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 published over the last six years no less than eight essays and a second entire book. For individuals who wish to pursue these matters more fully, I would encourage them to read the following texts, some of which are available, as noted, on the present web-site:

Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001). This book includes a running "mystical autobiography" in which I describe my intellectual and religious development and explain how I arrived at the Ramakrishna materials and why I came to the conclusions I did. The book as a whole is essentially an application of the (homo)erotic interpretive model I developed in Kali's Child, developed further here and applied comparatively to Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu mysticism, as well as to the lives and works of 20th century scholars of religion, including and especially my own. The book also includes an elaborate discussion of Catholic homoeroticism and homophobia and an analysis of many of the theological and institutional problems that became so apparent within the American Catholic Church during the spring of 2002 and the scandals involving clerical sexual abuse (just a few months after Roads appeared). The book thus demonstrates clearly that the applicability of my ideas about gender, homoeroticism, and mystical trauma can be fruitfully applied to male erotic mystical traditions throughout the history of religions, from medieval Catholic mysticism to the contemporary American Academy of Religion.

As such, the book, I hope, makes clear that what I have always been after in my writing and thought, from Kali's Child to my most recent writing on the American counter-culture of the 60's, is not a singular focus on this or that figure, or even on a particular culture, but a general comparative theory of mystical eroticism that can throw some light on the nature of "religion" itself. By training and by choice, I am a comparativist, a historian of religions who believes that we can learn something important and new about religion by putting together figures, traditions, and ideas that originated in widely different times and places.

"Teaching the Hindu Tantrism with Freud: Psychoanalysis as Critical Theory and Mystical Technique," for Diane Jonte-Pace, ed., Teaching Freud in Religious Studies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). This is an essay on the Tantric pedagogical principle (upaya) of transgression and its application to the reception issues surrounding Kali's Child. As it turns out, the reception patterns of Kali's Child have followed exactly those often noted for Tantra in Asia: broad public denial and intimate secret acceptance, even celebration. Here I analyze what can best be described as the positive and esoteric "mystical reception" of the book among numerous contemporary devotees, intellectuals, novelists, Tantric practitioners, and a contemporary siddha guru.

"The Tantric Truth of the Matter: A Forthright Response to Rajiv Malhotra," (posted 21 September 2002). I wrote this essay in response to a request from Mr. Malhotra himself and the editors of Sulekha. The same essay appears on the present web-site. Hundreds of responses to it, including those of Mr. Malhotra, can be found in the archives of the Sulekha web-site.

"Sexuality, Textuality, and the Future of the Past: A Response to Swami Tyagananda," Evam: Forum on Indian Representations 1:1-2 (2002): 191-205. This is an extended response to the criticisms of Swami Tyagananda. The original and fuller version of this essay was first published on the web-site of Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Its shorter published form, along with a shorter version of Swami Tyagananda’s original criticisms and a second rebuttal, were originally published in the inaugural issue of a quite remarkable Indian journal, Evam. My response is re-posted here with the kind permission of Evam at

"Secret Talk: Sexual Identity and the Politics of the Study of Hindu Tantrism," Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Winter 2001, 29/4. This is a brief synopsis of the debates surrounding Kali’s Child, with a special focus on the postcolonial charge of “neo-colonialism.” The same essay can also be found on the present web-site, re-posted here with the kind permission of Harvard Divinity Bulletin.

Letters to the Editor. Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Spring 2001, 30/1. An exchange between Huston Smith, Swami Tyagananda, Professor Somnath Bhattacharyya, and myself on some of the issues raised in the aforementioned article. My reply is directed primarily at Prof. Smith, who seeks, among other things, to place the discussion of sexuality and religion outside the bounds of appropriate intellectual practice.

"A Garland of Talking Heads for the Goddess: Some Personal and Theoretical Reflections on the Western Kali," in Alf Hiltebeitel and Kathleen Erndl, eds., Is the Indian Goddess a Feminist? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000). A brief autobiographical essay followed by a discussion of psychoanalytic approaches to Kali, both in India and in the West.

"Pale Plausibilities: A Preface for the Second Edition," in Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; second edition). This is one of my earliest responses to the controversy. It is still representative of my position on any number of issues, including my non-reductive, dialectical understanding of “the erotic,” my location within the psychoanalytic tradition and its seventy-year fascination with Ramakrishna, my reading of the homophobic subtext of the debate, and my immediate willingness to apologize for and correct any clear translation or interpretive errors (this second edition acknowledged and happily corrected a set of minor errors pointed out by Swami Atmajnanananda in his "Scandals, cover-ups, and other imagined occurrences in the life of Ramakrsna: An Examination of Jeffrey Kripal's Kali's Child," International Journal of Hindu Studies 1/2: 401-420). The essay is posted on the present web-site with the kind permission of the University of Chicago Press.

