Book Summary and Critique of
Vishnu on Freuds Desk,
Jeffrey Kripal and T.G. Vaidyanathan (Eds.),
Oxford University Press. Delhi. 1999. 482 pp.
by Vishal Agarwal
Copyright 2001 by Vishal Agarwal
The title: Vishnu on Freuds Desk, is itself a double entendre. One, it signifies the icon of Lord Vishnu that was gifted to the Sigmund Freud by an Indian practitioner of his technique from Calcutta. Second, it could give the impression that Lord Vishnu was summoned, so to speak, for a psychoanalysis, by Sigmund Freud. Thus, the title itself is insensitive to Hindu religious beliefs.
Jeffrey Kripal, a co-editor, is the infamous author of the book Kalis Child, which contains an unstated, but a very transparent allegation that Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was a gay and a pedophile1.
The introduction of the book is written by T. G. Vaidyanathan, who was, as Swami Tyagananda has revealed, one of the few authors that wrote a positive review2 of Jeffry Kripals Kalis Child. Vaidyanathan, along with Kripal, is obviously the editor of this collection of articles. Vaidyanathan refers to Kripal as follows:
I must briefly pause here to thank Gananath Obeyesekere of Princeton for suggesting that I read Kalis Child before I compile my anthology. This led me to make the acquaintance of its brilliant author, Jeffry Kripal, who has eventually ended up as my co-editor no less!
The introduction explores Freuds encounter with India, the applicability of his ideas to the Indian context, and the pioneers on Freudian psychology in India. It gives a summary of the contents of the compilation. Vaidyanathan informs us that he could compile this book as a result of the Ford Foundation Grant that he received. This grant enabled him to visit the US libraries and study the required material. One wonders though why one needed a grant merely to make a compilation of already published articles, a compilation that hardly has any originality? The teaming up of Vaidyanathan with Jeffrey Kripal does seem to have served a strategic purpose- it gave one more publication to a Kripal – a new and a rising, although a famous academician in Indian studies. And association with Kripal, a famous name amongst South Asian professors in the United States, ensured wide publicity and good sales.
Curiously, the cover carries a picture of Lord Krishna, which is odd because a four-armed picture of Lord Vishnu could have been incorporated easily instead. Writing the Forward, Sudhir Kakar lets out the agenda: Psychoanalysis, after all, is an iconoclastic discipline par excellence, especially wary of our most cherished beliefs and unexamined convictions we carry with us from our cultural and individual pasts. It cannot help but grate on a sensibility excessively influenced by the Hindu idealistic tradition with its glorification of the past. The secular credentials of the book are thereby secured.
The book is a collection of articles, of varying caliber. Some of them have highly provocative and plainly obscene titles, which should land the book in the soft porn category. The book is divided into four parts of varying length.
Part I comprises of a solitary paper on Freuds exposition on The Genesis and Adjustment of the Oedipus Wish.
Part II is titled Freud and Hinduism. In the introduction, Vaidyanathan has lamented that although Freud had a growing interest and a deep respect for Eastern ideas, this is unfortunately ignored in modern publications on him. Following are the articles in Part II:
- William B. Parsons: Freuds Encounter with Hinduism: An Historical-Textual Overview. The title is self explanatory. It is a highly readable overview on the matter for those interested in the subject.
- Christiane Hartnack:Vishnu on Freuds Desk- Psychoanalysis in Colonial India. The article deals with the growth of Freudian methodology in Colonial India, in particular the modification of some of its tenets by the pioneer (Girindrasekhar Bose) of this methodology in India; the relationship between colonial politics and psychoanalysis; Freuds correspondence with psychoanalysts in India and so on.
Part III is titled The Indian Oedipus. Summary of the 3 articles might not interest the readers because of its theoretical nature and is being left out.
Part IV is titled Early and Later Theoritical Formations. Here is some information on the articles contained therein –
- G. M. Carstairs; Hindu Personality Traits: I will merely reproduce some quotes and let the readers decide.
As Krishna, he is a great lover; but he is portrayed as effeminate, seductive and yet divinely powerful youth. His devotees seem at times to identify with him as he makes his amorous conquests, at other times to identify themselves with the gopis who are overcome with pleasurable anticipation at his approach. This particular father figure can be recognized as revealing a thinly veiled longing for him as a homosexual lover (pg. 177).
