We need your support. Know More

Sudhir Kakar: A Thinker for all Seasons

author Ramin Jahanbegloo
Apr 23, 2024
He was an intellectual who dismissed easy answers and easy solutions to questions of Indianness and the unifying power of the Indian community.

Sudhir Kakar was a man of moral integrity and intellectual excellence. His decease leaves India with a great creative loss.

Sudhir was an original thinker who had an ever-growing effect on his fellow Indians and those from other cultures who knew him personally. I had the privilege of being his friend and because of the book of conversations we did together we developed a deep and enduring friendship. Sudhir was neither a spiritual guru, nor an arrogant technocrat with a corporate mindset. He listened to and learned from others, especially when they were from other cultures.

He was one of the rare Indian intellectuals who had not made up his mind about Iran and decided to visit Iran and meet with young Iranian psychoanalysts. As a remarkable human being and a passionate analyst, he knew how to open his heart and mind to the cultural imagination of other people.

Nietzsche wrote: “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” If conviction is the belief that in some point of knowledge one possesses absolute truth, then, the nobility of spirit is when one comes to a freedom of mind. I knew Sudhir Kakar for more than 20 years and I don’t think we can consider him as a man of convictions. However, we can certainly consider him as a thinker and a writer who privileged the nobility of mind in his life and in his work.

Also read: How the Right Is Starting a Psychological War by Targeting the Old and Ageing

Sudhir was a multi-dimensional and a multi-visionary thinker, who wrote profusely about myths, rituals, shamans, doctors, dreams, violence and about the Indian psyche. He was fascinated with the Indianness of the Indians and how they live, think, and relate to each other. He approached something in his work and writing which might be called “unreal” in a rational sense of the term, but it was definitely not “untrue”. As he says himself in an essay on ‘Family Relations: The Mythology of Hindi Cinema’, Aristotle’s dictum that “there can be no desire without fantasy” contains even more truth in reverse. “Fantasy”, wrote Sudhir Kakar, “is the mise en scene of desire, its dramatization in a visual form.” 

The point that Sudhir makes in this remarkable essay is that Hindi movies play as contemporary myths which through the vehicle of fantasy, temporarily heal for their audience the principal stresses arising out of Indian family relations. This is where and how Sudhir Kakar differentiates between the India culture and the Western culture.

This reminds me of Sudhir’s interview with a French journal, L’Autre, in 2008, where he elaborated on the idea of Indianness and asserted: “Inside India there are no Indians, but outside there only Indians.”

Accordingly, Sudhir adds a point which is not at the base of his psychoanalytic eye on Indian culture. He says: “Living in your own country, you take your culture for granted. You have few opportunities to reflect on it. You can only reflect on your culture when you leave it, either physically or mentally.” I think Sudhir did both by spending time in Vienna to write a doctoral dissertation on economics and later by joining Erikson at Harvard University. 

Assuredly, Sudhir Kakar’s interest in the role of culture in psychoanalysis and the world of Indian psyche was not simply an abstract intellectual exercise, but rather a necessity to comprehend and to understand the cross-cultural landscape of the human mind. This involves the deeper cultural layers of the self which Sudhir Kakar relates to his Indianness. It is interesting how this “journey of life”, as he called it, concerns not only the relationship between the sexes, but also one’s relationship to the spiritual and the divine. As Sudhir shows us in his work, the temptation of generalising more than a billion people who have different religious beliefs and speak 14 major languages is a great challenge, not to say intellectually risky. But Sudhir’s solution to this problem was to look for similarities, rather than searching among differences.

Also read: The Scientist as Rebel in the Indian Cultural Milieu

This is why Sudhir was so interested in spirituality. According to him, spirituality is at the centre of the Indian worldview and because of its presence the Indian mind tends to convert the slightest ray of hope into a blaze of light. One of the consequences of this spiritual orientation among the Indians is, according to Sudhir Kakar, the average Indian’s fascination with the occult and its practitioners like astrologers, fakirs, and shamanic individuals. 

Let us not forget that even though Sudhir shows us quite well the difficulties of the Western vision of India to go beyond the divergences in Indian society, at the same time, he insists on the need for Indian society to acknowledge and embrace the psychoanalytic model as one that opens new terrains of human inquiry.

As Sudhir puts it, rather than dismissing the communitarian vision of life as outdated, we need to understand the enormous emotional violence that the community vision of life has for many Indians. So, according to Kakar, only a reference to human rights cannot solve the problem, because the huge challenge is to nurture individual rights, while drawing upon the unifying power of community. 

As we can see, Sudhir was an intellectual who dismissed easy answers and easy solutions to the questions of Indianness and the unifying power of the Indian community. Consequently, the two concepts of “inclusiveness” and “universal consciousness” are present in Sudhir’s work.

In the manner of Tagore, Sudhir describes civilisation as an inner ideal and not a way for human beings to satisfy their external needs. That is why, beyond all forms of violence, Sudhir offered us a promise, a promise of a man of dialogue among cultures who kept his faith in human beings as a pathfinder and a path maker.

The beautiful life and the enlightening work of Sudhir Kakar reminds me of these lines written in 12th century by the Muslim mystic and poet, Ibn Arabi: “My heart has opened unto every form: it is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Kaaba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah and the book of Quran. I practice the religion of Love; in whatsoever directions its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith.”

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Vice Dean Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global Law School, Jindal Global University.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism