What makes the human mind
susceptible to the lure of fundamentalism?
– A psychoanalytical perspective
BY SALMAN AKHTAR
A man urinates on himself and in the process he also breaks some
expensive crockery as when the fit occurred he was sitting at the dining table.
On another occasion the man who has epilepsy is driving a car when suddenly he
has a seizure and as the car goes out of control many innocent people are
killed. Obviously in such circumstances we have to take into consideration the
kind of epilepsy he has, the manifestations of the seizure and which part of his
body goes out of control, how unconscious he becomes et cetera and therefore how
dangerous this situation can be. We must of course examine the consequences of
the seizures on him and on things and people around him but to my mind those
concerns pale in comparison to our wondering why this man has epilepsy and what
causes this epilepsy.
As physicians, I am a doctor myself, we certainly treat symptoms
although that is not our preference. We treat symptoms if symptoms become very
annoying but as good doctors we are most interested in pathology: What is
causing the symptom? That is what we need to treat. The same thing applies to
prejudice; the same thing applies to the topic at hand: fundamentalism.
Certainly we should define it, certainly we should describe it, certainly we
should think about its consequences but I think it is more important to worry
about its causes. Why? What is the attraction? What pull, what hypnotic
attraction does fundamentalism have that people succumb to it? And if we know
why then we can devise remedial strategies that would go deeper and are not
related merely to phenomena.
What is fundamentalism? Please understand that when we talk of
fundamentalism we are not talking of any particular religious group. We are not
talking of Jews, we are not talking of Muslims, we are not talking of Hindus, we
are not talking of Christians. We are not talking of any particular group
because this is a human phenomenon and fundamentally or perhaps I shouldn’t use
the word fundamentally, basically all human beings are more or less alike and
all of us have struggled with basically similar kinds of problems. There are two
problems that we all struggle with. In fact, all human problems can be boiled
down to two fundamental problems. One, that some things are impossible and two,
that a few others are prohibited. If you can swallow this bitter pill, I think
you are fine (you’ll never need to see Dr. Sudhir Kakar, me or any other
When we say fundamentalism, we mean a complex set of five things
that go together. First, there is a literal interpretation of some religious
tract so what is written is no longer deciphered or deconstructed. It is not to
be thought about, it is not to be given meaning, it is what it is. There is
literalness to the interpretation – one. Second, there is an ethnocentric
attitude. The fundamentalist says my belief, my religion, my book is the best
one there is. So there is literalness and there is ethnocentricity. With that
there is megalomania – We know and we have the solution and we can solve the
problem; we know exactly what the problem is and we know exactly what the
solution is. Megalomania, and then interestingly, a little spice, just as we add
a little hing when we are cooking aloo gobi, a little spice of a
sense of victimhood, a sense that we are endangered. Real or imaginary, it is a
cultivated sense of delightful and delicious masochism, a masochism that will
come very handy, as you will see. The imagined cultivated threat is what creates
cohesion of the group and would then permit the enactment of violence towards
others as a justified protective device. But this is merely a description. Why
does fundamentalism have such a powerful appeal? If Marx called religion the
opium of the people I believe fundamentalism is intravenous morphine.
In my way of thinking, to be mentally healthy and to be sane is
not an easy thing. Sanity comes with its own burdens. It is not easy to be
mentally healthy. As psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, clinical
psychologists, we write volumes about mental illness and its struggles, about
what is ill, what is not ill, what is normative and what is not normative, and
what do normative and pathological have to do with each other and so on, but we
pay inadequate attention to what is healthy and the problems of mental health.
When Freud said that the purpose of psychoanalysis, clinical psychoanalysis, was
to reduce neurotic suffering into day-to-day misery, what did he mean by
day-to-day misery? That is what I think we need to understand. I think that
sanity has its own burdens; mental health comes with many problems.
There are six problems that mental health poses and it is these
problems that fundamentalism solves. This is the key issue here because mental
health comes with some baggage, some problems and some burdens, and
fundamentalism is the treatment of those burdens. (You could say that
fundamentalism is the cure for mental health!) The burdens of sanity are the
following six things.
1) Factual uncertainty. A mentally healthy person has to
accept the fact that things are uncertain. We don’t really know what is about to
happen and what can happen. Who knew that the tsunami would happen and that so
many people would get killed? Who knew that 9/11 would happen? Some people knew,
of course, but in general who knew that 9/11 was going to happen? And we don’t
know, car accidents happen, you’re taking a flight to Bombay and the flight is
cancelled or delayed, we don’t know. We don’t know what will happen, what
happens, what is happening right now. You have no idea what is happening right
now, not only in Calcutta but even in Karol Bagh. Things happen. A mentally
healthy person has to understand that things are uncertain.
