Daniel Meckel

Associate Professor of Religious Studies (on sabbatical)

Daniel Meckel

Biography

Dan teaches and writes about religious life through a combination of anthropology, psycho-dynamic psychology, and philosophy of the social sciences. His work focuses on Hindu traditions in Northern India and he regularly leads student tours to the Himalayas. Broad questions that pursue him concern the role of culture and religious life in the psychology of human development, pathology, healing, and transformation.

Areas of Research Specialization

  • Psychological Anthropology of South Asia
  • Religions and Cultures of India
  • Religion and Psychological Studies

Education

  • Ph.D. in Religious Studies: Religion and Psychological Studies at University of Chicago,
  • M.A. in Religious Studies: History of Religions at University of Chicago,
  • in Clinical Social Work at University of Chicago,

Spotlight

  • Interweaving Selves: Towards a Cultural Psychoanalysis in the Hindu Himalaya
    As a psychoanalytically oriented student of Hindu lives in the Indian Himalaya, I’ve been fascinated with all efforts to conceptualize the inner world as it emerges within traditional Hindu families. For some years I lived, observed, and participated in families in the Himalayan village of Anidasu, studying their own conceptions of emotion, family, and person, and developing psychological case studies of family members. Later, I grappled with issues of the applicability of psychoanalytic thought in India, based on what I learned. Now, as an educator and psychotherapist, I continue to grapple with these same issues. Can Western-bred psychoanalytic theories illuminate the inner terrain of Indian lives? To what extent does a Hindu worldview constitute that terrain? And how should we understand the relationship between these factors—between psyche and culture—in the effort to understand the intimacies of Indian families and their implications for human development? A central challenge in the psychoanalytic study of Hindu lives has been to recognize the nuances and complexities of the web of Hindu family relationships and to formulate the intrapsychic process based in them without falling prey to Western biases towards individualism, interpersonal autonomy, and the nuclear family. This essay is the first in a series of three in which I explore the possibility of a “cultural psychoanalysis.” In this article, I suggest revisions to post-Freudian object relations theory in an effort to contextualize certain core theoretical notions within Hindu cultures. I begin by defining the notion and approach of “cultural psychoanalysis,” as I think of it, followed by a critical look at three early psychoanalytic perspectives on Indian personality, underscoring the fact that each reflects a bias toward the nuclear family and the mother-infant dyad as the crucibles of optimal development. I argue that these biases produce skewed pictures of the Indian self as passive and submissive, and this in turn produces a limited understanding of the inner dimensions of Hindu religious life in India. I turn then to object relations theories as alternative approaches within psychoanalysis that allow for a more deeply cultural notion of psyche,  exploring three general implications of these theories for the place of culture in the mind.
  • Psychoanalysis and Hinduism: At the Crossroads of Culture, Psyche, and the Religious
    Students of psychoanalysis and Hinduism alike recoil from any monolithic characterization of their subject area. Those familiar with the psychoanalytic tradition know it to embody multiple and often contradictory perspectives and techniques; those who study “Hinduism” know that its great and diverse histories leave scholars puzzling over its unity – the very name of “Hinduism” was initially imposed by outsiders upon India’s vast array of people and religious traditions. Indeed the encounter of Hinduism and psychoanalysis, not even a hundred years old, has itself many incarnations – too many to address in a single overview, so at the outset of this historical essay I must limit my focus to certain realms of the encounter and trust that to explore any one will afford some sense of the whole. I will consider a handful of theories that have defined the historical course of the psychoanalytic study of Hindus and Hinduism. These theories reflect the major emergent perspectives within psychoanalysis -- classical and Kleinian models, object relations theories and the psychologies of the self -- and certain corresponding and salient issues – Oedipal dynamics and Hindu sons, the nature of self and ego in cultural context, and the place of genuine mystical experience within psychic processes.  As a way of characterizing and evaluating the plurality of approaches in the psychoanalytic study of Hindus, I suggest that it is useful to be mindful of three hermeneutics that are engaged, in varying measure and context, within all psychoanalytic thinking. I refer to them in this paper as “dimensions” because they signify distinct forms of analysis or interpretation that are found within any single psychoanalytic study of Hinduism, and because each one privileges a different dimension of human nature; one stressing the universal machinations of psyche, another the interpretive and imaginative processes of meaning-making, and another the influence of ultimate and irreducible realities to which I refer here as the “mystical” or “religious”. My orientation draws from the field of Religion and Psychological Studies and reflects its interdisciplinary concern to relate and integrate explanatory, interpretive, and religious (or quasi-religious) approaches to the mind. As a sub-discipline of religious studies, Religion and Psychological Studies emerged in the 1950’s from the engagement of Jewish and Christian perspectives with the twentieth century psychologies. The field has become increasingly responsive to the engagement of non-western traditions with the psychologies (and neuroscience).
  • Translating Depression in a Himalayan Village
    One way in which an anthropologist manages to achieve local knowledge is by listening to how people reframe his culturally naive questions in ways that render them locally intelligible.  That people are willing to do so, and for an extended period at that, makes ethnography possible and is inevitably mentioned in the acknowledgements section of countless ethnographic studies whose authors profess their heartfelt gratitude to the people of so-and-so ‘for tolerating my ceaseless questions’ or, as I said of the villagers of Anidasu in North India, “for tirelessly pointing out the obvious.”  Native tolerance of anthropological inquiry seems especially admirable when we consider that their answers are in themselves interpretations and reframing of the questions. Our efforts in “thinking through” the cultures of others (Shweder 1991), thus require significant effort on their part in thinking through ours. Here I will be concerned with how Himalayan villagers translate Western depression -- how they interpret first-person descriptions of experiences that are common expressions of depression in a Western inventory, and how they render those descriptions intelligible within local ethnopsychological conceptions and categories of  human functioning.  I shall argue along with others that fundamental distinctions within Western psychiatry -- in particular, the categories of affective, cognitive, somatic, and interpersonal -- are foreign to some non-Western cultures and so inapplicable to their experience.  By contrast, I will show how Anidasu ethnopsychology and its primarily Hindu conceptual sources offer alternative, culturally specific categories that better capture the nature of “depressive experience” in the Central Himalaya.