Fostering Humaneness: Sudhir Kakar

Sudhir Kakar

Sudhir’s lecture:

I would like to begin my talk on humaneness by first lines of Gandhi’s  favourite song :

 Vaishnava Jana To Tene Kahiye, Je Peed Paraayi Jaane Re’.  (The true disciple of Vishnu -Indian god-is one who understands the ‘other’s’ misery and pain)

Mahatma Gandhi, using charkha (weaving machine)

For me, the Vaishnava Jana in the 15th century Gujarati saint Narsinh Mehta’s famous bhajan (sacred song) is the embodiment of humaneness, a person ‘who understands the other’s pain.’  The primary marker of humaneness is then sympathy. I use sympathy as an overarching concept that includes its many manifestations: fellow-feeling, feeling of kinship that extend to the non-human world, compassion, and empathy where we not only feel for and feel with but even feel into the other. Sympathy is not limited to human beings but extends to the natural world. Here the great philosopher-poet Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi are in complete agreement. ‘Brotherhood,’ Gandhi writes in one letter, ‘is just now a distant aspiration. To me it is a test of true spirituality. All our prayers, and observances are empty nothings so long as we do not feel a live kinship with all life.’

Gandhi, Tagore and others

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 To one of his many critics, and there were many throughout his life and even after his death, who wrote to him suggesting that violence is the law of nature and that man is animal first and human afterwards, Gandhi replies that man can be classed as animal only so long as he retains his humanity and goes on to say : “The correspondent apologizes for suggesting that I might regard myself as a remote cousin of the ape. The truth is that my ethics not only permit me to claim but require me to own kinship with not merely the ape but the horse and the sheep, the lion and the leopard, the snake and the scorpion…The hard ethics which rule my life, and I hold ought to rule that of every man and woman, impose this unilateral obligation upon us.”

Here Gandhi is in the tradition of some of the greatest Indian icons—Buddha in ancient India, Kabir, Nanak in medieval North India, Tukaram in Maharashtra, Basava in Karnataka, Narsi Mehta in Gujarat, the Tamil saints, and Gandhi’s contemporary Rabindranath Tagore in modern India come immediately to mind, who have held that sympathy is the supreme value of our civilization.

Rabindranath Tagore

For Tagore, for instance, in contrast to the West, Indian civilization sought to establish a relation with the world, with nature as also with the living beings, not through the cultivation of power but the fostering of sympathy.

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‘When we know this world as alien to us, then its mechanical aspect takes prominence in our mind; and then we set up our machines and our methods to deal with it and make as much profit as our knowledge of its mechanism allows us to do so,’ he writes, ‘This view of things does not play us false…this aspect of truth cannot be ignored; it has to be known and mastered. Europe has done so and reaped a rich harvest…For us the highest purpose of this world is not merely living in it, knowing it and making use of it, but realizing our own selves in it through expansion of our sympathy; not alienating ourselves from it and dominating it, but comprehending and uniting it with ourselves in perfect union.’[i]

Origin Myth: Nature as antagonist

In a letter to his friend C. F. Andrews, Tagore articulates the ideas of India and the West through what we might call an “origin myth”.

‘From the beginning of their history the Western races have had to deal with nature as their antagonist. This fact has emphasized in their mind the dualistic aspect of truth, the eternal conflict between good and evil. Thus West has kept up the spirit of fight in the heart of their civilization. They seek victory and cultivate power.

The environment in which the Aryan immigrants found themselves in India was that of the forest. The forest, unlike the desert or rock or sea, is living; it gives shelter and nourishment to life. In such a surrounding the ancient forest dwellers of India realized the spirit of harmony with the universe, and emphasized in their mind the monistic aspect of truth. They sought the realization of their soul through the union with all.

The spirit of fight and the spirit of harmony, both have their importance in the scheme of things. For making a musical instrument, the obduracy of materials has to be forced to yield to the purpose of the instrument-maker. But music itself is a revelation of beauty, it is not an outcome of fight; it springs from an inner realization of harmony. The musical instrument and music both have their utmost importance for humanity. The civilization that conquers for man, and the civilization that realizes for him the fundamental unity in the depth of existence, are complementary to each other. When they join hands human nature finds its balance….’

