Problematizing the way in which Indian religion has been represented within Western scholarship ... is an exercise in calling into question the paradigms of knowledge and constel ations of power that have continued to divide the world up into "us" and "them"—maintaining an asymmetrical relationship between the relatively powerful and the relatively disempowered.
—Richard King, Orientalism and Religion
The question which greets the publication of any book is, why was it written? There are several reasons for writing this book: First, despite the controversy which has accompanied Kālī's Child since its publication over a decade ago, little has been written to contextualize it within the body of Ramakrishna literature.
Second, while a great deal has been written about the furor which has dogged Kālī's Child, the discussion has moved increasingly away from the text itself. Illustrative of the controversy it continues to provoke, political philosopher Martha Nussbaum has recently weighed in on the subject in The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India's Future.1 Significantly, Nussbaum places the Kālī's Child imbroglio within the context of Hindu right-wing extremism and the threat this holds to India's history of democracy, tolerance, and religious pluralism. This raises the question of how a book on Ramakrishna, of all the unlikely people, could have ended up in a book on Hindu extremism. A decade ago it is unlikely that anyone could have predicted this scenario. But Kālī's Child has taken on a life of its own, quite independent of the original text. To make sense of the reaction the book provoked and continues to provoke to this day, it is necessary to step back and examine the original text as well as the scholarship which preceded and followed it.
Third, it is important to examine the ways in which the Kālī's Child debate has changed over time. How and in what ways the controversy became transformed is an important study in itself.
Finally, in many ways the Kālī's Child debate embodies the tensions which exist between the believing community and the academic community, though these groups are not mutually exclusive. This tension is hardly unique to Ramakrishna studies or even Asian studies—the same tension exists between the believing Judeo-Christian communities and the academics who study their religious figures and leaders. Yet when dealing with religious figures from the South Asian traditions, other factors figure into the equation, such as the power differential between "the West and the rest" along with the scuff marks of colonialism and residues of Orientalism.
It all began quietly enough. Published in 1995, Jeffrey J. Kripal's Kālī's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna was given the American Academy of Religion's History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995, an honor which, when discovered, deeply rankled the insider community (by "insider" we refer to both ethnic Indian Ramakrishna devotees as well as a much smaller group of non-Indian Ramakrishna devotees). Kālī's Child was greeted with nearly universal praise by those within the academic (largely "outsider") community. Later, the book would be buffeted by nearly universal condemnation from the insider community. Similarly, the author received both kudos—by and large from the academic community in the West—and denunciation, which again came largely from the insider community. So heated did the controversy become that the author became the recipient of hate mail and even death threats. One cannot doubt that the truly frightening outpouring of venom the author received played a part in the consequent outpouring of support which he received from the academic community.
Yet in a sense, the hostile outcry and the protective response only served to muddy the waters about what the text actually had to say. This condemnation/support motif prefigured a trend that would replay in the years to come: after the Kālī's Child controversy simmered down, the Paul Courtright/Gaṇeśa controversy arose, followed by the James Laine/Shivaji controversy.2 This has presented no small difficulty for the present authors, who have found themselves unwillingly lashed to the mast of "Hindu fundamentalism," "right-wing Hindu extremism" and Hindutva polemic. Indeed, more than a decade after Kālī's Child's initial publication, it is difficult to re-imagine the original circumstances into which the book fell.
Since that time, Kālī's Child has been effectively yoked to the Paul Courtright/James Laine controversies, which, like Kālī's Child, elicited a fevered response from the Hindu community. It should be noted that Ramakrishna devotees were to a great extent either ignorant of or not interested in either controversy; in fact, most Ramakrishna devotees remain unaware of the Kālī's Child controversy since most of them have little interest in what Western academics have to say about Hindu religious figures. Unfortunately, the polemic which has attended the Kripal/Courtright/Laine controversies has resulted in an "us" versus "them" paradigm, with core issues being obscured—opponents being branded as either aligned with Hindutva or armed with Western hegemonic motivations. Yet the issues at stake were never so simple as to be reducible to questions of Hindutva agendas or Western hegemony.
