Public Feedback on “Kali’s Child”
Below are Feedback/Comments received on our posting of, ‘Kali’s Child Revisited or, Didn’t Anyone Check the Documentation?’ by Swami Tyagananda
This evening I was most fortunate to find a link to your website on the Hindu Press International site. It was in reference to Swami Tyagananda’s critical review of Jeff Kripal’s Kali’s Child. It seems that he takes exception to much of the material owing to what he perceives as distortions and as I see it, a projection of the author’s psychological template onto Ramakrishna’s life.
I found the review to be fair and concise. Swamiji makes many good, credible points about the seeming lack of true scholarship and lack of intimate knowledge of Bengali culture, language and religion. Neither do I consider myself an expert nor to possess the intimate knowledge of a native. However, I have for the past quarter century been an avid Indophile. I have attempted to gain a well grounded overview of much of the basis of the culture of Bharat. Although born in the United States, I have found a place in the deepest recesses of my being for the philosophy and religion of the Saiva Siddhanta of Rishi Tirumular. I am also very familiar with Vedanta and Ramakrishna. I have, in fact, read the book in question. I found it entertaining, but I agree with Swami Tyagananda that it seems more like popular literature for entertainment than a well researched Ph.D. dissertation.
I will be keeping a watch out for any other works by the Swami. His review was insightful and yet remained polite and controlled even in this age of rabid criticism. His self control in the treatment of a somewhat controversial subject is admirable and only serves to affirm his credibility.
Congratulations to your staff as well. Your mission is a much needed thing in the face of the misinformation that the world is exposed to regarding the traditions of Bharat. It should also have a positive effect on the self-image of Hindus worldwide.
Los Angeles, CA
Professor Steven Collins
Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Dear Professor Collins:
We the undersigned are aware of the importance your department places in the study of areas relating to South Asia, including its culture. The Hindus of Greater Toronto naturally feel tempted to look at the kind of study that the department has been doing and the manner in which it is being carried out. Religion justifiably falls within the purview of your academic interest, and we congratulate you on your study of Hinduism as part of your ongoing research. Since Hinduism is what we practice, and the languages relating to the faith falls within our expertise, we thought you would be interested in listening to the comments of the Hindus living in Greater Toronto pertaining to the work of your department, specially when your researcher quite understandably may not always have enough background in the languages, or the actual practices that the faith involves.
The book Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, which originally developed as a Ph.D. dissertation in your department, has come to our notice, and our academicians in the Greater Toronto area have gone through it with serious attention and interest. They, however, have been extremely frustrated by the flip-flop way the conclusions in the book have been arrived at with limited knowledge of the Bengali language and the culture of the people using it. What we are trying to convey is not that the ‘truths revealed’ in the book are hard facts for us Hindus to bear at the first blush, but that these are no truths at all, the conclusions being absolutely unfounded.
Mr. Kripal has very limited knowledge of Bengali, as translations in the book show. This is quite expected, for understanding of a language does not reduce to understanding only of the syntax and the dictionary meanings of the expressions involved. There is more at play here, as suggested by Wittgenstein’s saying: Language is the form of life. The forms of life, we must emphasize, need to be accessed in the setting of the culture of the relevant people using it, and certainly not in the light of modern western culture. We have this much to say that as an anthropologist or a psychologist, Mr. Kripal has misidentified his data, and has failed to apply the methodology of the ‘dialectical approach’ he has proposed to follow, where context plays a very important role (pp. 19-20). The whole thing is a mish-mash. Swami Tyagananda in his recent rebuttal to the book, entitled ‘Kali’s Child Revisited’, has shown in detail where the translations have failed. You might have had a copy of the manuscript at the recent meeting of the Americal Academy of Religion at Nashville.
Philosophically, there is a reason why the translations have failed. They have because Kripal is not equipped enough to give proper attention to the pragmatics in the language, which is over and above the syntax and semantics of it. The context certainly comes within the domain of pragmatics. Not having access to the Bengali form of life, Kripal has failed in doing justice to the context that is so important for his methodology. According to him, translation of ‘gopane’ is ‘secretly’, where the expression should justifiably be translated as ‘in privacy’, keeping in view the context of its use. Sri Ramakrishna’s encounters with his devotees were very private, and sacred, though not at all secret. Wrong translations, coupled with interpretations of behaviour as homosexual overture, putting North American meaning on body-language, abstracted away from the cultural setting where it belongs, amounts to misidentification of the data and subsequent misinterpretation of them. In fact, the whole process involves the fallacy of begging the question, when the data are wrongly identified in the light of the conclusion which is yet to follow. The author’s handling of the South Asian culture, indeed, generates extreme displeasure among the people who have meaningful association with it.