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Tagore firmly believed that the wholesale acceptance of modern, Western education has suppressed this fundamental quality of the Indian mind. It has been treated like a wooden library shelf to be loaded with volumes of second hand information; ‘In consequence, it has lost its own colour and character, and has borrowed polish from the carpenter’s shop…we have bought our spectacles at the expense of our eyesight.’

Liberté, égalité, fraternité -Fraternity, last and least?

Arthur Schopenhauer

 ‘Indian’ and ‘Western’ are, of course, not monolithic categories but only refer to the dominant strands in the imaginations of the two civilizations. Tagore, I believe, is not suggesting a simplified dichotomy between Indian and Western views. In the West, too, there have been thinkers, for example, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in the Anglo-Saxon world, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in the German speaking one who famously proclaimed that “Compassion is the basis of all morality,” who too have shared the traditional Indian civilizational value of sympathy, love in its most elevated form, as indispensable to social cohesion and solidarity. And we are all familiar with the famous slogan of the French Revolution, now a universal aspiration, liberté, égalité, fraternité—‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’. It is interesting to note that fraternity, brotherhood, occupies the last place in this short list and, indeed, has become muted if not sidelined in contemporary Western discourse.

I must also note that with the exception of saints like St. Francis who is said to have addressed even a wolf as ‘Brother Wolf’, the dominant current of Western thought since the last two hundred years has confined brotherhood, sympathy, to one’s own group and not extended it beyond its borders to other human beings, not to speak of other species.

In our fascination with Western intellectual gurus, from Karl Marx to Michael Foucault, we do not realize what a disproportional space the Western idea of the role of power in institutions and society has come to occupy in modern Indian mind. Again, this is not to reject the value of the role of power and the truth it contains but, in Tagore’s spirit, seek to assimilate this truth with our own heritage on the primacy of sympathy. 

What Tagore objected to was not Western ideas and a world-view that foregrounds the role of power in human relations but the disproportional space they occupied in the modern Indian mind, and thus killed or hampered the opportunity to create a new combination of truths. ‘It is this which makes me urge that all the elements in our own culture have to be strengthened, not to resist the Western culture, but truly accept and assimilate it; to use it for our sustenance, not as our burden; to get mastery over this culture and not to live on its outskirts as the hewers of texts and drawers of book learning.’

Unlike Gandhi, Tagore welcomed modern science and Western forms of knowledge. He admired the fullness of intellectual vigour in the West that is working towards the solution of all problems of life. What he bemoans is that the mental vitality of modern forms of knowledge are not balanced by the Indian idea of the cultivation of sympathy. 

To take some examples of such a possible balancing:

How would sympathy affect the goal of modern psychotherapy, specifically my own discipline of psychoanalysis?

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 The goal of psychoanalysis is to lead to an outcome where the person, through an increased self understanding by making the unconscious conscious, attains a freedom to love, work and play, free from inhibitions her mind has gathered over the life cycle, especially from the childhood years. In other words, it is liberte, from inner inhibitions, is the highest goal of psychoanalytic therapy.

Is this sufficient as goal? From the viewpoint of sympathy, fraternite, we would need to view psychoanalysis as a transforming quest for self-knowledge that not only frees us from internal inhibitions but extends the range of our sympathy. A successful analysis would then be one that leads to self-understanding and growth of a wisdom that enriches our life with meaning and motivates us to act beyond our narrow interests. It will not be content with reaching the Freudian ideal of the autonomous individual but view it as a stepping stone to the caring individual.

Let me take one hypothetical example: the treatment of a patient suffering from anhedonie, the condition where one finds no pleasure in any activity, however intrinsically pleasurable the activity may be. In this other conception of psychoanalysis, the therapeutic goal will not only be a restoration of sexual pleasure but a restoration that takes place under the guiding star of loving intimacy ( the form of sympathy in this context) which transforms the sex into a thing of beauty, of truth—a glimpse of sat-chit-ananda. In such a psychoanalysis, the pleasure of eating will not be restored only for itself but under the star of fellowship (the form of sympathy in this context), which turns even a simple meal into a feast, a celebration of solidarity with others who share it.

