Sexual Identity and the Politics of Scholarship in the
Study of Hindu Tantrism
For the truth is, I think that we are always plural. Not either this or that but this and that. And we always embody in our multiple shifting consciousnesses a convergence of traditions, cultures, histories coming together in this time and this place and moving like rivers through us. And I know now that the point is to look back with insight and without judgment, and I know now that it is of the nature of being in this place… that there will always be new ways to understand what we are living through, and that I will never come to a point of rest or of finality in my understanding.
Catholic Beginnings. Catholic Dilemmas
When I was a student at seminary, there was something I just didn’t understand. I knew that much of the Christian mystical tradition drew on the Song of Songs as the preeminent source of its theological speculation and mystical doctrine. From Origen in the third century to Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross in the sixteenth, the Song was employed and commented on in order to imagine the feminized Church or human soul wedded to Christ in a variously conceived mystical marriage. Because I was born within the Catholic tradition, was living in a Catholic seminary (Conception Seminary College) rich in monastic culture, and wanted to participate in the Church’s most intimate forms of community and experience, I tried my best to pray with the Song while I read these mystics. But it didn’t work. How, I asked myself, was I supposed to imagine myself as a woman and, even more puzzling, as one married to another male? This was no good at all.
Teresa of Avila? Now she made sense to me. Here, after all, was a woman who could quite naturally encounter a male divinity, or so I thought in my box-like gender categories. But John of the Cross and Bernard of Clairvaux? What were they doing? And how was I supposed to make sense of whatever it was they were doing? It was as if there simply was no genuinely established place in the Catholic tradition for a modern heterosexual male who desired to use erotic language to effect and express his embodied religious experience. That, after all, would require some kind of feminine divinity. But, doctrinally speaking, there was one God, and he was definitely male. Or so said the scriptures, the liturgical language and all the statues and holy cards I had ever seen. Consequently, every male is feminized in relationship to Him—we are all brides.
Certainly there were individual mystics and even traditions that bravely transgressed this male same-sex pattern. The “bridal chamber” of some of the early Gnostic communities, for example, allowed for a male heterosexual symbolism (and perhaps even practice), Jacob Böhme and the numerous theosophical traditions he inspired would much later write and speak of “wooing” Sophia, and William Blake would imagine a “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” in which heaven itself was feminized and the poet was called to take on the fiery, and very heterosexual, energies of Hell and the Devil. But such communities and writers were inevitably marginal or even heretical in the eyes of the mainline, orthodox tradition, no doubt partly because of their unabashed mystical heterosexuality. Blake was right: to be a heteroerotic mystic was equivalent to being the Devil himself. Little wonder, then, that he had to imagine into being an entirely new mythology and cosmology to feel at home.
While I was puzzling over the mysteries of gender, sexual orientation, and mystical language, I was also reading in the seminary’s library, where I encountered beautiful art books on Hinduism, accounts of modern gurus (especially Krishnamurti, Swami Muktananda and Rajneesh) and something called Tantrism. The latter particularly intrigued me, as here, finally, was a tradition that allowed the male mystic to be heterosexual and approach the divinity as female, that is, as a goddess. I was intrigued and hopeful that I might be able to find something in Hinduism that seemed to exist nowhere in my own Catholicism. Consequently, after I graduated from the seminary, I decided to study the history of religions with a special focus on Hindu Tantrism and the comparative study of mysticism at the University of Chicago. Because I knew that Tantrism in the form of Saktism was especially popular in Bengal, I began to study Bengali and, three years later, found myself living in Calcutta.Seeing from the West
The great Catholic theologian Hans Küng once wrote that “No one could fail to see that all the Tantric systems, and the Shaktist practices especially, are extraordinarily alien to Christians, more alien than anything we have met thus far in Buddhism or Hinduism” (Kung 1986). Küng then goes on to affirm the religious integrity and importance of these religious systems, particularly in their affirmation of the female principle, their sacralization of sexuality, and their theoretical sophistication. His opening confession, however, remains no less true: for anyone writing from the Christian West, Sakta Tantra is about as foreboding and strange (and so somehow mysteriously attractive) as it gets.
