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The Indians: Portrait of a People

The Indians: Portrait of a People is a very readable book, authored by India ‘s foremost psychoanalyst and cultural commentator Sudhir Kakar and his wife anthropologist Katharina Kakar .The book was published about three months back. I read it recently. It is an unusual book, in many ways. I wish to share my impressions of the book with you.

The book aims to describe the manifestations of the spirit of India in various facets of Indian life and thought. It attempts to take a look at the building blocks of the Indian-ness. The authors set out “to present a composite portrait in which Indians will recognize themselves and be recognized by others.”

The portrayal here is of the middle-class Hindus, who, the authors claim occupy the dominant place in Indian culture. Those “at the margins of Hindu society (such as the Dalits and tribals, or the Christians and Muslims),” they write, “Will spot only fleeting resemblances to themselves”. Kakar admits to speaking of Indian-ness in terms of a pre-eminently Hindu civilization that has contributed the major share to what he calls the “cultural gene pool” of India ’s peoples. What about the contribution of other cultures like the Mughals and the British? “There have been many positive and negative contributions,” he says, “but they have been gradually assimilated over centuries – it isn’t a clear-cut process. Thinking of examples offhand, I believe the Indian character has benefited greatly from the Brotherhood Ideal that is prevalent in Islam.”

In their journey to discover Indian-ness or the Hindu view of the world, the Kakars are concerned not so much with philosophical doctrines but with the beliefs and attitudes of Indian people reflected in their lives, songs and stories. They try to show how these beliefs are disseminated through myths, legends, proverbs, and metaphors enacted in religious rituals, conveyed through tales told to children, and as depicted in Bollywood movies, television serials; or glimpsed in the admonition of parents and in the vision they have of their children’s future.

The authors point out, despite ethnic differences there is an underlying unity in the great diversity ofIndia that needs to be recognized. They contend that there are more similarities than differences among the various people of the Subcontinent, and that there is an underlying core at the heart of Indian civilization, one which remained intact through the Mughal invasions, British colonialism and other vicissitudes of Indian history. The authors examine the predominance of family, community and caste in our everyday lives, our attitudes to sex and marriage, our prejudices, our ideas of the other and our understanding of health, right and wrong, and death .The world vision they talk about is not through the head but the heart.

Indian Way of Thinking 

The authors refer to A. K. Ramanujan’s stimulating essay, “Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?” which describes the Indian character as “context-sensitive” as opposed to “context-free.” Ramanujan says “Actual behaviour may be more complex, though the rules they think with are a crucial factor guiding the behaviour”. Context-sensitive, he suggests, is the more appropriate term for what others have taken for an Indian tendency toward inconsistency and hypocrisy, as well as, perhaps tolerance and mimicry. Context-free thinking, which he attributes to Euro-American culture, gives rise to universal testaments of law, such as in the Judeo-Christian tradition and in the European philosophical tradition, e.g. Hegel. Context-sensitive thinking, on the other hand, gives rise to more complicated sets of standards such as the Laws of Manu, by which appropriateness depends on various factors, especially factors of identity and personhood, such as birth, occupation, life stage, karma, dharma, etc. Ramanujan stresses that this difference in philosophical outcome is not a symptom of irrationality, but a different kind of rationale

Ramanujan once said “One way of defining diversity for India is to say what the Irishman is said to have remarked about trousers. When asked whether trousers were singular or plural, he said, ‘Singular at the top and plural at the bottom.’ (In where mirrors are windows: Toward an anthology of reflections).

The Indian inconsistency looks puzzling, but it is not. How can a qualified astronomer working at an International institute of fundamental sciences also be a practicing astrologer? How can a CEO of a multi national company consult horoscopes and holy men for taking family decisions? Why does an oxford educated cabinet minister postpone an important meeting because the time is not “auspicious”? 

Ramanujan asserted it is not inconsistency; it has nothing to do with a person’s level of education or social standing or logical rigor. It could be understood better, he said, if we appreciate that Indians operate on the basis of context-sensitive rather than context-free norms.