2) Conceptual complexity. Matters are not simple, all
matters are complex. How to get from Place A to Place B does not have only one
path – it can have many paths. What does a phenomenon mean? Four people will
leave this particular meeting and may describe it in entirely different ways.
Our reaction to the vice chancellor’s leaving can be a complex reaction. Some
people might respect him for the fact that he spared some time to come here and
feel grateful for that. Some people might be annoyed at him for leaving. Some
people might think that it was all a pretence, that he comes, just says a few
words and leaves. Some people will say how humble and decent of him it was to
take time out of his busy schedule, to walk over, give his blessings and shake
people’s hands, and so on. The same phenomena can be interpreted in many ways.
Conceptual complexity – things are not simple.
3) The third burden of sanity is moral ambiguity. Freud
said that there are two great human crimes: incest and parricide. Here Freud was
right about incest, certainly. Why is incest such a horrible thing to do?
Because it destroys the family structure and family is the unit of civilisation.
So incest is an attack against civilisation. But parricide I’m not too sure
about because the implication is that killing the mother is alright or killing a
child is alright, infanticide is alright and matricide is alright. That is
undeniably ridiculous but that was Freud’s own personal phallocentric bias. The
correct word he should have used is homicide. Two fundamental human crimes are
homicide and incest. Between these instances most things are actually ambiguous.
Take the example of stealing. Is stealing bad? Of course
stealing is bad, but let us suppose that your daughter is terribly, terribly
ill, near death, and you have no money. Should you steal money, or medicines
from a doctor’s cabinet? Of course! In fact, if you stand on ceremony, moral
rights and righteousness at such a time that would be silly and that would be
wrong. Murder? Certainly murder is wrong but sometimes murder in self-defence is
the correct thing to do. And that’s what Krishna says to Arjuna in the
Mahabharata, "Jo avashyak hai wahi uchit hai (What is necessary is
therefore appropriate)". So there is ambiguity about morality. What seems
right in one place becomes wrong in another place. What seems right today
becomes wrong tomorrow, what was right in one era is not right in another era,
what is right in a certain context is wrong in another context – moral
4) Cultural impurity. A mentally healthy person realises
that there is no such thing as purity. Purity, the search for purity, is the
enemy of truth and the enemy and destroyer of reality. Reality is always hybrid
whether we acknowledge it or not. I am an Indian who is an American
psychoanalyst because I’ve been trained in certain modes of analysis that are
prevalent in America. There is a psychoanalyst called Christopher Bollas whom
you should read, he’s very good. He is an American but he is a British analyst
because he is trained in the British tradition. Bhimsen Joshi is a South Indian,
I think from Bangalore originally, but trained in the Patiala tradition. The
sitar is born out of the hybrid mixtures of Afghani drone instruments and
the southern rudra veena. All things are mixed up, all things are mixed
up. I am speaking in a language that is predominantly British in origin,
predominantly, not exclusively, but British in origin, with profound Latin,
Greek, German ancestry. I am speaking it in an Indian accent (all I haven’t done
is nod my head but I can do that too – "What yaar?"!) and here I am,
having travelled on a German airline, Lufthansa.
Life is mixed up. Life is not pure. I am wearing a watch made in
Switzerland, a suit made in Italy and a tie most likely made in the USA or since
most things in the USA are made in Korea… Life is mixed up; life is not pure.
The search for purity is an attack on reality – It is the refusal to accept the
complex tapestry that human cultural organisations are.
5) Personal responsibility. We are all responsible for
our actions, however accidental they may appear. If I knock over the glassware
or crockery at someone’s dining table, break some expensive pieces of their
dinner set, I must take responsibility for my actions. Obviously on the surface
it is a mistake but it is very likely born out of my envy of him and his wine
glass or something, some hostile destructive intent is hidden in that somewhere.
I can’t just brush it off by saying it was a mistake. It was a mistake but I
committed that mistake and I have to be responsible for that mistake. The
epileptic cannot get away without an apology for breaking somebody’s fine china.
