Kali’s Child: Psychological And Hermeneutical Problems
by Professor Somnath Bhattacharyya
It was about two years back that some friends brought to my notice two books by a common author, Jeffery J. Kripal. The interesting fact about the first book, Vishnu on Freud’s Desk, which purported to be a reader in psychoanalysis and Hinduism, was that its editors themselves were not trained psychoanalysts. The second book, Kali’s Child (K.C.), which had Dr. Kripal as its sole author was remarkable for its use of numerous psychoanalytic categories and speculations in a rather “wild” fashion. Being personally familiar with the primary sources cited in the text, and having also been a student of Indian religion and philosophy, I was further struck by the numerous irregular and insinuating translations as well as factual misrepresentations and speculative innuendo, some of which – I learnt later – were pointed out by Swami Tyagananda in a (then unpublished) paper available on the internet.
I have been surprised to learn about the attention that this book and its author have been able to attract to themselves. I was equally surprised to read about many of the claims advanced by Dr. Kripal in the two articles published by the Harvard Divinity School in its Winter – 2001 Bulletin, and posted on its website. One of these papers (Textuality etc.) has now been published by Evam, albeit (as I shall point out later) with some very interesting alterations.
I had occasion to participate in the debate through my rejoinder published in the Spring, 2001 issue of the Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (HDSB Vol. 30, No.1). In this write-up I wish to focus on these two versions of Kripal’s article (Textuality etc. and the Evam article) and some related material, primarily as a psychoanalyst who has been in practice for over 30 years in Calcutta besides being professionally involved in teaching psychology at the Univerisity of Calcutta.
In his HDS Bulletin rejoinder Kripal had taken Tyagananda to task for being unfamiliar with current psychoanalytic thought, queer studies and hermeneutical practice. Tyagananda of course is not a psychoanalyst and has correctly refrained from attempting a psychoanalytic critique of Kripal’s work though many of his observations, including that on the possible relationship between the erotic and the spiritual, are deeply insightful. Kripal, on the other hand has been inexplicably silent about the noted psychoanalytic writer Alan Roland’s brief but representative criticism of his work.1
Roland has noted Kripal’s penchant for facile speculative decoding and turning these into adamant conviction. He thus persists in insisting that Ramakrishna “was very likely sexually abused by any number of actors who had power over him”, that his trance states were related to such abuse, “that the direction of the saint’s desire [was] always directed towards males (deities or male disciples)”, that “when a text uses sexual language it often, if not always, reflects real physiological and psychological analogues” and that the materials of his thesis are “by their very nature ‘offensive’ “. Let us briefly examine some of these issues.
Some Psychoanalytic Considerations:
Kripal insists that village people must have abused Ramakrishna presumably because he had states of absorption right from his childhood. But Ramakrishna’s own descriptions of his childhood suggests quite the contrary, e.g. – “During my younger days the men and women of Kamarpukur were equally fond of me. No one distrusted me. Everybody took me in as one of the family” (GSR 239-240; KA 5.45)2
He cites a “bedroom scene” with Mathur and his wife to suggest Ramakrishna’s abuse by Mathur. Ramakrishna’s memory of this is far from being anything suggestive of abuse. “I used to sleep in the same room with Mathur and his wife. They took care of me as if I were their own child.” (GSR 390; KA 4.72) Moreover his recollections about Mathur’s devoted service for fourteen years, with unfailing eagerness to meet his necessities and demands, are all very positive and happy.
Having been taken to a brothel against one’s will can be termed as abusive3; but Ramakrishna was an adult – with an independent and often willful thinking – who was taken to the brothel only without his knowledge and not by force. Moreover, even if his samadhi in this situation is taken to be a dissociative trance it in no way explains his going into samadhi, scores of times every day, under happy and non-threatening conditions, and emergence therefrom with profound insights.
It is easy to talk loosely with Masson about Ramakrishna’s “transvestite activities”, but dressing up in a feminine dress as a part of a legitimate and culturally accepted sadhana for a short period of time does not amount to transvestism. Ramakrishna after all also dressed like a Shakta and a Vaishnava during his Shakti and Vaishnava sadhana days and like a Muslim during his Islam sadhana – and these were male attires – only to try and make his identification with these cults complete (GM 299). Moreover, contrary to Kripal’s thesis, most transvestites are heterosexual (DSM-IV).
Further, suggestions about his secondary trans-sexuality (KC xxi) are also all too facile. The American Psychiatric Association (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV) defines trans-sexuality as a strong and persistent cross-gender identification, and not merely a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex. It is a disorder always involving distress to the person, with a feeling of estrangement from the body and a felt need to alter the appearance of the body. If Ramakrishna sometimes talked about his feminity he was also clear about what he meant by it – “Formerly I too used to see many visions, but now in my ecstatic state I don’t see so many. I am gradually getting over my feminine nature; I feel nowadays more like a man. Therefore I control my emotions; I don’t manifest it outwardly so much. The younger Naren has the nature of a man. Therefore in meditation his mind completely merges in the Ideal. He does not show emotion. Nityagopal has a feminine nature. Therefore while he is in a spiritual mood his body becomes distorted and twisted; it becomes flushed.”(GSR 798; KA 4.214)
In the Kathamrita when M. finds Ramakrishna pacing like a lion (KA 1.36, GSR 92), when we find him displaying “leonine strength” at dance (GM 801), or engaging in persuasive conversation with well known intellectuals, scholars, and social leaders of his days like Keshab Sen, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Krishnadas Pal and Iswarachandra Vidyasagar, asserting his will viv-a-vis his teachers (like the Bhairavi and Tota Puri), preaching to varied audiences and closely guiding his disciples, we are actually witnessing what would be classified as a masculine role not only in the then Bengal, but also in the present day USA. In the Kathamrita and related texts, in fact, we also find Ramakrishna playing multiple roles across genders and ages with elan. Women could evidently relate to him as one of their own group (GM 394-98) as much as young boys and elderly men. This is especially significant at a time when social identities were largely compartmentalized. Psychologically speaking, all humans have the potential for dual gender identification4 (social influences play a major role in defining our gender stereotypes), and Ramakrishna clearly had both these aspects well developed and harmonized.
Unfortunately, to carry through this thesis of feminine identification Kripal resorts to erroneous documentation. Thus a whole section is devoted to bhagavatir tanu or “goddess body” that Ramakrishna is supposed to have possessed. The actual Kathamrita term however is bhaagavati tanu which simply means “divine body”, and has no engendered connotation. (The term is actually a Sanskrit term, and grammatical and physiological genders don’t always go together in Sanskrit. Eg. the term daara, meaning wife, is masculine). Bhagavatir and Bhaagavati are two different words, and a person who reads the one for the other only reveals his lack of knowledge for that language.5 Besides, Ramakrishna specifically identifies this bhaagavati tanu with the causal body, “by means of which one enjoys the bliss of God and holds communion with him”, and notes its distinction from the gross physical body and the subtle body (or the mental complex) [GSR 902; KA 1.250]. To assign a physical or even psychological sex to this category then is a reductive strategy, which robs the analyst of the possibility of deeper insight into human nature and its possibilities. Similarly, Ramakrishna’s wearing silken clothes (garader kapar) during puja (GSR 544; KA 4.175) is taken to mean feminine dress (KC 92, 103-4) simply because Kripal doesn’t know that male priests in Bengal routinely wear silken clothes.6
Homoeroticism and Misogyny?
To take Ramakrishna’s talk about his care, eager concern, and longing for his young male disciples or his affectionately feeding and touching them as evidence of homosexuality or even homoeroticism again suggests a misconceived line of thinking. For that matter, every father’s touching and caressing his son is “homoerotic” at a dynamic interpretative level, but psychoanalysts know better than that. Moreover, the fact that an Indian guru should be concerned and caring toward his disciples and devotees is the norm rather than exception, and no conflict is known to accompany such behaviour (see also Roland, 1997).
