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Bringing Up Raja

All the Mothers Are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis

by Stanley N. Kurtz, foreword by S.J. Tambiah
Columbia University Press, 306 pp., $17.50 (paper)

There was an old man with a boy in the train compartment from Delhi to Jaipur, and a couple with two children. The younger of these was a little boy of about two, beautifully dressed and sucking fitfully on a bottle of fruit juice. The elder, a girl of about seven in sandals and a stained dress, sat by herself in a corner and spoke to no one. The boy—his nickname seemed to be Zuzu—whimpered until he could be taken on his father’s lap: “He always wants Daddy most—unless he wants to sleep, then he goes to mother,” said his father. Was the girl their daughter, I asked? “No. Attendant.” Was school not compulsory for her? “But she is poor. The poor don’t bother.” The unnamed seven-year-old was called over to massage her mistress, her dark hands against creamy wrists, and later to mind Zuzu.

Meanwhile, by translation, I learned that the old man, called Papa by the boy with him, was in fact his grandfather, who was bringing him up; his mother “had had to go into service” and seldom saw him. For a time the carriage was also invaded by a couple with five little girls, each about an inch taller than the other, like Russian nesting dolls. “It’s no good talking to them, dear,” their mother told me in a broad Birmingham accent, “they don’t speak a word of English.” Before I could ask her how she liked marriage in her home continent after an upbringing in the English Midlands, the family was righteously evicted for lack of first-class tickets. Until all fell asleep, the other three children got noisy, with Zuzu putting a diaper on his head and pretending to be a bride.

A minuscule cross-section, but it raises questions. Is it respectable to make any generalizations about national character, about styles of childrearing, and about the connection between the two—especially for a nation of some 900 million people? Is it patronizing? Is it verifiable? Could the generalizations apply to all eight children in the railway carriage, for example? Dr. Stanley Kurtz, a University of Chicago anthropologist who has done ethnological research in India, argues that in studying non-Western cultures there is no need for the customary stand-off between anthropology and psychoanalysis. He believes that anthropology can be fruitfully combined with psychoanalysis, although for this to happen a difficult rethinking of psychoanalytic theory is necessary. In his book he proposes to undertake this.

Anthropologists now tend to feel, understandably, that psychoanalytical studies of societies, particularly of non-Western societies, apply unproven theories and a Western bias to cultures with quite different assumptions. They prefer to stick to what can be observed and validated. As well, anyone might object that Hindu India—Kurtz confines himself to this—includes such a range of caste and class and educational differences that generalization is impossible. Kurtz’s answer to this is that Western psychiatric studies of Indian culture indicate deep-rooted Hindu cultural principles and child-rearing attitudes that are consistent across the country. He wants to maintain the relevance of psychoanalytic insights into character formation; but he also wants to reformulate theory so that accounts of Indian childhood and adulthood by outsiders are not based on a patronizing assumption that other cultures are failed versions of Western ones.

Kurtz undertakes to do this in three ways: by analyzing certain Hindu myths and religious beliefs, by re-assessing clinical material from India, and by reexamining a number of studies of the Indian character. His book does not include any first-hand anthropological observation (or anecdotes of children’s behavior in trains), though Kurtz acknowledges the help of various colleagues in India. Virtually all the studies that he discusses, with the important exception of those by the distinguished Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, were carried out by Western anthropologists—Lynn Bennett’s study of high-caste women in Nepal, for instance, Alan Roland’s comparison of Indian and Japanese child-rearing, which found more warmth, but less independence in Indian families, Minturn and Lambert’s Mothers of Six Cultures, and numerous writings on Hindu goddess myths. It is hard to believe, until one scans the material he reviews, that some of these writers could indeed have been so complacent about our hardly impressive Western child-rearing, and so unintentionally arrogant about other customs.

Kurtz discusses The Twice Born, by the British writer Morris Carstairs, a fascinating study of a North Indian village, which came out in 1957 with an introduction by Margaret Mead. Carstairs was himself brought up in the Raj, and has a background in both psychiatry and anthropology. But there is a touch of the patronizing attitude Kurtz describes in Carstairs’s account of Indian child-rearing and resultant character formation. English children in the Fifties, when Carstairs was writing, were no doubt still being subjected to feeding by the clock, cold baths, and general moral stiffening. No such thing for the Indian baby or toddler, whose mothering, according to Carstairs, was “if anything, too good…. An infant’s mother is his willing slave, and he becomes something of a tyrant.” What Carstairs was arguing in the Fifties was that though Indian child-rearing typically produces an optimistic—unrealistically optimistic—character, the lack of any early frustration makes weaning and growing up traumatic, and life generally unstable for the adult Indian.

For all its sympathy, his view of the Indian character is a little reminiscent of the English characters’ toward the excitable Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India. Later accounts by Western anthropologists have used words like “overindulgence” and regretted the lack of “carefully dosed frustration” with which we in the West (supposedly) produce such high achievers.

