By Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana

Foreword by Huston Smith

Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2010. Hardback, 410 pages, with appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. Rs. 995.

Review by William Page

Sri Ramakrishna with Hriday at Keshab Sen's house

Ramakrishna in bhava samadhi at the house of Keshab Chandra Sen. He is seen supported by his nephew Hriday and surrounded by Brahmo devotees.

When Jeffrey J. Kripal published Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna in 1995, it caused a furor. This was a study of Sri Ramakrishna based on Freudian presuppositions. It maintained that Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were caused by repressed homosexual tendencies that he himself did not recognize. In developing this thesis, Kripal speculated that Sri Ramakrishna was sexually abused as a child by itinerant sadhus, as a boy by the women of Kamarpukur, as a young man by Mathur Babu and the Bhairavi Brahmani (not both at the same time, presumably), and even by his Vedantic guru, Tota Puri.

No wonder the book provoked an uproar. One wonders how Hriday and Haladhari got left out of the ongoing orgy.

Not even with a pair of tongs

The fury in India was intense. Ironically, even most educated Indians never got to read the book. Published by the University of Chicago Press, it was expensive and generally unavailable in India. What Indians did read, in January 1997, was an explosive review by Narasingha Sil in The Statesman headlined “The Question of Ramakrishna’s Homosexuality.” It criticized Kali’s Child in language that occasionally became very unscholarly indeed, and set off a firestorm of outraged letters to the editor.

“The book reviewed should not have been touched even with a pair of tongs,” one reader fumed. “Deserves to be thrown in the dustbin,” huffed another. “Muck dumped in putrid detail,” snarled a third. Much of the wrath was directed at The Statesman for publishing the review (“filth,” “trash,” “garbage,” “rubbish”), although Kripal of course received a fair share of vilification (“sick,” “diseased,” “perverted”). There were calls for the government of India to ban the book. Kripal himself received a great deal of hate mail (“Dear Mr. Perverter”), and even death threats, which shook him.

And may I digress to express a personal concern. The abuse that was hurled at Kripal from India, like the frenzy over the Babri Mosque, made me ashamed to be associated with Hinduism. Of course devotees were hurt by Kripal’s claims; but devotees should be made of sterner stuff. We aspire, after all, to Vedantic equanimity.

What should we do when somebody maligns our guru — or, worse, our Chosen Ideal? The obvious answer is to strike a middle path between the responses of Yogin and Niranjan. When people criticized Sri Ramakrishna, Yogin remained silent; Niranjan threatened to swamp the boat. Sri Ramakrishna scolded Yogin for not reacting, and Niranjan for overreacting.

The message is clear: Follow a middle path between quiescence and violence. Stand up for your guru, rebut the criticisms, and defend him firmly in a dignified, dispassionate, and rational way.

That’s exactly what Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana do in Interpreting Ramakrishna.

Facing the brute

When the controversy over the Sil review erupted, the Ramakrishna Mission was reluctant to get involved. They believed that doing so would simply give Kripal’s book more publicity and fan the flames. And there was another reason. Spiritual aspirants have to keep their minds on a high plane. From the viewpoint of Ramakrishna devotees, the allegations in Kali’s Child were on a very low plane indeed. Nobody wanted to touch them—not “even with a pair of tongs.” One senior swami wrote that he was able to read only three pages of that “horrible stuff” before having to put the book down. Another said that since the book had been published in America, it was up to the Americans to respond to it.

Eventually that’s what happened. While Kali’s Child was excoriated in India, in the United States the reaction was exactly the opposite. Devotees were naturally appalled, but devotees are a minority in America, and the book was greeted with widespread acclaim by much of the academic community. Kripal had drawn his conclusions from studying M’s Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita in the original Bengali; the academic community couldn’t read Bengali; so there was no way they could check his conclusions even if they had been inclined to do so. And there’s a tendency in some American academic circles to stand up and cheer whenever somebody tears down an established icon.

It was not until Swami Atmajnanananda, an American-born swami fluent in Bengali, addressed the issue in an August 1997 article in an academic journal, that a major counterattack got under way. (On a personal note, I will be forever grateful to Swami Atmajnanananda for clearing up, through personal correspondence, doubts I myself developed after reading Kali’s Child.) Atmajnanananda questioned Kripal’s competence in Bengali and his knowledge of Bengali culture—two key elements to an understanding of Sri Ramakrishna.