It is worth remembering that the Kathamrita is a male dominated record simply because its recorder was a male and the social segregation of men and women in nineteenth century Bengal made it nearly impossible for him to be present during Ramakrishna’s meetings with the women devotees. We thus often find Ramakrishna being taken to the inner quarters of the devotees’ houses but no record of the conversations that transpire there.
But what do we notice about Ramakrishna’s behaviour on the few occasions that women actually appear on the Kathamrita scene – we find him playing with a small girl and singing for her (GSR 490; KA 4.105), tenderly asking ladies to refrain from fasting while visiting him and offering them food (GSR 432; KA 5.122), making anxious enquiries about and arranging to console a bereaved mother (GSR 973-4; KA 2.243) and visiting a bereaved widow’s house – also to console her (GSR 822-4;KA 3.206-8). He even tenderly asks his disciples to refrain from driving out the mad woman with a lover’s attitude towards him (an attitude which Kripal is confident Ramakrishna hated) (GSR 952; KA 3.263).
Numerous other records of his interactions with his women disciples of all ages and classes (which are studiously ignored by Kripal) reveal his dealings with them to be as affectionate and close as were his dealings with his male disciples.
It is all too easy to play around with the word kamini and say that Ramakrishna hated women ( or for that matter “women as lovers”) and that when he spoke of sexual abstinence he only had heterosexuality in mind. As a matter of fact, in the Kathamrita we find Ramakrishna repeatedly talking about indriya sukha (sense pleasures), deha sukha (bodily pleasures), vishaya sukha (object gratification), kama (lust in general), and bhoga(enjoyment) as impediments to spiritual growth. All these terms stand for the pleasure principle and are indicative of the erotic in a much broader (Freudian) sense than just heterosexuality. Of course, we don’t have any specific comment from Ramakrishna about homosexuality simply because homosexuality as a construct was not current in Bengal of Ramakrishna’s times.
Ramakrishna’s lifelong love and devotion for the Goddess Kali also clearly does not fit into Kripal’s homoerotic thesis.7 So, he must somehow include a castration story to get over this problem (and that would make things appear more “psychoanalytical” too!). His attempt to do so by trying to prove that the banana offered during a goat sacrifice is actually the goat’s penis is ludicrous.8 Kripal would also do well to remember that the female is not a castrated male. Equally comical are his attempts to weave in some anal themes. Unfortunately, he claims to be a historian of religion, and not a novelist – and if he got angry responses he surely has invited them.
Some Empirical Issues:
The available empirical evidence also does not support Kripal’s agenda –
- In Kripal’s own backyard, sociologist Andrew Greely of University of Chicago’s National Opinions Research Council (NORC) tested people who had profoundly mystical experiences, such as being bathed in white light. When these persons were subjected to standard tests measuring psychological well being, the mystics scored at the top. University of Chicago psychologist Norman Bradburn, who developed the test, said that no other factor had ever been found to correlate so highly with psychological balance as did mystical experience. (Greely 7-9)
- In a landmark US national poll reported in the New York Times Magazine of Jan 16, 1975, Greely and William McReady found that people with “mystical” experiences had happy and positive recollections of their childhood. Also, even the small group of subjects who reported “mystical” events occasioned by orgasm (the sample was from the general population and did not specifically study celibates or people with formal spiritual persuasions) found the experience categorically different from orgasmic pleasure and much more powerful.
- In an important study on the psychological effects of meditation, using subjects at various stages of Buddhist enlightenment the following results were reported:
Interestingly, the initially enlightened subjects displayed evidence of normal conflicts around issues such as dependency, sexuality, and aggression. However, they showed remarkably little defensiveness and reactivity to these conflicts. In other words, they accepted and were unperturbed by their neuroses.
Those few meditators at the third stage of enlightenment gave reports that were unique … they showed no evidence of drive conflicts and appeared free of psychological conflicts usually considered an inescapable part of human existence. This finding is consistent with classic claims that psychological suffering can be dramatically reduced in advanced stages of meditation. (Walsh and Vaughan 61-62).
Incidentally, Ramakrishna’s samadhi states were accompanied by very profound inward withdrawal of consciousness, and remarkable physiological changes, consistent with the highest stages of meditative absorption as documented in Hindu Tantra and Yoga as well as Buddhist literature. Thus the famous physician Mahendarlal Sarkar himself examined and found Ramakrishna without heartbeat and corneal reflexes during samadhi. (GM-801). These physiological changes (clinically taken as signs of death) – and these were not metaphorical changes – are not known to occur in a dissociative trance.
- Medard Boss, the influential Swiss existential psychotherapist, who was analyzed by Sigmund Freud and had trained with such prominent psychoanalysts as Bleuler, Ernest Jones, Karen Horney, Otto Fenichel, Hans Sachs and Wilhelm Reich, had this to say about the holy men he met on his lecture-visit to India:
there were the exalted figures of the sages and holy men themselves, each one of them a living example of the possibility of human growth and maturity and of the attainment of an imperturbable inner peace, a joyous freedom from guilt, and a purified, selfless goodness and calmness…. No matter how carefully I observe the waking lives of the holy men, no matter how ready they were to tell me about their dreams, I could not detect in the best of them a trace of a selfish action or any kind of a repressed or consciously concealed shadow life. (Boss 187-88)
- It is worth noting that although we commonly speak of a “sex drive”, sex does not fit the usual conception of drive as a felt need that gets stronger and stronger until it is satisfied. Indeed sexual abstinence probably decreases sexual motivation over the long run (Masters and Johnson). Also there is no evidence that, despite myths to the contrary, abstinence from sexual activity is detrimental to a person’s health (Katchadourian and Lunde)
Some Hermeneutical Issues:
Very interestingly, Kripal, in his Evam version of the Textuality paper, omits a good bit of his argument (which does appear impressive to the reader unfamiliar with the relevent texts) about hermeneutical and philological issues that he had raised at Harvard. I wonder why –
– is he withdrawing these arguments ? (He did thank me for some philological insights, but knowing the line of Kripal’s thinking, I would not like to flatter myself with this reason.)
– wasn’t enough space available in Evam? I don’t think so. Having allowed all his polemics I am sure the editors wouldn’t have grudged him a few hundred words more.
– or, are some things safely spoken only before American audiences?
In the footnote9 I reproduce much of the omitted portion, and I suggest readers read it before reading the critique that I had presented in the Harvard Bulletin. To my mind this omitted portion is very significant because – i) the Kathamrita passage and the examples were selected by Kripal himself and they amply illustrate the basic problem in his handling of texts – in their translation and interpretation. ii) I can assure Kripal and the readers that the same can be shown in virtually any selected potion of his book. It is not just a matter of a “few dozen”, “easily correctable” translation errors. Neither is it simply a question of textual relativism (based on multivalent use of language), as any conscientious hermeneut (I shall treat Gadamer later) can avow.
Let me first consider the sample hermeneutical passage (GSR 346) –
Kiroop prem correctly translated should read “what form [sort] of love” and not “how does [this] love [come about]”. This may not appear to significantly alter the interpretation, but consider this – faithfully following Nikhilananda, Kripal translates the term matribhava as attitude of the mother and (as we see next ) quickly advances to draw sexual connotations. In actual fact Ramakrishna himself defines matri-bhava as “the attitude of the Child” on the part of the aspirant “O God, Thou art my Mother and I am thy child” (GSR 701; KA 5.141).
Kripal is convinced that this passage has a “same sex-structure” and talks about “a human male taking on a feminine identity in order to erotically engage a male deity or disciple”. He conveniently forgets that the basic structure of the metaphor is heterosexual; Ramakrishna never says that this practice is applicable only to men [in fact the Kathamrita records in detail how Ramakrishna advises two young ladies in the worship of Siva (GSR 431-432; KA 5.121-2), and the “state of the Child” in Ramakrishna’s discourse lacks engendered connotations. Moreover, the entire metaphor is to illustrate the abstract love for Sacchidananda, a neuter entity.
