Hinduism's Social and Therapeutic Presence

An essay by Ethan A. Bayer

In three of his works, The Inner World, Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors, and The Analyst and the Mystic, Sudhir Kakar explores multiple facets of Hinduism in the East, unweaving the rich exchange between the religion and psychology.

For Hindus, moksha, unity of the self and the world, is the ultimate aim of existence (IW, p.16). It involves a "constant and fully aware living-in-the-ocean," (IW, 17) a complete unity with the sea of being. Though moksha is never fully achieved during a single lifetime, its benefits can still be reaped; it provides "unconscious ethical direction" (IW, 30) and can allay the universal fear of death and its components of dependence and loneliness (IW, 36).

The Hindu reality is much different than that of Westerners, so much so that one cannot realize it unless immersed in the culture; this is why Western Hindus cannot mimic the "Hindu world image" (IW, 15). The Hindu perception comes from the id, and its "archaic, unconscious, preverbal processes of sensing and feeling" (IW, 20). It is one that, like moksha, can never be totally grasped, and Indians are well aware that they are unlikely to reach the highest state within the span of one earthly life (IW, 29). However, their passion for this lifestyle that encompasses a "combination of the tragic and the romantic" (IW, 28) is evident in their devotion to it. They travel their endless journey through the hardships of life brought on by their religion because they are promised treasures after death. 

The attitudes that spring from this mindset manifest themselves in everyday life, and are fruitful in the workplace. Hinduism emphasizes self-realization and "refinement of the soul" (IW, 39) rather than monetary or earthly wealth (IW, 34); this in itself is liberating and humanizing, especially in the political realm. Since mutual respect is of the utmost importance, business settings are personalized (IW, 40). The belief that social conflict originates in the people in power (IW, 40-41) eliminates bitterness in the common ranks of institutions; therefore social change implies switching figure heads, and does not disrupt the lower ranks.

Time in India has far different implications than in the West. Kala, a God, represents time; he gives birth to living things, cultivates them, then eats them. For Hindus, then, time is cyclical, never ending, but always repeating itself (IW, 45). Instead of the objective view of time that we have in the West, Easterners treat it as a personal and psychological entity (IW, 46-47). From this stems a more careful and slow way of life.

In the West, the past century has witnessed huge leaps in views of sexuality, so that now society permits what would have been unthinkable eighty years ago. In India, however, sexuality is understood as an aspect of human nature that can be translated into altruistic energies; in fact, that is its ultimate form (IW, 23). Unlike Christianity, Hinduism promotes its "sublimation rather than repressive self-control" (IW, 24). While this practice is probably a healthier method than what we have, Hinduism's unequal treatment of gender seems somewhat faulty. They view male sexuality as tainted, something that must be transcended because it hinders fusion. Femininity, however, is beneficial to integrate into the psyche (AM, 30-31). The female entity exposes "being" as it relates back to the mother-child relationship and the idea of selfobjects. Kakar explains that "the male element does...while the female element is" (AM, 34). This favoritism is exemplified in the Gods; for example, the God Balaji possesses masculine traits such as bravery and power, so in order to make him praiseworthy he has been endowed with feminine aspects like compassion and nurturance (SMD, 58-59).

Along with femininity, childlikeness is also revered. The goal of a disciple is to revert to a youthful state, because children have not yet been tainted by the products of culture. This unleashes a deeper understanding and unity with the self (IW, 27). Hinduism goes as far as to assert that innocence and untainted vision of being "born again" (IW, 27) is not just advantageous, but required for effective therapy (AM, 16).

The therapy in Indian culture must take a greatly different angle than that of the West. They tend to correspond physical pains with psychological problems (IW, 33), so traditional American doctors would seem just as phony to them as their healers appear to us. Karma comforts Hindus in its assertion that every action counts and nothing is done in vain (IW, 48). However, the attitude they derive from this comfort and the belief that they are simply destined for certain mental traits can make some apathetic towards working through some illnesses in therapy (IW, 49). 

When employed, psychosomatic medicine can be very effective for underlying imbalances. For example, when trying to extract a bhuta, or evil spirit, the afflicted patient shouts obscenities at onlookers, supposedly coming from the spirit. This can be translated into repressed aggression, especially from girls and women (SMD, 67). Through this outpour of ire they get one of the very few socially acceptable rebellions against their conservative society.