While discussing the Hindu way of thinking Kakars expand on Ramanujan’s ideas and pose the question how does an individual know what is the right action? Are his actions in conformity with the truth of things? Kakars answer this by saying “he cannot (know) since right action depends the culture of his country (desa), the context in which he lives (kala), on the efforts required of him at his particular stage of life (shrama) and lastly on the innate character (guna) he has inherited. An individual can never know the configuration of all these factors in an absolute sense. “Right” and “wrong” are relative depending on its specific context; every action can be right or otherwise”.

What a person should do or should not do depends on the context. Even truth telling is not an unconditional imperative .Kakars quote Gautama , a law giver, “An untruth spoken by people under the influence of anger , excessive joy , fear , pain or grief , by infants , by very old men , by persons laboring under a delusion or being under the influence of drink , does not cause the speaker to fall(under sin).” The moral relativism of the Hindu mind is thus not an absence of moral code but only a more context-sensitive way of looking at and dealing with its violation.

Context-sensitivity is not a feature of traditional moral law but extends to many areas of contemporary Indian life and thought. If truth is relative, then there is no choice but to be tolerant of the truth of others. The roots of the Hindu tolerance may well lie in this context- dependent way of thinking.

Kakars feel that relativism of Dharma supports tradition and modernism, innovation and conformity. On one hand, the uncertainty enables one take independent voluntary actions that might sometimes be risky; on the other it prompts one to look back to epics, ancestors, social groups for guidance on how they dealt with similar situations.


While talking about the characteristics of Indian-ness, “A key aspect,” Kakars say, “is how connected we are to each other as a people. Compared to Westerners, Indians are generally more ready to embrace the pain that accompanies too much closeness – one reason why the family structure is still very strong compared to many other cultures.”

Another important quality is that it is a profoundly hierarchical society. “Indians are perhaps the world’s most undemocratic people, living in the largest democracy,” he writes “What I mean by this,” he explains, “is that one Indian typically looks at another through a variety of filters – including gender, caste, religion, class – all aimed at answering the question, ‘Is this person superior or inferior to me?’ The difference in status between a chief executive and an office peon is the highest in our country.”

And yet, there is also what he calls a “connected hierarchy, based on a humane orientation” – which means that our leaders tend to be authoritative but not autocratic, and usually benevolent. “Once a leader has been accepted, he is looked upon as a father figure and his subordinates tend to be very loyal to him. We have this culture of people willing to work regularly even on weekends. The flip-side is that this can result in sycophancy and a lack of critical feedback.”

Kakars explain that when an Indian attains success at his work his first conscious thought would be “How happy my family will be!” The Indians tend to idealize their families and their ancestral background.

The Kakars connect Indian business culture to the Indian child’s experience of family. From an early age, they write, the Indian child is made aware of the importance of the integrity of the family, and of the hierarchy within it. Indian children receive much nurturing from their elders, but are also expected to follow their elders’ injunctions – to the extent that they are made to believe that what their elders dictate is what is best for them. This has ramifications far into the child’s future, particularly when he has to join the workforce. Drawing from a report on various global corporate cultures, the Kakars show how the Indian organization is characterized by four elements: a high degree of idealization by subordinates of their superiors; a significant separation between members of the organization by power, authority and prestige; a widespread culture of caring, altruism and kindness; and a fierce loyalty by workers towards the organization.

