Ramakrishna Scholarship: A Brief History
Both Ramakrishna and then Vivekananda have been constantly reinvented and represented in the light of the interests and concerns of those who have written about them.
—Gwyllem Beckerlegge, The Ramakrishna Mission
Ramakrishna, Vivekananda once remarked, "was contented simply to live that great life and to leave it to others to find the explanation" (CW 8.261). Finding the explanation is what scholars, psychoanalysts, spiritual seekers, politicians, historians, writers and an inexhaustible array of others have attempted to do for over a century. The process of finding the explanation, however, did not occur within a historical or cultural vacuum. The process itself has been complex and circuitous, mediated by a host of various forces, among them colonialism, Orientalism, European and Indian nationalism, and the catastrophic effects of two world wars, along with the ascendancy of the Western scientific model and the embracing of psychoanalysis. Ramakrishna scholarship has closely mirrored this complex movement of intertwining forces, for few Indian historical figures have calibrated European and North American attitudes toward each other as definitively as Ramakrishna.
It is for this reason that we begin this book with a brief survey of Ramakrishna scholarship from the 1880s to the present day. In order to contextualize Kālī's Child, its claims, and the controversy which surrounds it, we first need to locate the book within its historical framework. In this chapter we examine the various historical and cultural processes at play in interpreting not only a nineteenth-century Bengali mystic but also those who evaluated him. Only then can we identify the distance that often seems to disappear between the interpreter and the interpreted, between the Ramakrishna scholar and Ramakrishna himself.
In this brief survey, we will see interpreters of Ramakrishna who have employed Western intellectual paradigms to critique Ramakrishna and/or Hindu culture; we will see other interpreters who have used Ramakrishna for an anti-Western critique. What will remain more or less consistent in these interpretations is the privileging of a Western paradigm, along with a universalism which presupposes the wholesale applicability of European and/or North American norms to other cultures and eras. Moreover, until recent years these assumptions of universality were reinforced by the European and/or North American stranglehold upon political and economic power as well as knowledge production.
In characterizing attitudes as particularly "Western" as opposed to "Eastern," we realize that we are opening ourselves up to the charge of essentialism—the presumption that the "West" has a certain fixed essence which makes it utterly distinctive from the "East," another fixed essence antipodal to that of the West.1 We use these categories consciously but sparingly, knowing (as does the reader) that there is no one vision or version of the "East" any more than there is one of the "West."
As we shall see in the course of this chapter, there has been a distinct change of direction and emphasis in Ramakrishna studies from the latter portion of the nineteenth century to the present day. While Ramakrishna's early Western interpreters by and large presumed the superiority of Western religious and cultural traditions, the veracity of the Ramakrishna tradition's source texts and the reliability of insider translations remained unquestioned. Insider interpretations of Ramakrishna were not inherently suspect by virtue of the fact that they were insider interpretations. By the second half of the twentieth century, predictably in the 1960s, the dynamic between the believing community and the academic community changed. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the basic assumption of good faith between the Ramakrishna tradition and the academy was ruptured, for the tradition's source texts, authors and translators were now interpreted through a hermeneutic of suspicion. In many ways Ramakrishna came to embody the various debates and understandings that both India and the West have had of each other. For this reason Ramakrishna has been and continues to be a lightning rod for East/West understanding.
Ramakrishna in Context
Of all India's nineteenth-century religious figures, Ramakrishna (1836-1886) is arguably the most towering. His influence—and the influence of the Order that bears his name—has increased over the years and remains an impressive force to this day. Ramakrishna was an extraordinary mystic who profoundly affected the lives of many who encountered him. Yet had Ramakrishna not been noticed, indeed championed, by prominent Westerners (such as Max Müller and Romain Rolland) and prominent Indians (such as Keshab Chandra Sen and Swami Vivekananda) in the movement's formative early years, it is doubtful whether Ramakrishna would be known today outside India's borders or even throughout India.
It is useful to remember that by the end of Ramakrishna's fiftyyear lifespan, British rule in India was firmly entrenched. While midnineteenth century Europe was locked in the grip of militaristic nationalism, India was experiencing the upheavals of modernity, carrying with it the birth pangs of nationalism. India's anticolonial nationalism, Partha Chatterjee argues, divided the world into two domains, the material and the spiritual. Included in India's nationalist agenda was its self-definition as essentially "spiritual" in contrast to the West, which was essentially "materialistic" (Chatterjee, 6). As both Europe and India struggled to redefine themselves, each defined itself by steadily observing its European or Indian alter-ego.
For nineteenth-century India, the accumulated influence of generations of colonialism—whether ostensibly benign or aggressive—had its effect. Thrust into modernity through continual association with a culture presumed superior because of its reason and science, many Indians— particularly Bengal's educated, urban middle-class—had accepted and internalized the colonial credo: Indian culture was decayed, contemporary Hinduism was degraded, and reform was needed. Yet hovering over Bengal's educated middle-class was the mounting suspicion that Western science, philosophy, reason, and rationality could not provide them with anything better.
It was into this uneasy set of circumstances that Ramakrishna was born. Ramakrishna's early background scarcely predicted the farreaching effects his life would have. The early years of Ramakrishna's life were spent in Kamarpukur, a village geographically near yet culturally distant from Kolkata. At his elder brother's request, Ramakrishna moved to Kolkata when he was sixteen. Except for the final year of Ramakrishna's life, the remaining thirty-four years of his life were spent in a temple complex at Dakshineswar, near burgeoning Kolkata, where he initially served as a priest at the Kālī temple founded by Rani Rasmani. Kolkata was not only British India's capital but also India's intellectual metropolis and the city that experienced modernity far earlier than any other Indian city.
If there were to be a single locus at which Ramakrishna's trajectory changed from an unknown Bengali mystic to that of a public figure, it would be his 1875 meeting with Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), the Westernized charismatic leader of the Brahmo Samaj, who was instrumental in thrusting Ramakrishna, very much the traditional Hindu, into history. If the educated middle-class elite who composed Keshab's Brahmo Samaj were discomfited by traditional Hindu culture and religion—deemed irrational, unprogressive and unmanly—they were equally ill at ease with Western culture, religion and the strict rationality that was believed to be the antidote to Hinduism's superstitions. The urban intelligentsia of Bengal were nostalgic for their lost rural past, when their religion was uncontaminated by Western scorn and their lives were free from urban anonymity and complexity.2
Ramakrishna's village simplicity, rustic Bengali and complete lack of sophistication thus made him all the more attractive to many of Kolkata's elite. His earthy language and vivid parables were redolent of the rural world long left behind but still longed for. "Through Ramakrishna," Sumit Sarkar writes, "the city bhadralok [the educated middle-class gentry] could imagine themselves to be reaching back to lost traditional moorings, in the countryside, in simple faith conveyed through rustic language" (1993, 7).
Without any desire for doing so, Ramakrishna, through his very existence in Dakshineswar, subverted the value system upheld by the British and absorbed by Bengal's elite. Ramakrishna's unapologetic and unaffectedly enthusiastic Hindu identity, combined with his distaste for modern education, was a breathtaking change from the educated Hindu reformers who were defensive about Hindu culture and religion. While Hindu reformers attempted to stave off Christianity by creating a "purified," rational and anglicized Hinduism as embodied in the Brahmo Samaj, Ramakrishna created an impetus for Hindu pride and self-assertion which was more effective against Christian inroads than any of Bengal's reform movements.3
Ramakrishna and his followers sang at the drop of a hat, danced ecstatically, wept freely, and laughed often in joyful abandon. Later reminiscences by Ramakrishna's disciples recall them laughing so hard that they rolled helplessly on the ground. No contrast could be more stark than that between Ramakrishna's spontaneous freedom and the formalized, highly structured colonial educational system and the equally structured, formalized and inhibited world of cākri, the lowly clerical work in which many Indians were engaged (Sarkar 1993, 23-24).
Keshab Chandra Sen's initial role in making Ramakrishna known both inside and outside India was nearly as significant as Vivekananda's was to be in ensuing years. So influential was Keshab, both through his lectures and his articles, that his admiration for Ramakrishna turned the latter into a well-known personality. "By the early years of the 1880s," Partha Chatterjee writes, "[Ramakrishna] was a frequently discussed personality in the schools, colleges and newspapers of Calcutta" (45).
While Keshab enjoyed enormous popularity in Bengal, of equal or greater significance was the fact that he and his Brahmo Samaj had influential European admirers. For the colonized, the door to success had to be found via appreciation from the West, which both Keshab and Vivekananda had. Indeed, both Keshab's and Vivekananda's luster was geometrically increased in India by the very fact that they were known and admired in the West. Keshab was lionized because, among other factors, he had had breakfast with Prime Minister Gladstone and an audience with Queen Victoria—the latter in India being a near-mythic figure. Vivekananda was even more lionized because he successfully proclaimed Hinduism's greatness to the West and had a good number of Western followers. Most importantly, Vivekananda renewed Hindus' faith in their own religious traditions. Since both these men garnered a significant Western following, it became possible for Ramakrishna to be known in the West.
Keshab's monotheistic Westernized Hinduism, with its strong Christian flavor, was extremely appealing to many who sought a "purified" Hinduism. For the Ramakrishna movement, the most significant among them was F. Max Müller. But before we continue with the Western strand of Ramakrishna studies, we must first investigate the texts which constitute the basic source books on Ramakrishna's life and teachings.
Ramakrishna wrote no books and delivered no lectures. All that we know about Ramakrishna today has come down to us not directly from him but from others through the accounts of his life, his conversations and reminiscences. Some of these biographical accounts, reminiscences and conversations were recorded or written by those who had seen Ramakrishna, lived with him, and knew him closely. All other books on Ramakrishna, written by those who did not meet him, have used these early texts as their source material.
While the Kathāmṛta is the best-known source text in Ramakrishna literature, it was not the first publication on Ramakrishna. In Ramakrishna's own lifetime, four books of his sayings were published, several of which also included biographical information. These were written by Keshab Chandra Sen (1878), Suresh Chandra Dutta (1884), and Ramchandra Datta (1885 and 1886). Among the other early books published after Ramakrishna's death were those by Akshaykumar Sen (1896) and Satyacharan Mitra (1897). Unlike the authors mentioned above, Mitra had no contact with Ramakrishna, and some of the material published in his book can be assessed as either wildly exaggerated or fabricated. This would not be unexpected, since by 1896—particularly given Vivekananda's enormous success in the West—Ramakrishna had gained considerable fame, and tales surrounding him had grown exponentially.
Today Ramakrishna scholars primarily direct their attention to the three major source texts on Ramakrishna: Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta recorded by Mahendra Nath Gupta, Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Līlāprasaṅga written by Swami Saradananda, and Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Paramahaṁsadeber Jībanabṛttānta written by Ramchandra Datta. In addition, the records of conversations with Vivekananda and other disciples of Ramakrishna provide nuggets of valuable information. None of these, however, deal with Ramakrishna exclusively the way the three books mentioned above do. These three books were published with the clear intent of making Ramakrishna more widely known, and they provide considerable information about his life and teachings.4 All subsequent additions to Ramakrishna literature have used in varying degrees these three books as their basic resource.
Notwithstanding claims of objectivity, every book ever written necessarily has subjective elements in it. Subjectivity plays a major role in determining what makes the author highlight one aspect at the expense of another, or position events in an order or a pattern best suited to conform to the author's agenda or thesis. Every book—even if it is a "translation"—is at some level an "interpretation." This holds true for these three books—Kathāmṛta, Līlāprasaṅga and Jībanabṛttānta—as well. The authors of these books do not merely provide their readers with information but also interpret Ramakrishna for them. Their books can be viewed as both source texts and as being among the earliest Indian interpretations of Ramakrishna's life and teachings.
By far the best known among the source books on Ramakrishna is Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta ("The Nectar of Sri Ramakrishna's Words") written by his disciple Mahendranath Gupta (1854--1932), famously known simply as "M." M had a brilliant academic career at Hare School and Presidency College in Kolkata. He taught in a number of schools in Kolkata and was a professor at Ripon College. Reputed to be an excellent teacher, M was well versed in both Eastern and Western philosophy as well as in history, literature and astronomy. Before meeting Ramakrishna, M was a member of the Brahmo Samaj.
M's mother died when he was young and, while in college, he married Nikunja Devi, a cousin of Keshab Sen. Eventually the increasing friction within M's joint family reached the point where he was ready to commit suicide. It was at this critical juncture that M's nephew took him for a walk to the temple garden in Dakshineswar "where a paramahaṁsa lives." It was here that M met Ramakrishna for the first time. For M, life would never be the same again. Years later, when M was asked what had been the greatest day in his life, he answered without hesitation: "The day I had my first darśan of Thakur [Ramakrishna] in February 1882."5 Providentially, M had been a meticulous diarist from childhood.
His longstanding habit of maintaining a personal diary now found a serendipitous outlet: beginning with his first meeting with Ramakrishna, M carefully noted every meeting he had with him. M was graced with an eye for detail and a formidable memory and these gifts served him well as he recorded Ramakrishna's words and actions in his diary—a record that finally took the form of a book which became known as Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta.
The book's appearance took a somewhat circuitous route, however. There is no question that when M began to record in his diaries the words of Ramakrishna, M had neither the idea nor the intention of ever creating a "book" from it (Dey, 146). This is evident from the Kathāmṛta itself, where we read M's response to Girish Ghosh's request to share the contents of his diary: "I am writing for myself, not for others. . . . You may get it when I die" (KA 2.242). Clearly at this point in his life, M was not in a sharing mood. How M created what eventually was to become his life's greatest project is best described in M's own words:
Thakur made my condition such that—after hearing him for seven or eight hours and observing him closely—I could remember everything when I returned home at night. I could note down every detail. I could not finish it all in a single day. It would come to my mind gradually. Such was the deep impression he made. I was recording everything for five years and none knew of it. (Nityatmananda, 5.18)
Unlike a stenographer, M did not record the words of Ramakrishna as soon as he heard them. To continue M's story:
I wrote everything from memory after I returned home. Sometimes I had to keep awake the whole night. What I have presented here is not collected from others. . . . Sometimes I would keep on writing the events of one sitting for seven days, recollect the songs that were sung, and the order in which they were sung, and the samādhi and so on. . . . On every scene I have meditated a thousand times throughout my life.
. . . Many a time I did not feel satisfied with my description of the events; I would then immediately plunge myself in deep meditation on Thakur. Then the correct image would arise before my mind's eye in a bright, real and living form. That is why in spite of the big gap in the physical sense, this story remains so fresh and lifelike in my mind as if it happened just now. (Dey, 143-44)
M began compiling Ramakrishna's teachings within two years of Ramakrishna's death. Once the teachings were compiled, M sought out Ramakrishna's widow Sarada Devi and read them out before her. Significantly, it was from Sarada that M sought confirmation of his writings, since for M there was no question that Sarada was the ultimate authority. Not only did M revere her for her spiritual wisdom but, on a practical level, he also recognized that she had known and lived with Ramakrishna for many years. Though largely hidden in the Kathāmṛta, Sarada's influence on the book's creation was quite profound. Not only was M's wife Sarada's disciple, but M himself—although a disciple of Ramakrishna—had also taken mantra initiation from Sarada Devi (Prabhananda 2004b, 346-47). What is also not generally known to readers either of the Kathāmṛta or of its English translation was that most of M's diary entries began with the heading "Śrī Śrī Gurudev [Ramakrishna] is the refuge," followed by "Śrī Śrī Mā [Sarada] is the refuge." During Sarada's lifetime, the first four volumes of the Kathāmṛta were dedicated at her feet (Prabhananda 2004b, 350). Given this, it is not surprising that M often sought her counsel. As M read out his manuscript to her, Sarada confirmed its accuracy, praising and blessing his endeavor.
M's first publication, issued long before the Kathāmṛta, was a twentypage pamphlet of Ramakrishna's teachings, entitled Paramahaṁsadeber Ukti ("Sayings of Paramahaṁsa Dev"), published in 1892.6 According to the pamphlet, Sadhu Mahindranath Gupta collected the sayings and Satchidananda Gitaratna was its publisher—both names being pseudonyms for M (Prabhananda 2004c, 378). The booklet went into several editions and was warmly received. Vivekananda wrote M in February 1889 with vigorous praise:
Thanks a hundred thousand times, Master [M]! You have hit Ramakrishna in the right point. Few, alas, understand him! PS. My heart leaps with joy—and it is a wonder that I do not go mad when I find anybody thoroughly launched into the midst of the doctrine which is to shower peace on earth hereafter. (CW 6.204)
It was not long before M decided to bring out Ramakrishna's teachings in English and in conversational form, publishing them in the English journals Dawn and Brahmavadin (it was from the latter journal that Max Müller found the source material for "A Real Mahatman"). M also published them separately as two pamphlets entitled A Leaf from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, in October and November 1897 (Dey, 147). He sent copies of these pamphlets to Vivekananda, who was extremely enthused and encouraging, writing M: "Everybody likes it here and in the West" (CW 5.140).7
However, while M's efforts were greatly appreciated both by the general public and within the young Ramakrishna movement, Ramchandra Datta in his Bengali journal Tattvamañjarī criticized M for writing in English rather than Bengali. As to why this struck a particular nerve, we should keep in mind that by the middle of the nineteenth century, English had replaced Persian as the language of bureaucracy. It had become the prerequisite tongue of Bengal's intelligentsia and was the instrument of intellectual influence, of "modern" culture, and of course, colonial domination. Moreover, language is a defining feature of national identity. As Partha Chatterjee points out, the Bengali language belonged "to that inner domain of cultural identity, from which the colonial intruder had to be kept out" (7). Urging M "not to give up the Bengali language," Datta further advised M to publish his material as a book rather than as pamphlets (Dey, 147). Given this spur, M made the decision to write the Bengali Kathāmṛta in the conversational style of his English Leaf from the Gospel.
By the time M had made the decision to publish the Kathāmṛta, portions from his diary had already appeared in several Bengali journals such as Anusandhān, Ārati, Ālocanā, Utsāha, Udbodhan, Ṛṣi, Janmabhūmi, Tattvamañjarī, Nabyabhārat, Punya, Pradīp, Prabāsī, Prayās, Bāmābodhinī, Sāhitya, Sāhitya-saṁhitā, and Hindu Patrikā (Sunil Bihari Ghosh, 220). And amazingly, while this is quite a formidable list, it is not exhaustive. The first volume of the Kathāmṛta was compiled from those extracts which had already been published. This in itself substantiates the fact that M's five-volume work was not preplanned to be arranged cyclically in order to conceal "a secret," as Kālī's Child alleges. The Kathāmṛta was printed and published in 1902 by Swami Trigunatitananda, Ramakrishna's disciple, at the Udbodhan Press, the Bengali publishing house of the Ramakrishna Order (220). M's choice of Kathāmṛta for the book's title—literally, "nectarine words"— was inspired by a verse (10.31.9) from the Vaiṣṇava text, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.
What we may not realize today is how truly uncharted M's literary territory was. The format and the style which appeared in the Bengali Kathāmṛta had never before appeared in print. Instead of a linear arrangement of teachings, M presented Ramakrishna as he had encountered him in the full context of his daily life, with all the atmospheric sounds and visual effects included. In contrast to the formalized language which was deemed mandatory for Bengali writing, M's language revealed to the public a living human being who told funny stories, danced, sang, and went into samādhi.
What is nearly impossible to transmit to those who cannot read the Bengali Kathāmṛta is how wildly different Ramakrishna's voice is from M's. As Partha Chatterjee has noted, the Kathāmṛta "combines two radically different linguistic idioms—one, the rustic colloquial idiom spoken by Ramakrishna, and the other, the chaste formality of the new written prose of nineteenth-century Calcutta" (51). The "new" prose of Kolkata was profoundly influenced by not only the words and syntax of the English language but, as importantly, by the very thoughts and the conceptual framework articulated in the language. Thus Ramakrishna's language and M's language projected entirely different worlds, worldviews, value systems and senses of history.
While much has been made of Ramakrishna's "vulgar" language, we need to keep in mind that it was coarse only when compared to the newly minted, urban, English-parturiated Bengali. What is also nearly impossible for readers unfamiliar with pre-modern village Bengali to know is that, as Chatterjee points out, Ramakrishna's language showed
great conceptual richness, metaphoric power, and dialectical skill. It was the language of preachers and poets in pre-colonial Bengal, and even when used by someone without much formal learning (such as Ramakrishna), it was able to draw upon the conceptual and rhetorical resources of a vast body of literate tradition. (51-52)
That is, of course, one reason why Ramakrishna was such a great source of attraction in late-nineteenth-century urban Bengal. Had it not been so, he—a poor uneducated priest—would hardly have drawn the likes of Keshab Chandra Sen, Girish Ghosh, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and other luminaries belonging to Kolkata's cultural elite.
In contrast to Ramakrishna, M was a product of the British educational system. In the Kathāmṛta, M navigates between his "English" world and his Bengali one, a contrast made clear not only by Ramakrishna's pre-modern village cadences and M's highly educated, anglicized narrative voice, but also by M's frequent English captions which he employs throughout the Kathāmṛta. While Ramakrishna discusses any number of varying subjects, M often places these topics under such English headings as (and here is a short random sampling): "Involution and Evolution" (KA 2.219); "Reconciliation of Free Will and God's Will—of Liberty and Necessity" (KA 4.255); "Identity of the Undifferentiated and Differentiated" (KA 4.34); "The Absolute Identical with the Phenomenal World" (KA 3.67); "Perception of the Infinite" (KA 1.190)—and so on. Significantly, the "Perception of the Infinite" heading provides a footnote which directs the reader to "compare discussion about the order of perception of the Infinite and of the Finite in Max Müller's Hibbert Lectures and Gifford Lectures" (KA 1.190). In so doing, M pointedly places Ramakrishna on the same intellectual platform as Europe's renowned philosophers.
This is significant, especially when we see how Swami Saradananda, author of the Līlāprasaṅga, confronts the same issue as M; namely, as English-educated members of the Bengali elite and as disciples of Ramakrishna, should they place Ramakrishna only within the context of India's philosophical history or also within the framework of Western philosophy? Their interpretations could not be separated from the ground reality of India's domination by Western intellectual traditions. While the Brahmos were caught in an uneasy pull between the Western modernity they embraced and India's Hindu religio-philosophical heritage, M would make every effort to place Ramakrishna and European thinkers on the same intellectual footing. To implement this, M also supplements through footnotes Ramakrishna's words with Sanskrit quotations from the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad Gītā in order to place Ramakrishna in the august company of India's religious and intellectual giants.
The Kathāmṛta was originally written in five volumes, which were published over a period of thirty years, the first four volumes published in 1902, 1904, 1908 and 1910 respectively. The fifth and final volume took much longer, as M was elderly and increasingly ill; it was published in 1932 and was at the printers when M died. The volumes are almost— but technically not—a stenographic record of Ramakrishna's conversations from March 1882 to April 1886. As we have already seen, there is no textual evidence anywhere to indicate that M began transcribing his diaries with the express intention of publishing a "book." There is also no evidence to support the idea that M organized the contents of the five volumes of the Kathāmṛta in a predetermined manner. In fact, in none of the extensively documented conversations of M, which comprise sixteen volumes,8 do we find anything to suggest that M had planned in advance the scheme of what is available today as the Kathāmṛta.
Since M's day, many have held the Kathāmṛta in high regard, and for those devoted to Ramakrishna, the book has become a kind of Bible. As Sumit Sarkar points out: "Today, an average middle or lower middle class Hindu household in Bengal can be expected to have a portrait of Ramakrishna somewhere, along with, quite possibly, a well-thumbed copy of the Kathāmṛta" (1993, 2). Such has been the impact of the book that Swami Vijnanananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna, told M: "After inquiring, I have discovered that 80% or more of our monks have embraced the life of renunciation by reading the Kathāmṛta, and through contact with you" (Lokeswarananda 1992, 15).
In each of M's Kathāmṛta entries, he scrupulously records the date, time and place of the conversation. The Kathāmṛta also contains the memoirs of Aswini Kumar Dutta, several secondhand accounts of Ramakrishna's meeting with other devotees, and a description of events at the Baranagore Math, the earliest monastery of the Ramakrishna Order. All of these, however, were placed in the Appendix and not in what M calls "the main text" of the book, because they were not firsthand material recorded on the same day as the event.
When M was told that different versions of what Ramakrishna had said and done had already begun to appear, M replied that he was not at all surprised. Such things had happened before, he said, pointing to the dissimilarities in the four Gospels of the Bible (Dey, 143). M's biblical reference is telling. Considering the odd mixture of awe and resentment with which the religion of their colonial rulers was viewed in British India, it is worth noting that M's choice for his first English title was A Leaf from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Like his contemporaries in Bengal's intelligentsia, M was both familiar with and influenced by the Bible. His choice of the word "Gospel" is understandable, even predictable. In using this scriptural tag, M both affirms Ramakrishna as equivalent to the Christ of the Christians and provides a scripture—the necessary written text—which will endow the young movement with a vital requirement. Again we see M navigating the terrain between his "English" and Bengali worlds. Hence M both acquiesces to the colonial standards for an accepted religion, while inserting a Hindu avatar in place of the Christian savior. For Bengal's nineteenth-century elite, the Bible would represent the religion and the language of the educated. In emulating the biblical model, M aims—even if unconsciously—to validate Ramakrishna among the educated classes of his peers.
