History of the Debate
After revealing the secrets associated with the life of Ramakrishna, it would be a crime for [Kālī's Child] to remain a secret.
—Carl Olson, International Journal of Hindu Studies
Until the last decade of the twentieth century, the mutually exclusive, self-sustaining environments of academia and Ramakrishna devotees, outsiders and insiders, hummed along in their own way, their paths rarely intersecting. This dramatically changed with the publication of Kālī's Child in 1995. While portions of the book appeared as early as 1992 in separately published articles (which were later revised when published in Kālī's Child),1 these earlier articles never brushed against the community of Ramakrishna devotees. An early harbinger of the upcoming controversy appeared in the Summer 1995 edition of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. That issue contained two noteworthy contributions: Kelley Ann Raab's article "Is There Anything Trans cendent About Transcendence? A Philosophical and Psychological Study of Sri Ramakrishna" and its counterpoint, Jeffrey Kripal's book review of Richard Schiffman's Sri Ramakrishna: A Prophet for the New Age.
Raab observed that Ramakrishna had been primarily studied either from the perspective of a devotee or from a psychoanalytic perspective. Raab's aim was to approach Ramakrishna from a psychoanalytic and a philosophical perspective, both of which are sympathetic to mysticism.2 A philosophical approach, Raab suggested, "offers terms for study of these phenomena upon which psychologists can also agree" (Raab, 326).
Raab noted that Ramakrishna's "cross-dressing" and feminine attitude have often been deemed pathological by psychological interpretations. Philosophical interpretations "place it within the accepted theology of the Hindu tradition, particularly that of Indian mysticism." Raab quotes Tantra scholar Ajit Mookerji: "The masculine adept of Sakti-worship becomes 'ideal' if by ritual techniques he can arouse his own feminine quality. It is even suggested he should undergo a process of transvestism. . . . Men wear the clothes and ornaments of women, and even observe a few days' monthly retirement-period" (332). Raab concluded that "Ramakrishna's visions and behavior were in keeping with his culture and tradition. . . . Dressing as and imitating a woman, Ramakrishna broke through dualistic thought patterns defining gender, humanity and God" (338).
In a lively bookend to Raab's article, Jeffrey Kripal's review of Richard Schiffman's Sri Ramakrishna: Prophet for the New Age arrived like a cherry bomb ready to detonate. Schiffman's book—written by a non-academic for a non-academic audience and published six years before Kripal's review—had raised little interest and garnered few reviews. Basically modeling his book after the Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Schiffman also relied upon Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna and Nikhilananda's Gospel and Holy Mother. A devotee of Mata Amritanandamayi, to whom the book is dedicated, Schiffman wrote the book at her suggestion.3 The book had low-level sales, which were largely confined to a "New Age" readership and the small community of Ramakrishna devotees.4 Yanked from relative obscurity, Ramakrishna: Prophet for the New Age was reviewed by Jeffrey Kripal for the academic readers of the JAAR, apparently for the sake of savaging it. Kripal's challenging tenor and more challenging assertions foretold the collision course soon to come.
Schiffman's book, Kripal's review declared, was the latest example of a "dubious tradition" which is "marked by the same tiresome list of naivetés: an uncritical acceptance of the tradition's Ramakrishna, an assumption that the English translations are faithful reflections of the Bengali originals, an unfounded reliance on a neo-Vedāntic hermeneutic, and an embracing of Vivekananda's Orientalist equations of the 'materialistic West' and the 'spiritual East'" (Kripal 1995b, 363). Noting with no lack of distaste that Schiffman is "a self-confessed 'spiritual seeker,'" Kripal accuses Schiffman of "a simplistic perennialism," among other failings:
Never mind Kali's positively gruesome and graphically sexual history and myth and ritual; she is a "doting spiritual Mother" to those who see her true nature. . . . According to Schiffman, Ramakrishna had a peaceful and idyllic childhood, practiced Tantra for a page, finally found his "Realization" in an entire chapter on Vedanta, worshipped the Ganges as a physical incarnation of the Divine second only to Kali, married Sharada in a "match made in heaven," and was "never seriously troubled" by sexual temptations. (364)
At this moment Kripal throws into the greater arena his basic theses concerning Ramakrishna: "Anyone who has looked carefully at the historical records knows that these are all gross simplifications based more on the tradition's censoring Swamis than on the texts themselves. The Bengali texts suggest, when they do not loudly proclaim ... Ramakrishna's childhood was punctured by pain and tragedy; his religious states were also psychological symptoms; his relationship to Sharada was often marked by a flagrant misogyny; and many, if not most, of Ramakrishna's ecstasies and religious states were shaped and driven by his profound homoerotic desires." Books such as Schiffman's, Kripal writes, "rely exclusively on the same old translations, most of which have been seriously bowdlerized and censored." Sri Ramakrishna: Prophet for the New Age, Kripal concludes, "confirms everything the tradition holds. Unfortunately, this 'everything' has virtually 'nothing' to do with the Ramakrishna of history, that strange and somehow tragic being who graces the Bengali texts" (365). Thus condensed, we can see Kripal's salient and controversial points as well as the combative tenor directed toward what Kripal calls "the tradition." This combination would prove to be incendiary when it reached Kolkata a little over a year after this review was published.
Meanwhile, Kālī's Child was published and greeted with largely positive reviews from Western academics. As we shall see, Western scholars would generally accept Kripal's thesis that Ramakrishna's disciples and their successors suppressed Ramakrishna's Tantra and elevated Vedānta. Kālī's Child would also convince a large number of Western readers that Nikhilananda's Gospel was "sanitized" and "bowdlerized." It needs to be mentioned, however, that the great majority of those who accepted the latter thesis were not in a position to assess the translation since most of the reviewers were not Bengali readers. Moreover, it is extremely unlikely that any reviewer did a close or extensive comparison of the Bengali Kathāmṛta with Nikhilananda's Gospel and checked them against Kripal's translations. For that reason, even the best scholar would have no idea of the extent to which Kripal himself both censored and distorted the original texts he purported to quote. In the scholarly appraisals that follow, we shall see that other conclusions which Kālī's Child endorses—the validity of Western psychoanalysis in interpreting a Hindu saint, for example, as well as the homoerotic nature of Ramakrishna's mysticism—will be more contested.
In 1996 the American Academy of Religion conferred upon Kālī's Child its History of Religions prize for the best first book of 1995. Yet the mutually sustaining worlds of academia and the believing community still had not crossed each others' trajectories. It was only with the publication of Narasingha Sil's inflammatory book review—"The Question of Ramakrishna's Homosexuality," which appeared in Kolkata's newspaper, The Statesman, in January of 1997—that the worlds of Western academia and the insider community collided with a vengeance. Many belonging to the insider community, who had never had any knowledge of or interest in Western academia's understanding of Ramakrishna, were suddenly confronted with a vision of Ramakrishna totally alien to their own. The devotee community was nearly universally outraged and wounded. On the other side of the fence, even scholars with little knowledge of or interest in Ramakrishna were quickly made aware of the controversy not only because of the amount of outrage it engendered but also because of the crucial issues which were to arise later—free speech, "book banning," and the discussion concerning the degree of responsibility, if any, that scholars bore toward the insider community. Since the publication of Sil's Statesman review, the debate—initially explosive, tempered of late—has continued to simmer. Even by June 2004, nine years after the book was first published, John S. Hawley observed that the "furious debate ... persists unresolved today" (Hawley 2004, 369). Nor has the issue eased since that time, as recent publications such as Martha Nussbaum's The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future have shown.5
The first reviews of Kālī's Child appeared almost immediately after its publication. In December of 1995, Edinburgh University's Jeanne Openshaw wrote a generally unfavorable review for the Times Higher Educational Supplement, which received little attention from American academics. A Bengali specialist, Openshaw found Kripal's familiarity with a variety of Bengali texts impressive. However, as a Bengali reader she was troubled by serious errors in Kripal's translations. For example, Openshaw notes that Kripal gives evidence of Ramakrishna's "homoerotic dimensions" on the grounds that "he 'liked to look at pictures of men, for they aroused in him feelings of "tenderness" and "love."' But the word translated here as 'men' is mānuṣ, which means 'human being' without gender specificity. In fact, despite his initial differentiation of the erotic (as the sexual plus the sacred) and the purely sexual, Kripal himself falls into a reductionistic trap by sexualizing his language in a way quite inappropriate to the material."
Openshaw further remarks: "More serious than these lapses and tendentiousness is the sleight of hand by which strained or confessedly speculative arguments are subsequently transformed into a firm base for further such arguments." Openshaw uses Kripal's example of Ramakrishna's foot to illustrate her point:
While in mystical absorption, the saint would sometimes place his foot on the body or in the lap of others, an act disapproved of by his doctor but not his devotees. For no reason that I could discern, Kripal has taken "body" (ga- or an+ga) and "lap" (kol) to mean "genitals." The act therefore becomes one of homoeroticism, which naturally evoked an adverse reaction. There are many arguments against this interpretation. First, in an almost identical passage ... the Kathāmṛta specifies that the relevant portion of the body is the chest (buk). Second, with the exception of divine feet (of a guru or "incarnation") which are a source of blessing, there is a prohibition against touching a person or revered object with the feet. The doctor saw Ramakrishna neither as a guru nor an "incarnation." Above all ... it is highly unlikely that any act considered "homosexual" would have been defended by the disciples (homosexuality was rigorously repressed in Indian society of the time), let alone immortalized in print by a devotee. (22)
Openshaw finds Kripal's arguments for Ramakrishna's "Tantric" world convincing and she appreciates his "appropriate skepticism towards the sources." She adds that "Kripal displays a welcome agnosticism about the status of the texts he uses, likening the Kathāmṛta to a 'play' and emphasizing that he is drawing from them one possible 'story.'" She continues: "In the light of this it is surprising to find him attempting to reach not just the 'real' Ramakrishna, but an even deeper Ramakrishna of which the saint himself was probably not aware. . . . On the whole," she writes, "this reader was not convinced."
Openshaw scores a salient point which other reviewers missed vis à vis Kripal's Vedānta versus Tantra argument. Writes Openshaw: "The effect of contextualizing most of the discussion in terms of 'Vedanta' and 'Tantra' is to present many of Ramakrishna's traits as idiosyncratic or even aberrational by Bengali cultural standards. Had the contextualizing backgrounds been the paths of knowledge (jñāna) and devotion (bhakti), rather than 'Vedanta' and 'Tantra,' the saint would have seemed less extraordinary."
Finally, Openshaw critiques Kripal on grounds of cultural ignorance:
In the context of devotional Bengali Vaishnavism, where femininity represents the highest attainable condition, the cultivation of femininity by men in various ways is not necessarily abnormal. Nor can it necessarily be taken as a sign of what we would call "homosexuality," that is, love between men. Many other traits that Kripal sees as indications of "homoerotic" tendencies are not uncommon in heterosexual Bengali men. Unlike our own society ... male celibacy, in the sense of conservation of vital seminal essence, is highly prized in rural Bengal. Male fear of women, the attempt to see all women as mothers rather than as sexual partners, and, in its extreme form, a cultivated sense of revulsion for the female body—all these stem precisely from the attractive power of women, rather than from "homoerotic" tendencies. (22)
André Padoux's review in Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions is generally appreciative and Padoux accepts Kālī's Child's basic assertions. He nevertheless makes a significant critical assessment: "The defect of the book ... is that his [Kripal's] approach is too Western. If J.J.K. [Kripal] better understood the Indian religious traditions (notably Tantra), if he understood the link [the religious traditions] always create between sex and asceticism ... if he had taken better account of these matters if, in fact, he was aware of them, he would have considered Ramakrishna in a fairer and more nuanced way" (1996, 85-86).
Laurie L. Patton
Laurie L. Patton's favorable 1996 review in the Journal of the History of Sexuality notes that the "debate about whether Ramakrishna was a Vedāntan philosophical teacher or a bhakta (devotional) teacher misses the real center, however ambivalent, of his religious life: Tantra focused on Kālī, the goddess who is both mother and lover. The best lens with which to view Ramakrishna's religious teachings is neither doctrine nor devotion, but desire" (287-88). Patton questions, however, the "easy charges of textual 'bowdlerization' without giving the 'bowdlerizer' his own religious due. The practices of omission and rewriting in the construction of a mystic's life are fascinating activities worthy of study in their own right." That said, Patton continues, "This is an understandable distortion; the book is, of course, attempting to tell a secret, and like all tellers of secrets (and all good Tantrics), Kripal must first dismantle the propriety of its protectors." In conclusion she finds Kālī's Child "a fundamental contribution to the history of mysticism and of human sexuality, and as an extraordinarily creative synthesis of the relationship between the two" (289).
