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

Kali’s Child, the first page of the first edition, 1995

I read with a mixture of embarrassment, sadness, and hope Swami Tyagananda’s Kali’s Child Revisited. I will pretend no full response here. That can only come with a third edition of the book, for which there are no immediate plans. Until such an opportunity arises, however, I can say that I am eager to resolve these issues in a friendly and open-hearted spirit that can be as faithful as possible both to academic standards of free inquiry and intellectual honesty and to the felt needs of significant segments of the Hindu community, whose religious sensibilities I am all too painfully aware I have offended. As the opening epigram to this response, which also functioned as the very first page of the book, makes perfectly clear, this was never my intention, and so I am happy to explain myself and my work here in an attempt to clear things up. Having said that, I do not honestly believe that the many important differences that have become apparent through this controversy can be fully resolved here or in any other format, as many of us are clearly operating out of radically different worldviews, moral values, and understandings of human sexuality and language. But I do believe that the representative voices in this debate can at least come to understand each other better and so come to an agreement to disagree about these important matters. For this opportunity, I am deeply grateful to the editorial board of Evam and would like to thank them for giving me such an honored place in their first issue.

Briefly put, I understand Swami Tyagananda’s argument to be this: that I came to my conclusions through a “willful distortion and manipulation of sources” and couched them in a “derisive, nonscholarly tone.” He acknowledges the freedom of expression and opinion but rejects “the freedom to distort the text and the freedom to engage in the purposefully deceitful use of citations.” The argument, then, is one that wants to claim that my conclusions can and should be reduced to my character, which he purports to know and consequently judge as sinister or ill-motivated. Essentially, it is what we call an ad hominem argument, that is, an argument that attempts to reduce a conclusion to the character or person of the one making it. He then adds to this a second, more substantial criticism: that my knowledge of Bengali and the texts is strictly of a dictionary, mechanical type, and that my translations are thus hopelessly flawed and should not be trusted.

Both of these arguments are mistaken, based as they are on an unfamiliarity with my person and the contemporary practice of hermeneutics, that is, the interpretation of texts as it is practiced today within the humanities. Still, these issues seem to have become public ones now, and so I need to address them as clearly and as patiently as I can. I will do so through two movements: (1) a series of points briefly listed; and (2) a few translation examples followed by a more technical discussion of some of the hermeneutical principles historians of religion routinely employ in interpreting religious texts like the Kathamrta.

1. Quick Points

I have done little else over the last seven years other than think deeply about and respectfully respond to my critics. I have also been responding all along to any legitimate corrections, all of which I have immediately apologized for and happily incorporated into the second edition and working manuscript of the book. Thus the second edition included a public apology for a few translation errors and incorporated all the legitimate corrections of Swami Atmajnananda’s earlier criticisms.1 Any future editions will certainly and happily do the same in response to those of Swami Tyagananda. This is how public scholarship works—it is always self-critical, never finished, always gratefully responding to legitimate criticism.

