Geographies of Psychoanalysis
#3 Gohar Homayounpour - Persian Blues

#3 Gohar Homayounpour - Persian Blues

March 24, 2021

Upon any discussion on the elaboration of “death” in Iran, one inevitably comes face to face with the often argued and examined notion that Iranians symptomatically suffer within a culture that is obsessed with the celebration of death, nostalgia and mourning. Many interdisciplinary scholars in recent decades have examined and provided data which proves such tendencies and their disastrous consequences for Iranians. Here, Gohar Homayounpour attempts to delve deeper into the various palettes of the “Persian Blues”, in the name of integration and a continuous re-examination of our comfortably established notions, she attempts to add a but, referring to the various derivatives of Eros’s footsteps upon the Persepolis of Persia, dreaming that this but might become a possibility for “linking”, a sense of orientation, inspiration, out of these particularly destructive and melancholic aspects of the Iranian culture, orienting us towards a voyage from melancholia to mourning.

 

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Dr. Gohar. Homayounpour is an author and psychoanalyst and member of the International Psychoanalytic Society, American Psychoanalytic Association, the Italian Psychoanalytic Society and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. She is the Training and Supervising psychoanalyst of the Freudian Group of Tehran, where she is also founder and former director.
Homayounpour has published various psychoanalytic articles, including in the International and Canadian Journals of Psychoanalysis. Her book, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran, published by MIT Press in August 2012, won the Gradiva award and has been translated into many languages.
Homayounpour is a member of the scientific board at the Freud Museum in Vienna and a board member of the IPA group Geographies of psychoanalysis.
 