The orthodox Hindu ban on eating meat, and the stress on Ahimsa can thus be interpreted as the conscious reaction-formations against the repressed oedipal feelings of hostility against the father, feelings which are never allowed direct expression (pg. 179).
it was the abrupt change from an unfrustrated infancy to the subsequent desertion by his mother which not only created the Hindu childs fantasy-picture of her, and her later substitutes, as witch-like figures, but also shattered his early scheme of object-relationships, so that he found it difficult in later life to trust or even to empathize with other persons (pg. 182).
It would be an act of blindness indeed to suggest that because relations between a Hindu son and his parents, between a man and his wife, lack that warmth and spontaneity which is expected in Western society, they are necessarily inferior (pg. 182).
In short, the article debases even human relationships in India despite protestations to the contrary. It also demonstrates a total unfamiliarity with the doctrine of Bhakti in Hinduism.
2. Stanley N. Kurtz: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Hindu Child Rearing: Some quotes –
neither the mother nor the other family members are engaged in an intimate exchange or reflection of emotions with the child. Moreover, I maintain that the natural mothers stance towards the child differs significantly from that of the family at large. These differences act to push the child away from the connection to the natural mother and toward connection with the family group. I argue that it is this push away from the mother and toward the group that generates the Hindu emphasis on detachment from emotional bonds. From this perspective, then, the link with the group does not so much extend the childs sense of unity with the mother as it introduces the child to a sense of belonging quite contrary to his selfish desire for exclusive possession of the mother. This, in turn, explains why Hindu spirituality links detachment- an overcoming of the selfishness- with the discovery of unity (pg. 197).
..Most important, the special relationship between the Hindu mother and her son appears here as a variation on a distinctive Hindu pattern rather than as a mere intensification of a style of intimacy found in the West..Nursing is not therefore, an occasion through which mother and child cement on an emotional union. The child is frequently fed, yet the mother seldom lingers to mirror the babys satisfaction. Thus, while the child no doubt develops a strong emotional attachment to the mother as a result of the physical gratification she provides, the mother does not respond by setting up a Western-style loving, emotional partnership (pg. 199-200).
Again, the article takes a white supremacist stand and debases human relationships in the Hindu society. On the pseudo-analyses of Hindu detachment, I need not comment.
I would like to add that many of these articles in the book are based on non-universal phenomenon in India- children being weaned at as late as 5 years of age, fathers not playing any significant role in child-rearing, children are born in Hindu joint families (and not in nuclear families), grown up children sleeping with their mothers and so on. Needless to say, these generalizations are invalid, and the hectoring tone of the analysis and the demeaning portrayal of human relationships in the Hindu society seem to stem from the authors own prejudices from living in a society where family relationships have broken down to a considerable extent.
Part V is titled Psychoanalytic Approaches to Hindu Mysticism, Myth and Ritual. Following is an account of the articles in this section –
- J. M. Masson; Sex and Yoga- Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience: The title is quite misleading and only a small fraction of the article deals with what one expects of it. Some quotes –
If I am correct, then the reason that the commentators on the Ramayana and the entire Sanskrit tradition, have felt somewhat uneasy about the death of Valin at Ramas hands is because they recognized, beneath the surface of the words of the story, that Rama was taken in, he showed too little psychological understanding, and adjudged Sugriva to be the virtuous king, whereas in fact it was really Valin who perceived the murderous, if not consciously so, intention of his brother, and hence banished him from the kingdom (pg. 237).
Hence yoga is unhappy with the body, but at the same time all Yogins are obsessed with the body and its products (pg. 240).
This is quite a distortion of what Yoga teaches. The unhappiness with the body is meant to disassociate the Yogin from an attachment to it, yet the body and the mind are indeed the means the attain Moksha. Hence, the so-called obsession with the body is not meant for worldly/mundane matters, rather it is meant to ease the path of Moksha for the Yogin.
Modern Indian mystics rarely speak directly of sexuality, and yet I would hazard the guess that there is not a single one whose life and writings do not clearly reveal the derivatives of displaced sexuality (one has only to think of Ramakrishna and his transvestite activities, or of Aurobindo and his Mother (pg. 240).