Another way of asserting the same basic truth is to admit, up front and immediately, that any honest Western approach to a tradition such as Saktism is an exercise in excess. Whether that excess is experienced on an intellectual, visual, emotional, moral, ontological or mystical level, it is there, dissolving one’s categories, calling into question one’s most cherished stabilities, reminding one of the most basic biological truths of human existence, those involving birth, death, aggression and sexuality. There simply is no way around this. This, among many other things, is what a Sakta goddess such as Kali is--a mythological form of excess, an ecstatic embodiment of Tantric transgression. Such excess hardly disappears when one approaches her from another culture. Indeed, in many ways, it only becomes more excessive and complicated, as any Western approach must distort some of her truths and throw others into immediate and shockingly clear contrast. It is thus wise to define one’s perspective precisely up front, to name one’s voice.
With some rather clear psychoanalytic convictions and concepts, I see from my own specifically Western cultural and historical perspectives. Unlike the two major theorists of the same sub-field, Sudhir Kakar and Gananath Obeyesekere, both of whose lives in South Asia (Kakar grew up in what is now Pakistan, Obeyesekere in what is now Sri Lanka) render them remarkably familiar with these cultures “from the beginning” and “from the inside,” I came to these same cultures much later in life, or, to put it much more precisely, they came to me later in life in the culturally translated forms of New Religious Movements—and particularly North American guru traditions--within the historical context of late twentieth-century American culture. I thus write, certainly not as a South Asian commenting on my own culture or even as an anthropologist with extensive ethnographic experience commenting on someone else’s (I claim neither theoretical voice), but as an American historian of religions trying to make sense of American religious pluralism and the profound effects it has had and continues to have on our contemporary understandings of religion, mysticism, and Western Hinduism, not to mention my own postmodern plural self.
In many ways, then, my situation is the mirror-opposite of that of someone like Gananath Obeyesekere, who has so eloquently written of the Western influences and anthropological training that permanently alienated him from his own indigenous village culture: “I felt increasingly drawn toward understanding [Sinhalese] village culture,” he once wrote of his early youthful researches, “thereby hoping (futilely, I soon learned) to abolish my own alienation.”1 Like Obeyesekere, I too became alienated early from my own indigenous village culture (we call them “small towns” in America), but not primarily because of any Westernizing influence or intellectual training (although these too no doubt played important roles); rather, it was again the radical religious pluralism of American culture, and particularly my contact with the beauty, power and sheer otherness of Asian mystical traditions, that rendered my indigenous worldviews no longer completely tenable. There simply was no way to hold on to the comfortable Catholicism of my youth after Advaita Vedanta, Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, and the Indo-Tibetan Tantric traditions (although the iconographic and liturgical riches of my Catholic heritage allowed me to see and appreciate facets of these traditions that other perspectives might have closed off). The intellectual discipline of the history of religions, much like Obeyesekere’s anthropology, became a way for me both to make sense of this personal alienation and to confront the mesmerizing otherness of these Hindu and Buddhist mystical systems, which, I must add, I still feel personally drawn to on levels I can only begin to explain (with Kakar, I could well describe my worldview as a kind of liberal, rational agnostic mysticism [Kakar 1996, 166]). I have written of these autobiographical dimensions in some detail elsewhere (Kripal 2000, 2001) and will not repeat myself here, except to make clear the deeply personal, essentially religious place from which I about these Tantric traditions of indigenous and cross-cultural extremes.