Sri Ramakrishna is a luminous star in the galaxy of the holy people Hinduism has produced over millennia. One of his very many abiding contributions to India today is that he saved for her people their culture showing them the inner strength of their faith at a time when the country was about to lose her direction, and faith in herself, under the yoke of repressive colonial rule. The spiritual example he set for his countrymen with a message of love for all faiths is an ever-unfolding inspiration for today’s world. To write something on such a man requires caution, and an attitude of respect, very much lacking in Kripal’s work. We were extremely disturbed to find that the requisite attitude was lacking even in the supervisor for his Ph. D. work at the department, borne out by her words on the dissertation that form part of the Preface to the book.
… it was full of sex and humor and playful writing, and I found myself smiling often and laughing almost as often as I read it … . When I took chapters of it to the beach last summer, people offered to trade me their novels … for a chance to read it, so evident was my pleasure for it.
We Hindus certainly appreciate the empathy a supervisor might feel toward the work of the Ph. D. dissertation that is her responsibility. However, to intensely enjoy the sex that is depicted in it, and to testify to it in writing, is very cheap, to say the least, from the academic point of view. Even if the book reveals the truth, there is a secular way of enjoying it at the academic level, failing which the departmental involvement in the area of Hinduism might smell of partisan interest at demeaning an ‘outside culture’. From our perspective, which we touched upon before in a brief compass, the book has no grain of truth in it. With the attitude that the supervisor revealed about the issues dealt with in the work, there is little surprise that falsity is the outcome. In fact, the book starts with falsity, having misidentified the data that the conclusions are based on, and arrives at falsity on the basis of them. Mistakes, even in academics, are understandable. Frivolity and disrespect certainly are not.
We hope you would respond to the hurt feelings of the Hindus that originated out of careless handling of issues pertaining to Hinduism in the dissertation at your department.
We sincerely hope to hear from you soon.
Wishing you a happy, and spiritual, new year,
Shrawan Kumar Agarwal, M. Sc., P. Eng.
Ex-Chair, Hindu Sabha Temple, Greater Toronto
Basu Bose, CA
Indo-Canadian Media Watch
Sitansu Sekhar Chakravarti, Ph.D.
Cultural Understanding Everywhere
Formerly, Visiting professor
Prabhat Kapur, CET
Ex-Chair, Hindu Sabha Temple, Greater Toronto
From: Steven Collins
To: Kumar Agarwal
Subject: Re: Our Views on “Kali’s Child”
Date: Thu, 8 Feb 2001 19:57:35 -0600
Dear Mr. .Agarwal.
I am sorry that you and your colleagues were distressed by Jeffrey Kripal’s book, ‘Kali’s Child’. I am sure that was not his intention. I cannot say much about this matter, as I was not on the committee which passed the Ph.D..dissertation, nor was I Chair of the Department when the degree was granted.
Nor, moreover, do I know how similar or different the published book might be to the earlier dissertation. However, I have every confidence that my colleagues will have applied the highest standards of scholarship in their assessment of the work. In a free society the progress of knowledge depends upon the frank and honest exchange of views, and I suggest that the best course for you to take is to publish your views on the matter, and then a discussion and dialogue can take place.
With my best wishes, Sincerely,
To Professor Steven Collins, Chair
CC Professor Janel Mueller, Dean
Dear Professor Collins:
Thank you very much for the reply to our letter. However, we do feel that the reply misses some very important issues raised in the letter. Of course, a free society in pursuit of knowledge mustn’t put any restrictions in its endeavours to that direction, excepting for overriding ethical considerations. Cruelty to animals, or environmental pollution is forbidden even for lab experiments.
Knowledge certainly pertains to the cognitive aspect of mind. The excerpt in our letter from the preface to the book written by the supervisor of the dissertation, Wendy Doniger, expressing her intense enjoyment of the sex depicted in the book, relating to one of the greatest proponents of the modern South Asian culture, belongs to the affective aspect of the mind instead. Here, surely, advancement of knowledge does not seem to be the aim by any stretch of imagination. We find an involvement of the department at this point which disturbs the South Asian mind. We know that you were not the Chair of the department when the dissertation took shape. We wonder who else to be in touch with regarding this except for the present Chair of the department. We would request you to please contact on our behalf the Chair at the time the dissertation earned the degree in order to clarify the situation.
The knowledge part in the book can be sorted out by academic discussion, of which you have a sample in our letter. We agree, there is more room for discussion in the area. One of us, Sitansu Chakravarti, is presently working on his article ‘Kali’s Child – A Methodological Nightmare’, a copy of which we would be pleased to send you in due course for comments by the department. We are completely at a loss, however, regarding the viability of academic discussion when not knowledge, but attitudes of mind, that result in insult to a community, are at issue. As we emphasized in our letter, these are sensitive areas, and extreme caution should be taken to handle them. We are very disturbed in the palpable absence of that caution in the department regarding the book Kali’s Child. This is an ethical consideration that needs to be addressed in connection with the pursuit of truth.
