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in a (then unpublished) paper available on the internet.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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
- 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
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
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".
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,
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
"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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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.