Narcissism, whose pathological forms are the chief obstacles to the cultivation of sympathy, would assume a central place in both clinical and theoretical explorations.

My emphasis on the desirability of a caring, compassionate person as the outcome of psychoanalytic therapy is not because of any subscription to religious, moral prescriptions or secular ideologies, but because of recognition of the nature of human reality—namely, that each one of us is deeply embedded with other human beings as also connected to animate and inanimate nature, an order that is only kept from breaking down by… humaneness. 

To take another example, this one from the study of literature.

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Have we sufficiently explored the basic assumptions that lie behind Western theories of literary criticism and judgments of literary worth, which we use in the teaching of literature in our Indian colleges and universities? Do they need to be balanced, or at least looked at from the angle of sympathy which, following Tagore, I have postulated as the defining feature of the idea of India?

A hint of the possibilities is again provided by Tagore in his remarks on Shakespeare, who he greatly admired, and Kalidasa, who he revered. ‘The fury of passion in two of Shakespeare’s youthful poems is exhibited in conspicuous isolation. It is snatched away, naked, from the context of the All; it has not the green earth or the blue sky around it; it is there ready to bring to our view the raging fever which is in man’s desires, and not the balm of health and repose which encircles it in the universe.’

  As I understand him, Indian literary criticism will pay as much attention to the movement of sympathy in a work of literature as, following Western canons, it does to the movement of passions. The characters in the Hindi writer Premchand’s fiction (or for that matter, Tagore’s), for example, may not plumb the depth of human passions, a shortcoming that from the Indian point of view is relieved and compensated by the exquisite movement of sympathy that characterizes the best of these works. The highest accolades will, of course, be reserved for literary works that combine both the movements; some of Tolstoy’s writings come immediately to mind. 

My third example is social movements

Social movements in service of justice for the weak and the oppressed are rapidly picking up pace in our country, shaking traditional hierarchies and power structures. This is a welcome development. Most of these movements, however, seem to operate on the basis of only one ethic, justice, which is related to the issue of power, of correcting skewed and unfair power relations among social groups. What they highlight is a primacy of egalite in the liberte, egalite, fraternite trio of the French revolution slogan. In an almost sacralized ethic of justice, what matters is the outcome, not the path. Thus there have been eloquent voices that have defended violence in service of justice.

In her Reflections on Violence, the philosopher Hannah Arendt writes “…under certain circumstances violence, which is to act without argument or speech and without reckoning with consequences, is the only possibility of setting the scales of justice right again…In this sense, rage and the violence that sometimes, not always, goes with it belong to the “natural” emotions, and to cure man of them would mean nothing less than to dehumanize or emasculate him.

 I believe that the ethic of sympathy, compassion in this context, must temper the quest for justice. In our quest to right a wrong, bring the ethic of justice to the forefront, we are in danger of losing sight of what Gandhi and Tagore held was the defining characteristic of Indian civilization. In Tagore’s words, ‘Creative force needed for the true union in human society is love; justice is only an accompaniment to it, like the beating of tom-tom to song.’

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Sympathy-highest manifestation of human soul?

Sympathy, then, the primary constituent of humaneness, is the highest manifestation of the human soul. 

Perhaps climbing to the summit of sympathy, realizing the Upanishadic ideal of ‘he who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings’ is only possible for evolved mystics and saints. One can compare the spiritual expedition of our life to a mountain climb with many base camps marking its progress on the way. The first camp from which one cannot see the summit, covered as it is by clouds, though we know it is there, is tolerance, defined minimally as giving the benefit of the doubt to others. The second camp, a little higher, can be  said to be compassion, while the third and the last camp from where one climbs to the summit is empathy, the ‘feeling into’ another person, although of course, empathy can also encompass a ‘feeling into’ nature. The point is that the spiritual climb fosters deeper and deeper feelings of sympathy although only a few, rare souls can reach the summit. Most of us can consider ourselves fortunate if we are humane enough to can catch a glimpse of the peak of sympathy from the base camps of tolerance, compassion and empathy.

