Feedback/Comments received on the book, "Kali's Child"
(Narasingha P. Sil: This piece was posted in the RISA listserv dated May 10, 1998 in response to a number of congratulatory posts in he RISA listserv from Kripal's friends who also pointed out that the author of Kali's Child was a victim of Hindu homophobia. Nobody, of course, provided a critique of the book, because almost none of them, with the exception of one, were conversant with the language of Kripal's sources; and the one who could read Bengali happened to be Jeff Kripal's intimate friend who was unlikely to say anything unsavory about the book.)
The RISA communications on 'Kali's Child', now elevated to the status of a quasi-classic by friendly readers and reviewers, appear to have a solitary goal to create a commotion for promoting a "new" market for the second edition of the book. We have the very timely report of a sudden 'satori' experience of a renegade Indian sophomore in a famous academic patriarch's class, who apparently having lost her mind (my best guess) came to her senses whereby she liberated herself from the cultural prejudices of her parents and acquired the 'buddhi' to appreciate the wondrous wisdom of 'Kali's Child'. We also have been informed by a correspondent that the skeptical critics of the first edition must read the Preface to the second edition, especially the reference to Christopher Isherwood. Very interesting!
No doubt, the troublesome and meddlesome critique of the first edition by a handful of scholars (who are yet to experience their 'satori'), who detected several instances of clever manipulation and at places manifestly wrong translation of the vernacular sources, has been duly marginalized. Instead, a 'deus ex machina' has been invoked by conjuring up an imaginary dichotomized and politicized world split between the party of purity and progress the humanitarians, homophiles, and homoerotics and the party of prejudiced puritans the heinous homophobes.
The issue is no longer the author's less than competent understanding of Bengali history, culture, and social habits (including sexuality). The issue has now become the authenticity and legitimacy of the Americanized Ramakrishna vis-à-vis the "paranoid" reaction of the Ramakrishnaites refusing to acknowledge the making of a natural ('sahaja') homoerotic ascetic whose mystical experiences and visions (such as those of cosmic coitus, cunnilingus, naked boys etc. etc.) were predicated upon his often latent (and unconscious) and often patent (conscious) gay consciousness and desires.
The impact of this Westernized Ramakrishna on some unsuspecting and innocent readers has been so powerful that the author of 'Kali's Child' is well on his way to achieving a cult 'guru' status, as is evident in a 'prashasti': "Kripal does demonstrate clearly that there were certain aspects to the sex life ['sic'] of this great saint (admitted in the saint's own words ['sic']) that make Ramakrishna much more relevant to the younger spiritual seekers of tantra." Here is a classic case of what the late Agehananda Bharati wittily called the "American Pizza Complex."
However, the current battle cry of the party of purity (Ramakrishna's "pure pots" inverted?) is not only outrageously funny but inordinately aggravating. It appears that the purity camp is hell bent on sacralizing sexual practices and attitudes considered deviant and outright sick by the Bengalis of Ramakrishna's times. I personally smell a rat here.
I have a vision of the descent of the 'avataras' of the missionaries of yester years who sought to bring the divine light in the land of the benighted pagans and thus make them civilized and Christianized. I see here these 'avataras' as the neo-missionaries hailing from the great secular temples of learning of the powerful and resourceful Western countries and possessing impressive credentials, considerable personal charm and social grace, including, above all, a remarkable gift of packaging, processing, and producing information. Yet, beneath their bonhomie and academic garb (empathy, postmodernist skepticism of positivist knowledge, etc.), they are tough customers who mean business, literally as well as metaphorically.
This business, alas, echoes the agenda of their simple hearted and -minded forbears: to relegate a pagan faith of a distant disturbed land to exoticism and esoterism to affirm its "otherness" and at the same time, in contrast to the earlier mission of conversion of souls, make a name and also some bucks along the way by aligning the distant "other" with the normalized and socialized "others" of their own culture.
The 'Iila' of this academic market economy as played out in the hullabaloo surrounding 'Kali's Child' thus achieves the twin objectives of discovering the human (in this case homosexual) Ramakrishna and selling him to the campus communities (where acceptance of alternative sexuality, often described as "queer lifestyle," have become a badge of respect) throughout the country.
