The Tantric Truth of the Matter
A Forthright Response to Rajiv Malhotra
Can someone who has not been the object of sustained, official hate speech appreciate how it feels to hear it? To hear it exempted from criticism because it is "religious"?
At his expressed request, I read Mr. Rajiv's Malhotra's recent essay, "Wendy's Child Syndrome," on Sulekha's website. Putting aside for a moment the angry tone and ad hominem nature of his criticisms and arguments, I take Mr. Malhotra's main point to be that a greater dialogue or "hermeneutical fusion" of civilizations is necessary to ensure a more hopeful future for us all. In the wake of 9-11 and in a world where fundamentalisms of all sorts threaten to take away our basic civil liberties (not to mention our lives) under the dubious banners of religious identity, ethnicity, and infallible revelation, I can only wholeheartedly agree with him. Significantly, he quotes my own writing to make this very point. There Rajiv and I stand together.1 I also take Rajiv to be saying, again quite correctly, that American Indologists must be more aware of how their work can be perceived by other Americans of Indian descent, as well as by South Asians in India. Again, I think this is a very important point. After all, that is why the very first page I ever published in a monograph (page xiii of Kali's Child) was addressed directly to my Hindu readers and what I was all too aware would be at least some of their negative responses, that is why the whole motif of "scandal" was central to the book (as it was to the original Bengali texts), and that is why I have spent the last seven years of my professional life doing little else than writing essays about these issues along with literally thousands of letters to Indian readers both powerfully enthused and deeply offended by my writings. After two nationally publicized movements to ban Kali's Child in India, the last of which ended in the Lok Sabha, and a very thick file of appreciative and angry letters from Hindu friends, colleagues, and correspondents, I would dare say that there are few American Indologists working today who are more aware of their Indian audience. So there again Rajiv and I stand together.
What I cannot agree with, however, is his oft-repeated claim that such dialogue is absent from the work of contemporary Indologists and the American Academy. This could not be further from the truth. More on that in a moment. Let me first, though, calmly and firmly correct some of the serious errors about my work, my person, and my ideas that Rajiv has (once again) propounded over the internet. I frankly hesitate to address these at all, as I think that, besides from being completely false, they have nothing to do with the psychosexual and historical matters I treat in Kali's Child: the ideas of that book, although they clearly have complex relationships to my own life (which I myself have written about at great length2), simply cannot be reduced to my ethnic identity as a white American scholar, nor to anyone else's for that matter. Ideas are ideas--they are not persons. Still, Rajiv, intentionally or unintentionally, has now advertised a number of falsehoods on the internet to thousands of readers that directly involve both my person and my reputation. Naturally, I feel some personal need to correct them.3
Put simply, I have no desire to attack Rajiv's character or question his motivations here. I simply want to correct what he has said about me. I hope my readers will put themselves in my own position and allow me the opportunity to set the record straight. It has certainly been very, very crooked for a very long time. There are, in fact, too many such errors to treat at any length here. The interested reader who wishes to pursue these matters further need only read my "Secret Talk: Sexual Identity and the Politics of the Study of Hindu Tantrism,"4 and my previous internet essay and now published response in Evam (an Indian journal which Mr. Malhotra himself helped found), where I sincerely and publicly apologized for any legitimate translation errors I have unintentionally made (all of them minor in my honest estimation) and set out in fuller fashion my perspectives and positions within a respectful and entirely professional dialogue with Swami Tyagananda and my Indian readers.5 Here allow me to address only seven quick points: textual matters, personal matters, psychoanalytic matters, Tantric and postcolonial matters, the reality of the contemporary American religious studies classroom, the centrality of dialogue in American Indology, and the dubious but quite common substitution of an identity politics for historical knowledge.Textual Matters
I regert to say that Rajiv gets just about everything wrong about my ideas and translations. If the first requirement of a serious intellectual discussion is to get the other person's ideas and perpectives correct, what the Indian philosophical tradition calls the purva-paksa, then this has never been a serious intellectual discussion. Indeed, Rajiv gets it all so wrong that I am left wondering if he has even ever read the book. I doubt very much that he has. This is a pattern I have seen again and again over the years: lots of offended feelings over a book few have actually read. As I have already pointed out, I know for a fact that very few people have ever read the book, as I know exactly what and where the sales have been, and they have been absolutely miniscule by any trade standards. For example, no more than a hundred copies have ever been sold in India. Repeatedly, then, I am put on trial in almost total ignorance of what I have written.
Have you, O reader, read the book? Then proceed with great care and grant me the humanity, decency, and simple integrity that many others have sought strenuously to deny me.
I have never, for example, argued that Ramakrishna was a "sexually abused homosexual" and/or a "child molester." Those are Mr. Malhotra's words, not mine. The careful reader will look in vain for such demeaning or judgmental terminology in Kali's Child, as Swami Tyagananda himself has admitted in print. It is certainly true that I explored the saint's mystical homoeroticism (defined as a consistent male-to-male gender structure, with a human male loving a male deity), the likelihood of sexual trauma in his life, and the homoerotic nature of his dealings with his male disciples, but all of this was advanced in a very careful, nuanced, and indigenously enriched way, all of which, moreover, was supported by some very provocative Bengali texts.
To take just one glaring example, Mr. Malhotra, drawing on Swami Tyagananda's own mistaken readings, claims that I moved from a conflation of the phrase "softly touching" with "sodomy" to Ramakrishna "uncontrollably rubbing sandal-paste on the penises of boys." The conflation, of course, is entirely Mr. Malhotra's.