Malcolm McLean's review of Kālī's Child in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies finds the book "very important, very exciting, and very well written" (1996, 117). As we have already seen, McLean's Ph.D. thesis was his translation of the Kathāmṛta. McLean's thesis had already put forward several presuppositions which would be promoted later in Kālī's Child: Ramakrishna's homosexuality and misogyny as well as Nikhilananda's flawed English translation. McLean begins by observing that Ramakrishna has fascinated students of religion since the time of his death, and much of the nature of this fascination was due to "the almost bizarre nature of his religious experiences" (116). Earlier writing by the tradition on Ramakrishna "amounts to hagiography," McLean writes. He continues: "It is only now, with Kripal's book, that we have a full detailed and critical study of Ramakrishna's life and experience."
McLean places particular importance on Kripal's use of the Jībanabṛttānta to deconstruct both the Līlāprasaṅga and the Kathāmṛta. The core of Kripal's analysis, McLean writes, is the "secret teaching" which takes the reader to "the essentially Tantric nature of Ramakrishna's experience." In Ramakrishna's case, this "manifested itself as a homoerotic infatuation for the young men and boys who surrounded him as his disciples. This was in turn the basis of his mystical experiences." Yet this "story was complicated by the fact that Ramakrishna himself was probably barely aware of what was going on within him."
McLean was prescient in his assurance that Kālī's Child "will certainly prove to be controversial, and will probably not convince every reader." Nevertheless, he concludes that it "will have to be considered very carefully from now on" (117).
Hugh Urban's 1996 review in Chicago South Asia Newsletter, while generally quite positive, also provides a telling critique. Urban represents the views of a number of scholars when he writes that "Kripal's book penetrates through the layers of pious obfuscation and reverential distortion surrounding Ramakrishna, to recover the original Bengali texts (above all, the key text of the Kathamrta) which had been mistranslated and censored by later disciples." One of the generally accepted credits given by Western academics to Kālī's Child is that it succeeded in "recovering the text." As we have already noted, the irony is that the Kathāmṛta, the "real" text, has always been widely and readily available for the majority of its readers, since the great preponderance of the book's readers are Bengali. Thus "recovering the text" makes one question who the text's "recovery" is for. The implication is that English readers are the only readers whose opinion and scholarship matter. The irony continues in that Kripal, in translations found in Kālī's Child, grossly distorts the original Bengali texts, not only by mistranslations and excising inconvenient portions from the original texts, but also by adding material of his own which does not exist in the cited sources. For this reason it is painfully ironic that Urban writes: "By recovering the original text and the 'secret talk' passages of the Kathamrta, Kripal sheds new light on the saint's relations with the mysterious female Tantrika, Brahmani Bhairavi, and his initiation into the forbidden five M's."
In what may appear to be a niggling point but is actually quite important, Urban notes that the book is "often very funny." This is a point which will be made in a number of reviews—significantly, always by "outsiders"—and it is also pointedly made in Kālī's Child itself. In a number of places, the book is meant to provoke laughter or at least a wink and a nod.6 This, however, was understood by the insider community as "laughing at" (no possibility of "laughing with"), and they felt mocked and disparaged.
After declaring the book's "undeniable importance," Urban then discusses some of the book's shortcomings:
Kripal's work also bears some rather troubling problems. Perhaps most striking is Kripal's ambivalent and unclear use of psychoanalytic categories. The book is filled with psychological terminology, Freudian readings, and the heavy influence of theorists like Kakar and Obeyesekere, while Ramakrishna is diagnosed as a man torn by his repressed homoerotic and pedophiliac desires. Yet Kripal resists applying psychoanalytic categories in a rigorous way. . . . A second problem arises from Kripal's understanding of "Tantra" and his identification of Ramakrishna as a "Tantrika". . . . He ignores the fact that ... the category of "Tantra" as a singular, unified entity is itself an imaginary construction of 19th century British Orientalists. Ramakrishna and his disciples were themselves an important part of the way in which Tantra came to be defined in Western discourse. Second, Kripal lapses all too often into a very popular misconception of Tantra as something "scandalous," "seedy," "sexy" and "dangerous," which is defined primarily by the equation of eroticism and mysticism. . . . Sexuality is in fact but one, rather limited, and not necessarily the most important element of the diverse texts and traditions we label collectively as "Tantra."
Urban writes that "perhaps the most problematic aspect of Kripal's work is its lack of attention to social and historical context. . . . He never asks ... just what homoerotic and pedophiliac impulses would mean in 19th century Bengali culture—other than to say that they are 'scandalous,' fraught with 'shame, disgust and fear.'" Nevertheless, Urban concludes that "despite these weaknesses ... this work stands out as an enormous contribution to our knowledge of Ramakrishna and to the study of Indian Tantra."
Glen Hayes's short review of Kālī's Child in Religious Studies Review was entirely laudatory. Describing the book as an "entertaining, informative, and richly provocative study," Hayes praises Kripal for his "skillful analysis of texts" and for his "scholarly brilliance, sensitivity, and humor" which reveal the "'secrets' lurking within the complex (and conflicted) godman" (95). Hayes notes that Kripal "suggests intriguing relationships" between the mystical and the erotic "in the troubled life of a renowned religious figure" (96).
Finding Kālī's Child to be "impressively documented and well written," David Haberman contends in Journal of Asian Studies that "Kripal demonstrates that homosexual desire was the major driving force of Ramakrishna's mystical life." Haberman writes that his appreciation for Ramakrishna was "enhanced immensely" after reading the book. In lieu of the earlier "bland" Ramakrishna, Kripal's Ramakrishna is "Kali's passionate child, a sexually abused child who found a great deal of joy, love, and ecstasy in the very world that abused him." Accepting Kripal's theses without demur, Haberman praises Kripal's "fairly detailed picture of a particular and lived understanding of Hindu Tantra that promises to flesh out the more textual and ideal representation found in most books on Tantra" (Haberman 1997, 532).
Carl Olson's review in International Journal of Hindu Studies judges Kālī's Child to be a "model of clarity, sensitivity, single-minded pursuit of the truth, a joy to read, an example that textual studies need not be boring and deserves to be widely read by everyone in the field of religious studies, Indian studies, and among educated readers in general." Were that not enough, Olson goes on to declare that "after revealing the secrets associated with the life of Ramakrishna, it would be a crime for this book to remain a secret" (1997, 202). Clearly no need to fear on that score. More perplexing and more interesting is the disconnect between Olson's perception of Kripal's "sensitivity" (and Olson is hardly alone in this perception) and that of the devotee community, who perceived insult and slur rather than sensitivity and clarity.
One year later in the same journal, Olson's essay "Vivekānanda and Rāmakṛṣṇa Face to Face: An Essay on the Alterity of a Saint" places blame squarely on Vivekananda for allegedly expunging certain events from his portrait of Ramakrishna. Olson makes this astonishing claim based upon Kripal's speculations in Kālī's Child, which are unsupported by any of the source texts. For Olson, this lack of evidence does not point to the questionable nature of Kripal's conjectures, but rather to the suppression of facts by later followers. That there is no evidence for this suppression other than the claims made in Kālī's Child does not seem to have disturbed Olson. He writes: "[Ramakrishna] was a failed Tāntrika with respect to his conscious awareness ... but he was a genuine Tantric hero by means of his unconscious vision in which he performed cunnilingus upon the goddess, according to Kripal's scholarship, although neither the Kathāmṛta of Mahendranāth Gupta nor the Līlāprasaṅga of Sāradānanda mention this dream" (1998, 51).
William B. Parsons's lengthy review essay, "Psychoanalysis and Mysticism: The Case of Ramakrishna," in Religious Studies Review discusses three books on Ramakrishna: Sil's Rāmakṛṣṇa Paramahaṁsa, Kakar's Analyst and the Mystic, and Kripal's Kālī's Child. Each book, Parsons writes, corresponds to three distinct psychological models which have been used in interpreting religious figures: the classic mode associated with Freud, the adaptive model used by Erikson, and the transformative model found in Kohut and Lacan. Noting that the nexus between religion and psychology is well-trod—beginning with Freud's correspondence with Romain Rolland—Parsons writes that in recent times there has been an "explosion of essays in psychology, religion, and gender studies."
Parsons sees Sil's work as a "paradigmatic example of the classic psychoanalytic approach to mysticism," which views mysticism as regressive and pathological. Parsons sees it also as reductive. The Ramakrishna Sil portrays, Parson writes, is "infantile, antisocial, vulgar, and crude" (355). By contrast, Parsons sees Kakar's Analyst and the Mystic as exemplifying the adaptive psychological model, one which views mysticism as therapeutic and which perceives religious practice as alternative therapeutic techniques. Parsons outlines Kakar's critiques of earlier Ramakrishna studies: that a "simple reading of Ramakrishna's sexuality as homoerotic or his mysticism as pathological betrays the prejudices of a Western-bound ethnoscience." Parsons continues by noting that Kakar "demands empathic resonance with socially constructed concepts like 'desire.'" In addition, Kakar "shows how physiological and cultural factors relativize the complex issue of saintly eroticism." Finally, Parsons finds Kakar's book "revealing a culture that tolerates males experiencing their femininity and advocates 'being' and 'receptive absorption' over 'doing' and 'active opposition'" (357). In Parsons's estimation Kakar's work is flawed because of "his failure properly to contextualize the totality of Ramakrishna's visions" in addition to Kakar's "lack of textual expertise (he takes for granted the legitimacy of bowdlerized biographies of the Master)" (358). Parsons apparently assumes that all works on Ramakrishna published by the Ramakrishna Order are "bowdlerized"; Kakar used for his study the Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa Vacanāmṛta, the Hindi translation of the Bengali Kathāmṛta.
Parsons holds the best book until last: "Jeffrey Kripal blesses us with what is to date the most sophisticated and thorough interdisciplinary study of Ramakrishna" (358). Kālī's Child (which, as Parsons appreciatively notes, is "highly entertaining") is "an extraordinary book that makes an invaluable contribution to Ramakrishna studies" that "should become a classic" (359). It is ironic that Parsons finds tremendous significance in Kripal's alleged uncovering of the original Kathāmṛta, the Ur-text of Ramakrishna studies. Parsons writes: "At the heart of Kripal's study is the restoration of the text," adding that Kripal displays "a masterful command of the text" and "the net result is an accurate descriptive and historical account of Ramakrishna's mystical practices" (358). Parsons reiterates: "The text reinstated, Kripal shows how sexuality, mysticism, and significant others are related in Ramakrishna's life and thought" (359).
On the psychoanalytic front, Parsons finds Kripal's hermeneutic strategy multidisciplinary, building upon Sil and Masson. According to Parsons, Kripal best exemplifies "a true psychology-comparativist dialogue" and "one can only look forward to the new advances such scholarship will inspire" (360).
The people of Kolkata begged to differ.
The Storm and Its Aftermath
The Question of Ramakrishna's Homosexuality," screamed the banner headline of one of Kolkata's premier newspapers, The Statesman.7 "Kripal's Ramakrishna is a gay tantric mystic," Narasingha Sil's article began, "who, like a modern day drag queen, often cross dressed and lay down with his employer Mathur Nath Biswas and who also let himself be sodomized by his naked Vedantic guru from Punjab, Totapuri" (Sil, 1997). The looming controversy exploded with a vengeance, and Ramakrishna studies, as well as the academic study of Hinduism, has never been the same since. While Sil's review article was intentionally provocative, with language generally deemed unprintable,8 even a gentler rendition of Kālī's Child's theses would have provoked a firestorm. The icing on this volatile cake was the prominent display of photos of Kālī, Ramakrishna surrounded by his disciples, and Mathur Babu included in the full-page article. What is surprising is not that a firestorm ensued, but rather that anyone was taken aback by it.
The basic tenets of Kālī's Child would have been offensive enough to provoke outrage, particularly in Kolkata, where Ramakrishna's visage is ubiquitous and devotion to him is common. In The Statesman review, however, Sil inserted his own inflammatory comments, which added to the intensity of the outrage. For example, Sil writes: "Probably Ramakrishna's premature impotence ... made him averse to heterosexual practice though not thoughts. Only in his advancing years, when he was growing older and uglier ... he developed a longing for young men ... the only option for an erotic and impotent male." Yet while Sil and Kripal set themselves to overturn the traditional insider's view of Ramakrishna, Sil's review makes it abundantly clear that he finds little in Kālī's Child to appreciate. The book, Sil writes, is
a fascinatingly misleading interpretation of the sources, an interpretation that is at once highly schematized, tendentious but provocative. [Kripal] is ever apologetic of Freudian reductionism but has little qualms in trampling evidence for the sake of the integrity of what he labels Ramakrishna's symbolic universe. . . .
Kripal takes Swami Nikhilananda ... to task for his bowdlerized translation of Mahendranath's Bengali, but he himself has doctored the meaning of numerous Bengali words and terms with gay abandon to suit his purpose. Kripal would insist on Ramakrishna's tantric worldview and would unhesitatingly adduce spurious evidence with highly concocted interpretation of his behavior.