Indian mystics are hence in a catch-22 situation. If they speak of sexuality, they will be accused of giving vent to their repressed sexuality. And when they do not, they are accused of displaced sexuality.
2. Robert Goldman- Kama, Guilt and Burried Memories. The author led the English translation of the critical (Baroda) edition of the Ramayana. The article commences with an indirect attack on Wendy Doniger3. The obnoxious manner in which he has attacked the fundamental tenets of Hinduism is disturbing, not the least when such persons are involved in producing scholarly translations of the critical text of the Ramayana. Some quotes –
The evidence for the reality of transmigration that I have so far seen is entirely of the pathetic, unscientific, and childish testimony offered by the usual array of occultists, parapsychologists, and past lives therapists; certainly nothing that would engage the attention of a serious researcher. Now given the antiquity of the theory of karma and its vast diffusion over Asia with the spread of Buddhism it would seem likely that if there were such a thing, ample evidence for its validity would have accumulated over the millennia. Since no such evidence has so far been brought forward it seems unlikely that any ever will be and so we need no more exercise ourselves over the exact psychological mechanisms of karmically determined rebirths than over aerodynamics of Santa Clays sleigh (pg. 255-256).
One just has to replace the word karma with belief in immaculate conception of Mary and rebirth with resurrection of Christ and dish it to a Christian to see how offensive the tone of the article is. The authors analysis completely ignores the historical origins or the Karma doctrine, its widespread prevalence in the past and in the present outside the Hindu society, and the immense, sophisticated philosophical and theological literature written on these matters. Moreover, in order to prove his narrow viewpoint of Karma, the author has ignored the richness and the diversity of the various strands within the doctrine of Karma. The author appears to claim that he has read all the literally thousands of cases of recalled memories of previous lives. The remarks are quite devoid of any scholarly value4.
ones karma is heavily conditioned by ones interactions. Especially negative interactions, with powerful figures who, if propitiated, can actually protect one against the consequences of ones deeds. At the heart of the belief in karma, then, is pervasive fear, fear of having transgressed against someone, perhaps unconsciously in a period of ones life of which one has the most dim recollection, and the anxiety that if something is not done to make good that transgression, that person, or some representative of that person will exact some hideous and yet fitting and well deserved retribution. But it is most often the case that the person so feared is exactly the person- be it father, mother, guru, or other societally ordained authority figure- one is supposed to love the most and is taught to regard as himself brimming with love for the child, disciple, subordinate etc. To cope with the stress of the conflict thus generated between coerced affection and a very real anxiety, the individual may take refuge in mechanisms to distance the focus of anxiety from its real source..In this category we must place the concepts of dharma and, quintessentially karma (pg. 263- 264).
The author has debased even normal human relationships like child-parents in the Indian society. Were the shallow ideas of the author true, one would have seen them in the characters of prominent Hindus and Buddhists like Buddha, Shankaracharya, Gandhi etc.
Thus, according to the theory of karma, we live in a strange and morally blind universe in which our own actions may see their rewards in the lives of other people while we must be content ourselves with the fruits of the actions of still others who- we must take it on faith- were somehow identical with us. We cannot even expect to know exactly what it is we have done. Or can we? The fact is that a system such as that which Indian culture has evolved and supported under the rubric of karma cannot sustain itself entirely on theory and abstract belief. Like any other successful religious system, Hinduism has spawned a professional, if parasitic, class of entrepreneurs prepared to serve the spiritual needs of the faithful, and in doing so, earn their livelihood (pg. 271).
The above is a complete distortion of the doctrine of Karma. In fact, one of the fundamental tenets of the doctrine is that the fruit of ones Karma cannot be transferred to others, and any mention of the opposite in Hindu texts is from the viewpoint of laity, who do not comprehend the subtleties of Hindu philosophy. One however expected a better understanding from this Indologist.
Indian tradition has made a literary convention of representing of reality the father/guru/sage as a distant, irascible, and terrifying figure ready to explode with the most nightmarish curses for the most trivial provocation, and the persistence of this stereotype and the force that it continues to exert on the minds of many Indians is evidence that it is a representation of reality rather than a pure creation of the literary imagination. In other words, we are dealing here with a version of the oedipal conflict that suggests that the parricidal anger felt by most, if not all, small children (and the adults into which they grow) is not exclusively the result of fantasies of infantile aggressionSuch anger in a culture like Indias can only be turned inward. The same cultural and social climate that so strongly militates against open expression of hostility towards parents and parental figures tends however to reinforce this anger through the perpetuation of its original figures, the Brahman, the patel, the guru, the swami, the teacher, the government official, etc., each of whom plays upon the individuals profound sense of helplessness to express or even articulate his rage (pg. 273).