It would therefore be entirely expected that M would retain the "Gospel" title when he translated the first volume of the Bengali Kathāmṛta into English in 1907. The book was published in Madras by the Brahmavadin Club, founded by followers of Ramakrishna. What is remarkable is the extent to which M employed the language of the King James version of the Bible. To a contemporary North American ear, M's biblical language in describing Ramakrishna's samādhi, for example, lies somewhere between hilarious and jarring: "The sweet angelic voice hath become still. . . . . The inner eye looketh within and beholdeth the Vision of Glory. The Blessed Vision the Master enjoyeth for a while. His face shineth with a heavenly luster and at last breaketh into smiles" (Mahendranath Gupta 1912, 61). M's choice of language must have struck an off key with his peers as well, for we find M revising the book four years later and freeing it from its biblical trappings.
Yet even without the "thou"s and "speaketh"s which appeared in the earliest editions, the hovering presence of the Bible as a fundamental model pervades the text. M's penchant for making the Gospel similar to the Bible was not limited to the title alone. In several places in the Kathāmṛta, we find him going out of his way to demonstrate a connection between Ramakrishna and Jesus (see, for instance, KA 3.210, 3.249, 4.246). Importantly, however, Christ was not the only exemplar. Caitanya (1486-1534), Bengal's ecstatic saint, was the other role model whose similarity with Ramakrishna is invoked throughout the Kathāmṛta. It is no accident that M said to Ramakrishna: "I feel that Jesus Christ, Caitanyadeva, and yourself—all three are one" (KA 3.211). What is interesting here is how M balances two models of religiosity as he holds the scale of East and West while reconstructing his diary which later became the Kathāmṛta.
M's English version of the Kathāmṛta is not a literal translation but his "own rendering of his thoughts rather than language, directly into English with many elaborations and elucidating repetitions" (Dey, 147). He evidently did not undertake to translate the other volumes of the Kathāmṛta. The second volume was translated by Swami Ashokananda and published in Madras in 1922 (Gargi, 82). Its second edition was published in 1928 after its language had been "edited and improved mostly by a Western friend" (Dey, 148).
When Swami Nikhilananda finally published in 1942 the more or less complete English translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in New York, he did not change the title chosen by M. Nikhilananda's translation was well received, Time magazine writing that it was "one of the world's most extraordinary religious documents."9 In 1949 the New York Herald Tribune invited eminent literary figures in America to name "three memorable books of the past twenty-five years," and included in that august company was The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.10 While Nikhilananda's translation has increasingly come under critical scrutiny in the last two decades, it is worth remembering that it was a groundbreaking book in its era.
In reading the Kathāmṛta, one is aware of the constant presence of two people—M and Ramakrishna. Yet M is often seen by his desire to not be seen. By nature quiet and self-effacing, M instinctively avoided calling any attention to himself. Moreover, M wanted to remain invisible so that the reader's focus would be solely on Ramakrishna. While often referring to himself in the Kathāmṛta simply as "M," he also used pseudonyms such as "Master,"11 "Mani," "Mohinimohan" or simply "a devotee."
One other point worth mentioning is that at the time of M's death, he had enough diary material for another five or six volumes. Poignantly and frustratingly, M's diary notations were as sparse as they were cryptic. As a result, M's Kathāmṛta project ended with the fifth volume. And, lest there be any misunderstanding, it needs to be said that the sketchy notations which constitute the remainder of M's diary belong solely to M's descendants, not to the Ramakrishna Order. It also needs to be pointed out that, according to Dipak Gupta, M's great-grandson, scholars can, and have, seen these diaries. Gupta's letter which attests to this fact appears in this book's Appendix.
Published four years after Ramakrishna's death, the Jībanabṛttānta ("The Life Story of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahaṁsa") was the first major book written on Ramakrishna. Ramchandra Datta (1851-1899) was among the early wave of devotees that came to Ramakrishna in the late 1870s. Ramchandra—his name was often shortened to "Ram" in Ramakrishna circles—inherited his Vaiṣṇava faith from his father, who was a devotee of Kṛṣṇa. Ram briefly became an agnostic in his youth while he pursued his degree in science, becoming an assistant chemical examiner at Calcutta Medical College. Through the writings and speeches of Brahmo leader Keshab Chandra Sen, Ram came to know about Ramakrishna. The deep-seated devotional temperament that Ram had had in his childhood was resurrected in Ramakrishna's company and he became a devout disciple and devotee of Ramakrishna. He was among the first to publicly proclaim Ramakrishna an avatar.
It is ironic that Ram heard of Ramakrishna through Keshab, because Ram's renewed faith in God awakened his Vaiṣṇava heritage and simultaneously killed any appreciation of the Brahmo Samaj that he may have had. In fact, Ram's real antipathy to the movement is unmistakable in the Jībanabṛttānta (which is second only to his hostility toward Tantra). Interestingly, Ram, though educated, was unlike either M or Saradananda; his writing showed little sign of the Westernization that had so deeply influenced the other two. While both M and Saradananda felt compelled to address the issues of Western thought and how Ramakrishna fit into those alternative paradigms, Ram had no interest in doing so. He never discusses it, it does not interest him. He found it unimportant, tangential at best. Ram's distaste for the Brahmo Samaj— he was extremely critical of study and lectures, for example, which were the Samaj's strongest suit—is indicative of the low-grade conflict that would be seen within Ramakrishna's disciples, particularly after his death. Like many Vaiṣṇavas, Ram did not believe in sādhana (spiritual practice), but in the grace of the avatar. Again, faith in the avatar—not reason—was of prime importance. There was, Ram warned, no hope for the faithless (JB, 234). This outlook would not sit well with a number of Ramakrishna's other disciples, as many of them had previously been members of the Brahmo Samaj and had been nurtured with the belief in the primacy of reason and logic.
Perhaps none of Ramakrishna's disciples had a stronger desire to publish books about Ramakrishna than Ram did, and no one had more problems doing so. In 1884, while Ramakrishna was still living, Ram wrote a brief biography of Ramakrishna. In his Preface to the Jībanabṛttānta, Ram writes that he had long desired to write a biography of "Paramahaṁsadeb" [Ramakrishna]. Krishnaprasanna Sen of Varanasi took the manuscript from Ram with the intention of having it printed in Varanasi, but for some reason that never came to pass. Ram writes in the Jībanabṛttānta's Preface that he does not know why it was not printed. In 1885 Ram collected a number of Ramakrishna's teachings, publishing them in Bengali under the title Tattvasāra. A number of devotees disapproved of Ram's publishing venture, however, and mentioned the news to Ramakrishna. According to Swami Chetanananda, Ramakrishna cautioned Ram: "Do not publish my biography now. If you do, my body will not last long" (1989, 88-89).
It was Ram's conviction that Ramakrishna was the embodiment of "eternal and total being of Brahman" (pūrna-brahma sanātan) and for this reason all that was necessary for one's spiritual life was to remember Ramakrishna, meditate on him, and propagate his name. Ram was therefore nonplussed by the altogether different attitude of Ramakrishna's other disciples, primarily the younger ones, who saw Ramakrishna as their exemplar. They reasoned that Ramakrishna had set the pattern to follow: faith in Ramakrishna was not enough. It had to be accompanied by personal effort, which would, in time, result in spiritual experience (Mahendra Dutta, 54). Like Christianity's faith versus works or the Hindu tradition's bhakti versus jñāna dispute, this basic difference in approach was a source of strain in the early community of Ramakrishna devotees.
While many of Ramakrishna's young disciples were opposed to Ram's outlook and methods, they certainly were not the only ones who took issue with Ram's way of making Ramakrishna known to the wider public. Many of Ramakrishna's older devotees were equally displeased. Even after Ramakrishna's death, when it became known that Ram was preparing to write Ramakrishna's biography, the majority of them disapproved of the idea. The general consensus among Ramakrishna's followers was that they should first practice sādhana to acquire enough spiritual maturity and stature for others to take them seriously. Indeed, Narendra (who later became Swami Vivekananda) dissociated himself from the project to such an extent that he sent word to Ram through an older devotee, Balaram Bose, not to include him in the new biography. Several others also made similar requests.12 While this undoubtedly upset Ram, he acquiesced.
A more mundane reason for Narendra's not wanting to be included in Ram's book was Narendra's involvement in a court case against some of his relatives who had claimed ownership of the house in which his widowed mother and young brothers lived. Although already a monk, Narendra took responsibility for managing the court case as he was the eldest son. For that reason, Narendra did not wear his ochre robes or use his sannyāsa (monastic) name in public, for that could have complicated his participation in the court case. Under these circumstances, the prospect of Ram's book on Ramakrishna (with the inevitable reference to Narendra as a sannyāsin), would have hurt the lawsuit, hence Narendra's request not to be included in the book. It was only after the court case was settled in 1889,13 in fact, that Narendra began using his sannyāsa name in public.
We should keep in mind, however, that this disagreement over Ram's biography did not spill over into hostility or antagonism. According to Mahendra Dutta, although these two groups had their differences, they nevertheless had great love and respect for one another (87). Despite their differences, Ram and Narendra maintained a very good relationship with one another. When Narendra returned to India as the lionized Vivekananda, he visited the ailing Ram and did a prā~ṇam to him in the traditional way, which overwhelmed Ram. Further, even before Vivekananda returned from America, Ram's public lectures included glowing references to Vivekananda.14
To return to the Jībanabṛttānta, Ram's Vaiṣṇava approach is clearly seen throughout the book. The language and style exude his unquestioning reverence for Ramakrishna. In the preface to the first edition, Ram recognizes his own inability to gauge the depth of a life like Ramakrishna's, but he also does not hesitate to say that "ordinary" (sādhāran) people—himself obviously not included—will not be able to comprehend some aspects of Ramakrishna's life. This kind of remark has naturally created the impression that Ram was withholding secret information. Since no one knows what Ram was keeping to himself, it leaves the field open for speculation.
The Jībanabṛttānta chronologically describes the events in Ramakrishna's life. The book contains more commentary than events, which is understandable given the author's temperament: Ram was more a devout preacher than a painstaking researcher. Not surprisingly, there are some inaccuracies in his book. However, the Jībanabṛttānta's strength lies not in its historical accuracy but in the devotion of its author and the insight it provides into many aspects of Ramakrishna's life. As the first published biography of Ramakrishna, the Jībanabṛttānta is invaluable, for it gives the reader insight into the mind of a devotee who had the opportunity to be closely associated with Ramakrishna for a period of approximately ten years.
The Jībanabṛttānta was first published in Kolkata in 1890 and remained relatively unknown even in Bengal. Although Ram's devotion and dedication were unquestionable, he lacked the stature—at least at that time—which would have given his book more authenticity. Years later, after the copyright of the book was transferred to the Ramakrishna Order, the book was published by the Order and it began to acquire the readership it deserved.15 By that time, however, Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga had already been published and had become a classic in its own right. Although Saradananda's book was—like the Jībanabṛttānta—also an interpretation of Ramakrishna's life, the Līlāprasaṅga had the added advantage of having been meticulously researched and enriched by the input of several of Ramakrishna's contemporaries.
Whereas the Kathāmṛta is a diary, or a record of Sri Ramakrishna's conversations, the Līlāprasaṅga is Ramakrishna's biography written by his disciple Swami Saradananda (1865-1926). Sarat (as Saradananda was known in his youth) came from a middle-class, orthodox brahmin family. An exceptionally good student, Sarat, like M, was a graduate of Hare School and—again, like M—gravitated to the Brahmo Samaj. It was through a friend of his cousin's that Sarat heard about Ramakrishna and visited him in Dakshineswar in October 1883. Eventually, both Sarat and his cousin Sashi took sannyāsa, monastic vows of renunciation, upon Ramakrishna's death.
Sarat later joined Vivekananda in the West to help the incipient Vedānta movement. While never attaining the celebrity status that Vivekananda achieved, Saradananda was appreciated for his learning and loved for his sweet, affectionate nature. He developed close friendships with a number of Westerners, which he valued and maintained throughout his life.16 At Vivekananda's request, Saradananda returned to India to become the first General Secretary of the Ramakrishna Order. His temperament was well suited to being the General Secretary of a growing organization, known as he was for his kindly temperament, unflappability and patience.
Saradananda's magnum opus, the Līlāprasaṅga, was not planned as a "biography" in the usual sense of the term. There were a number of overlapping factors which prompted Saradananda to write what he called "the series" on Ramakrishna. What we know today as the Līlāprasaṅga is in fact a five-part narrative which deals with Ramakrishna's childhood, his years as a sādhaka, and later his years as a teacher training his disciples. As Saradananda wrote to an American friend on June 18, 1914:
The book [part 3 of the book, which Saradananda wrote first] is not really on the life of Sri Ramakrishna but on Sri Ramakrishna as the spiritual guide and can be counted as a philosophical analysis of that side of his character only ... My plan is to present a complete picture of Sri Ramakrishna (the various phases of his character) when the series will be completed. The series is more along the line of writings which has been called in German as Character-build. (Prabhananda 1997, 274)
There were several motivations which prompted the project. In the Ramakrishna Order's Bengali journal, Udbodhan, innumerable articles arrived for publication in the early years of the twentieth century, no doubt in response to the growing interest in Ramakrishna's life and teachings. Many of the articles abounded in factual errors. As editor and publisher of the journal, Saradananda felt the need for an authentic biography.
Another motivation for Saradananda's book was his desire to dispel the view, propagated in the early days by M, that many people—primarily Ramakrishna's monastic disciples—had ignored the message of Ramakrishna's life and had pursued a path which was basically counter to Ramakrishna's teachings. M's primary objection was to the ideal of sevā, service, which was given considerable attention in the movement. Significantly, it was Sarada Devi who categorically stated that sevā was indeed "Thakur's work," thus completely and permanently changing M's mind on the subject (Gambhirananda, 210).17
A more down-to-earth reason for the Līlāprasaṅga's publication was to raise funds to pay off at least part of the money borrowed to build a house (Māyer Bāri) for Sarada in Kolkata. Finally, there remained the simple fact that many of Ramakrishna's admirers and disciples, lay and monastic, had either died or were on the verge of doing so, and for this reason Saradananda felt it was important to preserve for posterity their reminiscences and memories of Ramakrishna. Accordingly, he issued an appeal in the Udbodhan to all who had met Ramakrishna to share what they knew about him. Much of that material, after a careful verification process, later found a place in the Līlāprasaṅga.
Saradananda's secretary, Swami Aseshananda, noted that of all Ramakrishna's monastic disciples, only Saradananda kept a diary of day-to-day events. While Hindu sādhus traditionally placed little to no importance on either time or historicity, Saradananda was constituted altogether differently—paying careful attention to historical detail and taking great pains to record in the Līlāprasaṅga only those incidents which could be verified. "He would unceasingly encourage me," Aseshananda wrote, "to distinguish what I had seen from what I had heard from others and then to verify the truth of what I had heard. He was a staunch admirer and uncompromising advocate of truth—both historical (vyāvahārika) and transcendental truth" (Aseshananda 1982, 49-50).
If that be the case, then Saradananda's situating of careful historical research on his subject against his larger backdrop of the līlā of an avatar (Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Līlāprasaṅga literally means "incidents from the līlā of Ramakrishna") is an example of the conflict between the worldviews in which Bengal's educated middle-class found themselves. As we have seen, M attempted to balance his Western intellectual background with the contrasting worldview which Ramakrishna presents. Ramakrishna and European thinkers are placed together, along with biblical references and Sanskrit verses from the Upaniṣads and Bhagavad Gītā. By contrast, Ramchandra Datta does not address Western intellectual concerns at all.
Saradananda takes an entirely different route by placing Ramakrishna's life in the realm of eternal līlā, the divine play of the avatar. While Ramakrishna's life is to be understood as entirely different from ordinary human lives, Saradananda nevertheless simultaneously presents a wealth of carefully acquired data to accurately present the incidents of the avatar's earthly life. It is interesting that Saradananda's contemporary Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay presents Kṛṣṇa in his famed Kṛṣṇacarita as an ideal man, not an avatar. Faced with choosing East or West, Bankim veers West, with all that this implied.
Saradananda takes the opposite tack, and this very divergence is symbolic of the larger questions which Bengal's intelligentsia faced. Saradananda presents what are seemingly miraculous elements in Ramakrishna's birth to a presumably skeptical audience. Saradananda addresses these doubts by noting that other avatars—Rāma, Kṛṣṇa, Buddha, Jesus, Caitanya, Śaṅkara—also had miraculous events surrounding their birth, which could not be explained by Western reason.
While the West had made enormous strides in physical sciences, Saradananda writes, its materialistic outlook "could not show the way to the knowledge of the Atman" (LP 1.16). Thus, in the most important area of human life, that of God-realization, India stood above all. Partha Chatterjee discusses this problematic of the material and the spiritual within the context of the nineteenth-century Bengali intelligentsia, who at this point were painfully aware of the "incompleteness of the claims of the modern West to a superior culture." For this very reason, the intelligentsia would assert
the sovereignty of the nation over the domain of spirituality.... Saradananda himself was very much a part of the middle-class culture of Bengal that had, by the turn of the century, come to accept these criteria as fundamental in framing of questions of cultural choice.(Chatterjee, 48)
Thus, it would be a mistake to think that Saradananda (or Vivekananda, for that matter) was exceptional in positing an essentialist East-is-spiritual versus West-is-materialistic argument. This dichotomy was the very basis of the middle-class's dilemma. It was a "cultural choice" which the middle-class had to make in order to navigate their particular world. As Chatterjee notes, "The assertion of spirituality would have to rest on an essential difference between East and West, and the domain of autonomy thus defined would have to be ordered on one's own terms, not on those set by the conqueror in the material world" (49).
Therefore when faced with the same question that M addressed: How would they—as English-educated members of the Bengali elite and as disciples of Ramakrishna—place Ramakrishna within the context of India's religious heritage and India's domination by the West, Saradananda takes his stand on India's religious heritage, placing Ramakrishna squarely in the tradition of the avatar and his līlā.
Divided into five parts and published between the years 1911 and 1918, the Līlāprasaṅga is a massive book spanning more than 1500 pages. It does not cover the entire story of Ramakrishna's life. It begins with his birth in 1836 and concludes with his stay at Shyampukur in Kolkata for the treatment of cancer. In 1935, eight years after Saradananda's death, his article in the Udbodhan which covered a few of the incidents in the Cossipore garden house was added as an appendix to the fourth edition of the fifth part. From the notes discovered among Saradananda's papers it is evident that he wanted to write a sixth part incorporating Ramakrishna's last days. However, with the death of Sarada Devi in 1920, he apparently lost any impetus to complete his magnum opus, and for this reason an account of the last days of Ramakrishna is missing from the book. Instead, Saradananda became involved in the building of a temple to Sarada Devi in her native village of Jayrambati.
From all appearances it would seem that when Saradananda began writing the Līlāprasaṅga, he did not envision composing Ramakrishna's complete biography, and for this reason the book was not written in chronological order. Saradananda began with a description of Ramakrishna as the spiritual teacher, which eventually formed the third part of the Līlāprasaṅga. Initially, chapters of the book were serialized in the Bengali journal Udbodhan. Since incidents from Ramakrishna's life had already appeared in magazine articles and in several books prior to the Līlāprasaṅga, Saradananda focused his attention primarily on locating a unifying principle that integrated all the known events of Ramakrishna's life as well as his teachings. Saradananda found that principle in the concept of bhāvamukha, "the threshold of consciousness," which is his original contribution to the analysis and understanding of Ramakrishna's life.18
Apart from his own firsthand knowledge of many of the incidents mentioned in the book, Saradananda's sources included: the elderly villagers of Kamarpukur who shared with him their knowledge of Ramakrishna's early life; Ramakrishna's nephew and attendant Hriday, who was a direct witness to Ramakrishna's extensive sādhana; Sarada Devi, who was able to share aspects of her husband's life that only she was in a position to do; and devotees and disciples of Ramakrishna, who had met with Ramakrishna on different occasions, in different places, and for different reasons. The most important resource for Saradananda was obviously Ramakrishna himself, who freely shared his spiritual experiences and visions with his disciples.
With such a rich abundance of firsthand sources, the Līlāprasaṅga succeeds in taking the reader as close to its central character as any good biography should. Ramakrishna provided his students with the insights and teachings meant to help them in their own particular sādhana. For this reason, it is helpful to study the Kathāmṛta, the Jībanabṛttānta and the Līlāprasaṅga in tandem, along with the very significant views of Ramakrishna that are available through the reminiscences of Sarada Devi and Ramakrishna's disciples.19 Together, these texts provide a much more comprehensive picture of Ramakrishna's personality and teachings than the study of only one or two books.
Apart from his famed Līlāprasaṅga, Saradananda also wrote Bhārate Śakti Pūjā ("Mother Worship in India"), which he dedicated to Sarada Devi. This is a significant point since recent interpreters, notably Jeffrey Kripal, have consistently pegged Saradananda as a "renouncer" Vedāntin to the exclusion of other traditions. Saradananda, however, found no conflict between Tantra and Vedānta. A devotee of Kālī, Saradananda undertook the discipline of Tantric worship under the guidance of his uncle, Ishwar Chandra Chakravarty, a Tantric adept (Aseshananda 1982, 81). It is important to note that he underwent this sādhana long after he had taken his sannyāsa vows. Saradananda obviously saw no conflict between the philosophy and practice of Tantra and the philosophy and practice of Vedānta.
There is no discipline, no structure of knowledge, no institution or epistemology that can or has ever stood free of the various sociocultural, historical, and political formations that give epochs their peculiar individuality.
-Edward Said, Jean François Lyotard: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory
A liberal Christian and a scholar of international renown, Frederich Max Müller (1823-1900) believed in the scientific study of religion, progressive revelation and a universalized, liberal Christianity. Like his earlier Orientalist forebears, Müller held as sacred the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science and, above all, progress. An ardent admirer of Kant, he translated his Critique of Pure Reason into English in 1881, and the imprint of Kant's philosophy on Müller can be seen not only in Müller's understanding of Hinduism, but also in his understanding of Ramakrishna and the material he was willing to validate concerning him. That Müller's Vedānta was not necessarily the same Vedānta as understood by Ramakrishna or other Hindus did not give him pause. It merely meant that much work had to be done in educating Hindus as to what Vedānta really was.
Müller was the progenitor of Religionswissenschaft, literally, the "science of religion," which he modeled after another newly minted "science," comparative linguistics. As comparative linguistics had aimed at uncovering the lost secrets of Indo-European languages, so Müller believed that a similar comparative methodology would uncover religions' hidden truths. Müller's Religionswissenschaft set out to prove this truth. Müller wrote that the "Science of Religion will for the first time assign to Christianity its right place among the religions of the world; ... it will restore to the whole of history of the world, in its unconscious progress towards Christianity, its true and sacred character" (Müller 1869, xx).
Yet despite what Sharada Sugirtharajah calls in this regard Müller's "spiritual colonialism" (Sugirtharajah 2003, 64), for Müller's day Religionswissenschaft was a truly radical proposal in that it advocated that Christianity be subjected to the same mode of inquiry as other religions. Equally radical was Müller's belief that truth was available outside Christianity.
From the haven of his Oxford study, Müller maintained a lively interest in the Indian religious affairs of his day and held an abiding concern for "purifying" Hinduism. Müller had taken particular interest in the Brahmo Samaj, whose monotheistic credo and denunciation of image worship fit his Protestant idealism like a glove. Both the Brahmo Samaj and Müller believed that true Hindu worship should consist of pure contemplation.
Along with pure contemplation, Müller longed for the Christianization of Hinduism, hoping that Brahmo Samaj members would eventually designate themselves as Christians, declaring themselves to be either "Christian Brahmos" or "Christian Aryas" (Müller 1902, 419). In that hope Müller was to be disappointed, but he never gave up on purifying Hinduism. In his last, 1894 letter to his friend, the Brahmo leader Pratap Mazumdar, Müller wrote: "When you think of the popular Hinduism of the present day, with its idol-worship, its Pujahs, its temple-service, its caste, its mendicants, surely you do not approve, you rather shrink from them" (428).
It was from Pratap Mazumdar, Müller's trusty correspondent, that he first heard of Ramakrishna. In fact, the first published compilation of Ramakrishna's sayings appeared in a long essay by Mazumdar in the Sunday Mirror (April 16, 1876), and Müller read this essay when it was reprinted in Theistic Quarterly Review (October-December 1879). Predictably, Mazumdar presented Ramakrishna largely devoid of the vestiges of popular Hinduism that Müller—and Mazumdar—abhorred. Müller's interest was piqued and he established contact with both Keshab Sen and Pratap Mazumdar. The result of Müller's interest and correspondence was his article "A Real Mahatman," which appeared in the Nineteenth Century in August 1896. The sayings of Ramakrishna which Müller included in his article were largely taken from the journal Brahmavadin.20 The other sayings apparently had their source in Müller's personal correspondence with Mazumdar (Beckerlegge, 11).