Personally, I fully subscribe to Tagore’s view that all our poetry,  philosophy, science, literature, art, religion, society and politics, serve (or must serve) to widen the range of our kinship, our sympathy, the principle of the soul. Initiated in our love for those who nurtured us when we were children and our love for our own children, friends, lovers as we get older, it is only the wider and wider manifestations of sympathy that are the true measure of human progress. The soul is insignificant as long as it is imprisoned within an individual self. It reveals its significance and its joy only in sympathetic connection with others.  Actually, the more vigorous our individuality, the less the need to encase the individual self in an armor of self-centeredness and more the capacity to make it permeable and thus participate in the play of what we call the ‘soul’. To me, the question of the fate of the soul after death, central to our religions, is not especially interesting.

If we do not free the soul from its prison of individual self, guarded by warders of self-centredness while alive, I doubt whether there is   hope of its freedom, of its salvation, after death. To adapt the American poet Robert Frost’s observation on love, the earth is the only place for the soul; I don’t know where it is likely to get better.

Or as the German mystic Meister Eckhart observes, ‘What the soul is in its ground, no one knows. But this we do know: That the soul is where God works compassion.’[ii]

If sympathy is the primary marker of humaneness, is there also a secondary marker? The answer is given in the next lines of Narsinh Mehta’s bhajan:

para duḥkhe upakāra kare to ye 
mana abhimāna na āṇe re—‘Helps others who are suffering,
 without conceit entering the mind.’

In other words, altruistic behavior that is concerned with realizing the welfare of others is the secondary characteristic of humaneness. The development of sympathy is not sufficient by itself but involves a responsibility or translating it into action in everyday life as also in society and its institutions. 

Both altruism and sympathy on which it is based have a troubled place in reigning currents of modern thought. Economic theory, based on the premise of Homo economicus acting rationally out of self-interest, selfishly, is as uneasy with altruistic behaviour as is sociobiology with its belief in the ‘selfish gene’ as essential to evolutionary success. But what if this dichotomy between narcissism and altruism, ahamkar and upkar, is false? What if doing good to others is doing good to yourself?

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 Indeed, I would suggest that in a sense altruism and egotism are not in conflict but complementary to each other. Doing good to others is also doing good to yourself.  Altruistic behavior raises self-esteem and thus contributes to feelings of  well-being. In other words, acting on the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, present in various forms in all the world’s religions, may not only be vital for an individual’s spiritual progress but even for psychological well-being; it is not only a moral exhortation but also an empirical fact. The Buddhists state it flatly, ‘Paying attention to one’s own needs is a producer of suffering; cherishing others a giver of happiness.’

This advocacy of altruism is not an ideological stance, underlined only by wise sayings, which may or may not be true, but very much a matter of empirical fact. And here I am not only talking of psychological well-being and happiness, which some may consider as vague categories, but of concrete, physical health. 

The benefits of altruistic behavior are so large that they even show up in improved health and longer life span. In a large, longitudinal study from the United States, those who reported giving more help and support to spouses, friends and relatives went on to live longer than those who gave less, whereas the amount of help that people reported receiving showed no relationship to their longevity. In other words, it is indeed more blessed to give than receive. Since this particular study also studied the effect of specific altruistic actions, it might be of interest to give some details regarding these. As we know, aspirin is often prescribed as a preventive to those at risk of heart attack. To help another person has 5-times more positive effect on your longevity than the ingestion of aspirin. Just to listen to another person is still twice as good as aspirin for your survival. I often tell aspring psychotherapists that they are entering a profession that may not be financially rewarding but is one of the best anti-depressants that I know.

Indeed, research in social neurosciences suggests that sympathy, and altruistic behavior that is motivated by sympathy, may be wired into our brains. The experience of sympathetic altruism is accompanied by a host of feelings, which neuroscientists have located in the brain area assigned to positive emotions and where they are most strongly activated.  Sympathetic altruism, one could say, is the most positive of positive emotions. 