Here is the "softly touching" scene as described in Kali's Child and translated not by me but by Prof. Narasingha Sil, who also, by the way, gave the scene and Ramakrishna's entire religious life a profoundly sexual, profoundly Freudian reading (a fact that Mr. Malhotra never mentions in his strange use of Prof. Sil):
Narendra and Ramakrishna are taking a nap at the home of a disciple. Narendra has his back to Ramakrishna. At some point, the saint gets up, crawls toward Narendra and "touches" him softly. Narendra wakes up and shouts in English, "Lo! the man is entering into me!" Ramakrishna laughs and replies, "You son-of-a-bitch! Do you think I don't follow your jabbering in English? You're saying that I'm entering into you!"6
Responding to Swami Tyagananda's description of my "sodomy" reading (his word, not mine), here is what I had to say about this:
[Swami Tyagananda] writes that he found such an interpretation ludicrous. Three points. (1) What, of course, Tyagananda does not tell his readers is that I never argued that this was "sodomy" (as it is not at all clear to me that sexual organs were involved and, even if they were, I would never use such a morally and negatively loaded term). (2) Tyagananda leaves out entirely Narendra's exclamatory reaction to this soft touch--"Lo, the man is entering into me!" And (3) he also leaves out Ramakrishna's strongly negative reaction to Narendra's rejection of him (he calls him a syala, a word which is far stronger than "rascal" and is in present-day Calcutta the provenance of, among other people, very angry cab-drivers). How, may I ask, are we to explain Narendra's exclamation? What could it mean to be entered from behind during a nap and to refuse this entry? And most importantly, why does Tyagananda, as in so many other places, completely leave out the very evidence that I cite as the basis for my interpretation?7
Mr. Malhotra, of course, is doing the exact same thing. And the injustice gets worse. Here, for example, is the other related text that Rajiv suggests that I made up and falsely conflated with the nap scene above. After telling his audience about how he used to perform Tantric rituals with his female Tantric guru, Ramakrishna becomes excited, turns to a disciple, and says:
In that state I couldn't help but worship the little penises [dhan] of boys with flowers and sandal-paste (Kathamrta 4.232).
Ramakrishna's observation that he "couldn't help but" do what he did implies that he recognized that there was something illegitimate or socially dangerous about the act. Swami Nikhilananda, the canonical English translator of the text, seems to agree and, obviously uncomfortable with such a ritual, omits it completely in his allegedly faithful 1942 translation (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna 814). The passage, for obvious reasons, appears nowhere in the English. Mr. Malhotra is simply following this sixty-year tradition of censorship (he too never mentions it), but there it is in the Bengali text for anyone who cares to go and read it. No one, of course, does. They would prefer to repeat ad nauseam that I made all this up, and that there is nothing to my ideas. But who really is misrepresenting whom here?
Here are a few more examples of passages that I encountered in the Kathamrta and struggled honestly with in Kali's Child:"A naked person8 used to stay around--I would play with his little penis with my hand. Then I would laugh a lot. This naked form used to come out of me. It was in the form of a paramahamsa--like a boy" (KA 4.231).
"A certain person slanders me greatly. He only says that I love boys" (KA 4.190).9
"Hajra [the saint's cousin] says, 'You see rich boys, beautiful boys, and you love [them]" (KA 4.230).
Now why does no one address these and other similar passages? And why are we not perfectly justified in reading the possibility of homoerotic dimensions here? I see nothing remotely wild or excessive or intellectually facile about such an idea. Indeed, if we are to really listen to the "certain person" or to the saint's own cousin, it seems to have been an idea both contemporary to nineteenth-century Calcutta and indigenous to Bengali culture (not to mention his own family!). The Indian historian Sumit Sarkar reports the same: "Girish Ghosh [the famous playwright and one of the saint's closest disciples] confessed that seeing Ramakrishna 'playing' with a young disciple made him recall a 'terrible canard' that he once heard about the saint."10 Just how naïve are we supposed to be?
Similar demonstrations can be made (and have been made) for vyakulata, uddipana, the decapitation/castration theme, and virtually every other criticism Mr. Malhotra advances, all of which simply follow Tyagananda's own misreadings (again, I don't think Rajiv ever read the book). I have dealt with much of this in Evam and see no need to repeat myself here again.
And it gets much worse still. Rajiv, for example, writes as if I am the only scholar to come to these conclusions, and implies that my ideas are entirely a product of some sort of sinister "Western plot" against Hinduism. That is just silly. As I have pointed out before, the Bengali translator and New Zealand scholar Malcolm McLean, the great Indian/Bengali historian Sumit Sarkar, the literary critic (and Bengali speaker) Parama Roy, the Indian pscychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, the historian (and Bengali speaker) Narasingha Sil, the historian of Bengali religion Brian Hatcher, and the literarcy critics Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai all came to erotic readings of the saint before and after me. For anyone who cares to check, McLean's, Roy's, and Hatcher's readings are virtually identical to my own, Sarkar's, Kakar's, and Vanita and Kidwai's fit beautifully (the latter two editors carefully avoid a heavily sexualized reading but assert a same-sex structure), and Sil's is actually more Freudian than mine, although we differ on important particulars.11 Why doesn't Mr. Malhotra tell any of his readers about these authors or, more importantly, their independent conclusions? Because it would immediately disprove his conspiracy theory. The truth is that there is no conspiracy, just some wonderful Bengali texts (in millions of copies now) filled with sexual imagery and Tantric truths that any trained reader not ideologically committed to the traditional Vedantic interpretation can spot a mile away, or twelve thousand.