The first thing that comes to mind when one is asked to elaborate on “death” in my geography is the often discussed and examined notion that Iranians symptomatically suffer within a culture that is obsessed with the celebration of death, nostalgia and mourning. Many scholars in recent decades have examined and provided data which proves such tendencies and their disastrous consequences for Iranians.
I have also written about this exact notion in my book Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran, with reference to our famous myth, “Rustam and Sohrab”, from Ferdousi’s Book of Kings (Shahnameh, the most celebrated Iranian source of mythology), which has a storyline quite similar to that of Oedipus Rex, the main difference being that it is the father who unknowingly kills his son in the end. My extensive research shows that Greek mythologies appear to be populated with myths about the actual killing of fathers, while it is impossible to escape the common patterns of killing sons right across Iranian mythology. The wish to kill each other between fathers and sons is common across both mythologies, but who actually gets killed at the end and who gets rescued and is granted the right to life, is where the culturally specific element can be observed across these mythologies.
I am convinced of the universality of the Oedipus complex, and the struggle for power and control it represents while embodying within it the universal fear of castration; the culturally specific element seems to be the reaction to this fear. My premise is that the Iranian collective fantasy is anchored in an anxiety of disobedience that wishes for an absolute obedience. The son desiring to rebel knows unconsciously that if he does so he might be killed, and so, in a way, he settles for the fear of castration.
Is this not also seen in the differences between Catholicism and Islam? Islam means submission and demands absolute obedience to God the father, while in Christianity the demarcation between God the father and Christ the son is not quite as clear. This is clearly a very complicated and nuanced discourse, beyond the scope of this podcast. However, it appears that religions were socially constructed to fulfill the collective fantasies of these differing cultures. An analysis of Iranian history reveals it has always been a one-man show, while democracy was born within and is the essence of Greek society.
In Iran one can observe a moment of discontinuity from the past, and also from the future, because we have killed our sons, our future. Ferdousi’s discourse communicates a great deal of pain, tragedy and mourning. We symbolically killed our sons, became alienated and thus became a culture of mourning, for we have destroyed and killed the best part of ourselves. We destroyed our future and imprisoned ourselves in the past, eroticizing pain and suffering, and celebrating nothing that is not past.
Could we say that Ferdousi’s discourse provides a diagnosis of the Iranian society? He is trying to warn us, awaken us; his discourse is often that of a depressive.
Daryoush Shaygan, the late famous Iranian philosopher, informs us that the Iranian past is full of the myths and epics represented in the Shahnameh, in which there are continual allusions to the good attitudes of our ancestors, the beliefs and actions of our heroes and the myths of our great kings. This is a very nostalgic recollection: in a sense a very nostalgic collective unconscious.
One has to bear in mind that in countries like Iran the past is everything, and unfortunately we do indeed breathe in the air of regrets, as Shaygan puts it.
I still think all of the above assertions are significant, true and noteworthy, but… This but becomes significant, for in the name of a continuous re-examination and integration, or, as Lorena Preta puts it as the raison d’être of the Geographies of Psychoanalysis project: to put psychoanalysis to work in different geographies in the wish for a reciprocal contamination, not in the name of cultural relativism where we are categorizing, naming and therefore identifying the other but in the name of a non-humanitarian hospitality, to use Derrida’s term, in the name of a de-territorializing where borders are delineated as barely visible lines.
Within this discourse and above it, this but becomes a necessary act. A but that for me has only become visible after more than a decade of living in Iran and doing psychoanalysis in Tehran, certainly not mutually exclusive to the above assertions, but as an attempt to thicken the plot.
To just provide a few examples for the aforementioned but, can we escape the resilience that we observe when working with Iranian patients under an excruciating socio/political climate? Can we forget that this is inherently a culture of storytelling and is bestowed with a magical ability to play with language, encapsulated within Scheherazade and the Thousand And One Nights? Can we also remember that this is a culture of an exceptional cinema, of hospitality, breathtaking architecture, of marvelous poetry and of wine, yes of the best of Shiraz wine, of pleasure, of Sufism, Zarathustra and of the alluring, quintessential Persian Garden, an uncanny ability for humor and a hierarchy of friendship, just to name a few derivatives of Eros’s footsteps upon the Persepolis of Persia?
This is masterfully elaborated in Abbas Kiarostami’s film “Where Is The Friend’s Home?” The title is taken from a poem by the celebrated contemporary Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri. To return to my ideas at the beginning of the paper on absolute obedience and authoritarianism, possibly anchored in the Iranian collective unconscious, well, the Kiarostami film is about a little boy, Ahmed, who accidentally takes his friend’s notebook home. Upon realizing his mistake, he becomes terrified of the punishment that might await his friend from their severely punitive and cruel teacher if his friend isn’t able to complete his homework due to the missing notebook. Our protagonist spends the rest of his day after school unsuccessfully trying to find his friend’s house. The next morning, we the audience anxiously join Ahmed in his classroom, hurriedly returning Reza’s notebook under our horrified gaze.
We are terrified to see the punishment that awaits Reza, only to discover that Reza’s homework has been completed by his friend. The movie ends here, with Reza flipping through the pages of his finished homework and finding a lovely dried flower, also left there by Ahmed.
We can speculate that to find one’s friend’s home metaphorically to be an investment of the psychic apparatus’s search and re-search for the linking process, or, to put it in Andre Green’s terms, the “objectilizing function of the drive”. This desire for linking indeed prevalent within the very being of the Iranian culture is an antidote to authoritarianisms and the death-oriented-ness of my geography. A binding that comes along as a cure to the unbinding of the death drive.
All I want to convey within this but is that inherent within the Iranian culture is also the desire and the courage to search for a friend’s home. In short, just as we cannot speak of pure destructiveness or creativeness, attempting to stay away from such binaries, in Iran we clearly don’t even have any exclusivity to Thanatos, as such a thing would be an impossibility in any case. We all have an internal compass (Eros) that could be our guide out of these particularly destructive aspects of this culture into the true meaning of the Orient, Eshragh, which in the etymology of the word means both inspiration and the place where the sun rises. In short, perhaps in the Orient there is still a sense of orientation to be discovered for all of us, as we put psychoanalysis to work, even if, like Ahmed, we don’t find our friend’s house, perhaps the road we take will indeed lead us to his home.
Over the years I have attempted to delve deeper into the Persian Blues; a word associated with melancholia, a mysterious Persian color, and indeed a genre of music which is as much a representation of life as death, encapsulating triumphs and laments, loss, love, friendships, loyalties, betrayals, joys, and fears.
Just like my beloved tunes of the blues from the Deep South; the sound of the slaves, the lyrics of the laments of the formerly enslaved and their descendants; Persian Blues is associated with depression, melancholia, misfortune, betrayal, pain and regrets. But we should not forget that inherent within Persian Blues, as it is within the tunes of the Blues, there is also a sense of orientation to be re-discovered, possibly not only for my geography but for yours as well, where pleasure, passion, humor, dreams, and friendships are celebrated.
Central to the idea of blues performance is the concept that, by performing or listening to the Blues, one is able to overcome one’s sadness: to lose the “Blues”. It is precisely this inherent duality of life and death, Eros and Thanatos, that makes the Blues such a joy to hear. Persian Blues is not about merely eroticizing sadness; it is not about drowning in it; it is about transforming it, feeling it, making music with it. Ultimately, it means going beyond the “Blues”.Like Abbas Kiarostami, I have a hunch that in getting us to this beyond, from melancholia to mourning, a newly discovered sense of orientation/inspiration will be instrumental; towards a linking inherent within the project of geographies of psychoanalysis.