Hindu nationalism 

In dealing with the Indian “Religious and Spiritual Life”, the authors contrast the Hindu nationalist and the flexible Hindu. There are serious contradictions in a militant Hindu nationalism, since Hinduism is concerned with tolerance and universalism, that go back to traditional Hindu roots. On the other hand, the flexible Hindu tossed on the tide of consumerism and pseudo secularism that has been so uncritically accepted, feels threatened and looks for alternate modes of expression. He fears his identity is under threat. This is what makes the Hindu nationalists’ proposal attractive

Hindu-Muslim conflict 

This brings us to Hindu-Muslim conflict. The authors explain the Hindu-Muslim conflict in terms of the construction and transmission of stereotypes that demonized the ‘other’. Kakars say we will have to give up Gandhi’s dream of “lasting heart unity” between the two communities. “The differences won’t go away,” he says, “and even if it were possible, there will always be someone ready to exploit communal tensions.” What then is his best-case scenario for the future? “An achievable ideal is increased tolerance for the other, even if one disagrees with their beliefs and lifestyles. We might have to content ourselves with the creation of a common public realm while regarding the other community with benign indifference in private.”

Indian Women 

The continuity and change in the evolution of women’s identity and gender relations are traced in the “Indian Women: Traditional and Modern”. The authors seem to soft pedal the position of the girl child in the Indian family, especially upper and middle caste ones. The situation they describe may have prevailed in the traditional rural joint family, but surely that has changed today, if the sex ratios, especially for the more patriarchal states in the North, are anything to go by. 

While facing the question whether the family closeness is getting diluted in the urban parts of the country? “Yes, that process is underway,” he says. “But also, very often, what we have is the illusion of modernity. Centuries of conditioning and generational ‘wisdom’ still underlie most of our attitudes.” He points out, for instance, that the average college girl in Delhi , even one who dresses in jeans or skirts, will hesitate to break into loud laughter at the antics of a boy who’s trying to attract her attention. At some level, despite the surface liberalness, she is still aware of traditional folk-wisdom pertaining to male-female interactions, which she has absorbed from her community – in this case, the saying, “jo hansi, woh phansi” (“if a girl laughs, she is already in the net”). 

Even the idea of the ever-increasing generation gap, Kakar says, is part of a canon of Western psychology that we – especially those of us who have grown up reading English – too easily accept. “But in India , even in the less conservative families, the generational bond tends to be stronger than the generational conflict.”

The spread of new media and technologies- internet, mythological comics, TV serials- is not only leading to greater homogenization of Hindu rituals and festivals but is also the main source of religious knowledge for the young generations, they say.

At some places Kakars reveal startlingly ultra conservative views on women, which I find difficult to appreciate. Take, for instance, the relationship between the daughter-in-law and her cruel mother-in-law, which is an inexhaustible theme of Indian folktales and TV soap operas. When such a plot is on view we normally sympathize with the victimized daughter-in-law. But the Kakars argue that animosity towards the mother-in-law is in fact unwarranted, as she is merely “an agent of the Indian family”, whose role is simply to preserve the traditional form of the family from outside intrusion. “Given the organizing principle of the traditional Indian family,” the Kakars continue, in which the parent-son and filial bonds are more central than the husband-wife tie (that is considered the fulcrum of the modern Western family), the new bride constitutes a very real threat to the unity of the larger family. Abundantly aware of the power of sex to overthrow religiously sanctioned family values and long- established social norms, the family is concerned that the young wife may cause her husband to neglect his duties as a son, as a brother, a nephew, an uncle; that he will transfer his loyalty and affection to her rather than remaining truly a son of the house.”

In another place they say, Man’s war with “woman” is a common theme in Indian tales. The woman is defiant and does not submit without a struggle against her husband. Withholding of sex is used against him but sex is permitted when he is humbled. 

The book also says that working wives who express satisfaction with their career still rank the raising of children as the priority in a woman’s life.

Sexuality in Indian society 

The study of sexuality has been a major facet of Sudhir Kakar’s career. In addition to his studies on sexual mores in contemporary India , he has co-authored a translation of the Kama Sutra, and written a novel based on the life of Vatsyayana. In The Indians, the Kakars draw from these works, to create a celebratory and lyrical account of sexuality during the era in which the Kama Sutra was written. 

The disjunction between the classical and modern stance on “sexuality” plays out the tension between the ascetic and the erotic Indian: from the Kamasutra and the Gita Govinda, to popular temple art, to today’s official censorship and vigilante moral policing. The authors explore some of the intricacies involved.

