Approaching Kālī's Child
Precisely what I have distorted and what I have clarified I leave to colleagues and the historical record to decide.
—Jeffrey Kripal, Kālī's Child
As we have seen in our examination of Ramakrishna studies up to the close of the twentieth century, a number of Kālī's Child's theses were anticipated by previous scholarship. No work is ever created in a vacuum, and Kālī's Child is no exception. When the book was published in 1995, it arrived nestled in a worldview which would, to a large extent, presume the universality of Euro-American sociocultural values and mores. Moreover, the book was presented to a reading public with little or no knowledge of Bengali language or culture. It was thus not surprising that when Kālī's Child was published, it was the recipient of great acclaim within the academy. What was not anticipated was the fierce controversy and wholesale condemnation it engendered from the insider community.
As we have noted earlier, in the years between Kālī's Child's publication and our present discussion, Kālī's Child became more than just a book. It became shorthand for a number of hot-button issues: freedom of speech juxtaposed with the issue of who was credentialed and what credentials were required to interpret Hindu religious figures. Charges of Hindutva political agendas were juxtaposed with charges of anti-Hindu prejudice; charges of homophobia were juxtaposed with charges of Orientalism; to these were added charges of racism from both sides of the controversy. Given the poisonous atmosphere, it has been extremely difficult to unhook Kālī's Child from the controversies which have engulfed it. This has presented no small difficulty for the present authors, who have found themselves unwillingly identified with homophobia and Hindutva. Yet in order to unravel Kālī's Child and to pull out the text from its subsequent accretions, we need to return to simpler days, before the book was published.
Entering into the Text
It is helpful to put Kālī's Child in perspective by beginning the study with a look at what is known about its author. One need not look far, as Kripal himself has published a good deal of autobiographical material. Jeffrey J. Kripal, born in 1962 and raised in Nebraska, describes his childhood as "idyllic," a childhood which was "filled with love and happiness and emotional warmth" (Kripal 2001a, 91). As he writes:
It was this very happiness that set me up for an adolescent crisis, for this was an "Eden" I had absolutely no desire to leave. But the "fruit" of sexuality would come ... and with it the shame and guilt of this newfound knowledge. Freud's oedipal theory ... was not just another piece of speculation for me: it was the most obvious and healing of truths.
Kripal relates that from the onset of puberty through the next six years, he engaged in "various ascetic practices, mostly involving different forms of fasting." Kripal continues: "In the meantime, I would enter a Benedictine seminary and begin to consider the monastic life my chosen vocation." Kripal states that the monks (in Conception Seminary College in Missouri) recognized his need for therapy. He writes: "I entered psychoanalysis with a professionally trained monk at the beginning of my junior year ... and, on the point of starvation, began to dream dreams" (2001a, 91). The dreams, he writes, were of "women, women bearing milky, rich food," which he felt guilty about accepting.
Kripal continues: "At some point in the course of our sessions, it suddenly 'hit' me: on some unconscious level, I was making the symbolic, and incestuous, equation: food = mother = sex." Therapy had given Kripal the insight that to "cope with my unacknowledged oedipal feelings, I had effectively attacked the source of my illicit desires, the body, with a piece of deadly symbolic logic: you desire the mother, the mother is food, you cannot have the mother, you cannot have food." Once he had gained that knowledge, Kripal writes, he was able to eat, gaining seventy pounds in five months. Freud, Kripal continues, "literally saved my life" (91-92).
Should the reader wonder why Kripal felt compelled to engage in such public revelation or why it should be further discussed here, it is because he asserts that his "interest in the erotic nature of certain forms of religious experience is largely a function of my own mystico-erotic experiences and my subsequent attempts to make some sense of them through the history of mysticism" (2001a, 12). Furthermore, Kripal writes that he sees "the entire process [of writing Kālī's Child] as a function of my own autobiographical trajectories" (203). Moreover, as we stated in this book's Preface, one of the driving motivations behind this book is to ask (even if the question does not necessarily imply that there is a simple, unambiguous answer): Why do we see what we see? Why do we interpret the way we interpret? In order to gain another's vision, we also need to try to gain the area where the other stands so we can try to catch that person's view of reality.
Of profound significance to Kripal was a dream he had while living in the seminary, though as he writes, "it was more of a vision" or a "myth-dream." The dream involved Kripal, a young, attractive maiden dressed as a Greek or Roman woman, and a winged unicorn with a burning body that appeared "like brilliant black lightning" (92). Kripal writes:
The maiden said nothing but simply smiled and led me to the edge of what looked like a very deep, very turbulent black sea. Just below the waters burned the fires of a terrifyingly beautiful winged horse with a single horn coming out of its head. . . . I instinctively knew that it was my task to get this mysterious being out of the water, and so I entered the waves and tried to pull him up, but to no avail. The scene then shifted and I saw myself as a youth riding naked on the now fully winged and fully horned being into the sky. (92-93)
How this dream relates to what would later engage Kripal emotionally, spiritually and professionally is explained by him: "I realized that the dream was structured around a profound coincidentia oppositorum that would engage me for years to come, that between the mystical and the sexual, or what I would later call the erotic." In another augury of what we shall see in Kālī's Child, Kripal writes that the unicorn could be read as a self-representation, the fearful waters represented the Mother, and the maiden "was a transitional figure between the Mother and the Lover. Accordingly, the dream's resolution would depend ultimately on my facing and resolving these same oedipal themes" (93).
During Kripal's seminary years, his interest in bridal mysticism intensified, and he attempted to pray the Song of Songs. As Christian mystics have done over the centuries, "the Song was employed and commented on in order to imagine the feminized Church or human soul wedded to Christ in a variously conceived mystical marriage" (Kripal 2000/2001a, 14). Yet for Kripal, this was deeply problematic:
How, I asked myself, was I supposed to imagine myself as a woman and, even more puzzling, as one married to another male? This was no good at all.
. . . It was as if there simply was no genuinely established place in the Catholic tradition for a modern heterosexual male who desired to use erotic language to effect and express his embodied religious experience. (14)
Further, Kripal's unicorn dream troubled him deeply, "for as hard as I tried, I could not discover any adequate resources in my inherited religious tradition to appropriate the truths I had seen that night." At this point, Kripal writes:
I had to admit that there simply were no adequate symbolic resources within Christianity to nurture and eventually realize the union of the mystical and the sexual I had known intuitively in the dream-vision. . . . Symbolically, the male nature of God made a heteroerotic approach to the divine through this eros equally impossible. (2001a, 94)
Kripal first encountered Tantra in the seminary's library. The subject intrigued him because the tradition "allowed the male mystic to be heterosexual and approach the divinity as female, that is, as a goddess" (2000/2001a, 14). After graduating from the seminary, Kripal attended the University of Chicago to study the history of religions, with a special focus on Hinduism and the comparative study of mysticism. It was at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation under the direction of Wendy Doniger, that Kripal found his intellectual home. "The historian of religions, and especially the historian of mysticism," he writes, "almost by definition it seems, is someone who deals in the exotic and the erotic" (2001a, 4).
Indeed, far from being drawn to the seemly garden-variety mysticism of, say, W. T. Stace, Schleiermacher, Swedenborg or Underhill, Kripal emphasizes the significance of the transgressive and excessive— offhandedly informing the reader that "extreme illness, car wrecks, and sexual abuse are particularly effective inducers of the mystical" (2001a, 29). It needs to be said that the association of sexual abuse with mystical states is troubling. There is a dissociative state that is the result of sexual trauma and there is a dissociative state that comes with mystical transcendence, in which the mystic's self-identification is no longer locked into the body/mind locus. One cannot equate one experience with the other. Sexual boundary violations are not infrequently interpreted as mystical experience by abuse survivors, but to accommodate that interpretation and equate the mystical experience with violation is deeply unhealthy for the trauma victim. To conflate the two experiences is damaging to both sides of the equation.
Kripal's interest in Tantra and Tantra's long history in Bengal grew in graduate school, and it was there that he began to study Bengali. In 1989 he went to Kolkata for eight months, staying at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, where he intensified his study of Bengali and worked on source texts on Ramakrishna. In the midst of this visit, Kripal made a return visit to the United States. Suddenly, a visit to the airport bathroom unexpectedly reawakened "a powerful memory" which had lain quiescent for ten years. In his words:
The memory involved a waking fantasy that used to torment me as an adolescent. . . . The fantasy was constructed out of the symbols of my Catholic culture: I would see a naked ithyphallic Jesus on the cross with myself and the Virgin Mary standing beneath him. I felt terribly guilty about this fantasy as a boy, but I could never quite shake it. . . . In that bathroom stall in JFK I finally understood its original meaning and the ominous announcement it was making: at puberty I was about to "crucify" my sexuality for its unresolved oedipal dimensions. The divine erection, I realized, was aimed, if always unconsciously, at (the Virgin) Mother, and for this it had to be crucified, it had to be killed. (2001a, 90-91)
In Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, Kripal acknowledges that "while researching Ramakrishna's secrets in Calcutta, I encountered not a few of my own." Of particular importance was
a series of highly symbolic ecstatic experiences that were unmistakably sexual and mystical and whose meanings seemed to point in powerful, if still hidden, ways to the ontological identity of human sexuality and the psychological realities experienced in ecstasy, vision, and mystical union. This is what I would later call "the erotic." . . . But with this series of mystical experiences in Calcutta and my simultaneous discovery of Ramakrishna's own "secrets" in the texts, this union of the mystical and the erotic also became the central thesis of my research on Ramakrishna. The lives of the researcher and the researched had begun to mingle in strange, confusing, and wonderful ways. (200)
As he looked back over the process that became Kālī's Child, Kripal observed that it was "not just a research project. It is also an integral part of my own biography. Looking back, I can see clearly that my methods were not simply linguistic or theoretical; they were also experiential" (201).
Kripal returned from India a changed man.1 Back at the University of Chicago, he discussed with Wendy Doniger his project of determining how sexual energies were employed in mystical experience. Far from being contradictory elements, Doniger asserted, "they are the same" (205; italics in text). Kripal would have found no reason to disagree with her declaration, for he maintains that Ramakrishna speaks of the same reality when he says in the Kathāmṛta: "tāke pete gele bīrja dhāran korte hoy" ("in order to attain [God], the semen must be retained") (KA 4.85). Enlarging upon this, Kripal explains:
That which you are attaining is precisely that which you are retaining, transmuted now into another type of sexual experience—the erotic. The English rhyme (not to mention the Bengali text) signals an ontological identity between the semen (or better, the libidinal energies that accompany its release) and God. (2001a, 205)
It is important to note this, as this is the hermeneutical lens through which Ramakrishna was interpreted and with which Kālī's Child was written. Yet such facile equations are deeply problematic. Why this is so will be discussed at length in the course of this book, along with a wider discussion of mystical experience and sexuality.
Before we leave Kripal's self-revelations in Roads of Excess to dwell for the remainder of this book on Kālī's Child, one telltale aside which appears in Roads of Excess needs to be addressed. Kripal's notation from July 8, 2000, again discusses his Kolkata experience ("that Night") which was "both erotic and noetic ... its energies carried both an unbearably intense pleasure, which I can still feel in my body, and an intuitive grasp of the texts and their doctrinal content, which still often almost physically overwhelms me" (254). Kripal goes on to say that his experience reminds him of a story told in Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga (which Kripal references as LP 1.2.1 but is in fact LP 2.8):
Narendra had already developed what the text calls the power to transmit religion (dharma-śakti-saṃkramana) to others through touch. . . . Narendra asks the brother [Ramakrishna's disciple Kali, the future Swami Abhedananda] to touch his knee. The disciple does and feels a distinct shock. . . . This allows the disciple to meditate more deeply, but, unfortunately, he is not ready for such an ontological revelation and, consequently, cannot assimilate the energy's innate doctrine. Ramakrishna scolds Narendra for giving to the disciple something for which he was not yet intellectually and religiously ready (interestingly, he compared Narendra's attempted śakti-pāta (initiatory transmission) to a forbidden sexual act, that is, the impregnation of a woman already six months into her pregnancy—such an act, we are told, destroys the delicate development of the pregnancy and ruins everything). Saradananda then informs us that, because the teaching came too suddenly and without the proper preparation, the disciple misunderstood the doctrine of nonduality and used it in an immoral fashion (we are told no details). The story fascinates me, both for what it clearly implies and for what it does not quite say, namely ... that these energies possess definite erotic dimensions—hence their "immoral" use in what I suspect was a sexual practice of some sort (and that is not at all clear, but "immoral" is often a euphemism for "sexual" in the texts). (2001a, 254)
There are a number of problems with the above passage, which may have to do with Kripal's "intuitive grasp" of the text. First, the assertion that Ramakrishna compared Narendra's attempted śaktipāt to "a forbidden sexual act" is not correct. Ramakrishna simply says: "He (Abhedananda) was progressing until now along one bhāva and that is now fully destroyed. It is as if a six-month old fetus were aborted" (LP 2.9-10). This clearly implies that just as a six-month old fetus is well on its way to "birth," Abhedananda, too, was well on his way to birth, or fruition, in his own particular bhāva, along which he was moving quite well. Because of Narendra's interference, however, this had been "aborted." Ramakrishna makes no mention of how the fetus was aborted. That it was as the result of "a forbidden sexual act" is pure imagination since abortions are not performed via sexual acts. An abortion is an abortion, not a "forbidden sexual act."
Further, the claim that Saradananda indicates Abhedananda behaved in an "immoral fashion" is based upon a faulty translation. Saradananda's words are: "sometimes he did actions contrary to good behavior (sadācār)." Though Kripal is predisposed to equate improper behavior with sexual impropriety or transgression, there is nothing in the text which reflects this. (The Bengali word anaitik is equivalent to "immoral" and does not appear in this context.) There have been absolutely no allegations regarding Abhedananda's transgressions in sexual matters. Had there been the slightest whiff of such allegations he would never have been treated with reverence by either the monks or lay devotees associated with the Ramakrishna Order.
The behavior that Abhedananda was criticized for, was his insistence upon eating chicken even after returning to India after his many years in the West. This was bad enough considering that he was a sādhu, but that he did so even on pūjā days, even on the day that Swami Brahmananda (then the President of the Ramakrishna Order) died, placed him beyond the pale. Furthermore, for Hindu Bengalis in India, until well into the midtwentieth century, eating chicken at all was completely unacceptable.2 Further, it was rumored that while he was in the West, Abhedananda had drunk alcohol. Neither of these constitutes "immoral" behavior and no acts of sexual impropriety are in evidence. Yet all of these fall under the rubric of "actions contrary to good behavior." Thus the same carelessness—or bias—regarding translation and the same sexual preconceptions that guided Kripal's interpretation of Ramakrishna in Kālī's Child make a further appearance in Roads of Excess. With all these factors in place, we can now make a reverse segue into Kālī's Child, unspooling the book's thread as we go along.
Kālī's Child's Introduction presents the reader with a microcosm of the book as a whole, displaying a collection of issues which will be systematically addressed as Kālī's Child progresses. Apparent in the Introduction are not only Kālī's Child's central theses but also a glimmer of the way in which they will be presented. The book's Introduction is fittingly titled "Approaching the Secret."
Kālī's Child informs the reader that it would be difficult to overestimate Ramakrishna's importance within the Hindu tradition. While this seems indisputable, the statement is made while noting that Ramakrishna's face "grins over stall after stall in the markets and streets of Calcutta" (1). The verb choice is significant. Throughout the Kathāmṛta and other source texts, we frequently see Ramakrishna "smiling" (sahāsya—which literally means "with smile" or "smilingly") or laughing (hāsitechen); we frequently find everyone in the room laughing (sakaler hāsya). But the Bengali equivalent of "grin," which normally requires an adjective to qualify hāsya, does not appear in the Kathāmṛta. This is not to say that Ramakrishna never grinned; what this does say is that M did not portray a "grinning" Ramakrishna in the Kathāmṛta. There is, as we know, a world of shading which separates "smiling" from "grinning."
Appearing on Kālī's Child's first page, a grinning Ramakrishna begins the book on a vaguely belittling note, a tone which reappears at various points throughout Kālī's Child.3 The author was not incognizant of his word choice: in a later article published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (written primarily as a response to Tyagananda's "Kali's Child Revisited"), Kripal writes of Ramakrishna "smiling at me" (2000/2001, 14) from those very Kolkata stalls where he had earlier "grinned." Also carrying a whiff of disdain is the book's opening paragraph, in which Kripal remarks that Ramakrishna "entertained the belief that he was the latest of the incarnations of God" (KC, 1). The reader is to understand that entertaining such a belief is risible (we can remember how Isherwood was savaged on this score), which works well with the verb choice "grin."
Though worth noting, more important than the author's tone is the statement, thrust like a proverbial gauntlet into the opening paragraph, that "Ramakrishna is everywhere, and everyone seems to know him. And yet, I would argue, no one really does" (1). Except, perhaps, the promising student of History of Religions, specializing in comparative mysticism, who was convinced he could uncover the mystic's sexual "secrets." Many of these "secrets" had been hidden in plain sight— Kripal was reading, after all, the thirty-first edition of the Kathāmṛta. Yet of those literally millions who had read the same texts as Kripal, none apparently had acquired the hermeneutical expertise to tease out of the texts the darker elements which fueled Ramakrishna's mysticism. This, too, despite the author's limitations in Bengali: Aditi Sen, Kripal's Bengali tutor, whom he acknowledges in his Preface, writes that Kripal's Bengali was initially "fairly elementary" and after eight months of study in India, he did not advance "beyond the intermediate stage." Sen also noted his lack of knowledge of Indian culture.4
Nevertheless, an outsider to language and culture can offer a fresh vantage that insiders can either consciously or unconsciously overlook. With this in mind, we can examine those hidden elements of Ramakrishna's mysticism which the Kathāmṛta's earlier readers had theoretically missed.
"Terror" and the Goddess
In any book, the opening sentences provide clues as to where the author will lead the reader. Kālī's Child generously fulfills this expectation. In the Preface to the book's first edition, the opening sentences give the author's rendition of Ramakrishna's vision of Kālī:
Ramakrishna once saw the goddess in a vision. She emerged from the dark waters of the river, gave birth to a child before the saint's eyes, and then proceeded to eat it. As a terror-stricken Ramakrishna watched the horrible sight, he noticed that the child became "empty" as it entered the goddess's mouth. On the outside, as a creature, it was solid enough. Inside the goddess, however, it was merely a relative moment in a flurry of mystical "emptiness" (śūnyatā). Ramakrishna came out of the dreamlike vision and confidently advanced his own interpretation: "Everything is empty!" (xxv)
A dramatic vision indeed, except for the fact that there is nothing in the Kathāmṛta—or any other source text on Ramakrishna—to indicate that Ramakrishna was "terror stricken." Nor is there anything in the text to indicate that Ramakrishna found it a "horrible sight." On the contrary, this is what appears in the Kathāmṛta (4.259-60):
Thakur again entered into samādhi. He returned to normal consciousness after a while and again began speaking with M.
"My state is changing again. I cannot take prasād anymore. The real and the appearance are becoming one. Do you know what I saw? A divine form (īśvarīya rūp)—the form of the Divine Mother (bhagavatī mūrti). She had a child in her womb. She gave birth to it and then swallowed it. As much of it as went inside became empty. She showed me that everything is empty (śūnya)."
"It was as if she were repeatedly saying, 'Let the magic begin!'"
M thought about Thakur's words: "The magician alone is real and everything else is an appearance."
With this, Ramakrishna changes the subject. No terror, no "horrible sight"—at least in Ramakrishna's eyes and, presumably, in M's eyes as well. What Kālī's Child also neglects to inform the reader is that Ramakrishna had wanted to see the "deluding power of the Mother of the universe" (mohinīmāyār darśan) and it was this desire which precipitated the vision (LP 2.214). While this fact is mentioned in texts which Kripal apparently cites, it is kept hidden in Kālī's Child.