  • I have recently published a second book that takes the homoerotic hermeneutic of Kali’s Child and applies it comparatively, not simply to other mystical traditions (Catholic bridal mysticism, Sufism, Hindu Tantra, Jewish Kabbalah), but also to the personal lives of contemporary scholars of mysticism, including and especially my own.2 In the process, I relate openly how I came to Ramakrishna and my ideas, how the latter are rooted in (but not determined by) my own psychosexual struggles, and why I think we can effectively use our own humanities to understand those of others. My heart and mind, then, are open books, quite literally, to anyone who cares to take the time to read them deeply and carefully enough. I offer them both again here.
  • Many of the errors Tyagananda points out are not errors at all but differences of opinion regarding the interpretation of texts, which, like all texts, can always be interpreted in any number of legitimate and mutually enlightening ways. Moreover, many of the “translations” he criticizes are not in fact translations at all but interpretive glosses on particular passages that were never presented as translations (the “play in Vrindavana” material is a good example of this).
  • I will be happy to make any appropriate corrections in any future printings of the book, accompanied by an acknowledgment of Swamiji’s document and a sincere apology for them. In the meantime, let me say here in this public forum once again that I deeply regret making them, and that I am frankly embarrassed by their presence in the book. I am thus as eager as anyone to see them removed. I was particularly embarrassed by my “age errors” (confusing adult actors for boys). Swami Tyagananda is perfectly justified in reading these as functions of my developed thesis, which I overextended in these places. I am very sorry.
  • I was, however, aware of none of the genuine errors that Swamiji pointed out, which is to say that they were all honest mistakes, predictable products of a nearly 400 page work based on a 2000+ page textual corpus involving the reading and analysis of thousands of sentences and hundreds of references. There was absolutely no “purposeful deceit” anywhere here. I have never written a single sentence that I thought was deceptive or untrue, nor will I ever do so.
  • All of the legitimate errors can be easily corrected without altering the substance or conclusions of the book, as they all, even taken together, amount to very little before the hundreds upon hundreds of passages I reference, interpret, translate and use to demonstrate my theses. The sense I had over and over again reading through Swamiji’s document was something like this: “Well, yes, that is a fair and valuable correction, but what of the ‘big picture’ will really change when I make this correction?” Repeatedly, I had to answer, “Very little” or “Nothing.” It was as if Tyagananda was focusing on some admittedly twisted trees and broken branches and missing entirely the larger forest in which they were located and grew so freely. Moreover, he was very careful to focus his readers’ attention only on what he perceived to be the broken branches. He studiously avoided the rest of the forest and its fertile growth, since such a broader vision would require a very different conclusion about the meaning of the twists and breaks. What makes the present case stand out is not the errors themselves but the fact that they would have gone undetected in any other work that did not have the (mis)fortune of attracting so much attention.
  • This same attention, moreover, is itself theoretically important. Put simply, it is virtually without precedent for a work of scholarship to attract this kind of scrutiny and merit such a systematically distributed, 120 page rebuttal. This may witness, in some no doubt unintended way, to the work’s potential importance and power to change the way we look at these texts. This, I think, also explains much of the fear, anger and misunderstanding that have greeted my book. Perhaps some sense a possible sea-change in our understanding. Those heavily invested in the former models are naturally the most upset. I understand this and sympathize with their positions—a serious challenge to any long-held worldview or idea, particularly a religious one, is always painful. But when was it ever any different in the Academy? And why should these particular texts be immune to the same kinds of inquiries and questions that have been addressed to virtually every other text for over the last 150 years now? Is not this simply a sign that Ramakrishna Studies have finally begun to mature and enter the discourses of the modern study of religion? One only has to look at historical-critical studies of Jesus to see how utterly predictable this present controversy is and how inevitable are the paradigm-shifts that Ramakrishna Studies are undergoing now. Do my readers think that the “historical Jesus” of the Jesus Seminar (a collective of contemporary scholars interested in uncovering the historical outlines of Jesus as opposed to the statements of faith that have informed our views on him) bears any comfortable resemblance to the “Christ of faith” of a conservative evangelical church? Of course not. Whereas millions of pious and decent Christians, for example, understand Jesus to have been born from a Virgin, to have preached “family values,” and to have been literally raised from the dead, the typical biblical critic reads the infancy and resurrection narratives as theology in the guise of mythology (or visionary experience), understands Jesus’ apocalyptic message to be radically against the patriarchal family (thus the teachings about hating one’s father and mother and splitting up families), and notes that he in fact counseled his closest disciples to become “eunuchs” (that is, castrated males) for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I do not want to argue these particular issues, merely point them out to make the simple observation that the “rhetoric of offense” my critics routinely invoke to dismiss my work (the book has offended many, therefore it must be wrong) carries no logical force. Certainly, the fact that Kali’s Child has offended many Hindus3 is very important, and I deeply regret this, but this fact tells us absolutely nothing about the historical Ramakrishna, just as the offended responses of innumerable pious Christians to the historical Jesus project tell us absolutely nothing about the historical Jesus.4 Historical scholarship on any religious figure or tradition is not bound to the parameters or rules of religious faith, nor should it ever be.5 This is precisely what makes it scholarship and not religion. Put differently, advanced historical-critical scholarship is not about “representation,” that is, representing the views of the believer; it is about uncovering previously unacknowledged patterns and meanings in texts with social-scientific and literary methods, few of which the normal believer can ever accept.
  • A few words about the “tone” or “style” of my own work—I have always recognized that my work is potentially offensive to some kinds of readers (hence, again, I addressed this issue directly and immediately on the very first page of the first edition [see the opening epigram]). But I also knew that this perceived offense is a function, first and foremost, of the texts themselves and their Tantric spirit, that is, their consistent attempt to break what Ramakrishna called the “bonds of shame, disgust and fear,” to transgress the purity codes of Brahmanical Hinduism, and to engage in mystical practices with the body and its fluids that are intentionally offensive and transgressive, “offense” or “transgression” here functioning as the emotional components of a kind of mystical technique. I tried my very best to capture this transgressively Tantric spirit in the rhetoric, content and style of my own writing—it was at once an artistic and a hermeneutical effort to re-create the energy of the texts I had come to know and love with the inspiration of both indigenous discourses and practices (like Sakta Tantra and the iconography of Kali) and western critical theory (like psychoanalysis and feminist literary theory). In my own mind, the work, in both its conception and performance, was and still is a thing of intellectual beauty and religious power (sakti), if also, I admit, of Tantric vertigo. With Georges Bataille, I could say, “I write for the one who, entering into my book, would fall into it as into a hole, who would never again get out.”6 I fully realize that such a reading experience can be terrifying, and that some readers, rather than deal creatively and positively with this fear, have sought to turn this vertiginous beauty into a thing of ugliness, condemnation and willed deception. But such negative readings on the part of these readers reflect their perspectives and values, certainly not mine. For me, both the book and its subject are realities of deep religious power and intellectual beauty. Put simply, I have never intended any genuine offense, although I have always recognized that the materials I was working with are, by their very nature, “offensive.”
