Kali's Child Revisited
Interpreting Ramakrishna is a substantial and conscientious work of scholarly and religious reflection, the best resource we have for understanding Sri Ramakrishna today. Instigated by recent debates about Ramakrishna’s identity and significance, the book fruitfully invites us to step back and take a much longer perspective, noticing a century’s worth of Ramakrishna scholarship by devotees, monastic writers, and academic scholars. But the book also looks forward to how we — with all our varied interests and perspectives — can most fruitfully reflect on Ramakrishna in the 21st century. We can only thank Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana for showing us how to remember, think clearly, and write constructively about Ramakrishna, with an honesty that is critical, unpresuming, and in fact deeply spiritual.
—Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School
Much has been written, pro and con, about Jeffrey J. Kripal’s controversial book, Kali’s Child (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Now the time may be ripe for a thoughtful overview of the many issues related to the controversy. Such a balanced overview is now available in Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s and Swami Tyagananda’s new book, Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited. Vrajaprana and Tyagananda are both members of the Ramakrishna Order, but they are also serious researchers in the field of Religious Studies. Their new book carefully analyzes the history of scholarship on Ramakrishna, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s book about Ramakrishna, the reviews and debates surrounding Kripal’s book and their own critical views regarding the problems of cross-cultural interpretation. Overall their treatment of the issues, though clearly from their perspective as devotees of Ramakrishna, is balanced, scrupulously fair, and generous to all sides in the debate. The book will be well received, I think, by all participants in this on-going conversation and will surely elicit spirited but balanced responses from other participants.
—Gerald James Larson
Tagore Professor Emeritus, Indiana University, Bloomington, and Professor Emeritus, Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited is a responsible and balanced response to Kali’s Child that returns the critical focus to the text, sets it in historical and cultural context and issues a urgent call for constructive dialogue between scholars and insiders. It is a patient and elaborate illustration of the possible dangers and limits of cross-cultural studies.This is a welcome contribution to Ramakrishna that treads the uncommon middle ground between the extremes of the uncritical insider and the unexamined assumptions of the scholar.
Professor and Chair, Religion Department Saint Olaf College
[Interpreting Ramakrishna] is "indispensable to the future of both Ramakrishna studies and to the history of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century religious studies."
—Frederick M. Smith
in Religious Studies Review (37:2)
Interpreting Ramakrishna is a tour de force of analytical clarity, scholarship, wisdom and even-handedness. For those of us who know all too little about Ramakrishna, it is clearly both the ideal introduction to his being and message and the last word. Would that more books on such elusive spiritual subjects had such rigor, such devotion and such judiciousness!
Essayist for TIME Magazine and author of The Open Road
I do wish, as someone who has drawn deeply and gratefully for more than forty years on the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna and his students, to express my enormous gratitude to Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana. The publication of Kali's Child, and even worse, its uncritical acceptance by so many Western scholars, left people like me feeling both heartsick and, for the most part, helpless. Interpreting Ramakrishna is a brilliant, point by point rebuttal of that book, and if it could find its way into all the libraries it should, it could reverse most of the harm that's been done.
—Carol Lee Flinders
Author of At the Root of This Longing and Enduring Grace
Interpreting Ramakrishna is an excellent book, not only as a scholarly publication, but as a commentary about the troubling tendency in religious academia to use Western psychoanalysis as the gold standard for research. Ethnocentric value systems and Freudian psychology unfortunately do not currently serve as in-depth explorations of Ramakrishna or any other religious figure for that matter. Using a Western paradigm to look at a figure like Ramakrishna is troublesome enough. Utilizing psychoanalytic orientation in religious academia is both an outdated and one dimensional lens to view culture, personality and individual behavior. Though Interpreting Ramakrishna was written by two "insider monastics," they appear to have done their considerable research with surprising clarity and non-defensiveness. It not only provides a refreshing pedagogy on the subject, but a thoughtful and rigorous standard for research.