Certainly Müller's commitment to the "science" of religion had much to do with his particular interest in Ramakrishna. Having at his disposal a friendly informant who knew Ramakrishna, Müller had a unique vantage point to witness the early stages of a new religious movement. Yet the mere fact that Müller wrote about Ramakrishna at all was a crossing of the Rubicon. As the best-known Indologist of his time and a scholar of international renown, Müller brought immediate recognition to Ramakrishna and his teachings. For the larger Western world—and particularly in India—appreciation from a man such as Müller bore enormous weight. Further, Müller's standing ensured serious interest from later Western scholars. Ramakrishna would appear again in J. N. Farquhar's classic Modern Hindu Religious Movements and, as we shall see, in Romain Rolland's books on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. Both authors relied significantly on Müller for their background information. More than any other factor, it was Müller's interest in Ramakrishna that plucked the latter from the relative obscurity of Bengal and placed him before the scholars of the Western world as an object of interest.
In April 1896 Müller sent Vivekananda a postcard, thanking him for a pamphlet, and expressing his admiration for "Rama Krishna Paramahansa" (Burke, 170). Vivekananda's response was apparently positive, for that very month Müller again wrote Vivekananda:
As for your beloved master of blessed memory, Bhagaban Sri Ram Krishan, how can I ever tell you what he is to me, I love and worship him with my whole heart. To think of him makes my eyes fill with tears of gladness that I was permitted to hear of him. His sayings, published in the Brahmavadin, are my greatest delight. . . . If I might only have known him, while he was yet with us! My greatest desire is to one day visit the spot which [was] sanctified by his presence. (Burke, 170-71)
Müller's effusive response arose from his own Westernized perception of a Kantian Hindu exemplar, who simply did not exist. In response to Müller's warm invitation, Vivekananda, then in London, visited Müller at his Oxford home. It is likely that Müller saw Vivekananda as a potential partner in his goal of purifying Hinduism via promoting appropriately deracinated Hindu saints. Müller wrote in his June 22 letter to Vivekananda that he would be "very glad to write a larger and fuller account ... if sufficient materials were forthcoming" (Burke, 171). Pleased, Vivekananda immediately asked Swami Saradananda, then also in London, to provide Ramakrishna's biographical material.21 When Müller asked for a collection of Ramakrishna's sayings, Vivekananda asked his brother-disciple Ramakrishnananda to provide it, while specifying the tenor of the material to be included: "Max Müller wants all the sayings of Shri Ramakrishna classified, that is, all on Karma in one place, on Vairagya in another place, so on Bhakti, Jnana, etc., etc. You must undertake to do this forthwith. . . . We must take care to present only the universal aspect of his teachings" (CW 6.364). Vivekananda knew that Müller could only appreciate that part of Ramakrishna's teachings which would meld easily with his pre-existent worldview. Anything too far removed from that graph would only elicit patronizing devaluation or outright dismissal.
Even so, Müller was evidently displeased with the material he received from Ramakrishna's disciples: "I applied ... to one of [Ramakrishna's] most eminent pupils, Vivekananda, asking him to write down for me what he could tell of his own knowledge of his venerable teacher. . . . It will be easily seen, however, that even this account is not quite free from traditional elements" (RLS, 24).
Those "traditional elements"—defined by Müller as the "dialogic process"—were the "irrepressible miraculizing tendencies of devoted disciples" which mythologized the historical facts of a teacher's life (30). Since Europeans had cornered the market on rational thinking, anything incomprehensible to a nineteenth-century European intellectual was branded as foolish. Moreover, progressive Europeans equated truth with historical events. To give credence to anything outside linear time was to endorse mythology over history, fiction over fact. As Müller wrote in his autobiography, "Vivekananda and the other followers of Ramakrishna ought ... to teach their followers how to distinguish between the perfervid utterances of their teacher, Ramakrishna, an enthusiastic Bhakta (devotee), and the clear and dry style of the Sūtras of Bādarāyana. The Vedānta spirit is there, but the form often becomes too vague and exaggerated to give us an idea of what the true Gnānin (knower) ought to be" (1899, 169).
"Ought to be" is the operative phrase here. As much as Vivekananda had attempted to give Müller the material he wished, neither Ramakrishna nor Vivekananda was able to measure up to Müller's expectations. Vivekananda himself was acutely, indeed personally, aware of the West's limits of acceptance, and therefore publicly emphasized only what seemed rational and "scientific" according to the lights of the Western day. Vivekananda's meeting with Müller had been preceded by three years of living in the West, where he had actively defended Hinduism against specious, and often vicious, criticism.
Müller did what he could with what he considered somewhat tainted material: he divided the book between a lengthy introduction and an assemblage of Ramakrishna's sayings, placing Ramakrishna squarely in India's Vedānta tradition. Müller announced: "Vedānta-philosophy ... is the very marrow running through all the bones of Rāmakrishna's doctrine" (RLS, 70). Müller recounts the biographical details of Ramakrishna's life which he received from Vivekananda (written by Saradananda). Interjected at times are Müller's editorial comments, adding the rational adult voice to neutralize the presumed incipient mythologizing process. Dwelling at length on the "dialogic process," he seems to sigh in resignation at the "childish love of the miraculous" which infects the oral tradition (28). Müller also quotes from a letter from his correspondent Pratap Mazumdar about Ramakrishna's weaknesses: his occasionally "abominably filthy language" (62), his ignorance of Sanskrit, and the "almost barbarous treatment of his wife" (64).
What prompted Mazumdar's letter was Müller's fatal suggestion that Keshab was Ramakrishna's disciple. A deeply committed Brahmo teacher, Mazumdar was enraged by Müller's claim and shot off a letter which enumerated Ramakrishna's flaws (which would then render absurd the notion of Keshab's "discipleship").
Letting out all the stops, Mazumdar accused Ramakrishna—as if his celibacy, his occasional use of "abominably filthy" language and lack of education weren't bad enough—of not showing "sufficient moral abhorrence of prostitutes" and of not honoring "the principle of teetotalism according to Western notions" (67).
Müller, who seemed to enjoy a good fight, defended Ramakrishna against Mazumdar's charges: about language Müller noted that there is "a great difference between what is filthy and what is meant to be filthy" (RLS, 62).22 Müller did not see Ramakrishna's lack of education as an insurmountable flaw (perhaps because as a Hindu, Ramakrishna would never be expected to measure up to a European in the first place), coolly noting that he never believed Ramakrishna to be the originator of the Vedānta philosophy, nor did Ramakrishna possess "scholarlike knowledge" of the Vedānta philosophy (69). If Ramakrishna did not show sufficient abhorrence of prostitutes, Müller writes, "he does not stand quite alone in this among the founders of religion." As for being tolerant of alcohol (and presumably alcoholics), Müller writes that "no one ... has ever accused him of any excess in drinking" (67).
It is telling that concerning Ramakrishna's relationship with Sarada Devi, Müller declares that it is by no means unusual for such couples to "decline to live maritalement" (64). As an aside, it is useful to observe how the Western Zeitgeist has inevitably affected the interpretation of Ramakrishna and Sarada's lack of sexual relations. Müller and later Ramakrishna interpreters, up to the time of Jeffrey Masson, did not perceive Ramakrishna's and Sarada's celibacy as inherently pathological. As Freudian theory gradually percolated throughout Western culture, particularly after the 1960's sexual revolution, Western views on sexuality and Western sexual standards dramatically changed. So, naturally, did interpretations of Ramakrishna's and Sarada's rejection of sexual relations.
Taken as a whole, Müller's book—while often patronizing and chauvinistic—is largely sympathetic. Considering Müller's basic worldview and cultural milieu, Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings is remarkable for its breadth and for its expressed desire to bridge an enormous cultural gap and engage with a radically different man from a radically different religious tradition. While extraordinarily broad in his views, Müller—a pioneer in many ways—remained a man of his era. His outlook was basically one of sympathy and for this he was harshly criticized by many of his contemporaries. Müller did not seem to care what his critics thought. His genuine love for India (which was made far easier by the fact that he never went there), his dedication and heartfelt appreciation of many elements of the Hindu tradition cannot be questioned. If we judge Müller solely from hindsight's high ground, we do both Müller and Indology a disservice.
Should one feel the urge to reproach Müller for cultural and religious chauvinism, the enormous contribution he made to Indology should be equally remembered. It is tempting to congratulate ourselves about how we have advanced in our thinking and how much times have changed. It is easy to dismiss eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Orientalists as conscious or unconscious racists, or European chauvinists with colonialist agendas, but a facile dismissal inhibits further investigation. The inquiry needs to proceed to the point where we ask how much Orientalism and a Western universalizing paradigm have persisted up to this day. The closer we look, the more we discover how much both these elements are still in place, though in more subtle (and therefore more invidious) forms.
Dhan Gopal Mukerji
If Vivekananda was concerned that the Western world receive only the "universal aspect" of Ramakrishna, Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1890-1936) either did not get the message or did not care. The Face of Silence, published in 1926, provides a splendid example of a writer sacrificing the banality of historicity for the frisson of romantic Oriental ambience. The book also offers an equally splendid example of Westernized Indians assimilating the Orientalist romantic stereotype and mirroring the stereotype back for Western consumption. As with all colonized people, the stereotype was frequently internalized and resubmitted to the colonizers. "'Do you seek the Rama Krishna history, or the Rama Krishna legend?" was the purported question posed to Dhan Gopal Mukerji by the "Pundit" (clearly meant to be M). Mukerji's reply is significant: "I seek just enough facts to enable me to gather all the trustworthy legends together." The Pundit allegedly replied, "Good! . . . Rama Krishna legends have not been gathered together. They contain more of the truth about him than all the authentic facts that I have written down" (Mukerji, 12-13).
The Face of Silence thus presents a romantic rendering of Hindu holy otherness, tending as much to fable as to fact. Like every good fable, the pattern is predictable, with the particulars embroidered to make the tale more exotic and appealing. Mukerji reports that, following the Pundit's advice, he sought out elderly villagers who knew Ramakrishna in his earlier years (13-14): "In order to study the life of Rama Krishna I began to look for its chroniclers and not the chronicle" (7). One wonders where Mukerji found his chroniclers, since we see little in The Face of Silence to indicate the testimonies of the villagers, let alone the testimonies of Ramakrishna's disciples. Apart from basic biography, Mukerji's book is based in romantic Oriental flights of fantasy, coated with the sugared enthusiasms of his close friend Josephine MacLeod, an American student of Vivekananda.
While Kālī is discussed with loving, if detached, appreciation (21-22), the topic is not Mukerji's great interest. If none of Ramakrishna's Tantric sādhanas are discussed, neither are Ramakrishna's Vaiṣṇava sādhanas nor any other sādhana. The omission seems to have little to do with Mukerji's contacts with the Ramakrishna Order: Romain Rolland's journal states that Mukerji's original interest was Śaṅkara.23 Clearly Mukerji was among Bengal's highly educated elite. Westernized and urbane, he was nostalgic for his native roots but too "civilized" to identify with them.24 The book predictably dwells upon Ramakrishna's "Hindu reform" milieu, as well as Ramakrishna's forays into Christianity and Islam.
While The Face of Silence contains the basic and familiar outlines of Ramakrishna's biography, many details are hilariously creative. In what would work better in a pious tale of a Christian priest's path to sainthood, Mukerji writes of the young Ramakrishna, whose family "decided to dedicate him to the priesthood" because of his earnest devotion (18). Yet Mukerji certainly knew that the priesthood was hereditary—whether Ramakrishna was earnestly devoted or not had nothing to do with the simple fact that Ramakrishna was born into a family of priests. Moreover, Ramakrishna became a priest at the Dakshineswar temple because his older brother had sent for him and had asked for his assistance.
To add interest to his tale, Mukerji paints Rani Rasmani in largerthan-life terms. While Rani Rasmani was undoubtedly a wealthy and intelligent landowner, she was hardly "one of the most able rulers that feudal India has known" (18). Rani Rasmani was from the fisherman caste and, because of her low caste, no brahmin priest would agree to officiate at the temple she had built at Dakshineswar. Indeed, Ramakrishna's elder brother was the only priest whom Rasmani could find who would agree to assume the position. Yet perhaps to make the story redolent of European fables of queens, princes and poor but pious priests, Mukerji refers to Rani Rasmani as "Queen Rash Mani" and her family as "the royal household" (19); Ramakrishna's duties as temple priest are described as "administering a royal chapel" (20). Continuing along these lines, Mukerji writes that in order to live a life of renunciation while serving as a priest in the Kālī temple, the young Ramakrishna
refused to eat from plates of gold, waited on by a dozen servants ... He moved from his sumptuously furnished residence into the little room near the servants' quarters where he lived for the rest of his life. . . . No more did he put on himself the ceremonial garlands of pearls, dhoti, the vestment of scarlet silk, the chuddar of gossamer blue shot with bits of diamonds like stars. He refused to wave censors of gold before his deity, and gave up reading to the people from a book held between gold-embossed covers. (24)
One must appreciate Mukerji's vivid palette here. No poor Bengali priest would ever eat off a plate of gold nor would he be waited upon by a dozen servants. One also must wonder what book—gold-embossed— Mukerji had in mind that the functionally illiterate Ramakrishna could have read "to the people." As for the "chuddar of gossamer blue shot with bits of diamonds like stars," again, pure Oriental fantasy—Arabian Nights transported to the Ganges. Mukerji grieves that "the commentaries that Rama Krishna made on the New Testament, the Koran, and other holy books have not been preserved" (69). Ramakrishna never produced such commentaries. Equally comical, Mukerji portrays the nahabat where Sarada lived as a high tower (one visualizes a Hindu Rapunzel) (33).
Either despite of, or more likely because of, the fairytale quality of Mukerji's book (he was given the Newbery Medal for Children's literature for a later book), The Face of Silence played a major role in making Ramakrishna's life and teachings known to a Western audience. Pre-digested as it was for Western consumption, it found a ready audience there. Published in 1926, The Face of Silence was chosen by the League of Nations as one of the forty outstanding books of 1926 and was chosen for the International Library of Geneva (Prabuddhaprana 1990, 202). At this juncture we again encounter Vivekananda's peripatetic student, Josephine MacLeod: it was MacLeod who gave this book to her friend Romain Rolland, and it was this romanticized Ramakrishna that caught Rolland's attention (Vrajaprana 2006, 1103-104).
As an interesting aside, Mukerji quotes the Pundit as saying that when "[Ramakrishna] spoke of God a light unknown on earth would come on his face; then if he touched anyone with his hand or foot that person would see the whole world bathed in radiance, and Ananda (Bliss) for at least three to four days" (Mukerji, 15). Since Kālī's Child regards Ramakrishna touching male devotees with his foot "troubling," it is significant that someone as attuned to both high-caste Bengali mores (Mukerji refers to himself as a brahmin more than once) as well as Western sensitivities should write about Ramakrishna touching someone with his foot not only without demur but with positive enthusiasm.
In his day, Romain Rolland (1866-1944) was considered the greatest living French writer, having won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915 for his magisterial Jean-Christophe. As with Müller's imprimatur, the advocacy of Rolland would ensure Ramakrishna's fame and the appreciation of other Western intellectuals. A humanist and idealist sickened by Europe's devastation following World War I, Rolland believed that Ramakrishna's (and Vivekananda's) teachings could bring unity and harmony to a "fever-stricken Europe, which has murdered sleep" (LR, 14). This kind of romanticization, as Richard King has noted, carries within itself "the implicit (and sometimes explicit) criticism of contemporary elements of the Orientalists's own culture" and "for many of the Romantics 'the Mystic East' represented the spirituality that much of contemporary Christian religion seemed to lack" (King 1999b, 97).
Thus, in setting up Ramakrishna as India's restorative to a European dystopia, Rolland settled into a European Romantic fantasy which succeeded in obscuring Ramakrishna as thoroughly as any other Orientalist. Rolland's interest was not Ramakrishna; it was Europe. His interest in Ramakrishna extended only so far as he presumed Ramakrishna could effect a change in Europe's existing modus operandi. Both Rolland and Mukerji exoticized Ramakrishna—a process which exchanges a human being for a blank canvas upon which one applies particular ideals and goals.25
World War I was a catastrophic shock to the West following a period of great optimism that had characterized the years up to 1914. To many in the West it seemed clear that somewhere on its march to perfection, the West had gotten lost. For a number of European intellectuals, the East offered directions. Rolland was so enthused about The Face of Silence that Josephine MacLeod gave him another book, the Life of Ramakrishna, published by the Ramakrishna Order.26 That provoked Rolland to initiate correspondence with Ramakrishna's disciple, Swami Shivananda, then President of the Ramakrishna Order.
Although he did not acknowledge it, Rolland's humanist ideology was fundamentally at odds with Ramakrishna's worldview, which perceived the world as only temporarily remediable, but intrinsically unfixable. Rolland clearly felt more comfortable with Vivekananda, whose "mournful and heroic obsession of universal suffering" (Rolland 1990, 86) neatly fit Rolland's romantic presuppositions. In reality, however, Vivekananda's views of human suffering had little in common with Rolland's ("To talk of evil and misery is nonsense, because they do not exist outside" [CW 2.137]). By the mid-1930s Rolland gave up his interest in religion, becoming increasingly interested in socialism and combating fascism through armed resistance.
Before realizing he was barking up the wrong philosophical tree, however, Rolland was determined to locate in India's wisdom the antidote for political madness and human suffering. Rolland believed that India's religious teachers shared one universal goal: "human unity through God" (LR, 8). Rolland blithely assumed that this was their shared goal, his European humanist presuppositions rolling over any inconvenient Hindu reality. Rolland found the unity he sought, and to this Unity—which he personified as a goddess—he dedicated La Vie de Ramakrishna [The Life of Ramakrishna]: "The essence is Unity ... And it is She whom I adore ... To her I dedicate this new book ... to the great Goddess, Unity" (1947, 16-17). Heady words indeed.
Unlike Müller, Rolland had a wealth of translated material to use for his research, though he assures the reader that none of this made him abdicate "one iota of my free judgment as a man of the West" (LR, 1). Rolland not only corresponded with Swami Shivananda but also with M, the recorder of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and Swami Ashokananda. Rolland's source material included early editions of The Gospel, The Great Master, Müller's Ramakrishna: His Life and Sayings, as well as Mukerji's Face of Silence. Perhaps as importantly, two of Vivekananda's American disciples, Josephine MacLeod and Christina Greenstidel, provided him a large number of contacts and unpublished material (Beckerlegge, 19-20).
Significantly and presciently, Rolland also shared a warm and illuminating correspondence with Freud. Rolland sent Freud his biographies of both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, asking for Freud's analysis of the mystic's "oceanic feeling" described by Rolland in Ramakrishna's biography.27 This correspondence was to have far-reaching consequences, for it was Rolland who brought to Freud's attention the forever-famous "oceanic feeling." Marianna Torgovnick writes:
Romain Rolland wrote a book whose implications staggered Sigmund Freud and shook ... Freud's belief in the inevitability and rightness of civilization. . . . Rolland believed that the experience of dissolved boundaries and the interpenetration of the self with the cosmos is a universal spiritual experience. His model was the life of Ramakrishna, in which the Hindu saint describes himself several times as being like salt dissolved in the great ocean of the universe. (11)
Since that landmark correspondence, this "oceanic feeling" has been an unending source of debate concerning the nature of mystical experience. It is worth remembering that not only did Rolland coin the term, but he also found the oceanic feeling to be, as he wrote Freud, "a source of vital renewal" (1990, 87). For Freud and many others, however, the "oceanic feeling" was a threat to the mature, civilized man. Escaping the norms of controlled behavior in search of the oceanic experience was viewed by Freud as infantile regression (we can connect the dots to the Orientalist view of India being inhabited by irresponsible children). Importantly, Freud further believed that an individual's desire to merge into the cosmic was associated with the death wish. Freud's views will linger with us as we analyze the development of Ramakrishna studies through the twentieth century.
Freud took eighteen months to answer Rolland's letter and his response is telling: "Your letter ... containing your remarks about a feeling you describe as 'oceanic' has left me no peace" (Freud, 388). Freud wrestled with its implications in his landmark work Civilization and Its Discontents, a copy of which he sent to Rolland. Despite their warm and intriguing correspondence, in the end Rolland found psychoanalysis fascinating but ultimately deficient when it came to understanding mystical experience.28 Freud, in his turn, wrote Rolland: "To me mysticism is just as closed a book as music. . . . And yet it is easier for you than for us to read the human soul!" (389).
In contrast to late-twentieth-century scholars, Rolland found Saradananda's biography "the most interesting and the most reliable" (LR, 34). In sharper contrast, Rolland found no reason to question the authenticity of the material he received from his sources. Because of Rolland's international stature, both La Vie de Ramakrishna and La Vie de Vivekananda et L'Evangile Universel, published in 1929 and 1930, respectively, were soon translated into a number of languages and received wide appreciation. For the young Ramakrishna movement, these were graced days indeed. Instead of the typical view of India as a colonized and therefore powerless country, one of Europe's leading thinkers was actively commending Ramakrishna and Vivekananda as a remedy for Western afflictions.
Rolland's Life of Ramakrishna centers on the life of Ramakrishna rather than his teachings. While Ramakrishna's teachings are nestled to a degree within the biography, Rolland's emphasis remains on Ramakrishna's life and what Rolland sees as its larger meaning for humanity. Rolland's book follows the biographical pattern found in the Life of Ramakrishna published by the Ramakrishna Order (which is basically a simplified version of Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga with a significant amount of material from M's Kathāmṛta), and he enriches this text with the material provided by his insider correspondents.
In its concern with the "subjective reality of living impressions" rather than "objective reality," Rolland's Life stands in marked contrast to Müller's, though Rolland commends Müller's "precious little book" written by the "great master of learning" (LR, 21). Compared to Müller's dry, analytical style, Rolland's prose billows with excess—he seeks to inspire as much as to educate. While he addresses introductory notes to both Eastern and Western readers, Rolland basically directs his gaze at the West, stating at the beginning that he sees Ramakrishna as a man, not an incarnation, and places Christ and Buddha in the same rank.
In a letter to Shivananda, Rolland indicates his concern over Ramakrishna's lack of engagement in human suffering, and Rolland answers this concern by writing that as far as he could assess, philanthropy found no essential place in Ramakrishna's teachings (201-2). "But meanwhile humanity is suffering, humanity is dying, abandoned. Is it to be left without help? Certainly not. For that which Ramakrishna never accomplished. . . . he left to his greatest disciple ... Vivekananda" (203-4). Rolland concludes his biography of Ramakrishna by directing his readers to Vivekananda, informing them that his next volume will be on Ramakrishna's heir.
Interpretations by Monks of the Ramakrishna Order
Apart from the source books written by Ramakrishna's contemporaries, a number of books were written by monks of the Ramakrishna Order which interpreted Ramakrishna's life and teachings. We will discuss three books in particular which were written on the occasion of Ramakrishna's birth centenary in 1936 and reflect the respective environments of the swamis as well as the concerns of their era. None of these books attracted attention outside the Ramakrishna Order. Each of these books focuses on what the author considers to be the essential message of Ramakrishna. All three writers see Ramakrishna as one who regenerated India and, more importantly, all three swamis see Ramakrishna's life and teachings as having global significance.
Swami Ghanananda's Sri Ramakrishna and His Unique Message was written at the request of Ramakrishna's disciple and Ramakrishna Order President Swami Shivananda.29 First published in 1937 and substantially revised both in 1946 and 1970, the book's third edition contains a foreword by historian Arnold Toynbee. Ghanananda's book takes an overarching view of Ramakrishna, examining his life and teachings in terms of world history. Accordingly there is substantially less biographical material on Ramakrishna, as the book emphasizes his ideas, particularly those on religious harmony. The book's central thesis is that "Ramakrishna is the supreme reconciler of religions, the outstanding teacher of synthesis and harmony. . . . Ramakrishna reconciled the religions and schools, sects and paths of the modern world" (Ghanananda, 115).
Swami Ghanananda (1898-1969) was head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre in London from 1948 through 1969, and the book reflects the needs and concerns of a war-traumatized Europe. Just as Romain Rolland presented Ramakrishna as a prophet of harmony to heal a wounded continent, so did Ghanananda see Ramakrishna's message as the solution to the West's seeming impulse to destruction. Toynbee's Foreword states that "the only way of salvation for mankind is an Indian way. . . . here we have the attitude and the spirit that can make it possible for the human race to grow together into a single family ... this is the only alternative to destroying ourselves" (viii).