On his own admission, the author of 'Kali's Child' was first inspired to study the nexus between erotic and mystical experiences while he was training to be a monk. But his interest soon took a cross cultural leap and he was drawn to Bengali tantra, where he just stumbled on a character whose career opened the floodgate to a very different but r apparently very interesting world: the world of homoeroticism and Hinduism, particularly tantra. The end product of the author's academic and professional detour is 'Kali's Child'.
Admittedly, this book bears all the stamp of serious research and scholarship and the author is, appropriately, very cautious and conscious of the tentativeness of his thesis. However, as one trudges along the long winding chapters through the author's 'excursus' into cultural anthropology and psychoanalysis and arrives at the concluding part of this impressive (but by now quite oppressive) tome, one gets the distinct and disturbing feeling that the author is no longer in the mode of scholarly or academic reservations about the provisional nature of his interpretation, but taking recourse to casuistry and cleverness is quite open and unequivocal about his enterprise of making a gay saint out of this semi-literate, misogynistic but unmistakably heterosexual (and by the same token quite scared of being so) Hindu male of renascent Bengal. The author is blissfully oblivious of the saint's penchant for female lure as well as his panic about heterosexual demands, due most probably (as I argue in my forthcoming 'Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography'), to his personal psychosomatic condition.
Then, the scholar-author's splendid misunderstanding of the meaning of such Bengali words and expressions as: 'kol', that is, lap as the area of the genitals, 'byakulata' or 'uddipan' as erotic or sexual emotion, 'sange shoya', that is, "sleeping with" as "sleeping with or lying with" in the Western sense, interpretation of, Ramakrishna's lament over Haramohan's marriage as the spoiling of his pure soul metaphorically described as 'shuddha adahar' or 'natun handi', no longer suitable for preserving milk (in Hindu consciousness milk is compared to substantial knowledge, something that nourishes the mythical swan), as Haramohan the pure pot's milk (Haramohan's male liquid!) wasted on a woman, or the puzzling interpretation of the word 'ramamaya' having a pun and thus standing for "filled with Rama" and "filled within the pleasures of sexual delight" (!!), Ramakrishna's foot as his extended phallus exploring the genitals of his young devotees etc.[are not only puzzling but outright malicious and mischievous].
Bhairavi Yogeshwari's eating a banana dipped in the blood of a freshly sacrificed goat as her eating the goat's bloody banana, that is, its bloody penis and coming to the conclusion that "her consumption of the goat's penis, whether literal or symbolical, makes explicit what is hidden or 'secret' in Kali's sword, namely that it is aimed at the phallus as well as the head," the Navarasika women who are not whores are therefore eunuchs (to make Pandit Vaishnavacharan, Ila major player in the early years of Ramakrishna's tantric training," a habitual homosexual), or Ramakrishna's story of his attempted suicide (in spite of his own admission that it was due to his temporary insanity) as an instance of his shame and guilt for his homosexual desires all these examples (there are many more, hidden somewhat like the 'Kathamrita's'concealments so persistently mentioned in the length and breadth of the book) are not just a case of minor academic slips (as one sympathetic reader has claimed) but something far more deep and serious.
As a Bengali born, brought up, and educated in the culture, I can say with some certainty that homosexuality in our culture (or for that matter in Indian culture in general) has always been recognized as deviancy and pathological and not natural and certainly having nothing to do with spiritual or mystical potential. That does not mean that there are no homosexuals in Bengal or in other parts of India. There are certainly some (though I personally do not know any one in particular) who could be called pedophiles and not really self-conscious and deliberate gays (like, as I recall having seen on the cover of the 'Time' a few years ago two post middle-age wiry, white haired and mustachioed vets kissing each other "passionately") who have chosen an alternative lifestyle openly and legally.
Also, admittedly, one could, nowadays, sight some young men, apparently from affluent families, desperately trying to ape everything Western, cavorting up and down the streets of the elite quarters of Calcutta or Mumbai, sporting nose- or earrings and adorned in baggies and Nikes with a cigarette in the mouth. On the other hand, fondness for young boys on the part of some adult males has always been seen as a pathetic option for aged impotent males (who exhibit this sentiment) with the exception of a few regions where adult men show their sexual preference for young boys (though retaining the primal heterosexual habits with women) in Greek fashion.