 

Bibliography

 

Ferdowsi, A. (2016). Shahnameh: The Persian book of kings. UK: Penguin Press.

Green, A. (1999). The work of the negative, Weller A, translator. London: Free Association Books. [(1993). Le travail du négatif. Paris: Minuit.]

Homayounpour, G. (2012). Doing psychoanalysis in Tehran. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Derrida, J., & Dufourmantelle, A. (2000). Of hospitality. California: Stanford University Press.

Kiarostami, A. (1987). “Where Is The Friend’s Home?”[Film]. Home for the intellectual development of children and adolescents Productions.

Shaygan, D. (2005, 12 Dec). The depth of ordinary. Tehran: Shargh magazine, 294(20). [In Persian]

Sepehri, S. (2008). Eight books. Tehran: Tahoori publication. [In Persian].

Hezaar va Yek Shan (Thousand nights and a night) (2011). Translated by Mirza Abd-al Latif Tasuji Tabrizi. Reprinted of Kolaale Khaavar Publications (1936): Tehran

 

Definitions and the symbol of Eshragh. (2018, 6 Jan). Tehran: Eshragh Institute of higher education.

Link: https://eshragh.ac.ir/index.php/en/eshragh-at-a-glance/introducing-eshragh/279-terminology-and-symbol

 
 
#2 Rubén Gallo - Death and Dying in Mexico

#2 Rubén Gallo - Death and Dying in Mexico

February 22, 2021

Rubén Gallo is a writer, the author of Freud in Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (MIT Press, 2010), and a professor at Princeton University. In this podcast, he explores the meaning in death in Mexico, from the well-known images of joyful skeletons painted by artists like Diego Rivera, to the more somber political and social manifestations of deadly impulses in contemporary society, including drug-related violence.

 

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I am Rubén Gallo, a writer and academic, and today I would like to share with you some reflections on the culture of death in Mexico. Without a doubt you have read and heard about the special place death has in Mexican culture. You might have seen photographs or paintings of the Day of the Dead, when families visit their deceased relatives in the cemetery to bring them food, thus transform mourning into a festive occasion. And you are probably familiar with the many joyful depictions of skeletons, skulls, and other symbols of death, in the paintings of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and other Mexican artists. In popular music, such as ranchero songs from the north, singers cheerfully announce that they are not afraid of death, and if they die, it should happen while they are drinking and dancing.

But, as I would like to suggest today, beneath this appearance of a unique and joyful approach to death, there lies a darker reality, one that is closer in spirit to traditional accounts of death. Octavio Paz, one of Mexico’s greatest poets, made a similar argument in his essay The Labyrinth of Solitude, published in 1950. Paz argued that many of the images associated with Mexico —the celebration of life, the passion for fiestas with music and dance, the raucous drinking —conceal a more complex psychology. Mexicans, he argued, are melancholic beings, and these outwards explosions of joy are attempts to cover-up an unresolved mourning emerging froma series of historical traumas that hark back to the conquest of Mexico and to the violent encounter that ended with the destruction of the Aztec civilization.

Paz, who was a passionate reader of Freud in his youth, believed that these unresolved historical traumas resulted in a repetition compulsion that can be observed in many of the most famous Mexican rituals: bright celebrations full of music, song, and dance can easily degenerate into fistfights leaving revelers dead; and, in one of his most poetic images, Paz draws attention to how at every fiesta, there comes a point when the life of the party, he who has been drinking and eating and singing, inevitably plunges into an explicable melancholia, an irrational feeling of solitude. The singing gives way to a taciturn state for which the Spanish language has a beautiful word: ensimismamiento, becoming trapped in oneself.
Paz believed that the nation’s unresolved traumas led to a repetition of scenes of violence, which can be seen at various points in Mexican history. After the 1968 student massacre, a dark day in which the Mexican president, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, ordered the army to shoot on peaceful student demonstration, and left dozens of young men and women dead, Paz read this event — which was one of the bloodiest in the twentieth century — as a repetition of something that had occurred before. He noted that the massacre took place steps from an Aztec pyramid, one of the few remaining structures of a city that was once called Tlatelolco and which is now part of Mexico City. This was not a coincidence: the Aztecs used pyramids as temples for human sacrifices and, five hundred years after the conquest, the student massacre was another form of sacrifice.

