close logo

Freudian Psychoanalysis And Indian Psychology

From an Indian perspective a variety of positions exist with regard to the application of Freudian psychoanalysis, namely, application without any modifications for the cultural context and culturally modified applications with deep understanding and regard for the Indian contexts. While the former position is evident in the works of Gananath Obeyesekere and Sudhir Kakar, the latter position, which can be termed as ethnopsychological application of Freudian psychoanalysis, is manifested in the works of Frederick Smith, Alan Roland, and Stanley Kurtz. In this article I intend to show this distinction by close readings of several works by these scholars. Before initiating a discussion on the usage of Freudian theories in the Indian context, the problems of applying Freudian theories in the context of religion are presented first.

Freud and Religion: The Dilemma

According to Daniel Pals (2006, p.80), Freud’s major theories about religion are based on his understanding of Judeo-Christian traditions that have a strong emphasis on a single fatherly divine godhead. Since Asian (and other non-Western) religious traditions are different from Western religions with many divine figures, motherly goddesses and nature gods, Freudian theories need to be substantially revised for non-Western contexts, as will be seen below.

According to Alan Roland (1996), a prominent psychiatrist treating both Western and Asian patients, spirituality as a core dimension of the human psyche has rarely been acknowledged in Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud carried forth the Enlightenment views demystifying religion and exalting a rational secularism and science in his views of religion

as an illusion to cope with the vulnerability of man’s infantile helplessness. Psychoanalysis has usually denigrated spiritual experiences as either being regressive to the early mother- infant symbiotic relationship, or psychopathological in any number of ways. Only a small handful of Freudian psychoanalysts have brooked this view point. If the spiritual dimension in the human psyche has been treated cavalierly by psychoanalysis, then the magic-cosmic world of personal destiny as communicated by astrology, palmistry, psychics, the spirit world, and such are sheer anathema to the modern, scientifically educated Western mind, especially psychoanalysts specializing in South Asian culture. There may be some countercurrents in the West, but they often assume a rank commercialization in the counterculture, related to notions of personal destiny and the magic-cosmic being completely denigrated as superstition by the dominant culture (p.145).

Commenting on Western thinking regarding the topic of demons and possession, Frederick Smith (2006) argued that it has been shaped by a century of Freudian opinion, in which demons and associated phenomena are conceived as repressed traumas and developmental conflicts. This conviction, supported by a wealth of “scientific data,” is based on a single virtually unquestioned Freudian paradigm. The results are then projected by psychologists, historians, anthropologists, literary critics, and many others onto non- Western cultures, whether ancient or modern, with little regard for the situated characteristics of emotional embodiment that may be defined as indigenous, or of conflicting scientific paradigms that may be employed in these cultures.

In search of the reason for this Western bias, Smith notes that the Western biomedical approach to physical and mental illness excludes the possibility of non-sensory forces influencing the individual’s inner consciousness. This inner consciousness, in the

Western biomedical model, is a function of the mind, which is equated with and bounded by the brain. The proximate construction in Indian thought to this model of internal functioning is the “inner organ,” (Antahkaran in Sanskrit), analyzed as the heart (as the locus of emotional experience), mind, intellect, and ego combined. This inner organ, however, is not immune from non-sensory influence, from infiltration by external signals (p. 53).

Smith also notes different trends in the field of psychoanalysis. Initially Freudian psychoanalytic theory was dominant. In the last few decades, however, there has been a shift towards viewing psychopathology “as a set of discrete heterogeneous disorders with distinct biological causations” (Castillo as cited in Smith, 1994, p. 2). Along with this, dissociation theory has experienced a revival. At the same time, certain psychoanalytic categories have lost their earlier importance, most recently neurosis and most importantly hysteria (Lewis-Fernandez, as cited in Smith). Some works, however, such as those of Gananath Obeyesekere (1981), do not reflect the new trends and still seem to favor Freudian psychoanalysis.