"Mystical Homoeroticism, Reductionism, and the Reality of Censorship: A Response to Gerald James Larson," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66/3. A response to Prof.'s Larson's charge that I should have vetted the book manuscript with the Ramakrishna Mission before publishing it.
The Sadhana of Confirmation:
Some Positive Responses to the Work

One must rise by that by which one falls.

popular Tantric saying quoted by Ajit Mookerjee in Tantra Asana

Cyril O'Regan, writing about the phenomenon of the seventeenth-century German theosophical mystic Jacob Boehme, once voiced his discomfort with what he calls the "individualist interpretations" of Boehme, that is, those readings that focus on the shoemaker's visionary experiences of 1600 and 1611 and determine that "his speculative discourse is without remainder an exegesis of these discrete theophanic events."1 This reduction of Boehme's discourse to a series of states of mind, O'Regan rightly points out, denies the kind of public life and historical influence that Boehme's texts enjoyed for centuries after his death and the very different ways in which his thought have been interpreted and appropriated by different individuals and communities. It is better, O'Regan argues, to understand the phenomenon of Jacob Boehme not as a small collection of univocal texts reducible to a brief series of personal experiences but as an entire discursive event in which countless readers and writers have participated over the course of many centuries now. Here the mystical is finally located not in a personal experience, however profound, but in the entire hermeneutical event of inspiration, articulation, reception (or anti-reception), and interpretation. Boehme's truths, in other words, however rooted they may have been in "his" original visionary experiences (themselves no doubt formed by prior reading of other authors and "their" experiences), were not fully realized until much later within Boehme's writing or, more radically, in the thought and writing of his readers.

In Roads of Excess, I have tried to argue something very similar in regard to the technical writings of twentieth-century scholars of mysticism, many of whom came to the field from the dark energies and burning psychosexual questions of their own ecstatic and visionary experiences. The facts are that scholars of mysticism have been experiencing and writing out the mystical from the very beginning of the discipline (William James' experiments with nitrous oxide and psychics can be read as both foundational and emblematic), and that their texts have played a crucially important role in the subsequent framing, understanding, and practice of "mysticism" in the twentieth- and now twenty-first centuries. What we have here is a total discursive or participatory event in which innumerable actors enact a uniquely modern and now postmodern expression of the spiritual life. Such expressions are certainly related, indeed intimately so, to past historical traditions, but they simply cannot be equated with those same traditions without a serious surrender of our own most cherished ethical values and concerns. In truth, these modern participatory enactments of the mystical life are something else: unique, precious, partial, fallible fusions of past and present worlds of meaning in which being can speak freely again in and as human being in the house of language. And they no doubt will be superseded by future fusions and other homes. We too are eminently relative.

I have always seen Kali's Child in a similar light. I have never understood the book as a single text written by a single author. I see it rather as a "snapshot" or "event" in a centuries-long process of interpretation, debate, controversy, and discussion that, whether we recognize it or not, unites all of its participants within a single hermeneutical mysticism. I wrote in its first few pages about my sense of "emptiness" (sunyata) and my conviction that the work is not a "thing" but a flurry of energies extending from the past and into the present and future of which--if the truth be told--I, as an author dependent on sources of inspiration and thought often beyond my conscious agency, have only very limited control. The controversies the book has sparked only confirms for me this mystical sense of ecstatically participating, not in a single "experience" of mine or anyone else's, but in a historical "event" of innumerable writers and readers extended over long stretches of time.

The secondary literature on Kali's Child has only confirmed this sense for me. It is quite large and is generally divided into two seemingly different streams of thought: the deeply appreciative and the deeply critical. As I hope I can be forgiven for not wanting to participate in my own Inquisition, I will leave it to others to cite the latter body of writing. In terms of the former, I recognize the following essays and books as representing the most astute responses to the book in a manner that is professional, critical, and, above all, accurate. (I have not cited any single book reviews, although there are dozens of these as well, again both deeply appreciative and deeply critical):

Dr. Rajagopal Chattapadhyaya, "Jeffrey Kraipaler Kalij Caild," Manboman 42/1 (2003), 67-73. Through a series of remarkable books in both English and Bengali, Chattapadhyaya has begun and considerably advanced the historical-critical study of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda literature. This is his review essay of Kali's Child in a Bengali social-scientific journal. Chattapadhyaya has also deal with some of the reception issues in his Kolombo Theke Kamakhya: Bibekanander Abhyarthana (Rajagopal Chattapadhyaya, 2001).