  • I also, it seems, was too open about what I thought for some people’s sensibilities. Here, I think, we enter real cultural differences concerning the practice of revealing and concealing secrets. Things that we in American culture talk openly and incessantly about (that is, sexuality) are often much more private matters in India. Such cultural differences have no doubt contributed more than a little to the misunderstanding here. It is, after all, not shameful at all to speak of sexuality, religion, and gender in the same breath in the American Academy; indeed, this is the very stuff of at least certain disciplines within the Academy. But what seems natural, positive, and fascinating to an American academic may very likely appear entirely inappropriate to a South Asian Hindu. I understand this. But please note that there is no ill-intent here at all—only real cultural differences about what can and cannot be said in public.
  • Swami Tyagananda, I think, has misunderstood what I mean by “the secret.” I know perfectly well that the “secret talk” is not technically secret—that is, after all, part of the translated oxymoron, “secret talk.” My point was two-fold: (1) that some of these passages really are “secret” in the English translation, since they do not occur there or occur only in bowdlerized forms (and this is an easily demonstrable fact); and (2) that the meaning or “force” of these secret talk passages (that is, that they symbolically witness to the homoerotic dimensions of Ramakrishna’s mystical life and teachings) is definitely still “secret” within the tradition. In other words, the texts themselves are not secret, but their interpreted meanings certainly are.
  • It is never a matter of how many pages the censored passages take up but how significant these few pages or passages are for one’s questions. One can talk to a person for hours, even days and hear very little of deep significance. But as soon as he or she bends over to whisper something as a secret, one knows immediately that this is something especially important, and that its meanings far outweigh its deceptive briefness. Not number or length, then, but significance—the whisper.
  • The essential “problem” of my work, I think, issues out of its privileging of the texts over the later tradition. One of my most basic working assumptions is that, as historians interested in recovering a more probable and richer picture of the past, we must privilege the texts as early repositories of human impression and memory over the later tradition and its understandable but nevertheless primarily institutional goals. I am a textualist (it is true that I do not speak the language) and a historian of religions. I approach the Bengali Kathamrta as a biblical critic might approach the Greek New Testament: as a textual world to get lost in, to love, to interpret, and to be interpreted by. I have never pretended to be anything else. I am not an anthropologist. I am thus not particularly interested in how contemporary devotees see or understand Ramakrishna (although I have spoken to many at great length over the years), as I know, from my early biblical studies and my constant classroom experience teaching such classes as “Understanding the Bible,” that the beliefs and self-understandings of later faith communities, however legitimate and beautiful they may be in themselves, are of little help in reconstructing the past and in fact often work directly against such endeavors. Put baldly, the last kind of person in the world I would go to learn about the historical Jesus is a biblical literalist or conservative Christian—his or her entire worldview works against that project and denies its very raison d’etre. Unless we want to surrender our call as scholars to hold up critical thinking, historical consciousness, and the free expression of ideas as our central values, I see no way around this dilemma.
  • Whereas numerous reviewers and readers (with Hindus among them) have read the book as a celebration of the saint’s mysticism or as a warm-hearted meditation on his life and teachings, Tyagananda can only read it as an ill-intentioned condemnation of Ramakrishna. This, I must suggest, is projection, for nowhere have I ever suggested that a homoerotic reading of Ramakrishna is a negative reading. As I pointed out in “Pale Plausibilities” (the preface to the second edition), homosexuality carries absolutely no negative moral connotations for me. Quite the contrary, I am of the conviction that the history of male erotic mysticism is predominantly homoerotic, especially in the West.
  • By “homoerotic,” I refer to the structure or direction of the saint’s desire, always towards males (deities or male disciples), not to a stable, conscious homosexual identity, as in our contemporary “gay.” Accordingly, pace my non-reading critics, I never use the nouns “a gay” or “a homosexual” to describe Ramakrishna.
  • Nor have I ever argued something as simplistic as that Ramakrishna “sexually abused children” or that he was a “pederast.”7 Again, these are other people’s words, certainly not mine. I do explore scenes that can be read as possessing potentially abusive dimensions (for example, the secret talk passages about wanting to kiss and embrace the boy Purna [KA 4.271] or about not being able to stop himself from worshiping the penises of boys [KA 4.232]), and I do think we need to struggle together with the ethical implications of such passages (What does it mean that Ramakrishna compulsively worshiped the penises [dhan] of boys? Why was the passage completely removed in the English? Why does Tyagananda avoid its interpretation? And, perhaps more to the point, why am I being accused for “making up” such things when the passage is there for all to read?). But I never make the kind of clear, condemnatory conclusion which people keep attributing to me, nor do I discuss a single passage in which Ramakrishna makes active genital contact with a child, or anyone else for that matter.8 I do not believe we have any evidence for that, and I would, in fact, be very surprised if any ever emerges.
  • What I have clearly argued is that Ramakrishna himself was very likely sexually traumatized by any number of actors who had power over him, particularly Mathur. This is especially evident in the multiple “test scenes” the texts record, in which the saint is taken to a brothel or Tantric sect, usually by Mathur, as a test or cure (from his refusal to engage in heterosexual acts). The usual scenario involves Ramakrishna surrounded by prostitutes, who sometimes ridicule him, or cruelly strip him of his clothes, or rub their bodies on his until he goes into a trance state. Such scenes (and there are many of them) witness unmistakably to what we in the West would call “sexual abuse,” and they had the precise effect that psychologists have long pointed out: a dissociative trance state of consciousness, that is, a splitting of consciousness to deal with the intolerable and essentially abusive situation. Why am I wrong for pointing out that at least some of the saint’s trance-states share all the characteristics of what we in the West call dissociation and link to sexual abuse? Who wouldn’t call “sexually abusive” a situation in which you were taken to a brothel, stripped of your clothes, and sexually manipulated against your will? My use of the category of “sexual abuse,” then, is a perfectly fair and defensible observation, not a mean-spirited criticism. Quite the opposite, I advanced this sexual abuse thesis in a spirit of compassion and identification with the saint, not as a negative criticism, for I am convinced that only by taking his sexual suffering seriously and as real (instead of denying it altogether) can we grant him the full force and meaning of his remarkable religious states.
  • At some point, my critics will have to explain why, if I am wrong, other scholars, both Western and Bengali, have come, if often in out of the way places and hard to get documents, to virtually identical conclusions or to analogous, powerfully sexualized readings. Malcolm McLean, for example, translated the entire Kathamrita and concluded, among other things, that Ramakrishna’s homosexuality was central to understanding his relationships with his male disciples:
His homosexuality also influenced his religious experience. This can be seen in his attitude to women . . . and in his relations with his male disciples. He was constantly caressing them, especially a few of his favourites like Naren, Rakhal and Purna, and frequently speaks of his love for them. . . . (Mani’s role in this is strange. Ramakrishna was extremely upset to learn on their first meeting that Mani was married and had children . . . , and later [Mani] seems to have used his position as a teacher of young boys to act almost as a procurer for Ramakrishna . . . . [Ramakrishna’s] homosexuality was accommodated in the devotion of his (young male) devotees and his love for them, through his ability to use Vaisnava devotional attitudes and assume a female persona in his “maternal” love for Rakhal, loving him as Yasoda did the infant Krishna . . . . It was also accommodated through his devotion to the Mother with its corollary that all women were to be regarded as manifestations of the Mother and so treated as earthly mothers, that is in a completely non-sexual way . . . . 9

