Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review of Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited by Prof. Jeffery D. Long

Review of Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali's Child Revisited by JEFFERY D. LONG published in Vedanta Kesari Nov 2010 issue.

Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kàlì's Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, 
published by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 41, UA Bungalow Road,
Jawahar Nagar, Delhi - 110 007. 2010, hardback, pp. 410 + xxi, Rs. 995.

Dr. Jeffery D.Long is an Associate Professor and Chair, Religious Studies, Elizabethtown College. He is also Co-Director, Asian Studies Minor, Elizabethtown College. Elizabethtown, PA 17022, USA 

In their long-awaited, in-depth, and meticulously crafted response to Jeffrey Kripal's highly controversial work on the life and psychology of Sri Ramakrishna, Kàlì's Child, not only have Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana thoroughly demolished the earlier book's thesis—which stands revealed as a house of cards, built on a foundation of faulty translations and tendentious speculations asserted as facts—they have also made an important contribution to the future of Ramakrishna studies, and to the study of Hinduism and of Indian culture more broadly. In their hands, the story of Kàlì's Child becomes a cautionary tale—a case of what can happen when deeply held cultural biases are allowed to go unchallenged in scholarly work on materials from a context very different from that of the author—and a
chapter in the longer story of how Sri Ramakrishna has been seen by interpreters from both inside and outside the community of his devotees, as well as from the very different cultural vantage points of India and 'the West'. 

Interpreting Ramakrishna embodies many characteristics of the Vedanta tradition that its authors inhabit. Unlike another recent critique of academic scholarship on Hindu traditions with which it will inevitably be compared—the incendiary Invading the Sacred (edited by Krishnan Ramaswamy, Antonio de Nicolas, and Aditi Banerjee)–Interpreting Ramakrishna eschews ad hominem attacks, focusing solely on the work of the author at hand. There is no 'reverse psychoanalysis' of Jeffrey Kripal. Nor is there any attempt to ascribe motives either to him, his teachers, or the academy of which he is a part. Instead, one finds a very precise, careful, and detailed deconstruction of Kàlì's Child. Although no author would enjoy seeing his work put through the proverbial grinder in this way, it is clear that the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna are not engaged in a personal attack.

Instead of engaging in acrimonious personal attacks, Tyagananda and Vrajaprana are far more interested in pursuing the important question—which could be characterized as the refrain of this book (p. xiv)— 'Why do we see what we see? Why do we interpret the way we interpret?' For the central issue of the Kàlì's Child controversy is not merely a matter of contested facts—though these also abound, as Tyagananda and Vrajaprana go out of their way to document exhaustively, particularly in their lengthy fifth chapter (pp. 269-347). The central issue is a clash of worldviews and cultural assumptions that have the effect of actually shaping the phenomena which scholars perceive.

Kripal is not the first academic scholar of Hinduism to see psychopathology in the life and experiences of Sri Ramakrishna. As Tyagananda and Vrajaprana document, his is only the most recent and famous (or infamous, depending on one's perspective) in a lineage of psychoanalytic responses to Ramakrishna, going back to Sigmund Freud himself (p. 33- 34). And many of these responses have not involved the translation errors or other issues plaguing Kàlì's Child. In other words, even when there is agreement upon the basic facts at hand, where one person sees a highly enlightened and spiritually realized being in an advanced state of samàdhi, another person sees a deeply troubled and mentally ill individual in need of extensive therapeutic treatment. Both, it seems, are highly stubborn perceptions that cannot easily be swayed by argument, any more than one can be swayed into saying that the sky is not blue. They are effects of prior metaphysical commitments that are so deeply embedded in the psyche of the perceiver as to have become part of the mental equipment— the computer software, if you will—with which the perceiver's reality is constructed.

As a consequence of this situation, Tyagananda and Vrajaprana are aware that no truly 'objective' approach to Ramakrishna— or to any topic, for that matter—is possible. In articulating and operating from this insight, the authors of Interpreting Ramakrishna are consistent with the very latest academic theories on the nature of interpretation. The idea of postmodernity is precisely that no truly disinterested foundation for knowledge exists.

But postmodern thought is a doubleedged sword. For if there is no such thing as an objective foundation for knowledge, is it not the case that one interpretation is as good as another? Who is to say if Ramakrishna experienced nirvikalpa samâdhi, or a psychotic breakdown? Indeed, a common defence of Kripal's work that I have often encountered in conversation with my academic colleagues is that Kàlì's Child is 'his interpretation.' If one interpretation is as good as another, then what is the problem? Those of us who are in the tradition of Ramakrishna can have 'our' Ramakrishna and Kripal can have his, and we can all be happy.