Smith continues further by quoting Clifford Geertz’s summary of the Western conception of the person. This person is “Bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background. This is a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures” (Geertz, as cited in Smith, p. 56). This observation by Geertz shows that the Western psychological idea of a person cannot be generally applied to different world cultures; rather, it is just one among many different conceptions of the

person. This distinction, however, is rarely taken into consideration by scholars studying South Asian cultures in conjunction with Freudian theories as will be seen below.

Myth, American Individualism, and Nuances of Indian Traditions

Based on his psychoanalysis of many Asian and Western patients, Roland (1996) concludes that there is a basic assumption by Hindus, Buddhists, and other Asians that the self is much more permeable in the social world than the Western individualized self; Asians have a more familial self, open to various invisible spheres and influences, with a much longer time span to this self. Thus, the self for South Asians is open to the spirit world, to ancestors, to planetary influences, and to actions and experiences from past lives that impinge on the present and by actions and experiences in the present that will affect future lives. Moreover, they assume that through astrology, palmistry, psychics, and the spirit world, one can become aware of one’s destiny. Through rituals and other means, one can partially alter it. All of this is foreign to Western psychoanalysts; yet it is important for rural as well as urban educated Hindus (p.155).

Comparing his patients from America and India, Roland observed the different attitudes his patients developed about their religious practices. His American patients included meditation and prayer in their self-creation of identities. In the American culture of individualism, an individual’s identity is central to their individuality and is to be expressed openly in the social world. With Indians, on the other hand, involvement with the spiritual is actually a mode of individuating and separating themselves out of profound familial enmeshments, while remaining connected to others. It, too, is part of a deeply rooted individuality, but one that is more kept to oneself (Kurtz,1992). AccordingtoKurtz,

“the problem for Krishna is how to sport with Radha without arousing the jealousy of the other gopis. The solution involves a multiplication of his self until he can be a companion to all the gopis as well as a transformation of simple lust into a more divine sort of love” (p. 236). (Emphasis added)

Continuing to highlight the psychological attitudes of his Indian patients, Roland notes that the close mother-son relationship of the boy leads to much more maternal- feminine qualities in Indian men than their Western counterparts. He asserts further that Indian men also have less castration anxiety than Westerners. Indian women have less penis envy than their Western counterparts. Woman as mother looms much larger in the male Indian psyche than is characteristic in the West, so that women are unconsciously perceived as being very powerful, which is also reinforced by the Hindu pantheon of extremely powerful mother goddesses. These goddesses, however, are also seen as very nurturing and empathetic. Importance of the mother-son relationship continues to take precedence even after a son’s marriage. Marriage is between families rather than between husband and wife.

Similarly,Kurtz notes the nuances of Oedipus complex theory in Indian traditions: “The basic processes and principles of personal interaction by which early attachments (towards mother or father) and rivalries are transcended must be considered variable in kind across cultures” (p. 237). According to Kurtz, the Hindu pattern is to break the incestuous attachment to the mother by interposing not a rival of the child for the mother but a group of rivals of the mother for the child. This in turn entails a different resolution altogether from that found in the Oedipus complex. The Hindu son gives up his immature genital attachment to the mother in return for the more sublime satisfaction of being

immersed in a group of mothers. Moreover, the boy child’s renunciation of incestuous genital strivings for the mother, followed by his more mature immersion in a group of mothers, is symbolized as a voluntary castration followed by a phallic restoration. This symbolic pattern is not a record of unresolved pathology but the signpost of a culturally unique path of developmental advance.

