motivated you to switch to the field of psychoanalysis?

It is a long story, which I have told in considerable detail in my autobiography A Book of Memory. To be brief:

When I was in engineering college, I read Interpretation of Dreams which impressed me greatly. But I didn’t thought of becoming a psychoanalyst at that time. I was never interested in engineering but became an engineer because that is what most middle class boys who were reasonably intelligent did as a matter of course at that time. When I was working in a shipyard in Germany as an engineer, I decided I wanted to leave engineering and study philosophy, which caused considerable alarm to my family back home. After much to and fro with my father we reached a compromise that I would study economics, which I did for the next five years. I returned to India after my Master’s degree and joined the newly started IIM, Ahmedabad as a Research Fellow.

My problem was that economics was only slightly less boring than engineering. I was going through an intense emotional crisis. One day, I would want to go to Poland to study to become a film director and the next day I wanted to become a philosopher.  I was having an identity crisis and was lucky to meet the person who had discovered the syndrome and gave it that name. This was the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, Professor of Human Development at Harvard who had come to Ahmedabad to do research for his book on Gandhi.

I helped Erikson with little things like where he could get a particular book, or with the background of a particular person he was going to meet, or translating some of the stuff available only in Hindi. We had long conversations and I was fascinated by his person and his wisdom. I wanted to be like him, become the kind of person he was and if that included being a psychoanalyst, then so be it.

When I told him that I wanted to be a psychoanalyst he said that I would have to finish my doctorate as fast as I could and then he would call me to Harvard as his assistant. So I went to Vienna for my doctorate and then on to Harvard to become his assistant and a Lecturer in General Education at the University.

I thus began to learn psychoanalysis by teaching it. I had to teach in his course, The Human Life Cycle. After his class, I was supposed to discuss the readings for the day with a section of the students. I had to study the prescribed readings and keep at least one-day ahead of my students. That was the beginning of my psychoanalytic education!

In 1968. I came back to IIM, Ahmedabad as an Assistant Professor and then became a Professor in Organizational Behavior. I stayed at IIM for three years but since my heart was set on being a psychoanalyst, I resigned and went to Germany for my training where I spent another four years doing the required one-hour, 5-days a week of my personal analysis and taking classes at the psychoanalytic institute. I then came back to Delhi to set up my practice, interrupted for a year’s stint at IIT, Delhi as the Head of Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and other short stints abroad as visiting professor.

2. For more than 3 decades you have been working and living in India and Europe. How do you see the journey of Psychoanalysis in India, given, the culture and psychic experiences are different here than west?

It is not only the journey of psychoanalysis but also of psychology in India that needs to be closely scrutinised in light of our different cultural experiences. Most of our knowledge on how human beings feel, think, act, is derived from a small subset of the human population which the psychologists Joseph Heinrich and his colleagues (2010) call WEIRD, the acronym standing for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Psychologists, sociologists, psychotherapists, philosophers, are as WEIRD as the subjects of their studies, ministrations or speculations. It is this small group of statistical outliers, overwhelmingly

Western, urban  middle class that provides us with both the producers and subjects of our contemporary psychoanalytic and psychological knowledge we have then blithely proceed to generalize to the rest of humankind. Shared by analyst and patient alike, pervading the analytic space in which the two are functioning, fundamental ideas about human relationships, family, marriage, male and female and so on which are essentially Western in origin often remain unexamined and are regarded as universally valid. As has been said, if a fish was a scientist, the last discovery it would make would be of water.

Now, thirty years later, people know a little more about psychoanalysis due to newspaper and other media coverage but even today the knowledge of psychoanalysis among many intellectuals and academics is limited to what I would call rumors about Freud.

3. Who have been your inspirations during your student days and while working in field of psychology?

Erik Erikson has been both my mentor and my inspiration.  He also had what I would call a generosity of the spirit. If he was teaching a seminar where I thought some students were talking nonsense, he would listen carefully to what was being said. He would then repeat what the person had said but add to it something of his own and thus transform the person’s contribution into something interesting and insightful. You could see the delight on the student’s face, an expression of “Did I say this?” flitting across his features. Many professors have the habit of cutting a student down. Erikson was never like that and this is one of the many lessons I learnt from him.

4. Why do you think religious needs are so central in India? How the psychology of religion has an impact on idea of self and unconscious?

Some of its centrality comes from a specifically Hindu cultural heritage, which sees life not as tragic but as a romantic quest that can extend over many births, with the goal and possibility of apprehending another, ‘higher’ level of reality beyond the shared, verifiable, empirical reality of our world, our bodies, and our emotions. Religion belongs to a plane of enchantment, beyond the commonplace reality of ordinary lives. The siren-call of religion lies in the promise and delivery of these moments: in rituals relating to rites of passage, worship at home or at temple, mosque or church, festivals and pilgrimages, mystical practices and so on. I am absolutely fine with the importance of religion in our lives, not of the irrational religious beliefs but of religious experience or the spiritual moments, as I would like to call them. It is these moments that overcome what the Irish poet William Yeats in his poem Meru called the “desolation of reality.”  They are flashes, that in the words of the English poet John Keats ‘light up the narrow, mundane world of daily existence, a world which has always been inadequate to our experience and unequal to bear the burden of our hopes.’