If Ramakrishna harbored homosexual desires, as has been alleged, then it would be honest and reasonable (on the part of those who are familiar with the sources as well as the history and culture of the region) to consider his condition as pathological, as his contemporaries would surely have deemed (had they been sure of the Master's sexual preference as is the author of 'Kali's Child').
Additionally, it would be quite sensible to consider Ramakrishna's reporting of his mystical visions and experiences (to the wide-eyed young boys) more as pure cock-and-bull stories ('gaigappo') than as a description of a genuine vision of the divine. To see his diseased and disturbed mental proclivities (as a homosexual) as normal or natural and put implicit faith in his fantastic tales and then connect them with his spiritual-mystical experiences (whatever they were) is to fall into the booby trap of secular hagiography or academic conceit.
If the author of 'Kali's Child' had attempted to bring the real Ramakrishna out from the sources under which he has hitherto remained hidden, it would a good idea to discover the subtext of the text of 'Kali's Child' the author himself, the enchanting wire-puller making the Gadadhar doll dance with his "wildly swinging back door." Here we have a monk 'manque', who often makes public protestation that he is a Banglaphile, a very intelligent, indeed a marvelously clever and enterprising, scholar who has excellent social and political skills, and comes through as an extremely open-minded liberal and humanitarian individual.
Basically, however, as the author of 'Kali's Child', his work comes as the fulfillment of the unrealized dream of his illustrious predecessor in this regard, Christopher Isherwood, a self-confessed gay. It is noteworthy that the author of 'Kali's Child' seems obsessed with the 'guhya' in Ramakrishna. The book uses the word to mean both secret and the "secret door" or "secret chamber," that is, anus ('guhyadesh' or 'guhyadwar'). And the learned doctor a has written a nearly four hundred page tome on this trope! I could offer several interpretations for this enterprise, but I wish to hold my buckle for now.
In the end, I cannot help congratulating the famous scholar for his ingenuity, imagination, and sheer pragmatic wisdom and I am sure the 'Thakur' (had he been with us now) would have been tickled to death at the superb poetic antics of his 'saheb' admirer and commended him for his unquestionably effective 'patoari buddhi'.
In response to Swami Tyagananda's and Jack's recent postings, let me briefly clarify why I find Kali's Child to be very sympathetic to Ramakrishna. I do agree with Jack on the issues of sexuality/spirituality, but even more striking, for me anyway, is the fact that Ramakrishna suffered considerably throughout his lifetime. He was exploited by a variety of people seeking access to his spiritual power and/or seeking some kind of power over him who invested their agendas in his body and emotions, quite ruthlessly at times.
Ramakrishna was vulnerable, and he was clearly in pain. And I came away from a reading of the text feeling a profound compassion for a man who though undeniably a great saint and immense source of spiritual wealth suffered in his fragile humanness as all human beings suffer. Indeed, he perhaps suffered more than most, for being misunderstood during much of his life. His ecstasies and blissful experiences of Mother Kali were real and supremely joyful, no doubt. But the man Ramakrishna endured a harsh existence and died a horrible, painful death.
And I saw all of this in Jeff's frightening book the saint's sublime and pained and vulnerable sides alike and I came away terrified by the implications the book holds for the study of mysticism and religion more generally, and terrified by the implications it holds for all seekers and devotees who might suffer likewise in their search for the Divine.
Professor Coleman is partially right in considering Ramakrishna's life as painful. Indeed, the saint had been, since his childhood, a chronic patient of several ailments, mostly alimentary a condition not so uncommon among the villagers of the nineteenth century. On top of that, he had been again not surprising a bit of a glutton which did not help his case either. Then, of course, he contracted the painful throat cancer which did him in. In fact his Brahmo devotee Keshab Sen observed jestingly that Ramakrishna's physique was so delicate that he ought be kept in a glass case. His pathological condition is perhaps one reason for his hypersensitiveness (his admirer Shivanath Shastri mentions, for example) that often expressed itself in trances which some would consider "hypnotic evasion." Physical pain as the springboard for intense religiosity seems to be a universal condition: Ramprasad Sen of the eighteenth century, Rajanikanto Sen of the late nineteenth century, and Atulprasad Sen of the twentieth century the three classical lyricists of Bengal who wrote wonderful devotional songs adored by the Bengalis even to this day were all victims of physical pain all through their adult life. Rabindranath Tagore's many religious poems and songs were produced during the period of his mourning the death of his loved ones. Even in Europe in the fourteenth century, the curse of the Black Death resulted in intense religiosity (though intense lewdness among some at the same time).