Ghanananda's book explicitly deals with colonialism, seeing it as a significant factor not only in India's plight but also in the world's disorder. "When one nation conquers another," writes Ghanananda, "it attempts to justify its subjugation of the vanquished by claiming cultural superiority. That is why we hear of 'the White Man's burden' of civilizing the non-white races of the earth. Such a burden means not only the heartless exploitation of the natural resources of the conquered countries, but also the duty of raising them to the level of the rulers in culture and civilization. . . . It may be asked, 'Why do cultures and civilizations clash?' The answer is simple: man is neither able nor willing to recognize that other cultures and civilizations have a value, and are as good and necessary for others as his own is for himself" (4-5).
Swami Nirvedananda's Sri Ramakrishna and Spiritual Renaissance (1940) takes a wider, yet more Indian approach than Ghanananda—not altogether surprising since Nirvedananda (1893-1958) remained in India his entire life. According to Nirvedananda, Ramakrishna's particular strength was spiritual realization, which he declares to be the "keynote of Hinduism." It was Ramakrishna's realization, Nirvedananda states, which allowed him to reconcile both the extremely conservative and the radical elements of Hindu society (19). Like Ghanananda, Nirvedananda discusses Ramakrishna's various sādhanas. He pays particular attention to the synthesizing elements in Ramakrishna's life. Ramakrishna, for example, continued to have relationships with his family members after his sannyāsa, against the traditional Hindu norm for sannyāsis. Thus, for Ramakrishna, "the Absolute and the relative were equally divine. It was this position ... on the threshold of relative consciousness [bhāvamukha] that enabled him to fuse the apparently contradictory schemes of monastic and householder's life into an undivided synthetic attitude" (112).
Compelling, also, is the book's discussion of Ramakrishna and humanitarian service. Nirvedananda gives the famous example of Sambhu Mallick informing Ramakrishna that he wanted to spend his money on hospitals and schools. Ramakrishna's oft-quoted reply was: "Suppose God appears before you; then will you ask him to build hospitals and dispensaries for you? A lover of God never says that" (KA 1.51). Nirvedananda argues that Ramakrishna's remark should not be construed as apathy toward humanitarian work, as in that case he would not have insisted, on two separate occasions, that Mathur Babu feed and clothe indigent villagers.
Ramakrishna discouraged Shambhu from building hospitals and dispensaries simply because Shambhu's "enthusiasm for charity appeared to be much more intense than that for realizing God" (130). On the other hand, the book reminds the reader that when Narendra stated his desire to remain continually absorbed in samādhi, Ramakrishna quickly reproved him by saying, "Shame on you! I thought you were to be the great banyan tree giving shelter to thousands of weary souls. Instead you are selfishly seeking your own well-being. Let these little things alone, my child" (141). Prominent throughout the book is Nirvedananda's view of Ramakrishna as one who synthesized divergent aspects of Hindu practice to form a cohesive whole.
Swami Gnaneswarananda's Ramakrishna: The Man and the Power was published in Chicago in 1936. Swami Gnaneswarananda came to the United States in 1926, living first in New York, then moving to Chicago to found the first Vedanta Society in that city in 1929. A man at ease in the West,30 he died at the age of forty-four in Chicago in 1937. Ramakrishna: The Man and the Power is a small book of 125 pages and is written for "free-thinking minds that seek a solution of present day problems" (5). Where Ghanananda stresses the harmony of religions and Nirvedananda emphasizes wide-ranging spiritual regeneration, particularly in India, Gnaneswarananda sees Ramakrishna in more humanistic and psychological terms: "The world needed a man who could prove in his life the potential divinity of man and his inseparable contact with the Divine Reality hidden to the ordinary senses; one who would establish a happy relation between the human faculties of man—his body, mind and feelings—and his deeper spiritual reality, in regard to himself and his fellow men" (7).
Gnaneswarananda sees Ramakrishna's "ministry" as highly significant and a lesson to the "modern aggressive world": rather than using "propaganda and criticism" (read: missionaries and colonizers), he taught through "universal love and service" (54). Compared to the books written by Ghanananda and Nirvedananda, Ramakrishna: The Man and the Power is more personal and direct. While all three swamis discuss Kālī, Gnaneswarananda's great personal devotion comes vividly off the page. For example:
Her long black hair floats in the air, and with raised sword she destroys the evil ones. . . . She is fearlessness itself, and has nothing to hide under covers. She is the climax of beauty and has nothing to add by clothes. The ignorant are terrified by her appearance while the wise, meditating on her on the lotus of their hearts, enjoy heavenly bliss. (25-26)
About Ramakrishna's madhura bhāva, Gnaneswarananda writes that Ramakrishna's physical body underwent a transformation as he became immersed in the attitude of Rādhā. "As he dressed like a woman during that period, even his close friends could not recognize him as their own Gadadhar [Ramakrishna's childhood name]. This, and certain other amazing facts in the life of Ramakrishna, open up new avenues for scientific investigation regarding the relation of body, mind and spirit" (37). It is important to note here that although Gnaneswarananda was writing for an American audience in the 1930s, he felt no hesitation in writing about Ramakrishna dressing as a woman. For a Hindu, this was not seen as scandalous or even unconventional; it was an accepted feature of that particular sādhana. There was no question of transgressing societal norms.
In contrast to Ghanananda and Nirvedananda, Gnaneswarananda has not only an extended discussion of Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda but also a detailed discussion of Ramakrishna's other disciples. And, while the book concludes with the Ramakrishna Order, the final paragraph of the book returns to the personal: "It must not be forgotten, however, that deeper wisdom of a practical nature has always descended through a line of living sources—from the Guru to the Shishya, or disciple. The special skill of an artist can never be taught and handed on except through direct contact" (125). The importance of "direct contact" was particularly important in the case of Christopher Isherwood, as we shall see below.
Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), a homosexual and pacifist (not popular lifestyles at any time, but distinctly not so during times of war), arrived in America from England in 1939. Two years earlier his fellow Englishman and friend Gerald Heard had immigrated to Los Angeles, along with Aldous Huxley. While living in Los Angeles, both Huxley and Heard had become Vedānta enthusiasts. Isherwood had heard of their interest in yoga and, though appalled, nevertheless sought them out because he trusted Heard's judgment and Huxley's pacifist bona fides. Heard introduced Isherwood both to Vedānta philosophy and to Swami Prabhavananda, which proved to be a life-changing encounter.
Heard's and Huxley's enthusiasm for Vedānta eventually cooled; only Isherwood remained a staunch Ramakrishna devotee until his death. Nevertheless, their combined influence in popularizing Ramakrishna is inestimable. Isherwood, in particular, plays an important role in Ramakrishna studies, for while Ramakrishna was taken up by the likes of Tolstoy,31 Heinrich Zimmer, Joseph Campbell, Pitirim Sorokin, Carl Jung, Arnold Toynbee and even Henry Miller (who would have thought!),32 it was not until 1965 that Isherwood filled a perceived gap, writing Ramakrishna and His Disciples—a full-scale account of Ramakrishna's life—primarily for Western consumption.
What prompted Isherwood to write about Ramakrishna was primarily Swami Prabhavananda's request that he do so. Isherwood had profound love and respect for Prabhavananda, who was "almost entirely free from the puritanism that had so constrained Isherwood," writes Katherine Bucknell, editor of Isherwood's Diaries. "In all the years of their friendship, Isherwood never records an instance of the Swami's expressing disapproval toward him. Swami did not regard Isherwood's homosexuality as a sin. . . . Swami simply regarded all forms of lust as obstacles to spiritual progress" (Bucknell, xiii-xiv).
Ramakrishna and His Disciples was thus dedicated to Prabhavananda, "my guru, dear friend and literary collaborator for the past twenty-five years." The book, which took nearly ten years to write, proved to be wearisome and unnervingly difficult to complete. It would nevertheless be inaccurate to assume that Isherwood wrote the book solely to do Prabhavananda's bidding. Nearly twenty years before Ramakrishna and His Disciples was published, Isherwood wrote: "[The saint] is the most interesting person to write about. The most interesting and the most difficult" (Isherwood 1946, 61).
If Isherwood found the work galling, he found at least some aspects of it gratifying. Writes Isherwood in his diary entry of June 10, 1957: "I ask myself: What am I fit for, nowadays? What am I accomplishing? What does my life mean? And the answer seems to be I have to write that Ramakrishna book. That will sum up what my life has been about since the thirties" (1997, 703). Isherwood's source materials were primarily Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, though Isherwood's diary says his book is "really a rehash of Saradananda" (787). Prabhavananda's role was to clarify points for Isherwood, not to issue instructions. For example, Isherwood records that when he mentioned to Prabhavananda that he was considering adding some of his own biographical material to the book, Prabhavananda replied, "However you write it will be all right" (691).33
Upon completion, each chapter was first read out to Swami Prabhavananda and the devotee audience who attended the weekly Gospel reading at the Vedanta Society. Prabhavananda would occasionally correct Isherwood while he was reading out his manuscript, and these corrections were incorporated into the finished chapter, which was then sent to Swami Madhavananda, then President of the Ramakrishna Order, and considered one of the Order's great scholars. Elderly, ill, and burdened with the affairs of a burgeoning monastic order, Madhavananda agreed only with great reluctance to proof-read the chapters.34 After reading a chapter, Madhavananda would return it almost immediately. According to Pravrajika Anandaprana, Prabhavananda's secretary, sending the chapters to Madhavananda was a courtesy, not a requirement, and the suggested changes were relatively few.35 We should also keep in mind that it was not at all unusual to send a manuscript out for double-checking. Prabhavananda had sent the Prabhavananda/Isherwood translations of the Bhagavad Gita, Patañjalī's Yoga-Sūtras, and Vivekacūḍāmaṇī to Sanskrit scholars in India for double-checking as well.
Given the above, a question then arises about the "censorship" under which Isherwood chafed. Isherwood wrote:
Prema [later Swami Vidyatmananda, an American swami], with his usual crushing frankness, remarked that he ... doesn't think it's [Ramakrishna and His Disciples] really "great." I agreed with him, of course, and added that I could probably give a much more vivid impression of Ramakrishna when talking to a sympathetic stranger in a bar, after several drinks. There is that in me which will never write its best to order. Deep down, I have always resented the censorship of the Math. (Isherwood 1980, 266)
No one knows how Isherwood would have written about Ramakrishna had Prabhavananda not asked him to do so. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the Ramakrishna Order did not ask Isherwood to write "to order," nor did the Order suggest the book be written in the first place. Furthermore, the entire publishing enterprise of the Order is not only decentralized but thoroughly unorganized. There is no question of the Order having a nihil obstat.
It was Prabhavananda alone who asked Isherwood to write the book, without consulting anyone at Belur Math (nor would such a consultation have ever been done by anyone within the Order). Once Prabhavananda did tell members of the Order about the project, they were extremely enthused. It had been a long time since a good biography of Ramakrishna had been written. As with Romain Rolland's book, it was hoped that Ramakrishna and His Disciples would attract a good amount of positive attention and there would be a resurgence of interest in Ramakrishna in the West. It is not surprising, then, that Prabhavananda wanted the book read by Madhavananda, both for fact-checking and for his blessings, before it was published.
Nevertheless, by sending the book out of the direct orbit of Swami Prabhavananda (who never once criticized Isherwood and whom Isherwood trusted without question) and into the purview of Swami Madhavananda (who, as President of the Order, embodied "organized religion"), the freedom which Isherwood felt with Prabhavananda was effectively removed. This affected not only the kind of material Isherwood addressed in the book, it also affected how the material would be addressed. Throughout the course of his long life, Isherwood had two focal role models, twin compasses, whose influence cannot be overestimated: E. M. Forster and Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood placed such great store by these men that their opinions served as inbuilt censors. Indeed, Isherwood's reverence for Prabhavananda was such that he delayed coming out for many years simply because he did not want to do anything that might embarrass Prabhavananda.36
Ramakrishna and His Disciples thus stands out from the rest of Isherwood's literary output not only due to the nature of its content but also in its style and approach. Like any good writer and particularly a homosexual writer living in a homophobic society, Isherwood was exquisitely tuned to his audience's sensibilities. The knowledge, therefore, that part of his audience would consist of "devotees" inevitably constrained him. Isherwood's diary is revealing on this point. While in India with Prabhavananda, Isherwood found himself an object of quasireverence, a situation that made him acutely uncomfortable:
As long as I quite unashamedly get drunk, have promiscuous sex, and write books like A Single Man, I simply cannot appear before people as a sort of lay monk. Whenever I do, my life becomes divided and untruthful—or rather, the only truth left is in my drunkenness, my sex, and my art. (There are, of course, dozens of audiences which would be ready to accept the drink, sex, and art. To these I could also talk about God without falseness. They might be embarrassed but they would listen. Such audiences are not to be found within the Vedanta Society, however). (Isherwood 1980, 271-72)
Yet it was precisely this audience who, Isherwood knew, would be reading his book. Isherwood had a lifelong antipathy to organized religion—the joyful spontaneity and freedom which so appealed to Isherwood, and which Ramakrishna and Prabhavananda manifested in their personalities and in their actions, were the very things tamped down by an organization.37 Further, as one of the great prose writers of the twentieth century, Isherwood would have found any suggested changes to his writing demeaning—an artistic slap in the face from (worst of all nightmares) "organized religion."
Isherwood writes that he would have liked to discuss Ramakrishna dressing as a woman ("getting into drag"), but he knew that doing so was "out of the question," for while "many of Madhavananda's comments and corrections were helpful ... I was made aware that there were limits to his permissiveness" (1980, 249). If there were limits to Madhavananda's permissiveness, there were also limits to the permissiveness of the Vedanta Society during that time. More likely than not, any perceived unseemliness would have ended up on the cutting room floor long before it reached Madhavananda. We should keep in mind that madhura bhāva—mentally and physically assuming the attitude of a female lover of God—was a normal and accepted part of India's religious discourse, particularly among Vaiṣṇava sects. Neither Madhavananda nor Prabhavananda would have blinked at a long discussion of Ramakrishna dressing as a woman. "Getting into drag" would have made no sense to them, no blip on their radars, unless they managed to cross an entire ocean of culture and history.
To return to Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Isherwood knew that the book's audience would consist of Ramakrishna devotees along with a much larger proportion of skeptical Western readers. With this in mind, Isherwood wrote the book assuming a skeptic's point of view, employing biblical cadences throughout the text. From the first sentence, one sees Isherwood accommodating the readers' incredulity: "This is the story of a phenomenon. . . . A phenomenon is always a fact, an object of experience. This is how I shall try to approach Ramakrishna" (1). Isherwood presents Ramakrishna in as straightforward a manner as possible, aligning his prose with the "scientific" mood of the era. Isherwood characteristically puts his own cards on the table, stating that he believes Ramakrishna to be an avatar. Aware that many in his audience viewed Hindu mysticism as commensurate with séances and ouija boards, Isherwood emphasized the ordinary in order to remove any whiff of the spooky. Bucknell notes that Isherwood "freighted the book heavily with quotidian detail, attempting ... to approach as near as possible to the borderline between ordinary reality and the transcendent" (Bucknell, xliii).
Moreover, by highlighting the ordinary, Isherwood was replicating his own experience with Prabhavananda. Isherwood's knowledge of mysticism was accessed through Prabhavananda. In a way, for Isherwood Ramakrishna was Prabhavananda writ large.38 Isherwood's long years of association with Prabhavananda proved to Isherwood that mystical experience was an extension—certainly a vast extension—of what was inherent in ordinary human life. Isherwood wanted to demonstrate that Ramakrishna's mystical experiences were an extension of the divinity inherent in all human life, available to everyone. In this aspect, at least, Isherwood's outlook dovetailed with Rolland's belief that the "oceanic feeling" is a universal experience available to every human being.
In biographical details Ramakrishna and His Disciples follows much the same structure as Saradananda's Great Master. In every other aspect, however, Isherwood's book takes very much its own tack. Isherwood writes for the West and addresses twentieth-century Western concerns. Considering the nature of the book, perhaps the most central concern is the very nature of a "spiritual" experience. Isherwood dryly observes: "Roget's Thesaurus gives 'vision' as a synonym for 'hallucination.'" He continues: "As the result of these vague definitions, the reader gradually comes to rely on Matter as the only reality and to think of Spirit as a shadowy and dangerous hinterland of deceptions and illusions" (Isherwood 1965, 14). In the same vein, Isherwood gives a spirited defense of the visions associated with Ramakrishna and his parents (22-23), criticizing Müller for his refusal to take Hindu spiritual experiences seriously while sanctioning those associated with Christianity (33-34).
Isherwood's assumption of his readers' skepticism was not misplaced. While there was some critical appreciation for Ramakrishna and His Disciples,39 most American and British reviews were unfavorable. Isherwood remarked: "One recurring objection to the book was that I, who had written such worldly novels, was its author" (1980, 287). The contrast between Isherwood-the-earnest-devotee and the louche Isherwood of the Berlin Stories was too much for most reviewers to stomach. More importantly: "Many of the reviewers—including even some who were themselves unbelievers—felt offended by the suggestion that Ramakrishna could have been an avatar, since this was a denial of the uniqueness of Jesus as Son of God" (288).40
Legendary critic Frank Kermode's lengthy, acid review in the New York Review of Books—replete with references to "queer circles" and the book's "inevitable contamination" by feather-boa—provides another telling example of the kind of disparagement Isherwood's book received. Kermode's subtext throughout the review is that Isherwood had sold out his finely trained British sensibilities for something undignified and unworthy. As for the book itself, Kermode writes that it "lacks all irony, all criticism. . . . One would have liked an account of [Ramakrishna] free of all the uncriticized Aberglaube" (1965a, 20). One wonders if, in those days, "irony" would have been considered an appropriate response when assessing a religious subject in the Western monotheistic tradition. Interestingly, what particularly provoked Kermode's ire was not merely Hinduism, but Hinduism "adapted by Western participants in the flight from reason" (1965b, 27).
It is telling that both Kermode's review and George Woodcock's review of the book in Commonweal41 chide Isherwood for being taken in by "superstition." If Isherwood was attacked as a credulous believer, the intolerance of his critics toward a belief system alien to theirs was equally visible. Predictably, many of Isherwood's critics viewed their reaction as one of "reason," while Isherwood was seen as having succumbed to the lure of Hindu fantasy. As with earlier Western assessments of Ramakrishna, we again see the undercurrent of Western "reason" versus Hindu "superstition." In general, the negative reviews of Ramakrishna and His Disciples take for granted Western secular, humanist values and their presumed superiority over anything found in the Hindu tradition.
In fairness to Isherwood's critics, it is understandable how they estimated Ramakrishna and His Disciples to be one of Isherwood's lesser writings. Since it is the only book Isherwood wrote in this genre, it stands alone. It cannot be fairly compared to any of his other writings in which he directly engages and beguiles the reader. (What happened to the man who brought us the Berlin Stories?) In Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Isherwood stands back, far back, out of the way, and as a result, Ramakrishna and His Disciples has an unusually flat affect. Given Isherwood's mighty skills as a writer and stylist, however, we have to assume that he intended this effect. Isherwood consciously removed himself from the text so that Ramakrishna could be more clearly seen. We can also assume, however, that because Isherwood felt as if he were writing with an organization reading over his shoulder, the book lacks the spontaneity, the richness—born of the extraordinary polarities of his life—and gem-like clarity of his other writings.42 In fairness to Isherwood, however, he was critiqued for all the wrong reasons. His personal beliefs were savaged, not his prose.
Of particular interest in these reviews is the stinging critique of Isherwood's empathetic approach and the preference for the distanced "outsider" stance. The relationship and balance between these two approaches has guided much of the history of Religious Studies and has been a matter of consistent debate. To a large degree the history of Ramakrishna scholarship has been accompanied by a parallel history of that very debate.
In reading through the mass of material available, one fact stands out: there is severe psychopathology in Ramakrishna.
—Jeffrey Masson, The Oceanic Feeling
Thus [Ramakrishna's] neurosis or psychosis accounts for his theosis.
—Narasingha Sil, Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa
In contrast to the interpreters of Ramakrishna discussed so far, a different dynamic comes into play with Ramakrishna's more recent interpreters. Compared to the more sympathetic approach of earlier interpreters, Walter Neevel's two studies, the latter one in particular, inaugurate a change in the academic interpretation of Ramakrishna, reflecting concomitant changes occurring in the academic study of religion. Neevel's studies and those of later, Western-educated scholars present an entirely different tone from the admiring studies of Mukerji, Rolland, Isherwood and, to a large degree, Müller. None of these earlier interpreters questioned the authenticity of the material made available to them by Vivekananda and his successors. None of the earlier writers questioned Saradananda's legitimacy nor did they find him a less accurate or trustworthy source than M. Neevel's essay signals the first departure from these assumptions, and it is at this point that we begin the transition from the hermeneutic of empathy to the hermeneutic of suspicion.
Concerning this change in approach, Beckerlegge notes: "A far wider gulf exists between the understanding of the comparative study of religion shared by Müller, Rolland and the Ramakrishna movement and the intentionally value-free 'pure historical science' employed by more recent academic practitioners of the comparative study of religion in North America and Europe" (25). Significantly, there has been a postmodern turn in recent years which recognizes that a value-free approach does not and cannot exist. The claim of "scholarly objectivity" only serves—consciously or unconsciously—to cloak one's own agenda. For this reason a number of scholars have found it helpful to aim at transparency, discussing their own attitudes towards their subject matter in an attempt to clear the interpretive air.43
Walter Neevel's lengthy article "The Transformation of Sri Ramakrishna" was published in 1976. His second article, published in 1997, presents a renewed look at his subject matter. Typical of the earlier Orientalists' sola scriptura approach, Neevel argues that M's Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna is the "major source and the authority against which all other sources must be judged"; it is this text in which the reader comes "closest to Rāmakrishna" and it is here "where the overlay of traditions is least significant" (1976, 58). (One hears the echoes of Müller's "dialogic process" in the background.) While Neevel mentions the biographies and biographical sketches written by Ramakrishna's disciples, these, he asserts, "have been heavily influenced by the later systematic reinterpretation of the tradition" (62).
Through a close reading of the English Gospel, Neevel attempts to discover "Rāmakrishna's own position" (90). Yet by forcibly confining Ramakrishna to one text, he obviates other valid and important source books on Ramakrishna. Neevel goes on to argue that to understand Ramakrishna, who was "consummately Hindu," one must understand not his universality, but his particularity as a Hindu (1976, 54). Noting that earlier interpretations emphasized his universality, Neevel states, without irony, that "with the current shift in the cultural winds ... it is now possible to present Śrī Rāmakrishna in his own Hindu garb" (55-56). To think that an American scholar—reading one source text to the exclusion of all others, and that too in translation, while employing exclusively Euro-American methodology—can be exceptionally qualified (even more qualified than Ramakrishna's contemporaries) to understand Ramakrishna as a Hindu, seems unduly optimistic.
Neevel gives a drubbing to the reliability of Swami Saradananda, who resolved the question of Ramakrishna's birth date via horoscopic reconstruction. For Neevel this raises "the question of how the many other uncertainties" concerning Ramakrishna's life were "resolved" by Swami Saradananda. Neevel suggests that Saradananda restructured the ordering of Ramakrishna's sādhana in his Līlāprasaṅga in order to create the impression that his final realization was Advaita rather than Tantra (81-83).
Neevel contests Saradananda's accuracy, yet finds both Müller and J. N. Farquhar authoritative sources on Ramakrishna—a piquant irony since, first, the primary source for Müller's biographical information on Ramakrishna was Saradananda himself. Secondly, it is confounding that Neevel would find Farquhar a particularly reliable source on Ramakrishna since Farquhar's 1913 book, The Crown of Hinduism, promotes Christ as the fulfillment of Hinduism. (Farquhar's analysis of Ramakrishna drew from Müller's work as well as the 1912, single-volume edition of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda's "My Master.")
Neevel is the first scholar to contest Saradananda's accuracy regarding the chronology of Ramakrishna's life, and his skepticism concerning Saradananda's reliability will be repeated in Kālī's Child. As with the issue of Saradananda's reliability regarding Ramakrishna's sādhanas, Neevel advances some basic theses on Ramakrishna which other scholars will follow in later years. First, Neevel moves away from Ramakrishna's previous interpreters by asserting that Tantra, rather than Advaita Vedanta, was the central religious focus of Ramakrishna's life. According to Neevel, Ramakrishna's followers have "overemphasized the significance" of attaining nirvikalpa samādhi (1997, 293).
For Neevel, the Advaita experience of nonduality is hardly something one would wish for. In Ramakrishna's life, Neevel states, it was a "life-threatening excursion." This hazardous event was precipitated by Totapuri, who "ruthlessly forced Rāmakrishna to concentrate on the point of a broken piece of glass pressed painfully into his forehead." The unfortunate result was Ramakrishna's mind being "torn from the Divine Mother's form and plunged into the trancelike state of nirvikalpa samādhi"(1997, 292-93).44 But Ramakrishna himself called the Advaita plunge the equivalent of being in an "ocean of immortality"—a fly in a cup of nectar (KA 1.130-31). Ramakrishna similarly tells M that meditating on the formless aspect of God is equivalent to fish swimming joyfully in the ocean of bliss and consciousness (KA 4.27). There is no evidence that Ramakrishna's experience of samādhi was anything other than profoundly joyful.