A.K. Ramanujan has demonstrated with many examples from Hindu myths how the Oedipus complex works in reverse fashion in Indian cultural scenarios. Observing the different attitudes in Indian and Greek myths, he says that Indian intergenerational competition is a reversal of its Greek counterpart. In addition, Indian males have less repression of their feminine identity. Indian males repress their ‘independence’ as American males repress their ‘dependence.’ Therefore, the predominant kinds of neuroses may be quite different in the two cultures and may need different emphases in therapy. Ramanujan (1983) noted that Indian Oedipus is a traditional role model where the son sacrifices his sexuality for his father, opposite of Western Oedipus complex where the son revolts against his father’s sexuality

Paul Courtright (1999) also agrees with Ramanujan and notes that the Ganesha myth also ends with the sacrifice of the son Ganesha:

Unlike Oedipus, Ganesha does not kill his father, he is himself killed to be revived later. Another important difference is the direction of the myth. Although the Oedipus story directs us to the fundamentally tragic acceptance of the exile from the mother and submission to the superego demands represented by the father, gods, or fate, the Ganesha story ends with his restoration and a new beginning in which relations between parents and child are reconciled. Ganesha emerges with a new consciousness – symbolized by the new head – as the model devotee. (p.137)

Sudhir Kakar (1995) agrees with Ramanujan and concludes that Indians are different from Westerners as they are more “relational, with the family and community

(including the family of divinities) playing a dominant role in the experience of the self” (p.268). In 1990, Gananath Obeyesekere also agreed with Ramanujan in general and stated that Indian context is different for psychoanalysis. However, in his 2004 article, he seems to contradict himself. In that article, he has defended his application of psychoanalysis to the South Asian context without any cultural modification taken into consideration for South Asian context.

All the above nuances of the South Asian culture highlight that a one-size-fits-all kind of psychoanalytic theory cannot be applied globally to all the different cultures. The following section presents examples of how Freudian psychoanalysis results in reductionist interpretations in South Asian studies.

Problems of Freudian Psychoanalysis in Indian Traditions

Gananath Obeyesekere (1981), in his book Medusa’s Hair, interprets the matted hair of women ascetics in Sri Lanka using Freudian psychoanalysis. He relates the genesis of matted hair, as recreated by three female ascetics, to painful emotional experiences. According to Obeyesekere, “a certain class of experiences are so painful, complicated, and out of the reach of conscious awareness that the individual must express them in indirect representations and symbol formation” (p. 88). He notes that the three female ascetics had experienced some form of the loss of sexual love, a parallel intensification of an idealized relationship with a “divine” entity (in the image of both the woman’s husband and father), and the gift of matted hair as a reward for renouncing sexual love in favor of spiritual, non- sexual love. Obeyesekere analogizes mystical experience to the experience of orgasm; the pleasure derived from “mystical shaking” is translated as a religious experience, or “divine

ecstasy”(p.88). He also argues that most of his ascetic informants had early psychological conflicts within their respective families.

However, Ted Soloman (1983), reviewing the works of Obeyesekere, concludes that Obeyesekere settles for psychoanalytic reductionism. According to Soloman, Obeyesekere commits the twin fallacies of gratuitous dogmatism and reductionism. Soloman argues that the divine mother represents the possibilities of creativity and renewal. Desire for the divine mother expresses a desire for spiritual rebirth or a more meaningful existence. Contrary to Freudian reductionism, there is a sacred dimension to sexuality; through sexual imagery, man is seeking for union with spiritual reality. Obeyesekere states that the ideal goal of the symbol system is the integration of the individual on the three levels of personality, culture and society. According to Soloman, this triad can be completed by stipulating that the symbol system also integrate the individual with the fourth level, the religious or sacred. Richard Shweder (1991) has also analyzed Obeyesekere’s work in a similar vein.

Contrary to Obeyesekere’s claims, Somnath Bhattacharya (2005) cites an interesting study to demonstrate that the people with mystical experiences should not be pathologized. Sociologist Andrew Greely (cited in Bhattacharya) of the University of Chicago’s National Opinions Research Council (NORC) tested people who had profoundly mystical experiences, such as being bathed in white light. When these persons were subjected to standard tests measuring psychological well being, the mystics scored at the top. University of Chicago psychologist Norman Bradburn, who developed the test, said that no other factor had ever been found to correlate so highly with psychological balance as did mystical experience (cited in Bhattacharya).