Kripal feels that the passage is “hyper-sexualized10 and demands a sexual reading”, what with hair pores becoming “great vaginas”! To such a simplistic reading Ramakrishna would probably have said (as he did to the celebrated writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee) – “Analogy is one sided. You are a pundit, haven’t you read logic? Suppose you say that a man is as terrible as a tiger. That doesn’t mean that he has a fearful tail or a tiger’s pot face” (GSR 669;KA 5.199).
Predictably, snug in this viewpoint, Kripal can now assert that the Self is “male” and “penetrating” and ramana can mean nothing but sexual intercourse (“logistic difficulties” notwithstanding) even when the text is clear that it is atmar sahit ramana – sport with one’s own Self. [Incidentally, ramana is derived from the root ram which means (interpersonal) interaction and can denote pleasure, not invariably (and not necessarily) orgastic pleasure. It also is a common Indian name, eg: the great monastic sage, Ramana Maharshi]
He can also be certain that yoni cannot mean family lineage even when the context is about Sita – a proud queen who was forced to live in humble and trying conditions. Also Purusha and Prakriti must be simply “man” and “woman” even in a metaphorical reference to the Absolute and to God.
Inter-textuality also calls for giving adequate weightage to intertextual evidence. For example: take the common trope sava yoni matriyoni of looking upon all women as Mother. Kripal is convinced that this needs to be translated as “all vaginas are mother’s vagina”, and that a fully sexualized reading is in order because Nikhilananda omits this phrase in his translation. Let’s consider the three other sentences where Ramakrishna used the term matriyoni. Firstly, he talks about his ritual worship of a sixteen year old maiden as Mother (matribhave), “with the attitude of the child” and adds – “I saw (her) breasts (as) Mother’s breasts (matristana), womb (as) mother’s womb (matriyoni)” (KA 5.141). Of course, the breast and the womb are universally acknowledged symbols of motherhood. In another passage Ramakrishna himself glosses the meaning – “Mine is matriyoni. I look upon all women as Mother”(KA 2.228, GSR p.958, also see KA 4.284, GSR 934). Compare this with Ramakrishna’s “Mine is matribhava” (KA 4.80, GSR 408). Matriyoni and matribhava are clearly synonymous. Now, as I discuss later, this shakta worship of women as Mother aims at helping the aspirants transcend their sexual impulses11 and reducing transcendence to sexuality or even eroticism denies the very significance of this ritual. Moreover, talk of “the breast” and “the womb” immediately brings up associations of infantile states of symbiotic fusion. But this is misinformed thinking. As Meissner points out –
it is clear that the sense of fusion with the object in mystical states is not the same as the regressive fusion to primary narcissistic union that might occur in states of psychotic regression. Rather, authentic mystical experience (as distinguished from pseudo-mystical or psychotic experience) not only does not undermine or destroy identity, but in fact has a powerful capacity to stabilize, sustain and enrich identity. (151)
This can be clearly verified if one watches the two individuals (the mystic and the pseudo-mystic or psychotic) in a longitudinal study.
Kripal is troubled by Ramakrishna’s use of the terms yoni and lingam. Certainly, when Ramakrishna speaks about worshipping his own lingam nobody, including Nikhilananda, has any doubt about the meaning of the term. But, then, Ramakrishna explicitly uses it as a symbol (and this is the core lexical meaning of the term lingam) of Siva (GSR 491; KA 4.106), and he is categorical about the meaning of the Siva puja as worship of the symbol of fatherhood and motherhood so that one may not be born into the world again (GSR 603-4; KA 2.155)
Again his ritual worship of the lingams of small boys cannot be taken to suggest a homoerotic proclivity for the Kathamrita tells us of his ritual worship of young girls (GSR 231;KA 2.49) as symbols of the divine Mother and his worship of the female genital tract (Kulagara) as a part of a legitimate and public tantric ritual is recorded by his biographer (LP-206;GM- 227). If Kripal is bothered about the moral implications of such worship then he clearly needs to associate with the traditions that place a high moral value on this ritual.
Ramakrishna’s visions about the rising of Kundalini shakti (GSR 830;KA 4.238; GSR 934; KA 4.282 etc.) is almost a textbook description of the same as described in Woodroffe’s translation of the Shat-chakra bheda (235) – the Jivatman identified with Kundalini rising and penetrating drooping lotuses12 representing the different chakras. That these lotuses have their own devatas and devis symbolized by lingams and yonis is a well-known fact. Similarly the ovoid or arcuate shape (yonirupa) is a standard symbol of shakti – and each chakra is a specific centre of Power with its own energies. Moreover, Ramakrishna specifically calls this vision as “sport of the Self” (GSR 744; KA 3.138). Passing this vision off as cunnilingus (simply because the terms jihva, yoni-rupa and ramana happen to be together), besides confusing the sign for the significate13, provides no explanation to the richness, the textbook nature and the deep transforming power of the vision. Again, to suggest that terms like brahmayoni (cosmic source) have physiologically sexual correlates is absurd.14
Consider two more translations that Kripal again tries to justify:
Tribhanga – Kripal is convinced that this posture is erotic because Ramakrishna ascribed it to prema of Radha, and the relationship between Radha and Krishna is nothing but erotic in Vaishnava poetry!15 But, as he himself notes subsequently, for orthodox Vaishnavas prema (the transcendent love) and kama (sexual desire) are qualitatively different realities (the former being a gift of Krishna’s grace and the latter a mere instinct). Ramakrishna is also very categorical – “As the tiger devours other animals, so does the ‘tiger of zeal for the Lord’ eat up lust, anger and the other passions. The gopis of Vrindavan had that state of mind because of their zeal for Krishna,” (GSR 206; KA 2.32) “The gopis were free from lust” (GSR 244;KA5.52). Even the sahajiya position calls for “transforming” kama to prema and reducing the latter to the former is only as easy as regaining milk from curd. Ramakrishna himself was unequivocally critical of sects, which enjoyed sensuous pleasures in the name of religion (GSR 571; KA 2.142 etc.). In fact, his repeated reminders to male audiences about the strict moral code for spiritual aspirants, which are cited as evidences of misogyny, are nothing but warnings against the “both-and” reading that Kripal wishes to employ.
Consider again Kripal’s conviction that the term syala (or sala) is far stronger than “rascal” and is better translated as “son of a bitch” (interestingly, Kripal avoids mentioning this translation in Evam). He is unaware that the terms syala literally means “brother-in-law” and is used by all categories of people to refer (quite respectfully) to their brothers-in-law, and also, fondly, their friends. [Of course, it is also used as an exasperative exclamation or as a term of mild reproach (again by all types of people)]. The problem gets further complicated when he uses this term (as also other similar translations) to:
- Justify a sexual reading
- Suggest that Ramakrishna’s speech was vulgar or offensive He is unaware that numerous Bengali scholars have commented on the beauty of Ramakrishna’s language in terms of langue and langage, as well as parole.16
To reiterate such a stand as “mutually enlightening translation” or a “result of thinking with American categories”17 is also indefensible.
The basic problems then of this work arise from rather loose handling of textual material and inter-textual evidence along with an equally “wild” deployment of psychoanalytic categories.
The problem of textual mishandling is particularly grave because the author’s primary claim is that he is a historian of religions. Large scale distortions of source material in an ill attempted effort at establishing a thesis is certainly not academically acceptable.18 Citing fringe works and material of equally dubious value doesn’t help in salvaging the case. For example, Sumit Sarkar’s paper on the Kathamrita (in Kripal’s opinion the best work on Kathamrita) is available only for private circulation and Sarkar is very clear about the bias of his Brahmo background and his lack of psychoanalytic scholarship (2&6). Parama Roy acknowledges (albeit in an obscure endnote) that her use of the terms heterosexuality, homosexuality and transsexuality is catachrestic (195). Sil, whom Kripal does not forget to thank for his “own brand of Bengali mischievousness”(KC xviii), termed Kripal’s presentation “plain shit” in a prominent review in 1997, and the very next year was doing a volte face suggesting that this was the best scholarly work on Ramakrishna (Sil 1998); scholarship indeed! The fact that hundreds of very obvious errors of serious import to the thesis went undetected by dissertation reviewers and the prize-awarding committees of the AAR doesn’t quite speak up well for the American Religious Studies either. After all theories – colonial, post colonial, queer or otherwise are only as good as the material they wish to interpret.
