Freud Along the Ganges: Psychoanalytic Reflections on the People and Culture of India (Book Review)

Author:  Akhtar, Salman
Publisher:  Other Press
Reviewed By:  Barbara Eisold, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 61-63

In this edited essay collection, Salman Akhtar has taken on the immense task of bringing “the rich cultural traditions of India . . . into a dialectical exchange with the multilayered conceptualizations of psychoanalysis” (p. xix). A prolific author on a variety of themes, Akhtar is professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and a supervising and training analyst at the Philadelphia Center for Psychoanalysis. In the present book he describes himself as “politically a democrat, [and] religiously a nonpracticing individual . . . born into a highly creative, politically active, nationalist Muslim family of North India” (p. 94). He undertook this collection, he tells us, as a “loving tribute to India and an expression of the profound affection I have to my mother land” (p. xix).

Needless to say, given its goal, the chapters in this book cover a wide range of themes, which are loosely divided into three sections, titled, respectively, “Mind,” “Body,” and “Spirit.” In addition, the book includes a prologue and an epilogue. The former, written by Akhtar in collaboration with P. Tummala-Narra, is a summary of the history of psychoanalysis in India, and is helpful in setting the stage for the essays that follow. I will have more to say about this below. The epilogue, by P. P. Prasher, a filmmaker and professor of film, is a free-ranging flow of images, often autobiographical, on the life-death implications of the Ganges River; the epilogue was not very useful, I thought, in pulling the book together. In between are twelve chapters, written by psychoanalysts and people from other disciplines; only two of those authors still live in India. Of these, some (about one third) seemed more directly related to clinical work than others. Among the less clinically relevant were chapters on Gandhi from a self-psychological perspective, on Tagore’s view of psychoanalysis, on the history of Hindu-Muslim relations, on psychoanalytic process in the Bhagavad Gita, on the transference panorama provided by God in India, on vedantic concepts of self, as compared to some psychoanalytic ones, on psychoanalytic and Buddhist history and theory, and on passion in the Radha-Krishna legend, seen from Eastern and Western (psychoanalytic) perspectives. As a non-expert in regard to Indian history of Indian texts, each of these chapters seemed extremely competent, but in general they were of less direct clinical interest than were chapters on psychoanalysis, as it is relates to the typical Indian-born person. Given the obvious use clinicians can make of these, they will be the focus of this review.

In chapter one, Akhtar and Tummula-Narra tell us that psychoanalysis began in India in 1920, with the work of Girindrashekhar Bose, who was educated in Calcutta, as both psychiatrist and psychologist. Bose, whose original interests were in the supernatural and hypnosis, wanted to integrate Indian philosophical ideas with psychoanalysis. However, he had access to Freud only through lay newspaper and magazine articles. Thus, much of the theory he finally developed was his own. In 1921, he published a book, Concept of Repression, in which he developed a theory of “opposite wishes.” This book, the authors claim, contained the seeds of ideas regarding projective identification and intersubjectivity “long before these concepts were developed in the West.” Thus, according to them, it became the “unknown precursor of the relational and intersubjective emphasis in North American psychoanalysis” (p. 4-5). Bose’s ideas also included a unique twist to theory in regard to castration fears. These he perceived as related, in part, to a wish to be female, which is already present in the boy’s unconscious.

Bose corresponded with Freud from 1921-1937. Freud’s responses apparently were polite, but there were disagreements. The two men never met. Bose founded the Indian Psychoanalytic Society in 1922. In the same year, with the help of E. Jones, it became affiliated with the International Society. Included among its original members were British army officers. Unfortunately, in studying the “Hindu personality,” these men used psychoanalysis to devalue Hindu culture, as well as Hindu “personality,” which they labeled “infantile” and “inferior.” Since then, other psychoanalysts have perceived Indian religious belief as psychopathological (p. 11).