Kālī's Child's opening words alert the reader to the possibility that the author may not be translating the text as conscientiously as one would hope. The reader may further question whether the author is able to make the metaphysical leap necessary to grasp another culture's view of divinity. For Ramakrishna and his followers—as well as millions of other Hindus—the Divine Mother not only creates and preserves but also destroys.5 The Divine Mother—the "magician"—casts her spell as all beings turn on the relentless cycle of birth, death and rebirth. All these changes, however, are śūnya, empty. Only the Divine Mother, who casts the spell, is real. The spell may seem "horrible" to one not accustomed to thinking of divinity in these terms, but for those in the Hindu tradition, it is an embraced part of a lived reality. Further, it seems peculiar that Kālī's Child would characterize Ramakrishna's words to M about the vision as having "advanced his own interpretation." Any vision necessarily being subjective, whose interpretation would he have provided?
The opening vision and Kripal's interpretation of it (in contrast to Ramakrishna's own) is particularly significant since the remainder of the book will follow a similar pattern: according to Kālī's Child, Ramakrishna was not aware of his own drives and motivations. Kripal suggests that Kālī's Child "is meant to function in ways not unlike those of Ramakrishna's vision," which, Kripal writes, may "initially horrify some of its readers." What is perhaps more accurate is that Kālī's Child will be like the author's interpretation of Ramakrishna's vision of Kālī writ large—Ramakrishna's "own interpretation" of his life and spiritual experiences will be at variance with that of Kālī's Child. While this in itself is neither unusual nor problematic—no one expects a biographer to interpret the subject's life the way the subject would care to have it rendered—what is problematic is that Kālī's Child's interpretation is at variance with what Kripal states the texts say and what the texts themselves actually do say.
Kripal places the finishing touches on Kālī's Child's basic theses by adding: "I can only hope that the book ... is nuanced and sophisticated enough to carry [Ramakrishna devotees] beyond their initial shame, disgust, and fear (and the anger such emotions might encourage)." Stating that his intent is not to offend or anger, he seeks to "surprise, shock, or awe" (xxv). Shock and awe perhaps having lost their savor by now, the problem with the book's reception was not the book's sophistication or readers' lack thereof, but rather readers who knew the source texts and the Bengali language better than the author. Narasingha Sil is particularly thanked in the Preface to the book's first edition, and Sil's influence can be seen not only in the book's choice of citations but also in the insistent drumbeat of questionable evidence which, after initial speculation, is subsequently presented as fact.
In Kālī's Child's Preface to the first edition the reader can discern a trend—not previously seen in Ramakrishna studies—of self-revelation and confessionalism. It is worth mentioning that we are at a point of departure in Religious Studies, where the earlier "scientific" investigations are being replaced by deeply personal considerations. At a time and in a culture where psychology and self-help groups have manifested in many ways like a religion, it is significant that Kripal writes:
I cannot help but think that Ramakrishna has deeply affected me. In my more imaginative and bolder moments, I also allow myself to think that if Ramakrishna were alive and could fully understand what follows, this work would deeply affect him, for he could then read his life through the lens of mine and see things he never saw before. Perhaps something here might clear up a particular vision or help him deal more adequately with some of his painful emotional reactions. (xxvii)
Tellingly, Kripal writes that his "imaginal world" has "given me a genuinely human way of understanding Ramakrishna and, through him, myself" (xxvii; emphasis added).6 We have seen, from the time of Neevel to the present day, an increasing use of psychoanalysis in interpreting Ramakrishna and other figures from the Hindu tradition. However, this is the first time that we see the scholar turning the lens into a mirror for himself: "As such," Kripal continues, "the book is an act ... of friendship, sympathy, and a deep compassion" (xxvii).7 While the Hindu tradition has long beckoned the West for its perceived palliative applications— yoga for fitness, meditation for relaxation, and Tantra for delivery from sexual repression—this sort of academic therapeutic-confessional marks a new trend in Religious Studies.
Much Ado about the Foot
Ramakrishna's foot is discussed at length in Kālī's Child's beginning, and indeed, Ramakrishna's feet and their actions are invoked throughout the pages of the text. So significant is Ramakrishna's foot that Kripal writes that it serves as a symbol for the entire study, advancing the thesis that Ramakrishna's foot points to a secret of which he himself was not aware, namely, that his mystical experiences and visions were constituted by erotic energies he neither fully accepted nor understood. (238)
For our purposes here, Ramakrishna's foot, as represented in Kālī's Child, serves well as an indicator of the book's failings. According to Kripal, Ramakrishna's feet "constituted a problem" (238). In introducing them, Kālī's Child states that when Ramakrishna went into mystical absorption, "he would sometimes place this foot 'in the lap' (kole) of a male disciple or visitor." Inexplicably, the reader is told that "Ramakrishna saw 'the lap' as a normally defiled sexual space" (2)—news to everyone in India, particularly in Bengal, where the lap is associated with love, trust and care. When, for example, one of Sarada Devi's devotees died while repeating Ramakrishna's name, Sarada remarked: "He has attained the lap of the one [Ramakrishna] whose son he is" (Purnatmananda, 194). There are a vast number of Bengali songs to the Divine Mother in which the devotee asks to be taken onto her lap.8 It is also not clear why Kripal felt compelled to put "the lap" into scare quotes, except to suggest that "the lap" really is not a lap.
While the first edition of Kālī's Child states that "lap" indicates "on the genitals" (KC 1995, 2), the second edition internalizes the allusion by deleting "on the genitals" and inserting the statement that the lap is "a normally defiled sexual space" (KC, 2). What is puzzling is how the author presumed a lap would necessarily be equated with genitals or how a lap would normally constitute "a sexually defiled space" in the first place. Sometimes a lap is just a lap. Similarly, the first edition of Kālī's Child states that Ramakrishna would sometimes place his foot on "a young boy disciple" (KC 1995, 2), yet in the three Kathāmṛta citations provided (KA 3.172; KA 4.245; KA 4.278), only one (KA 3.172) points to a disciple, Nityagopal, who was young but at the age of twenty-three, was hardly a "boy".9 Kālī's Child's second edition corrects the text from "young boy disciple" to "male disciple or visitor" (2). What both editions of Kālī's Child avoid mentioning, however, are references to the women whom Ramakrishna touched with his foot, even when they are mentioned in the same paragraph from which another citation has been taken. Because Ramakrishna's foot is so central to Kālī's Child's basic thesis, it will be fruitful to investigate the examples the book has provided.
Ramakrishna's Foot and Nityagopal's Lap
In Kālī's Child's first example (KA 3.172), Ramakrishna places his legs—or foot, or feet—on the lap of Nityagopal. It is important to keep in mind that the Bengali text is completely ambiguous regarding whether it was Ramakrishna's feet or legs which were either on or in the lap. The Bengali word pā can mean either "foot" or "leg"—therefore either translation is possible. Similarly, kole can either mean on the lap or in the lap. The translator must take into consideration the context, then assess the words that best recreate the situation M presents in the Kathāmṛta.10
The context which M presents is as follows: On May 23, 1885, there is a room full of people with a kīrtan about to begin. Upon hearing the sound of the khol, Ramakrishna goes into samādhi, placing his legs—or leg or foot—either on Nityagopal's lap or in Nityagopal's lap. Nityagopal himself was weeping in a state of bhāva, ecstasy, leading one to assume that, at least from M's account, Nityagopal was neither distraught nor scandalized nor traumatized. About the reactions of the others who were in the room with Ramakrishna and Nityagopal, M reports: "Speechless with wonder, all the devotees were looking at that state of samādhi with one-pointed attention" (KA 3.172). It thus seems equally clear that those observing Ramakrishna's actions were neither shocked nor scandalized.
Ramakrishna's Foot and Pandit Shyamapada's Lap
The second example presented by Kālī's Child occurs on August 27, 1885, when Pandit Shyamapada Bhattacharya, whom Ramakrishna had never met, arrived from Antpur. M, Rakhal, Latu and others are in the room. The pandit, M informs the reader, experienced amazing visions while he performed his worship on the bank of the Ganges river. Ramakrishna is immediately impressed by the pandit, telling M that the pandit is "very nice" (ekjon beś lok). Then, directing his comments to the pandit, he says, "Where the mind finds peace by practicing neti, neti, there one finds it [Brahman]" (KA 4.243).11 Ramakrishna and the pandit discuss various religious topics, and the pandit—who informs Ramakrishna that he hates being called a pandit (because of the egotism implied)—recites verses from the Bhagavad Gītā. Then, after more religious discussion, the pandit chants a hymn from the Bhāgavata. M writes that while listening to the hymn, Ramakrishna—who is standing—goes into samādhi. Pandit Shyamapada is seated. Ramakrishna—still in samādhi and smiling—places his foot on the pandit's "lap and chest" (kole o bokkhe). The pandit holds Ramakrishna's foot and says, "O Guru, give me enlightenment!" (Guro caitanyaṁ dehi). When the pandit leaves the room, Ramakrishna remarks to M that just as he had earlier predicted, those who sincerely practiced meditation and japa (dhyān jap) must come here—that is, to Ramakrishna (KA 4.245).
Ramakrishna's Foot and Dr. Sarkar's Lap
In the third example cited in Kālī's Child, Ramakrishna places his foot on Dr. Sarkar's lap. While this occurs on October 31, 1885 (KA 4.278), Dr. Sarkar's reaction to Ramakrishna's foot begins earlier, on October 27, 1885. On this earlier date, Dr. Sarkar joins a large group of devotees in Ramakrishna's room. After a long discussion on religious topics and after much singing, Ramakrishna tells Dr. Sarkar that he should give up concern for money, honor, and lecturing (ṭākā, mān, lekcār). Now he should direct his mind to God, visiting now and then so that by hearing of God, his spiritual feeling can be enkindled (uddīpan hobe) (KA 1.252).
After some time, Dr. Sarkar prepares to leave, when Girish Ghosh enters the room, bowing low before Ramakrishna. Apparently deciding to stay longer, Sarkar discusses the Science Association with Girish, Dr. Sarkar telling Ramakrishna that if he were to go there, he would lose consciousness upon seeing in there the wonders of God (īśvarer āścarjjo). At this point, Sarkar turns to Girish and says (combining both English and Bengali): "Do everything else but do not worship him as God. Why are you turning the head of this good man?" (Ār sab koro—but do not worship him as God. Emon bhālo lokṭār māthā khāccho?) (KA 1.253).
The conversation thus turns to the devotees' attitude toward Ramakrishna—Girish staunchly maintaining that he has no alternative but to see Ramakrishna as God, since Ramakrishna has taken him across the ocean of the world. Girish continues by saying that there is nothing in Ramakrishna which he does not find sacred, including his excrement. Sarkar retorts that excrement does not disturb him at all—he knows there is no difference between himself and the scavenger (methor) (KA 1.253). Then Sarkar says: "Can't I take the dust of his [Ramakrishna's] feet? See, I can take it" (Āmi ki em̐r pāyer dhulā nite pāri nā? Ei dekho nicchi), placing his forehead on Ramakrishna's feet. When Girish expresses jubilation over this development, Sarkar proceeds to take the dust of everyone's feet. At this point, Narendra suggests to Sarkar that the devotees do not look upon Ramakrishna as God, but someone like God (īśvarer moto mone kori), to which the doctor declares that "one should suppress one's personal feelings" (nijer nijer bhāb cāpte hoy). The doctor, a firm believer in the primacy of reason, goes on to confess that even his best friends think of him as cruel and hard-hearted because he suppresses his feelings. The doctor confesses that his feelings get "worked-up" and tells Narendra: "I shed tears in solitude."
It is at this point in the conversation that Sarkar turns to Ramakrishna and says: "When you are in ecstasy, you put your foot on others' bodies. That is not good" (Tumi bhāb ho'le loker gāye pā dāo, śeṭā bhālo noy). Note that the context of the conversation is the importance, at least in Sarkar's mind, of restraining one's emotions. Reason—and reasonable behavior—should never be overwhelmed by one's emotions. Note also that the doctor does not specify gender in his complaint: Sarkar tells Ramakrishna that he puts his foot on the body (gā)—not lap—of people (lok)—not solely males or "boys." Sarkar's word choice reflects the fact that Ramakrishna placed his feet on both males and females, young as well as old.
Ramakrishna replies to Sarkar's complaint by saying that when he is in samādhi, he does not know whether he touches anyone's body with his foot. To this Sarkar retorts: "You have at least some awareness, haven't you, that it is not right (oṭa bhālo noy, ekṭu to bodh hoy)?" Ramakrishna replies that he cannot explain to Sarkar what he experiences in samādhi; the thought of God makes him mad (īśvarer bhābe āmār unmād hoy). Ramakrishna concludes with "What can I do (ki korbo)?" Seizing upon that remark, Sarkar declares that now Ramakrishna accepts his viewpoint and "expresses regret for what he does." Ramakrishna, Sarkar declares, knows that the act is "sinful" (ānyāy) (KA 1.254). While the doctor uses the English word "sinful," it is M who adds in parentheses the Bengali word ānyāy, which means improper, wrongful, unreasonable, or unjust. Significantly, M does not use the Bengali word pāp, which means "sin" in the sense of an ethical wrong. While Kālī's Child sees the doctor's objection to Ramakrishna placing his foot on others as evidence of the "scandal" surrounding Ramakrishna's purported homoerotic behavior, there is nothing in the texts to indicate either that Ramakrishna's actions were homoerotic or that there was a "scandal" anywhere concerning Ramakrishna.
If the above seems an unduly long examination of one particular incident concerning Ramakrishna's foot and its actions, it is important to provide the background details to contextualize the situation in which Dr. Sarkar is speaking. Kālī's Child lays great stress on Dr. Sarkar's characterization of Ramakrishna's foot being placed on others as being "sinful," so it is imperative that we investigate precisely what Sarkar had in mind when he was speaking.
Where the conversation goes from here is significant, for at this point Girish explains to Dr. Sarkar that Ramakrishna places his foot on others' bodies for their spiritual benefit. Interestingly, Sarkar quickly withdraws his objection and says: "I confess my defeat at your hands. Give me the dust of your feet." And with that, Sarkar took the dust of Girish's feet (KA 1.254). There is nothing in the text to indicate that Dr. Sarkar was being sarcastic or merely giving up the fight. He could be quite argumentative, and he often was.
What was so "sinful" about Ramakrishna touching others with his foot? To understand Dr. Sarkar's reaction, we need to remember how strong were the winds for Hindu reform at this time, particularly with the elite Kolkata intelligentsia. Dr. Sarkar—as evidenced by his very frequent use of English—belonged to the highly Westernized, educated elite. Partha Chatterjee notes that Mahendralal Sarkar (1833-1904) was "the most eminent practitioner in his time of Western medicine in Calcutta and founder of the first Indian institution for modern scientific research, [and] ... the only one of those close to Ramakrishna to openly voice his skepticism about Ramakrishna's preaching" (Chatterjee, 60). While Sarkar obviously had love for and appreciation of Ramakrishna, he did not believe in the possibility of God incarnating as a human being. Disgruntled by those whom he termed "religious reformers" such as "Jesus, Caitanya, Buddha and Mohammed," Sarkar dismissed the entire bunch by saying that they "were filled with egotism" (KA 1.255). Sarkar found Ramakrishna's behavior with his foot objectionable for two reasons: first, in India touching another with one's foot is considered disrespectful. It is indeed ānyāy, improper. Second, as a proud, self-declared "man of science" who worshiped reason above all else, Sarkar found the Indian habit of touching the feet of holy or highly respected people irrational and undemocratic. We may recall that Sarkar told Girish that he knew there was no difference between himself and the scavenger (KA 1.253). Interestingly—and somewhat paradoxically—Dr. Sarkar affirmed his democratic credentials by touching not only the feet of Ramakrishna but also of everyone in the room, as we have already seen.
Further, what stuck in Sarkar's craw the most was not so much the actions of Ramakrishna's foot but the reverence accorded Ramakrishna. These two complaints of Dr. Sarkar's are interrelated, as we shall see. We can remember Sarkar's admonition: "But do not worship him as God." Why was this so objectionable? Primarily because, for Sarkar, such a belief was antithetical to reason. Secondly, Dr. Sarkar feared that if Ramakrishna were treated by his disciples as an avatar, he could become as egotistical as those "religious reformers"—Jesus, Caitanya, et al. Again, we may recall that Sarkar told Girish that he was "turning the head of this good man" (KA 1.253). If Dr. Sarkar considered Ramakrishna's actions truly "sinful"—in terms of unethical or immoral rather than improper—then he hardly would have referred to Ramakrishna as "this good man" (bhālo lok) nor would he have spent untold hours with Ramakrishna to the detriment of his medical practice—a fact Sarkar repeatedly mentioned.
Two days later, we find Dr. Sarkar in Dakshineswar, rebuking Ramakrishna for allowing others to take the dust of his feet. It is significant that while Sarkar objected to Ramakrishna touching others with his feet, Sarkar objected most strongly when others touched Ramakrishna's feet. Dr. Sarkar thus tells Ramakrishna: "It hurts me to see people salute you (namaskār kore) by touching your feet (pāye hāt diye). I say to myself, 'They are spoiling such a good man'" (mone kori emon bhālo lokṭāke khārāp kore dicche) (KA 2.219). Again, this is the issue of the reverence accorded Ramakrishna—in Sarkar's mind, reverence unnervingly close to divine worship, which engenders egotism.
What is most significant is that when Dr. Sarkar again visits Ramakrishna on October 31, five days after Sarkar's "sinful" comment, Sarkar does not object when Ramakrishna places his foot on Sarkar's own lap (KA 4.278). In fact, for all of Sarkar's much-vaunted reason, we find the doctor "almost ecstatic" (bhābābiṣṭoprāy), after having listened to Ramakrishna's rendition of a song. Ramakrishna, lost in ecstasy, places his foot on Sarkar's lap. The context of this incident is important as well, for after returning to a normal state of consciousness, Ramakrishna says to the doctor: "Ah! What a wonderful thing you said: 'We lie in the lap of God'" (Uh! Tumi ki Kathā-i bolecho! Tām̐r-i kole bośe āchi). It is at this point that Ramakrishna says to the doctor, "You are very pure! Otherwise I couldn't have placed (my) foot!" (Tumi khub śuddha! Tā nā hole pā rākhte pāri nā!) (KA 4.278).
Ramakrishna's Foot and Kālī's Child
The context now fleshed out, let us examine how Kālī's Child views the same incident. We read: "In one scene, [Ramakrishna] explains that a visiting male must be very 'pure' ['pure' is placed in scare quotes] since he [Ramakrishna] was able to place his foot 'there,' that is, in the man's lap" (KC, 2). However, there is no "there" in the text; the word has been added and placed in quotation marks even though it does not exist in the Kathāmṛta.12 Kripal adds to his evidence by noting: "In one scene ... a visitor declares the saint's habit of placing his foot 'on people's bodies' while in ecstasy to be 'sinful' (significantly, the English word is used)" (2). But as we have seen, Dr. Sarkar is both the "visitor" and the "visiting male" in these instances, and he apparently had no objection to Ramakrishna placing his foot on him. To recap: the "sinful" comment predates the doctor's own experience of Ramakrishna's foot by five days. Despite this fact, Kālī's Child invokes Dr. Sarkar's reaction to Ramakrishna's foot yet again, a mere three pages later, when this time Sarkar is referred to as "a troubled observer." Thus the same incident is recycled and made to look as if negative reactions to Ramakrishna's foot (which Kālī's Child characterizes as "the controversial actions of Ramakrishna's foot") were commonplace—or at least were not the reaction of one sole individual, Dr. Sarkar. Instead, the reader is told about the "shocking connection between the mystical and the sexual that the observer seemed to see in his foot" (5).
In the central portion of the book, Kālī's Child returns again to the subject of Ramakrishna's foot and again brings up Sarkar's characterization of Ramakrishna's foot's actions as sinful. Kripal also reiterates Ramakrishna placing his foot on Dr. Sarkar's lap, again quoting the Kathāmṛta and, unfortunately, again adding his own word "there," placing it in quotation marks even though it does not exist in the Bengali text: "You're very pure! Otherwise I wouldn't be able to place my foot there!" Even worse, at this point Kripal adds a further commentary: "The reader can only smile" (239-240; quoting KA 4.278).