México: Olimpiada de 1968

A Dore y Adja Junkers

 

La limpidez

            (quizá valga la pena

escribirlo sobre la limpieza

de esta hoja)

            no es límpida:

es una rabia

            (amarilla y negra

acumulación de bilis en español)

extendida sobre la página.

¿Por qué?

            La vergüenza es ira

vuelta contra uno mismo:

            si

una nación entera se avergüenza

es león que se agazapa

para saltar.

            (Los empleados

municipales lavan la sangre

en la Plaza de los Sacrificios).

mira ahora,

            manchada

antes de haber dicho algo

que valga la pena,

            la limpidez.

 

 

And now in English:

 

Mexico City: The 1968 Olympiad

for Dore and Adja Yunkers

            -- Translated by Eliot Weinberger

 

Lucidity

(perhaps it’s worth

writing across the purity

of this page)

is not lucid

it is fury

(yellow and black

mass of bile in Spanish)

spreading over the page.

Why?

Guilt is anger

turned against itself:

if

an entire nation is ashamed

it is a lion poised

to leap.

(The municipal employees

wash the blood

from the Plaza of the Sacrificed.)

Look now,

stained

before anything worth

it was said:

lucidity.

 

Paz noted that sacrifices — with their share of sadism and destruction — continued to be repeated, though in different form and with different purposes, at the foot of the pyramid, which remained an important archetype in Mexican culture. Most importantly, Paz read this persistence of political violence as the underside of the famously joyful Mexican attitude towards death: a culture that does not respect death is a culture that cannot respect life, and the underside of the insouciance with which Mexicans treat death is the ease with which human lives can be cut short.
Octavio Paz died in 1998, and he did not live to see the drastic changes undergone by Mexico in the past twenty years, which have been both positive and negative. On the positive side, Mexico has moved away from poverty and has become the world’s fifteenth economy — an impressive jump that can be compared to India’s progress in the same period. On the negative side, economic prosperity has not done away with the country’s endemic problems — corruption, social disparities, the marginalization of Indigenous minorities —, and has actually intensified some of them. In the past twenty years, Mexico has witnessed an unprecedented wave of violence linked to drug trafficking: over 275,000 people have been murdered since 2006, and thousands more have disappeared, including many students and young people. Traffickers engage in a sadism that makes the pages of Dante’s inferno read like a fairy tale: torturing victims, amputating fingers and ears, murdering them in the most gruesome scenarios and filming the entire ordeal before uploading it to social media, where the images are seen and circulated by tens of thousands of willing spectators, in a phenomenon that has been described as “violence porn.”
Drug-related violence has become part and parcel of everyday life in Mexico, and the gruesome images can be found in the press and even on reputable television news programs. Recent literature, including the novels of writers like Elmer Mendoza, Yuri Herrera, and Heriberto Yépez, provide a chilling account of this generalized sadism, while sociologist and political scientists struggle to find a cause and an explanation: is it related to the 1994 signing of the free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada? Did it stem from the 2000 transition to democracy? Is technology to blame?
I would opt for a different explanation, one that recalls Octavio Paz’s ideas about Mexican culture. The recent explosion of violence has coincided with a precipitous rise of drug use in the country. During the 1980s, Mexico was simply a transit point for drugs traveling from Colombia and South America to the United States, a situation that changed in recent years with the development of a local market for cocaine. Cocaine has now become an integral part of the raucous fiestas analyzed by Octavio Paz, which are now louder and more dangerous affairs. And if in the past a celebration could suddenly explode into a fistfight, the threat of violence has now been amplified by automatic weapons and military-grade ammunition, combined with the possibility of filming and distributing the images on social media.
Octavio Paz was right: a repetition compulsion structures Mexican history, and we can draw a line connecting the many episodes of violence in the last five hundred years, starting with Aztec sacrifices, continuing with the Conquistadors’s destructive drives and with the million people killed in the Mexican Revolution, and arriving at the current drug-fueled violence. And all of these episodes can be read as the flipside of Mexico’s famous attitude towards death.
Many people abroad are familiar with the graphic depictions of death by artists such as José Guadalupe Posada, who made hundreds of woodcuts and engravings featuring elegantly-clad skeletons and other curious images of death. But audiences abroad would be less familiar with the work of Teresa Margolles, a visual artist who has spent the last thirty years making installations and performances about the presence of death in Mexico. One of her pieces from 2009 is called Cards for Cutting Cocaine: it consists of small, plastic-covered photos of victims of drug-related violence, close-ups of bludgeoned faces and disfigured heads. By suggesting that these images could be used for “cutting cocaine,” Margolles links the recreational use of drugs —called “partying” in slang —, to the sadism present in the drug trade. Once again, death emerges as the reverse of the boisterous fiesta.
This dialectic between life and death, joy and sadism, can also be seen in other geographies. I am thinking for instance of social media: on the one hand, users tend to use apps to disseminate an image of a perfect life, posting photographs full of smiles, taken in striking beautiful settings, accompanied by what appear to be adoring friends and perfect partners. On the other hand, we know that social media have unleashed an unprecedented amount of aggression, of which there are countless examples ranging from teenage bullying to adult smear campaigns. Here, too we see sadism as the unacknowledged underside of festive celebrations.
The culture of death has been a constant in Mexican history over the past five hundred years, but in the last decades it seems to have reached a breaking point, with hundreds of thousands of drug-related deaths and an unprecedented sadism, celebrated involuntarily by those who share and re-post videos of tortures and executions. Where will this destructive drives lead Mexico? As Sigmund Freud was fond of saying, quoting a Spanish expression whenever he stumbled upon a thorny question that seemed unresolvable, quién sabe.