Such an emotional climate, widely pervasive in most cultures but heavily institutionalized and thinly disguised in traditional India, easily give rise to a situation where the victim of abuse, encouraged to revere, even worship his abuser, can react only by an identification with him coupled with severe anxiety lest he become aware of the deeply buried but powerful hatred he has aroused. In this blind circle of negative emotions a kind of shared paranoia is generated as a result of which people begin to view the natural misfortunes of their lives as richly deserved punishment for their past aggressions and genuine hostility towards their parents and those who have come to represent them (pg. 274).
If the above is correct, the Indian society must be totally dysfunctional! Nor does Goldmans political thesis explain the prevalence of child-parent hostility, acceptance of suppression by haves, the widespread slavery in the past and other aforementioned evils in societies wherein belief in the Karma and rebirth doctrines were an anathema. In short, the authors views lack complete empathy for Hindu-Buddhist traditions.
3. Wendy Doniger; When a Lingam is just a Good Cigar: Psychoanalysis and Hindu Sexual Fantasies. Some quotes –
Aldous Huxley once said that an intellectual was someone who had found something more interesting than sex; in Indology, an intellectual need not make that choice at all (pg. 279).
Is sex a euphemism for god? Or is god a euphemism for sex? Or both!.do individual members of different cultures experience their genitalia in ways similar enough (despite being differently mediated by different cultures) to inspire similar group fantasies (myths) of vulnerability and sexual mutilation? (pg. 288).
The question of the justice of childhood guilt is explicitly challenged in the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. In this story (Mbh. I.101), a sage named Mandavya is wrongly supposed to have participated in a robbery and is impaled on a stake.We may see masked homosexual symbolism in the impalement (a homosexual violation) and the cutting off of the long stake (a castration), though we should also notice what the Indian tradition makes of this episode: In a kind of reverse castration, Mandavya feels that he has gained something, has been given a stake that, however shortened, he still seems to regard as an extension of himself, a useful superpenis, as it were. The childhood guilt that inspired the episode of anal intercourse gives way to the fantasy of the large penis of the gown man (pg. 290-291).
Much of what Wendy says cannot be reproduced here, and this is merely a brief anthology of her mental repertoire of what is obscene and vulgar5. Or maybe I am in a state of denial, as she might quip! The article was originally published in 1993 and little did Wendy know that Bill Clinton would soon prove just the reverse, i.e., sometimes a cigar is just a good lingam. Anyways, the comments of this Czarina of Hindu studies in the USA shows the extremely murky depths to which the field of Indology has sunk in some American Universities.
4. Sarah Caldwell- The Bloodthirsty tongue and the self fed breast, homosexual fellatio fantasy in a south Indian ritual tradition. If the name of the article sounds offensive to the reader, just consider the fact that it won the Robert Stoller award. Caldwell is a respectable member of RISA (Religion in South Asia) division of the American Academy of Religion. In fact, she heads the committee on Hindu studies in that organization. Little wonder than year after year, most of the published studies and academic conferences at Harvard and other Universities deal with the same set of topics- Bride burning, Dowry, Sati, Wife-beating, Untouchables, Tantric Sex6. Many Hindus at these conferences have walked out in disgust at the deliberate/imbalanced (mis)portrayal of and a subtle hate-mongering against Hindus and Hinduism. With people like her representing Hinduism, can we expect any balanced portrayal of our religion? Some quotes from her article would reveal the general tenor of the same:
This essay demonstrates that in Kerala, symbolism of the fierce goddess [Kali] does not represent abreactions of the primal scene fantasies of a Kleinian phallic mother or introjection of the fathers penis; rather, we will show that themes of eroticism and aggression in the mythology are male transsexual fantasies reflecting intense preoedipal fixation on the mothers body and expressing conflicts over primary feminine identity (Pg. 339).