Sil ridicules Kripal's book on a number of fronts. Sil writes: "In spite of [Kripal's] scholarly attempt to define 'the ontological status of the Hindu unconscious' and explain 'how this ontology might affect a psychological method,' his agenda consists in pronouncing the Master gay and then validating his spiritual experiences on the basis of his alleged homosexuality." Sil derides Kripal for his claim that Pandit Vaishnavacharan was a Tāntrik when, in fact, he was a Vaiṣṇava belonging to the Kartābhajā sect; Sil also mocks Kripal's speculation that the women of the Vaiṣṇava Navarasika sect were eunuchs when they are described as strīlokera (women) in the source. Another issue which rouses Sil's ire was the fact that Kripal "references the Lilaprasanga from the English translation supplying different words, apparently for no reason."
Ramakrishna does not capture Sil's interest as much as Kripal, whose
enterprise is a classic example of what happens when an author's clever use of dictionary, index card and intelligence without an understanding of the history and culture of people other than his ethnic group but with a pretension to insider's knowledge through the back door, as it were, produces a psychoanalysis of the mystical-spiritual experience of a saint from another religion and culture.
In short, it was in Sil's final words on the subject, "plain shit." While Sil had little use for Ramakrishna as a saint, he had even less use for someone with little knowledge of Bengali language or culture.
Outraged letters, telephone calls and cancellation notices flooded The Statesman. Of the thirty-nine letters published in response to Sil's review (thirty-three written from Kolkata), only one reader had actually read Kālī's Child—and that particular reader had read the book in the United States.9 All the letters published were extremely critical of Kālī's Child. Letters published by The Statesman appeared under such titles as: "An Affront," "Perverted Piece," "Abuse of Power," "Grievous Hurt," "Desecration of a Saint's Memory," "Preconceived Ideas," and "A Mirror." All published letters, with the exception of one, were extremely critical of The Statesman for publishing the review in the first place.10 While Sanjib Kumar Sanyal's letter of February 7, 1997, praised Sil's review as "a specimen of what a book review ought to be" for "patiently [going] over the ground traversed by Dr. Kripal and ... deliver[ing] his knock-out punch in the very last paragraph," other letters were not so sanguine. Two letters requested the book be banned. M. K. Mukherjee's letter of February 5th declared that the book "hurt the sentiments of millions who look upon Sri Ramakrishna as God Incarnate. We, Hindus, are tolerant but there is a limit. This is a sacrilege. Through this column I would earnestly appeal to all right-thinking people to put pressure on the Union Government to proscribe the book in India." Letters from nonHindus were also on display. Jaffar Halim wrote to The Statesman on February 2nd: "A semi-ignorant writer with a perverted mind purposefully maligns a saint and you give the author's delirious view such wild publicity?" Ratna Viswas Ray's February 6th letter questioned "which scholar directed and supervised Kripal's thesis and what research into primary sources was conducted by him to satisfy his putrid propensity and to meet the strict standards of a scholarly work?"
The Statesman was taken aback by the outpouring of indignation from its readers. In its February 18, 1997, editorial "Now Let It Rest," The Statesman waved an editorial white flag:
In the past fortnight, this newspaper has seen more reaction from its readers than as far back as memory serves. Most of the mail, the telephone calls and a substantial share of the personal contact that the members of the staff have had with our public ... have been critical of Dr. Narasingha P. Sil's review. . . . [Kripal] has been questioned on his credentials and the quality of his research. . . . The greatest criticism has however been reserved for The Statesman—for having allowed its editorial judgment to be suspended by publishing a review of such a book at some considerable length. . . . If a vote were taken, on the evidence and we concede this, our judgment went askew.11
And with that, The Statesman dropped its hot potato.
T. G. Vaidyanathan
In May of 1997, T. G. Vaidyanathan's "Kripal and Kālī's Child" appeared in India's Chennai-based newspaper, The Hindu. The review, nestled inside a two-page extract from Kālī's Child's Introduction, begins by invoking the furor initiated by The Statesman, mentioning those readers "calling upon the Home Ministry to ban Kripal's Kali's Child." This, Vaidyanathan declares by the end of his first paragraph, is "a sign of the deterioration of basic values in Indian life." By the next paragraph, Vaidyanathan has moved on to Stanley Wolpert's controversial book on Nehru and Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Vaidyanathan sees the negative reaction to Kālī's Child in a similar vein: "Apparently many right thinking Indians are baying for Kripal's blood after Kālī's Child."
Vaidyanathan, co-editor with Jeffrey Kripal of Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader in Psychoanalysis and Hinduism, writes that he can "only marvel at the extent and scope not only of Kripal's formidable scholarship but of his compassion as well, in documenting and analyzing the life of the great Bengali saint." Yet this review makes apparent Vaidyanathan's own lack of knowledge concerning Ramakrishna and Ramakrishna scholarship. For example, Vaidyanathan writes that Kripal deconstructs "the heavily bowdlerized 'Kathamrta' in the only version hitherto available to us thanks to the pioneering, if entirely misplaced, efforts of Mahendranath Gupta's monumental 5-volume 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.'" Such a statement leaves those even vaguely familiar with the texts scratching their heads. Apart from the obvious confusion of the Kathāmṛta with the Gospel, Nikhilananda's English translation was not the "only version available." Vaidyanathan concludes on a surer note: "One fervently hopes that good sense will prevail and the Home Ministry will remain impervious to the siren calls of a belated and totally misplaced local patriotism."
In August 1997, Swami Atmajnanananda, an American-born monk of the Ramakrishna Order, published a refutation of Kālī's Child in the International Journal of Hindu Studies. Fluent in Bengali with a Ph.D. in Oriental Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, Atmajnanananda has lived in India and Bangladesh for extended periods of time. In his review entitled "Scandals, Cover-ups, and Other Imagined Occurrences in the Life of Rāmakṛṣṇa: An Examination of Jeffrey Kripal's Kālī's Child," Atmajnanananda closely compares the Kathāmṛta with Kripal's translations in Kālī's Child and writes: "For those who take the trouble to check his references and compare his translations with the original texts ... there are some basic problems with Kripal's thesis ... problems which ... go to the very heart of his assertions" (401). Accusing Kripal of circular logic and biased translations, Atmajnanananda states: "Time and again [Kripal's] translation of terms presupposes the very attitudes he is trying to prove. Kripal consistently misreads situations, takes events out of their cultural context, assumes attitudes and beliefs without justification, and allows his fertile imagination to conjure up incidents for which there is no concrete evidence" (402).
Atmajnanananda first examines Kripal's analysis of Ramakrishna's foot, asserting that Kripal ignored both cultural and religious implications in order to provide a sexualized reading. He goes on to discuss Kripal's treatment of the Bengali word uddīpana as an example of the book's "prejudicial translation work and circular reasoning." Correcting Kripal's translation of māg-chele (which Kripal translates as "bitch and kids"), Atmajnanananda asserts that the phrase "is actually nothing more than the colloquial equivalent of the more formal expression, strī-putra, "wife and children" (405).12 Atmajnanananda contends that while Kripal levels extremely harsh criticism at Swami Nikhilananda, whatever few omissions Nikhilananda employed were the result of "his sensitivity to Western decorum ... not fear of revealing hidden secrets. Had this been the case, he certainly would have eliminated far more of Rāmakṛṣṇa's remarks than he did. In each case also, we find Kripal's translation of the missing portion more misleading than Nikhilananda's omissions" (409).
Challenging Kripal's suggestion that Ramakrishna was the victim of early sexual abuse, Atmajnanananda contends that there is no evidence provided in Kālī's Child and none is found in the source texts (409-10). Atmajnanananda disputes Kripal's assertions regarding Ramakrishna's sexual relationships with the Brahmani and Mathur Babu, while also addressing Kripal's claim of Ramakrishna's homoerotic desires for his disciples. In every case Atmajnanananda points out Kripal's dubious translation as well as cultural ignorance. Finally, concerning Kripal's assertion that the Jībanabṛttānta was "suppressed" by the Ramakrishna Order, Atmajnanananda points out that it was, in fact, published by the Ramakrishna Order (415).13
Rajat Kanta Ray
Kālī's Child was icily received by a number of Indian academics. Rajat Kanta Ray's unfavorable review in the October 1997 edition of Indian Economic and Social History Review criticizes Kripal's ignorance of Indian culture and psychiatry. Ray, professor and head of the History Department at Presidency College, Kolkata, does not seem appalled by Kripal's speculation of an erotic crisis which led to Ramakrishna's mystical experience: "The suggestion is not unreasonable," Ray writes, "but what erotic crisis?" (101). A Bengali himself, Ray pulls apart the book's tenets by demonstrating Kripal's considerable ignorance of Bengali language and culture. "The historical evidence Kripal offers in favor of Ramakrishna's homosexuality seems to me to be shaky; some of his own evidence seems to contradict it, and opens up the possibility of an alternative interpretation. A number of his translations from the primary text—Ramakrishna Kathamrita—are wrong; his psychoanalytical proceedings with the text ... fills me with doubt, especially as regards his identifications of some Tantrik symbols" (102).
Ray gives specific instances of critical translation errors which bias the interpretation of the text: "Kripal translates 'Kamini' as 'lover'— why not 'woman'? He derives Ram, son of Dasrath, etymologically from 'sexual delight,' but the root verb ... means 'to please.'" Kripal translates "Janani is Ramani" as "she who gives birth," is "she who makes love"— "the Mother is the Lover." Ray contends: "The average Bengali reader of the Kathamrita will, however, understand the line thus: 'Mother is a woman.'" Ray gives particular attention to what he terms Kripal's "doubtful translation" of uddīpana as "sexual excitement" as it is "critical to Kripal's interpretation." Ray observes that Kripal renders uddīpana "as 'religious enlightenment,' 'mythical remembrance' and 'sexual excitement'; it is the last alternative that he plays on. Etymologically, however, 'uddipana' means 'enkindling,' and the ordinary reader of the Kathamrita will understand that Ramakrishna's mind was enkindled in the presence of his young disciples" (102-3).
Ray takes umbrage at Kripal's mention "of a 'once glaring scandal' concerning Ramakrishna and his fourteen-year-old disciple, Purna." "Yet," Ray contends, "the historical record contains no such 'glare.'" Ray then takes several instances of Kripal's translations to show an unwarranted homosexual bias. One example: "every Bengali knows 'māthā khāwā' (eating the head) means just 'misleading someone,' it has absolutely no sexual connotation. It is on the basis of such evidence that [Kripal] builds his case" (103). Ray critiques the absence of the psychoanalytic work of Girindrasekar Bose, founder of the Indian Psychoanalytic Society, in Kālī's Child and concludes his review by stating: "Ramakrishna might have had a considerably more complex sexual personality than Kripal has supposed" (104).
An entirely different critique emerged from the American academy, this one from Gerald James Larson, whose "Polymorphic Sexuality, Homoeroticism, and the Study of Religion" was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Larson begins his review by saying that his first reaction to Kālī's Child was an "Aha! experience." He observes that Kālī's Child's reviews in the secular academy have been largely favorable while those in what Larson terms "the believing community" have been negative ("running the gamut from anger, even fury, to disappointment, sadness, bemusement, personal hurt, and betrayal") (1997, 656). Larson frames his "Aha!-experience" thus: "What is the relation, if any, between our modern secular intellectual communities, on the one hand, and the target believing communities or persons whom our scholarly and creative work seeks to interpret and characterize, on the other?"
Before delving into that issue in depth, Larson specifically addresses Kālī's Child, stating that "the book ... unlocks an important dimension of the manner in which sexual fantasies, and especially homosexual fantasies, relate to our understanding of the mystical and/or religious experience of Sri Ramakrishna. It must also be said, however, that the treatment overall lacks balance and proper contextualization and in the end falls into the trap of monocausal reductionism" (658). By this he means: "Ramakrishna's mystical experience is reduced to his homoerotic fantasies. . . . The homosexual desires explain the entire life of a saint including his mystical or spiritual experience" (659).