The reader does not smile, however, if the reader is familiar with the Kathāmṛta. Those conversant with the Kathāmṛta are appalled, first, by the insertion of a word to make it appear as if Ramakrishna had, in fact, said it. Second, they may well be more appalled at the sniggering comment that followed. Were that throwaway barb not enough, Kripal adds that "Ramakrishna never denied that he stuck his foot in strange places" (KC, 238). Aside from the "when did you stop beating your wife" quality of this statement, what is meant by "in"?
If we are returning to the "genitals" argument (the first edition of Kālī's Child states that "lap" indicates "on the genitals" [KC 1995, 2]), then the reader would have to keep in mind that it requires some real excavation to locate the genitals of a person sitting cross-legged on the floor through the many layers of cloth that Bengalis typically wear— especially since the foot is attached to someone who is standing and unconscious of his external surroundings. Among his other achievements, Ramakrishna would also have had to be more of an acrobat than he is given credit for. Kālī's Child continues on the same tack by adding: "We see a whole range of opinions focused on Ramakrishna's foot 'there'" (240). First, one does not find any range of opinions. Second, apart from adding his own material and implying it to be Ramakrishna's—and this happens time and again throughout Kālī's Child—the author also insinuates where the "there" is located in order to give weight to the argument that Ramakrishna was homoerotically motivated.
One of the most telling aspects of Kālī's Child's foot thesis is the book's omissions. In Kālī's Child's Introduction, the reader is told that Ramakrishna announced to his disciple Niranjan that Niranjan was his father (āmār bāp) so that he could sit on Niranjan's lap (implying that this was a homoerotically motivated act). Yet Kripal neglects to tell the reader that in the same paragraph of the Kathāmṛta, M discusses two women who had come to visit Ramakrishna: "This morning [Ramakrishna] blessed two women devotees as well. In a state of samādhi he touched their hearts with his foot. They started shedding tears and one of them, weeping, said: 'You are so full of compassion.' The atmosphere was filled with love" (KA 4.280). We also read in the Kathāmṛta that Ramakrishna put his foot on his sister's head (KA 4.45). This never appears in Kālī's Child. As a brief aside it should also be mentioned that while Kālī's Child makes much of Ramakrishna sitting in Niranjan's lap, the book never mentions the fact that Ramakrishna sat in Aghoramani Devi's (Gopaler-Ma's) lap as well (LP 4.242).
Ramakrishna's Foot and Narendra
Kālī's Child declares that Ramakrishna's foot constituted a "problem" for Narendra, for Ramakrishna, and for Saradananda (209). But was it so? While Kripal is critical of Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga, Kripal nevertheless finds in that text evidence of Ramakrishna's foot being placed on Narendra in a troubling manner. While Kripal claims to find his evidence in the original Bengali texts, he strangely enough references the Bengali Līlāprasaṅga while using the numbering system of Jagadananda's English translation (Sri Ramakrishna: The Great Master). Yet the purpose of referencing one text by using the numbering system of another is not only bizarre but also entirely useless for those attempting to check the Bengali sources.13 The reader, however, is led to believe that the material quoted is taken from the Bengali Līlāprasaṅga as the citations indicate "LP" or Līlāprasaṅga, rather than Jagadananda's English Great Master, which is indicated in the pages of Kālī's Child as "GM."
In turning our attention to Narendra and Ramakrishna's foot, we also turn our attention to the Līlāprasaṅga, which relates the story of Narendra's first meeting with Ramakrishna. When Narendra first met Ramakrishna, the latter took him aside and, taking Narendra's hand, wept with joy, and spoke to him warmly in familiar terms as if he had known him for a long time, simultaneously complaining that Narendra had taken too long to come. Then, with palms folded in reverence, Ramakrishna addressed the bewildered Narendra with the words: "I know, my Lord, that you are the ancient ṛṣi, Nārāyaṇa in the form of Nara. You have incarnated again in order to remove the misery of jīvas" (LP 5.64). Of course, Narendra thought Ramakrishna must be insane, though Ramakrishna was able to extract a promise from Narendra to come back again.
To Narendra's amazement, Ramakrishna, upon returning to the group of people gathered in his room, acted in a totally normal manner. "I sat down and began to observe him," Narendra later reported, "and I began thinking. I saw that there was nothing that looked like madness in his bearing, behavior and conversation with others. Seeing his holy conversation (sadālāp) and bhāva-samādhi I felt that he had truly renounced everything for God (īśvarārthe sarbatyāgī) and had himself practiced what he preached" (LP 5.65).
What were those words which so greatly impressed Narendra, the words that Narendra felt Ramakrishna had personally practiced? Narendra reports that Ramakrishna said: "God can be seen and talked to, just as I am seeing you and speaking with you. . . . Distressed at not having seen God, if anyone calls on him with longing (vyākul hoiyā), God certainly reveals himself to the person" (LP 5.65).
Narendra was impressed with what he encountered, but perplexed at how this man, who spoke so convincingly about God, could be the same person who not long before had behaved like a madman. Thus he concluded that Ramakrishna must be a "monomaniac" (ardhonmād).14 The use of the Bengali word ardhonmād, with "monomaniac" in parentheses, is significant since ardhonmād literally means "half crazy" or "eccentric."
Ramakrishna was thus temporarily pigeonholed into the "monomaniac" slot, but unsatisfactorily so, for Narendra says that he "could not forget the greatness of his wonderful renunciation for God." He continues:
I thought, "He may be mad, but only a rare person in this world can renounce everything for God in this way. In spite of his madness, this person is very pure (mahāpavitra), a great renunciant (mahātyāgī), and truly worthy of reverence (śraddhā), worship (pūjā), and respect (sammān) by the human heart." With these thoughts, I bowed down at his feet, took leave of him and returned to Kolkata that day. (LP 5.66)
While Kālī's Child assesses Narendra's "monomaniac" label to be "pathologizing Ramakrishna" (210), this is not altogether accurate, for Narendra himself was not entirely at ease with his diagnosis. While Ramakrishna did indeed strike Narendra as mad when he spoke to him privately, Narendra makes it equally clear that he was greatly impressed with Ramakrishna's purity and renunciation. Narendra also noted that Ramakrishna seemed completely normal around everyone else. Further, the word ardhonmād, half-crazy or eccentric, is not a term that ascribes pathology.
Narendra's second visit to Ramakrishna did not occur until the following month. According to Saradananda, Narendra's delay was due to a number of factors: first, he suspected Ramakrishna was a monomaniac. Second, Narendra was also busy with his college studies, music and athletic practice as well as his own meditation practice. Even apart from that, he was involved with organizing prayer and discussion meetings of the Brahmo Samaj (LP 5.90-91).
Kālī's Child flattens Saradananda's text by stating: "Saradananda believes that Narendra waited so long to return a second time because he believed that Ramakrishna was a 'monomaniac'" (210). By suppressing Narendra's other reasons and implying that his first impression of Ramakrishna as a monomaniac was the only reason, Kālī's Child distorts both Saradananda's text and intent.
The texts indicate that Narendra's impressions of Ramakrishna were much richer and more varied than the simple monomaniac tag. In the text cited by Kripal, Narendra also found Ramakrishna—apart from being a "monomaniac"—to be a "rare person" (biral byakti) and a "great renunciant" (mahātyāgī) who "personally practiced what he preached" (LP 5.66). Narendra obviously had conflicting impressions of Ramakrishna, which were concurrently running against each other in his mind. To strip away Narendra's other impressions of Ramakrishna in favor of one sole "monomaniac" diagnosis serves to validate Kālī's Child's thesis that Narendra was "pathologizing" Ramakrishna. Yet, apart from the fact that this is not faithful to the source texts, such a thesis also makes one wonder why Narendra would go out of his way to see Ramakrishna again, an issue which Kālī's Child does not address. Kripal frequently refers to Narendra as being "nervous" in Ramakrishna's company: "Mad men, after all, make people nervous. They are not normally sought out as conversation partners" (211). But Narendra did seek out Ramakrishna and Narendra was not "nervous," he was nonplussed.
Narendra's second visit to Ramakrishna was delayed until the following month and, as Narendra later relates, since he had not realized how far Dakshineswar was from Kolkata, he took great time and trouble in locating Ramakrishna. At last Narendra found him, sitting alone, absorbed in thought (ekākī āpon mone bośiyā āchen) (LP 5.91). Ramakrishna greeted him joyfully, Narendra reports, asking him to sit at one end of his bed. Narendra sat, but found Ramakrishna immersed in a kind of reverie (ekprakār bhābe ābiṣṭa hoiyā poḍiyāchen) (LP 5.92), speaking indistinctly to himself. Ramakrishna looked steadily at Narendra, then began moving towards him. Narendra remembers:
I thought the crazy man (pāgol) would do something crazy (pāglami) yet again like the earlier time. Scarcely had I thought so when he came near and placed his right foot on my body, and in the very next moment by that touch I had an extraordinary experience (apūrba upalabdhi). With my eyes open I saw that all the things in the room together with the walls were rapidly whirling and disappearing somewhere and my ego, together with the whole universe, was as if about to merge in the all-devouring great void (sarbagrāsī mahāśūnye). I then became overwhelmed with a terrible fear. I thought that the destruction of the "I" was death and that death was before me, very close. Unable to restrain myself, I blurted out aloud, "Ah! What have you done to me? I have my parents." The wonderful crazy man (adbhut pāgol) laughed heartily when he heard my words and, touching my chest (bokkha) with his hand, he said, "Let it now stop; it doesn't have to be done all at once. It will all happen in time." It is astonishing that no sooner had he touched and spoken in that manner than my extraordinary revelation (apūrba pratyakkha) disappeared. I returned to a normal state of consciousness and saw the things inside and outside the room as they were before. (LP 5.92)
In describing Ramakrishna, Saradananda frequently uses the Bengali word adbhut, which literally means "unprecedented," but in ordinary usage means "wonderful," "remarkable" or "extraordinary." Kripal occasionally translates adbhut as "unprecedented" but more often than not as "strange." For example, in the section above, Kripal says that when Ramakrishna placed "his own foot" on Narendra's body, Narendra "had an unprecedented experience at his touch." Yet later in the same paragraph when abdhut is used again referring to Ramakrishna, Kripal translates this as "the strange crazy man"; the Bengali adbhut pāgol, would be better translated as "wonderful crazy man" or "remarkable crazy man."
As he later related this experience, Narendra states that although the occurrence itself was of short duration, "it produced a great revolution in my mind. Stunned (stabdha), I kept thinking about what it was that happened. I saw that the experience came suddenly and went suddenly by the power of this wonderful person (adbhut puruṣ)" (LP 5.92-93). Narendra wondered whether Ramakrishna had hypnotized him into having this experience, but could not accept this hypothesis since Narendra saw himself as strong-minded and strong-willed, not the type to fall under the sway of unwilling hypnosis. Narendra said what came to mind in terms of an explanation was: "In the words of the great poet (mahākavi): 'There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'" (That Shakespeare's words would come to Narendra at this time shows the extent of his Westernization.)
At this point, Narendra began to doubt whether Ramakrishna really was mad, for how could a madman, Narendra later recalled, "shatter to pieces the structure of a mind like mine, possessed of strong will power (prabol icchāśakti-sampanna) and filled with firm impressions (dṛḍha-saṁskāramoy), making it like a ball of clay and reshaping it in his own way?" (LP 5.93-94). Nothing added up. Ramakrishna, Narendra says, was "pure and simple-hearted like a child," but that during their first meeting, Ramakrishna's words to him were nothing short of insane. Baffled, Narendra was determined to find out what was going on. Again Ramakrishna extracted a promise from Narendra to return to Dakshineswar, and again Narendra agreed (LP 5.95).
In reading Kālī's Child's version of Narendra's experience, the reader is told that "a nervous Narendra was certain that this 'crazy man' was about to create another embarrassing scene." Further, "the madman treated Narendra like a dear relative or friend—it all made Narendra very nervous" (211). But the Līlāprasaṅga—the text Kālī's Child cites— makes it clear that there was no "embarrassment," and whatever Narendra experienced in the way of "anxiety" (cintā) was the result of Narendra's inability to make sense of either Ramakrishna or Ramakrishna's ability to change Narendra's perception of reality with a mere touch.
According to Kālī's Child, "Narendra left, confused, troubled, and upset. The problem remained unsolved" (211). What problem? In reading the Līlāprasaṅga, we find no "problem." At least part of the "problem" seems to lie in Kripal's reliance on Jagadananda's English translation. In Jagadananda's Great Master we read, in Narendra's words: "I left Dakshineswar musing on what had happened and on how to solve the problem" (GM, 735). But the word "problem" does not occur in the Bengali text. Why Jagadananda used it in his translation is anyone's guess. Why Kripal used "problem" is anyone's guess as well, except to indicate that he did not use the Bengali text.
Did Narendra have a "problem," and if so, was it Ramakrishna's foot? Was Narendra anxious (cintā) because of Ramakrishna's physical proximity or intimations of familiarity? Narendra makes it clear that his "anxiety" was due to his inability to make rational sense of the situation:
I could not come to any definite conclusion (sthiraniścay) about this person, pure and simple-hearted like a child. From the time I began to think on my own, I could never remain content until I reached, with the help of philosophy, investigation, reasoning, and debate (darśan, anusandhān o jukti-tarka-sahāye), a settled conclusion about any thing or person. That nature of mine, receiving a severe shock (dārun āghāt) that day, produced pain in my heart (prāne ekṭā jantranā). As a result, there again arose a firm determination in my mind to understand in any way I could the nature and power of that wonderful person (adbhut puruṣ). (LP 5.94)
Like Dr. Sarkar, Narendra was very much a member of the educated elite, who believed Western reason and science to be the apotheosis of human endeavor. Unlike Dr. Sarkar, Narendra was becoming painfully aware that his carefully organized worldview was being demolished. Yet one would not know this by reading Kālī's Child. In contrast, Kripal writes that after Narendra's extraordinary experience, "Narendra left, confused, troubled, and upset" (KC, 211). The reader does not see that Narendra is equally impressed by Ramakrishna's character. The reader also does not see Narendra's determination to figure things out, but instead is shown a rather passive Narendra who is "troubled," "upset," and "nervous." The reader is told: "it all made Narendra very nervous" (211). But this is not the impression one gets after reading Saradananda's Līlāprasaṅga, the cited source.
One also does not get this impression when reading the reports of Ramakrishna's other disciples. For instance, Sashi (later Swami Ramakrishnananda) reports that during Narendra's second visit to Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna leaned over and touched Narendra's heart through the front of Narendra's shirt, which was unbuttoned. About Narendra's experience with Ramakrishna, Sashi said:
Naren told me afterwards: "The walls of the room began to recede and disappear. Then the river and all of Calcutta vanished. The floor of the room seemed to sink down into the earth, until at last I seemed to be in a vast vacuum in which there was nothing but this brahmin [Ramakrishna] standing before me." . . .
Later, when I [Sashi] asked Sri Ramakrishna whether there was a God, he told me to go to the boy Narendra and ask him. I went and asked him. Then Naren told me this story, and added that for fifteen or twenty days after this he seemed to see God everywhere. Everything seemed to be living—the ground, the wall, everywhere there was life. So he came to know that this brahmin was no ordinary paramahaṁsa. (Chetanananda 1990, 149)
If this experience was initially terrifying for Narendra—who was, at this point, a die-hard rationalist—it ended up becoming exalting and transformative. The reader does not see anything like this in Kālī's Child, however, which endlessly repeats that Narendra was "nervous." If one wonders why "nervous" has been repeatedly invoked, along with other words such as "troubled" and "upset," an endnote attached to Narendra's statement that Ramakrishna "placed his own right foot on my body," provides clarification. Kripal writes:
The "body" (aṅga) is a rather safe term to explain the object of Ramakrishna's foot, despite the fact that the term can also mean "limb" and in another passage (LP 1.4.8) is used to describe Śiva's phallus. In any case, the "body" (usually gā) is used a number of times in the early volumes of the Kathāmṛta. In the later volumes ... the term is sometimes replaced by a more precise one, the "lap" (kola). It is quite possible that Ramakrishna's foot was placed in Narendra's lap, although this cannot be established with any certainty. (KC, 355)
Thus the reader is given the hint that the "body" is not really Narendra's body—which is a mere "safe term" for what very well may be the "lap." Perhaps, too, the "lap" really means "on the genitals," as the first edition would have it. Thus, innuendo intact, Narendra is "nervous," "troubled" and "upset." However, translating aṅga as "limb" and interpreting it as "Śiva's phallus" is not only wrong but also unintentionally funny. The particular passage in the Līlāprasaṅga uses the word Śrī-aṅga, "holy image," which Kālī's Child mistranslates as both "the great limb" (55) as well as "Śiva's phallus" (355).
Saradananda writes that what happened during Narendra's third meeting with Ramakrishna was "inconceivable" (abhābanīya) and informs the reader that he provides "the reader here what we have heard from both Thakur and Narendra" (LP 5.95). Narendra, now well steeled for those unusual events which seemed to occur when he visited Ramakrishna, was on guard. As the Kālī temple compound was crowded that day, Ramakrishna suggested that they walk along the bank of the Ganges in the neighboring garden of Jadu Mallick. As they walked and talked, Ramakrishna came to Jadu's parlor, then sat down and went into samādhi. Narendra sat near him while he "calmly observed" (sthīrabhābe lakkha koritechilen) Ramakrishna's samādhi. At this point, Ramakrishna reached over and touched him "as on the earlier occasion" (pūrbadiner nyāy). With Ramakrishna's touch, Narendra completely lost consciousness. As he was regaining consciousness some time later, Narendra became aware of Ramakrishna passing his hand over his chest (LP 5.96). Narendra had no memory of what had transpired, but Ramakrishna related the following to his disciples:
When Narendra lost his normal consciousness, I asked him that day many questions, such as who he was, where he came from, why he came (why he took birth), how long he would live here (in the world) and so on. . . . [His] answers confirmed what I had thought and seen about him. It is forbidden (niṣedh) to narrate all those things. But I have known from all these that, on the day he knows who he is, he will not stay in this world. Using his strong willpower, he will give up his body immediately through the path of yoga. (LP 5.97)
Saradananda's version of these events is echoed by other disciples and associates of Ramakrishna, who had also heard it from Ramakrishna, and to whom also he insisted that it remain secret. Of course one can easily contest Ramakrishna's story, assuming him either to be insane or having ulterior motives for any number of less-than-enlightened reasons, whether sexual predation or the desire for spiritual renown or the desire to tell a fabulous story. What we can definitely verify is that while Narendra himself had no memory of what he had said to Ramakrishna, Ramakrishna nevertheless repeated the incident to his other disciples who, in later years, repeated it to their own disciples in turn.
Saradananda informs the reader that with Narendra's third visit to Ramakrishna, Narendra no longer believed Ramakrishna to be a "monomaniac"—thus any presumed "pathologizing" of Ramakrishna by Narendra on this score had ended. However, this did not stop Narendra from arguing and disagreeing with Ramakrishna, and it certainly did not prevent Narendra from telling Ramakrishna that his visions were hallucinations. As Narendra later said: "Let none regret that they were difficult to convince! I fought my Master for six years with the result that I know every inch of the way! Every inch of the way!" (CW 9.411).