The interpretative waters surrounding Kālī's Child became further muddied by the work's being drawn into a discussion of the cultural acceptance of homosexuality, by the accompanying charges of homophobia leveled at those who contested Kripal's theses, and by the discussion of the question whether the academy should be the locus for human liberation movements. Yet lost in the ascending din was the fact that the focus of the debate had shifted away from the text itself. Lost in the furor were the primary issues of whether the theses presented in Kālī's Child were sustainable and whether the book presented material that could withstand critical scrutiny. These nuts and bolts of scholarship became almost extraneous to the debate, as issues of Hindutva and Indian democratic values, academic freedom, homophobia, and human sexual rights, and Hindu religious sentiments and religious orthodoxy took center stage. In such a highly polarized environment, created by years of controversy which was associated with multiple issues and multiple—often belligerent—respondents, contesting Kālī's Child's theses became in itself prima facie evidence of Hindu extremism and homophobia.3
Indeed, one must think long and hard before walking into this controversy at all. First, since the author of Kālī's Child has already been the recipient of a concerted hate campaign, it seems particularly graceless to question his scholarship. If nothing else, one risks the impression of being considered a bad sport. Hasn't he been put through enough? Further, by questioning the theses in Kālī's Child, we are well aware that we risk being branded yet again with the stamp of Hindutva, guilt by association having already been used to discredit arguments against Kālī's Child. For the sake of transparency we need to clarify that we both self-identify as socially and politically liberal, sharing no agenda and having no truck with the Hindutva crowd except for a deep love for India (which most South Asia scholars share as well). While this kind of avowal seems unnecessary, because we have already been labeled with a "Hindu right-wing agenda" tag, the declaration must be made in bold large print.
Yet—certainly as far as the present authors are concerned—the issue was never one of right-wing (or left-wing) agendas, nor was it ever a matter of Ramakrishna's (or anyone else's) sexual preference. The issue was whether Kālī's Child withstood critical scrutiny: Were the theses presented in the book tenable? Did the texts quoted in Kālī's Child say what they purported to say? For all scholars, whether identifying themselves as outsiders or insiders, Hindus or non-Hindus, the real question at stake should be whether Kālī's Child withstands critical scrutiny. If it does, then—insider or outsider—let the chips fall where they may. If the book does not withstand critical scrutiny, then issues of Hindutva, India's democracy, academic freedom, human sexual rights, etc.—although deeply important—remain nevertheless peripheral to Kālī's Child.
Because Kālī's Child became so much more than a book in the intervening years between its publication and the present book's publication, it has been extremely difficult to unglue the text of Kālī's Child from later controversies involving Western academics and the Hindu community. However, in order to understand either the book or the ensuing controversy, we must first pull out the text from its subsequent accretions. In this book we unravel Kripal's work from the controversy by returning to Kālī's Child as text, in addition to closely studying the scholarship which provided its backdrop. From this vantage point we can see where the controversy began, how and in which ways the debate changed course, and in which direction we are headed.
Why did the debate surrounding Kālī's Child become so heated and why was there so little neutral ground? Certainly much of the antagonism surrounding the controversy was due to the fact that the academic and insider communities each viewed themselves as the appropriate location for the most authentic interpretation of Ramakrishna. Both the academic community as well as the insider community viewed themselves as the sole possessors of the credentials necessary for assessing Ramakrishna. As a result, it was not only the criteria and the methods by which to assess a Hindu religious figure that became contentious issues but also who was deemed a valid authority.
Ramakrishna literature has historically been dominated by two models, that of the insider community—the emic approach which exclusively employs insider literature—and that of the academic community, the outsider or etic approach. Each of these models has produced its own literature. The academic community has often written off insider literature as hagiography, thus dismissing serious studies by insiders on their own tradition. On the other hand, academic literature on Ramakrishna has generally failed to attract the attention of the insider community— Kālī's Child being the singular, notable exception. The publication of Kālī's Child and its reception by the academic community dramatically pitted the insider community (which we must remember included only those who were aware of the controversy) against not only the book's author but also a significant group of South Asia scholars. In contrast, those within the insider community who were aware of Kālī's Child greeted the book with near universal outrage and condemnation. In very short order the two independent and self-sustaining communities of Ramakrishna devotees and academics—generally complacent and isolated in their respective non-intersecting worlds—experienced a head-on collision.
Yet whether Ramakrishna is seen from the vantage point of Western academia or from the viewpoint of the insider community, the view of any religious figure when taken exclusively from any one side of the outsider/insider divide will only provide a partial glimpse of the subject in question. While Ramakrishna devotees will see Ramakrishna in one way, Ramakrishna scholars will very likely see him through a different lens. Yet both sides of the divide can benefit if they adjust their respective lenses to perceive what the other side has to offer. Only then can they locate a larger picture of not only the religious figure in question but also of those scholars and members of the insider community who inhabit the opposite sides of the divide. Both sides can gain from this endeavor since neither community can claim complete knowledge of their subject.