There is really no need to believe me. Just read these other authors and, most preferably, the Bengali passages we all cite. No one, of course, ever does this. It is much easier to lazily imagine that such difficult ideas are all the products of a single crazy American rather than the perfectly reasonable conclusions of a small crowd of trained Indian and Western Indologists.Personal Matters
I also regret to say that Mr. Malhotra gets my person, motivations, and teaching profession entirely wrong. It is very strange, inconceivable really, that with all his talk of psychoanalyzing scholars of Hinduism and their supposed resistance to such an idea he does not tell his readers that a few months after he was challenging Wendy Doniger to psychoanalyze herself and her discipline at the American Academy of Religion meeting, my second-book (Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom) appeared with a long psychoanalysis of myself and my discipline (the comparative study of mysticism), and that it applied the homoerotic hermeneutic of Kali's Child (which Rajiv implies is only used on Hinduism) to mystical traditions across the board, from Catholicism and Sufism to the Hindu Tantra and Jewish mysticism. So much for double-standards! Nor does he tell his readers that I sent him an inscribed first copy of Roads in an act of hopeful dialogue and friendship (he never acknowledged receiving it), or that I took the trouble to contact him at that same AAR meeting in Nashville and asked for a meeting to begin a dialogue (he certainly never contacted me).
Rajiv totally misses that Nashville lunch conversation that I arranged as well. There he asked me to publish Swami Tyagananda's rebuttal in the next edition of Kali's Child. I told him two things: (1) there would likely not be a third edition any time in the near future, as the book had by then pretty much run its natural academic course; and (2) the press would never agree to such a thing, as such criticisms are always reserved for book reviews, journal essays, and other more appropriate venues in academic publishing. Both points, of course, are perfectly true, and both realities have absolutely nothing to do with my intentions or motivations. At no point, moreover, did I ever reject a dialogue or hem-haw about publishing Tyagananda's rebuttal. Indeed, I initiated a dialogue with Rajiv himself in Nashville and met with Swami Tyagananda when I was in Boston at Prof. Frank Clooney's encouragement. Moreover, when I was approached and asked this last spring to publish a response to the Swami's rebuttal in Evam, I wholeheartedly agreed and worked hard with the editor to produce something we were both happy with.
Finally, while we are on all these baseless ad hominem attacks, I must point out that I have never manufactured "threats." There simply have never been any, and I have always made this crystal clear to all who have assumed otherwise, including Mr. Malhotra. There have, though, been two organized ban movements in India, as I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Perhaps my readers need to know about these, as they bear directly on Mr. Malhotra's claim that American Indologists are trying to monopolize and control the flow of knowledge about India. The opposite, in fact, is often closer to the truth. What, after all, is a politicized ban if not an attempt to control the free flow of ideas? In support of my project, one insightful parliamentarian pointed out that, "Eroticism can be found in our scriptures as well" (Eroticisim amader puraneo paoa jae).12 An English-language paper reported on an exchange between two other parliamentarians, C. Narayana Reddy, who led the ban proposition but clearly did not understand the book, and the film actress Shabana Azmi, who, we are told in another national newspaper,13 stood solidly against the ban:
One of the two authors [Narasingha Sil and myself; here myself] had described the mystic's love as "erotic love." Azmi, seated next to Reddy, mumbled something, prompting Reddy to say: "Madam, I underline, erotic love." Azmi responded, asking if there was anything wrong with erotic love. Reddy concluded by insisting that Ramakrishna's love was "not just erotic love. It was all together sexual, asexual and mystical."14 Azmi asked him again what was wrong with "erotic love.". . .the entire House burst into laughter.15
Thus the political processes that sought to ban Kali's Child obtained some symbolic closure with the gracious help of an Indian film star who refused to bend to (male) pressures to ban a book about love.
Moving now on to other matters, I must also point out that Mr. Malhotra gets Prof. Doniger's influence on me wrong. He writes as if Wendy produces cookie-cutter students, and that we somehow get all our ideas from her. This again is complete nonsense. For my own part, Wendy did not produce my sexualized readings of religious language and literature: the religious life did. As I have written in great detail in Roads of Excess, I came to the University of Chicago from a Catholic seminary community, already completely convinced that sexuality, sexual orientation, and theology were inseparably intertwined. I did not need Wendy to teach me this. What she did give me was a space, a freedom, and an emotional security to develop, try out, and express my difficult ideas. I am not sure I could have done this anywhere else in the country, or the world for that matter.Psychoanalytic Matters
Rajiv also clearly does not understand psychoanalysis and its perennial and present use in the humanities. It is certainly true that psychoanalysis is out of fashion in academic departments of psychology, but there are thousands of practicing analysts in this country alone, and psychoanalysis, along with Marxism and feminism, is a perennial favorite of interpreters in the humanities, where literally thousands of books and essays are published each year using some kind of psychoanalytic category or method. Psychoanalysis, then, cannot be so easily dismissed as some dead Eurocentric method that is only applied to "foreign" others. This just isn't true. It is also untrue that Freud was against psychoanalyzing dead people, third parties, or other cultures, or that he thought psychoanalytic ideas should be restricted to professional elites. He, after all, wrote psychoanalytic essays or monographs on, among other figures and cultures, Leonardo Da Vinci, Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber (from the latter's published autobiography), medieval witchcraft, ancient Greece, and Moses! He also lectured to lay audiences, wrote for them, and pushed hard to have his ideas enter and be appropriated by the mainstream culture. Indeed, many of his most popular and successful books (Civilization and Its Discontents, Future of an Illusion, and The Interpretation of Dreams) have little, if anything, to do with analysis per se and are explicitly designed to be used by artists, writers, scholars, and social actors of all types, including, I surmise, professors of religious studies. It is astonishing really how much of his corpus is about the history of religions and not the couch. Little wonder, then, that so many intellectuals use his ideas today, not as absolute truths, but as helpful tools to think with.
