Multiple mothering

All the Mothers are One
August 4, 1995

Too much of Hindu religion and culture has been judged by exclusively western norms rather than explained in its own terms. Indian life and thought have all too often been compared and contrasted with what we already know rather than approached as a rich resource for criticising and complementing the insufficiency of our existing theories and knowledge.

One example of this is the field of religious symbolism where the profusion of ambivalent goddess figures gives Hinduism probably the richest feminine dimension of the divine within human religious experience. This rich imagery provides much material for contemporary feminist discussions on the conceptual constructs of ultimate reality. But what is the relationship of such constructs and images of "divine mothers'' to actual women looking after their children within the larger context of the Indian joint family? What is the connection between human and divine mothering? If the goddess imagery has its roots in the childhood experience of being mothered in particular ways, how do the different Indian child-rearing practices relate to or even contradict our accepted theories of child development and psychological growth?

On the basis of extensive ethnographic research into Hindu child-rearing practices and a critical re-examination of existing Indian and western literature on this subject, Stanley N. Kurtz highlights the western cultural roots of contemporary psychoanalysis and offers a revised psychoanalytic theory about child development grounded in the Hindu experience of multiple mothering which occurs through alternative caretakers, especially the mother-in-law and the sisters-in-law of the mother in the Hindu joint family. Kurtz argues convincingly that western theories of child development focus too exclusively on mother and child, thus leading to a psychoanalytic individualism incapable of recognising the positive influence of the group as a primary factor in the psychological growth of the Hindu child.

This fascinating and important study should raise considerable discussion about psychoanalytic interpretations of Hindu personality and culture, the cross cultural reshaping of psychoanalysis, and the interpretation and classification of Hindu goddesses. Most of the book is tightly argued but there are some rather laboured and repetitive passages. Kurtz's study is a formidable attempt at new theory-building but perhaps it tries to incorporate too much material. The themes of the book are rather like Indian culture itself, so often likened to a palimpsest: layer upon layer without earlier ones being erased or all of them integrated into one synthesis.

There is an intriguing chapter on Santoshi Ma, an entirely new Hindu goddess known only since 1962; there is a psychoanalytic discussion of goddess imagery and an elaborate classification scheme of their multiple characteristics; there is the central core of the book devoted to a positive re-evaluation of Hindu childhood and its contribution to a reformulation of psychoanalytical development theories; there are several case studies from clinical psychoanalysis in India; and there are discussions of the role of psychoanalysis in anthropology and of the much needed cultural reshaping of psychoanalysis.

There are also some rather unsatisfactory passages on the nature of love in east and west and three tantalising final pages on mothering in India and America. Pointing to the difficult dilemma of contemporary American parenting, the author states quite apodictically that Hindu multiple mothering proves western women with no usable model for overcoming the conflict between childcare and career. This seems a rather ethnocentric statement in a book devoted to new cross-cultural development.

Specialists in psychoanalysis, anthropology, Hindu religion and culture, and anyone interested in comparative studies of child development, will find plenty to be inspired by in this book, but also much to argue and disagree with.

Ursula King is head of the department of theology and religious studies, University of Bristol.

All the Mothers are One: Hindu India and the Cultural Reshaping of Psychoanalysis

Author - Stanley N. Kurtz
ISBN - 0 231 07868 4
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £12.95
Pages - 306

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