Real India: On the Couch with Sudhir Kakar

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Sudhir Kakar (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Sudhir Kakar has built a Freudian bridge to the alternate universe that is India. The India he writes and talks about is different not only from our world but also from its own branding. “Indians,” he writes, for example, “are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the world’s largest and most plural democracy.”

Sudhir Kakar looks and listens like an anthropologist. He also writes novels. But you sense that the firm basis of his reputation as a public intellectual — an authority especially on Indian identity and character, what he calls “Indian-ness” — is his many years as a professional psychoanalyst, in Goa and New Delhi, hearing out individual sagas of a changing society and culture.

His “Indianness” is a psychological category with a few critical elements.

“If there is one ‘ism’ that governs Indian society and institutions,” he begins, “it is familyism.” It is an “ideology of relationships,” the unwritten rule of business and politics, built around the “joint family” in which brothers after marriage bring their wives into a parental household.

Second, there is the rule of hierarchy and the eternal consciousness of rank, a legacy of thousands of years of caste distinctions.

Third comes a view of the human body out of the Ayurvedic tradition: if Western psychology and medicine see the body as a fortress under siege, the Indian body is seen as open in many dimensions — to planetary influences, for example.

Fourth, a shared cultural imagination learned mainly from the ancient epics encompasses Hindus and Muslims, literate classes and the unwashed, in a “romantic vision of human life.”

And what happens, I inquire, when Indian-ness gets ever more deeply enmeshed in a global culture?

There are two or three ideologies of the global world which come in. Very simply, the ideologies of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity…

Of course, equality clashes against the very hierarchical part of [Indian-ness]: one has to deal with one’s innate way of looking at the world in a hierarchical way and the brain saying that one should look at people as equals…

Fraternity is not that big a difficulty, because the Indian Hindu view has been influenced by Islam, where fraternity has always been one of the biggest virtues of human beings.

I think the biggest change that has taken place, where [liberty] has impacted Indian-ness, has been the change in women in the last fifty years: the acceptance of the notion that, first, girls are equal to boys as far as education is concerned, and, second, that they are free to go out to work. And that has impacted many many things…

Sudhir Kakar in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

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  • Tom

    You are so lucky to meet all these amazing people

  • A common thread throughout this series has been your quest to find out what ‘Indianness’ is.

    I am not sure therefore if my criticism is on your line of questioning or your guests’ use of the term or some combination of the two. My complaint is, I find feudalism being used interchangeably with Indianness in this series. For example, Dr Kakar says “family values” in some sense is “Indian”. Or, that putting the collective good of the family ahead of the individual is. Of course this aspect of undermining individuality for the sake of real or imagined honor and well-being of the family (or some other form of human collective) is true of all agrarian feudal societies. Pre-Communist China, Pre-Industrial revolution West and Africa until recently all had this dynamic in their societies. Are we therefore to say those societies have some sense of Indianness?

    Labeling anything, let alone fundamental values of evolutionary human traits, as belonging to one nation (or defining it) is silly. Yes, some quirks about India maybe unique; just as every other nation has its own. But to say those define the nation is stretching evolutionary biology to politics. Never a good idea.