 And we are all aware that witnessing the pain of a stranger activates a similar ‘pain network’ in our brains (the so-called ‘mirror neurons’), although this reaction almost disappears in men—in contrast to women—if the stranger is perceived to be a ‘bad’ person.[iii]  

Physiological findings, besides those of neurosciences, also support the existence of deep roots of humaneness in humankind.

Mother and child, growth of altruism

To witness good deeds—altruistic behavior—gives rise to feelings of elation, that are physiologically related to the rewarding release of the hormone oxytocin. In an ingenuous experiment, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt gathered 45 nursing mothers with their infants in a psychological laboratory where half were shown videos depicting altruistic behavior while the others watched comedy videos. Almost half the mothers who were shown the morally uplifting video showed increased milk flow or nursed their babies after watching the video while only very few mothers did so after watching the comedians. The first group also turned toward their babies more, touching them and clasping them to their breasts. Haidt comments that ‘The effect was one of the biggest I ever saw.’[iv]

Psychologists Michael Tomasello and Felix Warneken discovered the presence of a spontaneous help- and cooperation readiness in small children as young as 18 months, across cultures, which was not  inculcated by an adult and was independent of any reward.

Other experiments demonstrate the presence of altruistic behavior in even in 2-3 year old chimpanzees who spontaneously help a familiar adult who appears in some distress.[v]

Oxytocin- caring and forging bonds

Oxytocin facts

I just mentioned the hormone oxytocin, popularly called the ‘love drug’ or ‘cuddle hormone’, that rewards caring, altruistic behavior. It is the hormone that provides a powerful motivation to care for one’s children as also forge other kinds of bonds. It makes people trust others and, conversely, people who behave trustingly cause oxytocin levels to rise in the partner they trusted. Oxytocin levels rise in people who report feelings of wanting to help someone who is suffering. Our brains secrete more oxytocin when we have intimate contact with another person, even if that contact is a back massage.

Whereas the release of oxytocin in the brain is the physiological basis for why human beings are a caring lot, evolutionary biology would explain the evolution of our altruistic gene as a result of natural selection; in contrast to the selfish person, people who helped others were more likely to get help when they needed it most, say in attack by predators. 

Actually, the empirical findings on humanness  from brain sciences  should not surprise us. Most of the time, a large section of the world’s 7-billion people is generally kind and helpful towards others; in contrast to the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s characterization of people involved in Nazi crimes as ‘banality of evil’, one can call this the ‘banality of humaneness’ .  The banality of humaneness leads a quiet existence, away from the noise and headlines created by criminal selfishness and inhuman cruelty.

Caring is inbuilt, but saintliness is not

But what about cases when, for some reason or other, altruistic actions fuelled by sympathy, doing good to others, does not bring good but harm in return? Where your compassionate act is reciprocated with a slap on the cheek? And here, true to our first loyalty to truth, we must point out that though caring behavior is built in us, saintly behavior of turning the other cheek is not. That requires exceptional human beings, saints.

Recent research seems to be showing that all of us have a reciprocity reflex that is activated in interpersonal situations. In other words, we are primed to act according to the dictums: “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine; “I’ll stab your back, if you stab mine.” Theorists are even talking about an “exchange organ” in the brain, as though a part of the brain is keeping an account of debts owed and insults to be avenged. Specifically, the strategy of this exchange organ is to be nice in the first round of interaction, but after that do to your partner whatever your partner did to you in the previous round. The exchange organ wants to repay a favor even if the favor is an empty one. In one study, a psychologist sent a Christmas card to randomly chosen people who he did not know. The great majority sent him a card in return. 

An awareness of our unconscious tit for tat tendency of  —insult for insult, injury for injury, fairness for fairness, and, very important, the bias towards fairness at the start of an interaction, is helpful knowledge for all our inter- personal encounters. In day to day life, the reciprocity principle under which we unconsciously operate, is visible everywhere. People, and especially, sales people, who want something from us, try to give something to us first. Waiters placing a sweet or saunf on the tray with the check, get more tips than those who don’t. 

