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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Sudhir Kakar

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To purchase Ecstasy

Title: Ecstasy
Author: Sudhir Kakar
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001
Length: 251 pages
Availability: Ecstasy - US
Ecstasy - UK
Ecstasy - Canada
Ecstasy - India
Au nom de l'extase - France
Der Mystiker oder die Kunst der Ekstase - Deutschland
Estasi - Italia

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Our Assessment:

C : readable, but pointless

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 17/9/2002 Hermann Kurzke
The Washington Post . 30/6/2002 Sanford Pinsker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Der Autor selbst ist weder Visionär noch Vivisekteur, sondern etwas dazwischen, ein unentschiedener Voyeur, der neugierig auf Seelenzustände ist, es aber weder mit den Intellektuellen noch mit den Bettelmönchen verderben will." - Hermann Kurzke, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This novel dramatizes, as only good fiction can, that even in reading about transgendered breasts and transcendent visions we are, finally, reading about aspects of ourselves." - Sanford Pinsker, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his preface Sudhir Kakar explains that many of the incidents in his novel are based on the life of a "great Bengali mystic" and his chosen successor (Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda). However, Kakar has clearly not merely fictionalized the stories of these two guys, the most striking difference being that he has transposed their stories from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. It is a curious choice. Would it not have been as convincing (or as unconvincing) a tale if set in the 19th century ? Are there no 20th century mystics and swamis Kakar could have based such a novel on if he wanted to set it in modern times ? Couldn't he just have invented figures, or did he need the weight of the legend that has built up over the past hundred-plus years -- Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and his swami-follower are fairly well-known -- to lend his narrative (and his characters) authority ? Is he trying to drag the mindless belief in holy men from the dark days of yore into the modern age ?

       Ecstasy tells two stories, that of Gopal, who becomes a renowned mystic called Ram Das Baba, and that of the much younger Vivek, a philosophy student who comes to see the light and follows the path to Gopal's kind of perdition.
       Gopal comes from relatively humble circumstances, and Kakar describes his whole transformation to holy figure. Dad is conveniently out of the picture, and Gopal is left free to adore his mom. He's a sissy-boy who prefers playing with girls; in fact he is about as effeminate as it gets: the first sentence of the novel already announces that he grows breasts.
       Gopal is also a real spiritual kind of kid. He has visions, and he loves the temples. He's not really worldly, and it's pretty clear that a religious life is the only thing for him.
       On top of it all, his life is utterly changed when he encounters a sadhu who is able to "awaken his Kundalini from where she slept at her seat above the anus". Oh yeah, waking that Kundalini will always do it ..... In fact, it sounds a lot like the sadhu merely raped the kid:

He had felt alternating currents of keen elation and piercing pain begin in his rectum and shoot up the rope of his spine. The latter were so painful that he had to contract his anal muscles tight to withstand the torture. The spontaneous movements of the Kundalini subsided after a few minutes, leaving behind a dull ache in his anus which persisted all the way home.
       Well, it at least suggests that Catholic clergy aren't the only "spiritual" types who go for this kind of thing .....
       Not surprisingly, this incident messes Gopal up something good. He appears to lose his mind ... but of course deep down he's such a spiritual guy, and once that has been tapped it can be brought to the the fore and all is well again. He finds a mentor and learns the ways of spiritual awakening. He finds a benefactor who can support his ascetic lifestyle.
       Gopal has all sorts of adventures along the path to spiritual enlightenment, happily muddling along. Things work out, and he becomes the wise, old man that young student Vivek encounters and finds himself oddly drawn to.
       Vivek's dad conveniently dies, and it turns out the family, which Vivek now heads, is in fairly dire financial straits. Thank god Vivek finds religion, so he can forsake his family and their foolish worldly ways ! Vivek is not immediately won over by Ram Das Baba, but in the end finds there is no escaping him. He too goes down the path of spiritual enlightenment, making for a vaguely happy ending.
       However, Vivek does eventually go his own way after the mystic's death, not building up a sect around Baba's legacy as he easily could have, and instead joining "the core organization of a rapidly growing revivalist Hindu movement". Vishnu Das, the one somewhat dubious religious figure, is pleased by the decision:
That is what out country needs. Disciplined and dedicated young men forging a strong nation that does not ape the West. A male nation ! No more of that irrational emotionalism which has sapped our energy over centuries.
       Still alive now, Vivek is "rumoured to be a key figure in the organization's think tank which is responsible for chalking out campaigns and strategies for spreading a Hindu ethos in the country's social and cultural life." Which, one might imagine, includes dealing with those pesky Muslims that apparently don't figure in the national image of India these characters have in mind .....
       Kakar seems, much of the time, to approve of this energy-sapping "irrational emotionalism", but it is unclear what he is trying to convey in this novel. There is little struggle between the spiritual and the real world. Gopal is never even really in the real world, and it doesn't tempt him in the least. He just wants to hide away somewhere and do his own thing. Vivek is perhaps meant to be an example of the educated thinking man who comes to see the light, but there's no thought or logic to his actions either. He is merely seduced by the mystic's personality -- and he has the great excuse of wanting to flee all the obligations his father's death put on his shoulders.
       There are healthy amounts of scepticism throughout the novel, and many of the religious figures are frauds of one sort or another, but true faith easily wins out in the end. The inexplicable is taken at face value, without much attempt at explanation. Such is, apparently, the nature of faith.

       What is Kakar after ? He seems to be saying that the mystic's faith is an admirable thing -- yet what of the fact that Gopal is prodded to finding enlightenment by being brutally violated ? (Kakar is apparently a psychoanalyst, so he must have had something in mind in making that the occurrence that pushes Gopal over the edge.) Does that undermine the validity of all that Gopal later does and believes ? Or is Kakar suggesting that that perhaps is the way to go about finding spiritual enlightenment ?
       And what then also of Vivek's embrace of the Hindu ethos ? His move away from flabby girl-man Ram Das Baba's way to one less focussed on "irrational emotionalism" ? Is this subtle criticism, pointing back to "irrational emotionalism" as the true way to go -- because, after all, the Hindu ethos, like the Muslim ethos (and, elsewhere, the Christian and the Jewish ones, and all the rest) has, in recent years, led to horrific acts in supposedly secular India and done far more damage than good ? Or is Kakar saying Vivek is doing the right thing -- "A male nation !" hurrah ?
       A good novelist can leave open questions and allow for differing interpretations. But Kakar seems to leave the wrong questions open here.
       Ecstasy is basically just the story of two figures who find religion and find that they have chosen the proper path. Kakar relates the story quite well: the small adventures and descriptions are done nicely enough. But the question remains: to what end ?
       And there seems little end here. There is no struggle between real and spiritual worlds here, or faith and logic, as the publicity copy for the book suggests. The real world and logic are given no chance, the spiritual world and faith are served up as truth.
       Ecstasy is a decent read -- competently written -- , but a frustrating one. There seems, ultimately, too little to it. Possibly, also, for those who actually take this spiritual stuff seriously, it is a dangerous book ..... In any case, we can hardly recommend it.

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Ecstasy: Sudhir Kakar: Other books by Sudhir Kakar under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar studied in Germany and Austria, receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Vienna. He has written a number of non-fiction works.

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