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Book review

Spiritual psychiatries

Natalie Tobert, 2014
Publisher: Aethos, U.K.
Pages: 389
ISBN: 13:978 – 1494962258
Price: US$24.50

It requires courage and conviction to break conventions. Dr. Natalie Tobert has achieved that feat in her quest to understand the interaction of healing traditions and modern medicine that exists in a vibrant way in mental health practices in India. It is significant that she chose India for her fieldwork for in no other country would she have got such a rich diversity of cultural and spiritual approaches. China has a larger population but lacks the huge cultural, linguistic, religious and spiritual diversity and variability of India. This has made the present work very rewarding.

One significant aspect of this book is the equal weight given to both the trans-cultural and transpersonal dimensions. The cultural matrix in India is very complex, it spans religions, rituals, occult practices, philosophies, faith-healing and has stood the vicissitudes of time and the ravages of history. It has developed a remarkable degree of resilience and tolerance, a reason why allopathy and homoeopathy, modern medicines and herbal remedies, medical graduates and faith-healers, rationalists and astrologers, scientists and spiritual stalwarts can all co-exist with vigour and vibrancy. Natalie traverses these ranges with equal ease; she finds how occultism can be viewed in modern terms, she finds how a surgeon trained in modern medicine can be a homoeopath too, how an American psychiatrist inspired by Indian traditions can vouchsafe for flower remedies, how religious differences are overlooked by subjects attending healing shrines, how the Indian self being an extended social self, unlike its individualistic counterpart in the West, needs a different world-view for therapeutic gains. The trans-cultural perspective is epitomised in this answer of the venerated Muslim faith-healer in a remote village when asked if as a mystic he had any inhibitions to get help from scientific research: “Let sadhana (spiritual pursuit) and gavesana (scientific research) exist together. What is the harm in that?” This remarkable answer, emanating from someone in a rustic village corner, someone who would have been labelled as a mendicant in a consumerist society, is reminiscent of Sri Aurobindo’s vision that the coming of the New Age would be marked by a narrowing of the gap between science and mysticism. This could be one important contribution to the global dialogue on healthy living.

The transpersonal perspective that the author unravels through her quest has the potential of influencing the global mindset to set rolling new perspectives of health psychology. One of the most significant paradigms she explored was the consciousness perspective. A lack of harmony between different planes of consciousness could result in disequilibrium and disease. Ordinarily the disharmony between mind, emotions and body, between knowledge and willpower can cause a plethora of problems. The spiritual aspirant is not free too from disharmony as such a person can go on developing the inner ranges of the being while impoverishing the surface personality resulting in a greater mismatch and consequently serious ill-health. I was reminded of an incident many years earlier when I had to use this same logic to counter a yoga teacher who was claiming that spiritual pursuits like yoga would make one immune from disease. She got the shock of a lifetime. Therapy can be directed to restore harmony. In addition, moving towards higher levels of harmony can also be initiated, leading to the possibility of personal growth so that illness also becomes a chance to grow in consciousness. Such a paradigm need not clash with modern medicine; they existed together in the therapeutic matrix and were being used by a section of modern psychiatrists who were trained in the Western tradition and at the same time were sensitive to the spiritual perspective and were attempting to integrate science and spirituality in their understanding of pathology and in their application of therapeutic modalities.

One great advantage of this book is that it has not drawn its premises from conventional Indian treatises but from extensive first-person studies of both therapists and patients, from real field-visits even to remote places and obscure corners, which is not an easy task for an outsider. That she could maintain a non-judgmental attitude throughout by keeping Euro-centrism at a distance was perhaps the key to her success. I personally feel that her background in medical anthropology, her training in archaeology and shamanism as well as an artistic sensitivity helped her to have a catholic view without which this endeavour would not have succeeded.

Natalie has recommended that a multi-cultural approach such as that stemming from her work could benefit south Asian immigrants but the real importance of this work would lie in a change of the mindset of mental health professionals at a global level. Modernity is not synonymous with Euro-centrism. Diagnostic criteria of mental illnesses and flowcharts of management regimes are decided in the same way as company boards take corporate decisions, they are not infallible. A flexible multi-cultural approach is needed in the sphere of mental health to sustain its viability as a field of professional expertise in a new world where many age-old barriers are breaking down. I understand that already a number of favourable responses to Natalie’s book have come from the West. The future seems encouraging.

— Reviewed by Dr. Soumitra Basu

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