While admiring sexuality as practiced in ancient India , the Kakars are pained by the conservative and puritanical sexual mores of contemporary India . Indian society today, they say, is in “the dark ages of sexuality”, characterized by a lack of “erotic grace which frees sexual activity from the imperatives of biology, uniting the partners in sensual delight and metaphysical openness.” Kama Sutra appears as an effort to critique modern Indian sexuality through the presentation of an example of a superior alternative.

“The erotic love of the Kama Sutra is a precarious balancing act between the possessiveness of sexual desire and the tenderness of romantic longing, between the disorders of instinctually and the moral forces of order, between the imperatives of nature and the civilizing attempts of culture. It is a search for harmony in all the opposing forces that constitute human sexuality.” 

The Kakars approve of social characteristics that promote harmony, health and the refined enjoyment of the daily pleasures that life offers. They disapprove of those characteristics that cause discord, and inhibit expression and enjoyment. They criticize, but their criticism is understated, appearing on the surface as simple description of Indian society. Even when they describe ugly traits, they do so with warmth towards the people they are describing. 


In the concluding chapter, the authors bring together their discussion on the Hindu world view under its three building blocks— Moksha, Dharma and Karma— which of course is mainstream ‘Sanatana Dharma’. They conclude by saying: 

“ In conclusion let us again emphasize that the Hindu world view , the reluctant orientation, the context-sensitivity and the lesser sexual differentiation that go into the formation of the Indian mind are not abstractions to be more or less hazily comprehended during the adult years. They are the constituents of an Indian’s psyche, absorbed by the child in his relationship with his caretakers from the very beginning of life as the underlying truth of the world. Rarely summoned for conscious examination, this cultural part of the mind is neither determinedly universal nor utterly idiosyncratic. The mental representation of our cultural heritage, it remains in constant conversation with the universal and individual aspects of our mind throughout life, each influencing and shaping the other two at every moment of our being.”


This book of Kakars’ is a rather unfashionable one, in the sense that it does not blend with the trend of the books written by some eminent Indian authors. Look at some of the statements made in the book.

 “Identity is not a role, or a succession of roles, with which it is often confused,” write the authors, “It is not a garment that can be put on or taken off according to the weather outside; it is not ‘fluid’, but marked by a sense of continuity and sameness irrespective of where the person finds himself during the course of his life.”

** The authors state that the cultural part of personal identity is wired into our brains as the “software” (Samskara) with which a child grows up, leaving limited possibilities for fluid and changing identities in adulthood.

** Furthermore, they say that cultural traditions as transmitted through the family “have a line of development separate from political and economic systems.”

Kakars’ book does not fall in line with the current cultural and academic trend where the emphasis is on multiple-flexible- identities and on universality. The current intellectual mood in the country loves to promote the idea of mixing of cultures, of multiple identities that can be worn or taken off-like masks – as the situation demands. Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence is a convincing presentation of this point of view. Further, the view that cultural traditions as transmitted through the family “have a line of development separate from political and economic systems” may not be acceptable to political economists and sociologists. The book runs the risk of being blamed for ignoring the heterogeneity of the country as it focuses on Hindus to the exclusion of other segments of Indian society.

Further, some views on women, hierarchy, business culture and political set up are rather naive, over simplified or too conservative. One cannot agree with all the views of the authors.

Yet, the book presents a fascinating portrait of our society and culture. It displays an understanding of the Indian social reality, its “way of looking at things”. The book is well written, cogent and lucid; based on years of clinical research. As I said earlier it is an unusual book in many ways. It is worth reading even in case you do not agree with all that the authors say.

The Indians : Portrait of a People Author: Kakar, Sudhir & Kakar, Katharina Year: 2007 ISBN : 0670999237 [ pp. 232 ] [ Price: RS. 395.00, US$ 9.29 ]


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Books, General Interest