Nivedita writes that the source of Narendra's battle with Ramakrishna was Narendra's refusal to accept Kālī. Narendra, proud of his rational mind and modern "scientific" outlook, was also a member of the Brahmo Samaj, which rejected image worship. Ironically, in the ensuing years, Vivekananda came to embrace Kālī unreservedly. Nivedita writes what Vivekananda said to her about his change of heart:
How I used to hate Kālī! . . And all Her ways! That was the ground of my six years' fight—that I would not accept Her. But I had to accept Her at last! Ramakrishna Paramahaṁsa dedicated me to Her, and now I believe that She guides me in everything I do, and does with me what She will. . . . Yet I fought so long! I loved him [Ramakrishna], you see, and that was what held me. I saw his marvelous purity. . . . I felt his wonderful love. . . . His greatness had not dawned on me then. . . . At that time I thought him a brain-sick baby, always seeing visions and the rest. I hated it. And then I, too, had to accept Her! (CW 8.263)
This is a long digression, but it points out several significant factors. First, while Narendra initially thought Ramakrishna to be a "monomaniac," the characterization was short-lived. As the texts have indicated, Narendra did not "pathologize" Ramakrishna. Second, even from his first visit, Narendra was impressed by Ramakrishna's purity and renunciation. Even during the period when Narendra accepted neither Ramakrishna nor Kālī, Narendra's genuine respect for Ramakrishna was in place. Ramakrishna's nephew Ramlal recalled that once Ramakrishna had asked him to go to Kolkata and bring Narendra some food. When Ramlal arrived at Narendra's home, Narendra—concerned that Ramlal had walked the entire distance from Dakshineswar—washed Ramlal's feet and fanned him. Ramlal told Narendra: "You told the Master that you would visit him on Wednesday, but you didn't. He was worried about you and has sent me with these things." To this Narendra replied, "Yes, Brother, I always plan to visit the Master, but the pressure of my family does not allow me to go anywhere. I shall go with you right now." Ramlal reports that Narendra changed his clothes immediately and off they went to Dakshineswar. When they arrived, Narendra bowed low before Ramakrishna, who greeted him with great affection (Chetanananda 1990, 51-52). This is not the behavior of one who is "nervous" around Ramakrishna.
Despite Kālī's Child's repeated accusations, there is not a hint of "scandal" to be found in any of the source texts—even if one expends a great deal of effort reading between the lines—concerning Ramakrishna's character or motives. If Kālī's Child sees a "problem" with Ramakrishna's foot being placed upon Narendra's body, Narendra does not share this concern. Narendra's "problem" was not Ramakrishna's foot but the wholesale destruction of his previously held worldview and his inability to make sense of the alternate reality he experienced when Ramakrishna touched him—either with his foot or with his hand.
Ramakrishna's foot will take on a life of its own as it goes into service to provide a homoerotic drumbeat, from Kālī's Child's inception to its conclusion. Even before the Introduction is completed, readers will be reminded yet again of Ramakrishna's "foot extended onto the bodies of young males" (36)—predictably not mentioning the foot extended onto older males or females. Nor is subtlety Kripal's strong suit when it comes to indicating the motives stimulating Ramakrishna's foot, which, he writes, was "extended ... onto the bodies of his disciples in order to awaken their phallic love" (243).
This recurring anthem will continue even after the book's conclusion, where in the Appendix, Ramakrishna's foot is referred to as "that sexually charged organ" (335). Yet from the material Kālī's Child has presented and from the source material extant on Ramakrishna, one is hard pressed to make a case for the "curious habits" of Ramakrishna's foot. These "curious habits"—which Kripal describes as one of Ramakrishna's "techniques of arousal" (238)—serve as one of Kālī's Child's key bulwarks for the book's homoerotic thesis.
If Ramakrishna's foot was not used as a technique of arousal, then what was he doing with his foot? Those in the Hindu tradition, and particularly those within the Ramakrishna tradition, would interpret Ramakrishna's foot placed on the bodies of devotees (whether male or female) as an act of grace. This is completely consonant with the Hindu religious tradition. In contrast, Kālī's Child asserts that Ramakrishna was "not at all sure why he [did] such things," nor was Ramakrishna "willing to take any blame" for sticking "his foot in strange places." While Kripal admits that Ramakrishna's feet "evoked great devotion and faith" (238), he nevertheless concludes that "Ramakrishna's foot points to a secret of which he himself was not aware, namely, that his mystical experiences and visions were constituted by erotic energies that he neither fully accepted not understood." Significantly, Kripal declares: "Ramakrishna's foot placed provocatively in the lap of a young male disciple" is "a symbol for the entire study" (238). We would suggest looking at Ramakrishna's foot in another way altogether, seeing it as a symbol for how treacherously difficult cross-cultural interpretation can be.
In the Hindu tradition, the feet of a deity or holy person are sought for their darśan. Hindu sacred literature—Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, Śaiva, Tantra, Advaita, Sikh—is replete with references to the sacred feet of the deity, the feet of one's guru and the feet (or, more likely, "the lotus feet") of other spiritual personalities. The vertical line placed on the forehead by Vaiṣṇava devotees is a representation of Viṣṇu's foot. In Hindu mythology, the Ganges is said to have emerged from Viṣṇu's feet. Hindu devotees actively seek the dust from a holy person's feet and "taking refuge at his (or her) feet" is an extremely common expression of Hindu piety, an expression which is common to every tradition in the Hindu fold. To be touched by the feet of the Lord or by a particularly holy person is considered a great blessing.15
Given this powerful religio-cultural background, Ramakrishna's devotees and admirers not only were not shocked by Ramakrishna's placing his feet upon others, they actively sought touching his feet themselves. For example, once when Swami Akhandananda was visiting Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna asked him to massage his feet. Akhandananda recalled:
I drew his legs onto my lap and was passing my hands over them when he began to tell me with a smile many beautiful things on spiritual life. . . . While massaging his feet I rubbed his two big toes on my forehead, as if I were drawing the Vaiṣṇava marks.
The Master smiled, "What are you doing, my boy?". . .
[Akhandananda replied:] "Today I am putting the sāttvic marks on my forehead. What is there on earth more sacred than your holy feet?" (Chetanananda 1990, 242)
Again, Ramchandra Datta in his Jībanabṛttānta describes the celebration that the devotees arranged every year in Dakshineswar on Ramakrishna's birthday. Datta paints a vivid portrait of Ramakrishna in bhāva samādhi in the company of devotees singing kīrtan. When Ramakrishna gradually returned to normal consciousness
he tore the garland around his neck and threw it away, wiped the sandal paste on his forehead with the corner of the cloth he was wearing, but he could never wipe the sandal paste on his feet. . . . How could he? The feet don't belong to him. What right has he over something that he has given away? The feet now belong to the devotees. His feet are the treasure of their hearts, so he could not destroy their beauty [by wiping off the sandal paste]. (JB, 166)
As we have seen in this rather exhaustive discussion of Ramakrishna's foot and its actions, the evidence presented in Kālī's Child does not withstand critical scrutiny. Kālī's Child's treatment of Ramakrishna's foot is a microcosm of the many problems exhibited throughout the book.
Secrecy, Censorship and Cover-up
Secrecy and scandal are the hallmarks of Kālī's Child, and the first building blocks of this supposed conspiracy to hide Ramakrishna's "secrets" are placed in the book's Introduction. Concerning earlier books on Ramakrishna published by the Ramakrishna Order, Kripal argues that they "hide as much as they show." The "tradition" has produced books that are "historically naive" and "translations that are not translations" to the point where "talk (and more talk) about Vivekananda [has] effectively buried that foot and its meanings beneath a mountain of pious ink, touched-up images, bowdlerized books, and wordy words" (KC, 2). What would provoke the Ramakrishna Order to bury, touch-up and bowdlerize? The reason, according to Kālī's Child, is that "Ramakrishna's mystical experiences ... were in actual fact profoundly, provocatively, scandalously erotic" (2; italics in text).
Another gauntlet having been thrown down, Kālī's Child hits its stride as Kripal concisely presents the book's central theses:
I will demonstrate that even though Tantra, not Vedānta, structured the saint's ecstasies, visions, and teachings, Ramakrishna was emotionally torn by the tradition and its heterosexual symbolism; he could not be forced to complete the Tantric ritual of maithuna or "sexual intercourse" with a woman, for example, not because he had somehow transcended sex (the traditional claim) but because the ritual's heterosexual assumptions seriously violated the structure of his own homosexual desires. His female Tantric guru and temple boss may have forced themselves ... on the saint for both personal and Tantric reasons, but Ramakrishna remained ... a lover not of sexually aggressive women or even of older men but of young, beautiful boys, those "pure pots," as he called them, that could hold the "milk" of his divine love.16 Finally, I will show ... how the saint ... fashioned out of his experience ... an impressive "spirituality of secrets" that could speak, and yet not speak, about the pain of his past, affirm the joys of his present, and transmute it all into a life of ecstasy and vision. (2-3)
Kripal concludes by declaring Ramakrishna to be "a conflicted, unwilling homoerotic Tāntrika" who was "uncomfortable in [Tantra's] symbolic world." Kripal states that he supports his claims with "Bengali texts, many of which, having been threatened, denied, and systematically censored, have remained untranslated to this day" (3).
At this point Kripal walks the reader straight into the edifice of Kālī's Child's conspiracy theory: according to him, the Kathāmṛta, the central text of the Ramakrishna tradition which forms the centerpiece of Kālī's Child, is "the source of much nervousness within the tradition" (3). This is, as one may suspect, a revelation to those within the tradition, for whom the Kathāmṛta is a revered, much-loved and probably thumbworn text. It is not the kind of book that one generally associates with "nervousness," either inside or outside the tradition.
According to Kālī's Child, in order to uncover Ramakrishna's secrets, the text must be "recovered" (3)—an unintended echo of those early Orientalists whose stated goal was also to "recover" the text. The question is, recovered for whom? Obviously not for the large majority of the text's readers who have read the book in its original Bengali, in which every word remains just as M had written it.
In keeping with Kālī's Child's secrecy thesis, Kripal speculates that the Kathāmṛta's volumes were "arranged cyclically" in order to "conceal ... a secret." As we have seen, the Kathāmṛta was written in five volumes and published over a period of thirty years. Kripal's thesis—and it is important to note that this is one of Kālī's Child's truly original postulations—is that M "held back" the secret in the first volume, "hinted at" the secret in the second, "toyed with" it in the third, and "revealed" it in the fourth. Then, according to Kripal, M found that he had hardly any material left for the fifth (4). Yet as we have seen, there is no textual evidence to indicate that M began transcribing his diaries with the express intention of publishing a "book." Just as importantly, there is no evidence that M had any predetermined plan to divide his work into five volumes, however elegant Kripal's theory may appear to be. On the other hand, there is abundant evidence that M had hoped to complete more volumes before his death.17
Interestingly, even while contending that the Kathāmṛta is a source of "nervousness" within the tradition, Kripal nevertheless asserts that "from [the] renouncer point of view," M's Kathāmṛta "is little more than a collection of 'Sunday notes'" (12). One would think that a trifling collection of "Sunday notes" would not raise enough interest for "much nervousness." Yet from here, Kripal goes on to make a rousing defense of the major source text of the Ramakrishna tradition. "I am arguing that, despite the claims of the renouncers," Kripal writes, "M's Kathāmṛta is a legitimate and relatively accurate source for approaching and understanding the secret of Ramakrishna's life and teachings" (14). For those inside the Ramakrishna tradition—either monastic or lay—this is one of the weirdest statements in the entire book.18 Kripal is arguing a non-argument. The Kathāmṛta is indisputably the core text of the Ramakrishna tradition and it is deeply loved and revered, and just as much by "renouncers" as "householders." The text is central to every monastic center of the Order and many, if not most, centers have time set aside for reading it. Swami Madhavananda, one of the greatest scholars of the Order and translator of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, read nothing but the Kathāmṛta in his last years and he was not exceptional in that practice.
In returning to Kālī's Child and to what it categorizes as the "political dimension" of the "secret," Kripal alleges that the Ramakrishna Order has zealously guarded M's original diaries from the probing eyes of researchers. "No Western researcher has ever seen," Kripal asserts, "and may never see, the original manuscripts of M's diaries." The reason? "They contain a secret that is kept hidden from the public's eye" (i.e., that Ramakrishna was a "conflicted, unwilling, homoerotic Tāntrika"). For this reason, they "are kept under lock and key." Kripal adds in a confidential tone: "Anyone who has tried to locate M's diaries knows what I mean. The researcher soon discovers that the powers that control the archives and historical documents do not want these texts to be studied too closely" (311). Yet these charges are patently untrue. M's diaries are not the property of the Ramakrishna Order. M's diaries belong to M's descendants, as they always have. According to Swami Prabhananda, the Order's current General Secretary as well as its most respected scholar and historian: "The diaries, which are in the possession of the descendants of M, are their family property." Kripal, Prabhananda continues, "has accused M's descendants and the Ramakrishna Order for not disclosing the diaries to the Western scholars. Swami Prabhananda or for that matter the Ramakrishna Order has nothing to do about 'carefully' photocopying the diaries. None of the diaries or their copies are in the archives of Belur Math."19 A simple inquiry about the original diaries would have elicited this information, which is hardly secret.
As this book's Appendix shows, Professor Dipak Gupta—the present controller of M's archives—attests that many scholars have already seen those diaries, even photographed them, without undue difficulty. Since Dr. Gupta emphatically denies that anyone has ever been prevented from seeing M's original diaries, one must wonder whom Kripal asked when he asked to see them. Perhaps the request was not given to the appropriate person or perhaps the request was never received at all.
Given the above, for those in the insider community, the "political dimension" of Ramakrishna's "secret" is clear: erroneous allegations created out of whole cloth were manufactured without anyone being interested in ascertaining the correct information. The simple truth was pedestrian, nothing as spicy as a conspiracy of lurking monks who engaged in "this hiding, this refusal to submit to public scrutiny" (KC, 311).
Kripal extends his conspiracy theory to Nikhilananda's English Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, which he condemns as a "bowdlerized" text. Nikhilananda is accused of "ingeniously mistranslating many of the secrets; those passages for which he could not find a suitably safe enough 'translation,' he simply omitted" (4). There is no small irony in this accusation since Kripal's own staggering mistranslations and addi-tions of his own material into his translation profoundly distort not only the letter but also the spirit of the original text.
Nevertheless Kālī's Child purports to unearth Ramakrishna's "secret," said to be previously concealed. This Kripal does through analyzing Ramakrishna's "secret talk" or guhya Kathā, which consists of "eighteen passages dealing with visions and confessions Ramakrishna thought too troubling or important to reveal to any but his most intimate disciples" (3-4). One immediate problem is that Kripal associates, then equates, "secret" with "sexual." Yet secret teachings have historically been associated with the world's mystical traditions. As Elaine Pagels has written about Christian gnostic texts:
Many regarded these secret gospels not as radical alternatives to the New Testament Gospels, but as advanced-level teaching for those who had already received Jesus' basic message. Even the Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus explained things to certain disciples in private, entrusting to them alone "the mystery of the Kingdom of God."20
"Secret teachings" are as old as religion itself. As Kripal himself has noted, the Upaniṣads are associated with secret teaching: they were originally intended for only those few people who were spiritually fit to understand them. Ramakrishna's "secret teachings" are similarly directed to those students whom he considered capable of understanding higher spiritual truths.21 Yet higher spiritual truths are not what is uncovered in Kālī's Child, since "secret" quickly slides into "sexual."
The most problematic aspect of Kālī's Child's analysis of Ramakrishna's "secret talks" is its extremely narrow scope. Kripal restricts the category to eighteen isolated passages from the Kathāmṛta— the sole determinant for what constitutes the category of "secret talks" being whether the Bengali phrase guhya Kathā has been used or not. Not only is this an artificial device, it is capricious as well, since much of what is included in the "secret talk" is repeated on other occasions without the guhya Kathā tag. Thus what is labeled a "secret" on one day ceases to be "secret" on another day. Ramakrishna has a number of conversations with his disciples which constitute what normally would be considered "secret teachings"—that is, talks or instructions directed to those qualified students (adhikārins) who are advanced in spiritual practice. Yet these conversations do not fall under the purview of "secret talks" since the "guhya Kathā" label was not applied.
Further, limiting and defining Ramakrishna's guhya Kathā by what has been published in the Kathāmṛta presents a difficulty in itself. M's record of Ramakrishna's conversations—limited to the days and times when M was present—is obviously not the entirety of Ramakrishna's teachings. Sarada Devi was certainly an authority on Ramakrishna's teachings and her discussions of them should be taken into account. Similarly, the reminiscences of Ramakrishna's other disciples provide a wider body of knowledge, which needs to be incorporated into the corpus of Ramakrishna's guhya Kathā. For example, as Ramakrishna's disciple Swami Premananda (whom we meet as "Baburam" in the Kathāmṛta) said:
Thakur's teaching depended upon the audience—the teachings for the householders and the would-be monks were different. He never disturbed anyone's faith, he taught what was suitable to the person concerned. He taught the householders and the would-be monks in different ways. When there was no householder devotee in his room, he would shut his door and instruct us with burning ideas of renunciation and discrimination. Again, in between the talks, he would peep outside to see if any householder devotee was coming. He presented those ideas with illustrations to help us develop a strong dispassion for women and the world. (Omkareshwarananda, 28)
In order to get a comprehensive view of Ramakrishna's teachings—which he tailored to the audience in front of him—it is necessary to read a wide variety of accounts: the accounts of those who sought him out as the famous "paramahaṁsa from Dakshineswar" as well as the accounts of those who were closely associated with him. While M is indisputably a member of the latter category, he did not receive exactly the same teachings that others did—whether they be married women, Sikhs, actresses, Vaiṣṇavas, Christians, Brahmos, or future monastics. Whether or not the words guhya Kathā were invoked in his teachings is too arbitrary a device to cull out the constituents of Ramakrishna's "secret teachings."
Tantra and Psychoanalysis
The stated goal of Kālī's Child is to "offer a nonreductive, psychoanalytically informed reading of Ramakrishna's mystical eroticism" (KC, 6). In this endeavor, the book draws upon the previous studies of Ramakrishna by Jeffrey Masson and, selectively, from Sudhir Kakar as well as other psychoanalytic interpreters of the Hindu tradition.22 Kālī's Child endeavors to interpret Ramakrishna's mystical experiences through two hermeneutic strategies, one being Tantra, and the other, psychoanalysis. Kripal assures the reader that he offers "a historically accurate, psychologically nuanced reading of the Hindu Tantra as it was practiced by Ramakrishna" (2). Unfortunately, the book does not live up to its promise, for neither is it historically accurate nor is its reading of Tantra psychologically nuanced.
"Tantra," we read early on in Kālī's Child, "was Ramakrishna's secret." Kripal also makes the remarkable claim that "if Ramakrishna was a Tāntrika, it seems that either he was not willing to admit the fact" or "he himself was not fully aware of his own Tantric identity." Indeed, "Ramakrishna's secret was secret even to himself" (5; italics in text). We have seen other scholars, notably Walter Neevel, who have identified Ramakrishna with the Tantric tradition. What is novel in this case is the suggestion that Ramakrishna could be a Tāntrik without being aware of it. While the supposition that a Euro-American scholar would have fuller knowledge than the native practitioner is hardly a new phenomenon, Kālī's Child's hypothesis belongs to a tradition of shorter duration: psychoanalytic interpretation.
Kripal writes: "I have attempted to use psychoanalytic categories, but only within Ramakrishna's Tantric world" (38). Yet readers might well question how Kripal would know what was "within Ramakrishna's Tantric world." As we delve further into Kālī's Child, it becomes apparent that the contents of Kripal's Tantric world have been misconstrued for Ramakrishna's Tantric world. One of Kālī's Child's philosophical missteps is its conflation of Tantra with Vāmācāra, "the left-handed path," while Vāmācāra itself is exoticized into "magical power, strangeness, seediness, and sex." In so doing, Kālī's Child seriously diminishes the philosophical and ontological range of the Tantric tradition. If magical power, strangeness, seediness, and sex were indeed Tantra's primary constituents, then there is no doubt that Ramakrishna would surely not be "aware of his own Tantric identity." Yet Kālī's Child avers that it is Ramakrishna who did not correctly understand Tantra, since Ramakrishna denied the "basic Tantric equation of the mystical and the erotic" (5).