#1 Sudhir Kakar - Death in India

#1 Sudhir Kakar - Death in India

January 22, 2021

Death, its fear and the efforts of human imagination to address the fear is a universal that has been addressed differently by different civilizations at different times of history. In modern scientific West, the cultural home of psychoanalysis, death is not only the end of body but of all consciousness. Its terror is a separation from everything we know, love and are attached to. But what happens when the cultural imagination, such as that of the Indic civilization, envisages death as a form of union as much as it is also a moment of separation?

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Sudhir Kakar is an Indian psychoanalyst and writer. He has been a Lecturer and Visiting Professor at Harvard University, Visiting Professor at the universities of Chicago, McGill, Melbourne, Hawaii, Fellow at the Institutes of Advanced Study, Princeton, Berlin and Cologne and is on the Board of Freud Archives. His many honors include the Kardiner Award of Columbia University, Boyer Prize for Psychological Anthropology of the American Anthropological Association, Germany’s Goethe Medal, McArthur Research Fellowship, and Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Kakar is the author of fourteen books of non-fiction and six novels. His books have been translated into 22 languages.

 

"As an Indian born Freudian analyst I live a professional life that is peculiarly bi-cultural. I was born and raised in India but my education has been in the cultural home of psychoanalysis, the post-enlightenment West. Non-western analysts like me are not heirs to the Judeo-Christian civilizations, but we practice in enclaves of Western modernity in our civilizations that have similarities to the small subset of the human population that the Harvard psychologist Joseph Heinrich and his colleagues in an influential article in 2010 called WEIRD.
The acronym WEIRD stands for western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. The WEIRD are a small group of statistical outliers who are generally non-religious, and share traits such as being individualistic, believers in free will and personal responsibility. As Heinrich tells us in his recent book “The Weirdest People in the World” the WEIRD are the primary producers and consumers of psychological knowledge.
For non-western analysts whose origins are less weird, their professional socialization as analysts is often in conflict with their cultural upbringing; The cultural part of their unconscious then sometimes rubs against fundamental ideas about the fulfilled life, human relationships, family, marriage, male and female (and others) which psychoanalysis regards as universally valid but which are essentially cultural constructions.
Human universals do exist but they are parsed differently by different civilisations at different points of time, sometimes coinciding and at others deviating significantly from each other. Death, its fear and the efforts of human imagination to address that fear is one such universal.
We are all familiar with Freud’s observation in his Thoughts for the Times on War and Death on the incapability of humans to imagine their own death.