Catherine Clement, Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). A Lacanian study of jouissance ("rapture," "joy," or "orgasm") in different mystical, psychological, and philosophical traditions, with more than a little discussion of Ramakrishna, all of it emphasizing the relationship between the mystical, the erotic and the feminine as jouissance. Along the way, Clement discusses (before Kali's Child), the "absolute wandering" of Ramakrishna's "syncretic eroticism" (203), the erotic dimensions of his ecstasies, anal and "mystical abasement" themes in Tantra and Ramakrishna's visions (drawing here largely on the previous work of Sudhir Kakar), and textual bowdlerization within the tradition. See especially ch. 10 "'Inter faeces et urinas': Tantrism Between Feces and Urine," and ch. 14 "Jouissances: Between the Angel and the Placenta."

Catherine Clement and Sudhir Kakar, La Folle et Le Saint (Paris, Seuil, 1993). A dialogue between the French psychoanalytic and feminist philosopher Catherine Clement and the Indian psychoanalyst, cultural critic and novelist Sudhir Kakar on the striking similarities that exist between the mystical experiences of "Madeleine," one of Pierre Janet's patients in the Salpetriere hospital of the 1880s, and Ramakrishna, including a discussion of the saint as a "secondary transsexual" and an exchange on his possible homosexual proclivities.

Brian A. Hatcher, "Kali's Problem Child: Another Look at Jeffrey Kripal's Study of Sri Ramakrishna," International Journal of Hindu Studies 3/1 (1999). A report on Hatcher's field study in Calcutta on the positive and negative reception of my work there and his own conclusions about the reductionism and translation debates surrounding my work (he rejects both criticisms as fundamentally misguided).

Sudhir Kakar, Ecstasy (Viking, 2001). Although certainly not a technical response to or review of Kali’s Child, this novel from the pen of one of India’s most talented and accomplished writers can be related to the discussion at hand, as in my own reading, which may or may not approximate that of the author, the novel creatively employs some of the themes of Kali’s Child to explore the same ideas in the freer medium of fiction.

Malcolm McLean, "A Translation of Sri-Sri-Ramakrsna-Kathamrta with Explanatory Notes and Critical Introduction" (Ph.D. diss., Otago University, 1983). A complete translation of the Kathamrta, prefaced by a lengthy Introduction analyzing the text's basic themes and psycho-sexual patterns, all of it perfectly in line with Kali's Child (12 years before Kali's Child).

Parama Roy, "As the Master Saw Her: Western Women and Hindu Nationalism," in Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). An engendered reading of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita using the theoretical tools of postcolonial theory and queer studies to come to a set of conclusions virtually identical to those of Kali's Child. Though by no means technically a response to Kali's Child (Roy tells us in an endnote that it was written but not published before the latter book came out), I consider this essay "proof" that my conclusions are reasonable ones and by no means restricted to non-Bengali or non-Indian voices.

William B. Parsons, "Psychoanalysis and Mysticism: The Case of Ramakrishna," Religious Studies Review 23/4 (1997). A synopsis and comparative evaluation of the works of Sil, Kakar and Kripal on Ramakrishna and their different uses of psychoanalysis by a contemporary psychologist of religion, stressing the non-reductive and eminently positive conclusions of Kali's Child.

Sumit Sarkar, "The Kathamrita as a Text: Towards an Understanding of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa," Occasional Papers on History and Society 12 (New Delhi: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 1985). In my opinion, one of the finest essay ever written on Ramakrishna or the Kathamrta, analyzing, among many other things, the social milieu of the text, issues of power, caste and authority, Ramakrishna's pronounced sexuality (and possible homosexuality), and what Sarkar calls the saint's "womb reversion" (a theme which also appears in the following essay).

__________, "Kaliyuga, Cakri and Bhakti: Ramakrishna and His Times," Economic and Political Weekly 29, Sameeksha Trust (July 1992): 282-357. Another long and striking essay arguing, among many other things, that "Ramakrishna's conception of evil repeatedly linked together kamini, kanchan, and the dasatya of chakri: lust, as embodied invariably in women, gold, and the bondage of the office job" (289). The essay also treats the radical changes the image of Ramakrishna underwent in the writings of Vivekananda, who inverted many of the Master's teachings, particularly on social activism, which Ramakrishna had rejected, and the centrality of Tantra, which became effaced in the later tradition--Sarkar thus refers to "[t]he vital, yet difficult and embarrassing interface between Tantric-Sahajiya traditions and Ramakrishna" (323).
1 Cyril O'Regan, Gnostic Apocalpyse: Jacob Boehme's Haunted Narrative (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 9.

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Pale Plausibilities

Secret Talk

Textuality, Sexuality

The Tantric Truth
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