While living in Calcutta, I kept noticing a Bengali saint named Ramakrishna (1836-1886) smiling at me from the posters and calendars that decorate the shop stalls, homes and public spaces of that remarkable city. In order to learn more about him I decided to pick up the primary text on his life and teachings, Mahendranath Gupta’s magisterial five-volume Kathamrita, better known to English readers in its 1942 New York incarnation, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. As I worked my way through the five volumes, I began to notice something significant: the English translation was both incomplete and, in at least some places, heavily bowdlerized. In particular, there were places in the text in which Ramakrishna or the narrator would announce some “secret talk” (guhya katha), after which something both Tantric and sexual was usually recorded. It was these passages, among many others, that were inevitably either bowdlerized or completely omitted in the The Gospel. I also noticed another pattern: Ramakrishna would consistently take on feminine identities to engage both male deities and disciples in relationships that were often encoded in language that was simultaneously religious and emotionally charged, if not sexually suggestive. Following Neoplatonic and Christian mystical discourse, inspired by the dialectical ontologies of the Tantric traditions themselves, and insistent on avoiding the reductionistic tones of classical Freudian readings, I decided to call this coincidentia of the palpably sexual and the genuinely mystical “the erotic.”
I also noticed that Ramakrishna adamantly refused to engage women sexually, either within his own marriage or, more to my point, within the Tantric ritual universe in which the male mystic was expected to sexually engage the goddess in the form of an actual female ritual consort (Ramakrishna’s female Tantric guru attempted to force him into these rituals but inevitably failed). As I encountered more and more of these engendered and consistently sexualized scenes, I began to develop a thesis. Ramakrishna’s mysticism, I realized, cannot be adequately understood without positing some kind of culturally and historically distinct homosexual orientation in the saint, since both his mysticism and his charisma were homoerotically structured around mystico-erotic encounters with male deities and highly charged devotional encounters with male disciples. Certainly, he would have had no access to any kind of homosexual social identity as we do now, thus I did not argue that the saint was “gay” or even “a homosexual” (such solid nouns are completely absent from the book), as such expressions imply a socially constructed identity stabilized in language and institutionalized practice rather than the fluid, polymorphous movement of desire, energy and ecstasy that we find in the Bengali texts. Human beings, it appears, can express (and create) themselves only in the idioms and symbols with which their historical cultures provide them. Ramakrishna was no exception. He expressed his own energies (rather marvelously, I might add) through the religious languages of his culture and then transformed them through ritual, symbol and vision into powerful mystical experiences. More specifically, he was deeply influenced by the Hindu Tantra and used its dialectical understanding of the mystical and the sexual to transform his culturally illicit homoerotic desires into profound visionary and religious experiences, but because the heterosexual structure of Tantric ritual seriously violated the homosexual orientation of his own desires, Ramakrishna was torn, troubled and conflicted about this same tradition. Whereas I had been a heterosexual aspirant in a homoerotically structured religious world (Catholic bridal mysticism), he had been a homosexual mystic in a heteroerotically structured religious world (Hindu Tantrism). We were both in very similar structural dilemmas, if for exact opposite reasons. I understood him precisely because I was and was not like him.
After three years of formal Bengali study at Chicago and an academic year in Calcutta, I returned to the States in 1990 and began to write my dissertation on the saint. I would later publish the thesis as Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (University of Chicago Press, 1995). Things were relatively quiet for the first year. Then Blake’s creative Hell broke loose. In the fall of 1996 the book was awarded the American Academy of Religions’ History of Religions Prize and appreciative reviews began to appear in academic journals. A few months after the award ceremony, in January of 1997, the book was vilified in a full-page review in a Calcutta English newspaper (the review began by comparing my Ramakrishna to an American drag-queen and ended with the words “plain shit”). This “review” predictably exploded into a three-week long flood of letters to the editor (none of whom showed any signs of having ever seen the book) that finally elicited a special plea from the paper to end the deluge: no piece in recent memory had elicited such a response, they claimed. But the debates continued. Soon a ban movement was announced in national newspapers, at least once on the front page. The central government created a special file on the book, and the work was examined by the CBI (India’s FBI) to determine whether or not it should be banned (it was not). Just this last fall the book made headlines again when some individuals noticed that Encyclopedia Britannica’s on-line article on Ramakrishna included a Barnes and Noble link that listed Kali’s Child as its first book. Disturbed by this, they initiated a letter-writing campaign that was announced on the front page of Anandabazar Patrika, Calcutta’s largest Bengali newspaper. Unlike the earlier movement, these individuals were not asking that the book be removed, much less banned. Rather, they wanted it moved down the list, and they wanted the primary texts (like Gupta’s The Gospel) listed above it. Aware of the complexities of this situation, with the production of knowledge and the interests of capitalism coming together in a no doubt imperfect alliance, I was and remain sympathetic to such concerns.