While this book critiques Kālī's Child, it was also written with the hope of creating a bridge between the two sides of the insider/outsider divide. We hope that this book will be one among many which will eventually create porous borders between the academic and insider communities. We see Kālī's Child as an opportunity for serious, constructive dialogue between academics and Hindu insiders.
This book is an attempt by two academically inclined monastics of the Ramakrishna Order to initiate a serious, constructive conversation between the academic world and the Hindu community. While most scholars of religion in the West are generally deeply respectful of the tradition they study, they often work from the stance of critical distance, willed or otherwise, and this is particularly true of the Hindu traditions.There is not a great deal of genuine close contact between scholars of religion and the Hindu believing community, and open-minded conversations between those associated with the two groups are infrequent. This is a loss for both sides of the divide. In order to share our respective visions and perspectives, a healthy dialogue needs to take place. In order for healthy dialogue to occur, forthright and respectful critiques also need to take place, particularly when it is perceived that some correctives are necessary to open and creative dialogue. As part of the project of creating space for dialogue, this book critiques Kālī's Child, honestly and respectfully and, just as importantly, it addresses a number of fundamental assumptions which not only supported Kālī's Child's major theses and fueled its positive reception in the academy but also undergirded earlier academic studies of Ramakrishna.
We have written this book neither to assign blame nor to demonize anyone on either side of the insider/outsider divide. While there has long been a hermeneutic of suspicion within academia, a similar hermeneutic has recently been created within the Hindu community as a perceived means of self-defense. These mutual suspicions have only added more mortar to the existing walls between the two communities. It is easy to demonize those who write books about Ramakrishna in ways found offensive by the Hindu believing community. It is equally easy to demonize those who would wish to ban those books and demonize their authors. Rather than adding to the invective, it is much more productive, and much more interesting, to ask: Why do we see what we see? Why do we interpret the way we interpret?
If nothing else, Kālī's Child and the controversy surrounding it have amply demonstrated that Ramakrishna and Ramakrishna studies remain significant and relevant issues today. While Ramakrishna died well over a century ago, both Ramakrishna and Ramakrishna studies continue to provoke interest, debate and vigorous discussion. Academic exploration, continuing historical research and increasing levels of cultural awareness have augmented both the allure and the debate surrounding Ramakrishna, a process that will certainly continue in coming years.
Interpreting Ramakrishna examines Ramakrishna scholarship from its inception over a century ago and contextualizes Kālī's Child within that framework in the first chapter. Utilizing original source texts and historical findings, we examine both past and current Ramakrishna scholarship within its cultural and historical perspective. We closely study Kālī's Child as text in the second chapter and, in the next chapter, we analyze the history and the many-sided implications of the controversy surrounding the book. We examine the factors involved in the debate surrounding Kālī's Child, which in turn serves to demonstrate what elements are at play when religious figures from the Hindu traditions are placed in the context of modern Euro-American scholarship.In the fourth and the fifth chapters, we take a closer look at the issues of interpretation and translation within the context of Kālī's Child. The final chapter gives us the opportunity to share our vision of the future of Ramakrishna studies.
Throughout the course of this book we have found it difficult to avoid cultural/geographic generalizations such as "West" and "East" as well as "Western" and "Eastern." Edward Said famously condemned the exoticization of the "mystic East" as unreconstructed colonialism. Obviously, the "East" can be considered "East" only in relation to the West. It goes without saying that the "West" can only be "West" to the extent that there is an "East" as an antipodal geographic/cultural location. While we are aware that the use of these artificial dichotomies presents a minefield, we nevertheless have chosen to employ these generalizations because they still retain some usefulness. What is important is that we acknowledge their inherently problematical status.
On a similar note, we employ the terms "insider" and "outsider," sometimes in the context of the Hindu traditions but more often in the context of the Ramakrishna movement. These terms point to a dichotomy that does not always exist. There are a large number of Westerners, academics among them, who are "insiders." There are also a large number of Indian academics who are "outsiders," as their methods of assessing Hindu religious figures reflect their adherence to the methods of their Western academic training rather than their Hindu religious upbringing.