Moreover, since Kripal is keen on playing identity politics, let me remind him that critics of his methodolgy include noted academics like Huston Smith,19 Alan Roland and Gerald Larson among others; and they are neither Hindus nor Indians. Even his Chicago University colleague, Hugh Urban, who could not but review his book favourably, noted the problems of “sensationalism”, “misconception of tantra”, and “lack of attention to social and historical context”.
Kripal claims that his “hermeneutical” strategy is inspired by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work Truth and Method. On Gadamer I can do no better than quote the noted Indologist Fritz Staal:
My second example illustrates an obscure philosopher (Gadamer) who, however charitably we analyze his expressions, does not seem to yield sense…..
We shall return to the chief notion of hermeneutical analysis : Verstehen, for which “understanding” is too general a translation and “empathy”, too narrow. According to Gadamer Verstehen Calvinism is “to be like a Calvinist”. He adds that this concept does not exist in the natural sciences…. Gadamer also stresses that Verstehen includes, but science excludes “intuition”, “emotion”, or “feeling”, which, as a matter of fact, play an important role in the discovery or invention of scientific theories although they are not part of the theories themselves. But Gadamar wishes to make the difference between the Sciences and humanities as large as possible and in so doing does not hesitate to place the humanities in a light that must seem disturbing to their best practitioners. For on this account, Verstehen as applied to a text is arbitrary : “Normative concepts such as the author’s intention or the original reader’s understanding represent infact nothing but empty slots, which may be filled with Verstehen as the occasion arises” (Gadamer, H.-G., 1965, Wahrheit und Methode, Tubingen : 373)
If Verstehen can put meaning in all openings, like putty, we may interpret Gadamer according to our wish. He seems to intend this, for “language is speculative… in as far as the finite possibilities of the word are correlated to the intended sense as a trend toward infinity” (page 444). This means, as is seen from the context, that an expression of language does not mean what it says, but points to an infinity of things unsaid. Gadamer restricts this poly-interpretability again in what must be proclaimed the star sentence of his work, “in propositions, the meaning horizon of what is actually to be said is concealed with systematic exactitude”(ibid). This means that a sentence always conveys the opposite of what it says.
Such a scenario brings to mind Aristotle’s characterization of the principle of non-contradiction as a principle with which one cannot disagree without accepting it (Metaphysica ). Either one disagrees with what Gadamer says, in which case one must agree with what he means; or one agrees with what he says by disagreeing with its meaning. One must in all cases agree and disagree, and Gadamer’s originality lies in this combination. He has adopted from the positivist-empiricist tradition its most monumental error – the caricature of the scientific method – and failed to heed its most valuable contribution – the critique of meaninglessness. And this philosophy aims at instructing us about interpretation!
I quote Staal not because he shows up Gadamer in rather poor light (though the criticism is spot on) but because he provides some insights into Kripal’s own line of thinking. For one thing it explains to some extent the circularities of logic and internal contradictions strewn in the text of Kali’s Child, as also the self contradictory statements that Kripal makes. Evidently, he is not supposed to mean what he says and not say what he means! Secondly, Kripal seems to construe Gadamer’s “horizon of meaning” as licence to distort texts. Unfortunately, I doubt if Gadamer thought of it that way.
On Comparative Critical Studies
Kripal tells us that his is the standard methodology of advanced historico-critical studies as practised in the American Academy. I seriously doubt it. Do the Jesus Seminar scholars take Jesus’ talk about his return to “unite with his followers” or Paul’s supreme desire to know Christ and be united with him (be “in Christ”) as mutual “homosexual entry”? Is Jesus pathologized simply because people said “He’s gone mad” and Jesus’ parents were concerned; and the Pharisees affirmed “He has Beelzebul in him”(Mark 3:21)? Does Jesus’ foot function as a sexual object – “the sinful foot of God” – when “a woman with a bad name in town” anoints it and covers it with kisses (Luke 7:38)? And When Jesus sits down and dines with prostitutes and sinners (Matt 9:10) is the “intercourse” sexual? When Jesus proclaims that it would be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgement than for the city that will not receive his disciples is he taken to be projecting his own sexual perversions and psychotic delusions of grandeur? Or, when Johann Tauler, the 14th century German mystic, writes “one who would know much about these (spiritual) matters would often have to keep to his bed, for his bodily frame could not support this”, is this taken as evidence of massive sexual trauma? Do Kripal’s colleagues in the American Academy take the Christian distinction between agape and eros simply as “so much theological talk”; and the early Christian “love-feasts” (that’s where the concept of agape originated) as plain “sexual orgies” of “erotic communities”? This is precisely how Kripal has argued throughout Kali’s Child. It was with good reason then that Huston Smith wrote that Kripal ought to have written about homosexual eroticism in Christian mysticism before writing Kali’s Child (op cit).
Sex, Love, and the Erotic
In Kali’s Child Kripal defines the term erotic as an experience containing “both sexual and sacred components”, “a dialectical term refusing to separate the sexual and the mystical”(KC 23). In Evam he clarifies that by “homoerotic” he refers “to the structure or direction of the saint’s desire, always towards males (deities or disciples)”. This definition, I would like to point out, is problematic. Conventional usage associates sexuality in all its diverse aspects,but hardly anything spiritual, with the term erotic (unless it is suitably qualified); and Kripal uses the term in very conventional ways ( despite his unconventional definition). He also confuses the gender structure of character, and linguistic genders with sexual function. The vocabulary of Kripal’s “desire” is also very problematic, as has been shown by Tyagananda. Kripal wishes to have his readers believe that anxious longing (vyakulata), charismatic attraction (tana), and associative reminder (uddipana) among other terms, and also of course Ramakrishna’s love for his male disciples, all carry sexual meanings, the contextual structure not withstanding. Now, besides the textual problems documented by Tyagananda, some very real psychological issues are also at stake here –
Firstly, Freud’s conception of love as “aim-inhibited sex” stands repudiated at present on empirical grounds. Love and sex are not synonymous. There can be love without sex and vice versa. In his pioneering studies on love in the 1970s Zick Rubin identified attachment, caring and intimacy as the key attitudes characterizing love. He also noted that all of these may be found in romantic love as well as ordinary friendships. Erich Fromm, in his celebrated work The Art of Loving explicitly distinguishes erotic love from four other forms of love, viz., brotherly love, motherly love, self love and love of God. The last, while sharing features typical of the others still has its own distinct identity.20 Thus when Kripal summarily characterizes all these different shades of love as erotic he commits what may be termed a “category error”.
What about Kripal’s conflation of the sacred and the sexual? Well, sacralization of the mundane, including sexual symbols and activities (the sanctity of marriage and consummation are typical examples) is the very basis of religious cultus and ritual. So, I fail to see the point in Kripal insisting on sexual themes being found in the scriptural texts (Hindu as well as others). Of course, they are there, and quite openly so (one need not imagine prudish cover-ups and dig out non-existent texts). But to stand this sacralization on the head and sexualize the sacred is not as easy as Kripal imagines. The Hindu categories of dharma and moksha (which stand for the religious) are distinct from kama or sexuality as is the religious a priori posited by Schleirmacher. The experience of the sacred involves perceptions of ultimacy and transcendence, again distinct from the sexual experience (even the sexual motifs in the Hindu myths have strong transcendental underpinnings, much as writers like Wendy Doniger would like to wish them away). Most importantly, when a religious celibate like Ramakrishna makes this distinction he needs to be taken seriously, unless one has genuine (and not speculative) evidence to the contrary. Ramakrishna’s own experience as recorded in the Kathamrita bears eloquent testimony to the validity of this distinction. As we have mentioned earlier, physiologically speaking, Ramakrishna’s samadhi is of an order distinctly different from anything we know as sexual. Ramakrishna never denied his sexuality or its biological roots (GM 390). Therefore, when he speaks about his great and successful struggle to overcome lust, or about passions like lust and anger being burnt up on God-realization, then we just can’t afford to wish him away. This is exactly what the Tantra and Yoga psychologies speak of. And this is what the other mystic traditions affirm. Ramakrishna repeatedly asserts that his love for a select group of young men is because of their inherent spiritual talent and these men inturn go on to have exemplary spiritual careers; to caricature this relationship as erotic is a travesty of religious scholarship. It is also surprising that Kripal fails to notice the similarity between the Christian concept of seeing one’s fellow humans as the present Christ and Ramakrishna’s assertion about seeing and loving God in man. Is this brotherly Christian love also erotic?