During all of this, positive reviews continued to appear in America, England, France and Australia, as I heard from a broad spectrum of professional disciplines and existential perspectives. Indologists, Buddhologists, playwrites, artists, a novelist, psychiatrists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, devotees of different prominent gurus, Sufis, Tantrikas, Ramakrishna devotees, and gay activists all wrote or spoke to me about their personal readings of the book, almost all of which were deeply appreciative, warm-hearted and grateful. I even learned of a contemporary American guru tradition (Adidam) that highlighted the book in their own publications with a warm blurb from the guru himself, who put Kali’s Child on a special list for his disciples to read and called on them to move beyond the prudery and homophobia of the past and struggle openly with the issues of sexuality and repression in their own devotional and mystical practices.
I have struggled almost continuously for the last four years to make some sense of both the obvious anger and the equally apparent gratitude, even love that have greeted my work and (just as often) my imagined persona. These years have been at once humbling, satisfying, embarrassing, manically creative and utterly confusing. In terms of the embarrassment, precisely because of the book’s obvious potential to offer a radically new perspective on the saint, it has come under intense, indeed microscopic scrutiny from those heavily invested in the traditional perspectives. Not surprisingly, such attention has uncovered a number of genuine errors, all of which I deeply regret, most of them involving translation points or hermeneutical slips that I will now happily correct (all of which, I should add, can easily be addressed without altering either the form or basic argument of the book), precisely as I did in the second edition of the book. In terms of the broader and more important reception issues, I can make no claims to full insight, and I am quite certain that I do not understand many, if not most, of the political, ethical and cross-cultural intricacies into which I have wandered. Still, exactly four years after the initial Calcutta controversy, I would like to offer the following reflections in the hope that others, including and especially my harshest critics, might find something helpful to think about here.
Kali's Child presented itself as a study of secrets. Beginning with the assertion that the English translation (Nikhilananda’s The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) of the central text of the tradition (Gupta's Kathamrita) bowdlerized and even completely omitted aspects of Ramakrishna's "secret talk," I proceeded in the body of the book to translate, interpret and contextualize in considerable detail these same secrets. The facts that Ramakrishna's Tantric culture was itself coded in esoteric terms and was practiced within secret antinomian rituals made such an approach more than appropriate. Indeed, Ramakrishna himself spoke in excited, revelatory terms and so invited his listeners (and now readers) to enter this same esoteric discourse, "Listen! Now I'm telling you something very secret . . . ." Interestingly, the Ramakrishna of the texts also often asks his listeners to help him interpret his visions, explain his ecstatic states and even tell him who he is; it is as if he does not know and needs the interpretations of others—listeners and now readers—to come into meaning. The hermeneutical patterns of the text are thus open-ended, dialectical, still in process, and they extend into the present of the text before the reader, who has become Ramakrishna's audience through the magical acts of reading and interpretation.