William Blake

I am aware of the suspiciousness with which an exhortation to altruism encounters, and rightly so, among a large section of our young (and older) people. The English poet William Blake’s admonition that ‘He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer..”, is as true of India (and other countries) in 2019 as it was of Britain in the 17th century when it was first made.[vi]

The pointing out of benefits of altruistic, caring behavior, the second element of humaneness, for individual well-being are apparent. Can we also point to similar benefits on a societal level? Before I come to that question, let me say that I believe that a quickening of the altruistic impulse is evident in the wider social arena, with a flourishing of NGOs, including some on a global scale, such as the Gates Foundation, Oxfam, Amnesty International or Medecins sans Frontier. The unprecedented rise in charitable giving which is not limited to one’s own community as has been the case earlier but goes beyond it, is another signpost on this road.

If sympathy is ingrained, why do we need endorsements from Buddha?

Groucho Marx

But what I want to address is a more uncomfortable question from someone who has so far mostly been in agreement with the substance of this talk but has a niggling feeling that the talk has a missing piece. This interlocutor asks: If humaneness, which you define as consisting of two interrelated elements—sympathy and altruistic behavior—is such a welcome and primary part of being human, then why is it not enough in evidence in daily life, why do we need endorsements from Buddha, Tagore, Gandhi and the many saints from our own and other civilizations? Surely you, as a psychoanalyst, must be aware of the powerful forces of desire, aggression and narcissism that are as deeply rooted in the human psyche as humaneness, and to which they pose an unceasing threat all through life? We can all smile at Groucho Marx’s quip: ‘Why should I think of the coming generations? What have they done for me?’, but doesn’t it have some truth in it?

Yes, I agree, I would say, that humaneness has to ripen in a field overgrown with weeds that seek to prevent its seeds from sprouting and growing into plants. As a psychoanalyst, I can contribute to the fostering of humaneness by analyzing the nature and strength of the enemy and then suggesting some counter measures. For instance, what or who is the Other we talk of in our observations on sympathy and altruism? The Other is not only someone outside and separate from the self. It is not only an objective entity, but also a subjective, imaginary construction superimposed on the objective Other. Let me elaborate. 

‘I am’, ‘not I’ and the ‘Other’

At some point of time very early in life, the child’s “I am!” heralds the birth of individuality. “I am” differentiates me from all that is not I, from the Other. From earliest childhood, the child is confronted with the difficulty of mastering negative emotions—rage, greed, selfishness, heedless and polymorphous sexuality.  Confronted with the task of integrating contradictory representations of the self—the “good” loving child and the “bad” raging one, and of the parents–the good, caretaking parent and the hateful, frustrating one—the child’s nascent ego has no other choice than to disown the bad representations as not belonging to the self but to an uncanny Other within the psyche. In other words, if otherness is part of the psyche and is its constituent from the beginning of life, then this uncanny Other has a permanent residence in the psyche. The Other cannot be actually eradicated by escalating hatred and violence that is directed towards it.

The psychoanalyst Stephen Frosch, commenting on the work of Slavoj Zizek and Judith Butler remarks: “In a sense, the perfect enemy is the one who does not exist, who can be reinvented every time to face the subject’s renewed wrath.” If the other is primary and one is torn apart by otherness within, then hatred for the other can become the overwhelming reality.

Our struggle with ‘bad’ and the ‘animal’ within

One way we attempt to get rid of this ‘bad’ other is through projection, that is, where a denigrated other outside comes to serve as the repository of unwanted aspects of the self. The most obvious example of the work of such projection is in conflict between groups and communities where the other group becomes a reservoir (as Vamik Volkan) calls it, for one’s disavowed bad representations[1] These reservoirs—Muslims for Hindus, Arabs for Jews, Tibetans for Chinese, and vice versa—are also convenient repositories for subsequent rages and hateful feelings for which no clear-cut addressee is available.