Kripal's assertion that Ramakrishna was unaware of his own homosexual desires and the further assertion that Ramakrishna (and earlier interpreters) lacked the hermeneutical key to understand his behavior, is characterized by Larson as "remarkable hubris." Larson goes on to say that Kripal's declaration that Ramakrishna's
"homoerotic energies ... were his mysticism," or that "Ramakrishna's homosexual tendencies ... deeply influenced, indeed determined the manner in which he created his own self-defined 'states' out of the symbols of his inherited religious tradition," is thoroughly implausible and does not follow from the evidence presented in the book. None of the evidence cited in the book supports a cause-effect relation between the erotic and the mystical (or the religious), much less an identity! (660)
The larger picture, Larson states, is more complex and nuanced. Moreover, citing Kakar and Sil, Larson attests that "all of this puzzling data about Ramakrishna's eccentric sexuality has been widely known for many years," adding that there has not been
any shortage of articles and books that make clear Ramakrishna's syncretistic Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, Śākta and Tāntrika predilections. For anyone even casually acquainted with Bengali spirituality and cultural life many of the symbolic visions and fantasies of Ramakrishna, which appear bizarre and even pathological when construed only in isolation or individually, become much less so when one relates the visions and fantasies to nineteenth-century Bengal. (662)
Larson returns to his "Aha! Experience," which centers on "the various attitudes or perspectives we have in the academy regarding the relation between modern secular intellectual communities, on the one hand, and believing communities, on the other." He suggests that Kālī's Child "would have been much more balanced and would have avoided reductionism had [Kripal] taken the trouble to engage in a frank intellectual exchange about his interpretation with the community about which and in which much of his material centers." Larson takes pains to add: "I am not suggesting that he should have allowed the members or followers of the Ramakrishna Mission and Math to exercise any sort of veto or censorship over his material." Larson further notes: "I am also inclined to think that the book would have achieved greater balance and would have avoided reductionism had it been vetted by professionals within the psychoanalytic community" (663). Larson thus concludes: "It is important for all of us in the modern academy to be in frank and open conversation with the communities we study and with other scholarly communities in the academy. . . . I am, therefore, personally persuaded that the relation of symmetrical reciprocity ... is the only way to go if we wish our studies to be taken seriously and if we wish our studies to be properly nuanced and persuasive" (664).
One year later the readers of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion would have a reprise of the Kālī's Child debate with Jeffrey Kripal's response to Larson's article and Larson's rejoinder to Kripal. Kripal begins by noting that psychoanalytically inclined historians of mysticism attempt to understand "'the secret'(mustikos), the hidden, the concealed, and subsequently, the censored, even the persecuted." Those historians of religions who choose to "reveal the secret" suffer "the moral outrage of those, scholar and believer alike, who would prefer to keep 'the hidden,' well ... hidden" (1998b, 627). Apparently Kripal saw Larson's critique as part of a larger movement since Kripal speaks of "the hermeneutical revenge that seeks to silence (or at least domesticate) the scholar who 'speaks the secret.'"
Regarding Larson's point that earlier scholars had raised the issue of Ramakrishna's sexuality, Kripal argues that "no one followed up on these themes" (of Tantra and sexual orientation) though "one could speak of a consensus on the homosexual issue, at least among academics trained in historical-critical and analytic methods" (628).
Concerning Larson's charge of "monocausal reductionism," Kripal states that Larson has misread the book, stating his "own consistent rejection of a Freudian reductionism ... and the logical impossibility of reducing the mystical to the sexual in a radically monistic universe." Kripal states that "Larson wants to argue that I am advancing a single cause, when in fact I mapped out two primary levels (the Tantric and the incarnational) and eight different dimensions ... in the production and process of Ramakrishna's secret" (1998b, 629).
Kripal goes on to state that "many scholarly reviews have noted, if not highlighted, this multi-dimensional, nonreductive element of my work with warm and enthusiastic appreciation, as have even some devotees in personal correspondence. I mention this not to commit the logical fallacy of appealing to authority but to ask simply: Why does as sophisticated a reader as Larson completely miss what other scholars have so easily seen? Why must he so seriously misrepresent what I have written?" (629-30). Kripal voices his suspicions by saying, "I suspect that Larson's own relationship to the Ramakrishna Mission and his role here as a defender of the tradition were influential in both the original conception and final negative conclusions of the review" (630).
Kripal strongly contests Larson's suggestion that he should have engaged the tradition in a more explicit fashion by saying,
I did in fact explore, both anecdotally and historically, the limits of the tradition's willingness (if not in the way Larson proposes). One Bengali friend would only whisper to me about the censored passages. . . . Another felt uncomfortable talking about the issue in a restaurant. . . . I also spoke to Indian intellectuals in Calcutta, whose responses could be summarized as follows: "You are right, but we cannot say that here. You, however, can and should say it over there."
Kripal then follows with a sentence of particular significance: "It was my willed distance and cultural otherness that gave me a perspective, a voice, and an emotional freedom that my Indian colleagues and friends either lacked or refused to claim as their own" (630). In other words, Kripal's outsider status provided him the distance necessary to see and interpret what others—cultural and religious insiders—could not see or would not acknowledge.
Kripal continues by suggesting that "there is nothing particularly new about this. Ramakrishna has always been a scandal." Among other points, Kripal states that Ram Chandra Datta's Jībanabṛttānta "became the object of a possible lawsuit"14 and that Nikhilananda "systematically censored Gupta in his 1942 translation of the Kathāmṛta" (630-31).
What is astonishing, however, is Kripal's next point: "An old friend of Isherwood's stood up after I finished delivering a paper on Ramakrishna's cross-dressing at the annual AAR meeting in Washington, DC, and said to me with a warm smile, 'Chris would be very pleased'" (631). Yet this "old friend of Isherwood's" approached Swami Tyagananda at the November 2000 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and declared that he had been completely misquoted. In fact, he said that he had never even met Christopher Isherwood, so he could hardly be considered "an old friend"!15
Equally problematic, Kripal finishes his list of people supposedly censored by the Ramakrishna Order by adding Sumit Sarkar's 1991 publication "Ramakrishna and the Calcutta of His Times."16 Kripal writes: "Sumit Sarkar's provocative socio-economic reading of the saint was only published in a considerably altered, 'censored' form." Yet this is completely untrue. Sumit Sarkar categorically denies ever having been censored or pressured in any way. When questioned on the matter, Sarkar states that there was "absolutely no pressure" from the Ramakrishna Mission—or anyone else for that matter—and he was not in any way prevented from writing or publishing or saying exactly what he wished.17 Sarkar's 1991 essay bears a strong resemblance to his 1993 An Exploration of the Ramakrishna Vivekananda Tradition, which he seems to view as a more accurate reading of the Kathāmṛta than his unpublished 1985 essay.18
Kripal accurately records that "the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York denied Carl Olson permission to quote from Nikhilananda's The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna in his (AAR published) The Mysterious Play of Kālī," and the reason was, as Kripal states: "A committee appointed by the Center disagreed with Olson's interpretation" (631). This idiosyncratic decision was not directed by the Ramakrishna Order, which, we can be sure, never heard of either Olson's request or its subsequent rejection by the New York committee. The decision was directed solely by a committee of New York's RamakrishnaVivekananda Center, for which the rest of the Ramakrishna Order can bear no responsibility. Whatever the process that led to the committee's decision, it was clearly short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. Decisions of these kinds are local in the extreme and do not involve the Ramakrishna Order as a whole. Scholars have frequently requested permission from other publishing centers of the Ramakrishna Order and have not experienced any difficulties. Obviously the committee seems to have confused the difference between giving permission to quote and endorsing the book's findings.
Kripal goes on to write that since the publication of Kālī's Child, he has engaged "the tradition" through various devotees "and one talented and eloquent swami (Swami Atmajnanananda)," whose critique of Kālī's Child resulted in correcting "a few minor, tangential errors" for the book's second edition (631-32). Kripal concludes his response to Larson's article by arguing:
Had I engaged the culture earlier in an open fashion and learned what I know now (after the hate-mail and a movement to have the book banned in India), I indeed would not, could not, have written this book. . . . I simply would have been too afraid. . . . [Censorship] was an all too real possibility. I simply was not willing to take that risk. . . .
I have not abandoned or rejected dialogue with the tradition. . . . [but] I chose to practice my dialogue with the official tradition only after I had published my work. (632)
In the same issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Larson provides a spirited refutation. First clarifying points from his earlier article, Larson states that Ramakrishna's "mystical experiences and his severe emotional disorders" were "old news" and that the general discussion between mystical experience and psychopathology had been discussed and analyzed since the time of Romain Rolland (637). Larson reiterates his appreciation for Kripal's "unpacking of the homoerotic dimension in the saint's life." Larson goes on to state that his belief in the value of engaging with the tradition with "considerable openness, critical exchange, and healthy feedback" was his own personal approach, not a matter of ethics: "I fully recognize that many in our field are inclined to take quite different interpretive stances along the lines of a 'hermeneutic of suspicion' ... I have no 'ethical' problem with those stances, although I do not favor such stances in my own intellectual work" (638).
The strongest element in Larson's riposte is his answer to Kripal's claim that Larson was taking material from Kālī's Child out of context. "Pace Kripal," Larson writes, "these lines were not taken out of context. They are at the core of the final six or seven pages of his text and are good examples of what Whitehead called the 'fallacy of misplaced concreteness,' that is, taking one motif and thinking that one has given a satisfactory interpretation" (639). Countering Kripal's claim that Kālī's Child is not reductionistic, Larson ups the ante by stating that the book's "concluding analysis is doubly reductionist. First, it analyzes Ramakrishna's religious experience almost exclusively from the perspective of sexuality and the 'erotic.' Second, from within the remarkable range of sexual evidence, much of which goes quite beyond the homoerotic, the book focusses almost exclusively on the homoerotic" (638). Larson concludes his response by stating that an erotic reading "only brings us to the threshold of a substantive problem to be explored, namely, the manner in which our religious or mystical experience relates to all of the dimensions of our ordinary experience, including our sexuality" (639).
Up to this point in history, the focus of the Kālī's Child controversy was centered upon the Hindu community's anger at the perceived denigration of its saint and the distortion of its culture. From this point forward, the focus changed to the claims of a national movement to ban the book and the suppression of academic freedom.
Reframing the Debate
The year spanning Larson's first critique and Kripal's response was a momentous one, both for Hinduism scholars and for Hindus feeling the need to defend their tradition from those they believed to be ill-willed interlopers. This goes a long way to explain why the Kālī's Child controversy increased both in size and temperature and why the controversy remains a critical issue today. The earliest calls for banning Kālī's Child came from two angered readers of The Statesman.
On April 6, 1997, the Sunday Times of India noted that the "newspapers carrying the review have been inundated with angry letters" (although only one newspaper, The Statesman, carried the review) and D. P. Bagchi, the additional secretary and financial adviser in the commerce ministry, had written to the home ministry asking for a ban on the book.19 The article further notes that "Senior home ministry officials, admitting to having received Mr. Bagchi's letter, said they had written to the Intelligence Bureau and the West Bengal government asking for their comments on the possible impact of the book on people's sensitivities. The ministry ... will give its verdict after a thorough reading of the book and on the basis of the IB [Intelligence Bureau] and West Bengal government's assessment." The article also added that Mr. Bagchi suggested that "India take up this matter with the U.S. government and ask it to impress upon the publishers to disallow the publication of 'such trash, totally devoid of a sense of history.'" Predictably, nothing happened in response to this initiative, as the issue was raised by only one incensed government official. When the present authors inquired about what had finally happened with the controversy, Tapan Roy, a Deputy Secretary assigned to the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of Parliament, investigated the issue and "drew a blank."20 Nothing at all happened, at least at this time. The debate would again blaze from Indian political embers, but not until 2001, and that, too, in a very different context.
Yet from this time forward the debate would be framed under the rubric of "censorship," "book banning," "death threats," "Hindutva," and "academic freedom." The second edition of Kālī's Child, published in 1998, quickly acquaints the reader with these topics in the book's Preface. Kripal discusses Sil's review, the readers' outraged responses and the requests that the book be banned. About these "devotional and Indian readers," Kripal writes: "[They] may begin by rejecting an author ... for wanting to talk openly and honestly about the homosexual roots of Ramakrishna's mysticism only to find themselves ... rejecting some of their own brothers and sisters ... and, ironically, their own saint" (xiv). Kripal bemoans the fact that the heat which the controversy generated "tended to erase the larger textual, psychological, ontological, and mythical concerns of my work" (xix), yet, concurrently, he uses the argument of Hindus' angry reaction to confirm the truth he has told. The rage was due to a "deep cultural rejection of homosexuality" (xxi); thus, the furious response was a predictable reaction to exposing the "secret" of "Ramakrishna's homoerotic desires" (xv).
Why did those readers not see what Kripal saw? "Not because of any inherent fault in the book's arguments or evidence," Kripal writes, "but because there are at present simply too few social, cultural, psychological, and religious support structures available in such contexts to render its ideas widely thinkable." Tellingly, Kripal notes that as far as his detractors are concerned, it is difficult to "change one's world." Nevertheless, they should understand that Kālī's Child offers "a warm, liberating revelation of a shared humanity" (xxii).
Yet we find this "shared humanity" taking on all the characteristics of a Western humanism that speaks to Western secular values—values which are not necessarily shared by the rest of the world. Again we find a universalizing Western paradigm, with a Western scholar promoting a worldview which is presumed to be universal. If the "devotional and Indian" readers do not see what he sees, then their social, cultural, psychological, and religious support structures are at fault.21 We can see this attitude crystallized in Kripal's correspondence with a Ramakrishna devotee who "had learned to reread his own tradition," Kripal writes, "in the new light of [Kālī's Child's] theses and methods" (xxiii-xxiv, emphasis added). For the Hindu community, this scenario was all too familiar.