This leads to one of Kakar's many interesting discoveries: he noticed a strong prevalence of hysterical personality among Hindu women (SMD, 76), which originates in their feelings of repression. On the other hand, Hindu men displayed acts of possession soon after marriage, as if such intimacy rocked ties with their families (SMD, 81). It is interesting how the same behavior can denote men's fear of independence, whereas it symbolizes women's yearning for it.

Forms of therapy in Indian culture vary greatly. Raja Yoga implements nonviolence, truth, cleanliness and a healthy body (IW, 21) with its main goal as transforming sexual energy (IW, 24). Art can also be therapeutic: Cave paintings, for instance, slow the pace (IW, 32), pull us in, and engage the full consciousness. Integration and unity are the main themes of Indian art (IW, 32), and the goal of any creative piece is to implement the creator's unconscious in some way (IW, 31); it is essential for the work's meaning. Therapy in its less structured forms appears in common interaction. Away from the guru or temple, a bhuta is referred to as an unruly child, so that mentally it becomes more manageable for the person afflicted. He "begins to feel he has the neurosis instead of the earlier feeling that the neurosis has him" (SMD, 85).

Mystical states serve to integrate the person with the self and to make him/her more perceptive to details (AM, 3-4). They are also the primary way to access one's channel of creativity (AM, 29). Mystical visions can take multiple forms. The conscious ones include participation by the individual and visual perception (AM, 22), where creativity is essential, whereas the unconscious ones display no visual or auditory perception; rather, they manifest themselves through an inner surge of power, and a primitive "return to the world before the existence of language" (AM, 24). 

One primary goal of mysticism is to sooth the agony of loss. In a group he surveyed, Kakar found that it was single most prominent reason Indians became members of the cult (AM, 26). The prevalence of this agony stems from separation from the mother, and the incompleteness that results (AM, 27). This is where the guru steps in.

Surrender to the guru is the utmost turning point for a religious Hindu (AM, 46). It is perhaps prompted by the Indian male child's early separation from the mother (AM, 41); he seeks someone to submit to and to regain that early intimacy. Submission is essential so that the guru is able to transplant his essence into the disciple (AM, 45). This represents the throwing away of the old self and the drinking in of the new and more holy self, the disciple being like a "womb" (AM, 45). The responsibility of the disciple's inner transformation is taken from the pupil himself and placed upon the guru (AM, 37).

The guru-disciple relationship is one of great interest. The guru has changed from a religious teacher to more of an idealistic image of the self (AM, 35-36). His disciples long just to touch him, and believe that he IS God (AM, 37), not just a mediator. During therapy, the guru never criticizes, just helps his follower to eliminate negative habits and thoughts (AM, 48). The guru helps him to see his "hidden inner God" (AM, 49).

Here, the guru can be seen as a "primary cultural selfobject" (AM, 42). He is a mirror of his disciple (AM, 40); even more so, he "is the disciple, but perfected, complete. When he forms a relationship with the guru, the disciple is in fact forming a relationship with his own best self" (AM, 46). This is a method of self-actualization where the idealized self is present and easily viewable. For Hindus, then, the goal is always in sight, though never fully attained. Disciples are honored to drink and eat what their guru has touched, in order to have communion with him so the two can flow as one (AM, 52). 

In a different sense of selfobject, the guru provides a "developmental second chance" (AM, 44). By showing grace just as the mother showed grace to the infant (AM, 47), he can undo injury incurred in childhood. The guru can fill in the holes left by insufficient parenting.

With all its virtues, though, Hindu forms of healing do have their faults. Gurus are in danger of developing feelings of ultimate grandiosity (AM, 53), and sexual perversion with disciples (AM, 54) occurs due to a lack of distinction between spiritual and sexual intimacy. The deep religious current underlying Indian culture is even being threatened, because gurus are now famed for their healing repetoires rather than their knowledge of religious texts (AM, 39). This displays a universal trend away from spirituality towards what is functional in this world.

Even with its less glamorous incidents, though, Eastern religion provides a strong healing presence for its followers. By structuring a dialogue between Hinduism and psychology, Kakar shows how Eastern religion massages deeper than Western psychoanalysis. It touches facets of the self that we do not with our modern therapies. Whereas psychoanalysis focuses on the "text" of the illness, therapy in Hinduism looks at its "context" (SMD, 82).

Works Cited