The Future of Ramakrishna Studies
We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.
— Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
During the years in which this book has come into being, we have endlessly revisited both the historical Ramakrishna—at least as much of the historical Ramakrishna we can access—and the evolving state of Ramakrishna studies as it has developed over the past century. What we have presented to our readers is the long and fascinating story of how interpreting Ramakrishna has been—and will remain—a work continually in progress.
Identity, Worldview, Motivation
There are a number of factors which profoundly affect the way any historical religious figure is interpreted. In this regard at least, interpreting Ramakrishna is no different from interpreting any other historical religious figure. When we sift these interpretive factors into a consistent pattern, we find three key elements: first, the interpreter's identity; second, the interpreter's worldview; and finally, the interpreter's motivation. These elements have shaped every interpretation of not only Ramakrishna but also other historical religious figures.
In assessing how interpreters' identities have influenced their views of Ramakrishna, we have seen that over the past century, Ramakrishna has been studied through disparate lenses—those of the insider or outsider; Hindu or non-Hindu; Indian or non-Indian; Western-educated or not; academic or religious practitioner or both; pre-modern, modern or post-modern. The combination and permutation of these identities have necessarily colored the approaches to Ramakrishna and the conclusions about him.
Next, just as every interpreter has seen Ramakrishna reflected through a prism of intertwined personal identities, so also the interpreter's worldview overlaps upon this core identity. Every interpreter's view of the world is first located in his/her individual identity, then reformatted through layers of diverse historical, political, cultural, social and religious backgrounds. To contextualize this within the framework of this book, it is apparent that Ramakrishna's interpreters' historical, political, cultural, social and religious backgrounds influenced their worldviews, and this was a crucial factor in their interpretations of Ramakrishna. We have seen in the opening chapter that every interpreter's worldview (and by implication, interpretation) was broadly shaped by history and culture. Every interpreter's worldview, from pre-modern to post-modern, has been influenced in one way or another by colonialism, Orientalism and the various boomeranging forces that were consequentially put into play.
The footprint of colonialism and Orientalism can be most clearly seen in Ramakrishna's earliest interpreters—M, Saradananda, and Ramchandra Datta. In altogether different ways, colonialism and Orientalism—viewed through the alternate universe of Western education, Western culture and Christianity—profoundly influenced how Max Müller interpreted Ramakrishna. Dhan Gopal Mukerji's version of Ramakrishna, on the other hand, demonstrates how Orientalism and colonialism combined to create social forces that would promote the creation of a fairy-tale Ramakrishna, a Ramakrishna drawn in the light of a romanticized Orientalist stereotype for Western export. Romain Rolland would recreate a romanticized Ramakrishna as well, making of Ramakrishna a Hindu deus ex machina who could extricate Western Europe from self-slaughter. Christopher Isherwood was deeply uncomfortable in Indian culture, yet saw Ramakrishna as an avatar—a radically free, radically truthful man, who knew neither bondage nor hypocrisy.
Crucially, Isherwood and other insider interpreters of Ramakrishna shared, to a large extent, a common worldview that the great majority of outsider interpreters did not share. Apart from the conviction that Ramakrishna was an avatar, insider interpreters also shared an acceptance of the basic underpinnings of Hindu religious thought: karma and reincarnation, for example, as well as the belief that the Reality which lies at the core of individual beings (Ātman) and the Reality which lies behind the universe (Brahman) are interrelated, even identical. Given this Hindu worldview, these insider interpreters would take as a given the concept that human beings possess the potential to overcome the limitations of the body/mind complex in order to realize their essentially divine nature. This worldview would set insider interpretations—no matter whether Indian or Western, contemporary or historical—apart from other interpreters. Not only would their understanding of Ramakrishna be different, their understanding of the nature of reality, external and internal, would be markedly different as well. Aside from this fundamental bifurcation regarding the nature of the human being and the nature of the external world, outsider interpreters would naturally view Ramakrishna as a human being like every other human being, interpreting him, his actions and teachings either through the lens of a fundamentally Christian worldview (Müller, et al.), or through modernity's default worldview, that of secular humanism refracted through the structures of psychoanalysis (Neevel, et al.).