Psychotherapist and author of This Dark Heaven: Healing the Soul After Sexual Abuse
In their long-awaited, in-depth, and meticulously crafted response to Jeff Kripal's highly controversial work on the life and psychology of Sri Ramakrishna, Kali's Child, not only have Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana thoroughly demolished the earlier book's thesis—which stands revealed as a house of cards, built on a foundation of faulty translations and tendentious speculations asserted as facts—they have also made an important contribution to the future of Ramakrishna studies, and to the study of Hinduism and of Indian culture more broadly. In their hands, the story of Kali's Child becomes a cautionary tale—a case of what can happen when deeply held cultural biases are allowed to go unchallenged in scholarly work on materials from a context very different from that of the author—and a chapter in the longer story of how Sri Ramakrishna has been seen by interpreters from both inside and outside the community of his devotees, as well as from the very different cultural vantage points of India and "the West."
Interpreting Ramakrishna embodies many characteristics of the Vedanta tradition that its authors inhabit. Unlike other recent critiques of academic scholarship on Hindu traditions with which it will inevitably be compared, this book eschews ad hominem attacks, focusing solely on the work of the author at hand. There is no "reverse psychoanalysis" of Jeffrey Kripal. Nor is there any attempt to ascribe motives either to him, his teachers, or the academy of which he is a part. Instead, one finds a very precise, careful, and detailed deconstruction of Kali's Child. Although no author would enjoy seeing his work put through the proverbial grinder in this way, it is clear that the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna are not engaged in a personal attack.
Instead of engaging in acrimonious personal attacks, Tyagananda and Vrajaprana are far more interested in pursuing the important question—which could be characterized as the refrain of this book—"Why do we see what we see? Why do we interpret the way we interpret?" (p. xiv) For the central issue of the Kali's Child controversy is not merely a matter of contested facts—though these also abound, as Tyagananda and Vrajaprana go out of their way to document exhaustively, particularly in their lengthy fifth chapter (pp. 269-347). The central issue is a clash of worldviews and cultural assumptions that have the effect of actually shaping the phenomena which scholars perceive. Kripal is not the first academic scholar of Hinduism to see psychopathology in the life and experiences of Sri Ramakrishna. As Tyagananda and Vrajaprana document, his is only the most recent and famous (or infamous, depending on one's perspective) in a lineage of psychoanalytic responses to Ramakrishna, going back to Sigmund Freud himself (p. 33-34). And many of these responses have not involved the translation errors or other issues plaguing Kali's Child. In other words, even when there is agreement upon the basic facts at hand, it often is the case that, where one person sees a highly enlightened and spiritually realized being in an advanced state of samadhi, another person sees a deeply troubled and mentally ill individual in need of extensive therapeutic treatment. Both, it seems, are highly stubborn perceptions that cannot easily be swayed by argument, any more than one can be swayed into saying that the sky is not blue. They are effects of prior metaphysical commitments that are so deeply embedded in the psyche of the perceiver as to have become part of the mental equipment—the computer software, if you will—with which the perceiver's reality is constructed.
As a consequence of this situation, Tyagananda and Vrajaprana are aware that no truly "objective" approach to Ramakrishna—or to any topic, for that matter—is possible. In articulating and operating from this insight, the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna are consistent with the very latest academic theories on the nature of interpretation. The idea of postmodernity is precisely that no truly disinterested foundation for knowledge exists.
But postmodern thought is a double-edged sword. For if there is no such thing as an objective foundation for knowledge, is it not the case that one interpretation is as good as another? Who is to say if Ramakrishna experienced nirvikalpa samadhi, or a psychotic breakdown? Indeed, a common defense of Kripal's work that I have often encountered in conversation with my academic colleagues is that Kali's Child is "his interpretation." If one interpretation is as good as another, then what is the problem? Those of us who are in the tradition of Ramakrishna can have "our" Ramakrishna and Kripal can have his, and we can all be happy.
This relativistic approach is seductive, particularly for those of us who are in the Vedanta tradition, due to its seeming kinship to Ramakrishna's very own teaching—yata mat, tata path. We all inhabit different conceptual frameworks, and we all perceive and approach reality accordingly. Therefore, let a thousand flowers bloom. So Christians can see the highest reality as Christ, Buddhists can see it as Buddha Nature, Muslims can see it as Allah, Vaishnavas as Vishnu, Shaivas as Shiva, and so on. The adherent of Vedanta can see Sri Ramakrishna as an avatar or enlightened sage and the psychoanalyst can see him as a deeply troubled man.