Perhaps most seriously, Mr. Malhotra does not accurately portray mine (or anyone else's) use of psychoanalysis. I know of no Indologist who thinks psychoanalysis is the only way to look at Hinduism. When Doniger, Caldwell, or Courtright, for example, use psychoanalysis to look at Hindu mythology, Kerala ritual theatre, or the mythology of Ganesa (the latter book, by the way, is not a "textbook," as Mr. Malhotra claims, but a specialized monograph), they use it in the context of many other techniques and readings. So too with my use of the method. Textual analysis, historical method, Hindu iconography, and Tantric categories were as central to Kali's Child as psychoanalysis. Indeed, the book opens with a section called "Freud Only Got to the Third Cakra" that develops a version of the very cakra model that Mr. Malhotra advances in his essay.
Freud knew that the shameful and the sublime were related, that somehow sexual forces were "sublimated" into profound works of art and culture, but, committed as he was to an ontology in which libidinal energies never quite escape their strictly materialistic origins, the Viennese Master failed to explain how this process worked. As a result, his category of sublimation or "making sublime" remained undeveloped in his thought, a silent acknowledgment that something was amiss. Perhaps the Tantrika put it best when he quipped, "Freud only got to the third cakra." With an energy symbolism restricted by his materialistic, strictly physical notion of libido, how could he get any further? Kakar adds his own perspective on the problem when he notes that "much of the misunderstanding between psychoanalysis and yoga is due to different visions of reality." For psychoanalysis to declare Indian yogic experiences pathological, Kakar argues, "is to confuse a vision of reality with the reality and thus remain unaware of its relativity." We are back to the cakras and the libido and their conflicting symbolisms. Psychoanalysis may see within the penises and vaginas of Tantric symbolism a flurry of repressed libidinal energies finally taking their symbolic revenge, but Tantra in turn relativizes psychoanalysis by locating its discourse within the lowest of its energy centers. In the end, which interpretation one take depends on which world one chooses to live in and on how many cakras one accepts as real. I am assuming here that there are more, many more, than three.16
I would add only one thing here: sexuality is not restricted to the three lower cakras in this model, as has been implied. Quite the contrary, the last and highest cakra is the place of Siva and Sakti's erotic union and bliss. In standard Tantric models, it is their love-making that produces the eroticized nectar (amrta) that rains down from on high in the cranial cavity (or just above it) to flood the body with bliss and pleasure. In many texts, the practitioner actually "drinks" this immortal liquid, which is explicitly likened to, if not actually identified with, sexual fluid. That is no doubt one reason why, when Ramakrishna has a vision of his kundalini awakening, what he actually sees is himself erotically licking lotuses shaped like vaginas (yoni-rupa): "This is very secret talk! I saw a boy of twenty-three exactly like me, going up the subtle channel, erotically playing with the vagina-shaped lotuses with his tongue!" (Kathamrta 4.238). This kind of oral sexual mysticism in fact goes back to ancient Tantric Kaula practice. (Of course, the phrase "vagina-shaped" is completely omitted and the clear sexual verb [ramana kara] is bowdlerized as "commune" in Nikhilananda's English translation--all that remains of the original visionary sexual act is a tongue "communing" with lotuses.)Tantra and Postcolonialism
I chose psychoanalytic categories to write about Ramakrishna, not because I wanted to "impose" Western modes on South Asian ones, but simply because they worked so well. To take just one example, Freud argued famously that one's psychic constitution was determined largely by one's early relationships to mother and father, and that if a boy's intimate sexualized bond with the mother is not sufficiently severed by a successful identification with the father, any number of "oedipal complexes" can result that make adult sexual functioning difficult, if not impossible. Now Ramakrishna lost his father to death quite early and was famously attached to mother figures (especially goddesses) throughout his entire life. He also taught that because "every woman's vagina is mother's vagina [matri-yoni]" (not, as the bowdlerizers have it, "every woman is my mother"), sex with any woman is by definition incestuous. Heterosexuality, in other words, was a psychological impossibility for the saint. Numerous contemporaries of his, of course, thought that this was at best an inappropriate conclusion and at worst a symptom of madness (taken to its extreme, after all, it would quickly end the species). The modern interpreter cannot but help to think similar (entirely indigenous ideas), supported now by Freud's musings about early mother-son bonding. And this, no doubt, is why so many other Ramakrishna scholars before and after me have used the same oedipal categories--they work beautifully with the materials.
But I went further. Freud was helpful, but he was not enough. I wanted to put psychoanalytic ideas into dialogue with Tantric ones, as I thought then, and still think now, that Tantra and psychoanalysis share some very deep and important resonances: psychoanalysis, I have argued repeatedly, is the West's Tantra. Certainly, Indic culture and Tantra was sexualizing religious language and ritual thousands of years before Freud ever came on the scene!