However, when Dr. Coleman refers to Ramakrishna's being exploited and misunderstood by his contemporaries, what source does she quote from? 'Kali's Child'? As far as the sources allow, Ramakrishna often talked of carrying the sins of others into his own body. This was after Girish Ghosh, the flamboyant alcoholic and opium eating actor/director of Calcutta theater (whom Ramakrishna treated very cautiously and pandered to his whimsies by calling him a "Bhairava") and the idiosyncratic and naive Ramchandra Datta began to circulate the canard following Ramakrishna's terminal illness that he was Christ who had taken upon himself the burden of sinners. Is this an instance of Ramakrishna being exploited? In fact the dying patient actually internalized this Christ image! The Brahmos first propagandized the obscure priest of Dakshineshwar as the Paramahamsa. Is this another instance of the saint being exploited? Ramakrishna, as eyewitness accounts suggest, actually enjoyed this reputation and he would often ask his disciple cum factotum Mahendranath Gupta (Sri M) what his visitors thought of him after having listened to his talks and witnessed his dances and trances.
However, nowhere in the sources is there any shred of evidence that he was pained or troubled by any sexual conflicts such as repressed homosexual desires or overt homosexual behavior (though some kind of a gender confusion which did not seem to trouble him may not be ruled out). Yes, 'Kali's Child' has a conflicted and pained Ramakrishna. No doubt, Professor Coleman has read that book thoroughly. I would suggest she now delve into the Bengali sources and check for herself what they say.
As I write this post I recall an almost similar occasion for my RISA-post "Vahbharambhe Laghukriya" in early May 1998 just before the appearance of the second edition of 'Kali's Child'. A similar occasion might be in the offing, maybe a third edition of that blissful blockbuster. As a Bengali, I am tickled to death to find a fellow ethnic's 'guhya' (his holy "secrets " both verbal and anatomical) creating ripples in the cyberspace and the marketplace of the world's most powerful country. Thanks to modern technology, the Hindu "secrets" seem to have scored one up against the Christian holy arcane thought to be stored up in the heavenly warehouse ('thesaurus meritorum') and thence peddled freely in the holy marketplaces of pre-Reformation Europe at the pleasure of the Vicar of Christ on earth. It's thrilling, and on that count, the Hindus, especially the Bengalis, should be in the debt of the author of 'Kali's Child' till doomsday. And yet, there are those ungrateful ones like the present writer who persists, like a tiny Third World worm, to vex the mammoths such as the Valmiki of American Ramakrishnayana. And so here goes....
I think the author of 'Kali's Child' conceals something by claiming that he has angered his critics by "privileging" text over tradition. This clever statement covers up an unsavory, albeit real, truth (now being revealed) that what has been privileged by the author is not text, but hermeneutic. And the authority of hermeneutic is invoked to ward off or delegitimize any critical assault on the author's arbitrary and artificial transcreation of the vernacular sources a strategy reminiscent of the Pandava deployment of Shikhandi against the invincible Kaurava warrior Bhisma.
Then, the author has claimed that he is a historian. However, historians do not run after shadows and symbols but delves dutifully into the documents by subjecting them to the most scrupulous scrutiny through an examination, inter alia, of the culture, context, and history of the creators of these artifacts. The biography (life and teachings) of Ramakrishna has been constructed in 'Kali's Child' not on the real social-cultural world of this rustic priest of colonial Bengal but on his surreal "symbolic universe." Moreover, historian biographers do not homogenize their subjects' human predicaments their contradictions and inconsistencies into an architectonic theory to sustain a symbolic interpretation. On the contrary, they expose them and provide reasonable explanations based on painstaking and rigorous reading, glossing, and reflection.