But neither the Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna nor postmodern thought (at least in some of its forms, postmodernity being a highly diverse intellectual movement) implies a radical relativism that would deny a substrate of shared reality at the basis of all our perceptions. As in the famous Jain parable of the blind men and the elephant, while each blind man perceives the elephant differently—as a tree trunk (if he feels a leg), or a snake (if he feels the trunk), or a rope (if he feels the tail), or a spear (if he feels a tusk)—there is, nevertheless, an elephant really there. It is not that no objective reality exists. But our ability to perceive and express it is always relative and limited. Even a fully enlightened being, whose perception would be perfect, would find him or herself limited by the power of language and linguistically limited concepts when faced with the task of expressing that perception to others.
Analogously, when approaching a text, although interpretations may vary greatly, perhaps even to the point of radical incompatibility and incommensurability, there is still an agreed upon collection of lexical items called "the text" that enables all interpreters to know what the others are talking about. It would be quite bizarre, for example, if a reader of a Bengali primary source on Ramakrishna were to come away from the text concluding that it was about rocket science, or the contested results of the 2000 US Presidential election. If an interpreter were to come to such a conclusion, other readers would conclude that this person must have been reading a different text, or that there must be something seriously wrong with this person's reading ability. The burden would be on that eccentric reader to demonstrate (by some, presumably convoluted, reasoning process) the validity of his very unusual interpretation.
While Tyagananda and Vrajaprana acknowledge, and find both deeply interesting and important, the fact that interpreters from different cultural frames of reference both can and do arrive at radically different conclusions about Sri Ramakrishna, in the case of Kali's Child, they make a convincing case that, in terms of the plain meaning of Bengali words and phrases—as well as with regard to widely held Hindu understandings of such things as the meaning of the symbolism of the lingam and the yoni and the relationship of Vedanta and Tantra—interpretations are offered and conclusions reached that are almost as preposterous as seeing the Kathamri'ta as being about rocket science or the Florida vote recount. What has been most shocking to insiders of the Ramakrishna tradition (and other interested Hindu participant—observers of the Kali's Child controversy) is that mistakes of such a magnitude could be not only forgiven, but accepted and widely acclaimed, among academic scholars of religion. It is here that the question of the relativity of the cultural lenses one wears comes to bear upon this issue. Coming from an environment in which most readers do not know Bengali, for example, it was very easy for scholars to accept the claim of Kali's Child to be "recovering" a long-suppressed text. Similarly, given the highly organized cover-ups of scandalous behavior by priests in Christian organizations—and the fact of the scandalous behavior itself—a portrait of a scandalously behaving holy man whose faithful followers cover up his sins through a campaign of obfuscation was, and remains, entirely believable to the average Western reader of Kali's Child—a reader who is conversant neither with the original Bengali texts in question (texts that are widely read and loved in India) nor with the Master whose life and teachings these texts record.
Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana have therefore performed a much needed and valuable service for the Ramakrishna tradition by pointing out, with scholarly precision, the errors of translation and interpretation on which Kali's Child is based, and to scholars of Hinduism and Indian culture more broadly by showing how easily cultural biases can distort the representation of traditions beyond recognition, leading to a tragic situation of misunderstanding on both sides.
—Jeffrey D. Long
Author of A Vision for Hinduism and Associate Professor of Religion and Asian Studies and Chair of Religious Studies, Elizabethtown College
Interpreting Ramakrishna is grounds for sadness and tremendous hope.
Let's get the sadness out of the way, since this book is a tour de force. Swami Tyagananda had already written about Kali's Child in "'Kali's Child Revisited - or -Didn't Anyone Check the Documentation." At the heart of this second book is an examination of the primary source documents in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. All of them had been available, unexpurgated, in their original language (Bengali), for about a century. Kripal asserted that there was a secret teaching, exposed for the first time in his books. His sources for this claim? Those very same Bengali documents, most of which lie next to the bed of every monk and nun of the Ramakrishna and Sarada Orders, not to mention many lay devotees.
