East Meets West: The Psychohistory of Sudhir Kakar

Paul H. Elovitz, Ramapo College and the Psychohistory Forum

Sudhir Kakar, a psychoanalyst and a writer, met our editor two decades ago while lecturing to psychoanalytic and academic audiences.  Rita Ransohoff and other Psychohistory Forum scholars have utilized his work in their own research.  We are pleased to be able to bring his ideas to a larger psychohistorical audience.

He was born in Nainital, India, northeast of Delhi, in the Himalayas, in 1938.  He earned his PhD in Economics from Austria, received his psychoanalytic training as a candidate of the German Psychoanalytic Society at the Sigmund Freud Institut in Frankfurt, from 1971 to 1975, and then graduated from the Indian Psychoanalytic Society in 1980.

Doctor Kakar’s working language is English and all his books were originally written in English.  His major works include The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1978); Shamans, Mystics and Doctors (New York: A. Knopf, 1982); Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion, and Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Professor Kakar’s academic appointments include Lecturer in General Education and Research Fellow in Social Psychology of Management, Harvard University, 1966-67; Professor and Chair, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, 1976-1977; and Visiting Professor, Committee on Human Development, Divinity School and the College, University of Chicago, 1988-92.

Among his many honors and awards are:  the Boyer Prize for Psychological Anthropology, American Anthropological Association, 1987; the Goethe Medal, Goethe Institute, Germany, 1988; Fellow, Institute of Advanced Study, Berlin, 1994-1995; and National Fellow in Psychology, Indian Council of Social Science Research, 1992-1994.

We wish to thank the following for their help in arranging the interview: Mary Chin, PhD, of the University of Hawaii’s Center for South Asian Studies; Shyamal Gupta of Calcutta; and Professor Ashok Nagpal of the Department of Psychology, Delhi University.
PHE: Please tell us about your background.

SK: My father was a civil servant, my mother, a housewife.  The family religion was Hindu and my parents’ social class was upper middle.  My only sibling, my sister, is five years younger and a schoolteacher.  My mother died when I was 37 and my father when I was 45.

PHE: How do you define yourself in professional terms?

SK: I define myself as a psychoanalyst and a cultural psychologist who is engaged in the study of mental representations.  In the first case, the mental representations are primarily of the individual’s bodily life and family relationships while in the second case they are the representations of the individual’s culture and its history.

PHE: What brought you to the study of the unconscious?

SK: I think what brings one to the unconscious is always the sensing of its presence in one’s own person.  For me this took place in early youth, facilitated by the reading of literature, for instance, the fiction of Dostoyevsky and then Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.

PHE: When did you first encounter psychohistory?

SK: I first encountered psychohistory orally rather than in the written form.  This was in conversations with Erik Erikson over the winter of 1964 in Ahmedabad where he had come to do his book on Gandhi.  Of course, I did not know that what I was listening to, with a mounting sense of excitement and fascination, was psychohistory.  I read Erikson’s Childhood and Society and Young Man Luther just after I met him in 1964.

PHE: What was the immediate and long-term impact?

SK: The impact of both the man and his writings was dramatic.  With his help and encouragement I decided to change my profession from economics to psychoanalysis.  It was to be a version of psychoanalysis that is much more receptive to the history and culture of the individual’s community than is normally the case in analytic therapy and writing.  Over the years I have come to appreciate how unique Erikson was by being the foremost proponent of cultural relativism in the profession.

PHE: What were Erickson’s strengths and weaknesss in examining Gandhi?

SK: The great strength of the Gandhi book lay in its methodology, implicit in Erikson’s earlier book on Luther and explicit in Gandhi’s Truth, that, to understand the meaning of a historical event or “action” it has to be studied in the four-fold complementarity of the individual’s developmental history, his present stage of life, the present state of the individual’s community, and the history of these communities.  There were other methodological advances in the book such as a delineation of the dynamics of the psychohistorian’s own unconscious involvement in his subject, with his witnesses, and in the very process of history.  Its weakness was that Erikson’s empathy with his subject sometimes slipped into idealization, his counter-transference reactions preventing the highlighting of some of the dark corners of Gandhi’s mind.

PHE: How do you define psychohistory?

SK: To me psychohistory is the study of the influence of mental representations, conscious and unconscious, individual and collective, on the behavior of actors in a historical situation.

PHE: What is the importance of childhood to psychohistory?

SK: If the recognition of recurrent motivational themes in a historical actor’s life and the demonstration how they influenced his actions is important for a particular psychohistorical work, then childhood, the period where the themes are first articulated, becomes significant.

PHE: You were about 10 years old when India obtained independence from Britain.  Do you have any childhood recollections of Gandhi and the times.  If so, did any influence your becoming a writer and a psychoanalyst?