We would like to hear from you regarding the issue of attitude that has been re-emphasized above. Thanks very much for your attention.
From: Steven Collins
To: Kumar Agarwal
Subject: Re: “Kali’s Child”Date: Mon, 12 Feb 2001 13:04:40 -0600
I can take no responsibility for attitudes allegedly found in a book I have not read, and which was based on a dissertation with which I had no involvement, intellectual or administrative. I have never met Mr.Kripal. The usual procedure in these cases is for complainants to write to the publishers –who have legal responsibility for putting the book into the public domain– and ask that their concerns be forwarded to the author(s).
After this message I will no longer be able to participate in these exchanges, nor in anything else concerning Mr.Kripal’s book.
Professor J. Mueller
Dean, Humanities Division
University of Chicago
Dear professor Mueller:
We the undersigned sent you a letter dated February 2, expressing the concern of the Hindus of Greater Toronto re the book Kali’s Child, produced in the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and published by the University Press of Chicago. Since then we received two letters from the Chair of the department. You have received copies of all the letters between the department and us. We must make one point clear. Our motive is certainly not to point fingers at individuals. It is the issues involved that we would have liked to be clarified for us. We have spelt out in our letters to the chair, that pursuit of knowledge is not what we are concerned about. Our point is that when socially sensitive matters are involved, one needs to be extremely cautious carrying out the task of analysis, with the required efficiency and skill. Where a foreign language is one of the tools, mastery of it, based upon the forms of life practised by the native users of the language, is the minimum desideratum. We do find this requirement is very evidently missing in the making of the book. On top of this, an attitude is found present which does not befit the academic atmosphere. We would expect that the expression of such an attitude at the departmental level, made public by the publishers of the university, coupled with ‘scholarship’ mounted on insecure grounds, do not occur in future again toward hurt feelings of communities.
Thanks very much, indeed, for your kind attention.
42 Francis Ave
Cambridge, MA 02138
Harvard Divinity School
Area III Jeffrey J. Kripal
Visiting Associate Professor of the History of Religion
Kripal is the Vera I. Heinz Associate Professor of Religion at Westminster College. His publications include Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, which won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religion Prize, and Vishnu on Freud’s Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, which he edited with T.G. Vaidyanathan. His most recent research and writing focus on the mystical experiences of historians of religion and the manner in which these ecstatic, unitive, and erotic experiences are hermeneutically reflected in scholarship. Courses to be taught at HDS: The Goddess and the Gospel: Christianity, Colonialism, and the Construction of Modern Hinduism; Secret Talk–History, Gender, and Politics in the Study of Hindu Tantrism; Method as Path–The Scholar’s Mystical Experience and Its Hermeneutical Reflection; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell–Eroticism and Ethics in the History or Mysticism
faculty assistant: Liza Marcato (617) 496-2779
3457. The Goddess and the Gospel: Christianity, Colonialism, and the Construction of Modern Hinduism
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Half course (fall term). Tu., Th., 11:30-1.
This course will concentrate on Hindu personalities and reform movements that arose in nineteenth-century Bengal in response to colonialism and Christian challenges, with a particular emphasis on Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda and their translation into American culture and religion. The course will make a special effort to contextualize historically and discuss critically many of the themes that now structure modern Hinduism and inform Western appropriations of Hindu thought and practice: the construction of Advaita Vedanta as ethical and socially concerned; the “materialistic” West/”spiritual” East trope; the discourses of “spirituality” and “mysticism”; the engendering of culture (the “masculine West” and “feminine East” tropes); and the discursive practices of Hindu nationalism.
3458. Secret Talk: History, Gender, and Politics in the Study of Hindu Tantrism
Jeffrey J. Kripal
Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 11:30-1
Hindu Tantric traditions have developed complicated systems of secrecy, ritual practice, imaginative meditation, and sexual technique that have simultaneously fascinated and repelled Indian and Western observers for well over a century. This course will examine both these systems of thought and practice and this conflicted history of reaction and response. Particular attention will be given to detailed case studies of vernacular Tantric traditions in Bengal, the constructions of gender and sexuality within these same traditions, the history, iconography and poetry of the goddess Kali, the modern construction of “Tantrism” as a meaningful category, popular and academic translations of Tantra into Western culture, and some of the political and ethical complexities of studying Tantric traditions in postcolonial India and the contemporary American Academy