Since most of the “bad” representations arise from a social disapproval of the child’s “animality”, as expressed in its aggressivity, dirtiness, and unruly sexuality, it is pre-eminently this animality that a good self, belonging to a moral community, must disavow and place in the reservoir community. We see this happening again and again in modern and historical accounts of conflicts between communities.. In sixteenth-century France, for instance, Catholics “knew” that Protestants were not only dirty and diabolic but that their holy Supper was disordered and drunken, a bacchanalia, and that they snuffed out candles and had indiscriminate sexual intercourse after voluptuous psalm singing. Protestants, on their part, “knew” that Catholic clergy had an organization of hundreds of women at the disposal of priests and canons who, for most part, were sodomites as well.

Rival communities, ‘pure’ and ‘dirty’

The “pure” us versus a “dirty” them, the association of a rival community with denigrated, often anal, bodily parts and functions, is commonplace in other similar situations around the world. “Dirty nigger” and “dirty Jew” are well-known epithets in the United States. The Chinese regard Tibetans as the great unwashed perpetually stinking of yak butter. In Rwandan radio broadcasts inciting the Hutus to massacre the Tutsis, the latter were consistently called rats and cockroaches, creatures associated with underground sewers, disgusting and dangerous vermin needing to be exterminated.

And in my own study of Hindu-Muslim conflict, described in The Colours of Violence, the Hindu image of Muslim men is one of ferocity, rampant sexuality  (‘they copulate like beasts’) and a dirtiness which is less a matter of bodily cleanliness and more of an inner pollution as a consequence of the consumption of tabooed foods. For Muslims,  Hindu men have no control over their impulses, possess an animal cunning and are inhumanly cruel (beraham)’.

Little wonder that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” needed to be a commandment. The neighbor is potentially an antagonist, basically dangerous and therefore to be ignored if distant enough, to be demeaned when too visible and to be attacked when threatening to encroach.

The primary work of increasing sympathy between antagonistic groups is internal; it must first take place in our minds. This work needs the realization that we all have a dark group within us, that our unconscious need for enemies is as deeply embedded in us as by the more conscious need for friends. Our shadow side is part of our developmental heritage that can be disavowed only at the peril of it being then available to demagogues who seek to harness it to the goal of divisiveness and differentiation.  

It is a further realization that our developmental heritage from our childhood is not our fate, that we need not act according to our darker dictates.  It is the realization that between loving and hating your neighbor, there is a range of choices, ranging from various shades of amity to tolerance and  indifference, that are also available to each one of us. It is not easy to give up our prejudices that exist at a deep level of feelings but we can at least become aware of them and try to prevent them from influencing our thinking.

Only such introspection can make me immune against all those who seek to stoke my group’s persecution anxiety, with images of a besieged and endangered community on the verge of extinction at the hands of the other, the enemy group, even as they heighten my group’s narcissism by singing of its glories while ridiculing similar pretensions of the other community. 

Religious traditions have developed various methods, from rituals to introspective meditative techniques aimed at widening our capacity for sympathy. The Buddhist Compassionate Meditation, for instance, specifically addresses this capacity. One way of increasing our sympathetic capacity may well be a constant and conscious practice of compassion till it becomes an ingrained way of approaching all living beings, that is, to be constantly heedful of Blake’s admonition of ‘doing good in minute particulars.’ To be consequent in the practice of compassion is not an easy task.

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama, who has been meditating for at least three hours every day for over fifty years tells this story about himself. In Dharamshala, where he lives, there are many mosquitoes. When the first mosquito alights on his bare arm, his thought is, “ Fine, my friend, you must also live. Have your meal of my blood.” With the second one, he is a bit irritated. When the third one comes buzzing to the dining table, he squashes it flat. The Buddhists believe that your thoughts when you are dying have a huge effect on how you are reincarnated in your next birth, pure, spiritual thoughts ensuring a higher form of consciousness in the next life. ‘When I am dying,’ Dalai Lama says with his trademark smile, ‘I will make sure that my bed is covered with a mosquito net.’37 

To look inwards is to give up the illusory clarity and excitement of thinking in black and white and embrace the colour grey, the preeminent colour of reality. Grey is not a colour of excitement, of passion. Buddha, with his sarvam dukham (pervading sadness) and Freud with his promise of exchanging the sufferer’s hysterical misery for common human unhappiness are both depressives, votaries of the colour grey, and thus supreme realists since reality for anyone who looks at it without blinkers is depressing, the desolation of Yeats. As one of the psychoanalytic schools avers, We are all born as paranoids but, at best, may mature into depressives. 