We have seen that as psychoanalysis gained force throughout the twentieth century to become a powerful influence in Western thought, those who interpreted Ramakrishna through that worldview—beginning with Neevel and Masson and continuing through Jeffrey Kripal—would see a Ramakrishna who would be unrecognizable to both early interpreters and insider interpreters. A secular worldview would essentially be at odds with Hinduism's bedrock assumption of the innate divinity of the human being and the possibility of overcoming the demands of the body/mind complex. This basic disconnect between a secular worldview and a religious Hindu worldview necessarily impinges upon an interpreter's analysis of Ramakrishna. How does one, for example, interpret Ramakrishna's samādhi? As evidence of psychopathology—as an escape mechanism, for example? Or as absorption into a higher Reality through transformation of consciousness, having risen beyond the everyday body/mind identity? These fundamental differences in worldview necessarily affect one's interpretation.
Finally, behind the obvious factors that affect the interpretation of a historical religious figure are more subtle factors, such as the motivation(s) of the interpreter. All of us, for example, try to make sense of history, if only not to be condemned to repeat it. Incidents and personalities from the past provide useful templates for our understanding of the present. Differences in interpretations are due not only to the multiple identities and worldviews of the various interpreters but also, in many cases, to the purpose that powers their interpretations.
What makes us interested in one subject and not in another? Why are some of us religious scholars while others are engineers, why are some drawn to Greek and others to Sanskrit, why is Tantra fascinating to some and Nyāya to others? Our motives are influenced by our conscious or unconscious interests, agendas, personal priorities and biases. We have seen, for example, how Müller's interest in "reformed" Hinduism was a deeply personal issue for him and his interpretation of Ramakrishna was drawn along those lines. Every interpretation of Ramakrishna has followed a similar trajectory—the interpreter's interests, motives and drives are sometimes stated but often remain hidden from the reader. We have seen, for example, that Kālī's Child was not simply a Ph.D. dissertation, it was also a personal project of its author.
Obviously, all of these factors—identity, worldview and motivation—are present in the understanding and interpretation of Ramakrishna by the authors of this book as well. We are insiders, we are practitioner/scholars but not academics, and between the two of us, we span the Indian/non-Indian divide, though we both self-identify as Hindu. Our motivation in writing this book, first of all, was to go to the primary source texts on Ramakrishna and to recover—as much as possible—the Ramakrishna of history, who seemed to have receded into the background of a psychoanalytic reading powered by compromised translations, unsupported speculations, and questionable documentation. We also wished to have on record a critique of the theses presented in Kālī's Child, not only to highlight the problems in it but also to demonstrate that alternative readings of Ramakrishna, readings which are faithful to the primary sources, are possible. Yet another motivation behind this response was the sincere desire to encourage a healthier dialogue and exchange of ideas between the academic world and the community of practitioners.
Our reading of Ramakrishna is based upon our worldview. We believe that it is not only possible but necessary to transcend the physical and psychological limitations imposed by the body and mind, in order for a human being to become spiritually enlightened. We see Ramakrishna as one who had attained such a state. Such was the purity of his life that many of his followers have found it difficult to determine whether he was a human being who rose up to attain divine perfection or whether he was a divine being who came down to show the way to others. It is precisely at the meeting point of the human and the divine where the avatar resides. Whether Ramakrishna is labeled an avatar or a saint is not, in our opinion, particularly important. What is important are his teachings on personal integrity, the sanctity of all existence, and leading a God-centered life. The seemingly abstract principles of Vedānta, we believe, become tangible through Ramakrishna's life and teachings.
Thus we do not claim to be any more "objective" than any of those interpreters we have discussed. Like other interpreters of Ramakrishna, we ourselves have personal motives for writing this book. We are well aware that our identities and worldviews tilt this book in a particular direction, and it was this tilt that made the writing of this book possible. While "objectivity" has often been seen as the holy grail of good scholarship, we have also seen throughout the course of this book that objectivity cannot exist where personal interests, agendas, political and religious biases, and personal priorities intersect. Like all holy grails, true objectivity exists only in mythology. Human beings live in their minds and their minds create lenses through which they view themselves and the world around them.
It is through all these multitudinous lenses, external and internal, that Ramakrishna has been viewed. Like a kaleidoscope whose view changes with every click, the view of Ramakrishna has changed with every new prism, every new lens, every new mind. The historical Ramakrishna remains whoever he was; his interpreters have viewed him—and will continue to view him—through various historical, cultural, linguistic, religious, political, and often deeply personal lenses. It is this series of continually changing lenses that has given Ramakrishna studies its everchanging focus and direction.
The changing lenses and the variety of interpretations they spawn provide us with a view or a facet of Ramakrishna's personality that may not have received adequate attention. These new interpretations may reveal to us a heretofore unexplored relevance of Ramakrishna to our own individual or collective situation. It would be absurd for anyone to claim that the last word on Ramakrishna has already been said or that nothing new remains to be known about him. In Ramakrishna's own words, "No limit can be placed on [the understanding of] God" (bhagabāner iti korā jāy nā). This holds good not only for God but also for all human beings, and particularly those like Ramakrishna, who are viewed by many as saints, prophets or avatars. The increasing number of studies and interpretations of Ramakrishna's life and teachings are a testimony to the vastness and depth of what he represented in his life, and what he continues to represent in the minds and hearts of people in succeeding generations.