Before one gets into the problem of Ramakrishna's homosexuality, one must first determine what the sources say. The sources do not say that he was gay or homoerotic or someone unconsciously inspired or troubled by homosexual impulses and energies. Ramakrishna, in fact, was a typical heterosexual Bengali male, albeit with a troubled sexuality (much as the German reformer Martin Luther was). As the master himself confessed, he was deeply troubled by women. Once he was so upset by beholding the bodylines of a young woman in wet sari that he ran yelling the name of Kali. He had his own taxonomy of lusty females and he possessed an intimate knowledge about female breasts. Unlike the author of 'Kali's Child' who has revealed his obsession with Ramakrishna's 'guhya', the real life Kali's child was fascinated, and by the same token appalled, by female anatomy. He was sincere enough to admit publicly that he had not been able to conquer his lust fully but was often troubled by it. By lust he did not imply any lust for his male "pure pots" but the familiar carnal desire for the 'kamini'.
However, we now know, thanks to a fan's recent posting, that the real issue with the current controversy is some sort of a cold war between the East and the West. It is the East's homophobia and intolerance for the West's exposing a raw nerve of the repressed Hindu sexuality. Indeed, Jeffrey Lidke has lifted the lid of the can and the genie is out. What the admirers and fans of 'Kali's Child' cannot stomach is the questioning of Western scholarship emanating from the powerful temples of higher learning. One sees grim preparations for the oncoming battle. Already a friend has made a hurricane trip to India in 'Mahabharata's' Sanjay-like promptitude to gather intelligence from Kolkata on the popularity of 'Kali's Child', and the data thus collected will soon be available in a forthcoming article to be published in a distinguished journal on Hinduism. In the ensuing meeting of the American Academy of Religion (which had conferred its highest recognition on the book) panels are being organized by powerful patriarchs of American academe not only on 'Kali's Child' controversy but even on "Hindu Responses to Academic Scholarship" (a vague conflation of the controversy in question, which has to do with a single scholar's work, with the political agenda of such Hindu fundamentalists as the BJP of India). The celebrated author, who has been visiting Harvard University for this academic year, has been claimed as "Harvard's own" by an eager fan.
'Kali's Child' is a product, par excellence, of a relatively new fad postorientalism. The currently fashionable and freely and frivolously used methods of critical and literary theory, which is a product of the West like its adversary Enlightenment rationality, is keen on McDonaldizing (and thus homogenizing) norms and values of "other" culture and world views. This agenda is parallel to the political and economic evangelization of the world in the 'mantra' of free market and democracy a spin off from the imperialistic Christian evangelization of the pagan orient. Hence the penchant for the pathological on the part of the author of 'Kali's Child'. We even see this in the English translation provided for the Bengali word "gora" in the Introduction of the second edition of the book. Gora means "fair" (thus Gorachand, name for the handsome Sri Chaitanya) and only "symbolically" it might be construed to mean "pale" which has a pathological tinge. Thus those who question or reject the 'Gora'-like truth of 'Kali's Child' has been claimed to suffer from the disease of "cultural paleness." Wow!!
Dr. Kripal, who at one time quibbled on the terms "gay" and "homoerotic" in his correspondence with the present writer, has now come out with his unabashed sentiment. His candid plea for the "egalitarian" homosexuals says a lot more about the advocate than his clients. I am not surprised. I had already been aware of his popularity with the gay media such as 'Trikone'. More recently, Dr. Kripal and his mentor Professor Doniger (author of an article with an erotically scintillating title "When a Lingam is Just a Cigar etc." in an anthology edited by her favorite graduate student) have been cited in tandem as authority for an internet article "On the Adoration of the Lingam" by a frankly COCKy expert of Tantra named Kalkinath. One just has to click the following website: (www.phhine.ndirect.co.uk/archives/tt_lingam.htm).
It is unfortunate that the author's debunking of genuine criticism or his rather idiosyncratic acceptance of select criticisms for his half-cooked Bengali continues unabated. I recall his once persuading me to "wrestle" with his ideas and arguments when I was reading parts of his dissertation which he so kindly asked me to vet. I took a rain-check on that offer. I am willing to cash it, publicly, should he so desire. Meanwhile, I am reminded of Luther's 1525 tract 'Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants' in which he had prescribed a singularly effective strategy for convincing those who refuse to pay heed to reason.