Psychoanalysis has come under attack of late in some anthropological and Indological circles, mostly from theorists who want to facilely equate any Western discussion of Indian sexuality or culture with "neo-colonialism." This is the tradition Rajiv is writing out of. In this reading, psychoanalysis is little more than another version of imperial conquest in which a foreign culture "invades" India in order to tell it about its own most intimate identities and then appropriate those truths for its own nefarious ends. Now there is no doubt that psychoanalysis in India had colonial beginnings, and that it has been used for colonial ends in the past. I certainly do not want to deny such a truth; indeed, T.G. Vaidyanathan and I selected and reprinted an important essay on this very theme (Christiane Hartnack's "Vishnu on Freud's Desk") in a volume named after this single postcolonial essay. But the fact remains that, as even a glance at the partial bibliography of Vishnu on Freud's Desk will show, the psychoanalytic literature on Hinduism is simply immense, most all of it was written in a postcolonial India, and much of it was written by South Asians themselves. Hundreds of anthropologists, historians of religions, translators, and cultural critics, both in India and the West, have found Freud and his ideas to be invaluable resources for understanding Indian religious culture and have produced hundreds, if not thousands, of essays and books over the last eighty years.
Why this wild popularity and this hermeneutical success? And why now this present "colonial" charge? The answers to both of these questions, I think, is an historical (and colonial) one. Psychoanalysis, I would suggest, has been so popular and successful because it has been interacting with analogous precolonial Tantric cultural practices and religious forms: it "works" because of a deep resonance that sounds between the two cultures. A psychoanalytically informed hermeneutics is presently condemned, moreover, because its critics have naively assumed that the present neo-Vedantic models of Hinduism, all generated within the colonial spaces of reform and redefinition and most connected to (Western, not Indic) Victorian sexual sensibilities, can be read back onto precolonial texts and traditions.
Metaphysically speaking, the struggle has been over the abstract heights of a colonial or postcolonial neo-Vedantic spirituality emphasizing oneness and a monistically understood "God" and the rich Tantric eroticisms that have in fact been the source and lifeblood of so many of the actual historical Hindu traditions from at least the seventh century and probably much earlier. Ironically, then, in its phobic reaction to all Westernized talk about sex and religion, the postcolonial charge of "neo-colonialism" (which incidentally issues from an entirely Marxist Western discourse) in effect seeks to deny a precolonial or subaltern religious mode of life (Tantra) for the cleaner lines and appearances of a colonially generated, sex-less modernity (neo-Vedanta). From a historical perspective, of course, it is precisely this modern rejection of Tantric eroticism that is imbued with a colonial mentality, not the "Western" emphasis on the same! Ever been to Khajuraho or Konarak? Or read the Kama-Sutra?
Psychoanalysis becomes the whipping boy here, not because it is still the tool of imperialists and colonizers, but because its provocative gaze on human sexuality as the secret creator of culture, its focus on the dynamics of repression and sublimation, and its consistent sexualization of religious phenomena is so strangely reminiscent of the Hindu Tantra that so many want to suppress. Who, after all, really needs psychoanalysis to see the lotus as a symbolic vagina or the linga as a phallus, or to locate the secret of human spirituality in human sexuality, when Tantra had done the same, and a million times over, in Indian history? To reject psychoanalysis, then, is not to resist oppression and opt for the subaltern or the precolonial. It is to reject Tantra and, by implication, the psychoanalytic, the subaltern, and the precolonial for the righteous convictions of a modern misplaced prudery.The Reality of the American Classroom
Rajiv writes as if American Indologists are some sort of "Titans" (or worse yet, "white people," as he calls us) occulted away in the recesses of that imagined ivory tower, that we are funded by "billions" (easily the most outrageous claim of the entire essay), that we come to our conclusions out of spite and in isolation of Indians and Hindus, and that we are out to infect all good Indian students with our colonizing ideas and sexual pathologies. All of this is again is untrue in every single case of which I am aware. Let me, though, just speak about myself.
First the matter of teaching. I spent all but one of my first nine years of professional life teaching a wide variety of introductory courses to undergraduate students at a church-related liberal arts college that no one has heard of (the other year was a one-year temporary teaching stint at Harvard Divinity School, hardly "the job" Rajiv calls it). Essentially, what I did in my courses that treated Hinduism was impress upon an almost entirely Christian student population the philosophical elegance, theological subtleties, and ritual beauty of Hindu traditions. I argued almost every day in the classroom against the kind of parochial, fundamentalist exclusivism that Rajiv rightly stands against and that cripples the comparative study of religion, not to mention an open liberal society. Contrary to what Rajiv claims, comparison is not and has never been neutral, nor should it be--it privileges pluralism and cultural relativism above each and every absolute truth claim, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of my Christian students walked away from such a comparative experience with a greater appreciation for Hinduism and religious pluralism in general. Naturally, the most conservative Christian students stayed far away from me. I was that strange "Hindu Catholic" who proudly displayed Hindu deities on his desk and loved to talk about Hinduism and Buddhism. For such people, I was the enemy. Moreover, when I taught "Understanding the Bible," I taught straight historical-criticism and discussed all the things in the Bible (from homoeroticism to castration motifs) that I discussed in Kali's Child. They're all there too, after all.
It is crucial to keep in mind here that the great majority of my Christian students, exactly like the great majority of Indian students in America, are not the least bit offended by the critical study of religion or the "obscenities" of gender studies. Interestingly, some of the most appreciative and enthusiastic responses that I have ever received in the classroom come from American students of Indian descent. And why not? They see clearly that I love their traditions, and that I can offer them radically different ways of looking at them, ways that they deeply desire and need. They, after all, have been raised in a Western culture and are now trying to make some honest forthright sense of it all. Consequently, they understand and so deeply appreciate what so many of us try to do in the classroom every day, that is, think across cultures.
Which is all to say that Rajiv's vision of the American religious studies classroom is as inaccurate as every other part of his essay. In actual fact, the only things such a classroom endangers is fundamentalism, ignorance, and xenophobia.