What I attempted to do in my own text is re-create and extend these esoteric and hermeneutical processes, imaginatively enter them (as the Ramakrishna of the texts invites us to do), and understand them anew with our own contemporary categories. To do so, however, I had to deal with some very intimate details of the saint's life. That is, after all, why the passages were coded as secret. The rhetorical result was a kind of intellectual transgression that participated in the esoteric structure of the Bengali texts and, by so doing, imaginatively relived the Tantric revelations and occultations of Ramakrishna's life and teachings, sexual details and all. There is a certain excitement, a hint of danger, a note of awe in any such enterprise. Who, after all, does not want to hear a secret? Is not this the very logic of secrecy, a seductive telling that one is not telling everything and thus an invitation to listen for more? We all bend our ears.
Still within this same discursive field, readers and hearers of such secrets are naturally inspired to speak their own. Hence one of the most serendipitous aspects of the book's reception was the consistent pattern, repeated over and over again in the letters, of readers spontaneously sharing their own secrets with me. Having read the book as a sympathetic treatment of Ramakrishna's secrets, they assumed, and reasonably so, that I was open to such things, that I would try to understand. And so they re-created and extended Ramakrishna's "secret talk" in their own. I thus read and heard about powerfully erotic, if emotionally conflicted visions of Kali, of parental sexual abuse linked to later adult trance states, of the emotional sufferings of those with culturally vilified sexualities, of transsexual and hallucinogenic experiments with the goddess, and of ecstatic and dream experiences catalyzed by the reading of Kali's Child. The rhetorical patterns and emotional tones of such contemporary secret talk quite accurately echo and extend, if in distinctively modern or postmodern voices, the secret talk of both the Bengali texts and Kali's Child. A kind of hermeneutical union has thus been realized between the subject of the study (Ramakrishna), the author of the study (myself) and the readers of the study (the readers) within a single esoteric discourse shared orally and now textually across cultures and times.
Psychologically speaking, such secret talk was made possible by what psychoanalysts call transference phenomena, that is, the transposition of emotional associations and reactions originally connected to some figure or event of one's past onto an analogously perceived figure or event of one's present. Many, if not most, of my religiously inclined correspondents, for example, responded positively to Kali's Child precisely because of its ability to speak to their own psyches and souls. In effect, they saw their own struggles with gender issues and mystical states reflected in my own. Here, because the transferences were positive, the tones were enthusiastic and trusting.
Similar but significantly darker transference phenomena showed themselves in the negative receptions. This process was encouraged somewhat by the fact that my Czech surname also happens to be popular in northern India, where it is usually associated with the Sikh tradition (in a new twist on the story, this summer I learned that family oral tradition traces our roots back to East European gypsies, who immigrated from—where else?—India). "Jeffrey J. Kripal," then, strikes the Indian eye as an unusual amalgamation of Western-Christian (Jeffrey) and Indian-Sikh (Kripal) traditions. Accordingly, I was vilified in one American-Hindu cartoon as a secular, liberal Sikh (complete with turban) teaching in a godless American university. In other contexts—for example, in the letters to the editor of a major Calcutta newspaper or in personal correspondence—I have been portrayed as a sinister gay man, as an NRI (Non Resident Indian), or as an ill-trained pseudo-scholar who just made it all up, as it were. Now none of this is true. I am not gay. I am not a Sikh. I am not an Indian living abroad. (Although I fail utterly to see what is wrong with any of these identities.) Nor am I a dilettante. All of this name-calling, then, is an unfortunate collection of emotionally charged transferences, personal and cultural complexes projected onto the blank slate that was "Jeffrey J. Kripal."