The essential rituals of the Bhagavati cult all point to the aggressive and fatal erotic drinking of the male by the female, the infamous orgy of blood sacrifice of male cocks at the Kodugallur Bhagavati temple; the male veliccappatus cutting of his head in a symbolic act of self castration. (Pg. 343).
Caldwell also quotes D. M. Wulffs perverse views on the imagery of Mother Kali:
[Kali] is herself, first of all, a phallic being, the mother with a penis, she stands triumphantly erect on Sivas body, sword raised, fingers pointed, and eyes and tongue protruding. At the same time, draped with severed heads and hands, she is the bloodied image of the castrating and menstruating (thus castrating) female (Page 343).
Recently, she has published a book titled – Oh Terrifying Mother: Sexuality, Violence and Worship of the Mother Kali (Oxford University Press. New Delhi/New York. 1999. ISBN 019564462X). I have not read the book and hope that it is not merely an amplification of the perverse views listed above. Caldwell continues7
In this type of analysis the phallic abilities of the goddess disguise castration anxieties ultimately directed toward the father as well as homosexual desire for the fathers penis. Following Freud, such analyses stress the father son polarity of the oedipal conflict as the central trauma seeking expression (Pg. 343). But as Alter and OFlaherty amply demonstrate, milk and breast-feeding are also symbolically transformed in the male imagination into semen and phallus..The ascetic male who retains the semen becomes like a pregnant female with breasts and swollen belly; the semen rises like cream to his head and produces extraordinary psychic powers. In fact the ascetic Siva contains in his body both male and female power, as his third eye clearly indicates. Not only are the fluids of milk and semen, symbolic equivalents, but the act of milking or breastfeeding becomes a symbolic equivalent to the draining of semen from the phallus in intercourse (Page 350).
Needless to say, Caldwell has used her wild imagination going haywire to turn the imagery of Siva on its head (reader should not interpret head in my sentence in a Caldwellesque manner!). The third eye of Lord Siva is said to be the eye of wisdom and knowlede in the Indian Tradition, and the three-eyed deity is said to know all the 3 realms (Earth, Heaven and Mid-region) and all the three periods of time (Past, Present and Future). Apparently, Caldwell was able to establish trusting relationships with Indian men in Kerala and was able to extract some confessions from them. One such 21 year old is quoted to the effect that homosexual encounters are rampant in the society of Kerala. Many more such confessions follow in the article, and sweeping conclusions are drawn8.
5. Alfred Collins and Prakash Desai – Selfhood in the Indian context. Some quotes –
When the Upanishads interiorized the source of good in the absolute atman, which put an end to alternation, there must have been a sense of tremendous psychic victory. It must have seemed as if nothing was needed from outside, and the danger of falling periodically away from the state of inner fullness was obviated once and for all. I-ness could be experienced free from the constant need to repair and renewal. As the Hindu philosopher Sankara is supposed to have said a thousand years later, Behold I! Obeisance to Me who need nothing . (pg.384-385)
A clear case of a reductionist analysis by an outsider who is inexperienced in this highly experiential field. One would like to know how much direct experience with Yoga and other spiritual techniques these venerable authors have. When Freudian categories are now known to be inadequate to explain even our mundane existence, it is surprising that die hard proponents of this technique should apply it to spirituality.
Part VI: Deals with some case studies.
Afterword – By Jeffrey Kripal.
Not revealing his own religious affiliations, Kripal, not surprisingly, gives the following pathetic disclaimer at the end of the book in the Afterword:
Pg. 444: “Freud, after all, believed that censorship, although rooted in the needs of the civilization and society, was also something internal to the human psyche, that the human mind itself censors itself..Little wonder then, that Hindus sometimes find the conclusions of psychoanalysis so offensive to their own self-perceptions and cultural understandings; given the psychoanalytical attempt to crack the codes of the social and intra-psychic censors and its explicit desire to reveal secrets and uncover hidden truths, it would be very surprising indeed if they reacted in any other way. In short, psychoanalysis is a method that expects to be rejected. Psychoanalysis, then, goes well beyond the anthropologist’s field study and the Sanskritist’s text and the historian of religions’ phenomenological study to answer questions that no interview, text, or phenomenological study is willing to ask, much less answer”.
