What Sudhir Kakar (1938-2024) had to say on violence, secularism, and religion in India

Autor: Manasi Kumar

This interview is an excerpt from a conversation with Sudhir Kakar by Manasi Kumar, published in The Essential Sudhir Kakar, Oxford University Press.

Manasi Kumar [MK]: India is changing. The world is changing so rapidly. Politics, social media, cultural values, and traditions are evolving. Given the backdrop of this volume, there could be a number of questions in the domain of Indian culture and society in the minds of most readers, who would be keen to know your understanding of the changing dynamics, Professor Kakar. You have been a close observer, commentator, and analyst of the changing behavioural foundation of individuals, which delineates why people behave and how they behave. Therefore, I would like as some questions that I feel your essays in this volume open up in the context of events today. In Indian Society, two dominant religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, have been living together at least since the early 8th century AD – harmoniously or otherwise, we do not know. But one thing we know with certainty is that Muslims are decisively in an adverse situation now than any previous point in history. So you think what has happened was inevitable?
Sudhir Kakar [SK]: Events become inevitable only when we confuse our wishes with reality or interpret parts of reality in accordance with our wishes. Mahatma Gandhi was a realist and I cannot agree with him more. In 1924, he observed, “I see no way of achieving anything in this afflicted country without a lasting heart unity between Hindus and Mussalmans. … There is no question more important and more pressing than this. In my opinion, it blocks all progress.”

My views on the whole issue were detailed in my 1995 book The Colours of Violence and in some of the papers in this volume. Briefly, I believe both the Hindu nationalist and the secularist have long engaged in wishful constructions. The Hindu nationalist believes the only way is a change in the Muslim view of the community’s role, traditions, and institutions so that the Muslim can “adapt” to the Hindu majority’s culture. To ask Muslims to recognise themselves in the Hindu nationalist version of Indian history, to expect them to feel their culture confirmed in Hindu symbols, rituals, and celebrations is asking them to renounce their religious-cultural identity and to erase their collective memory so that they become indistinguishable from their Hindu neighbours. To be swamped by the surrounding Hindu culture has been the greatest fear of the Indian Muslim, an assimilation feared precisely because it is so tempting, holding the promise of a freedom from fear of violence and full participation in the majority culture. The Hindu nationalist’s dilemma is that Muslims continue to decline an offer the nationalist believes they cannot refuse. The nationalist finds that the Muslim is too big to either swallow or spit out.

The “secularist”, who views the conflict as rooted in socio-economic considerations, believes the economic development of India will alter the social-structural conditions and thus assign the conflict, as the cliché would have it, ‘to the dust heap of history’. Religious identities, he believes, will fade away and play less and less of a role in private and, especially, in public life. I am sceptical of the belief in the primacy of political and economic structures in the shaping of ‘consciousness’ (in which unconscious imagination plays a dominant role). Our consciousness is as much shaped, if not more, by cultural traditions transmitted through the family. We may have to give up Gandhi’s dream of “lasting heart unity” and content ourselves with the creation of a common public realm while regarding the other community with ‘benign indifference’ in private. There will be inevitable violence on the way.

MK: This question becomes important as Hindus had a sense of subjugation in the higher position in court, rulings, and so on, against Arab, Turk, Afghan, Uzbeks, and British. In documented history, Rehmat Ali and Iqbalor Jinnah could have pursued creation of a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, but in popular perception there are anecdotes and perfunctory evidence that even during late 17th and early 18th centuries Mirasian (nomad singers) would sing that there will soon be a time where Muslim rule and Sharia law would be well established. And there will be a holy land for Muslims. You have written a lot on Indian people and their stereotypes, do you think India was tailor-made for a theocratic state and the experiment of a secular progressive state of inclusive nationalism is a failed experiment? Sitting where you are today, where do you see India 35 years from now?
SK: Given the march of exclusive nationalism all over the world in recent years, religious nationalism in Turkey, India, and much of the Islamic world, racial nationalism in the United States of America, and cultural “sons of the soil” nationalism in most of Europe, one would be tempted to say that a secular, inclusive nationalism was a liberal dream which has few takers today. Yet, a nation where a large part of the population sees itself as victims and the majority as persecutors is sitting on a powder keg of repressed rage that can blow up at any time. I am more concerned about the next five to ten years than the long-term future, which is completely unpredictable. But what we do need to develop in the next 35 years, and preferably much sooner, is a vision of inclusive nationalism that is not of the “secular”, “progressive” kind, which pays exaggerated homage to man’s reason and conditions of material life, but a consciousness irradiated by the inclusiveness of spiritual traditions of mankind. The essence of these traditions is encapsulated in the Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you wish others to do unto you.”

In its maximal, most unconditional form, we encounter it in the Upanishads as “he who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings” and in the Christian injunction “love thy neighbor as thyself”. In its minimal incarnation, we meet it in the Jewish Talmudic version in the words of Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the rest is but commentary.” Since the contemporary ruling deity in formation of consciousness is science and not religious-moral exhortations, we need to highlight recent developments in social psychology, socio-biology, and social neurosciences that emphasize the innate altruism of human beings, findings that demonstrate that “doing good to others is actually doing good to yourself”.