Apart from the issue of Kālī's Child's version of "the Hindu Tantra," Kripal's psychoanalytic skills are not sufficient to provide a deeper understanding of a nineteenth-century Bengali mystic. Even while admitting that "human psychology is ... variable, and radically so" (38), Kripal maintains that "human psychology ... is relatively consistent across cultures" (37), despite a significant body of evidence which contests this assertion.23 Further, though Kripal writes that his "use of psychoanalysis is fairly light," he goes on to say that it is restricted to "Freud's most basic ideas (the unconscious, repression, sublimation, condensation, the Oedipus complex, the whore-virgin split, upward displacement, etc.)" (38). This is more than enough to misread any nineteenth-century Hindu, particularly when such analysis is in the hands of one who is not professionally trained in psychoanalysis and is insufficiently familiar with Bengali culture and language. As a result, the armchair psychoanalysis employed in Kālī's Child reveals presuppositions based on culturally biased Freudian models, while it remains debatable whether Freudian psychoanalysis can be applied to Ramakrishna at all. Were it viable, then a deep knowledge of the cultural context and language of nineteenthcentury Bengal would be an absolute prerequisite.
Kripal argues that "psychoanalysis ... can be used to interpret nonWestern cultures," but it must be, à la Stanley Kurtz, "'reshaped' to fit each and every cultural context in which it is applied" (38). While that seems quite reasonable, this is, in fact, what does not happen in Kālī's Child. Had Ramakrishna's cultural context been better understood, it is doubtful whether Kālī's Child would have been written in the first place.
We should mention in passing that Kripal's prescriptive treatment of Ramakrishna becomes evident here. Throughout Kālī's Child, Kripal will point out a number of areas in which Ramakrishna needed improvement. In this instance, not only was Ramakrishna unaware of his own Tantric identity, but he also did not get Tantra right—he denied the "basic Tantric equation of the mystical and the erotic." Furthermore, Ramakrishna did not enact Tantra as it should have been enacted, hence he was a "failed Tāntrika." Harking back to the prescriptive notions of the early Orientalists, Kripal's dressing-down of Ramakrishna concerning Tantra reads like a twentieth-century reprise of Max Müller. While Müller's Ramakrishna was not "what the true Gnānin (knower) ought to be" (Müller 1899, 169), Kripal's Ramakrishna is not what the true Tāntrik ought to be. Whether falling short of either Müller's or Kripal's expectations, Ramakrishna does not measure up to the pre-existing bar set by his interpreters. As we have seen with Müller and we shall see with Kripal, there is an agenda which first discredits the subject's knowledge or abilities, then shows how the subject should have thought and behaved in order to get it right.24
Ramakrishna is thus dismissed in Kālī's Child as a "failed Tāntrika" who "could not consciously make it through the Five M's" (129)25—as if the literal performance of the "Five M's" were in and of itself the purpose of Tantra. What are the Five M's for? Citing both Sanjuka Gupta and Aghehananda Bharati, Amiya Sen reminds us that Tantra's "eschatological goals ... are no different from that found in other schools of Hindu philosophy; the release from the karmic cycle of rebirths" (2001, 128). Thus, like every other Hindu liberatory tradition, the goal of Tantra is the attainment of union with the ultimate Reality. Whether the sādhaka can attain this union by means of one M or Five M's or through the use of symbolic M's alone, the Five M's are themselves secondary to the issue of whether liberation has been attained. The Five M's are the means, not the goal.
Should the reader wonder how Ramakrishna could be not fully aware of his own Tantric identity, a psychoanalytic explanation is offered:
For Ramakrishna ... the experience of Tantra was intimately and uncomfortably bound up with emotional reactions, with "shame, disgust, and fear," that in turn were psychologically connected to troubling memories of his own vague past. . . . He was ... struggling with the horrors of his past and the challenges of his present through the rituals and symbolic states of Tantra. If he became a Child, it was at least partly because he feared women. . . . If he brought Kālī's sword to his own throat, it was at least partly because he felt shame for phallic desires. . . . And if he consistently associated Tantra with the latrine, it was because he himself had experienced and was disgusted with the dark abusive side of the tradition. All these emotional reactions, and many more, made Tantra for Ramakrishna a thing of almost limitless, and so terrifying, power. (KC, 32; italics in text)
What is remarkable about the passage above is how much biographical and psychological knowledge about Ramakrishna is presumed by the author—knowledge to which Ramakrishna himself was seemingly not privy, nor his disciples, nor those succeeding generations who carefully studied Ramakrishna's life. It is remarkable that, after wading through pages of Ramakrishna's many failings as a Tāntrik, that he is suddenly deemed to be "the greatest of Tantric mystics" at the book's conclusion (apparently even a failed Tāntrik can be the greatest Tāntrik). Yet despite such ascribed greatness, Ramakrishna "nevertheless remained quite unaware of the latent or 'hidden' themes that structured much of his own experience" (327).
It is not uncommon for biographers to assume that they can understand more of their subjects than the subjects themselves. Is this the case with Ramakrishna? Can we say, for example, that "Tantra for Ramakrishna [was] a thing of almost limitless, and so terrifying, power"? There is no evidence for this. Indeed, Ramakrishna's reactions to Tantra are quite domesticated. In the Kathāmṛta Ramakrishna tells Ishan: "The path of Tantra is suited for the Kalīyuga (kolite tantrokto mot)" (KA 2.66). This looks like at least a mild endorsement, not a statement of fear, disgust or horror. Importantly, however, Ramakrishna does not recommend Vāmācāra to Ishan. Ramakrishna speaks approvingly of "the path of Tantra." On the other hand, Ramakrishna warns Narendra that the Tantric practice performed with women "is not a good path. It is very difficult and often causes a sādhaka's downfall" (KA 2.8). As we have noted, Ramakrishna geared his teachings to his listeners' aptitudes. While he encouraged jñāna for Narendra, he did not encourage Tantra, or more accurately, he discouraged the vīra or heroic aspect implicit in Vāmācāra.
Nevertheless, when Girish Ghosh (of all people) told Ramakrishna that he was going to write a book denouncing the Vāmācāra practices of the Kartābhajās, Ramakrishna dissuaded him, saying: "It is also a path. Some people have made progress in spiritual life through that path" (Chetanananda 1990, 105). Again, when Narendra denounced Vāmācāra practices, Ramakrishna gently reminded him that this path was also a spiritual path.26
Yet despite Ramakrishna's noncondemnatory approach, Kālī's Child presents what it takes to be Ramakrishna's "Tantric world" in an atmosphere of ripe exoticism. Kripal asserts that the Kathāmṛta, for example, is "peppered with graphic Tantric visions and descriptions of seedy midnight rituals. An occasional visiting Tāntrika even appears here and there ... ready to offer a sexy interpretation of a particular symbol or metaphor" (30). One wonders if Kripal is reading the same text as the rest of us.
The Kathāmṛta pays particular attention to the visits of only two Tāntriks. If they offer a "sexy" interpretation of anything, we may be dealing with a new definition of "sexy." The first Tāntrik we meet in the Kathāmṛta (KA 5.56-57) visits Ramakrishna on June 17, 1883, arriving in the middle of a discussion about the characteristics of a paramahaṁsa. When the Tāntrik asks whether a paramahaṁsa is aware of virtue and vice, Ramakrishna replies that good and bad, virtue and vice, the real and unreal are the splendors of God's māyā (e sab tām̐r māyār aiśbar-jjo). The Tāntrik asks Ramakrishna about the law of karma, and after more singing and discussion, Ramakrishna tells the Tāntrik that when a person has attained God, then he or she cannot retain sinful tendencies. The Tāntrik tells Ramakrishna that today he has destroyed many of their doubts, to which Ramakrishna replies, "All doubts disappear when one realizes the Ātman" (ātmār sākkhātkār hole sab sondeha bhañjon hoy). Ironically, the Tāntrik's final question to Ramakrishna is: "Why don't the rituals of Tantra bear fruit now?" (tāntrik kriyā, ājkāl keno phale nā?). Ramakrishna replies that it is because the rituals are practiced neither correctly nor with devotion (sarbāṅgīṇ hoy nā, ār bhaktipūrbak hoy nā). It is clear that our Tāntrik did not find Ramakrishna a "failed Tāntrika," since—apart from the fact that the Tāntrik sought out his counsel in the first place—he declares that Ramakrishna has destroyed many of their doubts. If there is anything "sexy" in this interchange, it is very subtle indeed.
The second Tāntrik who appears in the Kathāmṛta (KA 5.103) visits Ramakrishna on January 2, 1884. In discussing the Tantric practice of drinking wine from a skull, Ramakrishna begins the conversation with the Tāntrik by saying: "All these are parts of Tantric sādhana, such as drinking wine from a skull. That wine is called 'causal water' (kāraṇ-bāri), isn't it so?" The Tāntrik replies, "Yes, sir." Nikhilananda does not translate the following two lines, in which Ramakrishna goes on to say, "Eleven cups, no?" The Tāntrik replies, "A measure of three tolas for the sādhana while meditating on [i.e., sitting upon] a corpse (śab-sādhana)." This may be a mildly interesting detail which Nikhilananda omitted, but the omission does not seem tantamount to either bowdlerization or censorship. Nor do the untranslated lines appear to be sexy.
Ramakrishna goes on to state that he cannot drink wine at all. The Tāntrik's reply to this is telling: "You have spontaneous bliss (āpnār sahajānanda). If I were to have this bliss, I wouldn't want anything else (śe ānanda h'ole kicchui cāi nā)." Obviously the Tāntrik does not find Ramakrishna remiss in not drinking wine; Ramakrishna already has spontaneous bliss, the Tāntrik declares. Once the goal of Tantra sādhana is attained, there is no need for performing the Five M's or any other kind of formalized sādhana. It is in keeping with this idea that Ramakrishna then tells the Tāntrik that he does not like japa and austerity (jap-tap), but he does have constant remembrance of God (sarbadā smaraṇ-manan āche).
Ramakrishna then asks the Tāntrik, "When they speak of the six chakras, what do they mean?" The Tantrik replies that the chakras are "like different holy places" (śab nānā tīrther nyāy). "In each of the chakras," he adds, "Śiva and Śakti dwell, but they can't be seen with physical eyes" (ek ek cakre śibśaktiḥ cokkhe dekhā jāy nā). Nikhilananda does not translate what the Tāntrik now says, which is apparently what Kripal believes to be "sexy": "The stem of the lotus is the Śivaliṅga, and the vulva-shaped primal power dwells in the pistil" (padmer mṛṇāl śibliṅga, padma karṇikāy ādyaśakti yonirūpe). Ramakrishna then asks the Tāntrik (and here Nikhilananda resumes his translation) whether one can attain perfection without the bīja mantra. The Tāntrik replies that a person can, if he or she has faith in the words of the guru (gūrūbākye biśvās); Ramakrishna then turns to M and repeats, "Faith!" (biśvās!). The Tāntrik then takes leave of Ramakrishna.
As we can see, the drift of Ramakrishna's and the Tāntrik's conversation concerns itself with the deeper aspects of Hindu spiritual life and, as with Ramakrishna's conversation with the first Tāntrik, there is little in the way of "sexy interpretations" unless one's definition of "sexy" is very broad indeed. The conversation is not even tangentially about vulvas and phalluses but with the fact that Śiva and Śakti dwell within the human being, the chakras themselves being tīrthas—places of pilgrimage. This is why the conversation naturally moves toward a discussion of bīja mantras, the role of the guru and the importance of faith. Just as importantly, the conversation also reveals the Tāntrik's admiration for Ramakrishna as one who has achieved "spontaneous bliss" and thus neither wanted nor lacked anything in his spiritual life.
Yet according to Kālī's Child, the Tāntrik's remark revealed Ramakrishna's "secret"—which is why Nikhilananda did not include the Tāntrik's description of the chakras ("The stem of the lotus is the Śivaliṅga, and the vulva-shaped primal power dwells in the pistil") in his Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. That writing about anything which was "vulva-shaped" (unless it was in a medical textbook) was thoroughly unacceptable in 1942 America does not seem to have occurred to Kripal. This is, of course, why Nikhilananda and his editorial assistants—Joseph Campbell, Margaret Woodrow Wilson and John Moffitt—opted not to include the phrase. In 1942 such language was considered highly offensive and inappropriate.27 (We should mention in passing that yoni can be translated either as "vulva" or "vagina"; since a lotus arguably resembles a vulva more than a vagina, we have translated yoni as "vulva."). Further, by not including the physical description of the chakras, Nikhilananda did not detract from the purport of the conversation, which was concerning the chakras themselves, their manifestation as holy places within the body, and the presence of Śiva and Śakti there. Finally, since the great majority of the text's readers do not read the English translation but rather M's original Bengali text, where every word remains just as he wrote it—including "vulva-shaped"—the "secret" could hardly be a secret for those millions of readers who have taken the adjective for what it is—an adjective—and have taken it in their stride. Nor do they think of the Śivaliṅga as "Śiva's phallus." For Hindus, the liṅga is Śiva, Śiva in all his greatness and splendor, not merely his phallus.
It would appear, however, that as far as Kālī's Child is concerned, the most significant part of the conversation is the Tāntrik's physical description of the lotus and what this purportedly conveys. Kripal writes: "A Tāntrika ... one day visited Ramakrishna and pointed out that the 'stem' and 'lotuses' of kuṇḍalinī yoga represents Śiva's phallus (liṅgam) and the goddess 'in the form of a vagina' (yonirūpa) (KA 5.103), establishing the very same symbolic equation that Ramakrishna's secret vision had established twenty-five years earlier" (128). Kālī's Child gives no indication of the basic tenor of the conversation—the chakras being places of pilgrimage, of Śiva and Śakti dwelling within the body, and certainly no indication of the Tāntrik's deep respect for Ramakrishna. Far from it—in fact, Kripal uses this conversation as a springboard to bring forth his speculation that Ramakrishna, whom the Bhairavi "failed to take ... through the fifth M" (126), performed ritual cunnilingus with the Bhairavi. Evidence for this bizarre conjecture is found, Kripal asserts, in the "secret vision" from twenty-five years earlier.
Kripal refers to Ramakrishna's famed "lotus vision" as the "secret vision," a mystical vision which detailed the awakening of the six chakras. As we discuss this vision at length in Chapter Four, we will address this only briefly here. In this vision, Ramakrishna sees a twentytwo or twenty-three-year-old young man who resembles himself, and who, with the touch of his tongue, arouses each dormant vulva-shaped lotus (chakra) into full bloom. It goes without saying that this mystical vision uses vivid erotic imagery—particularly since Ramakrishna uses the word ramaṇ, which has a wide cascade of meanings: sport, enjoyment, sexual intercourse, communion. In its adjectival form ramaṇ can mean delightful, charming, pleasing. Nikhilananda translates ramaṇ as "commune," which Kripal sees as a whitewash. We would argue that, on the contrary, to literalize this mystical vision, which is what happens in Kālī's Child, is to diminish it and remove its real meaning. Erotic imagery has often been used to convey the ineffable and profound. It attempts to express what ordinary language cannot convey, and for that reason, mystical experiences are often placed in erotic terms because of their obvious power. Kripal persists in translating ramaṇ in purely sexual terms, but in doing so he does serious injustice to the range of meanings implicit in this very rich word. One obvious example: Ramana Maharshi, whose name is an abbreviation of Venkataramana—"one who delights in Veṅkaṭa (Viṣṇu)." His name does not mean "one who has sex with Veṅkaṭa."
In contrast to Nikhilananda's translation of ramaṇ as "commune" or our preference for "have intercourse with," Kālī's Child interprets Ramakrishna's lotus vision as his "secret cunnilingus vision" (271). "Secret" is the operative word here, for this "secret" is purportedly obvious to our second Tāntrik: "For the Tāntrika," Kripal writes, "the secret was evident, the latent was manifest" (128).
But is there any evidence to support this "secret cunnilingus vision" hypothesis? Kripal states that the "Ramakrishna-homunculus" in the "secret vision" is about the same age that Ramakrishna would have been when he was under the Bhairavi's tutelage. Further, both the lotus vision and the second Tāntrik employ the adjective yonirūpe, vulva-shaped. It is, Kripal writes, "the same term that Ramakrishna uses to describe the 'vaginal shape' of the lotuses in KA 4.238 [the lotus vision]" (349). Kālī's Child also tells us, by way of offering more evidence in favor of the cunnilingus speculation, that the "association between the vagina and flowers is common enough in Indian culture" (127). Kripal then provides several references from the Kālī Tantra, Bṛhadyonitantra, Yonitantra (all of which, we can be sure, Ramakrishna never read and probably never heard of). Kālī's Child goes on to declare that the "Kathāmṛta is just as rich in symbolic equations between the vagina and flowers" (128). That is news for those of us who know the Kathāmṛta well. Kripal backs up his bold claim by providing an endnote that points to six references from the Kathāmṛta for "lotuses and their symbolic associations" (KC 349). Yet not even one of these deals with "vagina and flowers."28
What other evidence is offered to support this speculation? Kālī's Child offers as evidence Ramchandra Datta's adjectives from the Jībanabṛttānta's description of Ramakrishna's Tantra sādhana: "horrific" and "filled with obscenities" (JB, 31). Datta's characterization of Tantra is not surprising because, as one with powerful Vaiṣṇava leanings, he had an antipathy for Tantra. There are aspects of Ramakrishna's Tantra sādhana that could be construed as "horrific" and "filled with obscenities"—meditating on an altar under which are buried five skulls (jackal, snake, dog, bull and man); touching rotting human flesh with his tongue; sitting on a naked woman's lap while doing japa—yet none of these suggest that Ramakrishna performed ritual cunnilingus. Kripal also writes that the Kathāmṛta describes Tantra as "bizarre." Yet when one turns to the reference which describes Ramakrishna's sādhana under the Bhairavi's direction (KA 3.24), one merely finds the phrase bhāri utkaṭ, which simply means that the sādhana was "extremely difficult" or "extremely severe."
Apart from these factors, there is also what Amiya Sen describes as Kālī's Child's "gross confusion over chronology." In discussing Kripal's thesis concerning Ramakrishna performing cunnilingus on the Bhairavi, Sen notes that the Kathāmṛta places the lotus vision in 1858, around the time of Hriday's arrival in Dakshineswar (KA 4.237-38). But as Sen points out, according to the usually accepted chronology of Ramakrishna's life, Hriday arrived as early as 1855, a fact acknowledged by Kālī's Child as well (KC, 61). "But even allowing for some inaccuracy with this date," Sen writes, "this is still far removed in time from Ramakrishna's meeting with the Bhairavi, sometime in 1861" (2001, 142). As should be obvious by now, the evidence to support Kripal's speculation that Ramakrishna engaged the Bhairavi in ritual cunnilingus is somewhere between preposterously thin and nonexistent.
Why, given such thin evidence, would Kripal go out on a limb to propose such a speculation? Because of the "failed Tāntrika" dictum. If Ramakrishna "could not make it through the Five M's" and "failed" particularly with the fifth M (maithuna), then this line of reasoning apparently goes, the Bhairavi must have wanted Ramakrishna to engage in some kind of sexual activity. Hence, even if the cunnilingus speculation is baseless and Ramakrishna did not physically engage in cunnilingus with the Bhairavi, then—the reasoning continues—he performed this erotic act in his visionary state:
The Ramakrishna-homunculus was ... engaging in a mystical form of oral sex, arousing vagina-shaped lotuses into ecstatic blossoms with a playful Tantric tongue. The secret vision thus accomplishes in its obscene, if still symbolic, form what Ramakrishna could not accomplish in his Tantric practices with the Bhairavī, namely, the breaking of the bonds of "shame, disgust, and fear" and the transcendence of society's notions regarding purity that they represent. (KC, 129)
There are a number of problems with this, but we will address only two here. First, the point of Tantric sādhana is not merely the transcendence of society's notions of purity, but to transcend everything, including the Five M's, including the body and the mind as we know it. The goal of Tantra sādhana is not to perform the Five M's, but to attain divine union. It was for this very reason that both our Tāntriks sought out Ramakrishna as an adept, as one who had reached the goal, one who was filled with spontaneous bliss (sahajānanda), attaining which a person desires nothing else.