Perhaps it is also worth pointing out here that the books Rajiv objects to are seldom, if ever, used in an introductory classroom. They are specialized monographs written for advanced study and in general will only be found in upper-level college and graduate classrooms. I, for example, have never assigned Kali's Child in an undergraduate introductory classroom, nor will I ever. It was never meant to be an introduction to anything. Professors of religious studies, in other words, are in general wise and responsible arbitrators of knowledge and know how and when to introduce specific ideas and subjects.Deep Dialogue All Along
As for my alleged lack of dialogue, one particularly instructive example, since it lies so close to Mr. Malhotra's concerns here, might be the volume I co-edited with T.G. Vaidyanathan of Bangalore, Vishnu on Freud's Desk: A Reader in Hinduism and Psychoanalysis. This volume came up multiple times at a recent American Academy of Religion panel in Denver of which Mr. Malhotra was an initimate and welcome member.
Three of the panelists, it turns out, cited my study of Sri Ramakrishna (Kali's Child) and/or my co-edited volume on the psychoanalytic study of Hinduism (Vishnu on Freud's Desk) as a model of all that is allegedly worst, or at least suspicious, in Indological scholarship, partly for what they perceived to be the works' textual inaccuracies, partly because of what I think they would call the books' failure to be dialogical. Interestingly, though, not once do I recall anyone on the panel (or in the audience for that matter) actually stating that my theses are without bases or even, more interestingly, what these theses actually are: it was as if my ideas about sexual trauma, mystical states, and homoeroticism were literally unspeakable.
What these three panelists were clearly suggesting (in quite different ways, I should add; I do not want to lump them together as a single voice, as they spoke from quite different ideological positions) is that, whatever bases such ideas (still unspoken) may or may not have, they should never be spoken by anyone, and particularly by a Western scholar such as myself. A politically correct Hindu identity politics, which is in the end barely distinguishable from a reverse racism (those "white people" again), ruled the day, exactly as it so often rules the racist responses to my work.
Identity politics or no, the taboo against speaking about sexuality simply does not exist in the academy, nor should it. In essence, then, the category of "defamation," like those of "obscenity" or "blasphemy," is academically meaningless, functioning as a means of suggesting/threatening that the academy's troublingly free flow of discourse should be controlled, if not plugged in certain, well-defined places. No one on the panel, of course, actually said this, and the issue of intellectual freedom was at least mentioned, but the overwhelming feeling that I and any number of other colleagues got from the presentations of these three panelists had nothing to do with the freedom of expression and everything to do with the suppression of difficult ideas.
I argued in Kali's Child that open discussions of Ramakrishna's sexuality were quite common from the very beginning, indeed from the very first biography in 1890, but that the later texts, particularly as they were influenced by Vivekananda and the renouncer tradition, are defined by elaborate patterns of censorship of this same secret. As a textual performance of my thesis about the censored nature of what I have called "the secret" of the Bengali texts, the Denver panel was ironically, depressingly convincing. What I had studied in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Bengali texts was being acted out again before my very eyes. The secret was being concealed. It certainly was never mentioned.
What, of course, the three panelists who addressed my work did not say--perhaps because they did not know or did not care to know--is that both Kali's Child and Vishnu on Freud's Desk were dialogical to the core. In terms of the former, I studied the Bengali texts for eight years with native Bengalis both in Chicago and in Calcutta. In Calcutta, moreover, I shared openly and enthusiastically my ideas with numerous Bengalis, who inevitably encouraged me to pursue them. Indeed, I wanted to talk about the ideas with everyone I met who would listen to me. When, however, I tried to share my ideas with an official representative of the tradition, I was gently rebuffed--it was crystal clear to me that cross-cultural dialogue had real limits, and that those limits resided with the tradition, not with me. In another example of the same pattern, one of my closest friends in Calcutta asked me specifically not to include his name anywhere in the book. Despite the fact that he loved the project and was proud to be a part of its genesis, he wanted to be anonymous precisely because he feared the reactions of his own conservative compatriots. Once again, the limits of dialogue were defined by the culture, certainly not by my own willingness to enter into dialogue. All I could do was honor those limits and keep my Bengali friend's name out of the book. I did not, then, make up this secrecy or this indigenous censorship: I experienced it again and again in Calcutta and back here in America. This is why I chose not to share the manuscript with the Ramakrishna Mission before I published it, as I explained five years ago now.17
Vishnu on Freud's Desk was even more dialogical. Begun by a high-caste Brahmin in Bangalore (T.G. Vaidyanathan), the project was introduced to me after a Sinhalense Buddhologist (Gananath Obeyesekere) encouraged Vaidyanathan to read Kali's Child. He did, he loved the book, and so he enthusiastically contacted me with an invitation to submit an essay. When I obliged, Vaidyanathan then asked me to co-edit the volume with him, as he was having trouble finishing it and felt some help on the Western end of things might provide the necessary final catalyst. The volume as a whole was specifically conceived as a means to trace the history of psychoanalytic discourse on Hinduism and to demonstrate how this discourse, from the very beginning, was constantly being negotiated and renegotiated by Western and South Asian writers in dialogue and debate. The book, moreover, was dedicated to Girindrasekhar Bose, the father of psychoanalysis in India, who sent Freud a statue of Vishnu on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, a photo of which we included as a frontispiece. We began the book with Bose and naturally included South Asian as well as Western writers. Significantly for our present purposes, the book was produced and published by an Indian press (Oxford, New Delhi) in India entirely by Indians. All the Hindus I worked with on the book were gracious, enthusiastic, and deeply supportive of both the project and my own work. At one point, for example, I recall one of my editors (who happened to be a Bengali) taking Kali's Child home with her, enthusiastically sharing it with her father and extended family, and enjoying numerous lively conversations around the dinner table about its content. When, however, Vishnu on Freud's Desk was going into production in the spring of 1997 and the first movement to ban Kali's Child was announced on the front pages of Indian national newspapers, I withdrew my contributed essay on Ramakrishna and offered to step down as co-editor. In a spirit they had already shown many times, both my editors in New Delhi and Vaidyanathan in Bangalore insisted that I stay on and went out of their way to offer me considerable emotional and professional support. Indeed, Vaidyanathan went so far as to write an impassioned defense of Kali's Child in The Hindu, complete with a color reproduction of the book's cover. I did not ask him to do this. He wanted to do it.
