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Remembering the work of psychoanalyst and writer Sudhir Kakar

Sudhir Kakar’s boldness in forging a path for Indian thought in his field stands out

A file photo of Sudhir Kakar, who was born in 1938 and died earlier this week. (HT Archives)

By Vangmayi Parakala

LAST PUBLISHED 25.04.2024  |  01:58 PM IST

Many years ago in a café in Paris, psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar and novelist Namita Gokhale spent hours talking about mysticism and the Bhutanese-Tibetan monk Drukpa Kunley. Sometime later, some of these thoughts made their way into Kakar’s 2008 book Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World. The book, which specifically had a chapter devoted to Kunley, challenged the prevailing notion in psychoanalysis that the body and spirit ought to be studied separately. 

“It is such a deep and important book," recalls Gokhale, who authored Mystics and Sceptics: In Search of the Himalayan Masters in 2023. “It was a very layered understanding of human consciousness. And he could communicate these layers with simplicity," she notes. This was the case at the many editions of Jaipur Literature Festivals that he attended (last in 2016), of which Gokhale is co-founder and co-director. “Apart from being a great writer, he was a great communicator. There was an ease in his speaking…psychotherapists usually only analyse individuals with the grammar of the Western world. But Sudhir would always root it in and look at the Indian context. That was his genius," she says. 

Gokhale’s remarks are reminiscent of what a review of Kakar’s Mad and Divine, published in the 2011 edition of The Journal of Asian Studies had also noted. The author Daniel J. Meckel, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at the St. Mary’s College of Maryland writes that with the book, “Kakar once again brings an extraordinary depth of psychoanalytic and Indian sensibilities to bear on topics of sainthood, religious ritual, and healing in India, as well as the profession of psychoanalysis itself." 

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This sense—that Kakar was one of the few intellectuals who managed to forge a new, original, and Indian path in the field of psychoanalysis—strongly colours the memories of most who remember him today. Internationally, a well-awarded academic and author of 20 books, including six works of fiction, Kakar died on 22 April. He was 86. 

Among his works of fiction are The Ascetic of Desire, a fictionalisation of the life of Vatsayana, the sage who wrote the Kama Sutra, The Kipling File, a similar treatment of the British Indian writer Rudyard Kipling’s life, and Mira And The Mahatma, another novelisation of the relationship between Mohandas Gandhi and his follower Madeleine Slade or Mira Behn. His non-fiction includes Inner World, a study of Swami Vivekananda; Analyst and Mystic, a similar study of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa; Shamans, Mystics, And Doctors, a psychological study of the ancient healing traditions of India; and The Colours of Violence, a psychoanalytical examination of the causes of communal violence in the country. 

Kakar, an engineer by training, also earned a doctorate in Economics from the University of Vienna, and later trained at the Sigmund Freud Institute in the University of Frankfurt.

“He was a rare intellectual," says Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iranian-born philosopher and friend of Kakar’s for over 20 years. “But beyond his work on Indian psychoanalysis and spirituality, I want to add that he had the character of a typical intellectual—he was an Indian but also a man of universal thought, always open to ideas, travelling to different countries, and meeting with psychoanalysts there—including in Iran. Not many people do that. To me that was very important," Jahanbegloo adds. A series of his conversations and interviews with Kakar, on topics ranging from the Partition, secularism, tradition and culture, and several iconic leaders like Gandhi or Nehru, were published in the 2009 book India Analysed

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For decades now, the influence that Kakar has wielded in the space of psychoanalysis in India has been unparalleled. Psychoanalyst Ashis Roy remembers being influenced by Kakar’s works first, and later the man himself, for over 20 years now. Formerly faculty the Centre of Psychotherapy and Clinical Research at Ambedkar University where he helped set up the department, Roy recalls interacting with Kakar for guest lectures at the university as well as for inputs when working on his doctoral thesis on interfaith intimacy between Hindu-Muslim couples. “Many intellectuals and thinkers want to be taken seriously. As a personality, Sudhir was never like that," Roy notes. “He always saw you as an equal mind. He was wise and never found the need to impose his thoughts on you."

Roy recalls Kakar as “being on the side of life, always working and creating". In line with this and as if Kakar’s bibliography isn’t already extraordinary, readers can look forward to Indian Jungle: Psychoanalysis and Non Western Civilisations, one more book by him. Due to be published in September this year, a few preview pages from it float online. In it, Kakar writes: “As the globalisation of ideas picks up pace, psychoanalysis cannot afford to lose the lens through which Indian cultural imagination, as also the imaginations of other major civilizations, have viewed the fundamental questions of human existence, the human mind, and the quest for psychic truth...Insights from clinical work embedded in the cultural imaginations of Asian civilizations could spur psychoanalysis to rethink its theories of the human psyche." Through to the end, the leitmotif of his life’s work plays on.