Kurtz also devotes considerable space to Sudhir Kakar, whose best-known work, The Inner World, a psychoanalytical study of childhood and society in India, came out in 1978. Kakar, who was also trained in the West, has to be more qualified to assess his own country than any outsider, and Kurtz is rightly appreciative of this quality. Kakar’s “inner world” is the shared psychological experiences which mold Indian character, and his thesis is that for the boy (as usual, these writers are vague about girls’ development) the negative side of Indian child-rearing is the sudden change from an indulged, overseductive infancy to demands on the child to grow up. He quotes a proverb said to define a boy’s progress: “Treat a son like a raja for the first five years, like a slave for the next ten and like a friend thereafter.”

The criticism Kurtz makes of these and previous psychoanalytically biased writers is that they apply a Freudian schema to a foreign society. They find it does not fit, and so “whatever is foreign to the classic Western notion of proper child rearing appears pathogenic.” (A typical comment is Renaldo Maduro’s, in his study of a Brahmin community,* that “little or nothing is done to encourage vigorous activity, or to permit frustration and aggression which would, in normal doses, further the work of ego structuring and separation.”)

Kurtz’s criticism, however, scarcely applies to Kakar, who is in a position to see that the anxious Western concern to instill independence can be less natural and supportive than the Indian attitude. Still, in Kurtz’s eyes even Kakar misses the most important factor in an Indian growing-up: the group. Kurtz argues that, unlike Western children, Indian children are socialized away from the maternal bond to a group of alternative mothers, the extended family; and that when an Indian upbringing goes wrong and leads to neurosis or breakdown, it is because this process has not worked properly. Kakar does, in fact, mention this in The Inner World—“The ego’s responsibility for monitoring and integrating reality is then transferred from the mother to the family-at-large and other social institutions”—but he does not make much of it, while to Kurtz it is crucial. It is around this point that he thinks Freudian theory can be reshaped to fit an Eastern context, and hence his title, All the Mothers (mothering figures, goddess figures) Are One. Perhaps it is a case of the outsider seeing something that the insider has taken for granted.

Kurtz explains that his theory started from an attempt to research the growth of a recently popularized goddess cult, that of Santoshi Ma. The accepted academic view has been that, in response to social changes, there is a cyclical process bringing new deities up from simple rural cults to more elevated status. When the cult no longer meets the needs of the village, a new deity arises. Kurtz believed that Santoshi Ma’s rise in popularity, particularly through being the subject of a film, would say something about recent changes in contemporary Hinduism and the social background of these changes. He was wrong about this, he says. Instead his search sent him in an entirely new direction. He found that whenever he mentioned Santoshi Ma, Indians themselves scarcely seemed to distinguish her from other goddess figures: “But all the goddesses are one,” he was told. This huge difference from Western concepts of identity and boundary he sees as related, on the one hand, to Hindu metaphysical assumptions—the ultimate goal of life as moksha, or total mystical union—and on the other, to the Indian child’s place in the extended family, attended by almost interchangeable mothering figures.

The Indian child is treated like a raja, Kurtz says, but has his special route to maturity: “In a culturally distinctive yet controlled and consistent way, a Hindu mother gradually pushes her child away from dependence on the pleasure of her presence and toward the more mature pleasures of members in the group.” This is what psychoanalytic observers have missed because they have assumed

that a child be raised by a primary caretaker and that he or she be eased gently into autonomy. Deviations from this pattern are deemed pathogenic. Since very few non-Western cultures raise children in this manner, their every aspect is interpreted…as an unfortunate detour along some developmental path traveled more directly in the West.

In view of the greater importance in Hindu culture of groups over individuals, Kurtz then proposes what he calls an “Ek-hi” (“one and the same”) phase in the Indian child’s growth. This he sees as the equivalent of what Western psychoanalysts would call the pre-Oedipal phase, from which the child should emerge with a sense of identity and of relatedness to other people. For the Indian child, he argues, it is a period when he or she moves toward fitting into the whole family group—“all the mothers.” Again, he links this with the multiplicity of goddess figures who are yet accepted as being all manifestations of a single divinity.

Kurtz argues that the assumption of a unity of religious figures and mothering figures in Indian culture underlies the ability in Indian culture to accept the “split mother,” the “good” and “bad” breast of Kleinian psycho-analysis: mother as indulgent, mother as punishing; Nature as kind and nurturing, Nature as harsh and denying. The devotee of the death-dealing Kali with her necklace of skulls, for instance, must freely accept everything that is in her nature, and is thus liberated from fear. Kurtz pursues this argument by analyzing the Santoshi Ma figure in relation both to other Hindu goddesses and to extended family members.