SK: I have vivid childhood recollections of the time of independence, especially of the riots between Hindus and Muslims which broke out at the partition of the country into India and Pakistan.  I have described these memories in detail in The Colors of Violence [reviewed in this publication, December, 1997].  In this book, a psychohistorical account of violence between Hindus and Muslims, I became aware how my extended family’s “war-stories” from the riot towns of Pakistan had become the core of my memory of “the Muslim,” and that the ambivalence of fear and fascination from my past with which I regarded Muslims had not vanished.  I became aware that in my interviews my first impulse was to defend myself against the threat the Muslims posed to my boundaries by strengthening and fortifying them as Hindu.  Then, in a kind of reaction formation, my tendency was to move in the opposite direction by consistently placing a more positive gloss on Muslim statements and actions than on Hindu ones.  The confrontation with my childhood memories, I discovered, was essential for my present research.

PHE: Please list some people who you think have made the greatest contribution to psychohistory / psychobiography in order of their contribution.

SK: Erik H. Erikson, Bruce Mazlish, Peter Lowenberg, and Peter Gay

PHE: What training should someone wanting to be a psychohistorian get today?

SK: I can only talk about one essential element: an experience of the unconscious through a personal analysis.  Such an analysis, depending on the individual, need not be long but it is vital that the psychohistorian discover psychoanalytic concepts and theories at a level other than that of intellect.

PHE: Which mentors helped you with a psychodynamic approach to biography and history?

SK: Besides Erikson, Abraham Zaleznik at the Harvard Business School (HBS) was my guide when I was writing my psychodynamic biography of Frederick Taylor.  I was further influenced by the work of Bruce Mazlish at MIT and by Alexander Mitscherlich of the Freud Institut in Frankfurt where I trained.  I found Mitscherlich’s psychohistorical accounts of post-World War II Germany, such as his Die Vaterlose Gesellschaft [Society Without the Father, 1969], fascinating.

PHE: Zaleznik is not well known in psychohistorical circles even though I remember being quite impressed by one of his articles on the uses of failure by businessmen.  Would you tell our readers some more about this individual, his ideas and publications, and how he mentored you?

SK: Zaleznik was Professor of Social Psychology of Management at Harvard Business School for many years as well as a Faculty Member at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.  The focus of his work at the HBS was on the role of irrational factors in business decision making.  With the help of many case studies he showed how the leadership style of business leaders was influenced by their personality development and their unconscious conflicts.  His book Human Dilemmas of Leadership (1966) was quite influential in the study of leadership and organizational behavior.  I attended his seminar, Psychoanalytic Psychology and Management Theory, and in 1967 he arranged for a Research Fellowship at the HBS for me to write a psychohistorical study of Frederick Taylor, the “father of scientific management.”  I still continue this particular interest by teaching every year in a three-week program for top management, called “The Challenge of Leadership,” at INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainbleau, France.

PHE: Your work on time and motion pioneer Frederick Taylor has had an impact on professors of business and other academics, but I never hear it mentioned by psychohistorians despite my own enthusiasm about it.  What are your thoughts on it after all these years?

SK: My book on Frederick Taylor, with the subtitle A Study in Personality and Innovation, was published in 1970.  It was not only my first book, thus giving it a special place in my affections, but it was also one of the early works in the emerging field of psychohistory.  I found the interplay of psychological motivation and historical fact in Taylor’s life and work fascinating, and I remember that the book was received quite generously by critics.  I think the book was very successful in showing how Taylor’s defenses; the control of his instinctual life by mechanistic means, activity, and attention to external detail; and his ambivalence to authority were reflected in his system of “scientific management,” and how his theories also met a pressing historical need of his times.  I don’t think I would change much in the book if I wrote it today except, perhaps, tone down “Eriksonisms” in its language, to which I was then partial.

PHE: How would you describe the progression in methodology and focus of your four major books listed in the introduction?

SK: Whereas the first of these, The Inner World, was modeled on Erikson’s classic Childhood and Society, the subsequent works were much more comparative and contained a large amount of anthropological fieldwork.

PHE: What has been your experience with clinical practice?

SK: Psychoanalytic experience with patients has been invaluable for my written work.  It checks any tendency toward a mechanical application of concepts and theories and, of course, infuses a sense of humility and relativity in face of the complexity and range of the human mind.

PHE: How extensive is the impact of psychoanalysis and psychohistory in India?

SK: The impact of psychoanalysis and psychohistory in India is minimal.  The reasons are many.  Psychoanalysis is looked upon as a Western import with little relevance for a society with different family patterns and religious traditions.  It also goes against the grain of spiritual “idealism” which characterizes the Indian approaches to the mind.  Aurobindo, a respected mystic-guru reflected this orientation when criticizing psychoanalysis six decades ago: “The secrets of the lotus cannot be found in the mud in which it has its roots.”

PHE: Psychoanalytic ideas and concepts are encountered in everyday speech and writing in my American culture.  Do you think this is helpful or does it primarily add to an intellectualized defense against really combining thoughts and feelings?