I am certain the first response to this will be that McLean is not a Bengali himself and thus misunderstood the text or distorted it with his Western assumptions (that is, Tyagananda’s response to my work). What, then, to do with the work of Sumit Sarkar, one of India’s finest historians, perhaps the greatest historical essayist on Ramakrishna ever to appear, and, most importantly for our present purposes (if we must play identity politics), a native speaker of Bengali. Sarkar, in his “The Kathamrta as a Text,” 10 suggests the possible presence of homosexuality and androgyny in the texts and is crystal clear about the saint’s well-documented and endlessly discussed misogyny.11 Consider, for example, Sarkar’s discussion of Ramakrishna’s strikingly different attitudes towards women and his male disciples:

Ramakrishna’s attitudes in this respect [toward women] appear entirely conventional, typical of the average middle-class (or, for that matter, peasant) man who took male domination entirely for granted, but who in the late 19th century possibly had started feeling somewhat threatened by the new talk about social reform aimed at elevating the status of women. However his fear of kamini had a personal dimension as well. We have already mentioned the note of acute physical revulsion Ramakrishna often betrayed about heterosexual intercourse, his obsessive tendency to equate the act of love with defecation. He did use the standard biryapat argument on one occasion, but the repugnance obviously had deeper, more personal, roots. It was accompanied, perhaps significantly, by an openness about male physical contacts. Ramakrishna in the Kathamrita or other accounts seems to be constantly touching his younger disciples, and often going into samadhi while doing so. Sibnath Shastri, to whom Ramakrishna had whispered that marital intercourse for him was “no longer possible,” was “all dead and gone,” tells us that the saint once put his hand around his waist, danced, and went into samadhi, while accompanying him on a carriage, explaining that “I am a woman for the time being; I am traveling with my lover.” Girish Ghosh confessed that seeing Ramakrishna “playing” with a young disciple made him recall a “terrible canard” that he once heard about the saint.12