Finally, since Kripal sees himself primarily as a textualist let us examine a Kathamrita passage that he, using his perverse (and I am using this term very technically and not ad hominem) hermeneutics, calls “the kissing Purna scene”, and which he repeatedly cites as testimony to his thesis –
Sri Ramakrishna was talking to M. about Purna –
Ramarishna : “I am telling this to you. Ordinary people should not hear these things. Looking on oneself as Prakriti one feels like embracing and kissing Purusha (God)” (KA 4.271 GSR 895; and also Tyagananda). Kripal prefers to translate it as –
Ramakrishna : “What I am telling you – this is not for every soul to hear – I want to kiss and embrace man (God) as a woman”. [KC 74]
We have already had occasion to bear witness to Kripal’s understanding of the categories of Prakriti and Purusha (in the sample hermeneutical passage). Here, in Kripal’s translation, we notice a crude shift from an impersonal statement to one constructed in the first person. In his HDSB response Kripal tells us that this is only because the “literal reading is hopelessly awkward”! Well, Dr. Kripal, things do look awkward when they don’t suit our interests ! The talk is about Purna, and not about Ramakrishna!
And what about the allegedly sexual (or erotic) components (embracing and kissing God) ? Let me first remind you that the talk is about a fourteen year old boy in Bengal of 1885. And this is what we gather about this boy, Purna, from the Kathamrita – that he has a divine nature, and, spiritually speaking a masculine character, i.e. his mind “completely merges in the Ideal during meditation” and he “does not show emotion” (GSR 796-98; KA 4.212-14). He was born with an element of Vishnu (ibid). The Vishnu-nature is inclined to be devotional unlike the Siva-nature of a jnani (GSR 688; KA 2.193). The former thus is inclined to anthropomorphic meditations. In the context of Purna’s character, then, this embracing and kissing denotes a deep union (technically termed savikalpa samadhi) with an anthropomorphic spiritual ideal with no obvious external psycho-physical manifestations. As a category I find this sui generis21, and Kripal’s idiosyncratic characterization of this as erotic hardly does justice to the uniqueness and profundity of the experience.
One can hardly have any objection to someone affirming “both the spiritual and the sexual”, as entities. But when Kripal conflates them (and that is what he means by both) he walks in the face of massive phenomenological and psychological (especially the Eastern psychological) evidence to the contrary. His invariable need to distort texts is proof enough against his agenda.
“State of the Child” and the “Psychology of Being”:
Kripal feels that psychoanalytic paradigms are his cultural inheritance but his work belies this belief. It is true, as Sudhir Kakar has pointed out, psychoanalysis occupies an ill-defined zone between the arts and the objective sciences, but it still lays claim to a methodology demanding careful study and a fair amount of discipline and objective rigour. As Fenichel points out – The subject matter, not the method of psychoanalysis, is irrational (4).
Kripal claims his work to be in line with the writings of Sudhir Kakar; but Kakar’s own work on Ramakrishna, though avowedly Freudian and reductionist, in nature, is much more sophisticated (the author’s language limitations notwithstanding). Kakar is careful to suggest that the feminine identification of mystics is best interpreted as circumvention of drives and instincts or in other words as an “experience of being”(40). Transpersonal and humanistic psychologists have worked upon this “psychology of Being” taken in its own right in a non-reductive and ipso facto fashion. The “state of the Child”, which is central to Ramakrishna’s perception of himself as well as to the way he was perceived by his contemporaries, provides ample supportive material for these psychologies. Moreover, Ramakrishna makes insightful remarks about the values pertaining to this state – unattached and beyond the gunas (GSR 417, 708; KA 2.96, 2.198), possessing only an appearance of ego, only a semblance of anger and lust (GSR 171; KA 1.78) seeing “no distinction between man and woman”, (GSR 442, 857; KA 4.97, 1.210), “beyond ideas of purity and impurity”(GSR 861; KA 1.214) or “holy and unholy” (GSR 171, KA 1.78), possessing a pure heart (GSR 208; KA 2.35) and simple faith (GSR 381,865; KA 4.61, 1.219-20).
Ramakrishna’s characterization of this “state of the Child” remarkably anticipates the findings of the classic studies on “peak experiences” (which included mystic experiences) of “self actualizing” people by Abraham Maslow, nearly four decades ago. Maslow noted – my self-actualizing subjects, picked because they were very mature, were at the same time, also childish. I called it “healthy childishness”, a “second naivete” (96). He considered a god-like gaiety (humor, fun, foolishness, silliness, play, laughter) to be one of the highest B-values (values of the state of Being) of identity, i.e. “being one’s real Self”(106). He also observed the “resolution of dichotomies” in his self-actualizing subjects –
Briefly stated, I found that I had to see differently many opposites and polarities that all psychologists had taken for granted as straight line continua. For example, my subjects were very unselfish in one sense and very selfish in another sense. And the two fused together not like incompatibles, but rather in a sensible, dynamic unity or synthesis very much like what Fromm has described in his classical paper on healthy selfishness. Those most mature of all people were also strongly childlike. These same people, the strongest egos ever described and the most definitely individual, were also precisely the ones who could be most easily ego-less, self-transcending, and problem centred (139-40).
Maslow also described the contrasting dynamics of B-love (love for the Being of another person, unneeding love, unselfish love) and D-love (deficiency love, love need, selfish love). He found B-love to be – non-possessive and intrinsically enjoyable, that usually grows greater rather than disappears, and is welcomed into consciousness and completely enjoyed. The truest, most penetrating perception of the other is made possible by B-love. B-lovers are more independent of each other, more autonomous, less jealous or threatened, less needful, more individiual, more disinterested, but also simultaneously more eager to help the other toward self-actualization, more proud of his triumphs, more altruistic, generous and fostering. Finally B-love, in a profound but testable sense, creates the partner (42-43).
Ramakrishna also warns that such a seemingly antinomial position is not to be mistaken for licence – “Even a paramahamsa (who does not know the difference between man and woman must be careful, so as not to set a bad example to others”(GSR p.442; KA 4.97). “To live in the world in a detached spirit is very difficult. By merely saying so, you cannot be King Janaka. How much austerity Janaka practiced!” (GSR p.856; KA 1.209).
This “state of the Child” (matribhava, santanabhava) is the very psychological state that Kripal studiously avoids or distorts (as seen in his sample hermeneutical passage) into amorphous or polymorphous sexuality. This is especially ironical because this book bears the title “Kali’s Child“!
Kripal also wishes to read a conflicted regression in Ramakrishna’s “state of the Child” ostensibly because Ramakrishna, on occasions, spoke about the fear of fall of the male spiritual aspirant (particularly a monk) who associated closely with women (KC 130-43). This deduction is faulty. Continence of various degrees, in Ramakrishna’s discourse, is a prerequisite for spiritual growth and fulfilment. If an aspirant is circumspect about a situation that could (by arousal of passion) act as a hindrance to his or her self chosen goal, then that fear is correctly classified as a “rational fear” and rational fear cannot be taken as evidence of conflict. Further, a conflicted homosexual, by the very nature of conflict, will at times indulge in heterosexual behaviour, something that even Kripal accepts Ramakrishna didn’t do.
Moreover, such apparent regression has been described by ego-psychologists as “adaptive regression in service of the ego” which is not only found in healthy people but is considered a sine qua non of psychological health.22
Shakti as conflicted Energy?