Second, despite the assertion that the "Bhairavī clearly tried to employ sexual intercourse as one of her means to teach Ramakrishna Tantric truths" (KC, 120), there is no evidence that she wanted or expected Ramakrishna to physically engage in maithuna, the fifth M. And there is certainly no evidence that she saw Ramakrishna as "failed" in any way. Indeed, she was quite proud of her student—it was she, after all, who said that Ramakrishna had the same signs of divine madness as Caitanya. It was the Bhairavi who convened a conference of spiritual leaders who determined that Ramakrishna's madness was not ordinary madness but divine madness, and deemed him to be an avatar. Far from being disappointed by Ramakrishna going into samādhi while sitting on a young, beautiful woman's lap or entering samādhi while observing a couple having sexual intercourse, the Bhairavi was deeply gratified. She declared: "My child, you have attained perfection in anandāsana and have become established in the divine state (divyabhāva). This is the final sādhana of this path (vīrabhāva)" (LP 2.206). The Bhairavi did not see samādhi as an escape mechanism; she saw it as the culmination and fulfillment of Ramakrishna's sādhana.
Kripal writes that the Kathāmṛta is "peppered with graphic Tantric visions," yet despite the enticement, there is little to show for it. The only "Tantric visions" to be had—which do not offer much in the way of "graphic" descriptions—are two visions in particular, one of which is the "lotus vision" (discussed in Chapter Four) and the other is Ramakrishna's vision of the paramahaṁsa boy (discussed in Chapter Five). While the lotus vision can certainly be seen as Tantric, since Ramakrishna's vision is about the awakening of his chakras, assessing Ramakrishna's vision of the paramahaṁsa boy as "Tantric" is a real stretch. Other visions such as the bearded Muslim (KC, 165), which Kripal defines as "Tantric," are simply laughable.
Ramakrishna and Sexual Abuse
In returning to Kripal's use of psychoanalytic categories within "Ramakrishna's Tantric world," we should note the language of victimization which Kālī's Child employs to interpret Ramakrishna. Kripal first speculates, then assumes, then presents as fact that Ramakrishna was sexually abused both as a child and an adult. Kālī's Child is unburdened by evidence, textual or otherwise, to back up its claims. It initially offers these claims as speculations about Ramakrishna's past, then the dominos fall backward and the claims assume the mantle of fact within a short number of pages. For example, we read that Ramakrishna's "female Tantric guru and temple boss may have forced themselves ... on the saint for both personal and Tantric reasons" (2; emphasis added), but within thirty pages we are already encountering Ramakrishna being "disgusted with the dark abusive side of the tradition," with nothing presented in the entire text to establish evidence of this purported abuse. What abusive side? Instead of evidence, the reader encounters a steady trickle of erroneous information, inaccurate translations and sexually laden insinuations, which are endlessly repeated, then slowly built into an edifice of presumed sexual abuse and alleged sexual reenactment patterns.
What are Ramakrishna's "troubling memories of his own vague past"? There is no evidence presented apart from presumption. Under normal circumstances, a lack of evidence is taken seriously when weighing the veracity of an accusation. Yet Kripal sees this lack of evidence as itself evidence of childhood sexual abuse. With evidentiary rules such as these, Ramakrishna can't win for losing:
We must admit that there are no clear indications of early sexual abuse in the biographies. But why should there be? . . .
... Is it just a coincidence that repeated traumatic events, . . . that, in the words of one psychiatrist, "simultaneously conceal and reveal their origins ... [and] speak in [the] disguised language of secrets too terrible for words?" It is indeed remarkable that the vast, if young and still debated, literature on sexual trauma suggests that individuals who have experienced abuse often become adept at altering their state of consciousness ... lose control of their bodily, and especially gastrointestinal, functions, experience visions and states of possession, become hypersensitive to idiosyncratic stimuli (like latrines), symbolically reenact the traumatic events, live in a state of hyperarousal ... become hypersexual in their language or behavior, develop hostile feelings toward mother figures, fear adult sexuality, and often attempt suicide. This list reads like a summary of Ramakrishna's religious life. (KC, 298-99)
One would hope that not everyone's religious life would include a laundry list consisting of losing control of gastrointestinal functions, living in a state of hyperarousal or developing hostile feelings toward mother figures, etc. Thus, without evidence—since there is none that indicates Ramakrishna ever suffered from "hyperarousal" or that he harbored "hostile feelings toward mother figures" (though it must be admitted that Ramakrishna, along with much of the country, suffered from gastrointestinal problems)—Kripal forges ahead with his hunches about Ramakrishna as his modus operandi.
It is illuminating to analyze several examples of what Kālī's Child takes to be Ramakrishna's troubled and "vague past." We need to first mention, however, that there is nothing "vague" about Ramakrishna's past. Ramakrishna spoke about his early life often and much of his language reflected his life and experiences of that period. Further, Saradananda amassed a great deal of data from the villagers who knew Ramakrishna long before he became a public figure. Ramlal (Ramakrishna's nephew) and other members of Ramakrishna's immediate family also provided a good deal of information to Saradananda and others who wished to know about Ramakrishna's early history. In brief, until the death of his father, Ramakrishna's childhood was happy and fairly carefree. He says so himself; his relatives and neighbors agree. Some thought he later became insane; others thought he became too religious; at least one believed him to be an avatar. But all agree that his childhood was untroubled.
Yet even in describing fairly neutral aspects of Ramakrishna's early life, Kālī's Child inserts a sexualized context which is not in the original texts. For example, in describing Ramakrishna's childhood Kripal writes that Ramakrishna and his friends acted out scenes from Hindu mythology in their own dramatic troupe. Citing the Līlāprasaṅga, Kripal writes that in the village mango grove, "[Ramakrishna] and his friends acted out the erotic exploits of Kṛṣṇa and the milkmaids in Vrindavana" (56). Yet when one checks the referenced text, one instead finds that Ramakrishna and his friends were "acting in the plays about Śrī Rāmacandra and Śrī Kṛṣṇa" (Śrī-rāmacandra o Śrī-kṛṣṇa biṣoyak jātrābhinoy). There is no mention of "erotic exploits," there is no mention of "milkmaids," there is not even a mention of līlā here. We should note that Kripal excised "Śrī Rāmacandra" since one would have difficulty associating "erotic exploits" with him. The irony is that while Kripal repeatedly censures Nikhilananda for "censoring" and "bowdlerizing" his translation of the Kathāmṛta, Kripal is more than willing to excise what may detract from his theses. Further, while Nikhilananda did not translate every word (though he certainly did translate the vast majority of them), he did not add material that was not in the Kathāmṛta. Kripal cannot make the same claim. Again and again, as we shall see in upcoming pages, Kripal adds words and phrases that are neither present nor implied in the Kathāmṛta.
One of Kālī's Child's prominent allegations about Ramakrishna's early years is that he was sexually abused by the itinerant sādhus who visited his village. As is well known, Gadadhar (the young Ramakrishna) enjoyed spending time with the monks who often stopped by his village en route to Puri. Purportedly quoting the Līlāprasaṅga (LP 1.108-9), Kripal writes that Ramakrishna's mother "began to worry about such visits, especially when the boy returned home with his clothes torn into a simple loin-cloth and his nearly naked body covered with ashes, but Gadadhar assured her that nothing was wrong." To this Kripal adds ominously, "But something was wrong" (KC, 57). This does sound alarming until one checks the Līlāprasaṅga and finds that the boy's clothes were not torn, but rather his cloth (dhoti) was torn into a loincloth (LP 1.108-9). This distinction is extremely important, for it is obvious that Kripal is unaware of the nature of a loincloth (kaupin) and how much material it requires.
There is nothing the slightest bit unusual about cutting a portion of the dhoti and making it into a kaupin. It is a very common thing for monks to do. This fact is mentioned in the Ādi Kathāmṛta by Girish Chandra Sen, an author whom Kripal quotes. Sen writes: "Whenever [Ramakrishna] met any mendicants, he would associate with them; and like them, he would wear a loin cloth, even if it meant tearing up his own cloth" (Chetanananda 1990, 401). There was no "naked body" anywhere, which makes sense, since the phrase referring to the young Gadadhar's "near naked body" does not appear anywhere in the Līlāprasaṅga. The phrase was, unhappily, newly minted for Kālī's Child, giving us yet another example of Kripal adding his own material to the original text. Further, in India it is not at all unusual for males to wear only a kaupin; it is not considered "naked," unless genitals are exposed. There are many photos of Ramana Maharshi wearing only a kaupin. When Vivekananda returned to India from the West, he was relieved to be released from Western clothing and he could be free to wear just a kaupin. In Ramakrishna for Children, there is an illustration—on the very cover of the book—of young Ramakrishna wearing only a kaupin during his upanayana ceremony.
Continuing our investigation into this purported incident of childhood sexual abuse, we read in the Līlāprasaṅga that Gadadhar would "tell his mother everything" (tāhāke samasta Kathā nivedan korilo) (LP 1.108). When he returned from his visit to the monks, the boy would tell his mother, "Look mother, how the monks have adorned me" (mā, sādhurā āmāke kemon sājāiyā diyāchhen, dekho). It was then that Gadadhar showed her the kaupin. In Kālī's Child's skewed account, the reader is led to believe that the boy returned home with "his nearly naked body" covered with ashes. Moreover, the Līlāprasaṅga keeps these events quite distinct. Gadadhar was smeared with sacred ash (vibhūti-bhuśitāṅga hoiyā) on some days (kono din), and on some days (kono din) he returned home with a sacred emblem on his forehead (tilak dhāran koriyā), and on some other days (ābār kono din), he returned home using a part of his dhoti as a loincloth (LP 1.108). Kālī's Child throws these distinct elements together while adding words that do not exist in the text which is allegedly quoted: "torn clothes" and a "nearly naked body."
What is particularly interesting here is that Kripal chooses not to mention the nature of Ramakrishna's mother's fear. In the same para-graph which Kripal quotes, it is made quite clear by Saradananda that Ramakrishna's mother was "afraid that one day the mendicants might tempt her son to go away with them" (sādhura tāhār putrake kono din bhulāiya soṅge loiyā jāibe nā to). She mentioned this fear to her son, who tried to pacify her. When the monks eventually heard of this, they came to her house and "assured her that the thought of taking away Gadadhar in that way never crossed their minds, and that they considered it kidnapping, a great crime unbecoming of sādhus, to take away a tender-aged boy without the permission of his parents. At this, not even a shadow of her earlier anxiety remained in Chandradevi's mind and, at the request of the sādhus, she gave her permission to the boy to visit the sādhus as before" (LP 1.109).
Much of this information is excluded in Kālī's Child, leaving the readers with Chandradevi's ambiguous "fear" and the impression of a helpless young boy with torn clothes and a nearly naked body. Finally, by the time we approach the conclusion of Kālī's Child, we are told in a hand-wringing tone about the "holy men stripping a trusting little boy" (303)! So sure is Kripal of his child abuse thesis that Ramakrishna's childhood ecstasies are discussed as "troubling trances" (57), thus creating the background necessary for Kālī's Child's interpretation of Ramakrishna's ecstasies as an escape mechanism.
Sādhus were not the only ones whom Kālī's Child regards as child abusers. The village women of Kamarpukur were also apparently unable to keep their hands off the "trusting little boy." While Kripal wonders why Ramakrishna "was letting [the village women] worship him as a male lover" (58), there is nothing in either the Life of Ramakrishna (which Kripal references as his source) or the Kathāmṛta or the Līlāprasaṅga to indicate anything which remotely resembles this. The texts all state that the village women looked upon Ramakrishna as Gopāla, the child Kṛṣṇa. Interestingly, Kripal quotes the Life of Ramakrishna as saying, "the boy actively sought the company of the pious women of the village because they reminded him of the milkmaids of Vrindavana, who had realized Kṛṣṇa as their husband and had experienced the bliss and pleasure of his love" (58; emphasis added).
Yet when we check the reference cited in the Life we find: "The pious young women of the village, who were mostly devotees of Viṣṇu, reminded him of the Gopis of Vrindaban, and, therefore, he sought their company. He knew that the Gopis were able to realize Krishna as their husband and feel the bliss of his eternal reunion, because they were women" (Life, 30; emphasis added). Note the difference between the "bliss and pleasure of his love"—laden with sexual innuendo—and what is actually in the text. Yet since it is cited as a reference to the Life, the reader naturally expects the words, or at least an honest summary of the referenced passage, to be there. And it is not. In fact, Kālī's Child declares with no apparent irony: "The texts agree" (58). Kripal further opines that "Gadadhar ... entered his trances at least partially to escape these women and their worship," quoting Narasingha Sil to clinch his thesis: "Indeed what the women of Kāmarpukur did with the ecstatic boy ... is anybody's guess" (58, quoting Sil 1991, 28). In this way, a steady drip of innuendo is created through the accumulation of the images of a nearly naked young boy with torn clothes, predatory sādhus, voracious village women, and troubling trances.
Again, concerning Ramakrishna's childhood, Kālī's Child states: "Gadadhar's effeminate nature and womanly ways did not go unnoticed by the villagers. Observing the boy's friendship with Ram Mallick, a seventeen-year-old teenager, the villagers used to say that, if Gadadhar were a woman, the two of them would be married (KA 3.184)" (59). What the Kathāmṛta actually says, however, is: "People used to say, if either of these [Ramakrishna or Ram] had been a woman, they would have been married" (loke bolto, eder bhitor ekjon meyemānuṣ hole dujoner biye hoto). Nowhere does it say, in any source text, that Ramakrishna was "effeminate" or that any of the villagers ever appraised him as such. Despite this, Kālī's Child declares that Ramakrishna "desired to be a woman" and adds that "all the evidence suggests that he did" (58). Yet the same source Kripal quotes, the Life of Ramakrishna notes that the young Ramakrishna liked to play the part of Kṛṣṇa (who cannot be accused of being "effeminate").
The young Ramakrishna said that if he were to be born again, he would like to be born as a poor child widow with a spinning wheel, a cow and a plot of land where the days could be spent in singing devotional songs and making sweets for Kṛṣṇa, who would enter her hut to steal the sweets (Life, 27). There is nothing here to suggest that Ramakrishna in his present incarnation felt uncomfortable in his present gender. It is also important to remember that for those who take reincarnation as a given, it is assumed that one does not maintain the same gender birth after birth. One who assumes a male body in one incarnation may well assume a female one in the next.
As Ramakrishna moved into adulthood, Kālī's Child similarly suggests that he experienced sexual abuse at the hands of the Bhairavi, Mathur Babu and Tota Puri. These speculations are gingerly invoked at the book's inception ("His female Tantric guru and temple boss may have forced themselves ... on the saint" [2; emphasis added]), yet within seventeen pages, the tentative speculation is treated like documented fact: "Ramakrishna ... entered ecstatic states to escape the sexual advances of his boss" (19). Yet nowhere within these seventeen pages and nowhere else in the text is any evidence presented to support this thesis. We are similarly told of the "traumatic treatment he received from Mathur" (109) with no credible evidence presented, only an insistent accusation. Larded throughout the text are many such repeated insinuations and accusations which are presented without benefit of substantiation.
In the example given below, Kripal garners evidence for Ramakrishna's purported abuse at the hands of Mathur by improbably quoting from Swami Chetanananda's book on Ramakrishna's close associates, They Lived with God. The excerpt quoted below (pointed out to Kripal by Narasingha Sil [KC, 347]), has its origin in Swami Turiyananda's reminiscences of Ramakrishna. Turiyananda (whom we meet as "Hari" in the Kathāmṛta), was a monastic disciple of Ramakrishna. The purport of the incident, at least as far as Turiyananda and Chetanananda were concerned, was to show the power of Ramakrishna's ecstatic visions. Indeed, so powerful were they that they affected the carriage's horses, provoking an accident:
One day Mathur Babu was returning to Jan Bazar in his deluxe phaeton and was bringing Sri Ramakrishna with him. When the carriage reached Chitpore Road, the Master had a wonderful vision. He felt that he had become Sita and that Ravana was kidnapping him. Seized by this idea, he merged into samadhi. Just then the horses, tearing loose from their reins, stumbled and fell. Mathur Babu could not understand the reason for such a mishap. When Sri Ramakrishna came back to the normal plane of consciousness, Mathur told him about the accident. Sri Ramakrishna then said that while he was in ecstasy he had perceived that Ravana was kidnapping him and that Jatayu [the great bird who had attempted to rescue Sita] was attacking Ravana's chariot and was trying to destroy it. After hearing this story Mathur Babu said, "Father, how difficult it is even to go with you through the street!"29
(Chetanananda 1989, 29)
This incident appears in Kālī's Child, partially quoted and out of context (KC, 105). Before the incident is related, however, the reader has already been informed of Ramakrishna's "cross-dressing" which caused "'scandalous' interpretations of the Master's 'austere renunciation.'" Yet there was no "scandal" concerning Ramakrishna's dressing as a woman, i.e., practicing the sādhana of madhura bhāva. Whatever criticism there was about Ramakrishna's behavior concerned the costliness of his apparel. A holy man, the opinion went, should not wear expensive fabric. Kripal associates Ramakrishna's practice of madhura bhāva with Mathur (referred to here as the "temple proprietor"), which, Kripal asserts, "involve[d] unusually intimate contact with Mathur and his family" (KC, 104-5). Yet Kripal's understanding of what constitutes "unusually intimate contact" is not based upon nineteenth-century Bengali social mores but rather contemporary North American social standards. According to the standards of nineteenth-century Bengal— and those standards are not very different even today—there was nothing "unusually intimate" about Ramakrishna's living situation.
Even before Ramakrishna's vision is described, it is referred to as "an interesting fantasy"—"fantasy," of course, carrying the undercurrent of sexual fantasy, especially when associated with scandal, crossdressing, and "unusually intimate contact." After Ramakrishna's vision is briefly described, Sita's abduction is referred to as a "sexual abduction" and her captivity as "a series of attempted seductions" by her "devilish captor" Rāvaṇa. Thus Mathur becomes quickly and simplistically identified with Rāvaṇa, with no corroborating evidence, while material which would dissuade the reader from such a premise is never presented—such as the obvious fact that a phaeton—that is, a light, open-air carriage, drawn by horses—no doubt reminded Ramakrishna of a chariot. Kālī's Child's final assessment of Ramakrishna's vision is that Ramakrishna's "fantasy" allowed him to "deal with the traumatic event," which in Kālī's Child's first edition is described as a "painful yet pleasurable abduction" (KC 1995, 106), the language of which comes straight from the literature of childhood sexual abuse. (Kālī's Child's second edition removes the word "pleasurable" from the description.)
The accusation that Mathur abused Ramakrishna is bewildering since there is no evidence that Mathur ever treated Ramakrishna with anything other than warmth, affection and reverence. Moreover, Mathur was exuberantly heterosexual in his appetites, his visits to female prostitutes not being well disguised. Yet even before Kālī's Child's Introduction is complete, the reader is informed that Ramakrishna was "struggling with the horrors of his past"—i.e., his purported abuse at the hands of a raft of sexual predators. The accusation is first insinuated, then declared—all without any evidence upon which to base this charge except for cultural miscues and innuendo. One example of the latter is Kripal's insistence upon giving Mathur the sinister appellation "the temple boss." Mathur was the temple manager, but "manager," with its white-collar overtones, does not carry the menacing tone that Kālī's Child wishes to convey. Hence Mathur is the "temple boss." We have already seen how Mathur is simplistically identified with Rāvaṇa, thus making "Rāvaṇa-like Mathur" (106) Ramakrishna's "devilish captor" (105). Ramakrishna is also referred to, in a subheading no less, as "Mathur's Handmaid" (103), and just to make sure the point is made, the reader is told that Ramakrishna is "commanded by his boss" (134). One wonders how Mathur, who is so affectionately characterized in the Kathāmṛta, Līlāprasaṅga and Jībanabṛttānta, came out looking like a sadistic prison guard, who had "unchallenged authority over the boy" (KC, 300).