And then, finally, there was my final contribution, an Afterword on "Thinking Through Each Other," a brief essay whose central thesis was all about dialogue and what Laurie Patton has called "transformative readings" across cultures, perhaps captured best in the Afterword's opening epigram from the anthropologist Richard Shweder:
In the world of cultural psychology transcendence and self-transformation are possible but only through a dialectical process of moving from one intentional world into the next, or by changing one intentional world into another . . . . "Thinking through others" is, in its totality, an act of criticism and liberation, as well as of discovery.15
A volume on the historical transformations of psychoanalysis in the mirror of Hinduism initiated by a high-caste Brahmin containing numerous South Asian authors and published by one of India's finest presses, a press, I might add, with the richest list in psychoanalytic studies of Hinduism anywhere in the world--if this is not cross-cultural Indology at its most dialogical, then what is?
My critics know perfectly well that they cannot come out and say that they consider homosexuality to be illegitimate (or non-existent) in India, that they do not care about (or believe in) sexual trauma and its effects on the human psyche, or that they are fundamentally against the free flow of difficult ideas about sexuality in the academy. They thus avoid altogether all of these things and question instead my status as a scholar in the academy by criticizing my abilities as a translator/interpreter and my willingness to dialogue with the tradition, linguistic expertise and anthropological sensitivity being two major values of the academy. In essence, they seek to deny me the only authority I clearly have or wish to have, that which derives from my academic training.
But why all this energy spent on a writer whose ideas are so clearly wrong? Why not let the work speak for itself and stand (or fall) on its own? If the work is so shallow and bad and misguided, why worry about it? As Shakespeare might say, "Thou dost protest too much." The truth of the matter is that the controversies surrounding Kali's Child and, to a much lesser extent, Vishnu on Freud's Desk, have little or nothing to do with the academic virtues of dialogue and mutual transformation (or the intricacies of hermeneutical practice and translation). Rather, they have everything to do with the results or products of this dialogue, that is, the ideas or content of the two books.
The problem, of course, is sex. It always is. And that is precisely why it now lies at the very center of the humanities. My work or Doniger's or Caldwell's, then, is not some aberrant horror to be fended off by the pious and brave. All of our books lie entirely in the norm and center of the humanities all across American higher education, and such books are much more common in biblical studies or the history of Christianity than they are in Indology. You can read the same sorts of works about Jesus, sex and all, in New Testament Studies (the illegitimacy, homoerotic, and symbolic cannibalism theses, by the way, go back to the early second century!), about Roman Catholicism, about the Bible (contrary to what Rajiv has suggested, there are hundreds of psychoanalytically informed studies of biblical texts18), about Islam, about Buddhism, or about anything else you wish to. There is no lop-sided or double-sided norm at work anywhere here, nor is there some sort of colonial conspiracy to use a dead Western method on foreign cultures. Many of us are interested in sex, many of us use psychoanalytic ideas, and we work on all sorts of traditions, Hinduism being only one of them (and in truth, a rather uncommon one). There are in fact immeasurably more psychoanalytically or feminist inclined books being published today on Christian eroticism and sexuality than Hindu eroticism and sexuality. Moreover--and this is just as important--the number of books dedicated to the study of Indian sexuality are even smaller when properly located in the context of American academic publishing, which is huge. I would estimate (very, very roughly) that about a hundred books are published each year about India and or Hinduism in America. Very, very few of these treat sexuality in any explicit way. Rajiv, then, has simply plucked from a very large pile (and a fifteen year time-span!) the few books that do and falsely presented them as representative of all of American Indology. This, once again, could not be further from the truth.
On yet another important point, a few of the Denver panelists and certainly Mr. Malhotra sometimes operate from the assumption that Indology should only be about accurate "representation," by which they mean how a work of scholarship might or might not be received by a few very conservatively defined modern Hindu positions, that is, by them. Now whereas this might be one quite appropriate component of an introductory college course on (modern) Hinduism, it clearly violates the heart and soul of academic Indology, which employs any number of hermeneutics of suspicion to go well beyond what most Hindus would say or think about Hinduism. To try to stop or control this in any way is like insisting that the researches and writings of biblical scholars, much of which involves sex (ever read Genesis?), be vetted with the Southern Baptist Convention! That, obviously, would spell the end of critical religious studies, which is precisely what at least some no doubt want. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of scholars "represent" or "define" Hinduism no more or less than a political scientist represents or defines a political party or cultural movement that she happens to be studying and thinking about. And that is the way it should be.Truth as Identity
I believe that there is a general epistemological and political principle behind Rajiv's thought that might be phrased as follows: "Truth is determined first and foremost, not by the plausible or falsifiable content of a statement, but by who is uttering it." Historical or textual truth, in other words, is ultimately reducible to personal identity, in this case, a modern postcolonial Hindu identity ethnically conceived. This is why, I gather, he spends so much energy attacking my work but none on any number of scholars of Indian descent who have said more or less the same thing. This is also, I would guess, why he insists on reading a historical thesis in a specialized monograph about a man who has been dead for almost 130 years now as an act that degrades and shames present American minorities. This is also why he presents an obvious literal truth (the Bhagavad Gita and Mahabharata depict, among many other profound truths, a devastatingly destructive war) as some sort of plot by Western Indologists. It's as if he wants to turn everything into an issue of identity politics: modern Hindus don't read the Gita that way (which modern Hindus? Godse, Gandhi's assassin, certainly did), therefore it must be wrong. I am reminded immediately of the millions of evangelical Christians who are deeply offended by both evolutionary theory and modern biblical criticism (I've had many of them in the classroom). So should we stop teaching these as well? When did "offense" or the voting booth become an appropriate measure of truth?