More recently, Parama Roy has used postcolonial and queer theory to write about Ramakrishna's erotic feminine identification, his simultaneous worship and fear of women, his rejection of sexuality as a rejection of (hetero)sexuality, his erotically charged relationship to the young Narendra, and Vivekananda's subsequent transformation of Ramakrishna's mysticism into a hyper-masculine heterosexual nationalism. All of these patterns fit seamlessly into the homoerotic hermeneutic of Kali's Child, and this despite the fact that Roy (a Bengali speaker herself, I presume) states that she arrived at her conclusions independently of my work.13 Even more recently, Brian Hatcher 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.14 Moreover, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai recently included a chapter on Ramakrishna in their pioneering queer reader, Same-Sex Love in India.15 And then, of course, there is Sudhir Kakar’s latest novel Ecstasy, a fictionalized account of the lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda in which the author adopts both my homoerotic and sexual trauma theses for his own creative purposes.16 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 his presence,17 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 product 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 moral debates about gender, homosexuality, and religion.

2. Sexuality and Textuality: The Practice of Hermeneutics

The issue, then, is not translation but the art of interpretation, or what we call hermeneutics. Basically, I understand the relationship between sexuality and textuality very differently than Tyagananda. I believe that when a text uses sexual language, it often, if not always, reflects real physiological and psychological analogues. Tyagananda, on the other hand, seems to think that language can work only on one level, that “enkindling” or “reminding” can only imply “enkindling” or “reminding,” and that when a term is in fact sexualized, it can only be as a safe metaphor or traditional trope devoid of any “real” sexuality, hence his comment on the mystical use of sexual language in Hindu and Christian sources that this use “has nothing to do with sexuality per se.”18

But the fact is that most cultures have all sorts of ways about talking about sexuality without talking about it explicitly. American English, for example, is chock-full of expressions that are not literally sexual but remain sexual nonetheless. To take just one example, when an American man calls a woman “hot,” is he referring to her body temperature? This would be a rather silly reading, wouldn’t it? And yet, lexically speaking, there is nothing sexual at all about the word “hot.” It only becomes so when it is used in a particular context. So too with the biblical use of the Hebrew verb “to know” as “to have sex with” (“Adam knew Eve,” and both were cast out of the Garden for their “knowledge” that produced immediate sexual shame, a “fall” that early Christian interpreters often read as sexual), the well-known biblical use of “the feet” as a euphemism for the male genitals, the Tantric bee sitting on the lotus without sipping the honey, the frog dancing in the snake’s mouth in Tantric symbolism, the Baul Four Moons, etc. Do religious texts ever talk about sexuality directly?

So too with uddipana. If you look it up in a dictionary or ask a native speaker, you will not find it to mean “arousal,” but when Ramakrishna glosses the same term by comparing its emotional tones to the pleasure a man feels when he looks at a young woman, then it immediately takes on a sexual tone.19 This is not mistranslation. It is good translation, and it certainly goes way beyond the mechanical dictionary knowledge that Tyagananda attributes to me. Besides, in his longer reply, Tyagananda himself actually quotes Nikhilananda choosing the exact same English expression to translate the exact same Bengali word: “At the sight of him my spiritual mood is aroused” (p. 55). Obviously, it is not as inappropriate a translation as Tyagananda would like us to believe.

For another example of this same interpretive method of using the text to interpret the text (a process what literary critics call intertexuality), consider Tyagananda’s denial of my sexual reading of the tribhanga scene. In one scene, Ramakrishna relates how he saw an English boy leaning up against a tree in a park; the boy's pose reminded him of the traditional tribhanga ("thrice-bent") image of the god Krsna, whose cocked hips and graceful bends are said to be sexually arousing to his female lovers. Stung by the erotic pose of the boy, the saint fell into the mystical state of samadhi (KA 2.49; 2.110). At least two reviewers before Tyagananda (who now makes three) have taken me to task for reading sexual meanings into this scene. But have I? The boy's posture, we are told, reminded the saint of the god Krsna. Fair enough. We have a type of mystical experience (samadhi) induced by a vision of a god (Krsna). Such are the diurnal, "revealed" dimensions of the scene. But what about the nocturnal, "concealed" aspects of the scene? What happens when we contextualize this single scene in the larger patterns of Ramakrishna's religious life and the details of Vaisnava symbolism? Is it not significant, for example, that the saint often took on the mood and mannerisms of Radha, the blue god's lover, to engage Krsna in ecstatic trances that are identified in textually identical terms, that is, as samadhi? To fall into samadhi looking at an English Krsna-boy, then, implies that Ramakrishna is experiencing himself as Radha, and this changes things considerably, for Radha and Krsna's relationship is nothing if not erotic (recall Ramakrishna’s clear statement that the gopis’ love of Krsna was a parakiya rati, that is, a married woman’s sexual desire for another man [KA 4.161]). Along these same lines, it is also important to point out that the text explicitly identifies Krsna's posture as tribhanga, that is, as "thrice-bent," a cocked-hip pose that is traditionally seen as explicitly seductive in Vaisnava poetry (despite protestations to the contrary, this is precisely what we mean in English by “cocked hips”). Clearly, this was Ramakrishna's understanding of the tribhanga posture as well, for in another passage in the same text he explains the well-known erotic meaning of the pose: "Do you know why Krsna is thrice-bent? For love [prema] of Radha" (KA 5.196). It does not take too much audacity to see the implications of such a verse for understanding what was going on in Ramakrishna's soul when he went into ecstasy gazing at a thrice-bent English boy--he perceived the boy's cocked hips as bent "for love of Radha," that is, for him. Such a conclusion is only supported by other Radha-Krsna scenes; hence the saint "becomes Radha" to identify his beloved Narendra as Krsna and then falls into an ecstatic, swooning state that Gupta (not Ramakrishna) identifies as Saccidananda.20 Significantly, Gupta is quite troubled by this scene and must ask himself in print whether it is an example of "worldly affection" (that is, of kama) or the "pure love of God" (that is, of prema)21 Because I believe that it was both, I prefer to keep asking this question with the eye-witness Gupta. Many of my critics, separated by over one hundred years of traditional readings, prefer to ignore both Gupta's genuine insight and his disarmingly honest question. They want an “either-or” reading, whereas I am opting for a “both-and” reading more faithful to Gupta’s original question.