Neevel writes that Ramakrishna "often talks as if he accepted kevalādvaita [absolute nondualism], and his disciples have emphasized his seeming acceptance" (1976, 87). In other words, Ramakrishna did not genuinely accept nondualism—his acceptance was only "seeming."45 Because Ramakrishna's disciples did not understand him correctly, they could not interpret his teachings correctly. To authenticate his claim, Neevel quotes from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, citing Ramakrishna's well-attested declaration that the path of jñāna is extremely difficult. This is a tenuous conclusion, however: Ramakrishna said that the path of jñāna is difficult, therefore he did not accept that path. The Kaṭhopaniṣad (1.3.14) also points out that the path is extremely difficult, as does the Bhagavad Gītā (12.5), as does Śaṅkara's bhāṣya on the Gītā. Following Neevel's argument, one would be tempted to conclude that neither the Upaniṣads nor the Gītā nor Śaṅkara himself advocated the path of jñāna.
Neevel's thesis rests on several unstated presuppositions. The first is that a Western-trained scholar possesses the rationality, intellectual tools and emotional distance that Ramakrishna's disciples lacked. Included also is the presupposition that Ramakrishna's monastic disciples were inherently unreliable witnesses. Finally, Neevel shares the earlier Orientalists' emphasis on the crucial significance of the proper understanding of one central text. The unstated but presumed assumption is that differences of culture and language are minor obstructions, easily overcome with a good English translation. Yet not only was Neevel working with translated texts, he was also working with untranslatable cultural and religious values, overarching concepts that are difficult to grasp and convey. Further, in the Hindu tradition, words themselves are seen as incapable of fully expressing the experience the language attempts to convey.
Neevel's essay marks an important shift in scholarly perspective on Ramakrishna in several areas. First, whereas earlier interpretations viewed Tantra as one of Ramakrishna's sādhanas but not the paramount one which surpassed all other sādhanas, from this time forward, scholars will generally privilege Tantra over every other sādhana. If earlier interpreters hastened to gloss over the less reputable elements of Tantra, later interpreters will accentuate them.
The second major shift in Ramakrishna studies is a near consensus among Western-trained academics that Vivekananda's (and to a large degree, Saradananda's) interpretation of Ramakrishna is flawed. By and large, the Western academy will agree that Vivekananda's emphasis on jñāna was at the expense of Ramakrishna's true emphasis upon bhakti. Neevel's essay will also prove prescient in his belief that while M's recordings of Ramakrishna's conversations were accurate, the writings of Ramakrishna's monastic disciples could not be considered as reliable as M's.
Finally, in a crucial development which begins with Neevel and will profoundly affect Ramakrishna studies, psychoanalysis as a hermeneutical tool for interpreting Ramakrishna will be increasingly employed. Yet the issue of psychoanalysis vis à vis non-Western figures is potentially problematic since "psychoanalytic theory and practice is profoundly related to Northern European and North American cultural values and philosophical assumptions involving individualism" (Roland 1996, 5). The issue of psychoanalysis figures prominently in what could be seen as a latter-day incarnation of Orientalism, as psychoanalytic theory presumes Western values and social norms to be universal human values and norms. Some will see this development as yet another manifestation of Western cultural domination, masked under the guise of scientific or scholarly detachment.
The turn toward psychoanalysis in Religious Studies, coming into full flower in the 1960s, was a sign of the times. Psychoanalysis had become a pervasive, dominating presence in Western society, and psychoanalytical interpretation was considered an appropriate, indeed indispensable, tool for understanding humanity—Hindu religious figures included. As psychoanalyst Alan Roland (2002) points out: "Psychoanalysis has played a surprisingly major role in South Asian studies, much more so than in other area studies, not to mention many other intellectual disciplines."
It is worth noting that, as an intriguing article in the New York Times points out, psychoanalysis "is alive and well in literature ... and just about every other subject in the humanities," but it is treated as a "historical artifact" within American universities' psychology departments. The primary reason for its marginalization is that "while most disciplines in psychology began putting greater emphasis on testing the validity of their approaches scientifically," this has not been the case with psychoanalysis. "Psychoanalysts haven't developed the same evidence-based grounding," Alice Eagly, chairperson of the psychology department at Northwestern University, asserts. Thus, the article observes, "most psychology departments don't pay as much attention to psychoanalysis." Yet this disconnect between what is taught in psychology departments and in other branches of the humanities has far-reaching effects:
Given how psychoanalytic ideas have shaped the culture, the issue reverberates far beyond the tiny cluster of psychoanalysts. They worry that the gradual disappearance of psychoanalytic theory from psychology curriculums means that those ideas are bound to be applied incorrectly as new advances are neglected.46
If Neevel's essays reveal the first imprints of psychoanalytic interpretation in Ramakrishna studies, the work of Jeffrey Masson, to whom we now turn, reveals its effect in full flower.
In 1980 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst in Toronto and for some time the director of the Freud Archives, wrote The Oceanic Feeling: The Origins of Religious Sentiment in Ancient India. The book applies classical psychoanalytic techniques to various figures within the Hindu tradition, Ramakrishna among them.
Masson's book was prefigured by two articles which indicated the direction his work would take. His first, "Sex and Yoga: Psychoanalysis and the Indian Religious Experience," declared that "hallucination and states bordering on the psychoses are likely to develop" as a result of yoga. Not only individuals are at risk, however: "When such delusional states are not only egosyntonic, but acceptable to the culture as well, we find ourselves with much larger problems ... of the psychodynamics of an entire culture" (1974, 311). Given Masson's cultural insularity, it is not surprising that he refers in the same article to Ramakrishna's "transvestite activities" (312), which we can assume means Ramakrishna's madhura bhāva sādhana when he moved, walked, talked and dressed like a woman. By this time, Masson's conclusion about Ramakrishna is almost anticipated: "There is an element of homosexuality in ... Ramakrishna" (310). That madhura bhāva sādhana has a significant place in the Vaiṣṇava tradition does not deter Masson's diagnosis. "Psychoanalysis," Masson writes, is "always skeptical of ... 'spiritual' explanations of ... what we cannot understand" (309).
Yet Masson seems equally skeptical, and intolerant, of non-Western intellectual categories and cultural values. His 1979 article "Indian Psychotherapy?" takes strong issue with the views of Indian psychiatrist J. S. Neki, then Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the All-India Institute for Medical Science in New Dehli. Neki had written several articles which discussed the "lack of cultural relevance that makes orthodox Western psychotherapies especially ineffective in India" (Masson 1979, 327). Masson's response is to universalize human motivation, values and behavior, presuming that whatever psychiatric issues any human being might have, Freudian analyses and therapies would be culturally universal. Masson assails Neki for his "easy cultural relativism" and writes: "If psychoanalysis is a valid theory of the human mind, then it applies to all people, of all times" (328). Quoting Freud liberally throughout his article, Masson makes it clear that "the traditional procedures of classical analysis" are the rules to go by, and any deviation from that—by, for example, incorporating indigenous Indian techniques—is intellectually puerile and doomed. According to Masson, the attempt of Indian psychiatrists "to overthrow Freud holus-bolus in favor of some generally unnamed syncretistic approach" would "fail utterly" (329).
In The Oceanic Feeling, Masson assigns Ramakrishna a prominent place in the Hindu traditions by saying that "Ramakrishna can be said to be second in religious importance only to ... Śaṅkarācārya." Masson continues, "And yet, if one studies any of the biographies, one is struck by just how deeply disturbed Ramakrishna was" (1980, 9). Ramakrishna is discussed in a chapter devoted to the origin of the term "oceanic feeling," which also discusses Rolland's correspondence with Freud. Another chapter discusses the oceanic feeling within the earliest Sanskrit texts and its psychological implications. About these texts Masson writes: "The whole of Vedānta philosophy, from the Upaniṣads forward ... can be said to be a paean of praise to the pleasures of depersonalization and derealization" (60). Equally, in a story of Nārada and Viṣṇu from the Purāṇas he again finds "narcissism, depersonalization, derealization" (58). The book includes a chapter entitled "Kubjā the Hunchback and Kṛṣṇa, with Some Observations on Perversions." The chapter's title is self-explanatory: "Kṛṣṇa's attraction to a hunchback, then, is a defect in loving of universal application. By examining some of the possible motives for such a love," Masson suggests, "we can better understand normal sexuality" (118-19). One is tempted to add "whatever that may be"—yet the suggestion that there is one normative standard of sexuality, departures from which are "perversions," says much about the authorial stance throughout the text.
Masson expresses surprise that, comparatively speaking, there had been so little psychoanalytic work done on the Indian tradition. This he finds "puzzling, since there is nothing inherent in Indian culture, past or present, that would make it refractory to psychological investigation." After all, Masson continues, "the insights Freud derived ... belong to the structure of the human mind, and are the property of mankind in general" (1). Thus we again encounter the unquestioned assumption of universalism and its intellectual Eurocentrism. We encounter the familiar Orientalist protocol, which presumes European "logic" to be a universal human phenomenon and the assumption that certain rational procedures (which include such "scientific" endeavors as psychotherapy) contain within them scientific "laws" which are universally applicable to all societies.
From the book's introductory essay to the book's conclusion, Indian religious traditions are summarily pathologized. They demand a "retreat from the emotions" and instill a "dread fear of human feeling" which, Masson writes, is "one of the fundamental disguised themes of almost all ancient Indian writing" (4). Buddha was "severely depressed," which is why "he made duḥkha ... the cornerstone of his ethical teaching" (6).
Ramakrishna has the cards stacked against him from the start since Masson states in the book's Introduction: "I consider the states of feeling manifest in the practice of mysticism to be basically defenses against depression" (x). Ramakrishna, Masson writes, clearly suffered "delusions and hallucinations" but, interestingly, "Ramakrishna's worldview was not judged psychotic, because it was shared by his culture" (8-9).
Anticipating the judgment of Jeffrey Kripal some years later, Masson writes that "we can assume, hypothetically but correctly" that Ramakrishna suffered "specific traumata in his childhood" (9-10). In The Oceanic Feeling, Masson repeats his assertion that Ramakrishna's behavior was indicative of homosexuality. Masson finds it "astonishing that Romain Rolland could so overlook the blatant homosexual concerns of Ramakrishna." The evidence Masson husbands is found in Saradananda's Great Master, where Saradananda relates that Ramakrishna would look at the chests of his male disciples and would carefully "examine the tongue, the chest, the working of the organs. . . . He preferred them young ... and unmarried, 'not yet caught in the net of desire'" (46). Adding more ammunition to his armory, Masson then quotes Nikhilananda's Gospel, in which Ramakrishna, discussing the younger Naren, says:
"He is totally unaffected by worldliness. He says he doesn't know what lust is. (To M.) Just feel my body. All the hair is standing on end." The Master's hair actually stood on end at the thought of a pure mind totally devoid of lust. (47; quoting GSR, 952)
If Saradananda's and M's reports reveal Ramakrishna's "blatant homosexual concerns," it is interesting that neither they nor, as far as we know, anyone else in India were aware of it. By superimposing Euro-American standards of behavior on Indian practices and presuming that they alone are normative, Masson again pathologizes an entire culture. He concludes by making short work of his analysand: "In reading through the mass of material available, one fact stands out: there is severe psychopathology in Ramakrishna" (34).
Alan Roland has criticized Masson by saying that he
asserted reductionistic strategies ad absurdum in the area of Indian studies by drawing upon the full psychoanalytic armamentarium of psychopathology. His seeming meticulous Sanskrit and psychoanalytic scholarship is unfortunately flawed by his wild methodology of speculating loosely on ancient Indian texts as well as on modern Indian biography, such as on Ramakrishna. (Roland 1997, 3)
While Masson's interpretation may lack nuance, it nevertheless requires serious attention since his work is widely quoted as an authority by Jeffrey Kripal, Narasingha Sil, Malcolm McLean, and other Ramakrishna scholars.
While the work of Neevel and Masson will lead Ramakrishna studies in a direction not heretofore seen, recent interpretations of Ramakrishna from within India—from both inside and outside the Ramakrishna Order—will follow a markedly different course. Although a number of insiders have written about Ramakrishna, three authors will be particularly examined, as their writings represent significant scholarship on Ramakrishna from within the ranks of the Ramakrishna Order. It also should be mentioned that there are a number of nonmonastic writers who have made significant contributions to Ramakrishna literature: M. Sivaramakrishna, Dinesh Bhattacharyya Shastri, R. K. Das Gupta, and others. While their writings have greatly enhanced Ramakrishna literature, by and large they have not done the considerable original research which the three swamis of the Ramakrishna Order whom we discuss below have done.
Recent Interpretations by Monks of the Ramakrishna Order
While Kālī's Child has made much of "the tradition" or "the doctrine" (KC, 204) espoused by the Ramakrishna Order, there has been little examination of the Order's intellectual activity in order to assess what such a "tradition" might be. First, it is important to note that there has been, from the Order's inception, a great deal of discussion, argument and debate over any number of issues pertaining to the Ramakrishna Order. There has never been an established orthodoxy or orthopraxy to keep members' thoughts and actions in line. Indeed, it would be unusual, more likely impossible, to find two members who share precisely the same outlook and spiritual ideals. Such questions as the role of Ramakrishna in the world, the role of Ramakrishna vis-à-vis Hinduism, the role of Vivekananda, and whether his teachings formed an organic whole with those of Ramakrishna, the role of Sarada Devi, whether the Ramakrishna Order is a "new" religious movement or a regeneration of the ancient Hindu tradition, whether the Vedānta of the Ramakrishna Order is the same as the Vedānta of Śaṅkara, whether Ramakrishna was an Advaitin or a Śākta Advaitin or a Viśiṣṭādvaitin—these subjects have long been discussed, debated and written about. And this is just a small sampling of the kinds of issues that are discussed. Since, mercifully, there is no "doctrine" offered by the Ramakrishna Order, there has been in its stead a long tradition of open-ended discussions in which ideas are freely brought up, examined and debated.
It is significant, however, that the questions which will become increasingly central to recent Western-educated scholars on Ramakrishna—Neevel, Masson, McLean, Sil, and Kripal—were, as far as we are aware, never debated or discussed within the Ramakrishna Order. It is not that the topics were forbidden or so shocking as to be only whispered under one's breath—they were simply so fatuous as to never have been seriously considered in the first place. The issue, for example, of whether Ramakrishna was "homosexually oriented"—a view endorsed by Masson, McLean and Kripal—was never an issue nor a point of debate: Ramakrishna's heterosexual orientation was so obvious to those who were familiar with Bengali culture and to those who had read the source texts in the original Bengali that the issue itself was a non-issue.
Should this be construed as a cover-up or a case of universal cultural homophobia, it is worth noting that even Ashok Row Kavi, one of India's most prominent gay rights activists and spokesmen, does not agree with Kālī's Child's conclusions about Ramakrishna. Row Kavi, who had joined the Ramakrishna Order in Mumbai, left the monastery in order to freely explore and express his homosexuality. Since that time, he has had nothing but praise for the Ramakrishna Order and for the senior monk who encouraged him to lead as honest and happy a life as possible. Row Kavi writes: "I am ever grateful to the monks of the Ramakrishna order for making my coming out so painless and worthy of all that is great in man's heritage" (Row Kavi, 15).47 Row Kavi has also been highly critical of Kālī's Child. He asserts that the book's assessments regarding Ramakrishna's "alleged sexuality are wrong." He further critiques Kripal for his "derisive attitude towards Ramakrishna" and also asserts that Kripal is "culturally condescending."48
We must again emphasize that the issue at stake in Kālī's Child is not homosexuality per se. There is nothing intrinsically problematic or "wrong" with being homosexual any more than there is anything intrinsically problematic or "wrong" with being heterosexual. What is at stake is whether Ramakrishna was living an unconscious life, a deeply fractured life, or a deceitful life. The issue is whether Ramakrishna was "incapable of deciphering the homoerotic images ... in his visions and language" and whether he "was not fully aware of his own homosexual desires" (KC, 320). In other words, was Ramakrishna unaware of the contents of his own mind? Was Ramakrishna "incapable" of understanding his own visions and language? There are a large number of testimonies by those who knew Ramakrishna and spoke, unanimously and convincingly, not only of his purity, straightforwardness and guilelessness, but also of his deep insight and wisdom. Did every one of them get it wrong? Perhaps. According to Kripal, for many the truths are "just too difficult to accept." They are also "quite literally traumatic" (2004, 195). He continues:
How many times have I heard something like the following between the lines, as it were, of my offended critics: "How could this Westerner see something that we Hindus have not seen for the last 130 years? What hubris!"
On one level, I can only agree with them—it does indeed seem quite preposterous. But what am I to do? I cannot cognitively or morally deny the conclusions of my intellectual labors. (201)
A couple of points: First, the issue of "Westerner" is a bit of a red herring since two of his most noted and vocal critics—Swami Atmajnanananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana—are Westerners as well. Second, the crucial point is that the issue is not about homosexuality or heterosexuality. The issue at stake here is whether Ramakrishna was spiritually and psychologically fragmented or whole.
Again, while Ramakrishna will be accused of misogyny by Masson, McLean, Olson and Kripal, this has not been the subject of debate in the Ramakrishna Order. It is not that such debate was discouraged or inhibited, but simply that for those who understand Hindu traditions and culture, it was a non-issue—particularly for those who have read the source material on Sarada Devi and Ramakrishna's other women disciples.
The three monks of the Ramakrishna Order upon whose work we focus have largely been ignored by Western-educated scholars. Of these three, Swami Prabhananda's work—primarily his in-depth historical research on Ramakrishna and other figures in the Ramakrishna tradition—has made an occasional appearance in academic footnotes. The other two monks, Swamis Dhireshananda and Bhajanananda, have not, as far as we are aware, been noted at all. Their writings have discussed philosophical aspects of Ramakrishna, the Ramakrishna Order and the Hindu traditions in general.
A second-generation monk of the Ramakrishna Order—that is, a disciple of one of Ramakrishna's monastic disciples—Swami Dhireshananda (1907-1998) was a disciple of Swami Saradananda. Dhireshananda studied Sanskrit and Vedānta scriptures from traditional scholars and later taught them to a cross-section of at least two generations of monks of the Ramakrishna Order. Dhireshananda's literary output was relatively small; apart from his Bengali translations of the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha-sāra (1972), Vairāgya-śatakam (1985), Vedānta-saṁjña-mālikā (1985), Aṣṭāvakra Gītā (1988), and Adhyātma Rāmāyaṇa (1994), he also wrote several thought-provoking essays in Udbodhan, the Ramakrishna Order's Bengali journal published from Kolkata.
Two of Dhireshananda's outstanding essays, both published in Udbodhan, merit special attention, as he has raised in them several key issues and has provided compelling insights. "Swami Vivekananda o Advaitavād" ("Swami Vivekananda and Advaita Philosophy") was published in 1962 and "Nānā Dṛṣṭite Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa" ("Sri Ramakrishna through Different Lenses") was published in 1980. In these two essays, Dhireshananda attempts to analyze Ramakrishna's words against the backdrop of the Hindu traditions.
Dhireshananda's 1962 essay was written on the eve of Vivekananda's birth centenary and, while its focus was on the role Advaita played in Vivekananda's life and teachings, it analyzes the kind of Advaita he learned from Ramakrishna. The second essay deals directly with Ramakrishna and highlights what is probably one of the most significant features of his life: namely, that any attempt to force Ramakrishna's life into the straitjacket of a single philosophy or tradition is bound to produce distortion. Indeed, this was pointed out in the very first biography of Ramakrishna, Ramchandra Datta's Jībanabṛttānta, in which he wrote that in Ramakrishna's life one sees the fulfillment of all spiritual ideals (bhāva) (JB, 52). To Vedāntins he was a paramahaṁsa, to devotees he was an avatar, and to Tāntriks he was a kaulaśreṣṭha. He has also been called rasīkacuḍāmaṇi by those in the Navarasika sect, sāi by the Bāuls, gosvāmī by the Vaiṣṇavas, and ālekh by the Kartābhajās (Dhireshananda 1980, 220). Dhireshananda points out that Ramakrishna was "the embodiment of infinite bhāvas" (anantabhāvamay). Having practiced the disciplines of many spiritual traditions, Ramakrishna demonstrated both the authenticity and the effectiveness of their practices in the lives of qualified students (adhikārī).
Another significant feature to which Dhireshananda draws our attention is the method of Ramakrishna's teaching. Although Ramakrishna himself embodied a number of different ideals in his life, he taught only what was suitable to the person who sought his guidance. As Vivekananda once remarked: "Generally he used to teach dualism. As a rule he never taught Advaita. But he taught it to me" (CW 7.414). Dhireshananda quotes profusely from the Kathāmṛta and points to Ramakrishna's words that teach, at different times and to different students, the insights derived from the Advaita, Viśiṣṭādvaita, and Dvaita traditions. For most beginners in spiritual life, Ramakrishna taught the path of devotion.
Dhireshananda raises a question regarding the nature of Ramakrishna's experience of the Divine Mother. What kind of an experience was this? According to him, this vision of Ramakrishna can be understood only from the perspective offered in the Śāktādvaita tradition of the Tantras.49 Giving a brief exposition of Śāktādvaita and quoting from scriptural texts, Dhireshananda points out that Śāktādvaita pushes the inquiry into the nature of Reality beyond the inherent duality of the Sāṁkhya tradition and, philosophically, can be considered to be only a step away from the nonduality of Vedānta (1962, 76).
The conversations in the Kathāmṛta, generally recorded on weekends when most people frequented Dakshineswar, reflect the insights of Śāktādvaita to a considerable degree. Ramakrishna's life revolved around his chosen ideal (iṣṭa-devatā) Kālī and he used to say: "Looking upon God as Mother is a very pure approach" (matṛbhāb baḍo śuddhabhāb). In the Kathāmṛta the reader finds repeated emphasis on the motherhood of God, the interchangeability of both the saguṇa/nirguṇa and līlā/nitya aspects of the divine in the unitary Consciousness that manifests as Mother, and many references to kunḍalinī and its movement.
Dhireshananda cautions his readers, however, about jumping to the conclusion that Śāktādvaita was the one and only philosophy that guided Ramakrishna's life. If it were, he says, Ramakrishna would not have taken so much care in teaching Vivekananda and others alternative ways of understanding life and reality. Once when a person asked Ramakrishna to give him one teaching that would produce knowledge (ek Kathāy gyān), Ramakrishna told him: "'Brahman is real and the world is an appearance'—meditate on this" ('brahma satya jagat mithyā'—ei-ṭi dhāraṇā karo). After saying this, Ramakrishna then remained silent (Dhireshananda 1980, 223). This is as clear an Advaitic teaching as one can get. Dhireshananda provides many other instances of similar teaching which are found in the Kathāmṛta:
The forms and aspects of God disappear before Vedāntic reasoning. The ultimate conclusion of that reasoning is this: Brahman is real and the world of name and form is illusory. It is possible to see the forms of God or be conscious of God as a Person only as long as there is the awareness "I am a devotee." Through the lens of reason, the devotee's "I" keeps the devotee a little away from God. (KA 1.61) But līlā is by no means the last word. After experiencing all the bhāvas, I said, "Mother, in all these states there is separation. Keep me in a state where there is no separation." That is how I remained for some days absorbed in indivisible Saccidānanda. (KA 2.192)
God has shown me that only the Paramātman, who is called in the Vedas as the pure Ātman, is one, immovable like Mount Meru, unattached, and beyond joy and sorrow. (KA 3.71)
When one begins to reason, one sees that all this is like a dream. Brahman alone is real; everything else is unreal. Even Śakti is like a dream, unreal. (KA 1.41)
Why did Ramakrishna's teachings, as they have come down to us, seem to reflect a bias toward Śāktādvaita? Quantitatively, a significant portion of the Kathāmṛta has teachings that are clearly Śāktādvaitic when compared to the teachings on bhakti, Viśiṣṭādvaita, or Advaita.
Dhireshananda suggests that Ramakrishna felt that "worshiping the cause of the universe as Mother was the best practice or way for spiritual liberation of the people of the modern age whose minds were polluted with worldly desires" (1980, 224). Thus Ramakrishna generally recommended santāna-bhāva (looking upon oneself as child of the Divine Mother). Quoting copiously from the Kathāmṛta, Dhireshananda further writes that, according to Ramakrishna, after the state of enlightenment (vijñana) the person continues to live in the world holding either a Śāktādvaitic or Viśiṣṭādvaitic worldview, for in the nondual state of samādhi, negotiating the external world is neither possible nor necessary (1962, 142).
Citing many references from the Kathāmṛta and the Līlāprasaṅga, Dhireshananda points out that Ramakrishna showed the inherent harmony in—as well as brought about a synthesis of—all the Vedic as well as non-Vedic sādhanas (1962, 78). Dhireshananda emphasizes that every student of Ramakrishna understood him in the light of the teachings that he or she received. We can extend that observation today by stating that any study on Ramakrishna is a reflection of how Ramakrishna appears to the interpreter and not necessarily of what Ramakrishna really was. As such, how a person sees Ramakrishna is often an indicator of the person's frame of mind which processes and interprets the information about Ramakrishna. Dhireshananda's two essays have made a significant contribution toward understanding the multifaceted spirituality of Ramakrishna by putting into perspective the remarkable variety which is seen in both Ramakrishna's mystic experiences as well as in his teachings.