My hope, or wishful construction if you will, is that we will come to realise more and more that each one of us is deeply embedded with other human beings as also connected to animate and inanimate nature, an embeddedness demands caring for all that is not the self for our own health and happiness. Science and spirituality will combine to support St Francis’ prayer, “Grant, that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive.” Or His Holiness Dalai Lama’s flat statement, “Paying attention to one’s own needs is a producer of suffering; cherishing others a giver of happiness.” For me, this is a more lasting basis for inclusive nationalism.

MK: In the paper “In Krishna’s Mouth” you say that “universality for the Hindu is the conviction that the fundamental insights of his faith also lie at the heart of all other religions”. Yet this is one thing that is forgotten by Hindu Right-wing thinkers when they question other faiths and influences in the Indian cultural psyche. At one end you bring out this beauty of the Hindu philosophy but you also allude to the infantilism in seeing every other practice or faith as being part of its own fabric. Can you elaborate on this?
SK: It is one of Hinduism’s verities that all religions have different paths to the same truth: “Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudda Vadanti” (One truth, many ways of reaching it). For Hindu nationalist thinkers, however, universalism takes the form of a tolerance of the elite for the “lower orders”. For them, Hindu pluralism does not exclude a hierarchy among the various faiths; there are many ways but not all of them are equal.

Although the theme of its universality is uncontested within Hinduism, the nationalist is unhappy with some of its consequences. He worries whether in placing so much emphasis on universality, on the Vedic dictum of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam” (the universe is one family), Hindus have not sacrificed the development of a community feeling and the necessary unity which they have lacked in the past and which they need to face the challenge of other, more militant faiths. He is concerned whether the concept of “Vishvabandhutva” (universal brotherhood) has not led to a weakening of “Deshbandhutva” (national brotherhood) and “Dharmabandhutva” (religious brotherhood). To adapt Faust’s lament, in contrast to the traditional Hindu whose spirit only seeks a single quest, there are two conflicting souls, of universality and nationalism, of Hindutva militancy and Hindu dharma tolerance, that dwell in the nationalist breast, with each, if it could, gladly sundering from the other.

Finally, in perceiving other religions as all pointing towards the same truth, and thus accepting other religious traditions from the vantage point of a higher “universal” Hindu wisdom (and not in terms of their own self-characterisation), Hindu nationalists may ultimately be hindering a dialogue with other faiths. Perhaps what Yashoda saw in Krishna’s mouth was the world of Hindu cosmology which the master narrative of Hinduism, with all good intentions, insists on identifying with the universe of all faiths. Given birth by the seductive power of this narrative, entranced by Yashoda’s vision, the nationalist’s expectation of a coming triumph of Hindu thought and belief in a globalized world is fated to be disappointed. Illusions, irrespective of their worth in mobilising large numbers of peoples or creating utopian communities, ultimately remain just that … illusions.

MK: There cannot be a better time to seek a psychoanalytic perspective on Indian society and to understand the schism between the popular perception of Indian culture and the more deep-rooted psycho-historical and cultural heritage of India from an accomplished social scientist and psychoanalytic scholar like yourself. In your paper on alternative sexuality, you make a point that alternative sexualities have historically had a fraught position. While the ridicule and pathologisation was always there, the persecution of those practising homosexuality is a more recent phenomenon. You also point to psychoanalysis as being unfair to the discourse around women’s psychology (and rights) and homosexuality. How do you see this debate on alternate sexuality in India shaping at this point in time? Do you feel it has greater acceptability?
SK: The most heartening point of the debate is not how it is shaping up but that it is happening at all. And this is due to the typical swing of the pendulum of Indian imagination between the ascetic and the erotic, each swing sometimes lasting for centuries. Since the last five decades, the swing has been again towards the erotic pole, which includes a willingness to engage with and acceptance of alternate sexualities. Thus, in spite of all the conservative opposition, some glaring intolerances of alternate sexualities, such as its criminalising, are all set to disappear.

These swings between liberal and conservative, erotic and ascetic, are now getting faster because of our increasing participation in a global information structure where the global trend for a while has been towards a freeing of the erotic to a point of ‘anything goes’. Of course, the conservative reaction, the reverse swing of the pendulum, taking heart from global cues, can be equally fast and what one can hope for in the near future is incremental gains.

Excerpted with permission from “Culture and Society: A Conversation with Sudhir Kakar’, by Manasi Kumar, from The Essential Sudhir Kakar, Oxford University Press.

Sudhir Kakar was born on July 25, 1938. He was a psychoanalyst, novelist and writer in the fields of cultural psychology and the psychology of religion.

Part of Kakar’s work involved the relationship between psychoanalysis and mysticism. His analyses of personages include that of Swami Vivekananda in The Inner World (1978), Mohandas Gandhi in Intimate Relations (1989), and Ramakrishna in The Analyst and the Mystic (1991). Kakar’s novel Ecstasy (2003) was “written exclusively for the senses of the sceptic and the mind of the mystic” and “is the beginning of a journey through the soulscape of spiritual India”. The story is set in Rajasthan between 1940s and 60s.

The French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur acknowledged Kakar as one of 25 major thinkers of the world while the German weekly Die Zeit listed him as one of 21 prominent thinkers of the 21st century.

In 2013, the annual Sudhir Kakar Prize was instituted by the Centre of Psychotherapy and Clinical Research, Ambedkar University in New Delhi. It is awarded every year at the conference for the best psychoanalytical writing on the year’s theme by an author under the age of 40.

Kakar died on April 22, 2024. He was 86.

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