So too with my handling of tana, vyakulata, rati, ramana, and all the rest—these readings rely, not on a dictionary, but on an intuitive grasp of the texts and their intertextual patterns built up over years of immersion and a kind of textual devotion. I thus find it deeply contradictory that Tyagananda wants to accuse me of a dictionary knowledge of the language but then objects when I come up with definitions and connotations that are not in any of the dictionaries.

Many of Tyagananda’s “corrections” function as a kind of refusal to recognize this kind of multivalent language use. They issue from a kind of textual literalism that is seriously out of touch with how human beings (and religious texts) actually use language to encode the sexual dimensions of human life. Certainly this nexus between religious language and physical sexuality is an ancient one in India, a civilization that is, by all measures, fantastically rich in erotic forms of scripture, literature, art, and mystical practice. From the Vedas themselves, where sexuality and the fertility of the wife, the livestock and the crops were central and overriding concerns, where butter is stated clearly to be semen, the wife’s gaze is understood (and stated) to be a sexual pairing, and something as innocuous as a broom becomes a stand-in for the male and his member,22 to nineteenth-century Bengal, where a Navarasika woman can suck Ramakrishna’s big toe as another enacts the oral act’s rather obvious and well understood sexual meanings,23 virtually any thing (including Ramakrishna’s foot) can and does take on sexual meanings.

The question, of course, is not whether such language use or symbolic acts exist, but how we should interpret them. But even this question is an unmistakably indigenous one, allowing for a wide range of answers. In terms of Bengal, one only need think of the Vaisnava Sahijiya traditions and the manner in which they literalized and ritualized the erotic-poetic metaphors of orthodox Vaisnavism. Edward C. Dimock, one of my Bengali teachers in whose parampara I have always understood my own work to lie, put it this way in The Place of the Hidden Moon: “. . . if one happens to hold a doctrine which says that there is no qualitative difference between the human and the divine, spiritual union of the two is possible, and fleshly union between the two is also not only poetically but actually possible. The search and longing for this union are now the means to the ultimate experience, an actual union of flesh and spirit, of human and divine. The distinctions between spiritual and carnal love and between poetic and doctrinal expression are wiped away. Accordingly, the Sahajiyas adopted the poetic paraphernalia of the orthodox Vaisnavas and read the basic image the other way.”24 (By the way, Dimock’s work, like mine, was both controversial and offensive to some religious communities because of its hermeneutical privileging of the Sahajiya/Tantric position.) Similarly, whereas for the orthodox Vaisnavas prema (“transcendental love”) and kama (“sexual desire”) were qualitatively different realities (the former being a gift of Krsna’s grace, the latter a mere instinct), for the Tantric Sahajiyas prema could only develop through a transformation of kama, since the two experiences shared the same ontological base.25 This latter Sahajiya position is again remarkably similar to my own position (and quite congenial to a psychoanalytic reading).

What I am doing in Kali’s Child, then, is essentially arguing for a fully embodied “Sahajiya reading” of the Bengali texts, whereas Tyagananda is arguing for an orthodox, strictly metaphorical reading of sexual language more in line with his Vedantic (and essentially dualistic) commitments, which prevent him a priori from affirming any human experience that is simultaneously sexual and spiritual (or, in more traditional Tantric language, encompasses both bhukti and mukti). In essence, the two of us take the exact same textual expressions and read them in opposite ways. But there are two crucial points here: (1) my own reading does not deny the spiritual but affirms both the spiritual and the sexual (it is thus much broader and more inclusive of the actual mystical literature than Tyagananda’s); and (2) my own reading (like his) has solid grounding in Bengali religious culture.