Similarly, in a landmark US national poll reported in the New York Times Magazine of Jan 16, 1975, Greely and William McReady found that people with mystical experiences had happy and positive recollections of their childhood. In addition, even the small group of subjects who reported mystical events occasioned by orgasm found the experience categorically different from orgasmic pleasure and much more powerful.

Medard Boss (1975), the Swiss existential psychotherapist, who was analyzed by Sigmund Freud and had trained with such prominent psychoanalysts as Bleuler, Ernest Jones, Karen Horney, Otto Fenichel, Hans Sachs, and Wilhelm Reich, had this to say about the holy men he met on his lecture-visit to India:

There were the exalted figures of the sages and holy men themselves, each one of them a living example of the possibility of human growth and maturity and of the attainment of an imperturbable inner peace, a joyous freedom from guilt, and a purified, selfless goodness and calmness No matter how carefully I observe the waking lives of the holy men, no matter how ready they were to tell me about their dreams, I could not detect in the best of them a trace of a selfish action or any kind of a repressed or consciously concealed shadow life.(p.187)

Once again, the above observation is in stark contrast with the psychoanalytic view that religious or mystic people have some sort of repressed neurotic conditions. Obeyesekere (and many other psychoanalytic theorists) have linked the religious experience with early childhood experience of ascetics. However, analyzing the early socialization of children, Dinesh Sharma (2003) notes many unresolved issues specific to Indian children. He underscores the role of joint or extended households for Indian children. According to him, the evidence appears to indicate more variation than uniformity in family patterns in India, consisting of permutations of extended, nuclear, and joint family networks. Second, the cultural emphasis on motherhood as central to the psychological development of Hindu women and the preference for sons influences the socialization of

Indian girls. Much of the theorizing on Hindu childhood has been based on observations of male children and on studies of men’s lives, thus neglecting possible gender differences. Third, the lack of systematic longitudinal data on Indian children has been coupled with the import of Western developmental psychological categories for understanding children. Thus, questions regarding the culture-specific developmental patterns of childhood in India persist. Does the development of Indian children proceed along culture-specific age-related pathways? Current research provides some initial answers that need further exploration (p. 42).

The following section presents the interpretations of Hindu myths based on psychological hermeneutics but different from psychoanalysis and other Freudian theories.

Ethnopsychology: Beyond Freudian Psychoanalysis

Ashis Nandy (2004) suggests that psychology should be seen as a confederation of ethnic psychologies to view each psychological phenomenon or process as an experience, interpretable in terms of an encounter of the ethnopsychology of the subject and the ethnopsychology of the interpreter, and to see this encounter as generating its own set of concepts and an ideographic ‘model’ that may or may not be usable in other situations (p. 331). Following are few examples of psychological interpretations of the Hindu myths and symbols using ethno-psychological hermeneutics.

One of the most prominent Hindu myths inviting psychological interpretations is Krishna’s Rāsa Līlā, his dance with the cowherd maidens, gopis. While Sudhir Kakar (2001) has tried to interpret it in sexual terms, Graham Schweig interprets cowherd maidens linking arms in the dance representing the linking of human hearts and the

solidarity of the human community of devoted souls. All souls, collectively, are invited to dance together with God, while simultaneously each individual soul is able to dance with God personally and exclusively. This dance symbolizes the humility and passion of the devoted soul – the humility of love expressed through linking with other human beings, and the passion of love through souls linking with the supreme. This linking is the meaning of yoga, of which the cowherd maidens are masters. The divine circle of this dance could be seen as symbolizing a genuine religious pluralism in which human beings of different faiths can love God, or the divine, in joyous harmony, and individually, as each soul receives God’s singular and superlative attention (p.180).

Similarly, Diana Eck (2003) sees the Rāsa Līlā as presenting a symbol of “God’s infinite capacity to love” (p. 47). It is only after devoted souls come together to surround the divinity in a great circle, their arms linked in affectionate fellowship, that the deity agrees to connect personally with each soul, implying that God is indebted toward those who bond with other souls for the purpose of honoring, serving, and loving him.