‘It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death: and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in his unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his own immortality. (Freud 1915/2001, p. 289)

We are less familiar with similar sentiments voiced in other cultures. In 7th century Syria, the Sufi saint Uwais al-Qarani is asked,

‘What has Grace brought you?’

‘When I wake up in the morning I feel like a man who is not sure he will live till evening,’ Uwais replied.

‘But doesn’t everyone know this?’

‘They certainly do,’ Uwais said. ‘But not all of them feel it.’

And in north India, sometime between the 6th century B.C.E. and 4th century C.E. (the dates assigned to the Hindu epic Mahabharata) King Yudhishtra is asked the question, ‘What is the most amazing thing in the world? He answers,’Day after day, countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama [God of Death], yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more amazing than this?
For most thoughtful people, in all civilizations, the fear of death no longer lies in the torments of hell that await the wicked. These torments gruesomely detailed, sometimes with relish, in the texts of all religious traditions have also been represented in the visual arts of the major cultural traditions; in Western art, most notably in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Signorelli.
Psychoanalytic speculations about the fear of death begin with Freud’s reconsideration (l923, pp.56- 59;l927,129-130,140) as to whether the fear of death is primary, or whether that generalized fear is actually about something else. Analysts have speculated on the human dread of death as a disguised and symbolic expression of other fears, which have become a part of our unconscious mental life since infancy: the fear of castration, the fear of losing our caretakers or their love, the fear of overwhelming sexual excitement, the fear of a punitive conscience or, as with the adherents of the theories of Melanie Klein, the fear arising from the inner working of a death instinct.

But perhaps the most plausible explanation of the ‘nightmare’ of dying and death lies in death stripping the self of memories of which the most vital are of persons we have loved and who have loved us. In psychoanalytic language, the dread lies in the self being emptied of the mental representations of our most important attachments. In India, this has also been the position of one of its greatest writers, Rabindranath Tagore. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, the author of the popular and widely influential On Death and Dying, was so convinced that no one had thought more deeply on death than Tagore that she printed quotations from Tagore at the head of each chapter of her book.

For Tagore, what a person cannot imagine about death but vaguely senses is an annihilation of his psyche, an emptying of the self of its past, obliterating memories, attachments, fears, hopes, a process that is deeply unsettling. Tagore’s ideas came from a near-death experience. I believe Tagore’s sixty-hour sojourn in the borderland between life and death, haunts these poems.
Tagore pictures it vividly in the very first poem of Prantik, the cycle of eighteen poems on death, dying and ‘afterdeath’, written when Tagore was 77, eight days after he recovered from a serious illness, which had put him in a coma for sixty hours.

With the light of the world extinguished,

in the heart of darkness,

quietly came the envoy of death. Layers of fine dust,

Settled in the sky of life, extending to the horizon, Were cleansed with the solvent of pain—

This quiet scrubbing continued every moment

With firm hands, like a nightmare. (Tagore 2003, p. 27)

 

Whereas most Weird people believe there is no other alternative to accepting or resigning oneself to ‘being nothinged, unselved, unparented, unsonned.’ (Bertrand Russel), Buddhist and Hindu thought offer the possibility of rebirth and thus a continuation of consciousness in a different form. A common attitude towards death is that of an old village woman who says to the anthropologist (Das, 1977) ‘ It is like being shifted from one breast of the mother to the other. The child feels lost for that instant, but not for long.’

Most psychoanalysts, I imagine, reject the idea of a continuation of consciousness after death on the basis that the mind is indistinguishable from the brain so that with brain death all consciousness is forever extinguished. While the dismissal of any kind of consciousness surviving death is associated with the modern West and especially the WEIRD, it has also been present in other civilizations. In 600 C.E. in India, the popular Lokayata school that had a large number of adherents dismissed any possibility of the existence of a soul separate from the body. ‘He that maintains, owing to error, that the Soul is distinct from the body and exists after the loss of the body, cherishes an opinion that is unreasonable…’.