The Future of the Past

But, in truth, what is at stake here is far more complicated (and immeasurably richer) than simply arguing about whose reading is “more Bengali.” This kind of debate boils down to a kind of cultural solipsism or Balkanization of Indology in which the goal of reading is to reproduce the self-understanding of the contemporary culture in question. Putting aside for a moment the fallacy of assuming a monolithic culture (just whose self-understandings and interests are we talking about here?26), I think it is apparent that both the communication realities of our global village and the contemporary practices of Religious Studies render all of this more than a little questionable. It also avoids the very real possibility that perspectives that are both “future” and “external to” the historical texts or cultures might be able to reveal radically new truths about these texts and their “pasts.” I realize fully just how radical and seemingly counter-intuitive this sounds, so please allow me to explain what I mean and show just how traditional a notion this “future of the past” is within the humanities and the interpretation of texts.

Such an idea is in fact hardly new. Indeed, it was first developed in the nineteenth century by thinkers such as Friedrich Ast, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Dilthey, primarily with biblical criticism in mind, but it has found its most striking and helpful image in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of “horizons” of meaning and their partial “fusion” in the dialogic moment of hermeneutical understanding, developed most famously in his now classic treatise on the practice of hermeneutics, Truth and Method.27 With Gadamer’s “fusion of horizons” we can see quite easily just why the hermeneut may in fact legitimately understand the text in ways quite different than those of the original author or culture: in effect, the historian’s present life-world and categories provide probes or techniques of analysis that were simply non-existent in the meaning-horizon of the text’s past. This present horizon of meaning fusing with the past horizon of the text produces a third, unprecedented space in which new meanings and possibilities of insight can appear. Hence Gadamer can write that the “meaning of a text goes beyond its author, not only occasionally, but always. Understanding is therefore not merely reproductive but also productive.”28 Framed in the terms of the present debate, we might say that the modern study of Ramakrishna extends and radicalizes the history of the texts themselves through the various fusions of horizons that it enacts in its own texts and critical practices (gender studies, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, etc.). What, of course, we end up with is radically new visions of who Ramakrishna was and what his life meant that are a bit shocking to someone locked into only one horizon of meaning (that is, one cultural worldview, past or present) but entirely plausible to those who inhabit others.

It is here, in this inevitable “fusion of horizons” (whose mystical dimensions I have explored in my Roads of Excess) that my work can best be located. Placed here, in this third space, in this “future of the past,” one can see immediately that it is impossible to solve or close a case such as this by simply asserting what a past author consciously intended or knew (how could we really know this anyway?), or even how a present cultural actor such as Swami Tyagananda might publicly read a particular passage. That is a valuable beginning, but it is only a beginning for what the contemporary historian of religions is called to do, that is, read the past through the categories and methods of the present. Understood in this way, Kali’s Child can be approached for what it has always been: one modern American attempt to understand Ramakrishna and the textual traditions that flow out of him in such rich abundance. This is my chosen place, not in India per se, but here, in that fascinating and fertile interface between Indian and American cultures that has so enriched both cultures for the last 150 years or so. And how can this enterprise possibly be construed as “wrong”? Is not the Ramakrishna tradition also an American religious tradition? Have these personalities, doctrines, and eminent Hindu missionaries not been present here in this land for over a century now? Why, then, can Americans such as myself, so deeply moved and inspired by Hindu religious traditions, not think about them with all our categories and intellectual practices?

Let me finally close with a reminder that I am not looking for agreement here. What is crucial is this: that as soon as one at least acknowledges this ambiguity and richness of sexual/textual language and the cross-cultural fusion of horizons of this hermeneutical practice, it becomes impossible to reduce my readings and translations to the simplicities and comfort of my imagined flawed character or to a few dozen real translation errors. That is much too easy, isn’t it? To understand my work is not necessarily to agree with it, but it is to see that it issues from coherent theories of language and sexuality and reading, and that it works from there to a very plausible and still very powerful set of conclusions. In a word, whether one agrees with the book or not, Kali’s Child, even with all its flaws, possesses its own integrity, its own value, and its own vision of the past and its many futures.

Thank you again for giving me a voice.