Kālī's Child's second edition marshals additional ammunition to back up its theses regarding Ramakrishna's sexuality as well as the Ramakrishna Order's "censorship" of the same. Kripal attempts to invoke Christopher Isherwood for support, declaring that the author was "quite frank about his homosexual reading of Ramakrishna" (xiii). Kripal further insists that Isherwood "was prevented by the tradition from writing about Ramakrishna's homosexual dimensions" (xiv). What are we to make of these allegations?
About "censorship," we may recall that Isherwood felt constrained while writing Ramakrishna and His Disciples. He had wanted to discuss Ramakrishna dressing as a woman in terms of "getting into drag," but knew that doing so was "out of the question" (Isherwood 1980, 249). Nevertheless, it is clear from Isherwood's writings that he did not believe Ramakrishna was homosexual. Unlike most people at the time, Isherwood was not shocked by the idea and was able to easily ponder its possibility. Yet having seriously examined the question, Isherwood concluded that Ramakrishna was not homosexual. In fact, Isherwood states in My Guru and His Disciple that accusations concerning Ramakrishna's homosexuality were "irresponsible" (247). Despite this, Kripal surmises that it was Isherwood himself who "wrote (autobiographically, I suspect) about a person who in 1962 had written about Ramakrishna as a 'homosexual who had had to struggle hard to overcome his lust for his young disciple later to be known as Vivekananda'" (KC, xiii).
Had Kripal done serious research, however, he would have discovered that the book referred to here was not written by Isherwood at all. It was written by Ann Marshall under the title Hunting the Guru in India (London: Victor Gollancz, 1963).22 About this book and Prabhavananda's reaction to it, Isherwood writes:
Swami somehow got to hear about a book. . . . The author [Marshall] had at first felt attracted by Ramakrishna's personality but had decided against him on the ground that he was (I quote) a homosexual who had had to struggle hard to overcome his lust for his young disciple later to be known as Vivekananda. (1980, 247)
On this point Isherwood is particularly illuminating:
Thus it seems fairly obvious that the allegations presented in Kālī's Child regarding Isherwood's "homosexual reading of Ramakrishna" are simply not true.
It didn't surprise me that someone reading about Ramakrishna for the first time should be disconcerted by the extremely emotional way in which he expressed his love for his young male disciples—and that such a reader should also fail to realize that Ramakrishna's kind of love feels no inhibitions because it makes no demands. Most of us are familiar only with the kind of love—be it parental or romantic—which does demand something in return. So we suspect Ramakrishna's love of having ulterior homosexual motives.
There is another excuse for accusing Ramakrishna of homosexuality; he sometimes dressed in woman's clothes. As a boy, he did this for a joke; he was a talented impersonator and mimic. As an adult, he wished to experience every sort of religious mood, including the mood of a female devotee of Krishna. He used to say that one "should make the outside the same as the inside"; and so, when he took part in certain pujas, he wore woman's clothes, with ornaments and a wig, to complement his devotional mood. This naturally scandalized the conventionally pious. Ramakrishna regarded the distinction between the sexes as a part of maya, the cosmic illusion; therefore, he can't have thought of himself as being exclusively masculine or feminine. (248-49)
To provide further proof of Ramakrishna's homoerotic inclinations, Kripal musters Shivanath Shastri's reminiscence of Ramakrishna where, in a carriage en route to see the lions in Kolkata's Zoological Gardens, Ramakrishna covered his head with a chaddar in the fashion of married women, put his arm around Shivanath's waist, and said, "Don't you see I am a woman for the time being; I am travelling with my lover." Shastri continues by stating that Ramakrishna "threw his arm around my waist and began to make a sort of dancing movement, seated as he was, as a mark of his great pleasure. At this point there came on his fit or trance. . ." This (minus the portion referring to the fact that Ramakrishna was seated) is where Kripal leaves the quotation (KC, xxiii).
Yet had Shivanath been allowed to finish his sentence (and complete the paragraph), the reader would discover that Shivanath went on to say something quite significant:
and then I witnessed a scene that I shall never forget. His whole countenance was aglow with a strange spiritual light, and before he became fully unconscious, he began to pray with incoherent words, in the following fashion—"O Mother, my beloved Mother, do not make me unconscious. O Mother, I am going to see the lions in the Zoological Gardens. O Mother, I may have a fall from the carriage. Do, do let me be all right till the journey is finished." At this point he became thoroughly unconscious, leaning on my arm for some minutes. After consciousness had returned he once more began conversation in his usual childlike and simple manner. (Mookerjee, 25)
There are several points here worth noting. Most significant is that while Kripal sees Ramakrishna's actions as indicative of homoerotic behavior, Shastri himself did not. Rather, he confirms Ramakrishna's spiritual experience. Shastri tells us that he saw Ramakrishna's "countenance ... aglow with a strange spiritual light" and it was a scene that he would never forget. Shastri does not give any indication anywhere that he was the recipient of Ramakrishna's erotic attraction.
What we do see is Ramakrishna jubilant over the prospect of seeing the lions in the zoo and happy that he is being accompanied by Shivanath, a man he often praised. In this joyous, playful mood, Ramakrishna does what he often did with his disciples in Dakshineswar: he entertained and played by mimicry. There is no sign that Shivanath found this odd or unseemly, and he was a Brahmo highly sensitive to elements indecorous. In fact, Shivanath informs the reader, as he did Ramakrishna himself, that he visited Ramakrishna less frequently in later years because Shivanath disapproved of the "objectionable characters, such as the actors of the Indian theaters" who visited Ramakrishna. "I did not like to be associated with such men," Shivanath writes (Mookerjee, 25). Such a rarefied moral weathervane as Shivanath saw no problem with Ramakrishna's behavior in the carriage. In fact, he tells us that it was an experience he would never forget.
Not only that. The Jībanabṛttānta records Shivanath's words regarding Ramakrishna:
Who has his kind of love for God which made him fall on the bank of the Ganga and cry "Mother! Mother!"? Caitanya had that kind of love; he used to pull out his hair and rub his face on the ground for the vision of Kṛṣṇa. Jesus had that kind of love; he remained without food for forty days. . . . Paramahaṁsadeva [Ramakrishna] belongs to that category. When a spiritual soul like him is born in a country after a gap of four hundred years [i.e. after Caitanya], that country never lacks in spirituality. (JB, 213)
After Ramakrishna's death, Shivanath wrote that "[Ramakrishna's] memory is now feeding hundreds of earnest souls." Shivanath concludes by noting that while his association with Ramakrishna was short, its effect was "strengthening many a spiritual thought in me. He was certainly one of the most remarkable personalities I have come across in life" (Mookerjee, 26). We find no "troubled," no "conflicted," no "homoerotic" saint here.
Implicit in Kālī's Child's selective quotations from Shivanath Shastri is the assumption of uniform gender roles which are consistent over time and culture. Indeed, if there is one obvious fact which is repeatedly overlooked in Kālī's Child and a number of other studies on Ramakrishna which precede and succeed it, it is that male and female gender roles and gender expectations were vastly different in nineteenth-century Bengal from contemporary North American and European models. Thus what may appear in the contemporary West as sexualized behavior on Ramakrishna's part was not seen as such by his contemporaries. As Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai point out in Same-Sex Love in India: "Ideas of what is sexual and what is not change with place and time" (xiii). While this should be obvious, when it comes to Ramakrishna and his behavior with his disciples, these facts are not addressed. Several contemporary scholars have noted Ramakrishna's physical intimacy with his male disciples: he touches their chin, he feeds them with his hands, etc. He expresses his longing to see them. While a North American reader may find this abnormally close and perhaps even unsettling, this behavior would not have been considered at all unusual in nineteenth-century Bengal. Vanita and Kidwai further remind us that in many societies, a person's primary emotional attachment could well be to a friend of his or her own gender, which is perfectly compatible with marriage and procreation. They write:
It is only relatively recently in human history that the heterosexual monogamous relationship has come to be viewed as necessarily a married person's chief emotional outlet. Although this view is dominant today, in many parts of the world, including many parts of India, the earlier view still coexists with it. (xiii)
Today's Western monolithic view of gender roles has not only stigmatized other cultures' gender roles and expectations, but it has also proved destructive in the West to the emotional ties which can be provided by close friendships. By the nineteenth century, Freud and others labeled these close relationships "homosexual," and thus in Europe and North America by the twentieth century, "the heterosexual couple became more exclusively romanticized in movies and fiction as the individual's primary source of social support, cutting him or her off from kin and friends" (xiv). By apotheosizing the heterosexual couple, Western rigid gender norms served to condemn other gender roles to the status of deviancy.
While this topic could be discussed at further length, we would do well to move on to other areas that also need discussion. In Kālī's Child's second edition, Kripal argues that the history of religions, psychoanalysis, Christian mysticism and India's Tantric traditions "all ... know that the secret of the mystical is the erotic" (KC, xviii). He further contends that his "dialectical category of 'the erotic' has been misread by some as flatly monodimensional, as if it meant simply 'sex,' when in fact the erotic only begins with physical sexuality and moves out (really 'up') from there into the sublime, 'sublimated' realms of symbolic vision, mystical experience, mythology, and theology" (xv). Yet as more than one critic observed, for all intents and purposes Kripal's use of the term "erotic" nearly always refers to the purely sexual. Kripal again takes up the subject of "the erotic":
To speak of the erotic ... as a dialectical phenomenon that develops only through ... spirals of regression and progression, of sexual expression and spiritual experience, of neurotic suffering and liberative healing, and which finally culminates in a transethical psycho-physiological transformation of genuine ontological significance—is not to practice a prurient sensationalism (or more bizarrely, a misplaced "orientalism"). Nor is it to reduce the quite genuine mystical experiences of Ramakrishna to simple sex. (xviii)
We argue that, in Kālī's Child, we are indeed looking upon Orientalism, of which "prurient sensationalism" has often been a boon companion.
The second edition of Kālī's Child notes the corrections that were done as the result of Atmajnanananda's critique. Kripal apologizes for "any emotional pain" that he may have caused his readers by his errors— in particular, translating māg as "bitch." Kripal further acknowledges his embarrassment in discovering that Datta's Jībanabṛttānta—far from being suppressed by the Ramakrishna Order—was actually published by it (xix). Kripal reports that these errors have been corrected for the book's second edition. More importantly, Kripal declares that "nothing that has been advanced so far has convinced me that my hermeneutical model is wrong or misguided or even exaggerated. Quite the contrary, numerous events—from my revisiting of previous scholarship to my personal correspondence with a number of appreciative devotees ... have convinced me of the correctness of my original model." Kripal is assured of the soundness of his thesis because it is contextualized within "a long line of scholarly consensus." Further, there is "support from within the tradition" for his thesis, which problematizes "any simplistic dichotomy between my conclusions and the tradition itself" (xx).
That said, Kripal announces: "The case of Ramakrishna's homosexuality ... seems to be closed" (xxi). But for the insider community, there was never a "case" to begin with. Again, one has to ask, Why does he see what he sees, and why do we see what we see? Kripal's "long line of scholarly consensus" consists of Jeffrey Masson, whose pathologizing interpretation of Ramakrishna (as well as Buddha, Hinduism, Tantra, etc.) we have already seen. Kripal also invokes Malcolm McLean's unpublished translation of the Kathāmṛta and mentions Sumit Sarkar's 1985 Kathāmṛta as Text. Yet Sarkar's later writings on Ramakrishna do not suggest Ramakrishna was homosexual and Sarkar himself indicates that Kathāmṛta as Text is not representative of his final thought.23 It is no doubt for this reason that Kathāmṛta as Text remained an unpublished manuscript, not because the Ramakrishna Order was "suppressing" it— the mention of which Sarkar found absurd.
Intriguingly, Kripal adds Sudhir Kakar's name to the list because "Kakar pointed out that Ramakrishna could be identified as a 'secondary transsexual'" (xxi). But in fact, Kakar writes something altogether different: "Just as the writings of medieval European female mystics ... have been analyzed as expressions of a pathological, hysterical sexuality, it would not be difficult to diagnose Ramakrishna in traditional Freudian terms as a secondary transsexual." Kakar goes on to say something radically at odds with what Kripal suggests: "Any transsexual or homosexual labels may obscure [Ramakrishna's] sense of comfort and easy familiarity with the feminine components of his self. It may hide the fact that the freeing of femininity from repression or disavowal in man and vice versa in a woman may be a great human achievement rather than an illness or a deviation" (Kakar 1991, 33).
