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Topher Hunt

2011-01-20
Sanskrit and Ancient India

Strange but true bedfellows:


Linking Eastern and Western psychology in Kakar's The Analyst and the Mystic

Sudhir Kakar's The Analyst and the Mystic is an incredible exploration of the psychological and

psychoanalytic dimensions of religion and mysticism in India. It organizes Kakar's observations and

reflections around three broad insights: 1) mystical experiences may be understood using a

psychoanalytic lens; 2) many techniques in Indian contemplative practice may be seen as tools for

psychological growth and healing; and 3) the guru serves a healing role which in many ways reflects

the functions of the psychoanalyst in the West.

Many have attempted to psychoanalyze religion and spirituality. Kakar maintains that this is

reasonable when we leave behind the Western bias to pathologize the non-rational. Freud's legacy

regarding religion, highly compatible with our Western rationalist tendency, is the stubborn view that

“gods have clay feet” and that all longing for mystical union is an infantile reactive defense against the

harsh realities of an isolating and fragmented world (59). In contrast, Kakar clarifies from the start his

opinion that the analyst should approach mysticism with the same “empathy, respect, and a sense of the

complexity and wonder of human life” that they extend to their patients (ix). His role throughout the

book is to interpret mystical experience, without reducing it nor absolutizing the psychoanalytic

perspective. This distinction produces a running tension between the mystical and the pathological.

Clearly, some spiritual-like experiences are regressive and unhealthy. Kakar cites as example

Ramakrishna's “period of insanity” when “nightmarish visions” plagued him and produced worrisome

bodily and behavioral effects (21). However, Kakar leverages Freud's criterion of pathology, namely
loss of “the capacity to love and work”, to conclude that the mystic is on the whole “master of his

madness and of his reason alike” (3).

Contemplative practice can be seen as a set of tools for healing and growing the psyche in ways

similar to the effects of psychoanalysis. Religious ritual bhavas are described as “psychic looseners”

that “jar the soul out of the narcissistic sheath” (18). Kakar quotes Ramakrishna describing a vision he

received in which the bodily chakras are opened one by one in sequence, and discusses this as a

metaphor for the process of “heutroscopic depersonalization” by which one's sense of self is relaxed to

expand beyond the normal ego boundary (22). He highlights various contemplative approaches which

take different roles towards the Divine – seeing It as a lover, as a friend, as a parent, or even as a child

– and suggests that that these approaches may heal psychic wounds in the contemplative's worldly

relationships with that form of Other. In addition, Kakar notes that Ramakrishna's theme of accepting

the other gender into himself is remarkably compatible with self psychology's priority on integrating

multiple identities into the self sense. He also (appropriately) takes the flip side: from a Brahman's

perspective, psychoanalysis is effectively a form of “rational meditation” – the Western secular

counterpart to contemplative practice (63).

The guru as healer, serves functions for his visitors and disciples similar to that of the Western

psychoanalyst. The guru-disciple relationship in particular seems to be a mix of parent-child

relationship and therapist-client relationship. The importance of intimacy and surrender of the disciple

to the guru creates (and then requires) a dynamic of strong bond, devotion, and responsibility from each

member. Kakar describes the centrality of looking and being looked at (exemplified in the pilgrim's

darshan), and Ramakrishna's famous empathic silent listening, as indicators of the profound emotional

tie which is formed with gurus. Indeed, Kakar points out that this tie can be observed to have healing
effects deeper and more long-lasting than those which psychoanalysis can reliably achieve.

Kakar weaves together his psychoanalytic insights, a deep respect for the validity of religion

and mysticism, and a willingness to grapple with cultural and social-structural differences between the

East and West. The resulting synthesis introduces such compound concepts as “analytic ritual”, or the

consistent structure, reminiscent to the regularity of religious ritual, required for a patient to trust the

analyst (67). His eloquent, clear, unpretentious, focused writing makes his integration of Eastern and

Western insights an enjoyable and accessible read.

Kakar's take-home point is foreshadowed in his introductory comment that ecstatic mysticism

has remarkable similarities to his previous topic of study, the psychology of erotic love. The

psychological mechanics of mystical experience can be understood through the lens of psychoanalysis

– which, if used correctly, requires that analysts have more respect for the deeply intense, deeply valid

state experiences of a mystic. Kakar demands a different “quality in attitude” towards the religious and

the mystical (68). While psychoanalysis and mysticism may make strange bedfellows, they have a

surprising amount in common in terms of form and function.