Not black and white but grey

Fortunately, grey is not only the colour of rational thought but has allies in our psychic depths if we would only harness them to our cause. I am speaking of our natural human compassion, just as natural as our dark nature. Showing sufferings of victims of collective violence, followed by discussions, as part of our educational curriculum in schools and colleges as also in other group settings is an obvious next step in the long term combating of violence. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write. Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values.

Our brains evolved to “expect” stories with a particular structure, with heroes and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Lawyers whose closing arguments tell a story win jury trials against their legal adversaries who just lay out “the facts of the case.”Although stories grip us more readily than a narration of facts, they become even more powerful if they contain emotion.

In an experiment reported in Nature some years ago, two emotionally dissimilar stories were read out to the experimental subjects. The first story was boring and went as follows: A boy is driving through the city with his mother to visit his father who works in a hospital. There the boy is shown a sequence of medical treatments.

The second story was more dramatic: A boy is driving through the city with his mother in a car and is grievously hurt in a car accident. He is rushed to the hospital where he is subjected to a series of medical interventions.The experimental subjects were then given a list of the hospital’s treatments to read and sent home.

After a week, the subjects who had heard the dramatic second story remembered the treatment details better than those who had heard the first one. It is important that we realize that to successfully address the dark side of our community identity, we need to harness all the resources of art– musical, visual and cinematic. Only then can we move beyond the mere provision of information that has become such a disproportionate part of our education system and reach the deeper layers of the psyche inaccessible to language alone.

At the end, even while I am aware of how difficult it is to resist the siren song of black and white, with its soaring notes of love and hate, both in our personal and social-political lives, I would urge a sustained exploration of the much less volatile (and benign) hues of grey. Grey has its own satisfactions: of insight that comes from listening to the ‘soft but persistent voice of reason’ (Freud), and the fostering of compassion that bridges the divide fuelled by passion. It is a long process. It is easy to be born human; it is a life long task to become humane.


[i] R. Tagore, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1922), 49.

[ii] M. Fox, Christian Mystics (Novato, CA.: new World Library, 2011), 142

[iii] T. Singer et al., ‘Empathy for pain Involves the Affective but Not the Sensory Components of Pain’, Science, 303, 2004, 1157-62.

[iv] J. Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York: Basic Books, 2005, 198.

[v] F. Warnecken and M. Tomasello, ‘Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees’, Science, 311, 2006, 1301-03.

[vi] W. Blake, cit.in M.L. Nicholson,  ‘He who would do good to another must do it in  minute particulars…’, Social Work, 4:1, 1959, 58-65

Dr. Sudhir Kakar

A leading figure in the fields of cultural psychology and the psychology of religion, as well as a novelist, Dr. Kakar’s person and work have been profiled in The New York Times, Le Monde, Frankfurter Allgemeine, Neue Zuricher Zeitung, Die Zeit and Le Nouvel Observateur, which listed him as one of the world’s 25 major thinkers while the German weekly Die Zeit portrayed Sudhir Kakar as one of the 21 important thinkers for the 21st century. Sudhir Kakar’s twenty books of non-fiction and six of fiction, include The Inner World (now in its 16th printing since its first publication in 1978), Shamans, Mystics and Doctors , (with J.M. Ross ) Tales of Love, Sex and Danger,Intimate Relations, The Analyst and the Mystic, The Colors of Violence,Culture and Psyche, (with K.Kakar) The Indians: Portrait of a People, (with Wendy Doniger) a new translation of the Kamasutra for Oxford World Classics, Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World and Young Tagore: The makings of a genius. His latest books are the novel The Kipling File (Penguin, 2018) and, as co-editor, Imaginations of Death and Afterlife in India and Europe (Springer, 2018). His books have been translated into 22 languages.

Read more : https://www.kakarartcollective.com/sudhir-kakar

See also: Six Habits of Highly Empathic People

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