Equally intriguing is Kripal's statement of "support from within the tradition." Upon being personally questioned about this point, Kripal said that "monks" within the Ramakrishna Order had agreed with his thesis.24 When questioned more closely about the "monks" who supported it, "they" turned out to be "one"—the one referred to as "the open-minded, open-hearted monastic who found real inspiration in [Kālī's Child]" (KC, xxiii). That one monk changed his opinion about Kālī's Child after reading Atmajnanananda's and Tyagananda's rebuttals. In fact, this monk enthusiastically distributed Tyagananda's rebuttal at the November 2000 American Academy of Religion meeting and would have liked to publish Tyagananda's rebuttal in book form. The monk in question is American, does not read Bengali, and admittedly does not have extensive knowledge of the source texts.25
Kripal's later writings on the controversy invoke Parama Roy's writings on Ramakrishna as well. Parama Roy is not a Ramakrishna scholar. Her writings have neither influenced Kālī's Child nor has she particularly contributed to the debate surrounding the book. Yet Roy does merit passing discussion, since Kripal's later writings concerning the Kālī's Child controversy (Kripal 2002, 2004) invoke her chapter, "As the Master Saw Her," as indigenous verification of his theses.26
Parama Roy's 1998 Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India includes one chapter which centers on Swami Vivekananda's Irish disciple, Nivedita. In discussing Nivedita, Roy includes a lengthy discussion of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. One significant problem with Roy's chapter is that her writing on Ramakrishna is extremely derivative, leaning heavily on secondary sources such as Sumit Sarkar, Partha Chatterjee, Gayatri Spivak and others. As a result, her research on Ramakrishna is thin: there are no citations from Bengali primary texts such as the Kathāmṛta or the Līlāprasaṅga, for example. Yet as problematic as her derivative scholarship may be, more problematic are Roy's pronouncements concerning Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
Roy claims, for example, that Vivekananda "had been erotically solicited for discipleship by Ramakrishna" (111), and consequently Vivekananda "remained always ambivalent about his guru (105)." Roy then adds that Vivekananda "was nonetheless unable and unwilling to shake him off completely." Roy refers to Ramakrishna's "erotic solicitations" of Vivekananda more than once, but gives no indication of what such a "solicitation" might be. Would it be inducing Vivekananda's ecstasy? Feeding him with his own hands? Touching him? The reader is not informed.
It would appear that much of Roy's assumptions regarding Ramakrishna as well as Vivekananda's relationship with him hinge on Ramakrishna's earlier sādhana of madhura bhāva (which Roy defines as "becoming woman"), along with Ramakrishna's statement, which she cites from Nikhilananda's Gospel. Roy quotes:
A man can change his nature by imitating another's character. By transposing on to yourself the attributes of woman, you gradually destroy lust and other sensual drives. You begin to behave like women. I have noticed that men who play female parts in the theatre speak like women or brush their teeth like women while bathing. (97; citing GSR, 176)
Though Roy cites Nikhilananda's Gospel here, her quotation from Nikhilananda is inaccurate. The quotation from Nikhilananda is as follows:
A man can change his nature by imitating another's character. He can get rid of a passion like lust by assuming the feminine mood. He gradually comes to act exactly like a woman. I have noticed that men who take female parts in the theatre speak like women or brush their teeth like women while bathing. (GSR, 176)
As we can see, Roy changes the "he" to "you" and she adds "transposing on yourself," which is not in Nikhilananda's text. Whether this is done to mislead or is simply the result of sloppy scholarship, is impossible to tell. Roy continues by stating that "this 'transvestic' discipline ... was not enjoined upon Narendranath Dutta ... whom Ramakrishna identified at several points as firmly fixed in a masculine identification" (97). With this Roy concludes: "It was clearly [Narendra's] masculinity that had attracted the guru" (115).
Several points: First, madhura bhāva is not about "becoming woman." The purpose of this sādhana is to become identified as one of Kṛṣṇa's gopīs, Kṛṣṇa being the sole male in Vrindaban, everyone else being female.27 How this manifests via external dress and behavior is entirely secondary to the internal identification as a gopī, which defines one's relationship with Kṛṣṇa. Merely "becoming woman" does not constitute a spiritual practice. Roy writes of Ramakrishna's "conquest of desire through becoming woman" (99)—as if "becoming woman" were the only practice necessary to remove desire and as if it were the only spiritual practice Ramakrishna ever suggested, which, as we know, is inaccurate.
Throughout Kālī's Child, Kripal effectively pathologizes the sādhana of madhura bhāva, rejecting the possibility of it being a valid sādhana by identifying it as a trauma-based response associated with Mathur Babu. It appears that Parama Roy misinterprets madhura bhāva just as thoroughly as Kālī's Child does. As we know, Ramakrishna was profoundly influenced by Bengal's Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition. In this tradition, as David Haberman writes, "even men must somehow emulate the gopīs . . . to attain the highest state." He continues:
Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas agree that the ultimate religious goal is to be transformed into a character in Vraja, usually a gopī, by imitating the original characters of Vraja ... or rather, since one's true identity is a gopī, to overcome—by imitating the original gopīs—the ignorance which keeps one from realizing that fact. (2001, 95)
How one actually goes about doing this has been a matter of dispute. Haberman writes that those religious traditions which suggest imitating divine models face certain problems. He asks: "Is the imitation to be literal or symbolic, external or internal?" (94). Ramakrishna, as we know, was quite literal in all his sādhanas, imitating Hanumān by affixing a tail to himself, eating bananas with their skins on and living in a tree while he practiced the dāsya bhāva sādhana. Ramakrishna was clearly a man who threw himself into external observances when he thought they would produce results.
Thus the fact that Ramakrishna would dress as a woman while practicing madhura bhāva is both in keeping with Ramakrishna's temperament as well as in keeping with the practitioners of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana, who "physically imitate the gopīs in all ways—dress, external behavior, and so forth" (Haberman 2001, 96). While this practice is rare today, though certainly not unheard of, it was frequently practiced in earlier years. It is worth remembering that the famed Gauḍīya saint and disciple of Caitanya, Rūpa Gosvāmī, gave instructions to the effect that the imitation of gopīs was to be done both mentally as well as "with the sādhaka-rūpa"—with one's own physical body (96-97). Those literal adherents of rāgānugā bhakti sādhana "physically imitate the gopīs by taking on the dress and behavior of a woman. They believe that since their true and essential identity is a gopī, they should dress and act the part" (98). To dismiss or reduce these aspirations to "cross-dressing" or interpreting them through the lens of a presumed calamity does injustice to a large number of Gauḍīya practitioners as well as to the tradition itself.
Apart from her profound misunderstanding of madhura bhāva, what is striking about Roy's chapter is her presumption that Ramakrishna's madhura bhāva sādhana was the most significant aspect of his sādhana and his advice about acquiring feminine characteristics was the signal point of his spiritual teachings. But any serious study of Ramakrishna would make it clear that this was not the case. Again and again Ramakrishna returned to īśvar lābh, attaining God, no matter which tradition one followed, no matter which sādhana one practiced. The tangential recommendation of assuming female characteristics to remove lust was simply that—tangential, absolutely peripheral, the point being to remove any desire which stood in the way of the ultimate goal of īśvar lābh. Moreover, while Ramakrishna generally suggested assuming the characteristics of another gender to overcome lust, there is no record of anyone whom he actually instructed to do so.
As is well known, Ramakrishna said that he could not speak of himself as a man: Āmi āpnāke pū (pūrūṣ) bolte pāri nā (KA 2.155). He also said on occasion that he had the nature of a woman. Significantly, however, this "nature" does not indicate or constitute his desired gender or his sexual preference. It is a deeper indication of a person's psychic structure and emotional integration. It is apparent from the source texts that when Ramakrishna speaks along these lines, no one is surprised, shocked or repelled. There were plenty who argued with Ramakrishna on a number of occasions and a number of individuals felt quite free in contesting his actions and statements. Narendra, Dr. Sarkar, and Hazra come to mind, but there were a number of others as well. Yet feminine identification was not a point of interest or contention. It is noticeably unnoticed. As Bengali psychologist and sociologist Ashis Nandy writes:
"Bisexuality" in India has always been considered an indicator of saintliness and yogic accomplishments. Perhaps it is considered an indicator of having successfully coped with or transcended one's deepest conflicts about femininity and masculinity. . . . One who is close to godliness is expected to show ... a little more ability to transcend the barriers imposed by one's own sexual selfhood. He is expected to subscribe to values which are unfettered by society's prevalent sexual identities. (1980, 38)
It is important to keep in mind that for Nandy, as even Parama Roy has noted, the term "bisexuality" "has everything to do with identification and nothing at all with object choice" (Roy, 98). Nandy's assessment is seconded by psychoanalyst Alan Roland, who reminds us: "Indian men incorporate much more of maternal-feminine qualities than is characteristic of Western men, have a greater degree of bisexuality in terms of these more maternal-feminine components" (Roland, 1996, 137). It is no accident that sexual impropriety was not among the criticisms leveled against Ramakrishna by his contemporaries.
Roy's assertion that Vivekananda remained ambivalent about Ramakrishna is unsupported by any evidence and, in fact, all source texts argue to the contrary.28 Even when the young Narendra was arguing endlessly with Ramakrishna, even when Narendra told Ramakrishna that he was delusional, Narendra's love and respect for Ramakrishna kept bringing him back to Dakshineswar. Roy attempts to persuade the reader that Vivekananda was repelled by Ramakrishna's "infatuated pursuit," but she neglects to tell the reader that Narendra kept coming back to see Ramakrishna even when Ramakrishna purposely ignored him.29
Roy backs up her "erotic solicitation" premise by citing the following quotation from Sumit Sarkar's Kathamrita as Text: "Girish Ghosh confessed that seeing Ramakrishna 'playing' with a young disciple made him recall a 'terrible canard' that he had once heard about the saint" (Sarkar 1985, 103). While several contemporary Ramakrishna scholars, including Jeffrey Kripal, have referred to Sarkar's quotation, others now cite this quotation from Kālī's Child, which quotes Sarkar who quotes yet another source. But no one has bothered to look at the original quotation—everyone seemingly content to quote Sarkar or Kripal. But who and what, after all, was Sarkar quoting?
The book Sarkar cites is Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa o Baṅga Raṅgamañca, written by Naliniranjan Chattopadhyay, a college lecturer who was a close devotee of the Ramakrishna Order. Chattopadhyay's book quotes from Girish Ghosh's reminiscences, in which Girish recalls one of his first encounters with Ramakrishna. One evening Ramakrishna visited the Star Theater and began speaking with Girish on many subjects. "I felt as if a big current were rising to my head and falling," Girish remembered. "In the meantime, [Ramakrishna] became immersed in bhāva. In that state of bhāva, it looked as if he were playing with a devotee boy" (ekṭi bālak bhakter sohit bhābābasthāy jeno krīḍā korite lāgilen). The word "play" (krīḍā) means just that in Bengali. Play. A playground, for example, is krīḍāṅgan. Girish continues:
Long back, I had heard criticism (nindā) of Paramahaṁsadev from a very wicked person (durdānto pāṣaṇḍa). Seeing this play with the boy, the thought of that criticism rose in my mind. Paramahaṁsadev's bhāva came to an end. He looked at me and said, "There is crookedness (bām̐k) in your mind." I thought, there are, of course, many crookednesses [in my mind] but I did not understand which crookedness he was referring to. I asked him, "How will crookedness go?" Paramahaṁsadev said, "Develop faith" (biśvās koro). (Chattopadhyay, 41)
While Sumit Sarkar has translated nindā as "terrible canard," there is no word in the Bengali text which suggests the adjective "terrible" before nindā, which means criticism, slander or vilification. Girish simply states: Paramahaṁsadeber nindā śuniyāchilām: I had heard criticism (or vilification or slander) of Paramahaṁsadev. Further, Sarkar's sentence, "Girish confessed that seeing Ramakrishna 'playing' with a young disciple," makes it appear as if Girish was unwillingly admitting something about Ramakrishna. Yet the "confession" we find here is Girish's own reminiscence, as he tells the world that the minute the slander about Ramakrishna came to his mind, Ramakrishna instantly came down from his bhāva to a normal state of consciousness and made a comment on the crooked (bām̐k) state of Girish's mind. Girish readily concurred with Ramakrishna's assessment: Girish's concern was how to remove those many "crookednesses," not about the nindā he had heard about Ramakrishna.
We have no idea of the nature of the criticism or slander that Girish heard "long ago." We only know that seeing Ramakrishna in bhāva, playing as it were (jeno) with a devotee boy, Girish remembered the nindā that he had heard long ago. We can, however, speculate about the nature of the criticism or slander which Girish heard. One possibility is that since Girish writes that he heard the criticism "long ago," the criticism could very well have been that Ramakrishna was insane; after all, when in bhāva Ramakrishna often seemed to be conversing with an imaginary person. This was the most common criticism of Ramakrishna, especially before Ramakrishna became popular in later years. There were more than a few people who believed that Ramakrishna's visions and extreme longing for God were the result of simple insanity. Swami Prabhavananda recalled that when he was growing up in Vishnupur, a village located not far from Kamarpukur, the old village women still spoke of pāgal Gadai, crazy Gadai (Ramakrishna's childhood name).