Ridiculous as his claim might sound when laid out this way, fellow academic practitioners swallowed it hook, line and sinker. A big source of readers' sadness in the book will stem from the comprehensive, painstaking account of exactly how the book became popular and "authoritative."
The story told in Interpreting Ramakrishna is horrifying to anyone who has been associated with a major research university: a young man was able to get a doctoral dissertation approved at the University of Chicago, one of America's foremost research universities, without having scholarly proficiency in the language that the key documents of his dissertation were written in. His dissertation advisors, the first line of defense against the publishing of fraudulent work, failed to notice.
But what came after was much worse, albeit predictable in retrospect: a domino effect. For once Kripal's dissertation received the stamp of approval from a prestigious university and its gatekeeping professors, it would, naturally, find an equally prestigious publisher. Then the reviews started coming in. A handful of scholars (particularly the one or two who actually knew Bengali) raised serious concerns about the work. But others, unaware that the texts had been inaccurately, often deceptively, translated, were ecstatic at the publication of a provocative work whose discoveries regarding Sri Ramakrishna's life were heretofore beyond imagining.
But imagined Kripal's stories were. And a large section of the book is devoted to a refutation of every false claim in Kripal's book. It is exhaustive, and exhausting, mostly because the authors, one senses, feel it must be. It's almost as if they fear that, like a monster in a horror film, any detail left unattended might regenerate, forcing them into the unpleasant task of writing a sequel.
One of the simplest and most important contributions of the authors is a stake through the heart of the "hidden teachings of Sri Ramakrishna" meme. This portion of their project, incidentally, has been made available, for free, at InterpretingRamakrishna.com: a full translation of the few pages in the original Bengali Kathamrita that weren't translated into English in 1942.
The excisions, it turns out, stemmed from original translator Swami Nikhilananda's awareness that they were either too culturally alien or would offend American sensibilities, still puritanical at the time. The truth, in other words, was the precise opposite of Kripal's claim. For how could Indians be too squeamish to handle texts that had been printed and reprinted in Indian languages, unedited, decades before the British left?
And indeed, one of the key purposes of the book is to reclaim not only Sri Ramakrishna but the entire academic discipline of Hindu studies from the Orientalism that has been foisted upon it by many scholars, even well intentioned ones.
But there are grounds for great hope here as well. Obvious scholars themselves, the authors' beef isn't against honest, fearless, rigorous academic examination of Sri Ramakrishna and his life. Bring it on, they argue. Use a Freudian lens if you want to. Just be fair, and for God's sake, know the language that you're writing about. That kind of attitude is refreshing, and all too rare. Hinduism is hardly the only religion whose practitioners would benefit from this kind of openness to rigorous scholarship.
Many of the attacks on Kali's Child by actual scholars of and believers in Sri Ramakrishna's life were based on genuine outrage. However, many of the most vocal protagonists in the drama that ensued its popularization in India were people who had read neither Kripal nor Sri Ramakrishna. They knew only that a Hindu saint had been unfairly maligned. True! But underlying their own claims was a deep homophobia, founded on an ahistorical Victorianism that has permeated Hinduism (and large parts of Islam) since the days of British colonization.
My greatest fear about this project wasn't that it wouldn't set the record straight—I had no doubt that the authors, both well known for the rigor and lucidity of their writing, would acquit themselves well. It was, rather, whether they could walk a different kind of razor's edge: defending Sri Ramakrishna from Kripal's craftily politicized scholarship without hitting sociological landmines.
And this is where Sister Vrajaprana, a monastic disciple of the monk who was Christopher Isherwood's own spiritual guide, and Tyagananda, a chaplain to students at Harvard University, truly rise to the challenge. They do justice to Ramakrishna's breadth and universality by discussing not only the issue of homosexuality but by recognizing the existence and experiences of gay devotees of Sri Ramakrishna, including onetime biographer Isherwood and Ashok Row Kavi. And never, even once, do they resort to the homophobia that would have sullied the book in the eyes of today's Western intelligentsia... and tomorrow's India.