The epileptic needs to apologise. Even if it was out of his control, it was his
action; it was his brain that messed the crockery up. As Freud says, the ego is
first and foremost a bodily ego. Personal responsibility involves first and
foremost an ownership of the body – its demands, its sensations, its agenda and
its use and then the conscious and unconscious fantasies and drives emanating
from the body and affecting the body in a dialectical feedback loop. One has to
be responsible for one’s body, one has to be responsible for one’s sexual life,
real or imagined, and one has to be responsible for one’s aggression, one’s
hostile feelings – expressed, suppressed, conscious and unconscious. One is
responsible for one’s life.
6) Total mortality. A mentally healthy person has to know
that he will be dead – some people in the audience will not agree with this but
that’s alright – complete and total mortality. We are all going to be dead.
Nobody from this room is going to get out alive, nor is anyone from this world,
unless there is a five million-year-old man hiding in Australia (we only think
of Australia because it is kind of far away!), laughing at me. The fact
is: all human beings die. The day we are born, on the day I was born a bullet
was shot and that bullet is travelling in the air and is coming towards my
forehead and I am merrily walking towards it and so are you, and so also are
you. All human beings die but it is not enough to merely accept that.
Of course, those of you who are young, in your twenties and
thirties, you don’t have to worry about such things yet – Consider yourselves
immortal. You will find out that that’s not true anyway. But when you are 50 or
60 the clock begins to tick and you can hear the rumble of the footsteps of
death, at 3 a.m., when the wind blows, you can hear it. But it is not enough to
accept that one will be dead, that is not enough. What is more important is to
accept that one will be really dead and finally dead and totally dead. There
ain’t no coming back, either as a rat or a mouse or as a beautiful woman. (I
would like to come back as a beautiful, gorgeous South Indian woman lawyer –
that’s what I would like to be!). He says I’ll take you but that is not going to
happen, it is not going to happen. I have to live with this fantasy; it is not
going to take place. Once I die, I’m dead, and so are you.
And the idea of heaven and hell? When I was 12 my father asked
me, do you believe in heaven and hell? When you’re 12 years old you’re awkward
and you don’t really know what the hell is going on anyway so I mumbled
something incomprehensible but he was in one of those moods, he said no, no, no,
tell me, do you believe in heaven and hell, and I again tried to wiggle out of
it by mumbling something silly so he gave me a stern lecture. He said look,
these guys who made up the idea of heaven and hell, these are mostly people of
the desert – Jesus, Moses, Muhammad. (They are all born within 300 miles of each
other, and that’s also weird actually, I mean, suppose somebody said all
psychoanalysts are born in Bangalore wouldn’t you be puzzled – Why?!) He said
look, these were people from a hot climate; they were social reformers who were
trying to do some good for people. And people don’t move unless you give ’em
something and they had nothing to give ’em so they gave them a few fantasies.
And because it was a hot climate they made heaven cold and hell hot. If Jesus,
Moses or Muhammad had been born in Alaska, trust me, ladies and gentlemen, hell
would be cold and heaven would be hot.
Think also of another strange thing – why is it that heaven is
always up, nobody says you will go (down) to heaven. Why? Think about it. Why is
heaven up? Because when we’re babies we spend at least one year lying supine,
lying unable to stand up, and even when we stand up we stand up weakly after a
little while and then our mother picks us up onto her lap or our father picks us
up onto his lap. And when they carry us we are up, when they put us down we are
down. That (down) is hell; this (up) is heaven. These ideas are based on
But the idea of heaven and hell is a fantasy for god’s sake,
just as reincarnation is a fantasy – they are not really going to happen. When
you die you are dead. Your children will remember you fondly and your
grandchildren will remember you vaguely, and your great grandchildren will
forget about you. If you write a few books and give a few lectures perhaps a few
more people will remember you. But sooner or later people will forget about you.
Who reads Sophocles? (I heard someone in the back say who the hell is Sophocles
– That’s exactly the point; that is exactly the point!) All of us start
out and live with fantasies and may die as active memories. But we are
dead, we are not coming back, please don’t harbour such illusions – there is
1) Factual uncertainty 2) Conceptual complexity 3) Moral
ambiguity 4) Cultural impurity 5) Personal responsibility 6) Total mortality.
This package of factual uncertainty, conceptual complexity, moral ambiguity,
cultural impurity, personal responsibility and total mortality, this is the
suitcase, the heavy suitcase of sanity. It is a burden that a mentally healthy
person has to carry. Fundamentalism relieves this burden.