Enter Swami Tyagananda. In 1998 he was assigned to the Boston Vedanta center, with auxiliary duties at Harvard University. What was his surprise to find that the claims made in Kali’s Child were defining the discourse about Sri Ramakrishna within the American academic community. He was fresh out of India and hadn’t even read the book. But he quickly rectified this omission, and joined forces with Pravrajika Vrajaprana to produce a 124-page photocopied rebuttal, “Kali’s Child Revisited; or, Didn’t Anyone Check the Documentation?” This was distributed at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2000. It fleshed out in greater detail Swami Atmajnanananda’s contention that Kripal’s book was based on mistranslations from the Bengali and misunderstanding of Bengali culture.

More than just a rebuttal

Interpreting Ramakrishna is an impressive new book that elaborates upon the points presented earlier and adds new ones as well. With a masterful command of detail, it provides an exhaustive and thoroughgoing rebuttal of the allegations contained in Kali’s Child.

But it’s far more than just a rebuttal. It casts its net wider and strikes deeper. Among other things, it contains a history of the debate that Kripal’s book provoked; a wide-ranging discussion of the difficulties of translation and interpretation, especially in a cross-cultural context; and an examination of the possibilities for Ramakrishna studies in the future.

The book begins with a concise but comprehensive survey of the entire body of literature on Sri Ramakrishna, starting with the first collection of his teachings published by Keshab Chandra Sen in 1878 and continuing up to the present. In addition to the traditional interpretations, we encounter the Teutonic ponderosity of Max Muller’s “dialogic process,” Romain Rolland’s Gallic gushings, the imaginative embellishments of Dhan Gopal Mukerji, and much more. This chapter will be of great interest to devotees who, like myself, have been unable to access many of the books and articles written about Sri Ramakrishna over the years. The authors summarize and evaluate all this material in an insightful, magisterial, and even-handed way.

Hijacked by the Freudians

Beginning with an article by Walter Neevel in 1976, Western scholarship on Sri Ramakrishna was hijacked by Tantric enthusiasts and Freudian psychoanalysts, and it’s never been the same since. (This is my interpretation, not the authors’.) Western scholars love Tantra. They think it’s sexy. By contrast, they’re indifferent to Vedanta because they find it arid and boring. I mean, where’s the fun in nirvikalpa samadhi? Much more exciting to be giggling about lingams and yonis.
Freudian psychoanalysis has been criticized even on its home ground for being subjective, unscientific, unreliable, and quirky. Tyagananda and Vrajaprana marvel at the hubris of Western scholars who assume that a North European thought-system rooted in secular materialism and sexuality can begin to comprehend the workings of a 19th-century rural Bengali mind grounded in deity-rich Hinduism and committed to celibacy. (48-49)

Such considerations did not deter writers like Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who psychoanalyzed Sri Ramakrishna in 1980 and found him to be disturbed, depressed, delusional, hallucinatory, and homosexual. It doesn’t make us feel any better to know that Masson also thought the Buddha was depressed; otherwise, why so much emphasis on suffering? (50-53)

The homoerotic hypothesis

Enter Jeffrey Kripal. At the age of 27, he arrived in Kolkata in 1989 to continue his study of Bengali, having already studied Tantra, psychoanalysis, and mysticism. He spent eight months as the guest of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, with access to their library.

Kripal had studied the Kathamrita in the original Bengali and found passages that led him to suspect that Sri Ramakrishna had homosexual tendencies. Because of his own tendency to sexualize his translations and his ignorance of Bengali culture, the more he read, the more convinced he became that he had discovered something that generations of Bengali readers had missed.

He may have fallen into a trap that Tyagananda and Vrajaprana call cultural monovision. (241) This occurs when people come to a foreign country and project their own culturally conditioned preconceptions upon the local culture. I live in Thailand, and I see this a lot. Americans come here and think that Bangkok is just like Los Angeles, and the Thais are just like Mexicans. Westerners often come to Asia, see men holding hands in the street, and assume that they’re homosexuals.

Tyagananda and Vrajaprana cite more than one example of cultural monovision in Kali’s Child. Here’s one: “One can imagine,” Kripal writes, “how upset Narendra must have been with Ramakrishna’s desire to call him Kamalalaksa, one of those effeminate Vaisnava names meaning ‘Lotus Eyes.’” (KC 26) But it’s Kripal who views the epithet as effeminate, not Narendra. Narendra was a Hindu. Hindus are accustomed to hearing male deities referred to as “lotus-eyed”—including Shiva, who can hardly be considered effeminate. (295)

At some point in his studies, Kripal formulated his thesis: that Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences were caused by homoerotic energies of which he was unaware. This raises an obvious question: How could you possibly prove such a thing? How can you demonstrate, in any empirically verifiable way, a causal connection between “homoerotic energies” and mystical experience?