Because of the complex interplay of identity, worldview and motivation, every interpretation of Ramakrishna will necessarily vary. The source texts themselves, however, will not. What we plumb from those texts is dependent upon a number of variables, external and internal. The texts remain just as they are, awaiting fresh interpretations as the years roll on.
The Ethics of Interpretation
Since interpretation is always a precarious adventure while texts remain the cliffs upon which all interpreters climb, translation and documentation are the tools upon which all interpreters rely. When the text in question is a particularly steep cliff—written, for example, in a foreign language and located in a foreign culture over a century ago—the methodology employed determines the quality and the value of the study. The challenge of interpretation in overcoming these inherent difficulties is enormous and this requires careful and accurate documentation and translation. The processes of translation and interpretation, although interrelated and thus inseparable, cannot be treated as identical. The lens of the interpreter, in addition to its own color, takes on the color of the translator's lens, when the two—interpreter and translator—are two distinct individuals.
To contextualize these issues with those presented in Kālī's Child, the interpretation in Kālī's Child was in itself not an issue. Every author should be free to present any interpretation of Ramakrishna which she or he believes to be valid. That interpretation, however, must be backed up with documentation that accurately cites what the source texts present. Further, the translation of those sources must be accurate as well. This, as we have seen throughout this book, is an exceedingly delicate and difficult task because of the inherent differences in language and culture, and it has to be undertaken with great care and sensitivity.
But, one may ask, does a presumed historical reality really matter in the long run? Do the "facts" of history and the "facts" of a historical personality have an independent knowable reality, which an interpreter should strive to uncover? Again, if a particular culture saw things differently a century ago, should the interpreter feel the need to take these factors into consideration? There is a view, currently propounded by postmodern textual critics, that what really happened in the past, which will always be unknowable to those in the present, is not as important as how relevant it is to the present. Those who hold this view are naturally less rigorous in their historical research than they are in making their study relevant to the immediate concerns of the present. Kālī's Child, for example, showed no evidence that advocacy of gay rights was a motive in its creation, but the gay liberation movement, as we have seen, would prove useful once Kālī's Child was published and the ensuing controversy broke loose. In this way, the issue of gay rights served to divert attention from the problems the book possessed regarding documentation, translation, and interpretation.
What, then, is the interpreter to do when contemporary agendas conflict with historical accuracy? Can Ramakrishna be used as a model for gay rights when there is no evidence for his homosexuality? We have argued throughout this book against appropriating a historical personality to promote a contemporary agenda, no matter how noble the agenda may be, no matter how much the injustice needs to be rectified. Even Isherwood, who stood in the forefront of gay rights long before others had the courage to do so, wrote that he "couldn't honestly claim him [Ramakrishna] as a homosexual, even a sublimated one, much as I would have liked to be able to do so" (Isherwood 1980, 249). Ashok Row Kavi, a contemporary gay rights leader in India, came to a similar conclusion, adding that he found Kālī's Child "culturally condescending and insensitive."1
Historical religious figures have often been used as political footballs to promote every possible noble and ignoble cause, and Ramakrishna has been no exception. On one hand, there has been an attempt to silence those who have critiqued Kālī's Child with charges of homophobia; on the other hand, in order to promote their own narrow political and social agendas, the forces of Hindutva have tried to silence the voice of Kripal and his supporters. Locating and examining a historical religious figure in the midst of these conflicting agendas is not unlike navigating a minefield.
Should this be seen as a deterrent, it is good to recognize that there is an even greater danger in not addressing these contentious and divisive issues at all. Even worse, the greatest danger that we can envision is a retreat from dialogue, circling our respective wagons and remaining in the safe confines of our own self-affirming and self-reifying groups, insider or outsider. It is better to hazard crossing a minefield than to inflict self-stagnation.
A Dialogic Model for the Future
We have mentioned that one motive behind the writing of this book was our deep interest in a healthy dialogue and exchange of ideas between the academic world and the world of the religious practitioner. During the long process of thinking through and writing this book, we have seen many changes in the way Ramakrishna has been perceived. We have also seen, with mounting dismay, the way in which insiders and outsiders have grown increasingly distrustful of one another and wary of mutual interaction. "Once burned, twice shy" seems to be the refrain from both camps. While academics have increasingly viewed the Kālī's Child controversy in terms of the rise of Hindutva—with all the trappings of hate mail, requested book banning, and the strictures of religious fundamentalism—the insider community has been tarred by association with a fundamentalist mindset that the vast majority do not share.