Kripal also posits a mystico-erotic energy (“the conflicted energies of the saint’s homosexual desire”) called shakti whose “awakening” signalled the onset of his mystical experiences (KC322-25). Now, “awakening”, at best, is an ambiguous term, but one thing can be said with certainty – a conflicted state, by its very definition opposes the release of psychic energies. To quote Fenichel, “The (neurotic) conflict results in the blocking of necessary discharges, and in this way creates a state of being dammed up.”(129) Philosophically speaking, a unified ontological ground does not exclude the existence of polar opposites in the empirical world. Thus the Tantric conception of Shakti as the Mother, Creatrix, or Power does not mean that in the empirical world the nature and direction of spiritual and sexual “energies” is the same.23 Quite the contrary; and this is recognized by the Tantras as much as by monistic Vedanta.
The Psychology of Tantras:
The practices of Tantras are informed by deep psychological insights into the workings of the human nature. The three categories of practices (acaras)-pasu (animal), vira (heroic) and divya (divine)24, are tailored to the needs of the aspirants with predominence of instinctual drives and complexes, healthy human psychic functioning and transcendental awareness respectively. Thus the novice or pasu is to practice a code of strict moral principles and avoid situations that could stimulate these inherent drives even as he undertakes japa, meditation and other practices to sublimate the drives both at the conscious and unconscious levels (by building positive samskaras).
The state of vira is characterized by a graded exposure under ritual (non-threatening) conditions to situations that were avoided in the pasu-acara; the aim being a systematic desensitization of hatred, shame and fear – the sources of psychic conflicts and complexes and gradual transcendence of the identification with physical and psychic states and forces. This divya state of the Kaula or siddha is marked by the very characteristics of the “Being-state” that we have discussed.
A few points about these acaras are worth noting –
Some of the viracara rituals (the panca ma-karas for instance) may appear transgressive to certain moral sensibilities. Yet, their basic aim remains the same: transcendence of the various instinctual drives. Losing sight of this aim or indulgence in drive gratification is simply a failure of the practice as Ramakrishna pointed out on a number of occasions. However –
the practices by virtue of their very structure ensure the practitioner’s gradual progress towards transcendence, despite repeated failures. This is simply because the ritual atmosphere ensures an expansion of consciousness by linking up the mundane or the material to the transcendent (termed variously as shakti, devi, divine-mother etc.).
For instance, Ramakrishna advised his disciple Surendra, a compulsive drinker to offer his drink to the divine-mother (considered as the source of “divine joy”) prior to consumption. Thus focusing his thought consciously on a higher principle Surendra could control his habit (Chetanananda, 111-12).
This also forms the basis of Ramakrishna’s teaching about overcoming drives by turning them towards God. This process is effective with the motivated practitioner because, in so doing : (a) the drives are brought to consciousness (b) they face no reaction and so lose their negative force, and (c) they are linked to an expanding consciousness.
The acaras are not a rigid framework of ascending practices. Thus viracara is not mandatory for all practitioners. Conversely, some aspirants may progress directly to the viracara state.
If these basic psychological principles underlying the tantric practices are not ignored it becomes much easier to make sense of Ramakrishna’s own eminently successful tantric practices and experiences, his criticism of some of the tantric sects and their practices, as well as his open-hearted espousal of many tantric techniques, without having to pigeon-hole the tantras25 into the “sexy, seedy and strange”26, and paint a conflicted, ambivalent Ramakrishna through extended skewed and speculative glosses.
If only Kripal had not ignored this central theme of Ramakrishna’s personality (“the state of the Child”) he could have made much better sense of Ramakrishna’s samadhi, his uninhibited dealings with his devotees, his love and concern for his disciples and their reciprocation of the same, his paramahamsa state, his visions of the paramahamsa boys, his nakedness27, his jokingly touching the genitals of the paramahamsa boy in vision, his pursuing the different sadhanas with enthusiastic faith right upto the details of dress and food and his inability to physically comply with apparently transgressive rituals in spite of seeing their efficacy when pursued with sincerity, as also the connotation of terms like atmar ramana or atmar sahit ramana – all this without having to distort or ignore any of the “mountain of literature” available on Ramakrishna.
Why this bizarre effort?
We have however still not tackled the basic question that Tyagananda and others have asked – why this bizarre interpretation? It would be simplistic to read the author’s homosexual inclinations or gay agenda in the work (and I don’t think any scholar, Tyagananda included, has done that) or in the fact that one of his earliest papers was published in a Gay Men’s Issues Series (Kripal, 1992) and that gay journals received his work with enthusiasm. It is equally naïve on the part of Kripal to issue public disclaimers to his gay status, and divert attention from the basic problems of his approach by attributing its criticism to homophobia, hermeneutical revenge (Kripal,1998) and sinister negative transferences on a “clean slate that is Jeffery Kripal” (Is this a hint of “reaction formation” defence!)
The real key to this issue lies in what psychoanalysts call “self-analysis” – a discipline that one has to rigorously undergo before one can start psychoanalyzing others.28 This practice was initiated by Freud himself and remains a desideratum for all analysts to this day. Erik Erickson, in many ways the father of psychohistory, himself warns about the dangers of projections to which the psycho-historian is always prone. He pointed out that any psycho-historian “projects on the men and the times he studies some unlived portions and often the unrealised selves of his own life” (Erikson,1975). For instance, Kripal is quite candid that his work proceeded from his personal experiences at a Benedictine Seminary29 and from his personal desire to heterosexually engage a female divinity (Kripal, Secret Talk, para1-4). But even projection with all its complexities cannot adequately explain the present controversy. In the sample hermeneutical passage Kripal persists with the very patterns of textual misrepresentation and misinterpretation that he wishes to refute. (Is this the mighty ambivalence, the sine qua non of immature love!). He continues to brand Ramakrishna a homosexual (ibid, para 9) even as he denies ever having consciously done so. He explicitly writes about Ramakrishna’s “obvious pedophilia” (Evam1:1&2, p.207), and when things get hot (here we are talking neither about about body temperature, nor sexual “heat”!) becomes amnesic. How does one explain that? Clearly deeper and more complex unconscious30 psychological forces are at work here, and any attempt to identify them in this short paper would be too inadequate to be regarded as meaningful.
The Way Out
But honest self-analysis (and I hope the analysand is analyzable) could certainly trace the roots of many of these problems (much in the same fashion that Kripal could trace his own roots to the gypsies of India), with effects that could be as transforming as they were for Gora [the character of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel of the same name whom Kripal fondly cites (KC- Preface to 2nd edition)] on discovery of his true identity. After all, Surendranath Mitra, a confirmed libertine had first approached Ramakrishna with an intent to twist his ears (a gesture of insult), only to end up as an inveterate follower (Chetanananda, 110).
1. Roland, incidentally, has also pointed out the weaknesses of Sudhir Kakar’s psychoanalytic speculations about Indian spiritual personalities that Kripal claims to follow.
2. The following abbreviations have been commonly used in the document : Kali’s Child (KC), Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita (KA), The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (GSR), Sri Ramakrishna – The Great Master (GM), Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lilaprasanga (LP).
Throughout this paper I cite simultaneously the Kathamrita text (KA) and Nikhilananda’s translation (GSR). Anybody with an elementary knowledge of Bengali may check for himself that Kripal’s charge about Nikhilananda having “ingeniously mistranslated (or omitted) almost every single secret “(KC 333) is simply untrue. As a matter of fact if one cross checks the list of these passages marked guhya-katha, one finds that in an overwhelming majority of instances Nikhilananda’s translations are faithful to the letter as well as spirit of the original.(It is worth noting that American scholars recently voted Nikhilananda’s translation of the Kathamrita among the best hundred spiritual books of the last century; see Zaleski 2000)
Kripal uses this ingenious subterfuge to launch into his own distorted translations and misrepresentations and then backs these up with references only to the Kathamrita which hardly any western scholar (or general reader) can cross-check! In fact, as Tyagananda has shown in the electronic version of his paper, Kripal doesn’t even seem to hesitate from citing non-existent references!