SK: I think the use of psychoanalytic ideas and concepts in everyday discourse contributes to intellectualized defenses in therapy.  Western patients often use abstractions such as “hostility” against, say, a brother.  I always try to bring them nearer to concrete, bodily feeling by saying, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘hostility’.  Do you want to hit him, strangle him, or what?”  Lacking a psychoanalytic vocabulary, Indian patients have a quicker access to the emotions underlying concepts.

PHE: As a dream group leader, I am curious as to whether Indian men are more open to probing the unconscious through dreams than Americans or Germans?

SK: Yes, I believe they are, once the analyst conveys his interest in this kind of exploration.  One reason is that the communication of psychic events, including mental distress, through narration of dreams is a well-known device on the Indian subcontinent.  Popular manuals of dream interpretation are avidly consulted by millions.  These manuals list hundreds of objects and situations occurring in dreams and ascribe each a standard meaning.  A second reason is the relatively undeveloped defense of intellectualization.

PHE: How is the USA viewed in India today?  How do Indians respond to our current obsession with Clinton, Lewinsky, Starr, and impeachment?

SK: The USA is viewed with a degree of ambivalence.  It is the promised land for the educated middle class, greatly admired for its democratic institutions and the opportunities its open society affords immigrants.  On the other hand, its hegemonic intentions are resented.  Like the newspaper-reading European, the Indian is baffled by the American obsession with Clinton and Lewinsky, and there is great deal of sympathy for the President.  Sexual excess is generally accepted as the prerogative of the powerful.

PHE: What changes have you seen in both Germany and the USA since you first came to these countries as a student?

SK: The biggest change is in the increase of openness to non-Western Cultures.  Non-Western art forms and foods are accessible to more and more people, even though Germany sometimes seems to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into greater multi-culturalism.  Another big change is in an increasing interest in spirituality and the spiritual aspects of traditional religions.  This is particularly striking in Germany.

PHE: How do you explain the growth and psychology of fundamentalism?

SK: Here I would highlight the identity-threat that is being posed by forces of modernization and globalization in many parts of the world.  There are the feelings of loss and helplessness accompanying dislocations and migrations from rural areas to the shanty towns of urban megalopolises, the disappearance of craft skills that underlay traditional work identities, and the humiliation caused by the homogenizing and hegemonizing impact of the modern world, which pronounces ancestral cultural ideals and values outmoded and irrelevant.  These are all conducive to heightening the group aspects of identity as the affected (and the afflicted) look to fundamentalist religious groups to combat their feelings of helplessness and loss, and to serve as vehicles for the redress of injuries to self-esteem.

PHE: What are your thoughts on the psychodynamics of violence in our world?

SK: I think we need much more work on the psychodynamics of group violence.  The old Freudian argument that as personal identity disappears in a crowd, the residue is some regressed, primitive state where the violent side of human nature is unleashed, is not convincing.  Identity in a crowd only seems to get refocused from a personal to a group identity.  This refocusing is certainly dramatic and full of affect since a crowd amplifies all emotions, heightening a feeling of well being into exaltation, fear into panic.  There is no regression to a primitive level but behavior, including violence, is molded by the group’s norms, values, and historical traditions.

PHE: Turning to the spread of nuclear weapons in South Asia, do you see much danger of nuclear war between India and Pakistan?

SK: At the moment, no, though this may be a judgement based on wish fulfillment.  I hope that with the danger of nuclear was staring the leadership of both countries starkly in the face, the tensions between the two can at last start being reduced.  Perhaps it is indeed true as the poet Roethke observed: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

PHE: What are you working on now?

SK: I have just finished a work of “psychohistorical fiction.”  Located in 4th century India, it is the imaginary biography of Vatsyayana, the author of the Kamasutra.  In the USA, it will be published in January, 2000, by Overlook Press.

PHE: Why call it “psychohistorical fiction” rather than a biographical novel?

SK: I call it psychohistorical fiction since the re-creation of the mentalité regarding sexual mores was as important as the fictional life of novel’s protagonist.  Its distinguishing characteristic is its fictional evocation of ancient Indian sexuality and an implicit comparison with modern sexuality.  The advantages [of a more fictionalized form of expression] are a greater play of hunches, intuitions and the like, and of not having imagination fettered by facts.

PHE: What are your thoughts on the future of psychohistory?

SK: I feel the future of psychohistory in North America and Europe is very much linked to the future of psychoanalysis in these parts of the world.  In contrast to Europe, psychoanalysis has had a roller coaster ride in the USA, from an exaggerated expansion in the 50s and 60s to an equally exaggerated contraction in the 80s and 90s.  Both psychoanalysis and psychohistory will occupy a small but well carved out space in their fields.  This space will remain contested, but there is no replacement in sight for the particular strengths of these two disciplines.  In India and other parts of Asia, psychoanalysis and psychohistory will both expand to fill out their “natural” territorial space which is still unoccupied in this part of the world.

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