Swami Prabhananda is considered the Ramakrishna Order's foremost researcher and historian. Prabhananda's first book, First Meetings with Sri Ramakrishna, was published in 1987 and discusses thirty-nine significant figures in Ramakrishna's life, while providing information about their first encounters with Ramakrishna. In so doing, Prabhananda provides a wealth of new biographical data on his subjects, material he uncovered through years of meticulous research.
The first person discussed is Ramakrishna's first guru, the Bhairavi Brahmani, who first met Ramakrishna in 1861. "Bhairavi" was not her name; the term merely indicates that she was a nun of a Tāntrik order. The Bhairavi's given name was Yogeswari, but Ramakrishna simply referred to her as "Bamni"—the brahmin woman (since it is rude to address one's guru by his or her given name). While little has been written about the Bhairavi in academic literature on Ramakrishna (apart from the fact that she was Ramakrishna's "Tāntrik guru"), few Ramakrishna scholars have noted that the Bhairavi was a deeply learned woman, a scholar of both Vaiṣṇava and Tāntrik scriptures (Prabhananda 1987, 8). It is also not well known that the Bhairavi was a devotee of Viṣṇu, her iṣṭa-devatā being Raghuvīr, to whom she offered cooked food daily.
Prabhananda's chapter on Totapuri tells us that Ramakrishna was thirty when Tota arrived in Dakshineswar, and he was probably in his fifties. Tota was tall and robust with matted hair and an untrimmed beard. Prabhananda notes: "Typical paramahaṁsa (the highest order of monks) that he was, his only possessions were a pair of tongs, a brass water-pot, a coarse wrapper [shawl], and a piece of [animal] skin to sit on" (27-28). A sannyāsī from a young age, Tota belonged to the Puri order of the Daśanāmīs, which was founded by Śaṅkara in the seventh century, C.E. Tota's monastery was in Haryana state and its monks lived notably ascetic lives. Most memorably, they were "clothed in the sky"—i.e., completely naked—and hence were called "nāgā" sādhus. They observed personal poverty and performed hard manual labor. Ramakrishna recalled what Tota had told him about his monastery and his training as a sādhu:
There were seven hundred naked spiritual aspirants. . . . Those who were beginning to learn meditation were asked to do so on cushions, for they might feel an ache in their legs if they were to sit and meditate on hard seats, and their unaccustomed minds might come to think of their bodies instead of God. Then afterwards, the deeper their meditation became, the harder were the seats on which they had to sit. And at last they had to sit on pieces of skin only or on the bare ground to practice meditation. They were also made to observe strict rules regarding everything, viz., eating, drinking, etc. As fetters of shame, hatred, fear, egoism regarding one's birth, lineage, custom, pretentiousness and so on, they were taught to give them up one by one. Afterwards when they developed deep concentration of mind they had to go and travel from one place of pilgrimage to another, at first with other monks, and later alone, and then return. (30-31)
Apart from the fact that this offers a fascinating insight into the training of sannyāsīs—imagine seven hundred at once—it is worth noting that particular attention is given to removing the fetters of "shame, hatred, fear, etc." Let us remind ourselves that this is strict training in the Vedānta, not Tantric, tradition. While Kālī's Child goes to great lengths to declare that Tantra's onus is to remove these fetters, it ignores the fact that every liberative tradition within the Hindu fold seeks to remove these same fetters.
More About Ramakrishna, published in 1993, was Swami Prabhananda's subsequent book. It presents in-depth articles on various topics, including Ramakrishna's interactions with other religious traditions, his visit to East Bengal, his final days, and a history of the early days of the Ramakrishna Order. "The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna and the Life of M" recounts the fascinating history behind M's Kathāmṛta and offers littleknown details about the author and his book. For example, M records in the Kathāmṛta Ramakrishna's statements about M himself. These statements, fifty-two in number, were regarded by M as mahāvākyas. One example: In the thirty-sixth statement, Ramakrishna said regarding M: "Illumine him, Mother, otherwise how will he illumine others in turn?" (219). Apart from these mahāvākyas concerning M himself, Ramakrishna also issued directives to M, eighty-five in number, which M took as holy commandments. For example: "Meditate on God, you have much work to do," and "Advise the youths who call on you" (220).
Also of interest in this article is how Ramakrishna discouraged M from becoming a monk. While much has been said about Ramakrishna's preference for those who renounced "woman and gold," little has been said about how Ramakrishna encouraged the great majority of his householder devotees to remain in the world. M is no small example. When M had a strong urge to renounce the world, Ramakrishna prevented him from doing so by telling him: "Mother has told me that you have to do a little of Her work—you will have to teach 'Bhagavata,' the word of God, to humanity. The Mother keeps a Bhagavata pundit bound to the world." When even this did not pacify M's desire to renounce the world, Ramakrishna said to him: "Let nobody think that if he does not do Mother's work, it would remain undone. The Mother can turn even a straw into a teacher" (221). With this, M renounced his desire for monastic life. Fittingly, as time passed, M became a leading figure in the Ramakrishna movement, his room continually teeming with people, both monastic and lay, while he spoke unendingly of Ramakrishna.
Prabhananda's most recent book, Journeys with Ramakrishna, provides exhaustive research about Ramakrishna's pilgrimages and journeys. While some of his journeys are well known—to Varanasi and Vrindaban, for example—others, such as the one to Bali-Diwanganj in West Bengal, are not. Yet Bali-Diwanganj is of great interest to Ramakrishna scholars since this is the only known pilgrimage in which Ramakrishna and Sarada Devi traveled together. As Sarada told her disciple Nikunja Devi: "We [Ramakrishna and herself] traveled together by boat to Bali [Diwanganj] and from there to Kamarpukur. On this trip we ate together, we sang songs in chorus, and we shared prasad [offered food]" (2001, 149).
Journeys also mentions another, lesser-known incident, which occurred in 1870. It is well known that while on pilgrimage in Deoghar, Ramakrishna, seeing the desperate situation of the tribals, refused to budge until Mathur had clothed and fed them. Prabhananda reveals a second occasion in which Ramakrishna had accompanied Mathur to the latter's estates in Kalaighat, near Ranaghat, now in Bangladesh. The villagers, Mathur's tenants, were poverty-stricken and Mathur had come with the expectation of extracting money from them. Appalled at their miserable condition, Ramakrishna persuaded Mathur to remit their taxes and give them clothes, food for a week, and oil for their hair (105-110). It is worth noting that while Vivekananda has been credited with inaugurating social service while Ramakrishna purportedly had little use for it, these incidents are often invoked to demonstrate that Ramakrishna himself was concerned about ameliorating human suffering.50
While Kālī's Child portrays Mathur in sinister terms, referring to him as Ramakrishna's "boss" or the "temple boss" who "may have forced" himself upon Ramakrishna (KC, 2), Prabhananda spends some time discussing Ramakrishna's and Mathur's unique relationship. As Prabhananda notes, sometimes Mathur would be like a child, depending entirely upon Ramakrishna. At other times, Mathur looked after Ramakrishna as one would a child. Prabhananda writes:
But here too there was a difference. . . . [Mathur] strongly believed that Baba [Ramakrishna, whom Mathur called "Baba," the Bengali word for "father"] had the power to direct his destiny. It was therefore no wonder that Mathurmohan made extravagant arrangements for the Master's visits to different temples and other places. Whenever the Master went out, someone would hold an umbrella, ornamented with silver, over his head; and servants would carry silver maces and other paraphernalia. (2001, 18-21)
Apart from the silver maces and ornamented-silver umbrellas, the fact that Mathur put up with feeding villagers, foregoing his taxes—what to speak of going on an extended pilgrimage in the first place—shows that Mathur had no small regard for Ramakrishna.
The events of Ramakrishna's 1868 Varanasi pilgrimage are wellknown. Less known is the fact that the Bhairavi Brahmani was living in Varanasi at the time, and Ramakrishna met her at her request. When the pilgrimage continued on to Vrindaban, the Bhairavi accompanied him and there she passed away, after Ramakrishna had returned to Dakshineswar (28). While in Vrindaban, Ramakrishna began to practice Vaiṣṇava sādhana. About this, Ramakrishna later remarked: "Once I thought, 'Why should I be one-sided?' Therefore I was initiated into Vaiṣṇavism in Vrindaban and took the garb of a Vaiṣṇava monk" (62-63; KA 5.82). Prabhananda notes that Ramakrishna took initiation from a Vaiṣṇava priest by the name of Catura in a place near Radhakunda, and he probably lived in that locality for some time as well.
It was also in Vrindaban that Ramakrishna met Gangamata or Gangamayi, a woman in her sixties who was renowned for her holiness. She and Ramakrishna apparently had an instant rapport, developing a deep attachment for one another—so much so that Ramakrishna decided to stay with her and live in Vrindaban. Everything had been arranged for his permanent residence in Vrindaban—he would stay in Gangamayi's small hut, with his bed on one side and Gangamayi's on the other. So intent was he on remaining in Vrindaban that Gangamayi and Hriday got into a tug of war, with Ramakrishna being pulled from side to side. "But just then," Ramakrishna later remarked, "I remembered my mother. . . . She was old. I said to myself: 'My devotion to God will take to its wings if I have to worry about my mother. I would rather live with her. Then I shall have peace of mind and be able to meditate on God'" (68).
Ramakrishna has been criticized, by Jeffrey Kripal among others, for having his mother as his primary motivation in returning to Dakshineswar, with no mention of his wife, Sarada. One needs to remember, however, that in Indian culture a man is expected to have a much stronger and more intense attachment to his mother rather than to his spouse. Not to have such love and sense of responsibility would be seen as immoral and unnatural. Noted Bengali psychologist/sociologist Ashis Nandy writes that "the mother-son relationship is the basic nexus and the ultimate paradigm of human social relationships in India" (Nandy 1980, 37). Alan Roland has observed that in Indian cultural norms, "it is expected that [the son] remain deeply attached to his mother and deeply involved with his original family throughout life" (Roland 1996, 137).51 Finally, Narasingha Sil has noted the same:
Kripal betrays his ignorance of Bengali culture and social habits when he considers Ramakrishna's hurrying back home from Vrindaban on learning of his mother's illness somewhat reprehensible because he never mentions his wife Sarada left behind at home. . . . Anybody who is familiar with a Bengali household will know that it is quite common and even praiseworthy for a son to remember his mother more than his wife.52
In returning to Ramakrishna's journeys, we find that in 1874 Ramakrishna traveled to Khardah, a Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava pilgrimage site, approximately twenty miles north of Kolkata. There seems to have been a strong bond of affection between Ramakrishna and Khardah's Goswami family. Prabhananda reports that reminiscences from the Goswami's descendants indicate that Yadavkishore and his brother Harikishore took a small boat to Dakshineswar and found, much to their surprise, that Ramakrishna was ready to go to Khardah. Though there had been no previous arrangement, Ramakrishna seemed to know they were arriving. The brothers took him to Khardah, where he visited the Śyāmsundar temple. When Ramakrishna was brought before the deity, he said: "Mā, you're playing the flute?" and went into deep ecstasy. According to the printed account given by Shrishkishore Goswami, grandson of Yadavkishore, Śyāmsundar always assumes the form of Śyāmā (Kālī) on the night of Kālī worship (141-43). This is significant as another example of a culture in which it is entirely possible to worship both Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, without conflict and apparently even within the same image.
Prabhananda's article entitled "Śakti-sādhanā o Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa" ("Śakti Worship and Sri Ramakrishna") was published in the Bengali journal Udbodhan (September 1999). Prabhananda begins by stating that "the idea of Śakti is intrinsically connected with Śakti sādhana" (1999, 549). It is important to keep this in mind since the implications of Śākta philosophy can be manifested only through sādhana.
Prabhananda discusses Tantra's ancient pedigree by noting that at one time both Vedic and Tantric sādhana were prevalent in Indian society. He quotes Kulluka Bhatta, the commentator on the Manu Smṛti: vaidikī tāntrikī caiva dvividhā śrutiḥ, "Vedic and Tantric are the two types of revealed scriptures (śruti)." By placing Tantra within the purview of śruti, Prabhananda locates Tantra in the realm of the sacred— hardly the view of Tantra the reader encounters in Kālī's Child, in which Tantra is reduced to "magical power, strangeness, seediness, and sex" (KC, 28). Prabhananda goes on to note the various unresolved debates concerning Tantra: whether or not Tantra was derived from the Vedas or was an independent tradition; whether or not Tantra was indigenous to India; whether or not Hindu and Buddhist Tantras are different and which of the two is more ancient. Prabhananda himself expresses no opinion on any of these debates.
Asserting that at one time Śakti worship was prevalent worldwide, Prabhananda goes on to state that only in India has there been an unbroken tradition of Śakti worship, and this has deeply and permanently influenced the Indian mind. Prabhananda quotes Swami Saradananda who wrote: "Śakti worship, especially the worship of Śakti as Mother, is the native treasure of India" (1999, 549). Prabhananda categorically declares: "The importance of Tantra in Śakti sādhana is undeniable. Tanyate vistāryate jñānam anena iti tantram, 'Tantra is that which broadens and deepens knowledge'" (549). This is again a far cry from what we read in Kālī's Child, which would have the reader believe that the Ramakrishna Order more or less rejects Tantra.53
Prabhananda reminds us that, according to Ramakrishna, a person cannot entirely follow the Vedic path in the Kaliyuga, and thus: "The path of Tantra is suited for the Kaliyuga" (kolite tantrokto mot; KA 2.66). But it is only through spiritual practice that anything can be achieved and therefore sādhana is given the utmost importance in the Tantras. In introducing the basic patterns of Śakti worship, Prabhananda writes that Kālī is the principal deity of both Śākta and Tantric sādhana, though Kālī has various forms which are represented by the Daśa-mahāvidyās, the ten aspects of Devī. Prabhananda notes that Tantra sādhana is open to all, with no barriers regarding caste, color or race. Yet "there is the shadow of adhikāra-vāda, or the required fitness of students" (1999, 550). Only one who is initiated, that is, has received mantra dīkṣā, is fit for Tantra sādhana.
Prabhananda notes that according to the Tantras, "the characteristics present in the universe are also present in the body" and for that reason the body is esteemed as the home of great spiritual power. The body, however, is not the goal of the Tantras; the goal is to develop and express the divine power housed within the body. Tantric sādhana is eclectic: it integrates "elements of yoga, prayer, worship, and meditation on the identity of the individual and the Absolute" (550). Śakti sādhana is primarily for householders: "A householder devoted to the supreme ideal described in the scriptures is called gṛhāvadhūta, a householdermendicant" (550). Thus, if all aspects of Śakti sādhana have not been followed by those within the Ramakrishna Order, it has been for the simple reason that not all aspects of Śakti sādhana are either suited to or practicable for monastics.
Critically, however, Prabhananda asserts:
From a liberal perspective, Śakti sādhana may be seen as a sādhana of nondual Brahman. Swami Saradananda says, "The enlightened Tantric, like the Advaitin, sees no difference between mud and sandal[paste], friend and foe, a dwelling house and the cremation ground." (550)
Again we see that, in a fairly significant way, there is no hard and fast division between Advaita and Tantra. In many aspects the paths converge and in many ways their views are complementary. Case in point: both Advaita and Tantra assert that consciousness is one and nondual. Advaitins state that Brahman is pure consciousness. Quoting the Durgā Saptaśatī (5.17): Yā devī sarvabhūteṣu cetanety-abhidhīyate, "[Salutations to the] Goddess who, present in all beings, is called Consciousness," Prabhananda notes that while modern science views power as unconscious, Tantra sees it as filled with consciousness (550).
During the time of Ramprasad (1720-1781) there were "two streams of Śakti sādhana: (1) secret sādhana and (2) worship of the clay image of Mother Kālī with full pomp and glory" (552). Ramprasad integrated both streams, "lifted Kālī worship above its sectarian bias, and gave it a universal appeal." While the Tantras emphasized internal purification, Ramprasad emphasized bhāva. Prabhananda quotes Ramprasad: "She is known through bhāva; can She be grasped in the absence (abhāva) of bhāva?" Ramprasad's goal was to attain Brahman, which he did by "holding on to Mother Śyāmā [Kālī]." To that effect Ramprasad sang, "My [Mother] Tārā is formless" and, when his spiritual heart opened, he sang: "Mother dwells in every being" (552).
The final section of Prabhananda's article addresses Śakti worship in relation to Ramakrishna's life. He mentions that Ramakrishna, under the direction of Yogeswari Brahmani, practiced all sixty-four Tantric disciplines. "There is," Prabhananda writes, "a subtle intermingling of bhāvas in the sixty-four Tantras. Gradually [Ramakrishna] scaled the highest pinnacle of bhāva sādhanas" (552). After his Tantric sādhana, Ramakrishna then pursued Advaita sādhana under the direction of Totapuri. Rather than seeing these as contradictory sādhanas, Prabhananda sees them as complementary: "Firmly established in nondual knowledge and with the bhāva of a vijñānī as his support, Ramakrishna lived joyfully as a child of the Universal Mother. Coming down from nirvikalpa samādhi, he enjoyed līlā with devotion and with devotees." Prabhananda confirms this by quoting Pratap Chandra Mazumdar's recollection of Ramakrishna: "He worships Śiva, he worships Kālī, he worships Rāma, he worships Kṛṣṇa, and is a confirmed advocate of Vedantist doctrines" (553).
Prabhananda observes that Ramakrishna's sādhanas are tinged with the ideal of harmony. That is, Ramakrishna practiced various sādhanas and saw all manifestations of the divine as valid and efficacious. As Ramakrishna famously said, Jato mot tato poth, "As many faiths, so many paths." More to the point, Prabhananda points out that Ramakrishna repeatedly said that Brahman and Śakti are one and the same (KA 1.202-3).
As for the practical application of Ramakrishna's Śākta sādhana, Prabhananda writes that Ramakrishna's Śakti worship had established him on the pinnacle of nondual knowledge. Further, while both Ramakrishna and Vivekananda attained nirvikalpa samādhi, neither of these experiences made them turn away from humanity. Finally, Ramakrishna's Śakti worship culminated in the worship of his wife, Sarada Devi. "If one wishes to understand the Śakti sādhana of Sri Ramakrishna," Prabhananda writes, "one has to look deeply at the significant role played by his two principal companions, Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda" (554).
Prabhananda concludes that, in contrast to earlier times, people now want concrete examples of the utility of Śakti sādhana and how that manifests in terms of social benefit. Further, in contrast to earlier times, where individual liberation was the only goal, Śakti sādhana has also become an instrument of social good, and has now become easily accessible to all people.
From 1979 through 1986, Swami Bhajanananda, now a trustee of the Ramakrishna Order, was editor of the most widely read journal of the Ramakrishna Order, Prabuddha Bharata. While Bhajanananda has written a number of articles for various publications of the Ramakrishna Order for many years, none of his major writings have been compiled into a book. His most respected writings are his Prabuddha Bharata editorials. A monk since the early 1960s, Bhajanananda is widely regarded as one of the leading intellectuals of the Ramakrishna Order.
While Swami Bhajanananda has written comprehensively on a number of subjects, we will consider here only his writings dealing directly with Ramakrishna. In March 1979 Bhajanananda wrote "Sri Ramakrishna the Unknown," in which he discusses the question Ramakrishna occasionally asked his devotees: "What do you think of me?" Ramakrishna encouraged a spirit of inquiry among his closest disciples, and he asked the question for two complementary reasons: first, to gauge the disciple's mind so that he could assess the disciple's belief patterns; second, to stimulate his disciple's mind in order to more fully understand him.
Ramakrishna said: "The devotees who come here may be divided into two groups. One group says, 'O God, give me liberation.' Another group, belonging to the inner circle, doesn't talk that way. They are satisfied if they can know two things: who I [Ramakrishna] am; second, who they are and what their relationship to me is" (KA 4.99). As we shall see, Kālī's Child takes a very different view of both Ramakrishna's "inner circle" as well as Ramakrishna's question "What do you think of me?" In contrast to the explanation given above, Kripal asserts that Ramakrishna "did not ask the question because he was already absolutely certain of the answer. Rather, he asked the question to be reassured that the answer that he had already been given many times before was in fact the correct one." Kripal goes one step further to declare: "Ramakrishna the incarnation was socially created through human interaction and the process of interpretation and debate" (KC, 219; italics in text).
Seeing the matter in an entirely different light, Bhajanananda returns to his original question "Who is Ramakrishna?" by noting that "an aura of mystery surrounds Sri Ramakrishna's life right from his very birth" (1979, 88). It is interesting to compare the "mystery" as understood by those within the Ramakrishna Order to "the secret" according to Kālī's Child. As we shall see, these two terms come from two entirely different worldviews. Apart from this overarching divergence, two entirely different ways of translating words, concepts and cultural meanings are at work here. The "mystery" of Ramakrishna begins with his father's dream of Viṣṇu at Gaya, in which Viṣṇu informs Ramakrishna's father that he will be born as his son. Ramakrishna's mother, on the other hand, had the experience of celestial light emanating from the Śiva temple, which then entered her womb. "This," Bhajanananda writes, "raises the interesting question, whose manifestation Sri Ramakrishna really was— whether of Viṣṇu or of Śiva. Or, was it a case of religious harmony right in the mother's womb?" (88-89). Kālī's Child, by contrast, declares: "No one has noted the obvious, that both Viṣṇu and Śiva are identified ... as the divine source of Ramakrishna's conception" (KC, 55). One wonders how Kripal could assume that no one had noticed something so obvious, which, of course, many had. They simply did not find it problematic. This is what Bhajanananda and other Ramakrishna devotees simply subsume into the category of "mystery"—just as tens of millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and everyone else under the sun have similarly done with divine legends since the beginning of time.
Asserting that "the historical aspect of an incarnation is only the temporal dimension of his eternal spiritual reality," Bhajanananda goes on to say that the real Ramakrishna is to be sought in the depths of one's soul. "The real Sri Ramakrishna is unknown but not unknowable. He can be known only if he reveals himself. And he reveals himself to the sincere aspirant in the secret depths of his heart and fulfills the beginningless yearnings of his soul" ('1979, 91). Bhajanananda commends the reader to engage in a deeper and more intense mystical life with a deeper relationship with Ramakrishna. Such a stance, not uncommon in insider literature, obviously takes for granted a number of presuppositions which would be difficult for most academics to swallow. Nevertheless, since many of the core ideas of the Ramakrishna tradition will be dissected and dismissed by those outside the Ramakrishna tradition, it is important to see how some of these central beliefs have been viewed by those within the tradition.
According to Bhajanananda, the Vedic seers (ṛṣis) felt no conflict between work and knowledge; many ṛsis lived in cities and advised kings. This ṛsi ideal was revived by Ramakrishna through his life and teachings (87) and he "recaptured the integral vision of the Vedic seers who saw divinity shining through every object in the universe" (1986, 498-99). Instead of avoiding marriage, Ramakrishna not only chose his own bride but also allowed her to live with him and be his helpmate in his larger mission. Quoting distinguished sociologist G. S. Ghurye, Bhajanananda points out that Ramakrishna also gave a wholly new orientation to the monastic ideal and "effected an all-round rejuvenation of monastic life in India" (499).54
Ramakrishna recovered for the modern world the "idea of the divinity of the soul and the sacredness of nature" (1980, 87). In place of the Vedic worship of nature, Ramakrishna encouraged the worship of Śakti. His worship of Kālī is "one of the most significant—if not the most significant aspect—of Ramakrishna's life" (1986, 501). By this declaration, Bhajanananda unknowingly counters what will become one of academia's more prevalent (and persistent) myths—that Kālī has been "marginalized" by those within the Ramakrishna tradition. Those within the tradition would be astounded to hear about such "marginalization." Devotion to Kālī continues to find expression in the succeeding generations of the Ramakrishna tradition, both monastic and lay, through not only prayer and worship but also meditation with Kālī as the iṣṭa-devatā ("chosen deity").
Ramakrishna's worship of the Divine Mother is deeply significant, first, because such worship of the Divine Mother, who is the Primal Energy, brings in its wake "a great spiritual upsurge everywhere" (501). Second, by regarding "the Godhead as feminine," Ramakrishna elevated the status of women everywhere. By worshiping God as Mother, Ramakrishna, through the force of his own example, brought to the world the spiritual attitude of regarding God as Mother. This is the highest spiritual mood for Ramakrishna, according to whom the "attitude of regarding God as Mother is the last word in sādhana. 'O God, Thou art my Mother and I am thy child'—this is the last word in spirituality" (504).