The same holds true of his attempt to privilege Sri Sri Ramakrishna Jivanavrittanta the biography by Ramachandra Dutta (a devoted disciple of Ramakrishna) vis-a-vis Saradananda’s Lilaprasanga , although Kripal draws heavily from the latter text which candidly discusses all issues like Ramakrishna’s tantric and vaishnava spiritual practices and his affectionate relations with his disciples and admirers. The point is, unlike the LP the much smaller Jivanavrittanta text remains as yet untranslated into English, and Kripal can safely read and translate it to his convenience. ( I would have loved to cite specific instances, but that is beyond the scope of this paper).
3. Interestingly, as is his wont when a text suits his thesis, Kripal makes no attempt to critique the obscure text (of Satyacharan Mitra) that he cites for details of the brothel scene (in fact, in Evam, he avoids mentioning the source altogether). Mitra has obviously dramatized the event to highlight Ramakrishna’s divinity (38). More importantly, Kripal makes no mention of the way the story ends – with two of the brothel women “following Ramakrishna out of the brothel, renouncing the world, stubbing out their passions, and taking to mendicancy, after obtaining their vows from Ramakrishna himself”(39). Ramakrishna’s very presence ( and Mitra makes no mention of trance) then, could evidently induce immediate and powerful character transformations. Moreover, the brothel women clearly knew the distinction between the sexual and the spiritual, as did Mitra. Finally, as this story illustrates, the expressed context and narrative do have a very important role in the practice of hermeneutics.
4. The terms androgyny and bisexuality, used by some authors, are misleading, because they have specific biological connotations.
5. This language issue is important here because what Kripal claims to be doing is a form of “content analysis”.
6. And why should he not know ? Don’t the Roman Catholic clergy use silken apparel during mass?
7. Neither do his devotion to and visions of Sita, Radha and other feminine detites, nor his identification with Hanumana (the very symbol of Hindu masculinity), nor the mergence of numerous deities (both masculine and feminine) in his (Ramakrishna’s) person. To get past these hurdles Kripal simply falls back on caricature (see ‘Ramakrishna the Monkey’, ‘Mathur’s Handmaid’ etc. KC 103-109)
8. He has neither bothered to see a goat-sacrifice (the ritual has remained the same for centuries together), nor to check the manuals of procedure for these sacrifices. The sacrificial animal is decapitated at a single stroke, and any mutilation is sacrilegious.
9. A Sample Exegesis and a Discussion of Hermeneutical Theory
When, however, it gets closer to the “center” of my theses the document (Tyagananda’s rebuttal) immediately falls into strategies of misrepresentation, omission and simple philological error. Such strategies run throughout the document, but nowhere are they more apparent than in Tyagananda’s handling of the Bengali/Sanskrit terms lingam and yoni….
I am perfectly aware that the vast majority of contemporary Hindus do not associate the lingam with a phallus (just as contemporary Christians do not associate Christ’s sacrificial death with child-sacrifice, though, psychologically speaking, that is exactly what it is). But, to be fair, the book is not about … contemporary Hindu self-perceptions. It is about a nineteenth-century Indian mystic who was relatively immune from the last 150 years of Victorian and colonial sexual prudery that has, with other cultural forces, attempted to efface the ancient and very real phallic connotations of the lingam and the exquisite eroticism of much of Indic mythology, art and mystical practice. Hence the saint worshipped his own penis as Siva’s living lingam (jivantalingapuja). Now how could such a lingam not be phallic? For goodness sake, it is a phallus here.
And then, of course, there is the bowdlerized passage in which Ramakrishna teaches that sava yoni matryoni, “Every vagina is mother’s vagina,” another passage that Tyagananda avoids, as of course it demonstrates clearly both the nature of yoni and the reality of censorship in Nikhilananda’s translation (he omitted it completely) and Tyagananda’s text. I also examined at some length the yoni-rupa vision that announced the beginning of Ramakrishna’s kundalini-awakening and permanent mystical condition in which the saint saw himself erotically playing or having sex with (ramana kara) lotuses “shaped like a vagina” (yoni-rupa), a phrase which Nikhilananda again completely omitted and Tyagananda mentions obliquely but will not treat (90). I also studied the visiting Tantrika, who spoke about the flower’s vaginal symbolism (the stem was a lingam, the petals the yoni): this man certainly understood the fluid, symbolic nature of sexual language and its utterly traditional relationship to flowers in Indian poetry and literature. And so on for dozens of other passages…..
To make all of this even more clear, allow me now to look at a longer passage that bears directly on the same debate about how to translate and interpret such terms and texts… Strikingly, the text uses many of the terms in precisely the ways I have argued for and which Tyagananda wants to claim I do not understand; moreover, the passage demonstrates (yet again) my homoerotic hypothesis in which an erotic encounter with God is framed within a symbolic register in which the male mystic becomes a woman in order to love a (male) God…
Mani entered the room and sat down after saluting [the Master].
Sri Ramakrishna (to Mani): “We’re talking about loving Saccidananda [lit. “the love for/in Saccidananda,” saccidanande prema].
“How does [this] love [come about]? How should one love the Lord? Gauri used to say that if one is to know Rama one must become like Sita; to know God one must become like the Goddess – as the Goddess did difficult ascetic practices for Siva, so one must do a similar practice; to know the man [purusa] one must adopt the state of the woman [prakrtibhava] – the state of the handmaid or the female servant or the mother (emphasis mine).
“I had a vision of Sita’s form. I saw that [her] entire mind remained on Rama. She gave no thought at all to [her] vagina [yoni], hands, feet, dress, and ornaments. It was as if her life was filled with Rama – if Rama were not, if she could not attain Rama, she would die!”
Mani: “Oh, yes – like a mad woman.”
Sri Ramakrishna: “A mad woman! Exactly. If one is to obtain the Lord, one must become mad.
“If the mind remains in lover-and-gold, nothing will happen. Sex [ramana] with a lover [kamini] – what pleasure [sukha] is there in that! When the vision of the Lord happens, the bliss [ananda] is millions of times greater than sexual pleasure [ramana-sukha]. Gauri used to say that when the great ecstasy occurs all the holes of the body – down to the hair pores – become great vaginas [mahayoni]. In each and every one of these holes one experiences the pleasure of sexual intercourse with the Self [atmar sahita ramana-sukha]. (KA 4.36)
Let me list here the numerous points that we can draw from this single passage:
- Yoni cannot mean “family lineage” (83) in a list of body parts and clothing (vagina, hands, feet, dress, and ornaments) surrounded by a discussion of how the male mystic is to love the Absolute, that is, by becoming feminized through ascetic practices and being sexually penetrated in every hole of his body by the Self. The entire passage is hyper-sexualized and so demands a sexual reading.
- Prakrti and purusa certainly can mean “woman” and “man,” as they most certainly do here (and they do in fact carry engendered connotations in Samkhya as well, as any good history of Samkhya is crystal clear about).
- The prakrti-bhava or “state of a woman” is taken on precisely in order to erotically engage a male (Absolute/Self/god), just as Ramakrishna confessed that he wanted to adopt it in the kissing Purna scene discussed by myself and denied by Tyagananda. This passage, in other words, can be fruitfully used to gloss and understand the “secret talk” scene about Purna…. The male mystic must be feminized, that is, become a woman, to love God. It is this very same-sex structure – with a human male taking on a feminine identity in order to erotically engage a male deity or disciple (that is, a gender-variant homoeroticism) – that I am referring to when I describe Ramakrishna’s mysticism as homoerotic, and it appears consistently throughout the Kathamrta.
- The passage clearly shows that religious language, and especially mystical language, has a strong tendency to sexualize itself, much along the lines of Freudian thought, hence every “hole” of the man’s body, down to the hair-pores, become “great vaginas.” If a hair-pore can so easily become a vagina in such a world, why not a flower? For goodness sake, botanically speaking, a flower is a sexual organ, and a purposely displayed one at that.