1 Atmajnananda, "Scandals, cover-ups, and other imagined occurrences in the life of Ramakrsna: An examination of Jeffrey Kripal’s Kali’s child," International Journal of Hindu Studies 1/2 (1997). Brian Hatcher’s essay, cited below in n. 14, responds to this essay and comes to some very different conclusions.
2 Jeffrey J. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
3 I must also point out that, technically speaking, it is physically impossible that the book has offended “millions” or even many. Why? There simply aren’t enough copies. The book has sold no more than a hundred or so copies in India and only a few thousand here in the States. Its actual readership, then, has been miniscule. What has offended many (and me) are the inflammatory and gross misrepresentations of the book in the Indian media. The vast majority of offended readers, then, are not readers at all. In essence, they have passed judgment on a book and an author they have never read.
4 For a description of biblical scholarship as it pertains to the sexuality of Jesus and a similar public outcry a scholar received for wanting to discuss these important questions, see William E. Phipps, The Sexuality of Jesus (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1996).
5 Probably the best example of this is the case of evolutionary theory in American higher education. Evolutionary theory is deeply offensive to millions of Christians who reject biblical scholarship and read Genesis 1-3 literally. Must we, then, stop teaching historical criticism in Religious Studies departments and evolutionary theory in Biology departments?
6 Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, trans. Leslie Anne Boldt (Albany: SUNY, 1988), 116.
7 Nor have I ever made a causal link between homosexuality and sexual abuse. These are entirely separate issues and should never be equated. Indeed, it is my understanding that the literature on childhood sexual abuse in America suggests that heterosexual men are significantly more likely than homosexual men to engage in such abusive activity.
8 To demonstrate just how serious Tyagananda’s misrepresentations of my work are on this matter, consider his presentation of my analysis of the nap scene in which Ramakrishna crawls over and “touches” Vivekananda softly as an attempted act of “sodomy.” He 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?
9 Malcolm McLean, "A Translation of Sri-Sri-Ramakrsna-Kathamrta with Explanatory Notes and Critical Introduction" (Ph.D. diss., Otago University, 1983), lxxii-lxxv.
10 Sumit Sarkar, "The Kathamrita as Text: Towards an Understanding of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa," Occasional Papers on History and Society 12 (New Delhi: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 1985); see especially 6, 70-71, 90, 103-106.
11 Here again it is important to point out that Tyagananda has both misunderstood and misrepresented me, for, against a virtual crowd of other commentators and historians, I specifically avoided a simple misogynistic reading of the saint, opting instead for a more positive and heavily qualified reading of his relationships to women as split between a love of women as mothers and a fear/disgust of them as sexual beings, hence my suggested neologism kamini-ghrna or “lover-disgust” (Kali’s Child, 277-287).
12 Sarkar, “The Kathamrita as a Text,” 102-103.

13 Parama Roy, “As the Master Saw Her: Western Women and Hindu Nationalism,” in Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); see n. 11, 195.
14 Brian A. Hatcher, “Kali’s Problem Child: Another Look at Jeffrey Kripal’s Study of Sri Ramakrishna,” International Journal of Hindu Studies 3/1 (1999).
15 Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (New York: Palgrave, 2000).
16 Sudhir Kakar, Ecstasy (New Delhi: Viking, 2001).
17 Kripal, Kali’s Child, 105.
18 This, by the way, is patently wrong with the Christian materials as well. The secondary literature on the sexual components of Teresa’s mysticism is immense, and Bonaventure, one of the tradition’s great mystical theologians, was quite clear that the ecstasies of male mystics often produce real sexual fluids: in spiritualibus affectionibus carnals fluxus liquore maculantur, he wrote, that is, “within the spiritual affections, they are stained with the liquid of the carnal flow” (see Georges Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986], 225, 247). See my Roads of Excess, especially ch. 1, for an extensive discussion of such themes in Christian mysticism and an extensive bibliography on their study.
19 See Kali’s Child, 67.
20 Kali's Child, 81-82.
21 In another suggestive Radha scene, Ramakrishna has a vision of Radha immediately after Mathur gives him some feminine clothes and ornaments to wear (Kali's Child, 105).
22 For a powerfully documented and insightful discussion of these sexual meanings in Vedic ritual, see Stephanie W. Jamison, Sacrificed Wife, Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), especially 53-72.
23 Kripal, Kali’s Child, 123.
24 Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Place of the Hidden Moon: Erotic Mysticism in the Vaisnava-sahajiya Cult of Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966/1989).
25 Ibid., 163.
26 Much of my work flows from a simple hermeneutical principle: read the texts and listen for the voices that are already there but have been submerged by the tradition—all those visiting Tantrikas, indigenous skeptics, complaining parents, upset devotees, doubting authors, assertive women, etc. They too, after all, are Bengalis, and once we listen to them, we get a very different and much richer picture of what the texts are telling us (and not telling us). To take just one minor example, consider Ramakrishna’s description of one of his many contemporary critics: “A certain person slanders me greatly. He only says that I love boys [chokrader bhalabasi]” (KA 4.190). We do not need to share in this anonymous critic’s condemnation of the saint’s loves to realize that my homoerotic hermeneutic is as “Bengali” as any other. Need I also point out that this unnamed man was an actual contemporary witness of Ramakrishna, and that none of my present-day critics can claim this kind of first-hand perspective?
27 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition, trans. revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1997).
28 Quoted in Gayle L. Ormiston and Alan D. Schrift, The Hermeneutic Tradition: From Ast to Ricoeur (Albany: SUNY, 1990), 224.

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