As for the impact of our religious culture on the notion of the self:  simply put, the Western notion is of a self that is encapsulated.  And if the Western self has a location then that lies inside the body, in the brain.  The Hindu-Indian self is much more open and strongly influenced by and intimately connected to its surround. You may picture it like a TV set receiving signals from the universe whereas the Western self is receiving signals from the neurons firing in the brain. The Indian self is more at the junction of the body and the universe than is the case in the modern Western conception of the self

5. What are the challenges or difficulties to work in a multicultural population like ours? What is your idea of ‘Indianness’?

I think there is too much emphasis that has been paid to Indian diversity, perhaps also because of the anthropological way of thinking that became so pronounced in the last century, dazzling us with the surface differences among India’s peoples. Diversity is one of the country’s greatest resources. But diversity can also be divisive and the question arises whether the protection of this diversity does not need a framework to contain its centrifugal forces. Superordinate identities, like Indian identity or Indian-ness, if they evolve by mutual consent of various groups and are not imposed by force or diktat, dampen internal conflicts and are an antidote to divisiveness. This was and continues to be one of the important guiding impulses behind the search for a European identity that would end the conflicts between Europe’s nations, or the beginnings of a search for African identity. There are many other examples but the important point to note is that Indian-ness is not inimical to other cultural identities but, in fact, may ensure their survival. I am not talking of a unity but a search for harmony within India’s diversity.

Just because it has been appropriated by the Hindutva notion of the Sangh parivar should not blind us to the fact that Hindu culture is indeed the prominent strain in the cultural gene pool of India’s peoples. Not that it has not changed over the centuries, as it certainly has, through its encounters with other cultures.  Thus an Indian Muslim is quite different from an Arab Muslim as is an Indian Christian from his Italian counterpart. But to varying degrees, Indians share a psychological Indian-ness that distinguish them from other civilizations. The traits of an Indian-ness could be: a high emphasis on connectedness to others, especially family and caste, a view of the body and foods conducive to health at various times and in various seasons, deriving from Ayurveda, a hierarchical vision of social relations, a relativistic, context-sensitive rather than an absolute, context-free way of thinking, and a world view and moral framework articulated in and through the myths and legends of the Epics.

6. Indian psychology has seen a huge influence of west, what western psychology and psychoanalysis in particular can learn from Indian perspective?

Very generally there are two versions on the nature of the person and of human experience that are mixed in different proportions in Indian and Western psyches. One version, dominanting the mind of a modern Western person is also the basic storyline of psychoanalysis, with its roots in the Enlightenment. This versión holds that human satisfactions and goals are fundamentally personal and individual. Each of us lives in his or her own subjective world, pursuing personal pleasures and private fantasies, constructing a lifeline which, when his time is over, will vanish. The essential function of society is to preserve the possibility of that personal fulfillment.  Society cannot provide anything positive; it cannot add anything essential to individual fulfillment. What it can do is to prevent something negative, the interference with individual satisfactions.

The other storyline of the mind, not only Indian but common to many Asian civilizations, is a counter-view which exalts the community vis-a-vis the individual. This view stresses that belonging to a community is a fundamental need of a person and asserts that only if a person truly belongs to such a community, naturally and unselfconsciously, can she/he enter the living stream and lead a full, creative spontaneous life.

Both visions have their dark side. If the shadow side of individualism is an unregenerate pursuit of selfishness and unbridled greed, then the dark side of communitarianism is its exclusivity, intolerance and potential for violence. We need to realize that both visions persist in the psyche even if one is more dominant at a particular historical time. For instance, in the West, communitarian vision of life has not become outdated, regressive, and pathological and so on. In its malevolent form, we encounter it today in the resurgence of nationalist communitarianism in most European countries and racial communitarianism in the United States.

In contrast to modern West, the Indian view of the self is not that of a bounded, unique individuality. The Indian person is not a self-contained center of awareness interacting with other, similar such individuals as in the Greek and post-enlightenment European civilization. Instead, in the dominant image of the culture, the self is constituted of relationships. An Indian is not a monad but derives his personal nature interpersonally. All affects, needs and motives are relational and his distresses are disorders of relationships—not only with his human but also with his natural and cosmic orders.

Corresponding to the cultural image of the body in constant exchage with the environment while ceaselessly changing inside, the Indian person, too, thus tends to experience himself as more of a changing being whose personal psychological nature is not constituted of a stable but a more fluid “sense of identity” that is constantly formed and reformed by his interactions with the environment. The Indian person’s boundaries—between soma and natura, between self and others, between body and mind— also tend to be less clearly demarcated. As a corollary, it follows that a large part of individual happiness or suffering in the Indian mind would be viewed as the individual’s share of the happiness or suffering of his family or community, his salient group in a particular context.  In individuals, of course, the individual and relational way of perceiving the self and the world will be mixed in different proportions though one would expect one or the other dominate in a particular civization.