Such negative transferences are complicated further by a very difficult colonial and now postcolonial history. Certainly common Indian perceptions of "the West" as materialistic, morally dissolute and anti-religious and "the East" as spiritual, moral and religious—that is, the typical orientalist constructions—played into these cross-cultural reactions. Our contemporary global culture, the hermeneutical powers of critical theory, and the philosophical realities of the postmodern world may promise to reduce all such binarisms to virtual nonsense. Still, because of the colonial and Christian missionary legacies, which are all too filled with gross distortions of Hindu practice and belief and disturbing acts of cultural and theological arrogance, any perceived encroachment on the part of a Westerner, however well-intentioned or appropriately trained, is almost immediately coded—and so effectively fended off—as another example of Western neo-colonialism. To make matters even more precarious, 150 years of Victorian and colonial sexual prudery have, with other cultural forces, attempted to efface the ancient and exquisite eroticism of much of Indic scripture, art and mystical practice, making it difficult at best to address these remarkable cultural legacies openly without offense (an offense which, curiously, does not seem to be indigenous at all). In such a difficult atmosphere, knowledge of any kind can easily and facilely be reduced to a form of intellectual imperialism. A hermeneutical method like psychoanalysis that wants to critically examine universal themes across cultures and times, and this through an open discussion of the intimacies of sexuality, becomes particularly problematic, even when its history is defined by a fantastically rich literature, a radically critical approach to all religion, including and especially Western religion, genuine cross-cultural dialogue, the constant adjustment of its categories, and the eloquent presence of gifted South Asian practitioners (the Indian analyst Sudhir Kakar and the Sri Lankan born anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere come immediately to mind).
I believe that such criticisms have seriously misread both the intentions and the trajectories of Religious Studies in America. Among many other matters (like the very different cultural and political histories of America and England), what such criticisms fail to take into account is the fact that often scholars, far from taking up the psychoanalytic, anthropological or historical-critical pen to "imperialize" another culture, do so, in effect, to understand and interpret their own now postmodern "colonized souls." In some genuine sense, they are the converted ones. Certainly this was true in my own case. I was born in the 1960’s and grew up in an American society that was post-Christian, radically pluralistic and increasingly global in worldview. Within such a cultural context, religious forms migrate with great ease across national boundaries through books, higher education and now the internet (recall that I first encountered Hinduism in a Catholic seminary). That I chose as a topic of study the Hindu tradition that had had the most impact on my own American culture was certainly no accident. I was simply trying to make sense of something that had permanently altered the religious, philosophical and even ontological landscapes of my psyche and soul. Far from participating in any kind of Christian missionary activity in India, what I was actually doing was trying to respond positively to Hindu missionary ventures in my own American backyard. To frame such a willingness to step out, if not actually leave, one's own indigenous religious tradition in order to sympathetically and critically understand another's as an act of colonial oppression or intellectual imperialism is hardly fair; in psychoanalytic terms, it is a false and ultimately dysfunctional transference of a past cultural event (colonialism) onto a present one (the practice of Religious Studies within a global culture) whose dynamics must be made conscious and worked through if any genuine dialogue is to take place. Certainly there are features and patterns of the latter that are analogous to those of the former (for colonialism, globalism and Religious Studies were and are driven largely by Western intellectual forces), but to collapse the two into a single process seems simplistic at best, and to blame individuals who spend much of their professional lives teaching the integrity and beauty of Hinduism among largely Christian populations for this borders on the baffling. What we have here is an inherited and mutually constructed history to work and think through, not an accurate measure of personal intentions or individual moral character.
This same orientalist critique, moreover, is often implicated by the very cultural essentialisms it so rightly seeks to overcome and transcend, as if there were such a thing as an unproblematic “West” or “Westerner.” As Leila Ahmed has put it so beautifully with respect to her own Egyptian-Western “border passage,” it is no longer a matter of being either this or that but of being both this and that. This is our postcolonial world become postmodern world. In this same spirit of merging identity-rivers, we could say that the moment Swami Vivekananda (Ramakrishna’s most famous disciple) opened his mouth and uttered his justly famous speeches at the Parliament of World Religions in the Chicago of 1893, any and each American's work on Ramakrishna or his tradition became both eminently legitimate and culturally creative, for at the moment this particular tradition entered American culture it became subject to this culture's own traditions of public, religious and academic discourse. Moreover, it has been argued many times that it was Vivekananda's trip to Chicago and America that made him into "Swami Vivekananda," and it is now a truism of Indology that modern, global Hinduism is a creative synthesis of traditional Indic thought and Western, post-Enlightenment social, religious and political philosophies. Seen in this historical light, I see no reason why the cross-cultural dialogue between Bengali and American religious cultures must somehow stop in the nineteenth- or early twentieth-century, and why we, as contemporary American scholars living in what is essentially a global postmodern village, are not perfectly authorized, indeed called, to continue this important task of cultural criticism, self-understanding, religious transformation and public debate. The cultural rivers flow on and into one another, and creatively so.