However, in spite of these obvious prejudices, there were a number of practicing “pioneer” first- and second-generation psychoanalysts in Calcutta and in other parts of India. Later generations of thinkers abandoned the tradition, in part because of poverty, in part because of rebellion against colonialism, in part because of the scorn with which psychoanalysts seemed to judge Indian culture and religion. Few analysts were trained, post Indian independence (1947) and those who were, were devoid of Bose’s “pioneering” spirit. Thus, psychoanalysis in India is still in a “formative state” we are told. Some cities have institutes and analysts (the authors cite them by name). There are also Indian–born analysts in the diaspora, some who are also listed by name.

Unfortunately, psychoanalytic prejudices against Indian culture and religion continue. A current key example, according to the authors, is found in a recent book (1992) by Stanley N. Kurtz, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. In it Kurtz asserts that multiple mothering, a tradition in India, (in which the in-law women play as large a mothering role to each child as does the biological mother herself) mitigates against the formation of maternal bonds which are strong enough to encourage “healthy, empathic mirroring” (p. 15, present volume, p. 252 in Kurtz). Because of this, “the heart of the self” is broken and the results are “narcissistic withdrawal, if not schizoid regression” (p. 15). Kurtz’s interpretation of traditional family practices, according to the authors, does not take into account the full implications of cultural differences. In contrast to the West, where autonomy and separateness are “ideals to strive for . . . in the East . . . premium is placed upon attachment and interdependence . . .[and] optimal closeness . . . (p. 16).

Continuing this discussion in chapter four, Alan Roland, in “Multiple Mothering and the Familial Self,” questions Kurtz’s ideas about separation-individuation and takes issue with him about the effects of multiple mothering. He sees Kurtz’s ideas as reductionist. In India, a country in which mothers are idealized, attachment is a more intimate affect in general than it is among Westerners. In addition, he thinks that “maintaining and enhancing the esteem of others is always more important than the truth of any given matter. . . . Moreover, empathy is much more attuned to conscious nonverbal communication than in the West.” The family cultivates a we-self regard, in which self and family have equal status in regard to efforts made to maintain esteem. In keeping with this, there is a dual self structure, in which hierarchal relations are preserved, on the one hand, while on the other, there is a private part of the self, in which all kinds of wishes and libidinal wanting hides (p. 88). There is a “symbiotic reciprocity, as dependency and obedience are exchanged for strong expectations of being taken care of” (p. 88), although these private expectations may not always be met.

These are interesting ideas, which I wish had been more developed. Nevertheless, I found Roland’s discussion helpful because it focused on modes of interaction that have different goals from those that might be expected in the West. Such an interaction mode, in regard to “hierarchal” respect, for example, might help to explain the reserve my Indian–born patients (three so far) seemed to have had in speaking directly to me about me or about our exchanges. Similarly, the difficulty they seemed to experience in clearly locating their own internal need might be explained by a history in which family need was emphasized, rather than the individual needs of any one person. In all three of my patients, none of whom had had multiple mothering, their mothers played an extraordinarily powerful in–fantasy role. Each was held in hugely high esteem, in spite of a reality that appeared to include periods of real maternal abandonment. This, in turn, might have been the outcome of the fact that the mothers themselves had grown up expecting a certain kind of family support (help in mothering) that was absent, given their own peripatetic circumstances.

The impact of modern times, especially on women who are wanting to break away from the traditional strictures of family, was discussed briefly by Roland and in more depth, in regard to women in the diaspora in a chapter by J. Guzder and M. Krishna, who live in Canada. Although this chapter did not flow easily (too many references, a very self-conscious style), it presented a series of different kinds of dilemmas for Indian women living in the West and underscored the fact that there is no formula that can be applied across the board to all Indian women living away from home; each must be considered individually. Perhaps in keeping with an inclination among psychoanalysts to apply psychoanalytic theory with too narrow a lens, the authors note that, in the past, Indian women in the diaspora have had “disappointing” encounters with Western psychoanalysts. The theory, they say, seems to have “limited congruence with Indian milieus” (p. 223).

