From the Heart

The sole purpose of the present web-site is to offer a portal through which readers might encounter some of my own perspectives and thoughts on the controversies that Kali's Child has spawned over the last eight years. I am fully aware that there are other web-sites that offer gross misrepresentations of both my work and my character and that call for various acts of censorship and punishment. This site is designed, not to engage all of these directly, but simply to provide another perspective, in this case, that of the book's author. I offer it in a spirit of respect, trust, and hope: respect for the sincerity and humanity of my critics, trust in the essential persuasiveness of a reasonable idea (no matter who speaks it), and hope for a more positive and culturally creative future, for all of us.

I have done little else over the last eight years than think about the discussions and debates my work on Sri Ramakrishna has generated in India, in the States, and indeed around the world among different Hindu and devotional communities. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have felt great pain, great sadness and great frustration during these years: pain for the way my work has been grossly misrepresented or radically misunderstood; sadness for the missed opportunities of understanding and dialogue; and frustration at the sense that virtually all of the hurt feelings (on all sides) are a result, certainly not of ill-intention, but of deep cultural differences and assumptions about spirituality, sexuality, and the study of religion that too often seem to be virtually insurmountable. Still, we must try.

Most of the problems and misunderstandings revolving around my work, I think, lie in our different cultural positions, life-experiences, and subsequent moral values. Whereas someone such as myself who grew up in late twentieth-century American culture takes it for granted that sexuality lies at the core of our humanity (and spiritualities), that homosexuality is one of many natural human sexual orientations, and that it is a good, creative and positive thing to talk openly about all of this, others who grew up in different cultures no doubt feel very differently about these same matters. And this is unavoidable. I can only say that I speak and write from my own cultural and historical position, and that from that limited perspective what I have written is best understood as an ultimately appreciative attempt to make sense of Sri Ramakrishna's Sakta Tantra through the categories and ideas of that same culture and place. I have never claimed to speak for Indians or Hindus or "represent" the tradition's understanding of Ramakrishna. Quite the contrary, my work explicitly begins from the empirical fact of the tradition's censorship of the Bengali texts, and I have always recognized, from page 1 as it were, that my work would be received as a "scandal." (The category of the scandalous actually makes its first appearance on p. 2). Moreover, I speak only for myself, and I take full and sole responsibility for my errors, which I have always immediately apologized for and done everything in my power to correct.

Of course, I wrote the same thing eight years ago on the very first page of Kali's Child, where I addressed directly my Indian and devotional readers. These words were perfectly true then. They are even more so now:

Kali's Child is meant to function in ways not unlike those of Ramakrishna's vision [of emptiness involving Kali giving birth to and eating her child]. The religious world that the book attempts first to recover and then to present and decipher may, much like the saint's vision, initially horrify some of its readers. Those readers who have given their lives to Ramakrishna, whether in personal devotion or in a formal commitment, might be particularly troubled. I can only hope that the book, like Ramakrishna's vision, is nuanced and sophisticated enough to carry them beyond their initial shame, disgust and fear (and the anger such emotions might encourage) to a deeper understanding of what both this study and their own Master's visions are all about: Kali and her mystically "empty" Tantric world. Certainly it is not my intent to offend or to anger. Rather, I am after something that might be better described as surprise, shock or awe. Such reactions, of course, are ambivalent, for they carry within themselves the seeds of both revelation and rejection. I can only state here that for me such emotions have functioned more as revelations than as reasons for rejection. It is awe and wonder, certainly not malice, that have carried me through the years it took to see this work to completion.

Kali's Child, the very first page of the first edition, 1995

And again two pages later:

All of this implies that I have read Ramakrishna's life, at least partially, through the lens of my own. I knew, of course, that the cultural and personal curves of that lens would distort some aspects of his life and teachings, but I was also convinced that these same curves would bring other dimensions of his life into sharp, unmistakable focus. I am still convinced that what follows is more focused than false. Precisely what I have distorted and what I have clarified I leave to my colleagues and the historical record to decide.