And when a scholar of Indian descent (of which there are many) expresses deep offense at such preposterous ideas, Rajiv simply codes the scholar in question as someone who has caved in to those "white people." He, in other words, explicitly denies them their own cultural identity and self-understanding as modern Hindus or Indians, even as he sets himself up as the sole arbitrator of "Hinduism" and Hindu identity. This, of course, is exactly what he accuses American Indologists of doing. With all due respect, this epistemology and identity politics should be named for what they in fact are: forms of racism.
In terms of my own work again, Ramakrishna's sexual orientation does not depend upon my skin color, but that is exactly what is assumed in the present debate: I am white and not an Indian, many ultra-conservative Hindus believe otherwise, therefore I must be wrong about the saint's erotic mysticism and its sexual-spiritual orientations. Never mind that hundreds of Hindus have derived great pleasure, even inspiration, from my work and have said this to me over the course of the last fourteen years. That means nothing, because they're obviously not "real Hindus." Historical plausibility has disappeared completely into a minutely controlled and monitored ethnic identity and its communalist politics.An Ending and a Beginning
Much of my work on the Ramakrishna tradition is about censorship. This is not a "theory" or a speculative guess. It's a demonstrable historical fact. Texts were censored. Texts were purposely not translated. And they often involved sex. I gave a few dramatic examples above, but there are in fact dozens, even hundreds, of both explicit and implicit examples of this same censorship in the texts, many of which I explore in Kali's Child. That, after all, is how the book began: by simply noticing what the tradition refused to translate. My writing, in other words, began with the tradition's refusal to do the same, even as the same remarkable tradition, paradoxically, preserved the Bengali texts that encoded the original "unspeakable" secrets.
I worry a lot about censorship in our own day and culture. Two ban movements, Hindutva politics, and a hundred postings from Rajiv Malhotra later, I know that censorship and religiously motivated control are always present possibilities and that verbal harassment is the everyday lot of many academics, from New Testament and Islamic Studies to Indology and the study of Sikhism. The only thing truly endangered in all of this is our civil liberties, certainly not the welfare of American Hinduism. American Hindus and their bright talented children, I trust, can more than take care of the latter.
I will not say that I am always right. I am not. I will not say that Rajiv is always wrong. He is not. But I will say that in a post 9-11 America anything that intimidates or harasses or attempts to censor the open expression of ideas (however "offensive" they may be) is a very bad idea and should be openly challenged, that anything that encourages such expression is good and should be actively encouraged and rewarded, and that--most importantly--what we need more than anything else today is an open, critical analysis of religion in our modern world. The truth of the matter is that religion is killing us and, in many cases, our natural world. Unless we can approach religion in all its forms critically and confront its darker sides, we are in real and serious danger of losing many of the civil liberties for which we have worked so hard, not to mention a sustainable planet on which to live. Religious studies can provide some necessary edge to this critical vision, but only if we passionately and firmly defend it from the kinds of gross misrepresentations and misunderstandings that Mr. Malhotra has come to represent for so many of us working in American Indology today.
Rajiv is not a bad man. He is a very good man, and I can only assume that his intentions in all that he does and writes are entirely good. But the road to hell, as we playfully but seriously say, is paved with good intentions, and whatever his intentions or the imagined direction of their road, the fact remains that Rajiv is seriously misinformed about what he is writing about. If I have sounded too harsh in my words uttered above, I apologize to both my readers and to Mr. Malhotra. It is only to set the record about me straight. Others, both in India and America, have graciously done this for me in the past, and many times. But Rajiv and others continue, for whatever reasons, to propound and advertise over the internet a whole series of falsehoods, half-truths, and exaggerations about both me and my work. I have been silent long enough. It is now my turn to speak. I thank Sulekha for giving me this voice.
In closing, I would like to point out that TGV (T.G. Vaidyanathan) died this last spring. We corresponded many times over the years and again just before he died. We laughed. We exchanged gifts. We argued. We apologized. We cried. Shortly after his death, one of his closest students confessed to me that TGV always considered me to be a kind of son to him. He certainly felt like a father to me. When I think of Rajiv, I cannot help but also thinking of TGV, of his mischievous humor, of his wonderful Indian sophistication, and of his deep appreciation for Western thought and love of Freud. And I wonder why my relationship to Rajiv Malhotra has played out so very differently.
Still, there is always hope. Rajiv, quoting my own words, ended there: with hope. I will too. I at least am ready to laugh again, to exchange gifts, to argue, to apologize, to weep. I always have been.
1I have met Mr. Malhotra and will often address
him on a first name basis in what follows with the hope that this will
personalize, in a positive and honest fashion, what I have to say.