The disclaimer was indeed necessary, because, as the above quotes show, the conclusions and analysis of the authors was extremely strained. Not only have they employed a discredited methodology, they have vented their own prejudices against India and Hinduism. Even the most loving relationships, such as that between a mother and her child, have been debased and trivialized in comparison to that between a western mother and her child. That such racist biases should continue in Indology in the West even now, really sickens one heart. And when these mainstream scholars spew such learned insights on the faith of us Pagans to the non-discerning reader, is it surprising that we should see documents like the Baptist Pamphlet and hear the rants of Pat Robertson at regular intervals? And need such Indian intellectuals like T. G. Vaidyanathan give publicity to such reprehensible opinions?
Such shallow and dishonest texts promote the mis-portrayal of Hinduism in particular, and of India in general, in International Academia, and are only one part of a widespread malaise. Readers who are interested in knowing more about this phenomenon are suggested to read the related articles at http://www.infinityfoundation.com/ECITeducationframeset.htm and join the IndicTraditions discussion list to express their own thoughts.
- The book is a revised version of a PhD. thesis he submitted that he submitted to the University of Chicago. Swami Tyagananda has shown how Kripal has deliberately mistranslated the Bengali sources, invented non-existent quotes and indulged in other acts of academic dishonesty to prove his thesis. It is said that Kripal is a born again Catholic, who had earlier fled from his Benedictine monastery when some fellow monks made sexual advances at him. Swami Tyaganandas critique is available on-line athttp://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/s_rv/s_rv_tyaga_kali1_frameset.htm
2. The fact thatKalis Child has been hailed by some scholars of Hinduism in the United States shows that there is a pervasive lack of understanding of the religion here, and that nepotism and connections are all that matter if a scholar wishes to be a rising star. The book has its forward written by Wendy Doniger, the sleazy Czarina of Indian studies in American academia. It has been acclaimed by Professor John Stratton Hawley of the Columbia University as a landmark book after which things will never be the same. This background is essential to understand the nature of the compilation that the book under review is.
3. This might just be to camouflage the fact that between her and him, they control the resources of the South Asian Religion section of the American Academy of Religion to a considerable extent. It is said that the two are cousins and are from the same High School in New York.
4. For an elementary Hindu perspective on the relative merits and demerits of the Hindu-Buddhist doctrine of Karma/Rebirth on one hand and the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Resurrection, see my essay Transmigration or Resurrection? A Hindu Perspective available online at http://www.hinduweb.org/home/dharma_and_philosophy/vvh/vvhtrans.html
5. Some of her other titillating titles include: Tales of Sex and Violence (reviewed by Michael Witzel at http://listserv.liv.ac.uk/cgi-shl/WA.EXE?A2=ind9511&L=indology&P=R1031);
Carnal Knowledge; The Bedtrick- Tales of Sex and Masquerade; Sexual Doubles and Sexual Masquerades. So sexplicit are some of these writings that they are classified under the subject heading of sex in the electronic catalogs of many US libraries. One can then only wonder the extent of a particular slant in her writings on Indic texts. The substandard quality of her translation of Manusmrti has been discussed by Michael Witzel at
and of her anthology from the Rigveda at
6. Her homepage at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/libraries/indiv/area/idsas/CALDWELL,Sarah.htm lists some of her research interests as sexuality.child abuse charismatic Hindu and Buddhist teachers and sexual abuse of disciples.
7. The OFlaherty in one of the quotes is none other than Wendy Doniger.
8. It is said that Sarah Caldwell was involved in research on Swami Muktananda in the past, but left his Ashram alleging sexual abuse. This might not be true, but in general, there have been numerous cases of people with an axe to grind against Hinduism, trying to get a hold on the academic portrayal of the same. Rajiv Malhotra has studied this phenomenon in American Academia at
A relevant quote:
It never ceases to amaze me that white females, after wandering around with holy men for many years, finally claim abuse-hood status and then make Hindu bashing a lifelong importance. As long as they receive self-importance, which they were presumably deprived of in their original tradition, all goes well. But once these women get old and are replaced by a batch of fresh recruits, they cry abuse. One reads that the same is true of so many office romances in the US, the once cute boss is later reconfigured as an abuser, effective ab initio.
For a general discussion of the bias against Hinduism in US Academia, the following article is also useful:
copyright 2001 by Vishal Agarwal