As to why we persevere in the use of these problematic generalizations, we state in our defense that our study begins with Ramakrishna scholarship in the 1880s, when polarized thinking about East and West as well as about insider and outsider was, by and large, firmly in place. With the passage of time, the traffic across these cultural and geographical borders has greatly accelerated in both directions, making these boundaries increasingly fluid, but the categories, although increasingly difficult to define, nevertheless continue to exist. Thus, the generalizations that we employ are just that—generalizations. We are well aware that they are hopelessly vague when used for mapping out categories that often have no hard and fast borders.
This book is an outgrowth of many years of involvement in the Kālī's Child debate. Pravrajika Vrajaprana's book review of Kālī's Child, published in the Bulletin of Hindu Christian Studies in 1997, was an early foray into the controversy. Swami Tyagananda came upon the issue only upon his arrival in the United States in 1999, when he began his work at Harvard.4 When questioned by a faculty member about Kālī's Child, Swami Tyagananda read the book and immediately began thinking about writing a response to the issues raised in the book. At this point it seemed advantageous to join forces. As a result, Pravrajika Vrajaprana was actively involved in preparing the manuscript of "Kali's Child Revisited, or Didn't Anyone Check the Documentation?"—which was a four-month, breakneck effort to create a response to Kālī's Child, photocopies of which were informally distributed at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. While we had anticipated there might be some interest in our rebuttal, we were astonished by how much interest there actually was.
"Kali's Child Revisited" soon morphed into a David-and-Goliath encounter when our Kinko's-photocopied response was refuted in a lengthy essay by Jeffrey Kripal in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (Kripal, 2000/2001) and was rebutted in an even longer piece by him on the Harvard Divinity School's website (which was later revised and reprinted in Evam [Kripal, 2002]). While a response in kind was not permitted by the Bulletin, Swami Tyagananda was given an opportunity to write a 600-word letter to the editor of the Bulletin. Huston Smith and Indian psychotherapist Somnath Bhattacharyya also wrote letters to the editor to contest Kripal's article. While we had long been encouraged to write a book-length response to Kālī's Child, by this time it had become clear that we needed to do so. Moreover, as Kālī's Child garnered praise from other scholars, it began to be looked upon as an axial work for future Ramakrishna scholarship and has already been used as such.5 For this reason, we felt compelled to contest Kālī's Child in order to provide current and future readers a necessary textual corrective.
There was yet another reason for embarking on this project—apart from the nuts-and-bolts issues of translation, documentation and interpretation. Interpreting across cultural, religious, and historical distances is always vexed, requiring great sensitivity and an openness to an enormous range of cultural issues and contexts. Kālī's Child thus merits wider discussion if only as a stellar example of a poor cultural translation. Richard King said it well when he wrote:
When a western academic translates ... Indian texts into western cultural idioms and languages, the text is transformed not only linguistically but also in terms of the interests, rules and modes of life of the translator and her audience. . . . The claim to be able to discern the "real intentions" or meanings of a foreign text, person or event, is an attempt to privilege the academic discourse above all others. Often, however, the "insights" which the expert puts forward do not sit easily with the explanations given by the people he or she is claiming to examine. (King 1999a, 238)
True enough. The "insights" proposed by Kālī's Child and the issues they represent are significant enough to merit an examination of an enormous corpus of literature in order to address the debate in depth.
One might presume that, because we are members of the Ramakrishna Order, we are writing this book to present the "official" viewpoint of the Ramakrishna Order. That is not the case simply because there is no "official" view of Ramakrishna. Lest there be any misunderstanding about the genesis of this book, the creation of Interpreting Ramakrishna was entirely and absolutely our own idea. This book is not in any way a project of the Ramakrishna Order. We have not been asked by anyone in the Ramakrishna Order to write this book. We have not been asked to represent any viewpoint. Both of us have been writers for many years, and we have always been given full freedom in expressing our respective viewpoints. This is hardly exceptional, as it is also the case with every other monastic of the Ramakrishna Order. In writing this book, we are representing no one's views but our own, though we certainly have benefited from the assistance of some members of the Ramakrishna Order—notably Swami Prabhananda, the Order's leading scholar and historian, who helped us tremendously by providing material which was difficult to obtain in the United States. In short, our book is not an apologia for Ramakrishna or for the Ramakrishna Order. The work is our own and was done, as every worthy work is done, with the help and encouragement of many people, to all of whom we are enormously indebted.
Both of us, from different points on the planet, became immersed in Ramakrishna literature at a very young age. Both of us, again from different points on the planet, had extensive academic training and, finally, both of us decided in adulthood to become monastics of the Ramakrishna Order. Both of us have been monastics for more than thirty years, and both of us now—from different points within the United States—have found ourselves in frequent contact with the Western academy. This has been a happy and productive experience, and we are grateful for the enlarged perspective which this has provided. It has greatly enriched our lives.