Just as the vast majority of Muslims do not subscribe to terrorism, so also the vast majority of Ramakrishna devotees, including those who strongly contest the theses presented in Kālī's Child, do not subscribe to Hindu fundamentalism. Simply because they contest the theses presented in Kālī's Child does not automatically align them with the forces of Hindutva, right-wing fundamentalism or religious orthodoxy. Indeed, more likely than not, those who are associated with the Ramakrishna movement, whether in India or in the West, tend to be politically and socially liberal and are generally disinclined to fundamentalism of any sort.
Yet despite all the commonalities we share, we in Ramakrishna studies, both insiders and outsiders, find ourselves at an impasse. The only way to break an impasse is to shatter it by moving through and beyond it. If this be the case, then where do we move from here, and how?
Long before this book was conceived, the issue of Ramakrishna studies and its future direction was addressed by Swami Tyagananda in a paper entitled "Reflections on Hindu Studies vis-à-vis Hindu Practice," which was written for the American Academy of Religion panel "Defamation/Anti-Defamation: Hindus in Dialogue with the Western Academy," organized by John S. Hawley in 2001. In this paper, Tyagananda spoke of the existing wall between the insider and outsider communities and suggested that an effort needed to be made to make the wall porous. This, he felt, would be a model for future Ramakrishna studies.
In a less specific and certainly unintentional way, Richard King has pointed out the direction of future Ramakrishna studies in his concluding chapter of Indian Philosophy. In addressing the problematics of philosophy in a post-colonial world, King suggested "constructing a cultural space based upon indigenous insights and orientations from the non-western world which is not easily assimilable by western culture, in either its modernist or postmodernist incarnations." King goes on to suggest that a "postwesternism" be developed, which not only allows for inter-cultural dialogue but also has the goal of ending the "philosophical hegemony of the western world." This post-westernism would be "motivated by a vision of the twenty-first century as an era which would be globally 'postwestern' rather than Eurocentrically 'postmodern.' Examining and engaging with Indian cultural traditions is one of the many important elements within such a process" (1999a, 233).
After reading this bracing suggestion, one wonders if some of these ideas of inter-cultural dialogue, which not so very long ago were undreamt of in the academy, could now be reaching some sort of slow critical mass. It was a lovely serendipity to discover J. C. Cleary's article "Buddhist Studies the Buddhist Way," which appeared in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Autumn 2005). Buddhist studies has contended with many of the same issues that Ramakrishna studies is now addressing. Running on a parallel track with our own concerns, Cleary writes: "To this day the scholarly study of religion revolves around various paradigms created by a small group of twentieth-century Western thinkers." As we have seen, Ramakrishna studies has been dominated by a variety of paradigms—all governed by the presuppositions of Western modernity—since its inception. "Naturally," Cleary continues, "these paradigms are strongly marked by their origins in the modern West, with the associated limitations and biases" (66).
As we have shown in detail throughout this book, the paradigms used for assessing Ramakrishna have been driven by the social and cultural biases, religious presuppositions and political and personal persuasions of his interpreters. To this date, indigenous paradigms—which carry within them those philosophical underpinnings and cultural worldviews that undergird every Ramakrishna source text—have scarcely been used. Indigenous interpreters have not, in general, been taken seriously by the academy. As we have seen, though Kālī's Child asserts that it uses indigenous categories, it does not. It is more accurate to say that it appropriates indigenous categories in order to make assessments based exclusively upon Western cultural and intellectual models, and occasionally upon Western appropriations of Eastern models.
The preceding chapters have shown in extensive detail that as recent Western cultural history has taken its bends and curves over the past century, Ramakrishna studies has been pulled along on a parallel journey, driven as it were, by changing intellectual paradigms which reflected Europe's and North America's changing values and cultural assumptions. Yet studies on Ramakrishna, at least those done in the West to this date, have not incorporated the enormous religious, philosophical or cultural background found in Ramakrishna's own tradition.