Mathur, as the Līlāprasaṅga and all the subsequent source texts on Ramakrishna state, was immediately attracted to Ramakrishna, because of his "pleasing appearance, tender nature, steadfastness in dharma, and youth." To this Kripal adds: "Saradananda tells us, seemingly completely unaware of the homosexual dimensions of his own description, a 'sudden loving attraction' arose in the mind and heart of the temple boss" (61). The "homosexual dimensions" found in the Līlāprasaṅga, of which Saradananda (and apparently millions of others) were unaware, are quoted here: "It is often seen that when a very close and lasting relationship is established with anyone in life, the loving attraction (prītir ākarṣan) towards them is felt right away (sahasā), at first sight (LP 2.87)." This is given as proof of the "homosexual dimensions."
But does a "sudden loving attraction" imply a sexual attraction? Can males not bond with each other unless it be through sex? All of us have had the experience of meeting people—male and female—with whom we immediately establish a warm rapport. Even though we have just met them, we nevertheless feel drawn to them. We may even feel as if we have known them all our lives. In the Hindu worldview, this phenomenon is understood to be completely natural. It is often assumed that such rapport and attraction indicates that there had been a relationship in a previous life, thus our attraction to a person is a kind of "recognition" from a previous existence. This presupposes neither a homosexual nor a heterosexual dimension to anything. It simply means that there are some people to whom we feel very drawn from the minute we meet them.
To add to the creepy atmospherics surrounding Mathur and Ramakrishna, Kālī's Child remarks upon "Mathur's practice of dressing Ramakrishna in expensive women's clothes" (300). But Mathur never "dressed" Ramakrishna, what to speak of making it a "practice."30 Mathur provided Ramakrishna with clothing, jewelry, and other articles necessary for his madhura bhāva sādhana—just as he provided all the material which Ramakrishna needed for all of his other sādhanas.
Ramakrishna frequently spoke of Mathur as one of his rasaddārs—one of his five "suppliers of provisions" who was appointed by the Divine Mother to look after his material needs. Even less subtly, immediately following the remark about "dressing" Ramakrishna, Kripal informs the reader: "not everyone was naive"—implying that those who do not see a sexual abuse scenario here are naive. "Naive" is invoked again when we read about "holy men stripping a trusting little boy" and "a boss whose 'demonic' presence could send a young priest into prolonged states of unconsciousness." Of course this "unconsciousness" is samādhi, believed to be the highest state of consciousness and joy, which is now summarily pathologized. Kripal lets the reader know that he is not gullible about what really went on with Ramakrishna and his purported abusers: "I have refused to be naive about such things" (303).
Kālī's Child also presents several quotations from the Jībanabṛttānta as evidence for Mathur's sexual abuse. But if readers check those references, they will find that the cited texts were either mistranslated or clearly misinterpreted. Or they will find nothing there at all. For example, Kripal writes that Ramchandra Datta "describes Sītā's sufferings at Mathur's Janbajar home in some detail" (107). But Datta does not mention Sītā at all. Kripal makes this connection to create the facile equation: Ramakrishna = Sītā, Mathur = Rāvaṇa.
What Datta does describe in some detail are aspects of Ramakrishna's life with Mathur and his family, and there is no "suffering" described there at all, unless, of course, one assumes that Ramakrishna "suffered" when Mathur's daughters bathed him and applied oil to his body. Ramakrishna had no objection; neither did Mathur nor his wife nor his daughters. Datta writes:
After coming to Janbazar, Paramahaṁsa Deva [Ramakrishna] always stayed in the inner apartment (antaḥpur). All the women residents of the inner apartment viewed him as a greatly loved treasure (ati ādarer dhan). No one felt shy even though Paramahaṁsa Deva was a man and no one felt hesitant to come in front of him. Among the women of the family, some saw him as their child and some saw him as a holy man. Often it was Mathur's daughters who bathed him after giving him an oil massage. On some occasions, Paramahaṁsa Deva would, in a state of bhāva, lose external consciousness and lie naked. But that did not bother anyone. On the other hand, they themselves dressed him with clothes. (JB, 48-49)
And this is Datta describing "Sītā's sufferings at Mathur's Janbajar home in some detail"? Many would like to sign up for such "sufferings"! Kripal writes that Ramchandra Datta records "an unusually explicit scene"—we can note the subtext here—in which "Ramakrishna enters Mathur's bedroom at an inopportune time, angering Mathur and his wife and leading them to exclaim: 'Father! Now that you've watched us, why are you leaving? Do you have something else in mind?'" (JB, 49). Yet when we read the Jībanabṛttānta this is what we find:
Whenever Paramahaṁsadeva wished to go some place, he would go there without bothering about the appropriateness of the place, the time or the people. He would immediately retreat after entering the room if Mathur and his wife were sleeping on the bed. Mathur and his wife would become dismayed and say, "Father! Why do you go away after seeing us? Do you have any different way of thinking (bhāb)? Father, you don't even have the 'knowledge' that children have." On some days, when a spiritual feeling (bhāb) would rise in Mathur's mind (mone kono prokār bhāboday hoito), he would invite Ramakrishna to sleep near (nikaṭ) him. Paramahaṁsadeva did not object to that. (JB,49)
Far from being "angry" with Ramakrishna, Mathur and his wife do not want him to leave. This is not to suggest a ménage à trois, but rather that they felt no sense of hesitation or shyness in his presence. In their eyes, Ramakrishna's purity surpassed even that of a child who, perhaps, could be embarrassed by the sight of a man and woman together in bed. Hence when Ramakrishna uncharacteristically retreated from their room, they felt compelled to assure him that they were not disturbed by his presence.
Not surprisingly, Kālī's Child finds something sinister afoot in the last two sentences of the citation above, where we read: "In this next scene, after 'a certain kind of mood' comes upon Mathur, he asks Ramakrishna to lie down next to him. Ramakrishna makes no objections to his boss's request" (KC, 107). Yet as we can see from the above citation, the "certain kind of mood" is not the concupiscent one implied by Kripal. Kālī's Child asserts that "bhāva can also be used to refer to a person's sexual orientation or intention" and gives the above example of Ramakrishna and Mathur (KC, 353). The Bengali "bhāb" (bhāva) can be translated in a number of ways depending on the context of the situation. The bhāb in Mathur's mind indicates spiritual feeling, not a randy mood.
Even apart from this, inviting Ramakrishna to sleep "near" is vastly different from "lying down with Ramakrishna." Furthermore, inviting someone to sleep near them in India was not unusual at that time; it is not unusual now. It is more common than uncommon, particularly in non-urban areas. India has very different standards of personal space than those of Western cultures. We should also note the sinister undertone of "his boss's request"—which is an attempt to establish proof of sexual abuse by virtue of innuendo, whereas the actual texts have nothing in them to suggest such an allegation. Other insinuations regarding the purportedly wicked Mathur appear in the text. For example, when Ramakrishna returned from Kamarpukur to Dakshineswar, Kripal quotes Romain Rolland's words: "Kālī was waiting for him." To Rolland's words, Kripal provides his own addendum: "So, no doubt, was Mathur" (112). No specific accusation is made here, just the implication of a menacing, predatory presence hovering over Ramakrishna, the young priest bending to the boss's demonic lust.
Kālī's Child states that Ramakrishna lived in the kuṭhi—Rani Rasmani's commodious bungalow in the temple compound—for sixteen years. The kuṭhi was not Mathur's primary residence, which was in Kolkata. When in Dakshineswar, the kuṭhi was concurrently occupied by Rani Rasmani (during her lifetime) and Mathur's entire family, along with attendant guests. Yet simply because Ramakrishna and Mathur were often under the same roof, Kālī's Child spins a web of speculations without any factual basis. About Mathur's and Ramakrishna's respective bedrooms, Kripal suggests: "Their bedrooms were no doubt very close." By the next paragraph Kripal asks: "Was Mathur 'keeping' him there?" (175).
While Kripal suggests that Ramakrishna left the kuṭhi (moving to what became his permanent room in another building) because of Mathur's death, Ramakrishna himself states that he left the kuṭhi because Akshay—his much-loved nephew—died there. Though Kālī's Child asserts that it is "the tradition" which "explains Ramakrishna's move ... by connecting it to the death of his nephew, Akshay" (175), the "explanation" comes from Ramakrishna himself: "After a long time," Saradananda wrote, "referring to that incident [Akshay's death], he [Ramakrishna] told us on various occasions that although in bhāva he could view death as only a change of state, when the bhāva ended and he returned to normal consciousness, he deeply felt the absence of Akshay as a result of his passing. Since Akshay had died in that house, he could no longer stay in Mathur Babu's house after Akshay's death" (LP 2.343-44). Thus whenever convenient, Kālī's Child cites the Līlāprasaṅga and uses it as a valid source. When inconvenient, the Līlāprasaṅga is brushed aside as "the tradition," and not deemed a source of valid data.
There are many other insinuations and allegations regarding Mathur in Kālī's Child which could be addressed, but the point has been made. Similar charges are made against the Bhairavi, although she is portrayed in more sympathetic terms than the "temple boss." Thus, we are to understand that while Ramakrishna experienced abuse at the hands of Mathur because of Mathur's predatory nature, the Bhairavi's "abuse" could well have been for Ramakrishna's spiritual betterment: "The Bhairavī clearly tried to employ sexual intercourse as one of her means to teach Ramakrishna Tantric truths," Kripal writes (120). But neither is this true nor does Kālī's Child supply any evidence to support this contention. Instead, Kālī's Child consistently mistranslates the source texts in an attempt to hypersexualize both the Bhairavi and her relationship with Ramakrishna.
We are told, for example, of the incident when the Bhairavi leaves Dakshineswar for good. She had broken caste restrictions, created an ugly scene and lost a showdown with Hriday. The latter was a particular source of humiliation. Realizing that she had acted badly because of her anger and pride, the Bhairavi asked Ramakrishna for pardon and, garlanding him, left for Varanasi. Kālī's Child's version of this incident is: "Finally, when the Bhairavī broke a village custom, a verbal battle ensued that led to her eventual defeat and humiliation. She apologized to Ramakrishna, rubbed his body with sandal-paste, and left for Benares" (166). There is nothing to suggest that the Bhairavi "rubbed his body with sandal-paste." While Kālī's Child provides no reference, the Līlāprasaṅga—which is the only source text that mentions this—is quite clear about the Bhairavi's actions: "with devotion she made garlands of various flowers and smeared them with sandal-paste, and having beautifully adorned the Master as Śrī Gauraṅga, asked his forgiveness with all her heart" (tini bhakti-sahakāre vividh puśpamālā svahaste racanā o candana-carcit koriyā Śrī-gaurāṅga-gyāne ṭhākurke manohar-beśe bhūṣita korilen evaṁ sarvāntaḥkaraṇe kkhamā-prārthanā korilen) (LP 2.325). It is quite clear that it was the garland of flowers (puśpamālā) that was "smeared" (carcit) with sandal-paste, not "Ramakrishna's body" that was "rubbed."
Even in the simplest matters, Kripal seemingly goes out of his way to translate the Bengali into as highly a sexualized language as possible. As a result, his translations are not only incorrect but also unintentionally funny. For example, in an encounter between Mathur and the Bhairavi, Mathur asks her, "Where is your Bhairava, O Bhairavi?" When she pointed to the Śiva lying supine at Kālī's feet, Mathur said, "But that Bhairava doesn't move." To this the Bhairavi quickly retorted, "If I cannot make the immovable move, why did I become a Bhairavi (jodi acal-ke sacal korite-i nā pāribo, tobe ār bhairabī hoiyāchi keno)?" (LP 3.228). As we can see, the Bhairavi uses the rhyming acal and sacal— unmoving and moving—to make her point. Kripal, however, translates "sacal" as "arouse": "Why have I become a Bhairavī if I cannot arouse the unmoving" (KC, 115), which is not only bizarre but also quite funny (and completely lacking in linguistic accuracy). Both acal and sacal are from the verb root cal, to move or to go. There is simply no way to get "arouse" out of sacal. Nor is there any way to make the non-ithyphallic Śiva that the Bhairavi pointed to, ithyphallic.
Again Kripal, purporting to translate from the Līlāprasaṅga, writes that the Bhairavi "now and then would enter into the mood of the milkmaids of Vraja and begin to sing songs filled with erotic sweetness" (116; quoting LP 2.14.3, which is actually LP 2.263). But the Līlāprasaṅga merely states that she sang madhura-rasātmaka-saṅgīta, "songs filled with madhura-rasa"—songs imbued with the mood of the gopīs of Vraja, which in any standard translation would mean that the songs were infused with the deep yearning the gopīs had for Kṛṣṇa. While Kripal, among others, may view this longing as simply erotic, many would object to such a reductionistic interpretation of madhura bhāva. A soul's yearning for the divine, even when the divine is Kṛṣṇa the divine lover, cannot be reduced to a simple erotic attraction. That said, it is clear that many of Kālī's Child's dubious translations are done as much for the sake of hypersexualized atmospherics as they are to advance the book's hypotheses.
As for examples of the Bhairavi's "sexual abuse" of Ramakrishna, Kālī's Child neglects to give the reader explicit information, let alone documentation. Perhaps suggestive of "sexual abuse" is Kālī's Child's speculation that the Bhairavi attempted "to engage her disciple ... through a ritualized form of cunnilingus or through the oral consumption of sexual fluids" (128). Yet, as with Mathur, there is nothing to actually indicate sexual abuse, unless one considers the difficult course of Tantra sādhana which Ramakrishna underwent under the Bhairavi's guidance (sitting on a naked young woman's lap, for example) to be "abusive."
As we continue our lengthening list of sexual predators, Tota Puri, Ramakrishna's Vedānta guru, is also presumed to have been one. As with our previous examples, there is nothing to indicate that this claim has any basis in fact. Again, as with the previous examples, all Kripal provides the reader are insinuations propped by speculations. Taking as a given that Ramakrishna was "homosexually oriented," Kripal also takes as a given that Ramakrishna was relentlessly preoccupied with Tota's naked body, his penis in particular.31 However, this preoccupation seems to be Kripal's as well, since he characterizes Tota as "a phallic guru" (303)—whatever that may be. We may recall that Tota was a Nāgā sannyāsi, belonging to an austere sect of the Daśanāmi Order. Uncompromising followers of Vedānta, Nāgā monks are digambara, clothed in space, refusing to accommodate the body with comforts or enjoyments.
One would think that the more interesting story would be the encounter between Tota, the Vedānta monk, and Ramakrishna, the ecstatic worshiper of Kālī. This is not what Kripal finds interesting. Instead, he whispers: "One can only imagine what it must have been like for Ramakrishna, a homosexually oriented man, to be shut away for days in a small hut with another, stark-naked man. Vedantic instruction or no, it was this man's nudity, and more specifically, his penis, that naturally caught Ramakrishna's attention. How could it not?" (160; emphasis in text). In other words, because one must accept that Ramakrishna is homosexual, then the only thing that would interest Ramakrishna about his Vedānta guru was his penis. "How could it not?" But there is no reason to assume that this might be true unless one were to assume that Ramakrishna was not only homosexually oriented, but also not much interested in attaining nirvikalpa samādhi. It also needs to be said that the presumption that a homosexually oriented man would be necessarily preoccupied with his guru's penis is denigrating. One assumes that a genuine sādhaka would find more of interest in his guru than his genitals.
Kālī's Child responds head-on to those who would question this line of reasoning:
Of course, there are no passages in the texts that state clearly that Ramakrishna was attracted to the paramahaṁsa's penis. There are, however, a number of powerfully suggestive texts that say just about everything else. (160)
First, before looking at the "powerfully suggestive texts," which consist of references from the Kathāmṛta, we should note that Kālī's Child is much more preoccupied with Tota's nakedness than Ramakrishna ever was. In fact, Kripal has difficulty invoking Tota's presence without also invoking his nakedness. The first sentence of Kālī's Child's section on Ramakrishna's Vedānta sādhana thus begins: "When a naked monk arrived on the banks of Dakshineswar" (151). In the same paragraph, Tota is referred to as "the naked Vedāntin." Within two paragraphs "Ramakrishna finally sat down with the naked man in a small hut tucked away in the trees and began his Vedantic training. The Naked One began by commanding Ramakrishna to give up the unreal world" (152). Again we have "Tota Puri, the naked paramahaṁsa" (159) and three sentences later: "the naked form of the wandering paramahaṁsa" (160). The next sentence reminds us "Ramakrishna called Tota Puri 'the Naked One' because the monk used to remain nude." And so on. The reader has been thoroughly drilled that Tota is naked.
But does this make him, or Ramakrishna, concupiscent? Apparently it does, for—circular reasoning intact—Kripal makes this very assumption. Nor does it end here. More than a hundred pages later, the topic reappears with even more insistence. This time we read that—scare quotes intact—"something more than 'Vedantic instruction' went on between Ramakrishna and the naked Tota Puri in the small hut tucked away in the trees" (299). By now, Kālī's Child is discussing "Tota's abusive presence," yet, predictably, there is no evidence to back up this charge, while a wealth of evidence mitigates against it.
Kālī's Child implies that if Ramakrishna is "shut away for days in a small hut with another, stark-naked man" and if Tota and Ramakrishna are together in "a small hut tucked away in the trees," then this is an inevitable equation for sexual abuse. Except that it isn't. In fact—even apart from the dubious inevitability of sexual abuse—the entire scenario is a clear misrepresentation of what the source texts state. Every source text indicates that after Tota had given Ramakrishna sannyāsa vows, Tota began teaching him Advaita Vedānta, eventually sticking a shard of broken glass between Ramakrishna's eyebrows in order to aid his concentration. With that, Ramakrishna went into nirvikalpa samādhi. The texts tell us that Tota, upon seeing Ramakrishna's samādhi, remained seated by his side for some time, then silently got up and left the hut, locking the door behind him lest someone enter the hut and disturb Ramakrishna. Tota himself went to the Panchavati, where he waited for three days for Ramakrishna to summon him. When after three days Ramakrishna still had not called him, Tota went back to the hut and found Ramakrishna exactly as he had left him, in deep nirvikalpa samādhi. Astonished, Tota brought him back to ordinary consciousness by loudly chanting "Hari Om" (LP 2.294-97; Life, 158-62). This does not portray an abusive living situation or relationship.
What, then, about Kripal's allegation of what those "powerfully suggestive texts" have to say about Ramakrishna and Tota's relationship? The "texts" referred to here are the Kathāmṛta's description of Ramakrishna's mystic vision of the paramahaṁsa boy as well as Ramakrishna's description of how, in his period of divine madness, he worshiped his own phallus "looking upon it as a Śiva-liṅga" (KA 4.106). As we address these visions in depth later in this book, we will not go into detail here. In brief, Ramakrishna describes his vision of the paramahaṁsa boy by saying: "A naked person used to be with me—I would touch his penis and make fun. I would then laugh a lot. This naked form used to come out of me. It was the form of a paramahaṁsa, like a boy" (KA 4.231). Kripal finds the vision "powerfully suggestive" of a sexual relationship that "no doubt existed between Tota and the young Ramakrishna." Thus we go in circles again: the vision suggests a relationship; and the relationship, which "no doubt" existed between the two, explains the vision of the paramahaṁsa boy. Kripal reasons:
The vision ... sets up clear linguistic connections between the nudity of the two paramahaṁsas. The vision, however, does more than hark back to the memories of the hut in the trees: it also answers those memories by reversing the relationship that no doubt existed between Tota and the young Ramakrishna. (160)
The aforementioned speculation now leaves "no doubt" as to what really transpired between Ramakrishna and Tota Puri. The mention of "memories of the hut in the trees" evokes a subtext of the half-buried memories of sexual abuse survivors. As to what Ramakrishna and Tota were doing in that hut in the trees—even though the source texts indicate that Ramakrishna was in the hut by himself for three days—Kripal speculates that Tota "taught" Ramakrishna "to worship his own liṅgam as if it were Śiva's" (161). This kind of "worship" resulted in "teasing a precious 'pearl' of seminal fluid" from the penis (161), which sounds more like masturbation than nirvikalpa samadhi.
