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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DAILY PHOTO: Inside Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery, Bylakuppe

Taken in 2014 at Namdroling Nyingmapa Monastery in Bylakuppe.

DAILY PHOTO: Palyul in Miniature

Taken in March of 2014 at the Namdroling Monastery

Taken in March of 2014 at the Namdroling Monastery

This model of the Palyul Monastery and its environs is located at Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, India. Palyul is the parent monastery of Namdroling. It is one of the six major monasteries of the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism.

Book Review: Breakfast with Buddha

Breakfast with BuddhaBreakfast with Buddha by Roland Merullo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Merullo’s “Breakfast with Buddha” is a classic road-trip / odd couple tale. I found it to be engrossing and engaging. It is a book that attempts to convey life lessons as it entertains. In my opinion, this type of book succeeds best when the lessons do not draw too much attention to themselves, but rather subtly plant a seed. In some cases Roland Merullo’s book succeeds on this regard, and in other cases his middle-of-the-road protagonist comes across as a bit preachy and holier-than-thou.

The set up is a road-trip from New Jersey to North Dakota in which a spiritual but only vaguely religious skeptic is joined by a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche. The Rinpoche conveys life lessons, largely of a Buddhist nature but somewhat non-denominational, to the protagonist — often at breakfast (hence the title.)

Merullo does a great job creating a character who considers himself spiritual, but who is not so comfortable with spiritualism that is out of line with western rationalism or which expresses religiosity in the doctrinaire Western tradition.

The protagonist, Otto Ringling, undergoes a sort of transformation that is satisfying –though some may find it to have gone a skosh too far.

Those who my Religious Studies professor called Homo religiosis will likely find the book objectionable, but atheologists (not atheists, but those not believing in religion, though believing in god / God / gods) will probably relate to it quite nicely.

I recommend it.

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