In the end, it seems apparent to me that any remotely fair analysis of Kali’s Child and its reception must explain two seemingly contradictory events: the book’s fantastically warm reception among certain intellectual, artistic and religious circles and its passionate rejection among many, if not most, devotees and officials of the Ramakrishna tradition (and please note that this binary pattern cannot be mapped onto some simplistic East/West or insider/outsider dichotomy, as if there have been no real critics here or genuine supporters in South Asia and within the tradition).
How does one explain an award-winning book that has been hailed as both a “disturbingly delightful celebration” of Ramakrishna’s spirituality and as a detestable “bloated bladder of lies” worthy to be banned? Are we talking about the same book? There are many issues here (including the fact that the latter phrase was penned by a person who had never read the book), some of which I have attempted to map above, but the most important of them, I believe, is the ethical status of homosexualities within our religious traditions. Put differently, it is my own conviction that the “contradictory” receptions of Kali’s Child are not really contradictory at all. Those readers who do not fear or condemn homosexualities read the book exactly as it was written—as a warm, deeply sympathetic portrait of a remarkable Hindu Tantric mystic, a “disturbingly delightful celebration” indeed, filled with those very things that graced Ramakrishna’s historical presence: loud laughter (some of it quite bawdy), sexually suggestive religious visions, and moments of ecstatic joy in the presence of beloved human beings. Those readers, however, who reject homosexualities as somehow aberrant, impure or “Western” project their own fears and hatreds onto the book (and me) and so read it as something it was not, is not, and never will be—an “attack” on Ramakrishna or, more bizarrely still, on Hinduism itself. What is genuinely contradictory, then, is not the book itself but the moral sensibilities that its different readers bring to it.
At some point, my critics will have to explain why, if I am wrong, other scholars, both Western and Bengali, have come to virtually identical conclusions or to analogous, powerfully sexualized readings. Malcolm McLean, for example, translated the entire Kathamrita and concluded, among many other things, that Ramakrishna’s homosexuality was central to understanding his relationships with his male disciples (1983). Sumit Sarkar, the great Bengali social historian, has suggested similar homosexual patterns in his “The Kathamrita as a Text” (1985). More recently, Parama Roy has used postcolonial and queer theory to write about Ramakrishna's erotic feminine identification, his simultaneous worship of women and gynophobia, his rejection of sexuality as a rejection of (hetero)sexuality, his erotically charged relationship to the young Narendra (Swami Vivekananda), and Vivekananda's subsequent transformation of Ramakrishna's mysticism into a hyper-masculine heterosexual nationalism (1998). All of these patterns fit seamlessly into the homoerotic hermeneutic of Kali's Child. And then there is the important work of Narasingha Sil, who has published three volumes so far on Ramakrishna and Vivekananda (1991, 1997, 1998), all of which profoundly sexualize (if in quite different directions) both the guru and the disciple. Even more recently, Brian Hatcher, a historian of religion specializing in Bengali religious history, traveled to Calcutta to do fieldwork on the reception of my work there, found support for it among Bengalis, and returned to some of the more controversial passages in the Bengali text only to come up with virtually identical readings (2001). Indeed, now reversing our temporal focus, if we count the unexplained “scandalous interpretations” that one Bengali text records Ramakrishna’s own contemporaries advancing when his temple manager gave him women’s clothes to wear in the manager’s presence, we could easily argue that the homoerotic thesis is both indigenous to Bengal and about 150 years old now.