As Richard King recommends, Cleary also points to the need for employing indigenous paradigms in understanding non-Western texts. In this case, Cleary advocates using Buddhist paradigms for Buddhist studies:
To ignore ... material from within the tradition only makes sense on the assumption that we (the modern scholars) can understand them (the Buddhist adepts) better than they understood themselves. It takes for granted that our own contemporary culture is aware of the full range of human possibilities. This is precisely the kind of false universalism, or pretended universalism, which we should be trying to move beyond. (66)
Not only should we try to move beyond, but, from what we have seen, we are convinced that the future integrity of Ramakrishna studies depends upon such a move. What we envision for the future of Ramakrishna studies is the expansion of the current paradigm in order to include indigenous insights from within the Hindu tradition.
What authentic indigenous insights should Ramakrishna studies take into account? First and most importantly, a respectful acceptance of the possibility, crucial to understanding Hindu religious figures, that the reality behind the universe and the reality behind an individual—known respectively as Brahman and Ātman—may be interrelated, even identical, and are essentially divine in nature. Secondly, Ramakrishna studies should include the possibility that the external reality as we experience it may not be the only, or even the most important, reality. Thirdly, this expanded paradigm would consider the limitations of human reason and the possibility of a different kind of knowledge that transcends (but does not contradict) reason. Finally, the expanded paradigm would include the possibility that human beings could fully realize and manifest their innate divinity by overcoming the identification with the body and mind to which gender and sexuality are tied. Ramakrishna studies needs to be at least open to all of these possibilities. It will be difficult to bridge the insider/outsider divide if these possibilities are summarily dismissed out of hand.
As the renowned Indian philosopher P. T. Raju has noted, Indian religious thought is both rational and supra-rational and consists of "a search for the ground of our being. . . . not through pure thought alone, but also through realization" (Raju, 8). He continues by stating that "the Supreme Being of the religious quest transcends reason, the quest was a quest for experience. . . . [which] must be capable of being discovered within man's conscious being. But this discovery is a matter of experience, not merely of logic" (8-9). We are already stepping well outside the confines of our usual Western interpretive paradigms, but let us continue with Raju's train of thought. He writes:
The essence of religious experience is communion with the Divine. But communion is experience. . . . There is no a priori reason for limiting experience to sense experience, when there are other kinds of experience. The only question that can be and ought to be raised is about the truth-value of the different kinds of experience. . . . We ask ourselves, therefore, when and how an experience is true or false. To determine its truth or falsity, we have systems of philosophy with their branches like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc. (9)
Incorporating some of these premises and incorporating some of these indigenous paradigms into Ramakrishna studies would provide an ideal environment for its future, for at the heart of future Ramakrishna studies lies the issue of the insider/outsider, practitioner/scholar divide. For the future of Ramakrishna studies to be fruitful, we would suggest that the divide, such that it is, be navigated in such a way that both groups can freely express their forms of knowledge and that each party be heard with respect. Neither the insider nor the outsider should consider their vantage to be solely valid and neither party should conceive their view to be, in contrast to the other, "objective."
In thinking through the future of Ramakrishna studies, we would like to suggest that it is possible for an insider to provide insight that is valuable in order for an outsider to gain knowledge. Conversely, we also suggest that it is possible for outsiders as well to provide insight that insiders may very well lack. Further, we would suggest that insiders and outsiders not be viewed as opposing camps, but rather as complementary groups offering complementary forms of knowledge that is valuable to all concerned. This being the case, it seems wise and, indeed, healthy to nourish more porous boundaries between the insider and outsider communities. Crossing these boundaries does not lead to weak scholarship any more than it leads to the creation of ambivalent practitioners. We are convinced that separating the knowledge of the academic from the knowledge of the practitioner serves neither the academic nor the practitioner, and it certainly does not serve the cause of knowledge in general.
We thus conclude this book on a note of hope. We strongly believe that Ramakrishna studies will be vastly strengthened if those who engage in it remain faithful to the source texts and attempt to view Ramakrishna through a variety of different perspectives in order to find a richer, fuller picture of a life that in many ways still remains a mystery to us all. We believe that this will happen. We also believe that a more sensitive, and nuanced treatment of Indian religious figures—Ramakrishna included— will lead to increased trust and respect from the insider community toward the academic community and vice versa.
Our journey into Ramakrishna studies has been a long and winding road, and an immensely gratifying one. While we both had long been familiar with insider literature, this book's unfolding introduced us to the world of outsider Religious studies scholars. We have been deeply impressed by their sincerity, dedication and intellectual rigor. We say this about those scholars whose work we critique as well as those scholars whose views tally more closely with our own. Our heartfelt admiration goes to those dedicated scholars, Eastern or Western, insider or outsider, whose quest for knowledge has enriched the world. And all of us remain gratefully in debt to the authors of the source texts, without whose work we would never have been able to catch a glimpse of that man who continues to intrigue us and inspire us, Ramakrishna.