He proposes what he calls a “Durga complex,” in place of the Oedipus complex, with the Oedipal struggle in this case taking place between the child’s real mother and the supplementary mothers in the extended family. In the Hindu pantheon Durga is a fierce goddess who fights demons and demands sacrifices from her devotees. But in the myths she is also presented in varying roles; in a complex analysis of both religious and psychoanalytic myth, Kurtz again finds reconciliatory themes. Where psychoanalytic writers on Indian myths have found a theme of self-castration by boys in the face of the mother (and there is nothing Freud or Klein thought up that cannot be found in Hindu myth), Kurtz points to underlying messages of restitution after sacrifice. All of them relate to the central insight of Indian philosophy: that the surrender of the single ego liberates the person to participate in a greater whole.

It is the concluding step in Kurtz’s analysis that may raise eyebrows. Against the argument that the over-close bond between Indian mother and child is a handicap, he proposes that we look differently at this bond. Rather than being the Western “careful dosing of gratification and frustration by a single, involved, and empathically watchful caretaker,” he says that from all anthropological accounts it is matter-of-fact and cool. Young children are never frustrated or left alone, but neither are they paid special individual attention. The Western psychoanalytic account of growth, on the other hand, he says, is of a passionate one-to-one relationship, which is the pattern for adult sexual love. The Indian way (the way of most non-Western cultures) he links with the prosaic nature of arranged marriages, as opposed to Western romantic love.

This is an argument worth considering; but when he says that “the absence of love as the fundamental organizing factor in child rearing outside the West has made other cultures appear to be failing their children on any number of counts,” Kurtz might be misread as saying, “We love our children, they don’t.” What I think he means is rather that the pattern of awarding/withholding love is, in many societies, not the pivot of child training. And a very good thing too, the Indian critic might remark, aware of our crumbling Western marriages and psychiatric wards crammed with family casualties. The picture of the Western mother sensitively interacting with her child has an opposite: the exasperated and bored woman boxed in with a child, and disappointed that it is not coming up to expectations.

Kurtz quotes the description of another anthropologist of the Indian child as “never alone, never the center of attention,” which, on the whole, sounds like a pretty good state of affairs, fulfilling the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s concept of a “holding” environment—one that inconspicuously provides unfailing support. Ambitious Western ideas of molding the child can imply an intolerance of enjoying the child as he or she is. Kurtz quotes an anecdote from an American anthropologist couple who were raising their own baby while doing fieldwork:

Even before arriving in the States, we began to notice differences in attitudes toward children. In the early hours of our flight, when the plane was filled with South Asians, people lavished attention on Simeon. Stops in Europe brought on new passengers, and we began to hear “Shh” and to observe looks of annoyance at the “inconvenience” of being near a child.

Indian observers of Western culture have noted our anxiety about achievement and fear of dependence, which are far less present in India. Standing alone, being master of one’s fate, has a price—especially when its achievement depends on only one, or possibly two, crucial early relationships. Sudhir Kakar quotes an American writer, Philip Slater, who, speaking for the counterculture, has said that the American social order deeply frustrates natural needs for community, for engagement, and for dependence; and the Indian psychiatrist N. C. Surya has said that the spread of psychotherapy in the West has arisen just to try to meet these deficits. These were issues—of independence versus group support—that Bruno Bettelheim wrestled with in his study of the communally raised youth of Israeli kibbutzim, whom he found free from the tragedy of unhappy home environments and yet emotionally bland, culturally incurious—perhaps even deprived through their very lack of rich European-Jewish neuroses.

Kurtz’s book is a stimulating, difficult, and ambitious attempt to counter psychoanalytic imperialism while still relating childhood experience to adult personality. Large, unanswerable questions remain in the background: how to define “love,” parental or marital; whether to see achievement as ultimately fueled by anxiety. In any case, if Kurtz’s arguments are valid, they should not be confined to India. Multiple mothering rather than one-to-one care is the norm in so many parts of the world; Freud himself was cared for by a nurse, though in the confines of a city apartment. What about the nanny in a separate nursery wing, among the English upper classes? The children of working mothers in Eastern Europe raised in state nurseries? Babies sent out in times past to wet-nurses? Children raised by older siblings, seen everywhere in the third world with baby on hip?

One obvious objection to Kakar’s theories is that they are concerned chiefly with the mother-son bond and are only vaguely relevant to the female half of the population. There is another objection, applying equally to Kakar’s account of child development, and many Western observers’. Growing up is always seen by these writers as a “sacrifice” of pleasure, “renunciation” of the mother. In fact as children get teeth and strong muscles they want to explore and chew; they do not necessarily need to be coaxed, molded, bribed, or pushed forward. Babies get bored with babyhood, children with childhood. Indian mothers, it appears, know this better than anthropologists and psychoanalysts.


Not an Anthropologist February 17, 1994

  1. *

    Artistic Creativity in a Brahmin Painter Community (University of California, Berkeley, Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies, 1976).

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