This relativistic approach is seductive, particularly for those of us who are in the Vedanta tradition, due to its seeming kinship to Ramakrishna's very own teaching—yato mat, tato path ['As many faiths, so many paths']. We all inhabit different conceptual frameworks, and we all perceive and approach reality accordingly. Therefore, let a thousand flowers bloom. So Christians can see the highest reality as Christ, Buddhists can see it as Buddha Nature, Muslims can see it as Allah, Vaishnavas as Vishnu, Shaivas as Shiva, and so on. The adherent of Vedanta can see Sri Ramakrishna as an avatar or enlightened sage and the psychoanalyst can see him as a deeply troubled man. 

As I have argued elsewhere, though, neither the Vedanta of Sri Ramakrishna nor postmodern thought (at least in some of its forms, postmodernity being a highly diverse intellectual movement) implies a radical relativism that would deny a substrate of shared reality at the basis of all our perceptions. As in the famous Jain parable of the blind men and the elephant, while each blind man perceives the elephant differently—as a tree trunk (if he feels a leg), or a snake (if he feels the trunk), or a rope (if he feels the tail), or a spear (if he feels a tusk)—there is, nevertheless, an elephant really there. It is not that no objective reality exists. But our ability to perceive and express it is always relative and limited. Even a fully enlightened being, whose perception would be perfect, would find him or herself limited by the power of language and linguistically limited concepts when faced with the task of expressing that perception to others.

Analogously, when approaching a text, although interpretations may vary greatly, perhaps even to the point of radical incompatibility and incommensurability, there is still an agreed upon collection of lexical items called 'the text' that enables all interpreters to know what the others are talking about. It would be quite bizarre, for example, if a reader of the Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathàmrta were to come away from the text concluding that it was about rocket science, or the contested results of the 2000 US Presidential election. If an interpreter were to come to such a conclusion, other readers would conclude that this person must have been reading a different text, or that there must be something seriously wrong with this person's reading ability. The burden would be on that eccentric reader to demonstrate (by some, presumably convoluted, reasoning process) the validity of his very unusual interpretation.

While Tyagananda and Vrajaprana acknowledge, and find both deeply interesting and important, the fact that interpreters from different cultural frames of reference both can and do arrive at radically different conclusions about Sri Ramakrishna, in the case of Kàlì's Child, they make a convincing case that, in terms of the plain meaning of Bengali words and phrases—as well as with regard to widely held Hindu understandings of such things as the meaning of the symbolism of the liîgam and the yoni and the relationship of Vedanta and Tantra—interpretations are offered and conclusions reached that are almost as preposterous as seeing the Kathàmíta as being about rocket science or the Florida vote recount.

Kàlì's Child, for example, portrays Ramakrishna as a misogynist, with a deeply held dislike for women due to his having been sexually abused by women in his village as a child. Tyagananda and Vrajaprana point out that there is no evidence in any of the textual sources for such abuse ever having occurred— it is a speculation that is presented as a fact. And there is abundant evidence in the accounts of Ramakrishna's female disciples for his having treated them with great warmth and kindness—accounts that are ignored in Kàlì's Child, but which Tyagananda and Vrajaprana cite extensively (pp. 258-267).

Kàlì's Child also sets up a strong opposition between Vedanta and Tantra that is puzzling to those who are familiar with these strands of Hindu tradition in practice. The goal seems to be to present a Tantric Ramakrishna who is made over in a Vedantic mould by Swami Vivekananda and others with an aversion to Tantra in the subsequent Vedanta tradition. This despite the numerous, explicitly Vedantic teachings of Ramakrishna that can be found in the original sources, and the positive references to such Tantric practices as the worship of Kàlì that can be found in the works of Swami Vivekananda. That both Vedanta and Tantra are ways of teaching and realizing non-dualism is largely ignored. What has been most shocking to insiders of the Ramakrishna tradition (and other interested Hindu participant-observers of the Kàlì's Child controversy) is that mistakes of such a magnitude could be not only forgiven, but accepted and widely acclaimed, among academic scholars of religion. It is here that the question of the relativity of the cultural lenses one wears comes to bear upon this issue. Coming from an environment in which most readers do not know Bengali, for example, it was very easy for scholars to accept the claim of Kàlì's Child to be 'recovering' a long-suppressed text. 

Similarly, given the highly organized cover-ups of scandalous behaviour by priests in Christian organizations—and the fact of the scandalous behaviour itself—a portrait of a scandalously behaving holy man whose faithful followers cover up his sins through a campaign of obfuscation was, and remains, entirely believable to the average Western reader of Kàlì's Child—a reader who is conversant neither with the original Bengali texts in question (texts that are widely read and loved in India) nor with the Master whose life and teachings these texts record. 

Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana have, therefore, performed a much needed and valuable service for the Ramakrishna tradition by pointing out, with scholarly precision, the errors of translation and interpretation on which Kàlì's Child is based, and to scholars of Hinduism and Indian culture more broadly by showing how easily cultural biases can distort the representation of traditions beyond recognition, leading to a tragic situation of misunderstanding on both sides.

No comments: