Interpretation in Cross-cultural Contexts
Using secular tools to interpret sacred materials is not an innocent enterprise.
—Huston Smith, A Magic Still Dwells
Translating and interpreting are two distinct processes, yet they are so intimately related that any attempt to pull them apart becomes an act of futility. In her article "Translating into English," Gayatri Spivak leads off with an abrupt fiat: "I'd like to begin with what should be an obvious point. That the translator should make an attempt to grasp the writer's presuppositions." But there, as we know, lies the rub. Spivak continues by stating the obvious: "Translation is not just the stringing together of the most accurate synonyms" (Spivak, 93). This is the case because translation always involves interpretation. The translator needs to interpret the sense in which a word or a phrase is used in the original text in order to choose its most appropriate equivalent in the language of the translation. By its very nature, "interpretation" is subjective and is dependent upon the perspective, knowledge and purpose of the interpreter.
Translation is intrinsically problematic because of the very nature of language and culture. In Nation, Language and the Ethics of Translation, Sandra Bermann writes that "if language is not a simple nomenclature for pre-established and universally recognized 'meanings,' as most contemporary language philosophers agree, translation can never be a complete or transparent transferal of semantic content" (5). Yet translate we must, as frustrating a task as it is, as incommensurable as languages are, translate we must. But when we translate, we do so knowing the task to be delicate, subtle, extraordinarily difficult and laden with ethical responsibility. To again quote Bermann: "[Translation] requires attention to cultural values, to economic and political inequalities, to individual choices and, perhaps most obviously, to otherness in its linguistic and cultural forms. In the process, it foregrounds some explicitly ethical questions" (5).
Because of the otherness inherent in languages and cultures other than our own, there can be no translation that is purely "objective." Furthermore, interpreting the sense of a word or a phrase in a text involves interpreting the event that is being described or the context in which it occurs. When more than one interpretation is possible, as is frequently the case in cross-cultural contexts, a scholar must address these questions: Do I interpret the event from my perspective or from the perspective of those who were direct participants in the event? In the case of a historical text, do I interpret the event as it was perceived at the time of its occurrence, or do I interpret it from the standpoint of the present time? What is gained—and what is lost—when we try to understand an event that occurred in one cultural setting by using categories and applying theories from a vastly different cultural setting? If interpretation is necessarily subjective, are there any objective standards which the interpreter needs to uphold?
All of these questions become relevant when examining the issue of interpretation in Kālī's Child, which uses categories and theories alien to the cultural and religious settings in which the principal events described in the book took place.1 In this chapter we shall focus on only three of the major issues: the mystical/sexual connection, liṅga/yoni symbolism, and Ramakrishna's alleged misogyny.
Kālī's Child informs the reader that Ramakrishna was "a lonely young man despairing of his life" (KC, 325), who suffered "tormenting shame ... for his homosexual desires" (344). These "homosexual desires ... [were] the driving, shaping force of his mystical life" (324). Kripal contends that Ramakrishna's mysticism was the direct result of his sexuality. On this point he pulls no punches: "These homoerotic energies ... were his mysticism." Just to make his point completely unambiguous, he adds: "Let me be very clear: without the conflicted energies of the saint's homosexual desires. . . . there would have been no 'Ramakrishna'" (322). To add religio/cultural weight to his thesis, Hinduism's liṅga/yoni symbolism is appealed to in an attempt to demonstrate that it played a major role in Ramakrishna's life and teachings (230-31). Finally, Kripal contends that Ramakrishna's sexual orientation and past experiences with women largely explain why he "hated and feared women as Lovers and worshiped them as Mothers" (280). These three issues are related but need to be analyzed separately.
But first some general observations: Kālī's Child asserts that the writings of Vivekananda and Saradananda "fail miserably to meet the standards of historical accuracy and scholarly objectivity" because they were "created in a particular social context" and were "intended for a specific audience" (171). Since Kālī's Child claims both historical accuracy and scholarly objectivity, one must assume it to be unique in that it was not created in a particular social context and not intended for a specific audience.2 Sheldon Pollock, however, reminds us that "disinterested scholarship in the human sciences, like any other social act, takes place within the realm of interests ... its objectivity is bounded by subjectivity." The only form of scholarship that appears value-free "is the one that conforms fully to the dominant ideology, which alone remains, in the absence of critique, invisible as ideology" (Pollock, 96).
Let us examine the assertion that Vivekananda and the other monks of the Ramakrishna Order were not only incapable of being objective but also had personal and political reasons not to be accurate in their representations of Ramakrishna. If Vivekananda, Saradananda and others in the Ramakrishna Order can be assumed to have some personal and ideological axes to grind (indeed, they are accused of manipulating information about Ramakrishna), then it is not outrageous to question if Kripal may not have carried his own axe along, consciously or unconsciously. Whether we notice the existence of others' axes may very well depend upon our own cultural norms and prejudices.
While presenting Kālī's Child as a model of scholarly objectivity, Kripal blames Vivekananda and others for having "cleaned up Ramakrishna"—Ramakrishna's disciples being either unable or unwilling to present the "'original' Ramakrishna" (KC, 171). The unwitting hubris (Kripal can locate the "original" Ramakrishna while those who lived with him cannot) displayed here is second only to the author's assurance that his own writing is free from such drawbacks. He assures his readers that he is offering "a historically accurate, psychologically nuanced reading" (2). In attempting to retrieve the "original" Ramakrishna, Kālī's Child's Ramakrishna is carefully constructed not to be "cleaned up," yet in doing so Kripal creates a Ramakrishna of his own making—a kind of reverse-Pygmalion—via his own cultural and psychological presumptions.
How "objective," after all, can anyone be? The presumption that as insiders, both Vivekananda and Saradananda were incapable of being objective, while Kripal, as the outsider scholar, is, begs examination. If insiders can routinely be dismissed as incapable of being objective in evaluating or describing their own traditions, how objective can outsiders be in representing a tradition of which they are not a part?
The representation of the Other's religion carries within it a problematic, for there is intrinsically an unequal power dynamic between the one who is allowed to represent and those who are represented. There is an even greater problematic in representing a tradition which has historically been exploited by colonialism and Orientalism. One of the ways in which Hinduism traditionally has been exploited is through dismissing the native voice while assigning the power of representation to those who are presumed to understand the tradition better because of their status as "objective" outsiders. Yet no matter how objective we may feel our appraisals to be, our interpretations are necessarily informed by our historical location, culture, values, religious background, political persuasion and socio-economic level. No interpreter can bring a tabula rasa to his or her interpretation. "No representation is a neutral or innocent activity," Sharada Sugirtharajah points out. "It functions as an interpretive act at the same time" (2003, 69). Which brings us back to our original conundrum of pulling apart translation from interpretation. Whenever we translate, we interpret; whenever we interpret, we necessarily include the shadow of a self-portrait. As David Richards has written: "The representation of other cultures invariably entails the presentation of self-portraits, in that those people who are observed are overshadowed or eclipsed by the observer" (Richards, 289).3
We can begin with the thesis that Ramakrishna was "not fully aware of his own Tantric identity"—in fact, "Ramakrishna's secret was secret even to himself" (KC, 5; italics in text). The book provides the italics in order to emphasize the significance of its thesis that Ramakrishna did not understand the basis of his own spiritual life, nor did he understand his own motivations, nor did he understand the relationship between the erotic and the mystical. Indeed, one of the book's central theses is "that Ramakrishna's mystical experiences were constituted by mystico-erotic energies that he neither fully accepted nor understood" (4; italics in text). Again, these italics are in the text to emphasize their significance to the book's central thesis as a whole. We are told that Ramakrishna "even denied this basic Tantric equation of the mystical and the erotic" (5). Nevertheless, Kripal declares that Ramakrishna was a Tantric, though he was not aware of it. Ramakrishna was equally mistaken about his lived experience as a mystic, though he apparently was not aware of that either.
If Ramakrishna "denies" the connection (or at least the connection that the book has made) between the erotic and the mystical, then Ramakrishna must either be invincibly ignorant or suffering from psychopathology. For the insider community, this sort of Hobson's choice is as frustrating as it is offensive. Kripal rubs salt into the wound by stating that those disagreeing with his understanding of Ramakrishna suffer either from homophobia or racism4 or are kowtowing to the "politics of 'identity correctness' and 'cultural purity'" (2004, 203). We are told in the Preface to the book's second edition: "What we are seeing in the controversy surrounding the book is not a balanced scholarly debate. . . . [but] a deep cultural rejection of homosexuality" (KC, xxi). How can there be even conversation, let alone "balanced scholarly debate," if those who question the book's theses are so insouciantly dismissed?
If Ramakrishna was ignorant about himself, it was due to the fact that he "lacked the hermeneutical key" to understand his visions and behavior (KC, 327). Yet the privileged position of holding the hermeneutical keys seems to be allocated—at least as far as Ramakrishna studies is concerned—to outsiders alone. In the Kathāmṛta Ramakrishna describes the following vision:
There was a fog of bliss all around. A thirteen or fourteen year old boy rose from within it. The face was visible. He looked like Purna. We were both naked. Afterwards both of us ran in the field and played in great delight. After running Purna felt thirsty. He drank water from a glass and came forward to offer me the rest. I said, Brother! I can't take your leftovers. Then he laughed and after washing the glass brought me fresh water in it. (KA 4.259)
About this vision, Kripal writes that he doubts whether "Ramakrishna himself grasped the meaning of his fog of bliss vision. It was too close to him, too immediate. He himself was lost in the fog" (KC, 309). Yet while Ramakrishna was "lost in the fog"—along with Vivekananda, Saradananda, the Ramakrishna Order, along with literally millions of Bengalis and Bengali readers who, for five generations, have closely studied the Kathāmṛta—the outsider trained in the Western academy suffers no such debility.5 There is no fog with which to contend since, as Kripal writes, "the historian of religions is outside it" (309).
Asserting that the images in the above vision "did not make sense to the saint," Kripal writes that, by contrast, the historian of religions "encounters them in the light of his waking reason and its interpretive powers" (309). While Kripal insists that "misplaced 'orientalism'" is not to be found in Kālī's Child (xviii), for the insider community, the idea that the Western academic has a corner on the market of rationality appears very much like the old, familiar orientalism of earlier generations.
If there is a danger of subjectivity when insiders interpret their own texts, there is also a danger of subjectivity when an outsider to the tradition translates and interprets the same texts. This "danger"—if, in fact, there is one—becomes more acute when there is the possibility of an emotional involvement by the translator/interpreter in question. While such involvement is expected and perhaps natural for insiders, in many cases it is natural and expected for outsiders as well. Kālī's Child is a case in point: Kripal writes that his prior experience in a Benedictine seminary sparked his interest in Ramakrishna. Unable to relate to the mystical writings of John of the Cross and see himself as a bride of Christ, Kripal attributed his discomfort to the "structural dilemma" of being in what he defines as a homoerotically structured religious world of Catholic bridal mysticism. Turning to what he perceived to be heterosexually structured Hindu Tantra, Kripal discovered Ramakrishna. "Whereas I had been a heterosexual aspirant in a homoerotically structured religious world (Catholic bridal mysticism)," Kripal writes, "[Ramakrishna] had been a homosexual mystic in a heteroerotically structured religious world (Hindu Tantrism)." Remembering his own "structural dilemma," Kripal had little difficulty in locating one in Ramakrishna: "We were both in very similar structural dilemmas, if for exact opposite reasons. I understood him precisely because I was and was not like him" (2000/2001, 15).
But maybe not. If, for example, I suffer from a cold and someone complains to me about a nagging cough, I easily assume the person also has a cold. But perhaps this person does not have a cold at all. Perhaps the cough is symptomatic of an allergy or tuberculosis or lung cancer. My easy diagnosis was the result of my projection—the diagnosis was all too easy since it readily sprang from my own experience. When we interpret the actions, thoughts and motivations of the other, the possibility of personal projection is always present. We all work within the confines of our own minds, with their attendant memories, impressions, reactions and prejudices, both conscious and unconscious.
When we carefully examine the source texts, we find no evidence that Ramakrishna experienced a "structural dilemma." For our purposes here it is enough to know that Kripal was intrigued by Ramakrishna's life because it resonated with his own dilemmas. Kripal makes his personal interest quite clear, speaking of the book as "only a part" of a "larger personal project." This, he says, is "my own life," mentioning Ramakrishna's vision of emptiness "on a specifically autobiographical plane" (KC, xxvi). Kripal further acknowledges that he was "intrigued" when he encountered Tantra and "hopeful" that he might be able to find something in Hinduism "that seemed to exist nowhere in [his] own Catholicism" (2000/2001a, 14). Which is why, he says, he chose to study the History of Religions with a special focus on Hinduism. Given this, it is not unreasonable to assume that there was a strong element of personal motivation behind Kripal's choice of study, and at this point the reader may wonder whether the historian of religion is automatically exempt from being "lost in the fog."
There is nothing unusual, of course, about being emotionally involved in a particular subject and having a personal reason for focusing on it. Many, if not most of us, do just that. It is futile, however, to deny the element of subjectivity which accompanies that interest. While the risk of subjectivity can be kept to a minimum in approaching the physical sciences (where it intrudes as well), subjective intrusions are more or less inevitable when addressing the complex issues surrounding religion. Should we question why subjectivity is "inevitable," Eugene Nida, in his pioneering study on translation, asserts that subjectivity is unavoidable when dealing with religious issues since religion involves a deeper part of the human personality.6
Subjectivity plays an even more central role when an author employs a psychoanalytic approach—such as we see in Kālī's Child—because no one undertakes a journey of the psyche without carrying along personal baggage. According to psychoanalyst Alan Roland, this is even more evident "when investigating the psyche of persons from vastly different cultures from one's own, such as India and Japan" (1988, ix). In addition to our own psychic baggage, every investigative journey also has its beginning, that is, "its reasons and motives for going." Roland notes that we are all drawn—pulled, as it were—to specific places, locations and areas of study. What we look for, what we perceive, how we perceive it and the meanings we attach to our findings are all strongly influenced by our reasons and motives for going in the first place. For this reason, Roland writes that the "subjectivity of the psychoanalytic observer is thus an integral part of the field" (ix).
When we translate, we inevitably translate our mental landscapes around the words we attempt to capture and tame, making foreign words and concepts our own. No matter how much care we may take in consciously maintaining objectivity, no translator/interpreter can avoid a certain degree of personal involvement in her or his work. "The human translator is not a machine, and he inevitably leaves the stamp of his own personality on any translation he makes," Eugene Nida writes. He continues:
In [the translator's] interpretation of the source-language message, his selection of corresponding words and grammatical forms, and his choice of stylistic equivalents, he will inevitably be influenced by his overall empathy with author and message, or his lack of it. It is quite understandable that the behavioral and intraorganismic meanings employed by the author will affect and be affected by the translator's corresponding values—which in no instance will be exactly the same as the author's. (Nida, 154)
This is apparent from even a casual study of different translations of the same text done by various people. All creative work bears the stamp of the author's personality, occasionally revealing more of the observer than the observed, presenting—however unconsciously—an illuminating self-portrait. It should be clear by this point that Kālī's Child's claims to objectivity can only be seen as compromised. This is not to say that the book is purely subjective, but only that the author's personal history, psychoanalytic approach and translation/interpretation strategies are factors which necessarily detract from the book's selfdeclared objectivity.
Having presented a general overview of the problematics involved in a cross-cultural interpretation such as Kālī's Child, we will now deal with specifics, analyzing three of the core issues in the text: the mystical/ sexual connection, liṅga/yoni symbolism, and Ramakrishna's purported misogyny.
The Mystical/Sexual Connection
To understand the mystical/sexual connection propounded in Kālī's Child, we need to examine three key terms employed in the book. Two of these—"the mystical" and "the erotic"—occur in the subtitle, and the third term—"the Tantra"—appears intermittently throughout the book. For the present purpose, what these terms mean to the reader is less important than how the author of Kālī's Child interprets them, because only through his understanding of these three terms can we hope to make sense of the conclusions he reaches vis-à-vis mysticism and sexuality in Ramakrishna's life.
According to Kālī's Child, "the mystical" has three components: (1) The mystical is a hidden dimension of human consciousness; (2) in it the dichotomies of normal awareness are transcended; and (3) it is an intense experience of unity with a hidden reality (KC, 20). Kripal provides a good exposition of these three areas. Explaining the second component that deals with transcendence, he rightly recognizes that in the mystical states of Ramakrishna, Brahman is "beyond good and evil." But from here his definition of "transcendence" goes awry when he continues with:
the impure becomes pure, God becomes the world, the "I" becomes "you," formlessness has form, and man becomes woman, who in turn unites with man. The dichotomies of normal awareness have been transcended. (KC, 21)
"Transcendence" has now reincarnated into "transformation." In the act of transcendence, the impure does not become pure, rather the person's consciousness transcends notions of purity and impurity. God does not become the world but the duality of God and world is transcended. "I" does not become "you," but the notion that "you" and "I" are separate and different is transcended. "Formlessness" does not have "form," but the ideas of "form" and "formlessness" are transcended. "Man" does not become "woman" but gender difference is transcended. After invoking Brahman, who is "beyond good and evil," the author then switches gears, instructing his readers that the transcendence of dichotomies means "man becomes woman, who in turn unites with man." With this startling non sequitur, the generally good description of "the mystical" in Kālī's Child takes a bizarre turn.
Kālī's Child introduces a category called "the erotic," which Kripal defines as
a dimension of human experience that is simultaneously related both to the physical and emotional experience of sexuality and to the deep-est ontological levels of religious experience. (23; italics in text)
Kālī's Child reminds us that in Platonic and Christian mystical discourse, the term "eros" carries mystical connotations, while in contemporary American culture, "erotic" implies "sexual fantasy and arousal." In Kālī's Child, however, "erotic" is used in yet another sense—as a dialectical term that refuses "to separate the sexual and the mystical." It is a term that forms an integral part of Kripal's "contextually focused method" (KC, 23), a term that represents at once "the palpably sexual and the genuinely mystical" (Kripal 2000/2001a, 14).
Although the book clearly distinguishes the use of the term "erotic" from its other uses—historically in Christian mystical literature and popularly in contemporary American culture—the reader discovers that in the book the word does not always remain confined within the clear definition offered by the author. Although Kripal denies that his dialectical category of "the erotic" means "simply sex" (KC, xv), his use of the term often implies just that.
The subtitle of the book itself is a prime example. What does "the erotic" mean in "The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna"? If "the erotic" refers to something which is "at once sexual and mystical" (KC, 24), then what are we to make of "the mystical and the erotic" in the subtitle? Since the book does not recognize that there is anything purely mystical in Ramakrishna's life,7 "the erotic" in the subtitle is clearly used in the sense of, in Kripal's own words, "sexual fantasy and arousal." It has nothing to do with the specially created category of "the erotic."
The book approaches Ramakrishna's religious experiences "as manifestations of Kālī's mystico-erotic śakti." (KC, 24). Mystico-erotic? If "the erotic" itself is supposed to refer to something that is mysticosexual, then what is "mystico-erotic"? The explanation that the phrase means "at once mystical and sexual" (192) again shows that the word "erotic" is being assigned its popular meaning rather than the specialized sense which was earlier proposed. Many such instances can be cited where "the erotic" means just that—the erotic or, to use the author's own words, "the palpably sexual."8 This begs the question of the legitimacy of any proposed definitional reworking of "the erotic."
Another term that requires examination is "the Tantra." If ever there was a word that defies definition or classification, this is it. As David Gordon White points out in Tantra in Practice, any understanding of Tantra needs to take into account both the etic view (outsider's assessment) and the emic view (insider's view) in order to get a relatively complete picture (White 2000, 5). White draws our attention to another difficulty in defining Tantra by noting that if we take an exclusive view, then "those elements of Tantric doctrine and practice that are not found anywhere else in the Asian religious traditions ... would provide us with a sharply defined but very limited account of Tantra." White calls this "hard core" Tantra. A more inclusive, "soft core" Tantra will include many doctrines and practices found in nearly all forms of the various Asian religions, and the "category loses its specificity" (6-7).9
Acknowledging the difficulties involved, White offers a good working definition of Tantra as
that Asian body of beliefs and practices which, working from the principle that the universe we experience is nothing other than the concrete manifestation of the divine energy of the godhead that creates and maintains that universe, seeks to ritually appropriate and channel that energy, within the human microcosm, in creative and emancipatory ways. (9)
He concludes the essay after drawing the reader's attention to what he calls "the broken world of Tantra"—"the one transcendent and quietistic and the other pragmatic and 'shamanistic.'" Intriguingly, these two worlds, White states, appear to have little or no relationship to one another (35).
What kind of Tantra, then, is "the Tantra" that we find in Kālī's Child? Does it represent the unbroken Tantric world or the broken variety? If "the Tantra" is the broken variety, then which of its two segments? Is it hard-core Tantra or soft-core Tantra? Unhappily, "the Tantra" of Kālī's Child resembles none of these. The Tantra presented is utterly singular, and probably unrecognizable to the tradition's wide variety of practitioners. Since much of the book is "concerned with uncovering and ordering this Tantric universe," Kripal acknowledges that he must spell out clearly how he uses the term (KC, 30). But when we see the peculiar version of "the Tantra" that emerges from his definition, we also see that the universe the author hopes to uncover is not only precariously small but also seen through a distorted lens.
In Kālī's Child, Tantra is defined as an Indian mystical tradition with the following six characteristics. It is: (1) a tradition that is at once anti-Vedic and Vedic; (2) a tradition that employs the "Five M's"; (3) a tradition that simultaneously provides both "pleasure" (bhukti) and "liberation" (mukti); (4) a tradition that is steeped in secrecy; (5) a tradition in which "shame, disgust, and fear" are shunned; and (6) a tradition whose followers are called Śāktas (KC, 30-32). The book uses Ramakrishna's own words, culled from different books and divested of their contexts, to highlight these six characteristics of "the Tantra." This Tantra, then, is a tradition in which "human eroticism and religious experience are intimately related, even identical on some deep energetic level" (5). Interestingly, the "human eroticism" mentioned here has nothing to do with the category of "the erotic" described above.
Included in the discussion of "the Tantra" are repeated references to the "Five M's"—the pañca makāra—the five transgressive ingredients whose Sanskrit names begin with the letter "M."10 The steady repetition of the Five M's throughout the book gives one the impression that it is one of the most prevalent characteristics of a unified, static practice and philosophy which is "the Tantra," but this is not at all the case. Under the general umbrella term of "Tantra" there is an enormous variety of philosophies and practices. Even within the broad category of Vāmācāra Tantra, there are "no less than six different interpretations of Vamachar Tantra, each of these originating in the work of acknowledged authorities on the subject" (Amiya Sen 2001, 113).
The "Tantric universe" Kripal both creates and analyzes in Kālī's Child shrinks even further with the declaration that he is "more interested in what Tantra feels like in Bengali than in what it thinks like in Sanskrit" (KC, 29)—and his primary Bengali source for Tantra, it turns out, is Ramakrishna's words in the Kathāmṛta. Never mind that Ramakrishna was "not fully aware of his own Tantric identity" (5) and "in his external life" he was "a failed Tāntrika" (129). By discounting Tantra philosophy and its Sanskrit texts, Kripal further reduces his ability to access Tantra's wide variety and, by depending on an obviously secondary source, he effectively eliminates the barrier of scholarship from his path and presents a purely subjective picture of an entity that "feels like" Tantra to him.11 Thus Tantra is a tradition known for "its stubbornly 'impure' ways" (KC, 29), associated with "magical power, strangeness, seediness, and sex." This exoticized view is not universally shared by other scholars and certainly not by Tantra practitioners.12 Rachel McDermott, for example, writes that no matter how awed the outsider may be by the literal use of ritual substances like wine, meat and sex, the Bengali Tantra tradition itself devalues it: "Meditation takes precedence because Bengali Tantra places the 'divine path,' the path of mental worship, highest in the spiritual hierarchy" (McDermott, 173).
Kālī's Child's Tantra flattens an ancient, rich tradition to create a simulacrum which may exist in popular Western sensibilities but is a world apart from the tradition's depth and breadth. Thus, Kripal can assert that Tantra's "radical nondualism" fuses both the pleasure one seeks within the world (bhukti) and liberation from the world (mukti). Tantra practitioners can "have it both ways"—they can have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. Further, in this rendition of the Tantric world, the pleasurable particulars of form and the liberating reality of the formless are "graphically, intimately, sexually united" (KC, 31). The book continues in this vein by misappropriating Ramakrishna's words concerning īśvara ("beyond form and the formless"), giving readers the erroneous impression that these words were used in connection with the "Tantric world."13 As a parting shot, the book dismisses as "dualistic" the basic Hindu tenet that one cannot concurrently get both pleasure in the world and liberation from the world.
Those within the tradition say the desire for sexual pleasure and the desire for spiritual liberation are not mutually compatible in the same person at the same time. It is true that the power (śakti) that fuels the quest for sexual pleasure and the power that fuels the quest for spiritual liberation are not different. They are, without question, one and the same. But, importantly, one is called to choose where that power should be directed. One cannot have it both ways. On this point, the Hindu tradition is exceptionally clear.
A personalized envisioning of Tantra, an ambivalent and misleading use of the term "erotic," coupled with an idiosyncratic notion of "transcendence" and "nondualism," set the stage to establish the mysticalsexual connection in the book. It is true that ontologically the same energy that drives the lower chakras also drives the upper chakras and that "it is all one life force" (KC, 44). No Hindu tradition, including the Tantra, would disagree with this. What is problematic in this formulation is the extension of the idea: "Sexuality, as a potent expression of śakti, is realized as essentially mystical" (45) or, as we read in the Preface to the second edition, "the secret of the mystical is the erotic" (xviii).
This equation leads Kālī's Child to connect mysticism and sexuality in a way unintended by any of these traditions. While the author denies reducing mystical experience to sexuality, that is precisely what happens throughout the book. For example: "[The] mystical flower that blossoms in the pure light of consciousness ... draws its life, sustenance, and beauty from the dark, muddy bottom of the world and the body" (KC, 44).
Neither Tantra nor Yoga nor any other Hindu tradition would agree that sexuality is essentially mystical, or vice versa. Sexuality is "a potent expression of śakti"—as much as mystical experience is—but that does not make sexuality essentially mystical. It makes both sexuality and mystical experience two potent expressions of śakti. In fact, all Hindu traditions, including Tantra, are in agreement that if śakti is expressed in one direction, it cannot simultaneously be expressed in another direction. This is why Hindu traditions stress the value of brahmacarya in the quest for mystical experience. Simply because the same force powers both the urge for sex and the urge for transcendence does not mean that one is the cause of the other. Nor does it mean that mystical power depends on sexual power for its "life, sustenance, and beauty" (KC, 44). The force is one and the same but what makes all the difference is the direction in which that force is employed. Releasing the force in service of one urge makes it unavailable to power the other urge. This is why a key element in the left-handed Tantric practice of ritualized sex is coitus reservatus, which is replaced in the right-handed forms of Tantra by the mystic union of śakti with Śiva within one's own body through arousing of the psychic power (kundalini), or by the "sublimation of sex into a child-like love for the mother-goddess" (Sarkar 1993, 43).
Kripal correctly points out that "everything depends upon our ontological understanding of human sexuality" (KC, 326).14 Thus it goes without saying that his view of Ramakrishna's mystical experiences is dependent upon his ontological understanding of human sexuality. What is open to debate is whether that understanding has anything to do with the understanding of sexuality in the Tantric tradition. But meaningful debates are possible only if there are commonly accepted sources of knowledge (pramāṇa).15 Unfortunately there are none in the present case because Kripal relies upon what Tantra "feels like" to him. Under the circumstances, all that one can say is that there are many, certainly the present authors among them, to whom Tantra does not "feel like" the way it feels like to the author of Kālī's Child.
Two words, "liṅga" and "yoni," appear often in Kālī's Child and require further exploration.
One of Ramakrishna's mystical visions, related to the awakening of the six chakras, provides a good starting point. Ramakrishna described the vision to a group of devotees on August 9, 1885:
A little before I attained this state I was shown how, when the kundalini becomes awake, all the lotuses bloom one after another and samādhi is attained. This is a great secret. I saw a twenty-two or twenty-three year old young man, who looked like me, entering inside the suṣumnā nerve and having intercourse with the vulva-shaped lotuses with his tongue. First the anus, the penis, the navel—the lotuses with four petals, six petals, ten petals, which had been drooping, became erect.
When he came to the heart—I remember this clearly—after having intercourse with the tongue, the drooping twelve-petaled lotus became erect and bloomed. Then the sixteen-petaled lotus in the throat and the two-petaled lotus in the forehead. In the end the thousand-petaled lotus bloomed. From that time, I have been in this state. (KA 4.238)
Undeniably and obviously, this vision contains strong sexual imagery. English translations of this "lotus vision" fall broadly into two categories: those done by academics (generally outsiders) and those done by non-academics (generally insiders). Non-academic translators have ignored the adjective "vulva-shaped" (yonirūp), interpreting the Bengali verb ramaṇ as "commune," and have focused on what they perceived to be the essential meaning of the vision.16 Generally speaking, academics have chosen to translate every word literally, directing their gaze, it would seem, as much on sexual imagery as on the mystical implications of the vision itself.17 Kālī's Child's translation of the passage belongs to the second category, and the book comes down heavily on Nikhilananda's purportedly "bowdlerized" translation.18 Blind to any other possible explanation, Kripal accuses the Ramakrishna Order of censorship (KC, 311). The "secret," he alleges, has been kept hidden under lock and key, away from the public eye by "the political forces of Vivekananda's community of renouncers"—bringing to mind an ochreclad, cloak-and-dagger plot.
It is easy to manufacture a Kathāmṛta-gate scenario from the material given above, but it is completely erroneous. "Vivekananda's community of renouncers" never possessed M's original diaries, let alone kept them under lock and key. They are, and always have been, in the possession of M's family, the Guptas. What is interesting about this manufactured plot and "secret" is the presumption necessary to create such a scenario in the first place. Apart from the obvious hermeneutic of suspicion, only one reared in a highly organized, centralized religion with a long history of intellectual and social repression could presuppose that sort of organizational will and organizational capability. This is the Hindu tradition, after all. By Indian standards the Ramakrishna Order is well organized and disciplined, but it is composed of Hindu monastics who are, by their very nature, extremely independent and averse to being organized. For a Hindu to leave the family structure to become a sādhu, a strong element of independence—if not sheer cussedness—must already exist in order to flout powerful family and social expectations. To concoct a plot requiring a century-long, organized effort on the part of Hindu monks to hide organizational "secrets" reveals a profound ignorance of Hinduism's long history of intellectual freedom, which is mirrored in the Ramakrishna Order. It also reveals a profound ignorance of the workings of the Ramakrishna Order.
Why, then, did Nikhilananda remove "vulva-shaped" from his translation? Of the Kathāmṛta's millions of readers, perhaps 80% or more read it in the Bengali original, and they have no problem with yonirūp padma, "the vulva-shaped lotuses." What, then, would provoke Nikhilananda to remove its English translation?
While words can be translated from one language to another, they often do not carry the same timbre or coloration. The weight and resonance a particular word carries in one language and culture may be entirely different in another language and culture. Those who have wrestled with translating the subtleties and nuances of one language and rendering them into another know this only too well. Much of the translator's wrestling involves issues of cultural values and cultural differences, and how much of these can be—or indeed should be—communicated to the reader. About these issues Sandra Bermann has written:
Translators have long agreed that the effort to render one language system into another requires a keen awareness of broad cultural as well as specific linguistic values. It also requires existential choices that are bound to have wide-ranging repercussions for the text and its audience. How much of the "otherness" of the "foreign" should the translator highlight? How much of the foreign should he mute or erase in order to make texts easier for the "home" (target) audience to assimilate? The problems posed demand judgment calls as ethical as they are practical or cognitive. (Bermann, 5)
There is no single, easy answer to these issues and every translator will address them in a different way. "Translation," Gayatri Spivak remarked, "is as much a problem as a solution" (Spivak, 95). The "problem" becomes much more complex when rendering South Asian languages into English, not only because of the vast cultural gulf involved, but also because of the hegemonic linguistic status of English as today's global lingua franca. Every translator faces these issues when rendering words and meanings from another language into English. The result is dependent upon the translator's individual choice along with, one can only hope, an abundance of cultural sensitivity and sense of ethical responsibility.
That said, "yoni" is a perfect example of the problems inherent in translating Bengali into English. The word in Bengali, Sanskrit and other Indian languages carries an enormously wide range of meaning that stretches from the purely biological to the metaphysical. Neither "vulva" nor "vagina" (Kripal translates yonirūp padma as "vagina-shaped lotuses") have a similar range. By using the word "vulva" or "vagina" the translator is automatically manacled to an anatomical or biological meaning. While yonirūp padma does not sound offensive, an English rendering as "vulva-shaped lotuses" seems crass and oddly graphic. There is simply no good way of translating the phrase. Nikhilananda obviously preferred omission rather than a translation which would have been not only bad but also, to his 1942 audience, offensive.
In translating the Kathāmṛta, Nikhilananda was introducing Ramakrishna to English readers, primarily those in the Western world. While Nikhilananda himself was aware of Western sensibilities and mores, he also sought the advice of his Western editorial assistants. They would have taken great pains to make sure Nikhilananda committed no cultural faux pas in his manuscript. Moreover, as a Hindu practitioner, Nikhilananda's translation strategies were necessarily different from those of McLean, Sil and Kripal. Literal accuracy is absolutely vital for scholars and practical application is equally vital for practitioners. Usually and ideally, these two goals are not in conflict with one another. When they occasionally are, the purpose of the translation determines what gets precedence, the word or the meaning that it is meant to convey. It is not uncommon for a stubbornly literal translation to provide a wildly inaccurate meaning.
In books written by practitioners, the focus is on the context and the idea—not simply on the words. The shape of the lotuses in Ramakrishna's vision is not as important as the fact that the six centers of consciousness can be "opened" (represented by the blooming of the lotuses) one after another by directly "touching" each center with the light of awareness (represented by the tongue erotically engaging the lotuses), leading to the superconscious experience of samādhi (represented by the blooming of the thousand-petaled lotus).
The purpose of erotic imagery is to convey the experience of intense joy that accompanies the opening of every psychic center (chakra). Although joy can be experienced in any number of ways, the most intense joy of everyday human experience is sexual pleasure. Most people can immediately understand and relate to the joy experienced through sexual activity. This is why erotic imagery is often used in many traditions, including those within Hinduism, to convey the idea of both intense joy and intense longing. For example, a much-loved mystic from Tamil Nadu, Āṇḍāḷ, describes her love and longing for Kṛṣṇa in the following way:
So great is my desire to unite with the Lord
who rests upon the turbulent Milk Ocean
that my breasts rise and fall and tremble,
hurting me, and so do you,
oh lovely koel bird —
what do you gain by hiding from me?
If you summon Him who holds conch, discus and mace,
great indeed is that good thing you'll do. (Nacciyar Tirumoli 5.7)19
Contrary to what Kālī's Child suggests, the erotic imagery found in the Kathāmṛta does not necessarily indicate or imply erotic activity. This does not, of course, mean that the omission of certain words from the translation is acceptable or should be condoned. What it does mean is that, seen through another perspective, Nikhilananda's translation has not distorted what, for a practitioner, is the essence of the text. A doggedly literal translation certainly has value (and for scholars is a necessity) but for many—and at least for practitioners—a word-for-word translation is not the only way to comprehend a religious text.
As we have mentioned earlier, it is important for us to keep in mind the oppressive social atmosphere that Hindus faced in 1940s America. One also has to remember that in those years—and to some extent, even now—Hinduism was a distinct religious minority viewed with great prejudice, suspicion and often undisguised animosity by a sizable percentage of the population in North America. Many if not all of the Ramakrishna Order swamis in the West faced racial prejudice and hostility. At least one Vedanta Society was under F.B.I. investigation for a decade. A number of Ramakrishna swamis were prevented from buying property for Vedanta centers. Until relatively recently, even Catholics and Jews were discriminated against, what to speak of Hindus.
Let us also not forget that American culture, and what was acceptable to that culture, is vastly different today from American culture in the 1940s. During those years, America was much more homogenized and parochial than it is today. It was also more intolerant in social, religious and sexual matters. What was considered acceptable for public (and even private) discussion was radically different from today's norm. In contrast to our current free-wheeling standards, words and phrases considered inappropriate were kept out of print, radio and television. We may forget what it was like a few short decades ago, but even on 1960s television, "Laura and Rob Petrie slept in separate beds on 'The Dick Van Dyke Show,' Lucille Ball could not use the word 'pregnant' on her show, and Barbara Eden could bare her midriff but not her navel on 'I Dream of Jeannie.'"20 Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was banned and confiscated at the borders until it was vindicated by the Supreme Court in 1964. It is worth remembering that while Kālī's Child portrays the Ramakrishna Order as being composed of censorious prudes, Henry Miller found both welcome and refuge with one of the swamis of the Ramakrishna Order—as did Isherwood and many others who were not accepted in other places of worship.21
Clearly, an ideal translation is one which offers literal accuracy without distorting the meaning of a text. In translations which span widely divergent cultures and languages, this can be sometimes difficult to achieve. Every translator has sometime or other faced situations where, on the one hand, translating a text literally may either make no sense or even distort the sense of the original. On the other hand, translating accurately the sense of the text may involve compromising literal accuracy. In such cases, it is the translator's burden to make the choice between the "letter" and the "spirit." The choice is usually dictated by the purpose of the translation and the needs of the audience. Typically, most translations done for a general, nonacademic audience give priority to translating the idea over translating the word when it is not possible to do both simultaneously.
Considering all these factors, it is not surprising that the description of the shape of the lotuses as yonirūp, "vulva-shaped," does not appear in Nikhilananda's 1942 translation. Far from participating in a plot to conceal dark secrets, Nikhilananda was attempting to respect the cultural sensitivities of the times and the audience for whom it was intended, without compromising the basic message of the original text. A 1942 American audience would have been literally stunned by any mention of "vulva-shaped lotuses," and the resulting horror and fascination would have succeeded in bringing their attention, not to Ramakrishna's mystical experience, but to vulvas.
Let us also keep in mind that whatever modifications or deletions Nikhilananda did, the English text has always remained a resource to only a minority of the Kathāmṛta's readers—Bengalis taking yoni and ramaṇ in their cultural stride. It should seem obvious that if the Ramakrishna Order were in the business of orchestrating furtive cover-ups, then it has done a spectacularly poor job. If there were scandals to be hidden, then the evidence should have been excised in the Kathāmṛta, not the English Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with its relatively small readership.22 For nearly one hundred years there have been millions of readers of the Kathāmṛta who have pored over the text. It was in the widely available copies of the Kathāmṛta, in its 31st edition, that Kripal found the "secret talks" of Ramakrishna—not in some classified documents squirreled away under lock and key or unearthed in an archeological find. These talks were no great secret when they were given—Ramakrishna's room was always full of people when he imparted these "secrets." And these talks are no secret even today: the Kathāmṛta is well-stocked in bookstores and widely available in Bengal.23 Every word and every phrase in the Bengali original—including yoni, ramaṇ and liṅga—has remained unchanged and has been available to millions of Bengali readers, as well as to readers of the Kathāmṛta translations into other Indian languages.
The alleged secret was never a "secret" at all until Kālī's Child came along and conjured a conspiracy theory of censorship and cover-ups. What is utterly astonishing is Kripal's unquestioned privileging of the English translation with its limited audience over the Bengali original read by a vastly larger audience. It is not only he who discusses "recovering the text" in Kālī's Child but also, as we have seen, many academics in their glowing reviews. The text was never "lost" in the first place; the unspoken message, however, is that the English translation and its audience are the only ones that matter.
That brings us to the third, and probably the most important, point that deserves consideration. For most readers, the shape of the lotuses and the significance of the Bengali ramaṇ (whose meaning spans from sexual intercourse to enjoyment to communion) is less important than the meaning behind the mystic vision itself. Ramakrishna's purpose in telling his listeners about his vision was not to belabor the shape of the lotus, but to emphasize that the lotuses (chakras) open as a result of the awakening of the kundalini. For nearly a century, Bengali readers have closely read the Kathāmṛta to understand the genuine significance of the lotus vision—and have found nothing untoward, unless one is credulous enough to believe that Bengalis are too benighted—or perhaps too unschooled in "contemporary gender studies, queer theory, psychoanalysis or feminism"24—to understand the genuine significance of the lotus vision. The Orientalist assumptions here are too pronounced to ignore: Is it only the Western-trained academic who has the ability to see the real meaning, whereas Hindus lack the intellectual acuity and background to do so?
Were we not already crossing difficult cross-cultural terrain, the problematics of translation and interpretation become even more complex if peculiar speculations are thrown in to muddy the waters. Not only does Kripal condemn Nikhilananda's translation of Ramakrishna's lotus vision, but he also speculates that the vision could be the result of Bhairavi's attempt to engage Ramakrishna "in the fifth M through a ritualized form of cunnilingus or through the oral consumption of sexual fluids" (KC, 128). Urging his readers to take this "possibility seriously," Kripal proceeds to suggest that Ramakrishna was engaging in "a mystical form of oral sex" and this "unconscious vision was necessary because Ramakrishna could not consciously make it through the Five M's" (129). Later in the book Kripal reverts to his cunnilingus speculation, but by this time what was a "possibility" has transformed itself into an established fact, a pattern consistently followed in Kālī's Child. Yet of the book's many academic reviews, only one (Openshaw, 1995) specifically noted and critiqued this process. What, then, is going on in Ramakrishna's lotus vision?
Sudhir Kakar characterizes some of Ramakrishna's visions as "conscious"—"symbolic representations of an ongoing psychic process, the symbols taken from the mystic's religious and cultural tradition" (1991, 22). This is the case, Kakar believes, of Ramakrishna's "lotus vision":
Ramakrishna's vision of his "enlightenment," which he "saw" in the traditional Yogic imagery of Kundalini, the coiled serpent energy rising through the different centers (chakras) of his body and opening up the "lotuses" associated with these centers, [is] a specifically Hindu metaphor for mental transformation and the opening up of the psyche to hitherto inaccessible psychic experience. (22)
According to Kakar, in the lotus vision, "self-representation is split into observing and participating aspects." The vision "can also be seen through psychiatric glasses as a heutroscopic depersonalization which occurs particularly among individuals with tendencies toward self-contemplation and introspection." Kakar refuses to pathologize the vision and makes the following observation: "Yet in the absence of any associated painful or anxious affect and the fact that this kind of vision was only one among Ramakrishna's vast repertoire of visions with very different structures and qualities, I would tend to see its ground in a creativity, akin to the heightened fantasy of an artist or a writer, rather than in pathology. Goethe and Maupassant are two instances of creative writers who also experienced the phenomenon of their doubles" (22).
S. S. Sankaranarayanan, Chennai's highly respected scholar of Tantra, points out startling similarities between Ramakrishna's lotus vision and the traditional Tantric understanding of how the kundalini rises:
The mūlādhāra centre is also known as kulakuṇḍa, the pit of the kula. Ku in Sanskrit represents the earth, the gross physical kula is where this element is concentrated. Kundalini starts from here as kula kundalini. She is verily the śakti, the Time principle, Kālī for the Tāntrik. She travels upwards towards the summit and becomes united with the Śiva there. . . . the way, the kundalini licks the other centers with its tongue, makes them fully blossomed to their potentialities before meeting Śiva at the sahasrāra.25
According to Sankaranarayanan, the young man in the lotus vision represents Ramakrishna who, "with his intense love and devotion, gets identified with his mother Kālī, who is none other than the kundalini śakti." Mystically united with the kundalini śakti, Ramakrishna "enters the suṣumnā nerve and communes with the lotuses, touching them with his tongue. He is also able to stand apart and watch this experience." Continuing, Sankaranarayanan approvingly quotes from Aurobindo's Savitri:
A mighty movement rocked the inner space / As if a world were shaken and found its soul: / Out of the Inconscient's soulless mindless night / A flaming Serpent rose released from sleep. / It rose billowing its coils and stood erect / And climbing mightily, stormily on its way / It touched her centres with its flaming mouth; / As if a fiery kiss had broken their sleep, / They bloomed and laughed surcharged with light and bliss. / Then at the crown it joined the Eternal's space.26
These alternative ways of understanding the lotus vision are a far cry from the cunnilingus speculation found in Kālī's Child.
We also find in the Kathāmṛta another reference to yoni, which is associated with Brahman: literally, the "womb of Brahman" (brahmayoni), which is predictably translated in Kālī's Child as "cosmic vagina" (KC, 128). Brahmayoni, however, is used in this context as a way of conveying the idea of Brahman as the "source" (yoni) of everything:
Kṛṣṇa himself did many spiritual practices with the Rādhā-yantra. A yantra is the womb of Brahman—it is that which is worshiped and meditated upon. It is from the womb of Brahman that millions of universes (brahmāṇḍa) are produced. This is very secret. I used to have darśan under the bilva tree—it flashed (lak lak korto) [like a flame]. (KA 4.232)27
Unlike other scholars who have translated this passage, Kripal interprets the onomatopoeic Bengali phrase lak lak as the lolling sound of a tongue (although it can just as easily and, given the context, perhaps more accurately, mean flashing like fire or flame) and connects it to "Ramakrishna's tongue," associating it with "oral sex, with tongue-like lolling vaginas" (KC, 129). It is difficult to see Ramakrishna's tongue here since there is nothing in the text to suggest that. Intriguingly, throughout the book the connotations continue to change in a recurring reference to this same passage: what was a cosmic vagina lolling like "Kālī's tongue" (128) is later transformed into the "goddess's cosmic vagina" (250) and finally into "Rādhā's cosmic vagina" (334)—when the text itself speaks simply of brahmayoni. Literally translated, it could mean either "Brahmanwomb" or "Brahman-source."
The word liṅga occurs in the Kathāmṛta sometimes in isolation and sometimes in conjunction with the word yoni. Not unexpectedly, Kālī's Child relentlessly privileges the sexual meaning of the term—in the book liṅga nearly always means "Śiva's penis"—even where the context calls for a different meaning. As we have seen, Kālī's Child takes great pains to portray Śiva in erotic terms, no matter in which context the term occurs. When one reads the Kathāmṛta, however, the reader will search in vain for any association of Śiva with the erotic, unless one wildly stretches the definition of erotic.
This is not to deny the sexual connotation of the term liṅga but to affirm that it is by no means the only connotation (or even the primary connotation), and certainly no practicing Hindu connects the liṅga to a penis in his or her daily devotions. The liṅga has a complex history and the concept is reinforced by a finely nuanced theology. To see nothing but "Śiva's penis" in liṅga demonstrates not only ignorance but also enormous cultural and religious insensitivity. Among several prominent symbols from the Hindu tradition which have captured the imagination of non-Hindus, liṅga is a prime candidate, to which a kind of Rorschach test can be applied. What comes first to mind when we hear the word liṅga or visualize the liṅga being worshiped in a Hindu temple may either indicate our ignorance about Hindu worship or perhaps tell us more about our way of perceiving symbols sacred to "the other" than about the liṅga itself and what it symbolizes.
The Purāṇas abound in myths about Śiva. We read in them the stories that describe the churning of the ocean, the rising of the kālakūṭa poison, and Śiva swallowing the poison to save the world. When he emerged from the waters, he tore off his phallus (liṅga) in fury and cast it on the earth, where it fell in the forest of deodar trees. Śiva appeared there as a naked yogi smeared with ashes, holding out his begging bowl for alms. Irresistibly fascinated, the wives and daughters of the ṛṣis rushed to bring him fruits and other food. Seeing them attracted to the strange mendicant, the ṛṣis were bewildered and infuriated. Śiva's visit to the forest was an act of grace at Umā's request. Failing to recognize him, the ṛṣis failed the test. When Śiva's phallus fell on the earth, it burned everything in its path. It became transfigured as the cosmic pillar, without end or beginning, flaming upward and spanning the entire universe. The mystery of this metamorphosis reverberated in the liberating sound of om. When the celestials saw the sign (liṅga) of the Great God (mahādeva), they bowed to him. The vision of that flaming pillar seen by the celestials and the legend of the establishment of the stone liṅga in the Samnihatya lake introduced the worship of the liṅga.28
Through these overlapping and yet diverse myths, it is clear that liṅga is not just "Śiva's penis." As Stella Kramrisch points out in her classic The Presence of Śiva:
The liṅga of Śiva has three significations. They are liṅga as sign; liṅga as phallus; and liṅga as cosmic substance (prakṛti or pradhāna), which is the subtle body (liṅga śarīra) of Śiva, who is the absolute reality. . . . The original meaning of the word liṅga is "sign," a mark that proves the existence of a thing. (Kramrisch, 166-67)
Paradoxically, the first recorded use of the term associated with Śiva tell us that Śiva has no liṅga or mark, meaning that he is transcendent, beyond any characteristic that would mark him as a part of the created world.29 As a distinguishing mark, liṅga can refer to the sign of gender or sex, whence comes the popular equation: liṅga = phallus. The word "liṅga" is used to denote not just the characteristic of perceptible things but also the potentiality inherent in the imperceptible essence of a thing. For instance, in contrast to the visible form (rūpa) of fire, the potential of fire, its imperceptible essence, is the liṅga of fire. Thus the subtle body (sūkṣma-śarīra), imperceptible to the senses and ontologically preceding the gross body, is also called the liṅga body (liṅga-śarīra) (Kramrisch, 167). So easily taken for granted is the liṅga = phallus equation that Narasingha Sil went so far as to translate liṅga-śarīra as "body with genitalia" (1991, 30)! The references to the liṅga in Kālī's Child ignore the theologically rich and religiously meaningful Hindu symbol of the divine, crassly reducing it to nothing more than "Śiva's penis."
Some scholars have even called into question the supposition that the liṅga has a phallic origin. Departing from the convention that holds liṅga/yoni symbolism as non-Vedic, Mahamahopadhyay Krishna Shastri Ghule, a highly respected Vedic scholar, has found clear evidence in Brāhmaṇa texts to identify Śiva with Vedic sacrificial fire, and the liṅga, with the araṇis that produce the sacrificial fire. Ghule maintains that one must interpret a complex symbol like liṅga/yoni consistently and comprehensively. Identifying it simply with the male and female sex organs does not, for instance, explain why the liṅga is traditionally installed facing north. This practice makes sense if the liṅga's Vedic origins are accepted: some of the Vedic altars were indeed shaped like the liṅga and had to face north. More interestingly, the altars were often preserved even after the rite was over. The Baudhāyana-śrauta-sūtra even prescribes the installation of a bull-shaped image on the altar (Deshpande, 227-28).
One can endlessly debate the origin of liṅga/yoni symbolism and it is doubtful whether the controversy about its Vedic or non-Vedic origin will ever be settled. The tension between Vedic and non-Vedic traditions is seen by some social scientists as the divide between the "great" and the "little" traditions: the former usually has written texts and wider acceptance whereas the latter can be accessed through oral legends, folk songs and stories, local customs and ceremonies. In the Indian context this divide is usually represented by the Sanskritic traditions, on the one side, and the vernacular traditions, on the other. These two traditions have been in dialogue with one another for centuries and, in the process, have been profoundly influenced by one another. Some historians view the phenomenon as hegemonic and oppressive with the vernacular traditions gradually being "Sanskritized" and swallowed by the Vedic tradition. Other historians reject the idea that the vernacular traditions are any less powerful and thus see the process of assimilation as mutual and interactive, strengthening both the Sanskrit as well as the vernacular traditions (Vanita and Kidwai, xvi).30
This perhaps explains why written texts in India rarely speak with one voice. Almost all originate in oral traditions and were built up in layers over time. On the basis of what knowledge is available to us, it seems reasonable to conclude that the liṅga as it survives today—and, specifically, as it was understood in the mid-nineteenth century when Ramakrishna lived—is a complex symbol formed with layers of meaning, which are reinforced through a rich mythology. To render it simply as "Śiva's penis" is not only simplistic but profoundly distorting. Yet such is the fascination for the phrase that Kripal interprets even the reference to "Śiva" as a reference to "Śiva's penis." For example, we read in the Kathāmṛta (3.68):
Ekdin pūjār śomay śiber māthāy bojra dicchi emon śomay dekhiye dile, ei birāṭ mūrti-ī śib. Takhon śib gode pūjā bondha holo. Phūl tulchi haṭhāt dekhiye dile je phuler gāchguli jeno ek ekṭa phuler toḍā.
[Ramakrishna:] One day at the time of worship, when I was offering a bilva-leaf on the head of Śiva, it was shown to me that this Virāṭ, the universe, itself is Śiva. After that my worship of Śiva through the image came to an end. When I was plucking flowers, it was suddenly revealed to me that the flowering plants were so many bouquets.
Now let us compare the translation/interpretation of the same passage in Kālī's Child:
This then reminds him of another time when, just as he was about to worship the Śiva-liṅgam, he was shown that "this universe is the very form of Śiva," that is, he was shown that the entire cosmos was a Śiva-liṅgam (KA 3.68). The phallic dimensions of this experience are significant. (KC, 109-10)
In the Kathāmṛta selection quoted above (KA 3.68) there is no mention whatsoever of a Śiva-liṅgam. What we find instead is the mention of Śiva. Although "liṅgam" is not part of the quoted text in the above example, placing a reference after "Śiva-liṅgam" makes a significant difference in the way one reads the text, especially when one considers that almost no reader of Kālī's Child would be sitting with the Kathāmṛta nearby for immediate verification. We can see how the word "liṅgam" has been deliberately inserted twice into the sentence above when it does not exist at all in the referenced selection from the Kathāmṛta. Why this was done becomes apparent when we read the concluding sentence: "The phallic dimensions of this experience are significant."
Phallic dimensions? They may be "significant" if the goal is to build a particular thesis in Kālī's Child, but they are not a part of the experience of those within the tradition. Certainly, those who pray to, worship, and meditate on Śiva are not concerned with any "phallic dimensions." Nor are the "phallic dimensions" hinted at, even indirectly, in the Kathāmṛta section that is cited. Kālī's Child seems oblivious of the simple truth that all symbols have a history and, like all bearers of meaning, their semantics change with time.
As we can see, the book creates a distorting lens which reveals a "phallic dimension" that is unsupported by the text. But in the incidents where the "phallic dimension" is obvious, this lens reveals something altogether different. Take the case of Ramakrishna's worshiping, in a state of divine madness, his own penis as "a living liṅgam" (KA 4.106) or the penises of boys with flowers and sandal paste (KA 4.232). While students of Ramakrishna's life have seen these recorded events as further evidence of Ramakrishna's vivid awareness of the all-pervading, tangible divine reality, Kālī's Child takes them as evidence of "a tendency on Ramakrishna's part to take a Vedantic figure or category ... and to eroticize it, to awaken it out of its abstract slumber and engage it in erotic acts" (KC, 163).
If these passages are seen as the eroticization of a Vedantic category, students of Ramakrishna's life see in the very same passages the divinization of a part of the body that is associated with erotic acts. Perhaps everyone finds what they are looking for: Kripal sees a penis in a Śivaliṅga whereas Ramakrishna saw Śivaliṅga in a penis. It is ironic, however, that Ramakrishna should be portrayed as eroticizing Śiva (KC, 163), since Kālī's Child—not Ramakrishna—seems to be doing precisely that, through not only the relentless translation of "liṅga" as "Śiva's penis" but by describing Śiva himself as "Śiva's penis."
Clearly both—the eroticization of a Vedantic category and the divinization of a physiological category—are interpretations. Only Ramakrishna knows what exactly he saw and what made him do what he did. All that his interpreters can hope to do is to make an educated, informed guess. The best guess would be one that, first, depends less on speculation and more on verifiable evidence and, second, is in harmony with the rest of Ramakrishna's life as well as with the culture and the times in which he lived. The worth of every interpretation can be tested on the basis of at least these two requirements. Kālī's Child suffers on both these counts: first, it relies heavily on speculation, and the sparse "evidence" it provides is created from questionable translations, circular logic, and other strategies. Second, the interpretation does not provide answers to other features in Ramakrishna's life, which are either sidestepped or minimized.
The two interpretations—the eroticization of a Vedantic category and the divinization of a physiological category—proceed from two very different worldviews. A Hindu practitioner will assert that one's identification with the body (deha-buddhi) manifests in many ways but perhaps most strongly through one's sexuality. The Hindu worldview accepts the possibility that the body/mind-centered identity can be transcended consciously and, when this happens, one's true, spiritual identity is regained, resulting in freedom (mokṣa) from the cycle of birth and death. Many students of Ramakrishna's life see him, at the very least, as an enlightened soul, one who is "living-free" (jīvanmukta) and find his life consistent with the characteristics described in Hindu texts. It is not clear whether the worldview which forms the backdrop of Kālī's Child can accommodate the spiritual freedom (mokṣa) which is an integral part of the Hindu worldview because of the presumption that Ramakrishna could not have transcended sexual desire (KC, 2).
Further, by claiming that Ramakrishna himself was not aware of his thoughts, motivations and actions—his so-called secret being a secret "even to himself"—all possible refutations are preempted. Ramakrishna himself cannot contest the book's theses, what to speak of others. Any complaint on that score is preempted with denials of "misplaced 'orientalism'"—even while the book's modus operandi is consistent with the Orientalist history of presuming that only the Western expert can correctly assess and interpret the Hindu, who will always remain incapable of self-understanding.31
Given the above, it should come as no surprise that Kālī's Child mocks Saradananda's interpretation of Ramakrishna (KC, 316). How could the disciple have known the meaning of Ramakrishna's visions when the saint himself was incapable of understanding them? The irony eludes Kripal that his own claim to understanding the meaning of Ramakrishna's visions can be similarly questioned. To again invoke Sheldon Pollock, we tend not to notice any cultural assessment "that conforms fully to the dominant ideology" (Pollock, 96). For example, when we read Max Müller's interpretations, we can clearly see the deep Christian overlay which infused Müller's understanding of Ramakrishna. When we read Romain Rolland, we can see the humanist preoccupations in his interpretation of Ramakrishna. What we cannot so easily see are our own cultural overlays, since they appear self-evident and "reasonable." Yet contemporary North American culture is deeply steeped in its own peculiar dogmas and credos such as secular humanism, individualism, democracy, and a thousand other presuppositions we take for granted. In contemporary North America, the basic assumptions of psychoanalysis are so widely accepted that they are assumed to be as true as the Word of God was in earlier centuries. This is perhaps one of the major reasons why the basic theses of Kālī's Child were, more often than not, left largely unchallenged except by those outside that cultural paradigm.
Kālī's Child informs the reader that "if Ramakrishna were alive and could fully understand," the book would "deeply affect" him and would "help him deal more adequately with some of his painful emotional reactions" (xxvii). Which, hubris intact, first questions whether Ramakrishna could understand the book, then presumes that Ramakrishna actually experienced these "painful emotional reactions"—a presumption based on the verities of contemporary psychoanalysis under the aegis of circular logic. Characterizing the book as an act of "friendship, sympathy, and a deep compassion," Kripal in effect claims that he is not merely "interpreting" Ramakrishna—he implies that he is aware of the contents of Ramakrishna's mind. So sure is the author of his knowledge of Ramakrishna's mind that he warns his readers that rejecting his thesis would amount to a rejection of Ramakrishna himself (KC, xiv). An interpreter needs the mind and insight of a prophet to be so confident of knowing the inner motivations and promptings of a person he or she has never met, someone who lived in a vastly different culture and in an altogether different century, a person whom the interpreter knows only through textual records in a language that he can neither speak nor thoroughly comprehend. When an interpreter assumes the mantle of a prophet, the interpretation is bound to suffer.
When it comes to Ramakrishna's relationships with women, there are, according to Kālī's Child, two interpretive camps: the first is "the devotional camp ... populated almost solely by devotees and swamis." This camp sees Ramakrishna as "an infallible saint who loved all human beings and who worshiped women as embodiments of the divine." The second camp sees Ramakrishna as "a misogynist who hated and feared women." The latter camp is inhabited by "scholars, both Western and Indian, [who] usually have sided with some version of the misogynist reading" (KC, 278). The latter interpretation has echoed in a number of Kālī's Child's reviews. While Kripal promotes this view, he is not the first scholar to have criticized Ramakrishna for his attitude toward women. In fact, the first criticism Ramakrishna received vis-à-vis women came from one of his admirers and contemporaries, the Westernized Bengali Pratap Mazumdar.
Ramakrishna and Women
Kālī's Child points out that Mazumdar found Ramakrishna's treatment of Sarada "almost barbarous" (KC, 278). It also refers to Mazumdar's letter to Max Müller, which mentions that there was "another side" to Ramakrishna which was "not edifying," implying that what was unedifying about Ramakrishna was his misogyny and the sexual nature of his "secret." Yet as we have seen, the letter indicates that Mazumdar was offended by Ramakrishna's insufficient abhorrence of prostitutes, his indifference to "the principle of teetotalism according to Western notions," and his occasionally "abominably filthy" language (which was basically no different from the language of any other unschooled Bengali villager). Yet as Sumit Sarkar has pointed out, it was this very quality of Ramakrishna which attracted many of the middle class elite to him. Because Ramakrishna was unvarnished, unlettered, un-Anglicized and hopelessly unsophisticated, he was deeply attractive to those Anglicized middle-class Bengalis who mourned their own loss of identity (Sarkar 1993, 6-7).
According to Mazumdar, Ramakrishna's "almost barbarous" treatment of Sarada consisted of Ramakrishna's and Sarada's lack of sexual relations. But this, after all, was a decision strongly endorsed by Sarada herself. Indeed, her husband's celibacy and lack of "worldliness" were a matter of great pride to her. We must remember that in the Hindu value system of that era, brahmacarya was nearly universally regarded as praiseworthy, a value in and of itself. Sarada frequently invoked Ramakrishna's renunciation and set it as a standard by which the renunciation of others could be assessed: "Renunciation (tyāg) alone was his glory (aiśvarjja)," she said, adding, "People think that his devotees also must be very great, as he was a man of such great renunciation (boḍo tyāgī)" (MK, 214). On another occasion when a devotee suggested that Ramakrishna's religious universality was his particular gift, Sarada replied: "What you should note, my dear, is that renunciation (tyāg) is his specialty (biśeṣattva) in this age. Did anyone see such natural renunciation any time before?" (Gambhirananda 2004, 352). It is difficult to envision Sarada as a frustrated, sexually unfulfilled wife after reading Sarada's lengthy conversations, teachings and the copious reminiscences of her disciples and devotees. Yet these important source texts are never quoted, never referred to, with the result that Sarada and other women disciples of Ramakrishna are never permitted to speak for themselves—at least not in Kālī's Child.
Ramakrishna's behavior found an unlikely supporter in Max Müller, who declared that it was by no means unusual for such couples to "decline to live maritalement" (RLS, 64). It would be difficult to find an equally ranked defender today. Nor would there be many couples who would let it be known that they declined to live maritalement. What appeared "by no means unusual" to Müller a century ago in Europe, now appears bizarre if not pathological in contemporary North America. We must keep this in mind when we assess the values of nineteenth-century Bengal and the marriages which accommodated those values.
As we have already seen, some contemporary Ramakrishna scholars—Malcolm McLean, Carl Olson, Narasingha Sil and at least the early Sumit Sarkar—also have characterized Ramakrishna as a misogynist.32 Conversely, other scholars and the insider community believe such allegations to be misplaced. While Kripal construes these opposing views as "a long history of controversy and concealment," the "controversy"— such as it is—has only occurred recently with the unerring certainty bestowed by cultural monovision and modernity's hindsight.
A good deal of the controversy has focused on the correct translation and interpretation of a vexing Bengali idiomatic phrase, kāminī kāñcana, "woman and gold." As we approach the subject, however, we would be wise to remind ourselves that the phrase was not found vexing at all until it was seen through the eyes of the late twentieth century.
Ramakrishna and Kāminī Kāñcana
In going through the Kathāmṛta the reader often finds Ramakrishna using the phrase kāminī kāñcana. Today an oft-repeated "woman and gold" strikes a jarring note, especially when one reads the English translation and most especially if the reader is unaware of the phrase's history or intent. What precisely did Ramakrishna mean by kāminī kāñcana and what was his intent in repeating it?
In attempting to interpret kāminī kāñcana for a Western audience, Nikhilananda translated the phrase as "woman and gold," with a lengthy footnote appearing under its first usage in The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. "Woman and gold," Nikhilananda writes, "has been used throughout in a collective sense [and] ... designate the chief impediments to spiritual progress." Kāminī kāñcana, Nikhilananda continues,
has often been misconstrued. By it he [Ramakrishna] meant only "lust and greed." . . . He used the word "kāminī" or "woman," as a concrete term for the sex instinct when addressing his man devotees. He advised women, on the other hand, to shun "man." (GSR, 82)
In contrast, Jeffrey Kripal translates kāminī kāñcana as "lover and gold"—one of Kālī's Child's signal theses being that Nikhilananda's "woman and gold" is a "false translation" of kāminī kāñcana (KC, 280). Obviously on a different wavelength, Vivekananda—who heard kāminī kāñcana innumerable times directly from Ramakrishna—translated the phrase as "lust and greed." A new translation of the Kathāmṛta by Dharm Pal Gupta also renders kāminī kāñcana as "lust and greed" as well as "lust and gold."33 Interestingly, M's own English translation of his diary, written in King James English, translates kāminī kāñcana as "lust and gold." For this offense, Kripal accuses M of having "participated in the cover-up" since his translation "is conspicuously silent on the topic"—the "topic" and "cover-up" being Ramakrishna's presumed misogyny intrinsic in kāminī kāñcana (KC, 278).
"Lover" and Gold?
Kripal asserts that the alleged cover-up process "begins in the last entries of M's diaries, where the brother monks reflect back on Ramakrishna's teachings on kāma-kāñcana, 'lust-and-gold'" (KC, 357). Rather than viewing "lust and gold" as M's considered decision of the best translation of his own words into a foreign language, Kripal accuses M of participating in an elaborate cover-up.
Yet translating kāminī as "lover" can be seen as idiosyncratic at best and perverse at worst. One could also argue that Kripal's translation is not only wrong but also self-serving. Rajat Ray, chair of the History Department at Presidency College in Kolkata—and hardly an insider— wondered about the mystifying word choice in his review of Kālī's Child: "Kripal translates 'kāminī' as 'lover'—why not 'woman'?" (Ray, 102). How "woman-and-gold" forms part of the "secret" is explained in the first edition of Kālī's Child. There we read that Nikhilananda's "woman and gold"
is a false translation, yet another strategy in the concealing of Ramakrishna's secret. The word kāminī does not mean "woman." Literally, it could be translated as "lusty woman" or "sexy woman." It certainly is not an abstract term for woman. (KC 1995, 280)
The book's second edition modifies this bold declaration, no doubt in response to Atmajnanananda's published critique of the accuracy of Kripal's Bengali.34 Thus we read in the second edition that Nikhilananda's translation was
yet another strategy in the concealing of Ramakrishna's secret. The word kāminī can mean simply "woman." Literally, however, it could be translated as "lusty woman" or "sexy woman." It is hardly an abstract term for woman. (KC, 280; emphases added.)
With either translation, however, we encounter a problem. Translating kāminī as "lusty woman" is convenient—provided one accepts Kālī's Child's thesis that Ramakrishna related to women either as "Lovers" (whom he hated and feared) or as "Mothers" (whom he worshiped) (280; capitalizations in text). But this either/or binary is not only grossly reductionistic, it also thoroughly misrepresents Ramakrishna's attitude toward women, which was, as he repeatedly said, that he saw them as manifestations of the Divine Mother. In the pages that follow we shall delineate the problems with Kālī's Child's Mother/Lover dyad and we will show that Ramakrishna's attitude towards women was neither misogynistic nor contradictory. To do this we will return to Kālī's Child to examine kāminī kāñcana and the linguistic and philosophical impediments to Kālī's Child's theses.
One fundamental philosophical problem with Kālī's Child's kāminī kāñcana/homoerotic-secret theses is that it ignores the simple truism that an aversion needs to be developed only toward those things to which one is attracted. One need not needlessly browbeat someone about the dangers of smoking, for example, if the person has no attraction to cigarettes in the first place. Jeanne Openshaw zeroed in on this point in her book review of Kālī's Child: "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" (Openshaw, 22).
Linguistic Misconstructions and Kāminī Kāñcana
In translating an idiomatic phrase such as kāminī kāñcana, Kripal runs into a problem anyone could encounter while attempting to translate from a language not adequately understood. It is quite true that the Sanskrit word kāminī is related to kāma, lust, therefore kāminī could mean a lusty woman or one that evokes lust in others. But in Sanskrit, kāminī could just as well refer to a beautiful, sensual woman. When used in Bengali, however, kāminī can simply mean a woman. Not necessarily a sexy woman, just a woman. Further, its usage in Bengali is very rare, kāminī being largely restricted to poetry and songs (including at least two to the goddess Durga).35 The more commonly used Bengali words for woman are strī or mahilā. Should one wish to say "lusty woman" in Bengali, an adjective would have to be added to stri, such as kāmātura strī or kāmāsakta strī. One would not use the phrase kāmātura kāminī at all; it would sound ridiculous. Given all this, why would Ramakrishna use an uncommon word such as kāminī in his decidedly unliterary Bengali conversations? Because of its alliterative qualities when combined with its companion, kāñcana, "gold."
It is significant that whenever Ramakrishna used the word kāminī, it was almost always in conjunction with kāñcana. Ramakrishna frequently used rhyming phrases such as lok na pok (people are like worms); jato mat, tato path (as many opinions, so many ways to the divine), grantha granthi (scriptures can be binding knots); mānuṣ man-hum̐ś (the person whose consciousness is awakened is a worthy person). More examples could be provided, but hopefully the point has been made. The alliterative quality of these phrases made them memorable, which is why alliteration is one of the oldest teaching devices in the world. Crucially, when Ramakrishna spoke of "woman" not in conjunction with kāñcana, "gold," he generally used an altogether different word for "woman"— strī or meye.
Ramakrishna and Kāminī
What precisely did Ramakrishna have in mind with the kāminī element within kāminī kāñcana? To begin with, it is important to remember that Ramakrishna's usage was hardly unique. During its long history, Hinduism's epics, Purāṇas and dharmaśāstras have consistently reflected a deep mistrust of women's power of sexual attraction as well as an equally deep mistrust of men's ability to resist that attraction. Sharada Sugirtharajah has written that the dharmaśāstras "reflect a profound sense of ambivalence in their attitude to woman. On the one hand, she is elevated to the status of a goddess, but on the other, she is seen as a temptress and seducer" (1998, 66).
A random opening of Kamala Subrahmanian's translation of the Bhāgavata, for example, reveals the following passage:
It has been said that the indriyas are powerful, so powerful that they will pull even a wise man into the snare of sin. That is why the wise have said that one should not sit on the same seat with his sisters or even daughter. Such is the power of the senses that man may forget himself in the blindness of the moment. (275)
This is not an atypical text, and as we can see, the real root of the problem is not the woman (though often enough the texts blame the woman as well). More than anything else, it is the man who fears his inability to resist his sexual attraction to the woman. This is not out of the ordinary; it is prevalent throughout the Hindu—and especially the Hindu ascetic— tradition. As Sumit Sarkar has written:
Ramakrishna's constant warning to his disciples about the danger of kamini do not seem [sic] to pose much of a problem, for they are deeply rooted in the Hindu religious tradition (and indeed, with variations, most other religions). . . . An equally deep-rooted notion in Hindu culture is the assumption that biryapat—ejaculation—enervates the male, while conversely continence in the midst of temptation is a potent source of spiritual energy. . . . Ramakrishna stood four-square within this tradition. (1985, 99)
Other purported evidentiary claims for Ramakrishna's misogyny center around Ramakrishna's many warnings to his male disciples about women and his graphic descriptions of the contents of women's bodies. Evidence for Ramakrishna's misogyny is presumably found in his statement: "It is not good for a sannyāsi to sit in the company of a woman devotee, or even to talk to her. . . . There are eight kinds [of sexual intercourse]. To listen to a woman and enjoy her conversation is one kind; to speak about a woman is another kind" (GSR, 701).
Yet this injunction is hardly peculiar to Ramakrishna. Strict standards for a sannyāsi are ancient and fairly universal across Hinduism's renunciant traditions. Both Sudhir Kakar and Parama Roy are surprisingly shortsighted on this topic. Kakar writes, for example: "For a renunciate, he [Ramakrishna] felt, to sit with a woman or talk to her for a long time was a kind of sexual intercourse of which there were eight kinds" (Kakar 1991, 31).36 Yet Kakar and Roy should know that Ramakrishna did not make this up himself: those "eight kinds of sexual intercourse" which Ramakrishna recounts belong to a longstanding Hindu tradition. Ramakrishna would not have had to look far, since it is found in Bengal's Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava tradition, which, as we know, deeply influenced him.37 The "eight kinds of sexual intercourse" are discussed in the Vairāgya Mārtaṇḍa (12.144-45),38 which has been attributed to Jīva Gośvāmī as well as to Śrīdhara Svāmī. This text cites the more ancient Dakṣa Smṛti (7.31-32) regarding these eight kinds of intercourse. Śaṅkara himself discussed the eight kinds of sexual intercourse in his Sarva-vedānta-siddhānta-sāra-saṁgraha (109-110)39 and an almost similar list appears in the Kaṭharudropaniṣad (8.9) as well. Even the Nārada Bhakti Sūtra (#63) warns that "descriptions about women, wealth and atheists are not to be heard." Before (mis)ascribing misogyny to Ramakrishna, it would be more fruitful to contextualize Ramakrishna's statement within the renunciant tradition. Admonitions about kāminī kāñcana are hardly limited to Ramakrishna.
Saral Jhingran has written in her study of Indian morality: "All Hindu philosophic systems believe in the duality of self and body, and assert the transcendent nature of the self. . . . The thinkers of the tradition of liberation have given very vivid descriptions of the loathsome constituents of the body, such as blood, bone, urine, etc." (Jhingran, 218). Ramakrishna was solidly within the Hindu ascetic tradition when he invoked these "loathsome constituents," particularly when addressing young men who were potential sādhus. For example, in remembering the course of his own sādhana, he says:
I saw clearly before me heaps of money, shawls, a plate of sweets, two girls with rings in their noses. I asked my mind, what do you want? Do you want enjoyment? The mind said, "No, I don't want anything. I don't want anything other than the lotus feet of God." I saw the inside and the outside of the women just as you can see from outside all the things inside a glass house! I saw inside them—entrails, blood, excrement, worms, phlegm, saliva, urine, etc. (tāder bhitare dekhlām—nāḍībhuḍi, rakto, biṣṭhā, kṛmi, koph, nāl, prosrāb). (KA 3.139)
It is worth mentioning that translating the above paragraph is a microcosm of the problems the translator faces in attempting to translate between languages and cultures. How does one translate, for example, biṣṭhā, excrement, and prosrāb, urine? "Shit" and "piss" carry, in the English language and particularly in print, a harshness and shock value not found in village Bengali. On the other hand, "urine" and "excrement"—what to speak of "feces"—is too fastidious for Ramakrishna. "Pee" and "poop" are infantile. Since there is no completely accurate translation for those words, one must opt for the least inaccurate translation. Interestingly, Majumdar—a native Bengali who translated the entire Kathāmṛta—translated "nāl" as "tubes" since the word can mean either "saliva" or "veins." In the rural Bengali dialect, however, it is more likely to mean saliva than veins, and considering Ramakrishna's intent, he probably meant saliva since it is considered more repugnant than veins.
While a word can be looked up in a dictionary and assigned a translation, it is much more difficult to translate the culture, history and religious values that undergird the word in the context of the culture. As Gayatri Spivak acidly notes: "The implicit assumption [is] that all that 'third world' texts need is a glossary" (Spivak, 95). While overstated, Spivak has a point: if the translator only has a limited understanding of the multi-layered nature of a language and its culture, then his or her translation will inevitably be faulty. All of which brings us back to the question of Ramakrishna's "misogyny," which Kripal qualifies by writing that "his misogyny was not so much a misogyny, a 'hatred of women,' as it was a 'disgust' (ghṛṇā) of female bodies" (KC, 286). Yet as we have seen, this is perfectly in keeping with the ascetic tradition within Hinduism, and from that perspective, it makes perfect sense.
We would do well to remember this point when we encounter some of Ramakrishna's more emphatic statements on women—that women are tigers, ogresses with large pores, etc.—which seem difficult to reconcile with his oft-repeated statement that he looks upon all women as embodiments of the Divine Mother. Ramakrishna admitted that in his early years he was afraid of women (āge bhārī bhoy chilo) and would not allow them to come near him. But when we see him in the Kathāmṛta, he had reached the stage where he saw them all as "forms of the blissful Divine Mother" (mā ānandamoyīr ek ekṭi rūp) (KA 4.201). Thus we find no difficulty reconciling these apparently conflicting views, especially when we remember that Ramakrishna's talks in the Kathāmṛta were directed to a variety of different individuals at varying stages in their lives, all going toward very different futures.
We often forget in reading the Kathāmṛta that an extremely diverse array of people visited Ramakrishna on a daily basis. Most of Ramakrishna's meetings with other people are not recorded in M's diaries since M did not live with Ramakrishna. Though M was an especially close disciple who spent as much time as possible with Ramakrishna, he was, for the most part, able to visit him only once or twice a week, occasionally staying in Dakshineswar for longer stretches of time. While the Kathāmṛta is without question the best single record we have of Ramakrishna and his teachings, this record is nevertheless incomplete since it can only reflect what M heard and observed on those days when he was with him. Sumit Sarkar has noted:
It is easy to slip into an assumption that Ramakrishna's teachings in the early 1880s constitute a single bloc. But speech is inherently "dialogic," modulated by contexts and audiences—and Ramakrishna's devotees included many apart from the middle-aged householders who tend to predominate in Mahendranath's text. The Kathamrta does not give an equivalent direct access to other groups: the very young men who later become sanyasis (they are often present, but not possibly in their more intimate conversations with the saint) ... the wives and widows, the prostitutes-turned-actresses. (1993, 60)
The accounts that we have from these other groups—the future sannyāsis, wives and widows, prostitutes-turned-actresses, along with a wide assortment of others—attest to the fact that Ramakrishna directed his words to the particulars of his audience. Ramakrishna's talks to his women disciples were necessarily different from those he gave to his male disciples, and both of these were quite different from the teachings he gave to future sannyāsis. Swami Premananda (whom we meet as "Baburam" in the Kathāmṛta) said that a wide variety of people sought out Ramakrishna and each person was taught differently, "according to their different temperaments and their capacity of understanding." Ramakrishna's teachings to his future monastic disciples "were given in private." Premananda said that Ramakrishna taught them how to discriminate and analyze the body which is "made up as it is of flesh, blood, and bones, so that our minds would not run after the enjoyments of the flesh" (Prabhavananda, 114).
On the other hand, to his householder disciples, who perhaps feared they might be asked to abide by unattainable standards, Ramakrishna said:
For a person who pursues the path of knowledge, it is not harmful to have occasional conjugal relations with his own wife. The emission of semen is like the elimination of urine and feces. You eliminate and do not think of it anymore. It is like eating a sweet. It is not so harmful for a householder. (KA 4.68)
Ramakrishna told his disciple Bhavanath, whose time with his wife was spent in spiritual conversation, to "have a little fun with your wife" (KA 3.115). Kālī's Child distorts the tenor of this conversation by stating that Ramakrishna "complains" about Bhavanath talking with his wife all night. There is no complaint in Ramakrishna's words. He seemed pleased that the couple shared spiritual conversations with each other and was clearly amused by Bhavanath's incensed retort to Ramakrishna's suggestion that they "have a little fun." Seeing it as a concession made to the worldly-minded, Bhavanath replied to Ramakrishna's suggestion with a huffy "Shall we too remain immersed in that kind of fun?"
Ramakrishna gave the same advice to Hari, telling him to go to his father-in-law's house, talk to his wife "and have a little fun with her if you like." With this, Ramakrishna turned to M and said, "What do you say?" (KA 4.206). At this everyone laughs, enjoying the joke. Not surprisingly, Kālī's Child paints this scene with a pejorative brush, depicting M as "grinning" (284), which, predictably, is not in the text. The Kathāmṛta depicts a scene of light-hearted fun, the participants enjoying an easy conversation.
Kālī's Child states that Ramakrishna offered a "dou ble message—the family is at once a pile of shit and a convenient fort—[which] produced great ambivalence and doubt in Ramakrishna's disciples" (284). First, we find no evidence of "great ambivalence" in any of the source texts. Second, as we have seen, Ramakrishna did not give a double message but two distinctly different messages for two distinctly different groups of people. There is one message for householders and another message for future sādhus.
In contrast to householders, the rules for sādhus were more severe. Ramakrishna said:
A sannyāsī must not look even at the picture of a woman. For a sannyāsī to have relations with a woman is like eating what has been spat out. A sannyāsī must not sit and talk with women even if they are greatly devoted. He should not talk to them even when he has mastered his passion. A sannyāsī renounces both kāminī and kāñcana. Just as he should not see even a picture of a woman, he must not touch kāñcana—money. (KA 4.68)
If we find this to be absurdly negative and restrictive, we should remember that Sarada was often more severe than Ramakrishna on this score. She said to one of her women disciples who was trying to lead an exclusively spiritual life: "Never trust men. What to speak of strangers, don't trust even your father or brother. Even if God comes to you in the form of a man, don't trust him" (MK, 118). To another disciple she said: "A monk must not lower the ideal of renunciation. Even if a wooden image of a woman lies upside down in the road, he must not turn it the other way, even with his foot, to look at its face" (Nikhilananda 1962, 181). Neither Ramakrishna's nor Sarada's guidelines for sādhus were unduly harsh in the context of Hindu religious culture, particularly during that time. Their attitudes were very much in keeping with the expected standards of behavior for sannyāsis. We may remember the fifteenth-century ecstatic saint Caitanya (who even in nineteenth-century Bengal was still a presence to be reckoned with) being a severe disciplinarian when it came to sannyāsis. When Caitanya's disciple, the younger Haridās, merely spoke to an elderly widow devotee after Caitanya had forbidden him to do so, Haridās was banished without a second thought. Incidents such as this were part of the everyday consciousness of Bengalis such as Ramakrishna and Sarada. Ascetics were given a set of rules, entirely separate from that of householders, by which to abide and through which they could traverse the world of saṁsāra.
In assessing Ramakrishna's attitude toward women, we therefore need to keep in mind that when Ramakrishna spoke of women in seemingly pejorative terms, he was addressing a specific audience consisting of determined sādhakas and future sannyāsis. The intent behind Ramakrishna's pungent words was to decrease their desire for sex and instill in them an increased desire for God. As we have seen, Ramakrishna was just one in a long line of spiritual teachers to have done so with bracing effect. To a different audience at different times, Ramakrishna often spoke of the advantages of a married life, especially when people asked whether they could succeed in spiritual life as householders. Comparing the situation of the householder to fighting a battle from inside the fort, Ramakrishna said:
Why should you renounce? Since fight you must, it is better to fight from a fort. You must fight against your senses and things like hunger and thirst. It is better to fight this battle from within the world. . . . Why should you renounce? It is more convenient to be at home. . . . Whatever and whenever the body needs something, it will be near at hand. (KA 1.153)
On another occasion Ramakrishna said: "In the world one has to fight against lust (kām) and anger (krodh), against different kinds of desires (bāsonā), and against attachment (āsokti). It is convenient if the battle is fought from a fort. The fight from home is good" (KA 1.173). When asked whether it was possible to live in the world once the mind became filled with God, Ramakrishna answered: "Why not? Where will you go leaving the world? I see that wherever I live, I am in Rāma's Ayodhya. This world is Rāma's Ayodhya" (1.173). While Kālī's Child interprets this statement as depicting "the ontological silliness of renunciation" (KC, 284), this disparaging assessment only serves to muddy the issue's waters without providing clarity. Ramakrishna spoke approvingly of householder life to those who were already leading a householder life. He encouraged them to practice more sādhana, to spend some time in solitude or in the company of the holy (sādhusaṅga), and he told them that they need not renounce physically but only mentally. To young future sādhus, Ramakrishna spoke enthusiastically of both inner and outer renunciation.
While Kālī's Child belabors Ramakrishna's presumed horror at his young disciples' contact with women (82-83), Ramakrishna actively encouraged his young disciple Rakhal (who was considered Ramakrishna's spiritual son and later became the first President of the Ramakrishna Order) to return home to his wife. Rakhal did just that and, while living at home, his wife became pregnant and bore a child.40 Kālī's Child briefly mentions the fact that Ramakrishna suggested that Rakhal return home to his wife, yet the book does not come to terms with its significance. Kripal's explanation for Ramakrishna's suggestion was that he had "throw[n] his previous cautions to the wind." Kripal adds: "The life of the renouncer, Ramakrishna seems to be saying, is not all that it is cracked up to be" (KC, 284). In other words, there is no explanation for Ramakrishna's suggestion since it would be inconsistent with Kālī's Child's assertion that Ramakrishna did not want any of his disciples to have anything to do with women (82-83).
Ramakrishna had great regard for Rakhal's spiritual potential and yet Ramakrishna had no qualms about Rakhal returning home. As we read in the Kathāmṛta: "Rakhal now understands what is knowledge and what is ignorance; he now discriminates between the real and the unreal (sot asot bicār hoyeche). Now I say to him, 'Go home. You may come here sometimes and spend two or three days'" (KA 4.93). On the other hand, Ramakrishna was alarmed about Rakhal and kāñcana, telling him: "I would rather hear that you had jumped into the Ganges and died for the sake of God than hear that you had become someone's slave or accepted a job under someone" (KA 2.201). Here we find Ramakrishna not bothering about kāminī but extremely concerned about kāñcana.
Interrelated Triad of Bondage: Kāñcana, Marriage, Employment
It is remarkable that while a great deal of dust has been raised over Ramakrishna's purported misogyny as reflected in kāminī, there has been precious little interest in kāñcana—to which kāminī is attached like a Siamese twin—and about which Ramakrishna is equally biting. Like "woman," Ramakrishna also speaks of "gold" separately from the kāminī kāñcana dyad. When discussing kāñcana separately from kāminī, Ramakrishna generally used the common Bengali word for money, ṭākā, instead of the more ornate term, kāñcana. While a number of contemporary Ramakrishna scholars have tried to pull kāminī away from kāñcana, doing so misrepresents Ramakrishna and distorts his multi-layered approach to what he viewed as the major impediments to a serious spiritual life. Simply put, as Ramakrishna repeatedly said: "Maya is kāminī kāñcana" (kāminī kāñcana māyā) (KA 3.33).
Partha Chatterjee correctly observes that the "figure of a woman often ... stand[s] for concepts or entities that have little to do with women in actuality" (68). In his extended discussion of kāminī kāñcana in the Kathāmṛta, Chatterjee writes: "The figure of woman-and-gold signified the enemy within: that part of one's own self which was susceptible to the temptations of ever-unreliable worldly success" (69). Ramakrishna often discussed the interrelated nature of kāminī kāñcana, which begins with a wife, followed by children, and the necessity of a job for their maintenance. Included in this package are ever-increasing distractions, worry, loss of freedom and loss of autonomy. In order to keep the job for the sake of money to maintain the family, the husband will have to endure any number of humiliations from his superiors. He will feel compelled to flatter their egos and pander to their whims in order to keep the job. He may be pressured to lie or cheat or accept bribes. The ability to keep his mind on God becomes an increasingly remote possibility. Ramakrishna says in the Kathāmṛta: "Kāminī kāñcana create bondage for the soul (jīva) and it loses its independence. It is woman that creates the need for gold. That, in turn, necessitates servitude to others (porer dāsatva). That takes away one's independence. You can no longer do what you like" (KA 1.72).41
Sumit Sarkar writes of "Ramakrishna's triad of kāminī-kāñcan-chakri"—that is, the interdependent alliance of woman-gold-clerical job. Sarkar writes that the central link of this bondage is "between kamini and the dasatva of chakri (bondage of the office-job), mediated by kanchan." To this point Sarkar quotes Ramakrishna in the Kathāmṛta: "Look, how many educated people trained in English, with so many degrees, accept chakri [clerical job] and receive kicks from their master's boots every day. Kāminī is the sole reason for all this" (1993, 29; quoting KA 3.143 and 1.73). Partha Chatterjee also observes that "woman as kāminī and the identification of this figure with kāñcan (gold) produced a combination that signified a social world of everyday transactions in which the family man was held in bondage." Chatterjee goes on to say that "the specific semantic content of this idea in Ramakrishna's sayings could well be traced to a very influential lineage in popular religious beliefs in Bengal" (68).
Not just Bengal. There are any number of examples throughout the history of Indian literature. In thumbing through an English rendering of the Bhāgavata by Kamala Subrahmanian, for example, we find the following passage: "Gold will propagate avarice, untruth, arrogance, lustfulness, ruthlessness and hatred. . . . This is why the wise say that Kamini and Kanchana are the two dread enemies which are lying in wait to destroy man" (31).
Those who find Ramakrishna's perspective unnecessarily negative will find Sarada speaking in exactly the same vein, which is not surprising since these ideas are an integral part of the Hindu ascetic tradition. When Sarada was asked by a woman devotee to order her unwilling daughter to marry, Sarada responded with a counter-question: "Is it any less miserable to remain subservient to someone for life and to dance to his tune?" She further said that, though there is a possibility of problems in unmarried life, it is wrong to force an unwilling person into a life of worldliness through marriage (MK, 164).
There is a strong tradition within Hinduism which views marriage as a fearsome bondage which steals away the sādhaka's body, mind and freedom. When speaking from that tradition's stance (which they often did) Ramakrishna's—and Sarada's—words were not out of the ordinary.
Marriage: Con and Pro
Kālī's Child reports that Ramakrishna viewed the householder life as "scary, dangerous, and dirty" (140), and had "general disgust with women" (141). However, further investigation shows that an apprehension of the snares of householder life is fairly universal among those who advocate renunciation, whether male or female. We find Sarada, for example, taking the same attitude when her niece Maku criticized her for encouraging young men to become monks. Annoyed, Sarada gave a spirited reply, making those in the room "hang their heads in shame":
These [potential future monks] are all God's children. In the world they will remain pure like flowers. Is there any happiness greater than that? You have seen what sort of happiness there is in the world. You have also seen the happiness of living with a husband. Are you not ashamed to go to your husband again and again? What have you learned after living with me for so long? Why is there still so much infatuation and carnality? What joy do you find in that? If you go back to your husband, I won't keep you here. Can you not hold a pure thought even in your dreams? Can you not stay even now like a brother and a sister? Do you want to live like a pig? My bones burn in the fire of your worldly life.42 . . . Whether a person calls on God or not, one who has not married is already half-liberated. When the mind of such a person is drawn to God, he will make quick progress. (MK, 282-83)
Does the above indicate that Sarada also had a "general disgust with women"—or men for that matter? Sarada's many disciples, both men and women, numbering in the hundreds, have attested to the great love they felt from her, just as Ramakrishna's women disciples have attested to the great love they felt from him. One of Ramakrishna's women disciples, Yogin-Ma—who was one of Sarada's closest companions for many years—said in response to a devotee who was discussing Sarada's compassion: "Mother [Sarada Devi] certainly loves us all very much, but her love doesn't have the intensity of Thakur's. What concern and love he had towards his disciples! We saw it with our own eyes. Words cannot describe it" (MK, 349).
Sarada's fiery words to her niece—and Ramakrishna's words concerning kāminī kāñcana—were meant to burn an imprint of vairāgya, renunciation, into the minds of their devotees. The extent to which they succeeded was due to the fact that vairāgya and brahmacarya were accepted and esteemed virtues in the Hindu milieu of the nineteenth century. Surprisingly, to a limited degree, they remain so even today. Psychoanalyst Alan Roland has written extensively on Indian psychotherapy and observed that even today in India: "Sexuality is ... not experienced as a liberating force. . . . Rather, sexuality is associated with even greater family enmeshments and obligations" (Roland 1996, 138). This is not too far of a cry from Ramakrishna's kāminī kāñcana. Roland adds:
Since in India, sexuality connotes greatly increased family obligations rather than personal autonomy as in the West, the striving for brahmacharya, or sexual abstinence and renunciation in adulthood in the service of spiritual disciplines ... can also be viewed as a step in the loosening of the intense personal attachments and obligations in extended family-communal relationships and a reaching toward personal autonomy in the spiritual sphere. (143)
If this is true of modern India, with all the Westernization that has taken place, think of what the normative values were for Hindu India over a century ago. Of course one can pathologize these values and presume they are psychosexual disorders. To do so, however, would diminish the core values of Hindu religious culture and would misapprehend a vital facet of that tradition. This should not be done lightly. Clearly, those in the room with Sarada took her words quite seriously. Were that not the case, they would not have been moved to "hang their heads in shame."
Perhaps, we may wonder, Sarada's negative words about marriage were the result of her marriage to Ramakrishna, which had left her either embittered or brainwashed. To consider this hypothesis, however, we would need to accept the premise that Sarada found marriage to be generally undesirable. But neither Sarada nor Ramakrishna was against marriage per se. They were against marriage for those with the potential of renunciation, and they were particularly against marriage when addressing sādhus, potential sādhus and those who would impede or criticize sādhus. For example, Sarada said to one of her disciples who wanted to be a monk but whose father vehemently opposed it: "Just see how a father wants to strike at his own boy's head with an axe!" (Saradeshananda 1981, 102). On another occasion, when a woman complained to Sarada that it was difficult to find suitable bridegrooms for her daughters, Sarada replied that the reason boys were not marrying was that "they have learnt now that the world is transitory" (cheleder ekhon gyān hocche soṅgsār je anitya) (MK, 11). At another time Sarada said: "Is there any happiness in this world living with one's wife and children? They have lost themselves in kāminī and kāñcana (Soṅgsāre māg chele niye ki ār sukh āche? Kāminī ār kāñcan, otei bhule royeche) (MK, 223). It is worth noting that Sarada uses not only kāminī kāñcana here but also māg chele—a colloquial expression for "wife and children"—which, when mistranslated as "bitch and kids" in Kālī's Child's first edition, was seen as proof of Ramakrishna's misogyny. As we can see, māg chele was so common a colloquialism that even Sarada used it. While Kripal removed references to Sarada as "bitch" in the book's second edition, he did not remove it in other instances. As a result, even the book's second edition has a subhead entitled "Cleaving the Bitch in Two," which informs the reader that "the saint had split the goddess into a pure sexless Mother and a despised Lover bitch" (KC, 142). This is a catastrophic mistranslation, based upon inadequate knowledge of the language and culture.
Despite Sarada's words on the pitfalls of marriage, it would be incorrect to characterize her (or Ramakrishna's) attitude as anti-marriage. To those who worried that they were unfit sādhakas because they were married, Sarada assured them that they could certainly live a spiritual life while living in the family. After all, she said, was she not also living in the midst of her family? When one of her male disciples, who did not want to marry, expressed such a concern, she said: "Who says it is not possible to be virtuous if one is married? It is through the mind that everything is accomplished. Didn't Thakur marry me?" (MK, 338). While both Ramakrishna and Sarada showed a marked appreciation for renunciation (an appreciation also shared by their culture), they nevertheless praised married life and both advised various people to follow that path rather than that of sannyāsa unless the person in question was not only eager but also qualified for it. We can remember the case of the man who wanted to live with Ramakrishna, leaving his wife and their many children at her father's home. Outraged, Ramakrishna said: "Will people from the neighborhood feed them and bring them up? Isn't he ashamed that someone else is feeding his wife and children, and he has dumped them at his father-in-law's house? I scolded him very hard and asked him to look for a job. Then he was willing to leave here" (KA 1.19).
Ramakrishna's Attitude toward Women
If Ramakrishna was not a misogynist, then what was his attitude toward women? The following passage from the Kathāmṛta is particularly illuminating, as it puts into perspective Ramakrishna's own attitude towards women as "parts of the Divine Mother." Moreover, the passage also brings to light the basic philosophical problem with Kālī's Child's analysis of kāminī kāñcana. Ramakrishna begins by saying:
When God is attained (īśvarlābh) through intense dispassion (tībro boirāgya), there is no longer any attachment toward women. There is neither attachment nor fear even if one is married. If there is a very large magnet and another small one, then which one will pull a piece of iron toward it? It is the large one that will do so. God is the large magnet; compared to him, a woman (kāminī) is a small magnet. What can a woman do?
A Devotee: Sir, should we hate (ghṛṇā) women?
Sri Ramakrishna: One who has attained God does not see women with lustful eyes and so has no fear. He sees clearly that women (meyerā) are parts of the Divine Mother (mā brahmamoyīr aṅgśa) and, addressing them as "mother," he worships them all. (KA 1.73)
As we can see, Ramakrishna says that a person without lustful attachment has no fear. What does a man fear? Not the woman: "What can a woman do?" He fears his own weakness, his own wavering will, his own "lustful eyes" in the face of temptations. This is the point which Kripal (and others) have missed: the major misstep of Kālī's Child's kāminī kāñcana thesis is that Ramakrishna's cautionary words about kāminī are not directed to the woman outside the man. The source of the problem is lust-identified-with-woman inside the mind of the man, which is then projected onto the woman outside. Ramakrishna's many warnings about women were directed to the kāminī hovering inside his male disciples' minds, and it was this interior kāminī (as well as the interior kāñcana) that needed to be tamed. According to Ramakrishna, once the lust located in the mind (which for men is usually identified with woman) is overcome by the attainment of God (iśvarlābh), then any external woman will have no effect on the mind. With the attainment of God, māyā is removed, allowing the once-deluded man to see a woman as she is, a part of the Divine Mother.
This point was reiterated by Ramakrishna's disciples. After Ramakrishna's death, M often visited the Baranagore monastery to spend time with the young monks. In his diary he recorded Brahmananda's words on the subject of women: "Many think it is enough if one does not look at a woman. What good will it do if you just lower you head when you see a woman? Last night Narendra said it very well, 'A woman exists as long as there is lust. Without it one feels no difference between a man and a woman' (jatokkhan āmār kām, tatokkhan-i strīlok; tā nā h'le strī-puruṣ bhed bodh thāke nā)" (KA 2.255). As long as lust inside the mind is not conquered, the sādhaka must be extremely cautious about the objects of lust outside the mind. Ramakrishna repeatedly used the example of a young tree that needs to be fenced in to protect it from cattle. Once the tree is thick and strong "the tree won't be hurt even if an elephant is tied to it" (KA 1.47).
Puruṣa Kāñcana—"Man and Gold"
It is because Ramakrishna saw kāminī kāñcana as an interior problem lodged within the sādhaka's mind that he could be equally vehement about puruṣa kāñcana, "man and gold," with his women disciples. Because both the Kathāmṛta and the Līlāprasaṅga were written by men—women for the most part being illiterate—the texts' language generally reflects Ramakrishna's spiritual instructions to men. Had a woman been the main recorder of Ramakrishna's talks, we would have had a better idea of Ramakrishna's teachings to women and would have heard repeated references to puruṣa kāñcana, "man and gold."
Gauri-Ma, one of Ramakrishna's prominent women disciples (and to whom he gave the ochre cloth of sannyāsa), said the following about kāminī kāñcana:
[Ramakrishna] has uttered this note of warning, against gold and sensuality, against a life of enjoyment, but surely not against women. Just as he advised the ascetic-minded men to guard themselves against women's charms, so also did he caution pious women against men's company. The Master's whole life abounds with proofs to show that he had not the slightest contempt or aversion for women; rather he had intense sympathy and profound regard for them. (Gauri Mata, 93)
In the Līlāprasaṅga we read what Yogin-Ma, one of Ramakrishna's women disciples, said about Ramakrishna:
Everyone now says that he did not allow women to touch him or to go near him. We laugh when we hear this and think, "Ah, we are not dead yet!" How will anyone understand how kind he was! He treated women and men the same way. But it is true that if women stayed near him for long, he would say, "Please go now and have darśan in the temples." We have heard him ask men also to do the same." (LP 3.34)
Silencing Women: Why Does This Seem So Familiar?
This brings us back to the baffling omission of women's voices in Kālī's Child. This kind of omission is remarkable when we consider that Kripal included in his sources even obscure writers who had never met Ramakrishna and who only provided secondhand information from other sources. Given that he refers to such sources, it is strange indeed that Kālī's Child does not discuss the extensive literature concerning Sarada Devi and Ramakrishna's other women disciples. Unlike some of Kripal's sources, these books are hardly obscure. They are widely available, in Bengali and in faithful English translations, and they contain a great deal of information not only about Sarada, but also about Ramakrishna—and these sources, critically, are firsthand. These sources were known to Kripal, since in a later article on Sarada he discussed the "daunting body of devotional literature in both English and Bengali," and he quoted extensively from two of the major source texts on Sarada, Śrī-Śrī-Māyer Kathā and Śrī-Śrī-Māyer SmṛtiKathā (2001b, 174). Indeed, since he stayed at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture in Kolkata for eight months, he would have found literature on Sarada, as well as on Ramakrishna's other women disciples, difficult to avoid. Yet these critical sources were pointedly avoided in Kālī's Child. Such an omission would be excusable if Kālī's Child did not discuss any of the women in Ramakrishna's life and their relationships with him. But to indict Ramakrishna on charges of misogyny and then not allow these women to speak for themselves on their personal relationships with Ramakrishna, ranks somewhere between incomprehensible and unconscionable.43
It is ironic that Kālī's Child accuses Ramakrishna of being a misogynist when it was Ramakrishna who insisted that Sarada and Gauri become spiritual teachers. Yet the one who accuses Ramakrishna of misogyny effectively silences the women associated with Ramakrishna, taking away their words and speaking for them—presuming to understand their relationship with Ramakrishna better than they did themselves. For Hindu women, it is (à la Yogi Berra) déjà vu all over again.
Sarada and Ramakrishna
Had Kālī's Child not avoided Sarada's reminiscences of Ramakrishna (as well as all the reminiscences of his other women disciples), it would have been extremely difficult for Kripal to sustain his misogyny thesis. To begin with, Ramakrishna had no problem touching Sarada's body. Sarada told her disciple Sarayubala Devi: "Thakur showed me how to massage by massaging my own body" (ṭhākur āmār gā ṭipe dekhiye diye bolten—emni kore ṭepo) (MK, 49).
Sarada repeatedly spoke about Ramakrishna's tenderness: "Ah, how he treated me! Not one day did he say anything that would hurt my mind" (MK, 63). If we feel tempted to roll our eyes about a husband who never said anything to hurt his wife and ask, "Is that all? What about love?" In that case we must recognize the enormous power of our own cultural upbringing, which determines our suppositions about marriage. Alan Roland has written that in India even today, what to speak of over a century ago, "the marital relationship does not assume the same importance or intensity that it does in the American nuclear family" (1996, 137). Roland also observed: "Traditionally, wives and husbands refrain from any displays of affection before other family members. . . . Indian women in psychoanalytic therapy seem far more preoccupied with how they are getting along with their female in-laws than with their husbands" (140).
Sarada often said: "I was married to one who never addressed me as tui." To clarify, this pronoun is generally used for those lower in the social hierarchy—a servant, a child, a younger brother or sister. One would not use tui with one's husband or wife (tumi would be used) unless one were mightily irritated or displeased—at which point tui would be used to good effect to show one's anger or disgust. In other words, Sarada indicates that Ramakrishna never showed any displeasure with her—on the contrary, he was consistently loving, kind and respectful. The story of Ramakrishna accidentally calling Sarada tui is well known: Sarada brought food into Ramakrishna's room. Thinking the person in his room was his young niece Lakshmi, Ramakrishna said, "close the door behind you (tui)." To this Sarada replied, "Yes, I am closing it." Hearing Sarada's voice, Ramakrishna was aghast and said, "Ah! It's you! I thought it was Lakshmi. Please don't mind." However, this unintentional slight disturbed Ramakrishna so much that the following morning he told Sarada, "The whole of last night I couldn't sleep, worrying about how I spoke so rudely to you" (MK, 246).
Moreover, Ramakrishna had deep respect for Sarada's potential as a spiritual teacher, and he insisted that she continue his teachings after he died. Not long before his death, Ramakrishna said to Sarada in an aggrieved voice, "Well, my dear, won't you do anything (hyām̐ gā, tumi ki kichu korbe nā)? Should this (pointing to his body) do everything single-handedly?" To this Sarada replied, "I am only a woman. What can I do?" To which Ramakrishna answered, "No, no, you will have to do a lot (nā, nā, tomāke anek kicchu korte hobe). Some days later Ramakrishna repeated his instruction to her: "See, the people of Calcutta appear to be crawling like worms in the dark. Look after them." When she again protested, "I am a woman. How is that possible?" Ramakrishna responded by pointing to his own body and said, "What after all has this one done (e ār ki koreche)? You will have to do much more (tomāke er anek beśi korte hobe)." When Sarada attempted to change the course of the conversation, he refused to let the topic go, saying: "Is this my responsibility alone (śudhu ki āmār-i dāy)? It is yours also" (tomār-o dāy)" (Gambhirananda, 96).
Ramakrishna taught Sarada all the mantras which she later used for giving initiation after his death. Sarada later told one of her disciples: "Do you know that these mantras are all given to me by Thakur? These mantras possess great power (siddhamantra)" (MK, 296). In fact, Sarada gave mantra dīkṣā (initiation) to several of Ramakrishna's disciples after his death, and the initiation of at least one of them, Swami Yogananda, was at Ramakrishna's behest, according to both Sarada and Yogananda.44 Nor was it just mantras that Sarada learned from Ramakrishna. Sarada said to one of her disciples: "Thakur with his own hands drew for me a picture of the kundalini and the six chakras" (ṭhākur nija hate āmāke kula-kuṇḍalinī, ṣaṭcakro em̐ke diyechilen) (MK, 33).
Ramakrishna's interest in Sarada was not limited to her spiritual capacities. Ramakrishna was particularly concerned about how Sarada would be cared for after his death. As she told her disciple Swami Saradeshananda: "Even Thakur, who wouldn't know whether his wearing cloth was on or off, had so many worries about me!" She told Saradeshananda that Ramakrishna was concerned about "where she would stay after his death, [and] how she would manage to have her food and clothing." He would ask devotees: "If one has six or seven hundred rupees, could a woman maintain herself in a village?" Sarada then told Saradeshananda: "For this purpose Thakur had collected some money and given it to me" (Saradeshananda 1981, 98).45 Saradeshananda continues:
One day [Ramakrishna] asked her, "Where have you kept the money?" On the Mother replying, "In the pot where I keep the condiments," the Master was perturbed and asked, "Is it how money is to be kept?" It is said that about six hundred rupees were collected. The money was later deposited in the Zamindari account of Balaram Bose, and it collected an interest of six rupees per month for her. In speaking on these matters, the Mother would say with a smile, "Now see how much money is coming and is being used by his will!" (98)
There is an abundance of evidence in the literature on Sarada that Ramakrishna was loving and deeply concerned for her welfare. He was concerned about her health and suggested that she get some exercise, moving out of the confines of her small hut. Ramakrishna told her: "A wild bird, if kept within a cage day and night, gets rheumatic. So now and then you should take a walk in the neighborhood" (MK, 193). Even such an ordinary occurrence as Sarada getting a headache made Ramakrishna anxious about her. He repeatedly asked Ramlal, "O Ramlal, what may have caused her headache?" (Gambhirananda, 65).
Though he was famed for his utter indifference to "worldly" life, Ramakrishna was greatly concerned about Sarada's welfare not only after his death but also very much while he was alive. Knowing, for example, that Sarada liked ornaments, Ramakrishna spent three hundred rupees having a pair of bracelets made for her. When Ramakrishna saw Sītā in a vision, she wore a pair of bracelets with tiny facets, making the gold appear to be flecked with diamonds. It was in imitation of these bracelets that Ramakrishna had Sarada's bracelets made, the bracelets she wore until the end of her life (Saradeshananda 1982, 14). Sarada remembered: "[Ramakrishna] used to say, 'Her name is Sarada. She is Sarasvatī. This is why she loves to adorn herself.' He told Hriday, 'See how much money is in your box. Have a pair of nice gold armlets made for her.' He was ill at that time and still he arranged to have the ornaments made for me at the cost of three hundred rupees. And remember, he himself could not touch money" (MK, 54).
While much has been made of the fact that Sarada lived in a tiny room in the music tower (nahabat) near Ramakrishna's room, spending her time cooking for him and his visitors and watching him through a window when he sang, danced and spoke of spiritual life, Sarada herself repeatedly asserts that her years with Ramakrishna were the happiest in her life. "I always felt as if a pitcher filled with bliss (ānander pūrṇaghoṭ) were kept in my heart" (Gambhirananda, 28). Of course it is possible to discount her words as a pitiful attempt to put a brave face on a miserable life, but only if we ignore the fact that there is more evidence to verify her words than there is to dismiss them. If Sarada felt great happiness in her living situation—and she repeatedly said she did—then why should we attempt to impose upon her Western modernity's standards for a woman's happiness? With all the voluminous literature available on Sarada, there is not the slightest hint that she was anything other than happy during her years in Dakshineswar. We may choose to disregard the testimonies of those who knew her, but on what grounds should we ignore her testimony? Because we ourselves cannot imagine being happy under such circumstances?
If, according to Kālī's Child, Ramakrishna hated and feared the "Lover," that is, the untamed woman who was not "rendered pure, sexless, devout" (286), then certainly Ramakrishna would have hated/ feared women like the actress Binodini (though Binodini was devout). In nineteenth-century India, actresses were generally viewed as prostitutes, and to a large degree they were drawn from the ranks of Kolkata's prostitute quarters. As far as public opinion went, "even those who were not directly recruited from prostitute quarters were regarded as public women" (Bhattacharya, 12).46 One evening when Ramakrishna went to the Star Theatre to see Girish Ghosh's play Caitanya Līlā, Ramakrishna went backstage after the play was over. As Binodini reminisced, this meeting was "the source of greatest pride in all my life." She continued in her autobiography:
It was after seeing me perform in Chaitanya-Lila that the most divine of beings granted me refuge at his feet. When the performance was over I would present myself and sit at his feet, in the office room. He would rise and begin to dance joyously, singing as he did so: "Our Guru is Hari! Hari is our Guru!" He asked me to sing this along with him. He would place his hands on my head and cleansing with his touch my sinful body, he blessed me, "Ma, may you have chaitanya!" Poignant indeed was the sight of his gentle and compassionate image before an inferior creature such as myself. The Patitpaban ["purifier of the fallen"—which is how Binodini referred to Ramakrishna] himself was reassuring me. . . .
And once when he lay ill in the house at Shyampukur I had gone for a darsan. Then, too, his body had radiated a calm contentment. "Come, sit down, my child," he said to me. How affectionate were his words; as though he was truly reaching out to forgive this creature of hell. . . . My body that was dedicated to the theatre had truly been blessed. If the world looks upon me with contempt, it does not matter to me, for I know that he who was the most worthy of worship, Ramakrishna Paramhansadeb, has been kind to me.47 (Bhattacharya, 95-96)
As Binodini related above, she visited Ramakrishna during his last illness, at a time when his disciples were vigilantly protecting him from unwelcome visitors. In Swami Prabhavananda's unpublished reminiscences, we read how Binodini eluded Ramakrishna's caretakers:
Binodini, the famous actress and Girish's mistress, came to see Thakur during his last illness. She was disguised as an English boy and was let in to see him. Atul, Girish's brother, brought her. When she took her hat off, her hair fell over her shoulders. Thakur laughed. He put his foot on her heart and went into samadhi.48
There is no hate, no fear, no contempt anywhere here. There clearly is affection, however, for a woman whom many people shunned. Contrary to what we read in Kālī's Child ("it was flesh-and-blood women whom Ramakrishna literally could not touch" KC, 281), Ramakrishna did not hesitate to touch her, even a "fallen woman." Interestingly, Binodini refers to Ramakrishna as one of her two "protector figures"—the other being Girish Ghosh (Bhattacharya, 29). It is no accident that Ramakrishna's photograph is found backstage in nearly every Bengali theater. Sumit Sarkar writes that Ramakrishna
allowed actresses, recruited from prostitutes, to touch his feet. . . . Ramakrishna's unexpected blessing of theater women gave a new respectability to a profession despised by many. . . . he became in fact, in course of time a kind of patron-saint for the Calcutta public theater. (1993, 64)
Gauri-Ma (Mridani Chattopadhyay)
One could argue that Ramakrishna felt compelled to be agreeable to his wife and to the women in society's lower echelons who did not constitute a threat, yet basically he had little liking for the other women he encountered. Ramakrishna's women disciples would disagree with this thesis, however. While one can dismiss the accounts of Ramakrishna's women disciples by suggesting that their reminiscences were the result of wishful thinking, there is enough evidence provided by these women to at least merit the possibility that their accounts of Ramakrishna are accurate. Since we have no evidence that these accounts are falsified, we will assume that they, as firsthand accounts of Ramakrishna, are valid. They are certainly more valid than the secondhand sources quoted in Kālī's Child—the only merit of those apparently being that they provided a viewpoint with which Kripal could agree.49
Gauri-Ma's writings further counter any idea of Ramakrishna's "general disgust for women." Gauri-Ma was one of Ramakrishna's women disciples and he had a particularly high opinion of her. In fact, Ramakrishna gave her the ochre cloth of sannyāsa, and she later founded the Saradeswari Asram, a monastic organization for women that is still active in Kolkata. Gauri-Ma was profoundly influenced by Ramakrishna, especially by his instructions to her regarding women. One day Gauri-Ma was picking flowers in Dakshineswar, when Ramakrishna came near her with a pot of water. While holding a branch of the bakul tree with one hand, he began pouring water with the other. He then said to her: "Gauri, let me pour water and you knead the clay" (ami jol ḍhāli, tui kādā coṭkā). Surprised, Gauri replied: "There is no clay here. How can I knead it? This place is filled with chipped stone." Ramakrishna smiled and said:
I meant one thing and you understood quite another. I was referring to the condition of our women. They are greatly suffering. They are drowned to their necks in the darkness of ignorance, unable to see their own path. They have no idea what the purpose of life is. You must take up the burden of educating them. Light the lamp of knowledge before them. (Guharoy, 49)
According to Gauri-Ma, when she heard these instructions of Ramakrishna, she was completely taken aback and replied: "What are you saying! This is not my work. I cannot get along with worldly people. Instead, give me a few girls and I shall take them to the mountains and mold their character." Gauri-Ma said that Ramakrishna replied with a smile: "Oh no. No going to the mountains. Here, in this city, you will have to do work for women. You have practiced enough spiritual disciplines. Now you have to consecrate your life which is purified through austerities. Set yourself to work for the sake of the women of this country" (Guharoy, 49).50
Yogin-Ma (Yogindramohini Biswas)
We have already seen that Yogin-Ma attested to the intensity of Ramakrishna's love. She was also extremely close to Sarada, to the extent that when the latter went on an extended visit to Kamarpukur, Yogin-Ma wept. Seeing this, Ramakrishna had Yogin brought to his room where, she wrote in her reminiscences,"to console me he began telling me about the sādhanas he had practiced in Dakshineswar. He said, 'Do not reveal these things to anyone.' That day I sat very close to him while we talked. I was a housewife and until that day used to feel shy" (MK, 132).
Swami Aseshananda, who as Saradananda's secretary lived with both Yogin-Ma and Golap-Ma for five years at the Udbodhan House in Kolkata, often spoke of these women with reverence and great affection. They were held in very high esteem not only by Aseshananda but also by all the monks of the Ramakrishna Order. In his published reminiscence of Yogin-Ma, Aseshananda writes that Yogin-Ma had said: "The ideal of purity, which I cherished in my inmost heart, was not only reflected in Sri Ramakrishna's character, but surpassed by far all my conceptions" (1954, 56). Ramakrishna gave her many spiritual instructions, both general and detailed, and kept close watch on her spiritual development. Yogin-Ma told Aseshananda: "Although it is natural for us to feel a certain shyness before men, we had no such feeling in Sri Ramakrishna's presence ... we [were] free to open our hearts to him. We used to speak to him about very intimate things without any scruple or hestitation. And how kind, how affectionate the Master was to us! When strangers, casually reading the life of Ramakrishna, sometimes jump to the conclusion that he did not like women, we simply laugh" (59).51
When Yogin was in Dakshineswar, she was picking flowers one day, holding them in a corner of her cloth. Seeing her, Ramakrishna approached her and asked: "What are you carrying?" Yogin-Ma showed him the flowers and then, bowing down, offered them at his feet. With this, Ramakrishna went into ecstasy and placed his foot on her head (Chetanananda 1989, 144).
We can recall that Kālī's Child places great emphasis on Ramakrishna's foot being placed "onto the bodies of young males" (KC, 36), which Kripal sees as a homoerotic act, claiming that it was one of Ramakrishna's "techniques of arousal" (238). Yet as we can see from Binodini's and Yogin-Ma's reminiscences, Ramakrishna had no difficulty with placing his foot on women. Ramakrishna states in the Kathāmṛta that he placed his foot on his sister's head as well. Without a doubt, if Ramakrishna's other women devotees had been literate and had left their own reminiscences, we would have heard of many other instances.
When Ramakrishna attended the great Vaiṣṇava festival in Panihati, a number of women devotees accompanied him, Yogin-Ma among them. A few days later the women again joined him at Balaram Bose's house for the Jagannath ratha-yātrā ("chariot festival"). As he was preparing to leave for Dakshineswar, Yogin-Ma continued to follow him. In an ecstatic mood, Ramakrishna kept repeating: "Mā Ānandamoyī! Mā Ānandamoyī!" (Blissful Mother, blissful Mother). So reluctant was Yogin-Ma to leave Ramakrishna that he suggested she accompany him on the boat to Dakshineswar—which she did, along with another woman devotee, both of them madly running down the streets of Kolkata in order to catch the boat before it departed (LP 4.217-18).
It is worth mentioning that after Ramakrishna's death, both Saradananda and Yogin-Ma were given pūrṇa abhiṣeka, Tantric initiation, by Iswar Chandra Chakrabarty. Both Saradananda and Yogin-Ma practiced Tantric sādhana under Chakrabarty's guidance. Some years later, Yogin-Ma was given Vedic sannyāsa by Swami Saradananda in the presence of Swami Premananda (Aseshananda 1954, 63). While Kripal accuses the Ramakrishna Order of hiding Ramakrishna's Tantric background, it is difficult to maintain that argument in the light of such information.
Other Women Disciples of Ramakrishna
There are a number of other women disciples of Ramakrishna—among them, Gopaler-Ma (Aghoramani Devi), Golap-Ma (Golapsundari Devi), Nikunja Devi (M's wife), Lakshmi Devi (Lakshmimani Devi), Krishnabhavini Basu, Nistarini Ghosh—whose recorded reminiscences of Ramakrishna consistently speak of a man who was loving and caring. While Kālī's Child harshly critiques Ramakrishna's attitude toward M's wife Nikunja Devi (KC, 285), we find a very different story when we read the account of Devamata (an American woman closely associated with Sarada and Ramakrishna's monastic and householder disciples). According to Devamata, when Nikunja Devi visited Ramakrishna,
he would sit for two or three hours at a time talking over with her the ailments of her children and the failings of the servants. She sought his advice about the best food to bring from the bazaar, how she should discipline the children when they were naughty, and what she could do to make her husband more comfortable and happy. Sri Ramakrishna listened and answered with grave interest. He never showed the least impatience or inattention. (Devamata 120-21)
Sumit Sarkar notes that Ramakrishna had, in "his last years a considerable number of women devotees" (1985, 105). Sarkar finds this ironic because of the negative images of women which are portrayed in the Kathāmṛta. Yet we must bear in mind that when Ramakrishna spoke to women, he spoke just as forcefully about the danger of lust and greed—using the phrase puruṣa kāñcana, "man and gold"—in spiritual life. The other more obvious point is that these women—whose reminiscences indicate that they were spirited, intelligent and often quite independent—would not have gone out of their way (and often in very difficult circumstances) to seek Ramakrishna's company if he had hated or feared them or had had "a general disgust" for them. Swami Aseshananda spoke often of a number of Ramakrishna's women disciples whom he encountered at Udbodhan, and he made it quite clear that these women were formidable in every way.52 There was not one meek woman in the lot. The reminiscences of Ramakrishna's women devotees indicate that they found him a nurturing presence, with whom they felt not only inspired but also at ease.
Moreover, not only did Ramakrishna receive women visitors but he also visited them. He went, for example, to Yogin-Ma's house, to Golap-Ma's house and no doubt to the homes of others as well. When Ramakrishna visited his householder disciples, he would also spend time in the "inner apartments" with the women of the family. According to Devamata, Ramakrishna's visits to his women disciples "were occasions of great rejoicing. Sometimes fifty or sixty ladies would congregate to listen to the Master and he would talk to them in his simple informal way for several hours" (Devamata, 118-19).53 Sumit Sarkar confirms that Ramakrishna "won the devotion of many women. We even have accounts of women casting off inhibitions and parda to go to Dakshineswar in a spirit of almost joyous abandon" (1993, 63). This is not the sort of reaction a man who hates and fears women generally receives.
Problematics of Interpretation
What we have discussed so far in this chapter—even though it relates specifically to Kālī's Child—provides a context in which to explore the problematics of interpretation across cultural and linguistic borders. We have focused primarily on only three of the major themes which course throughout Kālī's Child: the relationship between the mystical and the sexual, the significance of liṅga/yoni symbolism, and Ramakrishna's alleged misogyny. The difficulties involved—and the distortions possible—have also been explored at length in Chapter Two through an examination of what Kālī's Child describes as "the curious habits of [Ramakrishna's] foot" (KC, 2), where we also discussed the question of "censorship" and "cover-up" as well as what constitutes "secret" and "scandal."
We have seen that total objectivity—achieved by eliminating all subjective elements from one's interpretation—is virtually impossible. This basic truism of human existence necessarily contributes to the number of varying interpretations we find regarding any particular subject. Other elements that color one's subjectivity include the interpreter's worldview, her or his life experiences which, in turn, inevitably produce biases and prejudices, likes and dislikes. Another factor which will inevitably generate varying interpretations is the status of the source material. If the sources are in a language different from the one in which the interpretation is offered, the role of translation becomes enormously important. The problem becomes vastly more complex if the difference is not limited merely to language but extends also to culture and time. Apart from the quality of translation, the "coloring" of any translation further depends on the kind of interpretation strategies employed. When these existing variables are then factored into existing problems such as inaccurate documentation, unjustified speculation, and conscious or unconscious omissions—it is then hardly a surprise when wildly diverse interpretations abound regarding a particular subject, theme or human being. It is to these factors of documentation and translation that we now turn in the following chapter.