- It is clear that kamini does not mean simply “woman” but “lover” here. This kamini, after all, is someone with whom one has (or should not have) sex. Hence my translation of kamini-kancana as “lover-and-gold” …
- The passage renounces (hetero)sexual contact with a kamini precisely in order to engender a homoerotic encounter with a penetrating, male Self, with whom one has a kind of mystical sexual intercourse.
- It is clear that ramana does not mean “play” or “commune” here, as Nikhilananda renders it, but “sexual intercourse” or, at the very least, “erotic play,” as of course it does in many other passages.
- Predictably, such a highly eroticized passage occurs in volume 4, exactly where I argued most of these passages appear.
10. “Hyper-sexualization” is a term that does not obtain in the standard corpus of psychoanalytic literature. We do, however, have “sexualization”, which is defined as “endowing an object or function with a sexual significance that it did not previously have, or possessed to a smaller degree, in order to ward-off anxieties associated with prohibited impulses or their derivatives” (see Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychciatry, 7th Ed., Vol I, p. 585). The above passage then, being not linked to any prohibited impulses or anxiety states can hardly be termed “sexualized”. On the contrary, for reasons that I briefly discuss in the concluding section of this essay, Kripals own approach to this study can correctly be termed “sexualized”.
11. Ramakrishna actually was of the opinion that such worship is possible only in the transcendent (God realised) state. (Cf. GSR 604; KA 2.155)
12. That flowers are the sexual organs of plants is known to every high school student; and that they can have symbolically erotic connotations is known to anyone with even a perfunctory knowledge of Freud. But if Kripal had seriously tried to study Hinduism he could not have failed to notice the numerous non-erotic religious motifs based on flowers, especially the lotus, very unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition. The lotus represents religious devotion (e.g. as the universal seat of the gods), purity (untouched by its surrounding water and mud) and the microcosmic-macrocosmic junctions (e.g. the chakras along the spinal column and the lotus of the heart), among other things. Moreover, flowers are an indispensable part of all Hindu devotional worship. To drive home the point let me ask Kripal a question “Does the congregation feel sexually stimulated when the altar is censed during Mass in the Church?” Perfumes after all have strong erotic and anal erotic associations.
13. Jung had written, As was customary throughout antiquity, primitive people today make a free use of phallic symbols, yet it never occurs to them to confuse the phallus, as a ritualistic symbol with the penis. They always take the phallus to mean the creative mana, the power of healing and fertility, “that which is unusually potent”, to use a Lehmann’s expression. (Jung, Carl G., Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Harvest Books, p.22).
14. Cp. the use of the term in Bhagavad Gita XIV.3 and Brahma Sutra I.I.3
15. Incidentally, when citing texts and arguments in support of his own claims Kripal insists that things are “crystal clear”, while the other texts are all ambiguous (“simultaneously concealing and revealing”). Well! this is hermeneutics of convenience for sure!
16. See for example Ghosh, Pranab Ranjan, Sri Ramakrishna O Bangla Sahitya, Karuna Prakashani, 1975.
17. In this essay I have largely confined myself to citing Western (and especially American) texts (besides the primary references) for a reason. Tyagananda feels that before deconstructing someone Kripal ought to know more about that person’s language and culture. I would suggest that he also needs to know more about his own culture.
18. This tactic exemplifies what is known in scientific research as the sharp-shooter’s fallacy, analogous to the way a gunslinger might empty his six-shooter into the side of a barn and then draw the bull’s-eye around the bullet holes. ( I am thankful to Richard P. Sloan for the analogy. See his review of Religion, Faith and Good Health, in The Telegraph, Calcutta, 13th May, 2002).
19. Smith writes : I doubt that any other book – not even those of early, polemical, poorly informed, and bigoted missionaries – has offended Hindu sensibilities so grossly. And understandably, for despite Kripal’s protestations to the contrary in “Secret Talk : The Politics of Scholarship in Hindu Tantrism”(HDSB, Winter 2000/01), Kali’s Child is colonialism updated. (HDSB Vol.30,No.1)
20. Fromm (50) also notes that tenderness is by no means a sublimation of the sexual instinct as Freud believes; it is the direct outcome of brotherly love and exists in physical as well as non-physical forms of love.
21. Although meditation research is still in its infancy we do have sufficient empirical evidence testifying to the veracity and intrinsic value of the altered states of meditative consciousness (See eg. Walsh and Vaughan and also Austin). It would be presumptuous to dismiss these as wishful thinking or reduce them to catatonia or other psychopathological conditions.
22. Adaptive Regression In the Service of the Ego (ARISE) has been described by Bellak as ‘the ability of the ego to initiate a partial, temporary and controlled lowering of its own functions. Such regressions result in a relatively free, but controlled play of the primary process’. In L. Bellak, et.al., Ego Functions in Schizophrenics, Neurotics, and Normals, 1973, p.454. See also p.71-72.
23. In Ramakrishna’s language “Is the power to beget a child the same as the power through which one realizes God?” (GSR-964; KA-2.231).
24. This is a simple classification of the acaras. More elaborate classifications are described in Das, Upendrakumar, an excellent and comprehensive presentation of the Tantric spiritual practices and their bases.
25. The iconography of Kali as presented by Kripal bears a striking resemblance to the New Age and feminist appropriations of Hindu goddesses in the USA, in stark contrast to Ramakrishna’s own perceptions of Kali (KA 1.42-44 GSR 135-37, etc.). Rachel McDermott notes that when she teaches about these appropriations to her students the typical initial reaction of her students is outrage and disgust….for much of the New Age Writing on Hindu goddesses (1) is based on erroneous knowledge of India and Hinduism, (2) is self-referential (quoting as “authorities” other New Age Writers, few of whom have their information correct), (3) creates a static essentialized icon of goddess worship, and (4) says more about the fertile and wounded imagination of its western authors than it does about deity veneration in India (Rachel Fell McDermott, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 68, No.4,pp.723 – 727). Her students could well have been talking about Kali’s Child.
26. The Kularnava Tantra (2.118-20) states very insightfully – If by sexual intercourse moksha could be obtained, then all creatures would have (by virtue of this very act) been free (Quoted in Das, p.604)
27. Nakedness, incidentally is a B-value representing honesty and simplicity. See Maslow, p.83.
28. Technically called Training Analysis, this involves at least a thousand hours of self-analysis under supervision before a candidate can qualify to psychoanalyze others.
29. If one puts Kripal’s obsession for “sexual abuse” themes and deviant sexuality (I do not have homosexuality – which is not considered deviance – in mind here) alongside the recent spate of pedophilic scandals involving the clergy in the USA one can only wonder what Kripal’s experiences at the Seminary were actually like; or, may be, not wonder! Either way we sympathize.
30. The curious twists of translation, the typos, the “honest mistakes” and unconscious errors that litter the text of Kali’s Child would literally force Freud to sit up in his grave and take notice. Let me cite just two examples that clearly don’t require a gloss:
i) In one of Ramakrishna’s parables a housewife tries to dissuade her husband from taking to the life of an itinerant begging monk saying, “Why should you wander about? If you don’t have to knock at ten doors for your stomach’s sake , go.”(GSR- 627; KA-1:153) Kripal’s translation – “Why sleep in seven beds when you can sleep in one?”(KC-284)
ii) And a line from a song to the Divine Mother : “Mother hold me to your bosom, covering me with the aanchal of your love.” (KA-3.65, GSR-394)Compare with “Hold me to your breasts. With affectionate love, hide me under your skirt, O Ma!” (KC-139) (The Western reader may note that aanchal refers to the end of the Indian sari covering the head, shoulders, and upper trunk)
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About the Author:
Professor Somnath Bhattacharyya is a practising psychoanalyst. He teaches psychology at the Calcutta University, and was head of the department prior to his retirement a few years ago.. He became a member of the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1961. He has been practising as a psychoanalyst – Training Analyst and Control Analyst – of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society for over 30 years. He had studied philosophy at the Indian Academy of Philosophy, Calcutta. and has also been an Academic Committee member of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta.
He has over a dozen papers in scientific Journals on Psychology. He has also contributed to texts on psychology and written on psychology and psychoanalysis for popular Journals.