Ramakrishna was a fun-loving and gay (in the now forgotten sense of the word) individual with a simple soul. His physician Dr. Mahendralal Sarkar knew his patient well and held him in deep affection for his sincerity, simplicity, and honesty, though the doctor had little qualms admonishing him for his ecstatic excesses. The late David Kinsley remarked with uncanny perspicacity that "the lesson of Ramakrishna is that man must approach the divine without guile openly, in wonder, with the simple faith of a child ... and that God is like a child [who needs to be amused] in superfluous sport and dalliance." This is a classic instance of compassionate reading of the master. Dr. Kripal's compassion, hailed by one Mr. Vaidyanathan of India, a journalist of the Indian cinema (cited with approval in the Introduction to the second edition of 'Kali's Child'), is for the homoerotic Ramakrishna not Kali's child but Kripal's brain-child, whose act of defecation has even been seen as exuding homoerotic desires ('Kali's Child', 1st ed., p. 314). If this is a sample of historical research, then I say, even at the risk of decrying my own vocation as a historian: "ecrasez l'infame."
In the end, I appeal to the master's homespun wisdom, in particular, to his admonition to those who are unable or unwilling to see the truth (that is, god), but who waste their energy on the unnecessary stuff, something Luther's associate Philip Melancthon had called 'adiaphora' or "things indifferent." Ramakrishna once told a smart Alec, one Shyam Basu, who dared to question the truth of divine providence: "Ore podo, tui aam kheye ne! Baagaane koto shoto gaachh aachhe, koto haajaar daal aachhe, koto koti paataa aachhe, e sob hisabe tor kaaj ki?" My translation: "You asshole, just eat the mango. What will you gain by counting the trees, branches, and leaves in the grove?"
Recently I read Jeffrey Kripal's very interesting and very revealing piece "A Garland of Talking Heads for the Goddess: Some Autobiographical and Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Western Kali" in Alf Hiltebeitel & Kathleen Erndl, Eds. Is the Goddess a Feminist? The Politics of South Indian Goddesses (New York: New York University Press, 2000). Kripal's analysis of Kali is as artful and artificial as the unspoken but yet hollered at messages of his autobiographical tidbits are sincere in the article.
We learn that prior to joining graduate school at Chicago, Jeffrey was training to be a monk or a minister at a Catholic seminary, where he was "forced to explore the interfaces between sexuality and spirituality" and he felt "more than tortured by [his] own psychosexual pathologies." By "psychosexual pathology" Kripal means, as he put parenthetically, anorexia nervosa. This means, as is well known, a pathological condition in! which the patient cannot retain any food (or feces, if we choose to go by a Kripal-like psychoanalytic symbolism which he applied to Ramakrishna) in the body.
He also writes that he felt his readings in Christian bridal mysticism somewhat unholy because of its apparent homoeroticism. However, upon further cogitations (or perhaps, meditations) on the subject Kripal "came to a rather surprising conclusion in regard to [his] own mystico-erotic tradition: heterosexuality is heretical." He then tells readers that his "religious life was quite literally killing [him]" his "body weight had sunk well below the normal." It was at this juncture that the future biographer of Ramakrishna turned his attention to stuff Hindu and chanced upon the Bengali priest of Dakshineshwar.
As some of us are aware, Kripal had provided a psychological explanation of Ramakrishna's reported diarrhea and constipation that the former condition indicated his desire for sodomy and the latter his fear of anal penetration. Anyone who has read my review of Kali's Child in the Statesman will recall my reaction to this sort of gratuitous and purposive psychologizing.
I now think that Kripal's personal experiences (somewhat "dark" and definitely "pathological" or, to quote his own expression, "psychosexual") at the seminary have something to do with his understanding of Ramakrishna's ecstasy via (what some psychologists would call) "projective introversion." What (or who) we have in Kali's Child is not a tormented Ramakrishna (that he has imagined) but the transformed figure of a "tormented Jeffrey Kripal (that he has concealed). His insistence on his heterosexual orientation is actually a cover for his "forced" entry into the world of Christian bridal mysticism (which considers heterosexuality heretical) at the seminary, Kripal majar kuti ("mansion of mirth"), his own Dakshineshwar.
It is becoming clear now why Dr. Kripal, while protesting his heterosexuality is at the same time engaged in the viparita enterprise of sacralizing homosexuality through, conveniently, an ! "other" figure or (in the jargon of the black marketers) a front man the Hindu Ramakrishna.