Other clinically useful chapters were the following: “Bollywood and the Indian Unconscious” (S.Akhtar and K.Chosksi) and “Psychic Bisexuality, Male Homosexuality, Plural Oedipus Complex, and Hinduism” (B. Sripada). In the former chapter, the authors first describe an Indian audience, which, unlike audiences in the West, appears to live each movie; thus members react passionately, with intense vocalization, to each scene. It is as if movie themes are so alive that viewers cannot remain passive and must take sides. The authors then divide the 70,000 or so movies produced thus far in India (1913 to the present time) into four stages, each of which, they tell us, reflects the dominant themes of family relations at the time. Not surprisingly, these were also themes with which patients contended in psychoanalysis.

Most relevant to present day concerns are the themes of movies made in the 70s and 80s and movies made today. The “tone” of movies in the 70s and 80s was one of disappointment and rage, the result of “postindependence disillusionment and the individual rage of a generation that was increasingly being raised in tense, nuclear family environments with two working parents” (p. 157). Movies at the present time, “The Era of Nostalgic Defense,” have “a self-congratulatory air,” we are told, and may have been produced mostly for émigrés and newly affluent young people. They are an “overt celebration of sensuality” about people with “love, money, ease of travel [and] a cosmopolitan ambivalence” (p. 160-161). These movies allow émigrés the illusion of participation in “the cultural politics of India in the present moment” (p. 161).

This chapter had useful clinical implications. Reading it has made me think about one man I see professionally, a man born in India, but living here, who seems to have fallen in love with love. In addition, he has a vast sensual imagination, far beyond what he actually succeeds in living, day to day. What, I now find myself wondering, is the history of this “nostalgic defense,” if that indeed, is what I am seeing? Against whose disappointment has it been created? His own? His parents? And, in a different vein entirely, how many Bollywood movies has this man seen?

The chapter on homosexuality and bisexuality is quite complex, as is the subject itself, according to the author. Both Hinduism and psychoanalysis, the author states, “uphold the fundamentally bisexual nature of human beings” but they differ “in the degree to which the two can accommodate ideological relativism” (p. 235). Each psychoanalytic school makes “exclusive claims” to have “true,” psychic understanding and no attempt has been made to accommodate one another. This is in striking contrast to Hinduism which is “guided by plural, but complementary beliefs and perspectives” (p. 235-236). Thus, in regard to sexuality, rather than isolated, categorical identities (gay, straight, bisexual), a case can be made by following Hindu belief that everyone has a heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual “part.” The author offers a complementary interpretation of what he calls plural oedipal dynamics; he makes use of the Hindu perspective of plurality, at the same time as he sustains a “conceptual anchor” in psychoanalysis. In Indian culture the phrase “men who have sex with men” describes a range of behaviors that do not necessarily make a person feel exclusively “gay.” In contrast, in the West, sexual contact with men presumes the existence of “gayness.” Because it does not exist in India, “gayness” seems to be a culture bound concept, the author tells us (p. 265). There are two cases presented in this chapter, each of which is presumably an example of plurality as it originated and was then contended with in a man of Indian background. But, in fact, although there were pressures from Indian–born parents reported, the young men presented, both of whom were living in America, seemed to be dealing with recognizable conflicts vis-à-vis sexual orientation here. One even ends up declaring, “I will stick to my gayness” (p. 255). I wish the cases had been more illustrative of men who were really comfortably bisexual.

This is an interesting collection of essays, a brief introduction to Indian culture, religion, and history, as seen from a largely classical psychoanalytic point of view. From my more clinical, less classical perspective, I wish there had been a more in–depth study of attachment dynamics in both Hindu and Muslim families.


Carballo-Diegues, A. & Dolezal, C. (1994). Contrasting types of Puerto Rican men who have sex with men (MSM). Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 6: 41-87.
Kurtz, S. (1992). All the mothers are one: Hindu India and the cultural reshaping of psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Reviewer Note

Barbara Eisold


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