The Lokayata school however is not mainstream. In the mainstream of the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain thought, where ideas on the nature of the soul are not identical but share a strong family resemblance, death is dehanta—end of body, not end of what was called soul and is now often called Consciousness or Self with a capital ‘c’ and ‘s.’
In the mainstream of Asian thought is the idea of a personal consciousness being part of a universal consciousness—whether alayavijnana (‘storehouse consciousness’) of Mahayana Buddhism or brahman (‘cosmic self’) of Hindu thought-- from which individual consciousness emerges at birth and into which it ultimately, after many lives, dissolves at death. In more modern language, one would say that for Hindus and Buddhists the brain is but a filter, through which the ‘Universal Consciousness,’ ‘Cosmic Self,’ filters in space-time to form individual, personal selves. In this model, my individual consciousness is not an emergent fragile property of brain processes, as conventional neurosciences would have it, but exists independently of the brain that has filtered it through neurological, cognitive, cultural and social processes.

While Freud, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle posited the twin forces of Eros and Thanatos in eternal conflict in the psyche, Hindu and Buddhist thought has had no trouble in accepting that life and death are closely intertwined; they are twin brothers. In Indian conception, though, there is no conflict between Eros and Thanatos. Death is as vitally engaged as life in the further evolution of personal consciousness into the universal consciousness. As Tagore observes, ‘The mercy of death works at life’s core, bringing it respite from its own foolish persistence. The opposite of death is birth, not life. Death and birth both belong to life of the self: ‘the walk is in the raising of the foot as in laying it down.’ Death is negation of life, not its antagonist. He writes, ‘Life as a whole never takes death seriously. Only when we detach one individual fact of death do we see its blankness and become dismayed. It is like looking at a piece of cloth through a microscope. It appears like a net; we gaze at the big holes and shiver in imagination. But the truth is, death is not the ultimate reality. It looks black, as the sky looks blue; but it does not blacken existence, just as the sky does not leave its stain upon the wings of the bird.’
The joining of the individual consciousness into a universal consciousness echoes in the Hindu moksha and the Buddhist nibbana. The refining of consciousness necessary for this union is believed to happen through many lives. As such the focus of the religion is not solely on the reality of this life. The reason why there are no tombs, sarcophagi or pyramids in these civilizations to mark the end of a life is that this particular life is only one among many. Rebirth, through which the process of refining consciousness takes place is not desirable in itself but as an unavoidable means to a desired end, a scrubbing of individual consciousness in a solvent of pain. In the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cases, the dread of rebirth is multiplied by the prospect of dying again and again. The reason for the goal of moksha or nirvana is not weariness with life but weariness with death. The sacred Hindu texts speak of punar mrityu—‘re-death,’ long before they speak of punar janma—‘rebirth.’ (Doniger 2013, p. 90)”

A culture’s view of death is an integral part of its overarching ‘vision of reality.’ Visions of reality are composites of certain verifiable facts, acts of speculation and articles of faith that unite groups of human beings in specific cultural consolidations. A culture’s vision of reality, absorbed as an intuitive inner orientation in early childhood, continues to color a person’s life and death. In the tragic, WEIRD vision, which is also that of psychoanalysis, each of us lives in our own subjective world, pursuing pleasures and private fantasies, constructing a life and a fate that will vanish when our time is over. A cornerstone of this vision is the necessity and painfulness of separation.
This vision is in contrast to the Indian vision, which sees life not as tragic but as a romantic quest with the goal and possibility of undoing separation by uniting with the universal self from which it emerged. A thoughtful Indian would agree with Freud's opening sentence in Family Romances (1919): "The separation of the individual as he grows up, from the authority of the parents, is one of the most necessary achievements of his development, yet at the same time one of the most painful.", as long as the words ‘is one of the most necessary achievements’ were omitted.

The Indian vision does not doubt the reality of separation but refuses to admit that separation-individuation is the higher level of reality, and asserts that union or oneness is. Even in the Punjabi proverb about death being the shifting from one breast to another, it is the continuation of breastfeeding rather than the aspirations of weaning and the independence implicit in weaning that dominates the Indian imagination
As a Freudian analyst, I have misgivings about many Hindu and Buddhist views of death and after death. But somewhere in my cultural unconscious, I resonate to the idea of death as a change of consciousness just as I am deeply moved by Tagore’s imagery of death gently carrying the self into the great silence, ‘as the Ganges carries a fallen flower on its stream, washing every stain away to render it, a fit offering to the sea.’
In the Indian geography, the appeal of metaphors around death—such as this one by Tagore—is not in their promise of rebirth, but in their deeming the yearning for union as a fundamental need of the psyche."

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