Let me add that I am not advancing any simplified dichotomy between Western cultural image of an individual, autonomous self and a relational, transpersonal self of Indian culture. Both visions of human experience are present in all the major cultures though a particular culture may, over a length of time, highlight and emphasize one at the expense of the other. It’s not a question of either-or but rather a question of how to combine them. For instance, is one a precursor to the other? I think that the individual centered approach of psychoanalysis is important but it is a precursor to the communitarian view of the person. The autonomous individual is the precursor to the caring individual. A community centered orientation alone, without reflection, can become very confining. On the other hand, an exclusively individual centered way of being is also not a viable option. There are huge pleasures of individuality to be had, and one should not look down upon them. There are also huge pleasures in being part of a community – and there are huge pains in both.

7. How your experiences as a psychoanalyst have contributed to your writings, especially fiction and significant discussion of sexuality and religion in it?

Writing fiction frees me and leads me to discover parts of myself that I have not come to know in rational terms. Writing enhances experience. When I think of experience rationally, I’m always quite far away from it. Through fiction, I come to experience the experience, if you will. This is fiction’s great advantage, when it succeeds. Often it doesn’t, but when it does, it takes you close to the heart of experience. It’s like the psychoanalytic process insofar as it opens up your awareness of your own and your client’s experience in a way that goes much deeper than your conscious awareness. I like doing both, for the different satisfactions each offers. Non-fiction is written in a discursive mode. Its pleasures lie in the effort to think clearly, in building arguments, critically engaging with other scholars and disciplining one’s own ideas through scholarship. Fiction is written in a connotative mode. Imagination takes precedence over knowledge and the discoveries made on the way are often surprising and greatly satisfying in the creative ‘rush’ they offer. The decision to write one or the other depends on the demand my psyche is making on me at that particular time.

If I have involved my psychoanalysis experience in the writing of my fiction then that has not been a conscious undertaking but has happened as an aspect of who I am. Since, I am the one who is doing both kinds of writing, there will certainly be some commonalities. Desire and its stillness or transcendence, what you call sexuality and religion, have been abiding interests and thus often, though not always, common themes in both kinds of writing.

8. Have you seen the practice of psychoanalysis getting changed in India across the decades?  Is it wrong to say that psychoanalysis is not as appreciated these days?

In fact, psychoanalysis is appreciated more than, say, twenty to thirty years ago. I have been giving a lecture on the rebirth of Freud in the last couple of years, showing how recent developments in neurosciences and experimental psychology are validating many of Freudian postulates while, of course, rejecting some. In fact, these modern developments go even further than Freud in giving the unconscious a much larger role in mental life than Freud ever did. The unconscious may be more like an elephant which you can’t really control and which is mostly good-natured. It is not the headstrong horse of Freudian imagery which can be controlled with difficulty by the rider, the conscious part of the mind. The elephant is much stronger than the mahout and goes where it will though the mahout can nudge it in certain directions. There is certainly no point in getting into a fight with the elephant, a fight the mahout is to lose. The neurosciences have also shown the vital importance of early childhood experiences in forming the neuronal pathways, the software of the brain. There will be a lot of sifting that will take place in psychoanalytic theories and models when it comes together with neurosciences and it will be an exciting time. Personally, I agree with Erich Kandel, the 2000 Nobel Laureate for Medicine, that psychoanalysis is still the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind.

9. Please tell us something about your upcoming works.

4-volumesof my collected papers (Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society, Religion, Biography) will be published by Oxford University Press at the end of the year. A slim volume of essays on Gandhi with the title Brotherhood is yet a Distant Dream will also be published by OUP this year.

10. What is your advice for aspiring psychologists who want to work with psychoanalysis?

I cannot deny the wish for the evolution of an ‘Indian psychoanalysis’, to replace the ‘psychoanalysis in India’ we have today. A wish, that the coming generation of Indian psychoanalysts (to adapt a Rabindranath Tagore’ phrase) do not continue to live on the outskirts of Western psychoanalysis as the ‘hewers of texts and drawers of book learning’, but are equal contributors in shaping of a global psychoanalytic enterprise. (This wish applies to much of psychology, too.)  Not by rejecting the psychoanalytic knowledge gathered over more than a century of the discipline’s existence but by critically engaging with the inevitable Western cultural biases in many of its models and theories.  The wish is that a future generation of psychoanalysts realizes that a critical stance is now needed after a long, much too long phase of idealization of Western analytic gurus, and that we need to engage with their valuable contributions from the perspective of Indian clinical experience and from an awareness of Indian psychological thought—Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi. This does not mean a rejection of the fruits of Western psychological thought but to complement it, wherever possible, with insights from our own tradition. What I object to is the disproportional space Western ideas and world-view occupy in the modern Indian mind and much of psychology taught in our colleges and universities. This has killed or hampered the opportunity to create a new combination of truths. As Rabindranath Tagore observes, an observation that I believe applies to much of psychology we have been teaching, ‘It is this which makes me urge that all the elements in our own culture have to be strengthened, not to resist the Western culture, but truly accept and assimilate it; to use it for our sustenance, not as our burden; to get mastery over this culture and not to live on its outskirts as the hewers of texts and drawers of book learning.

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