Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions
“Both of us were silent for a while as we sat there companionably, contemplating the limits of our respective healing traditions.” They are both Indians: Baba, a Muslim pir (wise man), in a dusty room by the mosque piled with phials and mortars; Dr. Kakar, a psychoanalyst trained in the United States, Europe, and India. Baba has been consulted by an unhappy husband whose sexually unsatisfied wife is being unfaithful, and though he has given the couple a talisman, some holy water, and a lecture on clean living, neither doctor is very hopeful about the outcome.
With extraordinary sympathy, openmindedness, and insight Sudhir Kakar has drawn from both his Eastern and his Western backgrounds to show how the gulf that divides native healer from Western psychiatrist can be spanned. To write his book he visited a temple famous for exorcism of spirits, a huge Sikh ashram, a Dravidian shaman, a Tibetan lama, a matriarchal guru-ess, and an Ayurvedic doctor, as well as the pir—all specialists in the cure of mental illness. Physical medicine is outside his chosen field—he is under no obligation to compare the effect of holy water with that of penicillin—so he is free to acknowledge, implicitly at least, that the indigenous soul doctors’ rate of cure probably runs just about level with that of Westerners. Important questions are involved, therefore, about what mental healing really is. Do Western psychiatrists, unwittingly, use methods taken for granted by the “superstitious” East? Do Western therapies in fact succeed—if and when they do—for the reasons generally assumed by their practitioners?
At the outset it is certainly hard to see anything in common between healing Western-style and Eastern-style. Baba is a specialist in exorcism, via incantation and talisman: his work as he sees it has nothing to do with inner, personal conflict but is a straight fight with a possessing demon. These balas—very Freudian spirits, for they specialize in entering women’s dreams and enticing them to “bad acts”—are around everywhere and may possess anyone more or less at random. It is not hard for Kakar to translate the balas as forbidden fantasies which have been externalized. But his next visit has sensational elements which might seem harder to assimilate to Western ideas.
Among his other gifts Kakar has a fine ability to evoke the Indian scene. When he arrives at Balaji temple, which he had imagined as isolated and austere, it turns out to be all peeling green paint, piles of refuse, hawkers of cheap images. Inside the temple is a hell by Hieronymus Bosch. Young girls, in the persona of the possessing devil, shriek obscenities; old women are turning somersaults or hanging upside down to dislodge the fiend; others are in chains, or heaped over with stones; and dogs scavenge in the smoke of burning offerings. But there is a closer parallel than the world of Bosch. It was only a century ago that Freud, among others, was visiting Charcot’s clinic at …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.