We carry this burden because compensating factors are offered to
us. We are offered safety, we are offered the pride of having an identity, we
are offered the pride of having continuity in time, a sense of belonging, we are
offered the factor of sexuality, we are offered the factor of efficacy, we are
offered the honour of generativity – these compensating packages help us to bear
the burden of sanity. When there is a threat, a real or manufactured threat to
the compensating factors of safety, identity, continuity, individuality,
efficacy and generativity, when this package is really threatened or a
manufactured threat is made to this package then the reality becomes very, very
difficult to bear and a person regresses into a simplistic world.
Now instead of uncertainty he is offered certainty. The
fundamentalist leader says we know exactly what’s going to happen and what
should happen. We know it, we can predict it, we can control it. Instead of
complexity he is offered simplicity. He is told this thing means just this
thing. Instead of moral ambiguity – things can be good, things can be bad, maybe
this behaviour is sometimes good, maybe sometimes this behaviour is bad, he is
offered moral clarity – this is right, this is wrong. You eat pork you go to
hell, remember, you don’t eat pork, you won’t go to hell. What about the poor
When my son was five years old he asked me about the story of
Abraham and Isaac. I said, well, god was testing Abraham’s love for him so he
said if you really love me you will sacrifice your son, this is your parichay,
your initiation. (Even god carries out this sort of test, you know, he’s not
certain about himself. He’s like a lover saying please tell me you love me,
please, tell me you love me, if you love me you’ll make an omelette for me
today. God is like that – an uncertain lover. He says please praise me, the Book
begins by saying ‘Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim’ – In the name of Allah,
the Beneficent, the Merciful – I begin in his name, with praise to god. Why? He
is the one writing the book and yet he’s praising himself, it doesn’t make sense
to me!) Anyway, in answer to my son’s question about Abraham and Isaac I said,
well, look, god was testing Abraham and said if you really love me you will kill
your son. You sacrifice your son and I’ll know that you really love me. And
Abraham said, what the hell, you know, I have to prove to god that I love him.
So he put a blindfold on his eyes and took a sword and chopped off his son’s
head but when he opened his eyes the son, Isaac was standing right there and a
lamb had been cut and lay dead in his place – That’s what the origin of the
festival Id-ul-Zuha or Bakri Id is. But I’m proud of what my five-year-old son
said in response. He thought for a second and said, but that was not fair of
god, what did the poor lamb do? What did the poor lamb do?
Instead of uncertainty fundamentalism offers certainty, instead
of complexity fundamentalism offers simplicity, instead of moral ambiguity
fundamentalism offers moral clarity, they tell you what is exactly good and
exactly what is bad. Instead of cultural impurity and hybridisation
fundamentalism offers purity; hybridisation is the nature of life, not just life
today, not just immigrations – patterns of life today, life has always been
hybrid. When you make a samosa the outer crust comes from wheat which is
grown in a field somewhere, the potatoes come from under the ground, the spice
comes from another place, the ghee in which you fry it comes from
somewhere else and a stainless steel pan is needed. A samosa a pure
thing? Nobody can say that we sell pure samosas. (Now you’re probably
thinking, how come this guy is talking about omelettes and samosas? – he
must be hungry!)
Instead of complexity – simplicity, instead of uncertainty –
certainty, instead of moral ambiguity – moral clarity, instead of impurity –
purity. We are pure people. We are pure Hindus, we are pure Muslims, we are pure
Jews, we are pure Christians. Keep others away from us; don’t let others mess
this up. Don’t let the mlecchas come near us, we are pure Brahmins.
Then, instead of personal responsibility, of conduct, of life,
where a person says I am responsible for what I am saying, doing, how I am
behaving; my sex life, my hostile life, my greedy life, my financial life is my
business and my responsibility. I take responsibility for what I am doing and
what I have done to others and to myself. The fundamentalist says don’t worry,
we will take over responsibility, we will show you how to kill Muslims, don’t
worry. The fundamentalist takes over responsibility and says you are not
responsible for your conduct, we are responsible. This relieves one of personal
And finally of total mortality, which is the deepest dread that
all human beings live with. Young people deny and need to deny, it’s good for
them to deny that they are mortal. Fundamentalism promises rewards of
immortality – you will go to heaven, you will get 72 virgins – I don’t know what
one would do with 72 virgins (I mean, 72 virgins for god’s sake, I would rather
take one or two non-virgins, frankly!). You will be born again, you’ll come
back, and if you behave well you’ll come back as this or that kind of person.