PVS Athavale (1997) rejects that the sublimation of human mind can enable it to seek union with God since that would allow for residual desires from older mental states. Instead, he argues for a complete transformation of the soul in its pristine form as a prerequisite for the union with God, thus having no scope of any kind of corporal desires in yogis (or cowherd maidens) seeking union with God. The cowherd maidens represent the feminine qualities that a newly transformed soul of a devotee should have, such as bashfulness, receptivity, surrender, and passivity.

Trichur Rukmani (1970) interprets this dance in a similar vein. It was through yogic powers that Krishna could station himself between every two maidens and make them

Present at the sides of their husbands during this dance. There is no worldly passion in this love of the maidens towards Krishna. Here the music of the flute of Krishna is the call of the Infinite to the souls, the maidens. As soon as the call came, the devotees ran to meet the Supreme. Thus, the gopis were the devotees of the highest order as they were oblivious to every other thought except Krishna (pp.162-165).

Another of the famous playful activities of Krishna is that of his acts of stealing butter from the homes of cowherd maidens. Jack Hawley has interpreted the process of butter making from milk in psychological terms. Milk being both white and pure and having spiritual associations as well, represents the sattva, purity and spirituality. However, just as milk comes in small quantities from many cows, so sattva, the essence of all that is pure and spiritual, is diffused throughout the world. The soul’s task is to recognize these diffused expressions of sattva and to gather and concentrate them. This is made possible by the faculty of trust. When one trusts in the great value of what is recognized as being superior to the rest of the world, one becomes fearless and is able by means of thought, proper action, and confident self-giving to concentrate that of oneself which relates to the object in which one posits one’s trust. This process of settling and concentration is analogous to the way in which curd solidifies from milk. The constant mindfulness that characterizes devotion, bhakti, is symbolized in the arduous process of churning, by means of which curd is transformed into butter. In addition, the result of the process, fresh butter, is love itself. That is the most concentrated offering a soul can make, and it is that to which God is inevitably drawn. Thus the entire process to change milk to butter expresses the maturation of the life of faith, with butter standing for the final product, love. Alternatively, butter symbolized the heart. When God takes it, he acts like a thief, hiding it away in a secret

place within him. In the process, the heart comes under God’s control and into his possession (p. 266).

Hawley (1983, p. 295) has also interpreted this process using Freudian psychoanalysis.

He writes:

When Krishna steals butter, then, he is spilling the juice of femaleness, broadly conceived. In one sense, he is partaking of it freely. His appetite is without limit: if there is butter to be had, he will take it. Nevertheless, although his appetite is large enough to make him totally dependent on all the women surrounding him, he remains totally independent. Despite his pervasive presence, his total independence from women arouses in them an irresistible attraction.

These two alternative interpretations of the same Hindu myth offered by Hawley provide an interesting contrast. While the former provides a spiritual and theological explanation, the latter tends to provide a reductionist explanation based on purely sexual notions.


In the light of several scenarios presented above, it is evident that the Freudian psychoanalytic framework does not apply well in the Indian cultural situations. Alternatively, an ethnopsychological use of psychoanalysis, which is considerate of Indian traditional contexts, can still be applied to study Indian traditions. Instead of completely rejecting Freudian theories, such as Oedipus Complex, it is suggested that they need to be revised for non-Western contexts. Moreover, scholars studying Indian traditions should be aware of the latest revisions in the psychoanalytic theories.


Athavale, P. V.S. (1997). Madhurashtakam. Mumbai: Sat Vichâr Darshan Trust.

Bhattacharya, Somnath. Kali’s child: Psychological and hermeneutical problems .

Retrieved October 30, 2005 from

Boss, M. (1965) A psychiatrist discovers India. London: Oswald Wolff

Castillo RJ. (1994). Spirit possession in South Asia, dissociation or hysteria? Part 1: Theoretical background. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. 18 (1), 1-21.