Another strong possibility concerning the nature of the slander is a memory of Girish's own. Before Girish had been introduced to Ramakrishna, Girish was invited by his neighbor, Balaram Bose—a close householder disciple of Ramakrishna—to visit his home to see Ramakrishna. Girish accepted Balaram's invitation and found Ramakrishna already there, seated next to Bidhu, a nautch (dancing) girl who was singing devotional songs. "I used to think that those who consider themselves paramahaṁsas or yogis do not speak with anybody," Girish said. "They do not salute anybody. If strongly urged, they allow others to serve them." Girish continues:
But the behavior of this paramahaṁsa was quite different. With the utmost humility he was showing respect to everybody by bowing his head on the ground. An old friend of mine, pointing at him, said sarcastically: "Bidhu has had a previous intimacy with him. That's why he is laughing and joking with her." But I did not like his insinuations. (Chetanananda 1990, 330)
This does indeed seem to be a likely source of the nindā. Another possible "slander" was that Ramakrishna was epileptic and his religious experiences were the result of epileptic seizures; this "slander" also had some currency in earlier years as well. While there are endless speculations that can be made about that mysterious nindā, we would do well to keep in mind that while Ramakrishna had any number of critics, there is no record of his contemporaries ever having questioned his sexual orientation, though they certainly did question his sanity.
In conclusion, Kripal's claim that Roy's work was proof of indigenous acceptance of Kālī's Child may have more to do with her recommendation of Kālī's Child "for a careful and fascinating reading of the relationship of Ramakrishna's 'homosexuality' to his mysticism" (Roy, 195) than to Roy's own merits as a Ramakrishna scholar.30
Though the dust from Kālī's Child had largely settled in Kolkata, reviews in Western journals continued to appear, brought about, one suspects, by increased interest due to the unexpected appearance of Hindu furor.
In April 1998 Hugh Urban wrote another review of Kālī's Child, this time for Journal of Religion. In this review, Urban refers to the "intense controversy among both Western and Indian audiences," and goes on to make a point which begged for further investigation: "The same work that won a major award from the American Academy of Religion has also been the target of scathing attack by Bengali readers outraged at Kripal's suggestion that their national hero may have had homosexual inclinations." Urban characterizes the book as "truly original, often scandalously provocative, and perhaps revolutionary" and adds: "Kripal's book penetrates the layers of pious obfuscation ... to recover the original Bengali texts ... which had been mistranslated and censored by later disciples" (Urban 1998, 318). Urban nevertheless observes that the book has troubling problems: "Perhaps most pervasive of these is Kripal's tendency toward sensationalism." Urban goes on to say that it is not "difficult to understand why some Indian critics should regard Kripal's work as yet another example of neocolonialism and the West's exploitation of the 'exotic Orient'" (319).
Steven F. Walker
Steven F. Walker's review in Religion questions a number of Kripal's theses while praising the author for "locating ... the ways in which the image of Ramakrishna in the West was made to seem more respectable to potentially censorious Occidental eyes through the omission or bowdlerization of potentially offending references to the sensual and the sexual" (211). Kripal is persuasive, Walker states, "when he foregrounds the role that Tantrism played in Ramakrishna's mystical sadhana and later teachings." He observes that the book appears at a time "when interest in Tantrism is running high in the West" (210). Conversely, Walker finds that the book's "psychoanalytic foundation is shaky" and Kripal "heavy-handed in his diagnosis of unconscious homosexuality as the key to some of Ramakrishna's 'secrets'" (209). Kripal "succumbs too quickly to the pleasures of armchair psychology, providing facile explanations of complex phenomena" (210). "The problem," Walker states,
is that he has got it wrong. . . . Kripal seems to have no particular theory as to what might constitute homosexuality and its characteristics. He simply assumes we know what it is. . . . This casual approach is fine for beach reading, for which repressed homosexuality is an entertaining, if somewhat pleasantly old-fashioned, topic, but it is more than a bit thin for a scholarly book. (210)
Walker goes on to say that "even if [Ramakrishna's] spiritual practice of cross dressing were to be interpreted as betraying the presence of unsublimated sexuality, it would still be no clear indication of unconscious homosexuality. Many other such examples ... fail to convince this reader that Ramakrishna, who ... as an adept of the Tantra, was singularly free from shame and aversion, would have been unable to recognize homosexual tendencies in himself and would have been fortunate if only Kripal had been born soon enough to enlighten him about them." Walker notes that "there is much [in Ramakrishna] that points toward a pronounced feminine gender self-image. This was an indicator of unconscious homosexuality is dubious." Preferring Kakar's view of Ramakrishna to Kripal's, Walker states that "after reading Kripal in the light of Kakar, I would say that Ramakrishna was not so much 'Kali's Child' as 'the Child as Kali' or (to amend Kripal's title even further) 'Kali's Self'" (211).
William Radice's 1998 favorable review in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies mentions the storm Kālī's Child produced "in the still quite prudish atmosphere of Calcutta, where Ramakrishna is deeply revered and the Ramakrishna Mission ... is widely respected." Proficient in Bengali, Radice observes that "the praise and prizes [Kālī's Child] ... received, if anything worsened the outrage." Radice largely blames Sil's "lurid review" for provoking the strength of the outburst, though he notes that with "the growing emphasis on the erotic aspects of Ramakrishna's visions" such a reaction "was inevitable." While Radice characterizes Sil's Ramakrishna Paramahamsa as "mischievous," Radice finds Kripal's approach "subtle and respectful. . . . Whereas Sil set out to capsize Ramakrishna, Kripal wishes to rescue him" (160).
Radice discusses the "intriguing possibility" that more of M's diaries are in existence, "preserved under lock and key by the Ramakrishna Mission and are still 'off limits to questioning minds'" (160). As we have already seen, however, this assumption is not correct. Radice quotes Kripal as his authority, but M's diaries are not, nor have they ever been, "under lock and key by the Ramakrishna Mission."
Not an issue, Radice writes, is "the saint's homosexual leanings and his horror of women as lovers"; the more interesting question is "would Ramakrishna's visions have been as rich and intense if he had not been so constituted? Can one imagine a heterosexual Ramakrishna? Kripal's resounding answer is 'No'" (160)—a point with which Radice appears to concur. Finding Kripal more persuasive than Kakar, Radice sees Kripal's most important achievement as "his successful reconciliation of Tantra with psychoanalysis" (161). Radice asks whether Kripal makes "a mountain out of a molehill" with his emphasis on Ramakrishna's guhya Kathā —"secret talks"—which only number eighteen. Radice responds: "Not if one accepts his [Kripal's] view that these passages take one to the core of Ramakrishna's mysticism, and are therefore a lens through which one can validly read the whole Kathāmṛta" (160). Radice concludes with the hope that in the future, Kripal will "give equal attention to the vastly greater proportion of [the Kathāmṛta] that was not secret," adding that "the erotic-Tantric lens is not the only one through which the Kathāmṛta can be read" (161).
John S. Hawley
In his review of Kālī's Child which appeared in History of Religions, John S. Hawley boldly declares: "Only a few books make such a major contribution to their field that from the moment of publication things are never again quite the same. Kālī's Child is such a book" (1998, 401). Hawley points out that Kripal is the first author to focus persuasively "on Ramakrishna's sexuality as being religiously significant" (402). He asserts that "Kripal offers ample proof that Ramakrishna ... had a very significantly homosexual side" (401). Hawley then questions: "Why should Ramakrishna's homoeroticism be so disturbing?" Hawley suggests that this is partially due to Kripal's subversion of "the disembodied Vedantin reading of Ramakrishna" that was presented through The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the "sanitized, bowdlerized translation" of the Kathāmṛta. In describing a visit to New York's Vedanta Society and what he observed there, Hawley locates what he believes to be the animus behind the visceral rejection of Kālī's Child: the book's theses run utterly contrary to the tradition that has grown around the personalities of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Sarada Devi. For Ramakrishna devotees, the position of Sarada would become especially problematic. A homoerotically oriented Ramakrishna would make Sarada's celibacy a matter not of choice but of necessity, effectively removing her from the pedestal upon which the tradition has placed her. In this case, Ramakrishna and Sarada's "partnership cannot have been founded on the idealized, mutually shared sexual self-abnegation that sectarian writers wanted to believe, though it is possible that Sharada Devi thought it was" (402). Hawley seems to suggest here that Sarada herself may not have been aware of her husband's presumed sexual orientation.
Hawley notes that some of the followers of Ramakrishna were "struggling" to assimilate Kripal's analysis. This is reminiscent of Kripal's appreciation for a Ramakrishna devotee who "had learned to reread his own tradition" as a result of "the new light" provided by Kālī's Child (KC, xxiv). In both cases, the suggestion is that the tradition's own interpretative model falls short, its light being comparatively dim. By contrast, Hawley sees Kālī's Child's strength in that it "bathes psychoanalysis in the light of Tantra" and Kripal, by revealing Ramakrishna's "homoerotic secret," is able to turn "that secret into a searching beacon" (Hawley 1998, 404).
Nodding to the controversy swirling about Kālī's Child, Hawley states that the book has been "a bit of a bombshell" (401). That said, he finds it to be "a wonderfully exuberant book—spirited, sympathetic, complex" (404). He does point out, however, that in his own university, students of South Asian descent questioned Kālī's Child's presence on the syllabus, at least without a "balancing" text to offer another view of Ramakrishna (401).
Brian Hatcher's 1999 article, "Kālī's Problem Child: Another look at Jeffrey Kripal's Study of Śrī Rāmakṛṣṇa," was published in the International Journal of Hindu Studies. The article states that Hatcher and his student Andrew Busch journeyed to India in order to have the student learn about Ramakrishna. During an informal gathering which consisted of "another university professor, a novelist, a couple physicians, and a journalist" who were "admittedly not a representative crosssection of Calcuttan society," the discussion turned to Kālī's Child. None of those in the room were offended by Kripal's theses; one physician laughed, and exclaimed, "What a marvelous idea!" (165). From this group of five Bengalis, there were questions for Kripal, such as: "What could it mean to speak of homosexual behavior in Rāmakṛṣṇa's world?" Yet we are also told that "there was no defensiveness and certainly no outraged Bengali pride." Hatcher tells us of this scenario while informing the reader of the article's purpose: "In light of the wildly varying responses to Kripal's book, it may be worthwhile to consider some of the issues surrounding its critical reception" (166).
While Kripal asserts that "Brian Hatcher ... travelled to Calcutta to do fieldwork on the reception of my work there, [and] found support for it among Bengalis" (Kripal 2002, 199),31 Hatcher and Busch had a very different story to tell. There is, in fact, nothing in the preliminary report filed by Hatcher and Busch which suggests that the book "found support among the Bengalis." On the contrary, Busch's and Hatcher's report states:
The planned project was not able to work for the simple fact that I underestimated the amount of hostility that the Bengali people, especially people affiliated with the Mission, had towards Kripal and his book. . . . I found that the only people who were willing to speak with me about the book were scholars, and they were generally not open to Kripal's thesis, save for two who have been living in the West for an extended period of time. . . .
I have recently completed a rough draft of a paper that questions a scholar's rights and motives in using his or her own cultural constructs to analyze something that has no similar constructs. This is the case with Kripal and "Kali's Child." . . . Overall, my experience in India made me question what it means to have academic freedom, and how truth has different meanings for different people. (Busch and Hatcher, 1998)
Hatcher frames the first portion of his essay under the subheading: "What Kripal Was Up Against," which does not suggest so much critical analysis as it does circling the wagons. Hatcher asserts that Ramakrishna was Kālī's Child—universally confirmed both by scholars and popular Kolkata posters—yet upon entering the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata, Hatcher complains, Kālī is not to be found. Hatcher compares the Kālī temple in Dakshineswar with "the almost compulsive cleanliness of the Rāmakṛṣṇa folks" who "have thrown the mother out with the bath water," and have left Ramakrishna orphaned, "packed off to the stern and orderly confines of the Order" (Hatcher, 167).
It seems unfair, however, to compare Dakshineswar's Kālī temple with the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. The Institute of Culture is, after all, an educational facility with auditoriums and classrooms. It is not a temple. Further, it was specifically planned with Western guests in mind—particularly Western scholars and students—in the hope that they could reside there in relative ease. Of course it will not resemble the Dakshineswar Kālī temple. Moreover, the criticism of the alleged banishment of Kālī from the Ramakrishna Order, an idea currently prevailing in Western academia, does not take into account the strict and elaborate rituals required when Kālī's presence is invoked through a picture or image. Kālī is considered an ugradevatā, and any failure in her ritualistic service is understood to be extremely inauspicious. Placing Kālī on an altar is very different from placing a Buddha or a Ganeśa as a decorative piece in one's household. It is precisely because the Order understands Kālī to be very real indeed that her presence is taken very seriously and she is worshiped only in specific places at specified times and always with the greatest care and devotion.32
Hatcher suggests that since Ramakrishna "was more a Tantric devotee than an Advaitin" (167), there has been an attempt to "'reform' the problem child," Ramakrishna (168). We can see here a Western binary that is not intrinsic to the Hindu tradition—that is, if one practices Tantra, one cannot be an Advaitin or the reverse—and that one affiliation precludes the other. Hatcher nevertheless goes on to caution the reader: "If one is going to join Kripal in his work, one is going to have to join in an uphill battle. Every inch of ground will be contested" (168). Hatcher avers that there is a great challenge to have one's arguments heard "when confronting a century-old institution whose origins amid the vortex of colonial power/knowledge and nascent nationalism more than account for its curious philosophy of dogmatic toleration and inflexible apologetic. . . . The followers of Rāmakṛṣṇa are not just touting a sādhana, they are defining and defending a cultural tradition. For better or worse, the linchpin for that defense is the figure of a rather crude, if charismatic, mystic" (168). If this linchpin is found to be motivated by Tantra and "the dynamics of homoerotic desire," then one is "threatening to reveal a secret that has been kept carefully guarded for a century" (169).
