Freud's India

Sigmund Freud and India's First Psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose

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Alf Hiltebeitel
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alf Hiltebeitel, a distinguished scholar of Southeast Asia, has simultaneously published not only Freud's India but also a companion volume on Freud's Mahābhārata (Oxford University Press, 2018), in which he applies psychoanalytic theory to one of the great ancient Sanskrit epics. In Freud's India Hiltebeitel writes on the relationship, mainly episolary, between Freud and G. Bose (1886-1953), who was the first Indian pscyhoanalyst and established the Indian Psychoanalyst Society.

Hiltebeitel begins with a list of comparisons between himself and Freud. He writes, “My mother Lucille Barnett Hiltebeitel passed away at age 101 on June 13, 2014. Freud’s mother died at age 95” (x). He adds, “My sister Jane, my only sibling, was born eleven days before my fourth birthday … Freud had two brothers and five sisters, and thus many more sibling rivalries” (xi). These parallels are hardly extraordinary. Indeed, sibling rivalry is universal. What, then, is Hiltebeitel’s claim? That he is Freud’s doppleganger? The subject of Hiltebeitel’s book is Freud and Bose, not Hiltebeitel.

Hiltbeitel divides the correspondence between Bose and Freud into three phases, calling the first set of twelve letters—written from 1920 to 1923—the “getting-to-know-you letters.” Here, Bose is seeking to establish contact with Freud, especially to secure a photograph. The correspondence then ceases for six years. When it resumes, in 1929, there is increasing warmth, though the “strains” lead to an eventual break in 1932. Phase three begins with Freud’s 1933 New Year’s letter, to which Bose replies. In 1937 Freud writes a final letter, to which there is no response, after which Freud’s daughter, Anna, sends a friendly missive to Bose.

On the one hand Bose accepted the tenets of psychoanalysis and sought to spread them to India. He was not seeking to do what others in India were doing: scorn psychoanalysis as Western and substitute a Hindu variety. Yet Bose, who sent Freud copies of his publications, was bold enough to question Freud’s theory. Bose stressed that Indian culture focused on the mother and not, as with Western culture, on the father. Bose maintained that in the Indian psyche there exists not just a boy’s Oedipus complex toward his parents but a female one toward them as well. Bose emphasized human bisexuality, as does Freud, but to a much smaller extent.

Hiltebeitel leaves unclear how interested Freud was in any distinctively Indian traits of psychoanalysis. C.G. Jung, by contrast, would have been much more interested in cultural differences, which for Jung would have been racial and biological.

Freud was “turned off” by Bose’s philosophical and deductive approach to psychoanalysis. As is well known, Freud disliked philosophy and wanted psychoanalysis to be a wholly empirical and inductive discipline. Bose invited Freud to India, but Freud never accepted, pleading ill health and age. 

Concurrent with the second phase of Freud’s correspondence with Bose was a ten-year exchange of letters with Romain Rolland, the French Nobel Laureate who proposed the notion of an “oceanic feeling” as the true source of religion. Freud rejected this claim and reduced the oceanic feeling to the pre-Oedipal stage of infancy. Here the bond is between the infant—of either gender—and the other. The goal is not to have sex with the mother, but to restore the unity with the mother experienced at birth. It was the pre-Oedipal stage that several early followers of Freud—notably, Otto Rank and Sandor Ferenczi—came to stress over the Oedipal stage. While not an analyst, and not an associate of either Rank or Ferenczi, Rolland gave the pre-Oedipal stage the same centrality as they did, and argued that religion originates in this stage, not in the Oedipal one.

Hiltebeitel divides Freud’s correspondence with Rolland, like his correspondence with Bose, into three phases. But Freud’s relations with Rolland were always far more positive than those with Bose. Both Freud and Rolland were Europeans. They became friends and visited each other. Freud admired Rolland for his acquired knowledge of things Eastern, specifically Hindu, and also for his ability to write well. Freud envied Rolland’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. 

Freud devotes three books to religion: Totem and Taboo (Beacon Press, 1913), The Future of an Illusion (Hogarth Press, 1927), and Moses and Monotheism (Knopf, 1939), but he discusses mysticism in only the first, slim chapter of Civilization and Its Discontents (Internationaler, 1930), with occasional remarks in other works. Freud subsumes mysticism under religion, so that for him mysticism means religious mysticism. In his three books on religion Freud ignores mysticism by rooting religion in division rather than in oneness. In Civilization and Its Discontents he makes mysticism a stage, and a late stage, within the development of religion. Here he is like Gershom Scholem, author of Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken, 1941).