Clearly, even such a brief history of scholarship as this exposes the “controversy” of Kali’s Child for what it is: a function neither of my assumed moral character (or are all of the above scholars equally suspect?), nor of my alleged translation disabilities (for Bengali speakers have come to virtually identical conclusions), but of our contemporary debates about gender, homosexuality and religion. There is the controversy.
If an adequate comparative history of male erotic mysticism is ever to be written, the implied presence of culturally and historically conditioned homosexualities in the texts and their specifically engendered symbolic structures (and I fully realize that the latter do not necessarily imply the former) is an issue that we will have to address more directly than we have so far. Homophobic denials, anti-Freudian diatribes and identity politics will no longer do. Of course, there are many more important reasons to address homosexuality as a religious issue, foremost among them the sexual bigotry and social injustice that render the lives of millions of human beings compromised at best and terrorized at worst. Unfortunately, our religious traditions have contributed more than a little to this social and sexual suffering. Many of our Christian communities (from Rome to the Southern Baptist Convention), for example, recently seem bent on making such suffering a virtual dogma of the faith. Solid, critical, public scholarship on these traditions and their handling of sexuality and gender seems central to any adequate response to such a situation. What we will find, if I may be allowed a prediction (which, I must add, I owe largely to the brilliant work of the Catholic historian and theologian Mark Jordan ), is that the very religious traditions that condemn homosexual practices and public identities are themselves filled with fantastically rich, if still deeply deeply ambiguous, resources, particularly in their mystical dimensions, for homoerotic religious experiences and even identities. The irony of this is both glaring and tragic, and it needs to be addressed directly and, above all, publicly. Only then can the secret talk be truly spoken and adequately understood. Only then can we stop vilifying the messengers and listen with open hearts and minds to that which was once whispered and is now being spoken out loud.
I want to end these reflections with a story that my mentor at Chicago, Wendy Doniger, likes to tell her graduate students. She borrowed it from Heinrich Zimmer, the great German Indologist, who no doubt borrowed it from someone else, and so on. It is about the Rabbi of Cracow, and it goes like this. A Rabbi from Cracow once dreamt that he should go to Prague to find a hidden treasure buried under a bridge there. In Prague, far away from home, he found the bridge guarded by a Christian, who laughed at him for believing in dreams; he, after all, had had a similar dream, which told him to go to Cracow, where he would find a treasure buried behind the stove of a Rabbi named Isaac son of Jekel. The Rabbi said nothing but hurried home, for he was Isaac son of Jekel, and the treasure he had sought in a distant land was in fact buried in his very own home. But—and this is the key to the story—such a treasure could only be discovered and fully appreciated by a trip to a distant land and its foreign (in this case, Christian) culture.
This, I would suggest, is the story of many of us who have studied the history of religions as a specifically comparative and essentially religious enterprise. For my own part, I began with Roman Catholicism and a fascination with erotic forms of mystical literature that somehow spoke, and yet did not speak, to my own modern psychosexual patterns and identities. Much like the Rabbi of Cracow, my thoughts and dreams led me to a foreign culture and its religion, where I found much beauty and wisdom and, eventually, a road back home. Still on this road, I am presently working on a study of these same mystico-erotic themes in the Western monotheistic traditions and, even closer to the stove, in the lives and works of twentieth-century scholars of mysticism. Perhaps it is finally time that we tell our own stories, share our own dreams, even recount our own mystico-erotic experiences, for there is undoubtedly more behind our sooty stoves than we realize, even if we need a Christian guard (or a Hindu saint) to tell us as much.Works Cited:
Leila Ahmed, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
1 Gananath Obeyesekere, The Cult of the Goddess Pattini (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), xv.