This issue points to a glaring need in contemporary psychological studies. Instead of psychoanalytic theorizing, what we need is a rigorous, scientific study of mystical experience, and especially of samadhi: its prerequisites, its causes, any physiological factors that may facilitate it, any mental factors that may fuel it, its objective and subjective symptoms, and its measurable outcomes. This is a job for the neuroscientists.

Three M’s and an S

Kripal doesn’t succeed in demonstrating a causal connection between homosexuality and mystical experience, but he does try to prove that Sri Ramakrishna was a repressed homosexual. As Tyagananda and Vrajaprana show repeatedly, he does this by mistranslating Bengali expressions, usually slanting them toward a sexual interpretation; by misunderstanding aspects of Bengali culture, usually through ignorance; and by misinterpreting events by viewing them through his own cultural lens. That’s a lot of misses. He also speculates, often quite imaginatively, and later treats his speculations as if they were established facts. The cumulative effect can be convincing, especially since Kripal has a seductive prose style and is skilled in dialectic.

One example illustrates all four of these shortcomings. It’s not in Kali’s Child, but comes from a later book, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, published by Kripal in 2001. Referring to a passage in the Lilaprasanga, Kripal writes that the youthful Swami Abhedananda “misunderstood the doctrine of nonduality and used it in an immoral fashion (we are told no details)… These energies possess definite erotic dimensions—hence their ‘immoral’ use in what I suspect was a sexual practice of some sort (and that is not at all clear, but ‘immoral’ is often a euphemism for ‘sexual’ in the texts.)” (REPW 254, quoted in IR 99.)

Tyagananda and Vrajaprana note that “used it in an immoral fashion” is a mistranslation. The text actually says that Swami Abhedananda “sometimes… did actions contrary to good behavior.” There’s a difference between immorality and improper behavior, and in this case there was nothing immoral—or sexual—about it. The offense Swami Abhedananda committed was eating chicken.

Westerners will laugh, but the authors explain that eating chicken was considered opprobrious by Hindu Bengalis even up until recent times. (99) In this one example we see all the flaws manifested in Kali’s Child: mistranslation, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and speculation.

No demonizing, please — we’re Vedantists

Some devotees may be tempted to demonize Jeffrey Kripal, but that would be alien to the Vedantic tradition. Everybody who has met Kripal—and I haven’t, although I once had a long and vigorous correspondence with him—says that he is a very engaging and personable fellow. I have no doubt that this is true. Nor do I doubt that he is sincere in wanting to attain a fuller understanding of Sri Ramakrishna. He may be horrendously misguided, and consequently deluded, but in one way some of us are in his debt. There’s a point at which serenity segues into complacency, and sometimes we get complacent. Kripal’s book challenged those of us who read it, shook us out of our complacency, forced us to think, roused us to defend our beliefs. We owe him for that.

After eight long years of being bruised and battered by the controversy over Kali’s Child, Jeffrey Kripal finally closed the book on it and went on to more rewarding endeavors. Currently he is actively involved with the Esalen Institute. I wish him well.

A landmark in Ramakrishna scholarship

Interpreting Ramakrishna is bound to become a landmark in Ramakrishna scholarship, and Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana are to be congratulated for a prodigious achievement. For this they should get the Vivekananda Award. The book will undoubtedly prove to be the Ramakrishna movement’s definitive response to the allegations contained in Kali’s Child. Will it mark an end to the hijacking of Ramakrishna studies by the psychoanalytic school?

Probably not. But the psychoanalytic school dodges the issue. The real issue is not what psychological factors may have been involved in Sri Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences. That’s just a sideshow. The real issue is whether he actually experienced a transcendent reality, known in some circles as God. That’s what Vedantists believe, and at our present level of scientific development it can’t be proven or disproven in any empirically verifiable way.

In their final chapter, the authors express the hope that there can be a meeting of the minds between the community of devotees and the academic community of secular-minded scholars. To me this hope seems somewhat forlorn. The gulf between the secular and the Vedantic worldviews is too great to bridge. Despite attempts to “dialogue” and be civil to each other in public, I’ve always had the feeling that each side walks away from every encounter secretly thinking the other side is stupid.

Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana are more optimistic. They’re much more familiar with the thinking of both communities than I am, so I may very well be wrong. I hope I am. I hope that there can be a meeting of the minds. But I wouldn’t bet the ashram on it.

WILLIAM PAGE is a retired teacher of English who has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is currently a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Thailand.