(Or as a German Shepherd whom Dr. Kakar will keep in his house and treat well
and give good dog food too!) It’s not going to happen; it is not going to
Fundamentalism, in a literal, narrow, ethnocentric and
megalomanic manner takes a religious tract and interprets this in an extremely
narrow, megalomanic and grandiose way, seeking to offer a world of simplicity,
lack of personal responsibility, immortality, purity and simplicity. These are
notions of children. This is how two-year-old and three-year-old children think.
This is not how a grown-up, adult person thinks. Fundamentalism turns us from
adults into children, turns us from individual units of flesh, psyche and
spirit, thinking, pulsating, changing, constantly struggling with choices,
decisions, tragedies, losses, mishaps, triumphs and victories – constantly in
conflict, constantly in the inner Kurukshetra. Fundamentalism removes us
from such war, from such complexity, from personal responsibility, from
impurity, from handling looking death right up front in the eyes and then
adopting to live in a more responsible manner.
Fundamentalism lulls us into a sleep of childhood, a sleep of
simplicity but it is worse than childhood because a child is always questioning
and attempting to come out of its innocence bit by bit. Fundamentalism is worse
than childhood because it takes us backward, not forward. And with
fundamentalism comes its twin sister, prejudice, and its evil brother called
So what is the solution? If this is the pathology, what is the
solution? The solutions reside in addressing the pathology. We have to make it
possible for people to bear the burden of sanity. And how can we make people
bear the burdens of sanity? – By offering them compensating factors, such as a
feeling of safety. And if the feeling of un-safety is real, then we have to
restore a feeling of safety. If the feeling of un-safety is manufactured for
political purposes, then we have to teach, ignore and fight against it and
inform people that this is a manufactured dread not a real dread.
There are people in New Jersey, people in Chicago and New York,
extreme right wing Indians who believe that not only are the conversions to
Christianity in India a truly horrible thing but they are also proceeding at
such an alarming rate that soon Hinduism will disappear from India. That is a
manufactured dread, that is entirely a manufactured dread and it has to be
logically questioned by education and upfront dialogue in social forums. But we
have to provide people with a feeling of safety, we have to provide a feeling of
efficacy – people should have jobs, people should be able to do what they want
to do and see the results of what they do.
Efficacy, safety, identity – everybody wants to know who they
are and are proud of who they are. Suppose your name is Pradeep Saxena and I ask
you who’s Pradeep, you say me; I ask you who’s Saxena, that’s your father.
Identity has to do with our selves and our sense of belonging to some place. We
have to make sure that people are able to maintain their identities and their
identities are not threatened. If they have safety, if they have efficacy, if
they have identity, if they have opportunities for sexual pleasure and if they
have opportunities for generativity or passing on, cultivating, elaborating
their myths, language, symbols and rituals and imparting them to the next Orphic
generation in a safe, tender, protective and loving way.
If we can restore this package – safety, efficacy, identity,
sexuality and generativity – when it is really threatened, or when there is a
manufactured threat to it, if we can prove in dialogue, by political discourse,
that there is no such threat, then this package can come alive. And when
compensating factors are in place then human beings are able to bear the burdens
of sanity. And although burdened with sanity they then live life in more
peaceful ways – peace outside and peace inside. And when they have peace inside,
this is a mixture, a product of post-burdened sense, post-mourning sense, post-realisation
that life is complex, difficult, limited and hybrid. When they have an inner
peace, and when they know that even this peace that we have is fragile, it comes
and goes, then that peace anchors them more solidly in reality and takes them
away from dreams, poisonous dreams and dangerous dreams especially.
They grow up, they can tolerate other people and they can
tolerate differences. They can even learn from differences and enjoy
differences. They know life is limited, they know life is complex; they know
that there is no moral certainty. And it is when they live with this attitude
that they do not require hate because they don’t hate themselves and they do not
need to hate others. And when they don’t need to hate others, they do not need
to idealise themselves. And when they do not need to idealise themselves and
take this intravenous morphine that fundamentalism offers them then they walk
out wide awake, open-armed and with a good and clean heart.
(Inaugural lecture at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies,
University of Delhi. Dr. Salman Akhtar is an eminent psychoanalyst, an
award-winning professor of Psychiatry, Jefferson Medical College, a lecturer at
Harvard Medical School and a well known author and poet, and scholar in
residence at the Interact Theatre Company, Philadelphia, USA).