We owe Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana a debt of gratitude. They have held academic scholars of Hinduism to a higher standard. They have blown a hole through a book founded on a dissertation that should never have passed muster. And they have done so in a way that upholds the highest, most hopeful principles of a religion that is, at its best, the world's broadest and most tolerant.
A graduate student in the social sciences at Harvard
Interpreting Ramakrishna is the result of more than ten years of research and analysis by two senior monastics of the Ramakrishna Order. The book is written with an exemplary combination of civility, deep feeling and concern for accuracy. It is painstakingly thorough as well as probing and reflective. Interpreting Ramakrishna is an indispensable work for anyone concerned with the Kali's Child debate and how Ramakrishna is understood, and is of interest for the study of mysticism more generally. Also, it should take a significant place in the record of how India and the West have understood one another—or failed to do so.
in Hinduism Today (April-May-June 2011)
Interpreting Ramakrishna is the work of Indian-born Swami Tyagananda and American-born Pravrajika Vrajaprana, two monastics who are justly respected in religious and academic circles alike. This book was prompted by the publication in 1995 of Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's Child, a sensationalized portrait of the Bengali holy man Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) as a homosexual with pedophiliac tendencies. Because Ramakrishna is widely recognized as one of the major figures in modern Hinduism, the book was met with outrage in India and in religious circles worldwide, including those affiliated with the Ramakrishna Order.
What could easily have been a sectarian defense or an indignant rebuttal proves to be nothing of the sort. Instead, the authors immediately set a tone that demonstrates rare magnanimity. In the preface they deplore the divide that exists between practitioners of religion on the one hand and scholars of religion on the other. They make an intelligent argument for finding common ground, arguing that to breach the "insider/outsider divide" would be of mutual benefit to both communities.
The first chapter presents a well-researched and balanced history of Ramakrishna scholarship, exploring how the great spiritual figure has been viewed in Indian and international contexts by such eminent figures as Max Müller, Romain Rolland, and Christopher Isherwood. The list includes later scholars who delved into questions of Ramakrishna's psychology and sexuality long before Jeffrey Kripal. It turns out that the thesis of Kali's Child isn't exactly new.
At several places in the book the authors touch on the question of colonialism, its effects before Indian independence, and its lingering aftereffects on the Indian psyche and on Western attitudes. It can only be hoped that this book will stimulate further study in this important, still fledgling field of inquiry. Readers familiar with other books, such as Benita Parry's Delusions and Discoveries: India in the British Imagination, 1880-1930 and Dilip K. Chakrabarti's The Battle for Ancient India, will immediately recognize that in Kali's Child Jeffrey Kripal is advancing no new thesis but is merely recycling the detritus of an unenlightened past.
In the remaining chapters Vrajaprana and Tyagananda present their case methodically with a wealth of background information on the genesis of Kali's Child, followed by a fast-paced and gripping account of the controversy that flared up after its publication. With journalistic integrity, they balance it with a broad spectrum of reviews. Only then do they embark on a detailed look into how Kripal's book interprets (and misinterprets) the source material on Sri Ramakrishna, taking cultural differences and misunderstandings into account. For the reader interested in language and translation, this section is a pure delight.
Once again, in this close examination, the authors are to be commended for their thoughtful scholarship, free of rancor. Integrity comes first, and that is what makes Interpreting Ramakrishna so important. Far from being an attack on a distasteful book, their response expands into a call for honesty, openness, and respect in the field of religious studies.
author of Svetasvataropanishad: The Knowledge that Liberates and In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning
Interpreting Ramakrishna is an impressive new book. . . . With a masterful command of detail, it provides an exhaustive and thoroughgoing rebuttal of the allegations contained in Kali's Child. But it's far more than that. It casts its net wider and strikes deeper. Among other things, it contains a history of the debate that Kripal's book provokes; a wide-ranging discussion of the difficulties of translation and interpretation, especially in a cross-cultural context; and an examination of the possibilities for Ramakrishna studies in the future.
Interpreting Ramakrishna is bound to be a landmark in Ramakrishna scholarship, and Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana are to be congratulated for a prodigious achievement. . . . The book will undoubtably prove to be the Ramakrishna movement's definitive response to the allegations contained in Kali's Child.
in American Vedantist (16:3)