Of critical importance was Ramakrishna's own intense spiritual aspiration, or vyākulatā. Significantly, during the Ṛg Vedic period, the primary forms of spiritual discipline were prayer and worship. "But these were animated by the power of blazing aspiration. Sri Ramakrishna has brought back that fire of aspiration (which he called vyākulatā) and has revitalized prayer and worship as much as he rejuvenated the Upaniṣadic spirit of meditation, inquiry and self-analysis" (1980, 88). The term—often used by Ramakrishna to describe the intense longing that one should have for God—has, since the controversy over Kālī's Child arose, been a matter of intense debate. Vyākulatā was translated by Nikhilananda as "yearning" or "longing" while Kālī's Child renders it as a homoerotically oriented "anxious desire."
Bhajanananda states that Ramakrishna's teaching of religious harmony was a reinterpretation of the Ṛg Vedic "Truth is one, sages call it by various names."55 More importantly, he observes that while traditional Advaitins followed the path of jñāna to negate the world in order to realize Brahman, Ramakrishna advocated going a step further. The path of negation (neti, neti—"not this, not this") "should be followed by the realization of Brahman in the manifested world through a process of affirmation. This fuller knowledge he termed 'vijñāna'" (1980, 88). Since there has been impassioned debate over Ramakrishna's root practice— whether he was a Vedāntin or Tāntrik or Vaiṣṇava—with much of the debate centered around Ramakrishna's advocacy of vijñāna or "fuller knowledge," it is significant that Bhajanananda sees vijñāna within the purview of Vedānta, stating that Ramakrishna's vijñāna was the basis for Vivekananda's doctrine of social equality. Refusing to characterize vijñāna as dualistic or nondualistic, Bhajanananda contends that, having established the "multidimensional and integral nature of religious experience," Ramakrishna showed that there was no conflict between dualism and nondualism (1986, 496).
According to Bhajanananda, Ramakrishna had experienced the highest knowledge, knowledge of Brahman, and also experienced the bliss of communion with the Supreme Self in different ways. While normal human love is tinged with selfish or instinctual motives, of which one may not be aware, Ramakrishna's love was utterly unselfish and unique in its intensity. Bhajanananda points out that "so great was [Ramakrishna's] love for Naren, Rakhal, Baburam and other disciples that he would weep for them when they were away" (1982a, 88). While Kālī's Child will assert that this indicates the homoerotic basis of Ramakrishna's attitude toward his male disciples, Bhajanananda does not see any sexual component in Ramakrishna's attitude. Indeed, he goes out of his way to make Ramakrishna's intense love and longing for his disciples—vyākulatā—a central point of his editorial in the most widely read journal of the Ramakrishna Order. To strengthen his point, he quotes Vivekananda on this score: "It was [Ramakrishna's] unflinching love for me that bound me to him forever. He alone knew how to love another" (88).
Bhajanananda sees Ramakrishna's message as one of harmony on various levels, one being between the ideals of the Personal God and the Impersonal God. He quotes Ramakrishna's words: "Brahman and Śakti are identical. If you accept the one you must accept the other" (1982b, 168-69). Ramakrishna harmonized, through his own experience, the issue of whether God was formless or had form, which was one of the great hot-button issues of nineteenth-century Bengal. In the interreligious field also, Ramakrishna's message was one of harmony: "The God of Hindus is not different from the God of Christians or Muslims, but he appears to be different because of the religious 'language' (that is, the symbols, images and myths) employed in describing him varies from religion to religion" (1982b, 169).
While the ultimate goal of all spiritual paths, Bhajanananda writes, is the one God, the paths are diverse. "But this does not mean that they are discordant. All spiritual paths—jñāna, bhakti, yoga and karma in Hinduism and the various paths in other religions—are valid means to realizing God. This [Ramakrishna] learned through his own experience" (1982b, 170). Moreover, Ramakrishna "never allowed any of his followers to criticize any religious path. He encouraged each to stick to his own path and guided him along that."
The most pressing need in contemporary life "is an incontrovertible assurance of the existence of the transcendent Reality and the possibility of realizing it. This assurance Sri Ramakrishna gave through his life" (1986, 493). Such realization is possible through "the transformation of consciousness." Ramakrishna demonstrated that by transforming human consciousness, every person could attain higher spiritual experience (493). Bhajanananda also discusses the state of bhāvamukha, of which we will see more in Kālī's Child. Bhāvamukha, that threshold between the Absolute and the relative world, is a state of consciousness which Bhajanananda defines as "a kind of vestibule with doors opening to all the different levels of consciousness" (496). It is important to keep this definition in mind when we again encounter bhāvamukha (which Kripal defines as "remaining in existence") in Kālī's Child.
Ramakrishna's greatest contribution to the world, Bhajanananda asserts,
is he himself. By the very birth of such a person ... humanity has enriched itself and has its dignity raised to the highest level. He may be adored as an avatar. . . . But, more than that, he is the embodiment of love. . . . For many people life would be unthinkable or insupportable without him. His birth on earth is for them the greatest blessing that the Supreme Spirit has conferred on humanity. (505)
We have closely examined Swami Bhajanananda's writings on Ramakrishna in order to provide a glimpse into the alternative universe of the Ramakrishna insider community. While there are insiders who may differ with Bhajanananda on a few issues, on the whole Bhajanananda's views on Ramakrishna may be taken as a representative sample of the insider view of Ramakrishna. As we have mentioned earlier, Bhajanananda is widely respected and his writings are closely followed.56 If nothing else, an investigation into such thought provides a variant interpretation of a number of contested issues which we shall soon encounter in Kālī's Child— vyākulatā, for example, the nature of Ramakrishna's love, and of course, the nature of Ramakrishna himself. While no one would seriously suggest that an outsider Ramakrishna scholar regard Ramakrishna as an avatar or assume that he was divinely inspired, one would hope that the scholar could at least glimpse how deeply Ramakrishna is loved and revered. Simply understanding this fact alone would go far in making some sense of the tumultuous reaction which Kālī's Child provoked when it was published.
A historian specializing in nineteenth-century India and the intellectual history of modern Bengal, Amiya Sen serves in Deshbandhu College's Department of History at the University of Delhi. In the mid-1990s Sen was the Agatha Harrison Fellow at St. Antony's College in Oxford and Visiting Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Sen's Hindu Revivalism in Bengal, published in 1993, examines the great change or "revival" which transformed Bengal, beginning in the early 1870s and extending through the first years of the twentieth century. It is important that, in contrast to his Western contemporaries, Sen comes to significantly different conclusions regarding Ramakrishna, remarking that "reading the original five-volume Bengali Kathāmṛta has been quite rewarding" (1993, 8). Importantly, he does not restrict his research on Ramakrishna to one sole dominating text. He culls information not only from M's Kathāmṛta but also from Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga, Sarada Devi's recorded conversations which appear in Śrī-Śrī-Māyer Kathā, Swami Saradeshananda's reminiscences of Sarada in Śrī-Śrī-Māyer SmṛtiKathā, Vivekananda's works, and the biographies of Swami Adbhutananda and Durga Charan Nag, as well as the biographies and reminiscences of other contemporaries of Ramakrishna. In discussing Ramakrishna, Sen also addresses (and occasionally disputes) some of the issues raised by Sumit Sarkar in his Kathāmṛta as Text.
Hindu Revivalism in Bengal comprises a detailed examination of Bengal's social, intellectual and religious life between 1872 and 1905. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, Sen observes, notions of a "Hindu revival" had gained acceptance. Instead of a direct trajectory, however, this "Hindu awakening" underwent several stages of construction and transformation (3-4). From this vantage point, Sen provides an investigation and reappraisal of Ramakrishna.
In contrast to Neevel and Kripal, Sen does not conclude that Ramakrishna was a Tāntrik rather than a Vedāntin. Observing that "Ramakrishna would not ultimately listen to the Bhairavi who tried hard to dissuade [Ramakrishna] from being instructed in Vedanta by ... Totapuri," Sen concludes that "Ramakrishna did not evidently find Tantra and Vedanta to be mutually irreconcilable."57 Addressing what might seem counter-intuitive to a Euro-American audience, Sen explains: "Hindu religious philosophy ... speak[s] of an inner unity between the highest conclusions of both Tantra and Vedanta—after all Ramakrishna did speak of Brahman and Sakti as only two manifestations of the same Cosmic Power. Secondly, Ramakrishna found endorsement of his social and religious views in both these forms of sadhana" (298).
Sen asserts that it is "clear from an examination of [Ramakrishna's] life that in the ultimate analysis, Ramakrishna held the Vedantic idea of oneness between God and man and of a Nirakar-Nirguna Brahman to be the ultimate road to God-realization although he rarely prescribed this to his followers" (298). Why, if such were the case, would Ramakrishna rarely prescribe the jñāna marga—nondualistic path—to his followers? Because of Hinduism's "concept of adhikarbheda—worship commensurate with the spiritual potential of individuals," Sen writes, which "Ramakrishna helped to ... popularize in modern Bengal" (299-300).
It is also significant that Sen discusses Ramakrishna dressing as a woman without assigning pathology to Ramakrishna. "Gadadhar," Sen writes, "appears to have been greatly influenced by the playfulness of the child Krishna and also the mystical relationship between Radha and Krishna—themes that were very important in popular Vaishnavism. . . . In later life Ramakrishna was to interpret this as the Madhur-bhava ... and such experiments in early life ... may have eventually contributed towards his personal conquest of sex which he held to be so important to success in spiritual life" (295). Sen sees no reason to raise a red flag here.
Also in contrast to what we will increasingly see in Western interpretations of Ramakrishna, Sen does not see Ramakrishna exhibiting either fear or hatred of sex. "It is ... certain," Sen writes,
that [Ramakrishna] was not against sexuality per se but against sexual over-indulgence. It was here that he made a valid distinction between the code of conduct of grihasthees (householders) and those initiated into sanyas (in this context monastic life). While sexual continence was a lifelong vow for the monk, the rules for the lay disciples were obviously more liberal.
Ramakrishna, he continues, "was trying to use a normal and healthy sexual relationship with the wife as the best offensive against sexual promiscuity or extra-marital relationships" (303).58 Importantly, though, Sen reports that Ramakrishna suggests husband and wife live together as brother and sister after they have two or three children. Sen (perhaps because of his own cultural background and his comprehensive understanding of Ramakrishna's historical background) sees nothing extraordinary about it.
It is remarkable that so many of Bengal's profoundly important religious, social, political and cultural leaders in these crucial years had associated with Ramakrishna. Some were particularly close—Vivekananda, of course, and Keshab Sen, as well as the founder of modern Bengali drama, Girish Ghosh. Less known in the West but extremely significant in Bengal's history are others who also knew Ramakrishna to a greater or lesser degree: Brahmo leader Shivanath Shastri, Vaiṣṇava spiritual leader Vijoy Krishna Goswami, novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (who later became a disciple of Vijoy Krishna Goswami), epic poet and playwright Michael Madhusudan Dutt, nationalist leader and philanthropist Aswini Kumar Dutta, Devendranath Tagore (who was not only Rabindranath's father, but also Keshab Sen's predecessor as leader of the Brahmo Samaj), scholar, social reformer and philanthropist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Hindu revivalist leader Pandit Shashadhar Tarkachudamani, the celebrated actress Binodini, as well as many others. One can observe these characters appearing throughout the pages of the Kathāmṛta and, with a few exceptions, for most Western readers these are personalities of no great significance. But for Indians, and Bengalis in particular, it is akin to reading a roll call of the founders of modern Bengali society. Their contribution to Indian history, particularly to Bengal, should not be underestimated. What also should not be underestimated is the fact that these extraordinarily influential people—all (with the exception of Binodini) members of Bengal's forward-thinking intelligentsia—were influenced, some minimally, some profoundly, by Ramakrishna.
Sen's final conclusion on Ramakrishna himself is that he was a "many-layered personality" with "diverse possibilities latent in his life and message." Ramakrishna was "an ingenious story-teller with fairly well-developed skills of communication; a man conservative to the core but possessing an amazing breadth of personality; a rustic, paternal figure distinctive for his kindness and compassion and a greatly inspiring religious teacher. . . . Many aspects concerning his life or human qualities are capable of being interpreted in radically different ways" (310).
The accuracy of Sen's last statement can be dramatically seen in the section that follows. Malcolm McLean, although reading the Kathāmṛta in the original Bengali, will nevertheless use Western paradigms for evaluating Ramakrishna. Further, he will use the Kathāmṛta to the exclusion of all other source documents in his interpretation. As a result, McLean's view of Ramakrishna will be radically different from Sen's. McLean's work will also be a precursor to future Western interpretations of Ramakrishna.
Malcolm McLean's unpublished Ph.D. thesis, "A Translation of the Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta with Explanatory Notes and Critical Introduction" was submitted to the University of Otago in 1983, the same year that Sen's Hindu Revivalism was published. McLean's thesis was his translation of the entire Kathāmṛta, which is preceded by his lengthy introduction. The first Western scholar to seriously examine the Bengali Kathāmṛta rather than its English translation, McLean nevertheless appraised Ramakrishna according to Western cultural norms.
While it is far too facile to construct Amiya Sen's and Malcolm McLean's opposing views of Ramakrishna as an East/West binary, certainly their respective cultural locations strongly influenced their conflicting interpretations. In contrast to Sen's appraisal of Ramakrishna, McLean writes in his introduction: "What kind of a man was he? I think it is fair to say that he would today be regarded by westerners as a little mad, if not actually psychotic, because of his great insecurity, his need for disciples and adulation, his need to be the center of attraction wherever he went" (McLean 1983, lxxi-lxxii).
McLean easily pronounces Ramakrishna a homosexual, finding evidence in Ramakrishna's statement that he has a feminine nature (KA 2.125). A number of points need to be addressed here: first and obviously, not all male homosexuals are "feminine" and what passes for "feminine" according to contemporary Euro-American standards is not a pancultural phenomenon. Even were such a thing to exist, it would neither define nor constitute homosexuality. The current obsessive concern with "masculinity" did not exist in rural India.59 More critically, the "feminine nature" which Ramakrishna attributes to himself was not indicative of sexual preference. It is a deeper indication of a person's psychic structure. Importantly, a feminine identification would not be interpreted in India as a symptom of homosexuality or pathology. A male sādhaka's "feminine nature" would be viewed as an exemplary quality and, in fact, as an indication of holiness. We can recall that according to the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, there is only one male—and that one male is Kṛṣṇa. Even within some Tantric schools, the goal of Tantra sādhana is to become the goddess. About this N. N. Bhattacharyya writes, quoting R. G. Bhandarkar: "The ambition of every pious follower of the [Vāmacāra Tantra] system is to become identical with Tripurasundarī." The followers of Śakti believe that "it ought to be the aim of all to become a woman." Bhattacharyya goes on to quote M. M. Bose, who states that the Sahajiyās "believe that at a certain stage of spiritual culture the man should transform himself into a woman, and remember that he cannot have experience of true love so long as he cannot realize the nature of woman in him." Bhattacharyya further notes: "The Ācārabheda Tantra prescribes that the Parā Śakti should be worshiped only by becoming a woman." Finally in this connection, Bhattacharyya tells the legend of Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva who were transformed into women before being allowed to see Devī in her highest form (Bhattacharyya, 292).
Ramakrishna's admonition about worldliness as embodied in "woman and gold" (kāminī kāñcana) is also seen as an indicator of his homosexuality. Declares McLean: "I think [Ramakrishna's] ambivalence tending on dislike of women, this fear of their presence and their power, stems from his homosexuality" (1983, lxxxv). Finally, McLean judges Ramakrishna's wearing of women's attire during his madhura bhāva as evidence of "transvestitism and female impersonation" (lxxiv). It bears mentioning that while McLean was the first Western scholar to seriously examine the Bengali Kathāmṛta, literally millions of Bengalis—including numerous indigenous scholars—had read the same material for nearly eight decades and had not come up with a similar assessment.
As far as philosophy is concerned, McLean finds Ramakrishna unequal to the task: "Ramakrishna has strayed ... into the realm of philosophy without the background or the tools to succeed there. His use of language is imprecise, his use of concepts confused and contradictory, like his claim that God both has form and is formless." Continuing, McLean wonders why Ramakrishna attempted his task: "He should have realized that a qualified non-dualism is a dualism, that one has to choose between dualism and non-dualism, and that there is no position between them or beyond both ... nor can the two co-exist so that man can move between the two like someone going up and down a ladder to the roof of his house" (xxiv-xxv; referring to KA 5.58). If such remarks seem hauntingly familiar and raise the specter of a latter-day Orientalism, it is perhaps due to the author's insistence upon European univalent logic and methodology as the ultimate determiner of truth.
McLean was the first scholar to take issue with Nikhilananda's English translation of the Kathāmṛta. While Nikhilananda had written that he had "made a literal translation, omitting only a few pages of no particular interest to English-speaking readers" (GSR, vii), McLean writes that "more than a few pages has ... been omitted" (1983, i). Kripal extends this charge by claiming that the omitted portions "contain some of the most revealing and significant passages of the entire text" (KC, 4). The website associated with this book (http://interpretingramakrishna.com) contains the material that Nikhilananda did not include in his translation of the Kathāmṛta. Readers may judge for themselves the veracity of these claims and counterclaims.
On a different note and prefiguring Jeffrey Kripal's criticism of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, McLean correctly observes that M "began publishing his recollections of Ramakrishna piecemeal," its five, nonchronological volumes appearing over a twenty-nine-year span.
Nikhilananda's 1942 translation "collapsed all these into one whole," McLean argues, and this presents "serious disadvantages for the scholar interested in the reliability of Gupta's material." Apparently McLean finds M's reliability potentially as problematic as Nikhilananda's, because, as McLean writes, "This material [in the Kathāmṛta] came from three different sources, of different standards of reliability" (1983, ii).
This is puzzling. M writes in his Preface, which McLean reproduces in full (ii-iii), that there are three classes of evidence: first-class evidence is that which is "direct and recorded on the same day." Second-class evidence is also direct but was not immediately recorded and was recollected long after Ramakrishna's death. Third-class evidence is, like the second, unrecorded, and was heard secondhand from Ramakrishna's contemporaries after Ramakrishna's death. M makes it extremely clear that in the main body of the text he has only included material from the first class of evidence, that is, words spoken by Ramakrishna and heard directly by M himself,60 and McLean faithfully translates this. It is thus utterly perplexing that McLean writes: "It may be possible ... to recover the material from Gupta's diary ... and distinguish from the other two types [i.e., types 2 and 3]. But this will only be possible if the distinguishing marks (day, date, year and phase of the moon) are not excluded, as they are from Nikhilananda's translation" (iii).
First, while Nikhilananda removes the phases of the moon, he has retained the day, date and year in the translation. Second, and more importantly, Nikhilananda's Gospel also notes that the material translated in the Gospel was heard firsthand by M; an appendix to his Gospel includes "several conversations which took place in the absence of M, but of which he received a first-hand record from persons concerned" (GSR, vii).
Like Neevel, McLean finds that, for Ramakrishna, bhakti had primacy over jñāna and "Ramakrishna's monism is Tantric monism rather than Vedantic Advaita" (McLean 1983, xxxi). He also observes that "Ramakrishna does not use even Tantric language consistently" (xvii). Stating that Ramakrishna was a Tantric devotee, McLean notes that "Ramakrishna always insisted that ... [his] sādhana was of the righthanded variety. There is no reason why, even though his guru was a woman, we should doubt what he says. And the fact of his homosexuality ... would lend support to this theory" (lxv).
Should one wonder why we would concern ourselves with an unpublished Ph.D. thesis, the answer is that McLean is respected as a Ramakrishna scholar and his views have been widely cited by other scholars. Moreover, McLean's thesis reflects the tenor of his time in terms of the way Western-trained scholars analyzed religious figures from the Hindu tradition.
Malcolm McLean's 1989 article "Women as Aspects of the Mother Goddess in India: A Case Study of Ramakrishna" continues much the same pattern seen earlier in his Ph.D. thesis. McLean's particular hypothesis in this article is that, rather than seeing women respectfully— as embodiments of the Divine Mother—Ramakrishna had an essentially negative view of women. "Ramakrishna seemed to see women predominantly in sexual terms," McLean writes (17), yet McLean neither investigates nor discusses what Ramakrishna's women disciples had to say about the matter.
As a person competent in Bengali, McLean could have found a wealth of literature concerning Ramakrishna's women disciples, not the least of which are the recorded conversations of Sarada Devi (Śrī-Śrī-Māyer Kathā), Sarada's attendant Swami Saradeshananda's reminiscences (Śrī-Srī-Māyer SmṛtiKathā), Ramakrishna's disciple Gauri-Ma's biography (Gaurī-Mā), Binodini's autobiography (Āmār Kathā) as well as a large number of reminiscences of women associated with Ramakrishna which have been published in Bengali journals. McLean largely confines his source material to the Kathāmṛta (with an occasional nod to Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga), but his interpretations lean heavily on the analyses of G. M. Carstairs, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Sudhir Kakar, Jeffrey Masson, and Manisha Roy, who, by and large, presuppose the Euro-American psychosocial model to be the normative (i.e., healthy) standard, thus assuring that departures from this "norm" are considered deviant.61 Given McLean's presumption that Euro-American societal models form the basis of the normative standard against which all other paradigms are to be assessed, he necessarily sees Ramakrishna, the Hindu religious traditions, and nineteenth-century Indian social norms through a distorted lens.
McLean denigrates Śāktas by writing: "Devotion to the Mother ... involves a regression to infancy, based on the inability to cope in an adult fashion with the dual nature of the natural mother, and its subsequent transference to other women" (1989, 16). McLean also pathologizes Ramakrishna's "strong desire for moksha," reading it as "a way of escape from the world and avoidance of sexual contact with women." He goes on to argue that "this explains his retirement to the temple complex at Dakshineswar" (19).
Indeed, the thesis of McLean's article centers on Ramakrishna's "anti-woman stance." Treating women as embodiments of the Mother Goddess, he writes, "masks a number of anxiety states which made normal relations with women difficult, if not impossible" and, in fact, "may be a cheap way of covering up the fear of or denigration of women so that it is not recognized for what it is" (21). Here again, by the phrase "normal relations" the familiar Euro-American model is presumed to be normative and any deviation from it is pathologized and denigrated. From the standpoint of a Hindu sādhaka, looking upon women (indeed, everyone) as manifestations of the divine would be normative, praiseworthy, emulatory. But according to McLean, it is—at least for Ramakrishna—a cheap cover-up tactic.
June McDaniel's insightful Madness of the Saints (1989) sees Ramakrishna as a model of divine madness. Interestingly, the very qualities which in Bengal would identify Ramakrishna as a holy person possessed by divine madness, are the same symptoms so often pathologized by most Western-trained scholars. In fact, McDaniel points out that "writers such as Jeffrey Masson ... emphasize the psychopathology of ecstatic and mystical states, assuming Western paradigms to be normative" (280).
Based on her field work in Bengal, McDaniel observes: "Several holy men listed four qualities as the hallmarks of the saint: he is inert, jaḍa (he becomes lost in meditation, appearing like a corpse or a stone statue); mad, unmāda (he acts irrationally, for he is always in ecstasy); ghoulish, piśāca (he does not discriminate between pure and impure things, feeling love toward all); and childlike, bālaka (he acts like a child between four and eight years old). As a holy man interviewed in Bākreswar stated, the one who has attained Kālī is eternally in a state of apparent madness (pāgal bhāva)" (9-10). McDaniel further notes that "in [Ramakrishna's] visions and identifications with the Divine Mother, his roles fit those of both Vaiṣṇava and tantric madmen" (100).
According to McDaniel, in Bengal's religious context, "to call Caitanya, Nityānanda, and Rāmakṛṣṇa mad was not to insult them, but to compliment them and show them respect; theirs was a 'good' madness" (250). One remembers here Ramakrishna's telling remark: "The thought of God makes me mad (īśvarer bhābe āmār unmād hoy) (KA 1.254).
Carl Olson's 1990 Mysterious Play of Kālī uses the concept of Kālī's līlā, divine play, as a hermeneutical key for understanding Ramakrishna (Olson 1990, 15). Olson's book has been characterized by Narasingha Sil as "situated squarely in the well-known hagiographic tradition" (Sil 1991, 4). On this point not only do we disagree but certainly Olson would disagree as well, albeit for different reasons. While not entirely unsympathetic, Olson's work nevertheless displays a prodigious amount of applied psychopathology and cultural misinterpretation. It needs to be mentioned, however, that Olson's study of Ramakrishna was made much more difficult by the fact that Olson was denied permission by the publisher—the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York City—to make extensive quotations from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Olson reports: "A committee at the center thought that this work does not depict Rāmakrishna in the best light." Although he tried to persuade "my implacable and ardent censors," his attempts were fruitless (Olson 1990, x). One cannot help thinking that had there been positive communication between publisher and scholar, a more balanced book would have been produced and the publisher (and by extension, Vedanta Societies) would not be viewed as would-be censors.