In Totem and Taboo and in Moses and Monotheism the main relationship is that of an individual and the rest of the family. In The Future of an Illusion the main divide is that between an individual and the physical world. In all three books God is set over against the individual. A father-like figure, God tyrannically demands submission to familial mores in both Totem and Tabooand Moses and Monotheism, but benevolently shelters the individual from a threatening world in The Future of an Illusion. In all three works, religion rests on an unequal relationship between the individual and a separate God. 

In Civilization and Its Discontents religion and God are conceived in a different way. Indeed, Freud is responding to Rolland’s argument that in The Future of an Illusion—and one could add Freud’s other two books on religion as well—Freud has missed the true origin of religion, though Rolland does not consider the function of religion. While identified in Civilization only as a “friend,” Rolland deems the true origin of religion to be, in Freud’s words, a “feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic.’” The feeling is of oneness with the world. In deriving all religion from this mystical experience, Rolland is similar to William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green, 1902)For Rolland and James, original religion is not, as for Freud, an organized, ritualized religion, as epitomized by the Catholic Church. Rather, original religion is private and experiential, It is mystical. The Future of an Illusion, which derives religion from the feeling of helplessness before the separate world, can therefore scarcely be explaining the origin of religion: Future begins in medias res

Yet for Rolland and James alike, the feeling of oneness with the world nevertheless leads to the feeling of separation from the world and is therefore the origin of all further stages of religion. As Freud states in Future, the feeling of oneness “is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems.” How oneness leads to separation, Rolland and James never explain. 

Where Rolland pits—and eagerly—the feeling of oneness with the world against our ordinary feeling of separation from the world, Freud fits the feeling of oneness with the world snugly within our ordinary feeling of separation. Rolland’s point is that the feeling of oneness is unique. Freud’s point is that it is not. Where Rolland separates the feeling of oneness from all subsequent religious belief, Freud connects that feeling to all religious belief, since for him even the feeling of oneness starts with the feeling of separation. Where Rolland takes the feeling of oneness as a given, Freud seeks to account for it. What for Rolland is the stopping point is for Freud the starting point. 

Considering that Freud takes Rolland’s origin of mysticism to be a justification for mysticism—that is, for the belief that humans really are one with the world--Freud takes his refutation of Rolland’s origin of mysticism to be, as well, a refutation of Rolland’s justification for mysticism. Freud enlists his social scientific theorizing about the origin—and for Freud the function—of mysticism to evaluate the truth of mysticism. Does he mean to conclude that mysticism is thereby false? No. Freud is not precluding other justifications, which he would then have to consider. Rather, he is taking on the justification based on origin. Freud is not asserting that mysticism is fal because it originates in an infant’s delusions. That contention would commit the genetic fallacy. Rather, Freud is asserting that since mysticism likely originates in infantile delusion, the argument that it is true because it originates instead in an adult’s feeling of oneness with the world is undone. Even though Freud is working to falsity through origin, he is not simply jumping from origin to falsity, and so is not committing the genetic fallacy.

As Hiltebeitel shows, Freud, though coming from a secular, Jewish, scientific background, respected the Catholic and spiritual Rolland—for his literary talent, his humanism, his liberalism, and his opposition to anti-Semitism. Freud also delighted in Rolland’s early appreciation of psychoanalysis, which found less initial acceptance in France than elsewhere. Freud and Rolland admired each other despite Rolland’s uncompromisingly blunt dismissal of psychoanalysis, which he crudely equated with sex.

After discussing Freud and Rolland, Hiltebeitel returns to his main subject, Bose, and devotes the final chapters to him. Freud’s relationship with Bose was much more distant than his relationship with Rolland. Freud and Bose never met, and there were long periods of silence in their correspondence. At least as important as their cultural disagreements were their theoretical ones. As Rolland was not a psychoanalyst, he never concerned himself with the nature of the psyche. Bose did, and he was prepared to take on Freud’s conception of human nature. Bose refused to defer to Freud, and insisted that his conception of psychoanalytic theory made more sense than Freud’s: Freud was never persuaded.

Hiltebeitel’s meticulous reconstruction of the disagreements between Freud and Bose would have been enhanced by even a short summary of psychoanalysis in India after Bose’s era. Yett what we do get is a masterly working out of the often radical views of the first Indian psychoanalyst.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is Sixth Century Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alf Hiltebeitel is Professor of Religion at George Washington University. He works mainly on the two Sanskrit epics, the Mah.

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