Our experience has given us extensive contact with a world and body of literature that is infrequently seen by those in the Ramakrishna Order. Being part of the insider community while frequently dipping into the academic world has allowed us a breadth of perspective that few have been able to enjoy. Because of our own positive experience, we strongly believe that the walls that separate insiders and outsiders need to be porous in order for both sides of the great divide to learn and experience as much of each other's worlds as possible.
This work could not have been done without the great number of people who made this project as meaningful and enjoyable as it became for both of us. The book owes much to the support and encouragement of the late Swami Ranganathananda and, as already mentioned, Swami Prabhananda. Our thanks are also owed to a number of monastics of the Ramakrishna Order who freely gave of their time and energy in tracking down materials for us. Swami Swahananda was extremely generous with his time and expertise, and we are very grateful for his assistance. On the same note, thanks are also due to Swamis Atmajnanananda, Baneshananda, Chetanananda and Gitatmananda. We are particularly grateful to our spiritual communities in both Boston and Santa Barbara for their unstinting support and encouragement.
Jayanta and Ilu Sircar did what few would have the patience to do: read through the entire Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta line by line and compare it with Nikhilananda's Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, also line by line, in order to catalogue the untranslated portions. These portions have been meticulously translated and can be accessed at http://interpretingramakrishna.com.
Heartfelt thanks to Katherine Bucknell, editor of Isherwood's diaries, who has been enormously kind, helpful and extraordinarily generous with her time. Thanks are due as well to Don Bachardy, Christopher Isherwood's longtime partner, for his input and help. Narasingha Sil was also extremely generous in sharing his material with us as was Malcolm McLean in granting us permission to quote from his unpublished Ph.D. thesis, "A Translation of the Śrī-Śrī-Rāmakṛṣṇa-Kathāmṛta with Explanatory Notes and Critical Introduction."
Our deepest gratitude goes to Huston Smith for writing the book's Foreword. A large number of scholars and friends have been extraordinarily supportive and generous with their time and expertise. Our profound gratitude to every one who has helped us in this endeavor; we wish it were possible to acknowledge them all. Among those we wish to extend our particular thanks are: Debasis Bagchi, Ann Louise Bardach, Luisa Bird-Robinson, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Srinivas Gandhi, Luis Giron-Negron, Gerald James Larson, Jeffery Long, Lance Nelson, Anantanand Rambachan, Amiya Sen, Janet Walker and Steven Walker. Our deep gratitude to Mariana Masin and the late Francis Masin who steadfastly encouraged, coaxed and supported this project from the very beginning; their love and friendship have been invaluable. To Doug and Mikele Rauch, unending thanks. We have truly depended upon them for their indefatigable encouragement, support, good humor and warm friendship. Sometimes "thanks" just does not go far enough. Some of the greatest support came from Hilda Densmore (Shanta-Ma), whose daily readings from the Caṇḍī and endless prayers for the success of this project accompanied this work from conception to delivery. To Sister Gargi (Marie Louise Burke), departed and deeply missed, heartfelt gratitude for spirited encouragement, friendship and boundless inspiration. Our thanks to the University of Chicago Press for granting us permission to quote from Kālī's Child. Thanks also to Jim Aeby for his elegant work in formatting this book. Last but hardly least, we would like to thank Jeffrey Kripal for his unfailing courtesy and willingness to engage in dialogue. In many unexpected and unforeseen ways, we owe him thanks.
There are a number of other scholars whose work on Ramakrishna we examine and often critique. This critique should not be interpreted as a lack of respect for their scholarship or a lack of respect for them as talented, sincere, and generally quite admirable human beings. We simply disagree with them, that's all. While this obvious fact should not have to be so blatantly spelled out, recent experience has shown that insider critiques do not receive either the respect or the attention they deserve, largely because their motives are often pre-judged as Hindutva hatchet jobs. In general, insiders' critiques are often instinctively not placed under the rubric of "scholarship." Perhaps in some small measure, this book can help change this unfortunate prejudice.
We have drawn inspiration from both the wisdom of the religious tradition we have embraced as well as the integrity and intelligence of scholars with whom we have worked. Our debt to all of them is enormous. To them this book is dedicated, as well as to our respective parents, to whom our debt is unpayable.