Having presented the opposing armies on the battlefield, Hatcher marshals the forces of the Western academic army to bolster Kripal's defenses, noting that Kālī's Child has been praised by scholars of religion and by experts on South Asian culture. Despite the fact that some reviewers have had misgivings, "their overall verdict has been an approving, and at times highly laudatory, one" (169). Ranged against the laudatory reviews are ones who have questioned Kripal's competence in Bengali. Hatcher, himself proficient in Bengali, certifies that Kripal is competent in Bengali, and whatever errors he made in the book's first edition were corrected for the second (170).
Admitting that Kripal gives "a degree of prominence" to the so-called secret-talk passages in the Kathāmṛta, Hatcher suggests that these passages allow Kripal "to develop the hermeneutical key that unlocks the mystery of the entire Kathāmṛta" (171). He also upholds Kripal's psychoanalytic reading of Ramakrishna and defends him against charges of "reductionism" made by other scholars. Coming down heavily upon Gerald Larson for attributing monocausal reductionism to Kripal's analysis and suggesting that Kripal should have engaged with the tradition, Hatcher agrees with Kripal that Larson quotes him out of context and suggests that Larson "selected his quotations for maximum effect" (173). Hatcher defends Kripal's "fixation on secrecy" as "a function of what he experienced as a scholar attempting to discuss theories and propose conclusions" that were not openly discussed within the Ramakrishna Order (176).
Perhaps to provide a sense of balance to his generally laudatory review, Hatcher suggests that Kālī's Child "does not give adequate consideration to a whole host of issues, not the least of which concern the origin, development, and continuing agency of the Order within modern Bengal." He argues that as a historian of religion, Kripal should have directed more attention to "the cultural ethos and religiopolitical context of colonial and postcolonial Bengal." Hatcher goes on to write that he has one misgiving about Kripal's book and "it is that it treats Rāmakṛṣṇa and his followers in a sort of historical and political vacuum; it seems benignly unconcerned, for instance, with issues of colonialism and representation" (177). Hatcher also questions Kripal's claim that "Ramakrishna's secrets have been concealed by his followers" since the Bengali utterances of Ramakrishna are easily available at the centers of the Ramakrishna Order and "are not passed under the counter with a wink" (178). A more sensitive attention to "the dynamics of cultural formation that gave us both Rāmakṛṣṇa and the Rāmakṛṣṇa Order might have given a Bengali reader, at least, the sense that Kripal had more on his mind than a smear campaign" (178).
While the Kālī's Child controversy was simmering away in the Western arena, it was assumed that the controversy was being hotly replicated in India. Kripal in his Preface to the Second Edition of Kālī's Child writes that the book is "wished away in an entire country" (xxiv). Yet this was not the case; the vast majority of the population had never heard of it, even in West Bengal, even among Ramakrishna devotees. As we have seen, Sil's review in The Statesman elicited an outraged response to both the review and Kālī's Child. Yet we should remember that this was the response of a very small urban, English-speaking elite in Kolkata and Delhi, which is hardly representative of India or the general milieu of Ramakrishna devotees throughout India. Further, the majority of Ramakrishna devotees in India do not read The Statesman, which—with editions only in Kolkata and Delhi—has a substantially smaller readership than other major Indian newspapers.
Swami Tyagananda, for example, stationed in Chennai as editor of the Vedanta Kesari during these years, had only heard of Kālī's Child— long after its publication—through an American correspondent. Had Tyagananda's position not necessitated contact with English-speaking Westerners—which in itself is a fairly unusual position—it is likely that he might never have heard of the book at all. It was not that the book or the controversy was suppressed, it simply was not an issue to begin with. Even now, many years after the book's publication, there are any number of Ramakrishna monastics and devotees who have never heard of the book or the controversy. A book about Ramakrishna written by a Western academic does not evoke much interest on the part of the general Hindu population, particularly those who do not belong to the educated cosmopolitan elite. For most Hindus, a sādhu's words will carry authority, not those of a scholar who is not a sādhu or at least a practicing Hindu. To assume, therefore, that there was a uniform response of burning outrage to Kālī's Child is to presuppose that the book garnered more attention within the ranks of the Ramakrishna Order (what to speak of the general population) than it actually did.
A fair and accurate statement would be that those Vedanta Societies and branches of the Ramakrishna Order that have historically interfaced with Western scholars were aware of Kālī's Child and their reaction to the book was uniformly negative. Within these Centers, however, there were two general views concerning the Kālī's Child controversy. By far the most prevalent opinion was that the book was trash and there was no point in trying to correct the misinformation printed in it because to deal with trash was a waste of time and energy. The book was so obviously full of misinformation and mistranslations that one could not take it seriously. Truth would inevitably prevail, so there was little point in tarring one's hands or wasting one's time on a book that was not based on documented facts and a book which would not stand the test of time. The minority view was that misinformation produced by academia tended to replicate itself and unless the misinformation was corrected, the theses presented in Kālī's Child would be presumed accurate. Further, while the misinformation about Ramakrishna in Kālī's Child was only an issue in the West, not in India where the vast majority of Ramakrishna devotees lived, it was an injustice to allow misinformation to stand uncorrected. Again it should be stressed that there was no uniform viewpoint either on the part of those who are in the governing body of the Ramakrishna Order or on the part of its monastics or devotees. And again, for the large majority of people associated with the Order, it never was an issue at all.
We have seen that Swami Atmajnanananda took the view that a published rebuttal was necessary, as did Pravrajika Vrajaprana, whose negative review of Kālī's Child was published in the Hindu-Christian Studies Bulletin in 1997 (59-60). Most significant of all the responses coming from inside the tradition was Swami Tyagananda's photocopied rebuttal, "Kali's Child Revisited or Didn't Anyone Check the Documentation?" which was informally distributed at the November 2000 American Academy of Religion meeting. As Arvind Sharma noted: "Tyagananda ... questioned [Kripal's] linguistic competence in Bengali on which the whole thesis hinged. . . . Kripal did not respond to Tyagananda's critique in any detail, and to date still has not. Such perceived indifference to an obviously credible critic was noticed by the Hindu community, and independent scholars within the community took it upon themselves to explore the matter further" (Arvind Sharma, 2004). Tyagananda's response to Kālī's Child inaugurated what would become a cascade of responses from the insider community, critiquing what it perceived to be the prejudicial treatment of Hindu religious figures. This response has continued to gain both social and political momentum as time has passed. Meanwhile, Hindu academics were continuing to respond to the issues raised in Kālī's Child.
Renuka Sharma's stinging review, "The Foot in the Lap or Kripal's Discontent," was published in Sophia in 2001, and critiques a number of the basic theses which constitute the framework of Kālī's Child. Sharma, before her untimely death in 2002, was a psychotherapist, feminist philosopher, and social activist in Australia and India. Sharma wrote that there is no evidence based upon ethnographical work corroborating Ramakrishna's homosexuality. Neither is there valid psychoanalytic evidence, nor has the issue been "debated with scholars of the rich Indian exegetical scholarship." Sharma characterizes the appreciation of North American scholars as spurious: "Among the reasons advanced are: the inexorability of the connection between 'sexuality and spirituality' (universalized to the Indian subcontinent)" along with the use of "the new-found strategic template of psychoanalysis" and "the as-it-wereconstitutional right of the outsider-scholar to interrogate the workings of (an)other's cultural productions" (77).
Sharma comes down heavily upon Kripal's "veneer of psychoanalysis and symbolic deconstruction. . . . The imperialistic use of some outdated dogmas of psychoanalysis perpetuates a kind of psychoorientalism that, indeed, Indian feminists ... argue are a construct of masculinity as a well-known colonial ruse" (78). As a psychoanalytictrained psychiatrist, Sharma is dubious about the use of psychoanalysis as a valid interpretive device, since there is "growing reflection within psychoanalysis of its own doubtful status as a science" (78-79).
From this vantage point, Sharma defines a critical issue in the debate: the political and social location of the analyst and the analysand. This, Sharma writes, opens a new theoretical space from within the practice of psychoanalysis, and it is from this space that she wishes to interrogate Kripal: "Might the tome be actually autobiographical, while the publishers and untutored readers have taken it to be simply about Sri Ramakrishna's life?" Sharma goes on to suggest that "this auto-analysis is enacted through the medium of the construction of the hagiography of a ... saint (sant) in another tradition." With this, Sharma places Kālī's Child squarely in the "whole tradition of colonial psychoanalysis which neatly defines 'the Indian personality'—as being homophobic, motherhating, [and]... deeply feminized" (80).
At the heart of the Kālī's Child debate lies an issue which is rarely addressed, and it is this issue which Sharma directly confronts: "Which culture's homosexuality or homophobia ... is precisely at stake here or put on the couch?" In Sharma's estimation the issue is clearly not Ramakrishna's sexuality but the problems Western scholars have with personal and cultural transference. About Ramakrishna's sexuality, Sharma questions: "Why did this question even come up? What motivates one to fly cross thousands of miles away from home to probe this matter? Is the agenda controlled from elsewhere or by an overdrive within a particular mode of late (still de-orientalizing) Western scholarship?" (81). Sharma's review makes it clear that, in her view, the de-orientalizing process in Western scholarship has a long way to go.
What were the issues behind this protracted debate? With the specter of "censorship" and the perceived threat of "book banning," the most immediate issue arising within the academic community was that of academic freedom. Should a scholar avoid speaking what she or he feels to be true simply to avoid offending the insider community? Scholars of religion can walk an uneasy tightrope between speaking the truth as they see it and abiding by any responsibility they might feel toward the religious community. On the other hand, the insider community often feels powerless, believing its voice to be either silenced or disregarded by the secular academy. Moreover, the insider community has had the bitter experience of being mocked or patronized—raising the ancient specter of racism (either correctly or incorrectly perceived), and this dynamic has created frustration and anger against those who would like to remove the debate from their playing field. For the insider community, it was not a question of an unlevel playing field; their perception was that the playing field was being removed altogether from their neighborhood. A small example: In her Foreword to Kālī's Child, Wendy Doniger assesses the book to be a "fair-minded formulation" (ix)—to which the insider community response was: "Who defines what is 'fair'?" In his Preface to the second edition of Kālī's Child, Kripal writes: "The case of Ramakrishna's homosexuality ... seems to be closed" (xxi)—to which the insider community response was: "Who gets to be the arbiter? Who is qualified to make those judgments?"
To make matters more complicated, each community—whether academic or insider—tended to visualize the conflict in terms of its own history. While Western scholars tended to see a Hindu replay of the American conservative/liberal debate over "family values" versus personal choice or of sexual repression versus sexual liberation, these issues are far from universal, though their universal validity is often assumed in Western secular communities. To the devotee community, the debate brought back memories of colonial domination, racial discrimination and having one's religion belittled.
Given the enormous differences between Hindu religious culture and the secular Western academy with the intellectual standards it is expected to uphold, it is not surprising that there would be intrinsic difficulties in translating language, culture, cultural values and religious ideals from one language/history/culture to another. The scholar automatically faces difficulties in deeply understanding radically divergent worldviews and the attitudes which attend these worldviews. Historically, Western scholars have often pathologized the cultural and religious practices which are at variance with those already familiar and considered normative. In recent years there has been a move toward a conscious awareness of cross-cultural issues when addressing the concerns inherent in teaching the religious traditions of non-Western cultures. The secular Western university system is, after all, a product of the Enlightenment, which was profoundly influenced by Europe's Christian heritage. In discussing this issue, Richard King has observed that "religious studies as a cognitive discipline may actually distort or reduce that which it is claiming to investigate and explain." King continues, noting that
the secular framework upon which the modern discipline of religious studies is founded may actually subordinate religious phenomena and emic explanations of it to a secular meta-discourse. In other words, to what extent does the secular study of religion subvert or devalue religious beliefs and explanations of the world? (King 1999b, 42-43)
With King's remarks kept in mind, we now move to a related discussion of the role translation plays in the debate.
Translations and interpretations cannot be separated from worldview—whether secular or religious. Every translation presupposes a worldview and every translation is also an interpretation, a view through the lens of someone else's world. In the next two chapters of this book, we will address the problematics and issues behind this cross-cultural procedure along with the question of accurate documentation, since no translation can be freed from the original source materials from which it is taken.