Where would this bizarre conjecture come from? Ramakrishna's words make it clear that he was never "taught" to worship his own phallus. In the context of the conversation (in the referenced "powerfully suggestive texts"), Ramakrishna discusses how a paramahaṁsa often behaves like a madman. He then states that when he himself was in a state of divine madness (unmāda), he worshiped his own phallus, looking upon it as a Śiva-liṅga (KA 4.106). Ramakrishna was not taught anything—his actions were utterly spontaneous and they were done as worship, not for sexual gratification. Kālī's Child throws aside any potential for worship, what to speak of Ramakrishna's three days of samādhi where, the texts indicate, "his face was calm and serene and full of effulgence" (LP 2.296). Instead of samādhi, then, it all comes down to sexual activity.
"Clearly the saint [Ramakrishna] was sexually excited by these memories," Kālī's Child asserts (161), referring, of course, "back to the memories of the hut in the trees."32 Kripal thus takes his speculation and makes of it a pronouncement: there was sexual abuse and there were memories of it, which, though lacking evidence, can be presumed. Should the reader look for further substantiation, it can be found in the use of the adjective nyāṅṭā, "naked," which according to Kripal, is "the very same term that Ramakrishna used to dub his nude Vedantic teacher 'the Naked One" (nyāṅṭā) (160). "Ramakrishna," Kālī's Child declares, "explicitly associated Tota with nudity" (161).
We should keep in mind, however, that Ramakrishna referred to Tota as Nyāṅṭā or "Naked One" for the same reason he called the Bhairavi Bāmni—"the Brahmin Woman." (The Bhairavi's given name was Yogeswari.) It is considered extremely disrespectful to refer to one's guru by his or her given name, hence appellations are used instead. None of Ramakrishna's disciples ever referred to Ramakrishna by his given name either.33 We should also keep in mind that whenever Ramakrishna spoke about Tota, which was often, it was always with respect and affection, as can be easily seen by reading the source texts.
The other evidence which is offered to suggest that Ramakrishna was the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of Tota was that after Tota's eventual departure from Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna went into nirvikalpa samādhi for six months. While nirvikalpa samādhi is generally viewed as the highest state of spiritual realization, in Kālī's Child this state is pathologized into an "almost catatonic state" (153). Thus the samādhi that Tota worked for forty years to achieve (and which had already been attained by Ramakrishna in three days), is interpreted— when Ramakrishna experienced it without interruption for six months— as a trauma-based reaction, one "that looks ... as much like a death as it does a realization" (154). Yet what Kālī's Child pathologizes others see as spiritual attainment. M, for example, said of Ramakrishna's six-month samādhi: "The Master was absorbed in the formless aspect of the Mother for six months at the time of his sadhana" (Chetanananda 1990, 293).
The reader cannot be sure whether the trauma-cum-samādhi is due to Tota's purported abuse or because Ramakrishna mourned the monk's absence. Ramakrishna, Kripal writes, "most likely experienced Tota's presence as both pleasurable and abusive" (KC, 162)—and again, the reader is fed language which comes straight out of the literature of sexual abuse. Yet there is nothing to suggest this conjecture to be true; all evidence mitigates against it. Nevertheless, Tota's eventual departure from Dakshineswar is strangely referred to in Kālī's Child as "a tragedy of immense proportions" since "Ramakrishna's six-month samādhi is explicitly connected to Tota's departure, something Saradananda has a hard time explaining" (153-54). But Saradananda does not have a hard time explaining it at all. Saradananda states quite explicitly that "a strong determination arose in the Master's mind to remain incessantly thenceforward in the nondual plane of consciousness" (LP 2.298).
The real issue here is why there is "no doubt" that there existed a sexually abusive relationship "between Tota and the young Ramakrishna." (Ramakrishna was then thirty.) According to Kripal, there was "a fascination on Ramakrishna's part with naked paramahaṁsas, penises and boys" and all these "stem back to Tota, the naked paramahaṁsa" (162). The clincher is found in the paramahaṁsa vision.
"If," Kripal continues
[Ramakrishna] once was sexually manipulated by males, including Tota, the naked paramahaṁsa, he would later relive the experiences by uncontrollably rubbing sandal-paste on the penises of boys, by playing with the penis of a visionary paramahaṁsa youth, by worshiping his own erect penis. . . . The pattern, although admittedly speculative in its attempt to move backward from known biographical events to the if of alleged childhood and early adult scenes, is too consistent and too suggestive to be ignored. The pattern, moreover, is only strengthened and confirmed when we can remove the if and discuss with confidence both the childhood scene and later adult acts. (301)
This is convenient. If the label of speculation is removed and confidence asserted in the thesis of childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual reenactment patterns, then it all makes sense. Except that it makes sense only if one takes for granted certain presuppositions which neither are true nor can they be substantiated in a way that can withstand critical scrutiny. One simply cannot ascertain patterns of childhood sexual abuse and adult reenactment patterns by presuming they are correct to begin with and then moving backwards and pathologizing the person's early history. If one begins by removing the if of alleged and early adult scenes, then one can summarily dismiss samādhi as an escape mechanism or a trauma-based response, and indeed one can pathologize any and all aspects of a mystic's life. But this process does not work if we require evidence for these facile assumptions and insist that these insinuations be held up to critical scrutiny. No one can be exempt from these basic requirements of scholarship.
Mysticism and the Unconscious
As Kālī's Child equates "secret" with "sexual," so also does it conflate the workings of the unconscious with mystical experience. Noting that there is a connection between "secrecy" and "mysticism" the book makes a troubling leap:
But the mystical is also "hidden" in a psychological sense, for it lies in the depths of human consciousness in a psychic space that is not easily accessible and not commonly known. In most instances, we might say that the human being is "unconscious" of its reality and presence. (20)
We are dealing with false analogies here. Simply because something is secret—a text, spoken words, an experience—does not make it mystical, nor does the fact that something is secret make it sexual.34 Nor does something sexual—a text, spoken words, an experience—make it either mystical or a secret, for that matter. Simply because mystical experience does not operate on the level of the rational mind and is unavailable to cognitive analysis does not locate mysticism in the realm of the unconscious. Mystical experience is unmediated through the mind and senses and is thus, according to the Hindu tradition, a superconscious experience, not an unconscious one.
Kālī's Child defines the unconscious as
a secret dimension or dimensions of the human person of which he or she is not aware. . . Some of these dimensions clearly witness to repressed memories and childhood conflicts. Others, however, speak of godlike states of consciousness, patterns of divine energy, unions with the cosmos, and ecstatic flights of the soul. Pathology finds its roots in this unconscious, but so also does the mystical, for it too is "that which is secret" (mustikos). (43)
We are perhaps dealing with different understandings of the word "mystical." In the tradition in which Ramakrishna—and later his followers—were nurtured, the mystical is associated with the realm that transcends speech and mind (avāṅmanasagocaram). That realm is the "superconscious"—not the unconscious, as Kālī's Child presumes. The mystical is beyond the mind, both conscious and unconscious.
Kālī's Child correctly reports that the Kathāmṛta is replete with hundreds of instances of Ramakrishna being established in samādhi or ecstasy (bhāva). While this is true enough, it does not lead to the following assertion: "Ramakrishna's secret visions appear to him in the brilliant darkness of these 'unconscious' states" (39). The Hindu traditions are in agreement that these spiritual experiences transcend normal consciousness, thus the claim that Ramakrishna experienced them in "'unconscious' states" displays either ignorance or an attempt to diminish the spiritual nature of his visions. Further, why is the word "unconscious" placed in scare quotes? To imply that "unconscious" can just as well mean "mystical"? Moreover, where does this "brilliant darkness" come from, apart from atmospherics? Yet from this contrived depiction, another perplexing leap is taken: "Ramakrishna and his disciples ... operated with cultural and religious assumptions about the hidden or secret dimensions of the human being that are, at least on the surface, similar to Western notions of the unconscious" (39).
This is completely erroneous. Just as catatonia is qualitatively different from nirvikalpa samādhi, so the Western notions of the unconscious are entirely different from the Hindu concept of anubhūti, the direct apprehension of the ultimate Reality, which is unmediated by the mind and senses. This direct experience of the divine is understood to be the highest state of perception and has nothing to do with the unconscious.
Again, Kripal asserts that the "pure consciousness event" of mysticism is "profoundly influenced by numerous ... psychological, physical, social, and doctrinal conditionings." He then builds upon this questionable hypothesis by adding that his method of approaching Ramakrishna "refuses to separate the specific forms of Ramakrishna's life, however seemingly bizarre, from the famous formlessness of his ecstasies" (19). Kripal makes a point of emphasizing that "the contextual forms and the formless content of his states are in fact inseparable." In this context Kripal quotes, oddly enough, the Buddhist text Prajñāpāramitāsūtra: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form," which has nothing to do with Ramakrishna, but has a great deal to do with the thesis Kālī's Child would like to establish. From here another great disquieting leap is taken:
So too with Ramakrishna, who knew the formless joys of samādhi while looking at the cocked hips of a beautiful English boy, experienced trance at the exact moment the "secret door" of his anus opened to defecate, and entered ecstatic states to escape the sexual advances of his boss. (19)
While we will later address the particulars of these claims, the larger issue of conflating the highest mystical experience with a dissociative response concerning unresolved sexual trauma and sexual conflict is more troubling than any specific example. Kālī's Child blurs this distinction by asserting that "the formed contexts—the boy, the physical opening of the anus, the boss—and the formless content of these mystical states cannot be facilely equated, but neither can they be artificially separated" (19-20). What does "artificially separated" mean? It is clear that if these elements are not equated in Kālī's Child, then they are certainly conjoined. Tellingly, after alerting the reader to his thesis that the "formed contexts"—anus, boy, boss—cannot be "artificially separated" from the "formless"—samādhi—Kripal then purports to quote Ramakrishna: "These, Ramakrishna would say, are states 'beyond form and the formless.' They are both and they are neither" (20). Let us step back to examine this more closely since the most basic hypotheses which underlie Kālī's Child are presented here.
While Kālī's Child informs the reader that the cocked hips, the anus and Mathur cannot be facilely equated with Ramakrishna's mystical states, they are nevertheless presented in a cause-and-effect sequence. However, neither the boy, the anus nor Mathur have anything to do with Ramakrishna's words regarding form and formlessness and what lies beyond them both. Throughout the Kathāmṛta, Ramakrishna speaks of God (īśvar) both as being formless and as having form. As the reader can see by going through the Kathāmṛta, the question of whether God was formless or endowed with form was, at that time, a controversial, hotly debated item. M's early discussions with Ramakrishna were centered on that very topic.
In March of 1883, we find Ramakrishna saying to Kedar, what he also said on a number of other occasions: "God has form and he is formless too. Further, he is even beyond both form and formlessness. No one can limit him" (īśvar sākār ābār nirākār, ābār sākār-nirākārer-o pār. Tam̐r iti korā jāi nā) (KA 2.20). That God (īśvar) cannot be limited, can both have form and be formless as well, and is also beyond the limits of form and formlessness has nothing to do with English boys, Mathur, and Ramakrishna's defecation. Yet Kālī's Child insinuates that Ramakrishna's words ("Ramakrishna would say") about form and formlessness, and what lies beyond them both, refer to samādhi and patterns of sexual attraction/sexual abuse—the formless and the formed contexts—"they are both and they are neither." They are not, nor did Ramakrishna ever imply anything even remotely similar to what Kālī's Child suggests.
Yet even more crucially, the most troubling issue here is the larger question about linking mystical experience with unconscious drives of which the mystic himself was ignorant. Can one enter into samādhi as a way to escape a predatory "boss"? Can one enter into ecstasy as an avoidance mechanism due to "shame for his phallic desires"? Can one enter a state of rarefied mystical awareness while defecating because the opening of the anus brings back troubling memories of sexual abuse? Not unless one redefines what constitutes a mystical experience. While Kripal assures the reader that he does not facilely equate what he calls these "formed contexts" with mystical states, it is clear that Kripal does equate trauma-based dissociative response with mystical experiences. Dissociative response is the very antithesis of samādhi; the psychological numbness which trauma victims suffer as a result of sensory overload cannot be equated with samādhi which, in the Hindu tradition, is understood to be the highest experience of joy.
As Kālī's Child progresses, mystical experience is repeatedly conflated with an unconscious experience, whereas these two areas of consciousness are neither equivalent nor interchangeable. As for the particulars, let us look at the English boy, at the sight of whom Ramakrishna purportedly went into samādhi "while looking at the cocked hips of a beautiful English boy" (19; emphasis added). We should note the felicitous choice of adjectives. This is repeated later as an example of the "homoerotic dimensions" of Ramakrishna's samādhi. Seeing an English boy, Ramakrishna is reminded of Kṛṣṇa. Kripal writes that, like Kṛṣṇa, "the English boy is thrice-bent in a seductive pose. Stunned by the cocked hips of the boy, Ramakrishna falls into samādhi" (66). Yet neither of the references cited by the author (KA 2.49; KA 2.110) mention "cocked hips" or a seductive pose. It simply states that the boy was tribhaṅga—bent in three places in Kṛṣṇa's traditional pose—bent at the knee, waist and elbow, with flute in hand. Neither citation indicates the English boy to be "beautiful" and, perhaps obviously, there is no mention of "cocked" hips either. Again, Kripal adds what is not there (yet implying that it is) in the Kathāmṛta. The Kathāmṛta merely states that Ramakrishna went into samādhi upon seeing a boy who was—as Kṛṣṇa is depicted in Hindu iconography— tribhaṅga, bent in three places. It is clear that the boy—standing in a pose traditionally ascribed to Kṛṣṇa—reminded Ramakrishna of Kṛṣṇa and, as a result, he went into samādhi. Yet Kālī's Child continues his "stunned by the cocked hips of the boy" train of thought by following in the very next sentence:
Again, [Ramakrishna] looks at the boy Rakhal and becomes "all excited" (uddīpana). Why? Because Rakhal reminds him of Gopāla, the child Kṛṣṇa (KA. 4.5). In still another passage, he looks at the boy Kedar and is reminded of Kṛṣṇa's sexual exploits with the milkmaids (KA 4.7). (KC, 66)
Why, we might ask, is uddīpan translated as "become 'all excited'" and why is "all excited" put into scare quotes? First, uddīpan (from dīpa, "light") means to be enkindled, to be lit, or occasionally more prosaically, to be reminded. "All excited" is obviously a mistranslation but done so, apparently, for a reason: to provide sexual content for Ramakrishna's relationship with Rakhal. Remember, we have encountered Ramakrishna "stunned by the cocked hips of the boy" as he was reminded of Kṛṣṇa, and, in the next sentence, Ramakrishna becomes "all excited" seeing "the boy Rakhal" (who was twenty years old and married). Why was Ramakrishna "all excited"? Because Rakhal reminded Ramakrishna of Gopāla, the child Kṛṣṇa (who, in Kālī's Child is known for nothing other than his "erotic exploits"). Of course, Rakhal did remind Ramakrishna of Gopāla, but there is no reason to presume that this indicates an erotic attraction. If we check the Kathāmṛta, we find Ramakrishna in an ecstatic mood. Looking at Rakhal, M writes that suddenly, "Ramakrishna was flooded with the feeling of parental love (vātsalya)" (Rākhālke dekhite dekhite bātsalya rośe āpluto hoilen) (KA 4.4). Vātsalya, by definition, is a non-erotic relationship. Ramakrishna himself tells the devotees why he is enkindled (uddīpan) at the sight of Rakhal: it is because the more one advances toward God (īśvar), the less one sees aspects of divine power. Beginning with a vision of the goddess with ten arms, the next vision is the goddess with two arms. Then one sees the form of Gopāla (tārpor Gopāl mūrti darśan). Significantly, Ramakrishna continues with his description and goes on to say that there are other visions as well—then the sādhaka sees only light (er-o pāre āche—kebol jyotiḥ darśan) (KA 4.4). Of course, Kālī's Child's readers have no idea that Ramakrishna will end the conversation on the topic of the vision of light. All they know is that Ramakrishna gets "all excited" seeing "the boy Rakhal."
To continue Kripal's train of thought regarding Kedar (Ramakrishna "looks at the boy Kedar and is reminded of Kṛṣṇa's sexual exploits with the milkmaids"), when we check the Kathāmṛta we find the "boy Kedar" to be a fifty-year-old government accountant who had walked into the room wearing office clothes. M says that Kedar is a devotional person (premik lok) who maintained the attitude of the gopīs (antare gopīr bhāb). M tells us that seeing Kedar enkindles in Ramakrishna the [thought of the] Vrindaban līlā (Kedārke dekhiyā ṭhākurer ekbāre Śrībṛndābon-līlā uddīpan hoiyā gelo) (KA 4.7). Again, no sexual exploits and again no milkmaids.
To recap, Kālī's Child's Introduction contains a rich distillation of what the reader will encounter in the book's succeeding five chapters, followed by an epilogue and conclusion. As each chapter unfolds, other "secrets" come to the fore. Each chapter is organized around an aspect of Kālī's iconography, associating aspects of it with aspects of Ramakrishna's life and giving an analysis of Ramakrishna's teachings and mystical experiences. Hence the first chapter, entitled "Kālī's Sword: Anxious Longing and the First Vision," discusses Ramakrishna's childhood and adolescence, his first vision of Kālī (which Kālī's Child characterizes as "Ramakrishna's initial mystico-erotic crisis") and his vyākulatā, which is idiosyncratically translated as "anxious desire" and "erotic torment." The second chapter discusses Kālī as Mother and Lover, associating these aspects with the years of Ramakrishna's Tantric sādhanas. "Kālī on Top of Śiva," the book's third chapter, concerns itself with Tantra and Vedānta in Ramakrishna's teachings and experiences.
Intriguingly, Kripal writes that his own Kolkata nocturnal erotic/ mystical experiences were reified in the structure of Kālī's Child. Each of the book's five chapters
was structured around a particular iconographic feature of Kālī erotically astride the supine Śiva. . . Taken together, from chapter 1 on Kālī's sword, which inflicts death and grants liberation, to the oedipal themes of chapter 2 on Kālī as Mother and Lover, to the final three chapters on various aspects of her erotic position "on top" of Śiva, the chapters unconsciously recreated... the phenomenological shape of that Night [of his mystico-erotic experience in Kolkata]. (Kripal 2001a, 202)
The book's fourth chapter, entitled "Kālī's Feet," discusses Ramakrishna's relationship with his male disciples, specifically Ramakrishna and his "homoerotic community, united through an erect passion that was at once profoundly religious and provocatively sexual" (KC, 231). Chapter Five, "Kālī's Tongue," discusses "shame, disgust, and fear in a Tantric world" along with Ramakrishna's last days, when his "secret" was both "revealed and concealed."
The publication of Kālī's Child provoked intense debate and raised a number of questions, which will be addressed in this book's following chapter. It also raised questions of interpretation, which will be considered in Chapter Four. On a more basic level, questions regarding issues of translation, documentation and language were raised, and these will be taken up in Chapter Five. The larger issue which Kālī's Child provoked is the question of whether it is valid to take subjective experiences and universalize them to create a larger paradigm which is presumed applicable to everyone else's experience, regardless of language, culture and history. Kālī's Child raised the issue of whether, for example, a Euro-North American psychotherapeutic model can successfully be employed for understanding the deeper motivations of a nineteenth-century Bengali mystic.
While Kripal correctly notes that many of the issues he raises were broached by previous scholars (KC, xx-xxi), none of the works of these earlier scholars entered the larger public forum. For better or for worse and for a variety of reasons, Kālī's Child changed the way a large number of people thought not only about Ramakrishna but also about the Western academy. How Kālī's Child emerged from the confines of the academy into the public forum will be examined in our next chapter.