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?
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."