Courtright,P.(1999).Fathersandsons.InT.G.Vaidyanathan&J.J.Kripal(Eds.),Vishnu on Freud’s desk: A reader in psychoanalysis and Hinduism (pp. 139-146). New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress.

Eck, D. L. (2003). Encountering God: A spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras.

Boston: Beacon Press.

Geertz, C. (1983). From the native’s point of view: On the nature of anthropological understanding. In C. Geertz (Ed.), Local Knowledge (pp. 55-70) (New York, NY: Basic Books.

Greely, A. (1987, Spring). The “impossible”: It’s happening, Noetic Sciences Review, 2 7- 9.

Hartnack, C. (2001). Psychoanalysis in colonial India. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hawley,J.S.(1983).Krishna:Thebutterthief.Princeton,N.J.:PrincetonUniversityPress. Kakar,S.(1995).Clinicalworkandculturalimagination.PsychoanalyticQuarterly,64,


Kakar, S. (2001). The essential writings of Sudhir Kakar. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kripal, J. J. (1995). Kālī’s child: The mystical and the erotic in the life and teachings of Ramakrishna. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kurtz, S. N. (1992). All the Mothers are one: Hindu India and the cultural reshaping of psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Larson, G. (2004). A beautiful sunset…mistaken for dawn’: Some reflections on religious studies, India studies, and the modern university. Journal of American Academy of Religion , 72(4), 1003-1020.

Lewis-Fernandez, R. (1998). A cultural critique of the DSM-IV Dissociative Disorders Section. Transcultural Psychiatry, 35(3), 387-400).

Marriott, M. (1990). India through Hindu categories (Ed.). New Delhi: Sage Publications. Menon, S. (2005).What is Indian psychology:Transcendence in and while thinking.

Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37(2), 83-98.

Menon, S. (2007). Basics of spiritual altruism. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 39(2), 137-152.

Nandy, A. (2004). Bonfire of creeds: The essential Ashis Nandy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Obeyesekere, G. (1981). Medusa’s hair: An essay on personal symbols and religious experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, G. (1999). Further steps in relativization: The Indian Oedipus Complex Revisited.InT.G.Vaidyanathan&JeffreyJ.Kripal(Eds.),VishnuonFreud’sDesk: A reader in psychoanalysis and Hinduism (pp. 147-162). New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress.

Obeyesekere, G. (2004). The first intersubjectivity: The anthropologist and the native. In

  1. K. Srivastava (Ed.), Methodology and fieldwork (pp. 85-93).New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Pals, D. L. (2006). Eight theories of religion. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Ramanujan, A.K.(1983). The Indian Oedipus. In L. Edmunds & A. Dundes (Eds.),

Oedipus: A folklore casebook (pp. 234 – 264). Garland folklore casebooks, Vol. 4. New York, NY: Garland.

Roland, A. (1996). Cultural pluralism and psychoanalysis: The Asian and North American experience. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rukmani, T. S. (1970). A critical study of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, with special reference to Bhakti. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

Schweig,G.M.(2005).Danceofdivinelove:TheRāsaLīlāofKrishnafromtheBhāgavata Purāṇa, India’s classic sacred love story. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UniversityPress.

Sharma, D. (2003). Childhood, family, and sociocultural change in India: Reinterpreting the inner world. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Shweder, R. A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Smith, F. M. (2006). The self possessed: Deity and spirit possession in South Asian literature and civilization. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Solomon,T.J.,&Obeyesekere,G.(1983).ReviewofMedusa’sHair:AnEssayonPersonal Symbols and Religious Experience. Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 51 (1), 132-133.

Srivastava, V. K. (2004). Methodology and fieldwork. Oxford in India readings in sociology and social anthropology. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Vaidyanathan, T. G., & Kripal, J. J. (1999). Vishnu on Freud’s desk: A reader in psychoanalysis and Hinduism. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Feature Image Credit:

Conference on Hinduism and Modern Psychology

Watch video presentation of the above paper here:

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

Leave a Reply

More Articles By Author