BOOK REVIEW: Shamans, Mystics and Doctors by Sudhir Kakar

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing TraditionsShamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions by Sudhir Kakar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this book, Freudian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar examines a range of alternatives to mainstream psychiatry / psychotherapy that are pursued across India. They are largely traditions that predate psychiatry, and which weren’t developed primarily as a path to mental health, but rather as methods to develop mind and spirit – but which came to fill a void. Included in this exploration are a Sufi Muslim Pir, a Balaji Temple exorcist, an Oraon bhagat, Tibetan Buddhist / Bon healers, cultists, tantrics, and Ayurvedic doctors. The chapters are organized by the type of healer, and the ten chapters are split between shamans (Pt. I,) mystics (Pt. II,) and Ayurvedic healers (Pt. III.)

This book is at its best and most interesting when it’s describing the author’s visits to various temples, shaman huts, and other places where healers reside. He tells what he learned and experienced at these places, which ranges from reassuring (shamans and healers getting at least as good a result as their mainstream psychotherapeutic counterparts) to mildly horrifying (people chained to cots, or being blamed for their condition — i.e. being told their faith is inadequate.) I found many of the cases under discussion to be fascinating, and learned a lot about how mental illness is perceived by different religious and spiritual traditions.

While Kakar is trained in a Western therapeutic system, he maintains a diplomatic tone about these indigenous forms of therapy – some of which are quite pragmatic but others of which are elaborately pseudo-scientific. I found this book to be insightful about various modes of treating the mind that are practiced in India

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Three Thoughts on Shadow

I
Where is my shadow?
I look behind me
&
see that it's 
ill-formed & indistinct.
And I wonder whether
it's 
the quality of the light, 
or
the quality of the me.


II
I read that Oraon shamans
study people's
shadows.
Fat-shadowed people 
are said to be 
ill-tempered,
stubborn,
& 
domineering
[but not necessarily 
fat-bodied.]


III
I heard tell of
a master of shadows.
It might not seem like 
much of an object
of mastery --
shadows being intangible,
but he always knew which way 
he was going
and where the world sat 
at the moment.
[And that's more
than can be said
of the rest of us.]
It was a simple skill
that most could not
be bothered to practice.
Everyone else's inability 
to find value in those 
dark angular patches
was his gain.