This regrettable occurrence aside, Olson's Mysterious Play of Kālī—in contrast to McDaniel's culturally nuanced interpretation— comes across as culturally blinkered:
Wide mood swings, memory lapses, sitting immobile, having conversations with no visible persons, laughing and dancing with an inanimate object, personal identity and sex-role confusion, hearing sounds and voices, apparent hallucinations in the form of various kinds of visions, and loss of normal consciousness. . . . Did Rāmakrishna suffer from an affective disorder? Or did he have schizophrenia? (48)
Olson rightly asserts that even if Ramakrishna were insane, the madness would have to be placed within a Hindu religious context. He nevertheless continues by stating:
Rāmakrishna did exhibit many symptoms associated with schizophrenia and affective disorder. But given the distance between the present moment and this late nineteenth century figure, it is difficult to determine with any accuracy from which disease he suffered. (49-50)
Apparently uninformed regarding Indian cultural norms, Olson writes that a few actresses "touched the Master's feet as part of their obsequious greeting" (40). Continuing, Olson writes: "Sāradā Devī played the role of the obsequious wife by massaging her husband's feet, rubbing oil on his body and preparing nourishing and palatable meals" (41-42). Yet those with even a rudimentary background in Indian cultural behavior will know that touching the feet is an extremely common way of showing respect: a person touches the feet of his or her parents, a younger brother or sister will touch the feet of an elder sibling, and it would be considered improper not to touch the feet of a holy person. Further, it is not unusual for an Indian wife to massage her husband's feet, oil his body and cook nourishing meals. She will do the same for her children. Within the Indian context—especially in the India of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—these actions were far from obsequious. We need to remember that women of that era often found fulfillment in a number of tasks which today may be considered oppressive. Nor would anyone, one would hope, consider making "nourishing and palatable meals" debasing.
Olson perseveres in applying a Western psychoanalytic model to his stubbornly non-Western subject (the reader will find in later pages more square pegs unhappily coupled with round holes). Using Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Women, Androgynes and Other Mythical Beasts as his compass, Olson surmises that Kālī's sword "bears a remarkable similarity to the vagina dentata (vagina-with-teeth) that possesses the ability to castrate penetrating males" (34). Discussing Saradananda's assertion that Ramakrishna's "sexual organ would shrink instantaneously [in] ... reaction to the touch of lewd women" (LP 4.289), Olson deduces that Ramakrishna suffered from fear of castration (Olson 1990, 39).
Olson identifies Ramakrishna as a misogynist, but also suggests: "Because Ramakrishna was a product of his culture, he inherited and espoused many of the negative attitudes toward women in general gained from his cultural heritage" (38). As should be apparent, the author seems blind to the fact that the Bengali cultural heritage is radically different from the Euro-American model and therefore has to be assessed on its own terms, without using Western cultural norms as a universal paradigm.
Ramakrishna, Olson notes, dressed like a woman on occasion and also mimicked women to entertain his disciples. Olson speculates that this could be interpreted as "a manifestation of Ramakrishna's confused sexual role." He adds, however: "We must ... remember the religious context in which he lived his life" (43). Despite this cautionary note, Olson suggests: "The frolic of a male turned female alleviates unconscious male fears of an overpowering, threatening, mysterious, female figure. This especially makes sense, if we consider the male sexual anatomy ... [which renders] the male penis vulnerable to attack." By assuming the role of a woman, Olson concludes, "Ramakrishna's unconscious fears were dispelled and enabled him to play with and serve the Goddess without concern to his sexual anatomy" (44). One can only wonder how a contemporary North American could intuit "unconscious fears" of a nineteenth-century Bengali mystic (when, by definition, a person is not aware of his/her own "unconscious fears" let alone the fears of someone else who belongs to another culture). By assuming that this male fear is necessarily universal, Olson obviates any possibility of cultural divergence between Bengal and North America, thus elevating the contemporary American male psychological model to the status of the basic blueprint of human experience.
What also needs to be recognized is that for Ramakrishna, Kālī was never an "overpowering, threatening" figure. Again and again, in every source book on Ramakrishna, we see Ramakrishna describing Kālī or addressing her directly as Ānandamoyī, "Blissful Mother." Not only does Ramakrishna not fear Kālī, he teases her, chides her, laughs with her. He addresses her as tui, the most intimate form of address in Bengali. He touches her chin—a gesture indicating utter trust and intimacy, hardly fear. Fear would perhaps be an appropriate reaction for someone ill at ease with the Śākta tradition, but it would not be the reaction of a Kālī devotee. Yet as if to counter the above, Olson also notes that "to usurp the feminine mood benefits one on the path to salvation. The feminine mood can help one conquer one's passions" (44).
In 1991 Ramakrishna scholarship brought forth two books which employed psychoanalytic theories: Sudhir Kakar's The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism and Narasingha Sil's Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa. Interestingly, both authors are Indians and both are trained in the Western academy. Kakar's book takes issue with the often pathologized psychological assessment of mystical experiences. Unlike many other psychoanalysts, he has a refreshing openness to mysticism. That he did so long before such openness became accepted is a testimony not only to Kakar's own creativity but to his professional courage as well. "The earlier equation of the mystical state with a devalued, if not pathological, regression comparable to a psychotic episode is ripe for radical revision," Kakar writes (1991, 3). Kakar sees creativity rather than pathology at the root of mystical experience. In fact, mysticism can be the prime venue of experiencing creativity: "Mystical experience [is] ... in some cultures and at certain historical periods—the preeminent way of uncovering the vein of creativity that runs deep in all of us" (29).
Both Freud's and Ramakrishna's presence hovers throughout the book: Freud's, because as a Freudian-trained analyst Kakar addresses the conclusions that Freud came to regarding mysticism and religion, and Ramakrishna's because, as Kakar writes: "I have tried to organize my observations and understanding of mysticism around the person of a single mystic ... Ramakrishna" (x).
Kakar makes a clear break with Freud, whose view of mysticism Kakar does not share. He also criticizes Masson for following Freud's lead and viewing mysticism in terms of psychopathology (56). In other important areas also Kakar views Ramakrishna through a much wider, more culturally accommodating lens than had earlier been used by his colleagues. Significantly, Kakar does not regard Ramakrishna's dressing in women's clothes as either transvestism or as something problematic. "[Ramakrishna] loved putting on women's clothes and ornaments. . . . In his mature years, talking to his disciples, there was a certain wry pride with which he related, and occasionally enacted to their surprised delight, incidents from his youth which showed his ability to mimic women's gestures and movements to perfection" (10).
Discussing Ramakrishna's period of madness during his sādhana, Kakar writes: "Later in life, he would wonder at some of his behavior during this phase [unmāda]—worshiping his own phallus as that of Shiva, being seized by ecstatic visions while he defecated, and so on" (13). Yet even this unmāda phase remains only a phase, a phase violently shaking the old foundation, only to create a new, psychologically integrated man. About Ramakrishna's bhāvas, divine moods, Kakar writes:
Psychologically speaking, I would tend to see bhavas as more than psychic looseners that jar the soul out of the narcissistic sheath of normal, everyday, self-limiting routine....
... In a bhava, Ramakrishna rekindled the world with fresh vision, discovering or rather endowing it with newfound beauty and harmony.(18-19)
Far from seeing Ramakrishna's practice of madhura bhāva as symptomatic of a deeper psychological disorder, Kakar sees Ramakrishna's behavior as belonging to a long tradition of mysticism:
The renunciation of adult masculinity is not only a feature of Hindu devotional mysticism but is also a feature of Christian emotional mysticism of medieval and early modern Europe. Affective prayer or Bernardine mysticism ... possesses a striking affinity to its Hindu counterpart. . . . The message of the European emotional mystics seems to be the same as that of Ramakrishna: the actual gender of the mystic is not important for his practice. It is, however, vital that the mystic accept and cultivate his or her femininity to the point that the femaleself part becomes dominant in his or her inner psychic reality. (30-31)
Yet despite the real insights that Kakar provides, his views concerning human nature and mysticism inevitably become reductive to the extent that he largely accepts European psychological categories as universally valid. Kakar, for example, sees mystical experiences as regression—a "deeper regression," no doubt, but regression nonetheless. "The mystical regression is akin to that of the analysand," Kakar writes (x).
About Ramakrishna's maddened quest for the vision of the Divine Mother, Kakar writes: "The unity Ramakrishna aimed for is ... not the mergerlike states of the infant at the breast ... but the ending of separation striven for by the toddler" (26-27). Like his fellow Westerneducated colleagues, Kakar sees the Western model of individuality as the healthy, normative model, thus inevitably making the Indian social model inferior in comparison to that of Europe and North America. For this and other reasons, Kakar's application of psychoanalytic insights to Indian settings has been critiqued by Stanley Kurtz and Alan Roland.62
In 1993 Kakar co-authored with French philosopher Catherine Clément La Folle et le saint, a book which takes the form of a lengthy conversation between the two authors, whose discussion centers around East/West understandings of religious experience and madness. Clément and Kakar juxtapose the "folle" (madwoman) Madeleine with the "saint" Ramakrishna. Madeleine was a nineteenth-century Frenchwoman who had numerous mystic visions, bore marks of the stigmata, and was deemed insane. She was institutionalized for twenty-two years in La Salpêtriḍre under the care of Dr. Pierre Janet. While Ramakrishna and Madeleine were more or less contemporaneous, their cultures were vastly different. Had Madeleine lived in India, would she have been venerated as a saint? Both Madeleine and Ramakrishna used unusual metaphors, including sexual ones, in their relating of spiritual experiences. Kakar argues, however, "And yet, no, this is not sexual." He continues: "It is that we are touching fragile, permeable ground, on which our vocabulary, whether Hindi, Bengali, English, German, or French, constantly slips . . . Even if they [Madeleine and Ramakrishna] use metaphors that are ostensibly sexual, they are so for us, not for them. For these two singular beings, there is no longer a difference between male and female, between body and soul, between sex and spirit, between real and unreal" (Clément/Kakar, 18-19). Thus as Kakar and Clément point out, while Ramakrishna's language could be interpreted as sexual, the language he used to describe spiritual experiences does not lend itself to a facile psychoanalytic decoding of hidden sexual meaning.
Clément and Kakar also discuss the question of Ramakrishna's sexual identity. Kakar mentions that Ramakrishna felt more comfortable with those of his own gender. But, he continues, when Ramakrishna sought physical contact with his young disciples, did he have real sexual excitement? "Nothing," Kakar concludes, "confirms this" (177-78). Interestingly, Clément says that to speak of homosexuality in this context is simply insufficient. "That," she declares, "is not the issue at all!" (178). Agreeing with Clément, Kakar says that in Ramakrishna's case, it is more accurate to say that he felt more secure in the company of his own gender, but "this is not the usual definition of what people call homosexuality." Kakar goes on to state that on this point, Ramakrishna had a defect. According to Kakar, Ramakrishna was not entirely liberated; Ramakrishna said that he was freed from all sexual determinations, yet he felt ill at ease in the company of women. "From which I conclude," Kakar states, "that even an authentic mystic, fully realized, is not independent of sexuality. Sexuality always counts, even in a negative way" (178).
It is a testament to Ramakrishna's continuing power of appeal that other interpretations of Ramakrishna have continued to appear—including films and novels based upon his life. It is remarkable that Sudhir Kakar, having already written nonfiction interpretations of Ramakrishna, turned to fiction and wrote Ecstasy in 2001. Kakar writes in the book's preface: "Many incidents in Gopal's [the book's protagonist] story are based on events in the life of the great Bengali mystic, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa." In addition, Kakar tells us that the character of Vivek has "a number of parallels with ... Swami Vivekananda."
Kakar's appreciation and affection for Ramakrishna are apparent throughout the book. Unfortunately, however, the book fails both as an interpretive device and as a novel in revealing a deeper understanding of Ramakrishna. The novel's first sentence: "Gopal's visions ended when he grew breasts" is a portent of what is to follow. Gopal is hermaphroditic, a subtle-as-a-hammer metaphor for sexual ambiguity. If one is seeking to discover any hidden springs of Ramakrishna's life either as a mystic or as a human being, we are alerted that the author may not be successful in his venture.
Further character development begins quickly. "Gopal," Kakar writes, "had always looked like a pretty girl, and the other boys had tormented him with coarse remarks and indecent gestures which made his eyes sting with hot tears of shame" (2001, 7). There is no point in quibbling over the fact that there is nothing in Ramakrishna's life to indicate that before his father's death, his childhood was, from all accounts, happy and uncomplicated. There is no source material to hint at anything different, but Kakar is, after all, writing a novel, and in seeking to uncover the mystic's quest, his source material is his own creative stores, not the literal nuts and bolts of a person's life. Kakar states in the preface that he is far from being a mystic himself, which seems unarguable, and from that angle (as Kakar mentions in his Preface) the book "presents itself in the name of an incompetence."
Ecstasy shows the marked influence of Kālī's Child. One example is "Gopal's" problem with the village women. It was only with the publication of Kālī's Child that the allegation of sexual abuse by village women gained currency. There is nothing to indicate anything of the kind in the source texts, as we shall discuss at length in later chapters. However, in Ecstasy, Gopal suffers the torment of their sexual attention. Gopal, Kakar writes, "had begun to be wary of the village women. . . . They touched him, too. Feathery, light brushes of their fingers on his groin from which he recoiled as if they were lances pressing into his skin" (9).
Again we hear echoes of Kālī's Child, with Kakar's rendition of the young Ramakrishna's encounter with a Tāntrik sādhu. "Take off your clothes," the Tāntrik ordered. Kakar continues:
What the tantrik's puja had done ... was to awaken his Kundalini from where she slept at her seat above the anus. He had felt alternating currents of keen elation and piercing pain begin in his rectum and shoot up the rope of his spine. The latter were so painful that he had to contract his anal muscles tight to withstand the torture. The spontaneous movements of the Kundalini subsided ... leaving behind a dull ache in his anus which persisted all the way home. (36-37)
This sounds like sexual violation, not a spiritual experience. Needless to say, there is nothing to indicate that Ramakrishna's kundalini experiences were anything other than profoundly joyful—at least this is what every known source text indicates. Nor was there any indication in any source text to imply that Ramakrishna was subject to any sort of sexual abuse. Mystical experiences, kundalini or no, have nothing to do with rectal pain. The passage seems to indicate that Kakar, at least to some extent, entertained Kripal's speculation that Ramakrishna was sexually abused by the wandering sādhus who frequented his village.
Ultimately, the book does not bring an understanding of Ramakrishna, though it is interesting in illuminating how Kakar views Ramakrishna and mysticism in general. As a novel the book fails because of weak characterization; moreover, the dialogue is often so awkward as to seem ironic or even camp. Baba says to Vivek, for example: "Perhaps you are not destined to know that desperate love for the Lord which sends storms of rapturous feeling snaking through the body, making the very marrow in your bones beat as wildly as your pulse" (248). Vivek's embrace of Hindu nationalism reads as woodenly as Gopal's kundalini experience. In the end, one does not quite see the point of Ecstasy. It neither illumines mystical experience nor successfully plumbs the sources which provoke its characters to make the choices they do.
In contrast to the nuanced interpretations found in Kakar's works of nonfiction, Narasingha Sil's 1991 Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa and his later revised edition (1998) of the book, Ramakrishna Revisited, begins with the premise that mystical experience itself is inherently pathological. Sil avers that Ramakrishna had a "mother-fixation" and notes that, according to Freud, this "involves an unconscious desire to return to the mother's womb and ... to castrate oneself to become a woman" (Sil 1991, 15). Sil grew up in Kolkata and admits: "My evolution from adolescence to adulthood was marked by a growing detachment—worse, disenchantment—with prophets and Godmen." An academic historian, Sil writes that his "study is an exercise in psychobiography or ... psychohistory" (xi). He describes his tone as "neo-Freudian" (5). Sil's assessment of Ramakrishna's samādhi is simple enough: "His trances were pathological rather than spiritual" (99).
Sil claims that the "most noteworthy feature of Rāmakṛṣṇa's spirituality ... is an obsession with human sexuality" (5). In view of the tone and language in both Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa and Ramakrishna Revisited, the remark would appear to be a classic case of transference.63 It is worth noting that as a Bengali not favorably disposed to the Ramakrishna Order, Sil judges Swami Nikhilananda's Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna to be a "masterful translation." Nevertheless, Sil finds "occasional problems with his translation." According to him, Nikhilananda "frequently excised Rāmakṛṣṇa's vulgar expressions with explicitly sexual connotation and reference and occasionally, albeit unintentionally, distorted the meaning of the crude words Rāmakṛṣṇa used" (8). As we have already seen, Ramakrishna's "filthy language" was nothing out of the ordinary for a Bengali villager unschooled in what was considered appropriate language. There was a great distinction between the language of Kolkata's educated middle class and the earthy dialect of a Kamarpukur villager. While the middle-class gentry had been taught that certain words and certain bodily functions should not be discussed in public, Ramakrishna had been spared such instruction. Indeed, it was this very quality of linguistic innocence that the gentry found so appealing.64 Yet while Bengal's nineteenth-century intelligentsia found Ramakrishna's language authentic and refreshing, Nikhilananda's 1940s American audience would not have been so favorably disposed. Such openness would not be possible in America until the 1960s.
While Jeffrey Kripal has noted that Kālī's Child is but the latest example of "a long line of scholarly consensus" concerning Ramakrishna (KC, xx), it is only when reading Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa that it becomes apparent how much Kālī's Child has benefited from the work of preceding scholars.65 Indeed many—though certainly not all—of Kripal's conclusions, as well as the extensive source material, were foreshadowed by Sil. Had Sil's book been more widely read, there is little question that the controversy would have centered on Sil's book rather than Kripal's.
Sil refers back to Masson's proposal that early childhood trauma was "most probably" responsible for Ramakrishna's adult behavior. Like Masson, Sil begins with the assumption that Ramakrishna's behavior exhibits symptoms of psychopathology, then works backward to find ratifying evidence.66 Sil ponders various childhood possibilities:
What the women of Kāmārpukur did with the ecstatic boy by treating him as their Kṛṣṇa while pretending to be his gopīs ... is anybody's guess. . . .
... [Ramakrishna's] skepticism ... [about women ensnaring young men] must have been caused by the unconscious experiences of his own childhood. Then, the old man Śrīnīvas' overtures might very well have been the only one of many such unrecorded episodes. Gadādhar's intimacy with the rough upcountrymen who were, on his own admission, hemp-smoking sādhus, could very well lead to his physical abuse which the boy, easily seduced with food ... and awed as he was by the mystique of the monks, could not comprehend. (1991, 28-29)
Throughout Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa and its 1998 revision, Ramakrishna Revisited, Sil consistently uses a catch-all approach, replete with the habitual usage of "possibly," "quite probably," "most likely," "most probably," while suggesting highly sexualized scenarios without providing corroborating data to back up his theses.
The caption above, for example, provides us with "hemp-smoking sādhus" whose potential actions "could very well lead to his physical abuse" [emphasis added here and through the remainder of the paragraph]. Other examples: "[Ramakrishna] probably fantasized his admiring patron Mathurā Mohan as a sex maniac trying to molest him sexually" (1991, 32). Then there is: "It is quite possible that the women of Kāmārpukur ... worshiped young Gadāi's genitals." Sil suggests: "Either due to [Ramakrishna's] deliberate repression or ... most probably ... bodily malfunctioning (caused by excessive masturbation), Rāmakṛṣṇa really became incapacitated for any normal sexual activity." Sil further claims: "[Ramakrishna] must have been fascinated by the naked physique of the big Punjabi monk, Totāpurī. . . . Totāpurī's nudity may have had something to do with Rāmakṛṣṇa's penile obsession" (51). And again: "Most probably the naked phallus of the big man made an abiding impression on Rāmakṛṣṇa" (66). We will re-encounter the excessive drumbeat of speculative phraseology as well as the enforced association between Tota's nudity and Ramakrishna's presumed fixation on his penis later in Kālī's Child.
Sil's revision of his 1991 Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa was published in 1998 under the title Ramakrishna Revisited: A New Biography.
While maintaining nearly all his earlier theses, Ramakrishna Revisited is fascinating in its vehement response to Kālī's Child. Sil declares that Kālī's Child
reflects more the genius of its author less of Ramakrishna the man. . . . The simple soul, fun-loving, funny and exceedingly witty man . . . is lost behind the psychocultural hermeneutic that bypasses Ramakrishna's Bengali idiosyncrasies. Especially Kripal's portrayal of Ramakrishna as a homosexual Tāntrika is not only misleading but downright false. Kripal's KC resembles the portrait of the Master by the Czech artist Frank Dvorak—a mystic with well-defined, bright and bold features—very Western but hardly authentic. (Sil 1998, 6-7)
We have seen that from the latter part of the nineteenth century to the present day, "finding the explanation" of Ramakrishna absorbed the attention of a wide variety of interpreters, both East and West. The first interpreters were Ramakrishna's immediate disciples, one of whom meticulously recorded his words and two others—one lay, one monastic—recorded the story of his life. These writings have formed the source texts of the Ramakrishna tradition. In addition to these writings, there were also notable works by monastics of the Ramakrishna Order who also sought the meaning of Ramakrishna's life through their own interpretations, which, though varying in detail, nevertheless presumed Ramakrishna's tremendous significance not only to India in particular, but to the world and humanity in general.
It is not unusual for a revered teacher's disciples and their successors to presume the great significance of their spiritual lineage. What was remarkable about Ramakrishna was that he also captured the imagination of others, including a number of well-known intellectuals in Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century. As we have seen, the interest Ramakrishna evinced would most likely not have occurred had it not been for Keshab Chandra Sen's promotion and Vivekananda's later success. Because of Keshab's enthusiasm, Max Müller undertook his own study. With Max Müller's imprimatur, doors opened from India to Europe to North America, returning again to India with the patina of Western endorsement.
Those seeking to "find the explanation" to Ramakrishna have produced interpretations which have served as a bellwether of their own culture's preoccupations and their own personal concerns as well. For this reason, interpretations of Ramakrishna have frequently provided more insight into the interpreters and their cultural presuppositions than into Ramakrishna himself.
In this overview we have observed that if there is one common issue in the history of Ramakrishna scholarship, it has been the tendency to privilege a Western intellectual paradigm and assume it to be universal. That said, interpretations of Ramakrishna from the late nineteenth century up through the mid-1960s were largely dominated by either those sympathetic to the insider view of Ramakrishna or those who found some of their own views corroborated by Ramakrishna. Until the second half of the twentieth century there was no yawning chasm between the interpretations of those inside the Ramakrishna Order and those of outsider scholars.
It was only in the mid-1960s that Ramakrishna studies dramatically changed course from its earlier, tame trajectory. The first significant rift between the insider view of Ramakrishna and the outsider view appeared with the work of Walter Neevel. This rift, beginning slowly but insistently, set in motion a long, steady rip in the seam that had held together insiders and outsiders on some basic premises of Ramakrishna literature. If the earlier interpreters of Ramakrishna had viewed Ramakrishna according to their own predetermined cultural values, they had at least accepted the basic source texts as valid sources of information. If the earlier interpreters of Ramakrishna had found the authors of the source texts not the intellectual equals of their European counterparts, they at least did not consider the authors manipulative or deceitful. Yet by the end of the twentieth century, the hermeneutic of suspicion hovered over North American Ramakrishna studies (and, indeed, over the study of religion in general), and that suspicion was eventually returned by the insider community in response to the publication of Kālī's Child and the subsequent praise it received. How this came to pass will be discussed in the following chapter.
In looking back over the recent scholarship on Ramakrishna, we can see several persistent trends. We have seen that—with the notable exception of the scholarship on Ramakrishna done by those within the Ramakrishna Order as well as by Amiya Sen and June McDaniel and, to a certain extent, Sudhir Kakar—the social, cultural and intellectual trends which deeply influenced the course of North American and European life during this time made inevitable inroads into Ramakrishna scholarship. As in the work of the early Orientalists, there remained in recent decades persistent presumptions of the universality of contemporary Euro-American social and cultural values, mores, and expectations, which would serve as an unexamined pattern for interpreting Ramakrishna and other Hindu figures. Psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic tool came to be widely utilized in Ramakrishna scholarship during these years and only rarely was that approach questioned. Indeed, so pervasive was this methodology that its cultural presuppositions were almost never examined.
Moreover, even culturally defined models such as gender roles, social and sexual norms, definitions of masculinity, etc., were taken from a contemporary Western perspective and superimposed on nineteenth-century Hindu figures. It is no accident that this sort of heavyhanded hermeneutic stance has been increasingly viewed as a sort of neo-Orientalism, in the sense that the presumption of the universality of Western values and standards can be seen as yet another form of EuroAmerican cultural domination, albeit more subtle and more invidious than its earlier blatant incarnations.
As we close this chapter on Ramakrishna's past interpreters, we open the door to Kālī's Child and the subsequent scholarship on Ramakrishna which it engendered. With the publication of Kālī's Child, Ramakrishna studies would cross a threshold of sorts, for, with few exceptions— notably those books on Ramakrishna published by the insider community—nearly all subsequent scholarship on Ramakrishna would show the influence of Kālī's Child. For this development we turn to a new chapter in Ramakrishna scholarship with the publication of Kālī's Child, the honors it received, and the uproar it created.