Kali's Child, the third page of the first edition, 1995

Also, of course, relevant here is the postcolonial context of the present debates, and, more specifically, the fact that any open discussions of Indian forms of sexuality carried on by Westerners are likely to recall in the minds and hearts of many Hindus earlier attempts by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators to demean Hindu forms of mystical practice, piety, and practice through analogous turns to the well-known sexual dimensions of Indian culture (one immediately thinks, for example, of the Kamasutra or the temples of Khajuraho and Konarak). Certainly, I have never intended my work to be either demeaning or colonizing in any way--quite the contrary, for me the Sakta tradition is a marvel of psychological depth, aesthetic shock, and intellectual beauty, and the ancient erotic riches of India are just that, riches--but I do understand how my work could be misunderstood in this way, particularly if it is not actually read through in its own terms (which, let us admit it, is almost always the case). I fully acknowledge and deeply regret the colonial pasts of Western discourses on Hindu spiritualities and believe that this colonial past must be openly admitted and thoroughly worked through in rigorously systematic and honest ways: postcolonial theory is perhaps our finest ally here. Moreover, I do not pretend to understand, for a moment, the depth of human suffering and injustice that such a colonial history has imposed on so many people in so many places for so long. This cannot be said enough times or in enough ways. Clearly, this postcolonial context and these painful memories of gross injustice and cultural imperialism go a very long way in explaining the present controversy. The consciously sincere intentions of a single author must appear to mean very little indeed here. I recognize this.

At the same time, it must also be admitted that such a model represents only one half of the equation, that is, that it does not do full justice to the specific historical circumstances and cultural contexts of contemporary American Indology. Something very different, I would suggest, is going on here, something far more positive and far more hopeful. Historically speaking, my own project emerges not from British colonialism per se, but from the nineteenth-century missionary efforts of Swami Vivekananda in America (which, of course, was itself a response to Western colonialism) and, more recently, from the American counter-culture of the 1960's and its warm embrace of Tantric forms of Hinduism and Buddhism as powerful means to subvert and renew Western culture, what Agehananda Bharati once correctly predicted would develop into a kind of scholarly "Tantric Renaissance" in the States. It is hardly an accident that most American scholars presently working in Tantric Studies either grew up in the 60's or were born during or shortly after that transformative decade (I was born in 1962), the same decade, I should add, that saw the enrichment of American culture through the immigration of thousands of Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese families after the previous Asian immigration restrictions were finally lifted (in 1965). I cannot and will not speak for others, but for me at least, it is the American counter-culture, not British colonialism, that most deeply formed me and my work. The social and intellectual implications of this are simply immense, but I cannot go into them here. I will simply say this: once we begin thinking in the terms of the American counter-culture rather than British colonialism, pretty much everything, including the present debate, changes, and changes very quickly. To take just one obvious example, virtually all of my American Hindu colleagues and critics are here because, and only because, of that liberalizing decade, as am I. This, then, is our shared history, our common past, our story to tell too, and it will only become more so with future generations.

To sum up then, I can acknowledge and embrace both the postcolonial perspectives of my Hindu critics, who have their own unique cultural and historical experiences in India out of which they deeply think and feel, and at the same time insist on the integrity and reasonableness of my own American counter-cultural origins and intellectual vision. Both broad histories have their own set of truths that deserve a fair and careful hearing, and I desire to deny neither. Moreover, the wisdom that binds us all is this: that we speak and feel and think, indeed exist from our own specific historical, cultural, and religious contexts. Because those places and perspectives are always relative and so always fallible, it is important, crucial really, to listen carefully to as many voices as possible as we approach together what we call, often much too quickly, the truth. This anyway has always been my approach from the very first pages of Kali's Child, as the above quotations make crystal clear.

Finally, let me say this: one of the lessons these eight years have taught me is that there are real limits to what an author can do to respond to his critics, and that there comes a time when it is time to move on. When Swami Atmajnanananda advanced his textual criticisms, I publicly apologized for my mistakes, thanked Swamiji, and corrected them in the second edition. When Swami Tyagananda published his extensive rebuttal, I openly acknowledged the corrections that I considered legitimate, publicly apologized for them both on a Harvard Divinity School web-site and later in a prominent Indian journal, and promised to correct them in any future edition. When Mr. Rajiv Malhotra published his Sulekha polemical essay on the contemporary psychoanalytic study of Hinduism, I corrected his numerous distortions and answered his criticisms to the best of my ability in an entirely professional manner. Again and again, I have done everything in my power to respond to my critics. But there comes a time when it is time to move on. After eight years of almost constant thinking, eight published essays, a second monograph, and literally thousands of paper and virtual letters, that time has arrived for me. Accordingly, I plan no future formal responses and have long since moved on to other intellectual projects and topics. I certainly do not expect that the discussions will end, nor do I believe that they should, but I do know that I have done all that I can to respond to them. I offer this web-site, then, certainly not as means to close discussion or debate, but simply as a "final" record of what I have thought and written over the last eight years. Please accept it for what it is: a sign of my trust in our shared humanity, a gesture of good will, and an act of hope.

The Sadhana of Controversy:
Some Personal Responses to the Quest(ion)


Without Contraries [there] is no progression.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As a mark of the seriousness and integrity I have granted my critics, I have pu